Friday, October 13, 2017

Interview with Liza Perrat

I have written before about the writers’ cooperative Triskele Books, whom we at Five Directions Press consider friends as well as respected fellow authors. So it’s a special pleasure today to interview Liza Perrat of Triskele about her new e-book box set, which combines her three historical fiction novels set in the French village of Lucie-sur-Vionne. These are lovely books, filled with drama and conflict, that trace the lives of three quite different women facing very different problems yet bound not only by a talisman passed down from mother to daughter over the centuries but also by their determination to find a satisfying place for themselves in a larger world.

In addition to the written Q&A here, don’t miss my podcast interview with Liza for New Books in Historical Fiction, where we talk about Blood Rose Angel and the series at greater length.

Your Bone Angel Trilogy explores the lives of three women in a single French village at different times. Tell us briefly about these time periods and what drew you to the idea of focusing on one village from the 14th to the 20th centuries.

I live in a rural French village and one Sunday walk along the riverbank I came across a small stone cross commemorating the drowning of two peasant children in the 18th century. I wanted to know more about them: to give them names, a family, a village, an identity. The children had died in the years leading up to the French Revolution, so that seemed the most obvious setting: the peasants versus the aristocracy—on the small scale of my story, paralleled with the larger, real-life scale. A dramatic backdrop for the dramatic event of their drowning. This was the inspiration for the first in the series, Spirit of Lost Angels.

Once this book was finished, I realized there were more stories to tell about the village of Lucie-sur-Vionne and the farmhouse (L’Auberge des Anges). Hence  two more books, set in different historical eras.

For the second in the series, Wolfsangel, a visit to the town of Oradour-sur-Glane and learning of the tragic WWII crime that occurred there inspired me to set that book during the Nazi occupation of WWII, featuring the descendants of the family in Spirit of Lost Angels.

By  the time I reached the third novel, I’d become intrigued with the medieval period. So the bubonic plague seemed a logical choice for the setting of Blood Rose Angel: one woman fighting against the village, symbolizing the people of the world battling against the greater enemy of the Black Death. I set this one in an earlier time period as I also wanted to explore the origins of the bone angel talisman that links the protagonists in each book.

Victoire, the heroine of Spirit of Lost Angels, lives during the French Revolution. Who is she, and what essential conflict does she face?

Victoire Charpentier is a poor village girl, and when her mother is executed for witchcraft and her father killed by a noble, she is forced to leave her village of Lucie-sur-Vionne to work as a domestic servant in Paris, where revolution is brewing. Despite suffering terrible abuse under the ancien régime, which incites her to join the revolutionary force gripping France, Victoire vows that one day she will rise above her peasant roots.

The second heroine, Céleste, lives during World War II, another very dramatic period in French history. What is the central story of her novel, Wolfsangel?

It is 1943, and German soldiers have occupied Lucie-sur-Vionne. As the villagers pursue treacherous schemes to swindle the enemy, Céleste embarks on her own perilous mission as her passion for a Reich officer flourishes. But when loved ones are deported to concentration camps, Céleste is drawn to the adventure and danger of the French Resistance. Eventually, she will be forced to choose: her love for the German officer or her fight for France.

The decision she makes will shadow the remainder of her days.

Last but not least, Héloïse, another strong woman, must cope with the arrival in Europe of bubonic plague—the disease we now call the Black Death. She is a healer, but the appearance of this previously unknown disease causes social problems as well as physical ones. What kinds of problems does Héloïse have to confront in addition to the plague itself?

When she became a healer-midwife, Héloïse swore to care for and heal the sick, whatever the conditions. However, it is the 14th century, and a wife must obey her husband. When Héloïse’s husband forbids her to treat plague victims, sparks ignite between them. Héloïse must also battle the villagers’ suspicions that she herself cursed Lucie-sur-Vionne with the Black Death, which is killing everyone. Héloïse’s healing gift has become her curse.

The three women are also bound by an amulet, the bone angel of the title. What inspired this element of the series?

I wanted to have a timeless, mystical, and mysterious  link between the women, down through the ages. And something distinctly feminine, not an object a man would wear or own. So these three stories feature the journeys of strong female protagonists, as well as the journey, and eventually the origin, of this bone-sculpted angel talisman. 


The Bone Angel Trilogy is available as a box set for Kindle, at an introductory price of $5.99, and in print as individual volumes. To find out more about Liza Perrat and her books, check her website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter. You can also find her on GoodReads, Google Plus, and Pinterest through the links on her site.

Liza Perrat grew up in Australia, where she practiced as a general nurse and midwife. She has been living in France for over twenty years and works as a part-time medical translator and a novelist. She is the author of the The Bone Angel Trilogy, a historical series. Her latest book, The Silent Kookaburra, is a psychological suspense novel set in 1970s Australia.

Liza is a co-founder and member of the writers’ collective Triskele Books and reviews books for Book Muse.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Singing the Blues

There’s a lot of talk at present about bringing back the manufacturing jobs that once allowed a man with a high-school education to support himself and his family in reasonable comfort. Wiley Cash’s new novel, The Last Ballad, reminds us that before the labor union movement of the 1920s and 1930s, manufacturing was far from the cure for all ills affecting working men and women. On the contrary: it paid minimal wages for days of backbreaking or mind-numbing work, with harsh penalties for everything from missing a shift to stopping the production line.

Six days a week, Ella May Wiggins treks two miles to work twelve-hour night shifts in a cotton mill. Seventy-two hours a week for not much more than a dollar a day, but Ella May has no choice. Her husband has skipped town, not for the first time, leaving her with three small children and a baby on the way. She’s already lost a son to whooping cough, and when her daughter falls sick of the same ailment, Ella May takes a chance and skips her shift to stay with the child. She almost loses her job. Even much smaller violations of the rules, like walking away from her spindle for a few minutes, lead to her pay being docked—and this in one of the town’s more progressive factories. So it’s small wonder that Ella May responds when labor organizers come down from the North to encourage workers to strike for better conditions and salaries that might keep body and soul together.

The story goes back and forth in time—parts told by Ella’s now grown daughter Lilly in 2005, others reflecting the viewpoints of seven other characters, including Ella herself, and going back as far as 1918. The stories interweave and unfold, creating a multifaceted picture of desperation and tension, conflict and commitment, Lilly’s nostalgia and loss. Child labor, race relations, inequality, and much more become personal, specific, beautiful in its uncompromising, searing prose. Here, for example, is Ella driving for the first time: 

“She thought of a book she’d read when she was a girl, The Time Machine, one of the few books her mother had had in the stringhouse at the lumber camp. She remembered how the machine had allowed the Time Traveler to go back millions of years, and she imagined herself doing that now as she rocketed through space in what felt like the middle of the night.... She didn’t want to go back millions of years. She just wanted to go back far enough to find herself as the young girl who’d never left home, whose mother and father were both still alive, whose children somehow existed in the world as well and would be waiting for her on the porch at the lumber camp.”  

Based on a true story—the Loray Mill strike of 1929 in Gastonia, North Carolina, one of the few communist-led strikes in US history—The Last Ballad explores factory life in the 1920s from the perspectives of both workers and owners. But the heart of the story is Ella May Wiggins, a forgotten woman who put her life on the line to help others like herself achieve a better life but whose fellow townspeople—the author’s grandparents among them—long buried the memory not only of Ella but of the movement for which she fought.  

Friday, September 29, 2017

Moving On

A lot has happened in my fictional world recently. The Vermilion Bird (Legends of the Five Directions 4: South) has been checked for historical errors of fact and is getting a full read-through from my writers’ group as well as a couple of fellow authors encountering it for the first time. (And big thanks to all my early readers!) 

With three out of four sets of comments in my possession, I plan to start going through the manuscript again this weekend to respond to the suggested changes and to make any other needed adjustments while waiting for the last set of comments to come in. With luck and a bit of work, I will release the book in time for the Christmas holiday—or at least early in the new year. Stay tuned not just for publication information but for news of sales on the earlier books as the release date approaches.

Meanwhile, I have completed three full drafts of the last Legends novel, The Shattered Drum (Legends 5: Center). That too is in the midst of a read-through, because I have reached the point where I can’t see what problems remain. Although all the Legends novels intersect to some degree, the last two have particularly close ties, so it makes sense to discover what needs to be done on Legends 5 before letting go of Legends 4. I hope to have the complete series available in print and as e-books by the end of 2018.

So what’s next? As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s not easy saying goodbye to characters I have come to know and love over the course of a decade. So although I’m taking a step back from the principals, I am in the midst of crafting a new series, Songs of Steppe and Forest. Each of the Songs features a character who never quite received her due in Legends. Some were supposed to get their own novels but didn’t, mostly because the novels had grown long enough without them. Others I never intended to become more than secondary characters, but as my creations tend to do, after a while they acquired pasts and problems and attitudes that made them interesting potential protagonists. As seems appropriate as the stories develop, these somewhat familiar heroines will interact with members of the original cast, so that readers who fell in love with Nasan and Daniil or Ogodai and Firuza can find out what happens to them in the years ahead.

I have a series of covers, worked out with our designer Courtney J. Hall, which I will reveal over time. I have rough ideas—sketches more than outlines—for four possible books, which could expand to six if needed. I am researching now to find the best time period for each story. All will take place in Russia and the adjoining lands in the 1540s, a decade even more troubled than the 1530s—if that is possible. I just stumbled over an architectural detail about sixteenth-century Moscow that is too good not to turn into a plot-driving conspiracy, just as soon as I figure out what that conspiracy should be. I even have fifteen or so rough pages for the first book in the new series, Song of the Siren, although I have yet to zero in on the character’s distinctive “voice.”

And as always, I am collecting every appropriate public domain image I can find as mental fuel for the settings my characters inhabit. Some of them are in this post—small hints to what you can expect from The Vermilion Bird.

Enjoy! I will have more news soon.

Images: Andrei Riabushkin, The Tsar Meeting with His Boyars (1893); Illustrated Chronicle Codex, The Wedding of Prince Andrei Staritsky, 1533 (late 16th century); S. M. Prokudin-Gorsky, Staritsa (1912). All public domain in the United States because of their age.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Interview with Steve Wiegenstein

Steve Wiegenstein, the author of three novels and a finalist for the first MM Bennetts Award in Historical Fiction in 2015 for This Old World, agreed to talk with me as he gets ready to release the third book in his Daybreak series. The Language of Trees comes out next Tuesday, September 26, and is already available for pre-order at (just click the link to find out more). And of course, read his answers below!

The Language of Trees is the third novel in your Daybreak series, following Slant of Light and This Old World. Could you give us a brief sketch of the background developed in those first two novels that will help readers approach The Language of Trees?

The books interlock, but my overarching goal is to make each book a satisfying aesthetic experience in itself, so readers shouldn’t worry if they haven’t read the earlier ones; they can still enjoy the next one. That being said, here’s what happened in the first books. Charlotte Turner, along with her husband James, established the Daybreak community in the 1850s as an experiment in communal, egalitarian living on the order of Brook Farm and New Harmony. The colony attracts a wide range of idealists, but James’ personal failings reveal themselves as he develops autocratic tendencies and engages in an affair, which results in the birth of Josephine Mercadier. Charlotte emerges as the community’s true leader and manages to hold Daybreak together, but the coming of the Civil War sends the men off to fight while the women remain behind. After the war, James returns a broken man, but redeems himself by protecting Josephine from her violent stepfather, an act which results in his death. Charlotte, Charley Pettibone, and the other founders of Daybreak carry on.

You live in the Ozarks. You have an active outdoor life and a teaching career. What made you decide to write novels—especially novels about a utopian nineteenth-century community? And having decided, how did you go about mastering the craft?

My mom was a writer, and I grew up admiring the art. In fact, the romantic ideal of the journalist-turned-novelist, embodied by writers like Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway, is what led me into journalism originally. I wrote a novel in my twenties but it wasn’t particularly good—it was poorly crafted and written for the wrong reasons. So I became a teacher, all the while continuing my craft with a lot of short stories. I grew interested in nineteenth-century utopias because they represent the distillation of American optimism, and I’ve done a good bit of scholarship on them. Then one day in late 2006 the idea of combining my passion for fiction with my understanding of utopias, and setting a series of novels in my home region, came to me like a flash. I’ve been working on this project just about every day since.

The Language of Trees brings to adulthood a new generation in Daybreak, which leads to a generational clash between the community’s founders and its heirs. One source of conflict is industrial development, which threatens the agricultural environment as well as the philosophy of the Daybreak community. What made you decide to explore this particular conflict, and what can you tell us about it as it plays out in your book?

One thing I’ve learned about utopian communities is that communities founded by a charismatic or visionary leader rarely continue if that leader dies or becomes discredited. So I wanted to continue the story following the classic lifespan of utopias. Also, the 1880s saw the real boom of the Industrial Age, when it seemed as though moneyed interests were going to overwhelm all other elements of society, and there were efforts to resist that seemingly irresistible force. Nowadays we remember that as largely a labor-movement and progressive government resistance, but there was also a rural-urban dimension to that struggle that I wanted to capture. So it’s a very rich time period for exploration, and one that tends to get overlooked or oversimplified. I really think that the urban-rural divide that is so prominent today has its roots in the coming of industrial methods to rural life in the late nineteenth century. Another one of those “understand the present by understanding the past” opportunities!

As befitting a book about a communal utopia, your books trace the life of a community rather than focusing on one or two individuals. There are lots of point-of-view characters, who often see the world in contrasting ways. You do a remarkable job of keeping them both real and separate, but is it difficult to juggle so many different perspectives?

It is, especially since there are times when several of them are in action simultaneously. I had to do a good bit of revision to make sure that I didn’t have a character in one place at the end of a day, and then magically appear in another place the next morning. But as you say, it’s the story of a community rather than an individual, so I thought that moving the point of view from character to character would be important in giving a sense of the totality of that experience. Flowing the action in and out of various characters’ minds is a challenge, but it’s also great fun! I hope readers will enjoy the ride.

Do you have a favorite character and story?

Charlotte Turner has been my favorite since the beginning of the series. She’s a character who just keeps growing and changing as the series develops, in ways that I would not have predicted at first. Non-writers sometimes scoff at our claims that characters can develop and change in ways outside our conscious control, but I’m here to testify that it happens. Charlotte is tough beyond all reckoning, but she also has an immense capacity for love that keeps her going on despite all the struggles that life has given her.

As far as a storyline goes, I am awfully fond of Charley Pettibone’s. He started out in the first book as a goofy, illiterate orphan who more or less chanced into the community and who got caught up in the rush to glory that many young men experienced at the beginning of the Civil War. He came back from the war in the second book as a bitter, hardened young man who was at odds with everyone, but who discovered there were second chapters in life. And by The Language of Trees, he’s become someone who other characters look to for guidance. Of the various characters in the series, he may be the one who has grown the most.

What are you working on now?

The fourth book in the series will take us into the twentieth century with a novel set in the years 1903–1904. That’s another endlessly interesting time period to me. Here in Missouri, it was the time of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, better known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. What a fascinating event! Intended as a celebration of American technological and racial superiority, it also revealed deep splits in the national mind. As an Ozarker, I’m also piqued by that period because it’s about then that the word “hillbilly” first came into use and the popular image of the Ozarks started to take shape.

Steve Wiegenstein was born and raised in the eastern Missouri Ozarks—his folks grew up on adjoining farms, and his family roots go deep in Madison, Iron, and Reynolds counties. He went to college at the University of Missouri. After a few years as a newspaper reporter, he returned to school and became a college professor. He is an avid canoer, rafter, and kayaker; a longtime member, friend, and supporter of the Quincy, IL, Unitarian Church; a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals; and a board member of the Missouri Writers' Guild. Learn more about him and his books at his website and blog.

Follow him on Facebook.

Image credit: “Men Standing in the Lumber Yard at the Ozark Lumber Co., Near Winona.” National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), no. 283583.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Camels, Tea, and Steel-Tipped Parasols

In a pleasant surprise, the wonderful production people at the New Books Network posted my interview with Joan Hess within twenty-four hours.

Some of you may know Joan Hess as a prolific writer of contemporary mysteries, many of them featuring Claire Malloy and another series set in the fictional town of Maggody. But Joan Hess was also a friend of Barbara Mertz, the Egyptologist turned novelist whom I memorialized in “The Sands of Time.” In that post I lamented several characters whom Barbara Mertz created under the pen name of Elizabeth Peters: most notably, Amelia Peabody; her husband, Radcliffe Emerson; and their son, Walter Peabody Emerson, better known as Ramses.

Well, it turns out I mourned their disappearance prematurely. As detailed in the interview, Joan Hess agreed after many refusals to take on the task of completing her friend’s final manuscript, about one-third of which Barbara/Elizabeth had finished before she died. The result is The Painted Queen—a rollicking adventure in the true Elizabeth Peters style that mixes archaeology, criminal activities, murder, and a series of bizarre but engaging twists that involve monocles, camels, and a writer of bodice rippers.

I understand perfectly why Joan Hess resisted the call. How do you finish another person’s manuscript, no matter how well you knew that person or how many scribbled notes she left (many of them illegible, it turns out)? Each author’s style is her own, and if you write contemporary mysteries set in small-town America and your friend uses her vast experience of archaeological digs to produce books set in Victorian and Edwardian England and Egypt, that gap between approaches becomes enormous. As much as I enjoy reading the books that emerge from my writers’ group and coop press, I can’t imagine taking over sparkling holiday romances, edgy historical fantasy with a psychedelic twist, intense character studies of contemporary women’s lives, or the many other works that my friends regularly write. No doubt they would balk at finishing a book inspired by four decades of researching medieval Russia.

Yet it’s to Joan Hess’s credit that she not only took on the project despite her doubts but completed it regardless of the very real stresses imposed by life. The Painted Queen is a beautiful tribute to a beloved author, but it is also a testament to the dedication required to write while mourning the friend whose work sits in front of you every day, demanding that you imagine how that friend would tackle the situations she created and how you can change things (because for sure, she would have changed things during the writing) to enhance the story without distorting its essence, to allow a large set of established characters to grow and develop yet remain true to themselves.

It’s also a darned good story. I learned a lot during this interview—about Barbara Mertz and her flagship series, of course, but also about the complexity of writing under a particular set of circumstances. Although I doubt I could have done the same, I’m very glad that Joan Hess did.

In a small change from my usual style, I am reproducing only part of the post that first aired on New Books in Historical Fiction. I expanded the first part into the longer discussion above.

In this last adventure, set in 1912, Peabody and Emerson have barely set foot in Cairo before the first death occurs: an unknown man wearing a monocle who collapses just inside the door of the bathroom where Peabody is soaking off the grime of her train ride from Alexandria. There is no question that the death is murder, and discovering the identity of the corpse, the reason for his carrying a card bearing the single word “Judas,” and the hand behind the knife that has dispatched the unwanted visitor consumes Peabody and Emerson even as they devote some of their attention to the excavation that has brought them to Egypt. The murderer could be the Master Criminal, defending Peabody from harm. Or s/he could be the representative of a secret society of monocle wearers, bent on revenge.

As Peabody and Emerson, with help from the junior members of their extended family, strive to figure out what’s going on, they must also deal with less deadly intrusions from a missionary named Dullard and the ineffable Ermintrude de Vere Smith, writer of racy romance novels, as well as a disappearing archeologist and an apparently nonstop succession of forgeries purporting to be statues of Nefertiti—the Painted Queen. It all makes for a deliciously entertaining sendoff to a much beloved series, one that Peabody and Emerson fans should not miss.