Friday, April 20, 2018

Interview with Steven Hartov

This has been a strange year for historical fiction, at least as it relates to my podcast. After five years of ranging over as many time periods and regions of the globe as possible, I find myself staring in somewhat befuddled manner at a roster that consists almost entirely of US history and novels about World War II. How that came to be I am not sure—certainly not by intent! But so it is.

This statement is not intended to reflect on the novels themselves, most of which are excellent. Today I’m discussing Steven Hartov’s The Soul of a Thief, which I also picked as one of my two Books We Loved selections for April (I will feature the other selection next week). As Hartov explains in the written Q&A below, his novel, released just this past Tuesday, explores the little-known phenomenon of soldiers with mixed Jewish heritage who fought for the Third Reich.

But I will let him explain the details. My thanks go to the Publicity Department at Hanover Square Press for both the book, intended for a New Books in Historical Fiction podcast I couldn’t fit into my schedule, and the Q&A. I would have sent Steven Hartov questions myself, but they would have been the same questions, so why force him to type out the answers twice?

What is your new novel, The Soul of a Thief, about?

The Soul of a Thief is an adventure, a war story, a romance, and a coming-of-age novel—all set during the year of the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II. The story centers around a nineteen-year old Austrian boy of partial Jewish heritage, Shtefan Brandt, who finds himself as the adjutant to a colonel in the Waffen SS, Erich Himmel, and must not only protect his potentially mortal secret but survive the horrors of combat. To add to his conundrum, our young hero also falls in love with Colonel Himmel’s young French mistress, Gabrielle Belmont, who is also of “questionable” heritage. When Shtefan discovers that Himmel intends to escape from Germany’s inevitable defeat and enrich himself by robbing an Allied paymaster train, the boy plots to betray the colonel by stealing both his mistress and his fortune.

Where did the inspiration for the novel come from?

Much of the inspiration for the story came from my own background, as my mother and her family were all Austrians, some of whom, although Jewish or partially Jewish, served in the Austrian or German armies. However, the driving force behind the novel came from a recurring dream that I used to have as a child; it is a scene that figures prominently in the book.

Who were the Mischlinge? Why has their story rarely been told?

The Mischlinge were Germans or Austrians of “mixed” heritage, meaning that somewhere in their ancestral backgrounds persons of Jewish faith had married into the family. During the Nazi era, German and Austrian citizens had to prove their “racial purity,” and Mischlinge were considered to be Jews and persecuted as such. However, exceptions were made in accordance with the requirements of the Nazi war machine, and many such persons were allowed to serve. For those who survived, such service was regarded as shameful, which is why very few of them have spoken out about their wartime experiences.

Are any of the characters in the novel, in particular Shtefan or Colonel Himmel, based on real-life people or did you create them from whole cloth for the novel?

Shtefan is based, in part, on my great-uncle Alexander, who served in the German Luftwaffe until he was discovered to be a Mischling and sent to a concentration camp. Colonel Himmel is based on a figure who used to appear in a recurring childhood dream; I do not know his origin. Many of the other characters are compilations of soldiers I have known personally, of various nationalities (soldiers are very much the same, everywhere). Gabrielle is based on a long-lost love.

You have a strong military background, and there are aspects of The Soul of a Thief that tap into your knowledge. Would you classify the story as a war story first and foremost?

I would not classify the novel so much as a war story, but rather as a story that takes place during a war. I view it more as a coming-of-age adventure with a powerful romantic essence.

And perhaps that’s why I liked it so much, even though war is really not my usual cup of tea! Thank you again, to Steven Hartov and his publisher, for this opportunity to travel a fictional path I normally would not take.

Steven Hartov, a former member of the US Merchant Marine Military Sealift Command and the Israel Defense Forces Airborne Corps, is the author of, among other works, a series of espionage novels nominated for the National Book Awards—The Heat of Ramadan, The Nylon Hand of God, and The Devil’s Shepherd. He also writes screenplays and nonfiction.

Hanover Square Press, an imprint of HarperCollins, published his The Soul of a Thief on April 17, 2018. Find out more about him at

Friday, April 13, 2018

Binge-Watching Muscovy

I’ve mentioned before that Pinterest is my favorite among the social media sites, for several reasons. First, I’m an intensely visual person and thus an intensely visual writer. To “get” directions I have to see the map in my head, and to “get” my characters I must see them too, preferably on screen as I’m writing. So the first thing I do when starting a new story is to collect images of my characters and settings, which I update as needed as my sense of them strengthens.

Second, I write about a time and places that are almost entirely unfamiliar to my American and West European readers. I would love someday to see my Legends and Songs novels translated into Russian, where the cultural context even five hundred years after the fact is so much more familiar. But until that happens, my Pinterest boards are the best way to find ideas for myself and convey a sense of the world I have adopted as my own to others.

So you can imagine how delighted I was when images from a Russian television series about Sophia Palaiologina—the niece of the last Byzantine emperor and the wife of Ivan III “the Great” of Russia, thus the grandmother of Ivan IV “the Terrible”—began showing up on my Pinterest feed. I suppose even then I could have gone to YouTube to look for it—although it’s a commercial production, so I might not have found it. But I didn’t: much as I love Russian history, especially medieval Russian history, and despite decades of speaking and reading Russian, I have to admit that in my down time I want to watch movies and TV in English.

Then Sophia showed up at The episode summaries must have been translated by Google, for they are hilarious, but the subtitles are pretty accurate. The actors are true to type, their performances excellent, the settings and costumes are perfect, and the whole first season is riveting historical fiction. Think the BBC’s Victoria, but with way more furs, poison, and treachery. 

Look at this wedding ceremony, for example: can’t you just see Daniil and Nasan or Alexei and Maria in this setting?

I was hooked. Right now, Season 1 is still available for free on Amazon Prime, but I shelled out $12.99 (total) for the first eight episodes so that I could continue watching even if it disappears from the free collection, as things tend to do on Amazon Prime. As I said, I’m hooked. I watched the full set in three days, and I can’t wait for Season 2.

Note that I also said riveting historical fiction. Alas, considerable liberties have been taken with basic plot points. The Muscovites were, so far as we know, not resistant, as they are depicted here, but delighted to have scored a dynastic connection with the emperor of Constantinople, whose defeat by the Ottoman army had left Muscovy (at least in the minds of its own rulers and government) as the last bastion of Orthodox Christianity in a troubled world. Which is not to say that they expressed this realization in the “Moscow as Third Rome” phrasing that opens the series, but the realization itself does seem to have existed. I could go on, but you get the point.

So don’t treat it as a televised history lesson, except in the sense that the general depiction of the place and its court are accurate. (Hint: Victoria is not 100% historically accurate either.) What we do have is a full cast of delightfully fictional characters: the strong-willed bride, her wiser but still somewhat impetuous husband, his determined but not unkind mother, enemies of various sorts (modern-day Russian nationalism especially affects the portrayal of the enemies—Tatars [pictured here], Novgorodians, Lithuanians—so take these portrayals in particular with a large grain of salt), the naive but charming son and the treacherous daughter-in-law, and a whole host of scheming Italians and boyars. It’s tremendous fun, and if you ever wanted to get past imagining the world I portray in my Legends novels and actually see how it looked, this is the perfect place to start.

And if you do get hooked and need more binge-watching material before the 2018 season arrives, try Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great. It has two seasons available, with twenty-two episodes. It’s even more fictional than Sophia, not least because I think it draws heavily on Catherine’s own memoirs, which are self-serving in the extreme, as well as most of the extensive scuttlebutt that surrounded Catherine’s rise to power and reign, much of it disseminated by her far-from-loving son. But if you don’t take these series too seriously, they will certainly entertain!

Images: Screen captures from Sophia.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Writing the War

As should be clear if you have listened to my interviews for New Books in Historical Fiction, people come to fiction writing by many different paths. Most of us start out with a love of reading; some begin penning stories as children; others—including me—have always considered ourselves writers but never intended to extend our repertoire beyond nonfiction until that one inescapable tale forced itself into our consciousness demanding to be told.

In the case of John Richard Bell, my most recent interview guest, the impetus came from family stories, told and retold for decades, and the push to write them down before they vanished into history with the father-in-law who had lived them. As Bell explains in the interview, his self-reeducation from CEO to novelist took a long time, not only to learn the ropes of writing a novel but to trim and fine-tune that original draft into a taut and compelling story that honors the essence of those family tales while conveying, through a set of fictional characters and events, the larger themes of a little-known aspect of a very well-known conflict: World War II.

Much of the cutting and fine-tuning was painful, as it always is for writers forced to jettison their cherished prose. But the result makes the pain worthwhile, because The Circumstantial Enemy does not only reveal the effects of the war on Croatia, including its contributions to the rise of Josip Broz Tito and the postwar unification of the no longer unified Yugoslavia. It also confronts a powerful but—in fiction, at least—often disregarded truth: that fighters, whether on our own side or the enemy’s, are not necessarily zealots for the cause. Sometimes, indeed, they end up on one side or the other because circumstances put them in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction

We all imagine that, when put to the test, we will end up on the right side of history, however we define it. Nowhere is that statement more true than in reference to World War II. But sometimes people end up on the wrong side for reasons outside their control—even on a side they don’t believe in. Such is the fate that confronts Tony Babic, the hero of John Richard Bell’s debut novel, The Circumstantial Enemy, based on the true story of his father-in-law’s life during the war.

Tony, when we meet him, is a young pilot flying for the Croatian Air Force. His experience of causing one death and witnessing another—that of his commander—has left him eager to find a more peaceful way to exercise his talents. But his country, in an effort to escape both Serbian control and Nazi conquest, has chosen to ally with Germany in return for nominal independence as a puppet state. Tony has little choice but to fly for the Luftwaffe and is soon taking part in the Siege of Leningrad. Meanwhile, his best friend and the woman they both love (the daughter of Tony’s dead commander) become ever more deeply involved in a different epic battle: Josip Broz Tito’s campaign to unify all the Southern Slavic states under a single communist banner.

Tony eventually escapes his service to the Germans only to fall into the hands of the Americans. Soon he’s on his way to a POW camp in Illinois. But circumstances conspire to make him an enemy even there, not least in the eyes of the people he has left behind.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Juggling Books

Normally, when I have a writing vacation as I did this week, I write. In a perfect world that’s all I do for the entire nine (or however many) days—with breaks for eating, sleeping, and family, of course. I even try to schedule my podcast so that neither questions for the authors nor the interviews themselves intervene.

But this time is different. For one thing, I have two novels on the brink of completion: The Shattered Drum, already critiqued and revised; and Song of the Siren, which has passed one beta reader and is waiting for comments from another before proceeding to final draft status. Second, I have two other Five Directions Press novels in the final stages of typesetting and proofing: Gabrielle Mathieu’s The Falcon Soars, which concludes her excellent Falcon trilogy; and Joan Schweighardt’s Before We Died, which kicks off a new trilogy, Rivers. In Before We Died, the river in question is the Amazon, circa 1910.

The publication schedule is The Falcon Soars (May), The Shattered Drum (July), and Before We Died (September). Song of the Siren won’t appear until early 2019, when it too will signal the beginning of a new series, Songs of Steppe and Forest. I already have rough ideas for three more books in that series—Song of the Shaman, Song of the Sisters, and Song of the Storyteller—but I can keep only so many plots and main characters in my head at one time. With The Shattered Drum and Song of the Siren, I’m already at capacity. So Grusha and Nasan must wait their turn.

As a result, this writing vacation has been devoted to other things: basic appointments that are hard to schedule around work (things like haircuts and annual physicals); proofing The Falcon Soars; editing my next New Books in Historical Fiction interview (yes, I’m actually making progress with Audacity, although I could write a whole blog post there); reading for the interview after that; typesetting and checking The Shattered Drum; updating the Five Directions Press site; writing a couple of blog posts; and considering where to go next.

One plan is to make some minor revisions to The Golden Lynx so as to post a newer edition that I can sell through Ingram Spark as well as CreateSpace/Amazon. That’s because I have reason to think that some of my colleagues have begun to adopt the book for courses in women’s history or Russian history, which would be great. A second project is to take that revised version and combine it with The Winged Horse and The Swan Princess in an electronic boxed set, so that people (at least people with Kindles or Kindle apps) who discover the series close to its end can catch up quickly. A third, once it gets that far, involves typesetting Song of the Siren. And of course, I still have to finish Before We Died, which is due long before its September release because it’s heading for a proper publicity campaign.

But by the end of summer at the latest, I expect to be writing again. And then my writing vacations will be just that, complete with virtual beach umbrellas and cocktails by the pool.

Image: no. 109717486.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Perils of Podcasting

As I promised back in February 2017, when I welcomed Claudia H. Long as our newest member of Five Directions Press, our group has just published the third in her Tendrils of the Inquisition series, Chains of Silver. So it seemed like the right time to interview her for New Books in Historical Fiction. That, through no fault of NBHF’s or mine (four nor’easters in a row, with accompanying power and Internet outages, bear most of the responsibility), I have so far managed exactly one interview this year just added to the pleasure of the interview.

Alas, my older cat—often featured on this blog and currently shedding like a maniac due to the shifting weather patterns—enlivened the interview not only with his usual yowls announcing his imminent arrival but also by hacking into the microphone throughout one entire answer. Then, when he calmed down after a return downstairs and yet another series of announcement yowls, he expressed his bliss by purring steadily. So I got to spend half of Saturday trying to follow opaque online instructions for Audacity until I finally figured out how to silence the hacking sounds and at least three-quarters of the meows. The joys of podcasting and pet ownership, amplified on this occasion by the knowledge that the cat could just as easily have stayed in Sir Percy’s office.

And no, if you’ve ever lived with a cat, especially a Siamese cat, the solution is not to shut him out. First off, I have a loft office without a door, and second, if I did have a door, I know better than to shut it with the cat on the other side. Announcement yowls don’t begin to match dismayed rejection yowls in volume or intensity.

But yowling animal aside, the interview went well, Claudia was wonderful, and most of the distractions have since been scrubbed from the file. Meanwhile, I have (fingers crossed) another interview tomorrow, a third in early April, and a fourth scheduled for the first or second week in May. Surely by then the nor’easters will have stopped.

So listen to the interview, and if you hear a stray yowl or an odd hum, don’t worry: that’s just purring. Meanwhile, please like the NB Historical Fiction, NB Literature, NB Fantasy, and New Books Network pages on Facebook, together with the pages for any other channels that appeal to you, and share our posts when they go up. (If you’d like my author page, that would help too.) The change in Facebook algorithms has made it more difficult to get the word out even to people who want to receive it, and the ongoing scandals are likely only to make the situation worse. We are not Russian bots, and we don’t collect or save your data; on the contrary, we provide a genuinely free public education service. So please let your friends know that we exist. The more listeners we have, the better our chances of attracting funding that will keep the network on the air.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

From the fifteenth through the early eighteenth centuries, the Catholic authorities in Spain and its colonies, including Mexico, took a hard line against the Jewish community. Those who would not convert were banished or killed; officially the community did not exist. But in fact, many conversos, as these forced Christians were called, continued to practice their ancient faith in secret. This historical tension between past and prudence forms the background of Claudia H. Long’s Tendrils of the Inquisition series, especially the most recent novel, Chains of Silver (Five Directions Press, 2018).

Marcela Leon belongs to one such Crypto-Jewish family. At fourteen, she sees her parents and grandfather dragged off to face the last gasp of the Inquisition in Mexico. Her relatives survive, but at great cost to their dignity and their fortune. To protect Marcela, her family sends her first to a nearby hacienda, then north into exile, where she becomes the housekeeper to a Catholic priest who sympathizes with her plight but is determined to force her into compliance, including what he perceives as her religious deviance. Through his efforts and those of her wealthy uncle, who lives in the same town, Marcela adjusts to her new situation—until a series of crises force her to reconsider both her heritage and the source of her mother’s strength.