Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Night, Sweet Prince

I lost a dear friend this week. I’d known him since he was two months old. He was born in Chicago, and he entered my life in August 2001. In that more innocent time before 9/11, when it never occurred to us that anyone could be so evil as to turn a plane full of innocent passengers into a weapon, we thought nothing of having him flown from the Midwest to the East Coast. Sir Percy and I drove to the local airport to collect him. He was in a closed-off area, so we opened his carrier. I can still remember how he walked out, his little legs trembling with anxiety. Even so, he came straight to us, ready to love and to trust a pair of strangers who knelt waiting to welcome him.

Jahan, you see, was a cat. But not just any cat. He was the King of Cats—in his own mind and ours. A Seal Point Siamese with a powerful yowl and an equally strong sense of his own presence in our home and in our hearts. He lived with us for more than seventeen years—until last Saturday, when those same legs trembled so much they could no longer support him: the effect of muscle loss, kidney disease, a thyroid tumor, and, as we discovered close to the end, another tumor in his belly that sucked all the nutrients from his body, including his heart. Throughout those seventeen years, he acted as self-appointed host to our guests, our unswerving companion, our resident acrobat and sometime clown, and the teacher of younger cats who entered our household, temporarily or to live. We will miss him more than he can know.

There is, of course, a twist that reflects the reality of pet ownership. Despite the glowing rhetoric about crossing Rainbow Bridges and the like, Jahan’s long life didn’t end because of the laws of nature or because God called him home (although his atrial fibrillation might have caused that soon enough). It ended because his family and his wonderfully supportive veterinarians decided that to keep him longer would cause a degree of suffering that was no longer justified by the quality of his life. In four and a half decades of cat ownership, Sir Percy and I have once made that call too soon and once too late, but this time I think we got it right. 


So it’s not the old, sick, incapacitated Jahan whose life I wish we could have extended for a few more months, weeks, or even days—the one who could no longer walk without staggering and sometimes not then. That Jahan is, I hope and believe, in a happier place—one where pain and discomfort can no longer trouble him.

No, the Jahan for whom I grieve is that kitten from the carrier who slipped under our covers the first evening and slept with us every night after that, including his last. It’s the adult Jahan who could reach the top of our eight-foot cabinets in two leaps (he's the one on the right), who would not think of jumping on the counter or the table to steal Sir Percy’s bacon but did not hesitate to grab it with an outstretched claw and knock it to the floor, who waited for my interviews to start before yelling at the squirrels outside or announcing his arrival (step by step) as he came up my office stairs, who sat in front of my computer screen every afternoon at 4:30 pm just in case that was the day I would forget to feed him, who tolerated the twice-daily pills and the twice-weekly trips to the vet for fluids so long as he got treats afterward, and who sat on my lap each morning while I tackled the crossword puzzle, gazing at the paper as if he could read the clues. If he were here, I would hug him and cry into his fur, and he would stare at me, not understanding but tolerating my human emotions without judging them.

But he’s not here, and he never will be again. It’s the end of an era, one that began when both he and I were much younger, and in that sense his departure also marks the inexorable passage of time. I have only memories and photographs of him now. So here I include several of those I’ve posted on this blog over the years, as well as one from ten years ago, when he was in his heyday. And as Horatio says to Hamlet, “Good night, sweet prince, and may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”



And thank you to all the doctors and staff at our local veterinary hospital, who made his last day as painless as possible.


Images © 2008-18 C. P. Lesley.

As I mentioned last week, if you have been my friend on Facebook but have not liked my author page (@C. P. Lesley), that will be the main venue for my writing-related posts going forward. I’ve deactivated my Catriona Lesley account, so if you search for it, you will not see my profile. Other pages to follow are @Five Directions Press and @NB Historical Fiction. Twitter links remain the same.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Bookshelf, April 2019

It’s been four months since my last bookshelf post, and I’ve made it through most of the November and December listings, with two exceptions. I’m still looking forward to Ann Weisbarger’s The Glovemaker, which is next in my interview list after Elsa Hart’s City of Ink, and Adrienne Celt’s Invitation to a Bonfire, which we rescheduled to late June to follow the book’s release in paperback.

Meanwhile, a whole new group of titles has appeared, meaning that I have little time to read anything but books for interviews (oral and written), books for blog posts, and books for myself and other Five Directions Press writers. But don’t think for a minute that I’m complaining: having major presses send historical novels unasked is a lovely place to be! So, here’s the current lineup, with at least three more August titles waiting in the wings for a later post.

The deluge of World War II books continues. Three have landed on my desk recently, two of them scheduled for release in May and exploring the impact of the war on countries in the Pacific Front. Right now, I’m reading Jing-Jing Lee’s harrowing debut novel, How We Disappeared, set in Singapore, where a young woman is wrenched away from her family and forced into service as a “comfort woman” in 1942. Like Kirsty Manning’s The Song of the Jade Lily, much of which takes place in Shanghai in 1939, How We Disappeared contrasts its wartime story with a more contemporary perspective—here a twelve-year-old boy watching his grandmother die in 2000; in Song of the Jade Lily, a young woman visiting her grandparents in 2016. I’ll be writing more about them together on the blog in early May.

A third May release also employs a dual-time perspective and addresses one of the long-term effects of the war: the stationing of US troops in Japan, here in 1957. A love affair between a Japanese teenager and an American sailor ends in an unwanted pregnancy, and the consequences ripple down to the present. I’ll be talking with Ana Johns about The Woman in the White Kimono for New Books in Historical Fiction at the end of May.

But not every book that crosses my desk is set in World War II. One of my great delights this year has been the discovery of Elsa Hart’s mystery series set in early eighteenth-century China, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor. Starting with Jade Dragon Mountain and continuing with The White Mirror and last year’s City of Ink, the series follows the adventures of a former imperial librarian named Li Du and his friend Hamza, a storyteller who travels the Silk Road. In City of Ink, the topic of my next interview, Li Du has returned to Beijing, looking for answers to the incident that led to his own exile from the capital five years before. When the wife of a tile-factory owner is found murdered alongside a man assumed to be her lover, Li Du becomes involved in an official capacity, charged with determining whether this really is, as it appears to be, a crime of passion. Hart does a wonderful job of crafting richly detailed, deeply satisfying solutions to her mysteries, blending political, historical, religious, and cultural explanations into a seamless whole. I can’t wait to talk to her, never mind for the arrival of the next book in her series.

Another pleasant surprise is Lauren Willig’s The Summer Country, set in mid-nineteenth-century Barbados. I’ve been a fan of Willig’s writing ever since her first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, but due to other commitments, including those listed above, I’ve rather fallen by the wayside as she’s finished, altogether, twelve Pink Carnation novels, The Ashford Affair, The English Wife, and two co-written books. I’m very much looking forward to catching up on her work before interviewing her in mid-July. This latest novel follows Emily Dawson, a vicar’s daughter and poor relation to a well-off merchant family, as she inherits a sugar plantation that, when she reaches the island, she discovers has been burned and abandoned. As Emily struggles to learn what happened and why her grandfather never told anyone in his family about the plantation’s existence, she stumbles into a thicket of secrets that, as the back cover puts it “challenge everything she thought she knew about her family, their legacy, and herself.”

Last but not least, although it’s due for release only in late August and should really be listed with those books, is Gill Paul’s The Lost Daughter, about the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, focusing on the last days of Grand Duchess Maria, the third daughter of the tsar. A follow-up to 2016’s The Secret Wife, about Maria’s older sister Tatiana, The Lost Daughter is another dual-time story in which a woman sets out to discover (in 1973), the meaning behind her father’s deathbed confession, “I didn’t want to kill her.” Although we now know, thanks to DNA evidence, that in fact no member of the tsar’s immediate family escaped the slaughter in Ekaterinburg, including Maria and the better-known Anastasia, I’m still drawn to novels set in Russia at any time—for obvious reasons—so I will definitely cover this one, although probably in a written Q&A, given that my interview schedule is already packed into the fall.

On another note, if you have been connected with me on Facebook but have not liked my author page (@C. P. Lesley), now would be a good time, as I am making some changes there, and that will be the main venue for any writing-related posts. Other pages to follow are @Five Directions Press and NB Historical Fiction. Twitter links remain the same.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Changing Times

It’s hard to believe, for those of us who lived through them, that the 1960s now qualify as historical fiction. In fact, not much makes a person—especially a historian—feel older faster than the recognition that her own life has become history while she was too busy living it to notice.

But like it or not, that’s where we are. The Historical Novel Society defines historical fiction as stories set fifty or more years before the time of writing, and as of today, that means 1969. Which, as it happens, is when The Swooping Magpie, the second of Liza Perrat’s Australian family dramas, opens.

Although the Sixties stand out—if younger generations even remember them—for the Moon Walk and Hippies, rock music and soul, drug use and protests against the war in Vietnam—the real impact of that decade was at once deeper and more subtle. Young people raised by stay-at-home housewives and, in the case of girls, told to look for an economically stable husband who could support them and their children in comfort while he worked long hours suddenly encountered a world of changing standards and opportunities they had never believed were possible. But the new rules didn’t reach everywhere at the same time or the same rate, and the old stigmas tended to remain in place long after the behaviors they’d been intended to curb fell by the wayside.

This is the situation that affects Lindsay Townsend, heroine of The Swooping Magpie. Like so many young women, Lindsay—fifteen at the earliest point in the story, sixteen when we meet her six months later—has reached an age where she can begin to imagine life outside her parents’ household. She does well at school; she’s attractive and popular; she expects to pass her exams and go to college, although she’s just as happy to hang out at the beach and flirt with surfer boys.

But Lindsay also has a secret: a hard-working but brutal father and a passive mother who subsists on too little happiness and too many pills. A classic 1950s family sit com without the comedy. As the only child of these miserable parents, Lindsay hides her need for love and affirmation behind a facade of self-confidence and a determination to chart her own course. Her pursuit of an older man throws her right into the maelstrom of the Sexual Revolution. Then the adults take over, forcing her prematurely into decisions she’s not equipped to make. Her story brings life to a real scandal that swept up too many girls like her.

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


Lindsay Townsend is doing well at her high school in Wollongong, Australia. She’s pretty and popular and smart enough that she can spend as much time at the beach as she does hunched over her books. Only she knows that the confident self she projects to her friends and fellow students conceals life with an abusive father and a mother determined to keep the peace at all costs. When Lindsay’s handsome young gym teacher takes an interest in her, she lacks both the maturity to resist and the experience she needs to protect herself from harm. Soon she’s caught up in a scandal, facing pressure from the adult world to accept a decision no teenage girl should have to make.

In The Swooping Magpie (Triskele Books, 2019), the second of a trilogy set in southeastern Australia, Liza Perrat explores in gritty, compelling prose the rapid social changes of the 1960s and 1970s and the tragedy, loss, and grief that the collision between rules and reality sometimes caused.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Characters in Conflict


In my recent New Books in Historical Fiction (NBHF) interview with Joan Neuberger, professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin, she talks about Sergei Eisenstein’s attempt, in his Ivan the Terrible film trilogy (1946), to create what Eisenstein himself called a “Bach fugue on power.”

By this phrase Eisenstein referred to his use of secondary characters as variations that illuminate the approach to power taken by his main protagonist, Ivan IV “the Terrible”—who in this metaphor represents the theme. To show the conflicts that drive Ivan, Eisenstein externalizes them (no interior dialogue in cinema!) by creating other characters who embody elements of these conflicts and allowing Ivan to argue with them, oppose them, overcome them, and at times yield to or accept them.

We’ll get to some examples in a moment, but what makes this idea interesting to me—enough that I decided to write about it—is that a version of Eisenstein’s fugue appears in many novels, stage plays, and films. In Ivan the Terrible the fugue is focused on power because power—its temptations, uses, misuses, and ultimate costs—is the underlying moral theme of Eisenstein’s trilogy. But the same phenomenon can occur around other themes: love, vengeance, justice, truth, and honor, to name just a few.

So how does the fugue work in Eisenstein’s films? In brief, as Joan and I discuss during the interview, he creates a pair of characters (actually multiple pairs, but let’s not get too complicated) who are presented as close boyhood friends of Ivan’s: Prince Andrei Kurbsky and Fyodor Kolychev (yes, the same family name that appears in my Legends novels; they were a real boyar clan, although everyone who bears that name in my novels is fictional).


In pursuit of his goal, Eisenstein—who had studied as many historical studies of Ivan the Terrible as he could get his hands on—had to distort history to some degree. That’s one way we know he was making a deliberate artistic choice. Both Kurbsky and Kolychev were real people, but only Kurbsky was of the same generation as Ivan and eligible for the role of boyhood friend. Even then, evidence of such early friendship is lacking.

Kolychev, in contrast, ran away from the court to take monastic vows under the name Filipp in 1537, when he was about thirty years old (Ivan was six). He then spent much of his time until 1566 as abbot of the famed Solovki Monastery in the White Sea. Only when the Russian Orthodox Church appointed him as metropolitan of Moscow did he return to the capital. 


But no matter. In Eisenstein’s understanding, Kurbsky and Kolychev mirror Ivan in different ways. Kurbsky wants the same things Ivan does, but for himself. He woos Ivan’s wife, he yearns for Ivan’s crown, and when he doesn’t get those things, he abandons Russia for its western neighbor, Poland-Lithuania, hoping for advancement there. Kurbsky doesn’t object to Ivan’s goals, only to watching someone else take the spoils.  


 Filipp, in contrast, wants nothing more than to retire from the court altogether. When Ivan lures him by dangling the power represented by the metropolitanate, Filipp gives in to temptation but also formulates a moral argument against Ivan’s excesses. Although he doesn’t succeed in deflecting Ivan onto a better moral path—at least not for long—he “gets into Ivan’s head,” as we might say today, causing Ivan to doubt himself and unleashing the extravagant bouts of repentance that punctuate the tsar’s descent into ever more extreme abuses of power, even after Ivan reverts to the crudest method of silencing his former friend: ordering Filipp’s strangulation.

Eisenstein makes similar use of other characters. Ivan’s aunt, who bears little or no resemblance to the historical princess of Staritsa, wants power too, but for her son more than herself—although we all know who will wield that power if she gets it, because her son is presented as a buffoon. Like Ivan’s wife, his aunt cares about relationships, something Ivan has no compunction about destroying. That wife adores him, although she can’t quite resist Kurbsky’s seductive gaze. The members of Ivan’s private army adore him too, even as their homosocial extravaganzas introduce elements of gender diversity that intertwine with the theme of power in the persons of King Sigismund of Poland and the (never filmed) Queen Elizabeth I of England, whom the historical Ivan IV once petitioned for asylum and whose lady-in-waiting he sought to marry.




It’s a clever tactic, and it works, even though the exaggerated acting and cinematography often seem cartoonish today. But the deeper point is that a quick look reveals a similar process at work in many works of fiction, cinematic and otherwise. In Song of the Siren, for example, the fundamental question is how to handle past and present injuries. Juliana has physical damage caused by smallpox, but the real hurt lies in her soul, the result of decisions made by others when she was very young. Felix, in contrast, has a clear physical disability, which does affect his sense of himself and his worth but is largely offset by the support of a loving family, a comfortable lifestyle, and a rewarding career. Alexei’s wounds are largely laid out and resolved in the previous series, but the effect of those wounds on his past relationship with Juliana enliven their interactions here. Koshkin goes about the world in blinders, oblivious to the damage he inflicts on himself and others. I could draw such parallels for any of my novels.

In this sense, stories involve casts of characters rather than individuals: a kind of hive mind that gives rise to distinct and credible people who happen to be working on different facets of a single problem. That reality, more than anything else, blends a series of solo performances into a single connected whole.


And if you’d like to learn more about the fugue of characters in Song of the Siren, including why I wrote it and which parts are fiction and which not, you can hear me talking about the book with Galit Gottlieb on New Books in Literature. Transcript and interview also on the Literary Hub as of Friday, Mar. 29, 2019: https://lithub.com/spying-on-diplomats-through-the-big-red-kremlin-walls/.

Screen shots from Sergei Eisenstein, Ivan the Terrible, parts 1 and 2: Andrei Kurbsky swearing allegiance; Metropolitan Filipp (Fyodor Kolychev) taking a stand; the members of Ivan the Terrible's private army celebrating together.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Filming for Joseph the Terrible

In its early years, the Bolshevik regime wanted to burst all the bounds and set off in new directions—political, social, and cultural. The Communists aimed to create a new world and a new Soviet Man, and nothing from the past could get in the way of that bright future.

But by the 1930s, as Joan Neuberger reminds us in her interview on New Books in Historical Fiction, Joseph Stalin had second thoughts about the wisdom of tearing down the old to build the new. As tensions between the Third Reich and the USSR escalated, he ordered the revival—in a new, socialist garb—of heroes from the imperial and earlier periods. Including, somewhat improbably, Ivan IV “the Terrible” (r. 1533–84), the first tsar of the lands then called Rus. As part of this campaign, in January 1941 (just five months before Hitler’s army invaded the Soviet Union) Stalin ordered Sergei Eisenstein to direct an epic tale depicting how, against all opposition, Tsar Ivan created the Great Russian State.

The results were not quite what Stalin expected. Eisenstein, a master filmmaker from that early period of cultural experimentation who believed that history (personal and state) proceeded in spirals and bisexuality was humanity’s natural state, dove headfirst into Ivan’s troubled childhood—the subject of my Legends and Songs of Steppe & Forest series—looking for clues to Ivan’s psyche. What made him terrible (that is, terrifying—it’s an old translation using a word that has changed its meaning since the mid-sixteenth century), in effect. 




And Eisenstein found answers, which he then put on the screen, with the result that the first part of his trilogy was acclaimed, the second banned, and the third never filmed. Joan Neuberger explains how, and why, all of that happened. It’s a portrait of tyranny, exposed and experienced, and definitely well worth your time. Because it also shines a light on how great works of art are created, including historical fiction.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.


Most of the time, this podcast focuses on the products of those who create historical fiction—specifically, novels. But what goes into producing a work of historical fiction—especially in a dictatorship where the wrong choice, or even the right choice at the wrong moment, can send the unwitting author to the Gulag? And what if the creator is not an unknown toiling in the dark to produce manuscripts “for the desk drawer,” as the Soviet literati used to say, but the nation’s foremost filmmaker operating at the personal behest of Joseph Stalin? Such is the dilemma that faces Sergei Eisenstein in 1941, when he begins his unfinished trilogy Ivan the Terrible, an epic ordered by the Soviet government to glorify the Russian past and justify state terror. 



Often written off, especially in the West, as a toady to Stalin, Eisenstein—as Joan Neuberger  nimbly shows in her new and fascinating study, This Thing of Darkness: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia (Cornell University Press, 2019)—approached his complicated and risky project with a mixture of enthusiasm and caution. Over the course of five years, despite complaints about budget overflows and production delays, through exile and war and shifts in the party line, personal conflicts and health problems, Eisenstein skillfully alternated between tactics of submission and defiance in support of his idiosyncratic but richly textured portrayal of a tortured autocrat whose childhood traumas led him to ever more extreme exercises of power, even as his excesses stripped him of friends and family, leaving him alone against the endless, unstoppable waves—of progress? of the future? of his own battered conscience? Only the viewer can decide.

Part I won the Stalin Prize, the USSR’s highest honor, although not without controversy. Stalin personally banned Part II before release, and Eisenstein died with Part III unfinished. In this master work about a master filmmaker, Neuberger shines a light on all three. In doing so, she highlights the many decisions any author must make while balancing historical accuracy against dramatic potential and character motivation against a verifiable past. Fortunately, for most of us the stakes are nowhere near as high as they were for Sergei Eisenstein.


Images: Screen shots of Ivan IV “the Terrible” (Nikolai Cherkasov) and King Sigismund II Augustus of Poland-Lithuania (Pavel Massalsky) from Sergei Eisenstein, Ivan the Terrible. Reproduced according to the fair use doctrine.