Thursday, September 12, 2019

Fictional Furry Friends

This week I’d intended to write a post about Gill Paul’s new novel, The Lost Daughter—which, although not exactly a sequel to the same author’s The Secret Wife, addresses a similar theme. But the plan is to coordinate my post with Jennifer Eremeeva’s interview with the author, and that’s not yet live on the New Books Network. So check back next week for a look at Romanov grand duchesses and their (maybe) fates.

As I was racking my brains for an alternative topic, serendipity intervened in the form of an unexpected but highly entertaining conversation about dogs and their potential place in my current work in progress, Song of the Sisters (Songs of Steppe & Forest 3). I didn’t initially plan for the inclusion of a dog, but the more I think of it, the more I love the idea. Here’s a brief background as to why.

After months of holding off on sharing my opening of Sisters with my writers’ group, I decided this month that I’d done as much as I could without input. The value of giving half-baked chapters to trusted writer friends is that they hold up a mirror, revealing where I’ve supplied too much information and where not enough, the places where the energy flows and where it stalls. Especially because I have spent so long roaming the wild forest that is Muscovite history, I have a tendency to demand too much background knowledge from my readers. I need people who can say “huh?” without worrying that by doing so they will hurt my feelings.

I haven’t received specific responses yet, but I did get enough feedback that I can see (or imagine, since this particular comment has not been made) a story problem that I have yet to solve. Songs 3, unlike its predecessors, is intended as a kind of Muscovite comedy of manners à la Georgette Heyer. There are a few political hijinks—I’d bore myself to tears otherwise—but mostly it’s a contest among cousins for control of a household and their own futures. I’ve worked on the female leads, and at least one important character received a thorough treatment (and makeover, in response to criticism from that same writers’ group) in Song of the Shaman. But Igor, the antagonist, is new—and, as I’m coming to realize, undeveloped. Cue the dog.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that Igor’s going to need more than a dog to make him a believable human being, even as an antagonist. But a writer can do so much with a dog. It expresses the hidden feelings of everyone present, reveals likes and dislikes, separates the sensitive souls from the distinctly insensitive ones. And unlike cats, which lived on the sidelines of medieval life thanks to the bizarre association that the Christian Church made between them and the Devil, dogs played an important role in Muscovite Russia just as they did throughout Europe and many other places in the world.

Most of them were working dogs, of course: scent hounds and sight hounds, guard dogs and coursers. The fancy breeds we think of today didn’t exist then, but dogs are dogs and people are people, and there’s nothing like a dog to open up a character who, for one reason or another, hides any hint of uncertainty behind an over-confident mask.

So meet Laika, a Polish hunting dog of a type attested from the thirteenth century. She looks like what would happen if you crossed a Doberman with a Labrador retriever, and if anyone can reach Igor’s stubborn heart, she can. 

Although you never know, she just might take a shine to my heroine Darya instead. After all, who has the good treats?

Images: Polish Hunting Dog CC BY 2.5, A. Balcerzak and Lukas3, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Interview with Talia Carner

One of the delights of hosting New Books in Historical Fiction is learning about places, times, and events that I know nothing about. That was true for the story behind The Third Daughter, Talia Carner’s wonderful new novel—released just this past Tuesday. And tragic as that story is for her heroine, the novel is absolutely compelling. So when you finish reading her answers, rush—don’t dawdle—to secure your copy. (Just to clarify, I could not interview Talia for the podcast because of too many other commitments, so we agreed to this Q&A instead.)

The Third Daughter is your fifth novel, and it’s quite distinct from the four that came before, which themselves cover a wide range of time periods, places, and subjects. How do you select topics for your novels?
Stories find me. I don’t seek them out. Each time I am far along through a novel and think that maybe it’s my last one, the next one presents itself. Each takes hold of my head and heart and compels me to sit down to what turns out to be three to six years’ work. I’ve long realized that the seeds of every story had sprouted in my psyche years earlier, where they fermented…. All it takes is a passing comment, a line in a newspaper, or a visual cue, and the idea blooms, takes hold on me and doesn’t let go until I crawl under the skin of a new protagonist and tell her story.

And while indeed my novels seem to be painted on large canvases that cover a wide range of time periods and countries, the common denominator is that each deals with a universal social issue, mostly unique to women. In each of my novels I rise and fall with the protagonist’s spirit as she struggles—and prevails against—the forces that shape her life, be they psychological, political, social, geographical, legal, economic, or religious.

What has fascinated others—and I hadn’t noticed until it was pointed out to me—is that each subject has been one rarely, if ever, explored before in fiction. It was an interesting revelation to me, and I learned something about myself: While I strictly avoid personal disagreements on any topic, I have more courage than I had thought I possessed when it comes to writing. I’ve taken on the US legal system, the Chinese government, God, the Russian mafia—and now, the huge scourge of our society in the form of sex trafficking.

You’ve written that a short story by Sholem Aleichem first made you aware of Zwi Migdal, the legal trafficking organization that forms the center of The Third Daughter. What caught your attention when you read his tale, and how did you go about turning the idea into a book?

I’ve mentioned above that the seeds of a novel begin to bloom years or even decades before I write it. Since childhood I had a strong sense of right and wrong, and when I encountered social injustice it evoked strong emotions in me.… I first became aware of the magnitude of global and historical sexual exploitation at the 1995 International Women’s Conference in Beijing. A tiny, aging Filipina with an operatic voice cried to the heavens about her enslavement by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII, as one of thousands of girls and women captured in the Pacific Rim. Then a teenager, she had been imprisoned in a “comfort station” to serve the soldiers’ sexual needs.

The plight of kidnapped women forced into sexual slavery touched me deeply, and in my head it was narrated by the Filipina’s haunting voice. In subsequent years I read about sex trafficking and attended presentations by UN-affiliated NGOs in New York City, where I live.

A snippet of the history of girl victims lured from beleaguered Eastern European Jewish communities to South America had come to my attention through Hebrew literature, and I even tried to inquire about it on a visit to Buenos Aires in 2007. I got no traction, and let it go. However, my interest was reawakened in 2015 when I stumbled upon the short story by Sholem Aleichem, “The Man from Buenos Aires” (now in my own translation on my website). In the story, the author reports about his encounter on the train with a shady, sleek character who brags about his entrepreneurial success but never reveals the nature of his business. I suspected what the venture that brought this fellow his riches might be: sex trafficking. I Googled the subject, and that is when I first encountered the name Zwi Migdal. I was appalled to find out that it had been a legal trafficking union and that it had operated with impunity for seventy years. It was shocking to realize how much information about it was hiding in plain sight. Most appalling to me was that the estimated 150,000 to 220,000 Jewish women who had been exploited by members of this organization had been forgotten, lost in the goo of history.

Tell us about Batya, your heroine. What kind of person is she when the book opens, and how do things go so terribly wrong for her?

Since Sholem Aleichem’s short story about the man from Buenos Aires appeared in the same “Railroad Stories” collection as those of Tevye the Dairyman, it was a natural creative process to continue the stories Tevye didn’t tell. In the collection, he first said to the author that he had seven daughters, then six, and ended up telling the stories of five. I pictured a daughter whose story wasn’t told. Batya has an inner strength that, at fourteen, she’s yet unaware of. She’s sensitive and has a clear sense of what’s expected of her, yet has no vision of a future different from her mother’s life. Growing up in a warm home where her parents, in spite of the hardships and strife they suffered, showed caring and were protective, she had liked to play and laugh. What shapes Batya, though, when we meet her, is the disappointment that her two older sisters caused their parents, when each rejected the tradition of letting her father select her match, and instead fell in love with a man of her own choosing. The two sisters’ actions threw the devoted Batya into a specific orbit: she must make up for their betrayals by being even more obedient to her parents.    

Their emotional well-being is severely challenged when the family is exiled during a pogrom, losing their footing along with their meager belongings. Batya finds herself in a position to be the one who helps them secure food and shelter by working in a tavern. And then a greater chance to bring them happiness presents itself, if Batya accepts the marriage proposal of a wealthy stranger.

Things go terribly wrong because the millions of Jews living and persecuted in the Pale of Settlement within the Russian Empire found mates for their children through word-of-mouth, loose connections, and distant introductions. The bride and groom often met for the first time under the chuppah, the wedding canopy. In Batya’s case, the parents had a chance to meet the potential “groom” in person and be extremely impressed. Unfortunately, Batya’s unsophisticated, trusting father, like most Jews at the time, falls victim to a trafficker’s sleek double-talk. Even Batya’s no-nonsense mother is seduced by the stranger’s gifts and promises. In Batya’s love for her parents, she lets their excitement push aside the natural trepidations any fourteen-year-old would ordinarily feel.

Yitzik Moskowitz is only one representative of Zwi Migdal, but since he is the one who draws Batya into the trafficking scheme, what can you tell us about him? How does he live with himself?

Yitzik Moskowitz views himself as a successful entrepreneur who spots a need in the market and is smart enough to know how to fill it. He is proud of his ability to find and sort the right “merchandise” and of the many skills that let him demonstrate his ability to do his job well. According to him, pimping is “a profession that demands the whole of you—your character, your perseverance, and your expertise in many areas, from finance to personal hygiene.” For him, running his operation means being “a skilled manager and a comforter of hysterical females.” He does not concern himself with why the females are “hysterical,” because he justifies his actions by the fact that, in the end, he’s taken the girls and women out of the starvation of Eastern Europe and its bloody anti-Semitism and given them a better life.

Interestingly, many “family men” like Moskowitz sent their sons to boarding schools in Europe, where the youngsters acquired a good secular education, made contacts with sons of elite families, cleansed themselves from their families’ foreign accents, and returned to live in South America as upstanding citizens working in noncontroversial businesses.

How did you track down Zwi Migdal’s history, as well as the broader story of legal prostitution in Argentina and its effect on sex trafficking from Eastern Europe between 1870 and 1939? And having done the research, how did you pare it down to keep it from taking over the book?

Once I knew the name of the organization, I found a tremendous amount of information available in translated documents, nonfiction books, and academic publications. Armed also with photos from that time and place, my imagination took a short leap to paint the pictures that brought the material to life: I could hear the sounds, smell the smells, feel the weather on my skin, and view entire scenes. Most importantly, once I sat in front of my computer, the emotions related to Batya’s difficult situation flowed directly into the keyboard, seemingly without first sifting through my brain.

Over the previous years, I had been to Buenos Aires three times, but I don’t know Spanish. I hired two freelance researchers in Argentina, and since the story had taken place in the late 1800s, I had them identify for me specific buildings in photos. For even finer texture, I presented both researchers—a man and a woman—with the same questions about clothes, food, and architecture and was able to extrapolate more nuanced details when crossing their answers. If Batya walked from point A to point B, I had my researchers verify the names of the streets 120 years earlier.

For historical accuracy, I consulted the director of Jewish archives in Buenos Aires, who, thankfully, knew English. She also read the final manuscript.

Once the protagonist, Batya, started dancing tango, what choice did I have but to learn it myself? I needed to write with authenticity about tango—and the complex passions associated with this form of dance. For almost a year I took private tango lessons and occasionally spent an evening at a milonga in a close embrace with total strangers (also my reason to quit tango once my research was done).

The challenge of paring down a mountain of information presented itself in every scene and every chapter. I stayed inside Batya’s head and reported only what she saw, experienced, or knew. I never stepped out from backstage to whisper to the reader in my authorial voice…. I thought I had done a good job of trimming the material until my editor, with her magic wand—or ruthless pen—chopped out more paragraphs and even a few scenes, resulting in a manuscript that—I had to admit—sparkled.

After considering suicide early on, of necessity Batya finds a way to cope with the terrible situation in which Zwi Migdal places her. What keeps her going?

Batya’s love for her family and her promise to take them out of the hell of Russia is her motivation to make the sacrifice and keep on living in her own private hell. Little by little, we also watch as her faith in God returns. Not fully—she’s forever perplexed about His plans and intentions—but she always assumes His presence. The realization of her hope can only be accomplished if He wishes it so, and as events turn and seemingly progress in her favor, she begins again to view His benevolence.

What will your next project be?

All I can say is that a road sign I glimpsed in France three years ago has brought me back there four times already to research a historical event. Like my previous novels, this event has not yet been explored in fiction. Now I must wait a year or two for a large window of time to open in my busy book tour, book groups’ chats, and interviews schedule to actually write this novel.

Talia, thank you so much for your rich and full answers to my questions. I wish you all success with The Third Daughter, your previous books, and that French novel to come!


Talia Carner, the former publisher of Savvy Woman magazine, was a lecturer at international women’s economic forums. An award-winning author of five novels and numerous stories, essays, and articles, she is also a committed supporter of global human rights. Carner has spearheaded groundbreaking projects centered on female plights and women’s activism. 

Find out more about her at, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Photograph of Talia Carner © Robbie Michaels. Reproduced with permission from William Morrow Books.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Aging Heroes

One of the interesting problems some authors tackle is that of aging—or maturation, although the two concepts are not inextricably linked and certainly not the same thing. Even in my Legends of the Five Directions novels, I had to consider how marriage or motherhood or the experience of war would change my characters.

But those novels covered five years. Linnea Hartsuyker’s Golden Wolf trilogy, set in Viking Norway, ranges over twenty. In the ninth century, a man could go from youth to old age in that time.

It’s not true, as is often believed, that the human life span was shorter then. Many more children died before the age of five, and those who did not had to survive disease and childbirth or warfare, depending on gender. That pulled the averages down. Nevertheless, a person could live to be eighty even in the premodern world, although given the standards of medical care he or she needed excellent genes and a large dose of luck.

This is one of several topics that Linnea and I discuss in my latest interview on New Books in Historical Fiction. So give it a listen and find out how she handled the emotional and physical changes that beset her aging heroes, fourteen years after the end of her second book, The Sea Queen, and twenty after The Half-Drowned King.

And if you purchase the paperback edition of The Sea Queen (and the future paperback edition of The Golden Wolf—not the UK edition currently listed on Amazon), you’ll find at the back a written Q&A conducted by yours truly. The one on The Sea Queen ran originally on this blog last year. But The Golden Wolf interview will be brand-new, so do look for it when the paperback comes out.

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

When I spoke with Linnea Hartsuyker back in 2017, her epic saga was just beginning. The first novel opens with her hero, Ragnvald, seeing a vision of a golden wolf who will unite the feuding kingdoms of Norway under one rule. The vision sets the course of Ragnvald’s life, bringing him into the service of Harald Fair-Hair, a young and confident warrior whose counselor and friend Ragnvald becomes. Meanwhile, Ragnvald’s sister, Svanhild, sets off on a different course, one that offers her a life of adventure not often available to women but pits her against her beloved brother.

Twenty years later, Harald has come close to achieving his goal. One more wedding stands between him and a unified Norway. Svanhild and Ragnvald have returned to fighting on the same side, but two decades of wounds and battles, as well as old patterns, are catching up with the older generation. And the three of them have produced a large and varied group of children, most of them sons at or near adulthood, ready to challenge their parents’ ways and dreams. As fathers struggle with sons, mothers with daughters, brothers and cousins among themselves, and husbands with wives and concubines, Ragnvald stubbornly clings to the force of his vision and his dedication to the principles that have guided his life.

Like its predecessors, The Half-Drowned King and The Sea Queen, The Golden Wolf  seamlessly blends Old Norse folklore with creative imagination to paint a picture of ninth-century Norway from the inside. Linnea Hartsuyker assembles a cast of characters that, however different they and their world may appear to a modern readership, tackles problems we all can recognize.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Red Pearl

Once in a while, life gets in the way of my writing, and that’s been the case for the last month or more. Too many work projects with tight deadlines, a couple of new Five Directions Press titles in the works, four New Books Network interviews over the course of five weeks—I’ve barely had time to keep up this blog, never mind work on the outline for my joint project with P. K. Adams or Songs of Steppe & Forest 2 and 3. 

All good stuff, of course, but time consuming. So it was a happy accident to receive an e-mail from Chloe Helton, eager to talk about her new historical novel, The Red Pearl. So without more ado, let me turn over the virtual mike to her, and she’ll provide a quick introduction and excerpt.

* * *

Thank you, Carolyn, for allowing me to share The Red Pearl with your readers!

If you’re hoping to finish off your summer with a crackling, suspenseful read, take a peek at an excerpt of The Red Pearl. You’ll find a marriage on the rocks, a little bit of lost love, the trials of wartime, and the main event—espionage.

During the American Revolution, a meek innkeeper’s wife, Lucy Finch, becomes privy to some explosive secrets. Read more below! And if you want the rest of the book, you can visit my website or find it on Amazon


Boston, 1778

For a moment, when I woke up, I was back at home. My mother had started to boil water for the porridge, and the faint smell of cinnamon shimmered near my nose. My father’s heavy boots sounded on the steps, and he hummed as he went down. My father was always humming, just as my mother was always praying. Between the two of them, his song and her prayer, there was never silence in the house.

But I wasn’t at my father’s home anymore, and it was silent now. I hadn’t lived with my parents in almost six years. When I married Jasper, I’d vowed never to speak to my father again, and although I had eventually broken that promise, I still kept my distance. When Ma got sick in ’77, the bitterest winter I’d ever lived through, I stayed there awhile to help her. Not much since then.

No, I was not at home. Jasper’s arms were around me, his body the only warmth in our bed now that we were nearing winter, his face nuzzled in my hair. In the beginning, I told myself it was only for warmth that I let him wrap around me like a parasite, but now we did it every night, even during the summer. I’d begun to accept it, just like I now tolerated the rough taste of stone fence, a drink of hard cider and rum, now that I was a tavern-keeper’s wife.

When I started to move, Jasper mumbled something. He wasn’t much of an early riser, but the sun was splashing through the windows now and we couldn’t let the guests wake before us. It had become my responsibility to make sure of that. “Up,” I urged, nudging his shoulder. “Imagine if Robby gets in the kitchen before we do.”

Now he blinked. Robby, our hired boy, was an honest worker, but he was useless without direct and clear orders. If he tried fiddling with the pots and pans without my direction, they’d all be broken before we even made it downstairs. “Didn’t we just fall asleep?” he groaned.

“Oh, enough. You’re terrible in the morning.”

“Come back down,” he said, wrapping an arm around my waist to pull me. “Lay next to me just a minute longer.”

I couldn’t have resisted, really, even if I wanted to. He was too strong. I brushed a hand through his clipped black hair. There had been days when I yearned for another kind of man, shaggy blonde hair and sharp blue eyes, but although he crossed my mind every day, almost, he was now little more than a ghost swirling in the morning fog. I was here with Jasper, who was dark and quiet and excruciatingly clean-shaven. There was drink to brew and mouths to feed here and I wasn’t a girl anymore.

“Jasper,” I said. I hadn’t been planning to mention this, but he was the one who pulled me back down to bed. “Are you planning to let those Tory meetings go on long?”

“What d’you mean?” he mumbled, his eyes barely open. “If they pay for it, they can have their meetings. And you shouldn’t call them that.”

It had been a long while since the word “Tory” was something to gape at. A group of half-a-dozen men had been holding clandestine late-night meetings in our pub for the past few weeks, and you couldn’t tell by looking at them but the various chatter that caught my ears as I poured their drinks made things clear. Nobody who supported the revolution called the Continental army “rebels” and “hooligans”. It was unclear what they met about, but their leanings were no mystery, at least not to me.

“They might scare the others away, is all I mean. You know how our city is; think what would become of us if our neighbors discovered loyalists under our roof.” In Boston, of all places, it was no good to play both sides.

He rubbed his eyes, apparently realizing that he actually had to participate in this conversation. “We don’t know that for certain. All that matters is that they’re fine customers. Pay on time, leave coins on the bar for us when they leave, and they don’t shout and fight like the patriots do. It wouldn’t be so bad if we scared off a few radicals, now would it?”

He’d never listen. Jasper Finch refused to take a side in the war, and yet it was impossible not to. We had married while the harbor was closed after the Tea Party, and I’d watched him buy smuggled rum and sugar, because if the Crown had its way we would all have dry throats and empty bellies: fair retribution, in their eyes, for our act of rebellion. So the rum had to be snuck in bales of hay, among other methods, and Jasper struggled for months with the books in order to keep bringing those goods in. And yet, he claimed to be neutral, as if such a thing were possible in Boston, where the spark of revolution had first been lit, and where it still echoed through the streets even after every last redcoat had scampered away in terror behind General Howe.

To house Tories in our inn, even if he was doing naught more than accept their business, wouldn’t do him well. There was no city that hated the British more than ours. “I suppose not,” I lied. “I know it’s best to be neutral.”

“Neutral,” he repeated, satisfied. “That will get us through this.”

I remembered my father saying much the same. Jasper knows not to pick sides, he’d told me, unlike that boy of yours. And that was why I was in this soft bed in a tavern called The Red Pearl rather than with Sam on the battlefield, wiping sweat from my forehead as I threw pitchers of water on the cannons. My father had not wanted that life for me, so I was here.

“Well, I suppose it is time,” Jasper said finally, grunting as he pulled himself out of bed. “Sometimes I wish I could sleep all day.”

Funny, because in this place, where the dusty wooden walls closed us off from the war that raged outside, it seemed we were asleep all day. “Someday, when we’re very old and we have a son and a sweet daughter-in-law to take care of us, we’ll do just that. Sleep from dawn till dusk.”

“With you, I would,” he smiled.

My heart skittered, and he pecked me on the cheek. “I hope Robby hasn’t tried to make porridge already.”

“God’s bones,” Jasper cursed. “It would taste like pig slosh.”

With that, we hurried downstairs.

Hungry for the next chapter? Click here to get a new chapter in your inbox every week, or find it on Amazon

 Thank you, Chloe. I wish you all success with your novel!

Friday, August 16, 2019

Interview with P. K. Adams

As much as I love historical fiction—especially historical fiction set in Russia and Eastern Europe (assuming the authors know what they’re talking about, that is)—I also love mystery stories. Not the hard-boiled, high-body-count variety but the so-called cozy mystery exemplified by Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and Dorothy Sayers, on whose books I cut my literary eyeteeth back in the day. So it’s no secret that discovering P. K. Adams, a writer who grew up in Poland and writes historical mysteries set in her home country during its Renaissance Golden Age, has been a source of delight for me.

Silent Water, the first of her Jagiellonian mysteries appeared just ten days ago, and P. K. was gracious enough to answer my questions despite all the work surrounding the launch. Do read all the way to the end, where you can find out more about her and her books.

Your first two novels were a fictionalized story of the twelfth-century abbess, physician, composer, and theologian Hildegard of Bingen. What made you decide to shift gears and write a series of mystery novels set in sixteenth-century Poland-Lithuania?

As a reader, historical mysteries have long been my guilty pleasure, and I knew that one day I would want to try my hand at writing one. After The Greenest Branch duology, I felt the time had come to try a different subgenre. The choice of Poland as the setting was personal, as that is where I grew up. My first serious study of history was therefore not of the Tudors or the Borgias but of a dynasty that, although powerful in its time, is little known outside Eastern Europe. The Jagiellons (pronounced Yah-ghye-lohns) ruled the union of Poland and Lithuania (as well as, at various times, Hungary, Bohemia, and several minor principalities and territories) for more than two hundred years.

The sixteenth century is a very popular era in historical fiction, but too many novels focus on Western Europe. With Silent Water, I hope to introduce readers to that often-overlooked part of the continent and show that it also had a robust Renaissance culture and cutthroat politics, as well as ethnic and linguistic diversity. As such, it was no different from—and perhaps even more complex than—the lands of the Tudors, the Borgias, and the Valois about whom we love to read so much.

The backdrop to this first novel is the early years of the marriage of King Zygmunt I and Bona Sforza of Milan. What can you tell us, briefly, about them and their court? What makes it a good setting for your mystery?

What is interesting about the first half of the sixteenth century in Poland is that one of its most powerful and consequential monarchs was not actually Polish. Bona Sforza, who married Zygmunt I in 1518, was an Italian noblewoman who arrived in Cracow as a young royal bride, bringing with her a new cuisine, fashions, and customs.

During that time, women’s role in countries like Poland and Lithuania was very limited outside the home. Even if they were nobles or royals, their duties centered on bearing children, playing the hostess at feasts, and supervising the domestic staff. They were not expected to remain at the table after a certain hour or speak to men to whom they were not related. But Bona would have none of it: she talked and laughed at the table, hunted with the best of them, and was deeply interested and active in politics. Some courtiers enjoyed it, but many were scandalized.

The arrival of Bona marked a moment of significant transition at the Polish court and in society. The cultural clashes and misunderstandings that ensued offer opportunities to craft scenes and even entire storylines that would sound implausible or far-fetched in a place that did not have that multinational and multilingual diversity. With the murder victims being of different ages and lifestyles but also nationalities, our sleuth has her work cut out for her to figure out what they have in common!

Your heroine, Contessa Caterina de Sanseverino, is an Italian visiting Kraków for the first time. What makes her the ideal spokesperson for your story? What kind of person is she, and what does she want out of life?

Caterina is a young widow of noble birth but living in diminished circumstances. Nonetheless, she secures a prominent position as the Lady of the Queen’s Chamber, even though without the backing of a powerful family, she feels that her situation is precarious and that she must prove herself to Queen Bona. That is why she becomes involved in the murder investigation in which the queen herself has an interest. But the discovery of the perpetrator marks both a success and a failure for Caterina, and it makes her question her suitability for her role within the queen’s household. She must decide whether to stay where she is and enjoy the security, however unfulfilling, or leave and build a more satisfying life. In that sense, the story has a universal resonance because who among us has not experienced that feeling at least once in our working (or perhaps also personal) lives?

As an Italian newly arrived in Poland—a land of cold winters, conservative customs, and a tricky language—Caterina is the kind of narrator who can offer a fresh and objective perspective, which I think greatly benefits the story.

Early on, Caterina makes the acquaintance of Sebastian Konarski. What makes him stand out for her from the other courtiers? What about her appeals to him?

Sebastian Konarski is a secretary in the king’s household. What first appeals to Caterina is his integrity and lack of vanity—rare traits at a royal court. He is not a drinker or a carouser like many other young courtiers, and he treats women with respect. I think Konarski senses a certain vulnerability in Caterina, well hidden under a layer of confidence that she tries to project. As their acquaintance deepens, he realizes the depth of her intelligence, resourcefulness, and empathy. They are kindred souls in that they are both principled outliers in a place that is full of superficiality, greed, and opportunism. That is what draws them to each other and what makes them trust each other, trustworthiness being another trait that was always in short supply at royal courts.

Trouble starts eighteen months or so after Caterina’s arrival in Poland, at the Christmas feast, when one of the male courtiers is found stabbed to death. Without giving away spoilers, what can you tell us about him?

Kasper Zamborski is a middling courtier who belongs to the bibones et comedones semi-secret society (its existence at King Zygmunt’s court is a historical fact), whose members pursue a lifestyle centered around eating, drinking, and sexual conquests. In the words of another character in the story, he was known to “seduce maids and matrons alike, a great many of them, they say.” That immediately gives rise to speculations that he may have been killed by a jealous fiancé or a cuckolded husband. But things become more complicated when it is revealed that Zamborski was engaged to be married to a daughter of Crown Grand Chancellor Aleksander Stempowski, who disliked the match. Stempowski also happens to be an enemy of Queen Bona, who becomes convinced that the chancellor helped the young man into the afterlife, and she is determined to prove it.

Theories multiply quickly, but then another courtier is found dead close to the queen’s personal apartments . . .

You’re already starting on the sequel, from what I understand. Any hints on what to expect?

The sequel will feature Caterina, some years later, being called to help Queen Bona with a delicate mission in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Bona’s son and heir to the throne serves as grand duke. He has fallen in love with a beautiful woman of poor reputation and is said to be planning to marry her. But the marriage would be a disaster from the dynastic point of view, and it would bring no useful military alliances to help Poland-Lithuania stave off threats that lurk around its borders. It must be stopped at all costs, but before Caterina can even set a plan in motion, members of the court start dying in mysterious circumstances.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

P. K. Adams is the pen name of Patrycja Podrazik. She has a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a master’s degree in European Studies from Yale University. She blogs and reviews historical fiction at Her debut novel, The Greenest Branch: A Novel of Germany’s First Female Physician, was a semifinalist for the 2018 Chaucer Book Awards for Pre-1750 Historical Fiction. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and lives in New England. Silent Water, the first of her Jagiellonian Dynasty mysteries, was published on August 6, 2019. 

Like her on Facebook
Follow her on Twitter

Listen to an interview about The Greenest Branch on New Books in Historical Fiction.

Drawing of Bona Sforza by Jan Matejko (1861) public domain via Wikimedia Commons.