Friday, July 19, 2019

Talking about Song of the Siren

Five months ago to the day, Five Directions Press released Song of the Siren into the world. And in a happy coincidence, Terry Gamble—whom I interviewed about her latest novel The Eulogist back in January—sent me a set of questions about the book, which she finished not long ago. So to celebrate Juliana and Felix’s fifth-month anniversary, I’m running the Q&A here, with heartfelt thanks to Terry for her thoughtful and far-reaching questions.

Juliana is such an interesting character. It's clear that she has appeared in earlier books. Why did you choose her to be the protagonist in Song of the Siren?

I’m glad you found Juliana interesting! What we see in the earlier novels is mostly the calculation behind her beautiful façade. After a while, I became curious about what made her so cold—what she was hiding that destroyed her relationship with Alexei. Readers get the first hint in The Vermilion Bird, and that hint convinced me not only that she had a story worth telling but that it was the most dramatic of any character I’d written. So I chose her as my protagonist to kick off the new series.

It was like opening the flood gates. She kept me awake at night for weeks, pouring her tale into my head whether I wanted to hear it right then or not. But I’m glad I made that choice, because she revealed depths I hadn’t expected when I first created her.

The affection between Felix and Juliana is so engaging. Why did you decide to have each of these characters suffer from physical impairments?

Because Juliana is so guarded. I realized early on that the only way she could change, as we want characters to do in novels no matter how often people don’t in real life, would be if I pulled the rug out from under her. Since childhood, her face has guaranteed her survival, so by letting her contract smallpox I force her into a position where she can no longer rely on her beauty. That’s the negative; the positive is that with the right kind of support, she has a chance to deal with a problem that she has no choice but to confront as she ages and to realize that in fact she’s always been more than a pretty face. For that, she needs a friend who can see past her scars and, by holding up a mirror, help her appreciate her true strengths and abilities.

I wasn’t sure at first that it would be a man, but Felix presented himself, cane and all. His handicap exposes him to the same kind of prejudice that Juliana faces, but he’s had more time to learn how to cope with it and, as a nobleman, more resources than Juliana. In the sixteenth century, even more than now, women were often judged solely by their birth and their beauty, and at this point Juliana has neither. By looking beyond the surface, Felix makes it possible for Juliana to trust him, and eventually herself. He can do that because he knows what it’s like to wake up one morning with your world overturned.

Your research is extensive. What set you on this journey to learn about Russia and Eastern Europe?

I’ve been studying Russian since the tenth grade. I took my first Russian history class in college, and I was hooked. A thousand years of history, and most of it reads like a movie script: Vikings, pirates, invading Mongol hordes, the Terrible Tsar, the Time of Troubles, Peter the Great cutting off his courtiers’ beards with a pair of shears, you name it. I could write a hundred novels without making anything up!

Tell me about your writing process. Does the history drive the story and plot? Or are you more concerned with character development? Do you do your research before or as you are writing?

If the history is dramatic enough—and in Russia it often is—then it can drive the plot. That was true of The Vermilion Bird and especially The Shattered Drum, although even there the real story takes place among my characters, and the history is just the backdrop.

I work hardest on the character development, because plot comes easily to me. Before I start writing, I fill in questionnaires on my main characters: big things like goal, motivation, and conflict but also questions that open up how one character interacts with others (friend, enemy, apparent friend or enemy who is actually the reverse) and more superficial details that reveal the character’s inner self (clothes, ideal pet, literacy or lack thereof, what attracts and repels, what they do when no one’s watching, etc.).

Once I have a sense of the characters, I haul out this amazing 900-page tome that I own about the minority of Ivan the Terrible (1533–47) and see what it has to say about the year in question. I also check the chronicle records for that year. I come up with a rough list of story events, real and fictional.

As soon as I start writing, the planning goes out the window. I research only as much as I need to answer specific questions. Every so often, I go back to the character questionnaires and story events and update them. But so long as I know more or less where I’m going, I let the story develop as seems best in the moment. Then I share it with my writers’ group, so they can point out the holes and frayed edges, and I revise as needed.

Tell me a bit about your next book. And will we see Juliana again?

We will see Juliana again, but not in the next book. Song of the Shaman follows Grusha, another character from the Legends series. She’s a single mother living on the steppe in a Tatar horde, although she’s Russian. So she’s an immigrant, in a sense, with a six-year-old son who can speak her language but otherwise neither knows nor cares where she comes from. And he’s reaching the age when, in this traditional society, he needs a man in his life to train him as a warrior. So Grusha has to juggle his needs and her own. Her novel will come out next February.

I’m in the early stages of writing the third novel in the series, and Juliana and Felix have already horned their way into chapter 4. I also anticipate a big wedding in Songs 5, where everyone from the earlier books will show up.

Thanks so much for these questions and for giving me a chance to talk about my work!

And if you’d like to learn more about these and other topics concerning Song of the Siren, its characters, its predecessor novels, and the historical world in which it’s set, check out this transcript and interview link on the Literary Hub, “Spying on Diplomats through the Big Red Kremlin Walls.”

Images: Andrei Riabushkin, The Tsar Meets with His Boyars (1893), public domain via Wikimedia Commons; 000679-0007-000085 (my image of Felix), purchased by subscription; ad © C. P. Lesley, using public domain art.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Summer Romance

As I’ve mentioned before,  I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward historical romance. That’s why I don’t list most of my own books that way, even though I have yet to write a novel that doesn’t include a romance. In fact, I have yet to write a novel that doesn’t center on a romance, even if it also addresses politics, society, religious and cultural differences, and the many and glorious vagaries of Russian history.

I also don’t read a lot of pure romance novels these days. The reason mostly has to do with me: I’m older than when I devoured them by the crate load in college. But in part it has to do with changes in the romance genre itself, especially historical romance. Although bodice rippers (never a favorite of mine) always focused more on hormones than characters and historical plausibility, that element of the sub-genre seems to have spread into books that in many other respects are as far from bodice rippers as one can get.

Again, I tolerated that approach more when I was younger. These days I don’t find it so interesting, because it tends to impose a certain sameness on the stories that makes them overly predictable from my point of view. And as a historian, I do rather go bananas and start tossing books at the wall when novels include heroines living in times and places where they were strictly chaperoned because being seen as loose women, rightly or wrongly, doomed them for life, yet who nonetheless behave as if they too had access to reliable birth control. Even the men who coaxed them into sin, to use the parlance of the day, would not have dreamed of marrying their victims unless someone (usually a father or guardian) stood there with a shotgun until the villains agreed to do the right thing.

Still, the great gig I have with the New Books Network does include advance review copies of romances as well as more standard historical fiction. Plus even a curmudgeon like me turns her thoughts to the literary equivalent of ice cream when summer rolls around. So for both reasons I was delighted to discover Maya Rodale’s Some Like It Scandalous, the second in her series The Gilded Age Girls Club. The title doesn’t mean what you may think, just as the book has more going for it than you might expect: real characters who have real problems and real reasons to dislike each other, but also genuine strengths and sympathies that in the end pull them together.

In brief, Daisy Swan wants to become a chemist, even though it’s 1883 and that is not the kind of pursuit expected of young society ladies. Daisy has talked her parents into letting her enroll at Barnard (then very new), where she is happily tinkering with recipes for a magical ointment that gives any woman who uses it the perfect complexion. Daisy has also managed to avoid matrimonial plans, reaching the age of twenty-five unattached. She figures she has one more year to go, and she can become an official spinster, supporting herself through her family’s fortune and sales of her ointment.

Alas, as so often happens in novels, Daisy’s plans encounter a sudden deluge of misfortune. Her father’s investment firm is in jeopardy, and her mother resolves to marry Daisy off before the firm can collapse. As Daisy’s bridegroom Mom chooses Theodore Prescott the Third, son of a New York steel magnate and the one person in the world Daisy detests. His beastly friends have been quacking at her ever since Theo dubbed her “Ugly Duck Daisy” when they were teens, and she’s vowed never to forgive him. While Daisy’s mother and Theo’s father exert every effort to promote the match, Daisy proposes a fake engagement, and Theo accepts. After all, they hate each other. What would keep them together?

Quite a few things, as it turns out. It would be churlish to spoil this charming, funny, emotionally rewarding story by giving those plot points away. And there is certainly passion in this novel, which seemed appropriate to me because Daisy has made it clear from the beginning that she doesn’t want to marry anyway. But the best part is watching the hero and heroine find themselves and each other along the way.

Since romance novels tend to go down easy, you may be looking for more when you finish Rodale’s series. So here is a range of other 2019 titles that have landed on my desk, in chronological order of publication: Lynsay Sands, The Wrong Highlander; Sophie Jordan, This Scot of Mine; and Joanna Shupe, The Rogue of Fifth Avenue—all from Avon Books.

And if you’d like to spend the summer taking a stab at writing a romance of your own, not necessarily historical, the editors at Avon Books have produced a workbook full of suggestions to guide you along the way: How to Write a Romance: Or, How to Write Witty Dialogue, Smoldering Love Scenes, and Happily-Ever-Afters

So give it a try. And stop back here. Summer isn’t even half over, so you never know, I may pick up some of those other books before it ends.

Oh, and that title? “Some like it scandalous” has to do with women’s suffrage. To find out what the connection is, you’ll need to read the book.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Literary Fireworks

In the flood of daily news headlines, it is sometimes difficult to remember that there was a time when the US government, if not always its citizens, took pride in welcoming immigrants to these shores. So, although neither I nor anyone else involved in the timing of my latest podcast interview with Adrienne Celt planned the coincidence, it seems somehow appropriate to feature a novel that traces the divergent but ultimately converging life histories of three migrants.

In this case, the force driving the characters’ decision to leave their homeland is the chaos created by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the formation of the new Bolshevik regime. 

Lev Orlov—explicitly inspired by the well-known author Vladimir Nabokov, here recast as a writer of science fiction—and his wife, Vera, flee the disintegrating Russian Empire because their aristocratic backgrounds leave them without a place in the land of their birth. They are “former people,” in the language of the 1920s.

Zoya Andropova, in contrast, should have no trouble fitting into the new Soviet Union. A peasant by birth, she is the daughter of a revolutionary and a loyal member of the Young Pioneers. But the October Revolution, like the French Revolution before it, proved all too willing to eat its own children. When Zoya’s mother dies and her father disappears (i.e., is shot by the state), Zoya ends up in an orphanage. A US charity intervenes and sweeps her off to the New World. And there, in due course, Zoya’s trajectory intersects with that of the Orlovs—producing, not to put too fine a point on it, fireworks worthy of the Fourth of July.

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

Zoya Andropova—soon to be known in her adopted country as Zoë Andropov—didn’t ask to be rescued from her Soviet orphanage, even after the arrest of her father, a strong supporter of the very regime that has now taken his life. But rescued she is, by well-meaning Americans, who soon dump her at a wealthy boarding school where she struggles to retain far more than her name. She takes refuge in literature, in particular by the émigré writer Lev (Leo) Orlov, whose science fiction transports her to more satisfying times and places.

So perhaps it is no surprise that when Orlov shows up to teach at the school where Zoya, having nowhere else to go, has moved from student to worker, she tumbles into love with him, ignoring both his advances to the other girls and his very present and controlling wife, Vera. Zoya charts the evolution of this romantic triangle in her diary, which we read, interspersed with letters from Lev to Vera.

As Adrienne Celt notes early on, Invitation to a Bonfire (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018) is inspired by the life of the well-known Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov. But as the story builds, it leaves the details of Nabokov’s life and marriage behind, roaring out of a deliberately quiet academic beginning until it reaches a place that upends much of what we have believed up to that point.

The Literary Hub chose this interview for its Friday Feature this week, but because of the holiday the staff decided to run the post on Monday, in the expectation of greater traffic. So you can find their transcript and listen to the podcast by clicking on the preceding link.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Revising Real Life

Novelists—as well as screenwriters, playwrights, producers of short stories; in short, writers of all types—often hear that their characters and plots should be realistic. Protagonists and antagonists must, we are told, sound and act like the people we meet on the street. Readers need to understand motivations, experience the story world from the inside, recognize the settings and the characters as something that, if not familiar, is comprehensible.

All of which is true—and yet not true. Because real life is often boring, its meaning obscure. Conversations meander amid a flood of hemming and hawing, slang and trivia; family members retreat behind their cellphones. Random accidents abound: a child leaves the door open, and the dog runs away; a trip to the wrong restaurant causes everyone in the household to fall ill with food poisoning, and as a result the homework doesn’t get finished on time; the power goes out for no apparent reason, interfering with any number of plans.

Fiction can’t afford the luxury of the meaningless event or the repetitive conversation. It needs drive and movement and drama, and above all it needs (most of the time) to make sense. Novels portray daily life, to be sure, but they shouldn’t mimic daily life. The creator of fiction is, by definition, telling a story—with a beginning, a middle, and an end and about characters who (usually) change and grow in ways people often don’t in real life. The story looks like the everyday world and to some extent sounds like it, but it’s real life distilled in a crucible and stripped of its ordinariness, its irrelevancies.

I was forcibly reminded of this point while reading Adrienne Celt’s wonderful Invitation to a Bonfire in preparation for my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview (recorded today, so stay tuned for the exact link sometime after July 4). The book is, as Adrienne Celt admits early on, a homage to the well-known Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov—the author of Lolita, among other works.

Like Nabokov, the lead character, Lev/Leo Orlov, grows up in Russia, leaves the country for Europe to get away from the 1917 revolution, and ends up in the United States. He has a wife named Vera, and in the 1930s he becomes involved in a passionate affair with another woman. Some of the personality traits that characterized Nabokov and his Vera also make their way into the story.

And there the resemblance stops. The real Nabokov reconciled with his wife and died in 1977, after a long and productive life including a fifty-two-year marriage that produced a son. Lev Orlov is not so lucky. We know from the opening page that neither he nor the girl he falls for, Zoya Andropova, will survive the year of their cataclysmic relationship. For a long time, we don’t know why, and we certainly don’t know how, but by the time we reach the end, the whole trajectory is clear. Some characters grow while others don’t, but the dialogue between them and the factors that drive them and the locations where the actions take place are all crystal clear.

Because they have to be. It’s not real life; it’s fiction, and fiction doesn’t have time for loose ends. It has—it must have—a vivid, engrossing story to tell, packed with action and emotion. Otherwise, why would we read it?

Photograph of the Nabokovs' shared burial site in Switzerland by Gorodilova, 2009, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Ah, Summer

I have, I must admit, an ambivalent relationship with summer, which arrived to little fanfare this morning. In terms of temperature, I much prefer spring and fall, so much brisker and more focused with their rapid changes in the garden, their warm days and cool nights. With luck, I can go days or weeks without needing either artificial heat or air conditioning. Whereas the minute the outside temperature tops seventy-five, my loft office becomes unbearably hot and muggy, to the point where just staying awake is a challenge without running either a fan or AC.

Yet for all that, there are things I love about summer—quite a lot of them, in fact. The long, lazy days; the opportunity to disappear into my writing cave without raising eyebrows; the slower pace caused by this person, then that, going off for a week or a month; the drop-off in books piling up; the fresh vegetables and light, airy clothes—every year I feel as if I’m releasing a huge sigh of relief and recharging my mental batteries for autumn, sure to roll in soon enough and kick me back into action.

So, what are my plans for the more relaxed months gathering on the horizon? Mostly to write: I want to finish and typeset Song of the Shaman, then make real progress on Song of the Sisters. With lots of nice, quiet weekends and two ten-day stretches off, I shouldn’t have much trouble getting where I want to go—especially since I don’t really care how far that is. And of course, in the writing category, I’ll still be posting here every Friday, rain or shine.

I’m also meeting in person with P. K. Adams in a few days to discuss that joint project I keep dangling here on the blog. Not sure whether we will start writing this summer, but I think we’ll have a firm plan and most of the prep work by Labor Day. That outline I posted about a couple of weeks back has generated a bunch of new ideas and directions, so we’ll see what happens.

By the way, I promised to let you know when her latest novel went up for preorder. That has since happened, and you can find the Kindle edition of Silent Water on Amazon. The print edition will be released on August 6, which, coincidentally, is the same day as G. P. Gottlieb’s new mystery, Battered, mentioned in passing below.

Summer wouldn’t be much fun without beach reads—even in the absence of a beach—so I have at least four interviews scheduled for New Books in Historical Fiction (with most of the reading already done!), as well as one with G. P. Gottlieb for New Books in Literature, where she gets to be the guest and talk about her new novel, Battered: A Whipped and Sipped Mystery. I have a couple of smart-looking historical romances I plan to read and review for this blog, as well as a couple of books due out later in the summer where I will do either a written Q&A with the author or just a spotlight on the novel. And I’m about to start a final run-through on the first book in Gabrielle Mathieu’s new series, Girl of Fire (Berona’s Quest 1), which Five Directions Press hopes to bring out in late summer/early fall.

So I expect to have plenty of fun things to occupy my time, despite the laid-back loveliness of the next few months. No doubt, fall will be here before I know it, and I’ll be hauling out the sweaters and relishing the chill in the air. But for now, it’s summer, and I plan to enjoy every warm and light-filled minute. What about you?

Images on subscription from