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.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Off to the Races

With Song of the Siren (Songs of Steppe & Forest 1) making its way in the world, and Songs 2 with its beta readers, waiting for critique and a final polish (or three), I have time on my hands to consider what’s next in this series. From the moment I started this project, I knew that I wanted to write at least one novel about the two Sheremetev sisters, linked to Nasan in several ways but most simply by having lived next door to her throughout most of her time in Moscow.

Indeed, the inspiration to tell their story was what caused me to undertake Songs of Steppe & Forest in the first place, even if I then chose to explore the lives of Juliana and Grusha first. So theirs was the book I sat down to plan as soon as I had sent Song of the Shaman off by print and e-mail.

Now, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, “plan” is something of a misnomer when it comes to my writing. Whether I put a lot of work into the planning stage or hardly any, when I sit down at my computer, the same thing happens: the story takes on a life of its own, and within five pages (on average), the characters have headed off happily in whatever direction pleases them while I watch, listen, and record.

That said, these days I do find it useful to construct a set of character profiles and a list of potential story events before diving in. Not because I know who my people really are or how they’ll get where they’re going—what fun is that?—but because it helps to have an ongoing sense of where they’ll end up and some reminders of what’s happening in the historical background so that if they head off into the woods and get lost, I can haul them out again in short order.

It’s also easier to see, when a story is a list of eighteen to twenty events instead of 300 pages, whether it has enough conflict and drama to sustain a novel. Same thing with the characters: if their goals are weak or poorly defined and their personalities one-sided, they need more work even before they get a chance to strut their stuff on the page.

So for the last couple of weekends, this is what I’ve been doing with Songs 3—and, as it turns out, Songs 4, because I realized early on that the book would become too complicated and diffuse if I had to follow both sisters at the same time, especially if I attempted overlapping first-person narratives. Hence Song of the Sisters (3) will set up a series of conflicts, of which it will resolve about half. The rest can percolate into the newly titled sequel, Song of the Sinner, and find their resolution there.

Which brings me to what I’ve discovered about the Sheremetev sisters so far. The older sister—Solomonida, now thirty-one—appeared quite often in bit parts throughout Legends of the Five Directions, so readers of that series will recognize her. After a disastrous marriage to Daniil Kolychev’s brutish cousin Semyon, Solomonida secured a divorce when Semyon fell foul of the government, and ever since she’s been refusing to enter a convent—the proper fate of a divorced or widowed woman in her culture. Her excuse is that she needs to bring up her daughter, Anna, and see her suitably settled, but the truth is that Solomonida hasn’t the slightest interest in taking monastic vows and never will.

Not so her half-sister Darya, who has successfully dodged one potential marriage partner and has devoted her last five years to caring for her and Solomonida’s bedridden father. She won’t be as familiar to readers, as she made only a cameo appearance in The Golden Lynx. Here, with her father gone, a male cousin shows up at the door intent on taking possession of the sisters’ estate. He’s determined to marry Darya off, even if it means wedding her himself, and she can attain her dearest wish—the opposite of Solomonida’s, for Darya longs to become a nun—only if she defies a lifetime of training in the virtues of female obedience. Even Solomonida can’t understand why Darya would prefer to retire from the world, and the one person in whom she does confide turns out to have ulterior motives.

Is that enough to get started, even with the addition of the complicated politics roiling the Russian court in the summer and fall of 1543? I think not quite. A heroine who refuses to speak up for herself, even in defense of her own best interests, strikes me as too passive to carry a book. If nothing else, there’s a danger she’ll bore me to tears. So even though I’ve written an opening scene, I have a few more rounds of character wrestling to do before I really stand back and let the imaginary people take over. But it won’t be long, because I can already sense them chomping at the bit, eager to hear the sound of the gate releasing them to race. And if they turn out like Juliana and Grusha, I can expect them to give me quite a run for my money.

If any of you missed my post on Elena Glinskaya, her death, and the surprising results of her recent exhumation, it went up again this week on the history blog Not Even Past. Big thanks to Joan Neuberger, who runs the site, and from whom you’ll hear more next week.

And thanks, too, to G. P. Gottlieb, who interviewed me today for New Books in Literature. Stay tuned for that link, where you can find out more about Song of the Siren, as well as some of its predecessors.

Images: Konstantin Makovsky, The Young Nun; Sergei Solomko, Young Woman in a Hat; and Sergei Solomko, In Pursuit of Happiness, all public domain via

Friday, March 8, 2019

Familiar Spirits

A late and short post today, due to the combination of a manuscript that had to get done (work, not novel-related) and the dreaded annual performance self-assessment, transferred to the Web this year for maximum inconvenience. I love almost every part of my job, but filling in meaningless forms is one element I can do without. It’s not as if the people I work with will fail to notice if I suddenly go AWOL and nothing gets done.

Still, I did have some fun this week—in addition to the manuscript, which was fascinating, and an interview with Joan Neuberger about her new book on Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible film trilogy, which should go up on New Books in Historical Fiction sometime next week or the week after.

On which, the Literary Hub put up a transcript of last week’s interview with Kate Quinn just yesterday, and you can find that here: . Wonderful picture of the Soviet women pilots who play such an important role in Quinn’s book.

 But the main point of today’s post is Stacey Halls’ new book, The Familiars, released on February 19. (The same day as Song of the Siren, as it happens.) It looks at what we might consider the British equivalent of the Salem Witch Trials, held in or near Pendle Hill in Lancashire, in 1612, and it asks a question to which anyone with a knowledge of Stalin’s show trials can relate: Why would someone confess to a crime that she knows will lead to her execution? Did the witches really believe in their own power? Did they just give in to outside pressure or despair at the certain knowledge that they could not expect acquittal? Were threats made against those they loved?

The story is told from the perspective of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a historical character who although she has been married for several years (despite being only seventeen) and has started three pregnancies, has not given birth to a living child. Now she is pregnant again, and she comes across a letter from her doctor to her husband, warning him that this, her fourth pregnancy, will kill her.

Understandably distraught, Fleetwood runs from the house. In her own woods, she encounters a young woman named Alice Gray, a skilled midwife and herbalist who agrees to help Fleetwood birth her child without sacrificing her own life. But as accusations of witchcraft sweep up the local wise women and a friend of Fleetwood’s husband takes it as his mission to stamp out all potential witches in the area, Alice’s skill with plants brings her under suspicion.

As neighbors and family members turn against one another, the situation becomes ever more dangerous. Even Fleetwood’s relationship with her dog leaves her open to accusations of consorting with a “familiar”—a servant of the Devil in animal form. When Alice is arrested, Fleetwood fights to save her, but the odds are stacked against them. And as Fleetwood’s pregnancy develops, her already troubled marriage continues to disintegrate.

This beautifully written debut novel asks hard questions, but its style is fluid and compelling, its characters—especially Fleetwood and Alice—sympathetic with no trace of sentiment. Definitely a find.

My thanks to Shara Alexander of MIRA Books, who sent me a review copy of this novel with no obligation on me to post a review. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

And to all my female readers, Happy International Women’s Day!

Friday, March 1, 2019

Hunters and Hunted

To find a new angle on a topic as saturated with fictional and nonfictional treatments as World War II is a challenge for any author. As Kate Quinn mentions during my most recent New Books in Historical Fiction interview, the war is garnering a great deal of attention at the moment, perhaps because the last members of the generation that lived and fought through it are passing away.

It’s all the more remarkable, therefore, that Quinn does uncover such an angle in her latest novel, The Huntress, released earlier this week. In fact, it would be fair to say that she uncovers three or four different angles, which perhaps explains why her book provides such a good read.

The first detour from conventional approaches to World War II is Quinn’s decision to focus on a female war criminal, not one of the usual leaders or even camp guards, and to pick up her story at the moment when she goes on the run to escape arrest and prosecution at Nuremberg. After an initial short scene from the point of view of this character, the Huntress of the title, we move to the perspective of Jordan, a seventeen-year-old American presented with a new stepmother and stepsister. It’s 1946, and Jordan, a typical American schoolgirl with no direct experience of the war—or, indeed, much experience of life—represents another new angle on the story.

Jordan’s new family members appear to conceal more than a few secrets and sometimes behave in puzzling ways. But what fugitive from the war zone doesn’t have memories she’d rather forget? And the new stepmother is, on the whole, loving and kind. She revitalizes Jordan’s lonely father and even supports Jordan’s own desire to attend college and become a photographer. The new stepsister is even more adorable, winning Jordan’s heart from the moment of their first meeting. Jordan chides herself for her suspicious nature and tries to push her sense of something “off” into a back corner of her mind where it belongs.

This brings me to the third and fourth elements that set this novel apart. From Jordan’s introduction to her new stepmother, we move forward four years to make the acquaintance of Ian Graham, a British war correspondent turned war crimes investigator, who’s intent on tracking down the Huntress and bringing her to justice, not least for the murder of his brother. He receives assistance from his green-card wife, Nina Markova—a former lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force bomber regiment known to its enemies as the Night Witches. Because Nina, it turns out, is the only survivor of the Huntress’s atrocities and thus the only person who can identify their quarry by sight. And how that happened takes us back to Nina’s girlhood on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia and forward through her military career and the sequence of events that lead to her encounter with the Huntress.

To say more would be to give away too many details of this wonderfully complex and beautifully realized story. Suffice it to say that the overlapping threads all come together in a satisfying conclusion. So listen to the interview, read the transcript, and most of all, buy the book. You won’t regret it.

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

When we think of World War II, we envision a catastrophe of massive proportions: millions killed in concentration camps, on the battlefield, during bombing raids and in the nuclear explosions that ended the war. But World War II can also be seen as a vast collection of small catastrophes—a dozen executions or experiments here, a casual act of antisemitism or cruelty there—committed by otherwise ordinary people who either had no moral compass to start with or lost their bearings in an environment that brought out the worst in them. That insight drives The Huntress (William Morrow, 2019), Kate Quinn’s fast-moving, compelling mystery about Nazi hunters in the decade after VJ Day.

Ian Graham, a British war correspondent, is chasing an escaped Nazi known only as die J├Ągerin, the Huntress. He is determined to see her tried for her crimes, and his motives are both professional and personal: she murdered his younger brother, as well as a dozen Polish children. With the help of the intrepid Nina Markova, former lieutenant of the Night Witches and the only survivor who can identify the Huntress by sight, Ian follows his quarry’s trail across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, in Boston, seventeen-year-old Jordan McBride welcomes Anneliese, soon renamed Anna—the love interest her lonely father brings home. A budding photographer, Jordan wants first and foremost to go to college, a goal that Anna supports but Jordan’s father overrules. He considers higher education unnecessary for a young woman in 1946, especially one with marriage plans in her future. But the camera does not lie, and Jordan’s photographs soon raise questions about what Anna really left behind when she fled Europe the year before. And before long, Jordan has to wonder why Anna seems so eager to get her new stepdaughter out of the house.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Black Ascot

If there’s one thing better than finding a new author you love, it’s discovering an author you love who’s written a good number of novels already. So it is with The Black Ascot (William Morrow Books, 2019) and the mother/son team writing under the pen name Charles Todd, who somehow escaped my attention all these years despite their having produced more than thirty books, most of them mysteries and many of those historical.

Now, no offense to my own mother and son, but writing a book with either a parent or a child is the last thing I can imagine wanting to do. More power to Charles Todd that they pull it off so well. 

The story opens in June 1910, at an event later known as the “Black Ascot.” King Edward VII has just died, and to honor his memory, all the attendants at the annual races arrive dressed in mourning clothes. Quite a spectacle in and of itself, but the Ascot Races are just the beginning. We see them from the perspective of one Alan Barrington—also in mourning, but in his case less on behalf of King Edward than for his friend, Mark Thorne, a recent suicide. And perhaps for his friend’s wife, Blanche, whom Barrington loves and who has just married another man.

That makes twice that she’s chosen someone else over Barrington himself. The scene ends with Barrington heading for the parking lot, filled with horse-drawn carriages and motorcars, looking for one vehicle in particular. We soon learn that Blanche doesn’t survive the trip back to London, and her new husband suffers life-threatening and permanent injuries. Blame falls on Barrington, who had both motive and opportunity. But Barrington escapes justice by fleeing abroad.

Fast forward ten years, to January 1921. A Scotland Yard inspector named Ian Rutledge happens on a hostage taking in an English village, which he succeeds in resolving without harm to the victim. In gratitude, the former hostage’s uncle reveals that he saw Alan Barrington recently in Wales. And the hunt is on.

It would be churlish to reveal the many ins and outs of Rutledge’s hunt as he travels around England searching not just for Barrington but for any evidence that Barrington even returned from abroad. Suffice it to say that the mystery is well crafted, tension-producing, and ultimately satisfying: lots of red herrings, but in the end everything comes together, and we feel we knew the answer all along.

The most interesting element, though, is Ian Rutledge himself. A survivor of the Great War, Rutledge suffers from shell shock, a condition we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and understand to be a normal response to wartime events and similarly intense forms of trauma but that was then considered evidence of cowardice or emotional instability. In Rutledge’s case, it manifests as an internal voice he calls Hamish. Hamish was a real person (real inside the novel, that is), a Scotsman who served under Rutledge in the war and never came home yet who lives on in the detective’s mind. Hamish offers warnings and commentary, expressing Rutledge’s instincts and suspicions, as if delivering messages from the detective’s subconscious. Not that Rutledge himself thinks in such Freudian terms—historical sensitivity is a hallmark of this book—but as readers we recognize that possibility.

It’s a device that gives an appealing complexity to a character who could easily be flat: the quintessential English gentleman, with his repressed emotions and public-school education, his scruples and intellect. And it reveals the level of insight that this pair of authors has into not only their plot but their characters—so often an afterthought in detective fiction. I will definitely be reading more Ian Rutledge mysteries.

Many thanks to Danielle Bartlett of William Morrow Books, who sent me a review copy of this book. There was, however, no obligation on me to post a review, and as always, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

And for my own readers, let me also announce with many thanks to Five Directions Press that as of yesterday, Song of the Siren, the first of my new Songs of Steppe & Forest, is available in print and on Kindle. Just click the link to purchase, or check out the publisher’s book page for a description, endorsements, and audio and print excerpts first.