Friday, October 16, 2020

Life along the Rivers

A budding opera star, a gifted painter—the hero and heroine of Joan Schweighardt’s latest novel, River Aria, out this week from Five Directions Press—seem destined for a star-studded future. But life is not so simple for these two immigrants from Brazil to Jazz Age New York. Estela and JoJo face poverty and prejudice and family dysfunction; they have to make ends meet in ways that have little to do with music or art. And both harbor secrets that threaten to rip apart their dreams of happiness.

Joan Schweighardt fills you in on these and other elements of her new book, which concludes her Rivers Trilogy. Read on to find out more. And to learn about the earlier books in this intensely dramatic series, listen to my interview with Joan at New Books in Historical Fiction.


In this novel, your main character is Estela. How would you describe her?

Estela is born in 1910 and raised by her Amerindian/European mother in the city of Manaus, Brazil. To some extent, we are all products of where we are from, but in Estela’s case, her physical surroundings are particularly essential to any description of her. Before the South American rubber boom, which began in the late 1800s, Manaus was a small fishing village on the Amazon River in the middle of the world’s largest rainforest. When the demand for rubber became urgent (because of the advent of the automobile), entrepreneurs from all over Europe descended on Manaus and made it the hub for the rubber industry. Since there was nothing there, they had to import construction materials and quickly build mansions, hotels, restaurants, schools, etc. The centerpiece of their construction was the Teatro Amazonas, a magnificent opera house built to attract elite performers. But then the rubber boom ended abruptly in 1912, just a few years after Estela’s birth, and the Europeans fled. The city—with the exception of the Teatro Amazonas—reverted to a state of decrepitude and its peasant population into a state of poverty.

A twist of fate saves Estela from spending her life repairing fishing nets. When she is ten, a Portuguese voice and music instructor comes to Manaus, and seeing the gold dome of the Teatro Amazonas shining high above the gloom of desertion that mars the rest of the city, he decides to stay and instruct a handful of “river brats” in music, opera, and more. The city officials allow him to use the grand lobby of the Teatro Amazonas for his lessons. In this way, Estela receives an elite education and grows up to be a young woman both worldly wise and bound to the mythologies of her indigenous ancestors.

And what of JoJo? Who is he, both in relation to Estela and as himself?

Estela’s mother and JoJo’s mother are the best of friends and, for various reasons that become clear in the early chapters of the book, they raise their children as cousins. But while Estela is enjoying learning about the world in the lobby of the Teatro Amazonas, JoJo quits school at an early age because his grandfather, a fisherman, becomes sick and JoJo is needed to take his place on the fishing boat. JoJo opts not to return to school even after his grandfather recovers, because working on the boat affords him more time to draw and paint.

Why do Estela and JoJo decide to leave Brazil for New York?

Estela’s music instructor knows the managers at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Thinking Estela’s talents are worthy of the stage, he writes to them on her behalf, asking them to consider her as a chorister. In response, they offer Estela a job working in the sewing room. Estela is able to obtain travel papers, in this time (not unlike ours) when immigrants with darker skin are unwanted, only because her birth registration shows that she has an American father. JoJo, whose papers confirm that he too has some American blood, travels with her, ostensibly to attend an art school but in truth to learn more about his parentage.

As happens to many immigrants, the United States doesn’t quite meet their expectations—and that’s true of New York City in particular. What do they find when they at last reach their destination?

Estela has been invited to spend her first nights across the Hudson River, in the town of Hoboken, New Jersey, with her father and his wife, whom she has met only once before. JoJo had expected to go with her, but due to the nature of an argument he and Estela have while still on the ship, he opts instead to take his chances on the streets of New York. He spends his first night with several other homeless men, outdoors behind an abandoned building, with only a barrel fire and a few borrowed blankets to keep him warm. Their circumstances at this early stage are emblematic of the obstacles they will encounter from then on.  Estela will be offered more than she cares to accept; JoJo will need to employ his ample street smarts if he’s going to survive.

The story takes place in 1928–1929. What drew you to this particular time period? How did you research it—especially the operatic scene that is so much a part of Estela’s life, even if not in quite the way she expected?

While River Aria can easily be read as a standalone novel, it is also the third book in a trilogy which begins in 1908 and moves back and forth between the locations of Hoboken, New Jersey, and Manaus, Brazil. Book 2 (Gifts for the Dead) having ended in the first part of 1928, it follows that River Aria could start just after; it begins in the last months of 1928.

As part of my research, I visited the Teatro Amazonas in Brazil, but I could not visit the Metropolitan Opera House that Estela would have worked at on Broadway in New York because that Met location no longer exists. The property was sold in 1966 and razed in 1967 and now supports a forty-story office tower. The Metropolitan Opera, meanwhile, was relocated to Lincoln Center in New York. Since I was not able to visit the old Met, I went to the new one and had a great backstage tour that included time in a long hallway filled with black-and-white photographs from the old Met. My tour guide was an older gentleman who once worked in and remembered the old Met and was willing to answer my many questions about how things had been done then. And, of course, I read books about the old Met. Although I have only attended one opera in my life (La Traviata at the Met at Lincoln Center), I have watched operas on DVD and even YouTube.

This is the third and last novel in your Rivers series. How do you feel about saying goodbye to this world and these characters?

I’ve written quite a lot of books in my life—my own and books I’ve ghostwritten for clients. Each book is a unique journey for me. This last project—these three novels with the same characters (give or take one or two) in the early part of the twentieth century, traveling back and forth between New York and Brazil and covering some of the most astonishing historical moments of the times in both locations—has been an extraordinarily intense literary experience. I have been immersed in it for years now. I made two trips to South America during the writing of the books; I spent time deep in the rain forest with indigenous tribal people; I traveled on the Amazon and some of its tributaries with a guide. I read and read and read. I learned so much.

Estela, who is very dramatic, is fond of saying, My heart is broken; my heart is broken. I fear I may be saying that myself in the weeks and months to come.

Where does your writing path take you next?

I want to write something about my sister, who lived an extraordinary life and died too young. I will also be working on some projects with other writers—anthologies, that sort of thing.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Thank you!

Joan Schweighardt is the author of eight novels, a memoir, two children’s books, and various magazine articles. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Find out more about her at


Friday, October 9, 2020

Romance, Murder, and Politics in Renaissance Poland

I’ve written before about P.K. Adams’s Jagiellonian Mystery series and how much I enjoy reading a fast-paced detective story set not in the well-traveled (fictionally speaking) halls of sixteenth-century Western Europe but in Renaissance Poland-Lithuania, a time and place much closer to my own area of historical interest.

When the first book, Silent Water, came out in the summer of 2019, I interviewed the author on this blog. You can find out more about the genesis of the series and its setting in that interview.

But when Jagiellon Mystery no. 2, Midnight Fire, appeared this month, it seemed like a good time to reach out to people who prefer to listen to interviews while they’re working or exercising or just letting off steam. Hence my latest New Books in Historical Fiction podcast episode, which explores some of the same territory as the written Q&A but extends the story forward by twenty-five years, just as the series takes a leap from 1518–1520 to 1545.

So read on to find out more, and stay tuned for future announcements about the joint murder mystery that P. K. and I have produced and hope to see published over the course of the next year or two. Yes, as I’ve mentioned before, we decided it was too good a coincidence to waste—she knowing a lot about sixteenth-century Poland and I about sixteenth-century Russia. Magical things can happen if you take a ride outside your comfort zone, and reading about Bona Sforza and her troubled relationship with her son, Zygmunt August, is one place to start.

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

Most novels about the sixteenth century written in English take place in Italy, France, or England—with the occasional foray into Spain or Portugal. P. K. Adams’ Jagiellonian Mystery series is a welcome exception. Set at the glittering Italianate court of King Zygmunt I of Poland/Lithuania and his son, Zygmunt August, these books map fictional plots onto real historical incidents to create fast-paced, fluid stories that are as much about the tensions of a culture in transition as what drives a person to commit murder.

In Midnight Fire (Iron Knight Press, 2020), the heroine, Caterina Konarska (formerly Sanseverino) returns to Zygmunt I’s court twenty-five years after the events of Silent Water, the first book in the series. Caterina and her husband undertake the long journey from Italy in search of a cure for their young son, Giulio, who suffers from mysterious fevers that have stumped the doctors in Bari.

In Kraków Caterina discovers a court far different from the one she left a quarter-century before. The old king is dying; his wife, Bona Sforza of Milan and Bari, struggles to hold on to power; and their son, Zygmunt August, threatens to cause an international scandal by marrying his beautiful but disreputable Lithuanian mistress, Barbara Radziwiłł.

Queen Bona offers Caterina a deal: persuade Zygmunt August to give up Barbara, and Bona will arrange an appointment for Giulio with Poland’s premier physician. Seeing no alternative, Caterina accepts. But as she sets off for Vilnius with her son, she has no idea of the danger she faces or the layers of treachery she will encounter in Zygmunt August’s Renaissance palace.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Unknown Degas

A run-down house, an old diary offering insights into late nineteenth-century social life, a boyfriend with secrets, and a young heroine graduating from college on the brink of the Second Wave of the Women’s Liberation Movement, in a decade almost as dramatic as our present—these ingredients intertwine with the historically attested but little-known story of the painter Edgar Degas’s visit with the New Orleans branch of his family in Linda Stewart Henley’s sparkling debut novel Estelle.

In our New Books Network interview, Henley reveals how she found out about Degas’s journey and researched his family relationships. We also talk about how she became a fiction writer, why she added the more contemporary angle, how New Orleans itself has changed over time, and what made this short period in Degas’s life so crucial to his development as an artist. So read on to get a sense of the story, then listen to the interview.

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

Most people think of Edgar Degas as a French painter of ballerinas. But few have heard that his mother came from New Orleans or that he spent five months in the city between October 1872 and February 1873. That five-month period proved crucial to Degas’s career, moving him from the status of a relative unknown dabbling in the not-quite-respectable world of the Paris Opera into an artist of renown. And although he went back to painting ballerinas—many of his most famous works date from 1873 and later—it was his study of his brothers, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, that won him the critical acclaim that pushed him into the next stage of his career.

In Estelle (She Writes Press, 2020), Linda Stewart Henley takes this vital transition as her starting point for a dual-time story in which a young woman named Anne Gautier, twenty-two years old and fresh out of college, inherits an old house on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans in 1970. While overseeing renovations and dealing with protestors opposed to urban renewal that displaces the poor, Anne discovers an old journal that sheds light on Degas, his friends and family and sojourn in the city—in a house just down the street from hers. Her attempts to uncover more information reveal mysteries both personal and artistic, and soon Anne must tackle some very basic questions regarding what she wants from life.

Interspersed with Anne’s story is the narrative of Degas’s sister-in-law, the Estelle of the title, as she welcomes her visiting brother-in-law and observes his adjustment to family life. Estelle has troubles of her own: she’s pregnant with her third child, she’s losing her eyesight, and her marriage suffers as the family cotton business struggles to stay afloat in the aftermath of the US Civil War. Yet she perseveres, and these relatively quiet domestic scenes contrast well with Anne’s more dramatic conflicts and with the occasional diary entries reproduced from the journal Anne has discovered. The end result is a thoroughly enjoyable tale of the changing fortunes of a great city and the life of an artist, told through the perspectives of three women governed by expectations that are in some ways quite similar, although the options available to them are not similar at all.

Image: Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Interview with Clare McHugh

I love a good novel about Tudors or Windsors as much as the next person. But I also admire—and enjoy books by—novelists who go beyond the “short list” of literary favorites to explore the lives of often undeservedly ignored historical figures. Princess Vicky, the eldest daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, is one such personage. Raised in the knowledge that, no matter how competent or knowledgeable she might be, she would probably never have the opportunity to fill her mother’s shoes, Vicky entered into a typical royal marriage and did her best to cope with the expectations of a country that had little use for her strong personality or her liberal ideas. It is in some ways not a happy story, but as told by Clare McHugh in A Most English Princess, it is both a compelling and a rewarding one.


 Clare was kind enough to answer my questions about her book and how she came to produce it. Read on to find out more.

A Most English Princess is your first novel. How did you get into writing fiction?

I have a dog-eared copy of John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist that I read repeatedly and carried around for years. But I struggled to believe that I could write a decent book: I revere too many authors. The abrupt end of my career as a magazine editor made me think: if not now, when? I just jumped in. I was lucky to find a good teacher and a good editor who helped me a lot. Fiction is very different from journalism, which I practiced for thirty years.

And what drew you to the story of Princess Vicky?

Like Vicky, I am the eldest in my family and have a brother just a year younger. I could relate to how painful it would be to be passed over—as she was for the throne—because she was considered “lesser,” a girl. It’s a good thing that the law was changed after Prince William married Kate Middleton, and now the eldest child of either sex inherits. It’s interesting to note that Vicky was the last person passed over because she was female. The monarchs since Victoria either had boys first, or in the case of the current queen’s father, only girls.

When we first meet Vicky, she is at the end of her life and the empress of Germany. What made you decide to start there?

I aimed to heighten the stakes by showing readers that this is not a happily-ever-after story, and that Vicky, a very privileged person, had to cope with some terrible disappointments. Being a princess is not all it’s cracked up to be, even in the old days. I also wanted to contrast her relationship with her surrogate son, her godson Fritz Ponsonby, and her actual son, Kaiser Wilhelm. The former revered her, and the latter opposed her. How did that come about? I hoped readers would be intrigued by this question and read on.

We soon go back in time and encounter Vicky as a young girl. How would you describe her, and what is the basis of her grievance against her brother Bertie?

Vicky was a very confident, very talkative, very bossy little girl. As a child she was well aware she was the superior student and physically more able than her younger brother—she could ride, swim, and climb better than he. Bertie struggled, especially in the schoolroom. Today, we would describe Bertie as having mild learning disabilities. But Bertie had a very affectionate personality, and while Vicky thought she would be a better heir and as the eldest deserved the throne, when she was a young child it was explained to her why that could not be. After that she contented herself with telling Bertie what to do and recruiting him for various games of her own devising. They were good friends their whole lives long except when politics interfered!

How does Vicky relate to her famous parents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert?

It was a tricky dynamic between the three of them. Prince Albert adored Vicky and showered her with praise and attention. Queen Victoria often felt jealous, and it’s hard to blame her because Prince Albert was in the habit of scolding his wife for her perceived shortcomings! But after Vicky left home, she and her mother became very close, exchanging letters several times a week, as they commiserated on the challenges of royal life, Vicky’s difficult in-laws, and the raising of many children.

And how does Vicky get to Prussia? What are the highlights (or low lights) of her experience there? What makes her story “tragic,” to quote your book description?

Vicky marries Fritz, the heir to the Prussian throne, and moves to Berlin with him, but from the very first the Prussian royal family treats Vicky badly. In some ways it echoes what happened between Meghan Markle and the British royals—a bad fit. Vicky was a liberal, trained by her father to believe in democratic government, freedom of speech and religion, and more rights for women. Not only did many Prussians disagree with these ideas, they resented that this teenage princess presumed she could arrive and tell them how to run their country. And Vicky sometimes lacked tact. But her predicament was made much worse by bad luck. Her and Fritz’s firstborn son was born with a withered arm, the Prussian government was taken over by the autocratic Otto von Bismarck, who was deeply suspicious of Vicky, and then three wars made Prussia the dominant power in Germany. The German nation was united under a very militaristic and bellicose Prussian regime, and Vicky’s damaged son was subsumed into this nationalistic atmosphere, rejecting the liberal ideas of his parents. The whole world suffered because of the way history played out in this family, in this country.

This book has just come out. Are you already working on something new?
I am toggling between two things. I am outlining a second book about Vicky, concerning her husband’s ninety-nine-day reign as Kaiser, and her efforts to protect him and advance his liberal ideas. I will go forward with it if readers seem to like Vicky. I am also writing a historical novel set in 1970s and 1980s America, a period I know much about first hand.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Before turning to fiction, Clare McHugh worked as a journalist, magazine editor, and history teacher. Born in London, she grew up in the United States and graduated from Harvard with a degree in European history. A Most English Princess is her first novel. Follow her on Twitter (@Claremch) and check out her website for blog posts, details of her research into the royal families of Britain and Germany, and her book reviews of both fiction and nonfiction.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Interview with Heather Bell Adams

When Heather Bell Adams wrote to me suggesting an interview for her new novel, The Good Luck Stone, I have to admit that my first reaction was “Oh, no, not another WWII book!” But in this case, I’m so glad I took the plunge. It’s something of a cliché to say that one can’t put a novel down, yet these characters are so strongly and beautifully portrayed that I couldn’t wait to get back to reading their story. Read on to find out more.

Your first novel, Maranatha Road, appeared in 2017. Could you give us a short summary of that book?

Maranatha Road is about Sadie Caswell, whose son dies shortly before his wedding, and Tinley Greene, the young stranger who shows up claiming she’s pregnant with his child. It’s set in western North Carolina, where I’m from.

The Good Luck Stone just came out. What made you want to tell a story about World War II nurses in the Philippines?

There are so many wonderful World War II stories set in Europe. I wanted to try something different. Obviously, in addition to the European theater, there was a lot happening in the South Pacific, and it’s intriguing to explore how war looks in what otherwise might be considered a tropical paradise.

I did quite a bit of research about the nursing units who served in that area of the world and tried to incorporate historical events as much as I could. As I dug into the research, I was surprised to learn about the Army and Navy nurses who were taken prisoner of war by the Japanese. I knew I wanted to include that piece of history in The Good Luck Stone.

We first meet your main character, Audrey Thorpe, late in life. How would you describe her at this stage of her development?

At ninety years old, Audrey is a society woman in Savannah, Georgia—on all the right boards and committees around town. But she’s beginning to wonder about the legacy she will leave behind, particularly to her great-grandson. This leads her to re-assess the big secret she’s kept since the war. When we first encounter her, nobody knows the real Audrey.

Next we flip back in time. Audrey is landing in the Philippines. By the end of chapter 2, she has met Kat and Penny, forming a relationship that is central to the story. Tell us a bit about the friendship that develops among these three young women. What is their mission and what causes them to bond?

The friendship between Audrey, Kat, and Penny is the central driving force of the narrative. They meet in the bustling capital of Manila at a time when war lurks on the horizon. When they open up to each other about their fears, that vulnerability forms the basis of a meaningful friendship. Of course, as the hardships and sacrifices of war intervene, the promises they’ve made will be sorely tested.

Her family has doubts about Audrey’s ability to take care of herself, which brings Laurel Eaton into the story. She’s very differently situated from Audrey. What can you tell us about her?

Laurel, a middle-aged mother, is a bit down on her luck when we first meet her. She’s so grateful to be hired as Audrey’s caretaker and, much to her surprise, the two women seem to bond, despite their difference in circumstances. Laurel clashes a bit with her husband, who cautions her not to get in too deep.

It’s a devastating blow when Laurel arrives at Audrey’s mansion one day to find that the older woman has disappeared. Originally, I had that scene as a prologue, but my agent convinced me to keep the narrative chronological, which I believe was absolutely the right choice.

Dual-time stories can be difficult to handle, because the historical plot so often outweighs the contemporary one in terms of dramatic tension. That’s not true in this case. Without giving away spoilers, can you hint at how the two narratives intertwine?

Thank you so much for saying that! It’s something I worked hard on, trying to keep both narratives interesting. I always admire that as a reader when I pick up a dual timeline story.

In The Good Luck Stone, the past and present intertwine when Audrey’s secret from the war begins to unravel. As Laurel sets out to look for her, she’ll discover that the real Audrey Thorpe is not the same woman who appears in the society pages.

As I worked on the first draft, I realized that the theme of friendship was revealing itself in the present-day timeline as well, in the sense that Laurel and Audrey have the opportunity to become much more than employer/employee.

Also, Laurel’s ten-year-old son, Oliver, is attending a new school and he’s understandably concerned with how to make friends. Along the way, he learns something about that from watching his mother interact with Audrey. I didn’t necessarily plan this subplot, but I was delighted as it developed.

Are you already working on something new?

Yes, I’m working on a third novel, which is set in western North Carolina and (at least for now) revolves around a reclusive artist. I’m excited about it—and definitely thankful to have writing as an outlet during these unsettling times.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Heather Bell Adams is the award-winning author of the novels Maranatha Road and The Good Luck Stone. Her short stories and literary scholarship have appeared in numerous literary magazines and reviews. A native of Hendersonville, North Carolina, she lives in Raleigh, where she works as a lawyer.