Friday, November 8, 2019

Interview with Georgie Blalock

Last night, for the first time, I watched the Netflix TV series The Crown, which explores the reign of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, starting with her marriage to Prince Philip in 1947. Although the third season doesn’t start for a couple of weeks, word has it that it will pay particularly close attention to the queen’s fraying relationship with her sister, Princess Margaret. But Margaret and her scandalous involvement with Group Captain Peter Townsend, a divorced former RAF pilot who served as her father’s equerry, is already on-screen in season 1. (Note that the scandal had as much to do with his divorce as his romance with the princess—times were different then, especially for British royalty.)

All this brings me to the subject of this week’s blog post, my Q&A with Georgie Blalock, whose historical novel, The Other Windsor Girl—based on Princess Margaret’s tumultuous teenage years, including her infatuation with Peter Townsend—came out just this week. On Guy Fawkes Day, no less, which the English celebrate as Americans do Halloween, but with fireworks and parties instead of Trick or Treat. And although Princess Margaret had no plans to blow up Parliament, at the emotional level her activities were at times just as incendiary where Britain’s rather staid royal family was concerned.

That said, I turn over the mike to Georgie Blalock, with many thanks to her for answering my questions. 

Until now, you’ve been writing historical romance under the name Georgie Lee. What made you decide to switch gears, to a degree, and write about Britain’s Princess Margaret?
 

I love history and there are so many different time periods to explore. I switched gears because I wanted to bring to life a new era in a different way than I’ve done in my past novels. Although there is a romance in The Other Windsor Girl, it isn’t a romance novel. It was fun new challenge for me to write in another genre.

Despite that wonderful and evocative title, your protagonist is actually Vera Strathmore, not Princess Margaret. Who is Vera, and how does she get involved in the princess’s Set?  

Vera is a young woman whose life was irrevocably changed when her fiancĂ© was killed in World War II. In the years since the end of the war, Vera has tried and failed to find a new purpose and future. Through her wit and honesty, she catches Princess Margaret’s notice and is invited into the princess’ inner circle and a life she’d never dreamed possible. Her position as second lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret gives Vera a taste of glamour and respect but it comes at the price of great personal sacrifice, and insight into the less regal side of royalty. In the end, the once overlooked Vera must decide whether she wants fame by association or a life of her own making.

One of the interesting elements for me was to realize how traditionally “royal” the Windsors still were at the time of your novel. People can’t leave the party before the princess chooses to leave, for example. They have to call her “Ma’am” even when they’re acting like her drinking buddies. How did you research that culture? Is it still the case, and we just don’t realize it because of the tabloids?
 

I did a lot of research for The Other Windsor Girl. I read books about Princess Margaret, the queen, life in Buckingham Palace, firsthand accounts written by former ladies-in-waiting and equerries and anyone who was an intimate part of the day to day running of Clarence House and the royal households. In 1949, when the novel opens, the royals are still very set in the old ways of doing things. I can’t say whether that’s the way it is now. My research kept me firmly planted in the past, but I have to imagine that with Catherine and Meghan that things are not as formal as they used to be.

Yet despite the generally upper-crust/aristocratic atmosphere, Princess Margaret also surrounds herself with Americans, including a doctor who catches Vera’s eye. Who is he? What’s his role in the story?
 

Dominic, the doctor, is a fictional addition to the princess’s story. He’s a man who understands lineage and family tradition because he comes from a line of doctors. However, his lack of awe at the glamour of royalty provides Vera with a more grounded sense of the world. He challenges Vera to see herself as more than a lady-in-waiting, as a woman who could create a life and future through her own determination and talents.

Vera’s “job” in the story includes observing firsthand Princess Margaret’s love for Lord Peter Townsend and later Anthony Armstrong-Jones. What made you decide to use Vera as your point-of-view character on these events, which are well documented?
 

I decided to use Vera as the point-of-view character because she is close to Margaret but not so close as to see all the very intimate aspects of the princess’s relationships. Her slight distance allows the readers to watch with Vera as the two tragedies unfold and feel her frustration at being unable to stop the princess from being her own worst enemy. Through Vera, I offer readers a new take on how the events of Princess Margaret’s life played out.

What did the Royal Family/household know, if anything, about the novel while you were researching and writing it? What was their reaction? Did you have access to official records?
 

The Royal Family was not aware of my novel and I did not request access to official records. Although the novel is based on real people, places, and events, it is a work of fiction and I wanted the freedom to manipulate the facts to create the story I wanted to tell.

Do you already have another novel in the pipeline?  

My next novel is tentatively titled The Last Debutante. It centers on Valerie de Vere Cole, daughter of the famous prankster Horace de Vere Cole and the niece of Neville Chamberlain. It follows her during her 1939 London debutante season, the last glittering one before the start of World War II. Her unique position as a deb and a resident of No. 10 Downing Street gives her a distinctive view of the world at that moment in time and the coming war. 

 


Georgie Blalock is an amateur historian and movie buff who loves combining her different passions through historical fiction, and a healthy dose of period piece films. When not writing, she can be found prowling the nonfiction history section of the library or the British film listings on Netflix. Georgie writes historical romance under the name Georgie Lee. Find out more about her at http://www.georgieblalock.com.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Long Shadows

I’ve talked before about how World War I was, for almost a century, the “forgotten war.” The combination of sheer bloody-mindedness and posturing that landed the great powers of Europe in the conflict; the horrific loss of life, limbs, and sanity among those who fought; and the sense of pointlessness heightened by the even greater explosion twenty years later left little sense of triumph among survivors. If World War II was perceived as an epic struggle to defeat evil, its predecessor seemed more like a colossal act of miscalculation and folly.

The centennial of 2014–18 has gone a long way to restoring the balance of interest between the great wars, and in fiction many good works have appeared in the last five years. I’ve covered several of them on this blog, including Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye, Cat Winters’ The Uninvited, the story collection Fall of Poppies, Hazel Gaynor’s Dancing at the Savoy,  Gaynor's and Heather Webb's Last Christmas in Paris, and Joan Schweighardt’s Gifts for the Dead. Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, A Single Thread, also examines the aftermath of the war.

Charles Todd, however, occupies a special place in this literary arena. Long before most people paid much attention to the Great War, as it was then known, this mother/son team decided to focus on the experience and effects of the war in two beautifully written mystery series (and a pair of related stand-alone novels). One, featuring Ian Rutledge, examines the long-term effects on the combatants, most notably shell shock. You can find out more about these novels in my post, “The Black Ascot.” I’ll be revisiting Ian in his next adventure when A Divided Loyalty releases in February 2020.

The other set of books, through the persona of Bess Crawford, looks at the ways in which women’s lives and positions were fundamentally altered by the combat. Just as in World War II, women poured into factories, served as nurses, supported the troops in every way open to them—only to be thrown back into lives constricted by marriage, motherhood, and dependency when the fighting ended. As a result, women’s perceptions—and eventually men’s as well—about the capacities of the “fair sex” changed. The loss of an entire generation of young men only accelerated the trend. It’s not easy to stuff the genie back into the bottle, and that was as true in 1918 as it is now. Modern women owe a great deal to their intrepid great-grandmothers, of whom Bess Crawford offers such a good example.

Charles Todd and I talk about all these things and more—including the challenges of collaborating on thirty or more novels—in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction. And as usual, the rest of this post comes from there.


Writing novels—never mind entire series—takes determination, persistence, imagination, and craft. Charles Todd has added to those natural challenges the joys and complications of creating a single persona from a mother/son team. In A Cruel Deception (William Morrow, 2019), the eleventh in their beloved Bess Crawford series, the strengths of their long collaboration are on full display.

Bess, a British nurse, worked with the wounded throughout the First World War. In A Cruel Deception, the war has ended, and Bess faces the future with some trepidation. So it comes almost as a relief when her former matron requests help finding Lawrence Minton, the matron’s son, missing from the peace talks in Paris.

The search goes well, and Bess tracks Minton to a rural farmhouse, where she confronts him with his addiction to laudanum. He wants nothing to do with her efforts to cure him. Despite his refusal to heal, she soldiers on, aided by a young Frenchwoman who loves him. Bess soon realizes that the root of Minton’s troubles lies in the past, but where?

Only then does it become clear that Minton has an enemy, one who will stop at nothing to settle old scores.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Untold Stories

Literary inspiration comes from many places. As Talia Carner explains in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction,  part of the inspiration for her most recent novel, The Third Daughter, came from a collection of short stories written by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. These stories, collectively called Tevye and His Daughters or Tevye the Dairyman, were once the inspiration for the well-known Broadway musical and Hollywood film Fiddler on the Roof.

In the musical, Tevye has five daughters, three of whom seem determined to defy his plans for them. One marries a poor man despite her father’s agreement to contract her to a well-off butcher. A second talks Tevye into accepting her marriage to a Jewish revolutionary, who then ends up in Siberia as a result of his political activities against the tsarist system. A third runs off with a Russian who has won her heart after Tevye refuses to accept her wedding to a gentile.

But what happened to the other two girls? That was the question that started Talia Carner on her journey toward the novel that became The Third Daughter. As tends to happen in fiction, the story changed along the way. The second and third daughters fused into one, and the fifth daughter disappeared altogether, leaving three girls. The Ukrainian pogrom that ends Fiddler on the Roof opens The Third Daughter, as the dairyman and his wife and their one remaining daughter struggle to find a safe place despite having lost most of their household goods. Names are changed, as are details, but the essence of the original story remains—at least in the first chapter or two.

The most striking innovation is Carner’s incorporation of another of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, “The Man from Buenos Aires,” a trader of unspecified goods whose business she matches to the history of Zwi Migdal, a little-known trafficking organization that operated entirely within the law in Argentina from 1870 to 1939. In doing so, she takes a beloved production and turns it into a searing indictment of the brutality inflicted on Jews within the Russian Empire and its consequences, including for women victimized by those willing to profit from their misfortune.

So listen to the interview. Read the Q&A Talia produced for my blog last month. But most of all, read the book. I guarantee you won’t be able to put it down.

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

As revealed by the title of Talia Carner’s latest novel, The Third Daughter (William Morrow, 2019), her heroine, Batya, has two older sisters. Both ran off with men their parents could not tolerate, placing a heavy burden on Batya to compensate for her sisters’ failings by making her parents happy.

When her family is forced to flee its home in a Ukrainian village to escape a pogrom, losing most of its goods, Batya helps out by taking a job at a local tavern. 


There she meets Yitzik Moskowitz, a smooth-talking, well-respected, and obviously well-off visitor who soon convinces Batya’s father to give his third daughter’s hand in marriage. Moskowitz promises to wait two years before making Batya his wife, but he insists she travel with him now, because who knows when he will return to Ukraine?

Although only fourteen, Batya agrees to accompany her future husband on his journey. But after one night on the road, she discovers that what the “Man from Buenos Aires” wants from her has nothing to do with marriage. After a hideous journey across the Atlantic, Batya ends up in an Argentinean brothel, enslaved to the legal trafficking organization Zwi Migdal. For a while, she longs for death. But strong and resilient, she learns to adapt and even finds solace in unexpected places.

Drawing on a series of stories by Sholem Aleichem, some of which became the basis for the popular musical Fiddler on the Roof, this fifth novel by a committed social activist is not always an easy read. But it is an essential and compelling read, not least because despite being set in the late nineteenth century its story is as contemporary as yesterday’s headlines.

Image: Marc Chagall, The Fiddler (1912–13), public domain via Wikimedia Commons. This series of paintings by Chagall inspired the sets of the original Fiddler on the Roof.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Interview with Joan Schweighardt

I love talking with other authors—both for my New Books in Historical Fiction podcasts and here on the blog via the written word. But it’s a special pleasure to host a fellow Five Directions Press author.

I met Joan back in 2016, when I interviewed her about her reissued novel The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. Time went by, she needed a new publisher, and in due course she joined our writers’ coop. As an editor and former publisher, as well as a talented writer, she’s a natural fit for us. And although we didn’t know it at the time, she also has a particular gift for social media. All those lovely articles about books and readers and related matters that show up on our Facebook page come from her.

Best of all, we just published Gifts for the Dead, the second novel in her Rivers trilogy (Before We Died is the first). So read on to find out more about both books.

Gifts for the Dead is a follow-up to your previous novel, Before We Died. Without giving away spoilers, what do we need to know about that first book to understand this new one?

Gifts comes furnished with enough of the relevant info from Before We Died to make it make sense as a standalone novel. Basically readers learn that in the first book, Jack and Baxter Hopper, two young Irish American brothers, leave their jobs as longshoremen on the docks of Hoboken, NJ and travel to the rain forests of South America to become rubber tappers, in the year 1908. They embark on this trip because they are young and adventurous, but also because they are looking for a way to distract themselves from the grief they have suffered since their father’s sudden death in an apartment building fire. And since the rubber boom is in full swing at that time, they believe they can make some quick money too. They are absolutely unprepared for the realities of the rubber tapping industry, which include not only the dangers inherent in working in the deep jungle but also the greed of the barons at the top of the industry hierarchy. As a result of these dangers, Jack Hopper eventually returns to Hoboken—without his brother.

Where are Nora Sweeney and Jack Hopper at the beginning of this novel? What do each of them want, and what keeps them from getting it?

Jack returns from South America so very ill with a combination of jungle diseases and infections that all he really wants in the first pages of Gifts for the Dead is to continue along on his path into oblivion. Nora, who was to have married Baxter, wants Jack to live. Nora has known the Hopper family since childhood, and she is uncommonly close to Maggie, Baxter and Jack’s mother. Maggie has already lost her husband, and now, with Jack’s solo return, it seems she’s lost one son as well. Nora feels that losing Jack would be more than Maggie could bear.

And what about them as individuals? Let’s start with Nora, whose story is told in first person. How would you encapsulate her personality and her background?

Nora’s parents died of consumption when she was four, and she was raised by her Aunt Becky, an advocate for various political issues, particularly workers’ rights. Aunt Becky knows just enough about child rearing to glean that it’s not a good idea to leave a four-year-old alone for hours at a time. As she doesn’t have the money for a sitter, she drags Nora along with her to her various political events from the get-go. Not surprisingly, Nora grows up to be politically oriented herself. When we first meet her, she is a proud suffragette. She is also alone, because as soon as Nora is old enough to manage without a guardian, Aunt Becky flees to Boston to get on with her own life. Nora sees herself as flawed, but also fearless and somewhat invincible. The reader will see her other side as well.

And Jack? What drives him in this book—and in general? What made him the man  he is today?

Even as Jack recovers from his illness, he cannot get over the loss of his brother. And he can’t talk about it either. For one, he is harboring a secret about what actually happened to Baxter in the deep jungle, and he is not ready to share it. For their part, Nora and Maggie have come to respect—or at least tolerate—his reticence, and to imagine that if forced to open up, Jack might fall back into the same mental stupor he was in when he first came home. Jack’s guilt and regret drive the decisions he makes throughout the book. And for all of them, but for Jack in particular, Baxter is always the elephant in the room.

And what drew you to write about the Amazon (that’s the river, not the mega-store) in the early twentieth century?

Two things occurred at about the same time: One, a freelance job I had with a local publisher required me to read a slim diary written by an early twentieth-century rubber tapper, probably the only one in existence. I knew nothing about the rubber boom in South America before then, and I found the information fascinating. And two, around the same time I decided to put aside my fear of snakes and bugs and travel to the rain forests of Ecuador with a group of environmentalists and sustainability advocates. This “perfect storm” was life-changing for me. As soon as I returned from the rain forest I began reading everything I could find about the flora and fauna of Amazonas, the history of rubber in South America, the city of Manaus, Brazil, which was the hub of the rubber boom back then, and on and on. And all the while I was reading, I was imagining the characters I would need for my own retelling of the rubber boom story. When I had a first draft of book 1, I returned to South America to spend time in Manaus and to travel the rivers with a private guide to see, among other things, rubber trees.

Most of the story in Gifts for the Dead, however, takes place in Hoboken, NJ. Why there, and what kinds of research did you need to do?

While the rain forest informs all three books, I still needed a location for my main characters to hail from. I grew up in New Jersey, so I was familiar with Hoboken, and I knew it had an active shipyard and train station and ferries running into Manhattan back in the early twentieth century. It was the perfect location for characters who would do a lot of traveling. But the more I learned about Hoboken, the more I realized I had to learn. Since Gifts for the Dead unfolds between the years 1911 and 1928, it necessarily covers the First World War—among other events. Hoboken played a huge part in the war, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that doughboys from all over the country departed for Europe from Hoboken once Woodrow Wilson declared war. Hoboken at that time was home to three immigrant communities: Irish, German, and Italian. As you can imagine, German Americans took some abuse during the war for having connections to Germany. This was true in the whole country, of course, but particularly in Hoboken.

What can we expect in Rivers 3?

The third Rivers book will be called River Aria, and yes, it does concern itself with opera. How do I go from the rubber boom to WWI and its aftermath to opera? I can’t say without giving away some of the stuff that happens in Gifts for the Dead. I can say the last book follows the lives of the same characters—plus or minus one or two—and it takes place in the same two locations, with the addition of a third location, Manhattan, right across the river from Hoboken. I’m about three drafts in, with at least two more to go.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!


Thank you very much.

  




 

Joan Schweighardt is the author of five stand-alone novels and the Rivers Trilogy. In addition to her own writing projects, she writes, ghostwrites, and edits for individuals and corporations. Find out more about her at http://www.joanschweighardt.com.
 

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Friday, October 11, 2019

Writing Wayland

About a year ago, I interviewed Lee Zacharias for New Books in Historical Fiction about her novel Across the Great Lake, then recently published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

This week I received a message from a friend of Lee’s, also with a new novel. I couldn’t offer her an interview, because my schedule for the network is already overbooked, but I did invite her to submit a guest post for my blog—and here it is. You can find out more about her work and how to contact her by paging down to the end. Thank you, Rita, and I wish you all success with your books!



From Rita Sims Quillen:

First and foremost, I am a poet, having published five books of poetry, but I had always dreamed of moving to fiction. When my husband first told me the tale of his grandfather’s incredible adventures during WWI, I thought, I don’t even know what that war was about. In school, we study the Civil War—crazy but clear—and World War II with its two fronts—crazy but clear—but WWI? It seemed a very complex war, more irrational than the other two, if that makes any sense. And I couldn’t recall anything really about the time period except the big flu epidemic. I did remember that from history class.




When I decided I was going to try to write my first novel, Hiding Ezra (Little Creek Books, 2014), it would be built around the basic true story of my husband’s grandfather deciding that his family needed him a lot worse than the Army did, but I could find nothing in the library to help me understand his predicament or the times he lived in. I did read some books and articles about the war, and also specifically about the flu epidemic, but I found nothing about deserters, nothing about the reaction of real people here at home in southwestern Virginia, nothing about what challenges the first modern draft presented. So I knew I was going to have to find out what I needed to know some other way.




So I began to look for newspaper accounts of the day. I ended up spending 4 summers—when I was out of school—squirreled away in local libraries readings newspaper accounts of that time. I read the Kingsport Times News, the Bristol Herald-Courier—the Scott County, VA, paper of the day—and several other coalfield papers, starting from the summer of 1918 and going all the way through to the fall of 1922. Every day’s paper, cover to cover. On microfilm. Now you see why it took four years.




But then I was ready to write Hiding Ezra, having come to understand that my husband’s grandfather was part of a huge sociological phenomenon—175,000 men that went AWOL for similar reasons—and that incredible events besides the flu epidemic were occurring: a coal strike, a wheat shortage, the coldest winter in decades.... History came alive, as sharp and clear and real as my own life, and I had to make others see it, too, with new eyes, to understand what incredible hardship had occurred in this forgotten and often overlooked war. It is the story of thousands of families—a story that had to be told

Now, fast forward a few years, and the long-awaited sequel, Wayland  (Iris Press, 2019), is out. With this novel, I returned to the story of many of the characters I loved from the first novel, but without the restrictions of a true story to impose its own requirements and confinements! People say, what’s your new novel about? My mind whirls. The answer would be too long if I told it all. It’s about characters from my first novel, Hiding Ezra, that I love dearly and wanted to give some joy, peace, hope that they didn’t have in that novel. It’s a love story wrapped inside a marriage in trouble. Wayland is a study of sociopaths and mental illness, in general, versus eccentricity. It’s about the world of the hobos and their culture during the Great Depression in a tranquil and quaint little community in the Appalachian Mountains. It’s about the beautiful, unique, and good-hearted country people of my community, people of deep faith and deep thoughts about life’s most important questions. The book is an illustration of the way that the Bible and its language are so integral to the daily lives and daily thoughts of Appalachian people in the world I grew up in.




The subject receiving the most attention, however, and the one that took tons of research and thought was pedophiles and how they choose, then manipulate, their victims and their families in order to gain the trust necessary for the kind of access they need to fulfill their twisted fantasies. In hobo Buddy Newman, I wanted to create an unforgettable and engrossing evil character. I used Shakespeare’s conniving, diabolical Iago as inspiration for the way he pitted people against one another, whispering in vulnerable ears whatever lies that would take him closer to his target. I thought about Hannibal Lector and his cruel games, about Faulkner’s Abner Snopes and his furious resentment of those who were more successful, his psychotic violence and sense of entitlement.



But the bottom line is, I wrote a book to entertain and keep you on the edge of your seat as you watch the tale unfold— suspense! If I can do that while also giving you the ability to recognize a pedophile’s efforts at grooming your child or grandchild, well, that’s a good year’s work. If you’d like to read sample chapters and much more info about all my work, I hope you’ll stop by my website.

Rita Sims Quillen—poet, musician, songwriter, and novelist—is the author of Hiding Ezra and Wayland, as well as several poetry collections. She lives and farms in Scott County, Virginia. Find out more about her, including her social media links, at http://www.ritasimsquillen.com.