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Friday, September 24, 2021

Death in Shanghai

One of the many rewards for me of well-executed historical fiction is that it opens a window onto times and places I know little about. At the end of a long day of editing or even in the midst of a writing vacation, I have little mental energy left to read academic history about anything except the period of greatest interest to me and most relevance for my novels—often I can’t handle even that. But a well-crafted story written by someone who has delved into the specifics of Tang China or the American West or Mughal India pulls me in and along, allowing me to revel in the experiences associated with foreign travel.

Garrett Hutson’s Death in Shanghai series is a good example of this point. He vividly recreates the atmosphere of Shanghai in the 1930s—a port city with a thriving international community and a degree of cultural openness equivalent to New York, Paris, or London. As he notes during my latest interview for the New Books Network, in the 1930s society aimed at freeing itself from Victorian restrictions through increasing gender equality and diversity, among other things, before the 1950s turned back the clock.

But although this theme gives impetus to character development in the books—especially that of the hero, Douglas Bainbridge, who struggles to balance the demands of a rigid upbringing against the reality of the city he adopts as his home—at their heart these are tension- and conflict-laden murder mysteries that move at a rapid pace yet provide satisfying and believable solutions to the problems they raise. So kick back, pour some tea or rice wine, and enjoy the ride.

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

Despite the deluge of novels about World War II that has characterized the last few years, the period leading up to the war on the Pacific Front has received far less attention. One welcome exception is the Death in Shanghai series penned by Garrett Hutson, the latest book of which is No Accidental Death (Warfleigh Publishing, 2021).

The series revolves around Douglas Bainbridge, a naval intelligence officer assigned to a two-year immersion program in Chinese language and culture. Doug has defied the expectations of his affluent but rigid parents by joining the US Navy instead of taking over the family business, and although he has already developed fluency in Mandarin, he is not emotionally prepared for the rich and varied life that awaits him in Shanghai’s International Settlement when he arrives in May 1935. It doesn’t help that he has barely unpacked his suitcases before a childhood friend, met by chance in a bar, winds up dead in the streets—with the local police all too willing to assign responsibility for the murder to Doug. Doug sets out to clear his name in that first novel, The Jade Dragon, in the process establishing a chain of tangled alliances and favors that help him through the sequel, Assassin’s Hood.

By the time No Accidental Death opens in July 1937, Doug has completed his immersion program and moved on to his dream job as intelligence officer on a naval vessel in the Yangtze fleet. His new position takes him away from Shanghai more than he likes, but it remains his home port. He’s eager to disembark and reunite with his beloved Lucy Kinzler and his cohort of friends. But soon a crewman from Doug’s ship is killed under mysterious circumstances and the Fleet Admiral charges Doug with solving the crime. Once again, Doug must place duty above pleasure—this time in the midst of an ongoing battle between the Japanese Navy and the Chinese National Army for the control of both Shanghai and Beijing.

Image: Nanking (East Nanjing) Road, Shanghai, in the 1930s. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Interview with Jai Chakrabarti

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am not a huge fan of fiction set during World War II. The circumstances of the war were so horrific, and the effects so traumatic, that it gives me nightmares—not what I’m looking for in light reading at the end of the day. That the journal I edit often publishes articles about the Holocaust in the East, where the worst atrocities took place, only increases my desire to keep my distance from the war when I have a choice.

That said, I do recognize the long shadow cast by World War II on those who took part in it and on the generation that followed. For that reason, I agreed to read Jai Chakrabarti’s debut novel, A Play for the End of the World, which traces the way that those formative experiences influenced the course of his characters’ lives. Read on to find out more.

Where did you learn about Janusz Korczak and the performance of Rabindranath Tagore’s The Post Office in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942?

Many years ago, my wife and I had been living in Jerusalem on a travel grant. It was our last day in the city, and we wanted to visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, while we still had the chance. It was there in the Art in the Ghettos exhibit that I first learned the story of Janusz Korczak—doctor, educator, and the head of a Warsaw orphanage with nearly two hundred children. In July 1942, weeks before the Great Deportations would begin, Korczak decided to stage a play by the revered Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore, and he invited the Jewish community of Warsaw to witness the performance. I found this to be an extraordinary coincidence—that I as an Indian man married to a Jewish woman—would encounter a play from my childhood in a Holocaust museum. At that moment, I knew I wanted to learn more, and this curiosity would eventually lead to years of research and take me to Poland and to the village in India where the play was composed.

What made you decide to turn that performance into the center of a novel? And, having decided, how did you go about crafting this particular tale?

I’m fascinated with the role of art in periods of societal and political turmoil. I believe Janusz Korczak thought of the performance of The Post Office as a kind of transgressive act that would also uplift his children and the Jewish community. At the same time, art can also be used to exploit or manipulate, and we experience a degree of this later in the novel when a professor in India decides to stage The Post Office in a village fighting political oppression. I wanted to explore these polarities, and I also learned that I was most interested in the aftereffects of trauma—much of the story takes place thirty years after the performance in Warsaw—so the play’s Warsaw performance and its echoes gave me a structure to work with.

Jaryk Smith, your main protagonist, is a fictional—I assume—survivor of Korczak’s orphanage. Tell us about him as a character.

As far as we know, none of the children from Janusz Korczak’s orphanage survived Treblinka, so Jaryk Smith, portrayed initially as a child under Korczak’s care, is indeed a fictional character. Jaryk survives a harrowing experience in Poland and relocates to New York City in the 1940s. He lands a job at a fish market and then eventually finds work at a synagogue, where he does maintenance, helps to keep the books, and organizes events for the Jewish High Holidays. He loves to listen to classical music and lives a life full of the same rituals of work and friendship. This rhythm is interrupted as he begins to unexpectedly fall in love.



Jaryk’s best friend is Misha, the only other survivor of that 1942 performance. They are reunited in the Displaced Persons camp and travel to New York together. Can you characterize their relationship for us?

Misha, who’s ten years older, sees himself as Jaryk’s older brother even though they aren’t biologically related. Misha feels it’s his responsibility to look out for Jaryk, especially in their early years in New York when they find an apartment in Brighton Beach. Misha is bold, loud, and extroverted in a way that Jaryk is not, and Misha’s friendliness and gregariousness often allow Jaryk to stay comfortably in the shadows. But as Jaryk falls in love, Misha believes Jaryk will be the one who’ll start a family and carry on their stories.

In 1972, Jaryk also loves a woman named Lucy, who has come to New York from the US South. But despite their immediate and intense attraction to each other, their relationship struggles against the power of Jaryk’s past. Why is that?

Jaryk is dealing with the effects of childhood trauma. As he finds himself drawn toward Lucy, he struggles at times to be vulnerable and to enter fully into the relationship. Misha’s death also shocks Jaryk and forces him to confront his own feelings without the benefit of his old friend’s guidance and support. Finally, Jaryk develops a sense of duty toward a village in India, and helping the villagers eventually comes into conflict with his love for Lucy.

The center of the novel has less to do with World War II and its horrors than with the decision of an Indian professor, Rudra Bose, to replicate the performance of The Post Office in a Bengali village not far from Shantiniketan, where Tagore spent a significant part of his life. What does Bose expect from this production?


I think that Rudra Bose is hoping for a couple of outcomes. First, he’s hoping that the performance of the play generates the kind of publicity that will help to protect the villagers and prevent them from being displaced. But he’s also hoping that the notoriety associated with the performance will elevate his own political ambitions. He sees the performance in the village as a stepping stone toward a much larger political movement that he will help to lead.

Jaryk originally resists taking part in the Indian production. Why is that, and what changes his mind?

Originally, Jaryk sees the Indian production as something Misha would have engaged in. At first, the idea of traveling to India to help co-direct the production of a play seems almost absurd because it’s so outside the rituals and boundaries of his life. But when Misha dies and Jaryk travels to India and begins to form relationships with the villagers, he also realizes that the performance of the play can help improve their situation; this sense of purpose motivates him to stay on and work for change.

And what of you? This novel came out in September 2021. Are you already working on something new?

Knopf will be publishing my collection of short stories in 2022, and I’m working on final edits to some of the stories now. I’ve also begun a new novel project that’s still in the early stages.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!


Jai Chakrabarti was born in Kolkata, India, and now splits his time between Brooklyn, NY, and the Hudson Valley. His short fiction has appeared in numerous journals, has been anthologized in The O. Henry Prize Stories and The Best American Short Stories, and won a Pushcart Prize. A Play for the End of the World is his first novel. You can find out more about him at https://www.jaichakrabarti.com.


Photographs of Janusz Korczak (1940), the children of his orphanage (1920s), and Rabindranath Tagore (1925) public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Photograph of Jai Chakrabarti © Peter Dressel, reproduced with permission.

Friday, September 10, 2021

The Ravages of Time

It often surprises my interview guests to learn that when I agree to take on a book, I read it cover to cover. There’s a reason I do that (in addition to my general love of reading, especially when it comes to historical fiction): novels have their own kind of emotional truth, so the true meaning of a book doesn’t always correspond to its subject.

That’s especially true of a deeply moving, profoundly felt novel like Gill Paul’s The Collector’s Daughter, the subject of my latest New Books Network interview. Yes, the book explores the events surrounding and following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922, and that is an interesting topic in and of itself—especially to lifetime fans of Elizabeth Peters’ Egyptology novels like me.

But the heart of The Collector’s Daughter is something quite different. It asks the question, in the author’s own words, “Can you still love someone when they no longer remember your shared past and may have an altered personality because of changes that have occurred in their brain?” The answer for Evelyn Herbert and her husband is a resounding yes, but the question affects us all—in our relationships with parents, spouses, or our own selves. And that makes this novel worth every minute you spend on it.

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

 

The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings almost a century ago revolutionized the study of ancient Egypt and its pharaohs. The splendors that surrounded the burial of this relatively minor ruler, interred in a hastily arranged tomb, sparked a furor of speculation, scholarship, and outright chicanery and draw crowds even today. For a long time, though, no one knew that the first modern person to enter the tomb was not Howard Carter, the famed archaeologist who located it, but Lady Evelyn (Eve) Herbert, the twenty-one-year-old daughter of Lord Carnarvon, who funded Carter’s expedition.

In The Collector’s Daughter (William Morrow, 2021), Gill Paul approaches the story of Carter’s discovery from the perspective of its long-term effects on those involved in the find. We meet Eve first in 1972, fifty years after these life-changing events, when she has just awoken in a hospital after suffering the latest in a series of strokes that sap her physical and mental strength. She barely recognizes the man sitting next to her, although she soon concludes (correctly) that he is her husband, Brograve.

As Eve fights her way back to health, Brograve attempts to jog her memory with photographs and tales, each of which sets off a trip into the past where we see what actually occurred and contrast it with Eve’s foggy recollections. Meanwhile, Brograve is doing his best to shield his wife from the demands of an Egyptian archaeologist determined to track down missing artifacts from the tomb—on behalf of her government, her university, or herself? We’re not quite sure of the archaeologist’s motives, only that she has secrets of her own.

The tale of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the accidents that followed its discovery, and how Eve came to be the first person to enter its suffocating atmosphere three thousand years after the ancient Egyptian priests sealed the sarcophagus is beautifully told. But what really sets The Collector’s Daughter apart is its haunting exploration of memory loss and its impact on Eve and Brograve’s long and loving marriage. This is definitely a book that you don’t want to miss.


Image of Horus pectoral from Tutankhamun’s tomb public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 3, 2021

The Mechanical Jeeves

About a month ago, one of my fellow Five Directions Press writers shared on our group’s Facebook page a link to a post by the BBC that asked the provocative question, “Can Technology Help Authors Write a Book?”

Being something of a geek when it comes to writing software, I read the BBC post with interest. It features a program called Lynit, now in beta testing, that supposedly allows authors to track characters, plot arcs, and more.

Now, I have nothing against Lynit, which I haven’t tried. But I was surprised to see this approach presented as something new. Not long after I began this blog in 2012, I wrote a post on my own favorite writing program, Storyist. It’s Mac-only on a desktop but has well-regarded iPad and iPhone versions, and it not only stores information about characters, plot, settings, research, and pretty much anything else I might need as reference—including pictures of my characters on a virtual corkboard—but supplies useful prompts about sources of conflict (in plot sheets), sensory information (settings sheets), and character development (character sheets). All these can be linked and displayed as index cards or outlines—leaving numerous different ways to approach a story to suit the needs of different writers.


In Storyist, the novel itself lives in a single manuscript composed of chapters and scenes that can be dragged into new positions or exported to styled RTF for Word import or to Kindle/ePub formats for reading. I use it every day I write; indeed, I keep my blog posts in it too, because it doesn’t throw in all the junk that Word does, which can complicate copying the text to Blogger, and it lets me stash a year’s posts in one place. Eventually, when I have a final draft, I import that RTF into InDesign or Affinity Publisher for typesetting.

 

But I don’t produce final e-books in Storyist, which has sufficient formatting controls for basic reading but not for publishing, in my view. For that I use Scrivener, which has a Windows version as well as Mac and tablet apps; many authors love it as much as I love Storyist. Its exact mix of features is, as one would expect, somewhat different, but it too stores research files and a separate manuscript with chapters and scenes. It supplies sheets for storing information on plot, characters, and setting, although they are more rudimentary than Storyist’s. It also stores each clipping of the manuscript as a separate file that must be compiled before use, which gives a writer a great deal of flexibility on export but can be annoying when you suddenly realize that what looks on screen like a single document is actually 150 disconnected pieces. Both Storyist and Scrivener can support more than one manuscript in a given file.


One plus of Scrivener is that it can link to the third program I use—much more intermittently than either of the two previous ones, but that says more about the way I write than the value of the program—Aeon Timeline. Of the three, this is the setup closest to Lynit. As the name suggests, Aeon Timeline allows you to visually display story events and character development over periods ranging from hours to centuries. I used it especially for my novels The Swan Princess (three point-of-view characters operating more or less independently, making it important to know where each one was relative to the others at a given point in the story) and Song of the Sinner (spans 1543–46, with a gap in the middle, during which the hero and heroine are out of contact with each other). I also use it when I’m plotting a story against a detailed historical background, so that I can chart where my invented lives intersect with reality, as in The Vermilion Bird. I haven’t used Aeon Timeline enough to test its limits, but it does allow writers to define their own calendars, so it should be possible to adapt it for all kinds of fiction.


Because, as I said above, I’m rather a geek about writing and publishing software, I have also in the past dipped a toe into Dramatica and Story Weaver, as well as other writing programs too numerous to mention. But do any of them really “help authors write a book”?

Well, yes, if what you mean by “help” is keeping track of information that can be easily lost—that passing mention to a character’s physical characteristics or age, the neat site you found online that explained Tatar wedding customs or calculated the date of Easter according to the Julian character in 1552, the great “what if?” option that came to you the night before which you don’t want to forget, even ideas for other novels that can be stowed in a note to keep you from haring off after them instead of focusing on the book underway. Both Storyist and Scrivener are great for those kinds of tasks, and having the information in the same program as your manuscript so you can click over to the note to check and back again to your writing can prove very handy. Similarly, on those occasions when you need to plot out a character arc or overlapping plot lines, Aeon Timeline or (probably) Lynit would simplify that work. 

But alas, whatever their strengths, I don’t think any of these programs can really help you turn a story into a novel. To make that happen, you need to sit down, start typing, let the ideas flow, share the results with respected fellow writers, establish a small library of great books on the craft of writing to which you return over and over, and—last but far from least—revise, revise, revise. And the time put into learning a slew of programs might better be spent typing rough drafts. It’s too easy to get lost in the weeds of technology and forget that its fundamental purpose is to facilitate the act of writing, not to influence its content.

Writing a novel, whether it’s 50,000 words or 100,000, is a marathon, not a sprint, as they say. No piece of software can change that reality. What they can do is provide a good valet or butler, always at hand with a tray or a freshly pressed coat. Think P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves with a dash of Star Trek’s Commander Data, and you’ll just about know what to expect.

 

Images are screenshots of my own copyrighted work, except for the last, purchased via subscription from Clipart.com.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Getting the Word Out

Long-time readers may have noticed that I don’t write too many social media or marketing posts. That’s because I’m actually terrible at marketing. Between work and my novels and the blog and my podcast, I don’t have a lot of free time. But if I’m to be completely honest, I also don’t choose to spend much of the little free time I do have on marketing, even though I know from other people’s experience that it would help me sell books. As a result, I don’t have a lot of surefire tips to share with other aspiring writers.

Another discouraging reality is the speed at which the Internet Age changes: Facebook is hot, then it’s everywhere, then it’s passé and replaced by TikTok, which next year will no doubt give way to something else. It’s a full-time job just keeping up, never mind leaping ahead of the curve. And the more entrenched a writer becomes in one community, the harder it is to pick up and move to another, where the old relationships must be rebuilt.

That said, after nine years of publishing fiction, I have learned a few things about what works and what doesn’t. Since this blog goes beyond interviews with other authors (enjoyable as those are), news about my ongoing projects, and historical tidbits to include publishing, media, and marketing, I thought I would take today to mention some of the insights I’ve acquired.

1. Produce a good book.

Without this step, you have nothing to sell, yet it’s the one budding writers pay the least attention to. The joy of finishing is extreme, and I revel in it as much as the next person, but it’s a rare book that succeeds without extensive critiquing and rewriting. This is as true of novels being sent to a literary agent for representation as for those destined for self-publication in any form. Be prepared to write draft after draft before a first novel is done. After that, the process gets easier, but multiple revisions are still required to make a book sing.

Once you finish the writing, your project will need competent copy editing (and yes, most of the time, you get what you pay for), production, cover design, and e-book formatting. Only then should the question of marketing even arise.

2. Make use of existing contacts.

Sad but true: nothing beats a built-in audience. The journal I edit has acquired 2,500+ followers on Facebook and Twitter with posts that rarely exceed one per month. Why? Because people already knew about it. It took a decade to build that audience outside of social media, but once built, it transferred without so much as a hiccup.

For writers starting out, that means emphasizing local events, like-minded friends, neighbors, and relatives. I know authors who have sold books through their hairdressers, and more power to them. I had some luck with my local libraries and the Rotary Club, although my best audience is other scholars in my field (the ones who rightly assume I don’t distort history in the service of fiction, although I have encountered a few skeptics). The advantage of the Internet Age is that everything is international, but that means billions of people trying to connect at the same time. The noise level alone tends to drown those starting out, although worldwide availability pays off in the end.

3. Focus your efforts.

This extends from the point raised above: that social media change faster than haute couture fashion. There’s no hope of remaining on top of everything, but if you avoid social media altogether, you’re unlikely to get out of your own local box.

The solution is to pick one or two things you can commit to on a regular basis. For me, it’s my blog (steady, every week), Facebook (3–5 times a week with selected groups), and Twitter (same as Facebook with the addition of #1linewed—a group effort that invites writers to share one line of a work-in-progress that includes a word set by the coordinator each week; search for the hashtag to see it in operation). And, of course, my podcast interviews, which post 1–2 times a month and which I lucked into back in 2012, when podcasting was up-and-coming. Alas for others, podcasting is everywhere now, so if you pursue it, go with an established group like the New Books Network rather than starting out on your own.

For you, it may be TikTok videos or Instagram or something entirely new. The point is to try out various options until you find a half-dozen or so you like enough to keep up with them, then go for it.

4. Forget about e-mail lists.

I don’t mean this literally. If you have a group of trusted friends or avid readers who want to find out when each of your books sees the light of day, by all means let them know! That’s part of point 2, using the connections you have. My publisher sends press releases to people who sign up for them, and I forward those to friends and neighbors who have said they want to stay informed.


But I no longer bother with newsletters myself. Instead, I contribute to the group posts my writers’ coop produces. I can’t tell you how many times a week I’m inundated with unwanted “news” because someone got hold of my e-mail address and signed me up without my permission (which is illegal, by the way). I usually don’t bother to unsubscribe, because I prefer not to upset authors I may want to interview one day. I don’t read the newsletters, though, and seeing them irritates me. You’ll still see advice to keep lists of e-mail addresses in various author marketing venues, but think about it: who under 50 even checks their e-mail regularly these days?

 

5. Try book teasers instead.

This advice assumes you have an artistic sense, an understanding of fonts and copyrighted images, experience with publishing software, and an ability to write dramatic lines. If you don’t, find someone who does. But if you do, these are a lot of fun to create and give readers a sense of your book. They pull people in without being a hard sell, which is the secret to marketing in general. And you can rerun them on social media in sequences, providing useful memory joggers for those who may be interested but distracted by the many other calls for their attention.



A similar approach—although I’ve never tried them—involves video trailers. My sense is that these work best if you already have an online presence and want to expand it. The technical demands are higher than those of book teasers, and there is more competition for eyes on a site like YouTube, whereas on Twitter and Facebook things flash past too quickly for anything with motion in it. YouTube also switches from one video to another in ways that make it hard to stay in touch with a single author even if you know who to look for. But other sites may be easier. If your mind naturally turns toward short videos, it would be worth experimenting to see what works for you.

6. Help other writers.

There is, of course, a danger in being caught up in social contexts made up solely of authors shouting their wares to other authors. But authors are also readers, and they have high standards for what they embrace. They can leave wonderful reviews, tout you on their sites, interview you, endorse your books—in return for sharing the publicity, which helps them too. And in my experience, most authors are wonderful people. Sure, some refuse to help, but many love to assist those starting out. If nothing else, it’s good karma, and we can all use a bit of that.

7. Keep writing.
 

It takes time to establish a reputation for producing good work, as noted above, as well as time to master the craft of writing. Once you do find readers, they will hope for more than one book. And with so many other prospects out there, you want to hook their attention while you can, so they will come back again and again. The only way to ensure that is to keep producing great books for them to read. Or, to paraphrase a well-known saying, “a writer’s greatest asset is her backlist.” So whatever happens, don’t give up. 


In the last nine years, I have published eleven well-regarded novels, produced well over 100 podcast interviews, written 400+ blog posts, and seen my blog readership go from 100 to 11,000 a month. Even so, I’m still waiting for my annual book sales to get out of the triple digits.

Some people would probably advise me to quit, but why would I? I don’t write to sell books; I write because I love watching and recording the developments in my fictional world. Sharing the results with others is just the icing on the cake. And if anything I’ve written here helps you, so much the better. 

There are other avenues to get the word out that I haven’t mentioned, of course. Feel free to share your tips and suggestions in the comments below.

Images from various sources, many previously published on this blog (and attributed in the original posts) and all either purchased via subscription, copyrighted by myself, or sent to me for distribution (the blog award).