Friday, May 7, 2021

Interview with Emily Hourican

Even as a child growing up in the UK, I had heard of Guinness beer. I have vague memories of, at one point in my life (not as a child, obviously!), being advised to drink stout because of its iron content—a suggestion that went nowhere because I never developed a liking for stout. But the idea that a particular brand of beer must be the brain child of an individual with a vision, and that the individual in question might have a family worthy of a novel, never occurred to me until a publicist pitched Emily Hourican’s The Glorious Guinness Girls for a New Books Network interview that didn’t fit into my schedule. I read the book, enjoyed it, learned a lot about 1920s high society, and am delighted to have the opportunity to share with you this interview with the author. Read on to find out more, and don’t forget to admire that gorgeous cover, with its Guinness harp smack dab in the center!

This is not your first novel, but it is your first historical novel. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing historical versus contemporary fiction, in your view?

Yes, I had written four contemporary novels before switching to historical fiction. I was ready for a change. I wanted to keep writing, but to write in a slightly different way. Historical fiction throws up certainties—boundaries—which make it very interesting from an imaginative perspective.

It was interesting to work within a factual framework. To have a skeleton structure that couldn’t be altered—dates of birth, of marriage, the significant events of the time, small dates such as when the Guinnesses were known to have attended a party or been in a certain place. Within that, then, the challenge was to fill out a story that didn’t alter the facts, that took account of them and worked together to create something.

So instead of contemporary fiction, in which the only limit is your imagination and the psychology of your characters, there were fixed points I couldn’t mess with. I loved that. It made it feel like a jigsaw puzzle with some bits complete, and I had to fill in the rest.

Disadvantages? The same thing, from a different perspective! Sometimes it would have been easier for the story if I had been able to move the girls around more freely, ignore the fact that they couldn’t have been in a certain place at a certain time, because history had already recorded them as being somewhere else, for example. But in general, I didn’t find those disadvantages to be significant at all. The fun was far more than the irritations!

Your main character—Felicity, known as Fliss—is not one of the Guinness girls of your title. Unlike them, she is also your creation. How would you characterize her, and how does she become part of the Guinness world?

Fliss is someone who would have been far more typical of her time (the Guinness girls were definitely not typical; they were too rich!). Fliss is the daughter of an impoverished Anglo-Irish family (basically, that meant a big house, a lot of land, and very little actual money; for a girl like Fliss, that meant very few prospects in a world in which she could only have married within a narrow social sphere, and so many young men had died in the Great War).

She goes to live with the Guinness girls, initially to do lessons and be company for the girls—that kind of thing happened often enough to girls like Fliss. Often, it wasn’t a particularly happy arrangement, but in Fliss’s case, it works out very well. She and the Guinness girls become very close, and she stays on living with them long past the schoolroom.

For me, Fliss is a way to see into the Guinnesses’ world from a new and fresh perspective. Aileen, Maureen, and Oonagh themselves couldn’t have understood the extraordinary privilege of their lives. I wanted somehow who could—who could look at the way they lived, and know how very much it was removed from any ordinary experience.

I could also, through Fliss, show a different kind of possibility and outcome for the young women of the 1920s. The Guinness girls all stuck with very traditional roles—they were wives, mothers, hostesses, and patrons rather than doers, makers, creators. At a time when careers, independence, and agency were suddenly more available to women than ever before, the Guinnesses chose not to pursue them.

With Fliss, I was able to show something of the alternate world—the path the Guinnesses didn’t take. I loved the freedom she allowed me to do this.

Fliss’s brother, Hugh, has a very different personality from his sister, as often happens with siblings. His role in the novel, although secondary, is crucial. What can you tell us about him and what he adds to your tale?

Hughie, for me, was many things. He was male and therefore had freedom, autonomy, agency, in a way that his sister, certainly as a young person, did not. He had an education. The property, such as it was, would go to him. He could move about the countryside freely in a way that she could not. There were women of Fliss’s social class who got involved in the struggle for Irish independence—but they were always older, and usually richer, than Fliss.

Hughie could get involved with the fight for Irish freedom, with the world of politics and revolution, and he could bring that with him into the much smaller world that Fliss and the Guinness girls inhabited.

It wouldn’t have been credible to involve these girls directly in the political and social upheaval going on around them, and yet they lived through it. They watched the burning of the Four Courts in Dublin city on June 30, 1922. They were witnesses, if not participants, to these extraordinary events in Irish history, and Hughie, for me, was a way to bring those events closer to them.

He was also, for me, some much-needed male energy in their world—and male energy always seems to change things within a group of women!

You’ve mentioned that Maureen is your favorite among the three Guinness daughters. What sets her apart from her sisters, Aileen and Oonagh, as far as you’re concerned?

When I was researching this novel, I spoke to a wonderful man, also a writer, called Thomas Pakenham, who was a godson of Maureen’s. His father Frank was best man at Maureen’s wedding to Basil Blackwood. Thomas’s memories of Maureen are very vivid, and he recalls her as someone who was intelligent and very compelling, as well as very snobbish and self-centered. She had a strong personality and became monstrously self-centered and rude in later life. I was interested in the young Maureen—before she became like that. After all, no one is monstrous at ten, or sixteen, or twenty. She became a kind of caricature in later life, all diamond-studded cat-eyed sunglasses, blue hair, and vulgar practical jokes; I wanted to know what such a person was like before she became like that. I imagine she would have been charming, dynamic, entertaining, before she became too nasty and too selfish.

When the four girls—the Guinness sisters and Fliss—get to London, it’s the early 1920s. They encounter two separate social worlds: high society and the Bright Young Things. Could you sketch this environment, and the girls’ reactions to it, for us?

The 1920s were a fascinating point in UK society. The Great War, which ended in 1918, changed everything and accelerated social upheaval. Women had known a taste of freedom—working, nursing, seizing opportunities as they came—and were unwilling to go back. Meanwhile young people were sick of gloom and death and misery and determined to enjoy themselves. Many were also determined to forget the niggling guilt of not having fought in the War to End All Wars because they were too young. Many had lost fathers, brothers, cousins, and so on. They were driven by unacknowledged grief and a sense that life was short.

The result was an explosion of energy—cocktails, jazz, short skirts, fancy dress—that tore up the old, decorous rule book around what could and couldn’t be done. Girls got their hair cut, got drunk, and went wild. Older society matrons were horrified. The newspapers were delighted—they had endless parties and scandals to write about. It was a period of manic energy that expressed itself in parties and frivolity until the Great Crash of 1929 brought it to an abrupt end.

The Guinness girls were a big part of this 1920s scene. There was even something called The Guinness Set that revolved around their cousin Bryan, his wife Diana Mitford, and the Guinness girls. They were the giddiest, showiest, and richest of all the showy and giddy scene.  

Despite years of living in luxury, albeit as a kind of glorified servant or charity case, Fliss ultimately chooses to pursue a career rather than, say, marry for money. Why did you include this element in your novel?

I became very fond of Fliss as I wrote this book. She is a truly generous and kindly person, and the idea of abandoning her to a fate like Gunnie’s, in which she is a companion and subordinate for her entire life—I just couldn’t do it! Neither did I want her to switch from one kind of servitude—with the Guinnesses—straight into another kind, which would have been marriage in those days. I wanted Fliss to make good on all her subtle intelligence and decency and choose a life for herself that allowed her to become a person of substance in her own right.

I also wanted her to demonstrate, through her choice, the interesting (to me!) fact that the Guinness girls did not make that kind of choice. A path diverged for women in the early 1920s, and Fliss chose what I believe was the more dynamic route.

Are you already working on something new?

I am! I am deep into writing the second book in the series. It’s called The Glorious Guinness Girls: A Hint of Scandal, and it follows the girls’ lives through the very troubled 1930s, when they are wives and mothers and encounter personal difficulties at the same time as Europe is moving toward the Second World War.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Thank you so much for asking me!

Emily Hourican is the author of four contemporary novels and The Glorious Guinness Girls, nominated for the Best Popular Fiction Awards at the 2020 Irish Book Awards. A former editor and journalist, she lives in Dublin with her husband and children. Find out more about her at

Photograph of Maureen Guinness (1933) by Bassano, public domain through Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Someone Else's Universe

Fan fiction has something of a bad rep in the writing and reviewing community. People wonder: Could you not come up with your own ideas? Why borrow someone else’s creative universe?

At the same time, the publishing industry loves a certain kind of fan fiction. How else can we explain the endless progression of novels featuring the various Jane Austen heroines,
Sherlock Holmes, and fairy tales? The larger the publisher, the more dependent it is on titles that will sell in the millions, not the hundreds, and the more attracted its editors are by the “sure thing.”

But the part that often gets lost is what writing (as distinct from publishing) fan fiction can do for an author just getting started. My first novel—excruciatingly bad as only the first drafts of a first novel can be and never published because of copyright constraints—was based on a Star Trek story I had told to myself for years. Not exactly an original story, because it could be classified as part of a category stuffed to the gills by other aspiring fan fiction writers, but all mine in its particulars.

I learned a lot while laying down that execrable prose, and more as I crafted it into better versions of the same, then rewrote it from scratch (more than once) while transitioning it to a new book set in a world of my own creation. Even then, I let it sit for almost two decades before giving it one more thorough overhaul and allowing Five Directions Press to publish it with every trace of the original, borrowed universe removed.

My second novel, the first to see the light of day, is an even more explicit example of fan fiction, evident in the title: The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel. Again, it originated in a reworking of Baroness Orczy’s classic tale that I amused myself with at odd moments, then wrote down—only to realize that by resolving the original conflict I had run out of story within fifty pages. I learned a lot from that, too, and because The Scarlet Pimpernel was published in 1905 and is thus in the public domain, I was able to bring out my version with explicit acknowledgment of and thanks to Baroness Emmuska Orczy (less than 30 percent of the finished novel draws on her original, blended with a BBC production based on her work).

Even before I finished The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, I had abandoned fan fiction entirely and moved into my own Russian-inflected historical world, now represented by eight novels in print and two more in the works. But the point is that I would never have written any of them had I not decided on that long-ago summer day to type out one scene from my highly unprofessional Star Trek story to ensure that I didn’t forget exactly how I wanted it to go.

So if you have a great idea for the perfect solution to Marianne Dashwood’s romantic problems, don’t hesitate. Writing is not the same as publishing (although if you can land a publishing contract, more power to you), and in the beginning it’s best not to get caught up in fantasies of publication anyway—first books are seldom good enough right off the bat. But writing fan fiction beats not writing at all. And I can promise you, even by roaming around in someone else’s creative universe, you can learn a lot about what it takes to bring your own to life.

Images: Old man surrounded by imaginary beings purchased on subscription from Clipart, no. 314581; photograph of Baroness Emmuska Orczy (1920), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Agony Aunt for the Ages

As someone who’s kept a weekly blog for coming up on nine years without interruption, I’m always looking for good ideas for the next post. The New Books Network interviews help fill the void, as do the increasing number of written Q&As that I host for authors I can’t fit into my podcast schedule. I have bookshelf lists once a quarter, updates on my own books or comments on the craft in general, discussions of historical research and its place in fiction, and occasional posts about individual books or series that I enjoyed.

Even so, there are some weeks when I wake up on Thursday morning desperate for good ideas. I wish I had thought of this one, but the credit goes to my friend and fellow Five Directions Press member Claudia Long, who has created a time-traveling advice columnist willing to read and answer questions from fictional characters. Meet Madam Mariana.

So, what kind of questions does Madam Mariana field? Not surprisingly, the first two in the series (it only started a few weeks ago, so this is definitely one to revisit—and worth signing up for the author’s updates) address issues raised by characters in Claudia Long’s own books. Another Mariana from a work in progress, fifteen and living in Cuidad de Mexico in 1586, seeks advice on how to deflect her mother’s marriage plans. A widowed journalist in San Francisco, heroine of Long’s The Harlot’s Pen, wants justification for her pursuit of an artist in 1933—and writes back two weeks later revealing that perhaps she’s not a widow after all.

Most recently, a young woman in Ancona, Italy, at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Mirelle, the heroine of Beyond the Ghetto Gates, by Michelle Cameron, whom I interviewed for New Books in Historical Fiction last year) has watched the man she loves head off for Egypt with Napoleon’s army and fears he may never return. Like Lucy of The Harlot’s Pen, Mirelle gets into a back-and-forth with Madam Mariana. It’s all tremendous fun, as well as a convenient way to find out about titles you might like to add to your reading list.

 And yes, Darya Sheremeteva,  heroine of Song of the Sisters (2021), will be seeking advice a couple of Thursdays from now. So if you don’t check before then (and you certainly should), do go to the blog on May 6. I don’t know what Madam Mariana will say, but I suspect that Darya may be quite shocked at the advice she receives!

Image: Konstantin Makovsky, Noblewoman Stitching (1890s). Public domain because the artist died in 1915.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Stepping Back in Time

There’s a reason why most of my novels so far have featured aristocrats and even royalty. We may not know much about the day-to-day lives of Russian nobles in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—especially the women—but a few sources that track their doings and even their marriages have survived. There are annals, religiously and politically biased but somewhat reliable in terms of dates and sequences. And there are official records, scarce in 1400 and even 1500 but becoming more extensive as the central government slowly develops a basic structure, including offices devoted to foreign affairs and military musters and other aristocratic (male) pursuits.

Some of those sources also mention, if only in passing, the small number of men who staffed the government offices—men like Anfim Fadeyev, who first appeared in my books as a suitor for Grusha’s hand in Song of the Shaman and reappears as a secondary character and almost-friend of Darya in Song of the Sisters. Anfim will be back as the hero of Song of the Sinner, the next installment in the Songs of Steppe & Forest series, and will continue to lurk in the background of future books.

So far, so good. But step down one rung on the social ladder to merchants—even splashy international appointed-by-the-tsar, top-of-the-tier gosti (the word also means “guest”)—and you might as well take a nose dive off a cliff. Even the scholars who spend years of their lives studying merchants and trade in Muscovite Russia tend to focus on the seventeenth century, where they may not have much information to work with but they at least have some, or on the influx of English, Dutch, and German traders who left records that didn’t get burned up every time Moscow caught on fire, which happened every 20–30 years.

Can we extrapolate back from the seventeenth century to the sixteenth? To a degree, I’m sure we can. In a time before computers, television, radio, and public education, when information on how to live passed directly from father to son and mother to daughter, change happened more slowly.

But it did happen. The government consolidation I mentioned above got off to a slow start but mushroomed under the Romanov dynasty (1613–1917), and that development affected commerce as much as anything else. The arrival of the Muscovy Company in 1553–54 introduced new ideas and new ways of doing things. Russia’s conquest of Kazan to its east in 1552 and Astrakhan, near the Caspian Sea, in 1556 opened up a direct if still dangerous route from Moscow to the Silk Roads even as it angered the Ottoman Empire, a development that eventually imperiled the traditional trade route across the steppe to the Black Sea ports of Caffa and Surozh. And we haven’t even gotten to the fifteen-year civil war known as the Time of Troubles (1598–1613), which caused a general upheaval that swept up merchants along with peasants, nobles, and the dynasty itself. None of that had yet occurred in the 1540s, where the next few books in my series are set.

And that poses a challenge, because Anfim comes from a merchant family, and his brothers engage in commerce with both east and west. What that means for their everyday lives, their view of the world and their place in it, and their attitudes toward all kinds of things, I have to either find out or imagine. At moments like this, I wish I could book a seat on a time machine, even for a few hours, and observe firsthand the many details that bring fiction to life but don’t appear in the records. I’d love to buttonhole one of those Surozh silk traders and pepper him with questions or watch him from behind a screen as he talks to his family and his colleagues, then goes about his daily chores.

Fortunately, novelists—unlike historians—only have to give it their best shot before taking a chance, filling in the gaps of what is not recorded, and hoping that the results are somewhere close to the truth. Even so, to the historian in me the thought of that time machine is awfully tempting....

Images: Alexander Yanov, A Chancery in Moscow (1880s); Ivan Bilibin, Gosti, illustration from The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1905); Alexander Litvichenko, Ivan the Terrible Shows His Treasures to the Englishman Jerome Horsey (1875)—all public domain because of their age, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 9, 2021

World Conquest, Take Two

As a historian of medieval Russia, I have often encountered portrayals of the Mongol Conquest as an unmitigated disaster, a break in continuity vast areas of steppe and forest. This perspective—never so prevalent in the West, which endured brief invasions and climactic battles but not centuries of domination, assimilation, and coexistence—has been modified in recent years as scholars have moderated their views of both Russian history and the Mongol impact on the lands they conquered. Outside the realm of academe, however, it remains as prevalent as ever.

But a question less often asked is the effect of the conquests on the Mongols themselves. What happened as a result of the influx of foreign cultures and religions imported by artisans, slaves, and concubines? How did the women captured by khans and beys influence the sons and daughters they bore?

That is the focus of my latest New Books Network interview with F.M. Deemyad, whose debut novel, The Sky Worshipers, appeared last month with History through Fiction. Through the overlapping stories of three stolen princesses—Chinese, Persian, and Polish—she traces the history of the conquest over three generations and charts the gradual shifts in the approach taken by Mongol khans toward the cities and civilizations they conquered. From the lives of these fictional women, we gain a unique perspective on a segment of world history that is too often oversimplified or ignored.

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

There have been more than a few contenders for the title of “World Conqueror,” but eight hundred years after the fact, Genghis Khan’s claim to the title remains unmatched. Over the course of four decades, he and his heirs built a realm that stretched from the Korean Peninsula to the plains of Hungary and from northern Siberia to India. And unlike the conquests of Hitler and Bonaparte, the charismatic authority of Genghis Khan endured long after the initial union fractured into warring khanates.

Tackling even the establishment period of such a massive undertaking within the covers of a single historical novel poses a challenge for any author. In The Sky Worshipers (History through Fiction, 2021), F.M. Deemyad approaches the problem by focusing on three foreign princesses, captured in different places (northern China, Central Asia, and Poland) by Genghis, his son Ogodei, and his grandson Hulagu. These three women, each for her own reasons, together create a secret eyewitness account of the Mongol rise and expansion.

The female perspective allows Deemyad to avoid extended discussion of wartime atrocities and focus on the human cost of conquest and battles. Yet the atrocities are there too, reflected in the permanent scars left on survivors who must deal with disruption and loss even as they struggle to avoid being coopted into a world they neither created nor chose. In often haunting prose, Deemyad brings to life a slice of the past that, although not forgotten, has receded from view, obscured by the more recent disasters and tragedies of the twentieth century.