Friday, September 22, 2017

Interview with Steve Wiegenstein

Steve Wiegenstein, the author of three novels and a finalist for the first MM Bennetts Award in Historical Fiction in 2015 for This Old World, agreed to talk with me as he gets ready to release the third book in his Daybreak series. The Language of Trees comes out next Tuesday, September 26, and is already available for pre-order at Amazon.com (just click the link to find out more). And of course, read his answers below!

The Language of Trees is the third novel in your Daybreak series, following Slant of Light and This Old World. Could you give us a brief sketch of the background developed in those first two novels that will help readers approach The Language of Trees?

The books interlock, but my overarching goal is to make each book a satisfying aesthetic experience in itself, so readers shouldn’t worry if they haven’t read the earlier ones; they can still enjoy the next one. That being said, here’s what happened in the first books. Charlotte Turner, along with her husband James, established the Daybreak community in the 1850s as an experiment in communal, egalitarian living on the order of Brook Farm and New Harmony. The colony attracts a wide range of idealists, but James’ personal failings reveal themselves as he develops autocratic tendencies and engages in an affair, which results in the birth of Josephine Mercadier. Charlotte emerges as the community’s true leader and manages to hold Daybreak together, but the coming of the Civil War sends the men off to fight while the women remain behind. After the war, James returns a broken man, but redeems himself by protecting Josephine from her violent stepfather, an act which results in his death. Charlotte, Charley Pettibone, and the other founders of Daybreak carry on.

You live in the Ozarks. You have an active outdoor life and a teaching career. What made you decide to write novels—especially novels about a utopian nineteenth-century community? And having decided, how did you go about mastering the craft?

My mom was a writer, and I grew up admiring the art. In fact, the romantic ideal of the journalist-turned-novelist, embodied by writers like Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway, is what led me into journalism originally. I wrote a novel in my twenties but it wasn’t particularly good—it was poorly crafted and written for the wrong reasons. So I became a teacher, all the while continuing my craft with a lot of short stories. I grew interested in nineteenth-century utopias because they represent the distillation of American optimism, and I’ve done a good bit of scholarship on them. Then one day in late 2006 the idea of combining my passion for fiction with my understanding of utopias, and setting a series of novels in my home region, came to me like a flash. I’ve been working on this project just about every day since.

The Language of Trees brings to adulthood a new generation in Daybreak, which leads to a generational clash between the community’s founders and its heirs. One source of conflict is industrial development, which threatens the agricultural environment as well as the philosophy of the Daybreak community. What made you decide to explore this particular conflict, and what can you tell us about it as it plays out in your book?

One thing I’ve learned about utopian communities is that communities founded by a charismatic or visionary leader rarely continue if that leader dies or becomes discredited. So I wanted to continue the story following the classic lifespan of utopias. Also, the 1880s saw the real boom of the Industrial Age, when it seemed as though moneyed interests were going to overwhelm all other elements of society, and there were efforts to resist that seemingly irresistible force. Nowadays we remember that as largely a labor-movement and progressive government resistance, but there was also a rural-urban dimension to that struggle that I wanted to capture. So it’s a very rich time period for exploration, and one that tends to get overlooked or oversimplified. I really think that the urban-rural divide that is so prominent today has its roots in the coming of industrial methods to rural life in the late nineteenth century. Another one of those “understand the present by understanding the past” opportunities!

As befitting a book about a communal utopia, your books trace the life of a community rather than focusing on one or two individuals. There are lots of point-of-view characters, who often see the world in contrasting ways. You do a remarkable job of keeping them both real and separate, but is it difficult to juggle so many different perspectives?

It is, especially since there are times when several of them are in action simultaneously. I had to do a good bit of revision to make sure that I didn’t have a character in one place at the end of a day, and then magically appear in another place the next morning. But as you say, it’s the story of a community rather than an individual, so I thought that moving the point of view from character to character would be important in giving a sense of the totality of that experience. Flowing the action in and out of various characters’ minds is a challenge, but it’s also great fun! I hope readers will enjoy the ride.

Do you have a favorite character and story?

Charlotte Turner has been my favorite since the beginning of the series. She’s a character who just keeps growing and changing as the series develops, in ways that I would not have predicted at first. Non-writers sometimes scoff at our claims that characters can develop and change in ways outside our conscious control, but I’m here to testify that it happens. Charlotte is tough beyond all reckoning, but she also has an immense capacity for love that keeps her going on despite all the struggles that life has given her.

As far as a storyline goes, I am awfully fond of Charley Pettibone’s. He started out in the first book as a goofy, illiterate orphan who more or less chanced into the community and who got caught up in the rush to glory that many young men experienced at the beginning of the Civil War. He came back from the war in the second book as a bitter, hardened young man who was at odds with everyone, but who discovered there were second chapters in life. And by The Language of Trees, he’s become someone who other characters look to for guidance. Of the various characters in the series, he may be the one who has grown the most.

What are you working on now?

The fourth book in the series will take us into the twentieth century with a novel set in the years 1903–1904. That’s another endlessly interesting time period to me. Here in Missouri, it was the time of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, better known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. What a fascinating event! Intended as a celebration of American technological and racial superiority, it also revealed deep splits in the national mind. As an Ozarker, I’m also piqued by that period because it’s about then that the word “hillbilly” first came into use and the popular image of the Ozarks started to take shape.




Steve Wiegenstein was born and raised in the eastern Missouri Ozarks—his folks grew up on adjoining farms, and his family roots go deep in Madison, Iron, and Reynolds counties. He went to college at the University of Missouri. After a few years as a newspaper reporter, he returned to school and became a college professor. He is an avid canoer, rafter, and kayaker; a longtime member, friend, and supporter of the Quincy, IL, Unitarian Church; a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals; and a board member of the Missouri Writers' Guild. Learn more about him and his books at his website and blog.

Follow him on Facebook.





Image credit: “Men Standing in the Lumber Yard at the Ozark Lumber Co., Near Winona.” National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), no. 283583.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Camels, Tea, and Steel-Tipped Parasols

In a pleasant surprise, the wonderful production people at the New Books Network posted my interview with Joan Hess within twenty-four hours.

Some of you may know Joan Hess as a prolific writer of contemporary mysteries, many of them featuring Claire Malloy and another series set in the fictional town of Maggody. But Joan Hess was also a friend of Barbara Mertz, the Egyptologist turned novelist whom I memorialized in “The Sands of Time.” In that post I lamented several characters whom Barbara Mertz created under the pen name of Elizabeth Peters: most notably, Amelia Peabody; her husband, Radcliffe Emerson; and their son, Walter Peabody Emerson, better known as Ramses.

Well, it turns out I mourned their disappearance prematurely. As detailed in the interview, Joan Hess agreed after many refusals to take on the task of completing her friend’s final manuscript, about one-third of which Barbara/Elizabeth had finished before she died. The result is The Painted Queen—a rollicking adventure in the true Elizabeth Peters style that mixes archaeology, criminal activities, murder, and a series of bizarre but engaging twists that involve monocles, camels, and a writer of bodice rippers.

I understand perfectly why Joan Hess resisted the call. How do you finish another person’s manuscript, no matter how well you knew that person or how many scribbled notes she left (many of them illegible, it turns out)? Each author’s style is her own, and if you write contemporary mysteries set in small-town America and your friend uses her vast experience of archaeological digs to produce books set in Victorian and Edwardian England and Egypt, that gap between approaches becomes enormous. As much as I enjoy reading the books that emerge from my writers’ group and coop press, I can’t imagine taking over sparkling holiday romances, edgy historical fantasy with a psychedelic twist, intense character studies of contemporary women’s lives, or the many other works that my friends regularly write. No doubt they would balk at finishing a book inspired by four decades of researching medieval Russia.

Yet it’s to Joan Hess’s credit that she not only took on the project despite her doubts but completed it regardless of the very real stresses imposed by life. The Painted Queen is a beautiful tribute to a beloved author, but it is also a testament to the dedication required to write while mourning the friend whose work sits in front of you every day, demanding that you imagine how that friend would tackle the situations she created and how you can change things (because for sure, she would have changed things during the writing) to enhance the story without distorting its essence, to allow a large set of established characters to grow and develop yet remain true to themselves.

It’s also a darned good story. I learned a lot during this interview—about Barbara Mertz and her flagship series, of course, but also about the complexity of writing under a particular set of circumstances. Although I doubt I could have done the same, I’m very glad that Joan Hess did.

In a small change from my usual style, I am reproducing only part of the post that first aired on New Books in Historical Fiction. I expanded the first part into the longer discussion above.

In this last adventure, set in 1912, Peabody and Emerson have barely set foot in Cairo before the first death occurs: an unknown man wearing a monocle who collapses just inside the door of the bathroom where Peabody is soaking off the grime of her train ride from Alexandria. There is no question that the death is murder, and discovering the identity of the corpse, the reason for his carrying a card bearing the single word “Judas,” and the hand behind the knife that has dispatched the unwanted visitor consumes Peabody and Emerson even as they devote some of their attention to the excavation that has brought them to Egypt. The murderer could be the Master Criminal, defending Peabody from harm. Or s/he could be the representative of a secret society of monocle wearers, bent on revenge.

As Peabody and Emerson, with help from the junior members of their extended family, strive to figure out what’s going on, they must also deal with less deadly intrusions from a missionary named Dullard and the ineffable Ermintrude de Vere Smith, writer of racy romance novels, as well as a disappearing archeologist and an apparently nonstop succession of forgeries purporting to be statues of Nefertiti—the Painted Queen. It all makes for a deliciously entertaining sendoff to a much beloved series, one that Peabody and Emerson fans should not miss.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Vanishing Gallery

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, no matter how hard historical novelists strive to portray their fictional worlds with accuracy, that goal is elusive. Readers usually blame the novelist for errors of omission or commission, and for sure some writers wouldn’t recognize research if it hit them with the proverbial barge pole. Others justify any stretching of the facts by citing the need to tell a good story. This approach, more than any other factor, explains the tendency among academic historians to sniff at historical fiction and those who produce it.

But this response does not do justice to the many historical novelists who do try hard to avoid anachronisms, even in the speech and thoughts of their characters. Furthermore, it ignores an even more fundamental problem: the real gaps that exist in our knowledge of the past.

In my interview a couple of weeks ago with Linnea Hartsuyker we talked about how remarkable it is that she can trace her ancestry through documentation back to the year 1000, although even in Norway most of our current information about daily life in the ninth and tenth centuries comes from archaeology, not documents. I mentioned then how impossible such a genealogical exercise would be in Russia, where even the earliest chronicles exist in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century copies. Only a handful of religious miscellanies survive from the Kievan period (862–1240 AD).
 

The problems don’t stop there. For obvious reasons, well into the sixteenth century (and up to the present in the rural areas that constitute most of the country) the primary building material in Russia was wood. That applied to Moscow as much as anywhere else, although the Kremlin acquired stone walls in the mid-fourteenth century and the familiar brick silhouette in the fifteenth. More and more churches, monasteries, and fortresses were built in stone or brick as time went on, and even the occasional domestic estate: the Old English Court and the house in which Tsar Mikhail Romanov (r. 1613–1645) was born are two sixteenth-century examples that have survived to the present day. But the vast majority of dwellings and shops in Moscow were made of wood. As a result, huge fires swept the city every twenty to thirty years, consuming not only lives and property but records. Historians of medieval Russia struggle with gaps and losses in the documentation every day. So too do historical novelists.
 

Take, for example, the Moscow Kremlin. If any place in Russia should have a voluminous and relatively complete history, it is this one. Yet basic questions about what existed when remain unanswered. The historian who checked The Vermilion Bird (as well as The Winged Horse and The Swan Princess—I am deep in her debt) for errors of fact mentioned the existence of a shielded viewing area from which royal women and children could observe ceremonies in the Palace of Facets, the main reception area for Muscovite grand princes and tsars. We know it was there in the seventeenth century, because the mother and half-sister of Peter the Great watched plays in the Palace of Facets while hidden from view. It appears also to have been used as a musicians’ gallery.

But did it exist in 1537? No amount of research and pleading on my part has so far answered that question. Although the seventeenth-century plays were a European import not known before the Time of Troubles (1598–1613), there were other reasons why such a viewing area might have been regarded as important in the 1530s: not least the dynastic reality that Grand Prince Ivan IV (later crowned as the first tsar and better known as “the Terrible”) had come to the throne in 1533 at the age of three, and his mother, although not a regent in the full European sense, had managed to overcome the many strictures on women and maneuvered her way into power. But even she could not receive foreign envoys or preside over meetings of the most powerful nobles, so she had every incentive to authorize the building of a structure where she could observe without being seen.

In the absence of definite information I decided to use the gallery in The Vermilion Bird. It so perfectly solves a problem for that story, and the solution to that problem could only be manufactured in any event. So as always, I include a disclaimer in the historical note. It is the luxury of fiction, when history fails us, to invent this detail or that.

But rest assured, I prefer the truth. I think many historical novelists feel the same. And many, many thanks to the historians who went out of their way to help me ascertain what that truth might be, even if in the end we had to conclude that the evidence just wasn’t there.



Images: Viktor Vasnetsov, The Seventeenth-Century Kremlin in Moscow (1913), public domain via Pinterest; Szymon Boguszowicz, Reception of the Polish Envoys by False Dmitry I (1606), showing the interior of the Palace of Facets, apparently as viewed from above, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Falcon Strikes



It’s always exciting to announce a new book, especially an addition to a series one loves. So it’s a special pleasure to highlight Gabrielle Mathieu’s The Falcon Strikes in this week’s post.

For those of you who missed the first book, Mathieu’s Falcon trilogy features a gifted young woman named Peppa Mueller, who has been sent to Switzerland following the death of her father, a Harvard professor whose eccentric ideas on child rearing leave his daughter precociously competent in chemistry but ill equipped for the conventional lifestyle adopted by her Swiss relatives in 1957. When we meet her, Peppa has two weeks to wait until her twentieth birthday, when she can claim the fortune left to her by her father, kiss the relatives goodbye, and take up the place at Radcliffe that her aunt and uncle view as wholly unsuitable for a proper young lady. But involuntary exposure to hallucinogens sends Peppa off on a very different journey, one that connects her with her inner protective totem—a peregrine falcon.

The consequences of that journey mean that in book 2 Peppa regards herself as contaminated, a danger to the man she loves. When she learns that one of the people behind the hallucinogen experiment has traveled to Ireland, where the conflict between the Irish Republican Army and the British forces in Ulster has entered a new phase, off Peppa goes to spike her enemy’s guns. But the Irish conflict has twists and turns not easily understood by a young woman raised in the United States and Switzerland, even one with a grandmother living in a Galway castle. Despite Peppa’s efforts to contain her totem, she discovers that she must draw on the protection offered by the falcon to survive.

Find out more and listen to/read an excerpt at the Five Directions Press website. It is not necessary to have read The Falcon Flies Alone first to understand the sequel, but if you want to avoid spoilers, I recommend it.

You can also hear an interview with the author at New Books in Historical Fiction. And don’t miss Gabrielle Mathieu’s own website and blog, where she discusses the Falcon trilogy, what lies behind it, and the other books she has underway.

And now an excerpt from chapter 1 of The Falcon Strikes, “A Cold Awakening.”
I woke up from a muddle of dreams, heart pounding. Where was I?

In Ireland. I was in Dublin—I’d just arrived that morning.

I sensed an inert heavy body on the mattress.

The familiar sense of dread erupted. What had I done this time?

But it’s not you.

That was a matter of semantics. It was something in me. Educated society had no name for my condition. A witch doctor would have understood.

I was unpredictable. When threatened, my first instinct was to kill.

And I knew how to do it fast.

No stranger looking at me, a gawky twenty-year old girl with an appetite for Latin and chemistry, would guess that I could break someone’s neck as quick as a blink. It was an instinctive reaction to danger.

I lay still, afraid to look. My heart hammered in my chest, and perspiration drenched me.




Gabrielle Mathieu lived on three continents by the age of eight. She’d experienced the bustling bazaars of Pakistan, the serenity of Swiss mountain lakes, and the chaos of the immigration desk at the JFK Airport. Perhaps that’s why she developed an appetite for the unusual and disorienting. Her fantasy books are grounded in her experience of different cultures and interest in altered states of consciousness (mostly white wine and yoga these days). Five Directions Press published the first book in the Falcon trilogy, The Falcon Flies Alone, in 2016.

She is also the host of New Books in Fantasy and Adventure, a channel in the New Books Network.


Follow her on Twitter.

Like her on Facebook.

And definitely buy and read her books. As one reviewer put it, you’ll be in for “the flight of your life.”

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Power of the Sea

Not too many people can trace their ancestry, through documents, back more than a millennium. Linnea Hartsuyker, my latest guest at New Books in Historical Fiction, is one of the few. When she was still in high school, her relatives set out to trace their ancestry and discovered that they were descended from Harald Fairhair, the first king of a united (or perhaps semi-united) Norway. From that past—and after a lot of research in Norse sagas, archeology, and much more, which we discuss during the interview—Linnea has crafted a trilogy set among her ninth-century ancestors. The Half-Drowned King appeared this month, The Sea Queen is scheduled for the summer of 2018, and The Golden Wolf will arrive a year later.

Harald Fairhair certainly appears in the series; Linnea describes him as a catalyst for the action. But the series focuses on Ragnvald, a young man who became Harald’s adviser; Ragnvald’s sister, Svanhild, desperate to escape an arranged marriage to an elderly neighbor; and Solvi, the trickster antagonist whose choices alternately aid and impede the quests of Ragnvald and his sister. These three, and the many other characters who cross their path, live in a richly detailed and imagined world governed by often erratic gods and goddesses who at times take a personal interest in their fates.

Linnea also maintains an active blog, where she discusses writing, her books, the pluses and minuses of an MFA, Viking culture, and many other things. So give our interview a listen, then follow up on the blog—and above all, if you like historical fiction with a touch of fantasy and a different approach, seek out The Half-Drowned King. And apologies for some lack of clarity in the sound: we were trying something new, designed to improve that very clarity, and it didn’t work as well as expected.

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


Ragnvald Eysteinsson is returning from raiding in Ireland under the leadership of Solvi and focused on winning a contest with his fellow sailors when Solvi attacks. Ragnvald falls into the fjord and is given up for dead. But a fisherman pulls him out, and when Ragnvald recovers enough from his wounds and near-drowning to reach his home in southern Norway, he learns that his own stepfather paid Solvi to ensure that Ragnvald would never survive to reclaim the lands left him by his father. Cut off from home and family, denied the bride he was promised, Ragnvald sets out to recoup his fortunes and avenge his wrongs by swearing service for a year to Hakon, lord of a neighboring kingdom.

Meanwhile, Ragnvald’s sister has her own issues with their stepfather—most notably, his plans to marry her off to a rich elderly neighbor. A handsome young seafarer catches her eye. Unfortunately for them both, the seafarer is Solvi …

In The Half-Drowned King, the first book in a trilogy, Linnea Hartsuyker provides a richly detailed and captivating portrait of three young people whose hearts war with their loyalties in the turbulent period leading up to the establishment of the first united Norwegian kingdom.