Friday, June 15, 2018

Interview with Kari Bovee

Here’s another interesting book whose author I didn’t have space to fit into my interview schedule. Girl with a Gun kicks off a new mystery series featuring Annie Oakley, the crack sharpshooter who performed with Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling show.

I could give a more extensive introduction, but Kari Bovée has sent such wonderfully extensive and informative answers to my questions that I’m just going to get out of her way. Read to the bottom to get her website and social media links, as well as more information about Kari herself.

I won’t ask you how you got into writing fiction, as I normally do, because your website tells me that you always have. But why Annie Oakley?

Several years ago, I saw a PBS American Experience special on Annie Oakley. Previously, I had always thought she was portrayed as a “goody-two shoes,” almost cartoon-like figure in history, but when I watched the special, I realized she had an incredible depth of character. She didn’t have the most wonderful childhood. Her father died when she was young, so the family struggled with poverty. She was farmed out to another family who abused her, and she had a responsibility to contribute to the well-being of her family at a very young age. Despite all of that, she went on to become wildly famous as a sharpshooter, but fame didn’t change her. Women in show business at the time were considered less than upstanding, but she was ferociously protective of her good name and reputation. Though she worked in a man’s field, she maintained her femininity. She was always covered from head to toe, and she let her talent, not her looks, shine. In her later years she was devoted to empowering women by teaching them to shoot, but she never maintained she was a feminist. She was just Annie Oakley. She had the courage to be herself.

And who is Annie to you? That is, how do you see her as a character who is at the same time historical and your creation?

We never really know what was going on in the minds or emotions of people in history. We see them through their actions, what they’ve written, and what they’ve reportedly said, but we don’t really know what their deepest fears were, or what they secretly wanted in life. That is up to interpretation. I’ve taken what I have learned about Annie Oakley and surmised that she was gutsy, smart, lovable and loving, and incredibly talented at something a woman rarely pursued—and bested most men in her field. She did not live the life of a normal woman in 1885. Given the scope of the Wild West Show’s travels, and what Annie did for a living, I thought she would make an excellent amateur sleuth. One who is driven by seeking the truth and finding justice. 

On the first page of the prologue, we encounter our first sudden death. Set the stage for us, please. Who is Kimi, and what’s going on there?

Kimi is the (fictitious) adopted daughter of Buffalo Bill Cody; she works in the show as a costume designer and Annie’s assistant. When we meet her we see she is unhappy and a loner. She’s been ostracized from her people, and she doesn’t fit in with the cast or crew of the show. In fact, she is despised by Buffalo Bill’s mistress, Twila Midnight. Annie is not comfortable with someone working “under her” and accepts Kimi immediately as a peer, even a sister. She identifies with her as someone who is different and wants different things out of life, and they form a bond. When Kimi dies, Annie is distraught, especially since Kimi has a baby girl. She does not accept that Kimi died of natural causes, given what Kimi has shared with her, and there is evidence she’d been beaten. This sets the course for Annie to find out what really happened to her friend.

In chapter 1 we meet Annie, still called Annie Mosey. I was surprised to discover that Annie was raised a Quaker. How does that square with her skills as a sharpshooter? How does it influence her decisions?

I don’t know much about how Annie felt about being a Quaker, but I thought it was an interesting part of her past. From what I understand, Quakerism supports the idea that we are all equal beings. In fact, they don’t use titles or monikers for others, they are simply Friends. They live a life of modesty and service to God. I thought it would be interesting if Annie struggled with this. After all, she became a famous sharpshooter—a celebrity. Hardly a modest undertaking. In my interpretation, Annie wants more out of life than to settle into a quiet Quaker lifestyle—she wants to be somebody. She wants to get out into the world and become something greater than herself. In the book, Annie is constantly wrestling with what she “should” do and be, how she was raised, and what she really wants out of life. 

Next we meet Frank Butler. What is his role in the book? What can you tell us about him and his past?

Frank Butler was the true love of Annie’s life. An Irish immigrant, he came to the United States when he was thirteen. He later became a famous sharpshooter, and they met when she beat him in a shooting contest. Instead of being intimidated by the skill of this tiny fifteen-year-old girl, he was smitten with her. In my story, his family has settled in the south, in Kentucky, where they own and operate a horse breeding farm. Like Annie, he has some unpleasant things from his past he is grappling with, and he ultimately confides in her. He, of course, plays the romantic interest in the book, but it takes them a while to get together.

And how would you describe their relationship?

For the sake of the story, I have created a lot of tension between Frank and Annie. He’s a world-famous sharpshooter on the decline, and she’s a girl from North Star, Ohio, on the rise. He’s threatened by her talent and her fame, but he’s falling in love with her at the same time. To Annie, Frank is this larger-than-life, sophisticated character whom she admires but feels is way out of her league. She does not try to impress him, or change to make him like her; she continues to be herself, and her skills keep him on his toes.

Again from your website I see that you have plans to bring out several more Annie Oakley mysteries over the next year. What’s your schedule, for these and your other two series?

The next book in the Annie Oakley series, titled Peccadillo at the Palace, comes out in May 2019 with Spark Press. I will also release a prequel novella to the series in the fall of this year. As for the third book in the series, I hope to release it in 2020—and will possibly continue on with Annie and her adventures.

I have another historical mystery series that takes place in New York City in the 1920s featuring a costume designer who works in the Ziegfeld Follies as the amateur sleuth. Lots of good stuff to draw from there! The first book of the series is called Grace in the Wings. It’s ready to go, but I’m not sure how or when it will be published. I’m working on it!

My Southwestern historical mystery series is underway. The first book in the series, titled Bones of the Redeemed, takes place in the 1950s and features protagonist Mackenzie Delgado, an archeology student in pursuit of her PhD. While digging she stumbles upon remains that lead her to uncover the existence of a secret society and the people they are murdering in the name of religion. I’m not sure when it will be ready for publication. Hopefully within the next two years.

Thanks so much for answering my questions, Kari. Good luck with your many writing projects!

Kari Bovée has always loved telling stories. She now has three historical mystery series about empowered women in the works, including several other Annie Oakley novels. She is an avid horsewoman and loves to spend as much time as she can with her four horses. Girl with a Gun is just the first of her books to appear in print. You can find out more about her and her series at

Or follow her on social media: 


Friday, June 8, 2018

The Other Side of the Story

Because my bailiwick is historical fiction, and we have a wonderful fantasy and adventure host who writes historical fantasy novels of her own—Gabrielle Mathieu—I normally don’t get to tackle a book like Danielle Teller’s All the Ever Afters. Yet this time the cards fell my way, and I’m so glad they did.

My luck turned out to be doubled, because not only did I have the chance to read this exploration of a well-known fairy tale as viewed from the perspective of the “villain,” but I also discovered early on that the book really is, as I say in the introduction to my New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Danielle Teller, more historical fiction than historical fantasy.

This is Cinderella as you’ve never encountered her, with non-magical explanations supplied for everything from the glass slipper to the fairy godmother. Indeed, half the fun lies in recognizing the clever ways in which Danielle Teller renders the impossible credible. But stripped of its fairy-tale shell, this is a book about a young woman who starts life low on the social ladder and through her native ability, determination, and ambition rises high in a land visibly recognizable as late medieval England. It’s well worth reading for that story alone, although the sneak attacks by familiar elements of the traditional tale only add to the pleasure.

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

Most of us hear the Cinderella story in childhood: a mean stepmother favors her own daughters and controls her hapless husband, turning the sweet and innocent Cinderella into a scullery maid and refusing to let her attend the royal ball, only to be thwarted by a fairy godmother and Cinderella’s own beauty and charm. Cinderella marries Prince Charming and lives happily ever after, while the stepmother and stepsisters get their just deserts.

But Danielle Teller has a different take on this familiar story. In All the Ever Afters her heroine, Agnes, starts life as a serf and through a combination of hard work, good luck, and a stubborn refusal to break under adversity works her way up to the position of lady of the manor. There she finds herself dealing with a somewhat difficult girl named Ella, whose life of privilege so far exceeds that of Agnes and her two beloved daughters that the usual difficulties attending the stepmother/stepchild relationship are magnified by mutual incomprehension.

With a delightfully playful approach, Danielle Teller recasts the magical elements of the fairy tale and weaves them into a much richer exploration of social contrasts and constraints of the medieval world, especially as those boundaries affected women.

And as becomes clear from the opening page, Prince Charming may not have been such a catch after all….

Friday, June 1, 2018

Interview with Sally Koslow

 For better or worse, the Big Five publishers tend to focus their main publicity efforts on a novel’s release date and the weeks immediately surrounding that date. I won’t argue with them—for sure, they know more about publicity than I ever will. But when two books release on the same day, that means someone gets shifted to the blog. In this case, the decision was easy, because I have had so many books on US or World War II history this year that it made sense to favor the book set in medieval England, even a somewhat fantastical England, over the other, equally worthy and enjoyable candidate.

I must admit, I was never a huge F. Scott Fitzgerald fan. Having been forced to read The Great Gatsby in high school, when I was in no way mentally prepared to appreciate it, turned me off. But as an, ahem, more experienced adult, I have learned to value Fitzgerald. And this novel, about an episode in his life about which I knew nothing, really appealed to me. So read on, and find out more.

You have written several previous novels, as well as a nonfiction book on parenting, but Another Side of Paradise marks, as I understand it, your entry into historical fiction. Was this a departure for you in terms of writing, or did you approach the story in very much the same way as your previous novels?

Every one of my novels has, as its center, a feisty female character, so in this respect, Another Side of Paradise is no exception. The book required, however, far more research than my contemporary novels: reading all of Sheilah’s memoirs (there were quite a few) and as many of her columns as I could find along with biographies and articles that mentioned either Sheilah Graham or F. Scott Fitzgerald during the time period of my book. This was in addition to the general research a historical novelist does to avoid anachronisms. The character can’t be wearing nylon stockings if they hadn’t been manufactured yet. Slouching Toward Adulthood, which was less a “parenting” book than one of cultural observation, required many interviews with parents and people in their 20s and 30s—people I had to track down—a different sort of research altogether.

We tend to think of Fitzgerald primarily in association with his wife, Zelda. It was news to me, in fact, that he’d had this later relationship with Sheilah Graham. What drew you to write about the end of Fitzgerald’s life rather than the earlier, more successful stage of his career?

The stage of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life when he was the reigning literary prince of the Jazz Age is well chronicled. His later years, less so.  Zelda had to be hospitalized for mental illness, and Scott faded into obscurity, plagued by debt, alcoholism, health problems, writer’s block, anxiety, and loneliness. To make money, he moved to Hollywood to write scripts. It was at this moment that Sheilah met Scott. I was drawn to his vulnerability, which I found touching. Sheilah helped Scott find his voice again, and he, in turn, nurtured her. Theirs was a relationship based not only on physical chemistry but a meeting of the minds. Scott was a natural teacher and Sheilah an eager student whose formal education, to her regret, ended when she was only fourteen. Through what he christened “The F. Scott Fitzgerald College for One,” Scott tutored Sheilah in the humanities, and she helped to give him the stability and confidence to start a new novel, The Last Tycoon, in which the character of Kathleen is based on Sheilah. I wanted today’s readers, who continue to buy The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s other novels, to know about this chapter in Scott’s life and to get to know a remarkable woman.

Sheilah Graham is quite a character in her own right—in fact, more the focus of the novel than Fitzgerald. What can you tell us about her?

I felt that readers would come to this novel with a sense of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Sheilah would be unknown or at least less clear; even if people had read her long out-of-print memoir, Beloved Infidel, which was made into a movie, the book contained some glaring omissions, and the movie, by Sheilah’s own account, was miscast, with Deborah Kerr in the lead, rather than an earthy blonde. Sheilah had many attributes I admire. She was self-sufficient, smart, and kind. For example, after she divorced her first husband, Major John Gilliam, they remained lifelong friends and Sheilah sent him money for his entire life. She was cunning and strategic, but she had to be—this is a woman who never depended on a man for her livelihood. That Sheilah was secretive about her Jewish background I found interesting, and I wanted to get to the roots of what caused her to deny her roots.

And how would you describe their relationship? What pulls them together?

In each other, I think Sheilah Graham and F. Scott Fitzgerald recognized a person who was isolated from his/her peers. Sheilah didn’t let people become close because she kept many secrets. Scott felt humiliated by his fall from grace, was aware that former admirers considered him a has-been, and with a wife in an asylum was a lonesome romantic. Scott and Sheilah offered one another a fresh start and the chance for a tender, deeply private relationship built around mutual attraction for one another’s mind and soul as well as their bodies. They also each had a well-developed sense of humor and fun. They often hung out at home, reading, listening to music, cooking, or dancing to the radio.

Another Side of Paradise was released on May 29. Do you already have another novel in the works, and if so, would you give us a hint or two about what to expect?

Most likely, I’ll write another biographical novel, but I haven’t nailed down a subject with whom I feel I could live for two years, which is how long it takes to write this sort of research-dependent book. I can tell you it won’t be about Diana Vreeland, Maria Callas, Ivanka Trump, or a World War II spy, four subjects I researched and decided against for one good reason or another. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Wishing you the best of luck finding a new subject, and thanks so much for sharing your time with us, Sally!

Sally Koslow, former editor-in-chief of McCall’s Magazine, has taught writing and published extensively in newspapers and magazines. She is the author of five novels—Another Side of Paradise, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, The Widow Waltz, With Friends Like These, and Little Pink Slips—and the nonfiction book Slouching Toward Adulthood: How to Let Go So Your Kids Can Grow Up. You can find out more about her and her books at

Friday, May 25, 2018

Checking In with Ashley Sweeney

Two years ago this month, Ashley Sweeney released her debut novel, Eliza Waite. The book chronicles the life of a young woman who, having lost her husband and her beloved son in an epidemic, ends up living alone for several years on Cypress Island, in the Puget Sound. Once a month or so, Eliza rows across the Sound to collect supplies. Occasionally, after visiting her son’s grave, she stops to share a cup of tea and the baked goods she brings with one of the island’s few remaining residents. Otherwise, she supports herself entirely on her own emotional and material resources, in a life of hardship and unending toil, until a lucky find gets her a boat ticket to Skagway, Alaska. There she establishes a café and a new, less isolated life.

As I noted in my New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Ashley Sweeney and my original follow-up post on this blog (July 22, 2016), food plays an important part in Eliza Waite. Now I love historical research, whether it is for  scholarly publications or novels, but the research that went into this novel is particularly tempting, in every sense of that word. Because each one of Eliza’s recipes comes from a newspaper or magazine from the 1890s, and each one underwent extensive testing by Ashley Sweeney and her friends. They had to, because as you’ll see from what follows, recipes and ingredients were approached much more flexibly in the 1890s than in our digital, technological, count time by the seconds age.

But what is especially charming about this book is that each recipe has a specific place in the evolving story. For example, on September 1, 1896, Eliza is having second thoughts about enduring a second winter alone on Cypress Island. Although she has just injured her leg quite severely, she takes a long walk to visit her son’s grave—the reason she can’t bear to leave the island—and drops off a cake at the porch of that remaining resident. The recipe follows right away (saleratus is similar to what we call baking soda).

This is one of the best of plain cakes, and is very easily made.
Take one teacup of strong coffee infusion, one teacup molasses, one teacup sugar, one-half teacup butter, one egg, and one teaspoonful saleratus.
Add pinch of salt.
Add spice and raisins to suit the taste, and enough flour to make a reasonably thick batter.
Bake rather slowly in tin pans lined with buttered paper.
Top with cinnamon sugar and serve warm.

Three months later, Eliza greets December 31, 1896, with a list of tasks, one of which involves making her mother’s fruitcake, a symbol of home and family.

One teacup of butter, two of brown sugar, one of molasses, one of strong coffee, four and one-half of flour; four eggs; two teaspoonfuls of saleratus, two of cinnamon, two of cloves, two of mace; one pound of raisins, one pound of currants, one-quarter pound of citron.
Be careful to cut paper for each loaf pan before putting in the mixture.
Bake in layers and put together with icing.
Leave out the currants if you like.

By September 29, 1898, Eliza has made it to Alaska and established her own  café in Skagway, where she has become renowned for her cinnamon buns and other baked goods—instructions for which are all supplied in the text. As she goes out to run errands, she encounters a stand of wild rhubarb.

Mix together one-half teacup lard, one egg, two teaspoonfuls vanilla, one teacup buttermilk, and two teacups diced rhubarb. Set aside.
In second bowl, mix two and one-half teacups flour, one-half teacup brown sugar, two teaspoons saleratus, pinch of salt and one-half teacup shelled walnuts, if you choose.
Fold mixtures together and spoon into greased muffin cups.
Bake until toothpick comes clean.

And so it goes, one landmark-signifying recipe after another, from Ida’s Coffee Cake to the Pecan Tarts that close out the recipes on November 29, 1898. The story continues up to the epilogue in March 1900, but the bulk of Eliza’s transformation has already taken place, and only the resolution remains.

Note, too, that the creative use of baked goods doesn’t begin to capture the many pleasures of this wonderful novel. Its greatest asset is Eliza herself, a woman who keeps stubbornly moving forward, no matter what life throws in her path. As she does, she encounters a group of complex and believable characters who intersect in at times unexpected ways. Even the geographical locations acquire distinct natures of their own, forcing Eliza to adapt to their idiosyncrasies. It’s no wonder this book has won numerous awards.

You can find out more about the author and her book at her website, or you can go straight to Amazon for the paperback or e-book. But either way, don’t forget to set aside some time to test out the recipes. It would be a shame to let all that lovely research go to waste.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Power of Hope

Someone casting a cursory glance at Ellen Notbohm’s The River by Starlight might mistake it for a historical romance. For sure, the central relationship of the novel, between Annie Rushton and her eventual husband Adam Fielding, is certainly both passionate and intense, but the real contribution of this novel is the way it fleshes out and complicates its characters, gradually revealing their traumas and flaws, their desperate desire to connect with each other and the ways in which their individual personalities and the demands inflicted on them by society and by fate alternately tie them together and push them apart.

Annie and Adam are, in many ways, ordinary people living ordinary lives. Except for the absence of appliances and technology in the early twentieth-century “Wild West,” they could be our next-door neighbors, our friends. But we know from the time we meet Annie that she has a tragedy in her past: a loving marriage and a beautiful baby ripped from her as the result of her own postpartum depression. When she moves to Montana and meets, then marries, Adam, she longs for another chance at motherhood, perhaps even a resolution of—or restitution for—her earlier loss. But one crisis after another strips each baby from her, and her (and Adam’s) psychological responses to each new grief eat away at their otherwise functioning partnership.

Even so, as Ellen Notbohm emphasizes throughout our interview, this is ultimately a book about hope—hope found in sometimes unexpected places, but hope that is nonetheless ultimately fulfilled. What sets The River by Starlight apart is its author’s rich appreciation of human frailty and resilience. For me, that made it a deeply satisfying read.

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

When Annie Rushton heads west to keep house for her older brother on his Montana homestead, she expects to leave marriage and motherhood behind her. After all, the husband she walked out on at twenty, after the birth of their daughter sent her into a spiral of panic and depression, has divorced her and forbidden contact with their baby, citing fears for his own and the child’s safety. In 1911, a record like that should keep most men at bay.

Adam Fielding also has no interest in marriage, but he’s drawn to Annie from the start, despite the frequent clashes of will between them. When her older brother sells them the homestead and skips town, Annie and Adam settle into a partnership that is as economically successful as it is romantic. But fate intervenes to prevent them from having a child, and with each disaster the return of Annie’s depression drives her farther apart from the husband she loves. In a world that understands psychological conditions as lapses in morality, the judgment passed on Annie is harsh and unyielding. Yet somehow she manages to hold on to hope.

Ellen Notbohm’s thought-provoking and beautifully written debut novel, The River by Starlight (She Writes Press, 2018), dives into the depths of family life and individual psychosis and uncovers a cast of complex and compelling characters that will keep you entranced to the last page.