Friday, October 18, 2019

Interview with Joan Schweighardt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can we expect in Rivers 3?

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

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Thank you very much.



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

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Friday, October 11, 2019

Writing Wayland

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

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

From Rita Sims Quillen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 4, 2019

Unwedded Bliss?

I tend not to think of the 1950s as history. After all, I regularly spend many mental hours in the 1550s—or earlier—and I remember the second half of the 1950s, so how can it be the past, in the same way that Muscovite Russia is a time long gone? But as I read Sofia Grant’s new historical novel, Lies in White Dresses, I realized that indeed the world she portrays has ceased to exist, in the same way (if not perhaps to the same degree) as the court of Ivan the Terrible has ceased to be.

Most notable is the vast difference in our ideas of what must remain private, the shame associated with marriages that don’t work (and some of the reasons why at least one of those marriages doesn’t work) or with even such simple things as physical defects or mental imbalances. In a life before the Internet, never mind social media, views about sharing the details of one’s life were much stricter.

In some ways, that was a good thing. The endless scandals that bring down otherwise competent politicians and threaten the lives of princesses were less frequent then. But so were exposures of deeds that claimed real victims: spousal abuse, harassment at work. And women of talent and ability often felt compelled to follow the path of marriage and child-rearing, lest they face blame for their failure to get (or keep) a man. Even divorce carried a stigma, although by 1952 that had started to fade.

Sofia Grant and I explore these themes and more in our New Books Network interview. And don’t miss the Q&A I ran here on this blog when she published her first historical novel, The Dress in the Window. 

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

Francie Meeker and her best friend, Vi Carothers, bought into the promise offered to middle-class, especially white, women in the mid-twentieth-century United States: find a man with a good career, marry young, stay at home, raise the children, keep house, and all will be well.

By 1952, despite some successes, reality has killed this dream. So at the beginning of Lies in White Dresses (William Morrow, 2019)—the sparkling new novel by Sofia Grant, who is also the author of The Dress in the Window and The Daisy Children—Francie and Vi are boarding a train to Reno, Nevada. There, after six weeks residency, they can file for divorce.

On the train they meet a young woman, June Samples, traveling with a small child. Unlike Francie and Vi, June has almost no means of support. Vi takes a liking to the younger woman and, when they reach Reno, she invites June to share her hotel suite.

The first night, a babysitting job brings the threesome to the attention of Virgie, the hotel keeper’s daughter and a self-styled detective. Then, not long after their arrival, the local police report that Vi has drowned. Virgie is convinced she knows what happened. But who will believe a twelve-year-old girl?

Compared to medieval Europe or Han Dynasty China, the 1940s and 1950s do not seem so long ago. But as Sofia Grant makes clear in this page-turning novel, in many respects the previous century was indeed a different world.

And on another note, if you missed my previous interview with Linnea Hartsuyker about her Viking saga, you can find more information about that and a link to the interview on the Literary Hub.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Bookshelf, Fall 2019

Yes, indeed, fall is here, and a new crop of books has arrived to keep my shelves nice and full. In addition to Sofia Grant’s Lies in White Dresses (on which more next week, when that interview posts), Talia Carner’s The Third Daughter (interview completed this week, not sure yet when it will go live on the New Books Network), and Georgie Blalock’s The Other Windsor Girl, scheduled for a written Q&A here in early November, I have the following titles lined up—all eventually destined for interviews, or so I hope.

Order is alphabetical, as we’re still working out details of the schedule. So far, I’ve had time to read only one. To find out which one, read on.

Like half the rest of the world, I discovered Tracy Chevalier through The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Loved the book, even more than the movie, and squealed with glee when her publicist wrote to me about her latest novel, A Single Thread, set in Britain in 1932. Here Violet Speedwell, one of the many women left alone by the Great War, chooses to move to Winchester rather than spend any more of her life caring for her embittered mother. There Violet becomes involved with a society of embroiderers associated with the cathedral. But as she settles in, the specter of a new war threatens, placing everything she has worked for at risk.

Yes, another Uhtred novel—no. 12, I believe. But really, can one ever have too much Uhtred? In Sword of Kings, King Edward (successor to Alfred the Great) is dying. Uhtred wants nothing more than to stay and guard Northumbria, his home and now the last outpost standing against the Saxon kings’ complete control of England. Apart from anything else, he’s getting on in years, and war doesn’t have the appeal to him that it did in his teens and twenties.

But once again, the oath he has sworn to Aethelstan calls Uhtred south and into the battle among the rival candidates for Edward’s throne.

Although its title, Bound in Flame, sounds like a bodice ripper, the cover images of Kathryne Kayne’s new novel redirect us to Hawai’i in 1906-9. There a young woman, Letty Lang, struggles to reconcile her love of animals, her campaign for female suffrage, a romantic relationship that she may have to protect from her own otherworldly powers, and a special tie to her native land, recently and forcibly annexed by the United States. The flames represent, more than anything else, the island’s many volcanoes—but perhaps also the fire of Lily’s own nature. This first volume in a new series about the ranching women of early twentieth-century Hawai’i, stands out for me because so few writers have chosen to tackle this subject in fiction.

I heard about Lara Prescott’s debut novel, The Secrets We Kept, on NPR Weekend Edition, during the author’s interview with Scott Simon, one of my heroes. When I saw it listed again on a list of most awaited fiction for the fall of 2019, I knew I had to follow up. Doctor Zhivago, the CIA in the United States and Russia, female typists working for the CIA? How could a historian of Russia resist? I’ll be talking to the author, I hope, sometime in December and January, after her hectic book tour calms down.


In January of this year, I featured The Black Ascot, by the ultra-productive mother-son team that publishes as Charles Todd, on this blog. I loved that book and was amazed to realize that it was no. 21 in a series I’d never heard of, never mind that the author(s) also had a second series centered on a World War I nurse named Bess Crawford, with ten books, and a couple of stand-alone novels as well. So when their publicist pitched me on Bess no. 11, A Cruel Deception, I knew I had to follow up. This is the one book I just finished, in advance of an interview in mid-October, and I really enjoyed it.

Here the war has ended, and Bess’s matron sends her to France to find out what has happened to the matron’s son. Bess assumes the worst, and she’s not far off track there, but the solution to the puzzle takes her in directions that are at once not anticipated at the beginning and completely in line with what we now know about the experience of soldiers stuck in the trenches for far too long. 

Bess is smart and independent, empathic and caring, blunt when it counts and tactful when she needs to be—a heroine I want to learn more about, as soon as I shrink those book piles down to a reasonable size....

Image: Cat watching sunset from Pixabay (no attribution required).

Friday, September 20, 2019

Body Language

This week I had the pleasure of meeting in person, for the first time, a writer with whom I’ve been corresponding by e-mail for the last three and a half years. She’s a member of Five Directions Press, so the other two founders—that is, the rest of my writers’ group—have also been in e-mail contact with her since 2016, but only I have had the chance to talk with her via Skype in connection with the New Books Network.

The meetings went very well, but that’s not the point of my post. What I realized once again based on these relatively brief encounters, which lasted altogether no more than six or seven hours spread across a weekend, is how much body language and expression affect understanding and, in a sense, what a difficult task we novelists assign ourselves. Even scriptwriters have the advantage of knowing that their words will be given life by actors who may not look exactly like the characters in the writers’ heads but who, if talented, can convey all the nuances of emotion that stance and expression and voice communicate so much more effectively than words on a page.

I know: this isn’t exactly earth-shattering news. Most of us know, if we stop to think, how readily text messages and e-mail lead to misunderstandings. Why else do we constantly expand the range of emojis in the vain hope of underlining that, yes, that snarky comment was intended as a joke—something we would never need to do in real life because tone and laughing face make the point for us.

Nevertheless, when we sit down to write—and even to read—it’s worth thinking about how much work goes into revealing not just what characters say but what they mean. On a movie screen, we can guess: an actor smiles, and we know right away whether that smile conveys joy, naiveté, surprise, sarcasm, or any one of a dozen other reactions or combinations of reaction. We know even when the character says something quite different. 

But a writer can’t keep saying “he smiled” or “she frowned.” It gets boring. “She smiled sarcastically” or “he frowned in contemplation” is permissible once in a while, but used too often it draws attention to itself in the wrong ways. Shouldn’t the reader be able to tell from the dialogue if a character is angry or thoughtful, sarcastic or sincere?

Novelists and short story writers do have one asset unavailable to script- and screenwriters and even ordinary listeners: the internal monologue. When a character means one thing and says another, we can show what goes through that person’s head. We can also illustrate different interpretations through dialogue: Character A says this, and Character B reacts with that. And we have action verbs, which get to body language: a person who struts leaves a different impression from one who strolls, strides, or minces.

That’s part of the fun of writing fiction, at least for me. How do I differentiate my characters through language, gesture, mode of thought, appearance? How do I fill them out and bring them to life so that readers can relate to these imaginary people as friends, family, or no one they’d ever want to associate with in real life?

Yet sometimes, I’d just like to sit them down for a cup of coffee. Or turn them over to a crackerjack film director and her handpicked cast to see what the professionals could do with them. Because what counts is the body language, when all’s said and done.

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