Friday, January 15, 2021

Interview with Connie Palmen

One of the fun elements of writing fiction is the chance to explore hidden facets of a familiar story. This is especially true—although also a particular challenge—when the characters and events in the novel are real, yet the author’s perspective offers new insights on what we have assumed is a familiar, even trite, tale.

The marriage of the poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963, and her husband Ted Hughes (also a poet) is an example of this phenomenon. The subject of a thousand-page biography recently reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, itself the latest addition to a vast literature on the poet’s life and death, Plath has become an iconic figure. Non-scholars passed judgment on her and her husband long ago. Yet in Your Story, My Story Connie Palmen does an exemplary job of overturning our expectations by presenting the couple’s relationship from Ted Hughes’ point of view. Moreover, she succeeds without sugar-coating Hughes’ personality. Issued in English translation just two weeks ago, this is a novel well worth seeking out. Read on to learn more about both the book and its author.

This book is not your first. Is there a theme that ties your prior works together?

When you a write a novel, there is never only one reason to do so; there are a lot of reasons, tangled themes, fascinations, love for a specific genre, love for other novels, the never-ending need to understand more about life and about yourself. The theme that guides a lot of my novels is the sometimes devastating influence of how we talk about other people. After the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath, the life of Ted Hughes became the subject of gossip, nasty stories, myths, biographies. It was no longer his.
 

What drew you not just to Sylvia Plath’s story but to Ted Hughes’ side of it?

When I was mourning the loss of my husband, I read Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, published just before his death. I was struck by how poignant and heartfelt the poems were. I felt they pointed to Hughes’ deep love for Sylvia and the pain he endured as a result of her death—a pain with which I could relate. The more I delved into Hughes’ poetry, the more compelled I felt to tell Ted’s side of the story.

And how do you see Ted Hughes, a historical personage who as a literary character must be in part your creation?

While working with my excellent translators, Anna Asbury and Eileen J. Stevens, I described Your Story, My Story as my “Judas” novel. The Judas connection is crucial here, as my Ted Hughes character states from the beginning that the key events in his relationship with Sylvia were set in stone before they ever met. In other words, the trajectory of their marriage was fixed from their first encounter. Does that absolve him of all guilt in this tale? Was he simply an unsuspecting accomplice? Or does this make Sylvia less of a victim? I have tried to relate this story impartially, leaving room for ambiguity in spite of narrating only one side. It is up to each reader to decide.

How do you understand Sylvia Plath, her personality and her suicide?

As a writer, philosopher, and as Ted Hughes, I try to understand Sylvia Plath’s suicide, and suicide in general. In the novel Hughes acknowledges in her personality a radical thread, a longing for purity, and a willingness to sacrifice her false self to become more real and clean. This longing might be a part of understanding her, but people are complex and there is never only one explanation for our behavior.

No story is one-sided. What were the strengths and weaknesses of their marriage, in your view?

Hughes was not a monster, and Plath was not a saint.

What is most important for potential readers to know about this story, as you tell it?

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were one of the most famous romantic couples in modern Western literature. In countless biographies of Plath, she is given the status of martyr and Hughes that of a traitor and murderer, while Hughes was reviled by strangers and even sued by people he once considered his friends.  

I wanted to describe the thoughts, fears, and incantations of this husband, and his deeply tragic bond with the woman who would come to define his life.

You write in Dutch. The translation seems very fluid and well done, but does the act of translation change a literary work in some way?

A good translator understands how and what a writer wanted to tell, and she preserves the essence of a novel. That is the wonder of reading your own book in another language: it is completely different and at the same time exactly yours.

Are you already working on another project? What can you tell us about it?

I am still doing research for my next novel, and I wrote essays on Vivian Gornick, Joan Didion, and Sylvia Plath. It is a continuation of a small collection of essays I wrote on famous, talented, and rather destructive women like Patricia Highsmith, Marilyn Monroe, Marguerite Duras, and Jane Bowles.

Thank you so much for answering my questions.

Connie Palmen was born in Sint OdiliĆ«nberg, the Netherlands, and studied literature and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. She is the author of The Laws, voted the European Novel of the Year and short-listed for the 1996 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; The Friendship, winner of the AKO Literature Prize; All Yours; Lucifer; and the autobiographical works I.M.—now a television film broadcast in December 2020—and Journal of a Merciless Year. Your Story, My Story, published in Dutch as Jij zegt het in 2015, won the prestigious Libris Prize for Literature and was short-listed for several other literary awards. Amazon Crossing published the English edition in January 2021. Ms. Palmen currently lives in Amsterdam. For more information, see http://www.conniepalmen.nl.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Unhappy Rich Girl

A little over a year ago, I published a written Q&A with the author Molly Greeley on this blog. That was supposed to be a podcast interview, but as luck would have it, the workmen who had spent the previous two weeks doing everything but putting my deck back together (after demolishing it in no time flat) arrived, saws and hammers in hand, the day before I was supposed to talk with her. She kindly agreed to reschedule, since it was clear we would barely be able to hear each other—and our listeners even less so. I vowed to host a conversation about both novels when the second one appeared.

That has now happened. William Morrow published The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh on January 5 of this year. Molly and I spoke well in advance of the release, to avoid delays caused by the annual winter and New Year’s holidays, and you can hear us talking on the New Books Network. The post below, which accompanies the interview on New Books in Historical Fiction, provides an introduction to both novels.

The world created by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice has established a place for itself in contemporary culture that few other novels can match, yet amid the countless spinoffs, some stand out. Molly Greeley seems to have a special gift for creating novels that, although based on Austen’s creations, take on a life of their own.

In 2019’s The Clergyman’s Wife, Greeley imagined how the marriage between Charlotte Lucas, the friend of Austen’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet, and Mr. Collins, Austen’s risible antagonist, might have worked out after three years. The Heiress (William Morrow, 2020) takes up the story of Anne de Bourgh, a character who in the original Pride and Prejudice exists mostly as an example of the kind of young woman that novel’s hero, Mr. Darcy, should prefer to Elizabeth, if only in the opinion of Anne’s formidable mother, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Now, to anyone familiar with Lady Catherine, the thought of being her daughter is itself enough to cause shudders of alarm, but on the surface, Anne has a privileged life, including the right—rare for a woman in eighteenth-century Europe—to inherit her father’s estate. In this, she occupies the opposite position from Charlotte Lucas, who married Mr. Collins solely to avoid becoming an elderly, unwanted spinster living in genteel poverty.

But all is not well in Anne’s world, either. A fractious but healthy baby, she undergoes “treatment” for what we assume is colic that leaves her addicted to laudanum, an opiate. Her father wants to wean Anne of the drug, but her mother insists on following the advice of the local quack even as Anne becomes more listless and emaciated. A governess manages to awaken Anne’s interest in poetry and mathematics, but it’s only when Anne herself awakens to the dangers of laudanum and decides to rid herself of her addiction, no matter what it costs her, that she begins to grow into her inheritance.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Interview with Judithe Little

I first encountered Judithe Little when her then publicist, Caitlin Hamilton Summie, pitched Judith’s first novel to me for a New Books in Historical Fiction interview. That podcast appeared in 2017 as part of a one-time experiment in talking with two authors, back to back, about books that happened to cover related topics. (I didn’t repeat the experiment because it turned out that the computers weren’t good at featuring two authors and two novels in one post.) You can still hear our conversation for free on the New Books Network.

Her second novel, The Chanel Sisters, reached me in a similar way, but it covers a very different subject: the life of the famous fashion designer Coco Chanel. Read on to find out more about both books.

Your first novel, Wickwythe Hall, came out in 2017 and addressed a single crucial decision made by the British government in 1940. What led you to move from that very military/political arena to the early years of Coco Chanel’s life?

Both book inspirations came while I was reading Axel Madsen’s biography Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. It was the first Chanel biography I’d read, and in it I learned about Coco’s early life as well as the confrontation between the French and British navies in World War II. I wrote Wickwythe Hall first because I found it so astonishing that most people didn’t know about that tragedy (including myself), but there was always a placeholder in my mind for the early part of Coco’s life that ends just after World War I in 1921. Both novels are, at heart, about relationships and how war can irrevocably upend them.

The novel is called The Chanel Sisters, and in fact the main narrator is Antoinette (Ninette), not Gabrielle, the future Coco. What does Ninette’s perspective offer you as a writer that Coco’s would not?

Coco never told the truth about her convent upbringing and the fact that her father abandoned her. Ninette knew exactly what Coco worked so hard to hide because she experienced it too. As a reliable narrator, Ninette offers a more intimate, honest side to Coco than Coco herself would ever be willing to reveal. Also, as I researched Ninette’s story, I realized she played a more important role in the founding of the Chanel empire than previously known. I thought it was time she had her own voice. 

There is also a third sister, Julia-Berthe. Where does she fit into the story?

All of the sisters, once released from the clutches of the nuns, choose different paths out in the world. What motivates them in part is to fill the void left by their father’s betrayal. The longing for love is heightened in the sisters because they’ve spent their entire lives feeling unloved. Julia-Berthe, the oldest sister, seeks out physical love. She has no grand schemes to break out of poverty like the other two and is more willing to accept her place in the world. Like her parents and grandparents, she tries to squeeze out a living selling used items in outdoor markets. She is who Antoinette and Coco might have been if they hadn’t pursued their dreams and broken the cycle of poverty they came from. It’s ironic that for all that the name “Chanel” stands for today, it comes from a family of vagabond peddlers living hand to mouth.

Like many people, I would guess, I have been aware of Coco Chanel throughout my life without really knowing much about her beyond Chanel no. 5 and the Little Black Dress. How would you summarize her, as a character? What’s most important for us to know about her?

Coco was a very complex person, but one quality that defined her was a driving need for freedom. Freedom from poverty, from the convent, from the rules of society in general, and from the rules of society imposed on women. Because of her quest for freedom, she revolutionized fashion and along with it the way women participate in the world. She gave women clothing they could actually move in. But she didn’t do it intentionally. She didn’t start out wanting to be a fashion designer at all. She made hats and clothing for herself first because she didn’t like the fussy, overwrought choices of the time and also couldn’t afford them. Her pared-down style caught on as did her philosophy that women should dress to live, not live to dress.

The love of Ninette’s life is a man she calls Lucho. Tell us a bit about him and how their romance intersects with your novel’s main theme: the relationship among these three sisters.

Those were the days when who you married defined you in the eyes of society. Of the sisters, Ninette is the one who wants her existence acknowledged by society as it never was by her father. She hopes against all odds to find love and acceptance all wrapped up in a nice package. Then life presents her with Lucho, who can give her the former but not the latter. He’s an Argentinian/English horse breeder who comes to France to promote his Criollo ponies to European polo players. When World War I breaks out, he provides his horses to the French army to help fight the Germans. Coco, who’s more pragmatic than Ninette, doesn’t care about propriety. She helps Ninette understand she’s playing a fool’s game, trying to protect a “reputation” she never really had because of her low birth.

Can you tell us anything about the novel that you’re now working on, referenced in your bio, below?

The novel I’m working on now takes place in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s and is told from the point of view of Coco Chanel’s best friend for over thirty years, a fascinating woman who was actually more famous in Paris at the time than Coco.  

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Judithe Little is the author of two novels, The Chanel Sisters and Wickwythe Hall, award-winning historical fiction set during World War II. She grew up in Virginia and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia. After studying at the Institute of European Studies and the Institut Catholique in Paris, France, and interning at the US Department of State, she earned a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, where she was on the Editorial Board of the Journal of International Law and a Dillard Fellow. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and children, where she is working on her third novel. Find out more about her and her books at http://www.judithelittle.com.

 

If you’re looking for the usual annual resolutions, I ran the pared-down version in last week’s post, “Looking Back—and Forward.” And as always, I wish everyone a splendid new year, with love and success and happiness for you and those you love!

Friday, December 25, 2020

Looking Back--and Forward


Since January 2013, the first full year in which I kept this blog (I began in June 2012, in preparation for the publication of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel), I have set yearly goals for my writing. Since December 2014, I’ve also conducted a year-end review of how well I did.

For various reasons, not least that I already have an author interview lined up for next week, I think this may be the last of those annual round-ups/projections. It becomes repetitive after a while, and I suspect the goals—fuzzy as they are—matter more to me than to my readers. But in a tip of the hat to any semblance of normalcy in this incredible year that we have all endured, here is a look at where my fictional journeys into the past have taken me in 2020 and a hint or two of what to expect in 2021.

My goals as listed in my January 3, 2020, post follow, with comments on what did and didn’t come off.

(1) Publish Song of the Shaman (Songs of Steppe & Forest 2), on schedule in mid-January. This novel follows the attempts of Grusha, another secondary character from the Legends series, to balance her Russian heritage with life in a steppe horde and her own needs against those of her six-year-old son, whose future presents an increasingly pressing problem as he approaches the age when his training for adulthood will begin.

Met. The official release date of Song of the Shaman was January 14, 2020; the print edition actually came out this time last year.

(2) Produce a final manuscript of Song of the Sisters (Songs 3) and sketch out book 4, Song of the Sinner.

Exceeded. I did complete Song of the Sisters, which is now available for Kindle preorder and will release on January 12, 2021. I have also produced three drafts of Song of the Sinner, which my writers’ group is now reading and commenting on at the rate of two chapters per month. When they finish, I will send the book to my favorite fellow Muscovite historian for comment, produce a final draft, and have it ready for release in January 2022. Meanwhile, I am taking advantage of the two-week Christmas/New Year’s holiday to begin work on Songs of Steppe & Forest 5, Song of the Storyteller. Should be lots of fun, as it incorporates the bride show held for Tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1545–47.


These three novels explore the journeys of Darya Sheremeteva, who after spending years nursing her dying father learns that he has left his estate to a ruthless and ambitious cousin (Sisters); her sister Solomonida, a widow who falls in love with a man who is not her social equal and has to choose between him and her responsibility to her almost-marriageable daughter (Sinner); and Lyuba Koshkina, the unlucky youngest daughter of “the shiftiest man in Moscow,” hell-bent on advancing his own career by marrying her off to Tsar Ivan the Terrible, whether she likes it or not (Storyteller). I have rough plans for at least two more novels in the series, and after that, we’ll see.

 


(3) Complete my half of the rough draft of my first historical mystery novel, co-written with P.K. Adams and tentatively titled These Barbarous Coasts.

Met. After finishing the third draft in July, we renamed the novel The Merchant’s Tale and sent it to readers for comments. The plan for 2021 is to incorporate those comments and produce a final draft, then query agents.

(4) Conduct twelve New Books in Historical Fiction interviews.

Exceeded. I interviewed fifteen authors for New Books in Historical Fiction, fourteen of which posted to my channel at the New Books Network. The fifteenth, with Molly Greeley about her second Pride & Prejudice spinoff, The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh, is scheduled for the week after New Year’s, to coincide with the book’s release on January 5, 2021. Many of those interviews cross-posted to the Literary Hub, where you can find the transcripts and audio recordings by searching for C. P. Lesley at LitHub Radio/New Books Network.

But I received many more offers of guests than I could fit into the podcast schedule, so I also ran written blog Q&A’s with numerous authors throughout the year, starting with Philip Cioffari on Valentine’s Day and ending with Nancy Burkhalter right after Thanksgiving. Those written interviews—with both commercially and small-press published authors—will continue through January and February of next year, so check back for them.

(5) Typeset/proof, produce e-books, and in some cases edit Five Directions Press titles scheduled for 2020.

Met. The lineup changed, so only Song of the Shaman and Joan Schweighardt’s River Aria  appeared, but they did appear!

(6) Stay current with online marketing efforts and outreach.
This goal includes keeping up with my weekly blog posts, maintaining my website and the Five Directions Press website, and participating regularly in such group features as “Books We Loved” and “Five Directions Press Authors Dish”—as well as regular if not daily appearances on Facebook (as my author self and Five Directions Press), Twitter, and Goodreads.

Met. I generally made it to Facebook MWF, Twitter WF, and Goodreads every Friday. Both websites are up-to-date, and have been since January, and I contributed a book I loved every month and at least 3–4 Dish posts throughout the year. This year I also learned about and became a regular participant in 1linewed on Twitter (follow @1linewedlives if you’d like to find out what that is), and made social media friends with a group of fellow-writers on Facebook, which expanded my participation there over the last month to Tuesdays and Thursdays.

So what’s in line for next year? I’d like to have final manuscripts of Song of the Sinner and The Merchant’s Tale, as well as one or more full drafts of Song of the Storyteller and perhaps an initial stab at Song of the Snow Maiden (that is, advancing all the novels by one step, so that I end up in a similar place next December to where I am right now, but farther into the series). P.K. Adams and I may also start work on a sequel to The Merchant’s Tale, although the timing on that has yet to be decided.

My New Books Network interviews are booked into June 2021, so completing the basic twelve seems like a reasonable goal; no doubt the overflow will continue to spill onto this blog. The social media and marketing efforts will go on, and I hope that at least one other Five Directions Press novel besides Song of the Sisters will see the light of day in 2021, although I’m not sure at this moment which author will finish first. Certainly I expect more Dish posts and Books We Loved features.

And although this is not a writing goal, I’m sure it’s one we all share. I’d like to see my family and friends in person again. Those vaccines can’t get here fast enough. So let’s raise a glass to 2020 and hope for better things in the year to come. Happy holidays!

Images purchased by subscription from Clipart.com (christmas_img_8544_1.jpg and 000736-10013-000063.jpg).

Friday, December 18, 2020

Outlining: Guest Post by Anne Louise Bannon

As those who follow my blog know, I am not an outliner by nature. I do create lists of story events as I begin a new novel, in part to anchor my tale in the history and in part to keep me on track. But within a month, there is usually so much space between what I thought I was writing and what I actually wrote that the whole enterprise seems not so much fruitless (it did get me started, after all) as hilarious.
 

But other writers, more disciplined than I, do write outlines. Since this is in part a blog about writing, this week I’ve turned over my post to fellow-author Anne Louise Bannon, who has produced numerous novels using the method she details below. And don’t forget to scroll down to the end to find out more about her books. I’m reading Death of the Zanjero right now, and I can assure you she’s an author to watch.
 

OUTLINING AND LINING OUT

 

I teach outlining, and I did not outline this blog post. I kind of did that on purpose to illustrate an essential truth about outlining—that it is only a tool and, as such, has varying degrees of usefulness. In this case, since I have an outline (in the form of a PowerPoint presentation) for the class, writing up a second for this essay seemed a little like overkill.
 

But then, I tend to be a loose outliner, anyway.
 

An outline is basically a map, a way of helping you get from the beginning of your story to the end with as few plot holes and loose ends as possible. And the type of map that works best for you is going to vary.
 

I know folks who outline every beat of every scene, with extended notes on every character, even the ones that are only in the background. Jeffrey Deaver reportedly does that (I do not know for a fact yet). Then there was Tony Hillerman, who I heard give a talk on outlining in which he lamented that he had no idea why he got that topic since he didn’t outline. At all.
 

You may have heard the terms “plotter” and “pantser.” Deaver’s method is classic, hard-core plotting. Hillerman is the ultimate pantser—a term which comes from the early days of flying airplanes, when there wasn’t as much instrumentation, so you flew by the seat of your pants.
 

Here's the thing. Most of us are on a spectrum between those two extremes. Here’s the other thing. No one way of outlining is the absolute Right Way to outline. In fact, any time some writing teacher insists that you absolutely must follow their method, do listen. But listen with a whole big bag of salt.
 

I remember some years ago, I was at this writing seminar and one of the instructors had this one method for working through a second draft. This person insisted that each scene in the novel be evaluated against this acronym (which I may not be sharing here so as not to incriminate myself) and if the scene did not have two of the elements, then it had to go.
 

I will say the acronym was useful and did help me get through a couple scenes in the first draft that I was working on at the time. And it does help me when I’m having trouble to think about whether a given scene I’m working on is really necessary to the story.
 

But when I thought about going through an entire manuscript and evaluating each individual scene with that specific method, I knew darned well it wasn’t going to happen. Fortunately, I’d been writing long enough to not let that reality get in the way of finishing that particular work-in-progress.
 

I do remember a time, though, when that sort of thing would send me for a loop. It’s easy for that to happen when you’re just starting out and don’t entirely know what you’re doing. But what most beginning writers don’t understand is that everybody is different. We are all have our different styles of approaching work, thinking about things, whatever. So, it pays to know what works for you. After all, if you pick the wrong method of outlining, you’re not going to get anything written. Let’s go back to the plotter versus pantser models.
 

There are some real advantages to being a plotter. You don’t write yourself into corners. The story holds together. You know what additional research you need to do and if you write historical fiction, like I do, then you’re not as likely to base a major plot point on something that wasn’t around when you’re writing. Let’s not discuss whether I have or not.
 

The downsides of being a plotter is that you sometimes include details you don’t need because they’re there. Some plotters spend so much time on their outlines they never actually write the book. Also, you can get boxed in and have a character that would be better one way, but you can’t change it because of your darned outline.
 

There are also real advantages to being a pantser. Most pantsers at least start writing and they do get a higher word count because everything is landing on the screen (or page). Also, the more intuitive process that pantsing is can lead to some really interesting places.
 

Of course, the downside is that pantsers have to do a lot more editing because their stories have gone all over the place. And if you have to write on a schedule, it can be hard to pick up and drop.
 

As I noted above, most of us are somewhere between the two extremes. Since I write historical mysteries, I need to know whodunit and sometimes why before I start writing. But I’ll generally get about four chapters into my story before starting to put together an actual outline. Why? I have no idea. I just do. I think I had more of my outline done when I started Death of the Chinese Field Hands, the latest in my Old Los Angeles series, but that darned book fought me from the moment I started typing.
 

Another tool I like to use is the Four-Act story structure. You can do three acts if that works for you. I like Four-Act because almost everyone is intimately familiar with it because almost everyone watches one-hour dramas on TV. Four-Act is easy. Each of the first three acts ends with a significant complication leading up to the final cataclysm and resolution at the end of the story.
 

That doesn’t mean I always use it. In Death of the Chinese Field Hands, I set up the plot that way, but it went someplace else, and I’m glad I went with it. In Death of the City Marshal (the second in the Old Los Angeles series), the Four-Act structure highlighted a massive plot hole. In the middle of the book, I have a bad guy threatening my sleuth, physician and winemaker Maddie Wilcox. The way it was originally set, he should have just killed her, but that would have meant the end of the series. On the other hand, realizing I had that plot hole gave me an insight into the character, and that made the story stronger.
 

Which brings me to my final point. The right kind of outline for you can be massively useful, even if you don’t follow it. Having some sort of plan and direction can get you writing, and that’s the key metric. If you’re outlining and outlining and not writing, stop outlining. If you’ve been writing and are floundering, start outlining. It’s not important how you get to “The End,” just that you get there.
 

Anne Louise Bannon is an author and journalist who wrote her first novel at age fifteen. Her journalistic work has appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Wines and Vines, and in newspapers across the country. She was a TV critic for over ten years, founded the YourFamilyViewer blog, and created the OddBallGrape.com wine education blog with her husband, Michael Holland. She is the co-author of Howdunit: The Book of Poisons, with Serita Stevens, as well as author of the Freddie and Kathy mystery series, set in the 1920s, the Operation Quickline Series, and the Old Los Angeles series, set in the 1870s. Her most recent title is Death of the Chinese Field Hands. She and her husband live in Southern California with an assortment of critters. Visit her website at AnneLouiseBannon.com.