Friday, May 31, 2013

Women of Steel

It may surprise people who have read my second novel, The Golden Lynx, to learn that in the book’s earliest incarnation the story revolved around the interfamily relationships of two Russian clans, one of which would later go down in history as the Romanovs. No lynxes and, as originally conceived, no Tatars. There was a murder; the whole point of the series was to show a young Russian noble couple in the 1530s solving crimes, because at the time men and women lived largely separate lives, so the husband and wife moved in different spheres and could collect different types of information, which made it possible for them to succeed together as neither could alone.

A good idea that didn’t come off, not least because of my own inexperience as a writer. I didn’t create enough conflict between the couple (okay, I didn’t create any) or between them and the other members of the household. I made the classic rookie mistake: I loved my characters too much to let them suffer. Everyone was too nice.

But by the second draft, the Tatars had sneaked in. It came about quite naturally. Elite Russian women in the 1530s lived under many restrictions: they could not interact with men outside their immediate families (although they could boss around their male servants); they could not leave the house except to attend church, visit female relatives, or take part in court/noble functions such as weddings. They were not—and are not, as anyone who has traveled to Russia can attest—weak, but society valued them for obedience, subservience, and passive virtue. Young women especially (on older women, and the power of traditionally raised women generally, see a future post).

These traits make them difficult heroines for a modern writer to work with. The number of readers today who want to read detailed descriptions of sweet, submissive women engaged in embroidery and domestic management, important as those things were and are, is fairly small. So the heroine, then known as Marina, became a half-Tatar so that she could impress her future husband with her horsemanship and her daredevil approach to life. Years later, when I re-conceived the story, she became Nasan, a full Tatar, raised among the nomads.

Only then did I discover that, despite the impact of harems and Islam (the harems preceded the adoption of Islam) on the lives of Tatar women, the steppe peoples have a long and honorable tradition of warrior heroines. The Amazons allegedly were based on the Scythians, another, much earlier nomadic tribal confederation. Less than thirty years before The Golden Lynx opens, a Mongol woman ruled over the restored empire of Genghis Khan, which she herself had reunited through success in war and smart political maneuvering. Her name was Mandukhai (Manduhai), and she died sometime before 1510. The people of Mongolia still revere her as Manduhai the Wise.

I was thrilled. In this tradition I saw possibilities for a strong heroine who could defend her rights and aspire to a destiny of her choosing without being anachronistically feminist. And the tradition itself was so different from what most of us in the West think of as the lot of medieval women—especially among a group of people whom we have typically (and very unfairly, as I also discovered) scorned as primitive and uncultured.

Of course, the reality of steppe women’s lives turns out to be more complex than the sagas. Nomadic women worked (and work) hard, mostly in traditional female occupations such as milking cows, making dairy foods and felt, cooking, cleaning, clothing their families, and caring for children, the elderly, and the sick. The men took care of the herds and went to war. The folklore of warrior women certainly existed, but the reality included a lot more drudgery than glory. Moreover, men often captured women as wives and concubines. You beat an opponent; you had your pick of his women. Women were valuable, but the line between women and property sometimes stretched pretty thin.

But that was only one side of the story. On the whole, women among the Turkic tribes equaled or surpassed their husbands in age. As a result, they usually made the first move in the relationship and decided how far it would go and how fast. Marriage tended to reflect the decisions of parents, but the couple had the right to decide the level of intimacy. Genghis Khan went so far as to outlaw the capture of wives, which he saw as a source of dissension within his army, although his descendants conveniently forgot that part of the Great Law.

Women could own property—like their Russian but unlike their Western counterparts. They had, through their connection with the hearth fire and with birth, exceptionally strong shamanic power. And although they might be captured in battle, they were seldom killed (the same rule applied to children). In fact, in a kind of reverse chivalry, steppe men abandoned their women and children to the enemy while riding off to save themselves. There is a wonderful example of this in Sergei Bodrov’s film Mongol, where Börte, seeing an enemy tribe closing in, whips her wounded husband’s horse and urges it to escape across the river while she allows herself to be captured. It seems passive, but it’s not. It’s a declaration of her love, a conscious act of acceptance. She will survive if captured; her husband will not.

Something similar happens in Nomad: The Warrior, another Bodrov film, when the heroine, Gaukhar, agrees to marry the antagonist Sharish—and stop attacking his men with her dagger—because he promises to spare her brother if she cooperates. The hero, Mansur, kills Sharish before he can claim Gaukhar, but when Sharish’s people then ensnare Mansur, he doesn’t rescue Gaukhar. She rescues him.

And she has to rescue him, because Sharish’s mother, having watched Mansur survive two trials, has decided to take matters into her own hands. She grabs a handy viper and poisons the milk sent to honor the victorious hero whom the enemy khan has agreed to release on the morrow; only Gaukhar’s intervention protects him from a female enmity more implacable than anything the men can produce. Another woman—Hocha, the enemy khan’s daughter—has already risked her life to save Mansur by offering him marriage. He refuses, presumably because he loves Gaukhar. Therefore, it is Gaukhar who saves him. (For more on Nomad as a film, see “The Wild East.”)

Gaukhar represents a different kind of steppe heroine from Nasan: one more comfortable in traditional feminine roles. My new protagonist, Firuza in The Winged Horse, is this kind of character. She doesn’t swing a sword like Nasan or envision herself as an Amazon, but she knows what she wants, and she is determined to let no one stand in her path. Each of them, in her own way, is a worthy descendant of Princess Chichek of legend and Queen Manduhai of reality. Women of steel, even if they don’t leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Gaukhar Rescuing Mansur from the Jungar Camp
Screen shot from Nomad: The Warrior (2005)

Hocha, daughter of the Jungar khan
Screen shot from Nomad: The Warrior (2005)

Friday, May 24, 2013

Morocco with Mary

I discovered the Mary Russell novels the same way that Russell discovered Holmes: by accident. A bookworm for as long as I can remember, I find solace browsing libraries and bookstores. The treasure trove that is appeals to me for its variety and comprehensiveness, but it in no way matches the bliss of walking through stacks of physical books: their smell, the heft of them, the hush that surrounds them. Whereas other people shop for clothes, jewelry, or shoes, given half a chance I lose myself in a bookstore.

On that particular day, I had no idea what I was looking for. Mystery stories are one of the genres that appeal to me, and I happened to be in that aisle. Why I picked, of the many options available, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, I have no idea. At the time, I wasn't even a Sherlock Holmes fan, although I had enjoyed the films The Seven-Percent Solution and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

Whatever. I picked up the book, and there was fifteen-year-old Mary Russell, roaming the Sussex Downs with her nose in a book until she almost tripped over the great detective. A kindred soul! Is it any wonder that, twelve books later, when I became host of New Books in Historical Fiction, interviewing the author, Laurie R. King, was high on my wish list?

Fortunately, Laurie was busy the first time I approached her, because that would have been the interview I had to re-record due to general idiocy in the management of audio software (for that incident, see “Less Than Perfect”). I might never have had the nerve to ask her twice. But finally, her schedule cleared, and the interview is live at New Books in Historical Fiction.

Note that Skype was not on its best behavior on Tuesday. It gave me a better connection to Kyiv than it did to California. Go figure. But most of the sound is clear, and if something sounds a bit dicey, hang in there: it will clear up fast.

The rest of this post comes from the NBHF site.

Morocco in 1924 has political factions to spare. A rebellion in the Rif Mountains threatens to oust Spain from its protectorate in the north—a response to Spanish mistreatment of the local population, itself driven by the desire to avenge seven centuries of Moorish domination. The Germans worry about the iron mines barred to them by the revolt. South of the mountains, the French fight in vain to defend a line drawn without regard to traditional tribal or geographical boundaries. Britain fears that it will lose access to the Mediterranean if the French succeed. Meanwhile, the Rifi, under the leadership of the Abd-el-Krim brothers, are not the only leaders determined to rule an independent Morocco. The corrupt but charismatic Raisuli (al-Raisuni) has no intention of standing aside for a pair of military upstarts, however gifted.

Into this hotbed of unrest strolls a moving picture crew intent on filming the desert at sunrise. The crew includes Mary Russell, the wife and partner of Sherlock Holmes. When the great detective himself returns from a side trip to discover that Mary was last seen days before, heading into the mountains in the company of an unknown child, her unexplained absence pulls Holmes and Russell into a web of threads that criss-cross to create a true garment of shadows.

Join me as I discuss Garment of Shadows (Bantam Books, 2012)—the latest, wonderful addition to Mary Russell’s memoirs—with Miss Russell’s faithful literary agent, Laurie R. King.

Mary Russell Holmes has her own blog, which she maintains with some regularity as new volumes of her adventures appear. She has been supplying her agent with manuscripts for some time: the first volume is The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. To find out why Russell abandoned the hallowed halls of Oxford to work for Flytte Films, read The Pirate King, the previous book in the series. Either way, seek her out. You will not regret the decision.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Digging Out

So, last week, it seems, marked the nadir of my entry into summer. This week, although I still don’t quite have the energy to tackle the steppe heroines (believe me, steppe heroines demand all the attention you can give them), life is again looking up. Of the eight projects dragging down my desk three weeks ago, four have moved on to their permanent homes, no. 5 is completed, and I am one-third of the way through no. 6. By next Wednesday, I hope to have whittled the number to a comfortable two. Even the thought raises my spirits.

Better yet, I managed to clear enough time for lunch at the Silver Linings Playbook diner with my pal Diana (although we didn’t rate The Booth this time—go figure). Conversation with a fellow-writer is always fun. I finished rereading Garment of Shadows for my next New Books in Historical Fiction interview and sent off draft questions to Laurie R. King. I even pre-wrote the blog post for the interview, although I’m sure I will rewrite it after I talk to Laurie—I usually do. 

More on that next week. Meanwhile, Philadelphia is showing off its most gorgeous late spring weather. Life looks doable again.

All of which shows that indeed, things change. When I lived in Boston (I suspect other places claim this adage as well), people used to say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.” Life is like that, too: what seems impossible today becomes just a day’s work at some point in the future.

And thank goodness it does. How would we progress, if our worst expectations always became reality?

Light in the Distance
Clipart no. 16471435

Friday, May 10, 2013

Finding Time

Two weeks ago, I came up with the idea of writing a post on steppe heroines. I may have promised, even, to do such a thing—I can no longer remember. Either way, I have every intention of writing that post soon. Yet here I am, talking about something else.

The issue is not the steppe heroines. I have spent years thinking about them and have plenty to say. No, the problem is finding time to write the post—or, to be more exact, mustering the energy to frame words on this topic close to my heart at the end of a week’s worth of eight-hour days spent editing other people’s prose.

Many books describe the roadblocks that writers put up against finding time for their writing. Some roadblocks are unavoidable consequences of daily life: toddlers have notoriously limited tolerance for closed doors and a parent’s demands that they hush. Spouses, parents, offspring, neighbors, friends, and pets all clamor for attention. Chores must be done, bills paid, bodies exercised, fed, and rested.

Other roadblocks are psychological. Writers wonder whether they have anything to say, whether the book deserves to live, whether critics (agents, editors, their fellow writers) will dine out on stories of the writers’ awfulness. So much simpler not even to put pen to paper, not to risk enduring the shame of others’ scorn.

These are all valid concerns, but they are not mine. I have published two books and am well along on a third. Tomorrow I will get up early to write. Sunday, too. And if I had the energy, I could have written every evening this week. My child is grown, my husband supportive, my pets reasonably well trained. I have finished enough books (not all of them publishable) to know not only that first drafts always reek but that the best way to keep a story moving is to work on it every day, even if I can’t manage more than a paragraph.

Yet I have not done that recently, because by the end of the day, my mind is fried. My eyes roll around in my head like Porky Pig’s, and those cartoons in the New Yorker look like serious literature. On a good day, I rally enough after dinner to read someone else’s prose. On a less-good day, surfing the Web while sneaking glances at the TV (which I normally don’t watch) seems like an achievement.

Not Porky Pig, but Me at the End of a Long Day of Editing
Clipart no. 21707401

Sometimes I think, “If I didn’t have to work, life would be better.” Maybe it would. I’d have more time to write what I really want to write.

Or would I? If I had more free time, would I do less with the time I have? Or would the habits gained from years of squeezing the most out of the time available ensure that a little less brain-frying led to a whole lot more productivity?

I can’t help thinking it might be fun to find out.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Taking Stock

Today I interviewed my friend Janet Olshewsky for New Books in Historical Fiction. The official release date for her book, The Snake Fence (if you want to know what a snake fence is, you’ll have to read the book or listen to the interview in due course—if you cheat and Google it, you will get entirely the wrong idea), comes in midsummer. As a result, the interview won’t go live until August, and I’ll give it a proper introduction then. We decided to record in advance because she happened to be visiting the area, and it made sense to take advantage of the super-clear microphone rather than relying on remarkable, amazing, ever-wonderful but just occasionally dodgy Skype.

So yes, this post is a mini-plug for Janet’s book, which follows a young Quaker boy trying to reconcile his beliefs with the realities of Pennsylvania in 1755—on the brink of what is known here in the United States as the French and Indian War and elsewhere as the more neutral Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). But more than that, this post (as distinct from the one I plan to add in August, after NBHF assigns its permanent link) celebrates the achievements of the writers’ group that made us friends.

Because our group is approaching its fifth anniversary—next month, in fact. And all of us have either published or will have published by the end of this year. Four of the books—The Snake Fence, my Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, Seeking Sophia, and Saving Easton—existed in some form when the group began. The Golden Lynx emerged from an old, discarded draft and completely transformed itself in response to group feedback. More books are already in the pipeline.

Now we can’t take complete credit for Janet’s journey. She left us after about fifteen months, when she moved to Florida and of necessity found other groups and other mentors to steer her along her path. We never replaced her, and we still feel a certain proprietary interest in the fate of her main character, Noble Butler, as well as several of the secondary characters in The Snake Fence. Although the remaining group members have chosen to publish through Five Directions Press, we don’t define its limits: Diana Holquist has never been a member of this writers’ group per se, although she certainly put more effort into critiquing The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel than any one go-round on this earth should demand.

In this moment of taking stock, I have to say that I feel awed by the progress we have made. No one of us could have reached this point alone. Most of us had been struggling in isolation for years to figure out what good novel writing required. And although I would be making up stories (like those centenarians who insist they owe it all to neat whisky and cigarettes) if I were to tell you what we did so that the group would click, it seems that somehow we did find a way.

So thank you, ladies, for the last five years. May we have many, many more!

And stay tuned for the release announcement for Seeking Sophia, which is in its final proof stage.