Friday, October 31, 2014

Gremlins and Goblins

As luck would have it, this is the first year since I began keeping this blog when Hallowe’en has fallen on a Friday, my usual day for posting updates. So today’s title is a tip of the hat to the holiday, even though I’m far beyond the age when I do more than stand at the door and pour candy into the bags held by eager trick-or-treaters.

Alas, that title is also a far too apt reference to the state of my writing life these days. Gremlins and goblins torment my poor Swan Princess at every turn, making progress slower than the proverbial molasses right when I was hoping that changes to my work life might leave me with more free time to write.

The source of my troubles is not writers’ block or even simple procrastination, although finding the right story for this sixth novel has proven more of a challenge than the other five combined (well, except for The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, but that was a different problem—I had the main plot in three weeks, but setting up the right frame took forever). No, I know more or less what I want to write and how my characters should grow. The problem is literally finding time to spend on fiction at all. And the reason for that harks back to the situation I described in early August.

You see, I had decided not to continue freelancing for the company where I had worked for twenty years, but then the new owners convinced me to change my mind, at least in part. Meanwhile, I had accepted two book manuscripts from different publishers. One was delayed, the other arrived early, the company about to close its doors wanted the current projects finished so it could settle its books, and my main job entered its quarterly frenzy mode associated with getting the latest issue to press on time—in short, I hit a traffic jam. As a result, I’ve been working eight hours a day, six days a week. Sundays go to writing the weekly blog post and, if it’s a New Books in Historical Fiction week, preparing draft questions and finding a free hour to host the interview itself.

So I anticipate that the next few weeks will be hectic, with short posts and few (or no) chapters written on the next book. But I hope the ideas are percolating somewhere in the back of my brain, so that by the time the skies clear in mid-November I will have a fully formed story ready to flow onto the virtual page. Because I miss my characters and the world they inhabit, as well as the satisfaction that fiction writing brings. So take the candy, gremlins and goblins, and leave my Kolychevs alone!

Thanks to Shutterstock for its free picture of the week, no. 220614172.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Pearls and Shells

As noted in the post I wrote about my interview with Laurel Corona, “Hidden Lives,” historical fiction can play a special role in illuminating the everyday experiences of women—even today, when historians have made considerable progress in “giving voice to the voiceless,” to borrow a phrase. Nadia Hashimi, author of The Pearl That Broke Its Shell and the subject of my October interview, performs this service for two characters—one in the present, the other in the past. Rahima, the main protagonist in the novel, lives in the early twenty-first century; her great-great-grandmother Shekiba a hundred years earlier. Yet their stories compare and contrast with each other in startling and illuminating ways.

Shekiba and Rahima live in rural Afghanistan, on either side of the cultural divide represented by the modernized, peaceful Afghanistan of the 1950s and 1960s—before the Soviet invasion, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda sent the country reeling back in time. Hashimi’s parents grew up in that period, when women could achieve an education and even study abroad, and it constitutes a major theme of our interview. It is important to remember the existence of that Afghanistan, which is slowly re-emerging from the shadows of fundamentalism and war.

But that Afghanistan is not the world Rahima and Shekiba inhabit. Shekiba, burned and disfigured in childhood, loses most of her family to a cholera epidemic. Her mother goes mad, then dies, leaving only Shekiba to assist her grieving father until he, too, passes away. She has no opportunity to attend school. Rahima’s father pulls his daughters out to protect their honor after one too many boys thoughtlessly teases them and marries her off at thirteen to a warlord three times her age. Shekiba, too, marries men not of her own choosing and must adapt to homes in which she is not the chief wife. Both suffer abuse from their husbands and in-laws; both experience the powerlessness forced on them by birth.

A grim tale, you may think. Yet in the end it is not, because even this traditional (re-traditionalized?) society offers an “out.” Rahima, the third of five daughters, becomes a bacha posh—a girl dressed and treated as a boy—which allows her to return to school and work to support her family. Shekiba finds her way to Kabul, where she joins the women dressed as men who guard the king’s harem. Each of them learns to look others in the eye; each of them internalizes the greater power, authority, and self-confidence enjoyed by men. Each of them uses that experience, when life forces her back into female roles, to fight for her identity, to break the shell that would keep her in her place. Their solutions differ, and in that we can trace the changes wrought by time. But the process itself is timeless. Their journey is the same as ours, as anyone’s.

The rest of this post comes from the New Books in Historical Fiction site. By the way, the Kindle and iBooks versions of The Pearl That Broke Its Shell are $1.99 through October 27, 2014.

Women in the Western world take many things for granted: the right to an education and a career, to walk in the street unaccompanied, to make personal decisions, to choose a marriage partner—or whether to marry at all.

Female characters in historical fiction seldom enjoy such control over their own lives. Even today, as Nadia Hashimi shows in The Pearl That Broke Its Shell (William Morrow, 2014), the lives of women in rural Afghanistan remain as constrained by traditional demands as they were centuries ago. Afghanistan is far from the only place where such a statement applies.

Yet this restricted cultural space includes customs that temporarily allow girls to live as boys or women as men. Male dominance of society can, it seems, withstand the cross-dressing of individual females. Through the lives of two young women living a century apart—Rahima, whose family turns her for a while into the son her mother did not have, and her great-great-grandmother Shekiba, ordered to don men’s clothes and guard the king’s harem—Hashimi explores the contradictions of gender stereotypes, the power of tradition, and the lessons of her own heritage.

What is given can also be taken away, and Rahima and Shekiba are soon forced to live as wives and mothers after experiencing the greater freedom and authority granted to men. As they struggle to retain their sense of themselves in a world determined to return them to their place, each of the women must decide whether to adapt or to escape.

“Seawater begs the pearl to break its shell,” wrote the thirteenth-century poet Rumi. This lyrical, passionate, uncompromising novel reveals the undying power of the human spirit even in the harshest of circumstances. It should be on everyone’s list.

And just a reminder: the GoodReads giveaway of The Winged Horse started yesterday, so if you live in the United States, don’t forget to sign up. And if you don’t live in the United States, send me a message (you can find contact information on the “About Me” page of this blog). I’ll make sure to let you know when I launch a worldwide giveaway.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Beating the Drum

It’s no secret that I am miserable at self-promotion. I can talk up other people’s books from morning to night, but my own? Forget it. What I love best about New Books in Historical Fiction is the opportunity to showcase other writers. I have no desire to become the kind of person who irritates everyone she meets by screaming “buy my books!” at every opportunity. Writing this blog is fun. Posting and re-pinning pictures on Pinterest, a breeze. Facebook and Twitter, when I have time to visit either, allow me to connect with old friends and make new ones. Folks on GoodReads chat about books, which I love. Still, friendship—even virtual friendship—vanishes fast in the face of self-promotion. Social media offer great ways to communicate with people, but no one wants to feel as if the others in a conversation are there only until they’ve figured out how to pick everyone’s pockets.

At the same time, one must be realistic. Before readers can buy a book, they have to know it exists. And new books appear in the hundreds, if not thousands, every day. Many of them, to be blunt, could use better editing, professional typesetting and cover design, and, most important, more time spent perfecting the writing. How is a poor reader to wade through the deluge of titles and find the islets of books worth reading, never mind the works of a particular author?

Someone has to tell them. Traditional publishers have publicists and marketing departments to perform that function, as well as an in with major review publications and bookstores. The rest of us have to find a way to let potential readers know (and remind them) without becoming annoying.

That’s relatively easy when a book is first published. At that point, I feel as if I’m giving people information, even useful information. And there’s some evidence that my readers agree. I have put out three novels this year—The Winged Horse in June, on schedule, then (off-schedule, because I wanted to test the effects of Kindle Unlimited) Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades in late August/early September. On both occasions, I saw a rise in sales during the first month, extending to other books of mine.

But then comes the drop-off as the people who have already encountered my work read their copies of the new books and move on. Some of those readers (you know who you are, and I thank you!) write reviews. Most of the reviews are good. My books routinely pull in ratings of four and five stars—not only from friends—with readers applauding the generally high quality of the writing, especially the characterization, as well as the absence of errors. Although I lay no claim to be the next Austen or Tolstoy, I have reason to believe that the books themselves do not disappoint. But important as reviews are, there is some question as to how much credence prospective readers place in them, given various people’s attempts to manipulate the system. So what else is out there?

Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owners Lending Library do seem to be a plus, selling and lending more books than I lose from other sources. Although I don’t intend to move all my books to KDP Select anytime soon, I will explore the pluses and minuses of launching Kindle Countdown Deals on the two currently enrolled. Yet I still find myself wondering: what is the next big thing, the Facebook or Instagram of the future? My project for the next few months is to explore this question. Stay tuned for results.

Meanwhile, if you belong to GoodReads, my giveaway of The Winged Horse (U.S. only, because GoodReads requires print copies, and postage has become exorbitant) opens on October 23, the four-month anniversary of the original publication, and runs for a month. Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades are already available to borrow through Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owners Lending Library—and, in defiance of Amazon’s suggested e-book price of $4.99, cost only $2.99 each. You can find samples of several books at my website, and all are accessible through the “Look Inside the Book” feature at So give one of them a try: you just might find your next best read where you least expect it.

If you have advice or experience you’d like to share, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear what has (and hasn’t) worked for other people, as well as which approaches readers like—and which they hate.

Image: Clipart no. 32149408.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fathers and Sons

There’s nothing quite like returning to a book last read in college, especially with the intention of leading a discussion about it with a group of dedicated readers. I barely remembered Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons when I agreed to become (somewhat of) an authority on it for the sake of the Dead Writers Society, although I did have a generally positive sense of the book—far more than I had of certain other classics of world literature that shall remain nameless (John Milton, I’m looking at you). I recalled the nihilist Bazarov and his impact on the gentry family whose country estate becomes the setting for the generational clash that defines the novel, although even if pressed I couldn’t have told you their names. That was about it. But between the erudite introduction to the Signet/NAL version that I still owned (price on the cover, 60¢, which tells you just how long ago I read the book), the reference works scattered around my office, and the mega-cheat sheet that is the Internet, I figured I was good to go.

In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Turgenev. Like many twenty-year-olds reading a book under compulsion and worried about the exam to come, I missed the subtlety of Turgenev’s characterization and language, which shine through even in translation, the first time around. I had not then studied Russian history, so the significance of the date—1859, two years before the emancipation of the serfs, a time when planning for the emancipation was already underway—passed me by. I had a nodding acquaintance with the Slavophiles and Westernizers, so I knew that Turgenev was assigned to the latter group and that the nihilists came later, expressing a more radical and political viewpoint. But I didn’t see that Nikolai (Nicholas) Kirsanov, the gentry landowner, is a man of both the past (his peasant mistress) and the future (he has already divided his land with the local villagers in return for rents that they refuse to pay); that his son, Arkady, will one day be just like his father, despite his brief flirtation with au courant ideas; and that Bazarov, although ostensibly a radical skeptic, is knocked off his perch by old-fashioned romance. Indeed, the woman he falls for, Madame Odintsov, is in her way a better nihilist than he is; she soon sends him about his business, his ideological principles revealed as a cover for uncouth behavior and what was then known as “lack of address” but which we might call nerdiness.

The devil is in the details, as they say, and Turgenev’s details are marvelous. Consider this early introduction: “Bazarov came hurrying through the garden, taking the flower-beds in his stride. His linen coat and trousers were spattered with mud; a clinging marsh plant had twined itself round the crown of his circular hat; in his right hand he held a small sack, and something was wriggling inside it” (chapter 5, George Reavy’s translation).

Not exactly the way to endear yourself to a bunch of aristocrats who for the last hour or so have been expecting you to join them for tea. Yet Bazarov sees no problem, brusquely admitting that the sack contains frogs and he plans to experiment with them. Which he obviously does, because that evening “the two friends went off to Bazarov’s room, which was already pervaded by a sort of medico-surgical odor, mingled with the smell of cheap tobacco” (chapter 7, Constance Garnett’s translation). And this on an estate where at least one person, Arkady’s uncle, prides himself on maintaining his cultured St. Petersburg style, however rustic his surroundings. But then, Arkady’s uncle, Paul or Pavel depending on the translation, and Bazarov find themselves instantly at loggerheads. Bazarov at one point calls Pavel an “old fogey” to his face—an even bigger social solecism in 1859 than it would be today. Their relationship goes downhill from there.

Yet whatever his flaws, Bazarov is not a cliché. His awkward, impassioned character stands at the heart of the novel. He changes the lives of those around him, ordinary people with everyday concerns—so much more like most of us than the idealists and world-changers. It is as if Turgenev wants us to realize that big ideas affect everyone: those who push for social change, those who resist it, those who regard it with puzzlement, those who do their best to adapt, even those who try to ignore it. In Fathers and Sons he creates examples of all five kinds of people, throws them together, and shows us the sparks that fly when they meet.

The book is not perfect. The plot at times seems forced and the conflict contrived. The relationship between Bazarov and Madame Odintsov moves too fast for plausibility, and the ending strikes me as a cop-out, less a resolution than an example of the author’s unwillingness to let an awkward situation play itself out to its logical conclusion. But for a book that fits into two hundred pages, the thing is a masterpiece. Politics, economics, culture, gender relations, youth vs. age, city vs. country, tradition vs. science—Turgenev paints it all with delicate water colors that revive the world of Russia before the Great Reforms and make it real, even now, almost 150 years later. That’s an extraordinary achievement.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Art of Translation

This week I interviewed my second translator for New Books in Historical Fiction. As luck would have it, both books were originally published in Russian. The first  interview, Liv Bliss discussing Dmitry Chen’s The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas, focuses on Central Asia and Iran in the mid-eighth century and can be considered classic historical fiction. This week’s interview with Oliver Ready comes closer to historical fantasy, but not the kind that involves vampires or werewolves or even the spirit messengers that enliven my Legends of the Five Directions series, who are not intended to be “real” so much as natural elements of the world as understood by my characters. Rather, as you can see from the description below, Sharov’s narrator challenges the facts of biology as well as history.

I have not read either novel in the original, but I was struck in both cases by how smoothly the translators rendered these complex stories into English. So I thought that for this week’s post it would be interesting to chat a bit not only about translation as an art but about art as a form of translation. Good translators do not mechanically match words between languages. Instead, they seek equivalent expressions, words that carry the right connotations, phrases and images that can evoke in readers of the target culture an experience similar to that produced in readers of the original culture. This enterprise includes an element of creativity, a sensitivity to language and social systems, that machine translation systems—remarkable as they are—simply cannot provide.

But authors, too, perform a kind of translation. Artists (writers, dancers, athletes, performers) yearn for the state of creativity that psychologists call “flow,” where the ego disappears and the artist becomes wholly absorbed by the activity. It feels like transcendence, as Sasha tries to explain to Danion in Desert Flower.A writer in “flow” does not experience him- or herself as creating but as recording a film or tape made up of characters’ actions, emotions, and words, of settings and costumes. The film originates in the writer’s imagination but appears to come from outside. The subconscious takes over, the writer becomes a translator—and many writers see themselves as at best inadequate to convey the images playing out in their minds.

Writers need good translators. Characters need good writer/translators. And readers need both, if they are to enjoy the full benefit of others’ creativity at work. So let’s hear it for the art of translation—and the translation of art.

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

Historical fiction, by definition, supplements the verifiable documentary record with elements of the imagination. Otherwise, it is not fiction but history. These elements often include invented characters, made-up dialogue, the filling in of vague or unknowable events and personalities. Through the more or less careful manipulation of historical truth, the novelist seeks to uncover a deeper emotional truth that speaks to both the reality of a past time and the needs of the present.

Before and During (Dedalus Books, 2014)—Vladimir Sharov’s exploration of Soviet life and the revolutionary movement that preceded it, skillfully translated by Oliver Ready—pushes historical invention to its limits. Set in a Moscow psychiatric hospital circa 1965, the novel follows a patient identified only as Alyosha as he pursues his self-assigned quest to create a Memorial Book of the Dead, à la Ivan the Terrible, by recording the life stories of those around him and people of importance in his own past. One fellow-patient, Ifraimov, launches into a long and fantastical account of reincarnation, philosophy, revolution, free love, and incest that sweeps from Mme de Staël and Lev Tolstoy to Lenin and Stalin—assiduously recorded by Alyosha.

As Sharov’s English-language publisher puts it, “Out of these intoxicating, darkly comic fantasies—all described in a serious, steady voice—Sharov seeks to retrieve the hidden connections and hidden strivings of the Russian past, its wild, lustful quest for justice, salvation, and God.” It’s quite a ride. But if you love Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, this book’s for you.