Friday, February 28, 2014

Bumps in the Road

The Concerned Cat as
the Coughing Started
Last week, I posted about Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye. What I didn’t want to write there, because it would have taken away from her wonderful book, was that I spent the entire interview praying that I would make it through without collapsing in a coughing fit that would have done a tubercular nineteenth-century literary heroine proud. I almost made it, too. Forty minutes in, and not so much as a tickle. Then all hell broke loose. Poor Jessica—stuck on the other end of the line while her interviewer gasped for air.

I suppose it was fitting, in its own weird way, that I should be suffering from a chest cold on the day scheduled for my virtual trip to the Isle of Skye. Skye is—or was, the last time I visited it in reality—the kind of place that prides itself on thatched crofts heated only by peat fires and drafty castles perched on crags, a place where fishermen down oatmeal with salt, not sugar, and their wives take time away from doing the laundry by hand to walk the hills in a gray drizzle. On Skye, everything closes on Sunday, even the ferry and the bus, and when car meets sheep, the driver had better be prepared to throw the gears into reverse.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Skye. The island is beautiful, wild, and surprisingly remote for a place within sight of the mainland; it exists in its own temporal dimension, like Avalon of legend. And it comes through, with remarkable clarity and richness, in Letters from Skye. You can get a hint of the place in that gorgeous book cover. So, too, do Edinburgh—a city of such architectural harmony that it can give even Skye a run for its money—and the flat-as-proverbial-pancake prairies of the North American Midwest. Jessica has spent time in all these places, and to populate them she creates a set of characters who will stay with you long after you set aside their letters and move on to other books.

Jessica is great in this interview. But just about everything else about that morning was an exercise in Murphy’s Law. We persevered through the thunderstorm that no one in the local media had bothered to forecast (it sounded as if it broke right over my roof). I managed to head off my first bout of coughing; the New Books Network editor has removed all traces of the second, severe enough to wring a meow of concern from my Siamese cat. Do interviewers on NPR disappear for minutes at a time into what sounded even to me like a recurrence of last year’s bout with whooping cough?

Maybe they do, and we just don’t hear them. The audio equivalent of Photoshop has much to recommend it. Meanwhile, my belt marking “everything that can go wrong in an interview” has acquired another notch.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter. It was a fun and informative conversation despite the hiccups (and whoops), and the more mistakes I make, the less I worry about making another one. Not that I could have avoided this one, having already taken all the medicine I could find, but the point is the same.

If you happened to catch the interview before the editing took place (yes, thanks to a communications glitch, that happened, too), just download it again. It’s fixed now.

So a big thank you to Jessica, for grace under fire. And here’s hoping that my next destination arrives virus-free. Although the Norman Conquest sounds like an even less accommodating location than Skye. Maybe I’d better get a smallpox booster, just in case....

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Power of Letters

Most of the time, I don’t think of myself as old. In chronological terms I’m not—not yet, although the invitations to join the AARP have begun arriving in the mail. But by the standards of the technological dynamo that is the Internet, I am a dinosaur. I can remember a time when trans-Atlantic calls were reserved for death and disaster notifications. I scrawl best wishes by hand on my Christmas cards, even if time constraints and the sheer number of cards restricts me to a line or two. Those preprinted family news updates are not for me, however much I enjoy reading them from others. I feel awkward if I don’t acknowledge gifts with handwritten notes. And although I much prefer e-mail for its immediacy and its brevity, I have been known to send letters to elderly relatives—typed, these days, not written longhand, but I have many longhand letters in my past.

So the world depicted in Letters from Skye, the subject of my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, is not as alien to me as I expect it is to many readers. The idea that two individuals living thousands of miles apart, communicating through paper and ink, can move from respectful distance to friendship to love—buoyed only by the power of words—seems less strange than the idea that two people can form a lasting relationship on eHarmony.com. Letters, in a way, offer the perfect vehicle for romance: a combination of distance and intimacy that simultaneously delivers the reality and the illusion of connection. I could say the same of e-mail or social media: how many of those Facebook “friends” can truly be considered friends, even though we feel as if we know them after weeks of shared and liked posts? But the very slowness with which a letter passes from its point of origin to its destination imbues it with a particular charm. The line dashed off in haste must still wait days or weeks for a reply, with all the nail biting and trauma that implies. And what of the writer, who may not match up in reality to the reader’s expectations?

These issues and more form the heart of Letters from Skye, an in-depth and beautifully realized exploration of the power of the written word to pull people together and apart, to realize individual dreams, to cause and resolve family conflicts. Through a series of contrasts—the United States and Scotland, World War I and World War II, mothers and daughters, extrovert versus introvert—Jessica Brockmole weaves a story of burgeoning love and its unexpected consequences, both short- and long-term.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction, where you can download all my interviews for free and subscribe to be notified of updates.


In March 1912, a college student at the University of Illinois takes time away from his usual pursuits—painting the dean’s horse blue, climbing dorm walls with a sack of squirrels, reading Huckleberry Finn—to write a letter to a Scottish poet living on the remote Isle of Skye. As the young man, David Graham, notes in his first paragraph, poetry is not his usual literary fare, but something in this book has touched his soul. A few weeks later, his poet, Elspeth Dunn, responds, initiating a conversation that will flourish as friendship and eventually as romance, with consequences that reach across the first world war and into the next.

To sustain a novel entirely through the exchange of letters poses a challenge to any writer, although the epistolary novel itself has a long tradition: the earliest novels adopted this form. Here David and Elspeth emerge as two distinct personalities, drawn to each other across the cultural divide symbolized by the Atlantic Ocean and the greater divide that propels David to war in France even as Elspeth clings to her island. But it takes the determination of a second generation at war to bring Elspeth and David’s story to its natural conclusion.

In this sparkling debut novel, Jessica Brockmole explores the many layers of connection that bind lovers and family members across the years and through adversity. With its exquisite descriptions of place and its ability to evoke the myth-drenched wildness of the Hebrides, Letters from Skye will pull you into the lives of David, Elspeth, and their families. It’s a journey you will not regret taking.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Recipes Project

I know, it’s Valentine’s Day. If I’m going to write about recipes, they should have chocolate in them. Better yet, who wants to cook on Valentine’s Day? A lovely meal in a nice restaurant with Sir Percy—that’s more the ticket.

But after another week of snow and ice and a day without heat, not to mention another cold sent into high gear by the day without heat, I’m just about ready to pull the covers over my head and sleep until spring finally arrives, if it ever does. Yes, there will be chocolates (Éclat,  no less) and a nice meal, assuming we don’t get another blizzard. But for today’s post I decided to feature another blog, one that I learned about when I received an invitation to contribute later this year: The Recipes Project: Food, Magic, Science, and Medicine


For most of history, these four areas of life have been closely connected. Food as medicine, love potions and poisons, “receipts” (the old word for recipes) that were equally likely to address cures for gallstones or blends of pot pourri or pomanders as quince jam or “how to roast your fowl.”


And if you look around, you will even find some posts on chocolate....


Friday, February 7, 2014

The Vacation from Reading

It happened last Monday. The first sign of trouble came when I tried to read my own revised text of The Winged Horse and nearly put myself to sleep. I set it down, depressed. Was my book that bad? Were my critique partners gritting their teeth every time I sent them a chapter? What about the hapless friend on whom I had just unleashed this beast with a request for comments? Should I give up the idea that I could write a decent novel? What about the unfortunates who had already shelled out for the first two?

Well, the world is full of authors, even if I wasn’t sure I could count myself among them. So I set Winged Horse aside and picked up a novel I had started reading a while back. I won’t give the title. I enjoy the book more than not, but I had noticed some writing problems that were causing the book to drag. It dragged even more on Monday, to the point where I gave up after three pages, deciding the thing was no better than Winged Horse.

I moved on to Letters from Skye, which I read last summer and am now rereading preparatory to interviewing Jessica Brockmole, the author, in a couple of weeks. Nope. My brain refused to warm up to that, either. At this point, I began to suspect I was in one of those rare moods when I did not want to read. You see, I love Letters from Skye: tore through it in two days the first time. Ditto my next attempt: Laughter of Dead Kings, which although not the best of the Vicki Bliss mysteries is nonetheless a lot of fun. 


By then, I recognized what had happened. If Elizabeth Peters couldn’t draw me in, no one could. I gave up. Thank goodness for YouTube and social media.

It wasn’t the first time I’d taken a mini-vacation from books. Even under normal circumstances, my reading has a hierarchy based on the amount of mental energy required. If I’m really humming, I read history—even history in Russian, although that demands a day without work, since there’s no way I can spend a full day editing academic prose, then relax with a nice historical study in Russian. Doesn’t matter how good the book is, it might as well be a dose of Sominex.

More often, I read my own books, if they have reached the stage when I can approach them as e-books, or other people’s novels—new ones first, then the beloved old friends. Excluding the history books, that was the progression I followed on Monday. But I just couldn’t get my brain in gear even for the reading equivalent of comfort food: books I have read before and loved.


And that happens so rarely that it still surprises me when it does. Because I grew up as the kid who always had her nose in a book, the kid whose parents had to force her to play outdoors, the kid you had to ask twice (or six times) to do this or that, because her head was in Neverland with Peter Pan or London with the Banks children and Mary Poppins. These days, I do my chores without being prompted, but I’m still happiest when I’m immersed in stories—especially when I’m the one making them up.

Fortunately, my vacations from reading don’t last long. By Tuesday, I was again delighting in Letters from Skye and Laughter of Dead Kings. When we lost our power on Wednesday, and I could read but not work, I discovered that The Winged Horse was in not nearly as bad shape as I feared. With luck, I’ll get back to the unnamed novel in a few days; I’m sure it will move much faster when I do.

And I’ve begun plotting The Swan Princess, which is sending tendrils out into books 4 and 5. Gotta keep those creative juices flowing.

Besides, Nasan and her pals get so cranky when they have to sit on the sidelines for long....