Friday, May 27, 2016

Scots Wha Hae

As I’ve mentioned before, my New Books in Historical Fiction schedule has become crowded to the point where I can’t feature all the authors and books I would like to include. Antonia Barclay and Her Scottish Claymore is one such book.

Historical fiction combined with parody and an irreverent approach to both the past and romance, Antonia Barclay and Her Scottish Claymore tells the rollicking story of a memorable heroine in sparkling and often funny prose. I always enjoy a witty romance, and this one delivers, starting with the title. Jane Carter Barrett was kind enough to let me pepper her with written questions, so while we don’t have the full fifty-minute interview here, we do hit the highlights. For more information on Jane and her story, see her website. And thank you, Jane, for sharing your thoughts with us here!

How did you decide to start writing fiction? 

I began writing in college and continued in law school, but it was mainly technical writing, which wasn’t much fun and didn’t allow for a whole lot of creativity. Eventually, I experimented with writing fiction and discovered it was much more enjoyable. Besides Antonia, I have written one other book (which I’m shopping around right now to publish), started the sequel to Antonia, and also started a legal thriller set in Texas.

And how did Antonía Barclay and her story come to you? Do you have a Scottish background, or a particular interest in Scotland? 

After reading all I could find on Mary Queen of Scots, I found myself wishing that Mary had had a daughter. Consequently, I created the character of Antonia Barclay (Mary’s “should’ve been” daughter), and from that point the plot and other characters more or less spontaneously combusted in my brain. Naturally, Antonía had to resemble Mary in some ways, and this is the reason for Antonía’s lofty stature, independent spirit, and aptitude for riding. However, for plot purposes, Antonía could not be a dead ringer in terms of appearance, and thus Antonía did not inherit her mother’s trademark red hair and amber eyes. So it’s not necessarily that I wanted Antonía to be Mary’s daughter, but rather I desperately wanted Mary to have a daughter, to have had a daughter. And at this juncture, you can probably tell that I have to remind myself that Antonía is not an authentic historical figure, merely a figment of my imagination, but imagining will always make her real to me. And, of course, there’s always the off chance that history got it wrong, that Mary really did have a daughter, and Antonía really did exist.

And yes, my grandmother was born and raised near Kirriemuir so I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Scotland and the Scots!

Tell us about Antonía—and her Claymore—as personalities.

Breck Claymore was unequivocally the most challenging character for me to create, because he is a man of quiet dignity and by definition he couldn’t do a whole lot of talking. His calm solidity, stoic determination, and integrity had to be conveyed through action, not words; thus his dialogue could be neither lengthy nor abundant. The novel is Antonía’s story from beginning to end, and I tried to insinuate Mr. Claymore into it without eclipsing her light while also maintaining his strength of character. He had to possess both alpha and beta male characteristics in order to attract Antonía’s attention initially, and then as their relationship develops, he draws on these same characteristics to cope with her strong-willed and high-spirited nature. As a result, I made Mr. Claymore a self-made man with a job, a fortune, and a set of seriously broad shoulders. But despite Mr. Claymore’s fine qualities and his magnificent male musculature, he had roamed the Scottish countryside for nearly three decades without finding a woman worth marrying. Until, of course, he crosses paths with Miss Barclay. I’m not certain if I achieved my objective here, but I attempted to cultivate a new breed of man: The Alpheta Male. A man sufficiently secure and confident in his masculinity to view a woman as an equal partner in all respects, a man willing to relinquish both calling the shots and claiming the top position as a matter of course.

I was amused to see that you make an explicit pact with your readers, up front, not to get upset over anachronisms. Why is that? 

The last thing I wanted in writing this book was to offend hardcore historical fiction readers who expect extremely accurate representations of particular time periods. I have tremendous respect for the historical fiction genre and did not want to confuse or anger people who started to read what they thought was pure historical fiction only to discover that Antonia Barclay also contains elements of soft parody and romantic comedy.  So to avoid any misunderstanding from the outset of the book, I decided to include a caveat explaining that while the story has plenty of romance and adventure, it also has its fair share of modern-day allusions, irreverent humor, and a certain degree of incorrectness. 

What would you like readers to take away from “Antonia Barclay and Her Scottish Claymore”? 

Tenacity, perseverance, and self-reliance are probably not personality traits that were desired, instilled, or encouraged in the sixteenth-century young woman. But Antonía doesn’t care one whit what others think of her or what is expected of someone of her gender and social class. She trusts herself and is secure in herself. No swooning, kowtowing, or boohooing for her. Antonía is a tough critical thinker who is often contrary to the point of being a pain in the neck, but that’s who she is and if the entire world knows it so much the better. Suffering fools gladly and squandering time are not her deals. She makes no apologies for being herself, and when she sets goals she sticks to them, despite the obstacles and her own limitations. But having spouted all that platitudinous wisdom, I hope readers simply enjoy escaping to another time and place and enjoy the mix of fact and fiction.

What are you working on now?

As mentioned above, I’m working on two new books as well as attempting to find a publisher for my reently completed book called Thru the Iroquois Sky, which is more in the realm of the “New Adult” genre. If you’re interested here’s the synopsis:

Thru the Iroquois Sky is the story of a talented young athlete with bright prospects and boundless opportunities in front of him. In the spring of 1977, an extra layer of happiness is added to his already abundant supply of achievements and blessings. A quiet, introspective musician walks into his life and into his heart. Ben Longhouse is instantly smitten and immediately goes to work to make Evie St. Clair his own. He introduces her to his friends, his family, and his world as an assimilated Iroquois Indian. In turn, it doesn’t take long for Evie to become thoroughly enchanted with Ben’s sweet charm, selfless generosity, and lovable nature. To those who know the young couple, their future seems destined for success. But fate often has its own agenda.

On another note altogether, Five Directions Press’s very talented cover designer, Courtney J. Hall, has turned her hand to updating the cover for The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel. You can see the results in the sidebar. The text is the same, except for some interior formatting changes to match the cover, and the book sites are in some cases taking a while to process the changes, but by this time next week the splashy new cover should be visible everywhere. And I, for one, am very excited, because I absolutely love Nina and Ian’s new “look.” Hope my readers agree!

Friday, May 20, 2016

Wine. Women, and Song

One of my favorite movies, as revealed in my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Kristen Harnisch, is Bottle Shock, the film starring Chris Pine and Alan Rickman. (In truth, I love anything starring Chris Pine or Alan Rickman, but that’s another story. RIP, Alan. You are missed.) Bottle Shock explores, with intelligence and humor, the moment in 1976 when the world woke up to the idea that not all great wine came from Europe.

I remember, vaguely, when those results came in—and how surprising they were, but I was even more surprised to learn from The California Wife that in fact certain California vineyards were winning awards in Paris almost a century before that dramatic victory by North American reds and whites. I discovered quite a few more tidbits from our interview, but I won’t spoil them for you by revealing them here. Mostly I had a great conversation with a talented and articulate author. And we laughed a lot. Go listen to the interview (as always, it’s free), and you’ll find out why.

And by the way, kudos to whomever designed that gorgeous cover.

But here is a taste of the story, as always taken from New Books in Historical Fiction:

Sara Thibault and her new husband, Philippe Lemieux, grew up in Vouvray, amid the French vineyards that dot the Loire Valley. But when the phylloxera blight of the 1870s devastates their families’ business, Philippe decides to try his luck in California. Sara soon follows, driven by a tragic series of events detailed in The Vintner’s Daughter. The California Wife (She Writes Press, 2016), the stand-alone sequel to that earlier novel, traces the later history of Sara, Philippe, and the group of wholly or partially orphaned children whose care they undertake.

The California wine industry, although somewhat healthier than the French, has also suffered from the blight. Its reputation is less secure than that of its European rival, and the existence of too few outlets has driven prices down to the point where many vintners can hardly afford to harvest their crops. Meanwhile, Sara fears for the survival of the vines on her childhood estate, and Philippe worries about the cost of developing his current lands. Into this seething mix of competing loyalties steps, all unaware, Philippe’s former mistress, sharing a secret that he cannot hope to keep from the ears of his new bride.

Kristen Harnisch does a wonderful job of creating warm, believable characters who struggle for their future against catastrophe and crisis and the pull of their own pasts. If you have ever wondered who stands behind those labels at the local liquor store, this book will give you insight into their origins. Listen in as we explore winemaking now and then, including how, in the end, California put itself on the map as an essential part of the world’s viniculture.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Less Alone, More Together

Five Directions Press is growing. Eight years after we became a writing group and four years after founding our coop, we have added two new members and will soon have four new books listed on our site (five new books in print, one of which has been featured on the site for a while).

Denise Allan Steele writes contemporary fiction set in her Scottish homeland and her adopted country, the United States. She is in the midst of revising her novel Rewind, which takes a humorous look at the ins and outs of love and politics under Margaret Thatcher—and how decisions made then reverberate decades later. We hope to have it available by the end of this year.

Gabrielle Mathieu, our first overseas member, joins us from Switzerland. Her Falcon trilogy straddles the line between historical fantasy and historical fiction. In 1950s Switzerland, Peppa, an unconventional young woman trying to make ends meet for a few weeks until she reaches the age of twenty and can inherit the legacy left by her father, unwittingly tumbles into a research program run by a sinister and cynical scientist. What is her connection with the falcon? Where does reality blend into drug-induced hallucinations? You will have to read this tightly plotted, deeply experienced story to find out—and even then you may wonder. Book 1, The Falcon Flies Alone, is planned for release in late summer or fall.

Another fall release will be the first book in Courtney J. Hall’s five-part Silver Bells, a series geared toward the Christmas holidays. While waiting for the sequel to Some Rise by Sin to make itself visible, Courtney has moved into contemporary romance, and A Holiday Wish should be ready by October. Noelle Silver, a wedding planner, considers changing to a different business when her own marital plans go bust right when she’s scouting locations for the ceremony. But a wealthy bride in a hurry just won’t take no for an answer, and before Noelle has time to adjust, she finds herself back in the game, organizing the wedding of the century despite opposition from and the appeal of one very attractive adversary.

Booktrope Editions, an innovative publishing model that ran for five years before I heard of it, announced earlier this month that it is shutting down as of May 31. The authors orphaned by its closing include Joan Schweighardt, who has agreed to re-release her Last Wife of Attila the Hun with Five Directions Press. We look forward to working with her on that project and thank her for entrusting her novel to us. I enjoyed the book, which has won several awards, very much when I read it in January 2016, in preparation for my New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Joan. You can learn more about Joan and this book by listening to her free interview and from “Dealing with the Dragon,” her guest post on this blog.

As for other news, don’t forget my own Swan Princess, which came out last month. If you haven’t read any of the Legends novels, you can start with this one, although doing so will undercut some of the suspense in books 1 and 2. So I recommend starting with The Golden Lynx and proceeding through The Winged Horse to the latest installment. I’ve begun work on book 4, The Vermilion Bird, but an onslaught of editing projects has put everything on hold for the last month. Hoping to start up again soon.

Last, but definitely not least, Ariadne Apostolou’s West End Quartet—a set of novellas that follows the fortunes of the women from the urban commune described in her debut novel, Seeking Sophia—should also appear sometime this year. You can read more about West End Quartet and Seeking Sophia, including reading or listening to an excerpt of the latter, by clicking on the title links, which will take you to the Five Directions Press site.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Dancing Women

Back in the middle of March, while still immersed in the world of Anjali Mitter Duva’s Faint Promise of Rain and Mary Doria Russell’s Doc and Epitaph, I promised to explore the reimagining of the devadasis into the ballet La Bayadere.

I didn’t quite make it, because a ton of things landed on my desk: books for interviews, books for blog posts, my own book in final preparations for release, and projects that had nothing to do with fiction but nonetheless demanded my attention. After a while, I forgot. But today I remembered, and since La Bayadere is a topic close to my heart (I based my Kingdom of the Shades on it, as the title indicates), I decided it was time to pick up the thread.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Bayadere is not as well known in the West as many other classical Russian story ballets. Choreographed in 1877 by Marius Petipa, the great imperial ballet master, it was a great favorite at the tsar’s court. Often only the third act was performed, and more than one person has written to ask whether I’ve ever heard of the ballet Kingdom of the Shades. But unlike Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and Giselle—even the far less coherent CorsairBayadere did not make the leap to the West after the 1917 revolution. The full production arrived only around 1980, when Natalya Makarova staged it for American Ballet Theater.

The plot is typical of nineteenth-century ballets. Nikiya, a temple dancer (devadasi, bayadère) falls in love with a young military hotshot named Solor, who loves her too. But the Brahmin in charge of the temple wants Nikiya for himself. When she refuses, he spies on her with Solor and, beside himself with rage, threatens to kill his rival. Meanwhile, the local Rajah decides to marry his daughter, Gamzatti, to Solor. Solor resists, but what the Rajah wants, he gets. The temple sends Nikiya to bless the young couple, and the Brahmin seizes his opportunity to tattle on Solor to the Rajah. Alas, the Rajah wants to kill Nikiya rather than sacrifice his plans.

When Gamzatti overhears that her husband-to-be wants another woman, she sends for Nikiya and tries to buy her off. Nikiya retaliates by throwing in Gamzatti’s face that Solor has sworn over the temple’s eternal flame to love only Nikiya. The two women get into a catfight and Nikiya runs out, unaware that she now has two people gunning for her: the Rajah and his daughter.

Fast forward to the wedding: celebration and pageantry, a full orientalist display involving everything from elephants to peacocks to a golden idol (even today attended by children in blackface in the Bolshoi production) and a set of wild drummers who may be Gypsies or nomads or something else altogether. The temple, having failed to learn its lesson, again sends Nikiya to dance for the bride and groom. A snake mysteriously appears in a basket of flowers that Nikiya believes come from Solor, and before you know it, Nikiya is bitten. The Brahmin offers her an antidote if she will yield to him, but no. She would rather die than lose Solor.

Distraught and alone, Solor smokes opium. He dreams he has been transported to the Kingdom of the Shades—a garden of ghosts who enter, one by one, down a ramp in ongoing procession. When done properly, this is one of the most stunning entrances in ballet: thirty-two young women in white repeating the same two steps in perfect precision until they all reach the stage and line up. The shades dance in various combinations, then Nikiya appears, and through the course of a long pas de deux she and Solor are reconciled. But he must eventually return to the everyday world and marriage to Gamzatti, while she remains forever beyond his reach. Originally, the ballet finished with a fourth act in which the gods avenge Nikiya’s murder and reunite her with Solor after death. This fourth act can be seen in the Royal Ballet production, but it dropped out of the Russian version of the ballet after the revolution for technical reasons (it involved too many trap doors and pulleys for a cash-strapped state). In emotional terms, the ballet works better without it.

What makes Bayadere interesting despite its old chestnut sensibilities and its rampant orientalism is the triangle at its heart. This is the element I explore in Kingdom of the Shades, and you can find out much more about it in that book. But if we look at it as distorted history, what we see is a Victorian attempt to cope with a very non-Victorian situation. Certain elements of the story have parallels in the lives of real devadasis: the sacred dancer who has a secular patron; the potential for abuse created by that dichotomy; the reality of political marriage and the unlikelihood that a member of the military caste could choose his own wife, especially among the devadasis; the fragility of life. But the story transforms Nikiya into a perfect Victorian maiden, a ghost of the air. She loves and loses in a romantic tale that differs little from those of Giselle and Odette, themselves bowdlerized versions of ancient folklore (for more on Giselle, see my Desert Flower; The Swan Princess, although it has nothing to do with ballet, draws on another version of the story that gave rise to Swan Lake).

Of course, the devasis, too, had little control over their lives. By the mid-nineteenth century, when Petipa would have heard this story, the older system of patronage, itself unequal, had cracked under pressure from the British Raj. The status traditionally accorded to temple dancers also declined, since the new rulers could not distinguish between sacred women and their sisters on the street. Even the thought of divine dancers probably gave staid colonial moralists hives. Christianity had outlawed dancing in its churches more than a millennium before, precisely because of its appeal to the senses.

In that sense, perhaps Nikiya’s fate is not so inappropriate after all.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. The photograph of the ballerinas dancing the Entrance of the Shades from La Bayadere (2011) was released under a Creative Commons 3.0 license by the photographer, who goes by the name of WhiteAct.