Friday, June 23, 2017

The Beast Within

Early in my interview with Gabrielle Mathieu for New Books in Historical Fiction, I ask her about the tag line for the first book in her Falcon trilogy, The Falcon Flies Alone: “We all have a beast locked within us, but in Peppa’s case it’s more than a figure of speech.” We talked about anger and self-assertion, especially in women, and how they are often socially suppressed or, if not suppressed, evaluated differently from the same behavior in men. Gabrielle notes that she is not as blunt in her anger as her heroine, Peppa, but instead tends to avoid conflict. I could relate, as I have the same issue with several of my heroines.

Later in the interview, Gabrielle mentions that what distinguishes her antagonists from her protagonists is that the former use “some very blunt instruments” to attain their goals. These two comments got me thinking about how fiction is, in some respects, a way of exploring emotional paths not taken—for readers as well as for authors. In novels we can explore vengeance and murder, crises and conflict. We can talk back if we’re shy, beat our opponents up if we are timid or physically weak, flirt with infidelity or fall madly in love with characters who will never leave their socks on the floor or forget to pick us up at the airport. We can release the beast within—investigate it, test it, revel in it—without hurting ourselves or anyone else.

The same point applies to other art forms, of course: movies and television, especially. But well-crafted, well-written novels and short stories dump us inside another person’s head in ways that real life cannot, that even video cannot. We can see the world through the eyes of a falcon, a bad guy, an abandoned teenager, a runaway bride. We can experience life at the extremes, as most of us would much rather not do in real time. As Nancy Kress puts it in her wonderful Dynamic Characters, “In our lives we want tranquillity; in our fiction we want an unholy mess, preferably getting unholier page by page” (159).

And Peppa surely does get herself in an unholy mess, which gets unholier not only page by page but book by book. That’s why her story grabs us and doesn’t let go. But don’t take it from me: listen to the interview, then buy the book.

You can also hear (and in the case of The Falcon Flies Alone, read) an excerpt from the first two books at their respective pages on the Five Directions Press site: The Falcon Flies Alone and The Falcon Strikes.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction (and is cross-posted to New Books in Fantasy and Adventure).

Peppa Mueller has a lot going for her. The daughter of a deceased Harvard professor who gave her an eclectic upbringing, she is heir to his fortune, and Radcliffe has accepted her application for undergraduate study in chemistry—her gift and her passion. Too bad that her conventional Swiss relatives cannot imagine why any young lady would want a college education in 1957.

Sick of their constraints, she runs away from their home in Basel, even though she cannot collect her inheritance for another two weeks. A house-sitting job draws her to a remote Alpine town, where she becomes the subject of a terrible experiment. Wanted for murder, accused of insanity, and beset by visions of herself as a fierce peregrine falcon, Peppa decides to go after Ludwig Unruh, the man who has victimized her and now holds her precious German Shepherd hostage to force Peppa to participate in his ongoing research into psychedelic plants.

But Unruh has far more experience with both chemistry and life than Peppa does, not to mention far fewer scruples. And as time goes on, she discovers that her past and his are inextricably intertwined. She wants to stop him, she wants to get herself and her dog out of his hands, but to do either, she must first survive his experiment. In The Falcon Flies Alone Gabrielle Mathieu, the host of New Books in Fantasy and Adventure, creates a compelling, fast-moving novel that straddles the line between reality and the world of the imagination.

Friday, June 16, 2017


Few things are more satisfying to a writer or publisher than seeing a manuscript you’ve worked on for months or years appear in print. E-publication has its merits, and tablets and e-readers handle novels, which tend to have few images and simple formatting, with particular aplomb. Even so, it’s not like holding an actual book in your hands: admiring the cover, turning the pages, noticing the small details that say, yes, this is a published book.

So it’s always a special joy to announce a new work by one of our Five Directions Press authors. This month we focus on Denise Allan Steele’s new novel, Rewind, formally launched just yesterday. It’s charming, touching, hilarious—everything a novel should be.

Denise says she wrote the book because her kids begged for stories of the “olden days” (i.e., the 1970s) when she was a teenager in Scotland. The novel follows the adventures of Karen Anderson and her best friend, Carol, as they survive secondary school, attend college and nursing school, marry and have children, work in their chosen professions, move to different continents, and ultimately reunite at the funeral of Carol’s ninety-year-old Grandpa Jimmy, setting off the second half of the story.

But a summary can’t capture the joys of this delightful novel. So here is an excerpt from Chapter 1, “Abide with Me” (spelling is British Standard, because at least two-thirds of the novel takes place in Scotland):

Carol and I sat huddled together on the cold hard pew of Kilbrannan Parish Church. The weak sunshine coming through the huge stained glass window above our heads illuminated the figure of Saint Andrew, the ruby red of his gown beautiful and rich against the sapphire blue of the Scottish flag behind him. I had always loved that window, the way it gave me a feeling of peace and God and benevolence and contentment, the colours precious and magnificent in the austerity of the chilly old Presbyterian church. I had last seen the window from the inside in May 1977, when I had just turned fifteen. That was the day that Carol and I had been thrown out of the Girl Guides for refusing to say out loud the Brownie Guide promise that we would serve our God and our Queen. We felt that the Queen had enough servants and we definitely didn’t want to serve God, so we were asked to leave. We didn’t tell our mums and every Friday evening for months we had put on our Guide uniforms and gone to the amusement arcade at the beach, got changed in the toilets and hung about at the slot machines looking at boys and buying candy floss with our Guide money. Our sham was over when Mrs. Howie, the Guide leader, met Carol’s mum at the bus stop and our mums made us go the next Guide meeting and apologise.

I put my hand in Carol’s. “You okay?”

I hadn’t seen her since the last time I was home a year ago, and it felt like we had been together last week. Every time I came back to Kilbrannan, even after twenty-five years, it felt like I had been gone for a few days, and Carol and I just slotted back in to our lifelong friendship.

“Remember the last time we were in here and we got chucked out of the Guides?” She snorted, trying not to laugh. “And we had to go and apologise to that old bag Mrs. Howie. I still see her in the town, and she still glares at me, after thirty years!”

“Do you think that might be because you shouted ‘God save the Queen, the fascist regime’ at the top of your voice as we were running out of the church?”

Now, don’t you want to read more? You can find the book at or get more information at our Five Directions Press site. The book already has thousands of likes on Facebook, so don’t miss your chance to rewind the tape of Karen’s life—and your own.

Friday, June 9, 2017


Incredible as it may seem—it certainly seems so to me!—this month marks the fifth anniversary of this blog. If you had told me, in June 2012, that I would succeed in finding things to say every single week for five years, I would have wondered what mind-altering substance you had consumed. Yet here I am, five years on, occasionally frantic in my search for suitable topics for discussion but generally posting on time.

This month also marks the fifth anniversary of Five Directions Press. On June 3, 2012, we published the first version of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel (since reissued in a smaller size with a much spiffier cover designed by Courtney J. Hall). At the time, we saw our coop press as something of an experiment—a lark, even, like those old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films about putting on a show. We had only the vaguest idea of what we were doing, but the climate seemed right for a cooperative enterprise that lay somewhere between completely self-published and the commercial format monopolized by large corporate conglomerates. We gave it a try, not knowing what to expect, and it’s been great.

That first title has become twenty, out or due by early next year, as well as several more approaching completion but not yet ready to add to the website. (For those counting, Cover no. 20 is awaiting its big reveal next month before appearing on our Books page.) The latest went up on Amazon within the last twenty-four hours: stay tuned for that announcement next week. Our small group of three has tripled, and most of us have more than one book under our belts. Marketing is still a challenge, but we have learned lots about book production, publication, website design, newsletters and press releases, social media, even promotion. Two of us host podcasts on the New Books Network. And the topics of our books range from the dissolution of the Roman Empire to twenty-fourth-century ballet, with many highways and byways in between, and cover the globe from the secret Jewish communities of Inquisition-era Mexico to psychedelic experimentation in 1950s Switzerland.

Selected Five Directions Press Books
Image © 2017 Five Directions Press

Last but not least, June marks the ninth anniversary of the writers’ group that gave rise to Five Directions Press and produced most of its early titles. Each year at this time we go out to lunch, forget about the critiques, invite friends and fellow writers, and celebrate. That lunch is this weekend.

So a short post today to say that we’re enjoying the journey and to extend our thanks to our authors (who are also our staff), our indulgent families, and especially our readers. Let’s hope this is the first of many five-year anniversaries for Five Directions Press and its writers!

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Shattered Drum

Although The Vermilion Bird is far from done, I have a complete story and am working on my fourth draft. A friend is checking the text for historical errors—or will be when she has the time. As I feed chapters to my writing group and receive comments, I make adjustments, of course, but since they too have busy lives and writing of their own, it will be three to four months before they can get to the end. So I decided, this past week, to use the down time to think about the next—and last—Legends novel.

Usually when I start a new project, it takes a good six months of back and forth before I make serious progress: planning, writing, research, rewriting, sharing, more rewriting, fill in the blanks research, character development, new writing, and so on. This in-between time seems the perfect opportunity to start planning a structure, identifying potential story elements, settling on major characters, defining their goals and motivations as well as the obstacles in their path—all the stuff that goes before actual writing begins. I’m not ready yet to shift my focus from the hero and heroine of Vermilion Bird, and without that, actual writing would be wooden at best. But I am ready to start imagining how the next, or in this case familiar, hero and heroine must struggle to reach a new set of goals.

Being a pantser by nature, as noted previously, I don’t get any closer to a detailed plot than a list of things I’d like to see happen. That changes as soon as I sit down to write. Still, having a sense of where I’m going is helpful, even if my characters do tend to take on lives and wills of their own. I love the surprises they deal out when I’m least expecting them. And having a sense of who those characters are at a given moment, even in a series that has already been underway for nine years, is a definite must—although that, too, evolves over time.

Here, in Legends 5, I find the list of story elements relatively easy to construct. A series can’t just stop, after all; it must tie up the major developments of the earlier books, adding a sense of general closure to the resolution every story needs even as it establishes a clear direction—beginning, middle, and end—of its own.

But I also find myself reluctant to say goodbye to these fictional people who, by the time I finish The Shattered Drum, will have enriched my life for over a decade. Can I bear to let them go? Will the new series slowly coalescing at the back of my brain, which follows into the 1540s and beyond certain characters who never received their due because the world isn’t quite ready for 1,500-page novels, make up for having to reduce my favorites to cameos and walk-ons?

I don’t know. In a sense, I’m not sure I want to find out. But that sad day remains a year or two away. For the moment, I’m looking forward to putting my fictional family through its paces one more time. I hope that one day, when I reach the end of that road, you’ll enjoy the results.

Images: Nomadic Girl, screen capture from Myn Bala; Butterfly and Chinese Wisteria Flowers, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Sources and Stories

Even when I was young enough to think of everyone over thirty as a kind of antediluvian dinosaur, I always enjoyed hearing stories of the past from my elderly relatives and their friends. It seemed like opening a window on another world. So I was especially struck when I interviewed Michelle Cox—the author of A Girl Like You and A Ring of Truth, both romantic detective stories set in 1930s Chicago, with a third already on the way—to hear that many of the events that her heroine experiences come from stories told to her by a patient at the nursing home where Cox worked for a while.

All the no-longer-recognizable jobs—26 girl, taxi dancer, curler girl, usherette at a burlesque theater—as well as the all-too-familiar ones like floor scrubbing were held by this one patient, who, to paraphrase her words to Cox, also had “a man-catching body and a personality to match.” Given that the patient was in her eighties when she shared her story, we can only imagine what she was like in her teens, as Henrietta von Harmon, the heroine of this series, is when we meet her.

We talk about many other topics in the interview, including the road to publication, the fate of that first dreadful novel that writers inevitably have stashed in a drawer, and life during the Great Depression, as well as Henrietta and her fellow characters. But the lady behind the story is the part of the interview I didn’t and couldn’t anticipate. She gives a whole new meaning to the term “historical research.”

Indeed, I’m a little jealous. If only I could interview a real sixteenth-century Russian or Tatar.... Wouldn’t that be fun?

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

It’s January 1935. Prohibition has just ended, but the Great Depression has not, and much of Chicago remains under the grip of the crime lords who profited from the trade in illegal liquor. Eighteen-year-old Henrietta von Harmon, despite her aristocratic name, struggles to keep food on the table for her overwhelmed mother and seven younger siblings. After too many evenings spent cleaning, peddling drinks, and keeping score for dicers at a local bar, Henrietta jumps at the chance to double her income by taking a new job at a nightclub, where she dances with customers late into the evening. Too bad she cannot share the story with her family, who would be scandalized at the potential damage to her reputation if they knew. Then her boss turns up dead, and the customer to whom she is most attracted reveals that he works as a detective for the Chicago Police. The search for the murderer leads Henrietta into even more unsavory circumstances, and soon she’s wondering whether even the police can keep her safe.

In A Girl Like You and its sequel, A Ring of Truth, Michelle Cox introduces a rich cast of characters and a lovable heroine just trying to make her way in a cold and unforgiving world.

And for those of you who follow the interview participation of my cat, yes, he was there. He just decided to devote himself to purring that day instead of the usual piercing meows. Guess he liked the stories too!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Writing Groups

Back in February, I wrote a post on how to avoid publishing before a book is ready. Near the end of that post, I recommended, among other things, finding a critique group of fellow writers. But what is a critique group? How is it organized? What does it do? Where would you find one?

The answer to most of those questions—excluding the last, in some ways the hardest—is “whatever you like.” So rather than get into all the possible variations, I restrict myself here to a brief overview of my own writing group, soon to celebrate its ninth anniversary.

We got started—and here is one answer to the “where?” question—when Ariadne and I independently joined a statewide writers’ organization. I saw that an open-forum writers’ group operated out of the local Borders (remember them?), but by the time I discovered the group’s existence, it had moved out of easy driving range. Through the statewide organization Ariadne, Courtney, and I eventually found one another, together with a fourth member who left after a couple of years, and our writing group was born.

We knew from the beginning that because we all wrote novels, we needed to be able to share at least a chapter at a time. So unlike the group that met at Borders, which had lots of people each exchanging five pages per month, we settled on no more than four people and a limit of thirty double-spaced pages, flexibly enforced depending on how many of us chose to share at a given meeting. Otherwise, we had only two basic rules: everyone must be actively writing; and barring an emergency, everyone must attend each session.

So what does that mean in day-to-day terms? Take Vermilion Bird, which has twenty-six chapters in the rough draft. After several months of not sharing, or sharing only an outline or character sketches or goal, motivation, and conflict charts, I moved into a regular rhythm of two chapters a month (25–35 pages). Up to this point, my critique partners have seen the first sixteen of the twenty-six, in some cases more than once. In particular, the crucial opening chapters took several rounds of suggestions to knock into shape.

This month, for example, I sent chapters 15 and 16, in the form of a Word document, to Ariadne and Courtney by e-mail two weeks ago. By the time we meet on Saturday, they will have read the chapters, probably more than once, and I will have read theirs. I expect to see a few comments on things they liked but also flagged passages that confused them, went on too long, verged on information dump, sounded “off” in terms of the dialogue, or—my particular bugbear because I was raised in chilly northern climes—included characters taking things far too calmly or behaving in ways better suited to an English drawing room than the Eurasian steppe.

I will take those comments, figure out how to respond without jeopardizing my inner vision of the story, and make changes. Then I will look at the chapters that follow to see how those changes ripple through the rest of the book, and revise those before sending the next two chapters for critique in June. If, as happened with chapter 15, a suggestion leads to a thorough rewrite, I may decide it’s best to share that chapter again. It’s hard enough juggling three different writers’ books over the course of a year or more without looking at a chapter that seems to bear no resemblance to the story one sort of remembers reading last time. At the end of the process, when the other group members have read all the chapters in ones and twos, we dedicate a meeting to one person’s work and read it from beginning to end to pick up continuity errors, repetition, missing setups, inconsistent characterization, and other issues that can slip from view during those thirty-page-at-a-time critiques.

The group—serious, as usual.

What makes it work, more than anything else, is the individuals involved. This is the factor in some ways least susceptible to control but most vital to a group’s success. We were lucky in that we turned out to be compatible, both in what we write and how we offer critique. An approach emphasizing the positive and offering suggestions without judgment or, worse, insult is essential. Grandstanding, posturing, and revenge games will kill a group before the members have a chance to figure out each person’s strengths and therefore which suggestions take priority. 

A mix of strengths—plot first and character first, for example, or historical and literary—helps each member grow. The group will also function better if the members are at about the same stage of development; people writing their first paragraph can learn from writers with several novels under their belt, but they find it difficult to offer criticism and are easily intimidated, which throws off the balance of the group. A bad group can do more harm than no group, so this element of the decision should take precedence.

But assuming you can find the right emotional mix, what are the advantages and disadvantages of critique groups? Why would you want to consider one, and why might you instead prefer to seek out another way to improve your writing?

First, the advantages: I learned to write from working with others who were struggling with the same issues I was and who provided specific feedback on my specific story, rather than the generalizations that how-tos on the writing craft necessarily supply. It’s fun to talk to people who understand what you’re doing when you sit in front of the computer for hours on end or know how it feels to wake up in the middle of the night with characters jabbering in your head. And in those crucial early years, especially, writing is a lonely exercise with few rewards and fewer ways to separate the bad from the good in one’s own work. A writers’ group that fits your style offers a great way to test things out and learn, however slowly, what works and what doesn’t.

The disadvantages are not many, but they do exist. Even with our thirty-page limit, getting through an entire novel of three to four hundred pages takes a year or more, plus the final read-through and revisions. The input from the group—even a compatible group—can move a writer in a direction that may not fit an as yet hazy vision, requiring eventual push-back. On occasion, we get over-involved in one another’s work and have to disconnect, allowing the person writing the story to have the final word on its form and its content. None of these issues is fatal, but they do need management. For me, the end result of a better book and the pleasure of working with fellow writers who really know me, my strengths and weaknesses, and how I approach a project is worth the emotional investment of learning how to take (and give!) comments, but your calculation may not be the same.

There’s much more I could say, but this is a blog post, not a novel. What has your experience been? Have you ever joined a writers’ group? Did it work for you? Leave a comment below.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Finding the Story

A couple of weeks ago, I announced on Facebook that I had finished the rough draft of Legends of the Five Directions 4: The Vermilion Bird. Social media being what they are, I’m assuming most readers of this blog didn’t see that post, which probably disappeared among the many other updates of their friends. But for me it marked the transition from the process of discovering whether I have a story to my favorite part of writing: the first revision stage.

This may seem like an odd preference. Isn’t the first draft more fun? Well, in some ways, yes. If I could outline worth a darn and stick to the plan, no doubt I would like that first run-through best. In the first draft the story is brand-new and shiny, and I follow the characters almost in awe as they come to life on the page.

But as I’ve confessed before, my outlines are sketchy at best. I try to have a plan for where I’m going, although I don’t always get there (Vermilion Bird is a perfect example: I had a reasonable sense of where my main couple would end up, but several other characters kept me in suspense almost until the last chapter). Sometimes I also draw up a list of midpoints to keep the book focused, but usually that’s a waste of time, since by the time I hit page ten, someone has done something unexpected and there I am, back in the woods. And while the exploration is a blast, and I learn what’s going to happen as I go along, the nagging sense that I may never reach the end or even have a story, in the sense of a well-connected tale that starts off one place and ends up farther along the same path, gives the whole process a somewhat frantic air.

As a result, I like the second draft best. By then, the general arc of the book is in place. I understand who the characters are, what pleases and worries them, what they recognize as troubling and what they have buried so deeply that only the developing story events can bring the truth to light. Of course, there are byways—and even highways—that go nowhere and people who show up in chapter 15 and have to be introduced earlier, details I forgot were already covered and others that somehow slipped through the cracks. But the trunk of the book exists, and the rest is a matter of pruning and grafting, planting and uprooting. At this point I go through the novel several times as quickly as I can, adding and subtracting until I have a more or less clean line from beginning to end.

That is not the end of the revisions, by any means. I do individual runs for style, to remove clichés, to check for (historical, psychological, typographical) errors, to adjust for readers’ comments, to monitor that the dialogue sounds like something real people would say and excludes modern slang or post-medieval concepts of the universe. Only when I can’t think of anything else to fix does the book move toward publication. By then, I’m usually so sick of it that I can’t look at it anymore, at least for a while.

But that second round is special. The story is present but still new and exciting, rich with hidden depths and twists to uncover. It catches me up, to the point where I forgot to write this post yesterday. And now I have to get back to work. See you next week!

Images: Phoenix purchased from; Emperor Babur of India supervising work on his garden courtesy of the British Library.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Tangled Webs and Shining Stars

Or, Why I loved West End Quartet

As readers of this blog have probably figured out by now, I read a lot of books—and always have. Books are the focus of my work and fiction my chosen form of relaxation. I used to haunt bookstores the way “normal” people hang out in shopping malls, but these days many of my books come from, in print or e-versions.

Every single time I purchase or, especially, download a book, Amazon wants to know what I think of it. It even asks me to review my own books—which I don’t do. Sometimes I give in to the pleas, more often I don’t, but I’ve never had any trouble with getting Amazon to accept my feedback until this week, when I submitted a review of the latest Five Directions Press title, West End Quartet.

More specifically, Amazon thanked me for the review but never posted it. Clicking on the link gets me a cute dog photo and a “sorry, page not found” message. Clicking on the book link shows one review, not mine. What happened?

One explanation is a simple glitch. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as the cliché has it. But it’s well known that Amazon can be suspicious about reviews that are perceived as coming from friends or family or fellow authors. So on the off chance that the review was in fact deleted due to some misunderstanding, let me take this opportunity to point out why I went out of my way to recommend West End Quartet to fellow readers at Amazon.

It was not because the author and I share a publisher or even belong to the same writers’ group, although we do. It was because the book is genuinely a wonderful read: rich in complex characters, evocative of a particular time and place, filled with brilliant settings and emotional experiences. I have watched it grow through many iterations, and I can attest that it has improved dramatically during that process. The author put a ton of work into crafting it, and those efforts have borne fruit. If you like foreign travel and reading about relationships among women, books about parenting, self-development, and the many different paths that people can take when they start in one place, then proceed in their own individual ways at their own pace toward maturity—this writer is for you.

Each of the first three novellas follows the divergent path of one member of the urban commune dubbed Group, formed in Manhattan in the late 1970s to promote feminist causes and fight nuclear power. Mallory joins the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, more out of love than conviction, and discovers that revolutions don’t roll along as smoothly as she expected; Mina abandons her Indian ashram for immigration law and a family, only to realize that a path to happiness can take very strange forms; Gwen, an academic star at the height of her career, revisits her own past and rediscovers the self she always wanted to be. In “Reunions,” the three women reconnect with Kleio Platon—the protagonist of the author’s first novel, Seeking Sophia, and the fourth member of Group—but the narrator for the novella is Mina’s daughter, Skye, shipped off to Greece as an au pair for Kleio’s daughter, Sophia, and in major culture shock through much of her story.

As one would expect of a character-focused writer, each story has its own tone, its own vocabulary, its unique approach. But the four novellas, like Seeking Sophia before them, are alike in their wonderful prose, like the passage quoted below, in which Skye discovers that things are not always what they seem.

Now admit: don’t you want to know more?

Excerpt from “Reunions,” part 4 of Ariadne Apostolou’s West End Quartet 

They meander slowly up the road because it’s 115 degrees, an oven. The air just sits on you, a dead weight. Watch out for killer bees droning around like MiG-25 Interceptors, even if they look half dead from the heat, too.

Oh-ho. Behold the Dog!

Seeing Skye, the gigundo creature bares its saliva-dripping fangs, stands its ground in the middle of the road, head and tail lowered. Ears flare. A low growl escalates into a warning bark. Drool.

“Hey! It’s Mavri! Ella tho, Mavri!” Sophia bends on one knee to its eye level. At the sound of Sophia’s voice, ferocious Mavri morphs into a frisky puppy, lifts her head, yelps and raises her tail in a wild waggle. Her fangs recede into a wide grin. She prances over like she wants to play, bumps her snout into Sophia’s outstretched palm. She presses her flank into Sophia’s side, tail gone completely crazy.

Mavri belongs to the widow Kyria Mimika, farther up, Sophia explains. She rubs Mavri under her chin and coos Greek words. The mongrel fawns all over her; her slobbery tongue licks Sophia’s hand, then—plop! Down she goes at Sophia’s feet, a cloud of dust rises up, sprawls out, jaw in the dirt, and sighs. They walk past her, easily. Her round eyes follow them up the road.

“What are you anyway, Mowgli, Commander of Wolves? I don’t believe you, kiddo.”

You can find out more at

Friday, April 28, 2017

Drowning in the Light

As I mention in the introduction to my interview with Tiffany Reisz, historical novels—and, for that matter, history books and the research that gives rise to them—are a kind of time travel. As readers and writers, we can celebrate the allure of the past, including the thrill of immersing ourselves in situations, once common, that we probably don’t want to give up our modern conveniences to experience firsthand. Authors, too, enjoy certain advantages in writing about the past: plot twists that require serious explanation in the age of cell phones and DNA testing come into their own before the development of police forces, never mind chemistry labs.

But there remains, for authors even more than readers, that nagging question: did we get it right? And for those of us in the “business,” the prospect of answering that question, more than anything else, accounts for the attraction of time travel. To go back to our chosen period of history, to see it for ourselves, hear it and smell it, encounter the full range of possible behavior—but then, we hope, snap back to the present before we have to deal with premodern medicine, derogatory attitudes toward women and minorities, or even unwashed bodies—that is a novelist’s, a historian’s, or a reader’s dream.

The Night Mark raises a slightly different set of questions: What would it take for a twenty-first-century woman to give up the present entirely and choose to live out the rest of her life in the past? What kind of woman would make that choice? What does she lose, what does she gain, and what must she settle in herself before she can decide?

Tiffany Reisz is a self-aware and engaging conversationalist, and she tackles these questions head on. So take a listen—as always, the interviews are free—and ask yourself whether you would make the same choice her heroine does. I’m not sure I would. Love is great, of course, but so are antibiotics and electricity ...

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

So many people hope to find the perfect soul mate, but suppose you do, only to lose the person you love just as your life together is getting off to a beautiful start? Faye Barlow reacts by tumbling into a new marriage with her first husband’s best friend. After all, the bills pile ever higher, and her husband’s unborn child can’t come into the world without health insurance. The best friend is eager to help, but as time goes by, they both realize it takes more than need and a shared but unexpressed grief to make a partnership. Faye leaps at the chance to resume her career as a photographer, and as she travels around South Carolina’s coastal islands, her mourning finds an outlet and hope creeps back into her life.

In the old town of Beaufort, she encounters the legend of a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who drowned as a young woman. Compelled to learn more, Faye finds a photograph in the town archives and discovers that the lighthouse keeper looked just like her first, lost husband. She feels drawn to the lighthouse, and while visiting it at night, she is literally pulled into the past. But the year 1921 poses many challenges to a girl from the future accustomed to buying her food in plastic packages from the supermarket, storing it in a refrigerator, and cooking it on modern appliances. No antibiotics, no traffic laws, no electricity on the island, no equal treatment for women or people of color. Yet there is the lighthouse keeper, with his resemblance to Faye’s lost love. Will she stay? Can she stay? And what difficult tasks must she perform before she has a choice?

In The Night Mark (Mira Books, 2017) Tiffany Reisz has created a beautiful tale of love, loss, and recovery when life seems to offer nothing but shoals—except for that steady, pulsing beam of light in the dark.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Interview with Alyssa Palombo

It’s no accident that Alyssa Palombo’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence was my pick for the Five Directions Press Books We Loved post in April (check the link for other great books we found). Due out next Tuesday, the novel came to me for a New Books in Historical Fiction interview, but alas, I had no free space in my schedule this time around. I definitely want to interview Alyssa in the future, but for now, she has graciously agreed to this written exchange of questions and answers. Read right down the end for more information on her, this book, and how to find out more about both.

Your first book was on Vivaldi; this one looks at Botticelli. What draws you to early modern Italian artists?I’m certainly drawn to write about Italy specifically, as it’s a country I love and I find its history, political and artistic alike, so fascinating. As a musician I was inspired to write about Vivaldi at a time when I was experiencing something of a musical Renaissance myself and minoring in music in college. I often say, though, that Vivaldi chose me, as the spark for The Violinist of Venice came from a dream that I had, out of the blue, that became the first chapter of the book. With Botticelli—long one of my favorite painters—I was really struck by the true story of his artistic relationship with Simonetta Vespucci, and the fact that he is buried at her feet. It seemed such a romantic story in all the best ways that I knew I had to tell it. More broadly, as an artist myself, I am always passionately interested in the artistic process, whatever the medium might be.

When did you first hear about Simonetta Cattaneo? What made you decide to tell your story from her point of view?
I first came across her story – that she was the woman in Botticelli’s masterpiece The Birth of Venus—when I visited Florence for the first time, about four years ago now. At the time I was finishing up The Violinist of Venice and getting that ready to send to literary agents, so I filed the story idea about Simonetta and Botticelli away for future reference. When I sold Violinist and got a two-book deal, I thought that maybe it was time to dig out that idea and run with it. I don’t remember consciously making the decision to write from Simonetta’s point of view; it seemed an obvious choice for the idea as I had conceived it, but also as a writer I tend to naturally gravitate toward first person.

Tell us about Simonetta as a character—that is, your Simonetta and how she relates to the historical person. Do we know much about the historical Simonetta?

There is not much information available about the real-life Simonetta, which was at times very frustrating but also freeing from a creative standpoint. I could shape her life in a manner that made sense to me, based on the few facts that we do know, one of which being that she was actually considered the most beautiful woman in Florence in her day. That—and the fact that she was Botticelli’s model for Venus, the goddess of love and beauty—is sort of the core of what we know about her, so as a writer I wanted to explore what such a celebration of physical beauty would be like for a flesh-and-blood woman. My Simonetta is well read and intelligent and wants to be appreciated for that. She doesn’t have any false modesty about her beauty, but she interacts with it in a way that I think is realistic: at times she uses her beauty and its effect on men to her advantage, and at others she is frustrated by that effect. No one is perfect or entirely consistent in their attitudes or feelings from day to day, so that she would do both felt genuine to me.

The man she marries, Marco Vespucci, turns out to be something of a disappointment. What kind of person is he?He is someone else we don’t know too much about historically (though he was a cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer who gave his name to the new world). In my novel, he starts out as someone Simonetta believes that she loves, as she understands love. But he is ambitious and more worldly than she, and wants to use their marriage to his political and social advantage—certainly not unheard of or even necessarily frowned upon in that time and place, but also not what Simonetta thought she was getting. Their relationship changes a great deal over the course of the novel, but I won’t say too much more to avoid spoilers!

And of course, there is Botticelli himself. He and his painting are essential to the story, but in a sense he remains on the outskirts, because we meet him only through Simonetta’s eyes. How do you perceive his role and his character?In the novel, Botticelli is someone who—like the rest of those around her—recognizes and is aware of Simonetta’s beauty, but he sees beyond that as well, in a way that only perhaps one or two other characters do. He doesn’t want her to simply model for him but to truly understand and appreciate his artistic vision. He becomes first a friend to her in a way that none of the other characters are—her friendship with Lorenzo and Clarice de’ Medici, for instance, is rather different—and eventually that friendship develops into something more. I just loved writing the conversations and debates that Sandro and Simonetta have—in seeing him through her eyes it felt just like talking to a friend.

And I can’t let you go without asking about the Medici family, in all its glitter and glory. Do you have a favorite among them? Were they part of the appeal of this tale?I do! They’re all fascinating, but I really love Lucrezia Tornabuoni de’ Medici, the mother of Lorenzo and Giuliano. She was a writer in her own right and wrote plays and poetry; she was also very active in the political life of Florence and would see petitioners and settle disputes. She even went on a diplomatic mission to Rome to arrange Lorenzo’s marriage to Clarice Orsini. It was very unusual at the time for a woman to undertake such a task, which to me is just another reason why she is a very cool historical lady. They are such an interesting family overall, and they don’t appear in historical fiction nearly as often as I think they should, so that was definitely part of the appeal of writing this novel for me.

What are you working on now?My current work-in-progress is also set in Renaissance Italy, but it is very different from The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence in that it is rather dark and political. It is challenging me as a writer for sure and will be a lot of work to get just right, but in spite of and also because of that I am very excited about it!

Thank you, Alyssa, for talking with me today. I wish you all success with your writing and hope you will come back for a podcast interview next time around!

About the Book

A girl as beautiful as Simonetta Cattaneo never wants for marriage proposals in 15th-century Italy, but she jumps at the chance to marry Marco Vespucci. Marco is young, handsome, and well-educated. Not to mention he is one of the powerful Medici family’s favored circle.

Even before her marriage with Marco is set, Simonetta is swept up into Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici’s glittering circle of politicians, poets, artists, and philosophers. The men of Florence—most notably the rakish Giuliano de’ Medici—become enthralled with her beauty. That she is educated and an ardent reader of poetry makes her more desirable and fashionable still. But it is her acquaintance with a young painter, Sandro Botticelli, which strikes her heart most. Botticelli immediately invites Simonetta, newly proclaimed the most beautiful woman in Florence, to pose for him. As Simonetta learns to navigate her marriage, her place in Florentine society, and the politics of beauty and desire, she and Botticelli develop a passionate intimacy, one that leads to her immortalization in his masterpiece The Birth of Venus.

Alyssa Palombo’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence vividly captures the dangerous allure of the artist and muse bond with candor and unforgettable passion.

About the Author

ALYSSA PALOMBO is also the author of The Violinist of Venice. She has published short fiction pieces in Black Lantern Magazine and The Great Lakes Review. She is a recent graduate of Canisius College with degrees in English and creative writing, respectively.  A passionate music lover, she is a classically trained musician as well as a big fan of heavy metal. The Violinist of Venice is her first novel. She lives in Buffalo, New York.

Connect with Alyssa Palombo


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Friday, April 14, 2017

New Jeans

I don’t buy clothes often—books, not shoes, are my luxury of choice. But even someone who works and writes from home has to update the wardrobe occasionally, if in a strictly proletarian fashion. Thus I decided, a couple of weeks ago, to buy a new pair of jeans. After an early success in which I added a sale item or two and placed the order in minutes, the process quickly went south. The normally reliable online retailer, patronized for years, had just upgraded all its computer systems days before a major late-season snowstorm took out the power, and two weeks and three phone calls later, I still don’t have the item I originally went online to buy. But the rest of the order arrived yesterday, so this morning, for the first time in years, I found myself struggling with a new pair of jeans.

Now, on the off chance that you only buy wool trousers and chinos, let me mention that jeans are not like other pants. Those you put on, and they fit or they don’t fit, in which case you keep them or send them back. Jeans ... grow. Each time you wash them, you have to stretch them out again, but that first try-on is brutal. I tugged and pulled. This was the same model and size I had in my closet. Had the manufacturer mislabeled the product? Had I put on that much weight? Should I have ordered a larger size? (Insert wild outbreak of denial here.) Then experience kicked in, and I remembered the drill: squats and bends, wriggles and twists—and behold, the jeans not only buttoned but zipped. A few hours later, they feel almost comfortable, if not yet cozy like the old friends hanging in the closet.

Of course, this post isn’t really about clothes. Book projects are like that, too. Start a new one, even with familiar characters, and it’s like struggling into that new pair of jeans. But do enough wriggling and writhing, twisting and pulling, and the book stops feeling like an alien object and starts to mold itself to your shape.

The Vermilion Bird is just about at that point. With a solid week of writing under my belt, twenty-three chapters (however rough) on the page, and two more sketched out to bring the book to its conclusion, I finally know where it’s going. And on Tuesday, in a flash of inspiration after re-reading the central third of the novel, it came to me what my main character’s inner conflict is all about. Specifically, what has made her so prickly and unlikable throughout the series that I have to convince some of my readers that it’s even worth picking up the new book to find out what makes her tick. (I promise: you will sympathize with her when you find out—and if you don’t, I will have put her in enough hot water that you will feel satisfied at having watched her squirm.)

Yes, I know: we writers are supposed to work on motivation beforehand—and I assure you, I did. But characters are people, too, and what I thought was driving Maria turned out to be only a symptom of her deeper conflict. So with enormous thanks to Ariadne Apostolou and Courtney J. Hall, whose questions and comments kept my virtual nose to the grindstone long enough to discover what my latest story is, I’m poised to finish my rough draft. And that’s when the real fun begins, once I’ve broken in that new pair of jeans.

Clipart no. 109537280

Friday, April 7, 2017

Catching Fleas

I’ve heard a story—perhaps you’ve heard it too, although it’s probably more an urban legend than reality—that the makers of Oriental carpets weave mistakes into their work, because only God is perfect. Frankly, this story always makes me laugh. Does anyone have to manufacture mistakes? I can make a dozen before breakfast without even trying, especially with a middle-aged memory working on my behalf. Which brings me to today’s topic: proofing.

As some of you know, I handle all the typesetting and proofing, as well as much of the copy editing, for Five Directions Press. I make my living the same way. And like most editors, I am a perfectionist. Show me a poster or an advance review copy, and my eye goes immediately to the extra space, the comma that should be a period or vice versa, the preposition that ends a sentence. I can’t help it. When I’m reading for pleasure, I wish I could turn off that inner voice commenting on faulty grammar or words that break across lines when they should not, never mind spelling and capitalization errors.

So it may come as something of a surprise that of all the parts that go into my job, proofing is the one I dislike most. Editing fiction is usually fun (if nonfiction not always—it depends on the topic), typesetting artistically satisfying, writing pure joy. But proofing demands intense focus on tiny, essentially arbitrary details. Worse, it’s so final. From proofing, a book goes to press, where any mistake that’s missed will remain visible forever. Small things, big impact—a classic prescription for stress.

Proofing is, of course, essential. Work riddled with errors brands an author or a press as unprofessional. But as an activity it is humbling, especially to a perfectionist. Proofing reveals the places where one’s eye skipped over the same mistake a dozen times before. In the novel I’m working on now, I read the file before typesetting, during typesetting, as a printed PDF after typesetting. I created an e-book and checked the formatting, although the error I have in mind would not show up in an e-book. Only when I went to investigate a problem the author identified—which turned out to be caused by her computer, but that’s another story—did I realize that I had assigned the wrong tag to one chapter opener, so that the pretty small caps that set off the first line everywhere else didn’t appear. This after going through the file about eighteen times to check specifically for typesetting errors: things like vertical justification (facing pages ending at the same place) and ladders (same word stacked two or three times at the left or right edge of a paragraph). I saw a thousand trees and missed the giant rock sitting smack where it should not be. That’s proofing.

One thing that helps, I find, is changing formats. Things I can’t see on screen or miss in printouts leap out at me in an e-book or the actual book. CreateSpace lets authors order bound proofs, which look exactly like the final output. I always insist on seeing the bound proof before I sign off on a book, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. In the past, I’ve found incorrect headers, photographs that printed too dark, tables of contents that didn’t match the chapter headings, authors’ names spelled incorrectly, and more—all this in articles and books that three to six people have read, sometimes more than once. We learn to read by recognizing patterns, to see words rather than individual letters. So faced with a page, the mind fills in the blanks, and nothing but kicking it out of its comfort zone lets the proofer see what’s really there or not there in place of what we expect to find. Then there are the errors no one could predict, like the cover that looked perfect on screen but developed a color mismatch or stray lines on export, visible only in the final output or when blown up to 600% in Photoshop.

And that is why I don’t worry about inserting errors in my work. Because hard as I try to root them out, they multiply like fleas, and there are always more to find. But as irritated as I become every time I finally catch sight of that giant rock, I’ve had to learn to chill. Because it’s true: only God is perfect.

Image: Clipart no. 109370633.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Dancing up a Storm

Ask people unfamiliar with dance history where ballet originated, and many will say, “Russia.” Although the wrong answer—ballet originated at the court of Louis XIV, based on formal dance traditions already developed in Italy and brought to France with Catherine de Médicis—the perception reflects the outsized influence of Russian ballet since the arrival of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909. So it probably comes as something of a surprise to learn that ballet in Russia itself almost did not survive the October Revolution of 1917.

The problem was simple: from its debut, ballet existed as an aristocratic art form, supported by courts and, until the early years of the twentieth century, chronicling the adventures of princes and princesses, fauns and fairies, sylphs and spirits of various sorts. Its pirates were romantic corsairs, its peasants and shepherds light-hearted flute players, its Gypsies royalty in disguise or lost at birth. Everyone bathed often, and there was not a worker in sight.


Imperial autocracy, as a system, exaggerated these problems. The imperial theaters and their school operated as government departments, intertwined with the tsars’ household in the most intimate fashion. Although the dancers came from lower on the social scale—and often subscribed to liberal politics, especially during and after the revolution of 1905—everything about their daily lives, from the moment they entered the doors of the academy on Rossi Street as children to the guaranteed pensions they received in retirement thirty years later, safeguarded them from the poverty that afflicted the vast majority of Russia’s population and linked them to the rarefied world of the aristocracy.

When the Bolsheviks completed their coup, the former imperial theaters faced numerous problems. Although the lack of state support for sets, costumes, salaries, and pensions had perhaps the most dramatic impact on the lives of individual dancers, perhaps a bigger loss for Russian ballet as a whole was the mass exodus of personnel before and after Great October. Ballet in the Western world took off at this time, precisely because the fleeing dancers brought their expertise and their training with them. But those who remained behind, for whatever reason, found themselves in dire straits. 

Almost half of the dancers in the imperial theaters of St. Petersburg emigrated in the late 1910s and early 1920s, meaning that simply mounting a performance of a classic like Swan Lake, Giselle, or The Nutcracker became next to impossible. Scarce food meant that the skilled dancers who remained performed in workers’ clubs that paid in bread. Scarce fuel left dancers bundled in clothes over their skimpy costumes, stripping off the layers in the wings just before they ran on stage and rushing back to cover up as soon as their divertissement finished. Each morning students broke the ice on the water sprinkled over the wooden floors to prevent skidding.

Perhaps more devastating still was a problem unique to ballet, an art form that from its beginnings until the present day has been passed on by word of mouth from teacher to student. When so many dancers left, they took with them the living memory of steps, how roles were performed, and transferred that oral tradition westward. Those who stayed struggled to preserve what they recalled, even devising the first system of dance notation to record the old ballets.

The art itself suffered from the exodus, because the dancers and choreographers and musicians who left tended to be the ones with the best prospects abroad: stars like Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Michel Fokine. Those left behind were not always second-tier, but they had to train an entire new generation of students to replace those who fled.

Yet as we all know, ballet in the fledgling Soviet Union did not die. The first change came when Anatoly Lunacharsky, people’s commissar of education, convinced Vladimir Lenin that “gentry culture” could have its place in the new Soviet state. Trends already underway toward more modern, less narrative ballets accelerated in the new cultural climate, finding their ultimate expression in the work of George Balanchine (another émigré) and Fedor Lopukhov, who stayed.

The rechristened state theaters continued to struggle, fending off constant accusations of backward-looking tendencies with melodramatic explorations of workers and factories, followed in due course with earnest (but seldom earnest enough) portrayals of national culture. Agrippina Vaganova and Vladimir Ponomarev revitalized the teaching methods at the Choreographic Academy in Leningrad, students such as Galina Ulanova and Marina Semyonova put those methods into practice, and in time the Stalinist government and its successors realized that ballet offered a ready means to impress foreign visitors, including ambassadors.

The old ballets were restaged in new, more ideologically acceptable forms, without the archaic nineteenth-century mime. The Bolshoi and the Kirov troupes, carefully selected for political reliability, received permission to travel abroad, and Russian ballet again became the touchstone of world dance—no longer as an aristocratic art form but as an integral part of a state-sponsored attempt to create a workers’ paradise.

The democratization of Russian ballet—hastened, if not caused, by the Russian Revolution—had ripple effects on the history of ballet in Europe in the twentieth century. Rigid class structures were breaking down, and culture as a whole—poetry, drama, film—reflected these changes, but the exodus caused by the revolution acted as a significant stimulus to the modernization of the sometimes anachronistic art of ballet throughout the world.

Images: Agrippina Vaganova in Esmeralda, St. Petersburg, 1910 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons); Pablo Picasso (in the beret) and scene painters working on set design for Leonid Massine’s Parade, staged by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, 1917 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons); The Bolshoi Ballet School in the 1920s (courtesy of Russia in Photos); The finale of The Flames of Paris, one of the “revolutionary” ballets, staged in 1932 (courtesy of Russia in Photos).

An earlier version of this post appeared on “Culture Matters” on March 20, 2017.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Traveling the World

Fictional characters serve many purposes, but one particularly if not exclusively suited to historical fiction is the chance to insert an invented person into crucial events in the past.

Now, I am the first to admit that this approach often drives professional historians nuts. But in my view, it can’t be worse than the alternative: imagining conversations, thoughts, emotions, and personalities and attributing them to people who actually lived. I much prefer creating characters of my own and throwing them into the midst of this or that long-ago drama, because it seems unlikely to me that readers will believe that my Nasan, for example, changed the course of Russian history. Whereas if I make an assertion about Elizabeth I, a student somewhere may just remember it as “true.” 
I can do my best to correct any misapprehensions in the Historical Note—and I do—but that  assumes that readers will both peruse the note and recall it later. So I still choose, when I can, to keep my characters fictional.

As a result, I appreciate the approach used in the two novels whose author I interviewed this month for New Books in Historical Fiction. Ronald E. Yates—who traveled the world as foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and later taught journalism to others, ending that career as dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois before moving into fiction—sends his Billy Battles into many of the places he visited as a reporter. Billy observes, and to some extent participates in, events in Dodge City and Tombstone, Saigon and Manila. In the process, he falls in love, marries, has a child, and falls in love again. It’s all tremendous fun but instructive, too, in a light-hearted way—a reminder of how much the world has changed in the last century a half, and in what ways it hasn’t.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction:

Journalism, history, biography, memoirs, and historical fiction overlap to some degree. The first two focus on provable facts, but the facts must be arranged to form a coherent story, and that requires an element of interpretation, especially in history. Biography and memoirs demand even more of a story arc, although still devoted to a specific person who once lived or still lives. And historical fiction, although it departs from that fundamental reliance on what can be documented or evidenced, instead inventing characters or putting words into the heads and mouths of real people, nonetheless relies on creating a “you are there” sense of authenticity that cannot exist without considerable research into how people in a given time and place dressed, talked, ate, traveled, and socialized.

Finding Billy Battles and its sequels, The Improbable Journeys of Billy Battles and the forthcoming The Lost Years of Billy Battles (title not set), occupy this space between journalism and fiction. William Fitzroy Raglan Battles, a centenarian in an old soldiers’ home when his reluctant great-grandson makes his acquaintance, turns out to have lived a rich and varied life that has taken him through the American Wild West, the Philippines, late nineteenth-century Saigon, the Spanish-American War, and other places, not to mention many of the tamer regions of the United States. A reporter by inclination and training, Billy typically observes and records, but the areas he visits often draw him into their conflicts, blurring the line between participation and journalism.

Ronald Yates, himself a journalist and professor of journalism who has visited many of the destinations where he sends his main character, brings each of these venues to life in a way that is both vivid and true to the time period. And in Billy Battles, based on a veteran of the Spanish-American War whom Yates interviewed in the same old soldiers’ home where we first meet his hero, Yates has created a multilayered portrait of a man of integrity who just can’t resist a good fight.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Snow Day

I’m sure everyone remembers the wait by the radio—or these days, no doubt, the Internet search—for that magic number that signaled a snow day. As children, we are thrilled to bits by the unexpected (or eagerly anticipated) cancellation of school, the freedom to race about shrieking amid freshly fallen white stuff or huddle over the fire with a favorite book. As parents, the reactions become more complex: plans set aside competing with time spent with the kids; the reduced responsibility of being stuck inside, which brings its own kind of relaxation, versus the need to clear the driveway and the reality of work undone.

In my time, I’ve enjoyed both kinds of snow day. But for decades, I have worked from home. So after the Filial Unit departed for college, snow days became a thing of the past. As a salaried employee, what excuse did I have for skipping work merely because my employer shut down for the day? The stairs from my living room to my office remained clear of ice and blizzard, whatever gale howled outside. Unless the power went out—and with it the heat, which brought other problems—I soldiered on, convinced that was what professionals did.

Enter the change to the Fair Labor Standards Act enacted in 2016. The move to expand overtime led to my transition from salaried to hourly worker, as it did for many other employees at my institution. At first, I hated the change. I had never counted the hours I worked, answering e-mail on weekends or whenever it came in, working longer than usual to get projects ready on time, doing what needed doing when it needed to be done. Now I learned that I would be violating my contract by working more than reported as much as by working less—and, to twist the knife a little more, actual overtime, for various reasons, was unlikely ever to materialize. I grumbled like crazy.

But then, this week, I got a snow day. A Nor’easter barreled into the Eastern Seaboard and dumped snow and sleet from Maine to Virginia. My institution closed, and I received a message that I would be excused from work and paid for my hours. Ecstatic as the kid I used to be, I spent the whole lovely day writing chapter 23 of The Vermilion Bird (Sir Percy, bless his generous heart, took care of the snow, insisting that he needed the exercise). Turns out hourly pay has its advantages after all.

The ides of March have already come and gone, and the prospect of more snow days appears dim—although I don’t mind too much, as I much prefer the brightening sun. Easter break will arrive soon enough, and I plan a whole nine days of writing vacation then. But next year, I’ll be ready, and in the meantime you won’t hear any more complaints from me.

Image: no. 24665560

Friday, March 10, 2017

(Un)Holy Matrimony

If you’ve read any of my books, you’ll have noticed that most of my main characters are married—many of them to spouses chosen by others or in some way imposed on them. In a world where companionate marriage based on romantic attraction has become the norm, that may seem like an odd choice on my part. Do I have some kind of hang-up?

At the simplest level, I write about these relationships because my characters would have experienced them. The idea of marrying for love appeared only in the early nineteenth century, and only in select parts of the world. Passion, romance, attraction—these have existed since time immemorial, but traditionally they had nothing to do with marriage. Marriage was an economic and political and social contract that bound families, allocated land and other resources, determined inheritance, and in general supported existing social hierarchies—especially among the elite, who had the most to lose. As such, it bore far too much weight to entrust to the passing fancies of the young. Fathers selected spouses, mothers approved them, and children complied. In some parts of the world, those rules still apply.

But historical realism does not explain all of my preference for writing about married couples. Although in college I devoured romance novels, but even then marriage struck me as a more interesting relationship. Romance grows out of hormones and propinquity and need. It gets a relationship going, but it’s essentially an hors d’oeuvre for the main event. The real work begins when it’s no longer easy to leave, when two people who—however compatible—have to reconcile their different assumptions and opinions and experiences, figuring out when to compromise and where to draw the line. Fiction depends on struggle; characters who have neither conflicts nor problems will bore readers to tears. So why wade in the shallows when you can throw your imaginary people into the deep end and watch them thrash about?

Clipart no. 20483075.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Interview with Lissa Evans

I would absolutely have interviewed Lissa Evans for New Books in Historical Fiction if I had received her book in time, but it showed up on my desk just when I had signed up a couple of other writers. Their Finest is a delightful novel—now a major motion picture, as the book jacket declares—about the UK film industry in the period leading up to and beyond the Battle of Britain in 1940. Do look it up and read it. As the Independent notes, “This is the truest and most enjoyable novel about home-front life I’ve read; it’s touching and hilarious.”

Meanwhile, here are Lissa’s answers to my questions. And don’t forget to check out her website for more information on her and her books, including her social media links.

What drew you to the story that became Their Finest?

Inspiration came from two directions—first, from my abiding interest in the Home Front (everyday life in Britain during the war), which sprang from reading Norman Longmate’s How We Lived Then as a teenager. This chronicled in engaging detail all the difficulties and challenges of the era. What fired my imagination was the idea of ordinary people, trying to live ordinary lives in extraordinary times. Life was tiring, tough, and makeshift, and people had to adapt to the most enormous changes, almost on a day-to-day basis.

The second source was my work behind-the-scenes in television. I was always struck by how important even utterly trivial things seem, when you’re in the sealed environment of a studio. The outside world fades away, and instead you find yourself getting into intense discussions about where, exactly, a bowl of fruit should be placed in a shot or whether the leading man’s tie should be scarlet or maroon.

I had the idea of juxtaposing these two backgrounds; I wondered if, when bombs were actually dropping outside and shrapnel hitting the studio roof, there were still people arguing about whether to remove a comma from a speech, or if a door should open inward or outward. I began to research, and it didn’t take long to find out that the answer was “Yes”! I knew, then, that it was a world that I could write about.

You worked in radio and television. Your main character, Catrin Cole, becomes involved in writing scripts for propaganda films. And let’s just say that the actors cast in these films—magnificent creations one and all, but especially Ambrose Hilliard—are not the blockbuster stars they imagine themselves to be. What was the best part of writing this story?

I think the most purely enjoyable part was writing Ambrose, who seemed to flow from my keyboard as bile flows from a ... well, a biliary tract! To write someone so acidic, so critical, so breathtakingly rude, and so utterly self absorbed was a joy, and inevitably, as I wrote him, I grew to love him in all his jaundiced eloquence. And I wasn’t the only one; when I’d nearly finished the book, I was musing over possible titles with my editor. “What about The Redemption of Ambrose Hilliard?” I asked (not entirely seriously); my editor looked horrified—“No, no,” he said. “Don’t redeem him, you mustn’t redeem him.”

Tell us about Catrin, as a character, and why you made her the center of your novel.

In my previous incarnations, as a producer in radio and television comedy, I spent an enormous amount of time working with writers, most of whom were male; I loved the atmosphere of the “writers’ room”—the banter and the fast exchange of ideas—but sometimes it could be quite intimidating, and when I came to write Their Finest I wanted to explore that world from the point of view of someone new to it.

During my research, I came across several references to female film writers working on wartime films, and the one I found most interesting was a young Welsh woman called Diana Morgan. She was initially a playwright, but was called in to the famous Ealing Studios where she was engaged to write “the love interest” in a (dreadful) film called Ships with Wings. She was the only woman writer on the staff and she said that “you had to be tough.” The love-scene dialogue was known as “nausea,” and “they used to say ‘get the Welsh bitch to write the nausea’!” Nevertheless, she stuck it out (and learned to give as good as she got) and went on to work on many excellent films. She became my inspiration for Catrin, who grows over the course of the book from a tentative newcomer, patronized and exploited, to a fully fledged screenwriter, confident in her own abilities

Your book about filmmaking is itself becoming a film. It’s probably safe to say that this is every writer’s dream. Did you have much input into the film, and how closely did the scriptwriters stay to your original story?

I didn’t want to write the screenplay myself, but I had an agreement that I’d be sent every draft of the script, and I quickly realized that changes in the plot were inevitable; the book is quite long, there are four main characters and a huge story arc—it follows a film from conception to screening, along with a host of subplots—and it’s simply not possible to fit all of that into a screenplay. I thought that the writer, Gaby Chiappe, did a brilliant job; she kept the whole spine of the plot, and much of its heart and humor, while slimming the whole thing down to manageable lengths.

Having said that, it was sometimes difficult to watch as characters disappeared, or became younger, older, or more gorgeous than I’d imagined, but then I would remind myself that I’d written a book about the often ludicrous conceits and demands of the film industry, so I could hardly complain when it happened in real life! And the final result is all (and more) that I could have hoped for.

As a Russian specialist, I’m familiar with some of the myths created by the Stalin regime: the partisan Zoia Kosmodemianskaia, the 28 Panfilov Heroes, and so on. I have to admit that, naïve as it seems, it didn’t occur to me that the British government did the same thing. Is the Dunkirk incident that becomes the basis for the film in your book based on a true story?

Dunkirk was one of the most extraordinary events in the Second World War. A British Army Expeditionary Force (together with a French contingent), attempted to halt the German advance across Holland and Belgium but were themselves rapidly beaten back to the French coast, where they camped among the sand dunes, or queued at the port of Dunkirk, waiting for rescue—with the German army only days away and the German air force directly overhead. The shallowness of the coastal waters meant that only small boats could ferry the soldiers from the beach to naval rescue ships, and a call went out from the British government for any and all small boats to make the twenty-mile journey across the English Channel. Fishing vessels, cabin cruisers, Thames barges and tug boats, some commandeered by the navy but many with civilian crews, aided the rescue, and over the course of three days, a third of a million—yes, a third of a million!—British and French soldiers were evacuated to safety. So what might have been viewed as a defeat (at a dark and hopeless period of the war) ended up being seen by the public as a kind of miracle—a morale-boosting victory for courage and initiative. And while the government didn’t directly promote this viewpoint, it certainly did nothing to quash it.

As might be imagined, there were hundreds of extraordinary individual stories of rescue and heroism, but no official account was written at the time, only odd newspaper articles—so although I never came across a story about twin sisters piloting their father’s fishing boat, it might easily have happened!

What are you working on now?

After Their Finest, I wrote another book set during the war. It’s called Crooked Heart and is about an evacuee and his unscrupulous foster-mother, who draws him into a criminal scheme (think Paper Moon, set during the Blitz!). In the prologue of this book, we meet the evacuee, Noel, who at that point is still living with his beloved godmother, Mattie, in London. Mattie is a former suffragette and is bringing up Noel with splendid eccentricity; she is lost to view early in the book, but she stayed in my head. So now I’m writing a novel about Mattie, set in 1928—a whole new era for me!

I’ve also just had my third children’s book published; it’s called Wed Wabbit, and it will be out in the USA early next year. I think/hope it’s the funniest thing I’ve written so far…

Lissa, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, and I wish you all success with both books and film!