Friday, July 20, 2018

Marriage Politics, American-Style

As I’ve written elsewhere, in the time period and area of the world I study, most people saw marriage as an economic and political contract between families writ small and villages (among the poor) or between entire clans and patronage networks (among the elite). The desire of individuals for love and companionship, understanding and compatibility, played little role in the choice of marriage partner. Instead, the dominant factors included things like whose lands ran together, which woman needed a husband to plow the fields or which man needed a woman to cook and clean, and who had close ties to those in power and in favor. Not to mention the possibility of children, without whom the family, village, or lineage could not continue.

Health and fertility, especially among potential brides, also weighed in the balance, since bearing children was a wife’s primary responsibility. Personality had some importance, for sure, but only to the extent that it made a successful partnership more or less likely in the eyes of those charged with selecting the potential spouse. Parents and guardians, not the couple themselves, made that decision. Aristocratic fathers, to ensure that they had a free hand, secluded their virgin daughters within the household, keeping them as close as the ladies of any Turkish harem.

But that was Europe in the premodern era. Nothing like that could have happened in the Land of the Free and the Brave in the twentieth century, right? In my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, with the author Robert Goolrick—whose new novel The Dying of the Light I also featured in last week’s post—we see that the United States in the Gilded Age, at least among its old landed and nouveau-riche entrepreneurial classes, was not so different from medieval Europe after all. The tensions created by selling one’s daughter to the highest bidder pervade this novel, determining much of its action as well as the complex and often contradictory relationships among its characters.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. Goolrick is an unusually thoughtful and fascinating speaker, so make sure to listen in. You’ll be glad you did!

“It begins with a house and it ends in ashes.” So opens Robert Goolrick’s rich, lyrical new novel, The Dying of the Light (Harper, 2018).

The house is Saratoga, a colonial-era estate in Virginia that is at once a joy and a burden to the family that lives there, the Cookes. In particular, it determines the life trajectory of Diana Cooke, the eighteen-year-old heiress charged with saving her family and her home from poverty right after World War I. Diana reluctantly embraces her destiny, agreeing to marry Captain Copperton, a wealthy but uncouth man who doesn’t hesitate to remind the Cookes at every turn that he owns not only the house but them, in principle if not in fact.

But Copperton has one virtue in addition to his entrepreneurial abilities: he is a good father to the son he has with Diana. And it is, in the end, their son who unwittingly sets off the series of events that leaves Saratoga in ashes. Along the way, a cast of delightfully realized and often eccentric characters interact in sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising ways against the backdrop of Saratoga and its ever changing, ever inspiring river.

As for me, I am almost, almost through the massive list of projects surrounding the release of my last Legends novel, The Shattered Drum. Stay tuned for the formal announcement next week. If you’re signed up at Five Directions Press, you will receive the press release automatically. And if you’re not, why aren’t you? We send out no more than six mailings a year—mostly announcements of new titles—and since our resident designer, Courtney J. Hall, puts her creative talents to work on those mailings, they are always exciting to see.

Meanwhile, I hope to get back to writing—maybe as soon as this weekend. I can hardly wait!

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Sense of Place

Just yesterday, I was talking with the writer Robert Goolrick, whose latest novel, The Dying of the Light, is the subject of my next New Books in Historical Fiction interview (on which, more next week—or perhaps the Friday after that, depending on how many interviews are in the queue ahead of me). Although as writers and as readers, we tend to focus on characters and plot, The Dying of the Light reminds us that setting, if properly invoked, expresses and motivates the first and drives the second.

Place grounds us, influencing our experience of the world in ways so fundamental that we often don’t recognize their force. In my own novels, the crowded streets and tightly packed houses of sixteenth-century Moscow breed different expectations from the vast borderless grasslands of the steppe or the equally vast and borderless yet somehow confining forests of the Russian north. My characters feel these differences, sometimes with joy—as when Alexei has a chance to return to the steppe for a summer, even if it means leaving his family for a war that may prevent his return—and sometimes with dread, as when Nasan stands in the Kremlin Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, surrounded by the decaying corpses of Moscow’s royal princes.

The Dying of the Light opens with a wonderful line: “It begins with a house and it ends in ashes.” And indeed it does: the Virginia estate of Saratoga, as important to those who live there as Pemberley or Tara. The Cookes of Saratoga can trace their ownership of the house back to the eighteenth century, but by the time the novel opens more than 150 years later, the house has become both a burden to those who live there and an essential part of their being.

The estate costs a lot to maintain, you see, and the Cookes are land-rich and cash-poor. They have one asset besides the house and their name: their beautiful daughter Diana. So they put her on the market—the marriage market—and force her to choose between their estate and her happiness.

What happens after that is the subject of a future post, but today’s point is simple. Saratoga—its river and its fields, its people and the race relations that bind and separate them, its disasters and moments of recovery—both challenges and rewards its residents. It pushes the plot in unexpected directions. It forces the introduction of new characters, who in turn develop new relationships even as they twist existing ones in different directions, sometimes to the point of destruction. And the history of the house, so closely tied to the person of the protagonist Diana Cooke, ultimately reveals the theme hidden in this wonderfully lyrical and fascinating book.

Take this one short example from p. 106. “They” are Diana and her cook, Priscilla.

They heard the crack and crash of a tree outside, in the garden, struck by lightning that lit the room like daylight, like noon in July. They felt the chill air that suddenly filled the room, blowing in from the library, and thought the same thought at the same moment. “The books!” Diana jumped up.

They ran into the library, forcing open the broad double doors, to find the giant half tree that had been split by the lightning and crashed through the diamond panes of the windows, destroying everything, letting in the slashing rain, pulling books from the shelves, the soggy pages flapping in the wind, the rug soaked, the ruination of all that Diana held most dear.

Now, that’s a sense of place.

On another note, my summer plans are proceeding apace. The Golden Lynx, 2nd ed. is available on Amazon and Kindle, and I’ve approved it for distribution via Ingraham. The rest of the Legends novels, despite yet another copyright challenge, have received their updates. The first of two box sets is out on Kindle, and Kindle Unlimited users can borrow all the Legends novels for free (others pay $2.99 per book or $6.99 for the set). And the e-book of The Shattered Drum releases on Monday, but you can preorder it now. The print version should appear in seven to ten days. That leaves only the second box set, which I hope to complete this weekend and release around the same time as the print version of The Shattered Drum.

After that, I will be back to writing—a whole new series waiting to be born!

Images: Apollinary Vasnetsov, A Street in the Kitagorod (1902), public domain via Wikimedia Commons; warriors in the steppe, screen shot from Nomad: The Warrior, dir. Sergei Bodrov (2005).

Friday, July 6, 2018

Works in Progress

So, as I wrote last week, I’ve spent the last six days focusing on my own novels, mostly the Legends books as I spiff them up in preparation for the release of The Shattered Drum, the last one in the series. I’d hoped to start work on Song of the Shaman, the second installment in my spinoff series, also set in Russia but in the 1540s, an even more troubled time in that country’s history than the 1530s, and involving some of the same characters. But now that Friday has dawned, it’s pretty clear that’s not going to happen during this break. So what have I been doing?

Well, the second edition of The Golden Lynx has appeared on Amazon for print and Kindle, although we’re still working out the kinks when it comes to linking the files—both print and Kindle and first and second editions. You can get the new e-book no problem, but running a search stubbornly turns up the older print edition, no longer available for sale (the print link above will take you to the right place). It looks as if Amazon is correcting the print/Kindle links as we speak, though. And the customer service rep did a stellar job of cleaning up the e-book formatting, which had become inexplicably distorted in the “Look Inside This Book” feature despite being perfect in the e-book itself. If you happened to see it in its multi-size, multi-font, all centered glory, try again. I swear, I do know how books should look!

The new Golden Lynx is also uploaded to Ingram Spark, although not yet available because I want to check the physical proof before I approve it for distribution. It has an official publication date of July 30 and an on-sale date of August 15. That was another learning experience, although the print proof passed on the second try and the site seems in general easy to use, if more expensive than CreateSpace. Both have great help files and extraordinary customer service, so in general it’s been a positive experience. Useful, too, as some of my fellow Five Directions Press authors want to list with Ingram Spark as well, and now I have a better sense of how to prepare their files and what to warn them about.

In addition to that, I’ve revised The Vermilion Bird (insignificant changes such as adding the book link for The Shattered Drum and stripping out one ad for another) and The Winged Horse (small but significant changes to make Tulpar more consistent with his later self). The box set of Legends 1–3 will be ready as soon as I finish reading through The Swan Princess, which I’m doing now. The second box set will soon follow. The Shattered Drum is available for preorder on Kindle. The print edition has already been proofed twice and has only the teeniest adjustments still to include in the final PDF. That will probably go up next weekend, to give the computers time to link the two editions before the release date.

With all these changes to account for, I’ve updated the Five Directions Press site, the books and bio pages on this blog, and my own site. I’ve even discovered the magic button that relinks this blog to my author site. Any day now, I’ll have a moment to record an excerpt from The Shattered Drum and add that to the two sites—maybe on Thursday, when my next New Books in Historical Fiction is supposed to take place. The print excerpts must wait until the official release of the Kindle book on July 16.

I’ve had a couple of weird experiences during all this. CreateSpace has twice freaked out about whether I have the right to update my own novels—this after six years!—forcing me to hunt down and scan the official copyright registration forms that I fortunately signed up for. Meanwhile, the Electronic Copyright Office registration site has been down since Tuesday, so I can’t clear up the mystery of why my application for The Swan Princess remains open even though I mailed the deposit copies in April 2016 or verify that my registration of Shattered Drum “took.” Which could get exciting if CreateSpace starts questioning my right to produce those novels....

But otherwise, it’s been a very productive week. And now I have to run off and work on The Swan Princess corrections, because I have only three more days before work barrels back down the pike at full speed!

Friday, June 29, 2018

Summer Plans

Within a few weeks, assuming that the universe refrains from tossing spanners into the works, the fifth and last of my Legends of the Five Directions novels—The Shattered Drum (5: Center)—will receive its formal launch into the book world. After ten years of work, this particular series is drawing to its close, bringing the usual combination of nostalgia and relief.

But this is not the end for Nasan, Daniil, and their extended families. The first book of a new series, Songs of Steppe & Forest, is already near completion and likely to appear in the spring of next year. Titled Song of the Siren, it focuses on Roxelana, now renamed Juliana for reasons explained in The Shattered Drum, as she deals with the consequences of her flight from Moscow, her marriage, and the events between 1538 and 1541–42, when the new series begins. Just as a teaser, several familiar characters from the Legends series managed to sneak their way into that story. Ideas for book 2, Song of the Shaman, are already germinating in my brain. Knowing Nasan and Daniil, they will definitely elbow their way into that one.

In honor of Shattered Drum’s release, too, I have revised The Golden Lynx. The few historical errors that I discovered while researching later books are now corrected; characters and incidents that I created after the first book came out receive at least passing mention where appropriate; and I took advantage of the experience gained from typing my second million words to tighten and hone the prose. If you loved the first edition, there’s no need to purchase the second: the differences lie more in the realm of nuance than of fundamental change. But for those new to the series the second edition will replace the original text as soon as the computers recognize that the two are variations of the same book.

So that you can keep the two versions apart, though, we at Five Directions Press have designed a spiffy new cover for the second edition, revealed here for the first time.

Best of all, I have the whole of next week away from my e-mail and its constant demands to clean up the last details on the Legends novels and get started on Song of the Shaman. And man, can I use the break. It’s been crazy this year!

Last, so that people who encounter the series at its end (or who have waited for the end before tackling it) can get up to speed quickly and relatively inexpensively, I will be issuing box sets of Legends 1–3 and 4–5 while lowering the prices of individual books to $2.99.  And—again assuming the computers permit—all five novels will soon be available for borrowing on Kindle Unlimited and through Kindle Prime. So stock up, tell your friends, and recommend the series to your book clubs. Who knows, if Nasan gets the kind of readership she believes she deserves, she might even make it to the Silver Screen one day! The costumes and the sets alone would be worth the price of admission, don’t you think?

All images © C. P. Lesley and Five Directions Press.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Marching in Step

It’s no surprise that writing is a sedentary occupation. Ask any experienced writer how to progress, and the answer will be some version of “glue rear end to chair.” Writing muscles, like the physical kind, need constant exercise if they are to strengthen and refine enough to produce something worthwhile.

Now, my love of ballet kept me active for decades. Three two-hour classes per week and thirty minutes to an hour on the weekends put me in the “moderate activity” category despite the writing and editing. But three years ago, my teacher retired, and for various reasons, not least a vamped-up work schedule, I stopped taking class. I still exercised at least six days a week, but the two hours soon dropped closer to twenty minutes, and sometimes I didn’t even manage that. Then Sir Percy handed off his Apple Watch to me while he enjoyed a (temporary) upgrade.

I don’t consider myself a technophobe. I love mastering new software. I adopted the iPad on the day of its release (not before, as I wanted to verify that the hype had some basis in fact), and I still use it almost every day—mostly to read, often my own work, for which it’s invaluable. But I am a techno-skeptic, and not every device, in my view, needs to be superseded. For years I bought my watches at Target, for the princely sum of $30 apiece, kept each one until it required something more than a new battery, then replaced it. They kept time, which is all a watch needs to do. Similarly, I was perfectly happy with my 2013 smartphone, which let me call people, read e-mail, and amuse myself at the doctor’s and dentist’s offices with an e-book. I argued that I didn’t need an Apple Watch and the upgraded phone that went with it.

But I have to admit, after three months I’m hooked. I don’t use the watch (still less the phone) to do one-tenth of the tasks it can handle, but the ones I do use it for are great. I can decline all those annoying pretend-to-be-local spam calls without even answering them. I can set a kitchen timer with Siri (when she’s in the mood) and reset it with the press of an electronic button. And I have learned a lot about my own daily activity—better in some ways than I imagined, worse in others. For example, as a fidgety sort, I constantly run up and down the stairs, so it’s rare that the watch has to nag me to stand during the workday. I can put in two miles worth of steps without leaving my house. And with the exercise monitor counting calories, I’ve extended my ballet workouts to thirty minutes or more every day and include more floor work, which strengthens the core muscles. I also discovered that, contrary to opinions I’d read, ballet does raise my heart rate and is therefore aerobic, as well as including flexibility and resistance components. All that is useful to know.

The time I’m most likely to forget to stand or to breathe slowly, not surprisingly, is when I’m in the full flush of writing a new story—a time when, if not nagged by the watch, I could easily sit for four hours without moving anything but my fingers. So the little kick offered by the watch is helpful then, if not when I’m in the middle of a critique group meeting (the watch doesn’t distinguish). When I had to go to a funeral, I left it at home for fear of its beeping, although I’ve since learned to turn that off.

Now the watch is not infallible. The time I left the Workout app on for thirty-five minutes after I finished, it burbled happily the whole time and congratulated me on my longest workout yet. More annoying was when I forgot to start the app for the first seven minutes of one workout and the watch seemed oblivious to the fact that I was moving at a level it normally considers exercise. And since it mostly monitors wrist movement, it’s convinced that petting the cat (examples of perfect exercise subjects to the left) while sitting uses more calories than hauling a 65-gallon recycling bin (wheeled, admittedly) out to the street.

On the whole, though, the watch has provided a positive learning experience. The phone? It’s very nice, and it holds more books. I like that. It also has a slightly larger screen, which makes the hunt-and-peck of typing more tolerable. And it makes phone calls, which is, after all, the only thing a phone really needs to do. But its big plus is that without it, the watch wouldn’t work.

I could write more, but my digital master demands that I stand and move about for a minute. And there is that work schedule to placate, with lunchtime almost over. So I’ll just say that Sir Percy had better not hold out hope of seeing his watch again—not unless I score a royalty check big enough to replace it!

Images purchased from

Friday, June 15, 2018

Interview with Kari Bovee

Here’s another interesting book whose author I didn’t have space to fit into my interview schedule. Girl with a Gun kicks off a new mystery series featuring Annie Oakley, the crack sharpshooter who performed with Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling show.

I could give a more extensive introduction, but Kari Bovée has sent such wonderfully extensive and informative answers to my questions that I’m just going to get out of her way. Read to the bottom to get her website and social media links, as well as more information about Kari herself.

I won’t ask you how you got into writing fiction, as I normally do, because your website tells me that you always have. But why Annie Oakley?

Several years ago, I saw a PBS American Experience special on Annie Oakley. Previously, I had always thought she was portrayed as a “goody-two shoes,” almost cartoon-like figure in history, but when I watched the special, I realized she had an incredible depth of character. She didn’t have the most wonderful childhood. Her father died when she was young, so the family struggled with poverty. She was farmed out to another family who abused her, and she had a responsibility to contribute to the well-being of her family at a very young age. Despite all of that, she went on to become wildly famous as a sharpshooter, but fame didn’t change her. Women in show business at the time were considered less than upstanding, but she was ferociously protective of her good name and reputation. Though she worked in a man’s field, she maintained her femininity. She was always covered from head to toe, and she let her talent, not her looks, shine. In her later years she was devoted to empowering women by teaching them to shoot, but she never maintained she was a feminist. She was just Annie Oakley. She had the courage to be herself.

And who is Annie to you? That is, how do you see her as a character who is at the same time historical and your creation?

We never really know what was going on in the minds or emotions of people in history. We see them through their actions, what they’ve written, and what they’ve reportedly said, but we don’t really know what their deepest fears were, or what they secretly wanted in life. That is up to interpretation. I’ve taken what I have learned about Annie Oakley and surmised that she was gutsy, smart, lovable and loving, and incredibly talented at something a woman rarely pursued—and bested most men in her field. She did not live the life of a normal woman in 1885. Given the scope of the Wild West Show’s travels, and what Annie did for a living, I thought she would make an excellent amateur sleuth. One who is driven by seeking the truth and finding justice. 

On the first page of the prologue, we encounter our first sudden death. Set the stage for us, please. Who is Kimi, and what’s going on there?

Kimi is the (fictitious) adopted daughter of Buffalo Bill Cody; she works in the show as a costume designer and Annie’s assistant. When we meet her we see she is unhappy and a loner. She’s been ostracized from her people, and she doesn’t fit in with the cast or crew of the show. In fact, she is despised by Buffalo Bill’s mistress, Twila Midnight. Annie is not comfortable with someone working “under her” and accepts Kimi immediately as a peer, even a sister. She identifies with her as someone who is different and wants different things out of life, and they form a bond. When Kimi dies, Annie is distraught, especially since Kimi has a baby girl. She does not accept that Kimi died of natural causes, given what Kimi has shared with her, and there is evidence she’d been beaten. This sets the course for Annie to find out what really happened to her friend.

In chapter 1 we meet Annie, still called Annie Mosey. I was surprised to discover that Annie was raised a Quaker. How does that square with her skills as a sharpshooter? How does it influence her decisions?

I don’t know much about how Annie felt about being a Quaker, but I thought it was an interesting part of her past. From what I understand, Quakerism supports the idea that we are all equal beings. In fact, they don’t use titles or monikers for others, they are simply Friends. They live a life of modesty and service to God. I thought it would be interesting if Annie struggled with this. After all, she became a famous sharpshooter—a celebrity. Hardly a modest undertaking. In my interpretation, Annie wants more out of life than to settle into a quiet Quaker lifestyle—she wants to be somebody. She wants to get out into the world and become something greater than herself. In the book, Annie is constantly wrestling with what she “should” do and be, how she was raised, and what she really wants out of life. 

Next we meet Frank Butler. What is his role in the book? What can you tell us about him and his past?

Frank Butler was the true love of Annie’s life. An Irish immigrant, he came to the United States when he was thirteen. He later became a famous sharpshooter, and they met when she beat him in a shooting contest. Instead of being intimidated by the skill of this tiny fifteen-year-old girl, he was smitten with her. In my story, his family has settled in the south, in Kentucky, where they own and operate a horse breeding farm. Like Annie, he has some unpleasant things from his past he is grappling with, and he ultimately confides in her. He, of course, plays the romantic interest in the book, but it takes them a while to get together.

And how would you describe their relationship?

For the sake of the story, I have created a lot of tension between Frank and Annie. He’s a world-famous sharpshooter on the decline, and she’s a girl from North Star, Ohio, on the rise. He’s threatened by her talent and her fame, but he’s falling in love with her at the same time. To Annie, Frank is this larger-than-life, sophisticated character whom she admires but feels is way out of her league. She does not try to impress him, or change to make him like her; she continues to be herself, and her skills keep him on his toes.

Again from your website I see that you have plans to bring out several more Annie Oakley mysteries over the next year. What’s your schedule, for these and your other two series?

The next book in the Annie Oakley series, titled Peccadillo at the Palace, comes out in May 2019 with Spark Press. I will also release a prequel novella to the series in the fall of this year. As for the third book in the series, I hope to release it in 2020—and will possibly continue on with Annie and her adventures.

I have another historical mystery series that takes place in New York City in the 1920s featuring a costume designer who works in the Ziegfeld Follies as the amateur sleuth. Lots of good stuff to draw from there! The first book of the series is called Grace in the Wings. It’s ready to go, but I’m not sure how or when it will be published. I’m working on it!

My Southwestern historical mystery series is underway. The first book in the series, titled Bones of the Redeemed, takes place in the 1950s and features protagonist Mackenzie Delgado, an archeology student in pursuit of her PhD. While digging she stumbles upon remains that lead her to uncover the existence of a secret society and the people they are murdering in the name of religion. I’m not sure when it will be ready for publication. Hopefully within the next two years.

Thanks so much for answering my questions, Kari. Good luck with your many writing projects!

Kari Bovée has always loved telling stories. She now has three historical mystery series about empowered women in the works, including several other Annie Oakley novels. She is an avid horsewoman and loves to spend as much time as she can with her four horses. Girl with a Gun is just the first of her books to appear in print. You can find out more about her and her series at

Or follow her on social media: 


Friday, June 8, 2018

The Other Side of the Story

Because my bailiwick is historical fiction, and we have a wonderful fantasy and adventure host who writes historical fantasy novels of her own—Gabrielle Mathieu—I normally don’t get to tackle a book like Danielle Teller’s All the Ever Afters. Yet this time the cards fell my way, and I’m so glad they did.

My luck turned out to be doubled, because not only did I have the chance to read this exploration of a well-known fairy tale as viewed from the perspective of the “villain,” but I also discovered early on that the book really is, as I say in the introduction to my New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Danielle Teller, more historical fiction than historical fantasy.

This is Cinderella as you’ve never encountered her, with non-magical explanations supplied for everything from the glass slipper to the fairy godmother. Indeed, half the fun lies in recognizing the clever ways in which Danielle Teller renders the impossible credible. But stripped of its fairy-tale shell, this is a book about a young woman who starts life low on the social ladder and through her native ability, determination, and ambition rises high in a land visibly recognizable as late medieval England. It’s well worth reading for that story alone, although the sneak attacks by familiar elements of the traditional tale only add to the pleasure.

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

Most of us hear the Cinderella story in childhood: a mean stepmother favors her own daughters and controls her hapless husband, turning the sweet and innocent Cinderella into a scullery maid and refusing to let her attend the royal ball, only to be thwarted by a fairy godmother and Cinderella’s own beauty and charm. Cinderella marries Prince Charming and lives happily ever after, while the stepmother and stepsisters get their just deserts.

But Danielle Teller has a different take on this familiar story. In All the Ever Afters her heroine, Agnes, starts life as a serf and through a combination of hard work, good luck, and a stubborn refusal to break under adversity works her way up to the position of lady of the manor. There she finds herself dealing with a somewhat difficult girl named Ella, whose life of privilege so far exceeds that of Agnes and her two beloved daughters that the usual difficulties attending the stepmother/stepchild relationship are magnified by mutual incomprehension.

With a delightfully playful approach, Danielle Teller recasts the magical elements of the fairy tale and weaves them into a much richer exploration of social contrasts and constraints of the medieval world, especially as those boundaries affected women.

And as becomes clear from the opening page, Prince Charming may not have been such a catch after all….

Friday, June 1, 2018

Interview with Sally Koslow

 For better or worse, the Big Five publishers tend to focus their main publicity efforts on a novel’s release date and the weeks immediately surrounding that date. I won’t argue with them—for sure, they know more about publicity than I ever will. But when two books release on the same day, that means someone gets shifted to the blog. In this case, the decision was easy, because I have had so many books on US or World War II history this year that it made sense to favor the book set in medieval England, even a somewhat fantastical England, over the other, equally worthy and enjoyable candidate.

I must admit, I was never a huge F. Scott Fitzgerald fan. Having been forced to read The Great Gatsby in high school, when I was in no way mentally prepared to appreciate it, turned me off. But as an, ahem, more experienced adult, I have learned to value Fitzgerald. And this novel, about an episode in his life about which I knew nothing, really appealed to me. So read on, and find out more.

You have written several previous novels, as well as a nonfiction book on parenting, but Another Side of Paradise marks, as I understand it, your entry into historical fiction. Was this a departure for you in terms of writing, or did you approach the story in very much the same way as your previous novels?

Every one of my novels has, as its center, a feisty female character, so in this respect, Another Side of Paradise is no exception. The book required, however, far more research than my contemporary novels: reading all of Sheilah’s memoirs (there were quite a few) and as many of her columns as I could find along with biographies and articles that mentioned either Sheilah Graham or F. Scott Fitzgerald during the time period of my book. This was in addition to the general research a historical novelist does to avoid anachronisms. The character can’t be wearing nylon stockings if they hadn’t been manufactured yet. Slouching Toward Adulthood, which was less a “parenting” book than one of cultural observation, required many interviews with parents and people in their 20s and 30s—people I had to track down—a different sort of research altogether.

We tend to think of Fitzgerald primarily in association with his wife, Zelda. It was news to me, in fact, that he’d had this later relationship with Sheilah Graham. What drew you to write about the end of Fitzgerald’s life rather than the earlier, more successful stage of his career?

The stage of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life when he was the reigning literary prince of the Jazz Age is well chronicled. His later years, less so.  Zelda had to be hospitalized for mental illness, and Scott faded into obscurity, plagued by debt, alcoholism, health problems, writer’s block, anxiety, and loneliness. To make money, he moved to Hollywood to write scripts. It was at this moment that Sheilah met Scott. I was drawn to his vulnerability, which I found touching. Sheilah helped Scott find his voice again, and he, in turn, nurtured her. Theirs was a relationship based not only on physical chemistry but a meeting of the minds. Scott was a natural teacher and Sheilah an eager student whose formal education, to her regret, ended when she was only fourteen. Through what he christened “The F. Scott Fitzgerald College for One,” Scott tutored Sheilah in the humanities, and she helped to give him the stability and confidence to start a new novel, The Last Tycoon, in which the character of Kathleen is based on Sheilah. I wanted today’s readers, who continue to buy The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s other novels, to know about this chapter in Scott’s life and to get to know a remarkable woman.

Sheilah Graham is quite a character in her own right—in fact, more the focus of the novel than Fitzgerald. What can you tell us about her?

I felt that readers would come to this novel with a sense of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Sheilah would be unknown or at least less clear; even if people had read her long out-of-print memoir, Beloved Infidel, which was made into a movie, the book contained some glaring omissions, and the movie, by Sheilah’s own account, was miscast, with Deborah Kerr in the lead, rather than an earthy blonde. Sheilah had many attributes I admire. She was self-sufficient, smart, and kind. For example, after she divorced her first husband, Major John Gilliam, they remained lifelong friends and Sheilah sent him money for his entire life. She was cunning and strategic, but she had to be—this is a woman who never depended on a man for her livelihood. That Sheilah was secretive about her Jewish background I found interesting, and I wanted to get to the roots of what caused her to deny her roots.

And how would you describe their relationship? What pulls them together?

In each other, I think Sheilah Graham and F. Scott Fitzgerald recognized a person who was isolated from his/her peers. Sheilah didn’t let people become close because she kept many secrets. Scott felt humiliated by his fall from grace, was aware that former admirers considered him a has-been, and with a wife in an asylum was a lonesome romantic. Scott and Sheilah offered one another a fresh start and the chance for a tender, deeply private relationship built around mutual attraction for one another’s mind and soul as well as their bodies. They also each had a well-developed sense of humor and fun. They often hung out at home, reading, listening to music, cooking, or dancing to the radio.

Another Side of Paradise was released on May 29. Do you already have another novel in the works, and if so, would you give us a hint or two about what to expect?

Most likely, I’ll write another biographical novel, but I haven’t nailed down a subject with whom I feel I could live for two years, which is how long it takes to write this sort of research-dependent book. I can tell you it won’t be about Diana Vreeland, Maria Callas, Ivanka Trump, or a World War II spy, four subjects I researched and decided against for one good reason or another. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Wishing you the best of luck finding a new subject, and thanks so much for sharing your time with us, Sally!

Sally Koslow, former editor-in-chief of McCall’s Magazine, has taught writing and published extensively in newspapers and magazines. She is the author of five novels—Another Side of Paradise, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, The Widow Waltz, With Friends Like These, and Little Pink Slips—and the nonfiction book Slouching Toward Adulthood: How to Let Go So Your Kids Can Grow Up. You can find out more about her and her books at

Friday, May 25, 2018

Checking In with Ashley Sweeney

Two years ago this month, Ashley Sweeney released her debut novel, Eliza Waite. The book chronicles the life of a young woman who, having lost her husband and her beloved son in an epidemic, ends up living alone for several years on Cypress Island, in the Puget Sound. Once a month or so, Eliza rows across the Sound to collect supplies. Occasionally, after visiting her son’s grave, she stops to share a cup of tea and the baked goods she brings with one of the island’s few remaining residents. Otherwise, she supports herself entirely on her own emotional and material resources, in a life of hardship and unending toil, until a lucky find gets her a boat ticket to Skagway, Alaska. There she establishes a café and a new, less isolated life.

As I noted in my New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Ashley Sweeney and my original follow-up post on this blog (July 22, 2016), food plays an important part in Eliza Waite. Now I love historical research, whether it is for  scholarly publications or novels, but the research that went into this novel is particularly tempting, in every sense of that word. Because each one of Eliza’s recipes comes from a newspaper or magazine from the 1890s, and each one underwent extensive testing by Ashley Sweeney and her friends. They had to, because as you’ll see from what follows, recipes and ingredients were approached much more flexibly in the 1890s than in our digital, technological, count time by the seconds age.

But what is especially charming about this book is that each recipe has a specific place in the evolving story. For example, on September 1, 1896, Eliza is having second thoughts about enduring a second winter alone on Cypress Island. Although she has just injured her leg quite severely, she takes a long walk to visit her son’s grave—the reason she can’t bear to leave the island—and drops off a cake at the porch of that remaining resident. The recipe follows right away (saleratus is similar to what we call baking soda).

This is one of the best of plain cakes, and is very easily made.
Take one teacup of strong coffee infusion, one teacup molasses, one teacup sugar, one-half teacup butter, one egg, and one teaspoonful saleratus.
Add pinch of salt.
Add spice and raisins to suit the taste, and enough flour to make a reasonably thick batter.
Bake rather slowly in tin pans lined with buttered paper.
Top with cinnamon sugar and serve warm.

Three months later, Eliza greets December 31, 1896, with a list of tasks, one of which involves making her mother’s fruitcake, a symbol of home and family.

One teacup of butter, two of brown sugar, one of molasses, one of strong coffee, four and one-half of flour; four eggs; two teaspoonfuls of saleratus, two of cinnamon, two of cloves, two of mace; one pound of raisins, one pound of currants, one-quarter pound of citron.
Be careful to cut paper for each loaf pan before putting in the mixture.
Bake in layers and put together with icing.
Leave out the currants if you like.

By September 29, 1898, Eliza has made it to Alaska and established her own  café in Skagway, where she has become renowned for her cinnamon buns and other baked goods—instructions for which are all supplied in the text. As she goes out to run errands, she encounters a stand of wild rhubarb.

Mix together one-half teacup lard, one egg, two teaspoonfuls vanilla, one teacup buttermilk, and two teacups diced rhubarb. Set aside.
In second bowl, mix two and one-half teacups flour, one-half teacup brown sugar, two teaspoons saleratus, pinch of salt and one-half teacup shelled walnuts, if you choose.
Fold mixtures together and spoon into greased muffin cups.
Bake until toothpick comes clean.

And so it goes, one landmark-signifying recipe after another, from Ida’s Coffee Cake to the Pecan Tarts that close out the recipes on November 29, 1898. The story continues up to the epilogue in March 1900, but the bulk of Eliza’s transformation has already taken place, and only the resolution remains.

Note, too, that the creative use of baked goods doesn’t begin to capture the many pleasures of this wonderful novel. Its greatest asset is Eliza herself, a woman who keeps stubbornly moving forward, no matter what life throws in her path. As she does, she encounters a group of complex and believable characters who intersect in at times unexpected ways. Even the geographical locations acquire distinct natures of their own, forcing Eliza to adapt to their idiosyncrasies. It’s no wonder this book has won numerous awards.

You can find out more about the author and her book at her website, or you can go straight to Amazon for the paperback or e-book. But either way, don’t forget to set aside some time to test out the recipes. It would be a shame to let all that lovely research go to waste.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Power of Hope

Someone casting a cursory glance at Ellen Notbohm’s The River by Starlight might mistake it for a historical romance. For sure, the central relationship of the novel, between Annie Rushton and her eventual husband Adam Fielding, is certainly both passionate and intense, but the real contribution of this novel is the way it fleshes out and complicates its characters, gradually revealing their traumas and flaws, their desperate desire to connect with each other and the ways in which their individual personalities and the demands inflicted on them by society and by fate alternately tie them together and push them apart.

Annie and Adam are, in many ways, ordinary people living ordinary lives. Except for the absence of appliances and technology in the early twentieth-century “Wild West,” they could be our next-door neighbors, our friends. But we know from the time we meet Annie that she has a tragedy in her past: a loving marriage and a beautiful baby ripped from her as the result of her own postpartum depression. When she moves to Montana and meets, then marries, Adam, she longs for another chance at motherhood, perhaps even a resolution of—or restitution for—her earlier loss. But one crisis after another strips each baby from her, and her (and Adam’s) psychological responses to each new grief eat away at their otherwise functioning partnership.

Even so, as Ellen Notbohm emphasizes throughout our interview, this is ultimately a book about hope—hope found in sometimes unexpected places, but hope that is nonetheless ultimately fulfilled. What sets The River by Starlight apart is its author’s rich appreciation of human frailty and resilience. For me, that made it a deeply satisfying read.

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

When Annie Rushton heads west to keep house for her older brother on his Montana homestead, she expects to leave marriage and motherhood behind her. After all, the husband she walked out on at twenty, after the birth of their daughter sent her into a spiral of panic and depression, has divorced her and forbidden contact with their baby, citing fears for his own and the child’s safety. In 1911, a record like that should keep most men at bay.

Adam Fielding also has no interest in marriage, but he’s drawn to Annie from the start, despite the frequent clashes of will between them. When her older brother sells them the homestead and skips town, Annie and Adam settle into a partnership that is as economically successful as it is romantic. But fate intervenes to prevent them from having a child, and with each disaster the return of Annie’s depression drives her farther apart from the husband she loves. In a world that understands psychological conditions as lapses in morality, the judgment passed on Annie is harsh and unyielding. Yet somehow she manages to hold on to hope.

Ellen Notbohm’s thought-provoking and beautifully written debut novel, The River by Starlight (She Writes Press, 2018), dives into the depths of family life and individual psychosis and uncovers a cast of complex and compelling characters that will keep you entranced to the last page.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Interview with Jacqueline Friedland

In addition to having a lot of authors to interview at the moment (a wonderful position to be in, on the whole!), I also have several pairings of authors whose books are being released on the same day. In some cases, because commercial publishers tend to focus their publicity campaigns on the weeks surrounding a release, that means one author gets a podcast interview and the other doesn’t. With smaller independent publishers, it means one has a podcast interview close to the release and the other waits a few months. As someone who knows next to nothing about marketing, this seems to me not such a bad thing: why not remind readers that a book exists?

In any event, this week’s post offers a brief Q&A with Jacqueline Friedland, whose Trouble the Water appeared on May 8. I’ll be talking with her about the novel at more length in late summer/early fall. Meanwhile, Ellen Notbohm’s The River by Starlight, which also appeared on May 8, is the subject of my May podcast, which should go live any day. Don’t forget to check New Books in Historical Fiction nd this blog at regular intervals to find out more about these and the other amazing writers who give me the chance to interview them about their books.

And now, a big thank you to Jacqueline Friedland for answering my questions!

Like several authors I’ve interviewed—including my fellow Five Directions Press member Claudia H. Long—you began your professional life as a lawyer. What led you to start writing novels instead?

While there were some aspects of law I did actually enjoy, like analyzing complex texts and drafting persuasive writing, I always felt like something was missing, like I was a puzzle piece being jammed into the wrong jigsaw puzzle. I had been afraid to pursue writing straight out of college, as it felt like a true gamble, but my desire to write fiction nagged and nagged at me until I ultimately gave in.

And why this novel in particular?

I have always loved historical fiction for its ability to teach and entertain simultaneously. Trouble the Water focuses on the American South twenty years prior to the Civil War. This era is so full of juxtapositions—cruelty and heroism; opulence and deprivation; tragedy and hope. There are still so many untold stories from the time period, so many emotional components to explore, and I wanted to add my voice and my characters to the conversation. 

What can you tell us about your heroine, Abigail Milton, in a paragraph or two, that will set the stage for her story?

Abigail Milton is a British young woman on the cusp of adulthood. Her middle-class family has fallen into insurmountable debt, and they have been forced to spend the past several years in a tenement village near the factories in Wigan, England. Abby works long hours in the local cotton mill alongside her younger sister, but her meager earnings do little to increase the family coffers. When Abby begins having emotional outbursts of increasing proportions, her parents decide to send her to the United States, where she will be able to live off the charity of a family friend in Charleston.

Abby arrives in Charleston intent on saving herself from the secret horrors she endured in Wigan. When she moves into an enormous estate owned by the reclusive Douglas Elling, Abby’s main objective is to build a life of independence for herself. As she begins to settle in and grow more comfortable in Charleston, however, she finds herself inadvertently dropping her guard and discovering new reasons to hope for happiness.

The man who takes her in, Douglas Elling, has quirks and secrets of his own. What do we need to know about him?

Douglas Elling is a twenty-seven-year-old shipping tycoon who has suffered great tragedy in his life. He traveled to America from England after university and fell so deeply in love with an American girl that he stayed in the States to marry her. Shortly after marriage, he inherited his father-in-law’s booming import/export business and he also freed the family’s slaves. His clear lack of bigotry arouses suspicion throughout Charleston, as people wonder whether perhaps Douglas is doing more to fight slavery. As rumors spread that he is a secret abolitionist, bandits set fire to his home, most likely to send a message. Unfortunately, his wife and daughter are killed in the blaze, and Douglas is never the same.

Abigail, by the time we meet her, has not only endured a rapid decline in her fortune but must also cope with a change of country when her impoverished family sends her to the US South to live with a wealthy friend of theirs. How does she handle this disruption in her life?

By the time Abigail arrives in Charleston, disruption is the only constant in her life. She is adamant, however, that she will no longer be a passive victim to her own circumstances. She has decided to build herself a new life, one where she is the master of her own destiny. She devises a plan to become a teacher or a governess and to remain forever unwed so that she will be able to live independently and determine her life’s path. As she walks deeper into her new world in Charleston, though, she begins to reconsider many of her deeply held beliefs.

What are you working on now?

I am putting the finishing touches on my second novel and doggedly attempting to brainstorm ideas for my third.


Jacqueline Friedland, once a practicing lawyer, earned her Masters of Fine Arts from Sarah Lawrence College in 2016. When not writing, she is an avid reader of all things fiction. Trouble the Water is her first novel. You can find out more about her and her book at

Friday, May 4, 2018

It’s All in the Timing

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been enjoying a Russian TV miniseries set in the late fifteenth century and based on the life of Grand Princess Sophia—the wife of Ivan III and niece of the last emperor of Constantinople.  As I also mentioned then, the series is historical fiction rather than history. Moreover, it becomes more fictional with each episode, until by the end it’s basically making stuff up.

Now as a person who knows a fair amount about the period and writes historical fiction myself, the failure to stick to “just the facts, Ma’am” doesn’t bother me a whole lot. I understand why the writers and directors made most of the choices they did, since those choices both clarify the action (and the characters’ emotions) and heighten the drama.

Life is messy; fiction can’t afford to be. In life we want things to go well and people to get along with one another, yet most of us have to live with the reality that we will never fully understand what motivates others and that happy endings, if we manage to achieve one, don’t last. In fiction we want to see things head south as fast as possible and characters who shove and needle one another, but we also expect a clear, consistent story line that resolves in a satisfying way—whether that turns out to leave the characters better off, worse off, or in a state of bittersweet resignation.

So for this week’s post, I thought it might be fun to look at what Sophia tells us about the difference between fiction and history. Specifically, I’m planning to focus on the question of timing: what happened when. That question is, after all, basic to the study of history, the framework on which we scholars hang our explanations and hypotheses.

Things start out in a fairly straightforward way. Ivan III was born in 1440 and married for the first time at the age of twelve to a Maria (not the one in the series, who is his mother), by whom he had one son, also named Ivan, in 1458. Maria died, and in 1472 Ivan III married Sophia. At that time, Ivan was thirty-two, and his son fourteen—which is about how old they appear to be in Episode 1, if we take into account that Ivan the Younger doesn’t really look fourteen; his father just treats him as if he is. For example, Ivan III doesn’t want his son involved in military affairs, although the son is chomping at the bit, both reactions appropriate to an age when most noblemen began state service at fifteen.

Sophia’s case, however, is more complicated. She may have been as born as early as 1440 or as late as 1455—estimates vary. What we know for sure is that she died in April 1503 and that between 1474 and 1490 she bore twelve children, which suggests she was probably closer to seventeen than to thirty-two when she married Ivan III. Perhaps not the beauty portrayed in the series, but she’s the heroine, after all. If she were my heroine, I’d make her pretty too. If she’s to attract the hero, we need to give her as many assets as possible. And the developing relationship between her and Ivan III, whether historically accurate or not, is a major appeal of the series and quite charming all on its own.

So far, so good. It’s the extended time frame of the series (1472–1490) and Sophia’s phenomenal childbearing that make things sticky. By the time Ivan III brings Novgorod to heel in 1478, Sophia has already had four daughters, at least two of whom died in infancy. By 1480, when Ahmet Khan engages in the Stand on the Ugra (a great plot point, even though historians wonder if it happened as portrayed), Sophia has a surviving daughter and two sons. By 1490, when according to Episode 8 Ivan III exiles her to the White Lake for her supposed complicity in the death of Ivan the Younger, she would have to drag along not just a cute Vasily but three, possibly five, daughters and three other sons. And Vasily, having reached the age of eleven rather than the four or five he appears to be on screen, would be hauling some of the younger ones through the fields and supporting his mother, pregnant with the future Andrei Ivanovich, rather than dashing beside her hand-in-hand before she picks him up and shields him from the bad guy.

Moreover, if Ivan IV, on the way to his coronation, really did imagine the ancestors who had come before him as indicated by the ending, it would be a much bigger crowd. And perhaps, given the fates of some of those brothers—both Vasily’s and Ivan III’s—the missing faces in the crowd would raise some important questions about loyalty, authority, and memory as well. As it stands, the carefully selected ancestors resemble one of those portraits from the Stalin era with all the “undesirables” inked out.

My point is simply this: the series works much better as it is. The overall timeline is clear enough, although it’s odd to realize that twenty years have passed but most of the characters don’t age. And as I noted before, the production values are spectacular. But it’s important, in approaching historical fiction, to realize that it’s not simply a disregard for historical fact that causes novels and TV shows and films to deviate more or less from reality. One photogenic child lost in infancy and a second endangered by malice and self-interest are simply more effective in storytelling than four of the first category and eight of the second. The dinner table is more dramatic when it includes poison, the main character more sympathetic when she’s under threat, and the court more compelling when everyone and his brother is jockeying for position and engaged in skullduggery.

Now, writers like me do strive to keep our facts straight whenever possible. I worry about months and weeks, not years or decades. I obsess over who went where when and did what. I work to structure my story around those events rather than picking and choosing based on what fits my overall character arc. I do that not only because I consider myself a historian above all, but because I believe that history as it occurred (to the extent we can determine that) has something to reveal about how people thought and acted in the past. If I can unravel the secrets contained in those sequences, I can impart greater depth and complexity to my characters.

Even so, I understand that the story comes first. And because it comes first, historical fiction must always be a genre aimed foremost at entertainment. Be gentle with its creators, who have worthy goals in mind in addition to historical accuracy. Enjoy it to the hilt, but don’t believe everything you see. And if you want to find out what really happened, well, that’s what historians do.

Images: Forensic reconstruction of Sophia Paleiologina by S. A. Nikitin; Ivan III as portrayed on a monument in Novgorod the Great; both CC SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Dancing with the Stars—Yes, Really

After getting whomped with work and going through a set of bizarre circumstances (power out, power back but Internet out, etc.) that led to my having one completed podcast in the first ten weeks of the year, I shook the trees effectively enough that now I have so many books and authors in line that I can’t really read anything but the novels of potential interview guests until the fall. One of the books I pursued during the initial stage of this process was The Magnificent Esme Wells, a historical novel about the early days of Las Vegas. It sounded interesting, and it is: the daughter of a Hollywood starlet and a small-time crook can hardly expect a boring life.

But it was when I began investigating the author’s other works that I really became hooked. I discovered that Adrienne Sharp had once been, in her own words, “a ballet girl”—meaning a young person obsessed with dance. From there she turned to writing short stories, then novels, about the ballet world—including The True Memoirs of Little K, which fictionalizes the already improbably dramatic life of Mathilde Kschessinska, star of the Russian Imperial Ballet and one-time mistress of not only Nicholas II but several of his male relatives.

You can find out more about Little K and her views on the imperial family, the Russian Revolution, and a good deal more by checking the Five Directions Press “Books We Loved” post, where she is featured as one of my two selections for April. And, of course, Adrienne Sharp and I discuss Kschessinska at some length in our interview. It’s not everyone who can manage to fall foul of the Russian government more than a century after first making eyes at the future tsar.

But we do also spend a good bit of time discussing The Magnificent Esme Wells, with its directors and producers, its line dancers and burlesque dancers, its gangsters and its cameo portrayals of Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney, Busby Berkeley, Judy Garland, and more. We had a great time talking about these things, and I hope you will enjoy listening just as much. 

A quick summary of Esme’s life and what you might expect from her story follows. As usual, you can also find the rest of this post at New Books in Historical Fiction.

At six, Esme Wells has never attended school, but she has already learned how to take care of her father: accompany him to the racetrack, load up on hot dogs when asked, and keep an eye open for stray tickets that may turn out to be winning bets. When not watching the horses or accompanying her father to pawnshops to pay for his habit, more than once with his wife’s wedding ring, Esme hangs around the Hollywood back lots where her mother, Dina, seeks a screen test and stardom while dancing in Busby Berkeley musicals.

But Esme has dreams of her own. After her father’s criminal ties take them both to Las Vegas, still little more than a blip on the map, and she makes the acquaintance of the gangster Bugsy Siegel, Esme uses her talents as a performer and her considerable female charms to catapult her into a career as a showgirl, gangster’s moll, and burlesque dancer.

In this amoral universe, where the only unforgivable crime is to steal from the bosses, Esme struggles to find happiness while protecting her father from the consequences of his own shortsightedness. In The Magnificent Esme Wells (Harper, 2018), Adrienne Sharp’s richly evocative prose pulls us into the sun-drenched, money-hungry world of Hollywood and Las Vegas in the 1930s and 1940s, with all its heroes, villains, and people just trying to get by. The consequences of the resulting clashes of personalities and ambitions will haunt you for days.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Interview with Steven Hartov

This has been a strange year for historical fiction, at least as it relates to my podcast. After five years of ranging over as many time periods and regions of the globe as possible, I find myself staring in somewhat befuddled manner at a roster that consists almost entirely of US history and novels about World War II. How that came to be I am not sure—certainly not by intent! But so it is.

This statement is not intended to reflect on the novels themselves, most of which are excellent. Today I’m discussing Steven Hartov’s The Soul of a Thief, which I also picked as one of my two Books We Loved selections for April (I will feature the other selection next week). As Hartov explains in the written Q&A below, his novel, released just this past Tuesday, explores the little-known phenomenon of soldiers with mixed Jewish heritage who fought for the Third Reich.

But I will let him explain the details. My thanks go to the Publicity Department at Hanover Square Press for both the book, intended for a New Books in Historical Fiction podcast I couldn’t fit into my schedule, and the Q&A. I would have sent Steven Hartov questions myself, but they would have been the same questions, so why force him to type out the answers twice?

What is your new novel, The Soul of a Thief, about?

The Soul of a Thief is an adventure, a war story, a romance, and a coming-of-age novel—all set during the year of the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II. The story centers around a nineteen-year old Austrian boy of partial Jewish heritage, Shtefan Brandt, who finds himself as the adjutant to a colonel in the Waffen SS, Erich Himmel, and must not only protect his potentially mortal secret but survive the horrors of combat. To add to his conundrum, our young hero also falls in love with Colonel Himmel’s young French mistress, Gabrielle Belmont, who is also of “questionable” heritage. When Shtefan discovers that Himmel intends to escape from Germany’s inevitable defeat and enrich himself by robbing an Allied paymaster train, the boy plots to betray the colonel by stealing both his mistress and his fortune.

Where did the inspiration for the novel come from?

Much of the inspiration for the story came from my own background, as my mother and her family were all Austrians, some of whom, although Jewish or partially Jewish, served in the Austrian or German armies. However, the driving force behind the novel came from a recurring dream that I used to have as a child; it is a scene that figures prominently in the book.

Who were the Mischlinge? Why has their story rarely been told?

The Mischlinge were Germans or Austrians of “mixed” heritage, meaning that somewhere in their ancestral backgrounds persons of Jewish faith had married into the family. During the Nazi era, German and Austrian citizens had to prove their “racial purity,” and Mischlinge were considered to be Jews and persecuted as such. However, exceptions were made in accordance with the requirements of the Nazi war machine, and many such persons were allowed to serve. For those who survived, such service was regarded as shameful, which is why very few of them have spoken out about their wartime experiences.

Are any of the characters in the novel, in particular Shtefan or Colonel Himmel, based on real-life people or did you create them from whole cloth for the novel?

Shtefan is based, in part, on my great-uncle Alexander, who served in the German Luftwaffe until he was discovered to be a Mischling and sent to a concentration camp. Colonel Himmel is based on a figure who used to appear in a recurring childhood dream; I do not know his origin. Many of the other characters are compilations of soldiers I have known personally, of various nationalities (soldiers are very much the same, everywhere). Gabrielle is based on a long-lost love.

You have a strong military background, and there are aspects of The Soul of a Thief that tap into your knowledge. Would you classify the story as a war story first and foremost?

I would not classify the novel so much as a war story, but rather as a story that takes place during a war. I view it more as a coming-of-age adventure with a powerful romantic essence.

And perhaps that’s why I liked it so much, even though war is really not my usual cup of tea! Thank you again, to Steven Hartov and his publisher, for this opportunity to travel a fictional path I normally would not take.

Steven Hartov, a former member of the US Merchant Marine Military Sealift Command and the Israel Defense Forces Airborne Corps, is the author of, among other works, a series of espionage novels nominated for the National Book Awards—The Heat of Ramadan, The Nylon Hand of God, and The Devil’s Shepherd. He also writes screenplays and nonfiction.

Hanover Square Press, an imprint of HarperCollins, published his The Soul of a Thief on April 17, 2018. Find out more about him at