Friday, January 26, 2018

Interview with Mimi Matthews

Those of you who follow Five Directions Press’s monthly Books We Loved posts—and if you are an avid reader, you really should, if you don’t already (you can find them all on our newsletter page)—may have noticed that my picks for January included both Bernard Cornwell’s Fools and Mortals and Mimi Matthews’ The Lost Letter. You can find my Q&A with Bernard in a post a couple of weeks ago, and today I’m hosting a written interview with Mimi.

Very different subjects, very different styles, but great writing is great writing. So if you have even a little bit of fondness in your heart for a touching love story set in Victorian times and with fully rounded characters, do check out Mimi Matthews’ novels (and nonfiction). Scroll down and you’ll find links to her website and social media accounts, where you can get more information.

And if it needs to be fast-paced thriller to keep your attention—although still with great writing and complex, compelling characters—then the links in the Bernard Cornwell interview will show you where to learn more about those.

You have a great interest in Victorian times, as evidenced by your nonfiction book The Pug That Bit Napoleon, among other works. Where did that interest originate, and which came first—the fascination with the Victorian period or the interest in writing fiction?

My interest in writing fiction definitely came first. I wrote my first full-length book (a YA novel) when I was thirteen and signed with my first literary agent when I was eighteen. After that, I was preoccupied with college, law school, and work and didn’t write any fiction until a few years ago, when I got the idea for a romance novel. I wrote it in a few months and then signed with a new literary agent. While it was out on submission, I wrote three more romance novels, including The Lost Letter and The Viscount and the Vicar's Daughter.

As for the Victorian era, I’ve always been a fan. I read a lot of Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters growing up and, in my third year of law school, I did a huge research paper on the British Court of Chancery. Since then, I’ve researched and written extensively on the Victorian era for my own website, as well as for other publications. In September 2016, I signed a multi-book deal with Pen and Sword Books (UK). My first nonfiction book with them, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, came out in December. My next one, A Victorian Lady's Guide to Fashion and Beauty, will be out in July 2018.

Tell us about Sylvia Stafford, the heroine of The Lost Letter. Where is she, literally and emotionally, at the start of the book?

At the beginning of the novel, Sylvia is employed as a governess in a merchant's household in Cheapside. It’s a far cry from the life she led as the privileged daughter of a wealthy baronet. But Sylvia is an intelligent, pragmatic sort of woman and has—for the most part—come to terms with her altered status in society. She’s even managed to find a measure of happiness in her work. Or so she believes. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that much of her heartache and disappointment is still unresolved. This is especially evident when she once again crosses paths with Sebastian. 

And what of Sebastian Conrad, earl of Radcliffe? They have something of a past, but their reunion takes place under very different circumstances, for him as well as for her.

Unlike Sylvia, Sebastian is not coping very well with his change in circumstance. The disfiguring injuries he suffered as a soldier in India both depress his spirits and cause him physical pain. He’s bitter and angry, raging at himself and everyone around him. When Sylvia makes an unexpected appearance at his country estate, he is anything but pleased. He had loved her once, and the sting of her rejection still rankles. Nevertheless, he makes an effort to see her and speak to her, even if only to show her how little he cares.

Your second novel, The Viscount and the Vicar's Daughter, came out this week. What can you tell readers about that book?

After reading The Lost Letter, you may have guessed how much I enjoy playing with classic romance tropes. The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter is my go at the “reformed rake” trope. It features a disillusioned libertine with a scandalous past and an earnest vicar’s daughter with a few secrets of her own. It’s not as tortured a love story as The Lost Letter. I’d classify it more as a mid-Victorian romp. So far, advance reviews have been great. I’m really hoping readers will love it, too.

In the back of The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter, there is an excerpt from a third novel, The Advertisement (which I for one can’t wait to read, because the setup is great), due out this summer. Is that book already done? And if so, what are you working on now?

I’m so glad you enjoyed the excerpt! The Advertisement is almost done. It’s due to my editor at the end of March. It’s much longer than my previous two Victorian romances and the subject matter is a bit heavier as well. It focuses on two real—and very grim—events from the late 1850s. As for the central romance, it’s poignant, passionate, and exceedingly angst-ridden. So far, reports from my beta readers have been really positive. We’ll see what my editor thinks!

Next, I’m working on a Victorian Christmas novella about a broken betrothal and (possible) breach of contract suit. It will be out in November 2018.

Thanks so much for answering my questions, Mimi. I wish you all success with both your novels and your nonfiction works!

Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and traditional historical romances set in Victorian England. Her articles on nineteenth-century history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web and the Journal of Victorian Culture, and are syndicated weekly at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney with both a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. She resides in California with her family, which includes an Andalusian dressage horse, two Shelties, and two Siamese cats.

Find out more about Mimi at the links below.




Friday, January 19, 2018

Finding That Perfect Read

One advantage of the current publishing climate is that a reader has no shortage of books from which to choose. Free and low-cost books are everywhere, including through subscription services like’s Kindle Unlimited. But finding a good book is not so easy. Reviews offer some insight, but many good books fail to attract reviews for various reasons. Book bloggers soon acquire more titles than they can ever have time to read, never mind write about. Readers, too, become overwhelmed by demands on their time. And not all reviews are what they seem: ethical writers, including myself, refuse to pay for book reviews, but some desperate souls give way to temptation. So what’s a reader to do?

One approach, adopted by more than a few GoodReads friends I know, is to limit oneself to commercially published books. There readers can trust that books have gone through editing, typesetting, and proofreading, received professional covers—and, yes, that any reviews they receive reflect the honest opinion of the reviewer. But trade books are expensive, at $9.99–$12.99 or more even for an e-book. For the average voracious reader, they represent at best a partial solution, although public libraries can help.

That approach also ignores the many good books published outside the commercial houses. And commercial publishing is just that: books have to sell millions of copies in today’s market to make a trade publisher’s investment worthwhile. If your taste runs to more unconventional fare, you’re out of luck.

That’s where small presses and coop publishers (a variant on small presses) come in. A coop like Triskele Books or my own Five Directions Press exerts the quality control of a traditional publishing house but can charge less, especially for e-books, because the coop authors can break even at a much lower number of copies sold. No one can guarantee that if you love one author’s gritty historical fantasy, you will love another’s sparkling contemporary romance, but you can count on each book having received extensive critique and suggestions for improvement followed by professional editing, typesetting, proofreading, e-book production, and cover design. We guarantee one another’s work.

We also cooperate to get the word out, which means that we publish newsletters featuring other authors and news about our forthcoming titles, regular lists of book recommendations—such as Triskele’s Book Muse and Five Directions Press’s monthly Books We Loved—and blog posts, many of which feature writers and/or their books. I host an interview channel, New Books in Historical Fiction, where I interview other authors and read excerpts from their books. Gabrielle Mathieu, another Five Directions Press author, does the same for fantasy and adventure novels.

So you see, there are tools out there to help you navigate the independent publishing ocean. Take a chance! You never know what magical island may be hiding right over that cloudy horizon.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the Triskele Books blog a few weeks ago. Many thanks to all the Triskele authors for the opportunity to share my thoughts with their readers!

Image: Clipart 109839003.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Interview with Bernard Cornwell

One of the great pleasures of hosting New Books in Historical Fiction has been having the opportunity to make the acquaintance of Bernard Cornwell, the bestselling author of The Last Kingdom series—now an ongoing TV production as well—and many other novels, including series set during the Hundred Years War and the Napoleonic Wars.

When I learned that Bernard had produced a one-off novel about the life of William Shakespeare and the theater culture in which Shakespeare played such an important role, I offered a choice of a written or telephone interview, to run concurrently with the release of the novel, Fools and Mortals, in the United States on January 9, 2018.

In the end, we settled on a written Q&A, which I reproduce here. My questions are in bold, and Bernard’s answers follow. Thank you so much to Bernard for his fascinating and informative answers, and don’t forget to check out his official website for more information on this novel, his other books, the television programs, and events. And read the book, of course!

Fools and Mortals is something of a departure for you. No military heroes, no battles, no Agincourt or Napoleonic Wars or Saxons vs. Danes. What made you decide to write a novel about William Shakespeare?

I suppose the short answer is a fascination with Shakespeare. The longer answer is that a dozen years ago I got involved with a summer-stock theater on Cape Cod—the Monomoy Theatre—and ever since have (mis)spent my summers on stage. The theater exists to give drama students from all across America the chance to experience a season of musicals and plays, eight productions in ten weeks, in front of a paying audience . . . the “grown-up” parts and the directors are all Equity professionals, but spear-carriers etc can be drawn from local people, which is how I got involved, except they seemed to quite like me so that over the years I’ve played Toby Belch, Friar Laurence, Henry IV, Peter Quince (twice) and, most memorably, Prospero. I’ve also danced and sung solos (dear God), and been in plays by Chekhov, Neil Simon, Arthur Miller and the wonderful Ken Ludwig. I’d never been on stage before and the experience has intrigued and fascinated me, and really gave rise to a novel about putting on a play!

The protagonist narrating the story is Richard Shakespeare, William’s younger brother. I confess I have no idea whether William had a younger brother, but it’s a great way to showcase a celebrity while maintaining your freedom as an author. Who is Richard, as a character? What does he want most out of life?

Shakespeare had three brothers! Giles, Edmund and Richard. We know something, not much, about the first two (Edmund became an actor, probably in his brother’s company, and died young. He’s buried in Southwark Cathedral), but we know virtually nothing about Richard, other than a parish record of his christening and another of his death. So he’s a wonderful character for an historical novelist! He really existed and we know nothing about him. I decided to invent a theatrical career for him because it gave him access to his brother, but also to make the relationship somewhat hostile because that kept William at arm’s length (and saved me from the hubris of inventing too much dialog for William Shakespeare, really!). Richard is a young man who wants what many young men want, success and a girl, and he doesn’t quite know how to get either, and he’s also stage-struck. He happens to be good-looking and he has natural talent, but he’s still going to need what all actors need—a little bit of luck!

Richard has at best an adversarial relationship with his older brother, who comes across as demanding, difficult, even somewhat rejecting and mean. This portrayal reflects, of course, Richard’s point of view. What made you decide to present them in this way?

I don’t think William is mean! He’s not too fond of his brother because Richard reminds him of Stratford and William has a decidedly mixed view of Stratford. On the one hand it’s where he began, where he probably did not enjoy much success, where his ambitions far exceeded his apparent opportunities, and where, in all probability, he contracted a less than satisfactory marriage. All of this, of course, is supposition based on slender evidence, but novelists thrive on such hints. Yet Stratford is also home and we know he invested heavily in land about the town and eventually built the second largest house there (New Place). That suggests he would only return to Stratford on his own terms, not as the son of John Shakespeare, a failed merchant, but as a very wealthy, prominent and influential citizen. Richard is a reminder of what he fled, and Richard is also a nuisance, wanting favors. William doesn’t need Richard, but Richard needs William, and William really doesn’t want the distraction. He’s a busy man! Entrepreneur, writer, actor, probably director, and the presence of a younger brother is an annoying distraction.

In Elizabethan England women could not play on the stage (the movie Shakespeare in Love’s contrary portrayal notwithstanding). So part of the animosity between the brothers comes about because Richard wants to stop playing women’s parts and move into men’s roles, especially after he falls in love. Why is Will so reluctant to allow this change?

Because the company doesn’t need another man! Actors, as a couple of the characters say in the book, are ten a penny (they still are). The Sharers, the owners of the company, all must have a part in any play and then there are a half dozen regular “Hired Men” who are paid a wage when they are needed, and after that come the apprentices, the boys who play women’s roles, pages and children. Richard is cheap to employ as an apprentice, but once he’s outgrown the roles of young women he’s just another freelance actor . . . of whom there are plenty. Basically he’s just another Hired Man and the Lord Chamberlain’s company already had plenty of those available. I don’t think Will is reluctant so much as he doesn’t see the need to encourage another hungry mouth around a theater already supplied with too many.

Specifically, Fools and Mortals revolves around the first staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the writing of Romeo and Juliet. Why did you pick this period as the setting for your novel?

Probably the most fascinating thing about the period is that it sees the establishment of a professional theater industry—as we know it today. Before the 1570s there were no permanent playhouses. There were plays and players, but they were all peripatetic . . . traveling around the country giving performances in inn yards or wherever else they could. Now the key thing there is that your audience on Monday afternoon in Stratford will not be the same as the audience in Warwick on Wednesday, so you can do the same play, over and over, in different towns, fairly sure that the play will be new to the audience. That means you need very few plays in your repertoire. But then some genius hits on the idea of building a permanent playhouse, a theater. The only city in Britain capable of supporting a playhouse was London and, in short order, there were two such theaters. Now there’s a new problem. The audience is drawn from the same population day after day, week after week, month after month, so you need a lot of new material. Whereas the old traveling companies could probably survive on a half dozen plays, the new permanent companies found themselves producing thirty plus plays a year. You need new plays all the time, and that means you need playwrights! A new profession sprang up overnight, as did the idea of a permanent theater. It’s an amazing development, and one that was immediately successful and, like any emerging industry finding its way, there’s an excitement to the process.

One of the plot lines involves the theft of plays by a rival playhouse. I found this fascinating, especially since it’s implied that it was not uncommon in Shakespeare’s day. Do tell us more about that element of the story.

The playwrights of the 16th century did not enjoy the protection of copyright! It’s that simple. If the script of a play fell into the hands of a rival company, then there was no law to prevent them staging the play and, of course, paying no fee to the playwright. And plays were valuable! The audience was always eager for new material, so the companies guarded their scripts jealously. They did publish some, but only after they had exhausted the chances to perform the play. That’s how we have Shakespeare’s quartos . . . they were published once the company had decided there was nothing more to be squeezed out of them on stage, and of course, the sales of the books provided extra income, especially welcome when the playhouses were closed because of plague. It was probably very uncommon for a really valuable play to be stolen, but the fear of that happening was very real.

Richard also falls foul of the Pursuivants, known to the players as the Percies. Who are the Percies, and what do their activities reveal about the position of the theater in Shakespeare’s day?

Probably nothing! The Pursuivants existed to hunt down Catholics, and that has a great deal more to do with the Pope’s foolish bull that offered heavenly bliss to anyone who succeeded in assassinating Queen Elizabeth. That civil strife grumbles on throughout Elizabeth’s reign, a constant battle between Catholic plotters who wanted to replace Elizabeth with a Roman Catholic monarch and the secret service that combated them, and punished them horribly. The real enemy of the theater was the Puritans, who utterly disapproved of plays and players and who campaigned tirelessly to close down the theaters. In the end, 1642, they were successful, though happily their rule in England was mercifully brief and the theaters reopened in 1660 and have thrived ever since. Richard’s brush with Pursuivants is incidental: they believed, erroneously, that the Theatre (Shakespeare’s playhouse) was a den of secret Catholic sympathizers. They were certainly dangerous and merciless enemies, but they were also loyal to Elizabeth who, we know, was a lover of the theater.

There are some wonderful passages in the novel about writing and the stage. One of my favorites comes on p. 247, where Richard says, “We are players, and we love an audience. Sometimes, if a play is going badly, it is easy to think of the audience as an enemy, but truly they are a part of the play, because an audience changes the way we perform.” I know you act in repertory theater during the summers, and I think anyone who has taken part in a live performance recognizes how the presence of the audience imparts an energy that rehearsal simply doesn’t. We writers don’t interact with our readers that way. As someone who does both, how does that difference change things? Do you prefer one type of interaction over the other, and if so, why?

Bernard Cornwell as Prospero
© Michael & Suz Karchmer
Oh good Lord! I’m not frightened of writing (maybe I should be!), but going on stage is terrifying. Every year I wonder why I do it. I could spend my summers lollygagging on my sailboat, walking the dog, or extending my encyclopedic knowledge of Irish whiskies, but instead I have to learn lines, spend hours in rehearsal, act on a stage which isn’t touched by the theater’s air-conditioning in costumes designed for a Siberian winter, and risk making a complete fool of myself.

But then comes the performance and . . .

Yes, there’s a rush of adrenaline, the challenge of doing something which I never imagined I would ever do and the knowledge that I will probably never master it. I’m totally confident sailing a boat, I’ve crossed the Atlantic under sail, I seem to be doing all right as an author, but as an actor? Dear God, it challenges and frightens me. I must be reasonably good or they wouldn’t give me parts like Prospero, but I don’t know that. And yes, the reward is not just the applause . . . though of course that’s delicious, but the best is utter silence. This year I got the most applause (cheaply) dressed full-fig as a bishop, mitre and all, crossing the stage and singing, “I wanna be loved by you, by nobody else but you,” but that, wonderful as it was (exit applause! Yay!) was nothing to sensing the audience’s utter stillness during “Our revels now are ended.”

Which do I prefer? I love both. Must I choose?

Bernard Cornwell is the author of more than forty-five novels and one nonfiction book, Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (2014). His Last Kingdom and Sharpe series have also been turned into hit television programs. He lives in South Carolina with his wife, Judy, whom he married in 1980, and spends his summers acting in repertory theater on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, among other pursuits. Learn more about the topics he discusses here in his 2014 and 2016 interviews at New Books in Historical Fiction.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Looking Forward to 2018

The first week in January, everyone has plans for self-improvement, or at least tasks they would like to complete in the new year. I’m no exception to this trend. 

So, in addition to the usual—ditching the four pounds that attached themselves to my waistline between Thanksgiving and Christmas (blame the breakfast bagels and desserts), maintaining a regular exercise program, getting lots of sleep, drinking plenty of plain water, reading some of those books on my “never quite got to them” list, etc.—here are my writing and publishing goals for 2018:

(1) completing my Legends of the Five Directions series with the publication of The Shattered Drum;

(2) producing a rough draft for Song of the Siren, first in my new, probably four-part series—also set in Russia and the neighboring lands but in the 1540s—which explores individual women’s lives, told in the first person, mostly outside the traditional boundaries of marriage and motherhood;

(3) conducting twelve New Books in Historical Fiction interviews;

(4) typesetting/proofing, producing e-books, and in some cases editing the Five Directions Press titles scheduled for 2018—Chains of Silver, The Falcon Soars, The Shattered Drum, and A Holiday Gift, more or less in that order;

(5) maintaining my website and the Five Directions Press website—which means keeping track of the “Books We Loved” posts, expanding the number of authors and titles available, and keeping the news & events page up to date;

(6) posting to this blog every Friday; and

(7) staying active on social media as a way of connecting with and supporting other writers, especially the authors associated with Five Directions Press, as well as reaching readers.

As always, you can check back in December to see how I did. I should be okay, as these are pretty modest goals. No three-hundred-book reading challenges or doubling my number of interviews or aiming to write four books a year in the mix. Most of them are things I’m doing anyway, or have to do if I want to see sales for my books. But that’s the secret of keeping resolutions, right? Cut them down to size, make them essential, and the chances of meeting one’s goals leap dramatically.

The holidays are over, the tree and outside decorations will soon be memory (although the weather looks to remain frosty for a while), and alas, my lovely writing vacation is over. But I still wish everyone a splendid new year, with love and success and happiness galore!

In other news, you can find my suggestions on how to find great books to read (especially helpful if you just received an e-reader or gift card as a holiday gift) on the Triskele Books blog. And make sure to stop by next Friday, when I will be hosting a written interview with Bernard Cornwell about his latest novel, Fools and Mortals.

Image: no. 109382488.