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

Friday, April 13, 2018

Binge-Watching Muscovy

I’ve mentioned before that Pinterest is my favorite among the social media sites, for several reasons. First, I’m an intensely visual person and thus an intensely visual writer. To “get” directions I have to see the map in my head, and to “get” my characters I must see them too, preferably on screen as I’m writing. So the first thing I do when starting a new story is to collect images of my characters and settings, which I update as needed as my sense of them strengthens.

Second, I write about a time and places that are almost entirely unfamiliar to my American and West European readers. I would love someday to see my Legends and Songs novels translated into Russian, where the cultural context even five hundred years after the fact is so much more familiar. But until that happens, my Pinterest boards are the best way to find ideas for myself and convey a sense of the world I have adopted as my own to others.

So you can imagine how delighted I was when images from a Russian television series about Sophia Palaiologina—the niece of the last Byzantine emperor and the wife of Ivan III “the Great” of Russia, thus the grandmother of Ivan IV “the Terrible”—began showing up on my Pinterest feed. I suppose even then I could have gone to YouTube to look for it—although it’s a commercial production, so I might not have found it. But I didn’t: much as I love Russian history, especially medieval Russian history, and despite decades of speaking and reading Russian, I have to admit that in my down time I want to watch movies and TV in English.

Then Sophia showed up at The episode summaries must have been translated by Google, for they are hilarious, but the subtitles are pretty accurate. The actors are true to type, their performances excellent, the settings and costumes are perfect, and the whole first season is riveting historical fiction. Think the BBC’s Victoria, but with way more furs, poison, and treachery. 

Look at this wedding ceremony, for example: can’t you just see Daniil and Nasan or Alexei and Maria in this setting?

I was hooked. Right now, Season 1 is still available for free on Amazon Prime, but I shelled out $12.99 (total) for the first eight episodes so that I could continue watching even if it disappears from the free collection, as things tend to do on Amazon Prime. As I said, I’m hooked. I watched the full set in three days, and I can’t wait for Season 2.

Note that I also said riveting historical fiction. Alas, considerable liberties have been taken with basic plot points. The Muscovites were, so far as we know, not resistant, as they are depicted here, but delighted to have scored a dynastic connection with the emperor of Constantinople, whose defeat by the Ottoman army had left Muscovy (at least in the minds of its own rulers and government) as the last bastion of Orthodox Christianity in a troubled world. Which is not to say that they expressed this realization in the “Moscow as Third Rome” phrasing that opens the series, but the realization itself does seem to have existed. I could go on, but you get the point.

So don’t treat it as a televised history lesson, except in the sense that the general depiction of the place and its court are accurate. (Hint: Victoria is not 100% historically accurate either.) What we do have is a full cast of delightfully fictional characters: the strong-willed bride, her wiser but still somewhat impetuous husband, his determined but not unkind mother, enemies of various sorts (modern-day Russian nationalism especially affects the portrayal of the enemies—Tatars [pictured here], Novgorodians, Lithuanians—so take these portrayals in particular with a large grain of salt), the naive but charming son and the treacherous daughter-in-law, and a whole host of scheming Italians and boyars. It’s tremendous fun, and if you ever wanted to get past imagining the world I portray in my Legends novels and actually see how it looked, this is the perfect place to start.

And if you do get hooked and need more binge-watching material before the 2018 season arrives, try Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great. It has two seasons available, with twenty-two episodes. It’s even more fictional than Sophia, not least because I think it draws heavily on Catherine’s own memoirs, which are self-serving in the extreme, as well as most of the extensive scuttlebutt that surrounded Catherine’s rise to power and reign, much of it disseminated by her far-from-loving son. But if you don’t take these series too seriously, they will certainly entertain!

Images: Screen captures from Sophia.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Writing the War

As should be clear if you have listened to my interviews for New Books in Historical Fiction, people come to fiction writing by many different paths. Most of us start out with a love of reading; some begin penning stories as children; others—including me—have always considered ourselves writers but never intended to extend our repertoire beyond nonfiction until that one inescapable tale forced itself into our consciousness demanding to be told.

In the case of John Richard Bell, my most recent interview guest, the impetus came from family stories, told and retold for decades, and the push to write them down before they vanished into history with the father-in-law who had lived them. As Bell explains in the interview, his self-reeducation from CEO to novelist took a long time, not only to learn the ropes of writing a novel but to trim and fine-tune that original draft into a taut and compelling story that honors the essence of those family tales while conveying, through a set of fictional characters and events, the larger themes of a little-known aspect of a very well-known conflict: World War II.

Much of the cutting and fine-tuning was painful, as it always is for writers forced to jettison their cherished prose. But the result makes the pain worthwhile, because The Circumstantial Enemy does not only reveal the effects of the war on Croatia, including its contributions to the rise of Josip Broz Tito and the postwar unification of the no longer unified Yugoslavia. It also confronts a powerful but—in fiction, at least—often disregarded truth: that fighters, whether on our own side or the enemy’s, are not necessarily zealots for the cause. Sometimes, indeed, they end up on one side or the other because circumstances put them in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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

We all imagine that, when put to the test, we will end up on the right side of history, however we define it. Nowhere is that statement more true than in reference to World War II. But sometimes people end up on the wrong side for reasons outside their control—even on a side they don’t believe in. Such is the fate that confronts Tony Babic, the hero of John Richard Bell’s debut novel, The Circumstantial Enemy, based on the true story of his father-in-law’s life during the war.

Tony, when we meet him, is a young pilot flying for the Croatian Air Force. His experience of causing one death and witnessing another—that of his commander—has left him eager to find a more peaceful way to exercise his talents. But his country, in an effort to escape both Serbian control and Nazi conquest, has chosen to ally with Germany in return for nominal independence as a puppet state. Tony has little choice but to fly for the Luftwaffe and is soon taking part in the Siege of Leningrad. Meanwhile, his best friend and the woman they both love (the daughter of Tony’s dead commander) become ever more deeply involved in a different epic battle: Josip Broz Tito’s campaign to unify all the Southern Slavic states under a single communist banner.

Tony eventually escapes his service to the Germans only to fall into the hands of the Americans. Soon he’s on his way to a POW camp in Illinois. But circumstances conspire to make him an enemy even there, not least in the eyes of the people he has left behind.