Friday, December 27, 2019

Roundup for 2019

As always (at least since 2014, when I started this tradition), here in the final post of December I review my goals for 2019 and how well I met them, in preparation for setting new goals for 2020 next week.

On the whole, I met and in some cases exceeded this year’s targets. See below for details.

(1) Publish Song of the Siren (Songs of Steppe & Forest 1), on schedule in late February. 

Met. Song of the Siren launched on February 19 with a number of lovely endorsements from fellow writers and, although nowhere near bestseller status, has done well in comparison with my other novels. It has also spurred sales of my earlier books, especially The Golden Lynx and The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel.

(2) Produce a final manuscript of Song of the Shaman (Songs 2) and sketch out book 3, Song of the Sisters.  

Exceeded. Song of the Shaman is available for sale as of today and ready for its formal launch date on January 14, 2020, by which time I expect Amazon to have linked the print and paperback versions. Song of the Sisters is now on its second draft, and I have developed a complete outline for a historical murder mystery to be co-written with P. K. Adams and set in Muscovy in 1553. We hope to start the writing any day, with the idea of producing a full draft by next summer and, with luck, eventually a trilogy set in Poland-Lithuania as well as Russia.

(3) Conduct twelve New Books in Historical Fiction interviews.

Exceeded. Demand was heavy from January on, and at one point it looked as if I would have twenty by year’s end, but for various reasons I topped out at eighteen. I also hosted Q&As with authors on this blog about once a month in addition to the podcast interviews for the New Books Network, and I reviewed a number of other books either at length or as part of my quarterly Bookshelf rubric—most often both.

(4) Typeset/proof, produce e-books, and in some cases edit Five Directions Press titles scheduled for 2019.

Met. For a while, it looked as if Song of the Siren might be our only title this year, but in the end we had three. I edited Joan Schweighardt’s Gifts for the Dead (Rivers 2) while she edited Gabrielle Mathieu’s Girl of Fire (Berona’s Quest 1); then I typeset them both and produced the e-books after they finished proofing the typeset files.

(5) Stay current with online marketing efforts and outreach. At a minimum, I plan to keep up my weekly blog posts, maintain my website and the Five Directions Press website, and participate regularly if not every month in such group features as “Books We Loved” and “Five Directions Press Authors Dish.”  

Met. Although heavy work commitments meant that I was absent from social media more than is either desirable or wise for a small-press author, I did manage to keep up with my blog, maintain and update my website (hint: book links are now separated by series rather than all crammed into one page) and the Five Directions Press site. I submitted entries for “Books We Loved” in eleven out of twelve months and contributed at least three “Authors Dish” posts, as well as a Spotlight interview with P. K. Adams (conducted before we established the parameters of our joint project).

So not a bad show, all told. Check back next week to find out what I have planned for next year. In the meantime, my best wishes for a wonderful holiday season and a peaceful and productive 2020!


Image: Purchased by subscription from iClipart.com, #c1219315_b.jpg .

Friday, December 20, 2019

Island Paradise

As luck would have it, I’ve never visited Hawaii. I’d love to, someday, but so far I have not. 

I first heard of the islands as a schoolchild in the UK, as the place where Captain James Cook died. In those days, Hawaii was an independent kingdom, although portrayed as a savage, uncivilized one in the colonialist textbook of my primary (elementary) school. Of course, this was the same textbook that reduced the six-year American War of Independence to a paragraph stating that King George III kindly released the colonists from their obligations to the crown in response to a few disturbances. When I moved across the Atlantic at the age of eleven, I soon learned the other side to that story, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that the Hawaiians might have had good reasons for objecting to Captain Cook as well.

There in Chicago, I learned about Hawaii as the fiftieth state, an island paradise where folks from the other forty-nine wanted to hang out on their vacations. Sun, beach, sea, mountains—even a kid in junior high school could appreciate the appeal. There was a casual mention of annexation in my US history classes, but that appeared as little more than a footnote on the way to rounding out the national roster—glossed over along with all the other stories of conquest and exploitation in favor of emphasis on the Louisiana Purchase and the $7 million that William Seward paid for Alaska. A different picture, for sure, stripped of the savage and uncivilized element, but not much more accurate for all that.


The Hawaii portrayed in Katherine Kayne’s Bound in Flame, the subject of my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, is, in contrast, a vibrant and multifaceted place—still wrestling with the reality of US annexation, the loss of the islands’ independence, the overthrow of its royal family, and the assault on its ancient culture. There are certainly beaches, mountains, and flowers by the cartload, but the story behind the story is darker, grittier, and more realistic than the glorious photos of Waikiki with which we’re so familiar. Richer, too, since this is a tale of an island kingdom that valued education, experienced a deep attachment to the land and its creatures, and supported strong and assertive women—riders, spiritual leaders, rulers—at a time when much of the mainland insisted that females should see themselves solely as “angels about the house.”

 

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

Leticia Liliuokalani Lang, better known as Letty, has good intentions, but her strong will and quick temper tend to get in her way. Banished from her Hawaiian home due to a conflict with her stepmother, Letty winds up in a California boarding school, where she decides to devote her career to healing animals—even though female  veterinarians are scarcer than the proverbial hen’s teeth in 1906.

On the ship back to her beloved islands, Letty notices a beautiful racehorse and realizes the horse’s trainer is abusing him. An accident in the harbor sends the stallion into the ocean, and Letty dives in to save him without a second thought. That sets her on a collision course with the horse’s owner and trainer after she insults the former and reports on the latter’s mistreatment. All this before Letty even reaches her home and confronts the stepmother who sent her away.

Letty learns that she has a magical gift that challenges her self-control but acts as a source of strength and connection. She is one of nine Gates, bound to the earth, born with the ability to harness its power—represented by the flames of her spirit—to direct her intentions, for good or for ill. But Letty resists her destiny, knowing that her gift comes at a cost: a lifetime alone.

In this delightful debut novel Katherine Kayne sweeps us back to a Hawaii still mourning its lost kingdom, where ladies—their ballgowns covered in yards of protective fabric—gallop across the mountains and down the city streets on their way to polo matches and parties, men dance the hula as well as women, and flowers are everywhere. It’s no accident that Bound in Flame kicks off a brand-new series, aptly called The Hawaiian Ladies Riding Society.

Image: Lei © Sanba38 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Milestones


Yesterday I recorded the hundredth interview for New Books in Historical Fiction. It should go up next week, or at any rate before Christmas, and it will take us to early twentieth-century Hawaii, which is exactly where I’d like to be as the snow and long nights close in.

Of the hundred interviews that have posted or soon will, ninety-nine are mine—recorded over seven years, including eighteen this year alone. So it seems like a good time to stop and take stock. It’s been a great deal of fun, and I hope to keep going. I’ve made great connections, talked to many wonderful authors, and even started a few friendships. And all because of a mistake.

A mistake? Well, you see, when I first approached Marshall Poe—the editor in chief of the New Books Network (NBN) and, not coincidentally, a fellow Muscovite historian—back in 2012, I just wanted to get some publicity for The Golden Lynx, then hot off the press. I’d seen a reference to the NBN in the journal I edit, and when I checked the site address, I saw a reference to a channel called New Books in Historical Fiction. At that point in time, I still had so little idea of what the NBN was that I didn’t understand it involved podcasts. (In truth, back then I wasn’t quite sure about podcasts, either, although I did know they were audio recordings.) But I knew Marshall from way back, so I wrote to him and asked for an interview.

Well, to cut a long story short, the NBN had a channel for historical fiction but no host. Marshall offered me the job, and I almost didn’t take it. In high school I was a nerd, and shy as all get out (this news amazes people who know me now, but it’s true). My husband called radio stations for contests or to make comments; I never did. The idea of getting on a microphone and talking on the air was alien to me. But then I thought about it and decided: why not? I had to grow up sometime. And I’d get to talk to fellow writers. How bad could it be? So I said yes.



Early on, while I was making every mistake imaginable—including my second interview, where I managed to press the buttons in the wrong sequence and record only my side of the interview, not my guest’s—I had the good fortune to link up with Heather Drucker, the publicity director at HarperCollins. A stunningly competent and responsive publicist, Heather has sent me more authors than I can count. She’s arranged three podcast interviews, as well as two blog posts and a written Q&A, with Bernard Cornwell. She’s also connected me with half of her staff, who routinely send me books to consider and set up interviews as needed. One landed on my doorstep just the other day.

Also in those first few months, a chance connection on GoodReads, the social media site for readers, brought me into contact with Caitlin Hamilton Summie, an author and independent publicist who represents authors at many levels of publishing. In addition to these two wonderful ladies, I’ve approached quite a number of authors directly or by responding to e-mail requests. In the beginning, I was amazed and grateful that people even answered my e-mails and agreed to talk with me. These days, I rarely have an unfilled slot in my schedule (I’m booked now well into next year), but I’m still touched by authors’ willingness to share their literary worlds with me, whether those involve Austen’s England or some new angle on World War II.

In the meantime, the NBN has grown dramatically. From one channel in 2010, it’s expanded to more than eighty, although most of those focus on academic subjects (exceptions include historical fiction, fantasy and adventure, science fiction, literature, and poetry). We’ve established a partnership with the Literary Hub, which posts links to new interviews every Friday. And as of last report, we’re on track to serve nine million interviews in 2019. How many of them are mine, I don’t know, but I do know that we have listeners in Europe and Australia as well as North America, which is very cool.


So have I sold many books, which was my original goal? Not really. A few, certainly, on occasions when I’ve been the guest rather than the host. But there are so many other benefits to this gig. The interviews give me something to post on social media that focuses on others rather than myself. I’ve made the acquaintance of many wonderful writers and enjoyed many fascinating conversations about writing. I’ve gotten a few endorsements for my books and visits to this blog. Through interviews I made the acquaintance of Joan Schweighardt, who has since joined Five Directions Press, and P. K. Adams, now a partner on that “Tudors meet Romanovs” mystery that I’ve mentioned in previous posts, now fully outlined and ready to write. For all those reasons, I’m so glad I took the chance and said yes when Marshall asked.

And although I still find new mistakes to make, I’ve become completely comfortable chatting with people on the air—something I never expected that day when I sent an e-mail asking for an interview about The Golden Lynx.

Maybe I’ll even call a radio station someday. But then, why bother, when I have this lovely channel of my own?

Images: Lei of plumaria, “On Air” sign, Henry VIII reenactor—all  via Pixabay (no attribution required).

Friday, December 6, 2019

Interview with Molly Greeley

I have to admit, for all the times I’ve read and watched Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, until I encountered Molly Greeley’s new novel, The Clergyman’s Wife, I had never spent a moment wondering what happened to Charlotte Lucas and the Reverend William Collins after their marriage. For people who have somehow managed to avoid the novel in all its forms, Charlotte is the plain, older (twenty-seven, which to me now seems very young!) friend of Pride and Prejudice’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, and William Collins is the fly in the Bennet daughters’ ointment—the little-known heir to their father’s estate, who has illusions of further strengthening his claim by marrying Elizabeth.

But to my amazement, by the time I finished The Clergyman’s Wife, not only was I delighted to have renewed my acquaintance with Charlotte but capable of mustering some sympathy for the otherwise risible Mr. Collins. How Molly Greeley works this miracle you’ll have to discover for yourself, but here are a few insights into what got her started on this project and where she goes with it.

Pride and Prejudice novels are, in a way, the gold standard of publishing dreams, especially if an author can come up with a new take on the Bennet sisters’ story, which you certainly have. Where did the idea come from to focus on Charlotte Lucas and the Reverend Williams Collins?

To be completely honest, I have always found Charlotte’s story even more compelling than Elizabeth Bennet’s, perhaps because it’s (much) less of a fairy tale. Though Lizzy is brave in one way, determined not to compromise her values in favor of security, Charlotte has her own brand of courage, taking charge of her own life in the best way available to her.

Like all of Austen’s novels, there is a lot in Pride and Prejudice about women’s financial insecurity; but because the heroine falls into the arms of a man with ten thousand a year, the actual fallout of the inequalities between men and women during this time period doesn’t fully play out, at least for Elizabeth Bennet. But Charlotte’s story offers an opportunity to explore more deeply what might have happened to women who did not feel comfortable sacrificing their own and their family’s comfort for the sake of romantic love that, realistically speaking, may or may not ever arrive. Lizzy’s story is more palatable to our modern sensibilities, particularly since most modern women don’t face destitution if they don’t marry; but Charlotte’s story is probably closer to the truth of what many women in Austen’s time experienced.

Although Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennet’s good friend, Charlotte is a bit player in Austen’s novel. Who is she as a character there, and how have marriage and motherhood changed her in your book, which starts a few years later?

In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte is shown to be by turns playful—urging Lizzy to play the pianoforte, teasing her about Mr. Darcy—and practical to a fault. She thinks that Jane Bennet ought, in order to “secure” the rich, handsome Mr. Bingley, to pretend to a deeper affection for him than she is comfortable displaying until she knows him better; and she herself sets out to seduce Mr. Collins with her sympathy and attention, even while suspecting that she can never truly respect him. We know that she is intelligent and interesting enough to be good friends with Elizabeth, whose wit and love of a good laugh indicate she likely wouldn’t be friends with a bore.

When Lizzy returns home from visiting Charlotte and William after their marriage, she reflects that Charlotte’s “home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry … had not yet lost their charms.” That “yet” seems very telling to me, and so when Chapter One of The Clergyman’s Wife begins three years after Charlotte’s marriage, all of those charms have begun to wear very thin. Her life in Hunsford is very solitary, and in order to slot herself into the role of the good clergyman’s wife according to both William and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, she has lost, or at least buried, much of what would have made her an attractive friend to Lizzy. She is also now mother to a young daughter, and there is a fundamental tension between her realism—she knows deeply how important financial security is for a woman—and her burgeoning understanding that, while important, security simply isn’t enough.

William Collins is, to put it bluntly, not the man of most young women’s dreams. Why does Charlotte make a play for him after Lizzy turns him down?

I love that you said Charlotte “makes a play” for Mr. Collins, because this is exactly what she does, and it’s one of the reasons I love her character so much. She doesn’t set out to seduce him with her body, but by giving him what he really wants: attention. There are so many layers to unwrap here with regards to Charlotte’s character—she is capable of boldness; she is calculating; she is empathic. And then there are the unspoken layers, which Austen may or may not have intended, but which seem, to my mind at least, likely. Layers of fear and insecurity, because, as a woman who lacked both money and beauty, and who was already in her late twenties, her future was precarious. If she didn’t marry, she was going to end up dependent on the charity of her father and, later, her brothers. Depending on her brothers’ (and their wives’) personalities, this could mean a lifetime of being seen as a burden, no matter how she helped in the household. A woman of Charlotte’s standing in society could become a governess, if she were well-educated enough, or a paid lady’s companion; but these, too, were precarious options, and came without the status conferred by being someone’s wife.

So William Collins, for all his many failings, seems like a good option to her—really, the best option she has. He has a respectable position as a clergyman, and when his cousin Mr. Bennet dies, he stands to inherit Longbourn estate. When her friend Lizzy doesn’t snatch him up, Charlotte sees an opportunity and takes it.

And what of William himself? Remind us briefly of how Austen characterizes him, then how you went about making him a more sympathetic character—which you do wonderfully, without changing his fundamental personality as Austen defines him.

Mr. Collins is described as a tall, heavyish man, with very stately manners, who talks a lot without ever saying much of interest. He offers compliments fawningly, and whenever he feels he has offended someone his apologies are just as excessive. By turns vain and self-debasing, he is, basically, awkward in almost every imaginable way. He’s a caricature of a certain type of clergyman from Austen’s time, and a certain type of person, one who is over-awed by titles and riches.

Because my story centers on Charlotte, and because Charlotte is married to William, I knew I had to turn him into something resembling an actual person rather than a caricature. We know from Austen that William’s father and Mr. Bennet, Lizzy’s father, had a falling-out, and we know that his father was “illiterate and miserly.” This provided a jumping-off point in my mind for William’s backstory. And I tried to use little moments—his difficulty connecting with his baby daughter, for instance—to show that under his awkwardness lay an essential insecurity; that he wants to connect with people, but has trouble really doing so.

To be honest, Mr. Collins was not too difficult to humanize because he is never portrayed as a villain in Pride and Prejudice, only as ridiculous. And while ridiculous people may be easy targets in comedy and satire, in life there is usually something deeper going on underneath.

No story about Charlotte and William would be complete without mention of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. What is her role in Charlotte’s life?

Oh, Lady Catherine! Yes, she’s overbearing, certain she always knows best, and much more involved in Charlotte’s life than Charlotte would like. Lady Catherine is William’s patroness, which means it was she who offered him the living at Hunsford parish; however, in my research into the ins and outs of Regency-era clergy, it looks like the living, once given, couldn’t easily be rescinded. So it wasn’t so much that Charlotte and William risked losing their home and livelihood if they didn’t dance attendance upon Lady Catherine; rather, they merely risked the ire of a powerful neighbor, a woman who was petulant and very accustomed to getting her own way.

I mean really, it was probably just easier to bow to Lady Catherine’s whims rather than try to stand against them; having her for an enemy, especially living just across the lane, would be unpleasant to say the least. But there was also the matter of William, who genuinely seemed to be in awe of her ladyship; if she stood up to Lady Catherine, Charlotte would also have to stand up to her husband—in a time when the “obey” in marriage vows was literally meant. And of course, there were the societal strictures of the times, by which someone nobly born like Lady Catherine was automatically offered respect based on her bloodline alone, regardless of how distasteful her company and her meddling might be. So Lady Catherine offers Charlotte “advice” on how to keep house and raise her daughter, and Charlotte nods and smiles and inwardly screams with boredom.

But this story is really about Charlotte’s developing friendship with Mr. Travis, which for me is both beautifully handled and believable. What can you tell us about him, as Charlotte sees him?

Mr. Travis is a farmer, a tenant of Lady Catherine. As such, he isn’t someone Charlotte would ever have considered a suitable match for herself, or any woman of her station. But after they have a chance meeting in the parsonage garden, she discovers he has a sly, irreverent humor, and, more than that, kindness, and an ability to connect, not only with her but with her child.

Mr. Travis is someone who truly sees Charlotte, and truly cares about her. William loves the idea of Charlotte as his wife, but she has never fully been herself in his company—and, in all likelihood, he wouldn’t really understand her if she were. But from the first, Charlotte and Mr. Travis share a sort of fundamental understanding of each others’ characters and situations. In some ways, too, he offers Charlotte what she, herself, offered to William, though on a deeper and more sincere level—someone who truly listens to her.

And what of you? This book came out on Tuesday. Are you already working on another novel?

I am! I have another Austen-inspired novel in the editing stages, and I’m starting work on a contemporary story.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

 

Molly Greeley was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where her addiction to books was spurred by her parents' floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. A graduate of Michigan State University, she began as an Education major, but switched to English and Creative Writing after deciding that gainful employment was not as important to her as being able to spend several years reading books and writing stories and calling it work.

She lives in Traverse City, Michigan with her husband and three children, and can often be found with her laptop at local coffee shops. Find out more about her at https://www.mollygreeley.com.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Indomitable Uhtred

I’ve had the great good fortune to interview the bestselling novelist Bernard Cornwell several times for New Books in Historical Fiction, most recently in reference to his War of the Wolf, which came out last year. I was supposed to interview him again yesterday, but as I reached the midpoint in Uhtred’s latest adventure, Sword of Kings, I realized it would be difficult to talk for 30–35 minutes without either giving away spoilers or forcing Bernard to repeat points he’s already made more than once.

This difficulty has nothing to do with the novel itself, which is another page turner, well worth your money and your time. But at no. 12 in a series, every relationship we might discuss has a past, and at this point even naming new characters or mentioning what has happened to old ones robs readers who begin at the beginning from following these developments for themselves.

As it turns out, there was a practical reason for canceling the planned interview and substituting this blog post—one I couldn’t have anticipated at the time. Suffice it to say that the arrival of workmen with hammers and saws and electric drills, however welcome in terms of acquiring a deck that didn’t threaten to collapse under the next person intrepid enough to walk on it, would have severely obstructed our conversation.

So what I have to offer instead is a quick look at the setup of Sword of Kings, which I hope will circumvent the spoiler problem while still encouraging Uhtred fans to pick up the latest installment and those who haven’t yet discovered our favorite Saxon warrior (reared as a Dane and steadfastly pagan despite pressure from all sides to convert to Christianity) to seek out The Last Kingdom in print or on Netflix and get themselves up to speed.

In Sword of Kings, Uhtred is at home in Northumbria, which by the beginning of this novel in 924 has become the last holdout against the campaign of King Alfred the Great’s descendants to reunite all the Saxon kingdoms into a single country that will one day be known as England. Danes still raid the coasts and, when possible, settle in wilder parts of the island, but for the most part the once-separate territories of Wessex, East Anglia, and Mercia have established themselves as a more or less unified Christian nation under the rule of King Alfred’s son Edward.

But after twenty-five years on the throne, Edward dies, leaving an adult heir, Aethelstan, whose legitimacy Edward has placed in question by denying that he was legally married to Aethelstan’s mother; a boy named Aelfweard, whom few people in the kingdom like or respect but who has powerful support from his uncle, who also happens to be a mortal enemy of Uhtred; and Edward’s last wife, who responds to her husband’s death by fleeing with her two children and Aelfweard’s uncle in hot pursuit, determined to put an end to the three of them.

Naturally, Uhtred has to intervene, although at sixty-four he’d much rather remain by his own hearthside and let the English work out their own problems. He knows full well that their unification sets up the conquest of his beloved Northumbria. But Uhtred has sworn an oath, and oaths are serious business for a tenth-century warrior, especially one who hopes to spend his afterlife roistering, drinking, fighting, and wenching in Valhalla. So Uhtred goes south, and in so doing, he again plays a part in realizing King Alfred’s great dream.


The novel releases on November 26, 2019—which is why, as compensation for having to cancel the interview, I’m running this post on Tuesday rather than Friday.

Friday, November 22, 2019

You Want Romanovs with That?


In one of those odd cultural conjunctures that manifest themselves from time to time, perhaps because of the centennial of the Romanovs’ execution in 1918, the world’s attention has recently refocused on the long-dead Russian imperial family. Whether indirect—as in Alexei Uchitel’s film Matilda (2017) or Amazon Prime’s hit television series, The Romanoffs (2018)—or more direct (Ariel Lawhon’s I Was Anastasia [2018]; several Russian miniseries now being distributed by Jansen Media), the options available to Romanov buffs have seldom been richer.

It’s a cliché, of course, to point out that historical fiction often follows twisted paths that bear little resemblance to history. Whatever novelists say, fiction about the past can’t be historically accurate in the sense that scholars mean when they use that term. No matter how hard a novelist tries, the need for drama and immediacy and filled-in blanks leads to made-up characters, words put in people’s mouths, thoughts and dreams ascribed to them, and more. Scripts and screenplays, with their compressed time frames, lend themselves even more to a focus on emotional truth and messaging at the expense of the nuance and tolerance of ambiguity that are one of scholarship’s great benefits. 

But what ties many of these recent fictional portrayals together is their shoehorning of the Romanovs into stories that stand quite well on their own. There has long been a reluctance to accept that the Bolsheviks could in fact wipe out the entire imperial family and for the next seventy-five years not feel bad about it. But the lasting conviction that Grand Duchess Anastasia survived has now expanded to include other members of the dynasty.


The Romanoffs, for example, follows self-identified descendants of the family around the globe. The series lurches from an unspecified Romanov relative reminiscent of an angrier version of Grand Duchess Swana in the 1938 film Ninotchka—but who is at least not a surviving daughter and who lives in Paris under circumstances possible for unusually wealthy émigrés—to a boy in Australia whose sole connection with Nicholas II seems to be that he suffers from hemophilia. Along the way, it drops in on unhappy couples, a family curse, and a movie star fighting for her career while starring in a film about the Romanov murders, among other scenarios.

The series has received mixed reviews, but I found it well written, well acted, and generally enjoyable. Except for the movie star, though, why any of the characters need a connection to the historical Romanovs was no clearer to me at the end than at the beginning. You might think the directors had eight unrelated scripts and decided to throw in the Romanovs just to tie them together. The Windsors or the Astors could have served just as well.

I could make a similar point about Gill Paul’s two novels The Secret Wife (2016) and The Lost Daughter (2019). In these books, first Grand Duchess Tatiana, then Grand Duchess Maria, escape the cellar in Ekaterinburg and go on to live full and ultimately rewarding lives. Tatiana ends up in emigration; Maria remains in the nascent Soviet Union, where she endures revolution, civil war, the purges of the 1930s, and the Siege of Leningrad. The Lost Daughter ends with the postwar restoration of Peterhof in the 1970s, so it spans almost the entire Soviet period. In both cases, an additional contemporary story acts as a frame.


As novels about the Soviet experience, The Secret Wife and The Lost Daughter are lovely. They don’t need the grand duchesses as hooks. The lives of Tatiana and her “husband,” Dmitri Malama, capture the reality of once-privileged émigrés forced to live hand to mouth after the loss of their property and their homes. Maria’s story is even more compelling as she struggles to find her way in a new world that views her family as the enemy, where everything she once valued makes her vulnerable. They could be Maria and Tatiana Ivanova rather than Romanova, but the novels are well researched and deeply thought through.

Yet I wonder: is the story of the Russian Revolution and its consequences not worth telling on its own terms? Do we need to postulate surviving Romanovs and Romanov descendants for people to care?

Perhaps we do. Gill Paul, in her interview with Jennifer Eremeeva on the New Books Network, notes that the Romanovs are “a fairy tale that ended the wrong way,” which she compares with Britain’s Princess Diana, whose death also led to an outbreak of conspiracy theories. There’s probably some truth to that notion. The Bolsheviks’ assassination of the entire family and its servants was bloody and brutal, almost senseless in its violence. We don’t like to think that human beings can act that way.

The sad reality, though, is that human beings did. DNA testing has accounted for the various family members, including Anastasia, Tatiana, and—most recently—Maria. If you want to know what really happened, and why the royal houses of Europe didn’t succeed in intervening in time to save Nicholas II and his family, especially the children, try Helen Rappaport’s The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family (2018). A historian with a fluid writing style, Rappaport offers a fascinating but ultimately chilling portrayal of an international system in which the all too human capacity for hauteur, indifference, incompetence, acrimony, and procrastination led to a tragedy that still haunts the imagination more than a century later.

Which, one would think, should be enough of a drama burger even for fiction. You want Romanovs with that?

This post first appeared on “All the Russias,” the blog run by New York University’s Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, on November 19, 2019.



Images: The Romanov Grand Duchesses Tatiana and Maria in 1914, public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Life between the Wars

Like many other readers, I first encountered Tracy Chevalier’s novels when I read The Girl With the Pearl Earring, an imagined story about the origins of the famous Vermeer painting that became a major movie starring Scarlett Johansson. I read The Virgin Blue, then somehow lost track of Chevalier’s novels until her US publicist approached me to interview her about the latest book, A Single Thread (Viking, 2019). Naturally, I leaped at the chance.

As it turned out—surprise, surprise!—a whole bunch of other people leaped at the chance as well. As of this week, it looks as if I won’t get to talk with Tracy Chevalier about this particular book, although I can hope to touch base with her some other time.

Never mind, I had a chance to read this perfectly lovely novel, which I might not have had time for otherwise, and now I have the chance to share it with you. 


Like several other books that have come my way this year, A Single Thread looks at the long-term effects of the First World War and the period leading up the Second. At the moment when this story begins, it seems inconceivable that another great conflagration could sweep across Europe, but by the end Chevalier’s characters are just beginning to dread that very possibility.  

A Single Thread centers around Violet Speedwell, a thirty-eight-year-old spinster living in Southampton in 1932. Violet is one of the “surplus women” of the 1920s and 1930s, unable to find another husband after the death of her fiancé in the middle of the First World War and still grieving the loss of her older brother. Her mother—who lives to complain, especially to and about Violet—assumes that her daughter will always remain at home to care for her. But Violet has other plans, which take her to Winchester, just far enough away for freedom.

There, as she struggles to survive on a secretary’s salary, a chance encounter with a society of stitchers set on bringing color into Winchester’s thousand-year-old cathedral by embroidering needlepoint kneelers, cushions, and alms bags opens a new door in her life. Despite never having sewn before, Violet soon learns the basic stitches while acquiring new friends and a satisfying hobby. And by following her single thread back into the past and forward into the future, she not only rights a few wrongs but discovers options she never imagined existed.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Interview with Georgie Blalock

Last night, for the first time, I watched the Netflix TV series The Crown, which explores the reign of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, starting with her marriage to Prince Philip in 1947. Although the third season doesn’t start for a couple of weeks, word has it that it will pay particularly close attention to the queen’s fraying relationship with her sister, Princess Margaret. But Margaret and her scandalous involvement with Group Captain Peter Townsend, a divorced former RAF pilot who served as her father’s equerry, is already on-screen in season 1. (Note that the scandal had as much to do with his divorce as his romance with the princess—times were different then, especially for British royalty.)

All this brings me to the subject of this week’s blog post, my Q&A with Georgie Blalock, whose historical novel, The Other Windsor Girl—based on Princess Margaret’s tumultuous teenage years, including her infatuation with Peter Townsend—came out just this week. On Guy Fawkes Day, no less, which the English celebrate as Americans do Halloween, but with fireworks and parties instead of Trick or Treat. And although Princess Margaret had no plans to blow up Parliament, at the emotional level her activities were at times just as incendiary where Britain’s rather staid royal family was concerned.

That said, I turn over the mike to Georgie Blalock, with many thanks to her for answering my questions. 

Until now, you’ve been writing historical romance under the name Georgie Lee. What made you decide to switch gears, to a degree, and write about Britain’s Princess Margaret?
 

I love history and there are so many different time periods to explore. I switched gears because I wanted to bring to life a new era in a different way than I’ve done in my past novels. Although there is a romance in The Other Windsor Girl, it isn’t a romance novel. It was fun new challenge for me to write in another genre.

Despite that wonderful and evocative title, your protagonist is actually Vera Strathmore, not Princess Margaret. Who is Vera, and how does she get involved in the princess’s Set?  

Vera is a young woman whose life was irrevocably changed when her fiancé was killed in World War II. In the years since the end of the war, Vera has tried and failed to find a new purpose and future. Through her wit and honesty, she catches Princess Margaret’s notice and is invited into the princess’ inner circle and a life she’d never dreamed possible. Her position as second lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret gives Vera a taste of glamour and respect but it comes at the price of great personal sacrifice, and insight into the less regal side of royalty. In the end, the once overlooked Vera must decide whether she wants fame by association or a life of her own making.

One of the interesting elements for me was to realize how traditionally “royal” the Windsors still were at the time of your novel. People can’t leave the party before the princess chooses to leave, for example. They have to call her “Ma’am” even when they’re acting like her drinking buddies. How did you research that culture? Is it still the case, and we just don’t realize it because of the tabloids?
 

I did a lot of research for The Other Windsor Girl. I read books about Princess Margaret, the queen, life in Buckingham Palace, firsthand accounts written by former ladies-in-waiting and equerries and anyone who was an intimate part of the day to day running of Clarence House and the royal households. In 1949, when the novel opens, the royals are still very set in the old ways of doing things. I can’t say whether that’s the way it is now. My research kept me firmly planted in the past, but I have to imagine that with Catherine and Meghan that things are not as formal as they used to be.

Yet despite the generally upper-crust/aristocratic atmosphere, Princess Margaret also surrounds herself with Americans, including a doctor who catches Vera’s eye. Who is he? What’s his role in the story?
 

Dominic, the doctor, is a fictional addition to the princess’s story. He’s a man who understands lineage and family tradition because he comes from a line of doctors. However, his lack of awe at the glamour of royalty provides Vera with a more grounded sense of the world. He challenges Vera to see herself as more than a lady-in-waiting, as a woman who could create a life and future through her own determination and talents.

Vera’s “job” in the story includes observing firsthand Princess Margaret’s love for Lord Peter Townsend and later Anthony Armstrong-Jones. What made you decide to use Vera as your point-of-view character on these events, which are well documented?
 

I decided to use Vera as the point-of-view character because she is close to Margaret but not so close as to see all the very intimate aspects of the princess’s relationships. Her slight distance allows the readers to watch with Vera as the two tragedies unfold and feel her frustration at being unable to stop the princess from being her own worst enemy. Through Vera, I offer readers a new take on how the events of Princess Margaret’s life played out.

What did the Royal Family/household know, if anything, about the novel while you were researching and writing it? What was their reaction? Did you have access to official records?
 

The Royal Family was not aware of my novel and I did not request access to official records. Although the novel is based on real people, places, and events, it is a work of fiction and I wanted the freedom to manipulate the facts to create the story I wanted to tell.

Do you already have another novel in the pipeline?  

My next novel is tentatively titled The Last Debutante. It centers on Valerie de Vere Cole, daughter of the famous prankster Horace de Vere Cole and the niece of Neville Chamberlain. It follows her during her 1939 London debutante season, the last glittering one before the start of World War II. Her unique position as a deb and a resident of No. 10 Downing Street gives her a distinctive view of the world at that moment in time and the coming war. 

 


Georgie Blalock is an amateur historian and movie buff who loves combining her different passions through historical fiction, and a healthy dose of period piece films. When not writing, she can be found prowling the nonfiction history section of the library or the British film listings on Netflix. Georgie writes historical romance under the name Georgie Lee. Find out more about her at http://www.georgieblalock.com.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Long Shadows

I’ve talked before about how World War I was, for almost a century, the “forgotten war.” The combination of sheer bloody-mindedness and posturing that landed the great powers of Europe in the conflict; the horrific loss of life, limbs, and sanity among those who fought; and the sense of pointlessness heightened by the even greater explosion twenty years later left little sense of triumph among survivors. If World War II was perceived as an epic struggle to defeat evil, its predecessor seemed more like a colossal act of miscalculation and folly.

The centennial of 2014–18 has gone a long way to restoring the balance of interest between the great wars, and in fiction many good works have appeared in the last five years. I’ve covered several of them on this blog, including Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye, Cat Winters’ The Uninvited, the story collection Fall of Poppies, Hazel Gaynor’s Dancing at the Savoy,  Gaynor's and Heather Webb's Last Christmas in Paris, and Joan Schweighardt’s Gifts for the Dead. Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, A Single Thread, also examines the aftermath of the war.

Charles Todd, however, occupies a special place in this literary arena. Long before most people paid much attention to the Great War, as it was then known, this mother/son team decided to focus on the experience and effects of the war in two beautifully written mystery series (and a pair of related stand-alone novels). One, featuring Ian Rutledge, examines the long-term effects on the combatants, most notably shell shock. You can find out more about these novels in my post, “The Black Ascot.” I’ll be revisiting Ian in his next adventure when A Divided Loyalty releases in February 2020.

The other set of books, through the persona of Bess Crawford, looks at the ways in which women’s lives and positions were fundamentally altered by the combat. Just as in World War II, women poured into factories, served as nurses, supported the troops in every way open to them—only to be thrown back into lives constricted by marriage, motherhood, and dependency when the fighting ended. As a result, women’s perceptions—and eventually men’s as well—about the capacities of the “fair sex” changed. The loss of an entire generation of young men only accelerated the trend. It’s not easy to stuff the genie back into the bottle, and that was as true in 1918 as it is now. Modern women owe a great deal to their intrepid great-grandmothers, of whom Bess Crawford offers such a good example.

Charles Todd and I talk about all these things and more—including the challenges of collaborating on thirty or more novels—in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction. And as usual, the rest of this post comes from there.


Writing novels—never mind entire series—takes determination, persistence, imagination, and craft. Charles Todd has added to those natural challenges the joys and complications of creating a single persona from a mother/son team. In A Cruel Deception (William Morrow, 2019), the eleventh in their beloved Bess Crawford series, the strengths of their long collaboration are on full display.

Bess, a British nurse, worked with the wounded throughout the First World War. In A Cruel Deception, the war has ended, and Bess faces the future with some trepidation. So it comes almost as a relief when her former matron requests help finding Lawrence Minton, the matron’s son, missing from the peace talks in Paris.

The search goes well, and Bess tracks Minton to a rural farmhouse, where she confronts him with his addiction to laudanum. He wants nothing to do with her efforts to cure him. Despite his refusal to heal, she soldiers on, aided by a young Frenchwoman who loves him. Bess soon realizes that the root of Minton’s troubles lies in the past, but where?

Only then does it become clear that Minton has an enemy, one who will stop at nothing to settle old scores.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Untold Stories

Literary inspiration comes from many places. As Talia Carner explains in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction,  part of the inspiration for her most recent novel, The Third Daughter, came from a collection of short stories written by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. These stories, collectively called Tevye and His Daughters or Tevye the Dairyman, were once the inspiration for the well-known Broadway musical and Hollywood film Fiddler on the Roof.

In the musical, Tevye has five daughters, three of whom seem determined to defy his plans for them. One marries a poor man despite her father’s agreement to contract her to a well-off butcher. A second talks Tevye into accepting her marriage to a Jewish revolutionary, who then ends up in Siberia as a result of his political activities against the tsarist system. A third runs off with a Russian who has won her heart after Tevye refuses to accept her wedding to a gentile.

But what happened to the other two girls? That was the question that started Talia Carner on her journey toward the novel that became The Third Daughter. As tends to happen in fiction, the story changed along the way. The second and third daughters fused into one, and the fifth daughter disappeared altogether, leaving three girls. The Ukrainian pogrom that ends Fiddler on the Roof opens The Third Daughter, as the dairyman and his wife and their one remaining daughter struggle to find a safe place despite having lost most of their household goods. Names are changed, as are details, but the essence of the original story remains—at least in the first chapter or two.

The most striking innovation is Carner’s incorporation of another of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, “The Man from Buenos Aires,” a trader of unspecified goods whose business she matches to the history of Zwi Migdal, a little-known trafficking organization that operated entirely within the law in Argentina from 1870 to 1939. In doing so, she takes a beloved production and turns it into a searing indictment of the brutality inflicted on Jews within the Russian Empire and its consequences, including for women victimized by those willing to profit from their misfortune.

So listen to the interview. Read the Q&A Talia produced for my blog last month. But most of all, read the book. I guarantee you won’t be able to put it down.

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

As revealed by the title of Talia Carner’s latest novel, The Third Daughter (William Morrow, 2019), her heroine, Batya, has two older sisters. Both ran off with men their parents could not tolerate, placing a heavy burden on Batya to compensate for her sisters’ failings by making her parents happy.

When her family is forced to flee its home in a Ukrainian village to escape a pogrom, losing most of its goods, Batya helps out by taking a job at a local tavern. 


There she meets Yitzik Moskowitz, a smooth-talking, well-respected, and obviously well-off visitor who soon convinces Batya’s father to give his third daughter’s hand in marriage. Moskowitz promises to wait two years before making Batya his wife, but he insists she travel with him now, because who knows when he will return to Ukraine?

Although only fourteen, Batya agrees to accompany her future husband on his journey. But after one night on the road, she discovers that what the “Man from Buenos Aires” wants from her has nothing to do with marriage. After a hideous journey across the Atlantic, Batya ends up in an Argentinean brothel, enslaved to the legal trafficking organization Zwi Migdal. For a while, she longs for death. But strong and resilient, she learns to adapt and even finds solace in unexpected places.

Drawing on a series of stories by Sholem Aleichem, some of which became the basis for the popular musical Fiddler on the Roof, this fifth novel by a committed social activist is not always an easy read. But it is an essential and compelling read, not least because despite being set in the late nineteenth century its story is as contemporary as yesterday’s headlines.

Image: Marc Chagall, The Fiddler (1912–13), public domain via Wikimedia Commons. This series of paintings by Chagall inspired the sets of the original Fiddler on the Roof.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Interview with Joan Schweighardt

I love talking with other authors—both for my New Books in Historical Fiction podcasts and here on the blog via the written word. But it’s a special pleasure to host a fellow Five Directions Press author.

I met Joan back in 2016, when I interviewed her about her reissued novel The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. Time went by, she needed a new publisher, and in due course she joined our writers’ coop. As an editor and former publisher, as well as a talented writer, she’s a natural fit for us. And although we didn’t know it at the time, she also has a particular gift for social media. All those lovely articles about books and readers and related matters that show up on our Facebook page come from her.

Best of all, we just published Gifts for the Dead, the second novel in her Rivers trilogy (Before We Died is the first). So read on to find out more about both books.

Gifts for the Dead is a follow-up to your previous novel, Before We Died. Without giving away spoilers, what do we need to know about that first book to understand this new one?

Gifts comes furnished with enough of the relevant info from Before We Died to make it make sense as a standalone novel. Basically readers learn that in the first book, Jack and Baxter Hopper, two young Irish American brothers, leave their jobs as longshoremen on the docks of Hoboken, NJ and travel to the rain forests of South America to become rubber tappers, in the year 1908. They embark on this trip because they are young and adventurous, but also because they are looking for a way to distract themselves from the grief they have suffered since their father’s sudden death in an apartment building fire. And since the rubber boom is in full swing at that time, they believe they can make some quick money too. They are absolutely unprepared for the realities of the rubber tapping industry, which include not only the dangers inherent in working in the deep jungle but also the greed of the barons at the top of the industry hierarchy. As a result of these dangers, Jack Hopper eventually returns to Hoboken—without his brother.

Where are Nora Sweeney and Jack Hopper at the beginning of this novel? What do each of them want, and what keeps them from getting it?

Jack returns from South America so very ill with a combination of jungle diseases and infections that all he really wants in the first pages of Gifts for the Dead is to continue along on his path into oblivion. Nora, who was to have married Baxter, wants Jack to live. Nora has known the Hopper family since childhood, and she is uncommonly close to Maggie, Baxter and Jack’s mother. Maggie has already lost her husband, and now, with Jack’s solo return, it seems she’s lost one son as well. Nora feels that losing Jack would be more than Maggie could bear.

And what about them as individuals? Let’s start with Nora, whose story is told in first person. How would you encapsulate her personality and her background?

Nora’s parents died of consumption when she was four, and she was raised by her Aunt Becky, an advocate for various political issues, particularly workers’ rights. Aunt Becky knows just enough about child rearing to glean that it’s not a good idea to leave a four-year-old alone for hours at a time. As she doesn’t have the money for a sitter, she drags Nora along with her to her various political events from the get-go. Not surprisingly, Nora grows up to be politically oriented herself. When we first meet her, she is a proud suffragette. She is also alone, because as soon as Nora is old enough to manage without a guardian, Aunt Becky flees to Boston to get on with her own life. Nora sees herself as flawed, but also fearless and somewhat invincible. The reader will see her other side as well.

And Jack? What drives him in this book—and in general? What made him the man  he is today?

Even as Jack recovers from his illness, he cannot get over the loss of his brother. And he can’t talk about it either. For one, he is harboring a secret about what actually happened to Baxter in the deep jungle, and he is not ready to share it. For their part, Nora and Maggie have come to respect—or at least tolerate—his reticence, and to imagine that if forced to open up, Jack might fall back into the same mental stupor he was in when he first came home. Jack’s guilt and regret drive the decisions he makes throughout the book. And for all of them, but for Jack in particular, Baxter is always the elephant in the room.

And what drew you to write about the Amazon (that’s the river, not the mega-store) in the early twentieth century?

Two things occurred at about the same time: One, a freelance job I had with a local publisher required me to read a slim diary written by an early twentieth-century rubber tapper, probably the only one in existence. I knew nothing about the rubber boom in South America before then, and I found the information fascinating. And two, around the same time I decided to put aside my fear of snakes and bugs and travel to the rain forests of Ecuador with a group of environmentalists and sustainability advocates. This “perfect storm” was life-changing for me. As soon as I returned from the rain forest I began reading everything I could find about the flora and fauna of Amazonas, the history of rubber in South America, the city of Manaus, Brazil, which was the hub of the rubber boom back then, and on and on. And all the while I was reading, I was imagining the characters I would need for my own retelling of the rubber boom story. When I had a first draft of book 1, I returned to South America to spend time in Manaus and to travel the rivers with a private guide to see, among other things, rubber trees.

Most of the story in Gifts for the Dead, however, takes place in Hoboken, NJ. Why there, and what kinds of research did you need to do?

While the rain forest informs all three books, I still needed a location for my main characters to hail from. I grew up in New Jersey, so I was familiar with Hoboken, and I knew it had an active shipyard and train station and ferries running into Manhattan back in the early twentieth century. It was the perfect location for characters who would do a lot of traveling. But the more I learned about Hoboken, the more I realized I had to learn. Since Gifts for the Dead unfolds between the years 1911 and 1928, it necessarily covers the First World War—among other events. Hoboken played a huge part in the war, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that doughboys from all over the country departed for Europe from Hoboken once Woodrow Wilson declared war. Hoboken at that time was home to three immigrant communities: Irish, German, and Italian. As you can imagine, German Americans took some abuse during the war for having connections to Germany. This was true in the whole country, of course, but particularly in Hoboken.

What can we expect in Rivers 3?

The third Rivers book will be called River Aria, and yes, it does concern itself with opera. How do I go from the rubber boom to WWI and its aftermath to opera? I can’t say without giving away some of the stuff that happens in Gifts for the Dead. I can say the last book follows the lives of the same characters—plus or minus one or two—and it takes place in the same two locations, with the addition of a third location, Manhattan, right across the river from Hoboken. I’m about three drafts in, with at least two more to go.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!


Thank you very much.

  




 

Joan Schweighardt is the author of five stand-alone novels and the Rivers Trilogy. In addition to her own writing projects, she writes, ghostwrites, and edits for individuals and corporations. Find out more about her at http://www.joanschweighardt.com.
 

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Friday, October 11, 2019

Writing Wayland

About a year ago, I interviewed Lee Zacharias for New Books in Historical Fiction about her novel Across the Great Lake, then recently published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

This week I received a message from a friend of Lee’s, also with a new novel. I couldn’t offer her an interview, because my schedule for the network is already overbooked, but I did invite her to submit a guest post for my blog—and here it is. You can find out more about her work and how to contact her by paging down to the end. Thank you, Rita, and I wish you all success with your books!



From Rita Sims Quillen:

First and foremost, I am a poet, having published five books of poetry, but I had always dreamed of moving to fiction. When my husband first told me the tale of his grandfather’s incredible adventures during WWI, I thought, I don’t even know what that war was about. In school, we study the Civil War—crazy but clear—and World War II with its two fronts—crazy but clear—but WWI? It seemed a very complex war, more irrational than the other two, if that makes any sense. And I couldn’t recall anything really about the time period except the big flu epidemic. I did remember that from history class.




When I decided I was going to try to write my first novel, Hiding Ezra (Little Creek Books, 2014), it would be built around the basic true story of my husband’s grandfather deciding that his family needed him a lot worse than the Army did, but I could find nothing in the library to help me understand his predicament or the times he lived in. I did read some books and articles about the war, and also specifically about the flu epidemic, but I found nothing about deserters, nothing about the reaction of real people here at home in southwestern Virginia, nothing about what challenges the first modern draft presented. So I knew I was going to have to find out what I needed to know some other way.




So I began to look for newspaper accounts of the day. I ended up spending 4 summers—when I was out of school—squirreled away in local libraries readings newspaper accounts of that time. I read the Kingsport Times News, the Bristol Herald-Courier—the Scott County, VA, paper of the day—and several other coalfield papers, starting from the summer of 1918 and going all the way through to the fall of 1922. Every day’s paper, cover to cover. On microfilm. Now you see why it took four years.




But then I was ready to write Hiding Ezra, having come to understand that my husband’s grandfather was part of a huge sociological phenomenon—175,000 men that went AWOL for similar reasons—and that incredible events besides the flu epidemic were occurring: a coal strike, a wheat shortage, the coldest winter in decades.... History came alive, as sharp and clear and real as my own life, and I had to make others see it, too, with new eyes, to understand what incredible hardship had occurred in this forgotten and often overlooked war. It is the story of thousands of families—a story that had to be told

Now, fast forward a few years, and the long-awaited sequel, Wayland  (Iris Press, 2019), is out. With this novel, I returned to the story of many of the characters I loved from the first novel, but without the restrictions of a true story to impose its own requirements and confinements! People say, what’s your new novel about? My mind whirls. The answer would be too long if I told it all. It’s about characters from my first novel, Hiding Ezra, that I love dearly and wanted to give some joy, peace, hope that they didn’t have in that novel. It’s a love story wrapped inside a marriage in trouble. Wayland is a study of sociopaths and mental illness, in general, versus eccentricity. It’s about the world of the hobos and their culture during the Great Depression in a tranquil and quaint little community in the Appalachian Mountains. It’s about the beautiful, unique, and good-hearted country people of my community, people of deep faith and deep thoughts about life’s most important questions. The book is an illustration of the way that the Bible and its language are so integral to the daily lives and daily thoughts of Appalachian people in the world I grew up in.




The subject receiving the most attention, however, and the one that took tons of research and thought was pedophiles and how they choose, then manipulate, their victims and their families in order to gain the trust necessary for the kind of access they need to fulfill their twisted fantasies. In hobo Buddy Newman, I wanted to create an unforgettable and engrossing evil character. I used Shakespeare’s conniving, diabolical Iago as inspiration for the way he pitted people against one another, whispering in vulnerable ears whatever lies that would take him closer to his target. I thought about Hannibal Lector and his cruel games, about Faulkner’s Abner Snopes and his furious resentment of those who were more successful, his psychotic violence and sense of entitlement.



But the bottom line is, I wrote a book to entertain and keep you on the edge of your seat as you watch the tale unfold— suspense! If I can do that while also giving you the ability to recognize a pedophile’s efforts at grooming your child or grandchild, well, that’s a good year’s work. If you’d like to read sample chapters and much more info about all my work, I hope you’ll stop by my website.

Rita Sims Quillen—poet, musician, songwriter, and novelist—is the author of Hiding Ezra and Wayland, as well as several poetry collections. She lives and farms in Scott County, Virginia. Find out more about her, including her social media links, at http://www.ritasimsquillen.com.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Unwedded Bliss?

I tend not to think of the 1950s as history. After all, I regularly spend many mental hours in the 1550s—or earlier—and I remember the second half of the 1950s, so how can it be the past, in the same way that Muscovite Russia is a time long gone? But as I read Sofia Grant’s new historical novel, Lies in White Dresses, I realized that indeed the world she portrays has ceased to exist, in the same way (if not perhaps to the same degree) as the court of Ivan the Terrible has ceased to be.

Most notable is the vast difference in our ideas of what must remain private, the shame associated with marriages that don’t work (and some of the reasons why at least one of those marriages doesn’t work) or with even such simple things as physical defects or mental imbalances. In a life before the Internet, never mind social media, views about sharing the details of one’s life were much stricter.

In some ways, that was a good thing. The endless scandals that bring down otherwise competent politicians and threaten the lives of princesses were less frequent then. But so were exposures of deeds that claimed real victims: spousal abuse, harassment at work. And women of talent and ability often felt compelled to follow the path of marriage and child-rearing, lest they face blame for their failure to get (or keep) a man. Even divorce carried a stigma, although by 1952 that had started to fade.

Sofia Grant and I explore these themes and more in our New Books Network interview. And don’t miss the Q&A I ran here on this blog when she published her first historical novel, The Dress in the Window. 

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


Francie Meeker and her best friend, Vi Carothers, bought into the promise offered to middle-class, especially white, women in the mid-twentieth-century United States: find a man with a good career, marry young, stay at home, raise the children, keep house, and all will be well.

By 1952, despite some successes, reality has killed this dream. So at the beginning of Lies in White Dresses (William Morrow, 2019)—the sparkling new novel by Sofia Grant, who is also the author of The Dress in the Window and The Daisy Children—Francie and Vi are boarding a train to Reno, Nevada. There, after six weeks residency, they can file for divorce.

On the train they meet a young woman, June Samples, traveling with a small child. Unlike Francie and Vi, June has almost no means of support. Vi takes a liking to the younger woman and, when they reach Reno, she invites June to share her hotel suite.

The first night, a babysitting job brings the threesome to the attention of Virgie, the hotel keeper’s daughter and a self-styled detective. Then, not long after their arrival, the local police report that Vi has drowned. Virgie is convinced she knows what happened. But who will believe a twelve-year-old girl?

Compared to medieval Europe or Han Dynasty China, the 1940s and 1950s do not seem so long ago. But as Sofia Grant makes clear in this page-turning novel, in many respects the previous century was indeed a different world.

And on another note, if you missed my previous interview with Linnea Hartsuyker about her Viking saga, you can find more information about that and a link to the interview on the Literary Hub.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Bookshelf, Fall 2019

Yes, indeed, fall is here, and a new crop of books has arrived to keep my shelves nice and full. In addition to Sofia Grant’s Lies in White Dresses (on which more next week, when that interview posts), Talia Carner’s The Third Daughter (interview completed this week, not sure yet when it will go live on the New Books Network), and Georgie Blalock’s The Other Windsor Girl, scheduled for a written Q&A here in early November, I have the following titles lined up—all eventually destined for interviews, or so I hope.

Order is alphabetical, as we’re still working out details of the schedule. So far, I’ve had time to read only one. To find out which one, read on.

Like half the rest of the world, I discovered Tracy Chevalier through The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Loved the book, even more than the movie, and squealed with glee when her publicist wrote to me about her latest novel, A Single Thread, set in Britain in 1932. Here Violet Speedwell, one of the many women left alone by the Great War, chooses to move to Winchester rather than spend any more of her life caring for her embittered mother. There Violet becomes involved with a society of embroiderers associated with the cathedral. But as she settles in, the specter of a new war threatens, placing everything she has worked for at risk.

Yes, another Uhtred novel—no. 12, I believe. But really, can one ever have too much Uhtred? In Sword of Kings, King Edward (successor to Alfred the Great) is dying. Uhtred wants nothing more than to stay and guard Northumbria, his home and now the last outpost standing against the Saxon kings’ complete control of England. Apart from anything else, he’s getting on in years, and war doesn’t have the appeal to him that it did in his teens and twenties.

But once again, the oath he has sworn to Aethelstan calls Uhtred south and into the battle among the rival candidates for Edward’s throne.



Although its title, Bound in Flame, sounds like a bodice ripper, the cover images of Kathryne Kayne’s new novel redirect us to Hawai’i in 1906-9. There a young woman, Letty Lang, struggles to reconcile her love of animals, her campaign for female suffrage, a romantic relationship that she may have to protect from her own otherworldly powers, and a special tie to her native land, recently and forcibly annexed by the United States. The flames represent, more than anything else, the island’s many volcanoes—but perhaps also the fire of Lily’s own nature. This first volume in a new series about the ranching women of early twentieth-century Hawai’i, stands out for me because so few writers have chosen to tackle this subject in fiction.
 


I heard about Lara Prescott’s debut novel, The Secrets We Kept, on NPR Weekend Edition, during the author’s interview with Scott Simon, one of my heroes. When I saw it listed again on a list of most awaited fiction for the fall of 2019, I knew I had to follow up. Doctor Zhivago, the CIA in the United States and Russia, female typists working for the CIA? How could a historian of Russia resist? I’ll be talking to the author, I hope, sometime in December and January, after her hectic book tour calms down.

 



In January of this year, I featured The Black Ascot, by the ultra-productive mother-son team that publishes as Charles Todd, on this blog. I loved that book and was amazed to realize that it was no. 21 in a series I’d never heard of, never mind that the author(s) also had a second series centered on a World War I nurse named Bess Crawford, with ten books, and a couple of stand-alone novels as well. So when their publicist pitched me on Bess no. 11, A Cruel Deception, I knew I had to follow up. This is the one book I just finished, in advance of an interview in mid-October, and I really enjoyed it.

Here the war has ended, and Bess’s matron sends her to France to find out what has happened to the matron’s son. Bess assumes the worst, and she’s not far off track there, but the solution to the puzzle takes her in directions that are at once not anticipated at the beginning and completely in line with what we now know about the experience of soldiers stuck in the trenches for far too long. 


Bess is smart and independent, empathic and caring, blunt when it counts and tactful when she needs to be—a heroine I want to learn more about, as soon as I shrink those book piles down to a reasonable size....

Image: Cat watching sunset from Pixabay (no attribution required).