Thursday, September 12, 2019

Fictional Furry Friends


This week I’d intended to write a post about Gill Paul’s new novel, The Lost Daughter—which, although not exactly a sequel to the same author’s The Secret Wife, addresses a similar theme. But the plan is to coordinate my post with Jennifer Eremeeva’s interview with the author, and that’s not yet live on the New Books Network. So check back next week for a look at Romanov grand duchesses and their (maybe) fates.

As I was racking my brains for an alternative topic, serendipity intervened in the form of an unexpected but highly entertaining conversation about dogs and their potential place in my current work in progress, Song of the Sisters (Songs of Steppe & Forest 3). I didn’t initially plan for the inclusion of a dog, but the more I think of it, the more I love the idea. Here’s a brief background as to why.


After months of holding off on sharing my opening of Sisters with my writers’ group, I decided this month that I’d done as much as I could without input. The value of giving half-baked chapters to trusted writer friends is that they hold up a mirror, revealing where I’ve supplied too much information and where not enough, the places where the energy flows and where it stalls. Especially because I have spent so long roaming the wild forest that is Muscovite history, I have a tendency to demand too much background knowledge from my readers. I need people who can say “huh?” without worrying that by doing so they will hurt my feelings.

I haven’t received specific responses yet, but I did get enough feedback that I can see (or imagine, since this particular comment has not been made) a story problem that I have yet to solve. Songs 3, unlike its predecessors, is intended as a kind of Muscovite comedy of manners à la Georgette Heyer. There are a few political hijinks—I’d bore myself to tears otherwise—but mostly it’s a contest among cousins for control of a household and their own futures. I’ve worked on the female leads, and at least one important character received a thorough treatment (and makeover, in response to criticism from that same writers’ group) in Song of the Shaman. But Igor, the antagonist, is new—and, as I’m coming to realize, undeveloped. Cue the dog.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that Igor’s going to need more than a dog to make him a believable human being, even as an antagonist. But a writer can do so much with a dog. It expresses the hidden feelings of everyone present, reveals likes and dislikes, separates the sensitive souls from the distinctly insensitive ones. And unlike cats, which lived on the sidelines of medieval life thanks to the bizarre association that the Christian Church made between them and the Devil, dogs played an important role in Muscovite Russia just as they did throughout Europe and many other places in the world.

Most of them were working dogs, of course: scent hounds and sight hounds, guard dogs and coursers. The fancy breeds we think of today didn’t exist then, but dogs are dogs and people are people, and there’s nothing like a dog to open up a character who, for one reason or another, hides any hint of uncertainty behind an over-confident mask.


So meet Laika, a Polish hunting dog of a type attested from the thirteenth century. She looks like what would happen if you crossed a Doberman with a Labrador retriever, and if anyone can reach Igor’s stubborn heart, she can. 

Although you never know, she just might take a shine to my heroine Darya instead. After all, who has the good treats?

Images: Polish Hunting Dog CC BY 2.5, A. Balcerzak and Lukas3, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Interview with Talia Carner

One of the delights of hosting New Books in Historical Fiction is learning about places, times, and events that I know nothing about. That was true for the story behind The Third Daughter, Talia Carner’s wonderful new novel—released just this past Tuesday. And tragic as that story is for her heroine, the novel is absolutely compelling. So when you finish reading her answers, rush—don’t dawdle—to secure your copy. (Just to clarify, I could not interview Talia for the podcast because of too many other commitments, so we agreed to this Q&A instead.)

The Third Daughter is your fifth novel, and it’s quite distinct from the four that came before, which themselves cover a wide range of time periods, places, and subjects. How do you select topics for your novels?
Stories find me. I don’t seek them out. Each time I am far along through a novel and think that maybe it’s my last one, the next one presents itself. Each takes hold of my head and heart and compels me to sit down to what turns out to be three to six years’ work. I’ve long realized that the seeds of every story had sprouted in my psyche years earlier, where they fermented…. All it takes is a passing comment, a line in a newspaper, or a visual cue, and the idea blooms, takes hold on me and doesn’t let go until I crawl under the skin of a new protagonist and tell her story.

And while indeed my novels seem to be painted on large canvases that cover a wide range of time periods and countries, the common denominator is that each deals with a universal social issue, mostly unique to women. In each of my novels I rise and fall with the protagonist’s spirit as she struggles—and prevails against—the forces that shape her life, be they psychological, political, social, geographical, legal, economic, or religious.

What has fascinated others—and I hadn’t noticed until it was pointed out to me—is that each subject has been one rarely, if ever, explored before in fiction. It was an interesting revelation to me, and I learned something about myself: While I strictly avoid personal disagreements on any topic, I have more courage than I had thought I possessed when it comes to writing. I’ve taken on the US legal system, the Chinese government, God, the Russian mafia—and now, the huge scourge of our society in the form of sex trafficking.

You’ve written that a short story by Sholem Aleichem first made you aware of Zwi Migdal, the legal trafficking organization that forms the center of The Third Daughter. What caught your attention when you read his tale, and how did you go about turning the idea into a book?

I’ve mentioned above that the seeds of a novel begin to bloom years or even decades before I write it. Since childhood I had a strong sense of right and wrong, and when I encountered social injustice it evoked strong emotions in me.… I first became aware of the magnitude of global and historical sexual exploitation at the 1995 International Women’s Conference in Beijing. A tiny, aging Filipina with an operatic voice cried to the heavens about her enslavement by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII, as one of thousands of girls and women captured in the Pacific Rim. Then a teenager, she had been imprisoned in a “comfort station” to serve the soldiers’ sexual needs.

The plight of kidnapped women forced into sexual slavery touched me deeply, and in my head it was narrated by the Filipina’s haunting voice. In subsequent years I read about sex trafficking and attended presentations by UN-affiliated NGOs in New York City, where I live.

A snippet of the history of girl victims lured from beleaguered Eastern European Jewish communities to South America had come to my attention through Hebrew literature, and I even tried to inquire about it on a visit to Buenos Aires in 2007. I got no traction, and let it go. However, my interest was reawakened in 2015 when I stumbled upon the short story by Sholem Aleichem, “The Man from Buenos Aires” (now in my own translation on my website). In the story, the author reports about his encounter on the train with a shady, sleek character who brags about his entrepreneurial success but never reveals the nature of his business. I suspected what the venture that brought this fellow his riches might be: sex trafficking. I Googled the subject, and that is when I first encountered the name Zwi Migdal. I was appalled to find out that it had been a legal trafficking union and that it had operated with impunity for seventy years. It was shocking to realize how much information about it was hiding in plain sight. Most appalling to me was that the estimated 150,000 to 220,000 Jewish women who had been exploited by members of this organization had been forgotten, lost in the goo of history.

Tell us about Batya, your heroine. What kind of person is she when the book opens, and how do things go so terribly wrong for her?

Since Sholem Aleichem’s short story about the man from Buenos Aires appeared in the same “Railroad Stories” collection as those of Tevye the Dairyman, it was a natural creative process to continue the stories Tevye didn’t tell. In the collection, he first said to the author that he had seven daughters, then six, and ended up telling the stories of five. I pictured a daughter whose story wasn’t told. Batya has an inner strength that, at fourteen, she’s yet unaware of. She’s sensitive and has a clear sense of what’s expected of her, yet has no vision of a future different from her mother’s life. Growing up in a warm home where her parents, in spite of the hardships and strife they suffered, showed caring and were protective, she had liked to play and laugh. What shapes Batya, though, when we meet her, is the disappointment that her two older sisters caused their parents, when each rejected the tradition of letting her father select her match, and instead fell in love with a man of her own choosing. The two sisters’ actions threw the devoted Batya into a specific orbit: she must make up for their betrayals by being even more obedient to her parents.    

Their emotional well-being is severely challenged when the family is exiled during a pogrom, losing their footing along with their meager belongings. Batya finds herself in a position to be the one who helps them secure food and shelter by working in a tavern. And then a greater chance to bring them happiness presents itself, if Batya accepts the marriage proposal of a wealthy stranger.

Things go terribly wrong because the millions of Jews living and persecuted in the Pale of Settlement within the Russian Empire found mates for their children through word-of-mouth, loose connections, and distant introductions. The bride and groom often met for the first time under the chuppah, the wedding canopy. In Batya’s case, the parents had a chance to meet the potential “groom” in person and be extremely impressed. Unfortunately, Batya’s unsophisticated, trusting father, like most Jews at the time, falls victim to a trafficker’s sleek double-talk. Even Batya’s no-nonsense mother is seduced by the stranger’s gifts and promises. In Batya’s love for her parents, she lets their excitement push aside the natural trepidations any fourteen-year-old would ordinarily feel.

Yitzik Moskowitz is only one representative of Zwi Migdal, but since he is the one who draws Batya into the trafficking scheme, what can you tell us about him? How does he live with himself?

Yitzik Moskowitz views himself as a successful entrepreneur who spots a need in the market and is smart enough to know how to fill it. He is proud of his ability to find and sort the right “merchandise” and of the many skills that let him demonstrate his ability to do his job well. According to him, pimping is “a profession that demands the whole of you—your character, your perseverance, and your expertise in many areas, from finance to personal hygiene.” For him, running his operation means being “a skilled manager and a comforter of hysterical females.” He does not concern himself with why the females are “hysterical,” because he justifies his actions by the fact that, in the end, he’s taken the girls and women out of the starvation of Eastern Europe and its bloody anti-Semitism and given them a better life.

Interestingly, many “family men” like Moskowitz sent their sons to boarding schools in Europe, where the youngsters acquired a good secular education, made contacts with sons of elite families, cleansed themselves from their families’ foreign accents, and returned to live in South America as upstanding citizens working in noncontroversial businesses.

How did you track down Zwi Migdal’s history, as well as the broader story of legal prostitution in Argentina and its effect on sex trafficking from Eastern Europe between 1870 and 1939? And having done the research, how did you pare it down to keep it from taking over the book?

Once I knew the name of the organization, I found a tremendous amount of information available in translated documents, nonfiction books, and academic publications. Armed also with photos from that time and place, my imagination took a short leap to paint the pictures that brought the material to life: I could hear the sounds, smell the smells, feel the weather on my skin, and view entire scenes. Most importantly, once I sat in front of my computer, the emotions related to Batya’s difficult situation flowed directly into the keyboard, seemingly without first sifting through my brain.

Over the previous years, I had been to Buenos Aires three times, but I don’t know Spanish. I hired two freelance researchers in Argentina, and since the story had taken place in the late 1800s, I had them identify for me specific buildings in photos. For even finer texture, I presented both researchers—a man and a woman—with the same questions about clothes, food, and architecture and was able to extrapolate more nuanced details when crossing their answers. If Batya walked from point A to point B, I had my researchers verify the names of the streets 120 years earlier.

For historical accuracy, I consulted the director of Jewish archives in Buenos Aires, who, thankfully, knew English. She also read the final manuscript.

Once the protagonist, Batya, started dancing tango, what choice did I have but to learn it myself? I needed to write with authenticity about tango—and the complex passions associated with this form of dance. For almost a year I took private tango lessons and occasionally spent an evening at a milonga in a close embrace with total strangers (also my reason to quit tango once my research was done).

The challenge of paring down a mountain of information presented itself in every scene and every chapter. I stayed inside Batya’s head and reported only what she saw, experienced, or knew. I never stepped out from backstage to whisper to the reader in my authorial voice…. I thought I had done a good job of trimming the material until my editor, with her magic wand—or ruthless pen—chopped out more paragraphs and even a few scenes, resulting in a manuscript that—I had to admit—sparkled.

After considering suicide early on, of necessity Batya finds a way to cope with the terrible situation in which Zwi Migdal places her. What keeps her going?

Batya’s love for her family and her promise to take them out of the hell of Russia is her motivation to make the sacrifice and keep on living in her own private hell. Little by little, we also watch as her faith in God returns. Not fully—she’s forever perplexed about His plans and intentions—but she always assumes His presence. The realization of her hope can only be accomplished if He wishes it so, and as events turn and seemingly progress in her favor, she begins again to view His benevolence.

What will your next project be?

All I can say is that a road sign I glimpsed in France three years ago has brought me back there four times already to research a historical event. Like my previous novels, this event has not yet been explored in fiction. Now I must wait a year or two for a large window of time to open in my busy book tour, book groups’ chats, and interviews schedule to actually write this novel.

Talia, thank you so much for your rich and full answers to my questions. I wish you all success with The Third Daughter, your previous books, and that French novel to come!

 


Talia Carner, the former publisher of Savvy Woman magazine, was a lecturer at international women’s economic forums. An award-winning author of five novels and numerous stories, essays, and articles, she is also a committed supporter of global human rights. Carner has spearheaded groundbreaking projects centered on female plights and women’s activism. 

Find out more about her at http://www.taliacarner.com, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


Photograph of Talia Carner © Robbie Michaels. Reproduced with permission from William Morrow Books.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Aging Heroes


One of the interesting problems some authors tackle is that of aging—or maturation, although the two concepts are not inextricably linked and certainly not the same thing. Even in my Legends of the Five Directions novels, I had to consider how marriage or motherhood or the experience of war would change my characters.

But those novels covered five years. Linnea Hartsuyker’s Golden Wolf trilogy, set in Viking Norway, ranges over twenty. In the ninth century, a man could go from youth to old age in that time.

It’s not true, as is often believed, that the human life span was shorter then. Many more children died before the age of five, and those who did not had to survive disease and childbirth or warfare, depending on gender. That pulled the averages down. Nevertheless, a person could live to be eighty even in the premodern world, although given the standards of medical care he or she needed excellent genes and a large dose of luck.

This is one of several topics that Linnea and I discuss in my latest interview on New Books in Historical Fiction. So give it a listen and find out how she handled the emotional and physical changes that beset her aging heroes, fourteen years after the end of her second book, The Sea Queen, and twenty after The Half-Drowned King.

And if you purchase the paperback edition of The Sea Queen (and the future paperback edition of The Golden Wolf—not the UK edition currently listed on Amazon), you’ll find at the back a written Q&A conducted by yours truly. The one on The Sea Queen ran originally on this blog last year. But The Golden Wolf interview will be brand-new, so do look for it when the paperback comes out.

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


When I spoke with Linnea Hartsuyker back in 2017, her epic saga was just beginning. The first novel opens with her hero, Ragnvald, seeing a vision of a golden wolf who will unite the feuding kingdoms of Norway under one rule. The vision sets the course of Ragnvald’s life, bringing him into the service of Harald Fair-Hair, a young and confident warrior whose counselor and friend Ragnvald becomes. Meanwhile, Ragnvald’s sister, Svanhild, sets off on a different course, one that offers her a life of adventure not often available to women but pits her against her beloved brother.

Twenty years later, Harald has come close to achieving his goal. One more wedding stands between him and a unified Norway. Svanhild and Ragnvald have returned to fighting on the same side, but two decades of wounds and battles, as well as old patterns, are catching up with the older generation. And the three of them have produced a large and varied group of children, most of them sons at or near adulthood, ready to challenge their parents’ ways and dreams. As fathers struggle with sons, mothers with daughters, brothers and cousins among themselves, and husbands with wives and concubines, Ragnvald stubbornly clings to the force of his vision and his dedication to the principles that have guided his life.

Like its predecessors, The Half-Drowned King and The Sea Queen, The Golden Wolf  seamlessly blends Old Norse folklore with creative imagination to paint a picture of ninth-century Norway from the inside. Linnea Hartsuyker assembles a cast of characters that, however different they and their world may appear to a modern readership, tackles problems we all can recognize.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Red Pearl

Once in a while, life gets in the way of my writing, and that’s been the case for the last month or more. Too many work projects with tight deadlines, a couple of new Five Directions Press titles in the works, four New Books Network interviews over the course of five weeks—I’ve barely had time to keep up this blog, never mind work on the outline for my joint project with P. K. Adams or Songs of Steppe & Forest 2 and 3. 

All good stuff, of course, but time consuming. So it was a happy accident to receive an e-mail from Chloe Helton, eager to talk about her new historical novel, The Red Pearl. So without more ado, let me turn over the virtual mike to her, and she’ll provide a quick introduction and excerpt.

* * *


Thank you, Carolyn, for allowing me to share The Red Pearl with your readers!

If you’re hoping to finish off your summer with a crackling, suspenseful read, take a peek at an excerpt of The Red Pearl. You’ll find a marriage on the rocks, a little bit of lost love, the trials of wartime, and the main event—espionage.

During the American Revolution, a meek innkeeper’s wife, Lucy Finch, becomes privy to some explosive secrets. Read more below! And if you want the rest of the book, you can visit my website or find it on Amazon


 






Boston, 1778

For a moment, when I woke up, I was back at home. My mother had started to boil water for the porridge, and the faint smell of cinnamon shimmered near my nose. My father’s heavy boots sounded on the steps, and he hummed as he went down. My father was always humming, just as my mother was always praying. Between the two of them, his song and her prayer, there was never silence in the house.

But I wasn’t at my father’s home anymore, and it was silent now. I hadn’t lived with my parents in almost six years. When I married Jasper, I’d vowed never to speak to my father again, and although I had eventually broken that promise, I still kept my distance. When Ma got sick in ’77, the bitterest winter I’d ever lived through, I stayed there awhile to help her. Not much since then.

No, I was not at home. Jasper’s arms were around me, his body the only warmth in our bed now that we were nearing winter, his face nuzzled in my hair. In the beginning, I told myself it was only for warmth that I let him wrap around me like a parasite, but now we did it every night, even during the summer. I’d begun to accept it, just like I now tolerated the rough taste of stone fence, a drink of hard cider and rum, now that I was a tavern-keeper’s wife.

When I started to move, Jasper mumbled something. He wasn’t much of an early riser, but the sun was splashing through the windows now and we couldn’t let the guests wake before us. It had become my responsibility to make sure of that. “Up,” I urged, nudging his shoulder. “Imagine if Robby gets in the kitchen before we do.”

Now he blinked. Robby, our hired boy, was an honest worker, but he was useless without direct and clear orders. If he tried fiddling with the pots and pans without my direction, they’d all be broken before we even made it downstairs. “Didn’t we just fall asleep?” he groaned.

“Oh, enough. You’re terrible in the morning.”

“Come back down,” he said, wrapping an arm around my waist to pull me. “Lay next to me just a minute longer.”

I couldn’t have resisted, really, even if I wanted to. He was too strong. I brushed a hand through his clipped black hair. There had been days when I yearned for another kind of man, shaggy blonde hair and sharp blue eyes, but although he crossed my mind every day, almost, he was now little more than a ghost swirling in the morning fog. I was here with Jasper, who was dark and quiet and excruciatingly clean-shaven. There was drink to brew and mouths to feed here and I wasn’t a girl anymore.

“Jasper,” I said. I hadn’t been planning to mention this, but he was the one who pulled me back down to bed. “Are you planning to let those Tory meetings go on long?”

“What d’you mean?” he mumbled, his eyes barely open. “If they pay for it, they can have their meetings. And you shouldn’t call them that.”

It had been a long while since the word “Tory” was something to gape at. A group of half-a-dozen men had been holding clandestine late-night meetings in our pub for the past few weeks, and you couldn’t tell by looking at them but the various chatter that caught my ears as I poured their drinks made things clear. Nobody who supported the revolution called the Continental army “rebels” and “hooligans”. It was unclear what they met about, but their leanings were no mystery, at least not to me.

“They might scare the others away, is all I mean. You know how our city is; think what would become of us if our neighbors discovered loyalists under our roof.” In Boston, of all places, it was no good to play both sides.

He rubbed his eyes, apparently realizing that he actually had to participate in this conversation. “We don’t know that for certain. All that matters is that they’re fine customers. Pay on time, leave coins on the bar for us when they leave, and they don’t shout and fight like the patriots do. It wouldn’t be so bad if we scared off a few radicals, now would it?”

He’d never listen. Jasper Finch refused to take a side in the war, and yet it was impossible not to. We had married while the harbor was closed after the Tea Party, and I’d watched him buy smuggled rum and sugar, because if the Crown had its way we would all have dry throats and empty bellies: fair retribution, in their eyes, for our act of rebellion. So the rum had to be snuck in bales of hay, among other methods, and Jasper struggled for months with the books in order to keep bringing those goods in. And yet, he claimed to be neutral, as if such a thing were possible in Boston, where the spark of revolution had first been lit, and where it still echoed through the streets even after every last redcoat had scampered away in terror behind General Howe.

To house Tories in our inn, even if he was doing naught more than accept their business, wouldn’t do him well. There was no city that hated the British more than ours. “I suppose not,” I lied. “I know it’s best to be neutral.”

“Neutral,” he repeated, satisfied. “That will get us through this.”

I remembered my father saying much the same. Jasper knows not to pick sides, he’d told me, unlike that boy of yours. And that was why I was in this soft bed in a tavern called The Red Pearl rather than with Sam on the battlefield, wiping sweat from my forehead as I threw pitchers of water on the cannons. My father had not wanted that life for me, so I was here.

“Well, I suppose it is time,” Jasper said finally, grunting as he pulled himself out of bed. “Sometimes I wish I could sleep all day.”

Funny, because in this place, where the dusty wooden walls closed us off from the war that raged outside, it seemed we were asleep all day. “Someday, when we’re very old and we have a son and a sweet daughter-in-law to take care of us, we’ll do just that. Sleep from dawn till dusk.”

“With you, I would,” he smiled.

My heart skittered, and he pecked me on the cheek. “I hope Robby hasn’t tried to make porridge already.”
 

“God’s bones,” Jasper cursed. “It would taste like pig slosh.”

With that, we hurried downstairs.

Hungry for the next chapter? Click here to get a new chapter in your inbox every week, or find it on Amazon


 Thank you, Chloe. I wish you all success with your novel!

Friday, August 16, 2019

Interview with P. K. Adams

As much as I love historical fiction—especially historical fiction set in Russia and Eastern Europe (assuming the authors know what they’re talking about, that is)—I also love mystery stories. Not the hard-boiled, high-body-count variety but the so-called cozy mystery exemplified by Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and Dorothy Sayers, on whose books I cut my literary eyeteeth back in the day. So it’s no secret that discovering P. K. Adams, a writer who grew up in Poland and writes historical mysteries set in her home country during its Renaissance Golden Age, has been a source of delight for me.

Silent Water, the first of her Jagiellonian mysteries appeared just ten days ago, and P. K. was gracious enough to answer my questions despite all the work surrounding the launch. Do read all the way to the end, where you can find out more about her and her books.
 

Your first two novels were a fictionalized story of the twelfth-century abbess, physician, composer, and theologian Hildegard of Bingen. What made you decide to shift gears and write a series of mystery novels set in sixteenth-century Poland-Lithuania?


As a reader, historical mysteries have long been my guilty pleasure, and I knew that one day I would want to try my hand at writing one. After The Greenest Branch duology, I felt the time had come to try a different subgenre. The choice of Poland as the setting was personal, as that is where I grew up. My first serious study of history was therefore not of the Tudors or the Borgias but of a dynasty that, although powerful in its time, is little known outside Eastern Europe. The Jagiellons (pronounced Yah-ghye-lohns) ruled the union of Poland and Lithuania (as well as, at various times, Hungary, Bohemia, and several minor principalities and territories) for more than two hundred years.

The sixteenth century is a very popular era in historical fiction, but too many novels focus on Western Europe. With Silent Water, I hope to introduce readers to that often-overlooked part of the continent and show that it also had a robust Renaissance culture and cutthroat politics, as well as ethnic and linguistic diversity. As such, it was no different from—and perhaps even more complex than—the lands of the Tudors, the Borgias, and the Valois about whom we love to read so much.

The backdrop to this first novel is the early years of the marriage of King Zygmunt I and Bona Sforza of Milan. What can you tell us, briefly, about them and their court? What makes it a good setting for your mystery?


What is interesting about the first half of the sixteenth century in Poland is that one of its most powerful and consequential monarchs was not actually Polish. Bona Sforza, who married Zygmunt I in 1518, was an Italian noblewoman who arrived in Cracow as a young royal bride, bringing with her a new cuisine, fashions, and customs.

During that time, women’s role in countries like Poland and Lithuania was very limited outside the home. Even if they were nobles or royals, their duties centered on bearing children, playing the hostess at feasts, and supervising the domestic staff. They were not expected to remain at the table after a certain hour or speak to men to whom they were not related. But Bona would have none of it: she talked and laughed at the table, hunted with the best of them, and was deeply interested and active in politics. Some courtiers enjoyed it, but many were scandalized.

The arrival of Bona marked a moment of significant transition at the Polish court and in society. The cultural clashes and misunderstandings that ensued offer opportunities to craft scenes and even entire storylines that would sound implausible or far-fetched in a place that did not have that multinational and multilingual diversity. With the murder victims being of different ages and lifestyles but also nationalities, our sleuth has her work cut out for her to figure out what they have in common!

Your heroine, Contessa Caterina de Sanseverino, is an Italian visiting Kraków for the first time. What makes her the ideal spokesperson for your story? What kind of person is she, and what does she want out of life?


Caterina is a young widow of noble birth but living in diminished circumstances. Nonetheless, she secures a prominent position as the Lady of the Queen’s Chamber, even though without the backing of a powerful family, she feels that her situation is precarious and that she must prove herself to Queen Bona. That is why she becomes involved in the murder investigation in which the queen herself has an interest. But the discovery of the perpetrator marks both a success and a failure for Caterina, and it makes her question her suitability for her role within the queen’s household. She must decide whether to stay where she is and enjoy the security, however unfulfilling, or leave and build a more satisfying life. In that sense, the story has a universal resonance because who among us has not experienced that feeling at least once in our working (or perhaps also personal) lives?


As an Italian newly arrived in Poland—a land of cold winters, conservative customs, and a tricky language—Caterina is the kind of narrator who can offer a fresh and objective perspective, which I think greatly benefits the story.

Early on, Caterina makes the acquaintance of Sebastian Konarski. What makes him stand out for her from the other courtiers? What about her appeals to him?


Sebastian Konarski is a secretary in the king’s household. What first appeals to Caterina is his integrity and lack of vanity—rare traits at a royal court. He is not a drinker or a carouser like many other young courtiers, and he treats women with respect. I think Konarski senses a certain vulnerability in Caterina, well hidden under a layer of confidence that she tries to project. As their acquaintance deepens, he realizes the depth of her intelligence, resourcefulness, and empathy. They are kindred souls in that they are both principled outliers in a place that is full of superficiality, greed, and opportunism. That is what draws them to each other and what makes them trust each other, trustworthiness being another trait that was always in short supply at royal courts.

Trouble starts eighteen months or so after Caterina’s arrival in Poland, at the Christmas feast, when one of the male courtiers is found stabbed to death. Without giving away spoilers, what can you tell us about him?


Kasper Zamborski is a middling courtier who belongs to the bibones et comedones semi-secret society (its existence at King Zygmunt’s court is a historical fact), whose members pursue a lifestyle centered around eating, drinking, and sexual conquests. In the words of another character in the story, he was known to “seduce maids and matrons alike, a great many of them, they say.” That immediately gives rise to speculations that he may have been killed by a jealous fiancé or a cuckolded husband. But things become more complicated when it is revealed that Zamborski was engaged to be married to a daughter of Crown Grand Chancellor Aleksander Stempowski, who disliked the match. Stempowski also happens to be an enemy of Queen Bona, who becomes convinced that the chancellor helped the young man into the afterlife, and she is determined to prove it.

Theories multiply quickly, but then another courtier is found dead close to the queen’s personal apartments . . .

You’re already starting on the sequel, from what I understand. Any hints on what to expect?


The sequel will feature Caterina, some years later, being called to help Queen Bona with a delicate mission in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Bona’s son and heir to the throne serves as grand duke. He has fallen in love with a beautiful woman of poor reputation and is said to be planning to marry her. But the marriage would be a disaster from the dynastic point of view, and it would bring no useful military alliances to help Poland-Lithuania stave off threats that lurk around its borders. It must be stopped at all costs, but before Caterina can even set a plan in motion, members of the court start dying in mysterious circumstances.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!


P. K. Adams is the pen name of Patrycja Podrazik. She has a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a master’s degree in European Studies from Yale University. She blogs and reviews historical fiction at http://www.pkadams-author.com. Her debut novel, The Greenest Branch: A Novel of Germany’s First Female Physician, was a semifinalist for the 2018 Chaucer Book Awards for Pre-1750 Historical Fiction. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and lives in New England. Silent Water, the first of her Jagiellonian Dynasty mysteries, was published on August 6, 2019. 

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Listen to an interview about The Greenest Branch on New Books in Historical Fiction.

Drawing of Bona Sforza by Jan Matejko (1861) public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Staying Sane in a Crazy World

As a writer and scholar interested in cultural and social history, I am constantly struck by how much presumptions about what women can do have changed—and how much they haven’t, despite two waves of feminism, a suffrage movement, and a large and ongoing influx of women into colleges and boardrooms.

This paradox is nowhere more evident than in Kate Braithwaite’s new novel, The Girl Puzzle—the subject of my latest interview on the New Books Network. The heroine—real-life journalist Nellie Bly—fights for everything that comes her way, arguing against the position that women can’t be reporters because they are too weak, too emotional, too dependent, too … (fill in the blank).

To prove her point, Nellie throws herself into a dangerous assignment, only to discover that she may not have the support she needs to get out the other side. And while there, she learns that the women confined with her may suffer from nothing worse than an inability to speak English or their ability to annoy their male relatives. But when Nellie does at last obtain her release, her blistering exposé sparks permanent changes in New York’s insane asylums.

As Braithwaite notes during the interview, twenty years after Bly’s stint as a mental patient, she wondered whether the United States would ever have a woman president. More than a century later, here we are, still wondering. Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?


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


Nellie Bly is in some respects a household name, yet the passage of time has erased many of her accomplishments from popular memory. One of the first well-known female journalists, she wrote for Joseph Pulitzer’s acclaimed paper The World, traveled around the world in less than eighty days, married a millionaire, and pursued a celebrated career at a time when the idea of women with professions was still new.

But her first journalistic assignment—the one that landed her a job with The World when she was still Elizabeth Cochrane, a twenty-something from Pittsburgh trying to make her living in the big city—was quite different. As Kate Braithwaite details in The Girl Puzzle  (Crooked Cat Books, 2019), at Pulitzer’s suggestion, Elizabeth had herself declared insane and sent off to Blackwell’s Island, the location of one of New York’s most notorious lunatic asylums, with the intention of reporting on life from the inside.

Braithwaite’s dramatic and compelling novel opens with the middle-aged Nellie Bly revealing her story to a young typist. We see Elizabeth bursting into Pulitzer’s office, demanding a job and receiving her assignment to infiltrate Blackwell’s Island. There, shut in with no guarantee of release, she uncovers conditions at times medieval, at times punitive, at times simply alarming. Her own forthright character and instinct to confront injustice act against her, confirming the nurses’ and doctors’ views that she is not mentally stable. One of the doctors demonstrates a certain kindness toward the afflicted, but most of his colleagues can’t manage even that.

Some of Elizabeth’s fellow patients are—or become—unbalanced, but others have been sent to the asylum because they are poor, foreign, short-tempered, demanding, or simply inconvenient for their families or for society. As days turn to weeks, and no one arrives from The World, Elizabeth has to face the possibility that she may never leave the asylum.

Of course, we know she does. But it’s to the credit of this well-written, meticulously researched, and beautifully realized novel that we still remain on the edge of our seats, desperate to learn what will happen next.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Bookshelf, August 2019


How did it get to be early August already? Feels like I blinked and Midsummer turned into late summer without my even noticing. It’s not as if I’ve done nothing with the time: I finished all but one of the books on this list, as well as Kate Braithwaite’s The Girl Puzzle, Lauren Willig’s The Summer Country, Gill Paul’s The Secret Wife and The Lost Daughter, and all the other books on my April bookshelf.

In addition, I worked with Gabrielle Mathieu on her forthcoming Girl of Fire and typeset Joan Schweighardt’s second Rivers novel, Gifts for the Dead. Both of those are due out from Five Directions Press this fall. I also wrote up an incomplete outline and did some preliminary research for the joint project I’ll be writing later this year or sometime in 2020 with P. K. Adams. 


Alas, then I landed in editing jail, a durance vile I expect to emerge from the week before Labor Day—in time for my planned writing vacation, I hope. That planned vacation may also be the next time I can return to Song of the Sisters, which is just 5,000 words short of half a first draft.

So, what’s left on the bookshelf? More or less in order of appearance, since most of these are  advance review copies, I have these five, as well as a couple of others that I won’t mention until I’m sure I’ll have time to read them.


G. P. Gottlieb hosts New Books in Literature, another podcast channel in the New Books Network. A baker and musician, she has put her cooking skills to work in her debut novel, the first in a cozy murder mystery series about a café owner and her favorite detective. In Battered, due Aug. 6, the heroine, Alene Baron, has her hands full running a business, supporting her three kids and elderly father, and dodging her obnoxious ex-husband. But when one of her neighbors winds up dead, Alene gets drawn into the investigation—in part because she knows everyone involved, but in part to protect her own family. 

Check the NBL link above around the time of the release to hear us chatting about the characters, the setting, and G. P.’s own path to becoming a writer. And don’t miss the recipes at the end of the book, all taste-tested by the author and her friends.

Silent Water, due Aug. 6, kicks off another new murder mystery series, set in Renaissance Poland. It’s Christmas Eve 1519, and King Sigismund I the Old and his Italian wife, Bona Sforza, are celebrating in style when a prominent courtier is found stabbed in an out-of-the-way passage. Caterina, another Italian noblewoman in charge of Queen Bona’s ladies-in-waiting, becomes caught up in the investigation as the queen’s eyes and ears. In addition to the “whodunnit” aspect, this book stands out for its beautifully described and unusual historical setting and its portrayal of the cultural conflict that followed King Sigismund’s political marriage. This is the novel that led to the collaboration between myself and its author, P. K. Adams. I’ll be running a blog Q&A with her soon. 

Linnea Hartsuyker’s The Golden Wolf, due Aug. 13, builds on 2017’s The Half-Drowned King and 2018’s The Sea Queen to complete the story of Ragnvald, his sister Svanhild, and their chosen king, Harald the Fair-Haired, who is determined to unify Norway under his crown. 

In this third installment, the principals have all attained middle age (in ninth-century terms) and have grown or near-grown children set on creating their own destinies whatever their parents have planned for them. In particular, Harald—with at least eight wives—has produced more than twenty sons, a few of whom believe they, not he, should be the ones taking the reins of power. 

A gritty and uncompromising tale that shines a light on the often brutal values of an ancient past yet manages to keep its characters both sympathetic and complicated. Check back in mid-August for the link to my interview with the author. 



When Karen Brooks released The Locksmith’s Daughter last year, I was all set to interview her for the New Books Network until we realized that the time difference between my home on the East Coast and hers in Tasmania was guaranteed to make life difficult for one of us. So instead we settled on a blog Q&A. At the end of that interview, she mentioned The Chocolate Maker’s Wife, due Aug. 20, then in its final edit, and I was happy to see it arrive on my doorstep almost a year later. (Who doesn’t love the idea of a chocolate maker?)

When Sir Everard Blithman offers to marry Rosamund Tomkins, she jumps at the chance to escape her abusive stepfather, distant mother, and obnoxious cousins. At first, life in Sir Everard’s house exceeds her expectations, and she becomes fascinated with his project of establishing a chocolate house in London, one of the city’s first. But only as she dives into mastering the complex spicing and preparation of this imported product does Rosamund realize that Sir Everard has a hidden agenda, and he sees her as just a pawn in his scheme for revenge.


Of the five books mentioned here, Duchess by Design (2018) is the only one already in print—and, oddly, the only one I’ve yet to read. The first book in Maya Rodale’s Gilded Age Girls Club series, it precedes Some Like It Scandalous, the subject of my “Summer Romance” post a couple of weeks ago. Here the heroine is Adeline Black, set on becoming an haut couture dressmaker despite the attentions of the handsome duke of Kingston. He persuades her to accompany him to society parties and show off her designer gowns, attracting new customers while advising him on which women he should approach as his future duchess. 

Even without having read the book, I can guess how it ends, but the point with romances is never the “what” but the “how,” and my past experience with this author gives me hope that it will be the perfect ending to summer, now only five weeks away.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Family Secrets

What would novels be without secrets, especially those skeletons that hang around in family closets for generations while everyone pretends they’ve never seen the bones, never mind that said bones have anything to do with them or their relatives? Still, not many people hide the existence of entire properties from their children and grandchildren, together with the secrets of who lived on those properties, how they came into the family, and what led to their destruction.

This is the situation that faces Emily Dawson, the heroine of Lauren Willig’s The Summer Country and the subject of my latest interview on the New Books Network. The rest of this post hints at the issues facing Emily, but it doesn’t begin to capture the richness and beauty of Willig’s exploration of nineteenth-century Barbados, both before and after the full emancipation of its slave population in 1838.

Secrets are woven through both halves of this story, alongside themes of love, power, revenge, ownership, and conscience. And the countryside is suffused by sugar: the brutality of its cultivation; the rum distilled from it; the scent of it on the air; the heat that makes it grow; the diseases and injuries caused by that heat and that crop and the poverty of those cut off from the rich, mostly white class of plantation owners who govern the island and its chief product. It’s a rich and heady brew, consumed on a virtual journey to a vanished world, and it’s hard to imagine a better time to undertake that journey than the middle of July with the temperatures hovering above 90 degrees.

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


When Emily Dawson inherits a plantation in Barbados from her grandfather, Jonathan Fenty, in 1854, she is not quite sure what to make of the bequest. Emily, an English vicar’s daughter, has long been the “poor relation” of her merchant family, but the bigger surprise is that her grandfather never once mentioned the existence of this property, Peverills.

In the company of her cousins Adam and Laura, Emily embarks on a sailing vessel for the West Indies. In Bridgeport, further shocks await. Their contact, Mr. Turner—reputed to be the wealthiest man in Barbados—is of African descent; and neither he nor anyone else in his family shows much respect for the English visitors. When Emily expresses the desire to see Peverills for herself, the Turners explicitly warn her away. Emily persists, only to find the estate in ruins and the family next door eager to take her in. But Emily soon begins to wonder just what the neighbors have in mind. How many other secrets did her grandfather conceal?

In The Summer Country (William Morrow, 2019), Lauren Willig nimbly balances Emily’s experiences against her grandfather’s, interweaving the stories of three families across two timelines into a seamless whole. Better yet, she does it against the backdrop of a Barbados so beautifully realized that you will feel that you can smell the sugar cane burning and hear the singing carried on the wind.

And don’t miss Jennifer Eremeeva’s interview with C. W. Gortner about his new novel, The Romanov Empress—a story of Maria Fyodorovna, mother of the last tsar, Nicholas II, and cross-posted to New Books in Historical Fiction. It says a lot that even Rasputin takes a back seat in this book!

Friday, July 19, 2019

Talking about Song of the Siren


Five months ago to the day, Five Directions Press released Song of the Siren into the world. And in a happy coincidence, Terry Gamble—whom I interviewed about her latest novel The Eulogist back in January—sent me a set of questions about the book, which she finished not long ago. So to celebrate Juliana and Felix’s fifth-month anniversary, I’m running the Q&A here, with heartfelt thanks to Terry for her thoughtful and far-reaching questions.

Juliana is such an interesting character. It's clear that she has appeared in earlier books. Why did you choose her to be the protagonist in Song of the Siren?


I’m glad you found Juliana interesting! What we see in the earlier novels is mostly the calculation behind her beautiful façade. After a while, I became curious about what made her so cold—what she was hiding that destroyed her relationship with Alexei. Readers get the first hint in The Vermilion Bird, and that hint convinced me not only that she had a story worth telling but that it was the most dramatic of any character I’d written. So I chose her as my protagonist to kick off the new series.

It was like opening the flood gates. She kept me awake at night for weeks, pouring her tale into my head whether I wanted to hear it right then or not. But I’m glad I made that choice, because she revealed depths I hadn’t expected when I first created her.


The affection between Felix and Juliana is so engaging. Why did you decide to have each of these characters suffer from physical impairments?


Because Juliana is so guarded. I realized early on that the only way she could change, as we want characters to do in novels no matter how often people don’t in real life, would be if I pulled the rug out from under her. Since childhood, her face has guaranteed her survival, so by letting her contract smallpox I force her into a position where she can no longer rely on her beauty. That’s the negative; the positive is that with the right kind of support, she has a chance to deal with a problem that she has no choice but to confront as she ages and to realize that in fact she’s always been more than a pretty face. For that, she needs a friend who can see past her scars and, by holding up a mirror, help her appreciate her true strengths and abilities.



I wasn’t sure at first that it would be a man, but Felix presented himself, cane and all. His handicap exposes him to the same kind of prejudice that Juliana faces, but he’s had more time to learn how to cope with it and, as a nobleman, more resources than Juliana. In the sixteenth century, even more than now, women were often judged solely by their birth and their beauty, and at this point Juliana has neither. By looking beyond the surface, Felix makes it possible for Juliana to trust him, and eventually herself. He can do that because he knows what it’s like to wake up one morning with your world overturned.

Your research is extensive. What set you on this journey to learn about Russia and Eastern Europe?


I’ve been studying Russian since the tenth grade. I took my first Russian history class in college, and I was hooked. A thousand years of history, and most of it reads like a movie script: Vikings, pirates, invading Mongol hordes, the Terrible Tsar, the Time of Troubles, Peter the Great cutting off his courtiers’ beards with a pair of shears, you name it. I could write a hundred novels without making anything up!


Tell me about your writing process. Does the history drive the story and plot? Or are you more concerned with character development? Do you do your research before or as you are writing?


If the history is dramatic enough—and in Russia it often is—then it can drive the plot. That was true of The Vermilion Bird and especially The Shattered Drum, although even there the real story takes place among my characters, and the history is just the backdrop.

I work hardest on the character development, because plot comes easily to me. Before I start writing, I fill in questionnaires on my main characters: big things like goal, motivation, and conflict but also questions that open up how one character interacts with others (friend, enemy, apparent friend or enemy who is actually the reverse) and more superficial details that reveal the character’s inner self (clothes, ideal pet, literacy or lack thereof, what attracts and repels, what they do when no one’s watching, etc.).

Once I have a sense of the characters, I haul out this amazing 900-page tome that I own about the minority of Ivan the Terrible (1533–47) and see what it has to say about the year in question. I also check the chronicle records for that year. I come up with a rough list of story events, real and fictional.

As soon as I start writing, the planning goes out the window. I research only as much as I need to answer specific questions. Every so often, I go back to the character questionnaires and story events and update them. But so long as I know more or less where I’m going, I let the story develop as seems best in the moment. Then I share it with my writers’ group, so they can point out the holes and frayed edges, and I revise as needed.


Tell me a bit about your next book. And will we see Juliana again?


We will see Juliana again, but not in the next book. Song of the Shaman follows Grusha, another character from the Legends series. She’s a single mother living on the steppe in a Tatar horde, although she’s Russian. So she’s an immigrant, in a sense, with a six-year-old son who can speak her language but otherwise neither knows nor cares where she comes from. And he’s reaching the age when, in this traditional society, he needs a man in his life to train him as a warrior. So Grusha has to juggle his needs and her own. Her novel will come out next February.

I’m in the early stages of writing the third novel in the series, and Juliana and Felix have already horned their way into chapter 4. I also anticipate a big wedding in Songs 5, where everyone from the earlier books will show up.

Thanks so much for these questions and for giving me a chance to talk about my work!


And if you’d like to learn more about these and other topics concerning Song of the Siren, its characters, its predecessor novels, and the historical world in which it’s set, check out this transcript and interview link on the Literary Hub, “Spying on Diplomats through the Big Red Kremlin Walls.”




Images: Andrei Riabushkin, The Tsar Meets with His Boyars (1893), public domain via Wikimedia Commons;  iClipart.com 000679-0007-000085 (my image of Felix), purchased by subscription; ad © C. P. Lesley, using public domain art.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Summer Romance

As I’ve mentioned before,  I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward historical romance. That’s why I don’t list most of my own books that way, even though I have yet to write a novel that doesn’t include a romance. In fact, I have yet to write a novel that doesn’t center on a romance, even if it also addresses politics, society, religious and cultural differences, and the many and glorious vagaries of Russian history.

I also don’t read a lot of pure romance novels these days. The reason mostly has to do with me: I’m older than when I devoured them by the crate load in college. But in part it has to do with changes in the romance genre itself, especially historical romance. Although bodice rippers (never a favorite of mine) always focused more on hormones than characters and historical plausibility, that element of the sub-genre seems to have spread into books that in many other respects are as far from bodice rippers as one can get.

Again, I tolerated that approach more when I was younger. These days I don’t find it so interesting, because it tends to impose a certain sameness on the stories that makes them overly predictable from my point of view. And as a historian, I do rather go bananas and start tossing books at the wall when novels include heroines living in times and places where they were strictly chaperoned because being seen as loose women, rightly or wrongly, doomed them for life, yet who nonetheless behave as if they too had access to reliable birth control. Even the men who coaxed them into sin, to use the parlance of the day, would not have dreamed of marrying their victims unless someone (usually a father or guardian) stood there with a shotgun until the villains agreed to do the right thing.

Still, the great gig I have with the New Books Network does include advance review copies of romances as well as more standard historical fiction. Plus even a curmudgeon like me turns her thoughts to the literary equivalent of ice cream when summer rolls around. So for both reasons I was delighted to discover Maya Rodale’s Some Like It Scandalous, the second in her series The Gilded Age Girls Club. The title doesn’t mean what you may think, just as the book has more going for it than you might expect: real characters who have real problems and real reasons to dislike each other, but also genuine strengths and sympathies that in the end pull them together.

In brief, Daisy Swan wants to become a chemist, even though it’s 1883 and that is not the kind of pursuit expected of young society ladies. Daisy has talked her parents into letting her enroll at Barnard (then very new), where she is happily tinkering with recipes for a magical ointment that gives any woman who uses it the perfect complexion. Daisy has also managed to avoid matrimonial plans, reaching the age of twenty-five unattached. She figures she has one more year to go, and she can become an official spinster, supporting herself through her family’s fortune and sales of her ointment.

Alas, as so often happens in novels, Daisy’s plans encounter a sudden deluge of misfortune. Her father’s investment firm is in jeopardy, and her mother resolves to marry Daisy off before the firm can collapse. As Daisy’s bridegroom Mom chooses Theodore Prescott the Third, son of a New York steel magnate and the one person in the world Daisy detests. His beastly friends have been quacking at her ever since Theo dubbed her “Ugly Duck Daisy” when they were teens, and she’s vowed never to forgive him. While Daisy’s mother and Theo’s father exert every effort to promote the match, Daisy proposes a fake engagement, and Theo accepts. After all, they hate each other. What would keep them together?

Quite a few things, as it turns out. It would be churlish to spoil this charming, funny, emotionally rewarding story by giving those plot points away. And there is certainly passion in this novel, which seemed appropriate to me because Daisy has made it clear from the beginning that she doesn’t want to marry anyway. But the best part is watching the hero and heroine find themselves and each other along the way.

Since romance novels tend to go down easy, you may be looking for more when you finish Rodale’s series. So here is a range of other 2019 titles that have landed on my desk, in chronological order of publication: Lynsay Sands, The Wrong Highlander; Sophie Jordan, This Scot of Mine; and Joanna Shupe, The Rogue of Fifth Avenue—all from Avon Books.
 


And if you’d like to spend the summer taking a stab at writing a romance of your own, not necessarily historical, the editors at Avon Books have produced a workbook full of suggestions to guide you along the way: How to Write a Romance: Or, How to Write Witty Dialogue, Smoldering Love Scenes, and Happily-Ever-Afters

So give it a try. And stop back here. Summer isn’t even half over, so you never know, I may pick up some of those other books before it ends.

Oh, and that title? “Some like it scandalous” has to do with women’s suffrage. To find out what the connection is, you’ll need to read the book.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Literary Fireworks

In the flood of daily news headlines, it is sometimes difficult to remember that there was a time when the US government, if not always its citizens, took pride in welcoming immigrants to these shores. So, although neither I nor anyone else involved in the timing of my latest podcast interview with Adrienne Celt planned the coincidence, it seems somehow appropriate to feature a novel that traces the divergent but ultimately converging life histories of three migrants.

In this case, the force driving the characters’ decision to leave their homeland is the chaos created by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the formation of the new Bolshevik regime. 


Lev Orlov—explicitly inspired by the well-known author Vladimir Nabokov, here recast as a writer of science fiction—and his wife, Vera, flee the disintegrating Russian Empire because their aristocratic backgrounds leave them without a place in the land of their birth. They are “former people,” in the language of the 1920s.

Zoya Andropova, in contrast, should have no trouble fitting into the new Soviet Union. A peasant by birth, she is the daughter of a revolutionary and a loyal member of the Young Pioneers. But the October Revolution, like the French Revolution before it, proved all too willing to eat its own children. When Zoya’s mother dies and her father disappears (i.e., is shot by the state), Zoya ends up in an orphanage. A US charity intervenes and sweeps her off to the New World. And there, in due course, Zoya’s trajectory intersects with that of the Orlovs—producing, not to put too fine a point on it, fireworks worthy of the Fourth of July.

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


Zoya Andropova—soon to be known in her adopted country as Zoë Andropov—didn’t ask to be rescued from her Soviet orphanage, even after the arrest of her father, a strong supporter of the very regime that has now taken his life. But rescued she is, by well-meaning Americans, who soon dump her at a wealthy boarding school where she struggles to retain far more than her name. She takes refuge in literature, in particular by the émigré writer Lev (Leo) Orlov, whose science fiction transports her to more satisfying times and places.

So perhaps it is no surprise that when Orlov shows up to teach at the school where Zoya, having nowhere else to go, has moved from student to worker, she tumbles into love with him, ignoring both his advances to the other girls and his very present and controlling wife, Vera. Zoya charts the evolution of this romantic triangle in her diary, which we read, interspersed with letters from Lev to Vera.

As Adrienne Celt notes early on, Invitation to a Bonfire (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018) is inspired by the life of the well-known Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov. But as the story builds, it leaves the details of Nabokov’s life and marriage behind, roaring out of a deliberately quiet academic beginning until it reaches a place that upends much of what we have believed up to that point.

The Literary Hub chose this interview for its Friday Feature this week, but because of the holiday the staff decided to run the post on Monday, in the expectation of greater traffic. So you can find their transcript and listen to the podcast by clicking on the preceding link.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Revising Real Life

Novelists—as well as screenwriters, playwrights, producers of short stories; in short, writers of all types—often hear that their characters and plots should be realistic. Protagonists and antagonists must, we are told, sound and act like the people we meet on the street. Readers need to understand motivations, experience the story world from the inside, recognize the settings and the characters as something that, if not familiar, is comprehensible.

All of which is true—and yet not true. Because real life is often boring, its meaning obscure. Conversations meander amid a flood of hemming and hawing, slang and trivia; family members retreat behind their cellphones. Random accidents abound: a child leaves the door open, and the dog runs away; a trip to the wrong restaurant causes everyone in the household to fall ill with food poisoning, and as a result the homework doesn’t get finished on time; the power goes out for no apparent reason, interfering with any number of plans.

Fiction can’t afford the luxury of the meaningless event or the repetitive conversation. It needs drive and movement and drama, and above all it needs (most of the time) to make sense. Novels portray daily life, to be sure, but they shouldn’t mimic daily life. The creator of fiction is, by definition, telling a story—with a beginning, a middle, and an end and about characters who (usually) change and grow in ways people often don’t in real life. The story looks like the everyday world and to some extent sounds like it, but it’s real life distilled in a crucible and stripped of its ordinariness, its irrelevancies.


I was forcibly reminded of this point while reading Adrienne Celt’s wonderful Invitation to a Bonfire in preparation for my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview (recorded today, so stay tuned for the exact link sometime after July 4). The book is, as Adrienne Celt admits early on, a homage to the well-known Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov—the author of Lolita, among other works.

Like Nabokov, the lead character, Lev/Leo Orlov, grows up in Russia, leaves the country for Europe to get away from the 1917 revolution, and ends up in the United States. He has a wife named Vera, and in the 1930s he becomes involved in a passionate affair with another woman. Some of the personality traits that characterized Nabokov and his Vera also make their way into the story.

And there the resemblance stops. The real Nabokov reconciled with his wife and died in 1977, after a long and productive life including a fifty-two-year marriage that produced a son. Lev Orlov is not so lucky. We know from the opening page that neither he nor the girl he falls for, Zoya Andropova, will survive the year of their cataclysmic relationship. For a long time, we don’t know why, and we certainly don’t know how, but by the time we reach the end, the whole trajectory is clear. Some characters grow while others don’t, but the dialogue between them and the factors that drive them and the locations where the actions take place are all crystal clear.

Because they have to be. It’s not real life; it’s fiction, and fiction doesn’t have time for loose ends. It has—it must have—a vivid, engrossing story to tell, packed with action and emotion. Otherwise, why would we read it?

Photograph of the Nabokovs' shared burial site in Switzerland by Gorodilova, 2009, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Ah, Summer


I have, I must admit, an ambivalent relationship with summer, which arrived to little fanfare this morning. In terms of temperature, I much prefer spring and fall, so much brisker and more focused with their rapid changes in the garden, their warm days and cool nights. With luck, I can go days or weeks without needing either artificial heat or air conditioning. Whereas the minute the outside temperature tops seventy-five, my loft office becomes unbearably hot and muggy, to the point where just staying awake is a challenge without running either a fan or AC.

Yet for all that, there are things I love about summer—quite a lot of them, in fact. The long, lazy days; the opportunity to disappear into my writing cave without raising eyebrows; the slower pace caused by this person, then that, going off for a week or a month; the drop-off in books piling up; the fresh vegetables and light, airy clothes—every year I feel as if I’m releasing a huge sigh of relief and recharging my mental batteries for autumn, sure to roll in soon enough and kick me back into action.

So, what are my plans for the more relaxed months gathering on the horizon? Mostly to write: I want to finish and typeset Song of the Shaman, then make real progress on Song of the Sisters. With lots of nice, quiet weekends and two ten-day stretches off, I shouldn’t have much trouble getting where I want to go—especially since I don’t really care how far that is. And of course, in the writing category, I’ll still be posting here every Friday, rain or shine.

I’m also meeting in person with P. K. Adams in a few days to discuss that joint project I keep dangling here on the blog. Not sure whether we will start writing this summer, but I think we’ll have a firm plan and most of the prep work by Labor Day. That outline I posted about a couple of weeks back has generated a bunch of new ideas and directions, so we’ll see what happens.

By the way, I promised to let you know when her latest novel went up for preorder. That has since happened, and you can find the Kindle edition of Silent Water on Amazon. The print edition will be released on August 6, which, coincidentally, is the same day as G. P. Gottlieb’s new mystery, Battered, mentioned in passing below.


Summer wouldn’t be much fun without beach reads—even in the absence of a beach—so I have at least four interviews scheduled for New Books in Historical Fiction (with most of the reading already done!), as well as one with G. P. Gottlieb for New Books in Literature, where she gets to be the guest and talk about her new novel, Battered: A Whipped and Sipped Mystery. I have a couple of smart-looking historical romances I plan to read and review for this blog, as well as a couple of books due out later in the summer where I will do either a written Q&A with the author or just a spotlight on the novel. And I’m about to start a final run-through on the first book in Gabrielle Mathieu’s new series, Girl of Fire (Berona’s Quest 1), which Five Directions Press hopes to bring out in late summer/early fall.

So I expect to have plenty of fun things to occupy my time, despite the laid-back loveliness of the next few months. No doubt, fall will be here before I know it, and I’ll be hauling out the sweaters and relishing the chill in the air. But for now, it’s summer, and I plan to enjoy every warm and light-filled minute. What about you?

Images on subscription from iClipart.com.