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; 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.