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.