Friday, September 27, 2019

Bookshelf, Fall 2019

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

 



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

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


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

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

Friday, September 20, 2019

Body Language


This week I had the pleasure of meeting in person, for the first time, a writer with whom I’ve been corresponding by e-mail for the last three and a half years. She’s a member of Five Directions Press, so the other two founders—that is, the rest of my writers’ group—have also been in e-mail contact with her since 2016, but only I have had the chance to talk with her via Skype in connection with the New Books Network.

The meetings went very well, but that’s not the point of my post. What I realized once again based on these relatively brief encounters, which lasted altogether no more than six or seven hours spread across a weekend, is how much body language and expression affect understanding and, in a sense, what a difficult task we novelists assign ourselves. Even scriptwriters have the advantage of knowing that their words will be given life by actors who may not look exactly like the characters in the writers’ heads but who, if talented, can convey all the nuances of emotion that stance and expression and voice communicate so much more effectively than words on a page.

I know: this isn’t exactly earth-shattering news. Most of us know, if we stop to think, how readily text messages and e-mail lead to misunderstandings. Why else do we constantly expand the range of emojis in the vain hope of underlining that, yes, that snarky comment was intended as a joke—something we would never need to do in real life because tone and laughing face make the point for us.

Nevertheless, when we sit down to write—and even to read—it’s worth thinking about how much work goes into revealing not just what characters say but what they mean. On a movie screen, we can guess: an actor smiles, and we know right away whether that smile conveys joy, naivet√©, surprise, sarcasm, or any one of a dozen other reactions or combinations of reaction. We know even when the character says something quite different. 


But a writer can’t keep saying “he smiled” or “she frowned.” It gets boring. “She smiled sarcastically” or “he frowned in contemplation” is permissible once in a while, but used too often it draws attention to itself in the wrong ways. Shouldn’t the reader be able to tell from the dialogue if a character is angry or thoughtful, sarcastic or sincere?

Novelists and short story writers do have one asset unavailable to script- and screenwriters and even ordinary listeners: the internal monologue. When a character means one thing and says another, we can show what goes through that person’s head. We can also illustrate different interpretations through dialogue: Character A says this, and Character B reacts with that. And we have action verbs, which get to body language: a person who struts leaves a different impression from one who strolls, strides, or minces.

That’s part of the fun of writing fiction, at least for me. How do I differentiate my characters through language, gesture, mode of thought, appearance? How do I fill them out and bring them to life so that readers can relate to these imaginary people as friends, family, or no one they’d ever want to associate with in real life?




Yet sometimes, I’d just like to sit them down for a cup of coffee. Or turn them over to a crackerjack film director and her handpicked cast to see what the professionals could do with them. Because what counts is the body language, when all’s said and done.

Images purchased from iClipart.com.

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 √† 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.