Friday, September 18, 2020

Interview with Heather Bell Adams

When Heather Bell Adams wrote to me suggesting an interview for her new novel, The Good Luck Stone, I have to admit that my first reaction was “Oh, no, not another WWII book!” But in this case, I’m so glad I took the plunge. It’s something of a cliché to say that one can’t put a novel down, yet these characters are so strongly and beautifully portrayed that I couldn’t wait to get back to reading their story. Read on to find out more.

Your first novel, Maranatha Road, appeared in 2017. Could you give us a short summary of that book?

Maranatha Road is about Sadie Caswell, whose son dies shortly before his wedding, and Tinley Greene, the young stranger who shows up claiming she’s pregnant with his child. It’s set in western North Carolina, where I’m from.

The Good Luck Stone just came out. What made you want to tell a story about World War II nurses in the Philippines?

There are so many wonderful World War II stories set in Europe. I wanted to try something different. Obviously, in addition to the European theater, there was a lot happening in the South Pacific, and it’s intriguing to explore how war looks in what otherwise might be considered a tropical paradise.

I did quite a bit of research about the nursing units who served in that area of the world and tried to incorporate historical events as much as I could. As I dug into the research, I was surprised to learn about the Army and Navy nurses who were taken prisoner of war by the Japanese. I knew I wanted to include that piece of history in The Good Luck Stone.

We first meet your main character, Audrey Thorpe, late in life. How would you describe her at this stage of her development?

At ninety years old, Audrey is a society woman in Savannah, Georgia—on all the right boards and committees around town. But she’s beginning to wonder about the legacy she will leave behind, particularly to her great-grandson. This leads her to re-assess the big secret she’s kept since the war. When we first encounter her, nobody knows the real Audrey.

Next we flip back in time. Audrey is landing in the Philippines. By the end of chapter 2, she has met Kat and Penny, forming a relationship that is central to the story. Tell us a bit about the friendship that develops among these three young women. What is their mission and what causes them to bond?

The friendship between Audrey, Kat, and Penny is the central driving force of the narrative. They meet in the bustling capital of Manila at a time when war lurks on the horizon. When they open up to each other about their fears, that vulnerability forms the basis of a meaningful friendship. Of course, as the hardships and sacrifices of war intervene, the promises they’ve made will be sorely tested.

Her family has doubts about Audrey’s ability to take care of herself, which brings Laurel Eaton into the story. She’s very differently situated from Audrey. What can you tell us about her?

Laurel, a middle-aged mother, is a bit down on her luck when we first meet her. She’s so grateful to be hired as Audrey’s caretaker and, much to her surprise, the two women seem to bond, despite their difference in circumstances. Laurel clashes a bit with her husband, who cautions her not to get in too deep.

It’s a devastating blow when Laurel arrives at Audrey’s mansion one day to find that the older woman has disappeared. Originally, I had that scene as a prologue, but my agent convinced me to keep the narrative chronological, which I believe was absolutely the right choice.

Dual-time stories can be difficult to handle, because the historical plot so often outweighs the contemporary one in terms of dramatic tension. That’s not true in this case. Without giving away spoilers, can you hint at how the two narratives intertwine?

Thank you so much for saying that! It’s something I worked hard on, trying to keep both narratives interesting. I always admire that as a reader when I pick up a dual timeline story.

In The Good Luck Stone, the past and present intertwine when Audrey’s secret from the war begins to unravel. As Laurel sets out to look for her, she’ll discover that the real Audrey Thorpe is not the same woman who appears in the society pages.

As I worked on the first draft, I realized that the theme of friendship was revealing itself in the present-day timeline as well, in the sense that Laurel and Audrey have the opportunity to become much more than employer/employee.

Also, Laurel’s ten-year-old son, Oliver, is attending a new school and he’s understandably concerned with how to make friends. Along the way, he learns something about that from watching his mother interact with Audrey. I didn’t necessarily plan this subplot, but I was delighted as it developed.

Are you already working on something new?

Yes, I’m working on a third novel, which is set in western North Carolina and (at least for now) revolves around a reclusive artist. I’m excited about it—and definitely thankful to have writing as an outlet during these unsettling times.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Heather Bell Adams is the award-winning author of the novels Maranatha Road and The Good Luck Stone. Her short stories and literary scholarship have appeared in numerous literary magazines and reviews. A native of Hendersonville, North Carolina, she lives in Raleigh, where she works as a lawyer.

Friday, September 11, 2020

In Memory of 9-11

Nineteen years ago on this date, in what seems now like another universe—so much has happened in the interim—I was getting ready to walk upstairs and start my workday when my husband came in and turned on the TV. It was 8:45 AM, give or take a minute or two, and I objected. “Since when do you watch TV in the morning?”

“Something’s happening in New York,” he said. And as we watched, the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. One could have been an accident, but two made the conclusion inescapable: someone had done this on purpose. From the moment it happened, on a clear blue day with no signs of rain, the nightmare was immediate and all-encompassing. A third plane attacked the Pentagon; a fourth, commandeered and diverted by its passengers, crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania. The images played nonstop on the news broadcasts for days.

Two weeks before, we had attended a family wedding in the city. I remember pointing out the Twin Towers to our then young son. The wedding itself was held in Lower Manhattan, the area most devastated by the attack. It was not the first terrorist attack using planes or even the first on the World Trade Center, but even now, almost two decades later, the loss of three thousand people, many of whom were just going to work and minding their own business is shocking, horrifying.

So let’s take a moment to remember those workers as well as the first responders, the orphaned children and widowed spouses, and the many other deaths caused by the attack through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—all casualties of 9/11, together with our lost innocence, our sense that such atrocities could never happen.

Perhaps we were naive to believe that we were immune from danger. People inflict horrors on one another throughout the world and throughout time. The United States has been both perpetrator and victim, and the current unrest over the very real abuses committed against US citizens of color shows that even internally the country has a long history of violence. In that sense, the safety of the pre-9/11 world was as much illusion as fact. It’s not enough to recall and honor the past. We also need to craft a better future.

An entire generation has grown up since then. Some of its members are the children of those who died. Like the ordinary workers and their families, and especially the heroes who willingly sacrificed themselves to help others, they too deserve their moment of homage, our acknowledgment of what they lost.

Image: World Trade Center, New York, aerial view, March 2001 © Jeffmock - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Friday, September 4, 2020

Interview with Linda Kass

The significance of World War II, seventy-five years after its ending, continues to inspire novelists as well as historians. Just last weekend, the New York Times Book Review devoted its entire issue to works—mostly historical but in some cases fictional—about the war. Yet enterprising and creative people continue to find new ways to approach the issues raised by that massive conflict.

Because of the intense trauma and agony inflicted by the Holocaust and the death camps, one area that often receives less attention is families that managed to escape Europe before war was declared. This week’s interview with Linda Kass, however, explores this angle. Read on to find out about A Ritchie Boy, released by She Writes Press on September 1, the eighty-first anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, and the book that preceded it, which also took place in a setting that has often been ignored in World War II novels.

Your first novel, Tasa’s Song, came out in 2016. Readers can find out more about that novel from our podcast interview at New Books in Historical Fiction, but can you give us a short summary here?

Sure! Tasa’s Song tells the story of aspiring Jewish violinist Tasa Rosinski, whose secure world unravels amid the gathering storm of World War II. After an initial scene of her family escaping their home in the darkness of night in frigid winter, the narrative reverts back to her peaceful village in eastern Poland, where she lives among her loving family. The story marches along history’s trail to reveal a young Jewish prodigy caught between the Nazi threat to the west and the Soviets to the east as Tasa comes of age in the shadow of encroaching war and finds redemption in her music and through deep love, despite the horrors that draw near. In the end, it is a story of resilience and survival, celebrating the bonds of love, the power of memory, the solace of music, and the enduring strength of the human spirit.

In the new novel, we meet your main character, Eli Stoff, as an old man. We find out early on that there is a connection between him and the first novel, although I won’t ask you to say what it is. But where is he at this point in his life, and why did you decide to start here?

Great question! My book could actually be called a “novel-in-stories,” as different characters tell interrelated stories that, together, form a multi-layered portrait of Eli Stoff and his journey from one homeland to another, and from boyhood to manhood. Theoretically, each of these stories could be read as stand-alone stories, all linked to Eli and related to the decade between 1938 and 1948. (Two stories were actually published as independent stories in literary journals prior to the publication of A Ritchie Boy.) While I didn’t write the stories in the order they appear, they are arranged chronologically and that gives the book a very novel-like presentation. Each story reveals the particulars that influence Eli’s life—the circumstances and people that he encounters from his boyhood in Vienna to New York, where immigrants first encounter America; to Ohio, where his family settles; to Maryland and Camp Ritchie, where he joins thousands of others like him—young immigrants from Germany or Austria who have an understanding of the German language and culture and are trained as military intelligence officers and end up helping the Allies win World War II. The narrative continues with Eli’s travel to war-torn Europe as an American soldier before he returns to the Midwest to set down his roots.

I decided to begin in the near present, in 2016, when Eli is ninety-three, as he receives an unexpected letter inviting him to a Ritchie Boy reunion. His memories of that important decade in his life come flooding back, disrupting his predictable routine at Hillside Senior Living Residences, where he lives. Beginning this way provides a container for all the stories to come, a vessel that transports the reader into all those crucial moments of Eli’s life, beginning with his tense boyhood in Vienna.

As we get older, we look back and see how we got to be who we are, but that future eludes us when we are young. It seemed fitting for the telling of this story about Eli’s journey to begin at that late point in life. I used a quote from Shakespeare for my epigraph that explains this best, “We know what we are, but not what we may be.”

The novel then snaps back to 1938, where Eli is a teenager living in Vienna. What is his situation at this time?

In 1938, Eli and his family, who are secular Jews, live in Vienna where anti-Semitism is spreading. Eli’s best friend is Toby Wermer, a non-Jew who lives in the same apartment building, a friend since they were six and attending Volksschule together. An undercurrent of tension has been brewing at their school all year, with Eli being taunted by other students. And that is the backdrop for an optional school-sponsored ski trip Eli takes with Gentile classmates—all of them around fifteen years of age—during a weekend in early March. The ten boys travel by train, with a supervising teacher, to a medieval Alpine village in western Austria on the cusp of the Anschluss, where some semblance of camaraderie turns somber by the time they return to Vienna.

How do Eli and his family get to the United States?

A childhood friend of Eli’s mother, Zelda Muni, who had earlier immigrated to America with her husband, seeks help from a powerful Jewish businessman, John Brandeis, to sponsor the Stoffs’ escape from the growing peril in Vienna. Brandeis signs affidavits for the Stoffs. He had been helping other Jews escape Europe, ensuring each family would not become a public burden. Brandeis’ altruistic act, for people he didn’t know and expecting nothing in return, left an indelible mark on Eli for the rest of his life.
Eli begins his education in at Ohio State University but leaves partway through to become “a Ritchie boy,” as per your title. What was a Ritchie boy, and what does his new status require of Eli?

I alluded to what a Ritchie Boy was in the answer to the second question. I’ll get more specific here. The book title and the name of the soldiers come from Camp Ritchie, a military training facility near Hagerstown, Maryland, where the US Army centralized its intelligence operations beginning in June 1942, not long after US forces landed in North Africa and helped drive the German Army off the continent. In the early part of World War II, the Army sought soldiers familiar with the German culture, thinking, and language to carry out a variety of needed duties, including interrogation of prisoners and counterintelligence. Many recent immigrants from Germany or Austria who had this ability to speak or comprehend the language of the enemy got routed to Camp Ritchie on secret orders. There thousands were trained to perform specialized tasks, which provided advanced intelligence to allied forces regarding German war plans and tactics. Thus their nickname—the Ritchie Boys.

And what drew you to tell this story?

My father was a Ritchie Boy and is the inspiration for this fictional story. He, too, grew up in anti-Semitic Vienna in the 1920s and ’30s, escaped with his parents thanks to the kindness of a stranger, lived his teenage years in the Midwest as World War II began, was recruited and trained by the US Army at Camp Ritchie, and returned to the theater of war just six years after coming to this country to fight the very enemy he barely escaped in 1938. My father died in early 2017. Many of his comrades are gone as well now that we have reached the seventy-fifth anniversary of the war’s official ending (September 2, 1945). These brave soldiers contributed to our victory in World War II, yet many are not aware of this. One Army study estimates that almost sixty percent of the intelligence collected in Europe came from interrogations conducted by Ritchie Boys. Telling this history through fiction builds a human story and allows the reader to experience, and be present in, that narrative. The stories in A Ritchie Boy are an attempt to bring that time and those characters to life so others, too, can remember their sacrifice.

This book has just come out. Are you already working on something new?
Yes, I am in the early stages
of my third novel. It will again be historical fiction, during that time period I seem to gravitate toward: 1936 to 1946, in this case. It is based on a real, and fairly well-known, character whose early life I find fascinating.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Linda Kass, a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, is an assistant editor of the online literary magazine Narrative and the owner of Gramercy Books—an independently minded, carefully curated neighborhood bookstore in Bexley, Ohio. She Writes Press published her first novel, Tasa’s Song, in 2016 and her second, A Ritchie Boy, in 2020. Find out more about her at her website (

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Many Faces of Love

The trials and tribulations of the English royal family never fail to fill tabloids and news broadcasts. But while today’s Windsors are guaranteed media bait, few of the current flaps can match that of 1938, when Edward VIII abdicated the throne not long after his succession so that he could marry a divorced American, Wallis Simpson. In doing so, he capped a spectacular romantic career filled with many affairs, mostly with married women, to the utter embarrassment and despair of his family.  

In my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview, Bryn Turnbull—whose debut novel, The Woman before Wallis, came out with MIRA Books just this past Tuesday—talks about the events leading up to King Edward falling for Simpson, in the days when he was still the Prince of Wales, known to his friends and family as David. The outline of the story appears below, but as Turnbull notes toward the end of our interview, the book is actually less about David and Thelma, the woman that Wallis replaced, than about the bond between two sisters, each caught up in her own international scandal of massive proportions. It also explores the complex relationships between husbands and wives, mothers and children, and even stepmothers and stepchildren. In that sense, this is a novel about far more than one almost-forgotten royal mistress.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Most modern Americans can identify the names Wallis Simpson and Gloria Vanderbilt. But Simpson was not the first divorced American to win the heart of Great Britain’s future if short-reigned King Edward VIII, known to his family as David. This debut novel explores the life and loves of Thelma Morgan, whose twin sister Gloria married Reggie Vanderbilt and became the mother of the well-known fashion designer.

After the ending of what these days we would call a “starter marriage,” Thelma accepts a  proposal from Viscount Duke Furness, who takes her to his country estate and introduces her to his children. He also, in due course, introduces her to David and, when she and the prince fall for each other, steps aside and chooses not to contest their affair. The reality that Lord Furness has not himself practiced fidelity is one of the factors driving Thelma away from him.

Meanwhile, Gloria and Reggie have taken refuge from the twins’ mother in France, where they are raising their daughter, Little Gloria. Reggie dies prematurely, and Gloria becomes involved in the kind of knock-down, drag-out contest over his inheritance that only dysfunctional families can produce. Desperate to support her sister, Thelma abandons the UK for New York City, David’s assurances of love ringing in her ears. Unfortunately, not long before she leaves England, she introduces David to her friend Wallis Simpson …

Bryn Turnbull does a wonderful job of portraying this history, which is in some ways more dramatic than any made-up story could be.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Interview with Gill Paul

I discovered Gill Paul almost by accident, when her publicist for The Lost Daughter wrote to me asking if I was interested in interviewing her. At the time, I was booked solid, so I passed the opportunity on to fellow New Books Network host Jennifer Eremeeva. But I read both The Lost Daughter and its predecessor, The Secret Wife, with great interest. So when I received an advance copy of Gill’s latest, Jackie and Maria, I followed up immediately.

Alas, the message got lost in transit, and months passed before I found out what had happened. But Gill was kind enough to answer my written questions instead. And since William Morrow released her book just this past Tuesday, the timing couldn’t be better. Read on, and find out more about three fascinating women and at least one equally fascinating man.

Last I heard, you were writing about the Russian imperial family. What drew you to the story of Jackie Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis, and Maria Callas?

It’s quite a leap, I agree! The idea of writing about the Kennedy/Callas/Onassis love triangle was suggested to me by a reader in Athens, who got in touch via Twitter, and immediately I was desperate to do it. The story is most often told from Jackie Kennedy’s point of view, but I wanted to explore the other angles, filling out Ari’s character and telling Maria’s side too. I love writing unconventional love stories, with heartbreak, betrayal and infidelity—not sure what that says about me. This story ticked all the boxes, and it had glamorous locations too. Fortunately I wrote it in 2019 when I was still able to travel to the Mediterranean and explore them.

You’re quite explicit in your Historical Afterword that this novel is your own take on the world you depict. How would you describe your Jackie Kennedy and how she decides to marry Aristotle Onassis?  

I’ve been a fan of Jackie Kennedy for decades, but her decision to marry Onassis always puzzled me. We know she was an intelligent woman, who had many well-qualified suitors in the years after Jack Kennedy died, yet she chose a man with whom she had little in common. Was it solely for the money? Her mother had raised her to prioritize wealth, and Jackie was a compulsive shopper, so Ari’s bank balance was definitely a factor, but if that were the only reason it makes her seem very cold-hearted. In the end, I was persuaded by biographer Barbara Leaming’s theory that Jackie was suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder when she married for the second time. She wanted to feel safe and thought Ari’s millions could provide security—but it soon transpired that they couldn’t.

Jackie knows that her sister Lee had an affair with Onassis, yet this doesn’t deter her. What does this tell us about them and their relationship?

Isn’t it odd? In the unlikely event that I wanted to date one of my sister’s exes, I would at the very least ask if she minded. It seems to me that the Bouvier sisters were never especially intimate: they both liked clothes and holidays in sunny locations, but any friendship was on a superficial level. Lee was always competitive, trying to outdo her older sister. I suspect Jackie didn’t approve of Lee’s extramarital affairs during her marriage with Stas Radziwill, especially since she had personally interceded with the Pope to help get Lee’s first marriage annulled. Although Lee was supportive after Dallas, the rift between them widened throughout the 1960s. It’s widely documented that Jackie asked Onassis to telephone and tell Lee they were getting married, rather than calling herself, implying that she knew Lee would be upset. Gore Vidal reported Lee screaming, “How could she do this to me?”

I learned a lot about Onassis from reading this novel; he was always a name to me before. How would you summarize his character? What’s important to know about his past?

Ari had a tragic childhood: his mother died when he was three, and many family members were murdered when the Turks drove the Greeks out of Smyrna in 1922. He had a difficult relationship with his father and set off alone to make his fortune in South America, through a mixture of hard work, shrewd investment, and innate canniness. He didn’t treat women with much respect, but in that he was no different from many other men of his era. A key to his character is that he always wanted the best of everything, from champagne to yachts to women, and I have Maria comment in the novel that it’s as if he’s still trying to prove himself to his father. In marrying Jackie Kennedy, he hoped to establish himself as a great lover, worthy of the world’s respect, and instead he became an object of ridicule.

The real love of Onassis’s life, at least in this book, is not Jackie or Lee but the opera star Maria Callas. I would guess that most of my readers have heard her name, but as with Onassis may not know much about her as a person. What would you like us to understand about her and her long relationship with Onassis?

The first thing to know about Maria is that many opera experts still judge her to have been the greatest first soprano of all time. The voice is spectacular, giving me goose bumps whenever I listen. Her life wasn’t easy, but her years with Ari were her happiest. His closest friends liked her the best of all his women, and I think that says a lot. Their relationship was volatile—glasses were thrown and faces were slapped—but they were lovers in the true sense, as well as close companions. I hadn’t realized till I began researching this book that they were still a couple at the beginning of August 1968, just over two months before he married Mrs Kennedy—and that he tried to win Maria back three weeks after the wedding. Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it! In my opinion, he made a big mistake in not marrying Maria. She is the woman who would have looked after him through the illness and tragedy that beset him as he grew older, the only one who loved him for himself instead of his money.

This book has just come out. Are you already working on something new?

I’ve delivered the next one but I’m not allowed to divulge the subject yet. And I’ve started researching the one after, which will be my eleventh novel. I feel incredibly lucky!

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Gill Paul’s historical novels have reached the top of the USA Today, Toronto Globe & Mail, and UK Kindle charts, and been translated into twenty-one languages. She specializes in relatively recent history, mostly twentieth-century, and enjoys re-evaluating real historical characters and trying to get inside their heads.

Gill also writes historical nonfiction, including A History of Medicine in 50 Objects and a series of Love Stories. Published around the world, this series includes Royal Love Stories, World War I Love Stories, and Titanic Love Stories. Find out more about her at

Friday, August 14, 2020

Writing in the Time of Coronavirus

There’s a meme going around the Internet: a writer’s (or editor’s) life before and after Covid-19. The two images are exactly the same: a harried woman, alone at her desk, stares at a computer screen.

As with most memes, this one strikes at a core of truth. I worked from home before the pandemic, and I work from home now. I got most of my social contacts through e-mailing a far-flung collection of authors and editors multiple times a day then, and the same now. After years of traveling outside several times a week to attend ballet class, my teacher retired at about the time when I could no longer perform every step required, so I even exercise at home (still ballet, but toned down to fit my capabilities). And when I am neither working nor exercising nor goofing off through the usual collection of lightweight literature, movies viewed on my tablet, and crossword puzzles, I type madly into my Mac recording the thoughts, speech, and actions of imaginary people.


And yet … even for me, life in lockdown doesn’t feel the same as it did before. Not going out during the workday used to be a choice; now it’s become an avoidance of risk, if not a necessity—even a commitment to protect others. Social distancing doesn’t come easily to writers anymore than it does to nonwriters. I find myself eager for movies where people crowd a dance floor, throw their arms around each other, stand far closer than current standards permit, never think of donning a mask to accept a bag of vegetables from the neighbor with diabetes. I yearn for the world I took for granted, in which calling a plumber or electrician or making a hair appointment didn’t feel like a radical step.  

Then there are the Covid dreams: vivid and enthralling and so real I have to shake myself when I wake up to be sure that didn’t happen. I even asked Sir Percy once what someone had said when he came to the door, only to have him look at me and say, “Someone came to the door last night? I think I’d remember that.” And he was right: it was a dream.

So as we work our way through these crazy times, hoping for a cure or a vaccine and the chance to resume our normal lives—to send the kids back to school or return to the office (although personally I much prefer working from home)—let’s take a moment to appreciate the world we used take for granted, the one where we hugged friends on greeting and visited family members or friends, where the neighborhood block party was held every year without fail.



Come to think of it, that’s one perk a historical novelist does have: we can retreat into an imagined past, where all the plagues are virtual and where we call the shots. Time to send some characters to a New Year’s Eve celebration, where you can be sure they won’t stand six feet apart …

Images: woman and ballet dancers purchased by subscription from; color spiral from Pixabay (no attribution required).

Friday, August 7, 2020

The Perils of Collecting

Although I was sad to see Elsa Hart moving away from her wonderful series of mystery novels set in early Qing China, it’s always fun to explore a new fictional arena in the hands of such a gifted storyteller. In my latest interview with her for the New Books Network, she discusses why she moved her literary focus west (and a few years earlier), to Queen Anne’s London in 1703.

In fact, The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne is, in a sense, a prequel to Jade Dragon Mountain and its sequels. Dedicated readers of the earlier (and, I hope, ongoing) series will enjoy a cameo appearance by one of the characters; others will appreciate the new book on its own terms.

In short, this is a book about collectors—not the everyday kind who accumulate more owl statues than most people ever imagine needing or aim for a complete set of 1893 coins or stamps. Collectors like Barnaby Mayne grab everything they can find: fossils and ferns, snake skins and pickled body parts, skulls and statuettes. Mayne’s house is less a carefully curated museum than a madhouse of objects stored in and on every available surface and coveted by his fellow collectors all over London.

So when he shows up dead one day, the immediate question becomes what to do with all this stuff. His widow can’t wait to sell it to the highest bidder; solving the crime takes a back seat, in her view. (One imagines Sir Barnaby might not have been the kind of spouse one would miss. On the page he is unremittingly self-centered.) Only Lady Cecily Kay, an amateur botanist mining the collector’s plants for specimens that match those she’s brought back to England, can’t resist the intellectual puzzle of who, exactly, murdered Sir Barnaby and why.

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

Lady Cecily Kay has just returned to England when she encounters Sir Barnaby Mayne. It’s 1703, Queen Anne is on the throne, and London’s coffee houses are buzzing with discussions of everything from science and philosophy to monsters and magic. Of course, Cecily has no plans to join the ongoing conversations; coffee houses bar the door to female visitors, however intelligent and learned. But she has secured something better: an entrée to the house of the city’s most influential collector, where she can compare her list of previously unknown plants to his rooms filled with specimens and, with luck, identify them.

On Cecily’s first day in the Mayne house, however, Sir Barnaby is stabbed to death. His meek curator confesses to the crime, and even the victim’s widow seems willing to ignore any discrepancies in the evidence. With assistance from Meacan Barlow, an illustrator also living in Sir Barnaby’s house, Cecily sets out to tie up the loose ends on a murder that far too many people would prefer to remain unsolved. Her quest leads her into the shadowy world of London’s collectors, who will stop at nothing to cut out the competition and have no qualms about silencing a pair of nosy women who are coming too close to the truth.

Elsa Hart, the author of the famed Li Du novels, here brings her talent for spinning a great yarn and crafting a compelling mystery to a new place, which—as you will learn in the interview—is in fact her original literary destination, attained at last.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Echoes of the Past

In the history we learn (or, too often, endure) in school, the Renaissance is a shining light at the end of the medieval tunnel, itself an improvement over what came before. The names say it all, don’t they? The Roman Empire dies under the clashing swords of barbarians from the north, plunging Europe into the Dark Ages and a slow climb through that mixture of feudalism and religious monotheism known as the Middle Ages, ending in a burst of cultural creativity characterized as Rebirth.

But rebirth of what? In school we learn about the return to classical learning, the restoration of humanity to the center of our understanding of the universe, a secular approach supposedly recovered from antiquity—as if the ancient Greeks and Romans had no gods and exercised no control over inconvenient naysayers who refused to honor the emperor as divine. We encounter Michelangelo and his David, Leonardo da Vinci and his flying machine (and so much else), Martin Luther and his Ninety-five Theses—and, admittedly, the Borgias, although even they come across as somehow “modern” compared to Charlemagne and bubonic plague.

But as Erika Rummel shows in her interview on New Books in Historical Fiction, and even more clearly in her latest novel, The Road to Gesualdo, which we discuss in that interview, the reality of the Renaissance—even in its Italian birthplace—was a great deal more complicated than the simplistic picture would indicate. And since fiction tends to benefit from forays into the less savory elements of human nature, the result is a fascinating literary journey into the past.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction

The Italian Renaissance introduced—or reintroduced—many valuable concepts to society and culture, giving rise eventually to our modern world. But it was also a time of fierce political infighting, social inequality, the subjugation of women, religious intolerance, belief in witchcraft, and many other elements that are more fun to read about than to experience. In The Road to Gesualdo, Erika Rummel draws on her years as a historian of the sixteenth century to bring this captivating story to life.

When Leonora d’Este, the daughter of the powerful family running the Italian city-state of Ferrara, receives orders from her brother to marry Prince Carlo of Gesualdo, she accepts the arranged match without protest. Her lady-in-waiting, Livia Prevera, does not. Prince Carlo, Livia argues, must have a secret, because the courtiers of Ferrara get quiet whenever his name comes up. Only after the wedding ceremony does Leonora discover that Livia is right. Prince Carlo murdered his first wife and her lover after finding them in bed together, his legal right at the time but an act committed with sufficient savagery to cast doubt on his mental health.

At first, Carlo and Leonora establish a bond through their love of music, but as time goes on, Livia becomes ever more concerned about a series of threats to her own health and, by extension, the future of those she cares about. Meanwhile, Pietro, the man she loves but cannot marry due to poverty on both sides, has been sent to Rome on a mission for Leonora’s brother: to discover whether the Gesualdo family really holds the power the d’Este clan expects and requires. Part of Pietro’s mission involves an arranged marriage with the daughter of a wealthy diplomat. Surrounded by plots and treachery, Livia and Pietro struggle to balance the demands of love, loyalty, and practicality—always hoping that fate will bring them together once more.

Image: Sixteenth-century portrait of Carlo Gesualdo by an unknown artist, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Taking a Vacation

In normal years, July and August are prime time for summer vacations. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, that is not the case in 2020, but I hope all of you can nonetheless find some room for relaxation amid the lockdowns and quarantines.

For myself, the summer is prime writing time: with a week or two free of constant work-related demands, I can ease into the company of a new set of characters. The end of a workday can be productive in terms of revisions—as are weekends, especially the three- and four-day variety. But there’s nothing like an uninterrupted span of days to get the creative juices flowing. Characters come alive, start nattering in my head at night, and direct the plot in previously unimagined ways that spark new directions and possibilities.

Yet neither of those kind of vacations is the subject of this post. One often overlooked but invaluable tool in producing a finished book is to set a full draft aside for a couple of months, then go back to it with fresh eyes. Complicated explanations, twisty plot points, and characters who suddenly react in a way that is entirely out of character—all these flaws become visible after a writer creates enough space between the world inside her head and the response from a reader whose ability to understand inevitably depends on what actually gets onto the page.

By taking a break, the writer becomes that reader. I’m going through this process now with Song of the Sisters, the third novel in my Songs of Steppe & Forest series, and it’s a wonderfully rewarding experience. Unlike Songs 4, which exists in the ether and requires me to capture it with the author’s equivalent of a butterfly net, Songs 3 has a beginning, a middle, and an end; a protagonist and antagonist(s); a character arc. It’s been read by knowledgeable readers and critiqued from start to finish. I would have sworn it was done except for some last-minute vetting of the wording to avoid repetition and anachronisms.

But coming back to it, I can see that it’s not. I’m finding plot points that don’t connect to those around them, character reactions left over from previous versions, doubled letters or meetings or conversations where one would serve just as well. And that’s not counting the few problems that the fine folks in my writers’ group already picked up but I held off on entering until I had time to read the whole.

It’s a fun exercise and, I hope, will lead in the end to a better book. If you’re a writer who rushes to publish, I strongly recommend that you too take a break in the middle. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? If your novel was perfect to start with, it won’t become less perfect over time.

But few novels are perfect at the end of the rough draft—or even the fourth draft. For those that aren’t, a vacation or two can work wonders.

And because it’s July, and with the help of our wonderful Five Directions Press cover designer, Courtney J. Hall, we now have a final cover for Song of the Sisters that I not only love but that reflects a crucial incident in the story, here is my “Christmas in July” cover reveal. The book itself should be available in January 2021.

Well, unless I make good use of that Christmas vacation …

And if you need a book cover (romance preferred, whether historical, romantic suspense, contemporary, or other), you can find Courtney’s terms and portfolio at The Magenta Quill.

Images: cat on beach purchased on subscription from; butterfly public domain via Wikimedia Commons; cover design property of C. P. Lesley, Courtney J. Hall, and Five Directions Press.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Bookshelf, Summer 2020

Heather Bell Adams, The Good Luck Stone (Haywire Books, June 2020)
Yet another WWII novel, but this one’s twist is that it begins with Audrey, a ninety-year-old woman still living semi-independently in her Savannah mansion. Her family hires a part-time caretaker, Laurel, and the two women establish a rapport—until Audrey disappears. Only then does it gradually become clear that Audrey has harbored a secret since her years as a nurse in the South Pacific and needs to face the truth to find peace. I’ll feature Heather Adams’ answers to my questions on this blog in early fall, but you can find the book already on Amazon; it came out last month.

Elsa Hart, The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne (Minotaur Books, 2020)
A departure—perhaps better characterized as a sidestep—from Jade Dragon Mountain and its sequels, a series I love. Here Hart, a young and talented mystery writer with a real gift for laying out the clues yet surprising me anyway, follows one of her characters west and back in time, to Queen Anne’s London in 1703.

Sir Barnaby Mayne, a noted collector of pretty much any bizarre object he can lay his hands on, is found stabbed in his study. His curator confesses to the crime, and the authorities are happy to let it go. Even the dead man’s widow asks no questions, but Lady Cecily Kay and her childhood friend Meacan Barlow are determined to find out the truth, even when the quest places their own lives at risk. I’ll be talking with Hart on New Books in Historical Fiction in early August.

Laurie R. King, Riviera Gold (Bantam, 2020)
In this latest installment of another historical mystery series that I love, Sherlock Holmes and his much younger wife, Mary Russell, travel to the French Riviera, not far from Monte Carlo. There they re-encounter their housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, who left England under a cloud a few books back and, lo and behold, has managed to attract new trouble to herself.

The joy of this series is Mary—Sherlock’s match in intellect, daring, and courage—and her relationship with her aging husband. Although their interactions often seem more business-like than passionate (and involve an element of competition), Mary and Holmes are so perfectly matched that their love for each other is never in doubt. The book came out last month, and I’m just waiting for a gap in my reading schedule before tearing into it with glee.

Gill Paul, Jackie and Maria (William Morrow, 2020)
I enjoyed this author’s The Secret Wife and The Lost Daughter, which told semi-fantastical stories about how two of the Romanov princesses might have escaped Bolshevik bullets and bayonets and in the process explored the lives of Russians who escaped the revolution and who didn’t.

Here Paul turns her focus to Jackie Bouvier Kennedy and the opera star Maria Callas—united, if that’s the right word, by their sequential attraction to Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate. These fascinating stories to some extent took place in the background of my childhood, although mostly in ways I didn’t recognize then. A Q&A with Gill Paul should appear on this blog around the middle of August, when William Morrow releases the book.

Bryn Turnbull, The Woman before Wallis (MIRA Books, 2020)
It would be hard to grow up in the English-speaking Western world without at some point hearing about Wallis Simpson and how she convinced the English king Edward VIII to abdicate his throne to marry her, a divorced woman. But Wallis was merely the most successful of a string of lovers that Edward, known to his family and friends as David, maintained during his tenure as Prince of Wales.

This new novel, due out next week, follows the story of Thelma, Lady Furness, whose twin sister, Gloria, married Reggie Vanderbilt and gave birth to the fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt. Thelma, an American divorced at a young age, was delighted to attract the attention of Viscount Furness, even if marriage to him meant moving to a drafty estate in England and acquiring two stepchildren. But once she gets there, she learns that her husband thinks nothing of affairs with other women. When the Prince of Wales falls in love with her, Lord Furness steps aside, and their marriage slowly crumbles. When Thelma introduces Prince David to Wallis Simpson, that relationship suffers as well. But it’s the escalating conflict between Thelma’s sister and their mother that really forces Thelma to define what matters most. I finished this compelling story last week, but I include it here because I will interview Bryn Turnbull for New Books in Historical Fiction in mid-August.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Interview with James Ross

I’ve been conducting a lot of author interviews recently, the happy result of having been offered more good books than I can reasonably fit into my podcast schedule. Today I’m featuring James Ross, whose historical novel Hunting Teddy Roosevelt is due for release at the end of July. It’s not exactly a mystery, in that we learn the identity of the intended killer and the reasons behind the assassination attempt against the former US president early on: the unknowns are rather how the crime will take place, if it does—and, since this is a novel instead of a history book—whether the would-be assassin will succeed.

There are contemporary overlaps to Ross’s story as well. Teddy Roosevelt’s decision to wipe out as much African wildlife as possible for the sake of the Smithsonian Institute and New York’s Natural History Museum now seems both ecologically disastrous and (unwittingly) offensive in its approach to what we now call the Third World. And as we discuss at the end of the interview, in the wake of the recent protests in the United States, the same Natural History Museum has removed its commemorative statue to Roosevelt because of its colonialist elements.

But the only way to overcome the shortcomings of our past is to face them, and the fact that these problems continue to exist in our present make this novel even more of a necessary and compelling read. So read on to find out more. Some of the answers may surprise you.

You have an interesting history. How did you come to write fiction?

I wrote my first book in college. I’m publishing my first one, Hunting Teddy Roosevelt, the same year I start to collect social security. It’s been a long haul. One of the reasons it took so long is that the common (and often only) advice given to new writers when I was starting out was to follow Hemingway's dictum: “Begin with one true sentence.” I did and, over the next decade, wrote a trunk full of manuscripts before realizing that without plot, characterization, drama, and other fundamentals of good storytelling, several hundred pages of true sentences are unreadable and unpublishable. Fortunately, and with the help of an excellent writing group called NovelPro, I finally learned the basic blocking and tackling of fiction and have made steady progress since then.

And what made you want to tell a story about Teddy Roosevelt, especially in the year after he stepped down from the presidency?

Quite by accident, I came across a 1909 Italian newspaper that contained an account of the arrest of an anarchist who had allegedly attacked Roosevelt with a knife while he was traveling by ship to Europe on his way to Africa. Today, we’re all too familiar with attempts to kill office seekers and office holders, but in 1909 Roosevelt was out of power and on his way to a part of the world that routinely killed 80% or more of the reckless adventurers who went off to challenge its jungles and deserts. So this obscure Italian newspaper account of a shipboard attempt on Roosevelt’s life raised some interesting questions. Among them: Why would someone go to the trouble of trying to kill an ex-office holder on his way to some place that was likely to kill him anyway? Who would do it? And how did an attempt to kill Teddy Roosevelt not make it into any American newspaper, history book, or Roosevelt biography? Was the story suppressed? And if so, by whom and how?

Hunting Teddy Roosevelt is a fictional attempt to answer these questions. And while I’m not a historian, I hope my book gives professional historians a decent head start on an intriguing mystery.

Why has Roosevelt gone to Africa, and what is he leaving behind?

Honoring George Washington’s precedent of declining to run for a third consecutive term, Roosevelt left office in March 1909 and turned the presidency over to his successor, William Howard Taft, with the promise to stay out of the public eye for a year to give Taft a chance to be his own man. To keep that promise, Roosevelt left America to lead the largest African safari ever assembled: 260 men and 20 tons of supplies and equipment, with the objective of gathering specimens of African game animals for the Smithsonian and New York Museum of Natural History.

Unknown to Roosevelt, the Smithsonian raised much of the safari’s funding from J. P. Morgan, the richest private citizen of that era. Morgan was happy to underwrite the cost of keeping Roosevelt out of the country for a year if that would give him time to work with the more business-savvy Taft administration to undo Roosevelt’s anti-business legislation. Morgan’s toast on TR’s departure was a pithy (and revealing): “America expects every lion to do its duty.”

Roosevelt was a larger-than-life character in an age that spawned more than its share: hero of the Spanish American War for leading a band of Badlands cowboys on a daring cavalry charge up San Juan Hill, Cuba; police commissioner of the City of New York, responsible for ending rampant police corruption and breaking the grip of Tammany Hall on New York politics; at age forty-three, the youngest president of the United States—who dismantled monopolies in railroad, oil, and other industries; won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering an end to the Russo-Japanese War; and used a “speak softly but carry a big stick” foreign policy to ignite a revolution in Panama that secured for the United States the right to build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

But Roosevelt’s aggressive style and controversial accomplishments created enemies as well as admirers, and first among them was J. P. Morgan. Morgan blamed Roosevelt’s assault on business monopolies (then known as trusts) for triggering the stock market panic of 1907 that nearly destroyed the country’s financial system. The Federal Reserve Bank did not then exist, and only Morgan’s daring use of his entire personal fortune to prop up the largest failing banks saved the country from financial collapse. The US economy had become as strong as any in Europe, but it was vulnerable to periodic booms and busts. Morgan’s view was that if the country was to realize the promise of its natural advantages, it must have modern and efficient business structures: a national bank, a national railroad, and an end to wasteful competition in basic commodities. Europe was once again headed toward war, and if America could avoid entanglement, it would have a chance to fulfill its destiny as the dominant global power with all the attendant rewards. But only if it could get its economic house in order; and only if that madman, Teddy Roosevelt, could be kept permanently away from the throttles of power.

Somewhere in that mix is the answer to the questions of who, why, and how?

On the trip, he runs into a childhood sweetheart—indeed, his first love, Maggie Dunn, an intrepid newspaper reporter who reminded me of Nellie Bly. What causes her to accept this assignment?

Maggie is a serious journalist, and she wants to cover serious stories—like the resurgence of slavery in the Sudan, Belgian colonial atrocities in the Congo, and German preparations for war in East Africa. But she has to make a living. To do that, she takes on an assignment for the sensationalist Hearst newspapers (the Fox News/National Enquirer of its time) to cover the colorful ex-president’s gargantuan safari as a means of getting her to Africa and paying her expenses while she pursues her serious journalism.

And what can you tell us about Jimmy Dooley?

Jimmy Dooley is a fictional character, loosely based on my paternal grandfather, an uneducated Irish tough who lived by his wits in the hardscrabble environment of turn-of-the-century New York. He had a brief career as a professional boxer, fighting under the name Tiger Ross. I only knew him later in life, but even in his 70s, he was as hard as a floor, with lean, ropy muscles and a permanent scowl. If he told you to hand over your wallet, you’d do it fast, no questions asked.

Teddy Roosevelt has been in the news lately because of the New York Museum of Natural History’s decision to take down his statue. Do you see any connection between this decision and your novel?

If Teddy Roosevelt was alive today, he’d help pull down that statue. He hated the idea of monuments to politicians. In fact, it was his expressed wish (ignored after his death) that no statue or other monument be erected of him. The one outside the New York Museum of Natural History is appalling: TR astride a whacking great horse with supplicant African and Native Americans below. TR would have been outraged and embarrassed.

This book has just come out. Are you already working on something new?

Yes! I’ve just signed a three-book contract with the mystery publisher Level Best Books. The first novel, Coldwater Revenge, is about two brothers involved with the same woman and the problems that ensue when they discover she’s a murderess and one brother begins to suspect the other of helping her cover it up. It’s due out in April 2022. The second and third books in the series should come out in April 2023 an 2024, respectively.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

James Ross has been at various times a Peace Corps volunteer, a Congressional staffer, and a Wall Street lawyer. His short fiction has appeared in numerous literary publications, he has appeared as a guest storyteller on the Moth Main Stage, and his short story “Aux Secours” has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is a frequent contributor to, and occasional winner of, the Jackson, Wyoming, live storytelling competition, Cabin Fever Story Slam. Find out more about him at

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Interview with Eliot Pattison

As we get ready to celebrate the birthday of the United States of America—just six years short of its 250th anniversary—it might be good to revisit what came before. On this day, July 2, a group of rebels met in Philadelphia and signed the Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson. (For those who may not know, the signing was made public two days later, which is why Independence Day falls on July 4.)

The discontent among the colonists went back many years. The King’s Beast, the latest installment of Eliot Patterson’s Bone Rattler series, starts in 1769. Duncan McCallum, the hero of the series, has traveled to the Kentucky wilderness on a commission from Benjamin Franklin: to unearth a set of giant bones found in a mud pit and convey said bones to London. But a triple murder at the excavation site leads Duncan along a twisted path of deceit, revenge, and betrayal that affect not only himself but the Sons of Liberty, the underground revolutionary organization to which Duncan belongs.

One of the elements that make Duncan appealing is that he—and several other major characters in the series—have deep ties to the Native American and black (both slave and free) populations. In this sense, although he still considers himself a loyal subject of the English king, he is already occupying a different cultural and emotional space. Unlike many of his compatriots, Duncan and his friends welcome the complexities of that space.

Given the centuries-long history of racism and oppression in this country, which has tarnished the bright dreams of liberty and justice for all, it is reassuring to encounter a hero who understands that it takes more than one kind of person to build a nation. Eliot Pattison was kind enough to answer my questions about Duncan and his world. Please read on to find out more.

This is the sixth novel in your Bone Rattler series. What made you decide to write a mystery series set in the years leading up to the American Revolution?

Americans are alarmingly disconnected from their history, which perhaps is no wonder given the sterile way it is presented in our textbooks and most classrooms. In many ways these years before the outbreak of war were the true period of revolution, for this is the time of our extraordinary shift in self-identity, when the inhabitants of these shores began to think of themselves not as British colonists but as Americans. This was one of the most extraordinary periods of our past, when advancements in education, printing, and science were liberating people like never before. The period offers profound lessons for today, and I am convinced that when done well historical fiction can connect readers with the past much more effectively than any textbook. Reducing the complex humans of our past to shallow soundbites and classroom statistics diminishes ourselves as much as them. We need to grasp that except for differences in technology and material possessions, these people of the eighteenth century shared many of the same ambitions, appetites, frustrations and conflicts that we have today. This series not only allows me to make this vital period more relatable to readers, it offers them hands-on involvement with the birth of our country.

What specifically drew you to the story that became The King’s Beast?

My novels in this series are all built around authentic elements of the period—for example, the Stamp Tax, the repression of the native tribes, slavery, and the legacy of the bloody French and Indian War. This installment draws upon the wave of scientific discovery occurring during this time and the widespread effect of the nonimportation pacts which arose in reaction to London’s repressive restrictions on trade. I immerse myself in research before launching into a novel, and I was amazed at the remarkable events of 1769, including the opening of the Kentucky lands with their fabled bones of a mysterious beast, and the fierce competition between Philadelphia astronomers and the king’s royal scholars over the transit of Venus—all of which become plot elements in The King’s Beast.

Your main character is Duncan McCallum. He’s a Scotsman, an émigré. How did he end up in Pennsylvania, and how would you describe him as a character. What does he want in life?

Duncan McCallum was about to complete his medical education in Edinburgh when he was falsely arrested for supporting Jacobite traitors and put in chains for transportation to America as an indentured servant, effectively a form of slavery that was a common punishment for Scots who offended the government. Duncan is thrust into the frontier of New York and Pennsylvania, in the shadow of the fearsome wilderness, which everyone knows is populated by bloodthirsty savages. Duncan is forced into fearful confrontation with the natives, and to his surprise he finds them to be quite the opposite of the image portrayed in public accounts—in fact they remind him of his own compassionate, spirited Highland relatives. As he faces crisis after crisis, eventually using his skills to solve murders of colonists and natives which would otherwise be ignored by the government, he develops a profound respect for the tribes and begins to experience the unfamiliar freedom that the American lands seem to breed. Despite his legally imposed servitude Duncan cultivates that independence, and eventually experiences the complexities, and burdens, of colonial freedom as he is drawn into the affairs of the Sons of Liberty.

When we meet him in this novel, Duncan is searching for something known to those on his expedition only as the incognitum. Why are they looking for it, and how does their discovery lead to murder?

During the late 1760s accounts of the remains of a mysterious creature in the Kentucky lands are stirring excitement and controversy in both colonial towns and Europe. Benjamin Franklin, now in his long tenure as colonial envoy in London, has devised a plan to use the remains of this incognitum to elevate the colonial cause with the king, if someone can just perform the impossible task of secretly bringing them to him in London. Duncan reluctantly accepts this challenge and only when he arrives at the other-worldly Bone Lick of Kentucky does he discover that clandestine agents from London will stop at nothing, not even murder, to prevent him from getting the bones to Franklin. 

In pursuit of the murderers, Duncan heads for Philadelphia, where he reconnects with Sarah Ramsey, the woman he loves. Like Duncan, she has links to the Iroquois, although that is only part of her story. What can you tell us about her?

Like all my primary characters, Sarah Ramsey is an amalgam of authentic figures of the period. The daughter of the wealthy London aristocrat who owns Duncan’s bond of indenture, Sarah was captured as a young girl and raised by the Iroquois, then in her late teen years was forced against her will to return to European society—reflecting the actual experience of a number of captives. Like Duncan, Sarah is fiercely independent. The two resist the forces of British society, and as they help each other recalibrate their lives their affection for one another grows. She forces her father to surrender Duncan’s ownership to herself and together they start building the community of Edentown, a frontier refuge for orphans and outcasts. Sarah remains deeply loyal to the Iroquois but, like Duncan, is drawn into the cause of American independence, hoping that driving out the British government will help preserve the tribes. By the time of this sixth installment Sarah has taken on a leadership role in the nonimportation resistance movement, a role so secret that not even Duncan knows of it—until he learns that she too has been targeted for death by spymasters in London.

Duncan belongs to the Sons of Liberty. What does that mean in 1769, and what does it have to do with Duncan’s journey to London?

Although the Sons of Liberty were formed to oppose the Stamp Tax of 1765, as London imposed new repressive measures on the colonies, the Sons revived and by 1769 were coordinating across colonial borders to advance their goals. Duncan has served as a secret emissary of the Sons on the frontier and is valued for his knowledge of the wilderness and the tribes. When Benjamin Franklin cryptically requests that the Sons retrieve the ancient bones for the colonial cause in London, Duncan is their obvious choice. Little does he know that this path will lead to murder and mayhem, and mark him for death.

This book came out in early April. Are you already working on something new?

There will be a seventh book in the series, set in the tumultuous year of 1770, when the Boston Massacre occurs. Meanwhile I am working on a new, more contemporary series.

An international lawyer by training, Pattison is the author of the Inspector Shan series, which includes ten novels—beginning with the award-winning The Skull Mantra. His longtime interest in eighteenth-century America, including its woodland tribes, gave rise to his Bone Rattler series, of which The King’s Beast is the sixth installment. Ashes of the Earth, a stand-alone post-apocalyptic mystery, appeared in 2011. He resides on an eighteenth-century farm in Pennsylvania with his wife, son and an ever-expanding menagerie of animals. Learn more about him at

Image credit: Jerry Bauer.

Friday, June 26, 2020

That Which Survives

Janie Chang’s latest novel discusses many important topics—some familiar, some less so. One of the reasons I wanted to interview the author, in fact, was precisely because it approaches well-known territory from a new and interesting angle. On the surface, The Library of Legends is a book about war: the Japanese occupation of China in the years leading up to World War II, in particular. Beneath the surface, though, it touches on a much broader range of issues both personal and political.

The basic premise is simple. A university in Nanjing decides to evacuate its students to protect them from the advancing Japanese army. In their baggage, each of them carries a single volume of an ancient encyclopedia. Their assignment is to convey their individual volume to its destination, a thousand miles to the west—but also to read it along the way and master its contents. Because the encyclopedia encapsulates the folklore of their nation: its heritage.

On this foundation, Janie Chang deftly weaves together themes of friendship and treachery, a murder and an arrest, a love story spanning centuries, the bonds of mother and daughter, even the involvement of spiritual forces. It sounds like it couldn’t work, yet it does.

But most of all, this is a novel about literature and legends—about books, what their survival mean to us as individuals and as cultures. In the midst of today’s pandemic and unrest, which can seem so overwhelming, it is worth remembering that ours is not the first generation to face such crises, nor—barring some unimaginable catastrophe—will we be the last. So let us protect our own Library of Legends, the essence of our culture, for those future generations.

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

Perhaps in anticipation of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the armistice, or just the reality that the last survivors will not be with us much longer, World War II has dominated the genre of historical fiction for some time. But two years before Hitler’s aggression against Poland set off the conflagration in Europe, imperial Japan occupied China, capturing Shanghai and Nanjing before launching bombing forays westward.

In The Library of Legends, Janie Chang draws on family stories and ancient legends to weave a fact-based yet mystical tale about this period in China’s long history. The novel focuses on a group of university students evacuated from Nanjing as the Japanese army approaches. Eager to defend their cultural heritage, the students embrace the task assigned to them: safeguarding an encyclopedia of lore compiled during the early Ming dynasty five hundred years before.

Hu Lian, a scholarship recipient from a single-parent family, encounters Liu Shaoming and his enigmatic former servant, Sparrow Chen, just as the students are starting on their long and difficult journey west. Friendship, even romance, blossoms between Lian and Shao—a love she does not trust because he comes from a background far wealthier than her own. But after a communist student agitator is murdered and suspicion falls on another of Lian’s friends, it is Shao and Sparrow who support Lian as she leaves the convoy to search for her mother. Only on the road east does Lian realize that the volume of the Legends entrusted to her includes a tale that may illuminate not only the elusive connection between her traveling companions but the destiny of China itself.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Interview with Carolyn James

Although I mostly write historical fiction these days, I am still a historian specializing in the early modern period (1500–1800), especially Russia. And as you may have noticed, most of my novels revolve around political marriages: young men and women pushed into them or striving to avoid them while their elders bend heaven and earth to arrange them. So it is no surprise that when I heard about Carolyn James’ new study A Renaissance Marriage: The Political and Personal Alliance of Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga, 1490–1519 (Oxford University Press, 2020), I wanted to know more—not least because this book is based on something that historians of Russia cannot count on until at least the 1700s: a decades-long correspondence between husband and wife.

As often happens with academic books, my first search resulted in sticker shock. But the advantage of reviewing books is that publishers often send them free of charge, so I pursued this angle. My initial plan to interview the author for New Books in History, another podcast channel on the New Books Network, foundered on the reality of a fifteen-hour time difference, so I persuaded the author (who was actually willing, bless her heart, to get up at the crack of dawn to talk with me) to answer written questions instead.

So read on. This is not exactly the world behind my Legends novels, although Juliana and Felix, in Song of the Siren, would definitely feel quite at home. But even at a distance of fifteen hundred miles, there are principles operating here that my characters would recognize. After all, the second wife of Ivan III of Russia, Sophia (Zoë) Paleologina, left Italy, where she had grown up, to marry him in 1472. And she brought with her not only scholars and diplomats but those artists and architects whose work we can still see in the Moscow Kremlin.

Not such a great gulf after all!

So tell us, who were Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga, and what do we most need to know about them?

Isabella d’Este (1474–1519) was the eldest child of Ercole d’Este, duke of Ferrara (r.1471–1505), and of the Neapolitan princess Eleonora d’Aragona (1450–1493). Francesco Gonzaga (1466–1519) was heir to the neighboring marquisate of Mantua. The betrothal of Francesco and Isabella in 1480 continued a tradition whereby the Este and Gonzaga rulers married women from more illustrious families than their own. By doing so, they aimed to improve their bloodlines while bolstering their hold on power by forming alliances with major political dynasties. However, whereas in the previous two generations the Gonzaga had looked to Germany in their search for suitable brides for the future ruler, the third marquis, Federico Gonzaga, decided to strengthen relations with the neighboring duchy of Ferrara by agreeing to a match between his fourteen-year-old son, Francesco, and the duke’s six-year-old daughter, Isabella. The couple married in early 1490, after a decade-long betrothal.

Federico Gonzaga’s death in 1484 thrust Francesco into power at a young age. His mother had already died in 1479. During the remaining six years of the betrothal, Isabella’s parents encouraged their future son-in-law to spend long periods in Ferrara. They attempted to fill the emotional void that Francesco experienced in the aftermath of his parents’ death. The alliance between Ferrara and Mantua therefore became very close.

The political partnership of Isabella and Francesco was by no means unique. There were similar collaborations in earlier generations of their families. The duchess of Ferrara, Eleonora d’Aragona, supported her husband’s regime by taking charge of diplomatic relations with her Aragonese relatives and acting as Ercole d’Este’s occasional regent. Francesco’s mother, Margaret von Wittelsbach of Bavaria, and particularly his grandmother, Barbara of Brandenburg, who lived until 1481, also played important diplomatic and administrative roles. Isabella was carefully educated to ensure she would be able to do the same. The stark differences in literacy and levels of education between husband and wife that characterized most premodern marriages did not exist in that of Isabella and Francesco, or indeed in those of their immediate forebears. The letters exchanged by the couple show how well matched they were in terms of cultural sophistication and political acumen. My book explores the consequences of this parity in a marriage that was still subject to conventional notions about a husband’s absolute authority over his wife.

And what got you interested in them as subjects of your research? How did you discover their correspondence?

Scholars have long been aware of the existence of correspondence between Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga. The late nineteenth-century archivist and antiquarian Alessandro Luzio used some of the couple’s letters in his many studies of Isabella, which characterized Francesco as a crude and violent soldier who did not deserve such a peerless wife. This exaggerated interpretation is not supported by the evidence.

The letters exchanged by Isabella and Francesco over the twenty-nine years of their marriage survive in many separate files of the Gonzaga archive. I became interested in the couple’s correspondence while I was working in the State Archive of Mantua on the Bolognese literary figure Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti. He wrote a collection of biographies of famous women modeled on Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women). Boccaccio’s work, written in about 1360, focused on ancient classical heroines. In Gynevera de le clare donne (Ginevra among the Famous Women) Arienti wrote mostly about women near to his own time, many of them from Italy’s political dynasties. He sent Isabella d’Este a copy of his work in 1492. She was pleased by the gift, which showcased the virtue, political competence, and intelligence of women who, like her, were active in the public sphere. The biographies pushed back against an entrenched clerical tradition of misogyny, which insisted that the female sex was innately weak, prone to sin and unfit for political responsibilities of any kind. Arienti’s literary offering initiated a warm relationship with the marchioness in which she accepted him as a client who supplied her with regular political and other news that came his way in Bologna.

In searching for Isabella’s replies to Arienti’s letters, I became aware of the magnitude of her correspondence with Francesco. After a thorough search, I discovered that three thousand of the couple’s exchanges were extant, many of them in more than one copy. Outgoing letters were recorded before dispatch, and the originals were brought back by the couple’s secretaries for filing in the chancery once they had been read by the recipient. Thus almost the entire correspondence exists in one form or another—a very rare occurrence, even in modern times. It struck me that the letters were a unique record of the evolution of an elite marriage. The collection spoke of so many aspects of the couple’s lives and, although nearly all the letters were dictated to secretaries and were therefore not private documents, they nonetheless revealed an extraordinary range of the emotional currents that ran through this politically charged relationship and how those feelings changed over time.

Both Isabella and Francesco grew up in households where women played powerful political roles. For readers who may not expect that of Renaissance Europe, explain how that happened.

Isabella and Francesco came from families which had established their political dominance in the late medieval period through force of arms. The rulers of Mantua and Ferrara remained soldier-princes and earned much needed extra income by fighting as military captains for wealthier states such as the duchy of Milan and the republic of Venice. With economies that were mainly agriculturally based, taxation levied on crops, tithes paid by craft traversing the river Po, and imposts on commodities crossing their borders were simply not sufficient to fund the lavish courts and magnificent cultural patronage of the Este and Gonzaga princes.

The Gonzaga and Este rulers preferred to have their wives act as regents while they were on the battlefield, bitter experience having shown that male relatives were likely to use the temporary absences of the reigning prince to usurp power for themselves. A female consort had an investment in power devolving to her children and was therefore a far more trustworthy political lieutenant than a ruler’s younger brother or uncle.

Isabella, when she married, was fifteen, and Francesco a young man of twenty-three. How did that age difference affect the early years of their marriage?

The eight-year age difference that separated Isabella and Francesco would have been perceived by their contemporaries as unremarkable, indeed far less than the marital norm. In the republic of Florence, for example, it was common for forty-year-old men to marry girls of sixteen. Age difference between prospective partners was not a significant consideration for parents thinking about prospective matches, although the capacity of a woman to bear children was. Girls usually married when they reached physical maturity. The Gonzaga pressed for the wedding of Francesco and Isabella to take place when the latter was twelve. Eleonora refused to contemplate this possibility on the grounds that her daughter was too young and her health too delicate for such a profound change in her life. The duchess made various excuses to delay the wedding until Isabella was a few months short of sixteen. Even so, there is evidence that Isabella experienced the early phase of marriage as a physical and emotional trauma. She suffered acutely from homesickness and was terrified of becoming pregnant for fear of dying in childbirth, a fate she well knew took many young women to an early grave.

The Este and Gonzaga parents were proactive in trying to kindle love between their betrothed children. In the early years, the age gap between them yawned significantly, separating a coddled little girl from an adolescent man already sexually active and interested in vigorous outdoor sports. It took some years for the pair to bond after marriage, but eventually they did so.

Despite those initial difficulties, they succeeded in developing a functional political and personal partnership. What does their correspondence reveal about that process?

Although Isabella was slow to adapt to the emotional and procreative expectations of marriage, letters to Francesco show that she was far more forthcoming in embracing a political role. Francesco was pleased by her readiness to take on administrative duties and he gradually permitted her to help him more often.

The failure to produce a male heir during the first decade of marriage was a source of great anxiety for Isabella. Francesco was more relaxed, the birth of two daughters, the second of whom died in infancy, reassuring him that his wife was fertile and that a boy would eventually come along. The joy with which he greeted the birth of Federico in May 1500 suggests that he too may have been growing worried as the years rolled by with no heir to secure the Gonzaga succession.

The period between 1500 and 1506 were golden years in the couple’s relationship as their political collaboration prospered and their family grew. By 1508, they had produced eight children, although only six survived to become adults. Their correspondence documents the pleasure they took in bringing up their children, but also the satisfaction they took in working together politically. Against all the odds, the Gonzaga regime survived the early decades of the Italian Wars, an achievement due in no small part to canny strategizing by Francesco and Isabella who coordinated a campaign of double diplomacy to cultivate the protagonists of both sides of the conflicts.

In the end, though, they grew apart again. Why?

When their children were young, Francesco and Isabella had taken mutual delight in the joys of parenthood, especially savoring the satisfaction of having produced a male heir who in their view was both unusually intelligent and completely charming. The success of their biological collaboration was a source of comfort and pride in a period that witnessed a steady worsening of the Italian political scene. The couple cooperated cannily to deflect the dangers to the regime posed by the Italian Wars, with Francesco serving as a military commander during the early phase of the conflicts, and Isabella keeping the home fires burning with competence and persistence.

However, Francesco’s military career declined swiftly after 1508, when the symptoms of the Great Pox became so invasive and debilitating that, not only was he was unable to fight, but he had to retreat from public view by leaving his apartments in the Gonzaga castle to live in seclusion at a palace on the edge of the city. Here he was subjected to painful and ultimately futile treatments with only a small number of chancery bureaucrats to help him govern. It was Francesco’s secretary, Tolomeo Spagnoli, who now collaborated with him politically, not Isabella.

The couple had already experienced misunderstandings, and there were many earlier squabbles. However, Francesco’s isolation and the suffering imposed by his illness made him far more irritable and autocratic. Marital tensions became more frequent. During a brief period of remission in 1509, Francesco attempted to take to the battlefield in support of the French king, Louis XII. However, he was almost immediately captured and imprisoned by mercenaries in the employ of Venice. Isabella ruled Mantua during her husband’s captivity and negotiated doggedly for his release, which she secured by permitting the pope to take their ten-year-old son Federico into his care as guarantor of the pact that freed Francesco from captivity. Isabella expected to be able to build on the experience she had accumulated during the crisis created by her husband’s imprisonment in Venice. Instead, she was sidelined again. In the last years of the couple’s marriage, the marchioness spent long periods in Milan and Rome in protest at her political marginalization. Although she and Francesco occasionally recovered some of their former camaraderie in letter exchanges that expressed affection and sympathy for the other, the couple mostly lived separate lives. Cordial letters alone were not able to compensate for the lack of routine domestic contact that the couple had experienced when they lived in adjoining apartments within the Gonzaga castle.

What can we learn from their experience about political marriages more generally?

Political marriages were organized to cement strategic alliances, but the lack of consideration given to the personal compatibility of a prospective couple meant that the objectives of such unions were often not realized. Indeed, antipathy between a married couple could create serious diplomatic tensions between the regimes supposedly brought together by the union.

My book explores the ways in which the Gonzaga and Este parents attempted to foster amiable relations between their betrothed children in the long prelude to their marriage so the pair would eventually form a loving and cooperative bond. Francesco and Isabella continued the efforts of their parents and consciously strived to cultivate marital affection, especially through their shared enthusiasm for, and love of, their children. Few sources are as complete and richly evocative in revealing the internal dynamic of a premodern marital relationship as the correspondence between Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga.

And what of you? Does your new research project on the Italian Wars grow out of this one?

My current project does grow out of the study of the political and personal relationship of Isabella and Francesco, since all but four years of their marriage played out against the backdrop of the Italian Wars. This was a series of conflicts that began in 1494 with Charles VIII’s campaign to claim the kingdom of Naples from its Aragonese rulers and continued well beyond the end of the couple’s marriage in 1519. Francesco died that year from the Great Pox, likely contracted on the battlefield soon after the new disease appeared in Naples among French soldiers in the mid-1490s. It spread rapidly throughout Italy and then Europe. Francesco’s life was blighted by the disease, which at its worst rendered him an invalid, racked by intolerable pain and disfigured by disgusting open wounds.

The project on the Italian Wars examines not so much the military aspects of the conflicts which have been much studied, but rather their social, cultural, and political impact. The extreme violence experienced by the populations of Italy’s city states at the hands of the multiethnic mercenaries and their French and Spanish leaders was traumatizing for societies used to the idea that they could control their own political fate. The trophies of war that were ransacked from Italian cities, especially during the infamous sack of Rome in 1527, transported the fruits of the Italian Renaissance to many other parts of Europe, where they profoundly influenced local artistic and cultural traditions.

The political role that Isabella played during the first two decades of the conflicts, which saw the Gonzaga regime vulnerable to attack, especially after Francesco was taken prisoner by the Venetians and imprisoned for a year in 1509, was partly the result of extraordinary circumstances. However, similar crises thrust other elite women into major diplomatic and political roles. The project seeks to examine some of the themes of A Renaissance Marriage over a longer time frame and in various political contexts, not just in Italy but in Europe more generally.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Carolyn James is Cassamarca Associate Professor in the School of Philosophical, Historical, and International Studies at Monash University, Australia. She has edited the letters of the fifteenth-century Bolognese literary figure Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti and analyzed his literary works. With Antonio Pagliaro, she translated the late medieval letters of Margherita Datini. She has written on women's political and diplomatic roles in Renaissance Italy, as well as early modern women's relationship with letter-writing. She is presently engaged on a project focused on the Italian Wars, 1494–1559, with Professor Susan Broomhall and Dr Lisa Mansfield.

Images: Portrait of Francesco Gonzaga (n.d.); Isabella d'Este, by Titian (1535); Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz, The Grand Captain after the Battle of Cerignola (Italian Wars, painted 1835)—all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.