Friday, December 25, 2020

Looking Back--and Forward

Since January 2013, the first full year in which I kept this blog (I began in June 2012, in preparation for the publication of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel), I have set yearly goals for my writing. Since December 2014, I’ve also conducted a year-end review of how well I did.

For various reasons, not least that I already have an author interview lined up for next week, I think this may be the last of those annual round-ups/projections. It becomes repetitive after a while, and I suspect the goals—fuzzy as they are—matter more to me than to my readers. But in a tip of the hat to any semblance of normalcy in this incredible year that we have all endured, here is a look at where my fictional journeys into the past have taken me in 2020 and a hint or two of what to expect in 2021.

My goals as listed in my January 3, 2020, post follow, with comments on what did and didn’t come off.

(1) Publish Song of the Shaman (Songs of Steppe & Forest 2), on schedule in mid-January. This novel follows the attempts of Grusha, another secondary character from the Legends series, to balance her Russian heritage with life in a steppe horde and her own needs against those of her six-year-old son, whose future presents an increasingly pressing problem as he approaches the age when his training for adulthood will begin.

Met. The official release date of Song of the Shaman was January 14, 2020; the print edition actually came out this time last year.

(2) Produce a final manuscript of Song of the Sisters (Songs 3) and sketch out book 4, Song of the Sinner.

Exceeded. I did complete Song of the Sisters, which is now available for Kindle preorder and will release on January 12, 2021. I have also produced three drafts of Song of the Sinner, which my writers’ group is now reading and commenting on at the rate of two chapters per month. When they finish, I will send the book to my favorite fellow Muscovite historian for comment, produce a final draft, and have it ready for release in January 2022. Meanwhile, I am taking advantage of the two-week Christmas/New Year’s holiday to begin work on Songs of Steppe & Forest 5, Song of the Storyteller. Should be lots of fun, as it incorporates the bride show held for Tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1545–47.

These three novels explore the journeys of Darya Sheremeteva, who after spending years nursing her dying father learns that he has left his estate to a ruthless and ambitious cousin (Sisters); her sister Solomonida, a widow who falls in love with a man who is not her social equal and has to choose between him and her responsibility to her almost-marriageable daughter (Sinner); and Lyuba Koshkina, the unlucky youngest daughter of “the shiftiest man in Moscow,” hell-bent on advancing his own career by marrying her off to Tsar Ivan the Terrible, whether she likes it or not (Storyteller). I have rough plans for at least two more novels in the series, and after that, we’ll see.


(3) Complete my half of the rough draft of my first historical mystery novel, co-written with P.K. Adams and tentatively titled These Barbarous Coasts.

Met. After finishing the third draft in July, we renamed the novel The Merchant’s Tale and sent it to readers for comments. The plan for 2021 is to incorporate those comments and produce a final draft, then query agents.

(4) Conduct twelve New Books in Historical Fiction interviews.

Exceeded. I interviewed fifteen authors for New Books in Historical Fiction, fourteen of which posted to my channel at the New Books Network. The fifteenth, with Molly Greeley about her second Pride & Prejudice spinoff, The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh, is scheduled for the week after New Year’s, to coincide with the book’s release on January 5, 2021. Many of those interviews cross-posted to the Literary Hub, where you can find the transcripts and audio recordings by searching for C. P. Lesley at LitHub Radio/New Books Network.

But I received many more offers of guests than I could fit into the podcast schedule, so I also ran written blog Q&A’s with numerous authors throughout the year, starting with Philip Cioffari on Valentine’s Day and ending with Nancy Burkhalter right after Thanksgiving. Those written interviews—with both commercially and small-press published authors—will continue through January and February of next year, so check back for them.

(5) Typeset/proof, produce e-books, and in some cases edit Five Directions Press titles scheduled for 2020.

Met. The lineup changed, so only Song of the Shaman and Joan Schweighardt’s River Aria  appeared, but they did appear!

(6) Stay current with online marketing efforts and outreach.
This goal includes keeping up with my weekly blog posts, maintaining my website and the Five Directions Press website, and participating regularly in such group features as “Books We Loved” and “Five Directions Press Authors Dish”—as well as regular if not daily appearances on Facebook (as my author self and Five Directions Press), Twitter, and Goodreads.

Met. I generally made it to Facebook MWF, Twitter WF, and Goodreads every Friday. Both websites are up-to-date, and have been since January, and I contributed a book I loved every month and at least 3–4 Dish posts throughout the year. This year I also learned about and became a regular participant in 1linewed on Twitter (follow @1linewedlives if you’d like to find out what that is), and made social media friends with a group of fellow-writers on Facebook, which expanded my participation there over the last month to Tuesdays and Thursdays.

So what’s in line for next year? I’d like to have final manuscripts of Song of the Sinner and The Merchant’s Tale, as well as one or more full drafts of Song of the Storyteller and perhaps an initial stab at Song of the Snow Maiden (that is, advancing all the novels by one step, so that I end up in a similar place next December to where I am right now, but farther into the series). P.K. Adams and I may also start work on a sequel to The Merchant’s Tale, although the timing on that has yet to be decided.

My New Books Network interviews are booked into June 2021, so completing the basic twelve seems like a reasonable goal; no doubt the overflow will continue to spill onto this blog. The social media and marketing efforts will go on, and I hope that at least one other Five Directions Press novel besides Song of the Sisters will see the light of day in 2021, although I’m not sure at this moment which author will finish first. Certainly I expect more Dish posts and Books We Loved features.

And although this is not a writing goal, I’m sure it’s one we all share. I’d like to see my family and friends in person again. Those vaccines can’t get here fast enough. So let’s raise a glass to 2020 and hope for better things in the year to come. Happy holidays!

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Friday, December 18, 2020

Outlining: Guest Post by Anne Louise Bannon

As those who follow my blog know, I am not an outliner by nature. I do create lists of story events as I begin a new novel, in part to anchor my tale in the history and in part to keep me on track. But within a month, there is usually so much space between what I thought I was writing and what I actually wrote that the whole enterprise seems not so much fruitless (it did get me started, after all) as hilarious.

But other writers, more disciplined than I, do write outlines. Since this is in part a blog about writing, this week I’ve turned over my post to fellow-author Anne Louise Bannon, who has produced numerous novels using the method she details below. And don’t forget to scroll down to the end to find out more about her books. I’m reading Death of the Zanjero right now, and I can assure you she’s an author to watch.



I teach outlining, and I did not outline this blog post. I kind of did that on purpose to illustrate an essential truth about outlining—that it is only a tool and, as such, has varying degrees of usefulness. In this case, since I have an outline (in the form of a PowerPoint presentation) for the class, writing up a second for this essay seemed a little like overkill.

But then, I tend to be a loose outliner, anyway.

An outline is basically a map, a way of helping you get from the beginning of your story to the end with as few plot holes and loose ends as possible. And the type of map that works best for you is going to vary.

I know folks who outline every beat of every scene, with extended notes on every character, even the ones that are only in the background. Jeffrey Deaver reportedly does that (I do not know for a fact yet). Then there was Tony Hillerman, who I heard give a talk on outlining in which he lamented that he had no idea why he got that topic since he didn’t outline. At all.

You may have heard the terms “plotter” and “pantser.” Deaver’s method is classic, hard-core plotting. Hillerman is the ultimate pantser—a term which comes from the early days of flying airplanes, when there wasn’t as much instrumentation, so you flew by the seat of your pants.

Here's the thing. Most of us are on a spectrum between those two extremes. Here’s the other thing. No one way of outlining is the absolute Right Way to outline. In fact, any time some writing teacher insists that you absolutely must follow their method, do listen. But listen with a whole big bag of salt.

I remember some years ago, I was at this writing seminar and one of the instructors had this one method for working through a second draft. This person insisted that each scene in the novel be evaluated against this acronym (which I may not be sharing here so as not to incriminate myself) and if the scene did not have two of the elements, then it had to go.

I will say the acronym was useful and did help me get through a couple scenes in the first draft that I was working on at the time. And it does help me when I’m having trouble to think about whether a given scene I’m working on is really necessary to the story.

But when I thought about going through an entire manuscript and evaluating each individual scene with that specific method, I knew darned well it wasn’t going to happen. Fortunately, I’d been writing long enough to not let that reality get in the way of finishing that particular work-in-progress.

I do remember a time, though, when that sort of thing would send me for a loop. It’s easy for that to happen when you’re just starting out and don’t entirely know what you’re doing. But what most beginning writers don’t understand is that everybody is different. We are all have our different styles of approaching work, thinking about things, whatever. So, it pays to know what works for you. After all, if you pick the wrong method of outlining, you’re not going to get anything written. Let’s go back to the plotter versus pantser models.

There are some real advantages to being a plotter. You don’t write yourself into corners. The story holds together. You know what additional research you need to do and if you write historical fiction, like I do, then you’re not as likely to base a major plot point on something that wasn’t around when you’re writing. Let’s not discuss whether I have or not.

The downsides of being a plotter is that you sometimes include details you don’t need because they’re there. Some plotters spend so much time on their outlines they never actually write the book. Also, you can get boxed in and have a character that would be better one way, but you can’t change it because of your darned outline.

There are also real advantages to being a pantser. Most pantsers at least start writing and they do get a higher word count because everything is landing on the screen (or page). Also, the more intuitive process that pantsing is can lead to some really interesting places.

Of course, the downside is that pantsers have to do a lot more editing because their stories have gone all over the place. And if you have to write on a schedule, it can be hard to pick up and drop.

As I noted above, most of us are somewhere between the two extremes. Since I write historical mysteries, I need to know whodunit and sometimes why before I start writing. But I’ll generally get about four chapters into my story before starting to put together an actual outline. Why? I have no idea. I just do. I think I had more of my outline done when I started Death of the Chinese Field Hands, the latest in my Old Los Angeles series, but that darned book fought me from the moment I started typing.

Another tool I like to use is the Four-Act story structure. You can do three acts if that works for you. I like Four-Act because almost everyone is intimately familiar with it because almost everyone watches one-hour dramas on TV. Four-Act is easy. Each of the first three acts ends with a significant complication leading up to the final cataclysm and resolution at the end of the story.

That doesn’t mean I always use it. In Death of the Chinese Field Hands, I set up the plot that way, but it went someplace else, and I’m glad I went with it. In Death of the City Marshal (the second in the Old Los Angeles series), the Four-Act structure highlighted a massive plot hole. In the middle of the book, I have a bad guy threatening my sleuth, physician and winemaker Maddie Wilcox. The way it was originally set, he should have just killed her, but that would have meant the end of the series. On the other hand, realizing I had that plot hole gave me an insight into the character, and that made the story stronger.

Which brings me to my final point. The right kind of outline for you can be massively useful, even if you don’t follow it. Having some sort of plan and direction can get you writing, and that’s the key metric. If you’re outlining and outlining and not writing, stop outlining. If you’ve been writing and are floundering, start outlining. It’s not important how you get to “The End,” just that you get there.

Anne Louise Bannon is an author and journalist who wrote her first novel at age fifteen. Her journalistic work has appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Wines and Vines, and in newspapers across the country. She was a TV critic for over ten years, founded the YourFamilyViewer blog, and created the wine education blog with her husband, Michael Holland. She is the co-author of Howdunit: The Book of Poisons, with Serita Stevens, as well as author of the Freddie and Kathy mystery series, set in the 1920s, the Operation Quickline Series, and the Old Los Angeles series, set in the 1870s. Her most recent title is Death of the Chinese Field Hands. She and her husband live in Southern California with an assortment of critters. Visit her website at

Friday, December 11, 2020

Murder in the Marshes

It’s a curious experience to encounter a novel series just as it’s coming to an end. In a sense, it’s like attending a party where everyone but you knows one another well. Personalities are already established, relationships developed, and there is a certain comfort among the principals that an outsider finds intriguing, filled with possibilities and hints at past events.

This is what it was like for me to read Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman’s Death and the Maiden, fifth in a five-part mystery series set in Norman England. Eleanor of Acquitaine, a long-time favorite of mine and apparently a vital part of the series as a whole, makes an appearance. Otherwise (I suspect this may not be true of earlier books), the characters are primarily fictional.

Adelia Aguilar, the Mistress of the Art of Death whose title gives the series its name, has retired to the country after the death of her patron King Henry II and is training her daughter Almeison, known as Allie, in the medical and forensic skills that earned Adelia her fame. The two of them have just received a visit from Allie’s father, Sir Rowley, whom Adelia long ago refused to marry, when a message comes from the Fenlands that an old friend is dying. But Adelia has injured her ankle and can’t ride, or even walk, so she sends Allie instead.

Escorted by the formidable Lady Penda, who goes about clad in a wolfskin cloak and armed with a crossbow, Allie reaches the Fens and treats the dying friend, Gyltha. But Gyltha, although grateful, makes no bones about wanting Allie out of the Fen country as fast as possible. Rumors of missing girls receive horrifying confirmation when a young woman’s body surfaces in the marshes. As a result of investigation, Allie concludes that the victim, Martha, didn’t die of drowning but was killed—and quite recently, although Martha went missing months before. The hunt for the murderer is on.

Several features of this novel appealed to me enough to make me want to seek out earlier books in the series. Mystery novels often rely excessively on the cleverness of their plots at the expense of the characters, but—as with Jennifer Ashley’s Death below Stairs series—that’s not true here. Much of the novel, in fact, has more to do with the characters’ everyday lives and interactions than with the murder per se—even though the mystery is an intrinsic part of the whole. Allie attends parties at nearby homes; she’s courted by a local lord; she endures crossbow lessons from Lady Penda. As readers, we get a clear sense of the time period, with all its distinctive traits and contradictions. We encounter women who, even in the misogynistic culture that is medieval Europe, remain credibly educated and competent and strong in their own defense and the defense of others. And although I was never quite clear what specifically motivated the murderer to kill (the thrill of wielding ultimate power, perhaps), the discovery not only made sense in a satisfying way but took place without any of the standard tropes (heroine runs alone and heedless into an isolated setting at midnight and—surprise!—encounters the killer, brilliant detective lays out the case against one person after another until the culprit cracks and admits the truth, etc.).

For me personally, the international nature of the story also acts as a powerful and pleasing reminder that, even in 1191, the parts of Europe were not isolated from one another. Adelia grew up in Spain and trained in Salerno; she was accompanied and protected for years by Mansur, an Arab doctor (from Granada? I have to read the earlier books to find out) who also seems to have acted as Allie’s substitute father during Sir Rowley’s frequent absences; Eleanor of Acquitaine, of course, came from southern France; Crusaders not long returned from the Middle East abound—one with a horse not unlike Firuza's beautiful Turkmen palomino (The Winged Horse; Song of the Shaman). This is not my steppe world, by any means, but it exhibits some of the same complexity and cultural diversity.

One last note: this book has two authors because Ariana Franklin, who developed the series, died before she could complete it, and her daughter took over and brought it to a close. I find this a truly impressive achievement, as well as a wonderful tribute. The writing is seamless, and the main theme of the novel—Allie’s emergence as a medical and forensic authority in her own right—aptly echoes the reality in its authors’ lives. If, like me, you hadn’t encountered these books before, they are well worth investigating. You can even start at the end, although it’s undoubtedly better to begin at the beginning. Either way, I think you won’t be disappointed.

Friday, December 4, 2020

The Corset of Culture

A month ago, I wrote about the push/pull of duty and desire as expressed in Michelle Cameron’s Beyond the Ghetto Gate. That novel, like much historical fiction, explores the constraints and opportunities available to a woman at the beginning of her adult life. But the situation facing older women in the past was also often limited, if in slightly different ways.

We take so much for granted now. Girls receive an education and even athletic training, if they are so inclined, equal to that given to boys. Young women attend college—these days often in numbers higher than their male counterparts. Pregnancy can be prevented, weddings delayed. And terminating a marriage that doesn’t work out carries little social stigma, although the emotional and financial costs can be high.

Not all has changed, of course. As I wrote in that earlier post, expectations of male and female roles within the family have changed more slowly than the new opportunities can sustain. In many parts of the world, too, the circumstances I describe in the previous paragraph do not apply. But few modern women in that cultural abstraction known as “the West” face a situation like the one that confronts Lydia Robinson in Brontë’s Mistress, the subject of my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Finola Austin.

Although wealthy and propertied, Lydia has no way to offset the natural progression of time, no real defense against illness, no right to divorce the husband who has shut her out since the last of their five children died unexpectedly two years before. Perhaps most important, Lydia has no conception of alternatives, little understanding of her own unhealed grief, and few emotional barriers against the sudden arrival of temptation in the form of a handsome young man.

Lydia doesn’t always make the right choices. She takes a harsh line with her daughters and her servants, fights her mother-in-law, and betrays her husband—who is also grief-stricken and has health problems to boot. We don’t always like her, but we can sympathize with her pain. She didn’t ask, after all, to be laced into a cultural corset. And that ability to evoke empathy is the mark of a good novelist.

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

It seems likely that most of our listeners have at least heard of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Many also know that Charlotte and Emily had two other talented siblings who grew to adulthood: Anne, author of the novel Agnes Grey, and the only male heir, Branwell—whose early promise evaporated in a haze of alcohol and opiates. Still, it seems likely that Branwell’s affair with his employer—Lydia Robinson, a wealthy, married woman eighteen years older than he—has received far less attention. This affair, the exact parameters of which have not been determined, is the subject of Finola Austin’s lovely debut novel, Brontë’s Mistress (Atria Books, 2020).

Although advantaged in many ways, Lydia has many reasons for complaint when we meet her. Her mother has just died, and her father suffers from senility. At forty-three, she fears the effects of approaching middle age on her beauty and her ability to bear children, the things that have defined and given value to her life. She worries about her daughters’ futures while fending off the encroachments of her mother-in-law. She still mourns the unexpected death of her fifth child two years before the novel begins. And the loss of that youngest daughter has irreparably damaged Lydia’s long and once-satisfying relationship with her husband, Edmund, who neither offers comfort to nor accepts overtures from her.

So when the Robinsons’ governess, Anne Brontë, recommends her brother, Branwell, for the position of tutor to Lydia’s only son, it is perhaps not surprising that Lydia’s initial attempts to keep a proper distance soon evaporate in the face of the attraction she feels for this Byronic young man who pays her compliments, shares his poetry and his art, and listens to her woes. As Finola Austin notes in our interview, Branwell “sees” Lydia, and the consequences of that instinctive emotional connection drive the action of this psychologically sophisticated and always engrossing novel.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Interview with Nancy Burkhalter

Great pianists are a joy to hear, whether your tastes run to classical or contemporary. But as Nancy Burkhalter notes in one of her answers below, behind every great pianist stands a great piano tuner—either the artist him- or herself or a professional familiar with the many intricacies of coaxing a given instrument to produce the best sound and feel of which it is capable.

Herself a piano tuner, Nancy Burkhalter made use of her training to imagine the life of Frédéric Chopin’s tuner. But to reduce her new novel, The Education of Delhomme: A Novel of Chopin, Sand, and La France, just out from History through Fiction, to a historical disquisition on music would be a great disservice. Through the triangle of Chopin, his lover George Sand, and Burkhalter’s fictional hero, we are pulled into a past of romance, jealousy, and intrigue. Read on to find out more.

This novel, as you note in the beginning, is based on your own experiences as a piano tuner. How did that come about?

I don’t know when it occurred to me that Chopin must have had a piano tuner. But since it takes a long time to learn (about a year) and a fair amount of upper body strength, it seemed logical that Chopin, who was frail due to his TB, would have had neither the strength nor the time to do it himself.

And how did that past experience lead you to writing fiction, particularly about Chopin?

I adore Chopin’s music, so choosing him as a character in my book was easy. I originally wanted him to be the main character, but he was not a strong enough personality to be a “leading man.” So that’s why I invented his piano tuner, who could reveal Chopin’s character, composing habits, and preferences for how he liked his piano tuned, voiced (how it sounds), and regulated (how it feels). A pianist and a tuner are two sides of the same coin. And while the pianists get all the glory, tuners are really the unsung heroes: no one ever asks, “I wonder who tuned that piano?” but a less skilled tuner can easily frustrate pianists’ efforts to express themselves the way they would like.    

Your hero, Beaulieu Delhomme, gets into the business of piano tuning by a circuitous route. What is his story?

Delhomme is hampered by his authoritarian, withholding father. He tries pleasing him but never seems to accomplish that. His low self-esteem is typical of children whose parents make them feel as if they will never measure up. So although he stumbles into piano tuning in a last-ditch effort to earn money, he finds that he excels at it, along with the practical aspect of allowing him to earn money in a respectable manner. Such a profession allows him to regain his self-respect and attract a mate as well.

And how would you describe him, as a person? What does he want in life?

Delhomme is somewhat needy. He is not very tall but admits he is pleasing to the eye. He knows what he wants in life: to be married and have a family. He never admits this, but behind his desire for a family is the yearning to right the wrongs his father perpetrated on him. This burning need compels him to compromise his morals and spy on Chopin.

In addition to his work for Chopin, Delhomme becomes involved with a man named Eugene-François Vidocq. How does this happen, and how does it connect with the historical moment in which your novel takes place?

It helped a great deal that Vidocq was contemporaneous with Chopin and Sand. It made it easy to weave my tale around them all. As I tried to show throughout the book, Vidocq is all-knowing when it comes to people’s comings and goings and is ultra-devious about knowing what they need and devising a way to lure them into doing his bidding: Delhomme needs cash and craves respect. So Vidocq dangles sheaves of francs and the rare chance to become Chopin’s tuner; all he has to do is spy on him to get at Sand. Such a plan means Vidocq can indulge in his favorite activities: causing trouble and manipulating others.

Chopin was, of course, romantically linked to the writer George Sand. She and Delhomme don’t exactly hit it off. Why?

I set up the plot to be a triangle between Chopin, Sand, and Delhomme. Chopin is mostly oblivious to the jealously between Sand and Delhomme, but they are competing for his attention for different reasons: Delhomme because he adores Chopin, who admires him and needs his tuning skills; and Sand because she is possessive of his (sexual) attention.

This book hasn’t been out long. Are you already working on something else?

I’d be surprised if you come across any writer who doesn’t have something in the pipeline. In fact, this book was originally conceived as two stories: a modern-day piano tuner finds a ring in a piano and goes on a quest to find out its origin. Then it switches to the historical tale of Chopin and George Sand to fill in the details about how the ring came to be and then back to the main story, and so on. Unfortunately, the organization felt too clumsy or perhaps too beyond my skill set at the time. Now I’m glad I separated out the two tales. But that modern-day tuner story would make a great sequel to this one.

I have written two other novels that need a great deal of polishing. The first one is about a Dominican kid who was adopted by white parents in Columbus, Ohio, and yearns to be a professional baseball player. The other book was therapy of sorts. Several people in academia were so odious to me that I wrote a murder mystery in which they were killed in the most ignominious way. Now I am in a holding pattern, trying to decide if I should work on any of them or start something new. I’m toying with the idea of writing a novel set in St. Petersburg, Russia, a city I find endlessly fascinating and moody. But that idea is very nascent.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Nancy Burkhalter is an educator, writer, journalist, linguist, and piano tuner. She is the author of The Education of Delhomme: Chopin, Sand, and La France. Burkhalter holds a master’s degree in journalism and English education as well as a doctorate in linguistics from the University of New Mexico. She has taught composition for many years in the United States, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Her overseas work led to an interest in comparative education, especially critical thinking. Both observations and research led to her book and blog, Critical Thinking Now. In 2019, she was a recipient of Go Back, Give Back, a fellowship through the State Department to train teachers in St. Petersburg, Russia. She resides in Edmonds, Washington.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Uhtred's Farewell

All good things come to an end, as they say, but when that ending involves a beloved set of novels, it is often welcome to neither the author nor the readers. Such is the case with Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, also known as The Last Kingdom series. Fans of both the novels and the hit Netflix TV series based on them greet the appearance of this thirteenth and last novel, War Lord, with mixed feelings. But so does Bernard Cornwell. Read on to find out more.

And check out our three podcast interviews about earlier books in the series on the New Books Network. Over the years, we have discussed The Pagan Lord, The Flame Bearer, and War of the Wolf. Throughout the interviews we also talk about other novels, the TV series in its first season, how Cornwell got into writing, and even his nonfiction book about Waterloo. These and other titles also appear in interview posts on this blog. So plenty of opportunities for follow-up!

This novel opens with a broken promise. What can you tell us about that? I have in mind the nature of the promise, who made it, and why that person feels comfortable breaking it, even in an era where oaths were considered sacred.

Certainly Uhtred feels that the promise has been broken, but Aethelstan justifies it with some very narrow legalistic explanations, so really this is realpolitik. And yes, oaths were considered binding, so Aethelstan has had to wriggle like a snake to claim the moral high ground. None of that wriggling convinces Uhtred!

The broken promise affects the relationship between your hero, Uhtred, and Aethelstan, whom Uhtred has long mentored. How would you describe their interactions at the beginning of the novel?

Mutual suspicion? Uhtred fears Aethelstan’s growing power, not sure what that means for the ownership of his beloved fortress, while Aethelstan has been persuaded that Uhtred could side with the Scots against him. They might have a long history of cooperation and even affection, but Aethelstan is now a king and that has somewhat swollen his opinion of himself.

More broadly, when the series began with The Last Kingdom, the title referred to Wessex. Here at the end, Uhtred’s Northumbria is the lone holdout, besieged on all sides—including from Scotland. Yet Uhtred has spent his entire adult life fighting, sometimes reluctantly, for the unification of what is gradually becoming known as Aenglaland. How does he balance the conflicting demands on him?

I’m not sure he ever does. One of the things I like about Uhtred is that he’s so conflicted, never quite sure whether he’s Saxon or Viking. In truth he’s both, of course! In the end, despite his undoubted affection for the Vikings, he fights for what he believes is best for his native country—Northumbria.

You have mentioned in our podcast interviews that you don’t know where a novel will go until it goes there. Did you know when you started this book that it would be the end of your series?

I did. The one constant through the whole series was to end with the battle of Brunanburh, which was the culmination of the long effort to unite the Saxon kingdoms into one—England. So I was aware that writing about Brunanburh would necessarily end Uhtred’s story.

And will you miss Uhtred?

I’ll miss him a lot! I started writing Uhtred’s story seventeen years ago! And though I took a couple of breaks to write other books, he’s been a constant companion—forever haunting my thoughts. I take the dog for a walk and hear Uhtred in my head, and suddenly he’s no more. So yes, I’ll miss him.

Now that this series is over, where will your writing journey take you next?

Immediately? Back to Richard Sharpe. I’ve long wanted to add a couple of novels to the Sharpe series, so I’m suddenly back in the Napoleonic Wars. But beyond that? I don’t know … I’ll finish the next Sharpe novel and then see what suggests itself.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!


Bernard Cornwell is the author of, among many other novels, the acclaimed New York Times bestselling Last Kingdom series (originally the Saxon Tales): The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horseman, Lords of the North, Sword Song, The Burning Land, Death of Kings, The Pagan Lord, The Empty Throne, Warriors of the Storm, The Flame Bearer, War of the Wolf, and, most recently, Sword of Kings and War Lord. It serves as the basis for the hit television series The Last Kingdom. He lives with his wife on Cape Cod and in Charleston, South Carolina.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Interview with Marie Macpherson

I’ve written before on Marie Macpherson’s remarkable Knox trilogy—remarkable not least because she makes John Knox so human, even sympathetic. Here’s a man known as a grim reformer, an opponent not just of the Catholic Church but of any activity not associated with the strictest observance of Calvinism, and meddler in Scottish politics during one of its tensest periods: the mid-sixteenth century, when Mary Queen of Scots strove to balance her matrimonial disasters and her political responsibilities under constant pressure from her southern neighbor, England’s Elizabeth I. Indeed, Macpherson’s John Knox does all of these things, but he is neither grim nor joyless, merely intensely dedicated to his religous goal.

Knox may be the main focus of this series, but he is far from its only or even its most interesting character. Now that the series has reached its end with The Last Blast of the Trumpet, Marie Macpherson has kindly agreed to answer my questions about the whole. Read on to find out more.

This is the third book in your Knox Trilogy. Could you give us a short summary of what came before?

The First Blast of the Trumpet opens on Hallowe’en 1511 at Hailes Castle, near Haddington, East Lothian. The young Elisabeth Hepburn, who longs to marry her lover, is being forced to become a nun at nearby St. Mary’s Abbey. As Knox’s godmother, her fate is strongly entwined with his, and she proves to be an influential figure in his life. As the narrative unfolds, we follow Knox from his humble beginnings to his education at St. Andrews University and his years serving as a Roman Catholic priest before being converted to Protestantism by the charismatic preacher George Wishart. Knox is then arrested as a heretic and sentenced to toil in the French galleys. The First Blast ends with the signing of the Treaty of Haddington at St. Mary’s Abbey. Mary of Guise, Mary Queen of Scots’ French mother, has agreed to the betrothal of her five-year-old daughter to the Dauphin of France. She sails off in a galley rowed by John Knox.

The Second Blast of the Trumpet begins in 1549 with Knox’s release from a nineteen-month stint in the galleys from which he wasn’t expected to survive. His experience has fired him up with a mission to strike at the roots of papistry in Scotland. Although branded a heretic in his own land, he is welcomed in Protestant England, where he becomes chaplain to the young King Edward VI in London. With Edward’s untimely death and the accession of the Catholic Mary Tudor, Knox is forced to flee her fires of persecution.

In Geneva, he meets the leading reformer Calvin and makes dangerous enemies among the English exiles whose liturgy he challenges. Meanwhile in Scotland, his godmother, Prioress Elisabeth, is helping Mary of Guise to stem the rising tide of reform and keep the throne for Mary Queen of Scots.

When the Protestant Queen Elizabeth succeeds to the English throne, Knox, who has married and sired two sons, hopes to return with his family and resume his mission in England. However, while the hell-raising preacher may have attracted a flock of female admirers, his polemical tract The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, in which he attacks female rulers, has antagonized Queen Elizabeth.

And what takes John Knox back to Scotland in 1559?

In 1559 the Lords of the Congregation—who have initiated a rebellion, ostensibly to overturn Catholicism but in reality to depose Regent Mary of Guise—call Knox back from Geneva. A bitter civil war ensues, ended only by the death of Mary of Guise. The victorious Knox is confident of his place leading the reform until the young widow, Mary Queen of Scots, returns to claim her throne. She challenges his position and initiates a ferocious battle of wills as they strive to win the hearts and minds of the Scots. But the treachery and jealousy that surround them both as they make critical choices in their public and private lives have dangerous consequences that neither of them can imagine.

He’s had a rather exciting time since his last visit, including that stint on a galley. How did it come about, and have his experiences changed him?

James V’s death in 1542 initiated a power struggle for the regency of the nine-day-old infant Mary. In his effort to quash the rising Protestant threat, Cardinal David Beaton, who supported Mary’s mother, burnt Knox’s mentor, George Wishart, at the stake in 1546. A few months later, Beaton was murdered by the Protestant lairds, who took refuge in St. Andrews Castle and coaxed Knox out of hiding to become their preacher. When the French broke the siege of the castle, Knox was arrested and sentenced to toil in the galleys. Semi-starved, ill, and feverish, Knox was flung into the bowels of the ship and left to die. However, as his galley passed St. Andrews, he interpreted the sound of bells as God calling him to be His divine messenger with a mission to convert Scotland to the Protestant faith.

Elisabeth Hepburn has long played a special role in John Knox’s life, but at the opening of this third book, they are on opposing paths. What’s the source of their conflict?

After the death of his parents—his father at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 and his mother soon afterwards—responsibility for the orphan’s upbringing passed to the Hepburns of Hailes, his liege lords, and to his godmother, Elisabeth Hepburn. At the choir school in Haddington the young scholar showed so much academic promise that Prior John Hepburn sent him to be educated at St. Leonard’s, the college he’d co-founded in St. Andrews. When Knox was later ordained as a Catholic priest and served as a notary apostolic in Haddington, Prioress Elisabeth had high hopes for his successful career in the Catholic Church. However, Knox had imbued reformist ideas at St. Andrews and, some time after 1540, abandoned the priesthood to follow Preacher Wishart. His burning at the stake would make Knox reconsider, the prioress hoped, and abandon heretical ideas. Instead, Wishart’s martyrdom only served to intensify Knox’s beliefs. From then on, the prioress and the preacher became deadly religious rivals, with the godmother striving to maintain the Catholic faith and the godson seeking to defeat papistry and impose Protestantism on Scotland.

And who is Isabelle Hepburn? What part does she play in the novel?

When Isabelle and her brother Jamie were orphaned, Knox brought them to the abbey to be raised by the prioress. Jamie went on to serve as a sailor with Knox’s brother William and then as Knox’s right-hand man. Adopted by the prioress, Isabelle was ordained as a nun in order to succeed Elisabeth as prioress of St. Mary’s.

In The Last Blast, Knox’s reformation puts paid to that ambition, forcing Isabelle to forge another path as apothecary to Mary Queen of Scots. However, she never forgets her promise to the prioress to regain control of the abbey and seeks support from her kinsman James Hepburn, Fourth Earl of Bothwell.

We needn’t go into details, but what made you decide to end the series where you did, and was it difficult to say goodbye to this character you’ve worked with for so long?

The decision to end the series was made for me. Spoiler alert! In the final scene Knox dies. I can’t say I was sad to bid farewell to the fiery reformer. The controversial figure was a very tricky character to portray, with his fanatical faith and unrelenting self-belief, but I was heartbroken to leave Elisabeth Hepburn, my jaggy thistle, and sad to abandon Isabelle.

This was a massive project, and the last book appeared just a few months ago. Do you have a new project in mind?

There are several ideas whizzing round my brain, and I’m waiting on one of them to settle. Isabelle is tugging at me, itching to move forward, but I’m also being tempted by a story set in Russia during the reign of Peter the Great. But that would mean ploughing a whole new field of research. I may need to call upon you for advice!

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Hailing from the historic Honest Toun of Musselburgh, six miles from Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, Marie Macpherson developed a love for literature and languages from an early age. Her inspiration comes not only from historical records and documents but from the landscape of the Scottish lowlands, where she tries to conjure up what life was like for the inhabitants of those now ruined castles and deserted abbeys. Exploring the personal relationships and often hidden motivations of historical characters drive her curiosity.

She is the author of the Knox Trilogy: The First Blast of the Trumpet, The Second Blast of the Trumpet, and The Last Blast of the Trumpet. Find out more about her and her novels on her website or listen to her New Books in Historical Fiction interview, recorded not long after the first book appeared.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Heart versus Head

In addition to the pure fun of writing—an escape especially welcome in this anxious time—one thing I get from reading and creating historical fiction is a chance to give voice to the often-voiceless women of the past. Expectations of what women can do have changed dramatically even during my lifetime, although beliefs about what women should do are slower to evolve. Amid the ongoing pandemic, for example, married women have left the workforce at much higher rates than men, in part because they are more likely to bear primary responsibility for child care and family health than their husbands.

My latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Michelle Cameron addresses this conflict between can and should head-on. Mirelle d’Ancona, the heroine of Cameron’s Beyond the Ghetto Gates, is even more constrained than most young women of her time because, as a Jewish maiden in eighteenth-century Ancona, Italy, she cannot leave the ghetto between dawn and dusk. Even during the daytime, she must wear a yellow scarf so that the town’s Christians know to give her a wide berth.

Mirelle has all the traits required of marriageable girls in her place and time: youth, prettiness, a respectable family, an impeccable reputation for virtue (meaning chastity). She also happens to be something of a math whiz, the only member of her family capable of balancing the books. Mirelle loves the pure clarity of numbers the way her father and brother adore the artistic flourishes that have made their ketubot (Jewish marriage licenses) an international sensation.

On the first page, Mirelle saves her father from the demands of an unscrupulous supplier—money that would have made it impossible to pay the workers. Although the local rabbi complains that the presence of a young woman in a workshop producing religious documents may distract the male scribes and artists from their duties, Mirelle knows her father needs her help—and her father agrees. Nonetheless, she is banished from the workshop. She learns that she is a financial asset to her family in more ways than one when a wealthy Jewish merchant offers her marriage and a handsome dowry.

When Napoleon’s army invades Italy in 1796–1797, everything changes. In secular Republican France, Jews are citizens, equal to everyone else, and Napoleon does not hesitate to lift the restrictions imposed by the Ancona authorities. While Mirelle’s intended husband becomes a man of influence under the new regime, she meets and falls in love with a handsome French soldier, and before long she must choose between duty to her family and the desires of her heart.

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

The intense interest in the horrors of World War II that has characterized the last few years has tended to overshadow other aspects of the long history of Jewish populations in Europe and the antisemitism that often—although not invariably—complicated that history. Michelle Cameron’s new novel, Beyond the Ghetto Gates (She Writes Press, 2020), explores one little-known episode of that past: the effect of Napoleon’s invasion of 1796–97 on the Italian port city of Ancona.

The campaign of French revolutionary troops to conquer the still-disunited land of Italy has unexpected consequences when they free the Jews of Ancona from the ghetto that has confined them at night for as long as Mirelle, the young and mathematically gifted daughter of a local artist who manages a workshop devoted to producing Jewish marriage licenses, can remember. As the troops settle in, liberals who welcome change face off against opponents set on turning back the clock, expressing their fears through brutal attacks.

Amid this increasingly chaotic atmosphere, Mirelle faces a choice between what her family wants for her—an arranged marriage to a wealthy Jewish merchant old enough to be her father—and what she wants for herself, a romance with her cousin’s best friend, a handsome French soldier. Meanwhile, Francesca, a devout Catholic, struggles to reconcile the demands of her marriage and her faith when her abusive husband becomes involved in the spiraling conflict.

At times disturbingly relevant to the increasing polarization of our time, including the reactivation of white supremacy movements and intensifying fear of the “other,” Beyond the Ghetto Gates is also, as the author herself notes, “a story of hope—a reminder of a time in history when men and women of conflicting faiths were able to reconcile their prejudices in the face of a rapidly changing world.”

Image: Decorated ketubah, Livorno, 1698. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Bookshelf, Fall 2020

We’re well into the fall now, with Halloween arriving tomorrow and the clocks going back at 2 AM on Sunday morning, so it’s definitely time to review a few good reads to occupy those soon-to-become considerably longer evenings. Quite a range this quarter, although as it happens I have nothing on the list but historical fiction of various types. That is mostly what I read, between my own writing interests and preparation for my podcast interviews, but I’ll try to come up with a few contemporary suggestions as well for the next go-round.

Finola Austin, Bronte’s Mistress (Atria Books, 2020)
Most of my readers and listeners will be acquainted with the works of Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and Emily (Wuthering Heights) Brontë. This novel focuses instead on the lesser-known siblings Anne and Branwell, in particular Branwell’s affair with an older woman whose marriage has suffered from the death of a beloved child. Lydia Robinson tells her own story in a way that not only inspires sympathy for her plight but hints at sources of inspiration for a few beloved plot points in Charlotte’s and Emily’s novels. I’ll be talking to the author next week for New Books in Historical Fiction, so look for that before Thanksgiving.




Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman, Death and the Maiden (William Morrow, 2020)
It takes a certain kind of dedication and skill, as well as talent, to complete your mother’s novel series, as Samantha Norman has done here. I had not encountered Ariana Franklin’s medieval mystery series before William Morrow sent me this book for a possible interview—which I then couldn’t fit into my schedule. But I look forward to reading it and, if I have time, its predecessors. 

To quote the press release, “a young female character … finds herself in the middle of mysterious circumstances and must use forensic investigation to deduce what’s happening to a host of young women who go mysteriously missing … and whose bodies re-emerge seemingly drowned from the fens.” The book is set in twelfth-century England, where Eleanor of Acquitaine is acting as regent for her son Richard I while her other son John is determined to upset the apple cart if he possibly can. If nothing else, I’m curious to see what kind of forensic knowledge existed then—it may prove useful in a later Songs of Steppe & Forest novel.

Nancy Burkhalter, The Education of Delhomme (History through Fiction, 2020)
Who could resist a novel that includes not only Frédéric Chopin and his gender-bending lover George Sand but Chopin’s piano tuner, who is the focus of the story. The author worked as a piano tuner herself, and her knowledge and musical sensibility infuse the novel. But Beaulieu Delhomme, the protagonist, has far more going on than his work for Chopin. He’s in love with the fiancée of a man in the French Foreign Legion; he becomes involved in espionage that leads to his imprisonment (as we discover in chapter 1); and he lives in perilous times. Much of the action takes place leading up and during the Revolutions of 1848, in this case in Paris. Find out more from my written Q&A with the author, which should go up on this blog in a few weeks.

Marie Macpherson, The Last Blast of the Trumpet (Penmore Press, 2020)
Marie Macpherson has made a writing career out of reevaluating the career of the sixteenth-century Scottish religious reformer John Knox, known to most people as the man who ruined both football and Christmas. Macpherson’s Knox is not at all the grim preacher of popular culture: he loves women as much as the Bible, and he’s no stranger to a good time. In this third and last novel in the trilogy dedicated to him, Knox goes head-to-head with Mary Queen of Scots. I’ve been clearing other things out of the way, but I hope to set up a written Q&A with Marie soon. In the meantime, check out the (just revamped) New Books Network site to learn more about The First Blast of the Trumpet, including listening to the author bringing life to her own prose in her fabulous Scots accent.

Bernard Cornwell, War Lord (Harper, 2020)
And speaking of endings, I’ve made no secret on this blog that I am, contrary to my own usual literary leanings, a huge fan of Bernard Cornwell’s Lord Uhtred, hero of the Saxon Tales—now renamed the Last Kingdom series after the justifiably celebrated Netflix TV shows based on them. So I could hardly resist Uhtred’s final adventure. In the course of twelve books, he has gone from a child of ten to an old man. During that time, under the leadership of King Alfred the Great and his children, Wessex, the “last kingdom” of the title, has progressed from a lone survivor about to fall to the Danes to the head of an almost-unified England. The new standout is Uhtred’s own Northumberland, and once again he must decide where his loyalties lie.

I’ve talked with Bernard about this series at least three times for New Books in Historical Fiction (The Pagan Lord in 2014, The Flame Bearer in 2016, and War of the Wolf in 2018), but as we get deeper into the story it has become ever harder to avoid spoilers for the series as a whole. So Bernard has kindly agreed to answer my written questions about this last novel, which brings the story of England’s unification to its close with more than a little help from Uhtred. Watch for that Q&A by the end of November.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Interview with Patricia Morrisroe

This will sound strange—perhaps incredible—but my cat loves Beethoven, the Seventh Symphony in particular. Sir Percy and I discovered this quite by accident when he was playing it late one night and she started complaining, loudly, when it ended. Since then, it’s the one piece of music guaranteed to calm her down when she starts roaming around looking for trouble. You can see her here, riffing on the music as it emerges from my computer.


So naturally, when I heard that Patricia Morrisroe had written a novel about the woman to whom Beethoven dedicated the “Moonlight” Sonata, I wanted to find out more. It would have been great to talk with her for New Books in Historical Fiction, because she herself has a fascinating history, as you can see from her bio, below. But I had no space in my schedule at the right time, so we settled on this written Q&A instead.

Read on to find out more, and don’t miss the Five Directions Press Books We Loved in October 2020 link, where I explain in more depth what I loved about this exploration of the under-appreciated life of Countess Julie Guicciardi.

Based on your bio, you have done a lot of writing in your life and have even published several books, but this is your first novel. How did you make the switch to fiction?

It happened purely by chance. An editor mentioned that Beethoven had been in love with a young piano student and thought it had the makings of an interesting novel. I’d never thought of doing historical fiction but figured it would be compatible with my skill set. I was accustomed to doing research, and with Beethoven I had a real-life character whose chronology I could follow. Dialogue came fairly easy because after interviewing hundreds of people over the years, I was attuned to listening to different voices. Since my writing has always been rooted in the contemporary world, it was challenging to suddenly find myself in the early nineteenth century. But I traveled to both Vienna and Naples, where the story takes place, and also read everything I could about the period. I’ve always been interested in fashion, so once I saw pictures of the clothes and hairstyles, it helped bring the characters to life. At one point, Julie cuts off all her hair to emulate the fashionable “Titus coiffure.” That gave me an insight into her personality. And, of course, listening to Beethoven’s music was essential.

And what drew you to the story of Julie Guicciardi?

Of all the women in Beethoven’s life, Julie is among the most mysterious. I knew that Beethoven had dedicated the “Moonlight” Sonata to her and that he’d confessed his love for her in a letter to a friend. I also knew that her portrait miniature was discovered in a secret compartment in his desk drawer after he died. The clues were few but tantalizing. They fed my imagination without overwhelming it.

While I was working on the book, #MeToo was very much in the news. If women in the twenty-first century could be subjected to such abuse, what was it like for a nineteenth-century woman? It was important to me that Julie be strong and never lose her agency, despite some of the appalling mistreatment she suffered. Beethoven is such a titanic figure that it’s hard not to give him the starring role, but I made Julie the narrator so the reader could see him through her eyes.

Who was Julie? How would you describe her past and her personality at the moment we meet her? What does she want from life?

Julie is a smart, witty young countess from a modestly well-off family. Money is central to the family dynamics. Though Julie’s mother grew up on a grand Hungarian estate, her brothers inherited the various properties, leaving Julie’s mother with a modest annual stipend. Julie’s father has a distinguished lineage, but as a court chancellor, he doesn’t make enough to meet his wife’s needs. Her dissatisfaction leads to an event that will change Julie’s life. When we first meet Julie, she is eighteen and, like most aristocratic young woman, obliged to take music lessons. Unlike the cello, which was held between a woman’s legs, the piano was considered the most ladylike instrument. Julie, in her forthright way, asks Beethoven to be her teacher.

Beethoven, even as a young man, was not exactly the romantic hero type. What draws Julie to him?

Beethoven was considered the rock star of his day. While not traditionally handsome, he had enormous charisma, especially when playing one of his soaring improvisations, or engaging in a musical duel with a visiting virtuoso. Even listening to his music today, I’m blown away by his maniacal force and power and also by his sudden tenderness. I tried to imagine what it was like for Julie to hear that music live and to understand that the person playing and composing it was going deaf. Julie is drawn to him because not only does the music exert a spell—Beethoven is the siren to Julie’s Odysseus—but he is also one of the great geniuses of western civilization. How could she not fall in love with him?

What draws him to Julie, so that he dedicates the “Moonlight” Sonata to her?

Julie is so beautiful that she’s known as “La Bella Guicciardi,” and Beethoven has an eye for a pretty face. But she’s also one of the few women who can stand up to him. He respects her intelligence, although he is loath to give her—or anyone—a compliment. He’s so caught up in his music that it’s difficult for him to show any sensitivity to another person. Beethoven dedicates the “Moonlight” Sonata to her, because they’ve suffered through something that inspires him to write the first movement—a funeral march.

You mention in the back of the book that you became caught up in Julie’s story, even after her early relationship with Beethoven is interrupted. Indeed, many of the most fascinating parts of the story come later. Without giving away spoilers, what can you tell us about Count Robert von Gallenberg and Count Friedrich Schulenberg?

Robert Gallenberg was a composer of ballet music and Beethoven’s rival for Julie’s affections. He is everything Julie’s mother wants in a son-in-law—handsome, monied, and titled. After he and Julie move to Naples, he works at the Theater San Carlo for the impresario Dominico Barbaja, a former coffee-house waiter, who discovered Rossini and the drink we now call “cappuccino.” When Barbaja takes over Vienna’s Kärntnertor Theater, Gallenberg helps him run it, giving Julie an opportunity to be in the audience when Beethoven premieres his Ninth Symphony. As for Friedrich Schulenberg, I kept picturing him as Robert Redford in Out of Africa. He’s handsome, elusive and independent, a career diplomat who operates in a sophisticated world of spies, affairs, and intrigue. Julie loves him, but in a different way than she loves Beethoven. The two men represent two different types of passion.

Do you have other fiction projects in mind?
I have some ideas floating around, but after dealing with Beethoven, it’s hard to let him go. Musicians have told me the same thing. He grabs you by the throat and demands your full attention. Because he’s so brilliant, you keep hearing different things in the music, so it’s a life-long process. But since I’ve already given him five years of my life, I think we’ll be splitting up soon. I’ll still listen to his music—but not as a nineteenth-century woman.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Patricia Morrisroe is the author of Mapplethorpe: A Biography, Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia, and 9½ Narrow: My Life in Shoes. She was a contributing editor at New York magazine and has written for many other publications, including Vanity Fair, the New York Times, Vogue, the London Sunday Times Magazine, Travel + Leisure, and Departures. The Woman in the Moonlight is her first novel. Find out more about her at

Photograph of Siamese cat © 2020 C. P. Lesley. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Life along the Rivers

A budding opera star, a gifted painter—the hero and heroine of Joan Schweighardt’s latest novel, River Aria, out this week from Five Directions Press—seem destined for a star-studded future. But life is not so simple for these two immigrants from Brazil to Jazz Age New York. Estela and JoJo face poverty and prejudice and family dysfunction; they have to make ends meet in ways that have little to do with music or art. And both harbor secrets that threaten to rip apart their dreams of happiness.

Joan Schweighardt fills you in on these and other elements of her new book, which concludes her Rivers Trilogy. Read on to find out more. And to learn about the earlier books in this intensely dramatic series, listen to my interview with Joan at New Books in Historical Fiction.


In this novel, your main character is Estela. How would you describe her?

Estela is born in 1910 and raised by her Amerindian/European mother in the city of Manaus, Brazil. To some extent, we are all products of where we are from, but in Estela’s case, her physical surroundings are particularly essential to any description of her. Before the South American rubber boom, which began in the late 1800s, Manaus was a small fishing village on the Amazon River in the middle of the world’s largest rainforest. When the demand for rubber became urgent (because of the advent of the automobile), entrepreneurs from all over Europe descended on Manaus and made it the hub for the rubber industry. Since there was nothing there, they had to import construction materials and quickly build mansions, hotels, restaurants, schools, etc. The centerpiece of their construction was the Teatro Amazonas, a magnificent opera house built to attract elite performers. But then the rubber boom ended abruptly in 1912, just a few years after Estela’s birth, and the Europeans fled. The city—with the exception of the Teatro Amazonas—reverted to a state of decrepitude and its peasant population into a state of poverty.

A twist of fate saves Estela from spending her life repairing fishing nets. When she is ten, a Portuguese voice and music instructor comes to Manaus, and seeing the gold dome of the Teatro Amazonas shining high above the gloom of desertion that mars the rest of the city, he decides to stay and instruct a handful of “river brats” in music, opera, and more. The city officials allow him to use the grand lobby of the Teatro Amazonas for his lessons. In this way, Estela receives an elite education and grows up to be a young woman both worldly wise and bound to the mythologies of her indigenous ancestors.

And what of JoJo? Who is he, both in relation to Estela and as himself?

Estela’s mother and JoJo’s mother are the best of friends and, for various reasons that become clear in the early chapters of the book, they raise their children as cousins. But while Estela is enjoying learning about the world in the lobby of the Teatro Amazonas, JoJo quits school at an early age because his grandfather, a fisherman, becomes sick and JoJo is needed to take his place on the fishing boat. JoJo opts not to return to school even after his grandfather recovers, because working on the boat affords him more time to draw and paint.

Why do Estela and JoJo decide to leave Brazil for New York?

Estela’s music instructor knows the managers at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Thinking Estela’s talents are worthy of the stage, he writes to them on her behalf, asking them to consider her as a chorister. In response, they offer Estela a job working in the sewing room. Estela is able to obtain travel papers, in this time (not unlike ours) when immigrants with darker skin are unwanted, only because her birth registration shows that she has an American father. JoJo, whose papers confirm that he too has some American blood, travels with her, ostensibly to attend an art school but in truth to learn more about his parentage.

As happens to many immigrants, the United States doesn’t quite meet their expectations—and that’s true of New York City in particular. What do they find when they at last reach their destination?

Estela has been invited to spend her first nights across the Hudson River, in the town of Hoboken, New Jersey, with her father and his wife, whom she has met only once before. JoJo had expected to go with her, but due to the nature of an argument he and Estela have while still on the ship, he opts instead to take his chances on the streets of New York. He spends his first night with several other homeless men, outdoors behind an abandoned building, with only a barrel fire and a few borrowed blankets to keep him warm. Their circumstances at this early stage are emblematic of the obstacles they will encounter from then on.  Estela will be offered more than she cares to accept; JoJo will need to employ his ample street smarts if he’s going to survive.

The story takes place in 1928–1929. What drew you to this particular time period? How did you research it—especially the operatic scene that is so much a part of Estela’s life, even if not in quite the way she expected?

While River Aria can easily be read as a standalone novel, it is also the third book in a trilogy which begins in 1908 and moves back and forth between the locations of Hoboken, New Jersey, and Manaus, Brazil. Book 2 (Gifts for the Dead) having ended in the first part of 1928, it follows that River Aria could start just after; it begins in the last months of 1928.

As part of my research, I visited the Teatro Amazonas in Brazil, but I could not visit the Metropolitan Opera House that Estela would have worked at on Broadway in New York because that Met location no longer exists. The property was sold in 1966 and razed in 1967 and now supports a forty-story office tower. The Metropolitan Opera, meanwhile, was relocated to Lincoln Center in New York. Since I was not able to visit the old Met, I went to the new one and had a great backstage tour that included time in a long hallway filled with black-and-white photographs from the old Met. My tour guide was an older gentleman who once worked in and remembered the old Met and was willing to answer my many questions about how things had been done then. And, of course, I read books about the old Met. Although I have only attended one opera in my life (La Traviata at the Met at Lincoln Center), I have watched operas on DVD and even YouTube.

This is the third and last novel in your Rivers series. How do you feel about saying goodbye to this world and these characters?

I’ve written quite a lot of books in my life—my own and books I’ve ghostwritten for clients. Each book is a unique journey for me. This last project—these three novels with the same characters (give or take one or two) in the early part of the twentieth century, traveling back and forth between New York and Brazil and covering some of the most astonishing historical moments of the times in both locations—has been an extraordinarily intense literary experience. I have been immersed in it for years now. I made two trips to South America during the writing of the books; I spent time deep in the rain forest with indigenous tribal people; I traveled on the Amazon and some of its tributaries with a guide. I read and read and read. I learned so much.

Estela, who is very dramatic, is fond of saying, My heart is broken; my heart is broken. I fear I may be saying that myself in the weeks and months to come.

Where does your writing path take you next?

I want to write something about my sister, who lived an extraordinary life and died too young. I will also be working on some projects with other writers—anthologies, that sort of thing.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Thank you!

Joan Schweighardt is the author of eight novels, a memoir, two children’s books, and various magazine articles. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Find out more about her at