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


Friday, October 9, 2020

Romance, Murder, and Politics in Renaissance Poland

I’ve written before about P.K. Adams’s Jagiellonian Mystery series and how much I enjoy reading a fast-paced detective story set not in the well-traveled (fictionally speaking) halls of sixteenth-century Western Europe but in Renaissance Poland-Lithuania, a time and place much closer to my own area of historical interest.

When the first book, Silent Water, came out in the summer of 2019, I interviewed the author on this blog. You can find out more about the genesis of the series and its setting in that interview.

But when Jagiellon Mystery no. 2, Midnight Fire, appeared this month, it seemed like a good time to reach out to people who prefer to listen to interviews while they’re working or exercising or just letting off steam. Hence my latest New Books in Historical Fiction podcast episode, which explores some of the same territory as the written Q&A but extends the story forward by twenty-five years, just as the series takes a leap from 1518–1520 to 1545.

So read on to find out more, and stay tuned for future announcements about the joint murder mystery that P. K. and I have produced and hope to see published over the course of the next year or two. Yes, as I’ve mentioned before, we decided it was too good a coincidence to waste—she knowing a lot about sixteenth-century Poland and I about sixteenth-century Russia. Magical things can happen if you take a ride outside your comfort zone, and reading about Bona Sforza and her troubled relationship with her son, Zygmunt August, is one place to start.

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

Most novels about the sixteenth century written in English take place in Italy, France, or England—with the occasional foray into Spain or Portugal. P. K. Adams’ Jagiellonian Mystery series is a welcome exception. Set at the glittering Italianate court of King Zygmunt I of Poland/Lithuania and his son, Zygmunt August, these books map fictional plots onto real historical incidents to create fast-paced, fluid stories that are as much about the tensions of a culture in transition as what drives a person to commit murder.

In Midnight Fire (Iron Knight Press, 2020), the heroine, Caterina Konarska (formerly Sanseverino) returns to Zygmunt I’s court twenty-five years after the events of Silent Water, the first book in the series. Caterina and her husband undertake the long journey from Italy in search of a cure for their young son, Giulio, who suffers from mysterious fevers that have stumped the doctors in Bari.

In Kraków Caterina discovers a court far different from the one she left a quarter-century before. The old king is dying; his wife, Bona Sforza of Milan and Bari, struggles to hold on to power; and their son, Zygmunt August, threatens to cause an international scandal by marrying his beautiful but disreputable Lithuanian mistress, Barbara Radziwiłł.

Queen Bona offers Caterina a deal: persuade Zygmunt August to give up Barbara, and Bona will arrange an appointment for Giulio with Poland’s premier physician. Seeing no alternative, Caterina accepts. But as she sets off for Vilnius with her son, she has no idea of the danger she faces or the layers of treachery she will encounter in Zygmunt August’s Renaissance palace.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Unknown Degas

A run-down house, an old diary offering insights into late nineteenth-century social life, a boyfriend with secrets, and a young heroine graduating from college on the brink of the Second Wave of the Women’s Liberation Movement, in a decade almost as dramatic as our present—these ingredients intertwine with the historically attested but little-known story of the painter Edgar Degas’s visit with the New Orleans branch of his family in Linda Stewart Henley’s sparkling debut novel Estelle.

In our New Books Network interview, Henley reveals how she found out about Degas’s journey and researched his family relationships. We also talk about how she became a fiction writer, why she added the more contemporary angle, how New Orleans itself has changed over time, and what made this short period in Degas’s life so crucial to his development as an artist. So read on to get a sense of the story, then listen to the interview.

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

Most people think of Edgar Degas as a French painter of ballerinas. But few have heard that his mother came from New Orleans or that he spent five months in the city between October 1872 and February 1873. That five-month period proved crucial to Degas’s career, moving him from the status of a relative unknown dabbling in the not-quite-respectable world of the Paris Opera into an artist of renown. And although he went back to painting ballerinas—many of his most famous works date from 1873 and later—it was his study of his brothers, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, that won him the critical acclaim that pushed him into the next stage of his career.

In Estelle (She Writes Press, 2020), Linda Stewart Henley takes this vital transition as her starting point for a dual-time story in which a young woman named Anne Gautier, twenty-two years old and fresh out of college, inherits an old house on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans in 1970. While overseeing renovations and dealing with protestors opposed to urban renewal that displaces the poor, Anne discovers an old journal that sheds light on Degas, his friends and family and sojourn in the city—in a house just down the street from hers. Her attempts to uncover more information reveal mysteries both personal and artistic, and soon Anne must tackle some very basic questions regarding what she wants from life.

Interspersed with Anne’s story is the narrative of Degas’s sister-in-law, the Estelle of the title, as she welcomes her visiting brother-in-law and observes his adjustment to family life. Estelle has troubles of her own: she’s pregnant with her third child, she’s losing her eyesight, and her marriage suffers as the family cotton business struggles to stay afloat in the aftermath of the US Civil War. Yet she perseveres, and these relatively quiet domestic scenes contrast well with Anne’s more dramatic conflicts and with the occasional diary entries reproduced from the journal Anne has discovered. The end result is a thoroughly enjoyable tale of the changing fortunes of a great city and the life of an artist, told through the perspectives of three women governed by expectations that are in some ways quite similar, although the options available to them are not similar at all.

Image: Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Interview with Clare McHugh

I love a good novel about Tudors or Windsors as much as the next person. But I also admire—and enjoy books by—novelists who go beyond the “short list” of literary favorites to explore the lives of often undeservedly ignored historical figures. Princess Vicky, the eldest daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, is one such personage. Raised in the knowledge that, no matter how competent or knowledgeable she might be, she would probably never have the opportunity to fill her mother’s shoes, Vicky entered into a typical royal marriage and did her best to cope with the expectations of a country that had little use for her strong personality or her liberal ideas. It is in some ways not a happy story, but as told by Clare McHugh in A Most English Princess, it is both a compelling and a rewarding one.


 Clare was kind enough to answer my questions about her book and how she came to produce it. Read on to find out more.

A Most English Princess is your first novel. How did you get into writing fiction?

I have a dog-eared copy of John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist that I read repeatedly and carried around for years. But I struggled to believe that I could write a decent book: I revere too many authors. The abrupt end of my career as a magazine editor made me think: if not now, when? I just jumped in. I was lucky to find a good teacher and a good editor who helped me a lot. Fiction is very different from journalism, which I practiced for thirty years.

And what drew you to the story of Princess Vicky?

Like Vicky, I am the eldest in my family and have a brother just a year younger. I could relate to how painful it would be to be passed over—as she was for the throne—because she was considered “lesser,” a girl. It’s a good thing that the law was changed after Prince William married Kate Middleton, and now the eldest child of either sex inherits. It’s interesting to note that Vicky was the last person passed over because she was female. The monarchs since Victoria either had boys first, or in the case of the current queen’s father, only girls.

When we first meet Vicky, she is at the end of her life and the empress of Germany. What made you decide to start there?

I aimed to heighten the stakes by showing readers that this is not a happily-ever-after story, and that Vicky, a very privileged person, had to cope with some terrible disappointments. Being a princess is not all it’s cracked up to be, even in the old days. I also wanted to contrast her relationship with her surrogate son, her godson Fritz Ponsonby, and her actual son, Kaiser Wilhelm. The former revered her, and the latter opposed her. How did that come about? I hoped readers would be intrigued by this question and read on.

We soon go back in time and encounter Vicky as a young girl. How would you describe her, and what is the basis of her grievance against her brother Bertie?

Vicky was a very confident, very talkative, very bossy little girl. As a child she was well aware she was the superior student and physically more able than her younger brother—she could ride, swim, and climb better than he. Bertie struggled, especially in the schoolroom. Today, we would describe Bertie as having mild learning disabilities. But Bertie had a very affectionate personality, and while Vicky thought she would be a better heir and as the eldest deserved the throne, when she was a young child it was explained to her why that could not be. After that she contented herself with telling Bertie what to do and recruiting him for various games of her own devising. They were good friends their whole lives long except when politics interfered!

How does Vicky relate to her famous parents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert?

It was a tricky dynamic between the three of them. Prince Albert adored Vicky and showered her with praise and attention. Queen Victoria often felt jealous, and it’s hard to blame her because Prince Albert was in the habit of scolding his wife for her perceived shortcomings! But after Vicky left home, she and her mother became very close, exchanging letters several times a week, as they commiserated on the challenges of royal life, Vicky’s difficult in-laws, and the raising of many children.

And how does Vicky get to Prussia? What are the highlights (or low lights) of her experience there? What makes her story “tragic,” to quote your book description?

Vicky marries Fritz, the heir to the Prussian throne, and moves to Berlin with him, but from the very first the Prussian royal family treats Vicky badly. In some ways it echoes what happened between Meghan Markle and the British royals—a bad fit. Vicky was a liberal, trained by her father to believe in democratic government, freedom of speech and religion, and more rights for women. Not only did many Prussians disagree with these ideas, they resented that this teenage princess presumed she could arrive and tell them how to run their country. And Vicky sometimes lacked tact. But her predicament was made much worse by bad luck. Her and Fritz’s firstborn son was born with a withered arm, the Prussian government was taken over by the autocratic Otto von Bismarck, who was deeply suspicious of Vicky, and then three wars made Prussia the dominant power in Germany. The German nation was united under a very militaristic and bellicose Prussian regime, and Vicky’s damaged son was subsumed into this nationalistic atmosphere, rejecting the liberal ideas of his parents. The whole world suffered because of the way history played out in this family, in this country.

This book has just come out. Are you already working on something new?
I am toggling between two things. I am outlining a second book about Vicky, concerning her husband’s ninety-nine-day reign as Kaiser, and her efforts to protect him and advance his liberal ideas. I will go forward with it if readers seem to like Vicky. I am also writing a historical novel set in 1970s and 1980s America, a period I know much about first hand.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Before turning to fiction, Clare McHugh worked as a journalist, magazine editor, and history teacher. Born in London, she grew up in the United States and graduated from Harvard with a degree in European history. A Most English Princess is her first novel. Follow her on Twitter (@Claremch) and check out her website for blog posts, details of her research into the royal families of Britain and Germany, and her book reviews of both fiction and nonfiction.

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 (