Friday, April 24, 2020

Journey to Sicily

The Five Directions Press motto is “Literary Journeys along Paths Less Traveled.” In this time of stay-at-home orders, long-distance learning, and quarantines, a literary journey is the only kind most of us can hope to undertake.

But even in normal times, books open a window onto worlds we cannot reach by other means: alien planets, magical lands that never existed, the past of every country on earth. Through books we can travel to Jonathan Swift’s Lilliput, Louisa May Alcott’s New England, the French or Russian revolutions, Arthur C. Clarke’s future.

So today I offer a literary journey to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. It’s 1799, and Ignazio Florio awakens to an earthquake in progress: “The earthquake is a hiss that starts in the sea and wedges itself into the night. It swells, grows, then becomes a roar that tears through the silence.”

The members of Ignazio’s family survive, although their house is badly damaged. He and his brother Paolo decide to move to Palermo and establish a spice business. A journey across the sea in a small boat, and the deed is done. They reach the city that will shelter them through competition and disease, war and change, for generations.

And why spices? I’ll let Stefania Auci, author of The Florios of Sicily—an international bestseller beautifully translated by Katherine Gregor and available in English from HarperVia as of this week—answer that question.

Cinnamon, pepper, cumin, aniseed, coriander, saffron, sumac, cassia …

No, spices aren’t just for cooking. They’re medicines, they’re cosmetics, they’re poisons and memories of faraway lands few people have seen.

Before reaching a sales counter, a cinnamon stick or a ginger root has to go through dozens of hands, travel on the back of a mule or a camel in long caravans, cross the ocean, and reach European ports.

So the spices themselves are on a journey, a fragrant and evocative voyage from their home in the East Indies to their eventual destination, where they convey a sensory aura of distant places to those who encounter them.

The Florios start with spices, but they don’t end with them. Each of the book’s seven parts charts one stage in their developing enterprise: Spices, Silk, Bark, Sulfur, Lace, Tuna, Sand. The whole becomes a family saga, as Paolo and Ignazio yield the stage to their children and grandchildren. Meanwhile, the world around them is changing as well. Napoleon seeks to conquer Europe. Giuseppe Garibaldi aims to unify the disparate Italian states into a single kingdom, a goal that requires him to subdue Sicily and Naples.

Amid political, economic, and personal turmoil, the Florios press on. So while we’re all locked away at home, take a literary journey to nineteenth-century Sicily. You may find that life looks a whole lot brighter when you’re done.

Image: Giuseppe Garibaldi Entering Palermo (1860), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Discovering Agnes Pelton

Over the course of eight years, I’ve been very fortunate in—and grateful to—the guests who agree to talk about their new novels during my podcast interviews. But some authors stand out, and Mari Coates, whom I talked to a couple of weeks ago and whose interview went up on Monday, is one of those. 

While investigating her website in preparation for writing up potential questions, I discovered that her family had a long-time friendship with the subject of her biographical novel, The Pelton Papers. How that relationship came about became the basis of a fascinating and informative conversation.

Now I have to confess: before reading Mari Coates’ book, I had never heard of the painter Agnes Pelton. I immediately looked her up and discovered an extraordinary and beautiful body of work, as well as a touring exhibit currently off-limits to the public at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (thank you, coronavirus). But you can see the description and some of the featured pieces on the museum’s website.

I also had not heard—or, if I had heard, did not remember—that Pelton’s grandmother was involved in a major scandal in late nineteenth-century New York. Which is, in a way, how Pelton came to be, since her mother fled to Germany to escape the trauma and encountered her father, another ex-pat fleeing traumas of his own.

Many of Pelton’s more dramatic and mature art works are not yet in the public domain, but you can see her style developing in the two works from 1915 and 1917 included in this post. And by all means listen to the interview and conduct your own exploration into the works of the “desert transcendentalist” who, almost sixty years after her death, has yet to attain the recognition that is her due.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. You can also find a short transcript on the Literary Hub and listen to the interview there if you wish.

Like the better-known and perhaps luckier Georgia O’Keeffe, the American painter Agnes Pelton also found her unique vision in the western desert. As Mari Coates details in our conversation, Pelton and O’Keeffe took art classes from the same teacher and had parallel careers in several ways, yet Pelton is relatively unknown despite a number of major exhibitions during her lifetime and one traveling the United States even as this interview airs.

But Pelton’s time in the California desert is only a small part of the captivating story traced in The Pelton Papers. Born in Germany, where her ex-pat parents connected while escaping family scandals and tragedies, Pelton came to New York at the age of seven. A sickly girl in a dark and brooding house, she survived her childhood with a deeply religious grandmother, an absent father, a strong-minded mother who supported the family by giving music lessons, and no social life to speak of by losing herself in colors and paint. That set her on a path that led, through training in modernism and more traditional instruction in Italy, to a deeply spiritual, intensely personal understanding of her own artistic mission. In this beautifully written novel, Mari Coates—whose own family had a long and productive friendship with Pelton—draws on stories she heard growing up and numerous other sources to portray an emotionally complex, sometimes troubled, but always gifted heroine whose resilience and eventual triumph will warm your heart.

Images: West Wind (1915), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Writing Up a Storm

Just over a year ago, Patrycja Podrazik, who writes as P. K. Adams, and I decided to collaborate on a novel—or novels. I’ve mentioned this joint project on the blog before, but now that we’ve passed our first milestone, I thought I’d bring you into the process a little more.

The decision was relatively simple: she writes mysteries set in sixteenth-century Poland; I write political romances set in sixteenth-century Russia—that makes us the only two novelists we know producing Tudor-era fiction in English about eastern Europe and beyond. And we like each other’s work.

That said, our acquaintance with each other up to that point didn’t go far beyond a New Books in Historical Fiction interview. So we worked on finding out more. A couple of long phone calls and e-mail exchanges led to an in-person meeting at the Historical Novel Society in June and, eventually, a detailed outline of the book we planned to write.

That in itself was a departure for me, as I wrote on this blog last spring. My outlines look more like doodles. At best, I have a list of story events—intended to spark ideas and keep me focused on an endpoint but otherwise useful primarily as a measure of just how far any given story has deviated from its original plan. With Song of the Sisters, that’s 180 degrees. Most of the others haven’t veered that far off course, but only The Shattered Drum and Song of the Siren made it to the end without a major overhaul. Song of the Shaman went round in circles for a while before I figured out at last how to get it where it needed to go.

But following the characters’ bliss doesn’t work so well when someone else has to come in and write the next chapter. Hence the detailed outline, which we followed most of the time. We did adjust the plan as needed, especially in the second half of the manuscript, but by then we’d learned a lot more about each other—our strengths and weaknesses and quirks. We knew more about the characters, too, as well as the details of past scenes that we didn’t want to repeat. By then, the story had progressed to the point where a good ending writes itself, so the changes were more like wrinkles on a surface than fundamental shifts. The last ten chapters or so we exchanged one at a time, offering comments and suggestions until we both felt comfortable that the text said what we wanted it to say.

We settled on a working title early on, These Barbarous Coasts—a reference from one of the early English travelogues produced by George Turberville, who traveled to Russia with the Muscovy Company and was, to put it bluntly, not impressed by what he found there. The title was mostly so I could engage in my preferred form of editing: creating an e-book and reading it through, marking whatever jumps out at me. Patrycja eventually confessed that she’d never liked it, and we came up with a new name: The Merchant’s Tale.

But the big news is that the first draft is done—and in record time. We applied fingers to keyboard right around New Year’s Day, and 85,000 words and 28 chapters later, we reached the end on April 7. It’s a good, solid beginning, too—not perfect, because no rough draft is (or why would they be called “rough”?), but respectable, even engaging. And we’ve established a good working relationship. Indeed, we know far more about each other as writers than we did fourteen months ago.

What else can I tell you without revealing too much? A Polish merchant, traveling to Moscow to see his long-promised bride and her brother, encounters a group of English sailors, subjects of the Tudor king Edward VI. The Englishmen had set out from London intending to find a northeast passage to the Orient, but a series of accidents dumps them in Russia instead. They end up at the court of Ivan the Terrible, where his in-laws, later known as the Romanovs, take an interest in the English merchants. Life looks good. But this is a novel, so you know trouble finds them.…

Images: Anthony Jenkinson's map of Moscovia (late 16th-century); 17th-century map of the Moscow Kremlin (based on a 1604 drawing) public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Interview with Stacey Halls

In March last year, I wrote a post about Stacey Hall’s captivating debut novel, The Familiars. I was delighted to receive her second novel, due out from MIRA Books next Tuesday, but I’d already signed up to interview another author for my podcast. So I asked if Stacey would be willing to answer some written questions, and she was kind enough to say yes.

So read on for my questions and her answers, and definitely seek out The Lost Orphan. I promise you: I couldn’t put it down!

The Lost Orphan is your second novel. What can you tell us about your earlier book, The Familiars?
The Familiars is set during the Lancashire witch trials that took place in the north of England in 1612. It’s about two women—one of whom is accused of witchcraft, which was a crime punishable by death—and how they try to save each other’s lives. I grew up in Lancashire, and the witches are very much a part of the fabric and history of the area, so I knew about them from a young age. Eleven people were accused of witchcraft; one of them died in prison, one was acquitted and ten were executed. I had the idea for the story when I visited Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire, an Elizabethan property that has views of Pendle Hill, which is synonymous with the witch trials. I wanted to write a story about the trials told from the point of view of someone who lived in this house, who was trying desperately to save someone.

The Lost Orphan—called The Foundling in the UK—opens in London in 1754. A young woman named Bess Bright is taking her newborn baby, Clara, to the Foundling Hospital. Who is Bess, and what has driven her to surrender her infant daughter?
Bess is a shrimp seller from Billingsgate Market, which is London’s fish market. She is a street hawker, selling her produce from a basket she carries on her head. The portrait Shrimp Girl by William Hogarth inspired her job—I came across the painting while researching the period, and thought this girl just looked luminous. 

She has a baby daughter after a one-night stand with a merchant, and as she is unmarried and lives with her father and brother, and has to work, she is forced to surrender the baby to the care of the Foundling Hospital. She is a victim of circumstance—there was a lot of shame around illegitimate pregnancy at that time, perhaps not as much as in the Victorian era, however her low status and poverty leave her no choice but to give up her child.

Clara almost doesn’t make it, because entrance to the hospital depends on a lottery system. What can you tell us about that?
Lottery night was devised as a “fair” admissions process in the hospital’s early years. Women were invited to the hospital with their babies, where they would draw colored balls from a bag while wealthy revelers watched. The color of the ball determined whether or not their child was admitted—a white ball meant their child got a place, red put them on the waiting list, and black meant they’d lost. It was such a striking image, with such high stakes that determine the course of the lives of the woman and her child, that I made it the first chapter of the novel.


Six years pass, and Bess slowly gathers her savings. But when she goes to reclaim her child, what does she discover? 
Bess is told that child 627—all the children were Christened on admission and given new names, but Bess remembers her daughter’s number—has been collected by her “mother,” who has given Bess’s name and address. The child’s father is dead, so Bess sets out to find out who has claimed her daughter and why.

At this point, the novel switches from Bess’s point of view to that of Alexandra Callard. Who is she, and what connects her to Bess?
I can’t say much without giving away who she is! I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

And tell us, please, about Dr. Mead and his part in the story. 

Dr. Mead is Alexandra’s friend, who works at the Foundling Hospital and lives not far from her in Bloomsbury. His grandfather (also Dr. Mead) is the only “real” character in the novel—he was one of the Foundling Hospital’s founding members and physician to the royal family—but he only appears in one scene.

What are you working on now?
I’m writing my third novel, which is set in Edwardian Yorkshire and is about a nanny who goes to work with a wealthy but troubled family there.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Stacey Halls was born in 1989 and grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire. She studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and has written for publications including The Guardian, Stylist, Psychologies, The Independent, The Sun, and Fabulous.

Her first book, The Familiars, was the bestselling debut novel of 2019. The Lost Orphan is her second novel. Find out more about her and join her reading club at


Images: William Hogarth, Shrimp Girl (1740s), public domain via Wikimedia Commons; Foundling Hospital. London (1753), via Wikimedia Commons.