Friday, May 29, 2020

Interview with C.W. Gortner

I had heard C.W. Gortner’s name long before I read his previous novel, The Romanov Empress. And really, as a historian of Russia (albeit specializing in a much earlier period), how could I resist a topic like that one?

I really enjoyed the novel, which examined the life of Maria Feodorovna, the Danish princess who became the wife of Emperor Alexander III after his older brother died, leaving Sasha (his family nickname), as heir to the throne—not least because Alexander III has a rather poor reputation as a reactionary ruler in stark contrast to his supposedly enlightened father and inoffensive but ultimately indecisive son. So when Gortner’s publicist offered me a digital copy of The First Actress, his latest book on the life of Sarah Bernhardt, I leaped at the chance.

Indeed, I enjoyed the new book even more than The Romanov Empress. It’s fast-moving, well researched, and fascinating. I certainly knew of Sarah Bernhardt, that she was considered a great actress and lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But I realized by the beginning of chapter 2 how much more I had to learn, and I have seldom had a more pleasurable time filling in the gaps. So read on as C.W. Gortner answers my questions about this novel and where he plans to take us next. I bet you too will find out a few things you didn’t know!

You have written a wide range of historical fiction—including, most recently, The Romanov Empress. What drew you to Sarah Bernhardt’s story?

I’ve known about Sarah since childhood. Both my maternal grandparents were actors, so I’m attracted to the profession, and her name was often cited at home, usually when I was being overdramatic. In addition, I write about controversial women and have portrayed an actor before: Marlene Dietrich in Marlene. As a novelist, I love exploring both the art and its personalities, and Sarah was a pioneer in acting. She changed the rules, setting a more realistic standard, and became the first internationally renowned celebrity for it. But, as for most famous actors, her journey was full of challenges and setbacks. She’d always been on my radar as a potential subject, as many people have heard of her but don’t know her personal story. She turned out to be an ideal subject for me, a courageous and eccentric woman who refused to conform to the norms of her time.

Her early life was difficult, especially her relationship with her mother. What can you tell us about that?

Well, it was a rough era for women. The majority didn’t have access to education, while employment options were very limited, unless you wanted to be a governess or seamstress. The mid-nineteenth century in Paris is often referred to as the era of the courtesan for a reason. Without means to make a living, some enterprising women resorted to the world’s oldest trade, except becoming a courtesan required more than beauty and the willingness to put a price on your body. Courtesans had to excel not only in carnal expertise but also in social charms; they established salons to entertain and attract a loyal clientele, which paid the bills. These women were, in essence, entrepreneurs. 

Sarah’s mother, Julie, never achieved great wealth as a courtesan, so she expected her daughters to follow in her footsteps. Age put an expiration date on a courtesan’s livelihood and a successor was necessary to see her through her maturity. Sarah’s refusal to be Julie’s successor put a lifelong strain on their relationship. When Sarah did enter the courtesan trade, it was forced on her and she paid a steep price. Julie disapproved of Sarah’s impulsive decision to pursue acting instead, as actors were not well-regarded; indeed, in some circles, they were less socially accepted than courtesans. For Julie, her daughter’s work on the stage was reckless and doomed to failure, given that most actresses never found success.

An important part of her childhood was spent in a convent, in part because of that conflict with her mother. What did the convent mean for Sarah, and what did she take away from it?

Being dispatched to the convent was the result of Sarah’s early rebelliousness yet it turned out to be a refuge, where, ironically, she discovered women could be self-sufficient. Anti-conception was primitive, so courtesans often bore illegitimate children, but again, the era was no easier on children. For a courtesan to raise her child at home, where she maintained her salon, was impossible; her suitors were usually married, with families of their own. The last thing they wanted was her child underfoot, though it should be noted that if the child turned out to be theirs, some of the men made financial provision for it. Still, courtesans fulfilled an expensive male fantasy, so many either gave up their children to orphanages or had them reared far away. It was standard practice, though it caused havoc on the child, who often never knew who their father was and never saw their mother until they were old enough to be useful. Sarah’s childhood wasn’t exceptional for her circumstances, but her experience in the convent was. She received a decent education, was introduced to acting through the Nativity play, and the nuns encouraged her artistic inclinations, recognizing something extraordinary in her. The convent’s effect on her was profound; because of her time there, Sarah learned she could create a different existence than the one her mother demanded of her.

Although we think of Sarah Bernhardt as the world’s first great actress, she had problems establishing herself in her craft. What held her back? 

Sarah had a natural inclination toward realism and an innate sense of drama. If you watch extant fragments of her later filmed performances, her style is mannered from what we see today, but in her era, it was revolutionary because she didn’t conform to the standards. Because she was so intelligent and talented—she could memorize an entire play in less than a week and play both male and female roles—she caused immense friction with her directors, who, of course, didn’t think actors should have any say in how to interpret a part. Sarah’s resolve to perform as she thought best led to her dismissal from the most prestigious acting company in France and a very difficult time in her life. She was held back by her refusal to do as she was told, but in the end, this refusal would bring her fame.

Her situation wasn’t helped by her bearing a son out of wedlock, yet she was a devoted mother and did work her way back into the theater. Then the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 sent her life into turmoil once more. How did she react, and how did those experiences change her?

The Franco-Prussian war brought an end to the Second Empire in France. The siege on Paris was particularly brutal, lasting five months in the dead of winter, during which the blockade caused thousands to perish of starvation. Sarah elected to stay in Paris rather than flee and converted the theater where she was headlining into an infirmary. It brought her lasting patriotic acclaim, but she experienced firsthand the deprivations of the siege and was deeply affected by it. She became an anti-war activist for the rest of her life.

Both Alexandre Dumas (mostly père, but fils also makes an appearance) and Victor Hugo play important parts in what we might call the breakout phase of her career. Please summarize their contributions for us. 

I don’t want to spoil the novel for readers, but Dumas and Hugo were vital in Sarah’s career because they recognized her unique approach to acting. They were both established figures. Dumas wrote many successful plays and novels, such as The Count of Monte Cristo, as did Hugo, most famous for Les Misérables. Dumas’s work was romantic, while Hugo focused on social inequities and was condemned for his anti-imperial stance. For Sarah, their championship ensured access to roles that elevated her profile. Dumas was her earliest supporter. Hugo came into her life later on and was her lover for a time, despite their significant difference in age.

And where does your literary journey go next?

I’m currently writing a novel about Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill, the American-born mother of Sir Winston. It’s my first book with an American protagonist and it’s set in the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, where my past two novels are also set. Jennie had a very different life from Empress Marie Feodorovna and Sarah Bernhardt. The daughter of a self-made New York millionaire, she was one of the first in the infamous wave of foreign brides who married into the British aristocracy. She blazed a trail of early feminism and controversy, surviving a difficult marriage to become a newspaper editor and theater entrepreneur, a wartime activist, as well as an inspirational force in her son’s political career. I’m having a lot of fun with her.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Thank you for inviting me!

C.W. Gortner holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis on Renaissance Studies from the New College of California and a degree in fashion marketing. In his extensive travels to research his books, he’s experienced life in a Spanish castle and danced in a Tudor great hall. His novels have been translated into over twenty languages to date. Find out more about him at


Images: Sarah Bernhardt in 1864, age twenty, photographed by Félix Nadar; Bernhardt with her mother—both public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Joining the 2020s

I last upgraded my computer in January 2010. It’s possible to nurse a Mac computer that long, even while using it every day, despite Apple’s ruthless jettisoning of hardware and software features that work perfectly well but don’t encourage people to shell out large sums on a schedule that suits the company’s bottom line.

Sir Percy’s iMac is even older, and although I haven’t started up the 2005 predecessor of today’s computer since his hard drive died and was replaced with an unformatted disk that required intensive forays into the wilds of target disk mode, software upgrades, and old manuals, the predecessor came through then at the venerable computer age of twelve.

I’ve been putting off the upgrade for several reasons. The hardware costs double what I’d pay for a cheap PC, but it lasts three to four times as long, so that seems like a fair trade even if gathering the necessary sum requires effort. The real deterrent has been the software, some of which has undergone “improvements” that in fact do not improve the user experience but degrade it. In particular, the move of several essential programs to an online subscription model led me not even to consider buying a new machine. What can I say? I’m a Scotswoman. The thought of being unable to access my own files unless I cough up $X a month feels like highway robbery to me.

All strong reasons to wait. Nevertheless, this month I took the plunge. I do, after all, depend on my computer not only for my job but for my hobby of choice (writing fiction). And as much as I still love my existing iMac, it has started to show the effects of age. Startup takes so long that I turn the machine on before I even eat breakfast, and the one time I needed help from tech support we had to give up midway on the restart in Safe Mode. The hard drive, which once seemed enormous, has become cramped enough that I routinely copy files to a backup disk and delete them from the main machine. And software upgrades, including security patches, lead to constant excitement as to whether the system will reboot. Features in various programs that appear either vital or useful come with disclaimers that they won’t run on my setup.

So when I got a better than expected royalty check for my nonfiction book, I decided it was time. If all goes well, a brand-new iMac will arrive at my house around the time this post goes up. Then the real fun begins. What can I transfer seamlessly? What must I jettison or replace? Will programs that do run on the new machine be less buggy there or more? Good thing we have a three-day weekend coming up.

So far, she typed with fingers crossed, the old computer does still boot, despite occasionally threatening to give me a heart attack because I’ve hit the power switch four times without result. So long as it does, I can shift the newer programs over and still (I hope) access the old ones in a pinch. But I remember the last time I did this, ten years ago, and I know from experience to expect a wild ride for a while. So wish me luck as I make the transition!

Image purchased by subscription from, no. 110337376.

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Three Ms of Writing Historical Fiction

Most of the time, I write my own blog posts or share them with authors via questions and answers. But once in a while, I get the opportunity to feature someone else’s views on historical fiction and the writing of it. Today I have a guest post by Ben Wyckoff Shore, whose novel Terribilita just came out with Cinder Block Publishing. 

Ben raises a question of interest to all historical novelists: how do we recreate not only the material and political circumstances that characterize a particular segment of the past but the psychological assumptions about how the world works that determine how our characters react to those circumstances. Emotions don’t change over the millennia, but what provokes them definitely does. So here I turn over the post to Ben, with thanks for his suggestions about three ways to access what he refers to as the “zeitgeist of the past.”


Three Ms of Historical Fiction That Will Help You Nail the Zeitgeist of the Past
Ben Wyckoff Shore

A major challenge of writing historical fiction is getting the zeitgeist right. Getting the zeitgeist right is one of the most powerful things you can do as a writer to set your book apart and goes far beyond placating the fact-checking history buffs (love you folks).

By zeitgeist, I don’t just mean atmosphere: I also mean the outlook and perspective of those who lived a hundred, two hundred, or even five hundred years ago. History may be written by the victors, as the maxim goes, but there are countless other historical perspectives to present. Understanding and conveying these will add depth to your characters, giving you the tools to portray history from their varied, complex perspectives and worldviews. It will also inspire your characters’ visceral motives, their challenges and their fears—enabling you to craft a story that will truly transport your readers.

To dig up these treasured perspectives we must get as close to the horse’s mouth as possible. During the process of writing and researching my novel, Terribilita, set in nineteenth-century Italy, I found that the very best way to burrow back in time is to tap into primary resources by delving into what I call the three Ms: Memoirs, Museums, and Media.


Most memoirs are fantastic primary sources that provide an extraordinary amount of detail into the day to day of your time period. However, to get that illusory “historical perspective,” we must really focus on memoir selection, as not all memoirs are created equal. Some of the best memoirs are not from the prominent and the powerful of the era, and in fact, some of the less famous accounts from the era will be more aligned with the everyman perspective. 

In preparation for writing Terribilita and specifically writing a mercenary character, I read a memoir by a British army officer who was embedded with a renegade portion of the Ottoman Army called the Bashi-Bazouks. Twelve Months with the Bashi-Bazouks by Edward Money (1857) gave me a tremendous amount of insight into what motivated these fighting men, the honor codes they obeyed, and their exotic styles of combat. The author Edward Money is not a household name, and his book won’t show up on any bestseller lists, but this read allowed me to crawl into the skull of a soldier of fortune.

The best way I’ve found to find these insider memoirs is through Google Advanced Book Search. This free tool allows you to search by subject using keywords and, more importantly, publish date, which will yield authors that were alive and kicking during your chosen era. By the way, Bashi-Bazouk is Turkish for “crazy-head.”


While my wife and I were in Italy last summer for a friend’s wedding, I hijacked our vacation and dragged her to the island of Caprera. This raw, rocky island off Sardinia is where Giuseppe Garibaldi lived out his final years. Garibaldi was the Risorgimento general who helped unite the many Kingdoms of Italy into one nation. He is a major influence for the characters and the time period of Terribilita. By walking his island and through his house, now a beautiful museum, I was able to get a better sense of the man who led a movement, which created a country. The museum holds his clothes, his weapons, his letters, and his grave. Take any opportunity to get up close and tactile with history: it will make your composition all the more vivid. Another word of advice with regard to museum mongering: talk to the people who work there. I’ve found they know a whole lot more than what is shown in the exhibits.  Museums may be closed for the moment, but they will be back.


Finding contemporaneous media is an excellent way to tap into your chosen epoch. I found a July 15, 1859, edition of the New York Herald, which reported on the Battle of Solferino (critical to the story of Terribilita) from the varied perspectives of each of the warring nations. Napoleon III is hailed as a genius, a scoundrel, and a lucky S.O.B. in different sections of the same publication. This newspaper also featured a map of the battlefield and the troop movements. Thanks, eBay. Although I was set back $35—a large markup from the original price of 2 cents—I now have a memento to frame and hang on my wall as a fond memory.

It may well be true that the victor’s truth usually becomes the lasting version of history most of us tell and retell. But there are other versions out there waiting for writers to bring back to life. We just need to know where to look.

Ben Wyckoff Shore is the author of the historical fiction novel Terribilita, his first published work. Ben enjoys reading and writing about very flawed, very human characters. He likes all sorts of dogs but especially underdogs. He has a B.A. from Tufts University and a Masters from Dartmouth College, and he lives in New York with his wife, Mariana. Find out more about him at

Friday, May 8, 2020

Alone at Longbourn

I think most of us know that Jane Austen in general and Pride and Prejudice in particular have a few fans. And that some of those fans write novels about Austen’s characters or set in Austen’s world. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Bennet—everyone’s favorite, as Janice Hadlow notes in my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview about her just-published novel, The Other Bennet Sister—has entire series centered on her as well as individual novels about her married life with Mr. Darcy and his younger sister, Georgiana.

But Lizzie is easy to love. She’s attractive, witty, graceful, and sparkling. She dances well, and although less technically proficient at the piano than others, including her earnest sister Mary, she plays with such spirit that no one notices her flaws. Like her creator, Lizzie has a gift for skewering the smug with a well-turned phrase. She seldom finds herself at a loss in any situation. No doubt even she sometimes suffers from embarrassment or makes an error, but most of the time she has the enviable ability to do and say the right thing.

Not so Mary—characterized by Austen herself as awkward, plain, and pompous. Bookish in a time when reading was not a quality much valued in young women, serious and rather literal-minded, Mary doesn’t have a place in her family or in the social world the Bennets occupy. She appears only occasionally in Pride and Prejudice, always under circumstances that disadvantage her. Again quoting Hadlow, Austen doesn’t much like Mary, and it shows. 

It seems natural to wonder what life looks like through this under-valued character’s eyes and imagine what might happen to her in later years. But doing so convincingly is a more difficult proposition. This is where Hadlow excels: the years that went into this obvious labor of love produce a richly textured, wholly believable, and sympathetic Mary whose winding emotional path at last brings her into contact with the perfect person for her. It would be churlish to reveal more about who that is and how they meet, but I will say that Mary’s story develops within a series of contrasting futures extrapolated from the original novel. There are some intriguing parallels between this book and Pamela Mingle’s The Pursuit of Mary Bennet (2013), but many more differences. If you liked that earlier novel, I’m pretty sure you will like this one too.

Moreover, in recasting and extending Austen’s well-known novel, Hadlow ends up affirming a point made by Maya Rodale in another recent interview  about romance novels more generally: that happy endings need not be restricted to the beautiful, the rich, the witty, or the titled. Even the Mary Bennets of the world deserve to find someone who loves and appreciates them. And that’s an encouraging thought, especially in a time when so many of us can hardly get together with our nearest and dearest, never mind search the world for a long-time partner.

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

It is well known that the novels of Jane Austen (1775–1817), which enjoyed at best a modest success during her lifetime, have become ever more popular in the last fifty years or so. They support a small industry of remakes, spinoffs, and retellings. As Janice Hadlow notes while discussing The Other Bennet Sister (Henry Holt, 2020), one reason for that interest lies with Austen herself. A genius at characterization, Austen drops tiny pearls of insight into one secondary character after another throughout her novels, and these seeds, when properly nurtured, can develop in unexpected ways.

The Other Bennet Sister focuses on the life of the middle sister in Pride and Prejudice. Stuck between an older pair—beautiful, gentle Jane and pretty, sprightly Lizzie—and a younger duo whose good looks and sheer love of life compensate for a certain lack of decorum, Mary is bookish, awkward, and plain. In a family where the daughters’ only acceptable future requires them to marry well without the plump dowries that would make them attractive to men of their own gentry class, Mary’s traits doom her (at least in her mother’s eyes) to an unhappy and lonely spinsterhood. Even her scholarly father underestimates Mary, because she lacks the wit and self-confidence that so distinguish Lizzie, his favorite.

Hadlow has given deep thought to what it would mean to grow up as Mary—what she wants, how she feels, which twists of fate and family turn her into the character we meet so briefly in Austen’s novel. But then The Other Bennet Sister goes beyond Pride and Prejudice to imagine how the Marys of the world might find happiness, even in the early nineteenth century. It is a captivating and heartening story, and you need not be an Austen fan to appreciate the journey.

Image: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, as illustrated by Hugh Thomson (1894). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Interview with Michelle Cox

Back in 2016, I interviewed Michelle Cox for New Books in Historical Fiction. At that point, she already had two books in her Henrietta and Inspector Howard mystery series, set in 1930s Chicago: A Girl Like You and A Ring of Truth. You can find out more about those books by clicking on the interview link above. Today, we’re discussing the three later novels in the series, especially A Child Lost, released just this week.

This is your fifth of your detective novels featuring Henrietta von Harmon and Clive Howard. Could you give us a brief overview of Henrietta and Clive, how they got together, and where they are at the beginning of book 4, A Veil Removed—which came out last year?
Sure! Henrietta and Clive are very much from opposite sides of the tracks, as it were. Henrietta is from an impoverished family living in the grip of the Great Depression in Chicago. Her father has killed himself, leaving a chronically depressed wife and eight children behind. As the oldest child, Henrietta is always out working, trying to make money any way she can. Against her better judgment, she takes a job as a taxi-dancer at a dance hall. When her boss, Mama Leone, turns up dead, Inspector Clive Howard arrives on the scene to investigate. He offers her a job going under cover for him at a Burlesque Club, which she accepts, and from there, many adventures, both mysterious and romantic, begin.

In the end, Clive ends up proposing to Henrietta, and she accepts, despite the fact that he is many years her senior. What she doesn’t realize until the next book, however, is that Clive is not just a city detective, but he is also the heir to the fabulous Howard fortune and estate in Winnetka. This causes yet another layer of friction between the two, as Henrietta feels oddly betrayed by this omission.

It’s obviously something they eventually resolve, however, because at the beginning of Book 4, A Veil Removed, Henrietta and Clive, newly married, abruptly end their honeymoon in England to attend the funeral of Clive’s father, Alcott Howard. Alcott has supposedly died as a result of a freak accident, but Clive suspects something more sinister … 

Much of A Veil Removed revolves around the death of Clive’s father, Alcott. Without giving away spoilers, what can you tell us about that situation?
While cleaning out his father’s study, Clive discovers several damaging letters that point to him being the potential victim of blackmail, furthering Clive’s suspicion that his father’s death was not an accident. His mother refuses to accept this theory and begins to conclude that Clive is mentally deranged from grief. Clive manages to convince Henrietta, however, so the two then begin a clandestine investigation, two of their main suspects being Bennett, Alcott’s right-hand man at his firm, and Carter, Alcott’s personal valet. Things quickly become more dangerous than either Clive or Henrietta first realized.

Another important thread in book 4, which continues into A Child Lost—the fifth book—has to do with Henrietta’s younger sister, Elsie. At the beginning of A Veil Removed, she is not—as we would say these days—in a good place. Why, and how does Henrietta help her resolve it?
At the beginning of A Veil Removed, Elsie finds herself the victim of a foiled elopement with the rogue Lt. Harrison Barnes-Smith, who has cruelly tricked and seduced her. Henrietta, with the help of Clive’s sister, Julia, thwarted the elopement, and now attempts to save Elsie from not only her own depression but from her wicked grandfather’s attempt to marry her off to the highest bidder. Their idea is to enroll Elsie at Mundelein College—a new, all-women’s Catholic school in the city. 

As we move into A Child Lost, Elsie is still a student at Mundelein and toying with the idea of taking vows as a nun. Why is that?

Elsie toys with being a nun because she sees this as her only way to be free from her grandfather’s schemes to marry her off. She longs to be able to study and to teach the poor, which she knows she won’t be able to do if she is the wife of some wealthy North Shore tycoon. Nor does she think she will be  “left alone” to her own devices.

But her encounter with Gunther and Anna undercuts that goal. Who is Gunther, and what do we need to know about him and Anna to understand this fifth book?

Gunther is a German immigrant working as the custodian at Mundelein. He befriends the shy Elsie before the other girls arrive for the start of the term and encourages her to read and think for herself. A friendship begins between them, which borders on a romance until Elsie finds and reads Gunther’s journal, which mentions, many times, a mysterious woman named Anna.

And where are Clive and Henrietta in A Child Lost?

For a reason I won’t mention, Henrietta is quite depressed at the beginning of A Child Lost, and Clive, desperate to cheer her up, begs a colleague at the Winnetka police for a case that he and Henrietta can work on together as a fledgling detective team.

The case given to them is the investigation of a spiritualist who is operating in an abandoned school house on the edge of town and who is accused of robbing people of their valuables. Meanwhile, Elsie begs Henrietta to help her and Gunther find a missing woman who is connected to the Anna mentioned above, a search which leads them to Dunning, an infamous, real-life asylum in Chicago. 

Are you working on Henrietta and Inspector Howard, no. 6?

Well, I have it outlined, but I haven’t started actually writing it. I’m taking a little break from the series to write not one, but two, stand-alone novels, separate from the series—still in 1930s Chicago, but not based on any of the series characters. After they’re finished, I would love to jump back into the series because I really miss spending my days with Henrietta and Clive!

Thank you so much for answering my questions!


Michelle Cox is the author of the multiple award-winning Henrietta and Inspector Howard series as well as “Novel Notes of Local Lore,” a weekly blog dedicated to Chicago’s forgotten residents. She suspects she may have once lived in the 1930s and, having yet to discover a handy time machine lying around, has resorted to writing about the era as a way of getting herself back there. Find out more about her and sign up for her newsletter at