Friday, August 28, 2020

The Many Faces of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 21, 2020

Interview with Gill Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

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

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

Friday, August 14, 2020

Writing in the Time of Coronavirus

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

Friday, August 7, 2020

The Perils of Collecting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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