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 claremchugh.com 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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2188597

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 (https://www.lindakass.com).