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.