Friday, April 16, 2021

Stepping Back in Time

There’s a reason why most of my novels so far have featured aristocrats and even royalty. We may not know much about the day-to-day lives of Russian nobles in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—especially the women—but a few sources that track their doings and even their marriages have survived. There are annals, religiously and politically biased but somewhat reliable in terms of dates and sequences. And there are official records, scarce in 1400 and even 1500 but becoming more extensive as the central government slowly develops a basic structure, including offices devoted to foreign affairs and military musters and other aristocratic (male) pursuits.

Some of those sources also mention, if only in passing, the small number of men who staffed the government offices—men like Anfim Fadeyev, who first appeared in my books as a suitor for Grusha’s hand in Song of the Shaman and reappears as a secondary character and almost-friend of Darya in Song of the Sisters. Anfim will be back as the hero of Song of the Sinner, the next installment in the Songs of Steppe & Forest series, and will continue to lurk in the background of future books.

So far, so good. But step down one rung on the social ladder to merchants—even splashy international appointed-by-the-tsar, top-of-the-tier gosti (the word also means “guest”)—and you might as well take a nose dive off a cliff. Even the scholars who spend years of their lives studying merchants and trade in Muscovite Russia tend to focus on the seventeenth century, where they may not have much information to work with but they at least have some, or on the influx of English, Dutch, and German traders who left records that didn’t get burned up every time Moscow caught on fire, which happened every 20–30 years.

Can we extrapolate back from the seventeenth century to the sixteenth? To a degree, I’m sure we can. In a time before computers, television, radio, and public education, when information on how to live passed directly from father to son and mother to daughter, change happened more slowly.

But it did happen. The government consolidation I mentioned above got off to a slow start but mushroomed under the Romanov dynasty (1613–1917), and that development affected commerce as much as anything else. The arrival of the Muscovy Company in 1553–54 introduced new ideas and new ways of doing things. Russia’s conquest of Kazan to its east in 1552 and Astrakhan, near the Caspian Sea, in 1556 opened up a direct if still dangerous route from Moscow to the Silk Roads even as it angered the Ottoman Empire, a development that eventually imperiled the traditional trade route across the steppe to the Black Sea ports of Caffa and Surozh. And we haven’t even gotten to the fifteen-year civil war known as the Time of Troubles (1598–1613), which caused a general upheaval that swept up merchants along with peasants, nobles, and the dynasty itself. None of that had yet occurred in the 1540s, where the next few books in my series are set.

And that poses a challenge, because Anfim comes from a merchant family, and his brothers engage in commerce with both east and west. What that means for their everyday lives, their view of the world and their place in it, and their attitudes toward all kinds of things, I have to either find out or imagine. At moments like this, I wish I could book a seat on a time machine, even for a few hours, and observe firsthand the many details that bring fiction to life but don’t appear in the records. I’d love to buttonhole one of those Surozh silk traders and pepper him with questions or watch him from behind a screen as he talks to his family and his colleagues, then goes about his daily chores.

Fortunately, novelists—unlike historians—only have to give it their best shot before taking a chance, filling in the gaps of what is not recorded, and hoping that the results are somewhere close to the truth. Even so, to the historian in me the thought of that time machine is awfully tempting....

Images: Alexander Yanov, A Chancery in Moscow (1880s); Ivan Bilibin, Gosti, illustration from The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1905); Alexander Litvichenko, Ivan the Terrible Shows His Treasures to the Englishman Jerome Horsey (1875)—all public domain because of their age, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 9, 2021

World Conquest, Take Two

As a historian of medieval Russia, I have often encountered portrayals of the Mongol Conquest as an unmitigated disaster, a break in continuity vast areas of steppe and forest. This perspective—never so prevalent in the West, which endured brief invasions and climactic battles but not centuries of domination, assimilation, and coexistence—has been modified in recent years as scholars have moderated their views of both Russian history and the Mongol impact on the lands they conquered. Outside the realm of academe, however, it remains as prevalent as ever.

But a question less often asked is the effect of the conquests on the Mongols themselves. What happened as a result of the influx of foreign cultures and religions imported by artisans, slaves, and concubines? How did the women captured by khans and beys influence the sons and daughters they bore?

That is the focus of my latest New Books Network interview with F.M. Deemyad, whose debut novel, The Sky Worshipers, appeared last month with History through Fiction. Through the overlapping stories of three stolen princesses—Chinese, Persian, and Polish—she traces the history of the conquest over three generations and charts the gradual shifts in the approach taken by Mongol khans toward the cities and civilizations they conquered. From the lives of these fictional women, we gain a unique perspective on a segment of world history that is too often oversimplified or ignored.

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

There have been more than a few contenders for the title of “World Conqueror,” but eight hundred years after the fact, Genghis Khan’s claim to the title remains unmatched. Over the course of four decades, he and his heirs built a realm that stretched from the Korean Peninsula to the plains of Hungary and from northern Siberia to India. And unlike the conquests of Hitler and Bonaparte, the charismatic authority of Genghis Khan endured long after the initial union fractured into warring khanates.

Tackling even the establishment period of such a massive undertaking within the covers of a single historical novel poses a challenge for any author. In The Sky Worshipers (History through Fiction, 2021), F.M. Deemyad approaches the problem by focusing on three foreign princesses, captured in different places (northern China, Central Asia, and Poland) by Genghis, his son Ogodei, and his grandson Hulagu. These three women, each for her own reasons, together create a secret eyewitness account of the Mongol rise and expansion.

The female perspective allows Deemyad to avoid extended discussion of wartime atrocities and focus on the human cost of conquest and battles. Yet the atrocities are there too, reflected in the permanent scars left on survivors who must deal with disruption and loss even as they struggle to avoid being coopted into a world they neither created nor chose. In often haunting prose, Deemyad brings to life a slice of the past that, although not forgotten, has receded from view, obscured by the more recent disasters and tragedies of the twentieth century.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Bookshelf, Spring 2021

Yes, I know, it’s only six weeks since the last bookshelf post. But with the pandemic dragging on and spring finally on the horizon, I have lots of time to read and a new reason to record the latest set of books.

As you’ll see, for some reason I’ve been reading a lot of historical murder mysteries lately. But despite varying degrees of gore, none of these books is only a puzzle about who killed whom. What makes them memorable is a combination of richly envisioned historical settings, complex characters, and stories that have more to do with tangled networks of interpersonal connections than the specific circumstances that lead one person—sometimes the least interesting in the book—to tackle his or her problems with so unimaginative a solution as murder. So with that said, here we go—as usual, in alphabetical order by author.

Anne Louise Bannon, Death of the City Marshal
(Robin Goodfellow, 2019)
I ran across this author on social media and purchased the first book in the series, Death of the Zanjero, out of curiosity. I don’t know too many books set in Los Angeles when it was still little more than a pueblo (ca. 1870—yes, California is young!), and the main character sounded interesting. I soon found myself rooting for the heroine—Maddie Wilcox, a widowed winemaker with medical skills. And I thoroughly enjoyed the twisty plot—which revolves around the murder of a water overseer (zanjero) whom almost everyone in town, including Maddie herself, has reason to want out of the way. In this second novel, the victim is Maddie’s self-appointed nemesis from the first book, so I can’t wait to find out what’s happened to him.


Lucinda Brant, Deadly Kin (Sprigleaf, 2019)
Another book acquired more or less by chance, through an Amazon recommendation. The time period—Georgian England, in this case not long before the American Revolution—hooked me, because it’s the era when my favorite Georgette Heyer novels take place. So I downloaded and read the first one, Deadly Engagement. The author really knows her stuff, and I was impressed both by her grasp of historical detail and her richly layered characters.

These books explore deep and often disturbing themes of eighteenth-century (and modern) family life: spousal abuse, infidelity, rape, incest, and the complicated effects of primogeniture and its absence, to name a few. That’s in addition to the usual motives of greed, revenge, and mental imbalance. I’m planning to interview the author for New Books in Historical Fiction in early summer, so stand by for more information when that podcast episode goes live.

Emily Hourican, The Glorious Guinness Girls
(Grand Central Publishing, 2021)

This one came to me by way of a publicist, but because I was already booked for May and June, it’s been shifted to a written Q&A on this blog. The three daughters of Ernest Guiness (the beer guy), all blonde and blue-eyed, were a sensation in 1920s London society. Here Hourican explores their childhood and youth through the eyes of a fictional heroine—Felicity, known as Fliss—who is brought into the family at the age of ten. She experiences herself as somewhere between a charity case and an unpaid servant, but sharp and observant, she makes the perfect narrator for this tale of Anglo-Irish wealth, threatened by an emerging Catholic drive for independence, and the restlessness that drove the Roaring Twenties, a response to the devastation of the Great War.

Hourican, a former journalist and editor, has a keen appreciation of social and political conflict and a clear, compassionate writing style. Come back next month to see her answers to my questions.

Jeannie Lin, The Hidden Moon (Jeannie Lin, 2020)

This self-published author hit the jackpot when one of the New York Times Book Review contributors picked her Jade Temptress for a historical fiction column. I read book 1, The Lotus Palace, and have almost finished The Jade Temptress (now snapped up by Harlequin). So I look forward to this one. Set in Tang Dynasty China (late ninth century), the series follows the adventures of two women, Yue-ying and Mingyu, who live in the Pingkang li, the notorious pleasure quarter of the then-capital of China, Changan. Mingyu, a high-ranking courtesan, falls under suspicion of murder in the first book; her maid, Yue-ying, and a handsome lord, Bai Huang, work together to solve the crime. They fall in love, but marriage is impossible because of the difference in their status and Lord Bai's prior contract. Or is it?

Despite her popularity and the wealth she earns, Mingyu cannot leave the quarter because she is owned by her “foster mother,” the woman who runs the Lotus Palace. In The Jade Temptress, Mingyu receives a summons to the house of her protector, where she finds him headless, so recently killed that the blood is still wet. Only the constable she detests from book 1 can help her clear her name.

This third novel features Bai Huang’s younger sister, Wei-wei, and a criminal associate of Lord Bai’s who, if the previous books are anything to go by, will almost certainly turn out to be more than he seems. But what I like about these novels is not the murders themselves, interesting and revealing of Tang Dynasty culture as they are, but the focus on women who, rich or poor, find ways to circumvent the many restrictions placed on them and achieve a measure of freedom.


Julia Quinn, Bridgerton Collection, vol. 2 (Avon, 2021)

This one’s a bit of a cheat because, in effect, I cited it last time around. More accurately, I picked the first book in this collection, Romancing Mr. Bridgerton. But the two collections (books 4–6 and 7–8 plus a prequel) are now out, so if I’m to read them all and be ready for Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron in July, I’d better get cracking!

Friday, March 26, 2021

Bringing Characters to Life

One of the most difficult tasks for any novelist, including myself, is to create characters who seem like real people: more noble, often, or more evil than the rest of us—depending on their role in the story—but neither wholly one nor completely the other and, most of all, distinct. Characters like that grow beyond an individual book and achieve a kind of immortality. Long after we have forgotten the plot details of Little Women or Anna Karenina or Vanity Fair, we remember Jo March and her saintly sister Beth, the doomed Anna and her faithless Vronsky, and Becky Sharp.

It’s true that after a while characters acquire a certain kind of life; they say and do things an author doesn’t expect. Such behavior offers insights into their being and makes a writer’s life easier. It’s also true that some characters arrive fully formed, with their own voices and traits, whereas others hide and require extensive coaxing to reveal their hidden selves, their goals.

But it’s equally true that showing those developed characters from the very beginning of a novel is a task for the author, and no rewrite should be the last rewrite until that step has taken place. So how does that happen?

I’ll give you a favorite example of mine, one I go back to when wrestling with my own beginnings. It comes from Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness, and the person speaking is the heroine, Lady Georgiana Rannoch. Her very name hints at her character: although “Lady” has many shades of meaning in British society, it always refers to a noblewoman, and Rannoch is obviously Scots. The Lady First Name, especially for a woman, means a duke’s or perhaps an earl’s daughter; anyone lower is Lady Husband’s Title or Last Name. But in the first line, we find out what it means specifically to Georgiana, known to friends and family as Georgie.

There are two disadvantages to being a minor royal.

First, one is expected to behave as befits a member of the royal family without being given the means to do so.
[A list of royal tasks follows, one that will be familiar to anyone who has been following the latest flap among the Windsors over the departure of Prince Harry and Princess Meghan, followed by examples of the things royals cannot do, including applying for a job at Harrods, something that Georgie plans to attempt this very day.]

When I venture to point out the unfairness of this, I am reminded of the second item on my list. Apparently the only acceptable destiny for a young female member of the house of Windsor is to marry into another of the houses that still seem to litter Europe.

This opening excerpt reveals a surprising amount about what makes Georgie unique. We learn that she is royal, well educated, and quite proper (her use of “one,” for example) but aware of the contradictions in her world, willing to defy convention, and capable of questioning the strictures imposed on her in childhood. She also has a sharp tongue and a sense of humor, made even clearer on the next page, where she describes her grandmother as “the least attractive of Queen Victoria’s daughters,” an apparent burden that allowed Grandma to escape marriage to “a Romanov or a Kaiser, for which I am truly grateful and I expect she was too.”

We’re not two minutes into the story, but we already have Georgie’s quadruple-barreled name, insights into her heritage and approach to life, and most of all a clear sense of who she is. In a sense, as readers we’re already in love, ready to follow her wherever she wants to take us.

Here’s another example, one I encountered just recently while reading Deanna Raybourn’s A Curious Beginning, the first of a series set in late Victorian England starring Veronica Speedwell, the first-person narrator. Again, the first line is presented as action but actually reveals character: “I stared down at the open grave and wished that I could summon a tear.”

In the next line, we learn that Veronica is attending the funeral of Miss Nell Harbottle, “my guardian for the whole of my life,” yet she cannot cry and by the end of the paragraph is disconcerted by a sense of euphoria. “As if to match my mood, the breeze rose a little, and on it fluttered a pair of pale wings edged and spotted with black. ‘Pieris brassicae,’ I murmured to myself. A Large Garden White butterfly, common as grass, but pretty nonetheless.”

You may think that Veronica is just cold, but that’s not the case. She notices butterflies because she has adopted lepidoptery as a profession—in an age where women did not, as a rule, have professions—and to her they symbolize freedom and beauty. Her failure to weep at her guardian’s grave reflects both the relationship between them, “tepid at best,” and a mystery about Veronica’s past that drives the novel and becomes clear only toward the end. Veronica is certainly unconventional, as her having a profession indicates, but she is also passionate about her convictions, enough to get her into a spat with the vicar’s wife within half an hour of the funeral. By the end of chapter 1, we know she has no interest in marriage, that she has had lovers (extraordinary for a young, single Victorian woman), that she treasures foreign adventure and intends to run her own life, and that she doesn’t give a hoot about either gossip or social censure.

Bowen and Raybourn, of course, are big-time authors with large followings—undoubtedly because of writing like this. But even self-published and small-press writers need to aim for the same standard. It’s not easy, but it can be done. At the risk of giving myself more credit than I deserve, here are two openings from my own novels, The Golden Lynx (2012) and Song of the Sisters (2021). The first is told in alternating third-person and the second from the perspective of a first-person narrator, but each book begins with its heroine.

Here is Nasan, the central character of The Golden Lynx and its entire series: 

The lynx found Nasan just before the ambush. She glimpsed its tufted ears through the tangled branches of the birch tree, then lost sight of it when her brother launched his attack. Alerted by his joyous shriek, she jumped sideways and stuck out a foot, sending him somersaulting over the blizzard-kissed ground. She pelted him with snowballs, taunting him. “You forgot again, silly. How can you take me by surprise if you yell like that?”

And here is Darya, at first observing her older sister:

“Oh, Darya, you have to see this. A strutting peacock just entered our yard!” Solomonida stood on tiptoe, leaning forward until I worried she might tumble right through the open window in her eagerness. The late morning sunlight glinted off her jeweled headdress and found an answering glow in the wisps of blonde braid that had worked their way out from under the rim as she sewed.

“Peacock?” I stared at her and sighed. It wasn’t fair. My older sister was lovely, even at thirty-one. Not just beautiful, either, but vivid and charming—outgoing, outspoken, eager to interact with life beyond our courtyard gates. Next to her I felt like the quiet mouse she teasingly called me. “How would a peacock get into our yard?”

So what can we tell about these two  women interacting with their siblings? Nasan is probably a teenager at most, since she still enjoys a snowball fight with her brother. She is active and competitive, and she takes no prisoners, pummeling her brother even when he’s down (we soon see him doing the same to her). Why the lynx is looking for her, we won’t find out for a while, but she notices it lurking, so she is at home in the forest and alert to its perils. Even so, we discover within a page or so that she is in fact courting danger, that she and her brother have defied their parents’ orders to stay within the fortress because of a threat that will sweep them into the story before they know it. So she is courageous and willing to buck authority—or simply young enough to believe in her own invincibility.

Darya, in contrast, views herself—and is viewed by others, so her perceptions are accurate—as a quiet mouse, inferior to her older sister (less pretty and charming), and shy about life outside her estate. She is perceptive and honest as well as observant, and she is not proud. If anything, she underestimates her own worth and defers too readily to others, including her sister. She has a developed aesthetic/artistic sense, describing Solomonida as a painter might. The jeweled headdress indicates that the family is noble, or at least wealthy—unlike Nasan, who at first glance could be anyone, although it soon becomes obvious that she’s at the very top of the social hierarchy, something that concerns her not at all. And the sisters have been sewing, a traditionally female occupation that brands them as fundamentally conventional even though as time goes by they will push at the boundaries of their world. It won’t surprise you, I’m sure, to learn that Nasan would rather do almost anything than ply a needle. Give her a sword and a horse any day.

See how much you can tell from a few sentences? It’s no accident that I use my characters over and over, once I’ve developed them. Finding them takes so much time, and getting them on the page requires an even greater investment. Keeping up with them as they grow is a challenge, too—maybe we'll talk about that another day—but nothing like as hard as getting to know them in the first place.

Even with all that, not everyone will create another Jo March or Becky Sharp. But it’s certainly worth a try.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Smith Women at War

I’ve made no secret on this blog that I enjoy Lauren Willig’s writing. Whether it’s the fabulous eighteenth-century romp of her Pink Carnation novels, with their sly invocations of the works of Georgette Heyer (a long-time favorite of mine) as well as the more explicit references to Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, or stand-alones like The Summer Country, with its evocation of plantation slavery and its discontents in nineteenth-century Barbados, her books are a joy to read.

Even so, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Band of Sisters, about the well-intentioned but challenging effort by a group of Seven Sisters alumnae to undo the damage wrought by the German invasion of northeastern France in World War I. Known as the Smith College Relief Unit, the real-life counterparts of Willig’s characters shipped across the Atlantic in 1917 and for the next two years fought everything from bureaucracy to gasoline shortages and shifting front lines to complete their mission: the restoration of French villages.

But again Willig takes this potentially grim story and finds a way to make it a page-turner. Over the course of the book, each woman in the unit—starting with its organizer, Mrs. Rutherford—emerges as a fascinating character in her own right. But as we discuss in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, the focus of the story is three interconnected members of the band: Kate Moran, an impoverished and reluctant teacher of French at a New York girls’ school; her college friend and roommate Emmie van Alden, burdened with the legacy of an exalted family heritage and a crusading but inattentive mother; and Emmie’s cousin Julia, a doctor whose self-confident and beautiful exterior hides a past she hesitates to share and a drive to succeed in her chosen profession that her family and even her medical colleagues do not support. Read on—and listen!—to find out more.

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

Kate Moran, a graduate of Smith College, has been making her living tutoring students in French when her college friend Emmie Van Alden appears out of the blue and talks Kate into joining a group of alumnae intent on offering relief to rural families in war-torn France. Despite her mother’s disapproval, in July 1917 Kate boards an ocean liner with the Smith College Relief Unit. She knows few of the other alumnae and dislikes some of those she remembers from her college days. Even her friendship with Emmie has been tarnished since graduation by their disparate family backgrounds.

After a dangerous journey across the Atlantic, where German U-boats still patrol the seas, the Smith women reach Paris. There they encounter one obstacle after another: incomplete paperwork, missing supplies, trucks delivered in pieces, absent members of their unit, and a simmering coup against their leader. Somehow they overcome their difficulties and reach their intended destination in Picardy, not far from the River Somme. But no sooner have they begun to make headway in their central mission—to restore farmlands and villages destroyed during the German invasion—than they hear of a renewed offensive that may undo all their hard work.

In Band of Sisters (William Morrow, 2021) Lauren Willig brings to life, with her signature flair, a little-known but riveting chapter in the history of World War I.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Interview with Deanna Raybourn

Years ago, I read a couple of Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey novels. I had every intention of reading more, because they were great, but life got in the way and they joined the enormous and teetering To Be Read pile—which has only increased since I purchased a tablet to save my overstuffed bookshelves. Talk about well-laid plans that don’t come to fruition!

But about a month ago, Raybourn’s publicist at Berkley wrote to alert me to the imminent appearance of An Unexpected Peril, no. 6 in a different series that hadn’t even crossed my radar. “Would I like to interview her for New Books in Historical Fiction?” was the question. The answer: yes, absolutely. But since I had no space in my schedule then, the three of us agreed to settle for this written Q&A now, with a podcast interview to follow next year when Veronica Speedwell no. 7 arrives. So read on for Deanna Raybourn’s responses to my queries, and then look for the books themselves. If you ever loved a novel about a strong-willed Victorian woman with a profession of her own and a yen for travel—Amelia Peabody, I’m looking at you!—Veronica and her partner, known as Stoker, are definitely for you.

Introduce us, please, to Veronica Speedwell. She is already on her sixth adventure. Where is she when her series starts with A Curious Beginning?

As A Curious Beginning opens, Veronica has returned home from her globe-trotting work as a butterfly hunter to attend the funeral of the woman who raised her. But that very afternoon, a stranger arrives to inform her that everything she thought she knew about herself is a lie and that her life is in peril. She accompanies him to London and embarks on a series of outrageous adventures as she ferrets out the truth of her own identity and solves a few murders along the way.

Early in that venture, she meets a man then known only as Stoker, who is charged with keeping her safe. What can you tell us about him?

Stoker is the rebellious younger son of an aristocrat—he is actually the Honourable Revelstoke Templeton-Vane. But he prefers to go simply by his nickname and for the world to take him on his own merits. He’s a former surgeon’s mate in Her Majesty’s Navy and is currently a natural historian with a specialty in preservation, especially taxidermy. He has earrings, tattoos, an eyepatch, and a nose for trouble.  

By the time we get to An Unexpected Peril, Veronica and Stoker have already gone through a great deal together, including five murder investigations in little more than two years. How have these experiences changed them?

Both of them have been extremely wary of forming attachments with other people, and yet as time passes, they are assembling a found family, one of my favorite themes to write about. They are slowly learning to let other people in, a difficult thing for both of them because each has been badly hurt in the past. They also have work that intrigues them and the hobby of amateur detective work since they keep stumbling into murderous situations.

One important element of this novel is the Hippolyta Club, also called the Curiosity Club, where Veronica is a member. What do readers need to know about this institution?

The Hippolyta Club—known casually as the Curiosity Club—is an enclave for extraordinary women. I modeled it after a typical club for gentlemen of the time and populated it with women who are inspired by actual Victorian scientists, mathematicians, explorers, artists, poets, photographers, etc. Women of the period were often discouraged if not outright barred from different artistic and scientific disciplines, so having a club that not only permitted them but encouraged and celebrated their work seemed like a necessity. I think of it as a place where women could go and relax, challenge each other, debate, discuss, exchange resources and references. I suspect there are many secrets hidden within its walls.

At the opening of the novel, Alice Baker-Greene, another member of the Curiosity Club, has died. Veronica and Stoker are charged with arranging an exhibition memorializing Baker-Greene. What makes her memorable?

Alice Baker-Greene is inspired by two of the most famous Victorian mountaineers, Annie Smith Peck and Fanny Bullock Workman. They were very different women with different backgrounds and climbing styles and motivations, but they were outrageously determined. They were indefatigable and would summit with suffragist banners to draw attention to the cause they believed in. Alice Baker-Greene is exactly such a woman—ruthlessly ambitious in a way that would have been condoned in a man but is deplored in a woman. She is frank and forthright and afraid of nothing.

Baker-Greene, as we discover early on, died in the Alpenwald, a fictional principality in Europe that becomes central to the novel. The whole country is your creation, but why did you decide to create it—and having decided, how did you go about it?

I wanted a very memorable mountain for Alice to climb, and I could have used an existing peak, but where’s the fun in that? It was far more enjoyable to conjure my own tiny principality whose economy is based upon its single mammoth mountain and incredibly smelly cheese. There is also a political angle which made it necessary to create a sovereign state. Once I realized I was going to build a country from the ground up—literally—I decided to go all the way: language, architecture, flora, fauna, folklore. I loved every minute of creating the Alpenwald!

We’re scheduled to hold a New Books Network interview next year, when Veronica Speedwell #7 appears. Is that your next project, or do you have other novels underway as well?

I am writing Veronica #7 now and am also working on my first contemporary novel about a quartet of sixty-something female assassins who have to band together to take out the organization that wants them dead. Both should release in 2022, so it will be a busy year!
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

My pleasure—thanks!


Deanna Raybourn is the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of the Lady Julia Grey series, currently in development for television, as well as the USA Today bestselling and Edgar Award nominated Veronica Speedwell Mysteries and several standalone works. Find out more about her at

Friday, March 5, 2021

Interview with G.P. Gottlieb

Last year, I interviewed G.P. Gottlieb, the host of New Books in Literature, about her debut novel, Battered: A Whipped & Sipped Mystery. You can hear that podcast conversation on the New Books Network.

With the release of book 2, Smothered, we decided to go with a written Q&A instead. Mystery series are difficult to cover in depth, because basic setup in later books may give away crucial plot points in earlier ones. Those spoilers can be more easily avoided in the shorter format of a blog post.

But don’t be misled by the change of format. Smothered is, if anything, an even more compelling read than its predecessor—and not only because of the murder that lies at its heart. Alene Baron, the heroine, is not a professional detective; her life revolves around her café and her family at least as much as the hunt for a killer. So even if you prefer to read about delicious vegan recipes, this can be a novel for you.

This is the second of your Whipped & Sipped mysteries. People who’d like to know more about the first, Battered, can learn about it through your podcast interview with me on New Books in Literature. Why did you decide to center a mystery series on a café owner/chef?

To start with, I adore a good café! One of my favorite ways to meet friends (pre-pandemic, that is) is at one of the city’s many cafés for lunch or afternoon tea (with something delicious to nibble on, of course). Even more delightful when it’s a warm afternoon, and we can sit outside watching passersby. Who knows which of them might be planning a crime…

How would you describe Alene Baron, owner of the Whipped & Sipped Café, as a personality? What are her issues, and what pulls her into solving the mysteries you create for her?

Alene was a lot of fun to write about. She’s a solid citizen, always trying to help other people and concerned about family, friends, and community. She works long hours at the café, and then at home taking care of her father and children, so she’s a little wound up. She wishes she could be less suspicious and more kind-spirited, like her best friend, the pastry chef, but her suspicions draw her into solving the mystery.

Alene has a romantic relationship—still at a very early stage in Smothered—with Frank Shaw. What do we need to know about him?

Frank is a solid citizen. We won’t know more about his background until book 3 or 4 in the series, but we know that he’s divorced with two young adult children. Alene is falling in love: she’s been a single mother for eight years, and Frank is thoughtful, kind, and sweet-tempered. Plus her kids like him! Is it useful to know that he’s square-jawed, dark-haired, and has a dimple when he smiles?

Whipped & Sipped is a series of murder mysteries. Set up the crime in Smothered for us. What happens, and why does Alene get involved in solving it?

Alene’s neighbor, both at work and in her building, is an unpleasant character. Alene is outside in the alley when he’s found collapsed in his office and assumes that he died of a heart attack. When it becomes clear that he was murdered and one of Alene’s employees is unjustifiably considered as a prime suspect, she knows she has to get involved.

Without giving away spoilers, sketch some of the main suspects for us, including the reasons Alene includes them on her list.
Alene suspects one of the victim’s employees (who found the body), the victim’s son (who recently moved back to Chicago and is asking about his father’s will), the victim’s wife (a lonely, unloved hypochondriac who spends much of the book annoying people from her hospital bed), and the victim’s stepdaughter-in-law (who was once sexually assaulted by the victim). As is her custom, Alene also briefly suspects nearly everyone who crosses her path, but she quickly sets aside those suspicions.

One of the things I love about this series is that the stories are as much about Alene’s family and relationships with the people who work for her as they are about murders and suspects. For a heroine who is not a detective, this seems very realistic to me. What are the main non-crime-related problems that Alene faces in Smothered?

Alene worries about her children and is concerned about what her immature ex-husband is conveying to them. She’s saddened by her lack of a relationship with her younger sister, who scarcely finds time to visit their father when his autoimmune disease flares and he’s rushed to the hospital. She’s a concerned mama hen about the lives and life choices of some of her employees. She’s also worried about growing old alone, and cautiously hopeful about her budding relationship with Frank, the charming homicide detective.

This book has just come out. Are you already working on a third Whipped & Sipped mystery?

I am indeed! I’ve started a first draft of what I think will be Crushed: A Whipped and Sipped Mystery Book 3. When I begin writing a new novel, I like to write the story as if I’m telling it to myself. It’s filled with question marks and convoluted passages, winding paragraphs and indecipherable shorthand notes. I add bits and pieces every day, or I change my mind about who the murderer is, and why it happened. Then I think of that person’s backstory, and how he/she is connected to the café. And when I start thinking too much about recipes, I know it’s time to stop for lunch.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

G.P. Gottlieb holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in piano and voice. Over the years, she performed, taught, composed, and administrated while writing stories, songs, and several unwieldy manuscripts. She also fed her family and developed lots of healthful recipes. After recovering from breast cancer, she turned to writing in earnest, melding her two loves, nourishment for mind and body and recipe-laced murder mysteries. She hosts New Books in Literature, a podcast channel on the New Books Network. Smothered is her second novel. Find out more about her and her books at

Friday, February 26, 2021

Interview with Julia Fine

When Julia Fine’s publicist at HarperCollins first approached me with a pitch for an interview, I demurred. I had a lot of books on my plate already; I knew Fine’s first novel was classified as fantasy—not a genre I seek out; and the main subject of this new book, The Upstairs House, seemed to be a contemporary young mother struggling with the reality of adjusting to a newborn infant in her life.

Not that I couldn’t sympathize with the young mother’s plight; every woman who bears a child has to confront the clash between expectations and a kind of craziness compounded from sleepless nights, a body that feels as if it’s taken on a life of its own, and overwhelming love for a demanding and utterly dependent infant (or, worse, the absence of overwhelming love because of the demands and dependency). When I went through that, I was lucky to have had more help at home than Julia Fine’s Megan Weiler and a more adaptive body chemistry; for whatever reason, I suffered less. Even so, I was in no hurry to revisit that part of my life through someone else’s eyes.

But the second part of the story, involving Margaret Wise Brown and Michael Strange, kept tugging at me, and in the end I became caught up in the book, which is a fast and enjoyable read. I drew up these questions, and Julia Fine was kind enough to answer them. Read on to find out more.

And don’t miss her interview with Gabrielle Mathieu for New Books in Fantasy, where they discuss What Should Be Wild.

This is your second novel. People who’d like to know more about your first, What Should Be Wild, can learn about it through your podcast interview with Gabrielle Mathieu, the host of New Books in Fantasy. But could you give us a summary of that story’s theme?

What Should Be Wild is a modern fairy tale about a girl who has the power to kill and revive with the touch of her skin. She’s been confined to her ancestral family home her whole life, and the book follows her as she ventures out into the world on her own for the first time. It’s also the story of the women in her family who, dating back thousands of years, found themselves constrained by society and in need of escape. I’m very interested in how women historically do or don’t break out of prescribed gender roles, which is a theme that reappears in The Upstairs House.

The new novel, The Upstairs House, which will just have come out when this Q&A goes live, might be considered a mix of contemporary psychological suspense and historical fiction. What drew you to tell this tale in this particular way?

The psychological suspense comes from my interest in exploring the immediate postpartum period. After having my first baby, I was struck by how much intrinsic tension there was in those first few weeks as a new mother. It’s a time when your life is totally turned upside down, you’re sleeping odd hours (if at all), there’s an intense loneliness and a sense of the uncanny. I wanted to write a book that leaned into that discomfort.

And of course, almost every new parent knows Goodnight, Moon. Margaret Wise Brown lived such an interesting, unexpected life—she was a fascinating character, and it only seemed right to do her justice in fiction.

Tell us about Megan Weiler, your protagonist. Who is she, and what drives her?

Megan is a new mom who has set aside her dissertation on mid-century children’s literature to have a baby. Her husband travels a lot for work, so she’s basically parenting her newborn alone. She’s got a lot of lingering family tension, and not much faith in herself as a parent.

Early on, Megan perceives a turquoise door between her apartment and the roof that no one around her admits to seeing. When Megan opens the door, it becomes a gateway to the 1940s, via the well-known and much beloved children’s book writer Margaret Wise Brown—author of Goodnight, Moon and The Runaway Bunny, among other works.

Why focus on Brown, and what should we know about her?

I came to Margaret Wise Brown after reading Goodnight, Moon to my firstborn basically every night for a year. When I started to look into her, I was shocked by how different she was from what I had imagined. She was a bisexual rabbit hunter who never had children, and she died at forty-two. She was enigmatic and glamorous and lonely—as soon as I started reading her biography, I knew I wanted to write about her.

Brown tells Megan right away that she is building a house for Michael, whom Megan soon discovers is the female poet Michael Strange. What can you tell us about Michael’s (historical) story and her relationship with Margaret Wise Brown?

Michael Strange was born wealthy during the Gilded Age—she had family connections to European royalty and had married into another well-to-do family when she decided she wanted to be a poet and adopted her pen name. She went on to marry two more times—her second husband was the actor John Barrymore—and though her literary and dramatic career didn’t stand the test of time, in her day she was rather well known. She was a force—a charismatic, demanding woman who could be equally charming and cruel. She was twenty years older than Margaret and began in the role of mentor before becoming Margaret’s lover. They had a ten-year, rather tempestuous relationship that only ended when Michael died.

We can’t go too far into this story without revealing spoilers, but tell us a bit about Megan’s family—especially her husband, Ben, and the state of their marriage when the novel opens.

Megan’s family history definitely impacts the way she approaches motherhood and marriage. I’m very interested in how we inherit trauma from our families—Megan grows up without role models, and this impacts everyone in her life.

Are you already working on something new?

I have a few ideas in the works, but nothing concrete yet!

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Julia Fine is the author of the critically acclaimed What Should Be Wild, which was shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Superior First Novel Award and the Chicago Review of Books Award. She teaches writing in Chicago, where she is a core faculty member at StoryStudio Chicago. Find out more about her and her books at

Friday, February 19, 2021

Bookshelf, Winter 2021

With Phil the Punxatawny Groundhog predicting six more weeks of winter as of February 2, I figure it’s not too late to run my Winter 2020–21 bookshelf post. A little less jam-packed than the fall version, not least because I already got through at least half my winter books and posted interviews with their authors (Judithe Little, Connie Palmen, Barbara McHugh, Natalie Haynes, and Kathleen Williams Renk) before I had space for this roundup. But there are still a few selections here for you to peruse, some from better-known authors and others not.

F. M. Deemyad, The Sky Worshipers (History through Fiction, 2021)
This multigenerational saga of three foreign princesses—Chinese, Persian, and Polish—and their influence on the court of Genghis Khan and his descendants is such a natural match for me and my research/writing interests that it’s no wonder I lobbied the publisher to let me interview the author for New Books in Historical Fiction. That it comes from a startup press, the owner of which is also a host at the New Books Network, was icing on the proverbial cake. I’ve had the book on my tablet for months and have been forcing myself not to dig into it too soon, but another few weeks I can get started, in time to talk with the author for April. The book releases on March 2, 2021.


Julia Fine, The Upstairs House (Harper, 2021)
This contemporary story of a woman navigating a troubled marriage while severely affected by postpartum depression is not my usual cup of tea, but what hooked me was the subplot involving Margaret Wise Brown of Goodnight, Moon fame and Margaret’s temperamental lover, the famous socialite and actress Michael Strange. That 1940s scandal was previously unknown to me—unlike Goodnight, Moon, which like many, many other mothers I read to my son until the book fell apart—and watching Fine expertly blend past and present kept me turning the pages. The book comes out on February 23, and Fine will be answering my questions for this blog next week, so check back to find out more. 




Julia Quinn, Romancing Mister Bridgerton (Avon, 2015)
Years ago, when The Duke and I first came out, I read it and loved it. I read several of the sequels but got distracted by other authors before completing all nine books. When I stumbled over the smash Netflix hit Bridgerton, I enjoyed it, but I had this nagging feeling that I’d liked the novel better. In preparation for an interview with Julia later this year, I decided to read the entire Bridgerton series. This one is the next in line—and features two of my favorite characters, giving it a particular draw. I’m just waiting for Avon to release the next e-book box set (4–6) in early March before I dig in.




Lauren Willig, Band of Sisters (William Morrow, 2021)
I’ve written elsewhere about my affection for Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, although my interview with her last year was about a different novel altogether—The Summer Country, set in nineteenth-century Barbados. Here Willig follows the little-known story of a true-life relief unit composed of Smith College alumnae who set off to restore French villages near the end of World War II. The New Books Network operates out of Smith College, and I myself graduated from nearby Mount Holyoke, so this book was a natural fit. It’s also a great read. Due out on March 2, 2021, it will become the focus of my conversation with Lauren Willig next month.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Frankenstein’s Creator

I’ve always admired writers who tackle real historical personages in their fiction. For myself, I avoid really-existing (to borrow a phrase) people in my novels, although at times I have no choice but to bring them in. Even then, I’m careful to emphasize that the records from sixteenth-century Russia—when the vast majority of the population and even a segment of the elite had no formal education and could not read or write—are so scanty and tendentious that only the actions of my historical characters have any basis in fact. Their personalities, appearances, and talents are as much my invention as those of my wholly fictional people.

Fortunately, Kathleen Williams Renk—my latest interview guest on New Books in Historical Fiction—doesn’t share my qualms. She dives into the lives of Mary Godwin Shelley, her lover and eventual husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their combined families and friends without hesitation. The result, expressed through a journal written by Mary Shelley, not only pulls us into the literary world of nineteenth-century Romanticism but illuminates the threads that wove together to produce one of the Western world’s great Gothic tales—Frankenstein. And she does it all in two hundred pages of lucid, enthralling prose.

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

Mary Godwin Shelley had yet to reach her nineteenth birthday when she had the dream that gave rise to the classic Gothic horror tale Frankenstein. The daughter of a dissenting English clergyman and Britain’s first feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Godwin lost her mother not long after her birth. After an unconventional upbringing by the standards of late eighteenth-century Europe, followed by the arrival of a very conventional and far from accommodating stepmother, at the age of fourteen Mary fell madly in love with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Two years later, they eloped to Europe, leaving behind Percy’s wife and child but bringing along Mary’s stepsister, Claire.

For the next decade, the trio traveled around the continent—especially France, Switzerland, and Italy—with occasional returns to London to secure funds. Through trips over the Alps by mule, sailing expeditions on Lake Como, and wild parties thrown by Lord Byron—a misogynist who belittles Mary’s talents even as he engages in a wild affair with Claire—Mary records in her journal the events and experiences that will blossom into her first and best-known novel.

In Vindicated (Cuidono Press, 2020) Kathleen Williams Renk re-creates Mary’s inner world. Her crisp, utterly compelling prose brings to life a woman whose creation, as in the novel Frankenstein itself, has taken on a life of its own, eclipsing its creator.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Interview with Natalie Haynes

The Iliad and The Odyssey—those great male-dominated, war-oriented epics attributed to Homer and now close to three thousand years old—have became so intertwined with Western culture that it is hard to imagine a world without them. Who cannot recall Homer’s “wine-dark sea” or recognize the Cyclops and sirens, golden apples and Helen’s “face that launched a thousand ships” (a quotation not from the original but from Christopher Marlowe) that were the products of his imagination? Who hasn’t heard of the Trojan horse, now a reference to a type of computer malware?

But the Trojan War was more than a pair of epics that managed to survive for millennia or even a series of cultural tropes. In its time, it was a far-reaching catastrophe that ended and upended lives. And it affected not only warriors bent on securing eternal glory but wives and mothers, children and servants. Natalie Haynes, in her new novel A Thousand Ships, explores this Trojan War through the experiences of the goddesses, princesses, Amazons, townswomen, and captives who in some cases drove it forward and in others suffered the consequences. Read on to find out more.

A Thousand Ships is your third novel, but even beyond the novels you have a “presence,” for lack of a better word, in Classical Greek Studies, including a BBC4 radio broadcast and two nonfiction books. What drew you first to this aspect of literature and history and then to writing fiction about it?

Yes, I have made six series of a radio show for BBC Radio 4, called Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics. I think people were pretty surprised it found an audience, but we get about 1.6 million listeners per episode (my country is a lot smaller than yours!). And now it’s available as a podcast, and has found a whole new audience there, which is wonderful.

I have been a classics nerd since I was eleven, when I started learning Latin. Then I began studying Ancient Greek aged fourteen. I was really lucky that my high school had these options: most students don’t get that opportunity. I did my degree in Classics at Cambridge. So ancient history and myth grabbed me at a very young age and have never really let me go. It took me a while to get around to writing fiction about it—I spent twelve years as a stand-up comedian first, which I know isn’t the obvious route into writing fiction set in the Bronze Age. But it has made it fun to tour a live show off the back of each book.

And why retell the Trojan War from a woman’s perspective—or, more accurately, many women’s perspectives? This decision, too, has classical precedents, including Euripides’ The Trojan Women.

I had already told the story of another Greek myth from the perspectives of two of its women in a novel called The Children of Jocasta. I love Greek tragedy, and I wanted to retell the story of Thebes (whose most famous son/husband/father is Oedipus) and see what happened if I shifted the focus to its women. But that is a much more focused narrative. I’d been building up to doing the Trojan War for a while before I began A Thousand Ships, I think. I wanted to take on a big story, an epic, with a huge cast of characters, like having a whole set of tragedies in play at once. I was certain the war could be told through the eyes of the women whose lives it affected (not least because it is goddesses, over and over again, who cause and dictate the direction of the war).

I had written and spoken about Euripides for years before I really thought about how extraordinary it is that all but one of his Trojan War tragedies have women as the title characters. We’re used to thinking of war narrative as male-focused, because they so often are (ever since Homer’s Iliad). But Euripides realized that the drama of war (because he was writing plays, rather than epic poetry, so that was his focus) is not always on the battlefield: it’s also in the build-up to a war, or the aftermath of one. It’s where the women are. If he knew that 2,500 years ago, it’s odd that we forgot it. But I felt like we had.

Is there one character who particularly stands out for you?

I love Cassandra. I think she suffers one of the cruelest fates in Greek myth—cursed to see the future but never to be believed. She’s so isolated, because her future is so terrible: her city, Troy, will fall to an invading force; many of her relatives will be killed or enslaved; she herself will meet a woman with murder on her mind (I’m not saying any more in case I spoil it for readers!). So the future she sees is incredibly bleak and terrifying, but there is no one she can speak to about it, because no one believes her. She must have felt mad—like those awful dreams where you’re talking but no one can hear you or understand you. And yet, of course, she was completely, horrifyingly sane.

Cassandra always feels like a woman out of time to me—trying to tell people what to do to save themselves, but helpless to stop them from careening toward their own destinies. I often feel like her, to be honest.

The women of Troy, whatever their standing before the city’s defeat, face an uncertain and uninviting future. Why is that?

The sack of a city in the ancient Greek world was usually brutal. The standard response was to kill all the men and enslave the women and children. You could wipe out a whole culture with incredible ease—kill a city’s men, take its women and children away, repopulate the city with your own settlers. The women would be divided up among their conquerors, so separated from one another. How long can we imagine it would be before an enslaved Trojan woman learned to speak Greek because there was no one for a hundred miles in any direction of her new home who spoke anything else? How long before she forgot her own language or dialect? As Euripides shows us in his play The Trojan Women, even the women of the royal house of Troy end up waiting around to be chosen and taken away by the same Greek warriors who had killed their husbands and fathers and sons. Their powerlessness is devastating to witness. Although his play Hecabe shows that sometimes women with no agency at all can nonetheless engineer one of the most grisly revenges in all of Greek tragedy.

Not all the women whose points of view are included in A Thousand Ships actually went to Troy. Clytemnestra appears, as does Penelope. What perspective do they add?

With this book, I wanted to tell the story of the whole Trojan War, not just one side of it. So there are chapters from the perspectives of the goddesses who want the war to happen, as well as from the mortal women whose lives it destroys. There are chapters focusing on the Trojan women who lose their city and the Greek women who lose their husbands to the war (temporarily or permanently, in some cases: not all the Greeks come home, after all). There is a chapter for Penthesilea, the great Amazon warrior who fought at Troy. There are chapters in the voice of Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, who is responsible for all these large-scale war stories. The war is focused on one city, but what happens there ripples across the whole Greek world. I wanted to tell it in such a way that the reader would see that a war like this has no winners, really. It’s not a game.

Without giving away the endings—plural, since each woman has her own—what in particular about Andromache made you decide to end with her? (Do briefly identify her, for the sake of our readers.)

I’m not sure I can answer this without giving away the ending! Andromache is the wife of Hector, who is the favorite son of Priam and Hecabe, the king and queen of Troy. Hector is the city’s great defender, but there is an extraordinary moment in book 6 of Homer’s Iliad where his wife tells him that he needs to be more careful when he fights, take fewer risks, etc. He rejects her advice (though the whole conversation is beautiful—loving, respectful, full of care for one another and their city, and the people who depend on Hector to defend them). As the poem plays out, her advice turns out to have been painfully true: Hector feels he has to disregard it, but everything she fears will happen does then occur. Andromache has one of the most awful experiences of any of the Trojan women, and it was extremely painful to write the scene where that happens. But in the end, she finds a sort of peace, and I wanted the novel to end on a more hopeful, bittersweet note. So she gets to finish it.

And what comes next—another novel?

I have a nonfiction book, Pandora’s Jar, also coming out with Harper Collins in 2022, I think. But it’s already out in the UK, so that can only mean one thing: I am late starting the next novel. Which tells the story of Medusa, one of the very first survivors of sexual assault to be monstered (literally and metaphorically). The planning is going ok so far, but I need to get writing; my fingers are getting itchy …
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Natalie Haynes is a writer and broadcaster. She has published three novels: The Amber Fury, The Children of Jocasta, and A Thousand Ships, as well as the nonfiction studies Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths and The Ancient Guide to Modern Life. She has spoken on the modern relevance of the classical world on three continents, from Cambridge to Chicago to Auckland.

She writes for The Guardian and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4, including through her show, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics. Find out more about her and her books at

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Interview with Barbara McHugh

Since I first started this blog in June 2012—can it really be eight and a half years?—I have never missed a Friday post. Perhaps it’s weirdly fitting that my one deviation (so far) involves a fascinating interview with Barbara McHugh, Buddist practitioner and teacher, about her recently released debut novel, Bride of the Buddha. An unanticipated complication to an otherwise-successful (and planned) surgical procedure, and my carefully maintained blog schedule went out the window. Talk about impermanence!

Read on to find out more about this wonderful exploration of a woman whose life has been reduced, at best, to a footnote in a legend. Heartfelt thanks to Barbara and her publicist, Holly Watson, for their patience as I belatedly got the post online. And definitely seek out Bride of the Buddha, available as of Jan. 26, 2021, from Monkfish Book Publishing Company.

What drew you to the story of Yasodhara, the bride of your title?

A couple of things. So many women I knew, including myself, had difficulties with the prospect of following the Buddha, a man who’d abandoned his wife and infant son to go off and seek Enlightenment. I wanted to explore that story and understand Siddhartha’s actions as an aspect of the overall message that the myth conveys. The legend is that the Buddha was a prince named Siddhartha whose father wanted above all for him to become a great king, so he made sure his son had the most pleasant life possible as a prince, where he never came in contact with sickness, aging, or death the entire time he was growing up. The Buddha-to-be married the beautiful princess of his dreams and gave birth to a male heir, but everything fell apart when he for the first time saw a sick man, an old man, a corpse, and finally a holy man, who provided a solution to his problem of existential terror. These “four heavenly messengers,” as the texts describe them, motivated Siddhartha to leave home, abandoning his wife and child—as well as his parents, extended family, and his whole community—and embark on a quest for enlightenment.

This story, while it may have some roots in history, is a myth. For one thing, the historical Buddha wasn’t a prince but most likely the son of the leader of one of the oligarchic clan-republics in North India at the time. Also, the notion that his father could protect him from all knowledge of sickness and mortality until he was twenty-nine years old is absurd. So what was going on with these distortions? My explanation is that the myth demonstrates the crucial Buddhist doctrine that even the most perfect life is unsatisfactory—not that life consists of nothing but suffering (a common misinterpretation of Buddhist thinking), but that it is permeated with stress and ends in death. Siddhartha, the future Buddha, is depicted as living the ideal life for a person in his times: he’s male, a prince married to a beautiful woman whom he truly loves, and the father of a son—so important in a patriarchy. And yet his life becomes unbearable when he faces the truth of sickness and death.

I think the power of Siddhartha’s story comes partly from his idealized identity: if the Buddha had just been some dissolute rich guy sick of his life, people could easily dismiss his reasons for seeking spiritual answers as the efforts of a wastrel to compensate for his many failures. But the Buddha was a success in all phases of his worldly life, and therefore his decision to leave home implies, as he states in the First Noble Truth, that suffering is inevitable in all lives, even the happiest and most productive. At the same time, in my novel I wanted to go deeper into the abandonment issue. I wanted to portray the possibilities—not only for Yasodhara but for all women—beyond simply being the victim in a myth.

I also wanted a perspective on early Buddhism from the point of view of a woman—and one who knew the Buddha intimately.

We first meet Yasodhara at the moment Siddhartha leaves her to pursue his religious quest. Why did you start the story there?

I started with that event because so many people are familiar with this episode. I wanted to prepare the reader for Yasodhara’s version of what happened, which would sometimes diverge significantly from the traditional stories. At the end of the prologue, I have Yasodhara state this outright and hint at why her divergence is the real truth.

We then go back in time to a crucial incident in Yasodhara’s childhood, involving her sister Deepa. What do we need to know about this event?

This incident, although it introduces and conforms to Yasodhara’s basic background (her parentage, her socio-economic situation, her relationship to the Buddha’s Sakyan clan, and the existence of dog-duty ascetics and other wandering holy persons of the time) is entirely fictional. It’s important to the novel because it sets up Yasodhara’s lifelong spiritual quest as initially unrelated to the Buddha. I wanted the story to belong to her, and not be the Buddha’s story as seen through her eyes.

And how would you describe Yasodhara as a personality?

She is someone passionately in love with the world and people in it. At the same time, she knows from an early age the horror and desolation of death, and she wants somehow to transcend mortality. Her spiritual aspiration results in her decision to conceal her gender in order to join the Buddha’s all-male community, becoming the monk historically known as Ananda. But her worldly passion, for much of her life, translates into anger at the injustices suffered by the people around her. As she matures spiritually, she increasingly manages to transform her anger into helping others, yet her passion still gets her into trouble, and in later years she has to come to terms with anger as well as grief if she is to attain her final enlightenment.

We already know that she marries Siddhartha, who will become the Buddha. How does that come about?

The suttas (in Sanskrit, sutras) and later legends portray the marriage as an arranged one, in the sense that Siddhartha would at most have had a choice among pre-selected candidates. In all likelihood, he would have married one of his cousins, as he does in the novel.

And what is your view of him, as a literary character? Was it difficult to write such a venerated figure?

Actually, I had fun writing about Siddhartha. I had to make the pre-enlightened Buddha worthy of Yasodhara’s love; I also wanted him to embody worldly values at their best. But rather than following the official, untenable myth where Siddhartha doesn’t even know that aging, sickness, and death exist, I have him simply in denial about these things. Until Yasodhara’s pregnancy forces Siddhartha to come up against mortality, his denial takes the form of avoiding all morbid thinking, while living in the moment as much as possible—which, ironically, some people mistake for the essence of Buddhism.

Creating the enlightened Buddha was more of a challenge. I had to clear my mind, see what my intuition would come up with and then carefully read and rewrite, using as much scripture as possible and proceeding with humility.

The book is presented as the diary of the monk Ananda. Tell us a little about him.

Ananda was a monk, one of the Buddha’s many cousins, who became the Buddha’s personal attendant for the last twenty-five years of the Buddha’s life and who persuaded the Buddha to admit women into his monastic community. I became curious when I discovered some striking peculiarities in the Buddhist texts that have to do with him. For instance, it makes little sense that the Buddha needed Ananda to convince him to ordain women. Ananda was a junior monk who hadn’t even achieved Enlightenment, and he used arguments that had to have already occurred to the Buddha. Another perplexity is that in spite of Ananda’s privileged relationship to the Buddha, he was the only close associate of the Buddha who failed to become enlightened in his teacher’s lifetime. My novel explains both of these anomalies, but I don’t want to include too many spoilers here. Obviously, my fictional solution involves portraying Yasodhara and Ananda as the same person.

Are you already working on another novel?

Yes. It takes place 2,500 years in the future in a world controlled by women.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!



Barbara McHugh, PhD, is a Buddhist practitioner with a degree in religion and literature from the University of California, Berkeley. She is a published poet, writing coach, and book doctor. Her research for this book includes the study of many Pali texts in translation and extensive travel in India. Learn more about her and her work at

Friday, January 22, 2021

Broken Promises

I’ve written before about the fun and excitement of releasing a new book. That is especially true of Song of the Sisters, which is something of a departure for me. Sure, there is a political backdrop (I seem to be incapable of writing a pure romance). But compared to the earlier Russian novels, this one focuses on a domestic conflict involving two sisters who discover after their father’s death that he has left the estate where they live to a cousin they barely remember and detest on sight. Is the cousin lying? If so, how did he get hold of their father’s will? If not, why did their father never mention the inheritance and, in fact, indicate he had quite different plans in mind? Since he suffered from dementia for years before he died, it’s all too possible that their father’s plans, however sincere his intent, never came to pass.

The questions assume particular urgency when it becomes clear that their cousin doesn’t plan to stop with the inheritance. He wants to advance his career by finding a highborn husband for one sister and forcing the other into a convent. This means war, and the sisters—despite the constraints placed on women in their culture—pull out all the stops to find the original will and thwart their cousin’s plans.


“Oh, Darya, you have to see this. A strutting peacock just entered our yard!” Solomonida stood on tiptoe, leaning forward until I worried she might tumble right through the open window in her eagerness. The late morning sunlight glinted off her jeweled headdress and found an answering glow in the wisps of blonde braid that had worked their way out from under the rim as she sewed.

“Peacock?” I stared at her and sighed. It wasn’t fair. My older sister was lovely, even at thirty-one. Not just beautiful, either, but vivid and charming—outgoing, outspoken, eager to interact with life beyond our courtyard gates. Next to her I felt like the quiet mouse she teasingly called me. “How would a peacock get into our yard?”

“See for yourself.” She beckoned to me.

Sorely tempted, I glanced at the altar cloth I was embroidering, already well on its way to completion. I’d set myself the task of stitching the edge of the Blessed Mother of God’s halo before I left for church, and I wasn’t even halfway through. “I’ll never finish this if I stop every time a bird flies by, Solomonida.”

I rubbed the pure white rose I’d embroidered yesterday between my thumb and forefinger, imagining the flower’s aroma—the scent of holiness. The thread, soft against my skin, reminded me of the real petals I’d stroked this morning on my journey through the courtyard. The sky-blue satin behind the flowers caressed my fingertips; the cloth-of-gold that formed the halo glittered with the light of Heaven. I liked nothing better than to watch my needle threading in and out, connecting one delicate stem stitch to the next, directing my thoughts and dreams along a clear, simple path.

Although I’d never seen a peacock outside a book. And a peacock on every corner would make the altar cloth quite unique. Why waste the chance to see what a real one looked like?

“Don’t be silly,” Solomonida said. “That altar cloth won’t get up and walk off by itself. It will be there when you get back to it. Do hurry, or you’ll miss him.”

Temptation won, not for the first time. I dropped the altar cloth on a nearby table and ran to join her. When I saw what had attracted Solomonida’s attention, thoughts of embroidery vanished from my mind as I too gave way to giggles. The young nobleman crossing our courtyard—the toes of his scarlet leather boots turned up; his brocade robe stitched with gold lions as long as my forearm, the full skirts held in place by a tasseled silk sash of a rich, bright blue; his high collar framing a face topped with reddish hair and a green hat; his long cane (obviously for show) tucked under one arm; his shoulders thrown back and his chest thrust forward—did indeed resemble nothing so much as a strutting peacock.

Early Reviews

“In Song of the Sisters, against the tense political backdrop of 1540s Moscow, C. P. Lesley brings us into the domestic world of the women’s quarters and enchants with a quiet novel about two sisters who wield their limited power to determine their own destinies.”

—Finola Austin, author of Bronte’s Mistress

“From the first page of Song of the Sisters I was transported to sixteenth-century Russia. C. P. Lesley’s rich prose brings the challenges faced by the young noblewoman Darya and her sister Solomonida to vivid life. Charmed by her humor and ingenuity, I read avidly, rooting for Darya to find her own path beyond the control of her strutting peacock of a cousin, Igor. With themes of love, trust, friendship, and female empowerment, Song of the Sisters is an enthralling read that had me turning the pages long into the night.”

—Kate Braithwaite, author of The Girl Puzzle and other novels

“In Song of the Sisters, the third installment of C. P. Lesley’s delightful Songs of Steppe & Forest series, we meet the wealthy but orphaned Sheremetev sisters. Darya is nearly too old to marry after having spent eight years nursing their father. Solomonida is raising a young daughter following the death of her cruel husband. The sisters peacefully attend to their needlework and supervise their many servants until they are confronted by a distant cousin who claims to have inherited the entire Moscow estate from their late father. As the new lord, he has also acquired the right to choose husbands for them and otherwise rule over their lives. But the sisters have other plans.

From Tatar shenanigans on the steppe to the machinations of Moscow’s elite, trained historian C. P. Lesley weaves historical facts with a prodigious imagination and a passion for sixteenth-century Russia. In Song of the Sisters, she has re-created a world of misogynistic laws, court intrigue, formidable clans competing for power, and women’s camaraderie in the face of male domination.”

—G.P. Gottlieb, author of the Whipped and Sipped Mysteries, host of New Books in Literature

“So rich with historical detail that readers will swear they can taste the foods and stroke the fabrics described, Song of the Sisters vividly transports readers to sixteenth-century Russia. C. P. Lesley blends fact and fiction seamlessly to create a sweet tale with more than a hint of intrigue.”

—Molly Greeley, author of The Heiress

Images: Sergei Solomko, The Seventeenth Century and In Pursuit of Happiness (1880s-1890s), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.