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 https://www.barbaramchugh.com.



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.

Excerpt

“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.


Friday, January 15, 2021

Interview with Connie Palmen

One of the fun elements of writing fiction is the chance to explore hidden facets of a familiar story. This is especially true—although also a particular challenge—when the characters and events in the novel are real, yet the author’s perspective offers new insights on what we have assumed is a familiar, even trite, tale.

The marriage of the poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963, and her husband Ted Hughes (also a poet) is an example of this phenomenon. The subject of a thousand-page biography recently reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, itself the latest addition to a vast literature on the poet’s life and death, Plath has become an iconic figure. Non-scholars passed judgment on her and her husband long ago. Yet in Your Story, My Story Connie Palmen does an exemplary job of overturning our expectations by presenting the couple’s relationship from Ted Hughes’ point of view. Moreover, she succeeds without sugar-coating Hughes’ personality. Issued in English translation just two weeks ago, this is a novel well worth seeking out. Read on to learn more about both the book and its author.

This book is not your first. Is there a theme that ties your prior works together?

When you a write a novel, there is never only one reason to do so; there are a lot of reasons, tangled themes, fascinations, love for a specific genre, love for other novels, the never-ending need to understand more about life and about yourself. The theme that guides a lot of my novels is the sometimes devastating influence of how we talk about other people. After the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath, the life of Ted Hughes became the subject of gossip, nasty stories, myths, biographies. It was no longer his.
 

What drew you not just to Sylvia Plath’s story but to Ted Hughes’ side of it?

When I was mourning the loss of my husband, I read Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, published just before his death. I was struck by how poignant and heartfelt the poems were. I felt they pointed to Hughes’ deep love for Sylvia and the pain he endured as a result of her death—a pain with which I could relate. The more I delved into Hughes’ poetry, the more compelled I felt to tell Ted’s side of the story.

And how do you see Ted Hughes, a historical personage who as a literary character must be in part your creation?

While working with my excellent translators, Anna Asbury and Eileen J. Stevens, I described Your Story, My Story as my “Judas” novel. The Judas connection is crucial here, as my Ted Hughes character states from the beginning that the key events in his relationship with Sylvia were set in stone before they ever met. In other words, the trajectory of their marriage was fixed from their first encounter. Does that absolve him of all guilt in this tale? Was he simply an unsuspecting accomplice? Or does this make Sylvia less of a victim? I have tried to relate this story impartially, leaving room for ambiguity in spite of narrating only one side. It is up to each reader to decide.

How do you understand Sylvia Plath, her personality and her suicide?

As a writer, philosopher, and as Ted Hughes, I try to understand Sylvia Plath’s suicide, and suicide in general. In the novel Hughes acknowledges in her personality a radical thread, a longing for purity, and a willingness to sacrifice her false self to become more real and clean. This longing might be a part of understanding her, but people are complex and there is never only one explanation for our behavior.

No story is one-sided. What were the strengths and weaknesses of their marriage, in your view?

Hughes was not a monster, and Plath was not a saint.

What is most important for potential readers to know about this story, as you tell it?

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were one of the most famous romantic couples in modern Western literature. In countless biographies of Plath, she is given the status of martyr and Hughes that of a traitor and murderer, while Hughes was reviled by strangers and even sued by people he once considered his friends.  

I wanted to describe the thoughts, fears, and incantations of this husband, and his deeply tragic bond with the woman who would come to define his life.

You write in Dutch. The translation seems very fluid and well done, but does the act of translation change a literary work in some way?

A good translator understands how and what a writer wanted to tell, and she preserves the essence of a novel. That is the wonder of reading your own book in another language: it is completely different and at the same time exactly yours.

Are you already working on another project? What can you tell us about it?

I am still doing research for my next novel, and I wrote essays on Vivian Gornick, Joan Didion, and Sylvia Plath. It is a continuation of a small collection of essays I wrote on famous, talented, and rather destructive women like Patricia Highsmith, Marilyn Monroe, Marguerite Duras, and Jane Bowles.

Thank you so much for answering my questions.

Connie Palmen was born in Sint OdiliĆ«nberg, the Netherlands, and studied literature and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. She is the author of The Laws, voted the European Novel of the Year and short-listed for the 1996 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; The Friendship, winner of the AKO Literature Prize; All Yours; Lucifer; and the autobiographical works I.M.—now a television film broadcast in December 2020—and Journal of a Merciless Year. Your Story, My Story, published in Dutch as Jij zegt het in 2015, won the prestigious Libris Prize for Literature and was short-listed for several other literary awards. Amazon Crossing published the English edition in January 2021. Ms. Palmen currently lives in Amsterdam. For more information, see http://www.conniepalmen.nl.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Unhappy Rich Girl

A little over a year ago, I published a written Q&A with the author Molly Greeley on this blog. That was supposed to be a podcast interview, but as luck would have it, the workmen who had spent the previous two weeks doing everything but putting my deck back together (after demolishing it in no time flat) arrived, saws and hammers in hand, the day before I was supposed to talk with her. She kindly agreed to reschedule, since it was clear we would barely be able to hear each other—and our listeners even less so. I vowed to host a conversation about both novels when the second one appeared.

That has now happened. William Morrow published The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh on January 5 of this year. Molly and I spoke well in advance of the release, to avoid delays caused by the annual winter and New Year’s holidays, and you can hear us talking on the New Books Network. The post below, which accompanies the interview on New Books in Historical Fiction, provides an introduction to both novels.

The world created by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice has established a place for itself in contemporary culture that few other novels can match, yet amid the countless spinoffs, some stand out. Molly Greeley seems to have a special gift for creating novels that, although based on Austen’s creations, take on a life of their own.

In 2019’s The Clergyman’s Wife, Greeley imagined how the marriage between Charlotte Lucas, the friend of Austen’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet, and Mr. Collins, Austen’s risible antagonist, might have worked out after three years. The Heiress (William Morrow, 2020) takes up the story of Anne de Bourgh, a character who in the original Pride and Prejudice exists mostly as an example of the kind of young woman that novel’s hero, Mr. Darcy, should prefer to Elizabeth, if only in the opinion of Anne’s formidable mother, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Now, to anyone familiar with Lady Catherine, the thought of being her daughter is itself enough to cause shudders of alarm, but on the surface, Anne has a privileged life, including the right—rare for a woman in eighteenth-century Europe—to inherit her father’s estate. In this, she occupies the opposite position from Charlotte Lucas, who married Mr. Collins solely to avoid becoming an elderly, unwanted spinster living in genteel poverty.

But all is not well in Anne’s world, either. A fractious but healthy baby, she undergoes “treatment” for what we assume is colic that leaves her addicted to laudanum, an opiate. Her father wants to wean Anne of the drug, but her mother insists on following the advice of the local quack even as Anne becomes more listless and emaciated. A governess manages to awaken Anne’s interest in poetry and mathematics, but it’s only when Anne herself awakens to the dangers of laudanum and decides to rid herself of her addiction, no matter what it costs her, that she begins to grow into her inheritance.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Interview with Judithe Little

I first encountered Judithe Little when her then publicist, Caitlin Hamilton Summie, pitched Judith’s first novel to me for a New Books in Historical Fiction interview. That podcast appeared in 2017 as part of a one-time experiment in talking with two authors, back to back, about books that happened to cover related topics. (I didn’t repeat the experiment because it turned out that the computers weren’t good at featuring two authors and two novels in one post.) You can still hear our conversation for free on the New Books Network.

Her second novel, The Chanel Sisters, reached me in a similar way, but it covers a very different subject: the life of the famous fashion designer Coco Chanel. Read on to find out more about both books.

Your first novel, Wickwythe Hall, came out in 2017 and addressed a single crucial decision made by the British government in 1940. What led you to move from that very military/political arena to the early years of Coco Chanel’s life?

Both book inspirations came while I was reading Axel Madsen’s biography Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. It was the first Chanel biography I’d read, and in it I learned about Coco’s early life as well as the confrontation between the French and British navies in World War II. I wrote Wickwythe Hall first because I found it so astonishing that most people didn’t know about that tragedy (including myself), but there was always a placeholder in my mind for the early part of Coco’s life that ends just after World War I in 1921. Both novels are, at heart, about relationships and how war can irrevocably upend them.

The novel is called The Chanel Sisters, and in fact the main narrator is Antoinette (Ninette), not Gabrielle, the future Coco. What does Ninette’s perspective offer you as a writer that Coco’s would not?

Coco never told the truth about her convent upbringing and the fact that her father abandoned her. Ninette knew exactly what Coco worked so hard to hide because she experienced it too. As a reliable narrator, Ninette offers a more intimate, honest side to Coco than Coco herself would ever be willing to reveal. Also, as I researched Ninette’s story, I realized she played a more important role in the founding of the Chanel empire than previously known. I thought it was time she had her own voice. 

There is also a third sister, Julia-Berthe. Where does she fit into the story?

All of the sisters, once released from the clutches of the nuns, choose different paths out in the world. What motivates them in part is to fill the void left by their father’s betrayal. The longing for love is heightened in the sisters because they’ve spent their entire lives feeling unloved. Julia-Berthe, the oldest sister, seeks out physical love. She has no grand schemes to break out of poverty like the other two and is more willing to accept her place in the world. Like her parents and grandparents, she tries to squeeze out a living selling used items in outdoor markets. She is who Antoinette and Coco might have been if they hadn’t pursued their dreams and broken the cycle of poverty they came from. It’s ironic that for all that the name “Chanel” stands for today, it comes from a family of vagabond peddlers living hand to mouth.

Like many people, I would guess, I have been aware of Coco Chanel throughout my life without really knowing much about her beyond Chanel no. 5 and the Little Black Dress. How would you summarize her, as a character? What’s most important for us to know about her?

Coco was a very complex person, but one quality that defined her was a driving need for freedom. Freedom from poverty, from the convent, from the rules of society in general, and from the rules of society imposed on women. Because of her quest for freedom, she revolutionized fashion and along with it the way women participate in the world. She gave women clothing they could actually move in. But she didn’t do it intentionally. She didn’t start out wanting to be a fashion designer at all. She made hats and clothing for herself first because she didn’t like the fussy, overwrought choices of the time and also couldn’t afford them. Her pared-down style caught on as did her philosophy that women should dress to live, not live to dress.

The love of Ninette’s life is a man she calls Lucho. Tell us a bit about him and how their romance intersects with your novel’s main theme: the relationship among these three sisters.

Those were the days when who you married defined you in the eyes of society. Of the sisters, Ninette is the one who wants her existence acknowledged by society as it never was by her father. She hopes against all odds to find love and acceptance all wrapped up in a nice package. Then life presents her with Lucho, who can give her the former but not the latter. He’s an Argentinian/English horse breeder who comes to France to promote his Criollo ponies to European polo players. When World War I breaks out, he provides his horses to the French army to help fight the Germans. Coco, who’s more pragmatic than Ninette, doesn’t care about propriety. She helps Ninette understand she’s playing a fool’s game, trying to protect a “reputation” she never really had because of her low birth.

Can you tell us anything about the novel that you’re now working on, referenced in your bio, below?

The novel I’m working on now takes place in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s and is told from the point of view of Coco Chanel’s best friend for over thirty years, a fascinating woman who was actually more famous in Paris at the time than Coco.  

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Judithe Little is the author of two novels, The Chanel Sisters and Wickwythe Hall, award-winning historical fiction set during World War II. She grew up in Virginia and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia. After studying at the Institute of European Studies and the Institut Catholique in Paris, France, and interning at the US Department of State, she earned a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, where she was on the Editorial Board of the Journal of International Law and a Dillard Fellow. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and children, where she is working on her third novel. Find out more about her and her books at http://www.judithelittle.com.

 

If you’re looking for the usual annual resolutions, I ran the pared-down version in last week’s post, “Looking Back—and Forward.” And as always, I wish everyone a splendid new year, with love and success and happiness for you and those you love!