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