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visits with authors, artists, and other friends

August 10, 2012: VINCENT LAM

Author of The Headmaster's Wager

The Headmaster’s Wager brings to life a vibrant, unforgettable character who struggles for love and survival in a richly detailed evocation of wartime Vietnam. Mr. Lam’s tale moved me even as it led through an exotic landscape filled with unthinkable violence, passionate longing, and unbreakable bonds of paternal love. His characters and their story will remain with you.

The Writer's Visa 

by Vincent Lam 

Not long ago, I needed to travel to a country where a visa is required. Having set aside a morning, I went to the consulate, waited outside until admitted past the security gates, filled out my form, and stood in line again to deliver my form to the woman at the visa window.

The visa woman glanced at my form, at me, held up the form, and said,

“What is this?” She was not in genuine need of clarification. She seemed bemused, as if I had written on my form that my name was ‘Bugs Bunny’.

“Is there a problem?” I asked.

“Your occupation,” she said. “It says physician, and writer.”

This has come up before. I work in both medicine and books. Sometimes this surprises people, and requires explanation. I began to tell her that, yes, I am a practicing doctor, I also write books, but she interrupted my cocktail chatter explanation of my life. She said,

“Writer is sensitive.”

I understood from the deliberate tilt of her head, that she was not referring to the superbly honed, emotionally-attuned capacities of those of us who string words together. She gazed at the problematic form. At least it didn’t seem that my status as a writer offended her, it was just a problem. It was not an offensive problem, I gathered from her air of ennui. Rather, it was a bureaucratic nuisance to her.

She sighed. She repeated, in case I had not heard, “Writer is sensitive.”

This might make it more difficult for me to get my visa, I now realized. I began to talk. I hoped to show sympathy for her exasperation by providing a solution. I explained to her that I was a physician, and I wrote about health. (It was true that every book I had published – up to that time – was about doctors and health care... even if some of it was fiction that contained social commentary.) I reassured, soothed, my voice placating her in the administrative equivalent of cocktail chatter, whose subliminal intent is, ‘if I keep on speaking pleasantly and at length, I hope you will do what I ask if only to make my droning voice stop’. I was trying to demonstrate, perhaps indirectly, how I was an utterly innocuous writer.

We do seem innocuous, don’t we? Many of us writers are quiet observers, analysts, interpreters of human conflict but not its instigators – who as children said during playground disputes, ‘Now, I can see your point of view, but surely you must understand that I look at it differently…’ Or something like that. I was glad that the visa woman did not seem offended. It was a protocol problem, a procedural problem. I was glad that she seemed to be willing to consider my argument. I was also very glad, as I tried to demonstrate the benign nature of myself and my writing, that the book which I was writing at that time, ‘The Headmaster’s Wager’ had not yet been published.

This novel, now published, is set in Vietnam. In occurs in wartime, and contains explicit violence and sex. It’s part of the story, which is why it’s there – I didn’t want to explain at a visa window. The protagonist, Percival Chen, is a man of Chinese origin who flees the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the Second World War. He starts an English language school in Vietnam. The diplomas of his school acquire huge value during the American military involvement in that country. This gives Percival enough money to get into lots of trouble. Percival is both a successful educator and businessman, and a compulsive gambler and hedonist. He has a loyalty to China which is both stubborn and simplistic, and yet he falls madly in love with a beauty of French-Vietnamese origins. He is sometimes willfully blind, and often maddeningly short-sighted. He is as frank about his ethnophobias and racisms as he is about love of beautiful women and good cognac.

He is inspired by my own grandfather.

I could have predicted that a few people would take exception to Percival’s ways. I know, because many of my grandfather’s questionable habits – philandering, compulsive gambling, drinking excessively – were presented to me, when I was a young boy, as a cautionary tale, ‘this is how you must not live!’

As true as that may be, they certainly help to propel fiction.

I did not stop with these questionable elements in my writing of my novel. After all, racism, ethnophobia, naked greed, belief in spirits, abandonment to luck, a blithe willingness to profit from war, (and did I mention a lascivious appetite for beautiful women?) were all characteristics I deployed to create a particular Chinese male protagonist in Vietnam in the middle part of the 20th Century. Come to think of it, in many modern settings, these character traits could also ring true.

It sort of occurred to me in a theoretical way that having all of these elements flung through the pages might raise the ire of some readers. Namely, I understood that‘The Headmaster’s Wager’ might provoke certain Vietnamese, Chinese, French, American, Japanese, inter-race, male, and female readers, in short, anyone who was in some way represented in my novel. But then, a writer cannot be hindered by what people will think about the characters while writing. Otherwise, how could one do true justice to the characters? (Actually, the whole truth is: I think the writer knows that they must follow the character faithfully and honestly in order to get them right, but the writer also secretly hopes that many readers will love the characters. It’s just that some of us won’t admit that last part.)

The book was published in Canada in the spring of 2012. An early review in the Ottawa Citizen judged that the novel was, “a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions… cinematic, multi-layered”, and also said, “portrays Vietnam's ethnic Chinese community in a most unflattering light.” In the Globe and Mail, one article asked, “what if your sophomore effort is a masterpiece?... The Headmaster’s Wager has all the markings.” In the same newspaper on a different day, a different writer complained of the novel’s, “patronizing approach to characters ethnically different from the headmaster,” and of its “exoticized stereotypes of racially mixed people.” A recent BookBrowse blog post by Chet Yarbrough offered that the book would appeal to “male chauvinists”. Mr. Yarbrough also described it as having “bell ringing clarity and concrete believability” and predicted that it would rise to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

I didn’t intend to write specifically for male chauvinist readers. I’m glad it rings clearly and believably. Meanwhile, I really, really, really, hope that Mr. Yarbrough’s New York Times bestseller prediction is true. Help me out on that front, if you can!

What I find fascinating is that different reviewers come away with such different impressions of whom I’ve slighted in ‘The Headmaster’s Wager’. For some, I have offended the Chinese, for others the Vietnamese. My depictions of westerners have been described as caricatures. My wife was worried that our Japanese nanny would take issue with my portrayal of the Japanese. It seems ‘The Headmaster’s Wager’ is touching upon deep currents of people’s emotions, for the responses to be so varied. For my part, it is not necessarily comfortable to challenge people or to be challenged for doing so, but in an uncomfortable way – it is very satisfying as a writer. This is part of what books can do, and should do.

With the book’s impending launch in America in mid-August of 2012, I am curious about what the reactions there will be. The novel centers around a conflict which in America is known as the Vietnam War, and in Vietnam is known as the American War. By any name, I know that this era has important and painful psychic resonance for many Americans, as it does for the Vietnamese. I grew up on the Vietnam books of Halberstam, O’Brien, Duras, Greene, and other westerners. They wrote about Vietnam with their lens pointed in from the outside. Asian people appear a certain way – often written as if through a cloak of misunderstanding, which I think is usually honest to the point of view of those books. In ‘The Headmaster’s Wager’, it is the western outsiders who become the distanced figures, seen as they are through Percival’s China-centric eyes. I wonder how this inversion will be received in America.

There is a paradox: being quiet, analytical observers by natural inclination, I think many writers instinctively avoid plunging into offense and confrontation in our quotidian interactions with the world. Meanwhile, that same deep interest in understanding our world is what drives us to write about it. In representing it, we want to remain honest to what we see. What we see are characters, places, and scenarios that are raw, sometimes painfully so, and hopefully contain insight for the reader. We try to go there in our writing. This, if we get it right, provokes engagement, interaction and, yes, there is the risk of offense and confrontation.

At the consulate, I managed to convince the visa woman that what I do is so innocuous that it could bother no one. After all, ‘The Headmaster’s Wager’ had not yet been published. She disappeared for a while, and apparently managed to convince her superior of my harmless nature. My visa was granted.

Yet, she was correct.

Writer is sensitive.

(Copyright, Vincent Lam 2012)

December 9, 2011: MICHELLE CAMERON

Author of In the Shadow of the Globe

Michelle Cameron's In the Shadow of the Globe, a collection of interconnected poems that together form a kaleidoscopic narrative, took my breath away. In evocative, colorful, pithy language, Ms. Cameron has brought to life a little world, a slice of history, a moment in the lives of William Shakespeare and the people who surrounded him on and off stage. Ms. Cameron's knowledge is scholarly; the use she makes of that knowledge, anything but dry. Allusions to Shakespeare's work and life abound, but readers need not be familiar with the details to enjoy Ms. Cameron's heartfelt but never maudlin evocation of her characters' longings and frustrations.

In The Shadow of the Globe reads like a novel, the rhythms and imagery of Ms. Cameron's verse not distracting from, but reinforcing the sensibilities of her characters and their period. I felt utterly transported. This is a book that will enlighten and move readers for many years to come. Bravo, Ms. Cameron.

How I Came to Write In the Shadow of the Globe
by Michelle Cameron

You don’t wake up one morning deciding to write a verse novel. My inspiration for In the Shadow of the Globe came from a BBC special that I was fortunate enough to watch in my home in Jerusalem, all about Shakespeare’s theatre. It was the nugget of information that the players often purchased the cast-off clothing of nobles that made me think – there’s a novel in here. So I set off to write one: a young adult novel featuring William Shakespeare and his troupe of players at the Globe theatre.

I began by diligent research, by traveling to London and Stratford to soak up the atmosphere and – at the time I started – there was nothing out there similar to my projected book. But as I was finishing the final draft, my friends kept telling me about this movie I needed to see. I finally broke down, and watched it – and was swept away. Then I went upstairs and cried. I know now that Shakespeare in Love wasn’t enough like my novel to threaten it – but back then I really thought no one would want to publish my work because of the film’s popularity.

I kept working on the novel anyway and it was accepted by an agent in New York. But he kept asking for changes – some of which I agreed with, many more that I didn’t. I withdrew it. And I experienced one of those black moments that we novelists are supposed to plunge our characters into before the climax of our novels – deciding then that I was never going to realize my life-long dream and become a successful novelist.

By this time, I had two young boys and was working full time. I didn’t have time to write or to pursue publication. But after a few years of stagnation, my muse magically appeared. Muses are supposed to be lovely Grecian creatures in flowing diaphanous skirts. Not mine. Mine was a small, tousled headed, intense six year old named Alex Cameron. My son is a born writer who, even as a child, would sit at his desk for hours, writing for the sheer joy of it.

And I looked at him and asked, why did I ever let it go?

So I decided to write just for me. Since my time was limited, I chose to write poetry. The form was short enough to complete in a couple of sittings. I could bring poetry into the karate dojo or on the bleachers of the little league game. I wasn’t writing for publication ― that dream had died. I was just writing for myself.

But writing needs company and poetry in particular needs voice. So I began to go to readings, workshops and seminars, met other writers and poets, and began to read contemporary work. My own work grew stronger and was beginning to appear in both online and print publications.

I found a mentor – the wonderful poet, Sondra Gash, whose poetic narrative Silk Elegy would inspire me to embark on a verse novel of my own. Sondra is a fabulous poet but would be the first to admit that computers baffle her. I exchanged work on the manuscript that she was readying for publication for one-on-one sessions discussing my poetry. This “apprenticeship” inspired me to try a few poems about a subject I knew a great deal about – William Shakespeare and the troupe of actors at the Globe Theatre.

The poems flowed out of me. I knew these characters intimately, having spent so much time with them in prose. Yet, as I wrote the poems and then created the narrative arc, the actors still managed to surprise me, to take control of the manuscript. It was exhilarating to let them tell me their stories.

When the book was published, my publisher, a small literary press, warned me that her house did not have any distribution or marketing. Any promotion I did would have to be out of the back of my car. That neither surprised nor stopped me. I promoted the book during a happy, frustrating year, coming to realize that poetry doesn’t command much of an audience. Over the past couple of years, I have told many audiences about my journey through poetry to realizing my original prose ambitions, ending up with my historical novel, The Fruit of Her Hands. As I do, I often make the wry comment that my poetry readings almost never drew the size audience that was now before me. My audiences always laugh at that. And I experience a brief pang of sadness and move on.

- -

Michelle Cameron


Published by Pocket Books

A division of Simon & Schuster

Web site: www.michelle-cameron.com

Twitter: @fruit_hands

October 12, 2011: MARTIN FLETCHER
Author of The List

For today's post, I am honored to host the celebrated NBC news correspondent and debut novelist Martin Fletcher.

Philadelphia's "One Book, One Jewish Community" (known as OBOJC) has selected Martin Fletcher's first novel, The List, as their 2011 read. Although I have not yet read The List, 
I deeply respect the judgment and mission of OBOJC. Their recommendation is more than enough to convince me to buy and read this book.

I know Martin not only as NBC's erstwhile Tel Aviv bureau chief (he left that post to write The List), but also because we both spoke at last year's Jewish Book Festival in Houston. Following that event, I enjoyed reading his non-fiction Walking Israel, which showed a side of Israel and its astonishing variety of citizens in a manner quite different from anything you'll see on television news.

Martin has won numerous Emmy and other awards for his television reporting, and I have no doubt he calls upon his resources of honesty, seriousness, and intelligence in his first foray into fiction, which he describes below as much harder to write than non-fiction. I certainly concur, and I also agree with him that fiction is the best tool we have to explore the truths of human experience.  

The List

by Martin Fletcher

Sixty-six years ago this week Edith and Georg took a bus to Liverpool Street station in London to meet Edith’s cousin, Anna, who was arriving on the 7.21 train from Dover. Start of journey: Auschwitz.

They had never met a survivor of what some were calling a holocaust. None of their friends had. They didn’t know what to believe. The stories from the concentration camps were dribbling out like blood through a rag – rumors, newspaper reports, red cross bulletins. Could this madness be true? In October 1945 nobody in London knew.

Amid the screeching and loudspeaker announcements and belching smoke of the railway terminal, Edith hugged her belly, hoping to calm her baby inside. She’d already had one miscarriage in her sixth month and everything was a struggle. Classified as “Enemy Aliens” throughout the war, terrified by the uncertainty of the fate of their families at the hands of the Nazis, now they had to face a new threat: a petition to throw the Jewish refugees out of Britain. Their neighbors were signing it. And with all the stress, Edith’s doctor advised her to lie down for the last three months of her pregnancy to make sure she didn’t lose another baby.

So begins my new novel. It’s personal. After forty years as a journalist, telling other people’s stories, I tell the story of my own family.

Many people have asked me, if it’s the truth, why write it as fiction?

Although I have been a journalist for so long, I have long believed that the real truth about people can only be told through fiction. Not the truth of events, facts and analysis, but the truth of emotions, characters and their complex relationships.

What was it like to be waiting at that station? Or to learn that not one close relative survived the camps? Or to face the wave of anti-semitism in their refugee haven? To build new lives? I don’t know because my parents never talked about it and by the time I had the idea to write their story, they were dead. So I had to make it up.

I read all the bulletins of the Association of Jewish Refugees from 1942 to 1950. I read all the editions of the local newspaper, the Hampstead and Highgate express. I read dozens of books and interviewed dozens of people who experienced those times, from nurses who delivered babies to former Jewish soldiers who fought fist-fights with fascists in London’s streets. I even spoke at length to a Jew from Palestine sent to London to assassinate the British Foreign Minister, Ernst Bevin. I had all the facts, as far as I knew.

But I didn’t know anything about the essential question: What was it like?

So I set out on my first work of fiction, and it was a scary journey. I left NBC partly because I found it impossible to write a novel while working as a full-time reporter. I finished one writing session writing about Otto, was sent to Afghanistan for three weeks, and when I returned to my story I had no idea who Otto was. I had to go back twenty pages before I remembered.

I found writing non-fiction a breeze compared to fiction. Non-fiction can be broken down into chapters, each with a beginning, middle and an end. You can easily drop in and out as time permits. But fiction is a continuous story with multiple strands, interlocking narratives and varied pacing. You can’t break the flow and you have to stay focused for months to the exclusion of everything else, which makes writing an unnatural activity in our modern world.

Yet apart from raising my family, it is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. I hope I did my family justice and also the millions of others who experienced similar tragedies.

Because ultimately their story, and the book, is not only about loss and pain but of facing challenges and rebuilding lives, of hope and love. In my parents home there was no such thing as complaining when things went wrong. What could be worse than what their family had been through? There was only the wonder of being alive.

Author of Hope Of Israel

Patricia O'Sullivan's debut, Hope of Israel, deals with the condition of secret Jews in seventeenth-century England. I am looking forward to reading it. I know Patricia to be an intelligent and knowledgeable woman, not only with regard to the subject of her book but also about historical novels in general. The reviews have been quite favorable and I expect to love this one. 

In her essay below, Patricia tells a personal story about how this subject came to fascinate her.

What history tells us about the present

Patricia O'Sullivan

When I was a child the only non-Biblical story I heard about the Jewish people was the Holocaust. I remember being caught up in miniseries such as The Holocaust (1978), The Wall (1982), Winds of War (1983), and The Scarlet and the Black (1983). Then there were assigned books for school: The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night. Even today, Hollywood filmmakers and New York publishers love the Holocaust. In the 2000’s there were sixteen films centered on the Holocaust produced in the U.S. and twenty-two more that came out of Europe, Canada, and Australia. Barnes & Noble currently lists 151 fiction titles for the Holocaust, and Amazon lists 411 YA titles in this category. 

It was not until I was in college that I learned other stories about the Jews, but even then, these stories were not portrayed as fundamental to Jewish history as the Holocaust. I first learned of the Inquisition from watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and my introduction to the expulsion of the Jews from Russia came from Fiddler on the Roof. Consequently, I’ve often wondered why the Holocaust is more compelling in popular culture than other Jewish stories.  

There is the obvious argument that the Holocaust was a more recent event. Yet that answer does not explain why there are not more stories of Jewish history since WWII. Timing, in this case, is not everything. Historians often comment that histories say as much about the era in which they are written as they do about the era they seek to analyze. With this in mind I ask, what do recent stories of Jewish history say about these times in which we live?

I struggled with this question as I wrote my first novel, Hope of Israel, an Inquisition story concerned with the readmission of the Jews to England in 1656. I was particularly fascinated with the small group of Spanish Catholic merchants in London who, when accused of spying for Spain, revealed that they were actually Portuguese Jews escaped from the Inquisition. At the same time, there was a significant population of English Catholics in London who were pretending to be Anglican to avoid religious and political persecution at the hands of the Protestant rulers of that country. In sum, London in the mid-seventeenth century was a city full of religious pretenders. 

Hope of Israel’s main character is Domingo de Lacerda, a Portuguese boy who is raised Catholic only to discover after his family flees the country that he is Jewish. In Amsterdam, Domingo’s family returns to the religion of their ancestors, but economic opportunity brings them to London where they must once again don their Catholic identity. Feeling spiritually and emotionally manipulated by his family, Domingo allows himself to fall in love with a Christian as an act of rebellion. 

Lucy Dunnington’s father insists she conform to the Anglican Church to improve her prospects in life. Lucy’s resistance to conversion stems from her dead mother’s ardent Catholic piety and her father’s atheism. Lucy is drawn to Domingo because she believes he is Catholic. But when she learns he is Jewish, she must decide if she can still love him.

One of my favorite characters to write was Teresa Maria, Domingo's mother.  Through her I explored how tragedy can damage family relations but also how the need for family pushes people to compromise beliefs they'd been taught were unquestionable. This is particularly true of religious beliefs. Teresa Maria's story is not one of redemption, but of acceptance as she tries to make the best of a life full of loss and disappointment. In many ways Teresa Maria is the heart of Hope of Israel. It was through her I explored the question of what this historical story says about America in the early years of the twenty-first century. Through Teresa Maria I realized that Inquisition stories have a particular resonance with current events that significantly differs from the modern relevance of Holocaust stories.

Holocaust stories explore the idea of mass intolerance of a category of people simply for who they are rather than how they behave. Those who shared the prejudices of the Nazis did not distinguish active Jews from non-practicing Jews. Anyone with ‘Jewish blood’ could become a victim. In grappling with the Holocaust, readers may ponder other similar types of mass intolerance that have occurred in recent years both at home and abroad. Maybe Americans and Europeans are still drawn to Holocaust stories because we are not yet done dealing with this kind of intolerance, the kind J.K. Rowling calls “dirty blood” prejudice, an idea made popular by Benzion Netanyahu in his 1995 book, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain. 

By contrast, stories of the Inquisition tend to be about the intolerance of a people because of how they behave. To be sure, Inquisitors targeted some people simply because their ancestors had practiced Judaism, but the Inquisition was not so much about eliminating a population as it was about getting them to conform to Christianity. Inquisition stories explore identity as the characters struggle with what it means to be Jewish, especially when it is too dangerous to ‘act’ Jewish. Some of the best novels I’ve read that deal with this theme are Mitchell James Kaplan’s By Fire, By Water, Noah Gordon’s The Last Jew, and Richard Zimler’s Guardian of the Dawn. Characters in Inquisition stories often live lives of deception and false piety in order to survive. Many of them grow up burdened by secrets and find it difficult to share with others who they really are. 

What seems so timely about these stories is the theme of nonconformist behavior being deemed unholy and then suppressed or purged. A similar theme dominates narratives about witch trials, a historical topic that remains popular in American novels. Both Inquisition stories and witch trial stories resonate with the modern struggle for civil rights among homosexuals and women as they concern religious and behavioral conformity and how resistance to that conformity threatens the patriarchal system of authority. And at their heart, these narratives ask the reader to consider the relationship between identity and acceptance which is a very different concern than the straight-forward prejudice and brutality of holocaust stories. Perhaps it is because Inquisition stories question the very system in which we still live that makes them less popular than Holocaust stories. Blatant prejudice still exists, but it is often discussed as a historical problem. By contrast, religious and behavioral conformity is frequently touted as a solution rather than a problem, especially in American culture. Many Americans would agree that blood prejudice is wrong, but we have not agreed as a culture that forced behavioral conformity is also wrong. 

This is why Inquisition stories still matter.

Patricia O’Sullivan is the author of Hope of Israel and the forthcoming Legend of the Dead, the story of a refugee from Dutch Brazil who is among the first group of Jewish settlers in the North American colony of New Amsterdam and A Notable Occupation, which chronicles the destruction of the thriving Jewish communities of Newport and St. Eustatius during the War for American Independence. She can be reached for comment at legendofthedead.blogspot.com and pluceyo@gmail.com 

May 15, 2011: LAUREL CORONA
Author of Finding Emilie

On May 11, 2011, I interviewed author Laurel Corona by telephone. I had recently read her historical novel, FINDING EMILIE, which featured lively, believable characters and a brilliant evocation of eighteenth century France. Since we admire each other’s books, we wanted to get to know each other a little better. The idea was to have a pleasant conversation about our work, which I would then type up to use as a blog post.

MJK: I couldn’t help noticing, in FINDING EMILIE, that your descriptions of pre-Hausmannian Paris, Vaux-le-Vicomte, and other locations were quite accurate. I happen to be familiar with these places. Is travel an essential part of your research?

LC: I try to travel when I’m almost finished with a book. I know it’s helpful, because I always discover I’ve made some potentially embarrassing mistakes!

MJK: So you don’t believe in traveling before you start writing?

LC: It’s not only about where I am in the writing process. I’m a full-time college professor, so I can’t just travel whenever I feel like it. I can travel in the summer and I can travel in December and January. On my third book, FINDING EMILIE, I was only half-way done when I went to France.

MJK: How do you organize these trips? Do you spend much time getting a general feel for the places you visit, familiarizing yourself with the mores and the lifestyles, or do you look for very specific details about the places you visit?

LC: It’s very focused travel. For example, we recently went to Spain, but we didn’t hit the usual tourist destinations at all. We didn’t go to Cordoba, Madrid, or Barcelona. We went to Sintra, outside Lisbon, and then we spent quite a bit of time in the Algarve, the south of Portugal, then Granada and Sevilla, and then Arévalo, where Queen Isabella spent much of her childhood.

MJK: These places you choose to visit, I assume they’re not necessarily based on the lives of your main characters, since you make your main characters up, no?

LC: Well, as you know, I do use real historical figures in my books, but yes, my main characters tend to be made up. That way I can tell the story I feel needs to be told about the real characters, without having to restrict my narrative as much.

MJK: I can relate! When you use a real character, you’re struggling with the demands of narrative versus the demands of verisimilitude, and it can be very tricky.

LC: I was going to do a book about Marie Curie, but I came to feel I was just dramatizing her biography, which was frustrating, because she is such an amazing character. But why go to all the trouble of writing a novel about what people can easily find out elsewhere? For me, the solution is often to invent a character who lived alongside a well-known historical figure. For example, in the book I’m writing now, my main character is imaginary, but there are lots of cameo appearances of real people.

MJK: How do you go about crafting characters who are authentic to the period, yet accessible to modern readers?

LC: I’m always looking for women who have been forgotten or misrepresented. I’ll start by reading a general history of the time. Because I teach Humanities, I have a pretty good superficial grasp of a lot of different periods.

MJK: Speaking of different periods, I’ve noticed we have something in common. Some historical novelists stick with one period, which they explore in depth over the course of many novels. Others like to explore different periods. You and I – and Stephanie [Cowell], and of course many others – seem to fall into the latter category.

LC: I don’t want to stay in one period. I love to learn.

MJK: Me, too. I’m very interested in certain kinds of thematic material and how it plays out in different periods. For example, I’m fascinated by the history of the three major western religions, how their ideas developed, and how their relations with each other changed. I wouldn’t be able to explore that issue in depth if I stayed with one period.

LC: My books also share features: strong female characters who tend to form communities, women’s empowerment... I don’t want to have to think about whether a particular period is trendy or not, or whether the publishers are looking for books about the period that interests me. So I’ve written books set in ancient times, the eighteenth century, the end of the middle ages, and now I’m working on a book set in the early twentieth century.

MJK: And all that in just a few years! I know you covered this in your interview with Stephanie [Cowell], but I’m going to ask this again because like Stephanie, I’m completely mystified. How on earth do you get so much work done so quickly and so well?

LC: I don’t get hung-up on the first draft. My process is a layering process. I’m not a perfectionist, at least not at that stage of the game. I concentrate on plot and character in the first draft.

MJK: How much time do you spend on that first draft?

LC: Eight or nine months. I don’t have a lot of distractions. My life boils down to teaching, writing, and playing tennis. My partner, like me, is a workaholic. We both love our work, and we support each other’s workaholism. The other thing is, since I’m a full-time professor, I don’t have to worry about making money from writing.

MJK: That is an enviable situation. And I confess envy you!

Thank you, Laurel, for taking the time.

April 29, 2011: D. L. BOGDAN
Author of Rivals In The Tudor Court

I first met DL Bogdan about a year ago. We were both recently published historical novelists. We were also both awake, often, at three a.m., and ended up chatting on Facebook. I came to think of Ms. Bogdan as a friend. I had no idea, however, whether I would be able to relate to her as a writer. When she sent me “Rivals of the Tudor Court,” I was pleased to find that she had peopled her Court with layered, shaded  characters and that she used multiple narrators to tell the story. Although in her telling, the Duke of Norfolk is undeniably brutal, Ms. Bogdan also develops him as a man who deeply misses his departed wife and who deceives himself in psychologically credible ways. The two other narrators are no less complex and compelling.

To celebrate the royal wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and to place this marriage in an admittedly ironic context, I thought it would be interesting to post Ms. Bogdan's blog today, April 29th, 2011. 


by DL Bogdan

My fascination with Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk evolved while writing my debut novel SECRETS OF THE TUDOR COURT.  I had been writing about his daughter, the oft’ overlooked Mary Howard, who was the wife of King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, and trying to fill in the gaps of a tragic life that remained far too sketchy.  As I wrote about her, I wondered what factors could have led her father to become the callous abuser he was during his daughter‘s life.   Did the answer lie in the old “nature vs. nurture” debate?  As most psychological studies indicate, abuse is typically cyclical, passed down from one abuser to another.  Who abused Norfolk?  Or did he start the cycle?  With these questions in mind, I began to delve deeper into his life, along with the lives of his wife Elizabeth Howard and mistress, Bess Holland.  

The duke, bred for ambition and fueled by avarice, did not have it easy.  The Howard family were the “comeback kids” of their time, falling from grace to rise again on numerous occasions.   I imagine, as the eldest child and heir to the on-again-off-again dukedom of Norfolk, this had to put a lot of pressure on Thomas Howard, who was a “hostage” in King Henry VII’s court along with his brother since childhood while their father, the attainted Earl of Surrey, was doing time in the Tower of London for supporting Richard III.   Thomas was married to Lady Anne Plantagenet and together they had a family of four children.  There is little indication is his early years that he would be the abuser he became as he aged.  Besides a by-the-whip childhood typical of a medieval upbringing, I assert that the major turning point in Thomas’ life was the loss of his first wife and all four children in quick succession.  I cannot imagine any normal human being surviving such grand-scale loss and coming out unscathed.  

Shortly after Lady Anne’s death, Thomas was encouraged to marry again to ensure the Howard line.  He chose the fiery Elizabeth Stafford, daughter of the Duke of Buckingham.  Years of struggle and misunderstandings ensued as the couple bore and lost children, entwining their fates with Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, alliances that would become a divisive factor in their marriage.  As Thomas gained power and lost perspective, he took on a mistress Bess Holland and became progressively more abusive toward his wife and controlling of Bess and his children.  Elizabeth was a woman ahead of her time, seeking help from Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII himself.  She was a lone voice in a time when women were silent.  Her cries for justice were ignored by the men of her time, but they resonated through the centuries to our time.  If the reader only takes away one thing from this book, I would hope it would be this:  that women today have a voice.  We don’t have to be the prisoners so many of our sisters in the past were:  there is help and there is healing for both the abused and the abusers.  

While trying not to impose contemporary thought into their unbearable situation, remaining true to the ideals and accepted values of the time period, the novel illustrates abuse in a brutal time when getting through each day alive and sane remained an act of heroism, a fact that is rarely appreciated in our desire for larger than life, save-the-day leads.  RIVALS IN THE TUDOR COURT explores Thomas’ descent into inhumanity and chronicles the remarkable women who loved him despite himself. 

April 22, 2011: MARY F. BURNS

This week, it is my honor to present the talented Mary F. Burns, who shares my passionate interest in religious history. In her well-received debut, J - THE WOMAN WHO WROTE THE BIBLE, Mary tells the story of King David's eldest daughter, whom she provides with a lyrical voice and a unique perspective on foundational Old Testament events. I read it and found the imagery vivid and the portraits layered.

In Mary's riveting post, below, she describes how she became fascinated with the concept, character, and times of "J," who, according to the critical-analytical (or "documentary") conception of Biblical authorship, wrote the first draft of parts of the Hebrew Bible in the ninth century BC.

“J” – Finding the Illusive Author of The Bible 

by Mary F. Burns

Once I got it into my head I was going to write a book about “The Woman Who Wrote the Bible”, I held off reading The Red Tent, which had been on my list for a long time. I didn’t want to be influenced by the landmark biblical historical that pretty much started a major trend—fiction giving voice to the women in the Bible (I’m talking “Old Testament” here, a.k.a. the Hebrew Bible). These were women whose names and stories were buried under the weight of the more prominent patriarchs, kings, prophets and strong men like David, Moses, Abraham, Solomon and Samson. With the exception of Ruth and Esther, who have their own books, there was literally a crowd of women waiting in the wings to be heard – starting with Eve (and Lilith, Adam’s first wife), and moving on to Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Rachel, Tamar, Miriam, Deborah, Delilah, Bathsheba, Jezebel and Michal, to name just a few, whose fascinating stories have now been told in sensuous, delightful and intelligent detail in the last decade or so.

I had been reading Harold Bloom’s The Book of J, his literary criticism of the parts of Genesis and Exodus that scholars have been able to identify as the work of a single person—the “J” writer, for Jahwist (for the name of God as Jahweh/Yahweh, which that writer used). Bloom decided that “J” writer had been a woman, a member of the court of King Solomon, circa 950 BCE. Bloom’s reasoning and intuition were compelling, particularly as he posited that J’s portrayal of Biblical women and men revealed a playful, irreverent, anti-authoritarian mind—one that would make fun of Yahweh himself, take delight in showing up the foibles and vanities of the men in charge, and present us with the women in the background who were grounded in a compassionate, humane reality. 

It struck me that I could write the story of this fascinating woman who was there at the very beginning of the creation of Ancient Hebrew writing. But how different this story would be from the other “real” women of the Bible—there was no explicit record of J’s existence, unlike the stories of Ruth or Sarah. I began with intensive research into the origins of Hebrew writing, and books about “how the bible was written”, but in my search for J, my main resource was the Bible itself. 

Growing up Catholic in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, we weren’t encouraged to read the Bible much, but my family had a really nice bible with color pictures of Renaissance art works depicting biblical stories that I would look at for hours. As an adult, I labored over Latin and Greek (self-taught) interlinear editions of the New Testament (just for fun!) but had to draw the line at Hebrew. However, I found a great Hebrew/English edition of Genesis and the Book of Kings (I and II) that also had all the commentaries of the rabbis collected over centuries of Jewish studies. It was beyond fascinating to read the numerous—and sometimes wacky—interpretations of the Rabbis, often lengthy and argumentative discourses on a single word or sentence. There was much that was playful about the Rabbis’ commentaries, and it helped ground me in a Jewish sensibility, so to speak, which I would try to give to J as I wrote about her. The Books of Kings and the two books of Samuel the prophet are the primary sources of the story of King David who, in my novel, is J’s father, so that is where I looked for her. I called her Janaia (pronounced Jah-nye-ah), which means Gift of God.

And that’s where the fun really began—following the action-packed, at times horrific life story of David, and imagining his daughter (as his seer and prophet) right there at his side during the battles, the slaughter of other nations, the court intrigues, the immanence of God himself as he spoke to David and wrought mighty and terrible deeds for his chosen people. Sometimes a single sentence in the narrative in Samuel or Kings would be enough to spark an entire episode in Janaia’s journey. I would wonder, as J no doubt did—Is this justice? Is this what God wants us to do?—and it seemed natural and fitting for me to transfer my own reactions to hers, and have her respond to events as I felt them myself. The original, authentic sections of the Bible attributable to J (especially in the translation in Bloom’s book, by poet David Rosenberg) reveal a horror of war and a disdain for politics, a healthy skepticism of some aspects of the Deity but at other times, an awe and appreciation of the Sacred and its mysteries that is heartfelt and thoughtful. As I wrote my novel, I felt I was there with J in those strange and turbulent times, and gladly shared in the intensity of her life as I imagined it.

Author of Claude & Camille

As January magazine recently gushed, "
Stephanie Cowell is building a reputation writing beautiful, cinematic books that bring to life artists from various eras. She seems poised on the cusp of very great things." I couldn't agree more and would add that in addition to being a talented, sensitive, and intelligent writer, Stephanie is a gem of a human being. 

Her most recent novel, Claude & Camille, about the friendships, struggles, and first love of the painter Claude Monet, was released in paperback just a few days ago and has been flying off the shelves. The Boston Globe called 
Claude & Camille

I am honored that Stephanie took the trouble to write such a beautiful post for my blog.  

Creating a novel about the young Claude Monet and his great lost love

by Stephanie Cowell

I suppose it was natural that I write a novel about an artist. My parents were both artists and I grew up being careful not to knock over the easel, or eat any of the fruit my father was painting. I loved the smell of oil paints and linseed oil and the neat marmalade jars full of tall paint brushes and more delicate ones for my mother’s ink drawings. I was taken to museums and to the famous Art Students’ League in New York City where my mother taught and I saw, to my five-year-old astonishment, a perfectly nude woman standing on the model’s platform in front of everyone without any embarrassment whatsoever.

I grew up also with stories of the hardships suffered by the great artists before they were discovered but it was not until after publishing my fourth novel that my editor said, “Why don’t you write about an artist?” Several years before that I had visited an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum called The Origins of Impressionism and there I fell in love with the paintings the young Claude Monet created in his twenties and thirties. I also fell in love with the deep friendship between a group of young painters (Renoir, Pissarro, Bazille, Cézanne) who were struggling to have their work accepted. It was several years before they would band together for their first independent exhibition and would be dubbed Impressionists by an irate critic who thought their paintings were dreadful!

And in reading what is known about Monet in his younger years (through letters mostly between the artists and Monet’s not very accurate memories written nearly forty years later) I first heard of Camille. I was quite amazed to find in my many art books that he painted her so very often, and not only as a subject surrounded by light, but actual portraits of her beautiful face. She was upper middle-class and just nineteen when they met; he had to hide her existence from his father who was supporting him. She became pregnant and when he decided to stand by her, both her parents and his cut them off without a franc. Since he could hardly feed himself, it was a disaster. They lived for years in poverty, thrown from their rooms when they could not pay rent, often with a choice of food or paint. He was desperate and it wore on their love.

But like most of the models for great artists, little remains to tell us much about her. Frustrated, I wrote to the major Monet scholar in this country and asked, “What can you tell me about Camille,” and he wrote back, “Almost nothing.”  I had a handful of facts, a few comments in diaries and letters from friends, and many pictures painted by her devoted but poverty-struck young lover/husband. She only lived until 32 and in her last months he was so frantic trying to put food on the table he perhaps did not give her proper care. When she died, he had to ask a friend to get her necklace out of pawn so he could bury her in it. And then a few years later he moved away to Giverny and her grave was forgotten. Yet many historians believe Camille haunted him all his long life and it was her spirit he sought in the water lilies. He kept her portrait in his bedroom until he died.

Why did she leave no letters or diaries? Historians now believe Claude’s second wife Alice may have destroyed them; if indeed he kept a portrait of Camille in his bedroom, Alice may have had reason to be jealous. I think any papers may have been left behind in the hasty move to Giverny when Claude and Alice were frantically trying to find money to pay the moving men.

So I was intensely interested in filling in the pieces of this tragic love story of a young man who desperately wanted to make a good living and give the young woman he loved everything. That the young man would emerge to be the best loved artist in the world makes it more poignant. “Why didn’t he get a regular job and support his family?” book club members ask me, sometimes indignantly. I think the obsession of painting, only painting, and following his muse, led to his ability to eventually create the impossible images of water, flowers, air and sky which we love so much today. He would be astonished to find a poor reproduction of the passion to which he gave his life on a mouse pad or coffee mug. He would not know what to think if he knew that his painting Impression: Sunrise, which was called by a critic a “bad design for wallpaper,” can be indeed purchased today as wallpaper.

The flower/water lily paintings when seen in the priceless originals have a devastating passion to them. They are a man’s search for reason and perhaps for lost love.

I decided to tell the story of that love and after five years of revisions and my own struggles with history and feeling, it became Claude and Camille: a novel of Monet.

Please visit Stephanie Cowell at her website: http://www.stephaniecowell.com/

April 1, 2011: CHRISTY ENGLISH, Author of 
To Be Queen: A Novel of the Early Life of Eleanor of Aquitaine

Novels about competition between ambitious, intelligent women in the Tudor and Plantagenet courts have proved enormously successful, and for a good reason. These are stories of loss of innocence and female empowerment in a ruthless world, and they illustrate that when it comes to human nature, the more things change, the more they stay the same. With her first novel, THE QUEEN'S PAWN, Christy English established her ability to get inside the hearts and minds of female royalty, to paint vivid scenes of life in a medieval castle, and to bring to life the betrayals, rivalries, and costs of ambition. Her new novel, TO BE QUEEN, will be available on April 5th. Good luck, Christy!

In the fascinating blog post below, Christy discusses the uneasy relationship between Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Church.

Eleanor of Aquitaine and The Church
by Christy English

In Mitchell Kaplan’s brilliant novel, BY FIRE, BY WATER, one of the major world events that we as readers get to watch is the rise of the Inquisition to power in Spain. Eleanor of Aquitaine had her own struggles with the Church throughout her life. Though bishops and popes make powerful allies, they also make intractable enemies. Eleanor was too savvy to make an enemy of a pope, but she did have more than one run in with abbots and bishops.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was Queen of France from 1137-1152, and Queen of England from 1154-1189.  She ruled alongside her husbands, Louis VII of France and Henry II of England during a time when the relationship between the Church and the princes of Europe was in flux. 

Since the time of Charlemagne, the Church wielded a huge influence over the spiritual life of Western Europe, but during Eleanor of Aquitaine’s life, the Church of Rome also began to make serious inroads to political power. The Church did this by increasing their spiritual influence over the kings, princes and dukes who had wielded the power of the sword for centuries. 

The Church took over the blessing of marriages, births and deaths. It also used its power to excommunicate kings and princes who were not politically obedient. In these early days, the power of excommunication was limited. For example, Eleanor’s first husband, Louis VII, though well known for his devotion, was held under Interdict for challenging the Church. The king virtually ignored these strictures, being brought back into line with the Church years later. Louis was not alone; the Papacy of Rome was reaching out through its bishops all over Europe to consolidate and centralize its power.

Eleanor, and many princes and dukes like her, stood against this encroachment of the Church. She encouraged her young husband Louis to stand firm against the political ambitions of the Abbot Suger, though she lost these struggles with the powerful abbot as often as she won. She supported Louis when he defied the Papacy over who got to choose the bishops in France: the king or the Church. For centuries, the King had appointed bishops, but under Louis’ reign the Church began giving the posts of bishops not to political advisors of the king, but to men of their own choosing.

Interior of the Cathedral of St. Denis

Completed by Louis VII’s Mentor and Eleanor’s Rival for Power, Abbot Suger

Eleanor always struggled with Louis’ spiritual father, Abbot Suger, for influence over the king. She was also forced to go to battle with the Church over her sister’s marriage, which was condemned by Rome. Always before, the King had been able to direct his bishops to hand out annulments when and where he pleased, but when Eleanor’s sister Petra wanted to marry an already married man, Rome stood firm against it. It took many years and no doubt many bribes to bring Rome around to Eleanor’s way of thinking, to persuade the Papacy to support her sister’s marriage to Raoul de Vermandois.

Eleanor went to open war against the Church to secure her own annulment from Louis VII, but it was only when her husband finally asked for their marriage to be dissolved that Eleanor got her wish. Freedom from her fifteen year marriage to the King of France was a long sought after goal, but the power of the Church had become so centralized that Eleanor and Louis had to send bribes and envoys to Rome to see it done.

Under her second husband’s influence, Eleanor began to learn that more might be obtained from the Church with honey than with vinegar. Instead of openly challenging the Church at every turn as she often had done while married to Louis VII, Eleanor began to build monasteries, nunneries, and to endow abbeys. These places depended not on Rome but on her donations for survival, and their growing influence in turn increased her own. She made a sort of truce with the Church as her life went on, retiring to Fontevrault Abbey, dying there in 1204.

Eleanor stood on a slippery slope when fighting the power and influence of the Church. The world was changing. With one Crusade after another launched against the Holy Land, the Popes of Rome grew in influence over the sword-wielding kings of Western Europe. It was a long road to the establishment of the Inquisition, and Eleanor’s lifelong struggle with the power of the Church was only one step along that road.

Mitchell, thank you so much for hosting me today. TO BE QUEEN: A NOVEL OF THE EARLY LIFE OF ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE is available for pre-order and will be in bookstores on April 5. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0451232305?ie=UTF8&tag=christyenglish-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0451232305

For those who want to know more about Eleanor’s adventures, please find me on my  blog at http://www.ChristyEnglish.com , on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/ChristyEnglish and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/To-Be-Queen-A-Novel-of-the-Early-Life-of-Eleanor-of-Aquitaine/165450560169811

March 25, 2011: KATE LEDGER

Kate Ledger’s fascinating novel, REMEDIES, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and raves from Kirkus, Minneapolis StarTribune, Baltimore magazine, The National Post (of Canada), among others. It was selected as a Self magazine book pick, an Ingram Premier Pick, and was chosen as the community read of the Twin Cities Jewish Book Fair. It’s now out in paperback. You can read more about the book at her website: www.kateledger.com

I found Kate's post, below, beautiful and convincing.

Experience and Writing

by Kate Ledger

At the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, I teach a creative writing course for adults that I entitled “Turn What You Know into a Novel.” The premise of the course is not the traditional dictum to “write what you know,” but instead, to approach the spinning of a tale from the great store of knowledge—facts, skills, and even philosophies--you’ve amassed during your life. 

So I tell the class, usually staring at me shyly and with some skepticism, if you’re an experienced gardener, the kind who can identify all kinds of plants by their leaves, describe gradations of dampness in the soil and articulate the difference between helpful bugs and harmful bugs, you can bring that treasure trove of familiarity, expertise—and yes, confidence!—to the writing of a novel. You don’t have to write about bugs or soil (though your own knowledge base will undoubtedly make a novel richer), but you already know the depths of detail to bring a setting to life. Your own experience hanging out at the water-cooler gives you intuition, if not authority, about storytelling. You know each story has a beginning, a middle, and an end; there’s rising action and tension; the events culminate in a satisfying, meaningful pay-off for the listener. 

Over the course of the semester, we do all kinds of writing exercises to figure out what we know, and to apply those skills to the crafting of a novel. And I’ve seen very shy students—the kind who, at first, not only avert my gaze but look like they’re trying to read the print on the light fixtures because they’re afraid I might call on them--come out of their shells and begin to read their exercises, and then their fiction, aloud. I imagine the course like a kind of mental Pilates, where you identify your core abdominal muscles, and you work from there. 

What I don’t tell them is that the core muscles are sometimes all you’ve got when you’re writing a novel. You start from a place on the map of your own experience, and then you begin to wander into territory that you didn’t anticipate. You learn along the way. You reach into your life experience, and beyond it. And some of what appears on the page will be knowledge you didn’t realize was important to you, but is, nevertheless. It’s a long, winding road, and—even with the most detailed outline in hand—it’s hard to predict what will happen. 

This was my experience writing my novel REMEDIES. The idea for the novel grew out of the medical magazine writing I do for a living. I felt comfortable writing about a doctor, and I already had plenty of information. And as I thought from this core place of knowledge, I knew I was captivated by certain types: those who made discoveries, some of which even contradicted current medical thinking. I’d met a surgeon who’d perfected an operation that had once been abandoned because it was considered too risky for patients. Another doctor I’d interviewed was treating a nerve in the knee that doesn’t even exist in the anatomy books. Astounding! I set out to write about a fictional hero who discovers—or believes he’s discovered--a treatment that society desperately needs. 

I began writing about a doctor who discovers a miraculous treatment for pain. I decided he’d be hell bent on making his discovery a reality. But in the course of writing, I began asking myself, Why? Why would this doctor be so invested in his patients’ pain? It seemed his desire to help others might come from an inability to address emotional pain in his own life. I’d gotten married during this period of writing, and I’d also become a mother, and I began to draw from new sensibilities I’d attained about the world: I wasn’t writing about a doctor’s professional experience, but in fact, about the complexity of his entire world, his deeply troubled marriage and complicated role as a father. And I wasn’t only writing about him, either. I was writing about an entire household navigating the effects of a tragedy in the past.

REMEDIES evolved into a story about a doctor named Simon Bear who’s respected and even beloved by his patients. He’s a guy with abundant energy and effusive ideas about improving medicine and making sure his patients’ needs are met. His wife Emily is a successful public relations executive, with a track record fixing the reputations of companies and CEOs after crises. But their relationship has undergone the worst of all possible strains. Fifteen years ago they lost their first child, and they’ve never allowed themselves to grieve. 

Simon privately believes he should have seen signs of the baby’s illness. Emily has resisted blaming him, forcing the family to move on from the tragedy. They’ve become parents to a second child, a girl named Jamie who’s now thirteen year old, who’s now revealing an undercurrent of problems all her own. Everything changes the summer Simon comes to believe he’s discovered what may be a cure for pain. He becomes obsessed with giving the treatment to his most desperate patients, never realizing the effects on his family and never noticing that his wife is drifting from the marriage. Emily, meanwhile, encounters a man from her past, and his presence makes her realize that, for all these years, she’s been walled off from feeling anything at all. 

I didn’t anticipate that religion or religious experience would have anything to do with the recovery for the family in REMEDIES. I’m Jewish and attended Jewish schools throughout my childhood, though my family today is not very observant. But my Jewish identity was there in the trove of experience as I imagined this family’s route to recovery. It was there among my core muscles—and I drew from that knowledge base, too, as I wrote. Though it started with ruminations about a doctor, REMEDIES became a story not just about his miracle cure, but about managing life’s chaos, how we sometimes hinder our healing from tragedy and inadvertently hurt ourselves and each other. Ultimately, it’s about how we discover answers that make sense, and how those truths we hold inside can point the way toward recovery.

As I teach, I tell my students to imagine themselves as adventurers and be open to the journey as they write their novels. Write an outline, but expect the outline to change. And be open to where the story leads you, I tell them, which is often right back to what you know. 

March 18, 2011: SUZY WITTEN

Suzy Witten‘s career spans twenty years in the entertainment industry: as a filmmaker, screenwriter, story analyst, and editor for film and television. A graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, she was nominated for a “Lillian Gish” filmmaking award by Women In Film for her theatrical drama about Hollywood’s teenage runaways, “Runaway Eden.” She was also a Walt Disney Studios Fellowship Finalist for her period story of Salem. In addition to writing novels, she works as a Public Affairs Specialist, writer and researcher during disasters for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). The Afflicted Girls, her debut novel (which Suzy describes as Adult Historical Fiction, for ages 17 and older) won the 2010 IPPY Silver Medal for Historical Fiction (Independent Publisher Book Awards). Suzy hopes to develop this story into a mini-series for television. Presently, she is working on a second novel to be published in 2011. She resides in Los Angeles.

Thank you so much, Suzy, for contributing the post below, a powerful introduction to your compelling, award-winning novel.

The Collective Ghosts of Salem

by Suzy Witten
I have written one book: THE AFFLICTED GIRLS A Novel of Salem, published at the end of 2009, but a process begun in 1993 when I first picked the 1692 Salem witch hunt as the subject for a screenplay.

My research in those hard-to-imagine pre-internet days consisted of reading every book on Salem available in the Los Angeles Public Library; although some were too old and decrepit to be forwarded to my branch. I also searched through two university reference libraries. Of course, there were a handful of books I was able to take home for study. 

Sometime while taking notes, I got bitten by the ghostly bug still haunting Salem that hunts for blood and an audience. And sometimes I had to implore the books I was skimming to help me weed out dramatic irrelevancies. In the end I had collected more than a thousand disparate but novel facts, most of which were later incorporated into my novel. 126 single-spaced typewritten pages, indexed by character, subject, and strangeness, each item prompting its own unique scrutinization and speculation, because of my having learned at film school that motivation is key to a well-constructed dramatic story. 

I asked: Why would an indentured nineteen-year-old girl in Salem Village accuse a minister of witchcraft, a man she hasn’t seen for years but once dwelt with in childhood after being orphaned on the Maine frontier? And what was the relationship between that minister and her Salem master? And why would the wife of her master simultaneously accuse an elderly neighbor of murdering her newborns? And not just one infant, but several? 

Hmmm. Only when I applied modern lenses did it all begin to make sense. And yet one puzzle remained elusive... until I coincidentally read an article in my local newspaper which hinted at the logical answer. A bit more research, and the mystery of “the afflictions” that sparked a 300-year-old witch hunt was solved. 

As my understanding of Salem evolved, and that mysterious gestalt came into focus, I began building gossamer bridges. Using my modest intellect and a well-developed intuition (from meditation), I let my left-brain analytical mind align with my rightside inner-listening, sensing, and seeing; a mindful collaboration, that must be known to most historical novelists, as well as to detectives and scientists, who also pursue Aha! moments. 

Angling (and realing) each of my characters through every applicable lens: psychology and depression—post-partum, post-traumatic—infanticide, rape, middle-aged impotence, child-spousal-elder abuse, alcoholism, class warfare, teenage angst, drug-taking, eco-warfare, sexual experimentation, superstition, five deadly sins, and spiritual belief—I sought possibilities and probabilites beyond historical records. Wherever a characteristic shoe fit, I let a character wear it.

Historical scholarship has begun to address these omissions. But back when I was writing my screenplay, it was absent. Only after publishing my novel did I learn how there were thousands of 17th century New Englanders charged with lewd speech, fornication, adultery, bigamy, rape, child molestation, incest, sodomy, bestiality, and infanticide. A 1693 sermon by Cotton Mather: “A Holy Rebuke to the Unclean Spirit,” marks the execution of two women “for murdering of their bastard children.

Because contrary to popular belief, Puritans appear not to have repressed their sexual instincts at all. There were wild, mixed-sex parties at Harvard Divinity School in the late 17th century, as well as roving bands of local youth sneaking out after midnight seeking drunken revels. A result, perhaps, of their fathers and ministers couching sermons and stern warnings in erotic terms?

“If they offer to ravish our hears, we must cry out as the seized virgin, and call in help from heaven, to rescue us from the rape they offer us,” one preached. While Cotton Mather pledged: “to lead a life of heavenly ejacuations,” and his minister father Increase Mather taught: “Those not yet changed by regenerating grace of the spirit of God usually live in some unclean lust or another. Either fornication, or self-pollution (masturbation), or other wanton pranks of darkness.” 

In Sunday sermons, Puritan ministers repeatedly warned their male parishioners against using their “members as weapons of unrighteousness.” For, as Rev. John Rogers pointed out: “Every child of Adam is a lump of uncleanness.”

And these same men, hyperventilating about sex, were the ones who manipulated and dominated the judicial system; punishing perpetrators and victims equally, believing that a female who was forced to have sex, “who had no delight in the act,” could not possibly conceive... because she had to have an orgasm for conception to occur. Should she get pregnant, there soon came a trial, conviction, a painful corporeal punishment, and branding as a harlot. 

It’s why most teenage girls, when indentured to other households by their parents, felt powerless to resist abuse, and remained utterly vulnerable to the advances of older masters, masters’ sons, and neighbors. 

The historical records of Essex County, where my story is set, state that between the years 1645 and 1685 over 100 women and girls were convicted of bearing illegimate children. How about the rest? I would guess far too many miscarriages, abortions, and births resulting from rape have passed through time unreported. Of these, I suspect, some were suffered in the shadows of the witch hunt.

Historical characters all once lived flesh and blood lives in societies as messy and complex as ours. Mercy Lewis, Abigail Williams, Bridget Bishop, the Putnams and Porters, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Reverend Parris, Tituba and John Indian, Cotton Mather were each very much alive in 1692. Yet, for the last 300 years—as factoids—they’ve been mere wisps standing  in guard of the vaguest personal histories.

Perhaps, by becoming characters in a historical novel, they’ll be able to bear witness to an intuitive rearrangement of fact, and their collective ghosts—with nothing shameful enough to hide from a modern world, or an interested fiction reader—can reach out from that infamous story’s otherside to offer us plausible new conclusions. 

THE AFFLICTED GIRLS by Suzy Witten (ISBN: 978-0-615-32313-8) can be ordered from bookstores & online sellers worldwide.   www.theafflictedgirls.com

March 4, 2011: MARY SHARRATT

I am grateful to host the celebrated historical novelist Mary Sharratt. The author of the acclaimed Daughters Of The Witching Hill is an American  who has lived in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England for the past seven years. Winner of numerous literary awards, Mary has previously written  the critically acclaimed novels Summit Avenue (Coffee House 2000), The Real Minerva (Houghton Mifflin 2004), and The Vanishing Point (Houghton Mifflin 2006). 

I was personally captivated by the post she submitted for this blog, below, in which she tells the intriguing story of how she discovered, researched, and wrote her most recent book.

How I Became a Daughter of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

In midwinter 2002, I moved from the Bay Area in California to Lancashire, England. I’ve traveled around the world and lived in many different places, from Germany to Belgium. But what ensued from this relocation was the biggest culture and climate shock of my life. In Northern England, the winters are so dark and oppressive—I felt as though I were trapped inside some claustrophobic gothic novel. My husband and I moved to an old industrial town, our newly built house on the site of a demolished factory. Surrounding all this post-industrial bleakness was a landscape straight out of a fairy tale. In spring the hedges were lacy with hawthorn. Ewes birthed their lambs in the meadow behind our house.

Our house looks out on Pendle Hill, famous throughout the world as the place where George Fox received his vision that moved him to found the Quaker religion in 1652. But Pendle is also steeped in its legends of the Lancashire Witches.
In 1612, nine people from Pendle Forest were executed for witchcraft. The most notorious of the accused, Bess Southerns, aka Mother Demdike, cheated the hangman by dying in prison. This is how Thomas Potts describes her in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster:

She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had
been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast
place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man
knowes. . . . no man escaped her, or her Furies.

Once I read this, I fell in love. Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was astounded how her strength of character blazed forth in the document written to vilify her. She freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman, and she instructed her daughter and granddaughter in the ways of magic. Her neighbors called on her to cure their children and their cattle. What fascinated me was not that Bess was arrested on witchcraft charges but that the authorities turned on her only near the end of her long, productive career. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her.

Bess’s life unfolded almost literally in my backyard. Using the Ordinance Survey Map, I located the site of Malkin Tower, once her home. Now only the foundations remain. I board my beautiful Welsh mare at a stable near Read Hall, once home to Roger Nowell, the magistrate responsible for sending Bess and the other Pendle Witches to their deaths. Every weekend, I walked or rode my mare down the tracks of Pendle Forest. Quietening myself, I learned to listen, to allow Bess’s voice to well up from the land. Her passion, her tale enveloped me. 

I’m often asked if it was a depressing experience, writing about Bess and her family when I knew very well how their tale ended—on the gallows of Lancaster Castle. Although it was harrowing to write of the injustice they suffered, it was my duty as a novelist to serve their memory and bear witness. And not just that—to me, their story is transcendent rather than purely tragic, and I do hope that comes across in the novel. Death was not the end of these women. The original title of the book was A Light Far-Shining and I believe that theirs was an inner radiance and power that death could not extinguish. 

History is a fluid thing that continually shapes the present. As a writer, I am obsessed with how the true stories of our ancestors haunt the land. Long after her demise, Bess and her fellow witches of Pendle Forest endure. This is their home, their seat of power, and they shall never be banished. By delving into Bess’s story, I have become an adopted daughter of her living landscape, one of many tellers who spin her unending tale.   

Mary Sharratt’s acclaimed novel DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL is now out in Mariner paperback. To learn more about historical witches and cunning folk, visit her website: http://marysharratt.com/ . She is currently at work on a new novel revealing the dramatic life of 12th visionary abbess and composer, Hildegard von Bingen, which will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2012. 

Link to buy the book: http://www.amazon.com/Daughters-Witching-Hill-Mary-Sharratt/dp/0547422296/wwwmarysharra-20/

Video trailer/Docudrama: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KT-In065-gA

February 25, 2011: C.W. GORTNER

I am honored to host the talented and acclaimed historical novelist, C.W. Gortner, author of The Last QueenThe Confessions of Catherine de Medici, and most recently the Elizabethan spy novel, The Tudor Secret. 

Mr. Gortner's work has been translated into thirteen languages and has received international accolades. An expert on the renaissance, the half-Spanish Mr. Gortner resides in Northern California. 

In the essay below, Mr. Gortner discusses mankind's perpetual fascination with spies and Queen Elizabeth's reliance on one spy in particular.

Birth of a Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and Tudor Espionage 

C.W. Gortner

Spies have intrigued us ever since we started telling stories. I imagine that even cavemen told tales of those who infiltrated rival tribes to ferret out secrets and report back on potentially damaging plans. The clandestine act of obtaining information for a cause, while risking one’s life, carries with it an undeniable glamour and adrenaline rush that many of us find irresistible.

The Chinese and the Mongols used spies; feudal Japan relied on ninjas to gather valuable information. In Elizabethan England, Francis Walsingham is credited with giving rise to the modern notion of intelligence gathering, creating a vast organization dedicated to protecting the queen. Walsingham’s targets were Catholic agitators, such as Jesuit priests, assassins and other recusants who might subvert or otherwise damage the established order. Whether or not it was right to hunt down those who opposed a particular religious view was beside the point. So iconic has Elizabeth become in our eyes, so gloriously do we view her realm, in comparison to the brutal suppressions of Spain, that protecting her seems like the right, indeed, the only, thing to do. While Elizabeth herself was known to dislike Walsingham’s methodology— which included torture— dubbing him her "Moor" because of his complexion or preference for dark clothes or perhaps his infamously somber personality, she contended with his brusque manner. She understood that he was the right man for a nasty job, unparalleled in his competence and fervor, his penetrating insight into foreign affairs, and his devotion to her safety. To him, she was England—the heart and soul of the Protestant movement. She faced a formidable foe in the Catholic king of Spain and legions of dedicated counter-reformation fanatics whom Philip unleashed. Papal dispensation guaranteed passage to Heaven to whoever managed to murder the queen of England. Walsingham was determined that no Catholic on his watch would ever win that prize.

Since time began, there have been men willing to die for a cause; we only need to look at our world today to see that. Some also put themselves at the service of a charismatic leader; and Elizabeth was indeed that. She promised tolerance in an intolerant age; she wanted peace and prosperity for her subjects, above all else. While the latter days of her reign were plagued by upheavals and a savage persecution, she had been literally yanked into that stance by the advent of the Armada and the very real threat of another on the horizon. Walsingham drew upon Elizabeth’s charisma and the threat posed by the Counter Reformation to conscript men of both noble and ordinary birth, who decided they had to do something to safeguard their way of life.

In The Tudor Secret, we meet Francis Walsingham before he becomes Elizabeth’s trusted spymaster. Here, he is still a hireling of the princess’s secret protector, William Cecil, but he’s already converted to the reformed faith upheld by Elizabeth and her brother, King Edward. Dark and enigmatic, Walsingham abducts Brendan Prescott, the book’s lead character, who as a squire to the Dudley family, is drawn into Cecil’s burgeoning spy network in order to uncover a conspiracy against the princess. Walsingham trails Brendan; lurking in shadows, he is a panther with a knife, disapproving of the callow youth whom Cecil has seen fit to hire. Is he friend or foe? Will he help or hinder Brendan’s mission?

It is the beginning of the grand era of Tudor espionage and of Brendan’s, and his rival Walsingham’s, service to an embattled future queen.

Thank you so much for spending this time with me. To learn more about me and my books, as well as access special features, please visit me at: http://www.cwgortner.com. Happy reading!