Monday, October 26, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Lars D. H. Hedbor, author of the Tales From a Revolution series

War Era Historical

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Tales From a Revolution

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Lars. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about the Tales From a Revolution series.
Thank you so much for having me!  Each of the standalone novels in the Tales From a Revolution series is set in a different colony or future state, and tells the story of events that took place there.  There are many great books out there that tell the story of the Revolution as it was experienced by the names we all know – Washington, Jefferson, and now, Hamilton – but very few that focus on the experiences of ordinary people like you and I.  

Those folks may not have made it into the pages of our history books, but they were impacted by the extraordinary events of the time, and – more importantly – helped shape those events.  I’ve made it my mission to tell their stories.

As someone who is never likely to make an appearance in a history book, I love this idea. 

Where did the idea for these stories originate?  
When it came time to look at events in Virginia, I quickly realized that there was a wealth of material to draw from around the famous Battle of Yorktown – the final major military action of the American War of Independence – and that relatively little fiction had been written about the experience of that siege and battle. 

Around the same time that I was mulling this, I visited the wonderful Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia for the first time.  Though I am a founding member of that institution, living on the opposite side of the country complicated the process of getting there in person.  There, I found a wonderful exhibit on the siege at Yorktown, and it really fired up my imagination, giving me the impetus to tell that story from the inside, as it were.

I was also aware of how tragically often combatants during the Revolutionary War were grievously wounded, and had read accounts of the treatment of those wounds, but again, relatively little fiction that dealt with the recovery process for those who were maimed in battle.  I decided that having a wounded soldier return home to his quiet port town in Virginia was a marvelous way to place a witness to the history that was about to unfold in that little town, and from there, the story in The Siege unfolded pretty naturally.

What historical resources helped you bring Revolution-era America to life on the page?
I’ve been very fortunate in the opportunities I’ve had – from cooking on Ethan Allen’s own hearth, to walking through the cells in Edinburgh where captured Americans were imprisoned, I’ve gotten to personally build a sense of what the lives of the people of that time were like.  

My most important resources, though, have been the ones that are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.  Primary and close secondary sources abound in digital formats online.  For The Siege, I had journals and letters, as well as newspaper accounts and standard histories to draw upon.  I particularly like to read about events as set down by those who experienced them, as even the driest first-person account will inevitably have some nugget of emotion or a glimpse into the thoughts of the writer.

Which character in the Tales From a Revolution series do you feel you have the most in common with?  
That’s a really great question.  Many of the protagonists have elements of my own experiences in them – the attic in The Declaration is almost an exact account of the garage attic at my childhood home, for example – but most of my characters have reserves of strength that I had never yet had to draw upon in my own life.  As strange and difficult as our present time is, theirs was even more challenging in many ways.

Caleb Clark, the protagonist in The Prize, is probably the closest to my own experience, though.  Like me, he grew up on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont – and like me, he finds himself drawn into a relationship with a strong-willed and brilliant redhead.  True story: I wrote The Prize before my wife found me, and when we got married, I went back and consulted the advice that Caleb’s father gave him about how to make a happy marriage.  I guess it’s pretty good advice, as we’re eight years in, and more in love than ever.

Which character do you feel you have the least in common which? 
That’s an easier question to answer, as I’ve written a few pretty memorable bad guys into my books.  Roger Black in The Break turns into a madman before the end, which I hope is nothing like myself, and Rufus Porter in The Light is a pretty unsavory character, as well.  Jeremiah Harris, in The Declaration, is notable for his callous attitude toward the human beings he owns, and for those whose fate he controls.

Franklin Greene, from The Freedman, though, is probably the most coldly malicious character I’ve penned.  Another slaveholder, he casually splits up a family he comes to own in the opening pages of the book, and takes part in organized violence both as a Loyalist and as a white supremacist, long before the term was even in use.  Writing him convincingly so that the reader could both see how he was doing what he believed to be right, and that his belief system was anathema to the idea of liberty was a challenge, and I remain unsatisfied with his escape from accountability for his actions.

Did any scene in the Tales From a Revolution series challenge you as a writer? 
In writing The Tree, which centers around a very detailed account of an early rebellion against Crown authority, I was constrained by the historical record into writing a scene of a brutal attack against not only the representatives of the Royal Governor of New-Hampshire, but even their horses.

I managed to keep most of the actual violence “off-screen,” but the results of that violence needed to be addressed, and I definitely needed to take a brisk walk to get that scene out of my head when I was finished writing it.

There was also a scene in The Freedman which held echoes of the sorts of brutality we see against too many African-Americans in the present day, and as difficult as it was to write about it, I felt that it was deeply important to bear witness to the fact that racially-motivated brutality is not a recent development in American culture, but one that we have an immense amount of difficult work to do in order to overcome.

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing the Tales From a Revolution series?
Because I’ve set for myself the relatively narrow focus of writing about the American Revolution, there are tons of earlier and subsequent events that I would love to explore in greater depth.  The early Republic is, in some ways, even more critical to our national character than is the Revolution itself.  

Similarly, there are historical figures whose lives have been little examined in fiction, and I want so much to know more about them, and to share what I know already.  Doctor Joseph Warren’s life and heroic death at Bunker Hill deserve a rich investigation.  On the other side of the conflict, the same is true of Major John André, hanged for his role in turning Benedict Arnold to treason.  

I've seen a few romanticized takes on Major John Andre, Peggy Shippen, and Benedict Arnold out there, but nothing on Joseph Warren. He seems to be one of the forgotten founders and I have to agree, his life is definitely novel worthy. 

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play three or four of your lead characters in a big-screen adaptation of the Tales From a Revolution series, who would you cast?
Oh, goodness, what a question.  The story in The Wind – of how the Spanish saved the American Revolution – is the one that I think lends itself most naturally to a film adaptation.  The underlying true events are almost beyond belief, and the real-life characters involved were huge personalities.

As for who should play my leading characters, Moises Arias might be a solid choice for Gabriel, although someone like Diego Tinoco might also be good in the role, which would require both grit and humor.  Someone like María Gabriela de Faría or Camila Mendes could bring Carlotta to life, with her inner strength of character.  I could see Mandy Patinkin having the necessary gravitas to play the small but crucial role of Salvador Dominguez.

Of course, if The Wind were ever to get a big-screen treatment, the artistic decisions of a casting director would be out of my hands, along with nearly every other aspect of the production.  My sense is that having a film made from our work is both the fondest wish and the worst nightmare for any author.  My experience in handing over most creative decisions to the narrators of my audiobooks, though, gives me some confidence that I could embrace a respectful film treatment of my stories with at least some degree of grace… and console myself with the greater reach such an event would grant to all of my work.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of the Tales From a Revolution series?
Two things: first of all, the story of the American Revolution is not solely the legacy of those of us who can trace our ancestry back to immigrants from Great Britain.  It was fought and won by people of nearly every race, creed, or national origin.  The Revolution is all of our stories, and, as the final exhibit at the Museum of the American Revolution points out, the work of the Revolution – bringing liberty and justice to every American – continues to this day.

More importantly, history is made not solely by the great figures astride their white horses, heroically directing great forces as they gallop across the pages of our schoolbooks.  It is just as much made by the quietly heroic actions of people like you and I, doing what we believe to be right.  It was true during the Revolution, and it is true today.

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?  
I still have a second dozen or so stories to write about the American Revolution.  In addition to continuing to work through the original thirteen colonies we’re all familiar with, I’ve already written Vermont (which was an independent Republic during the Revolutionary era), West-Florida, Nova-Scotia, and Maine.  There are great stories of the Revolution to be told across North American and the Caribbean, and even as far afield as modern-day India.  So, although I am twelve books into the Tales From a Revolution, I still have a lot more left to write there.

After that?  I suspect that there will be more historical fiction, likely in different settings.  The Silk Road has long fascinated me, as have the prehistoric civilizations of Scandinavia, both of which are rich veins to mine.  Or perhaps I’ll feel compelled to double back and write more about incidents in the Revolution in places that I’d already visited in prior books, or to revisit characters whose fates after their first appearances in my pages are just too interesting to leave unexplored.

The vistas are broad, and the open road beckons.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

#BookReview: The Boy King by Janet Ambrosi Wertman

Biographic Fiction

The Seymour Saga #3

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The Unsuspecting Reign of Edward Tudor

Motherless since birth and newly bereft of his father, King Henry VIII, nine-year-old Edward Tudor ascends to the throne of England and quickly learns that he cannot trust anyone, even himself.

Edward is at first relieved that his uncle, the new Duke of Somerset, will act on his behalf as Lord Protector, but this consolation evaporates as jealousy spreads through the court. Challengers arise on all sides to wrest control of the child king, and through him, England.

While Edward can bring frustratingly little direction to the Council’s policies, he refuses to abandon his one firm conviction: that Catholicism has no place in England. When Edward falls ill, this steadfast belief threatens England’s best hope for a smooth succession: the transfer of the throne to Edward’s very Catholic half-sister, Mary Tudor, whose heart’s desire is to return the realm to the way it worshipped in her mother’s day.

Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.

Henry VIII's quest for a legitimate male heir is immortalized in the well-known rhyme, but what of the child that drove his desperation? Though he can occasionally be found in a supporting role and is often mentioned in Tudor novels, Edward VI's most significant fictional moment was arguably shared with Tom Canty in Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. That is, until now. 

Collectively, Janet Wertman's Seymour Saga chronicles the political ebb and flow of the noble family from which it takes its name, but I think the trilogy's framing is what makes it worthy of note. By centering each installment of the series around mother, father, and son, Wertman draws attention to a recognizable family unit and, in so doing, manufactures a sense of domestic intimacy in a royal house characterized by inconstant affection and competing interest. As a reader, I fell hard for this idea and freely admit feeling Wertman's approach to the material delivers a particularly poignant punch in the series finale, The Boy King. 

Unlike his parents, Edward is a child when he comes to his throne. The vipers of his court are quick to prey on his inexperience, and Edward is not always capable of recognizing the dangers. His tendency to turn inward, however, to draw guidance from the legacies of his parents, poetically anchors the larger arc of the series while illustrating a fundamental desire for parental love and approval. The end result is relatable and sympathetic, but it also emphasizes the tragic realities of Edward's short life, the pressures he faced, the potential he wished to realize, the reasoning behind his missteps, and the isolation he experienced at the very pinnacle of power. 

Mary Tudor serves as a second narrator in The Boy King, and I would be remiss in neglecting my admiration for the agency Wertman gifted her character. Mary's legacy is drenched in blood, and where most authors allow history to drive their characterization of Mary, Wertman challenges readers to understand Mary as a woman brought to odds by a conflict of sisterly compassion and fierce religious conviction. The Boy King is Edward's story, but it lays the groundwork for Mary's reign and pays homage to the strengths and weaknesses her historic counterpart exhibited on taking the throne after Edward's death. 

The dramatic rivalry between Edward Seymour and John Dudley makes intense reading, but I loved how it played to the influence each exerted in Edward's court. Though regulated to supporting roles, I also appreciated what Elizabeth and Cheke brought the story. Wertman's focus is clearly on Edward, but the author's nuanced understanding of the period creates a diverse and layered social landscape that is unmatched by most, if not all, of her peers. 

Highly recommended both as a standalone and series read. 

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Author
Read: July 25, 2020

Monday, August 24, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Maggie Humm, author of Talland House

Historical Retelling 
War Era Historical

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader, Maggie. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about TALLAND HOUSE.
Thank you so much for inviting me. 

Set between 1900 and 1919 in picturesque Cornwall and war-blasted London, Talland House takes Lily Briscoe from the pages of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and tells her story, as a prequel and in the interstices of Woolf’s novel, interwoven with fictional versions of Woolf’s life, friends, and family. Lily lives through one of the most momentous periods in UK history, falling in love with her artist tutor, becoming an independent woman artist, a suffragette, and a nurse in WW1. Mourning her dead mother, Lily loves her surrogate mother Mrs. Ramsay while painting her portrait. Later, finding out that Mrs. Ramsay dies suddenly and unexpectedly, Lily must solve the mystery of the death, and decide if love or art is more significant in her life. Talland House combines a detective story with romance and history with echoes of the present moment and solves a literary mystery which has puzzled twentieth-century readers.

What about Lily appealed to you as a writer? Why did you feel her story worth expanding?
I chose Lily because she is almost certainly present in many scenes To the Lighthouse but not actually described as being so by Woolf. For example, I asked myself ‘where is Lily’ in the opening scene in which Mrs. Ramsay watches James cutting out pictures from the Army and Navy catalog (Lily could be en plein air painting Mrs. Ramsay indoors using a window as a frame while being unable to hear what Mr. Ramsay is saying) and then in subsequent scenes. My aim was to create a character rather like Tom Stoppard’s Rozencrantz or Guildenstern who deserved a novel of their own. Also, she is the one character in Woolf’s novel who would most want to know how Mrs. Ramsay died. In a larger sense, Lily realizes that she needs to put her own dead mother’s presence, as well as Mrs. Ramsay’s, behind her, to become an independent woman artist and that requires finding out how Mrs. Ramsay died.

Lily is an independent woman at a fascinating historical moment – in many ways a new woman whose life needed telling.

Were you intimidated writing in Woolf’s shadow?  
Yes – terrified! In my first draft, I situated the reader inside each character’s consciousness as does Woolf. Luckily, on my Diploma in Creative Writing course the wonderful tutor Gillian Slovo, the novelist, and dramatist, told me to stop being a second-hand Woolf and focus on Lily. I am still very worried what Woolf scholars will think of my interpretation but hopefully, since Talland House stands alone as a mystery and romance novel in its own right, they will be intrigued.

What can you tell us about the friendship Lily shares with Mrs. Ramsay?  
In my novel Lily admires Mrs. Ramsay from the moment she first sees her (looking exactly like Woolf’s own mother Julia Stephen) when Mrs. Ramsay buys Lily’s painting at the Studio Day. Mrs. Ramsay becomes Lily’s surrogate mother and they share an empathetic understanding. And Lily is very defensive of Mrs. Ramsay especially when her sometimes violent and always abrasive husband Mr. Ramsay appears.

Do you have a favorite scene in TALLAND HOUSE? 
Too many! Some are moving like the scene where Lily first meets her tutor Louis Grier and falls instantly in love. Other scenes are very intriguing – particularly the opening when Lily meets Louis after several years and hears about the suspicious circumstances of Mrs. Ramsay’s death.

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing TALLAND HOUSE?
Talland House is just a little longer than Woolf’s original - approximately 93,000 words. My first manuscript was 125,000! Lily’s first friend in St Ives, as a student, is Emily Carr the Canadian painter, who did visit St Ives but later than is possible in Talland House. I would have loved to spend more time with Emily. Mrs. Ramsay introduces Lily to Eliza Stillman who then becomes her best friend. Eliza, or ‘Lisa’ Stillman, was an actual friend of Woolf’s. Marie Spartali, Lisa’s stepmother, also in my novel, was a Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunner’ and painter although my description of Eliza and Marie Spartali’s house is taken from an art journal’s description of Holman Hunt’s house (who was also a friend of the Stephen family). Marie is such a striking figure she threatened to take over my novel and had to be reined in.

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of TALLAND HOUSE, who would you cast?
My dream is that Emma Thompson or Eileen Atkins would play Mrs. Ramsay and Emma Watson play Lily. Louis Grier is so dashing, witty, and handsome it would have to be Rufus Sewell for the older Louis and for the younger Eddy Redmayne

I love everything about these casting choices.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of TALLAND HOUSE?
That female friendships matter. As I say about Lily ‘She felt supported by her friendships, sometimes thinking friendship as good as marriage, perhaps even better. She and Eliza were two women who saw each other daily, and were together not from a physical attraction but by a shared love of painting, their agreement to continue in a life devoted to art as best they could without complaints, encouraging each other whenever possible, and for as long as they might need to’. And that being an independent woman can be fun!

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings? 
I continue to write papers about Bloomsbury – two chapters out this year. My next novel is about another artist – Gwen John - and her tumultuous affair with the sculptor Auguste Rodin. The style is somewhat different – written in the present tense, and the content differs too – there is a great deal of sex in Rodin’s Mistress!

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Finola Austin, author of Bronte's Mistress

Biographic Fiction

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader, Finola. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about BRONTE’S MISTRESS.
Thank you so much for having me! Bronte’s Mistress is my debut novel. It’s historical fiction based on the true story of Lydia Robinson, the older woman rumored to have had an affair with Branwell Bronte—the only Bronte brother, who was sibling to famous writerly sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. History has very much painted Lydia as the villain, accusing her of corrupting her son’s innocent tutor and leading to the demise of the entire Bronte family. Now, for the first time, I tell her side of the story.

Branwell is not the most well-known Bronte sibling. What about him appealed to you as a writer? 
I have always been interested in the tragedy of Branwell’s life. As the sole boy, a lot was expected of him, but, although he had aspirations to be a novelist, poet, and painter, Branwell never achieved the greatness his family had predicted, while his sisters are still celebrated today. More than Branwell though, it was Lydia herself who fascinated me. Bronte heroines, especially Charlotte’s, are often poor, plain, young and virginal. Lydia Robinson was wealthy, beautiful, older, and sexually experienced (she had given birth to five children). But she was still a woman trapped by the confines of nineteenth-century society. I believed hers was a story worth telling.

At forty-three, Lydia Robinson is older than most historical heroines. Do you feel it important to write stories about older women?   
Very much so. Women in their forties are so often invisible in our media today. They’re seen as “too old” to be the romantic lead, but too young to be the matriarchal wise woman. Yet, guess who the biggest readers of historical fiction are? That’s right, women in their forties, fifties, and sixties. I don’t want to only read novels about eighteen-year-old debutantes, and I had a hunch that I wasn’t alone in this. Lydia herself feels this invisibility keenly. She has little recourse to fight the physical signs of aging (it’s not like she can even cover her gray hairs!) and she increasingly believes that she’s only invited to social occasions because of her teenage daughters. The affair she enters into is partly a result of this feeling of her life slipping away from her.

What do you believe Lydia and Branwell saw in one another? 
I don’t see Bronte’s Mistress as a love story. Branwell and Lydia fall in love with the idea of each other. He is looking for a grand passion to serve as inspiration for his writing. She is suffering from boredom and the suffocating fear that, at just forty-three, her sex life is over, since her husband refused to have sex with her. Lydia and Branwell are in some ways very different. He’s an idealist, while she is pragmatic to a fault. But they share a reckless streak, which means they find a dangerous match in each other.

Historically, Lydia is often blamed more harshly for the affair than Branwell. Did this bias influence your approach to the material? 
Yes. I started writing the novel after reading how Elizabeth Gaskell, another Victorian novelist and the first Charlotte Bronte biographer, characterized/assassinated the character of Lydia Robinson in her The Life of Charlotte Bronte. She calls Lydia “wretched” and “profligate.” She even says that, in this case, “the man became the victim.” Women’s sexualities in the nineteenth century were strictly policed and we still see this gendered double standard today. In what way is Lydia worse than Branwell? What other options does she have? It’s not like she can get divorced.

Do you have a favorite scene in BRONTE’S MISTRESS? 
This is such an interesting question. I think it is probably the scene that was the most painful for me to write—the one where Lydia finds herself the only woman at a dinner party held by her cousin’s husband, Sir Edward Scott. She feels at such a disadvantage. She can’t contribute to the discussion, as she knows nothing of politics and current affairs. The men make a great show of behaving chivalrously towards her but when she leaves the room and listens at the door, they speak about her in an incredibly demeaning way. Lydia at times in the novel has the petulance of a teenager, but what else could we expect given that the men around her treat her like a child?

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing BRONTE’S MISTRESS?
Unusually, I think, for a writer, I write short, not long. So the revising and editing process for me often involves adding material vs. cutting it away. That means there were no scenes or chapters I cut wholesale, although I did play around with several prologue ideas before settling on the newspaper clipping that now begins the novel. However, I did make the early choice not to include some characters. Working on a book about real people is hard, as in real life we know some many individuals! In particular, I had problems with having too many Williams and Ann(e)s, and I wanted to avoid confusing readers. I would have loved to dive more deeply into the maidservant Ann Marshall’s feelings towards Lydia. She was an Ann I did choose to keep in the novel but, while the mistress/lady’s maid relationship may read as romantic or sexual at moments, we have no way of knowing whether this potential attraction was one-sided. 

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of BRONTE’S MISTRESS, who would you cast?
I always struggle with this as they are such real people in my mind! One thing is for sure—I would want the casting to be age-appropriate. 

For Lydia, maybe Rachel Weisz or Winona Ryder today, or Kiera Knightley or Emily Blunt in eight to ten years time. I could see Timothée Chalamet or Harry Styles making a believable Branwell if the movie was made in 2020. I’d cast a very dressed down Florence Pugh as Anne Bronte, who was Lydia’s daughters’ governess—her eyes are just so judgmental! Judi Dench, who’s Honorary President of the Bronte Society, would be perfect as Lydia’s awful mother-in-law. Andrew Scott (the hot priest from Fleabag) would be a great Dr. Crosby, and I’d love to work with Phoebe Waller-Bridge to adapt the novel for the screen.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of BRONTE’S MISTRESS?
Even if they don’t agree with all of Lydia’s choices, I hope readers understand the difficulties of Lydia’s position and have empathy for the lives she and so many women were forced to lead.

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings? 
I’m working on a new novel! I can’t say too much yet but it is also historical fiction, although set in a different country and time period. My characters are based on real people again and the research has been really fun, although challenging when not all sources are written in English…