Wednesday, November 25, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Sanjida O'Connell, author of The Priest and the Lily

Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Sanjida. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Priest and the Lily.
Thank you so much for having me, Erin! I love historical fiction too; an early inspiration for me, was Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain. The Priest and the Lily is the story of a young Jesuit priest, Joseph Jacobs, who sets out on a dangerous journey through Outer Mongolia, a land virtually unknown to the Western world. It’s 1865 and Charles Darwin’s radical theory of evolution has just been published. Joseph is driven by his passion for science and his love of God. As he crosses the Mongolian Steppes with a Buddhist monk and a local horseman, he hears rumours of a rare and beautiful white lily. He believes that if he finds this flower, his fame and fortune will be assured. But then Joseph meets Namuunaa, a shaman and the chief of her tribe, and she’ll test Joseph’s beliefs and values to the limit. 

Where did the idea for this story originate?  
I used to be a TV producer/director and I had an idea for a series about plant hunters. These were (almost exclusively) men who travelled the world in search of rare plants, and had incredible and risky adventures. I couldn’t persuade the BBC to make the series, but I ended up using my research as the inspiration for The Priest and the Lily.

On a more personal note, my step-father, James O’Connell, was a priest, and he left the priesthood to marry my mother when I was a small child. The idea of a priest leaving his profession (if not his faith) and suddenly being immersed in family life has always intrigued me.

What historical resources helped you bring Joseph and Namuunaa’s world to life on the page?
Joseph’s character and his journey is informed by two Jesuit priests, who luckily for me, left diaries! Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit, palaeontologist, biologist and geologist, who struggled to integrate his religious beliefs with his knowledge of biology and, in particular, evolutionary theory. He travelled to China several times, as well as visiting Mongolia, to carry out geological excavations. He discovered ‘Peking Man’, a relative of Pithecanthropus. Père Armand David was a French Lazarist Missionary, a zoologist and a botanist. He brought back the handkerchief tree, a clematis, and Père David’s deer, as well as numerous other plants that grace our gardens today.

Tribal people leave far less evidence of their thoughts and deeds, but there are still shamans, and tribes who hunt with wolves and eagles in Mongolia today - and when I travelled to the country, I visited one such tribe. 

Which character in The Priest and the Lily do you feel you have the most in common with?  
That’s a tricky one! I’m not like Joseph, but I share his passionate love of biology. I studied zoology, went on to do a PhD on chimpanzees, and spent much of my adult life writing about nature and producing and presenting wildlife documentaries. I love flowers!

Which character do you feel you have the least in common which? 
Probably Tsem, the Mongolia horseman that Joseph travels across Mongolia with! He’s pretty happy-go-lucky, and I definitely am not! They’re accompanied by a Buddhist monk, Mendo, and I wish I were more like him. I’m doing my best to channel mindfulness at the moment. And who wouldn’t want to be as beautiful as Namuunaa and ride across the mountains with a wolf and an eagle?!

Did any scene in The Priest and the Lily challenge you as a writer? 
Okay, spoiler alert, look away now! I found the sex scenes challenging because I wanted to get across the other-worldly nature of what was happening (I’ll let you read them to work out why!), as well as the feelings of transgression, and still keep them beautiful and engaging.

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 Priest and the Lily?
Originally the novel started with Joseph travelling from Bristol to Outer Mongolia by ship, and then struggling to get his small expedition together. Now we begin at the Great Wall of China with a savage incident where soldiers threaten to attack Joseph. It’s much faster and more immersive, but one of the scenes I lost, which I pine for, is where Joseph is in a small canoe, floating down a river lined with boats full of orchids that are for sale.

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 The Priest and the Lily, who would you cast?
I’m not sure who would play them now, as the actors are too old for the characters’ ages, but I imagine Joseph like Jean-Marc Barr in The Big Blue; Ziyi Zhang, in House of Flying Daggers, playing Namuunaa; Chow Yun-Fat in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as Mendo.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of The Priest and the Lily?
I would love The Priest and the Lily to be an immersive experience, transporting readers to a distant land and culture, and taking their minds off their current troubles, if only for a short time. 
I think the novel, whilst hopefully a good read, will also throw up some questions about cultural appropriation.

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?  
My exciting news is that The Priest and the Lily will shortly be released as an audiobook, narrated by Mike Jaimes. I’m hoping to re-release another historical novel, Sugar Island, which is set on a slave plantation in America and based on the real life story of actress, Fanny Kemble. I also write thrillers, as Sanjida Kay, and I’m working on my fifth. It’s called Labyrinth, and is about a young cop with vertigo. It’s set in Hackney, a world away from Outer Mongolia!
About Sanjida O'Connell: 
I've had twelve books published, four novels (The Priest and the Lily, Sugar Island, Angel Bird and Theory of Mind) and four works of non-fiction (Mindreading: How we Learn to Love and Lie, Sugar: The Grass the Changed the World, Nature's Calendar, Chimpanzee: The Making of the Film) as well as contributing to the encyclopaedia, Animal Life. 

I've been shortlisted for the BBC Asia Awards, was one of the winners of the Betty Trask Award for Romantic Fiction, shortlisted for the Daily Telegraph Science writer's award, and highly commended for BBC Wildlife magazine's award for nature writing.

I wrote features and columns for national newspapers and magazines about science and the environment, directed science documentaries and presented wildlife programmes for the BBC.

I've also had four psychological thrillers published by Corvus Books under my pen name of Sanjida Kay: Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child, My Mother's Secret and One Year Later.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Sarah Penner, author of The Lost Apothecary

Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Sarah. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Lost Apothecary. 
Thank you so much for having me, Erin! I’ve been an avid fan of the Historical Fiction Reader for quite some time, and it’s such an honor to do this interview. 

The Lost Apothecary is my debut novel, and it centers around a female apothecary in 18th century London who sells well-disguised poisons to women seeking vengeance against the men who have wronged them. Centuries later, in present-day London, a woman travels to London and finds an apothecary vial while mudlarking on the River Thames. She soon suspects she’s found the culprit in the never-solved “apothecary murders” that haunted London two hundred years earlier. 

The novel is dual-timeline, and the stories of the two women intertwine in a stunning twist of fate, one in which not everyone will survive… 

Where did the idea for this story originate?  
I first learned about mudlarking years ago, while reading London in Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures by Ted Sandling. In the book, he shares striking images of interesting things he’s found near the River Thames in London. It is here that I first spotted a fragment of a mid-seventeenth century delftware apothecary jar, and the inspiration for The Lost Apothecary was born. I knew instantly the story would begin with a woman in present-day who finds an apothecary vial while mudlarking.

I didn’t actually have the chance to go mudlarking myself until the summer of 2019 after I was already agented and we were working on revisions to the manuscript. Over the course of several days, I went down to the river three separate times, finding an assortment of pottery, clay pipes, metal pins, even animal bones. 

I clung to the idea of an apothecary from the get-go. The word apothecary is evocative, drawing forth visions of a candlelit storefront with sash windows, its walls lined with mortar bowls and pestles, and countless glass bottles. There is something beguiling, even enchanting, about what might lie within those bottles: potions that bewitch us, cure us, kill us. When describing the apothecary’s hidden shop, I did my best to capture this allure. 

What historical resources helped you bring the Georgian world to life on the page?
I’ve spent years researching Georgian London. I much prefer it over the Victorian, Tudor, and Edwardian eras. Georgian London teemed with gin, brothels, eccentric intellectuals…it was such a scandalous time period! It was also before the advent of modern toxicology, which was necessary for my story: The Lost Apothecary is about disguised poisons, and if I’d set the story even fifty years later, some of the apothecary’s poisons would have been detectable via autopsy. 

Researching the many herbal and homespun remedies for this story was a time-consuming, albeit entertaining, task. I spent time in the British Library, reviewing old manuscripts and druggist diaries; I reviewed digitized pharmacopeias; and I studied extensively some well-known poisoning cases in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I was surprised by the number of plants and herbs that are highly toxic, and I was fascinated while reading about the clever, if ineffective, remedies used by the predecessors of modern-day pharmacists.

Which character in The Lost Apothecary do you feel you have the most in common with?  
Definitely the present-day character, Caroline. In fact, she and I are very similar, in that we both have a keen interest in digging into old documents and mysteries of the past. 

Which character do you feel you have the least in common which? 
I haven’t yet mentioned a third character in the story: Eliza, a twelve-year-old girl who helps the apothecary (a sort of apprentice, if you will.) I have the least in common with Eliza, given not only her age but her beliefs about magic and ghosts. 

Did any scene in The Lost Apothecary challenge you as a writer? 
On a macro level, the structure of the novel as a whole was challenging. As I mentioned, the story is dual-timeline, and I structured the information reveal very carefully as the story went on. Especially at the end, when the present and historical narratives collide, I had to “drip-feed” the suspense to ensure I didn’t ruin a surprise too soon. 

On a micro level, there were a number of scenes that challenged me. I naturally prefer writing scenes that move quickly—think cliffhangers, twists, and big reveals. I find it more challenging to layer in characterization: motivation, backstory, and fundamental beliefs that make a person do what they do. But all of it is necessary in commercial fiction, and I’m thankful for an agent and editor who have both been immensely helpful in challenging me to dig deeper into my characters.  

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 Lost Apothecary?
Yes! In an earlier draft of the book, my present-day character goes on a quirky tour of London in which the tour guide explains old mysteries and rumors about the city. During this tour, the guide also mentions the rumored apothecary murders from two hundred years ago, and this information allows my present-day character to continue her search of the apothecary. 

Alas…both my agent and editor felt the information revealed during the tour scene was too coincidental, and no matter how much I dug in my heels, they advised we needed to pull the tour scene and re-strategize. I’m still a bit bummed about it, as I’ve been on such tours myself in London and have fond memories! Perhaps it’s a scene for another story, someday…

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 The Lost Apothecary, who would you cast?
The 18th C apothecary, Nella – Kathy Bates
The twelve-year old girl, Eliza – Emma Watson  
Present-day character, Caroline – Rachel McAdams

What do you hope readers take from their experience of The Lost Apothecary?
The Lost Apothecary is very much a story about women controlling their own destinies. There are dark aspects to the story—like the burden of secrets and the destructive pursuit of vengeance—but it is also a story of hope and the way women can protect, honor, and free one another, even when separated by the barrier of time. I hope that when turning the final page, readers will feel connected to this sense of loyalty and better appreciate how we can honor our own loved ones.

Of course, I also hope the book is a form of escapism. It’s a historical mystery, and I hope that anyone who loves sleuthing or uncovering old documents will find themselves lost in the pages! 

1What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?  
Stay tuned—I’ll tell you when I know, hah! But in all seriousness: I’m very much drawn to historical mysteries/thrillers, and I enjoy writing clever, twisty plots. I also love crafting stories about brave, badly-behaved women. So, I suspect I’ll stay in this vein, at least for the next book or two.
About Sarah Penner: 
I was born and raised in northeast Kansas, growing up in a small log cabin nestled deep in the woods. This picturesque retreat, where I lived until early adulthood, frames most of my early memories. 

I began writing seriously in 2015, after attending a moving lecture given by Elizabeth Gilbert. She was on tour for Big Magic, a game-changing book for creatives. Soon after her talk, I enrolled in my first online creative writing class. I haven't looked back since.

I'm an avid traveler, though my heart is stuck in London. Other favorite destinations include Thailand, Ireland, Germany, Belize, and Grand Cayman.

I graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in finance, and I've spent the last decade in various corporate finance functions. I love my day-job: numbers and spreadsheets appeal to my analytical side.

When I'm not writing, you'll likely find me in the kitchen, the yoga studio, or running outdoors in the Florida heat. 

I'm married to my best friend, Marc. We're proud residents of the Sunshine State, where we live with our "silky hair" miniature dachshund, Zoe. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Kate Quinn, author of The Rose Code

War Era Historical

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Welcome back to Historical Fiction Reader Kate. It’s a pleasure to have you with us again. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Rose Code.
It's the story of three very different women recruited to work at the mysterious Bletchley Park during World War II, where they join the fight to break the unbreakable Axis military codes, and deal along the way with loss, love, friendship, betrayal, and the shadowy presence of a traitor in their midst. I like to think of it as “The Imitation Game meets The Crown”!

Where did the idea for this story originate and what about Bletchley Park appealed to you as a writer?
Bletchley Park's history has fascinated me since reading Robert Harris's wonderful novel Enigma, which first introduced me to the pressure-cooker world of the WWII codebreakers. These men and women—recruited from all walks of life to a remote country estate in Buckinghamshire—labored under incredible stress and secrecy to crack the supposedly uncrackable ciphers used by Germany and Italy, and they succeeded so well that some historians estimate they shortened the war by as much as two years (and millions of lives). Yet their heroic work was unknown for decades thanks to being classified; everyone who had worked at BP was simply asked to go home after the war, and never talk about what they had done. Which they all did, keeping their huge secret with the kind of success that is boggling to our minds today in a world now dominated by social media and the 24-hour news cycle. I was fascinated by the idea of a war story where the fight was all mental and intellectual, rather than physical.

In terms of research, which resources proved the most useful to you in writing The Rose Code? 
There are hundreds of excellent non-fiction books about Bletchley Park, and I swear I tried to read them all! “The Secret Lives of Codebreakers” by Sinclair McKay is an entertaining, comprehensive book for anyone looking to get an overview of BP and how it functioned, and there are many memoirs written by codebreaker veterans once the secrecy ban lifted—“Enigma Variations” by Irene Young, “Secret Days” by Asa Briggs, and “Dilly: The Man Who Broke Enigma” by Mavis Batey were three standouts. 

The book centers on three female Bletchley Park code breakers. Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about Osla, Mab, and Beth?
I chose three narrators for this book because I wanted to show as much of the codebreaking process as possible, and having only one woman's eyes would limit us to only what she saw, since secrecy was so tight—even inside Bletchley Park, you weren't supposed to tell your co-workers what you were working on. I also wanted to show a variety of social classes and education levels in my heroines, because BP truly was a melting pot where a secretarial school graduate might find herself working beside a duke's daughter! Therefore I have shy middle-class spinster Beth, very much the beaten-down daughter-at-home under a domineering mother—sharp East-Ender Mab who is keen to improve her lot in life via education, hard work, and a gentlemanly husband—and beautiful, effervescent debutante Osla who wants to prove that a rich girl can work hard and do her part for the war just as well as anyone else. These three wouldn't ever have crossed paths in the normal scope of things, but working at Bletchley Park throws them together, with results that will echo throughout the war into the years afterward.

I’m a huge fan of historical cameos. Are there any notable cameos in The Rose Code and if so, why did you choose to include them in the story?
Ha, yes—lots of historical cameos in THE ROSE CODE! Most of them I didn't have to make up, either, because many many important historical figures had ties to Bletchley Park. Alan Turing, computer-science genius of the 20th century, worked at BP and is shown as a colleague of one of my fictionalized heroes. Winston Churchill paid the codebreakers a historic visit, so I had a chance to show the occasion where he famously thanked them for their secrecy as well as their work, calling them “the geese who laid the golden eggs, but never cackled.” Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, worked in naval intelligence and liaised with BP; he gets a mention. Valerie Glassborow, codebreaker at Hut 16, is shown in her youthful days long before she became the grandmother of Kate Middleton. And speaking of the Duchess of Cambridge, I have a slew of royals appearing in THE ROSE CODE: Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret get cameos, and so does the handsome Prince Philip of Greece. In those days, before he married Princess Elizabeth and became the Duke of Edinburgh, he was just a young British naval lieutenant...who just happened to date an ex-debutante turned codebreaker named Osla!

Female friendships are not always easy, and I loved how this story allowed you to explore and showcase the complexities of those dynamics. Was this something you intended this story to illustrate and if so, why did you feel it important?   
From the beginning, I envisioned this story as one of a broken friendship. The first page starts post-war, with two women getting a coded letter from a friend they haven't heard from in years, begging for help—this forces them to get in touch with each other despite great unspoken animosity, and embark on a mission that reopens many old wounds. The central question of this book is about how these women became friends, and what destroyed that friendship, and can they salvage it when a mystery from their Bletchley Park years reaches out and makes them join forces whether they like it or not. I'm not a fan of the stereotype where female friends are always cat-fighting, but friendship can be hard—especially when it's complicated, as it is for my three women, by things like national oaths of secrecy and all-important war-work. It's not men or romance that come between my heroines; it's the question “How do you protect your friends while at the same time keeping your oaths?” And all three of my women make mistakes in trying to keep faith with that question; they stumble and fall, but in the end they must rely on each other. I hope readers will enjoy their complicated bond.

Your two previous books, The Alice Network and The Huntress, were geographically diverse. The Rose Code unfolds on a much smaller stage. Was it difficult to write a story so largely contained in the English countryside and if so, how did you seek to keep things interesting? 
It was tough, yes. The codebreakers operated under incredible mental and emotional strain, but physically they were very safe, as they were forbidden to take on any missions that would lead them into danger zones overseas, and since Bletchley Park was never targeted by bombers during the war. And though their work was critical, pencil-scratching away at sheets of paper inside stuffy little green huts is hard to make quite as cinematic as, say, dropping bombs from a biplane or smuggling messages in an occupied-zone spy-ring! So I tried to hone in on the mental arena where the work was done, and the grueling toll that could take which is every bit as racking as more physical danger. And I twined in my second timeline, which is where the mystery unravels, and which takes place in 1947 as London dizzies itself over the coming wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip—that gave me the opportunity to add in some post-war glamour and danger!

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 Rose Code?
This book was far, far too long in its original draft, so there was quite a lot that hit the cutting room floor. Less in the way of whole scenes, more in the way of paragraphs of description, conversations that were trimmed or combined with others, and nerdy flights of awe about the codebreaking process. As for the biggest change I made? Originally there was a whole Inception-style third timeline involved, but it made the whole book waaaaaaaaaay too confusing, and I streamlined that entire narrative into the post-war thread instead. Much better all around.

Authors sometimes stumble across unexpected details in the course of their research. Did your research for The Rose Code lead to anything that surprised you and if so, did that material find its way into the story? 
There were so many funny anecdotes about life at Bletchley Park, I wish I'd had room to include them all. I slipped in as many as I could: a codebreaker pitching his tea mug into the lake after a fit of inspiration; another codebreaker who cycled to work in a gas mask because of hay fever; BP men sunbathing nude on the lawn by the mansion; a prank where a lord's daughter rode a wheeled laundry cart down a hall right into the gentleman's loo; highland dancing and madrigal singing and chess playing taking place off-hours in the Recreation Hut...the list of hi-jinks and quirky anecdotes was literally endless!

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 The Rose Code, who would you cast?
Oooh, fun. Holliday Grainger would be a great Osla—as Robin in the CB Strike series and Lucrezia Borgia in “The Borgias”, she has exactly the right mix of beauty and fun, plus a lovable quality that makes you want to be her best friend. For Mab, a tall confident brunette with fierce eyebrows, I'd take Jane Russell circa “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, or for a more modern-day actress, Cara Delevingne who does beautifully with characters who have a lot of softness under a formidable Resting B*tch Face. For withdrawn Beth who blossoms from wallflower too shy to look anyone in the eyes to star cryptanalyst utterly confident in her own abilities, I'd take the wonderful Soairse Ronan who could play that switch beautifully. As for the men, Anthony Stewart Head (Giles from the “Buffy” series) would be a natural for the absent-minded codebreaker who recruits Beth for his team; Eddie Redmayne would be a gangly ray of red-headed sunshine for the girls' irrepressible codebreaker friend Giles; Allen Leech (Branson from “Downton Abbey”) would be a swooner as the quiet war poet who sweeps one of the heroines off her feet; Mena Massoud (“Aladdin”) would be great as the cheerful Harry whose Arabic-Egyptian-Maltese descent makes him a standout at BP...and for Prince Philip, sorry, there isn't anyone but Matt Smith who played the role in Seasons 1-2 of “The Crown.”

What do you hope readers take from their experience of The Rose Code?
I hope they come away awed by the dedication and intelligence of the real Bletchley Park women, who contributed to the war effort in a way not often allowed to females of that time—and did it so spectacularly well. 

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?  
Yes, I'm already 30,000 words into a new book. It has the working title right now of THE DIAMOND EYE, and it stars WWII-era Russian war heroine Lyudmila Pavlichenko. She was a single mother in her mid-twenties, a history student, a mild-mannered library research assistant who joined the army when her homeland was invaded by the Nazis. She became a sniper and racked up 309 kills, making her the most deadly female sniper in history—with the nickname of “Lady Death.” If that's not enough to make her a fantastic heroine for a novel, this woman was sent on a goodwill tour to the United States where she became close friends with none other than Eleanor Roosevelt. I can't wait to bring her story to the page!  
About Kate Quinn: 
Kate Quinn is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction. A native of southern California, she attended Boston University where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. She has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance, before turning to the 20th century with “The Alice Network”, “The Huntress,” and “The Rose Code.” All have been translated into multiple languages. Kate and her husband now live in San Diego with three rescue dogs.

Monday, November 16, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Farida Mestek, author of Margaret's Rematch

Historical Romance

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Farida. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Margaret's Rematch. 
Thank you very much! It’s a real pleasure to be here! Margaret’s Rematch is a slow-paced novel set against the backdrop of Regency England. Here is what it is about: After the loss of her sister, Margaret Fairfax leaves London and settles on the country estate of her brother-in-law, whose dislike of her is legendary. There she is faced with the challenge of proving to him that despite the many rumours of schemes and indiscretions that followed her all the way from London, she is worthy of his regard and trust. With time and many an exertion on her part, Margaret gradually succeeds in gaining his approbation and affection, but she fears the worst when her deceitful friend arrives in order to ruin it all.

Where did the idea for this story originate? 
The thing about story ideas is that with the passage of time I never quite know or never actually remember where they came from or how they originated. They usually ambush me and demand to be written down and haunt me until I give in. On the other hand, the idea to write what is generally known as “regency romance” was influenced by my passion for Jane Austen’s books. I thought of it as my homage to her and initially wanted to call my novel “Imitation”. I was actually quite scared to write something like that. It was more than twelve years ago and I didn’t feel myself equal to it. However, on a lark I showed a piece of what I’d already written to a friend – another Jane Austen fan – and she loved it so much that she encouraged me to proceed.

What historical resources helped you bring Margaret’s world to life on the page? 
I meticulously studied Jane Austen’s books and spent a lot of time researching everything I could online, collecting tons of material along the way. Google Books proved to be an invaluable source of material about that period of time. I read diaries, letters, memoirs, advice columns written by people of that time, as well as different manuals on all possible subjects I could possibly need; newspapers, magazines, novels. Basically anything I could get my hands on! Nowadays I always keep a volume of Belle Assemblée and The Gentleman’s Magazine on hand. It really helps me to get into the heads of people of that time, understand their mindset and nurture and attune my language in order to make it sound more authentic.

Which character in Margaret's Rematch do you feel you have the most in common with? 
Funny you should ask that! Just the other day one of my students, who read the book, looked at me apologetically and confessed that she preferred Anne Westfield (the sister of the main character) to Margaret Fairfax. She was afraid that I would be upset, but I just laughed and told her that I knew exactly what she meant and that I felt exactly the same. I’m afraid I did it on purpose. Anne is a lot more relatable than Margaret in many ways, but, mainly, I think it is because she isn’t quite as perfect as the latter. Additionally, I made her an excellent artist, which has always been a dream of mine and I thought that she might as well make it come true. Just now I’ve been editing a piece where Anne is talking and talking and talking about her love for cakes, reminding me all over again why she is so relatable and why I like her so much!

Which character do you feel you have the least in common wi? 
Margaret Fairfax is definitely very different from me. I don’t think that we have anything in common at all. She is young, beautiful, rich, very popular with the opposite sex, and is quite opposed to reading. We have literally nothing in common! So I had lots of fun telling her story. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about Margaret, though! While she is very beautiful and is well aware of it, she is not at all arrogant or conceited. In fact, she is very kind and sweet, but she does have a bit of a temper and her brother-in-law knows that better than anyone else! Her temper was actually the reason why they became bitter enemies in the first place and then continued to nurture their animosity towards each other for years.

Did any scene in Margaret's Rematch challenge you as a writer?
Oh, pretty much everything challenged me as a writer when working on this novel! I was basically just starting out and I was still learning and sometimes it was really hard to put into words what I wanted to say. I remember that it took me roughly a month to write each chapter and for some unfathomable reason I favoured really long chapters back then!

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 Margaret's Rematch?
I hate doing that and it usually takes me a long while to come to terms with the necessity of cutting out anything, even when I know perfectly well that it has got to go. The only thing that helps in my case is the passage of time. For example, having returned to Margaret’s Rematch many years later, I had a lot less qualms about cutting out whole passages. I became quite ruthless about it. Though, I must say that I replaced them with new pieces right away! In fact, ever since I started editing the manuscript, my word count increased by 10K. In my defence, I believe I cut out irrelevant pieces and substituted them with important ones. Speaking about a specific scene… I wrote a cute little scene where Margaret was telling her nephew about how his mother and father met at a ball. I liked it very much but there was no place to fit it in and so it never ended up in a book.

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 Margaret's Rematch, who would you cast? 
I feel kind of silly mentioning it, but when I was writing it twelve years ago (or was it more?), I was a big fan of Smallville and my dream cast was the cast of Smallville at the time. I even saved their photos on my old computer and called them with the names of my characters. Nowadays, I’m a fan of Supernatural and at least as far as Mr James Westfield (the main hero) and Mr Clifford Stockley (Margaret’s close friend and the brother of the main villainess) are concerned, I have no trouble imagining them being played by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles respectively. I’d love to see them in period drama costumes, talking with a British accent!

What do you hope readers take from their experience of Margaret's Rematch? 
I just want them to enjoy it and to spend a lovely time on its pages, away from the troubles and problems of the world we live in.

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings? 
Quite so many! I have two more Regencies lined up to be published as soon as I’m done editing them and then there’s a fantasy novel set in Regency England that I’m planning on self-publishing after that (unless my dream comes true and I find a literary agent before that), and then there’s the continuation of my YA fantasy novel that I’ve recently self-published and, hopefully, many more projects!
About Farida Mestek: 
Farida Mestek spends most of her time travelling between Regency England, magic forests, and different fantasy worlds that she discovers along the way, using the best means of transportation known to man: imagination. During her travels she meets a lot of interesting characters, whose stories she then narrates (with their permission) on the pages of her books. Her favourite companions are talking animals. Currently she is learning the language of the trees.

Friday, November 13, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Meredith Whitford

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Meredith. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about yourself.
I never know how to answer this. I worked for Federal and State governments for years (I’m in Australia) then resigned when we moved out of state for a while. Paralegal work involved some editing, which led me into general MS editing and critique ( Then I was finally able to go to university as a mature-age student (my parents didn’t believe in education and I had to go to work straight after high school) and achieved a BA and later a Master’s in Creative Writing. When I started on what turned into the biography Churchill’s Rebels, about Jessica Mitford and her first husband, Churchill’s nephew, I received a research grant from the Australia Council so I could travel to use overseas archives. I ended up great friends with Churchill’s’ great-nephew! I spend most of my time talking to and about my two cats. And reading. And trying to sleep. I’m married, and my daughter’s getting married next year so that’s some good news after a pretty rotten 2020. (US election aside!) I live in Adelaide, near the sea.

Your first novel, Treason, takes place during the War of the Roses. What about the conflict appealed to you as an author? 
At school, many years ago, we ‛did’ Richard III and an enlightened teacher told us about political propaganda and recommended Josephine Tey’s book The Daughter of Time. Much later I had some time off work, sick leave, and spent it reading the history behind Tey’s book and the Shakespeare play. I joined the Richard III Society in 1983 and founded the South Australian Branch. From reading about Richard I found that whole era of history interested me; I’d never studied it before. I’d always thought I might be able to write, and decided a novel about that era would be good – but the novel I wrote was terrible. I’m glad no one ever saw it! But later, at university, I studied Medieval Literature, and somehow that sparked off what became Treason. I am generally interested in military history and ended up doing a lot of work on the 1930s and 40s and WW2. But the Wars of the Roses still fascinate me.

Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about your leading man, Martin Robsart?
This is where I start to sound off my rocker except to other writers. Non-writers stop reading now. I was fiddling about wondering how to write a novel about Edward IV and Richard III – no inspiration – then one day my narrator, Martin Robsart (fictional, of course), walked in and told me the story. Of course, there was a lot of research and editing and rewriting to do – it was amazing how much I’d forgotten after 30 years of studying the subject. Also, using a narrator who is ‛observing’ history as it’s made allows for some jokes and asides. But who knows how a writer’s mind works?

You shifted gears with your second novel and came forward in time to write about William Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife. As a writer, what attracted you to Anne Hathaway?  
Reading male biographers of Shakespeare. Nearly all of them take a dim view of his wife: the older woman who trapped him into miserable marriage, blah blah. By that stage, I’d also studied a lot of Shakespeare at university as well as reading his work and books about him for pleasure. And I thought: he wrote a lot of strong, intelligent women… Hmm. The first scene I wrote was where they meet in Stratford market when Anne’s buying gloves from the Shakespeare shop, and she proves she can banter as wittily as the glover’s son. After that, I ‛had’ her as a character. I made her the one who pushed him into the career he longed for.

Why do you think Shakespeare holds so much interest with modern readers? Why do you think audiences are drawn to his character?
I think it’s because he continues to evade us as a person. There is so little evidence about his life and what he was like. Obviously, he was observant, intelligent, and witty, but he’s hard to pin down. How did he get on with his wife? Was he so fond of money (and loath to pay taxes) because of his father’s money troubles? His beloved son Hamnet died at 11, and I think we see Shakespeare in the lines in King John: “Grief fills the room up of my absent child…” I still cry when I read that. But that’s a rare glimpse of him. His plays are endlessly fascinating and yield to all sorts of modern treatments, but he wasn’t interested in them except as a way to make money. He took endless care over the printing and publishing of his long poems, but never bothered about his plays. There is controversy about his sexuality, some people believing he was bisexual. I think we do see something of the real man in some of the Sonnets – he certainly knew about jealousy and unrequited love – although some scholars believe the Sonnets were merely fashionable literary exercises. However, I took them as the basis for part of the novel, when he falls in love with the Earl of Southampton (the “golden lad” of the Sonnets) and then the Dark Lady. So there is some gay sex as well as hetero adultery in the novel, but (SPOILER) Anne wins in the end. And, with Shakespeare, it’s possible to work in a lot of puns and sneaky quotations.

What historical resources helped you bring Treason and Shakespeare’s Will to life on the page?
Literally dozens of books and online resources. Endless reading and checking. And using my imagination.

Did any scene in Treason or Shakespeare’s Will challenge you as a writer? 
Hard to say… It was juggling the historical facts that were often difficult and required some imagination and canny thinking. Killing off Richard III’s son was challenging in that it was very emotional to write and, still, to re-read. Ditto Shakespeare’s. But once I had my characters most of it was fairly easy. Writing about the battles in Treason required the most research and imagination. Some of my characters are fictional and the real people are of course my interpretation of them, but my facts are always accurate.

I understand you had very different experiencing getting these books to print. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?
I remember trying to sell Treason at the very end of the 1990s. The usual response in Australia is “It’s got no Australian content.” Well, no, it hasn’t. At that time all I heard, too, was “There’s no market for novels about Richard III.” (I knew there was, but publishers are like that.) As well, historical fiction was equated with romantic fiction. That, at least, has changed in the last decade or two, with a lot of serious historical fiction being published and Hilary Mantel even winning the Man Booker Prize twice. I had a very good, well-connected literary agent who loved the book – but died suddenly. I still miss him. But a small publisher took it on and it instantly won the international Eppie Award for Historical Fiction – this was 2002 when ebooks were new, before Amazon and Kindle and so on, and everyone, especially in Australia, said they’d never take off. So an organisation was formed to promote ebooks, with the Eppie Award. One of my reviews on Amazon is from one of the Eppie judges, who spent all day reading it and thought it was the winner. No money in it, but a nice trophy. But suddenly there was a market for books about Richard III – although I’ve never found a ‛big’ publisher to take it on. Another literary agent let me down over getting it adapted for screen. I have an e-publisher, Lume in London, who publish all my books as ebooks but in the end (after two terrible experiences) I decided I’d rather control the printing of the paperbacks myself. I am very glad to say that when Richard III’s remains were discovered in Leicester Treason sold over 30,000 copies. Shakespeare’s Will went to a small indie publisher, who then died – what do I do to these people? – but Lume still has it as an ebook. I did sell the translation rights into China but the book was never published. So again I handle the paperback myself.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of your books?
I hope they enjoy them and appreciate the writing, like the characters, and perhaps learn new things about people and history.

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings? 
I’ve just wasted two years with the wrong literary agent trying to sell a novel (too literary, too funny, too short, too long, too rural – it’s set 10 kilometres outside of Adelaide, in winemaking country.) So that’s on hold while I work on two others, one a sort of prequel set in WW2, and one, well, it’s only an idea so I’ll keep quiet. And probably a sequel to Shakespeare’s Will.

Thank you for interviewing me. It’s been a pleasure.
About Meredith Whitford: 
I've published two very successful historical novels, Treason and Shakespeare's Will, and a biography, Churchill's Rebels: Jessica Mitford and Esmond Romilly.

I am also an editor and manuscript assessor, director of Between Us Manuscript Assessment Service.

I live in South Australia, and I have a BA in English, history and Classics from the University of Adelaide, and a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from Flinders University. It was my university work that made me, after years of reading, decide to write about Richard III, Shakespeare, and the Romillys. 

My latest novel, this one contemporary, is called "Missing Christina" and will be published in print and as an e-book by Endeavour Press UK in July 2017.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Garth Pettersen, author of The Atheling Chronicles

Genre Fiction Historical

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader, Garth. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Atheling Chronicles. 
Thank you, Erin, for the opportunity to discuss my work. The Atheling Chronicles is a historical fiction series set in the eleventh century. The protagonist is Harald Harefoot, the middle son of King Cnute. England—or Engla-lond, as it was called—has at this time become part of Cnute's northern empire, which includes Denmark and much of Scandinavia. Harald is a reluctant atheling (one who is throne-worthy by birth) with no stomach for political intrigue. He is devoted to his Frisian wife, Selia, and the two attempt to live off the political grid. The heir to the throne is Harald's younger half-brother, Harthacnute, who is ambitious and self-serving. His mother is Queen Emma, a central figure in Anglo-Saxon/Danish England, as she is also the widow of the previous king, Æthelred the Unready. The third brother is Sweyn, a cruel, brutal warrior who seeks to carve out his own kingdom from Cnute's realm.

Where did the idea for this series originate? 
I was doing a write-off with another writer, author Michael Hiebert, and he suggested we each choose an idea from one of the books he had brought to the session. I had just finished reading one of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales and chose a book on English history. I discovered that King Cnute had traveled to Rome for the Coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1027, and I began writing from the point of view of one of his sons as the king's longships left England bound for the continent. The piece worked and I turned it into the first book of The Atheling Chronicles, The Swan's Road.

The series is set in the eleventh century. How did you go about researching this period? Which resources proved the most useful?
I devoured everything I could on the Middle Ages, books such as Life in a Medieval Village, Life in a Medieval City, Daily Life in the Middle Ages, The Year 1000, etc. 

I find when I'm writing, questions constantly arise that I have to investigate. Sometimes the queries are about historical characters such as Lady Godiva, other times it is whether a Danish or Anglo-Saxon chieftain and his wife slept in a wooden bed. And did they use pillows? Yes and yes.

By the way, the eleventh century was the end of the Early Middle Ages. Much changed (though not so much for the common man and woman) after the Norman Invasion of 1066.

I continue to find more and more exceptional books on the period, as well as articles and blogs on many sites. Each day I receive treatises from

I also spend way too much time learning about Old English and the origin of English words. I have one great resource book called English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh. One can glean much from knowing when certain words were used. I am a stickler for not using words before history brought them into the language. For example, you could not have "thugs" or "assassins" in the eleventh century—both words derive from sects that arose long after the vikings.

I have discovered how one might swear in the eleventh century as well, through the very enjoyable Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr. Because there was little privacy in a longhouse or smaller dwelling, bodily functions were not hidden. Using body parts and functions in a profane way would have little impact. Making an oath using God's name, however—"by God's bones…" was shocking and outrageous. 

Which of your characters do you feel you have the most in common with?
The protagonist, Harald. Not that I am necessarily loyal and courageous, but that I aspire to be so. Harald is someone who questions his actions and his ultimate path. He worries that he will fail to protect Selia (though she is as resourceful as he is) and those under his charge. Harald can be headstrong and impulsive, as well as thoughtful and tender. I like my characters to be flawed, but as a reader, I have no patience for weak, indecisive protagonists.

Do you have a favorite scene in The Atheling Chronicles?
Oh, wow. I don't know. There are many scenes that I really enjoyed. Members of the writing group I belong to always tell me I write fight scenes well. The climax in The Swan's Road where Harald faces his Norman nemesis on a rooftop was quite satisfying.  A rather drunken Harald seeing Selia for the first time in a tavern on the Rhine is another favourite.  Harald watching the coast of England slip by as a prisoner on a longship in The Dane Law. In Italy, Selia delivering to his grandparents the little boy she has taken care of.

Was there a scene in the series that challenged you as a writer?
That is an excellent question and I do not wish to sidestep it, but every scene is challenging. That is why I revise and rewrite and delete. Scenes where the characters do not speak the same languages are difficult. 

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 Atheling Chronicles?
Stephen King said "you must kill your darlings," referring to deleting scenes. I don't recall killing too many. I usually rework a scene. Each scene should work to move the plot forward. If you write to that end, only bits and snippets end up on the cutting room floor.

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play the lead characters in big screen adaptations of The Atheling Chronicles, who would you cast?
I just watched a Netlix series called The Barbarians. The young German actor who played Folkwin Wolfspeer, David Schutter, would be perfect as Harald. Emily Blunt as Queen Emma, Casey Affleck or Iwan Rheon (Ramsay Bolton on Game of Thrones) as Harthacnute, Tom Hardy as Sweyn, Brian Cox or Billy Connolly as Cnute, Alan Rickman as Godwin, and perhaps Hayley Atwell, Emilia Clarke or Rachel Weisz as Selia.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of The Atheling Chronicles?
My main objective is to tell a great yarn. If my readers are caught up in the characters and the story so much they can't stop reading, I'll be happy. If they gain some insight into the time period and culture, even better.

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?  
I am currently writing a stand-alone novel set in the early nineteenth century. It is about a young man from the South Sea Islands whose life journey is swept up by events and personalities within his own culture, and then by contact with Europeans. It is a tale of the sea as well as a search for love, self-knowledge, and redemption. The working title is Any Man's Death.
About Garth Pettersen: 
Garth Pettersen is a Canadian writer living in the Fraser Valley near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. When he's not writing, he's riding horses and working with young, disabled riders.

Garth's short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies, and in journals such as Blank Spaces, The Spadina Literary Review, and The Opening Line Literary 'Zine. His story River's Rising was awarded an Honourable Mention for the Short Story America 2017 Prize, and his fantasy novella, River Born, was one of two runners-up in the Wundor Editions (UK) Short Fiction Prize. His debut novel, The Swan's Road (Book #1 of the Atheling Chronicles) published by Tirgearr Publishing, was released in 2017, Book #2, The Dane Law, in 2018, and Book #3, The Cold Hearth was released on April 22, 2020.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Karen Odden, author of A Trace of Deceit

Historical Mystery

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Karen. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about A Trace of Deceit and the Victorian Mystery series.
All three of my books are set in 1870s London, but my series is a bit different from others in that each book has a different young woman protagonist/amateur sleuth, though there are some secondary characters that roam from book to book causing trouble or lending a hand. In A Lady in the Smoke, Lady Elizabeth Fraser, the daughter of an earl, is traveling by train with her mother when they experience a horrifying railway crash. With the help of a railway surgeon named Paul Wilcox, Elizabeth discovers that the disaster was the result of sabotage and part of a nefarious stock scheme with its roots in her own family’s shady past. In A Dangerous Duet, Nell Hallam is a talented pianist who longs to attend the Royal Academy of Music. To earn the tuition, she plays in a music hall in Soho, only to discover the hall is also home to criminal activities that her brother Matthew, a Scotland Yard inspector, is investigating. And in A Trace of Deceit, Annabel Rowe is a student at the Slade School of Art. Her older brother Edwin, an opium addict and convicted forger, has recently been released from prison and swears that he has reformed and wants to repair his damaged relationship with Annabel. When he is murdered and a priceless French painting stolen from his studio, Annabel must work with Inspector Hallam (from Duet) to find out whether Edwin had told her the truth or returned to his old habits, not only to find justice for him but for her own peace.

Where did the idea for these stories originate?
A Lady in the Smoke was inspired by my PhD dissertation on Victorian railway disasters and the bizarre injuries that were the first cases of what we’d call “PTSD.” Nell’s story was inspired by some Victorian women musicians, particularly Fanny Dickens, who studied at the Royal Academy of Music under one of Beethoven’s prodigies—but she had to leave when she could no longer afford tuition. I wondered, what if Fanny could have earned money, somehow, using her talent? Hence Nell’s story was born. A Trace of Deceit has its roots in my work at Christie’s auction house in New York City in the 1990s. There, I quickly fell in love with all the wonderful, sordid and heroic stories that surround art! Bold heists and near-perfect forgeries, paintings rescued from burning buildings, statues with hidden compartments, ancient artifacts hidden in caves in WWII and smuggled back to America, priceless paintings found in attics. It’s all great fodder for stories! Then I started looking into Victorian women artists and I found out about the Slade School, which was founded in 1871 by Felix Slade, who wanted to set women artists on the same footing as men. I began researching women students and found several—two of whom became very famous—Evelyn de Morgan (born Mary Evelyn Pickering) and Kate Greenaway, for whom the Greenaway medal for children’s book illustrations is named. They were both amazing women—and so talented! They would have been Annabel’s friends and studio-mates in 1875.

What historical resources helped you bring the Victorian world to life on the page?
Before I write, I reread novels from the 1870s—by Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, Mary E. Braddon and others—and 1870s newspapers for both vocabulary and a general sense of what Victorian men and women were thinking, learning, and worrying about. Beyond that, one of the most important ways I bring Victorian England to life in my head are by studying images from the period. By 1870, there were dozens of illustrated newspapers, paintings, and pamphlets generated every week, supported by the rise of professional illustrators and photography (begun in the 1830s in France). I keep a map of 1870s London on my wall, and on my corkboard I tack up images of the Pantechnicon Fire, the Slade School, an auction room scene, the painting of Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher which is stolen out of Edwin’s room, and so on.

Which character in A Trace of Deceit do you feel you have the most in common with? 
That’s a great question. Usually, I identify almost solely with my protagonist—in each book, a young woman who must face some aspect of her past in order to solve the mystery in the present. But in this case, I’d say I’m split between Annabel and Edwin. Part of the reason Edwin is so troubled—and turns to opium (the use of which was pretty pervasive, as there were opium dens around London)—is he experiences some brutal bullying at boarding school. I was nerdy and shy and bullied as a child, and as I was writing those scenes, it was painful (but necessary) to remember the sadness and fear I felt every day. One reader commented that “Edwin would never remember such detail about something that happened ten years ago”—but I still remember it pretty clearly, including some of the names of the people doing it. (Is this true for other people?) Understanding Edwin’s miserable experience is crucial to Annabel discovering the truth about his murder. As for Annabel, she and I share a tentativeness with respect to our crafts. We’re both coming to know ourselves as creative people, to discover our subgenres, the way we work, and the topics that interest us. She knows she’s gaining competency, but she has a lot to learn; I still feel that way myself.

What scene was the easiest to write?
The first truly “easy” scene for me was the one in the tea shop, when Annabel and Matthew sit together and talk for the first time. By that point in the writing process, I knew both of the characters well—and of course I knew Matthew from A Dangerous Duet. (He and I go way back!) So I plunked Matthew and Annabel at the table, with the tea and coffee and sandwiches, and they started talking to each other. They spoke and gestured, and I just wrote it all down. I love getting into that “zone,” and it only happens when I truly know my characters—when I know what they’re afraid of, what they want, and three or four key memories that shaped their world view before page 1. As most writers will tell you, that takes time; there’s no rushing that part of the creative process.

Did any scene in A Trace of Deceit challenge you as a writer?
Oh gosh, yes. I know some writers hate writing romance scenes, but for me it’s the fight scenes. I’m so awkward! I feel like I’ve inadvertently stepped into a comic book with the Avengers, and I’m wondering, What am I doing here? How do I describe this? Pow? Punch? Wham? (Seriously?) And what does that look like in the language of 1870s London? So I’d say the most challenging scene in this book was the confrontation that happens in the stairwell between Matthew and the villain. But I knew it was necessary, so I had three beta-readers look it over to make sure it didn’t sound too superhero but still felt gritty and real.

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 A Trace of Deceit?
I had an entire scene in the auction house that I chopped down to bare bones. It pained me because I so wanted to share it with my readers—so I’m going to share it here! When I was working at Christie’s, on November 11, 1994, Leonardo da Vinci’s CODEX HAMMER, with da Vinci’s famous right-to-left “mirror writing” and the illustration of the Vitruvian Man, was being offered for sale at the Rare Books auction. With some other Christie’s employees, I was standing against one wall of the main sale room, observing the sale. The audience was absolutely buzzing with tension, and as the da Vinci came on, and the bids began to climb: 6 million, 7, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 20, 24, 28, bouncing back and forth between a bidder in the room and an anonymous bidder on the phone. The hairs on my arm were standing up on end. Eventually it was sold to the phone bidder, Bill Gates, and the room erupted in gasps and cheers. 

I wanted to put that whole entire scene in the book because it was the first time I felt down to my nerves just how much suspense and excitement could attach to a piece of art. But it really didn’t belong. There is a vestige of it … and when you get to the scene, you’ll find Annabel standing at the side of the room watching a lively auction. That comes straight out of my real life. 

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 A Trace of Deceit, who would you cast?
This is a fun question! I think I’d want Emma Watson as Annabel. She has a quiet intensity and intelligence and vulnerability that I love to watch. For Matthew Hallam, as I was writing A Dangerous Duet (where he appears as Nell’s brother) I had in mind Ben Barnes, who I think gave an understatedly heroic, compelling (and sexy) performance as Prince Caspian, years ago. For Edwin, I actually had Eddie Redmayne in my head the entire time I was writing A Trace of Deceit! And Edwin has to be present, on-screen, because so much of the book revolves around Annabel recovering her memories of her brother … and realizing, through his sketchbooks and other means, that her memories of him bear “a trace of deceit.”

What do you hope readers take from their experience of A Trace of Deceit?
A big part of this book for me came out of my experience with my sisters, who remember our childhood differently than I do. Part of this is because they are 7 and 9 years younger than I am (I’m the oldest of four) so they had older siblings, which I did not; my parents had more money and leisure time when my sisters were teens and I had already left home. My point is that even siblings do not have the same experience of their family—but it doesn’t mean that one person’s memory is “wrong.” It’s subjective and true and meaningful for each person. I also think of memory as malleable, for sometimes we remember things in a way that accords with a story we want to tell ourselves. So we all need to remember that old wounds shape us and our world views in ways we barely recognize years later, that it helps to be gentle with ourselves and with others, and that most of us are just trying to do the best we can to be good people and take care of the ones we love.

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?
I adore my next book (and I’m about 60,000 words in)! It’s about Gwendolyn Manning. Readers of A Trace of Deceit may recall that she is mentioned in passing, for she is Celia Jesper’s sister, the novelist who as a child liked to tell stories about the chess pieces instead of learning to play. It is 1872 and Gwendolyn’s friend, the political economist and brilliant essayist Lewis Ainsley, has just returned to London from Africa, where he was on an expedition in Africa with Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame). There, Lewis witnessed the atrocities of the slave trade (which England had been fighting to abolish for years) and the ivory trade, and he returns home to write a tell-all book about it. But there are many people—including ivory manufacturers who want to keep the ivory flowing, Members of Parliament in favor of expanding the British Empire, and even Stanley himself, who wants to return to Africa to see the source of the Nile—who adamantly do not want this book published, and Lewis is murdered. Gwendolyn learns that Lewis’s book would have shaped England’s policies in Africa and, out of loyalty to Lewis, she decides to locate the manuscript and make sure it is published … before someone realizes what she’s doing and silences her as well. In this book, I’m interested in how people with money, power, and influence can steer policy and cover their tracks—and how the press can bring about justice, whether it’s for murderers or for disenfranchised people on the other side of the world. 
About Karen Odden: 
Karen Odden earned her Ph.D. from NYU, writing her dissertation on Victorian literature and culture. She has taught English at UW-Milwaukee, and her essays have appeared in numerous journals and books. Her first novel, A Lady in the Smoke, was a USA Today bestseller; A Dangerous Duet and A Trace of Deceit have both won historical fiction awards. She has a newsletter that comes every six weeks and includes giveaways and insider book news. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

#GuestPost: The Barber by Roberto González Rivera

Historical Short Story

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    “Go home,” the warden said. The siren almost drowned out his words.
    “No,” said the nurse. “My place is here, with you. Besides, what will the other nurses say?”
    “They will say that you’re my wife and I give you special treatment, and they won’t be wrong.”
    “I’m staying right here.” Shots rang out outside.
    “What a stubborn woman! Fine, we may need you. Don’t walk in front of any windows.”
    A young guard burst into the warden’s office. He was thin as a rail and the starched khaki uniform looked big on him, but he was all earnestness as he saluted.
    “I’m coming, I’m coming,” said the warden, grabbing a large keyring from his desk. “And turn off that siren!”
    “Yes, sir!” said the guard, and he ran off.
    The warden marched out of his office and down the hall. He opened a reinforced door, then unlocked the cabinets that contained the dusty old M-1 rifles. Somewhere above him, the siren stopped. Now his sergeant was at his side. The men rushed in to get their weapons. Each man took a box of bullets. The warden walked out of the armory with a nod at his sergeant and climbed the staircase to the second story. Although polychromed tiles on the floor had lost its shine over the years, they had kept their color. He would never admit it, but the warden found their pattern reassuring. It reminded him of his childhood home.
    At the top of the stairs, he stopped and took a deep breath. To his left was the women’s wing. The men were to his right. The district jail of Arecibo, on the north coast of the island of Puerto Rico, only had a couple dozen prisoners in each section at any given time. Some were violent, others were crooks, but almost all of them deserved to be there. Almost. He turned left.
    The chatter stopped as soon as the warden’s steps echoed in the hallway. Most inmates stared at the tall, dark figure in the immaculate suit and tie and shrunk back from the bars of their cells. One prisoner stepped up and looked him in the eye.
    “What’s happening?” she said.
    “There’s a revolt outside, María,” said the warden. 
    “Do they mean to hurt us?”
    “Oh, no. They want to set you free. They think it can help their cause. How about that? It has not been five years since we beat the Nazis, and now we are fighting these fools.”
    “Ah. So what is going to happen?”
    “They will never make it, María. I’m sorry. I would let you go if I could, but not this way.”
    “You always trusted me,” María said with a crooked smile.
    “I know you did not kill him, María, but…”
    More shots rang out.
    They looked at each other. It was not love or romance between them. What they felt was mutual compassion. They were friends.
    “I—” he started.
    “Go,” said María. 
    The warden sighed, then walked away.
    María sat down on her bunk bed. She had long ago ran out of tears.
    The warden crossed the men’s wing until he came to the window that overlooked the yard. This is where his youngest son would play softball with the prisoners in days gone by. He had grown up on a first-name basis with every thief and grifter in town. Plus, he was the only one who could go get the ball when someone hit it out of the park. He had left for college in San Juan two years earlier.
    “I’m glad you’re not here today,” said the warden in a whisper. 
    His own home was across the yard. It was a two-story cement house inside the complex. The porch was overgrown with houseplants. The cat was staring at him from behind the honeysuckle, indifferent as always.
    “With a little luck, you’ll get shot today,” he said.
    His men were at their posts on the walls and in the watchtowers, rifles ready.
    Somewhere outside, the crowd roared. The actual fight had started. The warden ran to the stairs and descended them two at a time. He arrived at the main entrance just as the throng was charging the gate. They never had a chance.

    Back at his office, the warden loosened his tie and had a drink of water. The sun was going down. 
    “I’ll get dinner started,” said the nurse.
    “Thank you, my love,” said the warden. 
    “Will you be long?”
    “One more thing to take care of. I’ll be there soon.”
    She smiled. Her white uniform seemed to glow against her silky black skin in the fading light.
    “I love you,” she said, her hands on his powerful shoulders.
    The warden’s eyes, olive green during the day, were turning to a speckled golden yellow.
    “I love you, too,” he replied.
    They kissed, and she slipped away in silence. As she left the office, the sergeant strolled in.
    “He’s here, sir.”
    The warden sat down at his desk.
    “Bring him in.”
    The sergeant stepped out. He returned with a small man with slick black hair and a narrow mustache. From where he sat, the warden felt a flowery aroma mixed with the smell of sweat.
    “Leave us,” said the warden.
    The sergeant left.
    The warden stood and walked around his desk. He towered over the man before him.
    “How long have you been my barber, Emilio?”
    “A little over three years, now, sir.”
    “And you shaved me every morning, Monday to Friday, for all those years.”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “I trusted you. With that razor or yours, you could have slit my throat any day.”
    The barber stretched to his full height and studied the warden.
    “If I had found you in my sights today in battle, sir, I would have pulled the trigger. But to cut your throat while I plied my trade, why, that would have been vile murder, sir! If you think me capable of such a thing, you don’t know me!”
    The warden stared at the barber for a moment. Then he offered his hand. The other man shook it.
    “Sergeant!” said the warden.
    “Yes, sir!”
    The warden was still looking at the barber.
    “Take this gentleman back to his cell.”

    The warden died before his youngest son met my mother, another firecracker of a young nurse, and married her. The authorities eventually released María on good behavior. Even after my own father had passed, when María was elderly and frail, she would come visit us. 
    “Your grandfather was a fine man,” she would say.
    Many years have gone by since those days. I visited my hometown recently, and I thought I would stop by the old jail. As I walked past the wall, I noticed something. The bullet holes are still there. 

Author’s Note:
This story is a work or fiction based on historical events. My grandfather was indeed the warden of the Arecibo District Jail during the 1950 uprising, which included an assault on the jail. I changed the names of the characters. Everything else is true. 
About Roberto González Rivera: 
Roberto González Rivera is an artist and teacher and the author of the Caribbean Chronicles series of historical fiction adventure novels.. He won his first writing award in seventh grade and has been writing ever since. Born in Puerto Rico, he has lived in a half dozen countries. He may or may not be wanted in one of them. He has taught every level from K to college and he loves to share what he has learned. His artwork is in the collection of the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture and the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. Although he misses the snow and ice of the north, he enjoys the apocalyptic thunderstorms of the Florida Everglades. He is working on his next project and trying hard to stay out of trouble.