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Monday, December 24, 2007

My 2007 Favorites

Happy New Year!
Thanks for helping me launch this blog and for sticking around to read it. I've had a lot of fun with it. I started out with the personal mission that I wanted to feature writers whose books I've read and liked; to my surprise, some of the writers I ended up interviewing found me, instead. It's been an honor to feature their voices. Whether the writer is a woman or a man, published by a large commercial house or an independent, one thing stood out for me: historical fiction writers are some of the most dedicated and passionate people I know.

This also means I stuck to my 2007 resolution, which was to read more than I did in 2006. I managed to finish 34 books this year, 2 more than last year. Some books I reviewed for the Historical Novel Reviews; others, I read for this blog, and others for pure entertainment. I'm not including research books in my resolution, because I'm always doing research and I tend to read from an assortment of different books. While I usually finish almost all the non-fiction I tackle for research, it's done hapharzardly, as I careen from 16th century fashion accessories to buildings to family dynasties and politics, sometimes all within the same day.

Anyway, 2007 ended up being a terrific reading year for me, so I decided to compile my favorite 12 books for the year. This list doesn't include books featured on this blog; while they're also favorites, I wanted to highlight books I haven't mentioned. This list also isn't exclusive to books published in 2007. Hopefully, you'll find something new and exciting here. Also, please feel free to share any book you read in 2007 that kept you up at night, made you miss your bus stop, or consumed an entire afternoon of your life before you knew it. If you can, include a URL, too. As you may have noticed, I'm always on the look-out for new books to buy! And here's to reading more in 2008.

MY FAVORITE 12 BOOKS IN 2007


1) C.J. Samson, SOVEREIGN

I'm a huge fan of the Matthew Shardlake mysteries, and in this third installment we're taken on progress to York, where Matthew must contend not only with the chaos of a royal progress but also the protection of a dangerous political prisoner. There are no anachronisms here: Shardlake's world is claustrophobic, treacherous and at times terribly cruel -- a Tudor England rarely depicted in fiction. Available in hardcover.



2) Patrick McGrath, MARTHA PEAKE

This haunting, gothic tale set during the American Revolution kept me up well into the night. Through the story of a young man facing an eerie legacy, we learn of the legendary Martha Peake, her eccentric, tormented father, and unexpected journey to the American colonies, where she finds herself immersed in the struggle for independence, both outwardly and in her spirit. Available in trade edition.


3) Judith Merkle Riley, THE WATER DEVIL

The conclusion to her bestselling Margaret of Ashbury trilogy was first released in Germany, and it took more than fifteen years to be finally published here - but it was well worth the wait. With her trademark wit and sparkling prose, Ms Merkle Riley launches the resourceful Margaret and her family on a tumultuous, dysfunctional visit to her husband's familial manor, where supernatural events collide into human foibles, often with darkly humorous, spine-chilling results. Available in trade edition.



4) Michelle Lovric, THE FLOATING BOOK

The story of the first printer to set up shop in Venice is only one velvet layer in this evocative novel set in Venice in the 16th century; through the story of a vengeful woman, a poetic printer and the girl who loves him, Ms Lovric combines breathtaking lyricism with an ambitious storyline filled with delicate word gems. Available in hardcover and trade editions.


5 - 8) Pauline Gedge, THE LORD OF THE TWO LANDS Trilogy

THE HIPPOTAMUS MARSH, THE OASIS, and THE HORUS ROAD are three novels that comprise Ms Gedge's epic reconstruction of the Egyptian princes' revolt against the invading Hyskos, which led to the founding of the 18th Dynasty, arguably the most famous of ancient Egypt. This is taut, compelling storytelling; while more military in theme than her other books, Gedge's uncanny ability to immersh you in the fascinating details of a vanished world without resorting to anachronisim is a wonder in of itself. The trilogy is best read in order. Available in hardcover and trade editions.



7) Margaret Ball, DUCHESS OF AQUITAINE

Eleanor of Aquitaine is the Plantagenet poster girl and I'm not often drawn to books about her simply because I've read so many. Ms Ball's novel lanquished for years after it sold before her publisher decided to release it; who knows why it sat for so long, because Ball's take on a young, impetuous Eleanor who's a little pagan in her outlook on life is unexpectedly original. Combine it with a facility for description, and you've got a book worth reading, even if you think you know everything about this charismatic queen. Available in hardcover and trade editions.

8) Patricia Finney, GLORIANA'S TORCH


The conclusion to her trilogy featuring the tormented spymaster Becket and his posse of friends is as compulsively readable, and graphically accurate, as the previous two books. Here, Becket finds himself tracking a munitions plot that may lead to a Spanish attack on England, even as his friend Simon is captured as a spy by the Inquisition and chained to one of the Invincible Armada's galleys. The depiction of the Spanish point of view is rare, and the events surprise, even if the Armada's attack on England is an oft-told tale. Available in hardcover and trade editions.


9 - 12) Alice Borchardt, WOLF Trilogy

Alice Borchardt's death in 2007 was a loss to the historical / fantasy realm. I've had THE SILVER WOLF, NIGHT OF THE WOLF and THE WOLF KING in hardcover for years, but they got buried under subsequent purchases. When I finally unearthed them, I found Ms Borchardt's writing is lush and surprisingly unsentimental, and her tale of shapeshifters in Rome and France during the Dark Ages thrilled me without sacrificing historical detail. For me, these books strike that elusive balance between historical fiction, romance, and the supernatural. The trilogy is best read in order. Available in mass market paperback.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"Signed, Mata Hari" Contest at Loaded Shelf.com


Hi all,
Quick note to let you know that Kelly Hewitt over at LoadedQuestions.com has a new contest. Five lucky readers will win signed copies of Yannick Murphy's new historical novel, Signed, Mata Hari.

The deadline for the contest is December 30, 2007, so check it out. She's also featuring an very interesting interview with the author of the book. Go to:
http://loadedquestions.blogspot.com/2007/12/free-giveaway-and-loaded-questions-with.html

Monday, December 3, 2007

Interview with Thomas Quinn, author of THE LION OF ST MARK and SWORD OF VENICE

Thomas Quinn's The Venetians Trilogy published by Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, has two books thus far: THE LION OF ST MARK (2005. 336 pgs. 978-0312319083) which introduces us to two feuding mercantile families in 15th century Venice who face a far more dangerous threat: the advancing Ottoman Turks. In his new release, SWORD OF VENICE (2007. 304 pgs.978-0312319106) the story deepens as sons take up their fathers' hatreds and internecine wars threaten Venice's stability, both from within and without. Intrigue, harrowing battle and intelligent drama combine in one of the most glorious of Italy's cities during her most vulnerable moment in history. This is high adventure that echoes the swashbuckling works of Dumas and C.S. Forester, from a talented writer who has clearly done his research.

Thomas Quinn was born in Newark, NJ, and is a Cornell graduate. After a long career with Procter & Gamble in sales and marketing, he became president of an Irish Dairy Board U.S. subsidiary and later was vice president of sales for both Warner-Lambert and CIGNA Healthcare. He now writes full time and lives in West Chester, PA. The Lion of St. Mark was selected as an “Editor’s Choice” by Frank Wilson, book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The second book in the series, The Sword of Venice, was released on December 10, 2007. He is currently working on his third book which will be published in January 2009. To learn more about him his books and his research, please visit Thomas at: http://www.thomasquinnbooks.com/


1. Congratulations on the publication of SWORD OF VENICE, the second novel in your exciting Venetians Trilogy, following 2005’s THE LION OF ST. MARK. It's a pleasure to have you with us. The Venetians series is an adventure-filled, adrenaline-charged look at Venetian Republic when it found itself at the height of its power in the 1400s and facing imminent threat from the Ottoman Turks, who had overtaken Constantinople. What inspired you to write about this vital, complex period on history?

I decided to write about Venice after visiting the city ten years ago. Enchanted, I immediately began to search for a novel like The Count of Monte Cristo set there but couldn’t find one. After reading several histories, including John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice, I decided to write the book I longed to read. I hope others will think I succeeded. Venice’s past is so rich I knew that if I could create an exciting tale set in these times of great peril for La Serenissima it would make a great read. I was also fascinated by the Ottoman Turks’ siege of Constantinople in 1453. It was truly a turning point for western civilization – a cataclysmic event with relevance for our modern times. That’s why I chose to begin the trilogy at that time.

2. Venice rose to power in a different way than other city-states in Italy. What kinds of challenges did you encounter while researching the city’s history? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover, if any, about Venice?

I suffered through the usual discrepancies in proper names although there has been a great deal written about Venice. My Italian is weak but I persevered. There is a great site which lists every battle during the condottiere wars in amazing detail which was a great help. Google Earth didn’t come online until after I wrote the first book but was a great help for the second. Perhaps the biggest challenge was to make the “historical black holes” seamless. For example, sources disagreed on whether a battle even occurred at the old Roman wall across the Isthmus of Corinth. I had very few details to go on. But then, that’s why it’s called historical fiction. I will state unequivocally, however, that all history in the books is as true and accurate as I could relate it. I’m a stickler about that sort of thing. I discovered that the Venetians were the inventors of many modern business and governmental concepts. You could make the case that in Venice mankind saw the first combination of representative government and capitalism in one state. The other amazing thing I found was that almost without fail, Venice managed to remain united in the face of her enemies – she never suffered from a “fifth column” like so many other states. That, more than anything enabled her to survive, unconquered, for 1,100 years.

3. The heart of your story is a deadly feud between two rival mercantile families—the House of Soranzo and the House of Ziani. Through them and the tumultuous events that envelop the protagonists as they struggle against each other while defending Venice against the Turks, we learn a great deal about Venice’s ruling system, as well as its class structure and the complexity of its trading ties. How did you go about creating your fictional families so that they would fit into this era? Can you tell us about any methods you employ to give your characters authenticity? If you had to choose, which character or characters became the one (s) you most enjoyed writing?

I created an excel spreadsheet listing popes, doges, principal characters, and all significant historical and plot twist events. These were all integrated with hundreds of notes gleaned from research about Venice, the Ottoman Empire and rival Italian city-states. I tried to weave fictional events in the families’ feud into the history and then season it with many interesting facts to make the books entertaining but also interesting. I chose a merchant (shipping) family and a banking family to show their interdependence in a capitalist system. Also, I was highly interested in showing that countrymen who don’t get along – even hate each other – if they’re smart, will cooperate to save their mutual hides when attacked by those who want to destroy them.

My favorite character was Seraglio. He represents that possibility we all encounter in our lives to make a lifelong friend, if only we can look past personal appearances and first impressions and allow that person to demonstrate their worth. What a better world it would be if we could all do as Antonio Ziani!

4. The Venetians series entwines personal and political elements into an intense, action-driven storyline that features both Turkish and Christian characters. Both cultures were equally determined to destroy each other in the name of religion and power, so how did you go about balancing the Christian and Muslim points of view? Were you at all concerned that your depiction of the clash between these two very different peoples might stir controversy? If so, did you make any difficult choices to ensure that the novel reflected historical reality?

I did give that a lot of thought. To each side, the other was the devil incarnate. First, I was determined to make the Turks smart – because they were. They were also much more unified that the Christian West, although not necessarily Venice. This gave them a tremendous advantage. However, I am a historian and history was not kind to the Turks. Their culture, like the tides, rose and then receded. The period of my book was a time of ascendency for the Ottoman Empire – they defeated Venice and seized her possessions in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, they were unable to achieve their primary goal – converting Europe to Islam. Their weakness was their extreme cruelty and obsession with enslaving their victims. The “debate” between Antonio Ziani and Abdullah Ali about the relative merits of their respective religions and cultures in chapter seven of The Lion of St. Mark was extremely difficult but highly satisfying to write.

5. Many people are fascinated by Venice and often see the city as a romantic, benign panorama of fading palazzos, canals, and gondolas. Your books offer a fascinating look at the city when it reveled in wealth and power. In her time, Venice was considered both a glory and a formidable foe when crossed. How did you go about recreating details of life in this period of time for your reader? What were the characteristics that defined a Venetian’s way of life?

I consulted many sources but most of all, I went there and spent time just walking around and breathing in the atmosphere. Venice, more than any other large city I know, retains a feel of the past. No cars, little noise, the aroma of the sea, fascinating people, and gorgeous architecture are unfettered by modernity. Venice is the largest museum in the world.

Business was Venice’s religion. This could explain their continual conflicts with the papacy. Venice also revered education (witness The University of Padua and scores of scuoli – the guilds that ensured Venice’s dominance in the trades). Three things were most important to defining their way of life: (1) Venice was obsessed with adhering to the rule of law, fearing corruption and subversion from within more than aggression by foreign invaders (2) In Venice, a man’s greatest achievement was to devote brave, loyal and honest service to the state. Government workers were the most, not the least, capable (3) Venice provided more opportunity/upward mobility than anywhere else on earth. Consequently, she could attract the most talented people to become citizens, fight in her army and navy and many provinces and towns treasured their dominance by Venice. She suffered few revolts. She welcomed the Jews when other states detested and mistreated them.

5. How do you think your novel speaks to today's reader, or how do the events you evoke resonate in today's world?

We could learn a lot from Venice; in my Author’s Note, in The Lion of St. Mark, I point out some similarities between La Serenissima, the world’ longest lasting republic, and America, the world’s most successful republic. Here are some things that Western democracies could learn from the Venetians:

(1) The Venetians demanded unswerving allegiance to the Republic – with no exceptions. They believed the greatest threat to their survival and freedom was from internal weakness and factionalism. By the way, Washington and Franklin warned of the same dangers.
(2) The Venetians were enthusiastically patriotic. They did not tolerate defeatism or acts that undermined their efforts to oppose their enemies – these were regarded as treasonous and punished severely.
(3) The Venetians trusted their government because the very best men were the government – just like in America when our founding fathers led our country.
(4) The Venetians saw the dangerous world for what it was, suffering no illusions. Good was good and evil was evil. There was no equivalency. They knew an enemy is emboldened by appeasement and that military, economic and diplomatic strength is the only real safeguard of freedom. They wrote the book before Machiavelli (1513: The Prince)
(5) The Venetians diligently passed down to each new generation an understanding and appreciation of what made Venice great; and a desire to preserve their republic and make it better. They also continuously improved their industry to make it the best in the world. They were proud resourceful innovators. Washington wrote that an uneducated electorate would lead to the death of the American democracy.
(6) The Venetians used every advantage they possessed to win; economic, military and diplomatic powers were frequently employed. They never fought with one hand tied behind their back. They worked hard to build alliances but when they were mortally threatened, then recognized, ultimately, that they were responsible for their own survival.


6. Please tell us about your next project.

I’m starting work on the third book in The Venetians Trilogy entitled Venice Stands Alone. It recounts the events that spelled the end of the Renaissance beginning with the discoveries of the New World (1492) and Da Gama’s all-sea route to India (1497) and French King Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy (1494). Specifically, the book recounts the disastrous war between Venice and virtually all of Europe, fighting against her as the papacy-led League of Cambrai (1509-1510). It was La Serenissima’s most valiant hour. It is also the point in history when war changed forever, from noblemen taking each other for ransom to wholesale slaughter at long range by artillery and shoulder-fired gunpowder weapons.

Thank you, Thomas. I'm looking forward to Book 3 in The Venetians Trilogy, as I'm sure are your many fans. To all you adventurous readers out there, please give Thomas's books a try. You won't be disappointed!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Interview with Steven Saylor, author of ROMA

This year, I reviewed Steven Saylor's novel ROMA (St. Martin’s Press. 2007. 576 pgs. $25.95. hc. 0-312-32831-1 .) for the Historical Novels Review. At the time my partner and I were devouring HBO's series, Rome, via netflix and I wanted to learn more about the city that I'd visited several times but actually know relatively little about, before the Renaissance. I'd read the first two books in Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa mystery series, featuring Gordianus the Finder, and was excited about his new venture.

ROMA is an epic novel by every definition, yet also surprisingly intimate, driven by beautifully drawn characters. In my review, I wrote: Steven Saylor, the award-winning mystery writer of the Roma Sub Rosa series, undertakes the multigenerational historical saga in his latest novel ROMA . . . Saylor frames his compelling, fast-moving narrative in elegant prose, using the device of a fictional family whose fates are closely interwoven with the vicissitudes and fortunes of the city. The cast is large and varied, beginning with a salt trader’s daughter in 1000 BC who receives a mysterious gold talisman that will become a family heirloom. Through the eyes of her descendants, the Potitius family, we witness the city’s founding by Romulus and Remus, the struggles and intrigues of plebeians and patricians, Hannibal’s invasion, a mass murderer’s scheme to wipe out a competing dynasty, a vestal virgin’s sacrifice, and the tragic attempt of two sibling politicians to revolutionize Roman society . . . Readers will find themselves in awe of Saylor’s command of his sprawling storyline, his penchant for detail, as well as his evident passion for Rome herself, a city whose complex grandeur and enigmatic allure continue to entice our collective imagination.

Steven Saylor is the bestselling author of twelve novels set in ancient Rome and two contemporary thrillers. He's considered an expert on the ancient world and has been invited to speak on The History Channel and at several international conferences. ROMA is currently being translated into eleven languages and counting; it hit the New York Times bestseller list and is a bestseller in Budapest, where Steven toured this summer. He currently divides his time between Austin, Texas, and Northern California. To learn more about him, as well as fascinating details about his research and commentary on ancient history in books and film, please visit Steven: http://www.stevensaylor.com/

Please join me in welcoming Steven Saylor:


1. Congratulations on the publication of ROMA. It's a honor to have you with us. ROMA is a marvelous, epic novel that traces a thousand years in Rome's history. What inspired you to take on such an ambitious project after having found bestselling success with your Roma Sub Rosa mystery series?

I give credit to my publisher in England, Nick Robinson of Constable. A few years ago, when I was in London on book tour, Nick had me to his flat for a serious chat and proposed I write a “big book” outside my crime series. The idea that immediately popped into my head was a Michener/Rutherfurd-style centuries-long epic about Rome, something no one had yet done. Then I talked about the idea with my US editor, Keith Kahla at St. Martin’s Press. Not wanting to bite off too much, we honed the idea down to the first 1000 years of the city, stopping at 1 B.C. From simple conversations come big books.

2. Rome's early origins are steeped in myth. How challenging was it to research the facts behind the myth and create a realistic interpretation of the city's founding? What surprising facts did you discover, if any, about Rome and its beginnings?

The 19th-century historians who laid the groundwork for our understanding of earliest Rome were highly skeptical of the legendary accounts of Romulus and Remus, but more recent archaeological finds in Rome have caused some current historians to revise their thinking. It’s a very fertile, exciting time right now in early Roman studies. In ROMA I try to strike a certain balance between historical “fact” and the more legendary accounts, which have their own validity (and which the later Romans themselves believed). At the outset of the novel I quote an epigram from the historian Alexandre Grandazzi: “Legend is historical, just as history is legendary.” That was a guiding precept for the book.One of the surprises was the sophistication and cynicism of the Roman historians themselves. Livy, our principal source, doesn’t buy the idea that Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf. He notes that the word lupa can also mean prostitute, so he speculates that such a woman raised the twins, and later legend turned her literally into a she-wolf.

3. ROMA traces two fictional families in particular through the years, offering a diverse perspective of Roman society linked by the past and a gold talisman. Among the memorable cast of characters are a mass murderer and a vestal virgin. How did you research the creation of your fictional characters? In particular, did you find portraying a female point of view easy or challenging? Can you tell us about any methods you employ to give your characters authenticity?

The two families, the Pinarii and the Potitii, are historical. In fact, they’re the earliest families we know about in Roman history; both are mentioned in the first pages of Livy.For historical characters, like Coriolanus or Julius Caesar or Cleopatra, we have various sources to draw on, as well as traditions created by earlier writers of fiction, like Shakespeare, who created unforgettable portraits of all three of those people. For my entirely fictional characters, like the Vestal Pinaria in the chapter about the Gallic invasion of Rome, I took inspiration from a comment made by Betty Radice. Writing about Livy’s powers as a novelist as well as historian, Radice notes that Livy “never falls into the error of trying to create atmosphere by lifting pages from Baedeker—George Eliot and Lord Lytton earnestly did their best with Florence and Pompeii, but the dead stones never speak. Instead, he keeps descriptions to a minimum and recreates the spirit of Rome by entering into the feelings of the people of the time....he can make us feel what it is like to suffer a long siege, to lie on a battlefield wounded and dying, to be trapped in a panic-stricken crowd....” That’s the key to creating both atmosphere and character in a historical novel — not to give endless details or descriptions, but to make the reader feel what it’s like to be alive in a certain time and place. So I don’t spend a lot of time describing Pinaria or her family history. Instead I try to imagine what this pious young woman must have felt, trapped atop the Capitoline Hill while the Gauls ransacked her beloved city below. Her religious faith is shattered by the experience; her ideas about the world and about herself are radically altered. What sort of choices would she face? (Here’s a hint: Pinaria remains a Vestal, but not a virgin!)The historical sources are often very scant when it comes to women. Even the most famous woman in history, Cleopatra, doesn’t get her own biography from Plutarch; we have to search for her in the biographies of the men, like Antony and Caesar! So there is a very special challenge to recreating the thought-world of women in the ancient world.

4. Many people are fascinated by ancient Rome but often see it as a Hollywood-inspired version of depraved emperors and blood-thirsty gladiators; your book offers a refreshing perspective that focuses on the equally tumultuous events of the republic, which led up to the imperial era. How did you go about recreating this lesser-known period of time for your reader? Were there any particular choices you made concerning the events you would write about?

Curiously, the popular culture of an earlier century focused not on the depravity of the Roman empire, but on the perceived virtues of the Republic that gave birth to it. Victorian schoolboys knew all about the legends of Romulus and Remus, and the treachery of Coriolanus, and the struggle of the patricians and plebeians, while Americans of our time seem to be much more fascinated by the imperial pomp and perversity of Nero and Caligula. That must say something about us, don’t you think?One of my goal in ROMA was to reclaim that knowledge of the first centuries of Rome, which is indeed full of incredibly dramatic stories and towering figures of virtue and vice. There’s such a wealth of great material that the challenge was to decide which of those tales were most significant and to home in on them, creating the context with as few brushstrokes as possible and then focusing on the people involved, feeling what they must have felt as they fell in love or got the best of their enemies or faced death at the hands of an angry mob.

5. ROMA combines personal and political elements into a multi- generational saga that features intense passion, hatred, spirituality, sexuality, and harrowing violence. This is literally a book with something for everyone. Were you at all concerned while writing that your story might not appeal to both women and men readers? If so, did you make any extra efforts to ensure that the novel reached its intended audience?

I consciously tried to split the perspective as evenly as I could between the male and female characters. I couldn’t quite pull that off, especially in the later chapters, because the historical record is so thoroughly dominated by men. But wherever I was given a memorable woman in the sources, I seized on the opportunity to explore her place in the world and give her a voice. For example, along with the radical firebrands Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, two brothers who changed Rome forever, history gives us a vivid portrait of their mother, Cornelia. So of course Cornelia plays a prominent role in the book.

6. How do you think your novel speaks to today's reader, or how do the events you evoke resonate in today's world?

People seem irresistibly drawn to wonder about parallels between ancient Rome and modern America. And indeed, when you delve into the politics of the ancients, you do find startling similarities. For example, whenever the authority of the ruling class is challenged by those less well-off, the conservative elites start preaching patriotism and religious piety and whip up xenophobic hysteria; over and over we hear them say, “Do as your betters tell you and Rome will be safe; disobey us and your treason and sinfulness will let outsiders destroy Rome.” At the other end of the political spectrum, rabble-rousers — whether driven by idealism or personal ambition — exploit the resentment of the struggling classes. Both sides use lawsuits and sexual scandals to drag down their opponents. Doesn’t all this sound familiar?

7. Please tell us about your next project.

My next novel will be a return to the Roma Sub Rosa crime series with Gordianus the Finder. It’s called THE TRIUMPH OF CAESAR and comes out in May 2008.Right now I’m hard at work on the follow-up to ROMA, which will be another epic novel spanning the next 500 years of Roman history, from the beginning of the empire under Augustus to the barbarian invasions and the very last emperor in Rome, an unfortunate young man named Romulus Augustus. I’m doing the research right now. It’s going to be quite a challenge, getting inside the heads of people as varied as Hadrian, who deified his young male lover, Antinous, and Constantine the Great, who made Christianity the state religion. Again, the sources are not generous in giving us material about the women, and they tend to vilify the ones who stand out, like Nero’s mother, Agrippina. But uncovering their stories is one of my jobs.

Thank you, Steven. I am looking forward to your latest book, as are your many fans!

In Memory of Reay Tannahill

Author Reay Tannahill died in England on November 7, at the age of 78.

She became a pioneering author by accident, commissioned by the Folio Society in the 1960s to write a history of food, which turned into the bestseller Food in History - a landmark exploration of the evolution and importance of food through the ages. With wit and style, she later revised the book after new discoveries were made in the field, and wrote her second bestselling book, Sex in History.

She then turned to fiction - historical fiction, to be exact. She wrote several bestselling novels over the years, including my two favorites: The World, the Flesh and the Devil, set in medieval Scotland, France and Rome; and Fatal Majesty, which offers a different view of the events that led up to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Fatal Majesty was published by St Martin's Press in the US. I own a first-edition hardcover. The cover features a blue web with a portrait of Mary in the middle, against a gold-leaf background. It's an odd cover, and the book sat on my shelf for over a year before one day I decided to try it out. I've always been interested in Mary, Queen of Scots; in my teens, I was fascinated by her and read what many consider to be the definitive historical novel about her, Immortal Queen by Elizabeth Byrd. I later read Margaret Irwin's book, as well as Margaret George's, both of which I enjoyed, and this accounted in part for my initial reluctance to immediatly read Ms Tannahill's. I bought it because, well, I buy everything historical, but I felt there wasn't anything more anyone could say about Mary of Scots in fiction that would prove a revelation.

Fatal Majesty isn't about Mary per se, though. It's about the political and religious struggle behind Mary, after she arrives in Scotland from France. When she appears, her perspective is beautifully depicted but the book is bigger than her, with a suspenseful, almost thriller-like element to it. You know the ending, naturally, but it's a great read to get there. I noticed the book got tepid reviews and yet this is one of those occasions when I disagree. I found it to be a compelling novel, offering an unusual take on the drama of Mary Stuart's later life. I treasure my first edition.

I'll miss Reay Tannahill's writing, as I'm sure will many readers. You can read Ms Tannahill's obituary here: http://news.independent.co.uk/people/obituaries/article3198905.ece

Monday, November 26, 2007

Dreaming the book

I hope everyone had a safe and healthy Thanksgiving. My partner, Erik, our corgi, Paris, and I went up to our home in Lake Tahoe and chilled out. Literally. It was quite cold, though we've yet to see a decent snow fall. I'm an avid skiier, so I'm eager for the first real snow, of course, but more importantly the beautiful, super-friendly community of Lake Tahoe needs the snow, as does our California water supply. So, here's praying for snow. And here's something we can all do about ensuring that we continue to see snow throughout the world:
http://www.worldlandtrust.org/supporting/donation.htm

This year, my family is getting acreage for Christmas!

So, New York. A few of you have written to ask me how the trip went. In a word, fantastic. I met my agent for the first time in person. She's lovely, with a mane of thick curly hair and an exuberant laugh. She gave me a tour of the reknowned agency where she works, which is lined with bookshelves bearing first and foreign editions of such classics they have sold as Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear, and she introduced me to other members of the agency - all smart, chic women. I was in heaven. Then she took me to lunch. I owe her a hybrid Cadillac for everything she's done for me, but it's marvelous that besides being a fierce agent, she's someone I truly like as a person. She watches over me and she fights for me; and her honesty keeps my feet on the ground. I've heard other writers rave about their agents, both in positive and negative ways, and all I can say is that I'm a fortunate writer, indeed.

The next day, she and I met in the lobby of the Random House office building -- which ended up being a mere six blocks from my hotel. I'd passed it numerous times on my jaunts to and from the Times Square subway and hadn't even noticed it! Anyway, I was sweating like a rotisserie chicken, I was so nervous. After more than twelve years of knocking on New York's doors - and then going my own way for a while - I found the idea of walking into Random House daunting, to say the least. Years of rejection had also, I discovered, hardened my writer's heart. I'd heard "no" so often, I'd inadvertently pigeon-holed major publishers as arid bureaucrats peering always at the bottom line, their love for literature a discarded relic of the past.

Boy, was I surprised. I first met my editor and my assistant editor, both of whom are fashionable, intelligent New York women and warriors for my work in a big house that publishes hundreds of books a year, as well as the lovely lady handling my audio rights. Then we joined the senior foreign rights manager, the serial rights manager, the vice president of marketing, and the director of publicity and the senior publicist assigned to my book, for lunch. They took me to a great restaurant whose name I don't remember at all, because by then I'd shed all my previous nervousness and was plunged into a ricochet of conversations with this group of vital, fun, and enthusiastic people, whose passion, commitment and obvious delight to be publishing my book was both humbling and inspiring. From my editor onward, each had a unique perspective on The Last Queen and each shared their ideas and vision for launching it. Their professionalism and talent, intelligence and humor, but above all, their passion, made me the happiest writer alive that day.


I learned some valuable lessons as well, the first being that people go into publishing first and foremost because they love books. The second is that I wish I were ten years younger and had gone into publishing myself. It's a world that fascinates me, one I feel kinship with. Given the ongoing dire news on reading in this country, as well as the continuing plethora of entertainment options, the book remains far more than an object: it's an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual experience for most of us; and publishers - large and small, corporate and independent - are out there fighting for it. I also learned once more that the days of the languid writer seated at a table with pen in hand while eager readers wait in line to get his or her autograph on that coveted first printing, are over. Unless you're Caroline Kennedy or Dr Phil, most of us have to join forces with our publishers to get the word out that we have a book. There's ferocious competition not only within our own world but also from outside - all of it vying for attention. I got insight about - and have tremendous respect for - the hard-working publisher publicity and marketing departments, which every day confront, and work around, the millions of dollars thrown at a single big-budget movie release. I also felt an unexpected surge of outrage that, by and large, the book has become marginalized in our society. We've countless television shows promulgating the cult of celebrity and its sometime dubious contributions, but where are the shows that exalt the contribution of the written word? Why do we, as a culture, only pay attention to the book when it gets too big (i.e., sells) to ignore, raises controversy, or is anointed by Oprah? How can we have neglected one of our oldest, most time-honored and civilized forms of art?

I think every book deserves to be read; and if we all read as much as we say, watch television, imagine the kind of world we'd live in. I mean, pause for a moment. Imagine it.

This is what I thought on my way back home from New York.



Sunday, November 18, 2007

Review of Alison Weir's "Innocent Traitor"


Now and then, I'll be posting reviews of books I really enjoyed. One of those books is Alison Weir's INNOCENT TRAITOR.


The story of Lady Jane Grey, the tragic Nine Days Queen, is well known to most people familiar with the Tudor period. Nevertheless, she exerts a powerful attraction because she was kin to Henry VIII's children and became a pawn through no fault of her own, coming to the fore during a crisis in the Tudor succession following the death of Edward VI. "Innocent Traitor" - acclaimed historian Alison Weir's entry into the historical fiction arena - brings Jane Grey to life in a unique and vibrant way. Through a medley of voices, including Jane's own, that of her mother Eleanor of Suffolk, her devoted nursemaid, and even Jane's royal cousin Mary Tudor, we experience the maneuverings and intrigues of life at court through various perspectives and opinions. We also come to know Jane as an emotionally abused child of gifted intelligence; as a young woman of staunch faith and honor; and as a reluctant queen whose pure reformist vision cannot overcome the depredations of her father-in-law and his ruthless associates. Helpless to stem the forces moving against her, Jane records her fate with stoic dignity and a keen eye. It's to be expected that any book by Ms. Weir will be full of intimate details about life in the era; nevertheless, she does not overwhelm the narrative but rather expertly seasons it with facts that display her painstaking commitment to authenticity. In addition, she imbues even such unpleasant characters as Jane's parents with foibles and vulnerabilities of their own, giving them flesh-and-blood dimension. Jane's mother in particular dominates with her leonine pride in her royal blood, her rapacious ambition and her lusty marriage to a man who is her intellectual inferior. A true survivor of her time, she does not concede defeat, bending to obstacles when she cannot mold them to her will. Readers of historical fiction should not miss this compelling debut by one of England's foremost authorities on the Tudors - a tale of grandeur, betrayal and innocence, framed by one woman's journey from throne to scaffold.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Free Giveaway Contest over at LoadedShelf.com

Hi friends,
I'm in New York right now, meeting with my agent and editor at Random House. It's very exciting and I'll post more later, but for now I wanted you to know that the fabulous Kelly Hewitt at LoadedShelf.com is offering a free giveaway contest for author Lauren Willig's latest release in her Pink Carnation series, THE SEDUCTION OF CRIMSON ROSE. Kelly has a wonderful site featuring author interviews, so please get on over there and check the contest out! The link is:http://loadedquestions.blogspot.com/2007/11/free-giveaway-lauren-willigs-seduction.html

Have fun and good luck!!

Monday, November 5, 2007

An interview with Sarah Bryant, author of "Sand Daughter"


I'm proud and honored to present my first interview with a female historical fiction writer -- the incomparable Sarah Bryant, author of several novels, including THE OTHER EDEN and the one I'm focusing on today: SAND DAUGHTER, set during the time of the Crusades. I happened upon Sarah purely by chance, as her books are to date not distributed widely in the US. The Historical Novel Society's magazine Solander had published a piece on a new publisher in England called SnowBooks and I went to the publisher site (http://www.snowbooks.com/) While there, I came upon a description of Sarah's novel:

It is the time of the Crusades. The Islamic world is divided and the Franks have captured the Holy Land. As the mighty Saladin struggles to unite the warring clans of Arabia against the invaders, Khalidah, a young Bedouin woman of no obvious importance, finds herself a pawn in a deadly plot involving her own feuding tribe and the powerful Templar Knights. Faced with certain death, she runs away with a man she barely knows, towards adventure and the echoes of a past that somehow connect her to the Jinn - the mysterious Afghan warriors who may hold the key to the coming battle for the Holy Land.

Of course, I had to read this book! I soon discovered that SAND DAUGHTER is far more than its description. This is a layered, nuanced and gorgeously written novel that presents a very different approach to the Crusades, featuring Muslim and Christian characters as they're swept up in the fervor and tumult of this time. It has been one of my favorite reading experiences this year: I literally couldn't stop reading (and thinking) about this book, and I decided I wanted to interview Sarah. She graciously accepted. Sarah was born in Brunswick, Maine, USA in 1973. After a childhood spent in Maine and Massachusetts, she attended Brown University in Rhode Island, USA. In 1996 she moved to Scotland to do an MLitt in creative writing at the University of St. Andrews, and ended up marrying a Scot and settling in the UK. She now lives with her husband and two children, two cats, one dog and half a Highland pony in the Scottish Borders. For more information on her past and upcoming publications, please visit her at: http://www.sarahbryant.net/

1. First off, congratulations on the publication of SAND DAUGHTER. It is a marvelously different novel, and a daring one, offering an often neglected perspective of the much-trodden terrain of the Crusades. Though the novel has terrific insight into the Christian mind of the time, what inspired you to write about this particular era and to portray it primarily through Muslim eyes? How did you go about slipping into their spiritual world?
First, thanks so much for the kind words – I’m so glad you got all of that out of the novel! To answer your question, I’m afraid we have to go back to 9/11, or rather the immediate aftermath, when President Bush announced to the world that ‘This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile.’ I didn’t know much about the Crusades then, but I knew enough to be stunned that the most influential leader of the Western world would choose to invoke a regime of abject brutality, ethnic cleansing and religious suppression in rallying his people, no matter what wound we’d suffered. Yet America more or less allowed the comment to sink without a ripple. I remember thinking, Does no one realize that this man has just declared a holy war on Islam? That this attitude is in essence no different to bin Laden’s? That’s where ‘Sand Daughter’ began. It was clear (once I stopped yelling at the television) that the reason why Bush could get away with his comment is that we no longer have much of an understanding of what the Crusades were really about. We think of Templar Knights, St. George-like figures riding off to battle with white flags flying, and in our minds that’s enough to make them the good guys. We don’t think about who they were fighting, or why. They seem like obvious questions, and the obvious basis for a novel, yet a perfunctory look at amazon made it clear that there was almost no Crusade fiction written from the Arab point of view. So I decided to try, insofar as a WASP from Massachusetts can try, to begin to fill that gap. As for slipping into their spiritual world, I think (perhaps simplistically) that spiritual is spiritual, regardless of religion. The specifics might vary, but to people who believe, god is god. So it that way, evoking the Muslim spiritual life of the time wasn’t any more difficult than evoking battle scenes, or modes of travel, or, for that matter, the medieval European Christian view of the world.

2. Your novel features strong characters; the central figures are a strong-willed Bedouin girl who escapes the constraints of her tribe and ultimately becomes a warrior, and her childhood friend, who becomes the lover of the Sultan's son. As a writer, how did you slip into these very distinct P.O.V.s? In particular, did you find portraying the experiences of a gay man easy or challenging? Can you tell us about any methods you used to make these characters so realistic?
For me – and I suspect for most fiction authors – it’s impossible to write anything that isn’t to some degree autobiographical. That doesn’t mean that I write overtly about my own life; far from it. But if I can’t think and feel the way a central character would think and feel, if I can’t empathize with his or her experiences, then the novel will go nowhere. So, while Khalidah and I don’t have much in common on a topical level, scratch the surface and you’ll find that we’re both tenacious, horse-loving, independent-minded women who take ‘No’ as a challenge rather than an answer. And while I’ve never picked up a sword and ridden into battle, I’ve certainly been in the position of fighting for what I believe in. Likewise, I’m no more a gay man than I am a Muslim woman, but I have fallen surprisingly in love. Like spirituality, I believe that love is love no matter how you label it, and that was my approach to Bilal. He wasn’t a man in love with a man, he was a person in love with a person. Of course, it helped that medieval Muslim culture took a pretty tolerant view of homosexuality, as I hope the book makes clear. In fact, there was no Arabic word for ‘homosexual’ until the twentieth century, when the culture began to absorb more Western ideas. Bilal and Salim wouldn’t have had anywhere near as much to overcome as two modern Western gay men to gain acceptance. So, yes, Khalidah and Bilal were in some ways risky characters to write, but when it comes right down to it, writing them was no more audacious – or difficult – than writing a novel set in the twelfth century in the first place. As for how I made them realistic, first of all, thanks for saying so – that’s always my primary goal as a novelist! To answer the question: I tend to take a kind of a method acting approach to writing. That is, I immerse myself as much as possible in world I’m writing about. So aside from reading everything I could get my hands on that might help flesh out my characters, I watched movies, listened to music, looked at pictures, read contemporary poetry, journals and chronicles, asked for (and received) advice from lots of generous experts in related fields, even listened to Arabic language tapes in the car. When it came to the writing, in order to keep the narratives distinct, I did what I always do, which is write one character’s story from beginning to end, then write the other, and shuffle the chapters when they’re all finished.

3.Your novel takes place during the struggles of the Crusades, a fascinating but brutal era. How did you go about recreating this period of time for your reader?
This was probably the biggest challenge, because it’s so long ago, and there was no way to physically visit most of the places I was writing about. All of what I said above about ‘method writing’ applies here too, but in particular, the reading. There’s a fantastic book called ‘The Crusades Through Arab Eyes’, which has wonderfully detailed accounts of the period, many of them first-hand. The Osprey books on military history were good, too. Probably the biggest help, though, was the contemporary chroniclers. The Muslim leaders of the time employed armies of scribes to record everything they did for posterity, which means that a thousand years later, we can look at not one but several detailed accounts of a battle or other major event. Priceless fodder for the historical novelist.

4. Historical fiction is often considered a predominantly female genre, with a larger percentage of women readers and writers. It seems that more and more these days, publishers believe women want historical novels that carry a strong romantic element, while men desire adventure and battle. SAND DAUGHTER does a formidable job of combining all these elements in a seamless narrative that features both intimate romantic moments, spiritual experiences, and harrowing battle scenes. Did you set out to create a novel that defied the current expectations of the popular historical novel, and if so, did you encounter difficulties during the process of publishing this book that you think might be attributed to its uniqueness? Lastly, did you find you or your publisher have to make any extra efforts in order to ensure this novel reached its intended audience?
As for setting out to write a novel that defied genre expectations, the simple answer is no. For one thing, I’ve only recently realized that I’m a historical novelist. After years of working (unsuccessfully, for the most part) in other genres, I seem to have found my groove here, but it was in no way by design. I’ve always written the novels I want to write, with no thought for what genre they might fit, or how they might be marketed, or indeed an ‘intended audience’. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant – it’s actually pig-headedness, and it’s meant I’ve had a long, hard struggle to find anyone who’d give my work the time of day. What you’ve said about ‘Sand Daughter’ could equally be said about everything I’ve ever written – and usually has been, many times, punctuated by a ‘Sorry, best of luck finding a publisher elsewhere.’ Then I found Snowbooks. I still can’t quite believe my good fortune, which is a roundabout way of saying that no, I had no difficulties in publishing this book other than finishing it on time. That’s been true of everything I’ve worked on for them. Whether they have problems marketing my books to a genre-obsessed world, I have no idea – you’d have to ask them. But since they’ve never yet mentioned the g-word, they seem to get my books into the big chains, and there’s been a steady trickle of rights deals, I’d have to say they’re doing okay despite my stubborn refusal to conform…which actually gives me hope for the future of book publishing!

5. How do you think your novel speaks to today's reader, or how do the events you evoke resonate in today's world?
Not to sound flippant, but how can they not? By nature history begs comparison with the present, but there aren’t many likenesses as glaring as the Crusades and our current ‘War on Terror’. In that sense, Bush’s blunder is as accurate as Saddam Hussein comparing himself to Saladin. Wherever our loyalties lie, there’s no escaping the fact that, once again, the Christian west and the Muslim east have engaged in an ideological war with disastrous consequences. I’d like to think that our current conflict will end better than the original one, but for that to happen, we’re all going to need to learn tolerance. And in the end, that’s what ‘Sand Daughter’ is: one long plea for tolerance.

6. Please tell us about your next project.
It’s another historical novel, called ‘The One Unspoken’, and it bears absolutely no resemblance to ‘Sand Daughter’. It’s set in Louisiana and Edinburgh in the mid-nineteenth century, and it’s loosely tied to my first book, ‘The Other Eden’. But it bears little resemblance to that, either. This time, the main characters are the daughter of an impoverished white plantation owner, who wants to be a composer, and the son of a wealthy free black plantation owner, who wants to be a doctor. At its heart, it’s a book about how talent and ambition shape the lives of marginalized people in a restrictive society; but that makes it sound dry and preachy. In fact, it’s also about ghosts, voodoo curses, skeletons in family closets, tangled bloodlines, golden-hearted prostitutes, gin-swilling mediums, mad musical geniuses, body-snatching medical students, bloody Civil War battles and yes, a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. Not much of a project, then… :)

7. Anything you would like to add for our readers?
If you’ve borne with me through this whole interview, thanks for letting me rant! And whatever you choose next, happy reading!

Thank you, Sarah. I for one am anxiously awaiting your next book! To my blog readers, please don't miss the chance to discover this amazingly young, talented writer. Sarah's books are easily purchased via amazon.uk, direct from her publisher, and by order at most bookstores.











Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A cache of historical fiction


So, I'm back from Spain. I had a wonderful time: for those who don't know, I'm half Spanish through my Mom and I was raised there, so it was going home for me. Madrid is so vibrant and full of life and history, I found myself staying up way past my usual bedtime, and actually not caring! I also drank too much coffee, but who cares?


I had lunch with my editor there, too, and discovered some interesting facts about the state of books in Spain. First off, books are never discounted beyond 10% off the cover price and even that is rare. I went to several bookstores while I was there, big and small stores, and nowhere do you see the rampant discounting you see here in the US or in the UK. Which is good news for publishers, who get better returns on their investment, and good news ultimately for authors, because if publishers are solvent, then they're more likely to want our next book. Also, historical fiction is booming in Europe and in Spain, in particular. I found many novels that haven't been translated into English, with wonderfully unique themes and settings, such as the Moorish time in early medieval Spain; 14th century Germany; 12th century Byzantium and France; medieval and Renaissance Italy, etc. The authors are German, Dutch, Italian - names I'd never heard of before. The romantic vein that seems so popular here in historical fiction is far less noticeable there, and some well-known authors to us were nowhere to be found.


Needless to say, my book cart overflowed. I read Spanish, though not as often as I read English, and so I decided it was time to branch out and brush up my literary reading skills and further my historical novel appetite. One book in particular that I bought - and is, in fact, published by my Spanish publisher Ediciones B. - is "The Secret of Sofonisba" about Sofonisba Anguissola, a Renaissance woman who painted at the court of Philip II of Spain and has been forgotten by history, though in her time she was considered incredibly talented. The book begins with a visit from VanDyck to her studio, where, ancient and near death, she relates to him a secret . . . I've had to set it aside to finish my current HNS review assignment, but it starts out with beautiful language and much promise. Plus, the author is a real Medici - Lorenzo de Medici, in fact.


It's sad that more books published in Europe are not being translated and marketed here. I feel our market could use an influx of this new, exciting blood. Not that I don't find enough to read here, nor do I think we lack for quality, but still . . . what devoted fan wouldn't like to see down more historical novels?

Monday, October 15, 2007

On vacation!

Hi everyone,
I'm off to Spain for a week to see family and meet my Spanish editor (a first for me, and, I must admit, very exciting!) I'm waiting on two authors to get back to me regarding interviews, and hopefully will have affirmative responses by the time I return. For the moment, Tom Quinn, author of The Venetians series (LION OF ST MARK and the upcoming SWORD OF VENICE) has confirmed for December. I also sent an interview request to a woman author I really admire, as well, but thus far no reply. I've got fingers crossed!

If there are any authors you'd like me to interview, please leave a comment letting me know. In the meantime, keep writing!

Monday, October 1, 2007

Amazon launches undiscovered writer contest

Okay, maybe the book sale this past week addled my brain and I didn't hear about this until now, but here it is, straight from PW's mouth:

Amazon is getting into the author-writing contest arena, launching the first Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award today in cooperation with Penguin and Hewlett-Packard. Amazon will accept submissions through November 5 and the winner will have his or her novel published by Penguin, which is also offering a $25,000 advance. PW will serve as preliminary judges of the material as well. The contest is free and open to unpublished authors in 20 countries who have English-language manuscripts (complete contest rules and requirements are available at www.amazon.com/abna). Amazon, which will accept up to 5,000 entries, is assembling a panel of customers who have posted the most, and best, reviews on its site to serve as the judges for the first round. After the submissions have been cut to 1,000, a team put together by PW will give a full review to each manuscript, and the review and excerpt will be posted on the Amazon Web site where customers can read, rate and review the offerings. The PW team -- of existing and new reviewers -- will be paid to administer the reviews, and reviewers will remain anonymous. Amazon is paying PW's administrative costs only.Penguin will pare the 1,000 manuscripts down to 100 and those will undergo "a full editorial review process," said Penguin director of online sales and marketing Tim McCall. Once Penguin cuts the submissions to 10, excerpts will again be posted on the Amazon site where customers will vote for the winner. Voting will close March 31 and the winner announced April 7. McCall said Penguin will release the book, "in the appropriate format," and he hopes to have at least a galley of the book on hand at BEA. -- Publishers Weekly, 10/1/2007 3:00:00 AM

Now, my first inclination is to say, Hurrah! Any opportunity for the unpublished writer in the notoriously difficult publishing climate is terrific. But then the cynic in me went to the amazon site where the contest is featured and I saw that the runners-up from the contest (i.e., all those but one that fail to win the coveted Penguin contract) will receive:

The winner of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award will receive a full publishing contract from Penguin Group, including promotional support for their novel on Amazon.com, and a media suite from Hewlett-Packard. The nine remaining finalists will receive a free Total Design Freedom self-publishing package from BookSurge and a media suite from Hewlett-Packard. Semi-finalists will receive a review of their manuscript by Publishers Weekly. Upon conclusion of the contest all entrants will be eligible to make their books available for sale to Amazon.com customers via the CreateSpace self-publishing service at no charge. In addition, all entrants will receive discounted self-publishing services from BookSurge for custom cover design, formatting, and editing.

Is this is a great opportunity for some lucky writer, a massive propaganda campaign to sell services, or both? And could it be the beginning of Get Published: The Reality Show?

I'd love to hear what you think.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Book Addiction

Today, the Friends of the San Francisco Library held their annual booksale. This event takes place in an enormous warehouse near the wharf and benefits our City library. Basically, the sale is composed of thousands and thousands of donated books from readers like you and me; publishers who donate close-outs or overages; plus CDs, DVDs and videos. The prices range from $1 to $5, with large picture books topping out at $12.

To an addict like me, it's like walking into a chaotic piece of heaven. Every year I flock to this event -- and shave 3 hours off my work day, which I have to make up later -- and every year I end up going into some kind of book frenzy. This year was no exception.

I got there at 12:00, determined to just browse, buy a few books (yeah, right, who am I kidding?) and then get some lunch. I told myself, as I told myself last year and the year before: "You have too many books. About 10 years of future reading piled up around your desk, your bedside, in huge plastic bins in the garage. Get only what you need."

Which, naturally, ends up being everything. I ostensibly go to find rare, out-of-print books for my research and I always find a few. But as soon as I walk in and see those looong tables stretching the length of a small football field, piled with books, and boxes underneath each table, to boot, something in me snaps.

I become a freak.

I lose all sense of self as I careen to the first table, my eyes racing over spines, my hands itching to start lunging, grasping, and tossing volumes into the small shopping carts which the sale so conveniently provides. The tables are organized according to general categories: Mystery- Hardcover, Mystery-Paperback, Fiction-Hardcover, Biography, History, etc. But there are hidden little miscategorized gems that one must find, and so I must go through every table, every box, because who knows if that historical novel I've been reluctant to shell out $25.95 for is here, stashed somewhere. As I rummage through the boxes and then go over the tables, dipping and rising like an ecstatic stork, I forget the time, the book dust that eventually coats my hands, the hundreds of other equally mesmerized and oblivious bibliophiles all around me.

By the time I'm done, I'm lightheaded with hunger, faint with fatigue, and my shopping cart is almost too heavy to push. Then comes the hard part: I've returned to my physical body and the Scrooge vies with the bon vivant who says, "Screw it. It's an average of $2 a book. Who cares if you'll ever read it?" But I can be disciplined and so I sit on the ground and empty my cart, organizing my selections in three piles: Must Buy; Maybe; and What was I thinking? The Must Buy ends up being the smallest, and after I shift those dubious volumes back and forth ("Will I ever read this Regency-era thriller featuring an intrepid bird charmer?") I put the Must Buys back into the cart, return the What was I thinkings? to their tables and then stare longingly at the Maybes until one of the cheerful, inoculated-against-the addiction Friends of the Library comes up and says, "Can I put these books back, sir?"

Avoiding the mournful pit inside me, I nod heavily and proceed to the cash register. $44 later, I emerge into blinding day light with two paper bags filled with 13 volumes (among my gems this year: Conyers Read's two-volume set on Elizabeth I and William Cecil; and a pristine copy of Mary Luke's "The Ivy Crown"). I realize I haven't eaten yet and I rush to the car. I avoid all thoughts of what I left behind (though I've been known to lose sleep over it, and return the next day to find and buy them). I focus on the fact that I must get lunch and get back to work. For the next few days, I'm very content with my new acquisitions.

Until find out about a newly published book I must have.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Help save wolves


I'm trying to keep this blog unpolitical and dedicated to writers and writing, but hey, I'm human and I just can't keep silent on this. The Bush Administration has just opened a new public comment period and is inviting citizens to submit their opinions on its plan to open up the Northern Rockies to wolf-killing -- even while the wolf remains on the Endangered Species list. Sound familar? Why respect the law when you can circumvent it? Anyway, this "License to Kill" plan would allow Wyoming and Idaho to gun down nearly 600 wolves. Why? So that hunters can have the ease of finding elk in the same places and in the same numbers that they've grown used to. Wolves are being blamed for the few documented cases where elk herds have shrunk, even though the declines were caused by drought, shrinking habitat and the very same human hunters -- not just wolves. Put simply, wolves will be destroyed for doing what they're supposed to do: maintain a healthy ecosystem by preying on elk. Wyoming wants to kill as many wolves as the federal government will allow. And the state is prepared to spend a scandalous amount of taxpayer money -- more than $2 million a year -- to get the deed done.

I'm outraged. If you are, go here and register your opposition:
http://www.nrdconline.org/campaign/Act_Now_To_Protect_Gray_WolvesIII

Monday, September 10, 2007

An Interview with Christopher Grey, author of Leonardo's Shadow




This year I had the unexpected pleasure of reviewing Christopher Grey's LEONARDO'S SHADOW, or The Astonishing Life of Leonardo da Vinci's Servant for the Historical Novels Reviews. I bid on it as one of my three selections, as required by the HNR editors, and wasn't sure which of the three books I would receive. When it arrived I was taken in by the sumptuous publication: beautiful jacket art, with a case bound cover featuring a wrap-around picture of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. This, however, was my first YA book, and I approached its interior with some trepidation. The moment I started reading, I was bowled over. Christopher's language, wit and formidable ability to draw us into the Renaissance chaos of Leonardo's world is nothing short of entrancing. This is a wonderful book, as accessible to adults as it is to young people. Christopher has also brought Leonardo back to his roots as a painter and visionary, but most of all, as a human being. And the character who 'shadows' him, the lively, curious Giacomo, is delightful.


So, without further ado, I give you Christopher Grey:

1. First off, congratulations on the publication of LEONARDO"S SHADOW. It's a wonderful novel that both adults and young readers can enjoy. What inspired you to transform the events surrounding Leonardo da Vinci's work on "The Last Supper" into fiction? What did you find particularly appealing about this era?

Thank you for the kind words, Christopher. I am grateful for your enthusiasm.

The genesis of the book was a visit I made some dozen years ago to see the Last Supper at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan; this was before the recent restoration, and you could only see half the wall, but nonetheless it had a profound effect on me. I went away thinking and hoping that I could write something about it and Leonardo. But I couldn’t get started. Well, that’s not true: I started hundreds of times. And stopped the same amount. The whole subject just seemed too big for me to grasp. Or perhaps I should say that my mistake, as an inexperienced writer, was in trying to grasp such a big subject in the first place. In the end it was with the little details that I found my way into the story. Two things, specifically, caught my eye: The first was the rapid deterioration of the work after Leonardo had finished it; the second was the Duke’s impatience with Leonardo’s endless procrastinations. The two factors came together to kick-start my story.

Like so many of us, I find the European Renaissance fascinating: the artistry, the style, the politics, the personalities. Then again, all eras have those qualities to a greater or lesser extent. More than all that, the Renaissance is the crossroads between the classical and the modern: the time when men and women start to take the future into their own hands, instead of leaving it up to God. It is, in effect, the dawning of the individual as a force in society. And you could say that in our time we have arrived at the late afternoon.

2. In your novel, Giacomo, a youth serving in Leonardo's home, doesn't know anything about his past. This is a time-honored characterization technique which Dickens and other classic writers employed to great effect. Did you intend to "play" with this tradition or was it coincidental? Tell us, as well, about how you made choices regarding the wonderful secondary cast of characters surrounding Giacomo.

The inspiration for Giacomo’s hidden past came directly from the Notebooks: he suddenly appears—without any explanation—and it gave me the idea that he and Leonardo met each other unexpectedly and miraculously. And it seemed logical, given that Leonardo continues in his writings to say nothing of Giacomo’s past, to make him a boy without a past. In fact, Giacomo is referred to only rarely—and then often cryptically—in the Notebooks, although he lived with the great man for almost all his life.

I confess the whole story was written without irony, and any literary games that took place on the page were strictly for the benefit of the reader, not me.
I’m so glad you enjoyed the rest of the cast. I constructed their personalities, as I expect any author does, from a combination of other characters I admire, or am drawn to (real and fictional), and the necessity of inserting certain personality traits into the story to illustrate themes I was interested in and which I wanted Giacomo to be exposed to. While writing the Duke I occasionally thought of the Hollywood producer so hilariously portrayed in one of my favorite films, Barton Fink; Caterina’s character—that combination of lovingness, courage, wisdom, and garrulity—was based on my mother and a cross-section of older women I have met and remembered fondly. And so on.

3. The Renaissance is often explored in historical fiction, as is Leonardo da Vinci. But you show us the artist as a human being with foibles, debts and a temper. As seen through Giacomo's eyes, Da Vinci is both formidable and helplessly chaotic when it comes to managing his business affairs. How did you as a writer slip into this brash but sensitive youth's frame of mind? Can you tell us about any methods you used to make him, and Da Vinci, so realistic?

Giacomo, at his most basic, is me, aged about fifteen. I wasn’t quite as witty at that age, I’ll grant you, and I also wasn’t as courageous or determined. I did however have his lesser qualities (OK, faults): impatience, obstinacy, pride, and cockiness. And I was desperate for a mentor, which I never found. Giacomo is everything I was, was not, and might have been. I love him, actually, more than I have ever managed to love myself.

Leonardo’s character comes directly from some of the surprisingly personal things he wrote in his Notebooks. It seemed to me that he was acutely conscious of his superiority in almost all matters relating to art and thought—yet he suffered variously from doubt, fear, and assorted niggling anxieties. At times he seemed, in our modern parlance, bipolar. I have no doubt that he was deeply conflicted on various personal issues. (He would have made a fascinating subject for psychoanalysis—in fact Freud wrote an amazing piece on him.) Leonardo is also me: as I am now and will be some years hence—minus the artistic and scientific genius, of course.

4. Your novel is set in early 15th century Milan, and Giacomo knows the city intimately. How did you go about recreating Milan in the past?

I hunted forever in the hope of finding contemporary and in-depth accounts of the city. No luck. I did, however, find a book in Italian that had a few maps of 15th century Milan (one very sketchy page by Leonardo, in fact). From these, and my visits to the city, I created the basic geography. Most of the detail was done in my head.

5. Historical fiction is considered a predominantly female genre, with a larger percentage of women readers and writers. Male historical fiction writers are therefore often classified within the adventure/epic subgenres. Though LEONARDO's SHADOW features a male protagonist in the first person, the female characters are rendered with great sensitivity and understanding of the different challenges that women faced in those days. With the popularity of such female YA authors as Carolyn Myers working in this genre, however, did you encounter difficulties during the process of finding a publisher that you think might be attributed to your gender? Do you think male historical fiction writers working in the YA market need to make an extra effort in order to reach their intended audience?

I did try to make believable, distinctive female characters, and I am glad you found them lifelike. If publishers did object to me as a male writer, I did not hear of it; those who were interested in the book seemed to be so because of its literary merits (or, perhaps more accurately at that stage, its potential). As for having to make an extra effort, I cannot think that any writer today dares to give less than his or her best in every sentence. There are too many books being published and publishers don’t have the resources to support all their deserving books (they are happy to spend money promoting books that are already successful, something I am at a loss to understand; it seems the reverse of sensible business practice). In addition, the supply of readers is shrinking (unless you happen to be a writer of religious self-help books, in which case your market has never looked more lucrative).

I don’t mind in which category the book is placed, as long as people get to read it. Getting the book in front of willing readers is the hard part. Once they are reading, I become progressively more confident.

6. How does your novel speaks to today's reader, given that teens are so inundated with a variety of media distractions?

I don’t think there is any story more important than that of trying to find out who you are and why you are here. Perhaps most of us don’t face the odds Giacomo does in trying to find his answers, but we have all experienced the trials and terrors of growing up—of knowing that you are capable of doing something and having to prove yourself to skeptical older people like parents and teachers, and of striving to believe in yourself, of secretly hoping that you are somebody better than everybody thinks, and that one day you will be discovered as the person you know you really are inside.

I don’t think any video game can reward the user with quite the same experience. And if it can, then writing is finished, done with, over. I’ll retrain as a bricklayer.

7. Can you tell us about your next project?

For the past year I have been working on a very different kind of book, but I am pledged to secrecy because my name will not be on the cover. I did it to prove I could, and I believe I have. My next personal project is another book set in the Renaissance. The hero is a gravedigger. A rather special fellow. I’ll say no more. I’m terrified he’ll run away from me if I talk too much.

7. Anything you would like to add for our readers?

Apart from “Please buy my book, it’s rather brilliant?” Well, I’ll leave you to say that, Christopher! But thanks for interviewing me, and thanks to anybody who still reads and believes that books are the cornerstone of civilization. When the last reader has gone, probably less than a hundred years from now, the real dark ages will begin.
You can visit Christopher at: http://www.leonardosshadow.com/

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Interview with John Speed, author of Tiger Claws and the Temple Dancer

I'm proud to post this blog's second interview with a male writer of historical fiction, the incomparable John Speed. Booklist described John's first novel, THE TEMPLE DANCER, set in 17th century India, as "lavish and lush . . . Maya, a dazzling temple dancer bought by a savvy Portuguese businessman as a gift for the grand vizier of Bijapur, is transported via caravan to her new master [facing] a new danger around every bend. Chock-full of sex, suspense, and peril, this high-voltage adventure yarn will rapidly transport willing readers to a vanished time and place." His second novel -- released today! -- is TIGER CLAWS, and is the middle volume in his epic trilogy charting Mogul emperor Shah Jahan's declining years. TIGER CLAWS builds on elements John established in THE TEMPLE DANCER, but takes the plot further into the intrigues and lethal conspiracies of the royal court and struggle for the throne. It's #1 on my To-Read list.

John is a lyrical writer who brings to life and make comprehensible to Westerners all the complex beauty and dangers of 17th century India. In an era densely populated by Anglo Saxon themes, John's novels are what I read this genre for-- full of human drama and passion, yet always true to the time. I must admit, I'd never thought much about India in the past, but after reading THE TEMPLE DANCER I was hooked! Take your elephant to the nearest bookstore and plunge into the exotic temptations of John Speed's world, and discover for yourself why he's become one of the most talented writers in the genre.

And now, without further ado, I give you Mr. John Speed:

1. What inspired you to write historical fiction? Can you tell us why you chose this particular period of time?
This period in India's history (ca. 1657) pressed all my buttons. I've been fascinated since high school by mystic Hinduism, mystic Islam (Sufism), and the classical Indian music and dance. All were flourishing mightily at this time. Add to the mix the influx of European traders and mercenaries, the ascendance of eunuchs into positions of great power, and the turbulent political situation -- well, it's just made to order. Like shooting fish in a barrel. With a setting so full of drama and emotion, virtually anyone could write a great historical novel.

2. THE TEMPLE DANCER features women protagonists in 17th century India. As a writer, how did you slip into a woman's P.O.V., particularly one of thisera? Did you find it easy or challenging?

Let me be clear: I don't "slip" into a woman's point of view. I enter it cautiously, full of trepidation, as one might explore a dark cavern. Women have always been and continue to be a mystery. In my writer's workshops, my female colleagues regularly beat me around the head and shoulders whenever one of my heroines expressed a thought. I at last found my way by describing my women characters's actions and sensations from their point of view. I expressed their thinking rarely, and then extremely cautiously. This approach has proven very successful.

3. When it comes to building a sense of time and place, how do you go about recreating the past for your reader?
Actually, I make very little effort to describe a time or place, per se. You may have heard the term Sense-memory: it's used by method actors: they try to recall the sensations surrounding a memory: the play of light beneath a half-closed shade, the noise of cicadas in the background, and rough sighs and far-off thunder, the smells of jasmine, shampoo, and new-poured asphalt, the kiss of a spring breeze on wam skin, the salt-sweet taste of a pair of sunburned lips. Once the sensations get recalled, the actor can easily remember the feelings of that moment. In the same way, I try to incorporate vivid descriptions of sensations, and hope that these will inspire the reader to imagine the time and place I hope to describe. In effect I try to put them in The Present, 350 years ago: a Present where eunuchs ride on the backs of elephants.

4. If you had to dilute the essence of your book into one sentence, what would it be?
"Gotta dance."

5. Historical fiction readers can be divided over the need for historical accuracy in a novel, versus the demands of the story. When these two issues come into conflict, how do you go about resolving them in your work?

There has never been any conflict in my mind. I recognize "history" for what it is: the current way the power-structure describes the past. I'm old enough to have seen vast quantities of "history" rewritten -- and in the case of Indian History, have seen two or three throrough re-writes. Accuracy means, in effect, flavor of the month. I ignore "history" and try to find the truth of people living their lives. Oddly, I have in recent years seen my "imagined" versions of historical incidents -- scenes that appeared to be in conflict with "accurate" history -- reflect the New Accepted versions of those incidents. History changes; humanity doesn't. The deeper I plumb human emotion, more accurate will my versions become.

6.Tell us a little about your journey to publication.
First there was My Big Book (its working title was Shivaji). I'd worked on it off and on for 20 years. I ran into a story about the bandit-king Shivaji and his wars with the Moguls in a book about my spiritual master Meher Baba. I looked up the story in the encyclopedia, and I was off. I sketched some plot notes on the spot (I had never written a word of fiction), and began to read everything I could get my hands on about the period. In the end I visited India a dozen times or so. Got a bit obsessed, actually. One day, I had a bit of windfall and took off about 18 months to write the novel. The finished MS -- all 2000++ pages -- got read by Jean Naggar, a great literary agent. She sent me a very perturbed letter in response. The book, she told me, was very good, but completly too long. Clearly if I knew how to cut it down to a reasonable size, I would have done so, so clearly I didn't know. She suggested the names of a few freelance editors who might be able to help cut the book. Eventually , Maureen Baron, the former editor of New American Library worked with me. She chopped out about half the book, making little notes like "You'll need to connect these passages", and so on. She was very skilled and very smart and I learned a ton from her edits.

I had just finished a final version of this much reduced manuscript on Sept 11. The mailman stopped to watch a few moments of the TV newscasts when he picked up the package.About 2 months later, I was visiting New Jersey, when Jean called to say that she wanted to represent me. I was on the NJ Turnpike when news came of an airplane crash in Long Island. By the time I reached the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, Mayor Giuliani had decided to close off access to the city. I was one car away from the toll booths and Manhattan when a convoy of National Guardsmen drove into the plaza, lifted their rifles, and turned me (and hundreds of others) away.Oddly, the ferries were still running, though all car, bus, train, and plane traffic had been closed down. Since I was only about 5 miles from Hoboken, I drove there. I got on the last ferry that was allowed to cross the river. The ferry landed at a temporary dock near the world trade center. The "pile" was still smoking.The sun shone bright, the air felt crisp. For the poor New Yorkers who had lived through 9/11, the weather seemed eerily similar to the day of that tragedy. I stood on a street corner, waving at taxis for close to 15 minutes; none would stop. Eventually a traffic cop saw my dilemma and waved down an empty cab, all but ordering the driver to take me to Jean's office on the East Side.

So I came to meet Jean Naggar, who has been a steadfast friend and ideal mentor. She was very excitied about Shivaji, and believed it could be a big hit.Six months later, Shivaji had received lots of praise from publishers, but no bids. Jean was frustrated, probably more than me. I askedd what was wrong with the book -- she wouldn't say anything. So I took a different tack: If I was going to write a different book about the period, what would you want to see?So she described a book to me: Full of young women and dangerous men, and elephants, and eunuchs, and numerous characters from Shivaji--that's what she'd want to see. And I realized that I actually had a lot of story like that in the scraps from the cut novel.So I pieced together "The Temple Dancer". Which in many ways is gentle pre-amble to the much heavier, denser work that follows. While it hasn't been a Huge Seller in the US, it blew the doors off in France, where it was Book of the Month club selection (as it was in Portugual). I started getting fan mail in French way before the US version came out, and have seen YouTube tributes to the book and fan shrines to Maya. The french version was quite beautiful, the translation was much more lyrical than my most lyrical English.

7. Tell us about your next project.
The first part of my Uber-Epic, "Tiger Claws" comes out Today, as a matter of fact (Sept 4, 2007). Same time and place as Temple Dancer, some of the same characters, but in every respect a completely distinct work. Very violent, dense, and if I may so, thrilling. No romance, per se. A huge cast, buckets of drama, and plot. I do like plot.

8. Anything else you'd like to share with our readers?
I wish to thank them. God bless book readers! And especially My book readers.


Thank you, John. You can visit him at: http://thetempledancer.com/