Monday, November 30, 2009

Bite The Hand that Feeds You

I'm so glad I had thanksgiving. It gave me a full four days to feel all warm and fuzzy inside, so now I can come back to reality on Monday.

Today a friend sent me this link.

Now, let me preface my ensuing diatribe with the caveat that I usually have a pretty thick skin when it comes to this type of comment. I've been around long enough to know not everyone embraces historical fiction with quite the same enthusiasm of its fans, and of course the genre is not to everyone's taste, whether you are a reader or a bookseller or both. Though the genre’s offerings are quite diverse, running the gamut from literary to popular, and I believe it boasts plenty of books within it to satisfy most reading tastes, the hard fact is historical fiction is not the most honored of writing genres. One need only examine the recent hoopla over Hilary Mantel’s winning of the Booker Prize and ensuing squabbles amongst certain journalists to distinguish her work from the rest of the mob – efforts Ms Mantel has vigorously refuted— to see that even today there are literary elitists among us.

Nevertheless, I do take issue with this particular bookseller's offhanded remark that he never thought he'd make a "living selling bodice rippers." Now to me, this term is about as insulting as it gets. While the genre certainly has its share of romantic inclinations, some of it rougher on the bodice seams than others, in truth this is an outdated, pejorative adjective to use when describing an entire arena of writing where such talents as Dumas, Sharon Penman, the above mentioned Hilary Mantel, Caleb Carr, Margaret George, Robin Maxwell, Judith Merkle Riley, Madison Smart Bell, Reay Tannahill, Isabel Allende, and Daphne Du Maurier - just to mention a few - have contributed years of work. Collectively, historical fiction accounts for some of the biggest bestselling novels of all time - yes, Gone with the Wind is considered historical fiction - and some of literature's most fascinating characters. Historical fiction writers often research their subjects for years; spend their own money and time traveling to the places where their subjects lived and died; and purchase massive quantities of books to augment said efforts. Recently, several examples of the genre have helped to bolster, and in some cases jump-start, the ailing book industry, and certainly a celebrated few of its authors maintain a constant presence on booksellers' most popular lists.

So, why the need to lump everyone under this misleading and arguably offensive label? Well, first of all, it’s because most people do not know that the term ‘bodice ripper’ was first coined in the 1980s, to describe a burgeoning type of novel that was sexually explicit, usually in a historical setting, and always with a plot involving the heroine’s seduction. This type of novel, a hybrid of the classic English romances popularized by Austen and Bronte, became wildly successful and, as most wildly successful things, became formulaic, down to the swooning, well-endowed woman on the cover.

Nowadays, the descendents of the bodice ripper live on in historical romance; though here, too, the genre is being constantly re-defined by its target audience. Historical romance never pretends to take itself too seriously; indeed, I’ve met several romance authors whose whole-hearted embrace of their appeal, respect for their readers, and passion for what they write is something not a few authors in other so-called high-brow genres might emulate. And historical romance continues to defy all pundits with astonishing sales figures that crush even the most resistant recession, spawning ever-greater popularity with subgenres in the romantic paranormal and time-slip categories.

I do not write or read historical romance—not because I think it’s less worthy, but simply because my particular fetish involves history itself rather than personalized passion between its occupants. If romance is integral to the story, great, but it’s never been a requisite for me, nor do I require it to drive the story. I believe most historical fiction readers would agree. Instead, what I crave is for history to burst alive on the page as reflected through the author's vision and find myself swept from this century into a world both vastly different, and in some aspects startlingly familiar, to my own. This is what historical fiction at its best achieves: it helps to show us who we are by illuminating who we’ve been.

I attended the Historical Novel Society Conference in Chicago along with the other 300 attendees who were ‘heavily into romance and pabulum.’ Conference organizers put together an amazing celebration of the genre, and some of the best known writers in the business were there. When I checked in with the bookseller, something I always do at events, I discovered The Last Queen had sold out on the first day of my first panel, and the bookseller expressed his delight to me personally, adding he “wished [he’d] ordered more copies.” I heard from several other authors at the conference that their books also sold out or sold very well, so apparently our mutual efforts were profitable for all concerned.

Perhaps if our esteemed bookseller had sold nothing, he’d have no cause for complaint.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

It's astonishing to me how quickly this year has gone by; it's almost December and I'm wondering where the time went, as I'm sure most everyone else is. These days it seems we're on fast track; and I never seem to have enough hours in a day to get to everything on my massive To Do list. However, I have made it a priority to always take time to be grateful for my life and those in it, so in the spirit of thanksgiving, I want to take this moment to acknowledge those who have made such a difference to me this year:

1) My partner. Always there for me, through the rough and the smooth. What more can I ask for?
2) My mom. She moved to Spain last year and I miss her every day.
3) My agent. She champions me, celebrates my triumphs and mitigates my defeats. In the insanity that is publishing, she is my lodestone.
4) My fellow writers. I'd been told there's a ton of competition and envy in this business, and make no mistake about it: there is. However, I'm so very fortunate to have met a group of marvelously supportive and fun writer friends who keep me on my toes. Ladies, you know who you are and I adore you.
5) My fellow bloggers. The online world is a maze; fellow bloggers are always there to guide me along. Whether they've featured my book, interviewed me, posted a review or mentioned me in a post, they have made THE difference for my work. Given the state of publishers' marketing budgets, bloggers are my books' guardian angels.
6) My friends. Because they keep me sane and that's no mean feat.
7) My readers. Because you care enough to buy my books, follow this blog and leave your comments, and write to me via e-mail. I have recieved mail from all over the world and I can't tell you enough how humbled and inspired I am by your enthusiasm for my work.
7) My dog. Because she loves unconditionally and never gives up.

I hope every one of you has a healthy, happy, and peaceful Thanksgiving. Eat well, be merry, and count your blessings. For though these are trying times in our world, if you're loved, have a roof over your head and food on the table, you are certainly blessed.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


I'm done with first pass pages. My brain is mush. But, oh, do I love this trailer, which is's Best Book Video of 2009 (Editor's Choice.) Enjoy!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Book Trailer Sunday: THE GREATEST KNIGHT by Elizabeth Chadwick

So, I've been mired in reading my first-pass pages for The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. These are the actual typeset pages of the book, still unbound; basically, this is my final opportunity to correct typos, editorial inconsistencies, etc. and of course I'm finding far more of these than I'd thought there would be (amazing what typesetting will reveal!)

In the meantime, I missed last week's book trailer Sunday, as I'd just landed back in the US after 10 days in Guatemala. I'll post trip pics soon, but for now I'm delighted to feature the trailer for Elizabeth Chadwick's latest release in the US, The Greatest Knight. I think this is a very dynamic and dramatic trailer that fits the book's subject perfectly. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


The winner for the RAGE OF ACHILLES giveaway is:
Congratulations! Please send your full mailing address to cwgortner [at], so I can forward it to Terence Hawkins' publicist. Thanks to all of you who entered and thanks so much to Terence for his marvelous guest post and time spent here at Historical Boys.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Guest post and giveaway from Terence Hawkins, author of THE RAGE OF ACHILLES

Historical Boys is proud to welcome Terence Hawkins, author of the novel The Rage of Achilles. Praised by Tom Perotta, author of Little Children, as a "a genuinely fresh take on a classic text," this modern retelling of Homer's The Iliad has tells the story of Achilles, Paris, Agamemnon, and of the countless Trojans, Achaeans, warriors and peasants caught up in the conflict, their families torn apart by a decade-long war.

In celebration of the novel's publication, Mr Hawkin's publisher has kindly offered a book to giveaway. If you'd like to enter for a chance to win, please leave a comment. A random winner will be drawn from comments on November 10.

Now, please join me in welcoming Terence Hawkins!

The Rage of Achilles was intended as a realistic account of The Iliad. The natural first question is whether I think the Iliad is history or fiction. And the natural answer is both. The structure of the Iliad itself demonstrates that it was composed neither at one time nor by one person; rather, its creation spanned generations of bards. In some of its books, for example, iron is treated as a precious metal, which it unquestionably was in the earlier Bronze Age; in other books, however, it’s common enough for use as arrowheads. Also, a barbarian invasion and subsequent dark age separated the Trojan War from what we think of as classical Greece. So for a lot of reasons it’s entirely reasonable to place little faith in the Iliad as an historic record.

But it’s equally reasonable to believe that the Trojan War actually occurred. Archaeologists have discovered ruins at Hisarlik in Turkey that they’ve identified as Troy-multiple Troys, destroyed and rebuilt successively over thousands of years. One level, labeled Troy VIIa, shows evidence of having fallen at human hands-skeletal fragments with broken jaws and skulls, bronze arrowheads, signs of fire. This level has been dated to 1190 BCE, close to the time assigned to the war by the classical Greeks. It therefore seems safe to conclude that the Iliad is an unreliable account of an actual event. So an historical novelist has a free hand. Or so it would appear.

There is, of course, a problem. The gods. I wanted to stay as close to the original text as possible without violating the limited historical knowledge we have. But in the original almost every action is driven by divine intervention from a nasty and capricious pantheon. How to write a realistic novel in which every development is a holy practical joke? The answer is Julian Jaynes. As I started writing I remembered having read a review of a book called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a title as facially specious as Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Which I not only possess but heartily recommend. In any event, Jaynes’ hypothesizes that the development of complex language provoked hemispheric dominance, so that the portion of the brain containing the speech center essentially overpowered the other half . Hemispheric dominance allowed abstract reasoning and the development of the modern self-observing consciousness. Until that point, Jaynes believed that humans were automata reacting to messages between halves of the brain, messages they perceived as the voices of the gods. Relying on both internal and extrinsic linguistic evidence, Jaynes placed this epochal transition at about the time of the Iliad.

Crazy? Maybe. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins said that the idea was either a complete crock or the greatest intellectual revolution of the twentieth century. The jury’s still out. (Interestingly, Jaynes also speculated that because both schizophrenia and religious experiences tend to involve “hearing voices”, both are the product of a malfunction of hemispheric dominance. As I worked on the book I spoke to religious friends who said they’d heard God’s voice; all described it as so loud and clear that they were startled that those around them didn’t hear it as well.) But in any event, the idea gave me a solution that was not a cheat: In The Rage of Achilles, the gods appear not as actors, but as hallucinations driving men to act, often not in their best interest. And it also allowed me to portray Odysseus as what he may have been-the first modern man, who realized that the voice in his head was only his own.

Another question was one of detail. I had in mind two opposite models, both favorites: Gore Vidal’s Julian, in which most attention was focused not on appearance or the mechanics of daily life in early Byzantium but the political, religious, and military considerations that occupied his character’s minds; on the other, George Garrett’s The Death of the Fox, so effortlessly rich in period that it might be a text. Here the decision was made for me by the comparative poverty of knowledge of Bronze Age Mycenae. If I were writing about Marlborough’s wars it would be easy enough to go to a museum to look at a dummy in russet velvet with a Steenkirk cravat stuffed through a buttonhole trimmed with Brandenberg braid. But Troy three thousand years ago? Not so much. So my decision, ultimately, was to allow the story itself, rather than the period in which it is set, to control the book.

Oh yeah-sex and violence. In the original the former appears not at all; the latter is as stylized as Kabuki. As to the latter the work’s first audience knew what war with edged weapons was like-been there, done that-so it was unnecessary for the bards to describe it. We, fortunately, don’t know what it feels like in the shoulder to pry a sword out of a head you’ve just split open. So in order to recreate the immediacy that the work first had I had to imagine it. Let me hasten to emphasize imagine-no headless corpses in my freezer. As to the former, the original was driven by sex: Paris, after all, didn’t commit the unspeakable crime of a breach of hospitality and kidnap Helen to gaze at her from afar. Boy wanted her, bad. And of course the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus has been sanitized beyond reason, as though anything but what it was would have been natural in a bisexual cultural that had had an army on a foreign beach for ten years. All that said, the Iliad is a story of almost indescribable richness and humanity. I can’t hope I’ve done it justice; I do hope I’ve done it no offence.

Terence Hawkins was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Yale. His work has appeared in Poor Mojo's Almanac(k), Keyhole, Pindeldyboz, Ape Culture, Eclectica, Megaera, the Binnacle, and the New Haven Register. It has also appeared on Connecticut Public Radio. He is a trial lawyer in Connecticut. You can visit him at:

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Sometimes, an author really gives us a cinematic trailer! My dear friend, the fabulous Michelle Moran, author of the national bestseller Nefertiti and its stand-alone sequel The Heretic Queen went the Hollywood route for the trailer for her most recent novel, Cleopatra's Daughter. This trailer is like a mini-movie, with live action, costumes, and sets. Enjoy!