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:

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:

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: