Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Interview with Robin Maxwell, author of MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing Robin Maxwell's latest work, MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN, for the Historical Novel Reviews. In this novel, she returns to the subject of her debut bestseller, Anne Boleyn; this time, however, she depicts Anne's life in the court of France before her celebrated rise to power as Henry VIII's second queen. Robin is a delightful woman to correspond with, full of wit and verve, in addition to her extraordinary talent as a writer. She's been a favorite of mine for years and I'm honored to welcome her for her very first blog interview.

Robin Maxwell is the author of six historical novels. A 15th and 16th century history nut who can't seem to stop writing about the historical figures she feels have been overlooked by historians, or have a side of them that hasn't been properly explored, she lives in the rural high desert of California with her husband of 25 years, yogi Max Thomas and two wonderful exotic birds who are her muses. Visit her at:

1. Congratulations on the publication of MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN. It's a pleasure to have you with us. Set in 16th century France, MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN is a compelling, imaginative account of Anne Boleyn’s youth in France. This period in her life has hardly been addressed in fiction, compared to her later career as Henry VIII’s most famous wife, though many historians believe it was during her stay at the court of François I where Anne learned about the perils and power of becoming a royal mistress. You have of course written about Anne Boleyn before, in your wonderful debut novel THE SECRET DIARY OF ANNE BOLEYN. What inspired you to return to her as a character and explore this particular time in her life?

Thanks for having me. This is my first blog interview. When I see what's happening with web technology and how little I know about it, I sometimes feel like I'm still living in the 16th century. As for writing about one of my favorite historical personages at this specific period, it was one of those amazing graces -- no historical fiction had been written about Anne Boleyn during that most fascinating period of her life, ages 8-17. The time that she was becoming the Anne Boleyn that everyone knows, or think they know about. Here was a fabulous, sexy world -- the lascivious court of Francois I -- all ripe for the picking. Having a new angle on an oft-told story or character is, I think, one of the keys to a successful historical novel.

Interestingly, I found the same opportunity twelve years ago when I started writing SECRET DIARY. There had been a lull in fiction writing about Anne. Of course I read everything I could get my hands on -- fiction and biography. And it suddenly occurred to me that no one had truly made the connection between Anne and her daughter, Elizabeth I. Maybe a few sentences or a paragraph. But nothing about how that mother affected that daughter's life and choices. The older I get the more it becomes apparent that our parents' influence is with us from birth to death. With Anne and Elizabeth there were limitless possibilities. In MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN, it is the Boleyn sisters' father, Thomas Boleyn, who is the great and terrible influence.

2. MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN offers a fascinating look at the court of France during François I’s early years. What challenges did you encounter while researching this time? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about the French court and Anne’s place in it?

First of all, I had never been in France (I'd been to England three times). There's so very much you can do with books and the internet. But I was particularly stumped about the feel of Paris in 1515. I mentioned this to my wonderful editor at Penguin, and she told me that her mother had spent a lot of time in France. She gave me her mom's phone number and subsequently she and I had some wonderful conversations. I asked her a lot about geography -- there was only so much I could get from maps from the period -- and she even did some research for me. She found a great website that I hadn't seen. My favorite discovery had to do with how well-loved Anne Boleyn was before she returned to England at age 17 and the whole Henry VIII saga began, a period that was filled with jealous enemies -- ones that eventually saw to it that Anne was beheaded and her reputation besmirched. In the courts of Burgundy and in France she was a little dark-eyed wonder. Precocious and charming. A quick study in French who became, at a very tender age, the English interpreter for Claude, the Queen of France. She also became a favorite of King Francois' sister, the progressive and scholarly Duchess Marguerite. This woman opened Anne's eyes to the "New Religion," Protestantism, and later Anne was the person who first brought these ideas to Henry VIII, and with it the Protestant Reformation to England.

3. An interesting storyline within the novel is Anne Boleyn’s friendship with Leonardo da Vinci, who had come to France to live at François I’s invitation. There is no extant evidence to support Anne’s meeting with Leonardo, so how did you go about creating this situation so that it would fit within the facts of her life?

I was in the process of researching THE DA VINCI WOMAN -- a novel about the Italian Renaissance seen through the eyes of Leonardo's mother -- when I decided to change course and write MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN first. When I saw the places (the French court at Amboise) and the dates I was going to be writing about in the Boleyn book, 1514 - 1522, I realized that several of those coincided with Leonardo living as a guest at the French court, in fact as a dear friend of Francois. I went rushing to my Anne Boleyn biographies, and in three of them, they mentioned that Leonardo Da Vinci was living there at the same time she was. One even suggested that it was likely that they knew each other. That was all it took, and I was off and running. That they became friends is my invention. But there is nothing in the historical record to say that they were not. The "secret passage" between Amboise and Cloux (the manor house Francois gifted Leonardo that I write about) was a discovery I made on a website about Amboise. That was like finding a gold nugget!

4. You have written not only about Anne Boleyn, but also in subsequent novels about her daughter Elizabeth I and Elizabeth’s lover Robert Dudley (THE QUEEN’S BASTARD), the pirate Grace O’ Malley and Essex (THE WILD IRISH), and the disappearance of the princes in the Tower during the time of Richard III (TO THE TOWER BORN). Can you tell us about any methods that you employ to give your characters such marvelous authenticity?

It's a combination of intensive research -- reading EVERYTHING I can get my hands on about an individual, his or her close and not-so-close relationships, and the period and places from history books and biographies and the internet. I do NOT read any historical fictions of the period, terrified of unconscious plagiarism. It's important to look deep in this reading period, because what appears as a tiny fact or a small character, can turn into an important one. A perfect example: during my research for SECRET DIARY OF ANNE BOLEYN, I read one sentence in one history book. It said that Anne had a woman fool. Nothing else. But that struck a chord. I started asking myself who that fool was. How she became a fool (did she come from a family of jesters, did she go to "fool school?"). How she ended up in Anne and Henry's court. I knew that fools were the only people who were allowed to speak the truth in that ruthless, terrifying environment, and that this character would have to be humorous. The one thing Anne's story, especially the last three years of her life as the queen, were as serious as they got, so a fool was a perfect addition. Enter Niniane. She became a wonderful character and has one of the best, most emotional lines of the book.

With THE WILD IRISH, I actually made a 3'x6' chart with every year from 1530 (year of Grace O'Malley's birth) - 1601 (end of the story) down the left hand column. Across the top I wrote the names of Grace, Elizabeth I, Tibbot Burke (Grace's son), the Earl of Essex, Richard Bingham (villain), Hugh O'Neill (arch rebel) and then "all others." Under each heading I made a column. Then I went through every history book and biography I had and filled in the blanks as in "in this year, such and such happened to Grace O'Malley - giving birth to Tibbot, what year Essex left with the English army to fight in Ireland). Then I was able to track and cross-check everything. A story emerged from the chart, one that was as close to the history of the period as possible.

Of course there are giant holes in history, action that was not reported that had to have happened, things that we'll never know about personality, what people actually said in human words to each other, what they were thinking, and especially how they were feeling. All the stuff that takes the information out of the realm of history into the realm of historical fiction. I use extrapolation to help me jump the chasm from the known to the unknown. I have to be a detective or sorts, to read between the lines, and a psychologist to figure out what a person must have been going through emotionally. I have very strong memories of my own relationships and feelings and moments in my own life, so I use them liberally. I try every chance I get to slip into a character's shoes. Say to myself, "If I were facing this person and this situation, considering my background, my history with that person and which side of the bed I got out of this morning, what would I say, what would I do?" I also believe that most of the basic emotions I write about in the 15th and 16th century -- love, lust, hatred, fear, jealousy, humiliation, pride -- are all emotions we still have today. I just try to put them into context and in words that fit the period.
That, I think, is what gives characters their authenticity.

5. Your novel offers a candid and at times difficult look at how women were used as chattel by the men who sought power through them. Both Anne and her sister Mary were exploited by their father to further the Boleyn name and prestige at court. Why do you think Anne proved the exception, in that she took charge of her own destiny, defying the odds to become queen of England? Do you believe that had she not gone abroad at such an early age, her destiny might have been different?

I definitely think that her years abroad are what took Anne from being a provincial girl to being the great woman she became. That is where she got her extraordinary education. In fact, the working title for the novel was The Sexual Education of Anne Boleyn. But of course she got much more than a sexual education. In particular, she got a religiously progressive education from Francois' beloved and indulged sister, Marguerite. Of course I think Anne had the seeds of an exceptional character from the get-go. She was eight when she went to the court of Burgundy, and by nine she had learned the French language sufficiently enough to become a royal translator for Queen Claude.

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

I just wrote an op ed piece called "Hillary Boleyn." It compares Anne and Hillary Clinton, showing how it's not so different now and back in the 16th century when it comes to a woman who aspires to great things -- one who refuses to shut her mouth, one who stands up to the male establishment. How badly these women are treated, especially by spin doctors and the press, and the people who are failing to shut them up. Anne Boleyn helped bring the Protestant religion to England. For that, and having too much influence with Henry for too long, she was reviled and ended up headless. Hillary, as First Lady, took on the American "MegaChurch with Two Heads" - the pharmaceutical and health insurance companies -- and she was cut off at the knees. Told to go home and bake cookies. And let's not forget, there are still huge swaths of the world tin which women are bought and sold into marriage and even sexual slavery by their fathers. Some things change. Others don't.

7. Please tell us about your next project.

The DA VINCI WOMAN may become my masterpiece. I had to move to a different era, a different country and learn about all new personalities. I chose the most fabulous of them --- Leonardo Da Vinci, his mother Caterina, Lorenzo "the Magnificent" Medici and his brother Giuilino, Boticelli, Savonarola, Roderigo Borgia, and the members of Florence's "Platonic Academy." I took on not only the Renaissance that everybody knows about (learning about the art and architecture) but also what I call "the Shadow Renaissance," which I think is the true Rebirth. It had to do with science and philosophy, Hermeticsm, alchemy, the occult and esoteric learning. Talk about having to dig! But I found precious gems everywhere I looked (if I looked deep enough). It is an emotional book, perhaps the greatest love story I've ever written between and man and a woman, and the deepest and most beautiful relationship I've written between a parent and child.

Thank you, Robin. We're looking forward to this next novel by one of the genre's most genuine and delightful writers.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

THE LIAR'S DIARY, in support of Patry Francis

January 29, 2008

Today is a very special day. Over 300 bloggers, including bestsellers, Emmy winners, movie makers, and publishing houses have come together to talk about THE LIAR'S DIARY by Patry Francis. This is an unprecedented grass-roots effort to showcase the book and give it the attention it deserves on its release day while Patry takes the time she needs to heal from cancer. When I was invited to participate in this event, I didn't think twice. Several of my close friends have battled cancer over the years; and Party's story touched me deeply.

Patry and I share the same literary agency. I've never met her personally, but I have met her agent. This is an agency with soul and I mean it: I'd had four previous agents and been rejected for over twelve years. Trust me, it had to take serious soul to convince me to get back on the bizarre carnival ride that is submissions. My agent Jennifer, however, took me by the hand, just as I imagine Alice took Patry, and two of my books were sold via auction to Ballantine in January of 2007. As I approach my publication date in July of this year, I'm overwhelmed by all the excitement, the hard work, the thousand and one details required of me as an author in today's highly competitive world, where we're all vying for attention and dollars against big budget Hollywood DVDs and extravagantly noisy and bloody video games. I actually feel as if I'm gearing up for a marathon race -- a hard sprint to get the book noticed, to beat the seemingly impossible odds and actually move enough copies to merit another advance, another chance to keep doing what I've wanted to do for as long as I can remember: write. Maybe one day, if I'm really lucky, I'll even get to do it full time.

I can't imagine running this race alone, much less while battling cancer. Like me, Patry's dream came true; but with her dream came an unexpected challenge that puts everything into undeniable focus. Patry is facing it with incredible grace and trust. And look! All around her has bloosomed this community of writers and bloggers who prove that soul exists still in this harsh reality of publishing and surviving. I am truly honored and blessed to have been invited to her party. I don't know her but she's me; she's you; she's all of us, who strive and struggle and believe and never know what tomorrow holds.

Patry Francis worked for years as a waitress and then went home at the end of the day to her husband and four kids, and in those rare minutes of free time, she dared to dream that one day she might write a book. After years of rejection she found the fantastic Alice Tasman at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, who sold her manuscript. Just as her book was due to be released, she discovered she had an aggressive form of cancer.

The effort to get the word out for Patry has made visible a community that is, and has been, alive and kicking - a community that understands the struggle artists go through and rejoices in each other's successes. It's a community made up of many small voices, but - guess what? - those many small voices can create some noise. So while today is for Patry, it's also a symbolic gesture for all of you who work so very hard for little or no recognition, for all of you who keep going despite the rejections, and for all of you who have had illness or other outside factors force your art or your dreams aside. We are in this together.

THE LIAR'S DIARY answers the question of what is more powerful—family or friendship? this debut novel unforgettably shows how far one woman would go to protect either. They couldn’t be more different, but they form a friendship that will alter both their fates.
When Ali Mather blows into town, breaking all the rules and breaking hearts (despite the fact that she is pushing forty), she also makes a mark on an unlikely family. Almost against her will, Jeanne Cross feels drawn to this strangely vibrant woman, a fascination that begins to infect Jeanne’s “perfect” husband as well as their teenage son. At the heart of the friendship between Ali and Jeanne are deep-seated emotional needs, vulnerabilities they have each been recording in their diaries. Ali also senses another kind of vulnerability; she believes someone has been entering her house when she is not at home—and not with the usual intentions. What this burglar wants is nothing less than a piece of Ali’s soul. When a murderer strikes and Jeanne’s son is arrested, we learn that the key to the crime lies in the diaries of two very different women . . . but only one of them is telling the truth.

A chilling tour of troubled minds, THE LIAR'S DIARY signals the launch of an immensely talented new novelist who knows just how to keep her readers guessing. Patry says on her blog: "Though my novel deals with murder, betrayal, and the even more lethal crimes of the heart, the real subjects of [my book] are music, love, friendship, self-sacrifice and courage. The darkness is only there for contrast; it's only there to make us realize how bright the light can be. I'm sure that most writers whose work does not flinch from the exploration of evil feel the same."

You can buy THE LIAR'S DIARY at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell's. You can also buy directly from Penguin to save 15% (after you add the book to your cart, just enter the word PATRY in the coupon code field and click ‘update cart’ to activate the discount).
Let's show the world what we can do together! And send all our love and best wishes for a full recovery to Patry!

En vida, Christopher

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Guest Interview of Glenice Whitting, author of Pickle to Pie

My good friend in Australia, Wendy J. Dunn, author of an evocative novel about Thomas Wyatt's undying love for Anne Boleyn, Dear Heart, How like You This?, kindly offered to conduct a guest interview on this blog of author Glenice Whitting, whose debut novel Pickle to Pie was recently published.

Published by Ilura Press (ISBN 978-1-921325-02-1) is the story of Frederick Fritschenburg, a second generation Australian of German descent, who is dying in hospital. At eighty years of age Frederick recalls a life torn by two world wars and the Great Depression - a life of uncertainty and anguish, of disappointment, human frailties and estranged relationships, where nothing seems as real as the special childhood bond that existed between him and his grandmother, who raised him. The novel is available at:

1: Tell us, Glen, when did the journey to writing Pickle to Pie begin?

The seeds of the journey were planted long ago in my childhood, but like many other writers, it was an unexpected incident in my life that made me write about a previously forbidden topic. In 1995 I discovered in the family home, a box of postcards dating back to the nineteenth century. The messages were written in Old High German. On translation, they revealed my hidden heritage. During my childhood I was told that in 1885 my Australian born father’s grandparents immigrated from Belgium. Later I discovered that my grandmother was German and our family name had been changed, but by then, I also knew not to ask questions.
In 1997, during a fiction writing class, my short story titled Lilliana, based on the translated postcards, was highly commended in the Judah Waten Short Story Competition. That story became the basis of Pickle to Pie.

2. You say Pickle to Pie started its life as a short story. Did writing that make you decide to write a novel?

I never set out to write a novel, however, every time I wrote I felt myself pulled back to into that particular story. I began experimenting with characters. Lilliana became Frederick, a man at the end of his long life, lost in his memories. Issues of personal courage, the sins of the father, the unknowableness of the past, snatches of remembered stories, family members and funny incidents all made their way onto the page. I became obsessed about the effect of conflicting cultures on following generations and constantly researched and wrote about the German/Australian immigrant experience.

With a name like Fritschenburg many Australians will not accept me. All they have for me is the label Kraut. I am a nothing, a nobody, but I want to feel like I did when I was eight: Before the wars, before the death of the Archduke of Austria, before Germany had ever heard of Hitler. I want to feel special again.

3: When did it begin to solidify into a novel?

I’d lived with this story for years and had two huge folders full of newspaper cuttings, handwritten notes of things I wanted to write about, the outline of a plot, historical references, character descriptions and old German recipes, such as Grossmutter’s Scripture cake and Tomato Jam. After university, I began studying Professional Writing and Editing at TAFE and during that course, I realized that I had the bones of a novel

4. Do you think you were supposed to write this novel? Why?

Looking back I can see two main reasons why I was so passionate and committed to the story. The first is the feeling that dominant cultures can control written history and I desperately wanted to add this minority voice to existing narratives. I wanted to tell the untold story of the children of the Hun. There was also the desire to record and preserve the wonderful German/Australian homeopathic remedies, favourite recipes and nursery rhymes of that era.

Cry baby bunting
Daddy’s gone a hunting

I didn’t discover the other reason until a month before the book was launched. I suddenly realized that researching and writing the novel has been my own personal journey and my way of dealing with the negative whispered background to my childhood and my inability to talk openly about my past. I’m amazed to be able to say that I’m now at peace with myself. I’m finally comfortable in my German/Australian skin.

5: So, Pickle to Pie really made you own your German heritage. Was it difficult to write a novel drawn from family history and turn it into fiction?

In the front of the book I have the inscription, Based on fact, veiled in fiction: a melding of imagination, historical events and scattered memories and feel that this aptly describes what I’ve written. The story is based on family history but it is also part of the historical fabric of Australia. I think I must be mad to even attempt to cover an entire century, two world wars and a depression. An amazing amount of research was needed to cover these historical events. Every little detail had to be checked, and double-checked, but it didn’t seem a mammoth task because I simply researched one chapter at a time. I was also aware that memories and oral histories are often fallible. Every person has their own story and sees an incident or event from his or her own perspective. I became very aware that my perception of the past was different to other members of the family. I didn’t want to hurt anyone so I decided that I would not talk to close family members about my project. At this stage I couldn’t bring myself to even think about publishing the story. I just kept on writing. However, once the story moved into fiction I had the freedom I needed to play with plot and characters while remaining true to the subject. The manuscript shifted from the personal to the historical representation of a minority group and for that reason I became convinced that it should be published.

The book is dedicated to the children of German descent who lived in Australia during the last century and struggled to come to terms with their opposing worlds. I still consider Pickle to Pie as biographically based, but also consider imaginative reconstruction as a valid means of truth. It is the only way to put flesh on the bones. Grossmutter is modeled on my great grandmother who died before I was born. The essential facts are there; that she was a midwife in Footscray and used herbal remedies to help women, but the only way I could bring her to life was to use my imagination.

6: What were the steps towards publication?

There were many small steps that led to the publication of Pickle to Pie. I entered my writing into everything and anything, magazine, literary journals, competitions etc. I applied for funding, and the manuscript was shortlisted with Varuna and also in the 2003 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. However, two years later I was still sending out the first three chapters to agents and publishers and received enough rejection slips to cover my walls. I was just about ready to put it in the bottom drawer when I heard about a new Masters of Creative Writing course at Melbourne University and decided to give Pickle to Pie one more chance.

My tutor for Writing the Unconscious, Dominique Hecq, sent a class email outlining the details of the 2006 Ilura Press International Fiction Quest and I hastily posted a copy of Pickle to Pie. When told that the manuscript was short listed, I hardly dared to breath. Pickle to Pie had made it to many shortlists but had always just missed out. After much nail biting and hovering over the phone I was overcome with relief when told that the manuscript had co-won, along with English author James Friel, a publishing contract and $5000 advance.

7: How did you find the publishing process?

Fantastic. A wonderful learning experience. I am so lucky to be with Ilura Press. They are a new independent publishing firm that is quite unique, the members of the team are all writers. Can you imagine the joy of having people who understand the writing process, who are considerate and nurturing, in charge of publishing your book? They produce a literary journal titled Etchings featuring essays, art, photography and poetry from writers from Switzerland to Kuwait. To provide an avenue for, as they put it, ‘Creative writers whose work deserves a receptive and willing audience,’ and to launch their move into publishing novels, they ran the 2006 Fiction Quest.

8: Do you think P&P was published in the right moment of time to be appreciated by the reading public?

A Yes, especially with the recent release of the film, Romulus My Father The story is about an immigrant family’s struggle to survive and a boy growing up in an Australian county town. I also feel that it is the right time historically. It is over sixty years since the end of the Second World War and it is important that these stories about minority groups within Australia are told.

9: And, finally, are you working on a new book?

Definitely. For at least five years, this story has been simmering alongside Pickle to Pie and I now feel free to put all my energies into it. It is titled Hens Lay, People Lie and is about my chance meeting in 1977 with an elderly American poet at the Burke and Will’s Dig Tree in Outback Australia. For over thirty years our letters have criss crossed the globe. This special relationship has withstood the pressures of time, distance, age and culture. I like to think of the story as being about ‘Two women, two countries, one dream. It is also a comparison between American culture and landscape and that of Australia. The book is based on the five times over the years that Mickey and I have managed to meet and will contain several of her poems. However, once again I’m standing at the crossroads between historical fact and fiction, and can’t wait to see where the future will take me.

Thank you, Wendy. And thanks, Glenice, for visiting us from Australia. This is a marvelous novel from a writer with great promise and we look forward to hearing more from her!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Interview with Geoffery S. Edwards, author of FIRE BELL IN THE NIGHT

Geoffrey S. Edwards' debut novel FIRE BELL IN THE (Touchstone/ Simon & Schuster. 2007. $15.00. Trade paperback. ISBN:1-4165-6424-1) was the first runner-up in's First Chapters Contest, which is in of itself an extraordinary accomplishment. In addition, however, Geoffrey Edwards' book is a riveting read, conjuring a sweltering summer in 1850 in Charleston, where a series of allegedly random fire attacks coincide with the trial of a poor white farmer accused of harboring a fugitive slave and the growing divide between North and South. With a a graceful precision and eye of detail, Edwards immerses us in a cauldron of racial unrest and secrets seen through the eyes of an ambitious young reporter from New York, who travels to Charleston to cover the trial and finds himself swept into the dangerous, deceptively genteel world of slave owners -- which might just harbor a lethal conspiracy.

Geoffrey S. Edwards is thirty one years old and a full-time educational editor living with his wife in Chicago, Illinois. A passionate love of history and mysteries led him to write his first novel, FIRE BELL IN THE NIGHT. He enjoys reading, travel, and the Chicago Cubs. I'm honored to feature Geoffrey as my first author in 2008.

1. Congratulations on the publication of FIRE BELL IN THE NIGHT. It's a pleasure to have you with us. Set in Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 1850, this novel is a riveting account of a New York journalist who travels to the south to cover the trial of a farmer accused of harboring a fugitive slave and finds himself plunged into the racial and political tensions that led to the Civil War. What inspired you to write about this troubled period in U.S. history?

Thanks so much for inviting me. In response to your question, I have always felt a stronger attraction to the moments just before calamity than the calamitous events themselves. In retrospect, one can see the lead-up to the Civil War etched into the pages of the Constitution. However, I feel that the Crisis of 1850 marked the point of no return for the nation. It was the decisions made, and left undone, that cemented the path to dissolution of the Union. Beyond that, some tremendously mysterious events in Charleston that summer provided excellent fodder for what I hope is a thrilling story.

2. FIRE BELL IN THE NIGHT offers a fascinating look at a southern city in a time when slavery was an economic necessity. What challenges did you encounter while researching Charleston’s history? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about Charleston and/or the south in general?

In researching the time, it becomes difficult to formulate opinions outside of the context of slavery. Personalities, rivalries, socialization, and even city aesthetics are hard to view outside of that prism. Of course, it was important to create vivid characters that felt they were not defined entirely by the system in which they lived – after all, I believe we all believe our own actions define us and not our place and time. I hope that my characters come across as individuals, not mere caricatures.

As for the surprises, they were around every corner. For example, when I began researching, I had no idea that almost a quarter of all the blacks living in Charleston were free. They operated in a social structure as varied as their white counterparts. In fact, a black “carriage class” existed; one whose members dressed with opulence, traveled by coach, and exhibited sophisticated tastes. Some of the stereotypes are true, of course. As a lot, white southerners drank excessively and were armed to the teeth. But, their opinions were as varied as their northern counterparts. By 1850, the rhetoric was warming up, but it had not devolved to the downright sloganeering that existed just before the start of the war.

3. The heart of the novel is John Sharp’s association with Tyler Breckenridge, a plantation owner with a mysterious agenda. Through them, we learn about the complexity of the relationship between the free and slave states. How did you go about creating fictional characters that 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 were the one (s) you most enjoyed creating?

Fortunately for writers of historical fiction, people are very much like they have always been. Therefore, we have a leaping off point into which we can throw the cultural values, morals, and aspirations of the day and blend them all together. The composite result, hopefully, is an authentic recreation of an individual of that time. In the case of Fire Bell, I created a main character from the North who came to the South to report on a trial. His world-view more closely mirrors our own, and I think this allows for an “outsider” perspective into an era into which the reader themself is an outsider. He is in awe of the beautiful mansions, elegant parties, and code of honor, just as he is appalled by the foundation on which all of that was built on: slavery.

Darcy Calhoun was my favorite character in the story. Darcy is the reason for the story, but far from the main character. It is his trial that precipitates all other events. Darcy is a simple man caught harboring a fugitive slave. However, John Sharp, the northern reporter, discovers there is much more to the man that one simple, fated event. Darcy is the one character that neither I, nor my editor, ever touched. Not a line. He exists in the pages of the book the same way he was created. He spoke, and I simply transcribed.

3. Your novel offers a personal, haunting storyline that represents a nation headed for an inevitable and ultimately tragic confrontation. We know the old south was constructed on unimaginable suffering yet we can still be seduced into seeing it as a vanished time of benign plantations and courageous hearts, despite the evil of slavery. Your book offers a fascinating look at this illusory world through the eyes of an ambitious reporter who knows it’s based on lies yet cannot help but be swept up in its vision of itself. Like the world he seeks to expose, John Sharp is a man of secrets and flaws. What is so remarkable for me about your novel is that it goes beyond the obvious clichés to examine the grayer areas of this period of time. How did you go about achieving this? Were you concerned that your analogies might stir controversy, even if it reflects historical reality?

This is the actual dichotomy I was hoping to create, and I’m glad you recognized it. Things are rarely as black and white as they appear to be. For example, even a moral individual born into this system would be hard-pressed to dent the foundation of a society dependent economically, socially, and spiritually on the suppression of another race. I hope the book makes the reader consider their own course of actions in such a system. And to be honest, I consciously tried to avoid the clichés you just spoke of.

Additionally, as with the eve of most catastrophes, no one had any idea of the scope of what was coming. This train wreck that would claim hundreds of thousands of lives would have been fantasy to most. In that respect, it’s important to view individual actions in relation to what they perceived as the possible outcomes, not what we know they were.

I think that my analogies in the book might surprise some. They offer more universal condemnation of the empowered whites in America, and not merely the slave owners. However, if anyone wishes to debate northern complicity or their own entirely unique set of horrors put into place by the advance of industrialization, I would be happy to debate them.

4. Can you tell us about your journey to publication, which is a rather unique one?

About a year ago, while questioning myself and my book for the thousandth time, I came across a blurb for the First Chapters Contest. It was a contest that offered publication to the winner but with a different little twist – the public would be the initial judges. I entered without expectations, but with a little bit of hope. That hope began to evaporate when I found out the number of entrants reached 1,600; just slightly above the 250 expected. However, I advanced through round after round of voting until my book and four others were sent to the Big Wigs from Borders and Simon and Schuster for the final decision. That’s when I found out… I didn’t win. But the judges thought 2 books deserved publication. I tell you what, I think I am the happiest Runner-Up ever!

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

I did not set out to write a novel that tackled contemporary political issues. Rather, I wanted my readers to look at history from a different perspective. If you consider some of today's significant issues - war, national security, immigration, privacy - people have very different opinions. By the same token, there was no clear consensus in 1850; certainly not on the issues of slavery, the Western territories, or even the value of all the states remaining together as one Union. So, my point with Fire Bell was to transport the reader back in time to when everything was seen the shade of grey you mentioned before. By grasping that it gives the issues more immediacy, which I think allows people to feel more connected, as they do to their present circumstances.

6. Please tell us about your next project.

It’s set in the time just before the American Revolution in Boston. The main character is a ghost writer, or Pamphleteer, who writes inflammatory articles attacking the Crown and her policies using an alias. When things begin to deteriorate, a wild series of real historical events fall into place, and the main character finds himself in the middle of a possible conspiracy…with his life on the line. It will hopefully be a tremendously exciting story with a thrilling, and unexpected ending.

Thank you, Geoffrey, for visiting with us. I'm looking forward to your next book, as are your many readers.

GIVEAWAY! Geoffrey will be interviewed by Kelly Hewitt on and offering three lucky readers a signed copy of his novel. I'll notify readers here as soon as the contest is underway.