I guest posted over on Dean Robertson’s blog today with some thoughts on creating scenes of violence in my fiction . . . . and on experiencing them in the works of others. Here’s the link! Have a look!
A few weeks ago a friend and I walked to the Chinese restaurant near my co-op and brought back steaming cartons of vegetable lo mein, fried rice, two Spring rolls, and my favorite—roasted broccoli (enough to save for lunch the next day). The order—white cartons stacked neatly in a large white bag—of course included small packets of soy sauce and several fortune cookies.
I always look forward to the slight crunch and sweetness of fortune cookies after the salty Chinese food, but the two I grabbed that day were stale. I was on the verge of throwing them out, along with their predictions for my future, when the edge of a slip of paper caught my eye. It read:
“You will find luck when you go home.”
That piece of paper, greasy at one corner, wrinkled from its near-miss with the garbage, is taped to the door of my kitchen cabinet.
“I know that our relationship to those places we inhabit and leave and for which we search is the informing metaphor of the spiritual life in any tradition and is, in fact, the governing reality in our lives; the spirit of place is in our bones” (Looking for Lydia; Looking for God, 116-117).
I grew up in the South, in the hills of North Georgia, and so—even more than most—I have that bone-deep sense of belonging to a place, of that physical bond with land. In his small novel, The Unvanquished, William Faulkner describes the forced and hasty departure from home of two boys, with their grandmother, just ahead of Sherman’s army on its March to the Sea. They take along basic provisions—and bags of soil from the plantation.
One morning about twenty years ago, one of my cousins and I drove out to the land where I grew up. We were going to see the log house my parents built which neither of us had seen since I left for college at seventeen.
After the house was built, Mother and Daddy carefully cleared narrow paths into the woods and down the steep hill between the house and the “patio,” a structure made entirely of mortar and large stones from the creek bank. On the day my cousin and I were there, all those paths were completely grown over; there wasn’t a trace of them. We sat for a few minutes, looking with a kind of hopelessness at the uninterrupted woods, seeing no possibility for navigation.
I glanced back and stepped out of the car. I walked cautiously, but without hesitation, across the overgrown yard and onto the path that led by twists and turns through a quarter acre of dense trees and underbrush to the edge of Cedar Creek. Those stones and trees, that path, buried in thick vines and roots and many seasons of leaves, are my bones.The skeleton of that land is my skeleton. I never faltered. My cousin followed. We sat by the creek for more than an hour without speaking.
There is a reason that all those houses and apartments and rooms over all those decades never quite satisfied my search for home. Not one of them, even the wonderful co-op, in the wonderful walking neighborhood where I live now, ever will be home.
Home is not a place, not a location, neither house nor woods nor hills nor any ocean. Home is, as Esther de Waal writes in her 1984 book, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, a sense of being “earthed;” it is the Biblical concept of stability or steadfastness.
Of Metropolitan Anthony, “a monk and a bishop,” she says only,
“He has found his centre of gravity; he is wholly inside himself. This is the stability of the heart.”
Home, the particularity of place, is significant because it points always to something beyond itself.
It points to home.
A hymn whose name and provenance I have forgotten includes this line:
“We are all God’s children; the journey is our home.”
And, finally, this road to our real home can never be easy. Benedict writes in his Rule of the novice monk:
“‘Do not grant newcomers to the monastic life an easy entry’ says the opening sentence, and the novice is to be left knocking at the door for four or five days. He is then warned about ‘the hardships and difficulties that will lead him to God’ If he promises perseverance in his stability after two months. . .If he still stands firm. . .he is taken back. . .and is tested again after six months, and then again four months later.”
Looking for Lydia, Looking for God is also available on Amazon.com.
I came by an interesting book the other day. It’s called Looking for Lydia, Looking for God, and it’s part-memoir, part-religious meditation, part-biography.
The story is this. The author, Dean Robertson (despite the unorthodox first name, Dean is female) had occasion to stay for some months at the Lydia Roper Home, a home for elderly women in Norfolk, Virginia, while recovering from a fall. During her time at the home, Robertson led a Bible study group with some of the women who lived there, starting with four and gradually growing to around a dozen. She also became curious about Lydia Hand Bowen Roper, the home’s namesake and inspiration. Some might say “curious about” is an inadequate phrase, preferring “obsessed with.”
In Looking for Lydia, Looking for God, Robertson draws together three threads: her personal journey from ailment to recovery, from withdrawn-ness to engagement; the stories of her Bible study group, the women who made it up and their encounters with Biblical texts; and the teasing-out of the sparse details of the life of Lydia Roper, whose husband, a wealthy lumberman, endowed the home shortly before his death in 1921. The result is an odd, charming, occasionally frustrating, immensely enjoyable book.
The women of the Bible Study group are a varied group, some inquisitive, some uncommunicative. Robertson portrays them vividly. For a sort-of memoir, the book is less forthcoming about Robertson herself. We learn that she is a retired academic who grew up in north Georgia, and not a whole lot else. This reticence is unusual for a memoir, and I found myself wishing for more internal revelation. Lydia Roper also remains stubbornly inaccessible to Robertson’s efforts at inquiry; she left little written record, and her family’s memories are vague. Robertson describes her frustration at her efforts to uncover more about the elusive Lydia:
At this point, the result is uncertainty, and all I can find is that sometime in 1920 or 1921, Captain John Roper either “built,” “established,” “donated,” or “founded” the Lydia Roper Home. The Home either was, or was not, intended as a haven for Confederate widows. Two sources say yes; a local historian who grew up in the area says, “The Confederate widows twist likely came about as a result of rationalizing having a Damn Yankee establish a very useful and needed charitable home in an extremely Confederate area. Even one hundred years after The War, partisan feelings about Northerners were still quite strong.” A family member says the original charter more likely read something like, “ … for impoverished white women in the city of Norfolk.”
Anybody who’s engaged in research into an obscure historical figure or event can relate to that “Well.”
What holds these three threads together? To me, it’s the searching and the losing. The women of the Bible study group work their way through Old Testament and New, responding to the stories in conventional and unconventional ways, searching for meaning, consolation, and explanations, all the while growing older and more frail. They lose their faculties, their health. Dean Robertson keeps looking for Lydia, even as Lydia continually recedes on the horizon. Memories fail; stories prove untrustworthy; yet the effort rewards itself. The writing is literary and highly crafted, but not overly so; the characters of the women shine through.
The book contains a lot of discussion of the various characters in the Bible, particularly women. I’m just about the least qualified person in the country to talk about that element of the book; Bible study has never interested me. So I’ll leave it to others to judge the originality and soundness of the exegesis. I’m more interested in the human stories of the elderly women who gather in the second floor parlor of the Lydia Roper Home. And these stories – warm, touching, and often sad – are well worth the reading. Looking for Lydia, Looking for God is a lovely book, especially for the spiritually-minded.
You know that old saying about how a duck works — calm and still in the visible part, but paddling like heck down below? Well, that’s how I’ve been the last couple of weeks. I’ve been quiet on this blog, on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, because I’ve been focusing on a couple of projects that have taken a lot of time and concentration.
There’s the next book, which is rounding the turn toward home at last, and I’m very excited about that. You hit a moment when things start coming together, when the plot threads that you put down months ago in earlier chapters finally start tying up, and it’s an exciting passage that makes all the groaning of earlier months feel worthwhile. Still some distance to travel, but the finish line is in view.
I’ve also been working on my presentation for the Ozarks Cultural Symposium, which is next week in West Plains. I was honored this year to be asked to be the keynote speaker. I’m hoping to live up to that honor with a talk that will also draw together a lot of the threads of thought that I have about the Ozarks, its image, and its representation in creative culture.
If you’re near the West Plains area, you should definitely come to this symposium! It’s put on every year by the branch campus of Missouri State University there, and they always draw a wonderfully diverse group of presenters from Missouri, Arkansas, and elsewhere. It’s interdisciplinary and includes creative presenters (poetry, music, fiction, etc.) as well as scholarly ones.
My tour of the M.M. Bennetts Award finalists nears its completion with the shortlisted finalists. First up, David Blixt’s The Prince’s Doom.
Imagine a world in which the 14th-century historical figures of Italy — the Della Scala family of Verona, the Doge of Venice, Petrarch, the family of Dante Alighieri, the Carrara family of Padua — interacted and lived alongside the characters of Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Katherine and Petruchio, the Merchant of Venice, and so forth. It’s a great premise: after all, Shakespeare did use incidents from Italian history for some of his plays, and historical characters pop up in them from time to time. So why not have them coexist in a fictional universe of their own?
That’s the premise of The Prince’s Doom, and I gather of the other books in David Blixt’s “Star-Cross’d” series, of which this novel is the fourth. The book is an enjoyable literary mash-up of characters we’ve seen before, historical figures we may have heard about but known little of, and entirely new fictional characters brought in as well.
The central character is Pietro Alaghieri (to use the novel’s spelling), the heir to Dante and a knight of Verona. He has been given the task of overseeing the upbringing of Francesco (“Cesco”) Della Scala, the heir to the ambitious and formidable Cangrande Della Scala, Verona’s ruler. Cesco is brilliant, unstable, and vastly promising, so Pietro’s task is not just the obligation of a knight to his ruler, but a personal and moral challenge. Pietro is a complex, sympathetic character, and following the turns of his mind as he tries to understand and curb Cesco’s extravagant behavior makes for great reading.
I would probably have been able to follow the complicated plot of this novel better if I had read the earlier books in the series. These novels are real doorstoppers, with The Prince’s Doom coming in at just under 700 pages, so they’re the kind of books a person can burrow into and enjoy a huge cast of characters, lots of action, and an exotic setting depicted with great care. In addition to being an author, Blixt is a theatre professional known for his skill at the staging of theatrical swordfights, so as you can imagine there are plenty of rip-roaring fight scenes here to go along with the court intrigue and intricate plotting. The Shakespearean characters add a dash of familiar unfamiliarity to the story, and it’s enjoyable to see them reinvented in the mind of another.
SW: The Prince’s Doom is nearly 700 pages with an enormous cast of characters. Was it daunting for you to undertake such an ambitious project?
DB: More daunting in hindsight. This is the fourth novel in the series, and the cast and size both grew naturally from the previous books. I had a lot to accomplish in this one, and at the same time wanted the story to have room to develop naturally. That was aided by the visit I made to Verona last year – I was allowed to see places I’d never visited before, and several spots became settings for scenes I hadn’t even imagined yet. The places determined the action, which allowed the city to be as much a character in the story as the people.
SW: I’m guessing that many of us know fourteenth-century Italy mainly through its literary representations. Your novel engages with the actual historical situation of the time, as well as bringing in figures we know from literature. How did you balance the fictional and the historical in the book? Were there particular rules you set for yourself on how much liberty you could take with actual people and events?
DB: My rule of thumb is I cannot contradict the historical record. That being said, I’m lucky there’s a lot of missing data from this period. I am allowed to fill in the gaps, and do so either with literary characters or historical ones I’ve appropriated. When possible, I like to blend the historical figures with the literary ones – Cesco is an example of that, being both historical and literary at once.
As far as liberty, I’m using the historical backdrop to tell my story. I won’t contradict history (at least, not intentionally), but why people act the way they do is open to me. Motives matter a great deal. Part of my great joy in writing historical fiction is the creative detective work of figuring out why one of my characters would have done this or that in the historical record. Sometimes the actions fit perfectly with the characters I’ve crafted. Sometimes they don’t, and those are the fun times, when I have to weave new threads and hatch new plots – political, familial, martial – to explain a seeming incongruity. It has the added benefit of making all my characters more complex.
SW: I’m particularly curious about the characters from Shakespeare that come in and out of the book. Did you find it advantageous having characters with what we might call a “past history” as characters, or did their prior characterization in Shakespeare act as a limitation on what you could do with them?
DB: Mostly advantageous, though an occasional trouble was wanting to resolve their issues, and knowing that cannot happen. At this point in the series, I’ve hit about a third of Shakespeare’s Italian plays – Shrew and Merchant are behind us, Much Ado, 2 Gents, and R&J are ahead of us. So some characters have their histories behind them, but for most their famous scenes are yet to come. So, just as I can’t contradict history, I cannot contradict Shakespeare. I very much wanted to end the Capulet/Montague feud – I love Mari and Antony, and want them to stop their nonsense. Yet as the play is still years in the future, the feud must continue to exist. But for Tybalt, Romeo, Friar Lawrence, Juliet, the Nurse, it was just pure fun to give them their early years. And of course Mercutio, whose series this is.
SW: One of the focal characters is Francesco della Scala, known as “Cesco” in the book. How much is known about the actual individual? What attracted you to him as a character?
DB: I came at him backwards. When I created the series, it started with the feud from Shakespeare. Then I delved into the history of Verona, and was astonished by Cangrande. He’s a figure deserving his own books, and so I gave them to him. Yet he reminded me of someone, too. Shakespeare’s wildest spirit, Mercutio, who is referred to in R&J as the Prince’s “kinsman” and “near ally”. So when I discovered Cangrande had a bastard son, one whose life was mostly unknown, I decided to merge them. That decision has dominated fifteen years of my life, and will continue on for some time.
As for the historical Cesco, his marriage is factual. The rest is me, a la Shakespeare.
SW: Reading The Prince’s Doom, I felt a real fascination with the city of Verona. Can you tell us a bit about Verona? What do you find interesting about that location?
DB: One of my favorite things about Verona is that it is a living city. Whereas all the ruins in Rome are only tourist attractions, the historical sites in Verona are still in use today. There are operas and concerts in the Roman arena, Cangrande’s palace is city hall, his suite of rooms the residence of the Chief of Police. Verona is not a monument to the past, but has incorporated its past into its present. And the wine in the region is marvelous.
SW: What’s next on your writing agenda?
DB: Talk about daunting. I am skimming the surface of four different novels, seeing which one takes hold. I have to edit the next volume in my series on the Roman-Jewish wars, WAIL OF THE FALLEN. I’m dabbling in an Elizabethan noir. I have a book about Hell, another about the supernatural, and I’ve just started research for the next Will & Kit book. I want all of those out of the way before I dive back into Cesco’s world. Yet I have to admit, there’s an itch, a longing, to do it now, this minute. The Star-Cross’d series is where my heart resides. These are the stories I most want to tell, and count myself lucky that I’m allowed to do so.
Next stop on my trip through the M.M. Bennetts Award finalists is P.D.R. Lindsay’s Tizzie. Although Lindsay lives in New Zealand, her family roots are in Yorkshire, the setting of this novel.
I mention that only by way of partial explanation of one of the most striking features of this book – its utter and complete mastery of the rural Yorkshire dialect. From the first paragraph onward, Tizzie captures the speaking rhythms and vocabulary of 19th-century Yorkshire farmers with amazing fidelity and precision. I was immediately immersed in the concerns and thought patterns of the main character, Tizzie Cawthra, simply by virtue of her poetic and quaint rural dialect.
And oh, Tizzie has troubles. As an unmarried woman thought to be past marrying age (29), she has been “taken in” by one of her brothers, whose family treats her as little more than a slave, or worse. Her immense store of knowledge about dairying and cheesemaking, handed down through the female side of the family over the generations, serves as the family’s financial bulwark, but Tizzie never sees a penny of it. Scorned as a failure by the family because of her lack of a husband, Tizzie can only find comfort in her beloved niece Agnes, who is similarly abused as a “useless girl.”
Tizzie’s brother’s family surely enters my list as one of the most appallingly vile sets of people I’ve read about in a long time, counterbalanced precariously by the kindly schoolmaster and fair-minded squire of the village, who appreciate Tizzie’s talents and share her aspirations for young Agnes. Tizzie’s struggles to find a sliver of freedom for herself, and a glimmer of hope for Agnes, are depicted with heart-aching care.
Fans of the gauzy PBS version of Yorkshire rural life will find parts of Tizzie hard to take. Farm work during that era was backbreaking and mind-numbing, set against an omnipresent worry that the year’s earnings might not make the rent and the family would be put off. The economic and social pressures that weigh on Tizzie make her battles against them all the more heroic. And I use the term “heroic” most intentionally here; Tizzie is indeed a hero as she labors to carve out a space of freedom for herself and her niece.
SW: Tizzie struck me immediately with its evocative use of Yorkshire dialect. Can you tell us about that dialect, and how you came to have such a mastery of it? Did the use of that dialect pose particular challenges for you as a writer?
I grew up in Yorkshire listening to several of the Yorkshire dialects. My father was strict and my siblings and I were not allowed to speak like that ourselves, but we heard it daily from the men on the farms around us, the women in the street and shops, a sort of general broad accent was used by most Yorkshire people. Being kids we picked up and could use some of the more colourful expressions. I used to love listening to the oldest grannies and grandads who spoke the purer dialects where I could only understand one word in twenty. There was a special rhythm to that speech. Even now I love the sound of the Dales dialects. Many of the words are pure Old English, or Norse-based and have fascinating histories. Sneck and thwaite, yat and mither, thole and crowdie, nipper and laiking, they sound grand. And it is not only the words but the way they are used which is a delight to my ear. I tried to convey some of that musical quality to the readers without losing them but any real dialect expert would not approve of the way I’ve used some of the words. My American Beta readers hated the dialect and asked me to take out as much as possible. It became a delicate balancing act, but Tizzie had to sound on the page as she did in my head.
Dialect is always a difficult choice for a writer as many readers are put off by having to deal with the unknown. As a writer I have to make things clear for my readers so I did try to put every word in context or use it in such a way that a reader could substitute a word they would know and so understand what Tizzie was thinking or saying. I know I did not succeed, but some readers have told me they loved the way she spoke, or they loved it because she sounded just like their old Nan, so perhaps a little of the music of the dialect made it off the page.
SW: A little further on that topic — I noticed that some characters are distinguished by their ability to shift in and out of the local dialect, while others are not. And then there are characters for whom the local dialect is practically a foreign language. Do you see the characters’ language use as a marker of social distinction?
Oh yes, speech marked your social class and from the Regency onwards people were clearly ranked by their speech. The old Squire, Sir Charles’s father, would have been a jolly, broad Yorkshire speaker and not give tuppence for London and London society and their pernickety ways, but his wife had had a London season and did mind about being thought a country bumpkin. Their son and heir, Sir Charles, was brought up to remember that and went away to an expensive public school where any dialect would be beaten out or mocked out of him. It was the language of the peasant not the gentleman. Even servants who wished to be more than gardeners, stable men or kitchen maids had to try and mend their speech. Readers of The Secret Garden will remember that the serving girl, Martha, tells Mary that she is only allowed to help in the house as a favour because her speech is ‘too broad.’ People learned to manage this dual system in order to get better jobs or positions. Dialect at home and standard at work.
The Schoolmaster is an interesting character in this way of dual speech in that he had joined the army and been made sergeant then was invalided out. But his friendship with his captain, Sir Charles, (he’d saved him from a couple of disasters) and their mutual interests meant that he could train as a teacher, with Sir Charles’s support, and so he had to move up the social ranks. As a senior teacher and Sir Charles’s school inspector he needed to speak ‘standard’ English but as a Yorkshire lad he knew his dialect and used it occasionally to good effect.
SW: Tizzie herself is such a great character — so rich and well-rounded. Had you been thinking about this character for a long time? What got you started with Tizzie?
I like cooking, especially old recipes. Dorothy Hartley’s book Food in England had a bibliography which set me chasing up books. I found the wonderful Elizabeth David’s book on bread which had a reference to an old Scottish cook book. I was hunting up oatcake recipes and this book was recommended for its scone and oatcake recipes. The writer aimed to preserve traditional recipes and mentioned their history and why they were made. One of these traditional oatcakes was the St Columba’s cake, an oatcake made on June 9th, St Columba’s eve. Into this cake went a silver coin. The cake was toasted over a fire made of sacred rowan, yew and oak wood and the child who found the coin in their piece of cake got to keep the year’s crop of lambs.
What an idea for a story!
I wrote one, not a great one because it was all sweetness and light and a good story needs friction. But the idea grew because I know families. Imagine what happened if the same child found the coin? Would a mother cheat to see all the children had the coin and so those valuable lambs? Would children fight and fall out for ever because one had the lambs and the other did not? The ideas buzzed inside my head quietly for a while and I tried to write a story, but the idea grew too big for a short story. It might be a novel though and I wondered about who and what and where, which is when I first began to hear Tizzie’s voice, this Yorkshire voice, in my head. Other writers will know what I mean, but it does sound a little crazy, this voices in the head business. It comes about, for me, after a lot of thinking and musing and wondering about a story idea. I will find that a character is coming to life, first as a voice I hear, then as a face I see. Thus Tizzie appeared. Tizzie, the aunt who wanted her niece to get the coin and the lambs. Tizzie who had to stop wearing rose tinted glasses and see her life as it really was. Tizzie, who was a simple, kindly soul, trying to cope with a great deal of devious evil. She was, for me, real and alive.
SW: The farther I got in the book, the more I felt that a dominant and growing theme in it is the amount of casual violence that occurs, and the disregard some of the characters have for the harm they cause. Nowadays we would call it “domestic violence,” but in that time seemed to be part of the fabric of existence. Do you see this as a theme in the book?
I have the greatest problem with themes because I always start off thinking I am writing on one theme but the story ends up about others. Any first draft is a confused mess as I try to force it my way and it goes off on its own path. In Tizzie what I wanted readers to understand was that we all wear rose tinted glasses and we need to see truly and honestly to live our lives well, which is not easy. We can choose to see or not to see. I always write about people having choices. But there was also this underlying theme of man’s inhumanity to man, and the casual unthinking unkindness which people with power often show to those who are powerless. It can be seen in families, in groups who have to work together. There is nothing ‘old’ about Tizzie’s treatment. It still happens today. I have seen in schools and in businesses the Killing by Kindness method of putting people down, pushing them out, or rendering them powerless. I have also seen the outright, devious and cruel methods which people use to gain power or get rid of people. Tizzie faces both sorts of ‘violence’ and yes, it became a theme, one I hope readers will think about and may be more aware of it happening around them.
SW: Another element of book that resonated with me is the sense of old folkways and folk wisdom being slowly lost, with Tizzie as an example of someone who possesses an enormous store of folk wisdom. Do you see this time period as a shift in our ways of knowing and doing things?
It seems to me that every generation discards the old, the things the parents did, and takes up the new. Traditions which parents valued are often derided as old fashioned or useless. Sometime traditions had to change for simple economic reasons. With luck the following generation might seize on some of their grandparents’ traditions as quaint or an excuse for a celebration, drinking or stopping work, and there might be a few people around who remembered how the traditional activity went.
In Tizzie’s era, the 1880s in Victorian Britain, economics played a large part in losing traditions. It was a period of economic depression and there was a world-wide slump in agricultural prices because New Zealand had just learned how to send chilled meat to Smithfield market in London and their cheese and butter soon followed. Exports of cheese and butter from America also added to the English farmers’ problems. Prices fell. Farmers had a hard time paying their rents. The pressure was on for change in order to survive.
Maggie was always chasing Tizzie up to make more cheese, butter, and clotted cream. Tizzie used the old, careful, slow methods traditionally successful, but you can see how the pressure would build to become more efficient, cut out some of the traditional ways in order to speed things up and produce more. The blessing of the Hall dairy is one example of a traditional way of introducing the correct bacteria to a new dairy, but it was slow and there were other ways of doing it.
SW: What’s your next project?
Right now I’m fighting my way through the first draft of a novel set in 1872 in the India of the British Raj. I anticipate that the characters end up in New Zealand, however I am not sure where the novel will now end as the characters have done their take over and might go back to Britain. I am at that dreadful writing stage where I have to make the middle of the novel fit onto the end and it is tough going as my carefully planned ending has vanished and I don’t know where I am going. Writing becomes an act of faith until that glorious moment when it all makes sense.
Tizzie had to be written in the 3rd person POV because it was too painful to write in 1st person. This is a 1st person novel simply because my male main character insists on having his story told this way. He is a merchant banker, son of bankers, an observer, thinker, and excellent seeker of new opportunities for banks and business. His family is one of the new Victorian families whose wealth and education made them independent of the mainstream upper middle class Victorian mores. He has a Quaker mother and a Jewish father. He’s been tipped out of his comfortable life in the bank to extract justice and revenge on behalf of a group of families, and himself, and he has to travel to India to deliver it. It’s another difficult story to write because of what the poor MC has to go through.
I’ve been traveling on vacation for the last couple of weeks, so haven’t had the opportunity to post my most recent reviews and interviews. I’ll be trying to catch up this week and next.
Omphalos is the third novel of Mark Patton, who in addition to writing novels is an academic, an archaeologist by profession. It’s unlike the other historical novels I’ve reviewed so far, because it’s not about a particular era in history. Instead, Omphalos tells six different stories set in different eras, all of which involve in some way a stone tower built above an ancient underground stone structure on the island of Jersey, known today as La Hougue Bie. The stories range from prehistory to contemporary times and include revolutionary France, medieval travelers, and the Second World War.
I applaud Omphalos for its ambition — it’s a novel that is unafraid of taking risks and stretching the genre. It also uses a mix of narrative methods; the French Revolution story takes the form of diary entries, while the Second World War story is epistolary. You have to be ready for lots of changing times, situations, languages, and characters. But the pervading sense of how themes and characters recur over time makes this book compelling.
I’ll confess that not all the stories held my interest to the same degree, but that’s to be expected in a novel this wide-ranging. This isn’t so much a “historical novel” as it is a novel about history itself, about the way history is made and the stories that come to be accepted as history. The omphalos of the title, a tower that reaches deep into the heart of the earth and stretches toward heaven, is the novel’s connecting point and central symbol, a sign of how our stories connect over time even when we’re not aware of it. It’s a lovely, meditative work, and one that well deserved its M.M. Bennetts nomination.
SW: Omphalos takes a very distinctive narrative approach, involving not one story line, but six. What inspired you to take this approach?
It all started with Italo Calvino’s If, On A Winter’s Night, A Traveller…, which influenced David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which in turn influenced me. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando was also there in the background. I didn’t know this until a late stage, but, as I was writing Omphalos, Kate Atkinson was writing Life After Life; Sebastian Faulks was writing A Possible Life; and Ali Smith was writing How to be Both; all of which have comparable structures, so it seems to have become something of a contemporary trope, a wave I was more than happy to ride.
SW: The stories connect through a location on the island of Jersey that is used for various human purposes, both sacred and secular, through the centuries. I understand that this site is one you are personally very closely connected with. Could you give us a little background?
I was born and grew up on Jersey, and was later Director of the Archaeological Museum there. La Hougue Bie is one of the most important archaeological sites there, which I excavated in the 1990s. There is a megalithic tomb covered by a cairn, built around 6000 years ago. On its summit is a 12th Century chapel, to which a 16th Century cleric added a crypt styled on the Holy Sepulchre, on top of which an 18th Century prince built a pavilion. During World War II, the occupying German forces built an observation post over one end of the chapel. It is now a museum complex, and I had my office there for three years.
SW: As an archaeologist, I suspect you have a different relationship with objects and artifacts than most of us. Omphalos uses certain objects (a bead, a model of a chapel, etc.) as connectors between the stories. What has the practice of archaeology brought to your fiction writing in that respect, i.e., seeing stories in objects?
An archaeologist studies the human past backwards. The 20th Century layer is always on top of the 18th Century layer, which is always above the 16th Century layer, and so on. Thus we always experience it in reverse order as we excavate, and then try to tell the story in the other direction. That gave me the structure for the book: I take the readers back in time to 4000 BC, and then bring them home again, revealing aspects of the story along the way. Archaeologists are telling stories with objects all the time (I even teach my students how to write “object biographies”), so it seemed to me that this was something distinctive which I could bring to fiction, something that might make my novels a little different from those written by others. Objects feature as “characters” in all of my novels, and some figure as connecting devices between them.
SW: I find one of the challenges of historical fiction is the immersion into an era, getting a feel for what characters of that time would have been thinking, what their world-view would have been, and so forth. Were there any of the eras you write about in Omphalos that were particularly difficult for you to immerse yourself into?
My writing practice is something close to method acting. I surround myself with the literature, art and popular culture of the time as I “become” the character. The most emotionally draining story to write was that set in the 1940s, because my two protagonists are (at least at the outset) members of the Nazi Party. Inhabiting their world, as the events of the war and its aftermath unfolded, took me into some of the darkest corners of the human psyche. The most technically difficult to write was that set in 4000 BC because, like Tolkien, I had to invent an entire world view, social system, code of ethics, religion and so on, based on very meagre archaeological evidence: places and objects are real, but everything else is necessarily pure fiction.
SW: Because it uses intertwined story lines, each with its own pace and sets of characters, Omphalos doesn’t follow the classic rising action/climax/falling action structure of many novels. Were you concerned about deviating from this familiar pattern?
Not at all. My first novel, Undreamed Shores, follows quite a conventional story arc, but my second, An Accidental King, has flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, in a structure that owes as much to the films of the French Nouvelle Vague as it does to anything in literature. By the time I came to write my third novel, Omphalos, I was actively looking for a new means of expression, one that would allow my readers to travel through time, even though my characters don’t.
SW: When I hear the word “omphalos,” one of the literary antecedents that comes to my mind immediately is James Joyce, who gives the term a kind of free-floating symbolic importance. Does the concept of an omphalos have similar symbolic resonance for you?
It has had a resonance for me since I visited Delphi, the omphalos of the ancient Greek world, and it occurred to me that other cultures might be thought to have their own omphalos, and that for Jersey, it would have to be La Hougue Bie. James Joyce, however, is certainly an influence on my writing. When I was working on my third or fourth draft, I came up with the idea that each of the stories should have one or two “presiding geniuses” – past or present writers that I would not try to imitate, but whose influence I would specifically invite. These were: James Joyce; Johann von Goethe; Jane Austen (with M.M. Bennetts sitting alongside); Francois Rabelais & Miguel de Cervantes; Hilary Mantel; and Sally Pomme Clayton, a performance storyteller whose work I have long admired.
SW: In addition to its unusual narrative approach, Omphalos also uses a variety of devices such as letters and diaries to tell some of its stories. What drew you to these methods instead of more conventional narration?
In part, it was about distancing the characters’ voices from my own. My first two novels each have a single male viewpoint and, in a sense, the protagonists, Amzai in Undreamed Shores, and Cogidubnus in An Accidental King, might be thought to be projections of my own personality back into the past. Omphalos has ten protagonists, some male, others female, and if all of them spoke with a variation of my own voice, the book would probably seem very stilted. Writing in entirely different styles made it easier for me to avoid this, but it was also an opportunity to experiment with new modes of writing: I am still learning my craft (and will be until the day I die).
SW: What’s next?
The Cheapside Tales – again made up of several stories set in different periods, but set in London. The linking device is a hoard of jewellery, discovered in 1912, buried in the 17th Century, but including individual pieces that go back to the 1st Century BC.
My next fellow M.M. Bennetts Award finalist is Jeri Westerson’s Cup of Blood. This novel’s subtitle describes it as “medieval noir,” and that description gives you a pretty clear idea of what genre expectations are ahead.
Like the protagonists of the noir movies of the ’30s and ’40s, Cup of Blood’s main character, Crispin Guest, is a man with a past, wounded in love, tough on the outside but carrying a history he can’t quite get rid of. And like those noir heroes, he has a dicey relationship with the official representatives of the law, in this case the Sheriff of London and his minions. In classic noir fashion, the book opens with the discovery of a corpse, a discovery which quickly opens out into a web of intrigue that goes far beyond a simple murder, involving the royal court, popes and anti-popes, and a host of characters that vie for the title of “most disreputable.”
Westerson’s characters are creatures of the streets and taverns, and she does an excellent job of conveying the seedy warmth of these locations. The plot takes some twists that I can almost guarantee you won’t see coming – at least I didn’t! This was a very enjoyable read that kept me guessing as to the next turn in the story, with rich description of setting that makes medieval London come to life.
SW: Cup of Blood was my first introduction to your work, but I see that there’s a whole series of Crispin Guest mysteries. Which book would you recommend for someone as their first introduction to Crispin?
Since Cup of Blood is a prequel I would absolutely recommend it as the first. In fact, the only reason it’s a “prequel” now is that it was the very first I wrote in the series but couldn’t get it sold to a publisher. When we were looking for a new publisher to continue the series after six published volumes, I didn’t want a year to go by without a Crispin book on the shelves, so I dusted off this manuscript (that I always liked) gave it a bit of a rewrite, and called it a “prequel.” So it truly is the first book in the series. It explains where Crispin gets his adolescent servant/thief Jack Tucker.
SW: I gather that at least some of the characters in Cup of Blood are actual historical figures. What can you tell us about the “real” people who inhabit the novel?
The whole series includes real people of the time period, from King Richard II to poet Geoffrey Chaucer to famed alchemist Nicholas Flamel. The sheriffs of London existed, though since we don’t know much about them I was free to cut loose on my characterization of them. King Richard is the young king and despises Crispin for the part he played in committing treason against him, which threw Crispin into his current state as a poverty-stricken “Tracker,” a medieval detective. In later volumes, Crispin’s old friend Geoffrey Chaucer shows up to help and sometimes hinder him in his investigations, and there is also a cross-dressing prostitute by the name of John Rykener–a real person in Crispin’s London–who had helped Crispin learn the ropes of survival when he was first set adrift on the streets with nothing but the clothes on his back. It’s an interesting collection of people cast against a wide variety of events. Never a dull moment!
SW: What drew you to this particular era to set your novels?
I was raised in a household where English medieval history was king, with the numerous works of fiction and nonfiction on our bookshelves to choose from. Even discussions at the dinner table sometimes centered on English history. You paid attention and learned by osmosis. I can definitely name more monarchs of England–in order–than I ever can presidents.
SW: Your website features a quotation from Raymond Chandler, and certainly there’s a noir feeling to this book. Is it difficult to translate the noir sensibility to the medieval era?
It wasn’t difficult at all and I’m certainly glad I thought of it. The dark streets and alleys in London, the people waiting in the shadows with daggers at the ready, corruption from the highest of authorities, the secrets of the Church, and everyday ordinary greed, lust, and jealousy makes it prime for noir and hardboiled crimes.
SW: Your characters have, among other things, a remarkable vocabulary of oaths. What can you tell us about their swearing, and how on earth did you come up with all of them?
As much as we like using our own Anglo-Saxon swearwords, they weren’t really used as such then. True, humor tended toward the scatological, but swearing, oaths, were strongest when they had the tinge of blasphemy about them. Hence, swearing on the body and blood of Christ and his saints was usually where one went. So Crispin’s favorite oath, “God’s blood!” is entirely appropriate for the era.
SW: Crispin Guest seems to me to have both a medieval sense of the world and a modern one. Does that make sense to you? How do you envision Crispin?
He is definitely a man of his time, but there were men of that era that didn’t hold with all that the Church taught or that the majority of the lower classes and upper classed believed. His own mentor, John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, had Lollard sympathies, that is, he was interested in reformation of religion and religious practices, not quite as common in that era as in the later Tudor period but it was still there. Naturally, Crispin emulates his mentor’s ideals. And since he is a man of intelligence (he is an Aristotle groupie) he can weigh the facts and make an intelligent decision based on the information at hand. And that means sometimes changing his mind about long held beliefs. Which is perfectly legitimate for the time period.
SW: What’s next for Crispin, and for you?
Crispin’s eighth outing, The Silence of Stones, will be released in the UK this November, and in the US next March. And I’m finishing up my steampunk novel, The Daemon Device, to hand in to my agent for shopping around. It involves a Jewish/Gypsy Magician who eschews his heritage but can really perform magic with the help of Jewish daemons..for a price, and that price may be getting too high. Then it’s on to the ninth Crispin, A Maiden Weeping. And hopefully by then, my urban fantasy series, Book of the Hidden, will have found a publishing home. So there’s a LOT to do.
My next review and interview is with C.P. Lesley, author of The Winged Horse. The Winged Horse is part of a larger series called “Legends of the Five Directions”; C.P.’s previous book, The Golden Lynx, was the first book in the series.
The books take place in the 1500s in what is now Russia. The Winged Horse focuses on intrigue, romance, and war in the ethnic group known as Tatars. Familiar names appear in this novel – Russia, Lithuania, Crimea, Poland – but their context is entirely different. In this era, they were warring kingdoms constantly seeking advantage over each other; the Tatars, nomadic Muslim tribes that were loosely allied by kinship and heritage, were pawns in their game as well as significant players themselves.
The main characters of The Winged Horse are two brothers, Ogodai and Tulpar, and Firuza, who is betrothed to Ogodai but coveted by Tulpar. The brotherly rivalry extends far beyond who will marry Firuza, as the young men are also rivals to become khan of their horde (and yes, “horde” is an organizational term here, not just a general descriptor).
There’s a second plot involving their sister, a Tatar princess named Nasan, who has been married into the Russian court and finds herself involved in the intrigues between the Russians, Crimeans, and Tatars as well. I will confess that when this plot came into the story, I was thoroughly confused for a while as a whole new cast of characters came into play. But having read descriptions of The Golden Lynx, I now realize that Nasan was the central character in that book, so I imagine that readers who come to The Winged Horse from The Golden Lynx will have a much richer and more seamless experience. I’d recommend starting with The Golden Lynx and then moving on to The Winged Horse.
Once I got over the “foreignness” of the novel (distant place, distant time, different culture), I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Firuza in particular grew on me as the book progressed. At first I found her indecisiveness frustrating and a little forced, but the farther I went the more sense it made. After all, she’s a young woman in a patriarchal warrior society, with very little leverage over her own fate. But once she settles on a suitor, she’s there for good.
SW: C.P., thanks for participating in this interview! Could you start by giving us a little background about The Winged Horse and how it came to be? Your original inspiration for it?
Thank you for inviting me! In short, it grew out of my research. I’m a historian specializing in 16th-century Russia. With fiction, people say “write what you know,” and what I know is this wonderfully obscure but fascinating time and place. In 2008 I began working on The Golden Lynx, which precedes The Winged Horse. I needed a heroine who could be competent with a sword and a bow, and in 16th-century Russia elite girls lived very restricted lives. So I made her a Tatar who had grown up in a nomadic camp. The more I learned about Tatar culture, the more interested I became—and my readers wanted to know more, too. So when I started book 2, I decided to set it entirely among the Tatars, mostly in the steppe but also in the city of Kazan.
SW: I see that this novel is part of a larger group of novels, Legends of the Five Directions. What’s the bigger picture into which this book fits?
The series covers the years 1534 to 1538, or thereabouts. It was a challenging time for Russia, because the father of Ivan the Terrible died unexpectedly in December 1533, leaving a three-year-old son, a young widow, and two power-hungry brothers ready to take the throne. Most of Russia’s neighbors saw rule by a child as their chance to take back whatever territory they had lost during the previous reign. Against this backdrop my series tells the tale of Nasan, the daughter of a Tatar khan; Daniil, the Russian nobleman she marries against her will; and various members of their families as they strive to survive amid the cut-throat politics of the Russian and Tatar courts.
SW: This novel deals with such a distant time and place to most Western readers. Were you concerned about making the story and characters relevant to modern English-speaking readers?
The lives of medieval women can be difficult for modern readers to appreciate, because women were supposed to be submissive and long-suffering and content with serving their husbands and children. But the truth is always more complex, and each of my female characters copes with those expectations in her own way. I think what’s important is for a writer to show what triggers a character’s emotions. Emotions themselves don’t change, but the triggers do. Sixteenth-century Russia and Tataria were honor cultures. Characters go ballistic at perceived slights that today wouldn’t cause people to bat an eyelash, but so long as readers understand the character’s reaction, it’s relevant in the moment. Isn’t that part of why people read historical fiction: to experience varying outlooks on life?
SW: I’m curious about the culture of the Tatars, which is the ethnicity of the main group of characters in the novels. How would you describe Tatar culture to a novice reader? What do you find interesting about them?
What interests me most are the contrasts. Babur, the Tatar prince who conquered India, spent his life at war, yet he most valued his accomplishments in poetry, architecture, and gardening. Tamerlane could raze a city to the ground before breakfast and commission an exquisite mosque in the afternoon. Tatar culture is actually not monolithic, which is another element I explore in The Winged Horse. The nomads lived as steppe pastoralists, in small groups that moved their herds between grazing areas on a regular schedule. They supplemented herding with plunder, raiding the settled lands to the north and east. In the 1530s, they had converted to Islam but retained many animist beliefs. And although elite nomadic Tatars had harems, it wasn’t a bad place to be a woman. Nomadic life requires active women capable of defending themselves, their families, and the herds when the men are away. Women shamans were even considered to have exceptional spiritual power.
The urban culture of Kazan and Crimea was quite different: more conventionally religious, more restrictive for women, more stratified in terms of wealth and stature, but also much more luxurious—better food, more goods of all sorts, international connections, basic schooling, medicine. The urban Tatars, like the Mongols before them, made their money off the Silk Road; they had links to China and Persia and India. They were very much part of the larger world.
SW: The political situation at the time of the novel is pretty chaotic. Is there a contemporary analogy to the kind of situation the Tatars find themselves in?
The Middle East leaps to mind, although it’s probably a false analogy. The western part of the Mongol empire had disintegrated by the 1530s, and the successor states (including Russia) were fighting over the spoils. But these were huge entities with developed governments, not failed states. The real connection to today’s global politics is the Russian annexation of Crimea, which I did not anticipate when I set out to write The Winged Horse. Nonetheless, the novel will help readers understand the remote background to the Crimean saga, or at least the absurdity of Putin’s claims that Crimea has “always been Russian.”
SW: What element of your writing are you most happy with? And conversely, what element do you find most difficult?
I am a plot-first writer by nature. I can spin endless reams of ideas for what my characters might do. But figuring out why the characters would want to do those things (other than for my convenience) is a struggle. Fortunately, I belong to an excellent writers’ group that hauls me up short when I get over-focused on plot at the expense of story.
SW: Do you have any writing tricks or habits that you use to get your creative side flowing?
I edit what I’ve written, if I have anything. If not, I sit down and start writing, no matter how bad it is. I can always go back and delete the dreck.
SW: What’s next on your agenda?
I’m a third of the way through The Swan Princess, book 3 in the series. Daniil has been at war for almost eighteen months, and Nasan is getting pretty ticked-off at life in Moscow. When her mother-in-law develops heart trouble and decides that her dying wish is to see her childhood home in the north, off they go into the woods, where danger lurks behind every tree…
SW: Best of luck with The Swan Princess! Thanks for spending time with us!
The next novel on the M. M. Bennetts Award finalist list that I’ll be reviewing is Hand of Fire, by Judith Starkston.
First, a confession. I’ve never been as captivated by the story of the Trojan War as a lot of people. I’ve read The Iliad and The Odyssey in translation, The Odyssey more than once, and admired the epic art of them, but the war itself has always seemed to me like a dreary Bronze Age episode of spearing and whacking, a couple of warring tribes whose quarrels would have long been forgotten were it not for the artistry of the bards and storytellers who gave their warfare an immortality that their actions hardly deserved. So I approached this book with some caution, thinking, “Not another swords-and-shields piece.”
I was surprised and delighted! Hand of Fire takes a character who is barely given mention in The Iliad, Briseis, and makes her the center of an original but familiar story. Briseis is the daughter of the king of a small tributary city allied with Troy, and she is also the priestess of the goddess Kamrusepa, which gives her powers of healing and divination. Briseis’ father hopes to keep his city out of the larger conflict, but as is often the case in war, his hopes are dashed. When the town’s warriors (including Briseis’ brothers) are called to fight, and a large party of Greek raiders arrives to attack the city, Briseis is forced to embark on a journey of self-reinvention that takes her through some very grim places, but from which she gains wisdom about life, love, and fate.
Judith Starkston writes with a scholar’s depth about this ancient era, and her detailed descriptive passages give the book a slower pace at the beginning than some readers may be used to. But stick with it – those descriptions are giving you the feel of what it was like to be a princess-priestess in the late Hittite era. And if the phrase “Hittite novel” has never occurred to you before, don’t worry. The passions, jealousies, lusts, and struggles of the characters have plenty of modern parallels. The tone of the novel is unusual, as the characters’ beliefs in the power of the gods and of their fate cause them to face situations with a degree of resignation that we’re unaccustomed to in contemporary characters. But in doing so, they are true to their times. The result is an appealing novel with a rich sense of place and era. You can learn more about Judith Starkston at her website, her Facebook page, her Goodreads page, or her Twitter feed.
SW: Judith, thanks for agreeing to this interview! Could you start by telling my readers a little bit about yourself?
I write fiction set in the Bronze Age world of the Trojan War and the Hittite Empire. Most people know little about this time and place, so my job is to build an engaging and accurate world for my readers, along with telling a good story. I wanted to write a novel that readers would enjoy even if they’d never read the Iliad. My degrees are in Classics so I have the academic background for this fun job. I taught high school English, Latin and Humanities. I live in Arizona with my husband and my golden retriever, Socrates.
As an undergraduate studying ancient Greek, I fell in love with Homer, the poet who tells us the Trojan War in the Iliad, which is set on the western coast of what is now Turkey. The Iliad became the perennial favorite among my students, so I had many opportunities to bring this ancient civilization alive for others. I’d always had a question about Briseis, the woman in the Iliad who sparked the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, two of the Greek kings. One of the few details we learn about her is that she is sad when forced to leave Achilles—she apparently loves him. Since he’s killed her husband and brothers and destroyed her city, this always struck me as puzzling. My search for who she might have been led me deeper into the world of Bronze Age Anatolia (modern Turkey). Remarkably, history, as recorded in the huge cuneiform clay tablet libraries of this world, revealed a woman who had some very good reasons for loving a half-immortal hero like Achilles—from this arose my novel that combines legend and history.
The Iliad is a patriarchal epic. Women are sometimes vividly depicted, but they take second place and only briefly. The captive women, especially, are largely voiceless. The famous Helen has had many novels and artistic depictions, but rarely did Briseis get to tell her story and never on the foundation of what we now know about her world, knowledge that has come to light only in the late 20th C. I wanted to return a voice to this resilient character who was so central to the epic but so silent!
I was prodded by that question I mentioned above and that got me digging into her motives and character. That turned out to be only a starting point. As I explored this ancient world—dominated by the Hittite Empire, of which Troy was a semi-independent ally and cultural cousin—I found powerful women, both priestesses and rulers. Not what you expect, but there they were. The details of the rites and responsibilities of one particular kind of priestess, who shouldered the well-being of her society from the flocks to the fields to women’s fertility, had been recorded on clay tablets. Those rich details gave me a fascinating foundation to tell Briseis’s story. I didn’t expect, quite frankly, to have found such a strong woman who really did match up to the mythic Achilles.
We sympathize with each other by recognizing our common emotional responses—grief, fear, joy, etc. It is always complicated to climb into the mind of an ancient woman. The unconscious temptation to make her think like a modern woman is tricky to resist. But human emotions don’t change nearly as much as our thinking does. So a mother’s grief for her child is absolutely recognizable throughout time. And a novelist can use those commonalities to create sympathy. But Briseis’s thinking is quite foreign—and thus fascinating—to a modern reader. That she faces the uncertainties of the future by performing a snake divination seems strange to us (or that she considers this rite a way to heal a sick person!) The intellectual underpinnings are positively weird, but the desire to know what lies ahead is easy for us to understand. So there’s a process of balancing emotions, which the reader shares with the ancient character, and thinking or procedures, which the reader finds new and startling. I think it’s an appealing combination.
I actually started including Achilles in the novel in the form of iambic pentameters (my English version of Homer’s hexameter poetic lines) because he felt too mythic and over-sized to fit into my novel in the ordinary way. So I guess you could call that a hindrance! Eventually through the poetry and through Briseis’s understanding of Achilles, I began to understand Achilles’ inner vulnerabilities and his personal voice, as opposed to the mythic persona. Then I was able to write him into scenes in the usual way and cut all the poetry. He still never behaves or feels like a “normal” human being. His half immortal side is always the elephant in the room, so to speak. But Briseis came to terms with him, so through her I was able to. I used to think when authors talked about their characters as if they lived somewhere independently that this was more than a bit insane, but I’ve come to realize that characters do just that. I’m not sure what we writers tap into, but a far richer sense of a human being gradually comes to light than I would have thought possible and I don’t always feel like I’m the one directing that process.
A great deal of research and travel. There was no way this book was going to work unless I could put the reader into that world without any effort on the reader’s part. That meant I had to know intimately what my characters pick up, wear, eat, see, smell. I did everything I could through archaeological research to know with precision what the physical details would have been. I also was lucky enough to be able to travel extensively through the areas I set my book in, so the physical setting is quite vivid in my own personal experience. That really helped. I had to “build” every city from ruins I’d observed, but the waterfalls, shorelines, mountains remain to be lived. There are changes in plant life and sea levels and that sort of thing, but for the most part, those lived sensory experiences can transfer directly into the writing.
I’m in the editing stages of a historical mystery set in the Hittite Empire and then will send it out to agents. While researching Hand of Fire, I met the remarkable Queen Puduhepa. Had she not been, quite literally, buried by the sands of time, she’d be as much a household name as Cleopatra or Elizabeth I. We have her letters, treaties and judicial decrees, and I felt she’d make an excellent “sleuth” while ruling her empire for over 60 years. I’m hoping to popularize Puduhepa with a series. I’m also writing a sequel to Hand of Fire. Briseis’s story has many directions left to pursue.