I hope Kate Quinn can forgive me for posting this a day late. My day job took over everything yesterday and the day got away from me. I’m really excited to read this new book of hers. I’ve loved every one of her past books.
COVER REVEAL – THE ROSE CODE by New York Times bestselling author Kate Quinn (Morrow; on-sale March 9, 2021)
ABOUT THE BOOK
The New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Huntress and The Alice Network returns with another heart-stopping World War II story of three female code breakers at Bletchley Park and the spy they must root out after the war is over.
1940. As England prepares to fight the Nazis, three very different women answer the call to mysterious country estate Bletchley Park, where the best minds in Britain train to break German military codes. Vivacious debutante Osla is the girl who has everything—beauty, wealth, and the dashing Prince Philip of Greece sending her roses—but she burns to prove herself as more than a society girl, and puts her fluent German to use as a translator of decoded enemy secrets. Imperious self-made Mab, product of east-end London poverty, works the legendary codebreaking machines as she conceals old wounds and looks for a socially advantageous husband. Both Osla and Mab are quick to see the potential in local village spinster Beth, whose shyness conceals a brilliant facility with puzzles, and soon Beth spreads her wings as one of the Park’s few female cryptanalysts. But war, loss, and the impossible pressure of secrecy will tear the three apart.
1947. As the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip whips post-war Britain into a fever, three friends-turned-enemies are reunited by a mysterious encrypted letter–the key to which lies buried in the long-ago betrayal that destroyed their friendship and left one of them confined to an asylum. A mysterious traitor has emerged from the shadows of their Bletchley Park past, and now Osla, Mab, and Beth must resurrect their old alliance and crack one last code together. But each petal they remove from the rose code brings danger–and their true enemy–closer…
Today, author Mary Sharratt joins us to talk about her new book Ecstasy, which I reviewed yesterday. I’m very excited to find out the details behind this fascinating and unusual book!
1. What initially drew you to Alma Mahler as a book subject?
I am a lifelong Gustav Mahler fan and Alma has always fascinated me. Few twentieth century women have been surrounded by such as aura of scandal and notoriety. Her husbands and lovers included not only Mahler, but artist Gustav Klimt, architect and Bauhaus-founder Walter Gropius, artist Oskar Kokoschka, and poet and novelist Franz Werfel. Yet none of these men could truly claim to possess her because she was stubbornly her own woman to the last. Over fifty years after her death, she still elicits very strong reactions. Some people romanticize her as a muse to great men while others demonize her as a man-destroying monster. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous observation that well-behaved women seldom make history could have been written about Alma.
Although Alma was a composer in her own right, most commentators, including some of her biographers, completely gloss over this fact and instead focus quite narrowly on her sexuality and on how they believe she failed to be the perfect woman for the great men in her life. How dare she not be perfect!
But I wanted my fiction to explore who Alma really was as an individual—beyond her historical bad girl rep and beyond all the famous men she was involved with.
2. What kind of research did you do to help bring Alma to life?
For me, both primary sources and place are paramount. The key primary sources I relied on in writing Ecstasy were Alma Schindler’s diaries (her published diaries end shortly before her marriage to Gustav Mahler) and Mahler’s letters to Alma during their life together. Taken together and supplemented with their music, these primary sources form a narrative. First we have a very beautiful and passionate young woman who yearned to be a composer. Then she fell in love with composer and star conductor Gustav Mahler who demanded that she give up her own music as a condition of their marriage. Bowing to social convention, she reluctantly agreed. Then his letters to her reveal what a shadow Alma’s sense of anguish and loss cast on their marriage. Interestingly, Alma later destroyed most of her letters to Gustav, so we only get his side of their voluminous correspondence. Her self-imposed silence in this historical record forms its own narrative, as well.
I also read biographies of the Mahlers, but I like to begin with the primary sources and form my own conclusions, rather than just taking any one biographer’s word for it.
The other main stream of my research is place—literally inhabiting the same landscape as my characters. I went on three separate research trips to Vienna and immersed myself in the art and music of turn-of-the-twentieth century Vienna. I listened obsessively to the music of both Mahlers while writing the novel. I also visited their summer homes in Maiernigg and Toblach. It helped that I studied German and used to live in Austria and that I played violin up until my college years.
[Note from Nicole: Oh, I am so jealous of your research trips! I haven’t been to Austria since I was 11, but I loved it then. My mom was born there.]
3. What is the most surprising thing you learned in your research?
Once I sat down and did the research, an entirely new picture of Alma emerged that completely undermined the femme fatale cliché. I read Alma’s early diaries compulsively, from cover to cover, and what I discovered in those secret pages was a soulful and talented young woman who had a rich inner life away from the male gaze. She devoured philosophy books and avant-garde literature. She was a most accomplished pianist—her teacher thought she was good enough to study at Vienna Conservatory, though her family didn’t support the idea. Besides, Alma didn’t want a career of public performance. Instead she yearned with her whole soul to be a composer, to write great symphonies and operas.
[Note from Nicole: I have a feeling we’re going to see more and more stories like this as authors like you and I take on famously maligned women in order to right their histories.]
4. Why did you choose that specific time in Alma’s life to highlight as opposed to covering her whole life?
Originally, I wanted the novel to tell the story of Alma’s entire life, but it took me 400 pages just to try to do justice to her young adulthood and first marriage. Narrating the full sweep of Alma’s long and turbulent life would require a trilogy, at the very least. Who knows—maybe if Ecstasy is super-successful, my publisher might ask me to write a sequel or two!
[Note from Nicole: Good luck! I’d like to see a few more!]
5. What’s your favorite scene/part of the book?
I loved writing about the young Alma Maria Schindler, this gifted young woman effervescent with creative potential. The scenes of her composing and losing herself in her piano playing were the most delightful to write. I also, of course, enjoyed writing about this very passionate young woman exploring her burgeoning sexuality. When I was workshopping one of those scenes with my writers group, such glee and hilarity ensued, including enthusiastic whoops, that someone knocked on the door of our meeting room and asked us if we could please shush. We rent our meeting room at the local Buddhist center and our spirited discourse had disturbed the meditation class!
6. What do you think Alma’s life says to women today?
Gustav Mahler famously asked Alma to stop composing as a condition of their marriage. Deeply in love and in awe of his genius, she reluctantly agreed, even though this broke her heart. In this regard, her story is a starkly cautionary tale and also, alas, one that is all too relevant today. What do women still give up in the name of love? How much female potential never reaches fruition because of the demands of motherhood and domesticity?
What Alma’s story reveals is how hard it was (and often still is) for women to stay true to their talent and creative ambition in a society that grooms women to be caretakers. Why are female composers so sorely underrepresented, even in the twenty-first century? I am a classical music fan and attend concerts every chance I get. I’ve never seen a female composer on the repertoire of any major orchestra or venue I have visited. Nor have I ever seen a female conductor.
Fortunately, though, Alma does eventually triumph and take back her power.
7. What message or feeling to do you hope readers come away with after finishing Ecstasy?
I hope my readers will be as moved by Alma’s story as I am. I think the time has truly come for a more nuanced and feminist appraisal of Alma’s life and work, and I hope Ecstasy challenges some of the commonly held misperceptions about her.
Alma has been traditionally viewed through a very male-centered lens. Only within the last decade or so have more nuanced biographies about her emerged and only in German! Ecstasy is currently the only book available in English, to my knowledge, that takes her seriously as a composer and as a woman who had something to say and give to the world besides just inspiring genius men.
[Note from Nicole: Wow, that is an amazing accomplishment! Congratulations and thank you for bringing her proper story to the English-speaking world!]
8. What’s next for you? Any books currently in the works?
My next book is a trip back to the late Middle Ages. Revelations, my new novel in progress, should be of special interest to fans of my 2012 novel, Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen. Here I return once more to the realm of the female medieval mystics. Revelations is the story of the intersecting lives of two spiritual women who changed history—earthy Margery Kempe, globetrotting pilgrim and mother of fourteen, and ethereal Julian of Norwich, sainted anchorite, theologian, and author of the first book in English by a woman. Imagine, if you will, a fifteenth century Eat, Pray, Love.
[Note from Nicole: Ahhhhh! I’m so excited! I loved Illuminations. In fact, it’s my favorite book of yours. I’m all over this new one.]
9. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m on a mission to write women back into history. To a large extent, women have been written out of history. Their lives and deeds have become lost to us. To uncover the buried histories of women, we historical novelists must act as detectives, studying the sparse clues that have been handed down to us. To create engaging and nuanced portraits of women in history, we must learn to read between the lines and fill in the blanks.
It’s important that women today realize how quickly our lives and achievements can be forgotten and buried. Or heaped with misinterpretation and condemnation if we push too hard against the traditional feminine life script—Alma is remembered but she’s also been slated as a “bad” and even “hysterical” woman. We must do everything in our power to keep alive the memory of accomplished women and hope that future generations of women will remember what we have accomplished.
[Note from Nicole: We share the same mission. Men do love to call us hysterical, don’t they? Hopefully together, and with the other female authors who also focus on women, we can make a dent in history.]
Thank you so much for being here, Mary! Readers, if you have questions or comments, please leave them below and I will make sure Mary sees them.
Happy Beltane, everyone! I’m so excited to have Jacqueline Friedland as my guest here today. As her post below makes clear, she’s a soul-sister of mine in her love for strong women. Her post really got me thinking about how our early experiences with reading shape who we are later on as writers. I think I may do a follow up post on that with my own thoughts. But this post is about her, not about me. Take it away, Jacqueline!
Photo: Rebecca Weiss Photography
Did you ever try to figure out why certain novels make you fall in love and others make you fall asleep? Perhaps you’ve wondered if there is a common thread, a specific literary ingredient that draws you so deeply into certain stories? Maybe if you could identify a trend in the books that invariably keep you reading late into the night, that knowledge might allow you to better hone in on other books that would provide you with equal delight.
As a voracious reader and an author, it has been important to me to pinpoint the devices and themes embedded in the books I most adore. Not only can such knowledge save me from muddling through books that don’t speak to me, but it can also help me to create written work of my own that feels appropriate and substantive in all the right ways. Over the past several years, I have identified several characteristics that lead me to gravitate towards a novel. I like a fast-pace, a strong plot, accessible prose, maybe some romance, perhaps some humor. Nothing scary, gory, or overly experimental. But there is something more elusive that has made certain books stay with me for years.
When my mother read aloud to me during my early childhood, we loved The Little Engine that Could, The Secret Garden and Little House on the Prairie. As I grew older, I was drawn to books like Nancy Drew, The Babysitters Club and Anne of Green Gables. Then there were the books that shot to the top of my list as I reached adulthood: Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre and The Bronze Horseman. What these books all have in common are strong female characters (and if you weren’t aware, Watty Piper’s plucky little engine is indeed female). These works of fiction portray girls and women who have grit, the will and determination to continue striving until they reach their goals.
There is an additional commonality between these characters though, which is that these females are not only strong, but kind. In today’s world, there is so much discussion of women needing to be strong, but not enough emphasis on the fact that in appropriate circumstances, kindness should be perceived as a type of strength. The ability to think about others and see past one’s own experience in interacting with people requires a special kind of fortitude.
In creating my debut novel, Trouble the Water, I felt it was imperative to include positive messages about feminine power and decision making. The manner in which my characters approach the circumstances fate deals them is what I believe defines their spirits and ethos. I wanted to portray characters who could make the best of difficult circumstances while also being brave enough to reject conformity. I created women who took the lemons life handed them and decided to use those lemons as paperweights. After all, not everyone likes lemonade.
The central female characters in Trouble the Water are each willing to think outside the Victorian or antebellum box, despite the constraints of the 1840s. The women are courageous enough to make their own choices and to shout until they are heard. Abigail Milton, the story’s protagonist, has worked in a cotton mill in Lancashire England, receiving a pittance in recompense since she was eleven years old. When her parents ask her to travel to America so that she may live off the charity of their old friend in Charleston, and thereby lighten the financial burden on her family, she agrees to set off on her own, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean with little more than a stale bread crust and unwavering determination to make a better life for herself.
As the story unfolds and Abby discovers that her new home is rife with clandestine efforts to free local slaves, she is excited, energized, and eager to participate in the abolitionist effort. Rather than judging the high-risk and profoundly illegal activity of her patron, Douglas Elling, Abby wants to jump directly into the trenches of abolition with him. It’s a whole different kind of #metoo.
Throughout the story, Abby repeatedly resists being corralled into any of the stereotypical gender molds of the day. From her penchant for physical exercise to her continued rejection of assistance from men, even those who simply offer to carry her bundles, Abby is her own person. She is desperate to create meaning in her life, which she believes can be achieved through teaching and helping others. When she develops romantic feelings for another character, she struggles greatly over how to reconcile those feelings with her burning desire for independence.
In addition to Abby, the other women featured in the novel are full of conviction and tenacity. Cora Rae Cunningham, a beautiful, spicy, nineteen-year-old who has rejected one marriage proposal after another will not be seduced by wealth nor forced into an arrangement that is not to her romantic satisfaction, much to the dismay of her plantation-owning, socially conforming parents. Clover, a house slave impregnated by her master, refuses to birth her baby into a life of bondage, and in the ultimate act of bravery and sacrifice, takes her chances on running North.
Creating a realistic historical novel that depicts female characters who are ahead of their time, models for women in any time period, is a challenge that I was glad to undertake. I felt it was incumbent on me to portray women who were progressive for their time, active players in their life stories, rather than passive guests, living out the scripts that had been handed to them by other forces. My characters have strong backbones, as well as moments of unexpected kindness and generosity. They are just the type of women who would keep me reading deep into the night.
Sounds like your characters and mine would get along great! Thank you so much, Jacqueline! I know I can’t wait to read her book! If you have any questions for Jacqueline, please leave them in the comments below and I’ll make sure she sees them.
Two years ago when I was in Chicago for BEA and the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, I met Neal Katz, a fellow author who is also telling Victoria Woodhull’s story. I knew about him (or rather his name) because I had researched others who have or are writing about her. But I had no idea he’d be so charming and gracious. He’s truly a wonderful man.
Neal is approaching Victoria’s story as a trilogy, so he’s able to go much more in-depth into Victoria and Tennie’s lives than Madame Presidentess does. The first book in the series, Outrageous, won 10 awards. Now he’s now preparing to publish part 2: Scandalous. So if you’re hankering for more on Victoria, go buy his books!
As part of Neal’s pre-publication publicity (say that five times fast), he wrote a great article on how Victoria used her newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly to launch the #MeToo of her time: http://thevictoriawoodhullsaga.com/rise-up/. Go, read, now!
Some people might question why I would promote Neal’s books since they are direct competition with mine. My answer is that we aren’t really competitors; we are allies. As much as I want book sales, that’s not really what this is about. It’s about getting Victoria back into the historical record where she belongs. And the more voices we have out there promoting her, the better. No two writers approach a subject the same way, so even if you’ve read mine, you’re likely to learn something new from his, and vice versa. Plus, the more indie authors (and all authors, for that matter) work together, the better off we all are.
Please welcome my special guest today, historical fiction author Steve Wiegenstein. He’s a good friend, fellow Missourian and a fun drinking partner! I love this essay. I hope you do too.
Photo credit: Kaci Smart
In an earlier post on this blog, Nicole writes about the challenges of portraying strong women in proper historical context, responding to some recent articles and speeches by Hilary Mantel and others. I’d like to echo some of her thoughts and add my own perspective.
Perhaps the greatest gift I have been given in my writing life was to have been raised by and among strong, intelligent women. My mother, aunts, grandmother, and “neighbor ladies,” (to use the regional generic) were people with clear opinions, broad knowledge, and a profound sense of right and wrong.
Only from the perspective of later life have I come to understand the obstacles they dealt with. When my mother was born, the Nineteenth Amendment was less than three years old, marital rape was still an unheard-of legal concept, and women made up only about one-fifth of the workforce. A “strong woman,” pretty much by definition, was trouble.
The farther back in history we look, the more dispiriting the story becomes. From witch-burnings to marriage laws to the simple daily grind of being seen by those in power as something less than human, the lives of women through the ages were characterized by disempowerment and oppression.
And yet . . .
As a novelist, the prospect of writing story after story about disempowerment and oppression is so dreary. So it’s understandable that writers look for that prototypical “strong female lead character” that publishers, agents, and readers prize. There are a lot of legitimate ways to do this, none of which are wrong.
We look for the exceptional women who have gained historical fame—Elizabeth I, Madame de Stael, Catherine the Great. We search out the exceptional women who deserved more fame than they received in their time, like Sophie Scholl, Mary Katharine Goddard or Nicole’s own Victoria Woodhull. Or we step into the realm of the mythical and semi-mythical, to the Amazons, Valkyries, or other women of legend.
But there’s another tack I’d recommend, and it’s the one I have chosen in my work. Rather than look among the famous or near-famous, I think there’s plenty of drama in the everyday struggle itself. When I think of great American characters, Jo March certainly comes to mind, and although she is not a character in a historical novel (the events of Little Women are nearly contemporaneous with its publication), I think she points the way for us.
What do we remember about Jo? For me, it’s her wide range of emotions, the vividness of her portrayal, and the determination with which she deals with the challenges of life as they confront her. In other words, she is a character with whom we can “relate.” Before Jo is the model of a strong female lead, she is a vibrant human being trying to find her way in a world that underestimates and sometimes thwarts her. Characters like her can be found throughout history and in our own family stories, women who strove to accomplish their goals, whether great or small. As we search for ways to bring those strong female characters into our fiction without violating the realities of history, a good place to start is in the diaries and journals, the stories and jokes, of ordinary people who are anything but ordinary.
Steve Wiegenstein’s most recent novel is THE LANGUAGE OF TREES (Blank Slate Press).
Note from Nicole: Steve’s new book came out September 26. You can order it here.
From the New York Times bestselling authors of America’s First Daughter comes the epic story of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton—a revolutionary woman who, like her new nation, struggled to define herself in the wake of war, betrayal, and tragedy. Haunting, moving, and beautifully written, Dray and Kamoie used thousands of letters and original sources to tell Eliza’s story as it’s never been told before—not just as the wronged wife at the center of a political sex scandal—but also as a founding mother who shaped an American legacy in her own right.
We’re celebrating Eliza Schuyler Hamilton’s Birthday today and you get the gift! Don’t miss the beautiful cover below and a special giveaway, and don’t forget to pre-order your copy today!
About My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton (Coming 4.3.2018):
Wife, Widow, and Warrior in Alexander Hamilton’s Quest to Form a More Perfect Union
From the New York Times bestselling authors of America’s First Daughter comes the epic story of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton—a revolutionary woman who, like her new nation, struggled to define herself in the wake of war, betrayal, and tragedy. Haunting, moving, and beautifully written, Dray and Kamoie used thousands of letters and original sources to tell Eliza’s story as it’s never been told before—not just as the wronged wife at the center of a political sex scandal—but also as a founding mother who shaped an American legacy in her own right.
A general’s daughter…
Coming of age on the perilous frontier of revolutionary New York, Elizabeth Schuyler champions the fight for independence. And when she meets Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s penniless but passionate aide-de-camp, she’s captivated by the young officer’s charisma and brilliance. They fall in love, despite Hamilton’s bastard birth and the uncertainties of war.
A founding father’s wife…
But the union they create—in their marriage and the new nation—is far from perfect. From glittering inaugural balls to bloody street riots, the Hamiltons are at the center of it all—including the political treachery of America’s first sex scandal, which forces Eliza to struggle through heartbreak and betrayal to find forgiveness.
The last surviving light of the Revolution…
When a duel destroys Eliza’s hard-won peace, the grieving widow fights her husband’s enemies to preserve Alexander’s legacy. But long-buried secrets threaten everything Eliza believes about her marriage and her own legacy. Questioning her tireless devotion to the man and country that have broken her heart, she’s left with one last battle—to understand the flawed man she married and imperfect union he could never have created without her…
New York Times bestselling author, Stephanie Dray is an award-winning, bestselling and two-time RITA award nominated author of historical women’s fiction. Her critically acclaimed series about Cleopatra’s daughter has been translated into eight different languages and won NJRW’s Golden Leaf. As Stephanie Draven, she is a national bestselling author of genre fiction and American-set historical women’s fiction. She is a frequent panelist and presenter at national writing conventions and lives near the nation’s capital. Before she became a novelist, she was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the stories of women in history to inspire the young women of today.
New York Times bestselling author, Laura Kamoie has always been fascinated by the people, stories, and physical presence of the past, which led her to a lifetime of historical and archaeological study and training. She holds a doctoral degree in early American history from The College of William and Mary, published two non-fiction books on early America, and most recently held the position of Associate Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy before transitioning to a full-time career writing genre fiction as the New York Times bestselling author, Laura Kaye. Her New York Times bestselling debut historical novel, America’s First Daughter, co-authored with Stephanie Dray, allowed her the exciting opportunity to combine her love of history with her passion for storytelling. Laura lives among the colonial charm of Annapolis, Maryland with her husband and two daughters.
Some of you may remember my friend, author and fellow Arthurian nut Tyler Tichelaar, from his 2012 guest post where he talked about a trip he took to Turkey and the Arthurian connections he found there. Well, now he’s back, talking about the fifth and final book in his Children of Arthur series about King Arthur and his descendants.
Tyler is an author of Arthurian nonfiction and historical fantasy and an enthusiast for, if not expert on, modern Arthurian fiction. His nonfiction book King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, which I reviewed here, was published by Modern History Press in 2011. It explores various traditions concerning King Arthur’s children in Welsh and medieval sources, the possible historical descendants of King Arthur, and more recent creations of descendants for King Arthur in modern fiction. (It’s a great book, one that has been a resource for more than one of my novels and non-fiction books.)
Tyler began writing King Arthur’s Children as his master’s thesis in 1994 and as research so he could write his first King Arthur novel, which eventually became the five-book Children of Arthur series, consisting of Arthur’s Legacy (2014), Melusine’s Gift (2015), Ogier’s Prayer (2016),Lilith’s Love (2016), and the newly released Arthur’s Bosom (2017).
I’m thrilled to have him here today to talk about the publication of his fifth novel in the series, Arthur’s Bosom.
Without giving too much away, can you give us an overview of the series for readers not familiar with it?
Tyler: Sure, Nicole, and thank you for having me here. The premise of the series revolves around the idea that King Arthur had descendants. Most people are not aware that he had any children other than Mordred, and depending on which version of the story you read, Mordred is often just Arthur’s nephew. However, there are ancient Welsh traditions that Arthur had several other sons—namely Gwydre, Llacheu, and Amr. There are also traditions that Mordred had children. Furthermore, several families over the centuries have tried to claim descent from King Arthur, including the Scottish Clan Campbell, and the Welsh Tudor family, which, of course, means the current British royal family can claim descent from King Arthur. Whether any of this is true is open to speculation. Many people are very interested in determining the historicity of King Arthur, but to me, the magic has always existed in the legend’s flexibility to recreate itself for each new century and even decade. My premise then is that King Arthur did have descendants, they are living among us today, and considering the fifteen hundred years separating King Arthur’s time period from our own, most of us are King Arthur’s descendants.
Wow. That would be really cool to be a descendant of King Arthur. (I have always thought I was a queen…) So will you tell us a little about what King Arthur’s descendants do in your novels?
Tyler: In the first novel, Arthur’s Legacy, the story starts in 1994. The main character, Adam, has been raised by his grandparents. His mother gave birth to him outside wedlock and then basically abandoned him. He doesn’t know who his father is. I don’t want to give too much away, but eventually at age twenty-two, he starts to get answers, which lead him to finding his father in England and also meeting a strange professor named Merle (you can guess who that is). Eventually, Merle arranges for Adam to fall into a deep sleep and dream the true story of Camelot. In that dream, we learn that Mordred had descendants who survived the fall of Camelot. We also learn that Mordred was one of the good guys, and instead, other villains brought about the fall of Camelot. In the successive volumes, Mordred’s descendants battle the evil ones who destroyed Camelot and who continue to try to destroy them over the centuries, including during the time of Charlemagne, during the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, and during World War I.
Is it giving too much away to ask who these villains are who were really responsible for the fall of Camelot?
Tyler: No, you learn that right in the opening pages of Arthur’s Legacy. There are two of them, but they are not the usual suspects, although I believe they are the most likely ones when you dig a bit deeper into the legend. First of all, we understand today that history is written from the conqueror’s perspective, so think about who ends up ruling Britain after Arthur—it’s Constantine of Cornwall. It’s never clear why he is chosen as Arthur’s heir; he seems to be some shirttail relative. However, in the sixth century book De Excidio et Conquestu Brittainiae, written by Arthur’s contemporary Gildas, there is reference to a king named Constantine who murdered two royal youths. I believe these youths are Mordred’s sons. In Arthur’s Legacy, one of those sons, Meleon, has a child before he dies, and that child carries on Arthur’s bloodline. The other villain is Gwenhwyvach, whom I imagine most readers have never heard of. However, there is a statement in the Welsh triads that one of the causes of the Battle of Camlann was the blow Guinevere struck to her half-sister Gwenhwyvach. There is a later tradition in the Prose Lancelot that Guinevere’s half-sister, Gwenhwyvach, tried to pass herself off as Guinevere on Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding night. The trick was discovered and Gwenhwyvach, known as the False Guinevere in the Prose Lancelot, was imprisoned in Hengist’s Tower. So it is Gwenhwyvach and Constantine who bring about Camelot’s fall.
I’ve learned a lot about Gwenhwyvach in my non-fiction research. What you say makes perfect sense. I love this theory. But I’m confused; how can they continue to pursue and try to kill Arthur’s descendants in successive centuries? Is it reincarnation?
Tyler: Not exactly. Constantine can’t since he’s just human, but Gwenhwyvach can in my novels because she is a witch, and even more than that, she is an ancient sorceress who is able to reincarnate and has for many centuries since the beginning of time—the title of the fourth book in the series, Lilith’s Love, gives away her real identity. You see, Lilith was Adam’s first wife in the Garden of Eden. Tradition says she refused to let Adam be on top (a sign of submission) when they had sexual intercourse; consequently, she was derided in Jewish folklore as a monster (a totally sexist attitude), and in my series she acts that way.
Interesting. Tell me about the other women in your novels. You know I’m all about the girl power.
Tyler: One thing I absolutely wanted to avoid was just another story of good vs. evil. Lilith/Gwenhwyvach does many evil things in the novels, but she is a complicated character, and in Lilith’s Love, she gets a chance to explain her own side of things. There are lots of gray areas in my novels—nothing is black and white or exactly as it seems at first. One thing I refused to do was just follow the traditional storylines of various medieval legends that I used. I wanted to turn everything on its head, showing that these stories I use are not necessarily what we have been taught. I did that first by retelling the Camelot story.
I also turn everything on its head in the second novel, Melusine’s Gift, where the French fairy Melusine is the strong female protagonist. Traditionally, Melusine was raised in Avalon, so it only made sense to me that Melusine must have grown up knowing King Arthur, who was there recovering from his wound. Melusine marries one of Arthur’s descendants and uses her fairy powers to try to bring about good. However, in tradition, Melusine made her husband promise she could always hide herself away on Saturday and not be seen by him. Eventually, he broke his promise and discovered she took on a mermaid or serpent form (depending on which version of the legend you read) on Saturdays. At first, he kept her secret, but later in a fit of anger, he called her a serpent in front of his court and she flew away. She is treated as an evil character in tradition, but I am much more kind to her. She is the strength of her family and also works to bring about good, though others cannot accept her because she is different.
Another strong female character throughout the series is Morgan le Fay. Since she shows up in the Charlemagne legends, I thought she obviously must be immortal and live beyond Arthur’s time, so throughout the series, she intercedes as needed to help Arthur’s descendants (and her own since she is Mordred’s mother in my novels).
People know know you through King Arthur’s Children (both the blog and the book) may not know that you have another blog where you write about Gothic literature. Can you explain what that influence is on your Arthurian novels?
Tyler: Yes, one of the main influences that carries through all five novels is the Gothic format of using stories within stories to move forward the plot. It was used in such classic Gothic novels as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). All five novels in the Children of Arthur series use this format. By inserting stories within stories, I am able to peel back the layers of the onion—to reveal the secrets about the characters and secrets lost to time that King Arthur’s modern descendants must learn in order to succeed in their goals.
I also use Gothic elements particularly in Lilith’s Love, which includes in it the story of Quincey Harker, the son of Jonathan and Mina Harker, who defeat Dracula in Bram Stoker’s classic novel. Because Mina drank Dracula’s blood, I imagined that Quincey, who is born at the end of Dracula, must have some of Dracula’s blood in him, which gives him some superhuman powers. In his quest to understand his vampiric origins, Quincey has several Gothic experiences that make up bulk of the novel, which you might call a sequel to Dracula really.
And what about your latest novel, Arthur’s Bosom? When does it take place and how does it bring the series to an end?
Tyler: I wrote Arthur’s Bosom for two reasons. The first is because I wanted to bring the series full circle since the first novel largely takes place during Arthur’s time but the three novels after that take place in different centuries, so this novel returns the storyline back to the time of Camelot. In the novel, Arthur’s modern-day descendants, Lance and Tristan Delaney, travel back in time to sixth century Britain.
The second reason I wrote this novel as the series finale is because in the first book of the series, Merlin tells Adam that he and his family (Lance and Tristan are Adam’s grown sons) will be responsible for helping to bring about King Arthur’s return. I’ve been sorely disappointed by the few novels that have tried to depict Arthur’s return, so I set about to write my own version of what Arthur’s return would be like, and hopefully, I pulled it off in a way that will surprise and satisfy readers. So far, the response I’ve received has been positive.
Why did you pick the title Arthur’s Bosom?
Tyler: It’s actually from a line in Shakespeare’s Henry V where Falstaff is said to have gone to Arthur’s Bosom. Shakespeare was playing on the biblical phrase of Abraham’s Bosom. I used the term to refer to a type of Arthurian heaven. I must admit I have no desire to sit around on a cloud and play a harp all day. I think I’d much rather go to a heaven that resembles King Arthur’s Britain as depicted in Malory, so in the novel, Arthur’s Bosom is used to refer to the Arthurian version of heaven where Arthur’s true believers go when they die.
What do you hope readers will come away with after they read the series?
Tyler: The theme of this series is “Imagination is the salvation of mankind.” I am a firm believer in the Law of Attraction and that our thoughts create our world. I want people to use their imaginations to think outside the box, to question the past we believe we know to find new truths in it, and also to imagine new and positive possibilities for our future. Through imagination, we have the power to shape our world. We don’t have to believe in a doomed world where global warming and the possibility of nuclear war make us think humanity’s best days are past. The future is still ours to write, and through the power of our thoughts, we can make it into a glorious one. I even think it possible we could change the past if we concentrated hard enough upon it. Why can’t the King Arthur and Camelot we dream of have been real? Why can’t we make it real in the future, even if it is in the past? What would it mean to us if we learned we were descended from King Arthur? Would it make us want to live those ideals of Camelot? So, ultimately, I hope that in the Children of Arthur series, I have used legends—that of King Arthur, but also Charlemagne, Prester John, Ogier the Dane, the Wandering Jew, Dracula, etc.—as inspiration and encouragement for all of us to want to create a better world for our future.
Wow, that’s a lofty but worthwhile goal. Before we go, where can readers purchase your books?
Tyler: The books are for sale at my website www.ChildrenofArthur.com. They are also at the major online booksellers—Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google Play, etc. They are available in paperback and ebook formats. At my website there is also more information about the Arthurian legend and I have a blog where I regularly write about Arthurian modern fiction and other related topics.
Your blog really is a great resource. I’ve been reading some of your old posts lately. So everyone, go check it out. Thanks again, Tyler for being here today. It’s been a pleasure having you. I wish you all the best with your series.
Tyler: Thanks, Nicole. I’ll be looking forward to reading your own last Guinevere novel when it comes out.
Do you have questions for Tyler? If so, please leave them in the comments. He’ll be stopping by to answer them.
I am so excited to bring you today an interview I recently had with bestselling historical novelist C.S. Harris. You may know her from her wildly popular Sebastian St. Cyr thrillers, or maybe under her other names Candice Proctor or C.S. Graham. Now she’s out with a new Civil War-era historical novel, Good Time Coming, which I was fortunate to be given a copy of through the Historical Novel Society. I’ll be writing a feature article on it that I’ll share once it’s published, but I was also lucky enough to get to sit down with C.S. and ask her a few questions. And I have to say, this is one of the best interviews I’ve ever had here.
Most people know you for your Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries. What made you want to change from writing Regency historical thrillers to straight historical fiction set during the Civil War?
I am still writing my Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series—the twelfth installment, WHERE THE DEAD LIE, will be out in April 2017, and I’ve almost finished #13, tentatively entitled WHY NOT THE INNOCENT. But it’s all too easy for an author to get into a rut writing the same kinds of stories with the same characters and settings. So I think it’s important for any writer—and especially one with a long-running series—to occasionally venture outside her safe zone and try something different. For a while I was also writing a contemporary thriller series, but I found keeping two series going at the same time too stressful. So a standalone seemed the best answer.
What was your inspiration to write Good Time Coming?
My very first historical mystery, Midnight Confessions, was set in Occupied New Orleans (the book has been revised for republication and should be available early next year). In the process of researching that story I became fascinated with the effects of the Civil War on the population of Louisiana (spoiler: it was pretty horrific), and I’d been wanting to write a straight historical about that ever since. What happened to civilians in the Civil War is a virtually untold story.
Why did you choose to make your protagonist a 12-year-old-girl?
Some of my favorite books have been coming of age tales, and it seemed the right way to tell this story. Children bring an unblinking honesty to their experiences that I felt was particularly appropriate for the complexity of the issues I wanted to explore. The journey from child to adult is basically a loss of innocence, and to watch that development happen to someone in the midst of an experience as horrendous as war is truly gripping.
And Amrie is a girl because we already have countless books about the experiences of boys and men in war. This is about war as seen through the eyes of the women and children left behind to cope with a world falling apart in every way imaginable.
What kind of research did you do to make the book historically accurate?
I researched this book for almost a dozen years. I read hundreds of letters, journals, and memories, along with general histories of the Civil War and more specific monographs. I visited the story’s various towns and battle sites—Port Hudson and Camp Moore, Bayou Sara and Jackson—and spent many a day wandering around St. Francisville’s haunting churchyard. I basically took the real incidents recorded by people who lived through the war and wove them into a story. With the exception of the central incident in the book—Amrie’s killing of the Federal captain and the events that flow from it—I made up very little of what’s in this story. And that is truly terrifying to think about.
How hard was it for you to work from the point of view of the South when traditionally history is told by the victors, and therefore our country has glorified the role of the North? How did this influence the way you told your story?
I had to make Amrie’s family staunch abolitionists; I simply could not have been sufficiently sympathetic to them as main characters otherwise. Plus I liked the way this shifted the dynamic of their interactions with their neighbors, both white and free people of color. But when it came to the actual events in the story, all I did was stay true to what actually happened to the women and children of St. Francisville. It really was brutal. As a professional historian, I’ve always been irritated by our cultural tendency to both glorify war and forgive the sins of one side while focusing endlessly on the sins of the other. This book doesn’t shy away from the sins committed by either side.
And I should probably state for the record that the only Civil War veterans on my personal family tree fought for the Union; one great-great uncle even died at Andersonville.
One of the things that struck me the most about this book was your willingness to challenge long-held beliefs and viewpoints about the Civil War (i.e. President Lincoln was a hero, he abolished slavery out of the goodness of his heart, the Northern soldiers were the good guys and the Southern the bad, etc.) Can you please tell me a little about your motivation behind this and what kind of a reaction you’ve received so far?
I think it probably comes down, again, to my training as a historian. I have long been bothered by the all too common tendency to turn history into a series of comfortable myths that we as a nation tell ourselves to make ourselves feel good about our past. It’s incredible to me that here we are 150 years later and both sides of that war are still telling themselves “feel good” distortions and outright lies. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a wonderful thing, but that shouldn’t lead us to distort the explicit reasons he gave for doing it, or overlook the truly heinous things he also did. Likewise, too many Southerners still stubbornly refuse to acknowledge just how horrific the institution of slavery was both in theory and in practice. I don’t spare either side in this book. I guess in a lot of ways this story was an expression of my frustration with myth-making. I wanted to write about what really happened because it is so important to acknowledge that and finally have a real conversation about it. Unfortunately, myth busting is not popular!
In the Author’s Notes to the book you talk about a reticence of history to admit to rape being employed as a weapon of war during the Civil War. (I came up against a similar circumstance when depicting Guinevere’s rape by Malegant in Arthurian legend – most people either don’t know its part of the myth or don’t want to think about it.) Can you please talk a little about your reasons for including it and how you came to understand it would be important to your story?
When I first started plotting this book, I believed the commonly accepted “truth” that rape in the Civil War was rare. But as I read all those original sources written by the women who actually lived through it, I realized that was just one more myth. Rape has always been a part of war. What we’ve seen in our own lifetimes in places like Bosnia and the Congo isn’t something new; it’s the reality of war, and it has always been. But historically, women who were raped in wartime did not talk about it. Why would they, given their societies’ traditional ostracization of women who were raped?
As I read these women’s accounts, I also came to realize the importance of the fact that the people of 1860 weren’t very far removed from the time of the American Revolution and the War of 1812. That meant they knew exactly what had happened to their mothers and grandmothers in those wars (something else we don’t talk about). It’s one of the reasons the people of the South were so afraid of those armies of men marching against them. And they were right to be afraid. The North’s battle cry was “Beauty and Bounty!” In other words, Rape and Plunder! Yet 150 years later we still don’t like to admit it.
To be honest, I didn’t realize just how controversial this aspect of my story would be. Many of the editors who read the manuscript cited the rape part as their main reason for rejecting it. I guess as a writer you can kill people by the thousands, but you’d better not have a woman raped by American soldiers.
What do you think are the key themes of this novel? What do you hope readers walk away from it knowing/believing/feeling?
This book is about women’s resilience in the face of crushing adversity, about the way friends and neighbors can come together to survive great hardships, about love and loss and, ultimately, the triumph of the human spirit.
But the main theme of this book is the idea that there is good and bad in every person and every nation. I am frankly shocked by some of the things I am seeing in our country today. I never thought I’d see Americans screaming “Sieg heil!” and panting swastikas on tombs, or hear talk of the Nazi-style registration and internment of a religious minority. Somehow we have failed to learn the right lessons from history, and I think the tendency to mythologize the past is one of the reasons for that failure.
If you could summarize your experience writing Good Time Coming in one sentence, what would it be?
Oh, wow; that’s hard! I’d say writing Good Time Coming forced me to move outside my comfort zone in many different ways; to confront my own prejudices and assumptions; and to think long and hard about what it would be like to experience things I hope I’ll never have to face.
Do you plan to write more straight historical fiction like Good Time Coming? What can readers expect from you next?
I do plan to continue writing other things as I also write my Sebastian St. Cyr series. I’ve just finished a novella set in World War II that will be part of an anthology due out probably in 2018. That was a new experience for me because I’d never written anything that short before. It’s a very different format, so that was a challenge.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t touched upon?
I find it unfortunate that coming of age novels these days tend to be seen by the publishing industry as “young adult novels.” They don’t have to be, and in fact some of the best were never written to be. I also find it curious that editors think young adults can handle large-scale massacres, zombies, vampires, and the end of the world, but not non-graphic rape. What does that say about us?
Thank you, C.S. Harris for being with us today. Good Time Coming hits stores December 1, so you don’t have to wait long to read it for yourself. Pre-order or order it today! You won’t regret it; it really is a great book.
Questions for the author? Leave them here and I’ll let her know she can get back to you.
Growing up, I liked to read books about ordinary girls doing things like fighting with or forgiving their sisters, but set in the past. Cooking in pots over fires or slogging through snow to reach wells or cold horses seemed thrilling. I started with an orange-covered series called “Childhoods of Famous Americans,” which were then shelved with biographies, though their use of dialogue and other fictional elements have convinced some librarians to put them elsewhere. I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about Little Houses in woods or on prairies, another series that has made a similar shift to the fiction sections. I’m happy to browse for what I want, which remains books based on real girls and women who are full of dreams.
I found such a girl in one of the first fat books I cracked open. Many years ago, Little Women’s Jo March — huddled in a chilly garret penning plays and stories — gave me my first inkling that a girl could grow up to be a writer. My curiosity about other women writers stuck and carried me through college. I was unsatisfied with most reading lists, but scanned the stacks for books by women who’d been forgotten. I wrote some papers about them, and while I kept a scholarly tone, felt as if I were playing dress-up, again immersed in history.
The challenges and triumphs of women who came before me kept me good company as I wrote some stories that were published and two novels that weren’t. After I became a mom and read to my daughter, I found myself happily back with once-cherished books and the mother of the co-president of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Fan Club. The girls made posters (“Laura rocks! Ma rules!”) and wore old dresses to bake cornbread. Reminded of how life-changing children’s books can be, I put away my novels about angsty adults to write books for the young. I published picture books about paleontologist Mary Anning and religious reformer Anne Hutchinson, and collections about women explorers and pioneers in air and space.
No one should write history who doesn’t love doing research, and some of that is rereading books you once adored. I came back to Little Women, but what got inside me most this time was the half-hidden story of the youngest sister. In the novel, Amy March gives up art when she realizes she might not become great. In real life, May Alcott stuck with her paints.
I believed this real person who tried to balance art and love deserved more attention. Children and teens are a wonderful audience, but I wanted the girl I first met in Little Women to step out as fully adult, finding her way through or around traps and temptations and reveling in romance, too. For Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, I circled back to writing for adults who may find May’s struggles familiar, though they took place more than 150 years ago. Could May find a true love, in a period, after the Civil War, when eligible men seemed scarce? Could she keep making art in a time when women painters were rarely taken seriously? I loved exploring those questions, and finding a way to let another woman step out from the shadows of the past.
To learn more about Jeannine Atkins’s books about girls and women in history, please visit her website at www.Jeannineatkins.com.
Do you have any questions or comments for Jeannine? She’ll be around checking out the comments.