Wednesday, September 19, 2012

An interview with Kim Rendfeld, author of The Cross and the Dragon

Today I'm welcoming Kim Rendfeld to the blog for an interview about her debut novel The Cross and the Dragon (Fireship Press, July), a tale of revenge, sacrifice, and enduring love set in the Kingdom of the Franks during the beginning of Charlemagne's reign.  I first met Kim through our involvement with the Historical Novel Society and couldn't pass up the opportunity to speak with her about her characters, writing style, and original and compelling setting, among other things.

The Cross and the Dragon opens with the viewpoint of Alda, a 14-year-old noblewoman from 8th-century Francia (present-day Germany). Alda's brother has betrothed her to Count Ganelon of Dormagen, who she knows will treat her cruelly.  Although she eventually succeeds in winning the man she loves, Prince Hruodland, their marriage incites the anger of Ganelon, who vows revenge.  Worried about her husband's safety when King Charles calls him away to fight for a Christian stronghold in Hispania, Alda gives him her dragon amulet.  The story takes an unpredictable route during their separation from one another.

Kim was inspired by an old German tale involving Hruodland, who is best known as the hero from the epic poem "The Song of Roland."  I enjoyed seeing how she wove material from this ancient story into a historically accurate backdrop, one full of beautiful descriptions of the Rhine Valley, while fleshing out the characters and their motivations.  The plot moves from Alda's family home at Drachenhaus to King Charles' court to the battlefields of Hispania and, in the second half of the book, to Francia's religious houses.  The novel also includes a great scene in which Hruodland listens, in puzzlement and dismay, to a song recounting his purported actions at the Battle of Roncevaux (see more at Kim's guest blog for Unusual Historicals). This had me musing about the process through which history is transformed into legend.

What appeals to you about the era and realm of Charlemagne, so much so that you decided to use it as a setting for your historical fiction?

A romantic legend about Roland (Hruodland in The Cross and the Dragon) drew me to this period. When I started writing, I knew very little about the Middle Ages, let alone the Carolingian era (eighth and ninth centuries). As I learned about the history, I became fascinated by the personalities and the culture. Among aristocrats, the personal and the political were intertwined. The king’s marriage made a direct impact on his country’s politics and international relations.

This was also an age that believed in divine intervention, in which Christians held litanies in the hopes of victory. Yet vestiges of paganism remained. It was common for medieval people to wear amulets for magical protection, as Alda does.

All these elements are great fodder for a writer.

Given the limited number of sources, how did you go about researching the daily lives of women in the Carolingian era? 

This period lends itself to a paucity of information in general. Few people could read, and even fewer could write. It also predates the printing press, which means information was not mass produced.

Fortunately, scholars have found some sources and shared what they know. Among the resources are Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché (translated by Jo Ann McNamara) and articles by Janet Nelson, including “Women in Charlemagne’s Court: A Case of Monstrous Regiment.” Sometimes when I had a hole to fill, I would use Daily Life in Medieval Times (three books in one) by Frances and Joseph Gies, keeping in mind that this was a different country and century. I’ve posted more resources for historical research on my website,

I could not have written The Cross and the Dragon without the work of scholars and will repeat the historical novelist’s disclaimer: any mistakes are mine and mine alone.

You've written about being inspired by a romantic legend surrounding the ruins at Rolandsbogen in Germany, one that reinterprets characters from “The Song of Roland.”  What inspired you to work in mentions of the myth of Siegfried and the dragon as well?

Part of it is geography. Drachenfels, the legendary mountain (technically a high hill) where Siegfried killed the dragon, is across the Rhine from my heroine’s home. Worms, where Siegfried was murdered, is a seven- to ten-day journey upriver. In an age when storytelling was a form of entertainment, Alda would have heard the tales repeatedly, made all the more real because Drachenfels is so close.

The Siegfried myth also opens a window on the society in which The Cross and the Dragon takes place. Every culture has legends that reflect and shape its identity. A young man slaying a powerful monster reveals how the Franks saw the ideal warrior.

This circa 1830 illustration shows Nonnenwerth Island. In the distance are
Rolandsbogen and Drachenfels.
(Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)

I especially enjoyed the many scenes that were set in the Benedictine abbey at Nonnenwerth and the Abbey of St. Stephen, since they emphasized the importance of religion, as well as people's internal conflicts between godliness and worldliness.  How did you set out to re-create the mindset of this very different time?

The desire to explain our world is part of human nature. In the 21st century, science plays a large part in our understanding when we ask why. In the Middle Ages, religion and magic filled that role. Once you realize that medieval people had their own logic, the mindset falls into place.

Writings from medieval people also reveal to how they saw the divine and provide some tools to getting into the mindset. Written in the sixth century, The Rule of Saint Benedict outlines how the saint wants monasteries to be run. Eighth- and ninth-century Frankish annals and letters cite Scripture and use such phrases as “through the grace of God” when recounting a victory and “hateful to God” to describe an enemy.

In reading The Cross and the Dragon, I got the impression you gave considerable thought to character names.  Was there ever any question in your mind about using Frankish names for your main characters, rather than the more familiar ones taken from the poem?

Using the Frankish variant of the names is another way to transport readers to another time and place, although I occasionally questioned the decision when I got rejections. I wanted names appropriate to the characters’ ethnicity yet accessible to modern readers.

I changed several characters’ names after receiving a rejection for my second manuscript. Among other things, the editor said she wanted the historical characters to play a greater role. I went back to the manuscript for The Cross and the Dragon because it had more historical characters and well-known fictional ones, and I planned to submit it to the editor through my then agent. That was when I borrowed heavily from “The Song of Roland.”

Still, it was important that the characters’ names reflect their origins. So I stuck with Hruodland rather than Roland. Oliver, Roland’s best friend in the poem, sounded too French for a guy from a locality in today’s Germany, which is why he’s Alfihar in the novel.

Alda changes over the course of the novel from a romantically inclined teenager to a still willful but less impulsive young woman, one who matures after being touched by loss.  Did you find any stage in her life easier or more challenging to write about?

In the earlier stages of Alda’s life, I had to grapple with how mature a medieval teenager would be. Adolescence was not the special time it is today. Alda is considered a marriageable woman at the same age I was in middle school. I came to the conclusion that teenagers can and will rise to the challenges presented to them. It was a little easier to write about Alda when she was touched by loss because we all grieve, regardless of our era.

The greater challenge with Alda is that she is a medieval woman, and I must yield to her medieval sensibilities. For example, she believes caring for servants is an obligation, but she will slap them when they get out of line and resort to even harsher punishment if they threaten her honor and her marriage. Yet Alda will go to great lengths to protect the people she loves—something anyone can relate to.

The language you use is remarkably clear and easy to follow.  Is this style something that comes naturally to you, as a copy editor and former journalist?
Author Kim Rendfeld

It’s something I learned through journalism, and it has become natural to me. Time and space constraints taught me to get to the point. Maturing as a writer made me care more about the readers understanding the story than showing off my cleverness.

I also had to unlearn some habits. News writing is an objective report that allows both sides to tell their stories and lets the readers make their own conclusions. By nature, it’s distant. Fiction is intimate. You want the readers to feel your characters’ joys and sorrows. You want to manipulate sympathy and emotion.

Did your placing in the quarterfinals for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2011 assist in attracting a publisher?

It might have. Placing in the quarterfinals and getting a positive review of the unedited manuscript from Publishers Weekly gave me a boost when I really needed it. The editor I mentioned earlier had rejected The Cross and the Dragon with no explanation, and I had ended my relationship with my agent, who had given up on me. I was not sure of what to do next, but I knew I needed to do something different than the approaches that had failed so far. With nothing to lose, I entered ABNA.

The Publishers Weekly review gave me an endorsement I could use to promote the book as long as I did not make major changes to the novel and specified it was for the manuscript and not the final version. Agents didn’t seem to notice, but the Fireship Press editor who read my manuscript did.

My experience with ABNA gave me something else as important as the endorsement: the confidence to keep trying.


I'd like to thank Kim for taking the time to answer my questions. The Cross and the Dragon was published by Fireship Press (a specialist publisher for nautical and historical fiction and nonfiction) in in July at $23.95 in trade pb or $7.50 as an ebook.  Visit Kim online at or at her blog,

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Canadian historical fiction showcase, part 3

Based on my site stats, some of my most visited posts are those which focus on Canadian historical fiction. Apparently there are many people out there seeking these books! It's been a year since I posted on this last, so here's the 3rd entry in an ongoing series that showcases recent and forthcoming historical novels from Canadian authors and published by Canadian presses. The settings include not just Canada, but the Civil War-torn United States, ancient Greece, and mid-19th century Paris. Part 1 and Part 2 can be found in the archive.

In this novel, based on the true story of a 1915 maritime disaster which inspired a song, a woman whose husband and brother-in-law were lost at sea looks for answers. From a small press based in Newfoundland. Flanker Press, August.

In this literary novel spanning the second half of the 20th century, a wife and mother from small-town Manitoba searches for personal meaning and her own path in life as traditional women's roles give way to modern feminism. HarperCollins Canada, September.

A friendship between a Union army surgeon and a mysterious soldier, formed during the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War, ties them together after the second man goes missing, possibly a victim of business rivalries in British Columbia's salmon industry some twenty years later. Brindle & Glass, September.

The three Van Goethem sisters are the focus of Buchanan's sophomore novel (after The Day the Falls Stood Still), set in the glittering world of ballet in 1870s and 1880s Paris. Marie van Goethem is best known as the model for Degas' statue Little Dancer. HarperCollins, Canada, January 2013, pictured first; also Riverhead US, January.

In this coming of age story, the bygone days of 1950s small-town New Jersey prove to be anything but nostalgic and secure. A family tragedy involving a teenage girl is observed from the outside - at least at first - by two other young women. Penguin Canada, July.

Here we have another angle on women's lives in the Canadian colony of New France. A young Jewish woman named Esther, newly arrived in Quebec harbor in 1738, aims to distract officials from her background by telling wondrous stories. Cormorant, July.

The story of two women, one the daughter of white homesteaders and the other from the Blackfoot Blood tribe, who share the love of the southern Alberta prairie in the mid-19th century. Second Story, October.

The sequel to Lyon's Writers' Trust-winning The Golden Mean focuses on Aristotle's daughter, Pythias, too intelligent for her own good in a world full of superstition, and her yearning to create her own life after her famous father's death. Random House Canada, September.

An elderly, ill Halifax woman confronts her past, revisiting her troubled history and haunting secrets from decades before; episodes take her back to 1930s Newfoundland and to elsewhere in the maritime provinces during the war years. Viking Canada, September.

An atmospheric, character-centered story of Quaker pioneer life set in the late 18th century, based on the author's genealogy, beginning when a Pennsylvania father trades a horse for a slave. McClelland and Stewart, September.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Contest winner, and musings on review policies

I'm late in announcing the winner of my extra ARC for Suzanne Desrochers' Bride of New France.  Congratulations to Tiffany, who also recommended Elizabeth George Speare's Calico Captive in her comment.  I'll be in touch over email to get your address, and thanks for the book suggestion, too.  Hope you'll enjoy the read!

Because I'm overwhelmed with ARCs, I've temporarily stopped accepting review copy and interview requests.  I haven't begun to make a serious dent in the books I picked up at the ALA conference, and there are some books I've actually bought that I'd like to get to in the near future.  (I reserve the right to solicit books from publishers myself, however.)

This isn't the first time I've closed submissions, and it's not an event I usually announcemy review policy always has up-to-date submissions infobut I'd be curious to get feedback from my fellow bloggers about a related issue.  This blog's policy is very easy to find, and my contact details on the sidebar make clear reference to it, but it's become a source of increasing frustration that only a small percentage of the people who contact me about reviewing their book appear to have read it.  If you have, and if you've taken the time to query about or mail me a book in one of my areas of interest, thank you!  But this has become an all-too-rare event, alas.

For other book bloggers: Is this your experience, too?

For example:  I frequently get queries about reviewing e-books. I own a Kindle, but I take a lot of notes as I read, along with page numbers, and I find that reviewing from print works better for me.  Writing me a nastygram about this aspect of my review policy isn't going to impress me or show me the error of my ways.  Likewise, sending me a 10mb pdf, along with a query advising me how much I'll enjoy reading so-and-so military novel, will result in an immediate referral to the trash bin.  I receive several ginormous ebook files every week.

I continue to be baffled by the large number of queries addressing me as Susan, considering my first name is, um, right there in my email address, but that's another story.

My estimate is that 90% of the queries I've gotten are for novels that my policy excludes.  In contrast, when I get a pitch letter that indicates the sender has read the policy, I pay close attention.  (For the summer publicity intern who sent me an unsolicited ARC in July, citing my interest in early North American settings... I wish you'd stuck around another month to see that I reviewed the book you sent me.  Your letter worked, and I hope another publisher hires you full time!)  My time is limited, so I can't promise to get to absolutely everything I receive, but I'm grateful to those who take the time to read the directions.  That's really all it takes.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Book review: Beautiful Lies, by Clare Clark

An enthralling novel about an elaborate fiction, Clare Clark's Beautiful Lies dazzles with its presentations of late Victorian London’s political and social occupations and a remarkable woman with something to hide.

Society in 1887 knows Maribel Campbell Lowe as the sophisticated, Chilean wife of Edward, the radical MP from Argyllshire. But when her mother contacts her out of the blue, and Edward’s fervent support of the working man attracts a sensationalist newspaper editor’s attention, she worries they will be ruined.

A wonderful creation, Maribel gradually earns readers’ empathy. She realizes exposure of her Yorkshire roots would be devastating socially and to Edward’s already shaky career, yet she can’t help reaching back to touch her past.

Though strongly paced and laced with suspense, the novel focuses on how Maribel’s deception shapes her character and interactions. Her unusual marriage (Edward knows some of her background) and warm relationship with her family-oriented best friend are well portrayed.

Their milieu springs to life with its stylish cultural ambience and socialist protests, and the city’s latest obsessions—Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the burgeoning art of photography—have similar shades of artifice. An unpredictable, historically authentic take on how we all carry secrets.

Beautiful Lies will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on September 18th (hb, $26.00, 512pp).  It appeared in June from Harvill Secker in the UK (hb, £12.99), with identical cover art. This review originally appeared in the August issue of Booklist; I wrote it up as a starred review.

Having read Clark's Savage Lands for this site two years ago a novel about the Louisiana colony of New France, rather than the Canadian one from Suzanne Desrochers' novel I approached this one with some trepidation.  (For me, Savage Lands started out quite dry.)  I needn't have worried. It's one of my favorite books so far this year.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

My progress with the Chunkster Challenge

(Thanks to Vicki Nesting, who called my attention to this all-too-appropriate graphic)

Earlier this year I decided to take up the Chunkster Challenge, setting my goal at Plump Primer level, which means six chunksters of 450pp or higher.  Well... (gulp) it's only September, but it appears I've met my goal.  In fact, I've met it twice and then some.

Just to recap, here's my list of chunky reading thus far, in order:

(1) Elliot Perlman, The Street Sweeper
(2) Rosie Thomas, The Kashmir Shawl
(3) Curtis Bill Pepper, Leonardo: A Biographical Novel - see Booklist review at end of linked page
(4) Rebecca Gablé, The Settlers of Catan
(5) Robert Lyndon, Hawk Quest
(6) Michelle Moran, Madame Tussaud
(7) Beatriz Williams, Overseas
(8) Kate Forsyth, Bitter Greens
(9) Clare Clark, Beautiful Lies - excellent book, I'll post the review shortly
(10) Adriana Trigiani, The Shoemaker's Wife
(11) Ken Follett, Winter of the World - for review out around the publication date.  At over 900pp, this should count double.
(12) Barbara Erskine, Lady of Hay - reread, for discussion with the author at HNS Conference London
(13) Elizabeth Chadwick, The Greatest Knight - ditto!

Whew!  No wonder my wrists are tired.  I also want to acknowledge having read Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist, Enid Shomer's The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, and Selden Edwards' The Lost Prince, which are sitting back and teasing me with their almost-but-not-quite 448pp length.  Could they not have printed two more pages in these books so I could make it sixteen?  Is that too greedy of me??

I haven't totaled up the page count. The year isn't yet over, and there may be more.