Saturday, December 29, 2018

Interview with David Blixt (part 2), author of What Girls Are Good For: A Novel of Nellie Bly

And here's the second half of my interview with David Blixt about his new novel What Girls Are Good For.  If you missed the first part, it was online yesterday and can be found here, along with a tour-wide giveaway.

Although some editors warn Nellie not to become part of the story she’s writing about, she (fortunately) doesn’t listen. How groundbreaking was her approach/style to journalism, not just the fact that she was female?

Elizabeth Cochrane
(aka Nellie Bly)
She may not have been the first undercover journalist, though I’d be hard pressed to name anyone before her. She was certainly the pioneer of the field. And what’s astonishing is how long she was able to carry it off. The Madhouse exposé was just the start of a two-year run of stories with her infiltrating one illegal or immoral situation after another. At the start of the second novel (which I’ve only just begun writing), she foils a serial rapist in Central Park by posing as a potential victim and catching him!

So it was certainly groundbreaking. But I’m not sure a man could have done it – or, at least, done it so dramatically. There’s something viscerally attention-grabbing about her gender and size being seen as at odds with her experiences. Little wonder that Pulitzer and Colonel Cockerill adored her.

Yet I think what really set her apart was her choice of stories, and I worked to make it a big part of her character. She was a champion for the poor, the dispossessed, the downtrodden. It was not lost on her that the majority of these were women. And I just don’t think a man could have written those stories.

I also think she had to insert herself into the stories to be taken seriously. A woman writing about women in workshops or Mexican natives being denied their rights would sound moralistic from on high – there were plenty of editorials like that. The fact that she put herself into danger made her experiences immediate for the readers, and while she was certainly derided for being a thrill-seeker, I think it also allowed her topics to have an actual impact.

A side effect of this was that she set the tone for what became known as “stunt journalism”. Everyone wanted a “stunt girl." Two years after the Madhouse story, Annie Laurie fainted in a San Francisco street to infiltrate the local hospital. In St. Paul, Eva Gay imitated Nellie’s Workshop Girls series. In Chicago, Nora Marks got into the prison to report on children being held for trial. Everyone wanted a sensation, thanks to Nellie Bly.

My favorite quote about her comes from the humor magazine Puck: “When a charming young lady comes into your office and smilingly announces that she wants to ask you a few questions regarding the possibility of improving New York’s moral tone, don’t stop to parley. Just say: ‘Excuse me, Nellie Bly,’ and shin down the fire-escape.” She terrified the male establishment.

Authors’ background knowledge can inform their writing choices and approaches, and along these lines, I caught a number of allusions to Shakespeare’s plays that were cleverly worked into the novel. Did you find that your experience as an actor influenced in any other way your approach to telling Nellie’s story?

*Sigh* I’m never as clever as I think I am. Yes, I found uses for my vast experience with Shakespeare, and also even a Dante reference, as nods to my readers. At least I didn’t hide any anagrams this time!

I hope that acting has influenced my writing in terms of looking at each person’s motivations, and how motives can be misinterpreted or misconstrued. I want every character to have their own life, even if it’s not part of Nellie’s story. They aren’t just there for her, or to move the plot along. I want us to feel for the people she leaves behind, the ones she writes about and then forgets. I hope they linger for my readers in the way she hoped they’d linger for hers.

In the author’s note, you mentioned that “female characters drive historical fiction,” and you found your ideal subject in Nellie Bly. In addition to the sequel that you mention will be next (and I’m looking forward to it!), do you plan to continue writing novels with women at the center? Do you have any other thoughts on this focus/trend within the historical fiction genre?

Wow. A potentially fraught question.

The simple answer is, yes. I’m working on a non-historical novel starring a women right now. It’s a story I’ve been planning for around fifteen years, and I hope to finish it this coming year.

As for trends in general, historical fiction is one of two or maybe three writing fields where the gender gap is reversed. Whereas in fantasy J.K. Rowling hid her name with initials, in historical fiction men do it. I can count on one hand the popular male historical authors who use their first names. Women dominate the genre as writers, and there are certainly more female readers of historical fiction than men (though I think that’s true of nearly every genre).

So it’s natural – and quite fantastic – that there are so many novels starring women. Historical fiction nearly always passes the Bechdel Test. And stories about women sell better! When the study came out last week saying that female-led movies do better box office than male-led films, it wasn’t shocking to me. Everyone is longing for good stories starring women.

My trouble until now has been, simply, the female figures I’m interested in have been written about before, and often far better than I’d do it. Cleopatra, Helen, Boadicea, Elizabeth – they’ve been done.

But that’s true of male figures as well. I was incredibly lucky with the Star-Cross’d series to discover a leader no one had yet tackled in Cangrande della Scala. But I covered the same ground as several others (including the amazing Margaret George) when I wrote about Nero in the Colossus series, and didn’t much care for it. I feel the same about King Arthur – I have some ideas, but why bother if I’m just treading familiar territory? I want to explore, not emulate.

Which is why I was so excited, late one April night in 2016, to find Nellie Bly. A terrific character, part of her appeal was that she hadn’t been done yet in any real way. That’s about to change. There are two more novels coming next year, and a TV movie on Lifeline, and talk of a whole TV series. Just this once, I wasn’t chasing a trend, but setting one. If I’d found her today, I wouldn’t have written this novel. Timing is everything.

So for me, it’s less a question of gender than of having the right story to tell. Or rather, gender was just one factor in my mind when I was looking for stories. I was keenly aware that I hadn’t written a woman lead, and wanted to correct that, so I was on the lookout. But I was on the lookout for the story more. I knew about the Madhouse exposé. It was reading about how Nellie got the job in the first place that grabbed me. In that moment, I had a story I felt compelled to tell – her story. I couldn’t not tell it.

So next time I write a historical novel with a female lead (and I’m sure I will), it won’t be just for the sake of writing about a woman. It will be because her story is one I simply have to tell.

Thanks so much, David - it's been great having you here again and hearing more about Nellie and your writing process.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Interview with David Blixt (part 1), author of What Girls Are Good For: A Novel of Nellie Bly

It's hard to believe that it's been 11 years since a copy of David Blixt's first novel, The Master of Verona, showed up in my mailbox. This sweeping historical epic of 14th-century Italy was a wonderful reading experience, and it prompted me to arrange for an interview with the author; you can read part 1 and part 2 of the interview here.

David's newest release is another fantastic read. What Girls Are Good For moves over five centuries ahead in time to America during its Gilded Age; the focus is Elizabeth Cochrane, who used the pen name of Nellie Bly for her groundbreaking investigative journalism at a time when female writers were typically relegated to the "women's pages" of newspapers.  It immersed me in Nellie's story, including her family background, courageous ambition, battles against gender discrimination and other forms of social injustice, and her enthusiastic determination to live life on her own terms. She was a woman who set out to change the world, and did. I highly recommend it.

Thanks so much to David for his detailed and thoughtful answers to my questions!

Since your earlier novels have been set further back in the past, did you find it an adjustment to research characters and settings of the late 19th century? Had you had an interest in the American Gilded Age before discovering Nellie Bly?

A passing interest at best. I tend to look at periods by the art they produce, and I’m not a huge fan of Stephen Foster (ironic in the extreme, given he inadvertently gave my lead her nom de plume). But that’s part of the joy of writing historical fiction – discovery!

As for the adjustment, it was a very large one. While I was free to invent dialogue, all of the people in the novel were quite real – no inserting fictional characters into historical settings to fill a gap in the historical record! There is a vast and deep pool of research about the period, meaning endless rabbit holes. What buildings were where, and when? What train lines got her from place to place? I became fascinated with Pullman cars, and also with Newspaper Row in New York. It means there are more mistakes to be made, and for a historical perfectionist, that’s daunting. I don’t like getting my history wrong, so I put two years of work into the research and writing.

What was the experience like, putting yourself in Elizabeth/Nellie’s shoes as she fought against gender bias and the unjust treatment of women, especially on Blackwell’s Island? How did it feel to write those scenes?

That’s the question I’m most aware of, because it’s the thing I fretted over most. Not only am I a man writing a woman’s point of view, I’m a 21st-century man writing a 19th-century woman’s POV. Add to that I’d never written a 1st person novel before, and I had a lot of trepidation.

I’m quite the humanist. I believe deep-down all people experience the same feelings and thoughts. That said, I was acutely aware of not being a woman. So I listened. A lot. I am fortunate in the women in my life, and all of them have experiences that, while awful, were also true. I started this over a year before the #MeToo movement grabbed headlines, but the stories that were coming out at the end of 2017 certainly influenced my writing and revisions. The thing that seems to be resonating the most with readers was that I allowed her to be angry.

The best boon I had was in my subject. Nellie Bly was forever seeing the injustices perpetrated upon her gender, and commenting on it. So it felt right to comment upon them, not by imposing modern values, but rather her own. She’s wonderfully contradictory – she’s this incredible champion for women, but she’s perfectly willing to judge other women by their appearances, and she lied about her age, even under oath.

How did it feel writing those scenes? Thrilling, and terrifying. I was excited by the story I was telling, and how I was telling it. It felt raw and honest. But I was utterly terrified that I would make a hash of it, and that my wife would mock me forever. (I wrote a scene between two women for The Master Of Verona that did not end up in the final version because of her remorseless ridicule. She brings it up to this day). Like I said, I’m fortunate in the women in my life.

Strangely, the scenes on Blackwell’s might have been easier for me because, awful as they were, she had already written them. She didn’t lay them out chronologically, and there’s a lot in other reports that she omitted from her book and articles – it was exciting reconstructing it from several sources at once. But how she felt about it was plain and clear, and one of the reasons 10 Days In A Madhouse continues to be popular today. I just tried to capture it in the context of the life she never shared with readers. There was her Nellie Bly persona, and there was Elizabeth Cochrane. I think the former came out of the madhouse stronger and more dominant. But she never quite lost the Lonely Orphan Girl.

I enjoyed the depiction of Nellie’s relationship with her mother, who is a brave woman in her own right. How did you get behind the scenes to reveal more about these characters and their personalities than Nellie’s own writing did?

I’m so glad you like Mary Jane. As complex as Nellie was, her mother was far more of a puzzle for me. All I had were the raw facts: twice widowed, once divorced, with five children. We have the testimony from the divorce. We have her going to Mexico with her daughter, and living with Nellie on and off throughout the newspaper years. A lawsuit towards the end of her life. That’s it.

author David Blixt
From just those facts I had to extrapolate a woman who would both inspire and infuriate her daughter, a woman who was both guide and a figure to rebel against. Nellie doesn’t want to be her mother, yet in so many ways they are incredibly alike.

It all came together during the trip to Mexico. We have Nellie’s articles from that trip, but she never mentions her mother in them. Yet her mother was there as her chaperone, which allowed me to explore one huge aspect of that experience that her own readers were denied. Putting them in close proximity for months in a strange land led to all the various personal revelations and debates that, to me, are the best part of writing.

Nellie’s narrative voice was one of the highlights for me, since it felt fresh and lively, but also very evocative of the period. What were some of your favorite 19th-century turns of phrase or expressions you came across in your research?

I had the incredible advantage of her own body of written work to draw upon. Her writing is very conversational, likely due to her on-the-job training. Poring through her works, I looked for her particular writing tics, words she preferred, her style of expression. For instance, she likes to begin sentences with conjunctions – And, But– which told me her head was always halfway through the conversation before she opened her mouth. She loves her adverbs – Vehemently, Spitefully, Incredulously– which to me speaks of passion. And she has certain small phrases she likes in inject: Strange to say, Not to mention, Here and there.

I ingested all this information, then let it go. The end result, I think, is that rather than attempting to write in an “oldey-timey” way, I was able to interpret and inject her style without trying to imitate her.

I was also fascinated by things that were new in 1885. Everyone in the novel compares things to locomotives, or electricity. The scene early on in the roller rink was hilarious to me – roller-skating in January, when you could far more easily be ice-skating outside? But it was all the rage!

I also get fascinated by how language evolves. Today we say, “I fell for him” and it sounds romantic. Not so in the 1880s. To “fall” was to fall from grace, to become a “wanton” woman. Therefore falling for someone is not a phrase used lightly.

(To be continued!  This concludes part 1 of the interview; look for part 2 tomorrow.)

About the author:  

David Blixt's work is consistently described as “intricate,” “taut,” and “breathtaking.” A writer of Historical Fiction, his novels span the early Roman Empire (the Colossus series, his play Eve of Ides) to early Renaissance Italy (the Star-Cross'd series) up through the Elizabethan era (his delightful espionage comedy Her Majesty's Will, starring Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe as inept spies). His novels combine a love of the theatre with a deep respect for the quirks and passions of history.

Living in Chicago with his wife and two children, he describes himself as “actor, author, father, husband. In reverse order.”

For more information, please visit David Blixt’s website. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

During the Blog Tour, we will be giving away 4 paperback copies of What Girls Are Good For! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on December 28th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US residents only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

What Girls Are Good For

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Finding the Fantasy in Hittite History, an essay by Judith Starkston, author of Priestess of Ishana

Thanks to Judith Starkston for contributing a new essay for my site today.  Her new historical fantasy novel, Priestess of Ishana, is set in a land based on the history and culture of the ancient Hittites.  She explains her world-building process below...


Finding the Fantasy in Hittite History
Judith Starkston

“I invoke you, Lelani, Sungoddess and Queen of the world below. May this witchcraft be undone. May the tongue that spoke this evil and the hand that worked it burn into ash which I will bury in the world below.”

With this incantation, the main character of my historical fantasy, Priestess of Ishana, begins a rite to cleanse her city of the deadly pollution of a burn curse. Tesha is a priestess and this magical performance is her duty. The curse might turn against her and torch her in a burst of demonic flame. That is all part of the excitement of fiction set in a historical world that believed in magical rites and supernatural interventions of gods and goddesses.

In Priestess of Ishana, I wanted to immerse my reader in the Near Eastern Bronze Age of the Hittites (~1200 BCE), but at the same time gain the storytelling power and freedom of fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay, a renowned writer of historical fantasy, adopted the phrase “a quarter turn to the fantastic” to describe his melding of history and fantasy—that is, fiction that is “nearly our known history but not quite.” A blend of fantasy and history came naturally to writing the Hittites, steeped as their culture is in practices we call magic. Historical people and places lurk as inspiration behind my fictional world. That’s reflected in changed names that hint at the original (for example, Hittites to Hitolians).

Well-written fantasy has “rules” for the magic therein. My fantasy uses primary historical sources and Hittite beliefs for that framework. The novel’s magical rites are based on specific details taken from the written records—far stranger than anything I could have made up.

In my Hitolian fantasy world, curses are the last remaining magic (or so the characters assume), and the priestesses learn rites to counteract this pervasive danger. This focus arises from historical reality. Translations of the vast collections of clay cuneiform tablets from the royal archives reveal a Hittite obsession with curses in the prayers and rites.

In constructing a “How to Undo a Curse” scene for Priestess Tesha, I dug into the available fragments of curse rituals (nothing is complete or simple in Hittite primary texts). The opening lines in this post, for example, are adapted from a couple sources. The notion that words have tangible power is found in almost all Hittite rites; evil tongues and counteracting magical words abound. Words were the bridge to the gods, the road to accessing supernatural power. They are especially powerful when said in conjunction with analogical magic—actions that reflect what the practitioner wants to happen.


Tesha crept next to the dead man. She raised the loaf high over him. “I invoke you, Lelani, Sungoddess and Queen of the world below. May this witchcraft be undone. May the tongue that spoke this evil and the hand that worked it burn into ash which I will bury in the world below.” The words calmed the beating of her heart.

She shut her eyes and knelt on the damp floor, wincing as the muck penetrated her gown.

She held the bread stuffed with absorbing chickpea paste. The rite decreed she start at the dead man’s forehead. The reek of burnt flesh tortured her nose and pulled her stomach.

She leaned over the body, touching with the bread what was left of the brow below his graying hair. The horror held her gaze. She hesitated. The rite had to be done perfectly. Usually this requirement for proper order gave her joy. Now she clung to it for courage, but something was wrong and she could not say what. Had she skipped a step? She hadn’t. She went on, bread held to the corpse.

“Come into this bread, foul curse. Your pollution endangers all who come near. I bind you into this bread.”

She moved downwards to the man’s chest and shoulders where his tunic had burned away, revealing flesh and bone, charred black.

“Come out of this body, evil curse, so that when this loaf is burnt into ash as you have burned this man, you may return to the dark realm below where you belong. As the smell of bread entices both the good man and the bad to eat, so let the smell entice you into this bread.”

Tesha rose and moved to the altar holding the chickpea stuffed loaf in front of her to avoid the pollution it contained.


Tesha moves the curse from a dead body into a loaf of bread stuffed with chickpea paste, while saying, “As the smell of bread entices both the good man and the bad to eat, so let the smell entice you into this bread.”

The “stuffing” is meant to absorb the evil like a sponge and contain it until the priestess can burn the loaf and thus send it back to the Underworld where curses were thought to originate.

At this point you might be scratching your head, chickpea paste, curses in loaves of bread? I couldn’t make this stuff up. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. Careful reading of Hittite rituals provided me with great source material for fantasy. My Hitolian priestess is a skillful practitioner of magic that would sound very familiar to a Hittite priestess.


Judith Starkston has spent too much time reading about and exploring the remains of the ancient worlds of the Greeks and Hittites. Early on she went so far as to get two degrees in Classics from the University of California, Santa Cruz and Cornell. She loves myths and telling stories. This has gradually gotten more and more out of hand. Her solution: to write fantasy set in the exotic worlds of the past. Fantasy and Magic in a Bronze Age World. Hand of Fire was a semi-finalist for the M. M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. Priestess of Ishana won the San Diego State University Conference Choice Award. Judith has two grown children and lives in Arizona with her husband. For a free short story set in her Bronze Age historical fantasy world (and a cookbook of foods in her novels), sign up for the newsletter on her website.

Friday, December 14, 2018

The historical novels of Beverly Swerling (1941-2018)

I was saddened to learn, via her official page on Facebook, that author Beverly Swerling Martin had passed away on December 3rd. The four novels in her City series (City of Dreams, City of Glory, City of God, City of Promise) are enjoyable reads for anyone interested in exploring Manhattan's history in fiction; they follow the stories of several families from the 17th-century colonial period up through the late 19th century. 

I reviewed books 2 and 4 for Booklist and thought I'd reprint those reviews below. Each book works as a standalone. What I remember most is included in the last line of my City of Glory review: "The perfect antidote for readers who mistakenly believe American history is either boring or unromantic." At the time, while historical fiction was growing in popularity, American settings were still uncommon; they were perceived as dull in comparison to novels about glamorous royal courts. Swerling proved that assumption wrong.

For City of Glory:
In this smartly executed, highly entertaining sequel to City of Dreams (2001), Swerling continues tracing the physical, social, and moral development of Manhattan through the stories of the fictional Turner and Devrey families. Nearly all the action occurs over 10 days in mid-August 1814, a critical period during America’s “second war of independence.”

The numerous characters, all fascinating and distinct, include a brothel owner, a sly merchant prince, an Irish ship’s captain, and a devious young widow, not to mention John Jacob Astor himself. At their center is Joyful Patrick Turner, a multilingual trader, businessman, and ex-surgeon who sets out to preserve the family shipping company, save his country from secessionists, and win the hand of Manon Vionne, a jeweler’s lovely daughter, in the bargain.

As the characters scheme among themselves, hoping to leave their mark on the growing city, the plot fairly gallops along, and historical novel fans will relish the bountiful period details of old New York. The perfect antidote for readers who mistakenly believe American history is either boring or unromantic.
(written for Booklist, December 15, 2006)

For City of Promise:
In 1864, New York City overflows with opportunities for those with foresight, acumen, and ambition. Joshua Turner, the hero of the fourth entry in Swerling’s enormously diverting saga, fills the bill. Manhattan must expand upward, northward, and underground to accommodate its growing population and their housing and transportation needs, and Josh doesn’t let his wartime disability stand in his way.

His marriage to Mollie Brannigan, a Macy’s shopgirl and spinster niece of an Irish brothel-keeper, unexpectedly aids his transformation into a real estate mogul. She is a savvy businesswoman, as he discovers to his dismay. With his motley associates, he harnesses the strength of steel to construct multi-storey apartment buildings and entices middle-class residents to move in, but old enemies scheme to bring his family down.

With a fast-paced, complex plot showcasing opulent Fifth Avenue mansions, Wall Street pandemonium, deals both fair and underhanded, and the rising influence of ethnic gangs, Swerling expertly interlaces the stories of a Gilded Age couple and their magnificent city. Compulsive reading that informs and entertains.
(also written for Booklist, August 2011)

Swerling's most recent novel was a multi-period thriller spanning five centuries in England, Bristol House, and she wrote other historical sagas as Beverly Swerling or Beverly Byrne. Many of her older titles were re-released as ebooks. Read more about them at her website.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Undoing complicity: Up from Freedom by Wayne Grady, a saga of antebellum America

Drawing on research into his mixed-race family history, which he unexpectedly discovered as an adult, Grady evokes the complicated psychological terrain of antebellum America. He shows how simply living in this time and place forces everyone into a culture built around slavery’s existence, and how denying people agency causes harm regardless of intentions. Opening in 1848, the story follows farmer Virgil Moody as he tries to right a dreadful wrong and awakens to the mindset that prompted his original choice.

Born the son of a Georgia plantation owner, Moody had fled westward with a young enslaved woman, Annie, to save her from a cruel overseer. Along with the child Annie was carrying, they settled first in New Orleans and then along the Rio Brazos in Texas, where slavery had expanded following the recent war with Mexico. Moody abhors slavery, thinking of Annie and her son Lucas as his family, and is shocked to realize they feel differently. When Lucas falls in love with a young woman owned by a neighbor, devastating events occur, spurring Moody across the South and Midwest in search of Lucas.

Across these diverse landscapes and waterways, he encounters many well-realized characters, like a Quaker widow named Rachel and a sympathetic German-born store owner, Solomon Kästchen, who works with the Underground Railroad. “Indiana is, generally speaking, antislavery, but it is also antislave,” Kästchen tells him, succinctly illustrating people’s complicity in a system they are supposedly against.

Along the way, Moody grows increasingly fond of Tamsey Lewis, a freedwoman he meets along with her family. Their story, both heartrending and inspirational, culminates in a riveting courtroom scene. This is a timely novel about the deep roots of America’s racial divide, strong in the eloquent truth expressed in individual sentences and in its overall storytelling power.

Up from Freedom was published by Random House Canada in August 2018 (it's also sold in the US). I first reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review, based on a NetGalley copy I'd requested. It's highly recommended for readers of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.  Read more about the author in an interview conducted by the CBC for his first novel, Emancipation Day, which is based on his father's story.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Enchanting storytelling: Diane Setterfield's Once Upon a River, set in Victorian England

Both a Victorian-set historical novel and a delicately rendered adult fairy tale, Diane Setterfield’s third novel sits easily in both spheres.

Not only is it a beautiful story, but it’s an ode to storytelling itself, one knowingly structured similarly to the river in its title. Beginning at an old inn alongside the Thames, in a small town upriver from London, the tale follows a sinuous path, splitting off into tributaries that visit nearby residents and places before they rejoin toward the end.

On the night of the winter solstice in the year 1887, an injured man carrying what seems to be an overlarge poppet – a doll in peasant clothing – bursts into the Swan, a pub where locals rehearse their storytelling prowess. To the surprise of the innkeeper and her large family, the doll is soon revealed to be a lifeless young girl of about four. Their surprise turns to shock when she revives, and word about this mysterious happening quickly spreads.

As if that wasn’t strange enough, three families claim the girl for their own. To Mrs. Helena Vaughan, the mute, blond-haired girl must be her daughter, who went missing three years earlier. For Rob Armstrong, who farms pigs with his beloved wife and large family, she could be the grandchild whose existence they just discovered. And for the parson’s middle-aged housekeeper, Lily White, the girl is her sister, Ann, who she lost long ago.

And so we have a related set of mysteries to uncover as the stories wind their way downstream. Which family does the girl belong to, and what happened to the other missing girls?

Within this partly historical, partly fey setting, many characters come to life. In addition to the revived girl, there’s innkeeper Margot Ockwell; her husband Joe, who has a kind of wasting sickness; and their only son and thirteenth child, Jonathan, who acts differently than other children. The ferryman Quietly, who’s rumored to travel between earth and the afterlife, is a figure of local myth.

In a welcome switch, there’s no stereotypical insularity in the riverside English communities. Rita Sunday, once a foundling from a distant town, finds her nursing skills welcomed at the Swan. Full of scientific curiosity, she looks for explanations for why the girl had appeared to be dead. Helena’s husband is a native New Zealander, and while Rob Armstrong’s appearance (he’s black) initially alarms people, his kindness and noble bearing assuage their concerns.

All of their backstories are revealed at the right moment while the plot winds back and forth.  The language echoes the novel’s quasi-mythic atmosphere. Settle down into this enchanted corner of the literary world and linger a while, listening to a good, satisfying well told.

Once Upon a River was published yesterday by Atria in hardcover.  Thanks to the publisher for an Edelweiss copy; after I'd requested one, I was given the opportunity to participate in the blog tour, so I jumped right on.

With the tour comes a giveaway: Win 1 of 5 prize bundles of one finished copy of Once Upon a River and one Once Upon a River bookmark! Contest is open until 12/24.  Enter via the Rafflecopter below.

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Monday, December 03, 2018

Interview with Carrie Callaghan, author of A Light of Her Own, a novel about artist Judith Leyster

In today's hyperactive world, it's a pleasure to read a historical novel that carefully draws you into the very different atmosphere of nearly four centuries ago. At the center of Carrie Callaghan's debut are two young women in 1630s Haarlem: Judith Leyster, a talented painter who became the first of her sex to belong to the city's artists' guild, and her art master's daughter and friend, Maria de Grebber, whose Catholicism sets her apart.  Carrie's A Light of Her Own was published by Amberjack in November, and for her blog tour, I had the opportunity to ask her some questions about her characters, themes, and inspiration.

Why do you enjoy re-interpreting the lives of historical women in fiction?

Women’s stories have often been obscured or forgotten by history. For about two hundred years, no one knew Judith Leyster’s paintings had been painted by a woman, much less her. By reclaiming those stories and interpreting them for a modern audience, I hope I’m helping today’s readers think about all the challenges women have faced and overcome throughout time. And hopefully that’s inspiring.

What made you decide to tell the story from the viewpoints of both Judith Leyster and Maria de Grebber?

This story started as an exploration into ambition and dedication. I realized quickly that for Judith to break through societal barriers, she probably had to make some sacrifices. I wanted to showcase the impact on her two closest relationships – her friend and her brother – and I liked the idea of focusing on the friendship. (An earlier draft did have Abraham’s perspective too, actually.)

How did you fill in the blanks in re-creating Judith’s life?

There are many blanks in Judith’s life. We have her baptism, marriage, and death records, as well as some legal documents and real estate transactions, but not much more than that. Given all the questions, I kept returning to her paintings. If you look at that amazing self-portrait, you see a bold, confident woman who is nonetheless trying to impress you, which suggests some vulnerability. I tried to channel that woman.

I always enjoy how good historical novels can depict the similarities we share with people living long ago as well as their differences from us, and you’ve definitely accomplished this in A Light of Her Own. Maria’s perspective – including her religiosity and sense of self-sacrifice – can feel particularly foreign to a modern reader. How did you delve into her mindset?

author Carrie Callaghan
I wanted to explore a character who had a lot of personal and religious pressure but few options to find forgiveness. Maria is very self-aware, so she notices every temptation to evil that flickers across her mind and every personal short-falling, but she also doesn’t have a support network to help her understand those failings. Her mother died when she was young, her father is distracted, and she has no other friends, because of the social restrictions of the time. Her religion is important to her, but it was illegal to openly practice at the time, so she didn’t have easy access to spiritual succor. It was hard!

In addition to the larger theme of women’s agency at a restrictive time, I appreciated all of the finer domestic details that made the setting feel real, like the hand-painted blue and white tiles around the floor of a house, baked goods of the period, and so forth. How did you research this aspect of the novel?

I had an excellent book that provided a lot of daily-life details, and then I also had the pleasure of scrutinizing all those beautiful paintings we have from the 17th century. I love seeing and writing details, so the world-building was one of the most fun aspects for me.

As you immersed yourself in the customs and society during the Dutch Golden Age, did you find anything that surprised you? Did you have any favorite discoveries?

Research is so delightful partly because it is a never-ending process of surprise. My favorite discoveries were the ones that illuminated how the embroidery around human life has changed over the years – how daffodils meant grief for a youthful death, or how napkins were viewed as a French affectation – but the deepest human emotions are unchanged. Those commonalities are why I love historical fiction. We get to learn all the varieties of human behavior in our similar yet unique worlds.

Since you’re both a book reviewer and a mentor to other novelists, you have a unique perspective on the publication and writing process. Do you feel your additional experience with the industry has been helpful and/or insightful for your role as an author? 

Absolutely. Writing and publishing are hard and deeply subjective. I appreciate the effort that people put into getting art out into the world, and I’m grateful to be part of a community that values stories and reading.

Thanks, Carrie!


Carrie Callaghan is a writer living in Maryland with her spouse, two young children, and two ridiculous cats. Her short fiction has appeared in Weave Magazine, The MacGuffin, Silk Road, Floodwall, and elsewhere. Carrie is also an editor and contributor with the Washington Independent Review of Books. She has a Master’s of Arts in International Affairs from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For more information, please visit Carrie Callaghan’s website and blog. You can also connect with her on Twitter and Goodreads.

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A Light of Her Own