Thursday, August 15, 2019

Interview with Elizabeth Bell, author of Necessary Sins, first in a four-book family saga

Lovers of engrossing family sagas: here's a new historical series to add to your list. Necessary Sins, the first book in Elizabeth Bell's Lazare Family Saga, travels from Saint-Domingue in the French West Indies in the late 18th century to Charleston, South Carolina in the 19th century, with a brief sojourn in Rome. The book's tagline—"In antebellum Charleston, a Catholic priest grapples with doubt, his family's secret African ancestry, and his love for a slave owner's wife"—reveals the basics of the plot. Joseph Lazare and the woman he comes to love, Tessa Conley, are richly described, complex characters, as are the rest of the cast. They include his level-headed doctor father, René; his mother, Anne, a hearing-impaired woman and devout Catholic; and even Joseph's formidable great-grandmother, Marguerite, whose story is told early on and whose actions affect all of their lives. I read it on a lengthy transatlantic flight, glued to the pages. Thanks to Elizabeth for her willingness to answer some questions in this interview.


The research you undertook during the 26 years of the writing process sounds impressively thorough. What were some of the most enjoyable or unique aspects of the research process?

My fictional family's story begins in Saint-Domingue, the French sugar colony that becomes Haiti. A lot of the information about Saint-Domingue is available only in French. I took seven years of French, but it was getting rusty when I started that part of the story. Then there's 18th-century French and modern French. So I'd say the language barrier was one of the more challenging aspects.

I also researched Catholicism extensively. I attended Masses in Latin, both in a church and in the open air before a Civil War reenactment. I felt like a spy because I wasn't there as a worshipper. My most enjoyable research was on-the-ground, when I toured the Charleston area. During last year's Festival of Houses & Gardens, I got to step inside the private home that sits where my character Tessa's house is located, on the corner of Church Street and Longitude Lane. You buy the ticket months in advance, and you don't know the exact homes you'll visit, so that was surreal: to stand in the place where on some other plane, my characters were arguing and embracing.

Title page of our best first-hand account of
Saint-Domingue (1797), written by a colonist
named Médéric-Louis-Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry.
You’ve written a remarkably complex, multi-layered male protagonist who not only lives in the 19th century, but who’s also of mixed race, as he's shocked to discover, and is destined for the priesthood. How did his character develop over time? Did any of these qualities present more challenges during the writing process than others?

I don't exactly make it easy for myself! My Joseph Lazare was inspired by Father Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds. But for about the first 15 years of his fictional existence, Joseph was merely a supporting character. My focus was his nephew David and…well, David's generation, because the other two characters would be spoilers. Joseph and Tessa were always in love, but for 15 years, I never let them do anything about it. Theirs was a tragic, unconsummated love that pretty much all the characters knew about, but it was entirely chaste. It's, ahem, become less chaste as I grew into adulthood myself and took a hard look at Catholicism and starting asking "Why?" and "What if?" questions.

Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist,
Charleston, SC (although the congregation existed
in Joseph's day, this structure was completed
much later, in 1907; photo by author)
Catholicism is a gold mine of drama and angst for a fiction writer, and I couldn't let that opportunity go to waste. Since I've never been a boy or a man, writing from Joseph's point-of-view at various stages of his life was its own peculiar challenge. I found myself checking out books from the library on a boy's changing adolescent body! The history of racial identity and categorization is its own mountainous subject area. But I write because I want to learn and understand. I want my characters to be fully realized individuals. By giving them life in all its complexities, I think I expand my own humanity.

At what point did you realize the full story of the Lazares would be a four-book series?

About six months ago! When I began this story, I thought I was writing a single book. I knew it would be a long book, but my inspirations were 900-page epics from the 1980s, so I thought that was fine. Very slowly, I realized my saga would be more like 1500 pages. I decided that I had a trilogy...and then when I actually finished "Book 3," I realized it was over 800 pages. I had to split it again for a total of 4 books. To me, they're all one narrative. The character arcs aren't complete and the story won't be totally satisfying unless the 4 books are read in order. Joseph at the end of Book 1 or even Book 2 is not the fully evolved Joseph.

What impressed you so much about The Thorn Birds that compelled you to write an homage?

I love all that Colleen McCullough accomplishes in The Thorn Birds. The way she captures a time and place I knew nothing about, rural Australia. Her unforgettable characters. Her work holds up to repeat reads, and I get more out of it every time. Most of all, I love how interconnected each generation of her family saga is, how Fee's story echoes through her children and grandchildren. I loved the idea that (SPOILER) the earlier generations screw up and miss their chances at happiness, but eventually the youngest generation is able to break the cycle and find fulfillment. It's not reincarnation, but it's like the family is a single being that's failing and slowly learning and finally growing—the story arc isn't just about a single character's journey but all the family members together. That's so emotionally engaging and satisfying. I guess I find it cathartic, the idea that suffering will eventually lead to transcendence, even if it happens beyond your own lifetime. In Book 2 of my saga, Lost Saints, I have Tessa quote Thomas Paine: "If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace."

The Thorn Birds also inspired so many questions. As you can probably guess, I was most captivated by the character of Father Ralph. I wanted to understand the choices he made: why he wouldn't leave the Church for Meggie and why he became a celibate priest in the first place. Colleen McCullough gives us glimpses into Ralph's inner struggle, but only glimpses, and we hear very little about his life before he's ordained. I wanted more! I started asking "What if?" and eventually my answers turned into Joseph and Necessary Sins.

Alley of live oaks, Boone Hall Plantation, Charleston, SC (photo by author)

How did you choose South Carolina as the main setting?

When I was eight years old, my parents took me to visit Charleston. I fell in love, and I knew I had to set a story there. The desire simmered until I had a story to tell. I adore the flora and fauna of the Lowcountry, and they became part of my saga. But as a child, I think what appealed to me most was how easy it is to time travel in Charleston. So much of the architecture and narrow streets in the historic district have been lovingly preserved—incredibly, considering the hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes the city has endured.

How were the studies you undertook for your MFA in creative writing beneficial in your writing career?

They definitely made me a better writer. It's essential that a writer read widely and venture outside his or her comfort zone. My literature courses forced me to do that. It's essential that a writer learns to critique others' work, to take criticism, and to make her stories the best versions of themselves. But the most important thing to come out of my MFA degree were the lifelong friendships I forged with classmates. These writers have provided invaluable feedback on my work in the years since we graduated, and they've supported me on this grueling journey to publication.

Old Slave Mart Museum, Charleston (photo by author)

I love family sagas that extend over generations and journey to different places, and based on Necessary Sins and the descriptions of the later books, it sounds like you do, too. What appeals to you about writing an epic historical saga?

I love stories I can dive into and inhabit for more than a day or two. I love contrasts and juxtapositions. I love finding surprising connections and echoes. To me, a saga best reflects reality in all its rich beauty, ugliness, and complexity because the writer has a canvas as large as life. However, classic sagas from ancient times to the 20th century are often larger than life and tend toward melodrama. I'm trying to walk that line: a grand scale that captures lost times and places yet is deeply grounded in characters who aren't simply props and symbols. No single individual can express what it means to be human, so the characters are part of a larger whole, but each one is fully rounded and believable. At least that's what I'm striving for. Real life is messier than fiction, so there's artifice involved in telling a satisfying story; but if it's done well, artifice can become art.

~

Elizabeth Bell has been writing stories since the second grade. At the age of fourteen, she chose a pen name and vowed to become a published author. That same year, she began the Lazare Family Saga. It took her a couple decades to get it right. New generations kept demanding attention, and the story became four epic historical novels. After earning her MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University, Elizabeth realized she would have to return her two hundred library books. Instead, she cleverly found a job in the university library. She works there to this day.  Visit her website at https://elizabethbellauthor.com.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Chimes of a Lost Cathedral by Janet Fitch continues Marina M's story during the Russian Civil War

Fitch’s transporting sequel to The Revolution of Marina M. (2017) is even better than the first book. Ceaselessly entertaining through its lengthy page count, it presents a disillusioned, more mature Marina Makarova as she is broken and remade alongside Russia during its civil war.

As the novel opens, 19-year-old Marina, pregnant with her lover’s child, has just escaped from a cult on her family’s former estate. Her journeys take her deep into the Russian countryside and back to her devastated home city. In this full-blooded feminine epic, Marina narrates her dramatic life with striking visual detail, whether she’s riding aboard the agit-train Red October, preparing for the White Army’s advance on Petrograd, or teaching poetry to downtrodden shoe-factory women desperate for a glimpse of beauty.

Enduring near-starvation and terrible poverty and loss, Marina forms strong connections with peasants and the artistic intelligentsia alike, but can’t manage to leave her past behind. “The revolution’s not an event, Marina. It’s a creature,” Maxim Gorky tells her, and Fitch shows her protagonist’s inner turmoil as she and Russian workers awaken to the revolution’s political reality, which is far from what they’d hoped.

Awash with emotion and poetic imagery that aptly reflect Marina’s changing circumstances, Fitch’s tale channels Marina's vibrant spirit throughout. Historical fiction fans should devour this.

Chimes of a Lost Cathedral was published by Little, Brown in July. It's nearly 800 pages but moves fast. I wrote this starred review for the June issue of Booklist. I'd also reviewed the first book in the series back in 2017; together, they make over 1700 pages of epic storytelling, and Marina tells her story in a single narrative thread throughout. For readers who bemoan the idea that authors aren't writing on this type of epic scale anymore: check these two books out!

Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Owen Archer Ensemble, a guest post by Candace Robb - plus US giveaway for A Conspiracy of Wolves

I'm happy to welcome Candace Robb here today for a guest post about the supporting cast in her long-running Owen Archer mystery series set in 14th-century York.  The eleventh and newest volume, A Conspiracy of Wolves, was published last week by Severn House/Crème de la Crime in hardcover and ebook.

~

The Owen Archer Ensemble 
Candace Robb

I approach each scene with a vision of its shape and the characters involved, yet I know it will take on its own form as I write, including unplanned characters who stroll onto the set and make themselves comfortable. A few of these incidental characters not only return in later scenes, but also reappear in future books, becoming members of the series ensemble. Some first appear in a rather minor role—Magda Digby and Brother Michaelo; some are integral to the plot—Alisoun Ffulford.

Magda Digby insinuated herself into an early draft of The Apothecary Rose, her role growing from a cameo appearance—the grieving mother weeping over her son’s grave—to the final version in which she is a minor but notable character. A chance comment from my agent at the time after reading an early draft—an interesting character. Will we see her again?—suggested to me that Magda might warrant another look. That must be what woke her. Gradually, as I revised, she inspired brief scenes; I saw a role for her, and a far richer identity. The elderly woman in mourning expanded into the enigmatic healer Owen encountered on his first day in York and came to respect for her wisdom, healing skill, and long memory about the people of York and Galtres.


Brother Michaelo also made his debut in The Apothecary Rose, as the toady of Archdeacon Anselm. In Rose he was a pathetic creature frequenting the infirmary at St. Mary’s with headaches. When he failed in his task for Anselm his role seemed finished. But much to my surprise, Archbishop Thoresby took him on as his private secretary in The Lady Chapel, as his “hair shirt.” In Thoresby’s service Michaelo came to see the error of his ways and sought redemption—though on his own terms. His all too human struggles endeared him to me, and Michaelo became a character I enjoyed following.

But with Thoresby’s death in A Vigil of Spies, and the failure of Richard Ravenser’s bid to take his uncle’s place as archbishop, Michaelo’s role in the series was over. Or so I thought. But something odd kept happening as I wrote Owen’s first scenes in A Conspiracy of Wolves—Brother Michaelo kept appearing, appalled by the crime scene, yet proving unexpectedly helpful. I would edit him out only to have him reappear. I thought he’d returned to Normandy between books 10 and 11, but I was wrong.

Alisoun Ffulford was a central character in The Riddle of St. Leonard’s, a child orphaned by the pestilence, unwittingly caught up in a series of crimes. Hostile toward Owen Archer and Magda Digby when they came to rescue her, she tried to strike out on her own in a countryside terrified by the plague. She intrigued me, and her character, a stubborn child who hunted with a bow and distrusted everyone, oddly lightened the plague-haunted story. I found I could not let her go once I’d finished the book. I wanted to explore whether she would convince Magda to take her on as an apprentice, and, if so, how that would play out. By book 10, A Vigil of Spies, Alisoun matured and gained not only Magda’s but also Owen’s respect. However, she stumbled in A Conspiracy of Wolves, and that is how she’s managing to keep my interest.

~

About the Author

I’m Candace Robb, a writer/historian engaged in creating fiction about the late middle ages with a large cast of characters with whom I enjoy spending my days. Two series, the Owen Archer mysteries and the Kate Clifford mysteries, are set in late medieval York. The Margaret Kerr trilogy is set in early 14th century Scotland, at the beginning of the Wars of Independence. Two standalone novels (published under pseudonym Emma Campion) expand on the lives of two women in the court of King Edward III who have fascinated me ever since I first encountered them in history and fiction.

I am a dreamer. Writing, gardening, walking, dancing, reading, being with friends—there’s always a dreaming element.

About A Conspiracy of Wolves (Owen Archer, Book 11):

When a prominent citizen is murdered, former Captain of the Guard Owen Archer is persuaded out of retirement to investigate in this gripping medieval mystery.

1374. When a member of one of York’s most prominent families is found dead in the woods, his throat torn out, rumours spread like wildfire that wolves are running loose throughout the city. Persuaded to investigate by the victim’s father, Owen Archer is convinced that a human killer is responsible. But before he can gather sufficient evidence to prove his case, a second body is discovered, stabbed to death. Is there a connection? What secrets are contained within the victim’s household? And what does apprentice healer Alisoun know that she’s not telling?

Teaming up with Geoffrey Chaucer, who is in York on a secret mission on behalf of Prince Edward, Owen’s enquiries will draw him headlong into a deadly conspiracy.

Giveaway:

During the Blog Tour, we are giving away a hardcover copy of A Conspiracy of Wolves by Candace Robb! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on August 15th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to the US only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud will be decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– The winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen.

Conspiracy of Wolves

Monday, August 05, 2019

Relative Fortunes by Marlowe Benn begins a stylish mystery series set in 1920s Manhattan

With her debut novel, Marlowe Benn gives us a pair of family stories intertwined with a twisting mystery garbed in stylish language. The setting is Jazz Age Manhattan; while socialites party their way across the city, and suffragists relish the victory of the 19th Amendment, progressive women know more work needs to be done.

Into this buzzing atmosphere arrives Julia Kydd, an independent young woman who has returned home from a five-year stay in London to receive her inheritance on her 25th birthday. However, her half-brother Philip has put up an unexpected challenge to their late father’s bequest, which sets them at odds. It’s an awkward situation at best. They barely know one another, and Julia’s obliged to lodge with him since he still controls her funds.

While crossing the Atlantic, Julia had gotten reacquainted with a boarding-school chum, Glennis Rankin, whose own family woes are deepening. Glennis’s much-older sister, Naomi, has been found dead in her basement apartment, an apparent suicide, but there’s much that’s suspicious about her untimely passing. Apart from Naomi and Glennis, the Rankins are a ghastly, judgmental bunch – their pompous brother Chester criticizes Naomi in his eulogy – which prompts Glennis, confused and furious, to lean on Julia for support. Thus Julia is drawn into her friend’s personal drama, and she has added motive for doing so after Philip makes her an offer she can’t refuse: if she can prove Naomi was murdered, he’ll stop contesting her inheritance.

This bargain sounds contrived, and some readers may not be convinced otherwise, but knowing more about the context makes it feel less so. Philip is an enigmatic fellow who isn’t the greedy villain one may expect. A literary, urbane sort who’s fascinated by psychology and has solved “puzzlers” for the police, he seems to be testing Julia.

Julia herself is another character whose personality deepens over time. A modern 1920s woman who has a British lover but values her independence too much to marry, she saves her greatest passion for her aspiring career as a literary publisher. (It’s an interest that Marlowe Benn shares, and aficionados of fine bindings, colophons, and fonts will soak up the details.) Julia also discovers one irony: the freedom she loves depends on money. Without it, her choices are marriage or poverty: the same restrictive options faced by so many of the era’s women.

The standout character, however, is Naomi, a woman with many layers. Would that we could meet her in person, but then there’d be no mystery. Naomi was a devoted suffragist, to her family's dismay, and she may have been in a “Boston marriage” with the colleague, Alice, who shared her dreary basement flat in the family mansion. Naomi had been forced to live there in the first place because of a terrible choice her rich brother forced her into. While it’s possible she killed herself in despair at her circumstances, it wouldn’t be like Naomi to give up. It’s not in Julia’s nature, either.

Benn has a sure hand with sizing up people in words: “Vivian Winterjay stood across the room in a spotlight of wary silence, mustering one of those small, composed smiles meant to carry one through any occasion—the bare-knuckle refuge of impeccable breeding,” she writes of Naomi’s married sister. And the era as well; Julia notes Glennis’s shock at Naomi’s passing as follows: “Six years since death’s long romp across Europe, and still young people everywhere were caught short by its caprice.” The ending offers plenty of revelations in character and plot, and leaves opportunity for the enterprising Julia to appear in future books (hopefully with company, too).

Relative Fortunes was published by Amazon's Lake Union imprint on August 1st; I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Embracing life: Elizabeth Gilbert's City of Girls, set in the theater world of mid-20th century Manhattan

The heroine of Gilbert’s bold, zesty historical novel couldn’t be more different from The Signature of All Things’ intellectual Alma Whittaker, but the books share worthy themes, like the importance of embracing life and women’s self-acceptance. Attractive and rich, Vivian Morris gets kicked out of Vassar in 1940 for never attending class. Her despairing, distant parents send her to live in Manhattan with her aunt Peg, co-proprietress of the Lily Playhouse, a shabby venue that stages middling productions for the area’s working-class denizens.

Finding a home among the performers and crew, Vivian dives headlong into the theater world. A gorgeous showgirl named Celia draws Vivian into her habits of late-night carousing, smoking, drinking, and sleeping with attractive men—lots of them. Before that, though, Vivian must shed her unwanted virginity, and that scene is hilarious in its cringe-worthy awkwardness.

When one of Peg’s old chums, British actress Edna Parker Watson, arrives in town with her handsome-but-dumb thespian husband, Peg feels she must stage a production deserving of Edna’s talents. This leads (with many people’s help, including Vivian’s as costume designer) to the creation of a musical called City of Girls, a show described in such entertaining detail that readers will want to buy tickets. Vivian continues to fling herself into her hedonistic lifestyle regardless of consequences—until there are, in fact, awful consequences that shape her later life.

Aged 95, Vivian writes her life story for a woman named Angela, whose father she once knew, and whose identity is satisfyingly revealed toward the end. While these constant reminders (“…from that moment, on, Angela”) can be intrusive, the older Vivian’s voice contributes perspective and hard-won wisdom. Steeped in Manhattan theater glamour during WWII and after, City of Girls zips along throughout, wearing its research lightly as it showcases its cast of unabashedly liberated women during Vivian’s coming of age.

City of Girls was published by Riverhead in June; I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy. Gilbert's The Signature of All Things is reviewed here.