Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Zorrie by Laird Hunt observes a woman's 20th-century life in the rural Midwest

Deliberately echoing the form of Gustave Flaubert’s novella, “A Simple Heart,” Hunt celebrates the majesty and depth in a life that may superficially seem undistinguished. Zorrie Underwood is a farmer in central Indiana, and as she and readers survey her 70-or-so years, her joys and sorrows are deeply observed and felt. 

Raised by a cranky aunt, Zorrie is left homeless at 21, in 1930, and travels though the countryside doing odd jobs for food. Following a stint painting clock faces at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, she settles in her home state and marries a kindly couple’s farmer son, enduring setbacks and grief while adhering to daily routines. 

With compassion and realism, Hunt recounts Zorrie’s story straightforwardly, with setting-appropriate dialogue and an eye for sensory details: the glint of fireflies, the clay soil’s rich scent, the “mineral-sweet taste of warm blackberries picked off the vines.” Zorrie’s relationship with her neighbor Noah Summers, the eccentric protagonist of Hunt’s Indiana, Indiana (2003), is presented with expressive subtlety. A beautifully written ode to the rural Midwest.

Zorrie was published by Bloomsbury this month, and I'd reviewed it from an Edelweiss e-copy for the Nov. 1st issue of Booklist.  I was impressed by how well Hunt encapsulated a full life within a novella of fewer than 200 pages.  Living in the rural Midwest myself (Illinois rather than Indiana), I recognized the landscapes of the story.  You can find more background on the Radium Dial Company and the young female dial-painters employed there in Kate Moore's bestselling The Radium Girls.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Interview with David Blixt about his discovery of Nellie Bly's long-lost novels

It's not every day that a novelist makes a significant historical discovery. During the research process for his next book about undercover reporter Elizabeth Cochrane (pen name Nellie Bly), David Blixt uncovered the text of eleven full-length novels she had written over 125 years ago, but which had been presumed lost. The Lost Novels of Nellie Bly will be published in book form on March 16th, with new introductions by David and other details that put her work into context. I enjoyed chatting with him recently about this fascinating find.  Please read on.

Could you provide some background to Nellie Bly’s fiction-writing career? For example, why did she switch from reporting to writing fiction, and what was the New York Family Story Paper?

From Bly’s letters, we know that becoming a novelist was a long-held ambition. She often referred to other authors who started off as journalists as examples she wished to emulate. And by 1889 she was famous enough to get her paper, The New York World, to publish her first novel in serialized form through the summer. The Mystery Of Central Park was then released in the fall in book form, just before she left on her race around the world.

What we know now, due to this discovery, is that even as her first novel was hitting the stands she was finishing her second. Eva the Adventuress is clearly based on the scandal that gripped New York in the fall of 1889, the trial of Eva Hamilton, wife of Alexander Hamilton’s great-grandson. (For those interested in the scandal itself, here’s a run-down). Bly interviewed Eva Hamilton in prison, and then had only three weeks to knock out what ended up being her longest novel, more than double the length of The Mystery Of Central Park.

It had to have been finished before she left on her race, because the first chapters appeared in print in late December, in the pages of the New York Family Story Paper. This was a weekly eight-page fiction anthology from her book publisher, Norman Munro. It was aimed at women (he had a detective paper aimed at young boys as well), and filled with adventures and romances replete with melodrama and cliffhangers.

What I wonder—because I don’t know—is if Munro started publishing the story without a contract with Bly. She might have sent it to him before she left, but there’s no evidence of a contract. Yet I can see him wanting to capitalize on the huge publicity her race around the world—her name was everywhere! The first chapters appear with the phrase “By Nellie Bly, who is now attempting to make the circuit of the world in seventy-five days.”

What we do know is that when she got back, he offered her an enormous contract—$40,000 over three years. When you consider that she made at most $5,000 a year at the World, that’s a veritable fortune.

I think the switch from reporting happened for several reasons. First, the money was excellent. Second, her longing to be recognized as an author. Third, she felt she was not given proper thanks for boosting the World’s circulation higher than ever before. Joseph Pulitzer never even offered her thanks.

Possibly the most important reason, I think she was burned out. Three years of “stunt” reporting had taken a toll. By the summer of 1888 she was beginning to speak of headaches (which coincided with her first death threats). By the fall of ’89 she was telling of visiting seven doctors to try and help her past what I imagine were stress migraines. And through 1890 and into ’91 she speaks of severe, crippling depression. I think the novels were her way through. Noticeably, when she returned to reporting in ’93, she refused to do any more undercover or risky stunts. She would only ever risk her life again when she reported on World War One, over twenty years later.

As a librarian, I love hearing about discoveries made through research into primary sources. How did you stumble upon the existence of these novels?

Writing a follow-up to What Girls Are Good For, I was looking for a very small detail—how much Bly was paid for her first (non-fiction) book, Ten Days In A Madhouse. I tried looking for any contracts mentioning Munro, just to get a ballpark figure. Coming up empty, I dug deeper into Munro, and noticed in a list of books and newspapers he had published something called The London Story Paper.

Now, I knew about Bly writing for his New York Family Story Paper. Thanks to her letters, we’ve long known of two novels she wrote, Eva The Adventuress and New York By Night (which is probably her best fiction work). But only one issue has survived, containing three chapters of Eva. The rest, I knew, were lost to time.

So when I saw the London Story Paper on the list, I thought, “No, it couldn’t be. Munro didn’t make a knock-off of his own paper in London, did he?”

Turns out, he did. I plugged the name into a search engine, and found that the complete archives for the London Story Paper were available at I bought a subscription and ran a search for Nellie Bly, and hit the jackpot. Not two novels. Eleven novels. More than anyone had ever imagined she had written.

Unfortunately, nearly a third of the pages were illegible. Worse, the microfilm only existed in three locations—London, Sydney, and Toronto. So in the space between Christmas and New Year’s, 2019, I drove to the University of Toronto to get close-up scans of the faded pages. Once I was certain I had everything, I started the work of sorting and transcribing.

Your website mentions that the new versions of the novels come “complete with the articles that inspired the stories.” How did you match up the New York World articles and her stories – did she write about what her inspirations were, or did you have to do original research on your own to figure this out?

Well, her first novel was clearly based on her 1888 exposé of a serial procurer of girls in Central Park. And the Eva Hamilton story was clearly ripped from the headlines of 1889. So I knew from the start that she had drawn on her reporting to inspire her fiction.

With that in mind, I began collecting all her articles (to my amazement no one has ever done that before). With those at hand, I could easily see which articles were used for inspiration in the novels. Most often they’re fodder for a dramatic scene—a visit to the “veiled prophetess,” working in a paper-box factory, a story on women becoming doctors. Blackwell’s Island crops up several times, and in one novel she even names a cruel, murderous nurse after a real one from her stay there.

When I finished, I found myself with all of Bly’s articles for the World, so I’m also releasing them in four volumes. She wrote many, many more articles than most people realize. Most fascinating are her interviews, most often with women. We get our very best interview with Susan B. Anthony thanks to Bly. The first two volumes of Nellie Bly’s World are out now, and I’ll finish up the other two later this year.

Among the novels, are there any that you felt were especially illuminating or told a particularly compelling story?

As I mentioned earlier, I think her third novel, New York By Night, is her best. It’s a fun detective story with a genuine twist. It’s the only one where I would have liked to see the lead characters return. After that there’s much that’s interesting, but she strikes upon a formula that she adheres to pretty strictly. 

In terms of pure wildness, In Love With A Stranger takes the cake. It’s one madcap episode after another. Often her heroines are kinda passive, but not in that one! She’s stalking the millionaire she fell in love with at first sight, and is determined to win his love by any means, disguising herself as a ghost, a medium, a reporter, a boy, an opium addict, a card-sharp, and a marble statue. As I say, it’s wild.

As windows into Bly’s mind, there are two particular repeating trends worth noting. First, the idea of being orphaned. Before she took the nom de plume Nellie Bly, she first wrote under the name Lonely Orphan Girl. Her father died when she was six, and even though her mother lived on, Bly very much sympathized with orphans. She spent the last years of her life trying to find homes for orphans in New York.

The second repeating theme is suicide by drowning. In nearly every novel a despairing young woman throws herself into a river to end her sorrows. Water and drowning come up incredibly frequently, enough to make one wonder if she was grappling with that idea herself.

As an author who’s been writing fiction about Nellie Bly, what discoveries did you make about her as a writer, or as a person, from reading these long-lost works of hers?

On the humorous side, she never met a word she could not turn into an adverb. And she had a gift for names. Ruby Sharp. Dimple Darlington. Merribelle Harleigh. Amor Escandon. Christmas Cherry. I love her names.

On the serious side, I do wonder about her romantic entanglements. So often love, in her novels, is overpowering, leaving both men and women helpless. Again and again her characters justify the worst behavior for “love.” And yet very rarely does what she describe resemble actual affection. Clearly this is something I’m grappling with as I work on my next novel about her.

But that’s a joy, having a unique insight into Bly’s life. Being the only person in the world who has read all of Bly’s work, if only for a short time, is a gift that a writer can only dream of. I am very lucky to have found them—probably as close as I’ll ever come to finding a lost Shakespeare play. And I’m anxious for people to read these and discover a hidden side to one of the most amazing women in American history.


For more details on David Blixt and his work, please visit  

Friday, February 19, 2021

24 new and forthcoming historical novels in honor of Black History Month

Looking for some intriguing historical reads to add to your TBR piles?  February is Black History Month, and while many of these books are forthcoming later this spring, summer, or fall, the gallery below should give you reading ideas throughout the rest of the year.  With settings spanning the previous few centuries, these novels center Black voices, present vibrant characters, and reveal many stories previously untold in historical fiction. They're from a mix of established authors and talented newcomers. Links for each novel go to its Goodreads page. Some of these titles have been featured on the blog before but are worth mentioning again.

Nekesa Afia's Dead Dead Girls (Berkley, June) opens a new mystery series set in 1920s Harlem, while WWII fiction fans will want to glom onto Kaia Alderson's Sisters in Arms (William Morrow, Aug.) focuses on members of the "Six Triple Eight," the all-Black battalion of the Women's Army Corps and their notable service overseas. Denny S. Bryce's Wild Women and the Blues (Kensington, March) is an exciting multi-period story set in Jazz Age Chicago and contemporary times, featuring a talented dancer. Artist, novelist, and poet Barbara Chase-Riboud is perhaps best known for her historical novel Sally Hemings, from 1979; her latest, The Great Mrs. Elias (Amistad, Aug.), is the first novel about Hannah Elias, a wealthy Black woman from early 20th-century America. Stacy D. Flood's The Salt Fields (Lanternfish, Mar.), a novella, follows a man on his train journey from South Carolina to a new life up north, and The Conductors (Mariner, Mar.), Nicole Glover's historical fantasy debut, introduces Hetty Rhodes, a former conductor on the Underground Railroad, in her crime-solving career in Philadelphia after the Civil War.

Kaitlyn Greenidge's Libertie (Algonquin, Mar.), set during Reconstruction, takes as inspiration one of the first Black women physicians in America. Set during the same timeframe in Georgia, The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris (Little, Brown, July), another debut, centers on two brothers, hoping to earn enough money to head north to find their mother, who are hired to work on a white farmer's land. The Civil Rights movement is the focus of Suzette D. Harrison's The Girl at the Back of the Bus (Bookouture, Feb.), which alternates between 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, and the present. An infant girl's kidnapping in 1930s Harlem prompts an investigation in Karla FC Holloway's historical mystery Gone Missing in Harlem (TriQuarterly, Apr.)  Ladee Hubbard's The Rib King (Amistad, Jan.), set in the early 20th century, incorporates a tale of how racist iconography is used to sell food products, rib sauce in this case, and how this exploitation played out among those affected.  When Stars Rain Down by Angela Jackson-Brown (Thomas Nelson, Apr.) takes us to small-town, Depression-era Georgia with the story of a young Black woman coming of age during a time when the KKK is wreaking havoc in her community.

The debut novel from acclaimed poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois (Harper, May) investigates one family's journey in Georgia across two centuries. From the queen of African American romance, Beverly Jenkins' latest, Wild Rain (Avon, Mar.) is the love story between a female rancher in 19th-century Wyoming and a man slated to interview her for a Black newspaper. Sadeqa Johnson's Yellow Wife (Simon & Schuster, Jan.), set in the mid-19th century, recounts the tale of a young woman hoping to be granted her freedom but who finds herself returned to slavery and working in a notorious Virginia jail (based on a true story). Robert Jones, Jr.'s The Prophets (Putnam, Feb.) is getting a lot of buzz for its lyrical portrait of the love between two enslaved men on a Mississippi cotton plantation. Situated in the same Southern locale as her Mama Ruby series, Mary Monroe's Mrs. Wiggins (Kensington, Mar.) takes place in Depression-era Alabama and follows a determined woman who engineers a supposedly perfect life until secrets start unraveling. Bethany C. Morrow's So Many Beginnings (Feiwel & Friends, Sept.)called "a Little Women remix" in the subtitle, tells the story of four Black sisters — you can guess their names — growing into young women in the Freedmen's Colony of Roanoke Island during the US Civil War. 

Latest in Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins historical crime series, Blood Grove (Mulholland, Feb.) takes place in Vietnam-era southern California, circa 1969. In The Personal Librarian (Berkley, June), bestselling novelists Victoria Christopher Murray and Marie Benedict team up to reveal the life of Belle da Costa Greene, librarian for J.P. Morgan in early 20th-century NYC, who passed as white to move up in her career field. Vanessa Riley has two historicals out this year: first Island Queen (William Morrow, July), unveiling the story of Dorothy "Doll" Kirwan Thomas, born into slavery, who became an entrepreneur, major Caribbean landowner, and royal mistress. An Earl, the Girl, and a Toddler (Kensington, Apr.) continues her Rogues and Remarkable Woman multicultural Regency romance series. Dawnie Walton debuts with The Final Revival of Opal & Nev (37 Ink, Mar.), described as an oral history of an early '70s rock band featuring a proto-Afro punk female artist and white English folksinger. And Harlem Shuffle (Doubleday, Sept.), by two-time Pulitzer winner Colson Whitehead, focuses on a family man in '60s Harlem who gets pulled into crooked activity and finds himself living a double life.

Which books are on your personal wishlists?  Please leave recommendations for these and any others in the comments.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan, a sweeping portrait of the Jazz Age

Writing about music – transmuting one artistic medium into another – can be a challenge for novelists. Not only must they convey the sounds and rhythms for the reader, but also the elegant physicality of the performance as well as the powerful feelings that the sounds draw forth. When done well, the result is a full-bodied, sensory experience.

Mitchell James Kaplan accomplishes all this in his third work of historical fiction, Rhapsody, which depicts the decade-long affair between musical luminaries Katharine “Kay” Swift and George Gershwin.

Dubious about popular music and its latest promotional darling, Katharine attends the “Experiment in Modern Music” concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall in February 1924. She finds herself unexpectedly enraptured by Gershwin and his Rhapsody in Blue:

His fingers tapped the keys repeatedly; scurried up and down, passing each other; meshed together; flew apart to opposite corners of the keyboard … At the heart of the soaring, lyrical passage two-thirds of the way through, Katharine forgot about the funny parts, the exuberant parts, the piano-against-orchestra quipping and cajoling parts. The sadness and beauty of it enveloped her.

The story follows Katharine, a classically trained pianist, through America’s Jazz Age, from her early house concerts with a trio of friends through her emergence as a composer of national stature. Though little-known today, she was the first woman to write the complete score to a hit musical, and Rhapsody brings her accomplishments back into the spotlight. Her marriage to banker James Warburg is presented without stereotype. Their union is one of mutual affection rather than a grand passion; James frequently dallies with other women on his many trips abroad, and he tolerates her growing relationship with Gershwin, to a point.

author Mitchell James Kaplan
More than a traditional work of biographical fiction, Rhapsody devotes ample time to describing the political and sociocultural milieu that shaped the lead characters. It explains, within the fictional context, why Gershwin’s creative mashup of varied musical styles felt so attractive and groundbreaking. Cultural icons of the ‘20s and ‘30s, among them Fats Waller, Josephine Baker, Dorothy Parker, and Fred and Adele Astaire weave realistically into the narrative. 

Gershwin and Kay (his nickname for her, which she adopts) discuss people’s shifting cultural attitudes following the Great War, anchoring readers in the prevailing ideas of the era, and there’s much here that’s relevant for today, too. Details on the controversy surrounding the writing and staging of the opera Porgy and Bess show that issues of representation and cultural appropriation are hardly new.

A thoughtful portrait of its characters and their time, Rhapsody will carry readers along with verve and feeling.

Mitchell James Kaplan's Rhapsody will be published in March by Gallery/Simon & Schuster; thanks to the publisher for access via Edelweiss.  

As part of the blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, there's a tour-wide giveaway of two paperback copies of Rhapsody (US only).  Please use the following form to enter.  Open through March 12th to readers 18 years of age and older.  Good luck!

Rhapsody Tour

Friday, February 12, 2021

The Brontë sisters investigate a creepy mystery in Bella Ellis's The Diabolical Bones

This second in the Brontë Sisters Mysteries is for readers eager to be drenched in all things gothic. Bella Ellis (pseudonym for Rowan Coleman) has carefully adhered to the known demeanors of the sisters and their brother Branwell while adding a crime subplot. 

It’s December 1845, and frigid winds are whipping around the snow-covered Yorkshire moors. The mood is anxious within Haworth Parsonage: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne have sent their poems to a publisher and nervously await a response, while Branwell longs for letters from his former mistress Mrs. Robinson and drowns his sorrows at the pub.

What they need is a distraction. It arrives when their housekeeper, Tabby Aykroyd, reveals that a body has been found at Top Withens Hall, an ancient structure sitting atop the moorland, and that Clifton Bradshaw, the hall’s owner, refuses to inter the bones until spring. 

 The ruins of Top Withens Hall near Haworth, West Yorkshire
(public domain photo by Dave Dunford)

When the siblings trudge there to convince Bradshaw to allow a Christian burial in the parsonage cemetery, they encounter a household haunted by ghosts from thirteen years earlier, when Bradshaw’s wife died. The bones found within his chimney are a child’s, and the sisters want to find out whodunit. Bradshaw, a man rumored to have sold his soul to the devil, is a likely suspect.

Many classic Gothic elements – ghosts, a forbidding house, family secrets, and obsessive love – swirl together in a complex brew, and the supernaturally tinged atmosphere is drawn from the Brontë oeuvre, particularly Wuthering Heights and Emily Brontë’s evocative poetry. The overall effect is creepy without being outright frightening. 

Befittingly, Emily is an irresistible character, with her love for the moors and amusing penchant for bluntness. Ellis also works in issues of the day such as women’s independence and anti-Irish prejudice. The novel should satisfy anyone seeking to traverse the landscapes where these famous sisters lived and took inspiration.

Plaque at Top Withens Hall (public domain photo by Dave Dunford)

Bella Ellis's The Diabolical Bones will be published next week by Berkley in the US. I reviewed it for last November's Historical Novels Review, before it was announced that publication would be postponed until this winter (this has been happening a lot, due to shifting publishing schedules during the pandemic). In the UK, the publisher is Hodder & Stoughton.  The first in the series, The Vanished Bride, came out in September 2019.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Irena's War by James D. Shipman, his new novel about Polish WWII heroine Irena Sendler

Propulsive and intense, Irena’s War provides a front-row seat to the transformation of a Polish social worker into one of World War II’s most admirable heroines, with her efforts in rescuing over 2000 Jewish children from the Holocaust. 

In September 1939, the Germans overtake Warsaw, but Irena Sendler isn’t deterred in her work of distributing food to the city’s starving poor. She takes risks early on, temporarily alienating her Jewish friends when the Germans ask her to continue her work on a larger scale. “She was going to beat them, but in order to do so, she had to be in the game,” she reasons.

As restrictions tighten on Warsaw’s Jews, who are forbidden social services, Irena fudges paperwork to feed them; after hundreds of thousands are forced into a walled ghetto, she feels pressured to give up but finds ways of reaching them, at great danger to herself. Irena grows especially touched by the plight of the children and, with support of the resistance organization Żegota, she organizes a system of moving them out of the ghetto, into Aryan Warsaw, and into safe spaces.

The novel dexterously conveys Irena’s compassion, toughness, and the effect her uncompromising stubbornness had on her loved ones. It’s impossible for her to save everyone, but this knowledge doesn’t make individual failures any less heartbreaking. Periodic dips into the viewpoint of Gestapo officer Klaus Rein (a fictional character) show firsthand what Irena is up against. It’s chilling to witness how he mentally separates his life as a devoted family man with his horrific actions.

The plot lacks background on Irena’s difficult relationship with her mother and her growing romance with a Jewish friend, Adam; we experience their interactions in-the-moment without knowing the full history. Nonetheless, the story is riveting throughout and will leave readers marveling at the real-life Irena’s courage and accomplishments.

Irena's War was published by Kensington last December.  I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review. The subject matter makes for hard reading at times, but Irena Sendler's story is very much worth knowing. She was recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations" by the State of Israel for her work in saving Jewish children; she died in 2008 at age 98.  There's currently a Kindle deal running ($1.99) on, if you're interested in getting your own copy.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Historical fiction award winners at the 2021 ALA RUSA Book and Media Awards

This afternoon, I attended the first virtual ceremony for the Reference & User Services Association (RUSA) Book and Media Awards, an hour-long event that celebrated fiction and nonfiction in a number of categories.  Being on a book award committee is hard work, and I always enjoy seeing the winners that were chosen. Tomorrow I plan to place a bunch of orders for titles my library doesn't already own.

Three of the winners on this year's Reading List were historical fiction.  Depicted above:

The Historical Fiction category winner: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora, about the life of a healer tending to the formerly enslaved on a Southern plantation after the Civil War.

On the Historical Fiction shortlist:  Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon (about WWII heroine Nancy Wake); The Cold Millions by Jess Walter (early 20th-century Spokane); The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue (the 1918 flu pandemic); and The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Kay Penman (the 12th-century Kingdom of Jerusalem).

The Mystery category winner: Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood, about a female private-detective team in 1940s NYC.

On the Mystery shortlist: The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton (mystery set on a 17th-century merchant ship) and Karen Odden's A Trace of Deceit (a Victorian mystery).

The Romance category winner: The Duke Who Didn't by Courtney Milan, a historical romance of 19th-century Britain featuring two characters of Chinese heritage.

The 2021 ALA Notable Books List also included some historical novels, including Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half (race and identity starting in 1950s Louisiana), James McBride's Deacon King Kong (dark humor in 1969 Brooklyn), Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet (focusing on Shakespeare's wife and children), and Paul Yoon's Run Me to Earth (war in 1960s Laos).

And the culmination of the award ceremony was the presentation of the 2021 Carnegie Medal winners. The award for excellence in fiction went to James McBride for Deacon King Kong.  

Congrats to all!

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Interview with author Andromeda Romano-Lax about Annie and the Wolves

A dozen years ago, I posted an interview with Andromeda Romano-Lax about her debut novel, The Spanish Bow.  We recently reconnected, and I jumped at the chance to pose her some questions about her newest novel, Annie and the Wolves, which is out today. 

Annie and the Wolves follows the intertwining stories of Annie Oakley, the famous American sharpshooter, and Ruth McClintock, a contemporary historian struggling to prove her hypothesis that choices Annie made later in life were motivated by childhood abuse. After Ruth is sent some writings purporting to be Annie's personal journal, it sets her on a path to learning the truth not only about Annie's past but also about unsolved mysteries and odd phenomena from Ruth's own personal life. 

This isn't your standard dual-time novel about historical research and discoveries, but a multi-stranded thriller about the dawn of psychotherapy, the path to overcoming trauma, women's empowerment, and the tantalizing possibilities of time-travel. It left me thinking about uncanny real-life coincidences and how history itself is formed. Hope this intrigues you, and hope you'll enjoy this interview with Andromeda about her amazing genre-defying book.

The novel delves into Annie Oakley’s impoverished, difficult youth and her middle years, from the time of her train accident going forward. How did you get interested in these less well-known aspects of her life?

Discovering that Annie was essentially held captive for two years as a child by a farm couple called “The Wolves” was my starting point for the novel—along with the fact that, simultaneously, I was mulling over issues of abuse in my own family. (My sisters were abused by my father, who died around the same time I stumbled on the historical footnote that led me to Annie’s story.) There’s no question that I sublimated my concern for my sisters—and even my survivor’s guilt, as the youngest, least-affected child—into the work of finding a way to tell Annie’s story, which is ultimately an uplifting one.

From those first intertwining inspirations, I went on to learn more about the head-on train collision Annie Oakley survived in 1901, and about her legal battle with William Randolph Hearst, who libeled her in print. That middle-aged period isn’t unknown but documentation is spotty, which leaves the novelist plenty of room for invention.

I should make clear that the historical record was just a jumping-off point. From a few basic facts—childhood abuse, mid-life problems and injury—I built up a fictional premise: that Annie Oakley was disturbed by a yearning for revenge against her abusers, and that she sought a type of counseling, talk therapy, that happened to be developing in Vienna during that same era. Especially given that Annie Oakley was comfortable traveling to Europe, including Vienna (where she was much admired), I found that coincidence intriguing and used it to create a plot that is rooted in possibility but completely fanciful in its dramatized form.

The dynamic between Ruth, a researcher in her early 30s, and the tech-savvy high-school student, Reece, was an especially enjoyable part of the book. It’s like they become partners in solving multiple mysteries that other people are determined to ignore. What inspired them and their unusual relationship?

I’m glad you like Reece! I didn’t want Ruth to go it alone, and as I invented him, I came to realize—as I think Ruth does—that he could be a stand-in for the relationship she never managed to have with her troubled younger sister, Kennidy. With Reece, Ruth learns to communicate more openly, to ask for help, to risk being uncomfortable, and to care. This is a book that fully spans one-hundred and fifty years, and I wanted Reece to be our touchpoint for today: a smart, extroverted, probably non-binary (I don’t spell it out) teenager with his own artistic interests and problems. One early reader questioned how mature he is, but I’m a mom of twenty-somethings and they and their friends were just as assertive, quirky and smart as Reece when they were his age.

 author Andromeda Romano-Lax
The novel imagines that Annie Oakley sought help from a psychoanalyst, and re-creates evidence of their communications. How did you go about creating these writings?

It’s funny how once you create a fictional world it can seem inevitable and real—at least to the author, and hopefully to some readers! At one point while researching and pondering how Annie Oakley would have dealt with her trauma (especially given that she was a celebrity and couldn’t risk letting the world see her as weak), I was also reading about Anna O., the famous analysand who was treated by Josef Breuer and written about in a book by Breuer and Freud. (Readers often confuse the two men.) I thought, “A.O. and A.O.—that’s weird.” My brain got that same “everything-is-connected” feeling that frequently overwhelms Ruth.

The fact that the Annie of my novel is saddled with memories of childhood abuse in the same era that psychoanalysis (with an emphasis on recall of childhood traumatic events) was being developed seemed too interesting a coincidence to pass up. If she was going to talk to someone about it, why not the Viennese doctor who first wrote about talk therapy? From there, I knew they’d have to communicate only once in person and thereafter by letter, because Annie would need to be back in America to deal with the ongoing Hearst trials—which were, again, a biographical reality. Then it was left to me to invent those letters, as well as the original mystery journal that opens the book.

The concept of time-travel is always fun to explore, since it lets us ponder what would happen if the past could be physically reached and changed. I enjoy the speculative aspects of these novels as they relate to history, and how authors depict how it all works. What attracted you to the concept? Do you think it’s important in fiction for time-travel to have rules?

Yes, time travel absolutely must have rules. (And what a challenge they can be to invent and explain!) I never expected to write a time travel novel—and in fact avoided any speculative or fantasy element in early drafts. But when it comes to exploring not only history, but trauma, time travel becomes both a logical mechanism and a larger metaphor. When I was doing my initial research on time travel, I kept stumbling across psychological research papers that use the term mental “time travel” simply to mean reconstructing personal events in the past. Well, we all do that. People with PTSD do it even more intensely. As for changing the past, that’s the question, isn’t it? If one could, should one? And if one can’t or shouldn’t, what does that say about our orientation to the past and future at the expense of the present? I think time travel plots will remain timeless—no pun intended—because they fulfill our desire to imagine changing the past while also allowing us to ponder ancient questions of destiny and free will.

Annie Oakley in the 1880s
The story is amazingly creative and multifaceted, with so many different subplots – I read along with great interest in seeing how they would all come together. What skills or tools as a writer did you draw on to keep track of everything going on?

I wish I had a better answer for you. I keep some thinking and planning notes in a journal, but I mostly discover as I write and do ongoing research, then revise to make things clearer or when a new lightbulb goes on, over my head. (For example: “Of course that’s who the antiques seller is! Why didn’t I know that from the beginning?”)

What lessons can modern readers take away from Annie’s life story?

The fictional Annie of my novel and the real Annie Oakley—the biographical one, who is so much more impressive than the “Annie Get Your Gun” character from musicals and movies—has so much to teach us. The real Annie rescued herself, saved her family from poverty and ruin thanks to her small-game-hunting abilities, crafted a unique role as a world-famous sharpshooter and performer, made a good living, protected her brand, confronted her enemies (like Hearst, in court), and thrived with the support of a husband who supported her career. Having survived her own childhood and her especially dark years with the Wolves, she committed to helping others, which included training women in self defense and financially supporting girls and orphans. My novel supposes—and I’d like to believe it’s true—that helping other girls and women was what gave Annie the strength to endure the trials of her later years and achieve a sense of peace.


Annie and the Wolves was published by Soho Press; thanks to the publisher for granting me access via NetGalley.  For more information, please visit the author's website at