Monday, June 14, 2021

Giveaway winners, and other historical fiction news

Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway of four books for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month at the end of May. I've been delinquent in announcing the winners, who have all been notified, and the prizes have been ordered.

Janie Chang's The Library of Legends - Michelle M.
Charmaine Craig's Miss Burma - Annette K.
Min Jin Lee's Pachinko - Nancy R.
Sujata Massey's The Widows of Malabar Hill - Donna I.

Congrats to all the winners!

In other news from the literary world:

Louise Erdrich's The Night Watchman, set in 1950s rural North Dakota and based on her grandfather's life, has won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Continuing on the subject of literary fiction: for the Sunday Book Review in the NY Times, Jonathan Lee, author of The Great Mistake, contributed an essay, "For Literary Novelists, the Past Is Pressing." Thanks to C. for the heads-up on the article.  Every so often, an author of literary fiction will discover the relevance of historical novels to today's world (usually because they've decided to write one) and produce such an essay, which will also trot out the same tired stereotypes.  I wrote about the revival of historical fiction in literary circles in my speech for the Associated Writing Programs conference in 2002, so this is all familiar ground, and it does make me wonder why the "fellow writers and editors" he spoke with haven't gotten over their aversion by now. In Lee's examination of historical novels that won the Booker and Pulitzer in recent years, it's also curious to see the criteria used:

In the 15 years before “Wolf Hall” earned Mantel her first Man Booker Prize, in 2009, only one novel set before the 20th century had been given the prize. The history of the Pulitzer is similar: In 2017, “The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead’s novel about an enslaved woman in the antebellum South, became the first fiction set before World War II to win the award in more than a decade.

Why look at just those novels set before the 20th century and those set before WWII?  Doesn't Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See (Pulitzer Prize, 2015) count as historical fiction?  As we all know, WWII settings have been prevalent lately.  How about Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (Booker Prize, 2000), set in the '30s?  In addition to this cherry-picking, there's no mention of the Walter Scott Prize, now in its twelfth year.

It is encouraging to see more writers getting an appreciation for the power of historical fiction, though, and I like the examples Lee provides in demonstrating how historical novels can grapple with today's themes while evoking times past, such as Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing.  I found this aspect especially on point:

The last few years have not been short of events that might legitimately break our faith in the readability and writability of our “now.” At the same time, they have also not been short of reminders — systemic racism, rising hate crimes, mass incarceration and the shootings of unarmed Black citizens by the police — that in America the past continues to erupt into the present and remains key to understanding it.

The piece is worth reading, both for examining the continuing perceptions about historical fiction in some literary circles, and for book recommendations.

In today's Washington Post, historical novelist Vanessa Riley, whose biographical novel Island Queen is published next month, has an important article about the importance of author's notes in historical novels written by women.  From the first paragraph:

Women-centered historical novels are having a moment, particularly when uncovering little-known histories. Resistance to these narratives, which cast heroines with agency, hidden talents and extraordinary achievements, has declined, but only after a hard-fought battle. Perhaps women have won the war and we can pen stories of our ancestors without the dreaded attack of the old guard — a patriarchy accustomed to controlling the narrative and wielding the term “historical accuracy” like a weapon.

This particularly affects, I should add, novels written by women of color, who have met with accusations of inaccuracy in depicting their characters' lives. Riley also interviews some of her author colleagues about their approach to author's notes and why they include them.

Back on May 27th, the New York Times, again, had an article from Alida Becker on new historical fiction to read this summer.  The works mentioned here aren't, generally speaking, relaxing summer reads but serious literary works exploring profound subjects.  Lots of WWII here.  I've read two of these novels myself, so far: Samantha Silva's Love and Fury and Pip Williams' The Dictionary of Lost Words. I also agree with one commenter's remarks: "Also, this list is very white and northern, isn’t it?" 

Finally, Nekesa Afia, author of the historical mystery Dead Dead Girls, her debut set in the 1920s, recommends six novels to "immerse yourself in the vibes of the past" in a piece for CrimeReads. Her selections are a mix of new books and classics.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Women from Greek mythology have their say in these new historical novels

Myths are made new and relevant in these six historical novels, which should appeal to readers interested in ancient Greek settings. The Trojan War is the common event shared by many of these titles, with writers departing from Homer's Iliad to examine women's viewpoints, but other tales are used as scaffolding as well. Benchmark novels include Madeline Miller's Circe and Margaret George's The Memoirs of Helen of Troy, and there are plenty of other older novels that fit, too. The original classic stories never get old.


The Women of Troy, Pat Barker's sequel to the acclaimed The Silence of the Girls, follows the story of Briseis, a former queen who was enslaved by Achilles, beginning after Troy's defeat by the Greeks. Doubleday, August 2021.



In A Thousand Ships, her feminist retelling of the Iliad, Haynes uses the perspectives of nearly all the women in the myth (except Helen) to provide new angles on familiar events. Harper, January 2021.
 


The daughters of Sparta in Heywood's debut novel are Helen and her sister, Clytemnestra, princesses who are wed to powerful foreign kings and fight for the power to control their own fates. Dutton, June 2021.



Though the title of Andrews' young adult fantasy novel, Daughter of Sparta, sounds similar to the previous book, its subject is different.  The myth of Daphne and Apollo is cast into a story of female power and adventure.  Little Brown Books for Young Readers, June 2021.



Jennifer Saint's debut is the first of two reimaginings of the story of Ariadne, a Cretan princess who meets Theseus, Prince of Athens, when he visits the land of her father, King Minos, to slay the Minotaur, her half-brother. Flatiron, May 2021.



In Ariadne Unraveled, a "mythic retelling" of Ariadne, High Princess of Crete, Zenobia Neil follows the story of her romance with Dionysus, the god of wine, amid interference from the goddess Artemis, who Ariadne was bound to serve. Hypatia, July 2021. 

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Wild Women and the Blues by Denny S. Bryce, an exciting multi-period story of Jazz Age Chicago

With her first novel, Denny S. Bryce emerges as an exciting new writer of historical fiction. The two timelines in this multi-period story are both gripping. In Chicago in 1925, “The Stroll”—a section of State Street—blazes with the sights and sounds of Black nightlife: live jazz from talented performers, speakeasies with illicit booze, and showgirls with sparkling costumes and hot dance moves.

Honoree Dalcour, a sharecropper’s daughter from Mississippi, has a regular gig dancing at Miss Hattie’s but dreams of performing at the Dreamland CafĂ©, a prestigious black-and-tan club. When her first love, Ezekiel Bailey, returns to town after a long absence, and her audition at the Dreamland turns unexpectedly risky, Honoree is plunged into dangerous waters in more ways than one.

In 2015, film student Sawyer Hayes pays a visit to Honoree, a supercentenarian in a nursing home whose fragile body holds a still-feisty spirit. In pursuit of his doctorate, Sawyer hopes Honoree can authenticate a possible lost film by pioneering Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux showing Honoree dancing in her younger years. His conversations with Honoree, though, are hardly straightforward since she seems unusually guarded about events from 1925.

The stories dance together marvelously: the plot is in constant motion, and the interplay between them results in surprising twists. Bryce skillfully evokes place and period with vibrant descriptions of the glamorous and treacherous sides of Jazz Age Chicago and fun period slang.

The subtle characterizations are a high point as well, such as Honoree’s interactions with pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, whose upscale society party has Honoree seeing herself in a new light, and Sawyer’s slow emergence from intense grief over his sister’s death. An especially impressive debut with a strong voice and very cool historical vibe.

Wild Women and the Blues was published by Kensington in May; thanks to the publisher for granting me access via NetGalley. I wrote this review for the Historical Novels Review's May issue.

In February, Publishers Marketplace announced deals for two new novels by the author: The Other Princess, focusing on African Egbado princess Sarah Forbes Bonetta and her life in Victorian England as the queen's goddaughter, acquired by William Morrow and out in fall/winter 2022; and A Beautiful Love Affair, about Alice Jones Rhinelander, whose Black heritage was at the center of a 1925 divorce case, to be published in 2023 by Kensington. I look forward to reading both!

Monday, June 07, 2021

When the Past Begins To Sing, an essay by Lee Zacharias, author of What a Wonderful World This Could Be

Yes, new novels set in the 1960s are considered historical fiction these days. I'm welcoming back Lee Zacharias to the blog; she has an essay about researching What a Wonderful World This Could Be, which involved visiting sites that imprint their memories on people's lives today.

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When the Past Begins To Sing
Lee Zacharias

We live in history. Today becomes yesterday, last week, last year, and then, before you know it, half a century has passed. There is a challenge to writing about events that have happened in your lifetime. When are they day-old news? When do they become history?

I began What a Wonderful World This Could Be in 1981, the year after Cathy Wilkerson turned herself in. The headline caught my eye. My life had changed so much in the decade since she'd escaped the accidental bombing of her family's Greenwich Village townhouse and disappeared into the Weather Underground. I'd spent the late 1960s working in an office to support my student husband. Instead of participating in the story of my generation, I felt as if I watched it on the nightly TV news. But by the time she surrendered, I had left my first husband, earned two graduate degrees, published a book of stories, had a novel coming out, and was directing a graduate writing program. During the years I spent writing What a Wonderful World, I married my second husband and had a baby. I didn't finish a first draft until January, 1990, and after the media blitz of the '60s revisited in 1988 and 1989, the "twenty years ago today" during which much of my book took place had circled back from history to yesterday's news.

I read about the events I'd missed in that momentous decade, from journalistic reports, to histories of the New Left, to analyses, to more subjective accounts. I kept researching even after I'd finished several drafts, as more and more memoirs by participants came out. If the novel—and the creation of the main character, Alex—came from my sense of having missed out, the other characters and events required an inside feel for the seismic political and cultural changes that took place over the late 1960s. It's an over-simplification to say that the townhouse explosion on March 6, 1970 and massacre of student protestors at Kent State University less than two months later marked the end of an era; yet in a symbolic way they did. By the time I began to write the era felt long past.

Lee Zacharias, 1970
In college I'd briefly had a boyfriend who went to the 1965 Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery. I couldn't join him. You had to have money—you had to be able to make bail. (Later it would become an inside joke that your father had to be a millionaire for you to join Weatherman, the radical offspring of the New Left's Students for a Democratic Society.) It wasn't until 2002 that I went to Selma. I visited Brown's Chapel, walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and retraced the route of the march. In Montgomery I visited Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, at the foot of the Capitol. Every day that George Wallace served as Governor of Alabama, he looked out his window at Martin Luther King's church, a fact I might have discovered from a city map, but a map lacks the impact that standing there imparts. Just across the Pettus Bridge from Selma, I discovered a brand new Voting Rights Park. As I descended the steps, the names of the martyrs I knew so well from news I'd lived through and relived in research seemed to float up out of the darkness. 

Jimmy Lee Jackson under the Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL (2002)


It could have been a frightening experience—a lone woman who has left her car in an empty parking lot walking by herself beneath a bridge at dusk, but I felt no alarm. The plaques nailed to the trees and stuck into the ground hadn't had time to weather. They were a pale blond, the names burned so deep into the wood it felt as if the spirits they evoked were rising from their graves. That is the other side of research, when the past begins to speak. It's no longer information, but a feeling, no longer yesterday, fifty, or one hundred years ago, but now. The past becomes a chorus, lifting its voice in an everlasting song.

Fannie Lou Hamer under the Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL (2002)


About the Book:
What Alex, illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic novelist and an artist, has always wanted is family. At 15, she falls in love with a 27-year-old photographer, whom she will leave when she comes under the spell of Ted Neal, a charismatic activist on his way to Mississippi for 1964’s Freedom Summer. That fall Ted organizes a collective that turns to the growing antiwar movement. Ultimately the radical group Weatherman destroys the “family” Alex and Ted have created, and in 1971 Ted disappears while under FBI investigation. When Ted surfaces eleven years later, Alex must put her life back together in order to discover what true family means.

About the author:
Lee Zacharias is the author of four novels, a collection of essays, and a collection of short stories. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, has twice won the North Carolina Sir Walter Raleigh Award for a book of fiction, and has received many other prizes, including two silver medals from the Independent Publisher Book Awards and the Phillip H. McMath Book Award. Her previous novel Across the Great Lake was named a 2019 Notable Michigan Book, and her essays, which have appeared in numerous journals, have been cited and reprinted in The Best American Essays. She co-edited an anthology of short fiction titled Runaway and has taught at Princeton University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she is Emerita Professor of English. A native of the Midwest, she lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. Learn more at leezacharias.com.

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Eternal by Lisa Scottoline, her first historical novel, set in WWII-era Rome

Readers will emerge informed and moved from Lisa Scottoline’s first historical novel, which dramatizes WWII-era Rome via three best friends and their families. Known for her bestselling legal thrillers, Scottoline describes Eternal as “the book she was born to write.” Her passion shows in the carefully depicted setting and her compassion for her characters, whose ties are repeatedly tested.

In 1937, Sandro Simone, a Jewish mathematics student, and Marco Terrizzi, a popular, outgoing cyclist, both recognize that their longtime friendship with Elisabetta D’Orfeo has turned to love, turning them into unintended rivals. Pretty and strong-willed, but shy about romance, Elisabetta weighs a possible relationship against her desire to become a journalist.

As the trio work out their feelings, the political situation deteriorates. Sandro’s and Marco’s fathers are longtime Fascists, optimistic about the positive change they see Mussolini bringing to their country. Their futures diverge once Il Duce strengthens Italy’s bond with Nazi Germany and starts promulgating anti-Semitic race laws.

Scottoline does an exceptional job placing readers in the moment as people’s worlds are upended, and Rome, with its storied architecture and vibrant culture, grows unrecognizably dark in spirit. Sandro’s father, a lawyer so entrenched in the Fascists that his beliefs essentially define him, has difficulty comprehending this betrayal of the Jews, while Marco, employed by a rising Party official, is blind to how his loyalties affect his friendships.

These and other heartbreaking moments are juxtaposed against scenes showing the warm heart of the Roman people, including feisty Nonna, crafter of delicious pasta at the restaurant where Elisabetta works. Even Elisabetta’s cat is a delightful personality. Family secrets from decades prior – in this ancient city, the past is never far away – add additional depth to this absorbing epic evoking the worst and very best of humanity.

Eternal was published in April by Putnam (I'd reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review). Lisa Scottoline has been enthusiastic about sharing the research she did for the novel, and you can read and view lots more via her website, which has an interactive map of Rome and eighteen episodes in her Behind the Book series. These short videos cover topics ranging from her trio of main characters to prominent Roman landmarks to food customs to the Stolpersteine, brass plaques memorializing Holocaust victims which were placed into the pavement at their last residence.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Fidelity to the Truth in Biographical Fiction, an essay by Maryka Biaggio, author of The Point of Vanishing

Novelist Maryka Biaggio, who writes historical fiction about real-life people, is visiting today with an essay about an issue that all writers of biographical novels must address.  Welcome, Maryka!

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Fidelity to the Truth in Biographical Fiction
 
Maryka Biaggio

“The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale. As a novelist, I have tools no historian should touch: I can manipulate time and space, extrapolate from the written record to invent dialogue and incident, create fictional characters to bring you close to the historical figures, and fall back on my imagination when the research runs out.”  --William Martin

Historical fiction based on real people is not unusual, and many readers love to eavesdrop on the lives of royals, celebrities, and notorious persons. Although biographies can satisfy some of that yen, fiction does something biography can’t always do—bring us inside these people’s worlds and show us their doubts, their fears, and the words they might have spoken.

But what of the importance of honesty in rendering these lives? Does the novelist owe it to his or her subjects to tell the tale true? If not, why would an author base a fictional account on an actual person in the first place? If it’s wild storytelling an author is after, why would he or she not steer clear of even insinuating that the subject of the novel is an actual person? And don’t readers expect a certain fidelity to the truth in biographical fiction? If they are led to believe a novel is based on the life of an actual person, don’t they have the right to expect they will find some resemblance to the life of that person?

I think most readers and writers would agree that, yes, novelists who base their stories on actual persons should adhere to the generally established truths about that person. And readers can reasonably expect that stories about real people not deviate wildly from the facts (unless they are labeled as alternative history).

But the “truth” and “facts” are not always easy to agree on, even among historians and biographers who aim for a high degree of accuracy. We can probably agree on the dates and certain facts about well-known events—say the particulars of a Civil War battle. But when it comes to the generals commanding their troops, we may dispute the motives behind their battle strategies. So what can readers reasonably expect and how can authors more or less hew to those expectations?

Joyce Carol Oates takes an interesting approach to this issue in her novel Blonde, which is certainly about Marilyn Monroe. Oates never refers to her subject by that name, but rather as Norma Jean Baker. Although Monroe’s affair with John F. Kennedy is a fairly well-established fact, she refers to him only as The President. Oates is not purporting to write a biography of Marilyn Monroe. She says in her Author’s Note that “Blonde is a radically distilled ‘life’ in the form of fiction, and, for all its length, synecdoche is the principle of appropriation.” She goes on to explain ways in which her account differed from her subject’s real life, and she also notes the many biographies and books on related topics she consulted. But this novel is a masterful work, portraying the inner world of its protagonist more richly than any biography ever could. In fact, I consider it Oates’ masterpiece, and she herself told me in 2009 that it is a particular favorite of hers.

Of course, there are many authors who are not shy about using their subjects’ actual names, sometimes in the titles, including Burr by Gore Vidal (about Aaron Burr) and I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon. In the case of Lawhon’s book, the central question is whether the protagonist, Anna Anderson, actually was Anastasia Romanov. Lawhon explains in her Author’s Note that “it will come as no surprise . . . that I had to take liberties with this story. I did so primarily because the historical record contains a cast of hundreds, and that is simply untenable for a novel of any sort, much less one that is already complex and nonlinear.” She, like Oates, goes on to list authoritative sources and to articulate some of the ways that her novel deviates from the historical record--“all of them necessary for the sake of clarity and narrative drive.” So, again, both Oates and Lawhon are striving for a certain narrative authenticity, which sometimes necessitates deviations from the complex truth or from potentially confusing twists and turns.

I write novels about actual people, and I have had to confront questions about fidelity to the truth over and over in the telling. If I’m going to recount a story about an actual person, I believe I owe it to the reader to render the story in a way that doesn’t completely obscure that person’s actual life. But stories must make sense, they must adhere to an arc, they must take a person from one point to the next in a way that makes sense. Real life isn’t always this “logical,” but we expect a certain logic in novels. We realize Hamlet must pay a price for his indecision, we expect insight into some of the consequential decisions Marilyn Monroe made in her tragic life, and we want to know if Anna Anderson was a fraud or royalty. In the words of Iain M. Banks, “The trouble with writing fiction is that it has to make sense, whereas real life doesn't.”

So biographical fiction about historical figures has a tall order to fill—to show us the inner worlds of the character, to bring a certain fidelity to the story of their life, and to satisfy our curiosity about the meaning of their existence. Done well, biographical fiction can do all this and more—it can captivate and entertain.

About the Author: 

Maryka Biaggio is a psychology professor turned novelist who specializes in historical fiction based on real people. She enjoys the challenge of starting with actual historical figures and dramatizing their lives–figuring out what motivated them to behave as they did, studying how the cultural and historical context may have influenced them, and recreating some sense of their emotional world through dialogue and action. Doubleday published her debut novel, Parlor Games, in January 2013. She lives in Portland, Oregon, that edgy green gem of the Pacific Northwest.

About The Point of Vanishing

The Point of Vanishing is based on the true story of child prodigy writer, Barbara Follett. In 1939, at the age of 25, she vanished, never to be heard from again. Now historical novelist Maryka Biaggio brings her enigmatic story—and mysterious disappearance—to life.

Intrigued?  Check out the author's book trailer below.


Monday, May 31, 2021

Love and Fury by Samantha Silva, a galvanizing portrait of English writer Mary Wollstonecraft

The lives of trailblazing English proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, overlapped by only eleven days, as Wollstonecraft tragically died from postpartum infection in 1797. In her second novel, Silva (Mr. Dickens and His Carol, 2019) probes the perspective of another literary icon, imagining the older Mary, weakened from childbirth, telling her life story to her baby at her midwife’s suggestion.

Mary’s passionate declaration of selfhood carries readers on a wide-ranging, deep journey where she eloquently voices the circumstances shaping her views, her strong attachments to other independent thinkers, like Fanny Blood, and her struggles to escape societal constraints. Raised in a large family where her father abused her mother, she grows infuriated by gender inequality and aims to enlighten women who participate in their own diminution.

Related with superb detail on late-eighteenth-century locales and intellectual pursuits, Mary’s experiences leave her initially doubting the possibility of equal marriage between men and women. This absorbing tale of courage, sorrow, and the dance between independence and intimacy delivers a sense of triumphant catharsis.

Love and Fury was published by Flatiron in May, and I'd turned in this review for Booklist (the final version was published in their historical fiction issue on May 15th). Allison & Busby will publish the novel in the UK in mid-June. Terrific book, with a beautiful cover. You can read an excerpt at the author's website.