Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Loaded Questions: "Keeping the House" Author Ellen Barker

Keeping House by Ellen Baker
July, 2007 - 544 pages - $24.95

Keeping the House is the story of one family living in a small Wisconsin town. The primary drive of the story are the arrivals of two brides to the city of Pine Rapids. In 1896, fresh out of college, Wilma arrives, a bride-to-be for a man she's not yet met and promptly falls in love with the wrong man -- the brother of the man she's supposed to Mary. The other, Dolly Magnuson arrives in 1950. Unlike Willma, Dolly arrives having already married the man she wanted to desperately. The remainder of the book follows the forward and audacious Dolly into like as a house wife as she reclaims the family house that has not been lived in.

Ellen Baker has written a very good first novel which, she has informed me just today, has been selected by the Chicago Tribune as one of the Best Books of 2007. Ellen has been helpful and kind throughout this process, I would definitely recommend this books.

Kelly Hewitt: Your book, Keeping the House, takes place in a town called Pine Rapids -- a small town in Wisconsin. Your bio says that you lived in a number of states: Minnesota, Illinois, South Dakota and Wisconsin. What lead you to choose Wisconsin for a setting and not one of the other states you've lived in?

Ellen Baker: I started writing about some of the characters who ended up in Keeping the House – the Mickelson family – the summer after my junior year of college. I had just moved to a new area of Wisconsin for a summer job and I was fascinated by its uniqueness; I ultimately wrote a whole novel about the family spending a summer there in 1919. I had always imagined that the family’s year-round home was in central Wisconsin. Some years later, when I decided to shelve that novel and expand the family’s story to span fifty years, I found that most of the action needed to be set in that year-round home, so Pine Rapids grew from just an idea of a place on the map to a “real” little town, modeled after several of the towns in that area of Wisconsin. (The family’s summer home in Stone Harbor, Wisconsin, does show up in a couple of scenes in Keeping the House, too.)

Kelly: Keeping the House is story that spans a total of three generations and two World Wars. How did your background as a WW II museum curator help when writing the segments of the book?

Ellen: The veterans I met while I was working at the museum were the greatest help to my writing. By interviewing them about their experiences and just talking with them on a daily basis, I was able to come to understand their attitudes, values, mindsets, and the times they lived through. I’ve been so gratified to hear some (age 60 and under) readers comment that reading Keeping the House has helped them to understand their own parents and/or grandparents better than they ever were able to before. Also extremely gratifying are the comments from the 85-year-old readers who say, “You got it exactly right!”

Kelly: I have to say that your website is pretty amazing. There are some really great Keeping the House resources. Can you tell our readers a bit about what sorts of things they can find there?

Ellen: You’ll find the first chapter of Keeping the House, discussion questions (for your book group!), the “story behind the book” and an essay on writing (describing my writing process and how Keeping the House came to be), a Mickelson family tree to click on for more information about each of the characters, and reviews of the book. There’s also a “bookshelf,” where I write about books I’ve read and loved lately, a listing of all my events and appearances, a place to send me email, and a “letters” page with something new from me each month. Then there’s a page of some of the great 1950s recipes mentioned in Keeping the House (no, I haven’t tried making any of them myself…) and, of course, bunches of links so you can choose your favorite retailer and buy Keeping the House!

Kelly: Dolly Magnuson is a great character. A brand new bride in a small town she's striving to be the ideal woman and the perfect wife. That's not where Dolly ends, when she discovers an abandoned house the reader sees just how determined and insatiable she can be. Is there anyone in your life that you draw on as an inspiration for this character?

Ellen: No, not really. I actually had written much of the Mickelsons’ story before Dolly ever came on the scene, so when she did (with the purpose of being the person to whom the story was going to be told) I knew I needed a character who would be, as you say, determined and insatiable. Sometimes characters take a long time to become “real” in my mind, but Dolly seemed full and real right from the start. I had been working with the Mickelsons for something like eight years before Dolly showed up; within a year the book was done. The entire time I was writing about her I thought she was nothing like me; after I was done, I realized she’s the most like me of any of the characters, though she is a bit more foolishly brave than I am! (I would never break into anyone’s house, for example, even if the door was unlocked…)

Kelly: Do you do a lot of personal reading? What was the last book you read?

Ellen: Yes, I read all the time, usually one or two novels a week, and an occasional non-fiction book (memoir or history, usually). While writing Keeping the House, I was also working part-time as a bookseller, which was great; I loved getting excited about a book and telling everyone they just had to read it! The last book I read was Songs Without Words by Ann Packer, which I thought was quite wonderful. (To see my interview with Ann Packer, author of Songs Without Words, click here.)

Kelly: I read that you have worked as a costumed living history interpreter, it sounds really interesting. What does that entail?

Ellen: I’ve worked at two different living history jobs. The first was at a working 1850 farm (“The Homeplace”) on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, where I dressed in an 1850s farmwife costume and, along with a “family” of other interpreters, demonstrated the lifestyle of that place and time. The men grew tobacco and tended animals (oxen, horses, sheep, pigs, chickens) and the women mostly stayed at the house and cooked, gardened, and did handwork. Our first job was to “interpret” what we were doing to any tourists/visitors, but there were some quiet, cold autumn afternoons when we’d sit by the fire knitting and gossiping for hours without interruption. I learned how to cook full meals on a woodstove, quilt by hand, make candles and sauerkraut and sausage, and knit mittens. At this site we did “third-person” interpretation so I was always myself, a college graduate from Minnesota/Wisconsin, so, although I was dressed in costume, I could speak comfortably about what “people would have done” in 1850. (One of the most memorable comments I received: “You wouldn’t have nice teeth like that, if you really were living in 1850.”) My next living history job was at Historic Fort Snelling in Minneapolis. This job involved “first-person” interpretation, which is a bit like acting, but without a script. You have to internalize the lifestyle and speak as though you are really living it. The male interpreters were soldiers and officers and the women portrayed laundresses (who were lower class wives of enlisted men) or officer’s wives. One of the characters I remember portraying was Mrs. Green, an officer’s wife whose only child had recently died. After talking about my dead son all day, I would feel quite melancholy, even after I changed into my modern clothes and hopped into my car to drive home. I’m sure that “living” in other times and places helped me in my writing in terms of being able to fully imagine characters’ lives and emotions.

Kelly: I also read some of the reviews by your readers and, predictably, they are already waiting for another novel. Have you already begun work on your second novel? What can your readers expect?

Ellen: Yes, I’m working on my next historical novel. It will be a bit similar to Keeping the House in terms of some of the themes it deals with – war, memory, identity, love, history, family secrets. But it’s going to be quite different in terms of the problems the women characters are dealing with. Rather than housewives, they’re farmers, artists, and World War II shipbuilders.

Kelly: Keeping the House is your first published novel. Have you written other novels before this book?

Ellen: Yes, three of them. They are happily at home in my closet.

Kelly: I am always interested to hear about how first time authors get their books printed. What as the process of getting Keeping the House into print like?

Ellen: I sent out query letters to agents, got an agent within about six months, and within about two weeks she had sold my book to Random House. It was amazing! I don’t want to make it sound like it was easy, though. I’d worked and worked on rewriting prior to even starting to submit anywhere, which I’m sure made a huge difference as far as minimizing the amount of rejection that I had to face. Plus, I’d experienced plenty of rejection with my earlier novels; that coupled with reading many, many recently published novels showed me how far I needed to go with my writing to reach the goal of getting published.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Buy the Book: A Holiday Gift Guide Part One

There's not a lot of time left to get all that holiday shopping done! Can you believe it? Here's a gift guide that will help you make some of those tough gift decisions. I've drawn from all of the books that I've talked about the last twelve months, read and inspected all of the books publishers have sent, scoured publisher catalogs, and turned my personal library upside down to find what this book junkie thinks are the best books to give as gifts this year. In order to make things easier I have linked each of the mentioned books to their page on Amazon, simply click and order! Your purchases help support this site.

Here are some of the books that are excellently written, have received critical praise, and have sold well. These are standout books that would be perfect for anyone on your gift list.

A Free Life by Ha Jin

This novel, written by the exceedingly talented Ha Jin - winner of the National Book Award and other prizes, centers around Nan Wu. Nan is a Chinese immigrant, having come to the US in order to study. Wu is a graduate student headed for a PhD in political sciences. But everything changes after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in which countless numbers of protesting students were killed. Nan, feeling distraught, about the blatant oppression of democracy in his native country drops out of school, no longer wanting anything to do with politics. A Free Life follows the events that take place in the life of Nan Wu, his wife Pingping and son Taotao as a result of Nan's decision to end his education and his subsequent struggles to support his family and follow his dreams. Wu discovers his love of the English language and finds himself flying through books of poetry. Wu's ultimate dream is to write a work of fiction in order to fully embrace the language of his native country and to regain the passions he finds that he has lost along the way.

The other aspect that makes this book so interesting and powerful is fact that Ha Jin himself is a Chinese immigrant to the United States, determined to study the English language and express himself. Only twelve years after Ha Jin begins studying English does he win the National Book Award. You can feel the passion and depth in the main character of this book, Nan Wu because of the fact that Jin understands the characters, can deeply identify with Wu's struggles. Ha Jin has become one of the most powerful voices in American literature in just a few short years. This book is a great gift for anyone interested in the struggles to overcome, those who have a similar love for the English language and writing, as well as those who have interest in the politics of China and the cultural revolution taking place there.

Other Titles: Waiting, War Trash, Under the Red Flag,
The Bridegroom: Stories
, Wreckage, Ocean of Words: Army Stories

I will be doing an interview with Ha Jin the coming weeks. If there are questions you'd like me to ask or ideas you'd like to share for the interview be sure to email me with Loaded Questions in the title or reply to this message.

Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill

This novel by Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill is both stunning and astonishing. The book spans the life of Aminata Diallo, born in Bayo, West Africa, in 1745. The novel opens in 1802, as Aminata is wooed in London to the cause of British abolitionists, and begins reflecting on her life. Kidnapped at the age of 11 by British slavers, Aminata survives the Middle Passage and is reunited in South Carolina with Chekura, a boy from a village near hers. Her story gets entwined with his, and with those of her owners. During her long life of struggle, she does what she can to free herself and others from slavery, including learning to read and teaching others to, and befriending anyone who can help her, black or white. Hill has just what it takes to write a novel with such tension and hardship and has done a great job of pacing to book so that the reader is never left waiting. I appreciate this book a lot because it provides readers with a positive literary figure who, while living through events and conditions no human should be subject to, survives, intelligent and ardent.

Other Titles: Any Known Blood

I will also be doing an interview with Lawrence Hill in the near future. If you have suggestions or questions you'd like me to ask be sure to email or reply to this message.

The Pirate's Daughter
by Margaret Cezair-Thompson

This is another one of the great books that has come out in the last year. The Pirate's Daughter centers around two women whose lives are permanently connected no matter where life takes them. We follow the lives of Ida and her
daughter May. Ida, growing up on a small island near Jamaica, experiences a very fantasical sequence of events at the age of thirteen.the wrong direction, Hollywood heartthrob, socialite, and all around eccentric, Errol Flynn lands on the shores of the small island where Ida lived. Flynn, who becomes a friend of Ida's father who takes her to visit Flynn on Navy Island, the nearby island the star had purchased. As a result of Flynn's arrival Ida's life changes drastically, the most prominent result his her daughter May, the bastard child of the Hollywood star.

This story doesn't center around Flynn but focuses rather on the lives of Ida and May. Flynn purchases the island he landed on and uses it for posh Hollywood parties. The remainder of the story follows Ida who finds herself married and seperated from her daughter while May grows up without much parental support on Navy Island, the island owned by her father. The Pirate's Daughter is a multi-faceted story about two strong women who strive to survive despite the fact that they are colored women living in a male-dominated world. May, who appears at times to be out of control, ends up being a woman of compassion, is fierce, and entirely loyal. This book is a great gift for anyone drawn to the glamor and glitz of the sparkling Jamaican Islands, it deals with issues of identity and belonging, race and class, and the relationship between a mother and a daughter.

Other Titles: The True History of Paradise

Sometimes the best gift is a good laugh. Here I've selected some of the funnies books to have come out this year. You'll end up a hit with friends when you present to the a hilarious title. Plus -- you get to read, skim, and laugh before your wrap the book. Funny gifts will prove to friends that you have a sense of humor, even if you don't.

A Year of Living Biblically:
e Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
by A.J. Jacobs

I like AJ, I also really like this book. A.J. Jacobs isn't particularly religious. But he decides to find out what it would be like to live by all of the commandments of the Bible for one year. The result is a book that is hilarious, ironic, and inevitably insightful. Jacobs travels too, heading out to visit others who live strictly by the rules, visiting Samaritans in Israel, snake handlers in Appalachia, Amish in Lancaster County, Pa., and biblical creationists in Kentucky.

I turns out the the rules of the Bible are kind of hard, if not impossible to live by! There are restriction in clothing, mandatory cricket eating, and the practice of the ten-string harp. Did you just read crickets? Yes -- you did.

This is a great book for anyone with a sense of humor and maybe even those who don't! What I like is that Jacobs takes this serious, he does a great deal of research and studying -- learning about the different types of Bibles and ends up consulting dozens. Its a fun book and its what Christmas is all about, right?

Other Titles: The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

The Dog Says How by Kevin Kling

The author of this book, Kevin Kling, is fascinating guy. Kling is the kind of author who writes about the absurdity of the human experience. The Dog Says How is a small book full of a series of short stories from Kling's life. They range from dramatically funny, when the author writes about a motorcycle accident that nearly took his life to the light, funny and random, a story in which Kevin recounts the large number of men in his family that have been struck by lightening. Apparently its a rite of passage and, Kevin writes, some members of the family have experienced lightening strikes on more than one occasion. We chatted not long ago in an interview when he informed me that his mother had recently been shocked via the television. She was happy, he said, and called to tell him that she was officially a member of the family. Click here to view the entire interview with Kevin Kling. Kling is most certainly funny, he has spent the last couple of year working as a correspondent for "All Things Considered" on NPR. One of his fans writes that Kevin's quirk contributions to NPR are "pull over the car and listen" moments.

Kevin Kling's The Dog Says How is a perfect stocking stuffer gift or a perfect little gift for a friend who enjoys funny and quirky short stories that are perfect for reading while waiting in the lobby of the doctor's office, or on the bus, right before bed. This book is highly recommended.

On his website there’s this quote that I really like. When talking about his writing Kevin says: "I have a small command of the English language so I try to make each word a hero." I like that.

The Book of Vices:
ery Naughty Things (And How to Do Them)
By Peter Sagal

The moment I picked this book up I realized that it was ingenious and that I didn't want to put it down. Author, Peter Sagal, is the host of NPR's hilarious weekly radio game show, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! which discusses funny and sometimes absurd news from the week. I am an avid listener and so was familar with Peter Sagal when I heard him talking about his new book with Terry Gross, also of NPR. The very basis of Sagal's book is that we as Americans are obsessed what kind of secret fun those around us are having -- worried and sometimes jealous that someone else may be enjoying themselves a little bit more than we are. Sagal's book aims at scratching that itch and I must say from reading the book myself, scratching never felt so good or was this funny. Straight-laced Sagal marches earnestly into the playgrounds involved in some of America's seedy vices.

It is important to understand that, while adult sex clubs and swap parties may have been played out by the media and aren't really all that fun anymore, the real humor comes from Sagal's studious and genuine responses to the situations he finds himself in. I am thinking of the beginning of the book in which Sagal takes his wife to a swinger's club, entering that underground world with what feels like very little information about what will unfold. It is Sagal's keen eye and honest inquisitiveness that makes The Book of Vices so funny. Another instance, often quoted, occurs when Sagal has spent the day on the set of a pornography being filmed for Spice TV. "I began to appreciate," he writes, "how very well Evan and Kelly did their work."

This is a great gift idea but not for the easily offended. Sagal's responses, ability to jump right in, and respectful reserve not to point fingers or speak ill of those he encounters make this one of the funniest, most interesting books of the year.

Other Titles: Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! Audiobook

I am a history nerd. After having done Loaded Questions for two years I decided in the last six months that I ought to be featuring and interviewing some of the great authors out there writing quality fiction. There's always a history book or two on my reading table. Here are just a few of some of the really great titles that have come out this year. Stay tuned for more interviews with talented history authors.

Henry the VIII's Last Victim:
The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
by Jessie Childs

This book just came out in the United States a few days ago but has been available in the UK for the last year. I started chatting with Jessie a few months ago, she's a really great lady. Henry VIII's Last Victim was a proposal for the 2001 Biographer's Club/Daily Mail Prize. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey is known to history for a few honors, some dubious. Henry was first and foremost a poet, Childs writes that Henry's verse and poetry had a lasting impact on both Shakespeare and the English Renaissance. Some of the more dubious claims to fame? Well Henry Howard was the first cousin to two of of King Henry VIII's wives both of whom were beheaded for various crimes of treason. The other interesting thing to note about Henry Howard is that he was, quite literally, the last person to be executed by the order King Henry VIII. The book contends that king signed Henry Howard's death warrant while in the final throws of his own death. In a real bit of irony, Henry Howard's father the Duke of Norfolk, also intended to be executed by royal order, was spared only because Henry VIII died before he could sign the warrant.
As a Tudor historian myself I have to say that this is quite a good popular history biography. Childs shows no signs of bias, reporting about Henry Howard and his enemies with equal attentativeness, without taking sides. It is important to note that Childs hasn't just written a book about Henry Howard's scandalous demise, she delves into the academic background of Henry Howard looking at his writings and scholarly work. The author also looks at Howard's military service and his role as a noble aristocrat. This is a great gift for the history buff in your family, because there has been so little written about Henry Howard you can count on the fact that your history lover doesn't have a pile of books about him. This biography is also a great way to learn more about Henry VII, Anne Boleyn, and other giants of English history because Henry Howard crossed paths with them all. I very much recommend this book.

The Far Traveler: The Voyages of a Viking Woman
By Nancy Marie Brown

While most medieval women didn't stray far from home, the Viking Gudrid (985–1050) probably crossed the North Atlantic eight times, Nancy Marie Brown writes in The Far Traveler. Gudrid wasn't just along for the ride, Brown believes that Gudrid served as an explorer on two different expeditions to the North American continent. Gudrid, Brown writes may have gone on expeditions with two of her husbands, one of which was the brother of Leif Ericson, who discovered America 500 years before Columbus.

Brown searches for information about Gudred by looking at medieval Icelandic sagas which recount that her father, a chieftain with money problems, refused to wed Gudrid to a rich but slave-born merchant; instead he swapped their farm for a ship and a new life in Greenland. Specifics about her life are sparse, so Brown, following in Gudrid's footsteps, explores the archeology of her era, including the splendid burial ships of Viking queens; the remains of Gudrid's longhouse in a northern Icelandic hayfield; the economy of the farms where she lived; and the technology of her time, including shipbuilding, spinning wool and dairying. This is a great book for anyone interested in history, offering a very indepth look into the Icelandic medieval world and literature. Give The Far Traveler to the history buff on your list who has an interest in New World exploration, women's history, and sleuthing the past.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Free Giveaway and Loaded Questions with "Signed, Mata Hari" author, Yannick Murphy

Dear Loaded Questions Readers,

The response to the first giveaway, featuring Lauren Willig's Seduction of the Crimson Rose, was really great. When I told a few publishers about the giveaway and how well Loaded Questions readers had responded they were more than happy to send along a few books for our next giveaway. This one is particularly exciting, introducing our Signed, Mata Hari Book Giveaway! We are not offering just one Advanced Reader Copy, but five brand new hardback copies of Yannick Murphy's Signed, Mata Hari. Why this book? Yannick Murphy's new novel I have been reading it and enjoying it quite a bit.

Contest Details: Getting yourself entered in the giveaway is easy! There are two ways:

1. See the box in the left margin of the blog? It says "Subscribe to Loaded Questions with Kelly Hewitt". This is a great way to receive email updates whenever new posts are made to Loaded Questions. Enter your email address in order to sign yourself up for the service. You will receive an email verifying you request to be signed up. It's as easy as that. Once you have signed up, your email address will automatically entered in the contest! Already signed up this way for a previous contest? Read Option #2.

2. Reply to this thread. This is an easy option, click the reply button and write a little something -- introduce yourself, share your favorite author or book with the rest of us, anything will do. Once you have written a reply and provided your email you are entered in the contest! This is also the best option to enter in the contest for those of you who have already signed up for the email list in the past.

Note: Those who are frequent readers are encouraged to continue to sign up for Loaded Questions giveaways! If you have entered one of our giveaways before you must do one of the above listed in order to be re-entered for the Signed Mata Hari Giveaway.

The final day to enter in the contest is December 30th, 2007. The contest winner will be announced on January 1st, 2008!

Good luck!

Below is a synopsis of the book and exclusive interview with the author.

Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy
November, 2007 - 288 pages - $23.99

Signed, Mata Hari is a fictional novel by Yannick Murphy that follows the life of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, the woman who reinvented herself to become Mata Hari. Margaretha, born in the Netherlands in 1876, went on to married a Dutch naval officer named Rudolf MacLeod and moved to Java. Margaretha moved to Paris, France where she worked as a circus horse rider named Lady MacLeod. In 1905, however, she changed her name to Mata Hari, which translated to "Eye of the Day". Mata Hari quickly became a famed exotic dancer and began to work as a courtesan to wealthy and powerful men from Russia, France, and German. In other words, this is a fascinating woman whose life was full of intrigue, secrets and transformation.

Kelly Hewitt: Margaretha Zelle, the woman who would later become the famed exotic dancer Mata Hari is a fascinating historical figure that has been portrayed in movies, on television, and in books. What was it that drew you to write about Mata Hari?

Yannick Murphy: If you had asked me who Mata Hari was before I had the idea to write about her, I would have been able to tell you that she was a dancer and a spy, but I wouldn’t have been able to give you specifics. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you which country she had spied for. I wouldn’t have even been able to tell you which world war her acts of espionage encompassed. So when I read a short article published in Smithsonian Magazine that provided a few details, my interest was peaked. I wanted to learn what the rest of her life had been like.

Kelly: What was your research process before writing Signed, Mata Hari like? What periods of Mata Hari’s life did you feel more important to study?

Yannick: I didn’t set out to research only one aspect of her life, and I didn’t feel as if one period of her life were more important than the other to study. The more I read about her, the more I knew it was going to be an exciting book to write. I was curious to see if my writing process could clue me in as to what events occurred in life that eventually had her facing a firing squad.

Kelly: History tells us that Mata Hari was eventually executed by a French firing squad at the age of forty-one because she was believed to have been a spy for Germany. It has been discussed and argued by a number of historians over the years who are unsure of Mata Hari’s guilt. What is your stance? Do you believe that Mata Hari was a double spy?

Yannick: My gut feeling is that Mata Hari did involve herself in some spying. Whether or not she did it for money or intrigue is anyone’s guess.I’d like to say that she dabbled in it. Dabbled doesn’t sound like a weighty enough word to describe an act of espionage that gets you shot, but I can imagine that Mata Hari’s own perception of her involvement could be described in that manner and that she might have even used the word “dabble”.

Kelly: I read on your website that you have had some good news lately about the upcoming publication of a children’s book Baby Polar. What can you tell us about this title?

Yannick: Baby Polar is about a polar bear who one day loses his mother in a blinding storm; don’t worry, he’s eventually reunited with her. The story illustrates to little ones that even though they may sometimes be afraid, they will eventually find some comfort, and in this case it’s the comfort of the warm Polar mama who when Baby Polar stands between her legs feels as if he’s standing protected in a warm cave, hearing the beating of her strong polar heart.

Originally, I wanted to illustrate the plight of polar bears since they are losing their ice floes from which they hunt due to global warming. In effect, I wanted to send a message. The idea, though, did not resonate enough with the everyday lives of children, so I changed it. No one likes to be lectured. I’m hoping that children who read the book will be able to relate to it and become enchanted with polar bears and feel a natural desire when they grow up to preserve the habitat in which they live and in which we live.

Kelly: Which do you prefer more, writing fiction novels or children’s books?

Yannick: I don’t prefer writing one or the other. A different kind of energy goes into writing children’s books than novels, but they are both challenging. With children’s books I always have to keep reminding myself that I don’t have to describe every action or detail, and that I should leave a lot of that up to the illustrator.

Kelly: Signed, Mata Hari has an interesting format. It consists of short chapters that often have different narratives. How did you come to write the book in this manner?

Yannick: I’ve always been drawn to the short form. I like how quickly I can get in and get out with a story and to see how much of a kick in the teeth I can deliver in a short time frame.Writing Mata Hari in short reveries was just a natural progression that developed from my fascination with the short form. The short chapters with different narratives created form and structure for the novel. It gave it its own kind of dynamic effect, as if there were a little engine running on every page, keeping me going, keeping me anxious to see what turns the story would take next.

Kelly: Signed, Mata Hari is a historical fiction but your other titles, The Sea of Trees and Here They Come don’t really fall into one particular category. Is there a particular genre of fiction that you feel you fit into as an author?

Yannick: I hope I don’t ever fall into writing a particular genre of fiction, that would mean some kind of death for me. I like knowing that, in the future, I’ll write about whatever strikes me. As a writer I like knowing that I can still surprise myself, because if I can do that, then I know I have the power to surprise you, the reader, as well.

Kelly: Is there a genre that you haven’t written in yet but would like to?

Yannick: I’ve written short stories, essays, plays, screenplays, novels and children’s books. I’ve never written poetry, and I’m curious to see if one day in my life I’ll feel compelled to write it. Right now, though, I see poetry as one of the most difficult forms. How can one say so much in so few words and make every sentence an event? Maybe one day, though, I will take on the challenge.

Kelly: I really enjoyed this book and think that there are plenty others out there who will really like it as well. And so I ask on behalf of all my readers, what can we expect your next novel to be about?

Yannick: I’m working on a novel about a young woman during the Mexican Revolution.

Friday, December 7, 2007

We Have a Winner Folks!

I emailed our winner Katie to let her know about the prize, she had this to say. "I was walking through a bookstore one day when the Pink Carnation caught my eye. I was hooked on the first page and haven't been able to put the books down since. Witty and comical, they are the perfect blend of history and romance!" Thanks for entering Katie and enjoy the book!

I want to take a moment to thank the more than 150 readers who entered in the Seduction of the Crimson Rose Giveaway at Loaded Questions! The response garnered from readers makes it clear just how important Lauren Willig's The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is AND that giveaways are a pretty good thing! I owe a thanks to Lauren Willig and the folks over at Dutton who unwittingly sent me more than one copy. I am happy that I can share this great book from a wonderful author with the readers of Loaded Questions.

Want to know more about our next big giveaway? It's the holidays and I can't bear to keep you waiting. Look for the next post and happy holidays.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Loaded Questions: "World Without End" author Ken Follet

Eighteen years ago Ken Follett wrote a 1,000 page novel based the building of a great cathedral in 12th century Europe, The Pillars of Earth . It was a change of pace from the thrillers that he had written in the past. After the The Pillars of Earth Follett Ken went back to writing the mystery and thrillers that he had previously been known for. Over the years, though, his book based in medieval England continued to sell and grow via word of mouth. It became so popular that people were constantly asking for more. As of a little more than two weeks ago, Ken Follett's sizeable book that could has become an Oprah Book Club selection.

Ironically enough, Oprah's selection came just weeks after Ken had responded to the many requests of his readers to provide a sequel to The Pillars of the Earth, and so we have World Without End. The p
lace is the same, the town of Kingsbridge, but two centuries have passed. The beautiful Gothic Cathedral built in the first book has become a place solely for the elite and wealthy. World Without End has been receiving praise from fans and reviewers alike. I am happy to present, Loaded Questions with Ken Follett.

World Without End by KEN FOLLETT
Oct. 2007, 1024 pages, $35.00

Kelly Hewitt: World Without End takes readers back to the same setting that you wrote about in The Pillars of the Earth but two hundred years later making it, in many ways, a sequel. Some of your readers have noted that World Without End can also be approached as an independent stand-alone novel. Do you think that's the case? What familiar settings, characters, and themes can fans of the first book look to find in the second book?

Ken Follett: World Without End is set in Kingsbridge, the fictional town that is the focus of The Pillars of the Earth. Readers will recognise the cathedral, of course, and the monastery next to it, plus the main streets and the river. The neighbouring town of Shiring may be familiar, and the Earl's seat, Earlscastle. However this story takes place 200 years later, so none of the characters are the same. Nevertheless they are the descendants of characters in Pillars, and sometimes retain inherited characteristics that readers with good memories may recall.

Kelly: It has just been announced that Oprah Winfrey has chosen The Pillars of the Earth as her next book club selection. It is a major success and a tribute to the continued increase in the popularity of this book. What does if feel like to find out that Oprah has selected your book?

Ken: I'm thrilled that The Pillars of the Earth has been selected for Oprah's Book Club. Oprah is a unique cultural leader who has a special place in the hearts of people all over the world, and I have enormous respect for what she has achieved. Her endorsement will bring my work to the attention of her many millions of fans, and for that I am very grateful.

Kelly: You have written some very strong female characters in World Without End. I read another interview in which you said that women largely paid lip service to men in the medieval period and still served in merchant, religious and leadership roles. This English historian in me thought, "Exactly!" How much time have you dedicated to the study of history in the 14th century? Is there a particular piece of history that appeals more to you?

Ken: I have been an amateur enthusiast of medieval history for about 30 years. What interests me most is the building of the great cathedrals--although that interest has led me to study many other aspects of medieval life including, as you note, the role of women.

Kelly: You have written historical novels but have written even more successful thrillers. How does the process of writing the historical novels vs. thrillers differ? Do you intend to return to writing thrillers after having written World Without End?

Ken: A thriller is like a snapshot of a group of a characters taken at a moment in their lives when they are in great danger. A novel like World Without End tells the entire life story of each major character, from childhood to old age. The main difference is that there is so much more that has to be invented!

Kelly: Was there any nervousness on your behalf when it came to World Without End being touted as the biggest sequel of the year?

Ken: I was nervous about writing WWE, because of readers' high expectations. By the time it was published, it had been read and enjoyed by enough people to calm my fears.

Kelly: Is there another historical era or a particular historical character that you could ever see yourself writing another novel about?

Ken: I'm sure I will return to the Second World War. It is still the war we look back on as the great battle of good and evil. There are thousands more stories of real-life heroism to inspire writers such as I.

Kelly: Your two big novels Pillars of the Earth and World Without End are called "epics" do you think that's an accurate way of describing them?

Ken: "Epic" is a word I would take as a compliment!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Loaded Questions: "Dispensation of Death" author Michael Jecks

Dispensation of Death by Michael Jecks
September, 2007 - 416 pages - $24.95

Dispensation of Death takes place in 1325 England amidst turmoil caused in part by the troubled and uncontrollable King Edward II and his unpopular lover Hugh le Despenser. Life if court is already tumoltuous but gets even worse when one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting is found dead along with the body of a mutilated man -- both found hidden behind the throne of the King. On the heals of Edward's demands to be avenged, Despenser hires investigator Sir Baldwin de Furnshill, Jecks' most prominent character. Can anyone find their way to the bottom of the intrigue and scandal?

Trained as an Actuary and then working as a computer salesman for thirteen years, Michael Jecks wrote his very first book in 1993. Since then he has been a prolific historical fiction mystery novelist, Dispensation of Death being is twenty-fourth novel.

Kelly Hewitt: Your website heralds you as "The Master of the Medieval Murder Mystery". I certainly think its true and that you deserve the title, but when did that happen? At what point did someone begin calling you 'the master'?

Michael Jecks: I couldn't honestly tell you when that started - it was such a long time ago now, and I'd have to go back and look through all my cuttings files. However I have been very lucky with the very kind comments that reviewers tend to give me. The only unkind ones I've received have been from people who tend to dispute my portrayal of medieval churchmen and woman. But that's hardly my fault!

The most complaints I've had for a single book came from Belladona Belladonna At Belstone, which was all about nuns. I showed them having sex with servants, keeping pets, ogling the local young priest, and being drunk. But all those came from the visitation records of Bishop Stapeldon and Bishop Grandisson. The cases I mention were all authentic at the time, in the two or three convents which lay in their diocese. Others have complained about my works, too, but generally they are about historical details, and I do spend an inordinate amount of time getting the details right. My books are all based upon actual events, generally, and I conduct much of my research by going through the court records, coroners' rolls, and local history books from the Devon & Cornwall Record Society.

I couldn't make up half the things I read about. In fact usually I have to tone things down.

Kelly: The story of how you became a writer is really interesting (and can be read about here on Michael's website -- link). When you began writing your first novel The Last Templar you were unemployed. You write that you had the support of your wife and family. What was that like? The moment when you told your wife that you were done with computers and were going to write?

Michael: My wife and I had not had a good time. When I began writing in 1994, I'd had a numb
er of jobs and all the firms (bar the last) had gone bust. My wife had enjoyed a stable career, which was good for us both. But then, just after we moved house to a huge mortgage, not only did I lose my own job, she lost hers too. That was a terrible time, and we were forced to take on anything we could for a while. We could not even afford a TV, because we didn't have the money for the annual TV licence.

However, while I was working, I kept sketching out initial chapters as ideas for books. None of them came to much, but my wife was fascinated by them, and it was her enthusiasm for my work th
at really forced me to consider the idea of taking on the challenge of writing. If it weren't for her, I doubt I'd be writing now. She was enormously supportive, and took on the responsibility of all the household income while I tried to write, and luckily my long-suffering parents backed us up with a guarantee for our mortgage. They too were keen to help me get started as a writer.

So there was no specific moment when I told her I was going to be done with computers. It was more a sort of gradual slide into it, with me trying to write, and then losing another job, and both of us agreeing that if I didn't do it now, I never would. It was much more interesting telling my parents, because they had been abroad on holiday, and every time when they went away, one of their sons would lose a job or something . . .

Kelly: Your books really appeal to me because I study English history and have a real adoration for the landmarks in London and all throughout the country. You have written books
that take place all over. Is there a particular region or landmark that you find inspiring or a pleasure to write about?

Michael: My main region is Devon and Dartmoor. All the earlier books - the first twenty one or so - are set in and around Dartmoor apart from a couple where I strayed on to a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Dartmoor is enormously inspiring. It's unspoilt, all rolling hills and craggy rocks with small streams chuckling in narrow beds. There are few places in England where you can go and get a feel for how the land would have looked, smelled and sounded in medieval times, but this fabulous park has it. You can walk over the moors, and almost hear the voices of your ancestors in the old tin workings. There is nothing from the twenty-first century which can intrude. No cars, no planes, nothing. It's wonderful and very evocative, and whenever I want to write, I go to the moors for inspiration.

Kelly: For readers that are new to your novels, what can you tell us about your chief character, Sir Baldwin Furnshill?

Michael: Sir Baldwin de Furnshill was born when I went to a house called
Fursdon. Fursdon has remained in the same family for some seven hundred years or more. A small manor house now, once the Fursdons owned vast tracts of Devon, with mining rights and involvement in the politics and law of the area. I went there with my wife in the year before I began writing, and saw a family tree, that showed the first of the Fursdons arriving in the 1200s. It made me wonder where on earth he'd come from. And then I read a book about the Templars, and was struck with the fact that many survived. Some were released into convents after their torture, where they lived out their days. Others were freed and lived as beggars in the streets of Paris, but a few were never arrested, and went to find new lives.

It was the two ideas that grabbed my imagination. I wanted to write about a man who was filled with rage at injustice. He had seen his friends captured for no reason, seen them tortured, some executed, and all because of a shallow and corrupt pair of men, the King of France and the Pope. He would be a man who would be forever looking over his shoulder, who would rail against injustice, and who would distrust politics and politicians, the Church and priests. And yet his own personal faith in God would be unshaken.

The other thing was, he would be an excellent investigator. Being educated, intelligent, well-travelled, he would have a good world-view and understanding of a variety of cultures. And he would be an excellent fighter.

While writing the first book, I knew I wanted to reuse the same character, and began to cast about for a role he could have which would allow him to use his skills. Almost immediately I hit on the idea of a Keeper of the King's Peace. This was a new position. The King had endured many problems with justice, and the old system of the Eyre had fallen into disuse. In its place a system of courts of "trailbaston" were implemented, but these were ineffective. So the Keepers were brought in. Unlike Coroners, who were there to record all the details of a crime for presentation at a later date in front of a court, the Keepers were there to hunt down felons "from vill to vill, hundred to hundred, shire to shire". They were the actual police of the time, and had authority to call out the posse of the county if necessary.

This seemed to me to be the ideal job for my man. And he must be good at it, because in book twenty four in the series, he's rewarded with being elected to the Parliament.

Kelly: Do you ever think that you might write a different genre or literature or a d
ifferent time period?

Michael: Oh yes. My very first book was a modern day thriller based on a sniper. It had all the things you could want: fast women, tight-trousered men, guns, bombs, sex, drugs . . . and it was snapped up by a major publisher almost immediately. Sadly a couple of days later it was rejected in writing. Why? It was all about the IRA and they'd just agreed their first cease-fire. The second book I wrote was the first of my medieval ones, and I've been involved in them ever since. However I am working on a modern thriller again now, as well as a children's book about the Norman conquest, which may be fun.

Kelly: You latest book, Dispensation of Death, has the infamous King Edward II and his lover Hugh le Despensar. Both of these individuals, real characters in English history, are quite interesting. What's the most shocking thing you've learned about Edward or Hugh?

Michael: Sadly I don't have space to list their full series of crimes.

For the King, probably his worst crime was the punishment meted out to all tho
se who took arms against his lover, Sir Hugh le Despenser. People loathed Despenser, because he was a murderous, brutal thug. When the Lords Marcher rose against Despenser, the King himself forced them to back down, and attacked them at Boroughbridge. And that led to his crime. His own cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, was there. He was led to his execution, shamefully, on a donkey. And from that moment the King went on a murderous spree, slaughtering knights, barons and even lords, up and down the country. It was said that not a town in the realm did not have two gibbets outside its gates with the rotting bodies of those who had incurred the King's wrath. Those bodies were tarred to cure them, so that they would remain dangling for longer. It was only the intervention of the Queen that caused them to be cut down about two years later.

But Despenser - ah, he was evil. One example: the King had a loyal Knight die while fighting for him. This man's widow, Madame Baret, possessed a little money and a small estate which Despenser coveted. He had her captured, and then held and tortured until she agreed to pass her lands over to him. All her limbs were systematically broken, and in
the end she was driven mad. He was not a pleasant character.

Kelly: Okay, you're a prolific writer. Looking down the list of books you've written since 1994 its easy to see that you've been quite busy. How is it that you write so m
any books?

Michael: I am lucky because my books follow from the history. I have a series of great events happening - Boroughbridge, the War of St Sardos, the escape of the Queen to France, the invasion of England - and my characters are
living through these momentous occasions. So I have the background to the books set out. Then I also tend to use actual murders. My stories are culled mostly from coroners' rolls and court records. That is what many readers find hard to accept, that I am less a fiction writer than a translator of actual history. Yes, I do fictionalise things, and I do invent characters and traits for characters, as well as subplots, but what I am doing is embellishing stories which are there already. Such as Sir Roger Mortimer bribing a wizard to make waxen figures of the King and Despenser and try to kill them with black magic (The Malice of Unnatural Death). I didn't invent that story, it's all in the records! Similarly, when I write about the murder of Exeter Cathedral's Precentor, Walter de Lecchelade, that was true. It's all in the court records. My skill as a writer is to pull together the history, take certain fabulously interesting little events, and weave them together into a story. Luckily it's worked so far!

Kelly: Speaking of your prolific writing, what can your readers expect next from Michael Jecks?

Michael: Well, I've just finished the twenty-fifth book in the series, which will go under the title of Prophecy of Death (snappy title, huh!) and will come out next summer. Then there's the latest Medieval Murderers collaboration, "The Lost Prophecies" which will come out at the same time. But generally I'm working on another three Templar series books and one more Medieval Murderers. And then I'll be struggling on with the modern book and the childrens'. Hopefully I'll be able to find time for them . . . won't be easy until I've finished working on a judging commitment. I used to be chairman of the Crime Writers' Association, and one hangover from that is that I have to help judge the CWA, Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for the best thriller of the year. My last year doing that is finishing in March, so after that I'll be able to concentrate a little more!
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