Sunday, September 30, 2007

New Author Interview: "The Traitor's Wife" author Susan Higgenbotham

Loaded Questions with Kelly Hewitt

Susan Higginbotham
author of The Traitor's Wfie

The Traitor's Wife is a well-written historical fiction novel that follows the life Eleanor de Clare the niece of King Edward II. Eleanor is a loyal woman, perhaps to a fault. Her husband, Hugh le Despenser, becomes a lover of the king she not only continues to support but shares her own body with as well. Amidst the he King's wife Isabella, whom Eleanor honorably serves, takes a lover of her own. Author Susan Higginbotham has a special talent for versatile writing, taking the reader from rich palaces to bloody battlefields, scenes of love and passion to lies and betrayal.

Kelly Hewitt: I have read about your struggles to get The Traitor's Wife visible on and to get it picked up by the big book retailers. It looks like you've done an amazing job and that you have more than achieved your goals. Have you made it on the shelves of the major stores? How long did that entire process take?

Susan Higginbotham: No brick-and-mortar chain bookstore stocks my book as far as I know, but it's available through all of the major online booksellers. I'm a firm believer in the "long tail" theory, so with the knowledge that my book would be sold mostly online, I've devoted most of my marketing efforts to that end, using all of Amazon's free tools (such as Search Inside the Book) and building a website that would attract people interested in medieval England and historical fiction. It's an ongoing process, keeping the website fresh and the book visible. I also have several blogs, which are an excellent way for authors to draw readers.

Kelly: Some of the reviews I have read online have come from people who read the book and liked it but have had a hard time swallowing the relationship between Edward II and Hugh. History tells us that the relationship most certainly occurred. Why do you think some readers have had a hard time with this relationship?

Susan: Most of the objections I've heard have been from people who thought I was too soft on Hugh—they wanted more of an all-round villain, I guess, instead of a man who thought nothing of extorting land from a vulnerable widow yet who was a caring husband and father. But such contradictions aren't uncommon in real life. Eleanor's grandfather Edward I was an example in a different way—he treated some of his Scottish high-born female prisoners badly even by the standards of the day, making them live in cages hung outside castle walls with no protection from the elements or concession to privacy but a privy, but he was a devoted husband who grieved sincerely over the death of his first wife.

I think some people may also be uncomfortable with a man using a sexual relationship to gain advancement—it's considered more of a female thing. But I think Hugh's craving for land and power was sufficiently great that he was able to lie back and think of Wales.

Kelly: I think that it is apparent in your writing that you like writing the Eleanor de Clare character. If you could select any other female character from history who would you choose?

Susan: There's so many of them! I'm drawn to strong women characters. I don't mean strong in the sense of being aggressive or of always having to best the men about them—actually, I find such characters rather obnoxious. Rather, I'm drawn to women who are strong in the sense of being able to meet adversity with grace and fortitude or who are able to use their wits to deal with the situation around them. These days, I'm particularly interested in some of the women from the Wars of the Roses, Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort in particular. I also find Henrietta Maria, Charles I's queen, to be a fascinating person. In many ways, her situation was a mirror image of Queen Isabella's in the fourteenth century—both were Frenchwomen who married ill-fated, unpopular kings, except that Isabella turned against her husband and Henrietta Maria was loyal to hers.

The entire interview with Susan Higginbotham will be available soon at


I really respect authors like Susan Higginbotham who work to publicize and spread the word about their books online without the support of large chain stores.

Are you an author of a book that is only available via the web? Please write me with information about your book at I would like to begin spotlighting books without big box store support every month on Loaded Questions.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

New Author Interview: Thomas Maltman author of "The Night Birds"

Loaded Questions with Kelly Hewitt

author of
The Night Birds

The Night Birds, set in 1860 Minnesota after a storm of locust have decimated the land, may not appear at first to have much to explore in it’s setting. However, Thomas Maltman’s debut novel is rich enough in plot to make up for the scarcity of life on the ground. The central character is Asa Senger, living in the Midwest with his family, immigrants from Germany. The Senger family has plenty to deal with when Asa’s father’s sister, Hazel reappears after a stint in an asylum. With Hazel’s appearance come secrets.

Maltman's work is skillful enough that it handles the delicate nature of a family in crisis in a land far from their own home and bold enough that it readily tackles the travesty that was the Dakota Conflict with all of its blood and betrayal.

Kelly Hewitt: I read that you first discovered the Dakota Conflict, a violent battle between the United States and the Santee Sioux, also known as the Dakota people, from a children's book when you were teaching seventh grade. What was the name of the children's book?

Thomas Maltman: The name of that book is Welcome to Kristen's World, 1854: Growing Up in Pioneer America. It's part of a splendid historical series published by American Girls. Each one uses concise storytelling and vivid graphics to capture dramatic moments in time in American history .

Allow me to add here that potential readers shouldn't be frightened away by the term "historical." Historical fiction must be rooted in a particular time in order to succeed, but it must also be timeless. In the end, what I hope I've written is a good story that will transport a reader to another time and place while also resonating on an emotional and personal level.

Kelly: I guess I find it hard to believe that a book for children could handle the largest mass execution in the history of the United States that took place in Mankato, Minnesota when 38 Dakota men were hanged. How was the subject broached in the book?

Thomas: This book does not shy away from portraying a dark moment in history, including the hangings. I was twenty-nine years old and had never heard of the Dakota Conflict before since it is so often overshadowed by the Civil War. As a storyteller, what I most appreciated was the focus on individual stories as part of a larger conflict. Some children's books have a surprising depth. Spare in quality, they can still trigger the imagination.

Kelly: You have said, and quite beautifully, that writing this book was about using history as the skeleton and your imagination which "provided the blood and skin, the quickening". Which of those two things, the skeleton or the quickening, did you find most difficult or surprising?

Thomas: Stephen King says that stories "fossils" that we discover buried deep in the subconscious. Think archaeology combined with the imagination. Research feeds the imagination and it's so much fun that it can become a distraction. The best research I did took to me to local archives where I found stories that appear nowhere in the history books. There I touched maps with names of towns that no longer exist. I held the handwritten journals of settlers, the pages yellow and brittle as leaves. I touched a living portion of history, which in turn touched me.
There is nothing difficult about research, but it does mean hitting the road. Yet, the account of settlers is often starkly expressed. What always surprised me is how the imagination turned these details into the flesh and bone of narrative. You are making a world unto itself, a world that the reader can get lost in. It's lovely to watch that world take on shadows and textures. What imagination provides is the voice and light and that part was always a su
rprise. None of it is difficult, except that you have to revise many, many times to find these voices.

Kelly: The Night Birds is your first published book. Was it the first one you wrote or the first to be printed?

Thomas: The Night Birds is the first book I wrote and the first novel I published. I did have a chapbook of poems, Hour of the Red Tide, published about five years ago. The reason I believe I was able to publish my first novel had to do with revision. I went back to graduate school at MSU, Mankato and studied the craft of writing with great teachers like Terry Davis and Roger Sheffer. For each of the three years I was in the writing program I wrote a draft of The Night Birds and the book grew right alongside me. Each draft was very different from the last, but over the years the novel accrued layers and resonance until it grew into something publishers were willing to take a look at.

Kelly: Now that you're a published author will you continue to teach?

Thomas: I think I’ll always be a teacher. Teaching is still what pays the bills for me and I love it almost as much as I love writing. I often find it ironic that I do my best writing during the fall and spring just when I’m most busy in the classroom. Why is that? I believe it’s because teaching triggers my imagination, inspires me try new things in my own narrative. However, a caveat. I could not write when I taught high school or middle school. Those jobs, while fulfilling, took every ounce of creativity I had within me. College teaching has it own share of challenges, but my schedule is light enough that I can get writing done, too.

Kelly: What future projects of yours can readers look forward to?

Thomas: I am currently at work on a contemporary mystery set in the same river valley as The Night Birds. This mystery will also touch on history. I’m reading Dante’s Inferno as part of my research and my ambition is to explore the idea of the afterlife as the ultimate mystery within the world of the novel. We’ll see!

Kelly: I am one of those people that always find their shelves loaded with books, movies, and CDs. What loads down the shelves of Thomas Maltman?

Thomas: I recently read Amy Bloom’s splendid Away. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road remains the best book I’ve read in a long time. Since I’m the midst of teaching my shelves are also loaded down with books I’m using in my classes currently. These include a long way gone, Perseopolis, The Professor and the Madman, and Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom, among others. I plan on showing "Blood Diamond" and "Paradise Now" during the semester in my composition classes. If you want to be both fed and entertained, try any of these movies or books!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

New Author Interview: John Elder Robison, author of "Look Me in the Eye"

Loaded Questions with Kelly Hewitt

John Elder Robison
author of Look Me in the Eye

I have long been a fan of Augusten Burroughs and have read all of his books. I can vividly remember reading about his elder brother, John Elder Robison, and his struggles throughout life that eventually resulted in a diagnosis of Asperger's. I wanted to know more.

In Look Me in the Eye John Elder Robison offers another look at the childhood of he and his brother Augusten Burroughs. Robison details the birth of his brother, the beginning of his family's interactions with Doctor Finch and his family, who later came to be a major force in Augusten Burroughs' life and a significant part of his memoir Running with Scissors.

Robison has written a thoughtful book full of stories from his sometimes difficult childhood. He writes about the beginning of his mother's madness and the gradual increase of his father's alcoholic tendencies. One cannot help but feel for Robison, a big brother who loved his younger brother but yearned for freedom. Robison details his young adulthood and all of the chaos that ensued and his successful adulthood in which the skill he has learned have payed off.

Robison is intelligent, capable of almost anything he undertakes. The headline of his web page list him as an author, photographer, and machine aficionado but I honestly get the feeling that his is being modest. Perhaps more importantly, Robison is an excellent spokesman for his disorder. He has striven to give Asperger's a face and to educate the world about it. Robison is an attentive writer, focused and dedicated to the stories he tells and to representing Asperger's.

I would certainly recommend this book for the sometimes hillarious and other times devestation stories and for the courage that writing Look Me in the Eye took.

Kelly Hewitt: Augusten Burroughs, your brother, writes in the prologue about his suggesting that you write a book of your own. He said that it was a very short time before you returned to him with a chapter. What were your immediate thoughts when he brought up the idea? Had you already thought about writing a book?

John Elder Robison: I had been pondering the idea for a while, and when my father's death unlocked many childhood memories I just resolved to do it, and Look Me in the Eye is the result.

Some folks have expressed surprise that I could write it so smoothly and quickly, but to those people I'd point out that I had no bad habits to unlearn and no preconceived notion of what writing is like to hold me back. And if you read my brother's books, he always says he learned the craft of storytelling from me, so it should not surprise people that I can still tell stories at age 50.

In fact, I like to think I can do it better today - with my greater life experience - than I could when I was 21, back when my brother listened to my stories of the road.

Kelly: In Look Me in the Eye you write about Doctor Finch and his family and the fact that you and your father stopped visiting him many years before your mother or the events your brother writes about in Running with Scissors. Was there any hesitation to mention The Finch family, especially after all the trouble you brother has had in the last few years?

John: The doctor and his family played only a peripheral role in Look Me in the Eye, but they certainly deserve mention, and I did not hesitate to do so. After what's already been written about the Finches my treatment of them is - in my opinion - very mild but still true and fair in the context of my own story.

Kelly: You write about going to visit Dr. Finch's office and about having therapy sessions with your mother, father, and Dr. Finch. What was the relationship like early on between your parents and the doctor?

John: It started like the other shrink-family relationships I'd experienced but then after a few years it got weird. That was when my father and later I backed out. Remember, in the early days, he accomplished things for me that no one before ever could. Like getting my father to stop hitting me.

Kelly: Reading your book is in some ways like reading a prequel to your brother's works. You spent time with Hope, Dr. Finch, and Neil Bookman. How do you feel about your brother's later depiction of them?

John: Well, with respect to Bookman . . . he tried all the same diddling stuff on me and the first I knew of him and my brother was reading about it in RWS. That was pretty shocking to me.

Hope was always nice to me as I say in my story, but my brother had a lot more experience with her and some of his memories are obviously different.

With respect to the doctor . . . he started out as a brilliant psychiatrist, but the events in my brother's book really chronicle the doctor's own descent into madness, in my opinion.

Kelly: There are quite a few fun and light-hearted chapters in this book. But there are certainly darker stories of alcohol, mental illness, and abuse. Did those chapters take longer to write? Did you find writing them to be therapeutic?

John: I found the dark chapters troubling to write, and I did not reread them again. They did not take any longer to write. The process in general could be described as therapeutic but I think that would refer to the whole writing effort, not just to the writing of dark material.

Kelly: In the book you often discuss the kinds of differences you have noticed over the years between the feelings and thoughts of most people and those experienced by Aspergians. You write about adapting and learning to say what other might expect of you, expressing sympathy for the death of a stranger, for instance. Are there other situations where you have learned to adapt and therefore react in a manner that is not natural to you?

John: Many of the behaviors I display today, like looking people in the eye, are not natural or automatic. I had to learn them by a processes of concentration and hard work. I do them because they allow me to fit in better and they cause other people to feel more comfortable around me.

It's important to point out that my internal thoughts and my overall actions are not changed one bit as a result of subtle behavioral changes like looking people in the eye.

Kelly: Were you happy to have been largely left out of Running with Scissors? What was your initial reaction to the book?

I wasn't happy or sad. I was not there at the times my brother wrote about, and I had no place in those particular stories. My initial reaction was of sadness and then anger as I remembered how bad our childhood really was.

Then, when people started to read it, I got worried. Every time a friend said, "I'm gonna read your brother's book!" I thought, they'll never speak to me again when they read that!

But the reverse happened. The warm and supportive response of readers to RWS is really what gave me courage to tell my own story, which had been a shameful secret in my mind for so long.

Kelly: Look Me in the Eye hasn't even been officially released yet and it is already a best-seller, showing up in's Top 100. Does that shock you? How does it feel to have a successful book before it even releases?

John: Well, as soon as I started my blog moms began to write me, and then Aspergian people started to write. I realized that autistic spectrum conditions affect millions of people, and when you add the friends, families, teachers, and counselors . . . it's a story that could speak to a huge number of people. I had no idea of that when I wrote it.

However, that fact became apparent to me some months ago.

Then I did my first public appearance, with several other authors. The other writers were novelists who'd made up Aspergian figures, or moms who wrote about their kids. There was a dramatic difference in how that writing was received, as compared to mine. Especially among the autistic people in the crowd. That showed me there was a real hunger for stories from the horse's mouth, as it were, instead of someone watching the horse from outside the pasture.

As to how I feel . . . the whole process is just amazing. It's gone so smoothly, and so fast. . . so different from what I'd read about the process of producing a book. And everyone has been really wonderful. Crown put the best people in the business to work on my book, and then booksellers loved it, then critics, and now readers. So I just hope it stays like it is - remarkable and fresh and exciting.

Kelly: I think that you have done a great job discussing Asperger's and shedding light on a disorder that makes some things different for you but nothing impossible. What do you hope to accomplish by speaking out about Asperger's?

John: I hope to show the world at large that people aren't so different after all.

I hope to inspire young people who struggle to find their way and fit in.

I hope to show parents and people who work with Aspergians what it's like to be one.

I hope to increase the level of tolerance and understanding in the world by a little bit.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Looking Ahead: Mary Doria Russell's March Release

I interviewed Mary Doria Russel for the first time about a year and a half ago (available here). I had just discovered her book A Thread of Grace, the story of 40,000 Jewish refugees taken in by Italian citizens who saved them from work camp executions. I wanted to know more. Who was this woman who wrote The Sparrow and Children of God, books that take place in the year 2019 and 2059 and are centered around a group of Jesuits who, hearing about life on the planet of Rakhat, get there before the US government?

The answer is quite simple. Mary is a kind, boisterous, funny, and an honest woman who once told me that, in order to make sure she wasn't writing a "feel-good Holocaust novel", she had quite literally flipped a coin to find out which characters would live and which would die. Mary Doria Russel likes to cuss and I like not stopping her.

Mary's next novel, Dreamers of the Day, takes place behind the scenes of the Cairo Peace Conference of 1921 in the midst of a quickly-changing Middle East. The novel centers around Agnes Shanklin, a retired school teacher who sets out to travel through Egypt and the Holy Land. Agnes finds herself involved in political machinations and love. I knew the moment that I heard about Mary's new novel that I wanted to get the scoop from her so I could share it here:

Kelly Hewit: When I heard that you had a new book coming out I knew I had to get in touch. Can you give my readers a teaser?

Mary Doria Russell
: Sure. I'm really curious to get into the questions for this book, because it's so different from the other three.

Are you old enough to remember Chatty Cathy dolls? Kids would pull a string in her back, and the doll would recite a random selection from a limited list of recorded remarks. That's what it feels like when you've been on a book tour for a while. I'm looking forward to developing a new list of recorded remarks!

Kelly: I think I already like your new heroine, Agnes Shanklin, who finds herself in the Egypt and the Holy Lands rubbing shoulders with a German spy, involved in dangerous geopolitical happenings and finally, perhaps most importantly, finding romance as a 40 year old who has wandered pretty far from her native Ohio. Where did you get your inspiration for Agnes? Or to be more bold ... are you Agnes?

Mary: The real Agnes Shanklin taught freshman English in 1964 at Glenbard East High School, in Lombard, Illinois. She was a tiny little "maiden lady" with 1920s bob that had remained the same for forty years, if you don't count the gray. She taught precision grammar by diagramming sentences,and there is a generation of Glenbard girls who remember her with great affection. I expect to hear from a lot of them when the book comes out. Miss Shanklin lived with her older sister, who was also unmarried and reportedly a pain in the ass. She was quiet and refined and gentle, butevery now and then, there would be a flare of her true personality: a moment of political passion, a ferocious opinion revealed.

Those moments were so startling, she remained in my memory as the years went on. As I aged, I began to put her life in context, and realized that she must have been a teenager during the Roaring Twenties. She wasn't always the retiring and sweet old lady we kids assumed she was! So that's the kernel for Agnes.

That said, I have to admit that there is a great deal more autobiographical content in this book than in my first three. The one great failure in my life was my relationship with my mother. She was a silent and opaque person who worked very hard to be above reproach. She relentlessly said and did all the correct things, but it seemed forced and, ultimately, counterfeit. Every moment with her vibrated with cognitive dissonance. What I saw and heard never matched up with the emotion I sensed.

I was never able to break through the glassy, reflective surface Mom kept polished, not even at the end of her life when I was at her side constantly while she slowly died of ovarian cancer. All of the passages about Agnes going through her dead mother's estate were directly from my life, by the way, which helped me process the experience. That sort of thing doesn't change.

Because Mom was so closed off, I spent a lifetime trying to understand what made her the person she was and made myself an expert on her family history. In writing Agnes, I took the opportunity to imagine a sort ofthree-generation amalgam: what would I be like if I had been raised by my mother's mother?

Agnes is not a portrait of Louise, or me, but her family dynamic does draw on some of my own. The idea was, Maybe if I could get a sense of how Loella raised Louise, I would understand Louise better.

I don't know that writing this novel helped me with my mother's memory much. Nevertheless, I got at some real issues in 20th century childrearing and parent-child conflicts that I think will resonate for a lot of readers.

Kelly: The last time we talked we discussed your great depth of knowledge about WW II as is evident in A Thread of Grace. Some of that knowledge, you said, had come from your father's influence and knowledge of militariana -- the rest you noted was a result of your scholarship of the time period. Did you spend as much time studying the Cairo Peace Conference and the major political figures there?

Mary: No, not as much. A Thread of Grace drew on a massive historical record and on my original research done overseas. Dreamers of the Day was written in the aftermath of that effort, during which my mother got her diagnosis. My original intent was to take a year off after A Thread of Grace, but I started writing Dreamers of the Day during the hardcover book tour for A Thread of Grace, which coincided with the last six months of my mother's long death. Amazingly dumb, but there you go. Can't seem to help myself.

I did have the brains, at least, to take on something easier, smaller scale, less sweeping and epic. For one thing, everybody in Dreamers of the Day speaks English. And it takes place partly in Ohio, so not every fucking paragraph required research. The Cairo Conference barely gets a mention in most histories, so I didn't have to read mountains of texts. And nobody who attended it is alive today, so I don't have to worry about one of them showing up at a book signing to embarrass the shit out of me.

All I had to know is what Agnes would have known or learned while she was in Cairo for ten days. She meets T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill and Lady Gertrude Bell, but she's not a participant in the conference, and only hears about it second hand. It's a backstage look at the events and personalities. I do suggest the larger issues behind the dialog, so that anyone who's very knowledgeable about the historical background will see what's implied.

Then I had a highly respected Lawrence scholar vet the book for me. Steve Tabachnick said the book is dead on historically and thinks I did a good job of portraying the personalities. That was a huge relief.

Kelly: You are still on my shortlist of authors I have had the funnest time interviewing. I loved that you cussed several times during the interview.

Mary: My dad was a Marine Corps drill sergeant and my mom was a Navy nurse. Try to imagine what I sounded like in kindergarten...

Kelly: Is that something I can continue to look forward to in future interviews?

Mary: Shit, yes. See "every fucking paragraph," above.

Friday, September 14, 2007

New Author Interview: Kate Furnivall author of "The Russian Concubine"

Loaded Questions with Kelly Hewitt

author of The Russian Concubine

I was enthralled by The Russian Concubine by the time I finished the first chapter. The beginning scene offers a harrowing look at life in post-revolutionary Russia after the fall of the last Tsar, Nicholas II. Valentina, her husband, and their young daughter Lydia arrive via a train in the blistering cold Russian countryside. What follows is a heart-wrenching scene of death and separation in which the war-hungry men of Stalin herd those who prospered under the old regime like animals.

Kelly Hewitt: The beginning chapter of this book is beautiful in it's imagery of ice and snow amidst the freezing landscape and yet terrifying in the desolation and uncertainty experienced by the passengers of a train, starving and ill. It is so emotionally draining, senseless murder, the harshness of revolution exposed, that I can remember taking a break after reading it to gather my thoughts.

When in the process of writing The Russian Concubine did you write that chapter? Was it something that you wrote first or did you approach that chapter later in the writing process?

Kate Furnivall: The first chapter of The Russian Concubine was crucial to me in setting up the world from which my main characters emerged and it was essential to my own relationship with them that I write it first. I found it quite a harrowing experience and I recall that once I'd written it, it took me a couple of weeks to be ready to move on in my mind to the very different world of China. That first scene is pivotal in explaining the motivations and emotional damage that drives the rest of the book.

Kelly: Your mother sounds like a fascinating woman. I read an interview in which you talked about the fact that, like the character Lydia in your novel, she grew up in White Russia and fled the communist revolution in 1917 by going to China. In that same interview you briefly discussed the part of your mother's life that took place in India and that you couldn't cram it all in one book. Do you intend to write another book based on your mother's experiences? It sounds like she lived a life full of literary possibilities.

Kate: Yes, my mother was a remarkable woman. Despite the many traumas of her life - or more probably because of them - she was a woman with a true inner grit that made her cling on to life and cling on to anything of beauty. She had a strict credo. Don't cry. Don't whinge. Be honourable and focus on what is beautiful in life.

At the moment I have no plans to write about her experiences in India, though, like China, it was also a turbulent and therefore exciting time politically. But I've learnt never to say never. So maybe, one day.
Kelly: Was there any part of your mother's history in Russia and China that she was reticent to speak about?

Kate: Though I grew up knowing that she had spent her early life in China with her mother, Valentina, and her journalist step-father, Alfred, my mother omitted to mention anything at all about the Russian part of her birth or ancestry. It wasn't until much later in life when I was going through her old yellowing photographs of her time in China and I started to write her name, Lily, on the back of one, that she said, 'I was called Lydia in those days.'

Then it all came tumbling out. How she and her mother were White Russians who fled to China after the communist revolution in 1917 and how the shame of being penniless refugees in a foreign land had been so branded on her young heart that she was never able to talk of it.

Our family was of course fascinated by this sudden and unexpected insight into our ancestry, and the release of the long-hidden secret gave my mother much relief and pleasure. It was her tales that prompted me to write The Russian Concubine after her death, an inheritance I knew I had to honour, though I must emphasize that the book's story is pure fiction.

Kelly: I read that your husband Norman began work as a full-time crime writer after your family moved to the countryside. He won the John Creasey Award in 1987 using the pen name Neville Steed. Is he still writing? Do you find that having two writers in the family makes your work easier or more difficult?

Kate: My husband, who wrote as Neville Steed, has always been a huge help to me. He is no
longer writing himself. After having thirteen novels published, he moved on to painting instead, but I value his judgment and he is always the first to read my manuscripts. He is my greatest critic and my greatest support, often coming up with clever solutions when I moan that I've written my plot into a corner.

Also he understands the needs of a writer:- time to be alone and undisturbed with your characters. And he knows that when I'm staring blankly out of the kitchen window with a plate only half washed in my hands, I'm not actually being an idle slattern. The old brain is churning over some vital story point. And he's good with medicinal coffee and chocolate when he sees a glint of white panic in my eyes! So in every way, having a writer husband is a big plus.

Kelly: You've traveled extensively and I think it shows in your writing. A great deal of the Russian Concubine takes place in China, have you been there? If so, what was that like?

Kate: No, I have never been to China. There's a good reason for this. The China I was writing about, the International Settlements and the colonial way of life, are all long gone. I didn't want to go over there and see the city of Tientsin (now Tianjin), on which my city Junchow was based, covered in neon signs and modern chainstores.

Instead I did thorough research for nine months, until I felt I could walk and talk confidently in that extraordinary world of China in 1928. Then I used my imagination. Which must have worked, because so many people familiar with the Far East who have read The Russian Concubine have asked me how long I lived out there. I feel honoured by such remarks and regard it as a privilege to write about a country I have come to love.

Kelly: Lydia falls in love with a gentleman named Chang An Lo, a freedom fighter struggling for change in a very volatile period of Chinese history. In many ways Lydia and Chang are a sort of Romeo and Juliet of the 20th century, both trapped by very different social expectations. Is Chang An Lo one of the parts of the book based on your mother's life that is purely fiction or was there a relationship that somehow inspired the creation of Lydia's love?

Kate: Lydia and Chang An Lo's love affair is purely fiction. My mother was too young for such passions when she was out there! But I was always aware that she felt an outsider in England, not coming to live here until she was thirteen, and so I grew up watching her try to bridge that gap and not always succeeding. So maybe part of my inspiration for Lydia and Chang An Lo's relationship came from seeing that daily struggle to cross the divide and the problems it created.

Kelly: I have already read posts written by fans of The Russian Concubine who are eagerly awaiting a sequel to the book. Can we hope for such a book?

Kate: Yes, a sequel is definitely on its way. I have recently finished a book set in Russia in 1933 that has no connection with The Russian Concubine, but it is another strong emotional epic and will be published in 2008.

And at the moment I am back with Lydia, following the next stage of her life in the sequel to The Russian Concubine. I love discovering where she will take me. I am thrilled to be reunited with my fiery heroine and Chang An Lo, both of whom became such a part of my life. It is a wonderful, if sometimes daunting, journey I am embarking on and my writing-fingers are twitching with anticipation.

Kelly: I am one of those people that find their shelves loaded with books, movies, and CDs. What loads down the shelves of Kate Furnivall?

Kate: What loads down my shelves? I always have a knee-high pile of books beside my bed, and at the moment top of the heap is Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love which I am looking forward to. Two books I enjoyed recently were Philippa Gregory's magnificent Boleyn Inheritance and Stef Penney's Tenderness of Wolves. Also Lori Lansen's The Girls. Lori Lansen, like the brilliant Lionel Shriver, can take a difficult subject and make it riveting. But right now I am reading Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin, set in Pakistan, which is an amazing testament to the human spirit.

So many books to read and so little time. Bring 'em on!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sweet September: New Non-Fiction

Lottery millions, mad Mary Lincoln, the science of of the brain, one Empress turned Emperor, and the diary of a Ming scholar.

Exciting new books to look forward to.
All authors will be interviewed in the weeks to come.

Money for Nothing by Edward Ugel
September 18, 2007 -- $24.95

Ed Ugel knows what winning the lottery can do for a person. How? He never officially won the lottery for himself but instead, at the age of 26, he landed a job at The Firm, a company that goes out of its way to find lottery millionaires who have found that being rich isn't nearly as easy as it may seem. Ugel's job requires him to visit these millionaires, seeing up close how devistatingly broke some of them are, to offer them a cash settlement in exchange for the yearly pay off lottery winners often opt to take. Those who choose to accept the deal are deeply in debt and are lured by the idea of a large lump of money at one time. What they don't realize is that it's a terrible deal which, as Ed notes, doesn't end in his customers being all that happy with him. His memoir is funny because he has been in the trenches with ordinary people who won outrageous amounts of money and adopted even more outrageous habits as a result. Winning the lottery isn't always the miracle it might seem and by reading Money for Nothing you'll see, via Ed's inside experience, exactly why.

The Madness of Mary Lincoln by Jason Emerson
September 6, 2007 -- $29.95

Apparently Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the famed President Abraham Lincoln, was always a little bit off her rocker, but when her husband was assasinated the First Lady went totally nutty. Her son, thinking that Mary was both incompetent and dangerous, tried his mother publicly and proceeded to have her committed to an asylum. However, Mary wasn't completely incompetent as, with the help of friends from teh asylum, she escapes and flees to Europe. Now, with the help of author and historian Jason Emerson, we now know even more about the sad life of Mary Lincoln. Emerson has uncovered twenty-five letters written by Mary Lincoln herself , mostly sent while she was still in the asylum. In addition to the letters, Emerson presents previously unpublished information about Mary's psychiatric diagnosis, the history of her mental illness, and how Mary's plot to murder he own son Robert changed their relationship. The Madness of Mary Lincoln is the first book to be printed about Mary Lincoln in twenty years. Emerson has done a great job at shedding more light on the tragic life of one of America's most known first ladies.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of Reading the Brain by Maryanne Wolf
September 4, 2007 -- $25.95

Maryanne Wolf, a professor at Tufts University and director of its Center for Reading and Language Research, takes a detailed look into reading the brain. How is it that our brains do some of the things that they do? Reading, for instance, is a miracle that Wolf points out we taught our brains to do only a few thousand years ago. The process of learning how to read, Wolf points out, changed the intellectual evolution of our species. Perhaps even more interestingly, Wolf says that brain that examined tiny clay tablets in the cuneiform script of the Sumerians is configured differently from the brain that reads alphabets or of one literate in today's technology. Learning to read comes with certain implications to an evolving brain. Sound complex? Don't run away just yet. Maryanne Wolf knows her stuff, she is passionate about the brain and determined to share that knowledge with her readers. I am certainly no scientist and yet, having read a few chapters of this book, I can say that I am really beginning to ... wrap my brain around it.

Daughter of Heaven by Nigel Cawthorne
September 25, 2007 -- $ 24.95

I have already written a little blurb about this book. I have always been fascinated by Chinese history and so getting a hold of this book was a sure thing. Cawthorne has been a pretty prolific author, writing about the strange laws of Old England, the sex lives of Popes, and the history of witches. Daughter of Heaven looks to be an interesting book, heavy with deception, murder, and intrigue. Hawthorne writes that Wu Chao, who became a concubine to the Emperor at the age of thirteen, seduced her way to the throne. Wu, the book claims, seduced her way onto the throne, executed her enemies, and murdered her own children in order to stay in power for more than fifty years. That probably made for awkward holidays.

Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man by Jonathan D. Spence
September 20, 2007 -- $ 24.95

The last Ming Man in question is Zhang Dai, one of the most important essayists of the Ming Dynasty. One of the things that make Zhang Dai so essential to Chinese history was his age. Zhang's long life meant that he had witnessed the conquest of China by the Manchus and the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644. He had literally seen it all. The turmoil taking place in China during his life lead Zhang Dai to write a history of the Ming Dynasty in addition to recollections of his youth. Jonathan Spence is an experience Chinese scholar and is able to take Zhang Dai's writings and find interesting information that provides new insight into the culture of China at the time. Zhang Dai's writings and Spence's strong background in Chinese history promise to make Return to Dragon Mountain a successful piece of history and analysis.

Monday, September 10, 2007

New Author Interview: Charlotte Mendelson author of "When We Were Bad"

Loaded Questions with Kelly Hewitt
with the author of When We Were Bad,
Charlotte Mendelson

When We Were Bad, Charlotte Mendelson's third novel, is the story of a particularly badly behaved British Jewish family called the Rubins. The Rubins are lead by the family Matriarch Claudia, a rabbi, who has worked to mold her husband, Norman, and children into the perfect family. But some things aren't meant to be. Just before Claudia's inspirational memoir, a handbook to families of the new millennium, is about to be published the family's faults start appearing left and right. Mendelson's book is a funny family saga about a clan to clean to be true.

Kelly Hewitt: Okay, the book is hilarious. Each of the characters has a secret, a fault, and they all make some pretty terrible decisions. The Rubin family has it all. Leo, the eldest runs away from his bride at the alter, Francis, the next in line admits that she has little or no maternal feelings and is unhappy in her marriage, the youngest Emily is dating a man that turns out to be a woman. Mom, Claudia, and dad, Norman, are holding secrets of their own.What I want to know is which character you think you identify with the most?

Charlotte Mendelson: They all contain a little bit of me, but it's usually very subtle; I've never been a Rabbi, or a runaway mother, or a naughty younger sibling. However, Norman is definitely my inner grumpy old man.

Kelly: I thought it was fascinating that you listed reading synagogue newsletters as one of your sources of information and inspiration. What do these newsletters contain and am I missing out by not getting a hold of a few of them?

Charlotte: They're fantastically revealing and very entertaining. I recommend them, particularly the social pages.

Kelly: You have said that the worlds of American Jews and British Jews are quite unalike. What kind of differences can readers pick up on by reading your novel about a famous but faltering British Jewish family?

Charlotte: What I've found so interesting abou the publication of When We Were Bad is how both British and American audiences respond in such similar ways. For non-Jews, I'm lifting a veil on a little known and even less well-understood world and Jews -- Jews everywhere - seem to think that they know the family I'm describing! For American readers the most obvious difference is, I think, how shocking unconfident many British Jews are about their place in British society. They're a self-conscious, rather nervous and hidden minority, which can make for some fantastic drama.

Kelly: You have also said that British readers are ready for a new kind of fiction, a sort of literature that doesn't involve tweed and repression. You're certainly breaking that mold with When We Were Bad. What fellow British authors do you feel are doing the same?

Charlotte: It's thrilling to see how many British writers are engaging with the non-tweedy world: families with accents, food and habits which are completely unlike those of traditional English society. Americans are used to this; in Britain, we're just waking up to the richness that's all around us.

Kelly: I thought it was fascinating that you listed reading synagogue newsletters as one of your sources of information and inspiration. What do these newsletters contain and am I missing out by not getting a hold of a few of them?

Charlotte: They're fantastically revealing and very entertaining. I recommend them, particularly the social pages.

Kelly: Do you anticipate writing more about the Rubin family in the future?

Charlotte: Sequels are so difficult but I am often asked what happens to Claudia...maybe I should start a newsletter.

Kelly: Not that I mean to pry or apply pressure, but what new work on non-tweed and repression is next on the horizon for you?

Charlotte: Lots more first and second generation Brits are struggling to fit in in a nation where 'clever' is a dirty word and 'quiet' is a compliment, I expect.

Kelly: I am one of those people that find their shelves loaded with books, movies, and CDs. What loads down the shelves of Charlotte Mendelson?

Charlotte: Far, far more books than I can ever hope to read, fantastically bleak new country music, not early enough movies. Oh, and as of today, series 1 and series 2 of Dallas - how I love dysfunctional families.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Rest in Peace: Madeleine L'Engle

Madeleine L'Engle - 1919-2007
Author of: A Wrinkle in Time, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, A Wind in the Door, Troubling a Star, A Circle of Quiet, Many Waters, An Acceptable Time, Walking on Water: Reflections of Faith and Art, and many more.

A week or so ago I wrote about some of my favorite young adult books and how those books shaped the kind of reader and person that I am today. I mentioned A Wrinkle in Time by the brilliant Madeleine L'Engle. On September 7, 2007 Madeleine passed away in a nursing home, she was 88.

In the wake of her death several articles have been written. Reading them I have learned some interesting facts about a revered author.

It is interesting to note that A Wrinkle in Time — which L’Engle said was rejected repeatedly before it found a publisher in 1962 — won the American Library Association’s 1963 Newbery Medal for best American children’s book.

Madeleine, considered one of the greatest children's authors of her time, did not appreciate being known as such.

"In my dreams," she reportedly said, "I never have an age."

Thank you Madeleine.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Sweet September: New Upcoming Books

Coming to Your Shelves This September

There are some exciting books coming out this month, all of which have a decidedly historical fiction theme. September brings new offerings from seasoned authors like M.J. Rose and Gail Tsukiyama and first novels from promising new writers, Peg Kingman and Erika Mailman included. The stories are diverse, WWII Japan, Scotland in 1822, 16th century Germany, and England under the rule of Edward II.

The Reincarnationist by M.J. Rose
September 1, 2007 -- $24.95

The Reincarnationist has been getting some rave reviews. This book is M.J. Rose's ninth novel. Set in modern day Rome, photographer Josh Ryder finds that, after the detonation of a terror-inducing bomb in the city, he is having flash-backs to a time in Roman history when Christianity wasn't the dominant religion and emperors ruled the land. Josh takes these new found skills and attempt to find memory stones believed to exist in a newly found tomb. These stones bring about past-life regressions, providing strong proof that reincarnation is a reality. The closer that Josh gets to the truth of reincarnation and the hidden powers of the memory stones, the closer that the church itself comes to crumbling.

Not Yet Drown'd by Peg Kingman
September 4, 2007 -- $24.95

This is Peg Kingman's first book.
The central character is Catherine MacDonald, a widowed woman living in 1822 Edinburgh. Catherine isn't exactly alone, there's Grace, a child from her deceased husband's first marriage. Right before Grace's uncle arrives, wanting to take Grace to her relatives back in Virginia, Catherine receives a mysterious package from a brother whom she believed had died in India. In order to protect Grace, find out the truth about her brother, and keep her life on track, Catherine travels to India. The book picks up on the mystery of the Orient so prevalent in the European culture at the time. Catherine is an honorable lead character who warrants following around the world searching for truth.

The Street of a Thousand Blooms
by Gail Tsukiyama
September 4, 2007 -- $24.95

Hiroshi and Kenji Matsumoto are the center of this new novel, Gail Tsukiyama's six work. Raised by their grandparents, Hiroshi and Kenji have detailed aspirations in their youths. Hiroshi dreams of becoming a sumo champion while Kenji wishes to become a Noh masks used in Japanese musical dramas performed since the 14th century. The two are ambitious and find success both their lives are always looming under the progression of WWII that brings with it bombings, sacrifice and occupation. The war comes to a head with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leaving both Hiroshi, Kenji, and their families to find a way to survive. Tsukiyama is a skilled author and is know for the great amount of cultural and geographical detail in her writing. When this book arrives I will be eagerly opening it and heading for the porch to read away.

The Witch's Trinity by Erika Mailman
September 25, 2007 -- $23.95

This is also Mailman's first novel. The book takes place in 16th century German amidst a series of witch trials. The people of Tierkinddorf, nearing starvation after a several bad seasons dealt them by Mother Nature, begin to think that there is a witch among them. They select, with the help of a visiting friar, suspect a local healer first whom they promptly burn. When things don't get better the townspeople realize that they must have gotten the wrong witch and thus the suspicion begins again. This time the suspect is t of the healers long time friend, Güde Müller. Müller serves as the narrator of Mailman's book, a widowed grandmother who finds herself facing a terrible fate.

Dispensation of Death by Michael Jecks
September 28, 2007 -- $24.95

This is book is part of the Knights of Templar Mystery series that Michael Jecks has been so successful with. The setting for this novel is England in 1325. Things are rocky, the reign of Edward II and his lover Sir Hugh le Dispenser, isn't going all that well. Suddenly the dead bodies a gentleman and of one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting are found mutilated behind the throne in the Great Hall and what little quiet that existed turned to rage when King Edward demands that something be done. Sir Baldwin de Furnshill and his friend Simon Puttock are on the case, eager to get to the bottom of the murders.

Monday, September 3, 2007

New Author Interview: Nicholas Christopher author of "The Bestiary"

The Bestiary, Nicholas Christopher's fifth novel, is a book about Xeno Atlas, a young man raised by his grandmother in the wake of his mother's death during birth. Atlas' father is shipman with a murky and often absent influence on the child's life. Xeno, who reports always feeling a close connection to animals first fostered by his grandmother, sets out on a world-wide adventure to find missing texts with mythical creatures. The book is magical, filled with characters you can't help but find sympathy for and mysteries you can't wait to be solved.

Kelly Hewitt: As a reader I really connected with Xeno, the central character of the book, and I think it had to do with the way write his internal monologue. Xeno's is stark, brief, but unbelievably honest. You writing style is rich and yet brief as well. Would you say that you and the character are as similar as you might seem?

Nicholas Christopher: As it is with any novel, I had to connect with Xeno myself before his story could be told. I inhabited him, and he me, for the five years it took me to write this book. If I were to look, I might logically see some part of myself in many of my characters. But I am not Xeno. I bear some slight similarities to him. My parents did live in the Bronx when I was born (in a Manhattan hospital), and I grew up in and around the city and later attended Harvard. I had a grandmother who raised me for a while who put great stock in her dreams and told me fairy tales and legends, some from books, and some (the most striking ones), I am convinced, she made up herself. The sights, sounds, smells of New York from the 1950s and 60s are all vivid to me still, and were constantly in my mind as I wrote this novel.

Kelly: How did you come decide to write a novel based around the Caravan Bestiary? Do have an interest in mythical/historical animals.

: I first learned about these animals in high school. I was interested in the beauty and artistry of illuminated medieval books, and when I came on bestiaries-with their descriptions and illustrations of fantastical beasts like the manticore and the hippogriff-I was hooked. Growing up in New York, I had always been fascinated by the gargoyles and griffins that adorned the façades and rooftops of buildings, and suddenly I had an idea of where they had come from-via the human imagination-and what their cultural ramifications were.

I made up the CARAVAN BESTIARY. When I read that the Gnostics believed complete enlightenment could be achieved if one read the entire Bible with the Apocrypha and also the complete Book of Life, which is the original bestiary, it inspired me, for purposes of my novel, to invent an equivalent of the Apocrypha for the original bestiary. That is, a book with all the beasts, real and imaginary, banned from Noah's ark and lost to history. I used facsimilies of the Revesby, Hertford, and other bestiaries, many of which I found in libraries, and some on the Internet.

I believe these books and the animals they contain to be very significant. First, they serve as important source documents in the history of natural science. Europeans, beginning with ancient Greek and Roman chroniclers like Aelian and Pliny, who had never seen a tiger, hyena, or crocodile, began cataloging the beasts they encountered in explorers' tales. Aelian's Animalia, for example, is one of the first zoological encyclopedias in the West. Second, they tell us a great deal about how the human imagination was at work when ancient man, trying to order the world around him literally and figuratively, created myths in which animals, animal hybrids (like the hippogriff, which is part horse, part griffin; or the peryton, which is a bird with the forelegs of a deer; or the chimera, which is part lion, goat, and dragon), and purely invented animals like the phoenix and makara played crucial allegorical roles. The survival of these myths is important to our understanding the development of the human psyche and the origin of our collective memories. They are sagas of redemption, revelation, and illumination that pertain to all men. In short, the animal myths collected in bestiaries are one chapter of the immense history of the human soul, which is why every civilization and culture-Tibetan, Mayan, Persian, Egyptian-produced bestiaries.

Kelly: Just as Xeno traveled the world looking for sacred texts and lost books, you too spent a good deal of time researching around the world. Did that parallel experience help you or motivate you to write the book?

Nicholas: I love to travel. And I did travel a lot in researching this book. You're quite right to pick up on the fact that the research I was doing -- the act of searching for unusual, often hidden, information -- in fact helped inspire some of the similar situations in the book. The motivation for writing the novel goes back farther than these specific travels, however; the story's origins are a confluence of so many factors. The clearer the book when I am done writing it, the less certain I am -- or want to be -- about where it came from, exactly.

Kelly: When I was in Hawaii I happened to pick up a copy of the Honolulu Advertiser and saw a big feature article on the front page of Island Life about you! You talked about the importance of Hawaii in your books and the fact that it's featured in The Bestiary. The article mentioned that you would someday have an entire novel based in Hawaii. Was that a general prediction or is there already something in the works?

Nicholas: It was a prediction. A large portion of the novel I have just begun is set in Honolulu in the late 1950s. And a big part of my novel A Trip to the Stars is set in Honolulu and Kauai. I love Hawaii. I travel there whenever I can, though I live quite far away, in New York, and I cherish the fact I have been able to do so many times in the last fifteen years. I deeply appreciate the reception my books have received in Hawaii, and the warmth that has been extended to me personally. I do plan at some point to write a novel set entirely in the islands, and will probably be living there when I do so.

Kelly: I am one of those people that find their shelves loaded with books, movies, and CDs. What loads down the shelves of Nicholas Christopher?

Nicholas: Too many books -- and not enough shelves, it seems! Certainly too many to list. All of Dickens and Tolstoy and the other Russians; Proust and Musil and Balzac; a dozen shelves of poetry books, including Zbigniew Herbert, W.S. Merwin, Charles Simic, Mark Strand, Eugenio Montale, Anthony Hecht, Walace Stevens, Donne and Blake; many shelves of ancient history, many of them Penguin and Loeb translations of Tacitus, Livy, Suetonius, and the like; all of James Salter's fiction, Borges, Marquez, Calvino, Potocki and Nabokov; all of Charles Nicholl's nonfiction; the late trilogies of Céline and Burroughs'; Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, Bellow's Humbolt's Gift, Hemingway, Tanizaki, Kawabata, The Tale of Genji, The Thousand and One Nights, a lot of atlases of ancient and modern maps, Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, Olaf Stapledon's science fiction. In 1997 I published a study of film noir and I have a large collection of noir DVDs -- none of which, unfortunately, were available when I was writing the book. Also hundreds of CDs -- Bach, hard rock, lots of jazz, tons of non-Western music, from the amazing Senegalese guitarist Touré to the master oud player from Tunisia, Anouar Brahem. Brahem's Barzakh is one of the great recordings of all time. Too much of everything to list...

Saturday, September 1, 2007

New Arrivals: Upcoming Titles

I returned from vacation to find several new upcoming books waiting for me. Here are some of them:

Daughter of Heaven: The True Story of The Only Woman to Become Emperor of China by Nigel Cawthorne

Release Date: September 25, 2007

Daughter of Heaven is the story of China's only Emperor. Hawthorne writes about the ruthless nature of this powerful woman who is reported to have murdered her own children and seduced her way to the highest position in the the most powerful society in the world.

Mozart's Sister: A Novel by Rita Charbonnier

Release Date: Octo
ber 9, 2007

I am really looking forward to this book. I stumbled upon it a couple weeks ago when reading the author, Rita Charbonnier's blog. Maria Anna Mozart, nicknamed Nannerl by her brother Wolfgang Amadeus, was also a very gifted musical child prodigy. However, Nannerl found herself living in the shadow of her brother, Mozart. This is the first novel by Italian TV scriptwriter Charbonnier. The fictional account of Maria Anna Mozart details her difficult childhood at the hands of sometimes tyrannical Leopold Mozart. What follows is a secret love affair and a bond between siblings that is never quite severed.

The Contractor by Charles Holdefer

Release Date: November 1, 2007

The Contractor is a novel that tackles some of the toughest issues currently being addressed by the American public and the war on terrorism currently taking place. The novel deals with American secret prisons where suspected terrorists are being held. George Young, the narrator is a Gulf War veteran who accepts work as a contracted civilian negotiator. George soon finds himself immersed in shadowy politics, working overseas at a holding facility called Omega. The unique thing about the book is that Holdefer is willing to take on some of the more delicate issues important to America's involvement in world politics.

Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy

Release Date: November, 14 2007

Mata Hari was a fascinating woman and in Murphy's new novel readers get to follow her from her early childhood in the late 19th-century Netherlands, her years in Java as a caring young mother married to a brutal military man, her glamorous but desperate career as a famed dancer and courtesan and her bleak existence in a Paris prison after her arrest as a spy for Germany during WWI.

As always I will be doing author interviews with the four authors of the new releases detailed above. Stay tuned for more details.

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