WomensHistoryReads interview: Aline Ohanesian

I took a step back to tally up my #WomensHistoryReads interviews and lo and behold -- we've made it to FIFTY! Amazing! Not done yet, of course, but I wanted to pause a moment and remark on how wowed and humbled I am by the response to this project. How grateful I am that more than 50 amazing women writers have been quick to say yes, quick to give time and thought to this project, quick to recognize that calling attention to women from history (and the women who are inspired by them) isn't just an activity for 31 days a year.

And I'm thrilled to share three answers and a question from Orhan's Inheritance author Aline Ohanesian as the fiftieth (again, exclamation points seem appropriate!!) Q&Q&Q&A in this series. I love her thoughts on history and its biases, how fiction can "restore that which has been lost," and which historical figure gives the best side-eye.

Aline Ohanesian

Aline Ohanesian

Greer: Do you consider yourself a historian?

Aline: No. I have a Masters in US History from the University of Irvine. I'm what you call ABD, All But Dissertation, in that I never filed the dissertation to earn my PhD but passed all the oral tests. Being a historian is taxing, detailed work which requires a great deal of expertise, extensive footnoting, etc. There are some parallels between historians and writers of historical fiction, but the differences are important and can't be ignored. My favorite difference is when the research is done, I get to use my imagination to recreate the people, time and events. That's my idea of great fun. 

Greer: Agreed. If you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?

Aline: I dropped out of my PhD program in history partly because I really wanted to write fiction but also because the way history has been traditionally recorded was really frustrating to me. Thankfully, the gender, class and race biases of our history books are definitely being challenged by a new crop of historians. If I had my way, I would change all the history books to include hundreds more women. Putting one woman back into any historical narrative just isn't enough.

At The Getty Museum here in Los Angeles, there's a bust from 1859 of a woman named Mary Seacole, a Jamaican woman whose medical services to British troops on the front lines of the Crimean War made her a household name. That's not how women of color are usually portrayed in history. Let's bring Mary Seacole back, is what I'm saying. Let's bring all the voices traditionally drowned out or erased. That's the kind of history that gets me excited. It's the kind of history that inspires me to write fiction. To use fiction to restore that which has been lost. To those who call this revisionist, I say that every written account of a historical time is revisionist, even when it's written right there in the battle field. What traditional historians chose to include and exclude was itself a form of revision. (As a side note, Mary Seacole gives the best 'side eye' of any historical figure. Every statue, likeness, painting of her features this side eye. Now that's a woman whose story I'd like to know,)

Bust of Mary Seacole, Henry Weeks, 1859

Bust of Mary Seacole, Henry Weeks, 1859

Greer: What’s the last book that blew you away?

Aline: The last book that blew me away was Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. It's a fascinating exploration of a long marriage from the perspective of both the husband and wife. It's a masterpiece both in terms of structure and on a sentence by sentence level. I know I'll return to it again every few years, just to remind myself what can be done with the English language.

My question for you, Greer: Girl in Disguise takes place in Chicago in the late 1850's. Do you ever get so enthralled with a time and place that you're tempted to set another novel there? Is it hard to move on from the novel's world and its characters? 

Greer: I feel like I fall completely under the spell of every era I write in, so yes! I always have real trouble moving on. Maybe that means I'll return to those times and places one day. For example, I have a whole outline for a novel about Adelaide Herrmann, the real-life Queen of Magic who appeared in The Magician's Lie. But for now, I keep getting entranced by other people, other places, other times. There is just so much history out there for us to draw on, so much inspiration. I'll never get to write all the books that are percolating in my head, but I'm sure as hell going to write as many of them as I possibly can.


For more from Aline:

Twitter: @AlineOhanesian  


(And of course, tune in tomorrow for #51!)

WomensHistoryReads interview: Lynda Cohen Loigman

I talk a lot about how great it is to connect with other authors over social media, how the online community makes it so easy to be alone physically but never alone virtually. And that is all true. However -- and it's a big however -- there's really nothing like meeting other authors in person and spending time with them. I got to meet Lynda Cohen Loigman when we were both part of one of the Twin Cities' amazing Lit Lovers events, orchestrated by the even more amazing Pamela Klinger-Horn of Excelsior Bay Books. And Lynda and I instantly clicked, cementing fellow-author  camaraderie and friendship over a mere few hours of good food, wine, and book talk. Are author friends online great? Yes. Is it even greater when in-person author friends become online author friends and vice versa? You betcha. A full year later, we were both delighted to discover that our next books were announced on the same day in Publishers Marketplace. And since both of those books are publishing next spring, we may just find ourselves meeting in person on the road again. Hope so!

Lynda Cohen Loigman; photo credit: Randy Matusow

Lynda Cohen Loigman; photo credit: Randy Matusow

Greer: Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.

Lynda: For me, inspiration has always come from the women in my family. It has been more than ten years since my mom passed away, but whenever she and her two younger sisters got together, they loved to tell stories about their childhood in the 1950s. Like the families in my first novel, they grew up in a two-family house in Brooklyn, New York. They lived on the top floor, while my grandmother’s brother, his wife and their three daughters lived on the bottom. 

When I was young, I couldn’t imagine anything more fascinating than the life my mother and her sisters led in Brooklyn. They told me tales about their trips to the doll hospital in Manhattan, they spoke in hushed tones about the time my mother lost her younger sister on the subway, and they burst into laughter every time they repeated the story about my mother’s first date – when she wore a girdle and a slim black pencil skirt to the neighborhood tennis court.

Those stories, and so many more, were the food of my childhood. They are so rich with details and so full of emotion that I find myself returning to them whenever I sit down to write. It’s always my hope to create characters for my readers who feel like people they have known from their own families. The intimacy and the warmth I felt listening to my aunts’ stories is something I strive to duplicate.

 Greer: What’s the last book that blew you away?

Lynda: In December, I read J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions, a gorgeous novel about two sisters who leave Ireland for Boston in the late 1950s. Although I am always partial to family sagas, this one is special. The characters Courtney Sullivan creates are so intricate and layered, and the relationship between the sisters – with secrets, grudges, love, and regret – is more real than anything I’ve read in a very long time. One of the best gifts an author can give to readers is a feeling of inclusion and immersion in the world she creates. I truly felt that as I was reading this book.

Greer: What’s your next book and when will we see it?

Lynda: My next book is about two estranged sisters who are raised in Brooklyn and relocate to Springfield, Massachusetts at the start of World War II. The initial inspiration for the story came, once again, from my mother’s family, who moved from Brooklyn to Springfield in the late 1950s. But the sisters in the novel come to Springfield much earlier, and both live and work at the historic Springfield Armory. As part of my research, I visited the Armory and listened to the oral histories of former female employees. I learned that what I had envisioned as nothing more than a giant weapons factory was actually a bucolic campus filled with elegant homes and manicured gardens. When the story opens, the sisters have been estranged for five years. Their reunion is not an easy one, and after long-buried secrets are revealed, it is unclear whether their bond will be strong enough to survive. The novel tells the story of subtle and complicated family relationships, but it also highlights the fascinating careers of the women’s ordnance workers who worked as “soldiers of production” for our country. The title is The Wartime Sisters, and it will be published in January of 2019.

Greer: I can't wait! 

Lynda: My question for you is this: Your first two novels (and your third, which sounds amazing, so kudos!) fall firmly into the category of historical fiction. Do you every see yourself veering into a different genre, or is there something about either your interests or your writing process that makes you want to continue writing these stories? Every time I try to write, I end up somewhere in the past. Writing a story with a contemporary setting feels impossible to me. What about you?

Greer: It's funny. I wrote contemporary for years and years before finally getting published with The Magician's Lie, and it felt hard at the time, but now that I'm exclusively writing historical, contemporary seems so easy from a logistical standpoint! To be able to give someone any haircut I want, any clothes I want, to be able to walk down a street and just put those things into a book -- what a luxury. That's my first impulse, anyway. But the truth is that most of the ideas that come to me now are historical. Research turns up so many more inspirations than I could ever possibly write. It's possible to write a present-set story that has stakes as high as a historical novel, but somehow, the stakes feel higher to me in the past. When I read books that have one contemporary thread and one thread set in the past, the past thread almost always feels more urgent, more meaningful. So I just write mine without the contemporary thread. I jump around in time, but the time is always past, not present.

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To connect with Lynda on social media or learn more about her books, check out the links below.




WomensHistoryReads interview: Jasmin Darznik

Not only has this series introduced me to writers who were new to me, it's also really expanded my knowledge of inspiring women in history. Today's interview is a prime example of that. As someone who writes mostly about 19th century America, I love having my horizons expanded into other times and places -- and when I came across the New York Times rave for Jasmin Darznik's SONG OF A CAPTIVE BIRD, I was instantly curious to hear more about its subject, the groundbreaking Iranian poet Forugh (while chagrined that I hadn't heard of her before). A snippet from that review: "A complex and beautiful rendering of that vanished country and its scattered people; a reminder of the power and purpose of art; and an ode to female creativity under a patriarchy that repeatedly tries to snuff it out." 

I'm so pleased that Jasmin agreed to be interviewed for #WomensHistoryReads and share more about the meaning Forugh has for her, woman writers she admires, and the frustrating erasure of women from the historical record. Thanks, Jasmin!

Jasmin Darznik

Jasmin Darznik

Greer: Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.

Jasmin: When my family fled Iran in the late 1970s, my mother smuggled out a book of poems by the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad. Forugh, as she’s known in Iran, influenced me enormously. Iran has a rich tradition of poetry, but most all the poets who are remembered and celebrated have been men. Forugh, though, was writing poems that dove deep into questions of what it meant to be a woman in her culture—not presenting this culture in an anthropological way, but engaging you with it through the truth of her life. In my twenties the poems I returned to most often were her love poems. I’d devoured Plath and Rich in college, but I wanted to hear a particular voice—a woman and an Iranian—in whom I could see myself reflected. Forugh wrote about desire, about pain, about courage; reading her was a revelation. The very existence of Forugh’s poems challenged the stereotype, so prevalent then, and prevalent still, that Iranian women were silent victims of fate. In those poems I found proof of everything America was telling me Iranian women were not and that Iran was telling Iranian women they shouldn’t be. Bold, lustful, angry, difficult. Those poems saved me. They still do.

Greer: Who are some of your favorite authors working today?

Jasmin: I love all of Sarah Waters’ novels, many of which are set in Victorian period and all of which feature women protagonists. The attention to historical detail is just spectacular—before turning to fiction Waters earned a doctorate in Victorian literature, and her novels are saturated with the sights, sounds, scents, and feeling of that era. She’s also writing about women in a way that feels both fun and cunning. In nonfiction, two writers I deeply admire for their bravery as well as the beauty of their prose are Roxane Gay and Rebecca Solnit. I will read anything they write. 

Greer: What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?

Jasmin: It’s enormously frustrating, not to mention infuriating, to continually encounter vast gaps in the historical record about women, and it’s not just that their stories are neglected, but that there is often a deliberate and sustained effort to erase them from history. In Forugh’s case, that erasure was achieved through her family and partner’s silences about her life, as well as decades of government censorship of her work. However, it’s precisely these gaps that energize and inform my writing. If there’d been a more ample archive available to me, I doubt I’d have written a novel about her. I would likely have had fewer questions about her life, and I would also have felt less of a sense of urgency about bringing her story to light.

My question for you, Greer: Imagine you could put two women from different historical eras in conversation. Who would you pick and what would you ask to get the conversation flowing?

Greer: That is such an awesome question and the possibilities are dizzying. While all my historical fiction is set squarely in the past, without a contemporary storyline, I don't think I can avoid choosing today as one of the two historical eras to connect with this hypothetical question. Not a day goes by that I don't think about what a terrifying and important time we seem to be living in. I have an urge to connect someone from an equally turbulent time in the past with the moment we're in right now. So I guess I'd choose Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, one of many women who disguised herself as a man to fight for the Union in the Civil War. It must have been an unthinkable, shocking act to undertake -- but it must have been important to her to take that leap, given how her country, her community, her world was being torn apart. I'd put her in conversation with Emma Gonzalez, one of the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who has stepped up into the national spotlight and contributed so much passion and fire to the conversation around America's problem with gun violence.

I think I'd ask both of them how they find or found the strength to do what they'd never imagined themselves doing, and how the rest of us can stoke that fire. What does it take to truly make a difference? We all have a stunning amount of potential slumbering within us -- how do we bring it out, channel it, spin it into gold?


For more about Jasmin and her books: http://jasmin-darznik.com.

(And of course, tune in tomorrow for the next interview!)

WomensHistoryReads interview: Sarah-Jane Stratford

Given that she's lived in both America and England, it's not surprising that Sarah-Jane Stratford drew from both countries for her novel RADIO GIRLS, which it places an American-raised secretary in the context of very British history: the early days of the BBC. We talked about Barbara Kingsolver, Hilda Matheson, and the Hollywood blacklist -- enjoy!

Sarah-Jane Stratford

Sarah-Jane Stratford

Greer: What's the most recent thing you read that blew you away?

Sarah-Jane: A short story, ‘Homeland,’ by Barbara Kingsolver. I love her work, I don’t know why I haven’t read these stories before, but anyway it was one of those stories that I read and then went right back and read again. I haven’t done that since I read Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet. What I found in this story, and it’s a mark of all of Barbara Kingsolver’s work, is that the world is so precise. It’s a tiny town in Tennessee, 1955, a time and place most of us don’t know, and she makes us know it intimately and feel a part of it, so that we’re inside those people’s lives. I wanted the story to go on and on, and yet it is perfect just as it is. 

Greer: If you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?

Sarah-Jane: I’m going to make a case for one of the real-life characters in my novel Radio Girls: Hilda Matheson. She was the first Director of Talks for the BBC when radio was brand-new in 1926, and she was the one who inherently understood that radio could have a tremendous reach and influence, and be a force for democratization in bringing ideas and stories to people who might not otherwise hear them. She was adamant that radio must be easily accessible and creators must be free to air a wide range of programs. Under her aegis, radio went from being a fad to a phenomenon, with a huge variety of subjects discussed and debated, and books reviewed and read from. Librarians wrote the BBC to say subscriptions were soaring, and local poetry reading groups forming, even in towns where most people had at best a grade-school education. Hilda also understood that such a powerful voice could be dangerous, used to propagate untruths, and that there had to be standards and safeguards. Sadly, she was summarily forced to resign as politics turned more conservative in the 1930s, and the BBC did the exact opposite of what she had suggested –- becoming less political just at a time when people desperately needed more facts. She went on to write the first book on broadcasting, which was used as a textbook for the industry well into the 1970s. She created the blueprint for what would become NPR and I feel that a lot of her philosophy applies to the Internet as well. She’s definitely someone more people should know about. I love this quote of hers regarding broadcasting, which can be used as an argument for net neutrality:

“If we have the sense to give [broadcasting] freedom and intelligent direction, if we save it from exploitation from vested interests of money or power, its influence may even redress the balance in favour of the individual.” 

Greer: What’s your next book about and when will we see it?

Sarah-Jane: A lot of people know about the 1950s blacklisting of people in Hollywood -- mostly writers -- who were accused of being communist subversives. What’s less known is that a number of women writers were also accused and lost their livelihoods. I was inspired to create fictional versions of two women in particular, who went into exile in Britain so that they could continue to work and avoid being watched by the FBI – or worse, being subpoenaed and forced to testify about their politics. A real-life woman, Hannah Weinstein, created a television show called "The Adventures of Robin Hood," which was hugely popular in the 1950s. Some viewers recognized that the show’s plots tended to highlight the mistreatment of disadvantaged people at the hands of the wealthy and powerful. Very few knew that the entire writing staff was comprised of blacklisted writers, using pseudonyms so that the show could continue being broadcast in the US. My fictional writer becomes a member of the Robin Hood staff, and attempts to make a new life abroad, where all the exiles wonder if they’ll ever be able to live freely in America again – or even if they’re really free of the FBI abroad. I’m deep in revisions now, looking towards publication in spring of 2019. 

My question for you: There have been a lot of quality literary adaptations lately. Is there one in particular you’ve seen that you thought was exceptional, and can you talk about what made it so good? Also, any news on a possible adaptation of Girl in Disguise

Greer: I hate to admit that I'm old enough to have been waiting 20 years for something, and yet, it's totally true. That's how long I've wanted to see Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace done right and in 2017 that finally happened on Netflix. It's an extraordinarily faithful adaptation and totally worth the wait. (I went on about it in-depth for The Chicago Review of Books.) As for Girl in Disguise rights -- hope springs eternal. I have an excellent film agent at CAA and from time to time I hear whispers of possibility. If anything comes to fruition, I will most definitely share with the world!


For more about Sarah-Jane and her books: http://www.sarahjanestratford.com 

WomensHistoryReads interview: Elizabeth Loupas

So here's one of the reasons this #WomensHistoryReads series has gone on long past the end of Women's History Month. Through their answers, authors that I know keep introducing me to authors that are new to me! So it is with Elizabeth Loupas, mentioned by Kate Quinn in an earlier Q&Q&Q&A. I reached out to Elizabeth for an interview and was thrilled when she said yes. This way you and I both get to know her better at the same time. Thanks, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth Loupas

Elizabeth Loupas

Greer: Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.

Elizabeth: I was originally inspired to write historical fiction by two sisters, Barbara and Joanna of Austria, daughters of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, and granddaughters of Juana of Castile, called “Juana la Loca.” State marriages were arranged for them both—Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, for Barbara, and Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, for Joanna.

How did they feel, setting off on their bridal journeys, never having seen their new cities and knowing they would never go home again? The two dukes had come to Innsbruck to sign the marriage contracts, so at least the sisters weren’t off to marry men they’d never met, but it wasn’t as if they’d had any choice in the matter. What crazy courage it must have taken to be an imperial archduchess in the sixteenth century.

History records so little about them. Barbara was apparently happy in her marriage but sadly childless. (Through no fault of her own, but that’s another story.) Joanna, in Italy called Giovanna, was miserable but bore eight children, despite her truly horrifying scoliosis. Her tomb was opened and her spine examined as part of the anthropological and paleopathological Medici Project, and looking at the photographs, I can’t imagine how she managed to have one baby, let alone eight.

Giving Barbara and Joanna voices in novels—voices and thoughts and emotions and lives, real lives, however fictionalized—was humbling and endlessly fascinating.

Greer: Wonderful. What’s your next book about and when will we see it?

Elizabeth: My next book is historical magical realism centered on Mary Talbot, the daughter of the fourth Earl of Shrewsbury. Mary is the quintessential “footnote to history” woman, remembered only because she was the unwilling young wife married off to Henry Percy, to separate him from Anne Boleyn.

The astonishing thing, though, about the historical Mary Talbot, is that in the summer of 1532, in the midst of the political and religious firestorm that was Henry VIII’s “Great Matter,” she dared to speak out publicly and ask to have her own marriage annulled. Her grounds? That her husband, now the Earl of Northumberland, had flung at her in the course of a clearly incendiary quarrel that she was not his wife at all, because as a young man he had made a legally-binding contract of marriage with Anne Boleyn.

Mary had been miserably unhappy in her arranged marriage, and her husband’s assertion was clearly the last straw. She put the Earl’s claim down in writing, in a letter to her father, who was not just her father but the Lord Steward of the King’s household. The letter itself is lost—how I would love to see it!—but clearly it existed, from the havoc it created. Northumberland was hauled off to London and, in a panic, swore on the blessed sacrament that no pre-contract with Anne Boleyn had ever existed. I think he was lying, blessed sacrament or no blessed sacrament. But the king wanted Anne Boleyn to be unmarried. Mary’s evidence was disregarded and the whole business was hushed up with brutal Tudor efficiency.

After writing that amazing and courageous letter, Mary Talbot essentially disappears from history, although she lived on for another forty years. So of course she is a wonderful inspiration for historical fiction.

As to when anyone will see the book, well, it’s early days yet, and I’m still writing.

Greer: I know that stage well. But your subject sounds utterly fascinating, and we'll be excited to see it whenever it's ready. Last question: What book, movie or TV show would your readers probably be surprised to find out you love?

Elizabeth: Surprising only because it’s a little obscure—I love the lushly-produced Russian-language television miniseries Sophia, which is available with (sometimes unintentionally funny) English subtitles on Amazon Prime. It tells the gorgeously-imagined story of Zoe Palaiologos, the last Byzantine princess, who was re-baptized Sophia when she was married to the Grand Prince Ivan III of Moscow. Ultimately she was the grandmother of Ivan IV (“The Terrible”), the first Russian Tsar.

Zoe/Sophia was at the center of religious and dynastic conflict throughout her life, and was the first Grand Princess of Moscow who refused to be confined to women's quarters, but greeted foreign representatives from Europe in the same way as queens in Western Europe. One of the most interesting bits of trivia from this show: golden coins used as properties were minted from casts of original ducats.

And my question for Greer: What scene or historical thread or fact have you been forced to delete from a manuscript, and yet can’t forget? What do you intend to do with it?

Greer: When I initially put together the proposal for Girl in Disguise, the story of the first female detective, Kate Warne, it was about one-third longer, extending past the end of the Civil War with another subplot and ending with her death in 1868. My brilliant agent looked at the proposal and said, "That's about one-third too much book." Foolishly, I said, "No, this is really what I want to do! I'm going to write it that way!" And lo and behold, after several months of writing and seeing how things shaped up, I realized it would definitely be too much book. I ended up finding a natural conclusion right about at the mark she'd originally indicated. So I didn't get to write the last three years of Kate's life. Maybe sometime I'll return to it. I've gotten plenty of reader requests for the continuing adventures of Kate...

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WomensHistoryReads interview: Christina Baker Kline

Of course, Christina Baker Kline needs no introduction. But here's one anyway. I am constantly surprised and delighted by how many authors I've met in the past few years -- even incredibly successful bestsellers with ever-increasing demands on their time -- have been welcoming, generous and supportive from the very first moment I met them. That was definitely the case with Christina.

When I had the chance to do a joint event with her last year I leapt at it, even though making it work involved highly questionable decision-making on my part, including a post-event 10pm departure from Minneapolis to fly to St. Louis (or was it Kansas City?), only for the purpose of catching a verrrrry early plane the next morning to Dallas so I could make it to Lafayette, Louisiana by noon for a speaking engagement. That was how much I wanted to be on the same bill as Christina. Against all odds, it worked perfectly. Still one of my favorite book tour memories. So I'm forgoing the usual author photo of the interviewee for a candid shot of us just before our event in Wisconsin. 

Christina Baker Kline (left) and Greer Macallister

Christina Baker Kline (left) and Greer Macallister

As I said, she's generous and supportive, and she even answered more than the requisite three questions for our Q&Q&Q&A! I couldn't edit them down to three, knowing her readers would want to know it all, especially the one about her next book (which sounds amazing, of course.) So here we go!

Greer: How would you describe what you write?

Christina: Novels about the inner lives of people facing unanticipated challenges that force them to dig deep to find out who they really are.

Greer: What's the last book that blew you away?

Christina: My Absolute Darling is a big, unruly novel that people either love or hate. I loved it for its vivid writing, emotional intensity, and unique take on the world.

Greer: Do you consider yourself a historian?

Christina: My father is a historian and an academic, and until recently I thought our writing had nothing in common. Lately, though, I realize that I’ve been greatly influenced by him in form and content. We both write longhand, research extensively, read widely within our subject areas, and take notes in a similar way. 

Greer: What's your next book about?

Christina: My next novel is about the hidden history of the convict women who transformed Australia. It takes place in mid-19th century Tasmania.

Greer: That sounds spectacular. What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?

Christina: The opportunity to explore untold stories.

And my question for you: In some ways, I believe, novelists are always writing about themselves: what haunts them, what they care about. How does this relate to you and Girl in Disguise?

Greer: I agree -- in some ways, I absolutely am! I find myself returning over and over to questions of identity, of women who reinvent themselves. What-ifs fascinate me. What if, during the golden age of magic, a woman illusionist cut men in half as her trademark illusion? What would the reaction to that be? That's where The Magician's Lie came from. There isn't enough information in the historical record for us to know much about what Kate Warne, the first female detective, did in the pursuit of justice -- let alone what she thought and felt -- but what if we did? What might her story look like? That's why I wrote Girl in Disguise. Disguises, deceit, swapping identities, people doing bad things for good reasons, these ideas endlessly fascinate me, and I doubt I'll ever get to the bottom of that well.


More about Christina and her books at: www.christinabakerkline.com


WomensHistoryReads interview: Thelma Adams

So pleased to welcome Thelma Adams to the blog today! I happened upon her book The Last Woman Standing -- inspired by Josephine Marcus, the real-life paramour of both Wyatt Earp and his rival Johnny Behan -- shortly after reading Epitaph, a much more Earp-centric version of the same events. Putting a woman at the center of the story changes it quite a bit, as you might imagine. And Thelma's insights and answers below are consistent with the desire to bring women back to the center of their own stories, especially the quote she cites as her mantra: "Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter." Welcome, Thelma!

Thelma Adams

Thelma Adams

Greer: Do you consider yourself a historian?

Thelma: Yes. I have the degree to prove it – a BA from UC Berkeley where I studied Early Modern England with a turn at St. Andrews in Scotland studying Medieval History. I loved being buried in the stacks at Berkeley in Doe Library up twisting stairs to sit and pore over The Gentleman's Quarterly and other musty periodicals. I learned the beauty of primary sources and a skill at skepticism and what has become my mantra: "Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter." We can follow the story of queens but what of the lives of the people, the schleppers -- the women like me and unlike me?

However, I did not pursue academics as a career although I am the daughter of a history PhD and a history professor – perhaps that is one reason why not. Rebellion! But the logistical reality was that as a woman in the early 1980s, my male mentor Robert Brentano strongly discouraged me from continuing toward a PhD because there were no jobs. My foolishness: I listened. Where were there jobs, anyway?

My joy: I spent years in the world, reading the literature I wanted to read (Balzac, Flaubert, Sand, Wodehouse, Waugh, Greene, Austen), watching movies as I had done since my first memory of The Sound of Music and How The West Was Won in Cinerama and, funnily enough, establishing myself on another impossible career path as a film critic. Life wanders. We make mistakes and meet our most cherished friends in the unlikeliest of places. This is something I try to say to my college-aged children but they are, like I was before, only half-listening to what elders have to say.

As a historical novelist, I draw from my background: scrupulous research, digging for primary sources where available and honoring the people of the past. As a contemporary historical novelist, sitting now in a room at the august New York Public Library as I write this, I realize, as I head into my third novel set in the past, that there are so many more resources currently available within this building and online. When I can, and when my budget allows, I love to walk the streets of my characters, stopping under the on-ramp to the Williamsburg Bridge, for example, and wondering how I might have been afraid walking in those shadows at two a.m. in 1935 when the wind bit and my coat was too thin and a man stood under the streetlamp with his hat pulled down over his eyes. And it's that leap, channeling emotions if I can, that takes me away from my academic background – and into the thrill and chill of what we do.

Greer: Beautifully put. What's your next book about and when will we see it?

Thelma: My next book, Bittersweet Brooklyn, is slated for November 6, 2018. Set in New York from 1905 to 1935, it illuminates a Jewish immigrant family and how their poverty, loss and life-force set them on different paths: one a criminal, one a decorated soldier, one a striver and the central character: the widowed little sister, the runt of the litter, who struggles to find love and joy in their wake. The current tag line in progress for the book jacket copy is this: In turn-of-the century New York, a mobster rises – and his favorite sister struggles between loyalty and life itself. How far will she go when he commits murder?

From the beginning my goal was to flip the script of familiar narratives like The SopranosBoardwalk Empire or The Godfather, and explore the shattering impact of mob violence on the women expected to mop up the mess. The result is a heavily researched family saga spanning three decades that puts the perspective of a forgotten yet vibrant woman at its center.

Greer: Can't wait to read it! Last question: what book, movie or TV show would your readers probably be surprised to find out you love?

Thelma: Here's a crazy one: Trailer Park Boys. My college-aged son turned me onto the Canadian comedy. It's about two schleppers, Ricky and Julian, who are in and out of jail – and their faithful bespectacled pal Bubbles. They live in a ratty Nova Scotia trailer park, drinking and doping and plotting get-rich-quick schemes, surrounded by a plethora of loser characters and feral cats. It's on Netflix and goes on for many, many seasons. It's my go-to pick-me-up (with a scotch on the rocks) after a dispiriting day. It has no redeeming value and is rudely funny. I'm also addicted to Spiral, the hard-boiled French female-driven crime show that's heading into its sixth season streaming on MHz.    

My question for you, Greer: What are your secret hacks for researching historical fiction – and when do you (or don't you) allow yourself to fudge?

Greer: I always pictured myself digging for facts among yellowing, leather-bound tomes in labyrinthine stacks that stretch sky-high, but to tell the truth, I often find much of my information on the internet. For The Magician's Lie, I did look at old theater programs and 19th-century magicians' biographies to find the names of many of the illusions performed at the time, but I discovered that many of today's illusions are still variations on the same basics. So in order to be able to describe and explain the illusions, I watched modern magicians performing them on YouTube! And for all of my books, I make sure my research accounts for all five senses. What did Chicago smell like in 1856? What could you see from San Francisco's Telegraph Hill in 1888? What would a celebrating couple order at Delmonico's in 1903? Menus, maps, fashion magazines, everything can add to my understanding, and by extension, the picture I draw for my readers.

Fudge-wise, I try to keep any event dates close to the historical record, though I certainly understand when authors need to collapse three years' worth of events, for example, into one. And I'm very comfortable combining historical figures with completely fictional ones or making a composite character -- as long as I account for it in my Author's Note to make it clear for the reader who's been drawn from history and who I've imagined into existence.

High Res TLWS Cover smaller.jpg

Thelma Adams is the author of the bestselling historical novel The Last Woman Standing and the O Magazine pick Playdate. She co-produced the Emmy-winning Feud: Bette and Joan.  Additionally, Adams is a prominent American film critic and an outspoken voice in the Hollywood community. She has been the in-house film critic for Us Weekly and The New York Post, and has written essays, celebrity profiles and reviews for Yahoo! MoviesThe New York TimesO: The Oprah MagazineVarietyThe Hollywood ReporterParadeMarie Claire, and The Huffington Post. Adams studied history at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was valedictorian, and received her MFA from Columbia University. She lives in upstate New York with her family.

You can connect with Thelma on social media at the links below:



WomensHistoryReads interview: Kristina McMorris

I've been a huge fan of Kristina McMorris for years, and I'm even more excited about her upcoming book SOLD ON A MONDAY, coming out this fall from our mutual publisher Sourcebooks! Kristina isn't just a savvy and talented writer, but one of the warmest and most generous personalities out there in the historical fiction writing community. Thrilled to share her interview for #WomensHistoryReads today. Enjoy!

Kristina McMorris

Kristina McMorris

Greer: Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.

Kristina: When I initially set out to pen my first novel, Letters from Home, my only intention was to craft a story inspired by my grandparents' WWII courtship letters. What I didn't expect was, in the midst of researching, to also find inspiration in historical accounts from members of the Women's Army Corps (WAC). Often serving on the front lines, these brave veterans returned home to find themselves in a society largely resistant to change. In fact, many were urged to swap out their uniforms for traditional homemakers' aprons and never speak about their extraordinary service. Through my novel, I felt honored to help share their stories.

And years later, I felt the same while writing a novella that featured members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of WWII. Just like the WACs, their courage and incredible skill contributed heavily to the Allied victory, yet a great many years passed before the majority of these amazing women received the recognition they deserved. 

Greer: How would you describe what you write?

Kristina: While technically my novels are considered historical fiction, I often joke that I view my books as "literary Advil." Meaning: hopefully the reader enjoys the sugarcoating of a story on the outside, not realizing how much "good stuff" (i.e. history) they're actually digesting along the way. 

Greer: Love it! And finally, what’s your next book about and when will we see it?

Kristina: My next novel, Sold on a Monday, will be released on August 28th, and I can't wait to share it! Inspired by a shocking newspaper picture that haunted me for months, my Depression-era story features a young, ambitious reporter whose photo of two children being sold on a farmhouse porch leads to his big break—but has devastating consequences for everyone involved. 

(Speaking of notable women in history, the great columnist Nellie Bly even serves as a powerful inspiration to one of my main characters in this story!) 

Greer: Nellie Bly! We have that in common! She's glorious.

Kristina: And now, for you, my friend...

Each of your historical novels, including the forthcoming Woman Ninety-Nine, centers on a unique female character who breaks the traditional mold of her time by making daring choices. Of the three protagonists, with whom would you most prefer to: travel the world? be held as hostages together? switch lives for a year? 

Greer: What a thrilling set of questions! The possibilities!

I suppose it makes sense to start with Arden from The Magician's Lie, who starts out her book tied to a chair with multiple pairs of handcuffs, locked in a room with an armed officer of the law with only her wits and her words to help her escape. So clearly she's the one I want to be hostages with because I think she'd have the best chance of getting us out! I'd travel the world with Kate Warne of Girl in Disguise, first female detective and downright brilliant woman, whose particular set of skills would help us settle in and befriend the locals anywhere and everywhere we went. Spies make good travel companions, right?

And I'd switch lives for a year with Charlotte Smith from Woman Ninety-Nine -- though at first it might seem odd that I'd want to include the period of time she spends trapped in a notorious insane asylum, where she risks her sanity, her future and her life in an attempt to rescue her beloved sister Phoebe from permanent commitment. Then again, her time in the asylum opens her eyes to broader possibilities for her life than she was ever exposed to during her pampered upbringing in 1880s San Francisco, and she finds the world inside the walls of Goldengrove isn't all bad. One of the ways I describe the book is as a 19th-century "Orange is the New Black" -- a group of women who don't fit society's mold, but band together in a fascinating society of their own making. I really enjoyed the time I spent with these characters while I was writing them. I can't wait for everyone to meet not just Charlotte and Phoebe, but spitfire Martha, canny operator Nora, damaged Celia, and the rest of the inmates of Goldengrove.


Want to know more about Kristina and her books? Of course you do! Here are a few links to get you started:

Web: www.KristinaMcMorris.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kristina.mcmorris/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4384611.Kristina_McMorris


WomensHistoryReads interview: Erin Blakemore

As you've surely noticed by now, March is well behind us, and I'm still publishing #WomensHistoryReads interviews every day. Obviously there are far more than 31 women writing today inspired by far more than 31 women from history -- but that's only part of the motivation. Today's interviewee, Erin Blakemore, made some great points on Twitter a few weeks back about Women's History Month, about which many of us have mixed feelings. It's great to shine a light on women's stories during that period. BUT it's a huge injustice to only shine a light on women's stories during that period. The real goal is to one day have women's history be so well-known, widespread and acknowledged, it makes Women's History Month obsolete. Obviously we're not there yet.

So how do we get there? All year long, keep reading and writing about women's stories, spreading the word, and seeking out the work of great writers like Erin. More from her below.

Erin Blakemore

Erin Blakemore

Greer: How would you describe what you write?

Erin: I write voice-driven nonfiction that’s underpinned by historical context and deep research. I’m a freelance journalist, so that means everything from reporting on the hidden racial history of America’s highways to what supermarkets tell us about American women and how their sexuality was used to fuel consumption in the mid 20th century. I write a lot about science, too, for outlets like the Washington Post and Popular Science. But my favorite work always incorporates two things: women and history. 

Fewer people know this about me, but I write fiction, as well. My first book (historical fiction about a famous woman, of course!) is currently on submission. I like to think that I write nonfiction that reads like a novel and fiction that comes to life as if it were fact, but I’ll let my readers be the judges! 

Greer: Ooh, good luck on submission and I very much look forward to reading your fiction! What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?

Erin: *leans on elbows* How much time do you have, Greer? 

Seriously speaking, there are so many frustrations in researching women’s lives. A lot of lesser-known women fail basic notoriety tests that keep information about them out of the public domain, so it can be really tough to find out more without going into an archive. (Want to know why they are seen as “not noteworthy enough” to be written about? Because nobody wrote about them to begin with…which kind of dooms them to a prolonged state of non-noteworthiness! Go figure.) 

If you do go into an archive, papers can be unprocessed or scant. Or there may not be papers at all. This, of course, is a function of systemic biases that tell us women’s lives are too domestic, or too unremarkable, and that interfered with women’s abilities to document their own lives, either because they spent their time laboring for others or didn’t have the tools or skills with which to read or write. 

Then there are the financial challenges, especially for an independent researcher like me. I can’t afford to jaunt off to wherever to dig into an archive, and academic resources are largely closed. Luckily, I have generous friends in academia and some reference librarian-level skills when it comes to tracking down information. 

That said, I find researching historical women incredibly exciting and invigorating. It’s so meaningful to meet someone new and help tell her story, and the detective work has the thrill of discovery. It’s such a privilege to get to do this work. 

Greer: Agreed. And your readers appreciate it. If you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?

Erin: Clara Lemlich Shavelson. As a young garment worker, she sparked a gigantic shirtwaist strike years before the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire by giving an impassioned speech in Yiddish to a packed house at Cooper Union. As one of the farbrente maydlakh—Yiddish for “fiery girls”—she helped lead what was the largest strike ever by women at the time. We’re talking over 20,000 impoverished, seemingly disempowered young women walking out on their jobs and being harassed by police, hired thugs, and hecklers. 

Clara was a force to be reckoned with, and she didn’t play around. She insisted that men and women be treated equally within the labor movement, got blacklisted from her job, and wouldn’t back down from her revolutionary ideals, even when they cost her her friends and her connections within the movement. And she didn’t give up when she grew up, either: She organized boycotts and strikes, raised hell, and stood in solidarity with others until her death at age 96. 

Clara was a Ukrainian immigrant who lived in the tenements of New York as a young woman and who overcame a substantial amount of adversity in her youth. She fought tooth and nail for what she believed in—and was willing to give up a lot for her ideals. She didn’t always win, but she was resourceful and gritty. I didn’t learn her name until I was older, but I would have found her story incredibly inspirational as a younger person.

The history textbooks I encountered as a student touched really briefly on the labor movement, but it would have meant a lot to see someone like Clara Lemlich in their pages. At the very minimum, her speech is a must-read. It’s pretty brief, too: 

"I am a working girl; one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall strike or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now.” 

Short and sweet…but incredibly powerful. 

And now a question for you, Greer…what’s an anachronism that drives you crazy in an adaptation of a historical event or period? 

Greer: The completely modern woman plopped down in a historical environment really irritates the heck out of me. And books like that give historical fiction a bad name. Mary Sharratt made a good point in yesterday's interview that "if you sit down and do the research, you will discover that every epoch had its radical voices, movers and shakers, extraordinary women who rocked the establishment." So it isn't that our characters can't swim upstream against the racist, sexist, conformist attitudes of their day. They can and should. But the best historical fiction rarely features a character who's only a mouthpiece for modern opinions and walks around 16th-century London or Gold Rush California commenting on society's narrow-mindedness. As Mary Doria Russell put it so succinctly, "The past is not just now, with hats." Historical novelists really owe it to themselves and their readers to get inside the minds of the women and men of the time where their work is set. Then it means so much more when we see what we do have in common, where the parallels between then and now are strongest. In my opinion, that's the great gift of historical fiction -- helping us see how far we've come, and how far we haven't. 


Learn more about Erin's work at erinblakemore.com or on Twitter @heroinebook.

WomensHistoryReads interview: Mary Sharratt

I've been waiting what seems like forever to talk about Mary Sharratt's latest novel ECSTASY, which follows Alma Mahler's extraordinary life in turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna. I heard Mary speak about this book on a panel last June at the Historical Novel Society Conference and was instantly entranced. Then I managed to get my hands on an ARC and was blown away both by the gorgeous cover and the story within. And now the book is finally coming out -- tomorrow! So grab your copy ASAP. You'll be riveted by the tale of this talented, brilliant woman who was truly ahead of her time.

Mary Sharratt

Mary Sharratt

Greer: Tell us about a woman from the past who has inspired your writing.

Mary: From my first novel Summit Avenue, published in 2000, I have always written historical fiction centered on strong women. But I didn’t write my first work of biographical fiction about a real life historical woman until my 2010 novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill. The inspiration arose when I moved to the Pendle region of Lancashire in Northern England where the true story of the Pendle Witches of 1612 literally cast their spell on me and changed me forever. 

In 1612, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged for witchcraft. But the most notorious of the accused, Bess Southerns, aka Old Demdike, cheated the hangman by dying in prison before she could even come to trial. This is how court clerk Thomas Potts describes her in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster:

She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man knowes ... Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no man escaped her, or her Furies.

Not bad for an eighty-year-old lady. Once I read this, I fell in love. I simply had to write a book about this amazing woman. Bess became the guiding voice and power behind my novel. 

Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was astounded how her strength of character blazed forth in the document written to vilify her. She freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman, and she instructed her daughter and granddaughter in the ways of magic. Her neighbors called on her to cure their children and their cattle. What fascinated me was not that Bess was arrested on witchcraft charges but that the authorities turned on her only near the end of her long, productive career. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her.

Greer: What’s your next book about and when will we see it?

Mary: My new novel Ecstasy, released on April 10, is drawn from the dramatic life of Alma Schindler Mahler (1879-1964), one of the most controversial women in the twentieth century. Her husbands and lovers included composer Gustav Mahler, Bauhaus-founder Walter Gropius, artist Oskar Kokoschka, and poet Franz Werfel. Yet no man could ever claim to possess her. She was her own woman to the last, polyamorous long before it was cool, and a composer in her own right. Sadly most commentators, including some of her own biographers, focus not on her talent or creativity but instead bemoan how she “failed” to be the ideal woman for the great men in her life. Alma, like Lilith, was a strong and independently-minded woman who claimed full expression of her sexuality only to be demonized as a man-destroying monster. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s observation that well-behaved women seldom make history could have been written about Alma. 

Coming of age in the glittering artistic hotbed of turn-of-the-twentieth century Vienna, young Alma Maria Schindler was a most accomplished pianist—her teacher thought she was good enough to study at the Vienna Conservatory. However, Alma didn’t want a career of public performance. Instead she yearned to be a composer. Her lieder, composed under the guidance of her mentor and lover, Alexander von Zemlinsky, are arresting, emotional, and highly original and can be compared with the early work of Zemlinsky’s other famous student, Arnold Schoenberg.

But the odds were stacked against her. In turn-of-the-twentieth century Vienna, women who strived for a livelihood in the arts were mocked as the “third sex”—the fate of Alma’s friend, the sculptor Ilse Conrat. When a towering genius like Gustav Mahler asked Alma to give up her composing career as a condition of their marriage, she reluctantly succumbed.  

Yet underneath it all she was still that questing young woman who yearned to compose symphonies and operas. Shortly before her marriage, twenty-two-year-old Alma wrote in her diary, “I have two souls: I know it.” Born in an era that struggled to recognize women as full-fledged human beings, Alma experienced a fundamental split in her psyche—the rift between herself as a distinct creative individual and herself as an object of male desire. The suppression of her true self to become the woman Mahler wanted her to be was unsustainable and inhuman. Eventually the authentic Alma erupted out of this false persona.  

What emerged was a woman far ahead of her time, who rejected the shackles of condoned feminine behavior and insisted on her sexual and creative freedom. Alma eventually returned to composing and went on to publish fourteen of her songs. Three other lieder have been discovered posthumously. Now her work is regularly performed and recorded. 

Alma was not only a composer but what in German is called a Lebenskünstlerin, or life artist—she pioneered new ways of being as a woman that was in itself a work of art. 

Greer:What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?

Mary: I’m on a mission to write women back into history and I find this both exhilarating and daunting. To a large extent, women have been written out of history. Their lives and deeds have become lost to us. To uncover the buried histories of women, we historical novelists must act as detectives, studying the sparse clues that have been handed down to us. To create engaging and nuanced portraits of women in history, we must learn to read between the lines and fill in the blanks.

At its best, historical fiction can play a crucial role in writing women back into history and challenging our misperceptions about women in the past.

Unfortunately we, as writers, can run into problems when we present a view of historical women that challenges common misperceptions. On the one hand, readers and critics are justifiably skeptical about novelists who present plucky historical heroines with attitudes that feel too contemporary and thus anachronistic to their time and place. On the other hand, if you sit down and do the research, you will discover that every epoch had its radical voices, movers and shakers, extraordinary women who rocked the establishment. Think of Sappho, Hypatia, Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth I of England, Aphra Behn, Anne Bonny the Pirate Queen, Emma Goldman, and Rosa Parks, to name a few. Too often readers and, unfortunately some reviewers, appear to have a distorted and uninformed view of women in history and seem too quick to label any strong heroine anachronistic, even if the author has backed up the fiction with considerable research. 

My hope is that as more authors delve into the lives of historical women and present them in all their nuanced glory, public perceptions on women’s history will undergo a long overdue sea change. 

My question for Greer: Play matchmaker: what unsung woman from history would you most like to read a book about, and who should write it?

Greer: I've asked so many people this question and enjoyed all their answers -- and I can't believe I didn't think ahead to come up with an answer of my own! 

I found out just last year that the much-heralded Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, had a much-less-heralded sister, Katharine! (And please don't judge me when I admit that I found this out from the TV show "Drunk History," which actually does a great job of digging up interesting lesser-known figures, many of them women who deserve more time in the spotlight.) While the role she played in facilitating their success was definitely a supporting role, one could argue that they wouldn't have been able to get their venture off the ground (as it were) without her. Yet after years and years supporting her brothers, when she struck up a romance with an old beau, Orville stopped speaking to her entirely, and only came to visit her on her deathbed. There are some nonfiction accounts that speak to the facts of her life, but I think what she really needs is a juicy emotional epic that explores her thoughts, fears, joys and sorrows. And nobody does a juicy emotional epic like Ariel Lawhon (whose I Was Anastasia just came out a couple weeks back, and is totally a must-read.)


Read more about Mary and her books at marysharratt.com.

(And of course, keep checking back here daily for more installments of #WomensHistoryReads!)

WomensHistoryReads interview: Stephanie Thornton

The order in which I've been publishing my #WomensHistoryReads interviews has no particular logic to it. Unless someone has a book coming out on a particular day (like Stephanie Dray last week) I've been putting things together largely by instinct and gut feeling. But! Since Weina Dai Randel mentioned Stephanie Thornton yesterday, it made perfect sense to introduce you to her, and her upcoming book American Princess, today.

Stephanie Thornton

Stephanie Thornton

Greer: If you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?

Stephanie: I teach high school history and let me tell you, that’s a tough question because so many famous women are omitted from today’s textbooks! I’m going to play favorites here and go with Pharaoh Hatshepsut of 18th Dynasty Egypt, although Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire is a close second. (And Genghis Khan’s wife Borte made it possible for him to conquer the world’s largest contiguous empire, but I digress…) Hatshepsut was almost forgotten due to a campaign to wipe her reign from Egypt’s history, but she helped usher in Egypt’s Golden Age through her trade expeditions, foreign conquests, and monumental building campaigns. She was one of the world’s first successful female rulers, and she deserves a whole lot more credit than she gets.

Greer: What’s your next book about and when will we see it?

Stephanie: I’ve jumped to 20th century America to write about Theodore Roosevelt’s hellion daughter, Alice, for my next novel. Alice Roosevelt was America’s first media sensation and became a fixture in Washington politics, since she knew virtually every president from McKinley to Nixon. I'm really excited that American Princess will hit the shelves in March 2019!

Greer: Us too! What book, movie or TV show would your readers probably be surprised to find out you love?

Stephanie: While I write strictly historical fiction, I love a good dose of sci-fi or fantasy. I recently devoured Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and I’m crossing my fingers that Steven Spielberg does the story justice on the big screen. One of my all-time favorite fantasy reads is A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab, which is set in three versions of London. It’s slightly historical, but really just a fun romp with an unforgettable cast of characters. (Lila Bard is one of my favorite characters ever!)

My question for you: In writing from the point of view of an American Civil War era detective for Girl in Disguise, what was a historical tidbit you uncovered in your research that you just had to find a way to incorporate into the story? 

Greer: There were quite a few! Two spring to mind: one about the city of Chicago, and one about Kate. The Chicago tidbit is that during the period I was writing about, work crews were actually raising certain parts of the city by several feet so a sewer system could be installed. They jacked up buildings on hydraulics -- in some cases, even while the buildings being raised were open for business! So I had to have that scene. As for the Kate tidbit, we only have solid records about four or five cases she worked, and in one of them, she impersonated a fortune teller so she could find out whether a particular woman had been trying to poison her brother so she could get his money after he died. (The woman was totally guilty, by the way, and the fortune teller gambit worked.) I actually wrote the scene to include and it didn't make the cut since it didn't move the story forward, but I made sure there was still a reference to it in the finished book. Truth really is, in so many cases, stranger than fiction.


WomensHistoryReads interview: Weina Dai Randel

With almost 40 #WomensHistoryReads interviews under my belt so far and many more to come (so many!), it's fun to mix up the format every once in a while. Today I've got an interview with Weina Dai Randel, author of The Moon in the Palace, RITA award winner, and all around lovely personality. Instead of a Q&Q&Q&A today, we've got a Q&A&Q&A&Q&A! So much fun for both of us. Here we go! 

Weina Dai Randel

Weina Dai Randel

Greer: What’s the last book that blew you away?

Weina: I'm reading the bound manuscript of American Princess by Stephanie Marie Thornton. I'm not finished yet, but oh boy, I can tell you how exciting it was to read this novel. It's about the epic life and loves of Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, Alice. As intriguing as Alice Roosevelt's life was, Thornton wrote in a fierce and fearless voice that absolutely brew me away.  The novel is coming out in March 2019, and I'm sure readers will love this book!  

As I was reading Thornton's novel, I was thinking about the extraordinary women who rose to fame across the world and I couldn't help thinking how different they were. So, Greer, what kind of quality of those women, the quality they might nor might not possess, do you deem important? 

Greer: Great question! The popular saying is that "Well-behaved women rarely make history," and I think it's true that many of the extraordinary women who inspire us were bold and defiant. But there were also women who obeyed all of society's rules and still made their mark through quiet strength. I think it's important to recognize that range, the wide variety of women who have excelled in all sorts of ways. Spies, pioneers, rulers, nurses, First Ladies -- the roles are endless and so are the women who filled them so memorably.

And of those women, all those extraordinary figures -- Weina, if you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?

Weina: Ah, I'm going to be selfish-–it will have to be my Empress Wu, who, as a young girl, was forced to serve an emperor in the palace, but she survived the court treachery, beat all her enemies, and rose to become a ruler herself and ruled China for almost fifty years, unchallenged and respected. I can't think of a single American woman who has risen to her level. 

Some readers told me that they usually didn't read books set in China, but they gave my books a chance, and they said they were glad they did. I was happy to hear that, but also a bit sad to hear they didn't often read books set in China. What can we, as writers, do to help readers get out of their comfort zone and pick up books that they usually don't read, Greer? Any suggestions?     

Greer: Ooh, I'm intrigued by the possibilities here. Short of pulling some kind of Inception-style thought experiment and planting the suggestion directly, I think our best bet is to model the behavior. When readers ask me what I'm reading or what I recommend for their book clubs, I generally start by recommending another historical novel written by a woman and centering on a woman's story. Because I know they've read at least one of those, ha. There's nothing wrong with making those suggestions. But I also read a ton of stuff that isn't squarely in my genre, so why not throw one of those in there as well? Author recommendations can hold a lot of weight.

Last question for you, Weina! Do you consider yourself a historian?

I'm laughing – what a great question! Yes, I have a penchant for doing extensive research – I spent six years doing researching for my Empress Wu novels, and I find everything unknown to me fascinating, let it be a tree in my neighborhood, an animal on a mural, a castle in Scotland, a vase in Rome, or a ship in a museum, but I never consider myself to be a historian. To me, to be a historian requires a sort of routine, poring over biographies, reading old manuscripts with a magnifier, or even going to a newly discovered cave and dig into the dirt, all the while wearing the thought of finding the facts of history like a sigil. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, it's just I'm more free-spirited, and I like to invent things a little, to make up things a little, and above all, I confess I enjoy the beauty of prose that uses to describe the facts, the art of telling a story, more than unearthing the history itself. 

What about you, Greer, do you enjoy the history itself as much as the art of storytelling?

Greer: The history is really, really intriguing. But I would be a terrible historian, a terrible non-fiction writer! Because I'm always thinking, Ooh, this is incredibly interesting -- wouldn't it be even more interesting if this other thing were also true? So yes, I love both the discovery of history and the weaving of those facts into some other, not-exactly-true-but-not-quite-false creation. Like my most recent novel Girl in Disguise. There just isn't enough information on Kate Warne in the historical record for us to know exactly what she did as the first woman detective in the US, let alone how she felt about it. So I took history as a jumping-off point. All fiction is a leap, both for writer and reader. And I love that so much.

For more on Weina and her books, check out her website at weinarandel.com.

WomensHistoryReads interview: Devoney Looser

Now here's a fun first for the #WomensHistoryReads Q&Q&Q&A series -- our first newly announced Guggenheim Fellowship recipient! I couldn't be more thrilled to publish this interview with Devoney Looser, author of THE MAKING OF JANE AUSTEN. She's also the first #WomensHistoryReads participant, as far as I know, with a roller derby alter ego (which is, of course, "Stone Cold Jane Austen.") Devoney's passion for her subject and her overall enthusiasm are infectious. Get in on the fun below!

Devoney Looser photo by Alex Chapin ©2017 Arizona Board of Regents

Devoney Looser photo by Alex Chapin ©2017 Arizona Board of Regents

Greer: Tell us about a woman from the past who has inspired your writing.

Devoney: Jane Austen inspires me on a daily basis. Like a lot of Janeites, I discovered Austen’s novels in my teens. In my case, it was my mother who started it. She kept nudging me toward these books. I was resistant, honestly, at first. Austen’s language seemed so impenetrable and stiff. It was maybe the third time that I started Pride and Prejudice that it just clicked somehow, and I was hooked. It became a favorite book. It was only many years later that I learned that my mother had never read it herself. She just knew that Austen was an author you were supposed to read, and she wanted me to get an education. I love that Austen has been be handed-down that way, too—by aspirational word-of-mouth. 

My mother’s persistence worked on me, because I became the first in my family to graduate from college, with an English major. I went on to get my PhD in English directly after that, so I’ve now had several decades to teach British women’s writings, including Austen, to college students. I even ended up meeting my husband over a conversation about Austen. (He’s also an Austen scholar and a professor.) But it was one of my graduate students and a special collections librarian who got me into roller derby. My librarian friend was the one who suggested my derby name, Stone Cold Jane Austen. (I knew who Steve Austin was, because my brother had been a WWE fan growing up.) The nickname “Stone Cold” stuck, and I absolutely love the sport and inhabiting an Austen-inspired alter ego. I played roller derby competitively for five years, and I’m now the faculty adviser to Arizona State University’s roller derby team, the Derby Devils. You never know where Jane Austen is going to take you, right? It’s wild to think that Austen has shaped nearly every part of my adult life—career, marriage, and hobby. That led to my becoming one of the Jane Austen weirdos profiled in Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites (2013), and it led to a research interest in unsung Jane Austen weirdos in decades and centuries past that I wrote about in my book, The Making of Jane Austen (2017).

Greer: What’s your next book about and when will we see it?

Devoney: I’m working on a book about the celebrated sister novelists, Jane and Anna Maria Porter, who were among the first generations of professional women writers and might be thought of as pioneering “career women.” They were contemporaries of Jane Austen’s, but you’ve probably never heard of them. Where Austen was only moderately successful as an author during her lifetime and didn’t publish under her own name, becoming uber-famous after her death, the Misses Porter were once household names. Yet they were gradually forgotten by readers and critics. I want to right the record, to tell their stories, and to describe why I think their lives and writings deserve to be better known. What’s most remarkable about them is not just that they were prolific. (They published dozens of novels between the two of them, several of them bestsellers.) They also wrote thousands of moving letters to each other, describing what it was like to be in the public eye at a time when the public was not exactly kind to women to dared to put themselves forward. Their letters survived but have remained unpublished in archives in the US and UK. I’ve been reading these letters over the past decade, piecing together the sisters' triumphs and struggles. They were the most famous sister novelists before the Brontes, and their lives were also colorful, dramatic, and difficult. (Just one teaser story: Their famous artist-writer-traveler brother married a Russian princess, but it was hardly a fairy-tale ending. The sisters ended up helping to pay off their debts!) 

Greer: What book, movie or TV show would your readers probably be surprised to find out you love?

Devoney: I can quote way too many lines by heart from the movie This is Spinal Tap (1984)—probably about as many as I can quote from Jane Austen novels, embarrassingly. I grew up in Minnesota in the hair-metal era, and so that mock-rockumentary (if you will!) just cracks me up to no end. I also really identify with the world described in Chuck Klosterman’s great book Fargo Rock City. . . . As if that weren’t enough, I absolutely love that there is a Jane Austen and Spinal Tap connection. One of the producers on This is Spinal Tap, Lindsay Doran, went on to produce Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995). I think this makes *perfect sense,* by the way, especially if you read Jane Austen’s Juvenilia or teenage writings. 

Greer: Great answer!

Devoney: And two questions for you. What drew/draws you to the nineteenth century? Why do you think this is an important period for those of us who are interested in strong women?

Greer: My first historical novel landed me in the late nineteenth century kind of by accident -- the 1880s up through 1900 just happened to be the most plausible period for a female stage magician to make headlines in Vaudeville, which was my inspiration for The Magician's Lie -- but ever since then, I've stayed there on purpose. There are certainly stories of strong woman across the ages, but there's something about that nineteenth-century period, at least the parts of it I'm drawn to, where women are really breaking out of some "ideal woman" trope, and they're not just doing it during wartime, which is traditionally the period that really opens doors for women stepping into male roles. For example, it's not all that shocking to hear that women were spies during the Civil War -- because of course people would do anything for their cause, and of course some of those people were women. But is it more surprising to know that the first woman detective, Kate Warne, was hired by Allan Pinkerton in 1856, well before the war started? It was to me. The courage she must have had to step into that role, to demand a place at the table, is really inspiring. And I've written mostly American history so far. The nineteenth century is a great period in America in particular -- this long rolling wave of expansion, connection, discovery, redefining community. I tend to write about people who are redefining themselves. It was a perfect time to do that in America.


Find out more about Devoney and her books through her website and social accounts:


on Twitter @devoneylooser & @StoneColdJane

on Instagram @Devoneylooser; @MakingJaneAusten

#WomensHistoryReads interview: Diane Haeger

The lovely Diane Haeger joins us today for her #WomensHistoryReads interview, and you'll enjoy how she approaches the question of who has inspired her, and why she loves to write fiction about real people. And the last book that blew her away is one of my all-time favorites. Great reading below!

Diane Haeger

Diane Haeger

Greer: Tell us about a woman from the past who has inspired your writing.

Diane: I have always been a great fan of Edith Wharton. The first time I read The Age of Innocence in high school I was completely bowled over by her powerful prose. For me, she was, and still is, the epitome of a woman writer. Not that I could ever write like her, but I hope that the same strength and commitment shows in my books. That at least has always been the goal.

Greer: What’s the last book that blew you away?

Diane: Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. I loved everything about that novel, so unique and wonderfully written. 

Greer: One of my five favorites of all time. Last question: How would you describe what you write?

Diane: My agent used to call them ‘sexy love affairs from history’ and I think that was true for how I began my career 25 years ago. Now what draws me are stories about misunderstood, or little known, characters from history. They don’t necessarily have to be about a love affair. I’ve always loved the idea of writing about real people because I get to learn so much right along with readers. Also, what they say is so often true, that truth really is stranger than fiction. I love that.

Diane: For you: What is the thing that has surprised you most about this writer’s life as an actual career?

Greer: Two things come to mind, if that's not too much of a cheat! As a career, it blows me away how much it keeps changing. When I first started trying to get published, query letters sent through the mail with self-addressed stamped envelopes were the only way to approach agents. My first agent didn't believe in e-mail. And now there's social media, self-publishing, all these aspects that have revolutionized how writers approach their careers, for better or worse. The other thing is unquestionably positive: what a warm, supportive, enthusiastic community exists among published writers. I have been constantly blown away by how kind everyone has been to me along the way. I do my best to pay it forward to other writers, to build on that community in any way I can.

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Find out more about Diane and her books at the links below!


Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/diane.haeger.5 

Twitter https://twitter.com/Diane_Haeger   

Instagram diane_haeger1

WomensHistoryReads interview: Kris Waldherr

Mixing it up with another delightful installment of #womenshistoryreads that includes both fiction and non-fiction from the same author! You may know Kris Waldherr from her recent book Bad Princess: True Tales from Behind the Tiara, but like so many of us, she writes and reads both fiction and non-fiction as the mood strikes. You'll love her answers below; I sure did.

Kris Waldherr

Kris Waldherr

Greer: What’s the last book that blew you away?

KrisThe Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I’m reduced to sputtering with admiration whenever I try to describe why I loved this novel. Between Perry’s masterful use of point of view (how’d she do that?!?), the deeply humane and observed characters (Cora Seaborne for the win!), their intricate relationships, and the immersive setting—wow, just wow. Also, as a book designer, The Essex Serpent has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen.

Greer: I really enjoyed that one too (and yes, the cover is everything.) Now, play matchmaker: what unsung woman from history would you most like to read a book about, and who should write it?

Kris: I’d hardly call her unsung, but I’d love to read a novel about Joan of Arc by Hillary Mantel. Could you imagine Mantel describing the court machinations and sexual politics twining around poor Joan’s neck? Now that’s a book I wish existed!

Greer: Agreed! What’s your next book about and when will we see it?

Kris: My debut novel The Lost History of Dreams comes out from Touchstone Books in Spring 2019. It’s a Victorian era reworking of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice about a post-mortem photographer whose latest assignment forces him to confront his past. Think Wuthering Heights meets The Thirteenth Tale. Though I’ve been published many times before, there’s something special about being a first-time novelist—I’m really excited to see The Lost History of Dreams launched into the world!

Greer: Sounds utterly fabulous!

Kris: My question for you: I was excited to learn Woman Ninety-Nine is set in a nineteenth century asylum. What did you learn while researching asylums that surprised or shocked you the most?

Greer: I kind of suspected this, but it was still jarring to see it borne out by the research: it was very, very easy to commit a woman for insanity against her will in the mid-to-late 1800s. A husband or father could easily and quickly condemn a woman to spend months or even years in an asylum as long as he could get a doctor to sign off on the order, which was not much of a barrier, especially for a man with money. And the reasons women could be committed were very much in line with what we would consider today to be "normal" swings of mood (like postpartum depression) or even positive attributes: wanting an education, refusing to marry someone her family had chosen for her, things like that. When my main character finds herself in an asylum against her will, she also finds that she's more at home among her fellow inmates than she is in the broader society, which tells you something. Asylums weren't always terrible places, even though it was terrible that women could be put there for almost any reason or no reason at all. I really enjoyed exploring that dichotomy -- as I hope my readers will too.

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#WomensHistoryReads interview: Stephanie Dray

Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie's latest book is out today, and as if that weren't exciting enough -- it's about Eliza Schuyler Hamilton! If you haven't already scooped up a copy of MY DEAR HAMILTON, go ahead, then come back here to read Stephanie's #WomensHistoryReads interview when you're ready.

Okay. Here we go!

Stephanie Dray

Stephanie Dray

Greer: Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.

Stephanie: Everybody loves a rebel--a woman who rips up society's rules and sets the world on fire. And I love those ladies too. And yet, I've been drawn again and again to write about historical women who are left to sweep up the ashes and rebuild everything anew. Cleopatra's daughter, Martha "Patsy" Jefferson Randolph and Eliza Schuyler Hamilton are all women who found ways to assert themselves within the system. Women who were left to pick up the pieces after wars, death and destruction. Women who never got enough credit for what they did in the shadows. I think there are a lot more women like that in the past--and the present--than we realize, and their quiet strength, grit, and determination are a true inspiration to me.

Greer: What’s your next book about and when will we see it?

Stephanie: My new novel, co-authored with Laura Kamoie, is MY DEAR HAMILTON: A novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton and I'm so excited about it. It's been a long time in coming--it took us about 18 months to research and edit it--but after seeing the Broadway musical on Hamilton and reading Ron Chernow's excellent biography, we were both eager to know more about Eliza and I think readers will enjoy seeing her take center stage. To my knowledge, ours is the only fiction novel that covers her life before and after Hamilton, and we think that's such an important part of exploring a woman who achieved so much on her own. And it releases today!

Greer: Do you consider yourself a historian?

Stephanie: Oh, this is a fun question that gets bandied about in the historical fiction genre a lot. In my opinion, historians and historical fiction authors have two very different, but overlapping, jobs. Ideally, historians should be relatively even-handed in educating the public about the various possibilities and interpretations of historical people and events. Novelists, by contrast, have to pick a side. They have to not only pick a theory of what happened, but weave a story around that theory as if it were objectively, and not subjectively, true. Thus, even though I do the same research that any historian would do in writing non-fiction, (and sometimes a bit more) my purpose is different. I am a novelist, first and foremost. My duty is to the story and to the reader. Whatever civic duty I owe to history is a matter between me and my own personal mission statement. There are many fine fiction authors who are also trained historians with the degrees to prove it--but just as many who get confused trying to wear both hats and their stories suffer as a result.

Greer: I hear you. The "duty... to the reader" always takes center stage for me. That and a good Author's Note.

Stephanie: My question for you is: What is one thing you wish your fiction-writing colleagues would stop doing?

Greer: There isn't much, but here is my number one, huge, blinking-neon-sign pet peeve: writers who tear down other writers, either individually or by genre. Anyone who says, "Oh, I don't like X genre" in an interview, or implies that one genre is easier or lesser than another -- that really gets my goat. Everything is genre. Yes, including literary fiction. I've been really disappointed when authors whose work I admire are featured, for example, in a "By the Book" feature at a certain major newspaper, and then make some offhand remark like "I don't read romance, of course, it's so predictable" that shows ignorance at best and mean-spiritedness at worst.

Writing, and especially publishing, are hard enough without certain writers using their platform to dismiss other writers out of fear, thoughtlessness, or insecurity. I'm always looking for opportunities to include and build up other writers instead of competing with them. There's room in the tent for all of us -- that's how projects like #womenshistoryreads get started!

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Find out more about Stephanie and her books at these links:

Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Instagram | LinkedIn | Google+ | Newsletter

WomensHistoryReads: Aimie K. Runyan


I'm pleased to welcome Aimie K. Runyan to the blog today to talk about her inspirations, including the women of New France and Soviet pilots flying in all-female units, as well as when we can expect her next book. Aimie says she "write[s] to celebrate history's unsung heroines," which makes her a perfect interviewee for #WomensHistoryReads! Welcome, Aimie!

Aimie K. Runyan

Aimie K. Runyan

Greer: Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.

Aimie: I began my first novel because of a group of women mentioned very briefly in a Canadian Civ class in grad school. It was a group of 770 women who were sent over under the auspices of Louis XIV to help boost the (very bachelor heavy) population of New France (modern day Quebec). The program was hugely successful, to the point where *two-thirds* of modern-day French Canadian ancestry can trace their lineage back to one or more of these women. I was astounded to learn the impact of this ten-year program, but these women are still dismissed as a footnote in history books. I thought their story deserved to be told, so I did. Since then, I’ve stumbled across numerous other groups of women who were similarly marginalized, so I have plenty of novels left to write, which is both wonderful and saddening.

Greer: How would you describe what you write?

Aimie: I write to celebrate history’s unsung heroines. I strive to be the missing chapters from our history books. When we learn about the World Wars, for example, women are often mentioned in cute little side notes. The women who went to work in factories to keep the country running. Who went back to the kitchen with a smile to make room for the returning war heroes. We don’t hear nearly enough about the women who served in the navy and marines even as early as the First World War. It’s far too comfortable to paint women as having support roles at the times of conflict in our history, and that simply has never been the case.

Greer: What's your next book about and when will we see it?

Aimie: My next book is called GIRLS ON THE LINE, and is the story of the American women who served as telephone operators in the US Army Signal Corps in World War One. The telephone was cutting edge technology at the time, and General Pershing knew that women were needed to run the phone system at maximum efficiency. 250 women served overseas, subject to all military protocols, but were told on return that the government was not going to recognize them veterans. It took a sixty-year legal battle to reverse that decision. It will be available from your favorite book sellers in early November, 2018, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the armistice of WWI.

Aimie: What drove you to focus on historical storytelling, rather than contemporary tales? 

Greer: I mentioned this briefly in a previous interview, but I kind of accidentally ended up writing historical fiction with THE MAGICIAN'S LIE, since I wanted to set it at a time when it was unusual but not impossible for a woman to become famous and notorious as a stage magician. And then I just kept getting more and more ideas for historical novels. Partly because the deeper you get into research for one book, the more you stumble across stories that might inspire another. And I love that books about the past are never really just about the past. We can use these narratives to build resonance with our current world and gain insight into not just how far we've come, but how far we have yet to go.



Read more about Aimie and her books at aimiekrunyan.com

WomensHistoryReads: Erika Mailman

Yes, that's right! It's not Women's History Month anymore... and #womenshistoryreads is still going strong. How long will the series go? Keep tuning in to find out!

Today's interviewee is Erika Mailman, discussing the inspiration for her novel THE MURDERER'S MAID, whose life she'd like to see Jane Campion take on, and what show she calls "novel writing with fabric." Here's Erika!

Erika Mailman

Erika Mailman

Greer: Tell us about a woman from the past who has inspired your writing.

Erika: There are so many ways in which powerful people of the past are remembered. But I like thinking about the people who skirted the edges and didn’t have biographies written about them. For my latest novel, I focused on a woman who—if she had not been hired in a household with a famous double murder—would’ve been a nameless one of the millions of Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1800s.

Bridget Sullivan sailed to New England in 1886 and moved from state to state for the next few years before coming to work for Andrew and Abby Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1889. Bridget served as the family cook and maid. So many young Irish women with this name served in that capacity that “Bridget” became a noun for a maid. In this time period, the Irish were scorned and thought to be dirty, sickly, verminous, and a drain on public resources.

On August 4, 1892, Bridget was washing the windows when Mrs. Borden was felled by multiple hatchet wounds to the head. The body lay temporarily undiscovered in a second-floor bedroom, and eventually Bridget went to her third floor attic bedroom to take a nap. She awoke to the daughter Lizzie Borden calling her down, because now Mr. Borden had been murdered, too. “Miss Lizzie” went through a media circus of a trial and was acquitted.

Bridget fades from the record, but her time in court was not fully squeezed for the information she surely had about the tensions and resentments in the house. She was discounted because of her immigrant status. In court, she was even openly mocked for her brogue, and the courtroom laughed at her. I loved the opportunity to fill out the spaces of what Bridget might’ve known and not said. Mysteriously, her inquest testimony has disappeared. In court, she contradicted what she’d said at the inquest a year earlier (withdrawing the assertion that Lizzie had been crying the morning of the murders)…who knows what else she retracted or changed her mind about?

My novel also includes a modern-day narrative about a woman who is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant. I wanted to underscore the parallels of how immigrants are treated, then and today.

Greer: Play matchmaker: what unsung woman from history would you most like to read a book about, and who should write it?

Erika: Maud Gonne, Irish activist and suffragist—and muse to poet William Butler Yeats, who yearned for her and was spurned by her. Rather than a book, I think Jane Campion should write a screenplay about her, because Bright Star was so intensely wonderful and drenched with all the everything, that I know she’d make this story incredible.

Greer: What book, movie or TV show would your readers probably be surprised to find out you love?

Erika: I love "Project Runway." People would find it surprising because I’m not a style maven and as a feminist I worry about the unrealistic body types found in the modeling industry (although the last season included plus-sized models, which was fantastic to see). I’m less interested in the modeling side, and more in the design side. What I love about the show is that it follows the process of creation from the first idea, through first draft, through feedback thanks to the eloquent Tim Gunn and revision, and final iteration. It’s like they’re novel writing with fabric!

Greer: Love it! (And love Tim Gunn, especially.)

Erika: Would you say you’re obsessed with the 1800s—if so, why? Do you ever look at daguerreotypes and wish you could go be there with those people for the day?

Greer: Not obsessed, exactly, but yes, I would love to experience the world of my characters directly, knowing it has to be different from ours in countless ways, large and small. Historical fiction is always fascinating to me in the ways it draws parallels between the past and present (like you said above, with the resonance of how immigrants were treated then and now) but there's a lot to be said about both the similarities and differences between our world and theirs. In the area of character, I often focus on the similarities -- even if women didn't have the same rights and privileges, for example, who's to say many of them didn't have the same yearnings we do? But in painting a picture of their world for my readers, how it smells and tastes and looks and feels, I definitely investigate and describe all the differences as much as I'm able. That's what I'd want to go see for myself.

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Website: www.erikamailman.com

Blog: http://erikamailman.blogspot.com/

Twitter: @ErikaMailman

WomensHistoryReads interview: Erin Lindsay McCabe

It feels fitting to wrap up the first month of #WomensHistoryReads interviews (that's right, it's not over!) with Erin Lindsay McCabe, one of the first authors I bonded with over our love for telling women's untold stories from history. Erin also hosts the quarterly Twitterchat #HistoricalFix, which is one of my favorite ways to spend time on Twitter. If you love Twitterchats, keep an eye out in April for #WomensHistoryReads to follow in #HistoricalFix's footsteps...

Erin Lindsay McCabe

Erin Lindsay McCabe

Greer: If you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?

Erin: This is such an impossible question for me, because I really want to answer ALL OF THEM. But because I'm biased, I'm going to say I'd love to see Sarah Rosetta Wakeman in every history book and the reason why is because she -- along with many of the other female Civil War soldiers -- was an ordinary woman who served our country in a way that women were not supposed to, and she served in our military with complete equality. But she did it, not to prove a point or to make history, but because it was something she wanted to do. I would have been so inspired by her story as a kid -- because the way I was taught history pretty much made it seem like hardly any women were ever on the frontlines of any of our country's history, like they weren't taking active roles in shaping our country, and that's just not true. 

Greer: What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?

Erin: What I find most challenging is also what I find most exciting, which is that there is often so little in the historical record about women. I always want my research to be as accurate as possible, so that no one can discount the truth of the story I'm telling just because I got some historical detail wrong. But because women are so often absent from history, it can make hunting down accurate information about their lives incredibly difficult, an idea that Jill Lepore explores really beautifully in her non-fiction book about Jane Franklin, The Book of Ages. Luckly, being a fiction writer, those same gaps -- the questions the historical record will probably never be able to adequately answer --are what spur my imagination and give me the space I need to imagine. But it's also incredibly thrilling when I uncover some little historical tidbit that unlocks a woman's past and places her where I had only imagined she might have been or clarifies what she might have done. 

Greer: Play matchmaker: what unsung woman from history would you most like to read a book about, and who should write it?

Erin: I would love to read a novel about Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. In college I read her letters to the bishop who had ordered her books be taken away, and she just astounded me. Her ideas, her passionate argument for women's rights, seemed so modern. I feel like maybe Isabel Allende could get the historical and cultural details right, and that her playfulness could bring Sor Juana's passion and anger at injustice and misuse of power to light in a way that would be deep without being too heavy, that would render Sor Juana in a complex and sympathetic way.

Greer: I'm in.

Erin: And my question for you is: In each of your novels, you've told stories about women who have taken on one form of disguise or another (a magician who deals with illusions in The Magician's Lie, a spy in Girl in Disguise, and a young woman feigning insanity in your forthcoming book Woman Ninety-Nine). What is it you find so compelling about women who take on alternate identities in order to create opportunities for themselves?

Greer: I've always loved the idea of slipping out of your own identity like a dress that doesn't fit you and slipping into a new one instead. I grew up in a very small town, where you pretty much get locked into one identity from the get-go, and it's very difficult to change the perception other people have of you. Once I got to high school, I'd go away for camps or conferences or other activities, and I started meeting other people for the first time and having the chance to build a new perception with them. It blew my mind when I wasn't just seen as "the smart girl" anymore. I actually won a popularity contest at language camp when I was 16 and you could've knocked me over with a feather! That wasn't how I thought of myself at all!

Then I went away to college, all the way from Iowa to Boston, and I rebuilt my identity from scratch again. Five years after that I moved to Washington DC to start graduate school, where I knew no one at all, and the process repeated itself. So I have some experience with the idea that you're only who you say you are, that the choices you make can remake you. And when I do book events I get a taste of what it's like to flip the switch more quickly. I might start out my morning at home, where my three-year-old is in tears complaining that there are "holes in [her] oatmeal" (true story), but by evening I'm in red lipstick and black Gucci boots with 30 people leaning forward in their chairs to hear me speak. It's crazy and I love it.

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For more on Erin and her books, visit: 


@ErinLindsMcCabe on Twitter (https://twitter.com/ErinLindsMcCabe)

@ErinLindsMcCabe on Instagram (https://instagram.com/ErinLindsMcCabe)



WomensHistoryReads interview: Karen Abbott

30 days of March so far and 30 #WomensHistoryReads interviews! To mark the milestone, I'm sharing the Q&Q&Q&A from one of my favorites, Karen Abbott, author of LIAR TEMPTRESS SOLDIER SPY. (It's nonfiction that reads like a novel -- a really, really good novel.) Truth really is stranger than fiction sometimes, and it's extraordinary when someone undertakes painstaking research into that truth, then arranges it in a compelling narrative that unspools with energy and urgency. That's what Karen Abbott does. You'll love her talent, her books, and her answers below.

Karen Abbott

Karen Abbott

Greer: If you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?

Karen: I’m going to cheat a little bit and name two, but they worked so closely together that it would be unfair to choose just one: Elizabeth Van Lew and Mary Bowser, who are two main characters in LIAR TEMPTRESS SOLDIER SPY. Elizabeth was a Richmond-born society matron who sympathized with the North, which was a very dangerous position for her to have while living in the Confederate capital. Mary was born a slave to the Van Lew family; when she was about four years old, Elizabeth freed her (along with all of the family slaves). She sent Mary abroad for schooling and developed a sort of mother-daughter relationship with her. With the onset of the Civil War, Elizabeth concocted a scheme: she would get Mary a job as a servant at the Confederate White House, waiting on Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his family. Bowser pretended she couldn’t read or write, but in reality she was highly educated and gifted with a photographic memory.

So when she was dusting Davis’s desk or cleaning up the children’s nursery, she was also sneaking a peek at military papers and eavesdropping on confidential conversations. She passed all of the information back to Elizabeth, who had organized a Union spy ring that stretched into neighboring states. The “Richmond Underground,” as it was called, was responsible for passing the most important intelligence of the war to Union General Ulysses S. Grant (in a letter to Elizabeth, he said so himself). The North would not have won the war without the efforts of Elizabeth Van Lew and Mary Bowser. They should be household names on the same level of Grant, Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, and I think it’s a travesty that they have mostly been lost to history. 

Greer: It's really a spectacular story, and I totally agree with your choice(s). Generals aren't the only people who make things happen in wartime -- far from it. So, what's your next book about and when will we see it?

Karen: My next book is about the most successful bootlegger in American history (and his name was NOT Al Capone). He was wildly innovative, eccentric and brilliant, and made an estimated $40 million (in today’s money) in just two short years. He threw lavish parties and was reportedly Fitzgerald’s inspiration for Jay Gatsby. My other main character is a pioneering woman lawyer, who, at age 32, was appointed by Warren Harding at the Assistant Attorney General for the United States. She was in charge of all bootlegging cases in the country. Harding, whose administration was notoriously corrupt, figured that a young woman just five years out of law school with no prosecutorial experience would not impede their business with bootleggers. Well, of course she went in there and started kicking some ass. There’s a great narrative arc: a sordid love triangle, a murder, a sensational trial, all set against the backdrop of the Jazz Age. I’m having a lot of fun with it, and don’t want it to end! The tentative publishing date is January 2020, timed for the 100th anniversary of Prohibition. I envision quite a few events in speakeasies…. 

Greer: I like how you think. Last question: Do you consider yourself a historian?

Karen: Not in the traditional sense of the word, no. I don’t have a history degree and I am not an academic; I have no interest in writing, say, a feminist analysis of prostitution or the Civil War. I’m a selective historian; I find a story that fascinates me and then I exhaustively educate myself about that topic, those people, that place and time. I notice language in letters. I discover what items were selling at the corner store and for how much. I research the proper way to lace a corset—those sorts of details that bring long-dead tales and people to live. I like to say I’m in the business of time travel, and I aim to tell a good story that illuminates a forgotten slice of history. By the end of a book, I am always jealous of my characters, and wish I could have lived their lives. Writing about them is the next best thing. 

Greer: Love it.

Karen: Your most recent (and excellent novel), GIRL IN DISGUISE, is based on the true story of Kate Warne, America’s first female private eye. I came across Kate Warne in my research for LIAR TEMPTRESS SOLDIER SPY and was fascinated by her, so I am glad you wrote this book. I’m curious about your research process. I don’t believe there is much information about Kate, and certainly not much primary source material. Did you find anything surprising that shed light on her character, or is she mostly a figment of your imagination? Did you rely on diaries and other primary source material to make the dialogue so authentic and true? What is your secret trick for turning an obscure historical figure into such a complex, three-dimensonal and relatable character?

Greer: As it happens, I didn't really know there was so little information on Kate in the historical record when I decided to write a book about her. Lucky for me I'm not a biographer. I would have really been up a creek. But as a historical novelist I decided to take the gaps in her story as invitations. We don't have any letters or diaries from her, so I had to come up with a voice for her, and I gave her the personality I thought she must have had in order to do the things she did: march into Allan Pinkerton's office in 1856 asking for a job as a detective; be so good at her job Pinkerton established a Bureau of Female Detectives and put her in charge; help talk Abraham Lincoln into changing his route to DC for his inauguration to avoid an assassination attempt in Baltimore. And that's just what we know she did. Imagine all the other things we don't know about!

Nearly everything in Kate's character uses that scarce information from the historical record as a jumping-off point. We know she was a good enough actress and mimic to pass as a native Alabaman with other Southerners -- how did that come about, I wondered? We know she was a widow, or at least Allan Pinkerton says she was a widow, so I added that to the list of things to explain. Bit by bit I built a character from what little information the record offered up, and wove together plausible -- and hopefully interesting -- ways to fill in the gaps. The result isn't necessarily the Kate Warne, but she's my Kate Warne, which is the freedom inherent in fiction. I just want to honor history and deliver the best possible experience for the reader, whatever that takes.