WomensHistoryReads interview: Juliette Fay

If you love reading about the early days of Hollywood, the behind-the-scenes combination of grit and glamour, you will absolutely love Juliette Fay’s latest, City of Flickering Light, just released today! I was lucky enough to read an early copy and absolutely devoured it. Her book The Tumbling Turner Sisters is one of my favorite takes on vaudeville. Turner fans will enjoy seeing a certain character’s return in this book.

So today seemed like the right day to introduce you to Juliette and her new novel! Fans of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us will especially love its intelligent, sympathetic take on the constant compromises, surprises and tragedies that accompany the quest for fame.

Welcome, Juliette!

Juliette Fay

Juliette Fay

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

Juliette: I just loved A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler. It’s about Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont who rose from half-starved teenager to be one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in the country. Along the way she aimed her keen mind and can-do personality at social causes like poverty and women's suffrage, and found true love. A fascinating story, carefully researched, and beautifully written.

I went to hear the author speak and she talked about how Alva had always been portrayed as aggressive, demanding, and bossy, and at first Fowler wrote the whole story with that perspective. Then she started thinking about how many men from history could be described in just the same way, but were considered great leaders with big ideas and admirably high standards. Fowler rewrote the entire book with the same angle on Alva. I love that she was able to see through what would have been considered terribly un-well-behaved at the time, to the bright, passionate, shrewd woman whose efforts impacted so many for the better.

Greer: Yes! It was a fabulous book and Fowler speaks about that issue so eloquently. Next question for you: Do you consider yourself a historian?

Juliette: I do not consider myself a historian, and this is the very thing that kept me from writing historical fiction for a long time, despite the fact that I love to read it. I kept thinking, “Don’t you have to have some sort of degree, or at least to have paid a little more attention in history class than I did?”

 Then I was between book ideas for a couple of months in 2013, which was really freaking me out, and I suddenly remembered that my great grandfather had been in vaudeville, and wouldn’t it be great to write a novel about that! It gave me the inspiration and courage to start researching. After a couple of months, when I felt I had a solid command of the facts I was able to start writing the story.

So while I’m still not a historian, I found I really love learning all this crazy stuff, whether it’s historical facts, medical conditions, fashion, food, politics, language and jargon, old jokes to pepper the dialogue of my Jewish comedians in the book about vaudeville (The Tumbling Turner Sisters), or crazy stunts to give my silent film actors in my latest book, City of Flickering Light. And because I’m still a little insecure about it, I’m fanatical about getting the facts right. 

Greer: Your dedication shows! You’re so good at working those details in. Last question: What book, movie or TV show would your readers probably be surprised to find out you love?

Juliette: I’m a huge fan of historical shows, of course—The Crown, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Victoria, Poldark. I also love shows with interesting structures, like This Is Us, where the timeframe is bouncing all over the place. 

But my guilty pleasure is Roswell, New Mexico. There, I’ve said it. 

If you believe the conspiracy theories, Roswell, NM is the site of a crashed alien ship and a vast government cover-up. The show is based on the premise that three little alien kids emerged from that crash with no knowledge of where they came from and what they’re capable of. Now in their late twenties, they’re still desperately trying to pass as humans so the government won’t spirit them away and do experiments on them. 

I think what I like about it is that it’s just pure emotion. Of course, they’ve each fallen in love with humans, which is complicated—there’s a whole Romeo-and-Juliet thing going on with “us” and “them.” It’s all angst and heartache and unexpected couplings. You have to suspend disbelief hard and just go with it. No real nutritional value, but who doesn’t love a hot fudge sundae once in a while!

Greer: Reciprocal confession: I was a huge fan of the original “Roswell” in the ‘90s. Such a sundae.

Juliette: Question for you: In your latest book, Woman 99 (which I cannot wait to get my hands on, as I completely loved Girl in Disguise), what was the most interesting piece of information you dug up in your research, whether you actually used it in the book or not?

Greer: There’s so much that doesn’t make it into the book, right? We always find more than we can use. For Woman 99 specifically, the asylum setting was my biggest research challenge — it had to be realistic and accurate to the period without being completely depressing and exhausting for the reader. So I didn’t go deep on some of the uglier “treatments,” though I worked in a passing mention of the one I found most shocking: the utterly quack-y idea that there was a link between dental health and mental health. The idea that pulling a depressed patient’s teeth out would somehow help them seems ridiculous to us now, but it was a real thing that happened. And here’s the extra-creepy part: Dr. Henry Cotton, who did a lot of this “focal infection therapy” in the early 1900s, believed so strongly that infections of the teeth spread to the mind that he removed his wife’s and children’s teeth just in case. Ew! Truth is creepier than fiction!


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Read more at JulietteFay.com.

WomensHistoryReads interview: Jess Montgomery

Pioneering women in law enforcement have never gotten their due. Within the past few years, historical fiction readers may have learned the names of Constance Kopp (from Amy Stewart’s books) or Kate Warne (from mine), but there are dozens, even hundreds, of names like theirs we could know.

Add Maude Collins to the list. She was Jess Montgomery’s inspiration for The Widows, and you’ll learn more about her — and Jess — in today’s Q&Q&Q&A.

Jess Montgomery

Jess Montgomery

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

Jess: In THE WIDOWS, my protagonist Lily Ross is inspired by Ohio's true first female sheriff in 1925, Maude Collins. Maude became sheriff in Vinton County when her husband, Fletcher, was sadly killed in the line of duty. After his funeral, she was packing up in the sheriff's house for her and her five children when the county commissioners came by and asked her to fill in for Fletcher. She did so, and in 1926 ran for office in her own right--and won. I was struck when I learned of Maude by how challenging serving as a sheriff in such circumstances would be now--what's more, nearly a hundred years ago. Then I began imagining what it would be like for a young woman to lose her sheriff husband but under mysterious circumstances, and the lengths she might go to to find out the truth. Thus, Lily was born--a character in her own right. I am blessed to have several aunts who were very tough women who were also leaders in male dominated work fields, so I drew on them as well for the spiritual inspiration for Lily.

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

Jess: Mary Harris Jones, a.k.a., Mother Jones (1837-1903). She was a dynamo labor organizer--including for the United Mine Workers. She became an organizer after her husband and four children all died of yellow fever, and she lost her dress shop in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. She was known as "the most dangerous woman" in America in 1902 for her efforts to help mine workers organize into unions.  She is the spiritual inspiration for Marvena Whitcomb, a widow and mine union organizer in my novel THE WIDOWS.  I love Mother Jones for her feisty spirit and passion for the working class. After such a terrible loss, it would have been understandable if she'd given up--but she didn't. Learning about her is a way to also learn about the history of workers' rights, unions, and women's rights. Her name is also the inspiration for Mother Jones magazine, which I think high school students would find fascinating!

Greer: Do you consider yourself a historian?

Jess: Not at all! But I do love researching the settings and times for my novels in great detail and am indebted to actual historians. I also love to dig into source material (newspapers of the day, for example) as much as possible. I very much want to get all the historical details right, without turning my novel into an historical treatise. 

My question for you: To me, historical fiction is a chance to time-travel a bit into the past--which is fun--but it is also so much more than that. It's a way to see the present, and perhaps even the near future, with a fresh perspective. For example, women's rights have certainly progressed since 1925, but by looking at women's roles in the 1920s, we can also see the ways in which some attitudes haven't changed. Do you think of historical fiction as a lens for looking afresh at the present?

Greer: Absolutely! I’m fond of saying that historical fiction is a way of looking at how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. Anyone who brushes off historical fiction as irrelevant because it’s about things that happened a long time ago is really missing out. And historical fiction that uses history as a jumping-off point can really be enjoyed twice: once, while you’re reading the fictional story, and a second time, as you search out the real history that inspired the novel. Reading and enjoying, reading and learning — what could be better?

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For more on Jess:

Web and blog: www.jessmontgomeryauthor.com

Facebook: @JessMontgomeryAuthor

Instagram: @JessMontgomeryAuthor

Twitter: @JessM_Author

WomensHistoryReads interview: Stephanie Barron

I used to live in Brooklyn Heights, billed as “America’s first suburb,” built when people first realized that living right next to New York had some advantages over living in New York itself. Because of its age, there’s a historical house around nearly every corner. One day, strolling around Henry Street on the far side of Atlantic, I checked out a plaque: 426 Henry Street was the birthplace of Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s mother. Winston Churchill’s mother was American? I thought. I need to know that story.

So when I saw the cover of Stephanie Barron’s That Churchill Woman, I knew it was the story I, and plenty of other people, had been waiting to read.

Stephanie Barron

Stephanie Barron

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

Stephanie: There's no question in my mind that the women who preceded Jane Austen--the women she read, like Anne Radcliffe, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Aphra Behn, and others--were strong, independent, and daring writers. In some cases they wrote for financial survival; in all cases, from intellectual and emotional need. They were highborn and low, personally secure or clinging by their fingernails to respectability; but each had a voice and was determined to express it. Along the way, they revolutionized what was generally a male-framed world. Austen's genius is that she also advanced the novel form in ways that neither men nor women before her did, by pursuing a linear and internally coherent narrative; she learned from those she read and improved upon them stylistically. One of the great gifts to scholarship in women's literature is Chawton House, one of the estates that belonged to Jane's brother Edward, which houses a center for the study of Early Women's Writing. I can't think of a greater tribute to Jane and her work. (I should also say that I have authored a mystery series with Jane Austen as the main character, and have been an ardent Janeite from the age of 12, so perhaps I'm biased.)

Greer: Do you consider yourself a historian?

Stephanie: It depends upon the audience I'm talking to, honestly. I hesitate to proclaim myself an historian because I left a doctoral program in history at Stanford without writing my dissertation--I am what is known as ABD, "all-but-dissertation," meaning I passed my Orals but never penned the opus. This had to do with several things: I found as I journeyed through graduate school that I was more interested in the PEOPLE I studied than in the sweeping historical trends of demographics or economics, and the field was tilted in the latter direction when I was in school. I also found the academic community less than congenial. I far prefer writing fiction about historical figures--and I draw heavily on every single skill I learned, as a student of history for seven years, to do it. Those are techniques and principals I discuss with readers when we talk about historical fiction--so that those who like my work feel reassured that it's based on exploration of the existing record, even when I choose to diverge from it. I've been lucky enough to write about Queen Victoria, Virginia Woolf, Jack Kennedy, Ian Fleming, and Allen Dulles; most lately, of course, about Jennie Jerome Churchill, Winston's outrageous American mother. I love exploring a particular moment through the life and mind of an era's standout people.

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

Stephanie: The effort required to unpack the truth of their inner lives from the multiple layers of obfuscation, distraction, and sheer bias that result from most women's habitual depiction at the hands of male historians. Take Jennie Churchill, for example--I have spent a lot of time researching her son Winston for several of my WII spy novels (JACK 1939, THE ALIBI CLUB, TOO BAD TO DIE) written as Francine Mathews. I grew increasingly frustrating that the parent who clearly shaped him most, his mother, was consistently dismissed as frivolous, irrelevent, self-centered, neglectful, even nymphomaniacal--when Winston himself unequivocally adored her. I stepped back and looked at the fact that most of HIS biographers were male and British, and deplored the fact that England's greatest hero was only...half-English. It is the greatest source of indignation among conservative British historians of a certain male school, that Jennie was a Dollar Princess, and independent woman raised by her father to be fearless and joyous, a woman of considerable intelligence, broad experience, virtuosic artistic ability, and strong political opinions--a woman who would have thrived in this era, but was way ahead of her own. It's been immensely satisfying to present her to a current audience, and allow them to evaluate her for themselves.

My question for you: What compelled you to write WOMAN 99?

Greer: I did feel compelled! I was inspired by Nellie Bly’s intrepid journey undercover in an insane asylum in 1887, but I didn’t want to write a journalist character or just replicate what Nellie had done — if you want to read what Nellie did, after all, you can read her account — and that was where Charlotte Smith came from. And the extra little odd bit of inspiration was that at the time I was obsessed with thrumming beat and threatening lyrics of the Elvis Costello song "Don’t Want to Go To (Chelsea),” which includes lines like “Men come screaming/Dressed in white coats/Shake you very gently by the throat.” It seemed like a sign to write the asylum idea I had in mind. Sometimes the world gives us a nudge.

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WomensHistoryReads interview: Chanel Cleeton

It has become increasingly clear to me that I’m going to run out of March before I run out of WomensHistoryReads interviews! Again. But, as I said over on History in the Margins, having a Special Month is no excuse not to call attention to great books by and/or about women the rest of the year. And the rest of the year starts, well, next Monday.

But we’ve got one more week of Women’s History Month proper, and I’m happy to kick it off with this Q&Q&Q&A with Chanel Cleeton, whose real-life historical inspiration comes from the women in her family. You’ve likely read her blockbuster Next Year in Havana — read below to find out what you can look forward to next (and soon!) from Chanel.

Chanel Cleeton

Chanel Cleeton

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

Chanel: I’ve been really fortunate to have some amazing reads lately, but one that instantly comes to mind is The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. From the first page, I was captivated. The writing is so lyrical and stunning that I found myself swept away. It’s a dual timeline novel set eight hundred years apart in Syria, and is beautiful, breathtaking, and heartbreaking. The modern-day story of a young Syrian refugee and her family and the extraordinary lengths they go to in order to survive is one that has really stuck with me. It’s a tremendously powerful book that I cannot recommend enough. 

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

Chanel: My most recent books, Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba, have largely been inspired by women in my family, particularly my grandmother. My grandmother lived with us growing up and we had a special bond. She used to tell me stories of her life in Cuba and she passed on so much of our history and culture to me, and really gave me a great appreciation for where I came from. She was a strong, unapologetic, fierce woman and I’ve injected a lot of her spirit into my characters. My grandmother was pregnant with my father during the Cuban Revolution and lived through a tumultuous time in the eight years she lived in Cuba under Castro’s regime and then her exile to the United States. I was inspired by her strength and courage when writing Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba and strove to honor her legacy with my words. 

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

Chanel: My next book, When We Left Cuba, will be out on April 9, 2019. While it can be read as a standalone, it follows the story of Beatriz Perez (the sister of my heroine from Next Year in Havana) after her family has arrived in the United States following Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba. Living in South Florida, Beatriz becomes involved in a plot with the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro, and the novel follows the turbulent Cuban-American relations of the 1960s including the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, and Kennedy Assassination. 

Question for you: What characteristics inspire you when choosing a real-life heroine for your books? 

Greer: It’s a bit of a challenge to choose — there are so many more fascinating, untold (or at least under-told) stories than I could possibly tackle! I’m most inspired by women who bucked the trends of their time, but I also prefer characters who aren’t entirely good or entirely evil. After all, that’s not what we’re like in real life, right? Also, sometimes I stick fairly close to what’s known, as with Kate Warne in Girl in Disguise, and sometimes history is more of a jumping-off point, as with Nellie Bly and Woman 99. In Nellie’s case, she was a journalist, so if you want to read about her undercover adventures at Blackwell’s Island, you can already do that, since she documented them. So I took that inspiration and created a character who does one of the things Nellie did — feign insanity to infiltrate an insane asylum — but for her own reasons. That’s where Charlotte Smith came from. And that way I get to draw on a host of different stories to synthesize a coherent story with a satisfying ending. Which doesn’t always happen in real life.

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WomensHistoryReads interview: Julia Kelly

Hello from the road! Or at least the train tracks. It’s my most whirlwind segment of the Woman 99 book tour, so I’m writing this from a 6am train and hoping desperately the Amtrak wi-fi can hold up its end of the bargain.

Today’s guest is Julia Kelly, author of The Light Over London, and like many of the authors I interview for this series, she has an amazing story of women of the past to share with the world. Have you heard of the Gunner Girls? I hadn’t! For more, here’s Julia…

Julia Kelly

Julia Kelly


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

Julia: My favorite thing about writing is introducing readers to incredible women they may never have heard of before. For The Light Over London, I wanted to tell the stories of the Gunner Girls, a group of British women who worked in mixed gender anti-aircraft gun batteries in World War II. They did everything on the guns except for pull the trigger. (Firing a gun was considered to be active combat, which Parliament said only men could engage in.) The Gunner Girls were incredibly brave women who made a serious contribution to fighting in Britain and on the Continent.


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

Julia: I am dying to read a modern biography of Nancy Wake, the infamous World War II spy. She was brash and bold, earning her nickname the “White Mouse” for all the times she slipped through the Gestapo’s fingers as they tried to hunt her down. I actually wrote about Wake for my Lightseekers series, which is all about incredible women during World War II. Who knows, maybe I’ll write the book myself!

Greer: Nancy Wake’s name has been cropping up more and more lately — can’t wait to find out more about her! Ariel Lawhon has a novel about her in the works, I believe. Last question: What book, movie or TV show would your readers probably be surprised to find out you love?

Julia: I love a good murder mystery, whether I’m reading or watching TV. I always love books on the grittier end of the spectrum like Val McDermid or Peter May—both great Scottish authors. For TV shows, I’m happiest watching programs like Endeavour, Grantchester, and Luther.

And a question for you: What was the book that first got you interested in history?

Greer: Great question! I’m afraid I don’t have a brilliant answer. But I do distinctly remember being fascinated and thrilled by my European history course in college, not just because of the facts — I love facts — but the words! The names! I walked around muttering “Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen” under my breath for at least a month.

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WomensHistoryReads interview: Jen Deaderick

After wearing myself out publishing an interview a day for last year’s #WomensHistoryReads series, which ended up continuing for a full month after Women’s History Month was over, this year I cut way back. Only for March, I said. And only for novelists.

Well, I’ll be breaking both of those rules, as it turns out. But hey, women throughout history have had to break rules to get things done, right? Right.

I couldn’t resist inviting historian Jen Deaderick to the blog to talk about her new book SHE THE PEOPLE, an illustrated history so necessary, Hillary Clinton herself took to Instagram to offer congrats. (Personally, my heart beat faster when I saw the comment, and it’s not even my book!)

A little peek behind the curtain: I offer my interviewees about 10 questions and they choose 3, and it’s always fascinating to see what gets chosen. Of most interest, of course, are the answers! On to Jen’s.

Jen Deaderick; drawn by Rita Sapunor

Jen Deaderick; drawn by Rita Sapunor

(The illustrated headshot is genius, isn’t it? Click here for more of Rita Sapunor’s work.)

Greer: Do you consider yourself a historian?

Jen: This is the first question that jumped out at me from the list. It’s been a bigger question for me than I would have expected. A few months ago, I was having lunch with Jaclyn Friedman (who wrote the amazing Unscrewed), and she was giving me a hard time for not calling myself a historian. She was incredulous that I was writing a book on history, and yet wouldn’t give myself the title.

Maybe it’s living in such an academic town that makes me so reluctant. It seems like the title “historian” is something you earn with a degree. I did briefly pursue a masters degree in Public History at Northeastern, but I couldn’t afford it. I realized I could do the projects I wanted to do without spending thousands of dollars that I didn’t have. Still, I’m grateful for the semester I had there. I took a theory and methodology class, and that’s been helpful in my work. My fellow students were also great, and I was thrilled to meet them and have amazing conversations with them once a week. It was a terrific break from hanging out with a toddler, which was my main occupation then, and teaching intro to computers classes, which was my other occupation.

Now that I have a book that is officially classified as a history book, I’m revisiting the word. I suppose I can call myself a historian now, but I have to ease into it.

Greer: I’ll call you a historian, if that helps! (I added it to the introduction as soon as I saw this.) Next question: What’s the last book that blew you away?

Jen: The Library Book by Susan Orlean. She goes so deep in it, while also telling the history in such a compelling way. Her writing always makes me feel like I am walking along next to her as she takes me through the narrative. I love her confidence in describing the fire as if she witnessed it herself. It’s an amazing accomplishment.

It was particularly compelling to read it while I was waiting for my own book to be published. It’s powerful to think of something I created contributing to the conversation she describes.

Greer: What’s your next book about and when will we see it?/Tell us about a woman from the past who has inspired your writing.

Jen: I’m smooshing these questions together because they’re connected for me.

Back when I was in my twenties, I was hanging out with my Grandma, who was born in 1908, and very cockily said that when I got married, of COURSE I would marry someone who did half the housework. She replied, “that’s what we thought.” It blew my mind.

My grandmother was no radical feminist. She would get very upset if she was called Mrs. Rosalind Deaderick in formal correspondence instead of Mrs. Alfred V. Deaderick. She counseled me not to wear sneakers too often, to keep my feet from “spreading.” She never wore pants. Still, the feminist wave that led up to the passage of the 19th amendment, and the changes in gender roles that followed, had impacted her. She’d grown up in the Bronx, which gave her a proximity to the massive changes happening.

That exchange, and other chats with her, made me realize how complicated the history of women’s rights was, and helped inspire me to eventually write this book.

Grandma was also the person who got me interested in genealogy and how it connected us personally with history and the passage of time in general. I very clearly remember another day with her,  later in my 20s, when we sat and looked through photo albums together. She told me stories about these family members that were long gone, and as she did, I realized I was going though some of the same experiences they had, and was asking some of the same questions about my life. It gave me a perspective that I hadn’t had before, and made me clearly realize that all of the past had only happened through a series of choices made within a context over which we often had very little control. No one knows how anything will turn out, we just keep going, and that’s always been true.

My grandfather was from a prominent Southern family, and my Yankee grandma had needed to learn their history to get in good with his kin. At some point in my late teens or early twenties, I was given the family history that had been passed down since my distant cousin, Anna Mary Moon, had written it around 1933. It’s really racist, and speaks very casually about the slaves my ancestors owned, and the Native Americans they killed.

My mother was given a copy when she married my Dad, and has never recovered from the horror she felt while reading it. As an actual descendant, I’ve had to really wrestle with what this family history means to me. In my next book, I want to talk about that history, and the long tradition of women passing along family history, often building glorious myths about their male ancestors along the way. In SHE THE PEOPLE, I talk about the central role of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in passing along the Lost Cause myth, and I want to expand on that, and weave in my own family history along the way. I see the book as a response to Anna Mary Moon’s.

Greer: Sounds fantastic. Can’t wait.

Jen: My question for you: Regarding the role so many women have played in helping to create male myths, both through genealogy and published scholarly works, is there a greater obligation on female historians to tell women’s stories? Additionally, how do our experiences as women impact the ways in which we tell men’s stories, if they do?

Greer: Ooh, that is a BIG question. I will try to appropriately size my answer.

I think we should write what moves us. The appetite of the historian, or the historical novelist, to dig deep and write hard on a story that she’s passionate about — that strikes me as the most important thing, right off. That said, I’m sure there are people out there writing all sorts of horribly racist, misogynistic, offensive stories — including these faux-glorious male myths — who would defend those stories with plenty of passion. (They would also probably argue that they’re “just telling the truth,” as if “truth” and “something someone wrote down once” were synonymous.) There will always be women who want to tell men’s stories and men who want to tell women’s stories, and I’m not one to draw a hard line and say that can’t be done beautifully.

But there is no getting around the fact that men’s history tends to be overdocumented and overexplored, and women’s history tends to be underdocumented and underexplored. So in that way, yes, I think responsible historians should lean toward women’s stories and the stories of underrepresented groups of any gender. We don’t need more George Washington on America’s collective bookshelf. Find and tell the stories we don’t know by heart. I want the names Kate Warne, Irena Sendler and Ida B. Wells to be as familiar as John Wilkes Booth, Oskar Schindler and W.E.B. DuBois. And it’s not as if introducing these lesser-known names replaces the better-known ones: there is so much capacity to make history bigger. Add Sophie Scholl alongside Anne Frank, Claudette Colvin alongside Rosa Parks, Elizabeth Bisland alongside Nellie Bly. That’s what I want to see.

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WomensHistoryReads interview: Kip Wilson

I’ve interviewed historians, novelists, biographers, and many other types of writers for my WomensHistoryReads series, but today’s Q&Q&Q&A is a first for me: interviewing a “verse novelist!” Kip Wilson’s White Rose is a debut YA novel-in-verse about Sophie Scholl, a young student who fought the rise of the Nazis with passionate political activism and, unfortunately, paid a high price. Early reviews have been excellent and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. White Rose is slated for release on April 2, 2019.

Kip Wilson

Kip Wilson

Greer: How would you describe what you write?

Kip: Content-wise, I tend to be drawn to tragic stories that feature courageous young women, which is a pretty accurate description of Sophie Scholl and WHITE ROSE. In general, I’m fascinated by the first half of the twentieth century, an era still rife with such stories yearning to be told. Most all of my projects take place during this time.

Beyond this, as a verse novelist, my writing is necessarily sparse. I need to be able to distill what might be a page or even pages of prose into key phrases, emotions, and images. This might not seem like a good fit for historical fiction—often known for lengthy description and detailed settings—but I’ve found that verse allows me to go deeper into the protagonist’s head and emotions. The brevity of poetry lends itself really well to tragic situations, and the whitespace helps balance the heaviness of the words on the page, giving the reader room to breathe.

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

Kip: I recently read FLYGIRL by Sherri L. Smith and it was amazing in every way (starting with the gorgeous cover). FLYGIRL tells the story of Ida Mae Jones, a white-passing WASP during World War II. When we look at some of the difficulties women faced throughout history, we have to remember how much more difficult all of these things were for women of color, and this novel does an excellent job of placing the reader in that exact situation, highlighting the triumphs along with those difficulties. The story is based on what real WASP went through during training and beyond, along with the racism POC faced both in the military and civilian life. Ida Mae and the other characters are so rich and nuanced—I’d follow them anywhere.

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

Kip: I would love to read a novel about Freddie Oversteegen, her sister Truus, and their friend Hannie Schaft, Dutch resistance fighters during World War II who seduced and killed Nazi soldiers. I think bestselling author Marieke Nijkamp would do a fantastic job researching and writing their story. 

And a question for you: we hear about certain women from history again and again while others have all but faded into the archives. How do you find the ones you think aren’t overdone but might garner enough interest from readers? For instance, how did you come across Kate Warne and decide that GIRL IN DISGUISE had the makings of a compelling story?

Greer: I love this question! I hope that one day there are so many books about Kate Warne that when a new one comes out, people groan and say, “Oh, not another one!” But we’re a long way from that, aren’t we? Kate’s an interesting case because there’s just so little in the historical record about her. Which is a common problem with researching women in history. But even with World War II history — arguably the most popular era for historical fiction in our time — there are women who have inspired a handful of tales, like the Russian night bombing squadron known as the Night Witches, and some whose names are still rarely heard, like Nancy Wake, the White Mouse. And records really can’t be an excuse there. I literally just learned last week that Christian Dior’s sister Catherine Dior was a spy for Polish intelligence and was imprisoned in a concentration camp before being freed and testifying against her Nazi captors. Now isn’t that a story we should know? I think nearly any story can be compelling if told expertly, but there are definitely some that are easier to tell than others. I’m just glad that we’re writing in a time where people are open to historical fiction as a way of learning more about the past. I think it’s an amazingly powerful tool.

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WomensHistoryReads interview: Jennifer Robson

Some books just make you say Ooh! when you hear about them. Maybe they seem particularly original, or cover a subject you’re particularly interested in, or delve deeper into a story you’ve always wanted to know more about. In my case, the Ooh! when I heard about Jennifer Robson’s The Gown had to do with my background — when I was growing up, my mom had her own business designing and sewing wedding gowns, so when I heard Robson had written about the women behind the gorgeous embroidery on Queen Elizabeth’s wedding dress, I was dying to know more. And thousands of readers seem to agree, putting The Gown on the bestseller lists at The Globe and Mail. (If you’re saying Ooh! about this book too, if you hurry, you might even be able to get in on this Goodreads giveaway!)

Jennifer Robson

Jennifer Robson

Greer: How would you describe what you write?

Jennifer: If you’d asked me this a few years ago, I’d have said historical fiction, straight up. But I’ve been thinking about my approach to historical fiction recently, and now I’d say my work falls into the realm of the “plausible meeting the possible”: I find blank spaces in recorded history and then create characters who fill those gaps in a realistic and convincing way. My characters – often living in the shadow of well-known historical figures – are products of my imagination, but the world in which they live and the events that affect their lives are drawn entirely from the historical record.

Greer: I love that! Next question: do you consider yourself a historian?

Jennifer: I do, to the point that I find it hard at times to remember that I’m also a writer. I grew up in a house that revolved around history – my father is an academic who taught the history of the world wars for almost fifty years – and I went to graduate school with the intention of becoming a history professor as well. By the time I obtained my doctorate in 1997, however, the job market had pretty much dried up for specialists in British social history. I turned to editing instead, and spent a decade doing that before I listened to the “tug on the sleeve of my heart,” as Anne Lamott terms it, and started work on my first novel. But I still approach everything I do with the mindset of a historian.

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

Jennifer: The challenge, as I’m sure you’ve also found, is the absence of women from so much of our recorded history. Women’s voices are missing in so many of the sources we consult, and at times I’ve been tempted to start screaming when I hit yet another dead end in my research. (Of course, such moments only occur in the stuffiest and most solemn libraries!) But those absences can also be exciting, in that they provoke me to dig deeper and think more creatively.

When I was researching The Gown, for example, I expected to find some evidence of contemporary interest in the women who made Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown, but no one, among the thousands of journalists who flocked to Britain in 1947 to cover the wedding, interviewed or even discussed the work done by the actual women who made the gown. And that void in the historical record propelled me to take a different approach to my research. If I couldn’t learn from the women who made the gown then, I could learn from women doing similar work today, and so I went to England to learn from the master embroiderers at Hand & Lock. Not only did I gain incredibly valuable insights into the approaches and techniques used by skilled embroiderers, but I also was put in touch with Betty Foster, the last surviving seamstress who worked on the gown, and her insights transformed my understanding of the lives of my characters. But I never would have found Betty if I hadn’t run into those brick walls early in my research.

And my question for you: Is there a great canonical classic that you keep meaning to read but haven’t yet opened? (For me it’s Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, which my father loves to the point of obsession; I worry I’ll hate it, so my copy is still gathering dust.)

Greer: There are rather a lot of gaps in my literary education, so there are probably a boatload of classics I should read, but here’s the one I actually feel bad about: I’ve never read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I’m sure I will love it. It comes up constantly. But between everything I read for research, for blurbs, for keeping current in my field, not to mention all of those pesky non-reading tasks (writing, children, etc.) in my life… it just hasn’t made it to the top of the list. Maybe I need to make that a goal for 2020!

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For more about Jennifer and her books, visit http://www.jennifer-robson.com.

WomensHistoryReads interview: Paula Butterfield

It’s no secret that women in the arts have long struggled to achieve the recognition of their male peers, and the Impressionists are no exception. The average museum’s Impressionist exhibit might include only one or two female painters of the period, but if you’re lucky, you’ll see a Morisot in among the Monets and Manets. Paula Butterfield’s La Luministe, about Berthe Morisot, was just released, making this the perfect time to interview her for this series. Welcome, Paula!

Paula Butterfield

Paula Butterfield


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

Paula: Today Frida Kahlo is a well-known Mexican artist who is the inspiration for everything from merchandise to memes. But when I first encountered Frida in an art history class at the Universidad de la Americas, in Mexico, I had never heard of her. 

During my sophomore year of college, I lost both of my parents. Although pursuing an education was engrained in me, I was in too much pain to face a gloomy Pacific Northwest winter that year, which is how I found myself at school in Mexico. Right away, I was homesick, with no home to go to. When I’d trudge to the campus post office, the postal worker would bring out a pile of B letters to wade through. There were few for me but another B student, the daughter of a celebrity, seemed to receive reams of mail every day with her father’s name stamped on the envelope. I was livid with envy. Why did SHE get to have a doting father, one who no doubt sent her frequent large sums of money? 

Then one day that celebrity’s daughter stood up to give an oral report, Frida’s story. I listened to the litany of Frida’s physical trials—childhood polio and being impaled by the handrail in a street car accident which led to subsequent miscarriages, spinal surgeries, and ultimately the amputation of her leg. And then there was the emotional turmoil of being Diego Rivera’s wife. His fame eclipsed hers, and he was incessantly unfaithful.

My God, this woman knew pain! And yet her paintings were unlike anything I’d ever seen. Self-portraits in which she adorned herself as a work of art. Backgrounds filled with animals from her menagerie, pre-Columbian artifacts, and lush foliage. Vivid colors made each painting look joyful and life-affirming. One was even titled Viva la Vada—live life. 

As an art-history major in days of yore, I’d only been introduced to only two women—Mary Cassatt and Georgia O’Keeffe. Examination of their work was so cursory that it didn’t occur to me that either artist might have something to say to me. But Frida Kahlo did. She might as well have been standing in that classroom, shouting, “Yes, there’s pain! Use it to create something that celebrates life.”

My favorite form of creativity as a child had always been writing stories or plays. But it wasn’t until Frida encouraged me that I began concentrating on writing. It’s been a long road, but my debut novel, La Luministe, released on March 15. (P.S. I learned my lesson about pre-judging people, even ones who are wealthy and fame-adjacent.) 

Greer: What is most challenging or exciting about researching historical women?

Paula: When I started teaching courses about women in the arts during the last days of Second Wave Feminism, there were no textbooks available. But I must give a shout-out to Karen Peterson and J.J. Wilson, who wrote Women Artists: Recognition & Reappraisal, surely the first survey of women in Western Art. Before I discovered that book, I had to collate one of those compilations of articles and essays that students love so well. That was the challenge.

The exciting part about researching women artists during those years was that Nancy Drew-style scholars were making new discoveries. Cleaning a painting attributed to Franz Hals revealed Judith Leyster’s signature! Music by Clara Schumann was discovered in an attic! I stayed up all night when the catalogue for Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party came out. Reading the mini-biographies of 1,000 women of achievement made my heart race.

Today, women artists are having a moment. This year, we can see work by 20thc. women artists in Vienna (Sothebys, through May 19), Sixty Years of Work by Female Artists (Tate, London, opens in April), the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters (National Portrait Gallery, London, open in October), Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola (Prado, Madrid, also opens in October), and tipping over into 2020, a Joan Mitchell retrospective (San Francisco, SFMoMA, January, 2020.) And we can wallow in recent historical fiction about Judith Leyster, Sofonisba Anguissola, Lee Miller, and Dorothea Lange. And La Luministe, of course!

Greer: What can you tell us about your next book? 

Paula: I’m always reluctant to talk too much about my WIP. I’m of the school which holds that talking about a new book dilutes its strength. I need to keep all of my ideas percolating away in the back of my brain until they boil over onto the page. All I want to say is that my next book is about two rival American women artists. The idea of how there is only room for one outstanding woman in any given field, turning colleagues into competitors, is a construct that has no place in our world anymore. It never did.

And my question for you: What books did you read in your youth that might have led you to write about women detectives? The aforementioned Nancy Drew series? Or possibly From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler? Or maybe my favorite, Harriet the Spy?

Greer: I did read most of those (ah, Harriet) but the girl-detective series that will always be closest to my heart was Trixie Belden. My local library had every single book in the series except one — they’d been sent a book with the wrong cover and never gotten around to replacing it, but I checked it regularly, just in case. And it’s great to see real women detectives of the past — Constance Kopp in Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits With Gun and subsequent novels, Kate Warne in my novel Girl in Disguise — inspiring more of today’s fiction. As you mentioned, historical fiction about women artists is bringing their stories back into the spotlight. I’m thrilled by this trend toward biographical fiction inspired by women of the past — artists, detectives, spies, scientists, warriors, everyone — because so many of these are stories we should have been celebrating all along.

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Find out more about Paula and La Luministe at twitter.com/@pbutterwriter or paula-butterfield.com.

WomensHistoryReads interview: Lauren Willig

I was already excited to read Lauren Willig’s next book, The Summer Country, and after this interview, I’m even more excited! Lauren has a wealth of knowledge on history (“Back then, I was a professional historian.  Now I think of myself as a practical historian”), wonderful insights on why the historical record can be unkind to women, and a great sense of humor — you won’t want to miss her comparison of a certain British monarch to Winnie the Pooh. Let’s dive in!

 

Lauren Willig Photo Credit: Amanda Suanne

Lauren Willig Photo Credit: Amanda Suanne

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

Lauren: For nearly a decade now, I’ve been obsessing over a story I heard on a plantation tour in the Caribbean, about a fire, and a lost child (the “Portuguese ward” of the owner, who, of course, was really neither Portuguese nor his ward, but his child by an enslaved woman), and a mother who’s never mentioned in the story but really ought to be at the heart of it.  I talked about it so much that my agent finally said, “Just shut up and write it already.”  So I did. 

Coming to you in June 2019, The Summer Country is a big, sweeping historical epic set in colonial Barbados, spanning from a rising of enslaved people in 1816 to a cholera epidemic in 1854.  I call it my M.M. Kaye meets The Thorn Birds book.  (Extra points to anyone who can guess which M.M. Kaye book.)  

Greer: Do you consider yourself a historian?

Lauren: I was just re-reading Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night—one of my favorite books of all time—and there’s a line that always goes straight to my heart: “Once I was a scholar.”  

There was a time, many a year ago, when I had my own little carrel in Widener Library; when I wrote conference papers with titles that were at least two lines long and always had a colon in the middle; and I could tell you with some certainty exactly where Charles I had been on any given day. (And whether he’d been stuck in a window, and if so, for how long.  No, seriously.  The misfortunate monarch went full on Winnie the Pooh, only it was a castle window, he was trying to escape Parliamentarian custody, and there were no honey pots involved.)  

Back then, I was a professional historian.  Now I think of myself as a practical historian.  I used to worry about things like the causes of the English Civil Wars. And whether one should properly refer to the conflict as the English Civil War or the English Civil Wars.  Now?  I worry about what it felt like to live through it.  What was it like in London when there was no coal coming in from Newcastle because confused armies were marauding back and forth?  (Sometimes accidentally fighting their own side, but that’s a whole other story.)  I worry about the details of daily life, about the materials of the clothes people wore—and whether those clothes itched.  I worry about the books they read, the songs they sang, the foods they ate, the words they used.  The meta questions still interest me, of course.  But what I really aim to do now is recreate the experience of someone living through a given time, not debating about it after with all the value of hindsight and an index.  

I’ve also broadened my scope dramatically.  Back then, one of my favorite scholarly catchphrases was “That’s not my field.” Now I get to roam where I’d like. I’ve written books set in Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars, in Jazz Age Kenya, in Victorian London, and, most recently, in the colonial Caribbean.  

Although I’ve been thinking a lot about my scholarly roots recently, and I think it may be time for me to finally tackle the English Civil War once again….  Except this time, with dialogue! (And far fewer footnotes.)

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

Lauren: Have you noticed that when people talk about women, they tend to put them into certain very basic buckets?  It’s the old maiden-mother-crone problem—or the Madonna/whore problem, if you prefer. Women in history tend to be portrayed as either vamps or doormats.  Gossip gets repeated as fact.  If you’re an author researching a historical woman, it can be maddening slogging through the misinformation to get to the core of the character.

For a case in point (otherwise known as the opportunity to rant about something that’s been annoying me this week), I’ve just been reading up on Lucy Percy Hay, Countess of Carlisle. If you believe that old gossip the Duc de Rouchefoucauld, she’s the woman who stole the diamond tags Anne of Austria gave to the Duke of Buckingham—and if you think that sounds like a familiar story, it’s because Dumas used it, replacing the Countess of Carlisle with Milady de Winter.  Her historical reputation is dodgy, to say the least.  She’s portrayed as sexually rapacious, as vain, and venal, and scheming, a spy who spies for the sake of making trouble, a woman who uses men for her own gain.  Hmmm. Have we heard that sort of story about an ambitious woman before?  Recent attempts to rehabilitate her, though, are just as problematic.  One version I read claimed that her husband pimped her out to the Duke of Buckingham (disclaimer: slightly different phrasing may have been used).  There are a couple of problems with that.  One is that the affair began while her husband was out of the country.  The other is that, in trying to clear her of the taint of sexual vixen, it turns her into a victim, a woman acted upon rather than acting.  (And, really, let’s be honest, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was a bit of something back then.  You can’t blame Lucy for going there.  She was a teenager.  Which of us didn’t fall for a handsome face as a teenager?)  

For the women whose lives are well-documented, we have to fight through prejudice, misinformation, or mind-numbing hagiography, in which the woman’s life is so white-washed and limned in virtue that you might as well have little birds tweeting on her shoulders like a Disney heroine.  And then you get the other end of the spectrum.  The women whose lives haven’t been recorded at all.  You go to the archives and come away with… nothing.  An emptiness where they ought to have been. My most recent book, The Summer Country, is set in colonial Barbados. One of my two heroines is an enslaved woman on a sugar plantation in the early nineteenth century. (She’s that missing mother I was talking about above.) In her book, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, Marisa J. Fuentes writes feelingly about how you put reconstruct a life from the gaps in the archive.  Because we have so painfully little.  A woman called Nanny Grigg, one of the (real) instigators of the 1816 rising of enslaved people, is one of the side characters in The Summer Country.  Here’s what we know about Nanny Grigg: she worked at Harrow Plantation.  She was valued at £130.  And that’s it.  We have some testimony from her own mouth (to be taken with a grain of salt, of course, given the circumstances), but otherwise that’s the sum total of our information.  On the plus side, of the two per cent of the enslaved population on Barbados that was literate, the majority of that two per cent were female.  So we do have some primary sources directly penned by women in my heroine’s situation, letters where the voices ring through after all this time.  

And that is what’s so exciting about researching and writing historical women.  When you manage to dig beneath the verbiage surrounding someone too well known and get a glimpse of the real woman beneath, or when you manage to put the scrap here and scrap here together to reconstruct the world of someone whose life wasn’t recorded (or was only recorded as a financial entry in a ledger book).  When you can find the real women despite it all—and bring them back to life on the page—that’s the best.

 

And now that I’ve babbled on, it’s back over to you, Greer!  What’s the first historical fiction novel you remember reading?  And did you know then that this was what you wanted to do?


Greer: It’s funny how our paths to historical fiction can be so different, even though we’ve ended up in the same place! In my early teens I roared through my local library’s complete collection of the Wagons West series by Dana Fuller Ross, completely transported to a world where 1830s pioneers braved the numerous dangers of America’s Western frontier, racing to Oregon to start new lives there — or die trying. Considering how much I loved that series, it’s kind of surprising how long it took me to come around to historical fiction as my genre! I actually ended up writing my first historical novel somewhat by accident. Most of my book ideas had been contemporary, but when I got the idea for The Magician’s Lie—we always hear about male stage magicians cutting women in half, but why not a woman cutting a man in half?—I realized I wanted to set it in the golden age of magic. So first I had to figure out when that was, and then find enough details to build out that world. It was a struggle to re-learn writing in that genre — all that research! — but now I love it. And with every book I get deeper into finding those details and using them to build worlds of the past for readers to enter. Historical fiction has such power. If I’m doing my job right, the reader can climb all the way into the world and get lost inside.


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WomensHistoryReads interview: Ellen Marie Wiseman

One of my favorite things about doing the WomensHistoryReads series is the opportunity to connect personally for the first time with writers whose work I admire. Every connection starts somewhere — and so often, with a book!

When I first decided to write a historical novel set in an insane asylum, I of course checked out books that shared that setting, and one of the most well-read and beloved of those is Ellen Marie Wiseman’s What She Left Behind. I was riveted by its twists and turns. Several years later, this series gave me the chance to reach out to Ellen for a Q&Q&Q&A, and I’m sure you’ll love reading her thoughts here as much as I did.

Ellen Marie Wiseman

Ellen Marie Wiseman

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

Ellen: My mother and grandmother were the inspiration behind my first novel, THE PLUM TREE, which was the book that got me into this crazy author gig. The seeds for my debut were planted in my childhood, during numerous trips to visit my family in Germany. My mother came to America alone by ship when she was twenty to marry an American soldier she met while working at the PX outside her village, so I grew up listening to her stories about living in poverty in Germany during WWII.

I can’t describe what it felt like to go inside the root-cellar turned bomb-shelter where my mother hid as a child, along with her mother and siblings and as many other villagers as they could fit inside, everyone sitting on benches and mattresses, terrified and hungry, sometimes for days and nights on end. I was awed by my mother’s tales about food shortages and ration lines, the time she had to jump in a ditch with my grandmother to avoid being strafed by Allied planes, and how she and her brothers developed earaches from the constant wail of the air raid siren. My grandmother hid her illegal short-band radio so she could listen to foreign broadcasts instead of the Nazi controlled radio — a crime punishable by death. She also risked her life under the cover of night to put food out on the streets for the Jewish prisoners being marched by her house on their way to work at the air base, even though she could barely feed her own children. My grandfather was drafted, captured on the Russian front, and sent to a POW camp in Siberia. He eventually escaped and made his way back home, but my grandmother didn’t know if he was dead or alive for two years until he showed up on her doorstep one day. While he was gone, she mended military uniforms to survive. 

Those stories percolated in my head for years, until one day I realized I needed to write about what it was like for the average German family during WWII while still being sensitive to what the Nazis did to the Jewish people. I also wanted to give a voice to the wives and mothers who were trying to keep their children alive on the German home front while the men were off fighting. 

Greer: How would you describe what you write? 

Ellen: I write about women dealing with tough issues—WWII, the Holocaust, insane asylums, child labor, animal abuse, how we treat those considered “different”—while trying to show another perspective by using historical events we often didn’t learn about in school, at the same time offering hope that humans have the opportunity to grow and change, and the strength to survive almost anything. 

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

Ellen: My next book is set in the slums of Philadelphia during the Spanish Flu of 1918, the worst pandemic the world has ever known. The story follows a young immigrant whose mother dies during the epidemic, leaving her to care for her twin baby brothers until her father returns from the war. Eventually she’s forced to search the quarantined city for food and leaves her brothers sleeping in a bedroom cubby, with bottles, blankets, and promises to return as soon as possible. But when she comes back, they’re gone. 

The manuscript is currently in my editor’s hands, so I’m not sure of the title (although I have one in mind) or the release date. Hopefully it will be out by the end of the year!

Greer: Sounds amazing! Can’t wait to read it.

Ellen: A question for you: While writing my second book, WHAT SHE LEFT BEHIND, which is set at Willard State Lunatic Asylum, I found the research into the early treatment of mental patients shocking, yet fascinating. What I want to know is, what was the most surprising thing you learned during your research for WOMAN 99? (which I’m really looking forward to by the way!) 

Greer: Thanks! I’m sure my research experience was similar to yours in many ways. Some of the treatment of those institutionalized for mental illness was just appalling, and the doctors, each well-intentioned or utter quacks, attempted all sorts of “cures” that we now know fly in the face of science. Water cures, rest cures, benches, pulling teeth — they’d just throw whatever they could at the problem. If anything, I found myself surprised when I came across treatments that do now make sense given what we know. Some asylums offered fresh air in a beautiful setting, light work, regular exercise, and removal from the everyday environment. Which sounds like the kind of yoga retreat modern people would pay a lot of money for! So one really has to look at particular institutions and not paint them all with the same brush. I invented Goldengrove Asylum so I could combine strengths and weaknesses of different institutions to tell the story I wanted to tell.

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WomensHistoryReads interview: Jenna Blum

As we roll forward with Women’s History Month — and of course WomensHistoryReads — I’m thrilled to welcome Jenna Blum to the blog for today’s Q&Q&Q&A. If you’ve encountered Jenna online or in life, you know she’s warm, smart and charming, so I was thrilled when she agreed to answer some questions for this series. And her question stumped me for days! Without further ado…

Jenna Blum

Jenna Blum

Greer: How would you describe what you write? 

Jenna: Literary fiction, by which I mean the characters drive the story as opposed to a genre-driven plot. As a reader and writer—and person!—I’m interested in people and why they do what they do, particularly when they have to make difficult decisions and when they make awful ones, as we all do, because of their circumstances or psyches, trauma or love. And then: What happens as a result?

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

Jenna: My next novel is a prequel-sequel to my latest novel, The Lost Family—but it will also be a standalone (so although of course I highly recommend you read The Lost Family, if you don’t, you’ll still be able to enjoy Book 4!). It’s about a German-Jewish Auschwitz survivor named Peter Rashkin who has emigrated to the States and had a great career as a restaurateur/ chef in New York; in his 70s, a catalyst from his long-buried past returns to Peter’s life, forcing him to go back to Germany, where he hasn’t set foot since 1945–and where he discovers that nothing about his past there as a young man is what it seems. 

Greer: I love this prequel-sequel idea! Last question for you: What book, movie or TV show would your readers probably be surprised to find out you love? 

Stephen King’s novel The Stand—and his early short stories from Night Shift and Skeleton Crew. People think of King primarily as a horror writer, but I love his writing for its portraiture of individual and group psychology in extreme circumstances—and the man can make a story MOVE.

Jenna: If you could choose one Book Boyfriend, who would it be and why? (Question inspired by Andrea Peskind Katz of Great Thoughts, Great Readers and PopSugar’s Brenda Janowitz, who fight over my chef protagonist from The Lost Family, Peter Raskin!) 

Greer: I have been thinking about this question for weeks! So many to choose from! Of course the first potential boyfriend candidates that come to mind are from my own books — a girl could do much worse than Henry from Woman 99 or Clyde from The Magician’s Lie (OK, he has his flaws, but he’s ambitious, dreamy, and good with numbers! And he, too, loves books.) But I think I’d better cast a wider net for the sake of fairness. Ah, got it. I just finished reading Crazy Rich Asians and definitely put Nick Young in the upper echelons of the swoon-worthy category. He’s not perfect, but he’s tender, thoughtful, loyal, and smoking hot — plus there’s that whole sinfully-rich thing. Yes, I think Nick sounds like a good way to go.

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For more, check out www.jennablum.com.


WomensHistoryReads interview: Amy Stewart

I’m so pleased to be kicking off another Women’s History Month with another batch of #WomensHistoryReads interviews! I’ll be a bit more modest in my goals than last year — not running a new interview every day for two months (what was I thinking?) — but we’ll be serving up the same Q&Q&Q&A format, the same great quality content, and a whole new batch of smart, articulate women talking about the women from history who’ve inspired their work.

First up for 2019: the fantastic Amy Stewart, who shifted from nonfiction to historical fiction a few years back, launching Girl Waits With Gun in 2015. She’s been tearing up the bestseller charts with her Kopp Sisters books ever since. The fifth is slated to publish in 2019.

Amy Stewart (photo credit: Terrence McNally)

Amy Stewart (photo credit: Terrence McNally)

Greer: How would you describe what you write?

Amy: I think of my Kopp Sisters novels as historical fiction that happens to be about crime-fighting and detective work. Constance worked, in real life, as a deputy sheriff, but the point of the novels is never to figure out whodunit. It's her life, her family, the world she lived in. On one hand it's this historical, multi-book family saga, but I also want these books to be quick and fun and lighthearted. 

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

Amy: I adored Nell Stevens' THE VICTORIAN AND THE ROMANTIC.  I generally don’t like novels that weave between a historical story and a modern day researcher/historian trying to figure her own life out as informed by this other past life (how is this a genre, much less one I know well enough to have an opinion about?) but actually this is a memoir and a lovely depiction of a real person grappling with a subject she’s trying to write about and understand—and I do relate to that! 

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

Amy: This isn't specific to researching women, but for me there are a couple of challenges specific to historical fiction: language and cultural values. I spend so much time working on the language and trying to make it true to the time and the characters. I read old letters, newspapers, transcripts of speeches, Congressional testimony--anything that gives me an idea about how people actually spoke in the 1910s. The language of the 1910s is pretty modern, so it's not a super-obvious style on the page. It's subtle, and I tinker with it a lot, and I'm sure I still don't have it right.

The cultural values are a bigger, more complicated issue. I don't want to just take 2019 values and dress them up in period costume. But what do I do about values and beliefs that we find abhorrent today? Think about your own grandparents. How would their beliefs, their stereotypes, and their language stand up today? I'd rather show the 1910s as it was, but if I had a character say something that didn't align exactly with our beliefs today, I feel like I'd need to somehow reassure the reader that OF COURSE those beliefs are wrong, and we don't feel that way today, but it is sadly true that in the past, people used to think....etc. etc. 

Of course, the ideal solution would just be to sidestep all those issues, but I'm writing about a woman in law enforcement. She's dealing with inmates who might be poor, immigrants, mentally ill--I mean, it was her job to work with disenfranchised people, so she would've been immersed in all these cultural issues, damaging beliefs, and stereotypes.

Historical fiction has to work on two levels--it has to be true to the past, but it also has to satisfy modern readers. I'm always trying to figure that out.

So I'm going to end with that question to you: How do you grapple with characters and situations that don't align with our modern values?

Greer: You’re spot-on: there’s some serious grappling. I’m very conscious of not wanting to just take modern characters with a current mindset, plop them down on some cobblestones and call it a day. I always come back to a great line I once heard from Mary Doria Russell: “The past is not just now, with hats.” People of the past were raised in an entirely different culture and belief system. The more we understand what that system was like, the more accurately we can portray the time and its people.

I try to approach it by including characters who fit on a spectrum of belief. Which is how things are in real life, right? Even if the dominant cultural beliefs of the day dictate X or Y, there’s always someone out there who believes Z. My new novel WOMAN 99 is set in 1880s San Francisco, and there are characters whose beliefs were all too typical of the day: believing that the Chinese should be ejected from America, that sex workers should be institutionalized against their will, that a woman’s only value is in securing a good marriage to benefit her family’s social standing. But there are also characters who see these beliefs as abhorrent. So the modern reader can see things in context, without feeling like the offensive behavior is coming from the author and not the characters. At least I hope that’s how it comes across.


For more on Amy, her Kopp Sisters series, and her other books, check out:

introducing the #womenshistoryreads mega-index!

Looking for a particular #womenshistoryreads interview? Or not sure if your favorite author has been interviewed for my #womenshistoryreads Q&Q&Q&A series? Search no more! Below is the full list of interviews alphabetized by last name. I’ll update the index as we go along so it includes 2019 and 2018 Q&Q&Q&As in one easy-to-find place.

(And yes, seeing this huge list of names in one place kind of blows me away too. Huge thanks to all the fabulous authors who’ve made it possible.)

WomensHistoryReads interview: Kelli Estes

Thrilled to welcome Kelli Estes to the blog today for her #WomensHistoryReads Q&Q&Q&A! I recently read her lovely debut, THE GIRL WHO WROTE IN SILK, and her answers below provide a hint about her next novel, which we can expect out in 2019. Welcome, Kelli!

Kelli Estes

Kelli Estes

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

Kelli: Even though I know that history was primarily recorded by men and the women were nearly completely overlooked, I still have moments during my research when I am surprised to learn that I had believed the false history. For example, when I first learned that several hundred women disguised themselves as men to fight in the U.S. Civil War I had the thought that that they probably followed their husbands there or they were prostitutes. And then I researched further. Yes, there were women who fit these two profiles, but many – possibly even the majority – served for the same reasons as the men: they needed to earn a living wage, they felt compelled to serve their nation’s cause, they wanted to prove themselves on the battlefield, they wanted an adventure, etc. Moments like these when I uncover women in history whose stories have been changed, ignored, or were twisted into something shameful are incredibly exciting to me because I can then write a novel about them and try to set the record straight. I find it equally as challenging, however, because I don’t want to unknowingly perpetuate in my writing any of the misconceptions. I make sure to be as thorough as possible in my research.

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

Kelli: I think readers would be surprised to learn that I love sci-fi and fantasy movies and TV such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, Firefly, etc. These genres are so different from what I write, yet what I learn from them directly influences my writing in areas such as pacing, world-building, and conflict. What I really love about these genres, however, is that they can be set on some distant planet or dystopian future and yet be directly relatable to conflicts in today’s society. I love how, while watching these programs, we are learning lessons we can apply to our own lives on topics such as racism, immigration, segregation, equality and the environment. It feels kind of sneaky and I love that.

Greer: Ditto! So, what’s your next book about and when will we see it?

Kelli: My next book is still untitled (I am horrible at titles!) but it will be released spring 2019 from Sourcebooks Landmark. It is a dual timeline story about a former Army military police officer recently returned from Afghanistan who is struggling to find her way as a civilian. She finds help in an unlikely place – a diary written by a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Civil War.

Now, a question for you: I just finished reading The Magician’s Lie (loved it!) and I want to know if you know how to perform all of the illusions described in the story? Did you work with a magician to learn these? I know a magician never tells her secrets, but maybe just this once you’ll let slip…how does she put jewelry or a coin into an audience member’s pocket without going near him?

Greer: I love that you know about the magicians' code of secrets! Since I'm not a professional magician, I could technically give some secrets away, though I do like to maintain a sense of mystery. I understand how all the illusions in the books work, though it turns out I'm a bit of a butterfingers and cannot actually perform them myself. (I tell people that making a book out of thin air is my greatest, and only, magic!) The funny thing about magic is that the mechanics of certain illusions have changed so little over the years that you can watch classic illusions like the Dove Pan being performed and explained on YouTube! To make sure that The Amazing Arden's illusions were period-appropriate, I drew on accounts of 1890s and early 1900s magic shows to devise the illusions she performs. The usual way to pull off putting something into a place where it isn't supposed to be is that the person who discovers it is part of the show and only playing along; for the version Arden does, since the person discovering the item is genuinely surprised, someone with the show (sitting near the mark, generally one seat over) has to plant the item. Not easy but not impossible -- and surprise plus misdirection equals magic!

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Learn more about Kelli and her books at these links:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KelliEstesAuthor

Website: http://www.kelliestes.com/

 

WomensHistoryReads interview: Joanna Kafarowski

As many of you know, my #WomensHistoryReads interview project started as a celebration of Women's History Month in March. But I found so many inspiring woman writers who find their subjects in inspiring women from history that I continued daily interviews through nearly all of April, and I'm not even done. So you can continue to look forward to occasional new installments in May. Hooray!

Next up: biographer Joanna Kafarowski on her recent book about Louise Arner Boyd, a truly extraordinary Arctic explorer.

Joanna Kafarowski

Joanna Kafarowski

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

Joanna: I am really attracted to reading, researching and writing about historical women whose accomplishments and lives have been forgotten. It gives me a real charge to root around in dusty archives which have lain untouched for many years. There’s an additional responsibility when you are the first to write the first full biography of a person as happened with my book about Arctic explorer Louise Arner Boyd. Because you are the first one, you have to get it right. It makes it harder as well since you want to keep going with the research - you just know there is more pertinent information out there but you have to draw the line. So what is most exciting about writing about historical women makes it challenging as well! Louise Arner Boyd is such a fascinating woman and there is still so much to learn about her.

Greer:How would you describe what you write?

Joanna: So far I’ve written a biography and edited another book about environmental issues. An obvious common element is that both books are situated primarily in the North because this is a landscape that sings to me. Something about the harsh wilderness, the lack of artifice, the finality of life there is really appealing. And my works are women-inspired because these are the stories that I find most interesting myself. Realistically, I’m in my mid-fifties so only have a few books left in me to write. My biography of Louise Arner Boyd took me over ten years to research and write and while I don’t anticipate taking this long with future books, I want to spend my time- and my words- wisely. My intention is to write books that are meaningful, that present thought-provoking information about people or issues that, in my opinion, are not given enough coverage in our society, and to do the very best job I can as a person and writer of integrity to produce books that are solidly researched and well-written.

Greer: What book, movie or TV show would your readers be surprised to hear that you love?

Joanna: As a biographer, I read a lot about the extraordinary lives of other people and, of course I’m drawn to polar history and anything affecting the circumpolar north. I tend to steer clear of fluffy stuff and love discovering small gems that are often disguised as something else. The Man Who Was Magic by Paul Gallico and Momo by Michael Ende are often considered children’s books but I learn something new every time I read them. They are both sadly overlooked but their simplicity and powerful message really resonates with me. But I do love children’s literature as well and return over and over to many titles I first read many years ago.

I am often asked this question and am interested in your response. How does being a woman inform your research and writing about historical women?

Greer: Great question! I suppose one answer is that it doesn't -- great stories are great stories, and they are gifts no matter where we unearth them and who does the unearthing. But I do think that as a woman, specifically a feminist, I'm deeply interested in discovering the stories of the women who came before us and laid the groundwork for where we are now. It's important to think about how far we've come -- and how far we have yet to go. Acknowledging and spreading the stories of extraordinary women from the past helps us acknowledge the extraordinary potential we each have within us. Knowing what they did, who knows what we might do?

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For more information, Joanna Kafarowski can be reached through social media:

 

Website: www.joannakafarowski.com  

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/joannakafarowski/ 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joannakafarowskiauthor/ 

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8071273.Joanna_Kafarowski

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Joanna-Kafarowski/e/B072KLNH8N

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/kafarowski/

LinkedIn: https://ca.linkedin.com/in/joanna-kafarowski-342758141

ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Joanna_Kafarowski

WomensHistoryReads interview: Sally Koslow

The next book from today's #WomensHistoryReads interviewee won't be out for another month, but it's probably already on your radar: ANOTHER SIDE OF PARADISE, the story of F. Scott Fitzgerald's romance with Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. The author bringing this story to life is Sally Koslow, and I'm delighted to bring you her thoughts on this new book, her taste in TV and movies, and some current favorite authors (with a clever angle to avoid, as she puts it, "sibling rivalry.")

Sally Koslow

Sally Koslow

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

Sally: One of the unexpected pleasures of becoming a novelist is making author-friends all over the United States. So to avoid sibling rivalry, I’m going to pick British authors I don’t know—but would love to meet: Jane Gardam, Tessa Hadley, Penelope Lively and Edward St. Aubyn. Each one is clever in that dry, wry English way, although their talents extend far beyond wit. I will add to the list one British-American whom I have met (major fan moment) because she’s in my cousin’s book club: Helen Simonson. It’s hard to find a more charming book than Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.

Greer: Well-said! What movie or TV show would your readers probably be surprised to find out you love?

Sally: Since I read a lot of fiction—contemporary, biographical historical, family sagas, classics, World War II-themed—as well as memoirs and biographies, it won’t surprise anyone that I like dramatic foreign television series such as "Babylon Berlin"a police procedural set in the Weimar Republic; "Un Village Francais", exploring the German Occupation of France, and "A Place to Call Home", a soapy but addictive Australian family saga that digs into homophobia and anti-Semitism in the 1950s. Readers might be surprised, however, that I love some fairly lowbrow movies, such as The Wedding Crashers and Groundhog Day. I’ve seen both dozens of times, though not nearly as often as Something’s Gotta Give, starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. I may have watched it 50 times. I especially relate to the scene where the Diane character, a playwright, is in the zone, pounding away on her laptop, with a big smile on her face. 

GreerWhat’s your next book about and when will we see it?

Sally: Another Side of Paradise, to be published by Harper on May 29, is my first biographical historical novel, and I’m thrilled by the experience of trying to bring real people to life: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham, who were in love during the late 1930s in Hollywood.I am a lifelong admirer of Fitzgerald’s work, and he you surely know, but you may not be familiar with Sheilah. She was a high-spirited Englishwoman who fell in love with lonely Scott long after his dear Zelda had fallen ill and was living in a sanitarium. Sheilah literally re-invented herself. She was smart, resourceful, brashly independent, generous, kind, loving, gorgeous and complex, much like a Fitzgerald heroine, as well as a gossip columnist who could make or break a film career. She also was a muse and champion for Fitzgerald, inspiring him to begin The Last Tycoon, and had many secrets of the you-can’t-make-this-up variety. 

The early reviews include this from Kirkus: “The story of Sheilah and Scott's instant chemistry and their on-again, off-again, but always intense liaison is told with taste and sympathy for these deeply flawed characters… Koslow's writing is vibrant and colorful, and the denizens of Scott's world are ably summed up in a few pithy swipes…A stylish reiteration of a sad, oft-told tale.”

Greer: I'm reading it now (love those advance copies) and loving it. (And congrats on that amazing Kirkus review, a rare prize indeed!)

Sally: You have an incredible name, perfect for an author. Why can’t I be Greer Macallister, not Sally—so 1st grade reader—Koslow—“Cosmo?” I’d like to know, please, how you name your characters? 

Greer: Brief note first, that you should see how many ways people keep inventing to spell "Macallister"! And naming my characters is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. After not getting to name my main character for Girl in Disguise -- Kate Warne was the historical, real-life inspiration for my own Kate Warne -- I actually really struggled with naming the main character for Woman 99, which comes out in 2019. She was Anne, she was Phoebe, nothing sounded quite right. Then I was reading a collection of first-person essays by 19th-century women who had spent time in asylums, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of "The Yellow Wallpaper." And everything fell into place. Charlotte Smith was born. And I can't wait for everyone to meet her.

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www.sallykoslow.com

instagram: @spkoslow

twitter: @sallykoslow

https://www.facebook.com/SallyKoslowAuthor/

 

WomensHistoryReads interview: Terese Svoboda

As I've mentioned before, reaching out to women inspired by women from history for this Q&Q&Q&A series has been a really educational experience for me! Not only is my TBR pile toppling, I've become aware of so many more fascinating women whose stories my fellow authors are working to make more visible. A subset of these are fierce, fiery woman poets, like the Iranian poet Forugh in Jasmin Darznik's novel Song of a Captive Bird, and another is today's, Lola Ridge. Haven't heard of her? Then you need Terese Svoboda's help!

Therese Svoboda; photo credit Joyce George

Therese Svoboda; photo credit Joyce George

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

Terese: Lola Ridge, radical poet, who emigrated from New Zealand to New York, so determined to be free to pursue writing that she changed her name, nationality and age, went to work for Emma Goldman and wrote ground-breaking poetry about executions, labor, lynchings and imprisonment that lead the New York Times to describe her as “one of the most important poets in America” when she died in 1941. Social justice drove her, and interest in her drove me to write Anything That Burns You.

Greer: How would you describe what you write?

Terese: Stylized, sensuous and witty, with a strong interest in social justice. “Terese Svoboda is one of few contemporary American writers who possesses a global consciousness." – Brooklyn Rail.

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

Terese: Their handwriting! That's the most challenging part, once letters are unearthed. Most exciting? Using the lens of a woman on an historical event otherwise seen only by men.

Your question: If you were to reincarnate as a prominent spy in history, which one would you be?

Greer: I love this question! And so many wonderful options, as more stories are surfacing each day of the crucial role women have played, especially during times of war, in discovering information and passing it, often at great risk to themselves, into the right hands.

I'll have to go with the easy answer, though -- Kate Warne! I wrote about her for Girl in Disguise and not only would I love to arm myself with her intelligence, bravery and talent, I'd also love to actually find out what her life was like during the war years! The historical record is so blank on this point, as least in all my research so far. It's a shame that nearly everyone in America knows the name of the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln but not of the woman who helped foil an earlier assassination attempt as Lincoln traveled to his inauguration -- and without whom American history could have looked very different.

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Find out more about Terese and her work at teresesvoboda.com

WomensHistoryReads interview: Karen Karbo

Many of the authors I've interviewed for the #WomensHistoryReads series so far have been inspired by one particular individual from history per book, or have chosen to focus their books, fiction or nonfiction, on one woman's story. On the other end of the spectrum we have writers like today's interviewee, Karen Karbo, who uses her latest book In Praise of Difficult Women to familiarize readers with 29(!) stories of amazing women from the past and present.

I love her answer below on the difficulties of researching historical women and how context is essential -- to understand these women, we need to understand the times in which they were raised. And she's got great recommendations for present-day writers to read, too. Welcome, Karen! 

Karen Karbo

Karen Karbo

Greer: How would you describe what you write?

Karen: I think it’s possible I’m the only practitioner of my genre: creative non-fiction narrative, with rich memoir filling, frosted with humor, sprinkled with self-help. 

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

Karen: Josephine Baker. Born in 1906, her life spanned the first ¾ of the 20th century. She fled the poverty and racism of the United States, and became a star in Paris in the ‘20s, virtually overnight. She wasn’t just an entertainer, doing the Charleston in her banana skirt, but also a heroine of the French Resistance and a one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of civil rights in this country. She was complicated, generous, impulsive, and brave. A very complex woman.

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

Karen: We are all the daughters of the times in which we were born and raised, and it's crucial to evaluate someone’s life in that context. Women, more so than men, are at the mercy of the cultural expectations of their era. The challenge is keeping this at the forefront of your mind during the research. What I find exciting is becoming familiar enough with a woman’s life and times to appreciate how ground-breaking, progressive, and modern she was. I’m thinking about women like Georgia O’Keeffe or Katharine Hepburn, both of whom I’ve written books about. Or even Helen Gurley Brown, who appears in my latest, In Praise of Difficult Women. Have you read Sex and the Single Girl? It was published 56 years ago, and some of it is practically avant garde, even by today’s standards.

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

Karen: The list is long! It depends what I’m in the mood for. From a history perspective, I deeply admire the work of Jill Lepore. Her Secret History of Wonder Woman was tremendous, and I’m looking forward to her one-volume history of the United States, These Truths, out in September. I adore Stacy Schiff, especially Vera, her classic biography of Nabokov’s wife. In terms of fiction, I read so widely it must qualify as psychiatric condition. I’m a devoted reader of Junot Diaz, Elizabeth Hardwick, Lydia Davis, Lydia Yuknavitch, and Meg Wolitzer. I also loved Girl in Disguise!

My question for you: How do you conduct your research? (Including the sub-questions: How long do you research a specific era? How do you keep yourself from falling into the rabbit hole of material? Do you write first, then research? Research, then write? A little of both?)

Greer: I'm finally hitting my stride on research now that I've finished the writing and revision process on my third published novel (hitting shelves in Spring 2019, but Advance Review Copies will be out much sooner.) I was a mess on my first historical novel, since I'd never written one before, and I had no idea how to balance research with writing. That was one of the reasons The Magician's Lie took five years to get right. Girl in Disguise was much faster, where I was limited by circumstances in a way that turned out to be a real boon -- my daughter had just been born and I could barely string together a sentence, but I could read and read at all hours of the day and night, so I did most of my research on Kate Warne and her times well before I actually began to craft her story. Then I wrote and rewrote and rewrote, and after I knew which scenes were going to survive the final cut, I did another round of research for the smallest details. Names of streets in 1856 Chicago, hotels in 1861 Richmond, flowers that would've been in season when I needed them to be. That rhythm seems to work for me now: the big-picture research, then most of the writing with occasional dips into the research well -- but not too many or it slows down the writing too much -- and then more nitty-gritty research at the end to really nail down the smells, tastes, sights and sounds of the era so my readers feel truly transported.

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Instagram @karbohemia

Twitter @karbohemia

Facebook Karen Karbo

Website: www.karenkarbo.com