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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NY Journal of Books review of WOMAN 99 is in!

I love reading reviews of my books. Yes, it’s a lot more fun when the reviews are positive, but I also read the negative ones, and sometimes I even find something to like and appreciate about them. They can be very amusing. But do I enjoy positive ones more? Sure do!

So I really enjoyed this one from the New York Journal of Books. ““Macallister’s exploration of both the public and the personal takes this novel to a higher level.” (Need to add that to my Praise page!)

And it’s always gratifying when a reviewer picks up exactly what I’m putting down. This is exactly the kind of conclusion I hoped readers would draw from these pages, and so well-expressed: “As with the best historical novels, Woman 99 resonates with our current social upheavals. It illuminates how far we, as a society, have come and how far we have yet to go.

Read the full review here.

More Best Books Honors for WOMAN 99!

Oh, this has been so fun. Adding to my Honors page, like adding to my Praise page, makes my day.

So in addition to the She Reads and Smart Bitches honors I already blogged about, three more to mention:

  1. Best New Books of March, Chicago Review of Books

  2. Best New Books of the week, Avalon Public Library

  3. March’s Biggest Books on the Professional Book Nerds podcast

As you can imagine, it’s been quite a week! Can’t wait to see what next week will bring. (For one thing, I know it’ll bring more WomensHistoryReads interviews…)

WOMAN 99 is in the world!

SO MUCH CRAZINESS!

Launch day for Woman 99 was so crazy I didn’t get a chance to update the blog or even switch things over on my site to say that the book was OUT instead of COMING SOON. But it’s out now! Available wherever books are sold. (Which I think always makes it sound like I don’t KNOW where books are sold, but it just means you should be able to find it in bookstores or online.)

And another list! Avalon Library named Woman 99 one of their best new books of the week.

More to come soon, when I get a spare moment! Just back from a fantastic event in conversation with Kate Quinn, whose The Huntress is every bit as mind-blowing as The Alice Network. Kate also happens to be one of the most generous, hardworking, and kind-spirited writers I know. So her success is really just wonderful to see. Catch her on tour if you can — she’s a great speaker — and definitely get your own copy of The Huntress to devour.

Celebrating Women's History Month

As you can tell from my #WomensHistoryReads series and pieces like this one on BookBub that are timed to Women’s History Month, I think the month is worth celebrating. But when Pamela D. Toler, author of Women Warriors: An Unexpected History — which you should definitely pick up — interviewed me and included a question about the month itself, I took the opportunity to dig a little deeper into my thoughts, assumptions and hopes for what Women’s History Month means.

Part of my answer: “It’s no excuse not to call attention to great books by and/or about women the rest of the year, but it’s an excellent occasion to dig deeper and shout louder.”

You can read the complete answer, and the rest of the interview, at History in the Margins.

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.


What She Reads During National Women's History Month

The first day of Women’s History Month was kind of like Christmas around here! (And not just because it snowed, ha.) Too much good news yesterday to fit in a single day. So I’m spreading it out. The month lasts all month long, after all.

She Reads put together a list of “What she reads during National Women’s History Month” — and I was thrilled to see Woman 99 included alongside current favorites like Pam Jenoff’s The Lost Girls of Paris and Stephanie Thornton’s upcoming American Princess as well as classics like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Pretty great company we keep!

Check out the whole list on She Reads here.

Recommending Women's History Month reads at BookBub!

Oh, this was so much fun. I put together a list of 13 new releases for readers who want to spend Women’s History Month reading historical novels about fascinating women of the past. These books cover everything from 17th-century Dutch master painters to Korean diving collectives to groundbreaking documentary photographers — all of whom happen to be women.

Check out all 13 novels here.

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:

WOMAN 99 among March's Biggest Books!

Well, this was an exciting find on the last day of February! The Professional Book Nerds podcast from Overdrive came out with their monthly recommendations, and for March, here are the books they’re most excited about:

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So delighted to see WOMAN 99 on the list! (Also super-looking forward to Daisy Jones & the Six and The Island of Sea Women, among others.)

Check out the podcast here.

one week 'til WOMAN 99!

I am SO excited — the March 5 release date for WOMAN 99 is only one short week away.

I’ve been doing lots of fun guest posts, interviews and other fun things to prep for release, and starting on launch day, you’ll be seeing links to those with a vengeance.

So here’s a fun little tidbit to get started! A Q&A with the delightful Melissa Amster at Chick Lit Central — and it comes with a giveaway.

Learn who I’d cast for Charlotte & Phoebe, my secret 1970s inspiration for my 1880s novel, and much more.

Enjoy the Q&A by clicking here.

(The ChickLitCentral giveaway ends March 3. The Goodreads giveaway of 25 copies is still going until March 4. So enter anywhere and everywhere!)

25 copies of WOMAN 99 up for grabs on Goodreads!

First, I thought the most exciting thing that would happen today is that a giveaway for WOMAN 99 was posted on Goodreads. Fun stuff!

But then something else even cooler came down the pike.

Turns out the coolest thing that happened today is that more than ONE THOUSAND readers signed up for the WOMAN 99 giveaway. On the FIRST DAY.

(The grand total is actually about 1100 right now. And it’s not even midnight. I’m kind of tempted to stay up until midnight just to see what number we get to today. Because I’m a month from launch date and already kind of losing both my perspective and my mind.)

Anyway, see what number it’s up to now! And join in. The more, literally, the merrier.

Enter the giveaway here.

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.)

Coming in March: much madness

As I said on Twitter, I can’t believe it’s already February because that means my book is coming out next month. And February is THE SHORT MONTH.

But there is so much goodness on the way for March! Of course I’m terribly excited that WOMAN 99 is coming out March 5 (in both the US and Canada) so that’s a big focus. If you’re excited too, you can:

  • mark WOMAN 99 as to-read on Goodreads

  • follow me on BookBub for announcements and deals

  • follow my #99daycountdown and other posts on Twitter and/or Instagram

  • pre-order WOMAN 99 from an independent bookstore, Barnes and Noble, BAM or Amazon (handy links here!)

  • recommend the hardcover, e-book and audiobook editions of WOMAN 99 for purchase at your library

  • check out my Events page to see if I’m coming to a bookshop, festival or library near you

The other big thing to get excited about in March: I’m picking up the #WomensHistoryReads banner again and will be featuring Q&As throughout the month. Will be kicking off the month with Amy Stewart (!) and I’ve got lots of other delightful names on the docket. These will run mostly on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

More — lots more! — to come!

WOMAN 99 recommended for your book club!

The wonderful Kate Quinn, author of the runaway bestseller The Alice Network and the upcoming The Huntress, put together a fabulous list of historical fiction recommendations for book clubs at BookBub. And of course I was thrilled to see WOMAN 99 on the list.

Great books like Kris Waldherr’s The Lost History of Dreams, which I’ve read and blurbed, are here, as well as some that are new to me and now I’m desperate to read. (Historical fiction except with Aphrodite? Sign me up!)

Check out the whole list on BookBub here.

(Also, if you’re not following me on BookBub, please do! I regularly share recommendations for my favorite reads, and it’s a great way to find new authors and books you’ll love.)

Instagram giveaways for WOMAN 99

Yay! As a celebration of hitting 1000 followers on Instagram, I got to give away an advance copy of WOMAN 99. That giveaway is now over, but as of this writing, there are two more Instagram giveaways going on that I know of. The more you enter, the more chances you have to win!

@Sourcebooks is giving away an advance copy of WOMAN 99 and a copy of GIRL IN DISGUISE to one lucky winner. Enter by 11:59pm Central on Thursday, January 17.

@thoughtsfromapage is giving away ARCs of three highly anticipated books: WOMAN 99, Wendy Walker’s THE NIGHT BEFORE, and Kaira Rouda’s THE FAVORITE DAUGHTER. This giveaway ends at 9:00pm Central on Saturday, January 19.

Stay tuned for non-Instagram giveaways as well…. I know there will be some soon.

Good luck and good reading!

wonderful review of WOMAN 99 from PW!

Ah, this makes me so happy. A great review from a major trade publication always makes my day, and this one for WOMAN 99 from Publishers Weekly totally made my week!

The bottom line: “Macallister sensitively and adroitly portrays mental illness in an era when it was just beginning to be understood, while weaving a riveting tale of loyalty, love, and sacrifice.“

I also particularly loved this part, which really sums up so much about the book: “Though Charlotte narrates, Macallister also gives voice to a motley crew of women who, at the mercy of male whims, hide multitudes.“

The whole thing is available right here. Yay!

review of the new Diane Setterfield up at CHIRB

Not sure if I ever officially announced it here on the blog, but this year, I was named Editor-at-Large, Historical Fiction and Lit on Screen at the Chicago Review of Books. And it has been a delight.

Among the things I get to do is nab advance copies of highly anticipated historical novels, and ONCE UPON A RIVER was definitely one I leapt at the chance to read.

What did I think of it?

Check it out at CHIRB.

My holiday gift guide at The Refresh

For all those still shopping (those OF US, I should say), I put together a list of book-related gifts I highly recommend — for the holidays or otherwise. If you know a book lover, you know someone who’d appreciate a gift from this list.

Check it out at The Refresh.

And it’s not just books I’m recommending — mostly books, but also mugs and socks and scarves that honor classic books, and even chocolate that tastes like Sherlock Holmes or A Christmas Carol! Who knew?