Friday, January 23, 2015

Review and Giveaway: RODIN'S LOVER by Heather Webb

Written with a passion and conviction worthy of the sculptor herself, Heather Webb's new novel RODIN'S LOVER (Plume, January 2015) explores the tumultuous life, troubled psyche, and splendid achievements of Camille Claudel, student, protégée and rival of artist Auguste Rodin. Born in an era that expected bourgeoise women to reflect their husbands' glory, Camille determines instead to amplify her own. Gifted with the skills, vision and tenacity necessary to succeed as an artist, she confronts head-on the prejudices and condescension of the male artistic establishment, showing pieces in Salon exhibitions and even earning a civic commission. But Camille's success does not come without price--like a file on fine marble, the constant strife wears away at her mental and emotional stability, exacerbating paranoid and schizophrenic tendencies. Her romantic relationship with Rodin becomes both a crucible of creativity and the catalyst of the tortured artist's ultimate undoing.

Camille at work
Webb's Camille is as entrancing and rough-hewn as one of her statues. The novel opens with her tussling with her beloved brother, shirking lessons to gather clay in the woods, and vowing to a raven, under a full moon, to pursue her dreams. Once in Paris, she devours the sights, sounds and smells of the city with ravenous delight and watches, with endearing curiosity, a male model undress before the class on the first day of art school. She toys with the suitors her mother insists she meet, charming them into abandoning the hunt. She loses herself for hours in her quest to coax beauty from unformed lumps of earth and resistant rock. She pursues the best models and the finest teachers, her belief in herself and her devotion to her calling never wavering. Yet for all her passion and joie de vivre, Camille has an abrasive side, one that Webb never shirks from depicting. The seeds of Camille's mental illness sprout early, nourished by the critical waters of her mother's rejection. Ever fearful of abandonment, Camille refuses to allow others close, especially women. She rebuffs overtures of friendship and systematically destroys the few attachments that manage to take hold. Webb is careful to associate Camille's increasing alienation with descriptions of the physical symptoms that assail her (metallic tastes, vision problems, hallucinations, and an insidious Voice that ever murmurs suspicious suggestions in her ear), inspiring sympathy for rather than annoyance with the character. The reader experiences the unravelling of the artist's promise and very self in real time and marvels that Camille accomplishes all she does, given the panoply of internal and external obstacles arrayed against her.

Webb's Rodin pales in comparison to the vibrant, tormented Camille. Waging his own battle against the establishment, he yearns for acceptance by the state yet refuses to sculpt in the style that would earn him ready praise. His collaboration and liaison with Camille becomes the source of inspiration and passion he needs to lift his work to a level of genius that even the advocates of decency and civic virtue can't ignore. But just as Rodin can't shake his need for approval--though he might declare otherwise--he cannot abandon Rose, his lover of twenty years, despite his impassioned avowals of love for Camille. He supports Camille in every way he can, training her, introducing her to critics, buying supplies and renting studio space, treating her to holidays and dinners, yet he refuses to commit himself fully to her. Rodin's bourgeois hesitancy leads the reader to wonder whether Camille's accusations that Rodin steals her ideas and profits from her work are simply the ravings of a disturbed mind. In any case, Webb's depiction of the artists' affair reflects the nagging question of whether Camille would have achieved success without Rodin's help back onto the artist himself. Wedded to his tired housekeeper and bourgeois values, Rodin might never have surpassed the limits of circumstance if not coaxed beyond them by the passion and courage of Camille.

In this, her second novel, Heather Webb tackles weighty subjects: mental illness, envy, oppression, illicit love. That she does so in a way that preserves Camille's integrity and prevents her from becoming an object of pity testifies to Webb's skill as a writer. This novel of passion and power in Belle Époque France both satisfies and inspires, illuminating an artist who spent the last thirty years of her life in an asylum and still, to this day, lingers in the shadow of man. Thanks to Webb, that shadow has become all the shorter.

Tender yet resolute, soulful but never dark, RODIN'S LOVER pulses with the sensuous tempo of a lover's waltz. Deeper and defter than Webb's debut, it promises even richer work to come.

Heather Webb is the author of historical novels BECOMING JOSEPHINE (Plume, 2013) and RODIN'S LOVER (Plume, 2015), a freelance editor, and blogger. You may also find her contributing to award-winning writing sites including Writer Unboxed and Romance University. When not writing, Heather flexes her foodie skills and looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world. Visit her website and her blog. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


This review is part of the RODIN'S LOVER book tour organized by France Book Tours. Please visit the France Book Tours website for additional information and to read other reviews of Heather's book. France Book Tours has organized a giveaway of two copies of the novel, open to readers in the USA and Canada. Fill out the form at the France Book Tours website and enter today!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Interview with Priya Parmar, Author of VANESSA AND HER SISTER

Priya Parmar discusses her just released novel, VANESSA AND HER SISTER (Ballantine). The novel has been chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Authors Spring 2015 Pick and is receiving wonderful press reviews. You can read my own review here.

1. How did you become interested in the Bloomsbury group and what compelled you to write about them?

I was reading a selection of Vanessa Bell’s letters and came across a letter that she wrote rejecting Clive Bell’s marriage proposal. The letter was startlingly modern and her tone was so authentic and likeable. Her character stepped off the page right there.

2. You chose to explore the Stephen sisters’ relationship from Vanessa’s point of view in the form of her private diary. What advantages did this structure and perspective afford you? In what ways did it limit you?

I am always interested in looking at familiar history through unfamiliar lenses. Vanessa Bell was the absolute center of the group but her letters have never been widely published and she did not leave behind a diary. Her unfamiliar voice in the midst of these well-known characters was fascinating to me.

Lytton (1912) by Vanessa Bell
3. You cleverly insert postcards, snippets of letters, facsimile tickets, telegrams and other non-narrative items between Vanessa’s diary entries in order to introduce other viewpoints into the story. Were these actual historical documents or did you fabricate them to advance the storyline and themes? At what point during the writing process did you insert them and how did you decide they were needed?

Everything in the novel was fictional but the design team at Random House and I worked from original documentation to create the look of the ephemera. They were all created in the style of existing primary documents and they are all based on actual correspondence. Lytton Strachey wrote to Leonard Woolf several times a week and Roger Fry wrote to his wife Helen from his posting in America.

4. In the novel, Vanessa’s culmination as an artist coincides with her estrangement from Virginia. How dependent do you feel Vanessa’s success was on her ability to free herself of Virginia’s emotional demands?

This is very much a novel. It is a guess, a hat tossed into the ring at the interior landscape of these historical figures. Vanessa stepped into prominence with Roger Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition and it did coincide with the end of Virginia Woolf’s emotional entanglement with Clive Bell. That much is fact. My fictional Vanessa had to emancipate herself before she could fully step into her role as an artist.

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell
5. You portray Virginia as brilliant yet fragile and emotionally manipulative of those she loves. Did you worry about portraying such a revered literary figure in a less-than-complimentary light? How would you respond to someone who took issue with your portrayal?

It was terrifying. But my portrayal was grounded in huge amounts of research and I cleared it with several Woolf experts and then showed it to Woolf’s descendants. Once the brilliant writer Virginia Nicholson (Woolf’s great niece and Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter) read the novel and approved it, I felt much better!

6. How did writing from the viewpoint of a visual artist challenge you as a writer?

I have a dear friend who is an artist and I spoke to her about her relationship with her work. It helped enormously as it is such a very different creative process from writing.

7. The novel begins with Virginia’s plea for forgiveness and ends with Vanessa’s refusal to grant it. Did the sisters ever completely reconcile in real life?

We do not know for certain. Based upon Angelica Garnett’s writing, no, I do not think they ever completely healed the rift. But they loved each other fiercely for the remainder of their lives.

8. What strategies did you use to help manage the novel’s large cast of supporting characters?

I had an extraordinary editor! She helped me to clarify and simplify. The cast was originally much larger!

9. If you could write the story of the Bloomsbury group from the perspective of any character other than Vanessa or Virginia, whom would you choose and why?

Ottoline Morrell. Because she was underestimated and underestimated people are always surprising.

10. What is the best bit of advice about writing or the writing life you have to pass on to as-yet unpublished authors?

Write the story that is in your head. Even if it makes no sense to anyone else. Write it the way you hear it in your mind.

A former dramaturg and freelance editor, Priya Parmar was educated at Mount Holyoke College, the University of Oxford and the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of one previous novel, EXIT THE ACTRESS. Priya and her husband and their French bulldog Herbert divide their time between Hawaii and London. You can find out more about Priya at her website.

Review: VANESSA AND HER SISTER by Priya Parmar

You see, Nessa and I are more than just sisters. We are different--exceptional. 

So writes Virginia Woolf to a friend in Priya Parmar's captivating new novel, VANESSA AND HER SISTER (Ballantine, 2014). Exceptional Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell certainly were--exceptional for their contributions to the world of art and letters, exceptional for their pivotal roles in the intellectual circle that gathered at their home, exceptional in the importance each held in the other's emotional life.

But whereas Virginia thrives on being more than "just sisters" with her sibling, the Vanessa Parmar presents in her novel would relish the more circumscribed role. Beneath the broader story Parmar paints with verve of the bohemian escapades and intellectual ebullience of the Bloomsbury intellectuals, the sisters' conflict--Virginia's determination to retain Vanessa's complete attention and Vanessa's desperation to escape this obsessive preoccupation--builds to an agonizing climax.

Vanessa Bell (1902) by George Beresford
Vanessa, an accomplished painter, narrates the novel as a private journal covering the period 1905 to 1912. Recently orphaned, the four young and wealthy Stephens siblings set up house in a past-its-prime neighborhood of London. Just as the neighborhood has shed the glory of its Victorian heyday, the group of artists, writers, students and critics that frequents the house eagerly dispenses with stuffy convention. They keep mixed company, drop in unannounced, refuse to dress for dinner, and call each other by their given names. Couples--both hetero- and homosexual--form and reform at will. Applying this unfettered enthusiasm to their various pursuits--Virginia, E. M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey to literature; Vanessa, Duncan Grant, Robert Fry, and Clive Bell to visual art; John Maynard Keyes to economics--they make their mark in the more avant-garde fringes of their respective fields. The group feeds off the confrontation of ideas and personalities that occurs at the Stephens' drawing room. Vanessa, with straightforward level-headedness and unaffected frankness, anchors the group, while brilliant, fragile Virginia provides the animating spark--when the mood and inclination strikes her.

Virginia Woolf (1902) by George Beresford
Virginia's emotional fragility has long been Vanessa's prime worry. The writer has had previous nervous breakdowns, and Vanessa is ever wary of seeing her sister succumb yet again. Virginia thrives on being the center of attention and is particularly adept at manipulating her brothers, sister and friends so as to remain there. She wields an unhealthy hegemony over Vanessa, who recognizes the danger in her sister's constant need for more--more affection, more contact, more safety, more secrets--yet has had little reason, or willingness, to deny her. Things change when Vanessa falls in love with Clive Bell and contemplates marriage. The exclusivity she and Clive share necessitates distance from Virginia, but Virginia refuses to retreat. She fights abandonment the only way she knows--by claiming what Vanessa has for herself. Will Vanessa realize what is happening before it is too late? More importantly, will she risk her sister's mental stability in order to secure her own happiness?

With keen psychological insight, Parmar explores the sisters' interdependence and follows the trail of need and betrayal to its unfortunate end. In so doing, she finds an inviting entry into the densely populated and much examined world of Bloomsbury. The sisters' conflict mirrors the larger questions of the age, illustrating the clash of theory and practice in the arena of values--for all their eagerness to jettison conventional roles and traditional virtues during debate, the characters find little comfort in their bohemian free-spiritedness when it comes to the concreteness of their particular lives. Based on extensive research and thorough familiarity with the historical characters' private papers, VANESSA AND HER SISTER delves deep into the sisters' psyches to elucidate the cause of their estrangement. Beautifully executed and ever convincing, Parmar's novel found a ready place on my list of the year's best reads.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Étrennes: A New Year's Tradition

It has long been a tradition in France to give gifts on New Year's Day. The word étrennes (as opposed to the more generic cadeaux) refers specifically to these New Year's gifts, now usually bestowed as signs of appreciation to the doorman, the letter carrier, and others who provide service throughout the year.

In the sixteenth century, Christmas was observed as a religious  holiday, so gifts were given at the turn of the new year. So popular was the practice that it took on a poetic form. François I's court poet, Clément Marot (1496-1544), sent short, epigrammatic poems to members of the court at the holiday. Although he wrote étrennes throughout his career, in 1541 Marot published a collection of forty-one of them addressed to the ladies of the court. In each poem, he presents a gift to the lady he names.

For example, to Queen Eléonore (François's second wife and sister of his enemy Charles V) he grants accord between her husband and brother:

Au ciel ma Dame je crye,
Et Dieu prie,
Vous faire veoir au printemps
Frere, & mary si contents
Que tout rye.

Madame, I cry to heaven,
And beg God,
That you may see by springtime
Your brother and husband so happy
That everyone laughs.

To the Dauphine, Catherine de Medici, barren for the first decade or so of her marriage, he grants a child:

A Ma Dame la Daulphine
Rien n'assigne:
Elle a ce, qu'il faut avoir,
Mais je la vouldroys bien veoir
En gesine.

To Madame la Daulphine
I prescribe nothing:
She has what she needs,
But I would really like to see her
On the point of giving birth.

To Marguerite de Navarre, the king's sister, who was one of Marot's staunchest supporters:

A la noble Marguerite,
Fleur d'eslite,
Je luy donne aussi grand heur
Que sa grace, & sa grandeur
Le merite.

To the noble Marguerite,
Flower of the elite,
I give the good fortune
That her grace and greatness

And to Madame d'Etampes, the king's long-time mistress:

Sans prejudice à personne,
Je vous donne
La pomme d'or de beaulté,
Et de ferme loyaulté
La couronne.

Without wronging anyone,
I give to you
The golden apple of beauty
And the crown
Of firm loyalty.

In these brief and often mordant poems, Marot provides us a snapshot of the personalities and the concerns of the French court around 1539-- a literary version, if you will, of Jean Clouet's chalk portraits. One wonders if the courtiers played guessing games with the étrennes as they did with the sketches.

I'm no Marot, so I'll have to wish you all--in prose--a healthy, happy new year filled with good fortune of every kind!

[Marot's verse quoted from Gérard Defaux's edition, Classiques Garnier (1993). Translations mine.]
A version of this post originally appeared on Writing the Renaissance on January 1, 2009.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Reads of 2014

Time for me to choose the best of the nearly thirty novels I read for pleasure in 2014. Many wonderful novels passed through my hands this year (see sidebar for the complete list); choosing the top eight proved to be quite a difficult task. The books that made the cut engaged me from the first page, sustained my interest throughout, and remained with me long after I closed the cover. They spoke to me through their lovely use of language, the uniqueness of their voice, the artfulness of their plot, and their depth of character and theme. Some were published this year, others years ago; several are outstanding debuts, others the work of more established authors. I thank these authors for the pleasurable hours I spent lost in the pages their wonderful, accomplished stories.

In alphabetical order:

by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014)

The story of a blind French girl working for the Resistance and a young Nazi engineer whose lives become inextricably bound through the invisible power of radio waves, this marvelous literary novel caught the book world by surprise. Narrated in short chapters that alternate between the two character's perspectives, the novel explores love, patriotism, and the nature of goodness amid the deprivation and devastation of war.

by Markus Zusak (Knopf, 2005)

I was late to the party on this one, but so glad I came! In a wry yet sympathetic voice that eschews melodrama, Death recounts the story of a German foster girl who survives the horrors of the Holocaust by stealing books and sharing them--with neighbors during bombing raids, as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her cellar. The story illustrates the power of the written word to free the soul even as it bridges the chasms that separate us.

by Helene Wecker (HarperCollins, 2013)

A Nebula nominee and winner of numerous prestigious awards, this stunning debut novel blends history with fantasy as a mythical Jewish golem encounters a Syrian jinni in turn-of-the-century New York City. I knew little about either folklore when I started reading, but the novel's inventive premise, convincing setting, sympathetic characters, and intriguing conflicts grabbed hold of my imagination and didn't let go until the satisfying end. An unusual and truly glorious read.   

by M. L. Stedman (Scribner, 2012)

This story appeals through both its unique setting and the depth of its moral conflict. Living alone as lighthouse keepers on a secluded island off the western coast of Australia, a young couple rescues a baby from a boat smashed against the rocks. Having lost several children to miscarriages, the wife begs to keep this child as their own. Against his better judgment, the husband agrees...until they return to the mainland and discover the devastation their decision has wrought upon the child's real mother. Can Tom right the wrong without tearing his family apart? A poignant reminder that actions can be wrong for all the right reasons...

by Jo Baker (Knopf, 2013)

Longbourn reimagines PRIDE AND PREJUDICE from the perspective of the estate's servants: the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, and her butler husband; two housemaids, Polly and Sarah; and the mysterious new footman, James. Torn between the attentions of James and the Bingleys' charismatic black footman, Ptolemy, romantic and ambitious Sarah struggles to define her future as unexpected secrets linking life above and below the stairs come to light. No need to be an Austen fan to appreciate Baker's finely crafted tale, one that never feels contrived or derivative.

by Jessie Burton (Ecco, 2014)

In rapacious, religiously oppressive seventeenth century Amsterdam, a young wife's polite but distant husband presents her with an elaborate doll-sized replica of their home as a wedding gift. The miniatures Nella purchases to furnish it begin to echo the family's life in unsettling ways. Is the mysterious miniaturist an agent working to hasten the family's destruction, or a savior attempting to guide Nella out of a labyrinth of dangerous secrets? Although the answer remains as elusive as the miniaturist, this suspenseful tale entertains with unforeseen twists and gratifying turns as it exposes the hypocrisy of a society that worships wealth above Christian charity.  

by Priya Parmar (Ballantine, 2014)

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Painter Vanessa Stephens Bell might not fear her brilliant sister, but she certainly has her hands full dealing with the manipulative, emotionally fragile author. Parmar's novel focuses on the two sisters at the center of the bohemian intellectual circle known as the Bloomsbury group. Amid the comings and goings and shifting pairings of the artists, writers and thinkers who frequent the Stephens' salon in early 20th century London, Vanessa struggles to protect herself, her husband, and her family from Virginia's obsessive need for her sister's undivided attention. Vanessa's narrative offers an engaging portrait of a visual artist struggling to stand her ground in a world of shifting words and discarded convention.

by Robert Hicks (Warner Books, 2005)

The commandeering of her home to serve as a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers shakes Carrie McGavock out of the torpor she has suffered since the death of her young children. With the help of her black servant Mariah, she sets to work tending the soldiers sandwiched onto the floors of the plantation house. Refusing to allow Zechariah Cashwell, who wants nothing more than to die, this escape, she sends him to surgery. The pair finds mutual healing in the weeks that follow. Carrie spends the rest of her life caring for the graves of the thousands of soldiers buried on her property. A story of love and courage painted with curious particularity against a backdrop of epic proportions.

Here's to 2015 and another delightful year of reading!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Wishes


Nativity and Annunciation to the Shepherds
Bernardino Luini (1485-1532)
fresco, Musée du Louvre

May The Blessings of
Peace and Joy
Be Yours Today
and Throughout
the Coming Year!

Thank you for reading Writing the Renaissance.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sixteenth Century Christmas Trees

In 1521, the town clerk of Sélestat, a city in the Alsace region of France, made the following entry in the account register:

photo credit: Sé même 4 schillings aux gardes forestiers pour surveiller les mais à partir de la Saint Thomas

...likewise 4 shillings to the forest wardens for guarding the fir trees from St. Thomas's Day on

Historians now consider these words to be the first written mention of the Christmas tree. In the old liturgical cycle, St. Thomas's Day was celebrated on December 21, the night of the winter solstice. The fact that the town paid wardens to watch over the forest's trees from this night through Christmas indicates the trees were in danger of being cut down for decoration. Evidence of payment to the wardens for this period has also been found in the registers for 1546, 1555, and 1557, as well a schedule of fines set for those caught stealing a tree.

photo credit
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the faithful erected fir trees outside churches for use in Christmas mystery plays. The story of Adam and Eve required Eve to pluck fruit from a tree, and as fruit trees were bare at this time of year, fir trees stood substitute. Red apples adorned the green branches along with white unconsecrated hosts, representing the cycle of temptation and redemption. Given that the town needed to provide special protection to the forest trees during the Christmas season, it is not unreasonable to conclude that individuals might wish to decorate their own trees at home.

photo credit:
By 1600, city fathers erected a Christmas tree at the Hôtel de Ville. In a chronicle preserved with the account registers at Sélestat's Bibliothèque humaniste, the master of ceremonies of the time describes the ceremony surrounding the transport and presentation of the tree by the forest wardens, the process of its decoration, and the custom whereby the children of municipal employees would shake the tree's branches in order to dislodge sweet treats.

Each Christmas season, Sélestat organizes an exhibition in the nave of the Église Saint-Georges entitled "Christmas Tree Decorations Since 1521." Ten fir trees hang suspended from the ceiling, each displaying a different step in the evolution of the Christmas tree from the sixteenth century to the present day. The town celebrates the season with elaborate festivities: a Christmas village, special concerts, and, not surprisingly, a Christmas tree decorating contest.

I just finished decorating my own tree:

At least now I understand the significance of those red plastic apples I hung upon it!

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 5, 2014

December 5: Death of a King

On this day in 1560, King François II died at the young age of sixteen. François was the eldest son of Henri II and Catherine de Medici (and therefore grandson of his namesake, François I). He had become king only the year before, when his father Henri died after a freak jousting accident that lodged a lance splinter in his eye and brain.

François had never been a robust child; small for his age, he suffered from eczema and a chronic ear infection that ultimately caused his death. In mid-November 1560, a large swelling appeared behind his left ear, indicating the inflammation was spreading to nearby bone and tissue. Fever and violent fits took hold; prescribed bleeding and purgations further weakened his body. The infection formed an abscess in his brain and, in the absence of antibiotics, nothing could be done to save him. François fell unconscious on December 5 and passed away by nightfall, a month short of his seventeenth birthday.

His wife of two years, Mary Queen of Scots, had nursed him tenderly throughout the ordeal. A year older than François, Mary had been raised at the French court with him since the age of five. The two shared a strong bond of friendship and love, although it remains uncertain whether François's underdeveloped physique had prevented them from actually consummating their marriage. Mary was devastated by François's death, which dramatically changed the course of her life. Although she could have remained in France with her estates and status intact until she found another royal husband, Mary chose to return home to her kingdom of Scotland. Little did she know that her choice would ultimately lead to her own death at the hand of Elizabeth I of England.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Interview with Julie K. Rose, Author of OLEANNA

Today I'm happy to welcome author Julie K. Rose to discuss her novel, OLEANNA: A Novel of Norway in 1905 (2014). I reviewed OLEANNA here.

1. What drew you to write about Norway? Have you visited the places you write about in OLEANNA?

Since Norway is where Oleanna and Elisabeth actually lived, it was the natural place to set the book. But since three of my four grandparents were Norwegian, I've always had an affinity for the country. I recall trying to learn Norwegian with the help of my grandfather when I was a child (it didn't take, unfortunately), and I grew up with Norwegian flag garlands on the Christmas tree, favorite family recipes, syttende mai (Constitution Day), and the story of mom's visit to Norway with John to see Elisabeth and Oleanna in 1964.

I was lucky enough to travel to Norway in 2004, and it was even more beautiful and moving than I could have imagined. My husband and I visited Oslo, Bergen, and the Sognefjord region. Ten days wasn't close to being enough! We definitely long to go back.

photo credit

2. What traits do you admire most in each of the two sisters, Oleanna and Elisabeth? Which sister would have flourished as an immigrant to America?

I admire Elisabeth's wit and intelligence, and her yearning for adventure. She always made me laugh, and surprised me. I admire Oleanna's loyalty, and her depth of feeling. She also has a sense of adventure, but it's both external—seeing the world­—and internal.

I imagine Elisabeth might have enjoyed a city, perhaps Brooklyn, which became a center for Scandinavian immigrants. When she really puts her mind to something, she gets good results, and the excitement and variation in an urban environment would have energized her (at least for a time).

Oleanna would have done better out in the Great Plains (as did their brother John), but I don't know that she would have been happy. Her capacity for hard work would have stood her in good stead—though I think she (like many immigrants) would have longed for the magnificent vistas and beauty of Norway when she looked out across the broad, flat prairie.

3. I wanted to know more about Brita, Oleanna’s mother, especially after meeting her brother in the later chapters of the novel. Was Brita’s difficult marriage the source of her unhappiness, or did other factors contribute to her discontent?

The real Oleanna was the initial spark for the book, but the characters are my own invention, including Brita.

Brita was a parallel to Oleanna and Elisabeth, a cautionary tale in a way. She was in love with the land, and its inherent power, so I don't think that she would have ever considered leaving Jølster. Given the opportunity, Brita would have spent all of her time at the sæter, watching the clouds and learning the names of all of the plants and wildflowers. Instead, she married (which is what women in the country did at the time) and had six children with a man who became an alcoholic.

Brita did not have the opportunity to choose, like Oleanna did. When Oleanna went to Bergen and really understood her options, she chose her life back on the farm; it was not chosen for her. All of the natural independence and free spirit Brita had was subsumed by child bearing, child rearing, and indeed, a difficult marriage.

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4. Weaving and painting figure prominently in the novel. Can you tell us a bit about the importance of these crafts to Norwegian culture?

Norwegian folkways and folk art continued in a long, unbroken chain down through the years, well into the 19th and 20th centuries.

Because of the unique geography of the country, there wasn't a really strong culture of the elite, and that extended to art. There were Norwegians in the few urban centers (Oslo, Bergen for example) who created and enjoyed more "academic" art, both from within and without the country, but it wasn't the norm as it might be in, say, France. So the local (rural) traditions that had been built up over centuries endured.

Katherine Larson's excellent The Woven Coverlets of Norway (University of Washington Press, 2001) provides a great background on the development of weaving in Norway and the difference vis-à-vis development in the rest of Europe, which is also a great explanation of Norwegian folk culture in general:

Although much of western Europe witnessed the birth of the textile industry in the Middle Ages and the subsequent transformation of a home-oriented craft into a business run by professionals, in Norway the art of weaving remained firmly in the home. The challenging climate and difficult terrain of this rugged northern land fostered a hard life in which things of value were carefully preserved, and the natural conservatism of farming culture impeded the acceptance of new methods. Thus certain weaving tools and techniques that had largely disappeared centuries ago from homelife of France or England were still to be found in the early part of the twentieth century in Norway, preserved within the folk art of its farming community. (xiii)

And because Norway lost its independence in the Middle Ages (first to Denmark, then to Sweden), folk art was also a way to express identity – an idea which was made more fashionable in the urban centers during the romantic nationalist movement in the 19th century and run-up to independence in the early 20th century.

There are series of posts on my blog about the world of OLEANNA for folks who want to learn more about Norwegian folk life and the country in 1905.

5. Women’s suffrage becomes an important issue in OLEANNA. When did women achieve the vote in Norway? Was it a difficult struggle? How did the geography of Norway and the divide between city and country life complicate participation in the suffragette movement?

Women gained the vote in Norway in 1913 – six years after the events of OLEANNA. As with most things in Norway, the geography did have an impact. The movement for suffrage began with middle class women in the urban centers in the 1880s, but it took the monumental question of independence from Sweden in 1905 to really reach women in the lonely valleys and high lakesides in the rest of the country.

I was lucky enough to be invited to write about the movement in detail as part of the "Celebrating Women" series to mark Women's History Month in March.

6. Do you have a favorite scene in the novel? Which scene was the most difficult to write?

This is tough, because I have a lot of favorites, and quite a few were difficult to write – many because I was dealing with the grief of my mom's death, which happened a year before I started writing OLEANNA. Ultimately though, the most difficult were the final scenes in Bergen, when Oleanna is trying to decide whether to go to America, or go back to the farm. I wrote and rewrote those many times, and to be honest, she did not reveal her mind to me right away. It was a tough decision, but ultimately the right one for her.

Though it's terribly sad, I love the scenes of her mother's "funeral" and burial, but I think my favorite scenes are those between Oleanna and Anders, particularly their first tryst at the sæter. In a way, it's such a brave moment. They both have these deep wells of sadness and loss, but take the leap to trust and be vulnerable with each other anyway.

7. Have you read much Norwegian literature? Can you recommend any Norwegian authors?

I have not, unfortunately. Like generations of high school and college students, I've read plenty of Henrik Ibsen; I particularly admire A Doll's House. (I provided a quick overview of the literary scene at the time of OLEANNA, including Ibsen, over at my blog.)

But Sigrid Undset's books are my main window into Norwegian literature. I read the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy in my 20s, at the behest of my mom, and was hooked. I initially read the translation done at the time (1920s) and though most now see it as needlessly archaic, I found it charming. The 2005 translation by Tiina Nunnally is a more direct style, which I understand is more faithful to Undset's prose.

8. Do you have any advice for writers who wish to explore unfamiliar settings or historical events?

It feels a little bit like being an explorer; there aren't as many maps to follow, but on the other hand, you don't necessarily have to worry about who has gone before and what they've had to say. Rather than going over established ground in a new way, you can venture into new ground and put your own stake in it, so to speak.

Writing historical fiction necessarily means a lot of research anyway (yay!), but venturing off the path slightly means you may have fewer secondary source materials to draw from.

It may seem a bit daunting, but I'd say: do it! Not only are there are plenty of readers out there who yearn for something new, but it's an exciting way to go exploring as an author as well.

Thank you so much for these fantastic questions, and the opportunity to share a glimpse into OLEANNA and her world!

Thank you, Julie, for this fascinating interview. I've always had an interest in Norway ever since reading Undset's work myself, so I really appreciated your novel and the chance to learn more about that beautiful country.

You can learn more about Julie K. Rose and the world of OLEANNA at her website. Her book is available at major online outlets.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: OLEANNA by Julie K. Rose

OLEANNA, by Julie K. Rose, is a ghost story—not a heart-thumping tale of dreadful specters, but a poignant exploration of the hold past events and decisions can have on a person’s present course, of the strength with which regret and guilt can prevent an individual from truly living.

It is 1905 and sisters Oleanna and Elisabeth Tollefsdatter live on a beautiful but secluded farm deep in the fjordland of western Norway. With their parents and sisters dead and their brothers departed for America, the women expect to live a simple life, alone with their memories. Oleanna dreams of following her brothers, but feels tied to the homestead and unmarried Elisabeth, raising a young son on her own. Questions regarding her parents' unhappy marriage and the deaths of her mother and youngest sister in a boating accident haunt Oleanna. She finds comfort in the companionship of the mysterious artist Anders, who battles ghosts of his own. Despite his feelings for her, Anders becomes caught up in the political change sweeping Norway as the country declares independence from Sweden. When he abandons her to work for the cause and Elisabeth unexpectedly marries, Oleanna finds herself free to join her brothers across the ocean. But can she leave her beloved farm and its memories behind? What sort of life remains for her if she stays? Does she truly have a choice, as suffragettes assure her she does?

OLEANNA opens up a world little known to American readers. This quiet novel paints in vivid color the deep valleys and sparkling lakes, verdant fields and towering pine forests of the Norwegian countryside, as well as the medieval buildings, busy wharves and bustling crowds of Bergen. The author’s deep familiarity with Norwegian culture reveals itself in the details of food, clothing, interior design, arts and crafts, and farming practice with which she constructs the novel’s convincing milieu. Capturing a traditional society on the verge of modernization, Rose sets the industrialization and sophistication of the city in stark contrast to the time-honored traditions of rural life. She sketches the political situation with a deftness that grounds the reader without cluttering the story. With brutal honesty, she explores a situation modern Americans seldom face: the splintering of families through emigration. She exposes the difficulties involved in reaching a decision to emigrate and examines the conflicting emotions experienced by all involved. Rather than romanticizing the situation, Rose reveals the heavy toll emigration often took on families, especially on the individuals who remained behind.

photo credit: Peter Schmidt
What I appreciated most about this novel is the way Oleanna’s personal situation reflects that of her nation. Just as Norway stands on the threshold of an independent future, Oleanna must choose between the safety of the past and the exhilarating though uncertain promise of what might be. The key word is “choose”— trials and joys and the example of others teach Oleanna that the ghosts of the past can determine her future only if she allows them to. Just as Norway reaches out with confident enthusiasm to grasp an independent, modern existence, Oleanna must shed her guilt and hesitation and embrace a future that is hers for the making. With great sensitivity and insight, OLEANNA celebrates the courage needed to escape the comfortable company of ghosts and find one’s place in the world.

Please return tomorrow to read an interview with Julie K. Rose about the writing of OLEANNA.

Of Norwegian ancestry, Julie K. Rose writes both historic and contemporary fiction. You can learn more about Julie and her work at her website. She frequently discusses topics of Norwegian culture and history on her blog.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Interview: M. K. Tod, Author of LIES TOLD IN SILENCE

M. K. Tod is known in the historical fiction community for the extensive surveys of historical fiction readers she conducted in 2012 and 2013. She is also the author of two novels set during the World Wars, UNRAVELLED and LIES TOLD IN SILENCE (both published in 2014). I'm happy to welcome Mary here today to discuss her novels and share her thoughts on the practice and prospects of historical fiction.

1) You have written a novel about World War I, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE, and one about World War II, UNRAVELLED. What is it about this era in history that fascinates you? How did you become interested in the World Wars?

My obsession with war was totally unexpected. I hated history at school – far too many facts and dates to memorize – however, when my husband and I were living in Hong Kong for three years, I had very little to do and decided to occupy myself by exploring my grandparents’ lives. Since my grandfather served in both WWI and WWII, these investigations led to military events of that time. Something about the absolute horror and devastation of WWI captured my mind and soul. The fact that these wars happened to people I knew quite well touched me greatly.

2) Out of all the characters you have created, which is your favorite and why? Which character took you the longest to understand?

I always struggle with questions like this! So far, one of my – I’m hedging my bets already – favorite characters is Mariele, Helene Noisette’s grandmother in LIES TOLD IN SILENCE. She’s quietly feisty and a very wise woman – something I hope to be too. For the one who took me the longest to understand, I have to designate Edward Jamieson. He’s modeled after my grandfather, but I took a long time to understand what he went through during the wars. I wish I could have talked to him about it all.

3) How do you balance research and writing? At what point do you feel ready to write? 

I’m obsessed with research and love the process involved – probably my analytical nature and consulting background coming out. After writing my first novel in a totally haphazard fashion mixing research and writing with little thought to structure, I wrote the second novel much more quickly by using a chapter outline. With an outline in hand, research became more purposeful. As I write each chapter, I also note spots that require further research or facts that need checking with a # and return to them later. This method helps keep the writing flow going.

4) Can you relate an instance where your research changed the course of a novel’s plot? 

In UNRAVELLED, my protagonist, Edward Jamieson, gets involved in Camp X, a Canadian based training camp for WWII espionage agents. At some time in my research, I discovered a document outlining the agenda of a meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt, which took place in Washington, D.C. in 1942. Right away, I knew that meeting had to be part of the novel and so I constructed a series of adjunct meetings between US and British espionage groups that took place alongside the main political and military discussions. In the novel, Edward’s absence has unexpected consequences for his wife Ann. I call this the serendipity of research.

5) Did you visit the places you wrote about? How did those visits enrich your writing? Which place moved you the most? 

My husband and I took a trip to northern France in 2010. Seeing the memorials and cemeteries that mark the dead and the sacrifice of so many young men, tramping through fields where battles occurred and alongside trenches and craters, listening to the Last Post at Menin Gate in Ypres, hearing the names of the dead called out, learning of graves dug before battle – these experiences generated powerful and lasting emotions that enhance my writing. The place that moved me most was Vimy Ridge and the memorial to that seminal Canadian battle. My grandfather fought there and survived. I can never forget what he and others did for all of us. He was nineteen when he went and, like so many former soldiers, never spoke of it.

6) You self-published both your novels. What did you learn from publishing and marketing the first that helped you with the second?

Excellent question, Julianne, and no doubt an essay all on its own! I’m sure my learnings will be similar to others writing about self-publishing.

(1) Don’t be afraid to self-publish. One of my greatest joys is the people who have told me in person or via emails that they have read and enjoyed my novels. A euphoric experience.
(2) Build your platform before you self-publish.
(3) Use every opportunity to add to your database of contacts.
(4) Hire a great editor.
(5) Figure out where readers of your genre hang out and stake out a presence there.
(6) One blog tour isn’t enough. Continued sales require regular marketing.
(7) Don’t expect to be an overnight success.
(8) Celebrate what you’ve accomplished.
(9) Get busy writing another novel.

7) You’ve conducted two extensive and immensely helpful surveys of historical fiction readers (the results of which may be found here and here). What information did you glean from these surveys that surprised you the most?

Several insights stand out for me. One that is uppermost in my mind right now is the dominance of social media as a source of reading related recommendations and discussions. Another is the demographic differences: women and men not only read different novels but they also have very different profiles in terms of reading habits; under 30s are vastly different from over 50s; American readers are quite different from British or Canadian. I am also intrigued that those who start reading historical fiction at a young age continue reading it in much higher proportions throughout adulthood.

8) How important is blogging to a writer’s career? Is it more important at certain stages than at others?

Blogging is an important part of a writer’s platform. You should have a purpose for your blog as well as some objectives. You might decide on purpose and objectives at the outset or you might stumble upon them several months or even a year later. Once these are in place you need to adhere to them or else the followers you have cultivated will go elsewhere. In my opinion, blogging serves other purposes: to write and publish regularly; to interact with readers; to build participate in a community; to experiment with voice; to show readers the person behind the stories. My own belief is that blogging remains important throughout your career as a writer. I’ve had two blogs so far. The first is called One Writer’s Voice and it was my attempt to get ‘out there’ and to explore the business of writing. That blog gathered writers as followers not readers and so I developed another blog called A Writer of History where I planned to post on topics that would appeal to readers. As it turns out, my biggest group of followers continues to be other writers. And at this point, that’s fine with me. Writers I interact with on my blog or on Facebook and Twitter have become my community. They cheerlead, encourage, offer suggestions and critique, spread the word about my surveys and novels. What more could I ask for?

9) What do you think is the biggest challenge facing writers of historical fiction today?

Fortunately, we’re in a period where historical fiction is very popular so I’m going to say that our biggest challenge is productivity. As historical fiction writers, we have to both write and research and most writers of historical fiction will tell you that research takes almost the same amount of time as writing. Since the best way to sell your novels is to write another novel, it takes us almost twice as long to do so. Of course, many writers reduce the research time by staying within a particular era.

10) What are you currently working on?

My third novel is called TIME & REGRET. A quick synopsis: While cleaning house to eliminate traces of her ex-husband, Grace Hansen discovers her grandfather's WWI diaries along with a puzzling note. Surprisingly, the diaries reveal a different man from the beloved grandfather who raised her. A few months later, Grace follows the path her grandfather took through the trenches of northern France and discovers a secret he kept hidden for more than seventy years.

I’m writing this with parallel time periods – Grace in the early 1990s and Martin Devlin (her grandfather) in WWI. An interesting challenge.


Thank you, Mary, for sharing your insights! You can learn more about M. K. Tod and her books at her blog. Her books are available in paperback and electronic editions from major online outlets.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Hans Holbein and The Dance of Death

For centuries, the short, gray days of November, heralds of winter, have prompted Christians to remember and honor their beloved dead and to reflect upon their own inevitable end. The Middle Ages embodied this heightened awareness in visual depictions of The Dance of Death (Danse macabre). In this vivid allegory, a personified Death summons individuals from all walks of life to join a chain of frolicking skeletons. Adorning churches and private chapels, such paintings reminded viewers that death spares no one and all, status notwithstanding, share the same ultimate fate.

St. Nicolas's Church, Tallin
The visual tradition of the Dance of Death continued well into the seventeenth century. In the early sixteenth, the German painter Hans Holbein modified the tradition in a way thought to reflect burgeoning Reformation theology. Instead of depicting Death's victims united in an unbroken chain after their passing, he fashioned a stunning series of sketches wherein Death snatches victims away in the midst of their normal daily activities. Pope, king, nobleman, merchant, old woman, priest, peddler, child: a grisly skeleton comes for each at the moment he or she least expects it. Death is as likely to arrive during the performance of sinful actions as charitable ones; good works provide no protection from its ravages.

Hans Lützelburger of Basel cut Holbein's sketches into wood blocks sometime between 1523 and 1526. The woodcuts soon appeared in proofs with German titles. It wasn't until 1538, however, when 
the drawings were published in book form by the Treschsel brothers in Lyon, France, that Holbein's vision reached a wider audience.

Les Simulachres & historiees faces de la mort, autant elegamment pourtraictes, que artificiellement imaginées (Images and Illustrated Facets of Death, as elegantly depicted as they are artfully conceived) features forty-one of Holbein's woodcuts. An illustrative Bible verse crowns each engraving; below the picture follows a short quatrain in French by the poet Gilles Corrozet. The book was intended to help Christians of both persuasions prepare for death by meditating on the vanity of status and possessions, which offered no protection from Death's violence.

Here are a few of Holbein's more striking engravings:

The King (Note the fleur-de-lys and the marked resemblance to François I)
The Young Child
The Physician

The Abbess
The Ploughman
The Drunkard
The Soldier
You can view the entirety of the Simulachres with their Bible verses and accompanying poems here. The work was published at least six times in French by 1562. Innumerable copies in various languages followed through the nineteenth century. The popularity of the work attests to Holbein's genius. By rendering the horror of sudden death visible and viscerally palpable, he reminds viewers to take not a single moment of life for granted. A valuable lesson, even today.

Memento mori. Death comes for all--don't let it catch you by surprise.