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.

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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.