Interview with author Judith Starkston

Author PhotoToday I interview author Judith Starkston. Her fiction debut, Hand of Fire, has just been published, and she was kind enough to take the time to answer some of my questions as part of her blog tour.

Hand of Fire is a historical novel inspired by Homer’s Iliad. In Hand of Fire, the Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god. Will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.

Please welcome Judith to the blog.

SAT: What originally drew you to Homer’s epics, and what in them continues to engage you today?

JS: When I was an undergraduate, I read in Greek the Iliad, Homer’s epic set within the Trojan War, under the guidance of one of my favorite professors. The deep humanity of the poem has always held me, the insights into who we are and what matters in life. After years of teaching the Iliad, I still couldn’t stay dry-eyed when we discussed the scene at the end of the poem when King Priam of Troy comes into the Greek camp and begs for the body of his dead son from Achilles, the vicious warrior who’s been dragging the body around behind his chariot for days. And then, before our eyes, in the language of epic, that vicious killer returns to his human self because he sees his own father’s grief reflected in Priam—the grief he knows his father will soon feel because Achilles understands he is doomed. Homer tells us everything about the bond between sons and fathers in that scene. There’s so much beauty and resonance. I can’t put what I understand into words but I know I am richer for the experience. That quality will always engage me.

perf6.000x9.000.inddIn much the same way, I thought there must be a rich dimension in the love story between Achilles and Briseis. Homer doesn’t tell us how they can love each other, just that they do. It doesn’t make any sense that Briseis loves Achilles. He has destroyed her city, killed her husband and brothers and turned her from princess to captive. In this case Homer doesn’t give us the resonances, but I knew they were there if I went hunting. I knew it wasn’t, as some suggested, a kind of ancient Stockholm Syndrome, because Achilles questions the whole war. He’s in no position to be a brainwasher. He’s a fragmented mess in need of the kind of healing that I discovered in Briseis’s character as I started letting history and my imagination work together.

People reading my book have no need of ever having read the Iliad or knowing the history involved. I carefully created a book that is independent of the poem in that sense, but I honored the Homeric richness. I don’t contradict what happens in the poem. I worked consistently in harmony with what Homer says. But the reader doesn’t for a minute have to know what Homer says! That’s my job.

SAT: Homer has only a few lines in the Iliad devoted to Briseis. Could you quote them for us?

JS: Briseis’s name is mentioned several times as men fight about her and then try to resolve the conflict, but in those references we get no feeling about Briseis herself. There are only two times when we get any indication of the woman herself. The first is a simple descriptive phrase only. When she is taken away from Achilles, she is described as leaving “all unwilling” with the herald who has come to fetch her.

As to actually hearing her voice, that occurs only once in the Iliad. Briseis laments Patroclus’s death in the lines quoted below. I’m using Lombardo’s translation (which I recommend as a good reading translation).

Briseis stood there like golden Aphrodite.
But when she saw Patroclus’ mangled body
She threw herself upon him and wailed
In a high, piercing voice, and with her nails
She tore her breast and soft neck and lovely face.
And this woman, so like a goddess, cried in anguish:

“My poor Patroclus. You were so dear to me.
When I left this hut you were alive,
And now I find you, the army’s leader, dead,
When I come back. So it is for me always,
Evil upon evil. I have seen my husband,
The man my father and mother gave me to,
Mangled with sharp bronze before my city,
And my three brothers, all from the same mother,
Brothers I loved—they all died that day.
But you wouldn’t let me cry when Achilles
Killed my husband and destroyed Mynes’ city,
Wouldn’t let me cry. You told me you’d make me
Achilles’ bride, told me you’d take me on a ship
To Phthia, for a wedding among the Myrmidons.
I will never stop grieving for you, forever sweet.”

SAT: Your Briseis is such an engaging character! How did you go about developing her personality from these few lines?

JS: The process had two sources. My imagination and the historical details I learned about her world—possibilities of what she could have been from what we now know of the world of Late Bronze Age Trojans and Hittites. From history and archaeology I found her “job” as a healing priestess and what the details of that were like on a daily basis. The imagination part led me to write many chapters about Briseis’s early years. Those chapters all hit the cutting room floor, but they helped me “grow up” with her. Writing them also taught me a lot about voice. I don’t think I ever want to take on the challenge of writing an adult book from a child’s perspective. What a lesson in consistent point of view that exercise was! But I got to know my young lady and I’ve been haunted by a bossy redhead ever since. As you know, if you let the characters come alive in your imagination, they take over and tell you what to do with them. It often feels as if they really are alive somewhere.

SAT: Hand of Fire includes a vivid description of a vision that Briseis has when she is acting as priestess for the Spring Festival. What sources did you use to research and flesh out this kind of visionary out-of-body experience?

JS: I have to say this was an act of pure imagination. The Hittite records about what the priestesses did are never that luscious, and while the precise rituals are very useful to me as a writer, the emotional content of the priestesses’ work couldn’t be found in the historical record. I guess I’ve read about such out-of-body experiences at some point and internalized information, but I wasn’t aware of that as I wrote. Those visions came out of somewhere in me.

SAT: I see that you’re also working on a series of historical mysteries featuring the ancient Hittite queen Puduhepa. How did you become interested in her?

JS: Troy, the setting of Hand of Fire, was located on the western coast of what is now Turkey. Most of that area in the Late Bronze Age, when a Trojan War would have happened (if it truly did), was controlled by the powerful Hittite Empire. Troy was one of a number of small, semi-independent kingdoms on the western edge of this empire. The Hittites and the Trojans share the same culture, religion and other traditions to a large extent. The Hittites, unlike the Trojans, left behind libraries that survived. We know the Trojans had similar written records; they just didn’t make it through the vagaries of preservation. So if a historical writer wants to know details about Trojans, as I did when writing Hand of Fire, the best place to look is in these Hittite libraries—which are on clay tablets written in cuneiform. Fortunately more and more of the tablets have been translated in the last decade or so. We have a window into these people we didn’t have before.

And one of those people that I met in the Hittite libraries is Queen Puduhepa, who reigned from her early twenties until past eighty. She sealed the first extant peace treaty in history between Pharaoh Ramses II and the Hittites. We have her judicial decrees, her haggling with Ramses via letters, and all kinds of great stuff. It occurred to me she’d make a great sleuth. She seems to have had that sort of mind. No one’s written fiction about her because we’ve only known a significant amount about the Hittites for a relatively short time and it isn’t all that accessible unless you are comfortable with ancient languages and archaeology. So the research is pretty complicated, but very fun, and I seem to be among the first to portray this period in fiction.

SAT: As someone who loves both historical fiction and fantasy, I was intrigued by this quote from your blog-hop post on your writing process: “When you have a half-immortal hero among your characters and a main character who connects with her gods in a mystical but very sensual way, there’s a fantasy element to the history. It just happens to be an element that the people living in the period would have considered entirely normal, not fantasy at all, so I didn’t really think of myself as writing historical fantasy.” Would you elaborate on this statement?

JS: I decided early on to keep to what Homer says happened, as I mentioned above. After all, there’s enough I have to make up whole cloth without also rewriting so venerable an authority! And Homer says things like, Achilles’ immortal goddess mother rose from the sea and talked to her son. I struggled for a long time how to work with these elements that we call fantasy. Greeks, mind you, thought the gods would come walking along looking just like a mortal and then mess with human life. They didn’t view this intermixing of mortal and immortal as some giant stretch. So I finally settled on treating these fantastical pieces as though they were ordinary parts of life, in the same way that the school of fiction writing called magical realism will present a man with wings as if that is the most normal thing around. No jaw dropping allowed, but some interesting added dimensions to the tale. I did have Briseis realize that what she hadn’t thought was such a big deal—believing Achilles’ mother is a goddess—did feel pretty hard to understand once she had Achilles right in front of her chatting about his mother sending omens. But it’s more like someone today feels when they meet a celebrity or a famous person. I also borrowed from Hittite mythology a strand that I believe is part of what went into making the Achilles legend in Homer, and I wove it into Briseis’s way of connecting to Achilles. So not only do we have gods and fantasy from the Greek tradition, but we have gods and fantasy also from the historical record of what the people around Troy believed. It gave the love story the kind of resonance I’d wanted to find. It also gives the connection to Achilles a sexiness from early on that otherwise I couldn’t have included and I do think the physical pull is an essential part of their bond.

SAT: Tell us a bit about your writing journey: when you started to write, your road to publication, and so on.

JS: I started to explore how to write fiction when I stopped teaching about a decade ago. I took classes and workshops, found a critique group, and dug into the research. It had quickly become clear to me that I needed to know much more about the material world of this place and time than I’d gained as a classics major and grad student. Every time someone reaches for something, the writer has to know exactly what it looks, feels and smells like. Clothes, buildings, religious rites, political intrigues, customs regarding women, marriage, murder, farming—you name it, I had to figure it out. So that took some time and I didn’t actually start writing this book for many years.

Then when I thought I had a good manuscript, I sent it out to agents and got some excellent criticism that led me to rework and shorten. I worked with some perceptive editors. Eventually I chose Fireship Press, which specializes in historical fiction, as my publishing home.

SAT: How do you go about researching your books? Did you go about researching your new Hittite series in the same way that you did research for Hand of Fire?

JS: Fortunately, the basics of both series are the same. They have different settings, but the same Bronze Age culture in both. It is true that I’m pretty sure I’m moving the sequel of Hand of Fire to the island of Cyprus and that is taking some new research, but not outside the basic framework I’d built.

I work in university libraries and converse with scholars and archaeologists in the field to make sure I’m not off track. I’ve travelled extensively in Greece and Turkey, and now Cyprus. Seeing the real geography of the settings of my books is an essential piece of the research. Even though we do not know exactly where Briseis’s home city of Lyrnessos was, we know where the Greeks thought it had been. I pointed to that spot on a map and told the archaeologist who was guiding me, basically, I want to go look at a city that doesn’t exist. Once she realized what I meant we clambered all over the back side of Mt. Ida and I became familiar with the landscape that a real Briseis would have known. I could place my imaginary city in a genuine landscape.

I’ve done similar work with Puduhepa’s setting. This past spring I went to the archaeological site that we can best surmise was her hometown of Lawazantiya in central southern Turkey. I spent a whole day with the director of the site, climbing the site itself and exploring the surrounding springs which are key to the identification of the site as Lawazantiya.

When Puduhepa leaves her hometown, we know from the record, she goes with her new husband to the city he rules at that time, Hakpis. This summer I accidently ended up in a dramatic city that can reasonably be identified as ancient Hakpis. Had my same archaeologist friend who climbed Mt. Ida with me many years earlier not chosen Amasya to stay that last night because it has beautiful Ottoman hotels, we wouldn’t have struck up a conversation with the resident archaeologist at the tiny Amasya museum. We would not have known that his wife had been conducting a dig on the mountain fortress above us that revealed the tell tale signs of Bronze Age ruins. It’s a new dig, unpublished. The guess that it is Hakpis is still tentative, but it’s such a great guess for me because never has a fortress looked so dramatic. It was made to be part of compelling historical fiction.

So that’s how research in Turkey goes. Archaeology is very fresh and underway all over the landscape. New discoveries are commonplace. It’s all pretty darned exciting.

As I research I combine fun travel with scholarly reading—which is very dry and boring usually—but provides the raw material to create flesh and blood characters who keep the plot moving along quickly so the pages, I hope, won’t stop turning. From library research to good story is a big leap, but I hope I’ve made it.

SAT: Fascinating stuff! I look forward to reading more of your novels.

Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Ms. Starkston is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Hand of Fire is her debut novel.

Find an excerpt, Q&A, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical background as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community on Starkston’s website www.JudithStarkston.com
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Visit on Goodreads Hand of Fire

Hand of Fire Tour Graphic

Interview with author Elizabeth Zelvin

Today I am pleased to interview one of my personal inspirations, writer Elizabeth Zelvin, fellow member of Sisters in Crime. Please welcome Liz to the blog.

ZelvinHeadshot2014-300dpiSAT: Tell us a bit about your writing journey: when you started to write, your road to publication, and so on.

EZ: How much time have you got? The short version: I first said I wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old, I didn’t get published till I was over thirty (poetry), and my first novel, Death Will Get You Sober, came out on my sixty-fourth birthday. So the road was rocky. My big mistake was to try to do it alone for the first fifty years. I owe a tremendous debt to Sisters in Crime, the Guppies chapter (we were the Great UnPublished when I first joined in 2002), and Mystery Writers of America. My post-publication road has also been rocky, not surprising since both publishing and the whole world in general has gone through a complete paradigm shift in the past five years. I’d still be writing only mysteries if my first publisher, St. Martin’s (Minotaur) hadn’t dropped me because my sales didn’t soar when the economy tanked in 2009.

SAT: How did you come to write Voyage of Strangers?

EZ: Voyage of Strangers is a historical novel about what really happened when Columbus discovered America, from the point of view of a young marrano sailor. It’s more about how I came to create Diego, who first appeared in my short story, “The Green Cross,” and who is the protagonist of Voyage of Strangers along with his sister Rachel. I’ve told this one before, and it never changes: I woke up in the middle of the night with Diego beating on the inside of my head, saying, “Let me out! Let me out!” I really didn’t want to get out of bed, and I hate research—make that hated—but he wouldn’t let me go. I found enough material online the next day to write the story, including Columbus’s log of the first voyage, which is fascinating, and Diego and I were on our way. I’m Jewish, I knew the Jews were kicked out of Spain at the same time that Columbus sailed, and I knew what everybody learns in school about Columbus, but nothing more. But once I started doing the research, I knew Diego had a much bigger story to tell, and that it was darker and deeper than the original mystery. Rachel came out of nowhere too. Diego comes back to find she got stuck in Spain when the family fled, and he has to keep her out of the hands of the Inquisition and prevent her—unsuccessfully—from coming along on the second voyage.

Caravel; Shutterstock ID 185020481SAT: Should readers read “The Green Cross,” the short story that led to Voyage of Strangers before beginning the novel?

EZ: I hope everyone who reads Voyage of Strangers will read “The Green Cross,” but I don’t think it matters whether it’s before or after. Before: readers can see whether they like Diego for only 99 cents. After: you can see not only Diego’s evolution, but that of Columbus, from the kindly detective who solves the mystery in “The Green Cross” to a much more complex and driven, even tragic figure.

SAT: What is different about writing historical fiction? Was the process of writing it different from the way you go about writing the Bruce Kohler mysteries?

EZ: There are two biggest differences. One is that you can’t write historical fiction without reading actual history. You can’t skate by with what you know from historical novels, any more than you can write police procedurals based only on what you’ve seen on TV crime shows—unless you want to be under constant threat of attack from readers. The other is structure. The basic armature of the traditional mystery, like those I write, is that a crime is committed, usually a murder; the protagonist investigates; and there’s some kind of confrontation and a resolution of the mystery. On that, the writer can hang anything she likes: any protagonist (eg my recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler), other characters, relationships, and story arc; setting in terms of place (present-day New York City in the Bruce books and stories) and of the protagonist’s work or interests or environment (the 12-step programs in my mysteries); and a theme or themes (for Bruce and me, recovery from addictions and codependency, and a secondary theme, the power of friendship).

In a historical novel, the armature is what actually happened. The historical timeline at the end of Voyage of Strangers goes back to the marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, more than twenty years before the period covered by the events in the book, because so many events had an impact on what happened in 1493 to 1495, the time that Diego and Rachel spend in post-Expulsion Spain and on the second voyage. I’m an into-the-mist writer, but instead of starting right in as I do with my mysteries, I have to do a lot of reading before I begin a historical novel. Then I have to make sure that the fictional characters (about half the cast in Voyage of Strangers) fit in with the historical events. All my characters taken from history, including Columbus, are doing exactly what they did in real life at any given moment in the book.

SAT: What do you like and dislike about writing historical fiction compared with works set in today’s world?

EZ: I’ve gone from being someone who hated research to someone who finds it fascinating, especially when what really happened is stuff you couldn’t make up. For example, did you know that the Santa Maria never made it back to Spain? How the ship got wrecked on Christmas Eve is told in the prologue to Voyage, and what happened to the sailors who got left behind because not everybody could fit into the Niña and the Pinta for the return voyage is a key point in the plot of my novel. I’ve now written two historical novels (to anticipate the next question, yes, there is a sequel), and for me, once I’ve done the research, the actual writing of the first draft has so far gone more easily and quickly for me than it did for my mysteries. My guess is that what slows me down is the puzzle aspect of the mystery. I sail through characterization and dialogue, but I really have to think about the puzzle. I know writers who are just the opposite. It’s very individual. With historicals vs novels set in the present, your characters don’t have to assume the attitudes and biases of the twenty-first century, which can be very freeing. Voyage of Strangers is about being an outsider, so Diego’s and Rachel’s views can be different from those of their contemporaries and, at the same time, different in some ways from what would be considered “correct” today.

SAT: I’m glad to hear there’s a sequel to Voyage of Strangers in the works. Please, tell us more! And are you planning on writing other historical novels beyond that?

EZ: I spent the summer writing the sequel, Journey of Strangers, which takes Diego back to Europe, then to the Ottoman Empire, and then to an island off the coast of West Africa because—well, I’ll just say that I found out about an astonishing historical event that very few people know about that gave me a terrific new protagonist and story line. Bad for the Jews, good for the writer. And I’ll write historical novels as long as I have a publisher who wants them. I find the prospect of getting my work published very motivating.

SAT: Tell us how you went about researching the book.

EZ: I started out online. It was fascinating to find some primary source material, such as Columbus’s log of the first voyage in English. Wikipedia is also a helpful starting place—though not a reliable source. You have to check the facts you find on Wikipedia very carefully. The Internet is also great for specific aspects of the setting. For example, I got a lot of detail about late 15th-century Seville from scholarly material I found online and details of the flora and fauna of Hispaniola by looking up plants and animals of the Dominican Republic. Google Images was great for how things looked. And I took much of how I presented the Taino and the Roma (“gypsies”) from websites created by people who self-identify as Taino or Roma. I also went to books. I used two main sources for the historical details of Voyage of Strangers. One was “The” biography of Columbus, Samuel Eliot Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942. Morison actually sailed the routes of all four of Columbus’s voyages in his own sailboat. But his point of view is completely Eurocentric and patriarchal, which is not surprising, given the era in which he was writing. As a foil, I also used radical historian Kirkpatrick Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise, written when Americans were finally getting it that the genocide of the Taino people in the Caribbean was, to put it mildly, a terrible thing. Morison and Sale disagree on just about everything, so I got to pick and choose what to believe to suit my story.

DWGYS-Cover-FinalSAT: Does your work experience as a Peace Corps volunteer and therapist have any influence on your writing apart from the fact that the Bruce Kohler series is set within the world of a recovering alcoholic who gets by only with the help of AA?

EZ: As a writer who got planted early but bloomed very late in life, I have to say that all my life experience has come in handy in my writing. In writing about the Caribbean in Voyage and the island of São Tomé in the new book, I drew on my memories of tropical sights and sounds and smells. One thing my sources Morison and Sale disagreed about was whether the indigenous Caribe, in particular the Canibale, were actually cannibals. (Yes, that’s where the word comes from.) I chose to agree with Sale, who makes a good case that the evidence isn’t really there in the primary sources, though it’s something that has been repeated as truth by historians for hundreds of years. I have a scene in which Diego’s Taino friend tells him it’s a joking insult people from different tribal groups throw at each other. I got that straight from my Peace Corps experience in West Africa. I had friends who would kid around by telling each other, “Your grandfather ate people!” As for being a therapist, I like to think the feelings, relationships, and emotional growth of my characters is authentic. That authenticity comes from both my professional and personal experience.

Liz CD CoverSAT: Tell us about your CD, Outrageous Older Woman? How would you classify it in terms of musical genre and style?

EZ: Outrageous Older Woman consists of songs I’ve written over the past thirty years. I sing and play guitar, but the reason the album is a dream come true is that a bunch of superb musicians and backup singers—all much better than me!—played and sang along with me on it. The genre is singer-songwriter urban folk with a dash of country and a pinch of gospel, klezmer, or whatever each individual song required. The songs cover a wide variety of subject matter on themes that aren’t too different from those of my fiction and poetry: love, family, friendship, aging, alcoholism and recovery, abuse and healing, inspiring characters. My song about 911, written in New York over the two days after it happened, is on it, as is a story song that’s based on a classic Jewish shaggy dog story. You can get the CD or MP3 download on CD Baby, iTunes, and Amazon (where you have to look up Liz Zelvin rather than Elizabeth Zelvin—it’s not on my author page because it’s not a book). And you can hear samples and a few full songs on my music website at http://lizzelvin.com.

SAT: What’s next for Elizabeth Zelvin?

EZ: If Lake Union, which is the literary and commercial fiction imprint of Amazon Publishing (Amazon’s traditional publishing arm), keeps wanting my historical novels, the next one will put either Diego and my other protagonists or possibly their children into some other situation and setting where there was a Jewish historical presence in the right era. My e-publisher, BooksBNimble, would like to see another Bruce mystery, and I’m working on the first draft of that. The theme is compulsive debting (yes, there is a program, Debtors Anonymous), and the working title is Death Will Forgive Your Debts. I’ve also been thinking for a long time about a mystery/urban fantasy novel featuring my other strong protagonist, Emerald Love, a rising country music star and shapeshifter who’s also a nice Jewish girl née Amy Greenstein. She’s already appeared in an e-novella, “Shifting Is for the Goyim,” (available on Amazon) and in a short story that will appear in the next Sisters in Crime Guppies anthology.

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist and author of Voyage of Strangers, a historical novel about Columbus’s second voyage from the perspective of a young marrano sailor. She is also the author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series, starting with Death Will Get You Sober. Liz’s short stories have been nominated three times for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story and once for the Derringer Award. Her publications include two books of poetry and a professional book on gender and addictions. She has also released an album of original songs titled Outrageous Older Woman. Liz currently sees clients around the world on her online therapy website at LZcybershrink.com. Her author website is at http://elizabethzelvin.com. You can friend her on Facebook at http://facebook.com/elizabeth.zelvin. Besides being a shrink, a writer, and a singer-songwriter, Liz is the doting grandma of two gorgeous, brilliant, talented, and well-behaved little girls.

Two Autumn Poems

Goldenrod big- 1024px-Field-of-goldenrod-flowers
Autumn Poem of Innocence

Goldenrod laughs in the wind
Tosses back its yellow hair

Flame-colored maple
Leaves dancing in the wind
Swirl and bow and swirl again

Cloudless blue sky
Bright autumn sun

Cheery pumpkins grace our doorsteps
Cornears unfurl colorful seeds

 

Photo by Nicole Gordine, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Nicole Gordine, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Eastern Grey Squirrel, photo by BirdPhotos.com, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Eastern Grey Squirrel, photo by BirdPhotos.com, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Autumn Poem of Experience

Soon bright pumpkins squirrels will ravage
Corn kernels scatter
Bare cobs leave
Broken rinds
Remains of furry ones’ feast.
(Squirrels disdain to do their dishes)

Rain squalls pound goldenrods’ hair
Branches hurl
Trees uproot.

Will the Monarch grace us?
Or is its beauty vanished,
Vanquished,
Bleared, smeared by human greed?

Yet the seasons cycle on
Dead leaves go to the compost bin
Life begins anew

Monarch Butterfly- BBGMonarchButterflyWings

I want to thank fellow blogger Jeff (StuffJeffReads) for keeping William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience in the forefront of my mind this past year. Once I realized the dichotomy of innocence/experience was the perfect way to organize the two initial images—the goldenrod and the Monarch butterfly—the rest of the poetic diptych soon fell into place. “Bleared, smeared” obviously echoes Gerard Manley Hopkin’s line in “God’s Grandeur,” just as “Will the Monarch grace us?” echoes T.S. Eliot’s “Will the sunflower turn to us,” in “Burnt Norton.”

Shout-out to Sisters in Crime

sisters in crimeMy development as a writer owes much to many people. But when I joined Sisters in Crime and its “Guppy” chapter (for “the Great UnPublished”) in 2007 or thereabouts, I found myself inundated with a wonderful flood of sympathetic fellow writers and a wealth of online resources ranging from moral support to classes, critique groups, and many other opportunities, all to be found on the Guppy and SinC listervs. My editor and critique partners as well as many of my first editing clients all came from the ranks of fellow Sisters in Crime.

Taking stock of the last year made me especially aware of this blessing, and I had already decided to write a blog post on the subject when lo and behold, the latest issue of SinC’s member newsletter announced a Sisters in Crime blog hop for the month of September. Talk about synchronicity!

Among the topics suggested for SinC’s September blog hop was mentoring advice for a new writer. This fits seamlessly into my desire to give SinC a big shout-out as one of the best things a new writer can do for herself. While most members write mysteries or other crime-related genres, there is room even for those whose fiction touches only tangentially on the subject. After all, isn’t most popular fiction about some kind of mystery? It doesn’t necessarily have to involve a dead body. Learning the basics of mystery plotting and planning from SinC’s many pros can go a long way in helping any new writer to construct a good plot.

Guppy logoAnd then there’s the moral support. When you’re starting out as a writer, frankly your first efforts just aren’t going to be very good. Friends and family who read these early efforts may be kind enough or undiscriminating enough to give you encouragement—or they may not. Even if they do, they still may not understand the impulse that drives you to shut yourself up for hours writing about imaginary people and situations. But once you join SinC, and even more so if you join the online Guppy chapter, you can subscribe to a listserv that includes both newbies and seasoned pros. Tons of fellow writers who have been through the same kinds of experiences that you may be struggling with right now, whether you’re tentatively trying to just get those first ideas down on paper, struggling to finish your very first draft, or agonizing over how to see your finished novel make its way in the world. Ask any kind of question at all, and you’re sure to find someone on the list (usually many someones) who can help.

SinC also has local chapters that offer this kind of encouragement face to face. It sponsors workshops, scholarships, and many other opportunities. If you are new to writing, I can offer you no better advice than to become a Sister in Crime!

But what if you’re not a female? That’s all right, too, as long as you support SinC’s core goal of encouraging women crime writers. SinC has plenty of “Misters” as well as “Sisters” who are active in the organization and on its listservs. We are happy to have them, and richer for the combined knowledge and experience.

Need more information? Here’s where to go: http://www.sistersincrime.org/  and http://www.sinc-guppies.org/

Amber Foxx 2014And another shout-out to fellow Sister in Crime Amber Foxx, who is also participating in SinC’s blog hop this month: http://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/. I think regular followers of Saints and Trees will enjoy her Mae Martin series of “murderless mysteries.” Read Amber’s blog-hop post here.

 

 

Interview with author Jeri Westerson

jeri_westerson_1Today I am pleased to present an interview with one of my favorite writers, Jeri Westerson, best known for her Crispin Guest medieval “noir” mysteries.

SAT: Crispin Guest is such a wonderful character! Where did he come from?

JW: I think he probably came from a lot of places, but he mostly formed when I decided what kind of medieval mystery I wanted to write. Once I had come up with the idea of a hardboiled kind of detective on the order of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, he began to form more quickly. Following the tropes of the hardboiled detective, he had to be a loner, down on his luck, hard drinking, hard fighting, tough talking—and a sucker for a dame in trouble. I wanted a knight, because so many medieval mysteries were inhabited (pun intended) by clerical sleuths and I wanted someone completely different, someone who was used to fighting, to being his own man. And I wanted action and a bit of adventure. But I also wanted a sexier sort of detective, so a dark and brooding man, a little Mr. Darcy blended with a bit of Errol Flynn. But I have to say that a great deal of his character stems from his innate sense of honor and justice carved out by his present circumstances, because to make him that loner down on his luck, I had to take away everything that he used to define himself: his knighthood, his title, his lands, his wealth, his very place in such a codified society. And once I did that, he sprang forth pretty much fully formed.

SAT: I was excited to see that a new Crispin Guest novel, Cup of Blood, has just been released. Since Cup of Blood is billed as a prequel, should a reader who is new to the series now start with this book rather than Veil of Lies?

CupofBlood_final_NoBleedJW: I’ll tell you a secret. Cup of Blood was the first Crispin Guest book I ever wrote. At the time, its themes of the Holy Grail and Knights Templars failed to capture the imagination of editors, as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was released around that time. So the book was put to bed and the second one, Veil of Lies, was published as the first book in the series. But I never forgot this first book. It’s where Crispin’s sidekick Jack Tucker comes into his life. So while I was between publishers, I decided to brush off the dust and spruce up the writing of Cup of Blood and release it myself as a prequel. So it is entirely appropriate for neophytes to read Cup of Blood first.

SAT: Crispin and his apprentice, Jack Tucker, have such a special relationship, and one of the joys of reading the series is watching the way their relationship unfolds. Where did Jack come from? Did you envision his becoming an apprentice from the first? Will Jack strike out on his own one day or do you see him growing into partnership with Crispin?

JW: Jack was going to be in the first book and that was pretty much going to be it for him. But my agent and editor alike both found him to be a very engaging character and so Jack got to stay. And it turned out to be a godsend, because we see Crispin’s stark life tempered by the presence of Jack, sort of the son Crispin never had. And as Jack grows up throughout the series, Crispin begins to see that his own chosen profession has an important place in London, and that he himself has earned his way back from the degradation that was visited upon him. So Jack has become very important to the series. He won’t leave Crispin, in fact, there is more to come on that front. But Jack will get a brief foray into a YA series of his own. At least three books worth.

SAT: A YA series with Jack—Yippee! When will the first one be released?

JW: Hold on there! I have to write the sucker first. And then it’s got to get a publisher, and on and on. But it’s next up on my list of things to write this year.

SAT: I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that you have two non-Crispin novels in the works. Your website describes Though Heaven Fall as “a quixotic tale of fantasy and faith, set in 13th-century England.” Is this the beginning of a new series? What sparked this new novel?

JW: I had such a pleasant experience self-publishing Cup of Blood that I decided to delve into my files of unpublished manuscripts and see what might be marketable. When I first started writing for publication, I wrote historical novels, but they weren’t the kind editors were jumping over themselves to publish. They were about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, with sometimes no crowned heads to be seen. This kind of book translated much better into medieval mystery, and that was where I was ultimately published. But all of those previous historical novels were one-offs, standalones. Though Heaven Fall is definitely a standalone. It’s styled a “Medieval Parable” and I suppose that’s exactly what it is.

SAT: “Fantasy and faith” as well as quixotic impulses also feature strongly in the Crispin Guest series. I love the way you balance the possibility that a relic such as the Crown of Thorns may, in fact, have mysterious and inexplicable properties. As Crispin, though a believer and a man of his times, is also a rather skeptical and analytical character it is especially interesting to view such possibilities through his eyes. What draws you so strongly to this theme, which threads through all of the novels in the series?

JW: Faith truly is in the eye of the beholder, and I think we have a sometimes stilted view of medievals, that they all followed blindly what the Church taught them. But there were many people who questioned those views. A character who believes all what he was taught of Heaven and Hell, but who is also well-traveled and well-educated forming his own ideas on the matter, can follow a logical progression through his experiences and philosophy to a certain amount of skepticism. And it’s fun to pit him against everyone around him and make him question his own beliefs. I always leave it to the reader to decide if mystical events have happened or not.

SAT: The second non-Crispin novel mentioned on your website, Booke of the Hidden, “a quirky-humorous yet edgy-romantic urban fantasy set in a small town in Maine,” is quite a new direction! I suspect from the lovely balancing act you perform with relics in the Crispin series that you have a longstanding interest in the paranormal. (The latest Crispin novel delves into the world of medieval alchemy, a continuation of this theme.) What drew you to finally write a novel in which paranormal happenings become overt?

JW: Well, an author has to diversify, especially when writing in such a niche market as medieval mystery. In order to try to break out, I went back to my roots, as it were, of writing about fantasy and sci fi. The Jack Tucker series will definitely fall into the fantasy category. It’s the sort of thing I read ravenously in high school and college. Booke of the Hidden is a hell of a fun series to write, and I’m hoping that a publisher will fall in love with it as much as I have. It’s sort of Buffy meets Sookie, if you can get your head around that. And there’s yet another series that I will be working on, a paranormal steampunk mystery series. So stay tuned!

SAT: I have my own theories about the crossover appeal between paranormal and historical novels, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the subject as both reader and writer. I love the idea that the two genres might intermingle in your forthcoming Though Heaven Fall.

JW: I love magical elements. I loved the Harry Potter series for its intermingling of magic and mundane and that they coexist. I like the idea of a perfectly normal person suddenly finding themselves falling into this world. I think we all do to an extent and as a reader I’ve enjoyed those sorts of stories for decades. As a writer, I am finally finding the courage to put my toe in the water. I know we tend to think of authors who write a series that we love to be one note players. But most authors have many different tales inside of them. I fully intend to complete the Crispin series many, many books from now, but I also want to meander into different places and see if I can’t reach some modest success there as well.

SAT: How was writing a book set in the present-day world different from writing historical novels?

JW: There’s a lot less research, though there still is research. The Crispin books are dense with prose. Perhaps it is the formality of the time period, of the way people think and talk, but I find the contemporary books move faster, and they are bit lighter in tone, though Booke of the Hidden certainly gets some heavy scenes.

SAT: You also publish the Skyler Foxe Mysteries, a LGBT series. Tell us a bit about those.

FoxeFire_432JW: Well, some years ago, I was reading some LGBT books that my gay friends recommended and I mentioned to them that I wasn’t too thrilled with the writing. And then the challenge began. “If you think you can do better, write one,” they said. And since I was in mystery mode and penning my very dark and heavy Crispin books, I decided, “why not!” But I wanted something more light with humor (I realize that one’s journey as a gay man or woman can be fraught with hardship, and lots of literature out there reflects that, but it can’t all be gloom and doom. There has to be some happy endings!) And so I created Skyler Foxe, a young, brand new high school English Lit teacher who is a bit of a player and who also stumbles into murder and becomes an amateur sleuth while juggling school, correcting papers, dealing with his students’ angst, his friends, and possible love interest. I wanted to write something more in the style of a sitcom with laughs, great three-dimensional characters, a murder puzzle, some erotica (I’m all about the fan service), and at the same time getting to say something about being an LGBT person in today’s world and get in some digs at the conservative area in which I live. A win-win. The series has been critically acclaimed and started with a sort of serial trilogy that I considered like a pilot to the series (FOXE TAIL, FOXE HUNT, and OUT-FOXED), where the first two books of the trilogy sort of end on a cliffhanger. I self-published a novella (FOXE DEN) that I called “DVD extras” with no mystery but plenty of heart…and erotica, then published with MLR Press again in the fourth standalone book FOXE FIRE, and I’m just finishing up the first draft of the next in the series, DESERT FOXE. After that is another novella to be self-published, FOXE DEN 2: SUMMER VACATION.

They are a hoot to write and it’s fun really working on writing humor. Though the last two are standalones, it really helps know who all the characters are by reading the series in order, but not an absolute. I try to make it possible to catch up if you are coming to it fresh. The Skyler series is my relief writing from the dense prose and piles of research necessary for the Crispin books. See more at http://skylerfoxemysteries.com/

SAT: What’s next for Crispin? Can we expect a sequel to Shadow of the Alchemist?

JW: Of course! I’m already working on Crispin #8, The Silence of Stones: When the Stone of Scone disappears from the throne of England during mass in Westminster Abbey, the populace takes it as a sign to side with King Richard’s rebellious barons. The last thing the king needs is for the mythical stone to be missing, further putting his authority in question, especially after his army suffers a crushing defeat against the Scottish forces. Desperate, Richard himself calls in Crispin to find the missing stone. And to insure that Crispin will do the deed, Richard imprisons Jack Tucker and orders Crispin to find the stone before Parliament convenes in two weeks or Jack will hang for treason.

This one has a lot of magic, with three witches and other mystical activity. Fun!

SAT: Three witches and the Scottish army, shades of Macbeth! Looking forward to it so much. Thanks for the interview!

Los Angeles native and award-winning author Jeri Westerson writes a brooding medieval detective, a feisty female demon-buster, and a gay high school teacher/sleuth. No, not all in the same book. She pens the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir mysteries, just began shopping her new urban fantasy series, Booke of The Hidden, and continues her LGBT mystery series, the Skyler Foxe Mysteries. When not writing, she dabbles in gourmet cooking, beekeeping, and herding two cats. See more, including her series book trailer, at www.JeriWesterson.com

Late Summer Poem

iStock_000005311669SmallCool August morning
Open window to sunlight and air
Of Edenic purity

Play of sunlight across telephone wires
Wingèd insects golden flash, disappear
Webbed spiderwork glistens, disappears
Athena’s handmaiden, busy at her loom,
Weaves across telephone wires,
Golden in sunlight,
Vanishes beneath

Flash of bird shadow
Shower of droplets, last night’s rain,
Shimmer of cicada song
Flash, shower, shimmer, vanish, disappear

Maple wing seeds carpet the street
Golden coins of summer’s last spending.

composed August 24, 2014

This poem was inspired by the poetry of one of my favorite bloggers, Elouise (http://tellingthetruth1993.wordpress.com/). I wanted to keep the impressions of this morning, but writing them in prose felt like “work” and I needed a day off. Then I thought of Elouise’s lovely nature poetry and realized that was how I wanted to capture these moments. Who knows, maybe I’ll do it again.

Taking Stock

It’s been just over a year since I left the day job for the freedom of freelance editing and writing. Although I’m no longer officially involved in the academic world, September still feels like the start of a new year to me—much more than January, and I suspect it always will. As I re-start the blog after its long summer vacation, it feels like a good time to take stock of the past year, of what I’ve done and where I’m going, and of what I want to do here in this space with the blog.

The Thinker, sculpture by Auguste Rodin Picture taken in Musee Rodin in Paris, France by wikipedian Pufacz

The Thinker, sculpture by Auguste Rodin Picture taken in Musee Rodin in Paris, France by wikipedian Pufacz

What have I learned?

  • Leaving the day job isn’t a magic bullet. I still struggle with insomnia, waking up in the middle of the night, unable to get my mind to shut down; I still have days when I don’t feel my best; I still have moments of doubt and depression. Yet, overall I am much happier with my day-to-day existence than I was before.
  • I need to remind myself to be grateful that I am able to work from home, set my own schedule, and do the things that are most important to me. I got used to the new routine very quickly! It feels so natural now that I have to stop and tell myself that I am truly privileged.
  • There are still only 24 hours in a day. I’m still learning to manage my time: when to wake up; setting my morning routine; when to exercise; how to balance taking care of myself (time to prepare healthy meals and take daily walks) with accomplishing the writing and other tasks that are important to me. The one cardinal rule that I established back when I was working full time still holds: first things first. For me, that means once the morning routine is done I go immediately to the book I’m working on, 5 days a week.
  • The importance of the online community. My critique partners and my wonderful developmental editor are all people whom I have yet to meet face to face, yet they provide so much support for me as a writer that I truly can’t imagine trying to finish and polish a book without their moral support and critical input. I also love the connections that I’ve made with fellow bloggers who write about subjects that are close to my heart: green living things; writing and books; deeper questions of life and spirituality.

What have I accomplished?

  • I finished polishing and tweaking my genre-bending novel CHIMERA, which deals with a Jesuit priest on sabbatical in Paris who runs into a talking gargoyle on Notre Dame.
  • I began a completely new novel for middle-grade/tween kids, about a 13-year-old witch who must cope with her family’s mysterious move to the “mortal” world. Thanks to my wonderful critique partner, Gigi Pandian, who read through the first draft, and my equally wonderful editor, Ramona Defelice Long, who critiqued the first 50 pages, I’m now close to finishing a polished revision that will be ready for my other “critters” and Ramona’s eagle eye this fall.
  • I completed a short story, “The Black Cat,” and drafted another, “Saint Nick and the Easter Rabbit,” which I intend to finish polishing once the middle-grade novel is done.
  • All in all, a very productive year for me, and I feel pleased with the results.

What’s ahead for the blog?

  • I have a number of interviews scheduled with authors of historical fiction, and I’m quite excited to have these folks as my guests:

Sept. 18  Jeri Westerson, The Crispin Guest series

In these “medieval noir” books, disgraced former knight Crispin Guest turns his talents to private investigation in 14th-century London.

Oct. 9  Liz ZelvinVoyage of Strangers

Young marrano sailor Diego returns from a voyage of discovery to find that his sister Rachel is in danger from the Inquisition as a secret Jew. After failing to find safety in Spain, they sail with Admiral Columbus on the second voyage to Hispaniola, where they must struggle with divided loyalties as the Spaniards’ greed for gold and conquest clashes with the local Taino people’s way of life.

Oct. 16  Judith Starkston, Hand of Fire

Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.

Oct. 23  Judith Rock, The Charles du Luc series

Mystery series featuring a Jesuit priest in 17th-century Paris

  • I’ll also continue to write posts on nature, my personal “saints,” poetry and books, and whatever else happens to take my fancy.
  • End of speech. Wishing everyone a Happy New Fall!

Saints and Trees is on Break

I’m taking a break from blogging for the rest of the summer as I continue to revise my young adult/middle grade book about a 13-year-old witch. I’m planning to return to weekly blogging in September, and also plan to feature some interviews with authors of historical fiction this fall.

hammock

Hammocks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

See you then!

The Salamander Room

Nature and children seem appropriate subjects for summertime musings, and writing about Diary of an Earthworm made me think of another picture book I liked so much I got a copy for myself as well as my nephew.

salamander roomThe Salamander Room is a gorgeously illustrated tale of a little boy, Brian, who finds a “little orange salamander” in the woods and takes it home. Instead of outright denying him his new pet, Brian’s mother instead asks some practical questions—“Where will he sleep?” “When he wakes up, where will he play?”—and then observes, “He will miss his friends in the forest.”

The mother’s responses demonstrate a perceptive compassion that extends to the salamander itself, a gentle reminder to her son Brian that the salamander is not a pretty toy from the store, a plaything made for his own devices, but a wild creature with its own needs, desires, and concerns. By phrasing her observations as questions and statements that demand Brian’s response, she (and the author) avoid accusatory, didactic diatribes on humans and nature, inviting Brian instead to think through the consequences of his action, both for himself and the fellow creature he has taken from its native environment.

Brian’s responses to his mother’s questions and observations (which continue on to the subject of food, and the consequent creation of an entire ecological foodchain) create the magic of the book as the boy envisions how he will transform his room to suit the salamander’s needs. The illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher show the gradual transformation of Brian’s bedroom to a virtual forest, a complete habitat for the salamander and its food and friends, lush and verdant, lovingly depicted.

The story, by Anne Mazer, is a wise and wonderful tale that creates its own magic. I’m so glad I stumbled on it.

Nature, Beautiful yet Red-in-Tooth-and-Claw: Musings on Larson’s There’s a Hair in my Dirt

My last post, comparing two delightful tales of earthworms (Gary Larson’s There’s a Hair in my Dirt and Diary of an Earthworm by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss), gave rise to some more serious thoughts.

hair in my dirtAs much as I love Larson’s mordantly funny satire (and the wonderful introduction by E.O. Wilson), I have to admit that like Larson’s fair maiden, Harriet, I have a strong streak of sentimentality where the natural world is concerned.

I was struck especially hard by Larson’s take on birdsong as “mostly an array of insults, warnings, and come-ons” and his/Father Worm’s dismissal of Harriet’s appreciation of the artistry in Nature when she comes upon a field of wildflowers: ” ‘Oh, Mother Nature! What a sex maniac you are!’ may have been a better choice of words, for Harriet was actually gazing upon a reproductive battlefield.”

I know that Nature is red in tooth and claw—eat or be eaten; robin vs. earthworm; magnificent hawk vs. cute little bunny—but do Beauty and Utilitarianism in Nature really have to be mutually exclusive? After all, sex and beauty are strongly linked, whether we are talking about humans, flowers, or animals. The fact that flowers are beautiful (a proposition that surely few would disagree with) does not mean they cannot also serve their own purposes—or those of humankind.

In like manner, Larson/Father Worm derides Harriet’s description of dragonflies as “winged ballerinas,” pointing out that “winged assassins” is closer to the truth. (One assassin I have to applaud, since they eat mosquitoes!) Nevertheless, dragonflies are graceful. Likewise, birdsong serves a variety of bird purposes, but much of it is beautiful to human ears.

Whether these animals derive happiness or enjoyment from their activities is something that we humans ultimately cannot know. But humans who have spent much time around domesticated animals, at least, have a pretty good sense that many animals are capable of enjoyment just as much as humans. Dogs, for example, seem to derive much pleasure from  exercising their bodies—running, playing fetch, and the like. When they greet us after an absence, it seems to be as much an expression of pleasure in our company as expectation of being walked or fed. And there seems to be strong evidence that some higher mammals, such as dolphins, engage in pure play. So who is to say that birds don’t experience some kind of satisfaction from expressing themselves in song or taking flight through the air?

I struggle with the spiritual dimension of this, and am reminded that when Job complained to God, God finally answered him by listing the wonders of creation, including beasts such as Leviathan and Behemoth that humans of Biblical times doubtless found threatening. For me, the moral of that is: “Job, it’s not all about you. The universe is bigger than that.” (Sort of like the ending of Casablanca.)

Behemoth and Leviathan by William Blake (from Wikimedia Commons)

Behemoth and Leviathan by William Blake (from Wikimedia Commons)

True, understanding Nature is important. But love for Nature must come first, else there’s no incentive for understanding. Love for Nature, fostered by experience, but also art and story, including stories that anthropomorphize. For all his caution against painting Nature in our own image, Larson’s book is successful precisely because it also includes its share of humorous anthropomorphism (Mother Worm’s beehive hairdo and glasses; Father Worm’s pipe).

I would further argue that the Harriets of this world want to be educated, and that in this era of global warming humanity’s best hope lies in such Harriets, their love for Nature fostered alike by the science of E.O. Wilson, the humor of Gary Larson, and the “kindler, gentler” image of Nature presented by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss in Diary of an Earthworm.

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