Seasonal Music by Malcolm Dalglish

Years ago I stumbled on the album Hymnody of Earth by Malcolm Dalglish in a bin of holiday CDs in Tower Records (remember Tower?). I was attracted by the title, naturally, and also noticed that most of the lyrics were by Wendell Berry, whose poetry I already knew and loved. That clinched it. I bought the CD and it has become one of my favorite Christmas albums. The Hymnody really should be listened to as a whole, but I hope to give you a little taste here to encourage you to purchase it for yourself. According to the composer’s website, there are two versions/performances of the work available; I have the earlier one from 1991. The later version (1999) has some additional numbers.

The first  piece is an arrangement for two solo singers and guitar; I don’t know if the arrangement is the composer’s or not, but it is lovely and effective and the musicians, Sarah Stevens and Ben Belinski, do a great job. The simplicity of the church setting (Snowmass Chapel) harmonizes nicely with the essential simplicity of the music. The opening verses are in Latin and the two-part voice lines written in the style of early medieval chant. The piece, “Psalm of Solstice,” is Hymnody‘s opening number.

Next, a lovely, very moving performance of “For the Future” (unfortunately the singers and location are not given (I can’t tell if the setting is a church or concert hall).  Here are the lyrics by Wendell Berry (If you follow this blog, you should become acquainted with his work. If anyone is today’s patron saint of trees, it is he!):

Planting trees early in spring,
we make a place for birds to sing
in time to come. How do we know?
They are singing here now.
There is no other guarantee
that singing will ever be.

The next number on our little concert preview is “Great Trees,” performed by AKSARA. It can only be watched on youtube itself, and here is the link. The a cappella women’s group nicely balances out the a cappella men’s group on the number that follows. Lyrics again by Wendell Berry.

The final number, “Paradise,” is also the final piece on Dalglish’s 1991 Hymnody album, in mood a sort of sacred version of “Auld Lang Syne.” Like the opening number, it is written in medieval style. The all-male Cantus soloists present a moving performance:

Direct links to the youtube performances:

Psalm of Solstice, arr. for guitar and solo voices

For the Future

Great Trees

Paradise

Wishing you and yours a peaceful holiday season!

 

Interview with Fir Tree

santa_final_smToday I am presenting an interview of one of my own characters. The Fir Tree first made an appearance several years ago in the short story “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree,” and has been hanging around the corners of my mind ever since, angling for a sequel. Though that remains so far unwritten, I thought I would appease the Tree by inviting it to come to the blog for a seasonal interview. Leave a comment before midnight Dec. 18 EST and you’ll be in the running for a “Saint Nick” giveaway book.

(For reasons that will become apparent, this interview was conducted by a third party.)

SAT: How did you meet your writer?

FT: I was planted by a lovely man named Jack, and lived in their backyard for years and years. But time passes more swiftly for humans than it does for trees; Jack and his wife grew too old to take care of the house and yard. Eventually they sold it to Aunt Nancy and her husband. Aunt Nancy loved to garden and made sure I had plenty of yummy compost and trimmed me every year. But nowadays she stays inside more, writing, she says. Someone needs to tell her to get out and take care of me and the other plants in the yard!

SAT: Did you ever think that your life would end up being put in a story?

FT: No, I didn’t. But after I told Aunt Nancy about my little adventure with Saint Nick, she decided to write it down.

SAT: What are your favorite scenes in the “Saint Nick” story?

FT: It really is MY book. Aunt Nancy just wrote down what I told her and added a beginning and end. I suppose her parts are all right, but the really good stuff is all mine. I think I did an especially good job with the snow scene at the end, when I was worried that the ax murderer would return.

SAT: Did you have any difficulty collaborating with your author, er, scribe?

FT: To give Aunt Nancy credit, no, I didn’t. She was fascinated by the whole thing. But now all she wants to do is stay inside and write. If I’d known that’s what my story would lead to, maybe I would have kept it to myself.

SAT: Have you ever appeared in your writer’s dreams?

FT: I wish. If I did, she’d get off that stupid computer and pay attention to those of us who live in her backyard!

SAT: Do you have any hobbies?

FT: I really enjoy bird watching, and I’m in the perfect spot. There’s a hawk couple who live in the neighborhood, and it’s especially exciting when they drop by. Keeps those loud-mouthed squirrels in line, heh-heh.

SAT: Have you ever wished that you were a human instead of a tree?

FT: Of course not. Humans can be pretty strange, if you don’t mind my saying so. I think it’s much more satisfying being a tree. The other trees and plants in the yard are all friends, and so are the birds and rabbits. The squirrels, now—that’s another matter. They’re the rough element in the yard, if you know what I mean.

SAT: Are you happy with your story?

FT: Oh yes! Fir trees mean Christmas and “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree” is a wonderful Christmas story. But Aunt Nancy can’t take credit for that–most of the story is MINE. My words. My adventure.

SAT: If you could rewrite anything in your book, what would it be?

FT: Aunt Nancy’s beginning. What she calls a “punk haircut” is all her fault for not trimming me soon enough in the summer, and I don’t see why she had to mention it at all. It gives readers the wrong impression.

SAT: Do you like the way the book ended?

FT: I suppose the bit Aunt Nancy wrote at the end was all right, but personally I think it should have ended with my words. Other than that, I have no complaints. What she said was true.

SAT: I hear that you’re interested in a sequel. Any ideas?

FT: Plenty! If she’s going to be inside writing anyway, she might as well write about me.

SAT: Do you prefer paper books or electronic?

FT: A touchy question. Unless the paper is recycled, it comes from TREES. The very thought makes me queasy. Though Aunt Nancy says electronic readers may end up in landfills and that’s bad, too. If it were up to me, the book would be electronic ONLY.ADAMS St Nick No Title copy

SAT: What do you think of the book cover and illustrations?

FT: I have to admit Aunt Nancy had the right idea: she thought the cover should be all about me. And she found a great designer and a great illustrator. I just love my portraits!

SAT: Do you have any secrets that your author doesn’t know about?

FT: <giggle> I’m not telling.

Thank you, Fir Tree! Leave a comment before midnight Dec. 18 for a chance to win your own copy of “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree.”

Ursula K. Le Guin at the National Book Awards

Nancy Adams:

Ursula Le Guin is one of my favorite writers from way back. My favorite work of hers is the novella “Buffalo Gals” and I especially love her short stories. Thanks to Isaac of Ekostories for the original blog posting of this inspirational speech.

Originally posted on Ekostories:

Ursula K. Le Guin accepts the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014.

“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality…

…Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable.

So did the divine right of kings.

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.”

View original 3 more words

Happy Thanksgiving!

cornucopia

Wishing all my readers safe travel and good times with family and friends

as you gather round the harvest table.

Let all Creation Praise

While searching for a link to explain the Blessing of Animals a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a delightful site: http://www.letallcreationpraise.org/home. Let All Creation Praise is an ecumenical Christian group—that is, one that welcomes all denominations—which is focused on raising awareness of environmental issues and the role of Creation in worship. As “praise” goes hand in hand with “thanksgiving,” it seems an appropriate topic for the week before Thanksgiving is celebrated here in the U.S. When I was working full time, Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. We live too far from family to mess with travel, so it was basically a very long weekend with to do nothing but eat and rest up (and read!). Like bears preparing to hibernate.

The idea that Creation praises God is not some new “radical” notion in Christianity or Judaism. The Hebrew Psalms contain several examples:

forestPsalm 65:13 “The pastures are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered over with corn; they shout for joy, they also sing.” (King James version) Here we see a sensitivity to nature and to the earth, that even something as lowly as dirt and grass is a fellow creature to be honored and respected; that the earth itself is capable of expressing joy. Both Psalm 96 and a verse in the history recounted in Chronicles talk about trees “singing for joy.” Likewise, the book of the prophet Isaiah speaks of trees “clapping their hands” (Isaiah 55:12 )–one of my favorite passages.

st francisSaint Francis is, of course, the most famous exemplar of Christian love for creation. His Canticle of the Sun expresses the notion that all facets of creation are the brothers of humankind. Legend has it that he preached to the birds and saved (and “reformed”) a wolf whom villagers were about to kill.

William Blake‘s poetry is steeped in both religious spirituality and the natural world. A century later, Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote poetry that expresses deep love and reverence for all creation within a religious context, most notably in “God’s Grandeur.”

In the 20th century, C.S. Lewis, quite possibly the most influential Christian of modern times, wrote in his autobiography Surprised by Joy of the joy and refreshment he found in the natural world. More recently, farmer-poet Wendell Berry‘s novels, essays, and poetry show a Christian worldview where nature and the fruits of the earth are central to the spiritual and moral life.

To return to the group that prompted these musings, on its website “Let All Creation Praise” states: “We seek to serve the whole church by providing resources for Christian worship that promotes love of and care for God’s creation.” The organization “offers resources for congregations to celebrate God’s love for creation, to worship God with creation so as to reconcile and restore our human relationship with the rest of nature, and to foster love and care for God’s whole creation. We also provide resources to celebrate a “season of creation” or “creation time” in the church year.” In a world where human greed threatens to overtax the climate and natural resources of our fragile globe, it is heartening to see this kind of endeavor. Reverence for the earth should not be seen as competition for the reverence of God, but as its natural consequence.

Interview with author Amber Foxx

Amber Foxx 2014Please welcome guest Amber Foxx to this week’s Saints and Trees. Amber writes the mystery series featuring healer and psychic Mae Martin. Amber’s professional training and academic studies in various fields of complementary and alternative medicine, as well as her personal experience and travels, bring authenticity to her work. She divides her time between the Southeast and the Southwest, but Truth or Consequences, New Mexico is HOME.

SAT: Although part of the Mae Martin series, your new release differs from its predecessors in some noticeable ways. For me, the biggest change was the pace. While still character driven, Snake Face reads like a heart-stopping thriller, whereas the first two books, though certainly page turners, didn’t have me figuratively biting my nails throughout. Given the plot premise, the pace and anxiety level had naturally to follow, but I’m curious to know if you were consciously aware of that when you were writing.

AF: I like to vary the genre blend, and change the mood and the pace from book to book. If I’m going to be realistic with a series that’s not about murder or law enforcement, my protagonist’s life is going to vary that way. Each book will have a different feel. The Calling is more of a “paranormal realism” novel, with the mystery secondary to the development of Mae’s gift and her personal struggles in her family and her town. It’s been reviewed as literary fiction—with some disagreement also—but the pace is more like a literary novel than a conventional mystery. In Shaman’s Blues the mystery of Jamie’s layers of secrets is as important Muffie’s disappearance. I thought of it as an un-romance, with that genre turned upside down in many ways, as well as a mystery. As far as intending to write a nail-biter for the third book, I was very much aware that Snake Face was a departure from the previous books. I knew it would be as soon as I decided to write almost half the chapters in Jamie’s point of view. His emotional life tends to go over the speed limit, so that, as well as the plot, affected the feel of the book.

snake face man littleSAT: You state on your blog that the title, Snake Face, comes from a folk art statue you purchased in New Mexico. Did this statue spark the idea for the book, or did the connection occur to you later?

AF: The book was well along when I found the little snake face man in Mesilla. I have a few Oaxaca nightmare-art figurines, such as the two-headed winged deer that’s briefly mentioned in the book. (It is really evil-looking, but also beautiful.) The snake-face statuette intrigued me. Instead of portraying the creatures of the nightmare, it’s an image of the man who’s having the terrible dream. He has a snake crawling down his nose while he’s waving a useless little stick at it. The woman who sold it to me said, with a kind of empathy, “He’s fighting them off as best he can.” I gave Jamie that line, when he admires the figurine as part of the décor in a bar in Mesilla. The snake-face image was a perfect fit for the way Jamie often feels in this book.

snake face man closeup

SAT: So where did the idea for this particular book in the series come from?

AF: Before writing Snake Face, I’d written a scene that I never used in which a fortune teller in Santa Fe does Tarot readings for Mae and Jamie. (I recycle my works in progress into many forms before they finally come out.) Anyway, I drew cards for them and studied the meanings, and came up with a plot for book three from that. The suggestions from the cards became the plot when I interpreted them in terms of challenges that would disrupt their lives.

Given Mae’s marital history, starting a new relationship is a huge step, and then running into Jamie again adds another difficulty to that situation—one she isn’t prepared for. For Jamie, going on tour is progress for his career, but it’s also incredibly hard for him in many ways, above and beyond the road warrior aspect of it, due to—well, Jamie being Jamie. From the Tarot reading, I started with an image of him at a rest stop halfway across the country, where he realizes something awful has happened, and I worked forward and backward from there. The antagonist character showed up for me the way Jamie showed up, fully formed. I revised the book for two years, changed almost everything about it—but that turning point disaster never changed.

SAT: Jamie’s background is training in opera and his current career showcases his musical talents as a “world music” performer. You mention elsewhere that Jamie simply “came” to you, one of those wonderful gifts any writer would be grateful for. When describing his musical performances, did you have any particular artist or style in mind?

AF: When Jamie showed up, he showed up as a tenor. In my never-written backstory, Jamie’s parents took him and his older sister to the Sydney Opera House to see The Magic Flute when he was a musically gifted child of around eight years old, and he fell in love with opera. Whether it’s comic or tragic, it’s larger than life, and so is he. Before his family settled in Santa Fe (which has its own amazing opera house), he grew up off and on in Australia and also all around the world. With his father being an anthropologist studying shamanic cultures, he had contact with ceremonies like the Korean mudang’s ritual described in Shaman’s Blues. Such ceremonies have a lot of wild color and sound, music and dance.

In addition to these influences I had some elements of Robert Mirabal’s shows in mind, though I was not directly modeling on Mirabal. He’s a singer, dancer, composer and flute maker from Taos Pueblo. He plays, as one might expect, the Native American cedar flute, and he also plays didgeridoo and drums, and he dances. I’ve seen him leave the stage at Santa Fe Bandstand and dance with his audience. Mirabal’s eclecticism, his warmth and audience rapport, and his choice of instruments are part of Jamie’s music, but I added more and flipped it culturally, so I have an Aboriginal Australian who plays didgeridoo but also plays Native flute, and other flutes. I heard a collaboration that Carlos Nakai did with a musician who plays shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute, and the mix of ethnic flavors fascinated me. The music scene in Santa Fe is full of performers who do some original, out-of-the mainstream things. So I’d say Jamie’s music emerged from the nature of music in Santa Fe—opera, blues, indigenous music, jazz, folk—everything. I should add that Santa Fe has some great alternative country bands, but as you can see in Snake Face, Jamie is not influenced by them.

SAT: I know that you’re working on Book 4 of the series. How many more are planned? Do you have a fixed end point in mind for the end of the series, or will Mae continue indefinitely?

AF: I enjoy series that take the protagonists through major life changes. Hillerman’s Chee and Leaphorn, and Barr’s Anna Pigeon, are good examples. They grow older and wiser, go through relationships, losses, and renewals, and stay interesting. Book four is with its third round of beta readers right now. Book five is well along, book six is up to chapter twelve in the first draft, and I have ideas for at least the initial disturbance that starts the plot spinning for several others. I don’t have a fixed endpoint in mind, but I do want to wrap it up and give it an end when I get close to my own, if I get some forewarning.

This is something I thought about when James D. Doss died. I could tell from his final book that he knew it was the last, and he wrapped up Charlie Moon’s ever-struggling love life finally, though not Sarah Frank’s training as Daisy Perika’s shaman’s apprentice. Over the course of the seventeen-book series, Sarah grows up from a spiritually gifted child to a college student. I wanted one more book—no, a lot more—in which Sarah would come into her power as shaman. I admire that kind of story line. Mae is twenty-six at the start of my series and I like to picture what she’ll be like in her thirties and forties. As she becomes a more established and experienced healer and psychic, the kinds of mysteries will change. I have a sense of what she’ll be doing as her life moves forward, and it looks so interesting I don’t think I’ll run out of plots or characters. I may take occasional breaks and work on some stand-alone books, but Mae should be around for decades.

SAT: That’s good news for readers! Thank you, Amber, for sharing your thoughts.

To learn more about Amber and her books, visit her website at: http://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/Snake Face, the third Mae Martin Psychic Mystery, has just been released. Shaman’s Blues, the second in the series, is the deserving recipient of a B.R.A.G. Medallion award.

snake face

Snake Face
The third Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

Trying to revive his career, singer Jamie Ellerbee is on his first tour. Mae Martin is venturing into her first relationship since her divorce. Bad judgment and worse luck force Jamie to ask for Mae’s psychic aid. His unrequited love for her makes it an awkward request, but she can’t refuse to help a friend. The more she looks into the problem, the more frightening it becomes and the wider its web expands—not only into Jamie’s past, but also a bad-boy celebrity’s private life, and even her new boyfriend’s history.

 

 

Interview with author Clea Simon

Today I am pleased to present an interview with one of my favorite writers, Clea Simon, author of the Theda Krakow, Dulcie Schwartz, and Pru Marlowe mysteries.

Clea SimonSAT: You write several mystery series, but the Dulcie Schwarz books are your longest running. What’s your secret for creating a great series and character who will keep the reader’s interest for so many books?

CS: Wow, thank you so much, Nancy. I think the only secret is that I love my characters. Doing a series means that I don’t have to leave them once a book is done, and I get to follow them through various adventures. In Dulcie’s case, this means watching as she not only solves crimes but also works on her graduate dissertation – and yes, she will finish it and get her PhD before the series ends!

SAT: As with all of your books, there is a cat involved. For those new to the series, what is the background of Dulcie’s relationship with her cat Mr. Grey?

CS: When we first met Dulcie, in “Shades of Grey,” she was mourning the death of her late, great Mr. Grey – her “heart cat” as some people put it. The friend who had been with her for years. Now, he was simply a regular cat – he didn’t talk or anything. But Dulcie always felt that he was special and that he was looking out for her. So it doesn’t really surprise her when, in that first book, she sees him again, sitting on the stoop of her apartment building. But when he warns her not to go inside, she doesn’t listen….

SAT: Early on—in the second book of the series, you introduced a new feline player, the kitten Esme. Tell us why you decided to give Dulcie a new pet and how you went about developing Esme’s very distinctive personality.

MusettaCS: Well, I wanted Dulcie to have an actual, live cat in her life. The spirit of Mr Grey hangs around, but he’s more of a guardian now than a pet. And I loved the idea of a spunky new feline in her life. And, yes, Esme – the Principessa Esmeralda – is modeled on my own Musetta.

SAT: The setting for Dulcie’s books, Harvard University—in particular Widener Library, is part of the charm. Did you attend Harvard yourself?

CS: Yes, I did. I studied English and American Literature and Language, as Dulcie does. But I stopped with an undergrad degree … Dulcie is rather more bookish and dedicated than I am!

SAT: As a beleaguered graduate student, Dulcie’s personality contains an appealing mix of self-doubt and a tough willingness to stand up for what she believes is right, whether it involves her research or questioning authority after a suspicious death. What inspired you to create her character?

CS: Well, I knew I wanted to use the ghost of Mr Grey after I had a similar experience with an apparent sighting of my own late, great grey cat, Cyrus. And I thought it would be fun to play with the idea of Gothic literature – the Gothics were (like mysteries) popular fiction, written largely by and for women and largely disparaged by the critics. So somewhere in there Dulcie was born, and she really developed her own personality, without much help from me.

SAT: Dulcie’s grad student world of teaching, wrestling with her dissertation topic, and money troubles is depicted with such genuine feeling and authenticity that I assumed you did graduate work yourself. Since you stopped with an undergrad degree, how did you go about depicting all these wonderful details of Dulcie’s academic life?

CS: Thank you! I do my research, and that includes talking to people who are graduate students.

SAT: One of my favorite aspects of this series is the way you interweave Dulcie’s area of expertise, the 18th-century Gothic novel, with the plot of the novels in her series. What was your inspiration for developing that?

CS: I have always loved books within books (like A.S.Byatt’s “Possession”) and so I’ve tried to pass that on.

SAT: You seem to be one of those fortunate writers who can turn out books at a rapid pace–this is the second Dulcie book to be released this year–without neglecting their quality, continuing to maintain the thoughtful and well written novels readers have come to expect from you. What is your secret?

CS: I’m afraid there is no secret. I work really hard – long hours – and toward deadline especially I become a hermit, quit working out, and rarely see the sun.

SAT: Mysteries and cats, the two just seem to go together! What in your opinion connects felines and mystery?

CS: Well, they are mysterious creatures! And their company is conducive to sitting and reading something cozy!

SAT: When you’re not writing, what is your favorite activity? When am I not writing?

CS: Well, I do love cooking and all things food-related (reading food magazines, browsing farmers’ markets, etc.) And I used to be a music critic and still love hearing live music – though these days, I’m more likely to be at a zydeco or Cajun music show than in a rock club (but I still make the occasional appearance for the right band!)

Thanks so much for having me here today! I hope you enjoy this as much as I have. – Clea

Read more about Clea and her books at: http://cleasimon.com/

Clea’s newest release is Stages of Grey:

stages of greyDulcie never considered herself a player. But when her friends drag her to a new local theatre company that is updating Ovid with a disco version of The Metamorphosis the grad student finds herself in the front row of a murder.

This could be the end of the struggling company, which is also plagued by money woes and romantic rivalries. But was jealousy the reason the performer was stabbed? Or are there darker secrets behind the scenes? And what role does Gus, the troupe’s feline mascot, play? As the classics get mangled, Dulcie must untangle the truth before she also gets caught up in deadly illusion.Pre-order now at your favorite local indie bookstore or at Amazon.

To order at your independently owned bookstore, click here

To order on Amazon, click here.

 

 

Short Story Winner!

My short story “The Black Cat” won this year’s Halloween short story contest sponsored by the online magazine Kings River Life, where it was published last Saturday. If you’re curious, you can read it here.

black cat (krl)

photo by Margaret Mendel for Kings River Life

I wrote the short story last fall, my first “creation” since leaving the day job, but the idea had been kicking around in my head for a while. Shortly after I decided to experiment with self-publishing a Christmas short story, “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree,” which appeared in December 2011, I got the idea of writing other holiday-themed stories featuring Saint Nick. I’ve always loved Halloween (I grew up watching Dark Shadows and reading Edgar Allan Poe) and I love cats, so writing a Halloween story that featured a black cat was an appealing notion.

I decided to frame the story by setting the first part on the Saturday night before the Feast of Saint Francis, which many churches celebrate with a Blessing of the Animals. The feast day proper of the much-beloved saint is Oct. 4, and the Blessing of the Animals usually takes place either on that day or the following Sunday. The last part of the story takes place on Halloween.

While my Christmas story featuring Saint Nick cast him as the original saint—aka, Santa Claus, in “The Black Cat” Nick appears merely as a “regular” human, a kind man but shrewd, his personality toned down somewhat from the occasionally crotchety Saint Nick of my Fir Tree story. (“Saint Nick and the Fir Tree” takes place the day after Christmas, when Nick is in search of a much-needed vacation, so his crotchetiness is quite understandable!) The black cat herself has another inspiration, but to discover that, you’ll have to read the story.

Interview with author Judith Rock

Today it is my great pleasure to interview one of my favorite newly discovered authors, Judith Rock, author of the Charles du Luc mysteries, set in 17th-century Paris.

Headshot1[1]For many years a modern dancer and choreographer, Judith Rock founded Body and Soul Dance Company in Berkeley, California, toured extensively with the company and as a solo concert dancer, and studied baroque dance. Research for her Ph.D. in art and theology took her to Paris, where she researched the 17th- and 18th-century ballets produced at the Paris Jesuit College of Louis le Grand.

In a startling leap, Rock then spent several years as a police officer before taking that experience back to the stage as a playwright and actress. Rock has written on dance, art, and theology for many journals and taught and lectured at colleges, seminaries, and conferences across the United States and abroad. The Rhetoric of Death, her first Charles du Luc book, was a 2011 Barry Awards nominee. After several years in New York, Judith now lives in Sarasota, Fl., and when not writing takes care of injured birds at Save Our Seabirds.

SAT: Your bio includes a wide variety of careers and interests, ranging from modern dance to theology to work as a police officer. All of these interests come together marvelously in the Charles du Luc series, but I’m curious to know what drew you to police work after a career in the arts.

JR: There’s lots to say about that, but I’ll try to keep it short. I was living in NYC, had had some dance injuries, and could see the end of my performing career coming. I started noticing female NYPD officers on the street and wondering what doing that job was like for a woman. I knew that when I stopped performing, I didn’t want to do something tame—dancing is very untame. Physically and in other ways, the dancer steps off the edge into the unknown every time she goes onstage. As does the choreographer every time she makes a new dance.

So I followed my curiosity about those NYPD women and over the course of seven years was a volunteer officer and then sergeant in the NYPD Auxiliary Unit, doing street patrol; a reserve officer and later the first female part-time officer (state certified, sworn and armed) in the Northfield, Minnesota police department—while teaching full-time in a college dance department there. (I worked a lot of midnight shifts!) Then I decided to try for a full-time police job and went through a police academy in Florida, where I’m from. Before the end of the training, I knew that full-time police work wasn’t my future—I was forty-nine, my knees had had enough, and there were too many ways I didn’t fit in that world. But I finished the academy, one of only two women who made it through to graduation. We had to run every day, and on the last run, I was, as usual, near the end of the line. As my young fellow recruits passed on their return loop, they high-fived me, chanting, “Judith, dancer, doesn’t quit, doesn’t quit…”

After all that, I took what I’d learned back to the stage in a commissioned one-woman show called Response Time. I was invited to do the show at a statewide meeting of the Minnesota Association of Women Police. It was the scariest performance I’ve ever done–me, with my small experience, doing a show about being a cop for several hundred career police officers? There’s a part of the show about getting to the scene of a chaotic police call: “I get out of the car, and pieces of life script are blowing around my feet. As though some library had decayed and collapsed, and forgotten languages lie there in the street, along with the candy wrappers and ATM receipts and broken umbrellas…” I didn’t know what my audience would make of that kind of allusive language. During the questions afterwards, a soft-spoken sheriff’s deputy from rural northern Minnesota raised her hand. She said, “You know that part where you get to a call, and you feel like everything’s collapsed and pieces of life-script are blowing around your feet? I thought I was the only cop in the world who felt like that.” I burst into tears. I felt like my life as an artist had been justified.

The end of the story is that, after a performance in NYC, a wonderful woman came backstage and said, “I love the writing in your play. I’m a literary agent. What else are you working on?” And that’s how I started writing fiction.

Jesuit ballet character Fire

Jesuit ballet character Fire (from The Sopron Collection via Judith’s website)

SAT: Tell us a bit about your view of the connections between dance and theology, something that appears central to your life’s work as well as to your character Charles.

JR: I think that the deepest human need is the need to make meaning out of being alive, and that making meaning is our deepest human ability. As I understand art and theology, both are human attempts to do that. The choreographer might find a vulnerable turn of the dancer’s neck in a moment of stillness that makes an audience see its own vulnerability and catch its breath in recognition. The theologian might articulate a systematic theology in which thought and feeling almost embrace in the effort to communicate God. The common thing is making meaning. I don’t mean that art or dance needs a religious intent. I do mean that an artist worth his salt is digging deep into what it is to be human.

I’m also interested in how artists and theologians have gone about all this in different times and places. The 17th century ballets produced in Jesuit schools are part of the Charles du Luc books because the ballets were an effort to communicate and teach Christian humanism through a cultural art form.

One thing I love about dance is that intense physicality brings us face to face with physical reality—its glory and its unchangeable limits. That’s a useful antidote to the cultural silliness about “overcoming” everything we don’t like—from weak abs to death. St. Francis called his body “Brother Ass,” and no one knows the truth of that better than dancers!

SAT: What is the writing process like for you?

JR: I write because I love language and have a good ear and memory for it. I can’t remember from one time to the next how to change a printer cartridge, but I can probably tell you what you said two years ago about popcorn or hurricanes or pot belly pigs… I love reading the Oxford English Dictionary, because it gives a word’s background and development and what it used to mean. I wrote art and theology articles and a couple of books while I was dancing and after, but didn’t think seriously of writing fiction until I did the one-woman show mentioned above.

I’ve found that the way I hear language helps enormously in writing characters. Speech rhythm (along with how different people move) helps me differentiate and define my characters. When I’m working on a book, I have to read it out loud—usually to my long suffering husband, or even just to myself. I don’t know if the words are right until I feel them in my mouth and hear them.

rhetoric of deathSAT: Once the first Charles du Luc novel was written, how did you go about finding a road to publication?

JR: My literary agent is the wonderful woman who came backstage after a performance of Response Time. Without her, what I wrote wouldn’t have gone anywhere. I wrote two novels which didn’t get bought, and kept waiting for her to say, okay, we tried, that’s it, goodbye. But she didn’t. She said, ‘Take what you learned and write another one.” Ten years after we met, she sold The Rhetoric of Death, the first Charles book, to Berkley/Penguin. There aren’t enough words in the OED to thank her.

SAT: How did you go about researching Jesuit life in the time of Louis XIV?

JR: I did my doctoral research in Paris in the mid-80’s, and that became (years later and to my great surprise!) the basis for the Charles books. My dissertation focused on the Jesuits’ use of baroque dance in their boys’ school in Paris, called Louis le Grand, and Louis le Grand became the main setting for the books. Part of Charles’s job as a rhetoric teacher is—as it really would have been—helping to produce the baroque ballets, because they were considered physical rhetoric. (Rhetoric meant, as it still does, communication, without any negative spin.)

As I’ve written the four Charles books and the novella, I’ve gone on doing research, on Paris as it was then, who lived there, how they lived, what they believed, what they wore, what they ate, what songs they sang, what they drank, how they saw the political and religious issues of their time, and on and on. I kept a large period map of Paris laid out on a table in my study all the time I was writing. When Charles went outside Louis le Grand, I went to the map.

As I see it, if the period world in a historical novel isn’t right, the characters won’t work, and the story probably won’t, either. I’ve tried to make the people in my books real people of their time, not mine. (One of the hardest things to do was to let Charles have a few fleas and fewer baths!) My characters can’t be democratic liberals, feminists, religiously tolerant, champions of gay rights, or many other things the twenty-first century author may be or value. They can think and argue about some of those things, but only on their own terms and within the truth of their time. They really weren’t just us in costumes!

I made a research trip back to Paris when I was working on the fourth Charles book. Otherwise, I’ve worked with the mass of primary and secondary material I already had, and have also gathered a small library on the social and material history of the 17th century. I also gathered experts for the books: specialists who would answer occasional questions about baroque dance technique, 17th century French cultural history, and Jesuit life and history, when I either couldn’t figure something out or didn’t have time to track it down. The whole process of putting together Charles’s world has been a deep delight!

SAT: I love the way you portray religious tensions between Catholic and Huguenot in the first Charles du Luc book. What inspired you to give Charles Huguenot relations? And what inspired you to place his origins in southern France rather than Paris?

JR: The Louis le Grand Jesuits produced several ballets about the violent Catholic-Protestant conflict of their time—from, of course, the Catholic side of the struggle. At the same time, many Protestant families sent their sons to Jesuit schools because the education offered was so good. So the religious division was present inside the schools, as well as outside. Protestants were especially numerous and strong in the south of France—Nîmes, the town nearest Charles’s family land, was a major Protestant center. Many families in that region would have included people of both religions, and as a Catholic, Charles would have had the experience of being in the minority there. From my husband’s career in inter-religious relations, I knew something about the feelings and fears of religiously mixed families. I wanted Charles to know that family conflict and those feelings and fears, to help him to see and love and take risks beyond his own religious commitments.

SAT: Charles is such an engaging character. How did you go about developing his personality?

JR: First, thank you for that compliment to Charles! Where characters come from is very odd. For me, they show up in so many ways. They’re visions, wishes, fears, memories, psychological projections, exorcisms, nakedly practical solutions to some need or problem in the book being written, descendents of characters in other books read and loved…

At the most superficial level, Charles is a lovely vision of a handsome man! Not being myself a man, I borrowed his “maleness” from men I’ve known—friends, my husband, students, fellow dancers, Jesuits—and also from a rag bag of things I happen to love about men. And no, I’m not elaborating on those!

I made him intelligent because I like intelligent people—and also so that he would hold my interest through several books. And, of course, he had to be intelligent to be a Jesuit—that’s one of the many things I’ve enjoyed and respected in Jesuits I’ve known. I gave Charles a strong sense of humor because I’m always suspicious if humor is absent, especially humor about self and religion—where humor is absent, humility probably is, too.

He struggles repeatedly with obedience, but without rejecting it, and that’s perhaps the most “countercultural” thing about the novels. Obedience is a very negative word in twenty-first century American culture. But Charles is a thinking and independent man who has chosen to be a Jesuit, chosen to be formed by a spirituality that demands very serious obedience. So he wrestles, sometimes refuses to obey, and grows, and I think that helps make him attractive to contemporary readers. Because I have as much trouble with obedience as most of us do, I had to find a personal way into writing Charles’s struggle with obedience. I used my own lifelong struggle to obey my vocation as an artist to do that.

There are many other things about who Charles is, but I’ll finish with just one. Madame du Luc, his always offstage mother, is demanding, generous, and funny, and has certainly shaped who her son is. She simply showed up while I was writing the first book, and I’m not sure where she came from. But I think she may be an ancestor of Peter Wimsey’s mother in Dorothy Sayers’ novels.

SAT: What’s next for Charles? I hope there is a fifth novel in the works!

JR: Sadly, The Whispering of Bones was the last Charles book. I had hoped to write one more, but the publisher felt that Charles wasn’t bringing them enough profit. The books will continue to be available, and I hope readers will go on discovering Charles and his world.

I’m about to send off the ms. of a contemporary mystery, set in an imagined town in south central Florida, whose heroine is a female police officer. And I’m working on two other books: a contemporary literary novel, and a 12th century historical novel, which begins in the pilgrimage town of Conques, ends in Paris, and draws together French and English characters—both real and imagined.

SAT: I’m sorry to say good-bye to Charles, but look forward to reading your next books. Thank you so much for visiting here on the blog!

Visit Judith’s website at http://www.judithrock.com for a complete list of the Charles du Luc novels, plus fascinating details about Jesuit ballet and other fun facts about life in 17th-century Paris.

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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