MJN: Tell us about your experience on America's Got Talent
and how that encounter influenced your future career. Do you think you would
have been able to reach the same level of prominence on your own, without
intervention and endorsement from a major entertainment program?
MH: My experience on America’s Got Talent was fantastic. It
all happened so fast. I would say the best part for me looking back is watching
David Hasselhoff drool… he literally did not close his mouth during my
performance! Priceless!!!! I have always loved working on TV, and the thrill of
performing for a live studio audience with such a big production budget really
raised my sights and made me dream of some new roles for myself. It is
difficult to measure the change in my prominence and it feels like I have only
earned a few jobs from people who remember the AGT performance. In the end the
endorsement, probably helps distinguish me in more ways than I know.
MJN: The charming persona you created, is that the product of
your personal imagination, or did professional stylists and writers have a hand
MH: Oh, thank you for the compliment you make my day! It is
all me, myself and I. I want my performing to inspire an open and laughing
heart. AGT had a great team that was very supportive of what I had to offer…
they wanted me to shine through and didn’t want to interfere with my
MJN: Can you name any icons in popular culture that
influenced your repertoire? I see elements of Lady Gaga and Till Lindemann -
provocative imagery that's coming from a very warm and humorous place.
MH: I personally love humor of the unexpected. I think Katie
Perry, Lady Gaga, Madonna Adam Sandberg, Weird Al Yankovic in America and Helge
Schneider in Germany are big sources of inspiration. Yodeling is such a unique
art form that I would like to plant it in every type of music, to reach many
music lovers. I also have been called, the Weird Al Yankovic of Oktoberfest,
since I rewrite Top 40 hits into drinking songs like “Sipping on beer foam”
(Katrina& The Waves “walking on sunshine), “I wanna drink your beer”
(Beatles “ I wanna hold your hand”) Polka Phase (lady Gaga “Pokerface”) and so
MJN: I love your costumes. It must take a special skill to
wear such tight corsets and high heels. You make it look so easy and natural. I
imagine if some other girls tried your outfits, they would be in agony very
MH: Thank you, I have been very fortunate to get to work
with incredible designers and seamstresses when I can not make them myself….
Jamie Von Stratton from the Burlesque world in Seattle built me incredible
interactive costumes and the team from the dinner theater Teatro Zinzanni
really took my dominatrix look into a regal direction.
MJN: You are a very generous and hospitable person who opens
her house to other people on occasion. Who are some of the most fascinating
individuals you've housed? And what are some of the lessons you want your
children to take away from all those artistic experiences that you expose them
MH: I love how my home is becoming a tour stop for so many performing
friends from around the world!!!! Most recently we just hosted, Alexander van
Bubenheim while he played with my band for Oktoberfest North West. He is an
incredible Hollywood music Producer and works with world-class musicians and
superstars and is a very German / direct father. I loved watching him interact
with my son and make a tsunami water experiment with action figures in the
I think the most fascinating regular houseguest would
have to be Michael McQuilken. He spent a week with me recently working on a
one-woman show on his way to a few dates drumming for Jason Webley… I love it
when my kids see what life in the arts looks like. I guess there is a lesson
there about how any art is a practice and being open and present is the first step.
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Tuesday, October 27, 2015
MJN: You were born in England and have lived in various parts of Europe before settling in Australia, and yet your novels are set in your native England. You speak Italian as well. Here's something I lifted from your site, "You cannot be a minimalist in Italian." My creative writing professor kept saying "English is the diction of fiction. Use harsh, terse Anglo-Saxon words as much as you can. Avoid words with Latin root."
BGD: It is a hot Australian afternoon and the cicadas are calling so loudly, that I cannot hear the music CD I’m playing. The warm breeze through the open window carries a gentle waft of perfume from the garden; lilac blossom, rich jasmine scents, and the first sweet aroma from the rose bushes. And yet, snuggled warm in my head are the smells of medieval London, the harsh echo of footsteps across the wet cobbles, the flickering suggestion of an oil lamp from behind a casement window, and the sound of the last bell tolling from St. Martin-le-Grand, announcing the closure of the city gates for the night.
So my imagination is firmly glued to old London, and I can see those streets in my head. I dream of them, I walk them, I smell them. It is instinctive for me to set my novels there, against a background I know just as well as the rolling country scenery through my big bright Australian window.
I agree with your professor. The English language combines the fluid beauty of Latin-based emotion, with the opposing beauty of stark Anglo-Saxon practicality. That suits me just fine. I can use both, and appreciate those diverse extremes, for that, to me, is how the history of the British people came into being.
MJN: I personally separate the Late Middle Ages into before the discovery of the New World and after. Blessop's Wife is set in 1480s, at the tail end of that "before 1492" era. It was a time of technological and ideological turnover, with the introduction and popularization of the printing press. Can you tell us about some of the revolutionary movements that were happening in Europe at that time?
BGD: The true Renaissance of great art and the adoption of realism and perspective in panting, was taking place in Italy at that time, whereas France was fairly stuck in the business of international intrigue and domestic dominance, and Spain was getting rid of the Moors and developing the religious intolerance of the Inquisition. England was expanding her international trade, the swell of prosperity and the rising comfort of the new middle classes. Elements of the Renaissance brought waves of enlightened thinking into England at that same time, with a new recognition of justice, moving ever further and further away from the old outworn system of medieval feudalism. It was an exciting and inspirational time worldwide, but I believe your own example of the printing press was the most exciting of all. It changed everything. That influence spread far and wide. Personal education became possible, mass availability of knowledge was born, and the striking beauty of the book became a widely accepted delight. Previously books had been principally (although not exclusively) religious, and extremely expensive. Only the titled wealthy could afford such luxuries. But Caxton’s invention gradually brought books within the reach of many, and fiction such as King Arthur, the Green Knight, and Chaucer, could be enjoyed by ordinary folk. The growth which sprang from this was huge and exciting.
MJN: It's no secret that English in the 15th century was different from contemporary English, but not to the point of being unrecognizable. This is not the English of Chaucer, but it's not Elizabethean either. When you write dialogue, do you ever face the dilemma of whether make the language historically accurate or translate the content into something more contemporary?
BGD: This is an interesting question – but a little hard to answer without becoming too dull and detailed. The fact is – although (exactly as you’ve pointed out) the language of the late 15th century was not as different from our own as Chaucer’s delicious follies, – if I truly wrote dialogue as it would actually have been spoken, then very few readers would find it an easy or entertaining read. A major translation into understandable modern English is essential for simple comprehension.
Some nod to the era should be included, but I dislike the artificial ignorance of unnecessary ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ usage so I make every attempt to avoid any ‘historical pretence’ in dialogue. My characters therefore speak basic English – but there’s a ‘but’! I also very strictly omit any modern slang, Americanisms, references to modern jargon concerning scientific knowledge, psychology or other subjects which would certainly not have existed back then, and even avoid words which sound particularly out of place with this era of history. It’s a personal choice. I do sometimes include 15th century words when they seem appropriate. Like most authors of historical fiction, I have my favourites. Yet my dialogue may seem too modern to some readers, even though they wouldn’t understand it if I wrote in accurate 15th century English.
So the question is whether to modernise entirely – partially – just a little – or go all the way!
In the end my choice is to concentrate on characterisation itself and therefore the dialogue is a way of individualising each one, and that actually rules my writing far more than the historical era.
MJN: Your novels can be described as cross-genre. They contain elements of adventure/action as well as romance. Some publishers are looking for manuscripts in which one element prevails, which makes them easier to market. Personally, I think that the elements feed from each other. Wherever you have adventure, you are going to have romance.
BGD: Thanks, Marina, and I agree. When my novels were published in Australia by the major publishing house Simon & Schuster, they were marketed as historical fiction, but the covers were somewhat over-romantic. I had no complaints, but I do wonder if avid readers of romance might find my books somewhat more adventurous than expected. I am fascinated by history and I sink myself into the past as I write. Romance is an important theme in every novel, but it cannot stand alone. My characters lead varied and dangerous lives, they interact with the tumultuous historical events of the period, and they overcome many obstacles before they can pursue the romance of their choice. My books tend to be longer than most, covering this multi-faceted genre, and I keep a fast pace. That means more than simple sweet romance alone. I think you are quite correct to say that adventure and romance feed from each other. After all, even in my own life I have found that romance is the greatest adventure of all.
MJN: Let's talk about the covers. All three novels feature the same background image and the same branch in the foreground. Based on the varying condition of the foliage, I assume you meant to indicate various seasons? Do you intend to have your novels perceived as a series?
BGD: What an interesting idea. Thanks, Marina. Actually although my covers follow a similar theme, it is not the seasons that inspires them, but my own belief in the great family tree of humanity. One small branch combines my covers, but this represents the tiniest limb of our combined inheritance from the past. I see history as the foundation of all our lives. Hence the reaching fingers of the tree.
My novels all tend to be set in England during the latter half of the 15th century during the reigns of Edward IV, Richard III, and on into the dawning of the Tudor dynasty. However, the stories and characters are entirely separate and only references to the genuine historical characters occur in more than one book. My fictional characters are all quite different.
Not a series then. But certainly there are sufficient similarities of background and genre, and so I hope anyone reading and enjoying one of my books would also enjoy the others.
I have a new historical fiction due to be published early in December and I’ll follow the same basic cover design with that too – I love getting into the details of those designs.
Thanks for talking to me about my work, Marina. It’s been most interesting. My inspiration continues uninterrupted and as long as it does, I shall continue to write. My three published novels are now available worldwide in both printed paperbacks and digital ebooks, all on Amazon, and my next book will be out soon.
Thursday, October 15, 2015
Welcome Janet Stafford,an author of inspirational novels, namely a Brag Medallion Honoree Saint Maggie.
Maggie Blaine, a widow with two teenage daughters, runs a rooming house smack dab on the town square. In 1860 this makes her a social outcast. Boarding houses are only semi-respectable and hers has a collection of eclectic boarders - a failed aging writer, an undertaker's apprentice, a struggling young lawyer, and an old Irishman. In addition, she has a friendship with Emily and Nate, an African-American couple with whom she shares her home and chores. It is a good thing the town doesn't know that Maggie, along with Nate, Emily, and Eli Smith (the free-thinking editor of the weekly newspaper) are involved in the Underground Railroad. When she is asked to house handsome, gifted Jeremiah Madison, the new Methodist minister, Maggie hopes that he will both revive the little church she attends and provide her boarding house with a bit of badly-needed respectability. But Jeremiah comes with some dark secrets that challenge Maggie's resolve to love and respect all people. As the town's people reel from a series of shocking events, the compassionate, faithful Maggie searches for truth and struggles to forgive and love. (Based on a historical event.)
MJN: You pride yourself in writing character-driven and uplifting stories. I scratched my head and asked myself: what makes a story uplifting? A mandatory happy ending? Some sense of moral closure where the main character has an epiphany? This could be just me, but some of the most uplifting stories I've read had ended with the death of a protagonist.
JS: I don’t pride myself in my writing. I’m just saying that’s what I like to do or try to do. I’m giving readers a clue as to what they’ll encounter. I probably should add, “Don’t read these stories if you like your books religion-free.” Ha!
To me, uplifting indicates that there is hope imbedded somewhere within the story – although it is not necessary to have a happy ending. There is a great deal of pain and suffering in the world, and I believe that it is helpful to face these things with hope and to respond to them with love and action. There is a happy ending of sorts in Saint Maggie in that Maggie’s husband survives an ordeal – but he is physically changed. He will never be the same. Frankly, as I went on to write a series I realized that Eli’s situation also changed the way I had to write him.
As for moral closure with a main character having an epiphany, epiphanies do occur in what I write. Maggie has an epiphany half-way through the book, but it has to do with how she, as a faithful Methodist, relates to others. The epiphany actually gives her the grit to do what she does later in the book. She was already half-way there, but needed confirmation that she was on the right path. Saint Maggie deals with the audacity of forgiveness in the face of violence and betrayal. Maggie’s response brings criticism and the cold shoulder from the majority of the people in her town. Also, the “bad guys” in the story don’t necessarily get their due. You know how unsatisfying it is these days when a shooter commits suicide? We want that person to be arrested, put on trial, and if found guilty receive a just punishment. Well, I allowed that not to happen in Saint Maggie. Our thirst for justice is thwarted somewhat by the chain of events in the book.
The other books in the series follow a similar path. Walk by Faith, the second in the series, deals with the effect the Battle of Gettysburg has on the town and the impact of the war on newspaperman Eli (Maggie’s husband), his fellow reporter Carson, and soldiers Edgar and Patrick. How do we deal with the violence of war? How do we define the word “enemy”? (I fear I’m not happy with the ending of the book. I plan to revise it to allow a bit more ambiguity at the end.) A Time to Heal, the third book, looks at how the family recovers. In the process, they get in hot water when Maggie’s daughters take compassionate action that also is civil disobedience. Again, how do you deal with difficult times? How do you live compassionately within the rules of wartime?
I also have written a contemporary romance called Heart Soul & Rock ‘n’ Roll. I was surprised when a couple people told me it made them cry. One said she had to keep tissues next to her all through the second half of the book. Another said it made her sad, so I asked why. She said it was because of the broken relationships and pain of addiction within the story. Yes, I confess that the book does have a happy ending, but it does not come without one of the protagonists having been pretty well wounded on an emotional level. This “sad/happy” pull is biblical. In the book of Genesis, Jacob wrestles with God and wins and then goes on to be reconciled with his brother, Esau. Happy ending! And yet Jacob is left with a limp from his wrestling match with God: hence, not so happy.
MJN: I see you have also written film scripts. Your award-winning novel Saint Maggie features a cast of eclectic characters including a failed writer, and Irishman and an African-American couple. I see an ensemble cast production for Lifetime or Hallmark.
JS: Good Lord, I hope not! (The money might be nice, though.) The truth is after playing around with both formats, I find writing novels to be much more satisfying. These days I define myself as a novelist. Strangely enough, Heart Soul & Rock ‘n’ Roll started out as a film script, although I like it much better as a novel. In the book I was able to develop the characters, delve into their backstories, and enlarge the plot.
Writing a script for a prospective film means that much of the story has to be told through images and abbreviated but powerful dialog, all of which you have to do in about 90-120 pages. Also, since film making is a collaborative process, you’re delivering your precious baby into the hands of a producer, director, set designer, and actors, among many others, who go on to change it. Writing a novel allows the author to control the process. Essentially you are writing a film that people will then play in their imaginations. Yes, that process also changes things, but it’s on an individual basis. In fact, I enjoy people telling me what they think my characters look like and guessing which real New Jersey town is Maggie’s little Blaineton, and so on. In addition, writing a novel allows me the luxury of describing the environment and the characters’ appearance, dress, speech, and backstories.
That aside, I might consider having my work translated into a movie as long as the director brought that “outsider” ensemble feel to the film. I think we desperately need images of diverse people living and working together to dispel the past 30 years’ self-fulfilling prophecy that we are hopelessly divided. My theory has always been that getting to know someone who is different from you generally will explode group stereotypes. That is not to say that there aren’t jerks, fools, and evil individuals out there – but the vast majority of people seem to be well-intentioned.
MJN: Your formal education includes a B.A. in Asian Studies and a Ph.D. in North American Religion and Culture. Impressive! The two geographic areas are so far apart physically. How do the two pools of knowledge you've build up complement each other?
JS: The two degrees came at two different points in my life. I received the B.A. when I was twenty-one, a traditional-age college student. I ended up in the degree program because I had enjoyed a smattering of Asian studies in high school. Also, because we were experiencing a recession at the time, I thought, “What does it matter? I’m not going to use my degree anyway, so I might as well major in something I like.” Ironically, I did work for a couple of years at Kawasaki Motors in California shortly thereafter!
I pursued the Ph.D. in my forties after I had been through theological school and served two churches, one as a local pastor and the other as a Christian education director. As I like to put it, God kept nudging me to go into ministry. I finally gave up in my early- to mid-thirties – because … well, God is a total nudge. Unlike the B.A., the decision to go for a Ph.D. was well-thought out. I wanted to learn more about the history of Christian education, since that was my vocation. I planned to go on to teach the subject in a seminary. Boy was I wrong. At the same time I was going for the Ph.D., universities and colleges began hiring adjuncts rather than full-time professors to save paying health insurance, retirement, and higher salaries. It’s another form of outsourcing – you hire hungry Ph.D.’s and only pay them per course. You never give them more than two or three courses because then they would become full-time. Yet, ironically you still demand that they attend faculty meetings and take training, just like the full-time professors. But I digress…
How do my two streams of study complement each other? Hmm. Well, I think my exposure to Asian thinking, philosophies/religion, and cultures, as well as my exposure to people of Asian background were a big part of my early journey. These things opened me up to new ideas. I learned to appreciate individuals and cultures different from mine. Later I realized that, even though my Ph.D. degree program was called North American Religion and Culture, I really was studying North American Religions and Cultures. (Regrettably, we really didn’t study Canada all that much – the university rightfully should have called the program Religions and Cultures of the USA.) In the United States we have, or should have a unity based on our governmental structure and philosophy. Folks outside of our nation might say we have one culture. They might say Americans are overly friendly, somewhat noisy, and I don’t know what else. If you ask someone from anywhere else in the world, they probably will describe us as a unity. However, if you are living in this country you know that our regions and even our states have differing cultures, and within them live subset groups with their own cultures.
As someone who has a vocation in the church, I think that sensibility has helped me relate to people who are part of our congregation, to those who visit, and to those we encounter in the community. Our area of New Jersey is fairly diverse and our church is beginning to reflect that diversity.
By the way, I learned to speak Chinese fairly fluently at Seton Hall University. After college, I shared an apartment with two fellow students. But they had studied Japanese. We also had a friend of theirs on a year-long visa from Japan living with us. That meant I spent a lot of time at the dinner table nodding my head and saying “Hai, Hai, (Yes, Yes),” while everyone else was having a conversation I was unable follow since it was in Japanese. Luckily, I managed to pick up a few phrases and injected these randomly into their conversations, much to their great mirth. It was my not-so-subtle cue for them to finish the conversation in English! But I have not had much of an opportunity to speak Chinese (Mandarin) since then. I kind of miss it.
MJN: One of your characters in Saint Maggie is a gifted and eloquent Methodist minister who resolves to revive a parish. As a fellow Christian and a historian, I am absolutely heartbroken to see historical churches in small towns closing down. My husband was born in Central Pennsylvania, an area known for its history of coal mining. Over the past decade he has seen many neighborhood churches close down. It's always painful to see, even when you tell yourself that "Christ is in your heart."
JS: The reason the loss of congregations is so painful is because Christ isn’t just in the heart. Christ is in the community. In fact, I don’t believe that we can be Christians all on our own. Christianity is essentially a communal religion and we come by it honestly. Judaism is communal and familial. We are connected to that tradition through Jesus, who had his disciples around him in good rabbinical fashion. Later, the disciples went out and founded communities of people. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that these groups – churches – ate with one another, worshiped together, and shared what they had.
It’s not that I don’t think we cannot experience God while taking a walk outside or in solitary meditation or in any other single pursuit, but we are at our best and are what Christ intended when we are in community. A community of people can do so much more than one person. We can solve problems, we can inspire, we can encourage, we can help those in need, and more. Jesus said that when we are open and caring and reaching and teaching, the Kingdom of God is present. That is why losing congregations is so painful.
The senior pastor I work with always says, “Change comes one death at a time.” So although the closure of so many congregations may appear to be deaths, perhaps it actually may be call for us to reconfigure how we do church. I don’t mean adding a rock band up front or a coffee stand at the back. That’s cosmetics. We need to become radical in how we do church. How do we touch those whom Jesus told us to care for?
The other Sunday the folks at my church had a commissioning service and then went out to do something for our community. Some participated in a walk to raise funds for a young boy suffering from ALD and for ALD research; another group walked to raise funds for suicide prevention and awareness; some packed lunches for the homeless; another organized a food drive; and another helped at an animal shelter. My group held a rummage “free sale” and a carnival of activities for kids, both held outside as it was a nice day. At the free sale I saw people sharing their stories and mutually helping one another find the items they needed. Some who came for help later returned with clothing or items for us to add to the sale. And then someone asked, “Hey, where can I give a money donation?” I had to scramble to find a jar and make signs. People put $175 into that jar. They were the same people who came to get free stuff. The jar provided them with the dignity of making a donation if they could. One lady stuffed her trunk full of bags of clothing then ran back and proudly presented us with a ten dollar bill. Outside our building we found ourselves in community with others. There was a Kingdom-like mutuality to it all.
My question now is: how can we make this part and parcel of who our church is and what we do and how we relate? How do we show the love we have experienced in Jesus with our community and with the wider world? That still remains to be seen. But we do know one thing: we all agreed that we’re definitely doing “The Church Has Left the Building” again.
MJN: Saint Maggie is set in 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War. Several of your characters are abolitionists and involved in the Underground Railroad. I heard one author say that "racism is a disease". And I agree that racism is a disease, but like any disease it tends to mutate. It's like chemo-resistant cancer. The old medication doesn't work, because the disease itself has changed shape and course. This is my personal view, and feel free to disagree, but in the past few years fight against racism has taken on an unattractive turn. I feel like some self-proclaimed human rights activists are making matters worse, aggravating the polarization of races. One African-American author actually said that when white people proclaim themselves "color-blind", it's not good enough and actually insulting to the people of color. Apparently, the only acceptable thing to do for a white person is to admit that they are benefiting from "white privilege". The statement seems a little outrageous to me. So I'm asking you, as a woman of faith, who presumably believes that "all lives matter", what can be done on the level of media to neutralize the further polarization of races?
JS: I think we’re talking two things here. 1) Whether white people should participate in the struggle to end racism; and 2) whether emphasis should be put on the lives of black people over and above the lives of everyone else.
I agree that “all lives matter.” Theologically speaking, Jesus held the same view – are we not all children of God? But he also had a heart for the “least of these”: the poor, the demon-possessed, the ill and injured, the powerless, and those at the bottom of society. The problem with “all lives matter” is that it tends to lump everyone equally together and thereby negate the idea that we actually have a problem with regard to race.
The argument presented by some African Americans today about excluding white people in the struggle is similar to the early Malcolm X’s statements back in the 60s. He was adamant that whites could not help because they didn’t get it. They were well-intentioned do-gooders, but they did not understand the dynamics of racism much less understand and acknowledge their participation in it. However, it is also interesting to note that toward the end of his life Malcolm went on a Hajj, during which he saw all races worshiping together. That experience changed his perspective. He became more open to those white people who wanted to help put an end to racism. Perhaps some African Americans today are where Malcolm was early in his career. Perhaps they have not yet had an experience of unity. But the work should not be all on those who are black.
A couple of experiences in my life taught me the value of shutting my mouth and listening. One came in high school when my tenth-grade teacher, John Pinkard (the only African American teacher in the school at that time), brought a Black Panther to speak to us at a special evening meeting. What can I say? It was 1967 or 1968. The man explained his life and his take on racism. With regard to integration, he told us the same thing Malcom X had once said, “Say you have a cup of strong, black coffee. Now you add cream to it. What happens? It’s diluted!” I remember thinking, “Oh, yeah? Well, what if you have a nice glass of milk and you add chocolate syrup to it?” The answer of course is: “A tasty treat” Obviously my fifteen-year-old brain’s analogy didn’t work! But, all humor aside, I did hear the man. He actually was talking about dignity and self-reliance, and how fragile those things were in his community.
Later when I went to theological school, I enrolled in a class called “The Black Worship Experience,” taught by the amazing Dr. Dean Trulear. The class had about 1/3 white students, 1/3 black students, and 1/3 Korean students (the Drew University Theological School has and still has a large Korean population). I recall sitting in that class and listening to the black students express their anger and frustration. In my head, I was screaming “Wait!! I never did that to you!! Not guilty! Not guilty!!” Then something told me to shove my feelings aside and just sit there and take it. So I did. As a result, I ended up feeling compassion for my fellow students and their anger.
These experiences, plus a few others, have led me to realize that I am the recipient of certain privileges because I am white, although not all, since I also am a woman. I recognize that racism is not prejudice but an institutional process. I also see that we desperately need to learn from and listen to each other. Sadly, what we’re doing now is waiting until the “other guys” stop talking so we can yell our talking points back at them, and vice versa. True listening means putting your ego and pride aside and hearing with compassion what the other person is saying. Needless to say the attitude needs to go both ways. But when someone has been badly hurt they may need to scream and shout, because they feel no one really has heard them. So the process is not easy – complicated by the fact that we live in a mediated culture that wants to boil everything down to 10-second sound bites and photo-shopped images. The truth is there is no magic pill to make racism go away. It will take work, lots of work.
Another essential is getting to know each other as individuals. As I said earlier, once you start having friends who are not like you, it tends to explode stereotypes. I’m lucky. In my life I have had the opportunity to work with, learn from and with, and live with people who aren’t like me. Now when I hear someone saying something potentially hurtful or outrageous on the news, I usually wonder what propels them to make those statements. I suspect it is because they themselves are experiencing pain, fear, or feelings of exclusion. We can’t go on like this. We must learn to listen and hear, rather than erect walls and yell.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
I am pleased to introduce Juliet Waldron, a world traveler, fellow cat lover and historical novelist. Her fiction explores the variations on pre-assigned gender roles in marriage. Two exceptional men that she has written about are Mozart and Alexander Hamilton.
MJN: I see a thematic pattern in your work. You seem to be fascinated by "odd couples" consisting of a misunderstood idealist husband and a more grounded, loving but nagging wife. You've written about Mozart and his wife Konstanze, who was depicted by her contemporaries as a soul-stifling philistine. Then you have Alexander Hamilton and his all too often resentful wife Betsy who thinks that he loves America more than he loves his family. I keep scratching my head, wondering why do people pick each other. My cynical theory is that people are self-serving. They like the prestige and the mystique of being married to an extraordinary person, but they don't want to deal with all the side effects. Everyone likes chocolate but not the weight gain. What are your thoughts?
JW: I see my books as more about the institution of marriage and about power relations between the sexes, both in historical times, and, by extension, today. Personally, I'm a veteran of 50 years of marriage, much of it un-sunny. I don't see Stanzi as a philistine, for the prime qualification for that designation would be ignorance. She was born into a family whose stock in trade was music: "Wir sind Musiker;" one of her nephews was Carl Maria von Weber, so the genes for talent were present. Stanzi performed Mozart's music, too, so her voice, like her two prima donna sisters, must have been exceptional. I read the family letters in depth, and I see over and over again her husband's cavalier attitude toward his earnings. Warped by his unusual upbringing, full of adulation and easy money, he never quite made the transition to adulthood. As charming and gifted as he was, I thought I detected a definite Peter Pan element to his character. And, of course, in this current resurgence of fundamentalism all over the globe, the harsh reality of his wife's experience--six children born in nine years--brought home to me how any expectation of women as intellectually contributing members of society must be founded upon equality under the law with men + a right to birth control.
The Hamiltons are similar, but not the same. Hamilton too was damaged by his childhood, but in another way. He grew up in genteel poverty with the label "bastard" pinned like a target on his back. He spent his life vindicating the image his feckless father had had of himself--that of "gentleman"--with all the ferocious 18th Century loading inherent in the term. He literally killed himself in his quest for fame and honor; even his nearest and dearest saw him as quixotic. His work during America's founding, especially in the Federal period, can only be described as "heroic," and he deserves to be remembered that way. His wife--another "ordinary woman married to an extraordinary man," loved him deeply, but he hurt her in a thousand ways with infidelity and professionally unavoidable absences. I think, rather like Stanzi and Wolfgang--and many couples who marry young--neither party had a clue about the person they were marrying. As far as Eliza Hamilton goes, she loved her man and stood by him. She spent the 50 years after her husband's demise working to preserve his papers and to refute those long-lived political rivals who never ceased to belittle and slander him. Posterity owes these two women a considerable debt of gratitude, for they both--although for different reasons--preserved the written legacies of their matchless husbands.
MJN: One of my favorite Scottish folk songs is "If I was a Blackbird", in which the gender roles are actually reversed. You have an adventurous female who sails the stormy seas and a more hearth-oriented suitor frustrated by the fact that he is not the center of her universe. Can you think of a similar love story in history that you could cultivate into a novel?
JW: Another provocative question. I’ve never really considered this aspect, although I don’t believe that men have a corner either on genius or adventurousness. Hamilton’s mother Rachel might fill the bill, although, of course, not much is known about her. She not only taught him what it takes to run a business and how to balance the books, but, after casting off two bad husbands, she apparently lived a free woman’s life in the rough, tough 18th Century West Indies. She was making money in a small way and taking care of business, but her personal life was her own. Yellow fever, not the usual childbirth—like the brave Mary Wollenstonecroft and so many other early feminists-- cut her life short and left her sensitive, brilliant son an orphan.
MJN: I am moved to tears by your statement that you'd "owed King Richard a novel for fifty years". I'm referring to your novel Roan Rose. Given how prolific you've been with historical fiction, it's hard to imagine that you had carried the story inside you for half a century. If I understood correctly, your Mozart novels also took about 20 years of research to cultivate.
JW: The back story here is that I was an only lonely child living in the country with two rather self-involved, alcoholic parents. Being “good” meant not bothering anyone, sitting behind the couch with a book or listening to classical music. Very early on I developed an emotional reliance on music, reading, and upon imaginary companions, a chronicle of obsessions. The first two were Alexander Hamilton—I’d read a colorful Edwardian fiction about him—and Richard III, via The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. I began writing Ricardian and Hamiltonian fiction in my ‘tweens, but “real” life intervened, with an early marriage, two children, the Sixties, trying to pick up the pieces that were left after the Sixties, etc. Richard seriously “came back on me” around 1991, when I joined an inspirational and dauntingly well-informed online group of arm-chair historians: “Later Medieval Britain.” That was when Rose appeared, first as a device for telling a familiar story from a new angle, one which dealt with class as well as gender. As characters do, the fictional Rose became as important to me as my beloved Richard and Anne. As for Alexander and his Eliza, their book was already lying “in the drawer,” by the end of the 80’s. They’d too had taken the opportunity to reappear soon after Mozart and his music finally released me.
By that time, I was just as interested in the woman's experience in that colonial/federal world, so realizing Eliza became just as important as realizing Alexander. In fact, Elizabeth Schuyler had a great deal to talk about and her POV took over the greater part of A Master Passion. Once again, I'd found a strong woman standing behind a famous man.
MJN: Not all misunderstood geniuses and lonely dreamers come across as openly self-destructive. Some of them come across as fairly well-adjusted. They are very charming in social settings ... and then you find out one morning that they blew their brains out or overdosed on prescription drugs. Do you think that people are good at wearing masks and concealing chronic melancholy, or their moods truly do swing from one extreme to another?
JW: Absolutely! The late Robin Williams comes to mind. There’s an isolation that goes with genius. First off, more often than not people don't know what the hell you're on about, and they are too busy with the Kardashians or whatever to care.
MJN: One of your earlier gigs was posing as an artist's model. It sounds very glamorous when you first hear about it. People don't realize the hard work that goes into it. Try holding a pose or a facial expression for several hours?
JW: It's physically VERY difficult. At first, too, it's taxing to be the only naked person in a room of people who are dressed and scrutinizing you. I was not, truth to tell, very good at it, especially not at the long stillness it required. I was also pregnant, which posed other difficulties relating to endurance. When I wrote that bio many years back, I thought, well, I've done something unusual. Why not put that in? ;) But mostly I've been someone's wife and someone's mother, the cook and the cleaner, first and foremost, with secretarial jobs, customer service jobs and temp jobs wrapped around and sandwiched in between. That's probably why I write the kind of stories I do, because I can't help but believe there's a genuine valor in having spent your life in doing what women have done--without much comment--for thousands of years.
Thanks so much for your interest and the opportunity to appear on your blog. It was, I have to say, a uniquely clarifying exercise.
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
I am very grateful to Debra Brown, an Amazon bestselling author, active member of the Historical Novel Society and editor of a collaborative anthology Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. This compilation of essays is a perfect gift for hardcore English history buffs as well as novices who are only getting their feet wet.
MJN: Can you describe the curating process for compiling Castles,Customs, and Kings? If two or more authors submitted an essay on the same subject, was it difficult to choose one? Or were the topics pre-assigned?
DB: Castles,Customs, and Kings is an anthology of selected history blog posts from the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. Volume 2 is taken mostly from our second year as a blogging group. (You may find us asking to put your post on Florence Hobson in a future volume!) The posts are almost always on a different topic as 2000+ years of British history studied by many authors yields much variety. The problem is actually keeping the book down to a reasonable length with so many good posts to choose from!
MJN: I hear complaints from publishers and editors that they are tired of manuscripts dealing with the Tudors. Tudors are the new vampires. Is there a particular dynasty you would like to see more explored in historical fiction? I would love to read more about the Stuarts. They seem to fall through the cracks somehow.
DB: The Stuarts are fascinating. My main interest is in the Victorian/Edwardian era. It is getting close to "home", but life was so different. There were still the class differences that can make for huge conflict in a story, and I guess I am swept up by the beautiful hats and clothes, balls and banquets, and charming etiquette--contrasted with the poor Dickens characters scraping by. The Great War had not yet brought an end to the regal lifestyle in the country houses--though it is only the upper middle classes and nobility that had it good there; one has to put themselves into the right shoes to enjoy those stories. Please don't write much about the scullery maids....
MJN: It's no secret that commercial success does not necessarily correlate with quality of work. Sometimes you do everything right, blog tours, live events, and you still cannot traffic copies. What have your author friends have found to be an effective marketing strategy?
DB: That is the part of being an author that is not what we signed up for. But it is necessary, even for most authors who have mainstream publishers. Most authors now are blogging and active on social media to make their work known. Even that can seem ineffective. My blog has had some success because readers know there will be a new history post every day by one of many authors. And I've been putting the author's latest release on the sidebar for the day, which I hope is of some help. We also have a mutual promotions group that has been a big help--I attribute the many sales of my first book to the marketing aid of the members when I did two Kindle freebie days which put the book into the algorithm to be easily found on Amazon for a time. When Volume 1 of CC&K came out, I was involved with ASMSG (Authors Social Media Support Group) which enabled me to sell many copies by mutual retweeting as well as 84 copies of my novel's new audiobook in just the 12 days before Christmas. I was really amazed! And I am now involved in another retweeting group as well based on Facebook, using Twitter, of course, which gets my book tweets out there before 1.5 million potential followers of the group members. It's very effective!
MJN: Have you met any of the contributors in person? I have the pleasure of knowing Stephanie Cowell personally. I've been to several of her book signings in New York vicinity. Unfortunately, I have not been able to attend any of the Historical Novel Society conferences due to work and family obligations.
DB: I have only personally met Patricia Bracewell, which was a treat, and a huge supporter of the HistFic community, Darlene Elizabeth Williams. Maybe with the HNS Conference 2017 being in Portland, OR, I will be able to meet more. I can hope!
MJN: One of the co-editors is the late M.M. Bennetts. I haven't had the privilege of knowing her personally, but I heard many wonderful things about her. I understand there's a literary award in her name?
DB: Yes. M.M. co-edited Volume 1 and was working on Volume 2, but we had to put it aside while she worked on getting well. Unfortunately, that did not happen, and we lost her in August of 2014. The histfic community was devastated as she was knowledgeable, witty, and helpful. She had worked as a book critic for the Christian Science Monitor for 20 years, and her literary talent was clear in her two novels, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. When she became ill, her publishers turned her books back to her, and she didn't have much time to promote them herself. So we wanted to step up and make her name better known with the award. Authors are invited to submit their 2015-published historical fiction at http://mmbaward.org. And please do check out M.M.'s work!
Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors is available here: http://Author.to/DBrown. Volume 2 is on Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/castles-customs-and-kings-english-historical-fiction-authors/1116967513?ean=9780983671961
Friday, October 9, 2015
Today's guest is Yancy Caruthers, a Iraq war veteran, registered nurse, retired Army Reserve veteran and writer. Today he joins us to talk about Northwest of Eden, his personal account Operation Iraqui Freedom.
MJN: Many veterans do not feel confident enough in their writing skills to write a novel or a memoir. They rely on "advocates" in the face of fiction writers. Sometimes they choose to share a story with someone who feels more comfortable with words. As someone who's been through combat, can you tell the difference between a novel written by an actual eyewitness and someone who just skillfully reconstructed someone else's experiences?
YC: I think that would really depend on the skill of the person doing the reconstructing, and the ability of the eyewitness to recount experiences. As far as authenticity, my litmus test is when I read some tiny detail that no one else thinks is important, and it makes me laugh. Chris Kyle, the author of American Sniper, caught some early criticism because he wasn't a 'real' author. He was a real Navy SEAL, and that brought a realism to the story that no one else could have told. With my current project, Medic!, I am attempting to tell the personal stories of field medics from wars I didn't attend, in generations when I wasn't yet alive. It's challenging, but I'm hoping that the reader identifies deeply with those experiences as well. Before long, there will be no one to tell them firsthand - and at that point what is written will be all that can be written, at least with that depth.
MJN: I am going to transition into the next question. Do you consider yourself a soldier who writes, a writer who fights or ... a nursing professional who found himself hurled into combat and then wrote about the experience? Which one of your identities is primary? Or do they all complement each other?
YC: I try to avoid labeling myself. In my life, I have been a truck driver, a soldier, a salesperson, a nurse, an author, and a diplomat. I 'am' none of those things. They are all simply roles that I have played at one time or another, but this works both ways. Who I am made me good or bad at each of those professions, but trying to be good at those jobs formed me as a person. I can be anything I want to be, except NOT me. When I try to do that, it's painful.
MJN: Do you have an affinity for Ernest Hemingway? He was a medic during WWI. Interestingly, his stories and novels tend to not on the medical aspect or even the combat itself but the dynamic between the comrades-at-arms. Although, I sense that his attitude towards women is different from yours.
YC: I can't say as he's an idol or anything, as I understand he wasn't even a nice guy. I may be one of few people who read "For Whom the Bell Tolls" after I had experienced war. I cried. The man's lifetime of pain is there in his words, for those who care to look.
MJN: Your choice of headshot is very interesting. You have that neutral gentle-mannered look. I'm sure people have told you that you look like Jude Law. Just going by the headshot alone, I would say "This guy can be anything." You are not wearing a uniform or the scrubs. And you know how people are, always inclined to label and categorize. Was there a reason behind choosing a neutral headshot that was nonspecific to any line of work?
YC: I never got Jude Law, but Steve Buscemi is the comparison people make when they see the live version. That headshot was cut from a photo of me standing next to an Assistant Secretary of State the day I found out I was being assigned as a vice consul to Peru. I liked the look of it.
MJN: I know that your mission is to describe your experiences without passing judgment. And yet, I am sure that people have asked you question "What do you think about Bush?" and "Do you think it was a waste of time?" How do you handle that kind of pressure from your readers?
YC: Before we left, our unit has a deployment ceremony. I was to give a few opening remarks to set up the commander's speech. In those remarks, I acknowledged that the war itself was controversial, that people wouldn't always agree or understand why we were there. Our job had nothing to do with that. None of us could change the fact that we were involved in Iraq. Our unit's mission was to mitigate the damage that war causes. We were there to save lives, one at a time. In that respect, we helped a lot of people, and I am proud of that. History will judge our country's involvement there harshly, and much of what they have to say is based on events that have yet to unfold. A reader is free to say that we (as an Army) shouldn't have been there - many of my soldiers would agree - but that has nothing to do with reading about what it was like from the point of view of an individual soldier.