Friday, November 20, 2015

Ireland reimagined - interview with alternative history novelist Pat McDermott

Greetings, commies!
Meet a fellow Celtic spirit, Pat McDermott, author of romantic adventure novels set in historical - and alternative - Ireland. You know by know that Irish history is my passion.  And often catch myself wondering: what if the Fenian uprising of 1867 succeeded? How would that affect the subsequent course of history?

MJN: You come from Boston where there is a considerable Irish population. Some are farther removed from the Emerald Isle than others. You get a mixture of authentic-snobby-academic Irish culture and the Disnefied Blarney kitsch. How do you respond to verbalizations of Irish stereotypes? Some authors capitalize on the Blarney element, while others have a very strong adverse reaction to it. I'm asking because I also write Irish themed fiction, and the organizer of one of the author events started playing "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" as an expression of hospitality. I nearly fainted. God bless the gentleman, but my cheeks were crimson.

PM: No green beer or Lucky Charms for me, thank you. I grew up on Mission Hill, a mostly Irish and Irish/American neighborhood back in the day. I never met anyone who said “Top o’ the morning” etc., though I’ve met plenty of Irish folks who are characters in their own right. No need to add any Blarney whatsoever.

MJN: Band of Roses has an unusual setting. If I understand the intent correctly, it's retro-speculative? Modern Ireland that *might have been*. For those who are not familiar with the intricacies of the sub-genre, what is the difference between paranormal, speculative, steampunk and revisionist fiction?

PM: I know very little about steampunk. Paranormal is, of course, the addition of ghosts, magic, or, in the case of my young adult Glimmer series, Ireland’s fairies, the “Good People.” Except for The Rosewood Whistle, my stories are alternate/alternative history, a sub-genre of science fiction that includes speculative and revisionist fiction. The term simply means that the world would be a different place if a key event in history changed. If Germany had won World War II, for example, or if Rome still ruled Europe. In 1066, Irish High King Brian Boru perished at the end of the famous Battle of Clontarf. Many historians have said that Ireland would be a different place today if he had survived. Hence, A Band of Roses.

MJN: The covers for your Band of Roses trilogy share a similar layout but a different background image. I am particularly intrigued by the cover on the first novel, featuring a castle and a helicopter, with Celtic ornaments in the foreground.

PM: I worked with the cover artist to meld a sense of Irish history with the implication of modern times the helicopter provides. Hopefully, it works.

MJN: Most people have heard the name of Brian Boru. Are there any obscure mythological figures that you would like to bring to light?

PM: Each of the Glimmer Books features a different branch of Ireland’s fairy clans. Finvarra, King of the Connaught Fairies, plays a major role in the first book. An ancient, dragon-like monster called the Peiste worries a troop of water fairies in the second book. Book three deals with some of my favorite mythological features of all time: the Leprechauns. At the moment, no one in the mythological cast of characters is nagging me for a leading role, but that doesn't mean it won't happen.

MJN: Your Rosewood Whistle is a stand-alone novel, a contemporary romance featuring older partners, both burdened with ghosts from the past. Your age does not always correlate to the amount of proverbial "baggage" you are carrying. I've met 13-year old girls who have "old souls" and claim that they've "been around". And then I've met 70-year old women who have divorced and buried a few husbands, and still feel young at heart. In your novel, the heartthrob, Ben Connigan, is in a delicate situation. His wife died in an accident, yet she was not particularly nurturing or supportive. In fact, she was quite condescending and downright toxic. And yet I've heard that it's the toxic late spouses who often hold more power the survivors after their death. How do you explain that phenomenon?

PM: I’m not a psychologist, but I suppose it stems from the idea that no one can hold power over you without your permission. In Ben’s case, he was a young man in love, blind to his wife’s frivolities. Over time, he learned that he deserved better. We all do, don’t we?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Kristy Tate - bestselling, award-winning time travel and paranormal novelist

Hello commies!
It is my pleasure to present Kristy Tate, an imaginative and prolific author of time-travel and paranormal novels. Bereaved of her mother at a young age, she channeled her grief and anxiety through her love of books. Years later, she's an award-winning, Amazon bestselling author.

MJN: This question may sound odd, but how did the time travel romance develop in the first place? Why do authors opt for a sci-fi element instead of setting the novel in a particular historical period? Does it add humor to have a contemporary character hurled into a foreign world?

KT: A time traveler is the ultimate fish out of water story. I can't speak for other authors, but some of my very favorite movies are time travel romances, When Peggy Sue Got Married, and Kate and Leopold to name a couple. I got the idea for the Witching Well series while I was watching a documentary on the Salem Witch Trials, long before the release of the Outlander TV series. And of course, I had read and enjoyed Outlander twenty some years ago, and thought I should write a time travel romance! Never suspecting that the release of the Outlander TV series was right around the corner. This has actually happened to me a few times. I was days away from publishing Beyond the Hollow, set in Washington Irving’s Catskills when I learned of the Sleepy Hollow TV series. I was in a movie theater and when the trailer came on I actually screamed. My husband was completely humiliated, but I, of course, was enraged.

MJN: I am intrigued by the cover on Highwayman Incident. The trend for historical novels is to show a heroine with a part of her head cut off. You opt for a different technique, actually leaving the figure of the horseman but shrouding it in ashes.

KT: My daughter designs my book covers, and I think we’ve grown together. I like to think my novels are getting better and better, and I know her covers are getting better. Frankly, I don’t want to look like a typical romance, because I think that would send a wrong message. I don’t write the ‘typical’ romance, and I think if people are expecting a Julia Quinn (who I love, by the way—although I skip over her sex scenes) they’ll be disappointed, and maybe even write a nasty review.

MJN: Your Beyond series is intended for younger readers. You reference figures like the Headless Horsemand and Grigory Rasputin. How much background knowledge of history and literature does an average reader need to possess in order to have a firm point of reference? Do you hope that reading your works will prompt your younger audiences to read or revisit the originals?

KT: I actually lived close to Washington Irving’s Sunnyside, and I loved his work. I hope Beyond the Hollow reflects that. I got the idea for Beyond the Pale while watching another documentary. This one was on the unusual religious practices of Rasputin. I suspect he’s been demonized, but I would love to meet him. He must have been a terribly charismatic man. And of course, I would love to think that anything I wrote would make people dig into history. Actually, one of my favorite reviews is a 3 star of Beyond the Fortuneteller's Tent where she said after reading it she had to get out a Bible and do some research. But for the most part, my books want to be nothing more than entertainment.

MJN: Your recent title is Witch Ways. It's set in Connecticut where I live! This state is often used as a setting for novels and films that explore the issues of social status and gender roles. Films like Stepford Wives come to mind.

KT: While my husband worked in New York City, we lived in Darien, Ct, and I have really sweet memories of our time there. I didn’t know it when we first moved there, but many of my ancestors lived in Fairfield County as early as the 1600s (Darien is in Fairfield County.) I made lifelong friends there, and I think I will always have a tender place in my heart for Connecticut—despite the witch trials. I'm sure southern Connecticut is often characterized for it's WASPish ways, but it has a rich history.

MJN: It's always a delicate balance between being true to yourself and not alienating your readers. I have a pretty thick skin and an open mind and a sense of humor, so it's next to impossible to offend me. Readers seem to be polarized on the issue of witchcraft and paganism in young adult fiction. There are some extreme cases of religiously conservative parents prohibiting their children from reading Harry Potter. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I've come across a few manuscripts that offered little more than humorless, vindictive Christian-white-male bashing. Honestly, that kind of writing generates more yawns and eyerolls than strong reactions. How do you avoid falling into that trap?

KT: Interesting you would ask! I knew that I’d offend some Christian readers, but I also suspected that those who had issues with witchcraft wouldn’t be reading my books! What I didn’t know was I’d offend those who follow witchcraft. (I got a nasty review from someone who clearly hadn’t read the book who thought I was trying to “convert others to her religion” and that I thought “all witches should burn.”) The truth is this phrase struck me—“everyday we all have to decide whether or not to be a witch,” and I wrote about a teenage girl who didn’t know who she is. Probably more than any of my other characters, I “get” Evie. While writing this series, I really plumbed my teenage self. I lived alone with my dad. I watched his courtship with my stepmother…with horror. I had one boyfriend after another. It was really a difficult time. I’ve since learned that books became my drug of choice—my way of escaping my grim realities—during my mother’s long illness, her death, and my father’s rocky remarriage. I hope my books can offer others a safe and entertaining escape when life gets too real and hard. I know the intent of my heart (and I believe God does, too.) If others choose to be offended, that’s their issue, not mine, and, frankly, none of my concern.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Mesopotamia in historical fiction - interview with author and anthropologist Shauna Roberts

Greetings, commies!
Welcome to the enchanting and perilous world of Mesopotamia fleshed out by Shauna Roberts, who incorporates her expertise in anthropology and science into her historical and speculative fiction.

MJN: You have a B.A. in anthropology from UPenn and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University and worked as a science and medical writer. Your fiction covers many a genre, from sci-fi, to historical fiction, to fantasy, to romance. Given your professional background, do you feel that one genre comes you to more organically than another?

SR: Historical fiction seems to come most naturally. I’ve read a lot of history and biography and visited many historic places. Those experiences combined with my anthropology degrees make me aware of basic facts such when various things were invented, where foods were domesticated and when, what characteristics do most cultures share and what traits are particular to modern Western societies, and so on. As a grad student and again as a medical writer, I did a lot of research and learned how to dig up obscure data. As a result, getting the history and culture right is a lot easier for me than for people without my background.

MJN: One of your early novels, LikeMayflies in a Stream is a story of Gilgamesh. Several authors have tapped into one of the world's oldest myths. It's so timeless and can be adapted to suit any ideology. You've been commended on your strong female protagonist. At the same time, one of the reviewers pointed out that your protagonist is not a child of the 60s or a modern 2nd-wave feminist. So many authors make the anachronistic error of imposing 20th and 21st century ideas onto a character who lived thousands of years ago.

SR: Again, I credit my anthropological training and extensive reading in history and biography. I’m aware of many ways of being a man, a woman, a child, a human being. I try to get into the mindset of my characters based on what I know of their time period, social class, and expected roles, and I try not to assume anything (which is, of course, impossible, but it’s the right goal to aim for).

One problem with historical fiction from major publishers is that they underestimate readers’ ability to put themselves in someone else’s sandals/boots/sabots and discourage writers from giving main characters ancient or “foreign” attitudes. Publishers want to buy books with characters “readers can relate to”—code for characters that think and act like 21st-century Americans.

Meanwhile, historical fiction fans I’ve talked to read historical fiction precisely to experience life in another time and place. They’re intrigued or curious or shocked by people who enjoy eating bugs and girls who have to marry and run a household at age 13 or 14 and court ladies who pee in public in the hallways of the palace of Versailles. I suspect a lot of the appeal of Outlander and its sequels—besides Jamie, of course—is learning along with Clare just how different life and basic beliefs were only 250 years ago in Scotland.

Publishers’ timidity and underestimation of readers has been a boon for small presses. Many small science fiction and fantasy presses are turning out books that on average are better and more true to human nature than large presses. These presses tend to be more concerned with publishing excellent books and less concerned with publishing blockbusters.

One example is Hadley Rille Books, which published Like Mayflies in a Stream in 2009 and just published my fantasy novel Ice Magic, Fire Magic. HRB insists on archaeological and historical accuracy and scholarly extrapolation when facts aren’t available in its Archaeology Series novels, which are historical fiction, usually set in ancient times. HRB is also expanding its offerings of fantasy with women main characters because the women in sf/f books from large publishers represent such a small sampling of the many types of women there are and the many ways they can be heroic.

MJN: Mesopotamia is not a very common setting for historical novels, so I applaud you for venturing into the underexplored territory. There are so many cable shows set in Ancient Rome. Does that present a problem while pitching your work to publishers? On one hand, publishers don't want a topic that's already been done to death. But then they don't want something that's obscure.

SJ: I’ve loved ancient Mesopotamia since I read History Begins at Sumer by Samuel Noah Kramer back about 1972 or 1973. Why are there 60 minutes in an hour and eggs and other products are sold by the dozen? Why are sheep woolly? Why is the world’s first known literary writer and poet a woman? How could the first civilization start in a desert lacking almost every natural resource? Why do many Bible stories include elements of Mesopotamian stories of much earlier times?

It’s amazing to me how much we still depend on technology and practices developed thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia.

You are right; it would have been a problem to try to find a major publisher for my past and future Mesopotamia books. That’s why I was so glad to hook up with Hadley Rille Books for my first novel. My second Mesopotamia book, Claimed by the Enemy, was too long and relied too much on extrapolation for HRB’s Archaeology Series, so I self-published it. I never considered a large publisher. I wanted the characters to be true to their time and their time’s expectations for men and women, and I wanted to tell the story from a feminist perspective as I did with Like Mayflies in a Stream. (Men enjoy both books, by the way; they’re not stories solely for women.)

I assumed I would get cross-over readers from among fans of novels set in ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, and ancient Greece. So far that hasn’t happened. I still hope it will. The eras and places share many cultural elements, including interesting mythologies and practices that continue to the present day.

MJN: In your recent fantasy IceMagic, Fire Magic you have a land called Veridia. I imagine, the name could mean Green and Truthful. Do you rely on any particular language or folklore when coming up with fantasy names?

SR: Yes. For IMFM, every name is rooted (ha ha) in botany. Fila, the heroine’s name, is a shortened form of “filia,” meaning “daughter’ in Latin and “love" and “friendship" in Greek (φιλία). Her brother’s name, Urushi, came from “urushiol,” the allergenic substance in poison oak, poison ivy, and some other poisonous plants. Hero Celatu got his name from “celatus,” meaning hidden or concealed. Fila’s cousin Kassia was named for the genus Cassia, some of whose member species have poisonous seeds. Some names are completely obvious—Hyacinth and Astilbe, for example.

I wanted the name “Veridia”’ to represent greeness, fertility, youth, and lushness. It was inspired by “veriditas,” a word combining “green” and “truth” and often used by composer, poetess, and abbess St. Hildegard von Bingen to mean "green fire and energy" and to imply redemption, flourishing, knowledge of the world, and the divine as mainfested in the world in everything—every creature, every leaf, even every stone. For more about Hildegard and her concept of “veriditas,” start with these two blog posts:

Our age has lost its connection to the natural world. Some modern people don’t know the names of common trees or flowers; they don’t recognize the smell of a tomato plant leaf or a mint leaf; they’re afraid of all spiders and snakes, not just the harmful ones. In IMFM, I wanted to recreate what it was like when humans were integrated into their environment. So the characters know the names of the animals and plants they encounter and what the properties of different plants are. Some are at home in the woods. The weather reflects Veridia’s moods. For the world of IMFM, I used the plants, animals, and insects and some of the geology and geography of southwestern Ohio.

MJN: I'm intrigued by TheMeasure of a Man - a 57 page novella that combines elements of fantasy, history, sci-fi and horror. Zombies on a 16th century island? Is this novel considered a pilot? Have you considered turning it into a novel and launching a new brand of hybrid?

SR: "The Measure of a Man" started as a short story of 7000 words, but it felt too compressed. Too much was happening for the number of words, and it needed more room to breathe. So I expanded it considerably until it felt right. I’ve occasionally considered writing a sequel, but nothing yet has intrigued me into going further. I was interested in the intersection of the three men’s lives at this one moment, not in what came before or after, and I captured that moment.

Anthropologists had collected many stories from Flores Island about little hairy people who didn’t wear clothes, couldn’t talk well, and occasionally came down from their caves to trade for goods or to steal stuff from the villagers. The stories implied that these people had lived just a few generations before, although of course some stories can be passed down orally for hundreds or thousands of years. When bones of a new, tiny human species, Homo floresiensis, were discovered on Flores, many anthropologists thought they had found the little hairy people of legends. Part of the impetus of this story was the question, What if Homo floresiensis had survived into modern times?

The other impetus was my desire to examine the concepts of honor, duty, and manhood from the viewpoints of three very different men faced with the most important decisions of their lives. Will they do what is right or what is easy? How do their views of themselves as men affect their decisions? Are their concepts of manhood positive (these are principles I should follow to be a good man) or negative (if I do this, people will think I’m childish, a coward, a bad husband, a bad neighbor). Many societies place heavy burdens on men to live up to certain ideals, and I wanted to feel what that was like.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Portrait of My Love - a romance through a Dystopian lens

You should know by now that I have a very grim view of humanity. I hope to demonstrate that even a hardened cynic can enjoy a romance novel. Obviously, a reader like myself is going to get something entirely different from someone who gulps romance at face value. So today I am reviewing a romance novel from a Dystopian point of view. A few months ago I reviewed a murder mystery by the same author, Jennifer Young. Today I am reviewing A Portrait of My Love, Book #1 in her Lake Garda Series.

Terrified of commitment, Skye Ashton ditches her artist boyfriend, Zack, and disappears off to Italy with her best friend, the fascinating and fabulously wealthy Leona Castellano. When Zack turns up, Skye realises how much she really cares for him. But she has a fight on her hands, because Leona has taken an instant fancy to him, and she’s used to getting what she wants.

When Leona sets out to uncover the true story behind an old family feud, she puts herself in danger, and Zack finds himself drawn into an attempt to save her.

Will his intervention in Leona’s life lead to him losing Skye, the girl he really loves?
My thoughts:
I confess that before reading "A Portrait of My Love" I had to deprogram my brain a little. This book is totally outside the scope of my usual reading material. Normally I get a lot of twisted pleasure out of reading truly cerebral, warped, darkly comical fiction. Hence, I am not going to judge "A Portrait of My Love" it according to my regular guidelines. On a personal level, what intrigued me is that the love triangle reminds me of my own story. 17 years ago, while still in college, I successfully stole a man from a commitaphobic "friend". She was also "taking a break from the relationship" to "do some soul-searcing". Well, I didn't waste much time and moved right in. So I have a sadistic soft spot for love triangles like that. I have another sadistic soft spot for decadent Americans - or Brits - running away to do soul-searching in Italy. A prospective threesome in Italy ... Hm... Wings of the Dove, here I fly!

Now we are getting to the most delectable part - the protagonist, Skye Ashton. The author does a marvelous job creating a whiny, entitled, neurotic, impulsive, wishy-washy heroine trapped in the rinse cycle of first world problems, who fancies herself a free-spirit and a citizen of the universe yet agonizes over whom to call, her best friend or her boyfriend, or what flavor creamer to put in her coffee. In short, Skye is someone you want to see ambushed in a dark alley, murdered in a gruesome way and chopped up into pieces, just to stop hearing her high-pitched voice. Her redhead frenemy with a very telling name Leona is made essentially of the same raw materials. The differences are cosmetic. The object of their rivalry Zach is a glassy-eyed anemic dreamer who doodles Celtic knots. Essentially, what we end up with is a cast of hedonistic, spiritually bereft individuals taking a stab at the concept of Love. Ironically, "Love" is in the title of the novel. In reality, these people would not know Love if it fell into their cocktail glasses.

As a parody of 21st century Western World Womanhood, A Portrait of My Love is unparallelled. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Black Wings by Iryna K. Combs - a poignant society allegory

A new time. A new planet. A new world. New technologies. Two new humanoid species. A new war. The two species separate, but in the removal, some of the best are left behind among the worst. Captured and held as slaves, they are treated cruelly for entertainment. Torture. Pain. Annabel, endures a year of such cruelty, kept alive only by way of syringes which, while healing, cause a greater agony. She discovers a secret held by their leader, and decides to help her own kind by escaping–even if it means a final death, preferable to the life she has endured. Her escape succeeds, and she joins her own kind at the other end of the planet. Among her new friends she meets many who help her adjust to their happier life. Will Annabel find romance? Or will another war break her down?

My thoughts:
Black Wings is a poignant allegory of societal evolution. There have been so many attempts to "purify" humanity, to purge it of corruption, to dramatically reform various religious and political structures. And the result is usually far from encouraging - very often we go from Bad to Worse. Basically, every time you try to start anew, you end up making the same mistakes. The scientific premise behind Black Wings is fairly straightforward. Our planet is dying (a distinct possibility) and a group of scientist is trying to jump start a new civilization on another planet. The same corruption takes hold of the new home. Very quickly, the new residents revert to the old ways. A schism occurs, giving rise to two races - Varkins and Anlights. It's not hard to figure out from the sound of the names who are the bad guys. Within each race, there is a hierarchy. Equality and peace are against human nature. Both races in Black Wings are humanoid, so their collective psyche and morality have human roots. And whenever you have two races, you are bound to encounter cross-racial relationships. This novel is universal, because the premise applies to any ethnic, religious or political conflict.

The narration style itself is very straightforward and clean "once upon a time", without any pretentious tools. When you are dealing with universal ideas, allegories and alternative universes, it's important to keep the narration clean.

One of the interesting and impressive things about this novel is the fact that the author is not a native English speaker. I think it adds a charming, exotic touch to her diction, perfectly appropriate for the genre. The author is clearly very in tune with the forces that rule the universe, with collective fears and ambitions that human beings experience. She makes astute observations and draws allegoric parallels.

All in all, I'd like to see it adapted as a graphic novel. I would love to see the creatures that the author crafted so meticulously depicted by a graphic artist.