Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Murder on the Minneapolis: a cozy, Edwardian crime mystery by Anita Davison

Anita Davison refers to herself as the "Disorganized Author". I've had the privilege to know the talented and generous person behind the low-key profile.  Her cozy Edwardian crime mystery was released last week. 

MJN: You write under two pen names. Your first books under your real name have an air of romantic suspense around them. You also have a book under Anita Seymour "Royalist Rebel" that's more hardcore historical. Do you prefer to keep the two styles separate?

AD: This was in fact my agent’s idea. I have had more than one publisher since my first novel came out and I now write in more than one genre. This isn’t unheard of but publishers like to know what to expect from their authors. Therefore I publish my 17th century work under the name Seymour and my Victorian novels as Davison.

MJN: The English Civil War and the Cromwellian era often fall by the wayside. Do you think the Stuart dynasty will become the subject of HBO shows like The Tudors?

AD: I would like to think so as, personally, I find the 1600’s a fascinating section of history. There have been some historical dramas set in this era, e.g., The Power and the Passion, and The Devil’s Whore. Most of the spotlight tends to focus on Charles II and his mistresses, all curly long male wigs and low cut silk dresses. So much more happened during this Century, the change in attitudes, for instance the move away from religion and towards science to find answers to the mysteries of the world. There are many fascinating characters who would make the subjects of interesting dramas. I would love to see one made about William III and Mary II, then there is John Evelyn, Christopher Wren, Robert Moray, George Villiers, John Wilmot, the list is never ending.

MJN: You dub yourself as "disorganised writer". In what sense are you disorganised? Is it that you write without a deadline in mind? You also refer to yourself as "struggling". You appear to have no trouble selling your manuscripts to publishers and moving copies. In your personal subjective opinion, what defines literary success? Is it the number of copies sold? The prominence of the publisher? The number of stellar reviews from respectable critics?

AD: That came about in the days before I was published and needed to find a title for my blog. Every other author profile seemed to be along the lines of; I have four children under ten, work full time, participate in the PTA, Muck out feed and exercise three horses every day, chair five charity committees for underprivileged children and write a novel a year. I was totally intimidated by most of them, so I wrote a brief ‘window’ into my day as an author – just for fun. It’s here: http://thedisorganisedauthor.blogspot.co.uk/p/why-disorganised-author.html

MJN: Your last book is a cozy mystery. Can you explain what makes a mystery "cozy". The number of corpses does not exceed a certain number? I've encountered the term "cozy romance", something without explicit erotic scenes. What qualities does the piece need to possess in order to qualify as "cozy"?

AD: Cozies are a genre in themselves and follow a specific formula, which means no gratuitous violence or explicit sex. The murder happens at the beginning of the story so the reader does not invest emotionally in the victim. The killing also occurs off stage – no gratuitous gore. The sleuth is usually an amateur often helped by an accomplice who may or not be a policeman. There is often a second murder, maybe even a third, but by the end of the novel good triumphs over evil and the villain gets his/her just desserts. The reason for the crime is either love or money, but the murderer is never a psychotic serial killer. I love the challenge of reading them and unravelling the clues, and I even like darker murder mysteries but I’m skilled enough to write one – or maybe not twisted enough?

MJN: You have been very generous with your leisure, promoting the talent of other authors, which I applaud. Many authors, once they reach a certain level of prominence, do not have a minute to spare for their colleagues. Do you believe that cross-promotion is a powerful marketing tool?

AD: Thank you Marina, it’s nice to be appreciated. I am part of a critique group of multi-published, self-published and aspiring writers, and we all had to begin somewhere. Publishing has altered completely over the last twenty years, in that publishers today insist we create our own online platform to promote our work, investing a lot of time and even money – only famous and bestselling authors receive the showbiz book signings and TV interviews – the rest of us have to generate our own.

I have a blog where I write about my experiences as a writer, review novels and interview new and aspiring historical fiction writers. Like advertising, no one knows how effective blogging is but I have met some lovely people on the author ‘circuit’, including yourself and found them a uniquely encouraging and helpful group of people who applaud each other’s success.

I feel my growth as a writer can also be attributed to what I have learned through other author’s experiences. Writing is a craft you can never perfect – there is always more to take on board and the more I discover, the less I find I really know.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Anglo-Italian connections in Diane Denton's novels

I have known Diane Denton for almost four year through the Historical Novel Society, and finally I am getting around to feature her marvelous works in my blog. Both her novels are set in the 17th century, a time where most women did not have much wiggle room in terms of vocation. Denton's mousy, introspective heroine Donatella is a spinster regarded with casual contempt by those around her.  At the same time, her status affords her certain opportunities not available to married women.

MJN: What appeals to me about your work is your determination to draw attention to forgotten figures from the past. In his day, Alessandro Stradella, the heartthrob of your debut novel A House Near Luccoli, used to be something of a rock star in his day, a star that got prematurely extinguished.  How many people outside of the classical music circle know about him?

DD: Thank you so much, Marina, for allowing me to guest on your blog. Sadly, not many outside of the classical musical circle know about Alessandro Stradella, but, at least there are a few more who have read A House Near Luccoli. Even among music scholars, unless Stradella’s life and work has been a specific point of study, there is little reference to him. Serious opera buffs may recognize his name from the highly romanticized and inaccurate mid-nineteenth century opera by Friedrich von Flotow, and Baroque ensembles in the US and around the world are performing his music more and more. I recently saw that Stradella’s Sonata in D Major for Trumpet and Strings was included in the soundtrack for the popular movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Many a rock star’s epitaph could say what Avvisi (hand-written newsletters) did at the time of Stradella’s tragic end: “in order to touch too high, he touched low.” In these days of hunger for celebrity news, especially based on rumors, scanty facts, and a fascination with seemingly self-destructive genius, Stradella’s story should be irresistible. Unfortunately, as you know, it’s easier to attract readers to names and events that are familiar, rather than lead them into unknown encounters and territories.

For me, the unknown and, especially, untried, as a writer and reader, invites my curiosity, challenges my intellect, and stimulates my imagination. It’s rather like walking into a room full of people familiarly talking and interacting, except for one person who is off on his/her own. I would be drawn to him/her, because I feel more comfortable with outsiders, couldn’t help but be curious about what sets that person apart, and suspect his/her story might be the most interesting of all.

MJN: Let's talk about the Anglo-Italian connections.  The English have always been fascinated by Italy.  Forester had set several of his novels in Italy - A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread. In your second novel, To a Strange Somewhere Fled, you actually have an Italian protagonist going to England.  On the surface it seems like the two cultures are diametrically opposite. When you think of England, you think of bland colorless boiled food and vitamin D deprived people.

DD: Well, the Anglo-Italian connection is my blood. My paternal grandfather emigrated from Italy and my paternal grandmother was a first generation Italian born in Canada. My maternal grandfather came from Italy to New York City and ended up in Chicago where he met my maternal grandmother, her family having come to the US from Nottinghamshire, England in the mid-nineteenth century. So I have been living with the two cultures all my life. Talking about this with my mom, it’s hard to know which side we identify with more—sometimes the mix confuses us, and sometimes one side balances the other. I constantly sway between expressiveness and reserve, and need to referee more than a few battles between my head and my heart. I wasn’t brought up isolated in either ethnicity, love Italian food and Italian customs, yet have never felt comfortable in big Italian family gatherings, my English reserve kicking in. My mom certainly didn’t have an easy time with the volatile behavior of my father, probably because her own father Pierino didn’t fit the stereotype of a hot-headed Italian. As I read somewhere, the trouble with stereotypes isn’t that they are altogether untrue, but they are incomplete, and—I add—meant to be contradicted. On the surface it does seem the two cultures are exact opposites, but the phenomenon of magnetism occurs because of repelling and attracting forces, and that could well be at play in the lure of Italians to the English and visa-versa. Following on your example of EM Forester, it’s also manifested in the plays of Shakespeare, the flocking of 17th century musicians to the court of Charles II, the grand tours of young English aristocrats, and the English Romantic poets who found Italy a place to give their muses and excesses full rein.

From an early age, England called to me, it was always a dream for me to go, and when the chance came I na├»vely—much more so than my fictional Italian female protagonist—took my ‘split personality’ there, where, as if the mingling of the two ethnicities in my genetics wasn’t enough to deal with, even as I blended in I experienced a great deal of alienation. To your point about the blandness of the English diet—my ex mother-in-law boiled and boiled and boiled the flavor out of vegetables and even fish, but the English were definitely open to foreign food. Indian and Chinese restaurants were everywhere, Pizza Hut was usually packed, and when an Italian manager and chef were employed at a local hotel, the natives were thrilled—and so was I, of course! A dose of vitamin D on those days that weren’t rainy was obtained by playing tag with the sun in and out of the clouds. Let’s put it this way: it was the best and worst of times. Even before I got a novel out of it, I knew it was integral to my life’s passage and don’t regret those sixteen years at all. Certainly I’ve found inspiration in the Anglo-Italian contrasts and will continue to do so in my writing again before too long, taking up the story of Christina Rossetti, the poetess sister of the Pre-Raphaelite poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, off-spring of an Italian father and half-Italian, half-English mother.

MJN: Your maternal grandmother was a concert pianist in Chicago during the 1920s. What an exciting era to be in the performing arts, especially in a city like Chicago! Tell me a little bit about her repertoire. 1920s was a very turbulent time all over the world. Did the external environment affect your grandmother's performance style?  

DD: What I know of my maternal grandmother, Marion Allers-DiCesare, is through the memories and adoration of my mother who was only ten years old when her mother died. My grandmother received her entire musical education at the Illinois College of Music, which was established in 1900, graduating when she was eighteen but continuing there as a teacher. My mom managed to rescue the 1924 faculty booklet from family records in danger of being discarded as clutter. It states that Miss Allers’ pupils idolized her, “she made an extensive study of Expression (voice training, breathing, recitation, dramatic training, impersonating, dialect, etc.) and was very “clever” as “Pianist-reader and Monologue entertainer” who “became known throughout the city”, and was “original and versatile.” My mom remembers her repertoire included Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky, and, also, popular songs from the twenties. Because my grandmother was not only a talented pianist but, also, a versatile entertainer, she was approached by Ziegfeld, who was from Chicago, to take part in a European tour. Her family wouldn’t allow her to go as “good girls didn’t travel alone or do things like that”. Who knows what career opportunities were missed and whether the disappointment contributed to her suffering a nervous breakdown. She had several offers of marriage she turned down. Then, in her thirties, my northern Italian blue-eyed grandfather, attractive, cultured, charismatic, and a bit of a scoundrel—not unlike Alessandro Stradella—came on the scene when mutual friends took him to see her perform at the Chicago Civic Opera House. This time she defied her family to marry him—unaware he was still married to a woman in New York City—finding excitement but also hardship in her decision to do so, because, besides being a bigamist, my grandfather was an unreliable provider financially and often absent, engaging in dodgy real estate deals with the gangster element in 1930’s Chicago. After my mom and her eldest sister were born, her parents split for a while, but then got back together and had two more daughters, my mom’s youngest sister only four when my grandmother died from breast cancer at the age of forty-six.

MJN: I am feeling uneasy about asking this question, but how much of yourself is there in Donatella?  I'm not implying that she is 100% autobiographical, but she is so well-rounded and so meticulously crafted, I sense she is your psychological child.  Perhaps, she's not your spiritual twin, but rather a literary child. 

DD: I think initially, when I “discovered” Alessandro Stradella, I wanted to truly “meet him” and Donatella was my way to do that. He reminded me, especially in his musical brilliance and recklessness, of a pivotal encounter I had had in real life, which I had to be very discreet about. Perhaps I felt that through inventing a scenario where a woman like me could have such an experience was a safe way to explore it more fully and, it may seem strange to say, more actually. The autobiographical aspect of Donatella is manifested in her resistance, regret and longings, insecurities, hesitation, isolation, and her potential as a loving, artistic creature. And, of course, her love of cats! As many writers know, something can happen as a narrative takes shape: as we control we lose control and learn as much as we reveal. After traveling with her for two novels and over five years, I will almost steal a line from Wuthering Heights to announce that Donatella is more myself than I am. So I guess that might make her my literary guru, someone I may refer to again, if not in my writing, than certainly in the moments of my life.

MJN: You have a gift for illustration.  In fact, you've illustrated some of your own literary works.  Tell me how your brain processes the multi-media.  Do you envision an image first, and then describe it with words, or do you start off with words and then translate them into images?  

DD: I’m as visual when I write as when I draw and paint. I see words visually, not just as letters put together, but the way they are arranged in a sentence or paragraph or on the page, like brushstrokes—or pointillism—individually coming together to create a complete and cohesive picture. I hope that makes sense. Images certainly have inspired my writing. As an example, I saw a photograph of the French writer Collette sitting in her garden reading when she was a young woman and so my short story The Library Next Door was conceived along with the illustration I did for it. And regarding the covers for my novels, especially To A Strange Somewhere Fled, the illustration came out of the writing—Wroxton Abbey, the oak tree, Donatella and how she is dressed. Most of the time it is rather like the chicken and the egg, impossible to say whether the image or the words existed first—certainly, one inspires and supports the other. Images help me fill in the story, flesh-out the characters and settings, and words generate images in my own and, hopefully, the reader’s mind. I really don’t think you can write visually if you can’t think visually, but like the historical in historical fiction, it all has to be a seamless integration. I also find taking a break from writing to do artwork relaxes me, especially my mind; it takes me into a less conscious place creatively, probably because I am less possessed by it.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Robert Walker - a crime writer (blame it on Huck Finn)

I am  pleased to welcome Robert Walker, an astonishingly prolific and charmingly daring (with a strong self-deprecation streak) crime writer.  His Instinct series alone account for 13 installments.  Today he joins us to discuss the genesis of his writing career.

MJN: Your first novel was a sequel to Huckleberry Finn, something that, in your own words, "only an arrogant youth could have conceived."  Why do you refer to yourself in such terms?  Writing sequels/prequels to classic novels is a very common practice nowadays.  You are not competing with the original author.  In a sense, it's a tribute.  Or do you consider the practice of augmenting the classic blasphemous?

RW: No I simply meant at the age of a high school sophomore I must have been pretty full of myself to believe I could do a sequel for Mr. Mark Twain. Just looking back, I am kind of proud of the fact I completed that job I set for myself. It taught me too the value of research as the novel hinges on the facts surrounding the Underground Railroad.

MJN: In your biography you also say that you turned to fiction to make sense of the chaos in your life.  It's funny, I would've thought the opposite.  People whose lives are too predictable, try to create alternative worlds to add excitement to their existence. 

RW: In my childhood, growing up in inner city Chicago and under the roof of my dad, writing and creating allowed me a world to escape into. Reality was hardly as much fun as make-believe.  Of course, as in any group of people, all writers have differing backgrounds, and I can certainly understand how, for some, it might be a wholly different matter and motivation.

MJN: You have co-authored several thrillers with Ken Rossignol.  Can you tell me about that experience?  I always have a hard time envisioning two people co-authoring a novel. It's like a car having two steering wheels.

RW: Actually I have not co-authored with Ken but rather edited a number of Ken’s books. The only true collaboration I have done was on Cuba Blue with Lyn Polkabla.  She and I worked beautifully together and we truly became of one mind, and from the get-go we both wanted a seamless novel wherein a reader could not possibly tell where one began and the other ended. To do that, we had to establish a voice and maintain that singular voice—one authoritative voice. That is the key. Two people writing a single book who take turns doing scenes and chapters does not work for me. Lyn and I wrote from one voice, one narrative control voice, and we worked very closely by setting aside any ego from either of us. It was a joy and rare.

MJN: You've written a fair amount of crime fiction.  What kind of background knowledge should an author possess in order to write convincing crime thrillers? Is it necessary to have some foundation in law and forensics?

RW: I do a great great deal of research. When I first began writing crime novels, it was hard to find any books on forensics save textbooks used in classes, and many of these are fine and of course the illustrations are eye-popping. At that time, the 80s, only a few actual medical examiners had written up their cases for the general public, but whenever one came out, I grabbed it up and digested it. Any book on evidence gathering, I grabbed. Late 90s and after, more books directed at writers of crime fiction began showing up. So I did a lot of reading and research. I have no legal background, but I also learned that FBI agents are pushed to publish on cases, and some were writing whole books. I gathered in all this as well and just became a student of forensics and crime in general as well as FBI profiling.  

MJN: Some of your novels have rather exotic settings. Have you visited all places that you have written about?

RW: I have been to most every major city depicted in my novels, as I use cityscapes for Noir backdrops a great deal. I have been to Hawaii but not Cuba, and I have been to China but not India or London. When I wished to use settings that I have not traveled to, I do a heavy job of researching the exotic setting. I get many of my best ideas coming out of the process of researching and reading about such a place as Cuba (Cuba Blue) or India (The Serpentine Fire – Flesh Wars 1 and 2). And even when I have visited a place such as Hawaii (Primal Instinct) I load up on books and newspapers published locally to gather in the ‘local color’ so to speak. I did the same when visiting Yellowstone National Park (Extreme Instinct).

Robert W. Walker can be found on the web at Facebook, Twitter, and www.robertwalkerbooks.com. Rob has 61 books on Kindle shelves. His own blog is known as Dirty Deeds found here:  http://wwwrobertwwalkercom.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Saffron Crocus - an eye-opening YA novel by Alison McMahan - Murder, Mystery and Music in 17th century Venice

I am thrilled to introduce Alison McMahan, a novelist, biographer and playwright.  Her own biography is captivating. She grew up as an expatriate during the last years of Franco's Spain, an experience which has profoundly affected her writing. Her first plays were written for the convent school she attended in Tarragona (Catalonia) and produced by fellow students and nuns. Today she joins us to discuss her sensational YA novel The Saffron Crocus, a tale of murder, mystery and music in 19th century Venice.

MJN: Your latest release The Saffron Crocus won Rosemary contest and was runner-up in several other contests.  I know how challenging it can be to research those contests and coordinate the timeline around the editing and publication schedule.  How did you manage to pull it off? Usually there is a very narrow window of opportunity.

AM: Actually, I didn't coordinate the contests with my publication schedule. I'm a member of RWA, and I submitted the first three chapters to various RWA chapter contests. I would get feedback from the judges for each contest, rewrite, and submit again. I could tell my work was improving because I went from not placing, to placing, to winning these contests.
When the entire book was ready I submitted it for the Rosemary, the first year it was offered. It's a great contest, one of the few designed for books aimed at young adults. I judged for it this year and I was really, really impressed by the quality of the submissions.
I signed a publishing contract right before I found out I'd won the contest.

MJN: You spent your early years in Catalonia.  Tell us a bit about the Catalan identity, and how they differentiate themselves from the rest of Spaniards. 

AM: When I lived in Spain Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator that led the country for decades, was still in power. Catalan was a banned language and every effort was made to destroy the Catalan cultural identity. My Catalan friends spoke Catalan only at home, in whispers, in an effort to make sure their children would learn it. As a result I learned to understand Catalan but not to speak it.

My family left Spain right before Franco died but of course I've returned many times. With Franco gone Catalonia has taken its place as the financial powerhouse in Spain, the front-province in the country's relationship with the rest of the EU. In fact Barcelona sometimes feel more generically European than Spanish. But now Catalan is spoken everywhere, there is a Catalan TV station, movies and TV shows in Catalan, all the signs are in Catalan. The language and the culture has made a full comeback.

MJN: I wish more YA authors tried to incorporate valuable historical insights into their work.  Sadly, I see too many YA books in mass production that do nothing to enlighten or stimulate the young readers. How many lipstick-wearing vampires does the world need? I applaud you for writing something with an educational component.  There seems to be a pattern when it comes to YA historical novels featuring an adolescent heroine whose ambitions extend beyond the conventions of the era.  You want your book and your heroine to stand out. What makes Isabella unique?

AM: In 1630, when Isabella was five years old, Venice suffered an epidemic of the Pestilence, which we now call the Plague. Isabella lost both her parents in that epidemic, and almost lost the aunt that ended up raising her. Her aunt recovered from the plague but was a semi-invalid the rest of her life.

Many heroines (and heroes) start out as orphaned, as it is a way for the author to push their character out into the world and force them to take on challenges. But I deliberately chose to set my story in Venice in 1643 because I wanted Isabella to be part of a world in which everyone is recovering from a huge disaster. I lived in New York City for many years. I was out of the country during 9-11 but returned home immediately after and went through the recovery process with my friends and family. Some of that experience fed my writing of this book.

Isabella's entire world has been decimated by the plague. She is not the only one trying to make her way in a new world with new, amorphous rules. It is still hard for her to make her way. She does have a gift in her ability to sing, and she claims it.

MJN: I am fascinated by your experience as playwright.  I understand your plays have gotten staged readings in reputable venues.  What is the gap between a staged reading and an actual production?  Is it the blocking, costumes, having the actors off book?  

AM: A reading involves actors seated and reading their parts, with a narrator reading the action. The actors have usually rehearsed and deliver their roles with passion. For some of them, the reading might serve as an audition.

In a staged readings the actors don't learn their lines and there is a minimum of setting, but they will move around the stage, script in hand, so the writers and perhaps the director get an idea of the blocking. It helps the playwright visualize what the action will look like and it introduces audiences to the writer's work.

I started out as a playwright, wrote my first play at age 14, which was staged by my high school. I wrote plays into my twenties and a couple received staged readings at notable theaters like Playwright's Horizons in NY. But I quickly moved to screenplays and novels.

MJN: I imagine that your experience in performing arts provides you with meaty insight to make your protagonist Isabella believable. Obviously, you were born in a different era, and you aren't facing the same limitations as your heroine.  But I'm sure there are some emotional episodes from your own experience that you injected into her character.

AM: It is difficult for any artist to make it, that is, to make their living at it. In some ways it is harder today than it was in Isabella's time. Opera was just starting it's golden era then, and there was plenty of work for a good singer living in Venice. A soprano today has a much harder time.
It is easier for a girl to plan to have a career these days than it used to be, but there are still many stumbling blocks in the way for women artists. We have to be brave, be willing to make tremendous sacrifices, and persevere way beyond what most people have to do in their careers. It's easy to get discouraged. It's difficult to keep going. Luckily, we have the internet, and now that my novel is published I have the huge satisfaction of hearing from readers. I also really enjoy talking to kids at schools. Their reactions make me very motivated to finish the two companion books (a prequel and a sequel) for The Saffron Crocus.