Monday, April 7, 2014

In Which I Reveal My Project, Process and Aspirations

Today I am participating in the Monday Blog Tour about writers' projects and processes. Many thanks to poet and YA science fiction writer LJ Cohen for tagging me!

1. What am I currently working on?

At present, I am putting the finishing touches on agent-suggested revisions to my historical novel set at the opulent court of François I in the winter of 1539. As François's arch-enemy Charles V of Spain arrives for a crucial state visit, three women--a painter, the king's mistress, and an artist's model--become embroiled in a web of rivalries that threatens the very peace of France. Narrated from the alternating perspectives of painter, patron and painted, the novel plumbs the world of the court artist and exposes the forces that transform the worthiest of ambitions into the most vicious of rivalries.

2) How does my work differ from others in the genre?

With a Ph.D in sixteenth-century French, I hope to offer a depth of research and a sensibility that will bring the early modern world fully alive. I present a broader, continental perspective on the ever-popular Tudor era by focusing on the court of François I, Henry VIII's personal and political rival, a man as equally fascinating and ambitious as the English king. François dreamt of transforming France into a New Rome of art and culture, and my novel centers on his efforts to build at Fontainebleau a palace to rival the glories of Italy. My work will appeal to readers with a penchant for France as well as readers of Tudor fiction who are looking for something different.

3) Why do I write what I do?

A life-long lover of France and French culture, I want to share the fascinating things I've learned in the course of my academic studies with a general audience. As a reader, I am always eager to find historical fiction set in early modern France, and am usually disappointed in my search--this rich period has hardly been plumbed! As a writer, therefore, I am following the advice writers so often hear--to write the books I myself would love to read. (Of course, I hope others will love to read them, too!)

4) How does my writing process work?

I've written two complete manuscripts, and the approach was slightly different for each. In my first manuscript, every character, with one exception, was a fictional creation. Wanting to explore the challenges that faced a woman with literary aspirations in the sixteenth century, but having no interest in writing a fictionalized biography, I took a historical situation and setting and, using the poet Louise Labé as a model, created my own cast of characters and plot. (Note--Not the best of strategies in a historical fiction market that thrives on books about "marquee" figures.) With my current manuscript, I changed tactics--nearly every character is historical, as well as the dramatic events I recount. I was lucky to discover during my research a happy coincidence of character, situation, and conflict that provided the framework of a plot whose gaps and motivations were just begging for elaboration.

As for my day-to-day writing process, it's pretty consistent and definitely far from glamorous. Once I drop my son off at school each morning, I sit in front of my computer writing and revising until it's time to pick him up in the afternoon. I work again in the evening after he's in bed. I write linearly, working from a loose outline, and am a slow, perfect-it-as I go kind of writer. No pantsing or go-with-the-flow first drafts for me! My outlines are fluid, however, as I often discover new ideas and possibilities as the story progresses and the characters develop. I am lucky to have the support of several dedicated writer friends, with whom I often check in during the day via email or Facebook as we work towards our separate goals. They help keep me on track, as does my husband, who has read every word in every draft of both novels and provides invaluable input on what does and does not work. I am sure he's as eager as I am to begin the submission process!

5) Nominate two authors to continue the Blog Tour.

I nominate Arabella Stokes, writer of sassy romance fiction with a Southern flair, and Laura Bradbury, a fellow francophile who has written a memoir about leaving a prestigious legal career to renovate a decrepit, revolutionary-era ruin in Burgundy. Their installments will appear on their blogs on Monday, April 14. You can read LJ Cohen's tour contribution here. Thanks again for the opportunity to participate and share a glimpse of my writerly world.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Review of THE PROMISE by Ann Weisgarber

Ann Weisgarber's THE PROMISE (Skyhorse Publishing, April 2014) is the story of two women's love for the same man, set against the backdrop of the devastating Galveston hurricane of 1900. Yet this wise and beautifully executed book is so much more than this description might suggest. With great insight and deep compassion, THE PROMISE explores the redemptive power of forgiveness--forgiveness of self, of others, and of fate. This spare, moving narrative resonates long after the treacherous storm winds it depicts die down.

Oscar Williams, a former coal delivery boy from Dayton, Ohio, has built a thriving dairy business on the gulf-exposed island of Galveston, Texas. Hardworking, generous, and self-effacing, Oscar has lost his young wife Bernadette to malaria and faces the prospect of raising his four-year-old son Andre on his own. Catherine Wainwright, Oscar's former classmate and unattainable first love who went on to become an accomplished pianist, revives the lapsed correspondence the two had once shared. Finding herself shunned by polite society for an extramarital affair with her cousin's husband and desperate to escape her difficulties, Catherine seeks out Oscar, hoping he will propose marriage. Without divulging her shame, she accepts his offer and abandons her cultured city life for a rough and arduous existence on the flat, sea-swept Texas island. Not only must she survive suffocating heat, snake-infested outhouses, the mistrust of a grieving child and her own guilty conscience, she must endure the disapproving animosity of Nan Ogden, the plain-spoken and devoted friend of Oscar's late wife, who has become his housekeeper and Andre's surrogate mother.

The two women could not be more different, and tale is narrated from their alternating viewpoints. Pride blinds each of them as they try to make sense of the other and of their feelings for Oscar. Although Nan won't admit it, she is more than a little in love with Oscar and jealous of the beautiful, incompetent woman he has chosen over her. Catherine, wounded from her failed affair, fights her growing attraction to Oscar and resists the refuge his kind gentleness and accepting reticence offer. As time goes on and Catherine begins to warm to Oscar's devotion, the situation becomes more than Nan can bear. But before she can make good on her decision to leave, a devastating hurricane hits the island, with tragic consequences. Tried by fear and danger, the women dig deep into themselves to protect Andre's fragile security and very life.

It is impossible not to view Oscar as a Christ-like figure, in love with Catherine despite her faults, eager to forget despite her unwillingness to seek forgiveness, patient, hopeful, kind and passionate. Recurrent appearances of pelicans, birds native to coastal waters but also traditional symbols of both Christian charity and the Redeemer himself, support this reading. Oscar admits a fascination with the birds, who manifest themselves at important moments in the book. His influence, compounded by the goodness and generosity of the simple island people she originally scorns, lead Catherine to a clarity about herself and her actions, revealing truths that she has long ignored. The question of whether Catherine has time to act upon this knowledge, however, keeps the reader turning pages as the storm bears down upon the island and threatens to snatch away the promise of a happiness that she does not deserve.

Ann Weisgarber is a masterful writer who plumbs the truths of the human condition while enthralling readers with tension-filled tales of characters caught in circumstances beyond their control. Her books offer a hope-filled vision of humanity that is missing from so many modern works. I was fortunate to read THE PROMISE last year when it appeared in a British edition and named it one of my "Best Reads of 2013." I appreciated it even more now upon a second read, and am thrilled that American readers now have the opportunity to enjoy it. I loved Weisgarber's first novel, THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF RACHEL DUPREE (Viking 2010), longlisted for the Orange Prize, but THE PROMISE simply blew me away. If you read one book this year, make it this one.

Ann Weisgarber is the author of THE PROMISE and THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF RACHEL DUPREE. She was nominated for England's 2009 Orange Prize and for the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. In the United States, she won the Stephen Turner Award for New Fiction and the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction. She was shortlisted for the Ohioana Book Award and was a Barnes and NobleDiscover New Writer.

THE PROMISE was inspired by a dilapidated house and by an interview Ann conducted when she was writing articles for a Galveston magazine. She wrote much of the novel in Galveston where pelicans glide along the surf and cows graze in pastures. Her debut novel, THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF RACHEL DUPREE, was inspired by a photograph of an unknown woman sitting in front of a sod dugout. It was published in England and France before being published in the United States.

Ann, who splits her time between Galveston and Sugar Land, Texas, is currently working on her next novel that takes place in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, during the winter of 1888.

You can learn more about Ann at her website, which includes many historical photographs of Galveston the hurricane's aftermath.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Rocket Cats

The curious case of the "rocket cats"-- drawings of cats and birds with what look like jet packs strapped to their backs, recently discovered in a digitized sixteenth-century manuscript -- is perhaps not so curious. According to Mitch Fraas, a scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, the "jet packs" were actually sacks of flammable material intended to turn the animals into incendiary devices. Released into a besieged city, the animals would wreak havoc by spreading the flames. Fraas claims the idea circulated widely in military manuals of the time and illustrations of these attack animals appear in numerous sixteenth and seventeenth-century manuscripts. More here.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

MFA vs NYC: Fiction at a Crossroads

This essay by Chad Harbach on the MFA and NYC publishing cultures and their futures is well worth the read. Lots of valuable insights for authors of mainstream/upmarket fiction, too!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

La Belle Cordière in Glass

Imagine my delight when I stumbled upon this beautiful stained glass portrait of Louise Labé, the Lyonnaise poet whose Oeuvres appeared in 1555! The panel was created by Lucien Bégule, a nineteenth century painter of stained glass who became one of Lyon's premier artists. Bégule specialized in both profane and religious windows; his glassworks on the heights of Saint-Just overlooking the city produced vitraux that decorate churches throughout France and appear in distant locations like Lausanne, Nagasaki, Cairo, and Rio de Janeiro.

Bégule's portrait of La Belle Cordière captures the Louise of Pierre Woeiriot's contemporary 1555 engraving.

The panel's design was inspired by Le Printemps, a window created in 1894 by Art nouveau designer Eugène Grasset.

Bégule met Grasset in Paris in 1885 and introduced him to the art of stained glass. The two men became close collaborators. Their representation of St. George killing the dragon won a silver medal at the 1889 Exposition universelle in Paris. The stunning Labé window, a beautiful tribute to one of Lyon's most well-known literary figures, won a gold medal at the 1900 Exposition universelle.

Bégule's window is on display in the Musée Gadagne, the history museum housed in a Renaissance edifice in the heart of Old Lyon. You can view more of Bégule's beautiful creations at this website devoted to his work.

I'm so entranced with the Belle Cordière window I've plastered it on my desktop! I wrote about Louise, the inspiration behind my first novel, here. I'm happy to have such a lovely representation of my literary heroine close at hand to inspire me.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fontainebleau Eager to Attract Film Shoots

Did you know the films "Cyrano de Bergerac" (1990),

"The Man in the Iron Mask" (1998)

and "Vatel" (2000)

were all filmed at the château de Fontainebleau? The palace also served as the setting for the music videos "Love of My Life" by Anna Calvi and "Born to Die" by Lana Del Rey. Variety magazine interviews the president of the château de Fontainebleau, Jean-François Hébert, who is eager to attract additional projects to the palace.

Should I tell him I have just the story? ;)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Winner of GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN Giveaway

The winner of Marci Jefferson's GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN plus a pair of pearl drop earrings is


Congratulations! I will be contacting you to get your mailing address to forward to Marci.

Thank you to all who entered. And many, many congratulations to Marci on the publication of her first novel!

GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN is now available in bookstores and online in all the usual locations.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Sixteenth-Century Cough Remedies

Wondering how sixteenth-century people treated various types of coughs? Catherine Rider at The Recipes Project shares the remedies she discovered in a manuscript from 1529.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Interview with Author Marci Jefferson; Giveaway of GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN

Marci Jefferson's debut novel, GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN, publishes from St. Martin's Press next Tuesday, February 11. Yesterday I reviewed this accomplished and engaging novel. Today Marci shares with us some thoughts about Frances Stuart and the writing of the book.

1. How did your understanding of Frances Stuart change from the day you first learned about her to the day you finished revising the book?

At first I saw her as many historians saw her, as a simple girl who eloped to avoid sleeping with King Charles II. When I read her letters and read what the French ambassadors and poets and diarists thought of her, I realized she was a very complex person. As I studied the historical events and the kings she interacted with, I realized how close she was and how involved she might have been. By the time I finished the book and realized the sacrifice she made might have saved England from disaster, I had developed a deep respect for Frances Stuart.

2. How did the general public of the time view Frances Stuart and her relationship with King Charles?

Letters between ladies in waiting indicate that, at first, Frances Stuart was celebrated as a fresh-from-France beauty, with the best clothes and jewels, the petted sister-figure of Charles II. As time went on, John Evelyn complained in his private diaries of the king's lewd behavior with mistresses. Ambassadors respected her as a woman with insider-knowledge of the king's business. Another famous diarist, Samuel Pepys, wavered between utter fascination with Frances Stuart's beauty and contempt for her position as the king's mistress. Poets and playwrights praised her beauty, not only because of her good-looks, but because the English respected her elevated rank as Duchess of Richmond.

3. Have you seen an actual golden coin bearing Frances's image as Britannia? Was this what sparked your interest in her?

Never in person, but the British Museum does have one of the Gold Medals struck with her image to commemorate the Peace of Breda. You can find it in their on-line database. This same image was used years later to mint England's copper coinage. I actually own a 1675 copper farthing.

The fact that she modeled as Britannia definitely sparked my interest in her. But it is because her choices matched the spirit of the Restoration Age that wrote her novel. She stood up for her beliefs and strove for independence, just as England was trying to do during the seventeenth century.

4. A stunning portrait of Frances Stuart graces the cover of the novel. Can you tell us about it? Did you request this image be used?

Thank you! That portrait of Frances Stuart was painted by Sir Peter Lely and is part of the “Windsor Beauties” in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court Palace. I actually did suggest the use of this portrait for the cover… along with about ten other suggestions! But I was delighted to see it used. Some historical fiction fans complain when the face of a portrait is "cut off" on book covers. But in this case I wasn't upset by it. Lely portraits were known at the time for their elegance, but also for bearing a poor likeness of the subject. So, while this is the most famous painting of Frances Stuart, it doesn't look much like her.

5. Jacob Huysmans painted a portrait of Frances Stuart wearing a "buff doublet like a soldier" (as Samuel Pepys described it), and in the novel there is a scene where Frances wears breeches. Was it a common practice at the Stuart court for women to sport men's clothing?

Not until Frances started the trend! When she arrived in England, it was not common practice for any women to sport men's clothing. But King Charles had just decreed that females could act in public theaters, and playwrights had discovered that the most popular plays were ones in which the actresses dressed up as men. Frances Stuart's first portrait in male dress was completed around 1661, so she was likely the first woman to dress this way at court. I imagine it was a court game at first, similar to the mock wedding scene between she and Lady Castlemaine in the novel. After a few years, it did become more common. Court women even wore male riding jackets and periwigs in public, which shocked the people. Still later, Nell Gwynn became well known for her rolls in male clothing.

As a side note, for her portraits in male attire, Frances wore a masculine-style blonde periwig. I think it is because of these portraits that so many people think Frances Stuart was a blond in real life. But her other portraits and her effigy at Westminster suggest she was brunette.

6. How did King Charles die? What do you imagine Frances felt upon learning of his death?

King Charles likely had a stroke, but there is a theory that his scientific experiments with mercury might have triggered it. When he died, Frances and he were on very friendly terms – but that was all. Their romantic relationship had ended, and Frances was preoccupied with her duties as a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Catherine and helping with her sister’s children. I imagine King Charles’ death pained her deeply, for she was ill for some time after she received the news.

What is remarkable about his death is that he died a king. His father was executed. His brother would be forced to abdicate. But King Charles II, the underestimated “Merry Monarch,” was one Stuart who knew how to keep a crown.

7. If you had to write an entire novel about one of the novel's secondary characters, which character would you choose and why?

Prudence Pope is an entirely fictional character in the novel, and possibly my favorite. As a lady’s maid and a Quaker, she exists in a more subservient role and is more of an outcast than any other character. Yet, she defies Frances and the Royalist status of the house she serves to embrace freedom in a way Frances could not. When Prudence moves to the Americas, she starts a new life in a land that would give people like her unprecedented freedoms. Sounds like a grand adventure to me!

8. What was the most difficult scene to write?

All of the love scenes were difficult to write! They seemed technical and outrageous at the same time. But because there are differing opinions among historians about whether Frances really did-or-did-not sleep with the king, the physical progression of their relationship actually became important to my plot and her life as I imagined it.

9. Please share an interesting piece of research that didn't make it into the book.

I kept trying to work one of the London Frost Fairs into the story, but it just never seemed to fit. The Thames did freeze during her lifetime, and exciting winter fairs were held on its frozen surface. Frances certainly would’ve enjoyed them.

10. Could you discuss the bird imagery in the book?

Every bird reference in the novel was intentional. Personal liberty is a major theme for Frances Stuart and for Restoration England, and Frances did own an African Gray Parrot, so the use of birds to symbolize the progression of her independence came naturally. Although I planned the final scene for years, where Frances opens a letter from Prudence, the bald-eagle feather didn’t materialize in my imagination until the moment I finally wrote it. It just fell out of the letter, and I felt the whole theme come full-circle.

11. What do you hope readers come away with after reading GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN?

I hope readers will find much to love about Stuart England, that they will recognize its important contribution to modern democracy, and that they remember Frances Stuart as the embodiment of her age.

To celebrate the publication of GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN, St. Martin's Press has generously offered to send one reader, chosen at random, a complimentary copy of the hardback. Marci herself will add a pair of sterling silver and pearl drop earrings, like the ones Frances wears on the cover, to the package. To enter the drawing, please leave a comment with your email address on this post before 11 pm PST on Wednesday, February 12, 2014. Winner must be a US resident. Winner's name will be posted Thursday morning, February 13, 2014.

Good luck, and please help spread the word about GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Review: GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN by Marci Jefferson

Experience might teach readers not to judge books by their covers, but in the case of Marci Jefferson's debut novel, GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN (St. Martin's Press, February 11), readers have no need for caution. The gorgeous cover, which reproduces a contemporary portrait of the novel's protagonist, Frances Stuart, bespeaks with fitting perfection the sumptuous tale within.

The novel recounts the story of Stuart (1647-1702), mistress to King Charles II of England and model for Britannia, the personification of the realm that graced England's coins for decades. Despite her prominence during Charles's reign, Frances is a figure heretofore little examined in historical fiction. Jefferson depicts "La Belle Stuart" during the prime of her life, from her coming of age as a Royalist refugee at the French court of Louis XIV to her sudden widowhood at age forty. She surrounds Frances with a cast of convincing historical characters and sketches with clarity a political situation hazy, at best, to most American readers. Yet Jefferson's novel is more than a fictionalized biography set against a carefully constructed evocation of Restoration England. Like the best works of historical fiction, the novel projects the protagonist's inner life onto the broader political stage. Frances's struggle for autonomy mirrors that of England, determined to escape foreign entanglements and avoid an undesired imposition of the Catholic faith. The turmoil and soul-searching that accompanies Frances's attempt to reconcile her personal happiness with the good of the kingdom makes her plight a fascinating one.

Jefferson gives this "mistress of the king" story several interesting twists. First, Frances does not choose the role; it is thrust upon her by Louis XIV, who intends to use her as a way to keep Charles friendly to France, and by Charles's mother, who believes Frances can persuade her son to restore Catholicism to England. Frances, however, cannot comply with these demands: a secret that threatens to ruin her family necessitates that she remain free from scandal. She travels to England determined to befriend and influence Charles without becoming his mistress, a goal she soon discovers will satisfy neither Charles nor her own heart. Jefferson further complicates Frances's mission by establishing a friendship between her and Charles's Portuguese bride, Catherine of Brançaga, who arrives without a word of English and innocent of the ways of Charles's licentious court. Frances takes Catherine under her wing and develops a true respect and fondness for the foreign queen, making her decision on how far to pursue a relationship with Charles all the thornier. Third, Charles, an inveterate womanizer, considers Frances his pure and noble angel. Frances fears that if they consummate their relationship, Charles will lose the one thing that challenges him to be a better man. Frances knows her personal happiness lies in Charles's arms, but loyalties, politics, and the needs and expectations of others thwart her at every turn. Despite painful sacrifices, she never abandons the struggle to conform the desires of her heart with the realities of her situation.

Ultimately it is freedom, rather than love, that Jefferson's Frances -- reluctantly worldly, refreshingly loyal, spunky yet surprisingly wise -- seeks, the freedom to determine her own fate. A freedom for which England, of whom she serves as emblem, likewise searches. The Frances who withstands the pressure to conform in the final scene of the book is a far cry from the young girl forced to assume a role from which she shrinks in the opening chapters, and the reader who accompanies her on her journey to independence understands and appreciates the depth of the change.

Just as her protagonist escapes limits imposed from without, Marci Jefferson succeeds in slipping the restricted expectations that so often shackle debut novelists. If this first book, with its thoughtful characterizations, vivid settings, well-paced plot and subtle symbolism is any indication, Jefferson stands poised to become a definitive voice in the world of historical fiction. Accomplished and thoroughly satisfying, GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN glows with a luster that persists long after its striking cover falls closed.

MARCI JEFFERSON grew up in an Air Force family and so lived numerous places, including North Carolina, Georgia, and the Philippines. Her passion for history sparked while living in Yorktown, Virginia, where locals still share Revolutionary War tales. She lives in Indiana with her husband and children. This is her first novel.

Return tomorrow to read my interview with Marci and enter to win a complimentary copy of GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN, along with a special gift!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

Mars and Venus (1530), pen and ink
The work that secured Rosso an invitation to the court of France.

"Nor could he in this life have obtained greater dignity, honor, or rank, since he was highly regarded and esteemed above everyone else in his craft by such a great monarch as the king of France. And in truth, the merits of Rosso were such that if Fortune had brought him any less, she would have done him a grave wrong."

---Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Italian painter, writer and historian
Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Best Reads of 2013

I was lucky to read many excellent books last year, but these are the ones that stood out from the pack. Some are recently published; others are older books I'd never gotten around to reading. They are listed here in no particular order. The full list of books I read in 2013 may be found in the sidebar.

FEVER by Mary Beth Keane (Scribner, 2013)

FEVER tells the story of Irish immigrant Mary Mallon, popularly known as "Typhoid Mary." Proud and determined to live an independent life, Mary claws her way out of the slums to become cook to some of New York City's most prominent families. Yet, as an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, she leaves a trail of death in her wake and winds up imprisoned and forbidden to ever cook again for public consumption. Despite her willful disregard of the terms of her release, Mary remains a sympathetic character caught in the cogs of a nascent public health machine. The author evokes turn-of-the-century New York City in the fullness of its splendor and its grime.

THE PROMISE by Ann Weisgarber (Mantle, 2013; forthcoming from Skyhorse, April 2014)

A touching, wise and beautifully executed book. There is so much below the surface of this story of two women's love for the same man, set against the devastating Galveston hurricane of 1900. THE PROMISE is about forgiveness--of self, of others, of fate--and its redemptive power. Weisgarber is a masterful writer who plumbs the truths of the human condition while enthralling readers with a tension-filled tale of characters caught in circumstances beyond their control. Her books offer a hope-filled vision of humanity that is missing from so many modern works. I loved THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF RACHEL DUPREE, but THE PROMISE simply blew me away. If you read one book this year, make it this one.

THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY by Denise Kiernan (Touchstone, 2013)

I don't read much nonfiction, and this book made me realize what I might be missing. GIRLS tells the hidden story of the women--from secretaries to janitors to scientists--who contributed to the development of the atomic bomb at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during the Second World War. Kiernan constructs a fascinating account of this secret city whose every inhabitant devoted herself to the furtherance of a mysterious project they were told would lead to the end of the war. No one knew anything beyond the scope of her specific duties and learned not to inquire into those of friends and neighbors, yet each worked with dedication and patriotic fervor, determined to bring brothers and husbands home from battle. A riveting read, one that sheds light on the nature of the time and raises interesting questions about whether secrecy on such a large scale would even be possible today.

THE PAINTED GIRLS by Cathy Marie Buchanan (Riverhead, 2013)

This novel deserves the hype it has received ever since its publication. It follows the plight of three impoverished sisters as they struggle to survive in the underbelly of nineteenth century Paris. One sister, who dances in the ballet and poses for Edgar Dégas, submits to a rich patron's exploitation in order to give the youngest a chance for a better life; the other, who takes a bit part in a stage production, becomes embroiled in the crime-ridden underworld. With subtle efficacy, the novel explores the sociological issue of whether nature, nurture or circumstance nudges individuals towards delinquency. A convincing evocation of the seamier corners of nineteenth century Paris combined with an emotionally satisfying twist at the end makes this novel a compelling read.

CUTTING FOR STONE by Abraham Verghese (Knopf, 2009)

Moving from India to Ethiopia to New York City, CUTTING FOR STONE tells the haunting story of twin brothers Marion and Shiva, born of the secret union of an Indian nun and a British surgeon at a mission hospital. Set against a backdrop of political turmoil, the narrative weaves a beautiful tapestry of family ties, trust, betrayal, life, death, and miracles both great and small. The author, a surgeon himself, incorporates medical detail into the fabric of the story and explores with insight and compassion the daily challenges of serving the sick in impoverished, strife-ridden areas. But it is the symbiotic, emotionally powerful relationship of the brothers that keeps the reader turning the pages.

THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE by Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2008)

An elaborate, artful, and continually surprising exploration of the power of story. West meets East as a conjurer from Renaissance Florence travels to the Mughal court of India to share the tale of the mysterious and breathtakingly beautiful princess Qara Köz. The reader often loses track of the convoluted and fantastical plot, but even so is sucked into the tale by Rushie, the true enchanter. A book that would sustain multiple readings and delight anew each time. The hero reminded me strongly of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond. A dazzling feast of words.

THE CLEANER OF CHARTRES by Salley Vickers (Viking, 2013)

The sensitive story of Agnès Morel, a woman with a troubled past who attracts the scrutiny and enmity of the town gossip. The quirky style will either please or annoy, but the finely drawn, believable characters and a plot that expertly weaves past with present and leads to a celebration of human goodness make this a richly rewarding tale. The cathedral of Chartres provides a fitting setting for Agnès's rehabilitation and redemption, and the author's shrewd understanding of the dynamics of provincial town society keep sentimentality at bay.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

Portrait of Anne d'Heilly, Duchesse d'Étampes,
by Corneille de Lyon. Mid-sixteenth century.
"[Madame d'Étampes] a tant de crédit que je puis dire, qu'elle seule peult tout en ce royaume et n'y a personne du conseil, du moins s'il veut régner, qui ose parler au Roy de chose petite ou grande, s'il ne scet premièrement que Madame le trouvera bon."

"[Madame d'Étampes] has such credit that I can say that she alone can do anything in this kingdom and there is no one in the council, at least among those who wish for power, who dares speak to the king on the slightest matter unless he first knows whether Madame approves."

Imperial ambassador M. de Saint-Vincent to Mary of Hungary
Letter, May 1541
[translated by David Potter]

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Review: BECOMING JOSEPHINE by Heather Webb

Today Heather Webb's debut novel, BECOMING JOSEPHINE, publishes from Plume. Here is my review of this fascinating fictional portrait.


Desperate for love and adventure, young Rose Tascher visits a voodoo priestess to learn her fortune. "You will become more than a queen," the priestess informs the plantation owner's daughter, who has braved the dangers of the Martiniquan jungle at dusk to learn her fate. More than a queen, indeed--Rose will rise to become France's first empress, Joséphine, wife of Napoléon Bonaparte. But--as the reader of Heather Webb's engaging debut novel BECOMING JOSEPHINE (Plume, December 2013) learns--empress is not Rose's highest calling. That is to become a woman who creates her own destiny and happiness, who embraces the "joys, pains, deeds and failings" that define her journey to wholeness.

Webb's novel deploys the favored topos of women's fiction--a female protagonist who embarks on a journey of self-discovery and ultimately saves herself (see Amy Sue Nathan's Women's Fiction Defined)--within a historical setting. She recounts thirty years of Rose's life, from her days as a child on Martinique, to her failed marriage to a French aristocrat, her imprisonment during the French Revolution, her struggle to redefine herself and survive the fluid years of the early Republic, through her marriage to and divorce from Napoléon. The events serve to illustrate how Rose grows and changes, how her outlook on life and her vision for the future expands. For Rose does, indeed, change, maturing from a flighty, pleasure-loving ingénue to a generous, devoted mother of both her children and her country, a woman who realizes both her past failings and her own inner strength. The transformation is all the more convincing in that it doesn't occur in a linear, absolute fashion, but in often contradictory, yet completely realistic, fits and starts. It takes the catalyst of divorce for Rose's enlightenment to complete itself, opening the promise of a fulfilling future in which she will define herself in relation to nothing and no one but her own soul.

Webb's Joséphine never forgets her Creole roots. From the opening prophecy of the voodoo priestess, to her lifelong belief in Tarot and fortune-telling, to the sacrifices and supplications she makes to the island fertility goddess, the practices and beliefs of island religion offer Rose a steadying refuge when catastrophic events threaten to overwhelm her. Her beloved servant and half-sister Mimi, daughter of her father and a plantation slave, remains her constant companion, a living link between her formal Parisian present and her vibrant island past. Rose never forgets the scents and sights of her island home; part of the fabric of her being, her Caribbean roots influence everything from her taste in clothing to her love of gardening to her generosity and warm hospitality. Her effusive nature serves to soften Napoléon's abrasiveness and elevates her as an influential stateswoman in her own right--even as her zest for the pleasures of life contributes to her downfall. Webb's emphasis on Joséphine's "otherness" provides the character an intriguing multifacetedness that enchants the reader as thoroughly as it did Napoléon and an entire nation.

Webb writes with a smooth, accessible style that serves its subject well. She provides just enough historical detail to bring the sights and smells and events of a dizzying era to life. She handles the political changes with aplomb, never losing the reader as France travels from kingdom to republic to directorship to empire. More importantly, she never shifts her focus from Rose's inner journey. Just as Rose becomes "more than a queen," BECOMING JOSEPHINE becomes more than a typical historical novel. It sketches a compelling portrait of generous, engaged, resilient woman who "toils for what [is] right and striv[es] to do her part." The historical finds a felicitous blend with the psychological in Heather Webb's triumphant debut.

You can order BECOMING JOSEPHINE from Amazon or find it at your local bookseller. Learn more about Heather Webb and her book at her website.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Interview with Heather Webb, author of BECOMING JOSEPHINE

My dear friend Heather Webb's debut novel, BECOMING JOSEPHINE (Plume 2013), publishes this December 31. BECOMING JOSEPHINE recounts the story of Rose Tascher, who overcomes an impoverished Créole childhood and a series of misfortunes to become Empress Josephine, consort of Napoleon and, for a time, the most powerful woman in France. BECOMING JOSEPHINE has received a glowing review from Kirkus. I'll post my own review on publication day. Here, Heather answers some questions about her interest in Josephine and the writing of the novel.

1. What drew you to write a novel about Josephine Bonaparte?

The idea for this novel came to me in two parts. I taught a unit about the French Revolution in my high school French classes for several years, which sparked my interest in the time period. Yet despite my teaching, I knew little about Josephine and I “discovered” her later. Ultimately she was a minor player in a sea of France’s most famous and infamous people during the Revolution—at least until Robespierre fell and the Directoire took over the government.

When I began to feel the pull to writing a book, I had a dream about Josephine. Strange, but true. From the very first biography I read, I was hooked. Her vivid childhood home, her adaptable nature and courageous spirit had me enthralled. Her rich life story set to the backdrop of the chaotic Revolution and the opulent Napoleonic Empire cinched the deal.

2. How is your Josephine different from other novelists' Josephines?

What a good question! I've enjoyed all the accounts of Josephine that I've read, but the Josephine who spoke to me most was the survivor, the adaptable, cunning woman who was excellent at reading the emotions and the needs of those around her. I wanted to emphasize how she wasn't just a victim of her time, but a woman who knew how to leverage the crisis of the day to her advantage. Also, I've found other authors have depicted her generous nature and the way Napoleon took advantage of her, OR her highly sexualized nature, and rarely did the authors marry all the facets of her person. I attempted to do that--to layer my Josephine. I believe we're all contradictory in some aspects and I wanted to illustrate that in my characters.

3. Did the real Josephine dabble in Tarot and the dark arts of her native Martinique?

Yes. There are many sources that document her fondness for Tarot cards, how she relied on them heavily (especially during times of strife), but also that she visited soothsayers in Paris as well as her African medicine woman, the quimboiseur in Martinique. I also found a few accounts of Napoleon being very superstitious and a bit of an amateur palm reader himself.

4. Which period of Josephine's life did you find the most difficult to write about?

Her time with Napoleon! I had to condense so much of their history together to keep the book moving.  Also, I didn't want to overwhelm the story with ANOTHER tour out of the country, another parade through France, or the endless number of lovers Napoleon took on. It would have become trite, in my opinion, to go overboard detailing those events. I also found this period difficult because there are hundreds and hundreds of sources documenting every single step of Napoleon's life and very many that did the same for Josephine. I had to cut through all of the detail and decide which of those were the most important facts to bring to life.

5. In your opinion, would Napoleon's career have been very different if he had not met and married Josephine?

Absolutely. While he was a brilliant military strategist, he had a hideous temper and lacked social grace. Also, as his power grew, so did his ego, consequently making him difficult to deal with on any level. Very many statesmen despised him. He turned into quite the tyrant over time, like any power-hungry politician. Josephine smoothed over so many of his tantrums, charmed his ministers and foreign diplomats, as well as placated the returning Royalists after he came into power.

6. Are the letters you feature from Napoleon and Josephine to each other actual letters? What did reading the pair's historical correspondence reveal to you about their characters? 

Yes, they are--all but the final farewell note to Josephine. It was fascinating to see how Napoleon's feelings toward Josephine changed over the course of their relationship. He all but worshiped her when they first married and by the end of their relationship, he loved her as a dear friend. But he also chastised her when she would tell him she missed him during his travels, or when she wept over losing friends or family members. He also chastised her immodest dress, as he called it. You could see how controlling and chauvinist he really was. To Josephine's credit, she ignored him when she wished. For example, he forbid her from wearing English muslin gowns and both Josephine and her daughter Hortense wore them anyway. He wanted to cover her low necklines so she draped a shawl about her shoulders to appease him, but refused to cover her necklines. So yes, he was domineering, but she was cunning and knew how to appease him and still get her way.

7. If you could own one item once owned by Josephine, what would it be and why? 

Oooo, a fun question. I think I'd have to say Malmaison--the home she built outside of Paris. But if I had to choose a smaller, physical item, I'd LOVE to own her Tarot deck.

8. What do you hope readers take away from your book?

The message I would like readers to grasp—this is tricky because a book, film, or piece of art, means something different to each person based on their own emotional lens and life experiences—is that there is hope in beginning anew, not just loss. Also, true contentedness comes with forgiveness and generosity, and the loving relationships you nurture in your life.

9. What is the most important thing you learned about yourself in writing this novel?

That I can do it! I can follow my passion, work hard, persevere (!!), and that dream is possible!


Heather Webb grew up a military brat and naturally became obsessed with travel, culture, and languages. She put her degrees to good use teaching high school French for nearly a decade before turning to full time novel writing and freelance editing. Her debut, BECOMING JOSEPHINE will release December 31, 2013 from Plume/Penguin.

When not writing, Heather flexes her foodie skills or looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world. She loves to chitchat on Twitter with new reader friends or writers (@msheatherwebb) or via her blog. Stop on by!