I am so excited to welcome for today’s Creativity Friday debut author Jennifer Laam whose novel THE SECRET DAUGHTER OF THE TSAR (St. Martin’s Griffin) has just been published. In it, Jennifer seamlessly braids together the stories of three women: Veronica, Lena, and Charlotte, and imagines an alternate history for the Romanov family—one in which a secret fifth daughter, smuggled out of Russia before the revolution, continues the royal lineage to dramatic and unexpected consequences. Pam Jenoff, international bestselling author of The Ambassador’s Daughter, writes that “Laam has not only created a captivating tale, but has woven a delicate and resonant fabric from the timeless threads of love and loyalty, betrayal and redemption.”
Jennifer earned her master’s degree in history from Oakland University in Michigan. She has traveled in Russia and Europe, worked in education and non-profit development, and currently resides and writes in Northern California. She also has an active social media presence: you can find Jennifer on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and Pinterest.
In our interview, Jennifer and I discuss writing process, her fascination with the last Romanovs, and her upcoming novel about Catherine the Great’s “boy toy” Potemkin. But wait, that’s not all: Jennifer is generously giving away one autographed copy of THE SECRET DAUGHT OF THE TSAR. Information on how to win is at the end of this post.
Kris Waldherr: What was your initial inspiration for THE SECRET DAUGHTER OF THE TSAR? Can you describe the moment that made you say, “I must write this”?
Jennifer Laam: This is my second book. Around the time I realized my first book wasn’t coming together as I’d hoped, I developed a keen interest in the last Romanovs. DNA evidence showed that the most famous “Anastasia,” Anna Anderson, was an imposter. However, in James Lovell’s book on Anastasia, there was a story about another possible missing Romanov. I don’t want to give away too much for fear of spoilers, but this story provided the first spark of inspiration. As I began to play around with ideas and multiple time lines, I knew I had found my next project.
KW: THE SECRET DAUGHTER OF THE TSAR ambitiously presents three stories from three eras — Veronica Herrera, an aspiring historian living in present-day Los Angeles; Lena, a servant in the late imperial Russian court; and Charlotte Marchand, a former ballerina living in occupied Paris during WWII. In some ways the structure of your novel reminds me of Kate Forsyth’s BITTER GREENS, a historical fiction reimagining of Rapunzel that also juggled three plotlines. What were the challenges of writing three storylines? Advantages?
JL: The biggest challenge was to keep the three timelines in synch with each other. In each story, I wanted to make subtle references to the other plot lines so the reader would trust that everything would connect together in the end. At one point, I created a huge, multi-colored timeline to make sure everything stayed consistent in the world of the novel. It was a challenge, but also fun. Working with multiple plot lines also appealed to my impulse to multi-task. If I felt blocked in one plotline or frustrated with a character, I could always work on another plot and deal with a different character.
KW: Historical novelists are known for their obsession with research. What was your research process like? Was there anything you uncovered that surprised you or make you rethink aspects of THE SECRET DAUGHTER OF THE TSAR?
JL: Honestly, my research process was messy. Eventually I created an outline for this novel, but in early drafts I tend to fly by the seat of my pants. As a result, my research isn’t necessarily methodical. I read tons of books and made notes, but I could have done a much better job of organizing those notes. My process is more streamlined now.
One of the things that surprised me as I researched: my choice of nursery colors was possibly anachronistic. I ran across an article that suggested pink was more associated with boys than girls around the turn of the twentieth century. I fretted over this for a while, and then decided to stick with blue for boys. I felt I couldn’t introduce the information smoothly and it would feel too jarring for a modern reader. This was an interesting moment because it put historical research and literary needs at odds with one another.
KW: On your website, you describe your childhood obsession with recreating the recipes and toys and clothes from Little House on the Prairie. Did you find yourself doing anything similar when you immersed yourself in the world of the Romanovs?
As amazing as that sort of immersion sounds, between writing and working full time, I don’t have much time left to squeeze in those types of creative projects anymore. I miss being a kid! Even so, though, the writing process itself is an incredibly joyful immersion into another world. I can’t imagine living without that experience.
KW: Can you tell us a little about your creative process for your writing? Are you a “pantser” or a “plotter”? Do you have any special tools, writing programs, or rituals?
JL: I am definitely a “pantser.” I’ve tried to plan and plot and outline in advance, but I only get impatient and dive right in regardless. My process starts when I read or hear of an idea or person that intrigues me. I read a little and think a little and daydream and listen to good music. I used to think this was wasted time because I wasn’t writing or making word count goals. Now, I appreciate how important that germination time is to the final product.
When the idea begins to take the shape of a general plot, I spit out a first *crappy* draft. Then I read it and hate it and hate myself a little. I think that’s about as close to a ritual as I get. Once I recover, I talk myself into returning to the draft. I start to edit and do more research and maybe even jot down an outline. At that point, along around the third draft or so, I begin to feel the plot makes sense and the characters might even be interesting. And then I want to keep returning to the manuscript so I can make it better. I feel like I owe it to the novel at that point.
KW: Now that you’re officially published, what’s surprised you the most about being on the other side of things?
JL: This should have come as no surprise at all because I’ve heard many published writers talk about it. But the biggest surprise for me was how little things changed. It’s amazing to see my book out in the world, don’t get me wrong! But I think as pre-published writers, we see publication as the Holy Grail. At least I did. Ultimately, though, you’ll want to write another book, which means starting from scratch. I think I enjoy writing more than I enjoy being published. I want readers and I love hearing people talk about The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, but mostly I want to write.
KW: What advice would you give to beginning fiction writers? What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
JL: Take yourself seriously as a writer. Join professional groups. Network with other writers. Self-promotion does not come naturally for me, but I wish I had engaged it in earlier. Be aware of your own brand, but also think about how you can contribute and help others at a similar career stage. Keep writing but attend to the business end of things, just as you would with any other career. I am playing catch-up with all of this.
KW: Finally, what are you planning for your next novel? On your blog you describe it as starring “Prince Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s famed advisor and former boy toy.” Inquiring minds (or at least *this* inquiring mind) want to know more!
JL: This story is set toward the end of Potemkin’s life, when he was dealing with a challenge from Catherine’s latest lover, a much younger man named Zubov. I haven’t written in a male voice in a long time and I love it.
Catherine the Great is amazing, of course, but I made Potemkin the central figure for several reasons. He was open-minded and tolerant. He was decadent and ambitious, but also deeply spiritual. He suffered from periodic bouts of depression, but seems to have very effectively managed his low moods. Finally, his relationship with Catherine is sweet. Even when they separated and started sleeping with other people, they were so loyal to one another. He wore a medallion with her picture. That kind of devotion appeals to the romantic in me.
Thank you, Jennifer, for a wonderful interview! As I mentioned above, she is giving away an autographed copy of THE SECRET DAUGHTER OF THE TSAR to one reader of this blog. To enter the raffle, leave a comment on this post by midnight, November 21, 2013. Only one comment per person. Winner will be chosen at random and announced here on Friday, November 22, 2013. The small print: U.S. mailing addresses only, please.
To leave a comment, click here and scroll to bottom of the page. Good luck to all!
Photographed on the B-68 bus in Brooklyn.
As many of you know, I’ve been on a semi-break from all forms of social media these past five weeks—blog, Facebook, Twitter—to prepare for the Salt Cay Writers Retreat, which starts October 20th in the Bahamas. I’ve only four more days until I leave. (Eep!) Accordingly, I’ve moved onto triage to complete everything I need to do before leaving. Taxes, check. Passport, here. Laundry, getting there. Research and reading, still on it. Workshop manuscripts, critiqued and printed out.
Alas, all these necessary “to-dos” have kept me from completing my next manuscript draft, as I’d intended. At first this was seriously stressing me out. However, the time away from my writing has been helpful with untangling troublesome plot points that I’d been trying to force to behave. It’s also reminded me how taking breaks from a project can stoke creativity. I know this from personal experience—I often get my best ideas while walking or taking a shower or driving. Yet I always resist taking a break since it feels so, well, counterproductive. I mean, when you’re on a deadline, isn’t it crazy to walk away from the task at hand when Every Moment Counts?
Turns out it isn’t:
Psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara have uncovered the very conditions that give rise to creative thought. As the researchers point out, there are countless anecdotal accounts of creativity happening when people take a break from whatever they are working on. The question, however, is whether any sort of break sparks creative thought or whether there is a certain type of activity that is best to perform during the break period. The answer, it turns out, is the latter. When stuck on a problem that needs a creative solution, turning your attention to another task that requires just a little bit of focus (but not too much) is the best way to jump start the creative process.
Read the rest of this article at the Creativity Post here.
So, almost-but-not-quite finished. More importantly, my mind is clearer and inspiration is afoot. And, in four days’ time, I’m going to a place where I’ll have the time and resources to do what still needs to be done. I’m beyond excited.
Now that we’re edging our way into the end of August, our days at Casa Blue House have eased into an unscheduled wonder. I’m enjoying it while I may—once Thea’s back in school in September, my life will be back to being measured by quarter-hour increments. In the meantime, here’s some end-of-summer random thoughts and happenings, illustrated with equally random photographs.
~ Our fig tree is sprouting fruit! We love going outside and plucking a few (above) to enjoy with our meals. They’re especially good with bleu cheese and a crusty baguette.
~ While walking to the subway last week, I discovered a padlocked gateway leading to a hidden path (right) I’d never noticed before. It reminded me of an English right-of-way. My theory: it’s a passage for the MTA to do work on the subway tracks. I’m tempted to climb down and explore further, though also intimidated. I mean, it’s padlocked for a reason, right?
~ I’m still continuing to indulge my love of cafes. Fortunately, Brooklyn is rife with them. I’ve discovered a few new ones in my daily travels, which inspire me on the culinary front as well as with home decorating ideas. Cafe Coleur, which was featured in this week’s Wordless Wednesday post, is located in Park Slope and features homemade preserves such as strawberry with rosemary. I loved their use of distressed painted doors as a decorating motif. Now I want to sand down the painted doors in my house to reveal what’s beneath.
~ On the home decorating front, I’ve begun work on the parlor. First up: repainting the textured wall paper to look more like treated leather (below). Originally, I was thinking along the lines of Whistler’s Peacock Room in terms of color and tone, but decided to go a bit lighter. And yes, that is gold paint on the accents. Once I finish with the wallpaper, I plan to glaze the top beige wallpaper into a lighter, airier shade, and reupholster the settee in some Morris fabrics. It will be an Arts and Crafts-inspired extravaganza.
~ In the studio, work is continuing on the Next Novel. I’m feeling very encouraged these days by the response I’ve received to my synopsis so far. I’m especially pleased to announce I’ll be workshopping the Next Novel in October at this amazing writers retreat. I can’t wait!
~ Also on the writing front: I’m doing a workshop on subplots with developmental editor and story consultant Jodi Henley this week. When I was deep into LILY MAID edits, her workshops on the transformational character arc and practical emotional structure (now available as an e-book) offered the right medicine at the right time—I can’t believe how much I got out of them. Besides being even more geeky than I am when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts of storytelling theory (Aristotle, anyone?), Jodi is a generous teacher who will force you to dig deep into the architecture of your novel.
~ More writing advice goodness: my author friend Heather Webb (BECOMING JOSEPHINE) has posted a fabulous piece about dealing with the sagging middle while writing a novel.
~ Thea and I love to go to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. I’m now obsessing over installing some sort of water feature such as this (right) in our garden. Wouldn’t it look fabulous?
~ Finally, my giveaway of Carolyn Turgeon’s THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL is still afoot. Go forth and comment to win a copy of this deliciously dark fairy tale recasting. I loved it!
Creativity Friday: Interview with Carolyn Turgeon, author of The Fairest of Them All, and book giveaway
I am so excited to welcome for today’s Creativity Friday acclaimed author Carolyn Turgeon. Carolyn’s latest book is THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL, a just-released novel that recasts Rapunzel and Snow White into a deliciously dark confection. I completely adored it. It also possesses one of the best twist endings to a novel I’ve read in some time. In some ways, THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL reminded me of Angela Carter‘s THE BLOODY CHAMBER, one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors—I probably reread it every few years for inspiration.
(Side note: If you haven’t read Angela Carter yet, you’re in for a treat. Besides THE BLOODY CHAMBER, another great book by Carter is NIGHTS AT THE CIRCUS.)
THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL isn’t Carolyn’s first foray into fairy tale territory. Her other novels include GODMOTHER, a new take on Cinderella, and MERMAID, which reworks—you guessed it—the Little Mermaid. In our interview, Carolyn and I discuss her writing process, the power of fairy tales, and her upcoming novel about Dante and Beatrice. But that’s not all: Carolyn’s publisher Touchstone Books is offering two copies of THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL as a giveaway. Information on how to win one is at the end of this post.
Kris Waldherr: You’ve written other novels based on fairy tales: Cinderella in GODMOTHER and the Little Mermaid in MERMAID. What inspired you to combine the stories Rapunzel and Snow White in THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL? Was there a particular “I must write this” moment you remember?
Carolyn Turgeon: I actually thought of the idea on a bus trip between NYC and State College, PA… a trip I take often! I’d just turned in Mermaid, and my publisher was asking for another fairy tale novel. I was anxious to move on to other things, like this crime novel I’ve had on hold for years, and a book about Dante and Beatrice I’ve also been thinking about ever since I was in a PhD program studying Dante in the 90s, at UCLA. But I sat on the bus and brainstormed a bit about what else I might do with fairy tales, just to see. I made a list of all the heroines I love, both from the Disney films and the earlier versions, like the Grimm stories and Perrault and what have you. As I thought about that list, I realized that these heroines all fit a pattern and were almost interchangeable: they’re all damaged and they’re astonishingly beautiful and pretty much celebrated solely for that beauty. I made a list, too, of the other women in those fairy tales, all the evil queens and fairies and stepmothers and witches, and it occurred to me that they’re the same women, grown up. They are, largely, women who were once beautiful and revered for that beauty but who have aged and had to make way for a younger, lovelier version of themselves.
I started mixing and matching the characters a bit and realized how well the Rapunzel story could dovetail into the story of the evil queen from Snow White. Like many heroines, Rapunzel is almost unbearably gorgeous, so much so that princes fall in love with her just catching a glimpse of her in a tower. She’s also a witch—she’s being raised by a witch and surely she is a witch, too. What if she were to marry a widower king who had a child named Snow White? It seemed to me that Rapunzel might not take well to aging or to Snow White growing up and eclipsing her. I’m not sure it’s a good idea for a fairy tale heroine to age, period. What options do they have, when being gorgeous and young was all they really did?
So that was the inspiration: telling the heroine’s story after the fairy tale ends. By the end of that bus trip, I’d mapped out the idea and knew I could do something interesting.
KW: There are so many retellings of Rapunzel and Snow White—from the Brothers Grimm to Anne Sexton. Which ones did you find yourself drawn to as you wrote THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL?
CT: I definitely looked to the Grimm stories, and I couldn’t help but have Angela Carter and Anne Sexton a little on the brain (though I didn’t go back to them), but I’d say that for Snow White I was mainly thinking of a combination between Grimm and Disney. Snow White was always my favorite Disney movie, with its vivid imagery and its weird combination of light and dark, and it was my favorite Grimm story when I read it a few years later. For FAIREST, I went back and read as many older versions of the Snow White story as I could—and they get weirder and weirder—but I basically used the Grimm story as a guide. For Rapunzel I also went back to Grimm. I guess I’ve been nervous to go look at other retellings—other novels and Once Upon a Time and so on—because I don’t want to be influenced in ways I might not even realize I’m being influenced. Writing is weird; you have to be careful!
KW: What, if any, were the historical inspirations for the setting of THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL? Though your novel is set in an undefined kingdom, in some ways it reminded me of the court of Louis XIV and other earlier pleasure-loving European courts. Was this intentional?
CT: I did sort of loosely base the court on the court of Louis IX, because I wanted Prince Josef to be a hedonistic, art-loving, pleasure-seeking type, charming but ultimately not the kind of “prince charming” you want. I also wanted an elaborate, extravagant court to contrast against the wild, feral world of the forest, where Rapunzel is raised. Other than that, I tried to make everything as medieval and realistic as possible. I think when you’re writing about magical events, the more grounded you can make everything else, the better. In general, I was loosely thinking fourteenth century France—with a seventeenth/eighteenth century king thrown in. =)
KW: THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL takes on so many potent themes: the power of sexuality, the insidiousness of evil, aging, revenge, paganism versus Christianity. What made you decide to include them? Were these difficult to weave in?
CT: I think most of these themes emerge naturally from the originally fairy tales, once you really fill them in and inhabit them. I mean if the woman who raises Rapunzel is a witch, then Rapunzel is probably a witch. If Rapunzel ends up marrying a prince or a king and living at a big palace, her beliefs and world view as a witch most likely clash with a more traditional Christianity. So paganism versus Christianity wasn’t a hard theme to get to. Aging, sexuality, jealousy and rage—all those emotions I think are right there, roiling in Snow White’s stepmother, pushing her to the point where she could actually ask for her stepdaughter’s heart. So it’s less about taking outside themes and weaving them in, and more about teasing out and illuminating the themes buried in the stories already.
KW: Without spoiling it for readers, what was your favorite part to write in the book?
CT: I love writing the really twisted, painful parts of fairy tales. The stepmother asking for—and then eating—Snow White’s heart. The mermaid taking the magic potion and experiencing excruciating pain as her tail rips in two. The fairy godmother making the decision to go to the ball in Cinderella’s place. I like getting to those dark, dark painful moments. I also loved writing the witchy scenes of Rapunzel in the forest, her running around wild with a bow and arrow or bent over the earth cultivating herbs and vegetables. To me it’s all incredibly romantic (and so different from anything I’ve experienced) and I loved inhabiting those places.
KW: Can you tell me about your work process? How long does it take you to write your novels? Are you a “pantser” or “plotter”?
CT: I started out as a “pantser” but I’ve evolved into a plotter, which for me is so much more efficient! It took me ten years off and on to write my first novel, Rain Village, and five years to write Godmother—in large part because I didn’t have any kind of plan for either of them and was making up the stories as I went along. I ended up cutting out hundreds of pages from those books, as I figured out what they were actually about. Now I know a story before I set to writing it, and have some plan for where I’m going and how I’ll get there. Still, I leave a lot of room for improvisation… you never know what magical things happen when you sit down and get to work.
KW: You also teach at a low residency MFA program in Anchorage. How does teaching inform your writing?
CT: Teaching in the MFA program forces me to think about my process and about writing fiction in a way I wouldn’t otherwise, and I’m sure that that awareness informs my writing. Also, because it’s a low-res program, I mentor a few students long-distance every year, reading and critiquing their pages regularly. I’ve done this for writing friends (and they for me) for years, and I think that exercising my critical eye and being forced to articulate my gut feelings about what works and what doesn’t work is really important for me—whether or not I’m formally teaching or exchanging pages with a writer friend!
KW: Why do you think the stories of Rapunzel and Snow White are still so resonant and relevant today?
CT: I think there are many reasons… but first and foremost is that at the heart of both stories is an epic battle between a mother and a daughter figure. Rapunzel and the witch who locks her in the tower, and Snow White and her evil stepmother. They’re extreme versions of an intense Oedipal competition. No matter how you cut them, there’s something powerful and universal happening. Plus, these are old old stories, stories that are with us from birth to death, and I think they give us a safe, familiar framework in which to explore all kinds of tricky, uncomfortable emotional territory.
KW: Finally, I was excited to read that your next book is about Dante’s muse Beatrice. Can you tell me more about it? How closely are you drawing from La Vita Nuova (the book in which Dante writes about his interactions with Beatrice)? What is your conjecture about their love relationship, or lack thereof?
CT: I’m drawing from La Vita Nuova as well as Dante’s poetry about Beatrice and his extended interaction with her in the Divine Comedy—plus all kinds of biographies. Because we know so, so little about Beatrice, though, there is a ton of room for fictionalization and conjecture. I think I’ve come up with a really cool, twisty and surprising story for her.
In real life, if you look at where Beatrice lives and where Dante lived (assuming that Dante’s Beatrice is in fact the historical Beatrice Portinari we think she is), they’re really just steps away from each other. And even though Beatrice was a noble girl who likely spent a whole lot of time locked away in her family’s house, she almost assuredly went to festivals and ceremonies and church, where she would have seen Dante. Florence was small in those days! So I think they must have known each other in a regular, everyday way… but as for anything romantic, who knows? My guess is that longing and angst was enough for Dante, and that he saved the real relationship stuff for his long-suffering wife.
Thank you, Carolyn, for a wonderful interview! As I mentioned above, Touchstone Books has generously offered two copies of THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL to readers of this blog. To enter the raffle, leave a comment on this post by midnight, August 29, 2013. Only one comment per person. Winner will be chosen at random and announced here on Friday, August 30, 2013. The small print: U.S. or Canada mailing addresses only, please. For an extra entry, tell me what fairy tale is your favorite and why.
To leave a comment, click here and scroll to bottom of the page. Good luck to all!
Many of you know that the Waterhouse painting of the Lady of Shalott (above) served as inspiration for my novel THE LILY MAID. Turns out I’m not alone in my obsession: I’m pleased to report The Lady of Shalott was recently voted the most loved painting in the United Kingdom as part of Art Everywhere’s incentive to celebrate British art.
As such, it will be featured on billboards for the next two weeks, along with 57 other popular British paintings, in what is being billed as the “world’s largest art show.” How cool is that?
Here’s my description of the painting from THE LILY MAID. It’s written from the point of view of Elizabeth, the young woman who models for it:
Though The Lady of Shalott clearly wasn’t finished—loose brush strokes indicated much of the composition—I easily recognized myself in it. Gazing at the painting was like looking into a strange mirror reflecting back another time and place. There I was, a fragile-looking young woman on a barge, my sorrow-filled eyes half-shut in anticipation of death. One hand held a lily; the other grasped the side of the boat. My blonde hair was scattered about my shoulders, as it had been that first morning when I’d first posed on my settee. The landscape surrounding the barge was marshy and tangled, threatening and wild. Water lilies past their bloom filled the foreground. The overall sense was one of tragic beauty. Of yearning that extended beyond grief. Lost possibilities. Lost love.
My obsession with the Lady of Shalott goes back years before I ever learned of the Waterhouse painting, or caught a glimpse of the novel that would become THE LILY MAID. My first exposure to her came at the age of six, when a favorite cousin gave me the Golden Book of King Arthur illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. It included a lush painting of the Lady of Shalott, here called Elaine the Lily Maid, that was simply the most stunningly romantic thing I’d ever seen. I must have spent hours staring at it, trying to comprehend her death from heartbreak. I couldn’t—but what child can?
This was only the beginning of my relationship with the Lady of Shalott. She stayed with me throughout my childhood, this tale of a girl trapped in a tower weaving tapestries of the world forbidden to her; to my mind, her story mirrored my favorite fairy tale of Rapunzel. Later, as a high school senior, I made an illuminated poster retelling the Lady of Shalott—one of my first attempts to integrate art and words as one. A teacher at the time said to me, “I’d be very interested to see you attempt this subject after you go to art school.” Alas, this was not to be, at least in painted form, for it was at the School of Visual Arts I was introduced to Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott by another art student. How could I attempt to paint her in the wake of such a glorious painting?
Though it’s been some years, I still recall how my fellow student pulled out a much-thumbed postcard from his sketchbook. “It’s a painting of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott,” he said with the hushed tone of a junkie hawking an illicit drug. “It’s on display at the Tate Gallery in London. I returned every day to view it while I was there. I want to go back this summer.” However, that wasn’t all he found at the Tate Gallery: standing beside the famed painting was the young woman he was convinced was meant to be his true love and eternal muse.
I wonder still if they ever reunited. If so, I like the idea that the Lady of Shalott’s tragic love might have inspired someone to a happy ending.
On a the related subject of Rapunzel–aka that other girl in the tower– I’m beyond delighted that Carolyn Turgeon will be my guest for my next Creativity Friday. We’ll be chatting about her new novel THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL, a deliciously dark reimagining of Rapunzel and Snow White that I adored. Plus we’ll be giving away a copy of it, courtesy of Touchstone Books.