Photographed recently in Paris. What’s around the bend?
Ever since my return from Europe in early September, I feel like I’ve shifted into a new phase of my life. I suspect this is the aftermath of the main reason for my travels: to inter my mother’s ashes. Those of you who follow this blog and my social media feeds are probably aware my mother died early this year. However, it took my sister and I some months to organize the interment, which allowed us to defer the process of mourning in some ways.
And plan we did: my sister Jennifer and I chose to bring my mother’s ashes home to England, where she was born seventy years ago during the London Blitz. We also chose to inter her ashes in the same church where she had been baptized, and in the same rose garden where I brought my grandmother’s ashes in 2011. We decided to bring my daughter Thea with us, as a representative of the next generation of our family. We were very fortunate to be joined by members of our family who still reside in England, all of whom knew and loved my mother well. The service was as beautiful as can be.
While there were tears, Jennifer and I were also certain to make the trip a joyful experience. After all, it was Thea’s first trip to London, land of Harry Potter, Cadbury chocolate, and all things historic and literary. We followed our time in London with several days in Paris, where we ate pain au chocolate and walked along the Seine under perfect blue skies. I also spent many hours researching the Next Novel, which is set in both London and Paris during the mid-nineteenth century. The trip was exactly as we hoped.
Burying a parent is a definite reminder of the cycle of life: Those who grant life to us will die, just as we will die one day. The finiteness of physical life grants a preciousness to everything we experience. Even so, I’m sensing there’s more at play for me beyond this most primal of leavetakings.
For example, ever since I finished the art for DOOMED QUEENS and began writing THE LILY MAID (which now bears the new-and-improved title of A GATHERING OF SHADOWS on the advice of a renowned editor at the Salt Cay Writers Retreat), I’ve grappled with guilt over no longer yearning to illustrate books as I once did. The truth terrified me: these days, I’m far more creatively engaged as a novelist and writer. Another reason for my disinterest in illustration is that I’ve fulfilled the goals I’ve set*; I don’t possess the same urgent drive to spend countless hours curled over a drawing board painting the thousands of tiny details and decorative flourishes that go into one of my book. Yet it’s hard to leave the past behind, especially when you’ve spent years mastering a set of skills. Hence, the guilt.
And then I had a sudden insight that made it easier to let go: whether I’m writing, illustrating, or designing, my vocation is as a storyteller. It’s all interconnected.
And so this post is a post of goodbyes. Goodbye to my mother, Irene Patricia Prince Cowin, laid to rest in her native soil. May you be at peace. Goodbye to my years as a book illustrator**. I’m grateful for all I’ve learned, and the beauty I was able to create. Goodbye even to my studio betta, Clarimonde, who passed away this week after a happy, coddled life. Goodbye to remorse over my past, and trepidation over what my creative future may hold.
But this post is also a hello to the Next Phase of my artistic life as a storyteller: to finishing up and publishing A GATHERING OF SHADOWS. To immersing myself in the Next Novel. To moving onto new horizons and creative challenges.
I’m so ready for them.
*And how fortunate is that? I’m especially proud of THE BOOK OF GODDESSES and THE LOVER’S PATH.
**Not to say that I won’t illustrate books again one day. Just not right now.
“A painting undermined my father. And, as you will see by the end of my story, a painting nearly destroyed me. Art is dangerous like that, an unruly thing. I used to consider it as superfluous as those who dedicated their lives to creating it. I no longer do—I’ve learned this lesson, along with so many others, over the past months. During this period my life has become as foreign to me as another land….”
As I mentioned in Friday’s post, I’ll be reading tomorrow night at Litwrap’s Works-in-Progress summer reading. I’m planning to read from the first chapter of the Novel Formerly Known as THE LILY MAID (above) and a short excerpt from the Next Novel.
When: Tuesday, July 29th, 7 – 9PM
Where: Upstairs at 61 Local, 61 Bergen Street (corner of Smith Street), Brooklyn
The reading is supported in part by a grant from Poets & Writers. I’ll be joined by an awesome lineup of local writers: Brian Erickson, Ilana Kramer, Sarah Seltzer, Rachel Lyon, Max Bean, Mary Lannon, and Gerard Cabrera. If all this isn’t enough enticement, I’ll be spilling the new titles for THE LILY MAID and the Next Novel, which thus far only my literary agent and a few close friends know.
So, hope to see you there!
Good news in Art and Words land:
Here are the deets:
When: Tuesday, July 29, 2014, 7 – 9 pm
Where: Upstairs at 61 Local
61 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, NY
Subway: F or G train to Bergen Street
Other authors will be participating. I’ll post their information as I learn more. Perhaps I’ll see you there?
2. At the 2014 INATS (International New Age Trade Show), The Sacred World Oracle (right) won the prestigious COVR award for Best Divination Deck of the Year. This is quite the honor, especially since my deck was up against some very stiff competition.
If that wasn’t exciting enough, there’s more: the Sacred World Oracle also won the top award for 2014 Product of the Year. Yup, the big kahuna.
I’m beyond thrilled.
ETA: The good people US Games Systems just sent me a photo of my deck flanked by its two awards. They look so substantial!
Read part one of my Historical Novel Society Conference recap here.
Despite averaging 4.5 hours of sleep over the past two nights, I was awake by 6:30 the following morning. After all, Saturday was the “big” day of HNS: panels, evening banquet, costume parade, and much more.
After breakfast, I attended Teralyn Pilgrim’s wonderful panel on depicting religion in historical fiction—I thought she did an amazing job moderating. I especially liked her observations on how a character’s religious beliefs can enrich a novel. Next up was the panel I moderated with Christy English, Mary Sharratt, Mitchell James Kaplan, and Michelle Cameron. It was entitled “Is ‘Genre’ a Dirty Word? Literary versus Commercial Historical Fiction.”
I did my best as moderator to encourage a lively back-and-forth with the audience. I think it worked: many expressed very strong opinions about what entails literary fiction (character- or description-driven, lush language, doesn’t sell well, boring, pretentious) versus commercial historical fiction (plot-driven, life without the boring parts, all-queens-all-the-time, salacious romances, even—gasp!—trashy). However, one of the points of our panel was to explore the many exceptions to these preconceptions: there are character-driven commercial novels just as much as there are plot-driven and salacious literary novels. The sub-genres of historical romances—Regency, Victorian steampunk, “bodice-rippers”—are ever-expanding in sales and influence; romance novels generated approximately three times as much money sales-wise as literary novels for publishing houses in 2012. Yet so-called “literary historicals”, such as Sarah Gruen’s WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and Hilary Mantel’s BRING UP THE BODIES, grace bestseller lists and best-of lists, churning millions of dollars into the industry. In other words, there’s room for all at the table.
The bottom line: what makes a historical novel literary or commercial often comes down to plain marketing, or how the publisher thinks the book will best sell. For example, the cover of Mitchell James Kaplan’s award-winning BY FIRE, BY WATER featured a beautiful painting of Isabella of Castille, despite the novel’s male protagonist. This was to make the book more appealing to female readers, who buy upward of 70% of fiction. Finally, I ended the panel with a visual presentation on the semiotics of historical book covers, which I’ll share here next week—everything from Philippa Gregory to Sarah Waters.*
I was so relieved our panel went well that the rest of the day seemed anticlimactic, though no less wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed C. W. Gortner‘s keynote speech during lunch, which reminded authors to persevere and love what we do. In the afternoon, my hardest decision was which panel to attend. I often ended up compromising by sitting in on the first half of one, then the second half of another. I volunteered an hour critiquing manuscripts at the Blue Pencil Cafe before heading over to the book signing, where I scored autographed novels from Mary Sharratt, Erika Mailman, and Stephanie Lehmann. I also autographed a few DOOMED QUEENS myself.
And then it was finally time for the evening banquet and costume parade. Teralyn Pilgrim and I helped each other with our costumes—she had a tricky Vestal Virgin headdress, and I had tricky Victorian tea gown fastenings. Here we are, about to leave for the banquet.
And then we were off to the banquet! Here’s author Stephanie Lehmann (ASTOR PLACE VINTAGE) dressed in appropriately vintage clothing, Mary Sharratt, and author-queen Margaret George adorned for the Titanic.
The very glamorous Leslie Carroll (CONFESSIONS OF MARIE ANTOINETTE, ROYAL ROMANCES) in Versace. She served as one of the judges for the costume parade.
Stephanie Renee Dos Santos as Frida Kahlo, sporting cigarillo and attitude. (“What do my friends say about me?” Long pause. “Friends? I don’t have friends.”) She deservedly won for best depiction of a historical personage.
Finally, Teralyn brought down the house as a deep-in-denial pregnant Vestal Virgin. (“How dare you say I’m with child! I just have to lose some weight.”) She won for most historically accurate costume.
As for myself, I carried a goblet of faux absinthe—green food coloring mixed with water and milk—and swooned about in my best Pre-Raphaelite/Jane Morris manner in my hand-sewn Aesthetic Reform tea gown. Fun! (Photograph courtesy of Christopher Cevasco.)
The evening ended with a lively under-the-full-moon cocktail party at Deann Smith’s hotel suite, which featured an expansive outdoor terrace overlooking the sea and sky. As I chatted and celebrated with my fellow authors, I swore to myself I’d remember how happy I was at that moment, and that I’d return to the next Historical Novel Society conference come what may.
I’m still feeling slightly stunned (in a good way) over my experience at the Historical Novel Society conference, held two weekends ago at the stunning Renaissance Vinoy resort in St. Petersburg. Was it the rush of being surrounded by so many intensely talented and passionate authors, many whom I now consider dear friends? The excitement of exchanging thoughts and theories about the ever-evolving form of historical fiction? The fun of sharing industry gossip? Confiding updates about our new novels-in-progress?
It was all that. And more.
What follows are some random-yet-sequential thoughts, in an attempt to make sense of it all.
~ The festivities got underway before I departed the Tampa airport: Stephanie Dray (SONG OF THE NILE), Kate Quinn (THE SERPENT AND THE PEARL), Sophie Perinot (THE SISTER QUEENS) were on the shuttle to the Vinoy, along with several other authors. Much hilarity ensues over a discussion regarding hippos in the ancient world. (Consensus: yes, hippos are dangerous.)
~ As soon as I arrived at the Vinoy Friday morning, I discover Deann Smith, author of the upcoming SANCTUARY PRINCESS, heatedly debating the marketability of present tense voice in historical novels with several other writers. (Past tense voice—for example, “I said”—is more traditionally used; present tense voice—”I say”—is trickier to pull off but can create narrative immediacy.) Pro: Michelle Moran and Sarah Dunant used present tense voice in recent books, and did so brilliantly. Con: it was also used in THE HUNGER GAMES—does this make present tense more appropriate for YA fiction? As I listen and weigh in—I chose to use present tense voice in one section of THE LILY MAID—I think, Only at HNS would I be having this conversation.
~ Meet up with my lovely cousin Vicky Alvear Shecter, author of the award-winning novel CLEOPATRA’S MOON, and critique partner Teralyn Rose Pilgrim, who’s sharing a room with me at the hotel. Teralyn is hugely pregnant and adorable as ever; Vicky is as wonderful as ever and full of family news. We have lunch with Suzy Witten (THE AFFLICTED GIRLS) in the Vinoy’s main restaurant, which has painted decorations that remind me of the exterior of a Florentine palazzo. Or Pompey, if you prefer the ancient world over the Renaissance.
~ Here, things begin to get uber-busy. I head back to my and Teralyn’s room to organize notes and graphics for the “literary versus genre historical fiction” panel I’m moderating. I also get ready for the cocktail party—have a plum-colored corset dress sporting an Alexander McQueen-style plaid fabric along the hem. Before the party, I confab to discuss panel with my co-panelists Mary Sharratt (ILLUMINATIONS), Michelle Cameron (THE FRUIT OF HER HANDS), Christy English (LOVE ON A MIDSUMMER NIGHT), and Mitchell James Kaplan (BY FIRE, BY WATER). Not only are we productive, we share many hugs and much laughter. Already I’m getting that HNS love fest buzz.
~ And then it’s onto the cocktail party and dinner. I wander around looking for friends old and new; my friend Diane Saarinen of the Saima Agency has asked me to look out for two colleagues who are first time HNS attendees, author Victoria Wilcox and literary agent Natalia Aponte. Plus there’s a Tweet Up supposedly happening. I never find them or the Tweet Up, but I chat with many others. There’s the amazing Margaret George, who’s as warm and charming as ever, Christopher Gortner looking incredibly stylish (fabulous shoes!), and other friends from HNS London and San Diego. I share a table with several NYC-based hist fic authors: Stephanie Cowell, Nancy Bilyeau, and more. Everything starts to blur together, and it’s not just because of the glass of white wine I’d imbibed. I also discover that my corset dress chaffs if I slump even the slightest bit. But it looks fabulous.
~ During dinner, Anne Perry gives an inspiring speech about the power of story to get us through our darkest moments. After dinner, I head to the lobby with Mary Sharratt and her husband Jos to catch up about life and work. Afterward, I’m tempted to go look for my buddy Heather Webb (BECOMING JOSEPHINE), who was hosting the Tweet Up and probably still going strong. Alas, by now it’s 11 pm; I’ve been up since 4:30 am and am wilting.
And this was just day one of the Historical Novel Society Conference. More here, including photographs of the infamous costume parade!
*Or, as author Stephanie Cowell writes, what happens when 300 historical novelists get in a room.