I’m thrilled to announce that my author friend Susan Spann has a new novel out, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI. Here’s the juicy description:
June, 1565: When a killer murders the shogun’s cousin, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo are summoned to the shogun’s palace and ordered to find the killer. The evidence implicates Hiro’s friend and fellow shinobi, Kazu, who was working undercover at the shogunate; however, the victim’s wife, a suspicious maid, and even the shogun’s stable master also had reasons to want the victim dead. The investigation reveals a plot to assassinate the shogun and depose the ruling Ashikaga clan. With enemy forces approaching Kyoto, and the murderer poised to strike again, Hiro and Father Mateo must produce the killer in time . . . or die in his place.
To help Susan celebrate, I’m reposting the wonderful interview we did last year for her critically acclaimed first novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT. In it, we discuss creative process, East versus West, the history behind her story, and her amazing Twitter feed, which is a font of generous publishing advice. Enjoy!
Kris Waldherr: What was your initial inspiration for CLAWS OF THE CAT? Can you describe the moment that made you say, “I must write this”?
Susan Span: It happened in spring of 2011. I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, getting ready for work, when a voice in my head said, “Most ninjas commit murders, but Hiro Hattori solves them.” I’d never written a mystery before, but I knew immediately I would have to write this one.
The plot and the setup took several months longer, but from the moment Hiro popped into my head I had no choice but to write about him.
KW: When I first met you at the Historical Novel Society conference in 2011, you had written a more traditional “marquee” historical about Joan of Arc. CLAWS OF THE CAT is quite a departure—a mystery set in sixteenth century Japan. How did you jump from one to the other, in terms of research and writing? Was a radical mind shift necessary?
SS: Until that morning in front of the mirror, I’d always considered myself a historical novelist. I love history—Asian history in particular—and also the challenge of weaving historical fact into fast-paced, compelling fiction.
I’m a lifelong fan of mysteries and thrillers, but always thought the challenge of writing one beyond me. Imagine my surprise when I tried it and discovered that my talents actually work better for writing mysteries than traditional historical story arcs. Mystery allows me to set the multi-faceted gems of history within a more puzzling and less straightforward framework, and I love the challenge that presents.
It also lets me kill my imaginary friends. What’s better than that?
KW: Your dual protagonists of CLAWS OF THE CAT are Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit, and Hiro, a master ninja with a shady past. I can tell that you had a lot of fun writing about their interdependent relationship! Did you base them on anyone from history or literature?
SS: Yes, but not intentionally!
Hiro is a fictitious cousin of famous historical ninja Hattori Hanzo (aka “Devil Hanzo”) who ruled the Iga Ryu during the time in which I set the Shinobi series. Hattori Hanzo was such a famous shinobi, and so important to ninja history, that I wanted to include him in the books. It didn’t work historically to make him the sleuth, however, so I invented a fictitious (and somewhat rebellious) cousin: Hattori Hiro.
I had a similar issue with Hiro’s sidekick, the Portuguese Jesuit, Father Mateo. The Jesuits documented their missionary efforts in detail, and I wanted to respect the history in my Shinobi novels. As a result, I felt it best to create a fictitious priest who could act in accordance with history without being bound by calendar details.
Then, while doing some secondary detail research for the later drafts of CLAWS OF THE CAT, I discovered a Jesuit record that mentioned an unnamed priest who arrived in Kyoto in autumn of 1563 – precisely the time my fictitious Father Mateo arrived in Japan. That Jesuit apparently reported to Father Gaspar Vilela, then the senior Jesuit in Kyoto, and then “disappeared” to conduct missionary activities in Japan.
My Jesuit, Father Mateo, lives and works separately from the other Jesuits (for reasons I explain in detail in the book), and if he had been real, the historical record about him would have read in precisely this way.
I set out to create an entirely fictitious priest, but it seems there’s an analog in the history after all. I found that pretty cool.
And no, I haven’t researched the phantom Father any farther—in the end, I like keeping Father Mateo fictitious, despite his hint of verisimilitude.
KW: In my book DOOMED QUEENS, I enumerated the various ways nobility can be ritually dispatched from life: guillotine, poison, burning, and beyond. In CLAWS OF THE CAT, you mention seppuku, or ritual suicide by disembowelment. As fascinated as I am with the macabre, seppuku is something that, for me as a Westerner, it’s very difficult to contemplate—the suicide is performed in a very ceremonial, artistic way. To my mind, it epitomizes how very foreign the Japanese culture can appear to outsiders, and reiterates the “East versus West” theme you have running through your novel. Can you offer other examples from your novel, good or bad, of cultural phenomenon we would never, ever find in American society? Are there any you wish we’d adopt as a culture?
SS: Great question!
I, too, find the seppuku ritual strangely fascinating. An early word for the process translates as “self-determination” – the idea that sometimes a person may find more honor in ending his life than continuing it.
Another strange dichotomy I explore in this novel (and will return to in others) is that involving the “proper” roles of women in medieval Japan. On the one hand, a wife was expected to serve her husband and care for his household, but women in the “floating world” [KW note: also known as ukiyo] of the entertainment district were permitted near-complete independence. Some women of the samurai class even shed their wifely roles and trained as warriors—such women were more rare than female artisans, but did exist, and I feature one in the book.
A positive aspect of Japanese culture involves the warrior’s attitude toward honor and family. To samurai, honor and family transcend all other values; they are the cornerstones upon which a samurai—male or female—builds a life. In modern times, we often bypass character in favor of wealth or “success.” I’m drawn to the samurai dedication to living an honorable life, though I’m not as keen on the samurai penalties for failure.
KW: Besides being a novelist, you’re also an attorney specializing in intellectual property and publishing law—your Twitter feed is a marvel of generous and helpful legal advice. How does your professional background as a lawyer feed into your creative work as a writer? Is it helpful to writing mysteries?
SS: First, thank you! I love authors and writing, and I love being able to use Twitter, and the #PubLaw hashtag, to help spread information that hopefully helps authors protect themselves and their work.
Some would probably tell you lawyers know all about lies from personal experience. That’s not entirely wrong. Unless, of course, I’m lying … because I’m a lawyer!
More seriously, I think the complexities of document drafting probably help me juggle the mystery plots and subplots better. The biggest benefit, though, is probably all of the time spent typing. I type over 100 words per minute, which really helps with hitting the daily goal in a shorter time!
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?
SS: I’m a plantser! I write two outlines for every book, one of which details the “onstage” action and the other tracks where my characters actually were when they weren’t onstage. Characters in a mystery novel rarely tell the truth when a lie will do, so I need to track their movements to be sure I really know what’s going on behind the scenes.
Once I start writing, however, the outline becomes a guideline and the characters do more or less whatever they please.
As far as the writing itself, I always write first drafts on an Alphasmart Neo, a fabulous little device with a four-line display and no Internet connection. It keeps me moving forward until “The End” – at which point I transfer the file to my laptop and start editing!
KW: Now that you’re officially published, what advice would you give to writers starting on the path? What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
SS: The best advice I can give is “whatever you do, keep writing.” It took me nine years and 5 complete (and polished) manuscripts—500,000 words—to find an agent and get a publishing deal.
I’d like to say I wish I’d known sooner that I was writing in the wrong genre—historical fiction vs. historical mystery—but the reality is that I needed to write those unpublished novels. I couldn’t have done the mysteries justice until I had put in the hours and honed my skills.
Thank you, Susan, for a wonderful interview! To learn more about Susan Spann’s writing, publishing law, and BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, visit her website here.
As I mentioned Wednesday, my guest today is the author and Pre-Raphaelite scholar Kirsty Stonell Walker. Kirsty has loved and researched Pre-Raphaelite art for almost 20 years, and is the author of STUNNER: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth. Her new novel, A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL, is based on the life of another Rossetti model, Alexa Wilding. It follows Alexa she experiences the madness, glory and beauty of Rossetti’s circle. A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL presents a bygone world where truth is reliant on who is painting the picture. I was fortunate to have beta read her novel, and found it a thoroughly enjoyable and immersive experience. Short version: if you’re as obsessed with the Pre-Raphaelites as I am, you’ll love A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL.
I first discovered Kirsty’s writing via her wonderful blog, The Kissed Mouth. (The title of this blog refers to Bocca Baciata, an oil painting by Rossetti.) Frequently hilarious but always thought-provoking, The Kissed Mouth casts an incisive and often political eye upon the PRB and their circle. Walker’s post on how fat is a PreRaphaelite issue is worthy of a standing ovation.
Without further ado, here’s my interview with Kirsty Stonell Walker. I hope you enjoy it!
Kris Waldherr: Your first book STUNNER: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth was a biography about one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s most important muses. However, your second book, A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL is a novel about Alexa Wilding, another of Rossetti’s models. What inspired you to turn to fiction after writing a biography? Was there an “aha” moment that led you to decide to write a novel about Wilding?
Kirsty Stonell Walker: Simply put, I wrote the biography of Fanny because nobody else had and it seemed unfair. Before it, during it and after it I always wrote fiction but never got very farin terms of publishing, with endless, endless rejections from publishers and agents. I don’t know why I never gave up, I suspect I am extremely bloody-minded and delusional. That usually helps.
I was going to write a straight biography of Alexa, but her life as so much shadow, so much unknown and seemingly unknowable. This fed into a thought I had about writing a novel about Fanny, but Alexa seemed a perfect person to experience the world through because no-one knew her, no-one had any preconceptions. I could become Alexa and slip into the world unnoticed.
KW: So much has been written about Rossetti’s relationships with Jane Morris and Elizabeth Siddal: his affair at Kelmscott with Morris, his exhumation of Siddal’s coffin to retrieve his poems, and so on. These stories have become staples of Victorian folklore, so to speak. Yet many of Rossetti’s most famous paintings were modeled for by Fanny Cornforth and Alexa Wilding. Did you find yourself wanting to write about Cornforth and Wilding to redress the imbalance of coverage, so to speak? Or was there something else that drew you in?
KSW: The topic of stunners is dominated by Jane and Lizzie, there is no getting away from it. Both women had fascinating lives and are definitely worth attention, but I felt sorry for Fanny because she always ended up being the jolly tart with a heart, the cockney prossie who is a comedy diversion. As for Alexa, well she never got a look in at all. Something about the ignored status of the women made me want to find out more, to give them voice.
I was asked once whether I over-identified with Fanny, being a plump, jolly woman often not taken seriously, and I have to admit there is a bit of that. I do have to control how defensive I get about Fanny because I need to remember it’s not about me but then people do say the most curious things that ends up making it seem personal. I got a comment recently on the blog from someone saying that they found Fanny the least attractive of any of the Pre-Raphaelite women, that was purely their point. I felt like saying ‘I’m not sure she’d give you the time of day either!’
KW: While reading A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL, I was especially struck by the depth of your research. I really felt like I was with Alexa at Tudor House and Kelmscott amid the Pre-Raphaelite milieu—a very immersive experience! What were you most surprised to learn about Alexa while writing your novel? Were there any preconceptions you held about her and Rossetti that were proven false?
KSW: I was surprised that she had gone to so many places and met so many people. I was surprised she went to Kelmscott, but then I was flabbergasted that Rossetti took her off to Bognor when he and Jane were ending their relationship. There are two ways of reading that situation – he either cared about Alexa and couldn’t be parted from her, or else he viewed her as a prop for his painting and her being present at the emotional crisis of his life was incidental, just as the presence of a vase would be.
Alexa’s love life was a revelation. I remember the first time I found the birth certificate for Maria, who was born in the late 1860s. There is no explanation, no father listed, just Alexa. Rossetti’s complaint shortly beforehand to Boyce that ‘Miss W-’ had vanished out of town and how inconvenient it was suddenly made sense. She had gone to give birth and no-one knew. What on earth was going on in her life?! When we visited her house in London, the affluence of the street was just puzzling. Fanny lived in some nice places but they were modest in comparison. Alexa had a man paying for her, had children, had a life that was beyond that of a butcher’s lass. That is interesting.
I’m not sure if I believed she was as stupid as she is said to be, thanks to Rossetti’s comment about her being ‘dull’ (which I quote in the book because it is one of the few things he said about her personality). I always assumed it was said in jest or spite, but I was intrigued to find that she did not leave any of her own voice behind in the form of letters. Well, not that have been discovered so far….
KW: When I first discovered the work of the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1980s, they were decidedly out of fashion, judged as too sentimental, too concerned with beauty for the sake of beauty. Today, the Pre-Raphaelites seem more popular than ever. Why do you think their art and stories speak to us now? What initially attracted you to them and led to you writing your wonderful blog, The Kissed Mouth?
KSW: I discovered the Pre-Raphaelites in the first year of my degree. I took a course on Victorian culture and there they were in all their glory. I immediately took a shine to Fanny because everyone was praising Elizabeth and Jane to the rooftops but not much was said about this glorious, blush-cheeked woman with a saucy look on her face. I read Jan Marsh’s works on the women in a mad rush to know more and took it upon myself to be Fanny’s champion because a woman that smart, resourceful and beautiful should have someone on her side. I began the work that led to Stunner when I was 20 and it was finally published over a decade later. Fanny has been a big part of my life for longer than I have known my husband, it’s impossible to just walk away from someone once you have dedicated that amount of time to them.
I published Stunner in 2006 and then did not know what to do with the knowledge I had gathered. It was only with the popularity of blogs, which over here in England didn’t seem to blossom until much later than in the States that I thought I could find an outlet for just chatting about pictures, people, themes and the suchlike. I didn’t think anyone would read it!
I think there are a number of reasons why the Pre-Raphaelite community online is so popular and vocal. Obviously, the works are beautiful and at a slight tilt from what we see as the norm for Victorian art. Their love of romance, morbidity, lust, beauty resonates with us as clearly as it did for them, maybe for different reasons. I also think there is an element of rebellion in our love of these beautiful, figurative works of art when ‘good taste’ dictates we should like modern art, abstract art, the stuff that is approved of. I remember being told over and over again on art courses that the Pre-Raphaelites were a dead end, a cul-de-sac of art. I have been told by friends that what they did was inferior to the strides Impressionists were making, but when something grabs you heart and mind and refuses to let go, you cannot dismiss it.
KW: Can you tell me about your writing process? How long did it take you to write A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL? Did you outline before you began to write? Or did you dive right in?
KSW: I suppose it took about three years from idea to publishing. After I relaunched the second edition of Stunner in 2011, I wanted to be brave enough to publish some fiction. I’ve written stories for as long as I can remember, poems too. I have a Winnie-the-Pooh note book at home from when I was about 6 filled with stories. Some of my poems were published in a literary magazines when I was a teenager. Having taken control of Stunner and made it into the book I wanted to be known for, I thought I ought to do the same for my fiction.
Curl came fully formed in a way – I had the story of the people around her, I just needed to weave Alexa into their lives whilst giving her a place of her own. I wrote a few scenes before really having the story settled as it helped me get hold of the characters. The two scenes that really haven’t changed since I first wrote them are the scene where Alexa firsts meets Fanny in Rossetti’s studio and the scene when she comes back from Kelmscott and sits with Fanny while she is cutting up plums. These two scenes helped me see Alexa and Fanny very clearly indeed and fed into how I progressed into the rest of the story.
KW: What advice would you give to beginning fiction writers? What do you know now that you wish you’d known before writing A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL?
KSW: Be brave. Writing is an act of courage because you are putting the contents of your head out there for everyone to see. In some ways I cannot see how anyone can write a book unless they have to because it is such an all consuming emotional experience for me. But then I write to entertain myself and so I love to create my own cure for my ills. When I am stressed, when I am sad, I reach for one of my own stories, my own characters to hep me through.
A vital thing is to finds friends who are like you. I could not do what I do without my network of writers who are there to help, advise, encourage and generally not let me get away with giving up. I think of them as my writing family and all but two of them were met on line through Stunner or the blog. My ‘alpha reader’, the person who gets first crack at anything I write, is my inestimable friend, Miss Holman, and I value her brutal honesty. We often have to combine her response to a first draft with a trip to our local cake shop to soften the blow, but every writer should have a Miss Holman to tell them when something doesn’t work, is self-indulgent or just boring. Again, it’s an act of bravery to let people read something then tell you what they think but if you intend to be a writer then people will do that anyway once it’s published. Trust me, it’s better to have someone tell you a home truth over a slice of lemon drizzle cake and you go away and fix it then it be shown to the world in an Amazon review.
The thing I wish I’d known is that it ends! In the publishing process I got to the point of just hating myself, the book, everything, because it wasn’t finished, wasn’t over and therefore might not be the best it could possibly be. I also was so desperate for people to like it that I was crippled by fear. A rational part of me merrily trundled on, getting my preview copies out, getting author postcards printed, writing blog posts, while the other part of me sat whimpering in the corner braced for impact. Then it was published and life went on and you move on to the next thing.
KW: Finally, what are you planning for your next book? Will you return to writing nonfiction? Or do you have another novel in the works? Will it be Pre-Raphaelite inspired? Or another era?
KSW: It was a tricky decision to know where to go next. I want to write more fiction because my non-fiction needs are met through my blog. I had four different ideas and so I picked the one I couldn’t let go of. I am returning to the Victorians but not the Pre-Raphaelites. My story concerns a poet and his best friend, a photographer. I have two time threads, one in the 1860s when they are young and one in the 1890s after a terrible event has taken place. The poet has a muse who he keeps at a distance and she in turn likes to imagine the poet is the man of her dreams without having to know him better. The reappearance of the photographer into the poet’s life brings with it the repercussions of their earlier friendship and threatens the very careful reputation the poet has built up over the years of their separation. It’s written in the third person, from the view point of the poet, Max Wainwright and his muse, Maud Blake. Maud is mainly in charge of the 1890 thread and Max is our eyes in the 1860s. I want the reader to see the difference between the Max we get to known in the 1860s and what Maud sees in the 1890s, but as the threads run side by side then we don’t find out why Max is the way he is until later in the book by which time the echoes of that event are being felt in his present. I hope to have it finished for somewhen later in 2015, as long as all my characters behave themselves! With Victorians, you can never tell.
Thank you, Kirsty, for a wonderful interview! You can learn more or purchase A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL here.
This lovely rose opened up overnight in my garden—the first of the season! I’m so pleased. I’d wondered if it had made it through the winter intact.
In non-garden news, I spent last Friday afternoon perusing the Metropolitan Museum’s wonderful new exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelites, which focuses on the applied arts “second wave” of the movement: Burne-Jones, Morris, and Rossetti. Between this and the recent big Tate retrospective, it seems as though the Pre-Raphaelites are experiencing a new surge of attention. Last week, a New Yorker article even posited the intriguing question of whether the Pre-Raphaelites were a Victorian version of today’s artisinal hipsters.
From The New Yorker article:
We can start with Morris’s near obsession with the idea of craft. Like the ever-growing number of twenty-first-century tastemakers and designers who value traditional methods and materials, Morris strove to bring the mark of authenticity to everything he made…. Any maker, D.I.Y.-er, or producer of craft beer, craft pickles, or craft anything owes a debt to his design firm, Morris & Co., where he and his collaborators emphasized the slow-to-emerge beauty of the handmade object….
This made me laugh because I live in Brooklyn, aka Artisinal Hipster Central. (Perhaps that’s what drew me to Morris and Friends so many years ago?)
All this makes me especially pleased to announce that my guest on my blog Friday will be author and Pre-Raphaelite scholar Kirsty Stonell Walker (right). Her new novel, A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL, is based on the life of Alexa Wilding, one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s more reclusive muses. I was fortunate to have beta read Kirsty’s manuscript, and found it a deeply immersive experience. Short version: if you’re as obsessed with the Pre-Raphaelites as I am, you’ll love A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL.
In my interview with Kirsty, we’ll talk about Rossetti’s models, writing nonfiction versus fiction, and more. So I hope you’ll check back!
As I mentioned Wednesday, internationally bestselling author Sandra Gulland (THE JOSEPHINE B. TRILOGY, MISTRESS OF THE SUN) has agreed to participate in the “Meet My Main Character” blog hop. Featured today: Claudette, the protagonist of her new novel THE SHADOW QUEEN, which has just been published in the US by Doubleday. It’s been praised by author Melanie Benjamin (The Aviator’s Wife) as “an epic feast for the senses,” and by Tasha Alexander (Death in the Floating City) as “masterful.” Having been fortunate to have read an advance copy, I concur!
More about THE SHADOW QUEEN:
From an impoverished childhood wandering the French countryside with her family’s acting troupe, Claudette finally witnesses her mother’s astonishing rise to stardom in Parisian theaters. Working with playwrights Corneille, Molière and Racine, Claudette’s life is culturally rich, but like all in the theatrical world at the time, she’s socially scorned. A series of chance encounters gradually pull Claudette into the alluring orbit of Athénaïs de Montespan, mistress to Louis XIV and reigning “Shadow Queen.” Enticed by the promise of riches and respectability, Claudette leaves the world of the theater only to find that court is very much like a stage, with outward shows of loyalty masking more devious intentions. As Athénaïs, becomes ever more desperate to hold onto the King’s favor, innocent love charms move into the realm of deadly Black Magic, and Claudette is forced to consider a move that will put her own life—and the family she loves so dearly—at risk.
Without further ado, here are Sandra’s answers about Claudette:
1. What is the name of your main character? Is she fictional or a historical person?
My main character is Claude (dit Claudette), and she is a historical person. That said, there is very little known about her, and so my (re)creation of her is in large part fictional.
2. When and where is the story set?
THE SHADOW QUEEN opens in 1651, near the town of Poitiers in southern France, when Claudette is 13. It ends 33 years later, in 1684, in Claudette’s country chateau north of Paris. In the years in-between, her journey takes us to Paris, Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Versailles, but mostly to Paris.
3. What should we know about him/her?
Claudette was the daughter of actors; the world of the theater is in her blood.
Also you should know not to believe half the things that are written about her.
4. What is the main conflict? What messes up her life?
Claudette has a hard-scrabble life, and she is the one who has to look after her mother and special-needs younger brother, even as a teen.
She becomes obsessed with Athénaïs (known to history as the infamous Madame de Montespan), who leads what to Claudette is a dream life, a life of incredible wealth, respectability and privilege. Enchanted, she falls under Athénaïs’s spell.
Athénaïs’s life, however, is far from a dream. She will do anything to hold favor with her lover, the Sun King.
5. What is the personal goal of the character?
On a practical level, Claudette wants only one thing: security for her family. On an emotional level, she longs to be among “the blessed”—someone the Church approves of, someone respected by society—but lovely clothes, jewels and a bountiful table are powerful lures as well, as is an intimate relationship with the most powerful woman in France, the mistress of the King.
Thank you, Sandra, for a wonderful interview! To learn more about THE SHADOW QUEEN and Sandra Gulland’s other books, visit her site here.
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!