Archive for May, 2012

A Conversation with Lambda Finalist Jess Faraday

 

Jess Faraday’s debut novel, The Affair of the Porcelain Dog, is a Lambda Literary Award finalist for gay mystery. Writer Jeffrey Ricker talked with her recently about her debut, her upcoming novel, and how historical fiction can be relevant to and address contemporary issues.

 

Jeffrey Ricker: Congratulations on being a Lambda award finalist! I loved The Affair of the Porcelain Dog. It was one of those books I couldn’t put down; I frequently overshot my lunch hour because I wanted to read one more page. How did the idea for that book come about?

Jess Faraday: Thanks! The book actually evolved from an exercise I did with my writing group. The exercise was to take a character from something we were working on and put that character in a completely different time and place. I took a sorcerer’s assistant from a swords-and-sorcery piece and put him in a Sherlock Holmes story. The more I worked on it, the more I realized that there was just so much more to be said.

JR: You’ve trained as a linguist and translator. Tell me a little about what that entailed. How would you say that’s influenced your writing, if at all?

JF: I’ve always been fascinated by language and words—not just nuances in meaning, but the rhythm, color, and music of it. I’ve always loved these things, and I try to incorporate them into my writing, hopefully without going overboard. I love translation because one has to really think about the shades of meaning of key words, and the greater picture created when all the words come together. It’s the same when writing a story: the rhythm, color, and music created by the language gives the story a certain feel that affects setting, plot, and character, but registers on a completely different level.

JR: What is the most challenging thing about writing?

JF: Getting through the first draft, which will always be completely crappy. Subsequent drafts are easy. Fun, even. Because it means turning garbage into something nice. But getting through that first draft can be a nightmare.

JR: What made you decide to write a novel from the point of view of a gay man in Victorian London? Did you ever have any concerns about creating an authentic voice for that character?

JF: I think every writer wants to create believable, sympathetic characters. I do, and I hope that if my characters lack authenticity as either gay men or as Victorians, that they’re at least believable as people.

I did a lot of sociological research about London in the late Victorian era—not just specifically about the lives of gay men, but about relationships between men and women, different races and social strata, and how these things fit together (and also lighting, personal hygiene, battlefield medicine, pollution of the Thames, and the history of envelope sealants).

The idea to make the main character the crime lord’s lover, rather than just his assistant, sparked when I came across the Labouchere Amendment, which aimed to protect women and girls from exploitation by criminalizing “indecency” between men (huh?)—not only actual sexual acts, but attempted acts, with no evidence required. It sounded so much like today’s hysterical “think of the children!” rhetoric that I had to include it somehow. Also, it made the resolution of the plot that much more pressing!

JR: Part of the writer’s function is to engage with and comment on contemporary culture. You wouldn’t think that historical fiction could do that, but Porcelain Dog was a very accessible novel, and seemed to resonate and not be so far removed from modern culture, while at the same time being grounded in Victoriana.

JF: We like to think that human societies are continuously evolving forward, becoming better, smarter, more enlightened, etc., with every passing generation. But it simply isn’t true. We keep dealing with the same conflicts over and over. Money. Sex. Power. Love. How we think about them may be different in different times and places, but the conflicts are always the same. They’re never solved forever, and they never go away. I think addressing the universal conflicts that have always been with humanity, and always will be, is what makes historical writing interesting and accessible to others.

JR: What are you working on now? How is it similar or different from Porcelain Dog? Do you think you’ll ever revisit the character of Ira Adler in a future book?

JF: Right now I’m finishing another mystery, this time set in early 19th-century Paris. The protagonist is the last remaining female Sûreté agent after the resignation of Sûreté founder Eugène Vidocq. Unlike Porcelain Dog, this book has a significant supernatural element. I’d say it’s closer to speculative fiction than to pure historical fiction.

The next book on the docket is the sequel to Porcelain Dog. =)

Derby Clara’s Second Blog

 by Clara Nipper

In case you were wondering, I taste like glitter and venom. So today, I’ll focus on glitter.

Here we are with my second blog and I’m just as clueless as I was with the first, but I have included a photo of me in derby gear as a few people requested that.

So, for aspiring writers, here is the best advice I was ever given and therefore, the best advice I can give: meat in seat. Make a commitment every day to have your butt in the chair with the intention to write and stay there no matter what. If you stare into space; if you doodle; if you weep; stay there and I guarantee, you will write eventually.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes also said that “stories are medicine” and I find that inspiring enough to get my meat in the seat.

Regarding works in progress, I am in continual conflict with a manuscript entitled At My Mother’s Table. I just have too much material and so must decide what to cut. But the wonderful thing about this coming-of-age story is that it creates conversations about food. There is a chapter in which the main character eats mulberries right off the tree and when I shared that section aloud, it began an entire discussion of eating “wild” food as children. Green apples, sour cherries, blackberries wrestled from thorny canes, jam grapes loaded with seeds and honeysuckle blossoms were regular additions to our culinary fare. You really know you’re an adult when you walk past honeysuckle instead of running to it. And sharing these stories, I learned so much about my loved ones that I never otherwise would have known and that is one way I believe stories are medicine.

Until next time, derbylove to everyone. And I’ll be the one eating tomatoes off the vine and drinking water from the hose, come over and play!

The Amazon Trail

Thank You, President Obama

         My week was looking like a trailer park after a tornado until the announcement came that the President of the United States supported marriage equality, also known as civil rights for gays. The day before, North Carolina had fallen into the hands of the morality pirates.

It had been the week that was. We were getting ready to try to sell our home, not an easy task in itself these days. Immediately, the house protested. Not only did it start having little issues here and there, but it sabotaged our efforts to fix what broke.

The news that our president considered my sweetheart and me entitled to marry was vastly validating. It gave me hope that the people of North Carolina would see through the lies told on talk radio and FOX TV. It gave me strength to tackle our more commonplace difficulties. My sweetheart, close to hysterical laughter, listed these.

Five HUNDRED and nine dollars to Stanley Steemer for leaving more stains on the floor than we had before they cleaned. Not to mention that cleaning the tiles did not include cleaning the grout between the tiles. That would cost hundreds more.

A day after President Obama blessed our unions, I read that nearly three dozen congresspersons demanded that same gender weddings be included in the Democratic Party’s platform. It reminded me how vilified our small Democratic party was for proposing the same thing and opposing the well-organized and very nasty homophobes of Southern Oregon back in the 1990s.

Then came a two HUNDRED and nine dollar charge to “fix” a four-year old kitchen faucet that still imitates Niagara Falls every time we turn it on. Now the plumbing company wants us to pay another three HUNDRED to replace the fixture they didn’t fix. I began to suspect these service companies had business plans like Mitt Romney’s: don’t fix it, toss it and abandon the people.

Our friend from North Carolina, who recently celebrated 25 years with her partner, wrote that after voting this week, she was so shaken that straight people presumed to vote away our rights, she had to sit in her car a long while before she could drive. Multiply her by every gay and progressive in the U.S. getting the news that the haters won, and we’d have national gridlock.

Three HUNDRED and five dollars for an air conditioning unit we had serviced. The next week it started leaking all over our garage. Two service calls and many buckets of dripped water later and it’s leaking again.  Did I mention that nothing in this house is over four years old?

Back to the plumbing. My sweetheart, being a very competent femme, tried to fix the faucet herself. I looked at the problem and offered her my butch card. She watched repair videos. She talked to the faucet company. Our water bill crept up. She called the plumbing company and they agreed that, for what we paid them, they should redo the job for free. My sweetheart only asked that they send anyone but the initial service person, Steve. On the big day of our new appointment the doorbell rang and the man with the toolbox said, “Hi! I’m Steve!” We still don’t have a working kitchen sink, but no new bill because my sweetheart wouldn’t let him touch a thing. Including the toilet with the broken tube holder-in-place thingy.

And then we heard that the Secret Service is broken. How could they be so careless while on assignment? We trust them with our leaders. With the President’s stand on marriage equality putting him in greater jeopardy than he already is as our first African American president and our heath care advocate, he is risking more ire from the right than any president in memory.

When the Stanley Steemer guys came back out to clean up their mess, I mentioned that we kinda thought that for five hundred plus dollars, they might have moved the living room chairs, the lighter bookcases, maybe even the floor lamps…

The floor scrubber stuttered that if we’d asked them to move those items, they would have. I guess if we’d asked them to clean up their dirty puddles they might have done that too?

As my sweetheart concluded: “$509 for splotchy floors; $200 for a faucet that still leaks; $305 for an AC unit the service guy broke—having the President of the United States say heck yes you should be able to marry – priceless!”

Our snafus are nothing, however, compared to the way President Obama is now exposed. I’m worried about his safety. I hope the Secret Service and whatever other entities are responsible for protecting him have doubled up on security. The man has stuck his neck out for us big time. He deserves protectors of higher caliber than Steve the plumber and Stanley the floor scrubber.

Today we didn’t bother calling an electrician—my sweetheart fixed the light switch that broke. And we sent the money we would have spent on the electrician to the President’s re-election campaign.

Lee Lynch Copyright 2012

May 2012

Third Time’s a Charm

 by Rebecca S. Buck

 

The Locket and the Flintlock is almost here. Which is a wonderful feeling. I’m so excited. I am incredibly proud of this novel. Clearly, I liked my first two novels, Truths and Ghosts of Winter but there is just something about my third novel that makes it my favourite.

Perhaps I’m a better writer now than I was two years ago. I’ll leave that to the reader to judge. Certainly, practice makes perfect and the expert guidance of my wonderful editor, Ruth Sternglantz, has helped a lot. Instead of something to wrangle into shape, words have become a tool. A paintbrush with which to paint a world in whatever tones and hues I choose, to colour that world with emotion and life.

As a historical novel, it would be tempting, I suppose to paint this one in shades of sepia, or the yellow of an old manuscript. It is certainly lovely to see history in that sort of soft glow. But for me, it’s never been like that. I love The Locket and the Flintlock because even though I crafted a romantic tale of Regency England, it is vibrant. Not just because it is also an adventure story with action and danger, but because I can see the colours of the leaves on the trees, the mist of the characters’ breath in the night air, the glinting of the light on a stolen ruby necklace. Those details are so important to me when I write historical fiction. Not to make it more “accurate” but to make it more real. I want to remove the “otherness” of history. I want my readers to see it as I do. A colourful world, full of detail. Not faded and distant.

In The Locket and the Flintlock I am especially excited to invite my readers into my favourite period of history: The Regency. That period in British history where the King was declared insane and the fat, indulgent Prince Regent reigned in his stead. The time of Jane Austen and Romanticism. Also the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, rapid urbanisation and enclosure, of failed harvests, revolutionary poets, protest, a bloody penal system, and general unease. It’s a period which has always fascinated me and, in this novel, I wanted to bring together some of the aspects of it that make it such a wonderful time to explore. There is a gentlewoman who, on first appearances, could have walked out of a Jane Austen novel. But her world soon collides with the darker side of the Regency. Many are starving and turning to crime, risking the hangman’s noose in order to make a living. Workers are so dissatisfied with their treatment that they turn to machine-breaking in organised gangs, apparently swearing allegiance to a mysterious General Ludd who hides out in Sherwood Forest. The rules of civilised society still dictate that women often marry for money or social advancement. I wanted to lead my characters through this world and see how it affects them, and their developing love story.

I was also keenly aware that the Regency was a very fleeting period. Times would soon change. The Victorian era, arguably England’s greatest and most in/famous age, obscures the Regency from view in many histories of the nineteenth century. These years were the last years before photography and the window into the past it allows. The last years in which workers still laboured in their homes rather than factories. The last time it was feared Britain might have another revolution in the manner of the French. It was the last era that highway robbers still prowled the streets, before turnpikes and formal, organised policing wiped them out. The sense of time passing and things changing is something I wanted to capture in my writing too. A moment in time preserved forever, before things changed inexorably.

It will be up to my readers to tell me if I captured the essence of this period successfully. I’ve not loaded the novel with historical detail. I want you to feel the Regency, not read about it. I am so incredibly passionate about this time period, and in The Locket and the Flintlock I feel as though I’ve painted a colourful picture of it. I hope I have. It’s why I’m so especially proud of this book.

That, and because the overriding theme is all about freedom and making choices. I think a book captures a particular moment in its writer’s life. At the moment I’m all about freedom. When my characters gallop on horseback through the woodland…I can feel the wind in my hair with them.

Time Travelling

by Rebecca S. Buck

When people find out that my upcoming novel, The Locket and the Flintlock is a work of historical fiction, they seem impressed and intrigued, which is lovely. It also puzzles me, since I find writing historical fiction easier than writing a contemporary story. I think it seems like a difficult feat to many people because historical fiction implies the knowledge of both how to write well and of a lot of rather dry historical detail. The historical writer’s task is apparently to breathe life and colour into what, to many people who remember studying history at school, a lot of dates and lists of events.

To be fair, I do know a lot of dry historical detail. I’m a history geek and increasingly proud of it. But that’s not my starting point for historical fiction. I don’t take a historical fact and write my story around it. I start with the people. Not all historical writers work like I do. My own personal favourite historical novel, Sharpe’s Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell, takes an hour by hour account of that famous Napoleonic battle in 1815 as its starting point and weaves the fictional characters into it.

But for me, it begins with the imagination, not the facts. A moment in time. A scene. One character.

I thought this blog would be a good place to explain how it this process works for me, since it’s one of the questions I’m most commonly asked. I felt the process at work very recently, and I’ll use my account of that to explain what I mean.

I went on a trip to the town of Newark on Trent in north Nottinghamshire. Of course, England is blessed with historic sites all over the place and this could have happened anywhere, and frequently does. But on this day it was Newark. Though only a market town it’s a special place. It was very significant during the English Civil War, and has a beautiful castle on the banks of the River Trent, now in wistful ruins.

While walking in these ruins, I happened to glance up at one of the old stone window frames, devoid of glass for a long while. And instantly I asked myself “who is standing there?” It’s a very specific question. I can conjure up, through historical knowledge, images of King John (who died there in 1216) or Cavalier soldiers in the 17th century. But that’s not what I’m asking myself. What I’m asking is “who do I see there?” And, invariably, it’s not a well-known figure from history or a generic representative of an era, but a specific person from the decades in between. The years when life went on as normal and there were not battles or visits from kings. In this case I saw a woman, in a long dress.

I have to focus at this point. Who is she? A Norman, a Tudor, or later? A Victorian visitor to what was already, by then, a ruin? I try to connect with the sense of the place I’m in and see how she fits. Then I know: she belongs to a time when the castle was complete, a home as well as a garrison. Perhaps the sixteenth century. Before the Civil War, certainly. Her dress is not fine, but she’s no servant. Perhaps the wife, sister or daughter of one of the commanding soldiers based at the castle. She is pretty, with long, light brown hair. She rests slender hands on the window ledge as she looks out at the view. She seems to be thinking about something that makes her rather pensive.

What is she thinking about? Her future? Her past? Her family? A lover?

Hmm. A lover. And who is that lover? Why does thinking of them make her look so pensive?

These thoughts continue for a while. Slowly, the lady in the window acquires a back story. Sometimes even a name. In this case, I called her Melisende. She is pensive because her father, commander of the garrison, is to be stationed elsewhere and she does not want to leave Newark, because her lover is there. She smiles and flushes when she thinks of her lover, despite her sadness. She can barely believe she is so deeply in love.

And thus the story grows and begins to take on a life of its own. The characters start to dictate their own futures. From Melisende, I move on to her lover. I think of names, back stories, descriptions. Then I work out how these people relate to each other and how their story will unfold. That gives me a plot.

Only then does the historical period become important. What period suggested itself to me right away? Is the plot suitable for this time period? Do I need to adapt it at all because of social and cultural considerations of the setting? Sometimes the historical period suggests other characters, or deviations in the plot. But I never let the history dictate the story.

I aim to always be historically authentic. I say authentic rather than accurate, because sometimes some artistic license is necessary. But my story, language, characters and scene building have to have the “feel” of the period I’m writing about.

In my historical writing, my aim is to bring the unknown people of the past to life. It’s not to deliver a history lesson, nor is it to present a different interpretation of some famous historical figure or event. Those sorts of stories can be wonderful, but they’re not what I feel passionate about writing. I want to write the stories of those the history books miss. The story of a woman who once stood in a window of Newark Castle and admired the view, sighing a little as she did so. I can’t travel in time. I can’t see through the centuries to the real people no one noticed. But I can imagine what might have been. The people who could have been in the places I visit. I’m less interested in the ones who were documented as being there. I want to fill in the gaps. Because it’s in those spaces that people like us lived their lives.

So, my historical writing nearly always begins with a place. A moment. And one character who could have been there. From there, hopefully, it expands into a short story or novel. But it remains about the characters, not the history.

The Locket and the Flintlock began in a woodland clearing. I saw a highway robber, dashing, brave, and female. I heard her whisper the words “Stand and deliver,” but she was not robbing a carriage when she said them. She wore a dark cloak and a tricorn hat, even though she lived in 1812 when tricorns were going out of fashion. And from there, I created a novel.


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