Posts Tagged 'Justine Saracen'

Dian Fossey’s Ghost or, Who Doesn’t Love a Baby Gorilla?



In the last ten years I’ve written novels set in variety of historical periods. A relationship with an Egyptologist produced the two book Ibis Prophecy, set in Egypt and the Middle East. A trip to Rome was the inspiration for Sistine Heresy, and a brief infatuation with Eddie Izzard (don’t ask!) after a trip to Venice stirred me to write Sarah, Son of God. Lastly, moving to Brussels and meeting descendants of World War Two Résistance fighters got me researching and writing about the war in Europe. With three war novels under my belt (and one in manuscript), I think I count now as Bold Strokes Books’ official WW2 author.The Witch of Stalingrad 300 DPI

So, why suddenly gorillas?

Well, for one, during those years, I became a doggie-and-kitty-and birdie parent, and got to know species other than my own, up close and personal. Admittedly, my first revelation was that the primary functions of these non-homo sapiens is to eat and poo, and my primary responsibility was to allow for both. But the payoff, of course, is that they also offer and receive affection.

In addition, living now in a French speaking culture, I spend a lot of time watching nature programs with a slowed-down French that I can follow. Who wouldn’t understand “Voila, le tigre chasse l’antilope,” and vacillate between sympathizing with the ‘le tigre’ or ‘l’antilope’?

Under these conditions, an issue that had been niggling for years at the back of my mind began to niggle a little louder: the abuse of animals.

Dian's GhostI am certain I share this love of animals and hatred of their abuse with everyone reading this blog. Along with this sympathy also goes an outrage at both the abuse of domestic animals and the poaching of wild ones. Not to mention that we are all painfully aware of the ongoing slaughter of rhinos, elephants and Cecil the Lion. This congealed in me into an overpowering urge for justice or, if not justice, then a certain exquisite revenge. Thus arose Dian’s Ghost.

Dian, of course, refers to Dian Fossey, who spent some eighteen years in the study and care of mountain gorillas, and gave her life for it. I wanted to honor her and at the same time create a satisfying fiction of retribution for her murder, and the murder of her (and all) animals.

The novel opens with a cold-blooded double execution, and the murderer is Dana, our heroine. Dana is not one of those sexy superheroes who knocks off enemy agents for the Greater Good of the Western Democracies, but an ordinary woman who is pushed to the edge and over.

It took some narrative sleight of hand to get her out of the country, but I managed, and voila, soon she is safe and working in the Virunga mountains, examining gorilla poo (because that is what you do when you study gorillas.) The poo-poking job is admittedly not so great, but her supervisor, the successor to Dian Fossey at the Karisoke research center, is a pretty fascinating woman. So there’s that.

Inevitably, Dana meets and comes to love a family of gorillas and, in the course of things, rescues one of their infants. And because the baby gorilla has been orphaned by the murder of her mother, we are set on the course of another revenge. Dana is good at revenge, so suddenly it’s no longer fun and games.

But by now we are feeling a bit ill at ease with the revenge thing – and that is the point.

The novel is unashamedly a thriller-romance. And you can sweep through it just for that. But if you wish to slow down and consider the implications of what is happening, you realize, you are facing some deep moral questions. Simply stated, when is it all right to kill?

I personally find capital punishment dangerous to rational civilization in which at least lip service is paid to justice. Errors are possible, groups are disadvantaged, and DNA tests have exonerated more than one condemned man in the last ten years. It also seems repugnant for the state to have the right to end a human life when execution demonstrably has no deterrent effect on other murderers. Killers do not commonly weigh the risks of their kill before undertaking it. Even the argument that “the use of killing is to show killing is wrong” is deeply flawed.

And yet…I understand the deep satisfaction of revenge, particularly against someone who has grievously harmed the innocent, and I include in this the gratuitous harm of animals. I do not believe that human life, per se, is any more ‘sacred’ (a word that has absolutely no meaning) than any other life. All vertebrates appear capable of affection, and many show signs of self-awareness, sorrow, and moral behavior. And they know when someone is killing them. (Before you ask, yes, I am a vegetarian.)

My own personal morality – which I admit is both self-contradictory and slightly biblical – is that to the extent possible, we should not harm other creatures. All things deserve to have a go at survival. But if a person causes unnecessary pain and harm to a creature for pleasure or profit, that person foregoes the right to be unharmed in return. Consequently, while I am still against capital punishment as it stands (see explanation above) in the cases of George Bush, Dick Cheney, neocon war mongers in general, certain Middle Eastern heads of state of all religions, the creepy dentist who killed Cecil the Lion, wild life poachers and trophy hunters, and all those who abuse domestic animals – I would make an exception.

However…. (you knew that ‘however’ was coming, didn’t you?), while revenge is sweet, it’s hard to keep under control, and Dian’s Ghost is set in Africa during the vast paroxysm of revenge called the Rwandan genocide. It swept the entire country, even the Virunga slopes where the mountain gorillas lived.

So, here we are, two women are falling in love, one devoted to caring for animals, the other heavy with the guilt of avenging them, in the midst of a gargantuan national turmoil. We have romance and we have action, not so much car chases, as “machete chases” that usually do not end well. And running for your life with gorillas through the mountain rain forest puts a real damper on hot sex.

Still, the story is not a tragedy, for it ends with hope. Both fictionally and historically, many good souls carry a bit of Dian’s ghost in them, and some will return (and have returned) to Rwanda to carry on the work. There are still cute baby gorillas to love.

As for the double murder by our heroine in Chapter One, well, you’ll have to find out for yourself how that is resolved.

A Woman in Uniform

Bold Strokes Books author Justine Saracen has a knack for breathing life into history. Here she is suited up and talking about her latest release, The Witch of Stalingrad.

The Long Sobs of the Violins


Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne…those were the opening words of the code message from the British to the French and Belgian resistance in June 1944 informing them that the invasion was about to begin. The line from the Verlaine poem was a signal for them to step up attacks on railroad lines, power stations, telephone exchanges, any installation the Germans would need to respond to the Normandy landings. And, in a manner of speaking, the resistance had waited three years for those violins.

Occupied Belgium had no single entity called “the Resistance,” but rather a tangle of organizations with various and sometimes contradictory goals. They fought as much against Belgian collaborationists, as they did against the Germans, and included Communists, Free Belgian troops, Immigrant Jews, remnants of Belgian political parties, labor conscription evaders, and ordinary people who aided escapees and sheltered Jews or their children.

Following the travails of an English nurse and a Belgian resistance fighter, “Waiting for the Violins” pays homage to three of those organizations: the Armed Jewish Partisans, the Comet Line, and the Maquis of the Ardenne Forest. I have the honor of personally knowing descendants of résistants from two of these groups, and they gave me permission to use the actual names and tales of their heroic relatives.

My best friend’s aunt was a courier for the Maquis in the Ardenne Forest, killed at the age of eighteen by a sniper the day the allies arrived in Belgium. The murdered woman was called Celine, and her niece, who was named in memory of her, brought me to see her grave and monument. The living Celine also provided me with newspaper clippings describing the death and the tribute paid by the Belgian government, and asked me to ‘make her live again.’


Celine monument

Celine monument

A notre Fille et Soeur

A notre Fille et Soeur


Even more touching – though no one tragedy is greater than the other – was the story told to me by a transwoman I became friends with through the local lesbian association. When she felt comfortable enough to trust me, she revealed her childhood tragedy, of being surrendered at the age of three to a Catholic family by Jewish parents just before they were deported. They perished at Auschwitz, though an uncle who had been part of the armed Jewish resistance, did survive the camp, and returned. My friend gave me pictures of all the family members and a book of testimonies of the Jewish resistors themselves. Most moving of all, she brought me to Breendonk, the concentration camp that still stands as a museum outside of Brussels where we found her uncle’s name on the memorial wall. My friend appears in the novel – with her full permission – as herself, the three year old child Jackie.





The third group I followed was the Comet Line (Le Réseau Comète), an underground railroad that helped downed aviators and others (Jews, anti-Nazi politicians, POWS) escape through Spain and ultimately return home. I traced their travel along the route through France and over the Pyrenees, leading their ‘passengers’ by train, hay wagon, and foot, in the most hostile conditions and under the daily threat of death. Sometimes they were captured and killed, as were the families who housed them along the route.

The line was founded by Andrée de Jongh and her father Frédéric, both of whom were captured. She was sent to Ravensbrück but survived the war. Frédéric was executed, as well as twenty three other leaders. In total, the Comet Line is credited with saving between seven and eight hundred Allied soldiers and civilians.

Brussels, the splendid city I have the good fortune to live in, still has many of its thousand year old streets and century old buildings, and I tried as much as possible to use historical locations for my settings. The Château Malou, an 18th century mansion just across the boulevard from my home, was an excellent place to house one of my heroines and a stream of aviators on their way to freedom, while one of the lovely old buildings on the rue Marché au Charbon – which happens to be the current gay center of Brussels – worked very well as a hiding place for my other heroine and a family of Jews.







When the novel ends, the war is still raging, but geographically the struggle comes full circle, with the heroine standing above a beach. It is no longer the beach of humiliation and defeat at Dunkirk, but rather the cliff at Arromanche in Normandy, and this time she is with her beloved witnessing the first rumblings of the Allied invasion force. Where they once fled, now they are returning – with a vengeance. These blood-soaked beaches are iconic in World War Two history. In offering a tender love story between women, I also wanted to remind the newer generation of Americans (for some of whom WWII is ancient history) of the thousands who died on those shores.

I am also fascinated by the Germans. Some were monsters, we know that, but the majority were ordinary men and women swept up in the fervor of patriotism in its most fanatical form. Two of my antagonists, Erwin Rommel and Alexander von Falkenhausen are rather nuanced. They were Wehrmacht officers, totally committed to the Third Reich, but they were old-school soldiers conscious of their honor and both were part of the failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. They remind us of the many gray areas in our morality, some lighter and some darker, and I try to present them in their subtleties.

We also know that heroism is not always on the battlefield. In my novel, as in history, it reveals itself in a hundred little acts of selflessness in the face of danger, by civilians and farmers and anonymous bystanders. One of the most inspiring acts is the now famous account of the twentieth convoy, when three young men on bicycles, with nothing more than a paper-covered lantern and a set of wire cutters, stopped a train on its way to Auschwitz. They liberated only a few dozen prisoners, but for those few, it meant life, and they provided opportunity and inspiration for a hundred others to free themselves later.

My principal heroine, who starts as a nurse caring for the wounded at Dunkirk, is herself grievously injured, but a year later she returns to Belgium working for SOE, a clandestine network set up by Churchill to identify and aid resistance in the occupied countries. She parachutes in, as almost every other SOE agent, male or female, had to do, in the middle of the night, and it is worth a moment of our attention to acknowledge the sturdy little Weston Lysanders who brought them and, if they were lucky, fetched them out again. (see book cover).

Lastly, amidst the fighting and fleeing and being blown up, one finds love in the novel. It appears in all its forms: carnality, romance – which somehow manages to flicker even in the most horrifying places – parental love, friendship, and simple animal loyalty.

It’s enough to give you a little hope that things might turn out all right.


Waiting for Violins 300 DPI


Diving the Thistlegorm



Lucky are those who, late in life, experience a revelation. I don’t mean the religious kind (though those might be fun, too) but the in-your-face real-world kind.

Though few of us see angels or madonnas on our toast, we can still discover and feel transported by a new art, culture, landscape, country or adventure. Maybe hearing opera for the first time, or standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, or stepping out into Venice/ Machu Pichu/ Karnak/location of your choice. It counts as a revelation, when the experience stuns you and leaves you both humbler and richer.

For me, that happened last year when I leapt with full scuba gear into the warm, clear, astonishingly beautiful waters of the Red Sea. Afterward, I waxed lyrical to all who would listen, about the pure physical joy, the expansion of the horizontal land-perspective to the spherical diver’s experience. Underwater, I had no place to stand, and hovered between an ‘above’ and a ‘below,’ bombarded by stimuli from 360 degrees-squared. My brain, like my lungs, had evolved away from that, and learning it all again was dizzying.

Movement itself was a thrill. After a lifetime of setting one foot down in front of the other, I discovered the wonderful fluid mobility of a marine mammal, changing direction, rolling, and somersaulting, with a flick of the fin or the hip. Brightly colored fish swarmed around me, as if to say, “what took you so long?” It was an epiphany.

And what does a compulsively wordy-nerdy person do after an experience like that?

She turns it into a novel, of course.

Thus, in the months following, I wrote Beloved GomorrahBeloved Gomorrah 300 DPI, taking its setting and its cast of characters from that first trip to Egypt. Of course it had a plot too, one involving the biblical Gomorrah of its title. You wouldn’t think you could smush a diving-adventure-romance-thriller together with a biblical myth, but in fact, they go together rather well. And it was certainly a pleasure to deconstruct the myth of Sodom and Gomorrah as the objects of God’s wrath, and turn them into a paradise.

In any case, after the novel had gone to print, I made a second trip to the Red Sea, this time near Sharm el Sheikh. The second dive brought no revelation, but it did offer the next best ‘cool new’ thing: a dive down to a major shipwreck.

The SS Thistlegorm was an enormous WWII British Merchant ship that set sail from Glasgow destined for Alexandria, Egypt carrying war material. (The route through the Mediterranean was blocked by the Germans at Gibraltar.) German aircraft sank her on 6 October 1941 near the tip of the Sinai peninsula. Discovered by Jacques Cousteau in the 1950s, the wreck has become one of the most spectacular dives of the Red Sea.

I admit, I was nervous. The wreck lies at the limit of my diving credentials (and experience), and the currents are strong, so I wasn’t sure how one even got down there without being swept away. When the dive captain told us the descent was by guide rope tied to the superstructure, it seemed a bit less threatening, so I suited up and leapt in.

Bang! The explosion, within inches of my ear, was deafening, and the sudden froth of white water all around me was frightening. “Don’t go down!” someone shouted at me, and invisible hands pushed me back toward the dive platform where I clutched at the boat ladder. Though I could see nothing, I could feel someone unscrew and detach my air cylinder from my back. The dive master shouted that the O ring on my air tank had burst causing the air to erupt from the valve behind my head (!) rather than stream through my mouthpiece. Fortunately, it had happened at the surface, so I could continue to breathe air from…the air.

While I hung on, slightly shaken, he attached a second tank and assured me that everything would be okay now. I didn’t believe a word of it, but I was already in the water, and unwilling to wimp out, so I followed him meekly, grappling my way down the line to the wreck.


When we reached the deck, the dive master led us slowly around the exterior. Since my air supply seemed fine, I began to enjoy the dive. The wreck site was vast, and we were like tiny sea birds swooping along the hull. To my surprise, I spotted a locomotive that had apparently slid from the deck onto the sea bed as the ship sank. A locomotive on the floor of the Red Sea! Just like in the novel I had recently finished. How cool was that! But I saw no other parallels. No clay tablets, no golden artifacts, no city of sculpture, no Gomorrah to love.

The wreck had its own story to tell, of course, and it was a powerful one, as all catastrophes are. I circled the broken vessel awestruck, imagining the thunder of bombardment, the shrieking of torn steel, the cries of the lost seamen.

We explored until our air tanks reached reserve and it was time to ascend. When I surfaced, I was frankly rather pleased with myself. Now I could join the elite who had ‘dived the Thistlegorm.’

But no.

Back on board, the veterans explained it didn’t count if you just paddled around the outside hull. To qualify for the I dived the Thistlegorm teeshirt, you had to explore the cargo holds. The plan was to go inside, they said. It would be fun, they said.

Inside. A frightening claustrophobic word for the new diver. It means you are in a confined space and in the event of an emergency (read NO AIR), you cannot simply rise to the surface. You have to first escape. Another terrible word.

Of course you learn the hand signal for ‘no air’, and your dive partner (or anyone) knows to rush to your side and share her air. That’s Diving 101. But when you’re swimming single file by torch light in a dark ship’s corridor, a hand signal is not easy to see and takes even longer to respond to. You have to twist backwards trying to catch the attention of the diver behind you and then wait until she wiggles up alongside of you and offers her auxiliary mouthpiece. Can you hold your breath for say, a minute, without panicking?

I told the dive master I wouldn’t go. The rest of the diving team looked at me aghast and with a touch of pity.

“Don’t worry,” the dive master said. “You can dive right behind me. I’ll keep an eye on you. It’ll be fine.” He slapped me on the back.

Frankly, I did not see how being behind him gave me any survival advantage, but the other divers (whose O rings had not exploded, mind you) shamed me into agreeing. Someone photographed us both, just before he pried my reluctant fingers from the rope and led me back down.


Since I am writing this blog, I obviously did not die a terrifying death trapped under water, but we did have a lighting problem. One of the divers had a dead torch, and the dive master lent her his, so that meant my torch, in second position, would be the guiding light of the dive. Oh, joy. But for that, I got another photo just before we entered the hold. Obviously, someone was keeping a record. Be good for the post mortem inquest, I thought. The photo conceals my anxious expression.


But for all my cringing and whining, the ‘inside’ dive went beautifully. We first wormed our way through the upper hold, past thousands of Wellington boots, Bren guns, motorcycles, rifle crates, and unexploded munitions. I took pains not to touch anything, not even with a fin-tip. Ya never know, right?

Then, like it or not, the dive master signaled we were to enter the lower hold. Even darker. Even deeper. Even harder to escape. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. While I stayed within fin-grabbing distance of the dive master, I relaxed enough to focus on the amazing cargo of aircraft wings and engines, of armored vehicles, trucks, radio equipment and the coal tender to the locomotive. All was encrusted with sea life, and slowly rusting away.

The experience was thrilling, but not a revelation. Perhaps it was merely the joy of overcoming personal fears. I surfaced with a quiet sense of pride for I had been in the belly of the Thistlegorm. Now I qualified for the tee shirt.

And best of all, I had a fabulous idea for the next novel.




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. =)

Eye of the Tyger

Bold Strokes Books author Justine Saracen always gives her readers a glimpse of history from a unique perspective. Her latest novel, Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright, is no exception.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 626 other followers

%d bloggers like this: