Who knew Grand Central Terminal had a defunct art school? Fiona Davis explores art, history, and the intersection of the 1970s NYC in THE MASTERPIECE

By Leslie Lindsay 

Gorgeous book inside and out (total cover crush!) about blazingly unique–and strong–woman separated by two different time periods and combining art, history, NYC, and a bit of woman’s lib. Fiona is joining us to chat about Depression-era art, real-life inspiration behind her fictional characters, how story and art is so important in times of unrest, and an inkling of her next book. 

The Masterpiece

Fiona Davis has wow-ed me once again with THE MASTERPIECE (Dutton, August 7 2018), which I feel is exactly that–her best yet. What she excels at is in this and also THE DOLLHOUSE (2016) and THE ADDRESS (2017) is so apparent: meticulous research makes for a rich reading experience; plus dazzling prose, an element of mystery, and intriguing characters.

It’s 1928 and Clara Darden is a single woman artist living in NYC and teaching at the little-known Grand Central School of Art (which existed between 1924-1944 at the Grand Central Terminal). Clara is an up-and-coming illustrator but many of her contemporaries don’t consider illustrations ‘real art.’ But it’s her dream. She wants to create art for the cover of Vogue and yet she’s not sure if she can break in. And then there’s the Depression. But little will keep her from her dream.

Nearly fifty years later, in 1974, another woman, Virginia, is met with a new challenge. Newly divorced and having lost her prestigious Upper East Side status, she and her 19-year old daughter, Ruby are struggling to make ends meet. Virginia takes a job at the dangerous and unsavory Grand Central Terminal in the information booth. It’s a landmark building and the bones are gorgeous–if only it could be spiffed up. Then, Virginia learns the building’s very existence is threatened as developers want to construct a skyscraper in its place.

These two plots braid together in a sweeping narrative I found fully transportive. I loved Davis’s prose, the blend of art, history, and fact and fiction. But also the strength and tenacity of women over the years.

THE MASTERPIECE simply glittered and had me thinking about the role of art in challenging times, talking about the book with others, and thinking about how woman have shaped the world.

Leslie Lindsay:

Fiona, welcome back! I am so in awe with this story. I love the time periods but also the infusion of art. I know the idea for this setting came directly from one of your readers. Can you tell us a little more about that? And how does this reader feel about THE MASTERPIECE?

Fiona Davis:

Thank you so much for your kinds words. A couple of years ago, I was doing an author talk for THE DOLLHOUSE in Westchester County, NY, gushing about my love of old New York City buildings, and afterwards an audience member came up to me and offered to get me a behind-the-scenes tour of Grand Central Terminal. I said “You bet!” On the appointed day, we tagged along with a group of architectural students, roaming up to the catwalks overlooking the concourse and into the “war room” where they handle crises like 9/11 and the Northeast blackout of 2003. It was tremendous. I’m looking forward to seeing my insightful reader at the release day author launch at Rizzoli’s Bookstore in New York, and thanking her in person.

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Leslie Lindsay:

The Grand Central School of Art was indeed a real place. I had no idea! Art is ultimately made to be enjoyed by the masses, but it is often created in isolation. So when you think about the Grand Central Terminal filled to the brim with travelers,  one senses energy, an inspiration and yet, cloistered away are the artists. Can you talk a little about the process of creating art and how writing fills that need?

Fiona Davis:

You’ve gotten right to the heart of it, and I love that juxtaposition: this illustrious art school perched on the top floor of the Terminal, with thousands of commuters and travelers roaming the concourse below. The importance of the arts in our lives is a theme that I’m passionate about, and in my books, I’ve enjoyed incorporating art forms like bebop jazz (THE DOLLHOUSE), architecture (THE ADDRESS) and commercial versus fine art (THE MASTERPIECE). For me personally, writing is an art form that continues to challenge and delight. I work in isolation, but then get to go out into the world and meet readers, librarians, and bookstore staff and get inspired all over again.

Leslie Lindsay:

Of course, in THE MASTERPIECE, Clara experiences the Depression, and art becomes a frivolous luxury. While we’re not exactly in a depression now, the social and political climate is strained. How can one reconcile? Is art still important?

Fiona Davis:

If anything, art is even more crucial during times of economic or political crisis. While art may have seemed extraneous during the Depression, when there were bread lines and tent cities, the artists who arose from that era – de Kooning, Gorky, Krasner contributed to and changed the modern art scene immeasurably. Today in New York City, artists are struggling to define and depict the current world order, and doing so in an economic climate that makes finding an affordable apartment almost impossible. A one-two punch, but the filmmakers, dancers, artists, and actors are a tough lot, and their messages and mediums will carry on, as they have for centuries.


“With richly drawn characters living in two storied eras, there is much to be enchanted by.”

— Kirkus Reviews


Leslie Lindsay:  

I’m curious about your characters—Clara Darden and Oliver and Levon. Were they inspired by real people? How about Virginia and Ruby? Is there a particular character—or time period—you felt most aligned with?

Fiona Davis:

Clara Darden and Levon Zakarian are indeed inspired by real-life faculty members from the Grand Central School of Art: Helen Dryden (an illustrator who did over 90 Vogue covers in the 1910s and 1920s) and Arshile Gorky (an abstract expressionist). They both were bold, brash, impetuous artists whose lives were marred with great tragedy. Oliver, who’s Clara’s love interest, is made up, as are Virginia and Ruby. I have to say that Clara is the character who I’d love to be – her take-no-prisoners attitude is one that I’d love to cultivate, being more of an introverted, geeky writer-type myself. Virginia is dear to my heart, as she’s struggling to figure her life out after suffering a number of setbacks. And she’s doing it imperfectly – I can relate!

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Leslie Lindsay:

THE MASTERPIECE is your third book and all of them have focused on little known gems of NYC. Do you see yourself continuing to write NYC-inspired historical fiction or have you considered exploring another area with historical merit?

Fiona Davis:

I’m hard at work on my next book, set in the Chelsea Hotel during the McCarthy Era, from the point of view of an actress and a playwright. The Chelsea is a true New York City gem, which for over a century has been filled with eccentric poets, playwrights, rock stars, and icons, both famous and infamous. I think it would be fun to explore another city at some point – an excuse to relocate to London for a month, perhaps?

Leslie Lindsay:

What’s the last book you read? Movie you’ve watched? Or daydream you’ve conjured? Because we all need story, no matter what mode it’s ingested.

Fiona Davis:

I agree with you about the power of a narrative – it’s how we make sense of the world. The upsurge of all of these wonderful limited-run series on Netflix is a perfect example of the current-day hunger for storytelling. The last book I read was THE SUMMER WIVES, by Beatriz Williams, who’s a virtuoso in the genre of historical fiction. Reading her books is like taking a master class, as they’re filled with snappy dialogue, three-dimensional characters, and a plot that surprises without being confusing. Beautifully pulled off.

Leslie Lindsay:

Fiona, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Fiona Davis:

We covered a lot of ground. I’m honored and thrilled to be included, and thank you for everything you do to connect authors and readers.

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Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE MASTERPIECE, please visit:

Order Links: 

Fiona Davis high resABOUT THE AUTHOR: Fiona Davis began her career in New York City as an actress, where she worked on Broadway, off-Broadway, and in regional theater. After getting a master’s degree at Columbia Journalism School, she fell in love with writing, leapfrogging from editor to freelance journalist before finally settling down as an author of historical fiction. Her debut novel, The Dollhouse, was published in 2016 and a year later she hit the national bestseller list with The Address. Her third historical novel, The Masterpiece, will be published in August 2018. She’s a graduate of the College of William & Mary and is based in New York City. Learn more at www.fionadavis.net.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites: 

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#historicalfiction #authtorinterview #NYC #amreading 

[Cover and author image courtesy of Dutton/Random House and used with permission. Images of the interior of Grand Central Terminal retrieved from author’s website on 8.2.18]. 

 

Amber Brock on her ‘breezy’ historical novel set in the 1950s, LADY BE GOOD

By Leslie Lindsay 

Captivating tale of glamour and glitz in the early-mid 1950s traversing culture and cities, including NYC, Havana, and Miami. She chats with me about how research is probably her most favorite part of writing, the political and social climate of the mid-century, how she loves CRAZY RICH ASIANS (movie coming!), and so much more

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LADY BE GOOD (Crown, June 26 2018) pairs perfectly with a rum and Coke or a strawberry daiquiri and a sun-drenched patio. 
I found Amber Brock quickly and effortlessly transported me to the time period and the various cities in the story–I felt every scarf and blouse, every hair-do and every pair of sandals, that’s Brock’s greatest strength here– capturing the time period with absolute perfection. She’s clearly done her homework because these characters–Kitty and Hen–practically jump off the page with their accessories and ways of speaking.

Kitty is a rich socialite who primarily lives off her father’s money; he owns several high-class hotels in NYC, but in other cities, too (namely, Havana and Miami). Kitty is at marrying age and her father wants to ensure his precious daughter is married off to the ‘right’ kind of guy; one with status and money. But Kitty isn’t interested in the one he wants for her. In fact, she has her ‘designs’ (to use a lovely 1950s word) on someone else…

Hen is Kitty’s best friend. She comes from the ‘right’ kind of family: connections and old money. Together, the women are inseparable, and a bit of trouble. The real fun begins when Kitty’s father sends them both to the Miami hotel to oversee a few things and perhaps fall for the ‘right’ guy.

But Kitty is intrigued with Max, a musician at the Miami hotel and well, he’s not exactly the marrying type, at least not in Kitty’s father’s eyes.

Of course, Kitty is used to getting what she desires,
and with her charming and delightful manipulations, she very nearly does.

Brock’s prose is witty and graceful, and her descriptions of the glitz and glamour of the time period really bring the narrative to life.

Please join me in welcoming Amber Brock to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay: Amber, so glad you’re here. I am stunned with your gorgeous descriptions of the 1950s. The sayings, the pop culture, the style, all of it is spot-on. I am curious if this is a period of time that just ‘spoke to you,’ if there was a character you wanted to explore, or perhaps a situation to delve into?

Amber Brock: Thanks so much! Glad to be here, and I appreciate your kind words about the setting. I’ve loved the pop culture of the 1950s since I was young, especially some of Kitty’s favorites in the novel: I Love Lucy and How to Marry a Millionaire, for example. The relief from wartime austerity and the booming postwar economy meant that it was a glamorous era, which felt like a fun backdrop for a socialite like Kitty. But it was only glamorous and prosperous for certain segments of society, and I was intrigued by the simmering social tensions that would lead to even greater changes in the 60s. That questioning of norms felt like a natural setting to push a young woman to question herself and her place in the wider world.

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L.L.: Can you tell us what kind of research you did to bring the time period to life? Do you enjoy the research?

Amber Brock: I love research; it’s honestly one of my favorite parts of writing. I’m fortunate enough to have a librarian in the family, and she got me started with articles and oral histories, especially about Miami and Havana in the 1950s. She also helped me discover Irving Fields, a Jewish musician who played Latin music from the 1940s until his recent passing, and he was a joy to read about.

The best thing about researching in the internet age is that people have very specific, niche interests that they catalog meticulously. So, for example, I found a whole website devoted to PanAm, with photographs and scans of brochures, menus, luggage tags, even playing cards! I watched home movies that people have posted to YouTube of their mid-century trips through South Florida and Miami, which gave me a feel for the tourist experience of that era.

With all of my novels, I want the details to be as authentic as possible. If my characters go to a restaurant, I want to know what dishes they’d have to choose from. I want to see photographs of the interior, so I know I’m describing it the way it would have been. It feels like a nice way to honor and connect with the past.

L.L.: Much of the heart of LADY BE GOOD has to do with race and culture and finding the ‘right’ person to settle down with. There’s a section I wanted to highlight, which really speaks volumes:

“Then it hit her. Those who couldn’t hide being Cuban, or Dominican, or Jewish, didn’t. They had to live with the restrictions or face consequences. Those who could hide, on the other hand, had to choose to bury part of themselves to be accepted. It was more than pretending to be part of the elite. It was pretending to be someone you weren’t. Disowning and disavowing your memories, your home, your family.”

It’s a gorgeous and meaningful passage. Can you speak more to that, please?

Amber Brock: All Kitty wants in the beginning of the novel is to feel accepted by a group that she believes has everything she needs for the best life. She’s so focused on the benefits of inclusion, but she doesn’t see immediately what that might cost her. Inclusion in an elite group necessarily means that some must be excluded, and this is the moment when Kitty recognizes that fact. She also begins to realize that the cost she faces is not as great as the cost other excluded groups might face. A lot of this awakening is due to her relationship with Max. For most of her life, she thought of her family’s immigrant story as a stumbling block, so she’s surprised that he’s proud of his heritage, despite the way he’s treated because of it.

L.L.: I’m so curious how Cuban culture wove its way into the narrative. Obviously, it’s close to Miami (where a piece of the story takes place), so why not just leave the reader—and characters—in Miami?

Amber Brock: As I drafted the novel, I wrestled with whether or not the characters should go to Cuba. I had created Sebastian and fallen in love with him as a character, and I saw the trip as a way to spend more time with him and explore his background in a more meaningful way. Still, as Kitty quickly learns, it wasn’t the ideal time to visit. Though the revolution was still several years away, Fidel Castro was already rallying supporters and causing disruption. Huge numbers of Cubans were suffering under a corrupt government. Eventually, I decided to include the Cuba trip as a way not only to develop Sebastian further, but also to show a beautiful, distinctive culture on the brink of enormous change.

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L.L.: I understand you are also an English teacher. How has—or does—teaching influence your writing?

Amber Brock: Being an English teacher means I hardly ever breeze through a novel. I usually can’t resist digging deeper into what I read, analyzing characters especially. I value a good discussion about a text, so when I write, I know I’m trying to make that kind of discussion possible for my readers. Still, I think reading should be fun, so I want to create something fun for the “breezers”, too.

I teach at an all-girls’ school, and my students are always in the back of my mind when I write. I consider the messages they’re confronted with in the media they consume (including novels—many of them are voracious readers). I want to make sure that, if any of them read my work, they can walk away with a sense of empowerment and a story that makes them think about their own contributions to the world.


“Kitty Tessler, a headstrong glamour girl determined to move up in the world, steals the spotlight in Amber Brock’s latest, a tour-de-force filled with intrigue and surprises.”
Fiona Davis, nationally bestselling author of The Address and The Dollhouse


L.L.: Kitty and Hen have a bevvy of guilty pleasures—from cigarettes to luncheons, high-end fashion, and their taste in men—what’s on your list of guilty pleasures?

Amber Brock: Like Kitty, I can’t resist a good cocktail or a pretty dress. I also have a notorious sweet tooth. Oh, and I love indulging in a long afternoon nap.

sea beach holiday vacation
Photo by Stokpic on Pexels.com

L.L.: What’s the last book(s) you recommended to a friend?

Amber Brock: AI have been handing the CRAZY RICH ASIANS series to anyone who will sit still long enough to let me tell them about those books. I love a book that can make me laugh out loud, and the characters are so wild and fun. Definitely my favorite type of read.

L.L.: Amber, it’s been a delight. Is there anything I should have asked about but may have forgotten?

Amber Brock: It was such a pleasure to chat! Please let your readers know that I will be on tour this summer to talk about the inspiration and research behind LADY BE GOOD. Full details are on my website, and I’ll be in Georgia, South Carolina, Delaware, and Florida. If anyone is interested in learning more, I encourage them to come see me!

 For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of LADY BE GOOD, please see: 

Order Links: 

AmberABOUT THE AUTHOR: AMBER BROCK teaches British literature at an all-girls’ school in Atlanta. She is the author of A Fine Imitation and LADY BE GOOD, which Crown will publish on June 26, 2018. She holds an MA from the University of Georgia and lives in Smyrna with her husband, also an English teacher, and their three rescue dogs.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites: 

               

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Lady Be Good

#authorinterviewseries #historicalfiction #authorinterview  

[Cover and author images courtesy of Crown Publishing and used with permission.]

WeekEND Reading: Have you ever wondered what ‘really happened’ with the infamous Borden family? Did they just stop loving one another, was Lizzie really an axe murder(ess)? Sarah Schmidt talks about this, finding your own way with a story, how Lizzie ‘haunted’ her for 11 years, and so much more in SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE

By Leslie Lindsay 

Explosive debut novel, part-crime, part-historical, and part family dynamics, Sarah Schmidt reimagines the infamous Lizzie Borden story. 

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We’ve all heard the rhyme, about Lizzie Borden taking the ax and whacking her mother and then doing the same to her father, with one more whack. If that’s not chilling enough, being a nursery rhyme and all, what follows in the narrative is just as disturbing.

It’s August 1892 and Fall River, Massachusetts is experiencing a major heat wave. Everyone’s a bit on edge, and ill. Sarah Schmidt, an Australian debut author takes the story we’ve all heard bits and pieces of and breathes life into the terrible, twisted tale of Lizzie Borden and her family with deft skill at bringing the senses to life. In fact, much of why I loved this tale is because of the visceral reactions to I had during the reading experience. That’s not to say a story about a grisly double murder isn’t enough, but it’s Schmidt’s use of language that had me wincing. In this case, that’s a good thing, a testament to her writing. 

SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE (Atlantic/Grove Press, August 2018) focuses on the stepmother, Abby (it was a remarriage following Lizzie’s mother’s death when Lizzie was just 5), the sometimes temperamental businessman father, Andrew, and the two spinster sisters, Emma and Lizzie, and another, the enigmatic character, Benjamin.

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I found the character of Lizzie so well drawn, so real; definitely a character I loved to hate. Schmidt writes her with such psychological precisiona woman who never really grew up as much of her characterizations led me to believe Lizzie younger than her stated 32 years.

Told in alternating POVs, SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE focuses mostly on the days surrounding the murder, if not focusing exclusively on the day itself. We hear from several characters, their interpretations of the events, and then we also hear about bit about the trial (but not much), leading us to draw some of our own conclusions. Perhaps Lizzie didn’t kill her parents after all?

I’m so honored to welcome Sarah Schmidt to the blog.

Leslie Lindsay: Sarah, I loved SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE. In fact, it got me thinking about the case and the characters when I wasn’t reading and then I was drawn to do some more digging. I heard somewhere that you just couldn’t get Lizzie to leave you alone. Can you talk about your inspiration, and how Lizzie ‘haunted’ you?

Sarah Schmidt: I had difficulty letting these characters go and constantly thought about them, so I’m relieved to hear they infiltrated your mind too. I ‘discovered’ this case while I was in a second-hand bookstore in 2005 and initially I wasn’t interested in it at all. However later that night I had a dream: Lizzie was sitting at the end of my bed, poked me in the leg and said, ‘I have something to tell you about my father. He has a lot to answer for.’ I had this same dream every night for a week and it was only then that I decided to write down the dream and hope Lizzie would leave me alone. She didn’t but the upside was that I was able to write this book. I felt like Lizzie in particular was with me most days and this allowed me to play with her character in unusual ways. It’s quite the gift for a fiction writer to have a set of characters feel absolutely like fresh and bone—in a way it allows you to visit them whenever you like when it’s time to write them.

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L.L.: One thing that struck as I was reading is that you are Australian, not American. I had always thought the Lizzie Borden story was pure American folklore, having taken place in Massachusetts, not exactly a worldwide case. Can you expand on that a bit?

Sarah Schmidt: I hadn’t heard of this case until I stumbled upon it however I’ve since learnt that many people in Australia and elsewhere have heard about Lizzie and the case (or at the very least they know the nursery rhyme). This case was a phenomenon: a wealthy white woman from a privileged, respectable family was accused of axing her father and step-mother to death. The details surrounding the case were a total mystery and this only increased interest in the case. I think in many ways the idea that a woman could be so violent was the pulse of the story and this helped push its way around certain parts of the world. The fact that it became American folklore definitely helped keep the story alive.

L.L.: I’m curious about your writing process. I can imagine it would be easy to get bogged down in research. There’s got to be plenty out there on Lizzie Borden and her family, some of it accurate and others not-so-much. How did you decide on what to include and what to jettison?

Sarah Schmidt: Research is often the fun part—it’s the actual writing that can be the downside. As I mentioned, I wasn’t really interested in the case but the fact that Lizzie kept talking about her father in my dreams made me realise that what I was interested in was the family and what these people may have been like. The central questions I wanted to explore were: if Lizzie did do it, why would she commit such a crime? What happens to a family when they no longer love each other?

So initially I began my research by reading anything I could get my hands on and I read a lot of the court transcripts. When I would go to write I felt completely bogged down by the history and facts of the case and I didn’t feel connected which made my writing feel stale. It was then that I decided I would take liberties and simply concentrate on the family. This was completely freeing. I was writing fiction after all.  So I began to research in stages when I needed to: whatever information I retained indicated to me that these were the parts that would resonate within the story and a readership. As I went on, I began looking for things that told me about the humanity of the family. After a few years you begin to intuit what your manuscript needs.

I also decided early on to limit my interactions with other interpretations of the case (whether books or films etc) because I wanted to create my own story and didn’t want to be completely influenced by what had gone before me. This is such a mythologised case: you need to find your own way to a story.

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L.L.: And the structure. That’s another major undertaking, weaving all of these different POVs into a seamless whole. Was there ever a time you thought about writing this as a first person POV, say, from Lizzie only? Or a third person narration? Did you try it other ways before deciding on the final outcome?

Sarah Schmidt: I had no idea how I was going to write this book. In the beginning I had Lizzie’s voice but I quickly realised that she was never going to be the narrator I wanted her to be: she was effusive, petulant, annoying. I knew I needed someone else. That’s how Benjamin came to live in the book. But even he had his limitations. Overtime I collected the narrators and the story unfolded as I learnt more about them and what they knew, what they wanted to share with me. I would constantly switch from one narrator to the other when I got bored with them. This process can become complicated and often I got lost in the narrative however in a way, I think this helped create the rhythm of the novel.

Depending on who I was writing the narration would either be in first person or third person (for example Emma was in third person for a very long time) but for this book I found being in first person was the best way to tell this story, especially because it’s such a claustrophobic novel. Being trapped in the heads of these characters helped the mood and shape of the whole thing.

I wish I could write a novel that is told from one POV and sticks to a linear narrative but that’s just not how my brain works!

L.L.: And what more can you tell us about Benjamin? He was quite mysterious. Who was he, exactly?

Sarah Schmidt: Benjamin is a fictional character and was born because I couldn’t handle Lizzie on my own. I liked the idea that there would be a parallel character to Lizzie, one who was just as violent but wore it differently to her. Over time he became his own person and I was able to use him to explore themes such as justice and retribution.

L.L.: Of course I have to mention the visceral reading experience. Oh my! I felt everything deep in my gut. I found myself licking my lips at certain passages and feeling anger and disgust and so many other emotions. Instead of asking how you write that way, what do you do to keep the saw sharp?

Sarah Schmidt: I’m not sure I even know the answer to this only that I try to always follow my gut instinct and pay attention to what is around me. Observing everything and everyone helps as does allowing yourself to sit by your character’s side and let them dictate their world view. It’s very tiring to write this way but it’s the only way I know how. If I feel bored by something or if it doesn’t ring true to me (or to the character) then I have failed creatively and I start again. It’s the only way to keep it fresh.

L.L.: There’s a part in your acknowledgements section that thanks Lizzie for choosing you to tell her story but then you say, ‘it’s time to go.’  Do you still think about her? Does she still ‘find’ you?

Sarah Schmidt:  I haven’t felt truly connected to Lizzie for a good while now but she still pops into my head from time to time. I spent eleven years with her and these people: I think it’s going to take me a while to adjust.

L.L.:  What are you working on now? Another grisly historical fiction?

Sarah Schmidt: I don’t like talking about projects in their infancy however I’m working on a novel that came to me in a dream about five or so years ago. It was a simply image of a woman driving a car toward mountains with a child in the backseat. Nothing was what it seemed. I knew instantly that it was a novel, I just didn’t know what it was. Last year I began to explore this idea and image in depth and it has surprised me. I didn’t set out to write about the past but that’s what it has become. You just follow the feelings of your characters and see where they take you.

L.L.: Sarah, it’s been such a pleasure! Though the tale is horrific, I enjoyed your writing very much. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Sarah Schmidt: Thank you for these questions: they were great!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE, please visit:

  • Website
  • Instagram: @ikillnovel
  • Twitter: @ikillnovel
  • Read more about Sarah Schmidt’s experience with Lizzie on her blog

Order Links:

Sarah Schmidt color c Nicholas Purcell StudioABOUT THE AUTHOR:  After completing a bachelor of arts (professional writing/editing), a master of arts (creative writing), and a graduate diploma of information management, Sarah Schmidt currently works as a reading and literacy coordinator at a regional public library. She lives in Melbourne, Australia. See What I Have Done is her first novel.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Grove Atlantic and used with permission. 1892 image of Lizzie Border and the Borden home retrieved from author’s website , image of girl with axe from vimeo rhyme of Lizzie Borden retrieved from, all on 3.7.18] 

Wednesdays with Writers: What do you call a book with recurring characters that isn’t a series? A ‘connected novel,’ perhaps? Robin Oliveira talks about this, her love for Albany NY, bike riding, researching books to be accurate yet emotional, how her former career as a critical care RN informs her writing and more in WINTER SISTERS

By Leslie Lindsay 

A haunting tale of a horrific New York blizzard that leads to missing girls, a court case, and dead parents. 

Winter Sisters
It’s March 1879, fourteen years after the Civil War. The day begins like any other. A light snow is falling as the O’Donnell family leave their simple home for work and school. But an epic blizzard has obliterated the city, separating children from parents and families from homes. Both of the O’Donnell parents area dead and the girls, Emma and Claire (ages 10 and 7) are nowhere to be found.

Close family friends, Dr. Mary Stipp (nee, Sutter)–whom we met in Oliveira’s earlier book, MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, and her husband, Dr. William Stipp, begin a tireless search for the girls, turning over every orphanage, church, home, school…the girls are nowhere to be found. The police feel they must have died in the river. Yet, scandal is brewing.

Meanwhile, Mary’s mother, Amelia and niece (Elizabeth) return from their stay in Paris where Elizabeth had been in the Paris Conservatory studying violin. Together, with the Drs. Stipp, the search continues, as well as grieving for the lost.

I found the writing absolutely glorious, with rich detail to the historical period, making every piece of the story feel very authentic and accurate (though some creative liberties were taken with the dates, as explained in the author’s note). Oliveira’s descriptions sing, as does her experience as a former critical care R.N., bringing so much of this 19th century doctor to life.

The last third of WINTER SISTERS was almost exclusively focused on a trial, which Oliveira depicts in such flourish and beauty, sharp dialogue, and clever characters. I was so taken with this part of the story and couldn’t get enough. Much of the themes angered me, but had me cheering for the ‘good guy,’ too.

Part family saga, part medical drama, part thriller, all set in a historical setting, WINTER SISTERS is sure to delight and enrage as it traverses unspeakable evil to tremendous good. 

I am so, so honored to welcome Robin to the blog couch. Please join us in conversation.

Leslie Lindsay: Robin, I loved WINTER SISTERS so much. I’m curious what drew you to this story? I know you’re from Albany, New York, but there has to be more to it other than it being your hometown. Can you elaborate?

Robin Oliveira: Thank you, Leslie. I’m so glad you loved the book. I love to hear when readers connect with one of my novels. Because we writers write in a vacuum, it is lovely to receive notes of appreciation.

I grew up in Loudonville, which is just north of Albany on Route 9, but we often drove into the city to attend church, visit the doctor, shop, go out to dinner. From the wide back seat of my mother’s Bonneville, I formed indelible memories of the city: the Hudson River seemed wide and forbidding, the trains traveling right down the middle of Broadway spoke of faraway places, and the grand, rococo spires of the churches were enthralling and historic. Albany wears its history on its sleeve. Much of its 19th century architecture remains intact, giving Albany a distinctly visible link to its past. There were wooden row houses and elegant brownstones and verdant parks and enormous government buildings that to a child seemed like the larger world. Of course, it wasn’t Paris or Manhattan, but at that time, to my eyes, Albany was a fascinating, dangerous, romantic place, full of story and drama. That impression, and the desire to convey Albany’s legacy, has lingered with me in the years since.

In the 19th century, Albany was not a city in decline but a significant player on the world stage, a vital crossroads between east and west, which makes it a rich setting for a novel. The Hudson River, the railroads, and the Erie Canal all played an important role in the prosperity of the nation. Hemmed in on one side by the river, high and low society lived cheek by jowl: the rough and tumble lumbermen, barons of industry, tumultuous politics and politicians, and a more genteel society several generations removed from its methods of enrichment. Separated from Manhattan City by only a four-hour dayboat ride or train trip, in its heyday Albany was intimately connected with the commerce of the entire country. This story, WINTER SISTERS, in particular, begged to be set in this thriving, small city, where gossip and scandal could impact multiple levels of society.

What drew me to the story itself is another question entirely. I didn’t set out to bring Mary back. But in the process of researching an entirely different book, I discovered that in 1879, in New York State, the age of consent was ten years old. That changed everything. I knew I had to write about it, and as I discovered that a doctor’s services would be called upon in the book, I thought Mary Sutter might make a cameo appearance. But the issues explored turned out to be grave, and I knew that if Mary got wind of them, she wouldn’t stay silent or stand by while somebody else dealt with the problem. She wouldn’t be content with having a distant role. So, she needed to be intimately affected by the events of the novel. And voila! A new Mary Sutter novel was born.

L.L.:  WINTER SISTERS picks up about fourteen years after the Civil War. In your previous book, MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, we’re introduced to a brilliant, headstrong midwife who eventually becomes a Civil War surgeon. Dr. Mary Sutter (now married to Dr. William Stipp), is back in this tale, but this isn’t exactly a series, is it? Is there a literary term for this type of character cross-over? And what is it about Mary that you—and readers—love so much?mary-sutter-250

Robin Oliveira: I know, it isn’t quite a series, is it? Shall we invent a term? Connected novels, like connected short stories? Though I have received many requests from readers over the years to ‘bring Mary back,’ I could never find a story that seemed as necessary or compelling to tell as the one I had already told about her. I felt as if I’d solved all her problems, and that nothing else would ever be as exciting or interesting as becoming a surgeon in the midst of war. What I think compels readers—and me—to love Mary Sutter is that she is a bright, clear-headed, courageous woman who speaks her mind, ignores societal conventions, slices directly into the heart of things, runs into trouble rather than away from it (the definition of a hero), and persists no matter the roadblock. I particularly love her verbal comebacks. She thinks of and says the apt rebuke or bon mot we all wish we were able to say in similarly fraught moments. There are many situations in my life where I think, Well, Mary wouldn’t have let that person speak to her like that. Why did you? Of course, it took me three or more drafts to write the words she wields as deftly as a sword. But what I think I adore most about Mary is that she is at heart an entirely moral human being. She rejects the frivolous—fashion, status, appearance—for the pursuit of much higher goals.  

L.L.:  Like Mary, you have experience in the medical field as a former critical care nurse. Your knowledge shines through in those medical scenes (I was a former psych R.N.) and so I’m curious how you made the switch from nursing to writing and how your past experience informs your present writing.

Robin Oliveira: Before I ever thought about becoming a nurse, I was a reader. From early in my life, you could find me buried in a book somewhere in a corner, oblivious to the world around me, enthralled by a story. Since you and I have a lot in common—we are both readers, writers and nurses—I think you would probably agree that what connects those occupations is empathy. Writing is nothing if not an act of empathy, as is nursing. We inhabit differing realities, seek out hidden sources of pain, and do what we can to craft meaning from the lives we encounter, or in fiction, the characters we create. On a practical level, my transition to writing began with education. Having failed at making much progress in learning to write on my own, I started taking writing classes at the local community college, then moved on to university extension evening courses, and finally received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. I have made a number of changes over the years. My first undergraduate degree was in Russian, a reflection of my love of language.

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All of these things—reading, nursing, my love of language—inform my present writing. But more specifically, nursing brought me close to people on the verge of mortality. The intimacy of the act of nursing the critically ill breeds the kinds of instinct that work well for a writer: notice everything, try to draw meaning from sometimes inchoate gestures or requests, ask multiple questions to understand what someone’s true desire might be, especially at the end of life. In addition, I probably am able to write about medicine with more precision than another writer, who isn’t in the medical field. But I think that medicine and illness—even cursory illness— isn’t utilized enough in fiction. I often wonder about books covering many years in which no character ever suffers even a cold. It’s important as we write to acknowledge the weaknesses of the body as well as the soul. Nurses and physicians who write may be more focused on this.

“A true tour de force, Winter Sisters is the best period thriller I’ve read since The Alienist. Robin Oliveira is…working at the height of her powers.”
   —Thomas Christopher Greene, author of The Headmaster’s Wife and If I Forget You

L.L.:  I absolutely loved the piece about the courtroom showdown, which takes place in the last third of WINTER SISTERS. I was in awe of the quick wit, the cleverness, and I was thinking, ‘how did she pull this off?’ What research did you do for these scenes?

Robin Oliveira: I spent a lot of time reading 17th and 19th-century trial transcripts. I began with reading the Old Bailey transcripts from England—now available online—which were helpful in terms of tone but less helpful in terms of procedure and law. But New York trial transcripts, also recently digitized, are available from the early 1880’s, close enough to 1879 to be useful to me. I ferreted out procedure from these, as well as language and the kinds of questions lawyers were asking victims and witnesses.

In my first drafts, I didn’t quite know how to portray that court scene, never having written one, and not being a fan of television crime dramas. I couldn’t quite figure out how to craft those scenes so that they were tight and yet still portrayed what would have occurred in the courtroom. At first, I wrote endlessly long scenes recounting events and information that readers already knew. My editors, after reading the 200,000-word draft I sent them on my first deadline, implored me to cut the dross. It was excruciating figuring out which details to include and which to summarize in order to make the scene move with the kind of speed required to keep a reader’s attention without sacrificing any important details. As far as wit and cleverness go—thank you!—that was just rewriting. I went through multiple drafts. I included repartee because the events of the trial are so weighty that I felt the reader needed some comic relief in order to stay with me.

L.L.: There’s a lot to this book. There are missing girls, family drama, music in form of the violin, the natural disasters of the blizzard and flood, medical procedures, and of course that courtroom scene(s). They are all interrelated and form a delicious whole, but is there one aspect you enjoyed writing more than others?

Robin Oliveira: I like learning new things. It’s the perennial student in me. I knew nothing about playing the violin—I can’t play a single instrument and am tone deaf—so I enjoyed figuring out how to write about a character who knew how to play the violin really well. I spent a lot of time on YouTube watching performances and listening to violin instructors explain things. I went to a Hilary Hahn concert to study her phrasing and watched her physicality as played. I went to Paris to visit the Conservatoire, which was wildly fun. Not trusting my two years of college French in conversation, I composed a note that I presented at the door of the school, which explained that I was writing a book and that part of it was set in the conservatory. Could I please come in to see the building and the famous concert hall? Yes! They let me in! I love the French. Then came the challenge of writing about the conservatory and about playing the violin convincingly enough, which was both a terror and a joy. This might be a good time to mention that 90% of my research doesn’t make it to the page; however, I think what I learn imbues the narrative with more depth than it would otherwise hold.  

L.L.: Can you talk a little more about the music piece? In this sense, this story reminded me a bit of Carmela Martino’s PLAYING BY HEART. What was your intention with Elizabeth and her violin?

Robin Oliveira: One of the reasons I chose to include music in the story was that I needed Elizabeth to stand very much in opposition to her aunt. Their differences, both in personality and profession, provide a source of conflict that pushes one of the narrative threads. Mary Sutter is a physician who from an early age was scientifically grounded, practical in the extreme, and as a result seems better equipped to handle the kinds of issues that arise in WINTER SISTERS. By contrast, Elizabeth has always been artistic and emotional, and as a result not only feels far more vulnerable than perhaps her aunt ever has, but also, at first, seems to have very little to offer when the crisis presents itself. But each of them is a prodigy in their own right, and Elizabeth has something to provide that it turns out that Mary, with all her medical skill, cannot. Elizabeth’s musical genius reaches into the soul—and this story cried out for every tool available to respond to the story’s tragedy.

L.L.:  Can you give us a few “Robin” facts, maybe something few know?

Robin Oliveira: I love to ride my bicycle around the San Juan Islands in Washington. I studied in Moscow, USSR, in January 1976, when I was just twenty-two years old. I once skinny-dipped in Puget Sound. (I don’t recommend it. Too cold.) I’m addicted to watching eagle cams so I can observe growing eaglets while I write. I’m afraid of sailboats. I almost drowned when I was four years old on a family vacation in Cape Cod. I included one of my childhood dreams in WINTER SISTERS. I love the ballet. I was a Girl Scout, but probably sold the fewest boxes of cookies of any Girl Scout ever. And I met President Carter on a trip to the White House in 1977, and President Obama when he was raising funds for his first run for the White House.

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L.L.: What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Robin Oliveira: Perhaps the question I most often receive about my books is how authentic is the history in my books?

The answer is 99% of it. If I ever differ from established history, I explain how and why in my author notes. As you alluded to earlier, for WINTER SISTERS I moved a famous blizzard from 1888 to 1879. I did that because I needed my characters to be a certain age, and since they had already appeared in a prior book, I had to fudge that timing. But given the history of deadly winter storms in the northeast, I didn’t think it was too much of a stretch.

I like to put my readers—and myself—back in time. I do this by making my characters contend with reality as it was then. For instance, every boat or train they take adheres to historic schedules. In MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, I wouldn’t allow Mary to possess more medical knowledge than was available at the time. This of course led her to make mistakes, but it was important to show medicine as it was, not medicine as I wanted her to know it. Also, I make certain never to move my historical characters from one place to another unless I can make a good case for how it might have happened. Again in MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, I knew that President Lincoln gave a speech on a certain day very near General Lee’s house in Arlington, Virginia, where most of the Union Army had decamped after a blistering defeat at Manassas. I thought it was possible that Lincoln could have traveled on to visit the general who had mismanaged the battle, so I felt comfortable writing a scene set there. In I ALWAYS LOVED YOU, a story about the impressionist artists Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt, I kept a detailed timeline of where every single artist in their circle was at any given time so that I wouldn’t have them meet while one was in Paris, say, and the other in Aix.

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It’s very important to me to underpin historical story with historical fact. However, emotional character arcs, in my mind, are fair game for interpretation in fiction. While I never go against anything that can be historically verified, story is not made up of facts. It is instead made up of emotion—the why something happened, which at its core speaks to motivation. Characters make decisions based on desire, and story ensues. That’s what makes historical fiction differ from history. That said, when I write about historical characters, I make heavy use of diaries, letters, reports, newspaper stories, etc. so that I can better get to the heart of who they were and what they wanted. Never is a historical figure a pawn in my story about them. Rather, I try to understand their story in order to portray it as intimately and emotionally true as I am able.

L.L.: Robin, it’s been such a pleasure! Thank you.

Robin Oliveira: The pleasure is all mine!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of WINTER SISTERS, please see:

Order Links:

Robin Oliveira - © Shellie Gansz 2017.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Robin Oliveira grew up just outside Albany, New York in Loudonville. She holds a B.A. in Russian, and studied at the Pushkin Language Institute in Moscow, Russia. She worked for many years as a Registered Nurse, specializing in Critical Care and Bone Marrow Transplant. In 2006 Robin received an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. In 2007 she was awarded the James Jones First Novel Fellowship for her debut novel-in-progress, MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, then entitled The Last Beautiful Day. MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER also received the 2011 Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction and the 2010 American Historical Fiction Honorable Mention from the Langum Charitable Trust. The book was chosen as an all-city read for both Schenectady, N.Y. and Roswell, Georgia, and in 2015, the all-state read for Iowa. Her book, I ALWAYS LOVED YOU, was published by VIKING in 2014. WINTER SISTERS is her newest, set for publication on February 27th, 2018. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Euphony and Numero Cinq. Robin is the former fiction editor at the literary magazine upstreet and a former assistant editor at Narrative Magazine. She lives outside of Seattle, Washington with her husband, Andrew Oliveira. She is the mother of two grown children, Noelle and Miles.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Viking/Penguin Random House and used with permission. Author photo credit: Shellie Lansz. Paris Conservatory images retrieved from Wikipedia; signs and storefronts of c. 1892 Albany NY from  Albany mansion from, nurse reading from, backroads biking on San Juan from , image of old letters from; all on 2.15.18]

Wednedays with Writers: Inspired by her grandmother’s stories of WWII, an adorable lion cub, delicious berry pies, and the gorgeous landscape of Hawaii, debut novelist Sara Ackerman takes us on her journey, touching on acupuncture, paddleboarding, and more in ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLIDERS

By Leslie Lindsay 

Wartime novel set among the lush landscape of Hawaii about friendship, loyalties, and love. 

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I fell right into the folds of this novel, as the glittering paradise of Hawaii came to life with Ackerman’s detail and ease. It’s 1944 and Violet and her daughter, 10-year old Ella are piecing their lives back together after her husband and high school principal, Herman goes missing. It’s been a year and still no final word on Herman’s fate. Suspicions and rumors swirl–was he a spy? Was he as loyal as others believed?

And then there’s Ella; she knows something but isn’t saying. Ella struggles at school and is trying to move forward, but something–or someone–seems to be holding her back.

Told in alternating POVs, between Violet and Ella, ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS is historical fiction about fiction, racism, war, mother-daughter relationships with a dash of suspense and romance. I found I really fell in love with Ella and could see a bit of myself in her. This is a different take on the usual WWII stories that have been popular in recent books–with mostly a European experience; ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS is more of a ‘homefront’ read about love, loyalties, and family. 

As for the suspense and the missing father/husband…I don’t want to give away too much, but things are resolved with the help of a pet…lion.

All in all, I don’t think I’ve read a book quite like this one, the grit of war set in the sparkling setting of Hawaii.

So pull up a seat, grab a slice of pie, and join me in conversation with Sara Ackerman.

Leslie Lindsay: Sara, I think for all novels, there’s a falling-off point that reels you in as an author. I think I might know what it is for you, but I’m going to let you tell us.

Sara Ackerman: Roscoe the lion was what drew me in initially.  He was my spark.  My grandmother always talked about this lion that the Marines had with them at Camp Tarawa in Waimea.  As a young girl, I was enthralled by the idea that there was a lion in Hawaii that wasn’t in a zoo.  Not only that, but this same lion rode in my grandmother’s car!  She never mentioned him by name, but when I got curious and Googled him, there he was sitting on the front of a jeep with a bunch of kids around him.  As it turned out, my mother was one of those kids petting Roscoe.  I formed my story around that, and the feeling that I got from my grandmother that the war had been a terrifying and tragic time, but also a very meaningful time. I wanted to portray both sides of that coin.  The friendships and bonds that held them together.  That was my jumping off point.

[image caption from 2011 newspaper: Stilson snuggles up to Roscoe, the 5th Marine Division’s mascot – they had to leave behind in Hawaii when they hit the beaches at Iwo Jima. Baby on lion from]

L.L.: You have to tell us about Roscoe, the pet lion cub. As I read with my adoring basset hound on my lap, I often pretended her coarse, oily fur was Roscoe!

Sara Ackerman: Roscoe [really] was my inspiration and one of the main reasons I wrote this book!  I love animals and I write about them extensively in all my novels.  The story of how the Marines brought him over from the Los Angeles zoo and how he lived with them and became a mascot was so appealing to me.  I remember my grandmother talking about stopping to pick up some Marines as they trudged up the hot and winding road from Kawaihae (the beach) to Waimea where their camp was.  She was terrified to have a lion in her car, but the men persuaded her that he would be fine.  That was how she ended up with a lion breathing down her neck as she drove them up the hill.  She never tired of telling this story, and as a young girl, I never tired of hearing it.

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L.L.: And so the war is near and dear to you. Your grandparents really colored the world of ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS for you. Are you often swayed by the nostalgic pull of family? I recently read that if you decorate your home with a few ancestral artifacts (old wedding photos, for example, or something your mother may have used), it makes you happier, connecting you to previous generations.

Sara Ackerman: My mother has an old photograph of my grandparents, the sugar plantation manager, and all of the students at Laupahoehoe School, who were mostly Japanese at the time, that I absolutely love.  This was just before the war and it is priceless.  It wasn’t until I was older that I gained more curiosity and compassion for what my grandparents––on both sides––went through while living through the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the rest of the war.  It is beyond my comprehension to fathom the fear that they had to live with on a daily basis for all those years.  I recently got a small dose of that with the Ballistic Missile threat fiasco here in Hawaii.  For about 40 minutes, we thought the message was real and all kinds of crazy thoughts ran through my mind.  I kept just thinking, wow, so this is how it ends.  It was very surreal.  I also remembered that radio message that went out about Pearl Harbor…This Is Not A Drill, This is the Real McCoy, especially because I had just listened to it while researching for my next novel.  It was both terrifying and enlightening. I felt connected to my grandparents in a way that I never had before, and understood their fear a little more deeply.  I keep asking my mom for this picture.

 

L.L.: And where did the idea of those delicious pies originate? Do you enjoy baking? Do you have a favorite pie from the book?

Sara Ackerman: When I was growing up, my father’s girlfriend, Marilyn Carlsmith, was a fabulous cook and she was the one who helped me to fall in love with pies.  Every time we came to the Big Island from Oahu, we would stop at Kilauea Volcano and pick blackberries or ohelo berries or akala berries (Hawaiian rasberries) and make pies.  To me, the berry or fruit picking is my favorite part.  It makes the pies that much more special when you get to forage for the berries and fruit yourselves.  It’s a bonding thing, too.  We would take our pickings down to the beach house and hole up there for a week, living on homecooked pie, cobbler, berry pancakes and freshly caught fish.  Those are some of my best memories, and I still go berry picking every chance I get.  Sometimes it involves a long hike across the lava or picking out worms, but that only makes the pies sweeter!

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L.L.: You’re a native Hawaiian. Lucky you! I know you’ve said you blame Hawaii for your writing bug. Can you elaborate?

Sara Ackerman: (I’m actually not a native Hawaiian, though I was born and raised here, as were my parents and my grandfather and great grandmother on my dad’s side.)  I’m what you would call a Kama’aina, which translates to ‘child of the land,’ regardless of your ancestry.  Hawaii is a unique and beautiful place full of history and lore.  I was fortunate enough to be born here and raised by parents who appreciated the unique nature of it and took us outdoors every chance they could and taught us to love and respect the land and the ocean.  I am continuously uncovering interesting stories that would make for great books, and the ideas keep stacking up––whether about the mysterious death of a world famous botanist, Mark Twain’s missing manuscript, or a native Honeycreeper believed to be extinct, there are too many to count.  Also, to me, setting is such an essential part of the story.  Setting is its own character in most of my books, so much so that I’m not sure if I could write a story set anywhere else but Hawaii.  I am so connected to these islands, that I can’t not want to write about them.

L.L.: But you also practice acupuncture.  How does one inform the other? Or, do they?

Sara Ackerman:  The two seem like strange bedfellows, and yet for me, they go hand in hand.  Both are such a part of me, that they seep into all aspects of my life.  Oddly enough, I started writing novels around the same time I began acupuncture school, in 2012.  Both were new and intriguing and overwhelming.  In the beginning, I wondered if I would be able to master writing well enough to land a traditional publishing deal, and I worried that between the Chinese language and memorizing hundreds of acupuncture points and herbs, I might not be cut out for Chinese Medicine either.  But what I began to learn as I went along, was that acupuncture was the perfect remedy for someone in the throes of novel writing. Acupuncture has a calming effect on the nervous system and opens channels for the free flow of energy, also known as Qi.  Not only that, but the insertion of needles into acupuncture points releases endorphins which help with focus, a feeling of wellbeing, and enhanced creativity.  Without even realizing it, I was boosting my own brain power!

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L.L.: What’s obsessing you nowadays? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Sara Ackerman:   Aside from obsessing over several of my books in the works, ones I have already written but am revising, I’m in love with exploring the Big Island.  Even though my grandparents lived here and I’ve been coming here my whole life, I only moved here two years ago from Oahu.  On the weekends, I love going to the Volcano and adventuring out into the lava fields to watch the eruption or hiking through the rainforest and seeking out the adorable endangered native birds––i’iwi, apapane, and amakihi to name a few––which are only found high on our volcanoes.  I’m looking to join some local reforestation groups to help plant more native trees and give these little birds a better chance at survival. We also have some of the most beautiful ocean in Hawaii just fifteen minutes away, so I take my stand up paddleboard, my mask and snorkel and paddle up and down the coastline every chance I get.  Right now it’s humpback whale season and they come in very close here,  so on any given day, you’re likely to see a handful of whales.  There is so much beauty here, I feel very blessed!

L.L.: What’s next for you? More historical fiction, something else?

Sara Ackerman: I have another historical fiction manuscript due to my publisher tomorrow! This one is another WWII story set around Pearl Harbor.  I also have a handful of other contemporary novels all set in Hawaii that blend love, intrigue, a dash of history, and adventure.  I love them all and hope to share them with the world soon.  On top of that, I have two more book ideas that I can’t wait to get started on, as well as partnering up with my friend Lilly Barels on a book project.  I’m intrigued at the idea of co-writing a book and can’t wait to try it.

L.L.: Sara, it’s been a pleasure! Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? 

Sara Ackerman:  No, but I love to talk writing, so if anyone has any questions, feel free to visit my website or follow me on Twitter or Instagram!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS, please see:

Order Links:

SaraAckermanWebABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born and raised in Hawaii, Sara studied journalism and later earned graduate degrees in psychology and Chinese medicine.  Prior to practicing acupuncture, she worked as a high school counselor and teacher on the famed north shore of Oahu, where surf often took precedence over school.  She is the author of six novels –  Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers, Fallen WatersVolcano House, The Ranch at Redwater, Salt and Seaweed, and Honeycreepers – with a bunch more itching to be written.  She blames Hawaii for her addiction to writing, and sees no end to its untapped stories.

 You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of S. Ackerman and used with permission. Bird images from Wikipedia, berry picking in HI retrieved from , woman paddleboarding from Pinterest, no source noted; sugar cane weigh station retrieved from, all on 2.15.18]

WeekEND Reading: A Child Raffled Off at a World’s Fair? Jamie Ford tackles that and the seedier side of life in his third historical novel, LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES, plus he feels the first draft took too long, women’s rights, embracing his identity as Chinese-American & more

By Leslie Lindsay

From the bestselling author of HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET comes a powerful novel of inspired by a true story of a young boy raffled off at a little known World’s Fair (AYP/Seattle), which left me hopeful and nostalgic, and definitely a fan of Jamie Ford. 

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I so enjoyed LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES, which captivated me from the first page and sent me into a the lovely dual time periods of the early 20th century (1902-1911) and the mid-twentieth century (1962) as we follow Ernest Young from underprivileged China, then stripped from his mother to board a cramped ship en route the U.S. The first few chapters are particularly harrowing and are a bit reminiscent of the African slave trade; it will pull at your heart strings

Ernest (whose name was changed from Kun-ai), is placed in an orphanage in Seattle, attends a fancy boarding school as a charity student, but he’s not happy. An opportunity arises for more ‘adventure’ and Ernest is raffled off at the AYP (Alaska-Yukon-Pacific) World’s Fair. He’s 12 years old.

vancouver-bc-may-30-2017-copy-photo-of-1909-alaska-yukBut who has the winning raffle ticket is what will blow your mind. Ernest is not sent to a loving family who desperately want a child; his life is on the seedier sides of the track, so to speak. I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving it away, but we are met with a cast of very colorful characters, issues involving race (Ernest is half-Chinese, half-Caucasian), of not really fitting into either culture, and also love and issues of morality.

In 1962, we meet Ernest’s grown daughters and their quest to learn the truth of their dad’s past. One daughter is an investigative journalist and she handles this story with aplomb and sensitivity.

Jamie Ford is such a gifted writer and was completely thrust into his world, the scenery is amazing, his use of historical facts truly organic and relevant; I found LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES a glimpse into not just the heart of the characters, but also the author. Absolutely Stunning!

Today, I am so, so honored to welcome Jamie Ford to the blog. Please join us in conversation.

Leslie Lindsay: Jamie, wow. The second chapter—the imagery, the desperation, the harrowing tale you set out to describe blew me away. I know stories have to capture not just the reader, but the writer as well. It’s evident that your fascination with Chinese-American history inspired LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES, but what more can you tell us about the impetus of this tale?

Jamie Ford: Um, yeah, there’s a dark moment early in the book. (Sorry about that). So dark that a friend bought the book, began reading, and then texted me: THERE’S DEAD BABY ON PAGE 8. THIS BETTER GET HAPPIER IN A HURRY, FORD. So, there’s that.

And really, the impetus for that scene is centered around the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which limited migration of Chinese workers to the US safely, but opened a black market of human trafficking, indentured servitude, and misery. Tragically, people risked life and limb to get here and many died in the process. Not unlike many coming to this country today.170px-Chineseexclusionact.JPG

L.L.: LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES struck a chord with me in several ways, but one is that I have a twelve year old daughter myself. I couldn’t imagine sending (giving?) her away! But this is 2017 and the world is a different place. Or is it? Also, my own grandfather was once ‘sold.’ He was the second boy in a family of four. He was small and scrappy. The family traveled and didn’t have much money. They exchanged money for their son. The man took him to a barber shop for a haircut and learned he had lice. My grandfather wasn’t wanted and returned to his family. His parents were angry about returning the money. I share this because Ernest Young endured a similar fate. The buying and selling of children is ghastly. Also, another point is the truth behind your fiction is that in ‘real life,’ the child raffled off at the 1909 fair was an infant, not a 12 year old. Can you talk about that, please?

Jamie Ford: It’s true that a boy was donated by the Washington Children’s Receiving home and raffled off at the 1909 World’s Fair in Seattle. His name was Ernest. And in reality, he was an infant. But, as an author, I wanted a point-of-view character who could see and remember the fair, so I made him an older child.

The genesis of that again came from a contemporaneous article in a Washington newspaper in which a woman wrote in asking for a 12-year-old boy—basically she said, “I want the ugliest boy you have. I know hard work will bring out the best in such a lad.” And a gentleman from the receiving home, the same man depicted in the book, wrote back saying he had a boy she could have. The casual nature of adoption and the implication of servitude drove much of the narrative in my novel.

“Irresistibly magnificent . . . How does a novel genius top himself? Jamie Ford’s newest takes an extraordinary moment in history, where vice lives alongside innocence, and transforms it into a dazzling, hold-your-breath story about the families we make and the ones we are thrust into, about who we are, and who we dreamed we could be.”—Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World

L.L.:  Much of LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES is about race and culture and mixed race individuals not really feeling at home in any particular place. This is true of many biracial individuals, yourself included. Can you shed a little more light on that?

Jamie Ford: It’s always a challenge when you have each foot planted into a different culture. I was often confused growing up. I never felt Chinese enough, because I didn’t speak Cantonese like my dad. And I never felt white enough, because…we ate weird things like chicken feet and dried cuttlefish. So, while growing up is always a weird search for identity and self-definition, it’s even harder when compounded by culture.

Now I happily identify as Chinese American, but for years, when filling out student loan applications, for example, and there’s a box for WHITE or ASIAN—I never knew which to select.

As a mixed-race friend once joked, “Just ask yourself, which parent do I love more today?”

L.L.: The seedier side of life is depicted….well, beautifully in this novel. There’s political and social unrest, the red-light district of Seattle, and even the selling of virginity. What kind of research did you embark upon for LOVE & OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES?

Jamie Ford: As I was heading out on book tour, my publicist suggested, “You really should talk about your personal experiences as they relate to the novel.” Um…I don’t know how much time you’ve spent in brothels or what the mean average for brothel-time is in America, but whatever the average is, I can assure you I’m well below it.

However, I did find some amazing people to interview. One was a brilliant and charismatic woman named Maggie McNeil, who is an expert on Seattle’s historical red-light district and sex work in general. That’s because Maggie is both a librarian, and a high paid escort. She changed my perceptions of librarians and sex workers at the same time. [Image below: ‘World’s largest house of prostitution,’ Public Street in Seattle, WA; retrieved from]

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L.L.: Similarly, how long does it take for you to write a solid draft of this breadth?

Jamie Ford: Ooooooohhh…tricky question. My knee-jerk reaction is it took too long. Which is my fault, really. I think three months for a draft is reasonable, but this one took a year, mainly because I was too self-conscious. With a first novel, there are no expectations, but after the success of both Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Songs of Willow Frost, I was suddenly writing with the world looking over my shoulder. Not really, but certainly in my mind. It took a while to just get back to writing for the sake of writing.

L.L.: I liked the 1962 period of the story, too. Do you find you like working in this bifurcated narrative? Do you write in order, or all historical pieces at once then braid in the ‘present-day’ sections? What’s your method?

Jamie Ford:  I do love bouncing around I time, but I always write in a linear fashion—as the chapters flow in the book, regardless of time period, is the way it spills out of my brain. It might have been easier to write all of the 1909 chapters, then all of the 1962 scenes, and later weave them together, but for some reason the back and forth is more enjoyable in its construct.

I’m taking it further with the next book, which will be both historical and speculative. Wish me luck!

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L.L.: I feel I could ask questions all day! What do you hope others take away from LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES?

Jamie Ford: Hmmm…the takeaway. I guess I’d hope that readers appreciate the roles of women and how they’ve changed (or haven’t changed) from 1909 to the 60s and later today.

By that I mean, my grandmother was born at a time when women couldn’t vote. And one of the books I used for research was titled What Can a Woman Do? It was published in 1884, and the author was Mrs. M. L. Rayne—so the author couldn’t even write a book under her own name, it was her husband’s name on the cover.
So much has changed. But still, not nearly enough.

L.L.: What’s keeping you up at night? I’ll be honest, for me, it’s redecorating my writing space. I think it might help with the muse.  

Jamie Ford:  My new book, honestly. It’s weirder, more ambitious, and more sprawling in scale than anything I’ve ever tackled. I’d tell you more about it, but then I’d be up all night, again.

L.L.: Jamie, it’s be such a pleasure! Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Jamie Ford:  You forgot to ask my go-to karaoke song? Seriously, everyone should have one. Mine would be anything that’s a duet—that’s the move—the have someone else to share the shame with. Aside from that, thanks for the interview, and to folks out there—thanks for reading!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION  PRIZES, please see:

Order links:

JamieFordMinChungABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and went on to win the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. His work has been translated into 35 languages. His latest novel, Love And Other Consolations Prizes was published September 12, 2017. [about image: One is me, one is my great-grandfather, Min Chung, who later changed his name to William Ford (long story…)]

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Cover, author image, and footer retrieved from author’s webpage with permission of author. Bird’s eye view of AYP World’s Fair retrieved from, first page of Chinese Exclusion Act retrieved from Wikipedia, What Can a Woman Do image retrieved from; all on 2.14.18]

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Wednesdays with Writers: Fiona Davis on several of my favorite topics–psychiatry, journalism, architecture & design; oh and The Dakota, NYC, and her stunning new historical novel, THE ADDRESS and how she was once a very horse-crazy girl

By Leslie Lindsay 

Fiona Davis’s brilliant new book, THE ADDRESS, takes readers on a journey to historical NYC and into the famed Dakota Apartment building. 

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With 2016’s debut of THE DOLLHOUSE, Fiona Davis made one of the most stunning entrances as an author who knows her way around historical fiction. I was mesmerized and couldn’t wait to get my hands on THE ADDRESS. Rest assured, this is no sophomore slump; I adored it.

The Dakota. You may know it as the apartment building where ROSEMARY’S BABY was filmed, or perhaps where John Lennon died, or maybe you just think of it as a Bavarian monstrosity on the Upper West End where may playwrights, actors, writers, musicians live.

THE ADDRESS is constructed in dual-time periods, 1884 and 1985 respectively, which draws a natural suspense. The writing is evocative, historically rich, and mysterious.Beginning in London, we meet Sara Smythe, a housekeeper at the Langham and follow her on a journey across the Atlantic where she lands in the outskirts of a developing NYC. 250px-Dakota_Building

Sara is to be the new managerette of the soon-to-be opened The Dakota. She’s aghast at the primitive location–farmland and empty lots, unpaved streets. Still, she’s alone and unwilling to run home. I found Sara to be extremely likable, sympathetic, relatable, and quite strong. She’s not your typical kowtowing woman of the Victorian Era.

One hundred years later, in 1985 NYC, Bailey Camden is an interior designer charged with renovating The Dakota. But she’s not impressed with the design ideas which would trump the original design aesthetics of the historic building.

Oh but there’s more–and to say too much would be giving it all away–let’s just say there’s love and loss, success and ruin, mystery, poor decisions, passion and madness that drive the plotI absolutely loved the clear sense of place in THE ADDRESS, the vivid details and found it to be a very engaging piece of historical fiction.

Slide over on that silk settee and join me in conversation with Fiona Davis.

Leslie Lindsay: Fiona, it’s a pleasure to welcome you back to the blog couch. I was so taken with THE ADDRESS mainly because it combines several of my passions: architecture, interior design, and madness. I know THE ADDRESS was inspired, in part by your work on THE DOLLHOUSE, but what more can you tell us about the origins of this tale?

Fiona Davis: I am so glad you enjoyed it! I’ve lived on the Upper West Side for twenty-five years, and had walked by the Dakota hundreds of times, staring up at those enormous windows, wondering what it was like to live there. I realized that setting a book there would give me the perfect excuse to get inside (and was eventually able to do that, through roundabout connections to a couple of very generous tenants). As I dug deeper into its history, I knew it was the perfect choice for a dual-narrative historical fiction novel. The building had undergone many changes since it opened in 1884 on the edge of Central Park, back when the neighborhood was described by one newspaper as full of “rocks, swamps, goats, and shanties.” By the 1980s, a couple of tenants had torn down the period details from their apartments and replaced them with shag carpets and wall-to-ceiling mirrors. It was the perfect way to compare and contrast two “gilded ages,” as well as the way women’s roles and voices have changed over a century.

L.L.: So I have to know: which characters were ‘real’ and which were from your imagination? I am guessing Sara Smythe was a composite character…but what about Theodore Camden? Henry Hardenbergh? Oh, and Nellie Brown had to have been Nellie Bly?

Fiona Davis: Sara Smythe and Theodore Camden are fictional characters. I knew I wanted to have an architect in the 1880s time line, so that he and Sara Smythe could team up to get the building ready for opening day. Henry Hardenbergh was the actual architect for the Dakota (and the Plaza Hotel and a number of other fabulous buildings), so I didn’t mind having him make a cameo, but I didn’t want to try to fit his life into my story. That’s where Theo came in – he’s in charge of the interiors for the building and I could make him do my bidding without any constraints.

Nellie Bly, a journalist for the New York World during the 1880s, actually went by the name Nellie Brown when she went undercover to expose the injustices at Blackwell’s Island Asylum. She’s the real deal in the book.

L.L.: In my former career, I was a child/adolescent psych R.N. To say I am fascinated in psychiatry—especially historical psychiatry—is a bit of an understatement. I couldn’t get over the harsh conditions you depicted on Blackwell Island in the book. In fact, I’ve been searching for Nellie Bly’s TEN DAYS IN A MADHOUSE for years! (I want it in hardback; it’s a challenging find).  Can you tell us a little about how that piece of the story came to be? What research did you do?

Fiona Davis: I had heard about Nellie Bly when I was studying for a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia, and I naturally gravitated to her first-hand account of life in an 1880’s women’s insane asylum during my initial research. After reading TEN DAYS IN A MADHOUSE, I took the tram over to what’s now called Roosevelt Island to visit the remaining structure, the Octagon, which today serves as the lobby to a condo. In my book, I hope the harrowing backdrop of the asylum makes an interesting counterpoint to luxuriousness of the Dakota.

L.L.: As with THE ADDRESS and THE DOLLHOUSE, where there any iconic sites you ‘visited’ in your research (or in the book) that will appear in a forthcoming book?

Fiona Davis: In addition to checking out the Octagon on Roosevelt Island, I modeled the library for the ball scene after the one at the Morgan Library & Museum, and used the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street as inspiration for Daisy’s family’s
apartment. Strawberry Fields, just across the street from the Dakota, is an important location in the book as well. The next book will be set at Grand Central Terminal – one of New York City’s most famous iconic buildings – and I’m having a blast working on it.

NATIONAL BESTSELLER
“A delicious tale of love, lies and madness.”
— People

L.L.: What do you find most rewarding about writing historical fiction? What are 2960-Central_Park-Strawberry_Fieldssome of the challenges?

Fiona Davis: I love the research phase, when anything is possible and the ideas are bubbling away. The challenge comes when you have to narrow down the plot and characters and come up with a story that accurately represents the time periods but also keeps the reader guessing. Another reward is hearing from readers. I’ve been doing a lot of author talks in bookstores and libraries and the response has been incredibly warm and enthusiastic.

L.L.: Childhood plays a prominent role in THE ADDRESS. What item(s) from your own childhood do you still, even occasionally, pine for? (an article of clothing, toy, book, something else?)

Fiona Davis: Back when I was around eight years old, I took a book out of my local library about a girl who’s horse crazy, and finally gets to ride a horse for an entire summer before realizing that taking care of it is a lot of hard work. It was my favorite book – I was horse crazy but deeply moved by the character’s insights and transformation – and I must’ve checked out the book dozens of times to re-read. But I can’t for the life of me remember the name. If anyone has read that book and remembers the title, please reach out to me! It was something like “Ride ‘Em, Sally.” But not that. I know, ridiculous, right?

L.L.: Fiona, it’s been a pleasure.  What might have I forgotten to ask about?

Fiona Davis: Not a thing – I loved these questions – thank you so much!

For more information, to connect with Fiona Davis via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE ADDRESS, please see:

FionaDavis_Credit KristenJensen.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Fiona Davis was born in Canada and raised in New Jersey, Utah, and Texas. She began her career in New York City as an actress, where she worked on Broadway, off Broadway, and in regional theater. After ten years, she changed careers and began working as an editor and writer. Her historical fiction debut, The Dollhouse, was published in 2016. She’s a graduate of the College of William & Mary and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is based in New York City. You can find her at www.FionaDavis.net.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these on-line hangouts:

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[Author and cover image courtesy of Dutton and used with permission. Image of The Dakota retrieved from Wikipedia, historical images of Nellie Bly (a.k.a. Elizabeth Cochran Seaman) and Henry Hardenberg from Wikipedia, as is octagon images of Roosevelt/Blackwell’s Island and Strawberry Fields memorial. Fall book wreath from L. Lindsay’s archives.] 

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Abigail Lawless is ‘good company’ in brooding 1816 Dublin as she uncovers secrets of a Christian sect, mysterious deaths, and more in Andrew Hughes’ THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER, plus writing advice, real-crime TV binges, & a historical female hangwoman

By Leslie Lindsay 

Spunky and bright Abigail Lawless, uncovers evidence that a recent suicide may have been murder in 1816 Dublin. 

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It’s October and that officially means all of us who love a tale of the gloomy and grisly can be at home reading. Even better if rain is drumming down your windows and a you live in a derelict country manor.

A young nursemaid has concealed a pregnancy and then murdered her newborn in the home a prominent family in a radical Christian sect known as the Brethren. Rumors swirl about the identity of the child’s father, but before an inquest can be made, the maid is found dead of an apparent suicide.

And so it begins, a lovely relationship between Abby Lawless and her father, the town’s coroner. Abby is a spunky, slightly quirky young woman with an adventuresome spirit; I was taken with her almost immediately. Plus, she loves science.

Ireland 2014 249But it’s 1816 in Dublin and young women just don’t run around with their academic fathers who teach at Trinity College dissecting the dead. At one point in the story, Abby says [and I’m paraphrasing]:

“Well, if I were a man and had this interest, it would be considered a fascination but I’m a woman and so it’s a macabre fixation.” 

There are a few twists and turns in THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER, some good action scenes, and a little romantic relief as well. Hughes does a considerable job of ‘laying the ground,’ and setting a compelling scene of brooding Irish landscape. His research is evident, too and accurately displays a historical tale of murder, suicide, and forensic science.

I am honored to welcome Andrew Hughes to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Lately, I’ve been interested in beginnings. THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER begins like this:

“For my eighteenth birthday, Father promised me the hand of a handsome young man, which he duly delivered mounted in a glass bell-jar.”

What instigated the beginning of this tale for you and what advice would you give to writers looking for a really fantastic ‘hook?’

Andrew Hughes: Thanks, Leslie. One of the challenges I had early on was to capture Abigail’s voice, her wit and her appreciation of the macabre, particularly as the story was told in the first person. I was imagining a Jane Austen type heroine loose in Regency Dublin, and was thinking about some of the tropes in period fiction when the line popped into my head. I liked it as well because it hints at the relationship she has with her father, his humor and his indulgence of her more morbid interests.

As for advice for writers, I’d say just concentrate on voice and character and don’t get bogged down. Get the plot started as quickly as possible and don’t look back.

L.L.: Andrew, you do a wonderful job depicting 1816 Dublin. The year is known as, “the year without summer.” Can you tell us a little about your research? 

Andrew Hughes: My first book was a social history of Dublin called LIVES LESS ORDINARY, which looked at all the people who lived in one of the city’s Georgian squares. I didn’t realize it at the time, but all that research was giving me a terrific yearwithoutsummersetting for historical fiction and a ready-made cast of characters.

I read about “the year without a summer” a while ago. A dust cloud from the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia settled over Western Europe, bringing frost to mid-July, crop failures and hardship. The sun turned blood-red, and black dots scattered about its disk became clear to the naked eye.

At the same time in Dublin there was a growing conflict between students of the Enlightenment and a burgeoning evangelical movement whose proselytizing would become known as the Second Reformation. For me, the eerie weather, religious fervor and rationalist zeal created a perfect tinder-box atmosphere for historical crime fiction.

In terms of specific research, I found newspaper transcripts of 19th Century inquests to be a great source. Each inquest was its own mini-drama – the description of the victim, particulars of the crime, the testimony of witnesses, often people from the poorest backgrounds whose voices would otherwise have gone unrecorded.

L.L.: I’ve always loved science, but forensics and forensic psychology really fascinate. In fact, I looked up some of the books you mention in the novel, Male’s EPITOME OF FORENSICS, for example. I didn’t find it. I imagine it’s likely in a special collection somewhere? Trinity College, perhaps?

Andrew Hughes: I used a slightly abridged title! In full it’s An Epitome of Juridical or Forensic Medicine; for the use of medical men, coroners, and barristers, and it’s available online here. 

It was published in 1816, which was perfectly timed for me. Male was a surgeon who had grown increasingly frustrated at the inability of coroners to identify cases of murder because of a lack of medical knowledge. He wrote a clear guide outlining the procedures for inspecting a body, the marks associated with violent deaths, the scientific tests to establish poisons, and so on. It became my textbook for Abigail and her forensic adventures.

L.L.: And Abigail Lawless! What a fun, quirky, adventuresome young woman. How did you dream up her character? Is she based off anyone you know?

Andrew Hughes: For me, Abigail was a reaction to my first novel, THE CONVICTIONS OF JOHN DELAHUNT, which was based on a true-life murderer and police informer in 1840s Dublin. That was a first-person narrative told from the murderer’s point of view, and while at times it was fun to inhabit his amoral head, I knew that for my next book I wanted the main character to be the hero. I also wanted to write about a young woman rather than a man, and since she would need plausible access to cases of murder and their investigations, the idea of the coroner’s daughter came to be.

I didn’t base her on anyone in particular. I imagined a modern Irish girl having to make her way in that society, the constraints and prejudices she would have to face. She’s headstrong and rebellious, but also a loving daughter, a kind friend. One of the reviewers over here [in Ireland] called her “great company”, which I liked.31b975f8b7633c47d7a1ba1d3a863ac8

L.L.: Also, I loved the derelict manor of Kilbride. There’s something brooding and intriguing about the obscure, bringing a sense of doom and tension to writing. Does the place exist and if not, what was your inspiration?

Andrew Hughes: Yes, Manor Kilbride is a village about an hour south of Dublin. I remember passing the church there once, St John’s, and being struck by the setting.
It’s a simple chapel perched on a hillside with listing headstones and dark woods surrounding – the perfect gothic location. Mr Darby’s ruined vicarage I just made up myself. I found out later that the village and church were used as sets in the Anne Hathaway film Becoming Jane. Their location scout obviously felt the same way I did.

L.L.: Can you talk a little about the Christian sect, the Brethren, mentioned in THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER? Was this purely fictional, or based in history?

Andrew Hughes: That came out of my LIVES LESS ORDINARY book. The Plymouth Brethren were an evangelical movement that first began meeting in Fitzwilliam Square in the 1820s. Their gatherings in England took place in Plymouth so that’s where they got the name. In a general sense, they were an inspiration for the sect in Plym.jpgTHE CORONER’S DAUGHTER, and their charismatic leader was also called Mr Darby. But in Ireland in the early 19th Century there was a growing evangelical reaction to revolutionary politics and the campaign for Catholic emancipation, not just confined to the Plymouth Brethren. Of course, any such conservative movement would find a natural antagonist in the curious, inconvenient, and intuitive Abigail.

L.L.: What’s keeping you up at night? It doesn’t have to be literary (and hopefully it’s not grave robbers)!

Andrew Hughes: Apart from worrying about the daily news, I’ve been catching up on a few true-crime series lately. I got through Making a Murderer and The Keepers on Netflix with unseemly haste. Also listened to the latest Serial podcast, S-Town. That was an excellent portrait of an intriguing man, but in the end I got tired of the hooks and cliffhangers that were never quite resolved. I’ve been writing a lot these past few months and have to catch up on my TBR pile, but I’ve started reading THE GINGER MAN again after the death of J.P. Donleavy.

L.L.: Andrew, it was a true joy. Thank you for chatting with us about THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Andrew Hughes: I’ve just finished a new novel, more Irish historical fiction, this time based on a real-life 18th Century character: Lady Betty, the merciless hangwoman of Roscommon! The ink is barely dry on that one, so I’ve not much more news, but keep an eye out for it in 2018.

 For more information, to connect with Andrew Hughes via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER, please see: 

AndrewHughesABOUT THE AUTHOR: Andrew Hughes was born in Ireland and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. It was while researching his acclaimed social history of Fitzwilliam Square—Lives Less Ordinary: Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square, 1798-1922—that he first came across the true story of John Delahunt that inspired his debut novel, The Convictions of John Delahunt. Andrew lives in Dublin.

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Pegasus Books and used with permission. Image of ‘the year without summer’ retrieved from The Paris Review, image of St. John’s Church/Kilbride retrieved from, image of The Plymouth Brethren retrieved from Wikipedia, all on 9.28.17. Trinity College library from L.Lindsay’s personal archives] 

WeekEND Reading: New York Times Bestselling Author Ken Follet talks about the third book in his Kingsbridge series, A COLUMN OF FIRE, how his wife’s characteristics sometimes appear in female characters, religious freedom, and kick-ass women of the 16th century

By Leslie Lindsay 

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH and WORLD WITHOUT END comes the next epic novel in the Kingsbridge series: A COLUMN OF FIRE. 

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In 1989 Ken Follet published the historical epic THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, a departure for the bestselling writer which stunned reader and critics alike with its ambitious scope and unforgettable cast of characters. That was nearly 30 years ago!. It reached #1 on bestsellers lists across the world, and since become Follet’s most popular novel. Ten years ago, Oprah selected THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH for her Book Club, and the second book in the series was published, WORLD WITHOUT END.

The saga continues with Follet’s new epic, A COLUMN OF FIRE (September 12, Viking). This one introduces a world of spies and secret agents in the 16th century, a time when Queen Elizabeth I ruled. Set during one of the most turbulent and revolutionary times in history, this novel is one of Follet’s most exciting and ambitious works yet. It’s perfect for longtime fans of the Kingsbridge series, but if you weren’t around 30 years ago, it works well as a stand-alone, too.

A COLUMN OF FIRE begins in 1558. The ancient stones of Kingsbridge Cathedral peer over a city torn to shreds by religious conflict. Power in England shifts precariously
between Catholics and Protestants, high principles clash with friendship, loyalty, and love.

I’m honored to welcome Ken Follet to the blog. 

L.L.: Ken, it’s a honor to chat with you. While A COLUMN OF FIRE is part of a series, it still needs to be something you are willing to spend a significant amount of time with. Where did the inspiration for A COLUMN OF FIRE come from?

Ken Follet: I read somewhere that Queen Elizabeth I started the first English secret service. That intrigued me, and I read several books about spies and secret agents in the 16th century. I felt sure this could be the basis of an exciting novel.

L.L.: Let’s talk titles for a moment. Why did you choose to call the book A COLUMN OF FIRE? It sounds quite ominous. 

Ken Follet: [It is]. It’s biblical, like THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH. Spies are sometimes referred to as a Fifth Column. And a lot of people were burned at the stake in the 16th century.

L.L.: So were you excited about returning to Kingsbridge? [There are numerous towns called Kingsbridge, but the one in Follet’s THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH is fictional]. 

Ken Follet: You bet. We’ve watched the place grow from an Anglo-Norman settlement to a thriving medieval town, and now we see it at the start of the English Renaissance. Kingsbridge is England in miniature. article-1331731-0C1D9C90000005DC-968_634x398

L.L.: We know that A COLUMN OF FIRE is about spies and secret agents in the 16th century. What other themes surround the book?

Ken Follet: Most of my recent books are about people struggling for freedom in one form or another: Welsh coal miners, Russian factory workers, Jews, African Americans. This is about religious freedom.

L.L.: Can you talk about how these themes relate to your own life?

Ken Follet: I’ve always hated people who assume they have authority over me. This made my schooldays a challenge, obviously. A bully makes me angry. I empathize with fictional characters who fight against tyranny.

L.L.: I can’t get over the historical scope of this book. Not to mention, it’s over 900 pages! What sort of research did you do for A COLUMN OF FIRE?

Ken Follet: There’s nobody left to interview, of course. As usual, most of my information comes from history books. I also visited houses and castles built in this period. I looked at 16th century clothing in the London Museum, and I went several times to the National Portrait Gallery to study the faces of Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots, Francis Drake and many others.

L.L.: Did you visit the locations of the key events in A Column of Fire?

Ken Follet: Scotland for Loch Leven, the prison from which Mary Queen of Scots escaped; Belgium for Antwerp, then the banking centre of the western world; Spain for Seville, the richest city in Spain; Paris because it was the headquarters of those who conspired to assassinate Queen Elizabeth.300px-Lochleven_west_wall

L.L.: Plenty of historians have written about this era. Who among them do you particularly like or respect?

Ken Follet: Robert Hutchinson has written well about espionage at this time. Geoffrey Parker is the authority on the long and bloody war in the Netherlands. Perhaps the most useful book was Conyers Read’s three-volume biography MR. SECRETARY WALSINGHAM, about the man who was he Elizabethan equivalent of “M” in the James Bond stories.

L.L.: So, I have to ask, are any of your fictional characters based on real people?

Ken Follet: Not really. I might give a villain the hair style of someone I dislike, and of course the female heroes all have something in them of Barbara, my wife; but my fictional characters are never portraits of real people.

L.L.: A COLUMN OF FIRE  has a number of real historical characters, including several heads of state. Who did you particularly admire?

Ken Follet: Three great 16th century leaders understood the need for religious tolerance, and interestingly they were all women: our Queen Elizabeth I; Caterina dei Medici, who was queen of France and then Queen Mother; and Marguerite de Parme, governor of the Netherlands. In an age of relentless bigotry, each of them tried to persuade people of rival religions to live in peace. For that they were hated. Their efforts were only partly successful.220px-MargarethevonParma01

Each of them was undermined: Elizabeth by repeated plots to assassinate her, Caterina by the ruthless Guise family, and Marguerite by her half-brother King Felipe II of Spain. I admire their idealism, courage and persistence in the face of bloodthirsty opposition.

L.L.: You’ve had a long, illustrious career; what are you most proud of?

Ken Follet: It was a pretty good achievement to write a novel about the rather unpromising subject of building a cathedral in the Middle Ages and turning it into an international No.1. We’ve sold about twenty-six-million copies of THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH. That’s pretty good for a book a lot of people thought would be too dull.

L.L.: How long did it take you to write?

Ken Follet: The whole thing took three years and three months. After two years I only had about 200 pages, and I felt this was a crisis. And as a novelist the only thing you can do if you want to write faster is work more hours. So I started to work Saturdays and then Sundays as well. The difficulty is simply that you’ve got to keep on making up more and more stuff about the same people. If you write 100,000 words of a thriller, then it’s finished. But after 100,000 words of THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH that’s like that much. [He holds open first quarter of the book.] I had all that to go. [He holds open the final three-quarters.] That was the great difficulty. uk_the_pillars_of_the_earth

L.L.: Some writers dread of their books being turned into films or TV series. But have you enjoyed the experience?

Ken Follet: Seeing good actors giving good performances, bringing to life characters I’ve invented and speaking some of the lines I’ve written is a huge thrill. When it all goes well it’s great. When it goes badly you cringe when you see what’s on the screen, but you have to take that risk.

I’m pleased and proud that some of my stories have made good film and TV. It confirms the strength of the story that it can be transformed from one medium to another. And I’m also pleased that my stories have been turned into a stage musical, several board games, and a computer game.

L.L.: Wow! Do I dare ask what’s next?

Ken Follet: I’m working on a new story, but I’m not yet ready to talk about it—sorry!

For more information, to connect with Ken Follet via social media, or to purchase a copy of A COLUMN OF FIRE, please visit: 

Ken Follett.headshot credit Olivier Favre (1).JPGABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ken Follett is one of the world’s best-loved authors, selling more than 160 million copies of his thirty books. Follett’s first bestseller was Eye of the Needle, a spy story set in the Second World War. Follett lives in Hertfordshire, England, with his wife Barbara. Between them they have five children, six grandchildren, and three Labradors.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

Email: leslie_lindsay@hotmail.com

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Viking. Other images retrieved from Wikipedia, PILLARS OF THE EARTH television adaption image retrieved from Daily Mail, all on 8.26.17] 

WeekEND Reading: James William Brown talks political unrest, shadow puppetry, the resilience and spirit of the Greek people, and so much more in his sweeping novel, MY LAST LAMENT

By Leslie Lindsay 

A poignant and evocative novel of one Greek woman’s story of her own–and a nation’s–epic struggle in the aftermath of WWII.

9780399583407

I was definitely intrigued with MY LAST LAMENT (Penguin/Random House, April 2017). The cover is gorgeous, plus I spent about a month living with a Greek family as a teenager. And then there’s the economic strife Greece is currently facing…in fact, it’s so bad in areas, one of our neighbors recently brought her mother (who was living in Greece) to her U.S. home to work and save money that she could send back to her family.

Another little fun fact: I recently watched an episode of WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE featuring John Stamos; much of the episode was filmed in Greece. The imagery is gorgeous, the people strong…but not without shame, hard work, and more.

MY LAST LAMENT is ‘told’ on a cassette tape by Aliki–an old woman and the last of the village lamenters–women who compose lament-poems for grieving families (this provides a very intimate storytelling method and would be fabulous heard as an audiobook). Aliki agrees to speak with an American ethnographer about her fading art. In the process, Aliki begins to sing her own story–as a fourteen year old girl, she witnessed her father’s execution for stealing a squash…at the hands of Nazi soldiers.

While I’ve read several stories about WWII, this one was entirely different…yet, the same. There are Jewish refugees, public executions, economic strife, makeshift families, unique trades/hobbies (in this case, puppeteering), but I can honestly say, I’ve yet to read a story about Greece during the aftermath of WWII.

I’d like to say I were sitting on a white-washed patio tucked into the hills of Santorini sipping Roditis with James William Brown…alas, we’ll have to make do with my suburban Chicago patio and Nebraska varietal. If wine’s not your thing, grab a beverage of choice and plop down.

Leslie Lindsay: Welcome, James. I’m curious about the title, MY LAST LAMENT. Did it come before or after you wrote the book? Was it in complete relation to Aliki, your main character, or was it somehow derived from another place? 

James William Brown: I always have trouble coming up with titles and I usually complete a work without one and then have to work it out.  That was the case here.  The manuscript was finished but had no title.  I knew that I wanted a line that was in Aliki’s tone of voice so I re-read the work carefully, looking for something that could represent the whole book and I found it on page 333, where she says this is probably her last lament.  As the whole book is really a lament for her life and times, the line seemed to suit, so I called it Probably My Last Lament.  My editor didn’t like “probably” and thought it was more dramatic just as MY LAST LAMENT. 


L.L.: You have a personal connection to Greece, having lived there in the 1960s teaching English. You loved it so much, you found other ways to sustain yourself and stayed…for ten years! Can you talk about that experience, please?

James William Brown: I lived in Greece from 1967 to 1977, teaching and writing.  I began my first village short stories there and one grew into my first novel, BLOOD DANCE.  When I  arrived, a military junta was running the country.  On the surface, everything looked normal but in fact the jails and detention centers were full of people who had dared to criticize the government.  Reports of torture were ancient-Magical-Phoenixwidespread and elections and public gatherings were forbidden and there was both press and mail censorship.  I worked with a group of people, Greeks and foreigners, to smuggle documentation of what was going on to Amnesty International in London which lobbied other governments to put pressure on the Greek government and as a result, many of the political prisoners were released.  After the junta fell in 1974, I wrote articles for The Nation and other publications about how Greece was adjusting to the aftermath of seven and half years of military rule.  It was a heady time with a rebirth of arts, music, political life and optimism about the future.  Greece is really like the mythological bird, the phoenix, which is destroyed in fire and re-born again and again.

Years later when I was working for an educational publisher here in Boston, the publisher acquired an Athens-based publishing house and I became the liaison between the editorial departments in Boston and Athens.  And my wife and I return to the same village on one of the islands as often as we can so the country remains part of our lives. Some parts of MY LAST LAMENT were written in that village. Greece is a complicated and often maddening place but endlessly fascinating.

L.L.: I am so curious about the role of a village lamenter. In all honesty, I had never heard of one before. My sense is, a lamenter composes chants/songs/poems for a grieving family specific to the person who has passed. Do I have that right? At times, too it reminded me of the practice of hospice care. Can you illuminate the profession for us?

James William Brown: Yes, that’s right.  It’s an ancient folk custom originally practiced throughout the Middle East, southern Europe and North Africa.  But it has largely died out in modern times.  I first got interested in it when I was living in a house that overlooked a village cemetery.  When a funeral procession entered the greek-cemetery-14334963cemetery, old women in black would stand by the gates making bird noises to ward off bad spirits.  I found out that some of these women were professional lamenters who composed lament poems about the dead at the request of relatives.  In a sense they eulogized the dead and honored them at a time when the actual bereaved family and friends were probably too overcome with grief to be able to do so.  In that way, lamenters performed a service for the bereaved family, the community and for the dead themselves.

L.L.: There are some really tough things that Aliki witnesses in her life: her father’s execution ranks high, but there’s also poverty, smuggling of Jewish refugees, a makeshift type of family. But this was WWII and just after. How does this time period compare with the local political and economic landscape of Greece?

James William Brown: I suppose the most obvious similarity between then and now is that Germany occupied Greece during WWII and today, because of its role in the European Union which is more or less regulating the present Greek economy, Germany has now what might be called a financial occupation of Greece.  Many of the present day problems in Greece have grown out of the aftermath of the War and the bitter civil war which followed it, as chronicled in MY LAST LAMENT. Distrust of government, unwillingness to pay taxes to it, a dense bureaucracy that strangles innovation, lack of opportunities for youth which encourages them to move abroad—these are just a few of the problems.  And of course Greece is on the forefront of receiving massive amounts of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa at a time when the country teeters toward default on the many e0693b66b86a759fb1686856e9f16259--vintage-italy-foto-vintageloans it has taken from the EU just to keep economically afloat.  But it has to be said that Greeks in general have many gifts: resilience, a sense of humor, a light heartedness contrasted with a certain ferocity and tenacity of spirit, along with a great capacity for joy and a sense of the irony in life.  And these have allowed them not only to endure but to prevail.  I tried to get many of those qualities into the character of Aliki, who narrates MY LAST LAMENT.

L.L.: I have to ask about puppetry…this is fun to me. Different. I have to wonder…is the act a little about suspending the horrific plight of the country and adding a little levity, in addition to a way of earning money?

James William Brown: I wasn’t really trying to add levity but I don’t mind if it reads that way.  Shadow puppetry is another centuries-old folk custom once prevalent in the Middle East, Africa and southern Europe.  In Greece it flourished mostly 220px-Karagoz_theatre_06315during the 400 or so years when the country was occupied by the Ottoman Turks Karagiozis, the main character, is the scheming villager who plays dumb in order to outwit the Turkish overlords.  These comedies were originally for children but Stelios, the puppeteer, brings them into the present by making a puppet based on Takis, one of the other characters, helping to outwit the occupying Germans.  Then there were also more serious historical plays enjoyed by adults too such as The Hero Katsandonis, which Stelios, Aliki and Takis perform several times in MY LAST LAMENT  For uneducated rural audiences, this was a way of learning their cultural history when the times they were living through were as terrible as the times in the play.   So there is a sense of stories within the story, levels of time overlapping such as when Stelios makes puppets based on himself and Aliki along with the Takis puppet in a story about what happened back in their own village which changed their lives and started their travels together as puppeteers.

L.L.: And madness. Always a fascination of mine. What is your take of the mental unrest in MY LAST LAMENT?

James William Brown: The only mentally unbalanced character is poor Takis who demonstrates traces of both childhood schizophrenia and bipolar behavior.  Of course the question is what conditions were present in him to begin with and what were brought on (or exacerbated) by events such as the village massacre by the Germans in which his mother, and Stelios’s mother, were killed and for which Takis initially received much of the blame.  There’s no way of knowing.  What’s clear is that his rock to cling to is Aliki but he’s too young to understand that she’s on the cusp of young womanhood.  So her love for Stelios drives him into fits of jealousy and worsens his other conditions. Still, he’s a lost little boy, deserving of love and pity and so much more than life can possibly give him.  There was little if any help for children with these kind of psychiatric problems in that place and time.  I cared deeply about all my characters but I cared the most about Takis.

L.L.: I don’t know about you, but I’ve drained my glass of wine…is there anything more you’d like to add about MY LAST LAMENT, your summer plans, if you’re going back to Greece anytime soon, what you’re working on next, or something completely different?

James William Brown: My wine is nearly gone too.  One thing I’d like to mention is that MY LAST LAMENT, in spite of many terrible events, is also a funny book.  Aliki’s tone of voice as she records her life is by turns wry, ironic, crabby, irreverent and altogether down to earth in its humor.  And, as she says near the end, “Hope, that’s all we’ve got, isn’t it, our most important word?”

No special plans for summer but my wife and I may go to Greece in September.  I’m working on another novel in which both Aliki and Takis continue to be characters (they won’t let go of me).  There’s a scene later in MY LAST LAMENT in which Aliki sees a photograph in a newspaper of Takis grown into a young man in a military uniform in the 1970’s.  That photograph is the launch of another story because as Stelios said, “We become the stories we tell.”

L.L.: Thanks so much for chatting with me—it’s been a pleasure!

James William Brown: Thank you. Leslie.  Here’s to you!  Now the wine is done.  On to the next story.

For more information about MY LAST LAMENT, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of the book, please see: 

2141017.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: James William Brown is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, Blood Dance, which the New York Times said, “…conveys the layered history of a small Greek island where the past is everywhere.  An assured and seductive debut.”  His short stories, articles and book reviews have appeared in a number of publications including most recently Narrative Magazine and Fiction International.  A former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University, Brown has also been a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and is a two-time winner of writing fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts.  He has served as editorial director of publishing houses specializing in materials in the fields of applied linguistics and English as a second language in New York, Boston and Athens and was formerly the host of BookNotes, a weekly radio book review program in Massachusetts. Originally from Illinois, he lived and taught in Greece for ten years but presently lives with his wife in the greater Boston area.  They return annually to a village on the Greek island of Evia.  He is currently at work on his third novel, also set in Greece. [Author photo credit: Jane McLachlan Brown]

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media channels:

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[Cover and author image retrieved from Penguin Random House’s website. Greek grandmas retrieved from Pinterest, no source noted. Shadow puppetry image from Wikipedia, mythological phoenix retrieved from ancientorgins.com, all on 7.12.17]