Tag Archives: historical fiction

Wednesdays with Writers: Six-times NYT Bestselling author Margaret George on her love for travel, history, poetry and how competitive sports is like writing in her new historical saga, THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO.


By Leslie Lindsay 

With a perfect streak of over six New York Times bestsellers, and 1.5 million books sold, MARGARET GEORGE turns her gaze to the ‘bad boy’ Emperor of Ancient Rome.

THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO is meticulously researched, gloriously written, and transports the reader to the heart of Rome and beyond.

Margaret George burst onto the scene in 1986 with her historical fiction of Henry VIII…and she continued writing critically-acclaimed biographical novels of historical figures, including MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, MARY, CALLED MAGDALENE, CLEOPATRA, among others.


 “With conviction and flair, George looks past two millennia of bad press about Nero to reveal an intelligent man of justice and religious tolerance who takes refuge in artistic expression. This is the first of two novels charting his dangerous, outrageous life in first-century Rome; the second will be eagerly awaited.”


Emperor Nero. Many things come to mind at the mention of his name: Spoiled. Murderer. Tyrant. Pervert. Hedonist. Many of these caricatures are put in motion through Hollywood and rumors as ancient as the forum. Having come to power at the tender age of sixteen, THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO follow his life in a two-part saga (this is the first book; both are written to stand-alone). Enshrined in power and raised by a cunning and ambitious mother, Nero is the 5th Roman Emperor, the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty founded by Julius Caesar. We follow his young life from about age four to mid-twenties, just before the Great Fire of Rome.

Nero’s life is riddled with murderers, rivalries, plots, orgies, and incest. Sensational on its own—but the story is not just about revisiting these instances—there’s reclamation in Nero as an artist, a musician, an athlete. In fact, George’s book had me cheering for Nero at times, in fact, completely changing my opinion of him.

Today, I am so very humbled to welcome Margaret George to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Margaret, it’s truly an honor. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us about THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO. I’m so in awe of the breadth of knowledge, your impeccable research, and the magical way you are able to weave a deeply moving, stunningly visual narrative of Nero. Before we get into specifics, I am curious why Nero, why now?

Margaret George: I’ve actually been thinking of Nero for a long time—for over twenty years, in fact.  I was all afire to do this back in the 1990’s.  But all the stereotypes you mention above were in full force then, and people weren’t interested in exploring farther, they were so prejudiced against him.  Since then the climate has changed; in 2003 there was a major revisionist biography, and three big Nero exhibits—two in Rome and one in Germany—have been outstandingly popular, the last one in 2016.  His moment has come, and at last he can make his case.220px-Nero_1

L.L.: You’re known for your meticulous research. In fact—you’ll laugh; I’m no sybil—but I dreamed you researched this book for twenty years!  In your ‘afterward,’ you list some amazing titles referenced in writing; do you have any research rituals?

Margaret George: Isn’t that funny, maybe you are a sybil.  As I said above, I started doing research on Nero back in the 1990s and continued on even as I was writing other books.  The research for HELEN OF TROY (early 2000s) in Greece was also Nero research because he was so nuts about Greece and made a big ‘arts tour’ there that lasted sixteen months.

I don’t have any rituals per se, but I do like to take things in a certain order.  First read the books, then go to the sites, and last of all do the writing.  It’s best to have done the reading research before going to the sites, because then I am more aware of what I need to notice. I also like to write out notes by hand because I think it registers in my brain better that way.

I take a lot of photos on site and buy any kitsch relating to my characters I find, because it shows they are still  ‘real’ to modern people.  As a result I have a 10’ x 4’ Nero flag, Nero candles, Nero matches (what else?), Nero rubber duckies, and Nero tote bags.  There were even bottles of Nero wine at the German exhibit!

L.L.:  Just like with the Internet nowadays, ancient Romans loved gossip. How were you able to tease out what was ‘real’ and not?

Margaret George: It’s hard after two thousand years to be able to sort out the National Enquirer material, because, well, even the National Enquirer has true material.  (Remember the Bruno Magli shoes that O.J. was wearing, caught in a National Enquirer photo?)  I had to take into consideration the source of the material, and whether it was ‘canned’ and repeated elsewhere about other people, or whether it was just unbelievable and obviously a character assassination.  For example, any time anyone died Tacitus, Suetonius, or Dio Cassius (the main three sources for Nero) claimed it was poison, and that Nero did it.  In many instances it made no sense—why would he poison Burrus, his Praetorian prefect? Often the gossip in one is contradicted in the other, for example, one historian says Burrus died of a throat ailment, not poison.  Another silly piece of gossip is that Agrippina and Nero had sex in the royal litter, and when they got out, their clothes were wrinkled and stained, visual proof of it.  In the novel I even have Nero commenting that, since he had a whole palace at his disposal, why would he resort to a litter in the streets in broad daylight?

L.L.: What details, if any, do you invent?

Margaret George: I actually do invent a number of details, if they are plausible. For example, the horse farm outside Rome where Nero selects the team he wants to train for chariot 240px-Ritratto_di_claudia_ottavia,_da_roma,_via_vareseracing.  Now, we know there were horse farms.  We know his right-hand man, Tigellinus, was a former horse trainer and breeder. We know Nero raced chariots But we have no information about where or how he got his horses.  So I imagined that scene, which I thought would show something about horses and the special training they underwent for chariot racing.  And there are other scenes like that: his secret athletic training under an alias when he was a boy, his visit to the Roman brothel, his wedding night with Octavia.

Some of the details that may sound invented aren’t.  We know Nero had bad eyesight and used an uncut emerald held up before his eye to watch chariot races.  (It probably didn’t work.)  We know he had a special drink named after himself (the decocta Noroonis) made of boiled and re-cooled snow.  We know he didn’t like wearing togas and switched to tunics whenever he could, including flowered ones.   

L.L.: You do a beautiful job of reconstructing a stunning visual landscape for ancient Rome. Your visceral details are quite poetic lending to a tremendous sense of place. Instead of asking, ‘how do you do it’—what do you keep the saw sharp?

Margaret George: That’s very kind of you. I worry that I don’t have enough details!  But I am a student of Ray Bradbury’s (figuratively not literally) and his writing is very ‘visceral’ or I would say ‘sensual’—of the senses.  He explained it this way:

“Why all this insistence on the senses? Because in order to convince your reader that he is there, you must assault each of his senses, in turn, with color, sound, taste, and texture.  If the reader feels the sun on his flesh, the wind fluttering his shirt sleeves, half your fight is won.” ~Ray Bradbury

I try to keep that in mind.  Most descriptive writing is heavy on the visual but if you can bring in the other senses it gives a real feeling of being there.autobiography-of-henry-VIII

L.L.: Can you tell us a little about your early writing days? What do you think you did ‘right?’ What do you wished you had done ‘better?’

Margaret George: It took me a long time to hit my stride, I think.  My father read over my first handwritten draft of HENRY VIII (what a martyr!) and noted two things: one, that writing in the first person isn’t just writing in the third person and replacing all the ‘he’s’ with “I’s” which he said I did, and second, that I was best when I cut loose from the strict historical recounting and used my imagination. 

I think he was right and I believe I corrected those weaknesses, after much trial and error.  As to what I have done wrong, or wished I had done better—-I have gone overboard in memoirs-of-cleopatra-1including everything, which reached its apex with CLEOPATRAI listened to it all on tape and realized as I did so (since you can’t skim with an audio) that, instead of standing the reader before a bulging closet and saying, “Here it all is!” I should have selected the best clothes for him or her.  That’s the job of the writer—to select and present.

NERO is a lot more spare but I am pleased that you didn’t feel I skimped.  Less is more…maybe. (Although Nero himself wasn’t known for his minimalism.)

L.L.: I have to believe Nero would be beyond proud of THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO. I know I was rooting for him! What might he say if he read the book?

Margaret George: Oh, I’d love it if he would say I had gotten it exactly right, and how did I KNOW?  That’s what I strove for, to let him speak again and have it be true to character.  I would love to know what he thinks, but I’d be crushed if he didn’t like it after all!

L.L.: What inspires you? What has your attention? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Margaret George: Poetry is a great inspiration—such economy of words to say so many things.  I have a friend who said, “It’s friends and poetry that get you through the hard times.”  She is right.  Friends, of course, and travel, which is endlessly fascinating and the opposite of navel-gazing, an occupational hazard of writers.

Like Nero in the novel, I like sprinting—100 and 200 meters, because for those seconds the whole world vanishes and all you see is the finish line.  The world of competitive sports is so different from the literary one, although there are similarities, too.  Both have starting blocks, finish lines, medals, rankings, and prizes, and both require a lot of solitary hours spent in practice for just a little while in the spotlight.  

L.L.: I’m curious what the next book entails. I have to read it! Can you give a glimpse?

Margaret George: The second part of Nero’s life is as tumultuous as the first.  It opens with the Great Fire of Rome, the largest fire in antiquity, which burned for nine days and destroyed most of the city.  Nero deals with the aftermath, rebuilds Rome according to new urban planning, builds his revolutionary Domus Aurea (Golden House), punishes the Christians, deals with a far-reaching conspiracy against him, involving some of those closest to him,  holds his second Neronian Games, races in the Circus Maximus (image below), Poppaea dies, he stages a spectacular entrance to Rome for King Tiridates of Parthia, he goes to Greece for a year long round of music and athletic competitions, returns to Rome and is overthrown, finally committing suicide with his famous last words, “Qualis artifex pereo”—“what an artist dies in me!”  And he was only thirty years old by then.  What a life story!

L.L.: Margaret, it was a true pleasure. Thank you!

Margaret George: Thank you for having me, Leslie.

Circus_Maximus_in_RomeFor more information, to connect with Margaret George, or to purchase THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO, please see:





Barnes&Noble Best New March 2017 Fiction 


Check out this video of Margaret on her inspiration for Nero

Margaret-George-Hi-RES.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margaret George writes biographical novels about outsized historical characters: Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy, and Elizabeth I. Her latest, The Confessions of Young Nero, will be published in March. All six of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers, and the Cleopatra novel was made into an Emmy-nominated ABC-TV miniseries.

She especially enjoys the research she has done for the novels, such as racing in an ancient Greek stadium, attending a gladiator training school in Rome, and studying the pharmacology of snake poison.

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


[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website, as well as covers of Henry VIII and Cleopatra. Historical images of Nero, Octavia, Circus Maximus all retrieved from Wikipedia on 3.08.17. Special thanks to L. Burnstein of Berkley/RandomHouse] 

Wednesday with Writers: Enthralling, highly Sensory 17th c. France Scandal, Poisoners, Prisoners, Fortune-tellers, & More in Kate Braithwaite’s historical fiction THE CHARLATAN.


By Leslie Lindsay

Kate Braithwaite’s CHARLATAN is brimming with intrigue, power, mystique. There’s more. 

Scandal. Panic. Fortune tellers. Scheming woman. Love affairs. Prisoners in dungeons. 

It’s dark, intricate plotting, well-developed characters will pull you in and not let you go even when you’re taken on a bumpy journey in a royal carriage down rutted roads to the execution pyre. You’ll feel the heat, your nose will singe with the scent of burning flesh and hair; you’ll hear the guttural screams and wonder how human nature could be so cruel.

Not being a huge French history connoisseur, I found Kate Braithwaite’s historical depth impressive, her writing highly sensory
(there was a time I had to sit the book down it ‘got’ to me so much), and the braiding of two plot lines impeccable.


The story centers around Athenais, King Louis XIV’s glamorous mistress and mother to seven of his children. Athenais has left her older two children and husband to play this part for the king. She lives at Versailles in a well-appointed apartment, but has grown older and more plump. She worries she won’t be able to keep the love of the king.

And she would be right.

Together, with her sister, Gabrielle, they scheme and wheedle ways to keep the King within arm’s length. Their methods are manipulative at best, witchcraft-y at worst.

Meanwhile, police chief La Reynie and his new/young assistant Bezons have uncovered a network of fortune-tellers and poisoners operating in the city.
Inquisitions ensue. Trauma and torture, too.

Join me as I welcome Ms. Braithwaite to the blog.

Leslie Lindsay: Kate, it’s a pleasure to have you. I understand you were born in Scotland, but spent a good part of your life in the UK and Canada. So, not being French yourself, what propelled you to write about King Louis’s 17th century France?

Kate Braithwaite: I think Scottish people have quite an affinity for France. I lived in Edinburgh until I was eighteen and grew up on stories of Mary Queen of Scots French mother and Scotland’s ‘auld alliance’ with France. But my interest in Louis and the 17th century in particular happened quite by chance when I came across a second hand copy of Nancy Mitford’s book THE SUN KING. I was on maternity leave after having my first baby and wanted some non-fiction to read. In THE SUN KING, I read about the Affair of the Poisons for the first time and was amazed that there had been such a scandal and yet I had never heard a thing about it. There was enough detail in Mitford’s book to really pique my interest but definitely not enough to satisfy my curiosity. That’s where the road to this novel really began.

L.L.: Can you set the scene for a moment? Can you take us to the world of CHARLATAN?

Kate Braithwaite: CHARLATAN is really set in two very contrasting worlds. First there is the world of Louis, Athenais and Versailles, a beautiful baroque world conjured up by Louis’ design on the site of his father’s old hunting lodge. The court is governed by strict rules and courtiers compete with each other to gain Louis’ favor using all and any weapons at their disposal. francois-athenais_de_rochechouartFor my main character, Athenais, Louis’ discarded mistress, this might have meant turning to the underworld of fortune-tellers operating in Paris who offered horoscopes, love potions and even poison to their disgruntled clients. But this is also a story of a police investigation. Police chief La Reynie and his assistant Bezons have arrested hundreds of fortune-tellers and priests who have built up lucrative businesses in Paris, selling all manner of charms, love potions and  ‘inheritance powders’ particularly to women at court who have tired of their aristrocratic mates. La Reynie and Bezons’ world is one of prisons and interrogations, of accusations of witchcraft, Satanism and state-sanctioned torture. When those arrested name Athenais as one of their clients, these two worlds collide. [shown at left: Athenias, via Wikipedia, 1.16.17]

L.L.: The story of the CHARLATAN is purely fictional, but you crafted a historical sequence of what might have happened. Your depth of historical research is remarkable. Can you tell us a bit about your research?

Kate Braithwaite: Thank you! I have read as many books as I could get my hands on about Louis, his mistresses, life in 17th century France and particularly the events of the Affair of the Poisons which are central to the plot of my novel. Writing a historical novel requires finding about all kinds of things… from buildings to clothes and hairstyles, to food, hygiene and transport. For CHARLATAN, I needed to also research historical events. Although I have streamlined and simplified the events of the Affair of the Poisons, this is a fiction that could be true and sticks fairly well to times, places and events that actually happened. All the characters in CHARLATAN existed in real life and although their personalities are imagined, they are imagined based on the known facts about them. I read, for example, that Athenais 220px-louisedelavalliere01visited Louise de la Valliere in her convent and had cooked while she was there. That snippet was very important for me in developing her character and the fictional meetings in the book between these two women. Often historical novelists talk about primary and secondary research sources. I was very fortunate that it possible to access an amazing primary source for my novel online. The Archives of the Bastille with transcripts of interrogations that took place in 1680 are only a click or two away. Of course they are in French… that slowed me down a bit! [shown at right: Louise de la Valliere via Wikipedia, 1.16.17]

L.L.: So much of your writing is highly sensory. And that’s a good thing; your descriptions of some of the torture devices were so visceral. In fact, they made me a little squeamish. Yet…I loved them. Can you talk about that please? The torture devices, the research you must have done to get it ‘just right.’

Kate Braithwaite: One of the things that I’ve been surprised about since the book came out is how strong a reaction some of the scenes have provoked in readers. Perhaps because I have written and re-written so much they don’t have the same impact for me. When working on black_mass_01the torture aspects, I referred to a couple of history books that specifically outline torture methods and sadly, of course, torture is still in use today, perhaps more than we know or like to imagine. The internet is full of weird and wonderful (and sometimes not so wonderful) information. I remember for one scene of water torture that I read on the internet that a cloth was stuffed in the person’s mouth and I could see how effective that would be. It’s part of the writer’s job to pay attention to detail. Often it is the tiny detail that makes the whole seem real. When I’m writing I also consciously try to think in a multi-sensory way and ask myself what the characters are seeing, smelling, hearing and touching, as well as what they are feeling emotionally, what they do and what they say.

L.L.: Honestly, I had never heard of a ‘black mass,’ before. Is this a true and real thing, or did you develop it as a story measure?

Kate Braithwaite: A black mass was very much a real thing according to my research. It is an extension of witchcraft: a satanic practice where the trappings and ceremony of a Roman Catholic mass are subverted and the devil or Satan is called upon instead of God. The black mass described in CHARLTAN is very much what was described by the prisoners in Chateau Vincennes when they were interrogated by La Reynie and Bezons.220px-vincenneswatercolor

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from this story? I, for one learned about a time in history I was less familiar with.

Kate Braithwaite: That was certainly one main aim. For me it is a fascinating episode that I knew I would love to read a novel about it if one existed. And so now one does! I also hope that readers will take away a feeling of having engaged with the characters. Although Athenais’ behavior is suspect at many points my starting point in writing about her, was very sympathetic. She was the most beautiful, clever and witty woman at Louis’ court but her only way to advance herself and her family was by becoming the King’s mistress. And after having seven children with Louis she was expected to smile and nod as she was replaced. So I hope the story is interesting from the perspective of women in history. But most of all I hope it is a good page turner. I have been an avid reader all my life and enjoy nothing more than being swept away by a good story.

L.L.: Since we’re in January, do you have any New Year’s Resolutions? They don’t have to be literary.

Kate Braithwaite: I have the usual plethora of resolutions about food and exercise, most of which I have struggled with already! I’m trying to keep a proper writer’s notebook this year by which I mean only having one active notebook instead of five and actually keeping that one in my bag or in my car at all times. I feel like I have writing ideas all the time but I don’t capture them, far less act upon them.

L.L.: Do you have other historical narratives in the works? Can you share?

Kate Braithwaite: I am writing another historical novel based on real events and set in the same time period as CHARLATAN, but in London. In 1679, a young man called Titus Oates shocked Parliament with dramatic revelations of a plot to murder Charles II and make 200px-titus_oatesProtestant England a Catholic country again. My story focuses on a writer, Nathaniel, and his new young wife, Anne. When Nathaniel becomes determined to prove that Oates plot is a hoax he puts himself and his friends and family’s safety at risk. Proving who really killed a prominent magistrate might be the key to bringing down Titus Oates but Nathaniel has to learn to ask for help from others if he his to succeed: and that includes not underestimating Anne.

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

Kate Braithwaite: Nothing springs to mind. I might just add that anyone wanting to know more about the Affair of the Poisons – including all the people and accusations that I simply could not fit in and still make a cohesive (hopefully) novel – should take a look at Anne Somerset’s non-fiction book, THE AFFAIR OF THE POISONS. It’s a great read.

L.L.: Kate, it was wonderful having you. Thank you for transporting us to 1676 Paris.

Kate Braithwaite: Thank you Leslie, and thanks for reading!

To connect with Ms. Braithwaite, via social media, or to purchase a copy of CHARLATAN, please see:

dsc_5299_pp1ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kate Braithwaite grew up in Edinburgh but has lived in various parts of the UK, in Canada and the US. Winner of the University of Toronto Marina Nemat Award and Random House Student Writing Prize, she writes atmospheric historical fiction exploring dark secrets and unusual episodes from the past: the stories no one told you about in history class at school.

Her novel, CHARLATAN, was long-listed for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Novel Award in 2015.

Kate and her family live in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

You can reach out to me, Leslie Lindsay, via these links:


[Cover and author image courtesy of author and used with permission. Images throughout post retrieved from Wikipedia on 1.16.17]

Writers on Wednesday: The Horrific reality of the Magdalene Laundries, how writing is like ‘a madness that cannot be shed,’ and more from amateur pianist & author of THE MAGDALEN GIRLS V.S. Alexander


By Leslie Lindsay 

Within the gated grounds of the convent of The Sisters of the Holy Redemption lies one of Dublin’s Magdalene Laundries. Once a place of refuge, the laundries have evolved into grim workhouses, shielding “fallen women” from ever showing their faces to their families. Some of these women are unwed mothers, prostitutes, or petty criminals. Others are there because their “sin” is being too pretty, too independent, or having a crush on a priest.the-magdalen-girls-cover

Such is the case of Teagan Tiernan, who’s youthful grace and beauty provokes a lustful revelation from a young, handsome priest.

Teagan befriends other Magadalen inmates, Lea and Nora, and together, they plot their way out of the institution. Still, the outside world has dangers, too.

THE MAGDALEN GIRLS (Kensington Publishing, Dec 27, 2016) explores experiences of “fallen women” imprisoned within the walls of the Magdalene Laundries in 20th century Ireland. I was completely moved by this historically-accurate, vivid accounting of one of the most troublesome aspects of the Catholic Church; yet ultimately, it’s a story of friendship, hope, and courage.

Join me, as I chat with V.S. Alexander on his beautiful, richly layered, though horrific historical novel.

Leslie Lindsay: Thanks for taking the time to join me, today. I’ve long had a fascination with the Magdalene Laundries, but I couldn’t really tell you where that originated from. Maybe it was the 2002 movie, THE MAGDALENE SISTERS, but I’m not entirely sure. What spurred you into action when writing a novel about it? What were you hoping to discover or accomplish?300px-magdalen-asylum

V.S. Alexander: Thanks for having me! I could tell you that the idea for THE MAGDALEN GIRLS was mine, but that would be a fabrication. My editor at Kensington, John Scognamiglio, suggested the concept. He had specific ideas about what he wanted to see in the book, but it was up to me to come up with the characters and the plot. The initial idea came across my desk as an “historical novel set in Ireland.” So, that was my beginning. I wrote three chapters and a synopsis, which were well received. The book grew from there. I had also seen the 2002 movie before I wrote the book, but that was the extent of my prior knowledge about the laundries.

As far as what I was hoping for—I feel my job as a novelist is to be as true, as faithful to the characters as possible in every book. Hopefully, the reader will sense that and take away my desire to tell a “true” story that is fair to every character. I didn’t want, in any way, for the novel to be cartoonish. The Mother Superior is an evil witch…Teagan is goody two-shoes with no faults. That kind of novel. Life doesn’t work that way. Much of the human parade is a shade of gray tinged by human heroism and failings. All characters have their histories of good and bad. I hope I succeeded in getting that truth across to the reader. Also, I believe that at the heart of any great novel is a love story. While THE MAGDALEN GIRLS is not a love story per se, it sheds light on these characters reactions to that emotion.

L.L.: In reading your “author’s note” at the end of the book, I learned the laundries weren’t specific to Ireland; they also were part of America, Canada, Scotland, England, and Australia and mostly run by Catholic nuns. The last laundry was apparently shut down in 1996, and the first came into existence nearly 200 years before that. What can you tell us about the history of the laundries? What fascinating tidbits did you uncover during your research? 

V.S. Alexander: When writing my historical fiction, I keep a three-ring binder for notes and research. I often fill it up by the time the book goes to a first draft. Oddly enough, if you do a subject search on the laundries (books included) you’ll find that the amount of available material is fairly limited. My binder was thin. One of the things I constructed was a list of non-fiction and fiction books that related to the subject. I came up with nine, and several of those were tangential to the laundries. My point is that there wasn’t a wealth of material—and I think that’s because the subject has only recently entered public knowledge. Even today, some readers have mentioned that they had no idea such an institution existed.

So, the history is literally being written in our time, much of it after 2002. The earliest entry referring to the laundries that I could find was a play written in 1980, less than forty years ago! My novel’s details came from my reading: what the girls wore, how they worked, how they were often “broken down” by the system. Videos from women who worked in the laundries were a great help too. One chilling fact—the Magdalens who were interviewed after THE download-33MAGDALENE SISTERS movie came out said their experiences in the laundries were “more brutal” than those depicted in the film. These women endured so much: guilt, shame, fear, isolation, poverty.

L.L.: I’m curious if a character “spoke to you” first, was there a vision or a concept you wanted to explore in THE MAGDALEN GIRLS? Can you talk about that, please?

V.S. Alexander: I wouldn’t say a character “spoke” to me first because, as I’ve said, I knew going in what the parameters of the book would be. One character, however, found her way into my heart in unexpected ways. I found myself admiring the courage, the resilience, the unconditional love demonstrated by Lea. She, who has the gift of “spiritual sight,” sacrifices the most for her friends. Lea is an awkward, gawky girl who passes her time copying the Book of Kells. She is a favorite of the Sisters because she is artistic and compliant. She was also a favorite of mine, a delight to write. Oh, and as a gift to your readers, I’m revealing Lea’s real name. She says in the novel that she doesn’t even think she can remember it because she’s been in the laundry for four years. So, for the first time, character name reveal: Ava Byrne.

All of my books deal, to some extent, with love. One of the themes I explore most often is the misrepresentation of love by any of the values we give it: sociological, psychological or physical. The Mother Superior, Sister Anne, wants to reform the girls through love although her methods hardly speak to that. In one of my previous novels I explored how love can be perverted through physical intimacy. It’s a theme I keep returning to.

L.L.: Long ago, I read an accounting of “The Butter Box Babies,” about a maternity home located in Canada in which the matrons who ran the country birthing home and orphanage would wrap deceased infants in small butter boxes for mass burial on the grounds. In some cases, this was an attempt to hide the pregnancies, in others, a form of punishment to the unwed mother. Were you aware of this? Did it inspire any of the plot points in THE MAGDALEN GIRLS?

V.S. Alexander: I was not aware of “The Butter Box Babies;” therefore, it didn’t inspire a plot point in the book. However, a similar occurrence did. That was the discovery in 1993 of 133 corpses in a mass grave on land formerly owned by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity in Dublin. Later, 22 more corpses were found, bringing the total to 155. It’s Lea who sees the burials late at night from a window and tells her friends. They, at first, don’t believe her. Who would believe that the nuns and the caretaker were burying “small bundles” on the convent grounds? download-34

L.L.: Do you believe the nuns who ran the laundries really felt they were doing a “good deed” with these girls? Have there been accounts of regret or wrongdoing on their part?

V.S. Alexander: THE MAGDALEN GIRLS is by nature a controversial book. You have on one side, the women; on the other, the Catholic Church. Both sides have held to their stories. As I wrote in the note, as far as I know, no compensation or formal apology has ever been offered by the Catholic Church regarding the laundries or the actions committed there.* In fact the Church, as an institution, has defended its actions as necessary and beneficial. However, you’re asking my opinion, and I do believe that some of the nuns truly believed they were helping the women who ended up under their auspices. My character, Sister Mary-Elizabeth, comes the closest to being one of those nuns—as a former penitent herself. It would be hard to deny that many of the nuns participated wholeheartedly in the system, possibly as intimidated and broken by their tasks as the girls. [*This article from The Catholic League may be of interest regarding myths and investigation into the Magdalen laundries]

L.L.: What is inspiring you these days? What has your attention? It doesn’t have to be literary.

V.S. Alexander: Well, we’ve certainly been through the strangest election cycle I’ve ever witnessed. It wasn’t inspiring, but it grabbed my attention. My inspiration these days comes from within. I find myself increasingly grateful to have the opportunity to share my stories with the world. For that, I’m thankful. I’m also an amateur pianist. The piano is a balm for me. I’m currently working on a sonata for cello and piano. I know! It sounds so pretentious, but I approach composition with humility, and also an understanding of my weaknesses as a composer. Music, like writing, is hard work, but I love it and its ability to invoke emotions. 

L.L.: What question should I have asked, but didn’t?

V.S. Alexander: How long have you been in this business? I’ve been working at the craft far longer than I care to admit. Writing is a business of creation, editing, re-writing, submission, rejection, eventual publication (in whatever form that might take) and marketing. PLENTY of rejection. Writing is also a business of patience and working through rejection. My words of advice for someone who dreams of writing would be: Read as much as you can in all genres, and never give up. You must be an avid reader, one who loves literature, to be in this game. There are some who play at writing, but true writers never let go of their dream. In some ways it’s a madness that can’t be shed. download-35

L.L.: What’s next for you?

V.S. Alexander: I’m very excited because I’m under contract to Kensington for three books, and possibly a fourth. My second novel for them, THE TASTER, is scheduled to come out in January, 2018. I can’t give the plot away, but the book is set in World War II Germany and is told from a viewpoint that’s different from most novels set in the period. What’s next? To keep on writing until the ideas or the body wears out. And, I think most writers will agree, there are always more ideas, more books, than you have time to write.   

L.L.: Thank you, it was a pleasure chatting with you! Happiest of New Years.

V.S. Alexander: Thank you, and the same to all your readers!

For more information, to purchase THE MAGDELEN GIRLS or to connect with V.S. Alexander via social media, please see:

v-s-alexander-author-photoABOUT THE AUTHOR: V.S. Alexander, who also writes under the name Michael Meeske,  is an ardent student of history with a strong interest in music and the visual arts. Some of V.S.’s writing influences include Shirley Jackson, Oscar Wilde, Daphne du Maurier, or any work by the exquisite Brontë sisters. V.S. lives in Florida and is at work on a second historical novel for Kensington.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through these social media sites:


[Cover and author image courtesy of Kensington Books. 1902 image of a Magdalene Laundry retrieved from Wikipedia, women ironing in Magdalene Laundry retrieved from daily mail.co.uk, both on 12.05.16] 

Writers on Wednesday: What do Grace Kelly, Elaine Stritch, & Eudora Welty have in common? Fiona Davis tells us– and so much more–in her interview on her debut historical fiction, THE DOLLHOUSE


By Leslie Lindsay 


A stunningly lush debut from journalist Fiona Davis, THE DOLLHOUSE (Dutton/Penguin Random House, August 23 2016) is at once a foray into the glamorous and upstanding sorority* of young women far away from home living in NYC for the first time, often alone and in school. But it’s also a mystery of what really happened to one of the [fictional] characters. For me, THE DOLLHOUSE was the perfect blend of historical fiction, society and class, and mystery.

“The Barbizon…filled to the rafters with pretty little dolls, just like you.”

Long before Barbizon 63 was a sleek condo building, it was the famed Barbizon Hotel for Women,* an exclusive residence for New York City’s young, single women. From 1927 to 1981, the buildings 23 stories and 700 rooms were a lush beehive swarming with thousands of aspiring models, actresses, secretaries, editors, writers—among them Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Liza Minelli, Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, Ali MacGraw, Candice Bergen, and Betsey Johnson—who lived side-by-side and adhered to strict rules while attempting to claw their way to fairy-tale success in New York City.

THE DOLLHOUSE is a story of jazz clubs, heroin rings, and women finding their place in a society in which they were groomed for traditional careers.

Davis does a fabulous job blending two time periods (1952 and 2016) as well as two distinct characters, Darby McLaughlin (1952, and enrolled in The Katie Gibbs Secretarial School) and Rose Lewin (2016, network journalist) in this well-researched and imaginative narrative arc. I absolutely adored the historical details of fashion, social mores, right down to the mosaics plastered to the stairwell, to the narrow single bed pushed up against the wall; it truly was Davis’s use of detail that brought the story to life.

So lace up your girdle, and grab your Nestea instant coffee, and join me as I chat with Fiona Davis.

Leslie Lindsay: Fiona, thank you so very much for taking the time to chat with us about your debut, THE DOLLHOUSE. I understand the seed for this story was planted when you were apartment-hunting in NYC. You were shown into Barbizon 63 at the bustling corner of Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street. But it did not become your a40a1c853b1f8e5c408ac6f28c982232.jpghome, but the home where your imagination dwelled. Can you talk about your inspiration for THE DOLLHOUSE?

Fiona Davis: I love the way you phrased that! When I went to see an apartment in what used to be the Barbizon Hotel for Women, my broker told me that a dozen or so older residents were still living there when the building went condo in 2005, and were moved into rent-controlled apartments on the same floor. It got me thinking: what kinds of dramatic changes had those women seen, in the building and in the city? For example, in 1966 you could stay at the Barbizon Hotel for $6.75 a week; today, there’s a penthouse apartment for sale for $17 million! I started to wonder what it was like when the old and new tenants bumped into each other in the elevator, and the idea took off from there.

L.L.: I understand the Barbizon Hotel for Women was home to many women who left a mark on the social landscape of America—Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath (if only for a month), among others. Which of these famous woman do you most identify? Did any of them become inspiration for either of your characters—Rose the journalist in 2016, or Darby the secretary in 1952? Or are they purely fictional?

Fiona Davis: The number of famous ex-guests is really off the charts. I would have loved to have lived there and met Grace Kelly, chatted about books with Eudora Welty and hit the town with Elaine Stritch. But both Rose and Darby are fictional characters. I wanted to avoid including famous people in THE DOLLHOUSE, as that would’ve sent the story shooting off in a completely different direction, and perhaps steal the spotlight from my own cast of characters. elaine_stritch_2_allan_warren

L.L.: I’m so curious about your research. As a journalist yourself, I know this is an area you must excel. So many of the details were pulsing with vibrancy in the book, and that’s not always an easy feat, especially when you didn’t live it yourself. Can you share a glimpse into your research?

Fiona Davis: Thank you so much. I love the research stage and would have happily stayed in it forever. Because I live in New York, I took advantage of everything the city has to offer, including going through back issues of women’s magazines from the 1950s at Barnard College library to get a sense of the era, and signing up for a twelve-hour class in bebop jazz at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I also interviewed women who’d stayed at the Barbizon in the 50s and 60s and got lots of color and detail from them.

L.L.: Many of the women in the Barbizon Hotel for Women are pursing very traditional careers—models, actresses, secretaries, editors and writers (it was NYC, after all), but when one thinks of ‘traditional’ and ‘women’ in terms of career, nurse and teacher also come to mind, as do mother and wife. Yet, I don’t think any of the women in the Barbizon were studying to become nurses or teachers. Can you speak to that, please?

Fiona Davis:  It’s all about location. Back in the 50s (and this is still true today), it would have been fairly easy enough to go to nursing school or get an education degree close to your home town. But careers like editing and modeling had to happen where books and magazines were being written and published. Or, say you wanted to be an actress, the Broadway stage would be the big draw. So I think that’s why the Barbizon attracted women pursuing those particular careers. At the same time, being single girl in New York City was considered pretty radical, which is why safe havens like the Barbizon sprung up. 

L.L.: Aside from college sororities, do places like the Barbizon Hotel for Women still exist today?

Fiona Davis: There’s something like ten women’s hotels left, including the Webster Apartments on West 34th Street, which was built back in 1923, and the Brandon Residence on the Upper West Side. According to a recent article in New York Magazine, they serve around 127946592e923614ed195dbbb5a78a88.jpg1,000 women, which is pretty amazing.

L.L.: THE DOLLHOUSE sort of straddles genres: upmarket women’s fiction meets mystery, meets historical fiction. Would you agree with that assessment, and was that your intention all along, or did it develop organically?

Fiona Davis: I would totally agree with you – THE DOLLHOUSE crosses a number of genres. Growing up I’d always been a big fan of mysteries, and I still adore books that reveal a secret at the end, with lots of juicy plot twists along the way. I also enjoy the way historical fiction transports the reader back in time. For pleasure reading, I gravitate to a mix of mystery, women fiction and historical fiction, so I guess it was inevitable that THE DOLLHOUSE would end up being a mash-up of all three.

L.L.: Do you have any particular writing rituals or routines? Do you outline?

Fiona Davis: I do outline, very carefully, as I know eventually I’ll have to weave two story lines together and ensure that the clues and red herrings show up in the right place. As for routines, I prefer to write new scenes in the morning. After lunch, my energy sags and it’s a whole lot harder to hit a daily word count. Editing and revising I can do any time, as I find that the most fun, like figuring out a puzzle made of words.

L.L.: What keeps you up at night? What’s ‘speaking’ to you these days? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Fiona Davis: I’m loving the new episodes of Black Mirror on Netflix, which is about technology and its effect on society. Each episode its own world, like Twilight Zone, so you can watch them in any order, and they’re all pretty mind blowing.

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

Fiona Davis:What are you working on these days? I’m editing my next book, which takes place at another iconic New York City building the year it was built as well as 100 years later. Can’t wait to get it out into the world! Stay tuned…

L.L.: Fiona, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you and best wishes on this, and future books.

Fiona Davis: Thank you!

For more information, or to purchase THE DOLLHOUSE, please see: 

fiona_davis credit Kristen Jensen (1).jpg

ABOUT 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 10 years, she changed careers, working as an editor and writer and specializing in health, fitness, nutrition, dance and theater.

She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is based in in New York City. She loves nothing better than hitting farmer’s markets on weekends in search of the perfect tomato, and traveling to foreign cities steeped in history, like London and Cartagena. The Dollhouse is her first novel.


You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through these various social media sites. Follow my reviews on GoodReads!

[Special thanks to R. Odell at Dutton. Cover and author image courtesy of publicist. Interior views of Barbizon Hotel from , image of Webster Apartments from Pinterest, Edith Stritch image retrieved from Wikipedia, all retrieved on 11.12.16]

Writers on Wednesdays: How five women intersect in this gorgeously told debut, Ella Joy Olsen talks about being inspired by her hundred-year old bungalow in ROOT, PETAL, THORN, the permanence of place, family lore, & how reading is definitely a perk to being an author


By Leslie Lindsay 

What an amazing read! Five fascinating women. The same historic home. One hundred years. Interconnected stories of love, courage, and heartbreak. root, petal, thorn COMP

When I first read this description of ROOT, PETAL, THORN (Kensington Publishing, August 30, 2016), I fell in love.  The first home my husband and I owned was a two-story stucco built in 1920. The front was flanked with a charming three-season porch, a maple tree, oodles of peonies, hydrangeas, and more charm inside: wood floors throughout, fireplace, claw foot tub, and small built-ins. I often wondered what families had inhabited the house before us. Obviously, we knew who we purchased from: a childless artist couple, their impressive art lining the plaster walls. Once, we met a little girl dressed up as a fairy princess on Halloween, who rang our doorbell and boldly told us, “I was born at this house.” And we knew who built the house: a minister and his family. Apparently, it was on the grounds of the church, the church long gone, ironically.

And then ROOT, PETAL, THORN came along. Immediately, I knew I had to read it. Ella Joy Olsen writes beautifully, tracing the lives of Emmeline, Cora, Bitsy, Lainey, Eris, and Ivy through tumultuous times, from two World Wars (the first inhabitant of the house is Emmeline, 1913), the Great Depression, Korean war, Vietnam war, and ‘present-day.’ Set in Salt Lake City, Utah, ROOT, PETAL, THORN is different than the history of my Northfield, Minnesota home, but ultimately it’s about the permanence of place and the impermanence of people.

So grab your coffee, or bubbly late-summer beverage and join me with Ella Joy Olsen as she chats about her inspiration and the story behind ROOT, PETAL, THORN. 

Leslie Lindsay:  Stephen King tells us its bad form to ask a writer what inspired them to write a particular story; that it’s akin to asking what you ate for dinner last night or where your children were conceived. But I’m going to do it, anyway. What were your inspirations behind ROOT, PETAL, THORN? And feel free to tell us what you had for dinner, too.

Ella Joy Olsen: I actually love this question because you could say ROOT, PETAL, THORN is the book of my heart. I think most authors would agree the first book written lingers in the author’s mind the longest. That doesn’t mean it will be their best book (or even the first published) but it’s the one dreamed about well before the nitty-gritty process of putting words on paper. And so it was with me.

My inspiration came from two places. First, my home: I live in a hundred-year-old bungalow very similar to the one in the story. My husband and I have spent years remodeling, fixing things, making it ours, but as we worked we found crazy things: a trapdoor at the bottom of a closet leading to a tiny dirt-floor enclosure (where we discovered a single button-down shoe). We think it was the laundry chute that was boarded up when the basement was remodeled, but who knows?  There were other odd discoveries, all of which I won’t list here, but many found their way into the book. I don’t know who left these items (or improvements) behind, or why, but I love to imagine.

The second inspiration: My across-the-street neighbor, George. He lived on my street for fifty years helping the neighborhood evolve, watching his children grow. He went from young man, to old man, to gone – all in the same house. When he died, I was newish to the neighborhood and had my own young children. I couldn’t imagine the passage of so much time under one roof. Now I’ve lived nearly twenty years in my home. I figured it was time to tell the story.george

Regarding dinner, thanks for asking (giggle). Last night I grilled pizza and my husband and I shared a bottle of wine. Two of the three kids were home, which made it delightful!

L.L.: ROOT, PETAL, THORN is told from the perspective of five different women, their stories bound by a common ground: the house. But there’s more, too. It’s about being a woman in uncertain times, about history, and the bittersweet passage of time (we’ll get to that later), but I’m curious to know if there was a particular character who ‘revealed’ herself to you first? One you felt a particular kinship with, and if there was one that provided more of a challenge for you?

Ella Joy Olsen: For anyone who has already read the book this answer will be a surprise. Most readers think the modern day character, Ivy, is based on me. She’s the one researching and imaging the other women, after all. But she was actually a late addition. I’d written all of the other stories (in rough form) and handed them to a couple of beta readers who said they weren’t sure what the book was supposed to be – A short story compilation? A disjointed novel? I knew I needed a character to entwine the stories into a cohesive narrative. So I created Ivy (and now you know the meaning behind her twisty name). Once I wrote her, I realized how closely her story mirrored many of my own experiences, but not until she was fully written.

Emmeline came to me first. Probably because I’m such a fan of historical fiction and I love the history of my hometown. My great-grandma wrote several essays detailing events in her life. They are a treasure trove of family lore. I incorporated many details from her experiences into Emmeline’s story.  Lainey was the hardest (more on that later).

L.L.: The house on Downington Avenue stands sentry to a world spanning 1913 through ‘present-day,’ roughly one-hundred years. It covers a lot of ground (the house and the story). But what I’m really getting at is the permanence of place and the impermanence of people; that structure stays, but people go. Can you talk to that, please? ry

Ella Joy Olsen: I love that you asked about this! Permanence of place and impermanence of people is at the heart of ROOT, PETAL, THORN. It is the very nature of home for all of us. Think about the time spent in one comfortable spot, the only place you can truly let it all hang out. Think about the money and careful detail incorporated into remodeling, painting, decorating – an expression of self. In the novel, the house on Downington Avenue is an anchor and an oasis for each of the women. But like the characters in the novel, no matter how much we adore our homes – at some point, for one reason or another – eventually we all must move on.

I want to add a few more thoughts (slightly off topic) in response to this question. Like many, I’m crazy about the typical historical sites like the Acropolis or the Empire State Building, places with a traceable past. But more often, I find myself considering the garret where we stayed in Paris rather than the Notre Dame cathedral. I like to ponder the less noteworthy places. Maybe it’s because I get to imagine the history of those locations rather than reading the facts. I seek out places or things that give me only a tiny glimpse of the past – forgotten barns surrounded by weeds, amusement parks which had their heyday decades -261cc9cc7fac1ae3earlier, historic houses with mismatched additions and rusted clothes lines, a crumbling grand hotel on the corner of a busy intersection. Who created these places? How did they evolve into their current state? What were the stories of the people who frequented them?

L.L.: And so, the passage of time. I tend to look back on memories, well…fondly. I still think of that old house in Minnesota and wonder who is living there now, and our very early beginnings as husband and wife. But there were hard times there, too. We were miles away from family, from the life we knew in Missouri, and I felt like my work at the time wasn’t my true calling. Are you the type of person who looks back on your life, or do you look forward to things with giddy anticipation, and does it really matter?

Ella Joy Olsen: Again a very telling question. Leslie, you’re super intuitive because this is currently a hot button at my house. My impulses are in opposition to each other on this point. I anticipate grieving over my college-bound son’s empty room (looking back) so much that on several occasions I’ve shopped for office furniture to fill the void (desperately looking forward). My husband insists I’m hiding my heartbreak with an unnecessary purchase, which is true. So I won’t turn my son’s room into my office because I ache for him to come home, but still, his echoing room…how can I bear it?

On that same point, I’ve already informed my husband we’re moving from my beloved bungalow (inspiration for Root, Petal, Thorn) just as soon as all the kids are in college. It would seem I lack sentimentality based on these hasty retreats, when I’m actually overwhelmed by it. So to answer your question, I must look forward with giddy anticipation to avoid being swallowed by the bittersweet passage of time.

L.L.: But part of my life wasn’t always so rosy. My mother, like your character, Lainey suffered from a myriad of mental health issues, among them, bipolar disorder. I have to applaud your accurate portrayal and sensitivity to this stigma. I can only imagine what it must have been like in the 1960s, when the character of Lainey inhabited the house. Can you share your research and why you chose this particular issue to highlight?

Ella Joy Olsen: Lainey was the last of the historic characters I explored. I could see her but I didn’t know her story. I’d already written characters intensely affected by world events and I wanted to write a character whose life was more affected by personal circumstance. Originally, Lainey was in an abusive relationship but I found I was spending too much time on her husband. I needed something different. Personally, I’ve had several bouts of depression and found an invisible illness so much more difficult to deal with than one where you can point to a wound and say, “See? This is why I feel yucky.” Through Lainey, I wanted to express the double edged sword of mental illness.

Regarding research, I read several non-fiction accounts, but most importantly, my sister-in-law suffers from bipolar and I’ve seen the effects on her life. She has a very supportive relationship with her daughter and she was nice enough to talk with me about some of the emotions, medications, and trials she’s experienced throughout her life. Thanks Linda!

L.L.: Still, ROOT, PETAL, THORN is about grief and the bittersweet connection to people, place, and time. Ivy is dealing with the recent accidental death of her husband, Eris is fraught with sending her son off to war, and Emmeline can’t decide who to marry, or why to marry…was this your intention all along, to create a sort of vignette of grief?

Ella Joy Olsen: I would say it wasn’t my original intention to write a vignette of grief, but I firmly believe in the sentiment expressed in the novel – the one Ivy uses to help her move beyond the death of her husband – that “everyone has a little sad in their story.” People seek out different reassurances when life throws lemons. Many turn to a higher power to 635898753504476015-1619945331_grief-angelexplain the unfair things. I started writing this novel a couple of years after my sister died (she was overcome by carbon monoxide in a freak boating accident). Writing the stories of these five women was, in retrospect, part of my grieving process. Originally, I simply wanted to challenge myself to write a book – but ROOT, PETAL, THORN is what emerged.

My sister’s death is still a turning point in my life (and in the lives of my family), but over the years I’ve come to realize there are an awful lot of people out there, going about their business, harboring a secret grief. So, yes, there is a little sad in every story. Learning this certain truth made me a more empathetic person. Understanding it confirmed that despite heartache, joy returns and life is worth living.

L.L.: Switching gears a bit, what’s keeping you awake lately? What has your attention?

Ella Joy Olsen: Launching ROOT, PETAL, THORN has taken most of my attention and has at times kept me awake – which is good, because as I mentioned, my oldest moved away for college in the middle of August. For the first time in eighteen years he’s not shuffling up the stairs for breakfast before school. His absence would kill me (or keep me continually awake) if I thought on it for too long, so I’m forcing attention on book launch details! And there are a bunch of details.

L.L.: What are your must-read fall books?

Ella Joy Olsen: One of the best parts of being an author is mingling in a community of other authors. They understand the journey and are so generous with their help and encouragement! I have many new favorite authors (and friends)! I try to read several of their books each month so I can support my “co-workers” and so I can recommend their books widely. Truly, this is a huge perk of my job! There are tons of debuts I’m excited about but I don’t want to leave anyone out, so I’ll mention a couple of books that have been sitting on my nightstand that I fully intend to finish before Christmas: DEAD WAKE by Erik Larson and FURIOUSLY HAPPY by Jenny Lawson.

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

Ella Joy Olsen: People always ask me if I’m writing another book. I’m in the thick of it, so I’ll reveal. The title is Where the Sweet Bird Sings and it will publish about this time next year. It’s a companion (not a sequel) to ROOT, PETAL, THORN and is told by Emmeline’s great-granddaughter. download (11)

Here’s the teaser: Though she has a loving husband, Emma Hazelton is adrift, struggling to rebuild her life after a tragedy. But one day, a simple question and an old black-and-white photograph prompt her to untangle the branches of her family tree, where she discovers a legacy of secrets. What connects us to one another? Is it shared history? Is it ancestry?  Or is it love?

L.L.: Ella, it’s been a joy connecting with you and sharing ROOT, PETAL, THORN. I just loved it!

Ella Joy Olsen: Leslie, thank you so much for talking to me about my book. I love your interviews and feel honored to be among the fantastic authors you’ve featured!

For more information, or to connect with Ella on social media, please see:

biophoto1.3.jpgAbout the Author: Ella Joy Olsen was born, raised, and currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah – a charming town tucked against the massive Rocky Mountains. Most at home in the world of the written word, Ella spent nearly a decade on the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library System (and four decades browsing the stacks). She is the mom of three kids ranging from pre-teen to edge-of-the-nest teen, the mama of two dogs, and the wife of one patient husband.

Though she’s crazy about words, Ella is also practical, so she graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in Finance. After years spent typing boring stuff, Ella eagerly gave up her corner cubicle and started writing fiction. She has also lived in Seattle, Washington & Savannah, Georgia.

She is a member of Tall Poppy Writers and Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association.

ROOT, PETAL, THORN (September 2016, Kensington) is her debut novel. And coming in September 2017-WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS.  [Special thanks to Kensington Press. Author and cover image provided by the author and used with permission, as well as the image of neighbor George and rose bush(es). Grieving angel retrieved from, mossy tree from, Alabama’s Shelby Hotel from, all on 7.20.16]. 

Write On, Wednesday: New York Times Bestselling Author Michelle Gable talks about decaying English mansions, writing in cars, & how history and relationships drive us


By Leslie Lindsay 

In her New York Times bestselling debut, A PARIS APARTMENT, Michelle Gable fictionalized the true story of a French courtesan and the discovery of her sealed-for-seventy-years Parisian apartment, which was filled to the rafters with stunning pieces of artwork and furniture, sparking wonder in readers across the world.

I'll See You in Paris

Lavender and book

She’s back with I’LL SEE YOU IN PARIS, but this time the brunt of the story takes place in a sleepy little English hamlet, a decaying old manse set behind barbed wire, an English pub, and a young women’s quest to find herself and her roots. The lives of three women intersect in this parallel story, dual-narrative, spanning several time periods.

I’LL SEE YOU IN PARIS is a magical melding of historical fiction, a dash of mystery, and a contemporary read all rolled into one. 

Today, I am honored to welcome Michelle Gable to the blog couch. I have fresh scones and spot of tea waiting…

Leslie Lindsay: Michelle, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. I’m always so intrigued to find out what was haunting you when you set out to write I’LL SEE YOU IN PARIS?

Michelle Gable: Thank you for having me! The first glimpse of I’ll See You in Paris came while researching A Paris Apartment, which features artist Giovanni Boldini as a central character. Back in the Gilded Age, you weren’t anyone unless he painted you and so I studied every person Boldini rendered. When I stumbled upon Gladys Deacon, the Duchess of Marlborough, I decided she had to get top billing in a future novel. She was known as the most beautiful woman of her era—and the most intelligent. And she had a thousand madcap stories. The Dazzling Miss Deacon was too delicious to leave to history!

One of the most riveting aspects to Gladys’s story was that she disappeared from her palace in the 1930s and turned up in a dilapidated, Grey Gardens-style manse in the 1970s. I knew the reader had to meet her in this location.

As with my first book, I wanted to incorporate a modern-day storyline too. The post-9/11 angle struck me as ideal given a large chunk of the tale takes place in the final years of the Vietnam War. The juxtaposition of the two wars (Afghanistan and Vietnam) intrigued me: one very much supported (at least at first) and one vastly out of favor.

L.L.: In many ways, the Duchess was like the old treasure trove one might find in grandmother’s attic. Can you speak to that, please?

Michelle Gable: Yes, Gladys Deacon was a treasure trove, both her home and her personality!170px-Gladys_Deacon

I used many of the Duchess’s expressions, mannerisms, and real-life stories throughout the novel. By age ten, Gladys had lived in four different countries. She was kidnapped at twelve. At sixteen she debuted in London where she met her future husband, who was already married. By twenty-one she was living in Paris, in an apartment she owned alone. She finally married at forty, but with a host of lovers before then. As she once said when the Duke was prattling on about politics: “Shut up! You know nothing about politics. I’ve slept with every prime minister in Europe and most kings. You are not qualified to speak.” Meanwhile, Winston Churchill was at the table.

Gladys had her famous eyes painted on the ceilings at Blenheim Palace, her married home, as well as sphinxes with her likeness installed in the gardens. As I mentioned, she disappeared from this palace in the 1930s and ended up at the Grange, a falling-down estate in Banbury, England. At the Grange, chicken wire surrounded the property, spaniels roamed (and mated) freely, and dead cats were stored in the icebox. Gladys used the stove to heat her toes and kept a gun nearby at all times. She even once sprayed “f*** you” in weed killer on her front lawn. The stories could go on and on! This is why I chose a “biography” to tell much of the Duchess’s tale. I wrote it but the anecdotes are real.

L.L.: The actual writing of I’LL SEE YOU IN PARIS was done long-hand between your daughters’ softball games and your day job. That’s pretty ambitious, to say the least! I’m a soccer mom myself and find the quiet solitude of sitting in the car while my youngest practices to be the time I’m often the most productive at writing. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who eeks out a few minutes to write. Do you find writing serves other purposes for you, or is it simply to tell a story?

Michelle Gable: Writing definitely serves other purposes! It’s always been an escape for me. I’ve read that being busy, particularly with another job, is good for an author because the writing feels less like work. This is so true. I’ve finished my third novel and the process is still fun!

L.L.: Here’s my favorite notion in the book: “WHITE COLLAR GIRL NEEDED. Oxforshire, England. Personal assistant req’d for cultured older woman living alone. 400 dollars per month and free board. No exp necessary. Only a love of literature and the English countryside.” I’m already getting my Passport ready! Had you been to England before? How did you do your research?

Michelle Gable: I’ve been to England several times and travel does factor into the research. I was in London and Paris for a couple of weeks while writing I’ll See You in Paris but we didn’t get to Blenheim, unfortunately. But several of my daughters’ observations of Paris made it into the manuscript.

Other than seeing a location in person, I use any drop of information I can find whether it’s via the internet, interviews, out-of-print books, personal collections in libraries, or old magazines. Television also plays a role. Much of I’ll See You in Paris takes place in the 1970s and so I watched every episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Not exactly “real” research but it got me in the mood!

Research is one of the best parts of being a writer. I love hunting for facts and stories and even a sense of atmosphere. Mary_Tyler_Moore_Valerie_Harper_Cloris_Leachman_Last_Mary_Tyler_Moore_show_1977

L.L.: There are many ways a reader could read I’LL SEE YOU IN PARIS. What are you hoping they take away?

Michelle Gable: Mostly I want my books to be an escape. So if a reader gets lost in the story, that’s always a positive. I also love to read books that send me googling (and doing more research!) and I hope my novels do the same for others. It’s a great feeling when someone says they spent hours researching something from my books.

L.L.: What are you working on now?

Michelle Gable: My third novel is called Book of Summer and is slated to launch in May 2017. As with my first two, I used multiple time periods, but this one takes place on Nantucket. The story is based on the real-life erosion affecting the island. Central to the novel is Cliff House, a home that’s been in a family for 99 years and that’s now in danger of falling off the bluff. The story follows several generations of people who’ve lived there.

L.L.: What’s obsessing you now and why?

Michelle Gable: Nantucket! Not just because it’s the setting of my next book but because I’m taking my family in July! We’re staying on the very road my characters live on. I’m so excited I can hardly stand it. I hope they love it as much as I do. I spend way too much time looking at real estate listings in Sconset. A girl can dream!

L.L.: What inspires you?

Michelle Gable: History, especially exploring the lesser-known parts of it. Relationships inspire me too, and love, whether it’s romantic, platonic, and/or familial. No matter the time period, these relationships are what drive us.

L.L.: Michelle, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

Michelle Gable: Thank you!

Michelle Gable_Lower Res.jpgMichelle Gable is the author of the New York Times bestselling debut A Paris Apartment.he works in finance, writes in fiction, and is also a sports-obsessed maniac (Go Chargers! Go Aztecs!), Cardiff-by-the-Sea resident, barre class fiend, tennis player, and card-carrying member of the Chickasaw Nation. Authorial aspirations in mind, she attended The College of William & Mary (Tribe Pride!) and majored in…accounting. To learn more, visit www.michellegable.com. Be sure to follow Michelle on:

[Cover and author images courtesy of K. Bassel at St. Martin’s Press. Image of Gladys Deacon as rendered by Giovanni Boldini retrieved from Wikipedia on 3.2.16. Mary Tyler Moore image from Wikipedia on 3.2.16]

Write On, Wednesday: Meet Anne Girard, author of the dazzling PLATINUM DOLL, how Jean Harlow influenced Marilyn Monroe, writing routines, and the glitz & glamour of early Hollywood


By Leslie Lindsay 

Jean Harlow didn’t ask to be a star.Platinum Doll Final Cover

At seventeen years old and a love-struck newlywed from Kansas City, Missouri, Harlean Carpenter and her husband, trust-fund orphan Chuck McGrew move west to the promising neighborhood of Beverly Hills, California, with dreams of doing nothing more than lunching at the country club, taking up tennis and living in a cute stucco house in the hills. But it’s only a matter of time—and the result of a dare that turns Harlean Carpenter McGrew into the ravishing Jean Harlow.

Gorgeously written and fabulously drawn from the life of young Harlean Harlow Carpenter, Anne Girard returns with PLATINUM DOLL (previous historical fiction MADAME PICASSO), and pulls readers into the enchanting fairy-tale world of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Today, I am super honored to have Anne Girard pop over and chat about her glowing, page-turning historical fiction, PLATINUM DOLL.

Leslie Lindsay: Welcome Anne! It’s such a pleasure to have you on the blog couch today. I just devoured PLATINUM DOLL, felt seduced by the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and even felt compelled to do some of my own research on Jean Harlow—I wanted to know more. That is what I call darn good historical fiction! What sparked your interest in writing this particular story?

Anne Girard: Hi Leslie, thanks very much. It’s my pleasure, and I’m so thrilled that you enjoyed the book! I’ve always been drawn to writing about real characters from history—the more complicated or misunderstood, the better. What sparked my interest about Jean Harlow’s story were two things. I loved exploring what it took to become a star in early Hollywood, that was really fun, and I was equally pulled into the portrait of a young, fragile marriage dying as her star is rising. Biographers have not been kind to Chuck McGrew, so I also wanted to try to represent what that whole thing must have been like, not just for Harlean, but for her him, knowing he was outmatched by his domineering mother-in-law, as well as by the fateful pull of Hollywood. I actually felt a lot of compassion not just for Harlow but for them both.

L.L.: And so your research is evident in this novel. You clearly did your homework. I think it would have been easy to become overwhelmed with the vast amount of information out there on Jean Harlow. Yet, you deliver such a well-rounded, yet compact slice of her life. How did you decide what to include, and what not?

Anne Girard: With this book it was a little easier than it often is. My publisher wanted only that slice of her story, kind of “A Star Is Born” theme, so that simplified things. Knowing that before I began, I really committed to putting as many details—and characters—into the book as possible to hopefully make that period which I was given really live for readers. There really wasn’t much I left out, or wanted to!

“A fascinating, page-turning, behind-the-scenes look at what it took to be a celebrity in early Hollywood.”

~Lynn Cullen, bestselling author of Poe and Twain’s End

L.L.: Was there anything that surprised you about Jean Harlow?

Anne Girard: Learning how smart and well educated she was surprised me, considering the stereotype of a platinum blonde movie star. It was also great learning how much she loved to read, and that she even wrote a novel. I wouldn’t have guessed any of that.

225px-Harlow-publicityL.L.: I have to say, Jean seemed like a girl I would like—she loves animals, reading, and writing. I think, for me, I enjoyed learning she was just a sweet, tenderhearted girl from Missouri who stumbled upon fame. In your opinion, is this how things “work,” that luck is elusive, or carefully cultivated?

Anne Girard: I think it’s probably a little of both. In Jean’s case, she really didn’t seek out fame or, initially, even a career, while her friend Rosalie did pursue it and had nowhere near the same luck. Once she had tasted a bit of that success though, I do believe Jean (and her mother!) worked very hard at cultivating the opportunity fate had given her—and cultivate they both did! Harlow was an inspiration to Marilyn Monroe and countless other girls afterward.

L.L.: There are sections of the novel that are hard to read. Namely, the tumultuous relationship she had with her mother. Gosh, their relationship was oddly complex. Can you speak to that, please?

Anne Girard: Wasn’t she something?! Jean Bello certainly was the quintessential, cliché controlling stage mother, my goodness! Hard to read and certainly difficult to write about when needing to present an accurate representation! They were very enmeshed, stemming from Harlow’s having been an only child, and her mother’s sole companion on their first trip to Hollywood where they very much depended on each other. The first Jean Harlow also saw possibility in her daughter, things that she was never able to achieve on her own. Their nicknames for each other, “Mommie” and “The Baby,” say a lot I think.Jean_Harlow_and_mother_1934

L.L.: Were there other disturbing scenes for you to write? (There were sure a few that made me cringe!)

Anne Girard: Absolutely. The scene in the backseat of the car when they are on the way to the hospital… that was tough to write, and to put myself in Harlow’s shoes under the strictures of those times. I wanted to show the mix of panic, fear and anger—and ultimately resignation, she was feeling. Also there is a last scene between Harlow and her husband when he comes to her house that final time. His desperation to keep his wife, mixed with the growing death of a marriage, made me sad for days afterward, but it was real life, what really happened, and I wanted to share that respectfully, but realistically too. I hope I did that.

L.L.: Let’s switch gears a bit to your writing process. Do you outline first, or let the pen lead? Do you research first, then write or does your research fall into place as the narrative unfolds?

Anne Girard: It kind of depends on the story. Usually though, once I’ve done an initial exploration of the characters, some scenes and dialogue do just tumble out. It’s the ‘get acquainted’ period between the characters and me. I jot those down and store them to add later to the text. Then I begin the lengthier research; biographies (all of them), historical time reference books, food, fashion and travel to the destination where the story is set. That’s a must. Then I write an initial outline of the scenes as they really happened from history so that I know, in a general way, where I will be going with the characters. The writing—all on yellow legal tablets—happens after that.

L.L.: What is obsessing you nowadays and why?

Anne Girard: Ah, obsession is the perfect word! I’m onto a new story—another real character from history, which is top secret for now. But I’m in the phase where the characters and I are getting acquainted, and I’m beginning to hear ‘their’ story. I love when that happens! It really is the ‘honeymoon’ phase of the writing process. I can’t wait to share it with the world. Hopefully, that will be soon and I will do justice to the characters and their amazing story.

L.L.: What might I have asked about, but forgot?

Anne Girard: Hmm… how ‘bout what I’m reading at the moment? That would be “At The Water’s Edge” by Sara Gruen. Fabulous writing and a great story; can’t ask for more than that!

L.L.: Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by, Anne. It was such a pleasure!

Anne Girard: Truly, Leslie, the pleasure was all mine! Wonderful questions!


Anne Girard HeadshotBio: Diane Haeger, who currently writes under the pen name Anne Girard (Madame Picasso), holds a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University, and a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature from UCLA. A chance meeting with the famed author Irving Stone 25 years ago sharply focused her ambition to tell great stories from history, and write them only after detailed research and extensive travel to the place her character lived. That determination has provided a fascinating journey that has taken her from the halls of Chenonceaux, to a private interview with one of Pablo Picasso’s last surviving friends, and most recently an invitation inside Jean Harlow’s home.

Since the publication of her acclaimed first novel, Courtesan, in 1993, a novel that remains in print today, her work has been translated into 18 different languages, bringing her international success and award-winning status.

Platinum Doll, a novel about Jean Harlow, is her 15th book. She lives in Southern California with her husband and family.

Learn more about the author of PLATINUM DOLL: 

Order/Download PLATINUM DOLL: 

[Special thanks to S. Missirlian. Cover and author image courtesy of Anne Girard. B&W images of Jean Harlow and her mother, as well as the Hollywood headshot were retrieved from Wikipedia 1.1.16] 

Write On, Wednesday: Greer Macallister on THE MAGICIAN’S LIE, illusions, her obsession with toast, and how to pronounce Mackinac


By Leslie Lindsay 

You’ll find yourself immediately immersed in a mesmerizing web of illusions, secrets, and lies, as did I as you read this beautiful story, THE MAGICIAN’S LIE, just out in 9781492628996-300paperback this month. I particularly loved how the stage acts were designed and implemented (with a lot of fervor and practice!), and the dark, Victorian world painted by debut author Greer Macallister. It’s historical fiction with a toe in the murky world of a literary psychological thriller.

The Amazing Arden is accused of killing her husband in a grisly magic act that is neither what you may think. The entire story plays out in the form of a confession at a police station in the form of a frame story (or as the French call it, Mise en abyme) quite reminiscent of THE THIRTEENTH TALE.

I am honored to have Greer with us today.

Leslie Lindsay: Wow. I finished THE MAGICIAN’S LIE yesterday and I’m still puzzling out some pieces of the story. That, in my opinion is what makes fabulous storytelling!  How did you stumble upon this lesser known—yet provocative—story of a female magician in the early 1900’s?

Greer Macallister: First of all, thank you! The inspiration for the book was actually an absence. Books, movies, TV commercials and other media often refer to the classic image of a magician cutting a woman in half. I began to wonder why it’s always the woman cut in half by a man, and never the other way around. Why don’t we see a female magician cutting her male assistant in half? So I decided I wanted to write that book, about that magician. Early in my research I came across Adelaide Herrmann, who was undoubtedly the most famous female magician of her time. In 1897 she performed an incredibly dangerous illusion called the Bullet Catch – I had to use that. So Adelaide is part of the story, but Arden – the one who does the Halved Man illusion – is completely my creation.

L.L.: As a kid, I had a mail-order magic kit that came to my home one summer. I had high hopes for the cardboard style tricks contained in the blue box, but never really mastered any. In reading THE MAGICIAN’S LIE, I understand why; these things are no easy feat! How on earth did you possibly research all of those illusions and then write so effortlessly about them?

“Smart and intricately plotted… a richly imagined thriller.” — People Magazine

Greer Macallister: I’m glad the writing seems effortless, because I absolutely cannot do any of those tricks in real life! I’m a real butterfingers when it comes to misdirection and manipulation. Luckily, I find it easier to render illusions in writing – which is its own kind of illusion. Researching the real stage magic of the time was fascinating. It was so physical. In order to appear to be floating in the air, you were hoisted up in a metal frame hidden under your dress, held up by a single long pole under one arm. That had to hurt! But it was a black pole against a black curtain, and with the right lighting and costumes, the audience didn’t see the secret – they just saw a woman in the air. Magic! Such as it was at the time, and to a degree, still is.

L.L.: Do you have a favorite illusion? What “magic” might you like to instill in your own life?

Greer Macallister: My favorite illusion from the book is the Fair Shake, because I like the joke, and because it’s the only one that’s completely fictional. All the others are based on something already being done at the time. As for my life, it’s wonderfully boring, so I would probably add some highly practical magic to it – could I get my dishwasher to unload itself?

L.L.: Many of the themes in THE MAGICIAN’S LIE have to do with love, secrets, and a web of lies. Was this your intention when you set out to tell Adelaide Herrmann’s story (Amazing Arden), or did they grow organically from the narration?

Greer Macallister: That all sort of flowed naturally from the initial set of characters and the situation. I always knew I wanted Arden to be telling her story, and I always knew I wanted the reader to doubt whether or not she was telling the truth. So truth vs. lies was always going to be a big section of it. And I had to have a love story – but I also wanted the reader to doubt that and to wonder where it was going. Any time there’s a dead body in the first 10 pages, everyone on the page is a suspect.  

L.L.: As I read, I was struck by some familiar place names—like Moberly, for example!  I understand you are from the Midwest. As a Missouri girl myself, how might the landscape and your origin affected your perception of storytelling process?

Greer Macallister: I had a lot of fun picking out the places Arden goes on tour. I did have to make a little cheat sheet for the audiobook narrator to make sure she could pronounce the Midwestern names that are less familiar to East or West Coasters, like Mackinac Island or Oconomowoc. I wanted to have a small town character, a Midwestern character, to contrast with the much more exotic and well-traveled Arden. So Arden and Virgil are clashing for a number of reasons, and hopefully that adds to the tension between them.

L.L.: What is obsessing you now and why?

Greer Macallister: This will sound out of left field, but I have gotten completely hooked on a website called Clients From Hell (clientsfromhell.net) – if you’ve ever worked as a graphic or web designer, it’s all painfully familiar. I’m working my way through the archives. Also, toast. I’m incredibly addicted to buttered toast. Multigrain, seven-seed, Canadian white, rosemary boule – they all have their charms.

L.L.: Can you tell us what you are working on next?

Greer Macallister: My next book is set in the 1850s and 1860s in Chicago, and it was also inspired by a real-life historical figure – Kate Warne, who was the first female private investigator, hired by Allan Pinkerton himself as a Pinkerton Agency operative in 1856. She’s so much fun to write.

L.L.: Thank you so very much for taking the time to chat with us today, Greer! It was a delight having you.

Greer Macallister: Thank you for the invitation! It’s always wonderful to have another chance to connect with readers, whether that’s in person or online. I’m on tour right now, so if you want to see if I’ll be anywhere near your town, check out this listing. Cheers!

For more information, or to follow, please see: 

greer3 Bio: Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist whose work has appeared in publications such as The North American Review,  The Missouri Review, and The Messenger. Her plays have been performed at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. She lives with her family on the East Coast. Her debut novel THE MAGICIAN’S LIE was a weekly or monthly pick by Indie Next, LibraryReads, People Magazine, SheReads, PopSugar, Publishers Weekly, the Boston Globe, and Audible.com.

[Author image and cover image courtsey of author’s publicist L. Williams at Sourcebooks. Image of magic trick retrieved from on 10.06.15] 

Write On, Wednesday: Meg Waite Clayton on Her NEW Historical Fiction–THE RACE FOR PARIS


By Leslie Lindsay 

A crisp September evening. Preschoolers tucked in bed. New friends. Wine and books…this was my first introduction to Meg Waite Clayton, author of THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS. tws_boookcoverAfter our introductions (some of us didn’t know each other yet), a sweet, quiet and assuming member thrust a book my way, “You need to read this,” she encouraged with a smile. I did. Later, flipping the pages, and nodding in agreement, in reliability, I knew this was my life. A writer is first a reader. That’s what I think Meg Waite Clayton’s book taught me.

Today, I am honored to have Meg chat with us about her newest book–perhaps her most ambitious title to date, THE RACE FOR PARIS. For me, it’s the perfect combination of history, women’s rights and independence, my appreciation for photography, and of course–books.

Welcome, Meg! 

Leslie Lindsay: Can you tell us in a few words what The Race for Paris is about?

Meg Waite Clayton: The novel was inspired by the actual “Race for Paris” and the journalists who first reported the liberation of the city in August 1944. It’s the story of two women journalists hoping to make history, and a British military photographer who joins them. It’s a bit of an underdog story, because while the male journalists had access everything they needed and were free to roam Europe, the women correspondents were restricted to covering red cross donut girls and nurses. If they wanted to win this spirited race to be first to report from Paris, they had to break rules. It took me 15 years to write—I started it before the turn of the century!—and I’m just thrilled to be talking about it with you.

L.L.: Where did the story idea begin for you?

Meg Waite Clayton: The idea for The Race for Paris actually came to me while I was doing research for my first novel,The Language of Light.  I read photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White’s autobiography, Portrait Of Myself. Something she said in that—about motherhood, I think I can say that much without spoiling the plot—really moved me. I had to read the autobiography in the stacks of the Vanderbilt library because it was out of print and couldn’t be checked out, so you can picture me sitting in the stacks, weeping.

The story really began to take shape when I read about how Martha Gellhorn got to cover the Normandy invasion. Only male journalists were allowed to go. (The excuse: “no women’s latrines there, and we aren’t about to start digging them now”—never mind that the press camps were generally set up in lovely big French chateaus with running water and sometimes whiskey literally on tap.)

book_parisMartha stowed away in the loo of a hospital ship and went ashore with a stretcher crew, one of the very few correspondents to cover the invasion from French soil. And her reward for her bravery?  She was taken into custody on returning to England, and stripped of her military accreditation, her travel papers, and her ration entitlements. She was confined to a nurses’ training camp until she could be shipped back to the U.S.

So here’s what she did: She hopped the fence, hitched a ride on a plane to Italy, and covered the war without the benefit of her swanky military credential, sweet-talking wireless operators into send her work out, while all the time looking over her shoulder for the military police charged with apprehending her.

While the male correspondents went wherever they wanted, and returned to nice warm press rooms in chateaus and 5-star hotels, the women correspondents who managed to get accredited to France were largely confined to hospitals. They worked at tables they set up in fields when the weather wasn’t terrible, which it mostly was. While men were able to negotiate changes to copy with on site censors at the press camps and send work by wire, women journalists’ work went by pouch—much slower, so not as timely—and was censored in England, where the journalists had no ability to make changes to accommodate the censors. Whatever was left after the censors did their dirty deeds—often not quite the truth and sometimes pure gibberish… well, off it went to their editors anyway, with their names on it.

For many women, the only option if they wanted to cover the war in a meaningful way, was to go AWOL—absent without leave—leaving them without resources, often in danger, and with the added challenge of having to evade military police send to take them into custody. Several who did so, including Lee Miller, Catherine Coyne, and Dot Avery, were taken into custody and held at Rennes, and so missed covering the liberation of Paris.

When you just look at what these women did during the war, they seem daring and risk-taking and sort of superhuman. But if you peek behind the curtain… Well, let’s just say that as a child attending fortnightly dance classes, Martha Gellhorn hid with a friend in the coatroom rather than have to stand unselected by the boys.

One of the things I wanted to do in The Race for Paris was explore how very human and like the rest of us these women really are. I’m not saying they didn’t do extraordinary things—they did. But a lot of women in a lot of circumstances in WWII did, too, and I like to think that even if I might not have, many of my readers would.

L.L. So, the Race for Paris…it’s a real thing, then? Can you tell us about that?

Meg Waite Clayton: I came across the term in Andy Rooney’s autobiography; he wrote for Stars and Striped during the war. He describes it as a spirited competition among the journalists over who would be the first to report the liberation. They all know Paris wouldn’t be the end of the war, but everyone imagined the liberation of Paris would mean the war was going to be won. The war didn’t end there, of course—the fighting continued to Berlin—but the liberation was symbolically so important.slide-2-1024The epigraph I use for the novel was written by Martha Gellhorn in late 1943, shortly after she was accredited as a war correspondent and headed for London:

I would give anything to be part of the invasion and see Paris right at the beginning and watch the peace.

The two were intertwined in people’s minds: Paris being liberated was the peace.

L.L.: Gosh, Paris! I’ve been once, but how fun was it to write about? 

Meg Waite Clayton: Paris is such a romantic, evocative city, even in war. Or perhaps especially in war. If you can walk along the Seine, or just sit out on one of the bridges at night with a bottle of wine … the lighting is lovely, the reflection off the Seine. Now you have the young kids gathering at the tip of the Isle de la Cité just to be together. The warm colors of the sunset and that very fun moment of the Eiffel Tower lighting up. The Hôtel de Ville at night—where the novel opens—is just stunning. Really, if you can’t fall in love in Paris, then you’re probably doomed. If you can’t write in Paris, or about it, you certainly are. [Check out Meg’s literary guide to Paris here]

L.L.: This is a definitely a research-intensive novel. Can you tell about how you went about researching THE RACE FOR PARIS?

Meg Waite Clayton: I did the really fun stuff, of course—like spending a month in Paris not once, but twice. I really enjoyed learning about how the press operated during the war, and all the details of what they did. I stayed in a chateau that was a press camp in Normandy, now owned by a man who was born there during the war. That was amazing, to sit by myself and watch the sun come up in a room where extraordinary journalists like Ernie Pyle wrote during the war.

And I covered the path my characters cover in the book—an excuse to see a lot of Europe!

I also immersed myself in books about the time, and in primary source materials. Letters and journals of real WWII correspondents. The pieces they wrote and, in the case of Lee Miller, some earlier drafts of pieces she wrote. For me, seeing the world directly through their eyes that way makes their world come alive.

I loved gathering the little details of the everyday lives: for example, that they washed their laundry in their helmets, and often stopped menstruating due to the stress. And funny things like that the photojournalists—because it rained all the time in Normandy—would put their spent film canisters in condoms, tie them to keep them dry. 

slide-3-1024 The problem wasn’t finding the interesting bits to include in the book, but choosing which to include, because there was so much great material. And then knowing when to stop. I love the research. I was a history major in college with a focus on 20th century American wars, so this is a real sweet spot for me.

I have to say I just loved drawing from the real experiences of women correspondents who covered the war. I couldn’t have made up some of the things that really happened. It might have been fun to do nonfiction, but the form of the novel allowed me to collect the most interesting of their experiences into one narrative arc that I hope will appeal to readers, but isn’t always there in real life.

L.L.: I’m always curious if there a character authors identify with most in their work. Is there one for you in The Race for Paris?

Meg Waite Clayton: I think maybe you have to be able to identify with anyone to deliver them well. So I hope I identify with all of them. Fletcher, my British military photographer–– he’s this really lovely guy who has the habit of falling for the wrong person again and again. Who can’t identify with that? I even identify with Charles, Liv’s husband.

But I’d say I most identify with Liv Harper. And I should say that she was Harper long before Harper was my publisher, and I just realized about two days ago that the two were the same! slide-10-1024

Liv is my ambitious photojournalist who comes to France intent on covering the liberation of Paris and in the process making both history and her own career. She’s not uncomplicated, no one is. And she’s far from perfect. Perfect in a character is boring. But I think it’s a hard thing for women to embrace ambition. It ends up leaving us considered “bossy” or “unfeminine,” “undesirable.” But she does embrace it, much as she struggles with doing so and tries to balance her ambition and her family obligations, and that’s a struggle I’m quite familiar with.

I also identify with Jane, though. She’s single and in some danger of becoming an old maid, and I certainly remember those years! She’s a Nashville gal from the wrong side of the tracks, who sort of backs into being a war journalist—she’s a secretary at the Nashville Banner when the war breaks out, and she’s smart, and so when the boys go off to war and the editor needs more writers, he turns to her.

Jane actually started as a small player who disappeared after the early chapters, and was a small homage to my Aunt Annette, who was in Normandy with the Red Cross. When I asked my aunt why she chose to go to war, she said, in a southern accent I can’t replicate, “Well I wasn’t getting any younger, was I? And the boys were all over there and I was going to be an old maid before they came home, so I thought I’d better get on over to where they were and find me one!” As befitting any character modeled on my Aunt Annette, she eventually took over the telling of the story, and that’s when it all starting falling into place finally. So I suppose that suggests I identify with her even more than I think I do.

L.L.: Oh, wow–thank you so much for being with us today, Meg. I can definitely see where your passions lie. 

Meg Waite Clayton: Thank YOU, Leslie! 

Meg Waite ClaytonBio: Book club favorite and New York Times and USA Today bestseller Meg Waite Clayton is the author of five novels, including The Race for Paris (HarperCollins, August 11), and The Wednesday Sisters, one of Entertainment Weekly’s 25 Essential Best Friend Novels of all time.

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Twitter @MegWClayton


[All images retrieved from Meg Waite Clayton’s website and used with permission from the author.]

Write On, Wednesday: Kim van Alkemade on the truth behind the fiction of ORPHAN #8


By Leslie Lindsay 

A stunning debut novel of historical fiction set in the forgotten world of New York City’s Jewish orphanages.  In 1919, four-year-old Rachel Rabinowitz is placed in the Hebrew Infant Home where Dr. Mildred Solomon is conducting medical research on the children. Dr. Solomon subjects Rachel to an experimental course of X-ray treatments that establish the doctor’s reputation while risking the little girl’s health.

ORPHAN #8 (William Morrow & Co.) is a deeply moving and deeply personal historical account about the human capacity to harm and to love. I am honored to welcome the lovely Kimberly van Alkemade to the blog.

Leslie Lindsay: Thanks for being here today, Kim. I am so honored to have you. I’m always so eager to know exactly what sparks an author to delve into the depths of their novels. I understand that some of your interest in the Hebrew Infant Home originated when you began researching your own family history. Can you speak to that, please?

Kim van Alkemade:  Yes, my grandfather grew up in the real Hebrew Orphan Asylum, and it was while I was researching my family history at the Center for Jewish History in New York that I came across the information about the X-ray treatments that had been done to a group of eight children at a different orphanage. The Hebrew Infant Home is my fictional creation inspired by two Jewish orphanages from the 1920s.

L.L.: And so some of the characters from ORPHAN #8 were actually some of your relatives? How was that, fictionalizing your family? I’m always so intrigued as a reader teasing out what might be real and what might be the product of the author’s imagination. How did you decide what true elements to incorporate, and which to let your fiction brain take over?   

Kim van Alkemade:  My great-grandmother Fannie Berger really did work at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. She’s the one whose husband “absconded” as they used to say, leaving her no choice but to take her sons to the orphanage. Other incidents came from my family history, too, such as using Leadville, Colorado as a location because that’s where my real great-grandfather went after he ran off, and it was possible he had tuberculosis so that’s how I came to incorporate Denver and the Jewish tuberculosis hospital there. But in the end, the story has to work, so I had to let go of my allegiance to family history sometimes.

xrayroomL.L.: I found the experiments particularly shocking, given the time-frame, the fact that through much of this story, the world is at war with Germany, and Nazis are conducting their own sinister experiments. In fact, Rachel brings that up to Dr. Solomon, who fervently declines any correlation. Can you speak to that, please?

Kim van Alkemade:  I realized it was impossible to look back on medical research in the 1920s and not see it through the lens of the Holocaust. But for the doctors doing medical research at that time, their intentions and motivations were obviously completely different. I really liked letting Dr. Solomon and Rachel wrangle over this issue. The problem with conflating any kind of medical research like the experiments I depict in the book with Nazi concentration camps is that it blinds us to the fact that here in American similar research continued after World War II, and that we need to remain vigilant against disenfranchised populations being used in this way.

L.L.: Now it’s 1954, and Rachel is a nurse in the hospice wing of the Old Hebrews Home when elderly Dr. Solomon becomes her patient. Realizing the power she holds over the helpless doctor, Rachel embarks on a dangerous experiment of her own design. Was this your goal as a writer all along, to have Rachel make an ethical decision based on her years of unjust, or did it just kind of unfold that way?

Kim van Alkemade: No, I was writing towards this ending the entire time, but the first four drafts just didn’t quite get me where I needed to be. I wanted Rachel to have to make this choice, and to seriously consider both courses of action. I wanted her to know how it felt when the tables were turned. I’m really interested in that emotional state when a person feels so righteously angry and justified but they are not getting the recognition they feel they deserve, how debilitating that emotional state can be.

[Click here to preview the opening chapter of Orphan #8.

L.L.: As I’m reading, I can’t help but think of the PBS/BBC show, “Call the Midwife.” What books, movies, shows inspired your time-period and medical research, which is all done very well, by the way.

Kim van Alkemade: I love “Call the Midwife” and I can see that connection. I’ve been watching “The Knick” on Cinemax which is set in 1910 in New York at a hospital where doctors are very experimental (and addicted to cocaine, but that’s another story). For the medical research, I read as much as I could in the time period. For example, I read Alfred Hess’s 1921 book Scurvy: Past and Preset and I have a copy of the 1920 nursing manual Rachel uses in the book. I often order used old books so I can see how things were written about at the time.  dormitory

L.L.: I’m always curious about what authors believe happen to their characters at the end of the story. Readers sometimes have a different interpretation. If there were an epilogue to ORPHAN #8, what do suppose would come of your characters (without giving away too much)?

Kim van Alkemade: That I really can’t say. My step-dad believes Rachel will have her operation and be cured, but I honestly don’t know. Actually, I do have a draft of a book I’m writing in which Dr. Feldman and his nurse are characters, so I know what happens to them! But I think it’s important to let the story be over where it ends so readers can have their own ideas.

L.L.: Can we ask what else you are working on? More historical fiction, perhaps?

Kim van Alkemade: Yes, more historical fiction, also 1920s New York, and the orphanage is in it but in a completely different way. That’s about all I can say right now!

L.L.: What is obsessing you and why?

Kim van Alkemade: Whatever I am researching obsesses me, so right now that’s the book I’m working on. For example, I have a character who takes the 3rd Avenue Elevated train to work, so I went to the Transit Museum last time I was in the city and got a book about the 3rd Ave El so I’d know where it stopped and what it was like. If anything, I hebreworphanasylumhave to reel in the research or I’d never get to the writing.

L.L. Is there anything I should have asked, but didn’t?

Kim van Alkemade:  Many people ask how long it took me to write Orphan #8 and the answer is about five years—more if you count from when I started researching the orphanages, but five years of actually working on writing and revising and rewriting.

L.L. Thanks so much for being with us, Kim! And congrats on this stunning examination of orphan life.

Kim van Alkemade:  Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed the book.

Kim van AlkemadeKim van Alkemade is the author of the historical fiction novel Orphan #8 (William Morrow August 4, 2015). Her creative nonfiction essays have appeared in literary journals including Alaska Quarterly Review, CutBank, and So To Speak. Born in New York, NY, she earned a BA in English and History from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and an MA and PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.She is a Professor in the English Department at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania where she teaches writing. She lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

She spent eight years researching and writing Orphan #8. It all began with her interest in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York, the institution in which her grandfather, Victor Berger, and his brothers, Charlie and Seymour, grew up. Her great ­grandmother, Fannie Berger, worked at the orphanage, first as a domestic and later as a counselor. Many of the characters and events in Orphan #8 were inspired by her family history.

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[All images courtesy of author/publicist or from the author’s website, retrieved 8/20/15. Special thanks to K. Steinberg at HarperCollins]