Monday, February 27, 2017

Q&A with Harriet Scott Chessman

Harriet Scott Chessman is the author of the new novel The Lost Sketchbook of Edgar Degas. Her other books include Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper and The Beauty of Ordinary Things. She has taught at Yale University, Stanford University and Bread Loaf School of English, and she lives in Connecticut.

Q: Why did you decide to write this novel based on the artist Edgar Degas and his American relatives?

A: I became fascinated with Edgar Degas when he started to become a character in my earlier novel, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper

I hadn't actually wished for him to be in that novel, but he kind of found his way in, as a close friend of Mary and Lydia Cassatt. Somehow, well after I had completed that book, he lingered in my mind. 

Once I discovered that he had lived in New Orleans with his American Creole cousins and uncle -- and once I saw the stunning, haunting paintings he did that winter in the city of his mother's birth -- I sought a way to write about his relationship to the American branch of his family, as they all lived together in a rented mansion on Esplanade Avenue.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the fictional and historical?

A: As with my earlier novel Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, I tried to get all the facts right: for instance, dates of arrival and departure, baptisms, weddings, the details of daily life, race relations, medicine, the geography of the city. 

I learned so much from a wonderful book, Degas and New Orleans: A French Impressionist in America, along with other sources. 

This knowledge of the facts held as my foundation, yet I still had to discover my own story, its architecture and meaning. I had to create the characters of Edgar and his cousins -- and to imagine what might have happened in that crowded hothouse of a household in those five months. 

I felt my way, trying to give myself permission to dream and imagine, even as I kept my story tied by filaments to all that I had discovered of the actual family relationships and history.

I did have to jettison some facts, however! For instance, Edgar's other brother, Achille, also happened to be living in New Orleans that winter, and I just couldn't fit him in to my story. I already had such a big cast of characters, and as you know, I am a minimalist!  

Also, I of course had to add or envision what I couldn't find in the record. This is where fiction truly begins. Who were the servants in the house that winter?  What actually happened within the house during those months? 

And -- the impetus for my novel: what might have happened if a sketchbook by Edgar -- one that had gone missing -- had shown up 10 years later? If Tell discovered it, how could she have read it, being blind? And what might it have revealed to her?  

Q: The book deals with art, and also with blindness.What do you see as the roles of those two themes in the novel?

A: At first, my character Tell (Estelle Musson Balfour De Gas, Degas's cousin and sister-in-law) was simply one of many characters. 

I played with (and wrote over 100 pages in!) the voices of Edgar, his other cousins Didi and Mouche, a young servant, his niece Josephine, his brother René . . . yet I couldn't find my story. It was only when I discovered Tell's voice that I knew I had found my entrance into this world.  

From the start, Tell came to me as an energetic, compassionate, engaging, vivid character. Her loss of sight -- which had happened gradually, in her 20s, and which was complete by the time Edgar visited New Orleans in 1872 -- came to me simply as part of her, something with which she lived and coped, yet not the center or the primary thing. 

However, for Edgar, I imagined her loss of vision to be frightening, since he had the same condition in his own eyes (a blankness in the center that slowly increased), and he feared his coming blindness. 

In another sense, Tell's true blindness became the heart of this story, in a way I couldn't have predicted at first: her blindness to her marriage, to her feelings about her cousin Edgar, and to herself. This was what I learned as I wrote.

Q: How did you research the time period you describe in the book?

A: I gained so much help from Degas and New Orleans: A French Impressionist in America. Other books were valuable too, especially Christopher Benfey's Degas in New Orleans.

I also had a great time looking up articles in The Picayune and other newspapers, in the 1870s. You can discover wonderful, rich details about all kinds of stuff, from local sewage problems to robberies to stray dogs to weddings, in the archives of newspapers! 

I also reread a novel I have always loved, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, which helped me with a myriad of details, from lunch menus to parrots to weather.

I gained superb help too with the French language from a young historian, Johann Le Guelte, who combed through the manuscript for me.    

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am hoping to come back to a sequence of poems (or, as I think of them, "songs") I'm writing about Officer Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who intervened with his two-man crew in the massacre of My Lai, March 16, 1968. 

I wrote the libretto for a one-singer opera, My Lai, composed by Jonathan Berger and commissioned by Kronos Quartet / Kronos Performing Arts Association. 

I felt so glad to have the chance to write in this form, and to hear my words sung with such power by Rinde Eckert, and accompanied by the beautiful performances of Van Anh Vo and Kronos Quartet. The libretto is complete, yet I am still listening out for my character of Hugh . . . I think he has more to say and sing! 

I also hope to write more short stories -- I am fairly new to this form, and I love it. So far I have published one, "Halliday's Treasures," in Catamaran

And one day -- one day! -- I'd like to publish one of my stories for children.  I have always loved children's picture books -- I find this to be one of the most engaging (and incredibly challenging) forms!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I feel so lucky to have become a writer. As I look past [last month’s] Inauguration, and feel the turmoil our country is in right now, I am promising myself to continue to write as well as I can -- to write fiction and poetry that will bring readers some kind of insight and understanding. 

In this era of "fake news" -- or, as I think of it, lies!! -- so flooding this political and cultural world of ours, I believe that it is more important than ever to write in a way that is genuine, clear, and resonant -- that offers something real. I hope I can continue to try.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Harriet Scott Chessman, please click here.

Feb. 27

Feb. 27, 1902: John Steinbeck born.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Q&A with Tracy Borman

Tracy Borman is the author of the new book The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain's Greatest Dynasty. Her other books include Elizabeth's Women and Thomas Cromwell. She is England's joint chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces and chief executive of the Heritage Education Trust, and she lives in Surrey, England.

Q: Why did you decide to write your new book, and why do you think people are still so fascinated by the Tudors?

A: The inspiration for this book came from listening to the sort of questions that visitors to Hampton Court Palace ask most frequently (I am based there as joint chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces). 

Although they are interested in the architecture of this extraordinary palace, as well as some of the political events of the Tudor age, what they really want to know about is rather more fundamental: where did Henry VIII go to the toilet? How did the Tudors wash their clothes?  What did they eat? Etc. etc. 

The more I heard these questions, the more I realised that I wanted to know the answers too! 

As for why we're still so fascinated by the Tudors, I think it's the sheer drama of the period that appeals. You have a king who marries six times, a Virgin Queen, Shakespeare, overseas exploration, political and religious upheaval...the list goes on. Truth really is stranger than fiction in the 16th century.

Q: How did you research the book and come up with all the behind-the-scenes details about these monarchs' private lives, and what surprised you most? 

A: I was very fortunate to have access to lots of the behind-the-scenes areas at Hampton Court and other palaces mentioned in the book. 

For archival research, I headed to The National Archives and British Library, which house swathes of letters and accounts written by those who served the Tudors in private. They made for fascinating and often surprising reading. Without exception, every Tudor monarch changed for me when I looked at the side they usually kept hidden. 

The most surprising was Henry VIII. In public, he's a larger-than-life character, stridently self-confident and the very image of majesty; in private, it was a very different matter and he was described as being “the most timid man you could hope to meet.”

Q: You begin the book with an anecdote about Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex. What do you think this story says about the Tudors' attitudes toward privacy?

A: That's such a painful episode and I really sympathise with Elizabeth, who is in the twilight years of her life and desperate to maintain the pretence that she is still the most desirable woman at court. 

The episode reveals a great deal about this struggle, but also about the strict etiquette and hierarchy at her court. Even her closest favourite, Essex, was unable to break the rules - as he found out on this occasion. 

Elizabeth never forgave him for bursting into her privy chamber and seeing her stripped of her courtly adornments. Some have even speculated that it motivated her to have him executed when he later rebelled against her.

Q: How would you contrast the Tudors' private lives with those of more recent members of the British royal family? 

A: There has been an awful lot of talk about the intrusion of the press and public into the lives of modern British royals, but compared to the Tudors they have it easy! 

In some respects, the Tudors didn't have a private life as we would understand it. They were never alone: it was inconceivable for a monarch to be left unattended for a single moment of the day or night. 

Even their love lives weren't private. When they married, they had to go through what was known as a “bedding ceremony,” whereby they would be escorted to bed by about 30 courtiers, who would watch as they were undressed and put into bed. 

The courtiers would then leave - but they only went as far as the room next door so that they could listen in and make sure the marriage had been consummated! 

The monarchs would not have thought this an intrusion at all: why shouldn't their subjects take an interest in their marriage? After all, royal marriages were all about the begetting of heirs to strengthen the dynasty.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I'm excited to say that I am working on my first historical novel. After that, there will be another non-fiction book. The subject is still under wraps but I am delighted to reveal it will be Tudor again!

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I would like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to all my U.S. readers. I've had some lovely emails and tweets about The Private Lives of the Tudors, as well as my last book, Thomas Cromwell. It is so thrilling to think that my words are being read on the other side of the Atlantic!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Tracy Borman, please click here.

Feb. 26

Feb. 26, 1802: Victor Hugo born.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Q&A with Gail Holst-Warhaft

Gail Holst-Warhaft is the author of the new book The Fall of Athens. Her other books include Dangerous Voices and The Cue for Passion. She is a poet and has been a journalist, broadcaster, academic, musician, and translator. She is an adjunct professor at Cornell University, and she lives in Ithaca, New York.

Q: How did you first get interested in Greek culture, and how did this book come about?

A: It was completely accidental! I’d done an arts degree and I thought I was going to Italy. I got off the ship [in Greece] from Australia, I was 21—I thought this was the way to get a cheap ticket to Europe. I got off the boat and fell in love with Greece.

It was an instant love affair and it hasn’t worn off. It was the way people engaged with you and the music—the combination of the people, the music, the warmth of the people was overwhelming to me. It became my life’s work.

Q: And the book?

A: I had written books about Greek music, and began translating modern Greek literature…A turning point in my relationship with Greece was after I decided this was the place for me, there was a coup in 1967. It seemed unbelievable. It was like being in a B-grade movie.

The dictatorship lasted seven years. It was very brutal…I decided to leave Greece and involve myself in the anti-dictatorship movement…I became a journalist, and I could play the harpsichord, which is a rarity in Greece, and the fact that I was a journalist helped me get into that [Greek musical] society again after the dictatorship fell in 1974.

Years went by, and I published bits of this, I wrote academic books, I married an academic and came to America, and I became a poet. Poetry was the most important thing in my life. I was writing about the sad state of Greece—it was disastrous for artists I knew—and my publisher [was interested in my biographical sketches].

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Greece?

A: There’s the most incredible ignorance about what happened in Greece during [World War II]. The German occupation of Greece was brutal…Ninety percent of Greek Jews were killed…

There was a brutal civil war after that. [What followed] was dependent on what happened in the civil war. The people on the left and the right—the wounds were not healed even today. One of the misperceptions is how much Greece suffered.

The state of the economy, the American press covered well, but [when it comes to how it affects people]—they’ve always known how to handle good times…I don’t think people can see the underlying anxiety of people now.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I did want to make a parallel with antiquity. I have paired poems about the present situation or the 4th century B.C. and later. The idea of the fall of Greece, Rome, great civilizations in my mind—to try and link to antiquity and recognize [the time when] Greek civilization flowered.

When we talk about classicism, there was a short period of 50 years when Athens was at its apex, followed by a pretty tragic period. I wanted to point that out in the case of Greece now and Greece then.

Q: How much has changed since you first started spending time in Greece, and what do you see looking ahead?

A: The most interesting thing to me—during the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s, I saw them as decades of relative peace and prosperity for Greece. The music and poetry seemed to go a bit downhill during that period. Western music was being heard, there was a lot of tourism and consumer goods in the country.

And then this crisis now has a long history—in 2008, 2009, people began to talk to me about hardship. But it has produced poetry and music. Friends say there’s a lot going on informally now. I think in some ways Greece thrives on hardship, and can turn it into something beautiful.

[Looking ahead], what worries me is my friends remember the end of the civil war. They remember the hardship and hunger, they know how to deal with it, to live carefully.

Their children in their 30s and 40s, with children of their own, are unable to deal with this very well. A lot of them have been forced to move back in with their parents.

There’s a lot of that, and I don’t think it will be solved in the next decade. It will take longer. Greece should have got out of the Euro some time ago but now it’s very difficult to do so. [The country] produces very little and is dependent on tourism. It’s a fragile economy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a little book about Greek island music. I wrote about the blues of Greece in the 1970s—it has become world music. At that stage, it was looked down on as low-class, from refugees from Asia Minor. I got very interested in the music, and spent time with the musicians.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the beauty of the songs of the Aegean, the Eastern side of Greece. It appeared to be very jolly, and then I realized how terrible and desperate life was as sponge divers, fishermen—life is dependent on the sea. As we’ve seen with the tragedies of the refugees, it can be very dangerous.

There are songs about keeping on the good side of the sea. I’m interested in the mismatch—the lovely blue sea of the Greek islands and what life is like for the people who wrote these songs.

And I’m working on some poems.

Some people said I should write a sequel [to this book], "The Fall of America." I think a lot of writers—Ithaca is top-heavy with writers—people are…asking, what can we do. Ithaca is an official asylum for refugee writers. I work with that group.

I think of the Australian tide of immigration—it’s impossible to imagine what would have happened to Australia or America without, yet both countries are trying to keep them away. Greek immigrants here form…communities here in many cities. They have seen the plight of refugees and realize life is not as secure as everybody [might think].

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One of the things I think the book makes clear is though ancient Greece was a long time ago, ancient Greece and modern Greece have many things in common, the most important being language.

Modern Greece [continues] the development of a language—they are proud of their heritage, and are rethinking the ancient works of literature. I was involved as a musician in two productions of Aristophanes—they use ancient [literature to explore] modern [times].

For Greeks, ancient Greek literature is their big resource—they use it in a creative way. They feel as if they are on the same landscape where great myths and legends took place. They feel continuity in their country.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 25

Feb. 25, 1937: Bob Schieffer born.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Q&A with James Alexander Thom

James Alexander Thom is the author of many historical novels, including  Fire in the Water and Saint Patrick's Battalion, and the writing guide The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction. He also worked as a journalist and taught at the Indiana University Journalism School. He lives near Bloomington, Indiana.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Fire in the Water and for your character Paddy Quinn?

A: I had long been aware of the horror of Andersonville Prison because my great grandfather survived it. My fascination with steamboats began with Mark Twain, and for several summers my wife and I were historical lecturers on river cruises of the Delta Queen line, which provided opportunity for much technical research, and familiarization of the waterways.

I thought the tragedy of the Sultana was too little known by Americans, as it took more lives than the Titanic, and I felt the especial poignancy: that the sickly ex-prisoners had been keeping themselves alive by their hope of getting home.

The protagonist Paddy Quinn already existed in my fiction, having been an Army camp errand boy during the Mexican War, in my preceding novel, Saint Patrick's Battalion. The boy Quinn's diary carried much of the narrative of that novel. Fire in the Water often refers back to those formative years of Paddy's life.

By the time I undertook the Sultana story, I knew that the grown-up Quinn would be the ideal protagonist, as a Harper's Weekly war correspondent with Paddy's Irish traits.

Q: Among your other books is The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, a guide for other writers. What do you see as the right balance between history and fiction when working on a historical novel?

A: I believe that a good historical novel should stay true to all
the historical facts, as completely as they can be determined by deep research into the events and the real historical characters.

Once that is achieved, the author might introduce fictional characters, through whose senses and thoughts the reader can experience and understand the events – like being there. But the fictional characters must not be allowed to change the actual history.

Most of my novels have been about, and from the point of view of, the real historical characters themselves. My early books had no fictional entities.

But I came to understand that a memorable fictional protagonist with his (or her) plot within a story can enrich the emotional and philosophical gist of the story, help interpret another culture, enhance the irony or humor of the true story, and so on.

Q: What type of research did you do to write Fire in the Water, and was there anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Aside from the technical and environmental research mentioned above, I wanted to convey the very personal aspects of being a soldier -- the nasty, miserable, demeaning experience of life at war -- and the kind of bond that such fellow survivors share.

I believe that too much war fiction emphasizes the so-called "glory" of soldiering. War in actuality is man's most disgusting creation, and tends to bring out the worst in everybody. Therefore I researched for the base details and the daily obscenities in soldiers' and prisoners' existence.

I know from three years in the Marines that most conversation is about excrement, copulation and getting drunk, but I needed to find the slang, idioms, and peculiar customs of the Civil War era.

The severity of military discipline in those days is almost unimaginable. For such details, soldiers' correspondence and diaries are helpful.

Then there was that particular circumstance that it was a war between countrymen, not against a foreign enemy. The blue and the gray had to maintain their own propaganda about each other in order to kill men who were basically just like them. Much of that still lingers.

And always in the story there is the undercurrent of slavery, something we can hardly imagine, but mustn't forget.

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: When I start writing, I think I know the ending, but it may change during the process. That's because writing demands such hard thinking that the author eventually knows more of what's important than he did when he started.

And, yes, distinctive characters like Quinn and Macombie can insist on showing their version of themselves instead of the author's. They can get out of control, and that's usually a good thing.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm trying to resume the writing of an American Indian novel that I set aside years ago to work on the Paddy Quinn books. It's historical, but not confined to the past.

It has real Indians in it, both alive and ghosts, and there will be roles in it for Paddy Quinn. I can't seem to get rid of him. Its working title is "The Bones of a Hopeful Indian."

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: What else we should know? That the main personage in Fire in
the Water
is Abraham Lincoln, although he's dead when the book begins. Quinn and Macombie keep each other alive because of their vow to get to his funeral.

I work years on a book because a story has inspired me so much I need to share it. Inspiration doesn't necessarily derive from Happy Endings. There aren't many of those in real life.  And I always write with Twain's remark in mind: “The difference between history and historical fiction is, fiction has to be believable."

--Interview with Deborah Kalb