Saturday, February 29, 2020

Q&A with Barbara L. Baer

Barbara L. Baer is the author of the new novel The Ice Palace Waltz. Her other books include The Last Devadasi and The Ballet Lover. She lives in Sonoma County, California.

Q: How much was The Ice Palace Waltz based on your own family history?

A: Yes, Ice Palace was entirely based on my family story as much as I knew and could recover from remembered stories, letters and newspaper articles that recorded business in Leadville, Colorado, marriages, deaths.

If I'd been a wiser granddaughter, I'd have asked the one grandparent I really knew, June in the novel, so many more questions about her love and marriage and loss of her young husband. My mother, Margie in the novel, always told me stories about her mother, Tillie in the novel, but I didn't know that grandmother.

I was fascinated by the contrast between the grandmothers, the one so upright and serious, the other frivolous and full of fun. I imagined, made up, a great deal because I really wanted the characters to have fuller lives than what I knew.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I did lots of research, whether about Leadville and NYC, or more general social, economic and political history. I loved details such as the abiding presence of Goldman Sachs and other financial institutions we think about today.

When I first went to Leadville decades ago, the synagogue Temple Israel was in total disrepair--tenants had trashed the little building and it was abandoned.

A New York hippie, Bill Korn, who came to the Rockies to be a ski bum in the 1970s, ended up deeply involved in recovering Leadville's Jewish history and has restored Temple Israel into a gem of a shul with glorious colors and intimacy and warmth, as well as restoring the graveyard where Jews are relatives as well.

This summer, I'll go there, attend a service, present The Ice Palace Waltz, take part in the graveyard maintenance, and meet descendants of Leadville's Jews. I'm in for surprises, I'm sure!

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

A: "The Ice Palace Waltz" comes from that astonishing ice structure where my grandmother told me she'd first danced with her love. It was certainly a magical place and night for her.

The actual Ice Palace was a dream of renewal, of salvation, for the town, but as we know from history and I recount in the novel, an early thaw melted its walls and dashed hopes for attracting visitors.

What's fascinated me was both the actual ice marvel, heavy blocks layered hundreds of feet high, and the airiness, the fairy tale of the imagination that inspired it.

Q: How did you decide on the novel's structure, which stretches over several decades?

A: I started really thinking of about writing The Ice Palace Waltz after the 2008 financial meltdown. The structure, the plot, came easily once I centered the turning points around the financial disaster of 1907 and to a lesser degree, 1929, that affected my family.

I followed the family story in its larger outline while using my imagination to fill out the characters.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've had published three novels before The Ice Palace Waltz (all small presses) set in places where I lived when I was younger: living and teaching in the former USSR; deep interest in dance, both ballet (London and NYC) and Indian classical dance from my time living and teaching in Madras, India.

I always wrote short stories and essays and travel pieces as well, so I plan to gather what I want to keep and collect into a book.

I also had a small press for years (Floreant Press) and published regional women writers as well as a few other titles; with one ISBN left, I hope to bring together a wonderful group of women who were part of two early collections and put out one last book of our writings, two decades later.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Transforming family history, more or less facts, into fiction turned out to be a great pleasure for me. I lived inside my forebears through imagining them, bringing them to life. This was a gift I didn't know I'd be given when I started writing The Ice Palace Waltz.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Matthew Langdon Cost

Matthew Langdon Cost is the author of the novel I Am Cuba: Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. A former history teacher and coach, he lives in Brunswick, Maine.

Q: You write that you first came up with the idea for this novel 30 years ago. What first intrigued you about Fidel Castro and Cuba, and what was your writing process like?

A: I was taking a history course on Latin America at Trinity College with a professor, Dale Graden, who was so passionate about his subject that it created in me a desire to investigate further.

As I delved deeper into the story of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution I became enthralled with the story. It was the greatest story of the underdog winning that history had ever been witness to.

Who was this Fidel Castro, I asked myself? And, how was it possible that 300 guerrillas defeated an army of 12,000 soldiers?

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the historical Fidel Castro and your fictional version?

A: One of the problems in writing about Fidel Castro is that there are two distinct camps of belief in regards to him.

There is the Cuban version, put out by him, that casts him in a very favorable light.

For instance, upon invading Cuba in 1956 with 81 men, all but 18 of them were killed. He changed this to 12, so as to give the impression of a messiah-like figure to himself.

The other version of Fidel is that presented by the exiled Cubans living in the United States.

These, in many cases, were wealthy Cubans who had their property nationalized when Fidel came to power. In some cases, these were very corrupt Cubans who had exploited their country for their own gain and fled when the writing on the wall became clear that these enemies of the nation would be punished. Either way, the view of these exiles from Cuba is tainted in a very anti-Fidel manner.

The real trick in writing this book was to walk the line between these two trains of thought and find the true version of Fidel.

The events of the book are as historically accurate as I could make them. The thoughts and dialogue are the fictionalized pieces in many cases, and to these, I strived to stay in line with the man and true to what he would say and think in a given situation.

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: When I wrote the initial draft of this novel in 1990, I used mainly library sources. As I rewrote that draft starting in 2015, I was able to use many more online resources. Not only has so much information been put on the internet, translations is usually available as well.

Of course, visiting Cuba in December of 2016 was the most important piece of my research. I devised an independent trip following the revolutionary trail of Fidel Castro and his band of “bearded ones.”

My son and I started in Havana where Fidel was a young lawyer planning an insurrection. We then flew to Santiago (we were supposed to fly there the day he was buried in the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in that city but were bumped to the following day) where we visited and researched many valuable pieces of the revolution.

We saw the bullet holes still in the walls of the Moncada Barracks where Fidel started the insurrection in 1953, walked up the Spanish Steps where Pepito Tey was killed in 1956, and explored Céspedes Park where Fidel claimed victory at the beginning of 1959 to name just a few.

We next went to a base camp in the Sierra Maestra and climbed up to La Comandancia high in the Sierra Maestra. The rugged terrain, high elevation, and thick brush cover answering one of my base questions; how could 300 defeat 12,000?

The trip continued all the way back to Havana, with a highlight being in Santa Clara where Che Guevara topped the last obstacle in the path to winning the revolution, a victory that forced the dictator Fugencio Batista to flee Cuba.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I hope that readers gain a knowledge of who Fidel Castro was, and the what and why of what the Cuban Revolution was.

It needs to be understood that in 1959 when Fidel took power in Cuba, he was a hero to the Cuban people and a darling of the entire world, including the United States. He has since been painted a villain by our government, initially for nationalizing American business interests in the country.

One example would be United Fruit. John Dulles was the secretary of state and his brother was the head of the CIA. Both were board members of United Fruit. This painted Fidel as a hero and pushed him away from the United States and into an alliance with the Soviet Union.

But, I digress, as the historical novel I have written ends in January of 1959 when Fidel was loved the world over and his revolution was the greatest underdog victory of all time.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have two books in the pipeline looking for publication.

One is a historical set in New Orleans after the Civil War depicting the race relations in that city as its people tried to emerge from the shadow of slavery and the backlash that ensued.

There were so many fascinating people, events, food, music, and controversy that makes this such an important piece of our history. I weave into this a fictional love story and the search for a serial killer before the term serial killer had even been coined.

I also have the third installment of my Goff Langdon Mainely Mystery series bouncing around that examines the power of money, lobbyists, and politicians.

My actual work in progress right now is a new mystery series, the Clay Wolfe Mysteries, which focuses on opioids being smuggled through lobster traps in a fictional Maine town.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My purpose for writing historicals stems from early disappointments in the way I was taught history in school. I have always enjoyed history, and in fact think it is the greatest story ever told, but my recollection of high school history classes was madly copying notes from an overhead projector that contained endless dates and facts.

Later on, when becoming a history teacher, I came across the statistic that 85 percent of adults would fail an eighth grade history test. What year was the Magna Carta signed? Who cares? That is not the point of history, as far as I was concerned. It is the people and the stories that fascinate me.

This was the type of teacher I attempted to be and this is the type of novel I attempt to write. Stories about real people and real events.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 29

Feb. 29, 1920: Howard Nemerov born.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Q&A with Quan Barry

Quan Barry is the author of the new novel We Ride Upon Sticks. Her other books include the novel She Weeps Each Time You're Born and the poetry collection Asylum. She teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for We Ride Upon Sticks?

A: I’m from the North Shore of Boston. I grew up in Danvers, which was part of Salem, and many of the initial happenings that precipitated the Salem witch trials were in Salem Village in Danvers. And I played field hockey.

I was always interested in the 1600s. I was thinking about sports, women, girls, local history—and I decided I wanted to write a book that put all those things together.

Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I didn’t need to do that much additional research; it was mostly fact-checking. The town has great archives. and archivist, Richard Trask. I could ask questions like where was the town border in 1692?

The last time I went to the archives. I discovered the town seal of Danvers has the phrase “The King Unwilling.” Richard said the thinking is that when the town was incorporated, the king was against it.

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

A: The original title was longer—We Ride Upon Sticks and Are There Presently, which was an actual quote from Tituba, an enslaved woman and the guardian of several girls in the trial. There were questions whether she was an African enslaved person or Indigenous.

The actual quote was shortened. It was a line she said at her 1692 trial.

I’m fascinated with Tituba. She was the first one to admit, to confess. It saved her life. She wrote the script for many other accused—if you admit it, your life will be spared.

They asked her details at the trial, and there was one question about how she traveled to the meetings—“We ride upon sticks.”

Q: What do you think the book says about the idea of witchcraft?

A: The movie The Witch came out three or four years ago—there’s a teen girl whose family thinks she’s potentially a witch. In many ways, the idea was new to me, that being a witch was empowering for women in 1692. You’re able to do what you want.

There’s a large Wiccan community in Salem. In many ways it’s all about empowerment, and also about community. In the book, the girls are building a community, and learning about themselves. It happens to be DIY witchcraft. I see it as empowerment.

Q: How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is incredibly important to me. My first book is set in Vietnam. I traveled to Vietnam four times—I needed to understand things about the landscape. Rooting myself in the landscape helps me understand the plot.

In this book, it was important that it’s factual; for example, the names of the stores in the ‘80s. It’s very important for me to think of those spaces. It helped me envision what the characters would do.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel set in Mongolia. It follows two Buddhist monks who are looking for reincarnation in the Mongolian landscape.

I was trained as a poet. I write four books of poetry and my first novel was lyrically written, with a lot of tragedy and sorrow. We Ride Upon Sticks is a comedy. I realized my general modus operandi of lyrical work wouldn’t work.

The next book has no comedy. It’s a meditative kind of work.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: People sometimes think that because it’s about teen girls, it’s for teen girls. Teen girls could get a lot out of it, but it could appeal to many audiences, like Gen Xers, which I am. It could appeal to Baby Boomers, or to young men, thinking about consent and the issues women face. It could be a friendly way of having a discussion about consent.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Quan Barry.

Q&A with Jeffrey Colvin

Jeffrey Colvin, photo by Nina Subin
Jeffrey Colvin is the author of the new novel Africaville. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Hot Metal Bridge and Painted Bride Quarterly. He is an assistant editor at Narrative magazine, and he lives in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Africaville, and for the family you write about?

A: The stories that became Africaville began in the late 1990s as a series of short stories set in rural Alabama. The stories were set in communities along the route from Selma to Montgomery taken by protesters during the 1965 march for voters’ rights.  

Many people are familiar with the leaders of the marches such as Martin Luther King, but I was interested in the lives of the residents in the rural communities along the route. How had the communities been formed? Had any of the residents marched? If so why? If they did not march, why not?

I have a personal connection to such communities since my grandmother raised a raised a family in rural Alabama community. During the early 1980s I came home on a leave from the Marine Corps to find that my grandmother had moved away from her former community and that the last houses in the community had been torn down.

The short stories I wrote were inspired by stories my grandmother and her former neighbors told about their community.

These stories became part of a larger narrative in 2001 after I read an article in The New York Times about a community called Africville that once existed on the northern edge of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Africville was formed in the late 1700s and existed until the late 1960s when over the objection of residents, the city of Halifax forced residents out of their homes and razed the houses, churches and other structures in the community.

I was captivated by the events that transpired during the protracted fight by the residents to oppose the town’s destruction.

I realized that many of the stories residents of Africville told about their community were similar to stories told by my grandmother and her former neighbors, stories with interesting characters, stories of successes but also stories about the lack of opportunity due to the community’s strained relationship with the larger white community.

After more research I was convinced that a story based loosely on the history of Africville could be the focus of a compelling novel. I decided to use the story of three generations of one family to connect Africville to lost communities in the south to tell a larger story about loss, family and community.  

Q: In an interview with NPR, you said of your character Etienne, "I wanted to look at how a person who could pass as white still - what kind of challenges might they have in the world, what kind of personal challenges they might have, how do they view themselves, what do they think of themselves, for example, what do they hide from their friends, How much of themselves that they reveal to the world." What do you think Etienne's experiences say about the role race plays in the U.S. and Canada?

A: Etienne was created out of my interest in exploring how a decision to pass for white affects a character. What might lead a person to this decision? Under what emotional toil might they struggle after the decision had been made?

As a teenager living in Montreal, Etienne experiences the pain of finding out that he was adopted. He also struggles to accept his blackness while having his blackness questioned by some of his school mates.

He leaves Canada for the United States to attend college aware that how he presented himself could determine how he is viewed by new acquaintances. He arrives believing that presenting himself as white could offer more opportunities than presenting himself as black.

His struggle after deciding to pass is an internal one that strains his interactions with his wife, his son, his work colleagues, and the residents of the rural Alabama community where he settles.

His son Warner learns as an adult that he has a black grandmother who was raised in Africaville. His desire to connect with former residents of Africaville is hampered because they are hesitant to accept him given his father’s previous estrangement from the community.

Etienne’s life demonstrates the powerful way our identity can complicate our lives. It also reveals that many of the internal and external struggles characters have around their racial identity can exist whether the character is living in what is thought of as the liberal and progressive north, including Canada, or the conservative south.

Q: The novel follows several generations of a family's history, in various locations. How did you research the book, and did you learn anything particularly surprising?

A: I began researching Africville not to gain material for a novel, but because I was taken with the story of the village. I read articles and books, watched documentary films, and made several visits to Halifax. I also researched the history of blacks in other parts of Canada and general Canadian history.

By the mid-2000s I had a general outline of the basic narrative so further research was guided by questions that arose as I revised. Some historical details I uncovered entered the novel in a specific way. Others became the bases for fictional ideas and, of course, much was discarded.

At about the 15-year mark, I made the decision to stop doing research and work with the story as it existed. By then I had been writing short fiction for over a decade, so I felt comfortable believing in the narrative and following the story as it developed.

One surprising fact I did not know when I began my research was the extent of  black immigration to Canada from the Caribbean. Incorporating this fact into the novel was exciting because it allowed me to write about characters outside my own experiences of growing up in the southern United States.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I wrote Africaville feeling a strong connection between the southern rural communities I had been writing about, and the community I came to know in Nova Scotia.

I believe many readers can connect to the notion that although we may lose physical connections to our families and the communities we grew up in, powerful emotional connections remain. I also hope readers appreciate the novel’s exploration of the larger themes of immigration, race, identity and loss.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on another historical novel. As with any work new undertaking, you never know how it will pan out, but I am very excited about the work so far!  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Writing Africaville made me further appreciate what a challenging but ultimately rewarding experience it can be to uncover one’s family or community history. I also enjoyed bringing this part of North American history to a wider audience.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 28

Feb. 28, 1820: John Tenniel born.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Q&A with Anita Abriel

Anita Abriel is the author of the new historical novel The Light After the War, based on her mother's life. Abriel has written many novels under the name Anita Hughes. She lives in California.

Q: How much did you know about your mother's life story as you grew up, and at what point did you decide to write this novel based on her history?

A: My mother told me a lot of stories when I was a child but I didn't always pay attention. It was when I was 12 that she told me something (which is in the book, but I won't give it away) that stuck with me. I've wanted to write it ever since.

I decided to write the novel a few years ago. It felt like the right time in my life to approach it and do it justice.

Q: How much research did you need to do to write the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I did a lot of historical research. One thing I learned was how many Hungarian Jews - half a million - were killed in the Holocaust, even though Hungary came so late into the war.

Also, the fact that Jews ended up spread all over the world - South America, Australia, Canada - was surprising. Many didn't want to stay in Europe and couldn't get into America.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between your mother's life story and the fictional Vera in your novel?

A: I kept many things - including most of the names - just as they happened. I filled in things I didn't know for sure and in some cases I imagined what Vera would be thinking and feeling in different situations.

Q: You've written many novels under the name Anita Hughes. Why did you decide to use the name Anita Abriel for this novel?

A: I felt very close to my mother when I wrote it, so I thought it would be nice to use my maiden name. I'm glad I did. It makes the book even more special to me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have another work of historical fiction coming out next year. It is set on the French Riviera during World War II and is based on true events.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm always grateful to my readers for picking up my books!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Anita Hughes.

Q&A with Susan Muaddi Darraj

Susan Muaddi Darraj is the author of Farah Rocks Fifth Grade, a new middle grade novel for kids. She also has written the short story collections A Curious Land and The Inheritance of Exile. She is associate professor of English at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Maryland, and is an editor at Barrelhouse Magazine

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Farah Rocks Fifth Grade, and for your character Farah?

A: Farah is a composite character, based on all the wonderful little Arab American girls I know. My daughter was about 10 when she mentioned to me that she rarely saw Arab American girls in the books she was reading -- which was the same complaint I had when I was her age.

I started to write a story for her, and Farah was born. She arrived in my head as a joyful, upbeat character, which is why I named her "Farah," which means "joy" in Arabic. She was funny and brave and very protective of her little brother.

I imagined her as the older child in an immigrant family, who takes on a lot of responsibilities at home, as is typical. But she doesn't complain about it -- she's happy to be helpful and she has a positive relationship with her parents.

She is also a working-class character -- this was important to me, because I grew up working class. She's a character who's very much aware of her parents' financial struggles. Most working-class kids are in tune with their parents' worries, and they feel the stress in the house when money is tight. Farah is no different.

Q: What do you think the book says about bullying?

A: Bullying is something that a lot of adults talk about, though many of them don't really understand how it works. There is a stereotype of the school bully that you see in movies and TV shows -- the big, tall athletic kid, or the popular, beautiful mean girl.

However, this is far from the truth. Many bullies, for example, are considered terrific kids by their teachers. They're academic all-stars, they're well-behaved when the adults are in the room, they participate in school activities and are popular.

But these kids can also be bullies -- they can hurt other kids whom they know won't complain. And those kids won't cause a full because they sense that they won't be believed. Even if they're believed, very little would change.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I knew Farah would confront a bully on behalf of her brother, and that the bully would then turn on her. I set up the beginning, and I let the rest of it unfold. I always write that way. I like to surprise myself as I'm creating -- I never outline a story ahead of time.

Q: You've also written for adults--do you have a preference?

A: I love writing for both! Learning to write for children was more challenging than I'd anticipated. There's a balance between writing for that age group, 8-12-year-olds, and maintaining an honesty with them. Kids know when you're talking down to them.

With the bullying storyline, for example -- I couldn't be less than honest about it, because they have seen bullies in action and they know what's real. As a fiction writer, I owe it to my reader to respect their intelligence and to be truthful.

Q: Farah Rocks Fifth Grade is the first in a series--what's next?

A: The next book is out in July -- Farah Rocks Summer Break. There's an exciting summer camp she wants to attend, but it's very expensive, beyond what her parents can afford. So she decided to try to earn the money on her own by taking on a series of jobs.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Farah Rocks is the first chapter book series to feature a Palestinian American child as the protagonist -- I'm proud of that, and I hope that every child who reads it will feel connected to Farah and her family. There's an Arabic glossary in the back, as well as a hummus recipe!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Stephen Carver

Stephen Carver is the author of the new book The Author Who Outsold Dickens: The Life & Work of W.H. Ainsworth. He also has written The 19th Century Underworld and Shark Alley. He taught literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

Q: How did you learn about W.H. Ainsworth, and at what point did you decide to write a book about him?

A: That’s a long story. I actually came across his novel, Rookwood, as a grad student in the ‘90s while researching the publisher Henry Colburn, and he went on to become a major part of my Ph.D. research on the evolution of the early-Victorian novel.

I subsequently published an academic study of his work almost 20 years ago, which gets cited a lot but which no one read outside of university. That always felt like unfinished business, because I really wanted to rehabilitate his critical reputation as a significant 19th century novelist.

I started blogging about him about five years ago, and this caught the attention of Pen & Sword History.

The first book I wrote for them, The 19th Century Underworld, had a chapter on Ainsworth, Dickens, and the “Newgate Controversy,” a moral panic about the dangerous effects of “criminal romance” on young working-class men (Ainsworth being known for his bestselling novels on the highwayman Dick Turpin and the remarkable thief Jack Sheppard).

We decided to develop this further, and to produce an accessible biography of Ainsworth with a focus on his relationship with Dickens as a friend and a commercial rival.

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: To be honest, there were two stages to this, because I carried out a lot of primary research when I was a doctoral student. That was pre-Google, and I lived in Ainsworth’s native Manchester for a year, working through archives, rare book and newspaper collections, and his unpublished correspondence.

I also read all 40 of so of his books, mostly tracked down in antiquarian bookshops until I bought a complete works from the States via mail order.

Then I applied secondary research on Victorian publishing, the gothic and historical novel (his primary genres), and the biographies and works of his friends and contemporaries, most notably Dickens and Thackeray. I also got hold of a copy of Ainsworth’s 1911 biography by S.M. Ellis.

Returning to this subject for Pen & Sword, I had to update the old research and take it forward. Because of digital archives like Hathi Trust and the Internet Archive, it was much easier than it used to be to track down Ainsworth’s journalism (which I knew very little about).

Genealogical research was similarly much simpler because of sites like, which relieve you of travelling across the country to hunt through parish records, while the British Library Newspaper Archive allowed me to track his professional life through news reports and reviews.

Other work on Ainsworth had also appeared which needed to be read, for example Dr. Stephen Basdeo’s work on highwaymen (also Pen & Sword), and Claire Harman’s Murder by the Book, concerning the Newgate Controversy.

So, this project was a fascinating muddle of dusty, old school archival research and contemporary online sleuthing, which saved a lot of time and money, but somehow lacked romance.

I think what surprised me the most was how close Ainsworth remained with Dickens after the Newgate Controversy. They continued to socialise until the 1860s, when Ainsworth moved out of London. There was no rivalry or animosity. They just quietly drifted apart in the end, and then Dickens died suddenly.

I was also amazed by Ainsworth’s pioneering work as a magazine editor and proprietor. He variously owned and edited Bentley’s Miscellany (editing it after Dickens), the New Monthly, and Ainsworth’s Magazine.

His work on these is often brilliant, and had he just been a newspaperman rather than a controversial novelist, I suspect his name would now be better known as a lion of London publishing, alongside Richard Bentley, Henry Colburn, and Chapman & Hall.

Finally, through a lot of census cross-referencing, I discovered that his second wife was actually a domestic servant he got pregnant as quite an elderly man, the old rascal!

Q: What accounted for Ainsworth’s popularity as a writer, and why is he so little-known today?

A: Good question! This is what really interests me about this writer, and several other 19th century authors who were bestsellers in their own day but are largely excluded from the literary canon; people like Pierce Egan, whose Life in London was one of the most popular books of the first half of the century, the publisher and serial writer G.W.M. Reynolds, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, along with Ainsworth and Dickens the most prolific and popular novelist in England from the 1830s to 1860s.

You can put some of this down to the shifting sands of popular taste, and old-fashioned luck, but beyond this, the critical establishment definitely decides who’s in and who’s out.

For the Victorians, this was generally on moral grounds rather than sales or literary ability. Egan was a Regency writer, considered downright obscene by the next generation; Reynolds was a Chartist; and Lytton was a politician who had made many enemies, while his belief in Spiritualism made him an easy target for ridicule.

But I digress, and I rarely admit that.

I think Ainsworth was initially successful because of the transitional period in which he rose to prominence, after the death of Sir Walter Scott and before the rise of Dickens, between Regency and Victorian.

The public wanted something new, and his novel Rookwood (1834) certainly provided that. It’s a gothic family plot delivered with a relentless pace and a ghoulish relish, enlivened by an anarchic band of gypsies and the inclusion of the highwayman Dick Turpin, a hero of Ainsworth’s boyhood, as one of the main characters.

Ainsworth also included 30-odd songs using “flash” underworld slang, which was then as edgy as punk rock or early gangsta rap. The effect on the reading public was electric and he became a literary celebrity virtually overnight.

Rookwood also translated well to the stage, and the songs were belted out across the country, popular with both middle- and working-class audiences. Dick Turpin was rehabilitated as a national treasure.

Ainsworth’s novels were easy and fun to read, with a powerful evocation of a past for which the industrialised English were already nostalgic. He loved gothic horror and even his conventional histories are wonderfully gross and creepy, as well as quite racy for the times, especially in his depiction of female sexuality.

He was definitely a popular rather than a literary novelist, although his historical mise-en-scène was always meticulously researched.

So, what went wrong? In a word, Newgate. When Ainsworth wrote Rookwood, the newly applied term of “Newgate novel” (named for the infamous prison) was a unique selling point, and also what his readers wanted and expected.

Although he followed it with a more respectable historical novel, Crichton, his fans wanted outlaws, and the marketplace thus dictated Ainsworth return to the Newgate Calendars for a subject. He chose Jack Sheppard, a Georgian thief famous for prison escapes.

Unfortunately, times had changed faster than Ainsworth had realised, and although the serial novel Jack Sheppard was a huge hit, eclipsing even Dickens’ contemporary Oliver Twist in sales, there was a massive critical backlash led by his friend John Forster at the Examiner and W.M. Thackeray in Fraser’s Magazine, Punch, and The Times.

The “Newgate Controversy” of 1839 was a classic moral panic, and the work of Ainsworth, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and even Dickens was savaged by the press. Particular concern was expressed over the cheap, theatrical adaptations of their stories, and the possible influence on fundamentally urban working-class audiences, who already frightened the bourgeoisie.

The Athenaeum also published a withering article on vulgar popular tastes and the condition of England under the heading of a review of Ainsworth’s novel.

Then, on 5 May 1840, Lord William Russell was murdered by his valet, François Courvoisier, who, it was claimed, had stated that the idea for the crime had come to him while reading Jack Sheppard. After the killer was condemned, the Examiner declared that, “If ever there was a publication that deserved to be burnt by the common hangman it is Jack Sheppard.”

The book continued to sell, while its author became a literary pariah, black-balled at the Trinity Club and forced to withdraw from candidacy for the Athenaeum Club. Dickens saved himself by adding a preface to the third edition of Oliver Twist in 1841 denouncing criminal romance and making a case for his own social realism by comparison.

A generation later, prejudice against Jack Sheppard made Ainsworth an easy target for petulant literary criticism and whatever novel was being reviewed the reviewer would invariably conclude with a rant about Jack Sheppard.

His writing abilities were (unjustly) impugned, and this became received wisdom picked up by literary historians in the 20th century, most of whom didn’t bother to read the original novels. This is the main reason for Ainsworth’s unwarranted exclusion from English cultural history. He was intentionally written out.

Q: Are there any present-day writers whose work reminds you of Ainsworth’s?

A: That’s another great question, but I’m not sure I read enough contemporary historical fiction to offer the best answer.

I would say there are similarities of content and style in the novels of Philippa Gregory, Jude Deveraux, and the late Johanna Lindsey, basically in the bodice-ripping royal sagas, rather than the Tolstoy-like characters studies of writers like Hilary Mantel.

But for me, where you really see Ainsworth’s Romantic, sensational and melodramatic style in action is in TV and Hollywood costume drama, in shows like Rome, The Tudors, and The Crown, and movies like Titanic.

Like Ainsworth’s historical novels, these things are big and showy, with a focus on famous historical figures and events. They’re not deep, they’re not subtle, but they’re hugely entertaining and successful. Ainsworth understood what the public wanted, as do commercial filmmakers.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently writing a book called The Opium Eaters: High Literature & the Art of Addiction for Morton Books.

As the title suggests, this is an exploration of the relationship between drugs and literature in the 19th century, obviously focusing on Coleridge and De Quincey, but also some more unexpected names, for example Wilkie Collins. This grew out of a panel I took part in at the Bradford Literature Festival last year.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think I’ve taken up far too much of your time already! Thank you for having me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 27

Feb. 27, 1807: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow born.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Q&A with Susan Elia MacNeal

Susan Elia MacNeal is the author of the new mystery novel The King's Justice, the ninth in her Maggie Hope series, which also includes The Paris Spy and The Prisoner in the Castle. She lives in Brooklyn.

Q: This is your ninth novel about Maggie Hope--how did you come up for the idea for The King's Justice?

A: You know, Maggie Hope’s been through so much both physically and emotionally, especially in the last two books, The Paris Spy and The Prisoner in the Castle. I really wanted to show the cumulative effect of all of that trauma, as well as just living through the war.

I sometimes describe Maggie as “Nancy Drew meets James Bond” but I really do want to show how her character’s been evolving. She’s a very different woman in The King’s Justice (set in 1943) than the one we met in 1940 in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary.

Q: Did you know from the start that you'd be writing a series about Maggie, and how do you see her changing over the course of the series?

A: I had no idea that Mr. Churchill’s Secretary would turn into a series when I was first writing it. However, I always knew the characters would keep fighting the war and that they had futures beyond what the book showed.

But then Penguin Random House offered me a two-book contract for Mr. Churchill’s Secretary and Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, so I knew I had a chance for a series. And then the stories just kept coming! 

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I research the time and place, of course—down to the month and day of the week, because things can change so quickly—and follow Maggie and different characters on their arcs.

In London during April 1943, the Blitz had stopped (mostly), but there were still unexploded bombs littering the city that needed to be detonated. The thought of all those buried bombs, in danger of being set off at any moment, seemed like a perfect metaphor for Maggie.

I also researched the Italian Britains, or “Britalians,” living in Clerkenwell, London, during the war.

Most have dispersed now, but St. Peter’s Catholic Church and Terroni’s Café and Deli are still there, with people speaking Italian over their cups of espresso.

It was also sobering to follow the internment of the Britalians and their imprisonment in various camps. One of the groups was confined to Lamb Holm in the Orkney Islands, and built a Catholic chapel (when they weren’t working on building the Churchill Barriers near the Scapa Flow).

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

A: I usually know how they end, but the route is never clear! I have an outline, and then all my notes, and bits of scenes, and then I put it all together and see what happens.

One of the most nerve-wracking yet gratifying (and truly magical) parts of writing is when a character or plot idea comes to you that you didn’t outline and won’t let you be.

For example, Sarah Sanderson, the ballet dancer, was never a planned character. She just showed up—and has been one of Maggie’s best friends (and in almost every book) since. She just demanded to exist — and the best thing I did was just get out of the way and let it happen.

And I do have the very last scene of the series in mind, so in the longer-longer-term, I’m always working to that. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on the next Maggie Hope novel, The Hollywood Spy, which takes place in Los Angeles during the summer of 1943.

It’s fascinating to write about the U.S. during World War II—literally and figuratively a world away from life in Britain.

I’m doing so much new research! What was rationed here was different, there’s the war in the Pacific, you have segregation and other political issues that don’t exist in Britain… I’ve learned so much about American history (beyond what I learned in various history classes) and I deeply appreciate the opportunity.

There are also fun cameos to write: Walt Disney, Howard Hughes, Cab Calloway (my uncle!), and George Balanchine.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One of the best parts of researching The King’s Justice was talking to the Yeomen of the Guard and the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London. Yes, the Ravenmaster (also known as Chris Skaife, the full-time caretaker for the birds of the Tower)!

He was able to tell me a lot about the ravens at the Tower in 1943 (Mabel and Grip, who have cameos in The King’s Justice). He has a book out, called Ravenmaster: My Life with Ravens at the Tower of London, which is wonderful. More information at

--Interview with Deborah Kalb