Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Q&A with Molly Greeley




Molly Greeley is the author of the new historical novel Marvelous. It is set in the 16th and 17th centuries, and is based on the lives of Pedro and Catherine Gonzalez, who may have inspired the "Beauty and the Beast" story. Greeley's other novels include The Heiress. She lives in Traverse City, Michigan.


Q: How did you first learn about the Gonzales family, and at what point did you decide to write this novel based on their lives?


A: I first learned about the Gonzales family entirely by chance; I was looking up a historical fact for my second novel, The Heiress, which I was editing, and stumbled upon an article about the “true story behind Beauty and the Beast.”


After reading that article, I immediately started Googling to see what else I could find; when I emerged from that rabbit hole a couple of hours later, I knew that I absolutely had to write about Pedro, Catherine, and their children. 


Q: The writer Natalie Jenner said of the book, “In Marvelous, Greeley bridges four hundred years and our own image-obsessed time with beautiful humanity, moving philosophy and spellbinding prose. Marvelous proves how love is always what truly binds and saves us in the end.” What do you think of that description, and how do you think the book deals with the idea of one’s own self-image?


A: I agree with Natalie completely that love - in Marvelous, in Beauty and the Beast, and in our lives in general - absolutely is what matters in the end. And I think the issue of one's own self-image is as inescapable in Marvelous as it is in the fairy tale.


Pedro, of course, struggles with his own appearance - he lived during the Renaissance, when “werewolves” were still being burned; his hairiness, and that of his children, was not just something that might be a source of cruel humor, but something that could conceivably put them in very real danger.


Throughout the book, he and his children must wrestle with the fact that others' perceptions of them do not match their inner selves; their hairiness subjects them to both the fascination and the repugnance of the other courtiers.


Pedro’s eldest two children by turns loathe their own appearances - one even tries to rid herself of her hair - and use it to their advantage, allowing their royal protectors to show them off in return for money, homes, and other favors.


Pedro himself struggles throughout the book, trying to show the world that he is more than his appearance, and, in some ways, losing himself in the process. 


But the theme of self-image goes beyond the hirsute Gonzales family members, and also affects many of the book's other characters.


Noblemen and women at the time often “collected” unusual-looking people, surrounding themselves with the very small, the very large, or the very hairy; they used people with physical differences to bolster their own self-worth in the same way they might show off precious gems, expensive horses, or fine art.


And Catherine, Pedro's wife, must reckon with her own self-image; born the beautiful daughter of a beautiful woman, she grew up with the unspoken understanding that her beauty was her key to a bright future, something that must be carefully preserved.


When her life takes an unexpected turn - when she finds herself married to the “wild man” of the French court - she must find reserves of strength within herself, and learn to value herself for more than her appearance, just as she must learn to value her husband for all the good he holds inside himself. 


Q: What do you see as the relationship between the Gonzales family and the Beauty and the Beast story, and why do you think this story has endured for so long?


A: I don’t know whether we will ever know for certain if the Gonzales family truly inspired the original Beauty and the Beast fairy tale.


Pedro and his children were well-known enough in their lifetimes, having lived at multiple royal courts and having had their images and descriptions included in both medical texts and texts about human marvels, that it seems entirely possible to me that Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, who wrote the original story, might have heard of them, though she was writing a little more than 100 years after Pedro’s death.


But the relationship between Pedro and Catherine Gonzales and Beauty and the Beast is one of striking similarities.


Pedro was not magically imprisoned in his castle, but he was subjected to the whims of his royal protectors, living in a sort of gilded cage that acted as both a refuge from and a barrier to the wider world. Catherine, like Beauty, is remembered by history for her striking good looks and her unusual relationship, but little else.


But because these were real people who, unlike their fairy tale counterparts, could not magically escape from the challenges of physical difference, their story, to me, is the fairy tale distilled down to its essence, stripped of magic and moralizing, leaving only two people thrown together in difficult circumstances, who must learn to understand and, hopefully, love one another.  


It's that love that is, I think, the key to the fairy tale’s enduring power. Beauty and the Beast is a story I've adored since I was about 5 years old, even before the Disney animated film came out. It’s the first story I can vividly remember being enthralled by.


But it’s not without its issues - depending on the version you read or watch, you might find a young woman who comes to love her captor despite his cruelty; a tale where the moral is that virtuous girls always obey their fathers and subject themselves to the desires of much older husbands who were chosen for them without consideration of the desires of the girls themselves.


So it can feel a little baffling that even now, in our age of (comparative) equality between the sexes, the story is still so beloved, and still inspires so many retellings.


But again, if you move aside the problematic elements, you find at the story’s heart a love between two people that has flourished despite the odds; a love that stems from truly knowing one another (how many fairy tales, after all, allow the protagonists to spend countless days together before they actually fall in love?).


It's that sort of love - the sort that knows and accepts another person’s faults, and also encourages them to be better - that truly lasts. 


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


A: I began my research by finding everything I could about Pedro Gonzales and his family. There are several excellent books and essays written in English about him, or which include his story - one fascinating book for anyone who would like to learn more about the family is Merry Wiesner-Hanks’s The Marvelous Hairy Girls.


I also read an Italian biography of Pedro, which was a long, painstaking process given that I do not read Italian (thank heaven for translation apps!), along with finding what I could in the French National Archives about Pedro and his wife.


Because I had never studied the French Renaissance in any depth, I read many, many books about the time's turbulent political climate, as well as biographies of notable players (Catherine de’ Medici, in particular). 


One interesting thing I learned in the course of my research was that Pedro and Catherine’s son Henri very likely used his hairiness as a bargaining chip to persuade the Duke of Parma, under whose protection they lived at the time, to allow the entire family to move away from his palace and court life, settling in the small town of Capodimonte.


Pedro’s biographer believed that Henri argued that “wild” people like the hairy Gonzales family needed to be close to nature in order to thrive. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: For the first time in my life, I’m working on multiple large projects at once, which is making each one go much more slowly than I’d prefer (though I’m excited to have so many ideas at the same time!).


None are far enough long to talk about in any depth, but I will say that one is another historical take on a fairy tale, one is a fictionalized biography of a historical figure, and the third is a departure for me, a contemporary ghost story. Time will tell which is completed first!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m thrilled to be able to do in-person book events again, and if any readers in Michigan are interested, I have bookstore events coming up in Ann Arbor and Brighton in March! (Details are on my web site!)


I’m also very much looking forward to chatting with fellow writers Kris Waldherr, Alyssa Palombo, and Heather Webb at the Historical Novel Society Conference in June at our panel on retelling classic stories. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Molly Greeley.

Q&A with Shannon Chakraborty

Photo by Melissa C. Beckman



Shannon Chakraborty is the author of the new novel The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi. She also has written The Daevabad Trilogy.


Q: What inspired you to write The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, and how did you create your character Amina?


A: I’ve had Amina whispering in my ear first looking for an agent for my original trilogy, nearly seven years ago, but I didn’t get to really starting writing it until 2019.


The story follows the escapades of a former pirate and ship’s captain, the eponymous Amina al-Sirafi, when she’s pulled out of retirement and hired to track down the kidnapped daughter of a late comrade.


Offered a fortune and a righteous cause, Amina seizes on the chance to have her “one last adventure.” But she no sooner starts getting her gang back together, then it becomes pretty clear the assignment is both more dangerous and more supernatural than they expected.


I wrote it as the sort of book I’ve been craving in the past few years: a madcap adventure tale that offers excitement and escapism, but also a good dose of heart.


It touches upon plenty of serious topics: class and societal oppression, the struggle to balance parenthood and your dreams, and perhaps most obviously, the “crafting” of history and one’s legacy. But it’s also a story about a deeply flawed woman who finds faith and family in later life, about clinging to humor and hope even in the bleakest of circumstances.


I knew I wanted my next project to focus on an “older” female character, specifically someone who was also a mother. Not only is there an unfortunate dearth of both older female characters and mothers in science fiction and fantasy, I also felt like the tension and challenge of balancing parenthood and one’s career and outside passions is something we don’t see mirrored enough in my genre, even though it’s what life looks like for most of the people I know.

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “If readers are not won over by the playful plot twists and thrilling action sequences, they will fall for the charmingly crooked cast and dry humor.” What do you think of that description, and what do you see as the role of humor in the novel?


A: I will confess I pretty much always need a little humor in my media, even if it’s occasionally bleak—is that not how people get through difficulties? But I also went into this story with the intention that it would be light and joyous, even as it touched upon serious topics.


Too often we associate the medieval world with grim visions of dark, dirty castles and constant misogyny. These people had colorful lives and the historical accounts they leave are often hysterical and entertaining. I very much wanted that sentiment in the voice of the characters.


Besides, my family has always commented that I’m a bit too sarcastic and now I get to point to a major trade magazine in my professional field listing it as a commendation.


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


A: There were a lot of changes along the way. I had originally envisioned the book taking place along two linear narratives: the past when we see what led Amina to a life of piracy and the present where she’s returning to it after retirement.


But the present story kept tugging at me more deeply—it felt more joyous and rambunctious and personal; I really wanted to create a fantastical mirror for parents and older characters still determined to leave their mark on the world.


Q: In an interview on Tor.com, you said, “The book is inspired by and meant to be in conversation with the travelogues, adventure stories, and ‘wonder literature’ so popular in the medieval Islamicate world...” Can you say more about that?


A: Certainly! I think many people have this perception of the medieval era that it was all isolated villages, but places were far more connected than we realize and the Indian Ocean was an incredibly cosmopolitan sphere of traveling scholars, merchants, pilgrims, and diaspora groups. A great number wrote accounts of their journeys—Ibn Battuta being the most famous.


Such distant lands also inspired fantastical tales and provided routes for their spread, an example being the South Asian and Persian roots of many well-known Arabic language stories retold and transformed into collections such as the 1001 Nights.


I’ve long adored these stories—very little brings the past alive more than extremely relatable travel disasters, clever con artists, and devious magic—there’s a reason we have our own contemporary versions of these genres.


But I wanted to center on the people who got talked about, rather than traditionally did the telling: the sailors and porters who carried these scholars, the local women made into scandalous gossip, the “criminals” and pirates often pushed to the sidelines or made into villains.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on the sequel to The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi and have a final volume on the horizon after that.


The second book is still in the early draft stages but I’m aiming for something that feels like a cross between a ghost story and a murder mystery, and one that delves even deeper into the malleability of the past and who gets to determine what history truly is.


The research has gone in a bit of a different direction than I expected, particularly when it comes to the unsung aspects of women’s lives and I think it’s going to make for an interesting tale.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: This is the history nerd in me, but I hope at least some readers will be intrigued enough about the medieval Islamicate world and larger Indian Ocean history that inspired this book to go and learn more about it!


This is an incredibly vast, fascinating, and cosmopolitan slice of the human story that doesn’t get explored often enough and hopefully I shared enough resources in the “Further Reading” section to help curious people on their way.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 28



Feb. 28, 1909: Stephen Spender born.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Q&A with Pam Jenoff




Pam Jenoff is the author of the new historical novel Code Name Sapphire, which is set during World War II. Her many other novels include The Lost Girls of Paris. She also teaches at Rutgers Law School, and she lives near Philadelphia.


Q: What inspired you to write Code Name Sapphire, and how did you create your characters Hannah, Lily, and Micheline?


A: I’ve been writing books set during World War II and the Holocaust for more than 25 years. I’m always looking for an untold piece of history which I can illuminate through fiction. Here, it was the true story of the attempt to liberate prisoners from a train headed for Auschwitz. As soon as I heard this, I knew I had found the inspiration for my next book.


Although in real life, the actual rescuers were men, I created Hannah because so often the roles of women in history were untold and I wanted to explore what it would be like to face this dilemma as a woman.


And I wanted the prisoners to have a close personal connection to Hannah, so I created Lily and her family. Through them, I could show the experience of “ordinary Belgian Jews” who considered themselves so assimilated that they did not think anything would happen to them – until it was too late.


Finally, no story of World War II Belgium could be complete without recognizing the courageous work done by escape lines to get downed Allied airmen and others out of Occupied Europe. Micheline and the line she runs, The Sapphire Line, are fictitious, but they were inspired by The Comet Line and its real-life female leader, Andree.


Q: The writer Sarah Penner called the book “A heart-wrenching exploration of the decisions women must make when their loyalties are put to the test in the most unimaginable of circumstances.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love it! One of my goals in writing historical fiction is to show that history is not made up of battles and decrees, but of an infinite number of individual decisions. So many of these decisions presented epic conflict for those who were torn between saving their loved ones, acting for the greater good, etc. 


I think that Sarah’s quote captures beautifully the way that this plays out in Code Name Sapphire.


Q: How did you research this novel?


A: Historical research for me always involves a wide range of sources, including memoirs, correspondence, periodicals, photographs, etc. For Code Name Sapphire, there was one nonfiction book in particular called The Twentieth Train, which was a wonderful source of information.


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


A: I always hope that my readers will put themselves in the shoes of my protagonist(s) and ask themselves, “What would I have done in these circumstances?”


Also, in my books, characters from very different walks of life come together and help one another. If readers can see characters transcending that otherness, my hope is that they will feel less of the division that is so present in our world today.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: It’s a little early to say much, but I can tell you that it involves a story during World War II, a story after the war, and a mysterious object that connects them both.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Just thank you! And I hope readers will reach out to me via email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. to let me know what they think of Code Name Sapphire.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Pam Jenoff.

Feb. 27




Feb. 27, 1902: John Steinbeck born.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Q&A with Howard Kaplan




Howard Kaplan is the author of the new novel The Syrian Sunset. His other books include the novel The Damascus Cover.


Q: What inspired you to write The Syrian Sunset?


A: Prior, I had written three novels of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need of both sides to humanize the other. Exhausted from the lack of progress on the ground, I wanted to turn to a new direction.


My first novel, The Damascus Cover, was unexpectedly filmed in 2017, many years after the novel had been published, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Sir John Hurt. New interest in the novel emerged, for me too. It was an Israeli-Syrian thriller that closes with a dramatic twist.


I decided to return to writing about Damascus, a miraculous desert oasis. Once on the caravan trade route from China to the Mediterranean, Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet.


I wanted a larger tableau this time than in The Damascus Cover and wanted to paint the tragedy of the Syrian civil war and the West’s failure to confront the Russians there. This reluctance emboldened Vladimir Putin, after he faced no resistance from the Allies in Syria, to continue into Ukraine.


Despite Obama declaring a “red line” if President Assad used chemical weapons, when he did in Eastern Syria, killing a thousand with sarin, the world hesitated. Because it’s a painful story, I wanted the novel also to be funny, maybe the way Catch-22 achieved, to make it an enjoyable read.


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


A: I had deeply researched Syria for The Damascus Cover so I had those materials, including a huge wall city map of Damascus I had obtained from the Syrian tourist agency in Damascus.


I have a friend, Brooks Newmark, a former British MP who had advocated the American-British joint bombing of President Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bomb capabilities with Cruise missiles. He gave me a list of nonfiction books that were inordinately helpful. From there I followed updates online on a number of websites.


My fictional characters move through actual historical events throughout The Syrian Sunset. I enjoy describing locales in detail, want to give readers the feel and scents of actually being there.


I used Google images often, for example to describe the renovated 27,000-square-foot Khan As’ad Pasha, the 18th century caravanserai in Damascus. The ruins of similar caravan inns, which supported commerce on old trade routes, can be found in Israel, complete with camel stables.


I suppose I was both surprised and not about the barbarity of Syria’s prisons. In an accurate scene in the novel, Assad complains to Nancy Pelosi that in rendition he interrogated Iraqi prisoners from that war, and emptied them for the Americans. So why are they not more grateful? This scene takes place in the boutique Talisman Hotel, once a large Jewish mansion.

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


A: I taught creative writing for a decade at UCLA Extension. One of my cardinal suggestions is that it’s invaluable to know the ending before you begin. John Irving will spend a year or more plotting out a novel before he starts writing. This way every scene has direction towards where the novel is headed.


However, in The Syrian Sunset, I did not know how it would end in terms of the characters. I was however, clearly bound by the actual history of the war. In this case, and the same thing happened when writing The Damascus Cover, a new character I created midway played a vital role in pulling the entire story together and featured prominently in the ending.


That surprise character in the new one is Alisher Karimov. Initially I wanted to blackmail a Russian oligarch into aiding an Israeli intelligence agent working with a CIA operative. I had these latter two on the shoreline in Monaco about to enter this oligarch’s house there.


How am I doing to blackmail him? I asked myself. Everything I could think of, and the list was short, was tedious and a cliche.


In the early years of the Soviet Jewry movement, while bringing Hebrew texts into the USSR, my tour took me to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. While wandering in Old Tashkent during free time, I happened upon a group of Yiddish-speaking tailors working on Singer sewing machines. Stalin had moved them during World War II from Ukraine.


So stymied in the new novel, I remembered that General Colin Powell spoke Yiddish. As a kid he had worked in a Jewish baby furniture story in Brooklyn. So I thought what if the oligarch is a wary friend, from Tashkent, who speaks Yiddish with the Israeli Mossad agent.


To my great surprise, Karimov turned out to be a delight. A friend of mine in Moscow explained that old Soviet movie houses are being turned into entertainment centers with an ice rink, beauty salon, video game arcades, and shops. That became Karimov’s profession, erecting these entertainment centers, and with it he is a lover to movies.


The Tom Hanks film Castaway began with the Hanks character working at FedEx in Moscow; the plane that crashed and stranded him is was a FedEx cargo plane. So Karimov tells the spies, I do not believe the great Tom Hanks would work at Fed Ex. Of course, he would save Private Ryan, but Hanks at Fedex, nyet.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am only teasing out a new novel but it will be something with Karimov.


Q: What do you see looking ahead for Syria, especially after the recent earthquake?


A: We have lost Syria and betrayed the Syrian people. The Syrian Free Army, once a proud fighting force, hardly exists anymore. The essential problem, as The Syrian Sunset portrays, was the war in Iraq.


After that sham and disaster, the West had no will to help Syria. The British did not want to follow Obama in the way Tony Blair had disastrously acceded to George Bush. Likely the Syrian helicopter barrel bomb capability could have been taken out with Cruise missiles but even that the West could not manage.


Angela Merkel, already overwhelmed with Syrian refugees, feared an attack on Syrian military airfields would lead to internal repercussions there and another flood of refugees.


In essence we fought the wrong war in Iraq, and because of it, lacked the will to fight the good fight in Syria. So Bashar al-Assad, with Putin’s aid, remains ascendant and in power.


The Jordanians closed the border with Syria, at great loss of trade, to support the Syrian revolution. Eventually and inevitably they reopened it and Syrian goods, and especially an apricot paste that is featured in the novel that is made into a drink at Ramadan, flows through Jordan to the economic powerhouse, the Gulf Cooperation Council. The revolution was over.


The recent earthquake is, as so often happens in history, misery piled atop misery.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There is some talk about turning The Syrian Sunset into a film. At the end of the novel Karimov says that when the film of this great, historic story (the novel) is made he wants Tom Hanks to play him. So we’re going to approach Hanks to do exactly that.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 26



Feb. 26, 1802: Victor Hugo born.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Q&A with Christina Diaz Gonzalez




Christina Diaz Gonzalez is the author of the new middle grade graphic novel Invisible. Her other books include the middle grade novel Concealed. She lives in Miami.



Q: What inspired you to create Invisible, and how was the book's title chosen?


A: Having been a student who learned English after starting school, I always felt a connection with students that were learning English as a second language.


I noticed that there weren’t many books that showcased them and I also knew how valuable illustrations are when learning a new language. Having the story be in a graphic novel format seemed to make perfect sense. 


I chose Invisible as the title because we all sometimes feel that the “real” us is often overlooked or unseen… plus the word is spelled and means the same in both English and Spanish!


Q: What do you think illustrator Gabriela Epstein’s work adds to the book?


A: She created a new dimension to the story through her illustrations because art is visual literacy and a language unto itself. 


Q: What do you see as the dynamics among your five characters?


A: The five characters only see their differences at the beginning while the world sees them as the same. By the end of the story, they see their commonality and the world sees their individuality. 


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “Alternating flashbacks among the five students, Gonzalez (Concealed) clearly shows how each kid—all characterized distinctly and with complexity—is more than others’ assumptions.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope kids take away from the story?


A: I love that description and I hope kids (and adults) remember that we are each more than what we see on the surface. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently working on a new graphic novel, but I can’t say much beyond that. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Just that I am so appreciative for all the love readers have given this book and that I hope it makes more kids feel visible.  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Christina Diaz Gonzalez.

Feb. 25



Feb. 25, 1937: Bob Schieffer born.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Q&A with Chris M. Arnone




Chris M. Arnone is the author of the new novel The Hermes Protocol. His other books include the novel The Lost and Broken Realm. He is also an actor.


Q: What inspired you to write The Hermes Protocol, and how did you create your character Elise?

A: I think the original nugget was cyberpunk Catwoman. I'm a long-time Batman reader and loved cyberpunk since I first read William Gibson's Neuromancer.


Then the more I thought about cyberpunk and post-human themes, the more I thought about gender and sexuality within that framework. Viewing the body as another thing you own instead of something sacred, sex work and over-sexualization are everywhere in the genre mostly written by cis men. Sex work is work and there's nothing wrong with sex, but the focus has often been exploitative of women.


Elise, as I said, began as a pastiche Catwoman, but making her asexual pushes against the frequent over-sexualization in cyberpunk. She's very much her own character at this point. 

Q: How did you create the world in which the story unfolds?


A: I wanted to play into and then push against classic cyberpunk tropes. Big companies? Check. But my characters have bought into the corporate systems. That low-life element is there, but it's on the fringes of their society, at least for now.


There are underlying rules behind what's going on (no spoilers) that very much shaped Jayu City and the five companies that control it. The companies themselves are based on either cultures or corporate cultures found in our own world but dialed up to 11.

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


A: Yes. I definitely plotted this book and the entire series out. That said, I'm willing to let the characters and better ideas guide me, so things change as I go along.

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


A: I hope they have fun reading, but also envision a world in which gender and sexuality are accepted for being as fluid as they really are. 

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm finishing up edits on the sequel to The Hermes Protocol, and something else I probably cannot talk about that's TOTALLY different.

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I'm also an actor. I'll be in a production of Prejudice and Pride in New York City coming up in July and August at 59E59 Theater. Prejudice and Pride is a gender-swapped, American folk-musical retelling of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Come see it!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 24



Feb. 24, 1943: Kent Haruf born.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Q&A with Lacey Baker




Lacey Baker is the author of the new novel Her Unexpected Match. Her many other books include the novel Homecoming. She also writes under the name AC Arthur. 


Q: What inspired you to write Her Unexpected Match, and how did you create your characters Allie and Ryan?


A: I absolutely love living so close to coastal towns and the water, and I enjoy creating small communities where people can bond over cinnamon rolls and coffee and knows everybody in that community by their first name.


I’ve created many small towns in my writing career and wanted to have a more distant locale this time around, somewhere that really set this community apart from others. So, I figured an island that was still in the proximity of some of my favorite things about Maryland’s Eastern Shore was a great idea.


Once I had the island all figured out, Ryan and his family’s BBQ legacy came next because I needed a character to be settled on the island in a way that it would be extremely hard for him to leave. Allie had to be the polar opposite, someone without any roots to hold her down. I love these two together because they bring out the best in each other.


Q: The novel takes place on a beautiful island--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Setting is one of the first things I imagine when coming up with a new story (or series).

When I read, I always want to be swept away to another place or time. Even if it’s just to the next city over the bridge in my home state, I want to be able to imagine I’m there through the descriptions on the page.


So, when I write, I always take the time to give details on the setting, whether it’s something as general as street names, or something more detailed like the giant sun with all the planets orbiting it on top of the Galaxy Emporium on Crescent Island.


Q: The writer Sean D. Young called the book “A sweet and delightful story with witty and likable characters that give us laugh-out-loud moments and all the small-town feels.” What do you think of that description, and what did you see as the role of humor as you were writing the book?


A: I am forever grateful to the lovely Sean for this wonderful sentiment about my book. I feel the statement is accurate. And that’s always a good thing for me. Writing a story and having a reader (or in this case an author who is also a reader) feel something after reading that story.


I never intentionally set out to write funny books because I don’t consider myself a humorous person. Actually, of everyone in my household, I have the least sense of humor—my family members tell me this all the time.


What comes naturally to me, once I’ve gotten a real feel for my characters, is having them fall into scenarios or dialogue that makes them laugh. And ultimately, I guess, makes the reader laugh as well.


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


A: I always write a synopsis and/or an outline for my books because I like to have a general idea of where I’m going in a story. There are always moments when I stray away from something in the synopsis or the outline. Or rather, I’ll say the characters stray the moment they realize the story belongs to them—which is generally somewhere around the fifth or sixth chapters.


With Her Unexpected Match, the original ending I had planned via the synopsis was altered by Ryan’s ex doing a few unplanned things and then Ryan and Allie having to react. I made it to an almost similar end after that, but then I ended up adding and rearranging a few scenes during the writing of the second draft.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently writing book #2 in the Crescent Matchmaker series, titled His Reluctant Match. It’s a grumpy/sunshine book featuring Bella, Allie’s sister. It’s set in the fall so the scenery is gorgeous and Bella’s a photographer so she’s loving it as well.

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There’s just one other thing I’d like to share about Her Unexpected Match. I definitely tried to eat every meal and dessert I wrote about in this book. I called it research but it was probably more on the side of greed.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Rick Bleiweiss




Rick Bleiweiss is the author of the new mystery novel Murder in Haxford, the second in his Pignon Scorbion series. He also has worked as a record company executive, music producer, musician, songwriter, activist, and journalist. He lives in Ashland, Oregon.


Q: This is your second Pignon Scorbion mystery--do you think your character Scorbion has changed at all from one book to the next?


A: The greatest change in Scorbion from the first book, Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, to Murder in Haxford has been the growth and depth of his interaction with Thelma Smith and his willingness to engage in an intimate relationship with her.


However, other changes Scorbion experiences are the growing friendship he’s having with newspaper reporter Billy Arthurson, and how he is much more comfortable around the men in the barbershop who act as the barbershop detectives when they are assisting him to solve mysteries and crimes.


Q: What inspired the plot of Murder in Haxford?


A: I’m a “pantser” in that I don’t plot out the books or mysteries in advance. Rather everything just shows up in my brain and plays out like a movie, and my job is to type as fast as I can to capture what I’m seeing.


That said, I do refine the characters, plots, mysteries, and historical facts as I go along and do many edits, additions and revisions before the manuscript is done.


Regarding the two main mysteries/plots in Murder in Haxford, the balloonist story/murder probably had some underpinnings from when I was at Fan Fair in Nashville and Arista Records’ country division threw an outdoor party. One of the activities they had was a hot air balloon ride and I went on it along with Brooks & Dunn and other recording artists of theirs. I loved the adventure of that.


The murder of the money lender just appeared in my head and flowed through me as a story. I’ve not dealt with money lenders in my life (other than banks).


Q: Was the process of writing this second book different from that of your first Scorbion mystery?


A: Two main things were different.


First, I had the luxury of taking five years to write the first book, because until it was signed to Blackstone as a publisher, there was no particular timeline in which to complete it. In contrast, I had one year to write Murder in Haxford so it could be published a year after PS&TBD, so the process was much faster – replete with word-count deadlines I imposed on myself and a bit more stress to finish it on time.

The second difference was that while I still had to do a ton of research to ensure that my historical facts were accurate, it was WAY less than the voluminous research I conducted for the first book as that had to set up the town, the characters, the language they used, their names, and so many more things to create a feeling of realism in a fictional story.


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


A: More than readers taking anything away from the story, I hope it entertains them and relieves some of the stresses in their lives. With the books being set in Downton Abbey-era England, the murders not being grisly in any way, and the characters being quirky and often humorous, I hope people “get lost” into the world I’ve created and enjoy themselves while reading the books.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently writing the next Scorbion book, which features a mystery about a young female magician who does an illusion that even Houdini can’t figure out, yet wherever she goes crime occurs - and when she comes to Haxford to perform at the town’s theater the malfeasance accompanies her.


Scorbion and the barbershop detectives must determine how she can be in multiple places simultaneously.


I’m also writing a nonfiction book on sound business leadership based on what I’ve learned and done in my over 50 years as an executive in the music and publishing industries, a novel about a crusty senior and his adventures in a retirement home helping the other residents ward off a group of youths who are harassing them, and my memoir.


I’m also revamping a science fiction book and a magical realism novel I’ve previously written, as well as updating a science fiction rock musical I co-wrote with one of my ex-band members.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I truly enjoy the process of writing and find the experience more fun than work. Getting to meet my characters each day is like having a second “life” and a whole other group of friends. Also, now that Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain, I might write Dr. John Watson into one of these next Scorbion novels, as he and Scorbion were friends.


Additonally, I’ve already written a Scorbion prequel and I’m deciding whether to include it in this next book or publish it on its own.


And lastly, I have been “proselytizing” on the many interviews and presentations I’ve been doing for the books, that seniors should never let their age stop them from pursuing their dreams. The first Scorbion book was published when I was 77 and started a whole new career for me as a published author in my eighth decade.


I will never stop chasing the pot of gold at the end of rainbows as long as I am able to – it’s just too enjoyable a thing to do to stop.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Rick Bleiweiss.

Feb. 23




Feb. 23, 1868: W.E.B. Du Bois born.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Q&A with Janie Chang


Photo by Ayelet Tsabari



Janie Chang is the author of the new historical novel The Porcelain Moon. Her other novels include The Library of Legends. She lives in British Columbia, Canada.


Q: What inspired you to focus in your new novel on Chinese workers in France during World War I, and how did you research The Porcelain Moon?


A: In 2017, I came across an article about the city of Liverpool raising a monument to recognize the contribution of the Chinese Labour Corps during the First World War. It was astonishing. I had no idea of any such episode in WWI.


After some initial online research, it became clear that without the 140,000 Chinese labourers who reinforced British and French work forces, it would’ve been difficult to keep the machinery of war running.


It was equally clear that for the most part, the Chinese were treated very badly, despite how necessary they were, and then swept under the carpet of history even though they had been the largest and longest-serving contingent of foreign workers in Europe. So you could say I was motivated to write this story as a way of honouring their sacrifices and also to gain some recognition for those men.


As for research, I had originally planned on traveling to Europe to visit the town of Noyelles-sur-Mer in France, the In Flanders Fields Museum in Belgium, and the Imperial War Museums in the UK – but along came Covid.


Fortunately there are some very good digitized resources as well as academic papers and reference books on the topic. I was also lucky to connect with experts who were kind enough to reply to my queries, most significantly Dr. Dominiek Dendooven, curator at In Flanders Fields Museum, and Gregory James, author of The Chinese Labour Corps (1916 – 1920).


Q: The writer Weina Dai Randel said of the book, “Chang's masterfully crafted novel challenges our views of the traditional images of the Chinese, our beliefs about identity, and ultimately, the western opinions that have defined the WWI narrative.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m glad Weina brought up these points. WWI novels and films tend to glorify military exploits. I wanted to offer a WWI narrative that drew attention to another reason the Allies won the war: they were able to reinforce civilian and military infrastructures with foreign workers.


While the Allies brought in workers from many countries, this novel focuses on the Chinese who bolstered British and French work forces so that the front lines could keep fighting.


Q: How did you create your characters Pauline and Camille, and how would you describe the dynamic between them?


A: For Camille, the idea behind her character and circumstances came from accounts of Frenchwomen who struck up romances with Chinese workers. I read about a young woman whose reason for wanting to marry a Chinese worker was that because unlike the Frenchmen she knew, he did not drink, gamble away his wages, or beat women, and out of this came the idea of a woman in an abusive marriage.


Pauline was someone who had experienced a different culture, freedom of movement, and a foreign education. She had come to realize she would not be successful meeting the expectations of a traditional Chinese society. In this respect, there’s more than a little of me in Pauline.


There’s a lot of reluctance on Pauline’s part when it comes to her relationship with Camille. It begins innocently enough with Camille’s kindness in taking Pauline home with her. But Pauline’s initial friendliness swings to mistrust and resentment, even fear, when she realizes how she and Camille are connected, how this forces her to help Camille. Finally they realize they must trust each other totally in order to make a terrible decision.


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


A: Yes, not exactly HOW, but that element of a terrible, life-or-death decision was something I’ve wanted to incorporate into a novel for some time. You can’t force a plot element to happen unless the characters and external events make it feasible, and The Porcelain Moon offered the right opportunity.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now, I’m working with my friend Kate Quinn on a round of edits for The Phoenix Crown, the novel we are co-authoring, which is set during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It’s a fairly intense process because our publisher wants to release it in September of 2023.


Then I’m doing a bit of travel with my husband – I began working on The Phoenix Crown almost as soon as The Porcelain Moon was put to bed, so I promised him we’d have a long vacation together once this was all over.


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: Yes! Don’t tell my husband but I can’t wait to get going on my next solo novel, The Fourth Princess, which is a Gothic novel set in prewar Shanghai. After two novels set during the World Wars and one set during an earthquake, I want to work on something fun to write and fun to read.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Janie Chang.