“Biblical fiction is potentially divisive”: Eleanor de Jong talks to Evie Woolmore

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore talks to Eleanor de Jong, author of Delilah and Jezebel (published by Avon/HarperCollins) about the challenges of writing fiction whose characters are known from one key source.

Evie Woolmore: We met at the London Book Fair last year, Eleanor, and I was surprised to see you at the Author Lounge, hanging out with the indie authors. You’d already had a two book deal with Avon/HarperCollins to publish Delilah and Jezebel, after all. What did you learn from the event?

Eleanor de Jong: What I learned was how much fun indie authors have! There’s a sort of collective spirit about gatherings like this that I think can sometimes be missing among print published authors. I wondered when KDP first took off how the latent sense of competition in traditional publishing – to pick up an agent, to get a great deal, to get good reviews, to sell well – would translate to the indie market. But what I think no one really anticipated was how mutually supportive most indie authors are of each other, how willing people are to share their experiences and expertise, and how much the book buying market has been blown open by e-books and the sort of pricing that indie authors are using.

EW: I remember talking with you about pricing in particular. At one time, I think you said, both your books were priced at 99p by Avon for Kindle at Amazon – that’s normal pricing, not a Daily Deal.

EDJ: That’s right. I was really interested by that. The paperbacks retail for £7.99 and although the Kindle edition came out a few months later for Delilah, my first book, they put it on at 99p immediately, I think. When Jezebel was published, the e-book came on immediately at that lower price. They both went up to £1.99 eventually and have now settled at £1.49. The effect of the 99p pricing though was really fascinating. Sales shot up very quickly and for a while both books showed the effect of that in the rankings. Given how much flack print publishers get for their e-book pricing, I thought it was interesting that someone somewhere had worked out that this was the way to sell this particular type of book.

Delilah

EW: You’re smiling as you say that. Go on, what do you mean?!

EDJ: Well, I wondered at the time – and I still think about it now – whether there was a bit of a van Gogh factor involved. By that I mean the idea that the price of the book indicates the implied level of worth of the art. Print publishers are generally reluctant to price the e-book versions of novels by their ‘big name writers’ at lower levels, while they accept that the print versions will be discounted. At some level, I’ve always suspected that there’s a cachet/worth thing going on there, that while one might promotionally discount a hard copy book to get it started by catching people’s eye in a bookstore, the e-book price has come to represent the latent value  to the publisher of the work, in other words a sort of benchmark value below which the book will never drop. Like the way that we accept that gold will always have a minimum certain value, like van Gogh will always sell for a certain kind of figure at auction.

EW: While your books sold at 99p…

EDJ: And your books too! Cheap at half the price! Seriously though, I want to be really clear that I don’t think this strategy applies to indie authors: I mean, how could it? Indie authors are each doing their own thing. There’s no capacity for conspiracy in the market, implied or otherwise, no potential for price-fixing as such. It may be – and I’ve seen certain indie published books that bear this out – that there’s an issue around ‘worth’ that is a factor for indie authors. They want to price their book at a certain level because they feel that is what it’s worth. But like buying a house, something is only worth what people are prepared to pay. And if you make it easier for them to pay less, they will. But the point you were heading towards is that if the new Jack Reacher is over £8 for Kindle and my books are £1.49, I am considerably less valuable to my publisher than Lee Child is to his.

EW: And that is what you mean by worth.

EDJ: Exactly. The worth to the publisher, not the absolute artistic worth. Now, I would caveat that by saying that Avon and HarperCollins have, as they put it, made a deliberate decision to ’embrace the digital revolution’ by pricing their e-books relatively low. But the wider point is that Avon understand that there is a market for a certain kind of book at a certain kind of price. And actually I have benefitted from that in sales. Which is all the more surprising when you read some of my reviews!

EW: I wanted to ask you about that. You’ve had some brutal responses. To Jezebel, for example: “Inaccuracy about significant elements of the biblical account- is simply useless & unworthy. Should be discredited.”  And: “…a book that glorifies a queen who was not someone to glorify and which directly contradicts the truth in the Bible. It was not only poorly written but it was actually offensive.” How do you respond to that?

EDJ: I don’t think any writer likes to disappoint their reader, but I’ve always known that a book which might be described as ‘Biblical fiction’ is potentially divisive. However, I think there are two elements to think about here. One is the issue around historical authenticity and how readers of historical fiction respond to that. Delilah got picked up by a historical fiction book club in London last year, and one of the comments which came back to me after they met to discuss it was that the novel wasn’t really historical fiction at all, not in what is the currently accepted convention of meaning historically factual, factually driven, precise and authentic. There’s huge debate around that, at least for me, to do with scales of ‘accuracy’ if you like. Where do writers who set their novels in the past place themselves on the scale between Hilary Mantel-esque moment-by-moment authenticity and a reasonable stab at a plausible setting?

Jezebel2

EWAnd with that, the question of how much the history controls the story or the story controls the history.

EDJ: Yes, and I know you’ve thought about that with your own novels. But secondly, and I think more problematically for some readers, there is the genuine challenge of writing stories using characters not only from another book – because the Bible is nothing if not that – but a book which has varying degrees of authenticity to different people. If you are a reader of the Bible who comes to it as truth, then you are likely to feel that the people of its pages should not be taken out of context. If that is your  starting premise, I wonder why you would pick up a book about one of those people which is clearly a work of fiction. Fiction is about invention, imagination and artifice. My books are also very clearly Romance, as indicated by the cover and the blurb, and Romance is a genre which drives story over context every time. I think therefore that if as a reader you want to protect one particular source of a person’s story, you are always going to find it a challenge to read another telling or another interpretation.

EW: So you’re not at the Hilary Mantel end of the scale?

EDJ: Absolutely not! I don’t think I’d call myself a historical novelist either, at least not in the sense that other historical novelists would want to be seen sitting at the same table with me!  But that was not the point of writing these novels. I wrote them because I like romantic fiction, and I was interested in seeing how the lives of these two women might be envisaged as romance in a time when alliance and allegiance were much more important in relationships. I also enjoyed the chance – as all imaginative writers do – to invent and imagine some historical details that aren’t really available to us, such as some of the more insignificant domestic rituals that are a key part of the colour of this genre. There are very few other purely historical sources to go on – Lesley Hazleton‘s very readable research on the untold story of Jezebel is excellent – but I am a romantic novelist. I am not claiming to have written a factual historical novel. The readers who have enjoyed my books have taken them, I suspect, for what they are. That is not to say that I like to offend a reader any more than I like to disappoint them, because I don’t. But I don’t think the novels hide what they are. And in the age of downloading digital samples instead of flicking through the first few pages in the store, it’s still more than obvious from the outset what the novels are like.

EW: Didn’t someone say that to you as a reason for not reading Delilah?

EDJ: (laughing) Yes, my best friend picked up Delilah when it first came out, told me how proud she was of me, and  then said, “But in all honesty, El, why would I buy it when I know how it ends?” She had a point. I don’t know if proper historical novelists think about that too. But being a romantic novelist, it’s all about the journey for me. We all watch agog every time a new film version of Pride and Prejudice is made, even though we know that Mr Darcy is going to get his girl. It’s the twists and turns that make us watch though.

EW: So what’s next for you? Another romance drawn from the Biblical cast list?

EDJ: I don’t think so. Avon offered me a two book deal and they got their two books. They haven’t shown any interest in any more, but that frees me up to write whatever I want without adding my publisher to the list of people I can disappoint! I remember being hardly able to breathe with excitement when I got the deal five years ago. But so much has changed. And for the better, I think.

*****

Eleanor de Jong’s books are available in print from bookshops and on Kindle from Amazon. Evie Woolmore‘s magical realist novels are all available from Amazon, and you can find out more details by visiting her page.

 

Coming Soon: Magic Realism Blog Hop 2014!

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allonymbooks is delighted to have been invited to join this year’s Magic Realism Blog Hop by magical realist author and reviewer Zoe Brooks. Last year’s blogs were fascinating, a rich range of perspectives from talented writers of atmospheric and engaging writing. If you are a magical realist author and you want to sign up, then you can visit Zoe’s blog and register yourself here.

The Blog Hop runs from 6th-8th August, so come back and see us then, when allonymbooks’ own conjuress of magical realism Evie Woolmore will be talking about her relationship with the sixth sense…

 

Interview with Zoe Brooks, magic realist writer and reviewer

This week, allonymbooks novelist Evie Woolmore interviews author Zoe Brooks about their mutual interest in magic realism and Zoe’s project to read widely in the genre.
Evie Woolmore: Zoe, you explain on your blog that you started reviewing magic realist books because people told you that’s what you wrote. What qualities were you attributing to your own fiction when you started writing that you now identify as being magic realist?
Zoe Brooks: The Healer’s Shadow trilogy books and Mother of Wolves are all set in a non-specific world, which could be our world but isn’t. The world is very realistic – influenced by my study of history and my travels – and so it is unlike the incredible fantasy worlds of most fantasy books. Looking back I realize I was influenced by One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which Marquez creates the town of Macado, in an unspecified country which could be somewhere in South America but isn’t.  The world of my books isn’t full of spells or magic, but there are Shadows.  The heroine of the trilogy, Judith, is born with a Shadow. Shadows appear to be human but aren’t in some ways. Through the course of the trilogy, Judith and the reader understand more and more about what Shadows are. 
 
Most magic realism is about two cultures meeting – often a western realist culture and an indigenous culture which believes in magic. The trilogy is partly about the clash between the new university-based medical doctors and traditional healers, such as Judith. In The Company of Shadows, the final book in the trilogy, Judith completes her training as a healer. As a result what might be called “magic” appears, but then it depends how you look at it. I think this ambiguity is a common feature of magic realism. 
EW: Yes, I agree that ambiguity and a clash of cultures are something I would certainly identify as being magic realist. How useful do you think ambiguity is as a creative tool for a writer?
ZB: It’s a very useful tool. It is also true to life – life is ambiguous. If you are using a first-person narrator I would say ambiguity is a necessity, as your central character can’t be certain of everything.
Ambiguity can be used to keep the reader turning the pages: what’s going on here? But whether you can still have ambiguity at the end of the book is another matter.  Some people want everything wound up and explained at the end. In magic realism that doesn’t always happen – sometimes the magic is just part of the world and isn’t explained, other times the reader cannot be clear if the magic was actually in the head of one of the characters. Personally I am quite okay about that when I read a book that ends in this way, but other people aren’t. In the case of The Healer’s Shadow trilogy, the last book answers a lot of people’s questions.
EW: What unexpected surprises did you discover among the books you read and reviewed, in terms of new authors, books you weren’t expecting to enjoy, or clever uses of magic realism?
ZB: What a question! I’ve read over ninety books for the magic realism blog, so where do I start? Of the classic magic realist books the one that blew me away was Pedro Paramo. It’s poetic, experimental and just wonderful. Previously I had read very few short story collections, but magic realism works well in short stories. Moscow But Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia has to be one of my favourite books so far and Diving Belles by Lucy Wood is a lovely evocation of the magic of Cornwall. In terms of clever uses of magic realism I suppose the use of magic realism in Graham Joyce’s psychological suspense novel The Tooth Fairy was an eye opener for me as a writer and has influenced the book I am currently working on. I had not experienced Chicano literature before and I loved the historical biography The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. Hardly a surprise as it’s about a traditional woman healer, which is also the focus of my Shadows trilogy.
 

EW: I too very much enjoyed Lucy Wood’s Diving Belles, and it reminded me of how different the narrative drive is in short stories. You mentioned the influence of The Tooth Fairy, so I’m curious what else you have learned about your own writing of magic realism from reading so widely in the genre?

ZB: I don’t subscribe to a view that magic realism is a form of escapism. I have just finished Burning Angel by James Lee Burke, which is a gritty detective story with an element of magic realism. Your book can be very real and also magical. The more I read the more I see magic realism as a way of exploring reality in its totality. I’ve always tackled hard issues in my books – The Healer’s Shadow trilogy is about overcoming prejudice and persecution. I believe magic realism can allow you do this in a deeper way.

EW: So, can you share with us what you are writing at the moment?

ZB: My current work in progress is set in modern Prague. It’s a place I know very well, as I spend half my time in the Czech Republic. Prague may be a bustling modern city, but it is also one where almost uniquely you are aware of a magic reality alongside the normal world. I am always surprised how many Czechs believe in angels, devils and nature spirits. The novel is a psychological suspense. A young British woman has gone missing. As we meet people who knew her and read her letters and journal, we find ourselves in a shifting world of reality. In a fortnight I will be flying off to the Czech Republic again, where I will be finishing off the first draft of the book. 

Zoe, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you about magic realism. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.

You can find out more about Zoe, her novels and her magic realism blog at her website. You can find out more about Evie Woolmore’s magic realism novels here at allonymbooks, and read Evie’s review of Zoe’s first Healer’s Shadow novel here.

 

Introducing Lucille Landau

I ain’t never been much of a writer. My spelling ain’t so good – EJ said it didn’t matter but I don’t want to make no fool of myself. Now, writin’ music, well, I’m much better at that. Penmanship like Bach himself, Manny tells me, not that he were around when Bach was composin’ his fugues an’ all, but writin’ Manny’s music out for the band means it’s got to be neat and tidy so as no one plays an F sharp when they ain’t supposed to. I know it’s jazz, but there still shouldn’t be no wrong notes.

I’m fond of Manny. He’s a good man, and he writes music you wish you’d written yourself. You wouldn’t think it to look at him. He looks like Schubert, little glasses, wild hair, pale skin and a permanently worried expression. He writes a damn good song an’ all, but it’s more Jelly Roll Morton than the Maid of the Mill. But then, he’s got Tommy Anzonetti to write his words for him, not some miserable German poet. Tommy, who turns the head of every girl he passes, but only has eyes for me. Tommy who can make you laugh and make you cry in the same line, rhymin’ clever and tellin’ it how it is. His shows don’t make the world seem perfect, but then that’s ’cause it ain’t. He knows that well enough himself, only I’d rather he didn’t know just how imperfect my world is. Tommy, who makes the breath catch in my throat when he looks at me. Tommy, who was writin’ songs for me even before we met.BMv6finalLowQ

I wonder sometimes what would’ve happened if I’d walked just one block west that day, and hadn’t walked past Manny’s family piano shop. I wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t convinced the landlord of The Ale and Anchor down Mile End to let me play ragtime on his piano on a Friday night. I wonder how my life would be different and I wonder if I could’ve lived with it being’ just the same, day in day out, the rhythms of New Orleans in my head drowned out by the rattlin’ sewin’ machines in Mr Goldberg’s overcoat factory up Whitechapel way. Dreams are all very well, but only if they come true.

I’m not ungrateful. You should know that, you should remember it when you read my story. I could never have imagined a life like this for myself. That’s the thing about dreams. They only come out of what you know. You can’t imagine how different life could be ’cause you ain’t got nothin’ to build it out of. This, all this— playin’ jazz piano for a Broadway show— how could I ever have dreamed that? But it ain’t been easy. In truth, it’s been a livin’ hell. I’m lyin’ every moment of every day and I ain’t proud of it. But what else can I do? It’s lie or die. I can’t go back to London, not after what I did. It was self defence, but I still killed a man. But I’d do almost anything to stay in New York. I might be married to the man that rescued me, and in love with someone else, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Would I?

The first novel in Lucille Landau’s adventures in New York is Broadway Murder of 1928, as told by EJ Knight. You can buy her story at all Amazon sites, including UK, US and Canada. The next adventure, Tin Pan Allies and Enemies will be published in 2014.

Interview with Ben Galley, author and founder of Libiro

This week, British indie author Ben Galley talks to allonymbooks novelist Evie Woolmore about his writing and his brand new e-book distribution website, Libiro.IMG_1824s

Ben, you’ve had a busy year, releasing two books and launching an e-book store among your galaxy of other activities. We’ll talk about Libiro in a minute, but I’m interested in how and why you settled your first published novels in epic fantasy, a very strong genre in indie publishing.

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. Fantasy in general is seeing a huge surge in popularity, and publishers are responding in kind. Both indies and traditionals are churning out great fantasy books like there’s no tomorrow, and the readers are inhaling them at an equal rate. It’s an exciting time, especially now that we can all chat to each other and share great reads so easily via Twitter and Facebook.

Another reason I chose to write and publish fantasy is that I’ve always loved it as a genre. Ever since I was a kid I’ve always had my nose buried in a book, drinking in mythology and the wildest dreams of Tolkien, CS Lewis, Gaiman, or of Robin Hobb. It is fantasy’s limitless nature, that I admire – how each author can spill their imagination onto a page, and experiment without worrying whether they’re thinking too far outside the box. That’s why I like it, and why I like writing it too. It’s gives you a wonderful sense of satisfaction, when you realise you can get away with writing about minotaurs, and goblins, or shadows and magic. The stuff we all pretend is real when we’re young.

Promo 2013 BannerSo what do you think indie publishing offers fantasy writers that perhaps traditional publishing doesn’t? As an author of magical realism myself, I like indie publishing because I don’t have an editor or a marketing team saying ‘I can’t pigeonhole that, it’s too original to be sellable.’ To what extent does that argument apply for fantasy genres?

I think pigeon-holing happens across all genres, and all publishers are somewhat guilty of it. It’s a natural thing to do, after all, when you’re funding a debut book with your own money – you want to make sure it sits nicely inside a genre, so that it sells, and sells well. If it’s a little too out there, and has even the slimmest chance of taking a commercial nosedive, then there’s a risk you might lose the money you’ve put it into it. But indies don’t have this problem! Our publishing costs are much, much lower than that of a publishing house. Also, thanks to the big reading boom, there are a lot more readers exploring the niches of popular fiction. Fantasy fans are doing this en masse. There’s just something about fantasy and sci-fi fans. They put the fan in fanatical. All this is great news for us indies – we can publish books that push the boundaries, and actually sell them too.

What have been the best and worst bits for you about indie publishing your own work?

 That’s a good question! There are so many good bits. Taking the reins with both hands gives you an enormous sense of accomplishment when progress is made. After all, it’s all down to you, and so you deserve to be pleased and proud when a great review comes in, or when a bit of fan mail pops into your inbox, or when you glimpse the last months’ sales figures.

One of my proudest moments will always be walking into a Waterstones, and spying my book sandwiched between the likes of Neil Gaiman and David Gemmell. And I didn’t even put it there! The store had taken a chance, based on its cover, and I later learnt they were selling very well. It’s at those moments that you can’t help but grin like a halfwit. You suddenly realise it’s all been worth the hard work.

There are down-sides, of course, as there are to most things. Self-publishing can be difficult at times, primarily because there are days when it feels like you’re not going anywhere, but trying everything. It can be hard when you’re faced with doing everything yourself, and in those times, all you have to do is remember what you’ve achieved already, and the pros of the self-publishing path. Keeping those at the forefront of your mind will always help.

Logo_f_LargeSo, given that you have had success in bookshops with printed versions of your books, what led you to set up Libiro? What are you offering the indie writer – and the reader – that other e-book distributors don’t?

What led me to set up Libiro was my own experience in the digital world. I’ve had success in both the print world and the eBook world, but each has their downsides for us indie authors. For instance, in the print world it can be difficult to get major bookstore chains to take your book. With eBooks, however, getting your book into a store isn’t difficult but standing out amongst the crowd can be, especially at vast stores like Amazon and Kobo. They’re great providers and very author-centric, but it can still be tricky. Another thing we indies face is the self-publishing stigma – the belief that just because a book is self-published it is automatically of a lower quality than a traditionally published book. These are the issues my co-founder Teague Fullick and I wanted to tackle.

By making Libiro exclusive to indies, we can help fellow authors stand out, as well as showcase their talents to the world. We also offer a great 80% royalty to all authors, regardless of price, genre, or book! For readers, Libiro offers an exciting store where you can find the newest and most exciting indie fiction. If readers have never tried an indie book before, then Libiro gives you the chance to do so!
Ben, thanks so much for taking a few minutes to talk to me. I wish you the very best with Libiroallonymbooks author Flora Chase has already put her YA historical novel The Strattons on the site and it will be fun to see how it goes.
You can find out more about Ben Galley at his website.

Facts and Imagination: Evie Woolmore and Jane Davis discuss writing historical fiction

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore interviews Daily Mail award-winning novelist Jane Davis, whose novel These Fragile Things she recently reviewed.

“…I’ve never seen the point in historical drama. Or historical fiction for that matter. I once thought about writing a novel of that kind, but then I began to wonder, what possible patience could the public have for a young man arrogant enough to believe he has anything new to say about an epoch with which his only acquaintance is flipping listlessly through history books on train journeys?” (The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman)
Evie Woolmore: When we were chatting about doing this interview, Jane, you said this quote had caught your eye.
Jane Davis: I should probably start my answer by explaining that Beauman has one of his characters speak the words, and all too soon it becomes plain that they are spoken precisely because his novel is historical fiction with a twist. He is giving himself licence to play with the theme. The blurb describes The Teleportation Accident as ‘historical fiction that doesn’t know what year it is’. That said, one of the things he acheives so successfully is that his characters are very modern, as they would have been, and are obsessed by all of the same things that plague us – one whose obsession while the Nazi party is growing is not political uprising but whether he will ever have sex again, for example – which provides an instant connection.
To some, the idea of writing any novel may seem like a fairly arrogant and self-indulgent idea to entertain. In an age when we are told that life expectancy will increase to 100, and fiction is classified as ‘historicial’ if the setting is over 30 years ago, we can all expect to dabble with history in our characters’ back stories. Since we’ll find their motivation there, it can’t be ignored. My intention when writing I Stopped Time was to pay tribute to men and women (like my grandmother, who lived to the age of 99), who experienced an enormous period of change. I could have done so by simply reading a history book (although my preference would always be a biography), but I chose to do both. It’s said that reading novels allows a person to live thousands of lives. The same can be said of authors. To explore a period of history through one character – or perhaps a small cast – brings history down to a very personal level, making it easier to digest. For me, reading non-fiction can be a passive experience. When I am writing, I am actually inside the story. Through my characters, I have to confront sights and sounds and react to them in the moment. In that sense, unless you are writing comedy, I don’t think it is possible to take historical fiction ‘lightly’. I’m afraid to say that I found The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window, which was intended to be comedy, deeply offensive. Recent history is too raw and sensitive to be messed with.
EW: That’s an interesting point about recent history. Two reviews of my novel Rising Up reflected in different ways on the challenges of writing about the Holocaust: the novel is set simultaneously in the present and in the Warsaw Ghetto of 1942. While I had not intended to write ‘a Holocaust’ novel as such, the book does explore how our knowledge of the past might affect us were we actually to engage with the past. The city of Warsaw presents us with that question all the time. So should the present day character Tom tell the Ghetto character Ela what he knows of the fate of the Jewish people or not?

JD: Reviewers’ reactions to novels is always very interesting. One review described I Stopped Time as a feminist novel. I have yet to read Rising Up but can imagine that Tom’s dilemma provides a very interesting conflict.
EW: How do you perceive the temptation to superimpose our own contemporary values on historical fiction? It’s an issue that has reared its head again very recently with verbal anachronisms being spotted in Downton Abbey.
JD: I watched my first episode of Downton Abbey last week, not because I wanted to, but because my father-in-law assumed that I would have been tuned in from the beginning. No matter how many times I insisted that I didn’t usually watch it, he was equally keen to ensure that no-one spoke during ‘Jane’s programme’. That said, I do appreciate the difficulty of striking a balance between getting the ‘feel’ of the language right and borrowing directly from the language of the day. Ripper Street is another example of televised crime drama with a historical setting where it might be argued that the language was not absolutely authentic. I have to say that I particularly liked how one of your characters in Equilibrium exclaimed, ‘Mrs Keppel’s knickers.’ The knickers reference probably sounds far more risqué now than it was at the time. I have just found the extraordinary line: ‘Richer than the Keppel girls, Bertie was their godfather and their knickers were edged with lace,’ quite a leap in terms of subject-matter!
Taking the mid-twenties as an example, there were trends of speech – such as ‘sick-making’ – among the Bright Young Things that would just sound wrong to today’s ears. I have encountered the same difficulty writing accurate dialogue for contemporary teenagers. If you were include use of the word ‘like’ as often as it actually makes an appearance, all sense of meaning would be lost.
The issue of dialogue is one thing, but changing values is another. Here, an early editorial review of I Stopped Time criticised the apparent ease with which my main character deserted her young son. ‘Part of the problem, I know, is different mindsets. Today, we feel that a mother should always put her child above a husband or partner. A hundred years ago, children were seen as being relatively less important, and society structures and viewpoints placed the woman’s role as being with her husband – this is reflected in the fact that Lottie feels excluded from the raising of her child. I’m not suggesting that you traduce historical truth, but the whole thing should be much more of a crisis in which we in the twenty-first century can feel Lottie’s terrible suffering.’ In Equilibrium, one of your characters faces as similar dilemma, handing her child over to someone else when she knows that she cannot take care of her. It is not that I don’t understand how a nineteenth or twentieth century mother might seem ‘cold’ by today’s standards, but I do feel that writers have a duty to provide an insight into how things were and to illustrate how rapidly attitudes have changed. I recently found a picture on a historical photographic board on Pinterest of a Brooklyn mother who had put three of her children up for sale during the 1930’s depression. Far from receiving criticism, she was applauded for her practical solution of how to feed the other five. No-one felt the need to ask if her decision was heart-breaking. It had to be done. And presumably she had been forced to choose which of the eight to sell – the eldest, I’d imagine.

EW: And isn’t it interesting that the picture makes us do the work in thinking about the subject’s experience and probably makes us understand it more directly, whereas in a novel we have done that work for the reader, often only to be told that we’ve got it wrong, that we weren’t being realistic!
JD: Have you had a similar experience of having being asked to make a character’s decisions more understandable to a modern reader and, if so, what was your reaction?

EW: Not exactly, but it is the central dilemma of my novel Rising Up, in that because Tom and Ela are in different times, Tom (in particular) must decide that for himself. Are the actions taken by Ela and her sisters understandable to him in absolute early C21st terms of right and wrong, or are they understandable because he is applying the filter of hindsight? He must decide not only how much of Ela’s possible future he can or should share with her, but also how to respond when she begins to reveal how strikingly different her sisters’ behaviour is. Without giving too much away, her sisters have very different experiences of the Jewish Ghetto and the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, but even then, all is not what it seems. I think in a way – without necessarily intending to – I was writing about how difficult it is to understand the past without judging it – just as you describe in the photograph of the Brooklyn mother.
A criticism I have heard of Tom is that he is too passive and too focused on his own goal of finding out what happened to his grandfather. But that narrow-mindedness is an expression of his paralysis about the enormous burden the past can put upon us, that same paralysis that perhaps we have as writers of historical fiction at times, in how best to revisit and re-express the past. Is it possible for us to write a story that meets the demands of the way we read as sophisticated, worldy-wise C21st century citizens, while also doing justice to the fact that the values, attitudes and behaviour of the past are different? Are those two reconcilable? Does historical fiction require a different kind of reading mindset? I have wondered for a while if there are perhaps broadly three kinds of ‘historical novelists’: those who write in order to accurately reconstruct history in fictional or quasi fictional terms (Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel); those who write stories whose plot is reliant on and infused with the historical setting and thus which are historically very precise and well-researched (such as Harriet Steel’s novel Salvation, which I recently reviewed); and those (like me) who write novels which are not principally historical but work effectively in historical settings. Do you share that view?
JD: I think that is a fair breakdown, and, like your novels, I Stopped Time falls into the latter category. That said, I don’t think that readers or publishers are nearly so analytical. Hilary Mantel has raised the game for anyone writing in the broad historical genre. Her masterstroke in Wolf Hall was focusing on Cromwell, who was once hailed a hero but has been demonised by more recent historians, and humanising him again by starting with a scene in which his father beats him to a pulp and then showing the reader his love for his wife. Philippa Gregory is a historian who has chosen fiction as the medium through which she will make it more accessible, in particular to women, whose lives she concentrates on and who are so often left out of the history books.
The expectation once a story is given a historical setting is that the author will have researched that era thoroughly. You might think that going back further in time would give the author more licence, but readers are now so well-informed that there is no such thing as ‘getting away with it.’ I was very pleased to receive a book review from a historian who said that the historical detail in I Stopped Time was accurate, without being overpowering or slowing down the plot. I see that your review of Harriet Steel’s novel Salvation talks about the reader being overloaded with historical information at times. The real challenge is how to transport the reader to another time and place without doing this. So how much detail is too much?
EW: Perhaps it’s not a question of how much is too much, but rather how much is useful and how much is identifiable by the reader? I agree that readers are now better informed or can at least check out information more easily, but my concern is about giving them information that they can’t use or doesn’t enhance their imaginative interpretation. A writer I find challenging from that point of view is Nicola Upson, whose historical crime novels use the novelist Josephine Tey as their central character. The plotlines are always interesting and well-crafted but at times I feel overwhelmed by the authenticity, for the novels feel absolutely jammed with more detail than I feel I can process as a reader. I feel as if I am made too aware of the research, too aware of the historical markers as I read. And maybe this is the central conundrum of historical fiction: in our lives we don’t take as much notice of the signs which mark our world for the age it is, but when writers craft historical fiction, they seem to put in more detail than the average person would take notice of as they live their daily lives. What happens if a detail I’m given doesn’t mean anything to me, if I can’t use it to enhance my experience of the novel? I don’t read much futuristic science fiction, but I wonder if it is a similar conundrum there: how much detail do you need to make it feel authentic without slowing things down and cluttering the reader’s experience?
JD: Returning to the most recent ‘historical’ fiction I have read, what I particularly liked about the central character in Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident was his complete lack of political awareness. Although Egon Loeser’s unswerving obsession over when he last had sex is an extreme example of self-absorption, happening as the action does in Germany in the 1930s. It is very interesting how the reader’s knowledge of the era is largely assumed and how the author uses this to his advantage. Although I hope that I am a little more aware than Loeser about what is happening in the world, I find it very interesting to look back at a decade I have lived through and think about what I now consider the most pivotal events were and how all of the pieces of the jigsaw fit together. You simply don’t see them at the time, at least not with a God’s eye view. With historical fiction, the benefit of hindsight that the reader brings to the book informs the way that the central character is judged. In the case of Loeser, Beauman’s skill is that, despite his many flaws, he remains likable. Rather than a simple obsession with lust, Loeser has convinced himself that he is in love, and the pursuit of love to the exclusion of all other activities somehow seems noble. At the same time, I love a good re-telling of a historical event from an unusual viewpoint, woven richly with historical detail, such as fiction by historian Alison Weir. In fact, Alison Weir’s non-fiction is also so beautifully written that reading it is a sensory experience. I am instantly transported to era with all of its colour, sound and smells. As with any writing, subtlety is key. The point at which fiction begins to feel like a history lesson is the point at which the author needs to pull back. The way to create an authentic experience is not by finding ways to shoe-horn in every fact you have uncovered. The same applies to any form of writing, whether it has a contemporary or a historical setting. The writer must know the character’s complete back story. They must then judge what the reader needs to know.

EW: The last question I’d like to ask you (though frankly we could go on all day!) is about how historical fiction can be a home to other genres. Crime is commonly set in historical contexts these days, but I blogged recently about how a historical setting can be an interesting frame for magical realist and supernatural novels. What’s your view on that?

JD: I agree completely. I am not widely read on magical realist and supernatural novels, but I particularly enjoyed Barbara Ewing’s The Mesmerist, set in London in 1838. Miss Cordelia Preston, an ageing out-of-work actress, terrified of returning to the poverty of her childhood, who emerges in the guise of a Mesmerist. One of the things that this book illustrates so clearly is how limited options were for women, and, save for the workhouse, how little welfare and support was available. The relatively recent past is a very valuable era to explore through fiction. Nostalgia is a very powerful force to draw on. Historical fiction is a tool by which we can measure the speed of change. I never fail to read fiction set the Victorian and Edwardian eras without thanking my lucky stars that I was born in the 1960s, post-war, with equality on the agenda and a right to vote. In his recent speech to graduating university students, Tim Minchin mentioned that the current generation will have a life expectancy and riches that their grandparents and great-grandparents would never have dreamed of. As the popularity of the series Who Do You Think You Are? demonstrates, there is a resurgence of interest in genealogy and a feeling of loss for all of those true stories that were never shared between the generations, of lost opportunities. With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War fast approaching we are going to see more and more war dramas. The clever ones will challenge readers’ – or, in the case of the recent televised drama, The Wipers Times – viewers’ perception of what they thought they knew. The telling of a story through the eyes of one character, allowing the reader to live another life, makes it real. It brings history to life.
EW: Jane, this has been so interesting, thank you so much. I thoroughly enjoyed reading These Fragile Things, and this discussion has given me a fascinating insight into your ideas and motivations as a writer. I have I Stopped Time already installed on my Kindle and am thoroughly looking forward to reading it!
You can find out more about Jane Davis and her novels on her website, and about Evie Woolmore and her novels here at allonymbooks.

Lawrence Block: How many novelists does it take to change a lightbulb?

This week we are delighted that Lawrence Block, the incredibly prolific, endlessly successful and thoroughly engaging writer of  books of all hues, has spared a few minutes to chat with our own Cadell Blackstock. And if you want to know how many novelists it takes to change a lightbulb, read on….

Larry, thanks very much for sparing time to stop by allonymbooks for a chat. You’ve been really busy lately issuing your earlier novels in e-book form. What has direct publishing offered you, as an already experienced and highly successful print novelist?

Direct publishing to Amazon, Nook and Smashwords has given a new life to quite a few of my out-of-print titles. I’ve been writing for over fifty years, and my backlist is enormous, and I’m delighted that my early work can reach a new audience.

And I’ve also self-published some new work. A collection of columns for stamp collectors, “Generally Speaking,” struck me as having too small and specialized an audience to interest a print publisher, but worth making available as an eBook. So I published it, and every month a few people pick it up. Similarly, I’m planning to ePublish a pair of collections of my assorted non-fiction.

You are renowned for your excellent advice on writing, so what have you learned from the direct publishing process and your forays into social media that you wish someone had told you early on?

Hmmm. I don’t know that anyone could have told me this, or that I could have taken it in, but I’m struck constantly these days by the pace at which the whole world of publishing is changing. (I’m sure that’s no less true of the world outside publishing, but it’s particularly noticeable here.)

What’s it been like getting reacquainted with some of the characters from your early years as a writer? Had you remembered them better or worse than they are?

I don’t spend a lot of time revisiting early work. And, in fact, I’ve learned not to judge what I wrote years ago. For many years I tried to disassociate myself from early pseudonymous work, and was in fact sustained by the thought that the books had not been printed on acid-free paper. (God speed the acid, I was apt to say.) But who am I to say which of my books a reader ought to like?

As you know, my central character Crash Cole is a bit of a rake, a bit of a cad, a man no father would want his daughter (or granddaughter) to date. Who among your characters would you prefer stayed well away from the ladies of the Block family?

I think my daughters and granddaughters can take care of themselves.

In Don Giovanni, the opera that Crash Cole is loosely based on, Don Giovanni is invited to dinner in hell by the man he has killed. Who would be at your ‘dinner party from hell’?

As age turns me increasingly antisocial, I’ve come to regard all dinner parties as infernal in origin.

Crash is also a collector of sexual conquests, much as Keller is a collector of stamps, and you are a collector of countries visited. Is there anything else you would start collecting now (other than more royalties!), were money no object?

I don’t think so. Age, I’m sure, is a factor here. It undercuts the urge to possess. My wife and I discovered some years ago that our admiration of an object no longer embodied the urge to acquire it.

Lastly, a quick word on the upcoming film of A Walk Among the Tombstones. I blogged a few months ago about the adaptation, and on the experience of watching novels one loves turn flesh on film. Are there any of your other novels you would like to see made into film or TV?

I have high hopes for the film, and enjoyed my several visits to the set. Liam Neeson is brilliant in the role of Matt Scudder, and of course I hope the film’s enough of a hit to lead to further installments. Of the Scudder books, I’ve always that A Ticket to the Boneyard is particularly filmable.

As for what else might work, well, the most important factor is the enthusiasm of the filmmaker. Writer/director Scott Frank got interested in A Walk Among the Tombstones a good fifteen years ago, and stuck with it until it finally happened. I’d like to see Keller on the screen—ideally, I would think, as an edgy cable series, but possibly as a feature. I’d like to see someone do right by Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Ultimately, though, I’m most interested in my books as books. And, through the miracle of eBooks, virtually everything I’ve written over the years is now eVailable. Neat, innit?

Neat indeed! And I think everyone who has enjoyed Bernie Rhodenbarr would like to see someone do right by him. Anyway, Larry, thank you so much for sharing a few minutes of your time with us.

By the way, how many novelists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Novelists never want to change anything.

Lawrence Block’s latest Keller novel, Hit Me, is available in hardback and e-book. The film version of his Matt Scudder novel A Walk Among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson, is released in 2014.  And details of all his many other excellent novels and books on writing and stamps are available at his terrific website. You can also visit LB’s Bookstore on eBayLB’s Facebook Fan Page and follow him on Twitter @Lawrence Block

Cadell Blackstock’s satire on sex and celebrity, Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’, is available on Kindle at all Amazon sites including Amazon UK and Amazon US.