“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.

 

Magical Realism Blog Hop 2014: Evie Woolmore on the Six Senses

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For this year’s Magical Realism Blog Hop, organised again by author and reviewer Zoe Brooksallonymbooks author and magical realist novelist Evie Woolmore discusses the significance of the Six Senses in her writing.

One of the joys of blog-hopping, rather than just surfing, is the structured way in which new insights come to light. Not that I have a problem just rambling through the byways and back lanes of other people’s consciousness, you understand, but it is easy to get lost in the blogosphere if you have no general sense of direction (as I don’t), and a few signposts are always useful. Last year, through one thing and another and all because of Zoe Brooks’ first Magic Realism Blog Hop, I discovered the American magical realist writer Sarah Addison Allen.

“Crumbs!” I hear you cry, “how could you possibly have failed to discover her until then? Call yourself a magical realist writer?”

Well, yes, as it happens I do. But I stray towards the literary end in my own writing and reading and, as readers of Ms Allen’s lovely books will know, her writing falls equally into the category of romance as it does into magical realist. But once discovered, never forgotten, and I gobbled up her books as eagerly as the residents of Bascom gobble up Claire’s extraordinary cooking in Garden SpellsFor one of Ms Allen’s great talents as a writer – and indeed the common theme in all her books – is the power of the sensation of taste. Not the enjoyment of eating, but the sheer evocative glory, pleasure and mystery of taste and all the sensory delights that go with it.

Much as a stalwart of the Women’s Institute annual baking competition might envy the crisp crust and succulent juicy filling of cherry pie made by the newcomer to the village, so I wished that I could have written a book like Garden Spells, purely because I don’t imagine anyone else would ever be able to capture that sense with quite the same immersive quality. It is not the joy of eating that Ms Allen celebrates, but the utter power of taste to captivate, motivate, engulf and endure.

And then, quite without warning, like a cherry stone stuck in my tooth, I realised that Ms Allen and I were not quite so far apart as I had first thought.

equilibriumWhen I first started writing magical realist fiction some years ago, I did so because it felt like the best ‘home’ for the sort of writing I wanted to do about matters of spirituality and the sixth sense. In fact, in the blog I wrote for last year’s Blog Hop, I observed that I chose magical realism because of that very deliberate juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the believable and the challenging. I wrote that “[t]he magical realist aspects in my novels do not exist in parallel to our world, they are right here in it. They are discoveries like electro-magnetism and radiation in the nineteenth century and the Higgs-Boson particle in the twenty-first, they are part of the fabric of this all-too-real world, visible all along if only you would just tilt your head a little further to one side and set yourself free of some of your pre-conceptions.

The five senses are a perfect example of that very juxtaposition. Medical science has helped us understand the way those senses function biologically, and yet it is powerless to rationalise why we can feel the presence of others with our eyes shut or why I hear the name of a person just before they phone me. I wanted to explore each of the five senses individually in my novels, but with ever-present reference to the sixth sense, the one that I feel connects the implicit power of those five senses together, the one that ‘makes sense’ of the information they offer that is beyond the merely cognitive, the one that plunges us into the less charted spaces of memory, emotion, insight.

The Salt Factory by Evie Woolmore

 

I didn’t want to make an explicit claim for ESP or a certain school of parapscyhology – though I never stop hoping that scientists and sceptics will be more patient and admit that in all science there is still so much we don’t know and understand – but I did want to say that nothing is never as simple as it looks, and to propose a loosening of our intellectual corsets in favour not merely of imagination but possibility. I don’t expect readers to go away from reading my books with a revised view of the world, merely a more heightened awareness of their own world, a greater attention to detail. And what Sarah Addison Allen does so precisely and so perfectly in books like Garden Spells is to focus on every tiny detail of the sensation of taste. That she does so in different ways in her books shows how much there is to express and explore in that one sense alone, how taste does not exist without smell or sight or that sensory awareness that does not yet have a universally accepted label.

In my first three novels, I have chosen to write about three different senses. Equilibrium is about sight, about what we see, Continue reading

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…

 

In admiration of….Ruth Dudley Edwards

In the latest in a series of blogs, new allonymbooks crime author EJ Knight discusses some favourite crime writers. This week, Ruth Dudley Edwards.

My next choice is a quirky one in that Ruth Dudley Edwards is more famous as a historian and journalist, including for The Economist and Financial Times. Since 1993, Dudley Edwards has also written a crime series based around the shenanigans of Robert Amiss and the memorable Ida Troutbeck.

In many ways, the series is less about ‘who-dunnit’, although each book has at its central story-line Amiss’ attempts to solve, or help the police solve, a vicious murder or murders, and more a vehicle for a funny, sharp and accurate satire on various pillars of the British establishment – from the civil service, to the Church of England, and to the British education system. In each book, Amiss is ‘persuaded’ to become involved by Troutbeck’s manoeuvrings and his own admiration for police detectives Milton and Pooley.

I read seven of the first eight in the series in the 1990s and remember vividly how upset I was that my copy of the second – The Saint Valentine’s Day Murders – had been printed so that I had the first hundred pages twice and no-more. My frustration was compounded by the fact that the bookstore had no more copies and all attempts to find another copy were fruitless. So, it was with great joy that I recently discovered that not only were all Dudley Edwards’ books now available on Kindle but also that, while I thought she had stopped writing fiction, Dudley Edwards had written another three in the series, with another on the way. Hooray!

Why do I keep coming back to these novels and why is Dudley Edwards my first choice for this blog? Because the books make me smile and keep reading. There are many great writers who have written elegant detective stories that could be considered great literary novels. But I didn’t enjoy reading them because they were so serious. Dudley Edwards is a wonderful writer – the plot moves with speed, the characterisation is sharp, and the dialogue is as real as it can be in written form – but what always stands out for me is that I feel happier once I’ve read her books. And it is for that reason that I will always keep them to read on a wet British afternoon (of which Dudley Edwards’ characters will know all too well).

*****

EJ Knight is the author of the Lucille Landaus series of historical crime novels, the first of which –  Broadway Murder of 1928 – is excerpted here.

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.

 

In admiration of…. Rex Stout

In the latest in a series of blogs, new allonymbooks crime author EJ Knight discusses some favourite crime writers. This week, American writer Rex Stout.

Rex Stout is a name which many readers may be unfamiliar with, indeed amid the wash of gritty Nordic and British crime, there might seem to be little to recommend a writer whose novels are at first glance so mild-mannered and dated to the time of their writing. Indeed, much of the action takes place in the brownstone home of a man who weighs “one sixth of a ton”, rather than on the mean streets of pre- and post-WWII New York. Yet the thirty or so novels Stout wrote featuring the intellectual giant Nero Wolfe, and his legman – the witty ladies’ man Archie Goodwin – are not only clever puzzles but also a fine portrait of a city and a country going through periods of enormous social change. The plots range widely from corporate and industrial intrigue, families in crisis, diplomacy, politics and the criminal underworld, to the recurrent impact of the war both collectively and individually. Wealth is perhaps more prominent than poverty, as both Wolfe and his clients live comfortably and Archie Goodwin’s taste in ladies generally runs to the more refined, such as socialite heiress Lily Rowan. But the darker, dirtier face of the city is glimpsed often enough in the diners and dark alleys observed by Wolfe’s secondary team of private detectives such as Saul Panzer.

Wolfe and Goodwin are in a marriage of unequals yet they complement each other most brilliantly. Wolfe is huge, temperamental, obsessive about his food, devoted to his orchids, a man of such utter ritual that he will not be disturbed for any crisis, even by his closest associates – Archie Goodwin and Fritz (the chef and majordomo). He refuses to leave the brownstone for anyone – client or cop – and could be seen as the extreme of the eccentric, individualistic private detective. Crimes are puzzles, criminals are like museum exhibits, to be studied and observed from many angles while Wolfe barely moves from his office chair. By contrast, Goodwin is the everyman: a connoisseur of women and violence, he is Wolfe’s eyes and ears out in the world, gliding easily between the criminal classes and the monied aristocracy, driving all over the city and the state, and it is he who tells the stories of the cases that Wolfe is asked to solve, and who paints the portraits of those entangled in the crimes.

The dialogue and first person narration in these books is what drives them both in story and quality. This quote from The Silent Speaker (1946) is typical of the way Stout captures the relationship between Wolfe and Goodwin:

“Nonsense.” Wolfe was peevish. “With an ordinary person that might be necessary, but Mr. Goodwin is trained, competent, reliable, and moderately intelligent.”

We aren’t told what Archie thinks of being described by his employer as “moderately intelligent” and it doesn’t matter, for Archie reports things exactly as they are, which is part of what makes him such a good detective. Hence his use of the word “peevish” – perhaps a less fashionable descriptor now yet for Goodwin it pins his employer’s mood precisely to the map, and for Stout it avoids slowing the rapid fire pacing of the dialogue with overly heavy description. But hence also the precision with which, in the same novel, Stout has Archie report the death of a beautiful woman outside the brownstone and chart the effect of her loss on him:

I do not ordinarily hunt for a cave in the middle of the biggest excitement and the most intense action but this seemed to hit me in a new spot or something, and anyhow there I was, trying to arrange my mind. Or maybe my feelings. All I knew was that something inside of me needed a little arranging.

And at the end of the same short chapter:

I had been sitting in my room twenty minutes when I noticed that I hadn’t drunk any milk, but I hadn’t spilled any from the glass.

There is little angst in these books, no great emotional swings and roundabouts as experienced by some of the other great detectives who get so personally involved. Nero Wolfe solves crimes for money, he is perhaps an intellectual mercenary for he forms no attachments to the victims. His endless battle with Inspector Cramer of the police is one for control of the facts and of his privacy – perhaps in equal measure – and the police are  as necessary an evil in tidying up and enacting the solutions Wolfe reaches, as the crimes are for Wolfe to fund his peculiar lifestyle.

So why would you read these books? They are historically dated, favour dialogue over action and the questing of motive over the complexity of plot. Stories are sometimes convoluted, there are often innumerable characters (all beautifully named) and Wolfe is at times so metronomically confined by his own routines as to be close to a parody of himself. But that is to oversimplify the charm of the books – any fan of Christie or Allingham or Sayers would find these just as compelling – and to belittle their lessons for us as writers. For they are a masterclass in how to use words very exactly, how to create a world without being too lavish in description, how to home in on what we really need to say about our characters. Not a word is wasted. The books rush past as easily as a fat airport paperback, but they do so without gloss or embellishment. Every sentence counts, every single observation Archie makes tells us what we need to know, and I for one could listen to him reading the telephone book.

*****

EJ Knight is the author of the Lucille Landaus series of historical crime novels, the first of which –  Broadway Murder of 1928 – is excerpted here.

Many of the Nero Wolfe books are still in print and several have now been issued for Kindle. If you haven’t encountered Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin before, A&E made a series of films for television based on a number of the stories. Starring Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin, they are good adaptations of the novels and also fun to watch.

Broadway Murder of 1928 by EJ Knight: Exclusive Extract

Read an exclusive extract from the beginning of the latest allonymbooks book: Broadway Murder of 1928 by EJ Knight. Historical crime fiction at its best.

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Mutti is standing at the end of the alley, ankle deep in blood. Old Mr Goldblum and his son Itai are standing either side of her, their hands resting on her shoulders, their beards glistenin’ in the yellowish light from the back door of the pub, their long black coats flutterin’ like crows’ wings. Someone’s playing ‘Potato Head Blues’ on the piano inside. It sounds like me playing, making the same mistake over’n’over before the stop-time section, before Louis Armstrong starts his solo, but when I look down I’m still standing out back and there’s a broken bottle in my blood-soaked hands.

‘Come now,’ they’re saying to her in Yiddish. ‘Come back to the factory.’

‘But who will mend my Lucille’s dress?’ Mutti’s saying in German, pointing at me.

‘It’s her own fault her clothes got torn,’ Itai says. He looks sadly at me as though he’s lost something very dear to him. ‘Someone has to sew on all our buttons now you are gone,’ he says to me in broken English. ‘Do not worry. She is not one of us, but we will still take care of her.’

Mutti starts crying. Mr Goldblum shakes his handkerchief out of the pocket of his coat and banknotes fall from it, dirty scraps of paper fluttering into the blood that swells in a pool towards him. I lurch to catch ‘em before they soak into the darkness but trip over something at my feet.

The man’s lying there, the man from the pub, the one who leered and drank and leered some more before he grabbed at me with his greasy fingers. He’s trying to sing his dirty songs at me again, but the dark gash at his throat bubbles and glitters as the air pops through. His trousers are round his ankles, but that swollen bit of flesh he tried to shove into me has shriveled back in on itself, into the shadows.

‘You ‘ad it comin’ to you, you little sow! You play the Devil’s music, you end up in hell—’ His mouth is moving but the voice is coming from behind me and I turn to find his friend standin’ there, his tankard still full and dripping.

‘We didn’t win the bloody war so you could come over ‘ere—’

He yanks me close, singin’ hard and loud in my face, his breath hot and beery, his spit pocking my cheeks, but the tune is wrong for his brutal words, it’s Brahms, like I used to play at Miss Worthington’s Music School on a Sunday afternoon, and someone’s whistling, shrill, like a copper’s whistle—

I’m trying to run, but my feet are stuck in that bastard’s blood, I can hear the clank of handcuffs at the end of the alley, Mutti’s crying for me as the handcuffs close over my finger, gold and hard, but I’m trying to shake them off so I can get to the end of ‘Potato Head Blues’—

It ain’t the first time I’ve woken up screaming.

My arms flail, throwin’ off the heavy hands that grasp mine so tight. I glance wildly around me. The unfamiliar ceiling, dirty white and edged with rust. The round window behind the sofa, nudging in its hinge as the gale batters it from outside. The whole tiny room is spinning round me and I feel sick. I struggle to sit up, shudderin’, grabbin’ on to anything that’ll steady me, but my eyes are still darting round, tryin’ to remember where I am. This is no jail cell, but I feel trapped right enough.

‘Lucille? Liebchen?’

I’m slow to remember someone was holdin’ me. I drag my eyes back to a young man kneeling beside the sofa. I frown at ‘im and he frowns back, deep creases in a pale forehead beneath a neat side-parting of fine blond hair, his eyes saucer-wide and black with longing behind his wire-framed spectacles.

Nur ein Albtraum—

‘A nightmare,’ I say, correctin’ him to the language I want to speak.

‘It is me,’ he answers, this time in heavily accented English. ‘You remember? I am Gregor?’ His eyes flicker to my hands, and I stare down at them. There is a thin gold band around my ring finger, a little too big even for my long fingers and strong knuckles.

I gulp down air and try to think, try to remember what happened last time I woke up screamin’. But it don’t get any easier.

The Victrola is cranking out a Brahms Étude, but the boat is rolling and the needle’s jumpin’, squawkin’ out the same unfinished bars again and again. I struggle off the sofa and go to it, putting the stylus back in its cradle. Without the music there’s nothing to hide the dreadful wrenchin’ of the trawler against the waves, the grunt of the steam engine beneath our feet or the drip-drip of water from the ceiling into a tin bowl in the corner. Glass bottles rattle in a cabinet on the wall. The cabin reeks of antiseptic and oil burnin’ in the lamps.

‘Lucille?’

I hear Gregor stand up behind me. As his hands settle on my shoulders the memories settle with ‘em, the endless blood drains away from the darkness of my imagination, and I remember. I can’t help lookin’ down at my finger again.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say, bright as I can. ‘It ain’t fair on you.’

I turn to face him and his hands drift gently down my arms, his thumb snaggin’ on a hole in the sleeve of the thin jumper I’m wearing. None of these clothes are mine. I stole some of ‘em, and borrowed the rest. When we dock in New Jersey I’ll probably go ashore in a blouse, combis and a pair of boots. Everyone on this boat needs all they can get if they’re going to survive.

‘I will buy you the new clothes,’ says Gregor. ‘It is just for now you must wear these.’

‘What kind of bride am I?’ I say, forcin’ a light laugh. ‘I steal your bed, stop you from sleepin’, and dress like a man.’

I glance at the tangle of blankets on the floor next to the sofa. This cabin is for a doctor workin’ and livin’ alone. There ain’t no married couples or families on this boat. The captain won’t have ‘em, no matter how desperate they are, no matter how much they’ll pay. It’s hard enough to dock a boat that shouldn’t be there. And people who are scared of being separated only draw attention to themselves.

I think of Mutti. When I told her what’d happened to me, when she realised there was no other way, she let me go quietly. She was only screamin’ in my dream. But I can hear her even now.

The marriage bed can wait, Gregor had said, time for that when we get home to Port Republic. But no amount of decency ain’t stopped him imaginin’ what I might be hidin’ beneath these shabby things, and his hands often linger when they draw a strand of hair from my cheek or pass me something I’ve dropped. I’d never believed in love at first sight, never even seen it before Gregor found me hopelessly wanderin’ the docks in Bristol. Oh yes, it was tinged with pity, I’m not daft enough to pretend it weren’t. But I felt the breath catch in his throat as he looked at me. And I was so desperate to get out of England I never considered I couldn’t learn to feel the same way.

I look round the room again. It’s his room alright. I barely know ‘im, but everything there is to know about my week-old husband is here in this room. The neatness of his surgical instruments cleaned and wrapped in their leather cases. A book of Shakespeare’s poetry abandoned on the blankets, pencil markings and underlinings the only sign that if he feels every word he don’t quite understand ‘em. The diplomas from medical school in New Jersey that hang above the clock. It swings on its chain against the wall, its hands dividin’ the face at something past two in the morning. Is that something past two in London or New Jersey, I wonder.

Suddenly my eyes sting with tears and I sag back against the Victrola. Gregor grabs at me and pulls me to him, his thin arms feelin’ uncertainly round my back, the sweet musty smell of cedar seepin’ out his clothes as he holds me. I cling on ‘cause I have no-one else, but my hands are balled into fists and I try not to feel the ring as it digs into my fingers.

‘Every person who takes this boat awakes like you do,’ he murmurs in my ear. ‘The dark. The smell. The wide sea everywhere. Ist eine Reise in die Vergangenheit.

Something in the crossing reminds us of the very thing we’s runnin’ away from.

Prison is what I dreaded for what I did back home.

But prison is where I am.

The next afternoon, Gregor brings me a present. He’s been down in the hold, the gloomy pit mockingly called Steerage by the others who journey in the decks beneath my feet, seein’ to a fellow with a bad wound in his leg. It’s a bullet wound. I knew that the minute I saw ‘im on the dock, the captain watchin’ while Gregor decided if the feller was fit to travel. But it seems his money was good, doubly good if you get my meanin’, and the captain let him board on condition that Gregor fixed ‘im up good enough to walk before we reached New Jersey. The boat only docks in New Jersey if the captain can guarantee the harbourmaster that his stowaways would pass the medical inspection if the boat was forced to dock proper at Ellis Island. He don’t give a damn about who we are or what we done that brings us beggin’ to his boat. But he don’t want no-one dyin’ or goin’ out their minds on the way over. And to be sure of that he needs a doctor, a good ‘un. A doctor with a good heart. Who offered to work for free this crossing if the captain would carry an extra passenger who didn’t have the forty quid to make her way, and marry them as soon as the anchor was hauled up.

Gregor comes back into the cabin sheepish-like, holdin’ the present out to me. I try to smile at him, kind, caring — I want to be kind, I do, even though my heart is dead because I killed a man. In the daylight I think of the Lucille who defended herself as some friend of a friend of a friend, another girl at the factory, a barmaid in one of the pubs I used to play piano in. It’s only at night she threatens to smother me from inside.

The present, flat and square, is wrapped in a bit of newspaper, the print smudged, the paper damp from days at sea. I try not to think of home when I unwrap it. Gregor’s fingers are twitchin’ as I peel off the paper, and I pretend not to notice when he lifts the lid on the Victrola. I can’t bear another afternoon of listenin’ to Brahms while Gregor begs me to explain to ‘im how the tunes weave in and out—

But the centre of the record is reddish-brown, rimmed with a ring of gold.

Gold indeed. The classy cream signature of the OKeh label. I run my fingers over the lettering.

‘Where d’you get this?’ I mumble, unable to lift my eyes from the words in front of me.

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five.

Skid-Dat-De-Dat (Hardin).

Lil Hardin. Armstrong’s wife. Armstrong’s piano player.

My own fingers twitch.

‘Es gibt eine grosse automatische Musikbox—’

‘In English. Please.’

His expression is awkward and I feel guilty. But I can’t be a dutiful German wife.

‘They call it Selectaphone. It was in the cargo für London,’ I pretend not to notice the smuggled word, ‘special order, but the buyer never collect, so she goes back to Atlantic City, where she came from. If they take her.’ He hesitates, equally guilty now about his pronouns, and glances away from me. ‘She— It is a little broken now.’

‘You broke into it to get this out?’

‘The sea, last night,’ he says curtly. ‘Every other record is kaputt.’

I caress the wax disc with my thumb as though I might hear the music seep through my skin, then reluctantly I hold the record out to him. I want to be grateful— I am grateful. Lil Hardin heard me screamin’ and she came to me like an angel.

Gregor takes the record and I stretch my fingers in my lap. The ring rolls loosely against my knuckles. My heart is beatin’ fast, ‘cause I ain’t never heard this number before, even though I can tell you every disc Armstrong cut in 1926, and who played with ‘im on it.

‘I have not heard this jazz before, but I am sure I will like it,’ he says uneasily, setting the record carefully on the turntable. He cranks the machine then lifts the needle and sets it down. The Victrola crackles as though it’s taking a breath of dirty air, then it belches forth a few glorious notes from Armstrong’s cornet that bend and strain to hold their pitch. It is dirty, wide and deep and dirty like the River Thames.

Gregor’s eyes widen. There ain’t none of the purity of his beloved Brahms. Johnny Dodds makes that clarinet stretch and sigh ‘til the notes are almost broke. You can’t hardly hear Lil Hardin’s pounding piano beat ‘cept for one beautiful little moment when she floats and falls through a gap left by the others. I can almost see Armstrong lookin’ over his shoulder and smilin’ at her. And then his voice breaks into a mouthful of scattin’ nonsense, as raw and meaningless and brassy as Kid Ory’s trombone.

Gregor shudders.

I get up quickly and go to the Victrola to lift the needle off, spare his agony, but he snatches at my hand and moves between me and the machine. His fingers writhe hard against mine but he’s noddin’ his head in time with the beat, he’s tryin’ to understand. And then Armstrong answers his own falling cornet call with a wail of agony and longin’ that twists my heart and the song ends.

My palms are sweatin’ and Gregor’s fingers slide across ‘em, trying to get a grip on me. He swallows hard, his Adam’s Apple bobbin’ beneath the thin pale skin of his throat, his eyes as black as I’ve ever seen ‘em, so drunk is he on shock and desire. He licks his lips nervously, then he releases one of my hands and without breakin’ my gaze, he sets the disc to play again. Then he slides his hand across the small of my back, his short nervous breaths drownin’ in Armstrong’s blue horn. He draws me closer, his narrow hips pressing against mine, his clean shaven cheek unfamiliar against my forehead, then his mouth lowers, his breath brushin’ my eyelashes, my nose, finally my lips. He is as gentle as Armstrong and his band are not, and I am torn between them. For the craving I feel is for the music not the man, and though I let him kiss me, let his tongue dart between my lips, do not flinch when I feel him grow stiff against me, it is to the darkened clubs of Chicago that Armstrong takes me in my head and my heart.

So when Gregor locks the door and leads me to the sofa, gently unbuttonin’ his shirt and then mine, I close my eyes and though I’ve never done this before, I try to do what’s asked of me without fear or too much hatred for myself.

For I’m going to America. I’m really going to America.

*****

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