In admiration of… Andrea Camilleri

In a new series of blogs, new allonymbooks crime author EJ Knight discusses some favourite crime writers. 

Like Spenser’s Boston and Falco’s Rome, Montalbano’s Sicily is as rich a character as Montalbano himself in Andrea Camilleri’s novels. Indeed, Sicily is not just the setting for the books, its social, historical and geographical complexities are often themes in the crimes Montalbano investigates. Although Montalbano frequently rails against the iniquities of Italian life, bureaucracy, the media, the government and the legal system, the villagey Vigàta is a place where life goes on largely as it always has, its immoral undercurrents affected more by the prevailing winds of local corruption and social secrecy than by globalisation and international crime.

That is not to say that the crimes of Vigàta and Montelusa are not relevant to the non-Sicilian reader. The outside world infuses these towns with terrorism (The Snack Thief) and sex trafficking (The Shape of Water), but it is the communities’ ability to withstand the march of change and commit the most domestic of crimes which make these stories remarkable in many ways as well as thoroughly recognisable to the reader. They have a timeless quality, as though Vigàta is somehow slightly outside time, beyond the real world, that when foreigners arrive they wash up rather unexpectedly. There is something Christie-esque about Camilleri’s focus on the small dramas of family life and how they drive the individual to desperation and revenge. Montalbano resembles Poirot at times in his rituals and his personal quirks, and he has something of Miss Marple’s fusion of moral rectitude and relaxed worldliness: nothing seems to shock him but there is much that offends – neglect, abandonment, the corruption of the young and the innocent.

Although the novels focus on Montalbano, his colleagues make the novels dynamic and stop them being purely the stories of a strong, individual cop-chararacter. Indeed, Montalbano is possibly not quite remarkable enough to carry the books on his own for he is not brutal or selfish or self-destructive enough to ape that vein of the detective genre. He is flawed, but rationally so – he likes his independence, his food, his books and his swimming, but he doesn’t have Morse’s eccentricities, nor does he enforce his solitude to the reckless endangerment of the case. He likes the puzzle but he likes his life, and this balance is essential, perhaps best demonstrated by his inability to give himself up entirely to Livia because the case is always as important. In a sense this is where Camilleri is at his most brilliant, for he has diffused the quirks of one man among the many: Mimi Augello is the lothario, Fazio the detail-obsessive, Catarella the fool, Tomasseo and Pasquano the extremes of law enforcement eccentricity. Camilleri is also an incredibly funny writer: satirical, comedic, farcical, all the shades of humour. And the character of Catarella, while comic, does not have a monopoly for Montalbano is able to laugh at himself and others, perpetuating the novels’ incisive edge.

Not content with near-perfect dramatisations of the books, RAI Italian television has collaborated with Camilleri to expand on a novella to introduce Il giovane Montalbano, the young Montalbano in his first years in Vigàta. In addition to brilliant casting in the regression of the familiar characters to their younger versions, we are discovering the younger Montalbano as he discovers himself, exploring his authority, his approach to understanding people and solving the crime, the way he builds his relationships. It would be delightful to read more stories from this era, for the television adaptations lack the internalising monologues where we hear Montalbano’s voice more distinctly.

Nordic crime fiction has been fashionable for some years, its cutting edge darkness sweeping through other crime writing, but Camilleri’s smaller scale Italian crimes, while no less savage, speak to both a cultural optimism and a microcosm where values are preserved. He is no knight in shining armour, but he is a hero in the defence of a way of life.

Andrea Camilleri’s books are available from all major retailers in paper and e-book form in excellent English translations by Stephen Sartarelli, as well as the original Italian. DVDs have also been released of the television adaptations of the Montalbano and young Montalbano series.

EJ Knight‘s novel Broadway Murder of 1928, the first in the Lucille Landau series, is out now at all Amazon retailers including UK, US and Canada.

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.

Magical Realism and History: an arranged marriage?

This week allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore discusses questions raised by two different reviews of her historical magical realist novel Rising Up.

In conversation with the author EM Havens recently (which will appear on this blog in a couple of weeks), I found myself pondering whether in writing historical magical realism I was making my life – and the lives of my readers – really difficult. In one of my other writerly incarnations I’ve print-published a couple of historical romances and I recently provided some questions for a book club discussion of one of them. The book is a divisive one – readers seem to either love it or hate it (no, I am not Hilary Mantel in disguise) – and I was asked afterwards by the club convenor to provide some additional information about the sources I used for researching the novel. I was reminded then how important it is to historical fiction fans that a novel be authentic. These are readers with a scrupulous eye for detail. They enjoy the immediacy with which the historical world is created for them by the author and many actively dislike ambiguity and uncertainty. They are in many respects the very opposite of those who enjoy magical realist and other ‘fantasy’ genres, who are quite happy – as EM Havens so delightfully puts it – to be in the dark for a few chapters.

I was thinking about these issues again when I read two recent reviews of my novel Rising Up. Set in Warsaw, a young woman trapped in the Jewish ghetto of 1942 finds she can talk to a young man in the contemporary rebuilt city. He is seeking his family’s past, while she is terrified for the future of her family. He holds the key, of course, for he knows what happens to the ghetto, but what does he tell her, and how and why can they co-exist?

As I’ve blogged before, Rising Up emerged from a number of visits I made to Warsaw, and an overwhelming desire to try to capture the lingering effects of the Holocaust and the ghetto in Warsaw. I didn’t set out to write a historically authentic Holocaust novel, though cleary the need to be historically accurate and authentic, not to mention respectful, was particularly important and I researched very carefully and thoroughly. But my aim as a writer was to find a way to make that lingering real somehow, to explore how memory and knowledge combine to influence how we relate to the past, and what might happen if the past became suddenly more present. I wanted to find a way to construct the story that expressed my own direct experience of walking round Warsaw feeling the constant echoes and whispers and reminders of the past. And because I think there are so many ghosts (constructed or otherwise), it made sense to me as a storyteller to make those ghosts real. What turned out to be magical realism gave me a way to use fiction to explore that.

In her review of the book, Zoe Brooks asks the very interesting question of whether it is “right to use magic realism in this way, when the subject matter is so dramatic?” There is always the danger that when fiction embraces very recent, tragic or symbolic history that the events will become trivialised somehow. It can be a very fine line, as I discussed above. So what struck me about Katharina Gerlach‘s review was that in some senses she was saying the opposite, that the “tiny and consistent fantasy element” enabled her to read about a situation she found personally very distressing but in a way she felt was authentic and genuine.

I wondered if I should have been even more aware of that tension when I was writing the book than I already was, but then I realised that, for me, that particular juxtaposition of the magical and the real allows us as writers and readers to negotiate ways of revisiting the real when the real is very troublesome. It does not mitigate or trivialise that reality (in this case the past) by choosing to do more than just recreate it authentically, but it does offer a different way to examine our response to the facts. Rising Up was not an attempt to rewrite those facts in any way, in fact rather the opposite, but it was an attempt to enable a contemporary witness (Tom) to understand them better through the reality of Ela’s existence. Living museums and archive footage attempt something similar. But much of our understanding of dramatic and tragic historical events from before the age of mass media has been created and preserved through story-telling, and I wanted to examine how those stories might be changed or affected when individuals in different generations find themselves connected in a way that linear time ought not allow. When the past becomes the present and futures are shared.

I am Rising Up‘s central character Tom Macindeor – or rather I was when I was walking around Warsaw seeing and listening to the manifestations of the past. I could not help but be affected by what was in front of me, and I allowed Tom to do what I could not do, to listen to the voices of the past so I could understand my present better.

Love letters

This week, allonymbooks novelist Evie Woolmore reflects on a theme which has emerged from the books she reviews.

Although I tend to review indie-published novels with a magical realist and/or spiritual theme, there is another quality that runs through many of the books I read for review: the desire by the author to share knowledge or experience that matters deeply to them. It is not surprising that these qualities surface: after all, how often are we told as writers to ‘write what we know’? But recently I have come away so much more often than before with this feeling, that I thought it worthy of discussion.

I’ve written and published as a ghostwriter for some years, but all along I have been writing my own novels – Equilibrium, Rising Up, and most recently The Salt Factory – because I had something specific I wanted to say. The wide-ranging aspects of spirituality – from ghosts and mediumship to faith, healing, and other ‘psychic phenomena’ – have not been particularly well explored in fiction, at least not in the realm that sits between the believer and the cynic. I wanted to write in that middle ground, exploring how characters deal with spiritual phenomena, how they respond to them, what questions they ask and what questions are raised in the reader. And certainly several of the novels I have read echo my particular intention to some degree: Leigh Podgorski’s Desert Chimera and Tahlia Newland’s Diamond Peak novels do the same thing although in rather different ways, exploring their authors’ own interests in other ways of seeing the world, other ways of living and existing if you like, through their fiction.

But there’s another type of fiction which I mentally sub-categorise as the Love Letter, in which authors share a different kind of passion. This is where authors draw on themes, ideas or facts they feel provide a rich ground on which to build their fictional development. Many times these work very effectively and provide an atmospheric backdrop to a book: Kirsty Fox’s Dogtooth Chronicals (reviewed here) is a novel which succeeds very well in this way. But I find at times it can go beyond the mere use of research and the incorporation of authentic detail. The novel becomes a voice for something, often marginalised, highly academic or controversial, that the author feels is important. These are themes which perhaps might not survive a commissioning editor’s inbox or an agent’s perusal, for they become so much the foundation of these novels that a commercially-minded editor or agent is bound to think that the novel will not appeal to a wide enough audience. These themes appear too specialised and the novel is too specifically built around the idea to have a broader attraction to the generalist reader, who is reading for entertainment.

All of which has led me to wonder to what extent indie publishing has enabled people to write more novels of this type.  Indie publishing is a marvellous and powerful way for every writer to find their voice, to say what is important to them. Indeed, these novels can be analogous to collections of matchboxes or candlesticks, thoroughly beautiful in the eye of the owner, appreciated, valued and understood in all their intricacies, intricacies which the owner/author is only too glad to share with you. But as with any craft – a painting with too much of one colour, a chair with one arm longer than another, a play where the actor keeps breaking the fourth wall – while this particular feature of a novel can be very successful as s device, at times the passion can obstruct the story and the pacing. It takes a fine balancing act to engage the reader enough to take them on a journey into an unknown, afresh area they may not be that familiar with, while keeping them engaged enough in the real reason for the story: the characters and their own journey. The characters’ journey can, in books that are more Love Letter than novel, become secondary to the journey the author wants to take the reader on, and in those instances the book becomes bigger than the novel, as it were.

Is a novel’s purpose to educate? At times, perhaps yes. Is it written in order to open our eyes to something new? In the case of science fiction, magical realism, and fantasy that is certainly true. But it is also written to entertain. And while just as in the collection of matchboxes, there are always sellers as well as buyers, other fans and enthusiasts to share the fascination, no conversation can ever survive on one topic. A novel is a conversation between writer and reader. But at times it can become a love letter, sent out into the unknown, so passionate and devoted in the hope that the reader will respond in kind.

If you are interested in reading any of Evie’s books, please visit her page or download samples from her pages on all Amazon sites.

Facts and fiction: Historical Magical Realism – Evie Woolmore’s blog for the Magic Realism Blog Hop

As part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop, running 22-24 July, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore discusses her use of historical settings for her magical realist novels.

Almost a year ago, I responded to Robert Harris‘s lack of enthusiasm for magical realism. He said, “I enjoy recreating the concrete details of a society or a city or a country or a structure and then playing around with it. I’ve no taste at all for fantasy, or for magic realism. That’s garlic to a vampire as far as I’m concerned.”  I observed that Mr Harris seems to position his works as directly opposite to magical realism, “as if facts are somehow literally fatal to the genre or vice versa.” And yet, as I went on to say, “if one is to consider Mr Harris’s Fatherland or Pompeii, has he not merely done as I and other magical realist authors do: to take a position in our familiar world, and simply consider a new perspective on what we know? He calls it “playing around”. I call it a “what if?””

I recently published my third magical realist novel, The Salt Factory, and like its companions Equilibrium and Rising Up, it embraces a historical setting, this time England and Colorado in the early 1890s. And as my thoughts turned to what I am going to write next, I wondered whether there is something implicit in the historical setting that makes it an effective home for magical realism.

Zoe Brooks, host of this fabulous Magic Realism Blog Hop, defines magical realism on her website as “a literary genre that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” Like most historical novelists, I strive for accuracy in my books, and spend hours researching the period, the geography, the vocabulary and so on to enable me to create as authentic a setting as possible, a setting that is, as Zoe describes, “realistic”. Yet why do I go to so much trouble to create an authentic historical setting when I’m going to be challenging the reader to think of that same world in a different way, because of the magical realist themes I introduce? Will you care that Thelonia Jones is wearing the correct Victorian knickerbockers when I’m going to introduce her (and you) to a little girl who can bring dead things back to life?

The Salt Factory by Evie Woolmore

I wonder if there is a veil of otherness and separation that falls over a novel when its setting is removed from us in time as well as in possibility, a veil that actually helps us believe more in the book’s magical qualities? In other words, if I set this story in a land far, far away in distance and time, isn’t it much more possible that the things I’m going to tell you happened actually did happen? Isn’t that far more likely than if I tell you this happened yesterday in a house around the corner from where you live, which might make you start thinking of reasons why it can’t possibly have occurred? It’s a wonderful paradox, typical of what makes fiction so fascinating, that while I strive to make you believe in the authenticity of the Victorian England I am painting in my novel, I am doing so just so you will feel more comfortable when I show you something very extraordinary in that world.

My motivation for writing has never been to find out how far I can stretch the boundaries of your imagination. I am not a creator of marvellous ‘worlds through secret doors’ like Tahlia Newland’s Diamond Peak or John Dutton’s Temple of Truth. The 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.

So perhaps I also like using a historical setting because it’s a way of lessening the shock. If I make you comfortable in a world by making it feel authentic, then you will be less disturbed when I reveal some of the hidden truths about that world. There is something very safe about historical fiction. We are escaping from this time and this world to one which seems less complicated, and through which the author leads us like an experienced tour guide. And so perhaps we are less troubled when unusual things happen there, for we can learn the lessons of that world, understand its characters, appreciate its themes, admire its vision, because it is a foundation for our world, and yet still safely separate from it.

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To find out more about Evie Woolmore and her magical realist novels, please visit her page. You can read an extract from The Salt Factory here.

allonymbooks has also published a contemporary satire with a magical realist twist by Cadell Blackstock. Cadell has now blogged about ‘Magical Realism for Men’ as part of the blog hop. To find out more about Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’, visit his page.

To enter the fabulous giveaway of magical realist books, including Evie’s novel Equilibrium, and a Franz Kafka bookmark, follow this link!

For Evie’s reviews of some other magical realist books, check out those listed on indie book reviews.

To read other blogs from allonymbooks on magical realism, try this tag.

To read other blogs on the Magic Realism Blog Hop, please visit the other participating writers:

Zoe Brooks (and Zoe’s second post and this one) – Kirsty Fox – Karen Wyld (and this one)

Leigh Podgorski – Tad Crawford – Lynne Cantwell – Murielle Cyr (and this one )- Joel Seath

Edie Ramer – Laura at Curated Bookshelves – Christine Locke – Susan Bishop Crispell

Jordan Rosenfeld – Eilis Phillips – Cadell Blackstock – and Evie Woolmore’s third blog for the blog hop

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