Category Archives: Interviews

Valerie Anand

By Faith L. Justice

Popular historical fiction and mystery writer Valerie Anand brings past times and conundrums to life with fascinating characters, abundant detail and meticulous research. She’s the author of the six-book series Bridges Over Time covering the evolution of one family from before the Conquest to modern times, as well as many others. More recently she’s been known under her pen name Fiona Buckley for her historical mystery series set in the early years of Elizabeth I’s reign. Ms. Anand talked to us about her writing, love of history, feminist leanings, and research methods from her South London home.

Faith L. Justice: Do you have a literary family history ?

Valerie Anand: My father was a good teller of stories to small children and so was his aunt, my great aunt Clara. They both made up tales to amuse me. On the same side of the family, I had a cousin (now dead) who although a scientist, was also keen on books and wrote a couple of science fiction paperback novels.

For me, writing is a natural function, like breathing. No one can do without breathing and I can’t do without writing. I don’t know why. It satisfies a very deep need. At the age of six, just after I had really learned to write, I suddenly announced that I was going to write books when I grew up and I actually started trying, then and there, on a piece of doubled over paper with a red crayon. The best moments come when I am trying to transmit something subtle or very deeply emotional and difficult to express, and feel, after much writing and re-writing that yes, that’s it, I’ve got it right at last, that’s it.

F.L.J.: What drew you to historical fiction?

V.A.: You may be surprised to learn that America—well, Hollywood—had a lot to do with my decision to write historicals. I didn’t like history at school, mainly because it wasn’t well taught. At school, they gave the impression that everyone in history was not only dead but mummified and covered in cobwebs as well. But at the age of fifteen, I went with another girl to see MGM’s film of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe –starring Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Taylor. And suddenly, there were all these medieval people who weren’t in the least mummified or cobwebby. They wore colorful clothes; they fought and feasted, fell in love, kidnapped each other, besieged castles…I walked into that cinema knowing that one day I wanted to write novels and walked out of it knowing exactly what kind of novel I wanted to write. Historical novels set in the middle ages. From then on, I couldn’t read enough medieval history. I didn’t tell my teachers, though. They would have wanted me to pass exams and spoiled all the fun.

F.L.J.: Did you read historicals after Ivanhoe or go straight to the “real” history?

V.A.: I read Ivanhoe then spent nearly every minute of my spare time sitting on the floor of the history section reading my way along the history shelves—the medieval bit. I took some of the books out and kept the whole thing a dead secret from my history teacher. I sank right to the bottom of the class. I didn’t want the teacher to know. It was too exciting and too private. In my talks I always say, “If there are any teachers among you, I’m going to preach sedition. It’s a mistake to hitch all learning to the examination wagon. There are such things as private voyages of the mind.” This was one of them.

F.L.J.: Why did you cross over to historical mysteries?

V.A.: It took a long time to get into print, but I just kept trying—for about 20 years, come to think of it—until I finally succeeded. Historicals, however, have a checkered track record. They keep going out of fashion. Sometimes they slip back in for a while but it doesn’t last.

Historical mysteries, though, seem to have got a grip, especially since Ellis Peters launched that marvelous Cadfael series. I noticed that one of my books,Crown of Roses, which is about the mystery of the princes in the Tower, did better than any other, and concluded that the mystery element might be part of the reason (the other part is that the mystery itself is so famous).

Well, I love reading whodunits anyway, so I decided to try this new field. I’m enjoying it.

F.L.J.: How do you research your books?

V.A.: I regularly do a talk on writing and research and the research bit takes about twenty minutes! To put it briefly: I have, of course, been reading history for interest and pleasure for years and years and have a reasonably sound general background on the parts which interest me most. When planning a specific book, I read works on the period and take notes, and then chase up such details as the layout of particular towns, styles of furniture, fashions of the time, laws in force, technologies which existed then, etc. by reading books on those subjects. I often visit a museum such as the British Museum, to look at artifacts; I sometimes visit places that I want to feature so as to get them right. And I use maps a lot!

My current Ursula Blanchard book is set on the Welsh-English border, partly in a haunted castle. While researching this, I at one point had my sitting room floor completely carpeted with Landranger maps while I tried to work out whether one could or could not ride a horse from one point to another in a single day. Having concluded that it wasn’t possible, I decided to move my haunted castle 17 miles westward. Come to think of it, one of the satisfying things about being an author is the sheer power one has over one’s characters and settings!

I also sometimes interview people and have been known to write to historians to ask specific questions. What usually happens, in the middle of reading up on the period, chasing the facts I need and spreading the maps all over the place, then the urge to get started becomes too strong. Then I get about half-way through and I say “oh, I’ve got to find out about that” and I find out about it and it changes the plot, so I have to go back and all but start again. I just can’t seem to keep this from happening. It doesn’t seem to matter in the end. It just seems the urge to write overtakes the information available.

I always try to be accurate, because there is always someone out there who will write in and point out your mistakes.

F.L.J.: Why did you adopt a nom de plume for the historical mysteries?

V.A.: I didn’t actually want to change my name but Orion, the British publisher who launched the Ursula Blanchard series, wanted me to have a new identity for my new venture, and they insisted. I certainly don’t wish to keep my real name secret! I may write things under the name of Valerie Anand in the future, just as I did in the past, and would hate to lose out on readers who know me as Fiona Buckley and don’t realize that Valerie Anand is the same person! Or vice versa.

F.L.J.: Have you been able to make a living as a fiction writer?

V.A.: A lot of people said you’ll never earn a living as a writer, but I’m laughing last. It was hard in the beginning. I worked a 4-day week at the office and wrote the whole day on the 5th. It was physically very demanding. In 1989 I became redundant just as I received the contract to write the six-book seriesBridges Over Time. I said, “Right, take the golden handshake, buy a word processor, convert the garage, and trust to luck.” I’m very pleased to say I’ve earned a living off my writing for quite a long time.

F.L.J.: Who are your favorite authors?

V.A.: My favorite book of all time is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I belong to the Tolkien Society. Among my other favorite modern authors are Susan Howatch, Dick Francis, Robert Goddard, Terry Pratchett, Arthur C. Clarke, Joanna Trollope, and, of course, Lindsey Davis.

Of classical authors, my favorites are Jane Austen and the Brontes, and in between, as it were, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, John Wyndham. All these have produced books which can be re-read and re-read.

F.L.J.: Have they influenced your own writing?

V.A.: I suppose they have in some ways. I think one does one learn—without without knowing you’re learning—a lot from reading well-written books. You learn how to construct passages, how to create an atmosphere. You don’t know your doing it. You couldn’t describe how its done, but have absorbed a good deal. With Tolkien—which which I’m rereading at the moment—I had to go through my current manuscript and remove all the references to clear water and merry meetings. He’s got such a vocabulary that is finds its way into your own work if you’re not careful. It catches like measles. And another fantastic writer, that’s almost forgotten nowadays, is T.H. White. The language in The Sword in the Stone is catching too.

F.L.J.: How would you characterize the Ursula Blanchard series?

V.A.:. It’s essentially a mixture of mystery and Elizabethan espionage and it is more concerned with detection and mystery-solving than with violent adventure. This is one of the reasons why the main character is a young woman. I decided on that partly because most (though not all) lead characters in this type of novel are male and I wanted to be different. But I also felt that merely because Ursula is a woman, she can’t get out of difficult situations just by knocking her opponents down or felling them with broadswords. She has to use brain instead of brawn, and this is my favorite kind of thriller. I have a weakness for Agatha Christie and this is partly because Hercule Poirot depends on his little gray cells and not on violence, while Miss Marple is even less capable of violence than Poirot and most certainly has to work by thinking. You may be getting the feeling that I don’t like violence. That’s true. I don’t. Of course I accept that to fight in self-defense is legitimate (you can’t have people like Hitler just trampling all over everyone in sight and do nothing about it). But it is intelligence, not muscle, that makes human beings different from the animals.

In Ursula, I have tried to create an intelligent, normally feminine woman who is involved in espionage. She is often handicapped by being female, especially since she lives in the days of Elizabeth I, not Elizabeth II. She has to find ways round that. Her manservant Roger Brockley is there to do the bits which have to involve muscle. I have also tried to keep the tone entertaining. I want people to enjoy my books, to be amused as well as interested. I wish the books to be fun as well as accurate and—I hope—properly properly plotted and tense.

F.L.J.: Why did you choose the Elizabethan era?

V.A.: As far as I could see, most other historical whodunit series were medieval or ancient Egyptian. Elizabeth’s era hadn’t been much used. But it was a splendid era for espionage—there was so much going on and the people involved seemed to get such an extraordinary kick out of it. It was an interesting time, too, in other ways. It was the outcome of the Renaissance. New ideas were burgeoning; art, poetry, drama and music were developing fast throughout the whole Tudor era. It produced Shakespeare and Hans Holbein. Seamen were opening up new trade routes to Russia and beginning to explore America; technology and science were developing. And there was a woman on the throne, which somehow seemed to make Ursula and her unusual calling more believable. The possibilities seemed immense.

F.L.J.: How do Ursula and your other women characters reflect your views on women’s roles in history?

V.A.: Throughout history women have been largely undervalued, but their contribution was undoubtedly there. They don’t get recorded, when they must have had enormous influence behind the scenes. We’re half the human race after all. There must have been an awful lot of women who’s names haven’t echoed down the ages the same way as if they had been men. I think that in creating Ursula, and some of my other heroines, I have been trying to demonstrate what that contribution could be and also how women made it. So often, they had to dissemble so that although they were wielding influence, they weren’t seen to be wielding it.

F.L.J.: You seem to have a strong feminist streak. I believe you call it “feminism of the mind.”

V.A.: That sensibility began in the 1950’s when I was young. 1960’s feminism seemed to be about women being free to go around and have one-night stands and all the rest of it. I never wanted to do that. But I did want was to think for myself and not be confronted with this dreadful business of you must do what men tell you because they are men. Women must not surrender their intellectual integrity. We have exactly the same right to live our lives by the light of our intelligence, to be free to learn all we can, to study if we want to, to develop an intellectual life and not to be told we shouldn’t do this by anybody.

I find that marriage clause “to obey” appalling. A woman should be free to use her intelligence to get out of an abusive relationship or earn a living if necessary. It’s important to develop intellectual resources. If you have intellectual interests and mental resources you’re not so stricken when the beauty goes and you get older. It won’t matter so much then, you’ll have something else to do.

F.L.J.: How has that applied in your own life?

V.A.: Mother believed the life of the mind was only for men and wanted me to be very domesticated. But as a young woman, fired by my father’s accounts of going up in planes during the war, I learned to fly light aircraft. I didn’t go on with it after I’d got my private pilot’s license. It was too expensive! I just wanted to have done it and I did enjoy it. I did my training at Biggin Hill, the famous fighter station.

I took my time getting married. In the fifties, over here, marriage was very repressive. One really was expected to knuckle under and ‘obey’. I had no intention of doing anything of the kind. Also, my background, though very loving was in some ways very narrow. I wanted wider horizons and wasn’t sure how to get them. Then, at the age of 31, after my father had died, I went dancing with some other girls, met Dalip Singh Anand, from northern India and that seemed to be it. The spark leapt the gap of race and culture instantly, and I have never regretted it. We married on 26th March 1970. It widened my horizons most satisfactorily. I now have a whole family in Delhi and Chandigarh and they have made me most welcome.

We have never had children but it hasn’t worried us.

F.L.J.: Has that widened horizon influenced your writing?

V.A.: I’ve written a couple of books about India. One was a little romance _To a Native Shore_. The heroine married an Indian, moved there, and was quite homesick. She had to come back to England for some reason and hesitated about returning to her husband, but it takes time and various things happen. In the end she realizes that although she will never break the links with home, she does want to go back to him. The other one, _West of Sunset_, was a much darker book because it took place in Delhi after the awful riots in 1984 after Mrs. Ghandi was assassinated. It’s about the fortunes of Indian immigrants in England. That incident changed lives and attitudes here.

F.L.J.: A reviewer has described your characters as amusingly modern. Do you agree?

V.A.: Yes, up to a point. I do it because that way, they will be easier for modern readers to identify with. I have read several historical novels in which the author has tried hard to make the characters be completely people of their time, and it never really works. The characters are alienated from the reader.

There’s also the point that when they were alive, people in history thought that they were modern, and after all, basic human nature doesn’t change much. Language changes, fashionable ideas change, the state of knowledge changes, but needs and emotions stay much the same. Take a look round the world now. Round the globe there are many different cultures. The difference between them is quite as great as the difference between the cultures of the 21st century and, say, the 18th. Greater in some cases! But good old human nature is there under the surface layer, just the same. I’ve even lived through quite drastic changes in culture. The world of the 1950s, in which I grew up, was very very different from the world of 2001. Yet quite a lot of the people who occupied those worlds are the same people! The words “amusingly modern” imply an anachronism, but that may be more apparent than real. Sometimes I think that the authors who try to make their characters too true to their era, lose their essential humanity.

F.L.J.: You seem very involved in causes. Is this an “antidote” to the isolation of writing?

V.A.: When I became redundant from my job, I took a deep breath and decided I would become a full-time writer. I found it lonely and restricted in some ways. My principal spare time interest is the Exmoor Society. I was taken on holiday to Exmoor (on the south side of the Bristol Channel) as a child, loved the place and went on loving it. I used to go down there to ride, for there is no better way to explore the moorland and the valleys round it. Eventually I joined the society which is dedicated to its preservation and to encourage people to study it and care about it. There is a London Area Branch, and I am on the committee of this.

I also belong to Altrusa, a US based association mainly of professional women, who raise money to further the health and education of women in developing countries. There are numerous Altrusa groups in England and there is one near where I live. One of our projects is to provide classes in literacy and tailoring for village women in one part of India; another is to back up health and education projects in Ethiopia where girls are often married so young that they are injured by having children too early. The damage can be put right, but there is as yet only about one clinic in the country!

F.L.J.: Any advice for writers trying to sell their first novel?

V.A.: It’s never easy. One obvious thing is to polish the novel as thoroughly as possible, then rest it for a while and think of something else (or start another novel!) and then go back, coming to the work from a more objective distance, and polish it again. Then try your best to get an agent.

I managed it because I had written to an historian (Professor Frank Barlow of Exeter University) about a detail of Anglo-Saxon England and he not only answered me, but put me in touch with Hope Muntz, an expert on the era and the author of a best-selling novel called The Golden Warrior. Hope Muntz gave me much useful information and she also, very kindly, read the manuscript of my first book Gildenford set in pre-Conquest times, and then recommended me to Scribners!

Later on, I acquired my agents, here and in the US, because I already had books in print. Starting out is not easy. Sheer determined obstinacy is a useful trait in a writer.

F.L.J.: Any new projects coming up?

V.A.: A further Ursula is in preparation. I also have ideas for other types of book and will give some thought to that when I have finish the current draft. I would like to tackle a modern mystery series, p erhaps set in the west of England, which I know very well. But all this is still just in my mind.

Faith L. Justice’s pre-writing life included work as a lifeguard, paralegal, college professor, and business consultant. She lives with her husband, daughter, and cat in New York City.  Faith’s nonfiction has been published in In These Times,, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer, among others. Visit her website.

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Brian Wainwright

By Wendy J. Dunn

Wendy J. Dunn:  I read you are, like me, a “notorious Anne Boleyn fan.” Well – I know why I am one of her devotees, but how about you? What attracted you to Queen Anne?

Brian Wainwright:   I think the interest in Anne Boleyn probably started with the famous Keith Michell series back in the 70s. I was still at school and (hard though it is to believe now) it was the subject of a great deal of discussion between classes. The girls tended to like Jane Seymour best of the wives and (typically of me) I liked to be awkward. I suppose all six stories were interesting in their own way, but Anne was simply the one I found most interesting of the lot. Maybe it was partly that she was the first woman of rank to be executed in England since Lord knows when – I suppose it’s a question of whether Maude de Braose counts as being “executed”. Moreover, it seemed to me then, and it does still to this day, that she was executed on no evidence whatever, just because Henry wanted shut of her, and that, I thought, was a shocking injustice. Whatever Anne’s faults (and I should be the last to suppose her a saint) she did not deserve to be murdered. I also liked and admired her spirit and courage – she was an amazing woman in that sense, she was willing to stand up to anyone for what she wanted. She might have been wiser to hold her tongue a bit more, in terms of survival, but then that wouldn’t have been Anne, would it?

(As for Jane Seymour, I used to say that considering she was such a perfect creature it was odd that she was willing to marry a man just a matter of days after he had publicly murdered his previous wife!)

One of my first dates, I took a girl to see Anne of the Thousand Days, which was a new film then, and although it was a different “take” on things, it still intrigued me and made me want to read the factual books about the reign. So I did. You know, if fiction does nothing else it must persuade at least some people to look into serious history.

Henry VIII is my least favourite Henry – I even prefer his father, which from a Ricardian is saying a lot. H8 seems to me to combine all Edward IV’s worst faults with many of Henry 7’s. Edward IV was sometimes a bully – and actually I had a scene in my abortive GYH which made me realise how much of one he was – but at least no one could ever have called him a coward. I remember that bit when Anne was really, really ill, with some sort of fever and Henry didn’t have the courage to visit her because he was afraid of catching it. Some love!

I don’t think I will ever “do” anything about Anne Boleyn, because I am “uncomfortable” in the era – I really should have hated to live in the Tudor period, and especially during the reign of H8. Learning more about the reign I realised that the injustice done to Anne was part of a pattern – it was one long tyranny of injustice, starting with Dudley and Empson and ending with Surrey.

W.J.D.:   Oh yes. You and I are in total agreement about Henry VIII and – of course – Anne Boleyn. I see her death (and that of the five ‘AB party’ men also losing their lives in May, 1536) as plain and simple murder. Eric Ives says Cromwell set the wheels in motion because he feared for own his survival and places very little weight upon her last abortive pregnancy. But it is clear that Henry needed very little convincing to get rid of her. It’s a very tragic story…

I’ve read in a great interview with Wendy Zollo  how much you hated school. You know, I detested school too. That and an unhappy childhood turned me into an escapee – either by reading books or making up imaginary worlds. Also was the reason I became a teacher – thought if I went it to it knowing reasons why it made some children very unhappy, I might make some difference. I hope I did.

You mention The Woolpack by Cynthia Harnett as one book you remember as a child. Are there any other authors from your early years you found inspiring?

B.W.: I can’t recall all the authors but I was a very “wide” reader, in fact I would read anything if it was the only book available. Arthur Ransome’s books about children having adventures in the Lake District are one lot I remember. The “William” books of Richmal Crompton (who came from Bury!). The “Bunter” books of Frank Richards. Things like “Black Arrow” and “Treasure Island” by Stevenson. “Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell. “Ivanhoe” by Scott. These are a few. I was blessed to be possessed of a reading age far ahead of chronology – while still at primary school I read (for example) George Dow’s massive three-volume history of the Great Central Railway, and Dow was a lover of many big and unusual words. In those days you figured them out or looked them up. There was none of this “accessible” nonsense. I read a lot of adult railway books because that was my absolute passion. “Tales of the Glasgow and South Western Railway” by D L Smith was another, a wonderful set of anecdotes that most people would enjoy if they could get hold of it – it’s a rare book.

I don’t think I got into medieval “adult” fiction till I was about 13, and I have an idea the first one I read was Anya Seton’s Katherine. At about the same time I discovered that you could also read adult factual books on the middle ages. The rest is history…

W.J.D.: Your answer here does lead to another question. When did Constance, your wonderful princess and main character of “Within the Fetterlock” begin to tug at your interest?

B.W.: I was very interested in this era, and one day I was reading a book “The Political History of England” I think, and it mentioned Constance’s escape from Windsor with the boys. It was a very brief reference, but up to that time I had not even known that Edmund of Langley had a daughter. She is often left out of family trees – just check out any books on the wars of the roses!  This escape was such an amazing event that I had to know more and I spent literally years, on and off, trying to discover as much as I could about Constance. There is no one text book about her, and to an extent I had to delve into things like the Calender of Patent Rolls, Complete Peerage and one or two of the various Chronicles. Some information printed on her is quite wrong, it claims she was Edmund Holland’s mistress before she was Thomas Despenser’s wife, which is manifestly absurd in terms of chronology; indeed she was almost certainly married to Thomas before Edmund was even born. “Married” in name, you understand. What emerged from this scratching around was a quite amazing life story and I am a bit surprised that no modern novelist has written about her before me, though she does appear as a bit character in some novels. (Actually there is a Victorian Novel about her, White Rose of Langley by Emily S Holt, but you are very unlikely to be able to get hold of a copy.) The thing is, the more I found out, the more I seemed to be “hooked”.

To be honest I am not quite sure exactly when I started writing about her but it was a long time ago; there were several versions before Fetterlock and very little of the original remains. I don’t want to give you the idea that I did nothing else – I had various other hobbies as well as a full time job, and sometimes literally years went by before I did anything more on Constance. One problem was that I could not keep up with either my own style developments or the new research findings I discovered, so I would typically “complete” it and then start again! I also wrote Alianore Audley, in remarkably quick time by my standards, during a rest break! The research findings continued almost to the end. For example Nigel Saul’s superb book on Richard II was published and demonstrated that Richard had visited the Despensers at Hanley Castle in 1398, something I would not have dared invent:-)

In a way, my approach was “how not to be a professional novelist”! No professional could or would have spent so much time on it, or hared off down so many side alleys, as I did. I shall certainly never do the like again; I haven’t the time in this incarnation. In that sense it is literally the work of a lifetime. It was also a great practical learning experience, though, and in a way I am very glad that the earlier versions did not see the light of day, as I should not have been happy with them. Sometimes I would get five or six pages into a chapter and then realise “that’s not what happened”. It may sound odd, but at times it was as if Constance was helping me to write it! Certainly she became very real to me, and in an odd way I “know” her. Some parts of the book were very harrowing to write – readers will probably be able to guess which ones. Perhaps in a way it was that that made me go on – I felt I could not fail her.

W.J.D.:   You know – my character also became real to me (still is! He’s already preparing to take voice in my trilogy about Katherine of Aragon. But I’m still working on the first draft of book one. Tom’s got a bit of waiting to do for his minor role…)

I also came out of Dear Heart not wanting to fail Tom in finding a publisher. He so wanted his story told, gaining this opportunity to defend Anne Boleyn. I’ve pondered on this lot. Sometimes, it seems to me that writers really tap into something. Whether it because we just tap so well into our imaginary worlds or there is something beyond our understanding happening here. BUT I had so many things fall into place – I felt guided…do you think it’s possible we were? Did any intriguing things happen to you at just right time and place for your Constance novel? You know – what I love so much about writing and the reason I just can’t give it up, is that it is all a magical, spiritual adventure…

B.W.:  This is a really difficult one. As my grandfather used to say, I am sure there’s something there but I have no idea what it is. An additional complication is that writers almost by definition have imagination and imagination takes one to very strange places. Finally, I don’t really feel happy with a character anyway until that character takes on a sort of independent life. It’s hard to describe but it’s the difference between a “cardboard” character and one who lives for the reader. I’m sure you understand what I’m getting at.

Having said all that, Constance was a remarkably vivid character, and she certainly seemed a very real person to me. Now I have stopped writing about her, I really miss her, it’s like an old, dear friend has emigrated or something. I can say that she (and also Edmund Mortimer) insisted on doing some things in that book that I definitely did not plan out even in my mind – they just seemed to happen as I wrote it. Does that make any kind of sense? Probably not! I would love to know how far the real Constance co-coincided with “my” Constance. To a point I think they did, but there is no way of knowing for sure, not this side of death anyway. Do you know Maria from the lists? Maria who knows so much about Spain produced an historic description of Katherine of Lancaster, Constance’s double cousin, and the physical description of Katherine was remarkably close to my imagination of Constance.

One thing that was odd was that in an early draft I had Edmund Kent left behind in Ireland by Richard II, but then found (from what few references there were) some indications that this was not so. Imagine my surprise and delight when I found a letter from Kent to his uncle, which made it clear that I was right first time! He and his sister in law had been left behind, and were arrested landing in England in early 1400, not (as some historians mistakenly believed) trying to flee!

I think I told you about my visit to Elsing and my subsequent discovery (thanks to Rania) of the marriage between Margaret Hastings of Elsing and John Russell. On my travels I would quite frequently see a signpost and think – ooh, that was one of Constance’s manors! (Sometimes I would divert to see it, but rarely to any great profit except satisfying curiosity.)

I certainly don’t rule out the possibility we are guided in some way. I always think that most people who are interested in history have a particular affinity with certain periods. Why is that?  I must admit I am more “at home” in Constance’s era than in the Yorkist period, and although I am interested in the latter I am ultimately not as life-and-death passionate about it. It’s very odd. Why do we take sides? What made me write about one particular person out of all the interesting characters who thronged Richard II’s court? Don’t know. Just did. She’s not even particularly famous – in fact she’s rather obscure – but I just had to tell the story, and I had to get it right, however long it took. She and her family were so real to me; it was almost like a vision. How do you explain all this? I really don’t know – it just “is.” ________________________________________________________________

Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian writer obsessed by Tudor History. She now has a new passion: Medieval Castile. The author of the award-winning novel Dear Heart, How Like You This?, Wendy is currently working on a trilogy based on the life of Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII.

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Anne Easter Smith

By Wendy J. Dunn

Wendy J. Dunn: Do you agree, Anne, that Richard III is an overworked subject in historical fiction?

Anne Easter Smith: Judging from the e-mails I have had from people all over the country, sadly Richard is only just getting on their radar screens because of my book. This is not to say there haven’t been plenty of Ricardian novels over the years — some good and some not so — but I think having a major publisher like Simon & Schuster behind mine has given it wider visibility, that’s all. But compared with Tudor fiction in the last few years, Richard can’t hold a candle!! As a member of the RIII Society, I know at least four people writing and more than that who have published Ricardian novels, but I don’t know how big of an audience they have rated. So far my book has sold 23K – which S&S tells me is very good for a first-time novelist in five months. Just wish I could sell it in Oz and NZ — and then perhaps the UK will take note! It will be out in Germany next month (“Ach, du liebe!”) and has just come out in an audio book, which is terribly exciting. I have the same actress who read Bridget Jones’ Diary and sequel. She’s awfully good.

W.J.D.: You say you admire Richard III – can you please tell me why?

A.E.S.: My main reason for admiring Richard is his loyalty: first to his brother, holding the North strong for him without any power moves to challenge Edward for the throne, unlike brother George; to his wife in their marriage, although we know he had two bastards, they were old enough to have been born before that event and there were certainly none later; and to those two children, whom he took into his household and treated like royalty. That is why I chose to give him one mistress–I think he was someone who was fiercely loyal to those he loved. And that is why I do not think he murdered the princes in the Tower— they were his nephews and sons of his beloved brother. Richard was also a just ruler of his subjects–despite the short reign, he improved the judicial system for commoners and other than the odd execution of Hastings, was fair-minded when dealing with people. Even though he knew Elizabeth Woodville had plotted to keep Richard from being Protector of young Edward, he persuaded her to leave sanctuary and come and live at court. Surely she would have refused had she thought he had killed her sons.

W.J.D.: Do you have any firm theories about likely fate of Edward IV’s two sons??

A.E.S.: I think I pretty much laid out my whole theory in Rose for the Crown!

W.J.D.: My next question is related to your current project, expected to be
published next year. I gather this is about Margaret, the sister of Edward
IV and the wife of Charles the Bold? I am a curious soul, and wondered if
you might have found yourself inspired by Ann Wroe’s The Perfect Prince. I
must admit her book got me thinking about Margaret…

A.E.S.: When I gave my editor the proposal for a book about Margaret of York, I
was under the gun to come up with it as I had a two-book deal with Simon
& Schuster and they wanted to seal the deal in 24 hours. As I had written
Rose for the Crown as a labor of love over many years and really hadn’t
expected it to be published, I was floored by the prospect of writing another book. My agent mentioned that I had come away from the research on the first book with an interest in Margaret, so I figured I could probably use all the knowledge I already had on the period to construct a plausible story around her. What I was not reckoning on was becoming so engrossed in this new character that I ended up liking her even more than my Kate Haute! What an intelligent, intriguing woman she was. And yes, indeed, Ann Wroe’s Perkin orThe Perfect Prince was a useful resource. Ann and I had tea in London when I went to England and Belgium to do research on Margaret, and we struck up a nice friendship that has lasted on email. She has been invaluable in helping me write this second book. In fact, Perkin’s story may be part of the next book I am beginning to think about. Daughter of York is supposed to be on on the shelves by next April.

W.J.D.: Can you tell of the day when you realised that S&S was about to take you for the ride of a life time?? How much has it changed your life?

A.E.S.: I had just recently returned from a RIII Society annual conference in Toronto (the first joint Am/Canadian one) and people knew my agent was shopping the book. It had been doing the rounds since August with the first five editors targeted by Kirsten. It was now with the second five and I figured I didn’t have a prayer, although Kirsten told me that many times it takes a dozen or so before you might get a hit. I was alone in the kitchen making myself a cup of tea  when the phone rang. It was Kirsten. “Am I talking to the soon-to-be published author Anne Easter Smith?” I almost fell off the counter, where I was sitting swinging my legs waiting for the kettle to boil. She then proceeded to tell me about this fabulous — for a first-time novelist — deal that Touchstone Fireside (a division of S&S) was offering me. I had no idea whether it was fabulous or not, because I had not a clue how these things worked. I had to take Kirsten’s word for it. “Now part of the deal,” she continued, ” is that she wants a second book from you.” This time I had to sit down on a chair and put my head in my hands. “Another book?” I groaned, “but I’ve never thought about writing another book, and this one has taken me seven years!” Kirsten waited a beat before adding, “and I need a proposal in 24 hours.” Blimey, I thought! Well, I quickly decided that Margaret of York had intrigued me enough during the research of “Rose” that I could probably write a good story around her, and S&S accepted.

It only took me a month of understanding the timeline for the second book (a year after I finished the edits on the first) to make me quit my lovely job as administrative director of a music school so I could write. I immediately made plans to go to Europe on a research mission for three weeks in January 2005 and I really haven’t stopped since. I have to confess I was not prepared for the fantastic response I have had for Rose in the form of sales, complimentary emails and requests to talk at libraries and book clubs. It all seemed as though it was happening to someone else. I certainly have not gained celebrity status 😉 but I still get a thrill when I see someone carrying my book. My husband drags me into bookstores wherever we are traveling and asks the manager if they’d like me to autograph whatever copies they have. I wouldn’t dare to present myself to the manager for fear of being told “Who are you? And how do we know you are who you say you are?” My British “never blow your own trumpet” rise up at these moments! Luckily, I’m married to an American who has no such inhibitions!

The only negative aspect to all of this is that I do not have a regular income anymore. Authoring certainly doesn’t make you rich even if it makes you famous – unless you are a Stephen King or perhaps Philippa Gregory! I have to sell 100,000 of both books before I see any more income after the initial advance. That could take many years, although Rose has hit the 25,000 mark after six months, so hopefully when Daughter of York comes out I can eat more than baked beans again!!

W.J.D.: You’ve covered so much that I think two more questions would be more than enough for this interview. What authors inspired you as a child, teenager, now? Any advice for aspiring writers??

A.E.S.: I began to read historical novels as a pre-teen with books like “The Woods of Windri” by British author Violet Needham. Then I moved on to reading all of Jean Plaidy’s royal series and Georgette Heyer. At age 18, and traveling up and down in the train from home to my job in London every day, I set out to write my own Georgette Heyer once I realized I had read every single one of hers. It still is in my trunk upstairs in the attic today — all six wishy-washy first chapters that got abandoned once I got a flat in London and the social life took over! But the single most important influence in writing The Rose for the Crown (my first finished book) was Anya Seton. I have readKatherineThe Winthrop Woman and Green Darkness several times. For research prowess, I have to hand it to Edward Rutherfurd for Sarum andLondon. He is a goldmine of information about every period. My advice for aspiring writers is, don’t give up. I set out to write Rose without one single writing class to my name in my whole life. I had no clue how to structure a book or how to flesh out a character. I just had fun with it and tried to write a book I would enjoy reading. If anyone else wanted to read it, then that was gravy! I did not set out to write a book that would be published. I just set out to write a book.


Wendy J. Dunn is the author of Dear Heart, How Like You This? It was awarded the ABPA 2003 Glyph for Best Adult Fiction and First Runner Up for Commercial fiction in the 2004 Writer’s Notes Book Awards.

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Dr. Gillian Polack

By Wendy J. Dunn

Dr. Gillian Polack has an academic and public service background. She completed her doctoral thesis in French and English Medieval history at the University of Sydney in 1987. She has also studied at the Centre for Medieval Studies in Toronto, Canada, as well as in London and Paris.

Gillian’s main foci are writing and teaching. The writing covers a wide range, from academic to popular, non-fiction to fiction. She has had over twenty short pieces published (including a story for which she won an Australia Day Award), and has completed several major works, including one play and a cookbook.Illuminations is her first novel.

Wendy J. Dunn: I’m interested in hearing about your journey from medieval historian to fantasy author. What comes first for you – writing imaginatively or being a historiographer?

Gillian Polack: That is surprisingly difficult to assess. I have wanted to write fiction since I was eight, but my family heavily dissuaded me, so I wrote for myself until I was nineteen.  By that time I was already studying history and historiography as an undergraduate.

Thinking about it, my interest in history is about as old as my interest in writing fiction, which is why I studied it at university (to more family protests!).  My love of history was more a vocation than a potential career – it still is.  I was the daughter who dragged the whole family into rural museums while we were on holiday and exclaimed over old shoes and pre-electric irons.  I had to investigate roadside markers and the plaques on trees.  I asked older members of the family about their lives and was told a thousand family stories.

How entangled are these two parts of myself?  Inextricably.  I used my Arthurian self as a backdrop to “Illuminations” and am planning books using a fantasy Middle Ages.  I use my historian’s sense of Australia and family in writing my current novel and the last one (still in search of a home)  – it all comes out in my fiction.

W.J.D.: Has writing your novels changed you in ways unexpected?

G.P.: Absolutely. The big thing it has given me is a sense that I am allowed to be myself. The more people tangle my fictional characters with me, and the more fictional characters of mine get seen that way, the more license I seem to have to be the somewhat quirky person I am, and to keep following my dreams.

It was more important for me to do things for other people than to be there for myself, but now I find myself saying, “If I get too sick, I can’t write all the books I have inside me.”  I am a lot more self-centred than I used to be and vastly more self-confident.

W.J.D.: You know, eight seems to be important age when so many of us begin to know the road we want to walk in our lives, What writers influenced you in your early years? And when did the Arthurian legends/genre first draw you in?

G.P.: Oddly that is two questions for me.  Let me answer the second one first. I know that most Arthurianish people are addicted to things Arthurian from their formative years, but I wasn’t.

I loved T.H White and Rosemary Sutcliffe and Mary Stewart from when I was young, but at the same time I hated Mallory (and still don’t adore him, to the consternation of my students).

Arthuriana became central to my reading during my doctorate, partly because I was able to read the glorious Old French prose tales, and partly because everyone kept bugging me to tell them about these tales. What kept me Arthurian after that was that people wanted to know more and more, so I had to read more and more.  And so I discovered what great fun are modern tellings of Arthur, and now I enjoy them as themselves.

My natural bent when I was young was for pure science fiction and for non-Arthurian fantasy.  When I was eight I loved Sylvia Engdahl and Andre Norton and ‘Doc’ Smith and the early Heinlein.   I read them alongside Elizabeth Beresford and the Abbey books and Edith Nesbit and Anya Seton.

My tastes extended just as far as the libraries I had access to would allow. As fast as four books at a time permitted, I worked my way through every library I had access to and read non-fiction as avidly as fiction.

My parents had the wonderful principle that I was allowed to read anything. This was a very powerful teaching decision on their part:  it helped me grow through my reading. In my early teens I discovered for myself that Dostoyevsky was awesome, that Chekhov was subtle, that Nabokov was ick, and that Dickens was often boring.

For me, the big truth about my early reading was not what influenced me, but the fact that I was given this authority from very young to be critical and to think through what I was reading. Every book I read counted, whether written by a big name or by someone who has already been forgotten by everyone else.

I still keep a lot of my favorites from different points in time, so I can walk through my home library and point to my developmental stages.  I can see the moment I stopped collecting Enid Blyton because I suddenly realised just how much she played on ‘us’ and ‘them’ and how totally ineffectual most adults were in her society.  Or when I started reading Tolkien’s other books, because his societies became more interesting to me than the adventures of a single hobbit.

If any author interested me in history early, it was Hilda Lewis.  After reading her fantasy about a time-travelling ship, I started reading historical fiction as well as science fiction and fantasy.  Rosemary Sutcliffe became as close to me as Andre Norton.

W.J.D.: Another question if you’d care to answer. Tell us about your new novel and the works you have on the boil…

G.P.: Always happy to talk about these things, but I will try not to say too much.
Firstly, The Art of Effective Dreaming .  When people ask, I tell them, “It is about Australian public servants and dead Morris dancers.”  Actually, it is about that moment when you are just about to sleep and all your dreams spring to life in your mind.  And it is about how we use our dreams to create our lives. It just happens to have public servants and dead Morris dancers in it as well. I can’t tell you exactly when it will be out, but keep an eye on Trivium Publishing’s website because that is where the announcement will appear.

The rest of my books are a bit complex. I am revising one and writing another and planning three more, all at once.

The one I am revising is Secret Jewish Women’s Business :  family secrets,anti-Semitism, magic, sisters, and echoes of domestic violence.   It is set mostly in Sydney, but with bits of Canberra and Ballarat.

My work-in-progress is Life through Cellophane which I like to call a domestic drama with slivers of horror.  There are mid-life crises and boyfriends and an evil boss and impossible families and a very, very strange mirror.  There are also ants.  Lots of ants.

The ones I am planning to write after Life through Cellophane take me back to fantasy Middle Ages.  This time it is the twelfth/thirteen century (Not Arthurian Britain).  I want to write three linked books (not a trilogy!). Right now I am still developing background and having a whale of a time.  I am enjoying it so much that I have put hints of what is to come in Life through Cellophane – the Middle Ages sneaks in everywhere.

W.J.D.: Can I toss in one last question? I really want to ask you about your fascination with food in fiction…?

G.P.: My historian side has done some work on culinary history and has taught everything from Ancient Roman to modern Jewish cuisines.

Like everything else in my life, the love of food and food history refuses to stay neatly packaged into its own little space, and crept into my fiction. My historiography and Arthurian studies led to Illuminations and to my particular take on the Arthurian tales. My folk interest gave folksongs and Morris dancers to The Art of Effective Dreaming and my food history has given me a full background of recipes for Secret Jewish Women’s Business . When/if the latter gets published, I promise to web a few recipes.

When I think about it, I suspect it is the fact that I study cultures and the fabric of people’s lives and their writing. This means there are many natural links between my studies and my fiction writing, even though I try to tell people that I keep the historian and writer quite separate. The type of historian I am produces material of vast interest to the type of fiction writer I am, I guess.


Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian writer obsessed by Tudor History. She now has a new passion: Medieval Castile. The author of the award-winning novelDear Heart, How Like You This?, Wendy is currently working on a trilogy based on the life of Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII.

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C. W. Gortner

By Wendy J. Dunn 

Christopher ( C.W.) Gortner holds an MA in History and a MFA in Writing, with an emphasis on Renaissance History. A life-long historian, he has taught seminars on the 16th century at various institutions, including the New College of California. He resides in San Francisco, California. To learn more about him, visit Leonibus – Discover the Renaissance.

Wendy J. Dunn: The Secret Lion, your first published novel, is set during the reign of Edward VI and I know this novel is only the first of a series placed in Tudor times. Can you tell us how and when you first became interested in this period and why you write historical fiction?

C.W. Gortner: I first became interested in the Tudor period during my childhood in Spain. The southern coast of Spain, where I was raised, is steeped in history: I grew up a stone’s throw away from the ruins of the Catholic Monarchs’ summer palace. I was also exposed to British history through my love of reading, which is how I developed my initial fascination with the Tudor, and the 16th century in general. I went on to earn a Masters in History, with an emphasis on the Renaissance. While in college, I began writing historical fiction out of an insatiable curiosity to delve beyond the facts. For me, historical fiction helps re-create the past in a sensory way.

W.J.D.: Can you tell us about your novel?

C.W.G.: The Secret Lion is a novel of suspense, the first in a projected series called The Spymaster Chronicles. The lead character, Brendan Prescott, comes to Edward VI’s court in the summer of 1553, as a squire to Robert Dudley. A foundling reared in the Dudley household, Brendan has no idea who his parents were. Upon his arrival in London, he witnesses the unexpected entry of the Princess Elizabeth as she steals into the City determined to uncover the truth about her brother the King, whom she has been denied leave to visit. Rumors of Edward’s fatal illness run rampant; and when Lord Robert sends Brendan to the Princess with an illicit message, it plunges him and Elizabeth into danger. As Brendan races to save the Princess from a vengeful opponent intent on her destruction, he begins to unravel the secret of his own mysterious birth.

W.J.D.: Who is your favorite Tudor person and why?

C.W.G.: So many of the Tudors enthrall me. I want to say Elizabeth, because she is so ingrained in my consciousness. But, in my heart, my favorite Tudor person has to be her mother, Anne Boleyn. Anne captured my imagination from the moment I learned of her. My own research into her life has only exalted my admiration for her. I see much of her in her daughter. So, in essence, they are both my favorite persons, twin facets of a like-minded soul.

W.J.D.: If you were given a day to return to Tudor England, what day would you choose and why?

C.W.G.: The day of Elizabeth I’s coronation. After the horrors of Mary I’s reign, to have watched that slim red-haired survivor walk into Westminster and feel the energy and love that surely swelled through London – surely, that was a day no one who was there could ever forget.

W.J.D.: What is more important to you: historical accuracy or writing a good story?

C.W.G.: Both. Historical accuracy is crucial to depicting an era: good story is what keeps readers reading. Certainly, for historical fiction such as Lion , where fictional characters interact with historical ones, and a fictional plotline interweaves with actual events, story can take precedence. But never at the expense of completely dismissing known facts. If a writer must alter things to accommodate the story, it should be done carefully, within “reasonable doubt.” For Lion , I did take liberties, but I also took great care to depict the era as authentically as possible.

On the other hand, in my novel on Juana the Mad of Castile (to be published in 2005) there is no fictional plot. It is based on an actual life, and so I stick to facts while offering an interpretation of Juana. This is where historical fiction can be so amazing. The hearts of these historical persons are, for the most part, unknown to us. We interpret them within known facts, yes, but they also often become mirrors of our own selves.

W.J.D.: What elements do you consider important to your story telling?

C.W.G.: Passion: if you believe it, your reader will believe it. The axiom of so many writing books and programs are: Write what you know. I’d take it one step further and say: Write what you feel. After passion, an excellent grasp of the craft. Novel writing is an art. It must be mastered.

W.J.D.: What authors did you like to read as a child and teenager? Now?

C.W.G.: I’ve mentioned Jean Plaidy. I also read Zoe Oldenbourg, Lawrence Schoonover, Dumas, Tolstoy, Dickens, and Sabatini. Today, I enjoy Sharon Penman, Pauline Gedge, Reay Tannahill, and I’m discovering new authors like yourself. In nonfiction, Antonia Fraser remains, in my opinion, unsurpassed. I am also a devoted fan of Mary M. Luke, who wrote nonfiction books on the Tudor era in the late sixties and early seventies.

W.J.D.: Popular and literary fiction – what do you consider makes a novel, one instead of the other?

C.W.G.: I tend to not categorize; but if I had to, for me literary fiction is a classic, which has withstood the test of time. Popular is just that: books intended for a wide audience. I believe both can be called a “novel”. Again, a novel is just a label. I use it generically, to denote a work of fiction.

W.J.D.: When do you hope to see your next novel published?

C.W.G.: In the early spring of 2005. It’s called Queen of Shadows , about Juana of Castile. ______________________________________________________________

Wendy J. Dunn is the author of Dear Heart, How Like You This? Her book was awarded the ABPA 2003 Glyph for Best Adult Fiction and First Runner Up for Commercial fiction in the 2004 Writer’s Notes Book Awards. You can visit her online at .

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Ellen Ekström

By Wendy J. Dunn

Ellen Ekström resides in Berkeley, California with her husband, children, and parakeets, and where she is a deacon in the Episcopal Church. She is a medieval history enthusiast who prides herself on the care she takes with research and detail for her fiction.

Wendy J. Dunn: Ellen, big congrats on the release of your Medieval novelThe Legacy and good luck with its nomination for the 2005 Independent Publisher Book Awards! Tell us – when did you begin your journey to write this novel about Francesco Romena, the no ordinary knight?

Ellen Ekström: My journey with Francesco began as far back as 1972 – I was reading Giovanni Villiani’s history of Florence and came across an entry about the knight Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti.  Buondelmonte insulted a knight of the powerful Amidei family at a banquet at which swords were drawn and as a result, the offended family pressured Buondelmonte to pay for the insult by way of marriage to one of their daughters.  Legend has it that a woman from the Donati family saw Buondelmonte one day and convinced him to put aside his contract with the Amidei and marry her daughter, a more beautiful and wealthy girl.  Buondelmonte agreed and when he should have been marrying the Amidei girl in the cathedral, he was across town at another church marrying the Donati girl.  The offended family was even more incensed and conspired to kill Buondelmonte, which they did, on Easter Day in 1215-1216, when Buondelmonte was, all dressed in white, riding over the Ponte Vecchio.

Now, I could have written a story about Buondelmonte, but there was so little to go on, so I used the basic premise of the event and turned it into The Legacy.

W.J.D.: Fascinating, Ellen! Have you visited Italy to research this book? Did you base the characterisation of Francesco on any real historical personage?

E.E.: Yes, I did go to Italy – to Tuscany and the Veneto.  I originally wanted to have the story in Verona, but I decided on Florence once I actually got to Italy and lived there.

I’d always wanted to visit Italy – my mother was part Italian – and I figured, if you’re going to write about the place, walk in the streets, smell the smells, feel the stones.

As for Francesco, I really can’t say who he’s based upon!  I think he’s a composite of all the men in my life, past and present, but I hear a lot of, “I luuuuv Francesco!” from men and women alike.  I wanted Francesco to be a flawed individual; someone the reader could root for, and share his agony and triumphs.  I think I succeeded.  I think it interesting, however, that at, my novel is compared to Hamlet and at Barnes& there’s an entry that says “People who bought this book also bought” The Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ by Emmerich.  Francesco is indeed a tortured soul, but I wouldn’t compare him to Jesus of Nazareth!  Let’s just say, Francesco Romena is the man I’ve always dreamed of — I couldn’t have him, so I made him up!

W.J.D.: I understand why you decided on Florence. The colours of the Tuscan hills had me searching out an Art supply shop on my second day there in ’93. It’s one of those places that just opens the door to creativity – on all levels.

E.E.: And- yes – that’s the fun part of being a writer – making our imagined people tangible to the reader! Can’t wait to meet Francesco!

W.J.D.: You not only work as a writer, but also as a legal secretary AND a deacon of a church. If this isn’t enough, you’re a mother too. How do you manage to juggle all the balls life has given you?

E.E.: Hmm… how do I manage?  I get asked that a lot.  I’m really no different than a lot of working mothers.  I’ve learned how to manage my time.

Well, I didn’t choose to be ordained clergy, i.e., deacon, in the Episcopal Church (Anglican Communion) – it’s something you’re born with, a charisma, if you will.  I dodged it for a while, but the call turned into a scream.  Ever since I was a child I always felt at home in a church, I felt that it was the only place I belonged.  Being clergy has been the latest incarnation of that who is Ellen.  I’ve been writing ever since I could hold a crayon.  I always wanted children.  I guess I should answer the question, shouldn’t I?

I learned how to write first thing in the morning, before everyone is up, and after everyone goes to bed.  When the children were little, I wrote while they played on the carpet beside me.  I’m not a marathon writer, so this worked for me — it also helped while in seminary in doing homework, and now, when I come up on the rota and have to preach.  Dialogue happens to be the most effortless part of writing for me — I give the characters dialogue I’d want to hear – and make it fit the time period I’m working in. When the screenplay version of this story won secnd place in the Writers’ Digest Writing Competition for Screenplays in 1991, one of the judges said I had a strong command of dialogue and a clear, colorfully vivid vision of 14th century Florence. I hope my readers think so – I write as if I were in a movie theater and watching the story unfold before me. All that’s lacking is the diet Pepsi and tub of popcorn.

I’m a legal secretary to pay for this maniacal lifestyle.  Kids gotta eat, you know!  I also manage to get some writing done during lunch hour at least one day a work week.  I also work for a firm that doesn’t require overtime or weekend work.

There are days when I can’t and won’t do it all, and there are days when I have incredible energy.  A sense of humor helps, too.  And diet Pepsi.

W.J.D.: Big laugh! I think better swap my sugared coffee for diet pepsi! I also always wanted to be a writer and a mother – and you’re very right, women generally learn to manage time well…

Hey – love to ask you as an author and ordained clergy, what did you think ofThe Da Vinci Code ? The book finally came my way via my daughter, who borrowed it from a friend. I’ve been pondering over the book’s great success ever since I finished it, and can only conclude that Dan Brown picked the right controversy to tap into. What do you think?

E.E.: I liked The Da Vinci Code – I couldn’t put it down the weekend I read it.  It was my weekend off from church and I finished it in two days.  I thought it was entertaining, the premise a bit too much, but it was fun.  I do wish they could have picked Bill Pullman to play Langdon in the movie rather than Tom Hanks.

W.J.D.: The Da Vinci Code certainly struck a chord – a dissonant one.  I find it very interesting that people think it’s historical fact, not historical speculation.  There are times when I want to shout, “People!  It’s a work of fiction!”

E.E.: The idea that Jesus was married is an old legend dating back centuries – in first century Palestine rabbis were customarily married.  That Jesus did not marry would be bucking tradition, but then, Jesus was the perfect incarnation of God on earth for a reason and some rules didn’t apply to him.  And if he did marry, we’ll never know.

Mary Magdalene may have been a rich widow who subsidized the Jesus movement and was a friend and follower of Jesus.  The idea that she was a harlot came from a sermon of St. Gregory’s and it stuck like glue.  She’s always been a favorite saint of mine, with George and Joan.

And, Mary Magdalene is called “The First Among Apostles”, because the resurrected Jesus appeared to her first.  That would denote a special relationship, as the Gnostic gospels point out, such as the Gospel of Phillip.  I am a traditionalist, however, and think they were not married, but, as with all the Apostles, friends and beloved by Christ, chosen by Him to do God’s work on earth and continue the Jesus Movement.

The good thing about The Da Vinci Code – people are going to church, picking up scripture and reading for themselves about this man named Jesus.

W.J.D.: Yes – one of the best things about fiction is that it can take people on their own journey to discovery…

And two final questions directed towards Tudor England…what do you think about Henry the Eighth and the reasons he set the wheels in the motion for the birth of the Anglican Church? Do you think the Anglican Church recognises the importance of Anne Boleyn in its history?

E.E.: I don’t think much of Henry VIII, to tell you the truth.  The Reformist movement was well underway by the time Henry sought to break with Rome over the issue of his divorce from Katherine of Aragon.  Theologians such as Luther and Huss were stirring up challenges to Rome, and the movement to reform the church wasn’t just a 16th century event, it was as early as the 14th century in England, with John Wyclif.  His followers were called Lollards and were suppressed by Henry VI and Henry V in the 15th century.  The Reformation was going to happen. Zwingli, Calvin and Knox were leading reformers and taking the Reformist movement in different directions than Luther and the English reformers led by Cramner, Ridley and Latimer.

The Anglican Church really didn’t get established until 1549 and the publication of the Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cramner and Edward VI.  The church was still very catholic in liturgy while Henry VIII was alive.  He did not like the Reformers even after the split with Rome.

Personally, I think Anne Boleyn would have been more Lutheran than Anglican in her theology.  I’d have to see her theological writings, if any, to make an educated guess as to whether she should gain some credit for the establishment of the Anglican Church.   She certainly is a controversial and interesting woman, both shrewd politician and victim.

W.J.D.: Yes – I agree with you about Henry VIII. I tend to try to defend people. Sometimes I wonder about his two serious jousting accidents and whether these accidents impacted upon him in ways to make him a tyrant King – but then you see the pattern for tragedy began even from the first days of his reign. Time just released the blood hungry lion from its cage.

Thank you, Ellen, for giving me this opportunity to talk to you! I really enjoyed your answers to my questions and know my readers at Tudor England will too!

E.E.: Thank you for allowing me the opportunity, Wendy.


Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian writer obsessed by Tudor History. She now has a new passion: Medieval Castile. The author of the award-winning novelDear Heart, How Like You This?, Wendy is currently working on a trilogy based on the life of Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII.

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Barbara Mertz

By Ernest Dempsey

New York Times bestselling author Barbara Mertz is a world famous Egyptologist. She is the author of several novels and a few nonfiction publications. Her latest book Temples,Tombs, and Hieroglyphs (HarperCollins, New York, 2007) gives a popular history of ancient Egypt with a scholarly commentary on the evolution of its cultural and sociopolitical climate.

Ernest Dempsey: Barbara, would you please tell us a little about your academic and writing background in brief?

Barbara Mertz: I received my doctorate in Egyptology from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago when I was twenty three. I have written articles for encyclopedias and journals and written two non-fiction books on the subject. My principal writing career has focused on mystery novels, particularly (under the name of Elizabeth Peters) a series featuring Amelia Peabody, a Victorian lady archaeologist, and her family, in which I use my background in Egyptology. I have also written suspense novels as Barbara Michaels.

E.D.: When we speak of history as ancient as you describe in Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, what exactly is our interest in knowing about times as old as that?

B.M.: No history, however remote, should be without interest in these days. History is about people and how they behave.

E.D.: What is so unique about Egypt that its study has become a whole wide field of knowledge in itself?

B.M.: Every culture is unique. However, Egypt has a special appeal because so much has survived from ancient times–the great pyramids, the golden treasures of Tutankhamon and other kings and queens, mummies, tombs, temples.

E.D.: Given that you are also a fiction writer, where do you draw the dividing line between fiction and history when writing of ancient events as those included in Temples, Tombs,and Hieroglyphs?

B.M.: The dividing line between fact and fiction is pretty clear, isn’t it? I stick to the facts even when writing fiction, but since there are differences of opinion about some areas of ancient history, I select the opinion that suits my plot.

E.D.: There has been a rooted tendency to credit a single place, particularly Egypt, as the origin of human civilization. Do you consider this way of thinking as fair or justified?

B.M.: I think it’s wrong, period. Civilization, no matter how you define it, arose in different parts of the world at different times.

E.D.: Your book discards certain myths about Egyptian civilization, like that of the supernatural construction of the Giza pyramid. But, as I have heard about it, some documentaries and popular history books do suggest, no matter how subtly, the impossibility of their human origin. How do you intellectually respond to such presentations?

B.M.: I cannot respond intellectually to the far out theories of supernatural or extraterrestrial influences on Egypt because the theories are themselves irrational. I say so, in my book and everywhere else. There is no evidence whatsoever for such ideas.

E.D.: Drawing on your study of the Egyptian heritage, do you find any skeptic minds, living in those times, who challenged the conventional and the orthodox?

B.M.: There are always, thank heaven, skeptics who challenge orthodox ideas. They are the great thinkers of all times. Egypt has several such individuals–the best known, perhaps, is the pharaoh Akhenaten, who abandoned the old polytheistic religion in favor of the worship of one god.

E.D.: How do you correlate myths in ancient Egypt and those encircling us today? Is there any causal connection?

B.M.: I am at somewhat of a loss to understand what you mean by current myths. Some people consider various religious ideas mythological; others would use the same word to refer to UFOs and psychic phenomena. The only causal connection between these and ancient Egyptian beliefs is the need of human beings to believe in something beyond the material, in survival after death, and in such abstract concepts as justice and mercy. They are, in my opinion, basic human qualities.

E.D.: What do you enjoy better: writing history or writing fiction?

B.M.: I like both, depending on the mood I happen to be in. Fiction is a lot easier to write, though.

E.D.: What is going to be your next book?

B.M.: The next book is a mystery (under the Elizabeth Peters pseudonym) featuring my heroine Vicky Bliss, who has appeared in several earlier novels. It is set in modern Egypt; the title is The Laughter of Dead Kings.

Read a review of Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs at ______________________________________________________________

Ernest Dempsey is the author of four published books. He is a freelance writer, editor, and citizen journalist. He currently edits the print quarterly Recovering the Self ( issued from Michigan, USA.

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Susan Vreeland

By Meredith Allard

Susan Vreeland is the author of the much-loved, best-selling historical novels Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of ArtemesiaThe Forest Lover, about the rebel Canadian painter Emily Carr, is available in paperback and Life Studies, a story collection about Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters and sculptors, has been published.

Meredith Allard: What inspired you to write Girl in Hyacinth Blue? Why do you think Vermeer’s paintings have been the catalyst for several novels?

Susan Vreeland: In 1996, a few weeks after attending Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, I was diagnosed with lymphoma. Wanting to fill my eyes and thoughts with beauty as I began chemotherapy, I pored over art books and absorbed the placidness of Monet’s garden, the sparkling color of the Impressionists, the strength and solidity of Michelangelo’s figures showing the titanic power of humans at one with God, and the serene Dutch women in Johannes Vermeer’s interiors. These women took on added significance because I had a Dutch name. It was comforting, in case I had to leave this world, to find, through them, my heritage and place of origin, and perhaps something of the strength of Dutch character. I began to recognize that art can emerge from extremity. In my case, long, uninterrupted days free from teaching high school became a gift which resulted in Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

Paintings with people feed my imagination. Who sat as model for the artist? I always wonder. What was their relationship? Did any urge for physical intimacy pass between them or was their coming together at this moment in time merely a business transaction? Was there a deeper aesthetic collaboration? Was the painter sick with dread over how he would feed his family? What did his children want from him that day? Was his wife happy? Was he? Was he contented with his work?

Poring over the National Gallery catalog of the 1995-96 Vermeer exhibition while I was undergoing my treatment, I found a healing tranquility. His paintings of women in their homes, as I was, caught in a reflective moment, bathed in that lovely honey-colored light which also touched with significance the carefully chosen items in the scene, reminded me of Wordsworth’s line: “With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony and by the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.”

Vermeer’s work exhibits a reverence for home, for quiet moments. In an age when we live at too frenetic a pace, his paintings invite us to be still a moment, to reflect, to value the life surrounding us. That, together with the paucity of information about him, a circumstance ripe for the imagination of fiction writers, I believe to be the reasons he has inspired novels recently.

Vermeer painted only thirty-five canvases. There could have been another, I reasoned, which survived the ravages of time. Survival was foremost in my thinking. I constructed in my mind another painting incorporating elements he frequently used, and added objects of my own imagination—a glass of milk left by a sickly child, a sewing basket, a young girl’s new black shoes with square gold buckles. I had a painting—and with news reports of so much art stolen from Holocaust victims by members of the Third Reich, I had an idea for a story.

Not having fully realized the painting in that first story, I wrote another, this time from the point of view of the painted girl dressed in a blue smock, in my mind, Vermeer’s daughter who longed to paint. That would set the second story in the 1660s. Then I began to fill in the time gap with other stories illuminating the effect of this painting on individual lives.

The imagined painting certainly had a remarkable effect on my life. The more I imagined my way into the characters’ lives associated with the painting, the less I thought about my own dire circumstances. The creative endeavor inspired by his work, I am certain, has been a vital element in my survival and healing.

M.A.: In your novel The Passion of Artemesia, you are once again inspired by an artist, this time Artemesia Gentileschi, the first prominent woman painter. What can people learn from Artemisia’s story?

S.V.: We have in Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) a model of womanly strength in a time not friendly to women who desire to achieve. Despite a rape at seventeen by a friend and colleague of her father, Agostino Tassi whom he had hired to teach her perspective, despite her torture in the ensuing rape trial, despite the resulting scandal that accompanied the unresolved case, Artemisia produced paintings of startling invention tinged with a feminist sensibility evident in her strong heroines caught in moments of danger or tension, thinking and acting against the grain. Artemisia was the first woman to paint large scale history paintings executed from life, the first woman to be admitted into the Academia dell’ Arte del Disegno in Florence, and the first woman to make her independent living entirely by her brush, any one of which would be enough to hold her up as a formidible heroine. Anyone who has appreciated the art of Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keefe and Emily Carr, ought to stand in reverence before their predecessor and inspirational source, Artemisia Gentileschi.

M.A.: What is the greatest challenge when writing hsitorical fiction about art and artists?

S.V.: No different than other historical fiction about a human subject that one loves: One mustn’t let love and awe for the individual render one blind to faults, failures, shortcomings. We are apt to stand in awe at the great art of the world, and rightly so, but the creators thereof are not gods and goddesses.

M.A.: What is your research process for writing historical fiction?

S.V.: For me, the process of writing historical fiction goes something like this: Study broadly—discover an interest in a time or a person—decide on a focus—select and eliminate—invent where needed—track down needed information—perfect the voices. It involves first discovering the history, then selecting within it the story I wish to tell—in my most recent case, the inner Artemisia, her developing state of mind, her transcendence over misfortune and resentment, the possibilities of forgiveness and love in a ruptured life. Once the narrative has focus and a thematic aim, I have to eliminate individuals and events that my research reveals but that does not contribute to my chosen themes. Mine is not the business of a biographer sweeping from birth to death. In a contrary fashion, since archival and published history often doesn’t record the relationships that are significant, I have to invent characters and scenes, trivial and momentous, to allow the subject to reveal intimate thoughts and feelings through interaction.

Once I have the basic story, I must work for scenic truth and time period accuracy. For Girl in Hyacinth Blue, for example, I consulted seventy six books, and probably as many paintings for visual references (food, clothing, furniture, townscapes, landscapes, architecture). When dealing with locales as well known as those in Rome and Florence in The Passion of Artemisia, I had to ascertain whether certain streets, architectural features, sculptures and paintings were in the same place in the year in which the action takes place as they are today. For example, only a chance reference alerted me that the Scalinata up to Santa Trinità dei Monti, later dubbed the Spanish Steps, wasn’t built at the time Artemisia climbed the Pincian Hill. Sometimes nothing can be depended upon other than being there, a privilege I did not have while writingGirl.

In truth, all of the research, both the major character biography as well as the tiniest scenic detail, is enjoyable to me because I feel it directing me and giving the work depth and authority.

M.A.: What is your advice for writers of historical fiction?

S.V.: Love every step of the way, every moment of discovery. Love your characters, your time period, your scenes. If you don’t love a scene, then find out what’s wrong with it. Love the story enough to ferret out details, though don’t include them, no matter how delicious, if they don’t contribute to your narrative arc. Love the revision process whereby your story develops texture, multiple dimensions and deeper thematic reach. Love the work enough to leave no stone unturned in its pursuit and refinement. And read, of course. Read widely and voraciously. Read fiction written at the time period you wish to write about. And read your work to discerning critiquers who have the best interest of the work at heart, as you do too.

M.A.: What projects are you currently working on? Will you continue to use art as an inspiration for your writing?

S.V.: My next three books will continue my exploration of the human stories behind the brush.

Cedar Spirit, a novel, explores the power of place to provide personal identity and fulfillment. Canadian artist Emily Carr seeks to encounter and understand the British Columbian wilderness, and struggles to find a way to express her profound and complex feelings for it. In defying public scorn and hypocrisy by painting native villages and totem poles, she is caught in a dilemma of appropriating the very culture she reverences. Loving those in the margins of society, like herself, she develops deep connections with native friends, particularly the relentlessly tragic Salish basketmaker, Sophie Frank, under whose influence she shapes her individual religion to embrace a native spirituality. Quirky and rebellious and independent, with a compelling urge to find Soul in a personal trinity of art and nature and God, Emily Carr ripens into a true original.

Life Studies is a story collection of imaginary encounters between painters and people in their lives whose own situations and moral choices are wrought out in their interaction with the painters: Monet as seen by his aging gardener at Giverny, troubled by the question of what one leaves after one dies; Cezanne from the point of view of a little boy who throws stones at him and his easel, then must rebuild his garden wall in penance; Van Gogh as an influence in the life of the postman’s son in Arles just before he joins the French Foreign Legion. Eduard Manet’s longsuffering wife tolerates his numerous affairs with models, nurses him in illness, but cannot give over her obsession with discovering which of his models gave him syphilis. Berthe Morisot hires a wet nurse to feed and care for her baby, a symbiotic relationship in which each depends on the other in order to work, until tragedy and the nurse’s discovery of Morisot’s secret tilts the social order.

And now Van Gogh’s haunting painting, “The Potato Eaters,” is speaking its stories to me.


Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Steven P. Unger

By Meredith Allard

Steven P. Unger is the author of In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide.

Meredith Allard: It seems like you’re a big fan of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. What was your first experience with that novel? Are you a fan of paranormal fiction in general, or were you just captivated by that particular book?

Steven Unger: Growing up, I voraciously read science fiction books and horror comics, and especially loved watching the old Hammer Films about Count Dracula on TV. They were produced between 1958 and 1974 and almost always starred Christopher Lee in the title role. Although they plummeted in quality from superb to abysmal over the years, I saw them whenever I could.

Around 1980 I found a large-format paperback published in 1975 titled The Annotated Dracula, with surreal artwork by Sätty, copious notes, maps, and even a calendar of events. I read every word. I loved Bram Stoker’s imagery and his skillful foreshadowing of dire events; at the same time the annotations helped me to understand how his imagery boiled up from the collective unconscious of the Victorian mind and the sexual repression of the 1890s when Dracula was conceived.

M.A.: What inspired you to write In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide? When did you first come up with the idea? Why did you decide to write it?

S.U.: My obsession to travel to every site related to either the fictional Count Dracula or his real historical counterpart, Prince Vlad Dracula the Impaler, grew out of a visit to Whitby, England, where part of the novel Dracula takes place. I stood on the cemetery hill where, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray spent hour after hour sitting on their “favourite seat” (a bench placed over a suicide’s grave near the edge of the cliff), gazing out toward the “headland called Kettleness” and the open North Sea beyond—while Count Dracula slept just beneath them.

In my mind’s eye, I could see the un-dead count rising at night from the flattened slab of the suicide’s gravestone to greedily drink the blood of the living.

The graveyard where Count Dracula spent his days sleeping in the sepulcher of a suicide looks the part that it plays, with its weathered limestone tombstones blackened by centuries of the ever-present North Sea winds. That graveyard made the novel more visible, more visceral, to me, and I wondered if the sites in Transylvania and in the remote mountains of southern Romania would evoke the same feelings. As I was to discover—they did.

Old Parish Church Cemetery—Whitby, England

At that moment I decided to visit and photograph every site in England and Romania that is closely related to either Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula or Vlad the Impaler—to literally walk in their footsteps and to write a book about my experiences.

But my journey would have to be postponed. The country of Romania was in the grip of the ruthless regime of Nicolae Ceau?escu, and travel there was impossible. I waited for years and continued my research; when Romania was opened to Western tourists and I could finally fly there, I planned my return trip to Whitby to coincide with its April Gothic Weekend (see My pictures of Whitby’s Dracula-related sites would be enhanced, I was sure, by the costumed revelers thronging the town. I wasn’t disappointed.

M.A.: What was your process for writing the book? And how did you combine your research with your travel experiences?

S.U.: The initial research took many months. The primary scenes in Draculatake place in Whitby, where much of the book was written; London; and, of course, the Borgo Pass in Transylvania, the site of Count Dracula’s castle. I knew I would travel to those places.

Researching the life of Count Dracula’s historical counterpart, Prince Vlad Dracula the Impaler, took considerably more time. I read all I could find on him, tracking down obscure references and unpublished theses online. I needed to separate myth from reality (he was not a vampire, but he certainly was bloodthirsty, with a penchant for impaling his victims regardless of gender or age), and to eliminate from my itinerary those places in Romania that were geared toward tourists on the Dracula Trail but had no connection to the real Vlad the Impaler.

I decided to go to his birthplace, Sighi?oara; his center of power, T?rgovi?te; his hidden fortress, Poenari, and his purported tomb, on Snagov Island. I also tried to research how to journey to those places using public transportation, and got nowhere. There are no tourist offices in Romania as there are in Western Europe, and I wound up waiting until I arrived at one site to find out how to travel to the next, whether by bus, by train, or by the Romanian equivalent of stuffing a telephone booth, the Maxitaxi. That was all part of the experience, certainly, but not one that I would wish upon my readers.

Therefore, for the independent traveler who would leave his armchair for the Great Unknown, In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide contains a Practical Guide to the Dracula Trail, with a complete sample Itinerary featuring recommendations for lodging and detailed instructions on traveling to each British or Romanian Dracula-related town or site.

M.A.: Most authors (even Bram Stoker himself) are content reading about and looking over pictures when they are writing about other countries and cultures. Why did you decide to travel the Dracula Trail for yourself?

S.U.: I love traveling, I love writing, and most of all, I love travel writing. I’ve had photo articles published on Etruria, bicycling from Madrid to London, and tree soaring in Colorado, among others, and this seemed like a perfect—and as yet untapped—subject for what would become a mix of travel guide, memoir, and historical revelation.

M.A.: As you did your research, what did you find most interesting about Dracula, either the fictional count or the real-life man he was based on? What was something you learned that most people don’t know about the vampire count?

S.U.: In my research and travels I discovered two fascinating coincidences linking the historical and the literary Draculas. First, Bram Stoker chose to name his villain “Dracula,” based on the translation of the Romanian word “dracul” into “devil,” never knowing that the historical Voivode (Prince) Dracula he had read about was also Vlad the Impaler, with a horrific biography of his own.

In fact, Bram Stoker’s Transylvania bore little resemblance to any Romania that ever existed. For example, Stoker wrote of “hay-ricks [haystacks] in the trees” based on illustrations of Transylvanian haystacks built around stakes, with the ends of the stakes poking out like branches. Thus, generations ofDracula readers assumed that Transylvanians put their haystacks up in trees.

Haystacks on Transylvania’s Borgo Pass

The second coincidence is the uncanny resemblance of the real Castle of Dracula—Vlad ?epe?’ fortress at Poenari, which Stoker had no knowledge of—to Count Dracula’s fictional castle in Transylvania. Perched on a remote peak near a glacial moraine in the F?gar?? Mountains of southern Romania , Poenari, in its time, mirrored Count Dracula’s fictional castle at the top of the Borgo Pass almost stone for stone.

M.A.: What did you enjoy most about writing this book? What was the hardest part about writing this book?

S.U.: The same answer applies to both questions: it was the traveling itself, particularly in Romania, that proved to be a constant mix of frustration, trepidation, and sheer exhilaration. I was warned of bandits that never appeared, there were cab rides to Maxitaxi stations that passed through the half-abandoned outskirts of towns flanked by smoldering fires of gypsy encampments—and I couldn’t even ask the driver where exactly he was taking me because I couldn’t find the words in my Romanian phrasebook.

And yet, there were moments of such high adventure, especially at Poenari. I had traveled to other remote, forbidding places before entering the almost lightless forest of Poenari. Near Albania’s southern border, I hiked the Vikos Gorge, a dozen miles from the nearest stone-housed village. I baked beneath the unrelenting sun of the Timna Valley close to the Red Sea, where 120º in the shade is considered picnic weather. But never before or since have I felt the apprehension and isolation I did while climbing to Vlad the Impaler’s mountaintop fortress. The forest was as quiet as a tomb; I can’t recall hearing the song of even a single bird.

The ascent was exhausting. At last, I encountered a grizzled, elfin gentleman sitting on almost the very top step, who indicated with his fingers the amount of the small entry fee. From there the lone approach to the fortress is by a wooden footbridge.

Of all the places I explored that are associated with Vlad the Impaler, only at Poenari did I feel that he was somehow still keeping watch. Perched on a remote peak near a glacial moraine in the F?gar?? Mountains of southern Romania , Poenari remains pristine and almost inaccessible.

Thousands of boyars and their families had been force-marched there from T?rgovi?te to die rebuilding the castle for Prince Vlad; it was here that his treacherous brother Radu stormed the fortress with cannons, reducing the once courtly residence into broken turrets and formless rubble. And it was here that Prince Dracula’s wife cast herself from the highest window of the eastern tower, choosing a swift death over the torture of the stake.

M.A.: Why do you think people are still so fascinated by Dracula? By vampires? After all, vampires are more popular today than ever before.

S.U.: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with its imagery and sheer sexuality, much of it stemming from Stoker’s unconscious mind, captured the imagination of the public in 1897 and has never been out of print. Dracula was published during the height of Victorian sexual repression—two years later, in 1899, Freud would publish The Interpretation of Dreams. It’s not a coincidence that vampires have remained so popular. They’re immortal, powerful, and seductive—who wouldn’t want all of those attributes? Or at least two out of three.

Above all, vampires are creatures of the night, as are dreams, and, just like dreams, they can never be controlled.

M.A.: What are you working on now?

S.U.: I’m writing the accompanying text and the Preface for Before the Paparazzi : Thirty Years of Extraordinary Pictures, a collection of over 300 photos taken by Arty Pomerantz, staff photographer and assignment editor for the New York Post from the 1960s through the early 1990s. Almost all of the pictures in Before the Paparazzi appeared in the Post, and a great many of them were on the newspaper’s front page. The text and Preface for Before the Paparazzi, about 23,000 words, were gleaned from extensive research and hundreds of hours of interviews with Arty.

In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide is available from World Audience.


Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Jeff Shaara

By Meredith Allard

Jeff Shaara is the acclaimed author of the best selling historical novels Gods and GeneralsThe Last Full MeasureGone for Soldiers, and Rise to Rebellion, among others. You can visit Jeff online at

Meredith Allard: A family vacation to Gettysburg inspired your father, Michael Shaara, to write The Killer Angels. A few years later you helped him research his novel. What was that experience like? How did that time prepare you to research and write your own Civil War novels, Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure?

Jeff Shaara: First, I would never take credit for making some kind of invaluable contribution to the research of The Killer Angels. By 1970, when my father and I toured the battlefield at Gettysburg for the second time, he had suffered his first heart attack. I was 18, and as such, was in much better physical condition than my father, thus it was my job to do the “grunt” work- climb the hills, crawl all over the place through the brush to try to locate troop positions, the lay of the land, etc. I look back at that time now and realize it was as close as my father and I had ever been. Soon after, he had a motorcycle accident that damaged his head severely, and affected his mental state for many years. This had a dramatic impact on his relationships with everyone in his life, including his son. The lesson I learned was clear: if you’re going to try to tell the story of these events and the characters who were such a part of the history, first and foremost, you must walk the ground. There is a magic to the experience, to seeing what they saw, to stepping in their footsteps. I could not tell any of these stories now without having that experience.

M.A.:The director of “Gettysburg,” Ron Maxwell, was instrumental in prompting your journey into writing historical fiction. What role did he play?

J.S.: I met Ron Maxwell during the filming of “Gettysburg,” the film based onThe Killer Angels. Ron wrote the screenplay and directed the film. After the film was released and received so enthusiastically, Ron called me with the idea of continuing more of the stories of these characters, both before and after July of 1863. I had never written anything before, and that’s no exaggeration. But after giving his idea some thought, I decided that continuing my father’s work was something I wanted to attempt. This is the very reason I dedicate The Last Full Measure to Ron. Without his inspiration in the first place I would never have begun to write.

M.A.: What are the joys and frustrations of writing historical fiction? Does writing about the Civil War have its own specific joys and frustrations?

J.S.: One distinct frustration of writing historical fiction is that you are dealing with real events, and thus, must stay true to the history. Many times it would be convenient if some character was in a different place, or if events occurred in different order. But I don’t dwell much on that, because the particular stories I am trying to tell are so very interesting, the characters to intriguing, that I never feel as though I should perhaps sneak something in that is pure fiction. Specific to the Civil War, of course, is the ability to bring the reader both sides of the story, from (I hope) an equal perception. One great joy in telling the story of Lee vs. Grant, for example, is getting into the minds of such opposite personalities and show how they interacted in such a chess-game kind of way. That was enormous fun. Plus, the Civil War is the most awful bloody time in our history. It is not hard to find the enthusiasm for exploring the minds of these characters, to try to understand why this happened and how it was finally ended. I have to note one distinct frustration: eventually, the story ends. All of these characters are gone, and writing their deaths is one of the hardest things I have had to do.

M.A.: Most authors of historical fiction write their stories from the perspective of fictional characters. Your style of writing historical fiction is different, however, because you write from the perspective of real-life figures who become fictionalized through your portrayal of their thoughts, actions, and dialogue. Describe your process of creating a fictionalized character from a real-life figure.

J.S.: There is an enormous risk in putting words in the mouth of, not only a real historical figure, but a figure who carries the iconic status of a Lee or Grant, Lincoln, or Washington. That adds considerably to the responsibility I feel about doing the right kind of research. If I intend to put you into the mind of one of these characters, then I must first go there myself, through whatever original sources are available. In most cases, I rely on diaries, letters, memoirs, the accounts of people who were there with these characters. I am painfully aware that some writers have no qualms about imposing modern thought processes, modern terminology, or modern interpretations of 19th century figures. I despise that kind of storytelling. Before I can ever write the first word of dialog, I have to hear those words myself, as each character might have spoken them. I have to feel I know the character personally, as though I was standing beside him or her when the words were spoken. I can never claim of course, that any one of these people actually said, word for word what I write. But, I am very comfortable that, in every case, they could have, that each of these conversations could have taken place.

M.A.: There are those who think that every fact in historical fiction should be exact, but there are also those who think that dramatic license should be allowed in works of fiction. What are your feelings on this subject?

J.S.: I am very careful about exercising any kind of dramatic license. If there is license at all, it is in the dialog and the thoughts of each character, a process I described above. I am painstaking in my research of the events. The actual situation each character finds him or herself in is real. The time line, the positioning of each person in to the events that were happening around them, all of that is as accurate as I can make it. I have had one historian suggest that he has no respect for historical fiction because the history can be so easily tampered with in the name of “license.” I object to that and would never violate the spirit of these characters by tampering with the history. I have never considered writing “alternative” history, some exploration of the “what-ifs.” It is too important to me to keep the facts straight.

M.A.: Your current project, Rise to Rebellion, centers around the American Revolution and will feature George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, among others. What inspired you to write about the American Revolution?

J.S.: I felt that I had gone as far as I could with the Civil War characters, at least for a while. (One day I would like to tell the William T. Sherman story, but that’s down the road a ways). As I began to explore other ideas for stories, the Founding Fathers were impossible to overlook. What these few men accomplished is almost miraculous. The more research I did, the more I came to appreciate not only their achievement, the birth of the United States, the creation of our government, but the wonderful uniqueness of the characters themselves.

By the nature of the kind of books I write, if the characters are not very interesting, I don’t have much of a story, regardless of what the historical events might be. I was thrilled to dig into the minds of Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Gage (a man most Americans have never heard of, the British army commander who started the war). That’s the most fun for me, finding a character who is somehow overlooked by history, and bringing him to you. One example is Winfield Scott. Again, most Americans have no idea who he was. He is quite simply the man who taught Robert E Lee, and nearly the entire roster of Civil War commanders on both sides, how to be soldiers. We all know who Ben Franklin is, but do we really? I absolutely despise the latest attempts by Hollywood and television to “reveal” these characters by showing us little more than dirty laundry. It is too convenient, too lazy a way to tell a story of a man, such as Jefferson, by pointing to one aspect of the man’s life: he may (or may have not) fathered an illegitimate child with a slave girl. That kind of “history” may sell commercials in prime time, but it does a serious disservice not only to the man himself, but to Americans. Was he human? Of course. Was he perfect? Of course not. But did he not author the Declaration of Independence? That is the story I’m interested in. Most Americans don’t know that both Franklin and John Adams played a key role in helping Jefferson write that document. It was a moment that changed the history of the world forever, and that’s no exaggeration. That’s far more interesting to me than some titillating exploration of their personal scandals. It’s not to say I ignore or avoid the truth. But there is a much larger story than what Hollywood believes Americans want to see. I have more faith in my readers than that.

M.A.: Who are your favorite historical fiction authors, and what are your favorite historical fiction novels? Have these works influenced your own style in any way?

J.S.: It will sound too obvious when I say that my favorite author of historical fiction is my father, Michael Shaara. The fact is, I can’t think of anyone who has influenced my writing (or my life) more than my father. As for his influence on my style, I am asked that a great deal, if I purposely patterned my writing style after his. Absolutely not. If a writer focuses so much on mimicking someone else, they can’t focus much on the story, and the story must come first. My sister commented when she read my first manuscript that “this is being written by the ghost of our father”. I take that as a compliment. But it was never anything I set out to do. I find that I don’t read much historical fiction any more. One reason is that I have to be very careful about the possibility of picking up some bit of “information” that might find its way into my own stories. If that information is fiction, I could be accused of plagiarism. It’s ironic in one way, because I sponsor the “Michael Shaara Prize”, awarded each year by the U. S. Civil War Center, to the best work of Civil War fiction published. But I am not one of the judges (despite their continuous requests). I just can’t make a judgment like that on someone else’s work of fiction. And if I were to read something really, really good, some style or approach that caused a strong reaction in me, I can’t take the chance that some part of that might seep into my own writing.

M.A.: What is your advice to aspiring writers of historical fiction?

J.S.: I’m asked for advice a great deal. It makes me somewhat nervous, since I can’t possibly explain how I have arrived at this point where my books are best sellers and I am doing interviews and appearances all over the country. I appreciate that there are enormously talented writers out there who are doing wonderful work who are having a difficult time finding someone to read their work. It’s an unfortunate fact of the publishing business. No one can go into this believing that they will write a best seller. That can’t be your motivation. Write because you have a story you want to tell, something that is important enough for you to exercise the discipline it takes to put it on paper. If you are focusing on history, then be honest about the history. Unless, as I mentioned before, you’re writing “alternative history” (in which anything goes), above all, gets the facts straight. If you are dealing with real-life characters, then do them justice. And, please, stay away from the temptation to pass judgment based on modern standards, or modern frames of reference. That’s a lazy way to write. If you want to take the reader back to another time, you have to go there first, and leave today behind. And, by all means, if it is at all possible, walk the ground.

M.A.: What other historical periods do you think you might like to write about?

J.S.: We are very fortunate in this country to have a history that is ripe with wonderful characters. I find it humorous when Europeans dismiss American history as being too brief to be interesting. History is not a measure of years, it is a measure of deeds. In some ways, I feel I’m not ready to answer this question. Every era in our history has some great story that I would like to tell. I am considering several new stories now, including, as I mentioned before, a story about W. T. Sherman. But I can’t allow myself to get too excited about a future project. My focus right now is on completing the story on the American Revolution.


Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.

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