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Authors

A letter from Charles Frazier about his new novel, NIGHTWOODS

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Lost in the woods.  A dangerous phrase, but also with a resonance of folktale.  Hansel and Gretel with their bread crumbs.  Jack alone, roaming the lovely, dark, and deep southern mountains.  So, young people and old people being lost in the woods has always been interesting to me for those reasons.  And also because it happens all the time still.
Nightwoods-cover-small

Back when I was a kid, eight or ten, my friends and I lived with a mountain in our backyards.  We stayed off it in summer.  Too hot and snaky.  But in the cool seasons, we roamed freely.  We carried bb guns in the fall and rode our sleds down old logging roads in winter.  We often got lost.  But we knew that downhill was the way out, the way home.  When I grew up and went into bigger mountains, you couldn’t always be so sure.  I remember being lost in Bolivia.  Or let’s say that I grew increasingly uncertain whether I was still on the trail or not.  That’s the point where you ought to sit down and drink some water and consult your maps and compass very carefully and calmly.  I kept walking.  At some point, it became a matter of rigging ropes to swing a heavy pack over a scary white watercourse.   I ended up at a dropoff.  Down far below, upper reaches of the Amazon basin stretched hazy green into the distance.  Downhill did not at all seem like the way home.

Charles Frazier, photograph by © Greg Martin

Charles Frazier photograph by © Greg Martin

You’ll just have to trust me that this has something to do with my new novel, but to go into it much would risk spoilers.  I’ll just say that early on in the writing of Nightwoods, Luce and the children were meant to be fairly minor characters, but I kept finding myself coming back to them, wanting to know more about them until they became the heart of the story.  Some of my wanting to focus on them was surely influenced by several cases of kids lost in the woods in areas where I’m typically jogging and mountain biking alone at least a hundred days a year.  It’s part of my writing process, though I hardly ever think about work while I’m in the woods.  But I do I keep obsessive count of how many miles a day I go and how many words I write, lots of numbers on 3×5 notecards.  All those days watching the micro changes of seasons can’t help but become part of the texture of what I write, and those lost kids, too.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR YOUR BOOK CLUB

  1. Luce’s strategy for dealing with her troubled past is to withdraw from her community, her emotions, and in some sense from life itself. Does Luce find this an effective coping mechanism for dealing with trauma? How does it help her, and how does it hurt her? In our digital world, is it still possible for someone to withdraw in this way?
  2. Luce feels obligated to care for her sister’s children even though she admits she is not a maternal person and does not love the children. Discuss this choice. How is Luce’s sense of obligation informed by her relationship with her own mother and father?
  3. Think about Luce’s connection to her elder friends. What is it about Luce that draws her toward Maddie, old Stubblefield, and her grade school teachers?
  4. Think about the scene in which Luce tells Lit about the rape. Is he only being insensitive and rude, or is there a part of him that is actually trying to protect Luce from more pain and disruption, albeit in an insensitive way?
  5. Luce and Stubblefield are alike in some ways, and in others they are very different. Why do you think they are attracted to each other? Discuss which character changes the most over the course of the novel.
  6. Discuss the children, and their eccentric and violent behavior. Are they misunderstood? Mentally or emotionally disturbed? How do they function as a narrative engine? In today’s environment, a caretaker of these children would probably look for some kind of diagnosis. Apart from abuse, think about what might drive the kids’ behavior that may have been misunderstood in the early 1960s. What are the challenges of raising children without the medical or psychiatric support we take for granted today?
  7. Bud and Lit manage to form an unlikely bond. What is Bud looking for in Lit? And what is Lit looking for in Bud? What draws the two men apart, and ultimately leads to Lit’s death?
  8. Blood is a prominent symbol in Nightwoods. How does the metaphor of blood affect your interpretation of the story, and how does it shape Bud’s confused worldview?
  9. The beautifully rendered Appalachian landscape plays a central role in Nightwoods. Is the landscape merely a setting for the story? Or is it something more? A symbol? A kind of character? And what do you think the giant pit in the woods represents?
  10. In the end, Luce opens up to Stubblefield and accepts that he intends to be a permanent fixture in her life. The children also seem to have accepted him. What do you think of this  unlikely, cobbled-together family? What does it say about what makes a family? Will they be successful in making each other whole again?
  11. What do you think happened to Bud? Does he continue to represent a threat to Luce, Stubblefield, and the kids?

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Lisa Genova interviews Second Nature author Jacquelyn Mitchard

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Lisa Genova, who conducted this interview, is the New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice and Left Neglected. She graduated valedictorian from Bates College with a degree in biopsychology and earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard University. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband and three children.

LG: I love reading about characters who are forced to face huge, unusual, life-and-death obstacles. I think I love this because it’s a chance to see the resilience and adaptability of the human spirit, to witness powerful and meaningful change. You gave your main character, Sicily Coyne, one doozy of an obstacle. How did you come to imagine this woman who loses her face in a horrific fire?

Second NatureJM: When I was little, there was a fire on the west side of Chicago at a school called Our Lady of Angels. Everyone had a neighbor, a cousin, a sibling, a good friend who knew, and knew well, one of the 92 children and three teaching sisters who died there. People kept copies of the Life magazine cover photo of firefighter Richard Scheidt, carrying out the unmarked body of ten-year-old John Jakowski from the building. The picture is excruciating. Scheidt’s face is the personification of agony and mercy, almost like the mother of Christ. The child looks as though he has peacefully fallen asleep. That was the central image with which the book started, the firefighter giving his life so that a child might not die alone—in part, perhaps, because his own child survived, although terribly disfigured. The face transplant was a pretty natural idea because I was pre-med in college (unlike you, Lisa, I was undone by mathematics). I’m bewitched by science. Once I learned that this procedure could become simpler with practice (because everyone has a trigeminal nerve and an orbital floor in more or less the same place) I asked myself, what will be the next complication? And then the idea bloomed. What might naturally happen if someone’s beauty is restored, after a dozen years, in the bloom of her young womanhood? And that was the ethical mystery, the hinge of the story.

LG: Sicily, Marie, Beth, and Eliza are all strong, smart, stubborn Italian women. Where did the inspiration for these dynamic women come from?

JM: I grew up in an Italian neighborhood. All my boyfriends were handsome hoodlums, much prettier than I was. My godmother and godfather were first generation Italians, and so were my best friend’s parents, and much of the way I learned to make sense of the world (and to make great gravy) were as a result of days spent in my godmother’s kitchen. My own mother was star-crossed in many ways, but was a strong, smart, stubborn woman, much like Marie, Sicily’s aunt. In fact, physically and in her speech, my mother could be Marie, if my mother had not died very young. I didn’t realize this until you asked the question.

LG: Readers who fell in love with the Cappadora family in The Deep End of the Ocean and No Time to Wave Goodbye will be thrilled to see them again in SECOND NATURE. Had you always imagined that Vincent’s journey would lead him to someone like Sicily?

JM: Vincent Cappadora is just me, in so many difficult and also good ways—someone who wants badly to do the right thing and manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory half the time, and the other half of the time breaks the tape at the last moment. He may get what he wants, or even what he needs, but not without going through a significant patch of hell first. How Vincent turns out depends on the thing that is most difficult for most people, and that’s the willingness to crack open and be hurt.

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Buy a hardcover or eBook of Second Nature,  available September 6th!

Alexandra Fuller on writing her African childhood: “I am African by accident”

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Don't Let's Go to the Dogsfuller_alexandraThis week memoirist Alexandra Fuller publishes Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, where she returns to sub-Saharan Africa and the story of her unforgettable family that she first introduced to readers ten years ago in her stunning memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, a book The New Yorker called “By turns mischievous and openhearted, earthy and soaring…hair-raising, horrific, and thrilling.” Below is an essay she wrote upon the publication of that book.

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My Africa

I am African by accident, not by birth. So while soul, heart, and the bent of my mind are African, my skin blaringly begs to differ and is resolutely white. And while I insist on my Africanness (if such a singular thing can exist on such a vast and varied continent), I am forced to acknowledge that almost half my life in Africa was realized in a bubble of Anglocentricity, as if black Africans had no culture worth noticing and as if they did not exist except as servants and (more dangerously) as terrorists.

My mother—hard-living, glamorous, intemperate, intelligent, racist—introduced my siblings and me to Shakespeare before we could walk (my sister maintains that her existing horror of reading stems from having Troilus and Cressida recited to her when she was still in utero). My father—taciturn and capable—sat outside on hot summer nights with a glass of brandy and sang us Bizet’s Carmen and explained to us the story of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The cannons of the piece (crackling on vinyl records over the throb of a diesel generator) blasted into the heat-thick night and Dad raised his brandy to the sky. “Bloody marvelous,” he shouted, and far away beyond the river the hyenas shrieked their reply. Vanessa, my sister, taught me the survival skill of self- reliance. We occasionally pottered away the long hours of a yellow summer afternoon pasting old magazine pictures of the British royal family into scrapbooks or holding pretend (if very proper) tea parties for the dogs.

Fuller title page photoWe were poor and we had a knack for picking bad-luck patches of land on which to farm, but (and this was supposedly to our advantage) we were of very particular British stock. My maternal grandmother maintained that we held a better pedigree than the English queen (who is German, after all, while we were part highland Scot), and my mother frequently reminded my sister and me that we were “well bred.” “Well bred” ensured buckled noses, high-arched feet, a predisposition to madness, and an innate knowledge that it is more polite to say “napkin” than “serviette.” “Well bred” assumed a working knowledge of the construction of a decent Irish coffee, the appropriate handling of difficult horses, and a pathological love of dogs. “Well bred” meant, most specifically,an innate belief in our own unquestioning superiority. This archaic way of thinking coupled with Africa’s tumultuous history may make for wonderful literature, but it also made for chaotic living.

By the time I came to Rhodesia in 1972, Africa—Kenya, in particular—had been home to three generations of my family. With the exception of a great-uncle who had shocked his relations and scandalized the European community by going to live with the Nandi people of Kenya (and who became the first person to document their language in the written form), my people were the sort of European stock who brandished their culture before them like some devastating scythe.

In spite of this, Africa—as an idea—dawned on me gradually. I appreciated that we, as whites, could not own a piece of Africa, but I knew, with startling clarity, that Africa owned me. As the land and people around me began to make sense, I was like a snake itching off the excess of an extra skin in the dry season and finding myself milky-eyed, and dangerously blind, in the rarefied, free air of the new order in Africa. From Ghana to Mozambique to Angola, independence had rippled down Africa’s spine, and now it had come to us—to Rhodesia. Whatever happened next, I knew that I had to be either a part of this new world—a working, active, feature of it—or forever apart from it. I could either celebrate the new opportunity we as Africans had been given at independence, at the birth of Zimbabwe, or forever lament the loss of Empire. I would either fight for a new world of political equality or become a servant to the regimes that had assumed the strangling mantle of colonialism.

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When I was in my early twenties, I fell in love with an American (he had come to Zambia as a river guide), and I went with him to live in North America after our marriage and the birth of our first child. I mourned Africa daily (I still do) with something like a physical ache even while I luxuriated in the relative security and peace of a Rocky Mountain life. And it was here, in the high bright air of a Wyoming winter, that the need to write my life became overwhelming for me.

At the start, I tried to write my life as fiction. I wrote eight or nine spectacularly unsuccessful novels. I felt as if I needed to find a way to explain the racism I had grown up around, to justify the hard living of whites in Africa, to expunge my guilt over the injustice I had witnessed in my youth. I wrote and rewrote the characters of my childhood and I wrote the landscape I loved over and over again until the smells of the place burned on my palate. But the novels still felt like lies because in them I had tried to soften the voices of the whites I had known and to write into full life the voices of the black men, women, and children who had been silenced by years of oppression. These works of fiction, I eventually realized, were the writings of a woman who was scared to look the world in the face, and if there was one thing Africa had taught me, it was to shout above the sting of a dry-season wind loud enough to be heard from one end of a farm to another.

I made the decision, then, to write my life exactly as it had been: passionate, wonderful, troubled, oppressive, chaotic, beautiful. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is the story that was born of that decision. It is not a political story or the story of Empire. It is the story of how one African came to terms with her family’s troubled history; it is a love story for the continent.

Alexandra Fuller
Jackson Hole
, Wyoming
August 2002

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Henry House, the “practice” baby: Reader’s Circle interviews Lisa Grunwald

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Irresistible Henry HouseLisa Grunwald’s novel, The Irresistible Henry House, is now available in paperback.

Random House Reader’s Circle: When you talk to people who’ve read The Irresistible Henry House, what’s the first question they usually ask?

Lisa Grunwald: It’s almost always whether the story was actually based on a real practice, whether people actually used real babies to teach college classes on mothering. The answer is yes, but I’ve sent a lot of incredulous people to the Cornell University website where I first found the photograph that helped inspire the novel.

RHRC: How did that discovery come about?

LG: In 2005, I was doing research for an anthology of American women’s letters. Specifically I was hoping to find a letter from a home economics student. There was an online exhibit at the Cornell website called “What Was Home Economics?” Among other photographs was this captivating image of a baby called “Bobby Domecon”—the last name a combination of “Domestic” and “Economics.” (Historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg at Cornell told me that it’s pronounced “Dough-me-con.”) I quickly learned that at Cornell, from the 1920s through the 1960s, babies supplied by local orphanages were used to teach mothering skills to students, who would take turns bathing and feeding and dressing their charges. Last time I checked, the site was still up at www.cornell.edu, and it’s well worth a look.

Irresistible Henry House baby

RHRC: Did you ever think about tracking down some of the real children?

LG: I certainly thought about it. Before I was a novelist, I was a journalist, and the reporter grunwald_lisain me was really drawn to the idea of writing a nonfiction book. But two things changed my mind. First, I just loved the idea of the practice house as the premise for a novel and as the starting point for a fictional character. How would he ever learn to trust someone? How would he feel about women? How would he ever be able to draw a distinction between being loved and being used? And where might all that lead him—romantically, professionally? It was just—yes, irresistible to me to ponder these questions. And the second thing? Well, I suspected that it would be virtually impossible to find enough of those now-grownup children to make a nonfiction book complete. After their time in the practice houses, the babies were returned to their orphanages and adopted like any other children, or put into foster care. Very few records were kept.

RHRC: Since the novel’s publication, have you heard anything more about the practice?

LG: I did find a series of articles about a case at Eastern Illinois State College, where the superintendent of the Child Welfare Division had objected to the practice. This didn’t

deter a home ec teacher named Ruth Schmalhausen, who passionately defended the practice. At the time—this was the mid-fifties—it was really very common. The program was available at some fifty colleges around the country. In relating the Schmalhausen controversy, Time magazine took what I thought was a somewhat snarky position about the superintendent’s objections, writing “Heaven only knows how many neuroses little David might develop.” It was one of those moments during the research when I really felt the distance we’d come in the way we think about childhood.

RHRC: Some critics have compared Henry to Forest Gump and T. S. Garp. How accurate do you find those comparisons?

LG: Those are extraordinarily memorable characters in fiction, and to think that Henry has been mentioned alongside them just thrills me. But certainly some of the comparison

comes from the fact that all three novels are centered around young men whose stories coincide with, and in certain ways reflect, the changes that occurred in this country’s social and cultural history.

RHRC: Did you have to do research on those changes, too, or are you and Henry of the same generation?

LG: I’m a half-generation younger than Henry. He was born in 1946, and I was born in 1959, so many of the cultural milestones he encounters are things I encountered, but from a much younger perspective. And I loved doing the research. As Henry grows up, we see the new childcare book by Benjamin Spock and the new magazine Playboy from Hugh Hefner. We hear music from Bing Crosby and the Beatles. We witness the March on Washington, the riots at Berkeley, the opening of Hair and the release of Yellow Submarine.

RHRC: And ultimately what does all that have to do with Henry?

LG: It’s the chaotic but passionate backdrop against which he tries to find a place and a person with whom he feels authentic, trusting, and trustworthy. It’s a journey.

RHRC: And do you know how it ends? What happens after the last page?

LG: If I know, I’m not telling.

Win a copy of I GAVE MY HEART TO KNOW THIS by Ellen Baker

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

I gave my heart to know this cover Ellen Baker © JoAnn Jardine

Dear Reader,

When I set out to become a novelist, I didn’t realize the corners it would make me turn, the things it would teach me: how to weld a ship together, live aboard an aircraft carrier – even butcher a chicken. It’s not so surprising that in the process of writing an historical novel I’d learn a few facts. What I didn’t expect at all was that the same process would challenge and guide me through my own explorations of some of the questions my characters encounter: how (and whether) to tame or feed or foster your most outrageous dreams; how to accept unacceptable loss; how to know when it’s time to let go, and then how to do it.

My new novel, I Gave My Heart to Know This, is the story of three women who work as welders at a shipyard during World War II and the tragedy that binds them, even as it divides them. Years later, a great-granddaughter, caring for the family home, pieces together the friends’ long-buried secrets, and learns the difficulties – and the possibilities – of forgiveness.

I began by poring over shipyard newsletters, photographs, blueprints. I interviewed some old-timers who told me “the way it really was.” I read about everything from naval battles to copper mining to photography to rheumatic fever, explored the engine room of a great ship, stood under the spire of a church. I spent a lot of time in archives. One of the best sources I found was a twenty-page, handwritten account of shipyard work by a woman who was a welder. I borrowed several incidents from her amazing descriptions, including an incident when she was standing in a rowboat welding on the side of a ship and leaned too far forward in her heavy welding garb. Her foreman grabbed her, saving her life; if she’d fallen in the water, she’d have sunk straight to the bottom. (The dangers of the job were many, and, to us in the modern OSHA-regulated world, almost inconceivable.)

Then came my favorite part: translating what I’d gleaned into the experience of fiction. How would it feel to make an overhead weld, sparks raining down, in a space so narrow the smoke chokes you? To fall in love with someone you’d “met” only in a letter? To carry an undeniable sense of patriotic and familial duty, alongside your dream of a different life? And then, to try to understand how your best efforts to save precious things might instead have been complicit in their loss.

Next, I developed a mystery. Time passes; things which are broken and missing long to be fixed and found. And there’s an old house with a seeming incontrovertible will of its own that holds the clues, and maybe the answers – if only someone will look.

Pinned to the wall of the attic of this house is a map of the world, with a red X marking “home.” Early on, the children play a pirate game, searching for buried treasure – and perhaps, it comes to seem, the treasure is their home – problematically. I thought a great deal about that map as I wrote: not only the meanings it has for my characters, but how comforting it would be if only I had such a map to write by. Instead, I learned that journeys are best guided by curiosity and desire and a willingness to be taken far – and that the best discoveries are often the things you didn’t know you were seeking.

Best wishes,
Ellen Baker

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A new book club gem: Melanie Benjamin’s Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

978-0-385-34415-9IN HER NATIONAL BESTSELLER ALICE I HAVE BEEN, Melanie Benjamin imagined the life of the woman who inspired Alice in Wonderland. Now, in this jubilant new novel, Benjamin shines a spotlight on another fascinating female figure whose story has never fully been told: a woman who became a nineteenth century icon and inspiration—and whose most daunting limitation became her greatest strength. Full of history and intriguing relationships, this book is perfect for book clubs, so here is a handy Reading Group Guide to help move along the discussion.

Also, be sure to check out Kathy Patrick’s Beauty and the Book chat with author Melanie Benjamin for more about the novel:

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin: Reading Group Guide Questions

1. What are the parallels between Vinnie’s celebrity and the definition of celebrity today?

2. Why did Vinnie determine to only communicate her optimism – what was she trying to hide behind, or hide from herself, by choosing not to dwell on the many obstacles in her way?

3. Why did Vinnie go along with Barnum’s humbug concerning the infant?

4. Which is the true love story of the book – the story of Vinnie and Barnum, Vinnie and Charles, Vinnie and Minnie, or Vinnie and the public?

5. Why do you think the notion of the Tom Thumb wedding so swept the nation that, even today, there are reenactments with children?

6. What was the most interesting historical fact in the book for you?  Which was the most startling?

7. Sylvia points out a photograph in the window of a store.  It’s of PT Barnum.  “Really?”  I was surprised and, I confess, a little disappointed; the man in the photograph looked so very…ordinary.  Curly hair parted on the side, a wide forehead, a somewhat bulbous nose, an unremarkable smile.  He resembled any man I might have passed in the street; he certainly did not resemble a world-famous impresario.  Colonel Wood, I had to admit, looked much more the part than did this man (p. 88). Vinnie is used to people making immediate assumptions about her based on her appearance.  What assumptions, though, does Vinnie make about people for the same reasons?  Are pre-conceived notions about people something that is ingrained in us?

8. What do you think it means to live one’s life in the public eye, as Vinnie and Charles did?  How would you react to being scrutinized by the press for your every action?  Compare how you may have felt in Vinnie’s day compared to today’s twenty-four hour news and gossip cycle.

9. For Vinnie, what do you think was the best part of being famous?  What was the worst?

10. Toward the end of her stage career, Vinnie asks herself, “had I ever been simply Lavinia Warren Stratton?  To anyone—even myself?” (p. 385) Do you think Vinnie chose this life for herself, or did she essentially hop on a ride and couldn’t get off?  Was the price she had to pay for her fame and fortune her own chosen identity?

My Secret Siena, Part 2

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Juliet by Anne FortierHere is Part 2 of Anne Fortier’s blog entry on the beautiful city of Siena and its role in her novel, Juliet, now available in paperback.

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The Palio horserace is a grand celebration of Siena history

The Palio horserace is a grand celebration of Siena history


As far as I know, there are no family feuds raging in modern-day Siena. At least none as bloody as the proto-Shakespearean rivalry between the Tolomeis and the Salimbenis, which lasted for almost a century and only definitively ended with the Bubonic Plague in 1348. More than six hundred years have passed since that era of deadly neighbour wars . . . or have they?

Those who have dared to visit Siena during the mad, hot days of the Palio horserace might well argue that the ferocity of this recurring event is a window into the feuds of the past. Nowadays, neighbourhood associations have replaced the old noble families, but the spirit of tradition remains. The neighbourhoods, or contrade, spend months plotting and planning their participation in the Palio, not to mention guessing and second-guessing the plans of others, and quite frankly, it sometimes seems as if the pain and anxiety of it all far outweigh the pleasure.

Each neighbourhood has its own flag, but only tourists have the luxury of picking-and-choosing their colors of allegiance.

Each neighbourhood has its own flag, but only tourists have the luxury of picking-and-choosing their colors of allegiance.

Within the ancient city walls of Siena there are no fewer than seventeen such contrade, each with their own magistrates and coat-of-arms, and each passionately fond of their own little neck of the town. They all have their allies and their rivals, and children are brought up to suspect and loathe the enemy unconditionally. Why? If those same children were to ask why, say, “people from the Unicorn stink like sewage”, the answer would simply be: “Because that’s the way it has always been.” In other words, no one knows exactly how these old rivalries began, but for every Palio and every new skirmish on the race track or among the spectators, the loathing grows stronger.

Goose flags mark the Fontebranda fountain as Goose territory. Therefore, the rivals from the Tower per definition loathe this Siena landmark.

Goose flags mark the Fontebranda fountain as Goose territory. Therefore, the rivals from the Tower per definition loathe this Siena landmark.


The members of the Goose contrada, for example, would not be caught dead in the streets of the Tower, nor would a young man of the Eagle ever dream of dating a girl from the Panther. If he did, he might soon find himself in an agonizing re-enactment of Romeo and Juliet.

Part of the charm of Siena is that the whole town is a contradiction, and proudly so. Rivalry and emotional turmoil brew right beneath the calm, conservative surface, and when the pent-up emotion finally erupts, foreigners are wise to keep a distance. Historical records prove that the people of Siena have always been quick to act and take political matters into their own hands; the origins of the contrade, in fact, were military companies that were poised to take to the streets within minutes in order to maintain the peace.

The quiet courtyard of Palazzo Marescotti seems to exist outside of time

The quiet courtyard of Palazzo Marescotti seems to exist outside of time


During the days of the Palio, with thousands of enthusiastic contrada-members roaring through the streets, a tranquil place is hard to come by. Perhaps this is why I fell in love with the inner courtyard of Palazzo Chigi-Saracini, or, as it was known during the Middle Ages, Palazzo Marescotti. If the richness of Siena culture seems overwhelming, this small stone oasis can be a charming refuge. Only steps away from the race track in Piazza del Campo, Palazzo Marescotti has a quiet dignity of its own, and from the moment I first saw it I knew it would come to play a central part in my life, or, more specifically, in my book.

This was where I first felt the presence of Romeo, and began to imagine what life would have been like for a young man during the Middle Ages. Not that different, perhaps, than it is now. It would have been a life full of choices and challenges, a life requiring great responsibility. Not so for Juliet. Her path would have been determined by the wishes of male family members, and she would not have been free to learn from her own experiences. Had this medieval Juliet had the freedom and opportunities young women take for granted today, her life would have been less likely to end in tragedy. Or maybe that is wishful thinking. But then . . . isn’t that what fiction writing is all about?

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Read an excerpt of Juliet on Scribd

My Secret Siena, Part 1

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

Juliet by Anne FortierAnne Fortier is the author of the novel Juliet, available now in paperback.

Check back next week to read more on Anne’s experience in the beautiful city of Siena and how it made its way into her writing in Part 2 of this entry!

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It is only too easy to lose oneself in the magic of Siena
It is only too easy to lose oneself in the magic of Siena

It all started when I fell in love. Not with Shakespeare or some suave Romeo next door, but with the utterly irresistible Tuscan town of Siena. With its medieval architecture and stubborn disregard for most things modern, it is quite simply the perfect escape for romantic dreamers like me, and I had not been in Siena for many hours before I was desperate to set a novel there.

I can still see myself meandering through the Medieval maze that is Siena, aching to unravel its hidden mysteries. I even filled a small bottle with water from the ancient fountain called Fontebranda in a romantic – and probably highly unhygienic – attempt at capturing the magic of the place and bringing it home with me.

Plot hound that I am, I tracked down one of the bloodiest chapters in Siena history, namely the ancient feud between the Tolomei and the Salimbeni families – two households, as the Bard would have it, both alike in dignity, albeit in fair Siena, where we lay our scene…

Palazzo Salimbeni, still today as intriguing as it is forbidding
Palazzo Salimbeni, still today as intriguing as it is forbidding

So fierce was the feud between the Salimbenis and the Tolomeis that they would set fire to each other’s houses and murder mere children in their beds, back in the Middle Ages. Amazingly, their palazzos are still there, standing proudly along the main pedestrian thoroughfare in Siena, little over a hundred steps apart. And although the ancient families have long since moved away, the memory of their bloody rivalry remains.

Perhaps this rich and complex history was what inspired the Italian writer, Masuccio Salernitano, to invent the story of Romeo and Juliet in 1476, and to set it in Siena. This early version is largely forgotten today, and many people think it is my invention. Well, it is not. The famous love-tragedy was already over a hundred years old by the time it landed on Shakespeare’s desk. I’m sorry. As much as I like the film SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, I can safely promise you it didn’t happen that way.

In the Siena underground, you lose all sense of time. The past, it seems, is merely asleep...
In the Siena underground, you lose all sense of time.
The past, it seems, is merely asleep…

Readers also often ask me whether it is really true there is such a vast labyrinth of caves in the Siena underground. The answer is yes, and because these caves were originally an aqueduct leading water into public fountains and private houses, Siena is full of mysterious basements with gaping holes leading… where exactly? Obviously, in JULIET, I could not resist the temptation to send the heroine down into this secret world, and I don’t think it is a plot-spoiler to say that she stumbles upon a lot more than just water.

One of the subterranean bone piles from the Black Death in 1348
One of the subterranean bone piles from the Black Death in 1348

Part of my inspiration for setting the original story of Romeo and Juliet in the year 1340 is that this was the era of the Bubonic Plague, which left its grizzly mark on Siena – a mark that is still there, if you know where to look. Why the plague? You might wonder. But the answer lies within Shakespeare’s play. “A plague!” says Mercutio to Romeo and Tybalt, just before he dies. “A plague on your houses!” It was impossible not to make this famous curse a driving force in JULIET.

Similarly, my inspiration for the elusive treasure that has remained hidden for over six hundred years (and which shall remain unnamed, don’t worry!) came from Shakespeare’s tragedy as well. Interestingly enough, even people who claim they know the play forwards and backwards confess to me they never thought much about this particular object before. And so for me, part of the fun of writing JULIET has been to “reinvent” the play in fun and surprising ways, and to fuse Shakespeare’s poetic fiction with the reality of Siena, past and present.

NEXT TO LOVE HAS READERS FALLING IN LOVE!

Monday, July 25th, 2011

NEXT TO LOVE new cover

Set in a small town in Massachusetts, Next to Love follows three childhood friends, Babe, Millie, and Grace, whose lives are unmoored when their men are called to duty. Beautifully crafted and unforgettable, Ellen Feldman skillfully depicts the enduring power of love and friendship, and illuminates a transformational moment in American history.

READERS RAVE OVER NEXT TO LOVE BY ELLEN FELDMAN:

“Just when you think you’ve read all there is to know about WWII, [here] comes another story that touches your heart and shows yet another perspective. The writing is eloquent. I highly recommend the book.” —Vy A. (Munds Park, AZ)

“A great beach read but one that you will find yourself thinking about long after you’ve finished the book. I would highly recommend this for book clubs – it will stimulate great discussion.” —Darlene C. (Woodstock, IL)

“What a good read! …this would be a good book for book clubs to put on their reading list.”—Marjorie W. (Bonita Springs, FL)

“An extraordinary book! From page one it carries the reader away…The view into three women’s lives during this trying time is eye opening and at times you feel as if you are intruding into their private thoughts, hopes and fears. A beautifully written book…”
—Mary Lou M. (N Royalton, OH)

“Ellen Feldman has a knack for creating vivid characters that stay with you, still speaking to you long after you close the book. Watch out, you might find yourself opening the book and needing to hunker down and read it straight through.”
—Jen W. (Denver, CO)

I loved, loved this book…. A great read and I will definitely read it again with my book group!!!!!!” —Debra P. (Belmont, NC)

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Win a copy of Anne Fortier’s Juliet!

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

JulietAnne FortierJuliet is one of those rare novels that has it all: lush prose, tightly intertwined parallel narratives, intrigue, and historical detail all set against a backdrop of looming danger. Fortier casts a new light on one of history’s greatest stories of passion.” —Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants

When Julie Jacobs inherits a mysterious key to a safety-deposit box in Siena, Italy, she learns she’s descended from 14th-century Giulietta Tolomei, whose love for a young man named Romeo inspired Shakespeare’s infamous play. Soon Julie begins to fear that the notorious curse laid upon the feuding families—“A plague on both your houses!”—is still at work and that she is destined to be its next target.

Available in paperback on July 26th.

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***This giveaway is now closed. Winners will be notified by September 1st.***

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