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A Conversation with Bridget Asher

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

All of Us and Everything_AsherA Conversation with Bridget Asher, author of All of Us and Everything, a smart, wry, and poignant novel about reconciliation between fathers and daughters, between spouses; the deep ties between sisters; and the kind of forgiveness that can change a person’s life in unexpected and extraordinary ways.

Random House Reader’s Circle: At the risk of asking what Ru would consider a “stupid question,” would you shed some light on where you got the inspiration for this novel? Do you agree with Ru that we should stop asking this question as a society?

Bridget Asher: Ru and I have a lot in common. We both have two older sisters, both write, both brood in similar ways. But, no, I don’t think we should stop asking this question. Honestly, some writers are struck by moments of brilliant illumination—-their skulls suddenly lit up with story. Each of my novels contains a million tiny flares, many of which happen while I’m living my life and scribbling notes and many of which happen while writing. But, also, it’s worth noting that some of the flares that made this novel have been around for a while. I once wrote a love letter for a stranger on a plane, a kind of win–back. (The essay appeared in Real Simple.) Liv, the cherry picker, has been a character I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I could never find the right place for her to land. And I’ve also written a little about the snowstorm that hit DC the night before Kennedy’s inauguration, using my father’s memories of that night, but I finally found the larger love story within it.

Society should keep asking, but, from me, one can expect a longer, more intricate answer.

RHRC: How is your authorial approach and perspective similar to or different from Ru’s? Was it surreal to bring another writer to life in this character?

Bridget Asher: It’s a relief to write about a writer. So much of our lives we can’t quite shove into the lives of characters with other professions, so there’s a feeling of ease in writing about a writer and a lot of opportunity to be comedic. Ru’s disastrous reading at the public library, well, let’s just say I didn’t have to rely wholly on imagination.

RHRC: You’ve written more than twenty books, but said All of Us and Everything is your favorite one to date. Why is that? How is this book different from your others and what was the experience of writing it like?

Bridget Asher: I’ve written as Asher, but also under Julianna Baggott and N.E. Bode, and people ask me all the time which of my own books is my favorite. The intent is often to find out which of my books they should pick up. I usually ask them what they like to read, rearranging the question so I’m not forced to answer. But All of Us and Everything is the novel that I want my really good friends and family to read, the people who know me very well and who’ve known me for a long time. In writing this novel, I had the opportunity to write out a kind of spirited take on sisterhood and motherhood that I’ve never allowed myself to do before.

RHRC: You paint Nick’s background as a spy with such finely rendered detail. How did you go about investigating that aspect of the novel?

Bridget Asher: I had the opportunity to interview someone who worked in intelligence for his entire career. Twenty years retired, he was able to answer questions; what I really wanted to know wasn’t about his assignments, but rather about the culture of the work, how love, marriages, and families operated within that culture. I asked him if he was nervous about divulging things. He said that he lived his life assuming that anything he said might be on the record. That was very telling.

RHRC: This book features a predominantly female cast. Did you find it different/exciting/challenging to focus pointedly on this singular matriarchal family while the men are so behind–the–scenes? Did you arrive at any new revelations about the relationships between mothers/daughters and sisters by zeroing in on the Rockwell women? Which aspects of their family dynamic do you think makes them universal?

Bridget Asher: I come from matriarchal family lines. My father was raised with his two sisters by a single mother and her sister. My mother’s mother was the clear matriarch of our family for most of my life. I would say that my own mother has taken her place in that role. I have a brother and two older sisters, and I have two daughters and two sons. This novel allowed me to really dig into the ways I’ve seen sisters operate: old scores, unwanted nicknames, family jokes and secrets, petty turf battles—-that don’t feel petty at all, some thievery, long memories, as well as incredible tenderness and love, the ties that bind sisters. This goes for friendships as well, people who’ve known you for what seems like forever. There is something about being known by others for an entire lifetime. When it comes down to it, these sisters are truly there for one another. Just the way in which these sisters—-and Atty too—-orchestrate a guy showing up for dinner is, I hope, familiar to a lot of people. I think that these kinds of politics, as well as clumsily expressed love, exist in many families.

RHRC: Did you relate to, sympathize with, or want to spend time with any of the Rockwells in particular? Which of them was the most fun to write?

Bridget Asher: I relate to Ru, absolutely, as the precocious youngest of three daughters, and as a writer. But Liv was the most fun to write. I love her edginess, her self–delusions, her strange acts of kindness and generosity. I miss her the most, though Atty is a very, very close second. She would always surprise me, offering up my favorite lines.

RHRC: Channeling the spirit of Augusta and Atty, if you could lead a personal movement of your own, what would it be?

Bridget Asher: Tolerance. If we could allow others to live as they choose, to be who they are, to honor and celebrate our rich diversity, and not perceive others as a threat, I believe the world would be a safer place.

RHRC: Atty’s observations on life and her family lend such comic relief to the narrative. Did she spring from a conscious effort to explore the ways we interact with social media today, or is she just a product of her time?

Bridget Asher: One of my husband’s first jobs was at a boarding school in Delaware, and that school and certainly the spirit of being a faculty brat living on campus is something I’ve always wanted to write. I didn’t set out to make a statement on social media. Atty arrived pretty whole, live–tweeting from the get–go.

RHRC: You’ve written some epic win–backs in this novel. Have you ever had to script one in real life?

Bridget Asher: Well, in addition to the win–back that I wrote for the stranger on the plane, I do write win–backs in various ways. I still believe that words are powerful and change someone’s way of thinking, change their mind, as well as possibly win their heart. When my mother hands you a letter, you know that she has something to tell you that she can’t tell you without crying. The tradition began there, perhaps. The truth is win–backs don’t always work. My oldest sister, actually, is the one who’s tried to tell me that I always think I can fix things with words. Sometimes words fail. But when they win, it’s a beautiful thing.

RHRC: What is the most important message you’d like readers to take away from this story?

Bridget Asher: I want people to see pieces of themselves, their sisters, their mothers, their best friends, the loves of their lives. I want people to find lines that nail some emotion or thought or family dynamic so hard that they have to share them with someone else. After my father read the book—-he was one of the first—-we had an immediate set of catchphrases, a secret language of inside jokes. I want this book to do that for people.

RHRC: Are you a Nancy Drew fan yourself? What shaped your own reading tastes as a child? What sorts of books do you gravitate toward now?

Bridget Asher: I liked stranger, more magical stories. My love of Roald Dahl quickly turned into a love of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then Lee Smith and, for family dynamics, Anne Tyler and John Irving. I also saw a lot of theater as a kid and that may have been even more influential than what I was reading in terms of developing my ear.

RHRC: What’s in the works next for you?

Bridget Asher: I want to write a Paris novel. I loved writing The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted and, of course, doing the research it required. I’d love to find an excuse to go to Paris for a little while. Who wouldn’t?

Discussion Questions: The Virgin’s Spy

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

Virgin's Spy_AndersenPerfect for fans of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, The Virgin’s Spy is award-winning author Laura Andersen’s second novel about the next generation of Tudor royals—a mesmerizing historical novel filled with rich period detail, vividly drawn characters, and all the glamour and seduction of the fabled Tudor court.

1.  Discuss Elizabeth’s marriage to King Philip. Can you envision any scenario in which their marriage might have survived? Or were their religious differences and political responsibilities insurmountable?

2.  What do you think motivated Elizabeth’s revelation about her suspicions regarding Lucette’s true parentage? Was her choice political or personal? How might she have handled the situation differently? Discuss the long–term impact of her decision on Lucette and the Courtenay family.

3.  Which character surprised you the most? Why?

4.  In what ways are Anne Isabella and Elizabeth similar? In what ways are they different? Compare and contrast the two, both as women and as leaders.

5.  Discuss the relationship between Minuette and Elizabeth. In what ways has it evolved, and in what ways has it remained the same?

6.  Elizabeth plays many roles—-that of wife, friend, mother, and queen most notably. Discuss these different facets of her personality. Do you see a difference in her behavior in each of these contexts, or does the monarch necessarily overshadow the other roles?

7.  At one point, Lucette asks, “Should not love between spouses be absolute? How could one ever love a second person as much as the first?” Do you agree with this sentiment? Is it possible to feel romantic love for more than one person in a lifetime?

8.  Renaud tells Lucette: “You are so afraid of not being wanted, you will not put it to the test, and thus create the very distance you fear.” Do you agree with his assessment of Lucette? Can you think of anyone else in the book to whom this sentiment applies?

9.  Discuss Julien’s motives for becoming an English spy, taking into account the events of 1572. Do you find his reasons compelling?

10.  Before leaving England, Philip says to Elizabeth, “I indulged myself in a dream these twenty years because I loved you and because I hoped persuasion would be of greater influence than force.” What do you think his dream was? How could Elizabeth have handled the situation with Spain differently? At this point, do you think there was anything she could have done to dissuade Philip from carrying out his plan?

11.  Compare and contrast Nicolas and Julien. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different? Did you sympathize with Nicolas at all by the end?

12.  If you read The Boleyn King Trilogy, compare and contrast the relationships between Kit, Anabel, Pippa, and Lucette to those between the previous generation: Elizabeth, William, Dominic, and Minuette.

13.  What did you think of the revelation at the end of the book? Any predictions for the sequel?

Discussion Questions: At the Water’s Edge

Monday, November 16th, 2015

At the Water's Edge_GruenIn this thrilling new novel from the author of Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen again demonstrates her talent for creating spellbinding period pieces.At the Water’s Edge is a gripping and poignant love story about a privileged young woman’s awakening as she experiences the devastation of World War II in a tiny village in the Scottish Highlands.

Use these discussion questions to help guide your book club’s discussion of the book.

1.       The novel takes place during World War II. Is the war setting a distraction or does it contribute to the success of the novel? Would changing the time frame change the meaning of the novel? How did the austerity of the times affect Maddie, who was used to a life of luxury? Have you ever discussed what things were like during the Great Depression and World War II with family members who lived through it? What stories did they share with you?

2.       “What I learned over the past year was that monsters abound, usually hiding in plain sight.” Monsters come in all different forms in At the Water’s Edge. What are some of the monsters in the novel? How are they different from what you might expect?

3.       Throughout At the Water’s Edge, Maddie transforms from a woman who is spoiled, naïve, and helpless to one who is brave and capable. What and who are the major influences that led her to change? What are the biggest lessons Maddie learns throughout the course of the novel?

4.       Discuss the novel’s ambiguity concerning the supernatural. How does Sara Gruen blend mystical elements into the narrative’s realism? Did Ellis and Hank find the Loch Ness Monster after all?

5.       Do you think Maddie and Ellis were ever truly in love? What did you think of Ellis? Did you sympathize with him? Did Ellis change as a character in the course of the novel or did the changes all take place within Maddie?

6.       How did you feel about Hank? Did he evolve during the course of the novel or did his character remain the same?

7.       The idea for At the Water’s Edge came to Sara Gruen during a visit she took to Scotland. She became fascinated with the ruins of old castles, the wild beauty of nature, and Scottish history and folklore. Discuss the role that the landscape and atmosphere of Scotland plays in the novel.

8.       Discuss the evolution of Maddie and Angus’s relationship. What were some of Angus’s qualities that Maddie grew to most admire? At what point do you think she realized she loved him?

9.       At the Water’s Edge explores humanity at its most base, as well as its most noble. Can you give some examples of both from the story? In the end, what kind of statement do you think Gruen makes about human nature?

10.       Before she goes to Scotland, Maddie only has Ellis and Hank as friends. How do the female friendships she develops in Scotland shape her in new ways?

A Conversation with Sara Gruen

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

At the Water's Edge_GruenSara Gruen, author of the new release At the Water’s Edge, shared some insight into her writing process and what led her to set her latest novel at the edge of Scotland’s Loch Ness during World War II.

Brandi Megan Granett: How did the story for At the Water’s Edge unfold for you? What drew you to writing it?

Sara Gruen: I had a long–standing fascination with the Loch Ness Monster, starting when I was twelve and first visited Urquhart Castle and was convinced I was going to see it, and a random news article rekindled my interest. The idea of incorporating my favorite castle in the world with the looming prospect of the monster was irresistible, so I booked research trips without having any idea of what my story would be. Ultimately, it came to me in a rush when I was standing at the Water Gate in Urquhart Castle (a location that has great importance in the book), and I spent the rest of the afternoon stomping around the castle dictating ideas into my phone. That day was definitely one of the highlights of my writing life!

BMG: Both Jacob in Water for Elephants and Maddie and Ellis in At the Water’s Edge suffer a sort of fall from grace at the start, losing access to a once guaranteed future. What do your stories say about making life your own?

SG: In the broadest sense, almost all stories begin with an upheaval of some sort, because normal people doing normal things does not a good story make! I think the stories that appeal to us as readers are those in which people have to examine what’s really going on in their lives, or face a huge change in circumstances, and then see what they do going forward. In the case of At the Water’s Edge, Maddie and Ellis both face enormous changes in circumstance and their understanding of life as they know it, and react in nearly polar opposite ways to the truths they find.

BMG: What roles do travel and research play in your writing? When does imagination come in?

SG: I love the research part. One of the best things about this job is that I get to find something that fascinates me and that I hope will be fascinating to others, and then I completely immerse myself in it for a few years. It happens in different ways for different books, but in this case the location came first, and after a few weeks of full immersion in the Highlands, the story came to me. It happened while I was standing at the Water Gate, and all the little amorphous bits that were floating around in my brain started to take shape, so I sent my guide back to his car and spent the rest of the afternoon stomping around the castle dictating ideas into my phone. That’s one of those writing moments you hope and dream will happen, but very rarely do. I still have the files on my phone. They’re taking up a huge amount of space, but I can’t bring myself to delete them.

BMG: Your books draw richly on the history of the times; 
in At the Water’s Edge, World War II frames the narrative. 
What do you think it takes to accurately portray a time period? How do you balance telling the story and setting the historical scene?

SG: For me, I need to take an almost obsessive approach to research. When I’m at the writing stage, I pass through a kind of creative portal every day and feel like I’m really in that other world I’ve created, and so it has to exist right down to the trowel marks in the plaster, and I’m a stickler for detail. The saying “the devil is in the details” is absolutely right.

BMG: This is your fifth book; what have you learned about your writing process as you gained more experience? What stayed the same for you and what has changed?

SG: I’ve realized that I can’t structure my work time and progress quite as rigidly as I would like to. For my first couple of books, I aimed for (and got, even if it nearly killed me) two thousand words a day. Then I moved to two thousand words a day or eight hours, whichever came first. Now, I feel like if I show up for work and put in an honest day, I’ve done well. Because I can’t force the creative process. Sometimes I am typing as fast as I can all day, and have to drag myself away because there’s more to be done, and other times I stare glumly at my open file all day, which is okay, because I’ve come to realize that when I can’t get any words out, it means there’s something I need to figure out and change in the storyline, and even if my fingers aren’t busy, my brain is.

BMG: Out of all the characters you created, who is your favorite and why?

SG: Before this book, I would have said Rosie, but now I have to say Maddie. She changed so dramatically from what I imagined her to be—-coming to life in the way that characters do—-and she was so willing to look at things that she had never examined before, in an open–minded and big–hearted way, and she showed courage and resolve in a situation that was utterly impossible, and became increasingly so.

BMG: I read that you needed an Internet–free zone to write Water for Elephants. Zadie Smith spoke about using a computer program to block herself from the Internet while writing her novel NW. How do you keep yourself from going down the rabbit hole of cyberspace?

SG: I wrote a large chunk of Water for Elephants in a walk–in closet, because at that time we didn’t have Wi–Fi and it pre-vented me from obsessively checking my email, shopping on eBay, and basically blowing an afternoon watching cats in boxes on YouTube. Then I used Zadie Smith’s method—-I know the program she’s talking about—-but I found a workaround, and so that ended up being no help at all. And just in case she ever reads this, I’m not going to say what that workaround is because I do not want to be single–handedly responsible for the delay of a new Zadie Smith book.

From the Diary of Minuette Courtenay from The Virgin’s Spy

Friday, November 6th, 2015

Virgin's Spy_AndersenFrom the Diary of Minuette Courtenay

30 August 1561

Wynfield Mote

Elizabeth’s summer progress has brought her to Warwick Castle for a fortnight, a visit that might very well bankrupt Ambrose Dudley. It is, of course, a mark of great favour to host the queen—-but the wretched man apparently had to build an entirely new timber structure in which to house her, seeing as the castle itself is in such poor repair. Perhaps that is why our queen never chooses to stay with us at Wynfield Mote—-she knows that we would not go to such lengths to impress her.

But as Warwick is only ten miles distant, Elizabeth has come to us for this one night only.

There have been rumours, of course, since almost the moment she made her wedding vows last December. But I said I would believe none of them until Elizabeth herself told me. And so she did, as we sat alone together after dinner.

“I am with child.” She delivered the news as abruptly and matter–of–factly as though she were commenting on possession of a new book or piece of art. But I know her too well to be deceived.

“I am glad of it,” I replied, with real pleasure. “Have you been ill? Tired? Uncomfortable?”

“I cannot afford to be ill, breeding or not.”

“Philip must be pleased.” I called him by name deliberately, to separate the husband and father from the King of Spain.

“Naturally he is pleased. It means he has done his duty. Now he can return to Spain for the winter.”

“I do not think you are only a duty to him, Elizabeth. And nor will his child be.”

But my friend has refused to be sentimental since the death of Robert Dudley. “We cannot all be as fortunate as you, Minuette, with your adoring husband and perfect brood of children. For it is no secret in this household that you are also set to deliver another before spring.”

There is no such thing as perfect, I wanted to snap. What does Elizabeth know of the price Dominic and I continue to pay for our past sins? Does she know how my husband retreated to Tiverton after Stephen’s birth last year and did not communicate for so many months I began to think he had left me? He loves me, I know, and he loves Lucette equally with Stephen—-but love does not preclude pain.

As Elizabeth knows well.

27 February 1562

Tiverton Castle

Elizabeth is safely delivered of a daughter.

She is named Anne Isabella, for her Boleyn grandmother and her Spanish great–grandmother. If there is disappointment that the newborn is not a son, it is masked for now with relief that the queen is clearly capable of bearing healthy children. King Philip will return in the spring to meet his daughter, yes, but also to begin the business of the next child.

But I can care about Elizabeth only in brief snatches between my own joy and exhaustion. Three days ago I was also delivered, almost a month before my expected time, and gifted by God with two beautiful children. A girl and a boy. Philippa, we have called our daughter, after Dominic’s mother, who died last year in blessed peace. We considered naming her twin Jonathan, after my father, but Dominic kept looking between the two babies with a crease in his forehead as he pondered.

“Christopher,” he finally announced.

I blinked, somewhat surprised, for there is no Christopher in either of our near families. But then Dominic gave one of his rare, open smiles and said, “I like the way they sound together. Pippa and Kit. What do you think?”

I think I love you so much my heart is near to breaking, I thought.

3 May 1562

Tiverton Castle

The children and I leave for Wynfield Mote next week. Dominic will not be with us. He has been summoned to court. Elizabeth has tried summons before this, but Dominic has always ignored them. What can she threaten us with? Taking away Tiverton and the duchy of Exeter? It would be no punishment, for Dominic serves his people from duty rather than ambition.

This time, Elizabeth took another tack. Please, she wrote to both of us, I have great need of a friend. Not for myself. For my daughter.


The closer he came to London, the more tense Dominic Cour-tenay grew. He had not been anywhere near the city since his imprisonment in the Tower five years before. At least Elizabeth had sense enough not to summon him to Whitehall. Indeed, he did not actually have to enter the city at all, for the queen awaited him at Nonsuch Palace, fifteen miles southwest. The distinctive octagonal towers rising before him made Dominic catch his breath before he ruthlessly banished memories of previous visits. Visits when Elizabeth was merely Princess of Wales and William . . .

Tension made him curt, but he had never been a man of many words and Elizabeth’s guards and stewards passed him along swiftly enough to the queen’s privy chamber. To his surprise, she greeted him alone.

“No counselors today?” he asked her. “No clerks or ambassadors begging your attention for the great matters of state?”

“There is no matter of greater importance to me than what I am about to ask you.”

“Why bring me all the way here simply to tell you no? I am finished with courts and royals, Your Majesty. You know that.”

“But you are not finished with loyalty. Nor will you be so long as you draw breath.”

“What do you want, Elizabeth?” If she was going to pluck at all the most painful chords of his past, he would treat her not as queen, but as the girl he’d known since childhood.

She matched his tone. “I need you, Dominic, to stand as Protector to my daughter.”

All the breath left his body. He’d known a Lord Protector once, and no way in hell was he going to follow in the footsteps of George Boleyn, Lord Rochford.

Elizabeth didn’t wait for his refusal. “I am not asking you to run the government, Dominic. You are entirely too honest for such a task . . . although I suspect Minuette would be quite good at it.”

“That is not—-”

Elizabeth overrode him. “Let me be frank. My life is all that stands between security and chaos in England. My life—-and now that of my infant daughter. An infant whose father would gladly seize whatever power he could in this nation.”

Dominic had learned a few things from his wife, including sarcasm. “That is only occurring to you now?”

Her eyes darkened, and he realized that there was real fear beneath her royal composure. “For a man so eager to keep apart from politics, that is a rather piercing opinion to voice.”

He raised a hand in conciliation. “I apologize. What is it you want from me?”

When she spoke again, it was entirely as Queen of England. “If I should die during my daughter’s childhood, England will have need of a strong government during her minority. That responsibility would lie in the hands of Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham, as well as a carefully composed council of men I trust. I am not asking you to protect England in such a case—-I am asking you to protect Anabel.”

It was that last word that moved him, the realization that Elizabeth had given her daughter a pet name. Even though he suspected her of using sentiment against him, it worked. There was only one thing more she could try, so Dominic asked before the queen could. “May I see her?”

He followed Elizabeth to a separate suite of painted and gilded chambers attended by soft–footed ladies who looked more suited to royal feasts than caring for a baby.

Anne Isabella, the Princess of Wales, lay in a cradle beneath a cloth–of–gold canopy embroidered with her mother’s personal falcon badge. The baby looked a little bigger to him than did his own twins, but the plump cheeks and finely pursed mouth were familiar childish traits. The infant had her mother’s distinctive red–gold hair and stared up at him with a curious intelligence he told himself he was imagining.

“She’s a pawn, Dominic,” Elizabeth said softly, next to him. “A Spanish pawn. If I die young, Philip’s men will spare no 
effort to lay hold of her. She must not fall to Spain. Promise me, Dominic. Promise me that if anything happens to me, you will take Anabel into your care. I trust few men with my government—-but only one man do I trust with her life.”

The last royal who trusted me with his life is dead, Dominic thought bleakly. In the end, it was the memory of Will, as much as Elizabeth’s plea, that decided him.

“I will protect her, Your Majesty. As though she were my own.”

Discussion Questions: Vanessa and Her Sister

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

Vanessa and her Sister_ParmarWhat if Virginia Woolf’s sister had kept a diary? For fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank comes a spellbinding new story of the inseparable bond between Virginia and her sister, the gifted painter Vanessa Bell, and the real-life betrayal that threatened to destroy their family. Hailed by The New York Times Book Review as “an uncanny success” and based on meticulous research, this stunning novel illuminates a little-known episode in the celebrated sisters’ glittering bohemian youth among the legendary Bloomsbury Group.

1.      When the novel opens, the Stephen siblings’ father has died and they have moved from their childhood home in Kensington to bohemian Bloomsbury. Why do you think Vanessa chose to uproot her siblings and move to such a radically different part of town? What sort of change was she trying to bring about for her family?

2.      Vanessa tells us that her family values words and books over painting and visual arts. How do you think growing up in such a family affected Vanessa’s view of herself as an artist? Would you rather be a writer or a painter?

3.      Vanessa always protected and supported Virginia, and excused much of her difficult and unsocial behavior. Do you think Vanessa’s tolerance gave Virginia permission to behave in the way that she did?

4.      What is your opinion of Virginia and Vanessa’s relationship? Before Vanessa’s betrayal, did you find them to be legitimate friends, or do you feel something was missing between them even before Vanessa married Clive? How did Vanessa’s view of her sister change after she married?

5.      Vanessa turned down several proposals from Clive, but decided to accept him after Thoby died. Do you feel that if Thoby had lived, Vanessa might have chosen a different path? Or that Virginia might not have behaved as she did? Do you think Vanessa and Clive were well suited to each other?

6.      Virginia felt contempt for Clive and thought him an unsuitable husband for her sister. Why did she seek to “find a place” in Vanessa’s marriage? What do you think Virginia hoped to achieve?

7.      We often think of the early twentieth century as being a time of almost Edwardian restraint, yet the Bloomsbury Group was open about both homosexual and heterosexual love. Do you think they were utterly unique? Do you believe such openness was actually more common at the time than we traditionally believe?

8.      Members of the Bloomsbury Group not only challenged the norms of the time but also challenged one another during their numerous discussions about art, writing, philosophy, economics, and even love. Vanessa at times felt she was out of her depth, and marveled at Virginia’s brilliance. Do you agree with her assessment of herself? How difficult do you feel it would have been to be a part of such a talented and intelligent circle?

9.      At one point Vanessa reflects, “If Virginia were not my sister, we would be a pedestrian cliché. Instead, we are a bohemian nightmare.” How do you feel the ideals of the Bloomsbury Group influenced Vanessa’s reaction to not only Clive’s affair with Virginia but also his choice to resume physical relations with Mrs. Raven Hill? If you had been in her shoes, do you believe you would have responded differently?

10.   The story opens with a letter from Virginia to Vanessa stating, “What happened cannot break us. It is impossible. Someday you will love me and forgive me. Someday we will begin again.” How did this letter color your reading of the rest of the novel? Did you expect Vanessa to forgive Virginia at any point? Do you think it is fair to say that Vanessa still loved her sister, despite the fact that she ultimately decided she could not forgive her? Do you agree with Vanessa’s decision?

11.   Vanessa and Her Sister is told largely through excerpts from Vanessa’s diary and her letters, with snippets of correspondence between her family and friends. What did you think of this narrative style? Was there any one person whose perspective you wished to see more often? How objective did you feel Vanessa’s portrayal of the story was?

12.   Of the two sisters, Virginia is undoubtedly the more famous. Were you surprised by anything you learned about her in this novel? Did it challenge any previous ideas you had about her?

13.   At the end of the novel, the author gives a brief description of what became of each member of the Bloomsbury Group. Was there anything in there you found unexpected? Disappointing? Particularly satisfying?

A Conversation Between Sarah Blake and Priya Parmar

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

Vanessa and her Sister_ParmarWhat if Virginia Woolf’s sister had kept a diary? For fans of The Paris Wifeand Loving Frank comes a spellbinding new story of the inseparable bond between Virginia and her sister, the gifted painter Vanessa Bell, and the real-life betrayal that threatened to destroy their family. Hailed by The New York Times Book Review as “an uncanny success” and based on meticulous research, this stunning novel illuminates a little-known episode in the celebrated sisters’ glittering bohemian youth among the legendary Bloomsbury Group.

Sarah Blake is the author of Grange House and  The Postmistress (winner of South Africa’s Boeke Prize and a New York Times bestseller).

Sarah Blake: I first heard the famously dismissive (and apocryphal?) admonition from Virginia Woolf to her sister, Vanessa Bell—-You will have the babies, and I will write the books—-when I was in college and beginning to think of myself as a writer, and I’ll never forget the firestorm of debate and despair those words caused. Did a woman writer have to choose? And if we didn’t, did that make us less of a writer (or an artist)? Vanessa and Her Sister is a powerful answer to that question, but I’d love to know what drew you, as a writer and as a woman, to the two Stephen sisters and their story to begin with?

Priya Parmar: That remark might be apocryphal, but that specific, resentful sentiment pervaded Virginia Stephen’s correspondence in the months after Vanessa Bell gave birth to her first son, Julian. Virginia was desperately afraid of being left behind as Vanessa moved into her new life as wife and mother. Virginia’s letters are salted with spikey, barbed jabs aimed at her happily married sister.

Virginia Woolf was not an easy person—-gifted, charismatic, quixotic, charming, and brimming with creative genius—-but never easy. She believed in possession and in relentlessly coming first in the affections of those she loved. So what would it have felt like to be the person she loved best in the world?

That question kept surfacing as I tumbled deeper and deeper into the research. Vanessa Bell must have experienced a web of contradictory and shifting feelings. She must have felt trapped, exhilarated, exhausted, frustrated, proud, and protective when she dealt with her brilliant but selfish sister. And while Virginia adored Vanessa, she deliberately set out to destroy her sister’s marriage. As a novelist, I found this nexus of conflicting emotion irresistible. There is so much juicy humanity in the contradictions.

SB: And why did you choose to write the story from Vanessa’s point of view?

PP: Vanessa was the shadowy linchpin of the Bloomsbury Group. She was at the emotional, romantic, creative, social, and artistic center of the circle, and yet in many ways she left surprisingly light historical footprints. Many of her early paintings from this period were destroyed in the London Blitz, she did not keep a diary, and aside from a brilliant selection edited by Regina Marler, her letters are largely unpublished. So I began with the thought that this was a wonderful, underexplored vantage point for a novel. And then I spent some time with her.

I look for a historical figure with a magnetic core, someone who can draw the narrative to her and drive it forward with equal force. Vanessa astonished me with her humanity, her boldly lived life, and her canny self–deprecating voice. The story curved to fit her and then surged forward at her encouragement. Her archival letters are immediate and modern and Vanessa emerges as a woman who is flawed, magnificent, and relatable. As soon as I read them, I could not imagine telling the story from another point of view.

SB: One of the reasons I love writing historical fiction is the chance it gives me to take up the language of other times like a cloak I can wrap myself in and then walk around. There is the heady thrill of ventriloquism, and what you have achieved here is breathtaking. One can’t help but feel this must be just how Vanessa Bell thought and spoke and saw. When did you know you had Vanessa’s voice in your head? At what point did you start to become fluent in her? And how did that shape the course of the novel?

PP: I am so pleased you feel the voice rings true! “Fluent in her” is a lovely phrase. That is just how it felt. Vanessa’s voice did not creep up on me as Lytton’s and Virginia’s did. It arrived all at once and knocked on the door with a suitcase in hand. Choosing a historical figure is a dicey thing. The research is an invitation. I cook the dinner, set the table and light the candles in the hope that if I immerse myself fully into the historical documentation, her voice will arrive.

In 1905, Clive Bell proposed to Vanessa Stephen. She wrote a letter refusing him. But she did not write in the accepted, expected vocabulary of an Edwardian woman of her class. She told the truth. The whole truth. She liked him but not enough to marry him, but perhaps if he left the country for a bit she would like him more? She began the letter at home but finished it in pencil at the dentist’s office. With that letter, her voice galloped in. And the voice is everything. For me, the character flows from the voice and the narrative flows from the character. Once her voice moved in, the story began to crackle with life.

SB: What was your relationship to Virginia Woolf before beginning this book? Did you find that it changed over the course of writing it?

PP: I went to Mount Holyoke College—-all women, Seven Sisters, very big on Virginia Woolf. And then I majored in English. So I was steeped in the brilliance of Woolf’s novels from a relatively young age. I had roving Woolf favorites. Sometimes To the Lighthouse, sometimes Orlando. Always Mrs. Dalloway.

I knew that Virginia was difficult but felt that her personality took a backseat to her overwhelming genius. My mother has copies of all of the letters and diaries and I had dipped in and out of them over the years but never read them straight through. Once I began to research in earnest, I read the diaries, novels, essays, and letters concurrently in chronological order and my perception shifted. I began to separate the Virginia Woolf who was able to write with such enormous self–awareness and perception from the Woolf who was able to callously belittle a beloved friend or enter into an emotional affair with her sister’s husband.

My Virginia Woolf is very much a fictional creation. Her roots grip the historical facts of this early part of her life but her character is imagined. As I was writing, I found myself furious with Virginia. Hopelessly partisan, I sympathized with Vanessa unreservedly. It was only after I finished the novel that the balance restored itself and the genius of Woolf as a writer stepped back to the foreground.

SB: The novel begins with a letter from Virginia Woolf hoping that someday Vanessa will forgive her, and ends with the letter that is Vanessa’s answer. In between lies the story of these sisters as it unfolds over seven years. Vanessa’s last letter expresses one sister’s triumph at having pulled herself clear of the other, and into her own life. I couldn’t help but recall the end of To the Lighthouse when Lily Briscoe, the painter—-who has survived Mrs. Ramsay and all the intervening years—-puts down her brush and thinks to herself, triumphantly—-There. I have had my vision. Can you talk a little about how your book is haunted by Virginia Woolf’s novels, and which ones in particular?

PP: It is interesting. Most of the references were unintentional. I did purposefully include a few elements from the novels such as opening with a party to call up Mrs. Dalloway (Clarissa Dalloway is a character thought to be based upon Vanessa Bell) and tailoring aspects of Thoby’s character to suggest Jacob Flanders from Jacob’s Room. But since my novel is set in the years before Virginia published her first book, I tried my best to limit the Woolf references.

But my efforts failed. Virginia drew heavily upon her childhood and family in her writing, and I was stitching my narrative to her same -family history. One by one, her novels came marching obliquely in and echoed through the hallways of this story, pulled along by their historical origins. Lily Briscoe, Rosamund Merridew, Katharine Hilbery, -Godrevy Lighthouse, Clarissa Dalloway. I love the organic, grassroots way they found their way here.

SB: Vanessa writes to Lytton Strachey at the height of the affair between Clive and Virginia, “I think in color, in paint and pen and ink and shape. It is safer, and there are fewer lies.” Did you find that your writing, or your thinking about your writing, shifted because you were thinking about your scenes as a painter would?

PP: I cannot paint. Not even a little bit. So it was difficult for me to think as a painter would. I had no contextual foothold and had to rely even more heavily on historical sources to understand Vanessa’s particular artistic experience of the world. Here, I was lucky. While Vanessa kept silent on many subjects, she wrote frequently and expansively about her painting, exchanging letters with Roger Fry, Margery Snowdon, Duncan Grant, and Clive Bell among others.

I also spoke to several artists and art historians to better understand the emotionally freighted journey a painting makes from inspiration to studio to gallery to new owner. Vanessa’s artistic voice began to ring true when I realized how profoundly isolated she was growing up. In a family of writers, her medium was visual. No one spoke her language and that told me so much.

SB: Over the course of reading Vanessa and Her Sister, I found myself falling deeper and deeper under the thrall of Vanessa’s diary, to the point at which you could easily have told me that this was a lost diary, something just discovered—-it rang so true. What made you want to write the novel as a diary interspersed by letters? What were the constraints and freedoms that choice gave you? Are there any other diaries that have particularly inspired you?

PP: I have always been fascinated by diaries. From Tsarina Alexandra’s poignant last days in 1918 to Samuel Pepys’s rowdy love affairs in 1660 to Cecil Beaton’s cutting comments about his friends in the mid–twentieth century, diaries have a “cannot look away even though you know you should” quality to them. There is a backstage thrill. We are reading something that was not meant for us. Something that the author did not edit and shape in the way a writer does when a work is destined for public consumption. Instead it is raw–edged, unfinished, and so very personal.

As for the format of the novel, it did not feel as though I had a choice. The narrative arrived in this shape and refused to budge. Perhaps it was because I had spent years reading diaries and letters from the period, but when I tried the third person, it came across as forced and awkward and the characters packed up and went home. From the start, this format felt natural. The saddle fit the horse. I had been warned about the dangers and limitations of a first–person narrative, but because other voices were able to weave in and out with letters and postcards and telegrams, the form felt open and airy and never restrictive. Instead it felt endowed with huge built–in narrative tension. The author of a diary does not know what will happen next week or next month or how it will all end, but we do. So the format was rich with possibility.

SB: In her essay “Women and Fiction,” Woolf writes: Often nothing tangible remains of a woman’s day. The food that has been cooked is eaten; the children that have been nursed have gone out into the world. Where does the accent fall? What is the salient point for the novelist to seize upon? I thought of this as I read your book and wondered what were the moments while you were doing your research—-the salient points—-that you knew were pointing you in the direction of your novel? Where did you hear the accent fall?

PP: “Women and Fiction” is such a brilliant essay. It is interesting that Woolf writes these lines but she herself led a life where she pursued none of these activities. Her accents all fell in other places.

As I was carving the narrative from the research, there were several moments that stepped forward and declared themselves to be seminal and crucial. Surprisingly, they were not the moments anchoring the central betrayal of Vanessa’s life. Instead, they were the defining landmarks along her personal, emotional trajectory. A family’s understanding of who you are can be a binding, limiting thing. The moment when Vanessa peels away these long unquestioned beliefs, sheds that understanding of herself and leaps into the current of her own life, is for me the bone–deep engine of the narrative.

SB: This novel holds so many riches—-bringing to life Vanessa Bell, letting us eavesdrop on the Bloomsbury Group, a deeply satisfying portrait of an artist becoming herself—-but in some ways, the richest vein of all is the story, rarely told, of the relationship between artists who are sisters. Little has been written about the vital mix of competition and support (where, for instance, is the novel Anne and Her Sisters, depicting the Brontës?), and I wonder if you could talk a little about sisters and that bond and how it informed the writing of this novel?

PP: My own experience of having a sister has been unequivocally happy. But I know that I am lucky and that is not always the case. Affection, rivalry, competition, warmth, support, beauty, charisma, interest, similarity, and talent are all ingredients that mix together to form unique and sometimes difficult bonds, but the effect seems to always be one of particular intensity.

At the start of the research process, I began asking women a single question. I asked friends and strangers and women sitting next to me on planes and buses and women I met at dinner parties and in line at the DMV. “Do you have a sister?” If she answered yes, I would explain my novel, apologize in advance, and then ask that if her sister and her husband had an affair, which would be the greater betrayal? I asked this question again and again over the course of four years and the answer was always the same. The sister’s betrayal was greater. There is a magical alchemy in a sister relationship.

SB: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the members of the Bloomsbury Group over the course of writing this novel? What did you learn in researching, but then further, what did you learn in writing them, in inhabiting their voices?

PP: I was constantly surprised by how hard they worked to make their lives match their ideals. I had always had the impression that their bohemianism was clear and effortless, but I found that was not the case. It was an ongoing choice. A decision to follow an inner directive and live by their deepest convictions, and I do not think it was always easy. Conflicting, untidy, unruly emotions were tricky to navigate.

They all fervently believed in the importance of personal relationships and felt that friendship should be preserved at all cost, but sometimes the cost was immense. For a heartbroken Lytton Strachey to stay close to Duncan Grant and Maynard Keynes as they entered into a romantic affair was a bold and pricey decision. For Leonard Woolf to understand and accept that his dearest friend Lytton had accidentally proposed to Virginia, and she had accepted, must have been terrifically uncomfortable. For Vanessa Bell to create an affectionate and respectful lifelong co–parenting friendship with an unfaithful Clive Bell must not have been easy or straightforward. And it must have taken huge strength for Vanessa to shape a loving if not a trusting relationship with Virginia.

Each character and storyline held surprise as they slid out of their neat chronological confines. The fiction blurred the history as my novel and its characters became more and more real. These people lived courageously and they accepted the sometimes painful consequences of their choices with extraordinary humanity and grace.

Discussion Questions: The Scent of Secrets by Jane Thynne

Monday, September 21st, 2015

The Scent of Secrets_ThynneSet in Europe, in 1938, during the tense run-up to war, and perfect for fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, Robert Harris, and Susan Elia MacNeal, this gripping historical novel features the half-British, half-German actress (and wholly covert spy) Clara Vine, who finds herself enmeshed in a dangerous game of subterfuge.

Take a deeper dive into the world of Clara Vine with these discussion questions…

1.   Who surprised you the most in the novel?

2.   Women played a crucial role in Hitler’s vision for the future of Germany. Discuss the role of women in German society in the 1930s. How does Hitler want the position of women to change?

3.   There are several examples of women who are even more fervently in favor of the Nazi cause than their spouses; did that surprise you? Why or why not? Discuss the relationships between the high–ranking Nazi officials and their wives.

4.   What did you think of Rosa’s decision to forge her nephew’s official medical papers? Were you surprised by her decision? Why or why not?

5.   What did you think of Eva Braun? What about her relationship with Hitler? Was she as silly as she sometimes seemed to be, or do you think she understood more about politics than she let on?

6.   Discuss the importance of the Nazi youth clubs and the mother schools in implementing the Nazi philosophy.

7.   Like most Berliners, Clara grows suspicious of everyone—-including her new neighbor, who turns out to be an innocent schoolteacher. Anyone might be a spy, even young children on their Sunday collection rounds. What means of recourse are there for normal citizens who do not support the Nazi regime?

8.   There seem to be a lot of inconsistencies in the personal, political, and moral philosophies of Hitler and his entourage. Hitler detests makeup yet loves actresses and the cinema. Goebbels champions family values yet is a serial philanderer. Rosa observes that party leaders seem to want to keep men and women separate, like flour and sugar, while at the same time encouraging higher birth rates and more marriage. Can you think of any other examples? How do you rationalize these hypocrisies? How do they?

9.   What surprised you most about Hitler?

10.  Compare and contrast the different Nazi wives in the novel.

11. What would your signature scent be?

A Conversation Between Christina Baker Kline and Amanda Eyre Ward

Friday, September 18th, 2015

The Same Sky_Ward_No TargetChristina Baker Kline chats with Amanda Eyre Ward about The Same Sky, Ward’s  beautiful and heartrending novel about motherhood, resilience, and faith—a ripped-from-the-headlines story of two families on both sides of the American border.

Christina Baker Kline is a novelist, nonfiction writer, and editor. She is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Orphan Train, a novel about an unlikely friendship between a seventeen–year–old Penobscot Indian foster child and a ninety–one–year–old Irish American widow who was one of several hundred thousand orphans to be transported from crowded East Coast cities to foster homes in the Midwest during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Christina’s other novels include Bird in Hand, The Way Life Should Be, Desire Lines, and Sweet Water.

Amanda Eyre Ward is the critically acclaimed author of five novels, including the bestseller How to Be Lost. She has spent the last year visiting shelters in Texas and California, meeting immigrant children and hearing their stories. This novel is inspired by them.

Christina Baker Kline: I read The Same Sky six months ago and still carry it around in my head. Your writing is vivid and immediate; you tell a complex story in such an accessible way. The reason I think it’s so memorable is that you build scenes with vivid specific details, use humor as a valve, and write about your characters with compassion and depth. They are fully human. Tell me—-how did you pull that off?

Amanda Eyre Ward: I know that some writers start with a plot or setting, but for me, everything begins with my characters. I see them in my imagination, and follow them wherever they want to take me. (I have learned from experience that trying to force them to go where I want them to is a futile and wasted effort.)

I spend a lot of time taking care of my children and not getting words on the page, so I try to use this time to gather details about my characters: If I’m grocery shopping, I ask myself, What would Alice buy for dinner? If I’m driving to a birthday party, I think, Which street might lead to Evian’s house?

I’m a huge reader, and if I’m invested in a character, I won’t put down the book. So when I wanted to write about unaccompanied minors and their journey to the U.S. border, I knew that Carla’s character was key. Luckily, her voice came to me. Carla’s voice mirrors many of the unaccompanied minors I met: feisty, funny, brave, hopeful.

CBK: How did you come to be interested in unaccompanied minors?

AEW: I had been working on my fifth novel for two and a half years when my agent told me it was terrible. For months, I stumbled around in a haze of misery. During the hours I’d previously spent working, I read everything I could get my hands on.

I read Enrique’s Journey, the nonfiction account of a boy traveling from Honduras to reach his mother in America, after reading a profile of Sonia Nazario in the alumni magazine of Williams College, which we both attended. The book grabbed me immediately—-Nazario’s research was dangerous and important, and I wanted to read more about children like Enrique. I searched the Web for stories, transfixed by kids my own children’s ages who were walking away from everything they knew to try to reach their mothers and fathers in America. As I tucked him in at night, I tried to visualize my own ten–year–old son bringing my six–year–old (and one–year–old!) on such a dangerous trek. It was impossible to imagine.

I met Alexia Rodriguez, whose organization, Southwest Key, runs many of the shelters at the border. Alexia brought me to Brownsville, Texas, where she introduced me to unaccompanied minors and I spoke to them about writing.

I also talked to the children about why they had left, what horrors they had faced along the way, and what they hoped to find. One girl told me about watching her friend being attacked by an alligator and being forced by her -coyote to leave the ailing girl behind. I met a five–year–old whose parents had left him when he was an infant. They lived in New Jersey, and he was due to be reunited with them in the morning. I heard about boat trips, plane trips, and how hard it is to sleep on The Beast.

And I met children who had been assaulted. Some of the girls were pregnant—-their eyes dark and flat, their hair clean from the shelter showers. They wore pink sweatsuits and told me stories I will never forget.

That night, I lay awake, unable to sleep. It was excruciating to think about the kids just a few miles away. They were so brave and so alone. They were filled with a faith I envied, the belief that God was with them and that they would find peace (and be loved) in America. I tried to think of what to do to help them but came up with nothing.

In the middle of the night, I heard a voice, the first sentence of a new novel: My mother left when I was five years old. And though I never thought I’d hear the voice of a young Honduran girl in my imagination, I listened. In the morning, the entire arc of the novel was clear to me. I could get one fictional girl to her mother, and that was a small something.

CBK: Since Carla’s voice and story arc came to you so clearly, why did you decide to incorporate Alice into her story?

AEW: During my research, I watched some videos of Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, who runs a shelter for migrants in Ixtepec, Mexico. (Carla and Junior come to this shelter in the book.) Father Solalinde Guerra said something that resonated deeply with me: these children have the spiritual capital that Americans need. I was very struck by this thought, and found it to be true. The children I met at the border, who literally have no material goods, have a sense of faith and hope—-a belief that they are and will be taken care of—-that I am often lacking.

I wanted to create a character who has the trappings of the American Dream—-a successful business, a house, even a kind and supportive husband—-but who yearns for something else, something deeper. She needs the spiritual capital that Carla possesses in abundance.

The main characters in your novel Orphan Train come from very different backgrounds as well. In your mind, how do you see their stories as fitting together?

CBK: Similar to what you were saying about how Carla’s character came to you, I find that when you write novels you go on instinct much of the time. As I began writing about Molly, a seventeen–year–old Penobscot Indian foster child, believe it or not I didn’t immediately notice parallels to Vivian, a wealthy ninety–one–year–old widow. But as I wrote my way into the narrative I could see that in addition to some biographical parallels—-both characters have dead fathers and institutionalized mothers; both were passed from home to home and encountered prejudice because of cultural stereotypes; both held onto talismanic keepsakes from family members—-they are psychologically -similar. For both of them, change has been a defining principle; from a young age, they had to learn to adapt, to inhabit new identities. They’ve spent much of their lives minimizing risk, avoiding complicated entanglements, and keeping silent about the past. It’s not until Vivian—-in answer to Molly’s pointed questions—-begins to face the truth about what happened long ago that both of them have the courage to make changes in their lives.

AEW: As I read Orphan Train, I was struck with the thought that unaccompanied minors have a great deal in common with the children you write about. Do you think?

CBK: I do. There are so many parallels in these stories of the orphan train riders and the border kids. One thing that I’ve learned in my research is that every immigrant group that comes to this country faces some kind of hazing process. When people are assimilated, they tend to forget that their ancestors (or even near relatives) were once poor, dispossessed, and alien. These stories force us to face that fact.

AEW: I finished reading Orphan Train, closed the book, and continued to think about the strength those children found in the face of such profound disappointment. The unaccompanied minors I met were also incredibly courageous. . . . I hope that readers can listen to Carla’s story and be inspired.

A Conversation with David Liss

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

The Day of Atonement_LissRandom House Reader’s Circle had the chance to ask David Liss, author of The Day of Atonement some questions about his research, history, and the differences between writing historical fiction and fantasy.

Random House Reader’s Circle: What was your inspiration for the novel?

David Liss: I first learned about the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 when I took my first eighteenth–century literature class in grad school, and it’s one of those things that always stuck in my imagination. Though it’s not well known by Americans today, it was a consciousness–changing event for eighteenth–century European intellectuals, who couldn’t quite comprehend how one of the world’s great cities could simply cease to exist. Usually when I’m finishing a book, I know exactly what I want to work on next. But after The Twelfth Enchantment, I didn’t have a clear idea, so I decided that maybe it was time to finally look into the earthquake. I began doing a little bit of light research on eighteenth–century Portugal in general to see if there was a story that would draw me in, and I became instantly fascinated with the political corruption, religious injustice, and economic ineptitude of the period. From there, I simply kept doing research until the story began to take shape. Originally I planned to write a sort of post–disaster novel in which I set up events for the earthquake fairly quickly, and then explored the aftermath in the bulk of the book. As I began writing the book, however, it became clear to me that it was Lisbon before the earthquake, not after, that really fascinated me.

RHRC: Sebastiao is an exceptional character in terms of skill, determination, and focus. What made you want to tell his story?

DL: Once I was fairly well steeped in the research for this book, I knew I wanted to write a revenge story, which seemed like a natural narrative for such an unjust society. Sebastiao took shape as I tried to figure out what sort of character would work best for this world. I liked the idea of someone who had been utterly broken by the injustice he’d suffered, so I began working from there. Revenge is always a losing proposition, of course, since it invariably leaves the seeker feeling empty afterward, so I wanted to write about someone who was looking for something more than justice. Sebastiao, troubled as he is, understands that vengeance is a process for him, not necessarily justice against those who have done wrong.

RHRC: The Day of Atonement is a return to historical fiction, after The Twelfth Enchantment, a novel with magical and supernatural elements. Do you find there are major differences between writing historical fiction and writing fantasy? Which do you prefer?

DL: When I write fantasy, it tends to be of the historical variety, which is usually very research–heavy, so there’s really not that much difference. I’m still working within certain limitations of history and culture—-as opposed to the sort of fantasy that takes place in a totally imagined world. I’m not sure if I prefer writing either one. Each has its own pleasures for me. That said, the two genres, in my view, are closely related. When you write about
periods of time before film or photography or sound recording, you have to make a lot of guesses about what life was like for your characters. They are often educated guesses, but you are still engaging in world–building and constructing an imaginative world for your reader to inhabit. If the physics and biology of that world are the same as ours, it’s historical fiction; if not, it’s fantasy.

RHRC: What were some of the specific challenges you faced in writing or researching this novel?

DL: The Day of Atonement presented some very specific challenges because Lisbon, as it existed before the earthquake, is almost entirely gone. A great deal of the work I did for this book involved trying to understand what life was like in destroyed Lisbon for people from all the various social strata. The English of this period were highly literate (by contemporary standards) and fascinated with themselves, so eighteenth–century London is extremely easy to research. Lisbon, by contrast, is less well recorded, so there was a lot of archival and detective work involved.

RHRC: What was your research process like?

DL: I tend to work from the broad to the particular. When I’m researching a culture I know almost nothing about, as I did with this book, I first look for the very general surveys of the material—-popular histories, or even books for younger readers. I want to understand the basics before I get into specifics, because otherwise I don’t really know what I’m looking at. Once I begin to have a sense of what interests me, I’ll read more scholarly works, and studies of specific people or events, or of cultural movements. From there I go to primary sources: letters, diaries, contemporary travel guides, and whatever else is available. Finally, when I have a near–final version of the book, I visit the place I’m writing about. I find if I go too early in the process, I’m not sufficiently focused; if I go later, I know exactly what I need to look for or at.

RHRC: Benjamin Weaver, the protagonist of several of your other novels, makes an appearance. What made you decide to bring him back? Did it feel strange to be writing about him from a different character’s perspective?

DL: There were certain similarities in the skill sets of the two characters, even though their personalities are very different, so I began to think it might be fun to have Weaver as a minor character in this book. Readers often contact me asking if I plan to write any more novels featuring Benjamin Weaver, and right now I have no intention of doing so, but it was interesting to think about him as an older, more settled figure. I’ve never had any interest in writing an entire novel about an older version of the character, so having him appear as a minor character here allowed me to imagine his life progressing without having to work a full narrative around it.

RHRC: The novel is set during a particularly tumultuous time in politics and religion. Do you see any lessons for the modern world in the realities of that setting?

DL: I tend to believe that every time is a tumultuous time for politics and religion—-which often serve, in my view, as an excuse for, rather than a cause of, aggression and animosity. I’m not sure there is any particularly insightful lesson to take away. There are always going to be those who will misuse and abuse power if given the chance. There are pretty universal occurrences, but I do find it interesting to see how they manifested in the past. Looking at these events through the lens of history can help to defamiliarize, and therefore shed light on, events in our own time.

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