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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

Discussion Questions: China Dolls by Lisa See

Friday, March 13th, 2015

China Dolls

San Francisco, 1938: A world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from different backgrounds, meet by chance at the glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.

The girls become fast friends. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspiscion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

Use the discussion questions below to guide your book club conversation.

1. The novel opens with the below quotation:


Only three things cannot be long hidden:
the sun,
the moon,
and the truth.

What does this quotation mean in the context of China Dolls? Lisa’s novel is filled with secrets—some hidden and not revealed until late in the novel. What were the most important ones? Why were they hidden? Did you agree with how and when they were revealed?

2. “In just these few minutes I’d learned two things about myself: I would never lower myself by faking an accent like my dad did (or Charlie Chan did in the movies), nor would I work naked as a hoochie-coochie dancer. All right, so I had pride. But what price would I have to pay for it?” (p. 11). This is something Grace realized about herself when she just started out as a performer. How did her outlook evolve throughout the novel?

3. Grace’s father brutally abused her when she was a young girl. Although Lisa never excused his behavior, how did she gradually reveal to the reader some of the factors that made him the man he was? Did you ever accept him for who he was? In what ways did the abuse Grace suffer at the hands of her father shape her subsequent relationships with men?

4. How did your perception of Ruby shift throughout the story? Did the hardship and discrimination she experienced affect the rest of her actions, whether commendable or not? How did Ruby’s ambition differ from that of Grace’s?

5. Ruby could have had any man she wanted—and she often did. Is it fair to be critical of the way Ruby tried to hide her early relationship with Joe from Grace? Why did she choose Joe, especially in light of Grace’s crush on him? Was this betrayal ultimately helpful to Grace in some respects?

6. How did you react to the way Ruby hid her Japanese ancestry as World War II began? How did you feel about her relationship with her parents? Did you think Ruby’s parents were Japanese spies? Could you tell one way or another? Did it matter to you whether they were verifiably innocent or guilty?

7. Helen’s narratives were filled with traditional Chinese sayings. Which are the most important in the novel and why? What aspects of Helen’s life made her situation fundamentally different from that of the other girls? When Helen’s past was revealed, were you surprised? How did it affect her approach to friendship?

8. Helen’s and Grace’s fathers share many similarities in how they look at their daughters and women. In what ways do their personal backgrounds make the two men different from each other?

9. What important elements did Eddie bring to the novel? Would you have married Eddie if you had been in Helen’s situation?

10. Ruby says to Grace, “You want an American life. I want an American life. Even Helen wants an American life” and then thinks to herself “And all of us, in our own ways, were doing the best we could to erase who we were” (p. 301). What do you think an “American life” meant for each woman, and why did they have to erase themselves to achieve it? Who were you rooting for most in the novel—Grace, Helen, or Ruby? And why?

11. Did you think Grace’s relationship with Joe was significantly different after the war? If so, how? In what ways had Grace changed? Joe? In reality, could they have changed as much as they did in the novel?

12. How was Helen’s betrayal of Ruby different from her betrayal of Grace? Which betrayal was worse? Why? Would the final confrontation scene have been different if it had been entirely narrated by Grace? Or by Helen?

13. While there are big betrayals in the novel, there were also moments of great resiliency and hope as the girls helped each other. In what ways did Grace, Helen, and Ruby support one another?

14. Perhaps more than in any of her other novels, Lisa has written in great detail about clothes and fashion. Why do you think she did that and what was she trying to say?

15. “China doll” or “China dolls” are phrases used often in the novel. What are the most important meanings behind this phrase? Which are positive? Which are negative? At the end of China Dolls,Tommy’s daughter criticized Grace’s career as one that promoted racial stereotypes. Was that criticism fair? Why or why not?

Q&A: Lisa See, author of China Dolls

Friday, March 6th, 2015

China DollsSan Francisco, 1938: A world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from different backgrounds, meet by chance at the glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.

The girls become fast friends, relying on one another through unexpected challenges and shifting fortunes. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspiscion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

Read the insightful Q&A below between Lisa and the real life China Dolls!

I first met Jodi Long, an actress who made her Broadway debut at age seven in Nowhere to Go But Up and now stars in Sullivan and Son on television, when she came to one of my book events. She gave me a copy of Long Story Short, a documentary she produced about her parents, who were nightclub performers. Larry Long was from Australia. He danced as a solo artist, teamed up with Paul Wing, and later married Trudie Kim (née Kimiye Tsunemitsu), who had been interned at the Minidoka War Relocation Center. After they married, they put together their own song, dance, and comedy act. On May 7, 1950, they were among the first Asian-American performers to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 2011, I did two interviews with Jodi and Trudie together. I offer these excerpts so you can get a sense of how I do research and then how the truth and details of real-life stories inspire me.

Lisa See: How old were you when the war started?

Trudie Kim: I was nineteen. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday in New York City when I got out of the internment camp in Idaho.

LS: When you were in the camp, you wrote letters to people, asking them to sponsor you to leave. How did you know who to write to?

TK: I knew that several people were writing for newspapers in New York; they were nightlife people. Not Walter Winchell, but others. So I
wrote, and I said I was in camp and I didn’t want to stay there. I said, “Why am I here? I’m an American citizen.” I couldn’t get out of camp unless someone agreed to give me a job.

LS: Your parents let you go?

TK: We were in camp! We lived in barracks. The whole family lived in one room. They evacuated us from the West Coast. A lot of people lost property, farms, and so forth, but we didn’t own anything like that. They sent us there, and when we got out of the train, we put our hands up like this and we couldn’t even see our hands because that’s how dusty it was. When I got there, I said, “How in the hell do I get out of this joint?” I spent all of my days going up to the placement office, which wasn’t even settled at that point, in a spot two or three miles away. I’d walk up there, and I’d say, “How the hell do I get out? Give me the papers.” It took me weeks. Lee Mortimer finally answered. He was a writer for the New York Daily Mirror. He was the nightlife editor, or whatever. He used to take out Asian girls. He used to take out Noel Toy. She was a bubble dancer. I think he took out Florence Ong. She was Korean, and she was sort of an opera singer.

LS: What did you think when you first got off the train in New York?

TK: I didn’t have a soul to help me. I got off at Penn Station. I had read about the Barbizon Hotel for Women, which was on Lexington and Sixty-third. I stayed there for a couple of weeks. I started to look for a job. I went to Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Best & Co., Arnold Constable, and Gimbel’s. No one would hire me as a saleswoman.

LS: Do you think that was because of the war?

TK: Probably. But they probably weren’t hiring any Asian people, anyway, at that time. No one said that. That was just my intuition. No one offered me a job—not even in the storeroom. I wasn’t fussy. I just wanted a job.

Jodi Long: I think what’s really interesting is that she couldn’t get a job in any of those places, but the one place that gave her a job was the American Bible Society as a file clerk and a typist.

LS: [To Trudie] You must have been a bit of a dreamer.

TK: I thought, Gee, I might be a singer. When I first came to New York, someone said, “Let’s go to the Hurricane Nightclub, where Duke Ellington is playing with Johnny Hodges.” Someone said, “Go up and sing.” I sang a few bars. Duke Ellington didn’t really listen to me, but it was an entrée.

LS: How did you get your job at the China Doll?

TK: Lee Mortimer took me out. That’s how I met everyone. He used to call me at the American Bible Society and say in a very low voice, “You want to go out tonight?” I used to go to nightclubs with him. When the China Doll opened, he had some pull in trying to get Asian people into the show. He is the one who suggested that I go down there to audition. “Go down there and audition. Maybe you’ll get a job!” I wanted to try out, but I was afraid that I might lose my job at the ABS, even though the pay was only seventeen dollars a week. Let me put it this way. The girls at the China Doll were making seventy-five dollars a week, so I talked to my boss at the ABS. “They have an open call for chorus girls. They make much more money than I do here. Would I be able to go down there and not lose this job here?” She said, “Go and try for it. Don’t worry about your job here. If you get it, fine. If you don’t get it, come back. I’ll hold the job for you.”

LS: So this was your first experience dancing?

TK: You go in, and he looks at you. The next day, they show you—do this and do that—which is absolutely nothing much. I guess he wanted to see how I looked onstage—presence, walk, and so on. It wasn’t too long, otherwise my boss wouldn’t have let me go. And then he decided. “Okay. I’m going”—like in the movie The Black Swan—“I’m going to pick you, pick you, pick you. The rest of you, thank you very much for coming.” When I went back to the dressing room, I said, “I got the job!” The other girls said, “You did?” I shouldn’t have bragged, but I was so excited. I wasn’t that clumsy, I guess.

JL: This was so much about survival. Performers like my mom and dad grew up in the Depression era. They saw Hollywood movies and somehow they got in their minds that they could do that, whether they had any formal training or not. Like my mother—​she didn’t have any formal training. Some of them did, like my father, who was taught how to tap by a Caucasian woman in Australia. The person who really took him under his wing was an African American man who was putting on music-hall shows in Australia. How interesting that that guy got from Africa to America, learned tapping, and then went to Australia and gave it to a little Chinese boy. I think it was really, “Oh, I can do this, and who cares what anybody thinks? I can make more money doing this.”

TK: Back home I used to work for fifty cents an hour in a grocery store. The big thing for me was, God! I can make seventy-five dollars!

JL: Tell Lisa the story about the guy, who, when you girls sat with him at the China Doll, he always took the money out of his socks.

TK: He was a Chinese guy. He worked on a big boat, going back and forth, with lots of passengers. I don’t know what his function was. I know he wasn’t just a sailor. I don’t think he was a cook, either. Maybe a steward. He used to come in regularly when he came back to shore. He would have all the girls sit at his table. When I say “girls,” there were a lot of us—six or so. We’d order food and drinks. That’s what we did after the first show. We used to sit and eat!

LS: What was your favorite thing to eat?

TK: I just wanted food. We didn’t go home and cook. When the tab came, he used to get cash from his shoe, from the heel, and pay for it. There were no charge cards back then. One time, he came in and said, “Oh, you girls want some shoes?” About four or five of us said, “Sure.” We went to his hotel. I thought, Oh my God. What’s going to happen? Let’s go get them and get out as fast as we can. He gave us shoes and some of us went home. I don’t know if anything happened with other girls. We used to stick together because we were all so young.

LS: It sounds like there was a lot of camaraderie with the other girls. Were there rivalries and jealousies and competition too?

TK: I don’t think so, not rivalry. The only thing I really didn’t care for and I really didn’t like was that three-quarters of them were Chinese, and they spoke Chinese most of the time in the dressing room. I didn’t like it.

LS: Did you feel they were doing that to leave you and the others out? Did you feel they were gossiping?

TK: I felt sometimes they may have been talking about us. I just didn’t like it. They probably weren’t talking about us, but who knows? When you’re young, you always think someone’s talking about you. Still, that was one thing I detested.

LS: All this time, were you writing to your parents? What did they think?

TK: I didn’t write to my parents. They didn’t read English, and I couldn’t write Japanese. Who used the telephone in those days? But they might have thought, Ah! What is she doing? It’s not traditional. The only worry they probably had was, Is she getting along?

JL: My grandparents couldn’t provide my mother with anything. They were in an internment camp, after all.

TK: I don’t know how my mother felt. She used to iron shirts in the Laundromat and she would work really hard, and she would send me ten dollars every once in a while.

LS: When you were working at the China Doll, what did you do when the night was done? Would you just go home or did you go out with everyone?

JL: Tell her about how you used to go to the drugstore after the show.

TK: Hanson’s Drugstore was across the street, and everybody hung out there. It was on Seventh Avenue, right across Fifty-first Street. [To Jodi] Your father always used to be there.

LS: Was Larry considered a headliner, a big star?

TK: Yes, he was a headliner at the China Doll.

LS: So he saw you and thought you were cute?

TK: I was the only one who listened to him! He hung around. I used to take a cab home to Seventy-fifth Street, but he’d make me walk all the way up to Seventy-fifth Street. I’d say, “Cryin’ out loud. I could have taken a cab.”

JL: Because he couldn’t afford a cab? Right?

TK: Right. Exactly. Sometimes we used to stop at Reuben’s, which was a pretty big restaurant; a lot of people used to go after the shows. Lena Horne was there one time, in the next booth. That was on Fifty-seventh Street.

LS: So Larry comes to the club; he’s got an act; he starts following you around . . .

TK: No. He was in an act.

JL: We should back up a little bit and give the backstory to that. Paul Wing was in a dance act with his partner, Dorothy Toy. [Wing & Toy were considered the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.] They were married at one point. Dorothy, even though her last name was Toy, was Japanese. According to the stories that I’ve heard, and I think it was Dad who told me, Wing & Toy had a Hollywood contract and another performer, who will remain nameless, ratted her out and told the people that they were hiring “a Jap.” The other performer was Chinese, and she got the job instead. That’s when Paul and Dorothy split up their act, because now that her cover was blown, she went on the road with her sister. Paul was on his own in San Francisco, and that’s when my father got up to the Forbidden City and they formed the Wing Brothers. Paul went from being Wing & Toy to the Wing Brothers. Even though all the pictures make them look like they were like the Nicholas Brothers—with all this tap dancing—my father was a tap dancer, but Paul didn’t really tap.

LS: He was more like a ballroom dancer.

JL: Yeah. Exactly. They did lots of jokes and patter and that stuff. They brought that to the China Doll, and that’s when my mother met my father. The Wing Brothers broke up somewhere in there, and my dad stayed in New York. I think because he gambled all his money away and couldn’t get it back!

TK: That’s true, because after work, not every night, but on certain nights they would play pai gai.

JL: They would stay after the show—not just at China Doll but also at the Forbidden City—to play cards or mahjong or whatever.

LS: [To Trudie] What was it like working with your husband?

TK: Putting the act together wasn’t just overnight.

JL: My father was a real stickler. He’d come see me at my show. “Did you know somebody was moving during your punch line? Tell them to stop moving.” He probably did that with my mom too.

TK: He’d say, “You moved!” “I moved?” I did move. [To Jodi] You went through that too? I didn’t dance, so I was faking when we did the tap dancing.

LS: I’ve seen the clip of you on The Ed Sullivan Show. You looked like you were dancing to me.

JL: If you really watch her feet [on The Ed Sullivan Show], she’s really good from here up. If you really watch my father’s feet, he’s tap dancing. My mother’s just stepping. It’s really funny to go back and watch it. She’s just doing the moves. She’s a good faker.

TK: I’m a good faker!

JL: Yes, you are!

LS: [To Jodi] What’s your earliest memory of being in a nightclub?

JL: I remember the waitresses. They used to take care of me when my parents were onstage. I remember I would sit sometimes in the audience, if it wasn’t too late. I specifically remember that you had to go through the kitchen to get to the dressing rooms. We’d be going through the kitchen with all those cleaver-wielding chefs, and that was scary. They’re all barking Chinese and wanting to pinch your check, and you’re like, “Ugh!” You’re running through the kitchen and getting backstage. The backstage area is still so clear in my mind. There were two staircases that went up. One to the women’s dressing room and one to the men’s dressing room. I also remember a stripper at the Forbidden City. She used to babysit me backstage. I used to play with paper dolls, and I liked to cut out the dresses myself. One day, she cut all the paper doll dresses out of the book. She thought she was doing me a favor. I was so upset. And I remember as a child thinking, “Why is she doing that?” Thinking about it later, she was giving my dolls clothes, even though she didn’t wear them. That’s pretty strange. She was putting clothes on my paper dolls!

TK: You used to run around backstage with Michael.

LS: Another boy?

JL: Yes. Larry Ching’s son. [Larry Ching was billed as the Chinese Frank Sinatra.] He was my first crush. A few years ago, we did a movie together up in San Francisco. It’s six in the morning, I’m in the makeup chair, some guy’s supposed to be playing my brother-in-law and I’m hearing him talk about how his father was a -performer at the Forbidden City. I’m like, What? I look at him, and I say, “Your father worked at the Forbidden City? So did mine.” He goes, “Oh, yeah. What was your dad’s name?” I say, “Larry Long.” I say, “What’s your dad’s name?” “Larry Ching.” “And what’s your name again.” He goes, “Michael.” I go, “Wait a second. You’re not the Michael I went to the San Francisco Zoo with?” He goes, “Oh my God! You’re Jodi.” It was unbelievable. It was just too weird. We’re still friends.

LS: One thing that struck me was how people were billed: The Chinese Fred Astaire; the Chinese Sophie Tucker. What was the reason or thinking behind that? Why would they get those labels?

TK: They called Toyet Mar the Chinese Sophie Tucker because she was heavy, I think.

LS: And she had a big voice.

TK: Yeah. Kind of. With the Wing Brothers, when your father and Paul Wing danced together, the newspapers used to call them the Chinese Nicholas Brothers.

JL: I always thought they did that for the Western audience to go, “Oh, I know what that is!” You look at certain actors, and they’ll look like Errol Flynn or whomever, and there’s a context already when you see them on the screen. You recognize what that stands for. It contextualizes the performer. I think in the performing arts that’s somewhat useful. But it’s also why it’s been hard for Asian Americans when you get to that other level of breaking into television or film. There’s not quite been a context for it. “Now I know what that is and I’m not completely shocked.” Seeing my parents on The Ed Sullivan Show, what’s always so amazing to me is that they start out doing the chinky-Chinaman kind of thing, but it contextualizes them and it makes their act almost acceptable for the audience, because that’s the way the audience is looking at it. When they take off their Chinese robes and they’re just Western-style performers, it’s like, “Oh!”
LS: How did that come about—being on The Ed Sullivan Show?

TK: I have no idea. I didn’t handle any of that stuff. All I know is we were going to perform there.

JL: Ed Sullivan had scouts who would go to all the nightclubs and all the vaudeville places, and that’s how they would see you and then they would want to book you.

LS: I would have been excited and terrified too.

TK: I really can’t remember if I was excited or not. I was trying to be very careful of what I wore. I had something I had already made. Everything matched. I even had green hose.

JL: Mom made all her own costumes. But it was always about the career and putting it out there. It was the only way you were going to get ahead. That’s the performer’s dilemma. There will always be that Broadway show, that television show, that movie part that will put you over.

LS: But maybe people really did think there was a chance. “I’m at the top of what I’m doing as queen of the nightclub acts.”

JL: You’re right. There is that glass ceiling. Completely. And it is still here for us now. There’s always that vague hope that one day that one thing is going to happen that’s going to change something. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe it does for half a second, and then you’re back to square one. That was really what I wanted to say about these performers and how they were perceived. The times were different. In those days, you could make a lot more money in entertainment than the average Joe putting wires into a transistor, slinging hash, or typing.

Jodi Long brought her memories of the Forbidden City, her parents, and all the amazing performers she grew up knowing to her narration of the audio version of China Dolls. On June 13, 2014, Trudie Kim Long passed away at the age of ninety-one, exactly two weeks before the publication of China Dolls. In the memorial card Jodi sent to her friends, she used the following lines from an Eskimo legend:

Perhaps they are not stars in the sky. But rather openings where our loved ones shine down to let us know they are happy.

A King’s Ransom Discussion Questions

Thursday, February 26th, 2015
Kings Ransom Cover

Kings Ransom Cover

A vivid and heart-wrenching story of the last event-filled years in the life of Richard, Coeur de Lion. Taken captive by the Holy Roman Emperor while en route home – in violation of the papal decree protecting all crusaders – he was to spend fifteen months imprisoned, much of it in the notorious fortress at Trefils, from which few men ever left alive, while Eleanor of Aquitaine moved heaven and earth to raise the exorbitant ransom. For the five years remaining to him, betrayals, intrigues, wars, and illness were ever present. So were his infidelities, perhaps a pattern set by his father’s faithlessness to Eleanor. But the courage, compassion, and intelligence of this warrior king became the stuff of legend, and A King’s Ransom brings the man and his world fully and powerfully alive.

Take a look at the discussion questions below and discuss with your book club!


1. Richard places a good deal of importance on the notion of honor. How would you define Richard’s code of honor? Does he consistently live up to it? Do you have your own code of honor? If so, can you describe it?
2. Richard reflects on his mother’s sixteen years of imprisonment by his father, noting her fortitude in surviving it for so long. Compare Eleanor and Richard’s responses to captivity. What kind of impact did captivity and isolation have on each?
3. Eleanor is approaching seventy years old during the events of this novel. How do you think her age and experience impact her politicking?
4. As a prisoner, Richard observes that “words were his weapons now” (page 239). How does Richard’s battle style, when he is armed with words, compare to his tactics when he is armed with a sword?
5. While imprisoned by Hadmar, Richard gains a new perspective on Duke Leopold’s reasons for leaving Jerusalem after Richard disrespected the Austrian flag. Before hearing Friedrich’s arguments, Richard had never tried to see Leopold’s side. How do you think this new information influenced Richard’s subsequent actions toward Duke Leopold? In a broader sense, do you think this incident impacted Richard’s diplomatic practices? For example, did it make him more open-minded, or more inclined to empathize with his enemies? Can you think of any examples of Richard demonstrating an ability to appreciate multiple sides of an argument?
6. Discuss Pope Celestine’s leadership from Rome. How did his allegiances impact Richard’s fate? What motivates his actions? What is your view on the Catholic Church’s role in the political landscape at this time? Should the Pope have done more to protect the holy crusaders?
7. Eleanor and Hawisa discuss marriage as being “a man’s game” (page 310). Discuss the power dynamics in the royal marriages we observe in the novel.
8. Richard considers himself a devoutly religious man, as demonstrated by his efforts in the crusades. Discuss the nature of Richard’s faith and his relationship with God. Does he always act in accordance with the teachings of the Church?
9. Discuss the rivalry between Richard and John. What do you think of John’s actions during Richard’s long absence? Do you think Eleanor was too willing to believe the worst of John, as he says when she confronts him about his treachery? Did you believe his claims of innocence, as Eleanor did?
10. Compare Richard’s leadership style with that of the other kings and dukes he encounters. In what ways is Richard more or less effective than his contemporaries?
11. Discuss Richard’s relationship with Berengaria. Were you surprised by his infidelities? Is he right to stay with her, despite knowing she will never give him a son, or does he have a responsibility to the crown to produce an heir?
12. How did you react to Richard’s final days? How do you think the author feels about Richard?
13. Richard, though he was King of England, spent very little time in that country. Do you think his actions in Normandy and France were in the best interest of his country, or was he motivated by his personal connections to that land and his hatred of Philippe II?

Author Spotlight: Susan Vreeland, author of LISETTE’S LIST

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

Vreeland_Lisette's ListGetting a glimpse behind the story of a novel and an author’s inspiration is always a special treat for us. We love learning about the voyage of a novel. New York Times bestselling author Susan Vreeland gracefully combines her travels, research, and pure passion for her subjects. Her latest novel, Lisette’s List, is on sale August 26, 2014. Today she would like to share some “Inklings of Inspiration for Lisette’s List.”

You may wonder how I came to write this book, so different from my others.

It began with a feeling that in terms of my development as a writer, I must not write another novel centered on one artist, bringing to literary life part of a biography, and expanding into the artist’s friendships and associations. That approach has given me much joy for a decade, but recently I began to feel that it was too constraining. The new book came of a need to outgrow that mode and completely invent for myself, and to devote my imagination to creating characters whom I wanted to embrace.

Roussillon-after-a-rain_crop

Enter a Provence-loving friend who insisted that I see the village of Roussillon in Provence on an upcoming trip across the south of France with my husband. With only two hours there, and with rain deepening the red-ochre and rosy ochre and golden ochre of the village, I fell in love, recognizing this perch of harmonious houses high above ochre cliffs as a treasure of ultimate provincialism. I vowed to come again. And I did, with a novel swimming in my head.

© Susan Vreeland

© Susan Vreeland

It also began, before that trip, with a fascination with Varian Fry, the American who, during the German Occupation of France in World War II, orchestrated the clandestine housing and escape of Jewish artists and writers from the Villa-Bel and Marseille in Provence. Although neither Fry nor the villa nor Marseille appear in this novel, Marc Chagall, one of those escaping painters, does.

The rape of Europe of its art, as it has come to be called*, has disturbed me greatly. That entire nations could be deprived of the art of their native sons and daughters by a ruthless foreign tyrant with no appreciation for any painting beyond the Renaissance, was an injury and outrage I feel keenly. That would provide the historic context, and the passion to carry forward this new work.

ochre-canyons-ll_jan2014-003And grounding my passion, like a seed in my soul, the novel grew from my deep love for France, for the French language, for French art, for Provence, and for the French people who have suffered unspeakably during war and its aftermath and whom I have found to be gracious lovers of beauty.

When I learned that near Roussillon there were ochre quarries and mines from which was extracted the ore which produced pigments in all the warm hues of the color wheel, I had a substantial artistic link to this region beyond mere love.

Art history looks at art works and the people who have created them. But what is it called, that exploration of the people who made the things that are the materials of art? The first thing: the pigments, that bright earth. The last thing: the frame around a finished painting. Both are elements in the novel. Because I knew no word for this area of study, that was the new terrain I wished to enter.

Screen shot 2014-05-28 at 12.11.17 PM

*Nichols, Lynn, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. New York: Vintage/Random House, 1994.

For more information, stay up to date with Susan on her website and Facebook page.

Reader’s Guide: A Q&A with Colum McCann and Liz Strout

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-27 at 10.48.41 AM Two Random House Reader’s Circle literary greats, Elizabeth Strout and Colum McCann, get together to chat about McCann’s TransAtlantic, which is on sale in paperback this month! These two have so much to share…read on!

A Conversation with Colum McCann and Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Burgess Boys and Olive Kitteridge, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; the national bestseller Abide with Me; and Amy and Isabelle, winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize. She has also been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in London. She lives in Maine and New York City.

Elizabeth Strout: I love the wide range of your narratives, how you dare to cover so many aspects of world events through the personal stories of those involved. How do you make the decision to end where you end, and begin where you begin? Is this an intuitive sense for you?

Colum McCann: Writing is very much about the intuitive, the gut instinct, the shotgun leap into the unknown. Most of the time, I don’t necessarily know where I’m going. I have a general goal, an end-line, but I’m not sure how it is that I’m going to get there. Being too conscious of a journey brings a malady to it. You can overthink it sometimes. It’s better to go with the gut feeling. I think it’s very much akin to being an adventurer or an explorer. You know you want to find new territory. The nature of its newness makes it inherently exciting. You cast yourself out in a small boat in the hope that you will get somewhere. Most of the time you end up capsizing or catching the wrong current or, even worse, shipwrecking. But every now and then—when the words are moving, and the sentences begin to align themselves, and the imaginative intent has caught fire with language—you strike new land. A sort of Galápagos of the imagination, I suppose. This is where the real exploration begins. You walk out and you meet new characters. And, in the best writing, you might create what amounts to a new theory.

And there ’s something about the explorer in the reader too. You are casting into a new land, a new way of seeing. That’s how I feel when I read your work—when I got to explore Crosby in Olive Kitteridge, it was that sort of journey, it just opened me up. I love when that happens. So for me it’s all about intuition. And beyond intuition lies what is hopefully a deep intelligence that we were looking for all along.

ES: You have a great understanding of how to use “real-life” events, and people, within the texture of the novel. What is your sense of fact versus fiction, and why do you think people tend to believe they are so different? I always get a kick out of people who say they don’t read fiction because it isn’t “true.” I’d love to know your thoughts on this.

CM: Ah, yes, what about all those embarrassing parties where you have to introduce yourself? You meet a couple and say, or rather admit, that you’re a writer of…stories. The woman’s face lights up and she says she loves to read fiction but her husband (always a little comfortably smug) looks beyond your shoulder and says he doesn’t read fiction at all, as if to put an end to the conversation—he only reads nonfiction because he is only interested in “fact.” It happens so often, I’m amazed by it. “Oh, yes, I don’t read fiction at all.” As if it’s a strange badge of honor.

But this line between fiction and nonfiction is a solid indicator of where we are right now, where so much of our national thinking occurs. If we watch Fox News, do we really think that we are witnesses to “fact”? If we allow our politicians to send our children off to war, do we really take on face value the “fact” that the offending nation has chemical weapons? What is fact? What is fiction? It’s one of our great political and social conundrums.

I suppose one of the reasons for writing TransAtlantic is that I wanted to question the gulf between what is “real” and what is “imagined.” Is there any difference at all? Can the imagined be considered real? And vice versa? Is Tom Joad not “real” because he was imagined by Steinbeck, for instance? Does this mean that the book we consider to be iconic in relation to our understanding of the Great Depression is actually irrelevant? To me, a much more interesting word than fiction is story, and then the word truth. Steinbeck allows us to know the Great Depression precisely because he fictionalized the truth. It is this way with so many of the great books. Why do I understand early-twentieth-century Ireland? Because I read Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. Why do I love turn-of-the-century New Orleans? Because I read about Buddy Bolden in Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter.

A story is a story whether it is based on real-life characters or not. A “real” person should be as fully fleshed as an “invented.” I have a duty to all my characters. And I want to braid the tapestry together so that “fiction” and “nonfiction” get confused.

Another question that fascinates me is the way in which we construct fictions around “historical” figures. Who owns history? Who has a right to tell it? What about the smaller, more anonymous moments? Aren’t they the glue of history? What about the little guy? Where is his or her voice? And when the little guys get together to shout, do they have a loud enough voice to topple the microphones of the ones who supposedly own history?

ES: Wonderful! Yes, real people should be as fully fleshed as invented people (and who isn’t invented, I ask you?). The women you invent feel as fully fleshed as anyone. It seems clear to me that you are just as invested in their stories as in any man’s. Is this a conscious decision? Or more of that gut working intuitively?

CM: I think we all know that women are so often excluded from the history books. As if guns and testosterone rule the world. In writing about the women, I felt like they were partly correcting a little corner of history. I wanted the women to own the novel. To say that their stories matter, not only to themselves but to history too. And, frankly, I like women. I like writing about them, I like imagining them, I like spending time with them as characters and as people.

There’s a symmetry in the book—three male “nonfiction” narratives, three female “fiction” narratives, and then a lone voice at the end, almost as if she has been narrating the whole novel. There’s a meaning behind this madness, I hope…it is, after all, a fairly anonymous woman, or rather a supposedly anonymous woman, who gets to have the last say. “We have to admire the world for not ending on us.”

ES: One of my favorite parts of this book involves Frederick Douglass going to Ireland. I think a lot of Americans may not realize he took this trip, and yet it is such an amazing tale. Was this something that you wanted to write about for a while, or did it arise out of the history of Ireland as you were rendering it?

CM: Douglass led me into the book. That was the original impetus. Not many Americans knew about his trip to Ireland and England, but not many Irish people even knew who Frederick Douglass was. He was largely omitted from the Irish history books, at least up until the 1990s (150 years after his journey), when scholars started to re-discover him when shaping up narratives that examined the history between the Irish and the Africans and the African Americans. Most people had relegated the story to the footnotes of history. But it was an incredible journey and a tremendous insight into the depth and character of Douglass.

Originally, after Let the Great World Spin, I wanted to write another sort of book altogether, a piece about contemporary surveil- lance cameras, believe it or not. But I just couldn’t catch that book, in fact I hated it, and I kept coming back to the idea of Douglass in Ire- land. And the fact that his trip coincided with the beginning of the Famine. I was corralled. The only way I could shake it would be if I wrote about him. That’s how it is—we write towards our obsessions. And I was especially taken by this notion of a young black slave land- ing in Ireland and having enough experience to say, “Lo! the chattel becomes a man!” Then he looks around and knows that there are many forms of chatteldom. He struggles to become himself, as we all eventually do.

I hope my Douglass is texturally true. Facts can be misdirected and shoehorned in. Texture is a different story. It relates to an idea of general honesty. I wanted my Douglass to be authentic. I wanted him to emerge in all his complications.

ES: You do even more, though, which is to carry this up to the present day, and that’s so important, I think, to show the continuum we are all existing on.

CM: I suppose I wanted to write about Douglass because he could lead me up to examine some issues in contemporary Ireland…especially the peace process and the idea of the Celtic Tiger, our collapsing economy. The peace process in particular is crucial to our ex- perience of the twentieth century. So I began with Douglass…and ended up with Senator George Mitchell. Two incredible statesmen who had made significant transatlantic journeys.

From there I began to try to weave all the stories together. The novel, therefore, I suppose, tries to become an alternative way of telling history. We cannot understand the present unless we dissect the past.

ES: How long do ideas tend to germinate in your mind before you find yourself setting them down on the page?

CM: I wish I knew! Douglass had been hanging around for a couple of years. Mitchell too. But you never really know what it is that fires them into the front of your brain. Perhaps it is desperation, or perhaps it’s inspiration. Most likely a combination of both.

ES: There is clearly an enormous amount of what one would call research that goes into this book. Did you write with one hand and read with the other? Or do these two parts of the process take place quite separately for you?

CM: I love research. That’s the part of the “job” that fires me up. I generally write towards something I want to know. I hope that I am learning all the time. Stepping out into new territory. But you can do too much research sometimes and it can begin to hinder the novel. So one has to be very careful. I always look for the “divine detail” in my research, that one thing that only an expert might know but the gen- eral public can recognize as being true.

For example, I give Douglass a pair of barbells when he is in Ireland. I know for a fact that he had barbells later in his life because they are on display in Washington, D.C., but I have no idea whether or not he brought them with him to Ireland. In fact, he probably didn’t. But it says so much about his character—his vanity, his stubborness, his awareness of his body in space, his forward thinking, his stamina. Furthermore, I have the barbells made from old slave chains. This is poetic license, but hopefully poetic enough that it rings true.

So the research blends in with the imaginative act until, really, they are one and the same.

ES: Of course, I am always interested in the concept of home, and the changing face of home. I wonder what you feel about this, having been born in Ireland and living in New York. Is writing about Ireland a form of love?

CM: I like this concept of trying to understand what is “home,” and I think you do it beautifully, whether that be the coast of Maine or the meadows of New Hampshire, and I love those writers who make me rethink my notions of home, whether they be a physical place or an imaginative space.
I was born in Dublin, but—right up until TransAtlantic—I had only really mentioned Dublin in one short story and a small section of Let the Great World Spin. That’s twenty-five years of writing and I had more or less ignored the town where I spent my first twenty years. This baffles me, and I have no real answer for it. Of course, I do go back in TransAtlantic, but even then mostly as a visitor. I wish I could understand this better, but I’m forced to say that I’m stumped. I’m much more comfortable being “elsewhere.” Of course, New York is my home now, and I have a family here.

I like the notion that we can belong in many different places, what Ondaatje calls the “international mongrels” of the world.

ES: Tell us about the nonprofit organization Narrative 4 that you are involved with; it sounds fascinating to me. I’ve always thought of novels as powerful social tools that can teach through empathy what it is like to be another person.

CM: In 2012, a group of about twenty-five writers and activists got together and began developing a story exchange program where we wanted to develop notions of radical empathy. We wanted, as writers, to give something back. To be socially engaged. To push the parameters. And, quite frankly, to be relevant. We were all of the opinion that one of the big failures we have in the world these days is the failure of empathy. And so in 2013 we founded a group called Narrative 4.

What the group had in common was our love of storytelling, and we knew that storytelling legislates the world in so many ways. Stories are our vast democracy. We all have them. We all need them. They cross all boundaries. And so we wanted to concentrate, at first, on young people and have them step into each other’s shoes. The goal is to get young people together to tell one another’s stories. The kid from Belfast with the kid from Detroit. The teen from Nazareth with the teen from Haiti. For them to get together and share one another’s stories and walk in one another’s shoes. To have a responsibility for someone else’s life—if even for just a moment, which, if we do this correctly, will move through a lifetime and become part of a global narrative. The key to transformation lies in the sharing: when you hear someone else’s story deeply enough to inhabit it and retell it as if you’ve lived it, you become “the other” and see the world through his or her eyes.
I personally don’t think that literature or stories can necessarily change the world—but they can become a wall against the general despair.

ES: Narrative 4 sounds like an amazing organization, very exciting. I wonder if there is any one moment in your career that stands out when you felt you experienced your work as, as you say, a wall against despair.

CM: Oh, absolutely. Just last year I had a moment that floored me, humbled me, taught me—I don’t really know how to describe it, except that it went to the heart of my ideas about literature. Shortly after the massacre at Sandy Hook, I got a letter from Lee Keylock, a high school teacher in Newtown. He said that he and a couple of other teachers had been searching for a book to help navigate the grief of the older students. They chose Let the Great World Spin. I was stunned. It seemed to validate so much of what I had been saying about literature for years: that we enter into these narratives to learn and to heal. We move beyond empathy to experience. In April 2013, I visited the school and sat with those kids. But I didn’t end up teaching them anything—they taught me. They were the ones who talked about morality, about finding light in the dark. And the fact that this teacher recognized that literature makes itself available for that is to me a stunning thing. It was one of the most defining moments of my literary career. It was a difficult experience but profoundly touching. Lee is now a significant part of Narrative 4. The story goes on. Once again, the world doesn’t end on us….

Read more about Colum’s visit to Newtown, CT here

Author Spotlight: Ellen Feldman, author of THE UNWITTING

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Feldman_TheUnwitting Ellen Feldman touched the hearts of readers with her novel Next to Love. Her latest, The Unwitting, is historical fiction set in the literary Manhattan of the 1950s while the Cold War looms ominously over the lives of American citizens.

Ellen Feldman is no stranger to the page. She is a Guggenheim fellow and the author of four novels (one of which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction). Today, Ellen joins us to share her thoughts on writing…the things she loves and the things she hates.

Four Things I Hate about the Writing Life; Four Things I love about the Writing Life

Four things I hate:

Solitude: For years I wrote in the lonely silence of my apartment, but after finding myself still in my jammies at five o’clock in the evening more often than was sane or even hygienic, I began haunting writers’ rooms in the New York Public Library and the New York Society Library. The latter is a subscription library fourteen blocks from my home, which turns out to be the perfect walk to get the words flowing in the morning and cool me down in the evening. Though I’m not alone in either of these venues –- the rooms are filled with writers tapping feverishly at their laptops, a phenomenon I can usually ignore, unless I’m sitting there mournfully pressing the delete key -– and we exchange greetings and the odd piece of publishing gossip in the halls, for long hours at a stretch, each of us is isolated in the faraway realms of our individual imaginations.

Beginning a new novel: It has been my experience, and that of most of my writing friends, that after we’ve finished a book we’re sure we’ll never be able to write another. In its worst form, this neurosis, for it’s nothing less than that, entails the proverbial writer’s block. In its milder configuration, it takes the form of what I’ve dubbed “last book syndrome.” You keep trying to write the last book you wrote, again and again and again. This maddening spiral can take months to escape.

Research: Probably the only thing worse than not being able to find information you need for a book is having found the information and somehow misfiled it or not written it down at all because at the time you came across it you thought it wasn’t relevant to what you were working on. Some writers simply fudge it, but I admit to being too compulsive to risk that. I have spent days, sometime weeks, on quests that result in nothing more than tears of frustration.

Publication: F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crackup that “at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and … in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” That’s pretty much what the publishing process feels like. For months or years you’ve been in control. Now everything is out of your hands. You lie awake imagining all the things that can go wrong in the process of getting the book into stores and on line. (In my youth I worked for a publishing house that once printed a mystery without the last page.) You don’t believe the good reviews and are sure bad ones are on the way. You end up in lonely hotel rooms far from husband and dog having nightmares about looking down in the middle of a talk to discover you’re stark naked. You wonder why you ever thought publishing a book was a good idea.

Four things I love:

Solitude: While my days are not spent in the company of other real people, when I’m writing, and I’m always writing in my head, my imagination is crowded with characters, some of them already good friends, others auditioning for a role in the book. When I was writing The Unwitting, I occasionally slipped and called my husband Charlie. My husband’s name is Stephen. Most men would suspect adultery. Stephen has been living with me for long enough to know it was only obsession. The husband in the book is called Charlie.

Beginning a new novel: A blank screen is an intimidating sight. That’s the reason for the last-book-syndrome I mentioned above. A first line is a recalcitrant animal. The crucial thing is to remember the delete button. Anything you write now can be struck later. But once the words begin to come, once your characters start whispering in your ear in their own voices and doing things you had never expected them to do, you are off on a thrilling adventure, one that often takes you places you never expected to go.

Research: I love libraries. I love ferreting around in old books and papers and archives. I love learning about people and events and states of mind. And on the rare occasions when I unearth an anecdote or turn of events or fact that has not been written about before, I feel a little like Columbus discovering the New World.

Publication: For all the fear, for the occasional heartbreak, there is nothing like looking up on a plane or in a library and seeing your book in someone else’s hands. On second thought, there is something even better. Hearing from readers that your book has taken root in their lives.

If you are a writer yourself, we’d love to hear your thoughts! What are the things you love and hate about the writing life? Share with us on our Facebook page!

Reader’s Guide: BLOOD & BEAUTY by Sarah Dunant

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Dunant_BloodBeauty “A brilliant portrait of a family whose blood runs ‘thick with ambition and determination’ . . . The Machiavellian atmosphere—hedonism, lust, political intrigue—is magnetic. With so much drama, readers won’t want the era of Borgia rule to end.” —People (four stars)

A Q&A with Sarah Dunant
Utterly Seduced by the Past

(Originally ran on Shelf Awareness)

Q: Blood and Beauty is so well written that it appears effortless, but many readers may be unaware of just how much research and inspiration goes into crafting quality historical fiction. Can you share a little of your process?

A: Ah—this is a very interesting question. Because, of course, if people were aware of the effort that a book takes, then the final experience—reading it—wouldn’t be working for them.

But you’re right. The easier the read, the more work has been done. And I think that is particularly true of writing within history. Because the more truthful and accurate you are to the actual experience of the Borgia history—and by that I don’t just mean what happened, but the larger, deeper world and culture that explains why those things happened—the more authentic and rich you can make the journey—the time travel—for your reader. But of course getting it “right” takes a huge amount of research and time.

Having said that, the work is also wonderful. Because it is the time when I get happily lost in history. I find it so exciting as the picture of the past starts to deepen, as the more I read, the more I start making connections, feeling the characters move and grow like animated sculpture coming out of a block of marble.

My process is decidedly pre-technological. I sit for months in libraries with notebooks and work my way through stacks of research books covering everything, from politics to herbs, literature to music, weapons of war to theology, education and medicine—anything from the period that I can lay my hands on. Gradually I fill up six or seven notebooks with facts, quotes, images, thoughts and ideas. Then as the story (for the story is always in there) starts to blossom, I can adorn it with all manner of truths and accuracies that you, the reader, don’t notice, but I do. It gives me not just all the colors and shades of paint I need for the canvas I am painting, but also the confidence to apply them. Then when I can sit no longer at a desk, I go traveling. I visit the places to get a feel of them. In the case of Blood and Beauty, there is a huge amount still to be seen, albeit some of it ruined or changed by history: Cesare’s campaigns can be followed, town to town, fortress to fortress, across northeastern Italy.

But the final pleasure is when the book is out and people say, “Oh, that bit when . . .” whatever it is that has caught their imagination—“how did you think of that?” And it is always something that was there in history. But it has gone through the alchemy of fiction so that it feels juicy with atmosphere and color, rather than dry fact. That is my job. And how I love it. However much effort it takes.

Q: What was the most surprising fact or aspect of the Borgias that you discovered in the course of your research for this novel?

A: If I am truthful it was about a disease. I’d had an inkling during the writing of The Birth of Venus that the arrival of sexual plague, which would later be known as syphilis, was a powerful moment in Italian history. But it was only when I got my teeth into the Borgias, when I watched an invading army take over Naples and loiter there, having sex with the local prostitutes, and realized that some of those soldiers were back from the New World with Columbus and had contracted and carried this new disease home with them, that I understood just what an extraordinary history this was. And then Cesare gets infected. . . . And oh, what a horror! The agony, the shame and the public disfigurement. It was perfect: a literal metaphor for the world of Renaissance corruption. I think that was the moment when I knew the book was going to be richer and deeper than just a story of fantastic events.

Q: There seems to be renewed interest of late in all things Borgia. To what do you attribute this fascination?

A: In an era when we are obsessed by celebrity, it was inevitable that history would start to provide us with new ones. And once we had squeezed the Tudors dry, the Borgias stand out as perfect fodder. They have all the ingredients: glamour, beauty, tribal loyalty, sexual misdemeanor, power, corruption, and high-octane emotional drama. The trick is to sort out what is fact and what has grown up from layers of gossip and slander (just as it is with today’s celebrity); to strip it away to get to the truth. Which, as ever, is actually stranger than any fiction you could make up.

Q: On a related note, what, if any, are the parallels you see between the social and political machinations of the Borgias and today’s sociopolitical arena?

A: Oh, so many. Italy and all of its city-states (which I liken in the novel to a bag of spitting cats) are a perfect illustration of how warring political factions operate, the likes of which we have everywhere today. They tell such a modern story—of the lengths people will go to take and keep power; of the way alliances are made, kept, and broken based on pragmatism rather than idealism. The truth is that modern politics were born in this era. That is why Machiavelli writes The Prince about Cesare Borgia. It is a consummate study of how power works and how it corrupts. And how the end defines the means.

And then there is modern Italy: full of corruption still, with north and south in opposition to each other and a mafia presence based on family loyalties with a fat old charismatic politician, Berlusconi, still managing to control the show by ducking and weaving, and even having “bunga bunga” parties with prostitutes. I see images of Berlusconi and I think of Rodrigo Borgia. Except I rather like Rodrigo better! And then there is the Catholic Church, with its hidden sexual scandals and male-dominated power structure. I mean it is Blood and Beauty! The parallels are so powerful they make your eyes water.

But the other thing that is amazingly modern is the subversive power of gossip and the media. There was no direct media at the time of the Borgias, but there was a network of diplomacy by which gossip flourished and flowed through the pens of ambassadors and chroniclers. So you can trace slander against the Borgias emerging from one conversation and then sliding like slime into the public domain. Think of all the celebrity gossip you have ever read and how the more shocking it is, the more you remember it. Think about the fact that later you may find out it wasn’t true—just selling newspapers or fodder for celebrity TV channels—but that once said, it cannot be unsaid. Well, the Borgias’ history was like that. Mud sticks. I am not saying they weren’t at times brutal and corrupt. They were. But then so were the times in which they lived. My job is to allow you to put them in context. To enjoy the drama, yes, but also see through the propaganda.

Q: As an author who has written both contemporary and historical fiction, do you find one genre more challenging (and, conversely, rewarding) than the other?

A: There is no contest here. I have been utterly seduced by the past: the imaginative challenge of sinking deep into history and re-creating an essentially alien wild world that the reader can see, touch, smell, hear, sink into, and experience. It is a bit like writing good science fiction backwards: everything in the world you create has to make sense. With the added wonder—if you do your research—that it was actually happened.

And then, of course, you can say so many things about the present (I hope my answers above have shown that). But you can say it subtly, so that it enters the imagination of the reader on a different level. While I suppose one should never say “never,” I cannot imagine ever wanting to write a novel set in the present again. Everything I want to say about human behavior, sexuality, power, politics, and the endless emotional complexity of being alive—all of it can be said through the past. And while I am saying it, my head is busting with facts, places, ideas, and an ever-growing cast of outrageous characters. Even when I am in despair that I cannot do them justice, I am in awe of their presence.

Reader’s Guide: EIGHTY DAYS by Matthew Goodman

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Goodman_Eighty Days “A fun, fast, page-turning action-adventure . . . the exhilarating journey of two pioneering women, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, as they race around the globe.”—Karen Abbott, author of American Rose

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. In the book’s prologue Matthew Goodman writes, “Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were not only racing around the world; they were also racing through the very heart of the Victorian age.” What do you think he meant by this? In what way did Bly and Bisland’s race illustrate some of the larger social issues of the time?

2. In what ways were Elizabeth and Nellie similar, and in what ways were they dissimilar? Did they have differing views of themselves as women, as writers, as Americans? How might this have colored their attitudes about the around-the-world race?

3. Almost every story of the time mentioned the fact that Nellie Bly carried only a single handbag for her trip around the world. How do you think you would pack for such a trip? What would you consider the essentials to bring along?

4. How might other female journalists of the time have viewed Bly and Bisland’s race around the world? Do you think they would have been supportive or critical?

5. Throughout the book Goodman intersperses the narrative of the race with discussions of historical issues—such as the hardships faced by women journalists, the power of the railroads, and the working conditions of stokers on the steamships. Why do you think he did this? Did you feel that this added to or detracted from the book as a whole?

6. Did you find yourself rooting for one of the women to win the race? Which of the women would you rather have as a traveling companion? In what ways would you say each of the women changed over the course of the race?

7. How do you think that Nellie Bly’s difficult childhood might have helped to shape some of the choices she made as an adult?

8. Eighty Days is an example of the genre called “narrative history”—that is to say, a work of history that adopts some of the techniques generally associated with fiction writing. In what ways does this book read like a novel? How was Matthew Goodman able to accomplish this? Did you ever find yourself momentarily forgetting that it was a true story?

9. Visiting the Tanks of Aden in the moonlight, Elizabeth Bisland has a profound moment in which she comes to understand what the trip has given her: “the vividness of a new world, where one was for the first time, as Tennyson had written, Lord of the senses five, where the light of night and day had a new meaning, where years of indifference could fall away like a dried-up husk and every sense respond with the keenness of faculties newborn.” Have you ever had an experience like that while traveling? Which of the places described in the book would you most like to visit?

10. The very first story that Bly proposed to The World was to sail across the Atlantic in steerage, so that she could report firsthand on the conditions endured by the passengers there. Yet during her around-the-world race, when she had the opportunity, she did not write about steerage passengers. Why do you think this was? Do you think that she had changed as a journalist, and if so, in what ways?

11. Might Eighty Days be viewed as a kind of cautionary tale about celebrity? How so?

12. The book’s epilogue describes the very different lives led by Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland in the decades after the race. Were you surprised by the way that things turned out for them? Why or why not? How would you answer the question posed about Nellie Bly at the end of the final chapter: “She had outraced Elizabeth Bisland; but now, looking back, it was not entirely clear which of them had won.”

13. The story told in Eighty Days took place more than 120 years ago. An around-the-world trip that once required two and a half months to complete could be accomplished today in a matter of days. Are there other ways in which society has changed far less dramatically since 1889?

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Giveaway Opportunity: WAKE by Anna Hope

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Hope_Wake Wake is a tender and timely novel, full of compassion and quiet insight. The author gives us a moving and original glimpse into the haunted peace after the Great War, her characters drawn by the gravity of the unmarked, the unknown, and perhaps, finally, the unhoped for.”—Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee

Anna Hope’s brilliant debut unfolds over the course of five days, as three women must deal with the aftershocks of World War I and its impact on the men in their lives.

Wake: 1) Emerge or cause to emerge from sleep. 2) Ritual for the dead. 3) Consequence or aftermath.

London, 1920. The city prepares to observe the two-year anniversary of Armistice Day with the burial of the unknown soldier. Many are still haunted by the war: Hettie, a dance instructress, lives at home with her mother and her brother, who is mute after his return from combat. One night Hettie meets a wealthy, educated man and finds herself smitten with him. But there is something distracted about him, something she cannot reach. . . . Evelyn works at the Pensions Exchange, through which thousands of men have claimed benefits from wounds or debilitating distress. Embittered by her own loss, she looks for solace in her adored brother, who has not been the same since he returned from the front. . . . Ada is beset by visions of her son on every street, convinced he is still alive. Helpless, her loving husband has withdrawn from her. Then one day a young man appears at her door, seemingly with notions to peddle, like hundreds of out-of-work veterans. But when he utters the name of her son, Ada is jolted to the core.

The lives of these three women are braided together, their stories gathering tremendous power as the ties that bind them become clear, and the body of the unknown soldier moves closer and closer to its final resting place.

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Giveaway Opportunity: EMPRESS OF THE NIGHT by Eva Stachniak

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Stachniak_Empress of the Night Perfect for readers of Hilary Mantel, Alison Weir, and Philippa Gregory, Empress of the Night is Eva Stachniak’s engrossing new novel, told in the voice of Catherine the Great as the Romanov monarch reflects on her ascension to the throne, her rule over the world’s greatest power, and the sacrifices that made her the most feared and commanding woman of her time.

A critically acclaimed historical drama and instant #1 international bestseller, The Winter Palace brilliantly reimagined the rise of Catherine the Great through the watchful eyes of her clever servant Varvara. Now, in Eva Stachniak’s enthralling new novel, Catherine takes center stage as she relives her astonishing ascension to the throne, her rule over an empire, and the sacrifices that made her the most feared and commanding woman of her time.

As the book opens, the charismatic monarch is in her final hours. From the fevered depths of her mind, Catherine recalls the fateful trajectory of her turbulent life: her precarious apprenticeship as Russia’s Grand Duchess, the usurpers who seek to deprive her of a crown, the friends who beg more of her than she was willing to give, and her struggle to know whom to trust and whom to deceive to ensure her survival.

“We quarrel about power, not about love,” Catherine would write to the great love of her life, Grigory Potemkin, but her days were balanced on the razor’s edge of choosing her head over her heart. Power, she learns, is about resolve, strategy, and direction; love must sometimes be secondary as she marshals all her strengths to steer her volatile country into a new century and beyond—to grow the Romanov empire, to amass a vast fortune, and to control a scheming court in order to become one of history’s greatest rulers.

Gorgeously written with vivid detail and lyrical prose, Empress of the Night is an intensely intimate novel of a woman in charge of her fortunes, who must navigate the sorrows, triumphs, and hopes of both her soul and a nation.

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