Whether you are a lover of historical novels or just someone who happens to write them, it would be hard not to be impressed with this year’s line-up of guest speakers and attendees at the annual HNS Conference in Portland (#HNS2017)
The guest of honor, Geraldine Brooks, is one of my all-time favorite writers. Before she was a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist for her second work of fiction, March, she was a brilliant international correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and author of Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden life of Islamic Women, written twenty years ago but still relevant today. The other guest of honor David Ebershoff, perhaps best known for his novel The Danish Girl, also has a biography that would knock your socks off – not only is he an award-winning novelist in his own right, but also the distinguished editor of multiple New York Times bestsellers. One could not be blamed for having an acute attack of “Fan-itis” amidst such luminaries. As my stepson used to say whenever at a loss for words, “You hadda be there.”
Yesterday I walked out of a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice that was showing at our local cinema. It was the brilliant, “internationally acclaimed” production from the Globe Theater Company, directed by Jonathan Munby and starring Jonathan Pryce. But I walked out twenty minutes before the end because I couldn’t bear to sit through another minute after watching the utter humiliation of the Jew, Shylock, at the hands of his triumphalist Christian “opponents.” Yes, it was “just a play,” and a play I have seen many times before, but there was something frighteningly contemporary about what was playing out on the set, something which created a reaction in me that I had never experienced watching previous productions of this play.
A quick background: Shylock, a Jew in 16th century Venice, lends money to a merchant, Antonio, who in turns gives the money to his dear friend, Bassanio, so that the latter can pursue his love interest in a manner befitting a gentleman. Shylock hates Continue reading Hath not a Jew eyes?→
Two years ago, in November 2013, I wrote an epilogue to my research trip in France and Belgium, entitled “The Challenges of Field Research” in which I lamented the things that can thwart the best-laid schemes of mice and moles digging for information. I am a great believer in field research, particularly when it comes to checking out the basic lay of the land where the novel is set, which, unlike most things, doesn’t change that much over the centuries. This kind of research can save an author from many embarrassing mistakes such as sending one’s hero on a trek that is supposed to last only three days, but in the 12th century would have taken at least three weeks (due to forests, rivers, mountains etc., not to mention the fact that the journey had to be made on foot!). Of course, a good topographical map can save the day, but not always. And there is no faster way to lose one’s credibility as an author than misrepresenting the land or seascape, or describing a topographical detail that doesn’t and probably never did exist – occasionally a “local” may actually read your book! And so, mindful of the value of such research, a few weeks ago I headed for Sardinia.
I was originally scheduled to be in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) and Antalya, Turkey, both of which play a far greater role than Sardinia in my second novel, Holy the Sword, set in the time of the Second, Third & Fourth Crusades, 1146-1204. However, as of the summer of 2016, discretion seemed to be the better part of valor as far as visiting Istanbul was concerned, and so I abandoned my plans for Turkey in favor of Sardinia. Apart from the fact that I had never visited that island before, there was a fairly good reason in terms of the novel.
In a recent post, I referenced an excellent article by Michael Caines published in the Times Literary Supplement last month on this subject, apropos of the HNS Conference in Oxford this September. Taking the assertion that historical fiction is a “deeply bogus” genre, the author goes on to argue that while history tells us “what was,” fiction tells us “what might have been.” And yet as the popularity of historical fiction today suggests, the public continues to enjoy venturing into this hybrid genre, bogus or not. I would also add that the majority of successful historical novels today are deeply researched “for historical accuracy,” even the most imaginative page-turners among them – my own personal favorites in that category being C.J Sansom’s Shardlake, a brilliant series about a lawyer/detective in Tudor England and anything that rolls off the pen of Bernard Cornwell.
Apparently a lot of people, judging by the emphasis placed on cover design by the experts at the Historical Novel Society Conference I attended recently in Oxford (UK not OH!). Famed Oxford Book Shop, Blackwell’s, had a stunning array of books by conference presenters and attendees on display in the reception area (which in my overwhelmed state I forgot to photograph) but here are some examples taken from promotional material created by and for the authors in attendance.
In this new era of self-publishing, hybrid-publishing, as well as the proliferation of independent publishers (so-called “indies”), authors potentially have far greater control over how their story is represented in promotional material and above all on the book’s cover, and so for example Continue reading Who can tell a book by its cover?→
Here is one who gets a lot more credit in both categories than he deserves thanks to the infatuation of the Victorians with the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries. Richard I of England, better known as Richard the Lion Heart (or Coeur de Lion in his native French!) is the only English king to be honored with a statue in front of the Houses of Parliament, implying some connection with that ancient institution, or at least the country it represents. Richard, although a great soldier (credit where credit is due) spent almost no time in his English kingdom, preferring his lands in France when he wasn’t half way around the world slaying “infidels,” while soaking his poor English tax payers to finance his crusade (not to mention pay his enormous ransom when he was careless enough to get captured). Oh well, the English have always loved a “romantic” figure!
Big Ben strikes the quarter hour. The streets of London’s famous Parliament Square are all but deserted on this early Sunday morning. A few stragglers are heading for Westminster Abbey for matins, a very few. We are shunted off to Saint Margaret’s, the lovely Abbey Church next door. It turns out that in a few hours there is to be a memorial service in the Abbey to commemorate the Battle of Britain when pilots from all the allied nations
(average age 22) fought in the skies above England for three long months between July and October 1940 to beat off the formidable forces of the German Luftwaffe. Most of us today owe our freedom to the fact that they succeeded, or to put it in the eloquent words of the British Prime Minister at the time Winston Churchill, “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
Life in Medieval Europe may have been “nasty, brutish and short” but dull it was not, at least judging by some of these pictures which for obvious reasons did not make the cut for my Pilgrimage Blog. Still you have only to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to know what some of those worthy folk got up to! Just sayin’ . . . So here are some of the more colorful expressions of life in the Middle Ages.
Paris offered us one more fierce lashing yesterday, rain gushing through gutters and gargoyles before settling down into something approximating April weather (it is in fact mid-June). Romantic songs notwithstanding, one does not go to Paris for the weather certainly not this summer anyway. Since our last few days were more or less on our own (barring a wonderful morning service at the American Cathedral – a beautiful welcoming place thanks to Dean Laird and her terrific staff and superb choir), I had time to follow my own quirky passions.
This began (the day before) with my usual Paris pilgrimage to the Cluny Museum – the best collection of medieval artifacts in Paris. Among the things I love about the Cluny (so called because it was the Paris home of the Commendatory Abbots of Cluny – who would in my opinion have been better employed tending to matters back at their Abbey in Burgundy) is that it was built to be lived in and so the exhibits seem to belong in a way they often do not in regular museums. Back in the mists of time, before Christ, there were Roman baths in this place, and very impressive ones too which one can still see. Over the centuries the building has undergone many changes. Today, standing close to the Sorbonne, it remains a superb example of blended Gothic and Renaissance domestic architecture.
Eternally beautiful but ever-changing, when I first saw Chartres Cathedral in the mid 1960s it was almost black. Today one might, with no disrespect intended, call it “shades of gray” with some startlingly white and black patches. The latter according to some being the remaining filth of ages, 800 years of it: others might call it the patina that gave this sacred place deep mystery. Someone once described the interior of the Cathedral as “the womb of God” – the church is after all dedicated to Mary, the Holy Mother. I have always thought of it that way – a safe, dark (though not always warm!) place to hang out and just be. When I offered a mild complaint about the recent clean up, an understanding friend commented “as if your beloved grandmother had just got a face lift!” Yes, that’s it exactly! So let’s get the complaints over with before moving on. Disappointed again to find the sublime labyrinth was covered for the second year in a row and surrounded by scaffolding – which admittedly they are in the process of pulling down with resounding sound effects!
But we are on pilgrimage and our ever-creative leader urged us to enter into the new spirit of the place by asking these questions of ourselves with the invitation to pray about whatever came up for us as we sat and pondered the mystery of it all – the still beautiful, the ugly, the eternal and the impermanent:
What is it in your life that is being renewed?
Is there something that needs to be repaired or restored?
Adding this quote from Isaiah as further encouragement:
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”