“Called by Silent Voices”
by Shelley Fraser Mickle
A funny little story about General Custer taught me that officers’ wives in the l800s often followed their husbands to war. Since General Custer and his wife never had children, it was said that they remained somewhat like teenagers in the midst of a high-school romance, fraught with jealousy and high drama. Since his wife never wanted to let him out of her sight, she followed his army wherever it went, staying in a tent on the camp grounds, then packing up and moving when the army moved. One day, when General Custer’s regiment was about to march, she was getting dressed, and he came frantically galloping to her tent, leaned down and whispered in embarrassment, “Sweetheart, please hurry, you’re holding up the whole army.” How real this made these people seem! How endearing, timeless and funny! How quickly too I realized that there must be many women’s stories of that time that were simply never heard. As a novelist, I felt called to give at least one of these a voice.
When I began collecting research materials to write a novel set in the Civil War, my favorite book quickly became Reminiscences of a Soldier's Wife by Mrs. John Logan. You have to read nearly half of the book before you find that Mrs. Logan’s first name was Mary. She, like many, simply disappeared into her husband’s life. And yet, in this primary source, I discovered that when Mary Logan was sixteen she had personally witnessed Lincoln debating Stephen Douglas. The scene she wrote was so mesmerizing that I “lifted” it for my novel, giving credit to Mary Logan. And thus my novel grew over a period of seven years, taking on a hybrid feel between fiction and nonfiction. But how I got to the beginning is in itself a funny story.
You see, it was inevitable that I would write a novel set in the Civil War, since my childhood was simply soaked in the history of that war. Everyone in my immediate family was even named after Robert E. Lee! My grandfather, the only family doctor in our little Arkansas cotton town was Robert Lee Fraser. My father was named R. Lee at a time when it was fashionable to give children only initials as a first name, and yet everyone knew what R. stood for. Then when my brother came along, he was named Rhitt Lee; and then I, Shelley Lee, as if carrying part of the famous general’s name would be an instant job recommendation—at least in the South.
The story of my family’s love affair with the general’s name was so amusing that when my mother was chosen to be on a radio show during a visit to New York in l949, the producers invited her back at the dawn of television to appear on one of the first quiz shows, “Two for the Money” sponsored by Old Gold Cigarettes. (How many remember those days?) There in the Big Apple in l954, my parents bantered with the show’s M.C. about their love affair with Robert E. Lee’s name. The M.C.’s punch line was, “I don’t suppose anyone in your family is named Grant?”
In 2004, searching for a Civil War story to bring to life in a novel, I looked on a website where family members of those who fought in the Civil War post anecdotes. I found there exactly what I was looking for. It began as a few sentences about a Confederate officer, taken prisoner at the surrender of Fort Donelson, who sent a note to General Ulysses Grant asking permission to ride into Clarksville to find someone to care for his seriously ill wife. If granted this permission, he promised to then report back to General Grant as his prisoner.
Such gallantry is so typical of the brutal Civil War, and today seems unbelievable. Indeed, the idea that Grant allowed this request was intriguing, for what if this Confederate officer hired one of the women who followed the army--a camp-follower prostitute, to care for his wife, who then, after the wife’s death could impersonate her?
To study a young woman emerging from an underworld, dealing with shame, employing all her talents toward survival—and learning that more can exist between a man and woman than physical desire—wouldn’t this be a fresh approach to a Civil War novel, one that would illuminate much of the women’s side of the war that has yet been untold? The fact that I grew up near Clarksville, Tennessee, which was occupied by the Union Army for the entire war, gave me confidence in setting the pivotal scenes of the novel there. Furthermore, since the occupation of Clarksville would be the time when my character Eliza would emerge from her past, there would be an intriguing echo for the book’s title.
These thoughts were the seed for The Occupation of Eliza Goode.
If I carefully and deeply researched such a novel, I felt that my chosen audience of book clubs would be pleased. For I know that book club readers are intelligent, well-educated and eager to experience something new and lasting by the choices of books they read. I learned this not just by being a book club member, but most particularly when I was a newspaper columnist for four years leading my reading public through novels in a newspaper-based book club, “Novel Conversations.”
The photograph that I always considered to be “my Eliza,” I first saw on the cover of Storyville, by Al Rose, taken sometime during the years of l898 to l917 by Ernest Bellocq when prostitution was legalized in New Orleans. Ernest Bellocq is the photographer fictionalized as a character in the movie “Pretty Baby,” which introduced Brook Shields as an actress. Living with that image for so many years while creating Eliza, I was thrilled and relieved to discover that the photograph is in public domain, and therefore available to be on the cover of this novel.
On my way to writing the end of The Occupation of Eliza Goode, an unexpected, wonderful thing happened: I became less of a regional citizen and completely aware of being an American. Frankly, I don’t think that is a slight reason for any of us—especially in this Civil War sesquicentennial—to pause for a moment in our crazy, techno-driven lives to revisit, and relive through the power of story, the war that saved us. I’m hoping too that this novel, which represents one woman’s voice retrieved from the silence, finds as much meaning in its readers’ lives as it has in mine.
Shelley Fraser Mickle is an award-winning novelist and NPR commentator whose family history (everyone in her family was named after Robert E. Lee) led her to the life-long belief that one day she would write a Civil War novel. Shelley’s debut novel was a New York Times Notable Book; her second became a CBS/Hallmark Channel movie; and her third became a suicide-prevention tool in high schools, winning the 2006 Florida Governor’s Award for suicide prevention in an educational setting. She was invited to be a commentator for NPR’s “Morning Edition” in 2000. Her radio essays can be heard at NPR.org. She is also the author of the children’s classic, Barbaro, America’s Horse.
Though ESPN’s Mike Greenberg always knew he wanted to be a sportscaster, it wasn’t until reading John Irving on a flight that he realized he’d aspire to be a writer as well. His first novel, All You Could Ask For, is available in paperback now, and follows three women as they learn the true value of compassion, sacrifice, and friendship. In the post below, Mike talks about growing up with books, a few of his favorites, and the inspiration behind All You Could Ask For.
When I was a boy, my parents were writers and they owned a bookstore, The Complete Traveler in New York, so writing and books have held special places in my heart all my life. I have always loved to read, so I’ve been moved and influenced by more books than I could ever count, but only one changed my life.
I was 25 years old and I was flying from Providence to Phoenix. In those days — and probably now, too — there was no efficient way to get from Rhode Island to Arizona. The trip required three different planes and 12 total hours. I knew I needed something to read, so I picked up a copy of a book I had heard about mostly because it had been made into a movie with Robin Williams. I never saw the movie. It was called The World According To Garp.
When I took off from Providence, my only professional aspiration was what it had always been: I wanted to be a sportscaster. By the time I landed in the desert, I knew I would spend the rest of my life trying to be a writer.
I couldn’t believe how vividly John Irving’s characters were drawn, how inventive the story was, how outrageous the circumstances, how brilliant the writing. Irving was, and remains, my favorite writer by a wide margin.
I have since read every word he has ever written, in fact Garp isn’t even my favorite of his books. I would name The Cider House Rules, The Hotel New Hampshire, and A Prayer For Owen Meany ahead of it, in that order. But the initial reaction I had on that plane was something I’ll never forget.
I certainly do not, and could not, write like Irving. The contemporary authors I most admire are Nick Hornby and Jonathan Tropper. Hornby’s High Fidelity is, to me, the best book about being a guy ever written, and his book A Long Way Down was, stylistically, the inspiration for my novel. Tropper is awesome in most of the same ways and I relate to his writing more than anyone I’ve ever read; he is the American Nick Hornby.
I wrote All You Could Ask For to honor a friend, Heidi Armitage, who left us much too soon in 2009 at the age of 43. The story of All You Could Ask For is not her story, neither are any of the characters based on her, but her story and her spirit inspired it and inspired me in every way that matters.
In conjunction with the release…my wife Stacy and I have created a foundation called “Heidi’s Angels,” and we are proudly donating 100 percent of our proceeds to The V Foundation For Cancer research, specifically to combat breast cancer.
This post originally appeared on ESPN Front Row.
To learn more about All You Could Ask For, visit http://allyoucouldaskfor.com/ and follow Mike Greenberg on Twitter (@ESPNGreeny); Stacy Greenberg (@StacyGSG) and William Morrow Books (@WmMorrowBks). All of the author’s proceeds from AYCAF will go to The V Foundation for Cancer Research (@TheVFoundation).
Nine Fold Heaven’s Camilla: Character study and development
by Mingmei Yip
I like to write about strong woman characters who are determined to survive and, against all odds, achieve success and happiness. My most recent female protagonists are a spy and a magician in The Nine Fold Heaven and Skeleton Women. My first novel, Peach Blossom Pavilion, is about China’s last courtesan. My other heroines include an adventurer and aspiring writer in Song of the Silk Road, and a would-be-Buddhist nun in Petals from the Sky. All were thrust onto an unexpected path in life through no choice of their own and are forced to use their limited resources to reinvent their lives.
The night club singer Camilla in The Nine Fold Heaven and Skeleton Women was an orphan who, rescued by the gangster Big Brother Wang, was forced to become a spy. From childhood, she was forced to learn the four nothingnesses: no attachments; no feelings; no conscience; no friends. Her gangster boss expects her to kill without mercy, but then she falls in love with Jinying, the son of Master Lung, the very man she is expected to murder. Worse, she also falls for Lung’s most trusted bodyguard, Gao.
Camilla needs to use every bit of courage and cunning she possesses to get out of this dangerous situation. If she kills Lung, his son Jinying will never forgive her, and Lung’s bodyguard Gao, her other lover, might kill her. But if she does not kill Lung, she will be killed by her own boss, Big Brother Wang.
Although Camilla was never taught love or compassion, only to scheme and kill, love seeps in her life through one of her spy’s accomplishments – singing. Through her singing lessons Camilla came to recognize her emotions. She is well aware that singing has opened a dangerous door, but she still can’t help but fall in love with two of the men in her life.
Pregnant by one of her lovers, she secretly gives birth to a baby but is told that he was stillborn. Learning from dreams that her son might still be alive, she risks everything to find him and reunite with his father.
Many “what ifs” in Camilla’s life could have led her to a very different fate. If her parents had not been murdered by the gangster boss so he could use her as his secret weapon, she would have been an ordinary, decent, law-abiding girl and lived un uneventful life. Fate forced her to be a scheming and heartless assassin – but then she fell in love. Once she experiences love, she cannot turn back.
But Camilla was not born to be evil. Forced into a life she did not want she manages to use her cunning against her gangster boss and escape his cruel world. I think most can sympathize with her and be glad not to have had the difficult life she has had. I would like my readers to ponder the different lives fate brings us and the limits to our choices.
Mingmei Yip was born in China, received her Ph.D. from the University of Paris, Sorbonne, and held faculty appointments at the Chinese University and Baptist University in Hong Kong. She’s published five books in Chinese, written several columns for seven major Hong Kong newspapers, and has appeared on over forty TV and radio programs in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China, and the U.S. She immigrated to the United States in 1992, where she now lives in New York City.
Please welcome Shelley Noble, author of Stargazey Point, to On the Bookcase as she tells us more about her book!
"How Stargazey Point Came to South Carolina"
Stargazey Point is the first book I’ve written that takes place in the south.
I grew up in Georgia, haven’t lived there for years, haven’t even visited recently. I consider myself a Jersey girl, but people always ask why I don’t write about the south.
And I never know quite how to answer. How do you write about a place you know so well? When you grew up in the same house all your life in a neighborhood where most of the families have lived for generations. Where you were applauded for your first successes and chastised for an infraction of table manners. Felt the pressure to conform while meeting people who were genuine eccentrics. How do you get past your own story in order to discover someone else’s?
I usually say, “It’s just too complicated.” But really, what kind of an answer is that?
I knew Stargazey Point would take place in a small, forgotten shore town; there would be an abandoned carousel. I thought of Maine with its sometimes rugged, sometimes sparsely populated coast.
But it didn’t quite work out in Maine; maybe the weather, maybe the terrain. I moved it down the coast. I drove to New Hampshire, but it didn’t seem right, either. Massachusetts was too populated.
The characters stayed silent, the story vague.
I briefly thought about the west coast. I’d spent several years in California and Oregon, but neither said “ooh, ooh, pick me.”
I never have this kind of trouble finding a setting. From the moment I imagined Beach Colors, I knew it would place at the Connecticut shore. I considered putting my carousel there or possibly Rhode Island next door. But they already have wonderful, working carousels at Lighthouse Point, Bushnell Park, Soundview, and the flying horse carousel at Watch Hill, among others.
Same with New Jersey, we have the best carousels ever, but lots of people even in winter, even in spite of Sandy. Plus there are those jersey shore reality shows . . .
I wanted a place where the carousel would be solitary, a beacon, a hope. A broken thing that would need to be slowly and meticulously brought back to life, while my characters transformed their own lives.
I continued down the coast.
Then my editor said, “How about South Carolina?” I thought, why not. It’s right next door to Georgia; I’d spent a lot of vacations there. And the low country offered a wealth of material and characters.
Great. But I hadn’t been south of Myrtle Beach in years. No matter. I looked on the map and chose an area below Charleston for my town of Stargazey Point.
That night I dreamed about alligators. I don’t think they were Freudian symbols. I went to summer camp across the road from the Okefenokee Swamp. It’s still a vivid memory. Too vivid for comfort.
I moved Stargazey Point up a few miles—still kept thinking about alligators. I kept moving it north, until I was getting close to Myrtle Beach and knew I had to stop. I needed a place without tourists. A town ravaged by decades of hurricanes, the beaches eroded, the businesses moved out. A dying town.
By now I was getting pretty tired of not having the perfect spot for my story. It isn’t usually this hard. Story, characters and setting all mesh before I start the actual writing. That synthesis is really important to me.
The story was getting impatient as well. It was in a holding pattern, the characters were grumbling but not “speaking” to me. I put an X on the map, crossed my fingers, opened up a blank document and started to type. I was a little petrified. Would strange childhood memories come out, things best forgotten, people who in retrospect weren’t what they seemed. Could I like the characters that developed from these people? Would people I used to know think I was writing about them? Could I keep the alligators away?
And the setting. I know the Connecticut shore, I spend lots of time there. If an image or description is just out of my reach, I jump in the car and in a couple of hours, I can step onto the sand or walk down the street of one of the beach towns. The Jersey shore is an hour away.
It’s a pretty long commute from New Jersey to South Carolina. One trip maybe. Lots of internet searches, talk with friends and colleagues who live there. There would be surprises ahead. What if I didn’t like them? I decided that I would just embrace them or reject them as they came up. Use them if they could be used in the story, and forget them if not.
I’m not sure why I was so ambivalent. I had a great childhood mostly. But what if I no longer loved the “warts and all” part. Could I portray the culture accurately? Or would it be elusive? Could I reconnect with the uniqueness of the society and portray it in a way that it became an active, meaningful part of my story?
While these questions rattled around in my mind, the characters and story were reveling in the new place. They began to develop and connect. The story began to take shape in earnest. A different story than it would have been if it took place in Maine. Well of course it would be. The people, the land, the culture, the pace of life; all different. I still had my share of ‘fingers crossed’ moments. But I knew it was going to work.
What I ended up with was the perfect setting for Stargazey Point, a story about family, for better or worse; about a stranger or two in a strange land, about community and what it means no matter what part of the map you place it in. And about going home . . . if not physically, at least in your heart.
Shelley Noble is a former professional dancer and choreographer. Most recently she worked on the films Mona Lisa Smile and The Game Plan. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and Romance Writers of America, and the author of Beach Colors. She lives in New Jersey.
I Have Never Belonged to a Book Club, and other confessions
by debut author Stephen P. Kiernan
I have never belonged to a book group.
For years, I thought I didn’t need one. I read so many books already, and knew what potentially fine reads were on the horizon, and followed the writing careers of friends (sometimes with cheerleading, sometimes with envy). Every month, I posted three recent favorites on Facebook and Twitter. I doubted that a book group would do much for me.
Then my friend Davis told me about his group. Unlike most, his was all male. They drank scotch. Two favored cigars, which would definitely put me out in the hallway. They gossiped, of course, and talked business, but fully seventy percent of their meeting time was spent hashing out the book of the month.
Davis said he loved it. These were smart guys. They gave serious thought not only to the current book, but to books in general. One lawyer in the bunch had read a ton of history. From him, Davis learned about the Civil War. Another, who owned a car dealership, read deeply on the topic of innovation, whether in technology or in human interaction. Davis said his ideas about the workplace were changing dramatically as a result.
So I asked: What are you reading now? Longitude, he said. Give it a try.
What? Longitude? How could that possibly be interesting?
Give it a try, Davis said. Open your mind.
The scoundrel knew exactly the sort of challenge I cannot resist. I bought it in paperback.
It was a small book, by Dava Sobel, about the challenge that sailors had faced throughout history of knowing precisely where they were on the globe. It’s easy when you’re standing at the intersection of 26th Street and Madison Avenue. Not so easy when you are ten days’ sail from the nearest land. Wars were won, lives lost, fortunes made – all by how well a seaman knew his location. The search for a device that could reliably determine longitude involved kings and peasants, navies and inventors.
The book was utterly compelling. I devoured it. There was a sea yarn, which I invariably love, and science, which intrigues my humanist mind. Best, it contained all sorts of displays of human nature – from the humble inventor to the conniving politician. Longitude was a masterwork.
I routinely recommend that book to friends, even if they don’t care in the least about sailing or technology. Now that I am deep in the writing of a sea novel, Longitude sits on my desk.
That was my first lesson in the value of a book group: Like a library, or a good bookstore, you find unexpected jewels, rare discoveries you had not even known you were seeking, and they enlarge you.
My second lesson came the first time I met with a group to discuss a book of mine. This time it was all women. They gossiped too, and drank wine, and spent perhaps forty percent of their time on the book.
But they had read it, every one of them. Conversing with them felt like it was my birthday. Every time someone spoke earnestly about a moment or a character, another metaphorical cake was set before me with the candles lit.
Nothing is better for a writer than readers who have engaged sincerely with his ideas, and in response have something meaningful to say.
Reading, like writing, is primarily a solitary act. The book is our bond, the place our imaginations meet. To bring that private experience into public air is an act of vulnerability and courage. You have to trust the people in the room. When that book group disagreed about one of my characters, debating energetically as though I were not even in the room, it was one of my favorite experiences of my life. It reminded me: In the world of ideas and imagination, we are all in this together.
Stephen P. Kiernan is the author of two books of nonfiction, as well as The Curiosity, his debut novel. Read an excerpt here, and be sure to enter the sweepstakes (which ends July 16) for a chance to win a visit by Stephen to your book club discussion.
Please welcome Kim Wong Keltner, author of Tiger Babies Strike Back, to On the Bookcase!
Hi Everybody! I’m Kim Wong Keltner and I’m here to tell you a little bit about my new book.
Tiger Babies Strike Back is for anyone who has heard or read about Tiger Mom parenting tactics and considers that strict style to be extreme. And NUTS.
For every straight-A student playing piano as a prodigy, there are hundreds of regular kids being shunted to the sidelines, being made to feel like we are not good enough because we got one A-minus or a few B-pluses.
Perfectionist Tiger Moms thrive on bragging that their wielding of absolute control gets results. Well, I’m here to say that there are consequences. There is a shadow side. And what might that dark, murky underbelly be? It’s very simple: Tiger Babies are grown up now. And we are PISSED.
We may have grown up to be traditional successes, but achievement has always been by someone else’s definition. At the risk of disappointing or shocking my elders or the Chinese community in general, I’ll say that in pushing relentlessly for the best grades and the highest test scores above all else, Tiger Parents have created generations of emotionally empty robots. I look around at my fellow Asians and see many successful materialists who wouldn’t recognize compassion or empathy unless it collided with their Mercedes-Benz S500.
Chinese culture emphasizes deference to elders at all times. Well, we are in America now, and have been for several generations. A Tiger Mom’s old-school posturing is now just an excuse to be a control freak who hides behind the unimpeachable concept of cultural tradition.
Chinese parents often hinge their own self-esteem on the insistence that their children are Number One. My cousins and I always grew up wary of each another because we were subtly and blatantly pitted against one another in GPAs and college acceptances. The children pay the price. We are tap-dancing as fast as we can to please our parents, and after we get spit out of our institutions of higher learning, maybe we wonder, “I went to Yale and all I got was this lousy T-shirt?”
It’s weird to be told all your life that you must strive for the best, or that you are inherently the best (because all Chinese people are better than everyone else, natch!). Meanwhile, inside you don’t feel all that confident about your superiority. Or maybe you feel nothing at all because no one ever asked you how you felt about anything. And no one ever treated you like an individual soul. As for me, the point of my entire existence up until age eighteen was to be quiet, get straight As and get into UC Berkeley.
Studying art and writing led me to think for myself, and to want for myself, too, eventually. How bittersweet it must be for my parents to now know that they paid for the tools that led me break the lock to my own cage, that is, their power over me.
And now I am a parent myself. As a result of my own upbringing, I want life to be different for my daughter. She is an individual who is more than just my appendage or mirror. I want to minimize for her the anxiety and emptiness I felt as a kid. I may not be able to shield her from all the lonely feelings in life, but I always want her to feel like our home is a hearth of safety for her, not catfight central where she only matters to me if she is a straight-A picture of perfection. She shouldn’t have to feel bullied at home by her very own mother.
And hence, I’m no Tiger Mom. I’m a Tiger Baby with a cub of my own. And here in the Wong-Keltner household, we do not eat our own young.
The only thing that keeps Kim Wong Keltner from writing is when she’s trapped under an avalanche of her daughter’s stuffed animals. Keltner is the author of The Dim Sum of All Things, Buddha Baby, and I Want Candy. Tiger Babies Strike Back is her first work of nonfiction.
Please welcome New York Times bestselling author Khaled Hosseini to On the Bookcase as he tells us a few secrets about traveling for his new book tour of And the Mountains Echoed.
What most excites you about meeting your readers across America?
Meeting the wide range and diversity of people who have responded to my books, people from all walks of life, all religions, races, cultures, from varsity wrestling team members to hipsters to CEOs to middle-aged accountants to octogenarians. It is always a reminder to me, when I meet these kaleidoscopic demographics, of the ability of fiction to connect people through the expression of basic, common human experiences.
You’ll be on the road for five weeks—what are you planning to bring to read on your tour?
I have already bought a few books for just that purpose and they are now sitting on my desk! Some are new, some are older books that I have always meant to read and never got around to. They are:
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
Dear Life by Alice Munro
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Not sure I will get through all of them, but I will knock off a few.
What do you like to do with your downtime during your book tour?
I read. I exercise, if I can find the time. I watch parts of movies. I call home. I try to write but never can. I end up reading a lot.
What do you pack in your suitcase that might surprise us?
I always pack—though I never end up wearing it—my SF 49ers cap, which I consider my good luck hat. Also, I have started taking guitar lessons (as a show of solidarity, really, with my son), and sometimes I will pack a small travel guitar for practice on the road. (A bit of parental trickery is at work here, of course; i.e., if I can find time to practice on a national book tour, then my son can find twenty minutes in his day to do the same. Sometimes you have make people feel so bad that they’ll do the right thing.)
What are your children reading right now?
My daughter, who is ten, is reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.
My son, twelve, just finished The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.
With more than ten million copies sold in the United States of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, and more than thirty-eight million copies sold worldwide in more than seventy countries, Khaled Hosseini is one of most widely read and beloved novelists in the entire world. The Kite Runner spent 103 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and A Thousand Splendid Suns debuted as a #1 New York Times bestseller, remaining in the #1 spot for fifteen weeks, and spending nearly an entire year on the bestseller list. Hosseini is a Goodwill Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Refugee Agency, and the founder of The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, a nonprofit which provides humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.
Please welcome the author of Garden of Stones, Sophie Littlefield, to On the Bookcase in an exciting interview!
Garden of Stones is very different from other books you’ve published. What led to your decision to write something new, and what inspired your ideas for the story and characters in the book?
When I began writing several decades ago, I found I loved the freedom of moving between genres—crime fiction, young adult, dark fantasy—trying to craft the most compelling story possible. There is great excitement in treading on unfamiliar ground, and I think risk-taking can lead to captivating and unforgettable stories.
Garden of Stones came about over a series of conversations I had with my dear friend, author Juliet Blackwell. She is a native Californian, and knew much more about the Japanese internment camps than I did, having grown up in the Midwest. I found this chapter of our nation’s history engrossing and horrifying, so I started thinking about how to explore it through fiction. My own novels often feature women—specifically mothers and daughters—at the heart, which led me to focus on their experience during this troubling era. Other story elements came about serendipitously, even small details like the Nancy Drew mysteries mentioned in the book—I’d unearthed an old copy of The Mystery at Lilac Inn, and I kept it on my desk as I wrote.
You’ve written about a very specific—and difficult—period in U.S. history. What drew you to this time and setting? What kind of research did you do, and what were the challenges you faced writing a historical novel?
When I began this project, I knew I had a daunting research challenge ahead of me. I read everything I could get my hands on: dozens of books, first-person accounts, journals, newsletters. I pored over photographs and covered the walls of my office with maps and illustrations.
I made the trip to Manzanar and spent a day at the restored camp, talking to the staff and viewing the exhibits. Walking among the ruins of the blocks and gardens I’d read so much about was inexplicably moving. I felt as though I was standing with the spirits of those who had lived there. I also visited a small museum in the town of Independence that had a wonderful collection of ephemera and memorabilia: letters, handicrafts, school photos, newspapers, dishes, clothes and furniture made by internees.
There are also many wonderful websites about the pop culture of the era; I spent an entire afternoon learning about 1940s cleaning products!
Did you find it challenging to write about a culture that’s different from your own? What sort of research did you do to ensure the authenticity of your characters and life inside the Manzanar prison camp?
I was concerned about this aspect of the book until I started reading the first-person accounts and interviews of internees. The perspective differed greatly between the Issei (born in Japan) and Nisei (born in America), and between those who were children and those who were adults. The accounts are rich with detail and helped me understand the values and priorities of the families and communities whose lives were affected by the war, which in turn helped me create credible fictional accounts. There was such a strong sense of patriotism among many of the internees, despite their treatment by our government and citizens. The determination to self-identify as American remained powerful in nearly every account I read, and I tried to reflect that in the novel.
In the book, you explore the lengths a mother will go to protect her children—even if it means hurting them. Some readers may find Miyako’s actions cruel and unspeakable, while others may feel the consequences of doing nothing would have been far worse. Did you intend for Miyako to be a sympathetic character? What do you want readers to take from her actions?
Despite Miyako’s struggle with her fragile mental health, she fights to hold herself together for the sake of her daughter. A woman with Miyako’s challenges in modern America might find effective treatment and be able to lead a full and rewarding life. During the war, that was nearly impossible, and yet Miyako did the best she could for Lucy.
I think the interesting question is whether she failed Lucy in the end. I spent a lot of time considering how a girl who had suffered what Lucy suffered would grow up—what kind of woman she would become, and whether she would be able to forgive. I must admit that I’m not entirely decided, myself.
What was your biggest surprise as you were writing this novel?
I am very surprised at how familiar the adult Lucy felt to me as I began to write her. I thought I would have been much more tentative in describing her attitudes, emotions and actions. But she arrived, as characters occasionally do, completely formed, and I felt no hesitation as I wrote her scenes.
Can you describe your writing process? Do you outline first or dive right in? Do you write scenes consecutively or jump around? Do you have a schedule or routine? A lucky charm?
I am still searching for my best process, and I’m getting the feeling that search will last a lifetime! True to my restless nature, I try lots of different things. I’ve written with detailed outlines and none at all; in chronological order and jumping around.
I do keep a detailed guide for every book and series. This includes a table of characters with their most salient characteristics, a time line and a list of significant places. As for schedule…I adore the fact that this job lets me set my own hours. I work throughout the day—from first sip of coffee through the glass of wine that marks the end of most evenings.
But I take breaks whenever I feel like it: to do chores, go to the gym or hiking, have lunch with friends, hang out with my daughter after school. I have a variety of talismans in my office. There are three little plastic penguins, a mini Etch A Sketch on which my son wrote “I Love You” when he was 8 or 10, a tiara given to me by a writing friend, and the card that came with the f lowers my brother sent to mark the publication of my first novel.
What can you tell us about your next novel?
I am working on a novel in which an affluent suburban family is forced to endure a terrifying event together. Over the course of two days, all of their relationships with each other are profoundly altered.
Sophie Littlefield grew up in rural Missouri and attended college in Indiana. She worked in technology before having children, and was lucky enough to stay home with them while they were growing up. She writes novels for kids and adults, and lives in Northern California.
Please welcome Karen Lee Sobol, author and illustrator of Twelve Weeks: An Artist’s Story of Cancer, Healing, and Hope to On the Bookcase!
“Why am I still here?”
When this question entered my mind, the answer followed at once.
“Write a book. Try to have my experience be useful to others.”
In 2005 I received shocking news. Waldenstrom’s macroglubulinemia, a blood cancer, raged through me. “Rare and incurable” defined it. Paralyzed with terror, I had this advice from a friend: “When you’re drowning in quicksand, reach for a different branch.”
Luckily, different branches began to appear in many forms. A Chinese herbalist and a kind stranger urged me to explore treatment options and to trust myself. A grandmother sent a tape about the mind-body connection. My husband found the physician who is the world’s expert on this lymphoma and who saw me as a person first, then as a patient. I learned all I could about the disease, approved treatments, and experimental ones. My background in architecture came into play, and I decided to manage the sickness like a project.
Hope banished fright. Not sure which moment might be my last, I began to truly live in the present.
Medicine, like art, is in large part a creative process. The physician might begin with a mysterious substance in a test tube; the artist might begin with a blank canvas and a set of paints. At the outset, each has an idea about a desired result, but neither is quite sure how to achieve it, much less what might happen along the way.
My journey from sickness back to health was a creative process, too. We—my family and I—faced hard choices. Were the potential benefits of enrolling in a clinical trial with an experimental, biology-based drug worth the formidable risks? Was I willing to experiment with my life? My decision: I would place myself in the test tube.
There is no doubt that the drug, and a superb medical team, annihilated the cancer. I also believe that holistic healing techniques supported my body and my mind, and contributed to my recovery. Through every phase, meditation anchored me. My mantra became “I am healthy and cancer-free.” I stated this in the present, and I felt it as if it were already true. Over time, I became cancer-free. My cure marks a breakthrough in medical science.
With infinite gratitude, I posed a question to my physician. “How can I help you, who have helped me so much?”
His answer was immediate. “Clinical trials. We need more people to be willing to enroll in them. It’s the only way we can advance the science.” His response may have been a subconscious motivator. Writing this book became my next project, with its own creative process.
Twelve Weeks seemed the logical title to choose since that was the time frame of the clinical trial in which I participated. People ask if writing was therapeutic; was it part of the healing? Because I’m so fortunate, I feel it was a moral mandate, the right thing to do.
As my health declined, then gradually returned, in my art studio I expressed unspeakable emotions, as well as humor and beauty. Images of my drawings, paintings, collages, and sculptures complement the text.
For the general reader, Twelve Weeks is a compelling tale. For book groups, it provides a platform for multi-tiered conversations about one of life’s toughest challenges.
Valuable as a medical, emotional, and spiritual guide for people experiencing cancer, treating it, or seeking to cure it, the book offers both information and inspiration. I’m happy to tell you that Twelve Weeks is making a difference in people’s lives.
To learn more, and for book group discussion questions, please visit www.twelveweeks-thebook.com
Karen Lee Sobol is a painter, printmaker and sculptor. An alumna of Radcliffe College and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, she has studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Karen Lee is a board member of the New England Aquarium and the Institute for Health and the Global Environment. As an advocate for the Bing Center for Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, she supports education and research and speaks regularly to share her story of healing and hope.
Please welcome Christine Trent to On the Bookcase as she tells us about the fascinating research about Victorian-era funerals and undertaking she discovered while wrting her novel Lady of Ashes.
The inspiration for this book came from an unusual place: my writer friend, Mary Oldham. Sitting together at a writing conference one day, I was musing about what kind of profession my next heroine would have. I was considering something in the Victorian era. Mary said to me, quite casually, “Do you know what I’ve always wanted to read about? A Victorian undertaker.” Wow.
After I got over the shock of that idea, my mind went crazy with possibilities, and the end result will be Lady of Ashes. Until the book’s release, I thought I’d share with you some of the fascinating research about Victorian-era funerals and undertaking I’ve discovered.
Coffin vs. Casket, what’s the difference? A coffin is a burial container in which it widens at the shoulders to accommodate a person’s shoulders. Think old Dracula movies and anything produced for Halloween. A casket, however, is the modern burial container Americans generally use today, made of steel or wood, that is designed as an even rectangle with a rounded top.
Did you know that Victorians did not embalm their dead? In fact, the practice only took off in the United States during the Civil War, in order to cope with preserving dead soldiers—on both sides—while being sent home on trains.
Do you know why the Victorians didn’t embalm their dead? They thought it an unseemly—and un-Christian—practice to fill a body with chemicals before placing it in the ground.
Guess why lilies are traditionally associated with funerals? Their scent is so intense that they masked the odor of decomposing bodies. While Prince Albert’s coffin stood inside Windsor Chapel in 1861, the profusion of lilies was so overpowering that the guards had to be switched out every hour to prevent them from fainting.
First class or coach? The Victorians were still a class-conscious society, even if some of those barriers were breaking down. In planning your funeral, the undertaker—wearing a top hat swathed in black crape—would offer your family options appropriate to your social status. For example, if you were of high enough rank, you might have a funeral car with glass sides, interior curtains, and plumes adoring the top. Were you just middle class? Well, a smaller carriage then, no curtains and no plumes. For those of little means, your funeral carriage was more like a long, black open cart.
What’s a professional mourner? Depending on your social status, your undertaker might hire professional mourners to walk alongside your funeral car. Dressed in black, the number of them helped demonstrate how important or wealthy you were. The same is true for the number of horses pulling your funeral car, the number of ostrich plumes adorning the horses’ heads and your funeral car, and in what part of the cemetery you were buried.
Parade routes aren’t just for floats. In America, the hearse (or, in Victorian parlance, funeral carriage) drives from the funeral home to the church to the cemetery. In Victorian England, the funeral carriage went from the home of the deceased to the cemetery’s chapel. Except, it didn’t always go directly there. For society people, the funeral procession would frequently detour through busy or fashionable streets, so that everyone could get a glimpse of what important person had died.
Fascinating, isn’t it?
Christine Trent writes historical fiction from her two-story home library. She lives with her wonderful bookshelf-building husband, three precocious cats, a large doll collection, and over 3,000 fully cataloged books. She and her husband are active travelers and journey regularly to England to conduct book research at historic sites. It was Christine's interest in dolls and history that led to the idea for The Queen's Dollmaker.