April Author of the Month: Emily Brand

Image from www.emilybrand.co.uk

This month I’m interviewing Emily Brand, who’s new book The Fall of the House of Byron, captures the scandals of three generations of Byrons, including a certain poet. With four other previously published books under her belt, Brand’s specialty of the history of love and sex c. 1660-1837 are fascinating and juicy reads. Brands other works also include writings for national and international media such as the BBC, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Telegraph, the Radio Times and CNN.com. Not to mention a feature discussing 18th century pick up lines, in Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast.

Let’s meet out author:

What do you like to read in your downtime?

Since only recently discovering audiobooks I find myself rattling through history books in this way – it’s so useful for making the best of travel time. On reading purely for pleasure I try to keep up with modern fiction but still sometimes have to remind myself to move beyond novels with historical settings, otherwise I eventually feel like I’ve been wallowing too much outside of the real world! I also tend to gravitate towards stories highlighting women’s voices and experiences – especially if those women are in some way problematic, or veer outside of the traditional ‘spirited but generally deserving and good’ heroine. A couple of recent books that seem to be really staying with me are Madeline Miller’s Circe and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer.

What are you currently reading?

I’ve just finished The Five by Hallie Rubenhold, an inspiring study of the lives of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper – it’s an engrossing portrayal of common lives in the Victorian era and such an important moment in turning traditional historical narratives on their head.

I am now keeping everything clear for Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, which I’ve been anxiously awaiting since 2012!

What inspired you to forge a career in history?

I inherited my mum’s love for period dramas and family history, and as a result have been fascinated by the past since a young age – so she is partly to blame for that! My career has always been weighted towards history – in museums, as an editor, in genealogy and as an author. My enthusiasm is constantly fuelled by the idea of all the lost voices lying in archives just waiting to be uncovered, and all those forgotten personal stories that can unlock new perspectives on the past. Learning to step outside of our own world and try to understand the experiences of others is hugely important, and making even a small contribution with my research seems worthwhile.

Now and again we get to see historical object you own on your twitter, which one is your favourite and which one has the best story attached to it?

I’ve amassed quite a bit of 18th-century Byron family material, including prints and books that no one else seems to care about except me! My favourite is probably a large, hand-coloured engraving of Frances, Lady Byron – the mother of the three primary protagonists of my book – by William Hogarth, and dating to the 1730s. I’ve never come across another like it and it was my first buy at auction, so I will always associate it with the feeling of excitedly scampering across Nottingham to pick it up.

The most precious and personal, though, is something passed down from my late grandmother’s family, which I received for my 30th birthday. It’s a George III shilling (dated 1787) with a hole bored into it so that it can be fashioned into a necklace – a common form of love token in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sadly I doubt I will ever find out who it belonged to, or how it relates to my ancestors – but I wear it if I feel like I need an extra bit of good luck.

The Fall of the House of Byron

Image from www.emilybrand.co.uk

There are so many characters in your book each more scandalous than the last. Which Byron would you have loved to have interviewed for the book?

I think – partly out of some sort of morbid curiosity – I’d choose Jack Byron, the poet’s wastrel father, whose real life became almost irreparably clouded in myths after his son’s death in 1824. Almost three decades after his own demise he was branded as ‘mad’, as ‘worthless’, and even ‘evil’ by writers and biographers. The letters and debts he left behind do tend to confirm that he was a selfish, arrogant, and sexually deviant character, but a lot of questions are left unanswered – namely, how did he get away with so much?

Despite such obvious character flaws he managed to seduce at least two young heiresses, charmed his superiors and sent women into a flutter wherever he went. I think in order to get the measure of the man I’d have to see what he actually looked like – there are no reliable surviving images of him – and witness him in action in a candlelit ballroom. And, of course, give him a thorough interrogation to see what other terrible things (incest aside) that he might own up to!

Newstead Abbey plays a large role in the Byron dynasty, in some ways it stands as a Portrait of Dorian Gray for the decline of the House of Byron. Have you managed a visit there yet and traced your finger over the engraved window of the Byron children’s names?

I have been a number of times, both to tour the house and also to dig about in their archive. It’s been updated significantly since the time of the poet so it requires a little bit of imagination (and detective work) to envision how the interior must have looked in his day. Sadly the windowpane with his ancestors’ names and birthdates etched on was removed in 1809 when the poet was trying to prove his legitimate lineage – and has since disappeared! Which to me is an even sadder loss for Newstead than the artistic treasures that had already been sold off to settle debts. This was a poignant memorial made by a lonely young mother to her growing band of children, and a real glimpse at what life was like for women delivered into arranged marriages and sent off to live their lives on the other side of the country, whether they liked it or not.

William Byron, 5th Baron Byron, saw the height and decline of Newstead. By the end he reminded me of Charles Dickens’s Scrooge before the ghostly visit. He could have been great, why do you think he kept choosing the wrong path?

Almost all surviving evidence provided by the life of the 5th Lord points towards his having had a poor reputation ever since his youth – in particular for cowardice – and I think his bitterness about this only made things worse. Both his actions and his correspondence show him to have been selfish, entitled, irresponsible and immature. He was likely spoiled as a child; perhaps the death of his father and his inheritance of the family title when he was just 13 gave him unrealistically grand ideas. He certainly fell into a debauched and pleasure-seeking set of gentlemen even before he turned 21 – which laid the groundwork for a lifetime of extravagant spending,

Especially compared to his brother John, who was acclaimed for his feats of war and voyages of exploration, William’s lack of success was obvious. Where people were concerned he was utterly unable to hold his temper when criticised, which only led to further criticism. Where money was concerned, he simply didn’t know where to stop – leading to the downfall of his family’s fortune. He loved pursuing the trappings of an aristocratic life but had very little skill or interest in attending to his responsibilities – I think in order to have made a success of his life as a lord, he would have needed a complete personality transplant.

Happy Birthday for February! You celebrated the day by visiting the HMS Victory, immersing yourself in Nelson and Naval history. The Byron’s have a strong connection to the Navy and there is a fantastic telling of Foul Weather Jack’s adventures in your book. Do you also have a personal connection to the navy?

Thank you! And yes, I have been drawn to the history of the Georgian-era navy since I fell in love with Horatio Hornblower as an impressionable young teenager. The survival story of ‘Foul-Weather Jack’ Byron is really one of the most incredible I have ever read, and it was a privilege to re-tell it for the first time along with the wider context of his personal life and career.

A number of my near relatives and ancestors have been involved in the military, covering all three of the armed forces in three generations and also going back as far as Waterloo – perhaps that does inform my interest a bit. During the Second World War my grandfather was involved in Arctic Convoy duty when he was just a teenager, and just reading about those brutal conditions makes me shiver.

Isabella Byron, is a fantastic character, out of all her husbands and lovers which one would you say was the one that got away?

Isabella is actually my favourite of the Byrons, with her head so stubbornly full of romance! I was so delighted to find her unpublished letters to her second husband, through their whirlwind secret engagement to their cold-hearted separation – she had such a passionate and stream-of-consciousness style of writing, on reading them I felt like I was living through it with her.

She had a string of romantic attachments and flirtations throughout her life, and there is one I’d love to know more about. Sir Edward Swinburne was a baronet, a widower 12 years her junior and a talented artist – little survives of their relationship other than that Isabella seems to have followed him to Europe when in her early fifties, according to the gossips simply hoping to rekindle their relationship. Unbeknownst to her, he had already taken up with another woman in Vienna. They certainly met up during her travels, but clearly he had little intention of inviting scandal by travelling as her companion.

Like many a family at the time, the Byron liked to name their children after each other. By the end of the book, the fertile Byron family had three generations interconnecting, how did you manage to keep track of who was who?

Fortunately my years of experience in genealogical research and chart-making helped me here! I compiled a family tree (which will be included in the book), and have attempted to differentiate between characters by applying their preferred pet names (e.g. ‘Jack’, ‘Betty’, ‘Sophy’) used in their correspondence.

Certainly, the Byrons did not make things easy with their recurring tendency to marry, elope with, and commit incest with each other (both half- and full-siblings).

Lastly

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently gearing up to do a book tour of the UK in the coming months, to share my love for the Byrons – there are details on my website for anyone who is interested: www.emilybrand.co.uk

I’m also scouring archives and looking for inspiration for book two!

How can we follow you and keep in touch?

I’m most active on twitter as @EJBrand, but also have an instagram @historian_emily and facebook page @HistorianofLove. Please do say hello!

And you can also pre-order my new book about the Byrons here: https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-fall-of-the-house-of-byron/emily-brand/9781473664302

March Author of the Month: Dr. Helen Frisby

Authors photo supplied by Dr. Helen Frisby

My Author of the Month this month is Dr. Helen Frisby. A very talented lecturer and non-fiction writer whose latest book, Traditions of Death and Burial, had me talking the ears off of family and friends. Helen currently, teaches at the University of Bristol, UK, and is an internationally recognized expert on history, folklore, and material culture of death, dying and bereavement. Helen has also appeared on the History Channel and BBC Radio 4.

Without further ado, let’s get to know Helen

First things first: are you a tea in bone china drinker or a coffee in a mug drinker?

Coffee in a mug. I collect vintage china teasets, but am too scared to use them in case I break them!

· Which books would you say impacted you most during your childhood?

I learned to read using the Ladybird Peter and Jane series, so you could say that they had a big impact. My teacher insisted that I ‘wasn’t ready’, so my parents took matters into their own hands and taught me. I’m very grateful to them for doing that. My childhood books were pretty typical of the time – Mog, Noddy, Wombles, Paddington Bear, Famous Five, Malory Towers and so on. Some of those are probably a bit old-fashioned now, but others have stood the test of time.

· What do you read in your downtime and what are you currently reading now?

I usually have one serious and one fun book on the go at a time. My current serious book is With The End In Mind by palliative care doctor Kathryn Mannix. I agree with her that we urgently need a new – or maybe reinvented – ritual vocabulary around death and dying.

My fun book at the moment is Cloak of Deception by James Luceno. I’m a huge Star Wars fan.

· Who or what led you to follow the field of research your in?

As an undergraduate I was taught by the amazing Professor Douglas Davies, who ran a course on ‘Death, Ritual and Belief.’ I didn’t know it then, but this (late 1990s) was the time when death studies was really taking off as an academic subject. My subsequent Masters’ dissertation was a micro-study of popular attitudes to death in Reformation York, and that in turn led to a PhD on Victorian folk funeral customs. Meanwhile, attending a particularly dreadful funeral around this time gave personal force to my growing belief that the past has a lot to teach us about dealing better with death.

· Your field of interest, I’m sure, can be quite overwhelming, do you find you need to take a step back at times? If so, what do you do?

I’m part of an international, multidisciplinary community of death studies scholars, and regularly touching base with people in that world who ‘get’ it helps keep things in perspective. In the lecture hall or seminar room we’re in academic mode, debating and discussing the issues, but otherwise we just talk about all the normal stuff that friends and colleagues do.

Attending funerals – obviously I’m there as a participant, but that said I never can completely put my inner observer away, so yes I do also end up analysing what’s going on. I guess it’s my way of coping.

Beyond my research I enjoy pottering at home, going to the cinema, theatre, music concerts and so on. I’d like to be good at gardening, but the reality is that I quickly get bored and cold, and end up paying somebody else to do it.

· In the heritage world, oral histories are finding a solid footing and turning up interesting results with regards to social history and its impact on the present-day generation. With regards to your current research, Grave Communications: An Oral History of Gravedigging, are you finding compelling results?

Dr Stuart Prior and I have found that gravediggers – or cemetery operatives as they’re called nowadays – are a really key part of how we do death in this country. However, until we came along nobody had previously thought to consult them in any detail – how a cemetery works day to day, and exactly how do you dig and then maintain the graves. Given that the UK presently is in the throes of a burial space shortage this seemed to us an especially peculiar oversight, one that our research is now correcting.

· Do you find stories of the supernatural turn up during your research and could you share one with us?

Our ancestors had a strong sense that until the funeral had taken place the dead weren’t so much dead, as lurking somewhere in-between life and death. It was therefore necessary to keep a watchful eye on while the body was laid out at home, and Folklore journal recounts a tale from a Worcestershire village about 1860, about a child who had died at the baker’s house: ‘One of the neighbours had been present in the sick-room, and after all was over she and the mother were sitting together in a downstairs room, when a slight noise was heard upstairs, rousing them both. The mother wanted to go up to the dead child, but the other restrained her. “You mown’t go upstairs. It’s Little Lucy. Yes, she’s dead, ma’am, but her spirit bain’t gone yet. We mown’t disturb her.”’

· You have done a lot of public speaking with students and on TV/Radio. Which do you find more nerve wracking?

Both in different ways. I’ve learned that it’s not the end of the world if you’re not always technically perfect as a speaker; what audiences really want – especially with a topic like this – is authenticity and warmth. And knowing my stuff, of course!

· Your area of interest has led to a treasure trove of information that I’m sure would make a spectacular gothic horror, have you ever thought about penning a fiction?

If I ever did write a (semi) fiction book it would actually be about one of my cats, and how he was adopted, escaped on the first night then travelled for three months to get back to his old home. My husband and I take his staying with us as proof that we’re running an acceptable cat hotel.

Traditions of death and burial:

Image supplied by Dr. Helen Frisby

· Do you have a favourite anecdote you’ve came across while researching?

My all-time favourite is the 1920s Yorkshire folklore collector Henry Fairfax-Blakeborough’s wry observation that port wine didn’t count as alcoholic when drunk at funerals, with the consequence that certain otherwise strict teetotallers were rather prone to, ahem, overdoing it on these occasions. This always amuses audiences, and is a nice reminder that sadness and humour are very often two sides of the same coin.

· If you could time travel, which period in history would you like to have gone back and witnessed for researching your book?

If I really had to choose, then it would probably be the medieval period. However I’d insist on taking some twenty-first century painkillers with me – it’s easy to over-romanticise the past, forgetting that the modern way of dying does have its plus points. And the greatest of these, I would argue, is effective pain relief.

· Your section about Halloween and All Souls Day was interesting and not something I have come across before. Do you know if All Souls Day is still observed?

Not that I’m aware of, but I’m saying that very carefully because you never know when somebody will say actually we do still do that!

· The connection you make between a low life expectancy and the need to be hands-on to help the soul and body compared to a long life expectancy and having a more hands-off approach is compelling. I’ve read around this subject and ultimately not made the connection until reading your argument. Have you found many other readers like me in this regard or perhaps yourself?

I usually begin talks by noting what sociologists call ‘the predictable death trajectory’ – whereby nowadays most of us in the West die gradually from the chronic diseases associated with old age. I also talk about our modern ‘sequestration’ of the dying and dead away to the hospital, care home and hospice, and after death to the euphemistically named Chapel of Rest. Audiences nearly always identify with this kind of experience – although perhaps not always in quite these, it has to be said, rather clinical terms.

· I connected with your conclusion that people are feeling emotionally unsatisfied with funerals post World Wars. I’ve been fortunate to have experienced the very off hands approach and the more hands-on approach: my gran was brought back to the family home for a wake, this is the first time I saw a dead person and I remember helping make sandwiches and meeting people who came to pay their respects for the few days before the funeral. Because of this, I felt more emotionally complete compared to the former. You mention that there is a turning of the tide to the hands-off approach, how far do you think this may go before the pendulum swings back again?

On a personal level, as I mentioned earlier, one of my formative experiences was attending a funeral which represented the worst of the typical British late twentieth-century send-off: rushed, impersonal, and denial of the real sadness of loss. This experience inspired my efforts to ensure that as a society we move right away from this kind of ‘hands off’ approach to death. With my academic hat on, however, I think you’re probably right – historically we do rather seem to go through these cycles of invention, rejection then reinvention (in slightly different clothes) of ritualised expressions of grief and loss. As I discuss in the book, I can only see that stopping if and when humanity acquires immortality – at which point ‘living’ and ‘dying’ mean very different things anyway.

Is there an aspect from the past traditions of death and burials you would like to see a re-emergence of?

Not so much any particular custom, as the underlying concept – which I think people in the past intuitively understood – that grief is actually about refiguring the ‘continuing bond’ between oneself and the dead person. For much of the twentieth century – courtesy largely of Sigmund Freud – we’ve instead had this bizarre, and frankly cruel notion that to ‘recover’ from a bereavement is to reach a point where it’s almost as if the deceased never existed. It’s great therefore to see the re-emergence of spaces – including, in a twenty-first century twist, digital spaces – where one can carry on that relationship with dead loved ones.

· Remembrance Day is mentioned in your work as an example of the present remembering the dead. The debate comes round every November of whether commemorating Remembrance is still relevant now that the World War generations are passing on. Do you think Remembrance will cease to be remembered in the coming century?

Sort of. Memory, I think, works in half-lives; although the actual World War generations with their first-hand memories are now rapidly passing on, something of those memories lives on in their children and even in my own generation, their grandchildren. Although clearly I wasn’t around during the war(!), I grew up hearing about it from my grandparents who were, so it’s a part of me albeit at second remove. So I think my generation at least might keep on observing Remembrance in some form, even if just as a way of keeping in touch with our own grandparents.

· You have mentioned that you have always wanted to write this book, how does it feel to have accomplished this goal and been able to hold the physical book in your hands?

To me the physical book in my hands represents a hectic, happy time in my life: while writing it I also got a job I’d wanted for years and moved house, all in just a few months. None of this would have happened without all the support from my wonderful family and friends; in particular my husband Andy, who supplied endless toasted bagels and mugs of coffee (see earlier question), listened to me whinge and (not entirely joking here!) reminded me to wash.

· Your book focuses on the UK’s traditions of death and burial, do you think you would ever write a sequel about other countries traditions of death and burials? Such as, the sky burials of the Mongolians, the turning of the bones of Madagascar, New Orleans Jazz funerals etc.

A whole world of funeral customs… where to start?! It just shows how people are so endlessly, defiantly creative in the cold face of mortality, and that’s what I really wanted to celebrate in the book.

Lastly:

· Are you working on any future books that are articles at the moment?

I’m working on a book about Victorian funeral customs, which is (sort of) the book of my PhD topic. Meanwhile Stuart and I are also writing up our findings from the Grave Communications project so far.

· How can we follow your progress?

https://independent.academia.edu/HelenFrisby is the best place to find me online; I’m also on https://speakernet.co.uk if anyone wants me to come and do a talk for their group or event.

January Author of the Month: Kim Taylor Blakemore

Photo supplied by Kim Taylor Blakemore

I shall start off the New Year Author Interviews as I mean to go on, with a truly talented storyteller. Presenting: Kim Taylor Blakemore, a fierce woman who tells tales of the “thieves and servants, murderesses and spoiled doves”, winner of Tucson Festival of Books Literary Award, WILLA Literary Award, and three Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) grants and member of Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Historical Novel Society.

Her genres are Historical and Women’s Fiction, which has come out breathtakingly in her first adult debut historical mystery novel, The Companion, which is out today: 14 January 2020.

Without further ado, let’s meet Kim!

When looking for a new read, what stands out most for you: the book cover or the description?

Book cover and then description. A great cover will always reel me in.

E-books vs physical books, where do you stand?

I like both! I don’t think one is better than the other, merely different. Personally, I read fiction on my Kindle app on my phone and read nonfiction (including research materials) in print, so I can write notes in the margins, highlight, turn over pages, add Post-It notes and have the stack of research books on my desk in easy reach.

Do you have any mascots or rituals you do when writing?

My pets are definitely mascots – the leader is Toughie the blind cat, followed by Rocky the shepherd/Doberman/100% mutt mix, Naomi the old gal, and little Calvin. They all sleep in the office when I write, bark at passing trucks and squirrels (to remind me to take a break) and never let me forget dinnertime. Picture included. J

Photo supplied by Kim Taylor Blakemore

I do have specific rituals when I write at the library – a specific chair at a specific table, facing the mysteries. I’m out of sorts when it’s not available.

Which books defined your childhood and which ones define you now?

Nancy Drew, for sure. My mother read every Agatha Christie novel when I was very little; I think she was prepping me for the master. My family are voracious readers, so the library was a weekly event. In my teens I was obsessed with Gone with the Wind. That obsession moved into Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. I read pretty widely, so there isn’t really a genre that I read more than others. I can devour a Jasper Fforde book and follow it with an Emma Donoghue and then a Connie Willis.

But I will say that it is Daphne DuMaurier who informs my work. She is brilliant at deception and deflection, teasing out one small detail at a time until the story is filled with delicious dread. I have a portrait of her above my desk. She is very fierce in it, very stern, and a strict taskmaster. I can hear whisper, “Make it worse.”

What was the first Historical Fiction book you read?

Wow. I don’t remember. Probably Pride and Prejudice, but that isn’t really historical fiction, is it?

As a writer of Women’s Historical Fiction what was it that first drew you into this genre?

I love women’s history, and I’m impelled to learn how women lived and what made them tick in the past. So often, this history is not found in textbooks or history tomes, but in diaries and letters, and when I read those, I see such rich worlds.

The Companion

Book cover image supplied by Kim Taylor Blakemore

How and when did the story for the book first come to you?

Lucy came to me in a dream, about 15 years ago. Her name at the time was Polly Bunting, and the dream was a fleeting image of a young woman caught in the act of stealing the pearl necklace from her (dead) mistress’s throat. I just started writing her voice, letting her speak, but at the time, I didn’t have much of a story and left it alone after about twenty-five pages. But that young woman never left me, and I picked up the manuscript and played around with scenes and ideas over the years. Each time I said to myself, “You’re not a good enough writer for this story yet.” And I’d put it away. But at one weekend workshop, Lucy came barrelling out at the first prompt and didn’t stop. I was all set to write a fun breezy book about an all-female jazz band in the 1930s, but Lucy had her own ideas. And I knew it was time. The book was complete in a year and a half.

Which character in your book are you able to connect with the most?

Lucy. She is maddeningly charming and dishonest and conniving and tough and vulnerable all at once.

Did you edit anything out of the book?

During developmental edits, we deepened some area and characterizations, and lost a murder as it pulled focus away from the main story. But nothing significant was edited out.

Lucy and Rebecca are both at some point companions to Eugenie, when first reading the book I thought the title referred to Lucy as she is the main character, but now I don’t think it is as cut and dry as that. What do you say?

Yes, that’s right. There are three companions in the piece – Rebecca and Lucy both serve as a companion to Eugenia, but the Matron is Lucy’s companion, also.

I love the description and atmosphere of the Burtons house, it’s perfect for the story, did you do research for this by having long weekends at a historical house?

I make sure I visit at least one historic house wherever I travel. In fact, I make sure to visit the historical societies also. I am obsessed with how people lived and moved through their time and their domestic spheres, and houses are telling. The Burton’s home is an amalgam of New England houses.

You don’t mind shining a light on the dark stories and the nitty-gritty which intrigues me and keeps me reading, is there anything you find too dark or nitty gritty to write about?

Rape and torture. Can’t go there at all.

Having Eugenie Burton blind in the book is a unique twist, it puts her in a very vulnerable position even though she is capable. Would you say Eugenie is the manipulated or the manipulator?

Eugenie is both. She manipulates the household and pretty much gets everything and anything she wants. She point blank tells Lucy that during one of their first conversations. But she is also manipulated by others in the house who have their own desires – for power, for love, for money.

And Rebecca, manipulated or manipulator?

As above. Rebecca is the poor cousin that is shuttled from house to house, an in-between in the household, and looking to keep any modicum of status she can. It’s an uncomfortable place to live – not close family, not distant staff, not much say over anything, even as it relates to her own life.

Do you think Eugenie’s love for Lucy was real?

I do. I think Eugenie found someone who didn’t coddle her, didn’t see her as a blind person, and saw her as an equal.

I have to ask, who killed Mary?

You may ask, but I may not tell. 😉 I will leave that to you to decide.

The novel has elements in it that at times that remind me of the works of the Bronte sisters or Daphne du Maurier did these gothic horrors influence you when writing this novel?

Thank you for that! Daphne du Maurier is my idol. She is a master at the reveal, giving away tiny bits of information – much seemingly innocuous – until the sum of the parts become a dreadful horrible whole. Then it’s too late to turn back. For the characters and the reader.

And the atmosphere in du Maurier’s works, like the Brontë’s, is used so well, each description worked to its fullest to provide not only the settings, but the feeling of dread and unease.

Lastly:

What are you working on at the moment?

I just finished the draft of my next book for Lake Union. It’s super dark and twisty: an asylum, an apparent suicide, and a woman who doesn’t buy the story she’s told about her sister’s death. And she won’t stop until she finds the truth. (Can I say she’s pretty kick ass?) It’s set in the same area of New Hampshire as THE COMPANION, though ten years later. It’s tentatively titled AFTER ALICE FELL, and will be released in January 2021.

How can we follow you?

I’d love if you joined my mailing list! I post new content monthly, from tidbits on my research trips to giveaways to stories of fierce women, and exclusive excerpts and other writings. Sign up here: http://eepurl.com/gjxqib

You can also follow me at:

Instagram: www.instagram.com/blakemorekimtayl

or Facebook: www.facebook.com/kimtaylorblakemore

December Author of the Month: Charlie N. Holmberg

Author Photo Provided by Charlie N. Holmberg

This article contains spoilers for The Fifth Doll

I am proud to present the fantastic Charlie N. Holmberg as my Author of the Month for December. This amazing fantasy author is best known for The Paper Magician series but the first book I read of hers and fell in love with was The Fifth Doll.

Let’s learn a bit about you!

What book would you say defines your childhood and which book would you say defines you now?

  • My favorite books as a kid were the Goosebumps books and the American Girl books (even though I never owned an American Girl doll). As an adult, I was shaped a lot by epic fantasy. I think the most influential was Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson.

Which was the first book to make you cry and which was the first to make you laugh?

  • I’m not sure which title first brought me to tears, but the first book to make me UGLY cry? Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. I was all snot and tears for that one. I’m not sure on laughter either, but it could have been Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.

How long have you been writing?

  • I started writing when I was 13, so… 18 years?

What’s the funniest typo you’ve ever written then caught yourself?

  • I’ve accidentally dropped profanity into books where I didn’t mean to. I also have a weird thing where I type “back” when I mean “bag.” All. The. Time.

Do you have a writing mascot or ritual?

  • Not particularly? I write in the mornings after my kids go to school, Monday through Friday. I’m very disciplined about it.

How do you handle deadlines and priorities?

  • I just do them. I know that’s a weird answer, but it’s how I’m wired. I have never once missed a deadline.

Do you use any writer’s apps and if so are there any you would recommend?

  • I don’t. Just me, my brain, and Microsoft Word.

The Fifth Doll is a favorite of mine, especially because I have an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and so many elements of the novel deal with issues that were in my course. I have been known to use the book as an illustration in arguments similar to The Matrix, red or blue pill. With that being said I’d like to quiz you about this novel.

Book Cover Image supplied by Charlie N. Holmberg

How did the idea for the novel first come to you?

  • So I was preparing a class on magic systems for a local conference, and I wanted to get the attendees to think outside the box and create a magic system of their own. I was walking around my house, writing down random things I saw—forks, thread, newspapers—so that I could have the class come up with magic revolving around them. I reached the shelf that had my matryoshka dolls on them and paused. Magical matryoshka dolls… that sparked something in me. Needless to say, I kept that one for myself!

What research did you do for the book?

  • A lot of late 18th-century Russian research. Most of the book is quasi-Russia, so I had some leeway, but I had to research some stuff about relevant tzars and how marriage was handled, clothing, food, etc. I also revisited Freudian psychology, since that has some influence in the novel as well.

Did you edit anything out of the book?

  • Nothing major. Not that I can recall.

A room of villager nesting dolls is a terrifying image, what would you do if you found a room filled with nesting dolls of people you know, would you open one?

  • Oh, totally. That would be a true WTF moment. Though I would be terrified of getting caught.

In Matrona’s position would you fight being given stewardship?

  • You know . . . I’m not totally sure I would. I would probably 100% play along until I figured out for sure what was going on, and then make a judgment and potentially a secret betrayal, ha.

At the end of the book, we are confronted with the concept of freedom and if it is truly desirable. Do you think true freedom is desirable?

  • True freedom is always desirable. The freedom Matrona achieves, not so much.

Which would you choose, the world within the dolls or the real one?

  • I would probably choose to stay in the dolls! (SPOILER>) The reality Matrona takes everyone into is a winter- and war-ridden one. They have literally nothing. It’s going to be CRAZY HARD to make a life and a living, especially in the throws of WWI. If I had to choose between those two worlds, I would choose the nice sunny one, thank you very much.

Have you considered writing a sequel or prequel to the novel? If so I wish to pre-order.

  • Considered? Briefly. Will I write one? No. Sorry!

Lastly

What are you working on at the moment?

  • I am working on SO MANY THINGS. I’m finishing up my Spellbreaker duology, the first book of which will release in fall 2020. I also have a high fantasy duology I’m working on with Caitlyn McFarland (author of the Dragonsworn series). Then I have a book called STAR MOTHER that I’ll be doing my first round of edits on soon (from my alpha readers—haven’t sold that one yet!).

How can we follow you?

  • Instagram: @cnholmberg
  • Twitter: @cnholmberg
  • Facebook: @cnholmberg
  • Website: charlienholmberg.com
  • Amazon: https://amzn.to/2CzffcW
  • Goodreads: https://bit.ly/36Zfaxe

Author of the Month: November – Faith L. Justice

Authors Photo provided by Faith L. Justice

Faith L. Justice is my Author of the Month for November. This Historical Fiction writer has penned 5 novels and a collection of short stories that if you haven’t read yet, you must! So, without further ado, let’s get to know Justice.

How has your upbringing inspired how you write your books?

I grew up reading historical fiction—much more exciting that the history texts in school. I think a lot of people feel the same way. We can immerse ourselves in a different world with exotic settings, but still see the humanity that binds us, through stories, across time—and learn a little something about history.

As I grew older, I read more straight history and noticed something depressing: nearly all the subjects were men and their accomplishments (usually in battle)! When I started digging, I found all sorts of fascinating women—scientists, generals, pirates, mathematicians, empresses, courtesans, spies, adventurers—too many to write about in one lifetime. I wanted to share their stories with a general audience, so historical fiction was the right fit. It allows me to tell women’s stories—specific and general—from all classes and situations.

What book would you say defines your childhood and which book would you say defines you now?

I from a farm country with a large family, so The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder captures the rural and family dynamic I grew up with. Although we had a few bad snowstorms and our house did catch on fire once, we never experienced the frontier hardships that family had to deal with. However, the sense of community is still the same.

What book defines me now is much harder. I’d like to say Sex in the City by Candace Bushnell because I’ve lived in New York for over thirty years, but you know the old saying, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t the country out of the girl.” I’m afraid I live a very staid life. James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a better fit. I spend my time daydreaming and telling stories—although I’m rarely the hero!

Do you have a favorite season, time of day, etc you like to write in?

Writing is my job, so I treat it like one. I get up, feed the cats and myself, and am at my writing computer by 10 am. I write until 1 pm—sometimes longer if I’m on a roll. Not all writing is on novels. I have short stories, reviews, blog posts, free-lance articles, etc. I’m trying to up my novel writing time, however, because I have so many ideas. I also fiercely protect these three hours—no phones, no internet, no family. Sometimes I write on the weekends if I’m on a deadline or the muse strikes me.

Afternoons are for miscellaneous publishing projects: rewriting, proofing, marketing, interior layout, and research. I try to knock off by six. During nice weather, I spend time digging in the dirt—my garden or volunteer archaeology projects. I just got back from a dig in Tuscany, Italy where we worked on a Roman villa that was occupied from the first through the fifth centuries. We uncovered some lovely mosaics!

What is the funniest typo you’ve ever written?

Oh my! I’ve forgotten so many. The most recent I can remember was a blog post where I talked about “navel battles”—belly button wars! Glad I caught it before I posted it.

Book Cover Image provided by Faith L. Justice

Your latest book and first installment in The Theodosian Women series has become a firm favorite with me. Now, I’m excited I get to interview you on it!

Which historical character in your book would you have loved to have gone back in time and interview for the book?

That one is easy: Placidia. There is so little in the primary sources, I’d love to see what I got right and what I got wrong. Another interesting choice would be her daughter Honoria. There’s a lot of controversy about her life and historians don’t agree on much.

I’m a strong believer in ‘the truth is stranger than fiction’, what is the strangest thing you have had to research for the Twilight Empress?

Doing the research is the most fun part of writing historical fiction for me. I can really go down the research rabbit hole. One of my favorite historical tidbits that I included in the novel was Emperor Honorius’ fondness for his pet chickens. When a messenger told him, “Rome is gone!” (after the Goths took the city in 410), Honorius—referring to one of his favorite roosters named Rome—said something like, “But I fed him from my hand just a few minutes ago!”

Placidia married twice; Ataulf, King of the Visigoths and Constantius III, Roman Emperor, between the two who would be your love?

You’re asking me to choose between the Bad Boy and the Sensitive Guy? Actually, they were quite similar: both were successful and respected generals/leaders, smart and politically astute. Both seemed to have married for love—unusual for the times. My head says go with the more powerful Constantius, but my heart flutters for Ataulf the better horseman!

Placidia keeps going never letting herself truly breakdown though out all of the disasters she goes through.  Why do you think she never broke down?

I think she did break down a couple of times. When her first child died, she went into a deep depression and it took loving friends and St. John’s wort (an herbal anti-depressant) to help her out of it. She has a couple more depressive episodes at key moments in her life. What I tried to portray in her character was a bed-rock sense of duty. She was raised to rule and felt it was her duty to give her life to the Roman Empire even at the expense of her own happiness or the happiness of those she loved.

As a reader, reading the chapter where Placidia’s stepchildren are viciously murdered after her first husband’s death was heart-wrenching.  How did you feel when writing it?

That was hard, even though the deaths took place off-screen and we only see the aftermath. I’m a mother. Writing anything where a child is hurt or suffering makes me cry while writing it and when reading it later. I tear up just writing about writing it! I try to channel those raw feelings and describe them for the reader because that is what normal people feel and I want my characters to reflect real feelings.

Placidia treats her biological children differently from each other, if you could what advice would you give her?

I did give her advice…through other characters! Her niece Pulcheria saw the children’s faults and potential. She tried to help, but Placidia was blind to her own mistakes. From what little I could deduce from the history, I believe Placidia did indulge (and therefore stifle) her son and didn’t train her daughter in the more dangerous art of wielding imperial female power. I consider Placidia’s overprotectiveness of her children, her “tragic flaw.” Pulcheria offered to help, but was rebuffed.

In Placida’s position, how would you have handled Aetius?

That’s a tough one! I’m not sure what I would have done differently. Placidia struggled as a woman to preserve the imperial throne and its power for her minor son. I think she did a credible job of pitting Aetius’ ambition against that of other generals for quite some time. He was not alone in thinking a woman should not have the power that Placidia assumed as Augusta. He was a brilliant general and shrewd politician. Aetius would naturally look down on any female—no matter how talented—and assume he could do better. Nothing other than death or exile would deter him from trying to assume as much power as he could. And both death and exile would have been a disaster because Aetius was the glue that held the frontier together for decades. Without him, Western Rome would have fallen earlier.

Do you think Justa Grata Honoria meant the ring included in her plea letter to Attila to be a proposal of marriage?

Personally, no. I think she wanted to indicate the authenticity of the message. By inviting Attila to “rescue” her, she wanted to use him as she thought her mother had used the Goths throughout her life, as a threat against domestic opposition (in this case, Honoria’s brother Valentinian) or possibly as a last ditch escape from a hated marriage or possibly prison.

Do you think you will ever write Justa Grata Honoria’s story?

I’d like to! I also want to write about Placidia’s daughter-in-law Eudoxia and granddaughters Eudocia and Placidia the Younger who have fascinating stories of their own to tell later during the Vandal invasion and looting of Rome.

Would you call Placidia the ‘She-Wolf’ of Ancient Rome and if so are there any other strong women of her time you would add to the list?

Yes, Placidia was certainly fierce and I gave her the Roman Wolf as her standard when she returned to Ravenna. There were many strong (overlooked) women during that time. I’ve written about two Theodosian women (Placidia and her niece Pulcheria) and have a third novel started about Athenais, wife of Theodosius II. There are four generations of strong Theodosian women to explore—many more than I have time to write about. Outside of royalty, I’d recommend people look at the life of Hypatia, the Lady Philosopher of Alexandria. She was a renowned mathematician, astronomer, and civic leader. Her students held major offices in both the Church and government. It was while researching her life for my first book Selene of Alexandria—in which Hypatia is a major character—that I found Placidia and the rest of her impressive female relatives.

Have you visited the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy?

Yes, I spent days tramping around Ravenna, visiting its various museums and historical sites. The Mausoleum is a beautiful building. Remarkable that it has survived from the fifth century.

FUN FACT: As I mentioned in my author’s note, I used the Mausoleum’s interior as the model for Placidia’s actual tome in Rome. That tomb was torn down to build St. Peter’s. The Mausoleum in Ravenna was most likely a chapel built by her son Valentinian to honor St. Lawrence—considered the patron saint of the Theodosian line. The sarcophagi in the building supposedly used for Placidia, her husband, and her brother are all dated to different and later times. The building was probably rebranded as Placidia’s Mausoleum during Medieval or Renaissance times to attract tourists.

Finally:

What are you currently working on?

So many projects, so little time! My second novel in the Theodosian Women series Dawn Empress about Placidia’s niece Pulcheria, is in final production and will be out in early 2020. I’m in the final editing phase of a prequel novella Twilight Princess about Placidia’s three years in Rome during the Goth sieges. That should also be out next year. The third novel in the series, Athenais’ story (wife of Theodosius II) is outlined and partially written. I’m celebrating the tenth anniversary of publishing my first book Selene of Alexandria with an audio edition and new cover and updated author note for the print and eBook. I’m trying to get back to a second book in my female gladiator series called Song of the Gladiatrix which is outlined and partially written, but I keep getting distracted with the Theodosians. I’m in the beta read phase with my second book in my middle-grade children’s series Adventurous Girls…oh my! It makes me tired just typing this.

Where can we buy your books and keep up to date with all your doing?

Thanks for hosting me on your blog, Zoe! To show my appreciation for your readers I’m giving away an eBook short story featuring one of my favorite fictional characters from Twilight Empress, please go to my website at FaithLJustice.com and sign up for “Angel of the Marshes.”

My books are available in print, eBook, and audio at all the usual online places or order from your local bookstore. People can connect with me online at my website or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Happy reading, everyone!