Category Archives: Author Interviews

Review: Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel

I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press via Edelweiss.  The collection was published in the original Russian in 1931 and this English version has been translated by Boris Dralyuk.  Boris graciously agreed to an interview which is included after the review.  His answers are inspiring and enlightening.

My Review:
odessa-storiesBabel’s band of Jewish gangsters, thieves and smugglers make up the first part of this collection of highly entertaining and lively stories.  The setting is the author’s hometown of Odessa, the Russian city on the Black Sea which saw a population boom in the nineteenth century and became a place for Jews to settle and seek out their fortunes.  Babel begins his stories by introducing the Godfather of all Jewish gangsters, Benya Krik, also known as “The King” in Odessa.  The occasion is the wedding of Benya’s ugly forty-year-old sister and he is delivered some news by an informant that the cops are going to stage a raid on the King’s headquarters.  The clipped, rapid fire sentences are reminiscent of a scene from Pulp Fiction or Scarface.

Benya ends up with his own wife by doing a typical mob style “shakedown” of a local farmer.  When the farmer, Sender Eichbaum,  ignores The King’s increasingly hostile messages, Benya shows up and starts slaughtering the farmer’s herd.  The innocent bovines get knifed right through the heart.  Finally, negotiations commence:

And then, when the sixth cow fell at the King’s feet with a dying moo, Eichbaum himself ran into the yard in nothing but his long johns and asked, “Benya, what’s this?”  “Monsieur Eichbaum, I don’t get my money, you don’t keep your cows.  Simple as that.”  “Step inside, Benya.”  Inside they came to terms.

After the gangster and the farmer come to an agreement, the farmer’s daughter, Celia comes outside in her nightshirt and the King is immediately smitten.  The next day he goes back to Eichbaum’s farm, returns the money, presents gifts to Celia and asks for her hand in marriage.  Even a tough gangster is not immune to the temptation of a pretty face.  Babel’s depiction of these Jewish gangsters is humorous, hard-hitting and full of ridiculous plot twists.  The local police station catches on fire, Benya contemplates knocking off his own father, and a local innkeeper ignores her infant in order to conduct her business.  We are introduced to characters like Froim the Rook, a one-eyed redhead, Tartakovsky who is also known as “Yid-and-a-half” or “Nine Shakedowns,” and Lyubka the Cossak.

A word must be said of Boris Dralyuk’s translation which is nothing short of brilliant.  He captures the essence and spirt of the Jewish culture in the booming city of Odessa where law and order are matters decided by criminals instead of cops.  Boris’s introduction to the translation is a must-read as he describes what techniques he uses to bring Babel’s characters to life for an English speaking audience:

In general, I’ve tended toward concision, feeling it more important to communicate the tone—the sinewy, snappy punch—of the gangsters’ verbal exchanges than to reproduce them word for word.  A longer phrase that rolls of Benya’s tongue in Russian may gum up the works in English.  For instance, in the original Russian, Benya refuses to smear kasha “on the clean table.”  In English, “on the clean table” felt superfluous.  Both the tone and the image were sharper without it.  To my ear, the pithy “let’s stop smearing kasha” has the force and appeal of an idiom encountered for the first time.

The final stories in the collection are Babel’s recollections from his own childhood as his family moves from Nikaloyev to Odessa.  “The Story of My Dovecote” is both funny and heartbreaking when Babel remembers wanting more than anything else a dovecote as a ten-year-old boy.  He makes an agreement with his father that if he gets high marks and is accepted into the preparatory class at the Nikolayev Secondary School then he can have his own dovecote.   When, on his second try at the exams, Babel is given a spot at the school his family is overjoyed to the point of throwing a ball for their son’s success.   The depiction of his mother and her skepticism that any Babel would achieve greatness is humorous but also foreshadows a dark time that will follow: “Mother was pale; she was interrogating fate in my eyes, gazing at me with bitter pity, as if I were a cripple, because she alone knew just how unlucky our family was.”

Young Isaac finally does get his doves and he is on the way home from picking them out in the market when a terrible and sad tragedy befall him.  The boy gets caught up in the confusion of the Russian pogram and his doves are smashed on his own head.  The dazed boy returns home bloody with the remains of feathers on him and finds that his family are in a state of utter turmoil because of their persecution.  The young Babel suffers an awful case of hiccups and the doctor diagnoses him with a nervous disorder caused by the trauma of the pogram that he and his family were victims of.

Much to my own dismay and sadness, my country yesterday elected a man who has promoted xenophobia, racism, and violence against groups of people based on their religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc.  We have to remember that Babel’s persecution in Russia could easily happen again if we let hatred and ignorance rule the day.  We must do whatever we can to insure that we stand up to bullies, and not allow such bigotry and violence to become acceptable in any way, shape or form.  Babel’s lesson on the horrible consequences of bigotry is just as relevant today as it was nearly one-hundred years ago in Russia.

About the Author:
Isaac BabelIsaak Emmanuilovich Babel (Russian: Исаак Эммануилович Бабель; 1901 – 1940) was a Russian language journalist, playwright, literary translator, and short story writer. He is best known as the author of Red Cavalry, Story of My Dovecote, and Tales of Odessa, all of which are considered masterpieces of Russian literature. Babel has also been acclaimed as “the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry.” Loyal to, but not uncritical of, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Isaak Babel fell victim to Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge due to his longterm affair with the wife of NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov. Babel was arrested by the NKVD at Peredelkino on the night of May 15, 1939. After “confessing”, under torture, to being a Trotskyist terrorist and foreign spy, Babel was shot on January 27, 1940. The arrest and execution of Isaak Babel has been labeled a catastrophe for world literature.

About the Translator:
boris-dralyuk-edit-1024x683Boris Dralyuk is an award-winning translator and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature for a number of years. He is a co-editor of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, and has translated Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories, both of which are published by Pushkin Press.

An Interview with Boris Dralyuk:

  1. How did you become interested in a career as a translator?  Can you trace the progression of your career from the beginning to this impressive achievement of translating two works of Babel for Pushkin Press?

My family immigrated to Los Angeles in 1991, when I was eight years old, turning nine. I had two words of English at my disposal – “hello,” a good start, and “poppy,” California’s state flower. Those weren’t going to get me very far. So I plunged into the language, soaking up as much as I could, at first by way of I Love Lucy, which I would watch with my grandmother, and then through the local public library. Then, at 13, I realized I had been neglecting my Russian. I could still speak and read, but… If I didn’t apply myself, I’d soon be back to “hello” and “poppy,” as it were. So I began reading poetry. At 14 I came across a poem by Boris Pasternak, dedicated to Anna Akhmatova. It lifted me off the ground. And I had the urge to share it — to share that experience with a friend who didn’t speak Russian. The first line popped into my head in English, all on its own: “I feel I’ll pick words comparable…” I did about as well as you’d expect, for a 14-year-old. And I still remember the last two lines of that first stanza: “I’ll make mistakes, but I don’t give a damn — / No matter what, I’ll never part with error.” I try to live by those words.

So it was something of a calling. I applied to UCLA to work with Michael Henry Heim, a legend in the field. He was a true mentor, as he was to so many. When he passed away in 2012, I wrote about our first meeting, about his generosity — which was a uniquely pure and powerful example of a quality common to translators. And in 2010 I met Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, from whom I continue to learn every day. They invited me to join them in editing The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015). So that’s how I got here: my luck and the generosity of others.

  1. Translation is obviously not an exact, one-to-one science.  What do you think are the pieces of Babel that get lost in the English translation, that don’t quite carry over to the English version?

You put it perfectly: “not an exact, one-to-one science.” In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s no kind of science. Translation draws on specialized knowledge — of languages, of cultures, of literary traditions, etc. — but so does any art. And that’s exactly what translation is: an art. Korney Chukovsky, one of the great Soviet-era translators (and, incidentally, Mike Heim’s hero), titled his wonderful book on the subject A High Art. It was a bold gesture, a plea for the redheaded stepchild of literary creation to get a seat at the table. Regarding translation as a purely technical endeavor leads to bad translations — and to bad criticism. We should judge literary translations as literature first, not as exam papers. Does it touch you? Does it make you laugh? Does it make you feel as if the top of your head were taken off?

And yes, of course, accuracy matters, but words don’t just denote — they connote, they link up, they build to a cumulative effect. A good translation remains faithful to those cumulative effects, not to any individual word. I don’t like to think in terms of losses; for me, translation is a net gain. The trick with Babel — my Babel, at least — was to find native idioms that would allow me to communicate the effects of his stories. With the Odessa Stories, I didn’t have to look far… Jewish-American fiction, hardboiled detective stories — it was all there, on my nightstand, ripe for the picking.

  1. Babel’s cast of gangster characters are very entertaining.  Do you have a favorite character from Odessa Stories?

What a great question! That would be the Odessan broker Tsudechkis, a little shyster with ten tons worth of personality. He’s the narrator of one of the earliest Odessa stories, which I translated as “Justice in Quotes.” Babel gives Tsudechkis the run of the place, linguistically and otherwise. He never included the story in any of his book-length collections — it didn’t quite fit — but I love it precisely for its looseness, its square-peg-in-a-round-hole incongruities, which mirror the narrator’s spirit. Babel brought the broker back in “Lyubka the Cossack.” He couldn’t keep the little fellow out!

  1. What did you learn about Babel and his writing that surprised you the most as you were working on this translation?

I knew these stories so well… I first read them cover-to-cover at 13 or 14, but I had heard them all throughout my childhood. My family quoted them in conversation — and they sounded as if they were quoting them even when they weren’t. My ears were full of Babelian cadences and turns of phrase, both in Odessa and in the Russian-Jewish community in Los Angeles. I listened for — hungered for — those same cadences in English, and I found in the likes of Bernard Malamud. I suppose what I learned while working on Babel’s stories is the degree to which they are a part of me.

  1. You also have a volume of translated poems and prose from the Russian Revolution forthcoming from Pushkin Press.  What other projects and translations are you working on at the moment?

I’m very proud of 1917, and I hope it touches all readers, no matter how they feel about the Russian revolution. It was a time of great promise and of great tragedy. I worked hard to reflect the period’s contradictions, and was aided by a team of brilliant translators — Josh Billings, Maria Bloshteyn, Michael Casper, Robert Chandler, Peter France, Rose France, Lisa Hayden, Bryan Karetnyk, Martha Kelly, Donald Rayfield, Margo Shohl Rosen, and James Womack. My next project is a collection by the great Soviet satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko, called Sentimental Tales, for Columbia University Press. Their new Russian Library is doing wonderful things. Robert Chandler, Maria Bloshteyn, Irina Mashinski, and I have also translated a volume of poems by the Soviet-era poet Lev Ozerov, called Portraits Without Frames — a nuanced and deeply moving sequence of verse portraits, a kind of mini-encyclopedia of Soviet culture. NYRB Classics will bring that out in 2018

Thanks again to Boris for answering my questions so thoroughly and thoughtfully.  You can also read an interview that Boris did for Pushkin Press here: http://pushkinpress.com/behind-the-book-boris-dralyuk/  and a review of Odessa Stories from The Guardian here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/01/odessa-stories-by-isaac-babel-review.  Boris also has an impressive resume of translations and writings, the full list of which can be viewed on his website: https://bdralyuk.wordpress.com/

 

 

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Filed under Author Interviews, Pushkin Press, Russian Literature

Interview: Annie Holmes co-author of Breach

I am so excited today to post an interview with Annie Holmes, co-author of Peirene’s new release breach.  The book will be released in August and below is information about the book tour and launch.

About Breach and the Peirene Now! Series:

breach“The Jungle is like a laboratory”

In the refugee camp known as The Jungle an illusion is being disrupted: that of a neatly ordered world, with those deserving safety and comfort separated from those who need to be kept out. Calais is a border town. Between France and Britain. Between us and them. The eight short stories in this collection explore the refugee crisis through fiction. They give voice to the hopes and fears of both sides. Dlo and Jan break into refrigerated trucks bound for the UK. Marjorie, a volunteer, is happy to mingle in  the camps until her niece goes a step too far. Mariam lies to her mother back home. With humour, insight and empathy breach tackles an issue that we can no longer ignore. It is the first title in the Peirene Now! series. This exciting new series will be made up of commissioned works of new fiction, which engage with the political issues of the day. breach beautifully captures a multiplicity of voices – refugees, volunteers, angry citizens – whilst deftly charting a clear narrative path through it all. The story that emerges is an empathetic and probing mosaic, which redefines the words ‘home’, ‘displacement’ and ‘integration’ as the plot progresses towards a moving finale.

Author Interview- Annie Holmes:

Q. This book is very comprehensive in that it covers so many aspects of the refugee experience.  What do you hope is the biggest lesson that readers will take away from your stories?

A. At least two of the non-refugee characters in the book comment on the surprising normality, the village vibe, of the camp in Calais. I hope that when readers put the book down, they too will have met and will remember a host of individual refugees as normal people, albeit in exceptional circumstances – triumphant or defeated, morally compromised or steadfast, amusing or tragic, or the common human mix – each with a full life before her or his journey, looking to the future with some blend of hope and trepidation, just like you or I do. Through fiction, the reader can come to know a character inside as well as from the outside, as a human being rather than a statistic or a type. That’s the effect that I hope our book achieves.

Q. Why did you choose Calais to study and conduct interviews of refugees?  What are typical aspects of the refugee experience there and what is unique to that refugee camp?

A. For the UK and for those seeking to get there, Calais became a symbol. This was the place to across from Europe to the English-speaking refuge you hoped to reach. The last hurdle for would-be refugees to cross. From the other side of the Channel, Calais encapsulated the problem – whether you saw the problem as a threatening “horde” of migrants or as the failure of your own and other European governments to respond to a major human rights crisis and to abide by international law. Refugees headed to Calais – old, young, from many countries, alone or in families or groups – and so too did British and other volunteers, individuals and groups spurred to make up in good will and practical support the shortfall on the part of governments and most international NGOs. Into this convergence flowed the news media, storytellers like us, actors and artists, along with the French authorities, most visible marching bullet-proofed through the camp, and the smugglers, largely invisible. Every player in the migration saga was represented, and then some. The Jungle was a pressure cooker.

Who knows what Calais will come to mean now? Will the town continue to be the platform for dreams and dread, or was the Jungle a short-lived world of its own? Either way, that camp at that time contained multitudes – the many varieties of refugee experience as well as its own unique experiments.

Q. Why did you choose to write short stories instead of focusing on a novel or novella?  Why is the short story a more appropriate genre for your project?

A. We could invoke Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s maxim about the stereotyping danger of the single story. By contrast, in eight stories we could present a real range of experiences and characters. But I wouldn’t like to rate different genres as less or more appropriate. A novel format worked brilliantly for Dave Eggers, for example– Zeitoun burned the experience of Hurricane Katrina into the memory of anyone who read it. The more perspectives, the better.

Q. After visiting the refugee camp and speaking with so many displaced people, what is the one memory that most stays with you?

A. I lived in the Calais camp in memory for a long time, writing the book – re-walking paths, re-living conversations, remembering images. Here’s one that didn’t make it into my stories in any way. On the tiny veranda of a brightly painted shack hang three baskets of flowers, as if it’s a beach cottage or a holiday chalet. Beyond, a young man pedals like a maniac on a stationary red cycle, generating power to charge the cell phones lying in a basket fixed to the handlebars. He looks up, catches my eye and waves, a smile on his sweaty face. A bright blaze of energy, despite everything.

About the Authors:
Annie HolmesAnnie Holmes was born in Zambia and raised in Zimbabwe. Her short fiction has been published in Zimbabwe, South Africa and the US. She now lives in the UK. “This is the third continent I’m calling home. My life here in the UK is somewhat precarious (African passport) and somewhat privileged (education and ‘white’ skin). This is also the third continent where I’m witnessing migrants and refugees vilified.”

 

PooplaOlumide Popoola is a Nigerian German writer of long and short fiction. She lectures in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. “breach is my answer to the new wave of racism, views that are becoming acceptable again because of old ‘the boat is full’ narratives, because of the fear of the Other. These are stories of complex characters with dreams and fears, lives that started long before they found themselves in Calais.”

 

All of the dates for interviews and reviews are listed on the banner below:

breach_blog_tour

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Filed under Author Interviews, British Literature, Opinion Posts

Review and Author Interview: Love in the Elephant Tent by Kathleen Cremonesi

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher, ECW Press.

About The Book:
Elephant TentKathleen’s life has always been an itinerant one and from the time she was seventeen she took off from her small hometown and Oregon and went on the road.  She tries out different things that take her through various parts of the U.S. and Europe.  She finally lands in Spain where she starts to work for a circus and meets the Elephant trainer who completely changes her life.

What is interesting about Kathleen’s story is that there are a lot of bumps on the way to finding her true happiness.  She does immediately have feelings for Stefano but her parent’s rocky marriage has a negative effect on how Kathleen views commitment.  It is interesting to follow Kathleen on her emotional journey.

I also liked the fact that Kathleen talks about animal cruelty and the elephants she encounters.  Stefano tells her that elephants are nomadic animals and should be roaming free.  She does not gloss over or hide the fact that their captivity in a circus is not the best environment for them.

If you love memoirs and travel writing then LOVE IN THE ELEPHANT TENT is a great book to put on your reading list for the summer.

Author Q&A:
1. Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and how you became an author?
I have always aimed to create my own space in this world, and I have been self-employed for most of my adult life, usually in ways that incorporated art and creativity. In part, my inspiration to carve my own pathway through life comes from rebelling against the pain I saw my mother experience when her marriage dissolved, so I steered my life in the opposite direction by running away from any situation that even hinted of domesticity. Instead, I sought out adventure and refused to bend to others’ expectations and desires – which made life exciting but also lonely. It wasn’t until I met Stefano in Spain that I found someone I could imagine sharing a life with – but imagining something and living it are quite different, of course. It took a lot of growing up on my part, and Stefano’s, for us create a life together.

Once we did make that leap and moved from Italy to America, many people were curious about how we met, which of course brings up circus stories. Most people were anxious to hear more. I heard, “You should write a book,” so many times, that I finally decided to do just that. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – I ran away with the Grateful Dead and then the circus instead of pursuing a college education, so I had to learn how to write before I could complete a book-length manuscript. Without any formal training, that took a lot of trial and error, and Love in the Elephant Tent is the product of all those years of work.

2. What is the best book you have read in the past year that you would recommend to my readers?
Oh, boy, does it have to be just one? Off the top of my head, three come to mind: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which I’ve read before but found myself reading again this year. Great book. Love the deep, sometimes flawed, but always real relationship those women shared and how they pass its essence on to the next generation. I also read Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer for the first time. Wow. It’s written in such a straightforward manner but conveys such depth and adventure and willingness – no, need – to put your life on the line to obtain freedom and knowledge and feel fully alive. And last, but certainly not least, is Chiseled, a memoir by Danuta Pfeiffer. Full disclosure: she’s a member of my writing group and I’ve been reading successive versions of her book for about 17 years. She finally published it earlier this year, and reading a finished copy was a moving experience. This woman basically went to hell and back multiple times. In her youth, she wanted to be a nun, but events prevented that. Over the years, she was “saved” by God, rejected by his followers. Grew from being a hard-scrabble youth in rural Minnesota to becoming “the most prominent woman in Christianity” and co-hosting The 700 Club with Pat Robertson – only to walk away from it all, bike 1000 miles from Canada to Mexico with little experience, and finally reconnect with her liberal roots, as well as find love, peace and fulfillment in an Oregon vineyard. Great read, well told, highly recommended.

3. Since your book is an autobiography were you nervous about exposing details about your life for the public?
Absolutely. The thought still wakes me up in the middle of the night sometimes. Close friends who know my story with Stefano well have told me they’ll never look at us the same again. Those types of declarations freak me out as much as they make me smile with relief. As scary as such revelations are, it’s also a shame that we must fear exposing our vulnerabilities and sharing with the world who we truly were and are. Ninety-nine percent of what happened in the book took place over 25 years ago. I’ve grown since then, of course, become stronger and more confident. I look back on those years and judge my own actions, don’t agree with all of them, and sometimes would like to reach back in time and talk some sense into myself, so I won’t be surprised if others express the same desire. However, it is only through those long ago feelings and experiences that I have become the person I am today. A lot has happened between when Stefano and I left Italy and today. Those years we shared in the circus had a strong effect on who we’d become and how we’d deal with adversity and the challenges life threw at us individually and as a couple. Can’t say we would have made it this far without them. Back to your question: Nervous? Sure. Afraid of what might come of the exposure: I’ll meet those challenges as they come. Willing to share in case it could help another young woman find her place in this world or a couple keep their love alive? Definitely!

4. What writing projects are you working on next? Will you stick with non-fiction or will you delve into fiction this time?
I have made some initial strides in both genres, jotting down stories that cover everything from past generations to the twists and turns my life with Stefano took after we left the circus. I also love to write about food and travel, and I have been experimenting with the outline of a mystery. Which of these projects will flourish into a full-fledged manuscript remains to be seen – and I wouldn’t have it any other way at this time. I like to live in the moment as much as possible.

Thanks so much to Kathleen for her thoughtful responses.  To visit all of the stops on her book tour visit the link below.

Elephant Tent Banner

 

 

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What Makes for a Successful Short Story? Guest post by author Rebecca Adams Wright

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the challenges of writing short stories. A good friend of mine who “thinks in novels” was wrestling with a story for a workshop application and asked for my help in cutting down her text. Workshop guidelines specified a maximum length of 6,000 words, and, at the time she requested my help, her story was hovering around 12,000 words. We spent a lot of time discussing what lines should be cut, what lines were critical to the story’s emotional and structural foundations, and what fundamental element made us realize that this text was a short story, instead of, say, a novella that would simply dissolve as that much language was pared away.

Our conclusion was that a successful short story is, essentially, an exercise in quickness and economy. If a novel is a sprawling mansion, a novella is a respectable ranch and a short story is a microhouse. The microhouse still need a roof and a floor and a way to get in—otherwise it isn’t a house at all, and visitors (readers) will be sorely disappointed—but the builder can’t waste any interior space. This means that in a short story by a good writer, every sentence will serve to propel the plot or reveal some new aspect of a character or offer a meaningful glimpse of the story’s emotional core. In a story by a great writer, one sentence will do all three.

I’m very aware of this need to stick to essentials when I’m drafting a story. Concision is one of the great challenges of short fiction but, to a writer like me, who slogs through first drafts and then lights up when it comes time to revise, also one of the great pleasures. My short story “Tiger Bright,” which is about 4,400 words in my collection The Thing About Great White Sharks and Other Stories, was originally 5,500 words. I was pleased to slash that story by nearly a fourth because the words I cut weren’t contributing to the story, they were obscuring it.

There is a real satisfaction that comes with eliminating unnecessary sentences and opening up contemplative space around the most important questions, images, and sensations in a story. One reason we engage with literature is to better understand ourselves and the people around us. When I am writing a short story and constantly asking myself “is this a critical line? What does it tell us about Mrs. X? What does it contribute to crisis Y?” I’m solidly engaged with the human motivations, desires, and experiences that brought me to literature in the first place.

Still, as my friend and I lamented, justifying each line can be difficult. It’s easy to fall in love with my own cleverness and grow attached to a particular turn of phrase. But there’s no room for mere cleverness in the microhouse. Empty lines, even pretty ones, are just extra soap dishes and third sets of sheets—clutter. A writer has to know when to stop culling, of course, so that the microhouse of story doesn’t become a featureless wooden box, cold and uninviting, and that is its own challenge. But done right, this distilling process crafts memorable narratives. Short stories may be small spaces, but, as my friend and I reaffirmed (in its final form her story weighed in at 5,300 absolutely critical, heartbreaking words) no less essential for their size.

-Rebecca Adams Wright

Thanks so much to Rebecca for her thoughtful post.  Rebecca is on tour with her new book The Thing About Great White Sharks.  Click the TLC Book Tours Banner below to learn more.

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Guest Post: Author Marie Savage On How to Begin An Historical Fiction Novel

 

Today I welcome Marie Savage to The Book Binder’s Daughter who is writing about her new book Oracles of Delphi and her process of beginning an historical fiction novel.  I invite you to read her interesting guest post, enter to win your own copy of her book and visit the other stops on the tour.

Great beginnings: Setting the historical scene to keep the reader turning the pages

As a writer, editor, publisher, and avid reader, I think a lot about how to draw a reader into a story and keep them turning the pages. All good stories must have a powerful beginning that not only hooks the reader immediately, but also sets the mood and gives tantalizing clues about what is to come. In historical fiction, the beginning has to do even more work—it has to transport the reader to a time and place that may be completely unfamiliar.

9780989207935-Perfect.inddThere are many ways to grab a reader from the very first line and first paragraphs, and in writing ORACLES OF DELPHI, set in 340 BCE, I think I tried them all before I got it “right.” I probably rewrote the first chapter fifty times, and that’s no exaggeration. Ultimately, I believe, a successful beginning boils down to a deft use of tension and in ORACLES, the first paragraph plunges the reader directly into the story, gives a sense of the time period, and sets up the tension between two characters:

Nikos’s heart pounded against his rib cage like a siege engine. He pressed his back into the stone wall, closed his eyes, and tried to calm his breathing. He couldn’t believe he’d been such a fool. “Next time I’ll surrender the prize,” Charis had always promised. Next time he would claim it, he always hoped. But instead….

He pulled himself to the top of the wall and lay flat. The moment of escape calmed him. The gates of the Sacred Precinct were locked, and he’d had to climb out the same way he’d climbed in. On the way out, though, he wasn’t carrying a body.

He glanced to his side, toward the theater, and then down to the Temple of Apollon where he’d left Charis’s body for the priests to find. Stars winked in and out as clouds drifted across the black dome blanketing the night sky. He crouched, reached for a nearby branch, and swung down to land on the ground with a soft thud.

Does it work? With references to the siege engine, the Sacred Precinct, and the Temple of Apollon, does it put you in the scene and in the time period? Will it keep you reading? I hope so. Here’s one of my favorite beginnings, this one by Deborah Lincoln whose book, AGNES CANON’S WAR, I edited and published.

Agnes Canon saw a woman hanged on the way to the Pittsburgh docks. The rope snapped taut, and a hiss rose from the watching crowd like steam from a train engine. The woman dangled, ankles lashed together, hooded head canted at an impossible angle, skirt flapping lazily in the breeze. A sharp pang of sorrow shot through Agnes though she knew little of the woman’s story.

I love this first paragraph because it puts you right into the story. In the first line, we read “Agnes Canon saw a woman hanged on the way to the Pittsburgh docks” but we don’t know why she was going to the docks—does she work there? Is she meeting someone there? Or is she going on a journey, leaving from the docks to parts unknown? Second, we know immediately that the story is set in a time during which hangings were done in public and steam engines were common. Third, the description of the woman’s body dangling with “ankles lashed together, hooded head canted at an impossible angle, skirt flapping lazily in the breeze” grabs the reader and immediately begs the question: what was this woman’s crime? Last, we discover that although Agnes knows little of the woman’s story, she knows enough to feel sorry for her, and that sympathy tells the reader something of Agnes’s character.

A good beginning should not be loaded down with adjectives and adverbs, but careful use of descriptive language can be effective in setting the mood, anchoring a story in time and place, and evoking a particular atmosphere. Below is the first paragraph from SLANT OF LIGHT, an award-winning Civil War-era novel from Steve Wiegenstein.

The keelboat moved so slowly against the current that Turner sometimes wondered if they were moving at all. Keeping a steady rhythm, Pettibone and his son worked the poles on the quarter-sized boat they had built to ply the smaller rivers that fed the Mississippi. Whenever the current picked up, Turner took the spare pole and tried to help, but although he was tall and muscular, with a wide body that didn’t narrow from shoulders to hips, poling a boat wasn’t as simple as it looked. He pushed too soon, too late, missed the bottom, stuck the pole in the mud, all to the amusement of Pettibone’s son, Charley. And with every stroke, Turner asked himself: What in all creation am I doing here?

In this paragraph, we know immediately that the story is set in the past as keelboats are not common modes or transport these days. And we know that Turner, who is tall and muscular, is unused to working the poles—something even a young boy can do. Turner is clearly a guest on the keelboat or has hired Pettibone and Charley to transport him. But transport him where? We know the boat is plying a tributary of the Mississippi, but what is Turner doing there and where is he going? The last line sets up the rest of the novel, hinting that discovering why Turner is on that keelboat in the first place is at the heart of the story.

What are your favorite first paragraphs and what elements draw you in and keep you turning the pages?

-Marie Savage

About The Author:

02_Marie Savage_Author PhotoMarie Savage is the pen name of Kristina Marie Blank Makansi who always wanted to be a Savage (her grandmother’s maiden name) rather than a Blank. She is co-founder and publisher of Blank Slate Press, an award-winning small press in St. Louis, and founder of Treehouse Author Services. Books she has published and/or edited have been recognized by the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY), the Beverly Hills Book Awards, the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction, the British Kitchie awards, and others. She serves on the board of the Missouri Center for the Book and the Missouri Writers Guild. Along with her two daughters, she has authored The Sowing and The Reaping (Oct. 2014), the first two books of a young adult, science fiction trilogy. Oracles of Delphi, is her first solo novel.

Giveaway:

Marie is giving away one copy of her book (US/CAN).  Just leave me a comment below and let me know you want to win.  It’s that easy!  One winner will be chosen on Jan.9th and notified via email.  The winner will have 48 hours to respond.

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