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Posts Tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

The Unknown Ajax

June 5, 2014 | by

georgette-heyer

Georgette Heyer

Like most families, mine makes frequent use of shorthand. In the case of me and my mother, much of the talk derives from the work of Georgette Heyer, the prolific author who created the genre of Regency Romance in the first half of the twentieth century. As my mother had, I read all of the books in my early teens, and even today, our exchanges are liberally peppered with the idiosyncratic language of Heyer’s novels—or, as she might put it, “Regency cant.”

Something popular is “all the crack.” Exaggeration becomes “doing it much too brown.” A young relative fresh from the sticks “needs a little town bronze.” A snob is “high in the instep.” And our favorite, of course, is “impervious to the most brutal snubs,” a phrase which one finds applicable with dismaying frequency.

Heyer was a famously scrupulous researcher with a vast archive of materials and detailed notes on all aspects of the eras she portrayed. (In addition to the Regency, Heyer set books in the Georgian and Medieval periods; she also wrote modern mysteries.) Her files contained subject headings like “Beauty, Colours, Dress, Hats, Household, Prices, and Shops.”

While devotees will argue passionately for their favorite Heyers (mine, not that you asked, are Cotillion, Devil’s Cub, and, of course, The Grand Sophy—I don’t like the May-December jaded-rakes ones) it can’t be denied that there are certain recurring tropes in her work. One biographer defined these as the “saturnine male lead, the marriage in danger, the extravagant wife, and the group of idle, entertaining young men.” To this I would add a mad chase at the book’s end, which oftentimes brings together disparate characters at a remote and random inn. But all are characterized by their real wit, fully realized characters, and utterly satisfying conclusions. (Okay, A Civil Contract, not so much.) Read More »

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Facts First: An Interview with Michele Zackheim

March 28, 2014 | by

last train to paris

From the cover of Last Train to Paris.

Michele Zackheim’s new novel, Last Train to Paris, follows the adventures of Rosie Manon, the fearless foreign correspondent for the Paris Courier. Spanning the better part of a century, from 1905 to 1992, the story takes us to the Paris and Berlin of the midthirties and early forties, during one of the most fascinating and shameful periods in modern history, the years leading to World War II. Zackheim was moved to write the novel following a strange discovery—in the thirties, her distant cousin was kidnapped and murdered in France by Eugen Weidmann.

I spoke to Zackheim via e-mail and telephone over a period of three months. Our conversations touched on her family history and writing methods, and the formidable research she brought to her new novel.

All of your books share a certain preoccupation with World War II. Why?

My family lived in Compton, California, an area that was declared vulnerable to an enemy attack. I was only four years old when World War II ended, but I remember small details—a brass standing lamp with a milk-glass base that was lit at night while my parents listened to the menacing news on the radio. The sound of night trains, which ran on tracks a block away. And of course—and this is hard to admit—my only sibling was born in 1944. Because I was the eldest, and because before her birth I had already experienced grim hardships, an intense sibling rivalry was born. I have to assume that she became part of my unconscious interest in war. These memories, along with the emerging news from concentration camps after the war, and my parents’ outraged and mournful whisperings in Yiddish, created an unconscious anxiety that I’ve been making work about all my adult life.

You wove the story of your cousin’s murder through your novel. Was the expansion and departure from the initial incident a natural progression for you?

I often start out writing nonfiction. But there’s a problem. It’s boring for me not to embellish—actually, it’s no fun. Read More »

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We All Have Our Magical Thinking: An Interview with Nicola Griffith

January 14, 2014 | by

St._Hilda_at_Hartlepool_by_James_Clark_(Oil_Painting)

James Clark, St. Hilda at Hartlepool (detail), 1925, oil on canvas.

Late in Nicola Griffith’s 1998 novel The Blue Place, her protagonist, Aud Torvingen, speaks rapturously about a spot on the coast of England. “Have I told you about Whitby Abbey, on the Yorkshire coast? There’s a ruin there that dates from the twelfth century, very haunting, very gothic, but the first abbey there was founded in the seventh century by Hilda. There’s a power there.” Fifteen years later, Griffith’s latest novel, Hild, explores the early life of the woman who would go on to become Hilda of Whitby.

Hild is an intricately plotted historical epic, set in a landscape that seems familiar and a culture that is anything but. Hild, the young protagonist, acts as an adviser to the king, Edwin, and the novel abounds with plotting, misdirection, and the use of mysticism toward decidedly realpolitik ends. Griffith’s ability to evoke a different time and place has manifested itself in very different ways over the years; her first two novels, Ammonite and Slow River, were both science fiction, though of very different types. Ammonite begins as anthropological science fiction and gradually becomes more epic in scale; Slow River involves conspiracies, industry, and a marvelously intricate plot. The series of three novels featuring Aud Torvingen—The Blue Place, Stay, and Always—are set in the modern world, with a fiercely analytical (and sometimes critically violent) protagonist. And in 2007, her memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner Notes to a Writer’s Early Life, was released.

Reached via phone at her Seattle home, Griffith’s spoken language is as precise as it is on the page.

How long have you known that Hilda of Whitby was a figure you wanted to write about?

Since my early twenties. Actually, I didn’t even know that I was going to write about her—I discovered the abbey in my early twenties, and I was very struck by it. Hilda grew on me. She grew in the back of my mind. At first, I thought I was going to write an alternate history novel, one in which the Synod of Whitby didn’t go the way that it actually went. But the more I discovered about the world itself, about the seventh century, the more I wanted to write how it actually was. Not make it fantastical, just really go there, really live there for a while. And Hild herself became more and more interesting to me.

I kept putting off writing about her, because I really didn’t want to write a book about women as chattels, and women as baby-making machines. But as I discovered more about the seventh century, I realized that my preconceptions were wrong, and in fact, Hild could have been a really powerful woman in her own right. A really powerful person—not just a powerful woman. And then, one day, I just thought, This is enough. I have to really go there. It’s time to step up. The day before my forty-seventh birthday, I sat down and wrote the first paragraph. So it took more than twenty years. Read More »

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