Interview with Annamaria Alfieri

I met Annamaria Alfieri at the Historical Novel Society Conference in St. Petersburg, FL in June. She was so much fun to talk to that we have kept in touch.

Annamaria is the author of three murder mysteries set in South America. She has graciously agreed to take a little time out of publicizing her new murder mystery, Blood Tango, to answer a few questions for our blog. (Yay! Our first interview!)

I came to Blood Tango with zero background knowledge of the events surrounding Peron and Evita – in my theatre days I neither worked on nor saw a production of the Broadway hit “Evita”. Even so, I was able to enter right into the story context with Annamaria as my guide.

Why historical fiction?

I read my first historical novel when I was fourteen: Katherine, by the great Anya Seton. I hated studying history in school. It was all about memorizing dates, the causes of war and which country won. No context, no understanding of the people involved, certainly not of their emotions. Dry.

I did not think of writing historical novels myself, however, until I went to Potosi (Bolivia) and became entranced with its beauty and then its history. That’s when I decided that, rather than continue with the contemporary fiction I had been working on, I would write a historical mystery that took place there, as a way of communicating more broadly some fascinating and mostly unknown history. The result was City of Silver. (See the YouTube interview of Annamaria discussing her inspiration for City of Silver!)

Why Argentina? Why not some topic more familiar to readers?

Blood Tango is my third historical mystery. Once I set out telling about South American history, I stuck with it through three books. You are right. It is unfamiliar territory for many North American readers, but that is why I chose it. I think fiction readers in general, and mystery readers in particular, like to learn as well as be entertained. Most North Americans know very little about the history of the intriguing continent south of ours. There aren’t many novelists writing about that and I hoped to open a niche for myself there.

Did you come to the project with much background knowledge? Or did you have to start from scratch like I did while reading the book?

In all three cases, I began on unfamiliar ground. I had to research thoroughly to get a sense of the times, the place, and especially the historical characters.

What was the hardest part about writing this story in this context?

In the case of Blood Tango, all most American’s know about Evita, for instance, is what they learned from the Broadway musical. And that version of the history is distorted. That made the writing more difficult because I wanted to tell a compelling story, and try to do it without fighting too hard against the readers’ possible misconceptions.

I understand you’ve done some particularly creative events to publicize the book. Can you tell us about those? What did you learn from these efforts?

My daughter is a dancer, and we came up with the idea of doing a film featuring tango dancing. She produced and directed it, the choreography was done by the Paul Pellicoro Dancers. You can see it on YouTube here.

It got quite a lot of compliments and has been seen by, as of today, almost 1500 people. I am proud of it, especially since the choreography between the principal dancers captures what I think was the real relationship between Evita and Juan Peron.

You said to me at conference that you planned to be back at work writing the next book by July 1st. Have you managed to do that with publicity and life continuing to demand attention?

I DID! With the book touring, I have not been able to throw myself into it completely, but I am closing in on 20,000 words. This is a first draft of course. It will need a LOT of polishing before it is done.

I’m always interested in other writers/artists’ work habits. Do you have a daily writing schedule or goals that you try to stick to?

When I am in the first draft, I try to work six days a week. It takes a lot of energy to get my head into the story. If I leave it for two days, it is harder to get back into it to keep going. I am much more productive if I can hold on to the thread of the story. Even if it is just for an hour. Besides, I am happy when I am in the story. All the slings and arrows of everyday life can’t reach me if my mind is in the long ago and far away. I do not have to be coaxed to write.

Any time management tricks you recommend? Or is it “just say no” to everything else possible?

Your readers may not want to hear this, but I gave up reading magazines and almost all TV watching. I stay in touch with friends mostly on FaceBook and email. I don’t chat much. I cook, which I love to do, but only my thirty-minute meals except on Sundays. I take care of my family responsibilities. After that, my first priority is writing. Period. Full stop.

And anything else you would like to add would be great!

I love the idea for this blog. Lots of historical fiction is appealing and I do read and enjoy the stories that take place in the familiar times and locations. But I have such a fascination with the exotic. I am happy to be able to come here and find out what’s new on that horizon.

Thank you, Annamaria!

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And the Winner is . . .

Another Man Booker Prize winner for historical fiction!

Eleanor Catton of New Zealand has won the coveted prize for fiction with her 832-page The Luminaries. A murder mystery set in 1866 New Zealand, this one meets our Long Ago and Far Away particulars.

The book is available in the US as of this week.

At 28 years old, Ms. Catton is the youngest Man Booker prize winner.

You can read articles about the book, Ms Catton and the prize here:

http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/23171771-421/eleanor-catton-wins-fictions-booker-prize.html

http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-eleanor-catton-luminaries-2013-man-booker-prize-20131015,0,3236824.story

Ah, another tome to add to the stack. I just purchased Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies a few days ago but am currently reading Sharon Kay Penman’s Devil’s Brood, so I’ll be while yet. I’d love to hear about it from anyone who gets to it before I do.

My Name is Red

My Name is RedIn a prior post I explained that I do not intend to write proper reviews of books. I also mentioned that for a book to receive five stars from me, it would have to be more than entertaining and well written. It must also stick with me past the final page. Some books are technically perfect but forgettable. Others are unforgettable but could do with another hard edit, or they have some niggling thing that prevents the perfect 10 in my eyes. And, as I explained, trying to review books as a beginning novelist just feels awkward.

I don’t generally read reviews either. When I choose a book (or film) I like to know as little as possible before I begin. I don’t even read back covers. Writers work incredibly hard to create a story that unfolds and reveals information in exactly the right way. I hate to miss that experience by knowing anything before the writer wants me to. Tell me the genre and the period and that you recommend it – let the writer do the rest.

However, I would like to use this blog to make observations about various books and invite dialog on certain aspects. Which brings me to these thoughts about My Name is Red.

My Name is Red appears on many historical fiction “must read” lists and is set in a time/place which is well off the beaten path. So it seemed a good candidate for a lover of long ago and far away tales. Also, although 16th century Istanbul is many hundreds of years and miles from my current period of study – for my interests, that’s really close!

This murder/mystery was written in Turkish by Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. With all the accolades, I figured I’d better read this and was excited to find something so intriguing.

At the time I read it, I was working about 60 hours per week at a brutal day job. I think it took me four months of dozing off before bed to get through this book. At times it was only the need to finally learn the identity of the murderer, and my general reluctance to ever abandon a book, that kept me going. (Don’t worry, no spoilers here. After all of that, I can’t remember who the murderer turned out to be.)

Many aspects of the book appealed to me: as an artist, I loved that the story is set among a community of miniaturist painters; the structure, voice and non-western worldview is compelling; the characters are complex and therefore unsentimental in their portrayal. But I felt vast portions of the book were repetitive and going no where, slowly. I could have enjoyed more of this world, these characters, if it had been additional material rather than the feeling that I was going in circles.

By the time I was done with it, I was relieved. And finding out the answer to the whodunit was, meh.

But here’s additional support for why I won’t formally review this book or others. Sometimes it is only after time and distance that the true impact of a book is realized. I am now 5-6 months from finishing that slog but find the book is still with me. Something of it’s essence lingers. What is it and why? I’m not really sure. I think a large part of it is the believability of the characters. They were just fickle, inconsistent and imperfect enough to truly breathe.

One intellectual question persists – I wonder if I were capable of reading the work in the original language, would the word crafting have extraordinary merit? Is it more beautifully written in the original? Did I miss some important aspect of the work by reading a translation?

This question buzzed around my head while I read the book and resurfaced when I read the article in the last Historical Novel Review, “Translating a Genre” by Lucinda Byatt. Ms Byatt makes a great argument for more historical fiction to be translated into English (Hear! Hear!). She also notes the difficulty for publishers to be sure of their translator’s skills. I couldn’t possibly critique Erdag M. Guknar’s translation of My Name is Red, but I can’t help wondering if I’ve missed out on something in the writing?

This book is also steeped in historical references that are probably familiar to eastern readers but are well outside of my exposure. It was fun though, just today, while reading The History of al-Tabari for my own research, to come across the historical account of Shirin and Husrev, who’s love story figures so prominently in My Name is Red. I felt like I’d run into an old acquaintance.

I get the feeling that My Name is Red opened my mind to things I have yet to realize. The more reason not to rattle off hasty book reviews using the grade-inflation-tainted star system.

Recommended.

I’d love to hear from others who have read My Name is Red and your reaction to it. Is it just me? How do you feel about official/starred book reviews?

Should Writers Write Reviews?

I might have already mentioned – I do not intend to provide formal/starred book reviews on this blog. I discussed this decision with several other writers and we felt reviewing novels within our own genre could be awkward and is best left to others.

Since reviews are crucial to a book’s/writer’s success, I decided some time ago I would only review a novel if I could give the work at least four stars. Simply completing and making available a mediocre novel is a heroic feat. But a three star review could discourage and damage a writer even if they had made great strides with that piece. I don’t want to be the one to bring down someone who has worked so hard.

For me to write a five star review, a book must be not only well crafted, but also memorable. I have read many entertaining and near flawless books only to forget them the next day. A five star book had better stick with me for days after the final page.

Until starting this blog those were my personal guidelines. In an era of grade inflation I’m a bit stingy with my “A”s (5 stars!). And this shows the subjectivity of reviews – who am I to withhold a five star review from a perfect, forgettable beach read?

As I begin to write I am naturally looking more closely at what I read, the same way my theatrical self notices the lighting at a live performance. I am learning from others, both techniques and pitfalls. To write a balanced review seems even more difficult now. So I have decided to refrain completely from starred reviews here, on Amazon or Goodreads, etc. I will, however, share my response to and observations about writers, books or passages that I find noteworthy. I may also link to the reviews of others. There are plenty of places to find them.

While thinking about this problem I stumbled across the New York Times Bookends column, “Are Novelists Too Wary of Criticizing Other Novelists?”. In it Zoe Heller and Adam Kirsch describe the problem but also argue the benefits of novelists reviewing novels. I see their point but will stick with my decision and defer writing formal/starred reviews until such a time that I have earned a literary voice. (What a pleasant thought!)

I would love to hear how others handle this question. As a writer, are you comfortable writing Amazon, Goodreads, blog, etc. reviews of material in your own genre?

Nine More!

As promised, I reviewed the Historical Novel Society‘s most recent reviews of new and upcoming historical fiction set in out of the way places. The following reviews are available online:

The Year of the Horsetails – R.F. Tapsell – Eastern Europe – Early Middle Ages

When the Jungle is Silent – James Boschert – Malaysia – 1964

Island of the White Rose – R. Ira Harris – Cuba – 1958

Equilateral – Ken Kalfus – Egypt – Victorian

Sword & Scimitar – Simon Scarrow – Malta – 1565

Trees without Wind – Li Rui, (John Balcom – trans.), China, 1966-76

The Twelfth Department – William Ryan – Moscow – 1930s

From the Mouth of the Whale – Sjon, Victoria Cribb (trans.) – Iceland – 17th century

The Wayward Moon – Janice Weizman – Galilee, 894 AD

So, have a look and add to your teetering stack of TBR.

28 New Long Ago & Far Away Reading Options

Yesterday I received the latest edition of the Historical Novel Review – the quarterly magazine published by the Historical Novel Society. I am always anxious to see the reviews of new historical fiction and note which ones need to be added to my To Be Read list. In this round, I found 28 books under the printed reviews which fit our Long Ago & Far Away focus. For easy reference I am posting a list of those books here.

Three books under “Biblical” fit LAFA’s (Long Ago & Far Away) loose parameters, but since this period/location gets a lot of attention, I will skip them for this compilation. There are seven in the “Classical” category, six of which take place in either Rome or Greece, again, not really off the beaten path. I did include one from the classical period because it takes place in Turkey – a bit out of the way. I’m also skipping crusader stories since the context is already popular. I have included one from that period due to it’s Spanish setting being less familiar.

The list:

The Last King of Lydia – Tim Leach – Lydia (in present day Turkey) – 6th century BC

1200 year gap!

The Secret History – Stephanie Thornton – Byzantium – 6th century AD

600 year gap!

The Corpse Reader – Antonio Garrido (trans. Thomas Bunstead) – China – 13th century

Emeralds of The Alhambra – John D. Cressler – Granada – 14th century

200 year gap!

Claws of the Cat – Susan Spann – Japan – 16th century

200 year gap. (Is this like contractions?)

The Pagoda Tree – Claire Scobie – India – 18th century

The Devil is White – William Palmer – Africa – 18th Century

And now, the 19th century:

The Corsair – Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud (trans. Amira Noweira) – Bombay, Oman, Iraq and China – 19th century

The Scarlet Thief – Paul Fraser Collard – Crimea – 19th century

Kiku’s Prayer – Shusaku Endo (trans. Van C. Gessel) – Japan – 19th century

The Prisoner of Paradise – Romesh Guneskera – Mauritius – 19th century

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent – Iceland – 19th Century

The Collector of Lost Things – Jeremy Page – Arctic – 19th century

The Family Mansion – Anthony C. Winkler – Jamaica – 19th century

20th Century:

Blood Tango – Annamaria Alfieri – Argentina – 1945

The Roving Tree – Elsie Augustave – Haiti/Zaire – 1950s

Mystery in Malakand – Susanna Bell – Peshawar/Northwest Frontier/British India – 1920

Midnight in St. Petersburg – Vanora Bennett – Revolutionary Russia

Shadows on the Nile – Kate Furnivall – Egypt – 1932

The Gunners of Shenyang – Yu Jihui – China – 1960s

The Man From Berlin – Luke McCallin – Yugoslavia – 1943

The Bride Box – Michael Pearce – Egypt – 1913

The Child Thief – Dan Smith – Unkraine – 1930

Ben Barka Lane – Mahmoud Saeed (trans. Kay Heikkinen) Morroco – 1964 (originally published in Arabic in 1970, so fits only the loosest definition of historical fiction but it is definitely LAFA to most of us.

A Question of Honor – Charles Todd – India/England/France – early 1900s

Multi-period:

Lighthouse Bay – Kimberley Freeman – Australia

The Age of Ice – J.M. Sidorova – Russia

Paranormal/Fantasy:

The Ghost Bride – Yangze Choo – Malaysia

Exciting reading ahead! Which of these interest you the most?

There are additional reviews online (294 in total!). I will peruse those as soon as I am able. There are also YA and Children’s books reviewed both in the printed mag and online. If someone else would like to glean LAFA books from these before I have the chance, just let me know and we’ll get them posted.

Hooked on History – Part II

Roman Main Street

Roman Main Street – Volubilis, Morocco – Copyright Lausanne Davis Carpenter

It happened in an instant. I’d read the last page of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, closed the book and saw this kid running through ancient streets. Who was he?

The fact of real people living their lives through cataclysmic events overwhelmed me. How do they do it? How did they do it? Who were they?

It has long baffled me that, in the midst of upheaval, famine, war, and illness, people go on. They cope. They live their lives. Somehow. Whether the British during the Blitz or a nameless dancing boy escaped from a sinking ship, people adjust and do what life requires.

I was compelled to examine this resilience; to imagine their stories. My thoughts flashed to the times and places that fascinate me most – Late Antique Syria and points further east – and I knew I had tales to tell.

That was in 1993.

My life moved on. From time to time I thought about that kid who wouldn’t completely go away. I now knew who he was and what he was doing but I was busy. I left London for the US, got married, then left the US for Indonesia. While on a much needed vacation in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, the plot spun out before me over the course of three days. But I still thought I’d never really write it. I was though compiling reference materials as I could. All that time the resources were few and expensive. I had to request an out-of-print Amazon search for the book The Early Islamic Conquests by Fred Donner. It was nearly 2 years before I received a notice that they had found it. I paid $80.00 for it in 2001. (It looks like it’s playing hard to get again.)

Life carried on. I returned to the US in 2002, ran a decorative painting/murals business for eight years and designed scenery and lighting for several professional theatre companies. In 2010, we moved to Florida and I started yet another career – this time in a cubical!

About eighteen months ago my work schedule became so crazy that my only possible creative time was the wee hours of the morning. I wasn’t going to make it to my downtown art studio at 5am, so I decided it was time to write. The story is finally under way.

What strikes me now is how difficult it would have been to write any of my planned stories back in the early 1990s. There was no WWW. And, few of my primary reference books were published in 1993, most were written much later. If I could have learned to read Arabic, Greek, Latin and Aramaic while camping out at SOAS, I might have had a chance. So, although I’ve taken the long way to it, it’s just as well.

I would love to hear the research methods of others writing about obscure times and places. Do you think you could have tackled your current projects in the pre-Internet world?