“For most of us, who never mastered the intricacies of French history in high school, or never studied it at all, this richly detailed portrait of life in the French court under the rule of Louis XIV will thrust us into an absorbing world, described by an extraordinarily talented writer. It is such an outstanding example of historical fiction that it may open up other alluring worlds to readers who have never ventured into the genre before.
“Every year, the Writers’ Conference hosts the Big Read, inviting everyone in town to read the same book by one of the Conference keynote speakers and then to join one of many Big Read discussion groups around town. We provide discussion questions, present a program to provide background information on the book and the author, and invite all discussion group participants to meet the author in person at a private reception.”
On January 14 there will be an event held to present the novel to book clubs. I’m not able to be there (we will be on the Pacific Coast at that time), but I’m working with the organizing committee to help put together an entertaining presentation.
The first thing I suggested was that they serve beignets, a French pastry featured throughout the novel. That turned out to be fairly easy to arrange since San Miguel is blessed with an excellent French pastry chef.
The second thing I suggested was that we recruit my actor friends Rick Davy and Marilyn Buillivant — of Literary Cabaret fame — to put on a short, dramatized reading from the novel. They are keen, and it’s going to be wonderful, but I have since discovered that scripting scenes is not easy!
The committee has also arranged for a filmmaker, Dennis Lanson, to make a short film to show at the event. It will likely partially be an interview of me about the novel — my process and how The Shadow Queen came to be, etc. — and partially images of 17th century theatre and some of the characters in the novel, along with my voice-over commentary. This has entailed a search for images that are of good-enough quality to be projected onto a large screen. Again: not easy!
In going though old blog posts and selecting images, I’ve begun to fall under the spell of that era again. For example, OTT Baroque theatre:
How is it possible not to swoon?
I love, too, this image of Madame de Montespan, the woman we all love to hate:
In order to do all this coherently, I’ve been rereading The Shadow Queen. It has been years since I was in that world, and I have to confess that I’m finding it delightful.
JFK was murdered on November 22, 1963, fifty-five years ago today. I was nineteen and in university. I don’t remember the moment I learned — How is that possible? — but the images and the shock of it are indelible in my memory.
I have since read a moving biographical historical novel, titled, simply, Nov 22, 1963, by Adam Braver.
The assassination was made all the more horrifying in learning in this novel that JFK and Jackie had recently suffered the death of a baby. This tragic trip to Texas with her husband was Jackie’s brave first public event.
A Berkeley childhood
I grew up in Berkeley, California. Air raid siren drills were common; there was always the fear of annihilation. At Girl Scout camp, I remember a cloudy day being attributed to the test of a nuclear bomb in near-by Nevada. I was assigned to write stories about our last day alive in Grade School.
My high school years in Berkeley were vivid with protest. I was a proud member of Students for a Democratic Society. In English, I sat next to Tracy Simms, who led the very first sit-in against a hotel in San Francisco that did not hire Blacks.
These were intense years, rich with both excitement and fear. The Whole Earth Catalogue was Google in print. It’s message was: “You can do anything, go anywhere. Here are the tools.” It was a powerful concept, and an entire generation took it to heart.
Although I don’t remember the moment I learned of Kennedy’s assassination, I remember, vividly, the night of the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, two-a-half years before. I was seventeen, living in San Francisco with roommates in the Castro district, going to San Francisco State. We believed that it could be the end of the world, our last night alive. (In fact, recent scholarship shows how very close it came to being just that, by an accident of communication.) I imagine that there was a surge in births nine months later, for many young couples succumbed. Why wait?
The three assassinations
On April 4, 1968, four-and-a-half years after Kennedy was killed, Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was twenty-one, married and working in a factory in Belmont, California — a factory that provided micro-chips for fighter jets. I had to sign a Loyalty Oath to work there. I remember the Ohio Flute Society (or something similar) being listed as one of the suspicious organizations.
I couldn’t sleep the night of April 4. I got up and went downstairs. It was very late. I turned on the TV: screams, a newscaster’s urgent voice, flickering images. King had been shot.
The next morning, at the factory, a white guy riding a trolley yelled, fist raised, “We got another one!”
And then, only two months later, on June 6, the same thing. I couldn’t sleep, I went downstairs and turned on the TV. A newscaster’s urgent voice, flickering images, screams. Bobby Kennedy had been shot.
I’d been canvassing for him, handing out leaflets — it was my first involvement in a political campaign. Belmont was a conservative town, yet the day after Bobby Kennedy’s death there was, I was told, a rash of suicides.
That morning, the morning after, my then husband and I went to Half Moon Bay. Sitting on a sand dune overlooking the Pacific, stunned by the news, I said I wanted to move. Away. To another country. Bobby Kennedy’s death was the straw that broke my back.
And thus the decision was made to leave my country of birth for a more peaceful realm. Move to Canada — a “healing” country in the words of the wonderful Carol Shields, who had herself immigrated to Canada from the US. I found it to be just that.
A Canadian citizen now, I have never regretted that move. Even so, a part of me will always be American. A part of me will always love that country — love it, and fear for it. Which is one reason I, like so many others, am addicted to the horrifying daily news.
Are things worse now than they were during those violent and tumultuous years? I would say yes, although in a more institutional way. I believe in democracy, and greatly fear for it.
The two reviews I read of Helen Humphreys newest publication, Machine Without Horses, were somewhat negative, claiming that the combination of memoir and fiction simply do not work. Humphreys is one of my favorite writers. She never fails to please, and so I was curious.
I’ve just now finished it and I beg to differ. I found this to be an innovative and inspiring work.
Machine Without Horses is billed as a novel: therein, I think, lies the problem. The first half of this “novel” is a memoir of the author researching and thinking through how to write about her subject, Megan Boyd, a famous fishing fly maker from Scotland.
I particularly love the author’s thoughts on writing. Coming from Humphreys, these are gold. Here are some examples of her thoughts on character development:
The beginning of a life is often the start of the story. Character is formed from the early incidents and accidents, from sudden trauma, or reassuring constancy. These are more important than aspects of personality because they are the ground on which the inherent nature of the person blossoms or is stifled. (Page 7)
I particularly like this because it jives with my current thoughts on character development. (See my thoughts regarding the book Story Henius.)
When I set about making a story, one of the first things I think about is the motivation of the main character. What is it that they want? What are they driven by? Story is created from combining a character’s motivation with their circumstances. (Page 16)
In this section of Machine Without Horses, the author taking lessons on making fishing flies.
“Anything will help,” I confess.”I’m trying to work my way inside her mind before I write about her.”(page 24)
Her teacher Paul asks, “How do you get inside someone’s head to write about them? Especially someone who was a real person?”
This is the sixty-million-dollar question, and one that I don’t really have a definitive answer for because I’m constantly shifting my thinking about how to accomplish this kind of transference. It is hard enough to be oneself. How can we effectively become someone else? (pages 26/27)
This quote pertains especially to writing biographical fiction:
The trouble with writing a novel is that there are so many ways to make mistakes that you just have to give up on the idea of getting it right. Instead, you have to choose a few aspects to remain faithful to and do your best to make everything else as believable as possible for the reader. (page 33)
I especially love this passage:
A writer must slowly build a story and characters, as though they were making a machine, with each part intersecting snugly, each sentence casting forward to hook onto the next. You must lean the way they lean, have the understanding they have, never step outside the limits you have determined for them. You cannot just kill them off with no real warning. It will feel unbelievable to readers and they will stop trusting your story. Fiction is measured and reassuring in a way that life isn’t, and perhaps that’s why we read it, and also why I write. (pages 89/90)
Throughout this section, there are now and again descriptions that echo fly fishing, i.e. “each sentence casting forward to hook onto the next.”
Starting a novel is like starting a love affair. It demands full and tireless attention or feelings could change. Commitment takes time, and so there must be a rush of passion at the beginning. This means that the other life of the writer, the “real life,” has to fade into the background ground for a while. (Page 11–12)
Not exactly like being in love, however:
When I’m working on a book, I just wear the same clothes day after day, eat the same food with no variation. Novel–writing and depression have a great deal in common, as it turns out. (page 41)
This is a spare book, only 267 pages, and this section on Humphreys preparing to write about her subject accounts for more than half of it. The last 120 pages is the work itself, a beautifully spare biographical novella about Helen Boyd.
Today, November 16, is World Falconry Day. This year the theme is specifically on female falconers, historically and currently. This is significant because traditionally falconry has been a male realm.
I’m in the research stage of writing a Young Adult novel about a young woman falconer in Elizabethan England, so naturally this caught my eye.
If you haven’t watched the award-winning documentary The Eagle Huntress, do! It’s amazing.
This video, too, is also about women practicing falconry with eagles:
The women talk about how hard it was at first. I’d like to know: Hard in what ways?
I’ve been on the road, first launching and promoting The Game of Hope in Toronto, then a long drive home to unpack, regroup, and repack before heading to Montreal for the wonderful first (of many, we hope) Montreal YA fest.
It has been fantastic. At the Penguin launch in Toronto, an older woman leaned in to whisper confidentially, “You’re my favorite writer.” Such confessions are sweet. At an interview following (I don’t yet feel I should mention names), the interviewer told me that she loved The Game of Hope and went on to read every one of my other novels. That made me speechless.
That isn’t to say that everyone loves The Game of Hope — there have been some readers who do not — but overall, I’ve been very, very pleased.
The Game of Hope cards
At the Penguin launch, I had each person who lined up to have their free book signed draw a card from a deck of fortune-telling cards of “The Game of Hope” (to keep as a bookmark), and read its meaning in a tiny guide. The expressions of recognition were wonderful to see: one young woman would be getting married, another would get a promotion. Both were quite pleased. Readers love it! Of course I did not include cards that might have a negative connotation in the deck.
It was a special treat to have my step-granddaughter, 11-year-old Ellie and her mother Cara present. Ellie is reading The Game of Hope and offered shyly to a group, “And it’s really good!”
The Montreal YA Fest: such a blast!
My experience at the Montreal YA Fest was amazing, but in an entirely different way. I only sold one book (!), but I met over twenty wonderful YA authors. I’m accustomed to writers of adult fiction; let me tell you, writers of YA fiction are a different breed altogether. They are loud and rambunctious, delightful! I couldn’t buy their books at the festival unfortunately — recent back problems have forced me to be very careful about luggage weight — but as soon as I got home I put in the orders, and they are starting to arrive in waves.
Two wonderful YA novels
Already I’ve read one absolutely wonderful YA novel: 32 Questions that Changed My Mind About You by Vicki Grant. Don’t you just love a novel that compels you to stay up way too late? That makes you teary and full-hearted? This was such a one. Witty and real, I adored it.
Now I’m reading E. K. Johnstons’s novel That Inevitable Victorian Thing, a futuristic novel set in the past. (Figure that one out.) I.e. Victorian corsets with technological sensors that ease up as needed. It’s delightful, and when I’m not reading it, I’m thinking about it and can’t wait to get back to it.
The wild and wonderful YA world
In general, this immersion into the wider world of YA has been like an explosion of creative imagination for me; in a YA novel, anything is possible.
The YA Fest was extremely well-organized, with many panels for participants to choose from, great food to eat, a fun photo booth (which I’m sorry I missed out on), as well as a button-making table. Here are mine:
How cool is that? I especially love the dismayed look on the face of Little Bo Peep. Moi.
The photo at the top is from A Novel Spot bookstore in Entobicoke, Ontario. Don’t you just love it? Indie bookstores are so great. The mystery woman is Katie Middleton, the bookstore’s owner. Her hair matches perfectly!
I’m writing this in Toronto, a long way from home. Tomorrow I have a full schedule of two interviews, a book store signing, and then, in the evening, a book launch of The Game of Hope.
I sent off the final corrections to The Game of Hopelast October, and since then I’ve been researching and outlining my next YA novel about a young falconer in Elizabethan England. There are no raptors in The Game of Hope, so I thought it time to reacquaint myself fully with Hortense’s world before having to answer questions about it.
Fortunately, I was able to download the audio edition of The Game of Hope this morning, and on the long drive down to Toronto today, I listened to it. And was charmed! Say hey! I think it’s quite a good story, and the narration by Janick Hebert is simply delightful.
Canadians can now get the audio edition of The Game of Hope on Audible, Kobo, Google Play or on Overdrive through your public library. On June 23, it will be available in the US.
I sincerely recommend it!
Anyone else out there still warmed by the glow of Harry and Megan? I have been!
This is my favorite photo of the pair in the open carriage. (It was snapped by Yui Mok, a photographer based in the UK, as their carriage went under an overpass.)