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I started writing The Girl Who Fell from the Sky after reading a haunting news story about a young mother—recently depressed and despondent—who led her kids to her building’s rooftop, and apparently pushed the children off and then jumped.

Reporters interviewed neighbors and friends who spoke of the young mother’s fierce devotion to her children. She’d had a recent setback, but no one could have guessed that the loving mother could do such a thing. No one could put the pieces of her story together to make sense of the reason why.

I became obsessed with the miracle of that horrible tragedy: One of the children, the girl, had survived!

I searched the news for more information about her, but all I found were the barest facts of her biography: her name, her age and a photo that must have been a couple of years old. It was sad to think that the whole story of her life was now this tragedy.

In follow-up articles, I learned that the girl would make a complete recovery. After a few more weeks in the hospital, she would be healed. But then what?

I had so many questions: How would the girl grow up? How would she deal with the legacy of her past? What would her survival look like?

I hoped that she would be able to create a normal life for herself. I hoped that she would still know how to love and be loved. So I decided to imagine a future for her. I wanted to give her a voice.

I wrote the rooftop scene first. That’s when I understood the reason the girl’s story resonated with me. It had something to do with my own. No, I’m not the survivor of a fall, and I haven’t lived through a deadly family tragedy. (I always mention that up front at readings so people don’t feel like they have to treat me gently.) But what I learned writing that scene was that I wanted to write a mother-daughter story. I wanted to write a story about how a girl learns to be a woman without the help of her mother to guide her. I think it’s a reality so many women can relate to—whether a mother has passed away, or just isn’t available emotionally. And sometimes a mother just doesn’t know how to help a child navigate an unfamiliar world.

I named my character Rachel. And then I started to fill in the details of her biography. I couldn’t draw on the real girl’s story. I didn’t know it. So I wrote what I knew, as the old saying goes. I am half Danish and half African-American, and Rachel became a biracial/bicultural girl newly transplanted to a mostly black community after the accident. Her story let me write a story exploring race and identity. I didn’t know when I started to write the book that the nation would soon be talking about the same things with the election of our first biracial African-American president.

The final thread that made the book come together was the character Brick. He’s not anyone I know or have known, but I absolutely adore him. A tragedy needs a witness, and Brick became Rachel’s.

Many years have passed since I read that news story. And I still think of the real girl. What happened to her? My character Rachel is about the same age at the end of the book as the real girl might be now. I imagined Rachel growing up to be a heroic and loving young woman—I would like to believe that the real young woman is too. 

Heidi W. Durrow received writer Barbara Kingsolver’s 2008 Bellwether Prize for Literature of Social Change for The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, her first novel. She is a graduate of Stanford University, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and Yale Law School.

I started writing The Girl Who Fell from the Sky after reading a haunting news story about a young mother—recently depressed and despondent—who led her kids to her building’s rooftop, and apparently pushed the children off and then jumped. Reporters interviewed neighbors and friends who spoke of the young mother’s fierce devotion to her children. […]
Behind the Book by

Surgeon-turned-author Gabriel Weston made her literary debut with a gripping medical memoir. In her first novel, Dirty Work, she again turns to medicine for inspiration, this time investigating one of its most morally fraught procedures: abortion. In a behind-the-book story, Weston explains why she felt drawn to explore this contentious issue, and why she believes the two sides may be closer together than we think.


What would you do if you had an untellable story? Of what does a doctor’s morality consist?

What surprised me most about writing my first book, Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story, was the reaction it elicited in some of my colleagues. I had read quite a few memoirs written by men in my profession, and although I was always impressed by their operating achievements, I felt slightly weary of reading heroic tales of life-saving antics, proud accounts of bloody machismo.

What I decided I wanted to put alongside these chronicles was a story of surgical inadequacy. I wanted to describe what it feels like to be a surgeon in those moments when one does not feel in control, when one is uncertain of one’s ability, when one is terrified, when an operation is not going well. Instead of cataloging what a surgeon can do, I wanted to talk about how we feel and what we do when we haven’t got a clue.

After publication, surgeons came to me quietly or wrote to thank me for having said and described things they had felt intensely themselves during their training but had never been able to admit. I was touched by these comments but, even more, I was interested. I started to wonder to what extent we all carry an untold version, the untellable truth of our own existence, folded tightly away within ourselves. I started thinking about what it might mean to keep aspects of our lives secret as well as the implications of suddenly having to speak out.

I started to wonder to what extent we all carry an untold version, the untellable truth of our own existence, folded tightly away within ourselves.

I also started to consider what it means to be a good doctor. Many of my colleagues claimed they were afraid to own up to feelings of uncertainty in case doing so damaged their reputation. I realized that doctors still feel, in some sense, that they should behave like paragons. I wondered where our moral core resides and what it would take to break that brittle image. What would it take for a doctor to go from being considered good to being thought of as bad?

It was from these questions that my main character emerged. Nancy is a woman with an unspeakable story, a woman physician who carries an indelible moral taint. Despite her best intentions and perhaps even by accident, Nancy has become an abortion provider. Her very existence is taboo and yet she is forced, by the circumstances of a mistake made in the operating theatre, to tell her story, to justify her actions not only to an external panel of judges but, perhaps hardest of all, to herself.

I happened upon the subject of abortion for this reason, not because I had any particular political ax to grind. I have never had an abortion myself, nor have I performed one as a doctor. But as soon as I started researching the area, something fascinating struck me. None of the books or articles that I read on the subject seemed to allow for even a degree of ambiguity. Everyone, from whichever side of the fence they were preaching, seemed so sure that they, and they alone, had the right answers. In some ways, it seemed to me that people were being dishonest in their certainty. And whenever I told someone I was embarking on a novel about an abortion provider, the conversation stopped dead. Even my agent and publisher cautioned me that if I wrote the book I intended to, no one would want to read it. It was like a red flag to a bull, and all the encouragement I needed.

It has been my experience, in the process of writing this book, that the thing that makes us all so very uncomfortable when the subject of abortion is raised, is the mysterious compulsion we all feel to have a completely absolute and watertight opinion on the subject. This seems crazy to me. I have stood on anti-abortion picket lines in the Midwest of America, and I have understood exactly why the people who wave their banners are so upset. I have also witnessed countless women gain access to the abortion services that they absolutely deserve. In Nancy, I hope to have created a character who holds all this ambiguity within herself. In writing her, I saw the room for a moral person to feel completely torn between a sense of righteousness and a corrosive guilt.

I saw the room for a moral person to feel completely torn between a sense of righteousness and a corrosive guilt.

First and foremost, what I hope to have written is a gripping, un-put-downable novel. But I hope also to show that even the most extreme positions on this thorny subject may be held within one consciousness, that the enemy camps are pitched much closer to each other than one might think.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Surgeon-turned-author Gabriel Weston made her literary debut with a gripping medical memoir. In her first novel, Dirty Work, she again turns to medicine for inspiration, this time investigating one of its most morally fraught procedures: abortion. In a behind-the-book story, Weston explains why she felt drawn to explore this contentious issue, and why she believes the two sides may be closer together than we think.
Behind the Book by

If you were born in 1800, there was a 25 percent chance that you would die before your fifth birthday. Popular sports of the day were often bloody: bear- or badger-baiting, cockfighting and, of course, bare-knuckle boxing.

When I was researching British history (for a book idea that ended up being shelved), I came across actual newspaper extracts of the time, in which women challenged one another to fight:

I, Ann Field, of Stoke Newington, ass driver . . . having been affronted by Mrs Stokes, styled the European Championess, do fairly invite her to a trial of her best skill in Boxing, for 10 pounds…

I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London . . . do assure her I shall not tail meeting her for the said sum, and doubt not that the blows I shall present her with will be more difficult to digest than any she ever gave her asses. 

Reading those extracts, I had one of those magical moments that drive me to research history: I knew those women were real, breathing people. I felt them. I almost became them. At a time when ladies were expected to occupy themselves with nothing more than sewing, painting and music, Ann Field and Elizabeth Stokes had been standing in front of a howling crowd, fists raised. They had punched and been punched in return, they had seen their own blood stain the boards of the ring. They’d been as desperate and frightened and savagely elated as any of us would have been, in their place.

And what had happened to these women, to drive them to choose such a different, brutal way of life? These were fights with almost no rules; medical science was often ineffective. They were genuinely risking their lives. The prize of 10 pounds was a huge part of it, of course—it was more than many domestic servants would earn in a year. But there had to be more than that.

I was left to imagine how it must feel to choose between making your living by your fists or lying on your back. 

The newspaper articles of the time suggest that many of these women came from a background of prostitution. So I began there; perhaps boxing felt like the only other option. Beyond that, however, it proved very difficult to find out much about their real, everyday lives. History is mostly recorded by, and about, people from the upper classes. There are facts and figures about mortality rates and a fair bit about the everyday diet of people living in poverty. But whereas there are a fair few surviving diaries of aristocratic women, recording their thoughts and feelings, most of the working class women who took their chances in the ring weren’t even literate. I was left to imagine how it must feel to choose between making your living by your fists or lying on your back. I like to think that if I were in that position I’d make the same choice that my character Ruth does, and step up into the ring.

Another protagonist of The Fair Fight, Charlotte, sprang from those aristocratic diaries. Many of the noblewomen keeping them felt trapped and miserable, imprisoned by the genteel boredom of their day. When I discovered that some ladies did accompany their husbands to watch boxing matches I thought, my god, what must it have been like to step out of your drawing room, bound by the shackles of convention, and watch another woman break them so completely?

In fact there was one “lady of quality,” Lady Barrymore, who was nicknamed “The Boxing Baroness.” She enjoyed watching boxing matches as much as her husband did, and would dress up as a lady boxer and pretend to spar. Reading about her, I could imagine the kind of freedom she must have felt while she was in costume. I wondered how much further she would have liked to go, if she could.

The Fair Fight is intended to be fun to read, and it’s a fiction. Even so, it’s based on real struggles. Every character in The Fair Fight is battling the limitations imposed on them by their class, gender, sexuality or family situation. It’s always been an unfair fight for women, working class people and people outside the heterosexual norm. Some of the characters fight in the ring, and others in drawing rooms and around the dinner table. And every little victory counts. 


Poet Anna Freeman makes her fiction debut with The Fair Fight. A visceral take on the world of female prizefighters in 1800s Bristol, England, the novel has already been optioned for TV by the BBC. Freeman lectures in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.

 

RELATED CONTENT: Read a review of The Fair Fight.

 

If you were born in 1800, there was a 25 percent chance that you would die before your fifth birthday. Popular sports of the day were often bloody: bear- or badger-baiting, cockfighting and, of course, bare-knuckle boxing.

Behind the Book by

What sort of person would choose to be cloistered in the walls of a church, alone, for life? Australian poet Robyn Cadwallader was researching a PhD thesis when she came across the story that inspired her first novel, The Anchoress, the richly told tale of a 13th-century woman who chose to live a circumscribed life in the name of religion. Here, Cadwallader explains how she stumbled upon this remarkable piece of history.


How did I come to write about an anchoress?

It started with a dragon. I had begun research on the life of St. Margaret of Antioch, a virgin martyr who was swallowed by a dragon and bursts from its back, proclaiming herself a hero. The patron saint of women in childbirth, she was one of the most popular saints in medieval England. In the 13th century, this story of female dragon-slaying was bound together with the Ancrene Wisse (Rule for Anchoresses), into a book given to anchoresses.

Anchoress: That was a new word to me; I kept on searching.

Anchoresses were women who chose to be enclosed for life in a stone cell attached to the wall of a church, there to read and pray, committing themselves to Christ in a “living death.” The cells varied in size, but the Ancrene Wisse suggests an anchorhold should have one window to a room for maids and one window to a parlour, where those seeking counsel could come to speak with the anchoress. Both windows would have curtains and the anchoress was told not to look out and not to let others, especially men, look in on her; the only male visitors would be her confessor or the bishop. She would also have a “squint,” a small opening through which she could view the altar to see Mass celebrated, and through which she could receive the consecrated bread.

Anchoresses were women who chose to be enclosed for life in a stone cell attached to the wall of a church, there to read and pray, committing themselves to Christ in a “living death.”

I read all this with fascination and a degree of horror. Sealed in forever? Never to see the world again? How strange these intensely religious women could be, I thought. During the enclosure service, burial rites were read over the anchoress, and some had a grave dug inside the cell to remind them of their living death. Awful, isn’t it? And wrong. That’s what I thought, for a time. Until I began to think about the women themselves, the ones making this choice. Who was I—in my modern, comfortable life, with my opportunities for education and a career—to decide these women were weird or foolish?

photo of a squint
photo of a cell and squint at St. Nicholas at Compton, courtesy of Robyn's blog.

 

The stereotype of the downtrodden medieval woman with no rights or agency is much too simplistic but, for an upper-class woman, marriage or life as a nun were the main paths open to them. It seems understandable that a woman with a strong faith in God, an enquiring mind and an ability to live in seclusion could well make the decision to close herself away.

This living death was the greatest expression of love for God, and anchoresses were honored for their willingness to give up everything in order to suffer with Christ. The status of a village was enhanced where a recluse offered up prayers for her patron and the village, and people often travelled to seek counsel from an anchoress known for her holiness and wisdom.  

Yet life in the Middle Ages was intensely physical, and despite the accent on bodily denial and seclusion, an anchoress would be inevitably drawn into that physicality. Attached to the wall of a church, the cell would be located in the middle of the village or town, and at the center of social life. An anchoress would hear church services, festivals, village meetings, people chatting, fighting, making plans; she would hear the fears, pain, loves and gossip of those who came for counsel.

Intrigued, I just had to go to England to investigate anchorholds, or what little remained of them. I found mostly squints and evidence of the cell’s outline in markings on a church wall. I saw squints cut into church walls; I visited Shere, where documents tell of Christine, a recluse who asked to leave her seclusion; I stood in what is believed to be the chapel of an anchoress at Kings Lynn, and though it is now painted and well lit, I tried to imagine what it would be like to stay there within its four dark walls. Forever. 

I was disturbed and challenged. Gradually, as I pondered, the questions moved from “these women” to “a woman.” Who was she? Why did she choose enclosure? Was she afraid, excited, certain, doubtful? What about her family? And what would this small dark place be like as a home? In my mind, I went inside the cell. The body she sought to deny could paradoxically become even more present; holy as she may be, she was as human and frail as those she prayed for. My central question was always: What was her experience: bodily, emotionally, spiritually, mentally?

I was fascinated by the idea of her confinement: the moment of enclosure, the door nailed shut behind her; the darkness; the small space, seven paces by nine; the claustrophobia; the threat of madness; her strength; her love of God; her perseverance; her experience of her body, the only physical companion she would have. She was no longer a weird idea; she was a woman. Sarah.

I began to discover the novel’s imaginative space, and I got to know my anchoress and her cell. Through all this, I retained one single commitment: to honor, as best I could, the women who made the choice to be enclosed more than seven centuries ago. And maybe even to learn from this 17-year-old girl who had chosen a life so far away from my own.

 

Author photo by Alan Cadwallader.

Australian poet Robyn Cadwallader was researching a PhD thesis when she came across the story that inspired her first novel, The Anchoress, the richly told story of a woman who chose to live a very cloistered life in the name of religion. Here, Cadwallader explains how she stumbled upon one of history’s lesser known corners.
Behind the Book by

As a novelist, I’ve come to realize that the stories I feel compelled to write, the ones that tug at me hardest, have resonated from my childhood. Childhood experience echoes through adult life. The experiences, ideas, themes from my formative years resonate into my adult consciousness and I try to make sense of them through fiction. You see, you don’t choose the story, it chooses you.

When I was about 3 years old, my father would read to me from a book he had about the Apollo missions. It was called Moon Flight Atlas, and it was by Patrick Moore. It was published in 1970 and only went up to the Apollo 13 mission. That mission, dramatized in the Tom Hanks/Ron Howard film of the same name, was the focus of this book. I don’t know why my father read this book to me—it wasn’t exactly Goodnight Moon—but he did. He told the story of the oxygen tank exploding on the way to the moon, and explained how little air they had remaining, and what that meant, and about how they had to slingshot round the dark side of the moon to get home, about how there was only a 10 percent chance of them making it back to Earth.

I was utterly captivated, but it wasn’t space per se that fascinated me so—it wasn’t the rockets and spaceships and stars—it was the men. Those men! Lovell, Swigert, Haise! Laconic, focused and utterly cool under pressure. I remember poring over diagrams and little illustrations of Jim Lovell crawling from the Command Module into the Lunar Module (which was used as a lifeboat of sorts) in grave danger, hundreds of thousands of miles from home, staying calm, working the problem. I was a sensitive child, prone to anxiety, and it hooked my young imagination.

In my mid-20s, I developed a severe and debilitating anxiety disorder, with obsessive and intrusive thoughts. It was a hellish few years. I couldn’t even write a shopping list (really: I tried). I could barely function as a human being. But as I started to get better, with help and support and therapy, I started to write again. And I found myself, perhaps unsurprisingly, returning to those men, those childhood heroes of mine—men who could control their emotions (unlike me!), so calm and collected under pressure (unlike me!) and pushing them into fiction—a story which became The Last Pilot.

From the blackest period of my life, I sailed around the dark side of the moon, and I, too, returned home.


British author Benjamin Johncock's debut novel, The Last Pilot, blends fact and fiction in the story of an Air Force test pilot who suffers a devastating loss and throws himself into NASA's fledgling space program at the expense of his marriage. Johncock lives with his family in Norwich, England.

 

A British author shares the story behind his lifelong fascination with the American space program, the subject of his emotionally resonant debut novel.
Behind the Book by

It’s hard for me to explain this, but Make Your Home Among Strangers came to me almost fully formed one afternoon in March of 2010. I was sitting in a meeting as part of my then-job. Like a lot of unreasonably optimistic people, I gave the brightest years of my 20s to a nonprofit—an LA-based organization called One Voice, where I served as a counselor/mentor to first-generation college kids.

The students we worked with were from low-income families, were about to be the first in their families to go to college, and were also bright as hell.

About halfway through our group meeting, one girl—one tough, brilliant young woman who is very dear to my heart because of how much our lives have in common—started crying and saying she wasn’t really smart enough to go to the ridiculously selective and awesome college that had accepted her. And then, as she went on about her fears and her sense that she was destined to fail, that she should go somewhere “more at her level” for college if she even went at all, the other kids in the circle started nodding their heads and saying that they felt the exact same way.

I was immediately thrown back 10 years to myself at 18, having the exact same fears, and I lost it. All that dark horribleness, that sense of internalized oppression, rose up out of me—I had to excuse myself from the meeting, and I spent maybe 10 minutes pulling myself together in the bathroom of my boss’ house.

It was there that the narrator’s voice came to me—urgent and clear—as I sat on the closed lid of my boss’ toilet, and it was there that I literally started writing this book, in a small notebook I kept in my bag, which I’d had the foresight to drag into the bathroom with me.

Humble beginnings, yeah, but that voice—that of Lizet, the novel’s protagonist—found me every day, yelled at me when I wasn’t working hard enough, pushed me to write and to tell her story. It was a blessing and a curse, actually: to have a book’s narrator make those kinds of demands of you.

Many elements of the novel never changed from how they came to me that day in the meeting: The book is set in both Miami and New York in 1999-2000, around the time the Elian Gonzalez immigration ordeal was unfolding. Like me and like the students I worked with, Lizet is the first in her family to go to college—she’s the first in her family to graduate from high school, too—and she’s struggling enough on campus as it is when her first year gets abruptly politicized both at school and at home.

Along with the political drama Lizet works to navigate, I imagined the book to be this fictional road map of the first-generation college student’s experience, one that shows some of the ugly things race and class differences force on us. I didn’t know it at the time, but on the day I earned my B.A., I’d become part of a surprisingly small percentage of minority students from low-income families admitted to college in the first place to do so—most of us first-gen kids from that demographic drop out, so the graduation rate hovers at a little over 20 percent. Statistically speaking, I should’ve slipped through the cracks in college. I probably shouldn’t have made it to graduation day.

And I would’ve left that campus, I think, had it not been for the fact that I joined a sketch comedy group halfway through freshman year, and the friends I made there are still the best I have. (Something I told my One Voice students over and over again: Join a club based on some interest you’ve always had but that your high school didn’t provide.)

I also constantly hung out in the office of the professor who would become my mentor via her very existence—the writer Helena Maria Viramontes, the only Latina teaching in the creative writing program at the time—and seeing her on that campus made me feel like maybe I could stick around, too. Professor Viramontes gave me books and introduced me to writers she knew I needed to read, and so it makes sense that, years later, I would write the book I’d needed to feel less alone and afraid, a book that speaks to anyone looking to navigate the unknown—a book, it turns out, that I didn’t have much choice but to write.

 

Miami-born author Jennine Capó Crucet won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize for her story collection, How to Leave Hialeah. Both a compelling cultural critique and a fulfilling coming-of-age story, her debut novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, follows Lizet Ramirez as she tries to make her way in a world that’s very different from the one she was born into. Crucet currently teaches English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

It’s hard for me to explain this, but Make Your Home Among Strangers came to me almost fully formed one afternoon in March of 2010. I was sitting in a meeting as part of my then-job. Like a lot of unreasonably optimistic people, I gave the brightest years of my 20s to a nonprofit—an LA-based organization called One Voice, where I served as a counselor/mentor to first-generation college kids.
Behind the Book by

For me, the story of Sai Jinhua begins on a summery day in Shanghai. It is the final day of a trip I very much fear will be the last one that I and my husband will take with our two sons, both of whom are poised to leave on journeys that are suddenly, although hardly unexpectedly, becoming their own next chapters.

We are in China—and not in India, Vietnam or Peru, all of which were discussed as alternative destinations. China is my trip, mostly. I’ve lived in Singapore and Taiwan; I’ve studied Mandarin. I’ve always wanted to go to the mainland. The men in my life agreed to indulge me.

On this final day, we are in Shanghai’s Yu Garden overlooking the famous Jiu Qu Bridge that—with its nine zigzag turns—was built to confuse evil spirits trying to cross the lotus pool. I overhear a tour guide talking—talking—talking, and he is a droning irritant until he mentions the 19th-century Chinese courtesan who traveled to Europe as the young concubine-wife of one of China’s first diplomats. I am suddenly interested. He says that she is very famous in China. I know nothing more than this about the person I will come to call “my girl. I don’t catch her name, or know that she may have been a Chinese heroine in a distant past when China and the West were clumsily, violently getting acquainted—or that some people say she was a traitor, a woman of ill-repute and loose morals who collaborated with the forces of imperialist western invaders.

"What was it like in 1887 for a young woman to leave her home in China and go to a Europe that was strange and disorienting and fabulous?"

Standing there at the edge of the Jiu Qu Bridge and knowing almost nothing about Sai Jinhua, memory leads me to a time and place in my own life when I traveled to the far side of the world, to Singapore, which was and still is a fascinating, multicultural place, a place that is exotic and loud and pungent and delicious—and was also hugely alienating to a young girl from the West. I remember watching life unfold in the streets of Singapore, and in the markets, and in sights, sounds and smells that seeped through the open windows of colonial-era buildings. I remember people everywhere—all with faces not like mine.

Now, all these years later as I hear for the first time about this famous Chinese courtesan, I wonder, what was it like in 1887 for a young woman to leave her home in China and go to a Europe that was strange and disorienting and fabulous—where people all had faces not like hers? So I say to my one-in-a-million husband, if I were going to write a book—which of course I am not because it just is not something I would ever do—this would be the story I would like to tell. And right there by the Jiu Qu Bridge, he turns to me and says, well, why not? Why don’t you try?

These are the first of many improbable things that conspire to turn a tour guide’s fleeting remarks into a novel called The Courtesan. Returning home, I begin to work at learning to write, and to read everything I can find about Jinhua and her era. Chance throws many happy opportunities my way. I join a writer’s group with people who are both talented and supportive of my story. My eldest son moves to Suzhou, China, where I visit him and find, quite by accident, the very house at Number 29 Xuan Qiao Alley, where Sai Jinhua lived with her scholar-diplomat husband. Reading the “bones” of her true story, I find more places in my own story that fit together with hers in fictional ways that are magical to me. For her European odyssey, I decide to place Jinhua and her husband in Vienna, a city where I have spent much time and where I have strong family ties. Researching places for them to live, my mother suggests the Palais Kinsky. It is a place I know well; I studied there for a year—and met my husband there. I later learn that during the early 20th century, the Chinese embassy was actually located in the Kinsky for a number of years.

History drops other tidbits into my lap. Fabulous, true-to-life characters who populated the places Jinhua inhabits in my novel, who might have met her, who have amazing stories of their own: the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, who with her fascination for beautiful women would have adored meeting a beautiful, exotic creature from China; Edmund Backhouse, a true eccentric, a brilliant man with profound flaws and more than a touch of evil genius—who lurked in Peking at the time of the Boxer Rebellion and could have been acquainted with Jinhua; Kobelkoff, a man who had enormous physical challenges, who was put on display in Vienna’s Prater for people’s amusement (a common form of popular entertainment at the time)—who clicked perfectly into place as a reminder of Jinhua’s fictional dead father.

Slowly, gradually, Jinhua became a person I knew. She became a person with flaws and vulnerabilities and strengths—and very human relationships. At the same time, the history of her era was fascinating to me, both in its own right and as a context for our modern era. I hope that I have in some small way managed to co-mingle the historically real with what I have imagined and what I myself have experienced in a way that will give readers of The Courtesan a sense of what it was for Sai Jinhua to travel from East to West and back again, and a sense, too, through her eyes, of China’s history with the West.
 

Born in Canada, Alexandra Curry has lived in the United States, Europe and Asia, and her globetrotting days contribute depth to the various settings depicted in The Courtesan, her debut novel. A graduate of Wellesley College, she now lives in Atlanta with her family.

For me, the story of Sai Jinhua begins on a summery day in Shanghai. It is the final day of a trip I very much fear will be the last one that I and my husband will take with our two sons, both of whom are poised to leave on journeys that are suddenly, although hardly unexpectedly, becoming their own next chapters.
Behind the Book by

A large-animal veterinarian, the first female Major League pitcher, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Like many kids, I had a lot of far-flung ideas about what I wanted to be when I grew up. But what I really wanted to be was my older sister. 

Three years my senior, Julia was by definition better at everything than I was. She was taller, skinnier and prettier. She had longer hair and neater handwriting. She came up with better stories, funnier Mad Libs. As we passed into our teenage years, I grew jealous of her boyfriends, the effect she had on men. There was nothing worth doing that Julia hadn’t done better—and first. 

And so, when I stumbled upon the name Arsinoe sometime in late 2010, it should come as no surprise that I was immediately drawn to the story of Cleopatra’s forgotten younger sister. An avatar of my childhood and adolescent self, fawning and yearning and aching over her sibling’s successes, she felt deeply familiar. What little can be gleaned about Arsinoe’s life: She metamorphosed from Cleopatra’s close ally (the two fled Alexandria to raise an army against their brother) to the queen’s bitter enemy (two years later, Arsinoe rebelled against her sister). Before I knew it, I was hooked. I wanted to rewrite the famous ruler’s saga, tracing not Cleopatra’s rise and fall but Arsinoe’s: the sisterly bonds fraying and snapping beneath history’s unyielding heft. I envisioned the first scraping of that fray: the moment of their half-sister Berenice’s coup, when their father, King Ptolemy, fled to Rome with Cleopatra, leaving Arsinoe to her fate. 

When I first imagined the book that became Cleopatra’s Shadows, it was as a vehicle for Arsinoe’s story, the younger sister’s story. Though the gaps in our experience were vast and obvious—my family, to my great chagrin, has never ruled a dynasty—we shared that acute feeling of abandonment, betrayal. Julia had never left me in a physical or dramatic sense, but by the time I was 8 or 9—Arsinoe’s age when the novel begins—my sister had hit the throes of preteen angst, as keen to shirk familial ties as I was to cling to them. For middle school, for college, for adulthood, younger siblings are by definition always left behind. And so those sentiments came easily, paired with a reimagining of a Hellenistic childhood interrupted, the idyllic days of a princess torn asunder by revolt. 

Only later, after the idea for the novel had percolated for some time, did I decide to include a second perspective, that of the eldest sister, the rebel Berenice who seized on local hatred of her father and plotted her way onto the throne. At first, this alternate narrator emerged as a foil: Every protagonist needs an antagonist. And yet, the more I wrote, the more I researched—the body of history devoted to Berenice’s rule is slim, but that concerning Arsinoe’s girlhood slimmer still—the more I became fascinated by the elder sister. A decade before Cleopatra had shunted aside her brothers to rule Egypt on her own, another woman of her family had done the same, sending her own father squalling off to Rome, begging for an army to retake his seat. What brilliant and defiant sort of woman managed that? 

I was also intrigued by how family and birth order shaped Berenice’s predicament. Her point of view yielded—for me—a far more alien perspective: the one where life and stability were fragmented by the arrival of babe after squealing babe. As the youngest of four, I was born to my place. No world had ever existed in which I was an only child, no memory where I hadn’t always had a brother and two sisters. Berenice’s identity was rooted in the opposite experience: that of watching her family grow, develop and ultimately collapse. She looked on as her mother’s role was taken by a concubine, as her own was taken by Cleopatra. By the age of 19, Berenice had been dismissed by everyone who mattered at the Alexandrian court—but she refused to accept obscurity. She flailed and fought against it, seizing power at once owed to and stolen from her. Rather than a mirror for Arsinoe, a shadow to the younger sister’s sun, she emerged as a hero unto herself. 

The early drafts of Cleopatra’s Shadows were fueled by my urge to explore a likeness, the pathos that I felt for poor, abandoned Arsinoe. And yet the more time I spent in Berenice’s head, the more obsessed I became with her, the other sister, that eldest child I’d never been. I began this novel because I wanted to tell Arsinoe’s story, not Berenice’s. But by the time I’d written the final words, I had come to love both sisters with equal ferocity. 

 

Emily Holleman launches a gripping historical saga with Cleopatra’s Shadows, her debut novel. The Tudor court has nothing on the ruthlessness of the Ptolemaic dynasty, built on alliances as shifting as the Egyptian sands. Holleman, a former editor for Salon.com, lives and writes in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a sequel to Cleopatra’s Shadows.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

A large-animal veterinarian, the first female Major League pitcher, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Like many kids, I had a lot of far-flung ideas about what I wanted to be when I grew up. But what I really wanted to be was my older sister.
Behind the Book by

From the moment that first audacious thought crossed my mind—I will write a novel!—I knew only one thing for sure: the setting would be Japan.

I’d studied the language and I’d spent time living there. In my career as an academic librarian, I’d specialized in working with Japanese materials. I knew exactly where I wanted my novel to be set. What I didn’t yet know was when

Initially, I assumed I would write about the present. This seemed perfectly logical, as I had already written several short stories set in contemporary Japan. I thought I had lots of ideas for a novel, but each time I sat down to write, I couldn’t seem to work up momentum. I went back to working on my short story collection. Maybe I was not meant to write a novel after all. 

And then I read about the letters sent by the Japanese people to General MacArthur during the Occupation, and I knew I had found my time period. It was the past, not the present, that I needed to explore in the story that would become The Translation of Love

The book that sparked my imagination, Dear General MacArthur by Rinjiro Sodei, is a study of the correspondence sent to MacArthur while he was in Japan. In their scope and variety, the letters were very interesting, but most astonishing of all was this: Altogether, MacArthur received a staggering 500,000 letters from the Japanese people.

Half a million letters? From the people you just conquered? It seemed improbable, absurd, preposterous and . . . well, absolutely fascinating. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Somewhere in this intriguing, little-known piece of history was a novel waiting to be written. I knew that the Occupation period was a time of tumult and upheaval, of great optimism and crushing despair. There was homelessness, starvation, black market profiteering, prostitution. On the other hand, many people were filled with hope for what they saw as a new direction for their country. Democracy and freedom were the hot new catchwords, and learning English was all the rage.

What kind of person would write a letter to MacArthur? The question kept coming back to me. What if that person wasn’t an adult, I wondered. What if she were a young girl? And so I decided to create Fumi, a 12-year-old girl with a desperate need to write to MacArthur. I didn’t yet know what her letter would be about, but I was eager to find out. 

As soon as I had Fumi, I knew she needed a friend, and Aya, a 13-year-old Japanese-Canadian girl, sprang to life. Aya and her father are among the 4,000 Japanese Canadians who were repatriated to Japan after spending the war in an internment camp. As a third-generation Japanese Canadian whose own parents were interned during the war, I realized that Aya’s history was one that I absolutely needed to include. 

I immersed myself in the Occupation period by reading anything I could get my hands on, starting with John W. Dower’s extraordinary Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. I devoured history books, academic studies, memoirs, journalistic accounts, biographies of MacArthur. Anything with photographs made me especially excited. 

During the writing of The Translation of Love, I spent some time in Japan. I walked around the area where MacArthur had his headquarters—the original building is still standing!—and tried to look at the landscape not through my own eyes but through the eyes of my characters. Back home, I did some traveling to places I had never been before. I joined a tour of the Japanese-Canadian internment camp sites in the interior of British Columbia, and I visited a friend in California who took me to see Manzanar, one of the biggest of the Japanese-American internment sites. Each time I came back to my writing after a trip, it was with a stronger sense of the past. Most importantly, I came to appreciate the powerful imprint that history leaves upon a particular place—and upon our understanding of ourselves. 

Recently, I went back to Japan and strolled in the famous Ginza district along with all the tourists. People were taking pictures of themselves in front of Wako, the most luxurious jewelry store in Japan, and I wondered how many of them knew that it had once housed the PX where only the Occupation forces could shop. Everywhere I looked, the streets were clean, the shoppers sleek and well dressed, and the store windows overflowing with abundance. It seemed as if not a single trace of the past remained, and yet I knew that if I listened hard, I might hear the sound of my two young characters—Fumi and Aya—running down a dirty alley that no longer exists.

 

A third-generation Japanese Canadian, Lynne Kutsukake worked for many years as a librarian at the University of Toronto, specializing in Japanese materials. Her short fiction has appeared in The Dalhousie Review, Ricepaper and Prairie Fire. The Translation of Love is her first novel.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

From the moment that first audacious thought crossed my mind—I will write a novel!—I knew only one thing for sure: the setting would be Japan.
Behind the Book by

A secretive painter who may not be all he appears and a bored, wealthy socialite are at the center of Amber Brock's hypnotic debut novel, A Fine Imitation. Brock, who teaches British Literature at an Atlanta high school, shares the story behind the book and explains how art shaped the journeys of her characters.


My novel, A Fine Imitation, tells the story of a wealthy beauty, Vera, who comes to realize how suffocating her rarefied world of 1920s Manhattan really is when she falls in love with a mysterious painter and unexpectedly reconnects with an old friend. It’s a tale full of false identities. Some are obvious: the artist, Emil Hallan, is not who he claims to be and has dark, dangerous secrets lurking in his past. Vera, on the other hand, spends most of her life believing she is the woman she wants to be. Hallan’s arrival upends her world and makes her question that certainty, much the way her relationship with her college friend Bea did 10 years earlier. Vera comes to see that she’s been pretending to be the person others in her life (particularly her mother) wanted her to be. As glamorous and glittering as her life is, it’s all surface, all a show. She’s been playing a part, imitating someone else’s style, and the cracks show—her life has been, in effect, a forgery.

In writing A Fine Imitation, my first novel, I fell deep into the art world, researching the Spanish golden age of painting, Vermeer’s work, and the art nouveau style so popular in Vera’s youth. I also studied cases of art forgery, and I found myself considering how many false works were discovered because of the exceptional difficulty of copying another artist’s style. In the very act of attempting another artist’s use of color or shading, these forgers were giving themselves away. To my mind, this hit on a central fact of human nature. When we pretend to be someone we’re not, the truth of who we are tends to “out” us.

When we pretend to be someone we’re not, the truth of who we are tends to “out” us.

These became the twin issues in A Fine Imitation: a deep focus on visual art intertwined with the little forgeries of daily existence, something I think the title expresses beautifully. I think this performative aspect of day-to-day life—the small ways in which we try to meet other people’s expectations, the white lies and fake smiles—is something that everyone feels, and I really wanted to explore that in the novel.  

Researching the novel brought back memories of the first time I felt I really “got” a work of art, Diego de Velazquez’s Las meninas. I didn’t know before then how to appreciate art outside of looking at it in a museum and thinking something along the lines of, “Ooh, that’s pretty” or “I could never do that.” I never understood that a static work of art could tell a dynamic story. In the painting, a court portrait of the Spanish royal family, Velasquez also included himself. It’s both a portrait and a self-portrait, a fascinating riddle of perspective. If the painter is in the painting, whose perspective does the viewer take? And how does that change the narrative? I never fully comprehended how closely related visual art and storytelling were until I encountered Velazquez’s masterwork, how a work of art tells a story, and how point-of-view can change the narrative. That one painting opened a world of characters, adventures and mysteries to me. I relished being able to return to a world that I loved, that of visual art, in writing A Fine Imitation.

Art is in the creation, and as humans, we have an innate desire to create. That act of construction even extends to ourselves, as we fashion the different versions of ourselves that we present to others. A Fine Imitation is about what happens when Vera realizes that the woman she’s pretending to be is a work of fiction. Interestingly, it is in the stories of art that she finds her truth.

 

Author photo by Nina Parker.

A mysterious painter who may not be all he appears and a bored and wealthy beauty are at the center of Amber Brock's hypnotic debut novel, A Fine Imitation. Brock, who teaches English in Atlanta, shares the story behind the book and explains how art shaped the journeys of her characters.

Behind the Book by

The whole idea behind my novel, All True Not a Lie in It, was a gamble. Once I was hit with the memory of an old National Geographic article about Daniel Boone, I couldn’t stop thinking about him and his story. I was hooked, utterly. But would other people want to read about a long-dead American frontiersman? (And, hang on, would they even know who he was?)

It took a lot of writing and rewriting. And one of the books that influenced me, perhaps surprisingly, was Lolita, whip-smart and shocking. It turns me into a gawper, a gasper—not so much for its horrors as for its own wild gamble. What writer can pull off the tale of an aging, predatory child molester without scattering readers like pigeons at a gunshot?

Nabokov can. His Humbert Humbert is one of literature’s most ghastly and sorry creations, but we find ourselves listening to him, following him across America, even as we recoil from his desires. Loathsome as he is, I will argue for this book every time. So why does Nabokov win? Why do we go along with Humbert into the dark? 

We have Nabokov’s electric prose, of course. But we also have the character’s own words, his own voice: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”

It’s the key. The gamble only succeeds because of it. If we’d had, instead, “His sin, his soul,” the book’s pull would have frayed like old rope. Well, I suppose I have a gambler’s heart, too. I rolled the dice and stepped into the first-person shoes, which I’d always found pinching. I fought it, writing draft after draft in other voices, until I caved. Fine. I, Daniel Boone. Double or nothing.

I walked around until the shoes fit. His voice is not my voice. He’s a rough, charismatic leader and a famous hunter; I’m female, fairly quiet, Canadian and vegetarian. But first person was the only voice for this book. Once I could hear it in my mind, I couldn’t shake it. I hope readers will follow me into Daniel’s shoes—and head—as he moves through the wilderness in search of perfection, a quest that leads to his daughter’s kidnap and his son’s murder. The aftermath is denial, guilt and hard suffering.

My story elides chronology in places, making guesses and filling in gaps for the sake of narrative. But I didn’t need an unreliable narrator—the story had plenty going on already—so I looked at complicated speakers, like Humbert, and how they tell us their stories.

And we want books to create a reality. To reanimate the 1700s, I had to plough up forests of detail and try to use what Daniel and his family would have known in a natural way: the Quaker meeting house of his childhood; the Appalachian wilderness he explored; the homes he and his wife, Rebecca, built; and the Delaware, Shawnee, Cherokee and Black lives that intersected with his. I read several biographies, including Lyman Draper’s The Life of Daniel Boone, a 19th-century rescue of Boone oral history and manuscripts, trying to expose the flavor of 18th-century life. 

But the books that gave me what I most needed were fiction, Peter Carey’s and Hilary Mantel’s. Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang snares Ned Kelly’s wild mind and feeds it to us in pieces, letters and articles. Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, while in third person, give a similar feeling of an access-all-areas pass to someone’s brain. What works in these books is the uncanny sense that we’re listening to the characters while at the same time experiencing what it’s like to be them. We’re inside and outside. For me, this was the trick: We had to be able to see Daniel from both sides at once.

My Daniel Boone is talking to his dead, trying to turn himself inside out and see what he has done, and who he has become. This book is about what is lost, and what remains.

Canadian writer Alix Hawley studied English at Oxford University and now teaches at Okanagan College in British Columbia. All True Not a Lie in It, her debut novel, was longlisted for the Giller Prize. She is currently working on a sequel.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

The whole idea behind my novel, All True Not a Lie in It, was a gamble. Once I was hit with the memory of an old National Geographic article about Daniel Boone, I couldn’t stop thinking about him and his story. I was hooked, utterly. But would other people want to read about a long-dead American frontiersman? (And, hang on, would they even know who he was?)

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