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Monday, December 31, 2012

Just Toss the Ashes / Gracias por la muerte by Marta Merajver-Kurlat

This author has a gift for storytelling that draws the reader in, despite the main character being dead on the first page. Sylvia is definitely the main character, and has a strong presence in her absence. It becomes clear that Sylvia felt alone in the world, unable to connect with anyone in a way that meaningful for her. The reader learns all about her through the people she left behind. She writes a suicide note and addresses it to her ex-husband and son, from who she also feels fundamentally distant. These two men have to piece together some meaning for their relationships with Sylvia, but as they go about the business of disposing of the body and having a funeral service despite her wishes (hence the title in English, Just Toss the Ashes), and finally moving on with their lives, they include more and more people who were touched by Sylvia's life in lasting ways. She was alone only in her mind.

With uncanny psychological realism, the author introduces one character after another, all well developed and with surprising new perspectives on Sylvia and life in general. Each point of view adds a piece to the fascinating puzzle that is this book and was Sylvia. It asks questions about the meaning of life and death and doesn't wrap everything up neatly. This is a book for readers who want to spend time with these questions and come up with their own responses.

See an illuminating interview with the author here.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Second Annual Knauss Awards for Excellence in Publishing

There was a lot of excellent writing published in 2012. Competition in every category was ferocious! After much pondering and even more reading, here are the finest books I encountered in 2012.

Best Fiction

I don't think this book is for everyone, but in the end, nothing swept me away like this one, or made me so much want to start translating seriously again. Go, Spanish authors! Original review

Best Non-Fiction

This category was especially tricky because I read two truly great non-fiction books that are excellent for completely different reasons. The Last Rhinos brings a little-known, preventable tragedy to the public in a compelling, detail-rich narrative. Original review Turtle is astonishing in every conceivable way and stretches the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction. Original review So they both get an honor.

Best Book I Edited

I edited many great novels this year. In the end, The Cross and the Dragon gets the prize because I "got it" the most. It's the most like my own novel, and the author made the job easy both because she had already done a lot of polishing and because she wanted as much as I did for it to be right. And it is, so right! Original review

Did the pink-to-orange tint of the covers of all these books sway me at all? Coincidences happen!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I'm Better Than Jane Austen...

In what universe does this happen?

You eyes aren't deceiving you. According to this list, two of my books are better than Jane Austen, Harper Lee, Charlotte Bronte, and Margaret Atwood. Even more strange, the star ratings agree that my books belong among their ranks.

My humility doesn't permit this kind of comparison. But this is exactly the kind of thing that can happen in the bizarre universe of social media. I expressed some bafflement at ranking above Jane Austen, and Facebook friend and very fine writer Chris Shields commented, "Jessica, she had her time. Now it's yours. Way to go." That thought neatly does away with my natural inclination toward self-effacement, which probably holds me back in this competitive literary market.

But, even taking the dead ladies off the list, I'm still up against Margaret Atwood, and in any normal situation I would never assert that my books are in any way better than hers. So we're back to the idea of the real world, where such comparison would never take place, and social media, where, it seems, anything is possible.

I hope this list will bring some much-needed attention to Rhinoceros Dreams and Tree/House. My ranking above these other authors is in no way meant as disrespect.

In other news, many of my books are now available with additional descriptions and reviews on It's a great site to find new authors to read!

Tree/House is on eTLC, too!

The Abencerraje
Dusk Before Dawn
Sail to Italy and Sail From Italy

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Margaret Mitchell House

It's the post you've been waiting for! All about the site where Margaret Mitchell wrote 75% of the first draft of Gone with the Wind. It was the last place my husband and I visited before we left Atlanta. I couldn't leave behind such a monument to writerly moxie! Although its themes are surrounded by controversy, it's hard to knock the quality of the writing in the original novel.

The house has been restored to what Margaret Mitchell and her husband might have wished it looked like when they were living there. This is what would have been the front. You can kind of get a sense of the way this historic building sits among business high-rises, all by itself now.

Margaret Mitchell and her husband did not occupy the entire house, although the building has been given over to Gone with the Wind now. They lived in a really small one-bedroom apartment on the first floor. You can see the sitting room windows on the left in this view, the back of the house.

Here is the door they used to get in and out, complete with mailboxes. There was a back door through the kitchenette. Margaret was a reporter for the local paper, but when she broke her ankle, she became housebound. When her husband got tired of ferrying books back and forth from the library, he told Margaret she'd read every book they had, and she should write her own.

And she did. The best light in the house came in though the windows you can see in the other picture. They set a typewriter on a tiny table and she wrote and wrote, using her journalism training to start at the end and include lots of realistic details.

The furnishings are from the period, not related to Margaret Mitchell. She and her husband would have had mismatched hand-me-downs and thrift store finds. I was deeply moved to see this space and its similarities to the spaces where I've written over the past two years. It shows that all you need to finish a monumental novel is training and discipline. Quiet determination and a passion for your subject. And enough support from your loved ones to print the whole thing out and have it tower over you when you've put it into hundreds of manila envelopes.

Best writer tourism destination. Ever.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Invisible Infanta by Elizabeth Toner

Her sisters and brother were an ill-fated Queen of Portugal, Henry VIII's first wife, the heir to the throne of Spain, and the notoriously loca Juana, who would become Queen of Spain when all her siblings met other fates. But Ferdinand and Isabella had another royal daughter, an infanta, about whom one hardly ever hears mention. Her name is María and this the story of her life before she left the Castilian court to be married.

It's not easy to write about such a complicated time period, with so much complexity at every level. Most books about this infanta's mother take on too much and become a soup of places and dates without a lot of narrative thrust, so I was pleased to see that this novel focuses its scope. There are still some moments of summary, but overall the spotlight on a single actor in the drama serves the plot well.

The story further focuses on the infanta's emotional involvement with a servant, the only one of the Taino people who survived for any length of time after Columbus brought them to Spain after his first voyage. He happens to be a boy about María's age, and has been assigned the name Juan de Castilla, strikingly similar to María's brother. The friendship and love that develops between these two outcasts is believable and made me think about how history would have been different if Spain had taken the diplomatic route to alliances in the New World, and, for example, married one of the infantas off to a Taino grandee.

There are a few historical detail errors here, but nothing that will stick out to the casual reader, and the many well-observed moments and politics more than make up for them. The evocative descriptions of the palaces in Sevilla and Granada made me feel I was right there with María. I also particularly enjoyed the musings about the meaning of freedom at the very end of the book. It is very short, but perhaps we'll see more of María and her marriage in the next books in the Trastamara Chronicles. Even without that possibility, The Invisible Infanta is easily digested because of its length and its comfortable style.

The Invisible Infanta is available on Kindle.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Interview with Multi-Lingual Author Marta Merajver-Kurlat

I'm very excited to to have Marta Merajver-Kurlat on my blog today. She is a world-traveling, widely-read author who does what many only dream of. She writes in not one language, but two: Spanish and English.

JK:  How did you come to write in both languages? Do you draw from the literature of both traditions? 

MMK: I draw from the world’s literature, not just from these two traditions. I read in Spanish, English, Italian, French, German, and Portuguese. When it comes to Russian, Japanese, Hungarian, or other literatures, I prefer to read English translations. Writing in both languages is second nature to me. The interesting thing is that, in full agreement with Saussure, I believe that language shapes thought rather than the other way about, so my style accompanies the language of choice. 

JK: I find that to be true, too. Did your background growing up encourage your international focus?

MMK: I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. After graduating as a translator, I spent a couple of years studying and working in Europe and the U.S. Having earned a degree in English Language and Literature, I traveled extensively until I decided to start a teaching career in my city of origin. When my son began primary school, I enrolled at the School of Psychology, University of Buenos Aires, and was soon engulfed by the psychoanalytic bias that was then predominant. My interests and studies are multifaceted: I have a passion for myth and history among other things and, already retired from institutional teaching and teacher training activities, I conduct private seminars and courses for lovers of literature and for psychoanalytic institutions.

JK: What kinds of books do you write, and who are they for? 

MMK: I have published fiction and non-fiction. My novels are intended for an audience interested in the darker aspects of human nature. My non-fiction includes a series called Bibliotreatment, which targets any John, Dick, and Harry in need of practical solutions to psychological problems. Although it might be called a self-help series, the radical difference between these books and others of the same genre lies in the fact that I do not propose perfect bliss through hackneyed recipes. Thus it would be fair to say that Bibliotreatment seeks an intelligent audience willing to find out what is ailing them and unafraid to come across deep psychic wounds that need healing.

JK: Does this interest in psychology extend to your fiction?

MMK: All of my fiction is based on real life. Just Toss the Ashes, the English version of Gracias por la muerte, deals with suicide. Los gloriosos sesenta y después tells the story of a multinational chamber orchestra touring the world under the sponsorship of an Argentinian military dictatorship. My point in this book was to show that not every youngster in the 1960s was either a hippy or a guerrilla. There were millions of others involved in living, learning, dreaming, and pursuing goals. No one seems to have written about them, so I took the challenge. El tramo final narrates life in an old people’s home, showing the inter and intrarelationships among inmates, their families, and their caregivers. In each case, the atmosphere and language are unique and suited to the story. The characters, though fictionalized, are based on real people.

JK: The dreaded question for every author: What is your favorite book?

MMK: This is a tough question. I have lots of favorite books, but if I must choose one, the answer is definitely Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Not that it has influenced my writing, since I have not created a cosmogony… yet.

JK: Ah, so we have something to look forward to! What else influences your work? 

MMK: I guess that, in an unconscious manner, every book I’ve read influences my work in some way or other. My own life experience is a strong influence as well. Early exposure to so many different cultures, lifestyles, and experiences has undoubtedly marked me in a very special way.

JK: In general, what is your inspiration? What was the specific inspiration for your most recent project?

MMK: My inspiration is the world around me, a world that may prove so unlikely that I sometimes discard ideas for fear that they might sound overly artificial. Reality beats fiction more often than one is ready to admit. My most recent project, in fact, a work in progress, is a novel about a woman and the men in her life. It was specifically inspired by the gender issues that are so much discussed nowadays, and by my perception that not all feminists practice what they preach.

JK: Do you have a favorite word?

MMK: I do, but it’s not a word I use often in my writing: compassion. I expect this word to come to the reader’s mind naturally, through a process of empathy with the story and characters.

JK: How do you use language to differentiate your characters? 

MMK: Like real people, my characters have an idiolect, to which I stick so that they are recognizable even when they are not named. Regarding the settings, because I’m well acquainted with the ones I choose, I use descriptive language sparsely, so as to provide a clear picture with the utmost economy. It’s in the narrative and descriptive parts that I sometimes indulge in metaphor, metonymy, or other tropes. But I hate linguistic “fluff,” so I don’t inflict it on my readers.

JK:  How much time a day do you devote to fiction writing? What is your work area like? Do you have any methods that might seem unusual or inspiring to other writers? 

MMK: The time I devote to my fiction is rather erratic. When I’m not involved in translation projects, I am glued to my computer and don’t keep count of the hours as long as the writing flows. But I also write in snatches, sitting at a café in the sun, between classes, whenever something comes to my mind and I don’t want to lose it. This shows that I’m not methodic. If I may inspire other writers, it will be through the finished product, for my writing process is rather chaotic!

JK: When and why did you get started writing? What characteristics from your first efforts survive today?

MMK: I started writing in my teens, but it was a game then, although my mother, an extraordinary writer herself, encouraged me to take it seriously. The reason was an attraction to language as I saw it deployed in the books I read and in my mother’s works. I found that the written word was so much more forceful than verbal exchanges. I took it seriously in my early thirties, when I published a series of children’s stories that my husband and I devised to amuse our child. I never stopped, but when my publisher was closed down by one of our military dictatorships, I made no further efforts to publish until 2005, when Just Toss the Ashes was finished. I’d say that the only characteristic that survived was the passion.

JK: What kind of feedback do you get? Are your family and friends supportive?

MMK: Very positive feedback, particularly from my publisher, unknown readers who write to me, and colleagues from my writing groups. I don’t think I have a fan base, probably because I have done practically nothing in that respect. Until very recently, I didn’t have a website, never visited my FB page, and had not requested an Amazon author page. I must thank my colleagues for insisting that I needed visibility. They were right, of course, but it took a while to overcome my resistance. My very small family is extremely supportive, and so are my friends. In all truth, these are my fans.

JK: Thank you so much for sharing your work with us today.

Find out more about Marta's books at her website and blog.

Or check out her latest book, Reading for Personal Development.

Friday, December 7, 2012

ASMSG Page is Live!

I belong to a sweet little (well, big) group of independent authors. My author page has been up on the website for some time now, but the newest feature is that all of my books can be seen lined up and stacked neatly as you scroll down. Pretty impressive, if I say so myself. Take a look and enjoy!

And if you buy any of the books after clicking on those links, you'll be helping a great group of authors pursue their dreams of completing and publishing books and building an enthusiastic fan base!

Remember, authors don't exist without readers!

On Monday: an interview with fascinating author Marta Merajver. Not to be missed.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: Shifted Perspective by J. Bridger

I hope everyone went out and bought Shifted Perspective when it came out, rather than waiting for me to post a review. Belated as it is...

I was first attracted to this story because, unlike most fantasies in which people can change into animals, this one is told from the perspective of someone who is not the top dog -- literally. Caleb is a late bloomer who only discovers his shifting ability in his last year of high school. Such a special power doesn't thrill him because he doesn't turn into a cool werewolf or a panther or an eagle or something fierce, but a Cocker Spaniel. It turns out that his shifter relatives also look down on him. Caleb has to undergo initiations, say goodbye to his purely human friends and even his human dad, and come to terms with his life being nothing like he planned when a series of murders means he must risk everything -- even his life.

The story comes in three parts: the discovery, the initiation, and the murder mystery. I felt the structure was a little odd, but by the end I realized it was necessary in order to set up the other books to come in the series. The resolution of the mystery turns out to be an interesting story about pushing the boundaries of what's allowed for these powerful shifters in the human world.

If you love dogs, this is the series for you. The culture of the shifters, with its ranks and its initiation methods, is based on the reality of dog dynamics. Caleb doesn't fit in to the brutality of a system dreamed up by werewolves, and even the most sensitive female readers will sympathize with such a sweet, earnest boy.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Finished... with the First Draft

So, did I meet the challenge presented by National Novel Finishing Month?

Yes, I did.

I can't believe it. I never really imagined a world in which I was not writing this draft of The Seven Noble Knights of Lara. Every time I used to go to sleep, I would think about a character or a scene so that I could process it overnight and have a few good words or sentences for that purpose the following morning. Now I don't know how to fall asleep!

The current draft totals 131,105 words, by far the longest thing I've ever written. It's twice as long as my doctoral dissertation! This month alone I wrote 28,600 words, hands down the most I have ever written in a single month.

There at the end, I was having a lot of trouble transitioning from pounding away at the keyboard with my head in the fictional world into a nice evening at home with my husband, and I feel I've neglected him terribly. On the Tuesday before I finished, he got a fairly deep, bleeding cut on his thumb. I should have washed the cut with antiseptic, put pain reliever and a Band-Aid on such a grave wound, not because he can't do it, but because it would have been kind and supportive. But I didn't! That dear blood wasn't nearly as much as the metaphorical amounts coming out in the study during the day and I was far too self-absorbed to take anyone else's pain into account.

I hope none of my other fine novels will be this wrenching to finish.

I was grumpy after I placed the last period, on top of all the other abuses my husband suffered, and I think it's the authorial version of post-partum depression. This thing I'd just given birth to seemed like a horrible twisted monster, and yet I missed it percolating in my head. I've still got to do a lot of research, revising, and polishing, and who knows what else, so it's not like I have to completely let go of this thing yet, and I can't decide if that cheers me up or not!

I snapped this picture of where I worked minutes before I composed the last paragraphs.

It's a cheap card table we bought in Tucson when we had no furniture and no money, but on it rests everything I needed: a window to cast natural light on the subject; a chair I upholstered with my dad and needs already to be re-upholstered; an old lamp from my grandmother, who passed away in 2002; a picture of my critique group, who believes in me; a phone to get calls from my husband, who also believes in me; the book with the original texts upon which I based my novel; a chapter outline; a picture of the place where Margaret Mitchell wrote about half of Gone with the Wind; a bottle of water; a heart-shaped frame with a picture of Alfonso X el Sabio, my hero and the one who had the surviving texts written down; and to the right, left, and behind the laptop (no internet connection) as well as on the floor in a bag leaning on the table leg, notes. Some wonderful books about the middle ages inhabit the shelves you can see in the picture, and you can't see the music that I had playing, various instrumental pieces from as close to the tenth century as I could find. I had a pretty similar setup in Georgia with a gorgeous tree-filled view, but I started the novel in Tucson with the laptop literally in my lap and only some of the notes to guide me. It's been a long, strange trip.

But I'm hoping to reintegrate into society now. Book reviews, interviews, and history tidbits coming your way soon! As well as the occasional update on The Seven Noble Knights of Lara.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Poetic Present

Out of nowhere -- and this is especially surprising because it has to do with a poetry book, and I thought no one reads poetry anymore -- Dusk Before Dawn got this stellar, utterly unsolicited review.

It sure makes me feel appreciated as a writer. It's about the best holiday gift I could get, as I come out of the dark cave in which I've been furiously writing all month.

So, as a reminder, that's the second surprisingly positive review for Dusk Before Dawn, the other being on Goodreads here.

Find it at:

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hard Work Ain't Pretty Until It's Done

In case you're wondering whether I'm still around, yes. I've been holed up, writing, writing, writing, to meet my goal of finishing The Seven Noble Knights of Lara before the end of the year. I'm close!

Luckily, I'm online enough to catch gems of articles like this one, which illustrates that although no author's routine is the same as another's, they all involve discipline. That's right, most people don't just wake up one day with a finished first draft. Read about the routines of Ray Bradbury, Joan Didion, Jack Kerouac, E. B. White, and so many others here, courtesy of Brain Pickings.

"A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper." E. B. White.

Friday, November 9, 2012

New Interview

Internationally interviewed author (yours truly) has this to share today, from the blog of the wonderfully helpful and supportive author Diane Major. Thanks for checking it out! And hooray for rhinos!

Thursday, November 1, 2012


The delightfully twisted Pavarti K. Tyler created this wonderful graphic, and I think a lot of authors are enthusiastic to use this month not to start a new novel but to finish one! Wish me luck. I'll be loading and unloading, packing and unpacking, and still trying to finish The Seven Noble Knights of Lara.

And, not to be missed! A brilliant take on the NaNo Rhino -- why haven't I heard of this before?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Scary Stuff: Amazon Author Rankings and a Move

Amazon is crazy about rankings, and they've always ranked books in a such a way that each author can track her own books, and the top ranked books are clearly visible to anyone who cares to look. Now they've taken to ranking the people behind the books. Take a look.

Of course, I'm not in the top 100. But as I looked through these, I was struck by the fact that I'd only ever read anything by J. K. Rowling out of all the authors in the top 100, and didn't find anyone else I would even consider reading (okay, maybe one or two). I'm probably weird, but an author's popularity doesn't attract me to their books. Does it attract you? Does it attract most readers? Is this author ranking the best thing for readers looking for new authors to read since sliced bread? Please comment and let me know.

In other news, I'm well into the boxes, tape, and cellophane. My husband and I are headed to Illinois to make our home for the foreseeable future.

For those of you keeping track, an appropriate response might be, "She's moving again?" It's my response, too, but we haven't made a go of it in Atlanta, wonderful as it may be, because my husband has been so unhappy at his job. The new move represents a new lease on life even more than the move to Atlanta did. It's a clean break and I can't wait to see what amazing doors open because of it.

Of course, it puts my goal of a complete first draft of my WIP, Seven Noble Knights, by year's end in severe jeopardy. For at least some of November -- NaNo challenge month, which I made such wonderful use of last year -- I'll be packing and unpacking all my notes and plot point scribblings. But I'm still going to do it. Just don't distract me.

I'm not sure when I'll be able to blog again. When I do, I will bring you some amazing historical posts and short, easy to consume bouts of logophilia. In the meantime, it would be a huge help to me if you play around with the carousel of books, below left, and click on them and consider liking them or leaving reviews. I'll thank you when I get back!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Something Red by Douglas Nicholas

I read this book very slowly, partly because of other commitments, but also because it begins as if it were a snail at the races. It's easy to put down in frustration, because the language is difficult, even for someone like me, who has spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the thirteenth century. When the travelers are finally attacked by bandits, the author interrupts the action with the kinds of descriptions we've already read so much of: the mechanism of how to secure the carts so the attackers can't make off with them, what kind of arrow they're using, and how and when they were made.

Tenacious readers will be rewarded with a middle that reads like a horror movie: the characters get caught in a kind of mousetrap, in the snow, with dead bodies at every pass, and despite Molly's ability to deal with anything, it's possible to believe for a few moments that they're all going to die, either frozen or brutally murdered (and then frozen).

Especially tenacious readers will be rewarded with an ending unlike any other part of the book, and yet satisfyingly inevitable and maybe a little wistful. The ending will stay with me for a long time as an example of how to successfully end a complex book.

The book ends up working really well. Somehow, the reader cares about the characters that have come through so many words. Molly, Jack, Hob, and Nemain seem real and strong, and as if they have much more story to tell. The male/female balance of power and Molly's popularity were a pleasure to read about.

There is an obvious poetry to the language, and I enjoyed feeling as if I were actually living in the thirteenth century through the author's conjurings. The fantasy elements weave seamlessly into the history (it's been said before, but there's really no other word for how smoothly the two supposedly opposing elements meld). If you already have a thorough knowledge of the vocabulary of thirteenth-century English and Irish traveling life, or of you don't mind learning, this is the book for you.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Philippa Gregory’s Keynote Address at HNSLondon12

No, you don't have to be from the UK to be a historical novelist, but Philippa Gregory is, and she gave a wonderful talk at the Historical Novel Society Conference this year. Some day I'll go in person!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Imminent Projects

I'm excited about two really big projects I'm currently working on (aside from my WIP, The Seven Noble Knights of Lara, which I think, feel, and breathe at all hours!). Both are related to Spanishness and women's concerns and both are the culmination of years of blood, sweat, and tears.

Tree/House, my stunted little book about personal growth in the face of limitations, imposed by others and by the self, very popular with readers who like a little weird with their literary, will be coming out in Spanish in ebook and paperback very soon! It will be called Un hogar en los árboles (A Home in the Trees) and the final draft is the work of two fine human beings, dedicated to writing in a way that honors the Spanish language, as well as my critical eye. I've always wanted to see a Spanish edition of this book. This is a dream come true for me. Let all your Spanish-reading friends know! It's on eTLC in English.

Lee más acerca de este libro en español aquí.

Si tú lees en español y quieres escribir una reseña -- por muy corta que sea -- dímelo y te regalaré una copia digital. Las reseñas de lectores en Amazon y Goodreads son esenciales para el éxito que todo libro nuevo. ¡Gracias por tu apoyo!

This is a mockup -- the real cover will
be much more attractively designed.
In no particular order, the second project is... another translation... this one, my English version of Lidia Falcón's Camino sin retorno. It will be available from Loose Leaves Publishing in December! Here's the jacket description:

Barcelona, 1986: The dictatorship is over and life is free and easy. But what if you can’t forget the seventies?

Elisa’s troubled past comes back to her in the form of her ex-husband, Arnau, who needs her help to exonerate a former comrade. Elisa relives her Catholic childhood, her marriage to Arnau, her blind loyalty to the communist cause, her experiments in feminism, and her prison time to create a twentieth-century emotional history of the political Left in Spain. The women who faced so much adversity with Elisa weave their own perspectives and testimonies into hers, making this more than a novel: it’s an important contribution to history that gives a voice to the silenced.

Can Elisa ever leave the path history has carved out for her? Is there really no turning back?

“Followers of contemporary Spanish history … will now have the opportunity to understand some of its complex factors … through Falcón’s unswerving critical appraisal of Spanish politics. … No Turning Back guarantees that the memory of clandestine resistance is no longer consigned to the past or to scholars.”

—from the critical introduction by Linda Gould Levine

It took quite a few years to be able to bring this to the market, but I'm glad I waited until the circumstances were right. Tell everyone you know who's interested in recent Spanish history!

By the way, the inimitable Lidia Falcón is currently in the United States. I'm unable to meet with her because of geography, but if you have the opportunity, in Kansas or New York, don't miss it!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Magical Realism Vindicated

Yes, that was the Nobel Prize for literature being given to Mo Yan, an author of magical realism.

I've defined what magical realism means to me here.

Please read this vindication of the genre if you've ever been puzzled or offended by it, or, conversely, if you, like me, have had to explain (and explain, and defend) yourself in workshops and been obliged to listen to long rants about what's "wrong" with your story.

Magical realism, you go!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Columbus Day, Spanish Style

The Pinta replica in Philadelphia.
Around these parts, Spain is admired as a country and an amazing history. So, I'm going to take Columbus Day (today) as the culmination of Hispanic Heritage Month. Columbus was sailing for Spain and wrote in Spanish, and it was the Spanish empire on which the sun never set, a century or two before Britain earned that accolade.

Here is a loose translation of the chapter called "In Praise of Spain" from Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna. "Spain" here is sort of a vague term referring to all of the Iberian Peninsula and the additional territories described.

God honored each land and province in the world, and gave each his gift, but among all the lands, it was Spain in the West that He honored most, for he stocked her with all those things men usually crave. Ever since the Goths went through all the lands from one end to the other, trying them out with battles and wars and conquering many places in the provinces of Asia and Europe (as we mentioned), trying out many living spaces in each place and choosing the most beneficial place amongst them all, they found that Spain was the best of all. They prized her well above all the others, because amongst all the lands of the world, Spain has a higher degree of abundance and goodness than any other land.

It is also closed all around: from one side the Pyrenees go all the way to the sea, and the Ocean Sea is on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. In Spain is also Gothic Gaul, which is the province of Narbonne all together with the cities of Rodez, Albi and Béziers, which belonged to this province in the time of the Goths. Also in Africa it had a province with control over ten cities which was called Tingitana, which was under the sovereignty of the Goths like all these others.

So this Spain we're talking about is like God's Paradise, which is watered with five principal rivers, which are the Ebro, Duero, Tagus, Guadalquivir, and Guadiana. And each of these has between them and the others great mountains and lands, and the valleys and plains are great and wide, and because of the goodness of the land and the humidity of the rivers, they bring forth many fruits and are abundant. The greater part of Spain is irrigated with rivers and fountains, and wells are never lacking in places where they're needed. Spain is abundant in grain fields, delightful with fruits, pleasureful with fish, delicious with milk and all the things made with it, full of deer and game, covered with livestock, healthy with horses, profitable with mules, secure and supplied with castles, fortunate with good wines, comfortable with an abundance of bread, rich in metals: lead, pewter, quicksilver, iron, bronze, silver, and gold; precious stones, all manner of marble, sea salt and salt marshes and salt rocks and many other ores: azure, red ochre, clay, aluminum, and many others that are found in other lands; spirited with silk and everything made with it, sweet with honey and sugar, illuminated with wax, satisfied with oil, fortunate with saffron. Spain is above all others ingenious, daring and vigorous in battle, light with work, loyal to one's lord, avid in study, palatine with words, perfect with all good things. There is no other land in the world that is like her in abundance, and none equals her in fortresses, and there are few in the world as large as she is. Spain is advanced before the others in greatness and valued more than others for loyalty. Oh, Spain! There is no tongue or genius that can tell all your goodness!

Happy Most Controversial Day of the Year!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Crossroads: The Truth in Fiction

I had a writerly weekend at the Crossroads conference in Macon, Georgia. The organizers say they started the whole thing because writing can be lonely, but it doesn't have to be!

One inspiring theme that arose in a lot of the talks was the truth of fiction. As Sarah Domet said, readers sympathize with fictional characters because they recognize something true in them. Fiction speaks to the heart, and therefore condenses truth in a way bare facts can't.

Another important idea I took away came from Chuck Wendig: Although authors want their books -- their babies -- to cure cancer and end war, they can't do those things, at least not in a direct way, because they're only stories, after all. So don't suffocate your children -- your books --, care less about them and they're be all the better for it. Recently I've been reading a lot about how historical novels have to be so true to history and the known facts, and I can't help but like the idea that I should care a bit less, breathe a bit easier, and remember that it's just a story. I'm not sure how much of that I can get away with overall, but it sounds to me like the only way I will ever finish my first draft of The Seven Noble Knights of Lara.

Finally, one of my favorite speakers was Johanna Ingalls of Akashic Books, who confirmed everything I'd hoped was true about small publishers everywhere: constant enthusiasm, appreciative authors, kindred spirits. I do love being an editor and publisher.

See these other takes on the conference:
Chuck Wendig
Delilah Dawson

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

New interview today!

It's all about Rhinoceros Dreams and a bunch of other wacky stuff, and it's here at J. J. Johnsons' blog. Thanks, J. J.!

By the way, Rhinoceros Dreams is finally available at Kobo and Diesel as well as Smashwords and Amazon, all for the lowest price imaginable! Help out those amazing beasts!

More stores coming soon.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Next Big Thing: The Seven Noble Knights of Lara

The latest game for authors in the blogosphere is to tag each other for The Next Big Thing. Kim Rendfeld, who writes early medieval fiction, tagged me. The authors answer a list of questions about their works in progress in anticipation of sharing their work with the world! 

The questions:

What is the working title of your book?
The Seven Noble Knights of Lara. It recently occurred to me that using the medieval title might not satisfy some modern readers, who might expect said seven knights to play an even larger role than they do, but I have no idea what a better title would be.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I read the "historical accounts" of this story in grad school and it has no ceased to haunt me. The historical accounts are based on a lost epic poem, and perhaps it's that lostness that fascinates me.

What genre does your book fall under?
Historical fiction. There are some fantasy elements in the original that I'm explaining with realistic causes.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I would like unknown actors to play the young characters. I'd die of happiness if Mandy Patinkin played one of the older characters -- perhaps the Count of Castile, Muño Salido, or even Ruy Blásquez, the evil man himself. Zaida should be played by someone as beautiful as Aishwarya Rai, but none of my other favorite actresses fit the type my characters need.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Teaser: A medieval epic with strong women, valiant knights and a bloody cucumber.
Synopsis: When a tenth-century noble Spanish woman suffers a gross affront at her own wedding, her blindly loyal husband wreaks a bloody revenge that will devastate the nation with an unstaunched conflict spanning 15 years. (Needs more work.)

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I'm deciding between aiming for a small press or trying to get a literary agent. Being a publishing world "insider," I understand my options, but am not sure what will work best for me.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I started in 2007, but that draft was so bad I don't even count it. This true first draft has occupied me constantly since early 2011, and I hope to finish before the turn of 2013.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Within the genre, I think it's most similar to The Cross and the Dragon by Kim Rendfeld, but I hope to be able to read some more medieval fiction and flesh that out a bit. In my "pitch," I compare the revenge dynamics to nothing less than The Godfather and the amazing historical details to María Rosa Menocal's The Ornament of the World. That's pretty bold for me, but they told me I had to pick something, so...

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
There's love, lust, insanity and loads of rage. A couple of characters I created from scratch to support the main characters have captured by beta readers' hearts. You won't want to miss lovely, downtrodden Justa, handsome Adalberto, and practical, inscrutable Yusuf. Different attitudes about the monetary value of human life and the role of sex will fascinate any curious soul. Readers may also find descriptions of opulent, glittering, medieval Medina Azahara and cataract surgery that's not much less sophisticated than today's to be of interest.

I tag the following Next Big Things:

Tonya Marie Burrows, author of thrilling romantic suspense

Saturday, October 6, 2012


Today I'm at the Crossroads Writers Conference in lovely Macon, Georgia, to shake off some of the isolation inherent in writing and be inspired. The keynote speaker is Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, and if there's one person in the world who can tell me how to finish my novel this year, it must be he!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Have You Peaked or Are You Piqued? More Homophones

Here's a triple homophone for you.

Peak first came into written English in the middle of the sixteenth century. As a noun, the picture above illustrates it well: the highest point of anything, in the literal or figurative sense. The verb is used to describe someone or something reaching its literal or figurative highest point: The quality of printing peaked with the Gutenberg Bible and has been going downhill ever since.

Pique has been a member of English for nearly as long, but still maintains the look of its French origin. As a verb, it means to provoke, often to provoke to irritation: Their bad grammar piqued her to distraction. More commonly, the verb is used in the passive voice: She was piqued to distraction by their bad grammar. It also means to excite, as in the set phrase "to pique one's curiosity." The noun refers to the state of irritation, resentment or wounded pride resulting from having been piqued: The grammar teacher's students sent her into a fit of pique never before seen in the history of the school.

And of course, the last peek has to do with looking at something for a short amount of time. Few seem to have trouble spelling this one, perhaps because of things like peek-a-boo and "sneak peeks."

So as you can see, the three words have little to do with each other, unless someone reaches the peak of his pique as a result of being peeked at.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Medieval Underpants (Review)

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer's (and Editor's) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths by Susanne Alleyn is the single most useful book I've read on the craft of historical fiction. It's presented in a compulsively readable style that made it hard to put down. Riveting and beautifully logical, the book's mantra is never to assume you know something. But don't take my word for it. Let Susanne Alleyn tell you why. I picked this up after I read a highly entertaining excerpt about misconceptions of the Terror of the French Revolution that was also full of good historical research methods. That's her favorite topic, but she's just as passionate about all the other details.

The most fun sections are the examples she takes from real books and movies in order to tear them down. Who can resist laughing at the mistakes of other people? Of course, after you're done laughing, if you're writing historical fiction, you're left with the vertiginous realization that your current draft commits many of the same errors. At least you'll have read this book and learned how to correct such blunders before an editor sees it!

This book is also highly recommended for non-writers who like to read about the tasty morsels of history that don't get covered in straight history books, such as, how women relieved themselves before the advent of public restrooms and why medieval teeth weren't rotten.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Rhino Thanks

A grateful kiss from a black rhino.
Thanks to everyone who has purchased Rhinoceros Dreams already... all one of you. Not to worry, it's still September and all proceeds from the book will benefit real-life endangered and orphaned rhinos.

Read all about it here.

Get it (cheap!) here and here and soon, many other places. Note the great review at Amazon or Goodreads!

Thank you!

A grateful kiss from a white rhino.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Grail Knight as Inspiration

WTF? You're going to throw my cup in a crevasse, wreck my home, and then just leave me here? Really?
They were showing the Indiana Jones movies on cable, as they do, and I always like to see if I can turn to that channel only while they're in the cave of the holy grail so I can see the Grail Knight. I just adore that guy. The first time I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the prospect of being able to talk to someone from the fourteenth century, to span that unspannable chasm of 600 years, thrilled me beyond belief. I wondered why we had bothered with all the chase scenes -- why wasn't the whole film all about the mind-blowing conversations a twentieth-century person could have with this guy? Surely that must be the true holy grail.

That's just one reason I ended up studying the Middle Ages: to send people from today back in time, to put a bridge across the fourth dimension, so we could experience how things had happened, what things looked, tasted, and smelled like, and what people felt about it all. It took quite a bit more popular culture and college courses before I realized this destiny, and much, much more school before I began to grasp what would be necessary to strive toward that goal. If you're interested, I'll tell you about it.

This last time I watched that portion of the movie, and the Grail Knight was waving goodbye to Indy and his dad before they rode off into the sunset, my sympathy stayed with the knight and I imagined what he must be thinking. It's along the lines of, "What a bunch of jerks. They come here, convert a guy into a pile of ash, steal the holy grail, utterly destroy the place by trying to take the grail outside the boundary, throw the grail down a deep dark hole, and then just leave me here to clean it all up!" Is he supposed to keep living there in that mess? Do his grail guardian duties extend to having to go into the hole and to retrieve it? Or is it so far beyond the boundary that he can't reach for it without dying? So many questions.

You're just going to leave me here without asking any questions about the fourteenth century? I oughtta box your ears!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

World Rhino Day -- Five Species Forever

I've been fascinated with rhinoceroses for some time now. They're majestic, their babies are extraordinarily adorable, and the ones I've met exude an incredible sense of calm. They have no natural need for or interest in humans, and yet when kind humans and rhinos get together, beautiful relationships develop.

Rhinos are also endangered, because it's not always kind humans who come into contact with them. I cannot comprehend why anyone would want to harm a rhinoceros. Two of the stories in my new rhinoceros anthology inevitably deal with this issue. "Rhinoceros Dreams" and "A Business Venture in Glue" have been previously published, so today I would like to discuss the inspiration and intent of "Not Extinct Yet." It ties in beautifully with the theme of this year's World Rhino Day: Five Rhino Species Forever.

I came up with the idea for "Not Extinct Yet" through a writing prompt that asked for a story about bringing an extinct species back to life. I thought, "Wouldn't it be easier just to not let them go extinct in the first place?" Of course, if I was going to write about that issue, I felt a strong pull to write about my beloved rhinos.

I wanted to give rhinos a voice among humans, and I decided the easiest way to do that was to literally give them a voice. In the alternate world of this story, many different species of mammal are found to be capable of human speech. Some editors have made a weird assumption that the rhinos in this story represent some aspect of human society. Nope. They represent rhinos. I've always been a literalist.

The human protagonist, Suzanne, heads the team that discovers rhinos are one of the species that can talk. She makes friends with several crashes of white rhinos and black rhino individuals while she lives in South Africa and takes on their cause as her own. Through up and downs, laughter and tears, she finally solves the problem by asking the rhinos what they think would help them the most. At the risk of spoiling, the story ends happily. It's more or less my personal blueprint for the way I hope the future will go for the five rhino species in this world. It's optimistic and probably naive, but it's my story, my world, and things happen (almost) exactly the way I want them to. The real world is a different story, but we can still make decisions to influence the outcome.

Let's have Five Species Forever. Let's not allow any one of them to fade away.

Read excerpts of "Not Extinct Yet" here, here and here. Get the anthology at Amazon or Smashwords. Thank you for supporting rhinos by reading these stories!

Organizations spreading the word and helping all five species hang around: (I've been here. It's amazing!) (Don't forget to buy your rhino 2013 calendar in support of the Sumatran rhino here)

Highly recommended rhino nonfiction books:
The Last Rhinos by Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence
The Soul of the Rhino by Hemanta Mishra

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Don't Forget the Rhinos

September is such a full month! Lest we forget:

And, on a more serious note:

And to motivate:

Who would want to harm such a cutie?

Tune in on Saturday for my tribute to World Rhino Day! It's fun.