The Memory Wall: New release celebration and author Q&A!

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There’s a fine line between real life and video games in this engrossing novel that’s part Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird, part Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls.

Severkin is an elf who slinks through the shadows of Wellhall’s spiraling stone towers, plundering ancient ruins and slaying mystical monstrosities with ease.

He’s also a character in a video game—a character that twelve-year-old Nick Reeves plays when he needs a break from the real world. And lately, Nick has really needed a break. His mother had an “incident” at school last year, and her health has taken a turn for the worse.

Nick is convinced his mother’s illness has been misdiagnosed, but no one believes him. His only escape is the online world of Wellhall, where, as the elf character Severkin, he can face any problem. But when Nick finds himself fighting alongside another elf who reminds him of someone he knows in real life, his worlds begin to collide. . . .

I’m so excited to share this sneak peak at The Memory Wall, the upcoming new release by Lev AC Rosen! The Memory Wall will be released September 13, 2016… and I encourage you all to stop right now, open up a new tab in your browser, hit up Amazon or your favorite online bookseller, and hit the preorder button. You can thank me later. (And now come back and finish reading my post!)

The Memory Wall is an unusual, surprising read — aimed at younger teens, but definitely appealing to grown-ups as well. Don’t be deceived by the cover. While the game and fantasy elements of this book are quite important, it’s the real-life Nick and his disintegrating family that are the heart and soul of the story.

For me personally, Nick’s family, school situation, and inner struggles are the most engrossing elements of The Memory Wall, but the in-game portions are equally well-written and have a propulsive energy all their own. As you’ll see from the Q&A below, it amazes me how well certain elements work together — elements that I never in a million years would have expected to fit into one book — but they really do come together in unexpected but really cool ways.

I’m really thrilled to be able to share this Q&A, but let me just add more note: Lev AC Rosen is an amazing writer who deserves much wider acclaim! Not only does he write great kids’ books (see my review of Woundabout here), but he’s also written two of my absolute favorite books for adults, All Men of Genius (which I read before I was a blogger, so no review… but maybe I’ll revisit in a future blog post) and Depth, which is just awesome (review here).

As a side note, I ended up asking Lev a bunch of questions that relate to the fact that I have a 14-year-old son who’s obsessed with video games. Just FYI.

Without further ado, I’m proud to present:

A Q&A with author Lev AC Rosen, author of The Memory Wall

Note: Mild (very mild) spoilers ahead…

Q:  I never would have guessed that Alzheimer’s, gaming, and the Berlin Wall could fit into a single book. Did you set out to write about all three of these elements from the start?

A: I’m a big believer in the idea that every book writes itself differently. Sometimes the whole idea comes to me fully formed, like a seed, and planting it lets that idea grow. Sometimes it’s more like assembling a puzzle from the pieces that are just floating around your mind.  For The Memory Wall, it was the latter – I knew I wanted to do a book about someone playing a video game, and use that as a story-with-a-story format, where the two stories could actually be pulled apart and still stand on their own. But the age group, the characters, the world, the Berlin Wall, Alzheimer’s – those all sort of snapped on, one by one, because they were already floating around in my head as things I wanted to write about.  Maybe puzzle pieces isn’t the right metaphor – maybe it’s more like trying on clothes. I had this body – video game, story-within-story – and I assembled an outfit on it from the clothes in the wardrobe of my brain – and that included Alzheimer’s and the Berlin Wall. The outfit just looked good. And I didn’t start writing until the outfit was assembled, because the outfit is the idea. Before that, it was just disconnected ideas. Once all the pieces were together, I had an idea, and then I started writing. So Alzheimer’s and the Berlin Wall were there from the moment I was typing. But the core was the video game, I guess.

Q: What was your inspiration for The Memory Wall?

A: Well, I just sort of answered the inspiration for the book part – I could talk more about my personal experiences with Alzheimer’s, or this great German film teacher I had in college, but I’m going to talk about those elsewhere and when I first read this question, I thought you were asking about the literal wall in the book, and I really want to answer that version of the question, because it’s not something I’ve been asked: This book is so much about history, and finding ways to preserve history – whether personal, or societal. Nick’s dad writes about Black history. His mom never talks about her own history in East Berlin. His mom is also losing her own history, and that means Nick feels he’s losing his history with her. So I was thinking about history, and the way we map it, and try to remember it – books, photos, dates, family trees. The ways we quantify history. And I wanted Nick, at some point, to (light spoilers) destroy that in some way. I wanted him to tear down the history he felt had been thrust upon him and realize that history – whether personal or societal – is something that changes all the time, depending on who you talk to, how you look at it. Sure, we can write down dates, map our great-great-grandmothers, but history lives in us. In stories, in memories. It’s not carved in stone. So the memory wall, in the book itself, is this sort of literally carved-in-stone family tree. And I’m trying to go spoiler-light here, so I’ll just say that it’s a history that is put upon Severkin, Nick’s in-game avatar. And when he realizes how his history – and everyone’s history, especially his mom’s – is more than names and dates, that it’s something more fluid than that, he gets to literally shatter the stone. That was satisfying. Plus, of course, calling it the memory wall ties into the Alzheimer’s and the Berlin Wall. But the original inspiration was that I wanted a family tree that could be destroyed in some way. Not to say that his history isn’t that, but to say it’s more than that.

Q: Race and identity are important elements for Nick and Nat, and this is also reflected in their in-game characters. What would you hope that kids reading the book would learn from this?

A: I don’t know if I’d say I want kids to learn anything, exactly. There was this article going around a while back, about a study saying that those who read fiction tend to have more empathy. Reading literally puts you in someone else’s head, so you learn how to do that with real people, too. I think of that whenever I’m writing, because that’s important. That books can change the world – and I don’t have many skills, so this is the thing I can do.  But to really expand that empathy, I need to have it, too. As an author, I can’t just write about people like me – I can’t just write about queer Jewish men from NYC. Besides being wildly limiting, it’s also boring, and isn’t what the world looks like. Authors have the responsibility to put themselves into the minds of different people from different backgrounds – and to do so respectfully. Because when we do that, our readers experience it as well. And that’s the important stuff. So, when I knew Nick had to have a background with strong historical elements, one mapped, one hidden, and I knew so much of the book was about duality – secret/exposed histories, game/real world – I decided Nick’s two sides of the family could be two races, as well. Luckily, I have multi-racial friends, and they were willing to talk to me, and give me books and essays to read so that I could explore that perspective as much as someone without it can. What I hope is that kids enjoy the book, and if they’re multi-racial, they see themselves in it, even if Nick isn’t really like them. And if they’re not multi-racial, hopefully they come out of it with a bit more understanding of the perspective of those who are. Which isn’t to say Nick represents all multi-racial people, but just that he is a fully fleshed out person who the kids can get behind.

Q: Were you at all tempted to have Nick’s mother not have Alzheimer’s, proving Nick right?

A: SPOILERS! This is a fantastic question, and yes. So much yes. I actually tried really hard to go in undecided. To be like “this could go either way.” But the more I realized how much Nick’s parents were keeping from him, the more I knew she had to have it. I did lots of research on Alzheimer’s, talked to doctors, and there are lots of things that look like Alzheimer’s – lots of things Nick could hold on to and say “it’s this, and this is so easily curable!” But the doctors can test for most of those. But I needed hope to be vibrant through the entire book. I needed to hope with Nick.

It’s interesting – people who have read it who have had personal experiences with Alzheimer’s – who have lost someone to it – never believe that Sophie has been misdiagnosed. They tell me they experienced so much of what Nick did, but as readers, they never doubt the diagnosis. Those readers who don’t have a personal experience with Alzheimer’s, though, think it’s possible Sophie has been misdiagnosed. So I feel like that’s a good balance to strike.

Q: As far as I know, most kids don’t play video games with their mothers. (Mine doesn’t!) I love this element of Nick’s relationship with his mom, and how their game connection was a part of their real-life connection. (Sorry, this isn’t really a question so far.)

A: I may be dating myself here, but my mom and I played Legend of Zelda on the original NES. I don’t know if she enjoyed it, or if she was just humoring her six year old, but I like to think she had fun. That being said, as I got older, and games got more complex, she didn’t play with me as much. But we both really liked Zelda. I think.

But Sophie, I think, besides wanting to humor her kid, took a real interest in this particular series because it’s supposed to have this background in myth and culture. And as an anthropologist, she could see those roots and point them out to her son, which I think, for her, gave the game more value. Plus, games are fun. I think she had fun, too – it’s just that her fun was colored by her academic background.

Q: I think most adults/parents these days automatically see video games as a waste of time or not healthy for their kids. The Memory Wall shows a lot of positives related to gaming. Do you think there’s a healthy balance? What are the positives you see in gaming for kids?

A: Well, everything in moderation. Sure, too much video gaming is bad. So is too much anything, really.  But do I think gaming is generally a good thing, or at least has the potential to be? Absolutely. When the printing press first made literature easily available, people freaked out about young people reading. It would make them imagine too much. They stopped doing what they were supposed to, like dueling and needlepoint and socializing, and instead had their noses in books all the time. THE  HORROR! Video games are another form of storytelling. Yes, it’s more interactive – button pressing, in game decision making, etc. Those choose your own adventure books had decisions, too, though. And, like with books, there are bad games out there. But generally speaking, games are great. There are stories told in games that can’t be told other ways, and some of those stories are truly beautiful. Can they be violent? Yes. So are movies. So are books. The thing I’d worry most about in video games is the treatment of women and sex. That can sometimes get a bit weird, I think. Women are sexualized (like in movies, TV), but when it becomes about pressing buttons to seduce a woman, that… is a little weird for me, especially if the player is a young man. Women don’t have buttons. Some games do it well. Some don’t. I think as long as you’re raising your kids to have a healthy respect for women and realize that like the violence in games, this “seduction” aspect is pure fantasy and sometimes dehumanizing, then it’s ok. And of course, watch for those game ratings.

But overall, I think games have the potential to have a really positive aspect on kids, by letting them explore worlds much larger than their own. Or just to solve puzzles or get good at button pressing – which isn’t a bad skill to have. For Nick, the game lets him essentially live out his fantasies and then deal with his reality. He gets to go on one last adventure with his mother – he gets to try to save her, and learn about her, and contextualize her in his fantasy world. And then (big spoilers), when it turns out he was living in a fantasy, he gets to punish someone for it. Because, I’d imagine Nick has a lot of anger at his mother by the end of the book. She lied to him. She kept her condition from him. She gave him hope when there wasn’t any. And Nick should feel angry about that, he should want to punish her in some way, but instead he gets to take it out on Reunne, who wasn’t trying to protect him, but was this malicious manipulator, feeding off his hope. And I think kids can do that with games. They can see symbols, see their own life, and in some way, express who they want to be. Sure, the chances of a kid today growing up to be a space marine are slim, but that kid gets to experience what that version of herself is. And hopefully, there are things she likes about that version of herself and can then work on bringing into her real self. Games can be empowering for kids in that way. And that goes for everything – space marines, or fashion designers on iPhone games.

Q: Do you feel the positives/negatives change based on the kind of game (i.e., role-playing fantasy vs first-person shooter games)?

A: It’s funny you use those two genres as examples because there’s such overlap between them now. I think genre does influence the scope of the game, and games with bigger scopes are often more interesting (though not always). Fighting games, for instance, give you one way of interacting in the world – you fight.  You push buttons, your avatar kicks, punches, etc. But the choice is always fight. A larger open world RPG, like the one Nick plays, or like Skyrim or Fallout, gives you more ways to interact – talk someone out of violence instead of fighting them, collecting items for someone so they won’t die, etc. So I think those games tend to have more positives because they offer a larger scope. Each genre has it’s own plusses and minuses, though. Japanese style RPGs, for example, which aren’t open world, and more streamlined, tend to play more like a movie with tactical fighting interludes – not many choices in those, either. And plenty of shooting games these days have massive online battle zones. That’s more like a big game of laser tag, to me. Other games are like really complex games of chess. But I do think that games with more choice and more things you can do within the world tend to have more value just because choice means more figuring out what you’d choose. And figuring out what you’d choose – being able to experiment with it and see the consequence, being able to do something really awful, just to experience it – that’s the good stuff in gaming, I think.

Q: Are you a gamer? Were you a gamer during your school years? And if so, any favorites? Anything that you particularly took from your gaming experiences as a kid?

A: Yes, and yes. When I was a kid, my favorite game was Final Fantasy 3 (6, really, but they called it 3 when they released it in the US).  I LOVED that game. It’s an amazing, epic story. My friend Liz and I wrote fan fiction about that game. Man I loved it. Still do. Great game. It was also one of my first experiences with Steampunk, so it was a big influence for All Men of Genius.

I think my modern favorite would be Bioshock, though. That is a brilliant story, too, beautifully done, so smart. It’s a shooter with RPG elements – and they’re remastering it for the PS4. Out soon, I think. If your son hasn’t played it, that would be a great one to get and be like “okay, I get to watch you play this because I hear it’s amazing.” That’s something parents are allowed to do, right? It’s just so smart, and has ties to US history and philosophy, like the game in The Memory Wall has ties to East Berlin. It was a game that really showed me how history can work in games, how games can relate to the real world and interact with them.

And Portal! While we’re on recommendations to watch your kid play, or even, in the case of Portal 2, play with them, I highly recommend Portal, which is a puzzle game that looks like a shooter. It’s really smart and funny. There are a lot of great games out these days. Lots of bad ones, too – that’s what happens when there’s more of anything, you get more bad, too, but lots of good ones. Plenty for tablets and phone, too. I loved Transistor. Beautiful piece of art. There’s so much good stuff out there. I could go on for ages.

Q: You’ve written books for adults and for kids. Do you prefer one or the other? What do you enjoy about each? Is your process different for adult vs kid books?

A: I don’t know. I don’t really think of them that way. I mean, I know the age of the kid I’m writing for, but I’m pretty much always writing for me.  Maybe 8 year old Lev, like for Woundabout, or 11 year old Lev, like Memory Wall, or 22 year old Lev, like All Men of Genius, or present-day Lev, like Depth, but I’m always writing for myself, somewhere on the spectrum. Like I said, I’m a big believer in the idea that every book writes itself differently, so it’s not so much about “writing for children” or “writing for adults” – it’s writing this book. That’s how I think about it. And the process, and what I enjoy varies depending on the sort of book it is.  For The Memory Wall I think I really enjoyed crafting the world of the game by using various influences based in East Berlin and Germanic myth. That was a fun. And I really liked being able to express Nick through Severkin. Using his avatar as a way to say things about him that maybe he couldn’t acknowledge about himself.

Q: Can you share a little about your next project or projects? Any chance we might still see a sequel to All Men of Genius or Depth? (I can’t get the images of a drowned New York out of my mind – please tell me there’s more coming set in this world!)

A: I’m a bit of a busy bee, flitting from flower to flower. I don’t stay in my lane long enough to do sequels much. All Men of Genius I had never intended one for, and then folks wanted one, and I tried my hand at it, but it didn’t feel right. Depth I’m more open to exploring sequels for because I had more of “mystery series” mindset going in. But sales aren’t really justifying it, plus my amazing editor left that imprint and I don’t know anyone else there. But I have been thinking of maybe writing a sequel and self-publishing it, just to see what that experience is like. But those are on the back burner. I have other projects right now – a too-long-to-be-a-short-story that’s sort of Greek Myth Noir. I’m trying to find a place for that, but it’s like “novelette” length, which is weird, and anything not a novel is outside my comfort zone, too. But I like it, and I need to do research on people who publish that length.  Or maybe that could be the self-publishing experiment. Then I have two finished drafts of books. Both YA. One is a fairy tale retelling, and a lot of fun, and the other is a contemporary sci-fi spy story about motherhood. We’re still putting together lists of editors to send those to. We’ll see what happens, but fingers crossed. And I’ve just started a period 1940s noir. That’s for adults. It’s… stranger than it sounds. Maybe? I’m sort of all over the place, like I said. Which I love about myself, even if it hurts my overall career. But sometimes I can get people to read something outside their usual zone, and that’s pretty awesome. That’s a good feeling.

Q: Are you sure I’m not a bad mother if I let my 14-year-old play Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty?

A: Well, with no other evidence, it’s hard to say. But if you’re worrying about it, and talking to him about it, probably not.

But seriously, if he has a PS4, go get the Bioshock Collection remaster that’s coming out the same day as my book. Sit him down and be like “I’ve heard this is amazing, but I’m awful at video games. Want to help me experience it?” and see what happens. The first one in the collection is really fantastic. The other two are good, too, but that first one. Yeah. Play Bioshock with your kid. That’ll definitely make up for any bad parenting.  😉

I can’t thank Lev enough for taking the time to answer my loooong list of questions!! Thank you, Lev — it’s a pleasure to have you here as a guest at Bookshelf Fantasies. Wishing you the best of luck with the release of The Memory Wall.

The Memory Wall will be released September 13th. Go get yourself a copy!

Available at:

Amazon
Barnes & Noble

To learn more about author Lev AC Rosen, visit his website at www.levacrosen.com

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The details:

Title: The Memory Wall
Author: Lev AC Rosen
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: September 13, 2016
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Middle grade/young adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author

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Author Q&A: Meet Erin Lindsay McCabe, author of I Shall Be Near To You

By now, anyone who reads my blog has seen me raving about the outstanding debut novel I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabe. Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Erin to Bookshelf Fantasies, where she very kindly (and patiently) takes the time to answer my over-abundance of questions:

IShallBeNearWhat first inspired you to write this book?

The original inspiration for I Shall Be Near To You was the collected letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who disguised as a man and served in the 153rd New York State Volunteers for two years. I found An Uncommon Soldier, the book of her letters, in 1998 while looking for a primary source upon which to write the final paper for the US Women’s History class I was taking. I had no idea women had fought in the Civil War until I came across that book. When I saw Rosetta’s picture and then read her letters, I was just taken with her—her feisty spirit, her tenderness, her determination. Of course, I didn’t know then that I was going to eventually write a book inspired by her. I just thought her story, and the stories of the other women who fought, was fascinating and I had so many questions that weren’t answered by the historical records available.

How long did the writing process take for I Shall Be Near To You?

I started writing the book in the Spring of 2007. It took me two years to write a complete draft, and then I spent another year revising it in my MFA program. Then I worked with two different agents over the next two years, revising it more. The book sold in December 2012, and then of course there were more edits after that! So, I guess I worked on it for 6 years all told, plus the 10 years I spent wishing I could figure out what to do with the real Rosetta’s story other than write a college paper about her.

Was Rosetta a real historical figure? Were there many women who did what Rosetta did in the Civil War?

Yes, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman was a real woman. She is one of about 250 documented women who disguised as men and enlisted in both the Union and Confederate armies. Their service is beautifully surveyed in the book They Fought Like Demons. And of course, estimates are that there were even more women who were just never found out—perhaps as many as 400-1000 total.

What was it about Rebel Rose and Clara Barton that made you want to include them in the story, rather than sticking solely to fictional characters?

I’ve gotten some criticism for including real characters—that it seems too coincidental that the fictional Rosetta would have run into these women. But one of the moments the real Rosetta wrote about in her letters home was her experience guarding both a female soldier who was imprisoned after leading her men into battle for “not doing according to regulation” and two female Rebel spies. I was so curious about what that must have been like—to be guarding women who were imprisoned for doing what she herself was doing—but it’s just mentioned in passing in Rosetta’s letters. So I knew I wanted to explore that more in a fictionalized context. I also really wanted to include women in the novel who represented the variety of ways women served during the war. I loved the idea of showing Clara Barton doing something that is considered very feminine (nursing wounded soldiers) but doing it in a context that was very unconventional at the time. She was the first official female combat nurse but she had to fight for the right to be on the battlefields. I had also discovered when I visited Antietam, that the memorial commemorating Clara Barton’s service at Antietam is placed right near where the 97th New York State Volunteers (the fictional Rosetta’s regiment) encamped the night before the battle and Clara Barton served in battlefield hospitals near The Cornfield where the 97th fought. So it seemed entirely plausible to me that as Rosetta searches the hospitals after the battle, she might come across Clara Barton. And then, finally, Clara Barton is known to have nursed a wounded female soldier named Mary Galloway after Antietam.

What would someone like Rosetta have experienced after the war? Admiration, scorn, something else?

That’s one of the questions I really pondered as I wrote the book, and the larger question of how any soldier goes back to civilian life after having experienced the horrors of battle. Unfortunately, there’s so little known about the female soldiers during their time in the military, and even less is known about what they did after. A few (Jennie Hodgers, Otto ) are known to have continued living as men. Some (Sarah Emma Edmonds, Martha Parks Lindley, Mary Galloway) went back to living as women, marrying and having children. Most of the rest just disappeared from the historical record. My sense is that most of them didn’t talk about their experience, and when they did, it was within the confines of their family. A few did, in later years, apply for veteran’s benefits and receive them, thanks to the support of their comrades who seemed to hold the women in high regard.

I really admired the amount of detail included about life in the army camps and what a foot soldier’s daily routine might have looked like. How did you compile all of this information?

It was a challenge! A lot of my information came straight out of soldiers’ letters. For instance, in one letter the real Rosetta says that the skirmish drill was “the prettiest drill ever was drill” so then I knew I had to find out about how to do a skirmish drill. I consulted an officer’s handbook and also a soldier’s handbook to get details about the actual drills, the way orders might be called out, the kinds of food and supplies soldiers might carry, and so on. I talked to the battlefield historian at Antietam about what kinds of duties the soldiers had after the battle ended. But one of my frustrations was that the kinds of things I was most interested in (the everyday, day-in and day-out life of a soldier) were not the kinds of things that made it into the history books, which so often focus on the generals and strategies and the movements of the troops. So it was really about finding the details I needed hidden away in first-hand accounts. Fortunately the soldiers often wrote about the food they ate or the duties they had. I also gleaned many of the battlefield and wound descriptions from soldiers’ letters. I was initially surprised at how many of the soldiers just completely glossed over those kinds of details, but I was equally surprised by how gruesome their descriptions were when they chose to include them. And finally, I attended a reenactment, which really helped me with the details about camp life and also with what a group of muskets firing all at once sounded like, what the smoke from the cannons looked like, and so on.

What were your main priorities and/or challenges in researching the book?

I think my first two priorities were to tell a story that I would want to read myself and to write a story that would pay tribute to and honor the women and men who served during the Civil War. After that, the biggest challenge was getting the historical details right without making the book feel research-y. It was really important to me that the book be as accurate as possible—I didn’t want there to be any reason for a reader to discount the story of the women who fought because I hadn’t done my research well enough. I think there is probably something on every single page that is researched—whether it’s a detail about farm life, or a word that I had to double-check to make sure was in usage, to a song the soldiers might sing, to what the scenery looked like. It sounds daunting when I think about it now, but as I was working on it, it was just part of the process, and the research really fed my creativity. There were some things I never got cut-and-dried answers for despite my best attempts—like how fast news might travel or how quickly a letter could be sent—and sometimes I spent hours and hours trying to figure out a tiny detail (did the upper bridge at Antietam have two arches or three?) that doesn’t probably matter to most readers, but that I knew would matter to anyone who spent time at Antietam. The research about the battles themselves, particularly the movement of the troops, was a huge challenge. Trying to figure out where exactly my soldiers would be on the battlefield and at what point was hard. I pored over battlefield maps and photos trying to get it right. And then writing the battle scenes themselves was very difficult emotionally, but it was incredibly important to me that readers would get a sense of what it was like to be there in the thick of the battle—because so many women were!

And a few questions for Erin about her writing career:

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I’m really not sure! I have always loved writing—the physical act of my pen moving across paper. I was that annoying kid in high school who thought writing essays was fun. And I remember thinking when I was pretty young—in elementary or junior high school—that I wanted to write a novel, but I just didn’t know what about.

What did your early writing days look like?

I started keeping a diary when I was seven, and in junior high I had about a hundred pen pals (that’s not an exaggeration). I was always writing little stories or sock puppet plays or designing magazines (all the articles written by yours truly). In junior high I started trying to write poetry, and in college I tried writing some short stories, but they always kept getting longer and longer. I started dabbling with writing a novel a few years before I wrote I Shall Be Near To You, kind of on a dare from my husband. It turned out to be a wonderful thing because I discovered I could actually write a cohesive story that was novel-length (though it wasn’t all that good) and I learned a lot about what my writing process is like. When I got to the middle of I Shall Be Near To You and it felt like it was all falling apart, I was able to remember I had felt the same way before (and I feel the same way again, working on my current project), which is oddly comforting.

Do you have a background in history? Is the Civil War a period of special interest?

When I look back at what I read as a kid, it often had a historical bent to it though I wasn’t all that interested in history as it was taught in school—dates, facts, battles, generals, politicians. Studying literature in college though, I really began to see the overlap between what authors write about and what’s happening in history. That’s when I became a history minor. I’m just so interested in the stories of real people’s daily lives and what life was like in the past. I’ve had a fascination with the Civil War since watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary as a 13 year old, and I think that’s one thing that documentary really does well—you get a sense of what individuals experienced. Though I wouldn’t call myself a history buff, in the sense that there’s one period of time that I am a real expert in, I am always drawn to the Victorian and Edwardian periods, probably because a) there’s horses and b) it’s the time right before and at the beginning of the suffrage movement. I’m really interested in how women coped with having so little political, economic, and social freedom.

Do you intend to make historical fiction your specialty, or will we see future books in other genres?

Historical fiction is what I gravitate toward, but I’m not ruling out exploring other genres.

What are you working on now/next?

Right now I’m working on another historical novel—this one is inspired by the adopted daughter of a female serial killer. I’m maybe half to two thirds done with a first draft of it, so I’m right in the middle of the phase where I feel like the whole thing is falling apart.

What is your writing routine like? Do you have a particular spot or time that you prefer for writing?

I try to write at least five days a week and I try to hit a daily goal of 1000 words. I used to always write in the morning after walking my dog, before I went off to teach. And for much of the time I was working on I Shall Be Near To You, I wrote late at night after my husband was asleep. I like having a good chunk of time (two to three hours) so that I feel like I can really dig in. Now my routine is much more scattered because I have a three-year old son. I used to write during his naps, but now that he’s stopped napping I’ve had to figure out a new routine. I’m still working on that—right now I have a babysitter come twice a week in the morning and then sometimes my son and I meet my husband at the coffee shop after he gets off work and when they leave I stay and work for a couple hours. I’m finding it harder and harder to write late at night, because I just get too sleepy (and sleep-writing, while very amusing to re-read in the morning, is not very productive)! But I do still write after everyone else is asleep.

Anything about you as a person you’d like to share? Favorite foods, movies, music?

I think anyone who knows me knows that I love all things potato. Also anything sugary and chocolatey and buttery. I adore female musicians—I listened to so much Neko Case and Gillian Welch while writing I Shall Be Near To You. But I also love Regina Spektor, Tori Amos, Sarah Maclachlan, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sleater Kinney, Sharon Jones, Adele, Liz Phair, Tracy Chapman, Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen… In general I like music that has something deeper to say about the human experience, that is layered instrumentally and lyrically, that has a moment of poetic realization or surprise to it, when the musician reveals something with their words or with the music that you didn’t realize before or weren’t expecting—Weezer, System of a Down, The Decemberists, Interpol, Iron & Wine, REM, TV on the Radio, Morphine all come to mind. My husband says my iPod is a 1990s time capsule, and looking at this list I realize he’s probably right! He also says that to figure out which song on an album is my favorite, just find the slowest, saddest one. And I’m a sucker for anything with a banjo or a fiddle or bagpipes in it. As for movies, I’ll pretty much watch any costume drama (recently, I really liked the new version of Wuthering Heights, and this little movie called Meek’s Cutoff, and the new Jane Eyre). I love a love story, especially a quirky one (Princess Bride, Amelie, Moulin Rouge, Silver Linings Playbook). I was blown away by Winter’s Bone. I don’t watch too many new movies these days, but that last movie I saw in the theater was Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby. I think I giggled through the whole thing, it tickled me so much.

What were your favorite books as a child?

The Little House on the Prairie books for sure. Anne of Green Gables. I was a voracious reader—I read a lot of the classics, things like Heidi, Jane Eyre, Little Women, The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, Chronicles of Narnia—and then I read stuff like Nancy Drew, The Saddle Club, tons of Lurlene MacDaniel books (I loved when a book made me cry), and anything with horses in it (My Friend Flicka, Misty of Chincoteague, The Black Stallion books). I have great memories of my dad reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to my brother and me. He did really good voices for the characters and he always quit reading for the night at a cliffhanger.

What books have you read recently that you loved?

When I’m actively writing, I have a hard time reading fiction, partially because I’m doing non-fiction reading for research, partially because I so often have to choose between either writing or reading, and partially because I get worried if I read certain books, I’ll be unduly influenced by them. That said, I read a bunch of books this Fall and Winter that I really liked—Burial Rites, The Kept, Bittersweet (which I read as an ARC, it’s out this 5/12), Quiet Dell, The Maid’s Version. But I think the book that I loved the most was Boleto. I guess it’s a western and a coming of age story, but it’s so much more than that. It’s quiet and beautiful and poignant and the main character is endearing and heartbreaking. It’s a slim little thing, but it feels deep and it’s just so well-written. I envy and admire the way Alison Hagy has managed to write about horses without being sentimental or cheesy.

 

 Thank you, Erin, for your insights and your time!

To learn more about Erin Lindsay McCabe and her writing, visit her website at http://erinlindsaymccabe.com.

See previous Bookshelf Fantasies posts about I Shall Be Near To You:
Guest Review: I Shall Be Near To You
Five Reasons Why You Should Read I Shall Be Near To You… ASAP!

 

Gathering Storm: Q&A with author Maggie Craig

I’m thrilled to welcome author Maggie Craig to Bookshelf Fantasies for a Q&A about her newest novel, Gathering Storm.

What’s it all about? Read on…

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Gathering Storm

Jacobite Intrigue and Romance in 18th Century Edinburgh.

Edinburgh, Yuletide 1743, and Redcoat officer Robert Catto would rather be anywhere else on earth than Scotland. Seconded back from the wars in Europe to captain the city’s Town Guard, he fears his covert mission to assess the strength of the Jacobite threat will force him to confront the past he tries so hard to forget.

Christian Rankeillor, her surgeon-apothecary father and his apprentice Jamie Buchan of Balnamoon are committed supporters of the Stuart Cause. They’re hiding a Jacobite agent with a price on his head in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, a hanging offence.

Meeting as enemies, Robert and Kirsty are thrown together as allies by the mysterious death of a young prostitute and their desire to help fugitive brother and sister Geordie and Alice Smart. They’re on the run from Cosmo Liddell, bored and brutal aristocrat and coal owner.

As they pick their way through a labyrinth of intrigue, Robert and Kirsty are increasingly drawn to each other. She knows their mutual attraction can go nowhere. He know his duty demands that he must betray her.

Bringing to life a time when Scotland stood at a crossroads in her history, Gathering Storm is the first in a suite of Jacobite novels by Scottish writer Maggie Craig, author of the ground-breaking and acclaimed Damn’ Rebel Bitches: The Women of the ’45.

Let’s talk to Maggie and find out more!mcbrolly1

Welcome, Maggie! I know you’ve written novels set in the 1800s and the 1900s, and now Gathering Storm, which opens in 1743. Do you have a favorite period to write about?

My heart belongs to the 18th century, the Jacobites of 1745 in particular. I find it a fascinating period of history. It was the Age of Reason and the beginning of the Enlightenment, yet men still marched out onto battlefields with swords in their hands. Gender politics were changing too. The relationship between 18th century men and women was shifting, allowing female characters more leeway in what they said and, to an extent, in how they acted.

What role does your non-fiction research and writing play in your fiction writing?

A huge one. While the main characters in my fiction are always imaginary – or so I think, I’m not always convinced they don’t tap me on the shoulder and insist I write their stories – I like to have them interact with real historical characters. Over years of research, those have become like friends to me. As anyone who reads Gathering Storm will surmise, I’m particularly fond of Duncan Forbes of Culloden, my hero’s mentor.

What inspired you to write Gathering Storm?

It started with the picture of a man’s face on the cover of a magazine. He was quietly handsome but he looked so sad. I put that picture up beside my computer and looked at it for a while, wondering what had made him unhappy. Then I sat down one day and started to free-write and before I knew where I was I was with Captain Robert Catto of the Town Guard of Edinburgh in pursuit of an illegal dissection.

I’m fascinated by some of the details of life in Edinburgh at that time. Were there really “underground” dissections and secret meetings of anatomists taking place at that time?

Absolutely. There was a strong religious objection to dissection because people believed in the resurrection of the body on the Day of Judgement, so you had to be whole for that. Anatomists were allowed to demonstrate dissection on the bodies of convicted felons who had been hanged, but only on a very limited number and only if the relatives did not claim the body. Edinburgh University was at the forefront of medical education in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries and desperately needed more bodies for the students to learn from. That’s why Burke and Hare became active in the 1820s, robbing graves to meet the demand and then cutting out the hard work by simply murdering people. Anatomists paid good money for fresh corpses. Burke and Hare were caught when one medical student recognized the body lying on the slab as being the girl he’d been with the previous night, when she’d been fit and healthy.

You seem to have a great deal of sympathy for the terribly hard lives of the lower classes. What do you think readers would be surprised to know about women’s lives at that time?

I think working-class girls and women could be terribly vulnerable to young gentlemen who saw them as fair game. On a more positive note, readers might be surprised by how many women were active in business, running timber yards, shops and taverns. Sometimes that was because they were widows and had taken over the family business when their husbands died but many seemed to relish the opportunity.

Can you tell us a bit about your background — where you grew up, your family life, and how you became a writer?

I grew up in Glasgow, on the banks of the Clyde, the youngest of four children. My dad worked his way up through the railways to become a station master and we lived in the station house where he loved to tend his garden. He was a great story teller, as was my mother. We travelled all over Scotland on the train to visit relatives and my dad knew the history behind every stone. I learned about William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Radicals of 1820 and the Red Clydesiders of the early 20th century at a very early age. One of my forebears on my father’s side was Robert Tannahill, the weaver-poet of Paisley. All my family write. We think it’s just what everybody does. I’ve been writing and publishing books for the past 15 years and now live in the north of Scotland with my Welsh husband Will and two cats. We have two lovely grown-up children and an equally lovely daughter-in-law from North Carolina who all live in Edinburgh so we spend a lot of time there.

What do you read for fun? What writers inspire you?

I love Nora Roberts. There’s nothing better in a snowy Scottish winter than reading about fabulously wealthy and beautiful people sipping cocktails in the Californian sunshine. I’ve always been inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns, Daphne du Maurier and Dorothy L Sayers. I also love Diana Gabaldon, Barbara Erskine, Susanna Kearsley and Ian Rankin.

I understand that Gathering Storm is the first in a planned Jacobite suite of novels. What are you working on now, and what can we expect in this series?

My next book will be The Captain’s Lady, a time slip set between Glasgow and the West Highlands during the 1745 Jacobite Rising. Its main historical protagonist is Meg Wood, who makes a cameo appearance in Gathering Storm.  It’s a one-off story. I’m then going back to Robert and Kirsty, to continue telling their story.

Can you give us a hint about what lies in store for Robert and Christian (Kirsty)?

Trouble. Moral dilemmas. Physical danger. The entrance of a bad guy. Oh, and he is so bad. They’re going to have to wade their way through hell and high water but there will be tender moments and wee Geordie Smart will be there too.

Thank you, Maggie, for your time and terrific responses!

Other books by Maggie Craig:

Fiction:
The River Flows On
One Sweet Moment
When the Lights Come On Again
The Stationmaster’s Daughter
The Bird Flies High
A Star To Steer By
The Dancing Days

Non-Fiction:
When the Clyde Ran Red
Bare-Arsed Banditti: The Men of the ’45
Damn’ Rebel Bitches : The Women of the ’45

♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

My thoughts on Gathering Storm:

I very much enjoyed this historical novel, which focuses on the build-up  to the Jacobite rising of 1745 through the lens of a small group of people caught up in intrigue and conspiracies in Edinburgh. Taking place over the course of one very eventful week, Gathering Storm introduces us to both sides of the conflict through the individual characters who take center stage in the novel.

Captain Robert Catto is an enigmatic and conflicted main character, noble and full of purpose, yet also tormented by family secrets and a troubled past. He knows his duty and what he must do, but as he becomes more and more fascinated by Christian, it becomes harder for him to stand firm. Robert is also, it must be said, a man who does tend to give into his baser nature from time to time — so for those looking for the typical dashing, upright hero, Robert’s actions may not be at all what is expected.

Christian (Kirsty) is a strong-willed and intelligent young woman, who perhaps doesn’t realize when it might be best to not take a stand. She’s loyal to family and friends, but absolutely can think for herself and make her own decisions.

Because Gathering Storm takes place in a very compressed amount of time, it often has an intense, almost breathless feel to it, and the emotional connections happen quickly and unexpectedly. The action is quite compelling, and I liked the mix of politics, danger, and personal relationships.

Maggie Craig’s in-depth historical knowledge really shines through, giving Gathering Storm a ring of authenticity and a strong anchor in real events. For anyone interested in Scottish history, or for fans of historical fiction in general, I’d recommend giving Gathering Storm a try.

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The details:

Title: Gathering Storm
Author: Maggie Craig
Publisher: Alligin Books
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Received from the author