Tag Archives: novel

The Back of the Polyptych

A lot of my readers know that image on the cover of my novel, Pilgrimage, is a detail from a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, a polyptych (that is to say, a panel painting that folds up) that had once been an altarpiece. The altarpiece as a whole is quite incredible, and shows scenes from the life (and death) of Saint Godeleva; in my novel, the mother of my heroine, Gebirga. The panel even includes images of the blind daughter who inspired Gebirga, so I was delighted to be able to use a part of it for the cover. Here it is in all its glory:
MasterofGodelieve

Well, not quite all its glory, as I discovered this evening. As an altarpiece, this polyptych would have hung behind and above the altar of a church. Polyptychs were designed to fold closed during Lent and other times of penance, concealing their beauty from the congregation. The closed doors of the polyptych would often have different painted scenes on their backs. You can see how this works in this link to the Ghent Altarpiece, which shows how it looks both open and closed.

It wasn’t until tonight that I discovered what was on the back of the doors of the Godeleva altarpiece. When closed, the four panels each show a different saint, with kneeling donor portraits in front of the saints on the far left and far right. Here is how it looks:
JamesNicholas
It was the two saints on the left who immediately caught my eye. I recognized them right away. The bishop in mitre and cope, holding his crook and a book was obviously Saint Nicholas, rescuing the three boys who had been chopped up and put in a barrel. Saint Nicholas, or at least his relics, play an important role in my novel. In their silver reliquary, they are Gebirga’s prized possession, carried with her on her journey until she relinquishes them so they can travel back to the Low Countries from Spain by boat. And as all Dutch children know, every year Saint Nicholas sails again from Spain around this time to reward them with treats. And the saint on the far left? The saint with staff, and pilgrim’s purse and hat, his neck ringed with scallop shells?

That is none other than Saint James, Sint Jaakob, Santiago himself.

PIlgrimage, History, and Historical Fiction

When I would tell fellow academics I was writing a historical novel about my period, their eyes would widen and the questions and comments would come, always friendly and supportive, maybe a little wistful:

–Really?
–Is it hard?
–I could never do that; I don’t have enough imagination.
–How do you find the time?

(Answer: you make the time)
Reading historical fiction as a child (Rosemary Sutcliff, Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer…) was a huge part of why I became interested in history, so the link between historical writing and fiction was there from the beginning. Now my friend David Perry (another medieval historian who pushes his own writing beyond the confines of the academy) has written a thoughtful essay on fiction and scholarship that discusses my novel, Pilgrimage and Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book:

Fictionalizing Your Scholarship: Writing a novel is hard to do well, but it can serve as a powerful way to share your research with a wider audience

Beach Reads

So this happened, over on Bustle in a nice column written by Tori Telfer:

11 MOVING BEACH READS THAT’LL HAVE YOU WEEPING INTO YOUR PINA COLADA

Check out #10. I’ll give you a hint: PILGRIMAGE!

I was pretty thrilled, as was just about everyone else I know (because I sure didn’t keep the news to myself) except for a couple of men who seemed to feel that somehow my novel had been sullied by being called a beach read. Oh, no. No, no, no, no. Beach reads are important. Beach reads are special. Beach reads are the books you can take time with, the ones you don’ have to read in fifteen minute snatches on the metro, or as long as you can prop your eyes open before crashing at night. Beach reads are planned, chosen, anticipated, savoured. They are ones you can allow yourself to fall into and be swallowed up by knowing that nothing more pressing will pull you away from them.

What makes a perfect beach read? For me, it has to be long. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy long. Really long. You don’t want to finish it too soon. They have to have paper covers, because hardbacks make red dents in your chest when you read them lying down on a deck chair. They have to transport me somewhere I’ve never been before — or return me to an old, long-loved place. I often re-read old children’s books when I am home for the summer. If they take me somewhere new, it can be a beautiful magical place, or a hard, difficult place.

Okay, now where’s my piña colada?

Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me

I was tagged by Julianne Douglas over on Facebook to quickly write down ten books that have meant something to me, and then pass along the request to ten more people. I can’t do anything the easy way, so I thought it would be fun to do a blog post about it, and to explain why these books are important to me. Since it is the time of year when many people are looking for gift ideas, maybe even some of what I say will provide some inspiration. I am going to stick close to historical fiction for my list, since I have been thinking a lot recently about what makes good historical fiction in general, and medieval historical fiction in particular.

  1. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdattir. It is maybe cheating to begin with this because I have about fifty more pages to go, but it was reading this book that got me thinking about medieval historical fiction in the first place. Somehow Undset managed to write here a novel that continues to speak immediately to contemporary themes and problems, while at the same time maintaining a perfect period voice. I have not discovered one jarring note (though specialists in medieval Scandinavia might feel differently). I am thinking of how I could work it into a course.
  2. Cecelia Holland, Great Maria. This novel is another of the first that comes to mind when I think of other books I have loved that, for me, capture the Middle Ages and its values perfectly. Its heroine is awkward and difficult, and unsympathetic at times. This is because she thinks and feels and acts differently than we would do. This is because she lives in a very different world, and Holland does not allow us to forget it.
  3. Margaret Elphinstone, The Sea Road. This one will be less well known even to my book-reading and medievalist friends. It is the eleventh-century tale of Gudrid, as told to a cleric and scribe in Rome, of her role in the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic and her own journey to North America. Gudrid’s world is pagan and Christian, civilized and wild and once again, Elphinstone gets her voice perfectly. I should also say that everything Elphinstone writes is an instant hard-cover buy for me.
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. This isn’t historical fiction, most would argue, but rather fantasy. I am going to argue that it belongs on this list of books that made me think about how to write historical fiction. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is not some fantasy realm in some imaginary world, however it may appear to a casual reader. He binds it to the geography and language of the word that we know, the world that is ours, by creating stories told about stories told about stories, layering the past upon the past.
  5. Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Shadow of the Wind. I saw that Julianne had The Angel’s Game on her list which I unaccountably still have not read, though I went to an author reading when it first came out, and got a signed copy. This one is a book about books by a man who loves books. More than that, Ruiz Zafon casts a spell on the reader from the very first page. We are in post-civil war Barcelona with all its beauty, menace, and danger until the last page when he lets us go again.
  6. Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This is the perfect book for someone raised on Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. Like Heyer, she captures that Regency voice without anachronism, and at the same time manages to work in the magic in a way that seems seamless and plausible.
  7. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel in her best historical fiction, here and in A Place of Greater Safety, about the French Revolution not only writes a historical novel, but constructs a historical argument. Here, her argument is a revisionist portrait of Thomas Cromwell. Usually he is depicted as the most hated of Henry VIIIs servants, but Mantel gives us a view of him from the inside to present him as a more sympathetic character. Her depiction of Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More were equally daring.
  8. Sarah Dunant, Sacred Hearts. Most people would think that a story that takes place entirely within the walls of a tightly enclosed sixtenth-century Ferarrese convent would not be interesting. Those people would be wrong. I read this shortly after teaching a class on Terese of Avila’s autobiography and felt it gave flesh to some of the bones of what Teresa describes.
  9. Markus Zusak, The Book Thief. I have already discussed this book on my blog, so I won’t say too much here except that this is another book about books (I am detecting a theme here…), and it made me have sympathy for characters I thought I could not feel sympathy for.
  10. Simon Mawer, The Glass Room. The story of the twentieth-century told through a modernist house built in what was once Czechoslovakia, this one hits close to home. Not only does it depict the world of my ancestors, the world into which my father was born, and the pain of going into exile from that world, the characters themselves reflect elements of members of my family. This may, then, seem less strictly “historical” than the other works on my list. But whether a book takes us to Tang China or Renaissance Italy, surely we love it because we see parts of ourself in it?

Unsympathetic Characters

I am reading a book now that got all the right reviews and caused a bit of a stir in the more literary corners of the book world when it came out in 2006. Its author is an extremely talented writer, and the book is very clever, but I don’t think I am going to finish it. I don’t like the characters enough to spend more time with them. I don’t like the main characters, and none of the secondary characters are compelling either. I don’t care if they show some sort of growth over the course of the book, or if they just remain in their mean little worlds. Even the cute little kid is whiney and I want him to shut up. There is a skill in making characters so believably irritating that readers want to avoid them…but it may not be the most useful skill.
I am trying to understand why I am reacting this way; why unsympathetic characters are such a turn-off (this isn’t the first book I have put down for this reason) because at the same time, there is nothing I like less than the overly-perfect hero, the kind whom the author demands we love before he has earned it from us by what he does on the page. For the second novel I wrote, I took the most unsympathetic character from the first and tried to figure out why she was so horrible. So it is not that I don’t like edge and ambiguity.
I think that maybe what I am missing from these books is a sense of humour, or, better, a sense of humility (which is the necessary prerequisite for humour). When I speak of a sense of humour, I am not talking about the ability to tell or laugh at jokes. I am speaking of an awareness of the absurdity of the world that prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously. It is something like what Dean Priest says to Emily in Emily Climbs:

A woman who has a sense of humour possesses no refuge from the merciless truth about herself. She cannot think herself misunderstood. She cannot revel in self-pity. She cannot comfortably damn anyone who differs from her. No, Emily, the woman with a sense of humour isn’t to be envied.

Those who can take refuge from the merciless truth about themselves, who think themselves misunderstood, and wallow in self-pity are, frankly, kind of boring. And the characters in the book I am reading take themselves so, so very seriously.
I think, by contrast, of the sort of characters Arthur Phillips writes about. Most of them are fairly unsympathetic in the same way as the ones in my discarded books — they are selfish and self-centred, venal and shallow. But humour pervades the novels, gently poking and prodding the characters, the author, and the readers. The characters are nothing if not ridiculous, and that makes me care what happens to them.

Book Contract

I am feeling a little bit stunned.

Today, I received a book contract. Cuidono Press is going to be publishing my historical novel, Pilgrimage in 2014. No, it wasn’t unexpected — these things take a lot of lead-up time, I have discovered. A Lot. I finished this novel in 2007, just to give you a bit of an idea. I am so grateful to Martha Hoffman, who read it way back then and remembered it, and asked me if I would publish it with her new small press, and I am also so grateful to Stephanie Cabot, my agent, who has been with me through all those long years and never gave up.

Since it has been a long journey, and since I have a hunch that maybe everyone (or is it only every academic historian?) would secretly like to write a novel and get it published, and wants to know how such a thing can happen, I think over the next few days and weeks, I’ll tell the story of the path that I took to get here. Watch this space.

Thoughts on Leaving my Son at O’Hare This Morning

When Outward Bound tells you that their programs are supposed to teach maturity and independence, they forget to let you know that they mean by that also the maturity and independence of the parents who have to let their children go and trust that the universe will move them along on their journey and bring them back safe and sound when it is over.

Anyway, I was reminded of a passage from one of my favourite books, A Big Storm Knocked it Over, by one of my favourite authors, Laurie Colwin, taken from us much to soon. And taken from her own small daughter much too soon too, as I recall more often than one might expect. Jane Louise has just left her baby, Miranda, alone with her husband for the first time and is returning from spending time with a friend:

It was nearing the end of the academic year. Everywhere she looked students were lugging boxes of books, clothes, and standing lamps out of their dorms. She stood on the sidewalk and watched a serious young boy load two duffel bags into the trunk of his father’s car and dash into a building. His father, a gray-haired man with a wide chest and a linen sports jacket, was loading the trunk. Jane Louise stood perfectly still, blinded by the sunny glare. Hazy light poured down around her.
Some day Miranda would grow up and go to college. day would follow day: She would lose her baby teeth. Her adult teeth would come in. She would go to school, learn to read, go to high school, have boyfriends, leave home. To her amazement, jane Louise found herself in tears. Her throat got hot, and tears poured down her cheeks. She felt powerless to brush them away.
The gray-haired man walked past her, carrying a pair of suitcases. When he saw her, he stopped and set the cases down.
“Are you okay?” he said.
“I was just thinking about my child going to college,” Jane Louise said.
“How old is your child?” the man asked gently.
“Just five months old,” said Jane Louise, and she began to sob. “You must think I’m a nut.”
The man looked at her thoughtfully. “When my kid went to sleep-away camp for the first time, I wanted to lie down in the driveway and eat dirt,” he said.
Jane Louise looked up at him. He filled her vision entirely. The hazy sunshine swirled around them. She grabbed his wrist, and kissed his hand. He was wearing a beautiful gold watch.
“Thank you,” she said. “Oh thank you.”
Then she collected herself. The man picked up the suitcases.
“It’ll be all right,” he said. “You’ll grow into it.”

Melissa Banks, Again

There’s another passage from The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing that always sticks in my mind and has been in my thoughts lately.  It comes right at the end of the book, on the very last page.

He hands me my wine.  And I tell him that his cartoons are beautiful and funny and true.

He smiles.

I ask him what else the review of his dreams says about him.  He likes this question.  He thinks.  Then he says, “Robert Wexler is a goofball in search of truth.”

I think, I’m a truthball in search of goof, and I realize that I can say whatever I want now.  And I do.

Why do these lines stick in my head so.  A goofball in search of truth.  A truthball in search of goof.  I am still not sure which one of these I am, and it is a question I have pondered often.

Which are you?

Book Sale, 2010

Book Sale 2010

Another year, another Hyde Park Used Book Sale. This was my haul (click the photo to see titles). I’m pretty excited abut it. Two Mary Stewarts that I have never read before? Is that possible? A bunch of Alice Hoffmans. A few for my son. And many others that I have been curious about, and have wanted to check out for a while. All to benefit the local Neighbourhood* Club, which does so much good work. Combined with lovely out of town guests and a turkey for (Canadian) Thanksgiving, it made for a wonderful weekend.

*I guess they’d call it a Neighborhood Club here.

An Interview with Alison Pick

I am very excited today to be able to bring you an interview with my very own cousin, Alison Pick, about her most recent novel, Far to Go, published just recently by House of Anansi Press. It can be ordered from Canada, and will be released in the States by Harper Perennial in summer, 2011. Don’t sorry, I will be reminding you when it comes out in the States! Far to Go, inspired in part by the lives of my grandparents and my father, is the story of one Jewish family’s experiences during the lead-up to the Nazi occupation in 1939 in Czechoslovakia. Paul and Annaliese Bauer are affluent, secular Jews whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of the German forces. Desperate to save themselves, they manage to secure a place for their six-year-old son, Pepik, on a Kindertransport to England. Far to Go is also the story of how what happened to the Bauers is remembered by those who survived, and the stories that are told about them.

The events of 1938 and 1939 unfold through the eyes of Marta, the governess, a woman uncertain of her own origins.  Why did you decide to make her the viewpoint character?

Good question. Truthfully I can almost never remember why I did anything in a particular way, beyond the fact that it felt intuitively right. But the idea of an unreliable narrator was appealing. I often turn to Jack Hodgins’ ‘A Passion for Narrative,’ – my novelists’ bible – and I think it was his suggestion to view the main characters, in my case Pavel and Anneliese, through outside eyes. That said, through the process of writing Marta grew to become a main character herself. She is a liminal character, not Jewish but close with Jews (and, as you point out, unsure of her origins, so with the possibility of being one); not the mother of a child sent away but close enough to understand a mother’s perspective. She is both on the Bauers’ side and, if only accidentally, against them. I wanted this tension to work in concert with the plot so the reader wouldn’t be certain what they could trust. The desire to keep reading would be to discover how the story turns out but also how Marta—who is still young and naïve—resolves as a person.
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