Friends + Bacon= LOVE

I am blessed beyond description with generous, caring, wise, hysterically funny and loyal friends. I do not deserve a one of them, but please do not let them know.

Case in point, the magnificent Holly Conner. Holly wrote a beautiful guest post about my writing journey for the very savory literary blog, Bacon on the Bookshelf . Please go take a look!

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Hilary Mantel, I Beg to Differ

Now that this season of Downton Abbey has concluded in the US, I’m already feeling a little out of sorts and lonely. During the gray, cold days of January and February, I’ve had Downton to look forward to each Sunday night. If only for an hour, I could lose myself in the Yorkshire countryside with the Crawley gang. So, normally I would be setting my sites on the next Masterpiece, but I have mixed emotions about the upcoming Wolf Hall.

I’ve no doubt it will be a spectacular presentation (aren’t all Masterpiece productions?) but the book upon which it is based gives me heartburn. It may be a bit presumptuous on my part, as a fledgling writer of historical fiction, but I am just going to say my piece: Hilary Mantel has got it terribly wrong.

Yes, Mantel received critical acclaim and two Booker Awards for her novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Yes, her prose is oftentimes brilliant and her grasp of the English language is enviable. I’ll even agree that the genre historical fiction does allow for, well, fiction. But the premise upon which she writes–that Thomas Cromwell was the thoughtful, caring New Adam of modern society is really too much to stomach. Maybe I could even let that slide, if in the process she did not slaughter the character of Sir Thomas More.

Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell

I have spent more years than I care to add up researching Thomas More for my novel, Mine Own Good Daughter. It is a novel told from the perspective of More’s eldest daughter, Meg. I wanted to explore this “man for all seasons” from the eyes of his daughter, whose fortunes and future rose and fell on her father’s decision to defy Henry VIII.

There are literally thousands of pages of extant writings, letters and peer accounts of Thomas More. None of them point to the cruel, cynical misogynist that Mantel presents. Instead, I found a man who loved his children intensely, ensured that they (including his daughters) received a stellar education and was a brilliant writer of humor, satire and theology. When he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, it was to Meg that he wrote of his fear and weakness. He depended on her advice and counsel. Does that sound like a man who detested and subjugated women?

Was Thomas More perfect? No. He lived in a violent time of unspeakable brutality and shifting alliances. While he served as Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII he did allow four men to be burned at the stake for heresy. Is that hard to reconcile with today’s mores? Absolutely. But it is only one part of a very complex man living in a violent time.

When I was beginning my novel, a priest counseled me to write the truth and show Thomas More “warts and all.” That advice has stayed with me. I am not in the business of writing hagiography, but historical fiction that remains true to the facts. Whether or not we care to accept it, I believe there is a responsibility in writing historical fiction. These are actual people we write about. Just because they are not here to speak for themselves does not mean we have carte blanche to commit slander. Playing games with the truth to push a particular narrative or just for sport does nothing to raise the bar of historical fiction. It does everything, in fact, to lower it.

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To Write a Blog Post or a Chapter? That is the Question

Obviously, by the stunning lack of posts here, my answer to this question has been to write a chapter. The fact that I’ve been experiencing some technical difficulties with this blog has made that decision easier, but I think I need more balance.

One day last week, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time researching the word fisticuffs to see if it  would have been used in pre-Civil War America. That’s the kind of rabbit hole I often find myself lost in as I write my second historical novel. It makes me think I need to get out more.

Writing is a lonely pursuit–anyone who has written so much as a long letter realizes that. But a novel is a whole different level of lonely. You slog around with characters and scenes all day. You wrestle with dialogue and trying to keep the pacing just right. Sometimes all that wrestling leads to virtual fisticuffs with characters that refuse to play along with your plans.

This blog gives me the chance to leave Tudor England or Civil War Virginia or whatever other period I’ve dropped my anchor in. I can reenter a world where I don’t have to worry so much about etymology. I can write something and actually FINISH it in a day. A thought. An idea. There is a definite beginning, middle and end to a blog post. There is something very satisfying about that.

In future posts I plan to delve into the Wolf Hall brouhaha (let’s just say Hilary Mantel and I don’t see eye to eye on Sir Thomas More) and give a review of All the Light We Cannot See. Thank for stopping by.

 

 

PS–Fisticuffs first known usage was in 17th Century, so I used it:)

 

 

 

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What the Pope Reads

You can tell a lot about person by what they read.

Since the moment he shyly greeted us from the Vatican balcony and asked for our prayers a mere 18 months ago, the world has been trying to understand the phenomena that is Pope Francis.

Last year, he gave an far-ranging interview that ended up making international headlines. Much was made about the Pope’s comments on some hot-button issues (comments that were mostly taken out of context in the media). The article itself is 24-pages and, for anyone willing to invest the time to read it, a lot can be learned about Jorge Bergoglio.

I read the interview shortly after it was published, and was touched by the Holy Father’s view of  the Church as a “field hospital” for a suffering world and other insights into this fascinating man. But, as a writer, I was particularly excited by this little-reported gem:

“I have read The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, three times, and I have it now on my table because I want to read it again. Manzoni gave me so much. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me by heart the beginning of The Betrothed: ‘That branch of Lake Como that turns off to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains….’

 

The Betrothed has been on my TBR list ever since, and I finally got to it. First published in 1827, it is considered a masterpiece of Italian literature and historical fiction. The Betrothed is long and sometimes a slog–it bears the imprint of being written in a time of greater attention spans– but it is a beautiful novel of love, suffering and mercy.

The novel takes place in 17th Century Italy, before the unification of the Italian states, during a tumultuous time of famine, plague and societal unrest. The story centers around a young peasant couple, Renzo and Lucia, who want little else than to be married and live their simple lives. But a powerful, lustful noble has his eye set on the pious, lovely Lucia and sends his henchmen to threaten their parish priest with death if he performs the ceremony. The cowardly priest’s acquiescence to the nobleman’s evil intentions puts in motion the couple’s struggles to be united in matrimony.

The injustice of the rich and powerful against the poor is certainly a theme throughout the book. Yet, The Betrothed is not a rich vs. poor story, but rather a story about the power of mercy and forgiveness over hatred and vengeance. Each of the characters–including the vilest–are portrayed with a certain sympathy, as if even Manzoni is hopeful that they might, at some point, respond to grace and seek redemption.

It is almost impossible to read The Betrothed today without seeing the likeness of Pope Francis in the character of Cardinal Frederigo. Believed to have been based on a real 16th Century prelate, Frederigo leads his flock through the times of war, famine and plague by his example of humility and his personal involvement with their sufferings. He visits homes, fearlessly ministers to plague-victims and goes without food so those in most need might be saved. Yes, he is saintly, but Manzoni gives us a man who is still fully human. Cardinal Frederigo’s dress-down of the weak-willed parish priest is not too be missed.

Pope Francis said, “Manzoni gave me so much.” Could he perhaps mean that in Frederigo, he saw the kind of priest he wished to be? Do we have Manzoni, in some small way, to thank for this amazing pontificate? After reading The Betrothed, I think yes.

Manzoni surely never dreamed that his book would inspire a Pope almost 200 years in the future. That, my friends, is the power of good historical fiction.

 

 

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Taking Long Looks

People without hope not only don’t write novels…they don’t read
them. They don’t take long looks at anything. —Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

I detest most games, especially board (or is it bored?) games. Even as a child, as the rest of my siblings and cousins eagerly gathered around our Aunt Bubba’s card table to play a riotous game of Monopoly or Gin Rummy, I would skulk away and find something else to do. Usually I’d write a story or draw cartoons.

Maybe it’s that I lack the patience to wait my turn. Or, more likely, its that I just don’t see the point to most games. I won Park Place! Big deal. Whatever the reason, most board games drive me batty.

Sometimes I feel badly about it for my own kiddos. Not surprisingly, “family game night” hasn’t really been a priority for me. So I am a bit thrilled that I actually found a game that seems to make everyone happy.

As a writer I try to be aware of my surroundings and sometimes find myself staring at things for an inordinately long time. My children will often break my trance with a frustrated “Mommmmmyyyyyy!” So, one day I invited them into my interior space and asked them to choose three words to describe the magnolia bloom that had caught my eye.

After a few moments of silent observation they came up with : “Creamy.” “Soft.” “Pure.” How great is that?!

Later that day, I was mesmerized by a patch of moss crawling up into the woods behind our house. But this time, instead of ignoring my children, I said, “OK, three words!” They hopped off their swings and set about studying the patch:”Velvety.” “Carpet-like.” “Greeny-gold.”*

We’ve had fun with tree bark, peonies and lightning bugs among other things. Even my husband has gotten in on the action, though sometimes his descriptive words are a little (as my Great Aunt Irene would say) rich, rare and racy.

I can already see how this little game is helping my writing by challenging me to find ways to be more descriptive. And I wonder if this will help them if they are bitten by the writing bug. But above all, I’m hopeful that it will encourage each of us to stop and take good long looks at the little everyday wonders of this wondrous world.

*Yes, yes, I know that greeny-gold isn’t a real word, but still, it’s pretty descriptive for a 7 year-old.

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My Mom, the Storyteller

Most writers seem to come from families of voracious readers. I am not one of those writers.

Mom and I at a pub in Galway, Ireland. No books in sight.

Mom and I at a pub in Galway, Ireland. Not a book in sight.

Unlike me, my mother would much prefer a good Masterpiece Theater or some witty conversation to reading a book. In fact, she has an intrinsic suspicion of anyone who would rather have their nose in a book than enjoy some laughs over a cup of coffee or a cocktail (preferably bourbon in a tall glass). But what she is, and what I hope might have rubbed off on me a little, is a great storyteller.

Margaret Flanigen Carden can make a story come alive like no other. Maybe it’s that she’s 100% Irish–or maybe because she is a Southerner– I don’t know, but her stories take on a kind of legendary quality when she weaves a tale.  I could swear that I was actually there for some her childhood antics with the characters that populated 1930’s Nashville–Hawk and Minnow, Big Mommy, Tweet, Tomato Foot, Sugar Berry, Sam, Whoopzie Barazini, Mumbles . . . I could go on and on and on.

Mom and her brothers and sisters and Aunt Irene. Mom is the one pulling her little sister's hair.

Mom and her brothers and sisters and Aunt Irene. Mom is the one pulling her little sister’s hair.

And like any truly great storyteller, my mom is authentic and fearless. She never shies away from telling a good story, even if it shows her in less than beatific light. Like when she got caught (at fourteen!) by the nuns smoking the Blessed Mother’s Grotto at St. Bernard Academy.

Mom at her 8th Grade graduation.  N.B.-That is not the same grotto that she would later smoke behind.

Mom at her 8th Grade graduation. N.B.-This is before the cigarette incident.

Or the story about her French professor at Vanderbilt who began every semester with, “Zee blondes, zey get As; Zee brunettes, zey get Bs; and zee boys–zey work for what zey get.” The tale of her going to said professor’s house to convince him to give her little brother a passing grade is one of her best. And then there’s the one about her sorority sister, Gussie, who tried  to convince her to join the Marines before they were “drafted” because “at least they have cuter outfits.”

Mom obviously received a B from the French professor. And no, she and Gussie never did end up in the Marines.

Mom obviously received a B from the French professor. And no, she and Gussie never did end up in the Marines.

I didn’t realize the power of Mom’s stories until I went to college and found that friends begged to hear more about Ida and Irene’s Christmas Parties (with soggy Ritz crackers and plenty of “sploe”) or the epic tale of Pawsy’s moved desk. It was thrilling to see that my pale imitation of her stories could keep my friends in stitches. From Mom, I learned that all good stories, whether Shakespeare or Brothers Grimm, need a beginning, middle and a definite end.

Move over Mad Men--its Margaret and Jerry in Spain. There are some really good stories from that trip (what is that smoke swirling above mom's head?!)

Move over Mad Men–it’s Margaret and Jerry in Spain. Friends, drinks and few cigs = great stories.

There are so many more stories, but it isn’t nearly as fun without Mom’s distinctive Southern drawl. So, on this day that we honor our mothers, I would like to thank Mom for the gift of telling a story. I hope I do you proud.

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The Power of a Good Book

Trisha Yearwood had a hit a few years back, “The Song Remembers When.” Music has the power to place you back in a certain time in a unique way. Perhaps it’s just me, but I find that to be true with books as well.

I can look at my bookcase and pretty much tell you what was going on in my life at the time I was reading a particular book. Anna Karenina will always remind me of a Christmas trip to Colorado with dear friends, Kristin Lavransdatter accompanied me to the South of France (though there were times I questioned bringing 900+ book through Europe), and a biography of St. Thomas More kept my mind off being on bed rest with my first child.

A few months ago, that same first child came down with pneumonia and, after a midnight trip to the ER, ended up in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. Pretty much my worst nightmare.

As I “slept” on the vinyl pull-out praying for a rise in oxygen levels and trying to ignore the beeps and alarms going off every couple of minutes, I was a nervous wreck. In an attempt to stop my addled brain from going to a very bad, scary place, I half-heartedly picked up Gone With the Wind.

It had been sitting on my Kindle for a while. I’m not sure that I’d ever really read GWTW cover to cover before, but Lord knows I’ve seen the movie more times than I can count. I think you have to if you are a Southerner. Anyway, I thought it would be literary fluff–something to keep my mind off what was going on around me, even if only for a little while. But it was so much more. Margaret Mitchell weaves together the complexities and contradictions of Scarlett and Rhett against the backdrop of the political, social and spiritual upheaval of the Civil War. Yet she never loses her tight grip on characters and that’s what kept me reading late into the night in the PICU. As a reader, I was entranced; as a writer, I was awed.

Margaret Mitchell’s words written 75 years ago about people dealing with life and death 150 years ago helped me through one of the most frightening episodes of my life. Everyone is now healthy and getting back to normal. We are so thankful. I don’t miss those scary nights in the PICU, but I will always be grateful to Scarlett, Rhett, Melly and the gang for keeping me company.

I’d love to know if certain books bring back memories for you?

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