Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Interview with Lois Leveen

Last week I reviewed Lois Leveen's wonderful Juliet's Nurse, a novel of Shakespeare's tragic couple, told from the viewpoint of Juliet's wetnurse. But rather than simply retell the story, Leveen delved into life for a medieval domestic, and made this humorous character warm, earthy, and human. I'm thrilled to share my interview with Leveen, so read on to learn more about her and her writing.

author lois leveen
Author Lois Leveen
What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

It didn't *have* a plot. I wrote poetry and essays and was even editor of the literary magazine in high school, but although I devoured novels, I never tried fiction writing until I was in college. At Harvard, I was taking the required composition class in a special section that allowed you to write short stories along with essays. Well, the teacher (whose name I have happily forgotten) read my stories and told me, "you don't have a plot." I thought, "oh, I don't know how to write fiction." And so I gave up and figured I'd be an English professor and write about other people's stories. Only at this moment, in retrospect as I answer your question, am I wondering why that instructor didn't try to teach me how to develop a plot. Why haven't I ever asked *that* question before?!?! It took a long, long time before I realized how creative I could be.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

Yes -- I use a particular laptop computer, not the one I use for email, etc., and I sit in a very comfortable chair, no desk, with at least one and preferably two cats on my lap. The thesaurus is always in reach, a real book thesaurus which is so much better than the computer's version. And I'm surrounded by piles of books and articles so I can research particular points. I write first thing in the morning, 7 days a week, usually for 3-5 hours. The rest of the day, I might be reading for a project, or writing *about* writing, doing an interview like this, etc. Like many writers, I can be crabby when I'm writing, but I'm more crabby if I am not giving myself time to write every day.

Was Juliet's Nurse the original title of your book?

Absolutely -- the title came to me, and it sounded *so* good. That's why I reread Shakespeare's play, to see whether it contained enough for me to build a character and a world and a novel, and boy howdy, did it. Titling a novel can be so difficult, so it really is amazing to start with a novel that tells a potential reader EXACTLY what the book is about. And in this case, it told the author, too. Now I just have to remember to let people know the nurse has a name, Angelica. It's actually in the play, but only once, so no one remembers it.

As you were writing Juliet's Nurse, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Many, many of them! I didn't know Tybalt (Juilet's cousin, who is a bit of a hothead in Shakespeare's play) would be such a heartbreaker. My agent, her assistant, my editor, her assistant, and me: we all had these total Tybalt crushes. I didn't realize how important bees and beekeeping would become when I first introduced them into the book. I needed a job for Angelica's husband, and just chose that rather randomly, but then it shaped so much of the plot and the themes.

Most surprising, though, was something much bigger than a scene or character, because as I was deep in drafting the novel, I kept thinking, "this is a nice idea for a character and a story, but is important?" My first novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is based on a true story of an African American woman who changed the course of history. So I felt like that book helped readers understand how much women, especially women of color, have done historically that has been forgotten. I thought maybe I was copping out if my second novel didn't do something big like that. When I got to the end of Juliet's Nurse, I realized that this is a book about how to survive immense kinds of suffering, about how to keep hoping even after loss, how in particular to respond to the death of a child, which is one of the most profound and devastating kinds of losses anyone can face. Oh yes, that surprised the heck out of me, that my little ol' novel was doing that kind of work.

Your previous novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, was set during the Civil War. This one is set in 14th century Italy. Was the shift in era and locale challenging?

Incredibly so. First of all, we live in such an immediate gratification moment, in which readers who finish a book they like want to get the next one from the author right away. Juliet's Nurse received a really, really wonderful review from earlyword.com, a site librarians use to pick books, but it begins by saying that fans of The Secrets of Mary Bowser have had a long wait for Lois Leveen's second book. Long wait? 28 months from one pub date to the next, which is amazingly so fast when you consider two factors: 1. the historical research, which as you say takes a huge amount of time, and 2. the fact that these books are "literary," in the sense of the quality of the writing. I spend a lot of time on editing the prose, trying to make every line, every word, right. I want to feel like my novels are a gift I am giving my reader, and that means taking time to do them well. Not that 28 months is a lot of time! (by the way, if you are wanting more from an author, getting antsy waiting for the next novel to be published, try rereading the book you've already read and loved; if it's a good novel, you will find so much more in it the second time through).

In terms of the particular leap from 19th-century United States (about which I knew a fair bit) to 14th-century Italy, your question gets at what was the hardest part for me. For The Secrets of Mary Bowser I used a lot of research by other historians, but I also did some of my own research, finding things in archives, 19th-century newspapers, etc. I even kept at the research after the novel was published, and wrote about what I learned subsequently about the historical Mary Bowser. But with Juliet's Nurse I couldn't do my own research. I can, in a pinch, book a hotel room or order dinner in modern-day Italian, but I can't read Latin, or even the kind of Italian dialects that were used in the 14th century. So I had to rely on what other historians have published. And also, it is embarrassing to admit this, but only when I started working on the novel did I realize that because the printing press hadn't yet been invented, we have far fewer books and other sources from that time period. That was frustrating, but I started looking at art and architecture as part of my research. If you have a painting or statue from Italy in the 14th century of, say, the Virgin Mary, often her clothing and hairstyle look like what Italian women were wearing in the 14th century, rather than what someone leaving in Nazareth would be wearing in 30 BCE. Because those Italian artists were historically inaccurate in their depictions, we have historically accurate depictions of their era. I guess what I'm saying is I learned to look *everywhere* for research, including cookbooks and medical guides (which I used for both novels). I love that stuff!

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I love to travel, although mostly my travel is doing talks about my book or doing research for another book, but that's taken me everywhere from Paris to London to Verona to Costa Rica in the past few years, plus all through the US. At home, I am a dedicated bike commuter, and my bike is covered in a leopard-print pattern so the whole city can see me coming. I play the accordion, with more enthusiasm than talent, and now I'm singing in a community choir in the same way. I pet my cats and like to do slightly nutty things like go to hipster square dances (I live in Portland, Oregon, after all). Oh, and I am now a volunteer urban beekeeper.

Read any good books recently?

I've been rereading The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, which is so weird and smart, and whenever I read it I wish I could write like that. Before that it was The Table of Less Valued Knights, by Marie Philips, because we met at a book event in Toronto. Next is a manuscript a friend wrote that is not yet published, one of the perks of being a novelist! The rest of my current reading is research for my next novel, and the topic is still top secret, so you will just have to wait a while to find out … patiently, I hope!

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My thanks to Ms. Leveen for her time and thoughtful responses.  You can learn more about her and her books at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Weekend reads and almost ready...

We're finally close to being prepped for Little Reader's arrival (I'm not sure I'll ever be ready!). About two weeks or so to go!

As we had to move into a one bedroom, we're sharing nursery space, so we decided to pick a muted nautical theme (with hints of Moby Dick, my wife's favorite book) for our room.

We got an inexpensive duvet cover from Ikea in a muted cream and slate blue stripe, and using a cheaper Ikea mirror, my wife managed to replicate a pricy Restoration Hardware mirror I had my heart set on.

I found the striking Moby Dick decal on Etsy, and my wife refinished all our bedroom furniture with chalk paint, to give things a distressed look. And since we're swimming in adorable baby clothes, we strung up a clothes line to show of a rotation of our favorites (including ones, no doubt, Little Reader will quickly outgrow).

It's been fun nesting, although we still have one more thing to do: install the car seat!  After that, I think I'll feel prepped for Little Reader to get here.  I've started packing my overnight bag -- my wife keeps teasing me that I'm tossing books in, like I'll read during delivery -- but it makes me feel better to have books on hand!

My weekend reads are sadly the same ones from last week; both The Sharp Hook of Love and Hand of Fire are stellar, but between prep, childbirth classes, and general exhaustion, I've had little energy to read.  I hope to snuggle in this weekend and get some serious reading done!

What are you reading this weekend?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen

Title: Juliet's Nurse
Author: Lois Leveen

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 14th Century / Verona / Italy / Inspired by Shakespeare / Mother/Daughter Relationships / Tragedy)
Publisher/Publication Date: Emily Bestler Books/Atria (9/2014)
Source: Italy Book Tours

Rating: Liked very much.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: The story of Shakespeare's famed Juliet and her tragic love are told by her beloved wetnurse.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, NetGalley & Edelweiss

Do I like the cover?: I do.

I'm reminded of...: Melanie Benjamin, Laurel Corona, Nicole Galland

First line: Two nights before Lammas Eve, I go to bed believing myself fat and happy.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.

Why did I get this book?: I really enjoyed Leveen's previous novel, and I love literary retellings.

Review: I love books that take on familiar stories from unique angles, and those that explore Shakespeare are particular favorites. (If you haven't yet read Nicole Galland's I, Iago, get it now!)

In this, Leveen (author of the fabulous The Secrets of Mary Bowser) takes Shakespeare's familiar Romeo and Juliet, and tells the story from Juliet's devoted wetnurse Angelica. To my surprise, the first half of the novel is devoted to Juliet's infancy (a time not covered in Shakespeare's play) and establishes Angelica's background and her love for Juliet.

The second half of the novel explores the events in Shakespeare's play. I have to admit that of all his works, Romeo and Juliet is among my least favorite: I never really got the passion our teenaged stars had. But in Leveen's hands, the cultural context of life in medieval Verona makes their choices suddenly real for me (this is why I love a good novel! I understand more!).

Rich in detail about life in medieval Italy, this is also the story of love between a parent and child, even if the parent is really a wetnurse.  Leveen articulates the joy and agony of raising a child that isn't one's own, and the impact on life for a woman who is committed to being a wetnurse.  It was eye-opening and fascinating, the mix of being a household domestic and a loving guardian, and being so close to my due date (three weeks today!), the heavy focus on childbirth, mothering, and nursing was particular resonant.

Leveen's narrative style is readable: Angelica is earthy and grounded, plain-spoken, yet Leveen keeps Shakespeare's poetic flare in the dialogue, especially wild, lovable Tybalt and in Angelica's poetic ruminations. The Elizabethan appreciation of the bawdy is seen in Angelica's earthy passion for her husband.

An excerpt is available at the author's website as well as a teacher's guide.

Whether one is familiar with Romeo and Juliet or simply interested in a novel of life in medieval Italy, this is a quick read that focuses both on a domestic relationship and an emotional one, the love between a caregiver and child.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014


Thank you, everyone, for your kind words recently.  I'm so grateful for all of you! It was a busy weekend, which is why I'm late with this -- my apologies!

The winner of Night of a Thousand Stars is ... Antonia!

Congrats to the winner!  Be sure to check out my open giveaway -- I have a few more coming! Hope everyone is having a great weekend!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Weekend reads and many transitions...

The last few weeks have been busy, emotional, and full of transition.  I celebrated my sixth wedding anniversary last weekend, which also marked four weeks until our Little Reader is due.  As we scramble, badly, to finish our baby prep, I learned my youngest cat, Grace, had kidney failure and would need to be euthanized.

Last night, she passed away on her own, in my arms, comforted by our remaining elderly cat who slept with us until Grace's last moments. It's been very hard this year to have lost two cats, both of whom I've had for more than a decade, ahead of Little Reader's arrival -- to lose loved ones just before a new loved one comes feels, well, cold.

I haven't felt much like reading -- clearly a theme of my pregnancy, shamefully -- but have three current reads that are a welcome distraction from the stress and heartbreak. This weekend, I'm finishing up Sherry Jones' The Sharp Hook of Love, which is a decadent and engrossing novel of Heloise and Abelard. I'm quite smitten. I've just started Judith Starkston's Hand of Fire, a historical novel that features a heroine just given just a few lines in the Iliad. It's fabulous. And finally, I plan to begin Lois Leveen's Juliet's Nurse, a historical novel about the nursemaid to Shakespeare's Juliet.

What are you reading this weekend?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Interview with Kari Edgren

Last week I reviewed Goddess Born, a delicious historical romance set in 18th century Pennsylvania, with a semi-divine heroine and a dreamy, mysterious hero. It was a wildly fun escapist read, just what I need in the countdown to Little Reader's arrival, and I'm delighted to share my interview with the author, Kari Edgren. Please read on to learn more about her and this book, and be sure to enter the giveaway at the end!

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

When I was younger I did all my storytelling in my head, so my first recorded piece of fiction didn’t come about until well into adulthood. That was about a girl who moved from Seattle to Mississippi after her father died and ended up falling in love with a ghost. I seem to kill the parents a lot in my stories, which is odd since I adore my parents. It must be an issue with authority.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I’m one of those rare writers who can’t write in my pajamas. I have to be showered, dressed and otherwise presentable. I like to have a brief outline for the day with a clearly defined end-goal. I also just had a table (sort of like a wall ironing board) mounted next to my treadmill so I can walk while I write. It’s amazing!

Was Goddess Born the original title of your book?

It took me two years and about a dozen titles before I came up with Goddess Born. Some writers I know just seem to pull fabulous titles out of the air without breaking a sweat. Not me. I need enough time to torture the entire English language and about every person of my acquaintance before I’m satisfied.

As you were writing Goddess Born, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

So many! I am a mix between a panster and a plotter. I like an end goal, but love the surprises that come along the way. To choose one scene/character, I’d say in the garden with Brigid.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I love to cook. Sometimes when I get really stressed out with writing, I’ll escape to the kitchen to unwind. Cinnamon rolls are a go-to when my brain needs a break.

Read any good books recently?

I just discovered Jojo Moyes and thoroughly enjoyed One Plus One. It had such a good message about the power of strangers and how we’re stronger together. I’m 3% into The Bronze Horseman by Paulina Simons. It’s still too early for certainty, but I think I’m really going to like it.

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My thanks to Ms. Edgren for her time and thoughtful responses.  You can learn more about her and her book at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


I'm thrilled to offer an e-book copy of Goddess Born to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 10/24.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Goddess Born by Kari Edgren

Title: Goddess Born
Author: Kari Edgren

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 18th Century / Pennsylvania / Supernatural / Romance / Secret Identities / Witchcraft)
Publisher/Publication Date: Carina Press (5/29/2014)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Loved it!
Did I finish?: Inhaled it!
One-sentence summary: A young healer, descendant of a goddess, finds herself in a marriage of convenience in order to protect herself and her family's estate -- only to end up accused of witchcraft.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories

Do I like the cover?: Ish -- it's very pretty, and I love me some drapey dresses, but doesn't capture the story for me.

First line: The air was still, the sky silent and empty over the wheat fields that ran undisturbed to the forest's edge.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.

Why did I get this book?: Bloggers I trust were raving about it.

Review: This book has one of the most unique premises I've read in a while: set in 1730 in the Pennsylvania colony, our heroine Selah Kilbrid is literally a direct descendent of the goddess Brigid. Her divine gift is that of healing, a gift she cannot refuse to use when asked -- but a gift she has to keep hidden lest she gain some unwanted attention. From an Irish Catholic family, she lives in the heavily Quaker town of Hopewell, a well-liked healer and farmer's daughter.

Pursued by a Quaker preacher, Nathan, whose interest in her crosses into dangerous obsession, Selah agrees to an arranged marriage with a cousin per her father's wishes. But upon arriving in Philadelphia, she instead finds herself bound together with the (stunningly sexy) Henry Alan, an indentured servant.

I admit I have a love/hate relationship with romance novels: I adore me some hot and heavy flirtation but really loathe some of the childish, alarming, or emotionally unstable behavior that gets trotted out in the name of plot. But Edgren's historical romance has everything I luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurve in a romance novel: fabulously fun heroine and hero, great setting, delightful obstacles that don't make me mentally scream, "Just tell him!", and a believable chemistry that had me swooning within a dozen pages.

Selah was a believable heroine that I loved from the first page: bold in ways that felt authentic and historically accurate (even as a demi-goddess!), who acted in a manner that read reasonable and believable -- even when she made dumb choices. As Edgren stays solely in Selah's first person POV, we don't know much about Henry and his motivations, but he's a dreamboat with a dramatic backstory. The complications between Selah and Henry are interesting and actually challenging: how does she handle her goddess-ness with him, and how much can she trust a man who is literally indebted to her but legally has rights to her inheritance?

And as for the sex...there is none! Don't despair, as I might have if I learned this tidbit ahead of reading, as there's plenty of tension and some making out that's fun. The absence of sex only stood out to me as this is from Carina/Harlequin, so I just assumed there'd be sexytimes, but in terms of storytelling and plot, how everything shakes out for our hero and heroine reads perfectly. I didn't miss the sex, and I still had happy sighs throughout the book.

This is clearly the first in a series, and I am frothing with impatience for the next book. (The danger of inhaling new releases, am I right?!) I read this book in a day -- started it in the AM and just kept sneaking glances throughout the day, pausing only when necessary -- and it's a great escapist read for those who enjoy some armchair time travel and competent heroines. The Pre-Revolutionary War Philadelphia and Pennsylvania setting is wonderful, as is Edgren's Quaker community -- a locale I rarely come across in historical fiction.

If you like historical romances, get this for sure. If you like some paranormal or supernatural elements in your fiction, but aren't into urban fantasy, also consider this one -- it has some magical themes that blended seamlessly into the story and never jarred me out of the rest of the narrative.

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I'm thrilled to offer an e-book copy of Goddess Born to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 10/24. Be sure to check out the interview for another chance to win.