Interview with Kamila Shamsie about her works of historical fiction

images5I am grateful for the invitation to write an article for the HNR about Kamila Shamsie’s historical fiction with the 2014 publication of A God in Every Stone. I read both A God in Every Stone and Burnt Shadows as part of my research and was astounded at how this author tackles so many hot-button topics in her novels. From the relations between subjects and Empire during the Raj in India to the WW2 atomic bombing of Nagasaki, to the Partition and formation of Pakistan and a inside look at the Afghan mujahedin  (opposition groups who initially rebelled against the government of the pro-Soviet Democratic Republic of Afghanistan  (DRA) during the late 1970s, and fought the DRA and the Soviet forces during the Soviet War in Afghanistan), even to a glimpse at modern-day terrorism. Not only does she tackle historical periods and events but also social topics like feminism, morality,  cultural divisions, and everything in between.

I was fortunate to conduct an e-mail interview with Ms. Shamsie, which helped inform my article. Much of the interview could not be covered in the piece and has some interesting information for fans of the author, so here it is, in its entirety from September 29,  2014:

BECAUSE THE AUTHORS BOOKS SEEM TO RANGE BETWEEN LITERARY FICTION AND TRADE FICTION, I WAS CURIOUS ABOUT HER THOUGHTS ON HER BOOKS IN THIS SENSE

1) Who are your literary influences?

It’s such a hard thing to pin down–much more easy to talk about literary loves. I love Virginia Woolf, but I don’t know that I can claim to be influenced by her, for example. So let me pick a few loves and readers of my work can decide if there’s influence there. Earliest loves – Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh. University-era loves: Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino. More recent loves: Ali Smith, David Mitchell. I tend not to let go of old loves; just add more onto them as time moves on.

2) Do you consider your books to be literary fiction or more trade-focused? Do different novels fall into different categories?

I always cringe a little at the term ‘literary fiction’ which seems to imply all other books lack literariness – or that you can either be literary or commercial (which is just insulting to readers.) Having said that, the books I read fall within the category referred to as literary fiction, and I suppose I write into that area where I read.

HERE, I WAS TRYING TO GET AT THE ESSENCE OF WHO SHE FEELS SHE IS WRITING FOR, WHAT KIND OF AUDIENCE SHE TARGETED WHEN SHE CAME UP WITH HER CONCEPTS.

3) What audience are you aiming for with your books?

Honestly? Anyone who’ll read them.

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4) Your novels have been described as international historical epics- how would you describe them?

Generally if someone asks me to describe my book I turn to the nearest friend or relative and say, ‘please describe my books for me.’ I suppose if I had to I’d talk about them as novels which look at what it means to live individual lives entwined with history – how to reconcile the awfulness of the world with the joy of it; how to love, how to be loyal.

THIS WAS THE MOST FASCINATING RESPONSE OUT OF ALL THE QUESTIONS, FOR ME AT LEAST, IN LIGHT OF THE POLITICAL NATURE OF HER WORK…

images35) How is your work received in different parts of the world? Different reception in the UK, in India, in Muslim countries? Have any of your books caused controversy?

I don’t really recognise ‘Muslim countries’ as a category. All my books are connected to Pakistan, which is where I’m from, so of course my work is going to speak far more directly to people there than in, say, Indonesia or Iran. No major controversy that I’m aware of – though in Pakistan, there were quite a few people raising eyebrows when my novel Salt and Saffron depicted a relationship between people of different classes (that caused more of a stir than anything I’ve ever written about politics or religion). But yes, different countries have different responses based on their own histories and anxieties. With A God In Every Stone the UK responses were very much centred on the figure of the Englishwoman in the novel and the First World War, while in both India and Pakistan the Pathan/Pashtun figures got more attention as did the colonial aspect of the book. With my previous novel Burnt Shadows journalists in Denmark and Norway asked a great many questions about my thoughts on migrants – very much tied to Scandinavia’s very recent history of having to contend with having a migrant population.

THE REST OF THE QUESTIONS ARE DIRECTLY RELATED TO THE TWO HISTORICAL NOVELS.

6) How did you choose the settings and time periods for these two books?

There’s nothing particularly ordered about my writing process. With Burnt Shadows I thought I was going to write a book set in Karachi during the summer of 1998 when India and Pakistan tested their nuclear bombs, but that lead me to think about the use of atom bombs in Japan in 1945 – and next thing I knew I had a novel starting in Nagasaki; researching Nagasaki 1945 made me think of parallels with post 9/11 New York – so the entire geographical trajectory of the novel changed. With A God in Every Stone I was interested in exploring the city of Peshawar and thought that, as with Burnt Shadows, I would write a multi-part novel that would come up to the present day – but after writing my way from 1915 to 1981 and beginning to imagine sections in the 90’s and 2009, I discovered that actually it was the early 20th century story I was interested in, so I cut out everything later and concentrated on 1915 and 1930. And those stories lead me from Peshawar to the Eastern and Western front of the First World War.   Somehow it all comes together in the end, but it’s a terrifyingly haphazard process.

index7) Where did the archeological historical theme running through Gods in Every Stone originate?

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient history – and the city of Peshawar is so rich in material along those lines for a novelist. It’s a city that’s been continuously inhabited for over 2500 years – it was part of the Persian empire (Herodotus writes about it); Alexander and his armies came through there; later it became one of the great centres of Buddhism; and it’s home to the extraordinary syncretic Gandhara art which shows all these influences – you have statuary of Buddha being supported on the shoulders of Atlas and other such wonderful images. Hard not to be drawn to that as a writer. One of the first things I knew about the novel was that it would have archaeologists and an ancient artifact that everyone was looking for (perhaps my childhood love for Indiana Jones coming through there…)

images47) Burnt Shadows: Interesting evolution between a bomb survivor of Nagasaki leading to a young man choosing his allegiance in the war in Afghanistan- how in the world did you get from one place to the next? Can you talk about your thought process?

If you look closely enough at history, it’s all so interlinked. Pakistan’s history is the most obvious link between those stories – nuclear bombs and Afghan wars are both so much a part of the country’s recent history that I don’t really see it as much of a jump to get from one to the other. I suppose another way of saying that is, the novel follows its characters, and the characters travel from one link in history to another. What I mean is, I didn’t start off thinking I would go from Nagasaki to Afghanistan and New York but I allowed the characters to follow their trajectory through history. (I would argue, though, that the young man is never unclear about his allegiances – it’s the people around him who doubt where his loyalties lie)

8) One of the major themes threads through both books is the English-Indian relationship, and you write about the overarching themes in this relationship. What is empire to its subjects? Was colonialism enlightenment or slavery (being treated as second class citizens)? What are your thoughts about this issue?

Colonialism was a system of economic exploitation which justified itself on the basis of racist ideas about the superiority of the ‘civilised’ English over the ‘uncivilised’ Indians. Hard to see that as enlightenment. But as a novelist what I’m most interested in is how the inequality of historical positions gets in the way of relationships between people of different nations who do have a certain degree of affinity for each other. And of course there are other complications – if you’re an Englishwoman in Imperial India, as is the case with Viv Spencer in A God in Every Stone, there’s a complex interplay of patriarchy and imperialism going on.

9) We have seen in the news since America got involved in Pakistan much about the Pathan culture- did you write this book with current events in mind? If so, how did they influence this story?

As I mentioned, the novel was originally supposed to end in 2009, so yes, I did very much start with current events in mind. All that changed, but I suppose what remained was an impulse to write about the Pathans in a way that goes beyond the crass stereotypes of people who live and die by the gun – in the early 20th century there was a very sophisticated and popular movement of non-violent resistance to colonial rule which I wanted to explore in the novel, while also exploring the very old syncretic traditions of Peshawar.

10) Confusion over cultural identity and loyalty to one’s nation/sect/tribe seem to be overarching themes in both books- are these things you have personally struggled over? Family history? Witnessed? What led to your focus on these themes?

In some odd way, I think I’m interested in it because I haven’t considered it a struggle. It’s been pretty angst-free for me to move between Karachi, London and the East Coast; and within my own Pakistani family there’s a German grandmother, Danish cousins, England-raised mother etc etc. – none of which I’ve ever regarded as problematic or confusing to me personally. But I suppose at a certain point I realised that not everyone has the luxury of feeling simultaneously so fixed and so fluid about their relationship to nations and ethnicities and other such groupings, and that divergence from my own experience became an interesting thing to examine. Though really I’m just guessing here – I have a strange superstition about not really wanting to examine the connections between my life and what I’m interested in writing about. It’s almost as if I think the tap will turn itself off it I try to work out why it’s flowing.

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*Thank you very much to Meghan Walker at Tandem Literary for arranging this interview.

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Review of Paullina Simon’s Bellagrand

Bellagrand is indeed BELLA GRAND!!! This book came straight from the author’s heart. Readers will understand the less-than-stellar lead up to this heartbreaker now…

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BELLAGRAND

Paullina Simons has returned in fine form! The love story of Alexander’s parents is continued from Children of Liberty, and is the prequel to the stunning Bronze Horseman. Nothing I could write can describe this gem of a book better than the author’s poignant words: “[This book is about] Gina, a passionate, strong, good woman, who wants nothing more than to love and to be loved. The book is about all the things that stand in her way. In this story, you will also meet Alexander, and you will witness the love that had made him and in the end that saved him, the love that offered him, years hence, the possibility of a new life. It was all borne out of Bellagrand, out of the lifelong love affair between Gina and Harry, Alexander’s mother and father.” (from author’s website)

Gina and Harry’s journey spans four decades and two continents, from the troubled industrial immigrant town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, to the blue-blood society of Boston, to South Florida where the dream of perfection is found and lost, to a new life in a dangerous, foreign land.

Bellagrand is an epic journey, a suitable prequel to the momumental love story of Alexander and Tatiana. Simons wraps up all the plot threads cleanly, but not before wringing your heart and dragging you through an emotional roller coaster ride. Bellagrand is a poignant and mature exploration of marriage and commitment, of sacrifice and consequences. It is a dark tale with rays of light that will touch you.

(from my review for The Historical Novels Review)

Paullina Simons, William Morrow, 2014, 576 pp, 9780062103239, paperback Continue reading

Latest HNS Review: Escape from Paris by Carolyn Hart, and current reads…

I am currently reading Liza Perat’s Wolfsangel, the second in her historical L’Auberge des Anges series. I have just begun, so I cannot comment except to say that Liza is back in formidable style- her writing captivates and her story draws you in…

Escape from Paris

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Escape from Paris is romantic suspense set in Occupied Paris in 1940, right before Germany declares war on America and the French resistance begins to coalesce. Two American sisters, Eleanor, who is married to a Frenchman, and Linda, risk their lives to save downed British pilots from the Nazis. But with watchful eyes everywhere and the Gestapo on their trail, each airman they save puts them in even greater peril…

This is a publication of the original uncut manuscript from 1982 (the first published version had cut 40,000 words), with a new introduction by this prolific author. Escape from Paris manages to pull in aspects of the German occupation from many angles: the doomed Jews of Paris, the trapped airmen who parachute into France, the fate of American expatriates under the occupation, and the cold-hearted calculatedness of the Gestapo.

The beginning of the novel feels confusing with switching points of view and different storylines, but when the plot finally blends into one cohesive storyline – that of the British pilot Jonathan and the two sisters – the plot rushes ahead, is easy to follow, and left this reader breathless. Don’t expect a neatly wrapped up conclusion from this book, but go along for the ride.

Another one of my authors won an IPPY Gold award!

I have recently heard that Richard Sharpe’s e-book version of The Duke Don’t Dance won the Independent Publishers (IPPY) Gold Medal for best adult fiction e-book. Congratulations, Richard! See my review  https://thequeensquillreview.com/2012/05/22/review-the-duke-dont-dance-by-richard-sharp  for the reasons why I highly recommend this novel.  I’m gratified to know that the IPPY committee and I are in agreement about the quality of this book!

time-is-the-oven-smI will be posting a review in the next few weeks of Mr. Sharpe’s Time is the Oven, following the odyssey of a young man in the wake of the Civil War, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Winter Tale. This is to be my ipad train-ride read to BEA : )  I will also be reviewing Godiva (a book about chocolate??? Yippee…oh, not that Godiva…) by Nicole Galland (William Morrow Paperbacks), set in Angelo-Saxon England, for the August issue of the Historical Novels Review, which I shall post here as well.

BEA is coming up fast. If anyone is attending and would like to meet in person, just send me an e-mail. I’d love to meet other readers, writers, and bloggers!

 

Historical fiction at Book Expo this month…

It’s Book Expo America season once again, and I’ll be heading to NYC in less than two weeks. A copious amount of historical fiction will be offered this year and I am looking forward to meeting with publicists of some of the independent presses I work with, attending a few educational sessions, especially one called “All’s Fair? Book Reviewing and the Missing Code of Ethics.” Ethical and intelligent book reviewing on blogs just happens to be one of my interests…LOL. And then there’s the speed dating for book clubs session, which I find very helpful for locating historical novels that are targeted for a more specific audience. As always, I’ll bring my rolling suitcase and will pay out extraordinary amounts of money to ship home all of these books…

A couple of historical fiction novels have caught my eye as either having the perfect elements of an absorbing tale to sweep readers away, or by falling into the category of being “outside the mainstream” themes…

hild-beaWith its stunning teal cover, Hild looks to be a good old-fashioned HF prototype; just the perfect mix of biography, history, and fiction in a popular historical place and time, Anglo-Saxon England. (literary biographical novel of St. Hilda of Whitby in 7th-century England, from a multi-award winning writer.  To be released in November)

kent-bea

 

 

Iceland is not a location I have seen portrayed  in HF-mainstream or Indie-and I am intrigued by the premise of Burial Rites,  about a woman accused of murder in 1829 Iceland, based on a true story. It is one of the books I may talk about during the panel “Off the Beaten Path: Reading and Writing Outside of the HF Mainstream” at the U.S. HNS conference coming up in June. I’ll write more about that later.

 

tan-beaAmy Tan’s new offering, The Valley of Amazement, follows three generations of women from 19th-century San Francisco to turn-of-the-century Shanghai and after, and looks to be a familiar and comfy treat for historical family saga fans.

 

 

 

 

The Mountain of Light, an epic novel about diamond hunters in Victorian India, piques my interest, too, as I amsundaresan drawn to stories set during the time of the British Raj. This locale and period seems to have dropped off the popularity scales lately–it might be that this older trend is now attempting to revive itself…

 

For details on publishers’ booth locations and signing schedules, see Sarah Johnson’s annual BEA post at http://readingthepast.blogspot.com/2013/05/historical-fiction-picks-at-bea-2013.html (book descriptions borrowed from this post).

Next Up for Review: The Concubine’s Gift

concubineThe next book up for review is The Concubine’s Gift by K. Ford K. This may not qualify as a strictly traditional historical fiction novel, as most of the action occurs in a contemporary setting,  so I’m moving out of my comfort zone a bit. The premise mixes a number of unusual elements: a famous brothel, a conservative little Nevada town,  an antique makeup case containing an almost magical powder, a sexually inhibited resident who becomes drawn into the world of a famous Chinese concubine…It’s probably difficult so see how the plot falls together, but I’m only 50 pages in so my description is purposely vague. So far, I’m finding the text to be easy and quick to read, and the author has me caught up in the explicit but tasteful plot already…

The novel isn’t very long–a little over two hundred pages–and I should have a review up right after Christmas.

Until then, Happy Holidays!

Review: The Cross and the Dragon by Kim Rendfeld

crossKim Rendfeld’s The Cross and the Dragon is “a tale of love in an era of war and blood feuds” set in eighth-century Europe during the reign of Charlemagne.  I dove right into this book before understanding the background and historical context—as the plot is so absorbing—and the further I read, the more familiar the plot seemed to me . . . at first I thought to myself that the “recognition” was from reading too many medieval romances this year . . . but no, there was much more to it. I have since discovered that The Cross and the Dragon was inspired by the romantic legend of Roland (The Song of Roland, an epic poem based on the Battle of Roncevaux in 778). That is why I was getting vague flashbacks of a similar plot! I read this epic poem as an undergraduate and remember feeling rather untouched by it, and that was a shame. Had I been assigned this historical novel alongside the epic poem, I would have been emotionally affected and inspired to read on… I would have learned the difference between fact and fiction during that era and appreciated the impact of the poem. Historical fiction could be such a boost to classroom learning…

Simply put, I enjoyed this book. The reasons? Engaging narrative. Steady pace. Strong, living characters. Evocative sense of place and time.  A comforting return to the world of chivalry and morality, with defined heroes and villains.  Obvious careful attention to research and detail. A touch of the spiritual.  And a couple of chewy historical tidbits, one of which is the idea of a woman’s “plumpness” symbolizing femininity, attractiveness, and contentment during this time in history—modern readers may find this difficult to comprehend, given our twenty-first century obsession for attaining the near-anorexic body.

From an editorial perspective, the book has been well-edited—I don’t think I found a single typo! But Fireship Press is a small, independent, professional mainstream operation (and one of the small presses I work with in my new position), so one would expect quality editing. I also recall being among the numerous voters on facebook for this piece of cover art, so. . .

My only quibble–and it’s a minor one–is that I would have enjoyed if the relationships between characters had been delved into more deeply, but this is simply a personal preference. Given the historical context, the author’s choice of allowing the plot to take the driver’s seat is entirely appropriate.

If I have one constructive criticism I’d like to share, it is that, at times, the prose read a bit stiffly. The use of a string of simple sentences beginning with an article (a, an, the) in short portions of the narrative could become monotonous and temporarily distance the reader.  More variation in the sentence structure could improve the reading flow. However, this did not lessen my enjoyment of the book. Not at all.

The Cross and the Dragon is an absorbing medieval treat.

The Cross and the Dragon by Kim Rendfeld. Published by Fireship Press, July 2012, as both an e-book and paperback. Visit the author’s website at http://kimrendfeld.wordpress.com/ or http://kimrendfeld.com/

Disclaimer: The author provided me with a print copy of her novel in exchange for a review

Jean Gill’s Song of Dawn

Jean Gill’s Song at Dawn, a Global Ebook Awards winner, is on my review list. Although I haven’t reviewed it yet, I do want to share a promotion for this book, in case anyone would like to read it before I get a chance (which may be quite a while). Feel free to post your opinions here if you do!

The promotion is for a free e-book version of the novel. You can read an extract from chapter 7 to get an idea of the author’s writing style before plunging in or just get the coupon code at http://sooozsaysstuff.blogspot.co.uk/. Redeem your coupon at   https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/98166.

Synopsis from website:

winner jacket1150 in Provence, where love and marriage are as divided as Christian and Muslim. A historical thriller/romance set in Narbonne just after the Second Crusade.

On the run from abuse, Estela wakes in a ditch with only her lute, her amazing voice, and a dagger hidden in her petticoats. Her talent finds a patron in Alienor of Aquitaine and more than a music tutor in the Queen’s finest troubadour and Commander of the Guard, Dragonetz los Pros. Weary of war, Dragonetz uses Jewish money and Moorish expertise to build that most modern of inventions, a papermill, arousing the wrath of the Church. Their enemies gather, ready to light the political and religious powder-keg of medieval Narbonne.

Holiday Picks from The Queen’s Quill

I am finally finishing The Cross and the Dragon. I do apologize for taking so long. I hope to have a review up by the end of this week.

Since it’s the holiday season, and books are always a good gift (if you are part of the gift-giving crowd), here is a roundup of my favorite Indie review books from 2012. Honestly, the books I am listing were all engaging and engrossing reads–and the narratives and settings were so varied–that I simply cannot chose just one to recommend as an overall best book. This was a great year for Indie reading!

Spirit of Lost Angels-Liza Perrat

Vivaldi’s Muse-Sarah Bruce Kelly

Burning Silk– Destiny Kinal

Sea Witch-Helen Hollick

Oleanna-Julie K. Rose

The Afflicted Girls-Suzy Witten

Happy Holidays and I will see you at the end of the week for the next review.

Review: Spirit of Lost Angels by Liza Perrat

Liza Perrat’s Spirit of Lost Angels is a tale to lose oneself in… a sparkling example of an Indie publication. The cover is gorgeous and attention grabbing. The layout and text are indistinguishable from mainstream-published books. And the content…

Victoire Charpentier guides the reader into her world of Revolutionary France…and  this is no one else’s world—it is uniquely a product of her station in life and forces that shape her future.  Hers is a humble, yet strong and powerful, voice, a feminist voice in a time of revolution and female suppression. It is a story of betrayal and loss; suffering and anguish, yet also good fortune and reunion—a bittersweet, multilayered tale that will touch your heart.

Born of humble peasant roots in Lucie-sur-Vionne, Victoire’s innocence was shattered when her father is carelessly and recklessly killed by an uncaring nobleman…when she is sent into domestic work in another nobleman’s house, she is vilely used and forced to abandon her own beating heart. The tragedies continue to accumulate until she is arrested and forced into the notorious La Salpêtrière asylum for “insane and incurable women” (Invention of Hysteria, Georges Didi-Huberman).

The book vividly depicts the violent and inhumane methods doctors used to “treat” mental illness in women (or simply melancholia, perhaps not even mental illnesses at all) at Salpêtrière. To me, this was perhaps the most fascinating portion of the story- descriptions of the appalling conditions under which the women were kept, the rivalries that developed among cell mates, the rules one had to learn in order to survive this prison. The narrative was stark and believable and, believe it or not, educational. Since I’ve finished the book, I’ve been looking up the history of the Salpêtrière Hospital, intrigued at how low mental health care and the care of women had deteriorated at that time. Introducing an urge to learn more, dear readers, is the mark of excellent historical fiction.

There she meets Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy—author of the infamous Necklace Affair that brought down Queen Marie Antoinette. Victoire is intimately involved in the by-products of this affair, and her fortunes finally begin to look up. In her new life outside the asylum, she becomes actively involved in the politics of the Revolution and is swept up in the hysteria of the Bastille storming of 1789.

Liza Perrat persuasively combines fact and fiction in this engrossing novel. The peasants’ fury, the passion building up to the Bastille storming, and the sense of political explosion are just a few of the vivid illustrations of this in Spirit of Lost Angels. Although immersing oneself in Victoire’s tragedies can at times be unsettling, don’t miss this book. It is an impressive example of well-crafted historical fiction as well as being a professionally published Indie novel. Very impressive indeed. Highly recommended.

Liza Perrat, Spirit of Lost Angels, Triskele Books, 2012, 978-2-9541681-1-1, $15.50 pb/$4.38 Kindle edition

DISCLAIMER: I received a review copy of Spirit of Lost Angels from the author, in exchange for an honest and fair review.