Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Guest Interview: Christine Trent and THE QUEEN'S DOLLMAKER

I’m so happy to welcome historical fiction author Christine Trent, whose debut novel THE QUEEN’S DOLLMAKER, is being released today, December 29. What a wonderful way to start the new year!

On the brink of revolution, with a tide of hate turned against the decadent royal court, France is in turmoil - as is the life of one young woman forced to leave her beloved Paris. After a fire destroys her home and family, Claudette Laurent is struggling to survive in London. But one precious gift remains: her talent for creating exquisite dolls that Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France herself, cherishes. When the Queen requests a meeting, Claudette seizes the opportunity to promote her business, and to return home. Amid the violence and unrest, Claudette befriends the Queen, who bears no resemblance to the figurehead rapidly becoming the scapegoat of the Revolution. But when Claudette herself is lured into a web of deadly political intrigue, it becomes clear that friendship with France’s most despised woman has grim consequences. Now, overshadowed by the spectre of Madame Guillotine, the Queen's dollmaker will face the ultimate test.

THE QUEEN’S DOLLMAKER is set during the era of the French Revolution. How did you become interested in this time period? What you love about it?

I’ve always been interested in French and English history, but the period of the French Revolution is just so full of political upheaval and the destruction of centuries of royal rule that it’s easy to become totally absorbed in the era. I can’t imagine the turmoil the average citizen must have experienced. Also, as much as Marie Antoinette has been vilified over time, I think it’s difficult to do a thorough study of her life and not begin to feel a bit of sympathy – if not outright respect – for her. Given her spoiled and pampered upbringing, she really demonstrated nerves of steel when her world began falling apart. I find the period simply fascinating.

What do you like least about this period? Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around?

The mass killings were simply appalling, particularly because they were so indiscriminate. If your neighbor was jealous of you, he might report you as harboring royalist feelings, and that pretty much ensured prison time, if not a visit to the guillotine. Robespierre thought that everyone would support his idea of “purification through bloodshed,” when in reality, people just wanted food because they were hungry. In terms of careful plotting, I tried to ensure that Claudette’s adventures with Marie Antoinette very closely tracked to the day-to-day historical record in the days surrounding the queen’s imprisonment and subsequent execution.

Did you have to do any major research for this book? Did you stumble across anything really interesting that you didn’t already know?

I’d love to be able to say that I traveled to Paris and Versailles for research, but, alas, instead I was forced to rely on my memory of a trip I took many years ago. I also surrounded myself with lots of biographies on Marie Antoinette, and they exist aplenty. Prior to researching, I had no idea that Count Axel Fersen made a trip to England, and he quite took the country by storm. Fortunately for my storyline, I really needed Fersen in England to meet my dollmaker, so it was one of those “Aha!” moments where fact met fiction in a very neat intersection.

What sparked this book? Was it a character? An historical event? A scene you just couldn’t get out of your head?

In 2003, I had just finished reading Antonia Fraser’s MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY, and was also in the process of weeding through my doll collection (and somehow I never parted with a single doll). Turning the book over in my mind as I was handling all of my precious babies, I remembered that Marie Antoinette enjoyed dolls and frequently sent them to her mother and sister. It occurred to me that there was a nugget of an original story in the queen’s dolls, one that had never been explored before. I finished the manuscript in 2006 and sold it in 2008. So thoughts of the late French queen have literally been swirling around in my head for years.

Please share a bit about your writing process. Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

I am a 100% plotter. I greatly admire novelists who can sit down and write, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and let the story go where it will. I typically develop a ten-page synopsis detailing the entire storyline and work from there. Sometimes I’ll make some plot changes once the story is underway, but I usually stick pretty close to that synopsis. As a result, I tend to type up a first draft without cleaning as I go, then doing multiple reads to make corrections.

Please tell us about your background, and what led you to become a novelist.

My husband says it was a “no-brainer” for me to write books, because I’ve been collecting them for so long. The poor man spends most of his spare time building me bookshelves. I started out writing as a bit of lark (“Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to write a book?”). It only got serious when page followed page and all of a sudden three years later I had a finished book. That’s when I realized the next step was to try and sell it. I was fortunate to be picked up by Audrey LaFehr at Kensington Publishing.

What/Who do you like to read? And are you one of those authors who tends to avoid reading the same genre you’re currently writing in during the in-progress stages of your own novel?

No way. I love historical fiction and I can’t read enough of it. Writing full-time makes it tougher to get as much reading done as I’d like, but I’ve always got a big pile of historical novels on my nightstand. Waiting for me right now are Michelle Moran’s CLEOPATRA’S DAUGHTER, Lauren Willig’s MASQUE OF THE BLACK TULIP (I’m way behind on Lauren), C.S. Harris’ WHAT REMAINS OF HEAVEN, and Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL. I just finished up Harris’ four previous St. Cyr mysteries, as well as Philippa Gregory’s THE WHITE QUEEN. All excellent books. There’s more in my to-be-read pile (including, of course, Leslie Carroll’s NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES as research for future novels), but we probably don’t have enough space to list them all.
What are you planning to work on next?

I just wrapped up a sequel, tentatively titled THE WAX APPRENTICE. It follows the adventures of Marguerite Ashby under her apprenticeship to the great waxworker Madame Tussaud. It’s a swashbuckling tale brimming with historical figures, political intrigues, and a heroine determined to live life on her own terms. THE WAX APPRENTICE should be at your local bookstore in early 2011.

I hope your readers will visit http://www.christinetrent.com/ for more information about my books.

THE QUEEN’S DOLLMAKER is available at the following online locations, as well as your local bookstore:

Amazon.com http://www.amazon.com/Queens-Dollmaker-Christine-Trent/dp/0758238576/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1248305592&sr=8-1
Barnes and Noble.com http://search.barnesandnoble.com/The-Queens-Dollmaker/Christine-Trent/e/9780758238573/?itm=1&USRI=the+queen%27s+dollmaker
Borders.com http://www.borders.com/online/store/TitleDetail?sku=0758238576#complete_contributors

Indiebound.org http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780758238573

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Happy Birthday Jane Austen!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we can never get enough of Jane Austen.

Jane Austen turns 234 today. I wonder if she ever imagined how famous she would become posthumously. It sounds oxymoronic, but if she'd lived to enjoy her celebrity I think she would be absolutely tickled. Yes, she was a quiet country girl at heart, but she was also someone who tut-tutted when people read her books via a library subscription rather than buying a copy.

A romantic pragmatist (or pragmatic romantic) in every way, she certainly sought an income for her efforts. And the dynamics of the literary world have changed little since 1811 when her first novel Sense and Sensibility was published. Authors love to write, but we also want to be well compensated for our work; publishers want to keep their purse strings as tight as possible; and readers may be eager to read our next book, but they don't necessarily want to have to pay for the privilege.

Jane came of age in the Georgian era, a somewhat licentious age where women were as sexually charged as men, but it was also in many ways a misogynistic age where the laws were concerned. A wife was her husband's property. He was liable for her actions--and could be sued for libel if she was perceived as having offended someone through her written or spoken words.

Consequently, it was the rare man who would "permit" his wife to abase herself by becoming a "scribbler," because he didn't want the potentially costly legal responsibility for her literary efforts. Although Jane came from modest means (and her stories reflect the continual search by women of her class to marry for love and money to a man who would understand them and be their equal in every way) she was well aware that there was a vast difference between the world she envisioned in her fiction and the harsh fiscal realities facing genteel young women of the minor gentry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

As much as Jane recognized that marriage to a good provider would end her need to constantly scrimp and worry about how she might make it through the next year, she refused to commit herself to a loveless match or a man who might deny her the ability to write and to send her work out into the world. Even if she hadn't written a half-dozen stellar novels, and left some delightful unfinished fragments and myriad works of juvenilia, she would be laudable for practicing in her life what she preached in her writing.

However, despite the lack of a husband who might have "forbidden" her to "scribble," for propriety's sake Jane's name was not even printed on the frontispieces or spines of her novels during her lifetime. The books were written "By A Lady," and later, after the success of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, by "the author of" those bestsellers.

For the past several years I have felt a deeply personal connection to Jane Austen. Some time ago I had the pleasure and privilege to play the role of Jane in a two-character romantic drama titled The Novelist by Howard Fast--a most prolific novelist himself, with more than sixty titles to his credit, as well as plays and screenplays. The Novelist begins during the last year of Jane's life as she sits down to write the book that will become Persuasion. Enter a charming sea captain stage left, who intends to sweep Jane off her feet and propose marriage--and he won't take "no" for an answer.

Fast's drama is touching, humorous, and ultimately elegiac. And the audience never knows whether the sea captain is intended to be real, or whether Jane is imagining him, the better to craft her character of Captain Wentworth. Mr. Fast saw me perform the role of Jane but I never had the opportunity before he died to ask him about this.

My experience in The Novelist prompted me to become one myself. And every night when I stepped out on the stage into the room that was supposed to represent Jane's little parlor at Chawton I had the sense of stepping back in time. What if, I wondered, I were to be transported to England through some strange sort of time warp?

Thus was born my time travel novel, BY A LADY: Being the Adventures of an Enlightened American in Jane Austen's England, a romantic romp about a 21st century actress who is thrust back in time to Bath, England in 1801, the year Jane Austen and her family retrenched there. My heroine, C.J. Welles, meets and is befriended by her idol as well as by Jane's fictional cousin, Lord Darlington, the man who becomes C.J.'s love interest, unaware that a gulf of two centuries separates them.
Imagine how stunned I was when I later came across a late eighteen-century map of Bath and saw that the street that mirrors Sydney Place, where the Austens lived soon after their arrival, was called Darlington Place! I got chills!

In fact, this blog is titled "The Lady Novelist" all because of those experiences. And the photograph in the banner is of me playing Jane in the show. Of all the plays I've acted in so far, that production remains my favorite. The director Laurie Beth Petersen and the production designer (who also took the photo of me) Raffaele Castaldo, made it all the more special because they were so passionate about the material. Even the theatre was like a gorgeous little jewel box.
So I owe much to Jane Austen, as a literary inspiration and as a personal one. Her humor, wit, and integrity are as much to be admired as her novels, and I do believe that's another reason why she remains so beloved today.

After all, why else would people buy tee shirts and coffee mugs with the query "What Would Jane Say?"

How has Jane Austen impacted your life?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

HERSELF in Italian: Che Bella Fortuna!

I have a confession to make: Italy and I have been having a love affair for some time, now. Forgive me Paris, Bath, Carmel-by-the Sea, CA, Dorset, VT, and my beloved hometown of New York City -- but I adore Venice more than any other place in the world.

And pasta.

And Armani

And Botticelli

and the gutsy and gorgeous cortigiana onesta, Veronica Franco.

Italy has been molto bene to me, too. So far, three of my novels have been translated into Italian: PLAY DATES (Matrimoni, bugie e appuntamenti)

SPIN DOCTOR (Amori e centrifughe)

and THE MEMOIRS OF HELEN OF TROY (Il diario segreto di Elena Di Troia).

And I've just learned that the same publisher bought the rights to an Italian translation of HERSELF. I can't wait to see how they title it, since "Herself" is an Irish expression indicating that a woman thinks she's all that (and my book title has multiple meanings in the context of the story).

So I have something else to be thankful for this season. Perhaps I should skip the turkey and enjoy some Osso Buco instead!

Viva Italia!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Belated thanks for another award!

I don't know how I missed it, but way back in the middle of September, Lizzy J. over at Historically Obsessed (www.historicallyobsessed.blogspot.com) honored me with the "Butterfly Award For the coolest blog I ever know".

I just noticed ... so belated thanks, hugs, and smooches to the uber-talented Lizzy for her admiration of "The Lady Novelist."

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Writers' Night Out: A "Busman's Holiday"

This photo was taken at Bookmarks Bar at The Library Hotel last Tuesday evening by fellow history hoyden (http://www.historyhoydens.blogspot.com/) Tracy Grant, who blogged http://www.blogger.com/post-create.g?blogID=8678838153767744099 about her recent visit to NYC, her grand time at the grand opera, and the equally grand hours she spent with another history hoyden (pictured to my right), Lauren Willig (http://www.laurenwillig.com/). [Sorry, I'm still such a Luddite, I don't know how to type a person's name and have that be the link to their site.]

Over drinks and lively conversation, we wondered if our readers think we live the glamorous life of parties and soirees nearly very evening. Of course if real life were a 21st-century version of The Thin Man, minus the murder mystery, we'd all be hard pressed to get any actual writing done. And both Tracy (http://tracygrant.wordpress.com/) and Lauren are exceptionally prolific, not to mention talented.

As for me, sitting there in the bright pink sweater, my 13th book, NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES: A Juicy Journey Through Nine Centuries of Dynasty, Destiny, and Desire, is about to be published (release date is 1/5/10, which I've been referring to as "the eleventh day of Christmas"). I'm neck deep in research and writing for my 3rd nonfiction title (ROYAL PAINS: A Rogues' Gallery of Brats, Bastards, and Bad Seeds) to be published in the spring of 2011) and just received an offer from Random House to write a historical fiction trilogy on the life of Marie Antoinette.

So much for glamorous parties, soirees, and fancy cocktails. I've often wondered how some of the more famous literary alcoholics (Eugene O'Neill, Dashiell Hammett, Earnest Hemingway, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams), managed to create such masterpieces on the sauce. I have one drink and my brain cells are no longer zinging with creative alacrity.

But, when in Rome ... and at the Bookmarks bar where some of the drinks are named for famous authors, I had to splurge for one such specialty cocktail in an evening given over to spirited shop talk with two dear friends and immensely gifted authors. Now that you're all dying to know what I imbibed the other night, it was called the "Dickens" and consisted of aged rum, muddled figs, and pumpkin Agave nectar. Why do I think Charles probably never tasted Agave-anything in his life? A good strong Port would probably have been Dickens' beverage of choice, but the Bookmarks concoction was quite delicious, even if it didn't give me the rabid urge to serialize my novels in popular periodicals.

Because I love what I do, and often hate to refer to it as my "job" (career, metier, calling, all being more suitable words for the way I personally view my profession), I often get so caught up in my research and writing that I forget how solitary the author's life can be. Consequently, it becomes such a treat to share the experiences of writing -- both the joys and sorrows of the craft itself, as well as "shop talk" about the process with those who are enduring (or enjoying) the same kind of life.

So, on a fairly balmy autumnal Sunday morning, drinking nothing more potent than a really strong cup of black coffee from a blend that Fresh Direct calls "Sinful Delight" (which in itself sounds like a romance title), I raise my Buckingham Palace mug (a purchase in person from their gift shop ... it has a gilt rim and a pretty black and white 19th c. engraving on it) to writers everywhere and especially to Tracy and Lauren for sharing such a delightful diversion last week.

Write on, my friends!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Queen is Dead! Long Live the Queen!

Undoubtedly there will be more news as I get the details, but I am DELIGHTED to announce that I have just accepted a terrific three-book offer from Random House for a historical fiction trilogy on the life of Marie Antoinette.

Although I got my exercise at the gym already today, I have been doing the proverbial "happy dance" since I heard the news, and shared a bottle of Prosecco with my agent this afternoon because I just had to give myself a couple of hours off from researching my nonfiction wip ROYAL PAINS, to digest the incredible news!

The first book, tentatively titled BECOMING, is about Antoinette's early years, from the day she learns, as a ten-year-old girl, that her mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, has opened negotiations to marry her to Louis-Auguste the dauphin of France -- heir to his grandfather Louis XV's throne. The first novel will end on the day she becomes queen of France.

I know exactly what time period each of the other two novels in the trilogy will span but I prefer to keep that to myself for the moment.

The only other information I have about this marvelous Random House contract is that this fresh start will necessitate a new pen name for my historical fiction (I will continue to write my nonfiction ROYAL series for NAL under my own name).

So, Amanda Elyot, who wrote 4 historical novels, and who was described by Publishers Weekly as "the queen of historical romance" [though she really wrote historical fiction, and there is a difference] has been officially declared dead. I loved her very much and I will miss her. For closure, I wrote an epitaph at the Northshire Bookstore's Halloween party last Saturday night up in Manchester, VT.

She lived to write another day ... but under another name.

"What's in a name?" asked the greatest writer in the English language. We'll find out. Right now my choice of surname is "Grey" -- it has royal overtones and "Leslie" is Celtic for "from the grey fortress, so it's my little personal inside joke.

As for potential first names, I'm becoming fond of (alphabetically) Annabel, Diana, Emily, Juliet, Olivia, and Vivien.

Feel free to weigh in! I welcome your suggestions.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Second Acts: Leanna Renee Hieber’s “Strangely Beautiful” Success Story

It is a truth universally acknowledged that many actresses feel the tug of the pen as well, turning to writing during, or instead of, their careers on stage or celluloid. Margaret Drabble forsook the boards of the Royal Shakespeare Company to become a novelist and memoirist of renown. Yours truly made the leap to novels after adapting 19th-century literature for the stage. And although he wasn’t an actress, of course, Henry Irving’s stage manager Bram Stoker took a stab at scribbling with Dracula.

And now, enter stage left with a flourish, Leanna Renee Hieber, with her long awaited debut novel The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, a blend of paranormal fantasy and gothic romance with a voice all its own.

It was Leanna’s writer’s voice that grabbed me from the start. That, and a strangely eerie set of coincidences: not only does it turn out that we have mutual friends, but we’ve had similar career trajectories: from striving actress with survival jobs in law firm temp hell to adapting 19th-century works from the page to the stage to ultimately joining the ranks of published authors in the ever-morphing sub-genres of Romance. So, this interview will be a bit different from some of the others Leanna has given, as it will focus on her journey to publication.

USA Today Bestselling author Kathryn Smith described The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker as “An ethereal, lyrical story that combines myth, spiritualism, and the gothic in lush prose and sweeping passion.”

What fortune awaited sweet, timid Percy Parker at Athens Academy? Hidden in the dark heart of Victorian London, the Romanesque school was dreadfully imposing, a veritable fortress, and little could Percy guess what lay inside. She had never met its powerful and mysterious Professor Alexi Rychman, knew nothing of the growing shadows, of the Ripper, and other supernatural terrors against which his coterie stood guard. She saw simply that she was different, haunted, with her snow white hair, pearlescent skin and uncanny gift. This arched stone doorway was a portal to a new life, to an education far from what could be at a convent—and it was an invitation to an intimate yet dangerous dance at the threshold of life and death. . . .

First of all, congratulations on a stellar debut!

Leanna: Thanks so much, Leslie! I’m very grateful for the opportunity; it’s been quite a wondrous ride!

Leanna, according to the bio at the back of the novel you’re a native of rural Ohio. How has that background shaped your career and your imagination?

Out in the middle of nowhere, there are gorgeous dark skies, intense colors, rich sounds of night, the shadows are long and deep, and there’s a keen and overwhelming sense of magic. And there are ghosts. I’ve always believed in spirits. This is how I think of my seminal surroundings. I was born with a wild imagination. Add that to an early and odd fixation with the 19th century, and these aspects remain inextricably tied. I’ve always been a night owl so midnight in the country means a great deal to me and remains my prime time to write, no matter where I am. My imagination thrives as much in nature as it does in a gothic cathedral.

My trajectory has been to find a place where that wildness meets the yearning sense of a city home I felt when I first went to London. I’m country and city mouse in one. I would immerse myself in Gothic novels set in brooding cityscapes or ancient castles and walk the woods to make sense of it, creating my own spin on 19th century tales. As for how this all shaped a career; I’ve more than a little bit of restlessness. I’ve a madcap energy that’s better suited in many ways for a city (cities are, after all, homes of theatre and publishing too), and so while I knew wouldn’t always live in the country, and while love New York, I always look forward to returning to Ohio as it means reconnecting to an old, primal, grounded magic- the place where my muses first took shape.

Although your novel is not exactly realism, did you bring any life experiences to the writing of it, particularly in terms of the characters you created? Is it a coincidence that the eponymous heroine, Percy Parker, has your pale, blonde beauty?

*blush* While I’d not flatter myself quite like that—and—Percy’s absolutely ghost-white skin is far paler than mine even—there is so much of ‘me’ in the book; in every character. I had to remove myself enough so that the characters make the choices they would make, distinctly, but I do feel an incredible kinship with them. I can’t say I’ve ever had the kind of connection to characters like I have with Percy and The Guard. It’s why I knew Percy’s story had to be the one to truly launch my fiction career. There are things in the book that Percy has an absolute, geeky, childishly pure passion about. She and I share those passions, and maintain that wondrous joy about them. There’s a drama about Percy and her situation that comes from being theatre-saturated in my youth and as a professional actress. It’s a very ‘me’ book, from my love-affair with the 19th century, Gothic and fantasy to my life-long love of ghost stories and Greek Mythology. It’s everything I love in one cross-genre series.

You say you began writing as soon as you were old enough to hold a pen: so what trajectory led you first to a career as a professional actress?

I had too much energy for one art, just about every type of art has had its hooks in me at one time or another. All that energy exploding into a mainly solitary form like writing just wasn’t working for the social creature that I am. For much of my life, my writing was absolutely private, a closely guarded secret, I thought people would think I was crazy for the obsessive, love-struck discipline I took to my early novels. I wrote easily for classes, but those were assignments- those were different. I wrote stories that were mine, my escape and favorite hobby, I didn’t dream of making a career of it, it was just something I did, something I’d always done. The theatre was public rather than private and I could let directors and teachers mess around with my theatre craft, it didn’t mean quite as much to me on a spiritual level, it was all fun and drama and took up most of my neon-bright energy, while my books were my secret, more intense passion that took up my daydreams and nightmares. But in the end, as the Bard would say “the truth will out”.

I feel like writing is my ‘long haul’ love and will be my most sustainable passion, though I’ll never entirely hang up my actress hat for good- besides, speaking actress to actress here, training and flair comes in extra handy for doing staged readings of your writing, doesn’t it?

Like many striving artists you worked more than few “survival jobs” along the way. Tell us a bit about them. Did any of your bosses or coworkers inspire some of your characters or otherwise influence your writing?

I’ve been a tour-guide, receptionist, paralegal, barista, teacher, errand runner, stage manager, office assistant, dunked repeatedly in a pond at a Renaissance Faire, a museum guide, a play-screener, a showcaser of all sorts of promotional items I myself couldn’t afford, etc.

My first piece of published writing was recounting my harrowing (and humourous) day inside a Pillsbury Dough Boy suit, trying hard to make rent while living as an actress in the Twin Cities (Dramatics Magazine, 2004). Ask any actor and they’ll give you tons of random jobs just like mine for a good laugh.

My connection to Dramatics Magazine came from a director of mine in the Twin Cities, where I’d gotten a theatre job and liked the city so much I decided to stay for a while. He noticed that every day after rehearsal I’d go bury myself in my novel (at this time the first drafts of Miss Percy Parker). He wasn’t connected on the book front but as he appreciated my diligence as a writer, he connected me to the magazine and then suggested venues to publish some short plays. Becoming a published writer in these smaller venues gave me a huge boost of confidence to continue. It didn’t, of course, open New York publishing doors for fiction, but it was the start of me taking myself seriously, because my director, my “boss” did. And I’m really grateful for the people who have helped and encouraged me along the way. As for the setting of Miss Parker and how that was influenced by my working environment, I’ll answer that next.

How and when did you begin to write The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker and what was the journey you took from premise to published?

I began the Strangely Beautiful series while working as a performance intern for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company my first year out of college, having graduated a BFA performance major with a focus in the Victorian Era. I worked very long hours at CSC, six days a week, several productions at once (all the Shakespeare references in the book were inevitable and fun). It was a wonderful backdrop, having the Bard in my head all day as I stole moments away from rehearsal or performance to flesh out this Victorian Gothic. Although Miss Parker couldn’t have had worse timing to breeze into my mind in some ghost-white vision, I was overworked to say the least – the energy of falling in love with the characters kept me going as if they were coffee mainlining my bloodstream.

The journey. Oy. Juggling the professional regional theatre circuit, I bounced around the country while working on many drafts of the manuscript. Because I was focusing on theatre foremost, the novel took slightly second place throughout the next several years, but once I got a lot of accolades on my short plays, I began to think of myself as much as a writer as an actress, and that felt right. I had been, after all, a writer before I ‘was’ anything else. While Strangely Beautiful was sitting places awaiting judgement I published a novella with a small-press, Crescent Moon Press, titled Dark Nest, which won the 2009 Prism Award for excellence in Fantasy/Futuristic/Paranormal Romance. This further shifted my career sense as I kept waiting to see what would happen with Strangely Beautiful, fingers crossed, anxious as could be.

The difficulty with the Strangely Beautiful series is that it’s a cross-genre series. It could sit on several different genre shelves and not be entirely wrong. It has been described in various places as any combination of the following: a Historical (Victorian) Gothic Fantasy Paranormal Romance with Suspense, light Horror and YA cross-over appeal. So while I received compliments from editors and agents on the ideas, style or characters, marketing departments had no idea what to do with it. But I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, make the series into any one of those genres alone. I just needed to have a tight, good book and the right house. And so it took me many rewrites and a publishing house like Dorchester, no stranger to cross-genre initiatives, to give me a chance. But I appreciate it all the more for the nearly nine year long haul from idea to the shelf.

Are you still acting? Have you discovered that you prefer writing to acting (and if so why)? Or have you found that practicing one artistic discipline feeds the other one?

I’m still active in the industry as much as I can be, especially to make ends meet, though I’ve taken myself off the audition circuit for the time being as it just isn’t where my heart is. I was at a Broadway call-back a few years back and all I could think about was my book, so that was a clarion call to my priorities. I remain a proud member of Actors Equity, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. I work often as a background extra for film and television and that’s a great, flexible job that’s perfect for a writer with downtime in which to do edits, write, etc (it feels so weird to call the entertainment industry my ‘day job’).

Everything I trained in theatrically, everything I used in putting on a show, utterly feeds into how I write. I put on the hats of Cinematographer, Director and Actor every time I sit down to write. I’ve begun teaching a workshop on using theatre techniques to further your book and it’s a great joy to knit my passions together.

The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker has been compared (and quite favorably!) to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and it’s easy to see why: your novel includes an unusual school whose teachers possess special powers, and you make generous use of unique symbolism and supernatural elements—although you have a very distinctive writer’s voice that is nothing at all like Rowling’s. Was . . . Percy Parker in any way influenced by the Harry Potter books?

Absolutely, I’m obsessed with Harry Potter. But like all of my obsessions, I take them into my heart and they inspire me to make something entirely of my own. But I credit Harry Potter to cracking open my imagination and transporting it to that same wild and furious place as when I started my first book so many years before. I was tossed anew into a fresh whirlwind of creativity, but this time, I had a long love of 19th century fiction to fall back on and fall into as my baseline, a better sense of craft, and added my love of fantasy and Myth on top. I suppose you could say HP is sort of a glaze, or frosting on all my cross-genre influences. J

Many authors, especially those who are also actresses, love to fantasize about their “dream cast” if their novel were to be made into a movie. Do you have such a dream cast? I have a feeling I know who you’d love to see play Alexi Rychman, but I want to hear you say it.

*giggle* I didn’t hide my dream hero in the least, did I? All right, I’ll say it again, Alan Rickman. (He’s hardly ever been given a lead hero, I felt it was my duty). The entire cadre of fine British actors and actresses have paraded around in my head as the Guard. But alas, by the time they were to make a movie the Guard would have to be younger than Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, etc. Alexi needs to be an intense stage/screen presence. So my vote currently goes to Richard Armitage. He’s got the right brood-factor to tenderness-capability ratio. If you don’t know who he is go out and buy the BBC’s North and South. Do it now! I’ve been a bit stuck on who could play Percy but then Emma Watson could do nicely, couldn’t she? Dakota Fanning? Someone who can do timid and awkward yet powerful when need be. But the chemistry has to be right between Percy and Alexi otherwise it’s all moot.

Did you have a specific location in mind for the Athens Academy? As I was reading the book I kept thinking of the Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury.

Indeed, the Bloomsbury area just felt right. Since I wasn’t basing Athens on a specific institution, I gave myself some liberty and had to imagine the area in Victorian times, and also give Athens a bit of mystery around its locale. (I do love the Russell Hotel and it factored into my consciousness—good call!) Every city I’ve ever lived in has had some sort of mansion or theatre in the Richardson Romanesque style (those beautiful, red-brick or red-sandstone, dramatic buildings—much like the Russell) that just takes my breath away and so that just had to be the setting—not to mention it fits with the neo-classical themes of the book. As much as I love Gothic architecture, the Richardson Romanesque style is very distinct and also distinguishes Athens from the clearly Gothic setting of Rowling’s Hogwarts.

What’s next, and when will it be published?

The Strangely Beautiful series continues with The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker (end of April 2010). It picks up exactly where the first book leaves off, with Percy and Alexi remaining in the focus and greater insight to the rest of The Guard. Prophecy was just the beginning; next it’s all-out spectral war. And the series continues again in October 2010—see below!

What are you writing now?

A Strangely Beautiful novella to be included in a Dorchester Fantasy Christmas anthology, October 2010, starring Headmistress Rebecca Thompson and Vicar Michael Carroll (the Guard make their inevitable appearances, of course). Miss Percy and resident spirits get a bit Dickensian with the unrequited couple. J I adore working on it.

Thank you, Leslie, for the opportunity to share my story with you, I very much appreciate your time and your thoughtful questions. I had such fun answering them. We can’t wait to have you as our guest at Lady Jane’s Salon in February!

* Lady Jane’s Salon was founded in late 2008 by the aforementioned founding authors and launched Feb. 2009 as NYC’s only reading series devoted to romance fiction.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Coming on Tuesday ... a "Strangely Beautiful" Interview

Please stop by on Tuesday, October 13, as I welcome Leanna Renee Hieber, author of The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Percy Parker as she discusses her remarkable literary debut and the path to publication.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hilary Mantel Wins Man Booker Prize

Hooray for Hilary! Congratulations are in order to Hilary Mantel, author of WOLF HALL, for snagging Britain's most prestigious literary honor, the Man Booker prize, beating out the other nominees, the none-too-shabby A.S. Byatt, J.M. Coetzee, Adam Foulds, Simon Mawer, and Sarah Waters.
The winner was announced today. In addition to the honor of winning the award, Mantel will receive £50,000 ($83,500).
I was honored to receive a review copy of WOLF HALL last week, and although I've been juggling numerous literary deadlines of my own, I will say this much ... this sweeping novel of the Tudor court, featuring at its center the manipulative, and frankly unlikeable, Thomas Cromwell, whose star rose and fell at the whim of Henry VIII, is very difficult to put down.
A full discussion of WOLF HALL will follow in a subsequent post (at the moment I'm only 275 pages into the 532-page novel). So far I can state unevoquivically that it is to Mantel's credit that she has managed to create a terrific page-turner (though a dense read, to be sure) and a positively compelling story (even when you know the inevitable outcome) from the point of view of an utterly objectionable human being.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


In my book, thirteen is a lucky number. So, without further ado (though feel free to imagine a fanfare or a drum roll, or both) ... here is the cover for my thirteenth book:

A Juicy Journey Through Nine Centuries of Dynasty, Destiny, and Desire

Release date is January 5, 2010. You can preorder at

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Because I love it...

Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus
in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
c. 1482-1486

An "enchanting" contest

Ms. Lucy, over at the marvelously informative Enchanted by Josephine blog (http://enchantedbyjosephine.blogspot.com/), is holding a cyber raffle today for Carolly Erickson's nonfiction title, Royal Panoply.

Yeah, I write that stuff, too -- but one can never have enough research books; plus it's always interesting to learn the perspectives of other authors on some of the same ground I cover, but if there wasn't so much interest in these enduring (and occasionally endearing) royals, there wouldn't be so many books on them!

So I say, keep it coming, readers! Once you've read the fictional versions of some of the lives of the royals, and of their friends and lovers, take a nip over to the nonfiction aisle of your local (or cyber) bookstore and pick up a book like Ms. Erickson's -- or mine -- I particularly recommend ROYAL AFFAIRS, A Lusty Romp Through the Extramarital Adventures that Rocked the British Monarchy.

My second nonfiction title, NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES: A Juicy Journey Through Nine Centuries of Dynasty, Destiny, and Desire (NAL, January 5, 2010) is available for pre-order, just a click or two away at all major online bookstores.

Or, if you've first familiarized yourself with the facts, I encourage you to saunter over to the historical fiction section for the highly imagined (and frequently imaginative) versions.

Compare and contrast.

I promise there won't be a quiz at the end of the period. ;)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Versailles Glide

I've been researching the life of Marie Antoinette for my work in progress, a novel about her early years. As Archduchess Antonia of Austria, she underwent a radical makeover during the years 1768-1770 to prepare her for her role as the future dauphine of France. Her mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria had been negotiating since 1766 to marry Antonia to Louis-Auguste, the dauphin of France and grandson of Louis XV of France.

To read all about Marie Antoinette's makeover, visit http://www.historyhoydens.blogspot.com/ and click on my post titled, unsurprisingly, "Marie Antoinette's Makover."

In order for Antonia to more seamlessly assimilate into the rarified and sophisticated atmosphere at Versailles, Maria Theresa imported the celebrated choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre from the Duke of W├╝rttemburg's court of Stuttgart. Noverre was a world traveler who had been the choreographer at London's Drury Lane Theatre under the management of David Garrick. Both men had very progressive views about Theatre and Dance and each was known for his introduction of "naturalism" (that term being relative, given the "method acting" styles of the 20th century) into his art. Noverre was the first proponent of the "story ballet" and strongly believed that the elements of dance within a theatrical or operatic performance be organically integrated into the whole.

Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810)

Among Noverre's responsibilities at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna was the instruction of the prepubescent (ages 12-13) Antonia in the flawless performance of the court dances popular at Versailles, as well as a specific form of movement that was unique to the French court, known as the Versailles Glide.

Noverre is long dead. But long live Maria Zannieri, a dance teacher, choreographer, and period dance expert located right the heart of New York City, a mere stone's throw from Macy*s. Maria and her husband John DeBlass run (and teach at) the West Side Dance Project at 260 W. 36th Street, on the 3rd floor. I have known both of them for years. When my nonprofit theatre company produced plays from the 19th century and earlier, John directed several of the productions and Maria served as the choreographer.

The incomparable Maria Zannieri and John DeBlass

So, when I decided to learn how to execute the Versailles Glide, as a "method novelist," I turned to Maria for a lesson -- and I would cheerfully suggest that other historical writers consider the same route in order to learn how their characters moved, on or off a dance floor.

There are scant clues as to how the walk was achieved. Historian Antonia Fraser describes the Versailles Glide as a "mincing step" in her acclaimed biography of Marie Antoinette. But to many people, including Maria and me, "mincing" implies lifting the feet and taking tiny steps. And we have also read that the movement was performed without lifting the feet from the floor.

Maria was convinced that the Versailles Glide is the same step performed by the Angels at the top of Act II of Balanchine's Nutcracker ballet. After visiting the New York Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and viewing a tape of the Angels' dance, I was sure she was right.

In a properly executed Versailles Glide (which was only performed by women at the French court), the lady appears to be rolling. Her feet never seem to touch the floor and yet the illusion is created by never removing the feet from the floor. The wide cages called the Grand Panniers (or big baskets) worn under yards and yards of skirts constructed with heavily embellished brocades and silks, also helped to create and maintain that illusion -- that the wearer is sailing across the floor. The body never changes levels or bounces, and the era's long corsets with their stiff busks down the center keep the torso rigid.

The shoes had a "French" or "Louis" heel, approximately 2 inches high. For actors who have worn "character" shoes, that's a good approximation of the right heel.

For my lesson, lacking the requisite grand pannier, I donned a wide petticoat, the kind one would wear under a contemporary ballgown. Maria tied a velvet skirt over it to add some weight. Then I wore a jacket with a similar sleeve and a tight armhole, which would further restrict the movement of my torso, in the absence of the appropriate corset.

Having researched the Versailles Glide prior to our lesson, Maria then demonstrated the step to me. She was wearing soft-soled jazz shoes, but showed me how to execute the step by going up to demi-pointe, on the balls of her feet, with her heels lifted slightly off the floor (even harder to do when you're wearing the 2" Louis heel. She kept her torso rigid and pitched it slightly forward, to mimic the effect of the proper corset. Keeping her thighs quiet and uninvolved in the movement she bent her knees very slightly and with her feet close together, if not touching, she began to perform the Versailles Glide, by taking tiny, rapid steps forward and then in looping swirls about the dance studio. The movement is entirely performed from the knee down.

Then I tried it. It's tricky to keep the knees soft and to put so much weight on the balls of your feet as you shuffle forward (in the most delicate way imaginable), keeping those 2" heels hovering just above the floor so they are not heard.

The main rule to remember is that the balls of the feet never leave the floor; the heels never touch it. Posture is ramrod stiff. Imagine yourself as a pull-toy on wheels and someone has a ribbon tied around your waist and is pulling you forward.

It's simple, but it's not terribly easy. And after a while you really feel the strain in your calves and your arches. It's hard to imagine how the female nobility at Versailles managed to sustain the movement for several minutes at a time as they glided along lengthy corridors and hallways.

After about an hour, I remembered what it felt like to suffer for my art.

But frankly, something as arcane or obscure as the Versailles Glide doesn't really come alive until you learn the movement and get in your muscles. And I think it can only help to feed my appreciation of what my characters were expected to endure on a daily basis. It will certainly enable me to better describe the movement now that I have lived and performed it.

Making history come alive . . . and making it fun. That's what I do. Thanks to Maria Zannieri. If you want to reach Maria and John to help you add some additional verisimiltude to your manuscript, you can phone West Side Dance Project in Manhattan or email info@joriaproductions.com.

Happy Dancing ... and Happy Writing!

Any questions?!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Leslie's new web site is live!

After several months in gestation, my new web site was born today, a healthy url with all its links alive and kicking.

I look forward to your comments. And if you belong to a book club, don't forget to check out the link on the home page.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I made my agent cry!

In a good way. I submitted a 40-page proposal for a novel about the early years of Marie Antoinette titled BECOMING. And she loved it so much she cried.

As I researched Marie Antoinette for my second nonfiction title NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, it made me hungry to learn more about her. And the more I read, the more I revised my opinion of her.

The Marie Antoinette I came to love and pity after reading a dozen biographies of her presents such delicious contradictions in terms that she is a novelist’s dream.
Possessed of a proud temperament, she was nonetheless desperate to please, and in doing so was often too eager to place her trust in the hands of those who were not in fact her confidantes, but who wished her harm instead. She would brook no contradiction, yet was vulnerable to criticism; a frivolous creature who was also the most generous member of the French royal family when it came to helping the poor. She was stubborn and willful, yet playful and adorably charming; regal, yet empathetic; loyal, yet confounded by the dual roles she was often expected to play. She was a natural beauty who according to her own mother was in dire need of painful physical improvements in order to enhance her looks; born to rule, yet shockingly unprepared to do so when the time came to fulfill her ultimate destiny.
Do you know a lot about Marie Antoinette? A little? What's your opinion of her?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hope for the Dream

President Obama. How wonderful it feels to write those two words, savoring them as I wait for the inauguration events to be televised today.

Me, in the white jacket, meeting Rabbi Capers Funnye, Jr. Beside him is his wife, Mary.

Last night I attended a utterly transformational event at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side. It was a dual celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday and the inaugural of Barack Obama, featuring Michelle Obama's cousin, Chicago Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, Jr., and the spiritual, soulful, and roof-splitting music of the "Prince of Kosher Gospel," Joshua Nelson, and double Grammy-winner Cissy Houston -- mother of Whitney, aunt of Dionne Warwick, and a powerhouse in her own right.

Miss Cissy Houston

Gospel, Dixieland, and Soul shook the rafters, much of it sung in Hebrew. Members of Stephen Wise and their guests, who included clergy of other faiths, African-American Jews from several local and not-so-local congregations, and people of all colors and every generation were on their feet for much of the concert, encouraged to keep the beat with their hands and feel the music. I was profoundly moved by the sight of Joshua Nelson's nonagenerian grandmother, seated in a wheelchair near the stage; while beside her, a baby girl, all pink and white, was bouncing on her mother's lap.

Rabbi Funnye with Haim Handwerker

When the musicians took a break, journalist Haim Handwerker interviewed Rabbi Funnye, whose responses to Mr. Handwerker's questions were thoughtful, moving, insightful, provocative, and humorous. Handwerker marveled that during the election, Mr. Obama had his wife's cousin as a "secret weapon" in his arsenal, and yet Rabbi Funnye was not tapped to speak to some of the American Jews who were wary about voting for him, unsure they could trust Mr. Obama to be a friend to Israel and support Jewish interests.
"Well, they know I'm here," the rabbi jested, indicating that he would always be eager to enter into a dialogue with people. "If you don't talk, you don't communicate, how can you understand what the other person is saying? I've been in the room when both sides were saying essentially the same thing, but they were saying it so loudly, they couldn't listen to each other. "

I, for one, cannot wait to visit Rabbi Funnye's shul the next time I'm in Chicago.

Joshua Nelson

In the Stephen Wise sanctuary the feelings of hope were palpable. The excitement in the room over the impending inauguration of Barack Obama, and the fact that with his historic election we have moved closer to Dr. King's dream of equality and justice for all people, moved an SRO audience to repeated bursts of applause. I can't remember the last time I've been in a room full of people -- mostly strangers to each other -- that was so full of love and hope and possibility, brought together with the universal language of music.

The evening ended with hundreds of people joining hands and singing "We Shall Overcome," although Mr. Nelson first suggested that we "update the lyric a little bit."

"We Have Overcome," Miss Houston sang, her voice warm and mellifluous. We're not there yet, the evening's headliners acknowledged; but with Mr. Obama's election as our nation's 44th president, we've taken a giant step in the right direction.