Nancy Atherton didn't intend to start a mystery series when she wrote her first book, Aunt Dimity's Death, and she certainly didn't intend to forever change cozy mysteries by creating the original paranormal detective. But she did! And with the publication of Aunt Dimity and the Summer King, Atherton marks the 20th book in her beloved series.
Twenty books? I’ve written 20 books? Are you serious? I guess you are, because Aunt Dimity and the Summer King is indeed the 20th title in a mystery series I began writing more than 20 years ago.
Aunt Dimity has been around longer than Netflix, Google, Facebook and some of you. The fact that she’s still alive and kicking (so to speak) in a brand-new story is nothing short of miraculous. Not in a million years could I have predicted that my first book would lead to my 20th.
When I wrote my first book, Aunt Dimity's Death, I didn’t think it had a snowball’s chance of being published. At the time, there was no known market for a nonviolent, non-vulgar novel that was sort of a mystery and sort of a love story, with a supernatural element, some gardening, a bit of military history, a pink flannel bunny and a recipe thrown in because, what the heck, why not? The plot couldn’t be summarized in a simple catchphrase, and the story didn’t fit neatly into an established genre. It was a very strange little book—a marketing nightmare!—and I was absolutely convinced that it would remain forever in a box on a shelf in my closet, unseen by any eyes but mine.
And I was OK with that. I hadn’t written Aunt Dimity's Death in order to see my name in print. I wrote it because the first two lines of the story popped into my head one evening, and I simply had to find out what they meant. If there’s one trait I share with my characters, it’s a burning desire to get to the bottom of things.
I didn’t stop to write an outline, and it never occurred to me to do market research. I just hopped, skipped and jumped my way through the book like a kid on a treasure hunt. I never knew what would happen next, and I loved the excitement of not knowing. I wrote to please no one but my characters and myself, and when I finished the first draft, I knew for certain that it would never be read by anyone but me.
I’ve seldom been so happy to be wrong. To my utter astonishment, Aunt Dimity's Death found a great publisher as well as a loyal and highly enthusiastic family of fans. Best of all, it contained a snippet of dialogue that inspired me to write my second book. I hadn’t intended to write a series, but my characters insisted that I stick around to tell more of their tales, and I’m exceedingly glad they did. It has been a privilege to watch them grow and change over time. It has been a pleasure to share in their continuing adventures.
Not in a million years could I have foreseen the long and joyful journey that would spring from the opening lines of Aunt Dimity's Death. I never dreamed that my strange little book would lead to a series that’s still going strong two decades after its most unlikely birth. I hope you’ll join me in a toast to my 20th title. And I hope you enjoy Aunt Dimity and the Summer King. As for me, I'm off to work on number 21. I can’t wait to find out what happens next!
Nancy Atherton is the best-selling author of 20 Aunt Dimity mysteries, including the latest installment, Aunt Dimity and the Summer King (Viking; on sale April 14, 2015). The first book in the series, Aunt Dimity’s Death, was voted “One of the Century’s 100 Favorite Mysteries” by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Atherton lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Author photo credit Grey Taylor.
With his National Book Award-winning YA novel, Godless, Pete Hautman explored themes of religion and spirituality through the story of a church that worshipped a water tower—the perfect blend of weighty, provovative themes and a humorous premise. His new novel, Eden West, touches on similiar topics, this time through the story of a teen boy who belongs to an insular, secluded cult, and what happens when the outside world begins to creep in on his protected world. In a guest blog post, Hautman shares his thoughts on readers' fascinations with cults.
Every few years some group of people who share an unconventional set of beliefs winds up in the news: The Branch Davidians. Heaven’s Gate. The Unification Church. Trekkies.* Because these groups are tiny and somewhat (ahem) peculiar, we call them “cults.”
This year, with the release of the HBO documentary Going Clear, the cult of the moment is Scientology—never mind that Scientology might not be a true “cult” (any more than it qualifies as a true religion). Our love of schadenfreude means that any excuse will do to put the sensational and pejorative word cult in a headline. (Did I just do that very thing? Yeah, I guess I did.)
But while the rest of us are congratulating ourselves for being comparatively normal, it’s easy to forget that these cults—or cult-like groups—are largely made up of smart, creative, well-intentioned individuals who are working hard to live good lives within a carefully constructed framework. The majority of cults don’t make the news. They are functional and largely invisible. And while most cults eventually self-destruct or wither away, a few groups with cultish origins—Christians, for example—have evolved to become accepted, mainstream religions.
Since nobody else was doing it, I wanted to write a story concerning a fictional cult that was functional—not your usual cults-are-evil-and-everybody-dies-in-the-end scenario. I wanted to write a love story.
Eden West started out that way. A boy growing up in an odd, insular cult compound in Montana meets a girl from the other side of the 13-mile-long chain-link fence. Inside the compound, several dozen hard-working people are raising their families and waiting peacefully for the end of the world. I wanted my fictional “Eden West” to be idyllic and entirely functional—a sort of backdrop to a more personal story, that of one boy who becomes tainted by contact with the outside world.
As often happens, things fell apart. My carefully laid plan to write a simple love story set against the backdrop of a utopian cult turned out not to be so simple. During the 12 years it took to write, Eden West became the story of a world within a world, a world colliding with itself. Unforeseen events lead the young man, Jacob, to an unexpected series of epiphanies, each of which chisels away at the foundations of his reality. My little utopia imploded, my characters were swept into the resulting vortex, and the story went to places I had never intended to visit.
I learned a lot, and it turns out there’s a good reason why most cults separate themselves from the mainstream—most of them simply can’t survive close contact with the juggernaut of the conventional. Not even in fiction.
*Just kidding, Trekkies. Live Long and Prosper!
And check out Pete's Eden West unboxing video below:
It's National Poetry Month, and here at BookPage, we're celebrating by highlighting some of the best new collections. In her second collection of poetry, Fanny Says, Nickole Brown offers a probing lyrical biography of her maternal grandmother while also considering the power of memory and Southern society. In this guest blog post, she lists the reasons you should be reading poetry—during poetry month and every other month in between.
Top Five Reasons You Should Be Reading Poetry:
5. Because it’s unnecessary.
Yes, unnecessary, absolutely so, but only in the way that beauty and truth are unnecessary. Like an elegant armful of cut tulips brought home dripping from the store among all your pragmatic sundries, like my grandmother’s false lashes glued on every morning to her come-sit-your-handsome-ass-down-here wink, like that baked-bread smell of a newborn’s crown. Poetry may bear witness, but it is rarely the hardy mule carrying news or facts. No, its burden is unquantifiable, and similar to a penny tossed into a fountain, its worth is in the wishing. As William Carlos William wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Put another way, C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. . . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
4. Because it’s a throat full of word music.
For the poet Patricia Smith, the word was anemone. She was nine years old when her fourth-grade teacher asked her to pronounce it. She writes that she “took a stab and caught it, and / and that one word was uncanny butter on my new tongue.” For the poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar, she loves it when plethora, indolence, damask, or lasciviousness work, in her words, “to stain my tongue, / thicken my saliva.” For me, some days, it’s the word fricative. Other days, it’s ardor, aubade, hydrangea; I’ve held each of those words like a private little bubble of air popping around inside my mouth. Donald Hall calls this “milktongue” and names it as the “deep and primitive pleasure of vowels in the mouth, of assonance and of holds on adjacent long vowels; of consonance, mmmm, and alliteration.”
3. Because it fosters community.
Robert Pinsky knew this when he started the Favorite Poem Project when he was U.S. Poet Laureate—people love to share poems that speak to them. And not just poets, either, but postal workers and dental technicians and racecar enthusiasts, too. Almost everyone carries a poem with them, even if only a scratch of a line or two deep in memory, and reading poetry can place you squarely in the chorus of people hungry to share those lines. Consider, for example, a casual late-night post I made on Facebook last February, making a request of the Internet for poems of joy and happiness. Within hours, over sixty comments magically arrived in my feed, recommending poem after poem. . . poems by Naomi Shihab Nye and William Loran Smith and Robert Hass, among many others. I read them all, and suddenly, I was much less alone; my dreary winter was flooded bright.
2. Because it welcomes what’s inexpressible.
I’ll confess: it was fiction I studied in graduate school. But when I finished my program, I found the cohesiveness required of a novel to be false and hardly conducive to the fragmented, often discontinuous memories I carried. When I wrote my first book, Sister, I needed the white space between poems to hold the silence between the remaining shards of my childhood. With Fanny Says, I needed a form that would allow me to mosaic together a portrait of my grandmother with only the miscellaneous bits of truth I had without having to fudge the connective tissue between them. You see, poetry doesn’t demand explanations. In fact, most poems avoid them, often reaching for questions over answers. Now, this doesn’t mean poetry is necessarily difficult to understand, no. It means that it simply makes room for things that are difficult to understand. John Keats called this negative capability, as poetry is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” To me, this acceptance of what cannot be explained is one of the best reasons to read poetry.
1. Because it calls for a life of awareness.
People often assume poetry exists in the realm of thought, lost in philosophical inquiry and romantic meanderings. And most early attempts at writing poetry fail because of this, or worse, because beginning writers travel those easy, hard-wired paths in the brain geared towards survival, which are inundated with years of advertisements, televised plots, and habitual speech. But poetry demands awareness, a raw, muscular devotion to paying attention. You have to live in your body, you have to listen hard to the quiet ticking of both your life and those around you. Like an anthropologist, you have to take down good notes. Poems require a writer to write from all the senses. As Eudora Welty said, “Children, like animals, use all their senses to discover the world. Then artists come along and discover it the same way, all over again.” To me, poetry can make even the most quotidian of things—a tomato on the counter, a housefly batting against the window, your bent reflection in a steel mixing bowl—something extraordinary. Poetry notices things. It scrubs your life free of clichés and easy answers, and the best poems make everyday life strange and new. Poetry requires you to be awake to write it, and reading effective poetry is a second kind of awakening.
Thank you, Nickole! Readers, Fanny Says is now available from BOA Editions.
In case you were unaware, the best-selling author Christina Lauren is actually two authors: best friends Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings. In this guest post, they talk about what it's like to write as a team, their unconventional creative process and their latest collaboration.
Most writers work alone, so as co-authors, we’ve found that people are curious about how we work as a team. It’s a horrifying prospect to some writers, the idea of letting someone else into the creative process, but we honestly—HONESTLY—don’t see how co-authorless writers do it. We’re guessing alcohol.
Exactly 722 miles separate our doorsteps, but—thankfully—it’s an odd month when we don’t see each other. We outline in person . . . and—thankfully, again—there always seems to be another project to outline. (See also: We are lucky!)
For us, outlining is really just talking about the book. Sometimes it happens in restaurants (oops to anyone sitting within earshot), the car or even while waiting in line at Disneyland. We ask: Who are these characters? Why do they fall in love? What gets in the way? What makes them different? Our outlines are usually pretty simple—a sentence, maybe a very short paragraph reminding us what happens—and we go from there. We try not to go into too much detail at this stage because if we’ve learned one thing after writing fifteen books together, it’s that things change the moment we put words on a page.
We draft alone—our processes are so different we’d drive the other insane—but in shared documents so we always know what comes before and after what we’re writing. Sometimes we divide by POV, sometimes it’s based on who wants to tackle which parts, and sometimes it’s based on our strengths. We draft fast and then revise, revise, revise.
And then we revise some more.
It’s easy for readers and aspiring writers to feel discouraged when they look at their draft and then at glossy finished books on the bookstore shelf. Some writers draft clean; we don’t, and our books come alive in revision. Sweet Filthy Boy started out in alternating POV’s, but had to be cut to one when we realized a character was keeping a secret. Beautiful Secret was finished in July, but went through edits up until January because we hadn’t quite gotten the nuances of the characters right yet. We rewrote about 85 percent of Dark Wild Night because while the story itself was fine . . . it didn’t fit the characters at all.
And that’s okay; sometimes writers need to do the wrong thing before they see the right direction. Writing can be isolating, and any creative work is so subjective. We all wonder if anyone else will ever relate to this thing we’re creating. It’s why we’re grateful to have each other, as well as the editor and agent we have! And priority number one? Get better with every book.
Thanks, you two!
(Author photo by Alyssa Michelle)
Maybe we're excited about baseball season because opening day feels like a better beginning of spring than the actual equinox on March 20 (I mean, it was snowing in NYC). Maybe it's because our local minor-league team, the Nashville Sounds, is getting a brand-new stadium. Whatever the reason, we're excited. Our April issue includes a selection of stellar nonfiction baseball books, but every year we also enjoy a steady stream of baseball novels.
Leslie Dana Kirby has just published her debut novel, The Perfect Game, a psychological suspense that explores the murder of the wife of a professional baseball superstar. In this guest blog post, she digs into baseball as an interesting background for books:
Ahhh, spring. Longer days, warmer weather for reading good books poolside . . . and opening day of baseball season.
As a resident of Phoenix, I have already been enjoying a month of baseball as rabid fans stream in from all over the country to attend spring training games. And as the official opening date of the professional baseball season was April 5, this is a great time of year to crack open some books with baseball themes.
As a kid, I really enjoyed In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord, a charming book about Shirley Temple Wong, a young girl who immigrates to Brooklyn from China. As she struggles to assimilate, she finds herself inspired by Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, who is proving that minorities can live their dreams in the United States.
While I was reading about Shirley Temple Wong, my older brother fell in love with Ball Four, an expose by pitcher Jim Bouton, which peeled back the curtain on professional baseball. When it was first published in 1970, it created a firestorm of controversy and was banned by some libraries. By 1999, it was being hailed by the New York Public Library and Time magazine as one of the most important works of nonfiction of the 20th century.
My first novel, The Perfect Game, is set against the backdrop of professional baseball. My protagonist, Lauren Rose, is devastated when her older sister and only sibling, Liz, is murdered. It’s a tragedy that is compounded by the fact that Liz was married to professional baseball pitcher Jake Wakefield. Jake’s fame quickly attracts a national spotlight to the murder and the ensuing investigation.
Why does baseball create an interesting setting for books? Perhaps it is because the topic takes many of us back to lazy summer days of enjoying peanuts and cracker jacks. Others relish the opportunity to get a glimpse into the glitzy and glamorous lives of professional baseball players. And the truly hardcore fans might be looking for a way to combine their love of the game with the joy of reading.
The slow pace of baseball play also allows time for reflection between plays. For baseball fans, that allows times for thinking about the possible implications of a hit or a fly ball. For authors, this allows time to discuss the reaction of the players or the spectators in between the action.
Additionally, baseball allows for reflection on individual performance more than most sports. For example, in my book, Jake pitches a perfect game, a tremendous achievement for a baseball pitcher. While other athletes might excel in a game, it isn’t really feasible for players in other sports, such as quarterbacks or basketball point guards, to accomplish a “perfect” outing.
Overall, I think for most of us, baseball represents the quintessential experience of long, relaxing days spent rooting on our favorite teams. So in between pitches in the next game of your favorite MLB team, consider reading some of these other popular books that feature the all-American sport:
I hope that one of these, or some other baseball book that you pick up this summer, might be a grand slam for you!
Thanks, Leslie! Readers, The Perfect Game is now available from Poisoned Pen Press.
New York Times best-selling author Kylie Scott has made a name for herself writing about the scintillating love lives of the (sadly fictional) rock band, Stage Dive. Deep, out now, is the final book in the series. In this guest post, Scott tells us about what drew her to rockers, her decision to feature a pregnant heroine and her thoughts on closing out the series.
Rock stars are funny things. Ever since prime-time TV deemed Elvis’ hip-shaking antics too raunchy to show on air, we’ve been fascinated with their lives, both on stage and off. Rock stars push boundaries and live life on the edge. They stand up beneath the spotlight in front of thousands and both enthrall and entertain. And right from the get go, more than any other topic, they were singing about sex, love and relationships. Take Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling” or Little Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” Sex, sex and more sex. How about Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” or The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses”? All of the longing and heartbreak you could ask for and then some.
For me, writing the Stage Dive series meant finally putting all the hours I spent in my youth sitting in front of music video shows, or with my ear glued to the radio hoping to catch a certain song, to good use. In the first book, Lick, there was lead guitar/song writer David. He was the tortured artist, emo-type dude. Next came manic, life-of-the-party drummer Mal, because filters . . . why would you even? Then came lead singer Jimmy, the messed-up, moody-ass show pony with addiction issues (He’s my favorite. I can’t help it. I love an asshole.) And finally, bass player Ben: big, bearded and simple in his ways. The man just wants to make music. So of course I screwed with him big time and had him accidentally knock up his best friend’s kid-sister. Angsty complications—I love them.
But why a pregnant heroine? Good question. You see, as we all know, in real life, sex has consequences. Sometimes those consequences are as simple as losing a bra down the back of the headboard or doing the walk of shame. Other times, they’re unexpected pregnancies that throw your whole life for a loop.
Now, despite the rather loud voices in my head, I know Deep is just a book. As much as I’d love to have a beer with Lena, it ain’t gonna happen. But romance novels are an opportunity for us to explore all those nitty-gritty relationship and female-orientated issues. Hold your horses! I’m not saying men can’t or don’t write romance, or that pregnancy doesn’t affect the other partner. What I am saying is, that in this book, written from the heroine’s perspective, we have a chance to dig deep into the mind of a young woman in this situation. It means we can bring unrequited love (*swoon*) out to play whilst also taking a peek at the biological, emotional and mental changes a woman undergoes when she’s knocked-up—both the funny and the frightening. Another reason I gave Liz a bun in the oven? I hadn’t written about a pregnant heroine before, and I like to mix things up, set myself a challenge. Also, pregnant women can, and do, have sex. We don’t suddenly lose all personality and become solely a breeding machine when sperm meets egg.
I’m going to miss the Stage Dive crew. They taught me a lot over the course of four books and I’m grateful for the experience. Will I ever write another story about them? Honestly, I don’t know. Right now, it’s time for something new. In the future though? There is that god-awful Martha woman still hanging around making side-eyes at Sam . . .
Samantha Norman didn't plan to be a novelist, but when her mother, the best-selling writer Ariana Franklin, passed away in 2011 and left a half-finished manuscript, Norman felt called to carry on her mother's legacy. In a guest blog post, she reveals what it was like to finish The Siege Winter.
Guest post by Samantha Norman
When my mother, the best-selling historical novelist, Ariana Franklin, died suddenly and unexpectedly four years ago, she left a great big hole in my life and a half-finished novel.
Although she’d always nagged me to start writing novels of my own—convinced somehow that I’d inherited her talent—I never got round to it. I’d written features, lots in fact, for newspapers and magazines but never anything longer than about 1,500 words and had no particular desire to, either. Writing is hard—I’d done enough of it to know that much—and, what’s more, I’d seen my mother—both parents actually, my father is also a novelist—sweating blood over their work and I just didn’t feel that that sort of hard labour was for me. And yet all of a sudden my Mum was dead and there was a novel to complete and I was suddenly imbued with a zeal I’d never felt about anything before, absolutely determined that I was to be the one to finish it.
It was an enormous responsibility. My mother had a large and devoted fan base whose members were vociferous in their admiration of her beautiful prose and unrivalled attention to historical detail and accuracy. Therefore, to do her justice—I should point out here that mum was an absolute pedant when it came to research and getting things absolutely right—and to continue her remarkable legacy without public outcries of “Shame!” I had to do a crash course in the medieval history she so adored, and in a matter of mere weeks—I had a fairly punishing deadline—assume a knowledge of 12th-century English history which she had carefully garnered over more than 35 years.
Not only that, but I also had to assume her writing style. I had always loved, envied even, the way she wrote, the seemingly effortless almost mellifluous way in which she strung words together, but could I emulate it? Well, only you can be the judge of that. The book’s out now and I’m terribly proud of it and I hope, I really, really hope that my mum would be too.
It's been 10 years since the publication of Boy Proof, Cecil Castellucci's groundbreaking young adult debut, now one of Time magazine's 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time. Ten years ago, sci-fi fans—especially young females—felt like they could let their geek flags fly after reading about Egg, who styles herself after the heroine of her favorite sci-fi movie, Terminal Earth, by dressing all in white, shaving her head and coloring her eyebrows. She's got her shields up—especially against boys. But then she meets Max.
Castellucci looks back on the book that defined her as an author and encouraged nerdy girls to stay weird while finding their courage:
It begins at a bookstore: one of my favorite indie bookstores in Los Angeles, Skylight Books. When I was first trying to sell my first book and dreaming of becoming an author, I would walk to the store, which is funny because nobody walks in Los Angeles. I went there to haunt the shelves, paw the books and dream that maybe one day I would be an actual author. The staff was friendly and encouraging. They let me stay for hours.
In those early years of being a dreamer, they asked me to help out at inventory. I came in to support, but also needing the grocery money to help clean the store and count and shelve the books. I still do inventory with them every year—15 years and counting. I had written two novels and a picture book that had not sold. I was blue. And poor. And dreaming. Somewhere in fiction while I was dusting and lamenting my rejections both by the book industry and gentleman suitors. Then Steven Salardino, the manager of the bookstore and now a dear friend, turned to me and said, “You should write a book called Boy Proof and the boy should be named Max.” Instead of shrugging him off, or throwing a dust rag at him, I said, “OK,” and set about to do it.
The title had struck me deep in my core. And as a nerdy girl myself, I had felt like that growing up and wanted to write a book about a girl who was a true nerd and the star of the book, not the sidekick or the best friend. A girl who, like me felt a little boy proof. I wanted to write the book that I had needed and wasn’t there when I was growing up geek. I had a few loose threads in my head that I thought I could pull on to make a story.
While time coding for my friends production transcript company, I had seen footage of a girl who dressed up as Trinity from the Matrix movies. To give myself swaths of time to write, I was an extra in movies and once got a call to interview to be a child ape on Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes. I was not chosen to be an ape. (Tim Burton’s loss, to be sure!) The interview was at special effects make-up artist Rick Baker's studio, which was truly inspiring. Living in Hollywood with all of this buzz of making it and reinvention made me think to back to when I was in high school. I had a great friend whose mother, a famous singer and actress, was making her big comeback, and there was a boy I was too shy to figure out how to make my boyfriend who sat next to me in math class. His name was not Max, but the shadow memory of him was a place to start.
I put those things together to write a book called Boy Proof about a girl named Egg who dressed as the main character of her favorite sci-fi movie. Who loved post-apocalyptic movies and read comic books. Who felt uncomfortable around the new boy. Whose dad was a special effects make-up artist. Whose mom was a TV star making a comeback. A nerdy girl who lets down her guard to let love in.
It was the first novel I sold, and it was born in a bookstore.
And to this day, I always ask Steven to help me title my novels.
Author photo credit Eric Charles.
There's a hot new genre that's been floating around the publishing world for a few years called New Adult Romance. If that's leaving you scratching your head, no worries! Best-selling author K.A. Tucker, whose New Adult romance Becoming Rain is now in stores, is here to explain what New Adult really means.
When I'm asked what genres I write in and answer "New Adult Contemporary Romance" and "New Adult Romantic Suspense," the follow-up question tends to be: "What does ‘New Adult’ mean?” It's a question with an answer that varies depending on whom you ask. But over the past few years, a number of defining characteristics have emerged.
Most New Adult authors will agree that their characters should fit into an age window of 18 to 26 years old. Anything younger is typically termed Young Adult; anything older is simply Adult.
These characters are not simply a specific age, however; they’re also emerging into the world as adults and are no longer under parental supervision. They're making decisions about their futures and, many times, those decisions are inspired by a sense of newfound freedom. They're driven by emotion and learning through mistakes. This is a very real stage of growth that most people go through, and New Adult is meant to capture the triumphs and struggles that accompany it.
How these triumphs and struggles play out varies drastically for the individual, however. Many young people go to college, but many don't. Some still have the financial support of their parents to keep them afloat; others are maintaining full-time jobs just to keep a roof over their heads. Some are already looking for that significant person to spend the rest of their lives with, while others can't see themselves settling down for another decade. Most really don't have a clue what they want to do with the rest of their lives now that they're in the driver's seat.
All of these motivators, combined with evolving personalities, make this stage incredibly rich for story-telling.
In fiction, an author's own experiences, belief systems and comfort levels influence how their characters will handle the obstacles they face. I like to create characters that make bad decisions. I put them in uncomfortable situations and weave in unusual challenges to see how it will all play out for them. This makes for somewhat unconventional New Adult plot lines (in Becoming Rain, the two main protagonists are an undercover police officer and a guy entering a car theft ring), but I don’t let that deter me. The only question I ask myself is, "If it were me, how would I have handled this in my early 20s—and how would I handle it now?" If the answers are drastically different, that's when I know I'm onto something.
Author Jennifer Chiaverini is no stranger to research—she's included historical elements in many of her 23 novels. In her latest, Mrs. Grant and Madam Jule, she goes back to the 19th century to explore the life of First Lady Julia Grant and her slave, Jule. In a guest blog post, Chiaverini shares five of the most memorable tidbits from her extensive research.
guest post by Jennifer Chiaverini
In March 1865, only a few weeks before the end of the Civil War, the tempestuous Mary Lincoln accompanied her husband on a visit to General Ulysses S. Grant’s military headquarters at City Point, Virginia, where she had a very public meltdown. In the thankless role of Mrs. Lincoln’s hostess, Julia Grant tried to calm her, only to bring Mrs. Lincoln’s wrath down upon herself. Mrs. Lincoln angrily accused the general’s wife of coveting her place in the White House, a charge Mrs. Grant calmly denied—little suspecting that four years later, her husband would be sworn in as the 18th president of the United States and she would become First Lady.
This astonishing altercation between Mary Lincoln and Julia Grant has gone down in history thanks to the many eyewitness accounts recorded in letters and memoirs, but most people today don’t know these five other surprising things about the famously friendly and admired First Lady Julia Grant:
1. Julia Grant was afflicted with strabismus, more colloquially known as crossed eyes.
Her vision was so impaired that she could read, write or sew only briefly before the strain exhausted her, so Ulysses often read aloud or wrote letters for her. She was self-conscious of her appearance, and whenever she was photographed, she almost always sat in profile in an attempt to disguise her condition. As Ulysses’ fame grew and Julia became more of a public figure, she inquired about corrective surgery so that she “might not be so very, very plain.” She was disappointed to learn that nothing could be done, for the operation could have succeeded only if it had been performed in childhood.
2. Julia claimed to experience prophetic visions and dreams
She was correct so often that her family learned to trust her intuition. In her memoirs, published 73 years after her death, she describes several unsettling premonitions that she later learned coincided with moments her husband had been in grave danger on the battlefield. In Washington a few days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, she was seized by such intense, overwhelming dread that she begged Ulysses to depart for their home in New Jersey immediately. A few hours after their train left the capital, the actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.
3. Although Julia and Ulysses enjoyed a long and happy marriage, when they first fell in love, their families did not want them to wed.
Although Julia’s mother thought highly of Ulysses and supported the match, her father argued that Julia’s constitution made her poorly suited for the arduous, roving life of a military wife and suggested Ulysses marry her younger sister instead. When Ulysses rejected this proposal, Julia’s father insisted on a long engagement while the enamored lieutenant was off serving in the Mexican War. For their part, Ulysses’ staunchly abolitionist parents were appalled that their son intended to marry the daughter of Missouri slaveowners, and they refused to attend the wedding.
4. Throughout the Civil War, rather than remain safe at home, Julia often lived with her husband at military headquarters.
Ulysses hated to be away from his family, and as the army moved, he would summon Julia to join him as soon as he established a secure location. According to historian Candice Shy Hooper, during the four years of the Civil War Julia traveled more than 10,000 miles to be with her husband, sometimes through enemy territory. In an era when long-distance travel was difficult and exhausting even when the trains ran on time, the weather was fair, and the roads weren’t thick rivers of mud, Julia—and her four young children, who often accompanied her—risked disease, death and capture whenever they journeyed between home and headquarters.
5. Although Julia was married to the commander in chief of the Union armies in the war that would end slavery in the United States forever, she herself kept slaves.
Her favorite maid—a woman also named Julia but usually called Black Julia or Jule—often accompanied her mistress when she joined Ulysses at military headquarters. Both women risked certain danger as they journeyed to and from the field of war, but for Jule, the hazards of travel also brought knowledge and opportunity, and she eventually made a daring bid for freedom. Though historians debate whether Julia or her father was actually Jule’s legal owner, there is no doubt that the future First Lady benefited from the enslavement and exploitation of other human beings for almost 40 years.
author photo by Steven Garfinkel