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Posts Tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

By Sonia Kane

On the evening of April 26th, it was standing room only at Wix Lounge for WNBA-NYC’s panel discussion on the popular topic of historical fiction. The five panel members included literary agent Daniel Lazar (Writers House), editor Heather Lazare (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster), editor and reviewer Barbara Hoffert (Library Journal), and two authors of recent works of historical fiction, Carole DeSanti (The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R.), and Kathryn Harrison (Enchantments). DeSanti, who is Vice President, Editor at Large at Viking Penguin, contributed insights not only as an author but as a longtime publisher. WNBA-NYC’s Rosalind Reisner moderated the panel.

Reisner began with a question: What is historical fiction? Does it have to take place at least 60 years before the current period, as in Walter Scott’s Waverley, generally considered the first historical novel in English? Daniel Lazar noted that he considered anything set during and before World War II to fit the bill; Heather Lazare agreed that this was an appropriate benchmark, but said that a lot depends on how a book is packaged by an agent and what audience a publisher is trying to reach: “From a publisher’s standpoint, are we going after the historical fiction bloggers? The mommy bloggers?” Panelists generally agreed that whereas historical novels used to be considered strictly genre fiction, with plots featuring either romance or, as Barbara Hoffert memorably put it, “sweaty men sticking things into each other,” today’s historical novels are often more accurately labeled as literary fiction, as in the case of the phenomenally successful Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, which won the Man Booker and National Book Critics Circle Award. For a book review editor like Hoffert, this shift can make assigning books to the appropriate reviewers more perplexing, but she still is in favor of broadening categories to reach as many readers as possible, and has even at times used the seemingly contradictory label “literary/popular.” DeSanti echoed this thought: “Writers are working to broaden what historical fiction can be. . . . today the trend is toward hybridity, depth, and character-driven novels.”

Harrison and DeSanti shared brief descriptions of their novels:  Enchantments, set during the Russian Revolution, is told by Masha, daughter of the monk Rasputin. A woman whom Harrison found to be a “strangely modern character,” Masha escaped the Bolsheviks, survived a marriage with a husband chosen for her by her father, and eventually had a successful career as a lion tamer! DeSanti’s work, set in France during the Second Empire (1860-1871), focuses on a young woman who leaves her home in the provinces to meet her lover in Paris. Pregnant and alone, she waits for him in vain. DeSanti described her protagonist as “on a path to finding her center . . . in a polarized culture that was both hedonistic and moralistic.” She sees Eugenie’s story as one of “becoming alienated from what you love and desire and then finding your own way back,” adding that her book might be considered “self-help folded into historical fiction.”

Both authors spoke of their delight in giving voice to their characters. In Harrison’s novel, the protagonist is a real woman whose remarkable story had yet to be told. In DeSanti’s work, she is a type—courtesan—who recurs in the fiction of male writers of the nineteenth century, and yet whose thoughts are not often explored by those writers. As she put it, “Zola does not give Nana an interior history.” Harrison and DeSanti also spoke of the immense and consuming pleasures of research—as well as its perils. DeSanti noted that she “used artifacts to get the emotion of the time,” artifacts such as ration cards, dancing slippers, and even a piece of bread perfectly preserved from the Siege of Paris. She became so immersed in the period that her friends were worried, asking her, “Are you ever going to leave the nineteenth century?” Harrison pointed out the danger for historical novelists of trying to “jam things in” to their novels, just to put their research to work. “You will use three to five percent of what you have taught yourself; it’s important for a historical novelist to be disciplined.”

The evening concluded with a robust question-and-answer session in which the authors provided further details about their research methods (DeSanti noting that she had read “an entire dictionary of smutty French words from the nineteenth century”) and literary agent Lazar gave tips on how to write a good query letter (“be very specific and evocative, give us a taste of the atmosphere of your novel”). Afterward, audience members milled about happily and got their newly purchased books signed. Ashley Gallman and Omri Arad of Wix Lounge were enormously competent and convivial hosts, as always; many thanks to them for their enthusiasm and good cheer. For the hosts, the panelists, and the audience, it was clear that historical fiction remains an enduring genre.

Sonia Kane is a free-lance editor and writer living in Brooklyn. Formerly Assistant Director of Book Publications at the Modern Language Association, she has a PhD in English from the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches literature and writing at Hunter College. She has recently been appointed Co-Editor of the NY Bookwoman, the official newsletter of the NY chapter of the Women’s National Book Association.

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192 Books is a general interest bookstore located in Chelsea that houses a range of recent titles, past best-sellers, and selected rare and out of print books. They seek to “trace connections between art and literature by promoting a dialogue between readers and art lovers” and do so through various art exhibitions. In addition, they host readings, signings, and discussions.

Stop by on May 3rd at 7pm for a conversation with Mary-Kay Wilmers, best known as the editor of The London Review of Books. Wilmers will speak in conversation with Lewis Lampham, founder and editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, about the process of retrieving, curating, and presenting history in literary form.

To see 192 Books’ event calendar, click here , or visit their website for more information.

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(Photo © Sigrid Estrada.)

Carole DeSanti, a WNBA-NYC member and a panelist on the upcoming Historical Fiction Panel, is Vice President, Editor at Large at Viking Penguin. She is known for championing original voices in women’s fiction, including Dorothy Allison, Melissa Bank, Terry McMillan, Ruth Ozeki, Marisha Pessl and Deborah Harkness. Her debut novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R., was published in March 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It has been described as “an unflinching portrait of love and loss against a landscape of Parisian decadence,” and “magnificent in scope and achievement.”

Ms. DeSanti wrote a piece for the March 30th issue of Shelf Awareness, in which she describes some of the research she did for her novel. An excerpt of her piece is below.

Pesky Distinctions
By Carole DeSanti

“Strauss-Kahn Charged in French Prostitution Probe” read a recent headline, marking a new stage in the months-long investigation into organized sex parties in Paris, Vienna and Washington, D.C. allegedly involving French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer Henri Leclerc caused a stir late last year by stating, “People are not always clothed at these parties. I challenge you to tell the difference between a nude prostitute and a classy lady in the nude.”

This has long been a dilemma, I found, while researching The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. However, during France’s Second Empire, under the Regulation System, the problem was much more easily resolved…

To see the full piece, visit Shelf Awareness here.

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Here’s a sneak peak of the upcoming New York Bookwoman! Roz Reisner writes about the enduring popularity of historical fiction and some of what you’ll see at the April 26th Historical Fiction Panel

By Roz Reisner

In case you haven’t noticed, our historical fiction panel, coming up on April 26th, is part of a literary trend that’s at full throttle this year.  Publishers Weekly recently called historical fiction “a nimble genre that works its way into all corners of the storytelling ecosystem.” If you don’t think there’s an interest in the past, just remember the excitement surrounding the new Downton Abbey series which was followed by a spate of books about the period, at least one of which made it to the Times’ bestseller list.  Many of the literary prize winners and shortlists this year have been dominated by historical fiction—just this past month, Julie Otsuka’s lovely novel about Japanese picture brides, The Buddha in the Attic (a 2011 Great Group Reads pick!), won the PEN/Faulkner Award.

So what’s the appeal of historical fiction for readers and writers? For readers, it’s the chance to learn history in an entertaining way, to gain insight into what life was like in another era, or to enjoy a new twist on familiar events or characters. I love the feeling of starting a novel and knowing that you’re in for an absorbing story. It’s like being taken on a trip where someone else is doing the work of packing, getting you to the airport, arranging the sightseeing, and providing a safe and satisfying return home. With historical fiction, there’s the extra bonus of time travel–you can’t get to that destination without the author’s imagination and research.

For writers, it’s the chance to re-write history, to give voice to people who didn’t make it into the history books, to imagine the interior life of a well-known person, or to satisfy a fascination with an era. I’m sure the authors at our panel—Carole DeSanti and Kathryn Harrison—will tell us why they chose France’s Second Empire and the final days of the Romanovs for their novels. I’ve been reading and enjoying both novels—Carole DeSanti’s The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R and Kathryn Harrison’s Enchantments—and I’m eager to hear about their process of imagining the characters and the setting. Since we’ll have an agent, editor, and reviewer on the panel as well, we’ll have a picture of what happens when that precious manuscript leaves the author’s hands and what it encounters as it makes its way to us.  RSVP to join us at 6pm on April 26th at the Wix Lounge for a lively evening of discussion, networking, and refreshments.

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The NYC chapter of the Women’s National Book Association will be hosting a panel this month entitled, “Historical Fiction: An Enduring Genre in a Changing Landscape.”

Thursday, April 26, 6:00PM – 8:00PM
Wix Lounge, 10 West 18th Street, 2nd Floor, NYC

Free admission for WNBA Members
Non-members ~ $10.00

Register Here!

The Red Tent, Cold Mountain, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and other successful historical novels set off a trend that’s apparent to anyone who follows current fiction. Historical novels are hot! And read by people who never thought they were interested in history. We’ll explore what historical fiction means to today’s readers and publishers, and we’ll examine what it’s like to be a player in this market – agent, author, editor, reviewer, or bookseller – what’s happening now, and what’s likely to happen down the road.

Panelists

Carole DeSanti‘s The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2012) is already receiving great reviews. Carole is also Vice President, Editor at Large at Viking Penguin, where she is well known as a champion of outstanding, original voices in women’s literature, including those of Dorothy Allison, Tracy Chevalier, and Melissa Banks. (Photo © Sigrid Estrada.)

 

Kathryn Harrison is the author of thirteen books, including the bestselling memoirs The Kiss and The Road to Santiago. Her historical novels include The Binding Chair, Poison, and The Seal Wife. Her latest novel, Enchantments (Random House, 2012) takes place during the final days of Russia’s Romanov Empire. She is also a frequent reviewer for The New York Times Book Review. (Photo ©J.Ravid.)

 

Barbara Hoffert is a fiction editor at Library Journal and the author of LJ’s long-running weekly Prepubs Alert column. She is a past-president of the National Book Critics Circle, for which she now serves as Awards Chair. In 2006, she won ALA-RUSA’s Louis Shores-Greenwood Publishing Group Award for excellence in reviewing. (Photo courtesy of Library Journal.)

 

Daniel Lazar is a senior agent at the Writers House literary agency. He represents a wide variety of fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, but he especially loves historical fiction of all kinds. Some recent and forthcoming books include NYT bestseller Juliet by Anne Fortier, The Bells by Richard Harvell, Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran, and The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveney.

 

Heather Lazare joined Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, as a senior editor in 2011 after six years working at the Crown Publishing Group. Prior to that, she was with the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. Heather acquires historical fiction, upmarket women’s fiction (book club books), narrative nonfiction, humor, pop culture and memoir. (Photo courtesy of HNS Conference 2012.)

 

Moderated by Rosalind Reisner, WNBA-NYC member and author of Read On…Life Stories, a readers’ guide to the memoir genre, and the award-winning reference book Jewish American Literature: A Guide to Reading Interests. Rosalind is a former librarian; she speaks about books and reading and blogs at www.areadersplace.net.

 

This event is being held at Wix Lounge, a free co-working and event space sponsored by Wix.com. Launched in 2008, Wix.com is a free online platform that allows users to create their own Flash website, Apple-compatible mobile sites, and customized Facebook pages.

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