A Celebration of Waterloo: Apsley House, Number One London – By Susana Ellis

I’m thrilled to have the wonderful Susana Ellis visiting my blog today! She is sharing a little information about the Duke of Wellington’s home and her fabulous story Lost and Found Lady found in Beaux, Ballrooms, and Battles, an anthology of Waterloo-themed stories.

Thank you so much, Susana, for sharing this wonderful post and beautiful excerpt from your story.

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Wellington’s London townhouse, located on the corner of Hyde Park, is open to the public as a museum and art gallery.

Number One London. The origin of the name came from the fact that this is the first house visitors from the countryside would pass upon entering through the toll gates at Knightsbridge.

Apsley House. The name comes from the first owner, Lord Apsley, the Lord Chancellor, who contracted Robert Adam to build it between 1771 and 1778. In 1807, it was purchased by Richard Wellesley, the 1st Marquess Wellesley, who in 1817 sold it to his younger brother, the Duke of Wellington.  Some of Adam’s interiors still survive: the circular staircase, the drawing room with its semi-circular end, and the Portico Room.

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In 1819 Wellington added a three-story extension, housing a State Dining Room, bedrooms, and dressing rooms. In 1828 when his political career blossomed, included a new staircase and the Waterloo Gallery. The original red brick exterior was covered in Bath stone and a pedimented portico added.

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Over the years, the house has been essentially maintained in the original style and décor of the 1st Duke of Wellington.

Wellington Museum

The Duke of Wellington received many gifts from the grateful heads of state of Europe following the Allied victory over Napoleon:

  • A pair of large candelabra of Siberian porphyry, ormolu & Malachite centre and two side tables, presented by Nicholas I of Russia
  • A pair of Swedish porphyry urns, from King Charles XIV John of Sweden
  • A dinner service of Berlin porcelain, from Frederick William III of Prussia.
  • The Egyptian revival decorative arts dinner service of Sèvres porcelain, from Louis XVIII of France
  • The silver and silver-gilt Portuguese service of over a thousand pieces, from the Portuguese Council of Regency
  • The Saxon Service of Meissen porcelain, from Frederick Augustus I of Saxony.
  • Seven marshal’s batons from various European continental rulers (and another three from the British). Nine of them are on display at Apsley House (the Russian baton was stolen in the 1960s)

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Included in the collection of 200 paintings are 83 paintings that were part of a collection of 300 that were discovered in Joseph Bonaparte’s baggage in the aftermath of the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. The duke decided to return the paintings after the war, and a grateful King Ferdinand VII returned 83 of them. These include four paintings by Diego Velásquez, one by Francisco Goya, three by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, and three by Jusepe de Ribera.

WATERLOOGALLERY

 

2014 Post on Susana’s Parlour (before I knew I would be writing my own Waterloo-themed romance): https://susanaellisauthor.wordpress.com/2014/06/23/apsley-house-celebrates-the-199th-anniversary-of-the-victory-of-waterloo/

Beaux, Ballrooms, and Battles

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A Celebration of Waterloo

June 18, 1815 was the day Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grande Armée was definitively routed by the ragtag band of soldiers from the Duke of Wellington’s Allied Army in a little Belgian town called Waterloo. The cost in men’s lives was high—22,000 dead or wounded for the Allied Army and 24,000 for the French. But the war with Napoleon that had dragged on for a dozen years was over for good, and the British people once more felt secure on their island shores.

The bicentenary of the famous battle seemed like an excellent opportunity to use that setting for a story, and before I knew it, I had eight other authors eager to join me, and to make a long story short, on April 1, 2015 our Waterloo-themed anthology was released to the world. 

You are all invited to

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Our Stories

 

Jillian Chantal: Jeremiah’s Charge

Emmaline Rothesay has her eye on Jeremiah Denby as a potential suitor. When Captain Denby experiences a life-altering incident during the course of events surrounding the Battle of Waterloo, it throws a damper on Emmaline’s plans.

Téa Cooper: The Caper Merchant

The moon in Gemini is a fertile field of dreams, ideas and adventure and Pandora Wellingham is more than ready to spread her wings. When Monsieur Cagneaux, caper merchant to the rich and famous, introduces her to the handsome dragoon she believes her stars have aligned.

Susana Ellis: Lost and Found Lady

Catalina and Rupert fell in love in Spain in the aftermath of a battle, only to be separated by circumstances. Years later, they find each other again, just as another battle is brewing, but is it too late?

Aileen Fish: Captain Lumley’s Angel

Charged with the duty of keeping his friend’s widow safe, Captain Sam Lumley watches over Ellen Staverton as she recovers from her loss, growing fonder of her as each month passes. When Ellen takes a position as a companion, Sam must confront his feelings before she’s completely gone from his life.

Victoria Hinshaw: Folie Bleue

On the night of the 30th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, Aimée, Lady Prescott, reminisces about meeting her husband in Bruxelles on the eve of the fighting. She had avoided the dashing scarlet-clad British officers, but she could not resist the tempting smile and spellbinding charm of Captain Robert Prescott of the 16th Light Dragoons who— dangerously to Aimée— wore blue.

Heather King: Copenhagen’s Last Charge

When Meg Lacy finds herself riding through the streets of Brussels only hours after the Battle of Waterloo, romance is the last thing on her mind, especially with surly Lieutenant James Cooper. However, their bickering uncovers a strange empathy – until, that is, the lieutenant makes a grave error of judgment that jeopardizes their budding friendship…

Christa Paige: One Last Kiss

The moment Colin held Beatrice in his arms he wanted one last kiss to take with him into battle and an uncertain future. Despite the threat of a soldier’s death, he must survive, for he promises to return to her because one kiss from Beatrice would never be enough.

Sophia Strathmore: A Soldier Lay Dying

Amelia and Anne Evans find themselves orphaned when their father, General Evans, dies. With no other options available, Amelia accepts the deathbed proposal of Oliver Brighton, Earl of Montford, a long time family friend. When Lord Montford recovers from his battle wounds, can the two find lasting love?

David W. Wilkin: Not a Close Run Thing at All

Years, a decade. And now, Robert had come back into her life. Shortly before battle was to bring together more than three hundred thousand soldiers. They had but moments after all those years, and now, would they have any more after?

About Lost and Found Lady

On April 24, 1794, a girl child was born to an unknown Frenchwoman in a convent in Salamanca, Spain. Alas, her mother died in childbirth, and the little girl—Catalina—was given to a childless couple to raise.

Eighteen years later…the Peninsular War between the British and the French wages on, now perilously near Catalina’s home. After an afternoon yearning for adventure in her life, Catalina comes across a wounded British soldier in need of rescue. Voilà! An adventure! The sparks between them ignite, and before he returns to his post, Rupert promises to return for her.

But will he? Catalina’s grandmother warns her that some men make promises easily, but fail to carry them out. Catalina doesn’t believe Rupert is that sort, but what does she know? All she can do is wait…and pray.

But Fate has a few surprises in store for both Catalina and Rupert. When they meet again, it will be in another place where another battle is brewing, and their circumstances have been considerably altered. Will their love stand the test of time? And how will their lives be affected by the outcome of the conflict between the Iron Duke and the Emperor of the French?

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Excerpt

September 14, 1793

A beach near Dieppe, France

“I don’t like the look of those clouds, monsieur,” Tobias McIntosh said in fluent French to the gray-bearded old man in a sailor hat waiting impatiently near the rowboat that was beginning to bob more sharply with each swell of the waves. “Are you sure your vessel can make it safely all the way to Newhaven in these choppy seas?”

The old man waved a hand over the horizon. “La tempête, it is not a threat, if we leave immédiatement. Plus tard…” He shrugged. “Je ne sais pas.”

“Please, mon amour,” pleaded the small woman wrapped in a hooded gray cloak standing at his side. “Allow me to stay with you. I don’t want to go to England. I promise I will be prudent.”

A strong gust of wind caught her hood and forced it down, revealing her mop of shiny dark locks. Tobias felt like seizing her hand and pulling her away from the ominous waves to a place of safety where she and their unborn child could stay until the senseless Terreur was over.

“Justine, ma chère, we have discussed this endlessly. There is no place in France safe enough for you if your identity as the daughter of the Comte d’Audet is discovered.” He shivered. “I could not bear it if you were to suffer the same fate at the hands of the revolutionaries as your parents did when I failed to save them.

She threw her arms around him, the top of her head barely reaching his chin. “Non, mon amour, it was not your fault. You could not have saved them. It was miraculeux that you saved me. I should have died with them.”

She looked up to catch his gaze, her face ashen. “Instead, we met and have had three merveilleux months together. If it is my time to die, I wish to die at your side.”

Tobias felt like his heart was going to break. His very soul demanded that the two of them remain together and yet… there was a price on both their heads, and the family of the Vicomte Lefebre was waiting for him in Amiens, the revolutionaries expected to reach them before midday. It was a dangerous work he was involved in—rescuing imperiled French nobility from bloodthirsty, vengeful mobs—but he had pledged himself to the cause and honor demanded that he carry on. And besides, there was now someone else to consider.

“The child,” he said with more firmness than he felt. “We have our child to consider, now, Justine ma chère. The next Earl of Dumfries. He must live to grow up and make his way in the world.”

Not to mention the fact that Tobias was human enough to wish to leave a child to mark his legacy in the world—his and Justine’s. He felt a heaviness in his heart that he might not live long enough to know this child he and Justine had created together. He could not allow his personal wishes to undermine his conviction. Justine and the child must survive.

Justine’s blue eyes filled with tears. “But I cannot! I will die without you, mon cher mari. You cannot ask it of me!”

“Justine,” he said, pushing away from her to clasp her shoulders and look her directly in the eye. “You are a brave woman, the strongest I have ever known. You have survived many hardships and you can survive this. Take this letter to my brother in London, and he will see to your safety until the time comes that I can join you. My comrades in Newhaven will see that you are properly escorted.”

He handed over a letter and a bag of coins. “This should be enough to get you to London.”

After she had reluctantly accepted and pocketed the items beneath her cloak, he squeezed her hands.

“Be sure to eat well, ma chère. You are so thin and my son must be born healthy.”

She gave him a feigned smile. “Our daughter is the one responsible for my sickness in the mornings… I do not believe she wishes me to even look at food.”

She looked apprehensively at the increasingly angry waves as they tossed the small boat moored rather loosely to a rock on the shore and her hands impulsively went to her stomach.

“Make haste, monsieur,” the old sailor called as he peered anxiously at the darkening clouds. “We must depart now if we are to escape the storm. Bid your chère-amie adieu maintenant or wait for another day. I must return to the bateau.”

“Tobias,” she said, her voice shaking.

He wondered if he would ever again hear her say his name with that adorable French inflection that had drawn him from their first meeting.

“Go, Justine. Go to my family and keep our child safe. I promise I will join you soon.”

He scooped her up in his arms and carried her toward the dinghy, trying to ignore her tears. The old sailor held the boat as still as he could while Tobias placed her on the seat and kissed her hard before striding back to the shore, each footstep heavier than the last.

He studied the darkening sky as the sailor climbed in the boat. “You are sure it is safe?”

“La Chasseresse, she is très robuste. A few waves will not topple her, monsieur.”

“Je t’aime, mon amour,” she said to him plaintively, her chin trembling.

“Au revoir, ma chère,” he said, trying to smile, although his vision was blurring from tears.

Will I ever see her again?

He stood watching as the dinghy made its way slowly through the choppy sea to the larger ship anchored in the distance, grief-stricken and unable to concentrate on anything but his pain. When the ship finally sailed off into the horizon, he fell to his knees and prayed as he had never done before for the safety of his beloved. He remained in that position until drops of rain on his face reminded him of the Lefebre family waiting for him in Amiens.

With a deep breath, he rose and made his way to the nearby forest, where his horse waited, tied to a tree.

“Come, my friend. We have a long, wet journey ahead of us.”

Setting foot in the stirrup, he swung his leg over the saddle and urged the horse to a gallop, feeling his heart rip into pieces with every step away from his beloved.

About the Author

Susana has always had stories in her head waiting to come out, especially when she learned to read and her imagination began to soar. Voracious reading led to a passion for writing, and her fascination with romance and people of the past landed her firmly in the field of historical romance.

A teacher in her former life, Susana lives in Toledo, Ohio in the summer and central Florida in the winter. She is a member of the Central Florida Romance Writers and the Beau Monde chapters of RWA and Maumee Valley Romance Inc.

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Susana’s ParlourSusana’s Morning Room

 

Guest Post from Emily Greenwood: Five Things Viscount Roxham Loves about Lily Teagarden

emily-greenwoodThank you so much for having me on your blog today, Susanna! I thought we could take a little peek at what the main characters from my current Sourcebooks release, GENTLEMEN PREFER MISCHIEF, are up to at the moment.

To introduce your readers a little, Miss Lily Teagarden is a serious young woman who doesn’t have time for romance—and certainly not with her handsome rake of a neighbor, Hal Waverly, Viscount Roxham. But at the moment, she’s being forced to enjoy a house party on his estate, and if you sort of squint your eyes, you can see her right now, striding purposefully through his beautiful garden.

Oblivious to the heady scent of summer roses in the air, she’s focusing on a to-do list of worthy undertakings. But as she passes an enormous lilac bush, she spies Hal, who’s standing beside a stone table on which he’s tracing his fingers in a light coating of dirt. She can’t resist a comment…

“It will be much more effective to get a cloth, Roxham. And while you’re cleaning up, that statue behind you is quite filthy.”

Hal laughs. “It’s the outdoors, Lily. Things are supposed to be dirty.”

She sniffs, and her eyes fall to the tabletop, where she sees there are letters in the dust.

“What are you doing?”

He grins. “Writing a list of things I love about you.”

A happy little shiver runs across her shoulders. She shouldn’t be interested… but she is.

“How preposterous. Let me see.” (She pretends not to notice his pleased smile as she leans closer to the list.)

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Five Things I Love about Lily Teagarden

1. Her eyes.

Lily (arching an eyebrow skeptically): A ridiculous thing to love about a person.  None of us has any control over our eye color.

Hal: Perhaps it’s because they’re your eyes that I find them especially beautiful, though really, they are the most remarkable shade of blue. I’m sure no one else has eyes like you.

Lily: You might as well admire my kneecaps!

Hal: I’d have to see them first, but I would be most willing –

Lily: That won’t be necessary.

Hal: I can see you smiling.

She rolls her eyes and glances back at the list.

2. Her laugh.

Lily: My laugh. Have you even heard me laugh?

Hal (chuckling): Once, four years ago. But the memory of it teases me. It’s a challenge I’ve set for myself—to see if I can get you to laugh again.

Lily (with lips twitching): Perhaps I do laugh, when you don’t see. Perhaps I sit in my bed chamber simply overcome with mocking laughter at all the crazy things you do.

Hal: Now you’re making me want to peek in your window.

She moves on to the next item.

3. Her creativity.

Lily: If this has to do with that journal of mine that you stole four years ago—

Hal: Took.

Lily: It wasn’t for anyone’s eyes but mine!

Hal: Come now, sweet, there are some really compelling passages in your little book.

Lily (sticking her nose in the air): You have an inordinate interest in that journal.

Hal: That’s because it’s about me.

Lily: This is a ridiculous list.

Hal: Maybe, but it’s my list.

4. Her seriousness

Lily: Now I know you’re just mocking me.

Hal: I’m not! (He drops a kiss on her cheek, making her smile though she’s trying to maintain her seriousness.) I’m entirely fascinated by your capacity to focus.

Lily: That’s because you have so much trouble being serious.

Hal: Which means we balance each other perfectly!

Lily (hiding a laugh): And the fifth thing? I only see four items on this nonsense-y list.

Hal: That’s because the fifth thing is something I have to show you…

Emily here—Well, there they go, off to a secluded part of the garden to finish their conversation. Thanks again, Susanna, for having me and my characters here today!

Is there anything you’d put on a list of things you love about your favorite hero –real or fictional? Leave a comment (any comment!) for a chance to win one of two copies of GENTLEMEN PREFER MISCHIEF. US only. Winners will be chosen on Friday, April  11th. 

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Emily Greenwood has a degree in French and worked for a number of years as a writer, crafting newsletters and fundraising brochures. But she far prefers writing playful love stories set in Regency England, and she thinks romance is the chocolate of literature. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two daughters. You can learn more about her and her books at http://emilygreenwood.net/

Read the first three chapters of Gentlemen Prefer Mischief at Scribd or purchase at
Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Lovin’ and Murderin’ Southern Style – Talking with Mystery Writer Tina Whittle

Today my good friend Tina Whittle is visiting my cyber front porch. We are talking about her acclaimed mystery series, which is set in the South and includes some of our favorite southern fiction elements: hot nekkid lovin’, murder, wicked family secrets, restless ghosts, and people who “ain’t right.” So pull up a rocker, let me get you some cyber sweet tea, and just sit a spell with us.

This is Tina’s bio. Isn’t she amazing?

Tina Whittle’s Tai Randolph/Trey Seaver series — featuring intrepid gunshop owner Tai and her corporate security agent partner Trey — has garnered starred reviews in KirkusPublisher’s WeeklyBooklist, and Library Journal. Published by Poisoned Pen Press, this Atlanta-based series debuted with The Dangerous Edge of Things, followed by Darker Than Any Shadow. The third book — Blood, Ash and Bone— premiered March 2013. A nominee for Georgia Author of the Year in 2012, Whittle’s short fiction has appeared in The Savannah Literary JournalAlfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and Gulf Stream, which selected her story “Lost Causes and Other Reasons to Live” as the 2004 winner of their Mystery Fiction contest. When not writing or reading, she enjoys golf, sushi, mini-pilgrimages, and spending time with her family (one husband, one daughter, one neurotic Maltese and three chickens).

 

Your stories are set in the South and contain many of the elements of traditional southern narratives: Powerful families covering secrets, dark secrets passed down from generations, racial identity, love of guns, all tinged with dangerous sexuality. One of your protagonists, Tai Randolph, is from Savannah, a city spared the damage of the Civil War.  She was once a ghost tour guide before becoming a gun shop owner and amateur sleuth.  Can you tell me a little about the importance of story and heritage in her character?

I’ll quote Tai herself for this one: she says, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in stories.” She has an intuitive understanding that we are our stories, and that even after we’re dead and gone, the stories we told about ourselves and others still live. And they can haunt as effectively as any ghost. We construct narratives out of memories, creating plot lines, casting ourselves as the protagonist. Tai does this herself as she investigates this theft or that shooting — “excellent girl detective behavior,” she says.

She’s hungry for stories because she came from a story-impoverished background. Her parents believed in the Great Fresh Start, the idea that our stories begin with us, that all that came before our existence — our ancestors, our kinfolk, the juicy details of family history — can be severed from our own lives. Tai’s bloodline is actually quite rich with scoundrels and scandal, filled with smugglers and moonshiners on one side, wealthy Southern plantation owners on the other. Her parents were firmly in the New South, however, a sanitized version of it anyway. I have always imagined that this is why she developed a taste for the Gothic folklore of the Savannah Low Country, stories of wooly-boogers and star-crossed lovers and blood feuds.

She never dreamed she’d be running a Confederate-themed gunshop, but now not only does she get to tell stories, she gets to help people relive them, literally. Many re-enactors are actually portraying an ancestor of theirs, right down to the regiment they served in, the clothes they wore, the weapons they carried. There, often on the same ground made bloody 150 years ago, they retell this story of how America came apart and came back together. They do it with words and sweat and gunpowder. And Tai is happy to be in the middle of it, even though she realizes the complexity and edges of that story.

Another theme in your books is old South and new South. Your other protagonist Trey Seaver is a former Atlanta cop. He suffers from a brain injury that damaged the areas of his brain that deal with identity and memory. He creates stories in a different way than Tai.  Can you tell me about Trey and why he is more comfortable in the new South?

Trey is very good at linear, chronological narratives — A leads to B which leads to C — but not so good with tangents. Not so good with circles. As the brainy-brawny half of my crime-solving duo, Trey is useful for constructing timelines, organizing evidence, and keeping Tai focused, but he defers to her on strategy and motives and emotional judgment calls.

He’s the son of an Irish immigrant mother and a deadbeat dad, who abandoned the family when Trey was two. He grew up on the edge of poverty, a scholarship kid who learned quickly that smarts and determination could make a ladder. He’s never really acknowledged the boost he got from being a good-looking, healthy white male — in his mind, your life is what you make it, and there are clear paths of right and wrong (which is why he joined the Atlanta Police Department). Of course, that attitude got a readjustment when he crashed his car into a concrete embankment. Now he really is a self-made man, only in a very different way, literally rising from the dead, from the ashes, struggling to put his identity back together.

Atlanta is doing the same thing, and has been for over a century. Burned to the ground during General Sherman’s March to the Sea, Atlanta adopted the Phoenix as its symbol, and Resurgens — rising again — as its motto. With most of its antebellum structures destroyed, Atlanta rebuilt itself with an eye toward the future, not the past. So did Trey. He’s a city boy, comfortable in the glass and steel canyons of Downtown and Midtown, pavement under his feet. He and Atlanta complement each other very well.

You are awash in the southern culture.  When you write, do you notice any element in your narrative structure or word choices that are unique to your culture and upbringing?

Lord have mercy, yes. I write mysteries, so they follow a mostly traditional arc — crime happens, suspects abound, clues are discovered, the villain is revealed. But Southern stories follow a more looping path. They divert, transgress, circle around, loop back. My stories tend to do the same. Tai is my first-person narrator, so her background as a Southern teller of Southern stories shows up in the way she goes about her investigations. She likes to peel off layers, dig a little deeper. Go off the beaten track.

Southern vernacular is a treasure trove of color and texture. Some expressions are so specific to a particular region — or even a particular community — that using one will mark your lineage immediately. Feeling froggy, showing out, fairing off — these are as familiar to me as sweet tea and fried okra. Plus, I’m on a mission to rescue “bless your heart” from the clutches of people who think it’s only used as piece of catty backhand. Like most Southern expressions, it’s a versatile phrase that can be used as an insult or an expression of empathy. Never both at the same time, and always perfectly one or the other.

Like most writers, I’m a not-so-secret eavesdropper. And I’ve yet to find a dialect richer in humor, deftness of description, and keenness of humor than Southern-American.

You said, “But Southern stories follow a more looping path. They divert, transgress, circle around, loop back.” Can you expand a bit on this and how it is reflected in your stories? 

Southern stories rarely begin at some single point, and rarely end with a clear resolution (for a classic example, see Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” which has more twists than a cow path). Like the stories she’s so fond of, Tai’s life is anything but linear — she keeps returning to people and places that have affected her, trying to figure them out on the second go-round. Her own life is something of a mystery to her, and now, in her late twenties, she’s finally ready to start exploring how she came to be who she is. She’s a natural puzzle-solver, good at digging up clues and following threads, which also makes her an excellent amateur sleuth. Because what is a crime but a story with the important pieces missing?

Thank you, Tina, for visiting. You can find more about Tina and her wonderful mystery series at her website or Facebook

Now we would like to hear from you. What’s your favorite story set in the South. Since it’s the first day of October, we would love a good ghost story!

Laura Valeri talks about her short story collection Safe In Your Head

Today I’m lucky to have the brilliant writer Laura Valeri visiting my blog.  I’m excited to share some of her work because it’s just stunning.

A few years ago, I attended a Salvador Dali exhibit at the High Museum.  I remember the feeling of transcendence that I had experienced while viewing his work— a giddy, lightening in the heart, a breathlessness  Later that afternoon, Laura sent me one of her short stories. Her writing was so sensual, so musical and vivid, that I experienced the same sensation reading her work as when I stood before the Dali masterpieces.

I merely tell stories, Laura creates art.

Laura Valeri has an MFA in creative writing from Florida International University and an MFA in Fiction with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (University of Iowa).  Her most recent title is Safe in Your Head (2013), a Stephen F. Austin Press prize winner, a linked story collection featuring stories, recipes and luck remedies for women during war time.


Laura

What do you believe is the overall concept connecting the short stories?

I wrote many of these stories before I started to see the pattern that was emerging, which had to do with the impossibility of attaining personal peace when you have grown up and lived through the devastation of war– and vice versa, the futility of hoping for a peaceful world when most of us struggle with even the simplest domestic connections.  Lao Tsu wrote a wonderful and well known poem about this that is sort of at the core of the thematic connections between the stories.

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.

     — Lao Tzu (570-490 B.C.)

But in terms of structure there is a quiet backstory that powers the events in each of these short stories, one that doesn’t emerge distinctly until the novelette at the end of the book . The collection begins with an Italian family’s arrival to the New World, and here we’re introduced to two of the main characters of the novel: a mother and daughter.  In this first story, the ostensible motivation for this family’s emigration to the U.S.A.  hinges on the personal ambitions of the parents, particularly on the patriarch’s desire to gain recognition for his hard work.  This first story appears at first to introduce the typical immigrant’s dream, yet as the family tries to adapt, the result of this emigration turns more and more sinister.  The last image of this story expresses the family’s failed ambitions, but it also foreshadows a much darker story, the capitulation of which is the conclusion of the final novelette.

Each subsequent piece unveils another layer of causes for the family’s move.  We discover that their past was fraught not only with too many unfulfilled ambitions, but also with a very real and palpable danger: while war and revolution always plays a back role in the stories, it’s always there, a threatening, malevolent presence directing from behind the curtains the inevitable disappointments that await these people.

The mother in particular has the most tragic past: she is orphaned by father when she’s only a young girl.  She grows up having to bear the burden of her own mother’s unraveling as it is brought on by this tragedy, this on top of her own grief and confusion.  The unbearable psychological pressure she has to endure eventually chips away at any possibility of her ever realizing even the simplest of ambitions. But it doesn’t end there: her children cannot escape the cycle.  Just as the daughter once had to take on the burdens of her own mother’s inability to deal with tragedy, now her children must accept the burdens of hers.  I was very much aware of the cyclical nature of psychological violence, and that is why the stories are not in chronological order, but rather arranged in causal order.  Every short story is a world in itself, but the collection taken as a whole reveals another story altogether, one that could not be told in any other way, nor in any other order.

And another memory: skipping stones to scare away a thin stray dog, when the ground popped at her feet., turf spraying on her ankles, her clean white socks splattered with a shower of dirt. Pop. Pop. Pop.

“Corri, corri,” her nonno, Egisto shouts. He swoops her up in his arms and hurries down the hill, still crying, run, run, as if forgetting that her legs are wrapped around his waist, already, her weight in his arms slowing them down. Behind them, men in uniform load their guns and fire, fear ripping open her chest with the muted popping of their weapons. She hears the click right before the earth explodes again around Egisto’s feet. Excerpted from “Bad Luck”

SafeInYourHeadcover

Why did you decide to research your maternal grandfather? Why do you think this man, whom you’ve never met, had such an impact in your own life?

Well, it goes very much with what I explained about the underlying story that is the glue for all the other stories: my grandfather was a war hero. He had joined the anti-fascist movement when his brother was tragically tortured by the then just budding Mussolini regime, and he swore his life’s purpose to ending fascism.  His noble resolve is what endeared him not only to my grandmother and mother, but also to a significant portion of the men and women of his hometown.  It’s really quite an experience to be the relative of a hero — it’s a huge source of pride, but it’s also a strange albatross of humongous expectations.  My grandfather died at a young age, ironically, after the war ended. Those relatives who witnessed his funeral said the entire city of Piombino poured out on the streets to honor him.  My mother was only eleven. I have many early childhood memories of these stories about my grandfather, how he was not only a war hero but also a welterweight boxer, and a steel mill operator, etc.  It was hard to see behind the gloss in which he lived: the privilege of dying young is that you become a saint in the eyes of anyone who remembers you, and my grandfather had the additional blessing that he’d won a relatively important welterweight title and that he’d personally helped a good number of people in his home town.   My mother and grandmother adored him, and though I never met him, I always felt the importance of his presence whenever my relatives talked about him.  As I grew older I began to look to the past to understand who I am — I think I’m not unique in this.  While I never had any doubt or confusion as to the difficulties  my grandfather’s death caused my grandmother and my mother, for a very long time I hadn’t really considered how he had also influenced mine and my sibling’s life, both in positive and negative ways.

The post-war was a difficult time for women, but it was especially difficult for women in small towns who grew up without a father’s protection.  My grandmother was hyper aware of this and she was maybe too protective towards my mother, and maybe also too diligent in reminding my mother that she wasn’t like other girls, that, for example, she had to worry about maintaining her own reputation because if anyone ever decided to ruin her, they could do so without any trouble since there was no father to defend her honor. In those days in small town Italy those kinds of misogynist attitudes were fairly normal: girls had to have fathers and older brothers to be considered “reputable,” and already my grandfather’s trouble with the fascists had already landed him in jail a couple of times not helping my mother’s reputation.  If my mother had grown up with a father in the kind of social environment that my mother grew up with during the post war, she would have had a very different life. Possibly, she might have married a man other than my father.  I am almost certain now in retrospect that she probably wouldn’t have agreed to move to America either.  But she was orphaned by father, and so not only did she had to adapt to a much more restricted, much more vulnerable social situation, probably craving stability and safety to an unnatural degree: she also developed a conflicted sense of admiration for the opposite gender, something between hero-worship and total dependency.  And of course this caused her many problems because she is and has always been a strong-willed and astute woman, and these feelings  led her to live a highly conflicted internal life.

There was also something else about my grandfather’s life that is worth mentioning.  I remember that one of my relatives told me that although my father had officially died as a result of a freak motorcycle accident, that it was likely he’d been murdered.  I can’t remember who told me this, only that he or she was a close member of the family. Neither my mother nor my brother and sister remember this rumor, and yet I must have heard this when I was very young because it’s something that’s been in my conscious memory ever since I can remember.

This is an interesting and also lucky memory for me — at least in terms of my literary ambitions — because for years I had always dismissed the possibility of my grandfather’s murder as being just another of those aggrandizing myths that my relatives used to honor the memory of my grandfather.  And yet it intrigued me.  I could not forget it.  I think some part of me wanted it to be true: I wanted the story of my hero grandfather and his tragic early death to transcend the banality of a freak accident, a stupid, avoidable death that occurred long after the war had been fought.  But I couldn’t think of any reason why anyone would want to kill a steel mill worker in a small Italian town, especially after the war ended and after Mussolini’s regime had been toppled.

 Later, much, much later, I found out that there could have been many reasons why somebody would have wanted him dead, why they might have gone as far as staging a very strange accident, one that, from the beginning, even in the days of my staunchest skepticism, held, in any case, unexplainable elements.  I began to research Italy in the 1950’s, and particularly Piombino, and I found out… well, I think that this will be material for another story.  I was already almost finished with the collection when I uncovered the most convincing clues that my grandfather may have, in fact, been murdered, but the novelette still gave me ample room to sketch in what are the most important facts.  There is no way to prove this definitively now, and it’s so long ago that I don’t see any compelling reason to traumatize the family with a serious investigation. But in terms of the fiction, and in terms of understanding the cycle of violence, of the psychological rape that happens to people, especially women, during wartime, my grandfather’s death took on huge importance, one much larger than even his life of devotion to a worthy cause.  I saw that his decision to join the anti-fascist movement as being the event upon which everything in my family’s life hinged.  His decision, and his eventual death, is what brought us all to America decades later.  As I worked through the sequence of the stories, I knew that the death of the grandfather’s death, however banal, however obscure, was nonetheless a catalystic event in the life of all the other characters: but when I collected the last pieces of my research and finished the novelette, his death took all the more importance. That is why ultimately I decided to dedicate the book to him.  I hope, wherever he may be now, that it may make up at least a little bit for the untimely and violent way in which he had to exit the world.

The war. The war did such things to us, if only I could tell you half of them. When my Giorgio finally came home, he was a ghost of the man he’s been, the veins of his temples pushing up from under his skin like scars. For years he’d wake us all up cursing in German, screaming a high pitched cry and pointing at things that weren’t there, swinging his head and rolling in bed trying to avoid the tanks in his head. Excerpted from “A Kiss for Heaven’s Sake”

 The history in your book combines very austere, fact-driven information with beautiful personal memories. The descriptions of the war are rich and vivid.  How did you research the historical parts?  Did you rely on narratives passed down or did you reconstruct the events from outside information?

One of the things that they teach us in the memoir classes I took for my first MFA  is that memory is unreliable.  And although much of what I knew about war had come to me from my grandmother’s stories, once I started to try to sketch out the settings and events, it became painfully clear that my grandmother’s and my relative’s memories were highly erratic. I became aware of anachronisms and paradoxes that are only apparent once you start trying to annotate everything. Some other things were just simply vague.  So, yes, I had to do research outside of my family’s collective memory. I read a number of witness accounts and oral histories from World War II, some journal articles (not many) and several newspaper accounts from the 1940’s and 1950’s.  I was in Italy when prime minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped and murdered, but I hadn’t known as much about the politics surrounding it as I do now that I have gone through several journal articles and books.  After that, it was just a matter of making sense of it all.  I’m writing fiction, not memoir, but some of the reports on tv and on the newspaper had to be reconstructed accurately if I could respect myself as a fiction writer. I think I did a pretty good job.

Memories seem fluid in the work, they weave between cold truth and sometimes odd folklore, i. g. a soldier digging up is dead lover.  I’m interested if you made a conscience decision of how you were going write about memories?

I’m not sure that anything I do related to creative writing is exactly conscious.  As you well know as a writer yourself, you can do as much planning and research as you want, but once you sit down to write it’s between you and the great Unknown.  What comes out of writing is always surprising. Memory is a tricky thing: I knew this sitting down. I knew that with so much relying on memory I had to embrace the unreliability not just of the narrators and of the accounts they were divulging, but of the structure of the memory itself. And of course the whole intent in writing this book was to make sense of the memories that I had, and of the memories that were passed down from previous generations before, stories that eventually became family myths.  You mention the story of the narrator dreaming of his dead lover: this was a story my grandmother told me.  When she told it, I could tell that she truly believed it: she wasn’t trying to trick me, or shock me, or proselytize to me.  Not only did she believe in the prophetic dreams and in the miracle, but also that she participated in it — for all I know it might have been an urban legend, but to my grandmother, it was a memory. To my grandmother, the relationship between the dead and the living was as much a certainty as war: and that is exactly what I was trying to convey through these narratives. I wanted the certainty of the narrators’ belief in the mystical to invest the narrative so that it would not matter whether what they said was real or not.  It was real to them.  I’ve also always really found a morbid fascination with the insistence of humans to believe in war.  War is the most absurd, surreal and unimaginable human phenomena, and yet no one ever questions the existence of war or its place in our world.  Why shouldn’t these characters believe in ghosts and apparitions and miracles?  It restores a certain order to the world, and also it establishes a balance between the horrific surrealism of war and their day-to-day existences.

Mara remembers things, not in chronology. It is if her father was cut loose from time and drifting like trash in the sea, billowing and gleaming with the reflected sunlight, moving further off shore with the currents, tossed and rolled by the crest of a wave. Excerpted from “Bad Luck”

Anyway, as I was telling you, when I woke up, I had a bad feeling about the dream. The dead don’t come to talking to you just complain about the weather. I never dream about my mother. When I do, its usually because something is about to happen.  Excerpted from “Ghost Story”

Why did you include recipes in your book? 

When I wrote Furniture, Joel, who as you know owns Cafe Gelatohhhh in Savannah, saw the reference to the focaccia recipe and he wanted to try to see if he could recreate the focaccia experience that I had as a child in Tuscany for which the character in my story so longs for.  The American version of focaccia is very soft and not so salty.  I remember a focaccia that was crispy and greasy and very salty and a delight to the taste buds.  He played around with the recipe awhile until we both together came up with a pretty good version (although it’s still not quite as good as the one in Tuscany).  By then I had sent my first edits back to SFA, but it just kind of came to me that we should include the recipe in the book. After that, we started to play around with all the stuff that was mentioned in the book, especially that tantalizing panini sandwich in The Things We Own Make Us Safe.

You are tri-lingual.  Do you think that has any relevance when you are writing and how you think about words and sentences?

Yes, certainly.  I discovered this a long time ago.  Having been born mother tongue Italian has sometimes been an advantage when writing in English.  Italian, as Spanish, is a musical and rhythmic language, and I find that feeling the rhythm of sentences when I write is second nature to me.  I don’t really have to worry about it. I just know if a sentence feels wrong or if the arrangement of words is not the most musical.  On the other hand, speakers of romance languages are incredibly verbose, and I’m afraid that succinctness is not one of my virtues.

Babbo liked to shout at the TV. His vocabulary was simple: Goal! or, Ma che cazzo!

Mamma sensors his cursing, crying “Oh! Oh!Vittorio!”

She had the mouth of a port-town Tuscan, therefore, her curses were the most colorful, but only when she was angry. We could be “damned, ugly, rabid, assassin mutts,” or more modestly “without grace.” Our crumpled clothes looked like they’d been “wound tightly up the asshole of a dog.” Babbo’s secretary was “sausage casing.” But a standing ovation for the best curse of all went to my father on Christmas Day when we packed the car for a day trip to Torino, and it rained, and the battery died, and the Fiat did what Fiats do: it refused to recharge. So Babbo crashed his fists on the steering wheel and said, “That bastard baby Jesus was born today and he’s pissing on me in every color.” Excerpted from “Safe in Your Head”

How do ideas from short stories come to you? Do you have defined short story writing process?

It’s always kind of mystifying how short stories come to me.  Most of the time it’s in the form of an image, and most of the time, this image usually contains the ending.  But that’s not true of every story.  For example, when I sat down to write “Furniture” it was after a long period of frustration with writing.  I was trying to plan my stories ahead of time, and I felt emotionally and creatively exhausted from trying to do that.  So I decided that for a period of time I was just going to write focused on language.  I must have had some memory lurking in the back of my head, surely, when I began writing, but what I remember is that I had planned on not planning a story, but to simply focus on the sentence.  By the time I wrote the last image of the 80-year old ballerina skater in Central Park, I knew that I had found the story.

By contrast, “The Things We Own Make Us Safe,” which is about a little girl winning  an athletic competition almost by accident, came to me during meditation.  I do a basic form of Vipassana, which requires that you try not to engage your thoughts, but rather concentrate on your breath.  Obviously, I wasn’t succeeding, but I was relaxed enough that it suddenly occurred to me that I had a story.  That mix up at the athletic competition was something that had happened to me, but the thing is that there is a big difference between writing about what happened to you and writing a short story.  There has to be an angle. And I didn’t have that angle when I was in my “normal” conscious state.  Then, during meditation, I remembered  the picture that my coach took of the winning girl who was supposed to be me but wasn’t me, and because I was in a relaxed, meditative state, I had an insight about how it was meaningful, or rather, how that image of the wrong girl on the podium was exactly that: an image, something more evocative than the picture it describes.   From there, i began to see various thematic threads that I could weave into the event.  I then had my angle.  I think in that case I actually heard the ending in my head.  Sometimes that happens. Sometimes I hear the narrative voice very clearly. It’s not exactly like a hallucination.  It’s more like those experiences that everybody has of hearing an annoying tune in your head and not being able to stop it from playing.  That’s how the “voices” of narrative come to me: they are very clear and persistent, and I usually have no control over them.  But overall, I find that writing short stories is still an elusive and often maddening process. I don’t have a method. If I did, I probably would be more prolific.

Nonna’s real name is Lily, a fragrant flower, a sweet intoxication of yellows, but the children know her only as Nonna who every winter rides the train from Poimbino to Livorno, from Livorno to Milan, clutching a hard-skinned suitcase the color of grief that bumps against her weak knee while the yellows of her paisley dress twine about her large girth. Nonna of the light step, of the vigor of laughter, Nonna at the door, wrapped in a rush of hugs, a chiming of joyful cries. Excerpted from “Nonna”

You recently did a great deal of research on writing and creativity.  What did you learn that may have contradicted some of your long held beliefs about your own creative processes?

I found a lot of interesting things about the biology of the creative process. I don’t think that I had any specific long-held belief before I did this research, but I did find a number of surprising things.  The reason I began researching creativity was because when I first started writing I was always so very immersed in the process that it was effortless and pleasurable.  Since graduate school it hasn’t been that.  The more I learned about creative writing the more difficult it has become to write.  I write a lot, but it’s seldom ever pleasurable anymore.  I don’t excuse procrastination under any circumstances, but I did wonder for a long time why I had to suffer so much stress as I was writing.  Most writers will tell you that writing is a matter of habit, that you don’t wait for inspiration, that being blocked is just an excuse, and that’s all fine and well, but I wasn’t making excuses for myself.  I was showing up to do my work. I had a down-to-earth attitude about writing being 99% perspiration and all that.  I just wanted to know why I couldn’t enjoy the process of it anymore, why it felt so stressful and agonizing.  I wanted to know if I could ever enjoy it again because if you can’t enjoy it, why do it? I discovered many amazing things about the reason why writing can become stressful to people. I discovered that block and writing-related anxieties are not just expressions of procrastination but expressions of other trauma, and in some cases, even of brain damage.

That expression, “brain damage” has such a negative connotation, but let me put it into more reasonable perspectives: a few years ago I began to notice that I was losing memory and had much more trouble focusing than ever before. I’m too young to be senile, yet I was having short memory blackouts, very scary. I don’t drink except socially and I don’t do drugs. I’m a very boring person that way.  Almost by accident my doctor discovered that I had almost no oxygen flowing in my blood while I slept. We did more tests and sure enough I was diagnosed with severe apnea: this is a condition where your body stops breathing while you’re sleeping and if it’s serious enough it can cause brain damage.  It’s reversible, but you have to know you have it.  I wasn’t the typical case and I didn’t have the typical symptoms until it was exacerbated to the point of memory blackouts.  After the final test results were in, my doctor told me that every time I went to sleep I had a 40% chance of never waking up again, or of having a stroke. She told me that while my body rested, in fact my brain  woke up on average once every 7 seconds.  In other words, although it seemed like I was asleep, I never actually got my brain to go into that brain state that is restful for sleep.  My case is actually quite severe, and it had been going on for years.  Now I’ve started a therapy to address this and the results are palpable. But going back to writing creatively: according to biologists and neuroscientists, one of the biggest causes of creative block is lack of sleep…. So I wondered how helpful is it for other writers to say to people who suffer from block to “just write”?  And for a while I was on the soap box about being more understanding about block.

I still believe that we should be more conscientious with advice to those who have creative dry spells, but there is more.  I learned through Dr. Joe Dispenza that our  emotional responses to recurring situations are wired in biologically.   It turns out, for example, that if a certain person has annoyed you consistently enough in the past, then all it takes for your brain to go into a fight or flight mode is to just think about that person. The thought of that person is enough to trigger the emotional response that your brain associates with being around that person because that response, in this example, anxiety or anger, is now wired in to your brain.  Similarly, then, I made the connection that if I stressed myself out once or twice while sitting down to write, I probably have wired my brain to associate a fight or flight response to even just the thought of writing creatively. With each time that I think of writing in a stressful way, I reinforce my anxiety with the process of writing.  Although I have enough willpower to sit down and write regardless of my stress, I am nonetheless reinforcing the agony of the process. The good news is that we can reprogram ourselves from having this happened. This was one of the greatest insights I gained from my research.  Now what I try to do is to make myself write something I know will cause me pleasure and no stress, for example, a blog post.  Since a blog post doesn’t get sent out to magazines or to professional evaluations, I can approach a blog post without stress, and I am noticing already that I am feeling more relaxed during the writing process.  Hopefully I will be able to rewire my brain patterns to feel enjoyment when I write rather than anxiety. I really want that because the process of writing is why I got into this art in the first place.

Thank you, Laura. In closing, I want to include one of my favorite passages from the book. 

Mara imagines it like this: Giorgio diving and diving again under the water, everything below shining with the promise of redemption, smooth, polished black stones, pieces of glass rendered dull by the patience of waves, the shiny skin of smelts – everything. Liliana, shivering alone, wet on the shore, watches him disappear below the surface of the sea, not knowing this is how it will be from now on, catching glimpses of him as his glimmering back breaks the surface and his head emerges, throwing back a tuft of drenched hair, he explodes a breath from his lungs, and then again, he dips below the surface, one with the swelling sea, the clouds, the inevitable chill of night.  Excerpted from “Bad Luck”