Guest Post: Exploring the Koestler Suicides

Here’s a guest post from Bernard Otterman where he discusses his experiences writing historical fiction set in the dim, dear past of the 1980s.

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Self-Deliverance CoverFor a long time I wanted to write a novel at whose center would be a love story. I wasn’t thinking about a Harlequin romance or a tear jerker like Eric Segal’s novel, but a mature story, which would among other virtues, shed light on my own love story which includes a marriage which has lasted forty six years.

While seeking a frame for such novel, I read a biography of Arthur Koestler, who committed suicide together with his much younger wife in March 1983. At the time of his death, Arthur Koestler was as well known in London as Jean-Paul Sartre was in Paris. Darkness at Noon is judged by many to be one of the most important books of the twentieth century. He had also penned The God That Failed, a memoir of Communist faith and disillusionment. Critics claimed that Spanish Testament, his autobiography about his experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War and his imprisonment there, ranked with the war reportage of George Orwell. Later in his life, shortly before becoming prime minister, Margaret Thatcher requested that Koestler pay her a visit.

It is not known if this meeting ever occurred, but what is known is that the morning of the third of March, 1983, the bodies of Arthur and his wife, Cynthia were discovered by the police at their house located in the Kensington section of London. Arthur slouched in his living room chair dead, his wife – twenty five years younger — lying on the adjacent sofa also dead. The initial police report suggested a double suicide. My and many other people’s reaction was one of horror.

Arthur’s decision at the age of 78, terminally ill, is understandable. But why would a healthy and good looking woman of fifty-three also decide to kill herself? Did she act on her own volition or was she forced or tricked to end her life? For me, a child Holocaust survivor, life is precious. Even in death camps such as Auschwitz, very few inmates “took to the fence” — committed suicide by impaling themselves on the electric fence. Classical literature such as Romeo and Juliet and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, as well as occasional real life reports, suggests that love, when taken to the extreme, can make a partner or a spouse choose death over living the “practical life” without the beloved.

The Koestler’s suicides present an opportunity to examine love by forming a fictional group tasked to investigate the mystery of their deaths. Moreover, by subjecting the members of this group to their individual love troubles, I was able to study love in a wide variety of situations, such as cheating in marriage, love between individuals from different cultures, and expectations of what love can or should create in a good marriage, namely, a good life.

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Author PhotoBernard Otterman is the author of Self-Deliverance: The Death and Life of Arthur Koestler. You can find out more about Bernard and his book at bernardotterman.com. The book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Guest Post: Writing the Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name in Historical Fiction

Here’s author Laurel Deedrick-Mayne talking about her new novel, A Wake For The Dreamland, and her experiences writing historical fiction about a gay character during World War II.
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cover imageHow do we write the love that ‘dare not speak its name’ within the genre of historical fiction? I confess that even writing the love that can be ‘shouted from the rooftops’ has thrown me into flushed-faced fits of laughter… and since this is historical and not hysterical fiction, I have to take a deep breath; maybe recline amidst the mass of rumpled sheets…not those kinds of sheets… (picture me tearing page after page of bad sex writing out of an old underwood) and try, try again. It’s not all ripping corsets and popping buttons.

Writing historical fiction is tricky to begin with— dodging the deadly slings and arrows of ridiculously overly researched, smarty-pants narrative history dumps, often at the expense of our beloved characters. Trickier still: How does a middle-aged-heterosexual woman in 2015 write about sexual awakening of a male soldier in WWII? One can’t even fall back on cliché because…back to my opening sentence: it was love unspoken and unwritten. Homosexuality was a criminal offence under civil law and convicted service personnel risked court martial and dishonorable discharge. See what I mean? There was an accidental history dump.

In my book, A Wake For The Dreamland, the world is on the brink of war and friends William, Robert and Annie are on the cusp of adulthood. Haunted by memories of a boyhood dalliance with a lad and more than platonic feelings for Robert, William feels shame and longing to be ‘normal’. But these are not normal times. Every arena of their young lives is infiltrated by the war, from the home front to the underground of queer London to the battlefields of Italy.

The moment I knew I was writing a love triangle, I also knew that William would be gay. It seems strange to say this but I knew he was gay before he did. That is to say, I understood that the emotional stakes were very high and that it was up to me, to write his experience in the most authentic and honourable way possible. When I began writing in 2003 there was scant information available on homosexuality in WWII. But there were a couple new documentary films and a few excellent books. I had the benefit of a thoughtful archivist who remembered cataloguing a collection of love letters between two men from the 1940’s. And then, there was mustering the courage to come right out and ask the veterans who were helping me with the military aspect of my research. It wasn’t always easy and I experienced some kick-back along the way. There was the retired Major who, upon listening to my ‘Reader’s Digest Condensed’ version of the novel, declared, “Not in this Regiment!” That nearly sent me scurrying into re-write mode but another veteran friend, 90 years old at the time, reassured me that of course there were gay men in the unit. It didn’t bother anyone so long as they were a good soldier and did their job. I guess if you’re a good killer it doesn’t matter what kind of lover you are. There was the indignant participant at a workshop where I read an excerpt. She demanded to know, “Does your veteran friend know you’ve turned him into a homosexual?” I admit I had some fun with that one.

Where the truth lies, is the no man’s land where historical fiction writers tread. Writing the love that dare not speak its name during WWII and the aftermath was like crossing a minefield that could end in disaster. Confinement to a particular time and place in history: truth; gave me a scaffold upon which my imaginary friends could play out their infinite and intimate struggles and triumphs: lies. It was the ‘story’ in history that mattered to me. Nothing else. I kept reminding myself not to be afraid to be afraid, that this was not a story about war as much as it was a story about love. Those rushes of adrenalin were there to remind me I was on the right track.

Those of us writing historical fiction are excused from that old prescriptive chestnut: write what you know. But if we know something about friendship and love, fear and longing, grief and loss— that understanding will allow our characters to rise from the page and into the very hearts of our readers. The rest, as they say, is history. And my closing advice to anyone is simply this: Soldier on.

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Excerpt from A Wake For The Dreamland

It was London where he felt most alive. Where he could walk the line between civilian and serviceman, where he could connect with other Allied soldiers for whom the city held the same degree of safety and danger, possibility and peril, sociability and sex. At the Buckingham Gate Urinal or alongside the Albert Tavern, behind two telephone booths, he could steal a kiss or more…gratify his longing. There, or Charing Cross Station, or the gardens in Trafalgar Square.

But it was at Cyril and Lou’s apartment, in an enclave of others like himself, that he first slept in the arms of a man, a lover. There, for three days and nights, the sport he endured and enjoyed came as close to killing him as the war ever would— and it was heaven. Spending each waking moment in the pursuit, the act, or recovery from every conceivable means of lovemaking. To sleep: however briefly, only to be awakened by hunger in the belly, mouth, or groin. And listening: to music, to poetry – reading and writing it, too— and eating and drinking and tumbling, tumbling willy-nilly into bed again.

In the city her learned the language of his type: invisible to passersby, visibly to each other. He learned to go from being hunted to being the hunter. He learned to find his way in the dark, to seek an encounter, to be less afraid, less alone, seduced by the allure of safety and privacy where he could be himself without fear of discovery. And yet. While the other fellows were sleeping it off and the mantle clock in the parlour squeezed out the minutes until dawn, a sickening sadness would sneak through his limbs and curl up in a ball at the foot of his heart.

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IMG_9171_Web1_CLaurel Deedrick-Mayne was born and raised in Lacombe, Alberta but has spent her adult life as a city dweller and now makes Edmonton her home. Once an arts administrator (dance publicist, concert promoter and ad copywriter) Laurel has become a juggler: raising a family, managing her private massage therapy practice, serving on multiple arts boards … and writing. This book is a tribute to the generation of her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who took the time to hang on to family letters, clippings, stories, and poetry — all those treasures that inspired this story. A Wake For The Dreamland is Laurel’s first novel.

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An Interview with C. W. Gortner

Here’s my interview with C.W. Gortner. If you love historical fiction, particularly Tudor fiction, then Gortner is your guy.

03_CW_GortnerC.W. Gortner holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies from the New College of California, as well as an AA from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco. In 2012, he became a full-time writer following the international success of his novels. His books have garnered widespread acclaim and been translated into twenty-one languages to date, with over 400,000 copies sold. A sought-after public speaker. C.W. has given keynote addresses at writer conferences in the US and abroad. He is also a dedicated advocate for animal rights, in particular companion animal rescue to reduce shelter overcrowding. Half-Spanish by birth and raised in southern Spain, C.W. now lives in Northern California with his partner and two very spoiled rescue cats. For more information please visit C.W. Gortner’s website and blog. You can also connect with him on FacebookTwitterGoodreadsPinterest, and YouTube.

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Meredith Allard: When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?

C. W. Gortner: I began writing as a child in southern Spain. My mom remembers that even as a young boy, I was obsessed with books and made up my own stories. It’s a passion inside me; I don’t know where it comes from. I’m a voracious reader and I love to learn; most of what I know, I taught myself through reading. I didn’t dream of being a writer, however, until I was in my late twenties. I wanted to work in fashion and had various jobs in the fashion business for years. I wrote in my spare time, but it was a hobby, a way to express myself. I did not start writing historical fiction; I loved fantasy and actually worked for years on an epic fantasy novel for several years, which I still have. Looking at it now, I realized it’s heavily influenced by history, which I’ve always loved. Then one day, I decided to write an historical novel because I thought it would be fun to try my hand at it. My father read my first manuscript – all 800 pages on Anne Boleyn!—and suggested I try to publish it. I had no idea how to do that, but I studied everything I could about publishing and began sending query letters to agents. That’s how my career as a writer started. Had my father not said he thought my writing was good enough, I might never have tried.

M.A.: I am, I admit, only lately come to the fascination with the Tudor period of history. What prompted your interest in this time period? And why do you think the Tudor period is such an object of fascination among so many?

C.W.G.: I grew up when the BBC series “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” and “Elizabeth R” were being aired; I was still quite young but I was utterly fascinated. The Renaissance era is one of my favorites. When I lived in southern Spain, history was all around me. A ruined castle that had belonged to Isabella of Castile was just a short walk from my house; I also attended both Spanish and English-language schools, and history was by far my favorite subject. I always wanted to know more about the people: how they felt, how their world looked, what challenges they faced. History is often taught to be boring, a recital of uninteresting facts, but I had a particular history teacher who saw how much I loved it. She gave me history books and historical novels. When I read my first historical novel, Murder Most Royal by Jean Plaidy, it was like a door opened wide. Suddenly, I saw how history can come alive, how emotions can clothe the skeletons of the past in flesh and blood. After that, I read every historical novel I could, as well as history books. History can teach us so much about our present; without knowing where we came from, how can we decide we are headed? To me, history is like a guide to the past and the future. I think the Tudors’ brief reign offers a microcosm for history lovers: there is so much upheaval, passion, intrigue, and drama; the larger-than-life personalities and their oft-tragic fates—we must see something of ourselves in the Tudors, for their fascination on our collective imagination is enduring.

M.A.: How would you describe your novels to potential readers?

C.W.G.: Depends on the novel. My stand-alone novels about famous women, such as Isabella of Castile in The Queen’s Vow or Catherine in The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, are reinterpretations of these maligned characters. I wanted to rip aside the legend and lurid myth, delve into the emotional and physical circumstances they confronted in life. Each of these women made controversial decisions that blackened their reputes: I wanted to explore why. My stand-alone historical novels are in-depth character pieces that seek to not necessarily restore these women to their rightful place in history, but rather illuminate the obstacles and challenges they faced as female rulers in a male-dominated world.

02_The_Tudor_Vendetta-1For the Spymaster novels, of which The Tudor Vendetta is the third and last, I returned to my lifelong love for the Tudors. But as the era has been quite well covered in fiction, I took a different approach. Instead of depicting the lives of the famous, I devised a fictional plotline about a squire, Brendan Prescott, whose secret past leads him to become the intimate spy of Elizabeth Tudor. I also set the novels within crevices of Tudor history, during isolated events that had significant impact at the time, but are often not widely covered. In The Tudor Secret, it’s the plot to seize the throne as Edward VI lies dying; in The Tudor Conspiracy, it’s the Wyatt Revolt and Mary Tudor’s quest to wed Philip of Spain; and in this new one, it’s the first few months of Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, when she faces great uncertainty, and the sudden disappearance of her trusted lady in waiting challenges everything her spy believes in.

M.A.: There are so many novels about the Tudor period. What makes your novels different from others about that era?

C.W.G.: My novels are adventures with a mystery at their heart, presenting fictional characters interacting with historical personages. I also take a different approach to Elizabeth’s hotly-debated relationship with Robert Dudley. We like to see them as besotted lovers who can never be together, and to some extent, that is true. But Dudley was a lifelong, ambitious courtier with a mean streak; he’s not a knight in shining armor, and he made Elizabeth’s life difficult on occasion, despite her adoration. Dudley is Brendan’s antagonist; they were raised together and detest each other. I see Robert Dudley as that proverbial bad boy on the motorcycle whom our mothers warned us about: he’ll bring chaos, but we can’t resist him. He’s magnetic, dark and handsome; the serpent in the garden. I loved turning his liaison with Elizabeth on its head, exploring it from a different angle. She loved him, no doubt, but she knew he could never be her husband. A Dudley as king-consort would have been inconceivable, after the treason his family had indulged. And that enraged him. It took Dudley many years to finally realize he would never wed Elizabeth. As she herself once famously declared, “There will be but one mistress here—and no master.” But she was also vulnerable to him. Brendan’s job is not only to protect her from outside forces, but also the threat that Dudley poses.

M.A.: All authors have a different path as they seek publication. What was your journey to publication like?

C.W.G.: Very long and arduous. It took thirteen years to get my first offer. I wrote four manuscripts – three of which are now published—and had five agents before I met my champion, Jennifer Weltz of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency—who finally sold my first two books at auction. One of the struggles every writer faces is rejection; it requires perseverance to not let it defeat you. Being rejected is part of the journey, but it can be so disheartening. I had to keep reminding myself that I write because it’s how I interpret life; it didn’t matter if I ever saw one of my books published because writing was my passion. Of course, I did want to be published, and once I started pursuing it, it was impossible not to continue. But I’ve met writers who stopped because they couldn’t handle the rejection. I kept the nearly 300 rejections I received years ago; it reminds me that I accomplished something because I never gave up. But it’s easy to say that now; at the time, I did despair. I ended up self-publishing my first Tudor book, in fact, before the e-revolution. It was marvelous to finally see a book of mine in print, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t a true accomplishment because an editor in New York hadn’t seen my worth and given me an advance. The system for publishing has changed dramatically since then, of course, but I needed the validation from the industry. I suspect some writers feel the same.

M.A.: What are the joys/challenges of writing historical fiction for you?

C.W.G.: The joys for me are the research and the escape. When I write, I travel to another world and forget the realities of the one I live in. Research engrosses me; I can spend hours searching for the right saddle for a character’s horse. For me, writing is much like acting; we must strip away the essence of who we are in order to inhabit our characters, only as writers, we are invisible, so we can become whomever we want. Human emotion is universal; we all feel it. How we express our emotions depends on who we are and our society, era, and culture. However, I do find it challenging at times to write as a 16th century person because so much of what they believed is not me. I have to focus on not being myself to authentically write my characters and understand how they interact with their world, who they are, what they experience and feel. But it’s what keeps me going: challenge is very important to me in my work. I don’t ever want to get stuck in a rut, where I write the same novel over and over. Every book must be a love affair: I have to be so passionate about it, it’s like I’m falling in love again for the first time.

M.A.: What is the research process like for you?

C.W.G.: Demanding but exhilarating. I have a three-fold approach. The first part involves months of reading: biographies and books about the era, how people lived, dressed; transportation, architecture, medicine—everything I need to know to make the setting feel real. A significant amount of what I learn never makes it into the published book, but it’s important to discover as much as I can when I first start. I also draft emotional and psychological profiles of my characters, as people who lived hundreds of years ago experienced the world very differently. Research helps me understand their circumstances, so I can make them relatable to my modern reader. The second part of my research involves documents from the era, such as letters, ambassadorial dispatches, and accounts written by those who saw or recorded the events. This part is very time-consuming because the further back in time, the less likely these types of documents exist or are accessible; I have to write to university archives, museums, and historical centers to get copies, if available, or make appointments to see them. The third part, and most fun for me, is traveling to the places I write about, to see the locales where my characters lived.

M.A.: I just returned from a trip from London for research for a novel I’m writing, and I know it’s fun to travel to where you’re writing about if you’re able. Do you travel for research? If so, what role does travel play in your research?

C.W.G.: It’s essential for me. Much has changed; modern landscapes are not the same as they were in the past. Castles fall apart or are extensively renovated; parking lots pave over battle grounds, and malls sit on sites where historic murders occurred, but visiting the actual places where my books take place helps me visualize the settings. The colors of a garden, the echoes in a hall or texture of a painting: these details bring a novel to life in ways that pictures on the internet can’t. I must experience the locations in order to get a sense of the personality I’ll inhabit during the year-long process of writing. It’s part of how I become my character and live their life.

M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?

C.W.G.: Every author who perseveres inspires me, because as I’ve mentioned, it’s tough to keep writing and make a living at it. I’m very inspired by close writer friends, because I know that despite the outward appearance of fame and fortune (and far less of the latter than the former, in most cases) we all also deal with personal issues, like everyone else, as well as the industry itself, which can be quite challenging. Getting published is step one; staying published is step two, and that requires many hours of hard work, with a myriad disappointments along the way. To us, every book is a special child: we nurture it, guide it, labor to deliver it, but then we hand it over to the house. To them, it’s one in a season of titles, but to us, it’s ours and we want it to succeed. Adjusting expectations is vital for our sanity, yet not easy at all to manage.

M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write historical fiction?

C.W.G.: Write what obsesses you. Research can teach us what we need to know, but without passion for our subject—true passion—it becomes a chore. Also, while the genre has enjoyed a surge in popularity, it remains one of the lesser bestselling ones in the overall scheme of publishing. Publishers want subjects that are easily identifiable, set in eras which readers recognize, and that can be problematic when so many characters and eras are already covered. So, it’s important to understand the limitations of the marketplace, unfortunate as this may be.

M.A.: What else would you like readers to know?

C.W.G.: Just to thank you for spending this time with me. I hope you enjoy The Tudor Vendetta. To learn more about me and my work, please visit me at www.cwgortner.com.