Posts Tagged ‘mary mackey’

Author Mary Mackey Interviews a Celebrity Agent (That Would Be Me)

April 25, 2014

Mary Mackey, AuthorToday I am reprinting an interview by myself and Mary Mackey originally published in her fabulous writer’s blog: “The Writer’s Journey.” Mary  is a bestselling author who has written six volumes of poetry including Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. She is also the author of thirteen  novels some of which have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists. Mackey’s novels have been translated into twelve languages including Japanese, Russian, Hebrew, Greek, and Finnish. Her poems have been praised by Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, Marge Piercy, and Dennis Nurkse for their beauty, precision, originality, and extraordinary range. ”     Her newest book,  a collection of her poetry entitled Travelers With No Ticket Home was published this spring by Marsh Hawk Press.

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Mary: Andy, you’re a famous, successful agent. Given this, I suspect the most common question people ask you is: “How do I get an agent?” Let’s answer that one first. Could you please tell us in two sentences or less what writers need to do to get an agent? Also, I’m sure people will want to know if you are currently accepting clients.

Andy: You get an agent the old fashion way,  by having a fantastic, original idea for a book  and a brilliant writing style.  I have a blog that explains the steps you need to take to find an agent.  Check out my Eleven Steps To Finding An Agent. And yes, I am actively seeking new clients. I want query letters by email. You can send them to:  andyrossagency@hotmail.com.

Mary: Before you became an agent, you owned several bookstores including Eeyore’s in Cotati, California, and Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.  Tell us about your early experiences as a bookseller. How did you get into the business? What did you love about it?

Andy: I got into it for all the wrong reasons. I was a graduate student in European history. I liked to hang out at bookstores.

Mary: How did you come to buy Cody’s Books?

Andy: Like most of my important decisions in life, it was pretty impetuous. I was visiting my friend, Neal Coonerty, who owned  Bookshop Santa Cruz. He told me that Cody’s was for sale and that I should consider buying it. I told him probably not. It was daunting.  I was only 29 at the time, and Cody’s was already a legendary bookstore. I wasn’t sure I had enough knowledge or confidence. The next morning he asked me again if I would consider it. Again I said, “no”.  But as I was driving home, I decided I would do it.  A month later, I owned the store.

Mary: What were the best things and the worst things about being a bookseller?

Andy: Well, everybody I know has the fantasy of owning a bookstore. Being surrounded by books.  Wow! But when I think back on my 30 years at Cody’s, I realize that a lot of my time was spent on pretty mundane stuff. The bad plumbing on Telegraph Avenue comes to mind. And I was never very good at supervising employees. I was always trying to make people happy, and I never seemed to be able to.

Mary: When you owned bookstores, what was your best-selling book?

Andy: Probably my best seller was Bill Clinton’s memoir.  It helped that he came to the store to sign it.

Mary: How did you make the transition from bookstore owner to literary agent?

Andy: It was another impetuous decision, but one I never regretted. I had been a bookseller all my adult life.  When I left Cody’s in 2007, I thought that I was probably cut out for sacking groceries at Safeway.  I woke up one morning and decided I’d make a good  literary agent. At first I was worried that I didn’t know anything about it. But then I realized that I’d been learning the job for 35 years. Being a bookseller all that time was pretty good experience for being an agent. Most agents come out of publishing. I have the advantage of having spoken to book buyers all my life.

Mary: How is your relationship to authors different at present than it was when you were selling their books?

Andy:  Now I’m working at the other end of the literary food chain. I’m involved much more in creative work. I like that a lot.  The process of writing, particularly writing fiction, is a mystery to me and really quite miraculous. When I first decided to become an agent, I thought that my main job would be making deals. But I spend much more time working with authors and helping them polish their book. It’s tough getting published. You can’t submit a project unless it’s perfect.

Mary: What are the major problems you see in the work of clients you decline to represent? In other words, what do writers need to do to make their books better and more saleable?

Andy: That’s really the $64,000 question. Publishing has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. I saw that happening at Cody’s, and I’m seeing it now as an agent. Most of the commercial publishers have been bought up by multimedia conglomerates. The pressure to produce huge profits is intense.  The word that keeps coming up in publishing is “platform,”  which means you have a recognized national or international  authority  in the subject you are writing about or you have the kind of celebrity that gives you the  ability to garner media attention. I like to tell people that platform means  you either have an endowed chair at Harvard or you are sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser. Platform is less important with fiction.  But the hurdles are even more challenging. The writing has to be exceptional. But that is only the beginning. Almost all the novels that are submitted to fiction editors have been heavily vetted by agents. Most of them are good. Publishing decisions tend to get made based on marketing rather than aesthetic considerations. A literary fiction editor might look at 300 novels a year. They will probably decide to publish 10.

Mary: What is your favorite book of all time?

Andy: Probably War and Peace.

Mary: What are you reading right now?

Andy: Something trashy. I’m too embarrassed to say.

Mary:  What books by your clients are coming out in the near future?

Andy: Sometimes its better to be lucky than smart in this business. But it’s  even better to be both. The most recent book I represent is Water 4.0 by David Sedlak published by Yale University Press. It’s the most important book yet published on the challenges of drinking water. The book was released the week Governor Brown declared a drought emergency in California.  Bloomsbury Press has just released Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. It’s a profound and important book, one that will have a huge impact on the way we think about animals.  Also Sourcebooks has just released Shooting Stars: My Life as a Paparazzi by Jennifer Buhl. Definitely the most fun book I have ever worked on. Also one of the funniest. She was recently interviewed on Entertainment Tonight. I have three magnificent novels being published this fall. I can’t wait.

Mary Mackey Talks About E-book Publishing

July 28, 2012

Mary Mackey is the author of six collections of poetry and thirteen novels, including New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle bestsellers. Her books have been translated into twelve foreign languages and over a million and a half have been sold in hard copy. This spring, nine of her novels and her latest collection of poetry Sugar Zone were simultaneously re-released as Kindle e-books.  By the end of the summer they will be available on Nook, Kobo, iPad, and Android. We are going to talk to Mary today about how she got these books back into print and what her experience has been.

Andy: Nine of your novels and Sugar Zone, your most recent collection of poetry, were recently published as e-books.  How did this happen?

Mary: The short version is that my agent Barbara Lowenstein first negotiated two deals: one with Amazon.com, which publishes Kindle books, and another with Vook, which publishes e-books in the Epub format on all other platforms. She could only do this because she had retained my electronic rights when the books were originally sold to traditional publishing houses. The moral of this story is that every writer needs a great agent to draw up contracts and make deals with publishers.

Andy: How did you get your books into Kindle and other e-book formats? Did you do it yourself?

Mary: No, thank heavens, I didn’t have to. Barbara’s assistants worked with me for several months to get the files ready, and then Amazon did the actual conversion. I had to proofread everything to catch errors and make sure nothing was left out.

Andy: Were most of these books out of print before they were published as e-books?

Mary: Yes, it was a kind of resurrection. Even A Grand Passion, my novel about ballet which made The New York Times bestseller list had been hard to get. But the strangest experience was having my first novel Immersion available again after being out of print for 38 years. Shameless Hussy Press had published about 1000 copies, but very few were still available and those were so expensive I could rarely afford to buy one for myself. Then, bang. Immersion came out as an e-book, and suddenly people who would never have stumbled on it in a bookstore were buying it.

Andy: How are the books selling?

Mary: Very well. They’ve only been available for a short time, but every month at least a third more units have been sold than in the previous month. The first month Amazon sold over 700 copies. This approaches bestseller status for newly released e-books if you don’t count blockbusters like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Andy: I understand that when most authors publish e-books, they only sell a few copies. To what do you attribute your success?  How are people finding your books among the more than a million books available on Kindle and the ten million in other e-book formats?

Mary: We think there are several factors. First, I’m a writer with a well-established readership. I already have a reputation—fans, readers who have enjoyed my work in the past and are interested in anything new I might write. Some of my novels, like A Grand Passion or The Year The Horses Came have a cult following Second, I’m a current writer. I’ve had two novels and a collection of poetry published in the last five years. If people have read The Widow’s War (Berkley Books, 2009), they might search for me by name and find my other books all priced at $2.99, and think: “Why not take a chance? I liked her other books, and if for some reason I don’t like this one, it costs me less than a small Frappuccino at Starbucks.” I mention the price because it’s the third factor and vitally important. To sell a lot of e-books you need to set a price low enough that everyone can afford them.

Andy: How can authors who don’t already have an established literary reputation help readers find their e-books?

Mary: The algorithm that Amazon uses to decide which books to recommend to readers is a secret, but certain things seem to help. For example, my books are highly rated. They’ve been given a lot of stars by people who liked them and been reviewed numerous times, mostly quite favorably. In addition, readers have tagged each novel with words they associate with it. For example, A Grand Passion is tagged with the words “ballet,” “bestseller,” “dance,” “historical fiction,” “Russia,” “romance,” “passion,” etc. Getting good reader tags is important because they guide other readers to your books. Anyone publishing on Kindle should also establish and maintain an Amazon Central Author Page. I say this with guilt because I need to find time to update mine. Other things that help are getting both your name and information about your work out there on the web, getting reviewed, establishing an author presence on Facebook, using Twitter, blogging, and so forth.

Andy: Is there anything else an emerging author can do?

Mary: Yes, be patient. Don’t publish your work as an e-book until it’s polished. Readers enjoy good writing. They like to read books by authors who care about craft and structure and who can create crisp, fast-moving plots and interesting characters.  If you’re self-publishing and can afford it, hire an editor. Great editors are like great agents. They’re invaluable. If your book is really good, sooner or later the word will get out.

Mary Mackey on Writing Poetry and Fiction

October 10, 2011

Mary Mackey  is a novelist, a poet, and a teacher. We interviewed her last year in this blog upon publication of her historical novel, The Widow’s War. Mary’s new book of poems, Sugar Zone, is being published this October by Marsh Hawk Press. Her poetry has been praised by Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, and Marge Piercy to name but a few. She is the author of 13 novels and her work has been translated into twelve languages.

Mary will be giving readings  of Sugar Zone throughout the month of October in the Bay area and New York.

I thought it would be a lot of fun to talk to Mary and compare the creative experiences of writing poetry and fiction.

Andy: Mary, let’s start by talking about a poem in your new poetry collection Sugar Zone. Here it is:

The Kama Sutra of Kindness: Position Number 5


in the flame
of a single candle     entire cities
are appearing
and disappearing

my hands tremble on you
my fingers pass through you
your tongue tastes like apples
your flesh is fog

above our roof     the jealous moon
has torn a hole in the sky

Could you tell us a little bit what went  through your mind when you were composing this poem?

Mary: This is a love poem, the fifth in a series about the spiritual dimensions of passion. For thousands of years, poets have been writing about how passion can seize us, pull us out of ourselves, and unite us not only with another person but with the Divine. As I wrote this poem, I had a vision of lovers creating a moment where time stopped for so long that entire cities could appear and disappear in the flickering of a candle.

Andy: In plain English, what are you saying here?

Mary: That’s a hard question. When you put a poem into plain English, it’s no longer a poem, but let me try: I’m saying that passion combined with love is one of the paths to the Divine. I’m not the first poet to say this. Saint John of the Cross, one of the most important mystical philosophers in Christian history, wrote passionate love poems to God.

Andy: This is a gorgeous poem.  I think I had to read it out loud several times to really appreciate it. But having read your fiction, I’m a little surprised that this has come out of the same mind as the person who wrote The Widow’s War. That novel was also beautifully written but it was an adventure, a popular novel. It would make a good  big budget movie. Are you a literary schizophrenic?

Mary: No, I’m not even all that unusual. Marge Piercy, whose work I admire greatly, has been writing both novels and poetry for over 40 years. I’ve been writing poetry since I was 11. For the first 15 years of my literary career, I was known primarily as a poet. Poems and novels come out of different parts of my brain.

Andy: Other than Marge Piercy, who are some other poets you admire who also write fiction?

Mary: Thomas Hardy, Maxine Hong Kingston, Michael Ondaatje, Ishmael Reed, and Paul Auster, are some of my other favorite poet-novelists.

Andy: Your novels have been on The New York Times bestseller list. Your last novel The Widow’s War made The San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list. All told, your novels have sold well over a million and a half copies.  So why did you choose to write the poems in Sugar Zone instead of writing another novel? Are you nuts?

Mary: Probably. No, seriously, I wrote those poems because they came to me with an urgency that told me that right now I would not be happy writing anything else. I have the great luxury of being able to write what I want when I want to write it, not because I’m rich but because I’ve always had a day job. When I was a teenager, I read a lot of biographies of authors, who were forced to write pot boilers to put food on the table. I like regular meals, so I decided to get a Ph.D., become a professor,  write whatever I wanted to write, and teach college students for a living, which I did. This was a good choice because I love teaching.  I think it’s important for writers to do something besides write. You need to get out in the world, experience life to the fullest, have a few Hemingway-like adventures.

Andy: What do you get out of poetry that you don’t get when you write a novel? Certainly not money. You’ve said that. I’m sure your agent couldn’t care less about this part of your writing life. I don’t represent poets. I have a mortgage to pay.

Mary: You’re right about the money. During my first ten years as a writer, I only got paid once for a poem: $1.75. My last book of poetry Breaking The Fever, actually made money thanks to Garrison Keillor who read three of my poems on The Writer’s Almanac, but I couldn’t retire on my poetry income unless I lived like Gandhi. What I get out of writing poetry is joy. When I write a poem, I feel elated, as if I had gotten in touch with some deep, hidden part of myself. I don’t write poems that read like a diary, but there is more of the real me in my poems than in my novels. Writing poetry is my spiritual practice, like meditation. It gets me in touch with my unconscious.

Andy: What’s the difference between writing novel and a poem? Talk about the creative process a little bit.

Mary: Writing a poem is more immediate experience. I write most of my poems out in longhand in one sitting and then start putting them through revisions.  I’ll sometimes revise a poem 20 times before I am happy with it.  Occasionally a poem will come to me without  a word that needs changing. Ideas for novels also come quickly, but the novel itself  takes a long time to write—three years of daily work all done on a computer. Writing a novel is like planning a huge convention: you need to be highly rational and well-organized; you have to work within the limits of plot and character, and you have to think about whether or not your publisher is going to be able to sell your book; because publishers, agents, and booksellers  do indeed have mortgages to pay. But with poetry, anything goes. It’s more like play than work.

Andy: Does the craft of writing poetry bleed over into writing novels? Do good poets make good novelists?

Mary: I like to think my novels are better written because I write poetry. I love language, I’m sensitive to the rhythm of sentences, I’m in touch with the unconscious impulses of my characters. But you also have to resist poetry when you write novels or you will spend three pages ecstatically describing a sunset, neglect the plot, mess up the pace, and bore your readers.

Andy: Mary, it seems to me that in America, poets get no respect. I remember in the Soviet Union where free expression was not permitted, poets were authentic superstars who would draw thousands of people to their readings. That doesn’t really happen  here. It doesn’t happen in the new Russia either. Does poetry thrive on adversity?

Mary: Under an oppressive dictatorship,  poetry often becomes the last stronghold of freedom of speech because dictators underestimate its power to inspire ordinary people to resist oppression. Poetry can be very dangerous.

Andy: How do poets make money as poets?

Mary: Most don’t. The most common way for a poet to survive in America is to teach. Well-known poets are paid to do poetry readings, lecture, and give workshops, mostly at colleges, universities, and at writer’s conferences.  If you write poetry, don’t give up your day job.

Andy: I can’t write a story to save my life. But my clients who write fiction never run out of stories to tell. I assume that it’s a gift from the muse and that I have not been so blessed. Is this true? Is the gift of poetry the same gift or different?

Mary: They are both the same gift expressed in different ways.

Andy: Will you ever write another novel?

Mary: I am working on one right now.  I have more ideas for novels and poems than I’ll ever be able to use in one lifetime.

Mary Mackey on Writing Historical Fiction

September 7, 2009

MACKEY WIDOW (1 of 1)MACKEY AUTHOR PIC (1 of 1)Mary Mackey   is the author of a new historical novel, The Widow’s War,  just published in paperback by Berkley Books (a division of Penguin). It is the story of a woman’s life and struggles set against the backdrop of the approaching Civil War. As in many of Mary’s other sweeping historical epics, it portrays a strong and courageous woman caught up in historic times.

Maxine Hong Kingston said of The Widow’s War: “We thrill to the story of Carrie Vinton, as she courageously takes the side of freedom over slavery.”

MACKEY NOTORIOUS (1 of 1)Mary has been a professor of English and Creative Writing at California State University for over 30 years. She has published 12 novels and 5 books of poetry. Her works have been translated into 11 foreign languages including Japanese, Hebrew,  Greek, and Finnish. Her best selling novel, A Grand Passion,  sold over a million copies and made The New York Times bestseller list.

Mary will be reading and discussing The Widow’s War on Friday, September 11, at 7:00 PM at Book Passage Corte Madera, California.

Andy: Mary, I want to talk to you today about writing historical fiction. It is a genre that I love to read and that you, it seems, love to write. But first I’d like you to tell me a little bit about your new book, The Widow’s War, which has just been published by  Berkley Books.

 Mary:  Well, we might start with the fact that Carrie Vinton, the heroine, is a widow because she’s just shot her husband.

 Andy: Wow. That starts things off with a bang. I presume she had good reason, yes?

Mary: A whole list of good reasons. This is a novel about the first African-Americans to fight in the Civil War. They’re a fictional cavalry unit, but they could have existed. The story that surrounds them is filled with Afro-Brazilian magic, heroism, history, and a passionate love affair that borders on obsession. But it also explores the subject of betrayal: personal betrayal, political betrayal, and, of course, sexual betrayal.

 The heroine, Carrie Vinton, is an American who was raised in the jungles of Brazil by her father, a botanist. Carrie is passionately opposed to slavery.  In the fall of 1853,  Carrie finds herself alone and pregnant in Rio de Janeiro after William, her abolitionist fiancé, disappears. William’s stepbrother, Deacon Presgrove, arrives in Rio, tells her William  is dead, and convinces her to marry him for her baby’s sake.

 After they return to the states, Carrie finds out she’s been tricked: Deacon is a fortune-hunter who’s married her for her money and William is still alive. From that point on, the novel is one series of betrayals after another. Believing that Carrie is dead, William has emigrated to Kansas where he is running slaves out of the slave state of Missouri on the Underground Railroad. Carrie goes to Kansas to search for William. This isn’t the Kansas Dorothy went back to after she returned from OZ. This is a Kansas convulsed by a violent civil war that raged for seven years before the official Civil War broke out. Two years earlier, in 1854,  President Pierce had signed a law which gave the residents of the Territory the right to vote to determine whether or not Kansas would come into the Union as a free state or a slave state. Almost immediately fierce fighting broke out in the Territory as proslavers flocked over the border to vote and abolitionists, mostly from New England, emigrated to Kansas to bring the state into the Union as a free state.

 William and Carrie are reunited but their happiness is short-lived. Attacking Carrie’s home, proslavers kidnap William, Carrie’s newborn child, and thirteen fugitive slaves. Desperate to fight for what she believes in, to get her child back safely, to prevent innocent people from being sold back into slavery, and to be reunited with the man she loves, Carrie arms a cavalry unit of African-American soldiers and leads them on a rescue mission into the slave state of Missouri. These soldiers have been trained by John Brown, the same John Brown who attacked Harper’s Ferry in 1849. Brown believed armed insurrection was the only way to end slavery and he was very active in Kansas at the time.

 I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, so I’ll leave you with William with a noose around his neck and Carrie riding into Missouri to try to save him.

 Andy: Can you be bribed to tell us if she makes it in time?

 Mary: Afraid not.

 Andy: Okay, then, the next question: This is your second book that takes place in  the time of  the Civil War. Your first was: The Notorious Mrs. Winston .[ picture of book.  ]  What caused you to become interested in this historical period?

 Mary: My great-grandfathers fought on opposite sides during the Civil War. One died for the Union at Shiloh; the other was a Confederate Army surgeon. I grew up hearing both points of view, and by the time I was twelve, I had decided that slavery was a great evil, and that if I had been alive in that period, I would have been a abolitionist.  Of course, I’m not the only person interested in the Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of people are still drawn to the subject. It was one of the great turning points in American history, and many of the issues it raised are still with us—racism, for example.  You can’t understand American in the 21st Century  if you don’t know what happened when this country was almost ripped apart in the mid-19th century. In the 1850’s  slave owners came very close to controlling Congress. If Kansas had come into the Union as a slave state, all the western states, including California, might have become slave states. The North might not have won The Civil War; we might be two countries instead of one.  You might say we escaped by the skin of our teeth.

 Also, as a novelist, I’m always trying to create a plot that’s exciting—one that sweeps the reader along. There are few periods more exciting than the years just before and during the Civil War.

 Andy: It seems to me that historical fiction as a genre has an enduring attraction. I have always loved it because it seems to  focus on the heroic virtues (and vices) of humans. In the best works, I always come away being uplifted by these kind of epic themes. What is it about the genre that allows you to –well- get away with these kinds of portrayals. After all, most contemporary literary fiction seems to dwell on more intimate and private subjects.

 Mary:  I love writing historical fiction  because it allows me to set my stories in times when people face serous adversity.  I think you really get to know a character—or a real person for that matter—by the choices they make under stress. When the going gets tough, does the person endure or fold;  show compassion or shove the children aside, jump in the lifeboats, and save him or herself at the expense of everyone else? 

 At present in the industrialized world,  most people have few opportunities to show how heroic (or how deeply wicked) they are. We live sheltered lives. If we drink the water that comes out of our faucets, we aren’t likely to die of typhoid; most women survive childbirth; the majority of babies don’t die in infancy; our homes are warm in winter; most of us have never really gone hungry, and although we may deplore the violence in our cities, an army is not likely to attack the town we live in, burn the buildings, and massacre all the men and boys (which is what actually happened in Lawrence, Kansas in 1863). 

 Writing historical fiction gives me wide-ranging, exciting possibilities that allow my characters to be heroic or foolish on a grand scale with important consequences. I have an opportunity to examine the point where personal life and history intersect. Tolstoy does this masterfully in War and Peace. Dickens does it in A Tale of Two Cities. I learned from them that historical fiction can also be literary fiction.

 Andy: So now here is the big question. What is the greatest historical novel ever written?  Or let me rephrase that. What is the greatest historical novel ever written other than  War and Peace?

 Mary:  I’d say Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (a.k.a. Remembrance of Things Past),  all seven volumes of it. It’s not usually classified as historical fiction, but it covers the first decades of the French Third Republic and fin de siècle. Published between 1913 and 1927, it has a timeline that begins in the early 1870’s. Proust is one of my mentors. He’s influenced the way I think about psychology and style. He taught me that concrete detail and well-developed, complex, vivid characters can recapture the past and make it come alive.

 My next favorite piece of historical fiction is Mary Renault’s novel The Persian Boy.  I’ve read it several times and each time I go back to it, I’m impressed by how beautifully Renault integrates the history of Alexander The Great’s conquest of Persia with the intimately personal, first-person narrative of Alexander’s lover, the eunuch Bagoas.  Like Proust, Renault has strongly influenced my writing, particularly my pre-history novels The Year the Horses Came, The Horses At the Gate, and The Fires of Spring.  

 Andy: Lately, when I have tried to sell publishers any book, fiction or non, publishers seem obsessed about the books not being too long. It seems that the internet has created a generation of readers with ADD. But historical fiction seems to be able to get away with more words. I see 800, 1000, 1400 page historical novels. Got any thoughts why this is so?

 Mary: I suspect readers are willing to buy and read long historical novels because historical novels are offering them a history populated by human beings who love and suffer in ways that haven’t changed all that much over the centuries. Also,  I think many people (myself included) like to learn history in an enjoyable, painless way. Reading primary, or even secondary, historical documents can be a complex, difficult, boring process. I do it all the time, and even though I’m a trained academic researcher, I often find myself exhausted as I try to sort through events and make sense of them. Good historical fiction spares the reader this process. Ideally, the author tells a good story and in the process of reading that story, you learn a lot of history, but you learn it without having to spend two or three years consulting hundreds of books and articles.  Better yet, you remember it. Once I read The Persian Boy, I never forgot that Alexander The Great made it all the way to India in his attempt to conqueror the world.

 Andy: When I saw the movie  Zorro 2, there was a scene that took place when California was admitted to the Union  in 1850. The scene included Abraham Lincoln and a Confederate general. So my question is when the historical record clashes with telling a good yarn, who wins out?

 Mary: History, at least in my novels. I think my readers rely on me to be accurate. That said,  I’m writing fiction, which means that, among other things, I’m inserting fictional characters into real history, so sometimes I rely on possibility rather than on the exact record. For example, in The Widow’s War, I have a fictional pro-slavery senator  named Bennett Presgrove help a South Carolina Congressman nearly beat an abolitionist senator nearly to death on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The beating is a real, historical fact—one that shocked me when I discovered it– but in real life, the South Carolina Congressman conducted his infamy solo. At the end of the novel, I have an Author’s Note. In it, I tell the reader what’s fact and what’s fiction. I would never consider putting Abraham Lincoln next to a Confederate general in 1850. If I were reading a novel that did this, the entire illusion of being transported back to another era would be ruined for me. Even small mistakes in the historical record bother me. For example, I’ve read novels set in prehistoric Europe where people sit around drinking tea.

 On the other hand, some novels intentionally set out to distort history or change history. For example, there is a whole genre of science fiction alternate history novels that take as their subjects things like the South winning the Civil War or Hitler dying as an infant. As long as the author tells you at the beginning that this is the game plan, I don’t mind. Fiction is just that: fiction. The joy of fiction is that you can do anything you want with it as long as you are honest with your readers.

 Andy: I know you have been writing about the Civil War period now. But have also written about Czarist Russia and European pre-history. Are there any other  historical periods that you find really appealing?

 Mary: My doctoral dissertation was on the influence of the Darwinian Revolution on the 19th century novel, which is why the 19th century always attracts me, but I’m also particularly interested in ancient Rome, Britain as the Roman empire was crumbling, the Middle Ages in general, 17th century France, and Latin American just before and during the Spanish and Portuguese conquest. I read about these eras constantly, although I don’t know if I will ever set a novel in them.

 Andy: So what is it with the God damned Tudors? It’s like one novel after another about Elizabeth, Henry, Mary Scots, that stupid rogue Essex, the Boleyn girls. Is there really anything new to say about these people? Why do they seem to have such an enduring  fascination?

 Mary: I think some of the appeal is celebrity gossip. “OMG! Henry the VIII beheaded 2 of his wives!” Plus the women wear really beautiful clothes and are very rich and live in palaces while the rest of us are trying to pay the mortgage. I have nothing against these novels. They provide entertainment and escape, and in the best cases they bring history to people who would never read it otherwise. Some are very well-written and well-researched. I particularly enjoy the work of Philippa Gregory. I think the problem with the Tudors is that they are being mined to death. It’s like the Jane Austen craze. Jane Austen is a great writer, but you can only take so many rewrites of Pride and Prejudice. I’m reminded of great songs that are played until you can’t stand them. At this very moment, someone who has never heard it before is listening to Stairway To Heaven and being blown away by it. But when I hear it for the 6,000th time, all I want is earplugs. It’s the same with the Tudors.

 Andy: Ok Mary. I want to write an historical novel. I’m thinking of doing a kind of mystery. Maybe Sherlock Holmes teams up with Otto Von Bismarck. Maybe a murder in the Hapsburg court. A lot of scenes with generals in cool outfits doing the waltz. Is this a good idea. What periods of time do you see really working right now for a successful novel?

 mary: Right now I’m hoping that the Civil War period is the best for a successful novel. Seriously, Andy, if you’re planning to write a historical novel, you should start by finding a period you love and set your story in it. If waltzing generals in cool outfits make you happier than Roman emperors in togas, go for the waltzing generals.

 Historical Novels that Mary recommends you read:

Mary Mackey suggests you read all of Andy’s suggestions (below) plus:

 Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Year The Horses Came by Mary Mackey

The Widow’s War by Mary Mackey

Ten Historical Novels that Andy recommends you read.

Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears

The Dream of Cicero by Iain Pears

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

The Three Musketeers s by Alexander Dumas

Saints and Villains by Denise Giardino

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Lincoln by Gore Vidal

The Notorious Mrs. Winston by Mary Mackey

The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque


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