Thursday, June 12, 2014

Interview with Vicky Alvear Shecter, author of Curses and Smoke

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Vicky Alvear Shecter to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her latest release, Curses and Smoke. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Vicky. Great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Curses and Smoke.
Thanks so much for having me! It’s an honor to be here. Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii  is a young adult historical fiction tale that takes place in the weeks before the infamous eruption. I wanted to focus on the daily life experiences of people from different social strata, so one main character is a slave, and another is the daughter of a citizen. The two characters—Tag, a medical slave in a gladiator school and Lucia, the daughter of the school’s owner—fall in love and dream of escape in the shadow of a rumbling Vesuvius.

What inspired this story? Where did it begin? 
As an ancient history buff, I’ve always been fascinated by Pompeii. And like most people, I’ve always been fascinated by gladiators. I wanted to give a taste of what it would be like to be a gladiator through the eyes of someone who worked with them but was not one. Also, I should mention that when I went to Rome and Pompeii, I went to a “school” for gladiators where I went for a mini-training. It was awesome. 

Pompeii is well-known, but isn’t a particularly popular setting with authors of historic fiction. What drew you to the infamous eruption of Mount Vesuvius?
Pompeii seems to fascinate a lot of people, including me, but you’re right—there aren’t a lot of historical fiction books set there. I’m not sure why (though Robert Harris’s Pompeii is the gold-standard). There are a lot of wonderful nonfiction books and videos available on the subject. However, as a lover of ancient history, I couldn’t resist wondering, “well, what WOULD it have been like to live in a world where gods where everywhere? What WOULD it be like to be confronted with a disaster of this magnitude without the kind of modern understanding of it we have?”

Historically speaking, what sort of research went into Curses and Smoke?
Lots and lots of books by historians and archaeologists. I read many books on Pompeii, daily life in ancient Rome, Roman religion, and Etruscan history. I read several books on the lives of gladiators and on gladiators in Pompeii specifically. I also studied the hour by hour breakdown of what happened after the mountain first erupted. And, of course, I walked through the ruins of the city itself. The highlight of my trip was a personal tour of a house during an archaeological dig with Mario Grimaldi a local archaeologist/professor who was kind enough to answer all my questions.

At gladiator training school in Rome while
researching Curses and Smoke.
Am I correct in thinking you based several characters on the famed casts discovered in the ruins of Pompeii?  
You are! But, I decided to make up my main characters whole-cloth because I wanted to give them the chance to survive the disaster (you’ll have to read the book to find out if they do!). ;-)  The pregnant friend is indeed based on the findings in the ruins. One confused old man they meet at one of the gates during their escape is based on the cast of an old man discovered in the exact place where my characters have a brief conversation with him. And, of course, there’s the dog!

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly stands out to you?
It’s the little things that stuck with me. When Tag and Lucia are trying to escape during the deluge of lapilli (rain of pumice), Lucia steps on what she thinks is a raised stone. But the raised stone gives way and squeals and it turns out she’d stepped on a pig who had collapsed in exhaustion and was being smothered by the accumulation of rocks. Many animals died by asphyxiation as the accumulation overcame them in the early hours of the eruption. 

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?  
The scene where they witness the pyroclastic surge that snuffed out Pompeii was a challenge. I wanted to capture the awe and horror of it and I hope I did. How did I work through it? Editing and rewriting and editing and rewriting!

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
I found Quintus as a character very interesting and would’ve loved to spend some time exploring his unique combination of super-rich obnoxiousness and clueless vulnerability.

Historical novelists frequently have to adjustment facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing Curses and Smoke and if so, what did you alter and why? 
It took 18 hours after Vesuvius exploded before several pyroclastic surges obliterated Pompeii. While I didn’t invent anything, I did compress some of the time involved after the explosion just to keep the action moving.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
I would choose Tag because this is what I imagine he looks like. 

(‘Nuff said, right?) Also, Tag takes a great deal of pride in his Etruscan heritage and I would enjoy discussing Etruscan culture with him.

Authors are famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, for writing their own experiences, friends and acquaintances into their narratives. Is there anything in Curses and Smoke that sprung directly from your personal history? 
Not as much as it did in my first novel, Cleopatra’s Moon. In that book, I poured my own painful experiences with losing a cherished older brother when I was young into the scene where Selene talks to her mother, Cleopatra, after they’ve learned that Caesarion had been killed. But in this novel, there was nothing that big—except for maybe my absolute insistence on saving the dog because I’d been so heartbroken when I saw the plaster cast of the dog who died in Pompeii still chained to his post.

What do you hope readers take from Lucia’s story?
Mostly, I want them to be grateful for all the rights and freedoms we women have today because I can’t imagine the powerlessness of having absolutely no say in the direction of your life. It’s hard enough being a teen girl—imagine dealing with having little or no control over your destiny on top of that.  Yet, that is still true in many traditional cultures around the world today and I hope that living in Lucia’s sandals for a brief time might give some insight into the frustrations that kind of constriction causes.

Okay, we've talked a lot about your book. Let's switch gears and talk a little bit about you. How would describe your writing process? 
You mean after the crying and the bottomless cups of coffee? ;-) Actually, for me, I have to “see” the scene unfold in my mind’s eye—like a movie—before I can write anything down. Often I need to pace or go out for walks in order to get the scenes up on my inner screen.

Two words: writer's block. How do you deal with it? 
Walking. For whatever reason, any kind of physical movement where I’m free to let my mind wander helps me break through those tough moments.

Who are your favorite authors? 
There are so many! Mary Renault (who fed my teenage addiction for all things ancient history), of course, as well as Marion Zimmer Bradley and Zora Neal Hurston. In terms of current writers, I’d say John Green, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, Jo Graham, Steven Saylor, Ruth Downie, Ben Kane and countless others.

What are you currently reading? 
I’m just finishing a beautifully written YA book called Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow.

What do you like to do when you're not writing? Any hobbies?
Reading is and always has been my most favorite hobby. But lately, I’ve been doing CrossFit so I’m getting into that a little bit. No chance of me becoming cultish about it, though—I’m usually just trying to finish a workout without passing out!

Where do you stand on the coffee or tea debate? 
Ummm…..COFFEE! I’ll take tea in a pinch but coffee is my drug…er, I mean my drink of choice.

And finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? Planning a vacation? Anything exciting and/or noteworthy? 
I have a mythology series for youngers readers (ages 9-12) under way. Anubis Speaks! A Guide to the Afterworld by the Egyptian God of the Dead released last year. This fall, Hades Speaks! comes out and the year after that, Thor Speaks!  I’m hoping the series does well enough to continue it. Mythology is certainly one of the ways I became hooked on ancient cultures.

I’m still kicking around some ideas for another historical YA… Thank you so much for having me here!

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Vicky Alvear Shecter is the author of the young adult novel, CLEOPATRA’S MOON (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2011), based on the life of Cleopatra’s only daughter. She is also the author of two award-winning biographies for kids on Alexander the Great and Cleopatra. She is a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University in Atlanta.

Website Blog ❧ Facebook ❧  Twitter ❧  Goodreads


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PRAISE FOR CURSES AND SMOKE

The story was a great foray into historical fiction, and I really enjoyed that the author didn’t use the explosion of Pompeii as her only conflict. There was a lot of tension from a lot of areas, making the story all the more real.
– Book Geek, Goodreads Reviewer

Historically accurate and beautifully written, Curses and Smoke is such a compelling read. Lucia is a character readers will fall in love with. From her plucky spirit to her eagerness for knowledge to her willingness to fight for herself, even if it means bucking societal norms and defying her father, Lucia is a force to be reckoned with.
- KM, Goodreads Reviewer

This book was also full of twists I did not see coming!
- Elizabeth Phillips, Goodreads Reviewer

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Format: Paperback & eBook
Publication Date: May 27, 2014
Released by: Arthur A. Levine Books
Length: 336 pages
ISBN-10: 0545509939
Genre: YA Historical Fiction

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Check Out All the Stops on Vicky Alvear Shecter's Curses and Smoke Virtual Book Tour Schedule


Monday, May 26
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Review & Giveaway at The Mad Reviewer
Tuesday, May 27
Guest Post & Giveaway at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, May 28
Review & Giveaway at Fiction Folio
Thursday, May 29
Review at Good Books and Good Wine
Friday, May 30
Guest Post at Good Books and Good Wine
Monday, June 2
Review at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Tuesday, June 3
Review at Geek Girl’s Book Blog
Interview & Giveaway at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Wednesday, June 4
Review at Book Drunkard
Thursday, June 5
Review at Book Lovers Paradise
Friday, June 6
Review at The Book Belles
Review at Manga Maniac Cafe
Monday, June 9
Review at Bibliophilia, Please
Review & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair
Tuesday, June 10
Review & Giveaway at Historical Tapestry
Wednesday, June 11
Interview & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Thursday, June 12
Review at Let Them Read Books
Review at Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Friday, June 13
Review at Broken Teepee
Guest Post & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books

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