Monday, January 8, 2018

#AuthorInterview: Heather Webb, author of The Phantom's Apprentice

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Heather Webb back to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her latest release, The Phantom's Apprentice.

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Release Date: February 6th 2018   |   Sonnet Press   |   Historical Fiction/Romantic Suspense
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Welcome back to Flashlight Commentary Heather. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about The Phantom’s Apprentice.
Thank you for having me! The Phantom’s Apprentice is a re-imagining of The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, complete with a historical context of the period—illusionists, spititualism, what it means after we die, music as a means to find one’s inner power, Belle Epoque Paris in all its glory. It’s a sort of mash-up of genres, really; suspense, historical fiction, romance, women’s fiction (if that’s a true category). It’s all about Christine Daaé’s inner life, and who she “really” is—how her story “really” happened, at least in my imagination.

The Phantom’s Apprentice is less a re-telling than it is a re-imagining of The Phantom of the Opera. Why did you opt to make such dramatic departures from the source material? 
It’s funny you say this. I had a couple of publishers tell me it wasn’t different enough, that I had followed the original too closely. My agent and I scratched our heads about it. I can’t tell you how much I wrestled with this element of writing the book. How much canon from the novel do I retain? How often can I stray from the original story? If I strayed too far, it would be unrecognizable; if I didn’t stray far enough, I would be repeating the story that already exists. This was a very difficult thing to balance. My critique partners could tell you how much angst I had about this very thing—it was constant. The other issue is, what is so famous in Webber’s version isn’t necessarily what the book was trying to illustrate at all, so it added another layer of angst. The public knows and loves the play. Do I follow this outline more heavily or the original Leroux version?

In the stage play version of the story, so much is left out that was either touched upon in the novel, or was eluded to (Erik having conjuring skills, for example). I reconstructed that world, expanded it, sort of combining the two versions. Also, I used most of the original cast, but I gave them deeper motivations, as well as created another layer of stakes for each character beyond just “there’s a creep in the opera who is trying to kill us”, or “she’s really pretty, I want to be with her”. There were a couple of new characters that I hadn’t planned on, too, who butted their way into the narrative unexpectedly. When Delacroix showed up, I thought “who the heck is this guy and what does he want?” It led me down the spiritualism path.

Ultimately, this is a question about artistic license, and about what the original means to me personally, where I see its strengths and flaws and how I wanted to flesh out certain elements, how I wanted to add something new to a beloved story that a modern audience could relate to. I found that in Christine Daaé’s voice. 

Spiritualism plays a unique role in the story. Can you tell us a little about the Spiritualist movement and its connection to the world of magic and illusion?
I was absolutely fascinated by this movement, and really wanted to incorporate it as historical context for the novel. First of all, Gaston Leroux lived during this time when the movement was at its height in popularity. He ingeniously weaved in this question of ghosts and spirits, as well as political commentary from the times into the narrative that doesn’t really come through in the play version. 

Spiritualism began with an innocent séance between the Fox sisters in the first half of the 19th century that evolved into a sensation. Did the dead communicate with the living? Had they really passed on or did they live among us, evolving alongside us in the afterlife? This era is when you see the rise of Gothic novels and the occult, as well as the use of mediums and turning tables for séances. Add the technological push and rapid series of inventions and everyone grapples for the essence of what matters—their loved ones, the evolution of their souls, and so on. 

Spiritualism evolved into a religious sect in some circles, and like with any religion, beliefs were tied to its principles and emotions ran high. There was much debate over the validity of spiritualism, and Scientists and philosophers sought to disprove or prove (whatever angle they were coming from), the likelihood that spirits were real. Many magicians/conjurers tapped into this emotionally volatile well and manipulated it for their own gain, especially as advances in projecting images and different types of glass were designed. They could “create” apparitions. Riots broke out after an illusionist’s show from time to time, because viewing the dead so easily in public caused a fright.

Erik could throw voices, used mirrors to deceive, made trap doors, dressed like an illusionist. Leroux was poking fun at the movement while simultaneously giving a nod to its ingenuity. I LOVED this about the novel and thought, how could this have gone unnoticed among modern audiences? We see magicians in top hats as hokey. This is because society today doesn’t understand the era when all of this was happening, how modern technology began, really, during this time, and the way it frightened the bejesus out of people. Major change was afoot. Fascinating stuff that I just HAD to include. 

Speaking of magic, the narrative is filled with numerous illusions and tricks. Were these techniques inspired by any particular magician or popular performances of the period? 
Yes, they were inspired by many illusionists that were popular during the time. I mentioned a few of them by name in the book. If you’re curious, I’d recommend reading Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer. It’s a terrific book about the history of magic and the world’s most popular magicians. I read a few others, but this one was, by far, the best.

Do you have a favorite scene in The Phantom’s Apprentice? 
Hmm. I’ll just say my favorite scenes to write were when Christine sees Raoul for the first time at Carlotta’s salon, when she confronts Carlotta near the end, and also the masquerade ball when she discovers a few unsavory details about all those she has cared for and trusted.

How funny! The confrontation scene was my favorite while reading the book. 

Is there a character you felt particularly close to while writing The Phantom’s Apprentice? 
Interestingly, I’d say Claudette. As much as I enjoyed giving Christine Daaé a backbone, I just really loved Claudette’s voice. She popped up unexpectedly and I thoroughly enjoyed her. At times, I wanted the story to be more about her. 

As a side note, I had trouble with Erik. I had to really scale him back because every time I started working on a scene with him, he wanted to take over the story. He’s a larger-than-life figure in our minds and I had to remind myself again and again that it wasn’t his story, that he already had a story. This was Christine’s. 

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing The Phantom’s Apprentice?
YES! Initially, I toyed with the idea of setting up a framing device that was in Gaston Leroux’s voice. My intention was to show how he became inspired to write the original through things that happened to him and around him in society. I tried and tried to make this work—Leroux was kind of a wild man, and was the original and first celebrity journalist—but it just didn’t fit so I had to ditch it. I’m still mourning that. It just didn’t happen. Incidentally, I’d love to write a book about him.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you invite and why? 
I assume you mean in The Phantom’s Apprentice and not from all of my novels? I think I’d choose Monsieur Delacroix. He was incredibly intelligent and had loads of baggage as well as some interesting views on things. I’d like to pick his brain. 

If you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of The Phantom’s Apprentice, who would you hire? 
I would hire Amber Heard for Christine Daaé. (In the novel, she was a blond, Swedish babe, not the brunette we’ve come to recognize in the play.) For Raoul, Liam Hemsworth, I think. I see Erik being played by someone with a middle-aged, slightly creepy affect like Kevin Spacey. I have no one in mind for the others. If Mariah Carey were an actress, I’d cast her as Carlotta. Ha!

What do you hope readers take from their experience of The Phantom’s Apprentice? 
I usually like to allude to something meaningful about being alive and struggling as people on this earth. In The Phantom’s Apprentice, the struggle is about finding a place of your own, about discovering the bravery inside of you to face hardships that life throws at us. It’s also about using that bravery to strike out, do something meaningful in our short time on this planet. We should not grieve forever about what is lost, or we also lose our present and our future. It’s also about spirituality. What do you believe about souls and the afterlife? Is it scientifically-based, or do you believe in a higher power? Do they go hand-in-hand?

Finally, I was heavily inspired by The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, one of my very favorite novels. That novel, to me, is much less about plot and so much more about atmosphere. It’s an experience, almost, rather than a story. I aimed to channel some of that essence in The Phantom’s Apprentice. I wanted to create a lush, Gothic ambiance that was so unique to the era, make the book an experience of its own. Most of all, I just want to entertain my readers! 

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When Josephine Bonaparte appeared to Heather in a dream, she switched gears from fun-loving high school teacher to author & history nerd on the prowl for fascinating stories.

To date, her historical novels have sold in multiple countries, received national starred reviews, and have been featured in print media including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Cosmo, Elle, and more. In addition, RODIN'S LOVER was chosen as a Goodread's Pick in 2015.

Her recent release, LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS, an epistolary love story set during WWI, she co-wrote with NYT bestseller Hazel Gaynor with lots of laughs, tears, and trans-Atlantic phone calls. It's available in stores everywhere.

Stay tuned for her up and coming, THE PHANTOM'S APPRENTICE, a Gothic re-imagining of Phantom of the Opera from a newer, stronger Christine Daae's point of view. Out February 6, 2018.

When not writing, Heather flexes her foodie skills, geeks out on pop culture and history, or looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world, (especially her beloved France).

Website   |   Facebook   |   Twitter   |   Goodreads

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Rodin's Lover
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Becoming Josephine
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Fall of Poppies
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
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Friday, January 5, 2018

#AuthorInterview: Anna Belfrage, author of There is Always a Tomorrow

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Anna Belfrage back to Flashlight Commentary to discuss the ninth book in the Graham Saga, There is Always a Tomorrow.

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Release Date: November 5th 2017   |   Timelight Press   |   Historical Fiction/Historical Romance
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Welcome back to Flashlight Commentary Anna. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about There is Always a Tomorrow
There is always a Tomorrow is the book that wasn’t supposed to happen. I thought I was done with Alex and Matthew when I published the previous book, but it proved very difficult to say good bye to them. Also, the future fate of White Bear/Samuel (the second youngest Graham child) kept gnawing at my heart so I thought it best to start writing about him and see what happened. 

There is Always a Tomorrow is the ninth volume in what has become a vast, multi-generational epic. Why was creating this kind of story so important to you and what do you hope readers take from their experience of it? 
The Graham Saga is self-indulgence at its best. I became so addicted to my characters and their adventures that I just couldn’t stop telling their story. At its core lies the love story between Alex and Matthew, but it’s also about love in all its forms, between parent and child, friends, brothers, sisters…I hope my readers put my books down with a reconfirmed belief in love and family. If, along the way, they’ve also learnt a bit more about life in the 17th century that is just an added bonus.  

Though neither will openly admit it, Alex and Matthew are beginning to feel their age in this story. As an author, how do you feel about seeing these characters reach this point in their lives? 
Stressed! After all, no one lives forever, and I am fast reaching appoint where…gulp. But there is an element of peace and acceptance in Alex’s and Matthew’s approach to age that I find comforting. After all, growing old is something most of us will experience and I believe it is how we choose to confront the inevitability of life nearing its end that colours our last years. 

White Bear/Samuel struggles with his identity through much of the narrative. What inspired his storyline and why did you feel it so important? 
I have a good friend who has a son who is not biologically his. The boy is very loved—but also confused as to who he really is. Like this boy, White Bear/Samuel and to some extent Ian are both people caught between two families, two identities. In Samuel’s case, he has difficulties in finding who he really is, torn as he is between his white identity and the Native American heritage of his adopted family. Ironically, the fact that all his parents love him makes things even more difficult for him. 

While historically appropriate, Rachel’s experiences are particularly tragic. Did you find it difficult to write these scenes? 
Yes. Especially as there are girls in our day and age that are experiencing similar horrors. 

Rachel isn’t the only grandchild facing hardship in this chapter of the Graham’s story. Duncan is beginning to note the social implications of his origins in There is Always a Tomorrow and I wondered if you might elaborate on how colonial culture viewed and treated both illegitimate children and the women who bore them. 
It varied from colony to colony, but in general most of the 17th century colonies considered an illegitimate child to be the result of fornication. In those colonies which had a Puritan majority, fornication was a crime that led to fines and public flogging. In principle, colonial laws considered the father to have an obligation to support his child—but the problem lay in identifying the father. An adulterous woman was considered sinful and for a long, long time it was believed that if a woman became pregnant she must have enjoyed the sexual act, hence a rape victim was as sinful as the woman who consensually initiated a sexual liason with someone not her husband. More specifically, this means that the good inhabitants of Providence would view Duncan’s birth mother as something of a fallen woman while Duncan himself would probably not be ostracized (beyond being taunted). Fortunately for Duncan, he has an adoptive father with some standing in society which probably helps! 

Your incorporation of Coode’s Rebellion represents one of my favorite aspects of narrative. Why did this particular episode of American history capture your imagination? 
Because it is rarely talked about. Coode’s rebellion effectively wrested control of the Colony of Maryland from the Catholic Calvert family (who had been granted Maryland as their colony by James I) and also signaled the end of the religious tolerance the Calverts had always promoted. 

Carlos finds himself at the center of this conflict. Can you tell us a bit about his personal situation and how this movement impacts him? 
Carlos has never found a place to call home prior to ending up in Maryland. So when Coode and the Protestant Associators make it illegal for Catholic priests to live & minister in the colony, they effectively make Carlos homeless again. It’s not as if Carlos has all that many alternatives: he can’t go back to Seville because his uncle has threatened to turn him over to the Inquisition. He has no real desire to travel to the Spanish colonies so he decides to stay put. A somewhat fateful decision…

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing There is Always a Tomorrow?
Adam Graham – but I’m thinking he’ll get more airtime in a future book. And Samuel needs more time as do Duncan and my favourite among the Graham grandchildren, Lettie. 

As a reader, I love Alex’s habit of sharing her favorite stories with her family and the literary legacy she gifts her children. It’s not related to the novel per say, but I’d love to know what titles the Graham children and grandchildren love best. 
Well, they’d not know the titles, but the boys would put The Three Musketeers right at the top. Alex’s daughters have always preferred the stories from The Lord of the Rings (as does Matthew). They all like Robin Hood, have heated discussions regarding Arthur and the Holy Grail, Guinevere and Lancelot. Alex has also passed on a number of Swedish fairy tales, most of them involving the very pretty little princess Tuvstarr and trolls. 

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Anna was raised abroad, on a pungent mix of Latin American culture, English history and Swedish traditions. As a result she's multilingual and most of her reading is historical- both non-fiction and fiction. Possessed of a lively imagination, she has drawers full of potential stories, all of them set in the past. She was always going to be a writer - or a historian, preferably both. Ideally, Anna aspired to becoming a pioneer time traveller, but science has as yet not advanced to the point of making that possible. Instead she ended up with a degree in Business and Finance, with very little time to spare for her most favourite pursuit. Still, one does as one must, and in between juggling a challenging career Anna raised her four children on a potent combination of invented stories, historical debates and masses of good food and homemade cakes. They seem to thrive…

For years she combined a challenging career with four children and the odd snatched moment of writing. Nowadays Anna spends most of her spare time at her writing desk. The children are half grown, the house is at times eerily silent and she slips away into her imaginary world, with her imaginary characters. Every now and then the one and only man in her life pops his head in to ensure she's still there.

For additional information regarding Anna, her characters, extra scenes, and teasers for her next books, have a look at Anna's website.

Website   |   Facebook   |   Twitter   |   Goodreads

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A Rip in the Veil
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Like Chaff in the Wind
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Prodigal Son
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
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Monday, January 1, 2018

#AuthorInterview: Jennifer Laam, author of The Lost Season of Love and Snow

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Jennifer Laam to Flashlight Commentary to discuss The Lost Season of Love and Snow.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Jennifer. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about The Lost Season of Love and Snow.
Thank you! The Lost Season of Love and Snow is set in 19th century imperial Russia and tells the story of Natalya Goncharova and her tumultuous marriage to Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, who died tragically in a duel fought over Natalya’s honor. After his death, Natalya’s reputation suffered, as she had been the cause of the duel. I think it’s time to hear Natalya’s side of the story.

At risk of sounding impertinent, where did you find this story? Did it strike like lightening out nowhere or was is something that came to you over time? 
As a student, I was fascinated with the story of Alexander Pushkin’s life and death, which always struck me as romantic in a morbid way. I didn’t know much about his wife, only rumors that she may have been unfaithful and perhaps even the tsar’s mistress. Fast forward twenty years or so. As I’m thinking of topics for a new book, I “bump into” Natalya Goncharova in Martin Cruz Smith’s Tatiana. A yacht is named after Natalya and there is much talk of beauty, disloyalty, and betrayal. At one point, a character even refers to her as “Pushkin’s whore.” After reading, I had to learn more and found a Newsweek article about her. Pushkin scholars have recently uncovered more information on Natalya’s intellectual ambitions. That made me want to spend time with her and get to know her world.

Natalya Goncharova is a lesser-known historical figure. How did you go about bringing her to life in The Lost Season of Love and Snow? 
Since her husband, Alexander Pushkin, is so well known, I focused primarily on books about him for my research. It was fascinating to see how Natalya’s historical reputation evolved over time. All of the books made the Pushkins’ world come to life, but later ones were far kinder to Natalya.

Natalya’s relationship with Alexander Pushkin is the obvious heart of the novel. How would you define and characterize their romance? 
I think they shared an intense erotic and intellectual chemistry and this is how I portrayed their relationship in my book. Their correspondence seems playful and high-spirited. They both enjoyed attention and attracted admirers, but I believe they were intensely in love.

Do you have a favorite scene in The Lost Season of Love and Snow? 
I’m torn. I loved writing Alexander and Natalya together, but scenes featuring antagonists are even more fun because you can let characters say absolutely the worst things possible. So my favorite scenes are the exchanges between Natalya and her sister, Ekaterina, early in the book, where they are giving one another a terrible time. Even though Ekaterina is definitely an antagonist in my book, the more I think about it, the more I want to tell the entire story through her point of view.

Is there a character you felt particularly close to while writing The Lost Season of Love and Snow? 
I bonded with Natalya and felt I understood her. The world she experienced as a young woman may have been different than mine, but I related to the challenges she faced when dealing with men, particularly men in power. I’ve laughed nervously when a man said something inappropriate. I’ve been blamed for the bad behavior of a man. I’ve tried to pretend everything was all right for the sake of outward appearances and my own reputation.

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing The Lost Season of Love and Snow?
Writing on a deadline is a necessity, but a challenge. In this case, it meant I couldn’t explore Alexander’s literary legacy as thoroughly as I would have liked. At the same time, this makes the novel focus on Natalya and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you invite and why? 
I want to meet Alexander and Natalya and see how close I got to the truth of their relationship. Natalya was a fascinating woman married to a genius. I want to know what that was like: emotionally, intellectually, and, yes, sexually.

If you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of The Lost Season of Love and Snow, who would you hire? 
Since I write historical, I usually know what many of my characters looked like in real life. I love television and movies, though, and want to cast everything in my head as well. 

Natalya: Sophie Turner aka Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones
Alexander: Alfred Enoch from How to Get Away with Murder (He’s too tall and too young, but I want to make this work.)
Georges (the other man): Charlie Hunnam (why not?)
Tsar Nicholas I: Damian Lewis because he did such a great job of portraying Henry VIII in Wolf Hall that I figure he’s a natural fit for the “Iron Tsar.” 

What do you hope readers take from their experience of The Lost Season of Love and Snow? 
My goal is always to entertain and to get someone to turn the page and stay up past bedtime to read one more chapter. Of course I want to leave readers feeling satisfied. Since most of the characters in this novel are fictionalized versions of real people, I would be honored if readers finish my book and then take a few minutes to learn more about Natalya and Alexander. Finally, I hope Natalya’s story will inspire readers to look closely at the way women are portrayed in history books. I think Natalya got an unfair shake for many years and I hope to be some small part of changing the way we view women. 

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Jennifer Laam is the author of THE SECRET DAUGHTER OF THE TSAR, THE TSARINA'S LEGACY, and the forthcoming THE LOST SEASON OF LOVE AND SNOW (January 2018), all from St. Martin's Griffin.

Jennifer has lived in Los Angeles and the suburbs of Detroit, and has traveled in Russia, England, France, and Finland. When away from her computer, she enjoys fussing over animals, binge watching her favorite TV shows, planning cosplay for Comic Con, and line dancing. Jennifer currently lives in Northern California, where she works for her alma mater, University of the Pacific.

Website   |   Facebook   |   Twitter   |   Goodreads

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