T. Thomas Cheng
Today I have the pleasure to present an author born and raised in Hong Kong, T. Thomas Cheng came to the U.S. to attend college and made it his home. Having retired from a long career in banking and risk management, he has a passion to travel and a joy watching performing arts from pop music to Broadway, from contemporary dance to ballet, but his favorite shows are the live dance performances of his daughters. Longing for Alignment is his first novel.
Can you describe your novel?
The novel is about the life journey of the main character, Daniel, from adolescence to fifty-something, with the main settings in Hong Kong during the early years and Chicago in his adult life. There are several intermingling themes, including his persistent attachment to and memory of a sentimental, cross-cultural affection, the fading enthusiasm of his youthful passion, the cultural challenges and adjustments he encounters, and the nostalgia of home and the past.
You were born and raised in Hong Kong and have been living in the United States for substantially all of your adult life, how much of the story is based on your own life story?
This is a fictional story of a life journey, and not an autobiography. Some of Daniel’s past experiences are indeed inspired by actual or modified events and occurred in settings that do exist. Readers may recognize some of the scenes and locations. I think it is not uncommon for authors to draw on experiences that are close to their heart or settings that are familiar to them. From there, imaginations take over.
This is a character-based novel using a first-person method and does not fit neatly into any popular genre. Why did you set out choosing this approach?
I do not want to be constrained by a specific genre. Whether it fits into a particular category that appeals to a wide audience is never a consideration. As the novel involves feelings and sentiments, I believe the first-person approach is more intimate.
With this approach, how do you keep the story interesting?
As Daniel moves along the continuum of time, I insert certain historical events (Y2K, September 11 and many others) and a multitude of characters to add context to the story. I touch on a wide variety of issues such as aging, retirement, friendship, marriage, companionship, spiritualism, poverty, and working life in corporate America. There are bits and pieces about value and philosophies of life. While readers will certainly have different experiences and viewpoints, they will recognize many of these subjects and hopefully keep reading. As the most dominant theme of the story is about the perpetual longing for a closure to an overpowering affection that shapes and haunts Daniel throughout his life, many readers find reading the ending chapters/part “hard to put down.”
There are numerous references throughout the book about cultural differences, adjustments and barriers. Can you discuss that?
Given my background, I am living through many of the cross-cultural issues. The cultural differences are multi-faceted, ranging from simply day-to-day adjustments to complicated relationship issues. While I describe some of the challenges and barriers in the book, especially about first-generation immigrants, I think I give equal justice to the beauty of understanding the different traditions.
Who may be interested in reading your novel?
The book is a life story spanning close to forty years. Readers who have walked through this phase of the life journey will likely identify with the story. They may share the same nostalgia about memories of childhood and the past, or a special relationship. Immigrants, or those away from home, and those who value cultural diversity may also find the sentiments agreeable. There are plenty of memories about Hong Kong and Chicago, and residents in these cities may enjoy the scenes. There is also a heavy Irish theme brought along by the cross-cultural affection, including a trip to Ireland. While there are some surprises and coincidences in the story, it is generally a quiet walk of a journey of the heart and the state of mind filled with sentiments and emotional conceptions. Some readers may find that appealing.
Can you include a few excerpts of the book?
“Nostalgic memories of the past and childhood surfaced more frequently. The youthful, romantic notion of conquering Mount Everest grew stale as re-acquaintance with my roots became tenacious. At a very young age, there were unattainable dreams associated with moments of glory: as a brave astronaut walking on the moon in the eyes of worldwide admirers, a heroic Olympian standing on the podium with a hard-earned medal, a star athlete clinching the championship, or a popular singer performing in front of screaming fans. Those childhood ambitions evaporated in the limelight of reality. Adolescence brought idealism and repeated questions about the meaning of life – a pursuit of the mission to make the world a better place to live. Immersion into poetry and fiction transformed the inspirations into purportedly achievable aspirations. The infinite possibilities of youth were both hypnotic and passionate.
Waves came on shore, ebbed, and returned. For human life, time did not return. Only memories lingered. It was temptingly easy to romanticize the past. We were more forgiving about the flaws associated with our expired days, as we scrubbed deficiencies from our minds with the passage of time. Only fragments of the sweet taste of memories settled in the wilderness of the brain. Originality of the past was indeed transcendent. Communicating through letters written in ink instead of emails took time, but brought a personal touch. Handwriting a note required a careful inscription, and, with skilled penmanship, could be artistic and visibly pleasing. A piece of writing using a manual, mechanical typewriter with inked ribbons where typographic errors could not easily be corrected required perfection and precision. Folk songs played on acoustic guitar without the aid of elaborate electronic sound support provided comfort. Simplicity was authentic. Modern conveniences with their technological improvements brought efficiency, yet stained the purity of the past. It was a crude irony and a strident reminder that my chosen profession was a culprit in eroding the past.”
“The massive crowd during the school year vanished from campus when the winter break arrived. Students went home or took vacations to go skiing or visit warmer climates. Most international students stayed in the area, but VJ took the long trip back to India. Most on-campus facilities closed down. I waited outside the professors’ doors to see the posting of my grades for the semester and savored the results. The alternative to the closed cafeteria for most days was a meal from McDonald’s. Armed with a hamburger, french fries and a cup of hot coffee, I headed to the Student Union building, which was still open. It was one of my favorite spots on a cold winter day, where one could study sitting on a sofa chair next to the fireplace by a large window overlooking the main area of the campus. On a normal day during the semester, it was a very popular venue, and sofa chairs were scarce commodities. On this day during the break, I had an unlimited choice and could pick the seat that allowed a view of the snowfall outside the window. The fresh snow fell onto the tree branches, covering their bareness and creating an image I’d previously seen only on Christmas cards.
As darkness convened in late afternoon, the street lamps started illuminating. The little flakes sparkled like shining stars within the accumulated snow. Gloomy clouds blanketed the sky above. The stars could not find their space up in the clouds and decided instead to venture down to earth to enrich the white snow. From a distance, a few young students blissfully built a snowman and engaged in a friendly snowball fight in the powder-covered lawn. Otherwise, the atmosphere seemed to be deprived of noise. The snow falling on the ground generated no sound.
This was not the season when Caitlin came to my life. She emerged in high summer when the robins were chirping and the sun was shimmering. She came on the scene when the sound of a raindrop falling on a leaf or the sound of a sparrow flapping its wings could be disguised as live music. Her presence upended the core of my equilibrium and provoked a sweet revolution in my thoughts. She approached subtly and departed softly, leaving a trail of ineluctable tenderness and the remnants of an unfulfilled void.”
“In contrast, the secondary school experience was evocative. The classrooms and desks seemed tiny when I revisited. The concept of space altered the sense of dimension after all these years of living abroad. I always preferred sitting in the back row in the classrooms in those days. I was not tall, but it was precisely why I hid behind the wall of taller classmates to daydream with a lesser risk of being called on by the teachers. The school had renovated the school auditorium with a state-of-the-art sound system. I revived the image of me and my classmates singing ‘Five Hundred Miles’ on stage. Five hundred miles seemed such a long distance back then, and now I was more than ten times that distance away from my childhood home. The chapel remained intact, except for a fresher coat of paint. Those oversized red and white gowns for the altar servers might actually fit better today than those days when my body weight was below average. I sat on the pew that Caitlin and I used to share. The rainy day robbed the opportunity for any sunlight to shine through the stained glass. I walked by the altar and turned around and imagined the first time I saw Caitlin from a distance.
Students were playing basketball in a steady rain at the playground where Caitlin and I let our singing go unbridled. The rain did not bother their game. At their age, rain and coldness never bothered me. I was either brave or stupid, but life did not stop for bad weather. Patience was not a virtue back then. Thirty years later, I sat in the covered area by the playground and patiently waited for the rain to pass. A student walked by before he ventured out in the rain and, in English, he asked this peculiar visitor, “Can I help you?” Did the immersion into American fabric really change my manner so drastically that the young Chinese boy would automatically assume I only spoke English? For a second, I tenderly ached for that possibility and answered him, in English, “No. I am all right. Thank you.” I did not tell him my history and that I used to be one of them — one who was unafraid of the rain and anxious to move on in life. The steady rain had suddenly become heavy, and it was pouring now. I wanted to advise him that he should wait for the rain to subside and that he, far more than I, had the luxury of time ahead in the life journey and could afford to have patience. But he was gone before I could say the words. I felt I was meeting a mirror image of myself in the distant past.”
Today I have the pleasure to present an author who’s been leading a double life. His award-winning Daniel Jacobus mystery series is set in the dark corners of the classical music world, of which he is intimately familiar as a former violinist with the Boston Symphony, associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony and as a conductor, composer, and teacher. The first novel in the series, “Devil’s Trill,” was a Barnes & Noble Discover: Great New Writers selection. And now there are eight…
Let’s start from the beginning. I understand you’ve had a long career as a classical musician. What can you tell us about that, and how you made the unlikely transition into writing murder mysteries?
I agree, it’s not your standard career path. After winning a job in the Boston Symphony violin section in 1975 straight out of graduating from Yale at the tender age of 22, for the next 36 years I was a full-time orchestra musician, including a long stint as associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony. Along the way, I’ve appeared extensively in the U.S. and internationally as a soloist, chamber musician, conductor, composer, and teacher, all of which I continue to pursue to this very day. I’m particularly proud of my current position as music director (conductor) of the Vivaldi by Candlelight chamber orchestra series, a post I’ve held since 2004, and whose concerts are the primary public fundraisers for a wonderful organization, the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy.
As far as my writing career is concerned, I’ve enjoyed creative writing and mystery reading for as long as I’ve played the violin, which started when I was seven years old. I never thought about being a published author, though, until 1997, when, with my family, I spent a year’s sabbatical leave in Umbria, Italy. There, I wrote the first draft of a book that I initially intended as sort of a “how to” guide for young violin students to help them surmount all the formidable challenges in order to pursue a successful career. To make the book more of a fun read, I wove into it a tale of a cursed Stradivarius violin stolen from Carnegie Hall. To make a very long story very short, over the next twelve years and a dozen rewrites, the book morphed into a traditional whodunnit, Devil’s Trill, in which the rival of my protagonist, Daniel Jacobus, is murdered and Jacobus himself becomes the prime suspect. Barnes & Noble chose Devil’s Trill as a Discover: Great New Writers selection for a debut novel in 2009. The rest is mystery.
I’ve heard that you’ve stated that your Daniel Jacobus mysteries are set in “the dark corners of the classical music world.” When I go to a concert, it all looks bright and shiny and that all the musicians are enjoying themselves immensely. What are some of those dark corners?
The glossy white-tie-and-tail image of the symphony orchestra as a representation of the classical music world is a lovely but deceptive illusion. There are so many things that go on backstage among musicians that the lay audience doesn’t know anything about: power struggles, rivalries, personality and musical conflicts, jealousies, pet peeves. It’s almost a miracle that wonderful performances can emerge from all the turmoil. Expanding the perimeter outward from the concert stage, there are despotic conductors, antagonistic orchestra managements, ethically compromised critics, overbearing theater parents, ruthless concert agents, cutthroat competitions, sexually predatory pedagogues, and shady instrument dealers, all of whom intrude upon the hallowed walls of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. I delve into all these dark corners in my mysteries. The old axiom is, “Write what you know about.” I’ve seen it all. It’s for real.
I can’t think of another protagonist like Daniel Jacobus, a curmudgeonly, reclusive, and blind violin pedagogue who is an unparalleled amateur super-sleuth. How did you come up with such a unique character?
Jacobus is not a person that you’re immediately fond of. Quite the reverse. Though he’s a consummate musician, he can often be bluntly opinionated, sarcastic, and boorish, and he does not suffer fools. Little by little, though, you realize he’s got a heart of gold underneath it all and is as honest as the day is long, sometimes too honest for his own good. His tough exterior is the result of three tragedies in his life: His childhood abuse at the hands of a violin competition judge, the death of his parents in the Auschwitz death camp, and his sudden blindness on the day he auditioned for the concertmaster position of the Boston Symphony help explain his deep reluctance to allow even his dearest friends a window into his soul. Yet, throughout, Jacobus maintains his unflinching integrity and sense of humor.
I’ve often been asked why I decided to make Jacobus blind. It’s a great question, and there are two parts to the answer: First, we know that when a person loses the use of one sense, the others often more than make up for that loss. By being deprived of sight, Jacobus’s other senses – especially hearing – are so enhanced that he perceives things that elude everyone else, including law enforcement authorities, of whom he has a low opinion. The second part of the answer is metaphorical. When we go to a concert, we can’t help but be influenced by external factors more than we realize; for example, how beautiful the pianist is or how much the violin soloist moves around or the dress that the singer is wearing. Extrapolating from that, classical music as a business – the marketing, promotion, and sales – obscures the essence of the art, what goes in the ear. Going even further, in solving a crime, there is so much irrelevant chaff that has to be separated from the essential wheat. By being blind, Jacobus can’t be fooled. And he isn’t.
The titles of your books are intriguing. Tell us about them.
The Daniel Jacobus series is divided into two groups of four. I like to call them my first and second quartets. The titles of the first quartet are taken from famous pieces of music of the same names that, themselves, are based on stories about death: Devil’s Trill, Danse Macabre, Death and the Maiden, and Death and Transfiguration.
More than solely deriving a general, visceral sense of inspiration from the titles, I connect the music and my stories in a multi-tiered way. I weave into my stories the composer’s life, the actual music in performance and preparation, the structure of the music informing the structure of the novel, and, most importantly, the composer’s vision metaphorically transposed into the contemporary realities of my stories. Case in point: Danse Macabre began as a folk tale all the way back in the Middle Ages, when the plague wiped out two-thirds of Europe. The story was translated into a poem by the 19th-century French poet, Henri Cazalis, and then into an orchestral tone poem by the great French Romantic composer, Camille Saint-Saëns, in which every detail of the poem is musically depicted. His most brilliant idea was to represent the character of Death not by predictably wild, demonic music, but by a sensuous, seductive waltz on the fiddle, a cloak of elegance disguising an internal evil. In my novel, Danse Macabre, the reader gradually discovers that as death lurks, each character, like Death, presents a false façade intended to deceive others—a story they want others to believe—but which hides an ulterior, dark inner self. Which, of course, leads to bigger questions for the reader: Do we truly know who anyone is, or even who we are?
The second quartet of Jacobus mysteries was inspired by Vivaldi’s beloved set of violin concertos, the Four Seasons. One thing music lovers might not be aware of is that these concertos were based upon sonnets that Vivaldi himself wrote, and the fantastic musical imagery portrayed in the concertos – everything from birds calling to peasants getting drunk to ice cracking and teeth chattering – is linked note for note to the sonnet texts. I used the music and the sonnets to set my mysteries around seasonal venues when musicians would most likely be inclined to commit murder: In Playing With Fire, it’s fraud in a violin shop in the dead of winter. In Spring Break, it’s sexual misconduct on a conservatory campus. In Cloudy With a Chance of Murder, it’s a psychopath on the loose at a summer music festival, and in my most recent, Murder at the Royal Albert, it’s a tragic shooting at a concert on an orchestra’s fall tour.
Aha! Now that we have the background, please tell us a little more about Murder at the Royal Albert. It sounds intriguing.
The themes of Murder at the Royal Albert parallel Vivaldi’s “Autumn,” alternating between harvest revelry and the hunt, except in my book the hunt is for a human, not a hare.
Natasha Conrad, a young violinist in a great symphony orchestra on a European tour, is inexplicably shot and killed while playing her first concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Natasha was a former student of Yumi Shinagawa, who is the concertmaster of the orchestra. Jacobus and Nathaniel Williams were in London in order to attend the concert and to rekindle their friendship with Yumi’s English grandmother.
Everyone is baffled why this innocent young lady was murdered. It’s up to Jacobus, Yumi, and Nathaniel, in occasional partnership with the stuffy London constabulary and with an urbane but suspicious English musician, to pursue their quarry through London and the English countryside.
I shouldn’t give away any more.
Do you need to know a lot about classical music to enjoy the books? Do they have to be read in order?
One mark of a good mystery writer is the ability to roll out the red carpet to welcome readers into a totally unfamiliar new world. That’s why, for example, I love the Easy Rawlins series by Walter Mosley, the Inspector Brunetti series by Donna Leon, or just about anything by Dick Francis. I did not grow up in a post-WWII Black L.A. community, or along the canals of modern-day Venice, or near an English country racetrack, but after reading those authors’ mysteries, I felt not only that I’d become comfortable in those intriguing worlds, I wanted to read more!
Likewise, with the Daniel Jacobus series, I made sure of two things: First, that whatever I wrote was accurate and true to the art and the profession. No fudging around the edges. No sugarcoating. Second, that even a reader who had never heard a note of classical music would enjoy the mysteries because they were engaging and understandable as mysteries. The books are mysteries, first and foremost.
The same three main characters inhabit every book. Daniel Jacobus is primary. Everything ultimately revolves around him. His Japanese violin student, Yumi Shinagawa, like a daughter to Jacobus, starts out as his student and over the course of the books she becomes an internationally recognized musician in her own right. Nathaniel Williams is the Watson to Jacobus’s Holmes. A large, affable African American, Williams once was a cellist who performed with Jacobus before he changed careers and became an expert in the field of art and musical instrument fraud. This triumvirate solves mysteries together, and although their relationships evolve to a degree from one book to the next, each story is totally independent with a complete ending, so readers can pick and choose to read the books in any order without missing a beat.
Other than the Daniel Jacobus series, what have you written?
A marketing expert once cautioned me not to publish books outside of my Jacobus series because it would “hurt my brand.” I’m not exactly sure what my brand is, I just like to write good stories.
Last summer, my publisher, Level Best Books, released my first Western mystery, Roundtree Days, that received a coveted starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. Though I’m a native New Yorker, I spent over 30 years living in Salt Lake City before recently moving to Seattle, and during that time I fell in love with the Utah desert. Roundtree Days, the story of a showdown between the Old West and Hollywood that takes place in a fictional Utah desert town, is filled with humor but has resonance with many of the challenges faced by the West’s changing economies, culture, and an unsympathetic climate.
Prior to that, in 2020, I wrote a political thriller entitled The Beethoven Sequence, about a well-intentioned music teacher whose method attracts a fanatic, cult-like following that grows exponentially. His unlikely rise to power to become the president of the United States is paralleled by his descent into madness, leading to frightening 1984-like consequences.
This past February, I released a self-published, eclectic collection of short mysteries called It’s a Crime! I’ve always been a big short story fan since I was a kid, from James Thurber to O. Henry to Edgar Allen Poe, and I like to think that by following in their imposing footsteps I’m continuing their grand tradition. Reading good short fiction is pure fun. I was honored to have had one of my stories, “A Scarab for Normandy,” included in the highly regarded anthology, Coolest American Stories 2023.
Believe it or not, I’ve also written a children’s book, called Maestro, the Potbellied Pig. It’s about a lonely young harpist who finds love and (mis)adventure with a music-loving pig. I think the book and the audiobook with music – both of which are available in Spanish – would make a great birthday or holiday present for little ones.
Finally, I’ve self-published one nonfiction book, though it reads like a novel. It’s called Symphonies & Scorpions, and is a memoir-travelogue-exposé of life as a member of a major symphony orchestra. It’s set against the backdrop of two Boston Symphony concert tours to China, the first in 1979 and the second 35 years later, in 2014. I was one of the few musicians on both tours, and in Symphonies & Scorpions I chronicle the changes in China, in the world, in symphony orchestras, and in my own personal history. Anyone who reads this book will have a lot of insight how I got my ideas for Daniel Jacobus!
Cary Allen Stone
Today I have the pleasure to introduce an author of crime fiction, science fiction, and true crime. Cary Allen Stone one numerous awards: 2022 American Fiction Award – Science Fiction; 2022 Book Excellence Award—Crime fiction; 2021 New York City Book Award—Distinguished Favorite, Science Fiction ; 2021 American Fiction Awards Finalist—Science Fiction; and many more.
What is your book AFTER THE EVIL about?
Homicide detective Jake Roberts struggles with his demons. He believes his life has finally turned around when he falls in love with flight attendant Lori Powers. He investigates the murder of a prominent psychiatrist. His ex-lover and partner, FBI profiler Mika Scott, exercises federal jurisdiction over the crime scene. Tensions are high when Jake discovers the identity of the serial killer. Will he get there in time to stop another murder?
Tell us about the main characters in the story.
My main character is Atlanta homicide detective Jake Roberts. He has his own demons to overcome. He was abandoned at St. Mary’s Home for Boys and raised by the Sisters of Mercy, though he claims he never received any. No foster family wanted him, so he spent eighteen years there. He survived on the streets and became street-smart. He got caught stealing a car by a police officer who convinced Jake to use his skills for good. Jake sees his world through the eyes of abandonment.
My antagonist is Lori Powers, a beautiful, intelligent, sensual, and deadly flight attendant. Her daughter Emily committed suicide at age sixteen after years of sexual abuse by her father. Lori was also a victim of tormenting abuse. She sets out on a vengeful quest to murder abusive, controlling, domineering men who cross her path. She is haunted by the “voices” – Emily’s from the grave and her inner demon. And yet, Lori has a softer side filled with compassion, caring, and a strong desire to be loved.
FBI Special Agent Mika Scott is a focused, intelligent, and strong Asian woman and FBI profiler. She was the first female homicide detective brought into the Criminal Investigative Division (CID) by Chief Edward Fairchild. She partnered with Jake, and they became lovers. When he could not commit to their relationship, she left for Quantico and the FBI. Mika leads the investigation into multiple murders of prominent men across state lines. Mika’s flaw is her relentless pursuit of the serial killer at the expense of her own needs.
Harmon Blackwell is Jake’s partner and a product of the ‘hood. He is a determined Black man who demands respect. His flaw is his impatience with Jake’s flaws. Harmon is rigid about the job but is always on the team.
Edward Fairchild is an old-school, gruff, and gritty police officer who rose in the ranks to become the Chief of Detectives – Homicide. He has the uncanny ability to see the true self in others and pushes them to be the best. Ed’s flaw is caring too much. Ed mentored Jake, who became the lead homicide detective. Ed was also his surrogate father.
There is a serial killer loose. An airline captain who is a sexual predator with an insatiable sexual appetite. A not-so-religious priest. A psychiatrist who works with cops that were involved in shootings and solicits a crime.
There is extreme tension when Mika returns to Atlanta and CID to work the case with the same M.O. of the other murders. A name is written in the victim’s blood at the crime scene. During an interview with the psychiatrist’s patient, Lori, Jake and Lori fall in love.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
We can be good and evil at any time under certain circumstances. No one is 100% of either. When we wake, we decide if we will be good or bad; no one else does that for us. Also, to me, most crime thrillers are boring, the same old tired plots with different character names. I raise all the levels in my books.
How do you make the stories so intense that I feel them? And how do you make your characters so real?
Since I began Jake’s walk through his fictional life, I’ve been asked the same questions. All I can say is I’ve had a storied life filled with experiences most people don’t get to have, and all have been invaluable for my writing. As a pilot, I get to feel different places, people, and philosophies. I’ve been close to organized crime individuals, CEOs, movie star friends and directors, FBI profilers and agents, and DEA agents, knew drug smugglers in the 1980s in South Florida. My flight crew and I were taken hostage in a foreign country; the State Department and Customs & Immigration were involved and crossed Cuba that night without a flight plan. I spent time in state and federal prisons as a counselor, journalist, and visitor of friends. I spent days in a cell with a friend who murdered her six-year-old son for my first book. I researched her court documents, interviewed the homicide detectives, and spent time with her defense attorney. I’ve been to gruesome crime scenes and read autopsies and psychiatric reports. All that hands-on research gave me unique insights. Because of the personal contact, I felt their emotions. Understood why they did what they did and why. All this explains the realism you read in Jake’s stories. I write through their eyes. My readers love Jake. I’ve been told, “All men want to be Jake, and all women want to be with Jake.” On the opposite end is serial killer Lori Powers. I’ve also been told my readers want to hug her. That dichotomy is what I inject into all the books.
In AFTER THE EVIL, readers know who the killer is from the start. Why did you pick this approach instead of making it a murder mystery?
When I read a story, I don’t want to find out it was the butler in the end. I want my readers to know my bad boy, or bad girl, and spend the rest of the book seeing the world through their distorted minds and the characters like Jake who hunt them. Characters and their reasoning and interactions are stories, not a list of clues.
AFTER THE EVIL is fast-paced, keeping readers on the edge of their seats. What is your secret to keeping readers hooked throughout?
Bait on the book hook…
AFTER THE EVIL contains a lot of plot twists. Did you plan them? Or do they just happen?
I come up with a title. Then I decide on a first line and last line. I research the subject matter, and when I have all those ingredients, I start to write in my head but not on the page. When I’m satisfied with the storyline, it goes down on the page. The fun starts when the plot twists arrive and twist you, the author.
Janice Cole Hopkins
Today I have the pleasure to present an author who has been listening to stories for as long as she can remember, reading books since she was five, writing stories since third grade, and writing poetry since eighth grade. Janice Cole Hopkins’ popular Appalachian Roots series contains four books. The Farmers is a trilogy with three. Her books are page-turners, so please give them a try. All her profits go to a scholarship fund for missionary children.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in the eastern part of the North Carolina mountains. I often joke that I write a lot of historical fiction because I grew up much like people did in the 1800s, but there’s also some truth in that statement. As an only child in a rural setting, I developed a vivid imagination early. This gave me a foundation to dabble in many arts and crafts and especially in storytelling. I’d begun writing my own stories by the time I was in third grade, and I’ve never stopped.
What type of books do you write?
I have fifty-four books on Amazon. Fifty-two of them are novels, and two are Christian non-fiction. Among the novels, ten are contemporary, forty-two are historical, and twenty-one of those are Westerns. That should give you some idea of what I write, but I hope readers will check out my Amazon author’s page. I majored in history and English in college, and that’s likely why the majority of my books are historical novels. I even enjoy doing all the research for them.
What book are you sharing today?
Simon’s Shame is my newest book. It published on March 21 and is part of the multiple-author series, Hers to Redeem. I love this series because it fits my writing style and the books I like to read. It’s about hurting heroes who become recluses because of problems from their pasts. My first contribution to the series was Mason's Memories, but I'll have seven more in the series, including Simon’s Shame, continuing through 2024. There are sixteen books written by ten different authors scheduled in the series before it finishes in August 2024.
In Simon’s Shame, Simon Carlson becomes a recluse because everyone thinks he’s mentally challenged. When he started school, it soon became apparent that he just couldn’t learn to read or write. Today, we would call this a learning disability and get him help, but they didn’t know about such things in 1887. His father never got over the fact, and he turned the community against Simon. When a new schoolteacher comes to Flagstaff, she doesn’t act as if he’s a moron the way others do. Can she show him that he has worth?
As a writer and avid reader. myself, I had an unusual challenge in writing Simon. Before I knew it, I would have someone write him a note or want him to discuss a book he had read, and then I would have to go back and edit that out. Reading and writing are such an integral way of life for me.
What do you see as your current biggest challenge?
Time management – I just don’t have as much time as I need. I will be publishing sixteen books in 2023. When the new year came, I was doing well and had several of the rough drafts already written. So far, I’m still staying five or six months ahead of the publishing schedule, which gives me time to get them edited. However, another problem is that my favorite editor struggles to keep up with my pace, so I’ve ended up having four backup editors I can turn to if needed. I’m sure this will be the most books I ever try to publish in one year, but I’m excited about it.
Although I won’t be publishing books this close together again, I already have the next two years planned, writing nine in 2024 and nine in 2025. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight, and I love it.
Please share an excerpt with us.
Simon Carlson stood staring at the rectangular hole as the coffin lowered to the bottom. The wooden box held his father’s body. He kept telling himself that, but his mind couldn’t quite grasp the fact.
His father had been larger than life, a force to be reckoned with. Both his mother and Simon had been disappointments to the man – Simon more than anyone. He had never measured up to his father’s standards or even been adequate.
His mother had disappointed him by not giving him the heir he wanted. Simon had come along in the middle of a line of miscarriages, and there had never been another child who’d lived more than a few hours. Most of them had been born dead.
Father had called Simon an imbecile, idiot, halfwit, moron, and several other terms he’d rather forget. And the man had been right.
No matter how hard he tried, he had never been able to learn like other students. He could barely read a few words, do basic mathematics, or write much more than his name.
His mother whimpered by his side, and he put his arm around her. She sank closer to his side in her grief. The woman was as close to a saint as anyone Simon knew. She had to be to put up with and even care for his father all these years.
She’d been the reason Simon never left home. He stayed to offer his love and support in light of his father’s ever-increasing bad moods.
Caroline Brown disembarked the train and looked around. She tried not to be disappointed by what she saw.
The town looked to be about one-fourth the size of Phoenix, but it had the same predominance of saloons. She would say that Flagstaff had as many saloons as all other businesses combined.
She hoped they also had good law enforcement. They would need it.
“Miss Brown?” A short man with a bowler hat and spectacles came hurrying toward her.
He came to an abrupt stop and took off his hat, revealing gray hair thinning on top. “I’m Roosevelt James Harper, the chairman of the school board. We’re glad you agreed to come and help start our school year. Welcome to Flagstaff.”
“Thank you, sir. I’m glad to be here and look forward to teaching your students.”
He cleared his throat. “I suppose you have baggage.”
“Yes. Two trunks besides this carpet bag.” She lifted the bag she held in her hand. “One trunk holds my personal items, and the other has books and supplies I thought might be useful.”
He nodded, but he didn’t look happy. “Come, we’ll make arrangements to have your trunks delivered, and then I’ll take you to your cottage. It’s right beside the schoolhouse.”
“Good. I’m eager to see them both.”
“We opened the school three or four years ago. It’s made of logs. I hope you won’t be disappointed, but we have just built a cottage beside it for a teacherage. I hope you’ll find the arrangement sufficient. I think you will be more comfortable in your own place, even if it is small, than staying with different families and moving around.”
“I’m sure it will be fine.”
“I understand you have family in Arizona.”
Caroline fought back the tears that still wanted to come whenever she thought of her parents. She had been finishing school in St Louis when they succumbed to smallpox. She still couldn’t believe they were gone.
“Yes, an older brother and sister-in-law.”
Her much-older brother had inherited the property, although their parents had left her some money. Reginald had taken a new wife after his first one died in childbirth, and Caroline found Elenore cold and unwelcoming.
She had never been close to Reginald anyway, so she secured a teaching job to the north. At twenty-five, she would soon be considered a spinster, and prospects of a suitable marriage dimmed with each year that passed.
She had only been courted once, but that man had jilted her for another in the end. She had little hope of an acceptable husband.
Her friends at school had told her she shouldn’t be so particular, but she refused to marry a man for the sake of being married. She could have more men court her, but the ones who’d shown interest were uncouth, uneducated men who had little in common with her. Most of the men she’d met in St. Louis whom she might have found acceptable showed no interest in her.
She breathed in deeply as she followed Mr. Harper. She liked the noticeably cooler air here, but she wondered what the winters would be like.
However, this would be a new beginning for her, and she wanted to make the best of it. The future whispered all sorts of possibilities.
Today I have the pleasure to present an author who is listed on Romance Writers of America’s Honor Roll of Bestselling Authors. Barbara Longley’s books have garnered many awards, including a Maggie, the Holt Medallion, a National Readers’ Choice, two Heart of Excellence awards, a Bookseller’s Best award, and a Diamond Award. She creates memorable heroes and heroines who grow into their strengths and go on to save the day.
Summoned in Time is the third book in a time travel/fantasy romance trilogy. What inspired you to write a series of stories set in Ireland?
I have Irish ancestors on my dad’s side, and I’ve always been interested in the history, myths and legends of Ireland. Shortly after completing a four-book series of time travel romances set in Scotland (The Novels of Loch Moigh), I spent fourteen days exploring museums, ancient sites and cultural history in Ireland—inspiring, let me tell you.
I’ve always been captivated by tales of Fionn MacCumahail’s legendary Fenian warriors who were charged with protecting Ireland from invaders and with upholding the law during the third century. Legend has it that Fionn was part Tuatha dé Danann, demigod-like beings who were direct descendants of the goddess Danu. When the Fenians became too powerful, a faction of Irish kings set out to destroy them. How could I not want to write stories having to do with the Fianna, time travel, and romance?
Can you give us a brief overview of the series?
The MacCarthy Sisters trilogy involves three sisters who have a touch of fae DNA. Because of their fae blood, each of them is endowed with special gifts. Regan, the oldest, and Grayce, Meredith’s twin sister, wish they could return the giftedness, which they view more as a curse. Their stories involve coming to terms with who they are and to manage their lives accordingly. All three stories involve adventure, danger, and obstacles along the path to happily-ever-after.
Meredith’s story, Summoned in Time, is different from her sisters. She’s always embraced her fae giftedness. Meredith can see and communicate with ghosts, and it’s her mission in life to help them find peace. Usually, she wishes only to guide spirits move on, but not in Daniel Cavanaugh’s case. The reasons he’s been unable to crossover are far too compelling for her to ignore. He’s also too vibrant a spirit for her to dismiss. Another difference between Meredith’s journey and those of her sisters is that her story begins in a ghost town in Montana rather than in Ireland.
Given the finite number of plot themes, how would you describe the plot of Summoned in Time?
I would describe the theme for Meredith and Daniel’s story as a combination of the quest/rescue, and adventure tropes. The heroine travels through time to try and prevent Daniel’s murder. This is kind of a role reversal in terms of who the true hero is in this tale, and who takes all the risks. Like the other two stories, Meredith’s tale involves the fae associated with her family.
You write in a variety of genres. Why have you chosen to genre jump?
Genre jumping is like a reset button, or a way to refresh and stimulate creativity for me. I read or experience something, and an idea for a story or two comes to me. Why not write that romantic comedy, that contemporary romance, or the occasional historical romance?
Every author’s voice is unique, so rather than brand myself through a single genre, I’d rather brand myself through my “voice.”
Can you give us an excerpt from your book?
“Finally,” Meredith said as she finished grading her last American history essay test for the semester. She’d enter student grades into the community college’s system, and then she’d figure out what to do for the next few months. Barista at Starbucks maybe? Tutoring?
“How about I start charging for ghost whispering?” she muttered to herself. Requiring payment to help people rid their homes of unwelcome spirits would not go over well with the MacCarthy family at large. Their gifts were meant to be shared, not sold, and she agreed—most of the time.
A rebellious flare of resentment ignited. Others profited from their talents. Singers, actors, athletes, writers, and artists made money from their giftedness—the lucky ones, anyway. Why shouldn’t she profit from her abilities? Her sisters would applaud and encourage her rebellion.
“The time to decompress has officially begun.” Her favorite supernatural tabloid offered the outlandish, sensationalized, ridiculous distraction she craved—a guilty pleasure since her own college days. Meredith hit the bookmarked website and began scanning articles.
“Spirit of deceased zoologist possesses baby elephant at local zoo. Exorcism planned.” She snorted. Sure, it was possible, but not probable. What would be the point? Poor baby probably had some kind of illness or a parasite.
She continued to scroll, coming to a stop when an article popped out at her as if it had been written in super bold font, but wasn’t. U.S. Bureau of Land Management seeks volunteers to staff a haunted ghost town. An odd, tingly sensation took hold, and her mouth went bone dry.
The bureau was looking for people to live in what was left of Garretsville, Montana. While there, volunteers would lead tours, provide information, run the gift shop, and maintain the buildings and grounds. The once booming mining town is rumored to be haunted. People reported hearing music and laughter in Keoghan’s saloon. Others heard footsteps and doors opening and closing.
Something traumatic must have happened in that town for so many spirits to haunt the same site. She couldn’t help feeling sorry for the unfortunate trapped souls, but she could fight the pull their plight exerted on her.
Today I have the pleasure to introduce an whether who is an ardent lover of medieval history, and has channeled this interest into fiction writing. Mercedes Rochelle’s first four books cover eleventh-century Britain and events surrounding the Norman Conquest of England. BA in Literature at the Univ. of Missouri St.Louis in 1979 then moved to New York in 1982 while in her mid-20s to “see the world”. The search hasn’t ended! Today she lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.
Why did you choose to write Historical Fiction, or do you feel the genre chose you?
Let’s see... Did the genre choose me? You know, I was reading and enjoying historical fiction before I even knew it was a genre. It all started when I specialized in the 19th century novel during my college years. I think the first time I had an inkling about historical fiction was while reading "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". Medieval France absolutely came to life for me. Then I read "The Three Musketeers" and I was truly smitten. Then I fell in love with Sir Walter Scott. By the time I started writing my first novel, I still wasn't aware I was writing in any kind of genre; I don't remember referring to historical fiction as such in college. I believe I “got it” while reading Sharon Kay Penman’s THE SUNNE IN SPLENDOUR in the ‘80s (I have the first edition!). Maybe it was because she was contemporary; suddenly I realized I could do that too.
How did you get interested in the eleventh century?
My interest in Anglo-Saxon history directly stemmed from my research for my first book, HEIR TO A PROPHECY (a sequel to Macbeth, I like to call it). It was Shakespeare’s doing, actually. I knew next to nothing about the period, but my protagonist Walter in HEIR happened to go to London on the day Earl Godwine returned from exile. At the moment I was writing this, Godwine was a convenient plot device. My Walter ended up serving Harold Godwineson for a few years, then his story veered off to Scotland. However, I was left with this unsatisfied curiosity about Earl Godwine, not knowing that he went all the way back to Canute the Danish King of England. Was I ever surprised! If it weren’t for Godwine’s unprecedented rise to power, we would never have had Harold Godwineson, Last Anglo-Saxon king. They were commoners, not of royal blood; all their success was due to ability and political adroitness.
What happens when your historical sources don’t agree?
This happens much more frequently than one might expect—especially when researching a thousand years ago. Although we did have the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (brief and tantalizing though it can be), most of our primary sources were written hundreds of years after the Battle of Hastings. The chroniclers were reliant on hearsay for the most part. Then we have to deal with prejudices, agendas, and bias. Norman chroniclers censured the sinful Harold Godwineson. English chroniclers berated William the Bastard. As we move forward through the centuries, however, it doesn't get much better. A king who was usurped (like Richard II and Richard III) was given plenty of bad press by the king who was left standing. Not only do contemporaries need to follow the "party line", so to speak, much evidence to the contrary was destroyed or altered.
Even modern historians don't agree. When you think about it, no historian wants to "reinvent the wheel", so every book is written with a slightly different agenda. This is especially true from generation to generation. The Victorians tended to write from the Whig point of view— celebrating the superior British political wisdom—which is out of favor now. I noticed that the historians of the 1920s and '30s were hugely interested in gathering factual details about how society and royal administrations were structured. In the '60s and '70s they were interested in psychological factors. In the 1990s it seems that more undiscovered material was coming to light, and some current historians seem to be inclined to take unorthodox points of view about previously unchallenged circumstances (for example, I'm thinking about the alleged death of Edward II). Naturally, there is a lot of disagreeing going on as each new historian needs to prove his point.
This is where the historical novelist comes in. We have to weigh all the conflicting information and decide which narrative fits our story. Sometimes the discrepancies are small (the order or location of events) and sometimes they are huge. Did Earl Godwine kill his hostage Alfred Aetheling in cold blood, was he ordered to do so by the king, or did he merely turn over his hostage to royal thugs who did the dirty deed? No one knows, but he was held responsible for the rest of his life. I find the whole process fascinating, and of course frustrating, but that's the challenge. If we put the puzzle together convincingly, the reader will accept our story without question. If we do it awkwardly... well, it will show.
From what I remember, Earl Godwine is usually portrayed unfavorably by historians. How did you handle that?
It was a challenge to rehabilitate him. First of all, he went with Canute at the time the Danes were conquering England. There must have been an element of betraying his own people. I think—and hope—that Godwine saw his role as representing the Anglo-Saxons in a difficult situation. Canute favored him for whatever reason, and it seems the Danish king really wanted to become acceptable to his conquered island. He even embraced Christianity. Unfortunately, Canute died young and Godwine’s prospects diminished accordingly. We have the mutilation and death of Alfred Aetheling which I mentioned before, and Godwine’s reputation was ruined, though frankly I think it was undeserved. Why would he commit such a monstrous crime? There was no benefit to it. Nonetheless, Kind Edward the Confessor, Alfred’s brother, believed in Godwine’s guilt and nothing the earl could do changed his mind. The other earls were certainly jealous of him and tried to place him in a bad light. I think Godwine’s best feature was his loyalty to his family and his resourcefulness, which could easily be twisted to look like acquisitiveness. He certainly defended his people against the hated Normans.
What was a hurdle you faced in writing this book and how did you overcome it?
Interesting question. Yes, I actually had two challenges in this book that dovetailed nicely. Both had to do with not wanting to fall into that old predictable trap concerning characters. There are so many love stories that seem formulaic. I didn't want that same old theme: disliking each other first, then falling in love (and all the variations thereof). On the other hand, I understand that there needs to be some kind of stress in the romance before it comes to fruition. It was obvious that Godwine had a happy marriage (or at least a productive one) since they had so many children. I was really intrigued by the discrepancy of their social status. Godwine was a commoner, and Gytha was a noble (or the Danish equivalent). At the same time, I had a hard time figuring out why Swegn, the firstborn, turned into such a bad egg. I don't believe a character should be all good or all bad. People just aren't like that. Even wicked characters act that way for a reason; sometimes they have good qualities that get buried under their more powerful bad qualities. Finally I had an inspiration: if Godwine's marriage started out in anger, or stress (Gytha was given to him in marriage, but she didn't have to go willingly), perhaps the firstborn would be neglected and unloved. That would explain his subsequent behavior. It took some doing to make that work, but I'm happy with the result.
I noticed a Godwin in the Netflix series “Viking Valhalla”. Is this the same character?
Yes! I was amazed to see my old friends on the show, even though the chronology is out of whack; Swegn Forkbeard was dead before Canute became king. Nonetheless, I’m not unhappy with the way Godwine was portrayed in the series. He was loyal to Canute yet by all indications he didn’t get along with Queen Emma. This was true to form. It was good to see the eleventh century get some attention.
What is your next series?
The next series is called The Plantagenet Legacy about the struggles and abdication of Richard II, leading to the troubled reigns of the Lancastrian Kings.
Much thanks, Uvi, for your feature of my book today! So appreciated! oxReplyDelete
My pleasure Sarah! Can't wait to read it :)Delete
Thank you so much for this opportunity, Uvi. The presentation looks fantastic, too.ReplyDelete