The Secret Brokers has all the classic elements of a good spy thriller: intrigue, romance, corruption… how did you go about the process of weaving these together into what has the feel of classic noir with a modern twist?
This series came from another, The Nicci Beauvoir Series, that introduced Dallas and his crew of spies. I wanted to take his character into a spin off because I loved writing his cold, edgy personality. I have always loved cold, dark characters, but with Dallas I wanted to write about a man torn between his heart and his head. A man who has tried to change his ways, only to end up with a broken heart, and crawls back into the world of shadows he once occupied. To make him a lost and trying to hide in our modern world seemed a good fit.
I know you’re from the New Orleans area, and you bring some of that N’awlins flair to your writing. What made you choose the French Quarter for Carl Bordonaro’s home and/or inspired some of the interesting decorative flourishes that you described?
Carl Bordonaro is another character I brought over from the Nicci Beauvoir Series. He and Cleveland appeared in Sacrifice from the previous series. Carl is a favorite and based on many New Orleans characters I have known. Having grown up in the French Quarter, I have always strived to flesh it out in my books—to show the real side of the city, and not the one the tourists see. There is a rhythm to New Orleans, a spicy smell and tingling sensation it gives you—or maybe it’s something only the locals feel—but I wanted to embody that in the novel. To help the reader get a sense of the city from the people who live there. And Carl’s home on Esplanade Avenue does exist. I passed it every day for years.
Animals, and Gwen’s relationship with them, are a big part of her character—from her dog Harley, cat Lawrence, and of course, her horses! You are a permitted/certified wildlife rehabber with the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries—how does this influence how you write about animals?
Animals are imprinted in my heartbeat. I could not survive without them. I have always been an advocate for all things furry, and in this novel, I got to write about something I did when I was young, rescuing racehorses. One of the horses mentioned in the novel, Whippadu, was mine. I felt it important to educate people about the plight of racehorses in the industry and show Gwen as someone who is a lot like me. I also placed her farm in Folsom, La. not far from my own residence. But being able to write about animals, and Gwen’s love for them, was rewarding.
Just for fun, if The Secret Brokers got the movie treatment and you could pick the cast, who might your dream team be?
Dallas August – Zac Efron
Gwen Marsh – Olivia Munn
Carl Bordonaro – John Goodman
Cleveland – Michael B Jordan
I don’t want to give away the twist at the end, but you did such an incredible job of it that I couldn’t resist asking—who’s the real star of this story, Dallas August or Gwen Marsh?
Dallas, because he is like all of us. No matter how smart, how educated, and how good a spy you are, there is always someone else one step ahead. I also love writing this character. He has so many layers and is so intriguing. He will always be a favorite.
Lastly, what can we expect next for Dallas and Gwen, and the Secret Brokers series?
The next book will grapple with their complicated relationship and their dark world of shadows. We will learn about Gwen’s past, and see more of the day-to-day operations of Dallas organization—his spies, their assignments, and the clients he struggles to appease.
Author Website: http://alexandreaweis.com/
Author Social: https://www.facebook.com/authoralexandreaweis/
Recently I had the opportunity to read and review a book called THE MOUNTAINS SING by Vietnamese author Nguyen Phan Que Mai [Algonquin Books, March 2020], and it was one of the most poignant, breathtaking novels I have had the pleasure of reading. Aside from being a lovely book, the author Que Mai, is equally as lovely and has become not only a dynamic presence with the success of her first English translation novel but a beautiful one as well. When her US tour was postponed due to the current pandemic, I was more than happy to engage with her for an Author Q&A. Enjoy!
The Mountains Sing is such a personal, reflective story. Where there parallels here that tied into your life, or your family’s, that played a significant part in how you crafted the narrative? I saw on Instagram some posts you’d shared of you as a little girl, and I saw Hà Nội, so I would imagine this story is very real to you?
The Mountains Sing was fueled by my wish to have a grandmother. Both of my grandmas had died before my birth. Growing up, I was very jealous of my friends who had grandmothers to tell them tales and stories of their family. So I told myself I would write a novel one day with a grandmother figure in it. And finally I found Grandma Diệu Lan in The Mountains Sing.
I have no photos of my grandmothers and as I wrote the novel, I could imagine how my grandmothers looked; I could hear their voices. So, yes, Grandma Diệu Lan is very real to me, as well as all other characters, including Hương, her parents, uncles and aunt. To bring these characters alive required a lot of work and attention to details, and that’s why it took me seven years to write and edit The Mountains Sing.
The novel is set in Hà Nội, the capital of Việt Nam and the city of my heart. I was not born there but worked there for many years. This is the city where I met the love of my life – my husband and gave birth to our two children. While in Hà Nội, I wrote my scooter or bicycle everyday to work, drank tea on the streets, mingled with elderly people who shared with me their stories, visited museums, art galleries. I did not know that all of these experiences were helping me prepare for The Mountains Sing, which I would write years later, after I had moved to Manila, Philippines. (My family has lived in many countries around the world since my husband works in development assistance.)
One of the things I was most captivated by in the novel were the relationships between the siblings and the divide between North and South Vietnam and how that tore apart mothers and children, siblings, etc. Is there anything further you can share on the realities of this that can help people who haven’t experienced something like that really understand the gravity of what that might have felt like—or continue to feel like for family’s impacted?
For many years, I wanted to write a book that encompasses the experiences of not just my family, but of others’ as well. I wanted to create a world which is authentically Vietnamese and fill it with Vietnamese characters, language, poetry, and culture. Yet I could not find a key to open the door to that world.
Then, in 2012, when I was traveling with a Vietnamese friend in a car, I asked him what it was like for him during the Việt Nam War. He told me that he was 12 years old when Hà Nội was targeted by B-52 bombers. His parents were in Russia at that time and he was living with his grandmother, who saved him from the bombing raids. His story moved me so much. When I went home that evening, after putting my two young children to bed, I sat down at my computer and googled about the bombings of Hà Nội. I heard audio broadcasts of the sirens warning citizens about bombing raids. With tears running down my face, I penned 2.000 words which eventually become the opening scene of The Mountains Sing. I wrote without knowing where the story would lead me.
But I knew I had to let Grandma Diệu Lan have many children, who would be separated by historical events which in turn lead them to becoming the enemy of one another. I have met too many Vietnamese families who were separated by the war and who ended up fighting against each other, just like the Trần family in The Mountains Sing.
Forty-five years after the war, tremendous progress has been made in terms of reconciliation between Việt Nam and the United States. But the wounds that divided Việt Nam and Vietnamese families, both at home and in the diaspora, remain profound and painful. For that reason, The Mountains Sing places our people at the center of the Việt Nam War in the hopes that we will be open to difficult but necessary conversations that can help one another heal.
Over the course of the story, I became very deeply connected to Trần Diệu Lan. Her relationship with Guava (Hương) was so intimate and so genuine that even on the other side of the page I felt like I could read my own grandmother into her voice. Who was the inspiration for this character?
Thank you so much for your kind words. My two grandmothers merge into one to become Grandma Diệu Lan. The Great Hunger’s event, for example, is inspired by the experiences of my father’s mother. She was killed in the Great Hunger of 1945. Her children were so hungry that she ventured into the village’s cornfield. She was caught and tied to corn plants. She was too weak to break away. My father knew the man who had killed his mother, and told me that after the Great Hunger, that man moved away from our village. I never knew what happened to that man so I created the character Wicked Ghost in The Mountains Sing. I showed the reader how Wicked Ghost was punished for what he’d done. But in the end, Wicked Ghost was forgiven somehow. In other words, this novel was my way of searching for healing, for forgiveness, because being able to forgive is the greatest gift that we can give ourselves.
This was your first English book. What was that process like? Did you find that the feelings and language you were expressing came across as you intended?
I have translated many books from Vietnamese into English and vice versa. Still, when I decided to write The Mountains Sing in English, it felt like climbing a mountain barefoot because I had never written a novel before. I had no plot for the book when I started writing it either.
But I wrote The Mountains Sing with the mindset of a Vietnamese who is fully aware of the importance of preserving the Vietnamese authenticity of her novel. My Vietnamese characters think and speak in Vietnamese, yet I had to transfer their thoughts and speech into English. My responsibility as a translator was to capture the Vietnamese essence of such expressions and not Westernize them.
I would like to thank readers of the book who accept the challenge of fully emerging themselves in Vietnamese culture by reading The Mountains Sing. It is not just diarictical marks, but you might have noticed that I do not always translate Vietnamese words. For example, early in the book, the reader learns that nón lá is a conical hat made of woven bamboo and palm leaves. After this explanation, I went to use nón lá without repeated explanation. It’s my intention to familiarize the reader with the Vietnamese culture as much as possible, so that hopefully by the end of the novel, they become a part of it.
I mentioned in my review that The Mountains Sing was/is one of the most moving novels I have ever read, and I want to repeat that and thank you again for sharing this story. Can you share more on the emotional journey of writing something so impactful?
Thank you so much for your kind words. I am so honored my novel found you.
It took me seven years to write and edit, hundreds of revisions, many sleepless nights, tears, and countless moments of doubt. I doubted that I was a good enough storyteller. I doubted my ability to express complicated thoughts and emotions in English. But I never doubted my decision in 2006 at the age of thirty-three to return to my dream of becoming a writer.
A few days ago, I listened to the audio book of The Mountains Sing, narrated beautifully by Quyen Ngo. As the book finished, I sat there and cried so hard, for so long. I cried for my grandmothers whom I never had the chance to meet. I miss them more than ever. And I cry every time I re-read the diary entries of Hương’s mother. Those entries represent the sorrow of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese women whose husbands never return from the war.
The printed book is very beautiful, and I was overjoyed seeing my name, the names of all characters and all Vietnamese words and phrases in full diacritical marks. The Vietnamese language has suffered a lot of losses due to colonisation. Our language, when published outside of Việt Nam, is often stripped of diarictical marks to fit the Western eyes and ears. I am so pleased that I can undo some of the losses via The Mountains Sing.
I hope that while reading this novel, the reader will join me in embracing the values of peace, normality and family. All of us are currently fighting the war against coronavirus. I hope everybody with stay safe and healthy. May we rise against all challenges together and overcome all obstacles. May each family, community, country, and the whole world becomes stronger, more united than we have ever been.
The holidays may be behind us, but winter is still very much in full effect. Recently, I had the opportunity to swap stories by the fire with author Gregory Bastianelli and chat about his brand-new novel, SNOWBALL. Here’s what he had to say for himself.
Snowball contains several elements that readers of holiday horror might find familiar, but you brought an entirely new spin to the tale making it a new dark holiday favorite. One of the things I enjoyed most about Snowball was the way your characters developed, each of their unique storylines converging--and often in expected ways. How did you go about the process of mapping out such an integrated and multi-angle plotline?
When I first began planning this novel, which gestated for quite a long time, I really set out to capture the misery of winter, especially what I’ve experienced growing up in New England. So, as I gathered up my characters for the tale, I applied a different miserable and haunting experience for each of them. Originally, this book started out as two separate stories I planned to write, one a novella about people stranded on a highway in a blizzard and attacked by an unknown force in the storm, and the other a broader approach to winter hauntings involving the embodiment of death in the specter of a serial killer known as The Iceman. I ended up merging both ideas into one story where winter and everything that could go wrong with it played the major part. Once I brought my stranded travelers together in the storm, I needed a way to bring up their past haunts and settled on the idea of swapping stories while awaiting rescue. It’s a time-honored tradition of swapping ghastly tales in a horror story and felt right. The fact that all the travelers had a connection and weren’t where they thought they were was not part of the original plan but developed as I started writing the story. I don’t outline when I write, so a lot of what happens comes about as I’m going along. I take a lot of notes and jot things down, and then pick my starting point and forge ahead. Sometimes I’m amazed at what occurs without any real thought or planning. That’s the magic of writing, I guess.
The relationship between your toymaker and his business partner reminded me a bit of a twisted version of Scrooge and Marley from Dickens's classic Christmas Carol. You also brought in some other classic holiday folklore with Krampus, and who doesn't love a cold-blooded (pun!) murderer with your depiction of the Iceman (I keep thinking of Old Man Marley, the Shovel Slayer from Home Alone...just, you know, more murdery). Tell me more about you cast this group of Christmas horrors? Were the connections deliberate, and if so, how did that enhance your story?
Yes, the Scrooge connection was quite deliberate. I certainly enjoyed playing around with some of the holiday tropes. The Krampus figure is something I’d been fascinated with and knew there was no way I wasn’t going to find some way to fit it into my story but didn’t want to make the plot all about the creature. It’s just a great holiday legend that’s a lot of fun. Before beginning to write the tale, I still hadn’t found my ultimate villain for the story and eventually the twisted toymaker character emerged just from my deep thought process over who would be behind all the mayhem my travelers encounter. As far as The Iceman goes, he had always been planned to be a part of the original vision for this story, before it took on an entirely new concept. He still managed to seamlessly fit into the narrative as everyone loves a demented serial killer, right?
Redemption doesn't come easy in Snowball. If you could have saved one unfortunate victim from your ill-fated Christmas caravan, who would it be, and why?
This may seem an odd answer, but probably Lewis Felker, the Salvation Army guy. He’s probably one of the least likeable characters in the tale, yet one can feel kind of sorry for him and the miserable sad-sack life he has led corroded by alcoholism and psychological scarring. And he is the only one who senses the danger they are all in at the outset but is dismissed and looked down upon by most of the others. The most interesting and surprising character I found to be was the truck driver, Tucker Jenks, who started out as a very minor player, but as the story progressed, his role took on a much larger significance than even I had anticipated. That was a fun surprise.
I read in your bio that you spent two decades working at a small daily paper (and got to interview Bruce Campbell - I'm not jealous *at all*). How does your journalism background impact your fiction writing today?
It was probably one of the best educational experiences I’ve ever had. Working at a small-town paper, I learned a lot about the functioning of everyday life. I got an understanding of the inner workings of court trials, police and criminal investigations, city government, firefighting techniques, accident reconstruction, business development, political campaigns, education methods, spelling bees, farming, medical issues, weddings, divorces and obituaries. You name it and everyday life is sprawled across the pages of a daily newspaper. And of course, the strange stories and oddities one comes across is nothing but fodder to feed the active imagination of a developing horror/thriller writer. My second novel, “Loonies,” is a dark mystery that features a newspaper reporter as the main character and draws an incredible amount of inspiration from my time working in a newsroom.
Lastly, what's next? Any new projects upcoming that readers should be keeping their eye out for?
I always have something that I’m working on, though I never like to talk about works in progress. Though I certainly will be thrilled to have something new for readers to hopefully enjoy and I’m very excited at the opportunity to continue working with Flame Tree Press.
Today is release day for one of my favorite new YA novels by Liana Gardner: Speak No Evil. (If you missed my review, read it here.) To help celebrate the release of the book, I invited Liana to do a guest interview and tell us more about a story that reminds us all that silence does not equal consent, and that the truth, even (and perhaps especially) when it hurts, must be spoken. Speak No Evil is a powerful reminder to today's young women to speak up, speak out, and never lose their voice.
Dark, delicate, and masterfully written, Speak No Evil will make you cringe and cry in equal measure as it pulls your heart through the muck of humanity’s worst evils in every page before depositing you at the end feeling uplifted, empowered, and—most of all—grateful." - Seven Jane
Most authors would avoid such serious subject matter (such as abuse, abandonment, and sexual assault), but you've brought them front and center. What made you want to convey this story for a younger audience?
This is such a HUGE question. To be honest, my gut reaction is, “How can we not?”
So, I’m going to start by answering with some facts. Every 92 seconds another American experiences sexual assault. Every 9 minutes that person is a child. Over 60,000 cases of sexual child abuse are documented each year—and those are only the cases that have been reported. Of those cases, 67% of the victims are aged 12-18 and 34% under the age of 12. One in nine girls and one in 53 boys have experienced sexual assault. For every 1,000 cases reported, only 5 perpetrators will be incarcerated.
The majority of child sexual assault cases involve someone known to the victim; parents, siblings, other relatives, friends, teachers, etc. Most are authority figures. There are some commonalities to the occurrence:
By not talking about weighty topics such as abuse, abandonment, and sexual assault, we are perpetuating the isolation the perpetrators have created. We need books like Speak No Evil so those who have experienced or are experiencing these things know they are not alone. So they realize it is not their fault. And hopefully it gives them an opportunity to find their voice and speak out.
We need those who have not experienced the issues to know that they exist and can happen. And hopefully, they can be a better friend to those who have experienced, to be patient and listen to what the survivor has to say and to say those words the survivor most needs to hear--I believe you.
Because, bearing in mind the statistics, in a classroom of 30 students three or four have experienced or are experiencing sexual abuse. If we don’t provide a safe ground for talking about these matters, then who will?
There are those who will argue that the topics in this book will strip away some of the kids’ innocence. I’d rather provide a kid with the framework for awareness and a platform for discussing such heavy topics than have them find out their reality first hand. And please, let’s stop denying such things exist, negating the experience of so many, demeaning their self-worth.
Like Melody’s voice that could calm snakes, Gardner’s storytelling displays the same sort of sinister charm as she unravels Melody’s past to tell the story of her present. Speak No Evil is at once hypnotic, vaguely sinister, and decidedly beautiful, with sharp, poignant prose that handles the heaviest of issues with grace and delicacy." - Seven Jane
What gave you the idea to frame the story around a protagonist who won't speak?
Some stories come a little at a time, slowly building up the framework, while others burst into being almost fully formed. Speak No Evil was the latter kind. I didn’t decide to frame a story around a protagonist who doesn’t speak, it hit me like a lightning bolt.
On my way to work one morning, I had the radio on and an emotional song came on, and I had the idle thought, as I had many times before, that sometimes songs conveyed feelings better than we are able to say them. Then BAM! the story hit … I nearly had to pull over and probably would have if I had been able to. In the same moment, I felt very strongly the urge to speak, but knowing if I opened my mouth, nothing would come out. And more than anything, I knew I had to write this story and give Melody a voice.
How does the book's title relate to the deeper message?
The title immediately brings to mind the three wise monkeys and the message they convey of turning away from evil. But the underlying meaning is how society silences survivors. Do not speak of the evil that befell you because you will be blamed for allowing it to happen. We are so good at turning our heads away from evil, at pretending it doesn’t exist, that the automatic response is to wonder what the victim did to bring their fate crashing down around them.
We don’t want to face the truth; we don’t want to believe evil exists because if it does, and the victim did nothing wrong, then it could happen to me. Facing the truth means we all lose a little of our security—our feeling of safety.
What do you hope readers take away from your work?
Understanding. Empathy. Hope.
In many ways it depends on the reader. If the reader has not experienced the types of situations Melody has, then what I’d like them to take away is understanding and empathy for those who have. A recognition that it is not the fault of the victim, but that of the perpetrator.
For those who have experienced the abuse, I’d like them to recognize they are not to blame, it isn’t their fault, and they did nothing wrong. And if they have been rendered silent, my hope is that they can find a safe haven where they can find their voice and with it peace.
What was your biggest challenge when writing this piece?
Framing the story from the point of view of a main character who doesn’t speak. :) It would have been much easier to change point of views and give other characters a chance to share the story. But I wanted the reader to share in Melody’s experience right from the beginning, where the wall of silence is palpable. And if the character was non communicative, then I wanted to show that on the page, so felt that going into her thoughts was taking a liberty I shouldn’t. Of course, as she became comfortable and started opening up, I was able to go deeper into the skin of the character.
The other challenge I had to overcome is my deep and abiding fear of snakes. With her background of having been raised in a snake-handling church, the snakes were there throughout the story. So, I had to do my research and have watched more video than I’d care to say about snake-handling churches. One of the scenes deals with Melody caring for and nursing back to health a sick snake. It created an odd place in my head because I’m one of The only good snake is a dead snake. crowd, and the sympathetic feeling for the book snake was a weird thing.
Connect with Liana
Author Website: www.LianaGardner.com
Book Site: www.SpeakNoEvilNovel.com
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Kristin of Oh!FortheloveofBooks and answer some of her burning questions about The Isle of Gold--from Merrin's sexuality to my favorite member of the Riptide's crew. Check out a sneak peek of Q&A below, and don't miss out on her exclusive giveaway to win an ARC of the book for yourself!
Is Seven Jane your author name? And if so where did you come up with it?
It is! Seven Jane was actually the name I’d picked out for my daughter, if I’d had one. I never had a daughter, so I decided to keep the name for myself.
A reader (Uhm myself) happened to notice it seemed Merrin might be BiSexual, do you consider this true?
I think Merrin would say that love transcends boundaries of gender, race, time, or realm, and I would agree with her! We still have a lot to learn about her relationship with Claudette, but I would certainly consider the two women to be deeply in love, regardless of whether that is friendship, sisterhood, or romance. I think it’s all three.
Where did you get the inspiration for The Isle Of Gold?
It was inspired by a dream, and by my deep and relentless love of the ocean and pirate folklore. Actually, the catalyst for the story was a dream in which I was trapped on a small island (not much larger than a boulder) in the middle of the ocean, and the only way for me to escape the rock was to tether myself to someone else in the dream—someone much like Winters—as we had to depend on each other to survive. I woke up feeling both unable to live without this person, and doomed to be trapped with him, which opened up my imagination to the story that eventually became Winters and Evangeline’s, Davy and the sea goddess’, and even, as we are just beginning to see, Merrin and Tom Birch’s.
If you were a character in your book, who would you be?
Probably Erik Winters. I, too, am prone to fits of terrible grouchiness, rarely brush my already-unruly hair, and am fiercely loyal to those I love.
How do you think your characters would react if they met you and knew you wrote their story?
I think their reactions would be as varied as their personalities, but I definitely think I’d stick by Tom Birch in the event they all confronted me, and count on his diplomacy, just in case.
Is book two in the works?
I can officially say that yes, it is! I am so excited! I’ll be sharing more very soon on my website, so be sure to subscribe for updates at http://www.sevenjane.com/!
What will you be doing on October 9th 2018?
Hiding from social media, and drinking rum—really.
What advice would you give to others out there writing books and hoping to be published?
No matter what you do, keep writing. Surround yourself with other writers, and readers your trust. Lift each other up, and succeed as a community of artists.
Check out more on Kristin's blog here.