Joan of Leeds, or The Nun’s Tale

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As the publication of A Conspiracy of Wolves (Owen Archer 11) approaches I have been meandering down memory lane, exploring the arc of what I think of as the first series, visiting characters confined to one or two books. One such character is Dame Joanna of Leeds, the mysterious woman at the center of my third Owen Archer mystery, The Nun’s Tale, whom I based on a woman I’d encountered in a monograph about Clementhorpe Nunnery in York. Though she was largely my creation, she challenged me–slippery, possibly mad, yet oddly compelling, she haunted me all the while I worked on the book. I still think of her whenever I see Antonello da Messina’s The Virgin Annunciate, which I stared at as I wrote. Those of you who have read the book will recognize the blue mantle, and remember its significance. I am so glad that my editor at St. Martin’s Press agreed to use it for the cover of the first US edition.

You can imagine my surprise when this past Monday I peeked at The Guardian online and discovered an article about “my” Joanna of Leeds!

As I wrote in the Author’s Note of The Nun’s Tale:

“Whence came Joanna?  In The History of Clementhorpe Nunnery (R.B. Dobson & Sara Donaghey, York Archaeological Trust 1984, p. 15) is the following item:

“ ‘In 1318 there is mention of [an] apostate, Joanna of Leeds.  Archbishop Melton ordered the dean of Beverley to return the nun to her convent…  Apparently Joanna had defected from her religious order and left the nunnery.  However, in order to make her defection credible, she had fabricated her death at Beverley and, with the aid of accomplices, even staged her own funeral there.  The archbishop was prepared to take a lenient view of these excesses.  He directed the dean of Beverley to warn Joanna of the nature of her sins and, if she recanted them within eight days, to allow her to return to Clementhorpe to undergo a penance.  Melton further urged the dean to undertake a thorough investigation of the case, and to discover the names of Joanna’s accomplices so that he might then take suitable action.’

“The story intrigued me.  Was Joanna discovered, betrayed, or did she request to return to St. Clement’s Nunnery?  If it was her choice, why make such an about face?  She had gone to great lengths to escape and make it permanent.

“I moved the incident to 1365-66, putting it in Archbishop Thoresby’s time, which provided me with a serendipitous relationship—Thoresby’s nephew, Richard de Ravenser, was a canon of Beverley at this time, as was William of Wykeham.  Nicholas de Louth is also a real person.  Because I moved Joanna’s story in time, none of the participants in the book had anything to do with the real story of Joanna of Leeds.”

Imagine my excitement when I read the article—more information!

“A marginal note written in Latin and buried deep within one of the 16 heavy registers used by to record the business of the archbishops of York between 1304 and 1405 first alerted archivists to the adventures of the runaway nun. ‘To warn Joan of Leeds, lately nun of the house of St Clement by York, that she should return to her house,’ runs the note written by archbishop William Melton and dated to 1318.

“Melton, writing to inform the Dean of Beverley about the ‘scandalous rumour’ he had heard about the arrival of the Benedictine nun Joan, claimed that Joan had ‘impudently cast aside the propriety of religion and the modesty of her sex’, and ‘out of a malicious mind simulating a bodily illness, she pretended to be dead, not dreading for the health of her soul, and with the help of numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, crafted a dummy in the likeness of her body in order to mislead the devoted faithful and she had no shame in procuring its burial in a sacred space amongst the religious of that place’.

“After faking her own death, he continued, ‘and, in a cunning, nefarious manner … having turned her back on decency and the good of religion, seduced by indecency, she involved herself irreverently and perverted her path of life arrogantly to the way of carnal lust and away from poverty and obedience, and, having broken her vows and discarded the religious habit, she now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and to the scandal of all of her order.’”

Even better, the article announces that more material from the registers of the archbishops of York is to be translated and published! I can’t wait!

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Cover Reveal for A Conspiracy of Wolves

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Forgive my long silence. It’s been a productive time! In early December I reviewed the copy edit of the 11th Owen Archer, A Conspiracy of Wolves, and approved the gorgeous cover. Here it is! (Didn’t the team at Severn House do a great job?!) The jacket copy:

“1374  When a member of one of York’s most prominent families is found dead in the woods, his throat torn out, rumours spread like wildfire that wolves are running loose throughout the city. Persuaded to investigate by the victim’s father, former Captain of the Guard Owen Archer is convinced that a human killer is responsible.  But before he can gather sufficient evidence to prove his case, a second body is discovered, brutally beaten and stabbed to death. Is there a connection? What secrets are contained within the victim’s household and circle of friends? And what does apprentice healer Alisoun know that she’s not telling?

“Teaming up with Geoffrey Chaucer, who is in York on a secret mission on behalf of Prince Edward, Owen’s enquiries will draw him headlong into a deadly conspiracy.”

Severn House will publish the hardcover in the UK on 30 April, followed by the ebook on 1 August. The first of August is also the date for publication in the US and Canada, in both formats. Your wait is almost over!

The reception of the third Kate Clifford, A Murdered Peace, has been wonderful! A sampling:

“Just when I think Candace Robb can’t get any better as a writer, she does. I really enjoyed the previous two Kate Clifford books, and this brings her story together in a compelling way. The characters continue to be engaging and interesting. The story moves at a quick pace, but yet still gives time for development and thoughtful insights. A great read!” –Amy J Rio (Goodreads)

“I have read and enjoyed all of Candace Robb’s novels, but she really out did herself in this one. The characters are complex and beautifully developed as we watch the growth in Kate Clifford’s relationships with two strong and appealing men–Berend and Elric–and watch the two men grow in admiration for one another.” Judith E. Kuhn (Amazon)

“The best in the series so far. An intricate plot that never loses its way, no matter how far the web stretches, and a perfect evocation and place and the turbulent political times that comes to York.” –Chris Nickson (Goodreads)

“Kate Clifford is an ideal heroine, independent, beautiful, ingenious, loving, and always the searcher. Ms Robb provides us with actions that demand answers by characters that are believable and always striving for answers to mysteries. Great read.” –Kenneth Boyle (Goodreads)

Thank you all, readers and reviewers! I’m feeling the love.

What am I doing now? Wrestling with the opening chapters of the 12th Owen Archer and with a new website which will incorporate this blog. Changes coming…

Coming Soon–A Murdered Peace, Kate Clifford 3

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A Murdered Peace will be published on 11 December, and just in case you haven’t YET preordered the trade paperback or e-book, here are some glowing reviews and an interview to entice you.

The Historical Novel Society says: “Robb deftly weaves in historical background and details, ranging from political context to facets of daily life. Fans of medieval history will enjoy the details of running a household and cooking, the history behind women’s jewelry, and the intrigues between different factions in York and beyond. Mystery fans will appreciate how Robb manages the many characters and plot twists, tying up seemingly loose ends into a creative and rational outcome. Kate Clifford is an intriguing character in Robb’s oeuvre, privileged enough to mix with the upper classes, yet streetwise and welcoming to the poor. Through her, readers are afforded a well-rounded view of 15th-century life, as well as a page-turner of a tale.” I’m all smiles! Click here for the full review (which reveals something delicious for Owen Archer fans).

Robin Agnew, owner of Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookshop (now online), posted this review of A Murdered Peace on the shop’s blog. And she also interviewed me for her new blog on the Mystery Scene magazine site–click here to read the interview. We’re old friends, so this was a lot of fun.

Need more enticement? Click here for an earlier post with reviews of A Murdered Peace.

I am thrilled the book is being received enthusiastically (Publishers Weekly recommended it in their holiday guide!), for I love these characters. It was tough to drag myself away from them to resume the Owen Archer series. But never fear, I’ve just reviewed and returned the copy edited manuscript of A Conspiracy of Wolves, the 11th book in the Owen Archer series, and it’s off to the printer! It will be out in hardcover in the UK on 30 April 2019, and in hardcover and e-book in the US and around the world on 1 August. I’ll be in England for some talks and signings in May–stay tuned for details!

Q&A with Kim Zarins, author of Sometimes We Tell the Truth

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I am delighted to introduce you to Kim Zarins, author of the YA novel Sometimes We Tell the Truth (Simon Pulse, Sept. 2016), a brilliant retelling of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in a contemporary setting, with the “pilgrims” as high school seniors on a class trip to Washington, DC. I loved the book when I read it two years ago, and I’m enjoying it even more on my second read. Or is it my third? (I’ve been chasing her down for this blog post for a few years. Each year at Kalamazoo she promised soon!)

I first met Kim in 2003—eons ago!—when my friend Paul Hyams invited me to spend a few days at Cornell University talking to grad students and giving a public talk on the ethics of historical fiction. Kim was one of the grad students I met, working on her PhD in English Literature. She earned her PhD in 2009 while teaching at Cornell, then Santa Clara University, and San Francisco State University. Since 2009 she’s taught at California State University at Sacramento where she’s currently Associate Professor of English. Now here’s the kicker—when she contacted me several years ago, on Twitter, as I recall, I knew at once who she was. She’d made such an impression on me all those years ago at Cornell.

So, without further ado, here’s our conversation:

Candace: First, why modernize?

Kim: It was the right choice for me for many reasons. I love reading historical fiction, but I couldn’t (and can’t) see myself writing a medieval retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I fear I’d get bogged down in researching cobblestones and privy logistics and just feel unqualified at capturing medieval London and the road to Canterbury. Similarly, while I adore Middle English, I didn’t want to wrestle with diction that sounds too ye olde Engelonde-ish. In truth, I didn’t want to convey the medieval atmosphere of Chaucer’s text so much as the characters and stories themselves, the themes that speak to us as clearly as they did back then—meeting people who are different from you and listening to them, being in love, standing up for yourself, facing uncomfortable truths. Modernizing the tales removes all the medieval atmosphere, and since a modern setting doesn’t bear much analysis for modern readers (it’s just teens on a bus riding along with the occasional coffee break), I can keep the focus on the internal growth of the characters and the storytelling dynamic.

Candace: And why teens?

Kim:  Chaucer’s characters are so much larger than life, as well as works-in-progress, and their passionate natures and vibrancy just seemed to make them perfect as teenagers, and the medieval sense of hierarchy and type-casted roles seem not all that different from the high school scene. I love the unabashed coming-of-age narrative we get in kids’ and teens’ books, and I could focus on the characters’ deep feelings and budding insights, while remaining true to their limited viewpoints. I really loved having this toy box of amazing characters to play with. I think if I were writing Geoffrey Chaucer, Father of English Poetry, I’d freeze up and not dare remove him from his pedestal, but Jeff Chaucer the shy teenager was a wonderful and accessible narrator, so frustratingly flawed but so real and relatable. I also loved the idea of meeting Chaucer’s pilgrims as teens, especially the Pardoner. There’s something redemptive about meeting the Pardoner as a teen and seeing if I can shift something so he doesn’t have to grow up and be a bitter, despairing villain. Finally, I loved the idea of writing to a teen audience and sharing these relatable stories, and hopefully spread some Chaucer love to the next generation.

[Candace jumping in to say I was so moved by Pard/the Pardoner. I felt you’d delved into the heart and soul of a character Chaucer had been just sketched in to suit his purpose and you brought out his depths.]

 [Kim jumping in to say Thank you so much! He was the character I worked on the most and the only one who voiced opinions about his own centrality in the novel. No marginalization for this Pardoner! I loved working on every scene he was in.]

Candace: As a writer I’ve wondered whether some of the tales and the pilgrims were easier to modernize than others.

Kim: Not to sound complacent or braggy (believe me, I know about writer’s block!), but some pilgrims and tales were very easy to write. This is partly because I teach Chaucer, and I try to make modern parallels for my students. For example, I make references to Twilight, or my students consider how the characters would talk if they were on Twitter. The pilgrims’ voices are so distinct—the Miller talks only like the Miller, and so on. This really helped my characters have their own voice and not bleed into one another’s. And knowing who they were helped with writing their tales, with an eye to their personalities but also Chaucer’s original tales.

When I sketched an initial outline, a modern concept would spring to mind, and the tale then would write itself. For example, The Knight’s Tale with those two Theban princes revived from the pile of corpses is just *obviously* a zombie love story, right?! And The Franklin’s Tale involves a magician willing to help a young man get a woman through a magical demonstration—the whole situation is creepily Slytherin, so the path was clear there too. I confess the fabliaux were straightforward to write, and I kept the scandalous content but provided a lot of criticism from the women on the bus (a lot of Chaucer’s male characters had to become female, because otherwise it would be a really weird demographic—it just shows how outnumbered the Wife of Bath and Prioress really were).

Other tales were more difficult. The Clerk’s Tale is just painful and The Prioress’s Tale is horribly anti-Semitic. I didn’t see how the modern Prioress could tell a story like that and not get kicked off the bus. The other thing that was hard was that I knew I wanted the Canon’s Yeomen to make an appearance, but working him in took a lot of plot points and backstory. He was the most challenging. Still, I really wanted a complete cast, so it was worth it!

Candace: Did the tales or the characters come first–that is, did you modernize the pilgrims and then think about how to modernize their tale, or did it go the other way, or vary? I love hearing people talk about their writing process. 


Kim: The characters came first. While I was writing drafts of my General Prologue, I was also writing out character descriptions. I made an Excel spreadsheet for seating arrangements based on social hierarchy (cool kids in the back, nerds in the front row), and another for the character traits and which colleges they were planning to attend, what cars they drove, etc, just so I could know more about them before I directed attention to their stories.

Candace: When teens read the book, what sorts of questions do they ask about Geoffrey Chaucer and the medieval setting? Do they ask any? 

Kim: From what I can tell, most teens are surprised that it’s a Chaucer retelling. Any Chaucer-savvy reader can see the references a mile away, but because it’s a modern retelling, it’s not at all obvious to someone unfamiliar with Chaucer. The novel simply reads as a contemporary story. So I’ve heard many teens remark that they were surprised that in the Afterword I call it a Chaucer retelling—and explain what I did—and they express an interest in reading Chaucer. I love to hear that!

Perhaps the coolest Chaucer discussion I’ve ever had with teens was at the Chaucer Celebration at Arizona State University, where I was invited to read from my book to over 100 high school students, many of them from Title I (low income) schools. The students had prepared for the event by reading The Franklin’s Tale, a tale of magic that originally came from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. I read my modern version, which comes across as Harry Potter-fanfiction. Before I read the excerpt, I told the students that my tale is Chaucer fanfiction of Chaucer’s Boccaccio fanfiction, all framed as Harry Potter fanfiction! After the reading, some high school students came over and wanted to hear more about Boccaccio’s winter garden and how I was playing with Boccaccio instead of going with Dorigen’s “grisly feendly rokkes blake” (I love saying that phrase aloud). The teens were eager to read Boccaccio’s tale and see for themselves how Chaucer adapted it for his purposes. We actually talked more about Boccaccio than Harry Potter, which is kind of shocking! One cool thing about that discussion was that teens really get how awesome fanfiction is, so when they find out Chaucer was doing the same thing, it intrigues them. If Harry Potter is the gateway drug to Chaucer and Boccaccio, so be it!

[Candace inserting… “If Harry Potter is the gateway drug to Chaucer and Boccaccio, so be it!” Or is Kim Zarins the gateway drug to Chaucer and Boccaccio?!]

[Kim inserting…  😉 ]

Candace: Do you think of the school trip as a kind of pilgrimage? or is it the occasion of group travel that’s the parallel?  

Kim: The trip to Washington D.C. is a secular analogue for Chaucer’s religious pilgrimage to Thomas à Becket’s shrine. It’s also a right-of-passage for many junior high and/or high school students. It seems like a transition marker and a potentially transformative trip. For me the group dynamic is the key part of the real pilgrimage, rather than the physical destination. I don’t spend much time on Washington D.C. itself, because that’s the curricular pilgrimage, the occasion for the whole thing, but the spiritual pilgrimage is really about this group of teens who learn to listen to one another and rethink one another’s stories and their own.

Candace: What more can I say except you MUST read this book. Whether or not you remember the Canterbury Tales, you will fall in love with Kim’s characters.

NOTE: And for any high school teachers reading this, if you’d like desk copies of the book, Kim invites you to contact her through her website http://www.kimzarins.com/

Kim: Thanks, Candace! This was awesomely fun!

Candace: For me as well!

Pre-publication Reviews for A Murdered Peace

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Working toward a looming deadline on the eleventh Owen Archer, but wanted to share some quotes from early reviews for the Kate Clifford novel (#3), A Murdered Peace, coming out in December!

From Publishers Weekly, a starred review!
“Set in York in 1400, Robb’s superior third Kate Clifford mystery (after 2017’s A Twisted Vengeance) puts the redoubtable heroine in considerable peril. Richard II has been deposed and succeeded by his cousin, Henry IV. After Henry survives a plot to return the throne to Richard, the sovereign sees conspirators everywhere. Kate, who runs a guesthouse whose upper chambers are frequently rented to the wealthy for private assignations, finds herself between a rock and a hard place when an old friend, Lady Margery Kirkby, appears at her door seeking shelter. Lady Margery’s husband, Sir Thomas, sought to persuade Henry to improve the conditions of Richard’s imprisonment, but ended up branded an enemy of the crown and decapitated. Kate takes the new widow in, but the risks to herself increase after her former cook, who’s suspected of being a threat to Henry, is accused of murder. Robb effortlessly integrates the era’s intrigues into a whodunit framework and peoples the plot with a wide array of characters readers will come to care about.”

From Writer & Readers Magazine, Cynthianna Matthews sums up her review: “A Murdered Peace has all the hallmarks of Candace Robb’s work. Kate Clifford and her fellow people of York are complex living characters, and meticulous period research doesn’t get in the way of a fine flowing narrative and a genuine sense of mystery and peril.”

From Kirkus: “Those who meddle in the affairs of kings live to regret it…A …tale of love and murder set in a turbulent period when death and betrayal lurk around every corner.”

I’ll take those!

Remember to preorder–that and reviews on amazon or goodreads are exceedingly helpful ways to support your favorite writers!

Windows shut against the wildfire smoke, I’m madly revising A Conspiracy of Wolves–off to agent next week, to publisher at the end of September. As soon as I have a publication date I’ll let you know!

Where Have I Been?

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You are wondering, aren’t you? You’ll be happy to read that I’ve been writing A Conspiracy of Wolves, the 11th Owen Archer. I’m now racing to the finish, and then I’ll be polishing and adding depth and details–the manuscript goes to my new publisher at the end of September. (More about my new publisher next month.) It is such a delight to spend months in the company of Owen, Lucie, Magda, Alisoun, and all the gang!

An amusing note about the name change: I’d chosen the title A Rumor of Wolves, but it caused headaches for US/UK cover design because “rumor” in the US is “rumour” in the UK. So now the rumor(our) is a conspiracy.

In other news, A Murdered Peace, the 3rd Kate Clifford mystery, will be coming out in early December (US, Canada, and UK ebook and trade paperback). I think you’re going to love the wrap up to the first three books about Kate.

 

Also coming in December, A Twisted Vengeance (Kate Clifford 2) in trade paperback!

 

Q&A with the editors of Bad Girls & Transgressive Women

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And now for some fun with Julie Chappell and Mallory Young, the editors of Bad Girls and Transgressive Women in Popular Television, Fiction, and Film. While gathering my thoughts and impressions to compose a review of the clever and timely anthology they’d assembled, I jotted down a list of conversational queries. Much to my delight, they both responded with enthusiasm. Enjoy!

  • Question (CR): The #MeToo movement exploded not so long after you published this collection of essays exploring how popular culture depicts women swimming upstream against a current of patriarchal attitudes and rule. And, of course, you must have been preparing this for publication during the run-up to and the aftermath of the 2016 election. A few questions regarding this:
    –How does it feel to ride this wave?
    –Had you seen this coming, what, if anything, might you have done differently? (Or did you see this coming?)
    –Any thoughts about a follow-up volume?

MY:  We actually started focusing on the subject of Bad Girls long before this particular movement. The collection grew out of a conference session we organized in 2013. But while I certainly can’t claim I saw the movement (or the election results!) coming, I’ve been around long enough to know that new waves in the status of women are a constant. Sometimes those waves bring significant progress, but more often it’s a two steps forward, one step back situation. So I truly believe there’s always a need for a collection like this. As far as a follow-up volume, let’s see how this one goes first!

JC:  We’ve both been part of the Second Wave since the late 1960s so are used to “swimming upstream” in our lives and careers! But, sexual harassment is only a part of the issue for me. This book is about much more than that. All the contributors’ essays challenge the untreated patriarchal myopia and its consequences. We talked about a second volume at the beginning of this project but have agreed to wait and see where this one takes us.

 

  • Q (CR): Reading this book has made me aware of how much I miss when absorbing popular culture, and, now that I’ve awakened to that, my habits are changing. I’m certain that it made my reading of Madeline Miller’s new book, Circe, so much richer than it would have been. (Though I would have enjoyed it just as much—now it had more levels of meaning for me.) How has this project changed your responses to popular culture?

MY:  I’m so happy to hear that! That’s certainly one of our major goals in focusing on popular culture—to make people more aware of what we’re absorbing all around us. I’ve been studying the representation of women in popular culture since before 2005, when I co-edited a collection of essays on “chick lit” (and two years later one on “chick flicks”). So I can’t say this project really changed my responses. But it did continue and deepen my awareness of the issues. And the diversity in the types of texts we ended up including expanded the parameters in some exciting ways.

JC:  I have to admit that before grad school during the Reagan years, I was generally a skeptic about the benefits of pop culture research. But early in my study of medieval and early modern literature and history, I was reading Richard the Redeless (which invoked Ethelred II, posthumously called the unræd, the ill-advised) and listening to Bruce Springsteen’s latest album when I realized that pop culture was nothing new and provided a necessary and integral path to understanding more diverse aspects of human nature and culture. The Bad Girls’ contributors’ essays have reaffirmed the importance of studying pop culture and seriously expanded my knowledge of significant pop culture “texts.”

  • Q (CR): While I read, I compiled TBR (Vera Caspary? How had I never heard of her?!) and TBW (for the first time I’m curious about The Walking Dead) as well as TBRW (I missed so much in Buffy) lists. This is such a gift. What did you discover for the first time while reading the submissions? What have you discovered since?

MY:  I was unfamiliar with Vera Caspary too—what an amazing find! My other discovery was the graphic series, Saga. I had read a couple of graphic novels (Maus is one of my all-time favorite books), but I had never heard of this one. Now I’m a devoted fan: I’ve read all eight volumes and I’m looking forward to Volume 9, due to come out this fall. My own TBR, TBW, and TBRW lists do keep growing!

JC:  I grew up with Wonder Woman comics for inspiration for my own bad girl tendencies, but, as an adult, I considered graphic novels just as I had comic books, for children. Consequently, I had not read any graphic novels even though my husband had encouraged me to as he taught them for years, including Maus, Persepolis, and Pedro and Me, among many others. So, I admit that Mihaela Precup and Dragoş Manea’s perspective on Saga was definitely the most wonderful discovery for me. The Wonder Woman film has corrected much of the patriarchal issues of the original comic book character but cannot seem to shake the patriarchal notion that women must be beautiful above all else. In contrast to Alana and Hazel in Saga, Wonder Woman has a long way to go yet! I have for many years read and taught a variety of crime fiction in short and long form. Perhaps my Swedish roots have drawn me more toward a love of Swedish novels from Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö to Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon series. I also love crime fiction on film and television, including the 1944 film adaptation of Vera Caspary’s novel, Laura. But, Bedelia and Kirsten Saxton’s essay were revelations!

  • Q (CR): I appreciated the historical background in many of the articles. Kate Waites’s Hollywood’s Warrior Woman for the New Millennium comes to mind, narrating how the concept of “bad girls and transgressive women” has changed. The change has come about because society’s attitudes have shifted both in what we admire and what we will tolerate (i.e., pay money to see). And yet… Elizabeth Johnston’s “Let Them Know That Men Did This”: Medusa, Rape, and Female Rivalry in Contemporary Film and Women’s Writing makes it clear that much still needs to change. What are some of the historical shifts that stand out for you?

MY: One of my favorite features of this collection is the constant back-and-forth movement that you identify here. I think what stands out for me is the amazing variety of perspectives in contemporary popular culture. In my view, both Waites and Johnston are right: so much has been done; so much remains to be done. In the Introduction, I mentioned the TV series Supernatural which struck me as putting forward a startlingly regressive view of women and women’s roles. (Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, given that the show originally targeted an evangelical Christian audience.) After I wrote that essay, though, audiences were treated to a major shift in perspective, with a surprise revelation that the mother of the central “demon-hunter” brothers, who was previously seen entirely in the role of a victim, was herself a strong and capable demon hunter. I strongly suspect the show’s writers and producers were influenced to change the original concept to fit the views of a broader, more mainstream audience. I was pleased to see that. But that doesn’t mean other antifeminist views aren’t still being put forward—most troubling are those, as Johnston pointed out, geared towards young audiences.

JC:  I definitely agree with your appreciation of historical background from the scholars and even in their sources. Joss Whedon moved out ahead of his contemporaries with his characterization of the female vampire slayer, Buffy, in the 1992 film, but the movie did not, as I understand it, follow Whedon’s artistic vision. He secured his vision with the television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, giving us a strong and independent female lead and a marked change from the earliest vampire tales of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with that era’s weak and helpless Gothic female victims. Kaley Kramer brilliantly teases that out in solid historical context. But even Buffy fell victim to modern audience’s inability to embrace women standing alone in their strength and principles. Buffy had several fraught relationships with men—Angel, Spike, and the military buffoon, Riley. Yet, ultimately, Whedon refused that sentimental view. The backlash in fiction has occurred, in my view, with the extremely popular series for the Youth market, Twilight, and its copycats in fiction and film. The heroine is again weak and troublingly shallow. The television series Grimm has some kick-ass women, but, as Mallory has noted with Supernatural, it took some time (and perhaps young women’s protests) to give these women some screen time. It certainly was my hope that Bad Girls would foster rethinking such weak-willed female leads as in Twilight to the more challenging women of Buffy and Saga.

 

  • Q (CR): Have either of you used this collection in a class? If so, I’d love to hear how it was received. I would think that the discussions could become emotionally charged. What did you learn about your students? Who surprised you?

MY: Not yet! I taught a class on Bad Girls in Literature, Legend, and Popular Culture in Spring 2017, just before the book came out. I did provide pre-publication copies of a few essays (our secret!) to students who focused their major papers on related subjects. Since my course covers Bad Girls from the Hebrew Scriptures and ancient Greek texts to the present, I probably won’t have a chance to use the book as a whole. But I will continue to recommend particular essays for individual projects. Still, I do think it could be used very effectively in a class focused on popular culture or women’s studies. And I would certainly love to hear how it might be received. I hope anyone who does make use of it will contact us and let us know.

JC: Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity before my retirement at the end of the 2017-18 academic year to use this collection in the classroom. I taught my first “Bad Girls” class as a senior seminar in 2003 and a graduate course a decade later exploring historical and fictional “bad girls,” including Sappho, Margery Kempe, Catalina de Erauso’s Lieutenant Nun, George Sand’s Marianne, and, of course, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. As Mallory and I started talking about putting this collection together, we realized that we had been teaching “bad girls” most of our careers! I am sorry that I won’t get an opportunity, at least as far as I can see it now, to incorporate this collection into a course.

  • Q (CR): What article most surprised you?

MY:  I’m partial to all of the essays in the book, of course, but I do think the essay on Saga is especially revealing and insightful. Most surprising to me—though I admit this just reflects my own prior ignorance—is that it was written by a young couple from Bucharest. I had no idea American graphic novels are of serious interest in Romania.

JC:  I am very proud of the diversity of the subject matter and the insightful and careful scholarship of the essays in this collection. These reveal and often explode ancient and modern myths about women’s worth and capabilities that hide in plain sight and persist in popular cultural media. But, for me personally, it is also Mihaela Precup and Dragoş Manea’s essay on Saga that is the most revelatory, coming to it as I did with an uninformed (and, yes, ignorant) prejudice against graphic novels. I must let their words about the significance of the Saga series be my last words on this. In their introduction, they rightly assert that Saga “subverts staid representations of gendered subjects and locates in the act of productive alienation an oppositional praxis that remains crucial for the feminist project.”

Thanks to Mallory and Julie for engaging with me about this knock-out anthology!  And just to remind readers, here’s the publication info.

Bad Girls and Transgressive Women—Review!

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Are you looking for a provocative collection of essays for your syllabus this fall? Take a look at Bad Girls and Transgressive Women in Popular Television, Fiction, and Film, edited by Julie A. Chappell and Mallory Young (Palgrave Macmillan 2017). The title caught my attention—my new sleuth, Kate Clifford, is a woman I consider transgressive in her place and time, and I was keen to see what other artists were doing, and what scholars had to say about them.

What I look for in an anthology is a variety of perspectives, an array of ideas, with a sense of gazing through dozens of facets cut into a topic, each time finding a fresh vista, a new consideration. I was not disappointed.Chappell and Young provide that in their selections, and entertain as well. As I read I imagined what lively discussions this book would inspire in a classroom. The book appeared before the #MeToo and #TimesUp hashtags shook things up, and reading it now it can seem a prequel, but the book stands on its own. Thirteen essays on popular culture ranging from the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the graphic science fiction series, Saga, with stops in between for thrillers (Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), crime novels (Kathleen Mallory in the series by Carol O’Connell), how Medusa’s image changes over time, the tropes of the mean girl queen bee and the angry black woman, domestic disarray in chick lit… Check out the table of contents here.

In her introduction, Mallory Young spells out the legacy being explored: “The ancient Hebrews’ Eve and the ancient Greeks’ Pandora were among the first of a long line to enter the annals of literature and legend by displaying their inability—or refusal—to play by the rules. As the list of historical, mythological, and literary bad girls grew, so did the patriarchal collection of condemnations against them. Eve’s insubordination becomes the justification for centuries of her daughters’ subordination. Works of literature, conduct manuals, sermons, ballads, and plays throughout the medieval and early modern western world confirmed the stereotype, enforcing the good girl/bad girl, Eve/Mary distinction. Women could be passive, voiceless, and powerless—worthy of praise—or vengeful, violent, promiscuous, disruptive—requiring restraint.”

The questions explored in the anthology: “Why in a postfeminist world are women still so often depicted as threats to social order? How have those depictions changed over time? What are the contemporary parameters of ‘badness’ in the popular mind? How has the use of violence as a method of resistance affected those women who wield it? How has the diversity of race, ethnicity, and even species reconfigured the bad-girl paradigm? Are those women who engage in transgressive actions merely upsetting social norms or actually challenging or even subverting the status quo? And finally, is bad-girl behavior as represented in popular texts truly transformative and empowering—or simply playing into a commercialized and ultimately non-threatening reestablishment of women’s traditional roles?”

Reading this collection inspired me to pay closer attention to the assumptions underlying popular culture. Some examples: K.T. Saxton concludes in her article about Vera Caspary’s Bedelia, “capitalism, nationalism, and heteronormative patriarchy are the hazily imagined romantic fictions, peddling the fantasies of the market, state, and gender norms as happy endings.” In J. Gwynne’s article about teachers and transgressive comedy, he notes that “within many comedic genres, women as individuals have been subject to ridicule and denigration, not least because their objectification by comedy is connected to their subordinate position within the wider culture.” E Johnston uses the evolving image of Medusa—monstrous female or victim of male aggression—“to bring into relief compelling evidence of a thriving ‘rape culture’ within contemporary film.” More change: K. Waites describes how far we’ve come from “the femme fatale, the earliest emanation of Hollywood’s warrior woman, who uses her sexuality to manipulate men and exploit the white, hetero-sexist capitalist system for personal gain”; in contrast, the current warrior woman “investigates and attacks” the system. She describes Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) as “a complex figure unique to the postfeminist world, one that operates at the margins of the entrenched system.”

I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The overall tone is “provocative” in the very best meaning of the word, arousing interest and, yes, reaction. It will wake you up. A timely book. I’ve come away with a long list of books/articles to read, TV series to revisit or watch for the first time (revisit Buffy, try The Walking Dead when Michonne enters the story—I think I’d like her.), ditto for films.

Watch this space for a Q&A with the editors!

After reading this, I’m even more proud of the transgressive woman I’ve created, Kate Clifford. I can’t wait for you to read the third book in the series, A Murdered Peace, out in October!

A Writer Reading: White Fang by Jack London

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**warning: geeky writer post

For the past several years I’ve been browsing books about wolves because, well, I’m writing a book entitled A Conspiracy of Wolves. In my research one book kept rising to the top: White Fang by Jack London. For a while I ignored it, was even, I confess, annoyed that it kept showing up, an old book, surely something better had been written about wolves. But at last I decided to read it, see what all the fuss was about. [Yes, I know, most people read this as children, but somehow I missed it despite loving books about the wild.]

Wolf-wise (oh, how I love the implication of that pairing), it’s a delightful book in many ways, though not informative about wolf packs in the wild. His subject is the formative experience of the eponymous canine, a study of nature vs nurture, to an extent.

I began this post several days ago, saying “I don’t like to write about books I’m still reading, but the introduction of a new character, ‘Beauty Smith’, stopped me cold last night. I didn’t want to read further. Now that intrigues me.” I’ve since finished the book, and I can attest to the page-long description of the odious Beauty Smith being the point in the book at which my enthusiasm flagged; it never recovered. What happened? I thought I’d share with you my experience as a writer reading a book but also reading a writer.

Let me first explain London’s point of view in the book. We begin in the head of one of a pair of men being tracked and terrorized by a pack of starving wolves, led by the female wolf who will give birth to White Fang. A few chapters in, the point of view switches to the female, and then, fairly quickly, her pup White Fang, as he discovers the world of the cave in which he’s born, and then ventures forth into the Alaskan wilderness. But London does not limit himself to the close third person; in his own voice he provides background, details of the landscape, and, in a sense, translates for us White Fang’s perceptions. And, increasingly, London adds to this his very human commentary on White Fang’s limitations as a wolf.

In How Fiction Works (Picador 2008, pp. 6-7), James Wood discusses this authorial voice:

…omniscient narration is rarely as omniscient as it seems. To begin with, authorial style generally has a way of making third-person omniscience seem partial and inflected. Authorial style tends to draw our attention toward the writer, toward the artifice of the author’s construction, and so toward the writer’s own impress. …Tolstoy comes closest to a canonical idea of authorial omniscience, and he uses with great naturalness and authority a mode of writing that Roland Barthes called “the reference code” (or sometimes “the cultural code”), whereby a writer makes confident appeal to a universal or consensual truth, or a body of shared cultural or scientific knowledge. *

* He means the way that nineteenth-century writers refer to commonly accepted cultural or scientific knowledge, for instance shared ideological generalities about “women.” I extend the term to cover any kind of authorial generalization.

Having read a great deal of 19th century lit, I am familiar with this sort of authorial voice, and found London’s comfortable for more than half of the book. However, once I reached the introduction of the clearly bad character at the fort to which White Fang accompanies his native American owner, the authorial voice became far too noticeable. I felt London intruding to instruct me in the “cultural code”, and telegraphing so specifically what was coming that I began to speed read, which, for me, is a sign the author has lost me. As I posted on Goodreads, I give the novel a 5 star up to that point, and a 3 after that, which is actually quite generous. I stayed with the book only because I was curious how London would depict White Fang’s reaction to a city, and then the sophistication of his new owner’s estate (complete with chickens and other dogs). There were delightful moments, but they were drowned out by the “instructive” narration.

After pondering this for a few days and reading some critical material about London’s work I appreciate that the split is intentional: he believed man’s “civilization” was far less noble than the wild, and that man was ennobled by embracing the wild. White Fang’s final owner is clearly meant to seem a cut above those around him, appreciating White Fang for his wildness. He meant to leave him in the wild, but White Fang insisted on staying by his side. So be it. I understand, but it still doesn’t make it more palatable for me.

And yet… this intrusive narration might be completely acceptable if performed by a traditional storyteller—an oral performance, with dramatic pauses for effect, droll asides, expressive body language. In fact, as I write this I can easily imagine enjoying such a performance. I also suspect I would have been oblivious of this aspect of London’s style had I read the book as a child, when I simply devoured stories. (Critical reading is an occupational hazard for a writer.) And I’m quite certain I would have found the narration comfortable had I read it at the time it was published, 1906, when the intrusive narrator was more common in fiction than it is now.

All in all, I’m glad I read it, it’s provided much food for thought, and inspired a geeky blog post. (And I fell in love with White Fang.)

I’m now happily reading Chris Nickson’s new book, The Tin God. Has nothing to do with the Owen Archer mystery I’m writing, it’s just a treat at the end of my day.

Cover Reveal: A Murdered Peace (Kate Clifford 3)

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I have been truant far too long! But here I am, unveiling the cover for the third Kate 71dnq3tRZnLA Murdered Peace-ADClifford, A Murdered Peace, which will be published on 2 October in the US, UK, and Canada. At long last Kate is depicted with a bit of weaponry and one of her wolfhounds. I’m pleased. Yes, I know, that’s the ruins of Clifford’s Tower in the present, not York Castle as it would have been—far larger, walled, a true castle complex, but one must choose one’s battles.

Here’s the copy for the book:

It is deep winter in York, 1400, the ground frozen, the short days dimmed with the smoke from countless fires, the sun, when it shines, low in the sky. It is rumored that the Epiphany Rising, meant to relieve the realm of the Henry the usurper and return King Richard to the throne has, instead, spelled his doom. As long as Richard lives, he is a threat to Henry; so, too, the nobles behind the plot. The ringleaders have been caught, some slaughtered by folk loyal to Henry as they fled west, and the king’s men now search the towns for survivors.

A perilous time, made worse for Kate Clifford by the disappearance of Berend, her cook and confidante, shortly after Christmas. Her niece saw his departure in a dream—he said he was honor bound to leave. Honor bound—to a former lord? One of the nobles who led the uprising? Is he alive? She is hardly consoled when Berend reappears, wounded, secretive, denying any connection to the uprising, but refusing to explain himself. When he is accused of brutally murdering a spice seller in the city, Kate discovers a chest of jewels in his possession. Some of the jewels belong to her old friend Lady Margery, wanted by the king for her husband’s part in the uprising. For the sake of their long friendship, and the love she and her wards bear for him, Kate wants to believe Berend’s innocence. So, too, does Sir Elric. And he has the powerful backing of the Earl of Westmoreland. All Kate need do is confide in him. If only she trusted her heart.

I’ve just recently completed the final edit and it’s now with the copyeditor. For this edit I read the manuscript aloud, listening for repetitions, infelicitous language, and what I think of as the overarching melody of the book. It’s remarkable how much more I catch when I’m reading aloud.

What struck me was that although the action of the book arises from the Epiphany Rising and Richard II’s imprisonment in Pontefract Castle, it’s the characters who carry the story. All the characters I’ve come to love–Kate, Berend, Elric, Lille, Ghent, Jennet, Eleanor, Marie, Petra, Phillip, Lionel (well, I don’t exactly love Lionel), Clement, Griselde, and a few new to the series. And that’s just how I want it to be. There is a great deal of sorrow and conflict, but some sweet joy as well. I’m proud of it.

Meanwhile, I’m hard at work on the 11th Owen Archer, A Conspiracy of Wolves… more about that soon!