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!
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!
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.”
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.