New Voices: Colleen Adair Fliedner, Matt Gianni, Janet Hancock & Kip Wilson

Kip Wilson has blended her interest in poetry with her skills as an author to create her Young Adult fiction novel White Rose (HMH Versify, 2019). Wilson is known in writing circles for her work as the Poetry Editor of YARN (Young Adult Review Network), and she first discovered the young activist who is central to her novel while she still at school herself. Wilson first learnt, she says, “about the White Rose resistance group in high school German class. I was hooked. Students not much older than I was, standing up to the Nazis? I needed to know more, so I read everything available at the time — a general book about the Scholl siblings, a biography about Sophie Scholl, and a collection of letters. I went on to study German Literature in college and graduate school, but I never forgot the White Rose, continuing to research and read new materials as they came out.”

She believes, “because I was a teenager myself when I first learned about Sophie
Scholl, her rebellious mindset really spoke to me. I strove to maintain that spark as I filed away information over the years. I first tried writing a nonfiction manuscript about the White Rose back
in 2005, but it wasn’t working, and I ended up setting that project aside.” It was only years later, she says, “that when a couple of verse novelists mentioned to me that tragic, emotional subjects are often well-suited to verse, it was like a billion light bulbs going off in my head. Writing White Rose in verse allowed me to get much deeper into Sophie’s head and emotions, which I find ironically difficult with all the words available in prose.”

Wilson highlights, “it was over 75 years ago, three members of the White Rose resistance group were executed by the Nazis for treason: Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and their friend Christoph Probst. These young students had their lives ahead of them, yet chose to resist their government and its criminal regime by writing and distributing anti-Hitler leaflets, knowing full well the consequences.”

The testament of courage that these young people displayed is, for Wilson, a lesson to be remembered: “Sophie Scholl’s story is important to tell because history repeats
itself. In the current political climate, the importance of standing up for others cannot be underestimated. Role models like Sophie are still there, ready to inspire a new generation.”

Colleen Adair Fliedner’s novel, In the Shadow of War: Spies, Love & the Lusitania (Sand Hill Review Press, 2018) focuses on the sinking of the Lusitania, in which 94 children died. The sinking of the ship also demonstrated the courage of the younger passengers. One example was Kathleen Kaye, a 16-year-old who encouraged everyone to stay calm and helped to row a lifeboat. She was undaunted by this experience and went on to travel to California, marry the artist Carl William Brandien and then travel the world with him.

Fliedner’s fascination with the Lusitania and its passengers, she says, “began many years ago when I worked as a research and oral historian for the California State University system. In an interview with pioneering deep-sea diver Col. John D. Craig, he discussed his 1930s efforts to dive the wreck of the luxury liner, which had been torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland in 1915. My interest was piqued by his descriptions of the once-beautiful ‘Greyhound of the Seas’ lying on the ocean bottom off the Irish Coast. Of the nearly 2,000 passengers and crew, 1,198 men, women, and children perished, including 128 American citizens.”

As a result of Craig’s interview, Fliedner explains, “I was determined to write a novel about the event and the circumstances that led the Germans to commit this heinous war crime. Why did the Germans torpedo an ocean liner? Who were the passengers? And what were the repercussions of the sinking?”

The research, Fliedner notes, “took years and included trips to New York, London, and most importantly, Cobh, Ireland (Queenstown), where both the survivors and the dead were brought to shore. I visited the local cemetery and placed flowers on the mass graves of the victims, spent time at the Cobh Heritage Center where Lusitania artifacts are displayed, and combed through countless photos and historical documents.”

Set in the same period as Fliedner’s novel, Beyond the Samovar (Conrad Press, 2019) by Janet Hancock is described as a literary novel created from two threads. Hancock says, “I love anything that has me reaching for the atlas. I once read a newspaper reference to a young Englishwoman caught in the 1917 revolution in Baku, at that time in Russia. She wouldn’t let me go. Who was she? Where was Baku? How and which way might she leave?”

Detailed research, she notes, “revealed early 20th century Baku to be a boom town built on oil wealth, like the American Wild West in the gold rush. People from all parts of Russia flocked to Baku to make a fortune – some did, others sank to the bottom of the social heap, fertile ground for revolutionaries. Add simmering tensions between indigenous Moslem Tartars and Christian Armenians to make an explosive mix.”

When creating her characters, Hancock notes, “the fictional oil-rich Markovitch family came to me first. The unnamed Englishwoman blossomed into Livvy who meets Esther Markovitch and her father in St Petersburg in June 1914 and returns with them to Baku for a three-month stay as companion to Esther. Livvy abandons in St Petersburg her English employers with whom she travelled to Russia earlier in the year. The outbreak of war that August keeps her in Baku.”

At the outset of Hancock’s novel, Peter, Livvy’s English husband, was a challenge: “How to get him to Baku? A journalist? Diplomat? An engineer, I decided. A winter of bronchitis in St Petersburg – pivotal in the narrative – sends him south to the mountain air of Grozny and later down the coast to Baku.”

The second thread of Hancock’s novel, she explains, “concerns my maternal grandparents who lived in Birmingham, England, where Part 2 takes place. A few details of their story have come to light over the years and have always fascinated me, but much is not known. Peter is the adventurous eldest son of such a family.”

The “big canvas” she had found was only the beginning, and when she started to write, Hancock says, “I felt like a fledgling soaring. I typed up the first draft, 800 pages, several storylines, multi-viewpoint, with little understanding of editing. The book was as long as it took to tell the story. The RNA New Writers’ Scheme taught me otherwise. I joined the Historical Novel Society and started reviewing for the Historical Novels Review, a good lesson in editing and concise writing.”

Hancock explains, “The novel went through six drafts, three changes of title, 800 pages reduced to 330.” All this before she was satisfied that she had done her characters and story the justice they deserved.

As an aeronautical engineer and flight instructor, Matt Gianni, author of Lever Templar (Dark Ink Press, 2019) has been writing non-fiction most of his adult life, works such as airplane flight manuals for Boeing and instructional articles for flying magazines. Gianni notes,

“I am an avid reader of thrillers having strong historical emphases, I’ve also often found myself inspired by specific aspects of certain authors’ work, such as the high concept, religion-based plots of Dan Brown, the exciting point-of-view characters of James Rollins, and the thrilling action and dialogue of Steve Berry.”

However, it was only in 2013 that he finally realized he might be able, says Gianni, “to take all such aspects of my favorite authors and write a book that I, and possibly others, might actually like to read.”

Gianni describes his novel as “a dual timeline historical fiction/contemporary thriller novel.” The inspiration for the past timeline of Lever Templar came from, Gianni explains, “thinking about how the Templars could have attained such leverage over popes and monarchs through their two centuries of dominance, what could have been at the core of such leverage as they transitioned from protecting Holy Land pilgrims to being the world’s first international bank, and how they could have fallen so quickly at the whim of the French Crown.”

Gianni is, he says, “always on the lookout for odd historical mysteries. When I find an interesting one, I print it out and put it in what I’ve labeled ‘Pandora’s shoebox.’ From time to time I go through them, see how they might be combined, and what effect they might have on the modern world.”

His present timeline for Lever Templar came from Gianni’s fascination with, he says, “discoveries such as The Dead Sea Scrolls, that more closely resemble anathematized heresies of the past rather than orthodoxy, and also from rumors of the clandestine Vatican City intelligence service, known as Santa Alleanza (‘Holy Alliance’), or L’Entità (‘The Entity’), and all the trouble they might get themselves into by emphasizing Catholicism over other world religions.”

Gianni, Fliedner, Hancock and Wilson have all chosen to use historical fiction as a way of introducing their readers to recurring conflicts, dilemmas and questions of morality throughout history that have shaped the destiny of real and fictional characters.

About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is an Associate Fellow at two British Universities and a creative writing workshop designer. Please do email (myfanwyc@btinternet.com) if you discover any debut novels you would like to see brought to the attention of other readers.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 89 (August 2019)


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