New Voices: Moonyeen Blakey, James Hawking, Regina O’Melveny & Jean Zimmerman

by Myfanwy Cook

The Book of Madness and Cures

The Book of Madness and Cures

Debut novelists Moonyeen Blakey, James Hawking, Regina O’Melveny and Jean Zimmerman provide insight into the inspiration for their novels.

Fascination with a place and period are important to all the novelists featured in this issue’s New Voices. However, for Moonyeen Blakey, author of The Assassin’s Wife (Fireship Press, 2012) and Regina O’Melveny, author of The Book of Madness and Cures (Little, Brown & John Murray, 2012), their childhood experiences and backgrounds also played a part in inspiring their writing.

O’Melveny explains that when she is asked what inspired her to write the novel “… several answers come to mind. I wasn’t captivated by a particular historical figure, but rather by an earlier period that’s been part of me since childhood, namely the Renaissance that I experienced through my Roman mother, an oil painter who also created triptychs of the Madonna in egg tempera. She collected beautiful books on Renaissance art in her studio that I was drawn to peruse again and again. We traveled to Rome, where as a six-year-old from California, I first understood that a city could be layers of civilizations. Truly, I could walk upon the ancient strata that preceded me. Mythic memory emerged in the stones themselves, such as the temple stones dedicated to Minerva that later formed the foundation for a Romanesque, then Renaissance church to Santa Maria. So the fascination with history has always been with me. Personal and cultural history intertwined. The small cloth journal decorated with red roses, sent me by my Italian grandmother when I was ten, recalled her own interest in poetry, though her husband forbade her to write. I bear a legacy of women in my family thwarted in what might’ve been their chosen vocation, by a narrow-minded husband or father. I can’t help but imagine my grandmother, a free light soul now, looking over my shoulder and taking joy in the support I have from my husband in this different generation, in the support my daughter has from her father and husband.”

For Blakey it was a different family legacy and an obsession which, when combined with years of research, finally grew into The Assassin’s Wife. Blakey describes how: “Like my heroine, Nan, who is driven to follow her visions, ‘The Wars of the Roses’ haunted me from childhood. Walking to and from school, I entertained friends with lurid tales of bloody warfare, peopled with dangerous men and daring women. These characters became constant companions, whose exploits I lived in vivid detail inside my head!

“Clairvoyance runs in my family, but unlike Nan, who lives in fear of being denounced as a witch, I was never afraid to speak out. Although Nan remains determined to save the boys in the Tower who stalk her dreams, her gift attracts powerful, unscrupulous people. One of these is Anne Neville, Richard III’s queen. My fascination for strong women led me to believe the Kingmaker’s daughter may well have inherited her father’s manipulative spirit. Drama school allowed me to indulge a penchant for playing feisty heroines and scheming villainesses. I thought my destiny lay in the theatre, but months of unemployment sent me into libraries to explore that 15th-century turmoil which fuelled my imagination. These notes lay fallow once I became a teacher.

“A life-threatening illness proved the catalyst for unearthing my research. Sir Thomas More’s condemnation of Miles Forrest – one of those accused of murdering the ‘Princes in the Tower’- as ‘a fellow fleshed in murder before time’ provided the spark to create a passionate foil for my defiant heroine. At last she emerged from her ‘chrysalis’ and I embarked on writing a saga of intrigue and betrayal.”

Zimmerman took her fascination with Manhattan, the place that she has lived in, or near for the whole of her life and was excited to be able “to write about my own backyard, albeit 350 years ago.” However, she says: “…my first inspiration for The Orphanmaster (Penguin, 2012) came when I wrote a nonfiction work on the subject of colonial New Amsterdam. It was a period of discovery and excitement. Beaver was king – people became millionaires because hats made from beaver felt were in fashion. Colonists had arrived in America from Holland and were carving out new lives. Incredible dangers existed, from shipwrecks to Indian wars.

“Something that fascinated me was the status of women at the time, that independent, strong Dutch women were encouraged to engage in commerce. I wanted to place a she-merchant at the center of a novel. That it was a love story and a murder mystery followed in time.

“There is a 1660 street plan of Manhattan that shows every home, garden, street and warehouse in the town. I wanted to base a piece of fiction on New Amsterdam’s real streets and properties. The map, along with scads of information from the period, came from an amazing compendium called The Iconography of Manhattan Island. To understand this world, I immersed myself in colonial goings on, and some of the real events I learned about found their way into The Orphanmaster. I absorbed everything I could find about the period’s foodstuffs and textiles and weapons. I was even inspired by recipes, like the one for marzipan in the shape of a hedgehog, which requires two pounds of almonds crushed by hand in a mortar and pestle.”

James Hawking is a retired professor of politics from Chicago State University, and he was the director of the American Library Association’s Coalition for Literacy. He has also been an active member of the Historical Novel Society since it was founded in 1997, a fan of the Chicago White Sox and an active member of the Society for American Baseball Research. This cocktail of interests may have played a part in the inspiration for Strikeout (Sunstone Press, 2012). Hawking shares that history has always appealed to him “…more for the interaction of characters than the abstract interplay of dynamic forces. This interest naturally led me to historical fiction, and I formed the habit of reading books in pairs: I, Claudius and Twelve Caesars; Dead Man in Deptford and The Reckoning. One day the TLS had a snippet about Richard Lee’s founding the Historical Novel Society. I joined immediately, becoming the first American member. I had an article in the first Solander, and for the last fifteen years I have contributed to virtually every Historical Novels Review.

“Historical fiction is a legitimate part of the narrative of history, and the Society has contributed to my understanding of what history and historical fiction could do for each other. As historical fiction grows increasingly respectful of accurate history, it becomes a more important vehicle for telling the stories of the otherwise silent, such as women and slaves.

“In the 1970s the works of Harold and Dorothy Seymour introduced me to the idea that serious historians could treat baseball as something more than a compendium of statistics or stories for boys’ magazines. Baseball’s labor history intrigued me, particularly the story of John Montgomery Ward and the first players’ union. The more I read about him and his wife, the more I imagined a story that encompassed baseball, theatre, world travel and labor unrest. To the historical figures, I added a spectator who attends every game and shares his opinions with the person in the next seat.”

About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is intrigued by the creativity of debut novelists in unearthing settings, plots, and characters to captivate readers of historical fiction. If you have information about a debut novelist of interest to feature, please email ( or tweet (


Published in Historical Novels Review   |   Issue 61, August 2012

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