New Voices: P.S. Duffy, Snorri Kristjansson, Allison Pataki & Phyllis T. Smith
by Myfanwy Cook
Snorri Kristjansson is an Icelandic author whose novel Swords of Good Men (Jo Fletcher Books/Quercus, 2013) was influenced “first and foremost by Plato’s Theory of Forms, elegantly summed up by James Joyce as ‘Horseness is the whatness of allhorse,’ and the idea of the archetype as related to stories of war,” he says. “It occurred to me, as it has to many, many people before me, that we had seen the same types and tropes so many times before, and that we were telling each other the same stories over and over. And if that was the case, what were the stories actually about? I was inspired by the narrative sweep of excellent authors – Martin, Abercrombie, Rothfuss, Hobb, Canavan and many others.”
Another vital part in his writing process, he states, was his “general cultural heritage,” as he was born in Iceland. “I spent the first three decades of my life in the Nordic countries, only leaving to seek fame and fortune abroad. The Sagas and the people they begat have informed my whole life. Gautrek’s Saga was also a big influence, specifically the idea of man as a plaything of the Gods. Add that to the religiously informed realpolitik of Olav Tryggvason and the characters, setting and motives start to line up.” He continues: “In my foray into the world of storytelling, I have written something that is, depending on how you read it, a narrative deconstruction of the warrior myth, a philosophical treatise on the nature, effect and collateral damage of mythology, a historical fiction/fantasy genre-bender, or an action book with Vikings in it.”
Similarly, the background for Allison Pataki’s debut novel clearly reflects her own heritage. The Traitor’s Wife (Howard, 2014), which has featured on the New York Times bestseller list, was inspired by her hometown. “Two years ago, while walking my dogs in upstate New York, I came across a faded historical marker,” she says. “Always up for an impromptu history lesson, I paused to read about the trail, known as ‘Arnold’s Flight.’ This was the same trail traversed by General Benedict Arnold, centuries earlier, when he fled from George Washington to the British warship, HMS Vulture.
“On the historical marker next to Benedict Arnold was the portrait of Major John André, the British spy with whom the American traitor conspired. There was also a third portrait: a beautiful young woman beside Benedict Arnold. Peggy Shippen Arnold was described as a devoted wife, loving mother, and popular socialite who, with suspected fealty to the English crown, might have incited Benedict Arnold to his infamous treachery.
“Most curious of all – the portrait of this beautiful young woman was drawn by none other than Major John André.
“I could not stop thinking: who exactly was Peggy Shippen Arnold? What was her relationship to John André? How had she felt about these events that unraveled around her? What role had she played in this mesmeric plot? I could not wait to dig deeper into these historical questions. As I did, I uncovered a tale and a cast of characters that proved truly Shakespearean in its drama. Peggy Arnold is a confounding character – charming yet dangerous, loyal yet duplicitous, cunning yet reckless.
“Writing this novel was an adventure that allowed me to investigate the story of America’s heroes and traitors; moments of triumph and moments of near disaster; stories of love and stories of lust. As I traveled from Philadelphia to West Point, from libraries into the colonial exhibits of museums, retracing the steps of one of history’s most salacious would-be power couples, I uncovered what I had always known to be true: real life is even more interesting than fiction.”
P.S. Duffy’s The Cartographer of No Man’s Land (Liveright, 2013) also has war and its consequences woven into its fabric. Duffy spent her childhood in Baltimore, Maryland and summers sailing in Nova Scotia, and has always considered that writing was a part of her. She says, “I grew up in a family of animated storytellers. A bad day turned good if you could make it into a funny story. My written stories, however, were often tragic, much to my family’s dismay.
“Although my path back to fiction took time, writing has also always been part of my work. I majored in history and while waiting to get into law school, and worked at a hospital identifying the John and Jane Does who came in through the emergency room. Many had head wounds or neurologic disease and could not speak intelligibly. I found what I really wanted to do was help them tell their stories. I went on to have a 25-year research and clinical career in neurologically based communication disorders, after which I began writing in the neurosciences for Mayo Clinic. Only then did I consider writing fiction once again.
“I set the story in Nova Scotia because when I first encountered the beautiful Mahone Bay at age ten, I felt I’d been there before and would one day write about it. I wanted to explore the broken relationship between a father and son, a wound that stemmed from a war experience the father could neither explain nor express. After writing 250 pages of a pretty terrible novel, I realized that to understand the father, I had to go through the war myself, and took up the war research in earnest. The deeper I went, the darker the terrain became. I knew my only way out was through my characters. As strange as it sounds, they were right there with me in the war, their intimate acts of humanity my saving grace. That’s when the book became The Cartographer of No Man’s Land – at its heart about the redemptive power of connection to ourselves and each other and the hope of forgiveness, which is both a sacrifice of “self” and its ultimate expansion.
“Why fathers and sons? That is something beyond my knowing. The prologue came to me in full quite some time before I started the book. I just wrote it down. And there it was, a boy and his father in a boat, informing the rest of the story, waiting for me to see it and fill in.”
For Duffy it was discovering Mahone Bay that sparked her imagination, but for Phyllis T. Smith it was “a classical civilization course in college” that kindled her interest and enticed her to write I Am Livia (Lake Union, 2014). Since then, she has “felt the pull of ancient Rome” and has been “drawn to the poetry, the art, the Roman way of looking at the world which can seem almost contemporary but is profoundly different,” she says. “My goal as a writer is to bring that world to life.”
She continues: “Livia appealed to me because she managed to become extraordinarily powerful in a society in which women were pretty much supposed to be chattel. She also had an intriguing personal life. Before she was the wife of Rome’s first emperor, she was a teenaged girl mired in an arranged marriage. Then she crossed paths with Julius Caesar’s heir, who also was married at the time, and they discovered they were made for each other. I found it interesting to imagine how she navigated those waters – because navigate them she did. The core of I Am Livia is her relationship with that extremely complex being, Caesar Augustus. There’s a story about Augustus telling other men he could boss Livia around. They were amused because they all knew he was lying. I loved the idea of exploring the marriage of Rome’s ultimate power couple.
“At first I hesitated to write about Livia because she usually has been portrayed as evil. Who can forget Siân Phillips’ spellbinding performance as Livia in the I, Claudius miniseries? Cuddling up with a psychopathic protagonist for as long as it takes to write a novel would not be my cup of tea. But in the last few decades historians have argued that Livia got a bad rap. She actually was a force for peace, promoting reconciliation in the wake of civil war. My research leads me to believe she was vilified because she was a woman who broke the mould.
“I became motivated to do Livia historical justice. My aim in the novel was to show her not as a monster or a saint but a living, breathing human being. It has been a special pleasure to write in her first-person voice and look at the Roman world through Livia’s eyes.”
It is through the eyes of our four featured novelists that we are able to explore dark themes and to see beyond the veil of mere historical facts.
About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook would love for you to tell her about any thrilling debut novelists you uncover. Please email or tweet (twitter.com/MyfanwyCook).
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 68, May 2014