New Voices: Shimon Avish, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Patricia Hudson, and Michelle Wright
BY MYFANWY COOK
Debut historical novelists Shimon Avish, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Patricia Hudson, and Michelle Wright share the background to the stories that captured their hearts and imaginations.
Kristy Woodson Harvey believes: “Sometimes you find a great story. And sometimes a great story finds you. I didn’t mean to cross over into the world of historical fiction. Not really. Had it not been for ‘the storm of the century’ heading toward my coastal town of Beaufort, North Carolina, my new novel, The Wedding Veil (Gallery, 2022), might not exist.”
However, in 2018, her family evacuated to Asheville. “I had visited Biltmore many times before, but my husband and I thought it was the perfect time to introduce our then six-year-old son to one of our state’s greatest treasures. On that trip, I was so intrigued by Edith Vanderbilt. I started wondering: How did she save the largest home in America after her husband’s untimely death in 1914? And, maybe even more important, why?”
Then, when she got home, “I read everything I could get my hands on about Edith and her eccentric daughter Cornelia and was eager for a fictionalized account of their lives, which I couldn’t find,” she relates. “Someone should write a book about them, I remember saying.”
The following year, she continues, “I was the matron of honor in my cousin’s wedding, and what was particularly special was that she was wearing my wedding veil. My sister-in-law had passed the stunning heirloom mantilla, which was a special part of her family history, down to me. And I mused how this veil connected us to all the other women who had worn it on one of the most special days of their lives. I realized quickly that it wasn’t just a musing; it was a novel.”
Woodson Harvey “pitched the idea for The Wedding Veil” and her agent loved it, but suggested that she write about a real historical wedding veil.
The result was that: “Up late one night, pondering that idea, I did a quick Google search: ‘Edith Dresser Vanderbilt wedding veil.’ Up popped a story about an heirloom veil made of Edith’s grandmother’s lace that was worn by Edith’s mother, her three sisters, herself, and her daughter Cornelia—and then it disappeared.”
Woodson Harvey, a New York Times bestselling author, hadn’t intended to write a historical novel about the Vanderbilt family. “I didn’t mean to write this book, but I couldn’t deny that this story had, for whatever reason, found me. I’m proud of this novel, my first foray into a new genre. I love the idea that through historical fiction—just like through our cherished heirlooms—the stories of the past live on.”
Inspiration comes from many different experiences and sources. Michelle Wright’s Small Acts of Defiance (William Morrow, 2022) is a WWII story of resistance and fortitude that started with “a lovely man called Mr Stern.” The author’s mother had worked for him for twenty years. “One day when I was six, I saw something on his forearm that intrigued me. It was a tattooed number. When I asked him about it, he sat me down and simply and carefully explained Nazism, concentration camps and the Holocaust. Looking back, I believe this is where Small Acts of Defiance was born.”
When Wright was 21, she left Australia for Paris. “I ended up living there for twelve years. In that time, I developed a deep passion for France, its language, culture and history. One day, I found an old lease document from 1941 for an apartment belonging to a Jewish family. They had been deported, probably after being denounced, their belongings removed, and the apartment allocated to an ‘Aryan’ French family. This was the starting point for my idea for the novel.”
This led Wright to want to “explore how Parisians had reacted to what had gone on under the Nazi occupation,” she continues. “While there were many stories about the Resistance, there was much less written about those who had collaborated with the Germans. I also knew that many French people had gone about their daily lives, deciding every day how to react to the terrible events they saw around them and choosing what actions, if any, they would take. I wanted to examine what would happen if an ordinary person, a young French-Australian woman who sees herself as an outsider, found herself living through this period in history. What choices would she make? How would her values be shaped and challenged? How far would she go to stand up to injustice and oppression?”
Wright’s character Lucie was inspired in part by her “own experience of arriving in France as a young woman, being an outsider, finding myself immersed in French society, history and politics.” Wright says. “The novel focuses on ordinary people and their small actions, with their flaws and uncertainties, rather than larger-than-life heroes. I hope this has allowed me to bear witness in a truthful way, without glorification, sensationalism, or exaggeration.”
Small actions can often have dramatic consequences, as Shimon Avish’s novel, Masada: Thou Shalt Not Kill (MarbleStone Press, 2022) illustrates, addressing whether the end ever justifies the means. Masada is a desert fortress in Israel, the final holdout against Roman occupation during the first century.
“I became very interested in the story of Masada when, as part of my military service, I was stationed in the vicinity of Masada for a year, patrolling the nearby Jordanian border,” he says. “My lieutenant would often have us climb the Snake Path of Masada after our dawn patrol, which I hated at the time, but now appreciate. Something about the physicality of climbing to the top of Masada and realizing those same rebels climbed it almost two thousand years ago ignited in me a desire to learn more about those people and tell their story.”
The story of Masada is about how a group of 900 Jewish resisters held out against the Romans and the drastic action they took rather than concede to them. For Avish, “the historical story of Masada stretched credulity for me, as a former soldier myself. So, I sought out other, more credible, explanations. I also wondered what these rebels did on top of this extremely isolated plateau for seven years and how they survived. I realized they must have been bored much of the time and spent the rest of their time struggling to survive.”
Avish realized: “These factors can contribute to unrest, and I imagined that their society must have eventually split into factions, which I incorporated into the story. One faction comprised the original Sicarii assassins from Jerusalem, who frequently resorted to violence to solve their problems. Another faction was the less militarized refugees from Jerusalem who arrived later.”
Avish started out writing a book about Masada, but now has plans for a series on significant events in Jewish history, because “These are the stories I like to read, having grown up in Israel, and having walked through two-thousand-year-old alleys in Jerusalem. I have already started my next novel, which is about the Roman siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.”
Patricia Hudson, who has been a freelance writer for over 30 years and a contributing editor for Americana magazine writing about historic preservation, folk art, and travel destinations for history lovers, has encapsulated her love of American history into her novel Traces (University Press of Kentucky/Fireside Industries, 2022).
When she opens “a history book,” Hudson explains, “I hear women’s voices. They whisper to me from the footnotes, and I picture them clinging grimly to the margins. While men dominate the pages of most of America’s written history, more often than not there’s a neglected woman’s story hovering between the lines, and those are the stories that interest me the most.”
As a consequence, Traces, she says, “is a retelling of the Daniel Boone saga through the eyes of Boone’s wife, Rebecca, and her two oldest daughters, Susannah and Jemima. Daniel became a mythic figure during his lifetime, but his fame fueled backwoods gossip that bedeviled the Boone women throughout their lives, most notably the widespread suspicion that one of Rebecca’s children was fathered by Daniel’s younger brother.”
Hudson was infuriated by the fact that “the stories handed down about Daniel portray him as larger than life, while the story that’s most often repeated about Rebecca depicts her as an unfaithful wife. But was she? And even if she was, surely she had her reasons, given that Daniel was absent from the family for months, or even years, at a time.”
Having honed her research skills during her years as a university reference librarian, she felt “right at home scrolling through reel after reel of 18th– and 19th-century documents, preserved on microfilm, with the goal of figuring out when the unflattering stories about Rebecca and her girls had first surfaced,” Hudson relates. “Eventually I realized—whether the stories were true or not—the Boone women had lived beneath their shadow most of their lives, and that was the story I wanted to tell.”
Through her investigation into their lives, Hudson discovered that “although Rebecca and her daughters lived at a time when women had few rights, my research showed me that they were undeniably resourceful, and often exhibited bravery that rivaled the men they’d accompanied into the wilderness.”
By exploring the origins of the Boone rumours, Hudson has been able to expose “the harsh realities of life on the frontier, especially for women and girls, and give voice to three women whose lives have been reduced to little more than footnotes in the historical record.”
Avish, Woodson Harvey, Hudson and Wright have used their writing skills and combined them with their passion for the stories that fascinated them, and which needed to be voiced and shared.
About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is an Associate University Fellow and ‘a creative enabler’. She is a prize-winning short story writer who facilitates creative writing workshops. Contact email@example.com if you have been captivated by the writing of a debut novelist you’d like to see featured.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 101 (August 2022)