Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Katherine Neville, Saint Namphaise, and Chain Mail

Katherine Neville speaking at Readers Books in Sonoma, California.


Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting one of my favorite authors, Katherine Neville. Her debut novel The Eight has the distinction of being the first hardcover book published by Ballantine Books twenty years ago.


Ballantine wanted something special to have that honor and The Eight certainly fulfilled their wildest aspirations as it has been translated into thirty six languages and is a reliable back-list title. It is a book that was difficult to pigeonhole into a single genre when it appeared on the literary scene in 1988 and to this day still flummoxes people wanting to slap a convenient label on its cover.

The Eight is a complex novel set in two different parallel time frames; one is during the French Revolution and the other in the 1970s in New York and Algeria. The extensive cast of characters - some historical figures and some purely fictional - are obsessed by a mythical chess set that once belonged to Charlemagne and is reputed to bear a secret formula for power.

Chess also serves as a powerful metaphor to describe the intricate moves and counter-moves in the plot.



The long awaited sequel The Fire has a similar structure of two parallel plot threads set in different times. The contemporary time frame is at the beginning of the Iraq War and set in Colorado and Washington, D.C. and the historical time frame is set at the brink of the Greek war of independence and set in Asia, Europe and Africa.

Once again Neville has created a novel filled with intrigue, puzzles, mystery and betrayal.

Here's the book trailer:



Neville regaled us with discussing her books as well as her time spent as an employee of Bank of American in San Francisco and lived in nearby Sausalito. She fantasized about using their computer system to steal billions of dollars from her employer and did that through fiction. There were several retired BofA employees in the audience who had shared some stories with her before her talk.

I was interested to know how much chess she played since both novels are drenched in chess as well as literary alchemy. She said that she learned to play chess when she was eighteen and admitted that she gets "chess blindness." That strategic weakness wound up appearing in her sequel as her heroine became so wrapped up in a game that she did not realize she had beaten her opponent.

Neville then discussed how she has heard from many chess grandmasters including Susan Polgar the first woman to break the grandmaster gender barrier. After Katherine had turned in her manuscript, she read Polgar's memoir and wanted to change one small detail of changing the final move in a chess game. Instead of something good, she wanted the perfect move that would echo a move Polgar made in order to earn her status as grandmaster.

The bad news was that the book already had the Advanced Reader Copies printed. However, Katherine later read the ARC and discovered that three and a half pages were missing.

Missing.

This time they had to stop the presses to add in the accidentally excluded three and a half pages. And since they were doing that...she was able to get them to change the text to reflect her preferred chess move.

She said they had to include an addendum to the reviewers who received the ARCs so that they had the missing pages.

At least the printers did not spell her name wrong on the spine of the book. A few months ago Kristin Nelson had a post on her blog written anonymously by an editor that realized after a book was printed and sitting on the bookshelf in her office that an author's name was misspelled.

Oops.

That mistake brought about the pulping of 40,000 paperbacks, but thankfully they had not been shipped to any stores when the error was discovered.

Kristen Nelson had also blogged about clients of hers who discovered by checking early copies of that an uncorrected proof copy had mistakenly had gone to print and another client discovered an editorial question embedded in page 110 of the ARC that had somehow not been deleted.

Double yikes.

The good thing to take away from those stories was that the publishers were willing to make things right.

Anyway, back to discussing the books signing. It was my pleasure to meet Katherine and schmooze with her about writing, historical fiction and Charlemagne.




Her website has been retooled and it is filled with lovely extras such as podcasts where she discusses various aspects of the books and research methods. There is also a contest to win signed first editions of The Eight and The Fire. You can also check out her events schedule to see if she will be coming to a bookstore near you.

Unfortunately it only lists those signings in the United States at this time. She mentioned she will be traveling to Spain where The Eight has been listed as one its top ten books of all times - and that includes books by Cervantes!

One thing that she mentioned in her talk (and is also in the podcast about research) is how she would discover serendipitous facts that influenced her writing. These things happened so frequently that she came to expect them.

My friend Molly Dwyer spoke about this same phenomenon at the most recent meeting of my writers club.

Rob Koslowsky's write up of Molly's talk included this:

One technique (Molly) employs is to find a historical legend to resolve problems in developing the narrative and “make the writing work.” Solutions to problems will appear as you write, especially if you believe in meaningful coincidence – synchronicity. “Allow coincidences to inform your writing,” she insists, and “as you open up your writing, an upwelling of the collective consciousness occurs.” She gave an example of researching Sainte Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, and discovering that January 3rd is her feast day and that is the date of her lead character's death. It was a significance she could not plan, but worked perfectly for her story's needs.

In fact, that kind of synchronicity is how I discovered Saint Namphaise. There was a hermit used in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso that was not given a name. During the writing of my adaptation, I felt uncomfortable having a character on the page for so long without a name. I decided to find a name for him and went to an online Catholic directory of saints hoping to find something with some symbolic significance.

After plugging in the term "hermit" in the search function for saints I was surprised to find there were over 500 listed. I started reading them in alphabetical order and thought finding a name would only take a few minutes. That is until I realized they had brief biographies I kept reading. And reading.

Some would call it procrastination, but I could not just settle on a name without searching for the "perfect one." Then I came across the listing for Saint Namphaise.

Today is also Saint Namphaise's feast day so I am frantically trying to finish this blog post while it is still November 12th.

According to legend, this obscure saint was once a soldier serving Charlemagne before dedicating his life to serving God. I am trying my level best to rescue this saint from obscurity and would like to re-post some of my favorite pictures associated with Saint Namphaise in honor of his feast day.

First is the marker denoting the site where he once helped build a monastery.



Here is my favorite photo taken during our trip to France which shows the mystical waters of the Gouffre de Lantouy near Cajarc.


Gouffre de Lantouy

This is the first real vision we had of the abbey in ruins showing arches and more than just a pile of rocks.


I hope that others will join me in celebrating this largely forgotten hermit saint associated with Charlemagne.

And for my medievalist readers, I wanted to mention that there is a contest to win chain mail by Orbit Books to promote the release of the book The Company by K.J. Parker. The contest ends on the morning of November 24th, so enter today. Hat tip to Andrew Wheeler.

There is also a post about a successful book launch for Geri Westerson's Veil of Lies which included two men in armor from Imperial Knights of Norco, California performing a bit of swordplay. I like that kind of creative ideas for book promotions.

Lastly, I wanted to point out that this is my 100th blog post and is nearing the second anniversary of when I started this literary blog.

I know many bloggers update far more frequently than I do, but I have chosen the path of having more substance to my posts over frequency. For those interested in following my blog I hope you will take advantage of the RSS feeds to be alerted for updates.

Cheers to Saint Namphaise - my favorite obscure French saint.
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