Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Austin Petersen Interview

Monday, January 2, 2017

New Year, New Goals and a Video on Burr

In 2017, my goal is to refrain from writing new books, but to spend more time promoting the books I have already written or published. I also plan to support and promote the work of other writers, dead or alive, whose contributions I value.

With that in mind, I would like to share this video from the year 2000 of  Roger G. Kennedy talking about his book  Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character.

The video takes an hour to watch, and I hope you will set aside that time to watch it. For me, highlights from Kennedy's talk include his mention of the following points:

  • at the time when Burr was successfully campaigning as an abolitionist, free blacks and women who owned property could vote in the state where Burr was soliciting their vote.
  • when Burr suggested to Jefferson that women should be allowed to hold high office, Jefferson wrote back that this was something for which neither the public nor he himself were prepared.
  • while Burr was promiscuous and insolvent -- vices he shared with Hamilton and Jefferson -- he was never mean or cruel to anyone. 
  • Hamilton projected onto Burr all his own issues, and he used Burr as a means to commit suicide.
  • Burr was a war hero as soon as the war began and preferred to serve in active combat than on George Washington's staff -- for which Washington never forgave him.
  • Thomas Jefferson personally indicted Aaron Burr of treason. There was no grand jury. There was no inquiry or investigation. It was the one and only presidential indictment in American history.
  • Burr was tried for treason three times, and all three juries acquitted him. One of those juries also indicted Jefferson for even bringing such baseless charges against Burr.
  • People remember the charges leveled at Burr more than they remember the outcome of the cases brought against him
  • The second historian was a revisionist. Any true historian looks for the truth, rather than repeating what someone else has written about the past.
Roger G. Kennedy was a great and engaging speaker, as well as a persuasive and scholarly writer. He died in 2011. When asked in the year  2000 what contemporary politician reminded him of Burr, he said "Adlai Stevenson." This rather startled me. For one thing, I don't even think of Adlai Stevenson as contemporary. For another, the man was a progressive Democrat  -- not my cup of tea. But Roger Kennedy was on Dwight D. Eisenhauer's campaign staff, so Stevenson was a contemporary of his. And Kennedy also worked for Bill Clinton, so he seems to have been quite versatile, ideologically speaking.

Realizing that I am well out of my depth in evaluating Kennedy's life and politics, I nevertheless submit that he has made a meaningful contribution to Aaron Burr scholarship. For this I commend him. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Internet is like Quicksand

I'm a big believer in Immortality. No, not the kind where you go to heaven or Valhalla or Nirvana. I mean the kind where your works and your name outlive your body. I even believed for a while that the internet would help me get there. But every day now, with reminders from Facebook of things that I posted a year, three years or five years ago, I am forced to face my own mortality and the mortality of others on the web. Links that I posted lead to dead ends. Articles that I edited with care thinking they would be there for people to read long after I am gone, are full of holes where I linked to images instead of copying them into my own site. The internet is like quicksand!

Today, I was reminded by Facebook of an article about Mary Dolan that I published four years ago and then shared on social media three years ago. The images had all disappeared! Why? Because respecting the work that another person put into copying pages from Marie Dolan's passport onto the web, I linked to that site for the images, rather than copying them outright. Now that site is no longer there, and the only image I was able to save was the one I had copied onto Pinterest.

Mary Dolan's passport

Why? What ever happened to that thing that they told us on Hubpages: that we would get residual income forever off the work we did today? Was that all a scam?

I look at my books on Amazon, and whereas they were supposed to be just like any other books, now they are showing a delay of four days to order them. What will happen when Amazon goes bankrupt someday in the not so near future, after I am dead? Can I seriously expect that my books will not be permanently out of print?

By all means trust the internet for the short term, but in the long run, you want to have a hard copy of everything. Hardcopies outlive the publishers and the civilizations that spawned them. The internet is way too flimsy to trust our immortality to.

While my new year's resolution is to write and publish less and publicize more, I do plan to publish more of my articles and other minor contributions, so there is a hardcopy to refer to in the future, even as the internet fails us. If you want immortality, you do the same!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Ratio of Reviews to Books

My new year's resolution when it comes to publishing is to improve my reviews-to-books-published ratio. This means writing and publishing fewer books and expending more time and energy in getting people to review the books that are already out there,

I am actually thrilled with the reviews I did get this year, so I compiled them into a video and am sharing it here.

"You must be really disciplined," one friend told me, "to keep writing so many books year after year." No, actually it's a lack of self-discipline that makes something like that happen. It's unbridled passion that compels a person to start writing one book in the middle of writing another one. The two Theodosia and the Pirates books happened to me when I had not even finished writing the second half of Our Lady of Kaifeng. How embarrassing!

As an author,  you want to have many more readers than books to your credit, and I think that requires discipline. So in the future I will write less and work harder to recruit readers for the books I have already written.

Why just a few moments ago, I put this New Year's resolution to work when the dogs made a commotion and Bow alerted me to the fact that a car had pulled into my driveway. It was two older Jehovah's witnesses, a man and a woman, and they were lugging Bibles and pamphlets as they walked up to the door.

Lickety-split I went and fetched my own books. Three of them were easiest to get hold of: Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way, Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain, and Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain. I've written other books, of course. Those were just the ones that came readily to hand.

"Merry Christmas," I greeted the white haired man and woman opening wide the door, before they even had a chance to knock. "I see you have a lot of information to share with me," I said, eyeing their literature. "But I have a lot of information to share with you, too. I have written these books, and I want to give them to you as a Christmas present."

The man glanced down at the volumes I was proffering. The picture of Theodosia and Jean on board ship did not seem to appeal to him on the cover of the top book. "I don't think I want them right now," he said with a look of displeasure, as if I were offering him something not quite kosher.

"Oh." There was a very brief silence when I considered telling him that I did not want his literature, either, But I decided that would not be polite. So then I just said: "Well, then you have a merry Christmas, anyway." And they said merry Christmas, too, in a half-hearted way, and turned and walked back to their car, dejected.

In terms of handling solicitors, I think that went rather well. But as a seller of books, I have a long, long way to go. Like any other gospel, you just can't give it away!

The books I offered the Jehovah's Witnesses

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Role of Humor and Allusion in Literature

During the Thanksgiving Holiday Season, the Gilmore Girls special came out on Netflix: A Year in the Life. My daughter and I had been looking forward to it for quite some time.

"Do you like that show? How can anybody like it? It's so stupid!" That's what somebody we talked to said to us, as we went off to watch the Gilmore miniseries. That person was not speaking out of ignorance or spitefulness. Having watched the show and parts of it several times, this was a considered opinion for this person. But not for us.

Dealing with different tastes in literature is daunting. I remember one time, I was hurt about the poor reception of one of my own books, and after having ranted about it in private to someone I trusted, I was stunned to hear back: "Well, what is so great about your writing?" There was nothing at all that I could answer to that. The person had read my writing. If what was so great about it did not move them, then nothing I could possibly say in its defense ever could.

It's like responding to a joke. If you don't laugh, then it's not funny --  to you. But it may be hysterically funny to somebody else. It's subjective. And yet it also isn't. The joke has a punchline, and if you understand the context, then it will make you laugh. And if you don't laugh, then you don't understand the context.

So every time we judge a piece of literature as lacking, our judgment is valid, but we are also subjecting ourselves to the judgment of someone else, who will find us lacking for not getting it. Literature is very, very personal.

Now most people will just try to gloss over all that and say: "Well, it's just a matter of taste. We don't argue over taste." But others do feel the urge to argue, because when somebody rejects something you like -- maybe even love -- then it feels as if they are rejecting you.

Did we like the Gilmore Girls miniseries? Yes, but not every part of it equally well. And that, too, has to do with context. You see, Gilmore Girls is full of literary references and esoteric allusions, and to the extent that you are not in on the joke, you won't get it.

We loved the first two episodes and felt they were just as good as the original. And then we kind of got bogged down in the musical about Stars Hollow that went on and on and didn't seem to be part of the plot.  And I like musicals, mind you.

Once I realized, on a second viewing of the miniseries, that this was Sutton Foster in the lead, and that she is a Lorelai stand-in on Bunheads, and that there are a number of in-jokes in the musical numbers, all was well. I forgave the Sherman-Palladinos for the diversion. I got it.

The truth is that there have always been some allusions and some jokes on Gilmore Girls that I did not quite get, and even if I did get them, it was not on the first viewing. But I am the kind of reader and the kind of viewer who likes to be challenged, so I never resented that. It did not  make me feel stupid that I didn't understand everything on the first try. It was challenging, not annoying.

I think that is the difference between an avid reader and those who insist on always reading something at their "reading level", intended for people just like themselves. I started reading English before I could properly speak English. I had to tolerate a lot of vocabulary I had never heard before even in my basic primer. I am not the sort of person who looks up every word she does not understand. I rely heavily on context for disambiguation. But there are some modern Gilmore fans who Google everything right in the middle of watching the show. How weird is that?

But isn't it "self-indulgent" to put in jokes that only some people and not others will get? Aren't you some kind of elitist twat if you do that? And aren't you doomed to failure in the marketplace if you don't play to the lowest common denominator. Or alternatively, to a very well-defined and established niche?

Not really. Gilmore Girls is literature. Like all literature, it does have a plot, and a very good one. But the plot is character driven. And also, it's not just the story. It's the way the story is told that has us coming back for more. When I listen to Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel deliver lines written by Amy Sherman-Palladino, it's like reading those words. The words matter. The writing matters. And I know for a fact  they are not allowed to ad-lib. The words, arranged in precisely that order, are the product. And it sells!

Before Gilmore Girls, there was no niche on TV  for word-based comedy with a dramatic flare. This is totally different from situation comedy, and equally different from most dramedies. And while the idea about a mother-daughter pair who really like each other and are best friends is also novel, in the hands of other writers it would not work. This show is really about the writing, and if you are not an avid reader at heart, you won't like it.

By the same token, I am the sort of person who likes to have conversations like that. People will tell you that they hate it when other people talk like a book. Everybody should be colloquial and accessible. Gilmore Girls plays at being colloquial in the delivery of the lines, but they are actually literature. It's written English passing for conversation. I love that! That's why Gilmore Girls for me is a fantasy come true. The fantasy is not just about a mother and daughter who like each other -- a much bigger deal than loving one another, by the way. The fantasy is not just about a safe, colorful, beautiful town full of eccentrics. The fantasy is that it might be possible to meet people who talk like a book. That it might even be cool, instead of just awkward! I want to live in a town where every single person is like a character in a book! And they're all happy, deep down inside, even when they are miserable!

So, I hope that explains why I like Gilmore Girls to all my friends and family who think the show is stupid. But oddly enough, this epiphany about Gilmore Girls came at a time when some of the reviewers of my books mentioned something rarely mentioned before: my writing -- at least some of it -- is funny. Shocker, isn't it?

"But your books aren't funny, are they?" Someone who knows me and has read my books asked me that. Well, uh, yeah, but after years of feeling I was cracking jokes that only I could understand, it's nice to be validated.

It's like the old friend who once said: "But there's no sex in your books, right?" There is in some of them. There's not in others. You don't really know me, as a writer or a person, if you judge by just one book. But all my books are a little funny, if you know how to read them. It's not funny as in slapstick ha ha. It's more subtle than that. Most reviewers don't focus on the comedy, but they note it is there:

In fact, part of the comedy and tension between Theodosia and Laffite lies in her trying to dissuade him from the rosy view he has of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. (from Joe Eldred's Libertybuzz review.)
The comedy in my writing comes from conflicting world views, which is also the source of most of the comedy and tension in my life. That's why I like Gilmore Girls. And yeah, I know Amy Sherman-Palladino is a liberal. Still, it does not matter. It might as well be a libertarian who wrote about Prohibition in Stars Hollow. Taylor Doose is complaining about not being able to increase the tax base in the town. People at the town meeting tell him he could get a lot more taxes if he made it legal for bars to open in Stars Hollow. He adamantly refuses. Then ditzy Babette says: "Why don't you just tax the secret bar?" "What??" he asks. Then everybody else turns around and shushes her.

There follow several scenes in the secret bar that has to be dismantled every time Taylor passes by.

"Why do they have a secret bar?" my daughter asks.

"Because Taylor doesn't let them have a bar, but that never keeps people from having bars. It just drives them underground." And then I explain how the good thing about black markets is that they cannot be taxed.

Of course, in Stars Hollow, the government isn't scary. It's just funny. I wish real life could be like that!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Neal Auction Company Cites Historia Obscura as a Reference

Historia Obscura is my site, although I am not myself a historian.  One of my star authors is Pam Keyes, who is an expert on Jean Laffite. Today I found out that Neal Auction Company cited one of Pam Keyes' articles published on Historia Obscura as a reference in one of its auction catalogues.

Page 68 of Neal Auction Catalog references Chew article
In the Neal Company catalog for an auction in New Orleans to be held this month, there is a painting by Salazar of Daniel William Coxe, a merchant under whom Beverly Chew apprenticed, according to the article by Pam Keyes cited by the auction house in their catalog

It is very gratifying to see experts in valuable historical portraits citing articles published on Historia Obscura.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Critical Reception of Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain

A new piece by Joe Eldred in LibertyBuzz has prompted me to examine the critical reception of the first Theodosia and the Pirates novel over the years. The LibertyBuzz review is very detailed, but it can be summed up succinctly  with these lines:

But please keep in mind that, while the novel is undoubtedly a tour-de-force of Rothbardian political theory, it does not seem like it, because the lessons are delicately embedded within the narrative.
The story remains primarily that of the internal struggles of a woman of the Early Republic.
What's really exciting about this new review is that it acknowledges the libertarian perspective of the novel, while also making note of the other elements of the plot and theme, and it shows how integrated all those thing are into a seamless whole.

Other reviews have focused on different aspects of the novel. For instance, the Eye on Life piece by Jerilee Wei focused on the speculative historical fiction aspects of the story. Is it all right to invent an extramarital romance for a person who disappeared two hundred or more years ago, leaving no trace? Or is this exploitation of the memory of a departed human being? The review compares what happened when a myth was created for George Washington out of a well-intentioned work of fiction for children:

This tendency isn't anything new.  Authors have capitalized on historical characters for generations, leading to widely accepted myths about famous people doing things that never happened in real life.  A prime example of this would be the myth of George Washington as a boy, chopping down a cherry tree.  That story first circulated as a fictional children's story.  Then, it took on a life of its own 1800, in a non-fiction biography by Mason Locke, who seized upon it as a way of making our first president as a more likeable character.  The fiction was good enough to become a myth, soon to be taught to generations of American children -- and the result was somewhere along the line everyone forgot the difference between fiction and biography.

As long as we keep fact and fiction separate, there should be no problem distinguishing the two. My book has a whole section in the back dedicated to separating the made-up parts from the history. There is also a bibliography for those who want to read non-fiction on the subject.

Leslie Fish focused mostly on the politics and class issues in the review on her blog:

Equally fascinating are the political intrigues between the freewheeling settlers of the gulf coast and the woefully inept officials of the new American republic.  The story is studded with examples of actual letters from the historical characters, giving unique insights into the volatile society of early America with its shifting relationships between the sexes, the races, and the influences of the neighboring European empires.  And of course, this being a historical Romance, there's plenty of good rampant sex. 
For some reviewers, such as the one at the Historical Novel Society in the UK, the main drawback of the book is its cover:

My main criticism is the cover which is simplistic in style, giving the initial impression of a young adult book (which this definitely is not!). 
Not really sure what is wrong with the cover, but here it is.
I love the illustration by Lanie Frick.

These should be enough different perspectives on the book to start out with before deciding whether it is for you. Of course, once you get to the Amazon page to buy it, there are several more reviews to choose from.