Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Interview with Author Madeleine Robins who talks about her new historical release Sold For Endless Rue––"It is, essentially, a retelling of "Rapunzel" that grew out of questions that came to me when I read the book to my (then) young daughters: what does a man say to his wife when he has traded their unborn baby for a mess of vegetables?"

Sold for Endless Rue

Here is some praise for the author;
“Robins writes with rare conviction….what you are reading is a love story—about love lost and found, and the price to be paid when people ignore the human disasters in their midst.”—The New York Times Book Review on The Stone War (New York Times Notable Book)
“When Madeleine Robins wakes the stone lions in front of the New York Public Library, it is the hand of a master at work. The Stone War is American magic, superbly told.”—Maureen F. McHugh
 “A fascinating heroine...[and] equally intriguing secondary characters. Politics, deception, danger, and a bit of romance all come together beautifully in this superb debut.”—Booklist on Point of Honour

Madeleine, welcome to my blog.
Thank you for having me.

Tell us a little about your new release Sold For Endless Rue.
It is, essentially, a retelling of "Rapunzel" that grew out of questions that came to me when I read the book to my (then) young daughters: what does a man say to his wife when he has traded their unborn baby for a mess of vegetables?  What does the young wife say to him?  And why would the witch make the trade in the first place?  The novel is set in Salerno, the site of the first European medical school, and the "witch" is not a practitioner of magic, but a student of medicine.  Her motives in taking the child are wound up with her own childhood and apprenticeship, and with love and anger and a twist of fate.   Once the medica has the child, she raises her in and around the medical school, planning that the girl will become a doctor too.  But fate and love, and the girl herself, have other ideas.

The novel is set in medieval Italy.
How much historical research did you do?
Tons.  When I began roughing out the novel my idea was to set it in Italy in the Renaissance, about which I knew a little more.  And then I came upon the fact that the Scuola Medicina--the Salernitan medical school--had women studying and teaching there.  This was so far from my notion of what women could and could not do in the Middle Ages (run a keep, yes. Study medicine? No) that I had to follow that thread.  Once I had decided to move the book to Salerno and the Scuola, I had a huge amount to learn, not just about the middle ages--which is a richer and more varied period than I had realized before I started my research--but about Salerno and Italy, and the Scuola itself. Although it was a time and place very much shaped by the Church, Salerno was an incredibly rich, cosmopolitan city: mosques and synagogues co-existed with churchs and cathedrals, and the Scuola itself had scholars from the Arab world, scholars who were Jews, and women. 

When I'm researching, I want to get a good overall sense of the time and place and mindset.  But even when I start writing there will be things I suddenly find I need to know: what was the coinage of the time called? How do two Italian peasants greet each other? (They don't say "signore," which meant "lord".  This was a tough question, because even the people writing in Italian at the time didn't write about peasants....) So I do a lot of scrambling for quick answers and following information down rabbit-holes, even while I'm writing.

You write in a multitude of genres plus series and stand-alones.
Do you have a favorite to write?
Whatever I'm swept up in right now?  I started out writing Regency romances, and I seem unable to entirely step away from romance, or at least a romantic sensibility.  I love writing things that allow me to play with language--the slight formality of language in Sold For Endless Rue which is meant to suggest another time without getting forsoothly; or the pared-down Austenian voice I use in my Sarah Tolerance series. And I love science fiction--which is, in many ways, similar to historical fiction--and fantasy as well.

Do you ever mix genres in your novels?
I do.  Gleefully.  Sold for Endless Rue is an historical novel, but because it's mapped on a fairy tale it flirts with a fantastic element.  And while I would not call it a romance, there is a romantic element to it.  My Sarah Tolerance books, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner, are what you might call "hard-boiled Regencies," a marriage of Jane Austen and Dashiell Hammett, set in a slightly alternate-world version of the Regency.  When I handed the first of them to my editor I told him "I'm handing you a marketing dilemma," and I wasn't wrong.  Ten years ago I don't think readers were as open to mixed-genre as they are now.

What’s next for you?
I am working on a new Sarah Tolerance novel, which is coming slowly--I write by discovery, and generally don't have an outline until about 2/3s through the book, more to make sure I get all the stuff in that I want than as a road map.  This means that sometimes I get stuck somewhere and have to back track and try to remember where I was going in the first place.  Thank God for the revision process.
I'm also in the way-early stages of a contemporary fantasy set in San Francisco.  I tend to write about my home town, New York (when I'm not writing about London, the home town of my heart) but I've been living in San Francisco for a decade now, and it's seeping into my soul.

You are a founding member of the Book View Café.
What exactly is it and what role do you play there?
Book View Café emerged from discussions that a group of writers had in 2009 about how to use the internet to get exposure for our backlist work.  Out of this came an authors' collaborative: the work is all with sweat equity (on the theory that each of us has skills that can help out), on a shoe-string, and while the bulk of our e-books are previously published backlist, BVC has done some new anthologies, and a few of our writers are putting out entirely new books.  It's beginning to pick up momentum, which is tremendously exciting.  We have a terrific slate of members, including Vonda McIntyre, Ursula LeGuin, Judith Tarr, Jeffrey Carver, Linda Nagata, and Patricia Rice.

As for my role: I have my five Regencies for sale there.  I also blog twice a month, I'm on the Board of Directors, and I'm the Royalties Manager (which means I tot up the income, sort out whose books sold how much, and distribute the money).  The fact that this chore, which used to take an afternoon every quarter, now takes me half a week, is a good sign, I think.

You have a very eclectic career path. Do these experiences help in your writing?
Eclectic is a kind word for it: I have the sort of resume that makes strong employment counselors blanch.  But yes, many of the things I've done have helped me in my writing.  I got my degree in Theatre Studies, concentrating on stage management, which turns out to be a brilliant preparation for all kinds of organizational work.  But it also meant that I studied historical clothing design and construction, and set design, which gave me a start on researching period details.  I worked at a university school of architecture, which gave me both the opportunity to learn a little something about about how houses and public spaces were built two hundred years ago, and a vocabulary for thinking about space. I studied stage combat for several years--because who doesn't want to leap about with a rapier in her hand?--and actually worked here and there as an actor-combatant.  This was invaluable in staging fights and action sequences, because it trains you to think not only of where your body (or your viewpoint character's body) is, but where all the other characters onstage are and what they're doing.  I've edited comic books, ghost-written historical novels and psychology texts; right now I work for a company that creates craft books for kids.  There's not a single one of these jobs that hasn't taught me something I use, either in the craft of writing or as research.

What’s the strangest question or statement you ever got from a fan/reader?
It's not strange, precisely, but: When I started writing Regencies, I'd occasionally have someone ask me, with a sigh, "Don't you wish you lived then?"  **blink**  No.  The clothes look better than they feel to wear; no antibiotics, no painless dentistry,  decades before the introduction of antiseptic protocols; and the smells; and the profound constraints of class and race and gender, and...  I suspect that anyone who thinks it would be romantic to live in the English Regency imagines that she would have been the Duke's daughter; me, I've always suspected I would have been the goose girl, with no teeth and smallpox scars, dying young.

Take us through a normal day in the life of Madeleine Robins.
In the olden days--for about fifteen years--I was a freelancer, which meant a normal day was getting up, getting my kids to school, and going to Starbucks and writing for 3-4 hours, then erranding, maybe going to the gym, before I retrieved the kids and we launched into the afternoon round of classes, sports, and homework struggles.  But the kids got larger and more self-sufficient, and two years ago I got a day job, and my available writing time was significantly curtailed.  However, I have an hour commute to and from my job, most days on the train, and I can get three to six pages written--long hand--on a good day.   This doesn't mean I'm doing all the interstitial work on the train--research, making plot notes, and all the diagrams and sketches and what have you that goes into the process.  That happens sometimes in the evening--if my family and my dog don't make prior claims and I'm not too fried to do anything useful.  I am not one of those phenomenally organized and disciplined writers who gets up at 4 am, or gets X-number of pages done in a day; there are some days it would be a lot easier to wax the floor or polish the dog.  The tricky thing about writing is that it's something you choose to do, and every day you have to choose to do it again.

Where can fans come to meet you in person in the near future?
I will be in Madison, Wisconsin, this Memorial Day weekend, at Wiscon, the Feminist Science Fiction convention (http://www.wiscon.info/).  I'll be reading and conversing on July 20 at SF in SF,( http://www.sfinsf.org/?page_id=135) a terrific reading-and-podcast program here in San Francisco, with Deborah Ross and Nalo Hopkinson; and I'm hoping to do a reading at Borderlands Books, also in San Francisco.  After that all my planned travel revolves around taking my 17-year-old on college visits!  And people can find me on my websites: www.madeleineerobins.com or www.sarahtolerance.com.

Madeleine, thank you for spending a little time with us today, good luck with the new novel.
Thank you!

Visit Madeleine's website here

Barnes & Noble


  1. "been the goose girl" that made me giggle. I wouldn't mind time traveling say with the Doctor to the Regency era, but live there..nope I need my air conditioning and internet! Delightful interview, thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks Kim, there are a lot of "romantic" reasons I'd want to live then but not enough, like you, to give up all my creature comforts.
    thanks for the visit