Sunday, August 23, 2015

Emma's Shadow

Most people have never heard of "Emma's Shadow" (Danish: Skyggen af Emma), but in 1989 when it came to America, I went to see it 7 times. It totally captivated me. (Actually it was the character of the pure-hearted Swedish street cleaner who captivated me.) Thinking about it now, I believe it had a huge influence on my first novel, Transfer Day, the story of an orphan girl in the Danish West Indies who crosses paths with a German U-boat deserter. Is it a retelling of "Skyggen af Emma"? I would be proud if it was! 


Watch the Video Here:


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Why my heart still aches for an unlikely hero named Major Scobie

While the world has fallen head over heels for a violent sociopath named Grey, my heart still aches for an unlikely hero named Major Scobie.


I discovered Major Scobie as a young woman of 24 or 25 while perusing through a bookstore on an otherwise uneventful Saturday night (back in the day when one did that sort of thing). I had never heard of Graham Greene before: he didn't figure in my father's extensive collection of books that consisted mostly of Hemingway, Uris, Evelyn Waugh, and Somerset Maugham. The title caught my eye instantly: The Heart of the Matter, and the setting was one I could easily relate to: an English colony on the West African coast (Sierra Leone), which brought back memories of my childhood in the West Indies—drawn from Greene's own experience as an MI6 agent in Sierra Leone during WWII.



I took to him right away—Major Scobie. He had all the qualities that attracted me in a romantic hero: steadfastness, gentleness, masculinity, tact, and above all, stoicism. As Deputy Commissioner of police, he is passed over for promotion when the commissioner retires, yet he refuses to resign his post as he has grown to deeply love the people of Sierra Leone and can't imagine himself living elsewhere. He is dignified and middle-aged; he pays no attention to gossip and is detached from the local snobbery. His men respect him, and when a serious matter comes up, the Commissioner always turn to Scobie, whose professionalism is unquestioned. Scobie is the embodiment of masculine virtues: self-sacrifice, trustworthiness, quick to forgive—he never holds a grudge against a slight and constantly works to perfect his character vis a vis his fellow man and vis a vis G-d. You can almost picture him in his khaki police uniform sitting in his stifling hot office with the rusty handcuffs on the wall writing his police reports: a street fight here, a petty larceny there, and always the ubiquitous search for smuggled diamonds. In all that he does, from small acts of kindess to actual police investigations, Major Scobie is a quiet hero. A hero without bluster and fanfare, but a hero nonetheless. His humanity is his greatest virtue, but it will also be his greatest undoing. He's aware of the dangers of extreme emotions like love or hate in tropical Africa: "This isn't a climate for emotion. It's a climate for meanness, malice, snobbery, but anything like hate or love drives a man off his head." In the world of deceit Scobie is a novice, and when he embarks on a love affair with a young widow, the survivor of a German torpedo, his life begins to spiral downward. Pursued by a jealous MI6 agent and hounded by a Syrian diamond smuggler and his own capricious wife, Scobie nevertheless pursues the path of virtue, if not according to the doctrines of his faith, at least the path that poses the least pain to the women he loves and has sworn to protect. Unlike Grey who uses women as objects and then throws them away, Scobie is willing to sacrifice his life, indeed his eternity for the love of a woman. Ultimately, his greatest act of heroism is his willingness to sacrifice everything for the love of G-d.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Jonathan Pollard: the story behind the story and what it means for the future of the Middle East

This article was written in February of 2007. It has never been published until now.

In 1984, Israeli Intelligence (with the aid of a compliant CIA analyst named Jonathan Pollard now serving a life sentence) gained access to top-secret CIA satellite spy photos which showed the Chinese parading some 'hot' Chinese Ballistic Missiles in front of a Saudi audience at a top-secret missile complex. Apparently, Saudi King Fahd had authorized a $20 Billion payday for delivery of said missiles and the construction of a launching site deep in the Arabian desert that no onenot the Americans, and certainly not the Israeliswas ever supposed to find out about.  Enter Jonathan Pollard.*

Jonathan Pollard in a photo published by the Washington Post.

The Saudis were going for a nuclear payload that of course threatened to upset the entire balance of power in the Middle East.  Once the Israelis found out what was going on, they sent a stern warning to King Fahd in the form of a "special delivery" of live pigs from C-130's right onto the Saudi runway. Of course this message infuriated and humiliated King Fahd, but he got the message loud and clear:  "You can buy all the missiles you want, but the Israelis own the sky. We can penetrate your airspace, we can destroy your entire country. Don't get any ideas."


There is an old Arab saying, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."  The Saudi royals fear for their safety and perpetuity in the new climate of Islamo-Fascism and "Bin Laden Worship," especially that of the Shia Faction being exported from Iran and the imminent readiness of Iran's own nuclear weapons program.  There are at least 13 Iranian nuclear facilities, some in underground bunkers.  The key target according to Military Sources (obtained from the Southern Command Website) is the Natanz Nuclear Facility, some 200 miles south of Tehran that houses at least one centrifuge cascade that is thought to be where nuclear fuel for weapons is being developed.  There is also the Bushehr nuclear reactor on the Persian Gulf and any bombing at this site could prove deadly for the scores of Russian Contractors working there.  Military Sources also predict that Israel would launch an attack during daylight hours in order to expedite all the technicians and scientists working there.**


Let's face it, the only Air Force in that part of the world with the experience, determination and capability of pulling off a job of this caliber belongs to Israel. The Saudis learned their lesson about who owns the sky. But there is one major complication: a refueling base is of utmost necessity, but where? The Saudis will have to realize that their peninsula is the only practical strategic choice.  The question that remains is, Is the imminent threat of a hostile, nuclear Iran catalyst enough for a quiet, secret alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia? Can past humiliations such as the Pollard Affair  be 'swept under the carpet'?   Can the Saudi Monarch, King Abdullah, finally acquiesce to releasing him as a show of good faith? Okay, so this is a little far-fetched, but in the course of Israeli-Saudi affairs, stranger things have occurred. In the 1990's, just before the start of the Gulf War, the Saudis gave $15 million as a down payment to members of the Russian mafia for the purchase of $75 million worth of red mercury, which, the Saudis believed, was a substance that could be used to make a nuclear bomb. In reality, it had no fissionable potential at all. Unbeknownst to the Saudis, the $15 million was paid to con men. It was only after the money was spent that the Saudis began to wonder if the sellers were not Russians at all but Israelis. Truth is always stranger than fiction. But I have digressed....


*For the fascinating story about how the CIA pieced together that the Chinese and the Saudis had entered into a secret missile deal please read "The Gold of Exodus: The Discovery of the True Mount Sinai" by Howard Blum.


**Although this was not the case when the Israelis bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981, which was manned mostly by Frenchmen. As I recall, they bombed it on a Sunday to minimize any loss of life.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Check out my interview with Publishers Weekly

Want to Succeed in Self-Publishing? Revise Wisely: Tips From an Indie Author


As a writer of historical fiction, indie author Sophie Schiller has always wanted to bring her “own unique brand of adventure” to life. In 2013, she self-published her first novel, Spy Island—and notes that going indie opened up a host of new opportunities.
Publishers Weekly praised her latest novel, Race to Tibet, with our reviewer saying it did “a solid job of transforming an obscure real-life Victorian expedition into a thrilling yarn.” Looking back, Schiller is happy with her self-publishing journey: “In a way, I'm glad I learned everything one step at a time. Everything that pertains to publishing your novel, from conceptualizing to creating your cover image, to articulating the back blurb, to hiring an editor, to marketing your book, can only be learned through experience. The best advice is to take it one step at a time and don't rush your book to press.”

We asked Schiller for some advice for aspiring indie authors:
Kill Your Television
“If you want to be a serious writer, throw away your TV. The life of a serious writer and a TV-watcher are incompatible.”
Revise Wisely
“Don't waste too much time editing your manuscript until the first draft is complete, [and when you’re done] use beta readers—hopefully with some knowledge about your book's subject matter—to tweak your manuscripts before the final edit and publishing.”
Do Your Research
“Start with memoirs, letters, and diaries from the era, and, to acquire a larger grasp of the period, study history books, newspaper articles, and biographies…For dialogue, I suggest watching theatrical performances, to attune your ear to the speech patterns and vocabulary of the time. The more you as the writer immerse yourself in that period, the more the material will start to flow from your subconscious. Above all, you must let go of any preconceived notions about how an individual from that era should speak, think, and act. Aim for authenticity. Let your characters speak and act in the most natural way possible for their time and place.”

Saturday, April 18, 2015

One of those "a-ha"moments...

     Today I had one of those "a-ha" moments when I saw this painting, Chez Tortoni by Edouard Manet. 
Chez Tortoni by Edouard Manet (1878-80). Cafe Tortoni earned an international reputation by its famous clientele as well as its frozen desserts.
     While I was writing Race to Tibet, I had set the first scene of the novel—an altercation between Gabriel Bonvalot and General Prejevalsky that may or may not be realin Café Tortoni, a well-known café on the Rue des Italiens in Paris. But until today I had never known about the existence of this painting, even though I had been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston numerous times, although not prior to March 18, 1990, the day it was stolen. To me, Cafe Tortoni, with its sophisticated ambiance and suave reputation, known for being the meeting place of politicians, intellectuals, scholars, dandies, and ladies of the demi-monde seemed to be the perfect setting to place two opposing characters, and how much more so now that I can see it through Manet's eyes. All I can say is, "Wow!" and pray that some day Chez Tortoni is restored to its rightful place in the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, one of Boston's great cultural treasures.
Cafe Tortoni on the Boulevard des Italiens, Paris.
Incidentally, the FBI is offering a $5 million reward for the return of Chez Tortoni.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

How an Obscure Danish Princess led me to write Race to Tibet

The idea for writing Race to Tibet came about in an unusual manner. While I was researching my first book, a historical novel set in the Danish West Indies, I came across an obscure, outspoken Danish princess whose life story gripped me. Princess Marie Valdemar was born in 1865 as Princess Marie d'Orléans, the daughter of Prince Robert, Duke of Chartres, a Grandson of King Louis-Philippe of France and a Pretender to the French throne.

Portrait study of Princess Marie of Denmark by Albert Edelfelt (1894)

Through her marriage to Prince Valdemar (the youngest son of Christian IX of Denmark), Princess Marie developed a great love of Denmark and the Danish people. In addition, she strongly opposed the sale of the Danish West Indies to the United States. Out of curiosity, I began to look into the life of Princess Marie d'Orléans, and was struck by how tragic and poignant it was, and how much it paralleled the life of Princess Diana with its tale of unrequited love and early death. Before long I decided to write a novel about her life, but after months of knocking on doors, I realized I would never be able to gain access to the Royal Danish Archives where the obscure details of her life lay locked up. Instead of giving up, I started searching for other sources. I made a list of all her relatives and searched for any diaries or memoirs they might have left behind, anything to fill in the missing gaps in her tragic life. As it turned out, the only relative of Princess Marie's who wrote an extensive number of books was her younger brother, Prince Henri d'Orléans, a notable French explorer who died at the age of thirty-three.

Prince Henri made headlines all throughout Europe for his 1897 duel with the Count of Turin Vittorio Emanuele.

During his brief life, Prince Henri earned a reputation as a ladies' man, a dilettante, and a hot-headed dueler, but he earned the Gold Medal of the French Geographical Society twice, once in 1891 for a  daring expedition to Tibet he made with the French explorer, Gabriel Bonvalot, and again in 1896 for his expedition from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Gulf of Bengal. 

By 1889, no living Westerner had been to the Potala Palace in Lhasa or met the Dalai Lama.

The more I read about Prince Henri's expedition to Tibet, and all the hardships and difficulties it entailed, the more I became enthralled with the story until I found myself studying it in great depth. Not only did I focus on the expedition, I also threw myself into the study of the Great Game, Central Asian history and geography, famous explorers, and the history of Europe's obsession with Tibet.

The French explorer Gabriel Bonvalot had connections with Russian Generals like Korolkoff  in Russian Turkestan that made him a lesser-known player in the Great Game.

Gradually, my focus changed from writing about Princess Marie's life to writing about Prince Henri d'Orléans and Gabriel Bonvalot's expedition to Tibet. To this end, I researched this famous journey both in the original French and in the English translation. But still there were many unanswered questions about what really happened to these hardy explorers on the Roof of the World. Victorian writers are known more for the details they left out than for what they chose to tell; this was an era when propriety and discretion were at their zenith. Luckily, after months and months of unrelenting searching and digging, I came upon another version of the events, this one written by Father Constant de Deken, a Belgian missionary who had accompanied the famous explorers. I had struck gold.

Rare for a European missionary of his era, Father De Deken could speak Chinese and ride and shoot like a cavalry officer.

Unusual for his generation, Father Constant de Deken was fluent in Chinese and wrote about his experiences with uncharacteristic candor, telling details that would have raised eyebrows in polite society. His input added a whole new dimension to the story, filling it with more danger and suspense, and for that I am eternally grateful. By combining both versions and adding some fictional elements of my own, the end result is this account of an historic journey into mysterious Tibet. But it only came about because of this tragic Danish princess and her sad, poignant life. And so, I owe this lovely lady all the gratitude in the world for leading me to this fascinating story. Without Princess Marie d'Orléans, Race to Tibet would not have been possible.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

I love this review from Publishers Weekly!

Race to Tibet

Sophie Schiller, Author

Fans of Jules Verne’s travel adventures will find Schiller (Transfer Day) has done a solid job of transforming an obscure real-life Victorian expedition into a thrilling yarn. A sex scandal blights the name of Prince Henri d’Orléans in 1888 Paris, and his father, the Duke of Chartres, fears that his continued misconduct will only further weaken the royalist cause. The duke’s solution is to make the prince’s inheritance contingent on his leaving France for a year to stay out of trouble, a plan that neatly coincides with explorer Gabriel Bonvalot’s desire to be the first Westerner to reach Lhasa. Gabriel lacks the funding to finance the complex and dangerous venture and agrees to take Henri along in exchange for the duke’s backing. Schiller makes the physical challenges of the trip palpable. There are occasional lapses into purple prose (“I’ve had enough of your callousness, you fiendish devil”), but for the most part Schiller succeeds in keeping readers engaged in the plot. (BookLife)