Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Historical Novelist Goes Digging in Martinique

Heatstroke, motion sickness, insect bites, and having to be escorted off a mountain by gendarmes were just a few of the privations I suffered while researching my latest novel ISLAND OF ETERNAL FIRE on the island of Martinique. To be blunt, conditions were bad—constant 100° temperatures and 99% humidity—but the results MORE than made up for the hardships. What I discovered while exploring the destroyed city of St. Pierre were pieces of the past, evidence of lives suddenly cut short by the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Pelée on May 8th, 1902: a button, shards of pottery, broken porcelain, pieces of exploded bottles, the remnants of a flower pot, a destroyed tea set. The past comes back to life in a terrifying fashion in St. Pierre, Martinique.

An old button dug up near the Rue Levassor made of natural material, either horn, ivory, bone, or possibly even wood, carved from the tagua nut which was used extensively until WWI.

As I unearthed each item I was well aware that they once belonged to an individual, and that the object played some part in that person’s life. That's the poignancy of discovering the past: you have the chance to connect with someone who lived centuries ago who died by a catastrophic act of nature. When I discovered that button or those shards of pottery, I was perhaps the first person to touch these items in over 100 years. That's sad given the fate of the people of St. Pierre. When they died they had no way of knowing people from the future would unearth their story and tell it to the world. I consider that job my mission. I went to St. Pierre in order to tell their story. 

A selfie taken in the ruins of "America's Pompeii".
Note the modern-day graffiti on the Roman-style columns are still doing the job they were designed to do, which is to provide a vertical structural element that transmits, through compression, the weight of the structure above to other structural elements below.
The graffiti says: "Madinina: Death" (Madinina is the old Carib name for Martinique.)

I call St. Pierre "the Pompeii of the Americas" because it resembles Pompeii by the cataclysmic nature in which the city was blotted off the face of the earth. Almost like an atomic bomb. The city and all its inhabitants were decimated by the release of the volcano's pyroclastic flows: the theater, the two cathedrals, the fort, the barracks, the jail, the hospital, the warehouses, the chamber of commerce, the lighthouses, the villas, the hotels, the fashionable stores, everything was reduced to rubble in the span of 5 minutes. It wasn't even a question of the citizens outrunning the lava, with the pyroclastic flows traveling at a rate of 500 mph (700 km/hr) and at temperatures of 1,830 degrees F (1000 degrees C) the people were asphyxiated immediately and incinerated within seconds. There was no chance of escape. Also called nuée ardente, a pyroclastic flow is a dense, destructive mass of very hot ash, lava fragments, and gases ejected explosively from a volcano and flowing downslope at great speed. It happened so fast, the residents of St. Pierre had no idea the end would be so violent yet so brief.

St. Pierre, Martinique before it was destroyed in a volcanic eruption.

As you meander through the ruins, only a few elements of the city's former life are still visible: a few retaining walls, spigots, iron gates, the remains of fountains and staircases.

The remains of a public fountain located on the Rue Levassor built in 1850.

An old spigot is all that remain of a fresh water fountain in the mental asylum.

The damage was extraordinary, and what is even more surprising is that the ruins have been left largely untouched since 1902. The entire town is a vast archaeological dig. While there, I visited all the major sites where the action of my novel takes place. I would pick a location and dig down only several inches to see what the earth would reveal. In every single case I unearthed something from the past. I will take you on a virtual tour of this extraordinary town that was obliterated by a volcanic explosion, yet has managed to come back from the dead.

Shards of tiles that have been buried for more than 100 years.
The remains of the city engineer's building, on the Rue Levassor
Ruins of the fort cathedral on the north side of town.
The isolation chamber in the mental asylum
The ruins of the theater, probably what would have been the orchestra pit.
Remains of the mental asylum.

Inside a destroyed warehouse in the Figuier Quarter
On the Pont Roche, the oldest bridge in St. Pierre that is still being used for cars!
An inside look inside one of the isolation rooms in the mental asylum. This is a restraining chair. Built in 1839 as a public and private institute for the mentally insane, the asylum was one of the first in the world to offer hydrotherapy to its patients using water from the nearby Riviere Roxelane, and they even record some successful cases.
Standing in the ruins of the fort cathedral. People live in close proximity to the crumbling remains of old St. Pierre, as if having volcanic ruins in one's backyard is the most natural thing in the world.
Rue Mont au Ciel, in the fashionable mulatto quarter of St. Pierre. Until the 1990's this passageway was still covered with rubble from the eruption of 1902.
The fountain at the entrance of the St. Pierre theater, where the opening scene of my novel takes place.
The original cobblestoned Rue Levassor that runs parallel to the Riviere Roxelane, where I found so many artifacts. At the end of this street is where the mental asylum and the Engineering building are located.
The ruins of St. Pierre from 1902.
The ruins today. The biggest difference between today and then is the growth of new vegetation.

My adventure in St. Pierre left me exhilarated and humbled at the same time. It is exhilarating to stumble upon buried objects, yet it is humbling to know that these people died by an act of God so powerful, so terrifying, that only one person was left to tell the tale. If I learned anything from my experience, it's to never take anything for granted. If a once beautiful and thriving French town can be reduced to rubble in five minutes, it shows us how fragile, precious, and fleeting life is. In the meanwhile, my novel is taking shape, and I'm excited to show you some sample chapters in the upcoming weeks. In addition, I will have an exciting cover reveal as well. Stay tuned for more news!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

What are the qualities that make a love story unforgettable?

     When it comes to love stories, "The English Patient" is usually held up as a classic romance like “Gone with the Wind” or “Sleepless in Seattle.” But in truth, I found it to be tired, cliché and boring. This may be due to the fact that I didn’t connect on an emotional level with any of the characters. I found the Hungarian Count László de Almásy and the Englishwoman Katharine Clifton to be vain, selfish, and unredeemable characters, not noble or admirable in any way. And while some people would counter that by saying that Scarlett O’Hara was similarly vain and selfish, Scarlett also had other redeeming qualities, such as her Southern pride, her intense love of Tara, her plantation, and her refusal to give in to the Yankee invaders. The tired plot of “The English Patient”, which depicts an adulterous affair between a self-serving Hungarian Count and a married Englishwoman, lacks the requisite virtuousness to make me care about the characters and root for them. Much of this, in my opinion, has to do with their lack of redeeming qualities.

     So, if quality of character is paramount in making your audience care about your characters and love your story, does that mean you can extend this quality to stories don’t fall under the typical romance label? The answer is yes. Over the years I have found that the characters I admire most are honest, refreshing, natural, honorable, and in a word, HUMAN. The beauty of a love story is the way it depicts admirable characters that are admirable DESPITE their foibles and imperfections and maybe even BECAUSE of their foibles and imperfections. Love is such an intrinsically human emotion that the more imperfect a character is, the more we can root for him in his pursuit of a noble and virtuous cause. Think: Don Quixote de la Mancha.
In my opinion, Don Quijote has more redeeming qualities than Hungarian Count Laszlo de Almasy.
   While there are many different genres of love stories, from Western to Victorian to Regency to Contemporary to Swashbuckling, they don’t necessarily have to be the old-fashioned "boy meets girl" formula. A truly fabulous unorthodox love story can stand out by breaking down this powerful human emotion called love in an entirely new and refreshing way.

   Here are some classic examples of timeless love stories told in a unique fashion:

FINDING NEMO —a full-length cartoon that is a kind of "love story" between a father and a son (anthropomorphized as tropical fish).  When the son is captured by fishermen, the father embarks on an Odyssey to find him. An amazing story beautifully told with a sub-plot involving a romance of sorts between the Daddy Fish and a Lady Fish who he meets and befriends along the way. She is a quirky character with only short-term memory, but they cling to each other despite their imperfections.

LIFE AND NOTHING BUT (La vie et rien d'autre) —a French movie which explores an unacknowledged love between two people brought together by the misery of war. A wealthy French widow of the Great War is searching for her husband's body, dead or alive.  The major in charge of identifying the bodies is gruff and dispassionate, but in spite of the tragedy and hopelessness surrounding them, feelings between them emerge.  Amidst the ruin and shambles that is the aftermath of WWI these two disparate souls connect in a breathtakingly fresh and honest way.

EMMA’S SHADOW (Skyggen af Emma) —a kind of an offbeat "love story" between a 10-year old Danish girl and a sewer worker. When a young Danish girl is constantly ignored by her self-absorbed parents, she cooks up a plot to concoct her own kidnapping and runs away. After stumbling into a naïve sewer worker, she enlists his help by telling him a phony story about her noble Russian origins, and the sewer worker comes to care about her so much (and she for him when she sees how mistreated he is by everyone around him) that he risks his freedom to help her escape the “Bolsheviks” that are chasing her. In the end, she finds the love and caring that was so lacking in her previous life.

CINEMA PARADISO —a love story of sorts between an elderly projectionist and a fatherless young orphan.  When an Italian boy’s father fails to return from WWII, his mother is fraught with anxiety about how to pay the bills. Seeing her anguish, the old theater projectionist takes him on as an apprentice and a beautiful friendship ensues. Years later, after the boy grows up and leaves his small village, he learns how much the older man cared about him and wanted to see him happy.

DARK EYES —a love story between a married Italian man and a married Russian woman who meet in a spa. The Italian man has married above his station, rendering him useless and purposeless in life. But when he meets a beautiful and almost helpless Russian woman, he discovers his own latent courage that has been dormant inside of him to win her love and give his life new meaning and purpose. The story ends with a surprise twist that shows how important it is to seize chances when they are presented.

BRAVE —a love story of sorts between a young girl and her mother. Set in the Scottish Highlands, Brave depicts a princess named Merida from the clan of Dunbroch who rebels against her mother and her clan’s custom by refusing to marry any of the suitors selected for her.  After consulting a witch for help, Merida accidentally transforms her mother into a bear and Merida is distraught when she realizes how much she loves her mother and how close she is to losing her if the spell becomes permanent. 

Each of these movies depicts characters that are offbeat and quirky, and display abundant humanity in their respective quests. To me, that is the essence of a love story. The characters do not have to be perfect, they don’t have to be sanitized Hollywood stereotypes, they have to be real people who care deeply about one another, so much so that it shakes their world—and ours.

Monday, September 5, 2016

What I Learned From Taking an IQ test

Normal Childhood

While I was growing up I didn’t see myself as being different from other children. I loved to play outdoors riding bikes or skateboards, I loved to swim and snorkel in the ocean, and I loved playing in the Emancipation Garden in downtown Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas with my classmates. I loved exploring Fort Christian, the Grand Hotel, and all the side streets and alleyways of Charlotte Amalie with all their interesting shops that sold unique and beautiful items. I loved to dream about the old days of Charlotte Amalie while it was still a Danish colony. I longed to live in history and that fueled a lot of my childhood fantasies. I was sociable yet studious. I was an ‘A’ student in school yet I loved to dance at parties and have fun. I had two sides to my personality. Actually, I had more sides, but there were some sides that I didn’t share with others.

An Interesting Discovery

When my family moved to St. Thomas in 1973 I was 8 years old. My father became a partner in a business with two other men, both of whom I believe were severe alcoholics. One in particular was so diseased both in his mind and spirit (he was like an evil genius) that he ended up killing himself shortly after our arrival. One day, several months after his death, I discovered a box in my parents’ closet that held the most wonderful stamp collection I had ever seen. I later learned it was HIS stamp collection. Somehow, my father had inherited a box of his personal effects and because I discovered it, I became the owner of this magnificent stamp collection. Immediately, I dove into the hobby of stamp collecting, learning everything I could about the various countries of the world, their cultures, their history, their languages, their major cities, their statesmen, their major battles, their great men of science, technology, and art. I spent years adding to this wonderful stamp collection and my curiosity grew as a result. Another side of my personality was music. I loved classical music, opera, and popular music. I knew all the major composers and all their preeminent works. I taught myself to sing in various languages and octaves, including the soprano range. I learned to sing entire operas by heart, something I wouldn't have dreamed of telling anyone. Another side of my personality was collecting beautiful things, such as glass animals, and post cards of anthropomorphized animals. I also became an aficionado of foreign movies and books in all subjects; I read widely and collected a variety of books. All of these hobbies and interests became aspects of my personality that made me into a well-rounded, intelligent, and curious child. But I never told anyone about this side of my personality, my parents never spoke about it, they never encouraged it, and I was pretty much ignored.

Trying to be Normal Is a Big Mistake

I never considered myself “gifted” or special. I knew I had some pretty amazing hidden talents, such as the ability to pick up foreign languages with almost an indistinguishable accent, and to sing in multiple languages, and to read books in foreign languages. I considered this a normal part of myself and no one ever pointed out that this might qualify me as “gifted” or “special” or highly intelligent. In fact, my intelligence became almost a taboo subject in my home. It was never spoken about, acknowledged, or even recognized. It was like an unspoken taboo that I was to be treated as inferior and my specialness was to be downplayed at all costs. School was no different. I was never treated any differently than other children; I was never picked out for special classes, never praised, or pushed into any particular field of study. In fact, from the age of 14 I was pretty much left  to my own devices to figure out the mysteries of life on my own by my disinterested parents, my teachers, my professors, bosses, relatives, by pretty much everyone. It was as if I was put in a little boat, thrown into the ocean, and told to chart my own course through life without being told that I possessed any wonderful gifts. Or worse, that I was thrown into the ocean in the middle of a raging storm and never told I held the keys to my own survival. Other times, I felt as if I’d been marooned on an inhospitable island. That is pretty much the story of my life. I was an extremely gifted person who was trying to FIT IN with ordinary people and FAILING MISERABLY. I was not selected for scholarships, special courses, special attention, or special promotions or jobs. And so, for the first 51 years of my life I thought of myself as “average” and “normal” and sometimes even “unexceptional.” Except, of course, that I knew I wasn’t. I knew I was extremely intelligent, gifted, analytical, and able to solve complex problems and strategize but I still tried desperately to fit in. I could pick up almost any book and master the material and then compare that material to other material and formulate opinions based on my findings. I possessed, what psychologists call “inductive capacity”, the capacity to formulate new concepts when faced with new information, to extract meaning from confusion or ambiguity, and to think through complex situations and events in a clear manner. I also knew that when I tried to be “average” I failed miserably, and in the end I felt miserable.

How did I know I was different?

Because whenever I tried to conform to the “average” or “normal” people in my life, whether in the business world, in social settings, with friends and extended family members, etc. I always ended up feeling stupid, miserable, and  uncomfortable. In other words, when I tried to “dumb myself down” to fit into the standard model of what the world considers “normal” I was a complete failure. I could not conform to be anyone’s vision of normal. My friends tended to think I was a goofy or odd, that I was weirdly intellectual, or that I remembered names, dates, facts, places, events, and that I could talk about virtually any subject. At times this made me look weird. These were not qualities that women typically aspired to. If these qualities define one as goofy or odd, then yes, I was goofy and odd. The only problem was, I didn’t realize that I was “extremely gifted.” I was like a Maserati trying to fit into a world of VW Beetles and FAILING. It never occurred to my parents that I was “extremely gifted”. It never occurred to my teachers or professors that I was “extremely gifted.” It never occurred to my bosses that I was “extremely gifted”, or if they did recognize it, they certainly did not want to promote it. The fact is, no one really cared, and I was trying desperately to fit in with the “normal” children when I was not really normal. So for the first 51 years of my life I was not living up to my full potential because I was trying to conform to society's definition of normal. The result of this was that I was feeling boxed in, limited, and stifled in my life. I was trying desperately to fit into a mold in society for “acceptance” yet I was constantly being rejected and I DIDN’T KNOW WHY.

I Chance Upon an IQ Test

Quite by accident one Friday in September of 2016 I was surfing the internet and I chanced upon an IQ test. Since I had never had my intelligence measured before, I decided to try it. Why not? On an impulse, I dug in my heels, and sloughed my way through 40 grueling questions of increasing difficulty on the Wechsler Test, or the Culture Fair IQ test (based on the work of Dr. John C. Raven) that is considered the gold standard of intelligence tests. It was not easy. As I sweated my way through each question, I fielded numerous crank calls, put dinner in the oven, signed for 2 UPS packages, umpired a fight between two grown children, and attempted to critique a fellow writer’s work. By the time I was finished I was sweating, hyperventilating, and felt like I had run a marathon. I was certain I had “failed” the test. I didn’t harbor any illusions that I was a hidden genius, or that I was extremely gifted, that I possessed some extraordinary intelligence, or that I possessed innate qualities that put me in an elite group of humans. Except that I did. And when I saw my score I almost fell off my chair.
After paying for the test, I discovered my IQ was 141, a score that placed me in the extremely gifted range shared by less than 2% of the global population, or the 99.69 percentile according to the Wechsler scale, which means that I am more intelligent than 99.69% of the population. To say I was shocked is an understatement. Even two days later I am still digesting the results. It’s nothing like I expected. I was completely blown away by the results and it certainly validated a lifetime of feeling weirdly intelligent and being made to feel like an oddball as a result.

What I learned from all this

I learned that it's never too late to discover oneself. I learned that we should love ourselves for our strengths, for our differences, and for the qualities that make us unique. We should not allow others to make us feel inferior or strange or odd or goofy because we love opera or classical music, or great literature, architecture, foreign languages, or art. We should pursue our interests with passion and belief in our innate abilities regardless of an IQ score and regardless of what society thinks of us. Because even in a world where there are no IQ scores and schools of higher education, we can still have great music, art, literature, and technological and scientific discoveries. We can achieve these things simply by believing in ourselves and pursuing our vision with a passion. We don't need the validation of an "IQ Certificate" to break new ground in any field of study or to push the boundaries of art, music, or literature. What we truly need is belief in ourselves. But if you feel you need to take an IQ test to "validate" your right to pursue a certain field of study or career, by all means, do so, but what's more important is one's innate ability, talent, desire and drive. Years before I took this IQ I began to pursue a lifelong dream of writing. I worked extremely hard and made great strides. Now that I know I have an IQ that puts me in an elite category of humans, I believe I will have to work THAT MUCH HARDER in order to create something worthwhile for humanity, because now the bar has been pushed so much higher. I know I will have to crank my Maserati engine up to its highest performance level because I am no longer driving a VW Beetle, but a sleek Italian sports car that is expected to perform like a cheetah.

My discovery has made me aware that being normal and average is not necessarily a bad thing, but neither is it a great thing. But I’m okay with that. It makes sense now why for so many years my friends would look at me with crossed eyes wondering why I was so weird, so intellectual, so knowledgeable, and so "different." While I was desperately trying to fit in and be normal I was failing at being MYSELF. I was failing at fulfilling my true potential. I was failing at making use of my God-given talents. If anything, I am more committed now to being as different and unique as possible. I no longer fear being labeled “odd” or “quirky”; in fact, I find it amusing! In a way, I know that the more I pursue my artistic visions, the more I will be honoring and honing my innate talents, abilities, and intelligence. This was the unexpected gift I received when I clicked the link for IQ-Research. It was like a Heavenly pat on the back after years of feeling like I never belonged.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Preview: Island of Eternal Fire


Eternal Fire
In the lush, tropical world of Martinique in 1902, a planter's daughter and an army officer are swept up in a whirlwind of voodoo, deceit, and treachery during the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century
Coming in 2017
On the tranquil Caribbean island of Martinique all hell is about to break loose. 
Martinique, 1902: In the lush, tropical world of Martinique where slavery is a distant memory and voodoo holds sway, the volcano known as Mount Pelée begins to rumble and spew out ash. On a nearby plantation, Émilie Dujon is pressured into an unwanted engagement with a wealthy sugar planter. Desperate, she turns to a voodoo sorcerer, but instead becomes his unwilling pawn. To escape her situation, she joins a scientific commission sent to investigate the crater where she meets Lt. Denis Rémy, a soft-spoken Army officer whose reticence to discuss his past stirs her imagination.

At the summit, the commission discover that a second crater has formed and the volcano appears to be on the verge of eruption. But when they try to warn the governor, he orders them to bury the evidence for fear of upsetting the upcoming election. As the volcano begins to show its fury, a deadly mudslide claims the life of Émilie’s father and she is sent to an asylum. As ash rains down and chaos erupts in Saint-Pierre, Rémy deserts his post and sets off on a desperate quest to rescue Émilie. With all roads blocked, can the lovers escape the doomed city of Saint-Pierre and its voodoo sorcerer before it’s too late? 
Old map of Martinique 

Mount Pelee, the volcano responsible for the greatest volcanic disaster of the 20th century, and practically of all time.
The City of Saint-Pierre, also known as the Little Paris of the West Indies before the disaster of May, 1902 that would completely decimate the city as if from an atomic explosion.
Amedee Knight, an important political figure and businessman caught up in the whirlwind of the Mount Pelee tragedy.
A typical street scene in Saint-Pierre in the idyllic days of 1898 before the disaster.
May 7th, 1902: the volcano in full eruption. No one in the city was evacuated.
Dining Room of wealthy Creole house.
Professor Gaston Landes, teacher of biology and natural science at the lycee of Saint-Pierre. He was the most respected of the educated elite of Martinique, but even the study of volcanology was still in its infancy in 1902.
Martinique Beke family (blanc Creole) relaxing on their porch.
Creole Plantation Villa.
The Gran Zongle, one of the most feared Voodoo witch doctors in the history of Martinique. Voodoo is still very much alive in the Caribbean.
Martinique lady 1905.
French Colonial Soldier.
View of Saint-Pierre by Louis Gamain.
May 14th, 1902: finding the shocking and devastating remains of people incinerated by pyroclastic flows.
Sophie Schiller in the dungeon of Ludger Sylbaris (August Cyparis) one of the few people to survive the devastating eruption of May 8th, 1902

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Inspiration can come from some of the strangest sources

When I was a senior in High School I chanced upon a movie that changed my life. Das Boot was a movie about the exploits of a WWII German U-boat during the infamous Battles of the Atlantic. Something about the movie fascinated me. Perhaps it was the cramped conditions on board the submarine, perhaps it was the maritime setting, perhaps it was the agonizing suspense. I think the main reason was Jürgen Prochnow, a wonderful actor who played the ship’s Kapitänleutnant and soon became an international star. I wasn't alone in these adventures, however. I was joined by my best friend and partner-in-crime, Beth Nagle, who was just as intrigued by the adventures of these hardy sailors as I was.

Seeing Jürgen’s picture it’s not hard to imagine why an 18 year old girl would have preferred to spend her days in his company rather than in Trigonometry or Chemistry. But it was the images of those sailors in those cramped conditions that really fired my imagination. 

Anyway, about 25 years later all those afternoons in darkened movie theaters became the engine that drove my first novel, Transfer Day. The idea that a German U-boat officer could become a sympathetic character was very intriguing, and I wanted to make it work. First I had to learn what characteristics these hardy men of the sea possessed.

To understand what it was like to live and fight under these conditions I dove into the study of U-boats, reading such classics as “Iron Coffins” and “Steel Boats, Iron Hearts” as well as books about the War of the Atlantic and accounts of sinkings on websites like It was on this website that I made the acquaintance of my research partner, Robert Derencin, a Croatian naval veteran who is one of Europe’s leading U-boat experts. It was a partnership that grew into a friendship that lasted until this day. When I told Robert what I wanted to accomplish, namely, to write a book about a German U-boat officer who deserts his ship in the middle of war and escapes to the Caribbean, he provided all sorts of scenarios that made the book possible. 

In the end, I believe my character, Erich Seibold, fits the image of a hardy U-boat officer whose personal ethos prohibits him from sinking passenger ships, which is the engine that drives my novel and puts him in even greater danger when he escapes to a neutral Danish island only to find out that it will soon be transferred to the Americans.

Kptlt. Otto Weddigen (1880 - 1915)
One of the most infamous U-boat captains of the Great War.

Perhaps the one scene in the movie that moved me more than any other was when the U-boat sailors sang the WWI song “It’s a long way to Tipperary”. That song, more than anything else, symbolized the war for both sides of the conflict, and I made sure to include it in my novel. 

Click here to watch the video

If you are a writer, what are some of the strangest sources of inspiration you've ever had? Did they inspire you to write an entire novel? Or did they take you on a completely different direction?

Transfer Day: When the whole world is at war not even an island is safe.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Spoof Rejection of "The Stranger" by Albert Camus

What if "The Stranger" had never been published? What if Camus' great achievement had never been recognized? Here we have a little fun envisioning what a rejection of this classic work of existentialist literature would look like to brighten your otherwise morose day.

July 14th, 1942

Dear M. Camus,

I regret to inform you that we cannot publish your novel "The Stranger", which appears to have been written on the inside of French cigarette packs and mailed from some obscure Algerian prison. It took our intern weeks to piece it all together in the proper order, but she finally managed after many glasses of red wine and tears of frustration.

Do not think that I came to this decision lightly. I sat for a long time contemplating your character's situation, staring at the walls of my office, watching the flies buzzing around my head, feeling hot and uncomfortable as the sun beat down through the skylight and the sweat dripped down over my eyelids. While setting half your story in an Algerian prison may seem exotic and original, I found it hot and claustrophobic. My intern threatened to quit unless I opened a window or turned on the air conditioning, but in the end I decided to dismiss her, thinking that would be the most humane thing to do.

I found it hard to sympathize with your character, Meursault. First because he smokes in almost every scene, and second because he was so indifferent, ambivalent, and unambitious. To tell you the truth, most of my interns fit this description. Perhaps a better title for the novel would be "The Intern." At least that way you would have an easier time finding an audience and plugging your novel via social media. Plus, I would seriously reconsider the ending. The buzzword in publishing these days is HEA, which means "Happily Ever After" but it could also mean "Horrible Endings Always." I'm not really sure and it doesn't really matter anyway.

Apathetically yours,

Harold Meaningless

Sisyphus Publishers

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

10 of the Coolest Explorers to Reach Tibet

A breathtaking journey to the Land of Snows....

No country has stirred the public's fascination quite like Tibet. For centuries people have dreamed about reaching this mystical Land of Snows. Locked away in the foreboding Himalayas, men and women longed to read about this mysterious Buddhist kingdom that was ruled over by a god-king, the Dalai Lama, but no explorer had yet managed to reach this forbidden land. With Tibetan soldiers armed with matchlock rifles stationed at every mountain pass under orders to turn away or shoot any foreigner caught trampling their Buddhist kingdom, entering into this Forbidden Kingdom seemed like an impossible feat. And that's how it was for centuries.
The yak is the only pack animal suited to life at high altitudes.
 Lying at an average altitude of 15,000 feet and surrounded on all sides by the enormous peaks of the Himalayas, Victorian travelers dubbed Tibet 'The Roof of the World', and Lhasa, its mysterious capital so long closed to foreigners, was called 'The Forbidden City.'

Here are some of the hardy explorers who dared infiltrate the Forbidden Kingdom:

General Nikolai Prejevalsky- Notable Russian explorer of aristocratic Polish heritage, who inspired fear in all who met him. He was active in the 1870's up to 1888, making several attempts to reach the Forbidden City of Lhasa, but each time was forced to turn around due to the extreme altitude and sick animals. The closest he came to Lhasa was 160 miles, a record at that time. He eventually died just before his final expedition and was buried beside Lake Issyk-Kul in what is known today as Kyrgyzstan. Prejevalsky was a legend in Russia, a favorite of the Tsars, and a classic explorer in the Victorian mold.
General Nikolai Prejevalsky: Despite the resemblance, he was NOT the father of Joseph Stalin.
William Rockhill- Young American diplomat in Peking who studied the Tibetan language and thought he could sneak his way into Tibet by dressing as a Buddhist pilgrim. In the 1880's after his wife came into some money, he organized a caravan and set out on a grueling thousand mile march to Lanchou from where he planned to clandestinely cross into Tibet. He reached Tibetan Monastery of Kumbum where he gathered materials on the Tibetans and their religion and pressed onward, but was driven back 400 miles from Lhasa by the harsh climate. His second attempt brought him to within 110 miles of Lhasa, beating Prejevalsky's record. He was later awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society and went on to become the ambassador to St. Petersburg and Constantinople.
William Woodville Rockhill: the diplomat who dreamed of seeing Lhasa.
Alexandra David-Néel- Perhaps the most flamboyant and celebrated of the Tibetan explorers was David-Néel, a true eccentric who was years ahead of her time. Born in Paris in 1868, she became an opera singer before turning toward more spiritual pursuits. A seeker and a mystic by nature, she became a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and a practicing Buddhist. After disguising herself as a Tibetan beggar, she became the first European woman to enter Lhasa in 1923 and wrote about her strange encounters on the Roof of the World. David-Néel exemplifies the adventurous spirit of the Victorian explorers. She won an audience with the Dalai Lama in Darjeeling and sold many copies of her memoir which are read even today. A French movie about her life was made in 2012.
Alexandra David-Néel- Probably the most spiritually inclined of all the Tibetan explorers
Annie Taylor- Adventurous, 36-year old English Presbyterian hell-bent on carrying the gospel to the Dalai Lama. Due to a childhood heart-condition, she was spoiled and coddled by her parents and was not expected to survive into adulthood, but she outlived her doctors' prognoses and became a missionary in 1884, selling all her jewelry to raise the funds necessary to set sail for Shanghai. After organizing a caravan, she mounted an expedition to Tibet along the Tea Road from Szechuan to Lhasa. After experiencing ill health and passing the skeletons of earlier travelers, her sense of self-preservation forced her to turn back only a 3 day march from Lhasa. She died at the ripe old age of 67.
Annie Taylor in Tibetan dress.

Jules Dutreuil de Rhins-  By far the unluckiest of all the Tibetan explorers, de Rhins was a former naval officer who organized a caravan to Lhasa in 1884. He traveled for 4 months and came within a six day march of Lhasa when he was ambushed by a party of Tibetan bandits armed with matchlocks. After a standoff, during which time he was deteriorating from the altitude sickness, frostbite, and gangrene on his legs, he was finally captured, bound by his hands and feet, and thrown alive into a river.

Sven Hedin- Swedish explorer born in 1865 who made 3 daring expeditions through the mountains and deserts of Central Asia between 1894 and 1908, mapping and researching parts of the Sinkiang Province and Tibet which had been unexplored until then. He is probably the most famous and lauded of all the Tibetan explorers, but his later associations with the Third Reich have clouded his otherwise stellar image.
A heroic depiction of Sven Hedin in Tibet was widely used to sell products during the Victorian era.
Heinrich Harrer- An Austrian mountaineer born in 1912 who joined a four-man expedition in 1939, led by Peter Aufschnaiter to the Diamir Face of Nanga Parbat in what was then British India. When war was declared the 4 climbers were sent to a detention camp near Bombay, but escaped to Tibet. After crossing the Tsang Chok-la Pass (5,896 m, 19,350 ft) Aufschnaiter and Harrer, helped by the former's knowledge of the Tibetan language, proceeded to the capital of Lhasa, which they reached in 1946, having crossed Western Tibet. In all, Harrer spent seven years in Tibet which he recounted in his memoir which was later turned into a movie. 
Heinrich Harrer and the Dalai Lama
Gabriel Bonvalot, Prince Henri d'Orléans, and Father Constant de Deken- This unlikely partnership between a burly, fast-shooting French explorer, a gambling, womanizing French prince, and a Chinese-speaking Belgian Catholic missionary is recounted in Race to Tibet, a novel about their daring exploits on the Roof of the World. A self-made man of French peasant stock, Gabriel Bonvalot traveled widely throughout most of Central Asia and scaled some of the most dangerous passes in the Pamir Mountains and the Himalayas. The story of his journey to Lhasa is a fantastic adventure filled with action, danger, and suspense and just a little romance.
Gabriel Bonvalot and Prince Henri d'Orleans
Now for the first time ever you can read the untold story of Gabriel Bonvalot and Prince Henri d'Orléans who risked everything to be the first Westerners to reach Lhasa and meet the Dalai Lama. RACE TO TIBET is a thrilling tale of high-altitude adventure and survival set in the world's most forbidden country: Tibet
Gabriel Bonvalot: As fearless as he was gorgeous. He was so rugged, he was considered the explorer's explorer.

Race to Tibet is now on sale.


Publishers Weekly: "Fans of Jules Verne’s travel adventures will find Schiller has done a solid job of transforming an obscure real-life Victorian expedition into a thrilling yarn."

Here's what reviewers are saying:

"A Fascinating Journey Across Tibet." 
Mountaineer Mark Horrell

"Wonderful historical novel about the famous French explorer Gabriel Bonvalot. Experience an expedition to Tibet with all its beauty and horrendous conditions." 
Words and Peace Blog

"Non-stop excitement from beginning to end."

Redhead with a Book

"The characters were larger than life, intricate, and interesting, and the enterprise suspenseful, dramatic, and scenic. Schiller writes in a descriptive manner, with sentences that flow in a fluid and at a good pace."
Erin, For the Hook of a Book

"Excellent fact-based novel about an expedition to reach the most isolated culture in the world. Fascinating!"

Author Mark Schreiber