Monday, June 20, 2016

Preview: Island of Eternal Fire


Eternal Fire
In the lush, tropical world of Martinique in 1902, two lovers 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, French West Indies. In 1902, Émilie Dujon is the daughter of a failing cocoa planter who has gambled away the entire family fortune. Desperate to escape an unwanted marriage to the arrogant son of a sugar planter, she joins a scientific commission that has been charged with studying the crater of Mount Pelée, a dormant volcano that has begun to rumble and spew out ash. Included in the party is Lt. Denis Rémy, a soft-spoken Army officer with a mysterious past. During the climb, Rémy captures Émilie's imagination and her heart with his reminiscences about his dangerous exploits in Senegal. At the summit the team discovers that a second crater has formed that appears to be on the verge of eruption. But when the team tries to warn the governor about the imminent danger, he orders them to bury the evidence for fear of upsetting the upcoming election. Meanwhile, Émilie’s father is inundated in a volcanic mudslide and she is whisked away to an asylum. As the mountain begins to show its fury, Rémy deserts his post and sets off on a desperate quest to rescue Émilie. In their struggle for survival, the two lovers are swept up in a whirlwind of voodoo, deceit, and treachery during the greatest volcanic disaster of the 20th century.
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 only 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 (1982-83) I cut school about a dozen times to watch "Das Boot" a movie about the exploits of a WWII German U-boat. 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 Mr. 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

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Read the first chapter of "Island of Eternal Fire"


     On the night of April 22nd, 1902, while the island of Martinique was still sleeping, the Devil rose up from his subterranean lair and took up residence in Mount Pelée. It started as a groan, deep and muted, that grew into a growl—like a geological hiccup. Soon the ground began to tremble. Puffs of smoke blew out from the crater as if from the Devil's own mouth. A short while later, cracks began to appear in the walls and roads of Saint-Pierre, and somewhere beneath the ocean depths, a cable line snapped.
While most of the citizens slept through it, on a plantation north of Saint-Pierre, Émilie Dujon thought the world was coming to an end.
She awoke when her bed started shaking. Pictures on the walls started rattling and a beloved figurine crashed to the floor. A loud rumbling noise permeated the house that sounded like boulders rolling down a hill. Her heart pounded wildly in her chest. In that brief instant Émilie saw the awesome power of nature and she was awestruck. It never occurred to her that the world she loved and knew could be overturned in an instant. And then, without warning, the tremors stopped. The house lay still once again. Outside, even the crickets were silent.
Émilie crept out of bed and scurried down the hall to inspect for damage. Aside from a cracked mirror and an overturned kerosene lamp, there was no hint there had been a minor earthquake. She was comforted by the fact that no one else had woken up. Even Da Rosette, her elderly nanny, managed to sleep through the disturbance. Émilie smiled at the look of utter contentment on her face; if not for the wrinkles and tufts of white hair, Da Rosette would resemble a sleeping child. After a few more minutes, Émilie lay back down and fell asleep.
     The next morning she awoke when sunlight streamed in through the window slats. A vague memory of the previous evening flitted through her mind, and when she looked down and saw the broken figurine, it all came flooding back. Was she the only one who had woken up during the tremors? Outside, she heard the voices of the workers in the fields mingled with the chop-chop of their cutlasses. Glancing at the clock she felt a twinge of guilt. Surely her brother Maurice needed her help. The harvest would not wait.
She dressed in haste, twisted her long brown hair into a chignon, and raced downstairs for breakfast. Da Rosette was the first to greet her. She clucked her tongue at Émilie's tardiness and told her to sit down. Dressed in the Creole fashion which consisted of a long madras skirt cinched at the waist over a white cotton chemise, and a headdress of bright yellow knotted in the distinct Martinican fashion, Da Rosette had risen in rank from house servant to chambermaid to beloved nanny. She was an intrinsic part of the Dujon family and a respected member of the household. One rarely argued with Da Rosette.
"Mam'selle Émilie slept well?" said Da Rosette in patois. "You look like you've seen a zombie."
"There were tremors last night," said Émilie. "The house was shaking."
"So, the debonair volcano woke you up," said Da Rosette. "That can mean only one of two things: either you sleep too light or the mountain snores too loud."
"Aren't you worried in the least?"
"Why should I be worried? I've lived on this mountain ovah sixty years. Sometimes the mountain coughs, hiccups, and vomits out black ash, but its worst days are ovah, like an old drunk who falls into the gutter and can't pick heself up."
"You speak about the mountain as if it were a person."

"He has a personality, although not as charming as yours," said Da Rosette with a grin. 
The elderly nanny laid out a steaming cup of café au lait and a plate of fresh baguettes, guava jam, and mango slices. Émilie ate quickly and gave her beloved nanny a kiss on the cheek. She grabbed a straw hat from the closet and raced outside to the fields. She tried to forget the tremors of the prior evening, but found it impossible.

     Though she had dressed in haste she looked like a charming young lady of twenty in her high-necked "pouter pigeon" shirtwaist and trumpet skirt. With her glowing skin and long brown hair twisted into a chignon, Émilie Dujon exuded French elegance and fierce independence as she helped her older brother Maurice tend to the plantation's day-to-day operations. As such, she learned to care for each injured horse or ailing worker as if they were her own children. Habitation Fortuné, the Dujon family plantation, was the only world Émilie had ever known, and it symbolized everything that she loved. It had weathered many storms over the years, a testimony to the love, dedication, and hard work of the family. Located on the outskirts of Sainte-Philomène, the plantation consisted of a hundred acres of hills and valleys filled with cacaoyères, fields of cacao trees, the theobroma cacao, as well as orchards of coffee trees, nutmeg, and plantains.

The Dujons were békés, descendants of French settlers of the landed gentry who had colonized Martinique in the 18th century, narrowly surviving the French Revolution. Though the family had once been wealthy, several years of hurricanes, poor crops, and falling cocoa prices had brought the plantation to near bankruptcy. The great house, built in the graceful Creole West Indian style, was a shadow of its former self. The sagging porch, broken shutters, and chipped paint were like flaws on an otherwise beautiful face..


     The day was hot and muggy. Soon it would be too hot even for the workers to labor out in the fields. When the sun reached its zenith, they would clamber inside their thatched huts for their midday meal which consisted of manioc, breadfruit, plantains, and black peas, after which they would lay down for their afternoon siesta. To sustain themselves they drank copious amounts of tafia, white rum mixed with spring water.
Life was hard but punctuated by celebrations like Carnival followed by a rowdy Mardi Gras complete with the festive dancing of bamboulas and caleindas, followed by the singing of satirical songs while musicians in ghostly masks played the Tam-Tam on the Ka drum, beating out African rhythms that stirred the crowd to a frenzy. Though the Carnival drew many visitors from around the world, some aspects of it were too scary even for Émilie. As Carnival drew to a close, the Devil always made his  appearance, always at night, always under cover of darkness. Under the glow of the oil lamps he would appear from a dark alleyway like a quimboiseur, a voodoo sorcerer clad all in red with a grotesque blood-colored mask that covered everything but his eyes. Over his shiny black head he wore a white wig made of horse hair upon which he would place a shining red lantern. As the Devil paraded down the rue Victor Hugo toward the Place Bertin, the crowd would convulse with excitement, swaying their arms and hips, captivated by the sight of his body writhing, his arms twisting, his teeth chattering, all the while he would chant incantations meant to raise the dead from their graves: "Bimbolo! Zimbolo!" he would cry, while behind him a satanic chorus in devil masks would ring out, "Bimbolo! Zimbolo! The Devil and the Zombies sleep anywhere and everywhere!" All through the night the Devil would lead the crowd in a mayhem of song and dance and chanting, their bare feet pounding the cobbled streets to the beat of the Ka drums. Some said the Devil was the Grand Zamy, a quimboiseur who was known to keep an herbal store in the mulatto quarter of St. Pierre. During the day the Grand Zamy was known to wear a proper suit with a waistcoat and gold watch chain and panama hat. And, like a proper French gentleman he was baptized as a baby and given the French name Gaston Faustin Jacquet, but to everyone who knew him he was the Grand Zamy, a man to be feared, a man to be avoided, a man whose magical incantations often resulted in death. Émilie had grown up hearing all these stories about zombies, voodoo, black magic, and quimboiseurs from Da Rosette, but to Da Rosette it was more than mere fable. It was mixed up with belief.

     As Émilie made her way through the cacao fields, clouds of mosquitoes buzzed through the air and a trio of hummingbirds darted around a hibiscus bush bursting with red flowers. The only relief came from the constant stream of trade winds, the alizées, that blew leeward over the massif of Mount Pelée, cooling the surrounding villages with a fresh current of air. When the Caribs had ruled Martinique, Mount Pelée was known as Fire Mountain, an angry, volatile spirit which could spew fire and ash from its mouth at any moment. Émilie looked up at the old volcano that dominated the skyline and wondered if there was truth to that old legend, that underneath the mountain's dense layer of jungle vegetation something more dangerous and sinister was lurking.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Brooklyn Book Festival 2015

On September 20th, thousands of readers and literary fans descended on downtown Brooklyn to partake of the Brooklyn Book Festival, the largest literary event in the 5 boroughs. The weather was sunny and warm with just a hint of breeze. Absolutely perfect. Representing the Historical Novel Society was yours truly along with Lisa J. Yarde (author of the Sultana series), Nancy Bilyeau (author of the Tudor Trilogy The Crown, The Chalice, and the Tapestry), Faith Justice (author of Gladiatrix), as well as our President Pat Rich, Denise Valenti DiFulco, Yvonne M. Conde, and Michael Joseph Mollow of the Romance Writers Association. Historical Mystery writer Annamaria Alfieri author of Strange Gods also joined us for some deep discussion about historical novels. Here are some highlights:

With Lisa J. Yarde and Nancy Bilyeau
With Romance writer Michael Joseph Molloy

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: