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

"Race to Tibet" is an exciting Victorian trek to the Roof of the World."
Amazon Customer

"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 "Fire Mountain"


     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:

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.”