Thursday, December 29, 2016

Incorporating Voodoo in Historical Fiction

For kids that grew up in the 1970's, Geoffrey Holder was a fixture on the TV set as the pitch man for 7 Up. What most people don't realize is he was recreating a character he had brought to life on the silver screen in the James Bond flick Live and Let Die based on the Ian Fleming thriller. Geoffrey Holder didn't have to do much to thrill me. All he had to do was smile his Cheshire cat smile, speak in his Trinidadian calypso accent, and doff his panama hat while sipping a 7 Up as if it was the elixir of the gods. I was even more mesmerized by his no-holds-barred performance as the villainous Voodoo witch doctor Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die. The way he danced across the screen with his writhing, twisting movements so typical of West Indian performers, it ignited in me a life-long fascination with the culture and history of the West Indies.
You can watch Geoffrey Holder's performance here.
Geoffrey Holder as Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die (1973).
Holder almost seemed like the perfect foil for Roger Moore: where James Bond reflected the posh, stoic, orderly world of England, Geoffrey Holder typified the mysterious, exotic world of the Caribbean. His performance as Baron Samedi made such an impression on me that it continued to haunt me even decades later. When I decided to write "Island of Eternal Fire", a novel about the cataclysmic 1902 eruption of Mount Pelee that destroyed the city of St. Pierre in Martinique, I knew I had to include voodoo themes. Even in the 21st century, voodoo and black magic are important elements of life in the West Indies. The discovery of ritualistic voodoo objects still makes headlines in local newspapers and is the source of much fear and anxiety among the population.
Even today, voodoo ritualistic objects can still be seen in Martinique.
I felt that any novel set in Martinique had to contain a voodoo witch doctor character (called quimboiseur in the French West Indies), and I based my character, the Grand Zamy, on an actual witch doctor called the Gran-Zongle who terrorized the island in the 50's and '60's with his particularly lethal brand of voodoo that killed up to 402 people until he killed himself in 1965 due to remorse. The scenes in my novel are based on eye witness testimony as reported by 2 French journalists who conducted an extensive study of the phenomenon, but the story is fictional and all my characters are products of my own imagination. This is where history, sorcery, voodoo and black magic collide in my own particular brand of historical fiction.
The Gran Zongle was a real voodoo quimboiseur in the 1960's who may have killed up to 402 people with his particularly lethal brand of black magic according to his suicide note.
Here is a scene from my novel "Island of Eternal Fire" featuring the Voodoo witch doctor The Grand Zamy. In this scene, Emilie Dujon, the daughter of a cocoa planter, seeks his assistance in ridding herself of a philandering fiance:

Standing up to his full height, the Grand Zamy lit the black candles on the chandelier and said, “Spirits, I invoke you, tell me how I can solve this young woman’s problem.”
The black candles flickered for a minute and then mysteriously snuffed out. Taking out a deck of tarot cards, he asked her to shuffle them and cut them, and then he spread them out on his desk in the form of a cross. After turning them over, he studied them with great concentration and said, “You are caught between two warring people…or perhaps you are caught in the middle of something, possibly between two choices. I see two people together, sharing and exchanging cups, perhaps an unexpected encounter that can change the course of your life. Perhaps it is a new passion or a new love. This is the Ace of Wands. Over there the Ace of Cups represents a new love or a fork in the road, a new path or a struggle between two choices. Beware of overconfidence, the danger of rushing in too soon. I see difficult times ahead: great strife. I see a maiden, bound and blindfolded, surrounded by danger and cannot see her way out. I see a powerful, broad-shouldered man carrying a great burden. He is in command and has the burden of responsibility. This is the Ace of Swords over there. Finally, I see an awakening to a new, greater challenge. I see a large goal ahead of you down the road. That is all I see, Mam’selle. I believe your problem is not too severe and can be solved by a simple potion.”
“Are you sure?” said Emilie.
“I've dealt with much worse cases.”
“Are these potions dangerous? I mean, can they cause great harm?”
“My dear, anything can be dangerous if applied in the incorrect dosage,” he said. “That is why one must always consult an expert. For ten francs I will prepare a powder for your fiancé that will calm his ardor and hopefully cause him to break off your engagement. Perhaps that will set your destiny in motion. Have no fear that irreparable harm will come to him, at least from the potion." He erupted into a house-shaking laughter that caused her hair to stand on end.
Emilie opened her purse and extracted ten francs and handed them over to the Grand Zamy. He placed the money in a strong box, locked it, and immediately went to the wall and selected a few bottles containing different powders and herbs. He mixed them in a wooden bowl and added some crushed beetles from a bottle, a bit of tafia, and then poured the mixture into a sachet which he handed to Emilie.
“There you are, Mam’selle,” he said. “Give me the young man's name and date of birth.” She gave him the information and he wrote it down. “Good. Now listen carefully. The next time he comes to visit, light a white candle in front of a mirror and place this powder in his rum punch. In a short while his behavior will start to change. He may seem erratic at first, and perhaps even appear to be sick but he will ask for his ring back and your problem will be solved.”
“Is it that simple?” she said.
The Grand Zamy smiled. “For you my dear it is simple, for me it is a bit more complicated. I will recite the appropriate incantations, perform sacrifices, petition the spirits—but that is the special task of the herbalist. I do not expect a fine, young lady like you to sacrifice a chicken.”
The Grand Zamy roared with laughter at his little joke while Emilie almost jumped out of her seat. She clutched the sachet, thanked the quimboiseur, and hurried out of the store. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Publishers Weekly Review of Transfer Day

I have chills. Back in 2008 when I set out to fulfill a childhood dream to write a book that would recreate the Danish colonial era of St. Thomas, the island of my youth, I was perhaps a little naive. After all, I had no idea the enormity and complexity of the task I was to undertake. But I persevered, I stuck to my guns, and along the way I had some major breakthroughs. I combed through records in the National Archives, I contacted people all over the world, some of whom have become lifelong friends. I made discoveries that shocked me; I learned so much about WWI history and how it affected even tiny, insignificant corners of the globe. In the end, I believe Transfer Day is a beautiful story that brings to life the Danish Colonial period, a part of history that both the Danes, the Americans, and the people of the Virgin Islands are in danger of losing. My rationale for doing this was: "since no one else had done it, I'll do it." I believed deeply that it had to be done. And so, I am truly grateful for this beautiful review from Publishers Weekly. I hope that with the weight of the most respected literary publication in the United States behind this project, more people will be able to discover this story and fall in love with the characters as I have. I dedicated Transfer Day to Mrs. Louise Brady, a beloved and revered St. Thomas educator who I count as a great influence in my life. I hope she would be proud of this book. Thank you to everyone who read and reviewed the book. Thank you to everyone who encouraged me. I love the history of these beautiful islands, and I hope more people will discover it in the pages of this book!

The 1917 transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States, which forestalled imperial Germany’s hopes to control strategically valuable ports during WWI, provides the background for Schiller’s engaging historical thriller. In 2001, journalist Søren Jensen, still grieving over the loss of his wife, travels from Copenhagen to the Virgin Islands to investigate a report that documents exist supporting the claim of Abigail Maduro to have “personally thwarted a German invasion” of the islands. Abigail recently died at the age of 101, and Søren meets her granddaughter, Claire Lehman, a possible new love interest (Claire’s eyes have “an inner fire, a boldness that resonated deep within him”). Claire gives Søren access to her ancestor’s diary, which details the teenage Abigail’s growth into self-sufficiency and her role in countering German espionage before the sale of the islands. Schiller deftly blends fact and fiction in a page-turner with emotional resonance. 

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 ON 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.

Until May 8th 1902 St. Pierre, Martinique was the most important cultural and administrative city in the French Antilles. It was completely decimated when Mont Pelee erupted at approximately 8 am that morning, killing 30,000 people in 5 minutes. Today the city has been largely reclaimed, but it will never have the same vibrancy as it had during the turn of the last century.

St. Pierre today. Photo by Zinneke (from Wikimedia)

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 and who died by a catastrophic act of nature. When I discovered that button or those shards of pottery, I was perhaps the first person in over 100 years to touch these items. That's sad given the fate of the people of St. Pierre. When they died they had no way of telling future generations their story. I consider that 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, June 20, 2016

Preview: Island on Fire

Island oFire
In the lush, tropical world of Martinique in 1902, a planter's daughter and a French army officer are swept up in a whirlwind of voodoo, deceit, and treachery in the Pompeii of the Caribbean.
Coming in 2017

On the tranquil Caribbean island of Martinique all hell is about to break loose. 

In the lush, tropical world of Martinique where slavery 
is a distant memory and voodoo holds sway, Emilie Dujon, the daughter of a failing cocoa planter, discovers that fiancé has been unfaithful. Desperate to end her engagement, she elicits the aid of a notorious voodoo witchdoctor and is lured into a shadowy world of black magic and extortion. When the volcano known as Mont Pelée begins to rumble and spew out ash, she joins a scientific committee headed by Lt. Denis Rémy, an army officer with a mysterious past  who becomes her unlikely ally.

At the summit the explorers 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, Emilie’s plantation is inundated and she disappears. As chaos erupts, Lt. Rémy deserts his post and sets off on a desperate quest to rescue Emilie. But with all roads blocked, can the lovers escape the doomed city of St. Pierre 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.
In the dungeon of Ludger Sylbaris (August Cyparis) one of the few people to survive the devastating eruption of May 8th, 1902