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!