Interviewed by E.A. Aymar
One of the best things about running The Thrill Begins is the opportunity to meet new writers and introduce them to others. That opportunity is especially cool when the new writer is someone like Dana Chamblee Carpenter. Dana is fascinating, warm, and funny; check out her answer to “your best moment in publishing” below, and you’ll see what I mean. Her debut novel, Bohemian Gospel, is out November 16th (pre-order it here):
Thirteenth-century Bohemia is a dangerous place for a girl, especially one as odd as MOUSE, born with unnatural senses and an uncanny intellect. Some call her a witch. Some call her angel. Mouse doesn’t know what—or who—she is, but she means to find out.
When young King OTTAKAR shows up at the Abbey wounded by a traitor’s arrow, Mouse breaks Church law to save him and thwarts custom when she returns with him to Prague. Caught in the undertow of court politics, Ottakar and Mouse work to uncover the threat against him and to unravel the mystery of her past as they try to find a way where they can be together.
But the arrival of Ottakar’s father, VACLAV, and Mouse’s discovery of darker and more dangerous aspects of her unusual gifts threaten to separate them forever.
Set against the historical reign of the Golden and Iron King, BOHEMIAN GOSPEL tracks Mouse’s quest to discover her past and to define her destiny. But is she prepared for the truth she unearths and the future that awaits her?
Historical fiction seems hard. How did the research aspect of your writing go? And did you research before you wrote, as you wrote, after, or all three?
Yeah, it was tough, especially because most of the sources I needed were in German, and I don’t speak or read German so I made friends with a lovely translation app. But it was also loads of fun. I got to learn about a time and a place that isn’t on the radar for most folks who’ve grown up with a Westernized education. And the thrill of finding just the bit of information I needed, sometimes after days of searching, made it all feel a little like a treasure hunt. I laughed out loud when I found a digital copy of translated twelfth- and thirteenth-century minnesinger lyrics (minnesingers are the German version of troubadours).
Most of my research happened as I wrote and revised, not before, because first and foremost, this is Mouse’s story. I wanted her to drive the bus, not the historical period—the period is a backdrop, a context. So at first, I spent my time getting to know her and learning her secrets. Once I realized that her story wove into Ottakar’s (he was the Younger King of Bohemia at the time), I had to stop and learn what I could about him and his reign. And then, when I had to send Mouse or Ottakar to a particular place or know what they would’ve worn or eaten, I’d start hunting again. I know more about medieval diet and clothing and Norbertine practices than I think is probably healthy for a normal person.
During the revision process, I did even more in-depth research to find the concrete details to bring the place and the period to life. Pretty sure I could now give guided tours of Prague Castle even though I’ve never been there.
What led to your interest in thirteenth-century Europe?
Mouse took me there. I’ve always loved old things and historical fiction—though I prefer mine with a little more fiction and a little more thrill than some—but I’ve never been drawn specifically to thirteenth-century Europe. And yet, when I started to learn about the place and the time, I felt like I’d come home, like I was visiting some place from my own history.
Your Southern heritage, and Southern literature, both seem to have played an important role in your literary upbringing. Does that, somehow, factor into Bohemian Gospel?
What an awesome question! You’re right that Southern storytelling runs in my veins, though I hadn’t thought about how it feeds into Bohemian Gospel until now. But, yeah, now that you mention it—heck, we’ve got Mouse searching desperately for her roots, trying to rediscover her family as she’s working to define herself and her place in a world that is obsessed with lineage and title and position. That’s a pretty succinct definition of Southern culture, too, and a common trope in Southern literature is a character in a love/hate relationship with the South and with family—Faulkner’s Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom!, for example. Like Quentin, Mouse loves her home, but she doesn’t belong there anymore.
Oh! I just realized why historical Bohemia may have felt a little like going back home for me. Because, like the South, Bohemia is a land that’s steeped in mystery and feeds its children on myth. And the stories, seated deeply in the culture, passed down orally and still rich in the voices of the ancestors, don’t shy away from the dark or the unknown. Flannery O’Connor talks about this, too. She also calls it mystery.
What was the most difficult element of Bohemian Gospel? Capturing thirteenth-century Europe, blending in supernatural elements, cultivating romance, or something else?
The two things that I had the hardest time with were more psychological than technical—letting bad things happen to characters I love and scaring myself to death. The book goes dark with heart-wrenching decisions and terrifying moments. And even though I was just following the story where it wanted to go, I knew that I could make everything better with just a few keystrokes so there was some guilt, too. I was writing mostly at night, and I’d find myself sobbing and then too scared to turn the lights out to go to bed. I felt like a drowned and wrung out rat.
You’ve expressed an admiration for Eudora Welty in your writing. If you had to identify three things about Welty’s writing you’d love to emulate in your own, what would they be?
She writes in such a fluid way with each word and idea and moment slipping into the next without seams or gaps. I’d love to be able to do that, to stitch narrative lines together like the gossamer threads of a spider’s web to catch my readers.
Welty also taught me how to look at the world, to see beyond what is to what might be. She wraps that discovery process in a kind of magic, too. You can see it in her stories in the collection The Wide Net. She writes about such seemingly normal things and moments but they live alongside the unknown and the things we wonder about—like when you were a kid and were playing in your backyard just like any other day, but then suddenly something shifts, the wind or the light, and you feel the change. You feel like something else is there with you or like you’re looking back at the moment from years away. I’d like to capture those moments the way Welty does.
That’s technically only two, but apparently talking about Welty makes me sound a little cryptic and maybe more than a little fan-girlish, so I’m gonna stop now before I embarrass myself more.
Are there any contemporary social issues that resonate with Bohemian Gospel, and were you conscious of them as you wrote?
I don’t think I was consciously aware of them as I was writing because I was so focused on letting Mouse lead me through her story, but, yeah, there are definitely connections to contemporary social issues. Like many of us, and I think this is especially true for millennials, Mouse wrestles with finding her place in the world. She thinks she’s been given gifts for a reason—she just doesn’t know what that reason is. She also struggles against the assumptions made about her as a woman, fights against the limitations imposed on her, and pushes back against the stigma of being poor and an orphan. Unfortunately these are battles we continue to fight more than 700 years later. We still want to cram people into preconceived boxes built by traditional expectations and then when folks don’t fit, we tend to label them and ostracize them. Mouse knows these battles.
And Ottakar was an incredibly progressive monarch for the time. He was interested in improving the lives of the common Bohemian citizen, not just the nobles. And he crafted laws to protect the poor from the powerful. In a world where the distribution of wealth is at its most extreme with so few having so much, these certainly seem relevant today.
When do you expect the sequel to Bohemian Gospel to be completed?
I have a draft of it done already. We’ll see what my editor has to say about how much revision there is to do. (Me: not sweating at all, breathing, biting lip until it bleeds.)
What’s been your best moment in publishing so far? Can you describe it?
It was about two weeks after Bohemian Gospel won the Claymore Award at Killer Nashville, and we had several editors interested in the book. But there was one in particular that I’d had my hopes set on. Like any good writer looking to get published, I cyber-stalked her (in a respectful and totally un-creepy way) to learn what I could about her interests and tastes.
I saw a Tweet that she was reading a manuscript that she was loving, something that was keeping her up at night. And I thought, “Oooh, I hope that’s Bohemian Gospel she’s talking about.” I taught my classes that day in a haze, waiting until I could rush back and check to see if I had an email from my agent. I did.
It was to tell me that the editor needed the weekend to finish the book and we’d know something on Monday.
Ugh. I did yoga. I binge-watched the Gilmore Girls. I did deep breathing meditation. And that was just Saturday morning. By Monday, my family couldn’t stand to be in the same room with me, I was so nuts. And then I saw it.
A Tweet from the editor that she had made an offer on THE book and was waiting on pins and needles to see if she got it. Pins and needles? She had NO idea (my fingertips were bloody nubs at this point).
I paced the kitchen for 20 minutes, pausing only to refresh my email every five seconds or so and to check again that my phone was working, before I got the Ping! to let me know I had a new message. From my agent. For me to call her. I was dialing before I finished reading the email. She was laughing when she picked up the phone.
That was pretty sweet.
What “artistic entertainment,” outside of writing (such as music, cinema, TV, etc.), do you find inspirational?
All of it. I like to fill my creative well with a diverse range of storytelling. I probably tend to watch more TV than movies—mostly because of limited time. But I find I crave music most when I’m actually in the writing process. It’s almost like when I was pregnant and I couldn’t say what it was I was craving until I smelled it—when I’m writing I’ll cue up something and listen for a bar or two and wrinkle my nose (even if it’s normally a favorite) and move on to something else until it feels right.
Which contemporary crime fiction writers do you like reading? Which classic crime fiction writers?
You’re killing me here. How do you pick a few from so many greats? And do you mean just crime writers or thriller writers in general? I’m a huge J.T. Ellison fan—I like smart, realistic, kick-ass female protagonists. When I was a kid I went through all the Agatha Christie novels like I was eating my way through Halloween candy. But I don’t tend to get locked into reading certain authors and not others or these genres but not those—I want to read it all!
Dana Chamblee Carpenter’s award-winning short fiction has appeared in The Arkansas Review, Jersey Devil Press, and Maypop. Her debut novel, Bohemian Gospel, won Killer Nashville’s 2014 Claymore Award and is available on November 16, 2015 (but available for pre-order here). She teaches creative writing and American Literature at a private university in Nashville, TN, where she lives with her husband and two children.