INTERVIEW WITH LAUREL CORONA

     I am delighted to be able to interview an author I’ve long admired, Laurel Corona.  Laurel has a very interesting background; she was a professor of English and the humanities at San Diego City College and is the author of a number of Young Adult books written for school libraries.  She is also the author of Until The Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance, and The Four Seasons, a novel about Antonio Vivaldi’s Venice.  And she has perfectly expressed the responsibilities of the historical novelist in what I think should be our Eleventh Commandment–Do not defame the dead.   Today is the publication date for Laurel’s new novel, Penelope’s Daughter.  This has been at the top of my TBE list as soon as I heard about it, and I plan to treat myself as soon as Lionheart goes off to my editor.  But I will let you learn about Penelope’s Daughter and its fascinating premise in Laurel’s own words.

How did you come up with the idea for PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER?

 

I guess you could say I gave birth to Xanthe, the main character in PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER, over the dinner table one night. (That’s a weird image isn’t it–giving birth to someone else’s child among the dinner plates and wine glasses?

 

My partner Jim and I had recently returned from a midwinter trip to Venice, where I was researching a few final details for THE FOUR SEASONS before it went to press.  We were reminiscing about how much fun we’d had, and Jim wondered aloud what might be an equally fun location for my second novel.

 

At the time I was already in the very early planning stages for what I thought I was going to write next, but out of curiosity, I asked him where he wanted to go. Jim is a great lover of the classics, so I wasn’t surprised when he said Greece, but it was news to me that, as widely traveled as he is, he had never been there.

 

“Okay,” I said, “we have to go. Now all I need to figure out is what the novel will be about.”  I don’t remember which one of us suggested Homer, but I will never forget Jim’s reaction when I said, “How about if, when Odysseus goes off to the Trojan War, he doesn’t know Penelope is pregnant with a daughter?”

 

“You can’t mess with Homer!” Jim insisted.  And of course, once he said that, I had to write PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER just to prove him wrong!

 

 

 

 

How does putting a daughter in the story change it?

 

The ODYSSEY has two narrative strands, Odysseus’ adventures and the “meanwhile, back at the ranch” story about the suitors trying to steal Odysseus’ wife and kingdom.  Odysseus’ adventures aren’t part of my book at all, but once I thought about the impact of a daughter on the story of the women left behind–whom, quite frankly, Homer shows very little interest in–the whole epic broke open as a far more fascinating tale than the one Homer wrote down.

 

Homer’s Penelope is a male fantasy, a woman stubbornly faithful to–and helpless without–her man.  Odysseus is gone nearly twenty years, but what’s that to a good wife?  There was no way I could base a novel around someone who does nothing but weep and moan about her situation and pray for her husband’s return.

What is there between the lines in Homer’s story, however, is that Penelope is a teenaged bride, a pampered princess taken from her luxurious childhood home to a rocky, poor, island kingdom. She lives with her new husband, a rough-hewn local warlord, only long enough for their first child to reach his first birthday. She is probably at most seventeen when he leaves her alone, without the support of friends or family, for twenty years.  That’s an interesting starting point for a story about a girl who must rise to the occasion and become a strong woman, mother, and queen.

 

The other immediately obvious thing was that the suitors would have no interest in Penelope if she had a daughter. That daughter, not Penelope, would be Odysseus’ heir if Telemachus, her older brother, were to die–which, Homer tells us, the suitors have in mind. My story revolves around the fact that in this violent and predatory environment, the victorious suitor would be the one who impregnated Xanthe, forced a marriage, and produced an heir. Penelope, therefore, must figure out how to keep her son from being murdered and her daughter from being raped.  All this becomes part of the plot of my novel.

 

The third revelation was Helen.  We know from other sources that Helen was married at twelve and had an eight-year-old daughter when she went off to Troy.  That means she had to be at least twenty-one at the time the Trojan War started and thirty-one when it was finally over.  Helen and Penelope are cousins fairly close in age, so when Penelope sends thirteen-year-old Xanthe to Sparta to keep her safe in Helen’s care, the Helen whom Xanthe lives with is middle aged by the standards of the time. Being ravishingly beautiful is enough to make her important in Homer’s story, but an older woman had better be interesting in her own right.  I wondered what someone like Helen would be like at that age, after all she has seen and done, and it was really a joy to give her substance in my story.

 

 

What have you learned about yourself from writing fiction? How is your own personality reflected in your novels?

 

I have to agree about the autobiographical underpinnings of all fiction, but I think this means something different from what many people think. It doesn’t necessarily mean that our characters are aspects of ourselves, or that our plots connect to events in our lives. What is autobiographical is that the outlook on life that is the product of an author’s genes, environment, and experiences is going to show up in the way he or she chooses a subject for a novel and then goes about formulating the plot, characters, and settings. 

 

I am blessed with what some people call the “happy gene.”  Even at the lowest points of my life I have been optimistic, and I tend to see others in a positive light. I am most comfortable telling stories about healthy, functional people who manage to thrive where they are, and have the courage to act to change what they can.  Tension and conflict in my novels are far more a result of historical events, and the societal limitations put on women (and men too, but women are my focus) than they are brought on by nasty or villainous characters–although I have a few of those too.

 

The message I have for readers is the same one I have for myself every day, that life is manageable regardless of our circumstances, that people have the strength and character to rise to whatever the situation demands, and that tomorrow is always worth sticking around for. My novels have helped me to clarify and affirm those beliefs for myself and I hope readers hear those themes loud and clear in all my books.

 

 

What can readers expect next from Laurel Corona?

 

Novel number three, FINDING EMILIE will be released by Simon and Schuster/Gallery Books in May 2011.  This, by the way, was the idea I was mulling over when that dinner table “birth” changed my plans.  It is based on the story of real-life mathematician and physicist, Emilie du Châtelet, a Parisian noblewoman who lived during the Enlightenment.  Most who know of her recall that she was Voltaire’s lover for many years, but she should be far better known for her scientific work, which include a translation and commentary on Newton’s Principia.  She was a free-spirited and flamboyant character, whose life was cut short at age 43 by complications of childbirth after an unexpected pregnancy from her affair with a dashing young soldier/poet. 

 

The story follows the daughter she gave birth to six days before her death. Through vignettes about Emilie, readers learn more about the mother than the daughter herself knows, and the story revolves around the daughter’s quest to figure out who she is and what she wants, and to shape her own destiny by discovering the facts about the remarkable woman whom, unknown to her, she so resembles.

 

There’s a lot more about FINDING EMILIE and PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER on my website, www.laurelcorona.com, as well as a peek at my work in progress, THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD.  Also, as a way of delivering on my dedication of PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER to “all the children left behind when fathers and mothers go off to war,” I maintain a blog, “Xanthe’s World,” on issues affecting military children at www.pensdaughter.blogspot.com.

 

Thank you, Laurel, for stopping by.  If I was eager to read Penelope’s Daughter before, now I am downright impatient!

 

 

 

 

 

52 Responses to “INTERVIEW WITH LAUREL CORONA”

  1. Valerie L. Says:

    This is a book I am definitely interested in reading. Thanks for the interview.

  2. Koby Says:

    That sounds like a great story. Another book added to my list.
    In other matters, Leonora of England, Queen of Castile, Eleanor and Henry’s daughter was born today, as well as Prince Edouard of Lancaster, Henry VI (VII) and Marguerite d’Anjou’s son.

  3. Koby Says:

    And today, the Battle of Hastings took place, where William I the Conqueror defeated Harold Godwinson and essentially gained control of England.

  4. Joan Szechtman Says:

    Thank you so much for this interview, Laura. I will be adding your books to my ever growing wish list.

    “…What is autobiographical is that the outlook on life that is the product of an author’s genes, environment, and experiences is going to show up in the way he or she chooses a subject for a novel and then goes about formulating the plot, characters, and settings.”
    I was particularly intrigued and gratified to read this comment on the autobiographical aspects regarding fiction, for you have perfectly codified my feelings as an author. I too have been asked if such-and-such a character is really me in disguise, and my response has always been “no.” But, you are correct in that it’s impossible for one’s writing to be devoid of the author’s connection to the subject, life, and environment that is likely to be spread over multiple characters and scenarios presented in the work. Thank you so much for giving me this deeper understanding.

  5. james watson Says:

    Interesting ,One;s Perception of Beauty, way back ,in Helens time/…Athletic spartas!,.. peception. Mans! Perception,..ie (Homer). (Greek -Gods ,unfolded-mysterie;s, ie. Too Spice-up, there Fabels?. However my Imagination, Believe;s Helen to Beautiful, “But’ , Our Sharons Books, I Imagine Margurite De Anjou, to Be Strikingly- Lovely, As would Edward 4ths , wife Be, and Elenor??…..”But not As Beautiful as Miss Clifford?……Interesting, how our Imaginations-work , Thank-you For This Interview.

  6. admin Says:

    I agree with you, Joan. Even the way we respond to historical figures to begin with is in a sense autobiographical. I once read that how people react to Elizabeth Tudor and Mary, Queen of Scots says more about the people than it does about Elizbeth and Mary. I think this is especially true of secondary historical figures, those who remain enigmas; writers have to fill in more of the blanks for them, so such portrayals are probably more self-revealing than when we are writing of historical figures about whom a great deal is known.

  7. admin Says:

    Will anyone who e-mailed me in the past week resend it? I’ve had evil computers before; it wasn’t for nothing that Merlin got himself renamed Demon-Spawn. But his antics are child’s-play compared to Melusine, who not only took out my in-box, she purged all of my separate folders. That primal scream heard about 11PM EST came from me. My genius pal Lowell got most of them back; I am still missing about a week though.

  8. Joan Szechtman Says:

    I use only webmail now for a couple of reasons–one being to isolate myself from downloading viruses to my computer and another to be able to access my email from any computer. Gmail, Google’s web based email is by far my favorite. As far as I can determine, they have the best spam filter.

  9. Eric Says:

    Sharon:
    I have to say that this is one of my favorite interviews that you have had on your blog so far Sharon. My compliments to Laurel in her creative idea on the new perspective of The Odyssey. I love hearing a new perspective of a classic story.
    I am not sure if you remember me, but I asked back in August, how is it that you carry out your research and how you formulate the description for your novels. Forgive me for assuming I have your answer, but I think that I figured it out from your blog. You personalize both the research and your detailed description. I am seeing it work in my own writing now, and I thank you for letting me figure it out like this. Please tell me more, if you have another secret you wouldn’t mind sharing.
    I hope that all is going well with the Lionheart, and I look forward to hearing from you in a post or in your next blog. Thanks!
    Eric

  10. cindyash Says:

    Ive read Four Seasons and enjoyed it. Im now very interested in Penelope’s Daughter. Margaret Atwood did a wonderful novella about Penelope a few years ago and liked the focus of the women in the classic story. This one I suspect will go a few steps further than that one, and looks to be an excellent read. Thanks for this interview!

  11. Koby Says:

    Today William de la Pole, who was the power behind Henry VI’s (VII) throne for some time, as well as Lord Chamberlain and Admiral of England was born. Some suspect that the Ruchard Duke of York killed him on his way to exile.
    Also, on the 13th I wrote ‘born today… Prince Edouard of Lancaster, Henry VI (VII) and Marguerite d’Anjou’s son”. I should have been more specific - ’said to be Henry VI’s (VII) son’. Speculation as to the father welcome.

  12. Koby Says:

    Today (or yesterday), John I of England died at Newark Castle.

  13. Koby Says:

    I do believe George, Duke of Clarence, was born today.

  14. admin Says:

    Thanks, Koby; I really rely upon you for historical nuggets like this! I am sorry, everyone, that I haven’t been keeping up with comments as well as I’d like, but the end of a book is a time of great pressure and in order to be able to submit Lionheart on time, I’ve had to let life come to a screeching halt. Eric, I’m sorry I didn’t respond to your earlier query, but it is all Coeur de Lion’s fault! If you’d like to e-mail me rather than posting here with your questions, I will try to get back to you as soon as the book goes off to my editor.

  15. Laurel Corona Says:

    Very good point, Sharon, that how we react to historical characters sometimes says more about us than about them. Thanks for the opportunity to appear on your blog. I loved the comments!

  16. Koby Says:

    Today, William IX ‘The Troubadour’ of Aquitaine and Eleanor’s grandfather was born.

  17. Ken Says:

    Hi, Sharon.

    I know you don’t normally read any other author’s novels about ‘your’ people, but Kathryn Gibson on Facebook, under a photo of the setting sun over the Menai Straits printed this extract from Edith Pargetter’s book. I find it very moving, almost poetic:

    ‘Lying as it does in a cleft of the northern hills, with the great mountain mass of Penmaenmawr to the east, Moel Wnion to the west, and Foel-Fras to the south, the morning sun never enters Aber. But to look out at dawn to the north, over the narrow salt marshes to Lavan Sands and the sea, that is wonderful. The deepening light, first tinted like feathers of doves, then flushing into rose, then glowing like amber, comes sweeping westward from Conwy over the sea, to strike in a glitter of foam and sand on the distant coast of Anglesey across the Strait from us, as if a golden tide had surged across the sea-green time, and flooded the visible world with light. That was such a morning. The only time that Eleanor’s eyes left Llewelyn’s face was to gaze at the morsel of sky seen through the open doorway, and he divined the last thirst that troubled her, she who loved the sun. If he could not take her where it would shine upon her, at least she might still look upon its beauty from the shadows.

    He sat down beside her on the edge of the brychan, and lifted her against his shoulder, and carefully gathering the blankets of the bed about her, took her up in his arms. She made no sign or sound of pain, but only a soft sigh, and with his cheek pressed steadyingly against her hair he carried her out onto the guard-walk, and the few yards around the stony bulk of the tower to the northern parapet and stood cradling her as the sun rose, their faces turned towards the sea.

    There in the open the air sweet and cool, and below us, beyond the shore road, the reeds and grasses of the marsh stood erect like small bright lances, every one separate, going down in lush tufted waves to where the sands began, with a great exultation of sea-birds filling the air above. The level sunrays made all the surface of the Strait a dance of fireflies, but beneath the glitter the deeps shone green as emeralds, and darker blue in the centre, and the shallows where the sand showed through were the colour of ripening wheat. Along the distant shore was the Franciscan Friary of Llanfaes, the burying-place of the princesses of Gwynedd. In the morning light it appeared as the distant harbour of desire, absolute in beauty and peace.

    She lay content in his arms and on his heart, her cheek against his cheek, and her eyes drew light from the picture on which she gazed, and grew so wide and wise in their hazel-gold that there was a moment when I believed he had won the battle. He knew better.
    …..
    ‘Cariad!’ she said, and her breath caught and halted long, gently began again, and again sank into stillness.
    He held her for a great while after that, but there was no more sound, and no more movement, and that was all her message to him. She did not leave him without saying farewell. Yes! Cariad!
    …..
    When he went out from the chamber where she lay, his face was a better likeness of death than hers.
    …..
    ‘Thirteen years I waited for her,’ he said, looking down upon her still face, ‘and less than four years I have had her, and I suppose that was reward beyond my deserts. Now for me, as a man, there is nothing left to lose, what is there Edward or any other man can do to me that I cannot laugh to scorn?’
    …..
    We buried Eleanor de Montfort, Princess of Wales, in the Friary of Llanfaes, in the heart of June, when all things were blossoming and ripening for fruit, and the days so fair the heart ached for their beauty, and more for the beauty that was rapt away in its Junetide. We carried her in solemn procession from Aber across the salt marshes, and rowed her from Lavan Sands over the Strait, and laid her beside Joan, lady of Wales aforetime, daughter to King John and wife to Llewelyn Fawr, my Lord’s grandsire. There her mortal part rests until judgement, but surely her soul is gone like the flight of a lark, singing into the world of light. It is for ourselves we grieve.

    At night in hall the bards made music in her honour, lamenting the rose of the world fallen untimely to a killing frost, praising her as the noble daughter of a noble sire as indeed she was, and prophesying the gift of her beauty and goodness to her own child in the days to come. And he sat erect and grave through it all, and did all that was required of him that day, taking pains to make all necessary dispositions for the care of his little daughter. He named her Gwenllian, for it was a name in which Eleanor had found a pleasing music.’

    Afterglow and Nightfall: The Brothers of Gwynedd

  18. admin Says:

    Ken, that is so very beautifully written, and almost unbearingly heart-breaking. I found it very hard to write her death scene in The Reckoning; it was such a tragic end to their marriage and such a cruel blow to a man struggling to save his country from Edward’s aggression.

  19. admin Says:

    Koby, I always mention you on Facebook whenever you remind me of an interesting medieval anniversary I’ve either forgotten or did not know, as with Eleanor’s grandfather. This is what I put up on my various Facebook sites today.

    Koby deserves to share the thanks with me for many of the little snippets of information I post about what happened on a particular day in the MA. Obviously I am familiar with “my” people’s history, but Koby’s range of knowledge is truly awesome. Thanks to him, I can tell you that today Eleanor’s father, William, was… born in 1071. A very interesting man, and clearly Eleanor inherited some of his “rebel” genes.

  20. Ken Says:

    ‘She did not believe him, not at first. He saw her doubt, and turned away. She heard him say, ‘Fetch the child,’ and then he was back, sliding his arm around her shoulders, lifting her up so she could see. She closed her eyes as another memory broke through, a memory of Gwynora entreating her to ‘hold on, hold on for your baby’. She would, and she did, and at last Elizabeth was there, and Llewelyn was reaching out for the baby, putting him down on the bed beside her. Dark hair like Llewelyn, like Bran. She yearned to touch it, and Llewelyn seemed to know, for he took her hand, placed it on the little head, and her fingers felt the silky, feathery wisps. Llewelyn had brought up the corner of the sheet, was blotting her tears. She hadn’t realized that she was still crying. She found it so hard to take her eyes away from the baby, but for a moment she sought her husband’s face. So much to tell him, and no time. But he knew. He did not need the words. He knew. ‘Bran,’ she whispered again, and the baby whimpered, squirmed closer, instinctively seeking her warmth.’

    ‘The Reckoning.’

    How on earth can any aspiring author (such as yours truly) seek to match the talents of two such incredibly talented authors??

  21. Joan Szechtman Says:

    Ken wrote, “How on earth can any aspiring author (such as yours truly) seek to match the talents of two such incredibly talented authors?”

    I know you didn’t ask me, but here’s my suggestion anyway: find your own voice. It’s great that you’re striving for such a high standard.

  22. admin Says:

    Joan is so right, Ken. It is obvious from all your postings here and on Facebook that you are “the real deal,” as we stay in the States, a genuine writer, the sort who can make words soar like hawks. IMHO, this is a talent people are born with and are able to hone through practice. I don’t think everyone has it, including some best-selling authors, to be brutally honest. Sometimes it is enough to be able to tell a good story to make a writer successful even when if his/her prose is flat or prosaic. Sometimes people become writers by sheer luck alone and sometimes they become pretend-authors with ghost writers, as is the case with most celebrity books. But if you listen to your own inner voice, Ken, you’ll be able to recreate Othon’s world for us–and to give us your “take” on our least favorite king!
    BTW, Joan modestly didn’t mention that her sequel to This Time, her time-traveling novel about Richard III, will be published next year. This Time is a good example of a writer listening to her own inner voice; Joan has said she wanted to write about Richard, but did not want to deal with the tragedy of his death, and so she came up with this very imaginative idea–bring Richard to our time. Do I have this right, Joan? If not, please let us know.

  23. Ken Says:

    Thanks for the vote of confidence Sharon, and thank you too Joan. I’ll do my best! Joan’s books sound interesting and I’ll be sure to buy them.

    I guess, that through a mixture of procrastination/writer’s block/real life interference, I haven’t done Othon justice over the last couple of months. That attitude changed last week and I have been beating up my laptop keyboard for the last few days! If I can keep that up, I should be able to have the bulk of the first draft finished by February. Then I will see if I have managed to find ‘my voice!’

  24. Joan Szechtman Says:

    Sharon asked, “Joan has said she wanted to write about Richard, but did not want to deal with the tragedy of his death, and so she came up with this very imaginative idea–bring Richard to our time.”

    That’s part of it, Sharon. One of the things that hit me in the gut about Richard (and so many others of that era), was how young he was when he died (32), and how much personal tragedy he suffered prior to his own death. But I think what most impressed me about Richard was his character and how he saw the effect of the law on everyone, not just the nobility. Upon becoming king, he enacted laws where people had to be charged to be held in jail, juries had to be qualified, habeas corpus was to be enforced, and property title had to be vetted, among others. He wrote, “The law shall cease to be an instrument of oppression and extortion.” I felt that kind of progressive thinking was quite unusual for his time and began to speculate on what Richard would have thought of our rule of law, the constitution, etc. So I started by writing an article or short story, but it grew some (pun intended ;) ) and is now three books. “Loyalty Binds Me,” the second, is with the editor, and the third is still a work in progress.

    Ken, good to hear that you’re back to writing. One thing that I found really helpful since by background is engineering and writing or history, was to join an online critique workshop (Critique Circle) where I found people willing to help me over the rough spots, allowing me to find my voice. It also meant that I had to help others with their WIPs, which also helped me with my own writing.

    Laurel, sorry for stealing your spotlight.

  25. Joan Szechtman Says:

    Oops–typo: “…by background is engineering and writing or history,…” should be …my background is engineering and notwriting or history,

  26. Vanitha Sankaran Says:

    Joan, my background is in engineering, writing and history. LOL. I jsut finished Laurel’s book and I have to say it was a compelling, thought-provoking read. Highly recommended.

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