Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Review of In Another Life and Interview with Julie Christine Johnson

Author: Julie Christine Johnson
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Supernatural
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 344
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
First Published: February 2, 2016
First Line: "Eighteen months after her husband's death, Lia Carrer returned to Languedoc like a shadow in search of light."

Book Description from GoodReadsHistorian Lia Carrer has finally returned to southern France, determined to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. But instead of finding solace in the region's quiet hills and medieval ruins, she falls in love with Raoul, a man whose very existence challenges everything she knows about life--and about her husband's death. As Raoul reveals the story of his past to Lia, she becomes entangled in the echoes of an ancient murder, resulting in a haunting and suspenseful journey that reminds Lia that the dead may not be as far from us as we think. 

Steeped in the rich history and romantic landscape of rural France, In Another Life is a story of love that conquers time and the lost loves that haunt us all.

My Review:  Beautifully written and engrossing historical fiction reads are some of my favourite books to snuggle down with on these cold winter days.  But as an avid fan of the genre I will admit that sometimes it starts to feel like I've 'read it all'.  Plots become predictable, characters seem familiar and some settings feel overdone.

Author Julie Christine Johnson brings her own unique take on the genre with In Another Life and adds a special twist.  Not only is this book set firmly in the historical fiction genre but it also has strong paranormal and even fantasy elements involving an ancient murder which helps this book stand out from the crowd.

What struck me from the beginning was the quality of Johnson's writing. With her beautiful prose she engages the reader from page one with descriptions of time, place and characters.  It is evident that a lot of research went into this book but I never felt overloaded with information and details which I appreciated. Johnson could have easily fallen into the information overload faux pas because there's a fair amount of historical detail involved and a lot of different themes are addressed.  From reincarnation, religious persecution, grief, family bonds and transcendence of love there is a lot going on ... but it works and the plot flows well.

One of the reasons why I love the historical fiction genre is that I get to learn something about eras, people and places that I previously knew little about.  This book is set in France, specifically Paris as well as the French region of Languedoc, an area that I was unfamiliar with.  I found the area and its history interesting but it was the Cathar faith and their persecution that intrigued me.  Their beliefs as well as their brutal demise at the hands of the Catholic church was quite compelling and this helped me to quickly become engaged in the characters' stories.

The story follows Lia, a young widow trying to move forward through her grief who gets entangled in a murder involving the persecutions of Cathars in the 13th century.  A major theme throughout the book is the idea of time travel and some other reviewers have stated that they see strong similarities between this book at Diana Gabaldon's megahit, the Outlander series.  I can't quite agree.  Besides the strong writing and the time travel aspect (which is dealt with in very different ways) the feel, style of writing and plot aren't similar.  Instead I see a very strong similarity to one of my favourite Canadian authors, Susanna Kearsley (specifically her book 'The Winter Sea') because of their haunting, romantic tales that weave together the past and present.

The only wee issue that I had with the book is that I occasionally struggled to stay with the regularly changing time lines and characters especially since a few of the characters appear in both eras. But it didn't take me long to get back on track.  A bit more detail about the Cathar faith within the story would have been great too.  For those of us wanting more information on the Cathars, the author gives some great reference material at the back of the book.

This is a haunting tale of love and loss set in a beautiful area with a truly unique story line.  With its stunning cover and focus on romance, lies, suspense and a gruesome murder in the early 13th century, this is a book that will intrigue and captivate readers.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark for providing me with a complimentary paperback copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.  I'd also like to thank author Julie Christine Johnson for taking the time to answer my questions for the following interview.

Author Julie Christine Johnson is the author of In Another Life (February 2016), The Crows of Beara (to be published September 2017) and she is currently working on her third novel Tui.  She has also written many short stories and essays which have been published in several journals.  She has undergraduate degrees in psychology and French as well as a Masters in International Affairs. As a self-proclaimed lover of hiking, running, yoga and wine (my kind of gal!) and has lived abroad in several different countries.  It was a pleasure to recently interview Julie about her book In Another Life which hits bookstore shelves February 2, 2016.

My Interview with the Author

1) I haven't read many books that are a combination of three different genres.  Do you have a preference when it comes to genre?  Do you find one easier to write than another?
Truly, I had no genre in mind when I began writing In Another Life; I just wanted to tell a good story. Later, when I realized I might have something worth trying to find an audience for, I knew I’d have to articulate who that audience might be. What would I say in my query letter? I went looking for comparable titles and found them all on in the “General Fiction” section of the bookstore. Authors like Deborah Harkness, Mary Doria Russell, and David Mitchell, who take genre conventions and toss them out the window, are my inspiration!

Interesting, and beautifully encouraging, were the reactions from the industry professionals who would become my agent and my first publishing editor. They loved that In Another Life couldn’t be pigeonholed in any category or genre, that it sprawled its limbs across the multitude!

I consider myself a storyteller. Genre doesn’t factor in when I think about my characters or themes. The joy is in challenging myself to do things I didn’t know I had in me, like historical fiction; to play with convention, as I did with the paranormal element of In Another Life; to look for the best stories in my soul.

2). Where do you find inspiration for your plots and characters?  Are you inspired initially by the plot or do the characters come to you first?
I believe that story comes from character. Characters are why we read, why we are changed by what we read. Plot is a means to move them through their lives, to tell their story.

Each of my novels and short stories has a different genesis. In Another Life came from an image of Lia and Raoul that rose in my mind during a stay in Languedoc; researching the history of the region opened the door to their story. 

I wanted to set my second novel, The Crows of Beara (Ashland Creek Press, September 2017), in Ireland, but when I began sketching out characters, that’s all I knew. The characters led me to themes of addiction and the healing power of art. A chance encounter with a book of poetry gave me the exact location in Ireland, and that led me to construct a plot around copper mining and animal conservation, with a thread of magical realism woven through. Last summer I studied with that poet—Leanne O’Sullivan—in the very spot where my novel is set (Beara Peninsula). A dream come true!

Two characters led the way into my third novel, Tui: an American woman dealing with child loss and a little girl in New Zealand who is living on the edge of society. The plot is how those two souls come together.

3) Do you have a particular method or approach to research and writing?  Generally how long does the process take per book? 
There’s usually an idea whispering away at me—an image, snippet of overheard conversation, something I read in the paper, a place I’ve visited. Holding that idea loosely in my mind, I begin to work on character sketches and follow where those lead. Whom am I writing about and how do they relate to the idea I can’t seem to let go of? I’ll research enough to get a sense of the place, issues, and time as it relates to the plot, but research for me is an ongoing process as the story develops. I try not to set things out too far in advance, preferring to layer in details as I discover where the story is taking me.

The amount of time has varied wildly. It took me eighteen months to finish a first draft of In Another Life; ten weeks for The Crows of Beara; nine months for Tui. I revised and edited the first two novels while writing the third!

4) What is the hardest or least favourite part of the writing process for you? 
The hardest part is coming to the end of the first draft. It’s a very emotional experience for me. The characters and story are so raw, so open and beautiful in their natural state. Although I can’t wait to shape and mold the story in subsequent revisions, there is something pure and deeply personal about the first draft that I hate to let go. 

5). Is there a character in In Another Life that you relate to?  Why?
It seems obvious to say Lia, the story’s protagonist, but I adore her. Yet I’m still getting to know her. By the novel’s end she’s just starting to come into her own, to realize her own emotional strength. I’m a few years older than Lia: 46 to her late 30s, but I see in her the same sense of purpose, a reinvigoration of character and self and determination that arrives with turning 40. You look around and say, “Right. This is who I am at this moment. I am beautiful, strong, I have so much yet to give, to discover. Let’s do this. Let’s live.”  Also, she’s acutely claustrophobic, like her author.

6) Do you think Lia's lack of faith for the majority of her life helped her to accept the Cathar beliefs more readily?
Absolutely. I think the act of closing the door on faith cornered Lia’s soul. She left herself vulnerable, without any way to move forward. Faith is a story, a way to explain the world; it is often is the key to hope, a path to empathy and compassion. We all need stories. They’re all we have. Lia finds redemption and hope through the stories of the Cathars—their beliefs become her reality.

7) Is your representation of reincarnation in the book based specifically on Cathar beliefs or is it more of a personal interpretation?
The Cathars’ belief in reincarnation and the transmigration of human soul to non-human form was one of my launching points into the plot, but I took poetic license in weaving together fantasy and alternative history with a loose interpretation of what we know about Cathar beliefs and practices.

8) How do you feel about some people making comparisons between this book and Diana Gabaldon's 'Outlander' series? 
My goal was to write something both beautiful and irresistible, a book that would take the reader out of the real world for a little while. I read the first in the Outlander series many years ago, so my memory of the story is hazy, but I do remember not being able to put it down. The comparison delights me!

9) What things do you think make a successful historical fiction novel?  
I need to be transported to a place and time on a wave—just tossed right into the sea of the story. Great historical fiction dances that fine line between world-building, exposition, and simply getting on with the story. The details are layered in, but not belabored over. It needs to feel natural, as if you’ve just opened the door and sat down in Roman Britain, or a WWI bunker, or feudal Japan.

10) Have other historical fiction writers influenced your work?  If so, who and how? 
I’m not a writer of historical fiction per se, so my influences cross a broad spectrum of styles. Many of my favorite historical novels are written by authors whose work spans categories and genres. Hilary Mantel blows my mind. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, set in 16th century England, she does just what I mention above—she opens up her world, sets a tone, and gets on with it. The “historical fiction” aspect of her work never dominates the characters and their stories. David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars showed me how creating a sense of place can be poetic, and how to connect readers viscerally with an era through the emotional power of character. Mary Doria Russell. Shoot. There’s nothing she can’t do. Ditto Margaret Atwood!

11)  What did you do to get in the mindset of your characters?
Oh wow. It truly just happens as I write. In revisions, I may to learn more about a character, get deeper into their wants and hurts, but because I build a story from the characters up, I enter the writing process with all those voices clamoring in my head. In writing, I’m able to give them some space.

12) How rigorously do you adhere to historical accuracy?  Do you overlook some historical aspects in order to make your plot work?
Writing a work of fantasy allowed me poetic license with the plot, but I wanted to honor the historical details of daily life. My goal was to create as seamless a transition as possible between past and present, while retaining a sense of almost dream-like wonder between the two worlds. It’s a feeling I carry with me when I’m in France, where the past lives and breathes in concert with the present. The towns, streets, hills, vineyards, and many of the edifices within In Another Life are ones I’ve explored, wandered through, dreamed of.

In Another Life is a fantasy built on the scaffolding of history. One of my greatest delights was to etch the theme of history vs. the past into the narrative: history is what we know to be true—facts gleaned from primary sources and artifacts. The past is what we make a reasonable guess at.  I hope to open the door of readers’ mind with history, but then extend a hand as they make a leap of imagination with me into the past.

13) You've lived in several different countries. What drew you specifically to France to be the backdrop for your first book?
I attended my first writers’ conference in June 2012. I’d been writing short stories for a couple of years at that point, but what I wanted was to write a novel. I just had no idea where or how to begin. I could not see past opening my laptop to a blank page. With the cursor blinking at me, what would I do? How does anyone write the first words?

Three ideas nattered away at me, as distinct from each other as snowflakes on glass, and nearly as fleeting, for they were just feathery notions of stories. One was more of a flickering image than an idea: a woman, deep in thought, standing on a cliff overlooking the Corbières valley in the southern French region of Languedoc-Roussillon. From the ruins of a Cathar citadel, a man steps out and joins her. I was aching to find out who they were, but I was certain she was from the present and he, from the past.

Early in the conference, I attended a session on storyboarding and it all clicked. I could see the narrative unfolding as a time slip between medieval and contemporary Languedoc. It seemed like it would be such fun to write. Romance. Adventure. Mystery. Reincarnation. Castle ruins. Knights Templar. Wine. The notion that I would be running headfirst into the high, brick wall of historical research never really occurred me. But I broke through that wall, word by word!

14) There's a lot of back and forth between the two eras as well as very detailed characters.  Did you find it hard to keep track of everything as you wrote?

I don’t know how I could have made writing a first novel any harder on myself. I had a beginning, a handful of characters, but I had no middle or end. I wrote scenes out of order (I may have been inspired by that storyboard class, but I didn’t put the advice in to practice. Yikes).  At some point, about two-thirds into a first draft, I had 140,000 words and no sense of where I was going or how it would ever end. I stopped in my tracks, started from the beginning, cleaning up as I went along, putting things in order. I never had a problem keeping eras or characters straight, but I wrote an especially plotty book in which one change here meant tracking back to the source there and making certain the details lined up, or reengineering completely to make a better story.

I’m still a pantser at heart; I don’t start with an outline, I don’t edit as I draft, I let it all pour out. But now, once I’ve got a solid first draft in hand, I use Michael Hague’s brilliant Six Stage Plot structure to discover and refine my character arcs. And I keep a process notebook for each novel, working out plot holes, asking myself questions, tracking key details. I draft in Scrivener, but I have to work things out longhand.

15)  Which authors inspire you?
Hilary Mantel, Kate Mosse, Colm Toibin, Anne Enright, Mary Doria Russell, Elizabeth Gilbert, Lily King, Dani Shapiro, Tim Winton, Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Jess Walter, Lidia Yuknavitch, I tend to binge on authors. Last year it was Elena Ferrante and Francesca Marciano. This year I’ve joined an online group reading a Virginia Woolf work each month.

Laurie, thank you so much for hosting me on your wonderful blog. And thanks to your followers for supporting so many wonderful writers. It’s been an honor and a joy!

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