Non-Romance Influences: Colonial Literature

I’ve talked a lot on social media about my romance novel influences (e.g. Laura Kinsale, Joanna Bourne, and others), but I’ve not mentioned authors and books that have meant just as much to me as a writer, especially pre-romance days. So I’m starting an occasional series on all the works of fiction, science fiction, children’s fiction, and adult nonfiction that have permanently taken up real estate in my brain.

Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe and Burmese Days George Orwell and Quiet American Graham Greene and Tai Pan James Clavell in green theme

My literature exposure in public high school was hit or miss, depending on the teacher I had. I tried to make up for this in college, even though I had passed out of my English requirements and took only international relations and history courses. My first year I took a required class called “Empire and Independence in the Modern World,” with a specific focus on Africa, where I was assigned Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. That was a revelation. I also studied a lot of Southeast Asian history and politics, and that professor must have had me read The Quiet American by Graham Greene three times in three separate classes. It was not a hardship. I loved it from the start. I think I also picked up Burmese Days by George Orwell on this professor’s recommendation. Finally, my then-boyfriend, now-husband, suggested James Clavell’s Tai-Pan as “fun” and “light”—which, in comparison to most of the heavy nonfiction we had to read, it was. Now, as I look back upon this college reading, I realize two things:

First, far too many of these books were written by white men, even when the subject was the injustice of colonialism. I did not question this fact too much as a student, but then again most of my professors were white men. I have read more widely since, but this post is really about the books from my youth.

Second, flawed or not, these novels left a big impression. They shaped how I approach a fictional treatment of the American colonial Philippines.


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe a masterpiece of Nigerian African world fiction

Things Fall Apart is a story of a Nigerian village before and after the arrival of British missionaries. The first half of the book gives no hint of what is coming: it is the story of an ambitious man in the village and his downfall. It is a story that could be told anywhere, and yet it is distinctly Nigerian. This is Achebe’s point. He portrays Igbo society as complex and flawed at times—like every other society on the globe. But, with the arrival of Protestant missionaries and British officials, everything falls apart. The beliefs, laws, and customs of the village are turned on their head, and this is not good. Interestingly, not all of Achebe’s missionaries are bad people. The first white man to arrive in the village thinks he is doing good work. He listens to the Igbo people’s problems and welcomes all who seek his help. Ironically, it is his compassion that accelerates the rate of conversion and hastens the collapse of the traditional village structure. This is a beautiful, nuanced story of the consequences—some unintended—of European rule in Africa. It explains why many parts of Africa have had such a hard time recovering.

Chinua Achebe author of Things Fall Apart pictured here in the late 1950s at time of publication
A photo of Achebe around the time of the publication of Things Fall Apart.

Achebe grew up with a foot in both worlds: he was the child of converted Protestants, born in the city and educated in British-style schools; but his parents always kept ties with their traditional religion, and they moved their children back to their ancestral village at a young age.

Achebe was well-versed in the canon of British literature, but he was not afraid to criticize it. He especially criticized Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for celebrating the dehumanization of the African people:

It is clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the “rudimentary souls” of Africa. In place of speech they made “a violent babble of uncouth sounds.” They “exchanged short grunting phrases” even among themselves. But most of the time they were too busy with their frenzy.

I am not saying that Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in contrast to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He wrote his novel based on his own experiences, twenty years before he gave that speech on Conrad. But the two books are a remarkable pairing. I prefer Achebe’s discerning view that portrays all characters—Nigerian or British—with very human strengths and weaknesses.

Takeaways: complex social networks, multiple perspectives, ambiguous characters, unintended consequences.


BURMESE DAYS BY GEORGE ORWELL

Burmese Days by George Orwell an influence on Jennifer Hallock author of the Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

Orwell was born in Bengal and worked as a policeman in what is now Burma—both parts of the British crown colony of India at the time. According to the original dust jacket of Burmese Days, he resigned “because he disliked putting people in prison for the same things which he should have done in their circumstances.” Six years after he quit, he published a scathing indictment of colonial superciliousness in novel form. This is Burmese Days. Orwell’s treatment was so controversial at the time (1934) that one of his former colleagues claimed he had “rather let the side down” and his former principal threatened to horsewhip Orwell if he ever saw him again. Orwell claimed that most of the book was “simply reporting what I have seen.” (Source)

Two versions of Burmese Days by George Orwell in a post by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance seriesThis book could never be romance. It’s about racism, poverty, prostitution, spurned love, and suicide. No HEA at all. Not even close. And while there is sort of a hero, Flory, he’s pretty wishy-washy. And there is no true heroine—Flory’s love interest is the most infuriating, horrible snob. You want to throw her—and her friends and family—off the roof of the British club, where most of the novel takes place.

The characters are not subtle, and the Burmese in the story are superficially drawn. (For all-around depth, read Achebe.) Orwell did not understand the Burmese as well as he understood—and was disgusted by—his fellow countrymen. His novel exposes the small-mindedness of white imperialists, and it does so in a visceral, immediate way. You will not like most of the characters in the book, but that is the point. Orwell didn’t, either. Clearly, he felt a lot of ambivalence while working in India: he wanted a paycheck, but hated the way he was getting it. He proved luckier than his “hero,” though, and quit instead of doing himself harm—which is good since Orwell had still to write 1984. (That will be covered in a later post, of course.) It is unbelievable to me that out of the original 2000 print copies of Burmese Days, over 900 had to be remaindered because the book was so badly panned by the critics. (Maybe that’s encouragement to us all.)

Takeaways: critical portrayal of the “white club” phenomenon in colonial societies, complex political points made through conversation.


The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Graham Greene The Quiet American literary edition with cover painted by Peter Edwards
The special literary edition cover of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, as painted by Peter Edwards, illustrator of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Moving into neo-colonial fiction, the Quiet American is loosely based on a real spy: an American CIA officer named Edward Lansdale. Lansdale was the “advisor” who helped elect Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay in 1953, and together they pulled the teeth out of a communist insurrection in Luzon. After that success, Lansdale was sent to Indochina, just as the French empire was dying, with instructions to shore up South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem against the growing communist movement. He was not as successful the second time around.

Quote from the Quiet American by Graham Greene
A quote from The Quiet American that shows the layered, yet simple style of Graham Greene.

Greene’s version of this tale reimagines Lansdale as a seemingly naive foreign aid bureaucrat named Pyle. The story is told from the perspective of a jaded British reporter, Fowler, who notices that wherever our quiet American goes, trouble follows. And, of course, there is a woman, Phuong, that they compete over. But this is not a romance, either. It is a beautiful, profound, and yet hardboiled story. There’s action, too, with battle scenes based on real events. Most importantly, the book explains the American entrance into this war in the 1950s—and it predicts its disastrous end—but you hardly notice these lessons because you are too wrapped up in the humanity of the story. The Quiet American was made into a gorgeous movie, for which Michael Caine received an Academy Award Nomination.

Takeaways: using real people and events as inspiration for fiction, masterful weaving of political points into human drama, setting as character.

The Quiet American movie with Michael Caine and Brendan Frasier


Tai-Pan by James Clavell

Tai Pan by James Clavel epic novel on the founding of Hong Kong

This story is about the creation of Hong Kong in the nineteenth century. It features British, American, and Chinese traders and blockade-runners who build a free market playground to make themselves rich. Clavell himself was a fan of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, which will come as no surprise when you read the book. And this is not the only thing that makes Clavell’s fiction problematic. Tai-Pan actually romanticizes colonial acquisition at the same time that it claims to honor Asian culture. Nor am I sure that he had a lot of respect for women. Honestly, I cannot think of much that he and I would have agreed on. And this book isn’t literary, like the three works above. It’s not even my favorite of the author’s novels. (That’s King Rat, based upon Clavell’s own experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war in World War II.)

So what makes it special? Clavell is a heck of a storyteller. An epic storyteller, really, creating dynasties that span hundreds of years. This is solid genre fiction—and yet Clavell does not sacrifice content to bring you a pulpy, fast-paced novel. He especially does not back away from economic history. Yes, it’s a little laissez-faire for my tastes, but it’s still well-told. I loved the subtleties of his negotiation scenes, including a nuanced use of chopsticks that still makes me self-conscious about my lack of finesse. Finally, Clavell gives voice to mixed race characters, who are often the most sympathetic of the lot.

Takeaways: economic and historical content that is highly readable, excellent pacing, subtleties of interactions between characters, cross-cultural relationships and mixed race characters.

Hong Kong vista from the Peak
Vista of Hong Kong from the Peak.

Edited to Add:
Opera version of Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal at Cultural Center of the Philippines
From the 60th Anniversary production of the opera Noli Me Tangere at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Yeah, Jose Rizal (on screen) was a historical hottie. I’ve got a thing. Not gonna lie.

I did not include Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere to this list only because I plan to do more with it and the role it played in fomenting the Philippine Revolution when I get closer to publishing Padre Andrés’s book, Sugar Communion. Until that time comes, let me say that the Noli is another seminal work of colonial literature. It was written by an author of color, but (like the others) penned in the language of the imperialists, in this case Spanish. Rizal deserves a post of his own because I cannot explain all the ways he fascinates me here.

Noli Me Tangere is about the unchecked power of the Spanish in a system based on race and class, and how this leads to a pretty depressing end for most of the Filipinos in the story. What I especially liked about this book was the voice given to otherwise minor characters, like the devoted mother of two young sacristans in the church. I also loved the social commentary delivered in ornate dinner and banquet scenes. Throughout, Rizal was making a political point about the cruelty and hypocrisy of Spanish friars. He did not seem to be espousing violent revolution, though, at least not in this book. But he did want equal treatment under the law. It shouldn’t have been a big ask.

Takeaways: depth of secondary characters, nuanced political discussions, setting as character.

The Business Workshops of #RT17

Last week, I told you a bit about the craft workshops and panels I attended at #RT17. This week, I’m all business. This is long, so you might want to digest it in chunks.


Mark Coker Smashwords founder speech on future of digital independent authorship publishing at Romantic Times Atlanta

This workshop was led by Smashwords founder Mark Coker. You can read a comprehensive recap of all ten trends at author Cecilia Tan’s blog here, and most of it you already know: digital publishing has democratized publishing; romance has led the way in professional-quality independent publishing; and that there is a glut of high quality, low-priced books. The ability to inventory digital books for basically free means that everything stays in print and on the market forever. This increased supply has pushed down prices, especially for new authors.

Coker ended the presentation with a call for author mobilization against KDP Select, Amazon’s exclusivity program with subscription-based pricing. He portrayed KDP’s system as predatory pricing, a monopolistic practice that threatens to put Amazon’s competitors out of business. This threatens the newly-found independence and choice of independent authors. We have just been released from bondage to the Big Five, and now we’re in bondage to Amazon, according to Coker. While this may be true, he did not fully recognize the prisoner’s dilemma that Amazon presents to authors. If we all stood up together as one and refused to participate in KDP, we would all be punished equally by Amazon’s algorithm—meaning none of us would be punished. This might put KDP out of business. But without collective action, pulling out of KDP will only hurt the individual author who takes the stand. Your books will be buried in Amazon, and other authors will be thrilled to take your spot at the top of the bestseller lists. In this prisoner’s dilemma, no one chooses the collective good over their own self-interest. That’s human nature, and Amazon knows it.


Mark Coker Smashwords founder reveals survey future independent publishing at Romantic Times Atlanta

This presentation was less ideological and more data-driven than the first. Some of the data followed the trends seen in his 2016 survey, but let me recap what I found particularly interesting. Note that all of this is based on averages, so your mileage may vary. The survey showed that among his authors:

  • Write as long as you need to. The top 70 bestselling romance authors at Smashwords average 92,000 words (excluding box sets) and 113,000 words (including box sets).
  • But keep the titles short. The top 100 bestsellers at Smashwords have 24.45 characters on average in the title, while the 900-1000 bestsellers have 30.11 characters on average. The last 100 surveyed (bestsellers 9,900-10,000) average 35.5 characters.
  • How much should you charge for your ebooks? Free books still get the most downloads, but among books for sale, the best range is still from $2.99-$4.99. The spot at $1.99 is a dead zone. It seems to be better for Smashwords authors to price at $0.99 or $2.99 than $1.99.
  • If you write a series—and, yes, they still dominate the romance market—you should give away the starter for free. 7 out of 10 of the bestselling series on Smashwords have a free starter. Interestingly, 4 of the 10 did not have any new book in the series published within the survey period (a year), which shows the persistence of series, even when complete or on pause.
  • Should you put your books up for preorder? Especially in the iBooks store, yes. They count your preorders as first day sales, unlike Amazon where they are counted on the day the purchase is made. Coker found that of the top 1000 bestselling authors, 61.7% released at least one book on preorder. There could be other factors at work, like the fact that the most professional and organized authors might be the one getting their act together for preorders. Maybe they have nicer covers, better writing, and better advance marketing, he suggested.
  • Should you do a box set? “Box sets are not the path to riches, but they can be a nice complement to your publishing strategy,” Coker said. Authors participating in at least one box set—whether alone or with other authors—are highly represented among bestselling authors. However, in my opinion, this may be more a function of catalog size than actual box set sales. Authors with more books in the backlist tend to have higher earnings and more followers, and these are the authors who have the material to create a box set. Moreover, the best selling box sets are $0.99, which is a pretty low value on that many words.

Written Word Media Bargain Booksy Freebooksy panel digital print marketing at Romantic Times Atlanta

This workshop featured two executives of Written Word Media, the team behind FreeBooksy and Bargain Booksy. It was a little free-form, but here are the takeaways that I think may interest fellow authors:

  • Perceived value was a very interesting concept to me. Giving a book away for free without any hurdles not only loses you revenue, but it also lowers the “perceived value” of your book. But if you take an email address from a reader in order to get the book, that adds perceived value. Perceived value can also come from a reader pay to attend an event. Another trick is to keep the price on the back of the book the same as others in industry, and then put “special price” stickers on it. This way you can give special sales at specific events while still keeping the perceived value of your book high.
  • Covers are important, but they do not make the sale. They need to accurately represent the genre, general theme, and relative professionalism of the book—but NOT the whole plot! The point of a good cover is to get someone to read the blurb. The blurb sells the book.
  • In terms of ebook sales, the panel sees people making the most at the $2.99-$4.99 range, which agrees with Coker’s findings. (And, by the way, Coker joined the panel informally.) Bargain Booksy thinks that middle-range prices ($4.99) with flash sales (“for a limited time only”) is a good strategy.
  • Not surprisingly, it is easier to bring prices down than up. If you need to increase prices, do so incrementally.
  • As you might expect, pricing will expand and contract based on the number of books being released. This is supply and demand. The last two years have seen a lot of people fall out of the market, which is why we see prices going up a bit.
Romantic stock photo of couple in the jungle with a moon from Shutterstock for Sugar Moon spoof Jennifer Hallock steamy historical
You do NOT want your cover to describe the entire plot of your book. Case in point: this Shutterstock image has so many elements that are perfect for the story of Sugar Moon, including two reasonably good models, a jungle setting, and a big frickin’ moon (or is that a white earth?). But no. Just no.

Sourcebooks Casablanca publisher presents publishing market data at Romantic Times Atlanta

To be honest, this workshop turned into an infomercial of why we authors needed a traditional publisher, especially Sourcebooks. Even though I am fond of Sourcebooks because they published a few of Laura Kinsale’s books, I was still annoyed by their attitude. Nevertheless, there were a few interesting bits of data:

  • There are impulse buyers out there! In a Neilsen study of romance book buyers, 23% planned to buy one specific book at specific time; 23% planned to buy the one specific book, but not at a specific time; 26% planned to buy a book at a specific time, but not any particular book; and 30% didn’t plan to buy anything at all, making it a total impulse purchase.
  • How do readers first find you? Browsing the store accounts for 15% of first discovery. Reader recommendations account for 15%, but it needs to be recommended three times. Your author marketing accounts for 14%, but people need to see your materials at least twice. Finally, print and other analog (non-internet based) publicity counts for 13%, but it needs reinforcement 2.5 times. Bottom line: your marketing has an impact, but it’s best when reinforced by another source.
  • What do readers want to hear in your marketing? 31% of book purchases are based on book message. How do they like the sound of your story? 26% buy because they like your other books or the rest of your series. 15% is based upon reader recommendations. Only 8% of purchasing decisions are based upon special pricing alone, so don’t just drop your prices without a plan. Make sure you have a good book message, too!
  • Sourcebooks’ data also suggests that “freegans” will not convert to “paygans.” Just because people download your book for free doesn’t mean they will purchase more. This seems to contradict Coker’s data. (See above.)

ReShonda Tate Billingsley workshop on getting media coverage for indie authors at Romantic Times Atlanta

Much of what I learned in this workshop is hard to describe because it was based on the attendees pitching to ReShonda. She was brutally honest in her advice, but it was totally warranted. ReShonda was definitely the best teacher at the conference. I’m a little bit in love with her. Here are a few of her points:

  • Twitter has become a requirement in many newsrooms today. Follow your local reporters and know what they cover. This helps you find the right person for your story.
  • When you call or contact a newspaper or television station, there is no “my book this” or “my book that.” Have your assistant call the newsroom, even if your “assistant” is you (under a different name). First talk about a critical issue the reporter should be aware of, and then reveal that a local expert (ahem, that’s you) wrote a book about this very problem. Give your pitch as a story, not a summary.
  • Email a pitch for a weekend feature first thing Thursday morning. If you try to do it late Wednesday, it will get buried in the pitches that come after you. And if you wait too long, they will be working on other things before yours. And why Thursday? Because it gives them time to consider your book for their weekend story planning, when it is hard to find news.
  • The email subject is your hook. Never say “new book” in your hook.
  • Paid news service promo agency stuff gets ignored. Do it yourself instead. Write a text email and attach a press release, if you have one. Do not bother sending books or promo kits. They will be thrown away.
  • Follow up. Don’t be a stalker, of course, but follow up two to three times by email. Call once if you need to.

You’ve reached the end! If you’re still here, I’m impressed. I learned a lot about the industry at #RT17. Not enough to justify the price tag, of course. In fact, that was maybe the most important business lesson: national conferences do not make financial sense if you have to pay your own way. I didn’t go to make money, though. I went to have fun, and I did. But I hope you’ve been more frugal and gotten your #RT17 value from this post. Next year, you can do the same for me.

The Craft Workshops of #RT17

The RT Booklovers Convention is an industry trade show more than writers’ convention. As a result, there are more bloggers, publicists, readers, and vendors than you’ll see at an average RWA event, which takes some focus off the craft of writing in favor of the business and marketing side of things. (And there’s lots of fangirling. See my previous post.) But RT does have craft workshops, even if these tend to be author discussion panels rather than instructional presentations. Learning happens! Let me prove it to you:

What's In A Name Piper Huguley Romantic Times Atlanta

Piper Huguley lead a solo workshop called “What’s in a Name?” in which she discussed onomastics, the linguistic field that studies the origins and history of personal names. She discussed considerations in naming your characters, but she went well beyond online tools—though she gave some of those, too, and I’ve added a few to my character tools site. But her sociological lessons captivated me most. For example, she talked about the history and derivation of gender crossover names. Did you know that Ashley, Beverly, Shirley, and Joyce were originally boys’ names? Many only crossed over to girls in the latter half of the twentieth century. Some are just crossing over now, like Mackenzie and Wyatt. Why? According to Huguley, names can be a symbolic armor or protection. If you have one child, and you want to give her the strongest chance at a successful life in a male-dominated society, you might give her a boys’ name. And there are “born to win” names, taken up by the African-American community when their children could not get the respect they deserved in white society. Earl, for example. Or Lloyd (for Lord). Or Piper’s relative, King Huguley. Or her character Champion Jack. Or Prince. “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” was a legal name change forced by Prince’s dispute with Warner Bros music, but Prince itself was born that way. Prince’s father had the stage name Prince, and he gave it legally to his son—Prince Rogers Nelson—because “I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do.” Shivers, right?

Heroines You Can Have It All Alisha Rai HelenKay Dimon Sonali Dev Romantic Times Atlanta

Alisha Rai, HelenKay Dimon, and Sonali Dev led a workshop on “Heroines: You Can Have It All.” They brought up an issue that has always been prickly to me: the “TSTL” (“too stupid to live”) criticism. Readers can be hard on heroines, especially ones who make mistakes. Yet, as HelenKay pointed out, sometimes our characters have to make the wrong choices, especially if those errors fit the character or situation. The key is to allow your heroine to be strong in other ways. Alisha talked about this in terms of “competence porn,” à la My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In that wonderful show, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) is an utter mess with relationships, but she is a bloody brilliant lawyer. Actually, she is a casually brilliant lawyer because it almost seems to take no effort. She’s just that good. She puts relatively little thought into her job until she needs to save the day, and then—whoosh, she’s stunning. When the show goes back to her personal life, though, she is still a freaking mess. She’s a relatable heroine, but still one we admire (most of the time). Sonali Dev talked about a different problem: turning the reader’s knee-jerk pity into a heroine’s weapon. Instead of making her heroine Mili a stereotypical child bride, she let Mili own it. Mili essentially says, “Okay, I’m a child bride—promised but not yet married. And instead of pouting about it right now, let me use that status to get educated and do what I want to do first.” This kind of nuance is really inspiring.

Bangin Hot Betas Karen Stivali Vanessa North Annabeth Albert Tamsen Parker Romantic Times Atlanta

Another great workshop was “Bangin’ Hot Betas” with Karen Stivali, Vanessa North, Annabeth Albert, and Tamsen Parker. They write hot, hot books—and they give good workshop, too. The big point was that beta does not mean boring. In fact, you can mine more complexity with a beta character but still get all the feels. The “let me teach him a thing or two in the bedroom” is pretty sexy, if you think about it. Betas can be more self-aware, more concerned for their partner’s needs, and more vulnerable. The authors acknowledged that pitching a beta hero is difficult, but their advice was to focus on what is awesome about the hero. Don’t highlight the beta bit—just write it that way. Like any book, get the tension and stakes high. Write it with the best dialogue and the hottest romance, and use those attributes to market the book. The reader may not even know why she loves the hero so much, but the point is that she does!

Historicals Welcome to Americana Beverly Jenkins Alyssa Cole Piper Huguley Joanna Shupe Kianna Alexander Kate McMurray Romantic Times Atlanta

I also loved the “Historicals: Welcome to Americana” workshop, but my notes were a little more sparse because I was too awestruck to really process everything that was being said. Why? Let me tell you the panel: Beverly Jenkins (our 2018 NECRWA Master Class presenter!), Alyssa Cole, Piper Huguley, Joanna Shupe, Kianna Alexander, and Kate McMurray. The latter two I have not read yet, but I plan to. They talked about all sorts of issues I care about, including the need to allow for a more representative slate of characters in more varied time settings, especially in American history. Ms. Bev said that a reader once told her that she couldn’t imagine an HEA between African-Americans in the nineteenth century. Ms. Bev rightly pointed out: “Even in the toughest times, people still love, still have birthday parties, still have picnics.” So true. While we all love our Regency historicals, we have to acknowledge that the real Regency period was one engulfed in war. We don’t get that in our costume dramas, which are significantly based upon Georgette Heyer’s description of the Regency rather than real history. For example, even Jane Austen spent much of her life not in the bucolic countryside—or even in Bath—but in Southampton, a “dock town filled with public drunkenness, street prostitution, and violence.” If you, like me, appreciate a little real history thrown into your entertainment, Camille Hadley Jones and I discuss this kind of thing in our new Facebook group, History Ever After. Come on by!

Smart Bitches Trashy Books Reader Recommendation Party Sarah Wendell Romantic Times Atlanta

There were many great reader events, but one that really stood out was the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books Reader Recommendation Party. Here’s how it went: the Bitches gave a book recommendation each—with reasons—and then we readers got a chance. Sarah Wendell came around with her mic and briefly interviewed us on what we liked and why. Here’s the thing: Sarah is funny. Correction: Sarah is freaking hilarious. I imagine that doing a podcast for so long has sharpened her quick wit, but part of it is talent, plain and simple. What fun! Those who made recommendations got extra raffle tickets. (We had each started with one, if you were keeping score.) After a bunch of book recs, raffle prizes were awarded. Then rinse and repeat. I got to give one recommendation—just one, and it was so hard to choose! But I had to pimp #romanceclass, so I chose one that had both Manila and millennial feels, so I went to one of my favorites: Mina V. Esguerra’s Iris After the Incident. There was a lot of good book noise (“oooohhh”) when I described it, so I hope lots of people bought it! If you want to know more, read my review here.

These were just a few of the offerings in Atlanta. If I did not mention a panel or workshop, I probably just could not get to it. Despite all the awesomeness above, I actually spent most of my time at marketing or industry workshops, which will be the subject of my next post. Stay tuned!

RT Booklovers Convention 2017

The #RTRoadTrip

Jen Doyle and I were welcomed to the South by a frog with a pitchfork. (By the way, you can book this venue for your wedding, just in case you were wondering.) Our favorite ridiculous site was the Peachoid, a water tower that must have been engineered by Sir Mix a Lot.

Romantic Times Atlanta 2017 road trip by authors Jennifer Hallock and Jen Doyle


The People

There were so many people at #RT17. I met Lydia San Andres, my Edwardian Promenade co-blogger, for the first time, which was awesome. She was handing out authentic Dominican chocolate from Xocolat—not the only reason I love her, but a good one. I also saw Maita Rue, who flew all the way from the Philippines! I bought five decks of Talecraft cards off her, which will be the subject of a later post.

Authors Jennifer Hallock Lydia San Andres and Stephanie Kay at Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in Atlanta 2017

I also fangirled all over Tiffany Reisz, Sonali Dev, and (of course!) Courtney Milan. I thanked Ms. Milan for her wonderful mention in Omnivoracious. I’m still blushing. All three authors were so, so nice. It was such a thrill.

Yet it is the readers who make #RT17 so incredible—and the scantily clad male cover models in the bars. Check out the two ladies with “When I think about books, I touch my shelf” t-shirts. Or the pair of librarians with their circulation card bags. Or the costume pajamas at Dreamspinner’s Cinema Craptastique. I love it all.

Wonderful crowds at the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in Atlanta in 2017


Swag

Wow, do people spend a lot of money on swag. Unfortunately, a lot of it ends up in the trash. It’s sad, but you collect so much over the course of the week that there’s no alternative. If you want to stand out from the crowd, swag-wise, you have to either give away books—see my amazing haul below, all but two of which were free—or give away an item that is both unique and useful. Next to Lydia’s chocolate, rubber duckies were my big winner. These will go to a friend who collects them.

Books swag neck wallets and rubber ducks from the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention 2017 in Atlanta

Oh yeah, and there were workshops. Learning happened! I will share some of the lessons I learned in my next post.


The way home

We passed the Peachoid again, and it looked no less obscene in the daytime. Really, what were they thinking?

The Peachoid of Gaffney South Carolina during the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention Road Trip 2017 to Atlanta

Tomorrow we will breakfast in Boonsboro at the inn owned by Nora Roberts before heading back to Boston. We hope everyone has safe travels home from #RT17!

Virginia is for Lovers sign at the welcome center on return from Romantic Times Booklovers Convention 2017 in Atlanta

Mogul and the Chinese Exclusion Act: An Interview with Joanna Shupe

Award-winning author Joanna Shupe writes the men of Edwardian era New York like no other. While some are born to the Knickerbocker Club set, others are self-made titans of industry. But whether they are from Five Points or Fifth Avenue, they are all swoon-worthy. In Mogul, one will battle a real historical injustice: the racist immigration laws of the late nineteenth century.

She never expected to find her former husband in an opium den.

Thus begins Mogul, Shupe’s last book in the Knickerbocker series. Calvin Cabot, the son of humble American missionaries in China, has grown up to become one of the most influential men in America. Even with his lucrative newspapers and powerful friends, though, can he find a way around one of the worst laws of the Gilded Age—the Chinese Exclusion Act—to reunite a friend’s family?

In this post, Joanna Shupe answers our questions about the Chinese Exclusion Act and how she came up with the idea to work such substantive history into the conflict of her novel.

Interview with Joanna Shupe author of Knickerbocker Club series of Gilded Age historical romance

What was the Chinese Exclusion Act, and how will it affect your characters?

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, signed into law by President Arthur, severely limited the ability of Chinese men and women to enter the United States. It’s the most restrictive immigration policy the U.S. has ever had to date and wasn’t repealed until the early 1940s.

So why were Chinese immigrants singled out? In the 19th century, America was undergoing a massive transformation. The Gold Rush and the railroad expansion led to the need for cheap labor, and many Chinese immigrants (mostly men) were able to find jobs here. Gradually, anti-Chinese sentiment increased, polarized by a few politicians who used the Chinese immigrants as excuses for why wages remained so low. Their solution was to call for the banning of any Chinese laborer, thereby freeing up those jobs for American workers.

Starting in 1882, no Chinese laborer could enter the United States—and it was nearly impossible to prove you weren’t a laborer. Only diplomatic officials and officers on business, along with their servants, were considered non-laborers, so the influx of Chinese immigrants came to a near standstill. They also tightened the rules for reentry once you left, which meant families were separated with little hope of ever reuniting.

How effective were the Chinese Exclusion Acts at excluding the Chinese? For the last half of the 1870s, immigration from China had averaged less than nine thousand a year. In 1881, nearly twelve thousand Chinese were admitted into the United States; a year later the number swelled to forty thousand. And then the gates swung shut. In 1884, only ten Chinese were officially allowed to enter this country. The next year, twenty-six.

— “An Alleged Wife:
 One Immigrant in the Chinese Exclusion Era” by Robert Barde, Prologue Magazine, National Archives, Spring 2004, Vol. 36, No. 1.

Mogul is set in 1889, and circumstances have separated the hero’s best friend from his wife, who is still back in China. His best friend is African American, so they decide to tell politicians and the government that she is really the hero’s wife. This presents a problem when the hero falls in love with—and impetuously marries—the heroine of the story.

Racist anti-Chinese cartoons from Australia and United States illustrating Chinese Exclusion in Joanna Shupe historical romance novel Mogul.
Racist illustrations from Australia and the United States.
This sounds like a pretty sobering piece of history. What inspired you to use the Exclusion Act as a central plot line in Mogul?

I started with this idea that my hero would be discovered in an opium den in New York City, so that was where my research began. I didn’t remember the CEA from my history classes, so I was floored when I discovered it. It’s tragic and racist, and yet seems still so relevant today.

As romance novelists, we love to find conflict for our characters. I thought the CEA might be an interesting way to drive the story forward. I wanted to both highlight the xenophobia of the CEA and use the forced familial separation to craft the plot.

Anti-immigration illustrations and cartoons about Chinese Exclusion Act for interview with Joanna Shupe author of Gilded Age historical romance
From left: illustration of 1880 anti-Chinese riot in Denver; poster celebrating the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act; photo of Chin Quan Chan and family at the National Archives.
What kind of research did you need to do on the act itself and on the Chinese-American community in general? Do you have any sources that you recommend for students and researchers?

I read quite a bit online about the CEA and the effects of the legislation. The 19th century Chinese-American community was fascinating to research. A good friend of mine is Chinese-American, and I peppered her (as well as her family) with lots of questions about the language and culture. They were all very patient and helpful.

I used mostly archives of The New York Times for tidbits about Chinatown, opium, and the Tongs, which is how I saw a mention of the game fan tan and began researching that. As with most historical research, you can fall into a rabbit hole pretty easily because it’s all so fascinating.

Uncle Sam lodging house anti-immigration cartoon from Puck leading to Chinese Exclusion Act focus of Mogul by Joanna Shupe historical romance author
Centerfold of “Uncle Sam’s Lodging House” from 7 June 1882 edition of Puck, accessed at the U.S. Library of Congress.
In a genre that some claim is about “escapism,” did you encounter any resistance to using this real history as a conflict in your book—either from editors, publisher, or readers?

I didn’t receive any resistance about this storyline, per se, but I’ve had readers tell me that they won’t read any historical set in America. The reason given is they can’t “romanticize” it the way they can with British history.

While I understand what they’re saying—after all, we’ve lived and breathed American history in school since Kindergarten—I don’t agree. We can’t assume we know everything in our history so well that we can’t learn something new or enjoy a compelling story. There’s so much history that isn’t taught—or isn’t taught well—and looking into the past gives us the clearest view of where we are today.

The Gilded Age is one of our finest eras…but also one of our nation’s low points. In each of the Knickerbocker Club books, I’ve tried to highlight some of the issues and problems as well as the opulence and wealth.

Thank you to Joanna Shupe author of Gilded Age historical romance Knickerbocker Club