Part 1 of the interview can be read here.
AA: Last time, we talked about your incredible journey starting with historical research and ending with publishing Let’s Talk Cheyenne by Ted Rising Sun, being able to meet some great people and learning first hand about history. In a previous interview, you talked about the difference between *knowing* history and *feeling* history. Would you explain that more and how does it influence your writing?
MB: I have always loved historical novels. The main reason I like them is that they give the reader a new perspective on the history we all studied in school. In history class, you typically memorized facts, found out where battles took place, maybe the reasons the war occurred. I think, in that sense, you knew history.
But if you really want to really have a sense of what was happening at the time, what people were really feeling, what was motivating their actions, I think a really well researched, well written historical novel can take you there so perfectly. It can place you there and really give you a deeper emotional connection with that historical event in a way that just studying the bare facts can never give you. You begin to feel that history as well as “know” it.
AA: Talking about interesting histories, there were some very interesting things about you in your blog. Let’s start with your book store. How did you make the move from avid reader to book merchant?
MB: I imagine most booklovers dream of owning their own bookstore and I feel fortunate to have realized that dream in 1997. I lived in a small tourist town in Colorado’s ski country called Frisco—elevation 9,000 ft. My shop was a three block walk from my house and was called Wolf Moon Books. My shop was my second home and I secretly considered my own private library.
Reading, writing, bookselling, and publishing—I seem to love all phases of the book business!
AA: Your stories include some of the interesting customs and behaviors of that time. What are a few which have faded or changed over time such as absinthe, studies of the supernatural, etc
MB: Well, we’re talking about a real renaissance here. Absinthe has come back with a bullet. It was first popular in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It developed its own culture, because drinking it requires such elaborate ritual, almost as elaborate as a Japanese tea ceremony.
The ritual developed because its main ingredient is an herb called wormwood, which is quite bitter. Since sugar doesn’t mix easily with alcohol, they developed a way to melt the sugar into it. A sugar cube is placed on a slotted spoon over the Absinthe glass. Ice cold water is dripped into the glass so that the sugar will melt into the Absinthe. Then the “magic” would take place: the water causes the herbs in the Absinthe to release their oils, causing the clear, green Absinthe to become cloudy and opalescent.
Large bars had fountains to dispense the ice water. I have pictures of the giant marble fountains with brass spigots on the bar in the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans.
AA: Modern Marvels on the History channel had a video article about absinthe, how it was the ‘in drink’, especially for artists and ‘creative types’ but then was later banned being cited as dangerous or poisonous.
MB: Absinthe—particularly the wormwood in it—was banned in the United States in 1912, as part of the then-popular temperance mania. A lot of myths grew up surrounding Absinthe and wormwood—that it had hallucinogenic properties— though this was based on very little hard science. Still, artists called it their “green muse.”
Some say that absinthe produces a “lucid intoxication,” that the alcohol relaxes the central nervous system while the wormwood produces a clarity of mind by stimulating the nervous system. This may have been what the artists liked.
In 2007, the U.S. finally lifted the ban. It’s legal now; you can find it in most large liquor stores.
AA: Eden Murdoch – stubborn and rebellious, long suffering, eccentric, strong, resilient. I often like to show my several nieces that they can be anything they want. What can readers take away and incorporate into their own lives by looking to Eden?
MB: Eden was a character I developed for An Uncommon Enemy, Solomon Spring, and The Second Glass of Absinthe. She was a woman who didn’t set out to change the world; she just found herself in certain difficult situations and didn’t want society to hold her back.
She’s very strong. She learns not to let her problems defeat her, to not give in to other people’s perceptions of her. I think when you’ve already faced the thing you feared the most and you survived it, it’s very liberating.
AA: Another strong female character in your newest book, Séance in Sepia, to be released later this year, includes real life feminist firebrand, Victoria Woodhull. While I was reading your blog, I had to take a research detour to read up on her. I have to say that she was never included in any of my history classes, and if she had been, it would have been much more interesting and colorful. What are some interesting things about her that led you to include her in your book?
MB: I love Victoria Woodhull! I think she is one of the most overlooked Americans in history. She was the first woman to run for president. She ran against Grant, in 1872. She was so far ahead of her time in so many areas. She was the first woman to address Congress—she argued to the House Judiciary Committee that the then-newly-passed 14th amendment be applied to women, that women were “persons” within its meaning. One hundred and forty years later, we are still arguing about this (and women still aren’t held to be “persons!”)
She was a gifted orator and a strong spokeswoman in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She was a friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan Anthony. But she was very radical and she embraced the notorious concept of free love. The fact she was a woman who was willing to speak out about sex in public was shocking at the time. This horrified the straight-laced suffragists, and they wrote her out of the official history of the suffrage movement.
She also was the first women to open a brokerage house on Wall Street. She and her sister owned a radical newspaper called Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. Their paper was the first to publish Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto in America.
She started out, however, as a spiritualist. This was an accepted profession at the time. Spiritualists had trade organizations and held national conventions. Woodhull was the president of the American Spiritualism Association for several years. This fact, combined with her journalism career, are the underpinnings of my novel, Séance in Sepia.
We’ll take a break in our interview with Michelle Black.
Join us next time when Michelle talks about being ahead of the curve and looking to the future.
Until then, visit Michelle’s website for more information.
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