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I love a good spy story – even better if it involves a canny female protagonist racing against the clock and a formidable enemy. So I jumped at the chance to review Ava Glass’ debut thriller, Alias Emma, which introduces intelligence officer Emma Makepeace. This interview originally ran in Shelf Awareness.

Tell us about the inspiration for Alias Emma.

It’s fair to say Alias Emma was inspired by real life. Britain has always been a hotbed of espionage. Perched at the edge of Europe but a strong ally of the U.S., it’s a magnet for spies from around the world. People are murdered here with poison-tipped umbrellas, radiation in tea cups, nerve agents on door knobs–these are the headlines I’m reading. How could I not want to write about this? It’s crying out to be explored.

Besides the headlines, how did you originally become interested in spies and espionage?

Before I started writing books, I worked for the British government in the department that’s sort of the equivalent of the U.S. Homeland Security agency. My job brought me into glancing contact with spies, and that gave me just the merest glimpse of their world. Before then I’d been a journalist and an editor, so I knew nothing at all about espionage or intelligence work. I was a complete innocent in that way. During that time, I met a young female intelligence officer. She was in her 20s and so smart and fearless; she seemed decades older than her age, and incredibly capable. Alias Emma is my opportunity to imagine what her life might be like.

Modern-day intelligence work often relies on technology: mobile phones, tracking devices, surveillance systems. Tell us how you explore those technologies–either using them or eliminating them–as part of this story.

This is always somewhat tricky. In Alias Emma, the job Emma’s assigned is extracting Michael, the son of a Russian spy who has defected to the U.K. The Russians want their asset back, so she and her husband are taken into protective custody [by British officials], but their adult son refuses to go with them. If Emma can’t get him to safety, he’ll be killed. He doesn’t understand the danger he’s in. During this rescue, Emma is ordered to use no technology that can be tracked. So, she can use no phones, bank cards, computers or tablets. At the same time, London’s extensive CCTV system has been hacked by the Russians who are using the cameras to hunt for Emma and Michael. Technology is everywhere (including the CCTV cameras), but Emma can’t access any of it.

Britain and Russia are old enemies (the Great Game and the Cold War both come to mind), but this story is set in the 21st century and feels very fresh. Why a British/Russian conflict?

I believe the Great Game never ended. We all thought it stopped when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, but we were wrong. It went on. That became quite clear when a former Russian FSB agent named Alexander Litvenenko was murdered by his ex-colleagues with polonium placed in a teapot in an expensive London hotel in 2006. That was followed by a spate of mysterious deaths of Russian exiles and former spies and government officials in the U.K. until, finally, a Russian exile named Sergei Skripal and his daughter were attacked with nerve gas in a leafy town (near where I live) in 2018. That was when it occurred to me that this secret war might make an interesting subject for a series of novels.

Much of this story is about identity. There are false identities, conflicting identities, Michael’s reluctance to leave the life he’s built for himself behind. Can you speak to that?

To an extent. In my time, I’ve changed careers, towns, even nations. Each move always feels like an opportunity to reinvent yourself. And yet, in my experience, no matter how far you travel, you can’t escape yourself. The past tags along. No matter how hard you try to leave it behind, it always packs itself in your luggage. And this is one lesson that Emma Makepeace is learning in Alias Emma. She can change her appearance, her name, even her eye color–but she will always be shaped by her past.

Will we see Emma in future adventures? Can you give us a teaser?

I’m actually writing the last chapters of book two now! The second book takes Emma out of London and into an undercover operation on an oligarch’s yacht in the Mediterranean. An MI6 analyst has been murdered in a bizarre way that looks like a hallmark of the Russian spy agency GRU. The Agency believes the analyst got too close to revealing a conspiracy by Russian businessmen in London to sell chemical weapons to rogue nations. But the conspiracy may run much deeper than Emma thinks. And it will take her to very dangerous places.

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rules of magic book sunflowers

I think it’s safe to say that my one little word this year is a sneaky one.

Back in January, I chose magic for my 2017 word, believing and hoping I needed it after a year (in 2016) that felt hard at every turn. I needed all the gumption I could get last year, and I haven’t stopped needing it this year: many days have required equal parts magic and grit. But my word has always been there, peeking around the corner, surprising me, especially when I’m not looking for it.

I do occasional author interviews for Shelf Awareness, my longstanding freelance gig, and I was thrilled when my editor asked if I’d like to talk to Alice Hoffman about her new novel, The Rules of Magic. It’s a prequel to Practical Magic, which I had not read, but I’d read and adored Hoffman’s novel Faithful, and I was so excited about this one.

Spoiler alert: I loved the book. It’s an utterly enchanting, heartbreaking story of three siblings who have to reckon with their unusual gifts and the very ordinary human experiences of love, loss and figuring out who they really are. And I loved talking to Alice, who was so warm and engaging, and answered my questions patiently. The book comes out today, and to celebrate, I’m sharing a few snippets of the Q&A below.

KG: The magic the characters use [in The Rules of Magic] is a kind of everyday alchemy: there’s a sense that magic is already here in our world, and they can channel it or avoid it via certain “rules.” Can you talk about your concept of magic and magical power?

AH: I’m interested in everyday magic: magic that you could turn a corner and find. I think a lot of that has to do with the books I read as a child, because those are the books that make you a writer. I loved Ray Bradbury’s books, and there’s a real sense of that everyday magic in the here and now. That’s what I’m interested in both as a reader and a writer: magic that is affected by the everyday.

My books have a kind of push-pull regarding magic, and also between the mystical and spiritual and the demands of “real” life. In The Rules of Magic, they’re braided together. The characters really fight against who they are, so that’s another push-pull. The book is ultimately about being who you are, and I think that’s really hard to do, even if you’re not a witch.

It’s hard for a lot of us to be who we are, even if we’re not fighting a family curse.

It really is just that: accepting yourself. It’s true for everyone in the book, and it’s a process. It takes a whole lifetime to learn who you are.

Courage is a thread that runs through the book: choosing courage over caution, being brave above all. Can you talk about that? How does courage relate to magic?

In a certain sense, the characters discovered this thread on their own. The book is really all about courage: the courage it takes to be different, the courage it takes to be in love, and the courage it takes to be human. Most people spend their lives running away from all that. The characters have to learn that.

The book deals with destiny and choice: the characters try to dodge the family curse, and they wrestle with accepting fate versus making their own choices. Can you talk about that?

That’s a big question. But it’s central to the book: the idea of the curse, which affects whether and how the Owens women fall in love. And yet, if you love someone, and open your heart to them, they will ultimately break your heart, curse or no curse. They may betray you; they may not be who you thought they were. Or they may get sick and die, as ultimately we all do.

At some point, inevitably, there is pain involved with love. I think it’s a big leap to make, and I think people are very brave when they do it. I think part of the Owens “curse” is just being human. And along the way, there are beautiful, wonderful things, and that’s part of being human too: such joy.


If you love magic, gorgeous writing or a good story, I highly recommend The Rules of Magic.

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It’s my pleasure to host Pamela Schoenewaldt on the blog today.

Pamela is the author of two historical novels, both set in Cleveland and detailing the lives of immigrants in that city. I enjoyed When We Were Strangers, her debut, and recently reviewed her latest, Swimming in the Moon (which I loved) for Shelf Awareness.

Here’s the beginning of my review, which details the novel’s plot:

As the 20th century begins, 14-year-old Lucia and her mother, Teresa, enjoy a charmed life as servants in a Neapolitan villa, where Teresa soothes their mistress’ headaches with her songs. But when Teresa’s volatile temper puts them both in danger, they flee to America, settling in Cleveland. Teresa finds factory work alongside other immigrant women, but her beautiful voice soon earns her a place on the vaudeville stage.

Lucia, clever and ambitious, studies hard and graduates from high school, dreaming of college. But labor unrest ripples through Cleveland’s immigrant community, and Teresa is fighting her own inner demons. Lucia must find a way to care for her mother, pursue justice for her fellow workers and follow her own dreams.

As I said in the rest of my review, Swimming in the Moon is an evocative, compelling portrait of immigrant life in the early 1900s. The narrative touches on many issues of the day, including women’s suffrage, harassment of female factory workers, mutual distrust among immigrant groups and the often brutal treatment of mental patients.

I loved the wide variety of women’s experiences represented by Lucia, Teresa and their circle of female friends, from independent small-business owners to women who gladly give up their factory jobs for marriage and children. Lucia’s struggle to balance her bold dreams with social realities, economic limits and her ever-increasing responsibility to her mother sound achingly familiar.

Pamela has agreed to answer a few questions about her inspiration for the novel and some of the issues that affect her characters’ lives. My questions are in bold below, followed by her answers:

What was your inspiration for the story of Teresa and Lucia in Swimming in the Moon? Were there historical events/places that drew you to write about them?  

When I was presenting my first novel, When We Were Strangers, at Cleveland’s Western Reserve Historical Society, I already had the idea of another immigrant journey, this one set around 1910, the crest of European immigration. In the Society’s archives, I found reference to the Garment Workers Strike of 1911 and thought: Perfect! Novel gold!  Also, I saw references to vaudeville and have always been fascinated by this uniquely American theatrical form.

Brooding over these ideas were vivid memories from the ten years I lived along the Bay of Naples. One was the shadow of Vesuvius at night when the full moon made a white path in the bay. The other was Palazzo Donn’Anna, a magnificent 16th-century villa with a lurid past, where my Italian teacher lived (see photo). The third was the San Carlo Opera House. I imagined a gifted, emotionally fragile servant woman trying to be “discovered” by a great maestro in a way that horrifies her daughter. From these images, I created my plot lines and began to work.

You’ve now written two novels about the immigrant experience in Cleveland. What drew you to write about that city particularly?

I lived near Cleveland when it was a scruffy, post-industrial city, so it was appealing to cycle back to when its industrial strength was being built of immigrant labor. I also was drawn to the differences between the Bay of Naples and Lake Erie and how Italian immigrants might have felt, in the winter perhaps, when they stood on the grimy lake shore and thought back to the warm, blue waters they left behind. Yet Cleveland had bustle, promise, raw energy and opportunity they never could have had in the Old Country. Those contrasts are ripe fields for fiction.

What do you find most fascinating about the times in which Lucia and Teresa lived?

I’m intrigued by the links between their times and ours. Societies were undergoing swirling change from immigrants pouring in, cultures mixed, new technologies, and new art forms like cinema coming in. In Lucia’s time, only eight in a hundred young people would graduate from high school. She sets herself to be one of those eight.

Women were realizing their power in the suffragette movement, in labor and the arts. In the cities, ethnicities were thrown together as they hadn’t been before, like Lucia’s Italian and Henryk’s Jewish family. Can their love, in Lucia’s words, “negotiate” that gulf?

How did you decide to weave the various issues of the day (labor unrest, mental illness, women’s suffrage, etc.) into the novel – or did it happen organically?

One of the opportunities for historical fiction, for any fiction, is to have our characters face out the great issues of their time and ours. Lucia must deal with her mother’s serious mental illness. Yes, psychology was in its infancy and many “treatments” were absurd by our standards, often thinly veiled sadism, driven by racist or sexist thinking.

Yet today, one family in four in America deals with serious mental illness. Despite new treatments and deeper understanding, we’re much better at fixing broken bones than broken minds. Many of my friends are as deeply challenged as my Lucia in balancing their own needs against those of a suffering family member.

I’m active in worker justice issues today and have spent many hours registering voters, so in this novel I was fascinated by the challenge of weaving issues I care about into the journey of two complex and gifted women.

Learn more about Pamela and her books at her website.

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