28 April 2013

Guest Blog: Benny Lawrence

This week, we're welcoming author Benny Lawrence with her latest title, The Ghost and the Machine from Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company.   The author will offer a free copy of the book to a lucky blog visitor. Here's the blurb:

It’s 1838, and Europe is obsessed with mechanical contraptions, and the Rajah is the height of entertainment as the ultimate chess-playing machine. Kit has toured with the Rajah since the age of ten and knows the secret behind the machine all too well . . . just as she knows that people would rather be fooled than have their illusions stripped away.
An eccentric Countess summons the Rajah to her manor house in Vienna for a private engagement. There, Kit meets the inquisitive Eleanor, who tests Kit's ability to tell the difference between truth and illusion . . . Or is it all just another game of chess?
"Written in the first person, The Ghost and the Machine is a smart, cunning, original, and well-written story dotted with dollops of droll observation, dry wit, and gripping pathos. The characters are by turns quirky, insolent, insightful, deceptive, and all together brilliantly flawed. In addition, the storyline is fresh and tight, and manages to surprise, even though the end game is revealed to the reader early in the narrative." -- review by Salem West, The Rainbow Reader

**Q&A with Benny Lawrence**

Why historical fiction?

It gives us a chance to fill in the gaps. Official history is a record of what people in power thought was important, or worth preserving. We miss out not only on the outsiders' perspectives, but on the quirky and oddball events and characters that didn't fit with the narrative that the historian was trying to tell. Historical fiction lets us tell stories about what might have happened or probably did happen at some point, except no one thought it was worthwhile to write it down.  For me, the most fun part is imagining women's lives- women who either lived outside the mainstream, or had an inner, secret life that mainstream society couldn't see. I play with all of these ideas in The Ghost and the Machine. My protagonist, Kit, is someone whose past and experiences have been very unconventional . . . not something that would find its way into the history books.

How did you come to write The Ghost and the Machine?

Honest answer: I wrote it because I was furious at Bill O’Reilly. He made a comment on his program which I will not repeat- partly for the privacy of the person the comment concerned, and partly because it would just make me start foaming at the mouth again. The gist of it was this: A young person had just been through an extremely traumatic ordeal, except Bill O’Reilly did not believe that the ordeal could have been all that traumatic, because the young person had not behaved in the way that Bill O’Reilly, in his infinite wisdom, thought that a traumatized person should behave. Oh, and the young person had a nose piercing, so clearly he was a punk anyway.

Now there are many things that conservative pundits say which make me angry, but for some reason, this one really got under my skin and started to burrow. It was the incredible arrogance of the assumption that it was up to this young survivor to prove that he had suffered, failing which, he wasn't worthy of sympathy. I wanted to yell at Mr. O'Reilly in person but that wouldn't be possible without a plane flight and a day of stalking, so instead I stomped around the apartment kicking things. As I kicked more and more things, I got angrier and angrier until my only options were to explode or to write a book. I wrote a book so I wouldn’t make a mess on the carpet. I can't be buying a new carpet every time I get angry.

When I was writing Kit's story, I was exploring some of those notions of reality versus facade, and truth versus assumption, and the snap judgments of people who really don't have the right to an opinion.  

So why did you choose to set the story in the early Victorian era?

It happened to be a great setting for the themes I wanted to work with: you've got display and spectacle, wealth and grandeur, but then some very different things happening underneath. This is a period when the British Empire is expanding around the globe, but there's incredible misery and poverty among the working classes in London. There's excitement about science and technology, but there's also an obsession with cold hard cash. A woman is arguably the most powerful person in the world, but she's carrying some dark memories from her childhood. There's a new burgeoning middle class, and progressives are championing the notion of family privacy, free from government intrusion, but that's a double-edged concept. You get a shielded little nook where you can create a cozy family life, but if your family life goes bad, then you might be marooned away from help. It's no coincidence that this is when Gothic literature flourished, with its themes of domestic gloom and darkness, the horrors that happen within the home. Essentially, we're going from Pride and Prejudice to Wuthering Heights.  

I think of The Ghost and the Machine as fitting into the gothic tradition.  You have the home setting as a place of gloom and danger, with a domestic tyrant in charge.

Much of the story revolves around the "Rajah," a mysterious chess-playing machine.  Did the Rajah really exist?

The real world equivalent of the Rajah was the famous Mechanical Turk.  I imagine the Rajah as a knock-off of the Turk, touring Europe at the same time.

What was the biggest challenge in doing the research for the book?

Jam!  It's one thing to research a period or a historical figure; it's another thing to find an answer to a single, specific question. The single task that took me the longest was trying to figure out whether a particular character, at a particular place and a particular point in time, would, or would not, be able to get her hands on a jar of jam. Trying to get a definite answer forced me to look up everything from the development of plantations in Barbadoes to Napoleon's contribution to the sugar-beet industry.

What other projects do you have coming out?

My second book, Shell Game, which will be released in May is more fantasy than historical fiction, but it does involve pirates, so there's that. It's similar to The Ghost and the Machine in that it deals with the world from the perspective of outsiders, and by outsiders I of course mean gay pirates. Though it's humorous, it has a strong mystery element to it.

My next project would fall into more of a speculative fiction box. It deals with a world after ecological collapse, so you have raiding gangs, religious freaks, desert towns, quite a bit of swearing, and a rabbit for no apparent reason.

Will there be a sequel to The Ghost and the Machine?

The story keeps going on in my head; whether it makes it onto paper is another question. The action would be split between Victorian-era Austria and twentieth-century Montreal, where I would delve a bit into the twisted history of one of Canada's most notorious mental hospitals. Along the way, there would be lawyers, vampire lore, and a nod to Europe's mystery man Kaspar Hauser, while the protagonists try to figure out whether a person buried away from the workaday world can ever come back to life.

More information on The Ghost and the Machine can be found at:

Author Bio:
Benny Lawrence lives in Toronto, Canada, where she works as a lawyer while wondering just when in hell she grew up. Occasionally, she dons elaborate hats and sallies out after dark to solve crimes. There being no crimes lying around for her to solve, she mooches off home and eats cookies instead. She enjoys dead languages, not-dead cats, fizzy drinks, preparing for the apocalypse, and board games. She has been told that she takes her board games much too seriously. On a literature front, she is obsessed with mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy books, as long as they involve snappy dialogue and females who can deliver it.