04 November 2007

Release Party: Strangely Wonderful

Strangely Wonderful by Karen Mercury
It's 1828, and life is good for the pirates Of Madagascar...

On Tuesday, Karen Mercury's third Medallion release, STRANGELY WONDERFUL, hit the shelves. So of course we had to feature her today! Here's the cover copy:

Their Captain is the Hungarian Count Tomaj Balashazy, a refugee from the United States Navy. Count Balashazy rules the coast from his tropical plantation, a fortress built against enemies he's made cruising the Indian Ocean. Tomaj feels guilt at the loss of his family in New Orleans, and he wallows in clouds of opium, soothed by courtesans. When the American naturalist Dagny Ravenhurst, seeking the dreaded and mystical aye-aye lemur, falls into Tomaj's lagoon, it's the beginning of the end of arcadian bliss on the island.

In the central highlands, the French industrialist Paul Boneaux commands his empire of factories. As the special pet of psychotic Malagasy Queen Ranavalona, Boneaux enjoys a monopoly over all manufacturing, commerce, and his mistress. Beholden to Boneaux, Dagny and her two brothers need his patronage to survive. Dagny's joyless scientific heart melts for the Count's poetic nature, pitting the two adversaries against each other. Boneaux yearns for progress and industry, Tomaj for liberty and peace.

When the King dies--or is he murdered?--the Queen gives free reign to her merciless anti-European impulses.The island boils with blood, and only one world can emerge triumphant. In Madagascar's utopian paradise, all is...STRANGELY WONDERFUL

Here's our Q&A with author and world traveler extraordinaire Karen Mercury:

STRANGELY WONDERFUL is your third historical fiction set in Africa. What drew you to writing about Africa?

I honestly think it's a past life thing. When I was four, there was a little Norwegian boy across the street who constantly talked about "Acica." He averred there were "dinosaurs in the sky" there, and for about a year, we lived in this entire realm involving volcanoes in "Acica." As will happen with small kids, it was reality to us. Steiner moved away. Then out of the blue, when I was about eleven, I had this vivid dream. I was a black man on a pristine white beach, and this fellow ran out of the jungle yelling "The mountain exploded!" As my mind's eye pulled back, I saw this flat-topped snowy mountain, and a voice whispered in my ear one word: Kwale. Kwale. I instantly knew how to spell it, and when I awoke, I zoomed to my mother's atlas.

Kwale is a small town on the coast of Kenya. About 500 miles away from Mt. Kilimanjaro, an extinct flat-topped snowy volcano.

Could "science" explain this? My mother tried to tell me I'd seen a TV show on it, somehow. No, I didn't. There had to be some other answers, so talk about literally following your dreams, when I was 21 I got a one-way plane ticket to Africa. In other matters, I'm so dense--that just now writing this--I made the connection between Steiner's volcanoes and the one in my dream.

So yes, the Cliff's Notes version is, I've traveled overland across sub-Saharan Africa a few times. I started in Cairo once, took a leaky dhow up the Nile through the Aswan High Dam, and I don't particularly feel any affinity for Egypt. Your soap is burning hot at four in the morning! I have absolutely no interest in Egyptian history, although I do enjoy Bonnie Vanak's books for their adventure. I feel much more at home in the "miasmatic swamps" of Central Africa. I've never felt more at home. I finally sat on a beach in Kwale and realized that.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered while researching Madagascar?

CoelacanthYou know, the strangest thing happened--usually I first delve into the political history of a country. With Madagascar, I realized off the bat the most interesting thing was the natural history of the island--the lemurs, the extinct dodo birds and the coelacanth--the bizarre "Cretaceous" fish that still occasionally washes up around the Comoros. I'm not sure which is the oddest. Scientists still theorize that Madagascar busted away from the mainland a trazillion billion years ago (sorry, once again, not a scientist, but would LOVE to pretend to be one on TV), and as a result you have "strange extinct animals, sprouting a wild assortment of endemic beings found nowhere else: fragile orchids that could only live under glass, coral masquerading as swords and lace, mythical underground caverns where translucent blind fish bumped into rocks, and animals without backbones fell over..."

So, of course, I made my heroine a naturalist, which is what they used to call a botanist and biologist--back then they didn't specialize. She meets the hero while she's climbing onto a branch to collect the rarest of rare orchids...and falls into his pirate lagoon.

John Cleese, of all people, made the best Madagascar video ever, and it's going for like $78 on eBay! I finally obtained a copy, and he saw first-hand how the lemurs adapted to the "spiny forest" environment of Southern Madagascar. These lemurs have this Darwinian ability to leap twenty feet from thorny tree to thorny tree and somehow avoid all of the spikes, and then do some amazing sashaying dances on the ground, and to this day, no one knows how they do it. Well, if John Cleese is amazed, then I'm amazed.

Your books contain a lot of humor. To what do you attribute that?

The Hinterlands by Karen MercuryIt's not something I intended. As a teenager, I realized that most of the scenes I'd written that I wished to read over and over were mostly humorous. Once I realized I wanted to become a "serious" writer, I eviscerated all of the "humorous" scenes from my manuscripts. "None of that allowed in here! This is some serious shit here!" THE HINTERLANDS, my first published book, was the first book where I just allowed the humor to stay in. Apparently everyone liked it.

Humor is inexplicable. I don't consider myself a humorous writer. Sometimes I'll be writing a funeral scene, and in the middle of nowhere, a character will bust out with the most hysterical stuff I've ever seen in my life. (Yes, I am one of those writers who thinks their characters act independently of them). Conversely, I'll be writing a scene where I'm certain comedy might come into the picture, and it turns out like a funeral scene, with Dostoevskian characters busting in making dramatic statements and everyone acting dour.

I have no idea where it comes from. I do believe that humor isn't something Abbott + Costello suddenly invented. There was a lot of humor in history. Just like we didn't suddenly invent sex. Just ask Sir Richard Burton.

I don't purposefully set out to be humorous--I'm afraid that might ruin it, if I purposefully tried. I just let the shit fall where it may. I'd hate to be a stand up comedian who had to be "on" all the time--how on earth do they do that? That must be more stressful than being a historical fiction author.

What books are you reading now?

Not having much time for fiction, I need an entire TBR room (don't we all?). I'm a member of the Historical Novel Society and just attended their conference in New York in June, so I picked up a bunch of great stuff there. I absolutely adored THE SWEET BY AND BY written by Jeanne Mackin. I talk that book up every chance that I get. She wrote about the Fox sisters, who inadvertently started the Victorian Spiritualism movement. Gorgeously written book--just a pleasure to read. I recently speed-ordered SWITCHING TIME, a nonfiction about a shrink who treated a gal with seventeen personalities. Could not put it down.

What's next for you?

I just finished writing a historical erotic paranormal set in Zanzibar in 1876, a time and place I know well. A lot of this alleged comedy came out while I wrote it. As is turns out, this wandering showman who is a marionettist and a puppeteer is the Assistant Consul at the American Embassy there, and when the real Consul shows up, and a bunch of dead bodies appear, the shit hits the fan. It involves the Sultan of Zanzibar, bath houses, levitation, and Spiritualism.

Any advice?

Never try to "write to the market." Stay true to yourself. Your own voice will come through, and allow that to happen. A lot of readers don't like explicit sex. Nothing wrong with that. There's always a market for what you have to say.


Thanks for your thoughtful answers, Karen!

You can purchase STRANGELY WONDERFUL online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Books-a-Million.

Ask your own question or leave a comment for the chance to win a copy of STRANGELY WONDERFUL. One random commenter will be chosen this time next week. Check back to see if you've won.