Speakeasies and the Roaring Twenties: an interview with Sarah Zama

Hi everyone! It’s been a little while since I’ve done an author interview, but today I’m super excited to bring you an interview I did with Sarah Zama, she of The Old Shelter blog. She’s got a wonderful new book, Give in to the Feeling coming out and today she’s here to tell us about the research that went into it.

Thanks for being on the blog today Sarah – I’m so excited to be interviewing you! Could you start by telling us a bit about your story Give in to the Feeling? 

Thanks Celine, I’m excited to be here too. I’ve been following your series of fantasy interviews dreaming one day I’d appear in it too. I’m so excited to be here at last.

Since we writers are encouraged to write the blurb for our story in case anyone will ask what’s it about, I suppose this is a great occasion to use just that.

Chicago 1924

Susie has never thought she might want more. More than being Simon’s woman. More than the lush life he’s given her when she came from China. More than the carefree nights of dance in his speakeasy.

Simon has never asked her anything in return but her loyalty. Not a big price.

Until that night.

When Blood enters Simon’s speakeasy, and Susie dances with him, she discovers there’s a completely new world beyond the things she owns and the she’s allowed to do. A world where she can be her own woman, where she can be the woman she’s supposed to be. A world of sharing and self-expression she has never glimpsed.

But she’s still Simon’s woman, and he won’t allow her to forget it.

Soon Susie discovers there’s more than two men fighting over her in the confrontation between Blood and Simon. There’s a fight breaking through the walls of the real world, into the spirit world where Susie’s freedom may mean life or death for one of them. And if Susie gives in, she will lose more than just her heart.

At its heart, Give in to the Feeling is a story of self-discovery. A coming of age, if you will, but with a fantasy twist… which is to be expected from me!

Give in to the Feeling takes place in a speakeasy in Chicago during the Prohibition era, which makes for a wonderful setting. For anyone not familiar with the era, can you tell us about speakeasies?

a1ae6a72c67e252d52196ddef3025862The funniest thing about speakeasies is that nobody really knows much about them. They had been around for quite sometime before Prohibition. National Prohibition went into effect in 1920, but before that, there had been state prohibition or temperance laws everywhere in the U.S. for decades. This means even before National Prohibition, people in certain states couldn’t freely drink alcohol. Speakeasies provided this opportunity, although under wraps and away from the public eyes. Everything was kept as secret as possible. In fact, one of the theories about the origin of the name ‘speakeasy’ is that owners would invite customers (who of course became quite loud after a few drinks) to ‘speak easy’ so not to be heard and discovered.

speakeasy_1These kind of places already existed in the second half of the 1800s, though what we think about when we hear the word ‘speakeasy’ today is Prohibition incarnation of them and the reason is that speakeasies proliferated at an astounding rate during the 1920s.

There were all kind of speakeasy around the U.S. As it was said, all you needed was a room, two people and a bottle of liquor, and that’s exactly what happened in most little towns. Speakeasies were often rooms in private houses where people would gather to drink (producing and consuming one’s own liquor wasn’t illegal, mind you. But if you charged for that… well, that was a different story).

In larger cities, speakeasy could take up any form, including very exclusive restaurants where food was served and shows where offered. These places were hardly secret. One journalist related that it took him about two minutes to find out where a speakeasy was in NYC (he jump out the train and into a cab, and the cab driver asked him whether he fancied a drink in special place). True, there were places that used passwords and membership cards so to shrink the possibility that a Prohibition agent slipped inside unnoticed, but most places just bribed police and agents, so they didn’t really bother about secrecy.

Could you share your favourite / most interesting tidbit from your research into this time period?

I know this not very exciting, but what surprised me more about my research was discovering how much the Twenties were like our own time.

It was a time of shocking change, fast modernization, clash of cultures, phobias of any form of ‘otherness’. It was a time of coping with a life that changed so fast it was hard to adjust to. Attitudes of young people that were so new and different they felt alien. A sense that old, reliable values were crumbling away.

Sounds familiar?

I was also impressed by how much young people of the Twenties looked like us.

I was worried about this aspect of life. Give in to the Feeling and my trilogy are both set largely in a speakeasy, which were places frequented mostly by young people looking for booze and wild jazz dances. But we’re talking young people of nearly a century ago. What would they be like? What would they do? How would they think?

Well, turned out they looked and thought and acted like us a lot more than young people of the subsequent three or four decades did. The Great Depression and then the war years were huge setbacks for any social advancement that started in the Twenties.

A reader of my AtoZ Challege of last year, which was about the Twenties, commented that she thought a few of the things I was talking about started in the Sixties. Not so. That was merely the time when things caught up.

What books (other than yours of course!) or films would you recommend for anyone new to stories set in that time period.

In terms of novels, there’s no competition. My favourite era author is Langston Hughes, who was one of the frontmen of the Harlem Renaissance. If the devil ever showed up offering me to gain Hughes’s writing qualities, I’d give him anything he would ask in return.

Langston Hughes’s style is simply wonderful. Vivid. You can see and smell and hear what he writes, that’s how powerful his prose is. His sight was so keen he could see deep inside his characters. He’s absolutely fantastic.

He was mostly a poet, but he wrote shorts stories and novels too. My favourite is a short story titled Father and Son, the story of a white father and the son he had with his black house maiden. Heart wrenching. All the characters in the story are so strong-willed and so focused you know it can’t possible go well for any of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In terms of book about the era, the first to spring to mind is always Last Call by Daniel Okrent. That’s one of the newest book about Prohibition and one of the more thoroughly researched. Michael Perrish’s Anxious Decades is my favourite book about the Twenties. It actually covers both Twenties and Thirties, but the Twenties section is the best, in my opinion. Very essential, it doesn’t really go into mush details on anything, but it does touch on all most important aspects and events of the time.

I also enjoyed Erin Chapman’s Prove it on Me a lot. This is an examination of the social position of black women in the Twenties, one that sometimes was very far and different from the flapper’s life.

As for film, Underworld, a silent film of 1927, is my absolute favourite. I know a lot of people thinks silent films are boring and stupid, too simple in comparison with moderns ones.

That’s because they have never watch one.

I found it really interesting that your characters were Chinese and American Indian – it made for a really interesting mix of cultures. Did the decision to do this spring purely from story, or were there large communities of Chinese and American Indian in Chicago during that time?

It mostly happened by chance. Seriously.

The very first idea for Blood and Michael’s stories came to me from Michael Jackson’s video Smooth Criminal (which is one of my favourite videos and songs ever). In that video the lead female dancer is an Asian girl. I just took the two characters as they were and put them in my story.

Michael came from my interests. When I started planning the trilogy, six years ago, I was already very much into Indian cultures. Michael just happened one day and that’s when everything went into place for my story.

There wasn’t a big community of Chinese in Chicago. Large Asian communities were on the East Cost, but the Midwest? Not so much. In fact Chinese people in Chicago were so few it was hardly considered a community at all.

Indians just didn’t leave reservations at the time. In fact, the Twenties is probably one of the bleakest times in the history of any American Indian people. They were shrinking in numbers. Most of the old leaders were dead or dying and there weren’t new ones taking up their place. The U:S. was employing any policy to disband unity and crush cultural proud. Nearly all Indian religious practices were outlawed. Children were taken from families and sent to boarding school, were a large number died and more just became whitewashed. Indians were recognised citizen of the U.S. only in 1924, the same year as Give in to the Feeling takes place. Michael probably doesn’t know he’s a U.S. citizen.

It was very hard. Things only started to get a little better in the Thirties with Roosevelt’s New Deal.

So, I suppose it wasn’t too smart of me to choose characters who were so unlikely to be there. But I promise there is an explanation for that in the story.

In your story you mention beliefs held by the Chinese and American Indians about spirits. Did this come from your imagination or is it based on real cultural beliefs and superstitions?

As well as I tried to be as accurate as possible with the historical setting, I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible with the ‘spirit’ world.

I did go after cultural belief that could make sense in my setting and to the characters I was handling. Luckily, it looks like cultural beliefs about the spirit world seem to touch across culture, so I could envision quite an organic fantasy incarnation of my spirit world staying close enough to actual cultural beliefs.

I was also lucky enough to have first person experience of the cultures present in my story.

When I live in Dublin, I shared my apartment with four other girls and one of them was Chinese. I have to admit Susie own a lot to my Chinese friend.

On the online workshop I was a member of, I met a Mohawk woman who was willing to share knowledge about Indian cultures. I couldn’t believe my good luck. Over the past four years, we’ve become friends and I’m very aware that my story would be – and especially feel – a lot different if I hadn’t met her.

I did read a lot as research for my story, but these personal experience were fundamental. I really think researching Ghost Trilogy has been an enriching personal experience.

I’m a big fan of your blog, over at The Old Shelter, which, for anyone new to it, is stuffed with interesting posts about the prohibition era and DieselPunk. Can you first tell us about DieselPunk as a genre and share some of your favourite reads/films in the genre? 

If I have to be honest, I discovered Dieselpunk by mere chance, but the moment I learned about it, I was hooked. It was very strange, because I was already writing something that could be considered Dieselpunk, only I didn’t know it. In a way, it was like finding my home, you know.

Dieselpunk is a speculative genre that mixes settings of the diesel era and punk elements. There is actually some debate about the definition, but I adhere to Larry Amyett’s ideas. The diesel era goes from the late 1910s (WWI included) to the early 1950s and the story can be set in our world or in a world inspired by this period’s history and events.

The punk element is something more allusive. Many fans think the punk element is the fantasy element. Amyett admits that the fantasy element may be what punks the story up, but the concept is broader. For him, the punk element is a subversive element that may come in many different fashions. If it questions reality how we know it or if it shows it in a different, new way, even if it isn’t fantasy, then it punks the story up and create Dieselpunk.

It’s a more complex (and to me, more satisfying) definition than “it’s Steampunk, but with machines working on internal combustion rather than steam” which you do find on quite a few Dieselpunk blogs and forums.

I wrote about my idea of Dieselpunk in a blog about International Dieselpunk Day, if you are interested to look a bit deeper into the question.

Dieselpunk today is mostly a visual genre. Novels are still in small numbers, mostly located in the self-publishing market. There are authors who are becoming quite popular (I think Ari Marmell, Charles A. Cornell, Bard Constantin, but mostly they are popular inside the community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visual stories are a different beast. There are dieselpunk stories that are popular films, some of which broke into the mainstream arena. Indian Jones’s films are probably the most popular of them all, but recently there have been Captain American the First Avenger and the spin-off tv series Agent Carter (which is hugely popular inside the dieselpunk community).

You also do a great post series called The New Woman’s New Look, about how women changed during the 20s and 30s. What’s your favourite thing/tidbit you uncovered when researching the posts? 

I’m having a lot of fun with this series, and the reason I enjoy it so much is that I’m discovering so many things about ourselves. Many things we take for granted appeared in the Twenties for the first time. And as I like to say, history always makes sense. There is always a reason why things happen, and what happened in the Twenties define the entirety of the 20th century.

The history of women is only one of the many changes society went through in that time, but it speaks of a deeper change happening inside the society. Only a small number of women were flappers: they were all a certain age (college student), they mostly belong to a certain class (middle and upper-middle class), they all had time and money on their hands. Many, many women didn’t have all these characteristics at the same time.

Still, when we think to women in the Twenties, we automatically think to the flapper. We think to the fashion and the dances, to bob air and heavy make-up. Women drinking and smoking. Women discovering their sexuality. All of this did happened – to a small number of women. But even women who weren’t actively involved in the change, even men, even older people, all where affected by the evolution of feeling s and ways of thinking the flapper was the more shocking expression of.

As I explained in my first The New Women’s New Look article, the changing fashion and attitude so prominent in the flapper speaks of a wider change in society. A change that went far deeper than women’s look and went right to the core of relationship between genders and ages, between the past and the present. A new way to understand life, closer to what we feel today. What allowed the emergence of the flapper was a profound change in heart and mind that was also the birthing place of society as we understand it today. It’s a lot more than just fashion.

Well thank you so much for taking part Sarah, it was great to have you on the blog! 

Give in to the Feeling – by Sarah Zama

Chicago 1924

Susie has never thought she might want more. More than being Simon’s woman. More than the lush life he’s given her when she came from China. More than the carefree nights of dance in his speakeasy.
Simon has never asked her anything in return but her loyalty. Not a big price.
Until that night.

When Blood enters Simon’s speakeasy, and Susie dances with him, she discovers there’s a completely new world beyond the things she owns and the things she’s allowed to do. A world where she can be her own woman, where she can be the woman she’s supposed to be. A world of sharing and self-expression she has never glimpsed.
But she’s still Simon’s woman, and he won’t allow her to forget it.

Soon Susie will discover there’s more than two men fighting over her in the confrontation between Blood and Simon. There’s a fight breaking through the wall of the real world, into the spirit world where Susie’s freedom may mean life or death for one of them. And if Susie gives in, she will lose more than just her heart and happiness.

Now available for pre-order on:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sarah Zama was born in Isola della scala (Verona – Italy) where she still lives. She started writing at nine – blame it over her teacher’s effort to turn her students into readers – and in the 1990s she contributed steadily to magazines and independent publishers on both sides of the Atlantic.
After a pause, in early 2010s she went back to writing with a new mindset. The internet allowed her to get in touch with fellow authors around the globe, hone her writing techniques in online workshops and finally find her home in the dieselpunk community.

Since 2010 she’s been working at a trilogy set in Chicago in 1926, historically as accurate as possible but also (as all her stories are) definitely fantasy. She’s currently seeking representation for the first book in the Ghost Trilogy, Ghostly Smell Around.
In 2016, her first book comes out, Give in to the Feeling.

She’s worked for QuiEdit, publisher and bookseller in Verona, for the last ten years.
She also maintain a blog, The Old Shelter, where she regularly blogs about the Roaring Twenties and anything dieselpunk.

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I’m part of a massive giveaway with 49 other writers, with a seriously cool prize: a Kindle Fire loaded with 50 fantasy ebooks! Even better, this contest doesn’t just have one winner, but SIX! One person wins the kindle, and an additional five people will be given one of the 50 ebooks listed in this giveaway — their choice. It’s a pretty cool way to check out new authors.

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Of Course You Realise… that this 11-year-old girl has more grit, determination, and discipline than most of us ‘professionals’

It’s been a while since I did a random post of something I found online!

But I just had to share this one. For some context: I was researching rock climbing videos because I was writing a scene where Longinus watches Rory execute a very difficult climb, and sometimes I like to have visuals of what I’m describing so I can better capture details/movements etc.

That scene wound up on the cutting room floor, but this video I found stayed with me. This girl is amazing, and not just because at 11 she’s breaking world records in rock climbing.

How seriously she takes her climbing, her dedication, focus, and discipline at such a young age really puts me and most people I know to shame. That girl’s got some serious chops!

My two favourite quotes from the video:

“To be a really good climber, you can’t just have it. You have to train really hard, so I take it pretty seriously” (an understatement when you see the training she does)

“I like to look for challenges, it keeps me motivated. I don’t like doing the same thing all the time… If I don’t make a route, it’s just motivating because I don’t want to leave it undone.”

Replace climber/route with writer or any other kind of profession, and that’s a pretty perfect summary of discipline, focus, and perseverance! It makes for a very good kick up the arse if you’re feeling unmotivated or falling prey to procrastination…

 

Pollution in Beijing, The Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven

I know what you were thinking after the last post — ‘the pollution in Beijing is nowhere near as bad as the media make it out to be!’

Not true. That part of the wall was 2 hours drive out of Beijing, and on a day when pollution was low and the weather was good.

Here we are in Beijing, on a bad pollution day — try and guess which one I am. Don’t we look like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie with our anti-pollution masks? (which one do you think I am, by the way?)

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We’re in front of the Temple of Heaven there. Not as heavenly as you might wish with the smog, but still a beautiful building.

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Here I am with our lovely guide Lee (now you can check if you got it right in guessing who I am in the top photo — did you get it right? Virtual gold star and pat on the back for you if you did)

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It was proper smog — like stepping back in time to the Victorian London pea soup. To give you an idea, the World Health Organisation’s guideline for maximum healthy exposure to pollutant particles is 25 micrograms per cubic meter. Beijing gets up to 500. Ouch….

We were only there for five days and yet by the end we all had picked up a bit of a cough and our clothes stunk of coal smoke. For those of you who have long hair and who smoke or have been around smokers, you know that horrible moment when you take a shower and all the smoke trapped in your hair is released once the water hits it? That was a daily occurrence in Beijing.

It was gross.

These photos, by the way, were taken on a sunny day. This was the sun:

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What was even bleaker was when we were on the train travelling from Xi’An to Beijing. Then the landscape really became ghostly and incredibly depressing:

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Especially because a lot of these sky scrapers were in desolate areas, and empty. Look at them — they look like they’re appearing out of the fog.

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During the day it was less obvious, but at night, when we drove past the outskirts of Xi’An, we drove through a forest of skyscrapers, and all of them dark and empty. There’s this weird problem of ghost towns in China, where the government builds entire cities in the expectation of the enormous influx of population from the rural areas — except that once the construction is done, the builders all leave, and the cities remain empty.

We didn’t drive through these ghost cities, but we definitely drove through a weirdly deserted part of Xi’An. The cities themselves are a bizarre concept, based on the expectation that one day people will just move in. These are cities without a mayor, without a culture, an identity, or a history — without anyone actually there (at the moment) to run and organise it. Just a collection of roads and buildings and general infrastructure. As if it had all sprouted up like mushrooms under the rain.

Seeing these empty skyscrapers shrouded in smog was rather disquieting — it also gave me a renewed appreciation of how clean and bright Hong Kong is by comparison!!

On this (delightful) polluted day, we also visited the Summer Palace — winter edition, of course.

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It fronted a lake that was completely frozen over, and it had these lovely long promenades that must be very pleasant in the summer. As it was, it was so cold that I hopped and skipped and generally walked like a bit of weirdo in an attempt to get the blood flowing into my frozen toes.

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The Summer Palace comes complete with marble pleasure barge, should you wish to be on a boat, without the risk of getting seasick (or would that be lakesick?) It was odd, but very beautiful. Behind it — and we didn’t get a photo of this sadly — were hundreds of yellow plastic pedalos, all marooned in the ice, waiting for the summer heat and tourist hordes. It was a pretty perfect metaphor for ‘low season’.

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Alright – next up — the Forbidden City.

The Great Wall of China and an update

Well happy 2016 everyone! I hope the year has treated you well so far.

I’m back at the blog after a bit of an extended hiatus — I was actually brought back by a fellow blogger, Sarah Zama over at The Old Shelter. I’m interviewing her ahead of her new book Give Into The Feeling coming out. I’ve been wanting to interview her for a while, so I’m really looking forward to sharing the interview with you all! Stay tuned for that one.

For now though a quick update on things with me. Firstly, The Black Orchid, the sequel to The Viper and the Urchin is now in the very capable hands of Sue Archer (my editor), so it’s well on track to come out in a couple of months. Very exciting stuff. And while Sue works her magic, I’m starting on a new project that I’ve been wanting to get to for a long time: a Victorian Gothic story set in London. More staying tuned there 🙂

I also had an amazing, if slightly crazy December, with some pretty cool travelling. For Christmas my family came over to this part of the world (Hong Kong and China) and we travelled to Guiling, Yangshuo, Xi’An, and Beijing. While it wasn’t the traditional Christmas (no roast turkey and stuffing for us — not that I mind, I’m not a massive fan of turkey), it was a lot of fun, and we got some pretty stunning photos out of it (by ‘we’, I mean my father. Kind of the reverse of the ‘royal we’)

Now, if I was David Copperfield, I would begin at the beginning of our trip. But being neither Copperfield, nor Dickens (a shame — it would be lovely to be a literary genius), I shall begin by the end of the trip, with what was, by far, the highlight. It’s also probably the most amazing thing I’ve seen in all my travels:

The Great Wall of China.

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Prepare yourselves for a glut of photos. It was absolutely stunning:

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It literally stretched out as far as the eye could see:

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I was reminded of a line from Game of Thrones, when Tyrion Lannister said he wanted to see The Wall so he could piss off the edge of the world (for anyone living under a rock and not aware of Game of Thrones, The Wall is based on Adrian’s Wall in Scotland, separating Westeros — the world — from the wilderness and monsters beyond.) It was so easy to imagine how for the men who manned the Great Wall, that must have been like standing at the end of their world, watching out and waiting for an attack by (what they likely considered) barbarians. It makes you wonder what kind of a life they must have led, waiting in the most remote part of their world for an attack.

The Wall is dotted with watch towers. They’re little more than small, square building, providing only minimal cover against the cold and wind. If the guards spotted anyone approaching, they could signal one another and gather up the troops as needed.

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Amazingly, despite how large it is, the Great Wall has never been breached. There have actually been several Great Walls, and the relics we visit these days belong to the Ming Dinasty Great Wall – which is a mere 8,800km long. The official length of the entire Great Wall is 21,200km, and it’s over 2,300 years old.

Parts of it are very well preserved, but of course the vast majority of it is in disrepair, with chunks missing.

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We hiked for a good few hours, and because it was the middle of winter (and therefore low season), and also because we went for the part of the wall furthest away from Beijing, we were alone for the duration — which as you can imagine was incredibly special. We could actually stand and look out of the wall, and imagine what it must have been like back then for the soldiers on the wall.

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Parts of the wall are seriously steep, mind you – not for the faint of feet! But very much worth it.

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It was truly spectacular. A real once in a life time, awe-inspiring visit — and something I definitely plan to use one day as inspiration for a story.

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Alright, next up — Beijing.