Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Favorite Author and My Guest: Mary Jo Putney on a Very Exotic Locale!

I am very excited to welcome my guest today, New York Times bestselling author Mary Jo Putney, who is bringing us a fascinating look into her research on Central Asia for one of her trilogies set in an exotic locale. When you read them you won't believe she has never been to those places, her descriptions are so vivid.

Mary Jo says she was born with a reading addiction, a condition with no known cure. [I seem to suffer from the same addiction if you haven’t guessed!] Mary Jo’s entire romance writing career is, according to her, an accidental byproduct of buying a computer for other purposes. Most of her books contain history and cats, and there is always a happy ending.

I have reviewed her Silk trilogy, the last two books of which are set in Central Asia… and I recommend them. You can see my reviews below this post.

Comment and one of you will win your choice one of her books in the Silk trilogy!

Yearning for Wild and Distant Lands
by Mary Jo Putney

When I was a kid, my school had racks of maps hanging at one end of the blackboard. My favorite was the map of the world, and during boring times I'd study the blank vastness of Central Asia and wonder what was there. That fascination has never left me, and I've since written two Asian oriented trilogies. This isn't the wisest business decision I've ever made, but the Muse wants what the Muse wants!

My Central Asian series is the Silk Trilogy in honor of the ancient Silk Road, which carried luxuries from China and India and Rome. In the 19th century, it was the battlefield of the Great Game, the name for the struggle between Britain and Russia to expand their empires through the region.

Russia gradually annexed the khanates (the political entities ruled by a Khan) while the British pushed north from India, "the jewel in the crown" of the empire. Russian and British agents worked behind the scenes to further their empire's goals. In other words, Central Asian is a great exotic setting for historical romance, and it was an age of daring explorers risking their lives in dangerous, unknown places.

The first in the series, Silk and Shadows, takes place entirely in England, but it was the springboard to Silk and Shadow (#2) and Veils of Silk (#3.)  Silk and Shadows is a revenge story ("He called himself Peregrine, and he came to London for revenge.") and I needed to find a exotic Asian background for my hero, who sweeps into London society as a prince who can move at the highest levels of society. (The young Queen Victoria admires him.)

Joseph Wolff
In searching for a background for Peregrine, I discovered the true story of the Reverend Joseph Wolff, an eccentric Church of England missionary to the Middle East. A German Jew by birth, he converted to Christianity and spent years traveling dangerous roads all the way to India as he preached to the Jewish communities of Asia. He was always warmly received, though I'm not sure how many converts he made.

When two British officers were taken prisoner by the mad Amir of Bokhara (now Bukhara in Uzbekistan), the British government thought them dead, but a group of British officers collected money to send an agent to Bokhara to try to obtain the release of their fellows. The Reverend Wolff was able and willing. After a long and dangerous journey, he reached Bokhara only to find that the officers had indeed been executed.


Wolff himself barely escaped with his life, but the journal he wrote and later published was one of two primary sources for Silk and Secrets. His Narrative of a Mission to Bokhara, in the years 1843–1845, to ascertain the fate of Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly was packed full of marvelous details. Camels: two humps, not one. Deep baskets slung hung across the camel's back with a man riding in each. Sounds uncomfortable. And details of the real people and city of Bukhara.

Bactrian camels
Bukara













The other invaluable source was Travels into Bokhara. Being an account of a Journey from India to Cabool, Tartary and Persia. Also, narrative of a Voyage on the Indus from the Sea to Lahore by Alexander Burnes, a Scotsman (and cousin of Robert Burns) who joined the army of the East India Company and explored widely across Central Asia. His memoirs added greatly to knowledge of that part of the world when they were published in Britain, and he attained considerable renown before being assassinated in Afghanistan, which has always been a dangerous part of the world. 

Sir Alexander Burnes
My first research challenge was finding copies of these books in the days before the Internet! I learned about the books by reading bibliographies in other books. I was able to order a very expensive copy of Burnes’ memoirs from a tiny publisher in New Hampshire that specialized in reprinting primary source books about the Soviet Union. (I just looked the book up at Amazon and found many editions that I could buy with a click. Research is easier now!

Wolff's book I found through inter-library loan. I stood for many hours at mini-photocopier and copied the whole darn book. (Yes, historical writers can be quite insane about their research.) [Regan’s note: don’t I know it!]

These true stories became the inspiration for the hero of Silk and Secrets, Lord Ross Carlisle. Naturally he's far more handsome than Wolff or Burnes, but he is also an Oriental scholar and linguist, a traveler and writer of popular travelogues. He began to roam restlessly after his beloved young wife, Juliet Cameron, ran away from him for reasons unknown.

On the verge of returning to Britain, he meets his mother-in-law at the British embassy in Constantinople, and she begs him to go to Bokhara to see if he can obtain the release of her son, Major Ian Cameron, a friend of Ross's. So Ross undertakes one last journey into danger. On the way he discovers and allies with his long lost wife, and together they go to the most perilous city in Central Asia. 

The romance may be fictional, but the backgrounds are authentic, and Juliet's life as a warlord in Persia was inspired by Lady Hester Stanhope and Jane Digby. Both were aristocratic women who lived lives of great adventure.

Lady Hester Stanhope
Jane Digby
  




















As a romance writer, I'm not about to send characters all the way to Bokhara just to find the man they're looking for dead. And that led to the third book of the trilogy, Veils of Silk. (Spoiler alert!) Ian Cameron is rescued, and as an Indian Army officer, he returns to India to find that his old life has shattered, and he must find new meaning in a new life.

He and his new and unexpected (Russian born) wife undertake a journey to the northwest of India before returning to his home in Scotland--and if I thought the Central Asian research was intense, India was far, far more complicated and fascinating!  I had to learn a great deal about the British Raj in the 1840s, beginning with the fact that it was then called the Sirkar. I studied up on Hinduism and Islam because it was a great sprawling book with many characters and more than one romance. And their epic journey is the kind that could have been part of the Great Game as enemies of Britain stir up trouble on the Northwest Frontier.

The Victorian age is often considered stuffy, but Victorians like the ones I've mentioned lived amazing lives!  I can't begin to do justice to the richness of this era and these people--but I'm very glad I wrote these books, which gave me such a terrific excuse to do the research.

Do you share my fascination with the vast mysteries of Central Asia?  Would you like to visit Bokhara or Samarkand or one of the other near-mythical cities of those lands? I would!

25 comments:

  1. I love the entire series, but Silk & Secrets is among my top ten favorite reads ever, and Lord Ross Carlisle just might be my all-time favorite hero. In the decades I've been her devoted fan, Mary Jo Putney has taken me on such fascinating travels throughout the world and time and secrets of the heart!

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    1. Thanks so much, Faith! Silk and Secrets and Ross Carlisle are very high on my personal favorites as well. I loved writing this series, but when I was through with the book, I was ready to collapse from all the research. "I'll do a nice, easy Regency," I thought. Which became Thunder and Roses.....

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    2. He is a charmer, I'll admit, Faith. And I agree that Mary Jo has served up a travelogue as well as a great romance in that story! Thanks for commenting!

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    1. Thanks for inviting me, Regan. There just aren't that many places where I can babble on about Central Asia.

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  3. When I was younger, I wanted to visit China and India and other lands in between. Now, I do not. I'm afraid the dangers have convinced me to rely on wonderful writing like yours to take an imaginary visit while remaining safely at home.

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    1. Caroline, That is precisely why I did an "exotic locales month" on my blog... for all those armchair travelers who want the experience but without the hassle of international travel or who can't afford a long trip. Here's your chance. I have a "best list" of all the books I recommend, too!

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  4. Looks like an interesting series. Asia has always fascinated me... particularly China, Mongolia, the Silk Road. I have a great interest in the 1200-1300 period, at the time of the Mongol invasion of Northern China. I have done a lot of research for my historical novel (which is on hold for the time being as I'm thinking of rewriting it entirely - in English as opposed to French). That said, India and Russia have always fascinated me as well. I'm looking forward to reading those books of yours, Mary Jo.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by Liette. I agree that the Silk Road is fascinating. Mary Jo's books are deep dives into the culture.

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  5. I must get this new series of Mary Jo's. It's a fascinating part of the world that I find to be dark and shadowy from a 19th-century time period in which there is no mass media to immediately show other countries what is happening. There is so much more isolation from one side of the world to the other. MJP's series will, no doubt, bring all into the light of day with great narrative of exotic locales.

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    1. Hi, Dancer. You make a good point. The time period made the "exotic locales" that much more remote and exotic.

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  6. I have to confess to not liking travelling much. I much prefer to read of exotic places

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    1. That's a great way to do it, Linda. My mother told me I could travel the world in books and I have though I like to be there in reality, too!

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  7. There's no question that reading about these places is far more comfortable, not to mention safer, than visiting in person. Though I'd still loved to see those parts of the world! Dancer, this isn't a new series, but one I wrote in the '90s which is now available in e-book form. I loved these stories and these characters, so it's great that they're readily available.

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  8. I love to travel, but truly have no desire to travel to Central Asia. I'll leave that to my imagination while I read!! Loved the post!

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    1. Hi, Collette. Thanks for stopping by!

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  9. I was one of those people who actually paid attention in Western Civ LOL. The Silk Road has always fascinated me. Personally, I'd love to go on a dig in the Valley of the Kings (yes, I'm channeling Amelia Peabody).

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    1. Those faraway places with strange sounding names! I've been to the Valley of the Kings, though strictly as a tourist. Like you, I've always been fascinated by the Silk Road. The very name breathes adventure!

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    2. I can so see you on a dig, Laura!

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  10. This is one of my favorite series. Enjoyed learning the background information. Think I'll reread them again with that in mind. Veils of Silk was my first book by Mary Jo and was hooked. I'm not much of a traveler maybe some day. Thank you Mary Jo and Regan.

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    1. You are most welcome, Michelle. Glad you enjoyed the post. I thought it was intriguing, too.

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  11. The portrait of Jane Digby is very striking. Books about the Silk Road are very intriguing. I never realized that Bokhara(ignore dumb spellcheck) was such a large place.Years ago we had a very small prayer rug, which was made there.I always imaged it to be woven in some nomad's tent.

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    1. I, too, thought Jane Digby's portrait striking. Her eyes and her gown were the same color. A beautiful woman and apparently an adventurous one, too! Thanks for commenting!

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    2. Denise--Bokhara was a sacred Islamic city and a place of pilgrimage with a famous mosques. The khanate of Bokhara was basically a city-state, so there were large areas around the city that might well nomads' huts where prayer rugs are woven! There were several of these khanates, including Samarkand, and I think Tashkent was also in that category.

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  12. And the winner is... Laura Mitchell! Congratulations, Laura.

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