The opening of a new publishing house in Edmonton would be a momentous affair no matter what. Add in a literary and historical fiction focus, an intriguing debut run of five novels by Alberta authors, and the most opulent book party I’ve been to apart from the one I attended with Gwyneth Paltrow, and Stonehouse Publishing‘s launch looks like the literary event of the year thus far.
Stonehouse Publishing wants to publish “the best in Canadian fiction, but not necessarily ‘Canadiana’.” So, not this stuff (though someone really should write a novel about a troupe of French Canadian clowns.) They also plan to reissue forgotten classics, kicking off with Evelina by Fanny Burney next year. As of May 1st, you can get your hands on five books: Three historical novels, set in WWI-era Canada, Regency England, and revolutionary France; a thriller set in contemporary Ukraine (Course Correction,) and a murder mystery set in rural Alberta (Edge of Wild.) I took the three historicals home:
- Mary Green by Melanie Kerr: I reviewed Kerr’s first book, Follies Past, a few years back and was pleasantly surprised by the Pride and Prejudice prequel, which stands on it’s own easily while still capturing the style of Jane Austen. I’m very excited to meet Mary Green, who is not an Austen character, but does exist in Regency England and is a neglected orphan who (presumably) must rely on her wits to cope in London society.
- League of the Star by N.R. Cruse: Hearing the first few pages, in which a sheltered teenage girl sees a man for the first time on a ship, while escaping the French revolution, got me hooked.
- Kalyna by Pam Clark: I’ve read plenty of WWI-era CanLit but never from the perspective of Ukrainian immigrants. Time to fill in a few gaps.
The majority of book parties in Edmonton take place in the basement of Audreys Books and feature coffee and cookies. To be clear, I’m not knocking that! This was just on a different level. Hosted in the beautiful Boyle Street Community League, there was a DJ, a photo booth with historical costumes, a snack bar loaded with tea and scones, and a cash bar. Authors met readers in elaborately decorated booths, and readings took place in a comfy armchair in the middle of it all.
I saw and was seen, particularly by Matthew Stepanic of Glass Buffalo and Claire Kelly of NeWest Press. I also met author Melanie Kerr in person for the first time, after corresponding by email on and off for years. She is a delight, and her blog, though not updated so often these days, has some gold in the archives, including this post, if you’re a “begs the question” stickler like me.
It all went off beautifully. The only oddity was that author N.R. Cruse, who was apparently in the crowd, never sat at her booth, signed any books, or read a passage from her novel (her editor read for her.) Cruse is known to be reclusive and claims to be a direct descendant of Daniel Dafoe. I think of her as Alberta’s answer to Elena Ferrente.
Q&A with publisher Netta Johnson
Editor Julie Yerex and Publisher Netta Johnson were much too busy to chat the night of, so I asked some questions by email.
Reading in Bed: I recently read an article about how historical fiction is seen as less prestigious than contemporary literary fiction. This has always confused me. When I see a book classified as “historical fiction” and it’s clearly got tons of literary merit (e.g. Wolf Hall) I wonder why the setting makes it a whole different genre. Do you think historical fiction is seen as less prestigious than contemporary, and did this influence how you chose your focus for Stonehouse, your first run of books, how you market them, and so on?
Netta Johnson: I thought this question was very interesting, and it serves to highlight how much things change, and yet stay the same. Lately, I have been reading the whole set of novels by Dumas. I had tried to read the Three Musketeers many years ago, but somehow couldn’t get properly interested. Without knowing it, I started to read the 3rd in the series, The Vicomte to Bragelonne and was pretty captivated by the portrayal of the Musketeers at age 50; the characters were so much more interesting in their middle-age. Reading the introductions to these books, I was struck to discover that these challenging and intricate novels (my words) were considered rather fluffy and insubstantial at the time of their publication, and often dismissed as ‘romances’. Perhaps popularity is the heart of the problem, and then and now, it is hard for reviewers to take books seriously when they are popular? Or maybe it is hard to separate the literary historical fiction from the genre historical fiction sold in grocery stories?
RIB: I’m super excited about your plans to publish forgotten classics. Can you tell me how you came to choose Evelina by Fanny Burney for your first book? (By the way, I’m going to host a Fanny Burney readalong this year. I’m thinking Cecilia. I’ve never read her but I’m noticing she’s trending a bit. I first heard about her on RonLit’s YouTube channel.)
NJ: I found Fanny Burney about 18 years ago, via Jane Austen. I began reading Evelina with the expectation that it would be dry and educational, and soon found myself laughing through much of the book. Cecilia is twice the size, and much more serious. It has a very personal appeal to me, so I am never sure if that will translate to others. Julie and I sometimes joke that she is Kanye and I am Jay-Z (thank you, Buzzfeed quizzes!), and in terms of 18th century heroines/books, she is Evelina and I am Cecilia. Evelina is so much more approachable, lighthearted, and when it was first released (anonymously), it spread like wildfire. Cecilia is a longer, darker novel, and it had some pretty famous intellectual admirers (Dr. Johnson, Edmund Burke, Hester Thrale, Napoleon). In Cecilia, FB takes a pretty sharp look at a number of social issues/problems of that time. Cecilia introduces you to misers, superficial friends, gamblers, social climbers, struggling tradesmen (and the poor in general), while showing the social problems with dueling (unavoidable, but the main two consequences were either death or jail, whether you won or lost), and the aimlessness of the aristocratic class. As an underage woman and an heiress, Cecilia is at the mercy of various different people, and as she waits the last few months till she comes of age and inherits her money, she is prey to every kind of snare. There is even a public suicide! Another amazing thing about this book is that we don’t even meet the hero for 120 odd pages. For any time, it is rather unconventional.
RIB: As publishers, are you in tune with all the bookish new media out there: blogs, Booktube, Bookstagram, and so on? Any favourites? How about Snapchat?
NJ: We have to look some of these up! Right now, we think we have a handle on Facebook, Twitter and just staring with Instagram. I didn’t even know the other ones existed!
Note: they’re humble, but their hashtag game was on point: if you missed the big launch, check out #Stoholaunch on Twitter and Instagram.
My rating: 3.5/5 stars
Taking its facts from Austen’s own words, Follies Past opens almost a year before the opening of Pride and Prejudice itself, at Pemberley, at Christmas. Fourteen-year-old Georgiana has just been taken from school and is preparing to transfer to London in the spring. It follows Georgiana to London, to Ramsgate and into the arms of the charming and infamous Mr. Wickham.
Remember last year when I did Austen in August and decided that even though Austen is Awesome, she kind of wasn’t for me (with the exception of Persuasion because let’s face it, Captain Wentworth is for everybody?) It’s a credit to Ms. Kerr’s persuasiveness (sorry) that I decided to read Follies Past. I didn’t want to set myself up for a disappointing read, or deal with the awkwardness of a writing a bad review of a local, self-published book. But over the course of a few weeks’ email correspondence, she wore me down. I picked up the ebook and girded myself.
It wasn’t just Kerr’s salesmanship (thought it was impressive) that convinced me. She created a series of wonderfully overwrought book trailers that are far more entertaining than those of best selling authors. And she blogs. Her blog is neither in your face promotion nor dubious writing tips; rather, it’s an interesting and educational look at what goes into writing a historical novel and publishing it yourself. Kerr’s expertise in the Regency era comes through in her fiction, but her blog really drives it home. My favourite posts are those about about peculiarities of Regency language, but she also rants about misuse of “beg the question,” one of my pet peeves.
What about the book?
Right! The best thing about Follies Past is that the writing style comes oh-so-close to Austen, it feels completely natural and not at all like that “put a Zombie on it” brand of adaptation. Kerr’s wit isn’t quite as razor sharp, but that’s like saying you are slightly worse at playing piano that Mozart. I don’t know about you, but I read Austen for the sick burns more than the romance, and there are plenty here. Speaking of romance, here’s our hero contemplating marriage with Caroline: Continue reading