Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The Stuff of Story and Legends: Ellis Island

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: If you say the words Ellis Island, a picture instantly comes to mind, doesn’t it? And every person who stepped into that place carried a story – – hopes and fears and dreams and beliefs. We could never tell all of the stories, right? And the fabulous Heather Webb has discovered that there’s more to Ellis Island than we even imagined.

Because as Heather discovered, some stories are true, some are created to be “true,” and some stories are so grand--that they become legend.

Legends. There’s not a bone in my body that does not believe Camelot was real. I could be convinced about Atlantis. The room of gold in the Czar’s place. That Anastasia lives. Totally true.

Come with Heather Webb today, to find out about her intriguing new book
THE NEXT SHIP HOME.  (LOOK at that COVER!)  And more about the story below, but here's a hint: An unlikely friendship, a terrible secret, and a system that is out to destroy them

And at the end, a question for you. (And a giveaway!)

The Draw of Legends in Fiction

by Heather Webb

Ever since I was old enough to drag stacks of books around, I lost myself in stories about legendary people and places and events. Mythology, too, and worlds that swept me away to a very different time and place from the four walls of my bedroom. Not much has changed. In fact, not only do I read books about legendary characters and places, now I write them!

 Fiction and the almighty Story with a capital “s” is such a pliant and magical medium all on its own, but stories still somehow become grander—sometimes even withstanding the test of time—when a legend is woven into its tapestry.

What is a legend anyway? A legend is a story from the past that is believed by many people but cannot be proved to be true. And yet, as J. R. R. Tolkien said, “Legends and myths are largely made of 'truth'." If there weren’t some truth to the story, would it be worth passing down over decades and centuries?

Another great quote about legends comes from Sarah Bernhardt, a legend in and of herself, "Legend remains victorious in spite of history." I agree with her—it’s true that legends need time to develop. After the initial event, word of mouth must take over followed by embellishments, thoughtful and also careless chatter, and finally, having the legend immortalized in some way with each generation. These days, that means through some sort of art form or entertainment medium.

What is it about legends that makes them so fascinating? Why are we so drawn to them? Perhaps it is the truth hidden within them, as Tolkien believed. Maybe it’s because they strike upon universal truths that we can all identify with on some level. Or perhaps it’s really because we love a good mystery. Isn’t every legend shrouded in delicious secrecy and mystery? (I know here at Jungle Red Writers, you all love a good mystery!)

Many novels use legends as a basis for their plot and they ripple across all genres. A few that come to mind include:

· Sci-fi based on UFO lore

· Fantasy and alternative histories based on Arthurian legends and all sorts of mythologies

· Historical fiction based on legendary people, events, or places

· Horror is particularly rich in legends with its haunted houses/buildings/locations and fetishizing religious beliefs or practices

· Crime fiction can also see legends incorporated in a myriad of ways. The legends surrounding serial killers for example, or in the Da Vinci Code, the religious legends associated with relics..

The legends surrounding Ellis Island are what drew me in when I first started thinking about writing my new novel that’s set there. The island was a place where captured and convicted pirates took their last breaths on the scaffold before being hung for their crimes.

The island changed names three times and grew from a few acres to 27+ over the course of its prominence. At one time, its waters served as some of the finest oyster beds in the world.

Most recently, the buildings there have served as an immigration center and a detainees’ ward for prisoners of war. Over twelve million people passed through Ellis Island’s storied halls in the six and a half decades it was open. Their essence still permeates every corridor.

Its history is rich, fascinating, hopeful—and far darker than you might first imagine. People, history, and the many, many legends that are a part of Ellis Island. THIS is what brought me to its shores with a notebook in hand, my cellphone poised at the ready for as many photos as the phone would hold, and a head full of ideas ready to be put into words.

The Next Ship Home releases in just two weeks, and I hope I have captured some of those elements of legend in its pages, and also shed light on the truth…or some version of the many truths that exist there.

What kinds of legends hook you? What’s the name of a novel based on a legend?

HANK: Ooh, such a good question! Eager to hear what you have to say. But wait, wait, Heather. We are waiting in the comments--tell an  Ellis Island legend! (Or two!)

(And a copy of THE NEXT SHIP HOME to one lucky commenter!)

Heather Webb is the USA Today bestselling and award-winning author of seven historical novels. In 2015, Rodin’s Lover was a Goodread’s Top Pick, and in 2018, Last Christmas in Paris won the Women’s Fiction Writers Association STAR Award. Meet Me in Monaco, was selected as a finalist for the 2020 Goldsboro RNA award in the UK, as well as the 2019 Digital Book World’s Fiction prize.

Heather’s new solo novel, The Next Ship Home (Sourcebooks/Feb.8), is inspired by true events and reveals the dark secrets of Ellis Island as two unlikely friends challenge a corrupt system, altering their fate and the lives of the immigrants that come after them.

To date, Heather’s books have been translated to sixteen languages. She lives in New England with her family, a mischievous kitten, and one feisty rabbit.


Inspired by true events and for fans of Kristina McMorris and Hazel Gaynor, The Next Ship Home holds up a mirror to our own times, deftly questioning America’s history of prejudice and exclusion while also reminding us of our citizens’ singular determination. This is a novel of the dark secrets of Ellis Island, when entry to “the land of the free” promised a better life but often delivered something drastically different, and when immigrant strength and female friendship found ways to triumph even on the darkest days.


A young Italian woman arrives on the shores of America, her sights set on a better life. That same day, a young German American woman reports to her first day of work at the immigration center. But Ellis Island isn’t a refuge for Francesca or Alma, not when ships depart every day with those who are refused entry to the country and when corruption ripples through every corridor. While Francesca resorts to desperate measures to ensure she will make it off the island, Alma fights for her dreams of becoming a translator even as women are denied the chance.


As the two women face the misdeeds of a system known to manipulate and abuse immigrants searching for new hope in America, they form an unlikely friendship—and share a terrible secret—altering their fates and the lives of the immigrants who come after them.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The Brilliant Gabriel Valjan

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Like gravity, or quantum physics, Gabriel Valjan is a force of nature. If you know him, you are cheering right now to see him here on Jungle Red. He's the most generous, most thoughtful, most outrageously supportive author in our writing-reading world. With no reason other than his true and honest passion, he constantly promotes and shares and publicists other authors' events and books and successes.

Most authors secretly whine a bit about how much promotion is necessary and expected for their books--but Gabriel, the amazing Gabriel, not only does it without being asked, but does it spectacularly!

Follow him here on Twitter, and be amazed. And awed.

So now,  Reds and readers, the person whose face in in the dictionary when you look up "generous"--has a new book of his own.    

"Wrung their bread from stocks and stones"
    by Gabriel Valjan

The line above is from one of Robert Lowell’s lesser known poems, “Children of Light.” Ephesians 5:8 inspired his poem. I plucked the phrase for two reasons. 

One, Lowell confronted the violence that is the history of New England. Two, I admire the metaphor of finding sustenance from common but difficult materials. Boston is a city haunted by history, most of it unpleasant, but rich for an author of crime fiction, such as myself.

I write about Boston in the 1970s, a time of systemic corruption and institutional racism. A murder in Boston’s Red Light District inspired my third Shane Cleary novel, HUSH HUSH, but I take the details in a different direction.  (If you’re interested in both historical context and the crime, consult Jan Brogan’s Combat Zone.)

Like the poet, the mundane fed my imagination. Located on Columbus Ave. in Shane Cleary’s South End, Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe has been serving customers since 1927. The young Sammy Davis, Jr. used to dance for change outside its doors. For decades, Charlie’s was the only place in Boston where black and white diners could sit and eat together.

To give you a sense of how bad race relations were in Boston, a riot broke out at Carson Beach in 1975 when black protestors tried to use the beach, and the desegregation of Boston schools and public housing was not completed until 1988.

Shane’s South End was a hotspot for traveling African-American and Latino performers who worked the club circuit in town and the burlesque houses in Scollay Square. Charlie’s was a safe space according to The Negro Motorist Green Book. If you know Charlie’s location, then you’re aware that Back Bay Station is nearby.

On the second floor, above Charlie’s, was the office of the first black union in the nation, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. This union, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, organized strikes and campaigned for labor laws and racial equity, despite threats of violence. It is from Randolph that his protégé, a theology student at Boston University named Martin Luther King, Jr., had the dream of a March on Washington.

In HUSH HUSH, this history is folded into exposition without becoming didactic. The scene in Chapter 2 that unfolds becomes tense and relevant for readers. You can read it online in the Look Inside feature at Amazon for HUSH HUSH. A man double-parks his Cadillac in front of Charlie’s, two police officers stop, and the Q &A that ensues sounds procedural but it’s all subtext. Shane witnesses it and feels compelled to examine the facts of a case.

Bread wrung from stocks and stones.

History is all around us if we look for it. We should examine both the heights and depths, the dark and the light.

It doesn’t have to be as monumental as the Boston Massacre. It’s often forgotten history that fuels the imagination of writers, like how the Boston Common is the resting place of the colonial American and British dead, or that there’s a small plaque honoring an elm tree in the middle of the Common.

The tree is gone, and a memorial states that the Sons of Liberty assembled there, but it omits one sinister detail. The tree was where criminals, Quakers, and Native Americans were executed.

Has a page from forgotten history or an important public place inspired your writing?

HANK:  That is such a thought-provoking question. And every time I walk on the Common, or in the Public Garden, I think about the people in history who have walked in the same place. It's either inspirational--or chilling.  In The Murder List, the Boston Common bandstand provides  a pivotal moment...for the very reason you suggest, dear Gabriel! 

How about you, Reds and readers?  Or is there a place you think about in a different way because of a book? Or a place you wish you could visit because of a book?

Gabriel Valjan is the author of the Roma Series, The Company Files, and the Shane Cleary Mysteries. He has been nominated for the Agatha, Anthony, and Silver Falchion Awards, and received the 2021 Macavity Award for Best Short Story. He lives in Boston.

Monday, January 24, 2022

It's a Wordle, It's a Bee, It's a Volplane?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Here is one of my proudest moments in the past couple of weeks. I found every word contained a THE SPELLING BEE wheel of seven letters. Including two words – – pangrams – – that contain all seven letters

Tiny victories.

I have also discovered Wordle. Have you? It’s a on-line word game that looks like this at the beginning.

And the goal is to figure out what the five letter “Wordle” is by trying out five letter words, and then the software tells you whether you have put a correct letter in the correct place, or a correct letter in the wrong place, or chosen a letter that is not in the word at all.

Then, knowing that, you try again. And you get six tries to find the Wordle. I did not do too well on this one, below. Usually I can it in three or four.

But you can see my train of thought, right?

(Once, just once, I did it in two. But that was just lucky.)

There are lots of hints and clues flying around online, secrets to how to “win,” but I never read them because--figuring it out for yourself is the fun part.

And the New York Times Sunday Magazine SPELLING BEE– – that is the first thing I do on Sunday morning. I I cannot proceed with my day until I figure out the word. You have to find all the five-or-more-letter words, all including the middle letter. AND a seven letter word using all the letters. I am addicted to it.

Do you play any of these games? Or others? Do you embrace them, or are you frustrated with yourself for taking the time?

HALLIE EPHRON: I do! I do! My favorite is SPELLING BEE on the New York Times. I also play TILES. Their MINI CROSSWORD. And the regular crossword in the Boston Globe.

I also play bridge online with my sister and her husband and a friend. We having a group phone call while we play which makes it ALMOST like real life.

I know I’d love WORDLE but I am wary of adding yet another time dawdler to my repertoire.

JENN: Hallie, the nice thing about Wordle is that it is only one puzzle once a day and no ads and so far the creator is insistent that it stay that way. I love Wordle! My best is solving it in three.

I play Wordscape (an app) on my phone. Six letters and you have to make as many words as you can out of them. Fun! It’s what I do on planes while waiting to take off. I used to do the crossword every day but not lately as it takes too long. But I am going to check out NYT Spelling Bee - that seems like my kind of thing! I love word games. Plus, they’re supposed to help fight off dementia. So, they’re medicine :)

HANK: Yes, Jenn, isn’t it brilliant how it’s once a day? And Hallie, indeed, you would love it.

RHYS BOWEN: I finally succumbed to Wordless yesterday. Got the first two on the third try. I think they will be easy for me as we do Codewords from the British Daily Telegraph. It’s a blank crossword. They give you two letters corresponding to numbers and you have to fill in the whole crossword from that. Same strategy really.

I also play online Scrabble every day against the computer whom I call Ivan because he’s so terrible. He used words I’ve never heard of and also things like gurrrl and hmm which are absolutely cheating. Even so I beat him quite often. Very satisfying

LUCY BURDETTE: Yes, I’m addicted to Wordle too. Once I won in three tries, but usually much harder. And the spelling bee as well–I use the hints liberally to keep me going so I don’t give up. We used to love playing Boggle, so I bet I would like wordscape as well. Must keep those brain cells flickering…

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I see Wordle everywhere and I haven’t tried it yet, because I’m afraid I’ll become an addict. I’m super old school when it comes to word puzzles - I do the New York Times Sunday crossword. In ink, because I’m a badass, oh, yeah. My kids get me the book collections, and some of the collected puzzles date back to the seventies, so my personal knowledge of ancient culture is a plus.

Online games - I’m Majhong Solitare all the way. The Washington Post has a nice version - you don’t play against anyone, but there is a leaderboard to get the competitive juices flowing.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I see Wordle everywhere but haven’t tried it yet. I do the crossword but not regularly, and I’ve never tried the NYT Spelling Bee but I’m going to check that one out! Right now my brain is in deadline mode and I don’t really want to be distracted.

I am, however, addicted to online Trivia. I get Word Genius and Trivia Genius quizzes and I cannot resist them. I’m sure my vocabulary would be enormous if I could just remember all the weird new words I learn!

HANK: I got a word-of-the-day calendar, and every day, Jonathan and I take turns quizzing each other. Volplane, Catachresis, Nuncupative. And he just did his first Wordle. Which he got in 4.

How about you, Reds and readers?