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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

What one strong woman with determination can achieve: Ann Lowe on International Women's Day.




Sometime success stories come from the most unexpected sources. Meet Ann Lowe, the Granddaughter of a former slave, an Africian American woman born in a poor Southern town during the Jim Crow years of the American South. This setting was not exactly an encouraging one, but Ann had a talent and a dream, and nothing was going to stop her.

For months I researched this little known designer. The details of her life were scattered and often varied from source to source, but taking a cue from Ann herself, I perservered and am so glad I did. I learned that even at the height of her stardom, she was known only to the elite circle for whom she designed. She was, in her own words, a "design snob" and in the words of one interviewer a "secret known only to her society clients". But she was, oh, so much more. Here's my story of the research that allowed me into her social circle.

I met her in an airport in Maine. I was in the airport, she wasn't. She died decades ago, but as I was 'surfing the net' I came upon two sentences about her. A 'did you know' kind of post. I was blown away, for no, I didn't know and I thought the circumstances were such that I should.

Born in 1898, the great-granddaughter of a slave and a plantation owner, the granddaughter of a slave and a free man of color, she entered the world in a small, rural Alabama town. She descended from a long line of seamstresses and designers.

Through talent, determination, and a desire to reach a goal, she refused to let the circumstances of her birth keep her down. She didn't preach; she didn't march, she didn't give up. She allowed a dream to be born in her heart and in her own personal way, she overcame all obstacles and achieved her dream.

She designed for a first Lady of Alabama, for Gasparilla patrons of Tampa,  for an Oscar winner and for the socially elite of America. In the 1960's she appeared on the afternoon talk show, The Mike Douglas Show. Mike asked her what drove her to work so tirelessly. She remarked that she "wanted to prove that a Negro could be a major dress designer." From this statement I found the title for my book, Something to Prove, A Biography of Ann Lowe, America's forgotten designer.

When I began my research, I was writing an historical fiction. Soon it became clear to me that her story, her true, unvarnished story had to be told. It was, at that point told only in bits and pieces and often with the bits inaccurate and  the pieces changing with each retelling. I began my research to clarify things for myself and found myself getting to know a strong woman from a family of strong women. I decided that I could not do her justice in fiction. I could not get in her head and speak in her voice. I wanted her to speak for herself. And so she does.

Here's the blurb from the book cover:
"For any designer, designing the wedding dress to be worn by Jacqueline Bouvier, future First Lady of the United States, for her marriage to John F. Kennedy would be a lifetime achievement. For Ann Lowe, it became a statement. The iconic gown would become the most photographed wedding gown in American history proving that (in Ann’s own words), “a Negro can become a major dress designer.”

Years earlier, as the sun rose on the morning of Ann’s birth, no one in the small town of Clayton, Alabama could have dreamed of the heights she would achieve for she was born a squirming, scrawny, little black girl in the Jim Crow South, but from an early age she recognized her dreams.

Her path would not be easy, and any success she might have was certain to be achieved only with steadfast effort and fortitude on her part. Armed with a great inner strength and natural talent, she rose above all obstacles and forged her own future.

When she designed and produced Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress, very few knew her name. No one but her staff knew of the disaster that preceded the delivery of that now-historic wedding dress to the home of the bride. Even fewer knew that she was the granddaughter of a former slave.
Even today, few know her story."





     







The biography is now complete. Along the way I have learned to marvel at what she overcame, and at the people she met. This woman who under normal circumstance might not be welcomed in their homes, became a darling to the Duponts, Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, Roosevelts, Lodges, Posts, Auchinclosses, the Bouviers,..well you get my drift.

As I researched her life, I found beautiful gowns, and their owners. I have been in touch with some fascinating women. A concert pianist now living in Belgium, an academic in Ohio, a lovely socialite who invited me to her home, the daughter of a novelist whose works became the story for several John Wayne movies, including the unforgettable, Shane, and a lady who has the distinctive sound of my mother-in-law on the phone.

I've tramped through graveyards, seen homes falling down, visited with ladies who still speak of the members of her family with their family nicknames as if they are just around the corner, and I've driven through beautiful rolling hills only to find an improvised town at the end of the road, Ann's hometown.

I had fun with this research, even when I was pulling my hair out trying to find the beautiful brides, debutantes, and socialites from the 1950's and 60's. That's the beauty of research, you never know where the path will take you or who you will meet along the way. I love it.

I hope you will read and enjoy this small unpretentious biography of a strong woman.





From a review on Goodreads. "I could not put this book down. I am amazed that she has been so overlooked as an important designer for so long to so many. I attended fashion design school myself in the early 80's and yet had never heard of this phenomenal women. I enjoyed that it is written in "fact nugget" style."


 The book is published in three forms, with color photos, with black and white photos, and ebook for Kindle. All available through Amazon. AND, movie rights have been sold. 



Sunday, March 4, 2018

Every Note Played...beautifully written by Lisa Genova

I've just finished reading this gut-wrenching, beautifully written novel about a devastating subject...ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).  

Lisa Genova, the author of Still Alice, gives us another tale of the horror of a failing body but the beauty of a peaceful mind. 

From the publisher's blurb: "comes a powerful exploration of regret, forgiveness, freedom, and what it means to be alive.

An accomplished concert pianist, Richard received standing ovations from audiences all over the world in awe of his rare combination of emotional resonance and flawless technique. Every finger of his hands was a finely calibrated instrument, dancing across the keys and striking each note with exacting precision. That was eight months ago.

Richard now has ALS, and his entire right arm is paralyzed. His fingers are impotent, still, devoid of possibility. The loss of his hand feels like a death, a loss of true love, a divorce—his divorce.

He knows his left arm will go next." 

And of course, it does.The rest of his body and organs soon follow.

Based upon the subject matter and the blurb, as well as the fact that this disease along with Alzheimer's, is one that all of us dread the thought of having, I thought this would be an exceedingly hard book to read. Because of the beauty of the author's words it wasn't.  Passages about music, life, love, and illness mingle effortlessly. Still, it is a hard hit in the stomach as we face life with Richard after his diagnosis.  

There are so many practical messages from Richard's doctors and other caregives, that I feel the need to keep this title handy should anyone I know ever need them. Thank you, Lisa, for once again sharing your knowledge of a difficult subject.

Don't be frightened off by the subject matter, this is an important book and Lisa is the author to write it. She has a degree in biopsychology and a PHD in Neuroscience. She speaks around the world about these subjects. 

The book will be available after March 20, 2018. Reserve your copy now and urge your library to get it.
320 Pages
#netgalley


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

My Dear Hamilton....

My Dear Hamilton is, of course, the book's title. It is a reflection of  what Mrs. Hamilton, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, might have said many times. It is also a reflection of the thoughts of the women in my family as we eagerly await our coming trip to New York to see the Broadway production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's highly successful Hamilton: An American Musical. In author notes at the end of the book, the authors, Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, acknowledge the importance of Miranda's production in today's landscape. They also acknowledge and discuss some of the points of differences between their historical novel and the Broadway musical. Thank you for that ladies.

As for the book...I loved it. I devoured it, all 600+ pages in a very short time. The authors seem to be consumate researchers. Their devotion to the 'real' story is evident. After all that research, they present it to us as a beautifully written story of history, intrique, betrayal, love and passion. It is historical fiction at its best, complete with authors' thoughts at the end.

From the book's blurb: ...the epic story of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton—a revolutionary woman who, like her new nation, struggled to define herself in the wake of war, betrayal, and tragedy. Haunting, moving, and beautifully written, Dray and Kamoie used thousands of letters and original sources to tell Eliza’s story as it’s never been told before—not just as the wronged wife at the center of a political sex scandal—but also as a founding mother who shaped an American legacy in her own right."

We first meet Eliza as she introduces her husband to us. Here are her words: "The promise of liberty is not written in blood or engraved in stone; it's embroidered into the fabric of out nation. And so is Alexander Hamilton."

As a student of history, I knew of Alexander Hamilton and some of his accomplishments. As many of you, I've answered test questions relating to Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers on many history tests. Now, I know the back story to the many events which he helped shape and which shaped him. I loved the idea that those early leaders really were as human and indecisive as we mortals of today. Still they perservered to give us our nation.

Alexander Hamilton was not a perfect statesman nor a perfect husband, but he was a man who cared and who acknowledged his shortcomings. In the end, he couldn't bend and avoid a mortal conflict with a man who had once been his friend. The result was his death in a duel with Aaron Burr.

Through it all, as we learn about Hamilton, we learn about Eliza, daughter, sister, mother, and lover.  She was a spirited young woman who endured hardships, humilitation, and haunting memories, but through it all her spirit came through and she was a survivor. You'll like Eliza Schuyler Hamilton.

All of this, along with gossip and rumours of the day, are presented in such a way that reading about them is a pleasure. If you like historical fiction, especially, American historical fiction, this is a book for you. 

Thank you Stephanie and Laura for a chance to read this before publication. I loved it all but most especially the churchyard scene with LaFayette and the parade with Mrs. Madison.

Available April 3 at local bookstores and online. Also, check out their novel of Thomas Jefferson's daughter, Patsy. America's First Daughter.




Thursday, January 18, 2018

A good read for a winter day: Tall Chimneys by Allie Cresswell

From the books blurb: 
Considered a troublesome burden, Evelyn Talbot is banished by her family to their remote country house. Tall Chimneys is hidden in a damp and gloomy hollow. It is outmoded and inconvenient but Evelyn is determined to save it from the fate of so many stately homes at the time - abandonment or demolition. Occasional echoes of tumult in the wider world reach their sequestered backwater - the strident cries of political extremists, a furore of royal scandal, rumblings of the European war machine. But their isolated spot seems largely untouched. At times life is hard - little more than survival. At times it feels enchanted, almost outside of time itself. The woman and the house shore each other up - until love comes calling, threatening to pull them asunder. Her desertion will spell its demise, but saving Tall Chimneys could mean sacrificing her hope for happiness, even sacrificing herself. A century later, a distant relative crosses the globe to find the house of his ancestors. What he finds in the strange depression of the moor could change the course of his life forever. One woman, one house, one hundred years.


The setting is a small hamlet on the Moors of England. The active action, not the flashbacks, are WWII. Written in the first person, this book features a protagonist who in turn pleased me and infuriated me. She was strong, yes, but she was weak also. She was controlled by circumstances and I wanted her to rail against those circumstances many times. Still, I liked her. The author writes vivid descriptions, often too many and in too much detail. Every male character, no matter how inconsequential to the story, was described in detail, especially their lips. Many times, I didn't care what they looked like or that greasy spittal was running down their chin.
Still, I like the book. It was good for this winter of many indoor days. The epilogue saved the book for me. The wrapup was unexpected but welcome. The book is written in first person. Some people do not like first person, but that didn't bother me. The author tells the story rather than showing through a lot of immediate action and dialogue, but again, this didn't bother me, but it will bother some readers.

416 pages. Available through online retailers and brick and morter stores. 
Classified as historical romance. 



Wednesday, December 20, 2017

So here's how it happened...my Indie published biography to film option contract.

I'm writing this because so many Indie published authors bemoan the fact that they get little recognition or else they silently accept that their book might languish in the land of 'read, but not by many' for years. I had both feelings and many others that might be found in an Indie author's 'what am I doing?' file, but I knew why I was an self-publishing. I am soon to be 75 years old. I want to see my books published, not under contract to be published. I want to enjoy them, and I do. I publish for me.

My first self-published (Tommy: The Civil War Childhood of a President) was truly self-published for this was before print on demand. I did everything, even drove the typewriter-generated manuscript 50 miles to the printer and weeks later, with first grandchild (now 22 years old) in my arms picked up my first paper baby. I thought it would languished in 'thank heavens for family and friends' land but I had two things going for me. We owned an independent bookstore, and my book belonged in a historical niche. The niche actually became the most important factor in the number of sales.

That niche could be seen as being very wide, Civil War, or very narrow, Civil War childhood of presidents.  Through that niche I was able to promoted it, give book talks across the state and sell 2000+ copies (the number of the first printing) before I ran out of steam. One night alone I was able to sell 300+ copies for I was in the home of the subject of my book. It is still selling on Amazon, through Createspace and at gift shops. For my first Indie effort, I felt pretty good. 

Think about your project or idea. Do you have a niche? If so, use it. If you don't think you do, search your themes, look at society and history. Try to find a niche or two. Then use them!

Because we owned a bookstore I was assured of a book signing and prominent shelf placement. One week I was our store's best seller until somewhere around Thursday of that week J. K. Rowling published a new eagerly awaited masterpiece. Down I went!

My other books have been traditionally print on demand through Createspace. I've been happy seeing my books in print and making a little money, but nothing spectacular. Now comes the subject of today's post.

I have sold the film rights of my latest book, Something to Prove, A biography of Ann Lowe, America's Forgotten Designer.  It has sold fairly well, and I would have been satisfied, but again it is a niche book. And luckily for me, I found that niche just as it became highly marketable.

I think the book's blurb will tell you why the book is now marketable and why I have sold the movie rights to a respected, successful producer.

From  the book's blurb:
"For any designer, designing the wedding dress to be worn by Jacqueline Bouvier, future First Lady of the United States, for her marriage to John F. Kennedy would be a lifetime achievement. For Ann Lowe, it became a statement. The iconic gown would become the most photographed wedding gown in American history proving that (in Ann’s own words), “a Negro can become a major dress designer.”

Years earlier, as the sun rose on the morning of Ann’s birth, no one in the small town of Clayton, Alabama could have dreamed of the heights she would achieve for she was born a squirming, scrawny, little black girl in the Jim Crow South.

From an early age she recognized her dreams. Her path would not be easy, and any success she might have was certain to be achieved only with steadfast effort and fortitude on her part. Armed with a great inner strength and natural talent, she rose above all obstacles and forged her own future. 

When she designed and produced Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress, very few knew her name. No one but her staff knew of the disaster that preceded the delivery of that now-historic wedding gown to the home of the bride. Fewer knew that she was the granddaughter of a former slave.


Even today, few know her story."
Publication day was September  5, 2016. By May 12, 2017 I had received four offers from producers and since then four more. Again, niche! In early May I chose between the two best offers, the one that suited my desires and that I felt would do the best presentation of the subject. I signed and have never looked back. 

No, I had never heard of the producer or her production company just as she had never heard of me, but research proved to me that she knew her business and the right people.(The Hundred Foot Journey, It's a Very Muppet Christmas, Border Wars, Farscape, The National Geographic Channel, and several episodes of Ted Talks among other things).  
An online search also showed photos of her with Oprah and Spielberg, producers with who she has co-produced. 

She and I have talked, emailed, and video-conferenced enough for me to know that I made the right decision. I can't wait to see how she and her associates present Ann's story.
How did she find my little book about Ann? Her associate found the book through a referral and things took off from there. Every time I get an email from another producer, I wonder, how are they finding this little self-published biography? I don't know, but it keeps a smile on my face. 

So, any advice from me to all my fellow self-publishers? I truly believe this happened because of my choice of subject. Though dead for over 35 years, Ann Lowe guided me, introduced me to wonderful ladies and fashion, and told me a fascinating story. 
I met Ann Lowe in an airport last fall. I was in the airport, she wasn't of course. Waiting for my plane I was 'surfing the net'. I came upon two sentences about her. A 'did you know' kind of post. I was blown away, for no, I didn't know and I thought the circumstances were such that I should.

And so, my research was born and Ann came to life. Born in 1898, the great-granddaughter of a slave and a plantation owner, the granddaughter of a slave and a free man of color, she entered the world in a small, rural town in the Jim Crow South. Through talent, determination, and a desire to reach a goal, she refused to let the circumstances of her birth keep her down. She didn't preach; she didn't march, she didn't give up. She allowed a dream to be born in her heart and in her own personal way, she overcame all obstacles and achieved her dream.

When I began my research, I was writing historical fiction. Soon it became clear to me that her story, her true, unvarnished story had to be told. It was at that point told only in bits and pieces and often with the bits inaccurate and the pieces changing with each retelling. I began my research to clarify things for myself and found myself getting to know a strong woman from a family of strong women.  

Along the way I have learned to marvel at what she overcame, and at the people she met. This woman who under normal circumstance would not be welcomed in their homes, became a darling to the Duponts, Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, Roosevelts, Lodges, Posts, Auchinclosses, the Bouviers,..well you get my drift. Soon I knew I wanted Ann to speak for herself. And she does. On my part, I wanted to share her story and present her to the world as the inspiration she is.


Concrete advice:
Back in the practical word of Indie publishing, I admit that I did agonize over the search terms for Createspace and Amazon. As an Indie, think long and hard about your terms. Are readers searching through words that fit into your description? In other words are there some 'niche' words that you could use? For Something to Prove... I made a list of possible words: Ann Lowe, designer, African American designers, African American women, fashion designers, Alabamians, Tampa, Fl., Gasparilla, Jacqueline Kennedy, John and Jacqueline Kennedy wedding, New York City, Harlem, Harlem Renaissance, etc. Narrowing this list down was the hard part.

Do your best when researching, then research some more. Verify every fact you find, several times over. If you see inconsistances in various sources, it is up to you to verify before you use one of them. I read old newspapers, ordered back copies of magazines, back to the 1960's, and read any and all items I could find online. I visited her hometown, spoke with people who still refer to Ann and her mother as if they are just around the corner. Strong, accurate research, even when the amount of factual items is small, is a must.

When writing, reread what you've written several times silently and aloud. When editing, do your own, have a trusted reader or two do an edit, then send it off to someone who truly knows how to edit. Publishing, ask others for advice on their choice of POD publishers, and always, ALWAYS get a physical proof copy no matter how many times your've proved on the computer. I must have more than a dozen physical proof copies. I want to see how it looks on paper and when I make changes, I want to see how they affect the end product.  

Advertising? You might want to get advice from others on this area for I'm not a heavy advertiser. I know that I don't give it enough time but I have contacted various newspapers which have a connection to my subject or which I think  would be interested in my niche baby. Ann and I made the front page of our local newspaper after aa very long wait. Don't get discouraged. On the 'net I've joined book groups and spread the word that I have this wonderful creation out there. I've written about Ann several times in this blog and shared that. I don't spend much, if any, money on advertising. If you have it to spend, spend wisely.

Reviews...check my books on Amazon and you will find that my reviews are practically non-existant. Oh, well. I have some beautiful letters from readers. They seem to feel more comfortable writing to me personally than publishing their thoughts. And the ladies I wrote about by name in the book, all of whom gave me prior permission to use their photos and thoughts about Ann, have been most complimentary. Ann's family? They are thrilled. 
Finally, then, enjoy it all and never give up on yourself. I know I never will, even as I get older and my thoughts come out as gobbledygook, I'm not giving up on myself. You shouldn't either. When you're pulling your hair out or yelling for more chocolate and wine. enjoy the process. If it takes off, wonderful. If not, I hope you have written something you enjoyed writing.
Good luck, 
Julia Faye Smith





I have a color version (color photographs of Ann's designs), a black and white version, and a Kindle version which shows well on some devices and not so well on others. We're working on that problem. I also have created a pinterest page showing the gowns found in the dress. 
                              You  may contact me at jfaye21@gmail.com




Wednesday, September 27, 2017

In Memory of Susan Vreeland

The world lost Susan Vreeland on August 23. The literary world lost a gem.
I'm repeating an earlier review of Susan's Lisette's List, which has been available for over a year and a half now. If you have not read it, what are you waiting for? It  is a work of historical fiction about art, war, and love  It is a work of historical fiction that I fell in love with and is in itself a work of art.

From the book's blurb:
"In 1937, young Lisette Roux and her husband, André, move from Paris to a village in Provence to care for André’s grandfather Pascal. Lisette regrets having to give up her dream of becoming a gallery apprentice and longs for the comforts and sophistication of Paris. But as she soon discovers, the hilltop town is rich with unexpected pleasures.

Pascal once worked in the nearby ochre mines and later became a pigment salesman and frame maker; while selling his pigments in Paris, he befriended Pissarro and Cézanne, some of whose paintings he received in trade for his frames. Pascal begins to tutor Lisette in both art and life, allowing her to see his small collection of paintings and the Provençal landscape itself in a new light. Inspired by Pascal’s advice to “Do the important things first,” Lisette begins a list of vows to herself (#4. Learn what makes a painting great). When war breaks out, André goes off to the front, but not before hiding Pascal’s paintings to keep them from the Nazis’ reach."
                                                            
My thoughts:

When visiting art galleries, there has always been one gallery that I could speed through. That gallery would be housing Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne, and Marc Chagall. I simply did not understand most of their paintings. While I still do not understand all, Lisette's story helped me see things in the paintings that I had not, seen before. In fact, I became so enthralled when Lisette would learn of the meaning of or the reasons for the paintings, that I would come to the computer and research that painting. Often I would simple have the painting on screen as I was reading about it. Wow! Most books do not do that for me. Two of the eight paintings discussed in the story are not actual, but this in no way detracts from the novel. Additionally, the book is so well researched that Ms. Vreeland uses passages from known writings or discussions by the artists themselves.

The blending of the horrors of WWII in France and the life and times of these artists, and of  the other characters in the book, make an evocative read. Lisette is a Parisian embodying all the glamour and free spirit of that word just before WWII. She is enamored with the art scene in Paris and wants to work in a gallery. She has just received the opportunity she so desires when change occurs.

Suddenly, this young Parisian must move with her husband, Andre, to Provence in the south of France to care for his dying grandfather. Grandfather Pascal introduces Lisette to more art and art history than she could ever have learned in the galleries of Paris. She learns that in his early years Pascal was a color pigment salesman representing his beloved village which mined the materials needed by artists. Through his work he became friends with the artists of the day.

His humble cottage in Roussillon, Provence, France, was sparsely decorated but did feature a wall of paintings given to him by those friends from the art world in Paris. He leaves these to Lisette and her husband Andre. He also leaves them his memories, both written and oral. These works of art and the artists who painted them are lifelines that help Lisette get through life after the war takes Andre's life and Lisette must live along and learn to survive as a provencial woman.Through necessity she becomes a fighter, facing shortages, sufferings, and starvation.

My only small complaint would be that, too many times, we had to read through Lisette's mixing of various items to achieve color pigments that she wanted to duplicate. Since colors and pigmentation were essential to the story, I understand these inclusions. They did not detract from the overall story.

Beautifully written with vivid and colorful descriptions, thoughtful insights, and life in Provence, what more could a reader ask?  I highly recommend  Lisette's List. I think book clubs could have stimulating discussions about the book. This is my first Susan Veerland book. It will not be my last. I received an advance reader's copy of the book from Net Galley.





After publication of the book, Vreeland again toured the lovely French settings of the book, this time with a group of readers and admirers. Regrettable, I was not part of that group, but have enjoyed the photos of the trip shared by Mimi Placencia. Check out her photo below.





The Memory of Us...by Camille Di Maio

I read this book several months ago. At that time I wrote a short, noncommittal review, but I did not share it. I really wasn't sure how I felt about the book, but through the months I've been unable to get this book, or more specifically its characters, out of my mind .

From the Blurb: "Julianne Westcott was living the kind of life that other Protestant girls in prewar Liverpool could only dream about: old money, silk ball gowns, and prominent young men lining up to escort her. But when she learns of a blind-and-deaf brother, institutionalized since birth, the illusion of her perfect life and family shatters around her.
While visiting her brother in secret, Julianne meets and befriends Kyle McCarthy, an Irish Catholic groundskeeper studying to become a priest. Caught between her family’s expectations, Kyle’s devotion to the Church, and the intense new feelings that the forbidden courtship has awakened in her, Julianne must make a choice: uphold the life she’s always known or follow the difficult path toward love.
But as war ripples through the world and the Blitz decimates England, a tragic accident forces Julianne to leave everything behind and forge a new life built on lies she’s told to protect the ones she loves. Now, after twenty years of hiding from her past, the truth finds her—will she be brave enough to face it?"

This blurb is one of the few I've read that truly sums up the book. There are several streams woven throughout this book and each one is a facet of what I believe is the overall theme of the book: war changes the lives of all who are alive at the time, not just the military or the politicians involved, but all of us.