Monday, December 20, 2010

I was recently invited by to write a guest blog dealing with the giving or receiving of books for the holidays. I decided to write something amusing, but as I started the piece I realized that this was a rather emotional topic for me. You see, when I was eleven years old I learned that a book can bring magic to an otherwise dismal holiday season--or even change one's life.

I spent my formative years in a very small town in Florida. Now, when most people think “Florida,” they think of two overdeveloped, heavily populated and hurricane-prone coastlines with nothing but Disney World, orange groves and a large swath of alligator-ridden swampland between them. In fact, most of Florida is made up of small towns, and when I was growing up there “small” meant REALLY small. Our town had no McDonald’s, no movie theater, and only five traffic lights. The entire population could’ve fit into the corner of a collegiate sports stadium. But the town did have a library, and that was my salvation.

Christmas was always a bit of a tumultuous time at our house. For one, there was the annual battle about the tree. We’d moved to Florida from New York, where it snowed in December, kids had an excuse to drink hot cocoa after playing outside in the winter, and Santa had a reason to dress warmly. In New York getting a real evergreen tree to decorate for Christmas was commonplace, and, more to the point, fairly inexpensive.

Floridians who wanted a live Christmas tree had to buy them from merchants who imported evergreens from places where they actually grow, like North Carolina. Shipping costs and the law of supply and demand drove the prices up considerably; and, having been cut several weeks before arriving in south Florida, the imported trees didn’t last long, either.

So every year, faced with what he viewed as an entirely unnecessary expense, my father threatened to buy a fake tree at the hardware store. Mind you, this was before the Chinese perfected the lovely, life-like silk trees one can buy now. The branches of the hardware store trees looked like long metal pipe cleaners sticking out of a tin pipe covered over with green duct tape. They were meagerly sprinkled with papery green spikes, and molted regularly. A deluxe model came with spray-on snow and a can of pine-scented aerosol spray.

They were hideous.

It took a lot of pleading, whining, and pouting, but every year my siblings and I managed to coerce my father into buying a real tree. I suppose our gifts were commensurately less expensive, but we never made that connection. We were always appropriately grateful that he capitulated. Until the year that he didn’t.

There was no discussion. One afternoon Dad simply came home with the abomination in a box. I watched in horror as he assembled it in the living room, not wanting to believe that he had betrayed us all with such indifference.

Well, everyone else in my family eventually became accustomed to the imposter, but not me. I was repulsed by the nasty thing, and I expressed my opinion loudly and vociferously, to the point where the rest of my family were all more aggravated with me than they were appalled by the Unconscionable Violation of Religious Principals and Holiday Aesthetics that the counterfeit tree represented (not to mention that fake pine smell. Yuk).

Looking back, I think the tree bothered me so much because it represented all the terrifying changes we were facing in our life as a family; my parents’ marriage was crumbling, at times quite publically. But at eleven years old I wasn’t sufficiently self-aware or sophisticated enough to understand my own subconscious reactions. I just hated that phony tree.

One afternoon during the school holidays I went to the library to sulk and distract myself from the tragedy of the bogus tree and all the other unpleasantries that had boiled to the surface of our lives that Christmas. The library was my home away from home. It was my sanctuary.

On that particular day I had grabbed a Victoria Holt gothic romance and settled into my favorite chair, ready to escape to the land of my imagination, when I suddenly started to cry. I tried not to make any noise, but I wasn’t entirely successful; I guess the loud sniffing gave me away, for I soon felt a gentle presence next to me and uncovered my eyes to see one of the librarians standing there, holding a Kleenex.

“Is everything all right?” she asked.

I reached for the Kleenex and shook my head. “My dad bought a fake tree this year.”

She looked a little skeptical, no doubt wondering why that alone would cause me such grief, but deciding not to inquire further. “Sometimes when Christmas doesn’t go the way you plan, good things come out of it,” she responded, and then it was my turn to look dubious.

She smiled down at me. “Wait just a moment,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”

I took this opportunity to blow my nose rather loudly. She reappeared with a book in her hand. “Have you ever read this?” she asked, holding it out to me.

I took the book from her. Little Women,” I read aloud. “What’s it about?”

She paused before answering. “It’s about a Christmas that doesn’t go quite right, and how that eventually leads to good things, and it’s about a family that has some terrible problems but a lot of fun, too, because they all love each other. Mostly it’s about a young girl named Joe. She reminds me of you.”

“She does?” Now this was unexpected. This was high praise. A character in a book? Me? I opened the book to first page.

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Joe, lying on the rug,” I read. And I kept reading. The librarian slipped away. I read and read until the lights above me blinked on and off, signaling that the library was about to close. The sun was setting. I would make it home just before dark if I rode at top speed. I bolted to the checkout desk.

“Merry Christmas,” my librarian said to me as I handed her my library card. And I smiled a smile that felt like the first real smile I’d smiled in days.

With the book safely in my bike basket I pedaled furiously toward home; my mind raced just as quickly. What if my father had been sent away to war? What if my little sister had come down with scarlet fever? Was I really like Joe? I certainly loved making up plays and writing stories. And I was bossy and stubborn. Could that really be me?

By the time I finished the book the next day, I knew that it could be me. It was me. Like Joe and her creator, I was a writer. I just was.

And the first story I wrote after finishing that book was about a little Christmas tree, and a boy lost in the forest, who finds his way home by following the lights that magically appear on the tree before him.

I, too, had found a way out of the darkness.

Originally posted on at

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Real James Bond Was a Woman. Seriously.

I love James Bond. I’d always imagined that Ian Fleming based some of his famous spy’s derring-do on his own wartime exploits, so I was terribly disappointed to learn that during World War II Fleming was actually a spy supervisor. As personal assistant to the British Director of Naval Intelligence, he saw combat only once, and I mean that quite literally; he and his boss watched from afar as Canadian and British troops carried out an assault at Dieppe that was designed to test the strength of German defenses in northern France.

It was 1941, and unfortunately the German defenses were excellent.

Not that Fleming’s contributions weren’t valuable, but he was a thinker and a planner, not a doer. So while researching the lives of World War II spies for my next novel, Heart of Deception, I was intrigued to discover that after the war Fleming allegedly had an affair with one of Britain’s most effective undercover operatives: Krystyna Skarbek, more widely known by her British alias, Christine Granville.

The daughter of a Polish count and wife of a diplomat, Christine and her husband came to London after the Nazis invaded their country. The British wartime espionage organization, the Special Operations Executive, was just gearing up, and Christine volunteered her services. She offered to travel to Budapest and go from there to Poland by crossing over the Tatra Mountains. On skis. Skeptical at first, the SOE eventually agreed to support her plan. Christine was an excellent skier; accompanied by one former member of the Polish Olympic ski team, she made it over the mountains and began engaging in undercover reconnaissance and recruitment.

During her career as a spy she evaded capture by the Germans multiple times. Once she pretended to have tuberculosis by biting her tongue so hard that she “coughed up” blood; another time she was stopped by two German soldiers at a border crossing and lifted her arms to reveal two live grenades, pins already pulled. The Germans fled; Christine pitched the grenades and dashed across the border.

Among other accomplishments she saved the life of Francis Cammaerts, the man who headed up the behind-the-lines S.O.E operations in southern France. In 1944 Cammaerts and two of his colleagues were captured and imprisoned by the Gestapo. Christine talked her way into the jail by pretending to be Cammaerts’ wife, then convinced the German officer in charge that she was the niece of the British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery; that the British were only hours away; and that the commandant could either wait to be slaughtered or hand over Cammaerts in exchange for a large bribe and make a run for it. He accepted her invitation.

Men were quite simply mesmerized by Christine Granville; as one ardent admirer explained, “Even though she was very quiet, there was something about her that put other women in the shade.” And like James Bond, fidelity was never her strong suit.

Fleming supposedly told a close friend that Christine "literally shone with all the qualities and splendors of a fictitious character,” and he eventually used her as one; it’s now generally assumed that Christine was Fleming’s inspiration for the first Bond girl, Vesper Lynd. “Vesperale” was Christine’s nickname when she was a child, because (just like Vesper Lynd) she was born during an evening thunderstorm. Moreover, Fleming’s description of Vesper is similar to that of Christine, both physically (dark hair, wide mouth, no make-up) and in terms of her personality (“She was thoughtful and full of consideration without being slavish and without compromising her arrogant spirit…She would surrender herself avidly, he thought, and greedily enjoy all the intimacies of the bed without ever allowing herself to be possessed.” *)

But while Fleming always maintained that Bond was a “compound of all the secret agents and commando types” he’d encountered during the war, I think that composite also included one spy he met after the war. Given what I’ve learned about Christine Granville, it’s clear to me that she was more than just the inspiration for the first Bond girl; Fleming also incorporated her abilities and attributes into the actual James Bond character.

Vera Atkins, who was the second-in-command of the SOE section responsible for helping the French resistance, described Christine as “a woman of quite unusual character. She was very brave, very attractive, but a loner and a law unto herself.” *

Sound like any other superspy you know?

Inspired by the author’s family history, M.L. Malcolm’s first novel, Heart of Lies, tells the story of Leo Hoffman, a dashing young Hungarian with a gift for languages whose life is destroyed by WWI. When his attempt to rebuild it inadvertently embroils him in an international counterfeiting scheme, Leo escapes to with his lover to the decadent city of Shanghai, only to discover that the shadowy gangsters who control the city will not let him outrun his past. In the sequel, Heart of Deception (coming out in April from Harper Collins) Leo is recruited to work as a spy for the Allies during World War II, and crosses paths with Christine Granville, an encounter that has a dramatic impact on the course of his life.

From Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.

From Christine: SOE Agent and Churchill’s Favourite Spy, by Madeleine Masson.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Writing Life: Dealing with Writer's Block

The Writing Life: Breaking Out of Writer’s Block

You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. ~ Jack London

Writer's block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol. ~Steve Martin

Writer’s block. Blank screen syndrome. Here are five ways to crawl out of it:

Practice. Pianists don’t begin practice sessions by whizzing through symphonies. They play scales. Writers can do the equivalent. Try looking at a picture, write about it, and then share your work. Find one interesting word and use it in five different sentences. Write in your journal. Once your engine is revved up, go back and tackle your work-in-progress.

Get into a routine. This is very much as “Do as I Say Not As I Do,” piece of advice, but it works for some people. Like the unpalatable notion that diet and exercise will keep you healthy, scheduling a specific time to write can produce results. I recently asked Tim Cahill, a very successful adventure/travel writer, if he keeps to a schedule. (How could he? I thought. He’s always stomping through the jungle in Uganda or hiking around Bhutan and stuff like that.) His answer? “Absolutely. I figure if the muse wants to visit, it will help if she knows where to find me.”

Listen to music. The right piece of music can produce a Pavlovian effect. I hear, ergo I write. Enya once got me through an entire rewrite of a novel. Will the people around you get sick of your inspirational music? Yup. Invest in some headphones.

Read something dreadful. We’ve all done it: picked up a published book and read something so flawed you’re seized by the desire to fling the thing into a fire. Don’t get mad. Get even. A good dose of, “I can do better than that” will get your keyboard humming again.

Eavesdrop. I figure there’s no expectation of privacy when you’re shouting into a cell phone. The conversations of strangers sometimes yield glittering nuggets of inspiration. Just be sure to change the names to protect the guilty.

Have some other ways to kick-start creativity? Share them here. What helps you might help someone else.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Have hat, love books, will travel: Adventures of a Book Club Buccaneer


By M.L. Malcolm, Book Club Buccaneer

I receive a short communication, usually in a digital format, but occasionally by phone. Most of the time the message comes from a person whose name I do not recognize. It’s better that way, I think; better for my contact to reach out to me anonymously before getting too involved. Once I’ve agreed to accept the mission and have received my instructions, there’s no turning back for either of us.

At the designated time I get into my car, catch a plane or a train, and head to the rendezvous. Despite having undertaken dozens of similar assignments, every engagement is a new adventure, different in every detail, and I try to prepare accordingly.

As I approach my destination my heart pumps faster. I double-check my coordinates. I arrive. I put on my hat. I’m M.L. Malcolm, novelist and Book Club Buccaneer. I’ve been invited to visit another book club, and I am THRILLED to be there!

Even before my first novel was published I was a huge book club advocate. My own book club experience grew out of a “play group” made up of five professional-women-turned-at-home-Moms and our five toddler boys. The play group disbanded on the day we sent our darlings off to kindergarten. At our official “farewell” lunch one of the other Moms turned to me and asked, “Why don’t we start a book club? We can each invite a couple of friends, and meet once a month to talk about books.”

She called me two hours later. “Have you talked to anyone about the book club yet?”

“Yes,” I replied. “It’s amazing. I’ve already talked to four people who practically leapt through the phone line they were so excited about the idea.”

“Well, we’d better stop there,” she said. “That makes fourteen people already signed up.”

That group became the S.O.F.A. Babes of Atlanta. (S.O.F.A. stands for “Save Our Flannel Attire.” Yes, it’s a long story, and yes, I’d be happy to share it. Just email me if you want to hear “all the gories,” as my Aussie friend says. But I digress….)

At first we S.O.F.A. Babes were a friendly bunch, but not necessarily a tightly-knit group of friends; in fact the bonds of friendship within our group sometimes shifted like the orbit of an aggravated electron circling the nucleus of an unstable atom. But the focus of our interaction was always our love of books, and our desire to share them with people with whom we felt comfortable. Meeting regularly to discuss books gave each of us a sense of community, an experience sorely lacking in modern life.

Through our mutual love of reading, the synergy of our individual relationships created an entity that was much more than the sum of its sometimes discordant parts. Over time the S.O.F.A. Babes became more than just a reading group. We were there for each other during many personal trials and tribulations, including the death of one of our members from cancer. Being a member of that group enhanced my life in inestimable ways.

When my first novel was published I made a determined effort to reach out to book clubs. I’ve spoken to clubs that have just started, and to others that have been going strong for years. One of my favorite clubs refers to itself as, “A Drinking Club with a Reading Problem.” Another one of my favorites is, “The Burned Out Sisters,” who live near San Diego. These women all lost their homes in the devastating Scripps Ranch fire in 2003, and formed a cooperative to help negotiate with insurance companies, construction firms, and the governing powers that supervised everything while they rebuilt their homes. When their houses were finished, they decided that they all liked each other so much, they didn’t want their regular meetings to end. So, they formed a book club. I’ve been invited twice to visit with “The Burned Out Sisters,” and feel privileged to now call some of these wonderful women my friends.

Not every book club is made up of soul sisters or life long friends, but my experience has taught me that books bring people together in wonderful ways. And being in a book club often gets you out of your comfort zone in terms of what you normally like to read, so that you expand your literary horizons (one of the few positive modes of expansion available to “women of a certain age”). In addition, participating in a book club is something you do for yourself, at a time in life when many women spend much of their time doing things for others. A book club can function as a social and intellectual oasis.

Perhaps one of the reasons that my “clubbing” has been so successful is that I write historical fiction with a lot of depth, so that my books provide a lot of good fodder for conversation. My first novel, “Heart of Lies,” is set in the tumultuous time between the two World Wars. It’s about a young Hungarian, Leo Hoffman, who inadvertently involves himself in an international counterfeiting scheme. Falsely accused of murder, he flees with his lover to Shanghai, the only place he can go without a passport or a visa, only to discover that the gangsters who run the decadent city from the shadows do not intend to let him outrun his past.

Because everything that happens in the book is based on actual historical events as well as my husband’s family history, and because the characters are often forced into situations where survival requires them to make choices that are never cut-and-dried, there’s always a lot to talk about. Controversy begets conversation. When readers find out that the book is based on by real events, they often become willing to share their personal stories, which as an author I find fascinating and inspiring. In addition, I always encourage extreme candor, and I love provocative questions; my interaction with readers invariably enables me to improve my writing.

My second novel, “Heart of Deception” won ForeWord Magazine’s silver medal for Historical Fiction Book of the Year in 2009 (under its original title, "Deceptive Intentions"), and will be reissued by Harper Collins next year. It continues the story of Leo Hoffman and his family, so I’m hoping it will inspire lots of good conversations as well.

Then there’s my hat collection, which provides its own source of entertainment. I own at least fifty hats, and love to wear them. Despite the fact that a hatbox is an awkward piece of luggage with which to travel by plane, I seldom travel without at least one hat. In fact, if I’m in an airport toting a hat box, there’s a good chance I’m going to a meeting or event that has to do with books!

I love visiting with readers so much that my husband (whose previous job involved a lot of international travel) gave me all of his frequent flyer miles so that I can fly all over the country to visit book clubs. Using these miles, I’ve been to visit over forty clubs in eight states, often visiting clubs I knew nothing about other than the fact that at least one of their members had read my book and liked it, and that the club had issued me an invitation. I have not had one bad experience; to the contrary, I’ve met with several clubs I wish I could’ve joined!

I’ve had so much fun visiting clubs that, with the blessing of my publisher, Harper Collins, we’ve started a new program. It’s called, “Buy the Book, Get the Author FREE!” I’ll visit any book club within a two-hour drive of any major airport in the U.S. If the meeting is organized through an independent book store, my publisher will even pay for the wine! All we ask is for a commitment to purchase 20 books. If a visit isn’t feasible I’m always happy to Skype or conference call into a meeting, and/or answer questions in advance via email.

If you are in a book club or just love to read, I would love to hear from you. Please email me at, and check out my website, That’s me: M.L. Malcolm, Book Club Buccaneer: love hats, love books, will travel!

Reprint with the kind permission of Marsha Toy Engstrom, "The Book Club Cheerleader,"