Mitch Mathis doesn’t own a TV. He has never seen STARWARS. In the world of Hollywood and Cecil B. DeMille Elementary School, Mitch is a freak – a pop culture deprived kid in a school full of children of the powerful and famous. There’s Skywalker Ortega, whose parents are special effects gurus.
A thirteen year old boy, Rowan Popplewell, is at an all time low point. His mother died a year ago, and her death put the family in a downward spiral. His father has turned to drinking, the family business is becoming a financial disaster, they've had to move from their house to a small apartment, and worst of all, his eleven year old sister Nina hasn't spoken a word since his mother's death. Rowan and his sister are invited up to Owatannauk Maine, a small fictional town on the very tip of the state, by Rowan's two great aunts, whom he barely knows, and who were also, as it turns out, his mother's godmothers. Rowan is anticipating a very boring summer with two elderly women. Once they get up there, however, strange things start to happen. The aunts have a curio shop with some very curious things in it...so curious that they compel Nina to start speaking again..
They meet two twins, Xanthe and Xavier, who tell them about an old abandoned resort that appears to be haunted. In actuality the resort turns out to be an elaborate time machine. Nina seems interested in using the machine to escape from their horrible life. Rowan mentions that there was a marvelous period of time in Europe called "The Enlightenment;" a time when superstition and church dogma started to give way to logic and reason, art and science were making tremendous strides, truth and beauty were celebrated. When Nina disappears the next morning the kids rush to the resort and find out that she did indeed use the time machine. Rowan, however, had gotten his dates mixed up, so instead of directing his sister to France during the Enlightenment, he sent her right into the middle of the French Revolution, an incredibly violent and dangerous period in history. Rowan, Xanthe and Xavier go to the French Revolution to save her, meeting a variety of historical characters along the way.
Before I wrote the book I had already been to France once, and I went again while I was plotting the story. My research was less scholarly and more sensory. I wanted to get a feel for certain locations, such as Versailles and Notre Dame, try to imagine what it was like during the Revolution and what it would feel like to be suddenly dropped in the middle of it as a thirteen year old from the twenty-first century. The most difficult part was finding books that gave detailed descriptions of everyday life. For that I found a great deal of information in a book entitled Citizens - A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama, and The Memoirs of Madame Roland - A Heroine of the French Revolution by Madame Marie-Jeanne Philpon Roland. Also the biography of Marie Antoinette, Marie Antoinette - The Journey by Antonia Fraser was of great use. I also consulted an expert on the subject, Professor Robert Blackman, assistant professor of history at Hampton-Sydney College.
I've always been fascinated by the French Revolution. Just imagining nobles in exquisite clothing and elaborate wigs getting their heads lopped off probably had a lot to do with it. I also like the personalities involved; Marie Antoinette, King Louis the XVI, Maximillien Robespierre, Danton, Camille Desmoulin. I'm intrigued by the scapegoat mentality, mob dynamics, and the connection between the French Revolution and the American Revolutionary War. All of these things were elements that I wanted to learn more about and that I thought would be of interest to kids.
I was also aware that most kids don't get to study the French Revolution until high school. Most children are exposed to the ancient Egyptians, Native Americans, the ancient Greeks and Romans, Dinosaurs, the American Revolutionary War, American slavery, and British medieval history at some point, whether it's at school or in other books they’ve read, or even just through popular culture. But most kids no absolutely nothing about the French Revolution, one of the most important events in European history. I liked the idea of choosing a time period that would seem fresh to most kids, and I liked the idea of perhaps being the first person to expose them to something they would then want to explore further.
What appealed to me most about using the French Revolution for this first book in the series was that it reflects several of the themes in the book. One example is the theme of disconnectedness. Rowan is a boy who feels disconnected from other people, partly because of his introverted personality but also because of his depressed circumstances. He just feels like the biggest loser on earth. He is disconnected from his sister, because she won't speak, and because she holds a secret she won't share. He is disconnected from his father because of his father's overwhelming grief over the death of his wife. At the beginning of the novel Rowan is about as alone as he can be, and he spends the entire book trying to get everyone connected again. You see a lot of disconnectedness between people in the French Revolution as well. One of the elements that exacerbated the growing discontent between the common people and the nobles was the yawning gulf between them in their respective lifestyles. The world of Versailles was totally disconnected from what was going on everywhere else in France, and King Louis XVI was incapable of communicating in any meaningful way to his people.
Another theme in the book is anger. Rowan refuses to acknowledge how angry he really is, but has a sudden burst of rage towards the end of the book. We find out his sister Nina also lost her temper, and feels tremendous guilt for expressing it. I wanted to show that anger is not a bad thing but rather a necessary thing. If anger is allowed to build up it creates a pressure cooker, and eventually those pent up feelings explode. You see this in the French Revolution with the uncontrollable rage of the mob and the excessive violence in the Reign of Terror.
So the French Revolution was a good choice, I think, on many levels.
In this second book in THE GOLDEN HOUR series, Xanthe Alexander is in a foul mood because her twin, Xavier, has just won a prestigious award that she coveted, and part of his prize is a trip to Washington D.C. While brooding she is visited by her friend Rowan Popplewell, who informs her that the Aunts, Agatha Drake and Gertrude Pembroke, want to recruit all four of them to help collect curios for their shop and become Time Traveler Frequent Fliers, giving them unlimited access to the alleviators and the opportunity to travel all over the world through time. Xanthe is ecstatic, not only by this news but also because she gets to do something fun without Xavier.
Once up in Owatannauk, Agatha lays out the plan; they are going to Alexandria Egypt, 58 B.C., to retrieve some documents from warehouses of the great Alexandrian Library, which is the intellectual center of the ancient world, before they are set on fire by Julius Caesar in 48 B.C. and lost to history. Agatha will pose as a honey merchant with Nina as her assistant, Rowan will take a job as a scribe in the library where he has access to the scrolls and can make counterfeits, and Xanthe will transport the original scrolls to the Owatannauk safe, with the counterfeits taking their place in the warehouse.
All goes well until Xavier shows up. His trip was canceled due to food poisoning and Xanthe is livid that he has intruded on her adventure. She senses that he is also trying to "steal" Rowan away from her. She meets the young princess Cleopatra, and in her anger and desperation for attention she decides to befriend the young princess, and visits her at different times of her life, up through when Cleopatra becomes queen and meets Julius Caesar. Xanthe's relationship with the Egyptian queen sets off a disastrous series of events that changes history. In their attempt to rectify the mistake the foursome find themselves in a race against time, sending them through underground crypts, a gladiatorial battle and a hunt through a pyramid for an unusual treasure. Xanthe and Xavier realize they have to work together for their mission to succeed.
My research for HOUR OF THE COBRA consisted of primarily secondary sources. The part of Alexandria Egypt that I was writing about is under water due to a series of earthquakes, however I was able to find books that gave me a good idea of what the city looked like, down to how the streets were laid out on the city grid. Books that I found most useful were: A Travel Guide to Ancient Alexandria by Don Nardo, Cleopatra: The Life and Death of a Pharoah, by Edith Flamarion, and Alexandria, Jewel of Egypt by Jean Yves Empereur. Cleopatra's Palace, In Search of a Legend by Laura Foreman documents the 1998 deep sea expedition led by Frank Goddio which explored the East Harbor of Alexandria and unearthed magnificent artifacts from Cleopatra's submerged palace. Ancient literary sources for eyewitness accounts of that era were useful. Strabo (64 B.C. - 24 A.D.) a Greek historian, philosopher and geographer described Alexandria and the Great Pyramid of Khufu in his Geographia. Plutarch (45 A.D.- 125 A.D.) in his Life of Caesar and Life of Antony wrote about Cleopatra within a century of the deaths of those two men. I also used online sources. A website sponsored by NOVA provided a virtual tour of the interior of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which was most helpful. Articles in Al-Ahram Weekly that I found online described a newly discovered Necropolis in detail, and a site sponsored by Dr. Zahi Hawass, Undersecretary of the State for the Giza Monuments, provided solid information about the history and culture of that region.
In choosing Alexandria, Egypt in 48BC as the second destination I repeated my inclination to choose places that I would like to spend time researching. The personalities of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra have long fascinated me, along with the idea of an ancient captitol of intellectualism, and early cosmopolitan, multicultural settings. I also thought this would be a place that would appeal to Xanthe; since this book was going to be from her point of view I wanted to choose a place that would appeal to her character. Xanthe is intrigued by native cultures, living close to the land, but also things that are mystical, symbolic and mysterious. Her brother is a pragmatist, she looks for something deeper. The ancient Egyptian religion would fascinate her. The theme of sibling rivalry is prominent in Hour of the Cobra, and it is also a major element of Cleopatra’s life. Xanthe finds much in common with Cleopatra. They are both exceptionally smart and outgoing. Both are leaders. And both have brothers that get on their nerves. Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy are an example of what happens when sibling rivalry gets out of control.
In this third sequel in THE GOLDEN HOUR Series written from Xavier's point of view, the foursome are given their first mission as Time Trackers; they must find a boy who disappeared on a trip with his father to hear Abraham Lincoln make a speech at a convention. Things take a twist when they find out that the boy is Balthazar Weber, the father is Archibald Weber, the mysterious, whimsical owner of the Owatannauk Hotel and inventor of all the marvelous gadgets within it, including the time machines. They also discover that Balthazar isn't lost; he ran away out of anger. In his disappearance he also changed history, forcing his father to become one of the phantoms of the hotel, indefinitely imprisoned in time limbo.
Their search for him takes them to the California gold rush, and they are unprepared for how this area will challenge them. Rowan is tempted by the lure of gold fever, Xanthe finds that she lacks the skills to survive in a nineteenth century Western town, Nina becomes a piano playing sensation in the local saloon. On top of this they have to survive a bear attack, a stagecoach robbery, an Indian horse raid and horrible food. Xavier poses as a stagecoach robber to draw out the elusive boy and discovers why he ran away to begin with. Finding him was the easy part, convincing the wayward lad to return is something else entirely. Throughout the adventure, the time traveling foursome find out more about the history of the resort hotel and its inventor that will ultimately determine the hotel’s future.
To research HOUR OF THE OUTLAW I visited the Gold Rush Towns along Highway 49 in California. Most of the towns still maintain much of their historical western character, preserving old buildings, marking the route of the Pony Express and providing museums with plenty of old mining equipment, clothing, and other artifacts from that time. The town of Columbia was the best preserved town. It is in fact a state historic park where docents clad in period costume are on hand to talk about the history of the town. You can see an authentic pharmacy, mining stores, restaurants, hotels, barbershop and get a lesson on placer mining. The other most useful site was the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, the location of Sutter’s Mill, where Gold was first discovered. The book I used to help navigate this territory is Traveling California’s Gold Rush Country, by Leslie A. Kelly. Excellent background information about the history of the gold rush was provided by The Forty-Niners edition in the Time-Life Old West series, and The Age of Gold by H.W. Brands. To find out what day to day life was like during that time I consulted the Travel Guide To California Gold Country, by Stuart A. Kallen, and The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience, by J.S. Holliday, a collection of actual letters documenting the adventures of a 49er. Also Mark Twains Roughing It is a humorous description of his adventures mining for gold. It was a pleasure reading that!
HOUR OF THE OUTLAW was going to be from Xavier’s point of view, so once again I sought a place that I thought would match his personality. The adventure of the Old West seemed perfect, primarily because of the tall tales, and the fact that Xavier is a born liar. He remakes himself to suit whatever purpose is at hand, he loves to embellish the truth and he has an ego the size of a barn…the perfect western desperado. Xavier also seeks freedom, independence and adventure…themes that recur in the Gold Rush.
The old West has long been a favorite genre of mine. I enjoy watching movie Westerns, I love the stories, the landscape, the smell of sagebrush, tumbleweeds and dust, and of course I love horses. I will probably revisit the old West in future projects!
A wise person once said that you should write about what you like and what you know. So what do I like? Here's a list.
I'm always curious about how other people live, what they believe and why, what they eat, what they wear, what they do for fun. I find people to be terribly interesting. I'm a horrible eavesdropper. My interest in travel is directly related to my interest in... History. And by extension, historical fiction. I had a History Teacher in high school who was excellent. He really knew how to make a time period come alive by telling us about the details, about what it was like to live during that time period. I wanted to get kids excited about learning history using that same technique of talking about the details, so I wanted to write a historical novel. But I wanted to be able to contrast what it was like to live then with what it is like in the present day, so I needed for my characters to be modern day kids. How do I get them into the past? Why, through....
I like to know how things work, what they are made of and why things happen the way they do, right down to the physics and the chemistry of the world around us. Put together, travel, history and science add up to only one thing...a time machine.
I combined travel, history and science and voila! And here are a few more things that I like that I’ve sprinkled throughout the books:
Rambling old resorts, buildings with a story and interesting architecture.
There is a house in San Jose California called the "Winchester Mystery House." The Owattannauk Resort in my novel is roughly based on it. It is a private residence with 160 rooms, and seven stories before the 1906 earthquake. Mrs. Winchester was convinced that she had to add a room a year to her house by a medium, who convinced her that the untimely deaths of her daughter and husband were due to a curse - a curse that was also on her. Adding a room a year would appease the evil spirits of those killed by the Winchester Rifle - the gun that won the west. As long as she kept building she would live.----- but the architecture is insane. There were doors that led to nowhere, staircases that led to the ceiling, upside down pillars and other such things. It's a fun place to visit. That's where the idea for the hotel came from.
Small coastal towns.
I'm drawn to the ocean. Small towns look quaint and cozy, but they hold a lot of secrets. I took a trip to Kennebunkport, Maine while I was in college and thought it was one of the most remarkably beautiful areas I'd ever been to. I’ve also spent some time in Acadia National Park and Ogunquit, Maine. Owatannauk could be based very loosely on that area.
I'm a bibliophile. I could spend days in a bookstore or a library. I love the whole idea of books, that they are a compact, portable container of vast worlds and powerful ideas. I could go on and on about the quality of paper in a book, the typeface, the artwork on the cover and the exquisite craftsmanship that goes into making a good book. And the smell of a fresh book upon first cracking the binding...heavenly! The smell of an old dusty tome...comforting. Books have their own personalities, and once you've read a good one, you've made a friend for life. If you'd like to read more about my love for libraries, visit the "bio" section. Remarkable old women.
…And old men. I have relatives who match this description. I was lucky enough to know three of my great-grandparents when I was a kid, and many of my relatives have lived into their nineties. I think old people are great. They've gotten to an age where they decide it's okay to say whatever's on their mind, and if other people don't like it, too bad. I have one great-aunt who had a motorcycle cop for a boyfriend when she was in her eighties! I had a great-grandfather who was part native American, who would tell my sister and me stories about Indian wars. I had a grandfather who thought of himself as a real ladies man up through his eighties, and would make suave passes at grocery store clerks (in front of his grandchildren!) Additionally, older people have had so many experiences, they are truly fonts of wisdom, and certainly a great place to go for a good story.
Curiosity Shops and Antique Stores.
I admit it. I like looking at other people's stuff, especially old stuff. I try to imagine who originally bought it, why they liked it, where they put it in their house. Was it a loved item? How did it make its way to this shop? You can conjure up a lot of stories walking through curiosity shops.
Classical music, music in general.
I took piano lessons for ten years. I still play to relax. Music is the closest thing I can think of to magic. It has the power to heal, to change your emotions, to make you cry, dance, lift your spirits...it's one of our greatest gifts as humans. Music helps me think of ideas. Sometimes if I'm stuck I'll play a piece that evokes whatever I'm writing about. For instance, while I was writing The Golden Hour I played a lot of Mozart, and other classical musicians from that period. It helped me envision Versailles, the grand halls, the delightful gardens.
I don't get to play chess a lot, but I've always liked it as a game. I think it's the best game ever invented.
Hot Air Balloons.
I've never been in one, but I think they are the coolest thing that flies.
I love horses. I'm an equestrian. I ride for pleasure though, not ribbons. I can't think of a nicer way to walk through the woods.
Personal favorites are peach, blackberry and lemon meringue.
Well who doesn't like a mystery? All books are mysteries in some respect, otherwise people wouldn't keep turning the page. Everyone wants to know what happens next.
Peculiar gadgets and inventions.
Most of my ideas for cool gadgets come from things I wanted when I was a kid. I’d love to own a globe that was a literal representation of the world. I would love to own a device that allows you to speak and understand all languages. And of course I would be the first person in line for a time machine. My daughter actually gave me the idea for the globe. I happened to show her where her grandparents lived on a globe. She looked intently at where my finger was pointing and then said, "I can't see them." And I thought, "but wouldn't it be cool if you could?"
Enough about what I like. Let’s get to…What do I know?
I know what it's like to be in a dysfunctional family. Not the same kind that I described in the book, but my parents went through a divorce when I was a teenager, and the feelings of frustration and resentment are the same. I know about sibling rivalry and jealousy. I know about fear of action, anxiety associated with connecting with other people...It's the curse of being an introvert. I know about anger and guilt. I know what it's like to feel different and alone. These emotions all appear in the book as well.
The final piece in the puzzle fell when I was visiting a friend who happens to be a photographer and documentary filmmaker. We were walking around talking about something when she suddenly looked up and said, "Oh, it's the magic hour." I hadn't ever heard of such a thing. She explained that it is that time of day when the sun in low but it's not yet sunset. Photographers know that it is the best time to take a picture because everything has a magical glow about it. These are what they call "beauty shots." But I was tickled by the idea that there was one hour out of the day that magic could happen. So having that in the back of my mind I got my idea for the book, and because I thought "magic hour" was a little “on the nose,” I changed it to "the Golden Hour," and so I had my title.
Mitch Mathis doesn’t own a TV. He has never seen STARWARS. In the world of Hollywood and Cecil B. DeMille Elementary School, Mitch is a freak – a pop culture deprived kid in a school full of children of the powerful and famous. There’s Skywalker Ortega, whose parents are special effects gurus. And Julia Jodie Schwartz, named after her agent father’s two highest earning clients. And what does Mitch’s dad do? He studies bugs. Who cares if you follow all the new-kid rules when your dad ruins your social life when he shows up to career day in a giant, hideous roach costume? Desperate to fit in and lose the nickname “Roach Boy,” Mitch goes to an open casting call, where he ends up being cast in a soda commercial that launches a popular catch-phrase. Suddenly he becomes famous; kids are stopping him for his autograph! He’s recognized wherever he goes! Life couldn’t be better. That is, until the fame takes on a life of its own. In the end Mitch must rely on his gut – and his Hollywood savvy classmates – to help him figure out who he wants to be: a bona fide star or a (somewhat) regular kid.
The entertainment industry is like no other. It is art and commerce put together in an often uncomfortable fit. It’s a difficult business but an extraordinary one: exciting, aggravating, fun, vicious, glamorous, frustrating, gratifying and heartbreaking. Believe it or not, I love it all. This book is a love story.
I remember what it was like when I first arrived in Hollywood, fresh out of college, looking for work as a writer. I felt like Alice in Wonderland; everything seemed so bizarre. The people, the parties, the work – it was funny and wonderful and weird and grotesque all at the same time. I always knew that one day I would write a book about it, even though I wasn’t even close to becoming an author yet!
My research for this book was done over the twenty-five years that I’ve been working in the entertainment industry. Twenty-five years is a long time, and I’ve had plenty of opportunities to talk to the people who work in this industry about their jobs. Admittedly, over those years the way Hollywood does business has changed. And it’s still changing as new technology provides greater creative opportunities for artistic expression. So when you read this book, the way entertainment is made and distributed may be quite different from my descriptions. Just know that at one time this was a fairly accurate portrayal. Almost everything that’s in this book has a connection to something I experienced in real life. The birthday party is not an exaggeration; I’ve been to parties with all sorts of wild animals, even an elephant! The super-sized house is certainly real and represented in every wealthy enclave of Southern California. The entertainment savvy kids certainly exist; I see them every day at my kids’ schools. Jeremy Schwartz the agent is an amalgam of various agents I’ve met over the years. Mitch’s discovery of the soundstage with the pirate cave also really happened to me. I was working as an assistant to a television executive on the Warner Brothers lot, and discovered a soundstage with the door partially open. I peeked inside and the interior of the stage looked just as I described, with a lagoon, pirate ship and waterfall. It turns out it was the set for a movie directed by Steven Spielberg called “THE GOONIES.” As you can probably tell I had a lot of fun writing this book!