Category Archives: The Orphanmaster

The Spirit of Sinterklass

The Orphanmaster offers a glimpse into Christmas on Manhattan,1660s-style. Or, since the preponderance of colonists hail from the Netherlands, a glimpse into Sinterklass, the Dutch festival of St. Nicholas, which arrives on December 6th. Because we’re talking about The Orphanmaster, everything in this particular holiday season is not all sugar cookies.

Here is a passage from the novel:

Sinterklass—Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas—came to New Amsterdam in early December, arriving with a ship that sailed all the way from Patria laden with toys and other gifts. Children laid out their shoes on the hearth the night of December 5th. The next morning, they would find them filled with nuts, sweets and, for a fortunate few, gold coins.

Sinterklass himself rode slowly down the Broad Way and along Pearl Street on a stolid white mare, fairly gleaming in his long, draping robe, pearly beard and tall red bishop’s hat and mitre, brandishing a golden crosier with a curled top. He had apples for everyone, hard candy, frosted nuts.

Sint op het paard

But these treats were only a precursor to the grand feast celebrated the following day, December sixth, when wealthier colonists served roast goose and potatoes and kool slaw drenched in vinegar and melted butter. Sinterklass was the patron saint of children, doling out gifts to the well-behaved, though everyone got their fair share regardless of how naughty they had been.

Each child knew the story of the three little orphans during a terrible famine, how a malicious butcher lured them into his house, slaughtered and carved them up, then placed their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers, bringing the orphans magically back alive through the power of faith.

The spirit of the season ruled New Amsterdam between the Feast of Sinterklass on the sixth and Kerstydt, Christmas, on the twenty-fifth. Director general Peter Stuyvesant, who made clear his disgust with any drunken carousing during the holidays, yet made his Great House ablaze with candles and invited colonists in to dance in the entry hall.

But the mood this year was on the whole muted. Murder dampens the spirit…


Filed under Cooking, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, The Orphanmaster, Writing

Thank You for Reading

I am thankful.

This is a post about this blog.

At Thanksgiving, in a lot of families, a blessing is performed before the turkey comes on in its golden, crispy glory. The blessing consists of going around the table with every guest sharing some thing they are especially grateful for. On the occasions I’ve taken part in this ritual, I’ve sometimes had to squelch the urge to say something slightly comical or snarky. I don’t know why, perhaps because the whole thing seemed so self serious. Real thanks seem quieter, more internal, perhaps.

Now, with a few days before us until we’ll be stuffed with stuffing, with a clear head, I want to be serious.

I am grateful, deeply grateful, to those of you who read this blog.

When people ask what my site is all about, I say different things. It’s called Blog Cabin, and it’s about living in a circa 1800 home in a thoroughly modern world, and the time travel that allows for. Sometimes I call it a personal magazine. A diary. A cultural commentary. It’s about the past as a living, breathing entity. All about history and art and nature and literature… An author blog, as I have one novel about to come out and one just in the rearview.

What it really is, is playtime. Writing books, of course, is hard work. (If you’re doing it right.) Writing this blog has given me a chance to dabble in the things that absorb me in my book writing life, but on a more finite scale, with pleasure at the foremost – yes, history and art and nature and literature and… a pogo stick championship?


It was hot July and the contestants soared. You could taste the adrenaline.

Writing for you has given me a reason to go on adventures that you might not take, even if you had the chance. Or perhaps you would, like my search for an infant saguaro cactus at a botanical garden in Scottsdale, Arizona, with a beaming guide, but you couldn’t get there that day.


I’ve taken myself to a Victorian waltz class and tea.


To a Broadway disco-play, and to a euphoria-inducing Brahms recital. And to a dramatic dance performance en plein air, at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center.


I’ve plumbed the depths of the 20-something psyche, because I have a young adult close to my heart. Instagramming is their life.


They’re fascinating animals, as are husbands, and mine hitchhikes along with me from time to time.

As are dogs. Mine is inscrutable, but adds flavor to the mix.


And writers.  I’ve loved writing about Gertrude Stein.


I’ve shared many favorite recipes, like the one for Marcella Hazan’s braised pork in milk.

Observed motorcycle pirates on the loose in NYC. With some history about pirates intertwined, of course.


A rowdy pig festival in upstate New York.


Explored a local farm on an enchanted evening, just as dusk fell.


Learned about the power of graffiti at the late, great 5Pointz. Got my leg cast tagged there, too.


And witnessed the unlikely beauties of slime mold in a pristine nature preserve.


It’s been my pleasure to gather these treasures and offer them to you, and your great generosity has been receiving them from me. So thank you. I’m looking forward to many more adventures.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Dance, Dogs, Fashion, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Nature, Photography, Poetry, Publishing, Savage Girl, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

Dam It All

Friends in the audience, new and old. We met together upstairs at The Golden Notebook in Woodstock, New York.

golden notebook

It was a warm autumn day outside, and everything had that sun-burnished appearance. In the middle was a sign that beckoned: come inside, come inside, come inside.

store sign

Afterwards I wondered just what it was that made me so fascinated by beavers that I hold forth about them in every talk I give about The Orphanmaster.


True, not enough has been said about beaver.

New York was built on the foundation of the shaggy, rotund rodent with the frying pan tail.

The animal was easily trapped by Native Americans in their winter dens. The pelts were then traded with Europeans for copper, guns, rum, which was called “English milk.”

Cartographers dressed up their work with the animals.

Fur_Trade map

Everyone wanted to know where the beavers were. In the 1600s, traders sent hundreds of thousands of pelts back to Europe. The sole reason for this huge trade? Beaver hats.

Beaver felt

Not made from the fur proper, but from felt made from the fur, an extraordinarily complex process that involved a heavy dose of mercury, the chemical that made the Mad Hatter mad.


The felt was waterproof in an era before umbrellas. It was glossy, sturdy. The beaver – so the beaver hat was called – was the essential accoutrement for men and women of Europe. Everyone who could afford one had one, or two, or three. Beavers were bequeathed in wills.

painting of hats

In The Orphanmaster, everyone would have worn a beaver, even the women. All kinds of styles were available. Blandine, the protagonist of the story, is bent on getting rich buying and selling beaver pelts to Europe, venturing out into the woods to make her trades with Indian trappers.

Later, my friend Lloyd led us on a beaver hunt. Not to capture the animals but to see their impressive lodges.

Lloyd at his pond

Down the hill from his house was a magical if uneven path.

magic if uneven

Far in the distance, across the pond, we could glimpse the rodents’ handiwork. More sun-burnishing.

distant lodge

A ways down the road,  the ruins of an ancient lumber mill.


So much history of this area, the Catskill region of upstate New York, is a stumbleupon away. Like the antique bottles Lloyd’s daughter Alice excavates from the woods behind their house. Also in those woods, black bears rumble around, tearing open rotted logs to get at the creepy crawlers within.

old bottles

We saw one more lodge at Yankeetown Pond — to the right, below. David Bowie owns the mountain above. Probably has befriended a few of the beavers over the years. Like to come up for a drink? I’m Bowie.


The finest specimen of the afternoon stood just to the side of the water, a gnawed tree that had clearly been someone’s snack.

beaver post

The beaver population was hunted out in the seventeenth century in these parts and is only just coming back today in earnest. They found one at the Bronx Zoo a few years back. No one could understand where it came from. Its name, they decided, was not Ernest, but Jose.


Filed under Culture, Fiction, History, Home, Nature, Photography, Publishing, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

The Golden Notebook in Golden Fall

Tomorrow will be a perfect day to take in the leaves upstate as they color up. If so much natural beauty wears thin and if you happen to be near Woodstock, New York, consider coming to The Golden Notebook for my 2:00 talk on The Orphanmaster. Signing copies, too. I know there are excellent lattes down the street and I’m pretty sure the nice people in the store will allow you to nurse one in in a  paper cup while you sit back and enjoy my slide show — lots of nuggets about the way people, places and things looked in 1660s Manhattan. The raging beaver trade. The fashion of men in red-heeled pumps. What was it actually like, anyway? New York before it became New York. Imagine.


Please do come. I’ll be up on the second floor.


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Publishing, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

Blurbs for The Asylum

Blue Rider Press has come out with a book trailer featuring fashion insider Simon Doonan talking about getting blurbs for his his forthcoming book The Asylum.

the asylum

There is actually a series of very brief videos, including the blurb one but also one about designer Thom Browne and one about Michael Kors and one featuring “career advice for young people,” among others. An original approach to promoting a book through a video, well suited to such an original guy.


The one about blurbs, “those wonderful little comments on the back of the book,” is pretty honest and funny enough, and hits home as I am wading into the waters of asking people to read and comment upon Savage Girl. Publication isn’t until March 2014, but quotes are needed long before that to be printed on the book jacket. And publishing pros say they are critical to getting a book noticed.

Savage Girl cover 3

Doonan says that when he is asking for blurbs “I am in a permanent pretzel of cringing, shame and self loathing.” Then he reels off some of the glowing comments he got from Marc Jacobs, Alexander Wang and others.  “Don’t even think about becoming an author,” he warns, “unless you’re prepared to go through the torture, the torment, the challenges of getting some blurbs.” The Asylum: A collage of couture reminiscences…and hysteria is out Sept. 3.

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Filed under Culture, Fashion, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

Captive Audience

Millbrook, New York is a quiet town, a town of well-behaved dogs on leashes and potted flowers.

box of flowers

A town of rice pudding with cinnamon at a cute bakery called Babette’s Kitchen.

rice pudding

The last notable murder in Millbrook took place a century ago – a nanny named Sarah Brymer was strangled when her employers, of the Barnes Compton clan, left their estate for a New York City visit during a January snowstorm. The coachman, Frank Schermerhorn, did it – though he first tried to pin the blame on the Japanese butler – then cut his own throat with a straight razor when he was apprehended.

That was a long time back and everybody’s forgotten about it.

So it was interesting to be invited to Millbrook’s warm and comfortable Merritt Bookstore for a discussion/book signing today where attendees could “discover the art of mystery.” I was joined by another novelist, Koethi Zan, whose book The Never List was published earlier this month.


Koethi is a former entertainment industry lawyer who makes her debut with this riveting book. She knows everything there is to know on the subject of girls and women taken captive by craven men, then tortured and imprisoned for years. She is also an authority on the subject of the women who eventually escape these men. And she has worked this knowledge into a thriller which has received strong acclaim from people like Jeffery Deaver and Tess Gerritsen.

It was great to meet Koethi.

Jean and Koethe

She brought her husband, Stephen Metcalf, a critic-at-large at Slate who has a nonfiction book on the 1980s in the works. I brought Gil – yes, Gil Reavill, whose speciality is also crime and whose recent book is Mafia Summit.

All the great minds were present. The only thing lacking was an audience.

It happens sometimes. When you make appearances as an author, you don’t know whether to expect 120 people or three. When it’s three, you still have to be mentally present, be on your game, because these wonderful people made the effort to come out and see you, after all. Amazing!

In this case, nada. So, with two of the book store’s staff, we sat around in the cozy garrett upstairs and had a very stimulating talk about writing books.

We talked about creating a bad guy. How do you get inside his head? Koethi said that for The Never List it was more about her characters trying to ascertain how her bad guy ticked. For me, with The Orphanmaster, I said it was partly about figuring out what he would think and do that was completely the opposite of what I would think and do.

How do you discipline yourself when you don’t feel like working? Five hundred words a day, said Koethi. That is my minimum.

We talked about fact-based prose. About research. (One of my favorite subjects.) I told them about how I had based my protagonist in The Orphanmaster on a real person I had written about for an earlier work, The Women of the House, and how I had all my research practically done when I started my novel. Stephen talked about the book he is working on, about the plenitude of letters regarding the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of his central figures. Koethi, as I said, has absorbed everything on captive females.

She told us about some of the recent high-profile cases, and said that while it seems some of these young women are coming back to a semblance of mental health it’s not always what it seems.

We talked about captivity narratives, about the classic John Wayne film The Searchers, about an article that has recently been published in The New York Review of Books on the subject, about Ride the Wind, a historical novel based on the Cynthia Parker story. The subject interests me historically because in Savage Girl, the central figure spends some time with the Plains Indians.

A lot to chew on. All of this and a full cheese platter too.

We meandered home on the back roads, through soccer fields and corn fields and gently curving horse meadows.


There was only one exception to the bucolic charm of the open road: the ruin of an abandoned complex that was Wingdale, a mental hospital which operated upstate from 1924-1994 and is said to be haunted by ghosts. With its crumbling brick and busted windows, it looks like the perfect set for a horror film.

No visitors allowed.


There’s always something behind the happy façade.


Filed under Culture, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Savage Girl, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

Il Rituale dei Bambini Perduti

Italy has weighed in.


My Italian publisher’s visual interpretation of the drama of The Orphanmaster is not perhaps what I would have expected. It’s baroque. It’s scary.

It’s amazing to think of people sitting down with a copy of Il Rituale dei Bambini Perduti, so far from the island of Manhattan in 1664.

If you can read the language, check out a book blog.


Filed under Culture, Fiction, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, The Orphanmaster, Writing