Each year, RWA recognizes excellence in romance writing through the RITAs, considered the top honor in the genre. Though awards are presented in a dozen categories, a writer has just one shot in her career to win the Best First Book award. This interview series focuses on the debut authors nominated in that category. Alyson H undertook to bring this idea to Dear Author and completed all the interviews. Alyson is a great interviewer and elicited some fun information. Alyson makes you, the reader, interested in the interviewee. It’s a great skill. Thanks Alyson and I hope the readers of Dear Author enjoy this six part series.
Private Arrangements was a huge debut, off like a rocket that made us startle, widen our eyes, and say ooooooh. No doubt publishers would love a formula for whatever combination of elements contributed to the book’s success, but here’s the thing that made all the rest of that stuff matter: Sherry Thomas wrote one fine story. PA is proof of the infinite freshness of the romance genre, and Gigi and Camden, while too true to be “easy,” are characters who stay with you, not just between readings, but also long after you’ve stored the book on your keeper shelf. And as for Sherry’s prose… ooooooh.
About Private Arrangements…
May I say up front that, given that PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS has been reviewed here three times and each of my subsequent books twice, I feel a little silly and quite undeserving, taking up real estate on a series that is clearly meant to expose new authors to the Dear Author readership. But I’m extremely grateful to be honored with Rita nominations and just as grateful that Alyson has taken the trouble to craft specific questions for me. So thank you Alyson. Thank you to all the Ja(y)nes for the reviews. And thank you to the DA readership for bearing with me.:-)
A six-word memoir for your protagonists, Gigi and Camden:
I’d forget you if I could.
What were the original “triggers” or inspiration points for this story?
All the Big Mis storylines I’d read growing up, every other hero believing for no reason at all that the sweet, innocent heroine is a Bad Woman. I wanted to have a heroine who really did do something beyond the pale and to explore the aftermath of it.
Your favorite line, moment, or scene in the book:
Scene, Copenhagen, the canal, the boat, the moment I finally understood the story myself. Fave line, from nowhere close to Copenhagen: “She nearly melted into her chair, leaving nothing behind but a whale-boned corset and an assemblage of skirts.”
The Copenhagen scene was a “keeper” moment for me, too–the second one that comes to mind when I think of Private Arrangements. The first is Camden, “engineering” a gown for his sister. Will you talk some about how that detail became part of the novel?
LOL, I love that moment myself, so thank you for bringing it up.
We are at a point in the book where the story of their past has been told, and the story of their present is in a highly fluid state that could go every which way. So I needed a moment of them together, alone, not in bed, and not in contention, when they are relaxed and being themselves. Their train journey from London to Devon provided the perfect opportunity.
Camden brings work for the journey. He has a degree from Ecole Polytechnique, the French equivalent of MIT, and is a trained engineer. So Gigi sees him working on the designs of an internal combustion engine for a horseless carriage and asks him some questions about the design. As the conversation goes on, she reveals to him that she knew his little secret, that engineering-wise there is no task he won’t tackle, including a ballgown for his sister when he was nineteen and the family was too poor to afford proper couture for the sister’s debut.
It was one of those serendipitous ideas that just happen when you are in the middle of writing. It was so easy to see nineteen-year-old Camden, very, very capable and a little cocky, faced with a weeping sister, thinking to himself there is no reason he can’t manage something as commonplace as a girl’s dress, given that he has cut has cut and sewn sails for his model ships since he was a kid. So he attempts it and finds it much more complicated than he had originally anticipated. He can’t make the kind of bodice his sister wants without it falling off her. The solution? He takes apart his mother’s wire bustle and wires the bodice for the sister’s ballgown so that it would hold its shape.
But that is not the end of his problems.
‘I never knew what panic was until the ball was two days away and I still hadn’t figured out how ten yards of skirts should gather and drape under the bustle. All the non-Euclidean geometry in the world couldn’t have dug me out of that hole.”
She thought of the gown, lovingly packed in layers of tissue, one of Claudia’s most prized possessions. I have the best brother in the world, Claudia had said that day, a not-so-subtle reminder that Gigi should get on a transatlantic liner posthaste.
“You did all right in the end.”
“I wired the skirt too,” he said.
They both burst out laughing. The corners of his eyes crinkled in mirth, laugh lines that she’d never seen before–lines that had come from the sun and the salt of the sea, marks of a man in his prime.
He stopped and looked at her. “Your laughter is the same,” he said. “I used to think you all sophisticated and worldly, until you laughed. You still laugh like a little girl getting tickled, all hiccupy and breathless.”
It still hurts a little, when I read this passage, to think of all the time they’d lost. So I suppose the scene did its job in showing the two of them and–the readers–what things could have been be like between them had they not thrown it all away ten years ago.
Why did you pick the name Gigi?
Can I confess I don’t remember precisely? I first started working on the precursor of this story in the previous century–it’s just been too long. Although I do remember that the first version of PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS took place in the 1830s, and Gigi had a grandmother who was a French refugee from the Revolution, a courtesan no less. And when I think of French courtesans, I very soon think of the movie GIGI, in which the eponymous heroine’s courtesan grandmother instructs her in the courtesan-y arts. Perhaps that was why?
The novel has a structure that’s unusual for the genre, alternating between present and past. It’s powerful for a number of reasons, but why did you think the story needed to be told this way?
The first version of PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS was written in linear time, i.e., we meet the H/H as youngsters, see everything unfold, come to the separation about 2/5 of the way in, and then have the rest of the book be the reunion.
My first agent read that manuscript and gave me several reasons why it was be unsaleable. One of the reasons was that she felt the story should start not at the beginning, but at the point of the reunion. I looked at my hundred-some pages of what happened leading up to the separation, said, nope, can’t do it, and set the manuscript aside.
Fast forward five years, I come across the manuscript accidentally and instantly saw how it should be played out, starting at the reunion, with the past gradually revealed to illustrate the behavior and motivation of the H/H in the present.
Of course after PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS was released, there were lots of comments on the dual timeline structure and not everyone cared for it. But having seen the story written both ways, for me without any question the dual timeline is the better way of telling this particular story. I like the depth and texture contrasting the past and present adds to the story, whereas it felt flatter and less interesting done linearly.
What’s the best or most unusual fan mail you received about Private Arrangements?
The most unusual fan mail I received was actually for Delicious, my second book, from a reader who came across a copy on the streetcar. I’m going to say the best fan mail for Private Arrangements was when Eloisa James emailed me and said she wished she’d written the book herself. Eloisa James!
Private Arrangements is your first published book, but was it really your first book?
It is, except the first version, written six years prior, bears no resemblance whatsoever to the second version, which was the one that finally convinced someone to pay me a buck. :-)
From the decision to write for publication to the “sold” call: How long?
How did you find your agent?
Strictly by querying.
Your biggest surprise, pleasant or otherwise, about being a published author:
The happiest surprise of my publishing career so far was when I sold all 48 copies of Delicious at the RWA Literacy Signing in San Francisco last year. I fear book signings as Wicked Witch of the West fears water. I’d steeled myself for a humbling evening, but woot! Over the moon? Heck, I was halfway to Jupiter with elation.
What’s your latest?
Not Quite a Husband, set in the Northwest Frontier of British India in 1897. Road trip. Malaria. War. Simmering sexual tension. And did I mention they used to be married?
Your weirdest or most reliable writing ritual/habit:
None. No rituals. No habits. I can write any time anywhere under any circumstances as long as my children aren’t actively interfering.
Writing advice you’re glad you followed or ignored:
I never know what’s in my characters’ pockets, unless there’s something they plan to kill or fuck with. I.e., I’ve never done a character study. Not that I don’t think it’s valuable, but I just haven’t the slightest idea what these people carry in their pockets.
Three items within arm’s reach when you write:
Laptop, thumb drive, and internet.
Biggest distraction and how you deal with it:
Internet. I don’t deal with it, I live with it.
One of the resolutions you made on your blog a while ago was to “not write 1,000,000 words to get a 100,000-word novel.”Maybe that was hyperbole, but are heavy rewrites just part of your process, or have you been able to teach yourself how to write more “efficiently”?
Well, nothing since has quite matched the epic slog of DELICIOUS, so in some ways I have been improving. But NOT QUITE A HUSBAND did require a 60% rewrite. And the latest historical romance, as yet untitled, is undergoing substantial rewrites already after my editor read the first 30k words. So yes, I have reason to believe heavy rewrites are just part of the process–good thing I don’t get overly attached to my words!
Sigh. I envy those writers who can do a proper detailed outline then stick to it. My outlines are most useful as fish wrap.
You’ve said that though you write romance, you’re not romantic yourself. What, to you, makes a great love scene?
One word: conflict.
In real life, lovemaking should never be about conflict. In fictional life, lovemaking should never NOT be about conflict. And for me, on screen lovemaking is absolutely the best literary device at a romance writer’s disposal to illustrate, sharpen, and heighten conflict between the hero and the heroine.
I will come out and confess. In my teenage years, I read a lot–repeat, a lot–of romances right up to the first love scene and maybe a couple of pages further. Then I’d abandon those books and never go back. When I was writing PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, I wondered why that was. And realized that the fault often lay in the basic set-up of the story, in that there was not enough conflict between the hero and the heroine, and all the tension basically leaked out after the first love scene. And immediately after the first love scene was usually the point when the skanky villains would show up and/or the focus of the story shifted to the mystery/suspense/treasure hunting subplot.
It should be quite the other way around. The love scene should ratchet up the tension. It should make the readers go “omg, what are they going to do NOW?” and turn the pages even faster. Without this underpinning of emotional conflict, there is no point to a love scene.
I’m going to go even further and say that done perfectly, love scenes serve as turning points in the story. Each should mark a point of no return in the H/H’s emotional arc. If you don’t believe me, read Laura Kinsale’s THE SHADOW AND THE STAR and marvel.
(A small mea culpa here: In general I follow the no conflict, no love scene rule very strictly. But I made an exception at the end of NOT QUITE A HUSBAND, my latest. The H/H had gone through so much in the course of the book that I felt they needed a few scenes of normalcy at the end, a bit of laughter and happiness. And since they hadn’t seen each other in a month leading up to it, guess what they were doing for laughter and happiness? :-D)
As a RITA Nominee…
How did you celebrate the nomination?
I’m not a celebrator, so nothing really.
Wearing or carrying any lucky charms to the awards ceremony?
Haven’t got any. Besides, by the time I arrive at the ceremony, the scores would have been tabulated long ago.
The author who, despite your usual poise and eloquence, would reduce you to a blathering fangirl if you found yourself sitting next to her/him at the ceremony:
Do nominees have to sit together? I would have loved to have Meredith Duran next to me. Her talent certainly leaves me breathless. We sat together at last year’s RITAs and there’s something hardcore about Meredith that induces me to misbehave like a drunk debutante. I hadn’t been so bad in years. We had an absolute blast.
First person you’ll hug/text/call if you win:
Hug agent. And editor, if she can make it. Call family.
A Little More Personal…
Your paying job(s) pre- and post-publication:
I was a suburban housewife pre-publication. I still am. :-)
An author or book you recommend again and again:
Lately, it’s been Eva Ibbotson’s Madensky Square.
A favorite guilty pleasure:
None, where books are concerned. I probably wouldn’t understand guilty pleasure as a concept at all if it weren’t for a certain drop-dead gorgeous actor who hasn’t been nearly as good a thespian. I still go see his movies.
Your own “best first”:
My first mille-feuille (napoleon). Love at first bite with French pastry, my most enduring love affair yet.
Private Arrangements also received a nomination for Historical Romance. Winners will be announced at the RWA national conference in July. If you’ve never read about Sherry’s background, head over to the bio and interview links at www.sherrythomas.com and prepare to be fascinated. You’ll also find the blog she keeps with fellow author Meredith Duran.