Best First Book: Passionate by Anthea Lawson
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.
Meet Anthea. Meet Lawson, too, because Passionate is the literary baby of a husband and wife writing team. As in the best of partnerships, they seem to share a vision even though their strengths may lie in different areas: they’ve said that alone, Anthea would have a dozen unpublished manuscripts by now, and Lawson just one perfect paragraph. Together, they wrote plenty of perfect paragraphs telling the story of botanical artist Lily Strathmore, who is trying to be the proper sort of lady of her time (1847). At least, she plans to try, right after one last adventure, an expedition to Tunisia. And maybe a bit of a fling. After that, it’ll be Victorian propriety all the way. Really.
First, a six-word memoir for your protagonist:
True love with all the trimmings.
What were the original "triggers" or inspiration points for this story?
The trigger came after reading a NYT bestselling author whose story promised romance and exotic travel but failed to deliver. After finishing it, Anthea uttered the fateful words: “I could do that!” We wanted more action and sunny exotic locales to go along with the spicy romance, and ended up with a Victorian-set love story centered around a botanical expedition from England to Tunisia.
What was it about Tunisia that first attracted you as a setting?
We knew we wanted to send the botanical expedition off to someplace exotic and sunny. We first thought of South America since it seemed like someplace people would go to discover a new bloom. The trouble was it was just too far away. Looking closer to England, Tunisia really jumped out-‘especially since we knew we wanted to stay in the Mediterranean basin. Tunisia in 1847 was an independent, warmly exotic country, accessible to Europeans of the day. Perfect!
Your favorite line, moment, or scene in the book:
Anthea picks the transcendent kiss aboard the sailing steamer in the middle of the Mediterranean. Lawson likes the anti-rescue when the hero and heroine first meet. It was the part of the book that evolved most through the various drafts.
The Baronessa appears in just a few scenes, but she seems to have a full (and very interesting) story behind her. Did she have a larger role in earlier drafts?
No, Baronessa Bellini had a smaller role. She appeared just on the ship to Tunisia. When it was time to pull everyone together back in England, however, we thought it would be fun to develop her story a little further. She’s a charming character and we are very fond of her. From a writing standpoint, we like to develop interesting secondary characters with lives and histories of their own. It makes a book so much richer. Sometimes all it takes is an added line of dialogue or two to hint at a minor character’s history. In the Baronessa’s case, we told an entire romance on the sly, dropping enough hints for a careful reader to piece together her story.
What’s the best or most unusual fan mail you received about Passionate?
A contest judge early on wrote on the feedback sheet: "I’d buy this book in a heartbeat." We never found out who the judge was, but it gave us the encouragement we needed to pursue getting an agent and publisher. Someone liked the story as much as we hoped and dreamed they would. That made all the difference.
Lily is a botanical artist. Do you have plans for characters who will reflect your own musical interests? Richard, perchance?
Funny you should ask~ Our current WIP is a Cinderella-type tale set against the backdrop of 19th century musical celebrity. The hero is a solo violinist (the rock-star of his age), and the heroine is an impoverished composer whose works are published under her brother’s name, because Europe is just not ready to acknowledge that a woman could actually write music. It’s an exciting story, full of secrets and passion and a sexy merging of music and desire.
By the way, if you would like to hear some of our own Celtic music, you can find a link from www.anthealawson.com over to our CDBaby page.
What’s coming up next from you?
Our second book, All He Desires, will be a November release from Kensington. It features a dark, hunky, irresistible hero who has exiled himself because of a tragic and mysterious event in his past. It was great fun introducing him to the one woman who could lead him back to the light. Plus, we get the added bonus of starting out on the sunny island of Crete.
And if you like our book Passionate, you will find some of the same characters appearing in All He Desires. It’s more intense than Passionate, and Anthea has done some tricky things with the lighting in the love scenes that reinforce the wounded hero’s emotional journey. As for Richard, yes, his story is waiting in the wings too. So many characters who deserve their own books-‘good thing there’s two of us writing!
Passionate is your first published book, but was it really your first book?
Yes, it’s the first manuscript we wrote-‘though we rewrote it probably seven or eight times over the course of 2 years. (Parts of it went back and forth between us for rewrites a dozen times.) The final story bears very little resemblance to the ugly chick that first emerged from the egg of "Hey! Let’s write a novel together!"
From the decision to write for publication to the "sold" call: How long?
Four years, and then another year before we saw the book in print. Two of those years were spent writing and re-writing, figuring out how fiction works, and polishing the manuscript. It took us a year to sign with an agent once we got the book to the "done’ point.
How did you find your agent?
An early draft of the MS won third place in the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association contest in the romance category sponsored by author Stella Cameron. She graciously introduced us to agent Denise Marcil at the awards reception, who asked us to send her a partial. We did, and she passed it along to her associate Maura Kye-Casella, who loved the story and, even though she was not going to acquire another historical author, she offered to represent us.
How useful do you find contests?
We have found contests incredibly useful, but we’ve also been selective about where we enter. [The PNWA contest] started the chain of events that led to our agent (plus an insightful read of the full from Donald Maass, which was helpful and encouraging.) We also entered in the Golden Heart, and PASSIONATE, (then titled Fortune’s Flower) was a finalist in Long Historical in 2006. And now the Rita nomination for Best First Book, which we are thrilled about.
Anthea now judges a lot of contests, and it’s something she recommends to everyone.
Your biggest surprise, pleasant or otherwise, about being a published author:
Finding out how publishing really works. That would be both pleasant and otherwise. And the utter, confounding awe of holding your first printed book. When those author copies arrive- wow.
Your weirdest or most reliable writing ritual/habit:
Writing as a couple. What’s weirder than that? Luckily we have played and performed music together for years. The creative, collaborative process of writing is very similar. Not that it doesn’t have sticky patches – but we have enough respect and compassion for one another to work through the disagreements.
Do you see the success of your writing collaboration as coming from your relationship, or from a more generalized talent for working with others? In other words: could you do this with anyone else?
Interesting question. We could collaborate with other people creatively, but the way we tell stories, the way we are evolving together as writers, is unique to the two of us. It’s an outgrowth of who we are as a couple The fact that we’ve had to learn how to collaborate musically helps. In music, as in writing, there are an endless series of judgment calls you have to make. You have to perform, make your mistakes, then go back and refine until you have a product you feel proud of. A draft of a novel or chapter is really like a rehearsal that takes place on paper. You have to have the courage to let go and perform and then the honestly to look at the results and figure out how to make it better. We’re lucky to be able to do that together. Plus, we’ve always been big communicators. It’s great fun to talk about the characters in our stories and what is going to happen to them. We’re constantly surprising each other and bouncing ideas back and forth.
Writing advice you’re glad you followed or ignored:
We’ve benefitted from a lot of great books on the writing craft over the last few years. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones has always been a source of inspiration. Keep the pen moving! Also Elizabeth George’s "butt glue" advice. Keep your butt in the chair and just WRITE.
Three items within arm’s reach when you write:
Chocolate. Good specialty chocolate, not that brown waxy stuff.
Google. Invaluable for a historical author, and yes we double-check facts, but what a tremendous resource!
A nice strong cup of black tea with milk and sugar – a holdover from the summer we lived in Ireland, and nice to warm up hands on after typing for a while.
Biggest distraction and how you deal with it:
Loops and blogs. DA and SB being the major offenders there- Anthea tries to use visits as a reward after making her word count for the day. But sometimes she’s bad.
As a RITA Nominee-
How did you celebrate the nomination?
Cheering and dancing around! We also called our family and our writer friends. It’s the kind of news you just have to share with someone.
Wearing or carrying any lucky charms to the awards ceremony?
No lucky charm needed. Just being nominated is a win for us. It means we succeeded in writing a love story with enough freshness and craft that it impresses people in the industry and, more importantly, delights readers.
The author who, despite your usual poise and eloquence, would reduce you a blathering fangirl if you found yourself sitting next to her/him at the ceremony:
It’s hard to pick just one person, but early Mary Balogh novels have been a huge inspiration. Julia Quinn, Connie Brockway, sheesh, the entire slate of the RITA nominees in the Historical category.
First person you’ll hug/text/call if you win:
Probably anyone within reach when the announcement is made. Then Lawson, of course. He won’t be able to make the ceremony. Next would be, uh, my mom and my writer pal Margaret Mallory.
A Little More Personal-
Your paying job(s) pre- and post-publication:
Musicians. What was that about the day job? J We play together in a Celtic band called Fiddlehead, and Anthea teaches Irish fiddle. Actually, Lawson has a law degree and finally broke down last year and got a day job as an attorney for the State of Washington.
An author or book you recommend again and again:
We can’t choose just one. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King.
A favorite guilty pleasure:
Sleeping late-‘which is much harder now that we have a kid! Playing World of Warcraft.
Your own "best first":
The day in late 1992 when we met on-line. Lawson was moderating a writer’s special interest area on a regional dial-up Bulletin Board System. It was the beginning of a wonderful, word-and-music-filled journey.
RITA winners will be announced at the RWA national conference in July. Anthea and Lawson keep a blog at www.anthealawson.com, where you can also find links to their musical interests, Regency parlor music and Celtic music.