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Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened is one of the absolute best debut romances I have come across in all my years (and they are many) of reading romances. When I was reading it I was reminded of novels like Judith Ivory’s Black Silk, Pam Rosenthal’s The Slightest Provocation and Patricia Gaffney’s Wyckerley trilogy; books that didn’t flinch from putting their characters in thorny situations; books which portrayed communities; thoughtful, often introspective books in which each word was carefully chosen.
At the same time, I also thought A Lady Awakened was unlike any other romance I’d read before. The morning after I started reading it, I began sending Jane emails containing the following sentiments:
I only had time to read the first chapter last night but I was so wowed by it that I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about how amazing it was.
I’ve just gotten to the end of chapter five. I can’t get over how much I’m enjoying this book.
I don’t get the feeling of this author taking her cues from anyone else; it’s like she’s bringing out her own ways of seeing, voicing them in an arrangement of words that no one else could compose. Being completely true to her vision.
Such smart writing, I just admire this book so much.
Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity to interview Ms. Grant. Below are her answers to my many questions.
Janine: Tell us a little bit about how you got started writing. Also, how did you come to write in the romance genre? What made you realize this was the genre for you?
Cecilia Grant: I have a supremely non-inspirational “How I Became a Romance Author” story. I wasn’t one of those kids who was writing from the time I could grip a pencil; nor did I spend my adolescence swiping Johanna Lindsey or Rosemary Rogers off a relative’s shelf. (Not when there were the truly eye-popping Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon to be swiped instead.)
The sorry truth is that well into adulthood I decided on a whim to try writing, and I picked historical romance because I figured that was as close as I could get to the sprawling, wordy 19th-century studies of domestic life that were what I really wanted to write.
After a few pompous, ill-researched, frankly godawful efforts that were stamped all over with my ignorance of the genre (I think at this point I had read maybe three actual romances in my life), it dawned on me that romance must have requirements beyond being a story in which a couple of people fall in love. So I started reading them and, maybe even more importantly, found the online community and started to really think about the genre and its place in the world of literature as well as in the culture at large.
You know that thing Jane Austen said, about working with a fine brush on a two-inch bit of ivory? I suspect that resonates with a lot of romance authors the same way it does with me. There’s something poignant, hopeful, subversive, and defiant, all at once, about choosing so small a canvas as the emotional intersection of a couple of individuals. It’s a way of asserting the importance of things that are so often dismissed as trivial. Falling in love does matter. The private dramas of the human heart do matter. People who died hundreds of years ago, and never left a mark on history – their lives matter.
Janine: What was your road to publication like? Was there a lot of rejection along the way?
Cecilia Grant: Not a lot of rejection, but not a lot of risking rejection, either. I was writing for years before my ferocious internal editor (who moonlights as a ferocious pre-emptive slush-pile gatekeeper) allowed me to send anything out, and even then it was only after I’d finaled in a contest and had some manuscript requests. Then, when four requests met with four rejections, she ordered me to scuttle that book and start writing something better. Which turned out to be A Lady Awakened.
Janine: Describe A Lady Awakened in a few sentences.
Cecilia Grant: Desperate to keep her estate, and housemaids, out of her brother-in-law’s hands, strait-laced widow Martha Russell recruits scapegrace neighbor Theo Mirkwood to help her conceive a child that she can pass off as her late husband’s. What ought to be a simple, straightforward bargain turns out to be anything but, as the two clash on everything from bedroom expectations to the importance of duty to the merits of Mrs. Edgeworth’s Belinda.
But with mandated daily proximity, they eventually begin to glimpse one another’s better qualities. And that’s when things get complicated.
Janine: What was the genesis of A Lady Awakened?
Cecilia Grant: I think it began with my love for really over-the-top romance plotlines. I’d come across a few books with the “desperate widow + virile stranger = fraudulent heir” premise, and, fabulous as it is, I couldn’t help thinking that in real life it would be a recipe for the most awkward, excruciatingly un-sexy sex you could imagine.
Then it struck me that awkward, un-sexy sex could make a great hole for a hero and heroine to have to dig themselves out of. So for maximum awkwardness I cast the story with a pair of opposites: a sober-minded woman impatient with indulgence of any kind, and a straight-up man-whore who thinks their bargain will be all his dirty dreams come true.
Janine: How long did it take you to write the book, from start to finish?
Cecilia Grant: About two years, counting time wasted due to a stupid mix-up. Someone had told me I should ignore Word’s word-count figure and just assume 250 words per page, without telling me that this rule came from the days of nonproportional fonts.
I was somewhere past 100,000 words, with a quarter of the story left to tell, when I found out my mistake. I couldn’t just cut here and there – I had to restructure the whole plot. Which ultimately I think was a good thing. But I have a boatload of deleted scenes that I can’t even put up on a “deleted scenes” page on my website because they no longer make sense.
Janine: The conflict between Martha and Theo at first appears to be a conflict between responsibility and irresponsibility, as well as between sensuality and self-denial. What is it that drew you to writing about these themes?
Cecilia Grant: My subconscious probably has a more interesting answer, but consciously, all I can say is that the themes, like pretty much everything else in my writing, came directly out of the characters. As I constructed Martha and Theo, and put them through their paces, these were the issues they kept returning to, and this was the ground on which they wanted to clash.
Janine: Let’s talk a little bit about the awakening theme. One of the things I loved about this book was that Martha’s awakening wasn’t so much an awakening to sexual pleasure, but rather an awakening to possibilities she hadn’t foreseen in both her relationship with Theo and in her other relationships. I wondered as I was reading the book if you were consciously riffing on the genre convention of the sexual awakening, and whether that convention was one of the things that made you set out to write this type of arc for Martha.
Cecilia Grant: My agent came up with the title, and it initially gave me pause because I’ve been adamant from the start that this isn’t a sexual-awakening story. (Martha knows how to have an orgasm; it’s just not about to happen through intercourse with a guy she barely knows and doesn’t think much of.)
The title grew on me, though, and took on a kind of perverse, ironic logic. Partly because it’s an acknowledgment of the fact that this story premise usually would be a set-up for a sexual awakening, and partly because Theo absolutely assumes he’s going to be presiding over one of those. And then of course the story does turn out to be about awakening – to a world beyond the narrow one she’s regulated for herself; to the validity of viewpoints that don’t happen to agree with hers, etc. – just maybe not the awakening you’d first expect.
I suppose there is some riffing, mainly in their early encounters, which I think of as a sort of skirmish between a hero who knows his role by heart and a heroine who never got the script. But too much riffing gets in the way of telling the story, so I tried not to go overboard.
Janine: I’m also fascinated by the idea of the rude awakening, and in A Lady Awakened, Theo has one of those. He has had a lot of success with women in the past, so it comes as an unpleasant surprise to him that Martha is at first underwhelmed by his lovemaking. I loved those scenes because they were so different! And I wondered where you got the courage to write them. Can you talk about where they came from?
Cecilia Grant: (Courage? Uh-oh. Is this where I find out I’m the only person in Romanceland with a thing for bad sex?)
I guess the bottom line is that I just don’t think sex has to be good in order to be compelling. And sex in romance novels tends to be so relentlessly spectacular that those rare occasions when it’s otherwise have an immediate visceral appeal to me. Think of the first encounter in Anna Campbell’s Untouched, where it’s a revelation for him and… a big fat disappointing nothing for her. Or those awful flashback scenes in Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite a Husband, where he’s doing everything he can think of for her and she’s all but physically shoving him away.
It’s a genre-fiction author’s job, isn’t it, to make her characters uncomfortable; to subject them to disappointments and disasters. Why should we let them off the hook in bed? Getting naked with someone you don’t know that well can put you in a place of extreme vulnerability – What if he’s disgusted by my mismatched breasts? What if she goes and tells all her friends I only lasted thirty seconds? – and I think we’re passing up a golden opportunity if we don’t occasionally make our characters’ worst fears come true.
Janine: On one level A Lady Awakened is the story of a severe widow and the seemingly feckless son of a baronet attempting to conceive a fraudulent heir. But on another level it is a story about community, about a community coming together, and about putting community before oneself. Did you always know that the book was going to deal with this topic, and be steeped in Regency era village life, or was that something you discovered through the process of writing it?
Cecilia Grant: I had no idea, when I started, that the story would go there. But at some point I had to get them out of the bedroom and interacting with other people, and once I did that, the community started to take shape.
Also, within a few chapters it was clear that most of Martha’s flaws, the areas in which she needed to experience growth, sprang out of the fact that she was self-reliant to a fault. She didn’t trust other people’s judgment, she had an aversion to asking for help, and she didn’t know how to make friends.
So it naturally followed that a big part of her journey would be learning to recognize the value of community, and that, at that critical moment where the protagonist typically has to leave her friends behind and face down Darth Vader on her own, she would have the opposite task: to reach out to people all up and down her spectrum of acquaintance and say, “This thing I thought I could do alone, I can’t. I need your help.”
Theo’s journey dovetailed with Martha’s. He was way ahead of her in the social-skills department, but what he needed to do was step up to the responsibilities of a landowning gentleman. And for him it made sense that he’d find his way into that through caring about the individual people who depended on him. Again, that aspect of the plot really came out of the characters.
Janine: Your characters are out of the usual mold and felt very much like real people. What is your characterization process like? How do you build these people?
Cecilia Grant: It’s odd to hear readers say that, because both these characters were very broad in the initial conception. (Theo, in particular, I first started writing with a mantra of “Part Bertie Wooster, part Beavis and Butt-head.”) If they do come off as real, I suppose it might be because I try not to skimp on their flaws, particularly the petty, un-sexy flaws. So Theo is spoiled, complacent, and inclined to screw things up, while Martha is self-righteous, withholding, and a bit of a hypocrite.
As to process, because I write in close 3rd-person POV, I like to start by finding the characters’ voices. Before I knew what Theo looked like, where Martha had grown up, or what internal motivations powered them, I knew that he had a playful and sensual appreciation for words, and that she observed a formal, impersonal tone even in her private thoughts.
Once the characters have voices, they can start talking and reflecting, and then I can figure out the rest. In general, I like to follow a guideline I once saw attributed to the agent Donald Maass – “Write a heroine whose heart opens to more than the hero” – as well as my own corollary, which is “Write a hero who’s thrown off balance by more than the heroine.”
Janine: What about your plotting process? Do you begin with an outline and a complete sense of the plot, or do you begin writing and see where the story takes you?
Cecilia Grant: I’m still in search of a plotting process. I keep reading all these craft books – Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat series – and thinking, yes, I’ve discovered the secret; now I’ll be able to plot efficiently, but so far none of those methods has worked in practice for me. I just sort of wind up the characters and set them spinning and hope they pick up enough plot-lint to sustain a book. Then I go back and try to squash it into shape, with properly spaced turning points and all that.
Janine: Describe a typical writing day. How many hours do you work? How many words do you typically write in an hour?
Cecilia Grant: There’s really no such thing as a typical writing day, because my schedule varies depending on whether I’m working that day, whether it’s my turn to make dinner, whether the kids need chauffeuring someplace, etc. Of necessity I’ve learned to write ad hoc, in a notebook I always carry around, though I do dream of having my own office with a door.
My word-per-hour average is not impressive. I’m in awe of those people who can knock out a thousand words in an hour. I can spend nearly that much time writing and re-writing a single sentence.
Janine: What aspect of writing comes most easily to you, and what aspect is most challenging?
Cecilia Grant: The blank page is the most challenging. Putting something where there was nothing just daunts me to no end.
I’m not sure there’s any aspect I’d say comes easily to me, but what I enjoy most is writing moments of intimacy – which might be sex, or might be the exchange of first names – and awful, can’t-believe-this-is-happening arguments, where people are saying things they’re later going to regret.
Janine: What authors have influenced and inspired you, both in the romance genre and out?
Cecilia Grant: The writers I like best don’t tend to influence or inspire me, because they do what they do so consummately that there’s nothing for me to add in that direction, if that makes sense. The closest I come to feeling inspired is when I read certain authors – Pam Rosenthal and Alex Beecroft spring to mind – and think, “Boy, you’d better raise your game if you’re going to write in the same genre as these guys.”
Janine: Tell us a little bit about your next book, A Gentleman Undone.
Cecilia Grant: Card counting, reckless trysts, and high-octane angst, with a smattering of probability theory: Martha’s soldier brother, Will, is the hero. He’s home from Waterloo, haunted by dark secrets and debts of honor, just ripe for some determined young lady to haul him out of the darkness with the strength of her love – except instead he falls for a cold-blooded cardsharp who’s a) another man’s mistress, and b) so twisted-up and angry as to make Will look like a paragon of stability.
Here’s a mini-excerpt from an early turning point in their relationship: heroine Lydia has just shown him how she can stack a deck after a single look at all the face-up cards.
By the time he set down the king of spades he was sitting up straight, his whole face alight with such a look as Paris of Troy must have worn when those three goddesses showed up to demand he judge one of them most beautiful.
No man had ever looked at her that way. No man would likely ever do so again. But he made her insides feel like clockwork for a moment, ingenious subtle clockwork instead of fallible flesh, and it occurred to her she might stay in that moment forever, given the choice. She might bask wordless in such a transformative gaze for as many moments as remained to her life.
No. Not transformative. This was who she was, quick and gleaming and intricate. She’d known that already. Now someone else knew.
She suggests they join forces at the gaming table, and in spite of the attraction that he knows could be his undoing, he agrees. All kinds of complications ensue. Available May 29.
Janine: Do you have any more projects in the works? What can we expect in the future?
Cecilia Grant: I’m up to my elbows in the story of Martha’s and Will’s barrister brother, Nick. He’s struggling to advance his career in the wake of Will’s scandalous marriage (hope that’s not a spoiler!), while running interference in the social-climbing schemes of his mentor’s daughter, a girl who believes her rare beauty would be wasted on anything less than a viscount. I haven’t titled it yet, but it should be out in about a year.
That’s the last book of my contract, and I’m not sure yet what’s next. There’s been some talk about a prequel novella featuring the eldest Blackshear brother, and a couple of other supporting characters in the series have meanwhile been lobbying me for romances of their own. But I also have an idea for a new series, this time with a vocational instead of familial link between the books’ protagonists, so I might start on that. I’ll alert the world via Facebook, Twitter, and my blog when I know more.
Thank you so much for having me, and for the thought-provoking questions.
Janine: Thanks for answering so many questions!
A Lady Awakened is released tomorrow and Dear Author is giving away 10 copies, either print or digital to 10 random commenters. We really believe in this book and want to get it into the homes of as many readers as possible.