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1) Was it a challenge to age Peregrine and Olivia from the children they’d been in Lord Perfect into young adults, yet keep them recognizable as the same characters?
When I first created Olivia and Peregrine in Lord Perfect, it was obvious they’d have a story of their own. Which I managed to put off for about four years, because it turned out I had no clue how to do it. It was trickier than I’d assumed: I needed to analyze two characters already very well known to readers, decide what was the essence of each personality, then decide how it would express itself in adulthood. In what way(s) do we change with maturity? Olivia was the major problem, because she’s complicated to begin with. Then she’s further complicated with the change in status when her mother marries Lord Rathbourne. One example of the problems she presented: How does growing up among the upper classes influence the person she turns into? I did know she wouldn’t become a conventional young woman—but that knowledge is not terribly helpful, considering I’ve spent my career trying not to create conventional heroines. Peregrine was much easier. He’s forthright to a fault. He’s already an adult, to an extent, when he’s a boy. But the most delicate part of the operation was developing their sexual relationship.
2) Olivia is an unusual heroine, manipulative yet filled with good intentions. Did you feel you were taking a chance in creating such a character, and what was readers’ response to her like?
It didn’t seem a very big risk, or no more than usual. Writing a book is always a gamble. You write it, you put it out there, and you hope for the best. But it wasn’t as though I hadn’t precedents for using shady characters as heroes. I do believe the old Maverick shows were in the back of my mind when I created the Dreadful Deluceys. It’s really fun to work with characters who are not upright citizens. And it’s fun, too, to find the qualities that make them sympathetic, heroic, in spite of themselves. As to reader response: The main way we gauge it is sales, and my publisher was happy with the numbers. Then the jury of my peers made it a Rita finalist, too. So it seems that, for the most part, people are OK with Olivia.
3) Peregrine is the proper, upstanding straight man to Olivia’s madcap, funny, larger-than-life figure, and Last Night’s Scandal is a story of opposites attracting as much as a friends-to-lovers story. How did you go about making the characters’ appeal to one another understandable and believable?
Making the relationship work isn’t a conscious process. Well, frankly, very little I do is. I’m not analytical or linear in my writing. It’s mainly instinct: Does this feel right or wrong? If it feels wrong, I throw it out and try something else. Not the most efficient process, but the only one I’ve got. With relationships, on some level, I’m seeking balance—one character’s positives and negatives complementing his/her partner’s. In this case, Peregrine reacts to his parents’ excessive drama by going in the opposite direction: As a boy, he likes being with his uncle Lord Rathbourne because Rathbourne makes rules. But that can result in someone who’s humorless and repressed and basically, not fun. Olivia makes her own rules. To Peregrine this is anarchy. But she’s good for him. She keeps jolting him, and this checks his tendencies toward pomposity and pedantry. Meanwhile, he helps her find her moral center. We see this in real life, in good relationships, where the partners have a mellowing effect on each other. The act of maintaining a relationship calls for compromise; in the good scenarios, this smoothes rough edges, helps keep one’s judgment balanced, adjusts perspective. I wanted their compromises to result in their growing up and becoming their better selves.
4) The opposites attract dynamic is one you have explored in many other of your books. What draws you to that kind of romance?
This is one of those writerly tactics I feel should have a big warning sign: Don’t Try This At Home. But the opposites-attract dynamic makes for such strong conflict, and the process of two people trying to deal with that and trying to communicate and create a balance is so interesting to write about. In real life, this works only to a point, and I’ll say of some of my heroes that while I love them in a romance, in real life I’d run away screaming.
5) Both Olivia and Peregrine struggle to define themselves outside the expectations and demands of their families. Peregrine, in particular, is so different than his fairly awful parents. He, unlike Dain, isn’t limited by his family’s history. Why is Peregrine able to transcend his background so much more easily than Dain?
Peregrine had Lord Rathbourne as his uncle and godfather. The difference is in having a loving and rational father figure/role model. Rathbourne offered the sanity and stability Lord and Lady Dalmay were incapable of providing. Rathbourne lives by rules. He isn’t driven by emotion. He pays attention to Peregrine and treats him like a thinking being. Dain had no one to create a stable, loving environment. Essentially, he was abandoned—and as I saw it, this happened even before his mother left, because she was self-absorbed. His situation was rather like being brought up by wolves. He went from a home where he was basically ignored to Eton, a world ruled, really, by boys—perilously close to a Lord of the Flies environment.
6) The theme for this month’s book club book was friends to lovers. It’s a popular romance trope. Are there particular advantages to writing a friends to lovers? How about disadvantages?
I believe this was a first for me, and it was much harder than I expected. The advantage is, they’re already friends and they have a bond. The difficulty is transforming friendship to a sexual relationship. If it isn’t done right, it just feels . . . icky. I could not figure out where and how to have that key moment when things start to turn. Then I had them on that fence near the Balloon Stone, and I knew that was the moment. The symbolism of their sitting on a fence—between Then (Friends) and Now (Lovers) only hit me later, and then I had to give myself a dope slap and laugh.
7) What was the starting point for Last Night’s Scandal?
Wondering what was going to bring them together. The problem simmered in the back of my mind while I wrote three books after Lord Perfect. A few things were fairly clear: I knew Peregrine would already have a life in Egypt, because that was who he was. It made sense to keep them separated for most of their growing-up time, so that when their story started, they’d see each other with fresh eyes. I definitely wanted echoes from their first adventure together. The letters in the beginning solved a host of problems in terms of those intervening years, as well as helping readers unfamiliar with Lord Perfect understand the characters. That’s as much as I can explain. My stories often come together like a collage rather than a drawing. Pieces arranged and rearranged, added, taken away, until things feel right. So I wrote the first three chapters about five or ten different ways before the landscape of the story started to become clear.
8) When you are crafting a novel, do you begin with characters or a plot? Does one shape the other? Or does it depend on the book?
While the stories grow out of the characters, I need some sort of plot to get going. I write an outline, based on a vague sense of the characters, and a plot idea that may or may not be the final one, because the characters don’t always turn out as originally envisioned. Again it’s a process of assemblage, rather than a linear sense of where things are going. It isn’t until I’ve been writing scenes that I get to know my people. It’s like getting to know a stranger: Sometimes that happens quickly; other times, it’s a lengthy process. Sometimes my understanding of a character is very superficial (and at least partly wrong) until I’ve written more than half the book. So then I have to go back and rewrite. I know: It’s a harebrained process, but that’s the way I write.
9) You’ve been writing for over twenty years now, do you think your audience has changed? Have you as a writer changed?
The audience is always changing its reading tastes, otherwise genres wouldn’t go in and out of fashion. In the earlier days of my career, paranormal was more or less extinct, and inspirational romance seemed not to have an audience and if erotic romance was getting published, it was off my radar. From the time I left traditional Regencies to write Regency-era historicals, I’ve stuck to the same genre. My writing, on the other hand, has changed over the years, and I like to think it’s for the better, that I’ve learned and matured and improved my craft. Too, one simply changes and Life happens. Even if I wanted to, I simply couldn’t write the kinds of books I wrote ten or twenty years ago. I’m not the same person. There’s no way to put myself in the state of mind/experience that gave rise to any particular book.
10) How important do you feel historical context is for your books?
For me it’s crucial. The setting is practically a character. I came to writing historical romance out of a love of history, so that’s part of the push to create a strong sense of place and time, using every tool available to make it feel real. The books that have the strongest impact on me do this. As well as helping me create a world that feels solid, history offers me so many sources of humor, misery, irony, and so on. So many small, everyday things—not great political moments—offer inspiration. OK, yes, I love history to wretched excess. So much that a writer friend (Susan Holloway Scott aka Isabella Bradford) and I created a blog devoted to the idea that History is Fun, Really. It’s called Two Nerdy History Girls, and it’s my outlet for all the historical deliciousness I can’t fit into my books.
11) Why do you think Lord of Scoundrels resonates with romance readers?
I’ve been asked this question before, and so far have not produced an intelligent answer. Judging by the different reasons readers give me for liking it, I don’t think there’s a consensus. Somehow this story came together, and it manages to hit a lot of readers in the right place. I’m not sure how I did it, but I’m very proud of that book and grateful to readers for continuing to love it for all this time.
12) Can you talk a little about how you pace the physical relationship between your lovers in your books? Do you feel readers respond better to relationships that take time to make it to the bedroom or to those that heat up more quickly?
The characters determine the pace of the physical relationship. I’m not sure whether I’m slower than most in getting to the consummation, but I do know I’d rather not rush it. That’s for a number of reasons, some of them purely practical. For instance, once the characters have had sex, the sexual tension dissipates, and one needs to find ways to either rebuild it or create other kinds of tension. These days, my characters seem to need at least half a book’s foreplay before the Big Smoochies happen. As to readers—I think the situation is the same regarding the sex as it is with other aspects of the book: Readers don’t all like the same things. A writer can’t please every reader. And so she has to write what she believes in, what feels right to her. Then, of course, the book goes out into the world and we hope our writerly instincts weren’t Horribly, Fatally Wrong.