Interview & Giveaway: Patricia Gaffney, Putting Characters Through the Wringer for Your Reading Pleasure
Here are the winners of one of the re-released Gaffney titles: 1) Karenmc 2) Vidhya 3) Asia M 4) Evangeline Holland 5) Danielle D 6) Brenda C 7) EmilyW 8) Kathryn 9) TaraR 10) Frekki
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Jennie and I are the original Patricia Gaffney fangirls. Back in 1997, I read my first Gaffney, the brilliant and controversial To Have and to Hold, and proceeded to write its author an embarrassingly long and gushy fan letter. Around about 2001, we were reprimanded for discussing her books too much on the AAR boards. And, I’m not sure I should be relating this — Jennie stop me if I shouldn’t — but in those days, Jennie was fond of referring to Ms. Gaffney (along with Laura Kinsale and Judith Ivory) as part of “the Holy Trinity.”
Needless to say, when Jane emailed the two of us to tell us that some of Patricia Gaffney’s historical romances were being reissued electronically, and ask whether we were interested in doing an interview, we leapt on the chance like terriers on a gourmet dog biscuit. (Ms. Gaffney is surely worthy of a classier analogy, but the enthusiasm of a true fan knows little of class).
Here are the questions we came up with, and the author’s answers:
Janine: Open Road has recently reissued six of your historical romances in e format: Fortune’s Lady, Another Eden, Crooked Hearts, Sweet Everlasting, Lily, and Outlaw in Paradise. Are there plans to also reissue Sweet Treason, Thief of Hearts, Wild at Heart and the Wyckerley trilogy, which consists of To Love and to Cherish, To Have and to Hold and Forever and Ever?
Pat: Yes, eventually.
Janine: Any word on when those will be available as ebooks?
Pat: No, not yet. Soon, I hope.
Jennie: Do you miss writing historical romance? If so, what do you miss about it?
Pat: Well, first, I really miss being part of the Holy Trinity.
After that, I miss knowing what I’m doing.
You know there’s an f-word associated with romance. Not “formula”— framework. A romance is a courtship story with a happy ending, so I always knew, before writing a word, that I was going to have a heroine and a hero (vs. “protagonists”), they would fall in love, overcome the obstacles keeping them apart, and live happily ever after. On that framework you can hang a thousand different stories, but underneath them all, there it is, the scaffolding. Steady as a rock.
Now—now I can write anything. I can kill off your favorite character in Chapter 10! I’ve still got a framework, but it’s widened out to “tell a coherent story and try to make it interesting.” Those are really all the rules I have to go by. Which makes the whole enterprise much harder.
Janine: In a video you recently made, you discuss the way a cancer diagnosis gave you the impetus to write your first book, Sweet Treason. What was it that kept you from writing before you got that diagnosis—
Janine: –and how did thinking you might not have long to live affect the way you viewed writing?
Pat: Nothing to lose. Fear (of failure) had kept me from even trying to write, even though it was just about all I’d wanted to do since age 8. Now I was almost out of time, with nothing to show for my life. I was horribly depressed, positive it really was curtains for me. I figured I had about two more years. Might as well go for it, try to write the sort of book I’d been having so much fun reading—historical romance novels.
Jennie: Sweet Treason has a rather controversial rape scene – how do you feel about that today? Do you think you’d write it differently today?
Pat: What can I say? It was the ’80s.
Yes, I’d write it differently now, 25 years later. But readers were different then, too, don’t forget—Sweet Treason won the Golden Heart award. She said defensively.
Janine: Fortune’s Lady was inspired by the Hitchcock movie “Notorious,” which stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. What was it about the movie that made you want to write your own version?
Pat: Oh, I love “Notorious,” especially that final scene when Cary Grant finds out evil Claude Rains and his mother have been poisoning Ingrid Bergman. So he rescues her, and they can’t stop kissing long enough to say how much they love each other, and then he carries her down the stairs while evil Claude and his mother watch helplessly as their Nazi cronies close in on them, and then Cary and Ingrid drive away and live happily ever after.
I just moved Fortune’s Lady to the 18th century and pretended it was my idea. The evil villain doesn’t try to poison the heroine, but he does try to hang her.
Janine: It’s been over a decade since I read Thief of Hearts and what I remember is that the hero impersonated the heroine’s husband, the setting was aboard a ship, which made a stop in Italy, and eventually, there was sex in a closet. How am I doing?
Pat: You’re bringing it all back to me. Keep going.
Janine: The setting of this book makes me think about your settings, which were a bit more varied than the Regency, Regency, Regency, Victorian, Regency that we get in today’s historicals. Did you have fun researching those settings, and do you have a favorite?
Pat: Some fun, but I’m not a historian, so I’d eventually get impatient to move along to the writing part. One of the nicest things about book-writing is the balance among the three components, conception, research, and composition. By the time I’d get sick of dreaming up the idea for a book, it was time to research for it, and just when I’d get sick of that, it would be time to write it. Ideal job for the short attention span.
As for the variety of settings, chalk it up to a low boredom threshold. Except for the Wyckerley trilogy, I don’t think I’ve ever set two books in the same time and place. It used to worry me. “Shouldn’t I be trying to get associated with something?” I’d ask my editor, and she’d say, “You’re getting associated with being versatile.”
Favorite setting . . . whenever women’s clothes were the prettiest. So—Regency? No, Gilded Age. I think.
Jennie: Lily was one of my early favorite romances, and still holds a warm place in my heart. Do you feel like a romance like Lily – long and tempestuous, with separations and an ultra-tortured hero – could get published today? Or has romance changed too much?
Pat: I haven’t been keeping up with the market very well lately, so you’d know better than I. Lily is one of my favorites, too, and it was great fun to write. I just kept throwing trouble at that poor girl. (She has a baby in a cave!) Not sure why, but sometimes I really enjoyed making my heroines suffer. Maybe it’s that I knew they were going to win big in the end, and I was looking for balance. Heroine-ly equilibrium.
Janine: Another Eden featured a heroine trapped in an abusive marriage – and the hero was the architect her husband had hired to build their summer house. In Sweet Everlasting the heroine had also been abused – by her stepfather. Though the hero, a doctor, fell in love with her, he wasn’t certain that love could transcend social barrier of class.
There’s some similarity in the themes but these two books also marked a transition for you because Another Eden was your last book for Dorchester under the Leisure imprint and Sweet Everlasting your first book for Penguin under the Topaz imprint. I have always found your Penguin books more sophisticated and wide ranging. Does that have to do with the editors you worked with at these houses or with your development as a writer?
Pat: Must be the latter, because I’ve had fantastic luck with editors from the beginning. Alicia Condon edited my books at Leisure, and I have nothing but warm thoughts and good things to say of her. Her assistant was the wonderful Audrey LaFehr—who moved to Penguin just before I did and became my editor there. Smooth transition: one great editor to another great editor. Lucky me.
Speaking of themes—looking back, I see that class as social barrier is an enormous one in almost all my romances. Class, or some form of mistaken identity—those are the two I came back to again and again.
Janine: Crooked Hearts and Outlaw in Paradise are both humorous westerns with con artist protagonists. Your recent novella, Dear One, in the J.D. Robb headlined anthology The Unquiet, has a “psychic” main character. What is it that appeals to you about con artists?
Pat: And in the anthology before that, The Other Side, my story’s hero was a fake ghost detective. So I guess I do love con artists. The trick is making them likeable in spite of their profession. I think Crooked Hearts works because they’re both con artists, so you never feel one’s being taken by the other. They’re flim-flamming each other simultaneously.
Janine: The heroine trapped in an unhappy marriage was a theme you returned to in To Love and to Cherish but this time your heroine fell in love with her husband’s friend, who, to make matters worse, was a minister. To Love and to Cherish is a book which many consider among the finest books written in the romance genre. Christian Morrell (Christy for short), the hero, is such a sweetheart, and yet for all his innate goodness, he’s more appealing than many romance rakes. What gave you the idea to make a romance hero out of a vicar and how did you pull it off?
Pat: I think what prompted this story was that, in the 20 or so years I’d been reading romance novels, I’d never come across a hero or heroine who gave a moment’s thought to whether sleeping with his/her beloved was a “sin,” in the old-fashioned sense. They had plenty of misgivings, doubts, second thoughts, fears, neuroses, and qualms, but no moral reluctance to hop into bed. As a former Catholic schoolgirl, I found that odd. As if there were an elephant in the room no one was acknowledging.
So, rather than give some poor heroine a religious conscience, which would just be dull, I decided to give one to the hero. And to make it extra hard on him, I put him in the business of morality—a minister. I guess it’s that sadistic streak in me again. At least it’s not gender-specific: I like ’em all to suffer.
Janine: Anne Verlaine, the heroine of To Love and to Cherish, was a cynic and an atheist. I loved the role reversal in this book — that the hero was the trusting innocent, and the heroine was the cynical one. Was it risky to write this type of book in 1995? And looking back on it, why do you think it stands the test of time?
Pat: I think I was starting to get the hang of this writing business, and beginning to feel confident enough to ignore some of the conventions. Anne Verlaine—except for being prettier, smarter, younger, and nicer—is me. I was writing about myself. In first person, even, via her journals. Anne’s journals were the most fun I’d had in writing up to that point, and it was because, turns out, first person is my natural voice. I’ve written three of my five contemporaries in first person since then. In fact, one of them I wrote originally in third, then went back and changed it all to first. (Nightmare.)
Janine: To Have and to Hold is my favorite book in the romance genre, and topped our Top 100 Romance List here at DA. To say that its “hero” is morally ambiguous is perhaps an understatement. Sebastian offers Rachel, a convict released from ten years of imprisonment, the position of his housekeeper, in order to have her at his mercy. I think it can be fairly stated that Sebastian is the villain of the story for half the book. My heart was in my throat during the scene in which Sebastian turns on a dime (I don’t want to give away how and why) and changes the course of his life.
What was it that drew you to make a protagonist out of a true, corrupt rake, and how did you get so many readers to root for him despite his many transgressions against the heroine? What do you think makes his ultimate redemption convincing to so many readers?
Pat: Saintly Christy needed an antidote?
It’s hard to reconstruct all my choices and motivations for that novel, and other people—you and Jennie, for instance—have written about it so eloquently, I feel comparatively inarticulate. Speaking just for myself, what makes Sebastian bearable, even likeable, is that (a) he’s very funny, (b) he’s self-aware and never makes excuses, and most of all, (c) being bad doesn’t make him happy. Oh, and (d) after he reforms he gives Rachel a puppy. What a guy.
One little writerly trick I used, not a very sophisticated one but still effective, I think, was to introduce him first. I could easily have started with Rachel getting out of prison, but I wanted you to imprint on Sebastian and assume he would be your hero. Because I knew he was going to need every bit of stored-up goodwill he could possibly get.
Janine: You “went there” in To Have and to Hold – Sebastian uses Rachel’s dependency on her position in his household to force her to sleep with him, and something that makes him unusual in the genre is that he doesn’t try to make excuses for himself. It’s not a case of mistaken identity. He doesn’t think she’s a slut. He’s not out for revenge. As far as we know, he wasn’t abused as a child. He’s not so overcome with passion that he can’t control himself. Can you speak to why you made this choice with his character?
Pat: I didn’t want him to have any excuses. That would’ve been copping out on his character. Plus I was sick of borderline rapist heroes having all those excuses—your list is excellent. (I used one myself, the old “But I thought she was a prostitute!” in Sweet Treason. ) I think with Sebastian I was testing myself, seeing how far I could go. I remember, during the writing process, repeatedly asking myself, “Are you really going to do that?” And each time the answer was yes. I just kept pushing it, pushing it. It was a little bit perverse, a little bit in your face. It’s a wonder the book worked.
Janine: Rachel was also a fascinating character because of her horrifying experiences in prison. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another romance heroine like her. Before To Have and to Hold, no other romance had made me so deeply conscious of the inequities inherent in the class system. Reading about the conditions Rachel faced – having her hair shorn, being given a number in place of her name, being forbidden to look at or even smile at other inmates – horrified me and made me angry. She’s probably my favorite heroine in the genre so I’m curious about how she came to be and why you chose this background for her.
Pat: Thank you. It’s true, Victorian prison conditions were utterly appalling, beyond “Dickensian,” completely barbaric. And my research was accurate, I didn’t exaggerate anything. If she’d been a man, or a woman in some prison other than Dartmoor, Rachel might have had to climb on a treadmill. A treadmill. The mind reels. Why did I choose that background for her? Same reason I made Lily give birth in a flooding cave, or made Cass almost die from hanging in Fortune’s Lady. The worse the better! It raises the stakes, it puts the reader on the edge of her seat, it conflicts your characters within an inch of their lives. It’s fun.
And Sebastian needed an opposite number as unlike him as I could think up. Again—balance. Powerful and powerless; decadent and pure. Rachel had to be helpless, “erased,” reduced to a figure of her own basic survival, in order to make her final “victory” over Sebastian, if you will (and that works if you’re right and he’s actually the villain for the first half of the story), succeed in narrative terms.
Janine: Forever and Ever had a heroine who was a mine owner and a hero who was a union organizer. What started out as a clash over mining conditions grew into a romance. You also dealt with miscarriage and depression in this book. Are those subjects as heart wrenching to write about as they are to read about?
Pat: Not at all. As you may have gathered by now, I enjoy putting my characters through the wringer.
But if I had to do it again, I think I’d let Sophie Deene keep her baby. Why did I make her have a miscarriage? That was so terribly sad. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Which I’m not ashamed to say, because isn’t that phrase, “it seemed like a good idea at the time,” almost the definition of growth?
Janine: Before I close the subject of the Wyckerley trilogy I want to ask about William Holyoake, the secondary character whose story is woven throughout the three books. I loved William! And I thought it was wonderful to see a bailiff get such a significant role in the story. Was the triangle between William, Sidony, and Jack something you’d planned on from the beginning of To Love and to Cherish? Because I have to tell you, by Forever and Ever, I was completely in William’s corner.
Pat: I know, he was lovely. I modeled him on one of my favorite characters in fiction, Gabriel Oak in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. I like his stalwart patience, his steady intelligence, and under all that, his passion. Gabriel gets the girl in the end—and, yes, I planned from the beginning for William to get Sidony. They had some rough sailing before their happy ending—but hey, that’s my job.
Jennie: I once read that you wrote Wild at Heart in part in response to Alice Hoffman’s Second Nature, not liking the lack of HEA in Hoffman’s book. Since moving into a genre where more ambiguous endings are the norm, have your feelings about the HEA changed?
Pat: Such interesting questions.
No, I still love the HEA. All of my women’s fiction novels have, if not 100% delirious, at least extremely upbeat endings. Still, a part of me worries that that’s not very grown-up. Real grownups read books with “realistic” endings. There’s a new play out with the fun title Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies. Yes, that’s the most realistic ending for a book I can think of, but would I want to read it? Not much.
But that doesn’t stop me from making fun of my friends who have to read the last page of any book they’re considering buying lest, God forbid, they should get depressed. I make fun of them, and yet—I feel the same way. Right now I’m looking at a newspaper article on “50 Notable Works of Fiction” for 2011. Here’s a novel about abused children. This one, about Hurricane Katrina, “evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy.” This one is “a harrowing portrait of men at war.” Here’s another one about abusive priests. This book’s “sad heart” is about a couple whose lives unravel after the loss of their infant son. This one is “Savage with a soupcon of tenderness.” I think I’d rather read one that’s tender with a soupcon of savagery. If that.
All of which is to say, I’m still that same ultra-sensitive—okay, cowardly—Gentle Reader who wanted to fix Alice Hoffman’s book. (I mean, really. Have you read Second Nature? What a horrible ending.) So as a writer, one of my responsibilities is to create stories whose satisfying endings are, in their own contexts, deserved, believable, and just right.
Jennie: Do you have a favorite among your historical romances?
Pat: To Love and to Cherish.
Pat: I just had it all going on.
Jennie: You are best known for your women’s fiction novels, including the bestselling The Saving Graces. Do you approach writing women’s fiction differently than you did writing romances? What are the differences?
Pat: I’ve talked about the absence of the romance “framework” making mainstream fiction harder to write. That’s the downside. The upside is the broader range of stories I can tell. I can write a whole book about mothers and daughters (say), or friendship, and even though I’ll probably include a romantic relationship or two, simply because that’s life—there is such a thing as romance, after all; it’s not just a fantasy!—I don’t have to make it the book’s focus. Unless I want to. So that’s freeing.
Otherwise, no, I don’t approach the two kinds of stories differently. That surprised me at first, finding out that a book is a book. They’ve all got beginnings, middles, and ends; they all need compelling characters and smart pacing, plenty of conflict, and themes people care about.
Jennie and Janine: What are your favorite books? Who are your favorite authors/literary influences?
Pat: Recent favorite books—I loved Room by Emma Donoghue. Loved The Help. Anything by Alice Munro, the best short story writer in the world, IMNSHO. Elizabeth Stroud’s Olive Kittredge. Anything by Ann Patchett. Jane Smiley’s The Age of Grief. The Master, by Colm Toibin.
Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy were my literary influences when I wrote historical romances.
Jennie: Had you stayed in romance, can you see yourself following some of the trends now proliferating – e.g. paranormal, vampire, steampunk?
Pat: Paranormal’s never been exactly my cuppa (all my characters in Nora’s paranormal anthologies are faking it), but I can certainly understand the appeal. Steampunk is pretty cool. Maybe I’ll start a new subgenre: geriatric steampunk.
Jennie: Are there other genres you’d like to explore?
Pat: I’d like to write a murder mystery.
Jennie: How much do you consider saleability when you are deciding what to write?
Pat: Honestly, not at all. Writing’s hard enough, even when it’s your passion. If I threw money into the mix, I’d be paralyzed.
Janine: Would you ever consider writing historical romance again? And would it help if we offered to come to your house and do your chores?
Pat: What I really need is dog walkers. Let’s talk.
Dear Author would like to introduce new readers to a classic author. To that end, we’ll gift 10 readers a digital copy (either from BN, Kobo or Kindle) of Patricia Gaffney’s digital re-releases: Fortune’s Lady, Another Eden, Crooked Hearts, Sweet Everlasting, Lily, and Outlaw in Paradise. Just drop a comment in the comment box. You can find out more about her books at http://www.openroadmedia.com/authors/patricia-gaffney.aspx