I just had two books out this summer—two very different books—one after the other, so I keep forgetting which one I’m meant to be talking about!
THAT SUMMER is a stand alone novel, which goes back and forth between 2009, when my modern heroine inherits a house in England from an unknown great-aunt, and that same house in 1849, during the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. As my modern heroine cleans out the house, she stumbles upon a lost Pre-Raphaelite painting hidden behind the false back of an old wardrobe. Who hid it there? And what happened to the artist who painted it? In her quest for the painting’s legacy, Julia stumbles upon a family scandal going back over a century—and learns a few things about herself as well.
The second of my two recent releases is THE MARK OF THE MIDNIGHT MANZANILLA, the eleventh (!!) book in my long-running Pink Carnation series. The Pink series has been described both as “Jane Austen meets James Bond” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel meets Bridget Jones”. Either way, they’re swashbuckling, tongue-in-cheek adventures following a group of flower-named spies during the Napoleonic wars as they thwart Napoleon and fall in love.
In THE MARK OF THE MIDNIGHT MANZANILLA, rumors about vampires are swirling through the ton, especially about the reclusive Duke of Belliston. Miss Sally Fitzhugh most emphatically doesn’t believe in vampires (except the metaphorical sort), so when a woman is found dead with fang marks on her throat and the finger of suspicion points at Lucien, Duke of Belliston, Sally teams up with Lucien to find the real killer. I had an insane amount of fun writing MIDNIGHT MANZANILLA—not only did I get to spoof vampire literature (which I’ve been longing to do for some time), but it’s my very first Halloween book, and I got to give Sally a stoat as a pet.
Because what fiction needs is more pet stoats….
Who was your Greatest inspiration in helping you develop your writing career?
My greatest inspiration as an author is Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels, who had a career that spanned multiple decades and genres. Her books were constant re-reads for me growing up. They featured strong heroines (who doesn’t admire Victorian archaeologist Amelia Peabody?), witty dialogue, and a pitch-perfect sense of comic timing. Much of what I learned about writing comedy, I learned from her Elizabeth Peters books, while my love of “house” books (books like my recent THAT SUMMER, in which a heroine inherits, house-sits, or otherwise inhabits an atmospheric old house) comes from the atmospheric gothics she wrote under the pen name Barbara Michaels.
There are plenty of other authors to whom I owe a debt: L.M. Montgomery, M.M. Kaye, Margaret Mitchell, Robin McKinley, Diana Gabaldon, Judith Merkle Riley, Julia Quinn. But the single biggest influence was undoubtedly Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels.
Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from your most recent book?
Confession: I’m usually dreadful at this sort of thing. My actor recognition generally runs along the lines of, “You know, that guy from the BBC mini-series? No, not that guy. The other guy. Unless—wait. Maybe he wasn’t in that mini-series. Maybe he was in Inspector Lewis?” (Although the advent of IMDB did help clear up a few of those “not that guy, the other guy” discussions.)
However, totally contrary to form, I can tell you exactly who I want to see playing the leads—or, at least, the male leads—in my two latest books.
Gavin Thorne, the historical hero of That Summer, my Victorian-set stand alone novel, is Richard Armitage. Richard Armitage in the BBC mini-series of Gaskell’s North and South, that is. He’s Victorian, he’s brooding, and he’s just a little rough around the edges. No one broods quite like Richard Armitage.
Lucien, the hero of The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, is a very young Rufus Sewell. Think Rufus Sewell circa Cold Comfort Farm or Dangerous Beauty, with that curling dark hair and those incredibly compelling dark eyes, smoldering away. Lucien, Duke of Belliston, has spent the past decade abroad, vowing to return some day to avenge his murdered parents. His reclusiveness has given rise to the rumor among the ton that he is… a vampire. (Yes, people can be very silly.) Rufus Sewell has just the right sort of dark intensity for a vampire duke.
As for the heroines, I have no idea. If you have any suggestions, pop by my website or Facebook page and let me know!
Any tips on how to get through the dreaded writer’s block?
Caffeine, caffeine, and more caffeine, followed by caffeine, with a side of caffeine.
One of the hardest parts of being a writer is figuring out when writer’s block is just a case of laziness and when it’s a sign that there’s something deeply wrong with the direction you’re taking with the book. In the case of (a), the best thing to do is to force yourself to write through it. (See caffeine, caffeine, and more caffeine, above.) Eventually, you get caught up in the story again, and it starts to flow. But when it’s (b), something wrong with the plot, writing through it is often the worst possible path. It’s like trying to slog through a snowdrift to get to your cabin, when, in fact, if you’d stopped and consulted a map, you would know that your cabin is about three miles in the opposite direction. But by then you’re so blinded with all that metaphorical snow, you can’t see that you’ve gone the wrong way.
Usually, I spent a few days trying to write through. If I can’t—then I have to face up to the fact that I’m probably in a snowdrift, and it’s time to take a deep breath, brew a strong cup of tea, call my little sister for advice, possibly go shopping, and just generally rethink my characters and where they’re headed.
This happens at least three or four times a book…. (Especially the shopping.)
What are your thoughts on good/bad reviews?
It is a truth universally acknowledged among authors that good reviews are written by readers of taste and discernment while bad reviews must be the fault of the reviewer having enjoyed a very unsatisfactory breakfast/woken up on the wrong side of the bed/read someone else’s book.
Reviews are a mixed bag. I know authors who make a point of never reading reviews—and there is something to be said for that approach. Susan Elizabeth once famously said that every book is someone’s favorite and someone’s least favorite. People have conflicting tastes. Some people love mustard; other people hate it. That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily good or bad. It just is what it is.
On the other hand, reviews, when done well, can tell you something about your own strengths and weaknesses. As authors, we’re always constantly working to improve our craft, whether we’re on our first book or our fiftieth, and a well-written negative review can, sometimes, be quite useful. As opposed to a poorly written negative review, which just makes you gnash your teeth and wish you’d listened to that useful advice about never reading reviews….
Above all, whether the review is good, bad, or in-between, whether it pops up in Kirkus or Amazon or on Cindy Lou Hoo’s blog, there is no room for the author in that review. By which I mean, even if the review accuses the author of being in touch with book-hating aliens from Planet Zog who have obviously dictated this irredeemable book through the author in a malicious attempt to ruin the reviewer’s reading experience—well, the author just needs to roll her eyes, take a swig of wine, and save the story for when she’s having a few drinks with close friends. I don’t believe it’s the author’s place to respond in any way to reviews, even to make factual corrections. (However much you may be itching to let the reviewer know that the aliens were really from Crushcon Five and not Planet Zog….) Reviews are for readers, not for authors.
And shouldn’t you be busy working on that next book?
Relax? What is this word of which you speak? I have a toddler and three books due. Relaxation is doing only two things at once instead of three. While trying to keep the toddler from chewing on the laptop.
What is your favorite motivational phrase?
There’s no way out but through.
What is your favorite book?
There are too many! If I have to pick just one…. L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle.
Ask me again tomorrow and you’ll probably get a different answer.
The food you couldn’t live without?
Cheese and crackers. It’s breakfast, lunch, and occasionally dinner.
The BEST thing about you?
Probably not my fashion sense.
One place you've never been, but ALWAYS wanted to go?
India. I've even set a book there, but couldn't swing the time for the research trip I wanted.
One thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
I don’t know how to drive. Growing up in Manhattan, it was a non-issue. You just stick out your hand, and, voila!, a cab pulls up and takes you places. But as I go on book tour in places that aren’t Manhattan, I find that people are very, very surprised to encounter a non-driver.
Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?
Caroline of Ansbach, wife of George II. She’s always been a favorite of mine. The power behind the throne, she pretty much ran England. Not to mention being tutored by Leibniz, a friend of philosophers and authors. In short, just a fascinating person.
If you weren’t an author what would be your next choice of career?
It’s impossible to imagine not being an author. I’ve always written, through grade school, college, grad school, law school, piling up manuscripts under my bed. So it’s really an “and” rather than an “or”. I used to be a historian and an author…. And then I was a lawyer and an author. If I had to go back to having an “and” job, the odds are that it would probably be some sort of teaching. Although I’ve always rather fancied working in a bookstore.
What is the most interesting trip you have ever taken?
For pure, slapstick comedy, any book tour I go on with Tasha Alexander. For some reason, whenever we tour together, there is Weather Related Drama. Two years ago, we got caught in a freak snow-storm in between two library appearances (think THE LONG WINTER, author road trip version), while just this past weekend, we wound up traversing the dark corridors of a hotel with glow sticks because an epic thunderstorm had knocked out the power in Ann Arbor, where we were both appearing at the Kerrytown Bookfest.
What was your most embarrassing moment?
I was going to demur… and then I remembered a story I hadn't thought of for years. Back when I was a grad student at Harvard, three colleagues and I decided we wanted to see, um, the Britney Spears movie. But we were all teaching that year, and we didn't want to run into any of our students at the movie, because it’s always awkward to have your undergrads realize that you might be human. It absolutely kills what little authority you might have.
So we drove way, way out to a movie theatre in the wilds of the Boston suburbs. And then we got lost on the way back. Pre-iPhone lost. No map lost. So we did what any sensible people would do, and decided to stop at a Bertucci’s and get some pizza before trying to figure out just where we were and how to get home.
We walk through the door—and smack into the Intellectual History professor (who just happened to be the advisor of one of the other three). He exclaimed in surprise and introduced us all to his wife before asking, “What are you doing here?”
To which his startled student blurted out, “We were seeing the Britney Spears movie.” As we all made panicked throat-cutting gestures at her, she followed that up with, “Can you tell us where we are?”
His wife gave us the sort of look reserved for escaped inmates of places where they don’t study history. “Bertucci’s?” she said, very, very gently.
That “can you tell us where we are?” followed us all around the history department for a very long time….
White wine or red? Gin and tonic, please.
Coffee or tea? Tea in the morning and coffee in the afternoon.
Cook dinner or order take-out/delivery? Does putting cheese and crackers on a plate count as cooking?
Outdoorsman or homebody? Is that a chaise longue I see before me? Come, let me lounge on thee.
City Life or Country Life? Both. City on the weekdays, country on the weekends.
Do you prefer to live in hot weather or cold weather? I’ll take the temperate zone. Hello, autumn breezes!
Pancakes or eggs? Eggs. Preferably Benedict. With a side of mimosa.
Sleep in or get up early? Dream: sleeping in. Reality: toddler-as-alarm-clock.
Laptop or desktop for writing? Ancient red laptop that likes to break down at crucial moments. Just to keep the tension high….