I’m thrilled to welcome Cecilia Grant to my blog!
Ceci is a wonderful friend and a wonderful writer, witty and awesome with great taste in TV. Her debut historical A Lady Awakened is fantastic and fresh and charming and sexy, and if you don’t believe me, just ask Smart Bitch Sarah Wendell, who named it a 2011 Must Read!
Newly widowed and desperate to protect her estate—and housemaids—from a predatory brother-in-law, Martha Russell conceives a daring plan. Or rather, a daring plan to conceive. After all, if she has an heir on the way, her future will be secured. Forsaking all she knows of propriety, Martha approaches her neighbor, a London exile with a wicked reputation, and offers a strictly business proposition: a month of illicit interludes…for a fee.
Theophilus Mirkwood ought to be insulted. Should be appalled. But how can he resist this siren in widow’s weeds, whose offer is simply too outrageously tempting to decline? Determined she’ll get her money’s worth, Theo endeavors to awaken this shamefully neglected beauty to the pleasures of the flesh—only to find her dead set against taking any enjoyment in the scandalous bargain. Surely she can’t resist him forever. But could a lady’s sweet surrender open their hearts to the most unexpected arrival of all…love?
RL: You changed your hero’s name because the original name wasn’t popular among the upper class during the Regency. Tell me more about the class connotations of first names!
CG: Theo was “Christopher” for a long time, because it’s a name that happens to please my ear. But it’s not, I found out after a little investigation, a name that a class-conscious Georgian baronet would have given his firstborn son. I know, because I paged through all the baronet listings in the online Peerage, and the only Regency-era Christopher I found was a new creation, probably in reward for military distinction.
The Georgian aristocracy (which baronets were a step below, but close enough to want to follow the same naming conventions) overwhelmingly tended to name their heirs – the eventual Regency aristocracy – after the past few hundred years of kings. Lots of Georges, Jameses, Henrys, Williams, Edwards, and Charleses. Occasionally you come across a more novel name that’s been in a family for generations, like Hungerford (or Theophilus, as I eventually re-named my hero), but for the most part, Regency peers were christened out of that small pool of fashionable names – which almost nobody addressed them by, anyway. Theo would be “Theo” to his brothers and sisters; “Mirkwood” to pretty much everyone else.
As a reader, I don’t mind a little creative liberty in hero-naming, but as a writer, I want to be respectful of those readers for whom it is an issue. Changing the hero’s first name to something historically plausible (in fact, verifiable) was a sort of low-cost no-brainer, so I did it.
That said, I have to mention that the other week I got an email from someone asking the derivation of the hero’s last name, because Mirkwood didn’t look English to her. And I had to say, “Uh, actually that’s just a play on the kind of surname historical-romance heroes always seem to have, all dark and threatening. No historical basis.”
So there you have it. My commitment to historicity lasts just until the next opportunity for a meta-textual joke.
RL: “Murkwood” isn’t nearly as pretty-looking, is it?
The sex in your book starts out awkward and complicated (the hero is into it at first, but the heroine is just doing her duty and won’t allow herself to enjoy it for quite a while), but I thought it was a very hot, almost kinky scenario. Was it fun torturing your hero that way?
CG: I love that you thought the bad sex was hot! You’re the first person who’s said that, and now I’m going to have to go back and re-read it and see whether I mightn’t agree, just a little.
Torturing Theo was tremendous fun, both sadistic and masochistic. (I identify with whoever I’m writing at the time, so when things were going bad for him, and I was in his POV, I was feeling his pain.) There’s this one early scene in particular where things between them just go to hell in a handbasket and I was sure, while writing it, that any eventual editor would tell me I had to cut it or heavily revise.
That would have been a dealbreaker for me–literally, I promised myself I would walk away from a publisher who wouldn’t let me keep that scene, not so much because of the merits of the scene itself, but because it’s eminently representative of the kind of romance I want to write.
And then of course nobody – neither agent nor editor, though both had plenty of revision requests – raised any objection to that scene at all. So much for my pretensions to radical envelope-pushing!
RL: I can’t really be the first, can I? Come on, let’s see a show of hands, who else thought that was hot like burning?
It used to be that every romance I read had an unhappy, tightly emotionally controlled hero and a heroine who helped him open up. When I first started developing the idea for Lily ten years ago (which flips those roles), it was a very unusual book. But now I’m thrilled to see more and more of that type of romance being published: Meredith Duran’s Wicked Becomes You, Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite a Husband, and Courtney Milan’s Unclaimed are a few stand-outs for me, but there are plenty more! Why do you think this type of romance is becoming more popular, and what drew you to writing it?
CG: This is something I spend a lot of time thinking about, and I’m not sure my thoughts have jelled into a cohesive answer. But I’ll give it a try.
The non-nurturing woman is a fascinating character to me for a lot of reasons, probably beginning with the fact that she transgresses against one of the bottom-line social expectations for her gender.
Have you seen the toilet-paper commercial where a bunch of women address the camera about how important toilet-paper-related cleanliness is for themselves and their families? I can’t imagine anyone ever shooting that commercial with a bunch of men, even though men, too, have families, and presumably put just as high a value on that sort of cleanliness as women do. There’s just this assumption that women will be the ones to “own” that concern, since it can fit under the Nurturing umbrella.
In that societal context–even aside from the whole question of whether or not nurturing ought to be women’s sphere–the non-nurturing woman is automatically an arresting figure.
And I’m not alone in thinking so. Look at all the people gobbling up those books about Lisbeth Salander. Look at the ratings for Revenge. Thorny, emotionally unavailable heroines are interesting, and why wouldn’t romance join the rest of pop culture in recognizing that fact?
The obvious challenge, for the writer, is figuring out to what degree you can integrate a character like that into a romance without either diminishing the character (I’m starting to think I’d rather not see Emily Thorne soften up and fall in love with anyone. Stay strong, Emily! Eyes on the prize!) or writing something that’s not true to the fundamental precepts of romance.
But that sort of challenge is invigorating. Between Lisbeth Salander, and the feistiest historical-romance heroine you can name, is a big swath of characterization territory just begging to be mucked around in. So I hope we’ll be seeing a greater and greater incidence of “difficult” heroines alongside the more-traditionally-accessible kind.
RL: Tell me about the coolest book you read for research for ALA. (And bear in mind, one of my favorite research books is The Genesis of Modern Management: A Study of the Industrial Revolution, so “cool” doesn’t necessarily preclude “obscure”!)
CG: I wish I could say I’d read Theo’s bête noire pamphlet, The Utility of Agricultural Knowledge to the Sons of the Landed Proprietors of England, &c &c, by John Claudius Loudon. But I never did succeed in tracking it down–I’m not sure the text has survived–so to get the general flavor I read some of Loudon’s other agriculture-themed work, in particular his posthumous publication (get ready)–
Self-instruction for young gardeners, foresters, bailiffs, land-stewards, and farmers; in arithmetic and book-keeping, geometry, mensuration, and practical trigonometry, mechanics, hydrostatics, and hydraulics, land-surveying, levelling, planning, and mapping, architectural drawing, and isometrical projection and perspective: with examples, showing their application to horticultural and agricultural purposes.
It’s a dry book, as you can imagine, but the context makes it kind of sweet: you can picture an ambitious, disciplined boy whose parents can’t afford a Rugby education working his way through the pages, memorizing how many gallons make up a firkin, and learning how to solve problems like the following:
If 12 roods of grass be cut down by 2 men in 6 days; how many roods will be cut down by 8 men in 24?
Of course I also picture the breeches-clad Beavises and Butt-heads of the era confronting the title with bug-eyed outrage, or falling asleep and drooling on the pages.
RL: What’s your favorite TV or movie romance of 2011?
I’ve talked elsewhere about my love for like-minded government wonks Ben and Leslie on the show Parks and Recreation. So instead of repeating myself I’ll put in a word for a non-romantic TV relationship I loved in 2011: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on the BBC’s Sherlock!
It’s not a slash-fiction thing, I swear. I don’t want to see them kiss, or silently yearn for each other, or anything like that. [RL: Well, that makes one of us!] (In fact I’m totally down with Sherlock meeting his match in a female adversary, as I hear is going to happen in season 2.) I just get a lot of the same enjoyment out of that relationship that I do out of a good romance. See, you’ve got Dr. Watson, back from the war, at loose ends, not quite sure what’s missing in his life–and little does he suspect that the cure for what ails him is a rude, brilliant, high-functioning sociopath who’s going to be constantly dragging him into danger!
(Isn’t it just like the setup for an excellent romance? That person who seems like anathema to you is, it turns out, exactly what you need! A lot of their dialogue, too – impatience and exasperation with a side of insuppressible respect – wouldn’t be out of place in a good romance. God, I can’t wait for season 2.)
In movies, although I had some issues with the movie itself, I thought Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were insanely adorable together in Crazy Stupid Love. In the back of my brain I was thinking, “Eww, I hate this trope of the player who meets the One Special Woman who makes him change his ways” (Like you, I always feel bad for all the previous women who weren’t Special enough), but the actors’ combined charm just mowed down my resistance.
RL: What’s your favorite non-romance historical fiction book?
CG: Two spring to mind. Jennifer Donnelly’s YA novel A Northern Light, set in the early-20th-century Finger Lakes region of New York, is sort of an anti-romance – you’re rooting hard for heroine Mattie to break her engagement and take that scholarship to Barnard, and when she does, it’s hugely exhilarating–while also being a deeply romantic account of how a girl with the odds against her finds her voice and forges her own future.
And Geraldine Brooks’s March, an imagining of the Little Women father’s experiences in the Civil War, stays with me for a lot of reasons, but chiefly for one pivotal moment in which the protagonist fails, in utterly craven fashion, to step up and stand with the former slaves among whom he’s been living. I have a thing for stories of people who fall short of what they’d like to be/ought to be, and this was a particularly vivid one.
Wow, I will definitely be checking those out, especially the Donnelly book. I love early-20th-century coming-of-age stories SO MUCH. Thanks for visiting, Cecilia!
What was your favorite TV or movie romance of 2011? Cecilia will be giving away a copy of A Lady Awakened to one lucky commenter (in the US or Canada)!