Last week the Gather.com First Chapters Romance Writing Competition winners were announced, and Meredith mentioned in the comments that my post about it, which I think was 2 days before the due date, inspired her to enter. So I had to ask her a few nosy questions – and behold, a rather inspiring Smart Bitch Interview.
1. You decided to enter based on my very-last-minute posting of the contest at SBTB, which I’d found out about a few days before the deadline. Did you have a manuscript already finished or did you churn out your winning entry with the fire of deadline in your pants (or under your chair, or wherever the fire of deadline likes to reside)?
Yes, the manuscript had been sitting around for a while — on top of a
stack of three others I’d written. I’d queried some agents about it,
and found them to be distinctly unenthusiastic about the prospect of a
historical set partly in India. (It was rather similar to the
responses I’d gotten for the manuscript before it, in which I was
informed that female thieves are not admirable enough to be heroines
in contemporary romances. Fair enough!) Shortly after the final “No
thank you” arrived, I went to India to study, and ran into a garrulous
palm reader who told me out of the blue — without asking for money or
knowing anything about me — that while I would “dabble” in writing,
nothing would come of it.
Now, I’m not a believer in palmistry, but I was already feeling
frustrated, and the prediction seemed both incredibly uncanny and
deeply irksome. (I should add, a day after I found out I’d won this
contest, it occurred to me to tell a friend, “Ha! The universe is
telling me the palm reader was wrong!” — To which my friend promptly
replied, “No, the universe is telling you: Do not listen to palm
readers, you dumbass!”) At this point, my discouragement was starting
to affect my writing, so I decided to take a break from trying to get
published and focus on the part of the craft that I did love: namely,
the practice of writing itself. And so I shelved The Shadow’s Kiss
and moved on. Forgot about it entirely, to be honest.
This August, my sister found the hard copy of the manuscript beneath a
bed at my parents’ house. She read it, loved it, and started urging
me to submit it to slush piles at publishing houses (which I’d never
tried). I ignored her, because I was just starting what I think is a
very fun historical set in an entirely different time period. But at
her behest, I did root around on my old computer, which is back at my
parents’ house, and make an electronic copy to take back with me to
Chicago. Which is how I had it sitting on my hard drive on the night
I surfed over here to Smart Bitches and found out a contest was under
2. What was the experience like of being judged so publicly for your writing, and seeing comments appear so quickly after you posted your first chapter?
It was fantastic, and also bewildering. Fantastic, in the sense that
writing can be so solitary, and suddenly here I had a whole crowd of
people clamoring not only to read my work, but also to give me
feedback! And in terms of support and encouragement, it was amazing:
right from the start, I got some incredibly lovely messages from total
strangers — people who were worried that because I wasn’t
“campaigning,” my chapters would be overlooked. This leads me to the
bewildering part — because I hadn’t been a member of Gather before
the contest started, it took me a while to figure out the hows and
wherefores of networking on the website. I never did effectively get
the word out about my chapters, and as a result, I lost valuable
opportunities to solicit critiques from a wider range of people.
3. Why Delhi, India, as a setting? Not too many romances are set in India, though those that are ( i.e. Kinsale’s book and others) are stellar examples of the strength of the genre.
Ah, Kinsale. Le sigh. She and Judith Ivory are the twin pinnacles of
excellence to which I aspire as a writer. And I’m in the minority,
apparently, in considering My Sweet Folly to be one of her most
interesting books. That’s the one to which you’re referring, yes?
As for why India — the short version of this answer is, why aren’t
there *more* historicals set in India? I, like a lot of romance fans,
am simply obsessed with British history, and in the 19th century,
India was a HUGE part of British life: highly visible in its popular
culture, and intricately involved in its social and political and
economic affairs. Going to India was not an exotic undertaking; it
was a viable career option for many, many people. In fact, I would
speculate that India didn’t feel nearly as “far away” to Victorians as
it does to many Brits today. I remain puzzled as to why historical
romance has such a blind spot to British life in India back then.
The longer version of my answer is anecdotal. I should say, this
anecdote has nothing to do with the actual plot of my novel, but I
think it illustrates how many stories are waiting to be told about the
British in India. A couple of summers ago, while studying Urdu in Lucknow, I visited the Residency, a
complex of buildings, now mostly in ruins, where hundreds of women,
children, and soldiers — British and Indian alike — were holed up
for 87 days during the Siege of Lucknow in 1857. The conditions were
miserable, and a lot of Britons and Indians died there in terrible
ways. After the uprising was over, the British put a great deal of
effort into constructing a rather spectacular graveyard on the
Residency grounds to commemorate those who died during the Siege. The
graveyard is now completely overgrown, weeds and creepers everywhere,
but for the most part, the tombstones — these incredibly detailed,
beautifully sculpted tombstones — remain perfectly intact. I’ve
attached a photo of one of them; once you’ve read what’s printed on
it, you cannot tell me that British India does not suggest a thousand
stories for novels.
The tombstone reads (handkerchief warning; this is VERY sad):
“Sacred to the memory of Frances Ellen Hale, beloved wife of George
Herbert Hale, Lieutt. Adl. 2nd, who died in Lucknow Garrison on the
morning of the battle of Chinhutt, 1857 [my note: that would be on
June 30, 1857], aged 20 years. Sacred also in memory of Kate Caroline
Sophia, eldest child of the above, who died in Lucknow Garrison on the
XXIII of September 1857. Sacred also in memory of Henrietta Georgina
Frances, her infant child, who died at Secrora Dudh on the XVIII of
I think of the man who survived them — who first buried his infant
child, and then his wife, and then his eldest daughter — and I wonder
what happened to him. There is immense poignancy when reading these
notes from the past about forgotten sorrows, and there is also
something strange and uncanny about the silence that surrounds the
graveyard. The Residency is a huge green complex of long lawns and
buildings pockmarked by cannonball fire, now falling into pieces;
Lucknowi lovers now use the park grounds to meet in secret, away from
censorious eyes. But no one seems to go into the graveyard. I
visited several times, and was always the only one who entered the
gates and wandered among the tombstones. It’s a place that commands a
certain gravity. It’s haunting.
4. PhD in what? And are you telling your classmates?
Ph.D. in anthropology. I’m lucky; my discipline recognizes the
importance and significance of popular narratives and genres, and
friends in the program whom I’ve told are very excited for me. In
fact, I think they’re more impressed than my friends outside academia,
some of whom continue to ask me why I would want to write romance
rather than “regular fiction.” Grr.
5. Is it difficult to switch from writing evocative fiction to writing academic prose? I have to go back and forth periodically and it’s a challenge – unless your PhD is also in writing romance? And if so, where?!
LOL, a Ph.D. in writing romance — wouldn’t that be fantastic!
Academic writing certainly has a different tenor to it, but I think
good writing is good writing, no matter the genre. It’s an
understanding of the importance of rhythm to a sentence; it’s a feel
for how words fit together and create a certain musicality which lures
the reader onward. My diction is certainly different when writing an
academic paper, but I think my fiction writing has served me in very
good stead in academia. Academics do appreciate good writing. If
more of them read popular fiction, perhaps more of them would be able
to produce it as well.
6. Let’s talk about your favorite romances – which ones will be pried from your cold fingers before you let them go?
Ah, what an easy question!
1) To Have and to Hold – Patricia Gaffney
2) The Shadow and the Star – Laura Kinsale
3) Bliss – Judith Ivory
4) Miss Wonderful – Loretta Chase
5) As You Desire – Connie Brockway
6) Checkmate – Dorothy Dunnett
And in terms of authors, my auto-buys also include Meljean Brook, Anne
Stuart, and Linnea Sinclair.
7. Your favorite romance plot cliche: confess!
Argh, this is embarrassing. I suppose my guilty pleasure is the plot
contrivance where, for some reason or another, the immensely
self-assured hero is compelled to be deliberately cruel to the heroine
whom he secretly feels increasingly drawn to. I credit this to an
unhealthy adolescent obsession with the movie Dangerous Liaisons.
Looking at my top six books, I see that at least half of the six
qualify as instantiations of this cliche — definitely Checkmate and
To Have and To Hold, and perhaps also Bliss: Nardi isn’t exactly
Prince Charming to Hannah.
8. If you could cook dinner for one author, who would it be, and what would you make?
Oh, Laura Kinsale, no doubt. And my motives are purely nefarious. I
would serve extremely light food (perhaps a salad and chowder?) in
conjunction with a GREAT deal of wine (nice wine, because it’s Laura
fracking Kinsale!) in the hopes that I could intoxicate her
sufficiently to convince her to give me a copy of that completed
manuscript which she apparently has not yet found the right publisher
Okay, now the disclaimer: I’d probably serve her a main course as
well. After all… she’s Laura Kinsale!!