Interview with Julia London: Class, Writing, Tension, and Secret Babies

It might just be me and the books that cross my lap, but I’ve read a lot of books, historicals specifically, that explore the tension between a hero and heroine of differing classes. From Kleypas’ Secrets of a Summer Night to her latest Mine Till Midnight to Campbell’s Claiming the Courtesan, crossing the class boundary is a big part of the plotline – and a basis for reviews questioning whether the happy ending can be believable if the protagonists are from either side of that boundary.

But either way, all the big kids are doing it. The upcoming Cynster book, Where the Heart Leads, from Stephanie Laurens, features a pair of aristocratic protagonists, with a secondary pair from the working class assisting them in their case. Crossing class barrier seems to be a hot target for establishing tension between protagonists, and I had an opportunity to ask another author playing with that source of tension all about it. So being the nebby wench I am, I took it.

Julia London’s latest book, The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount is the third book in the Desperate Debutantes trilogy, and features a heroine who is of the upper class, but who is forced to masquerade as a seamstress in the home of a Viscount – he of the dangerous deception. The heroine, Lady Phoebe Fairchild, has been working as a seamstress and gown designer to support her family, and becomes one of the most desirable modistes in London. When she is blackmailed into going to the Viscount of Summerfield’s country home to create gowns for his sisters, said viscount asks her to be his mistress.

Based on that description, as I haven’t yet read the book, I had to bug Ms. London about the secret profession, the class boundary, and writing in general. Like I said, I’m nebby as all hell.

There have been “secret writers,” “secret newspaper journalists,” and “secret math whizzes” in historical romances I’ve read — but this is my first encounter with a “secret” seamstress.  What was your inspiration, or point of access, for having Phoebe engaged in trade secretly, and why sewing?

Julia London: I was hoping you would say secret babies—wouldn’t that be a great historical romance?  Okay, maybe not so much. 

I suppose there are so many “secret” occupations because writers try to meld modern sensibilities with historic mores.  The fact is, ladies of breeding and wealth—the ones who usually appear as the heroine in historical romances—were not expected to work or to engage in anything more strenuous than painting or embroidery.  If they did “work” it was usually in the pursuit of charitable endeavors.  I think that life is appealing to modern women who do it all—wouldn’t it be great to have nothing to do but sit around in cool floor-length gowns and contemplate the clock?  Oh yeah! 

But only up to a point. 

Women don’t like women who are slackers, because most of us aren’t.  Women like women who manage to take on something important or meaningful in spite of the confines of their world.  As writers, we need those heroines to be doing something, because without something to do all day beside look at the clock, there is not much opportunity for external conflict or to run into that handsome, virile lord. 

As for Phoebe, the premise was set up in the first book of the Desperate Debutantes series (The Hazards of Hunting a Duke , The Perils of Pursuing a Prince , the Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount), in which the mother and aunt of the three heroines suddenly dies.  Her fortune is snatched up by her second husband (their stepfather), who figures the girls don’t need it as badly as he does.  He goes off to France but with a dire warning — when he comes back, they are getting married, if they like it or not.  So the three of them, industrious party animals that they are, decide they will snag husbands on their own terms before the stepfather can do it for them.  In order to do snag one that will keep them in the style to which they have become accustomed, they must keep up appearances, and appearances means money. 

As wellborn young women, they all would have been taught to embroider and sew.  So I took it one step further and gave Phoebe her own little Project Runway—a love of beautiful gowns, a talent for making them, and thus, a way to bring in a little extra cash.  But as she was trying to keep up appearances—that is, lots of money and no need to work—she had to keep it a secret, lest polite society be horrified by her trade, but giving her something that would be the catalyst for putting her in a dashing lord’s house. 

Have we run out of variations on the “lady meets lord” plotline, and thus writers looking for more authentic tension are crossing class line to create romantic tension between protagonists?

Julia London:  I think it may seem like it sometimes, but I think writers are looking to create more authentic tension, period.  Sometimes we find it crossing class lines, but mostly, the books are about emotion, regardless of how it happens.  I think what we are seeing is a trend away from the light historical with cute heroines where the hero and heroine meet under the I-will-never-marry-except-for-love! scenario to situations that seem more authentic and real.  For example, my next book, The Book of Scandal, is about a married couple who separate after the death of a child until a few years later when circumstances force them together again.  They have to reconstruct the scaffolding of their marriage against the backdrop of a scandal.  I think a lot of writers are looking for ways to deepen the romance, both the tension and the ultimate falling in love and HEA, and give the books a “real” feel. 

In the book, it appears that Phoebe is exposed to treatment to which she’s unaccustomed, and readers are exposed to how life is, or was, for servants and merchant class people during the time period.  That’s a big risk for a writer to take with her heroine!  Was there any concern on your part that it would reveal too much of the disparity in class and comfort that was common at the time, or that it would damage the fantasy fairy tale of historical romance too much? 

Julia London: No, I wasn’t worried about it.  I wondered how some readers would take it, naturally, but ultimately, it’s a Cinderella tale, and if any romantic fantasy has endured the test of time, that is one.  I got mail from a lot of readers who actually liked seeing a little more of how the other half lived.  The majority of my mail has been very favorable, but there are always a couple of readers who don’t like change.  I, for one, needed to do something a little different.  Just as readers get tired of reading the same sort of historical romance, I get tired of writing the same sort.  Don’t get me wrong—I love a good historical romance, but sometimes, I like to change it up for my own sake. 

Let’s talk reputation:  Why do you think readers of historical romance seek out and enjoy stories wherein the heroine’s reputation is at risk, such as in The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount?  What’s the attraction there?  Do you think there’s a similar parallel to modern women’s lives, even though our life and future aren’t as dependent solely on our social reputations?

Julia London: I think a couple of things about that.  First, our lives aren’t as dependent on social reputations, but we still have them and we still care what they are.  Therefore, I think it is easy for the reader to put herself in the shoes of an historical heroine in that regard.  Secondly, without the higher stakes—such as a woman’s total ruin, which we can all relate to—the romantic pay-off isn’t as great.  The greater the stakes, the greater the romantic tension, the greater the romance novel reading experience.

What’s your guilty pleasure romance cliché?  What plotline do you fall for as a reader? 

Julia London: Good question!  I am probably in the minority here, but I like heroines who are trying to accomplish something or fix something or run from something and find the hero as an obstacle, but ultimately the only one who can help her out because he’s big and strong and smart and capable.  You know, me-Tarzan, You-Jane of thing.  HA!  I can’t believe I just said that.  Maybe it’s because in my own life I feel so responsible for so many things — it would be great to leave the responsibility for my happiness to someone else who is desperate to give it to me.  Now, there is a fantasy!  My husband is fabulous, but you know life is just too complicated for one person to do it anymore.  And he’s not really into the whole Tarzan thing.  He sort of likes the partnership route. 

Other topics ahoy!  A great deal has changed in a short time regarding how authors communicate with readers and the world at large.  You participate in two group blogs, for example, in addition to updating your own site.  How has blogging changed the way you relate to readers?  Are you surprised there is an audience of readers out there who want to learn more more more about the behind-the-scenes thoughts and musings of their favorite authors? 

Julia London: I think it is important as a writer to relate to readers.  The readers who seek me out are ones who are into my books.  I want to keep them up to date what is happening with my career.  I want them in the stores the first week a book is on sale.  I want to make them happy!  That being said, as a person, I just like getting to know people.  Blogging and bulletin boards—I just started one—make it possible for readers and authors to know each other beyond the confines of a particular book.  The romance novel industry is a huge, supportive community.  It’s really amazing when you think of it.  But it’s filled with women who have similar likes and dislikes.  Take Thanksgiving—through one blog, we heard about what people were planning.  Across the country and Canada, readers were talking about their holiday meals, family woes, drinking and football.  We all had the same issues, fears, and hopes. It almost feels like we’ve known each other a long time, when in reality, I’ve never met most of these women.  But the basis of our friendship started with a love of books and it grows from there.  It’s really cool, actually. 

writing question—don’t cringe!  Some authors, like Jenny Crusie, talk about making collages about their works.  Other authors have soundtracks for specific books, or visual images of hot dudes to inspire them as they write their latest.  What’s your inspirational tool, if you have one?

Julia London: Writing questions!  Argh!  I am so not a craft person and I don’t do anything as cool as any of that, I am sorry to say!  I have a notebook where I scribble notes, and a computer.  My inspiration comes from reading.  I read a lot, and mostly outside of the romance genre. I also use music as inspiration—sometimes a line from a song will inspire an entire book.  And then, for those times when the ideas aren’t flowing, there is chocolate and Jim Bean.  But that’s strictly to soothe my nerves until a great idea forms.  Really. 


Thank you to Julia London for answering my nebby-ass questions, and for taking the time to write long and thoughtful answers.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    taybug says:

    Secret seamstress by a woman who uses Jim and chocolate to soothe her nerves? I have a new hero!!!! And a new series of books on the “To Buy” list over at Amazon.

    Thanks for the great interview Julia and SB Sarah.

  2. 2
    Chicklet says:

    Great interview, Sarah and Ms. London! There are several quotes I find interesting, so I’ll just start right in:

    For example, my next book, The Book of Scandal, is about a married couple who separate after the death of a child until a few years later when circumstances force them together again.  They have to reconstruct the scaffolding of their marriage against the backdrop of a scandal.

    Oh oh oh, I am very much looking forward to this book already! I’m growing a bit weary of never seeing an exploration of the “ever after” part of the HEA.

    The majority of my mail has been very favorable, but there are always a couple of readers who don’t like change.  I, for one, needed to do something a little different.

    And bless you for doing something different, Ms. London. I’ve been drawn to contemporaries almost exclusively for the months I’ve been reading romances, but knowing that this series of yours explores class issues in this way, I will put it on my TBR list.

    I’m glad to hear the majority of your mail has been positive; I’m always willing to go in a new direction when it comes to reading.

  3. 3
    rebyj says:

    Great interview

    please don’t let my mom or my man read this part “Women don’t like women who are slackers, because most of us aren’t.”  cuz they’d assure you that “Yes Reby is a slacker” and point to the laundry room as proof. grrrrrrr

    Also….JL said “for those times when the ideas aren’t flowing, there is chocolate and Jim Bean.”…. so when I’m reading and scream ” WTF? WAS THIS AUTHOR DRUNK WHEN SHE WROTE THIS????” she very well could have been !! LOL

  4. 4
    Julia London says:

    Great, chicklet—I hope you like the Desperate Debutante series, and the new book coming out next year.

    Rebyj—I hope you never say that about one of my books, but at least I have an out if you do, LOL

    Taybug—you’re easy :-)

  5. 5
    Jen C says:

    I actually picked up The Dangers recently and love, love, loved it!  I read the whole thing in one night and immeadiately hopped on Amazon and was again annoyed that there is no “purchase the author’s entire back catalogue” button, and damnit, my internet is being slow, and why do I have to click so many things just to add these books to my cart, and I think I better go grab some beer. 

    Anyway

    I did love the class tension, because I agree with Julia that its something that isn’t quite explored in romance as often as I would like.  I read a lot of Regency, and its always the hero and heroine ignoring the plights of their servants, who must hate their jobs.  Often, I read books where the hero is unreasonably nice to his crew, who have tons of perks and huge salaries, which bugs me too- come on, Author, let’s be realistic here!  Same reason I get a little annoyed I never see slavery in romancelandia- I am not sure I would like a slave-owning hero, but it damn sure bugs me that we are ignoring all this history in favor of our modern sensibilities. 

    I really loved the part in Julia’s book where the heroine in disguise as seamstress is forced to clean out her new sewing room- she seemed to assume that she was still better than the other servants, and that they shoud attend to her even though she was really no better than them. The book, in addition to being hot, was delightful in that it explored the class differences- but I still wished we could have seen if Summerfield changes his attitudes towards his employees, especially his female ones.  It was a little open-ended, but… that’s ok, I am not sure a complete 180 would have worked for me either. 

    Julia, from this long rambly gushing, please take away that I loved your book!

  6. 6

    Sounds very interesting!  I’m not hugely into historicals, but this sounds like one I’d enjoy.  I’ll have to check it out.

    Great interview, ladies!

  7. 7
    Brooke says:

    Sarah, do you mean “nebby” as in the Yiddish (i.e. nebbish- dorky/timid), or the “nosey” sense? I never know which way to take that adjective.

  8. 8
    SB Sarah says:

    “Nebby” in the nosy sense. I had no idea it had a Yiddish version. “Nebby” is Pittsburgh-ese for “nosy person.”

  9. 9
    Julia London says:

    Jen C, thank you so much—I am thrilled you liked the book!  I don’t know if Will straightened up—I’d like to think he was enlightened, but then again, I wonder if the earls today are particularly enlightened.  Lets assume the best :-)

    Sarah, I am glad you cleared that up.  I was afraid to ask what nebby meant.  :-)

  10. 10
    Bailey says:

    Yep,

    I’ll read The Book of Scandals. Sounds up my alley. I love books where we get to see more than first glances. Not that first glances aren’t important, but later glances can be much more interesting.

    I like reading about and watching the chemistry between people. What makes us tick? Why we do better living with others than alone? Why we seek romantic relationships?

    Thanks to my extended family, I’m also into how dysfunction can affect families. Some of us are born with that innate ability to thrive despite our situation. THOSE people are my heroes!

    And Julia, I don’t drink Jim Bean, it’s coffee with Kahlua or a nice brandy for me. Oh, and the chocolate, did I mention you’re my hero simply for the chocolate? You wouldn’t ever have to do another thing!

    Out to the frigid yard with the dog I go!

    Bailey

  11. 11
    Cat Marsters says:

    ‘Neb’ also means ‘nose’ across the pond, Sarah.  At least, where I come from it does.

    And Julia—if I was an earl today, I’d treat my servants very well…else they might run and tell all to the tabloids!

  12. 12
    Julia London says:

    Bailey, I am so with you on the family dysfunction.  Its like watching a wreck—you just can’t turn away.

    Cat, good point about the tabloids!

  13. 13
    Yvonne says:

    Hey, ‘The Book of Scandal’ sounds really good. I have been wondering about romances that are about people that are already together (married or what have you) and either fall back in love or fall for the first time.
    Great interview, new stuff for my TBR!

  14. 14
    latebloomer says:

    It was so great to read this interview! I’m a huge Julia London fan and have gushed and gushed to my one and only romance-loving friend about the Desperate Debutante series (I’ve read them all. Ok, twice.) I even gushed to Julia herself once by email, and glory be, she emailed me back. Now I can gush in public!

    I first read Julia London in the School for Heiresses anthology and have never looked back. Now I’m constantly scouring the used book stores because I’ve read all her current stuff. The Secret Lover is one of my very favourites romances. Also, the book that precedes Dangers is a beauty.

    Julia’s writing (listen to me calling her Julia like we’re old buddies!) is wonderful, her dialogue sparkles, and her stories are inventive and emotionally charged. And also, heavenly days, full of hot, hot sex. Love her, love her, love her. Can’t wait to read the Book of Scandal.

    OK, I’ll stop now. But buy her books!

    latebloomer

  15. 15
    latebloomer says:

    Oh, and forgive me for bringing it up, bitches, but the drink is called Jim BEAM. I knew you’d want to know in case you’re looking for something to sip by the fire while you read Ms. London’s new romance. Or watch the Kentucky Derby. (This Canadian was born and reared in a place (Florida) where bourbon is regarded by many as the water of life. Just like in Texas.)

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