Skip to main content

Interview: February 27, 2014

New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn’s books have been set all over the globe, from Victorian London to the foothills of the Himalayas. Her latest, CITY OF JASMINE, takes place in the lush and mysterious streets of Damascus, where nothing is as it seems. Set during the 1920s, it’s about famed aviatrix Evie Starke, who is shocked to receive a recent photo of her dead husband, a clue she feverishly tracks --- with her eccentric Aunt Dove in tow --- to the ancient City of Jasmine.

In this interview with’s Amie Taylor, Raybourn talks about how she pulls off setting her books in such exotic locations, despite never having visited them --- including plenty of research (“armchair travel,” as she calls it) and spot-on sensory details. She also opens up about her predilection for writing about strong, independent women, having an inexplicably British writing voice, and why having taken a college seminar on mechanized warfare tactics in WWII was tedious but ultimately rewarding. Your main character in CITY OF JASMINE, Evie Starke, is an aviatrix. What made you decide on that profession for her when few women during that time worked at all? Were you inspired at all by Amelia Earhart when you created her?

Deanna Raybourn: Very little, actually. I was far more inspired by French rally driver Hellé Nice. I read her biography when I was building Evie’s character, and for a short while I considered making Evie a racecar driver. But oddly enough, in 1920 it would have been more shocking for her to race cars than to fly airplanes. Women had been climbing into cockpits for years by then --- women like Harriet Quimby, Bessica Raiche, Raymonde de Laroche and Bessie Coleman. Making Evie a pilot gave her a daring occupation while still keeping her within the framework of history. One of the things that struck me the most about the early barnstormers was their businesslike attitude. Many of them just viewed it as a way to earn money --- they weren’t necessarily poetic about flight. That’s Evie’s approach, as well. She needs money and doesn’t want to work in a shop or marry for it, so she’s doing something she enjoys, but there’s no mystical attachment. Evie is just a woman making her way in the world.

BRC: How do you personally feel about the deception that lies at the heart of the book? Did you always have this particular storyline in mind, or did it change in any way as you were writing it?

DR: That deception was the very beginning of the book. I always start with a “what if” question and then I build a plot and characters around it. In this case, the question was, What if a man came back from the dead to the wife he left behind? And that led to all the other questions: Who is he? Why was he “dead”? What sort of person is the wife? How does this affect her life? How has she moved on? Pulling at those threads is how I create the story, because each one leads to another, just like unraveling a bit of knitting. With Gabriel and Evie, I wanted to explore not just how it would feel to be on the receiving end of such a betrayal, but how it would feel to inflict it on the person you love most in the world. Would there ever be --- could there ever be --- justification?

BRC: Aunt Dove was a fun character who didn't hesitate to tell Evie exactly what she thought. Do you have anyone like Aunt Dove in your life as a friend, relative, companion or mentor?

DR: I had an adored great-aunt who was a tiny glimmer of who Aunt Dove turned out to be. My great-aunt was a big personality, always wearing something glittery and trailing a cloud of Youth Dew behind her, and she had a string of husbands to her credit. She was generous, very bighearted in an Auntie Mame sort of way. She once gave me a small chandelier that hangs in my study over my writing desk to this day, and that bit of glamour and sparkle is a perfect reminder of her. When I went to write Aunt Dove, I took my own aunt’s idiosyncrasies and blew them up into something bigger and more audacious. Anyone who ever knew my great-aunt and her gold lamé Persian slippers with the upturned toes would have recognized her in Aunt Dove. Curiously, that’s the only time I have ever used someone I knew as inspiration for a character, but I think she would have approved. Everyone should have an Aunt Dove.

BRC: You've set your novels in many parts of the world. What drew you to the city of Damascus as a setting for CITY OF JASMINE?

DR: There simply is not a city with a more fascinating past than Damascus. It sits at the crossroads of history, the spot where Crusades were fought and the hajj to Mecca began. The Silk Road ends there, linking it with the Far East, and for centuries steel, spices and silks have passed through merchant hands in its bazaars. It is the end of the road for camel caravans and Bedouin travelers, and it is everything that is exotic and mysterious to Westerners. It holds the bones of Salāh al-Dīn and John the Baptist; it was the scene of T. E. Lawrence’s greatest triumph and Tamerlane’s cruelest victory. Conquerors and heroes have been showered with roses from its colonnades, and even today it is where history is forged. I get a little fanciful when I think of Damascus, so setting a book there was the perfect opportunity to indulge myself and read as much as I liked about this astonishing city. Also, one of my favorite Mary Stewart books begins, “I met him in the street called Straight.” Only in Damascus.

BRC: You wrote very descriptively of the food that Evie and her compatriots ate in Damascus. Have you sampled the cuisine from that area yourself to be able to write about it so convincingly?

DR: I adore Middle Eastern food, but I have seldom had the chance to eat it. I like to incorporate as many sensory experiences as I can for my characters, so I work hard to track down the flavors, the music, the perfumes, the plants. For CITY OF JASMINE, I ordered several Middle Eastern cookbooks and paid special attention to the sections on Syria, creating my dream meals that I would love to order if I were in Damascus. Syrians are also famous for their sweets, so I made sure I included a confection made of rosewater and pistachios. After I wrote the scene with that sweet, I actually found a picture online of someone eating it on the street in Damascus, so I knew I got that bit right. When I was a child, my father mentored a group of young Saudi men who were studying in the States. We spent quite a bit of time with them, and they were kind enough to cook for us --- even today the smell of the spices they used will bring back memories of them and the wonderful stories they told, particularly Hamid. He was Bedouin, and I named a character in CITY OF JASMINE for him, although it’s been almost 40 years since I last saw him.

BRC: Your descriptions of exotic lands are so intriguing. Do you travel to these areas to do research for your books, or are they simply a result of exhaustive research and writing ability?

DR: I have traveled some, but not to the most exotic locations I have written about. I’ve never been to Transylvania or Darjeeling or Kenya --- or Damascus, I’m sorry to say, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon given the appalling circumstances in Syria. I make a point of choosing settings I enjoy reading about, and I’m a seasoned armchair traveler! I read extensively and have a few tricks up my sleeve, as well. For instance, I try to find a writer who spent time in a particular area as a child and wrote about it. Children notice the most interesting and unexpected things, and writers tend to be excellent observers even when they’re young. When they grow up and write memoirs, they give you a peek into their world with details you won’t find anywhere else. Strangely enough, I recently discovered that every exotic setting I’ve ever used is actually a place my ancestors were from --- from India to North Africa to the western edges of Asia. There’s a theory that places can be encoded into genetic memory and passed down through the generations, and now I’m beginning to wonder if it’s true.

BRC: So many characters in your novels are British that it would be easy to assume you're a British author instead of an American. Do you have a personal connection to the English? 

DR: On my mother’s side, I’m a sixth-generation native Texan, but my father’s mother was an English war bride, so the connection is very close. I grew up reading English children’s books and drinking tea, and all my favorite novels were English. When the time came and I started writing, my “voice” just came out English. I have written a few main characters recently with an American influence, but I never seem to be able to make them less than half English!

BRC: You're able to write so convincingly about historic events in England, Africa, Damascus and other areas. How did you become so well versed in the history of many parts of the world?

DR: My degree is in English and history, and the university I attended had a very small history department. In order to fulfill the graduation requirements, we had to take anything that was offered whether we were interested in it or not, so I ended up studying African history, Russian history, the Reformation --- or whatever was available. My senior seminar was on mechanized warfare tactics in WWII! It was a lot of dry facts and battles and economic theory. Since I just wanted to study royal families and interesting people, I resented it bitterly at the time, but it did give me a fairly thorough grounding in subjects I wouldn’t have followed on my own. I’ve forgotten most of it, but the African history stuck with me --- Kenya in particular. When I went to write A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, I had the advantage of more than 20 years’ worth of reading to give me a head start.

BRC: Your heroines are typically strong, wayward and independent women. What draws you to this type of character, and how do you add traits to soften the characters and make them appealing to your readers?

DR: The simplest explanation is that I write strong women because I am one. I write characters with a similar point of view because that’s what I enjoy. I could write a malleable, insecure or weak woman, but I don’t think I’d like her very much, and neither would readers. I enjoy setting challenges for myself and meeting them, so my heroines do, too. I think that’s relatable, and I don’t believe that all characters have to be likable in order to be worth reading about. Scarlett O’Hara certainly proved that. We adore Scarlett in spite of the fact that she’s an absolute pill --- perhaps we adore her because she’s a pill. But we sympathize with her because we know what she’s been through. I think as long as a character has reasons for behaving badly, we can at least understand and empathize, even if we don’t particularly admire them for it or think we’d behave the same under similar circumstances.

In the case of Delilah Drummond, the heroine of A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, I gave her a pile of emotional baggage. I made the reader walk with her through the loss of her first husband --- a devastating event that kicked off a long period of self-destructive behavior --- in the hopes that they would see her pain and understand that under the wild child facade, she was a woman who was hurting badly. She might powder over it and paint on a scarlet smile, but she’s still hurting and deserving of a little compassion. The people who look only at her actions don’t like her much, but the readers who connect with her pain really like her. There’s something about her audacity they find appealing.

Evie from CITY OF JASMINE is a very modern woman, and in the 1920s that meant a woman who was making her own way and throwing off outmoded rules she didn’t feel applied to her. She seems gentler than Delilah at first glance, but there’s one scene in the book that proves she has absolute nerves of steel. I like to think I could be that tough if circumstances called for it, but I’m probably delusional.

BRC: While I happen to love novels written in first person, many people seem to dislike them. Why did you choose to write in that tense? Have you heard comments from readers about this?

DR: I never set out to deliberately write in first person; it’s just the viewpoint that feels most natural to me. When I was growing up, all my favorite authors wrote first person at least part of the time --- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlotte Brontë, Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Harper Lee, Charles Dickens, Dodie Smith. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve added more to the list --- Sarah Caudwell, Elizabeth Peters, E. M. Delafield, Rose Macaulay. And I read a good deal of memoir, which is obviously first person, so I think it’s also a matter of absorbing so much of it as a reader that it becomes a part of my writing. I have written third person for shorter projects, like novellas, but I simply don’t enjoy it as much. There’s an immediacy that gets lost, as if someone dropped a veil between the reader and me or between the characters and me. Writing in first person puts me in the thick of the action, which is quite enjoyable.

I have heard from many readers that they don’t usually read first person but make an exception for me --- which I greatly appreciate. And I recently did a panel with an editor I admire tremendously who said that first person gets a very bad rap because it seems to be the easiest to write but actually is the most difficult to write well. Vindication!

BRC: CITY OF JASMINE and A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS are both set in the 1920s. What particularly draws you to that time period?

DR: I am drawn to any time period where there was upheaval. Navigating characters through change is an essential component of fiction, and if society and history are giving you a helping hand, all the better. The 1920s were a time of tremendous change, and everything that had been before was turned on its ear. Some people were looking back to before the Great War, trying desperately to reclaim what they’d lost. Others, sickeningly aware of the toll in lives and limbs, were just attempting to get by. And still others were thriving amidst the changing rules. I’m always fascinated by that --- why do some people cling to the past while other people fling themselves into the unknown? I am also drawn to time periods that saw a return to glamour or had a veneer of luxury --- the Restoration, the Regency. I enjoy the trappings of sophistication, whether it’s bathtub gin or vintage champagne. When I received my history degree, the emphasis was still on traditionally “male” topics --- wars and economics --- but I think the women’s stories, the personal details, the intimate peeks into real life are just as important and often more interesting. And the eras when women’s roles have changed are the most interesting of all --- certainly that’s true of the 1920s.

BRC: Can you give us a sneak peek into your next novel?

DR: My next release is loosely tied to CITY OF JASMINE. I have different main characters but there are some continuing story lines, and a few characters from this book will make an appearance. We’re still wrestling with a title, but the expected release date is this fall, and I can’t wait to see how many familiar faces readers will spot!