Interview: June 24, 2011
Deanna Raybourn's romantic Lady Julia Grey series has garnered loyal readers, along with a RITA Award. To the delight of her fans, Lady Julia returns in THE DARK ENQUIRY. In the first installment, SILENT IN THE GRAVE, Julia was investigating the mysterious death of her husband with the help of a private enquiry agent named Nicholas Brisbane. Four books later, Julia and Nicholas are newlyweds, but all is not happily ever after as their latest investigation stirs a pot of tension between them.
Bookreporter.com's Amie Taylor spoke with Raybourn about her unique take on the Victorian era and how Victorian women were not as proper as history makes them seem. She also discusses the Spiritualist movement, séances, Gypsies, Transylvania, and sniffing moors.
Bookreporter.com I've been a fan of yours and your main character, Lady Julia Grey, since SILENT IN THE GRAVE, and I'm so glad to continue the fun and intrigue with the fifth book in the series, THE DARK ENQUIRY. Can you tell me what, as a born-and-bred Texan, sparked your interest in Victorian England?
Deanna Raybourn: So glad you're enjoying the series! I'm a Texan, but I'm also a second-generation American on my paternal grandmother's side. She was an English war bride, and I've always been keenly aware of that part of my heritage. I grew up reading English books and watching English programs on television whenever I could. That kind of immersion really helps because so many of the differences between British English and American English are tremendously subtle. It can be quite difficult for an ear accustomed to American English to pick up the changes in syntax without really careful attention. I do the best I can, but I am still constantly finding differences and adding them to my work.
BRC: What made you want to explore the spiritualist world that was so popular in Victorian times in THE DARK ENQUIRY?
DR: I'm absolutely fascinated by the rise of the Spiritualist movement and how many prominent people were caught up in it. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a famous supporter, while Harry Houdini worked hard to debunk mediums and expose the tricksters; even some of the royal family got involved. There was a tremendous cult of death and mourning during Victorian times, and Spiritualism was a very natural by-product of that. It was very common for people to host séances as after-dinner entertainments just as we might go to a movie today. They played with Ouija boards and automatic writing and attempted to conjure any passing spirits to answer metaphysical questions. It was so common, in fact, that it's difficult to research the period without stumbling on it over and over again!
BRC: Do you feel that Lady Julia is an exceptional woman for her time period, or do you think there were many more like her who stayed in the shadows due to societal constraints?
DR: Lady Julia is a modern Victorian woman --- she embraces many of the new ideas that cropped up during the 19th century. She is a woman looking forward to the future rather than back to the past, but she is not at all different from many of her contemporaries. People like to think that Victorians were all very stuffy and repressed and proper, but the truth is quite different. That is the middle-class stereotype of the time. In reality, there were women throwing off corsets and adopting "Rational Dress," agitating for the vote and the right to own property, setting up businesses, preaching the doctrine of free love, and even running for President of the United States. In the lower classes in London, more than 50 percent of brides were pregnant when they married for the first time, so clearly the image we have of Victorians as extremely proper is not the whole story.
BRC: How did you come up with the unique combination of Scottish and Gypsy heritage for your hero, Nicholas Brisbane?
DR: Julia is so Establishment in so many ways; I wanted Nicholas to be her opposite. I wanted him to be born without all of the advantages she had. I wanted him to be a fighter, a man who has had to scrape for everything he has. So I gave him a touch of the Scottish aristocracy --- although through the female line so he can't inherit --- but I tarnished it with the black-sheep element of his father, a notorious and villainous character. And then I wanted an actual minority for his mother, something that would be looked down upon at the time and cause certain people to view him with suspicion upon occasion. When I started researching the Roma, it just clicked that it was perfect for him. There is a drive in the Gypsies to wander, to resist settling down, to keep to their own ways, and that is always in conflict with society as a whole. Bringing both of those views together in one person was an excellent way to set up internal conflict for him. Is he a wanderer or a man of property? Is he respected or reviled?
BRC: Do you think Brisbane embraces one side of his heritage more than the other? If so, which one?
DR: I think Brisbane is fairly evenly divided between the two. He is coolly logical with an excellent Scottish mind, but he is also impulsive and streetwise and passionate --- as much as any full-blooded Rom. Both sides of his family have caused him grief, but I suspect he may have a slightly greater fondness for his Gypsy kin simply because they demand very little of him and there is a Gypsy wildness in him that will never be entirely suppressed.
BRC: Will Brisbane ever master his visions and the pain they cause him, or will they continue to be a hindrance to him always?
DR: Brisbane suffers whether he gives in to them or not. Keeping them at bay and suffering migraines as a result is just as difficult for him as embracing the visions and accepting whatever terrible things they have to show. I could have been a little kinder to him and given him a way out, but I don't seem to have done so. And really, Brisbane suffering is far more interesting than Brisbane sitting quietly at his desk!
BRC: Lady Julia managed to get herself into several dangerous situations in this book. What, if anything, do you think would encourage her to show more restraint, or to lean on Brisbane more before events reach a critical crescendo?
DR: I think with age and maturity she might learn to be a little more trusting of Brisbane. Knowing that he is always watchful and protective makes her a trifle too eager to show him her worth and her competence. But she hasn't yet realized that her usefulness in their partnership is more of an emotional one. Often it's Julia who is able to ferret out information because she is a woman, a confidante. She is able to lure confidences from people who would never open up to Nicholas, and until she learns that her contribution is just as important, she will probably continue to get herself into scrapes. It would also help greatly if Nicholas weren't quite so high-handed at times, but he has a bit to learn too about how to be a partner. My husband once explained to me that the male default is "provide and protect" and so long as Julia continues to throw herself headlong into danger, there will be conflict.
BRC: I adored the time Brisbane and Lady Julia spent in the Gypsy camp. It seems that, little by little, Brisbane reveals himself and his past to her. What sources did you use to research daily life in the Gypsy world?
DR: The difficulty in researching Gypsies is that they are very understandably quite private and only tell you what they want you to know, so any source has to be viewed with caution. I read as much as I could get my hands on about English Gypsies, and I considered the sources carefully. Of course, even calling them Gypsies is technically incorrect --- they are Romani, and I've tried to incorporate the correct usages in the books, although what is in the books is authentic for the time period.
BRC: Have you ever been to England and the other locales in your books, or do you manage to write so convincingly from research alone?
DR: I've been to England several times, so I feel comfortable writing about the setting, whether it's London or the countryside. Before I wrote the third book, SILENT ON THE MOOR, I told my husband I needed to go to England to smell a moor, so we packed up and visited Bronte country for a week, checking out stately homes and sniffing moors. Turns out, they're peaty and damp and smell of sheep. But I also found a perfect setting for the house in the book, and I learned how difficult it is to hold a conversation on the moor because of the constant wind. For the books set in Transylvania and Darjeeling, I had to rely on research, but I was very fortunate and tracked down some extraordinary sources. I actually managed to get my hands on the same edition of a Transylvanian travel guide that Bram Stoker used when he was writing DRACULA.
BRC: I love Lady Julia's large, quirky family. Which member of her clan is your favorite?
DR: I really shouldn't choose favorites, but I will admit to a weak spot for Portia. I only intended her to be in the first book, but she is so much fun to write and such an excellent foil to Julia, I found myself writing her into every novel. I am also quite fond of Lord March himself, and I've gotten rather attached to Plum through the last two books. I have always felt bad about breaking his heart so thoroughly, and now he's becoming quite dashing, so I'm enjoying bringing him along for the latest adventures.
BRC: Lady Julia's father, the Earl March, and brother, Lord Bellmont, make no bones in this novel as to what they think of Brisbane. Will we see more family strife in the future, or will the warring factions come together eventually?
DR: It seemed unrealistic to me that the entire family would welcome Nicholas with open arms. They want Julia to be happy, but most of them would have preferred a more conventional husband for her --- highly hypocritical given their own lives! Portia has been on his side from the beginning, and Val and Plum have warmed up to him, but the others will no doubt continue to give a little trouble. I don't expect Bellmont will ever be entirely thrilled to have him in the family, and the earl will, no doubt, blow hot and cold as ever.
BRC: Can you give us a hint as to what adventures Lady Julia and Brisbane will find themselves in, in the midst of your upcoming novels?
DR: The sixth book has not been written yet, but I have set Julia and Nicholas up for another adventure --- this time in Rome. I was lucky enough to visit Rome last year, and I was sitting in a tea room on the Spanish Steps and had the plot in my head in an instant. I jotted it down and have tucked it away for when the time comes to write another installment of their travels. It will pick up directly after THE DARK ENQUIRY.
BRC: Can we look forward to any more stand-alones like THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST in the near future? Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
DR: I am! I have a stand-alone project in the works that will most likely come before a new Julia Grey book, and I can't wait to share the details. Alas, not yet, but so long as the readers and my publisher want new things from Julia, I will always be happy to visit her again. For now, I'm hugely enjoying the research and plotting of a new project that is outside the Victorian era --- a big departure for me, but tremendous fun!