Interview: July 2, 2010
NEVER LESS THAN A LADY is Mary Jo Putney’s latest historical romance and the second installment in her Lost Lords series, which centers on a group of troublesome childhood friends in Regency England and the women who capture their hearts. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Jennifer McCord, Putney describes the various elements she combined to create her perfect romantic hero, and discusses the research she performed on the time period and culture. She also explains her interest in the assortment of relationships outside of the romantic variety, reveals why she chooses to address important social issues in her work, and shares details about several upcoming projects currently in the works.
Bookreporter.com: Your latest series involves a group of six young boys who become heroes in the Lost Lords books. What drew you to these characters? And to Major Randall?
Mary Jo Putney: I’ve always found innocence rather boring, since it basically means lack of experience or of being challenged. I’m more interested in characters who have been battered by life, but who end up stronger in the mended places.
Randall has not had an easy life. He lost his parents early, was raised with neglect and abuse. He found his sanity when he was sent to the Westerfield Academy for boys of “good birth and bad behavior.” His classmates became like the loyal brothers he never had, and Lady Agnes was a surrogate mother. Through them, he learned kindness and patience to go with his innate toughness. In other words, he became a perfect romance hero.
BRC: NEVER LESS THAN A LADY is set in Regency England. How did you approach your research to write accurately about this historical setting?
MJP: A lot of Regencies are set in a sort of “shared world” that was first created by Georgette Heyer --- a world of manners and romance and war out at the edges. It’s a rich world in a changing period of time, but reality is always more complex than any fictional framework. In each book, I try to research a few new topics that interest me, since I figure they’ll also interest some readers.
The amount of research varies with the story, of course. In the first Lost Lords book, I researched diving bells, among other things. I have a ton of research books, and these days, the Internet is wonderfully helpful. Best of all is if you can find a real person who works with the subject you’re writing about. When I wrote a book set in Central Asia, I ended up sitting on a pile of Oriental carpets and sipping tea with cardamom while an Afghan rug dealer told me about playing bozkashi when he was a young man in Afghanistan. Great material, and some showed up in the book.
BRC: Peerage and genealogy are important in this novel. How did you research information about Dukes, Lords and Earls as well as Duchesses and Ladies?
MJP: I learned the basic rules of titles and the peerage so long ago I can hardly remember! These days, the Internet has all kinds of information on the peerage. Here’s a good entry on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peerage. In the early days, it was more about buying books and making charts until I understood the material.
BRC: Julia Bancroft is a midwife in NEVER LESS THAN A LADY. Did you consult with a midwife as you developed this character?
MJP: There are plenty of books on midwifery, and I bought a couple, but my best resource was Fiona McArthur, Australian midwife and writer of medical romances. She described the scenario at the end that is a climax of the book. She also explained that a midwife who was too cheery during a delivery might be slugged by the laboring mother.
BRC: You have created stories featuring heroes and heroines that are part of a series. What attracts you as a writer to developing a series with a central group of characters?
MJP: Romance is about relationships, and as a writer I’m interested in other kinds of relationships beyond the romantic: friends, siblings, parents. I started writing connected stories with my very second Regency, when I made the hero a good friend of the hero of my first book. I did this because I liked it, but it turns out that readers did, too. These days, connected books are the norm, not the exception. It’s fun to read a community of characters, and see how they are doing over time.
BRC: You are known for the psychological depth of character that you bring to your novels and unusual subjects. As a writer, how have you found that incorporating a sub-theme like the physical abuse of women adds to the depth of story?
MJP: Escapism is all very well, but I think that connecting stories to the real world’s problems gives them more power. One of the best moments of my writing life was when I got an email from a woman who read my domestic abuse book, realized that “it wasn’t all her fault,” and she left her abuser.
BRC: Your previous books have covered a number of social issues. What does it mean to you to be able to tell a story with such realistic storylines?
MJP: I like to show that it’s possible to get beyond disastrous problems to build a better life. Once I was on a radio talk show when a woman called in to say that she’d had a lot of problems in her life, but reading my books helped show her a route to a better life. The fact is that everyone has traumatic problems sooner or later. Popular fiction is a wonderful way to show that yes, bad things happen, but it is possible to survive, rebuild, and find a new kind of happiness.
BRC: What do you hope your readers will experience as they read your books?
MJP: I want them to laugh, to cry, and to put down the book at the end and feel that it was time well spent. And if they learn a little something new along the way --- that’s good, too.
BRC: How do you approach writing historical novels versus contemporary and fantasy novels?
MJP: A story is a story, but the fun thing about history is that there is so much richness available to enhance the tale. It’s possible to write over-the-top characters and situations in a way that’s much more difficult to do in the mundane modern world.
BRC: If you could step back in time, is there a place and time you wish you could visit?
MJP: Oh, my, tough one! I could give lots of answers, but today, I’ll say Times Square in New York on VE Day, when everyone went mad with rejoicing that the long and terrible war was over.
BRC: You have worked in graphic design. How has your creative energy helped you in writing your novels?
MJP: I didn’t realize this myself, but my old agent once had an assistant who said that she could always tell if a writer had a visual art background because they were good at choosing the telling visual detail that created a vivid setting. Could be --- I don’t see that in myself, but it would be nice to think it’s true!
What I do recognize is that good design is like good plotting --- the structure is so sleek and right that you can’t imagine it being any other way. A good story, like a good design, doesn’t call attention to its cleverness. Instead, it does its job so well that you are totally drawn inside and swept along.
BRC: I am always eager to know how writers came to be writers. Did you choose writing, or did writing choose you?
MJP: I suppose it chose me. I was an addicted reader as soon as I figured out what those marks on the page meant. I loved to read and always had stories in my head, but I was a farm girl from the dairy country of Western New York. It never occurred to me that I could be a writer. Then I got a computer for my graphic design program, mastered word processing, and found that here was a writing method where once you fixed a mistake, it stayed fixed! I started writing my first Regency, three months later I was offered a three-book contract, and the rest is history. I threw myself into writing like a lemming off a cliff.
BRC: What advice would you give to a new or aspiring writer?
MJP: Any writer must start as a reader because you have to love words and stories. (I’m talking a fiction writer here, of course.) So read widely, and also pay attention to what works for you in a story, and what doesn’t. Then --- sit down and write. You have to put those words down on the page. A certain amount of obsessiveness helps. <G> Generally speaking, what you love to read is what you’ll love to write. Don’t pick a story just because you think it’s commercial. Commercial is good, but you have to love what you write.
BRC: What are you working on at the moment, and when can readers look forward to seeing it?
MJP: I’m just finishing my third Lost Lords book, and the hero is Mackenzie, the jaunty illegitimate half brother who shows up in NEVER LESS THAN A LADY. I hadn’t written a lovable rogue in a while, and I couldn’t resist him. It’s scheduled for May 2011. Than I’ll write my second young adult paranormal historical.(The first, DARK MIRROR, will be out in March 2011.)
Thanks for having me here!
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