D.B.: Eloisa, thank you for being here! I’ve been looking forward to this interview since I contacted you last fall. As I told you in the e-mail, I loved the storyline in Potent Pleasures, particularly the head hopping, for lack of a better term. As I read I was surprised by all the POV switches. But as I told two critique partners who write historicals, I absolutely LOVED this book -- by the way, they did too. You mentioned that you have since reined in on POV. Why may I ask, and why are multiple POVs so discouraged? Was this an editorial preference, was this a conclusion you reached on your own, or both?
E.J.: Thank you for that lovely welcome! I’m so pleased that my very first book made such an impression. The truth is that I never took any writing classes before starting to write. So when people started yelping about my POV switches, I hadn’t the faintest idea what they were talking about – I had simply written the novel as if I were watching a play and interpreting the expression on every face. Here’s the extent of my ignorance: I actually switched POV in the middle of paragraphs.
At any rate, once I figured out what all the hoo-ha was about, I started checking around. As a professor, I teach Shakespeare, so there weren’t any novelistic guidelines there. I discovered quite a few literary head-hoppers (Stephen Crane, for one). But then I started to try to figure out why it was bothering so many readers. I decided that the reason I never noticed POV had to do with my primary genre of study – drama.
I wrote Potent Pleasures as if it were a play, simply adding in stage directions regarding the actors’ emotional state. But most people reading novels don’t expect to watch eight to ten characters on stage at the same moment. They want a deeper, more intimate experience with one or two.
That’s a constant struggle for me. The Desperate Duchesses series is made up of 6 novels (the last two publishing this summer), partly because I love large casts. At this point, I’ve come to a mediating point between my kind of writing and that most loved by readers: I have a number of characters, but I do limit the POVs, and particularly, I’m careful about switching POV so that my readers don’t get confused.
D.B.: In my opinion, the multiple points of view in Potent Pleasures gave me a feeling of depth and of richness of character. I also confess I started reading romance in the eighties and nineties when it was the norm. Now that you write tighter POV, how do you achieve this same richness since you don’t go as often into secondary characters’ heads?
E.J.: My first series was three books. The next series was four books. This last series – six books. In order to create a truly deep, intimate look at how two people fall in love and grow together, as with the Duke and Duchess of Beaumont in This Duchess of Mine, I started in Desperate Duchesses, five books ago. They’re only getting their own novel now. In truth, I think that the depth works better on a larger canvas than it did when I was madly switching around within one book.
D.B.: You mentioned there were other problems with the book. Would you tell us about them, and what lessons have you taken away from -- say from your older work -- to improve upon your latest novels?
E.J.: The cruel truth is that I’ve now finished seventeen novels, and it just doesn’t get any easier. I learn one thing, and in the process I discover five things I do badly that I hadn’t even known about. Part of me is glad that I’ve never starting “phoning it in,” and another part is resentful! Anyway, one major problem with Potent Pleasures is that it was riddled with inaccuracies. As a scholar, I reserved the question of accuracy for scholarship because frankly (like many scholars) I don’t think that fiction has the faintest chance of achieving historical accuracy, and so I didn’t even try for it. Another lesson hard-won is that there are many readers who will never dive into my academic books, but they love to learn all the same. So at this point my books are as closely researched as possible.
D.B.: I have to throw in a question from my critique partner, Allegra Gray. She wants to know if you plan to write any books outside of Georgian or the Regency periods?
E.J.: Nope. I tried to write a contemporary novel with a baseball-playing hero. It was a complete disaster. I think the fact that I teach Renaissance drama during the day has completed warped my imagination – all my heroes (and heroines) talk in archaic language in my head. I basically created a baseball player who was a Regency buck. A total disaster, and I gave up after 100 pages. Some day, maybe, I’d like to write a futuristic, simply because I think they’re so much fun (I’m a huge fan of Jayne Castle’s books).
D.B.: You are an associate professor and head of the Creative Writing program. Your education, to understate it, is extended and well rounded. A Harvard undergrad, M. Phil from Oxford, a Ph.D. from Yale, a Shakespeare professor and the author of academic book from Oxford University Press, nevertheless you are entrenched in romance. What is it about romance that draws you? I also read that you are a defender of the genre. Why is that necessary, do you think? And how do you handle the perceptions of your literary colleagues and students?
E.J.: I think defense is necessary because romance is, literally, the most denigrated of genres within academia. That contempt reflects out to popular culture, in terms such as “bodice-ripper,” which implies that the reader (and writer) enjoy romance due to an erotic response to forced sex scenes. That negative reflex in popular culture can be deeply wounding to readers. I think it’s a misogynistic response, a fear of women demanding more from their relationships (and perhaps even their sex lives) than some men feel capable of giving. That said, I think this perception is really changing, due in no small part to the Romance Writers of America’s campaign to encourage intelligent analysis of the genre. Many young scholars now are publishing articles and books arguing that the genre is a powerful encouragement to women’s independence. As for me, I’ve always loved romances, from the moment I discovered my grandmother’s Barbara Cartlands, and the public library’s Georgette Heyers. I defend the genre because I want to be able to read (and write) whatever I wish without constantly fending off attacks on my intelligence.
D.B.: You obviously enjoy writing spinoffs of your characters, e.g. your Desperate Duchess Series, the Essex Sisters, the Duchess Quartet, the Pleasures Trilogy as well as anthologies. Do you have in mind from book to book what character you will write next? Would you talk a bit about that process?
E.J.: When I start a series I generally know the main characters of all the books, though not in the Desperate Duchesses series, as that started out as a plan for 4 books. Villiers and Jemma were added (I had originally intended to run Jemma and Elijah as a subplot throughout, rather than giving them their own book). The nerve-wracking thing is that I start books without having much sense of where they might go. That makes the first 100 pages hard, but I’ve found that it makes me more creative.
D.B.: How do you, with your incredible schedule, structure your time? How long after you write a proposal do you complete the book? Can you talk about deadline hell, or is it even a problem for you? Do you ever experience writer’s block and how do you counter it?
E.J.: Well, for one thing, I don’t do proposals. So that makes it easier. The bad news is that I always seem to be in deadline hell. I don’t really get writer’s block, perhaps because I don’t have time. Generally, on a writing day, I try to write 20 pages. The first 10, I know from bitter experience, probably won’t be that good –not funny enough, not original enough, not fresh enough. By the second 10 pages, I’m tired, and my prose improves immeasurably. The next day I cut most of the first 10 pages. I hate this system, but writing a steady 2 pages a day produces a tiresome book that has to be completely rewritten.
D.B.: Another question from another historical critique partner, Robin Searle. She wonders what you do for promotion? Do you do much promotion, or are you so well-recognized that your books virtually sell themselves?
E.J.: I feel as if I do tons of promotion! The main thing is my website. I truly feel that an author cannot grow and thrive without a top-flight website. So I put a lot of time, money and energy there. After each book is published, for example, I post a topic on the bulletin board I share with Julia Quinn, asking which chapter the reader wished had been in the book – what was missing. People turn in ideas and that turns into a contest. After a few months, I write the chapter with the most votes – the “Extra Chapter”. It goes up on my website, in the Readers’ Pages. I like this because extra content draws readers to my site. But I also like it on a theoretical level, because it tears down the idea that books, once printed, are set in stone. It makes me feel like Dickens, who wrote a lot of his novels in serial, publishing parts as he went.
D.B.: Among your novels, do you have a favorite?
E.J.: Always the most recent. At the moment, that’s A Duke of Her Own, publishing in August. But I adore Jemma’s book too, This Duchess of Mine. I’m just waiting to see if readers like them as much as I do!
D.B.: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I sat in on a workshop at National with you, Teresa Medeiros, and Connie Brockway. In the skit, Connie handed in her work for critique. You (Eloisa) played the stern critique partner, using the standard line, “You can’t do that,” while Teresa played the pleaser of the group, countering with, “I kind of liked it.” The three of you magnificent performers had the audience in stitches, because there wasn’t one of us who couldn’t relate to the “rules” in RWA®. Will you talk about critique groups? Are you in one? Do you have readers? Any advice you have for critique partners?
E.J.: I don’t have a critique group – I just have a group of best friends, Teresa and Connie among them. Sometimes we bounce ideas off each other, though we mostly just kvetch. I had a critique partner when I started writing (before she moved to England and gave up romance) and I think I learned a great deal from her. At this point, it would be harder since my voice is pretty distinct and I’ve got stubborn about writing what I want to write. I suppose Carrie Feron, my editor, is my critique partner. I listen to her, having discovered over the years that her advice is brilliant. My advice would be to find a critique partner who writes better than you do and then listen to her.
D.B.: If there is one thing you would like readers to know about you, what would it be?
E.J.: Interesting question. I guess I’d like readers to know that I (and other authors) really do want to know what you thought of a book. I’m not all that fond of emails full of reproach, but I look forward to the ones that say, “I really liked this, and this particular thing didn’t work for me, for these reasons…” I think I learn and grow as an author from those interactions. And I answer all my email!
D.B.: You’re currently on a blog tour promoting your newest release, This Duchess of Mine. Will you share with readers about this novel and how it falls in line with the Duchess series?
E.J.: This Duchess of Mine is the story of Jemma and Elijah, the Duke and Duchess of Beaumont. They married years ago, and were together a very short time before Jemma discovered Elijah with his mistress. She promptly left for France and has now come back only to create an heir. But on arriving in England, she’s discovered that she wants her husband in love with her – so she courts him. It’s a really fun story, I think. It stands alone with no problem, imo, though if you want to know the previous novels, they’re all listed on my website, http://www.eloisajames.com/ If you do read the book, please stop by my bulletin board, and tell me what chapter was missing for you!
D.B.: Eloisa, it’s been such an honor. You’re keynote speaker on Friday’s Award Luncheon at RWA® National in Washington D.C. this year, and I, for one, can’t wait. I always take something inspiring away from your talks. Thank you again for being here, and know that while I love all of your writing, Potent Pleasures, with its so-called flaws, is the book that earned you a fan for life.
Five Scribe readers: Comments or questions will enter you in a drawing for a signed HB UK edition of Desperate Duchesses. Be sure to list contact info or check back to see who won the drawing. And be sure to check out her website at http://www.eloisajames.com/