Tuesday, July 17, 2012

An Interview with Favorite Author Joanna Bourne

It’s a pleasure to welcome to my blog today a very favorite author of mine, Jo Bourne—the author of the wonderful Spymaster series, several of which have been reviewed on my blog. I love the detail and thoughtfulness Jo brings to her 18th and 19th century spy stories set in England and France. She brings us characters we can't help but love. (I’m so glad they show up in more than one of her novels!) Jo has graciously agreed to give a copy of THE BLACK HAWK (reviewed on my blog this week) to one of those commenting on this post.

As to the interview, I asked Jo some questions that had been in the back of my mind for some time about her and her writing. I think you’ll find her answers fascinating!

Tell us about yourself…where you grew up, where you live now…the things that shaped you as a person?

I'm in the foothills of Western Virginia, where the human to mosquito ratio runs about one of us to a million of them. I'm surprised this area is not more thickly settled with writers since it is a fine place to stay inside and write. I live here with my family and my dog and cat, both of them previously owned shelter specials.

Before coming to the paradise on earth, I spent a number of years working for the Federal Government overseas. This was lovely and exciting. Sometimes a bit too exciting. Frankly, I'm glad to be back and do most of my traveling to and from the grocery store. I lived in about a dozen countries -- I'm too lazy to count it up at the minute -- But I got to see most of the world. And I lived in both England and France. (The photo is Rue des Rosiers in Paris.) This is a real help in setting stories there.

What drew you to writing historical romance novels?

When I was in elementary school, I read a lot of Science Fiction . . . and adventure and boys' actions books and fantasy and historical fiction and folktales and a good bit of stuff that wasn't fiction at all. Roughly, everything under the sun. If I had to say what led me to Romance, I'd blame it on Georgette Heyer. Such delightful, funny books. Why do I write Romance? Well, I want to write an adventure story. Does this sound like a roundabout way to approach it?

I was immensely peeved, when I was a kid that boys seemed to have all the adventures in books. When I write Romance, the women have the adventures. I want the happy ending. And I want to write about important stuff. Does it sound hokey to admit I want to tell readers that bravery and kindness matter and that they are rewarded? I want to say that love and the ordinary, domestic joys of life are terribly important. That's what Romance says. That's what the HEA gives us.

How much time does it take you to write one of your wonderful Spymaster novels?

About a year. I know everybody else on earth seems to write faster. I guess it takes me a couple of tries to get stuff right.

How much of that time is devoted to the research? And, do you love the research?

I love to do research. You can plop me down with some good 1800s letters or a nice Regency era diary and I am just as happy as a hog in clover. If it were not for the pesky need to actually do some writing I'd just research. Hard to say how much of my time is devoted to research. When I first picked the era and the countries I wanted to write about, the initial familiarization took as much as half my time. Now that I'm comfy in the early 1800s, it's more like 5% or 10%.

What resources do you reach for in researching your novels?

I have good, print research materials. I'm generally picking up one book or another to read just for the fun of it. That's on background, you might say. I keep some favorite research books in social history, historical language and spy stuff. For social history -- I keep my old copies of Bryant's Set in a Silver Sea or Asa Brigg's Social History of England and browse through them sometimes. But there are good social history surveys every year.

Greenwood Press puts out a series of accessible reads -- Daily Life in 18th Century England, Daily Life in Victorian England and Daily Life During the French Revolution.

What else have I enjoyed in the social history field recently? The Regency Underworld, Donald Low. Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600 to 1770, Emily Cockayne. Our Village, Nancy Mitford.

For Regency language I like Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue and Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and, of course, the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). And spies. I have read a lot about Regency era spies. This is kind of specialized research. If you're interested in this, I have a bibliography at: http://jobourne.blogspot.com/2010/06/and-back-to-some-questions.html

But it's not all beer and skittles and research books. I love the Internet for visuals. Almost all my clothing research is on line. My visuals of everyday objects are often on line. If I need to actually know a single solid factoid, I go to the web. Say I want to find out if the word "hornswoggle" was in use in 1795 in England. (Answer: probably not.) I'd go to Google Books and run a search.

And I do some hoofing around to see what's left of my era's history. I've been very lucky indeed. I've been able to spend a lot of time in old houses, museums, and at living history and re-enactor sites. There's nothing like the reality of these everyday objects, 'up close and personal', to give you the nitty gritty of the time. For instance, Napoleon's dispatch case looks just like a modern brief case. Who knew?

Do you have character write-ups or other devices to help you get into the head of a character?

I really don't. Now, I do crawl into the head of the character. That's my writing space. But I don't get there by knowing facts about them and I don't get there on Day One. I get acquainted with my people in the way you'd come to know a friend or a coworker, over time. I've thought about them for weeks or months. I've pictured them in all sorts of situations.

The kind of specifics that can be written down in a notebook -- age, color of eyes, whether they like raspberries, what kind of school they went to -- these are definitely useful. I need them the same way I might need a particular date or the color of a uniform in the Sixth Infantry or whether there was stainless steel available in 1802. I do try to keep all those factoids in a file somewhere. If I remember. Mostly I don't remember and then I end up having to chase somebody's eye colors through the final draft and hope I remember I caught all the mentions of it so I haven't made a Dreadful Mistake anywhere.

Who is your favorite character in your novels?

Folks are going to think I'll say Adrian ("Hawker"). In truth, I'm very fond of Adrian. But I my love and respect for Doyle is profound and special. I find him sly and humorous and cynical. Does it make me sound trivial if I say I just truly do like a huge, strong, sizable fellow?

Doyle appears in all four of my books, three times as a secondary character. His 'love story' is told in FORBIDDEN ROSE. I wrote that book third, but it's set in the earliest time period, in 1794, during the French Revolution.

What do you think is your best work thus far?

In terms of the books, I think FORBIDDEN ROSE is the best written, overall. [Regan's Note: this book is reviewed on my blog.] And I'd say the character Lazarus was hard and complicated to write and I think he turned out well. I'm proud of creating him.

What is the most difficult aspect of romance writing for you?

Man, it's all hard. I do most of the work on micro-manipulation of the prose. Hardest? The sex scenes. I would really like to infuse those sensual scenes with meaning and significance. And sensuality.

If I had to pick the love scene I like best, it would be Hawker and Justine's first love scene in BLACK HAWK. They're so young and so tough. So damaged.

That was one of the rare cases that I wrote one way, and then the editor sent me back to do it over again. She said Hawker deserved a better love scene. She was right.

What are you working on now and what are the challenges?

I'm writing Pax's story right now. It's set in 1802, so it will be kind of midway through the timeline of the series.

(I often write in coffee shops, so I drink a lot of coffee…)
As for challenges, what isn't a problem? Hmmm. I'm working right now on giving the hero and heroine more time together. Plot, plot, plot. Plotting is so hard for me. You asked me what my working title was for this one. When I work on a manuscript, I call it by the name of the heroine. In my own mind and in the computer, I'm working on the 'Cami Story'. I don't give the manuscript a fancier working title because I know that is not going to end up as the title of the book.

Do you have a series or a novel planned after the Spymaster series?

Alas. I come up completely empty on that. I am so deeply in the grip of the Pax manuscript that I have no time or thought left to worry about what comes next.

Thanks, Jo, for candidly sharing your thoughts with us. Now for the "listening audience"--any questions or comments for Jo?


  1. I just can't enough of the background information on these books and the more I hear, the more fascinated I am.

    I'm so happy to hear that the first love scene between Adrian & Justine is Joanna's favorite too. It's not only my favorite of the whole series, it may be my favorite love scene evah...anywhere O_o

    And now that I've established my fan-girl stalker cred, I would like to take Joanna to task for Doyle's scar. Without spoilers, I was SORELY disappointed to find out...well, you know...about it.

    Very much looking forward to Pax's story. He was set up as an intriguing secondary character over the last two books without the usual heavy-handed sequel baiting.

    1. Hi Jeannie --

      I posted you a reply, but the computer eated it. Oh well. This one will be better.

      On the Justine-Adrian lovescene -- As I say, the first iteration was okay, but the second try was much better. Obviously I need to go back to scratch and rewrite all my lovescenes. Good to know I have finally hit on a working technique.

      I truly wanted to have a scarred hero, but decided I couldn't do that for a continuing character who depended a lot on disguise. To which I say, 'Rats'. If he had been a one-shot deal . . .

  2. Fabulous Interview. You may put agony into your books, Jo, but they convey emotion in beautiful and seemingly effortless prose.

    1. Hi Wendy --

      I think we all work like the devil, don't we? What varies is how much we complain about it. *g*

    2. Wendy, you are the winner of Jo's book, THE BLACK HAWK. See my separate post as to how to contact Jo to claim your prize!

  3. I get the sense when I read one of Jo's books that the story I'm reading, as fascinating, well crafted, and riveting as it invariably is, is just the tip of the iceberg. Hawk and Justine had a zillion terrific love scenes. Doyle is even more sly and cynical and wise than he allows us to see, Annique could strategize rings around Napoleon. I love this--I love the sense of not just peeking in on a love story, but peeking in at a personal universe. Well done, Jo!

    1. Y'know ... that's an important part of plotting. We know we're picking out just 43 scenes from a universe of possibilities.

      Outside the story folks delve and spin and in some other story Doyle, walking the back alleys, meets Jess the Hand meandering her sneaky ways on an errand for Lazarus.

      A story is like that Auden poem, "... how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along"

  4. I'm not surprised to find that Adrian is your favorite character, he's mine as well. He just sort of springs from the page and becomes real. Justine is perfect for him, and he knows what she needs. Jo, your writing is beautiful and riviting. Thank you.

    1. Thank you so very much. Y'know, for me it's really challenging to make the H&H a good match for each other. Can they get along? Can they TALK to each other? Do they each provide something the other very much needs?

      I am so protective of my characters. I want to make sure they keep being happy after they walk offstage. *g*

  5. Adrian & Justine's sex scene in the rain is my absolute favorite as well. I can't wait for Pax's story! Thank you for your books, Jo.

    1. You are so kind. Thank you.

      I'm working away at Pax's story, but not being notably fast. I will go buckle down and get some more done today.

  6. I've enjoyed this series as well. By employing French and English spies during the French Revolution, you've really picked an interesting era to write about. There used to be more novels set during this period, but everything being published now are Regency and Victorian era romances.

    In The Black Hawk, I liked how Justine could have settled anywhere, but being near Adrian (and her sister) drew her to London. Will you be posting any scenes from Pax's book on your blog?

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  8. When the Royalists returned to power in France, folks who'd supported Napoleon were regarded with some suspicion. Those who'd held power in the Secret Police had a choice of playing nicely with the new regime or making themselves scarce.

    Ironic that London was one of the safe refuges.

    Justine came to London to be near her sister. And Adrian. She wouldn't have admitted that to herself, I think.

    I like me some Regency and Victorian Romance, but enjoy other locations as well. I notice Kaki Warner (Western Romance) is a RITA Finalist again this year. And Jeannie Lin (the first commenter) is most definitely not Regency. *cough*

  9. Jo, it's always a pleasure to read interviews with you so I can discern, a trickle at a time, how your mind works. :)

    I agree with others here that Adrian's and Justine's first scene in the rain is one of the best I've read by far!! Before I read BLACK HAWK I would've agreed with you that Doyle was the one who I'd single out as being my top favorite--Adrian was slightly scary. But Adrian's story blew that right out of the water. BLACK HAWK made me see Adrian in a whole new light and Justine was just so perfect for him and he for her--I marveled at them, their story, your writing...every page I turned.

    1. I'm glad you said that about finding Adrian scary. I find him fairly scary myself.

      If one could speak of themes in Romance genre, I'd say one of the major themes of Black Hawk is 'Adrian grows a conscience.' A major secondary theme would be 'Adrian grows a conscience ... sorta.'

  10. Hi Jo,

    Just wanted to drop a quick note to say "thank you" for the terrific books you've written. I've enjoyed them all (several times!) Doyle is also my favorite character. I used to think the most romantic words I'd ever heard were from Dracula: "I've crossed oceans of time to find you." Then Doyle arrived on the scene and Dracula was relegated to second place:-) It still makes my toes curl when I read: "You, by the fish fountain, dressed in nothing but the morning."

    Jo, words can't adequately express how much I've enjoyed your books. I'm a HUGE fan and can't wait for the next book in the series.

    1. I am so glad you enjoy the books.

      Y'know, one of the great things about writing Romance is you get to have all these cool heroes in your head.

      You can spend a year or so getting all cozy with one. And then another book comes along and you have a new character to get close to.

  11. Jo, Just want to say a final "thanks" for being on my blog and helping us all see the woman behind those amazing stories.

    1. Hi Regan --

      I had such a great, wonderful time. Thank you for asking me.

  12. Wonderful interview. It's interesting to hear an author talk of the process of slowly learning more about their characters, when they seem so real to the reader. I feel like I might run into Doyle or Hawker on my every trip to London!