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AAR interviews the marvelous Joanna Bourne

Dabney: Jo, you know AAR and its readers are the biggest Spymaster fans on the planet. (We’ve reviewed them all at least once!) Thank you so much for chatting with us.

Jo: I am so happy to be here. (jo waves)

Dabney: Your new book, Beauty Like the Night, has as its heroine Séverine de Cabrillac whom readers first met in The Forbidden Rose. Sévie, who was adopted by William Doyle, the hero of that book, and his wife Maggie, is the younger sister of Justine (the heroine of The Black Hawk). Sévie is now 28 and living in London where she runs her own private detective agency. As the book opens, Sévie awakes to find a man in her bedroom–one Raoul Deverney. He believes she knows something about a young girl he’s looking for. The novel, like most of your books, weaves the plot of Raoul’s search for this girl with the efforts of the British Service to discover who it is who is trying to assassinate the Duke of Wellington. It’s a marvelous story.

Jo: Thank ye kindly. I enjoyed writing it.

Dabney: I’ve often wondered how you keep track of all the characters and their worlds and histories. Your books don’t always come in chronological order. I believe this book takes place after The Black Hawk, in the fall of 1818. (Your most recent book Rogue Spy is set in 1802.) How do you keep all your pieces so well organized?

Jo: (jo looks over her shoulder, shuffles closer, and whispers.) I don’t actually.

That is to say I have an extensive chronology and notes on when all the characters were born and  where they are every year. But I keep misplacing it so it’s not so very useful.

When I need to know something specific — like the color of Séverine’s eyes –I nip in and search the books to see if I’ve ever said.

I carry few characters from one book to another so I don’t have to keep them in my head very long.

The major payers are easy to remember because I use their whole lives every time I write about them.

What I mean … when Hawker walks on stage as a boy in 1792, dragging a pair of donkeys behind him, I know he’s going to end up with Justine and she’s going to shoot him one fine afternoon in 1802. Every time I write them, I’m working with lots of material. When Hawker casually hands a much-too-young Séverine his very sharp knife so she can cut her initials in the floorboards, that’s the relationship they’ll have for the rest of their lives.

Characters are bigger in my mind than on the page so they’re easy to remember. A small appearance in the story contains their whole story, like a hologram or something.

Dabney: Tell us about the setting of this book. Napoleon is in his second exile right? What does that mean for the British Service?

Jo: This time Napoleon really is out of the picture. He won’t be back. But the British Service was around long before Napoleon – back before Elizabeth the First — and will be around long after, under a series of different names. I kinda think Rudyard Kipling’s Kim goes to work for the Victorian iteration of the British Service, still playing the Great Game.

This doesn’t mean every character stays in the Service. There’s a whole world out there with a million possibilities. My folks can head off anywhere the reader cares to imagine them.

Dabney: Séverine is a formidable woman who takes many a risk. And yet she never falls into TSTL (too stupid to live) territory. What makes her so kick-ass? Her training? Her family? Her innate skills?

Jo: Doyle is most of it. He’s a natural teacher. He passes along his great skill in spying and fighting and his – can I call it wisdom? – to everyone he meets.

He’s especially careful in training Séverine.

Remember, as people of the future we know the British won. My characters don’t know that. The possibility of invasion and defeat is very real.

In the child Séverine Doyle sees a French aristocrat, related to all the people the Revolution most wants to kill, him not least among them. If Britain falls and the British Service is wiped out, Sévie could find herself alone, on the run, with a price on her head.

Sévie’s childhood is, among other things, training in how to stay alive and be one of Britain’s last defenders, holding the Welsh hills against the legions of France.

Dabney: When Raoul first meets Sévie he refers, rather mysteriously, to a time ten years ago in Spain when Sévie was there working on behalf of British Military Intelligence. Why did she join them? They’re rarely portrayed with fondness in your books.

Jo: If the British Service is presented as the ideal spy organization, Military Intelligence, with its general ineptitude, ambition, and strong ties to the aristocracy, is … not.

So why does she join them?

 If Sévie wants to do something heroic and exciting and important (she’s very young) like all the people she knows and admires, she can’t be picky about who she takes up with. She can’t work for the British Service. Doyle and Justine are as one in their determination to keep Sévie off the game board, noncombatant, not a distraction to her sister, and not a potential hostage for any side.

So Sévie has to go somewhere her sister isn’t. Like Spain. And she has to go anonymously.

Sévie disappears into an organization that doesn’t know her. She pretty much gets away with it. The Service tracks her down, discreetly, almost at once, but they accept the fait accompli. Military Intelligence remains reliably clueless.

Dabney: In some ways, this story is more about a personal quest–Raoul’s search–than it is a larger political threat. Is this because, with Napoleon in exile, the stakes for the Brits were lower? (My grasp on 19th century English politics is slight!)

Jo: I see the story as the clean-up after battle — bury the dead, heal the wounded, find justice, rebuild. Raoul tracks down, not just his daughter, but family itself. Séverine lets love charm its way into her life when she’d given up on love.

I could have put this in a context of higher stakes, political stakes, but I wanted to try something different. You put it very well. I wanted to look at a personal quest.

Dabney: One thing I love about your villains is that they’re rarely inherently evil–I’m thinking devil spawn–and often have very human reasons for why they behave the way they do. I’m curious–whom do you think is the most evil character you’ve created?

Jo: The Merchant, from Rogue Spy. He’s an idealist and sincere in his beliefs, but he is without humanity. There’s no saving leaven of humility or affection. That makes him scary because there’s nothing he won’t do.

Dabney: And speaking of villains, I was happy to see mention of Lazarus in this book. I’m assuming he’s the same Lazarus we met in My Lord and Spymaster. I want more Lazarus! Is he still stealing girls from wealthy families or has he settled down with Flora?

Jo: He gave up stealing women in 1812 after My Lord and Spymaster. You could say he’s reformed, though the members of his gang haven’t noticed any change. He’s still in London, still being a master criminal, still making money hand-over-fist, and still with Fluffy, whom he married.

He keeps his home life so separate from his work that very few people even know it exists. He’d planned to go to Baltimore, change his name, and become respectable. But Fluffy got involved with the British antislavery movement and is something of a power among them. She circulates petitions and organizes meetings. “We can become respectable any time,” she says. “This is important.” Very fierce, Fluffy has become.

Dabney: Which of your heroes or heroines do you think would do the best in modern times? (My money’s on Sebastian or Jess but I’m biased–My Lord and Spymaster is my favorite book in the series!)

Jo: Heck. I dunnoh.

Pax would do well anywhere, anywhen. Give him a sketch pad and a box of chalks and set him down in a Starbucks and he’d be perfectly happy. Cami, though, needs her extended Italian family.

Justine and Hawker are creatures of their politics and their times. I don’t think they’d be happy without the intricacies of early Nineteenth Century statecraft.

Grey, Doyle, and Raoul are, at heart, land owners. Their work is guarding their crops and their people, making their own particular piece of earth safe and prosperous.

So it comes around to you being right. Sebastian and Jess, entrepreneurs and adventurers, would be perfectly happy doing that in worlds and times far away. Money and trading are universal. They’d probably enjoy coming home to the dock in New New York, (on Mars,) with a cargo from Alpha Centauri.

Dabney: This is the sixth book in the series. Will there be more?

Jo: At least a few good sizable novellas. I have some in mind. Lots of good stories still out there.

Dabney: Thank you so much for talking with AAR!


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