Laura Kinsale – Back on the Shelves Again!

(May 14, 2003)

2005 Laura Kinsale interview

“I feel that a character’s flaws are what allow the reader to relate to them. I’m well-known for not being a fan of the ‘perfect’ heroine. Our admiration may be aroused by perfection, but that is a distant emotion. Empathy comes from a shared sense of humanity, and that’s what interests me.”


Four years ago I started to read romance again after a long sabbatical. I’m not certain what would have happened had I not stumbled across books like Flowers from the Storm, and The Shadow and the Star, but those two stories sent me on a romance glom that, many hundred books later, is still going strong. Of course, not every romance is a Kinsale. Her characters have rich ambiguity, and her stories are full of texture, layers, and all kinds of food for thought. Unlike most romances, they improve on a reread. How glad I was to hear that Kinsale was writing again, and that there would be more of her books to enjoy. Since I was curious about what Laura had been up to lately, I thought some of our readers would be too. Laura graciously consented to satisfy my curiosity.

–Rachel Potter

I understand you have a new book coming out.

I have a new book, Shadowheart, scheduled for April 2004. It’s Allegreto’s story, the young Italian assassin from my first medieval, For My Lady’s Heart. It’s a very dark, intense story – a book with Allegreto at the center could have been nothing else. I think it will be one of the ones that readers either love or hate, and possibly it may be a bit controversial.

One month before Shadowheart is released, in March 2004, a special collector’s edition of For My Lady’s Heart will be published, with a glossary and some commentary on the Middle English. I’m very pleased about that.

Also, Flowers from the Storm will be re-issued soon, with a lovely new cover, on May 27, 2003. It will be great for me to be back on the shelves again!

It’s been six years since your last book, My Sweet Folly, was published. Why the delay? What have you been doing in the interim?

To make a long story short, I was burned-out. You can call it writers block or whatever you like, but I had written 10 books in 11 years, and simply found that I could not continue at that pace. I felt that it was affecting the quality of my work. There was not one day of those six years that I didn’t try to figure out why and what I should do about it, but I never really did. It was very painful. I am grateful to Berkley and my editor there, Leslie Gelbman, for their patience and willingness to wait.

However, one thing I did do, in that time, was go out and live my real life. Writers can easily become lost in their own fantasy worlds, and I think that tells on us eventually, both personally and in our writing. I enjoyed giving myself time to do a variety of things and participate more fully in the relationships that I care about. I realized how hard writing had been on me physically – sitting at a desk and staring at a computer for months on end is not what the human body is made to do. I am trying now to have more balance in my life, getting out and hiking with my dog every day, riding my horse, doing some other hobbies, taking the time for friends and family and travel. And Getting Off The Computer!

Many of your heroes and heroines are rather “difficult” people who are not always easy to like – they can be selfish, morally inflexible, even callous. What is your process for creating a flawed character? How do you decide when he or she has been sufficiently redeemed? How do you find a balance between making a character flawed, yet still likable? Are there any traits that in your view would make a character too vile to be redeemed?

Well, writing a book is not like driving a car. You don’t get in, turn the key, push the gas pedal and steer it where you want it to go. It’s more like riding a horse – it is a give-and-take with another living entity. Every horse is different, and every character is different (hopefully). So the writer has to get to know this beast, and that is just a process. For me, I can’t do it all in outline – that would be like trying to figure out how to ride a particular horse without getting on it. I have to write into the story to discover the characters. I do research on the setting as I go along, and get ideas, and some ideas “ring true” and some don’t. Some that I think will work great turn out not to work when I try to write them. Most every fiction writer is aware of what it’s like to have a character “refuse” to go along with the plot, or to pop up with their own dialogue out of the blue.

I feel that a character’s flaws are what allow the reader to relate to them. I’m well-known for not being a fan of the “perfect” heroine. Our admiration may be aroused by perfection, but that is a distant emotion. Empathy comes from a shared sense of humanity, and that’s what interests me. The flaws that I choose are flaws that interest me; that seem to challenge the character in some way. I’m not ever going to do a hero or heroine who enjoys torturing animals, because not only does that seem vile to me, I can’t even fathom the point of it. But I would not count out writing an assassin, because I can imagine a background and traits and circumstances that might create and drive that person.

I came up against this issue when writing Shadowheart. Not only the question of a professional murderer as a hero, but several aspects of both Allegreto’s character and the heroine’s – they were not things that I could personally “relate” to, and I’m sure most readers won’t. I very much had to follow what the characters demanded and give up worrying about what readers and reviewers, and even myself, might think. Otherwise there would have been no book. But even a murderer has hopes and fears and possibly even the ability to love, however twisted that ability may have become.

Do you find that readers respond differently to your heroes versus your heroines? I’ve noticed that readers sometimes seem more apt to forgive heroes for their flaws. Is there any difference in how you approach male and female characters?

Romance readers are definitely more forgiving of heroes than of heroines. Heroines are given no slack whatsoever. I don’t know if this is “fair” or not, but it’s the way it is. So, yeah, I guess I have become a bit more wary about doing anything other than a nice, kind, smart, sassy, beautiful, not-too-strong, not-too-weak heroine. Not that this stops me, I just brace myself for the flak I know I’ll get! I’ve seen comments that my heroines are too strong, too weak, too smart, too dumb, too everything. I still have to go with what that character demands; I have no other choice.

Which characters do you think are your best? Your most powerful? Your most vulnerable? To whom are you most attached?

Hmmm! The heroine I like the best is Folie, from My Sweet Folly, because she meets life with a whimsical sense of humor. I can’t really pick out a hero I think is the best. I have grown very attached to Allegreto now – he was fascinating to write, and I’ve had a harder time “letting go” of that character than any other in a long time. Allegreto is a lot of things, and he just might be my most powerful character. Samuel from The Shadow and the Star was the most vulnerable, I would say.

You have tackled the subjects of mental and physical illness. Your characters have had strokes, suffered molestation, endured PTSD. What draws you toward the darker side of the human brain and psyche?

I write about what interests me, and what produces those “empathetic” flaws that allow readers to see the character as a fully-realized human being with fears and desires and challenges in life. That said, I also enjoy a lighter touch (I adore reading Georgette Heyer) and have a deep appreciation for how difficult it can be to write “light” books. So perhaps it’s just me taking the easy way out! A “dark” book has instant drama and conflict; a “light” book requires a much more subtle touch to be effective.

How do you feel about Romance’s often unfortunate reputation among the “literary elite?” What led you to write romance novels as opposed to a more “respectable” genre?

I used to get upset about the way the media and the “uninformed” treat the romance genre, but frankly, they just wore me down. As a writer, it’s impossible to try to explain your own genre without sounding defensive. I began to realize that there is an extremely powerful force driving the denigration of romance, and no, I don’t think it’s hatred of women or feminism or anti-feminism anything like that. I think it’s the snob factor. Women are just as willing as men to hasten to say they don’t read “that trash,” because – in the U.S. at least, class is not based on ancestry, it’s based on wealth and intellect, so it’s important for society to have shorthand class markers that everyone understands. A house in the Hamptons happens to be one of those markers. So is the romance genre – and a far more convenient and broad-based one. It’s a cheap, easy method for someone to quickly state they are “above that sort of thing.”

It’s almost weird to me how, in such a capitalist society, the romance genre, which effectively supports the entire publishing business now, is seldom mentioned even in the trade publications. It’s like this huge pink elephant nobody wants to admit is there, except when they trot it out for ridicule.

So, I gave up trying to fight it. Now I just cry all the way to the bank.

On our message boards I’ve often heard your name mentioned in conjunction with Judith Ivory and Patricia Gaffney; some readers will recommend your books as being more “intellectual” romances What do you think of the comparison and the designation?

Both Judy and Pat are great writers, and I’m happy to be mentioned with them. I don’t think of my books as “intellectual,” but I guess it all depends on the reader’s perspective. I don’t always lay things out in black-and-white for the readers; I try to let the characters show what is going on, rather than explaining it in so many words. I don’t do this to be “deep” or mysterious, but because I believe it intensifies the experience for readers by drawing them closer into the perceptions of the characters. A reader has to pay attention to small things, which may be why people often say they get more out of my books on the second read.

On my website, there have been some great debates and discussions about different characters, and readers have come up with insights that ring true which I had not thought about myself. I really enjoy that. I like to see the different interpretations. Some I may agree with more than others, but I don’t think any of them are right or wrong. We all bring our own life experiences to what we read, and have equally valid reactions.

I did object to finding my books being used as shorthand for some kind of dividing line between “intellectual” and “peasant” tastes. It’s that old class marker again, taking something that is really an individual preference and making it seem to be more than that, and I did not think that was fair to anyone.

Do you read romance? Have you been influenced by other romance writers? What do you think makes a romance romantic? What are your other influences? Your favorite books?

When I became a writer, I lost the ability to read fiction. I can see all the buttons being pushed. I find it very difficult to become immersed in a story now – for me, it’s like watching a movie and knowing exactly what the set looks like: the lights are overhead, the director is sitting off to the side, a make-up artist is standing there ready to buff up the actors’ faces. It was a great loss to me. I’ve been able to read a bit more in the past few years, but I still read very little fiction of any kind. I read lots and lots of non-fiction.

I have definitely been influenced by other writers, both in and out of the genre. I have a list of my favorite books on my website.

Ummm…I don’t know what makes a romance romantic! That question is too hard!

What is your writing process? How much research do you do? Do you outline your books or write more “on the fly” revising as necessary? Is plot harder to accomplish or characterization? How long does it take for you to complete a book?

I do not outline. I usually (but not always) write a 7-8 page synopsis, which becomes more and vague toward the end. I research a great deal, and get many of my plot ideas from my research. Plot is far harder for me than characterization (can you tell?). I think I’m beginning to learn to plot, but then again, maybe not.

I used to complete a book a year, but my average went way down lately! I hope I’ll be able to do a book about every year and a half now, but I’m making no promises to anybody about that.

Many of your books have unique settings, characters, or conflicts. How difficult was it to “sell” a heroine who reads minds or a hero whose thought and speech are almost entirely impaired?

I just don’t tell the editor until it’s too late!

Seriously, I figure that either I can pull it off or I can’t – it’s a matter of “showing” that I can do it, rather than saying that I can and trying to convince someone. So I write the book and turn it in, and so far they have not thrown any back in my face, thank goodness.

You have a real knack for dialogue and dialect. Is it difficult to get a feel for differing speech patterns? What led you to write For My Lady’s Heart using so much archaic language?

I love words and the rhythms of words. I love to explore their origins and meanings. In For My Lady’s Heart, I did the Middle English because I enjoyed doing it; it was a great challenge. When I heard that Berkley was planning to re-issue the book with Shadowheart, I asked if we could add the glossary, because while I intended all of the Middle English to be clear in context, and I think in most cases it was, I know there are a lot of readers who feel more secure with a stated definition. The most entertaining thing I’ve learned recently is that a number of readers went around speaking in “Middle English” to their friends and family after they read For My Lady’s Heart, just because it was fun. So I’ve even added a summary of Middle English grammar to the collectors’ edition, for those who want to take a stab at it! Shadowheart does not have Middle English dialogue, because the characters are seldom speaking English. The heroine alone speaks four languages, French, English, an Italian dialect, and (dare I say it?) Bohemian. So I chose to keep all of the dialogue the same.

You have a website with an active message board and will occasionally post elsewhere on the web. What do you think is advisable behavior for an author online?

I’m sure an author should behave online exactly as he or she would behave in person (in front of a large crowd!)

Are you working on a new project now that Shadowheart is finished?

I’ve started a new book, tentatively set in about 1830, another spin-off from a previous book. After all the ansgt and darkness I went through with Allegreto, I wanted to give myself a break and do a lighter book. I don’t want to go into more detail than that, because I’m not sure yet if this is the book I will settle on.

2005 Laura Kinsale interview