Teresa Medeiros: Romance and the Unknown

(February 22, 1999)

“People are always saying you should write what you know, but I love to write what I don’t know.”

Thank goodness Teresa Medeiros likes to write about the unknown, otherwise we would not have books about a witch who travels to present day New York where she meets an eccentric billionare (Breath of Magic), or a dissatisfied young scientist who time travels to medieval Scotland, (Touch of Enchantment), or a guardian/ward romance set in the sunny beaches of New Zealand and cold foggy Victorian London, (Once an Angel) or a proper Boston spinster who becomes involved with a Wild West gunslinger, (Nobody’s Darling).

Teresa Medeiros writes about many places and times. She is known for her beautiful writing style and the touches of humor in all of her books. I met Teresa at the Kentucky Book Fair late in 1998 and we later settled in for an interview a few weeks ago.

–Ellen Micheletti

You have written about many different time periods. Do you have a particular favorite time to write about and why?

I skip around time periods because I have a very short attention span. Once I’ve described a medieval great hall in one book, I’d rather describe a Regency drawing room in the next. I also let the story dictate the setting and time period rather than letting the time period dictate the story. I usually come up with the story first, then decide which time period and setting would make the most effective “frame” for it. I have noticed that I have a tendency to return to the medieval period every few books. That time setting definitely suits my “fairy tale” stories. Where else can you do ancient Welsh curses Fairest of Them All, dramatic tournaments where the heroine is allowed to fight for her own honor Shadows and Lace and an overt Cinderella story like Charming the Prince? Plus, as long as I throw in a medieval every now and then, I can keep taking the tickets for the annual Renaissance Festival as a tax deduction!

Tell us a little about having your first novel published.

I started Lady of Conquest when I was twenty-one. It should have been an impossible sell – it was set in Ireland in 123 A.D. The heroine was a murderess seeking vengeance for her parents’ death. After I pulled the last page from the typewriter, I immediately sent the entire manuscript to Avon Books, fully expecting them to recognize me as the obvious successor to Rosemary Rogers’ throne. (Ah, the arrogance of youth!) After a year, the manuscript was returned with a very nice rejection letter. By then, I had done some research on how to market a book. I sent out twenty-two query letters to twenty-two different publishers and it was Hillary Cige at Berkley who decided to take a chance on the manuscript. Although the romance between Conn and Gelina was at the core of the book, it was originally published as a straight historical novel. Since Lady only sold around 30,000 copies the first time around, it was incredibly gratifying to see Bantam give the book a second chance this December with an initial print run well over 300,000.

Certain time periods and places are written about quite a lot (Regency England, Scotland and the American West) while others are very seldom written about (Edwardian England and Colonial America) Why so?

Traditionally and from a marketing standpoint, some time periods are considered to be more “romantic” than others. I’d say two of the most popular are still the Scottish Highlands and Regency London. They give the reader a familiar frame of reference and fulfill their expectations. The sales on these books range from steady to very successful, giving the publishers the impression that these are the only time periods and settings that readers will buy. I think the problem with that mind set is that eventually very little else is being published and the readers get bored by the lack of variety. Bantam has always been incredibly supportive of my creativity by letting me spread my wings. They didn’t so much as bat an eyelash when I told them I wanted to do a book about an inept witch who time-traveled by broom to 1996 New York to bewitch a cynical billionaire – Breath of Magic.

What kind of research do you do for an historical novel.

Since I’m so schizophrenic about hopping from time period to time period, a lot! I actually buy most of my research books because I never know what I’m going to need next. I keep a stack of books at my elbow as I write and you’ll usually catch me frantically pawing through them to find out just exactly how a medieval knight would fasten his “underwear”. I’m hoping to use the Internet more in the future. I love costume books. My absolute favorites are books that describe everyday life during different time periods.

You have a background in nursing. Have you ever thought of doing a contemporary with a medical setting?

People are always saying you should write what you know, but I love to write what I don’t know. Despite their current popularity, I never had any urge to write a medical thriller. (Although fellow nurse Eileen Dreyer has written some of my favorite ones.)

Your two time-travel novels Breath of Magic and Touch of Enchantment were wonderfully funny. It would seem that time-travel and humor would go together hand in glove, yet we don’t see it too often. Why not do you think?

I really don’t know. When I open my mouth, humor is what comes out. One of my favorite combinations is humor and horror, which is why Buffy, The Vampire Slayer is like, the coolest show on the planet right now. I have a hard time relating to books with absolutely no sense of humor at all. Even my favorite “darker” authors, Anne Stuart and Theresa Weir, often have a sort of skewed, black humor in their books. I’ve always believed that life is a balance of laughter and tears and that’s what I try to reflect in my books. I can’t imagine doing Breath of Magic without humor. I mean, what’s not funny about this woman from the 1600’s thinking that there are little people in the TV or talking into the earpiece on the telephone?

You don’t usually do sequels but you did do one for Breath of Magic, why?

Tabitha made me! If you must know, I hate sequels, but I woke up one morning, mumbling “Tabitha Lennox hated being a witch. The only thing she hated more than being a witch was being a rich witch.” And I was lost! I had no choice but to write Touch of Enchantment and actually ended up enjoying stealing another peek at Tristan, Arian, Copperfield, and Sven. I’m very much a “right-brained writer” so I’m always amused when readers assume I have any control over what I write. I always know it’s the right idea when it makes me giddy with joy, utterly terror-stricken, and sick to my stomach all at the same time. That’s the book I have to write next.

What did you read when you were growing up?

Whatever I could get my hands on! I read my first Victoria Holt book when I was seven and never looked back. My two favorite childhood books were The Secret Garden and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I loved The Princess Bride by William Goldman. I read all the Trixie Belden books. When I was twelve, I graduated to lush historical epics like Anya Seton’s Katherine and Gone With The Wind.

Who are your favorite authors?

You’re trying to get me in trouble with my friends, aren’t you? In romance, I love early Judith McNaught, Kimberly Cates, Anne Stuart, Theresa Weir, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Lisa G. Brown, Eileen Dreyer, Elizabeth Bevarly, Rebecca Hagan Lee, Connie Brockway, Penelope Williamson, Kristin Hannah, Jill Barnett, Deborah Smith, Pamela Morsi and a cast of thousands I’ve forgotten to mention but who will be calling me tomorrow. Outside of romance, I love Dorothy Cannell, Alice Hoffman, Larry McMurtry, Francine Rivers, Tami Hoag, Stephen King. I love writers with style and I love a great storyteller and when I can find both, I find it an irresistible reading experience. I think the best historical romance and possibly the best book ever written is The Windflower by Tom and Sharon Curtis (writing as Laura London).

Nobody’s Darling got many readers’ votes as a most-hanky read and a favorite funny in the 1999 AAR Reader Awards. The last scene in that book was very poignant – tell us what you were trying to do there.

Make myself cry. No, seriously, I wanted to make the reader stop and think that Billy and Esmerelda could have been anyone’s great-great grandmother and grandfather, even theirs. Every human being has a story. To me, that was one of the qualities that made the movie Titanic so poignant. Rose’s and Jack’s story was a fictional one, but every single person who went down on that ship had a story of their own.

Once an Angel is one of AAR’s publisher, Laurie Likes Books, all-time favorites. I asked the remaining questions on her behalf:

Teresa, Once an Angel was among the first “group” of romances I’d ever read and was the first Guardian/Ward romance. When you wrote that book, did you have an affinity for that type of romance? Can you share your favorites of this type of romance? Can you explain the allure of the Guardian/Ward romance?

Ah, you’ve hit upon one of my pet themes! If you’ve had a chance to read Lady of Conquest, you’ll discover it’s also a thinly disguised Guardian/Ward story. I think that particular myth has an appeal that’s both romantic and erotic. The heroine almost always goes through a “blossoming” phase. Her metamorphosis forces the hero to see her as a woman and potential mate. Then there’s the allure of the forbidden. He is thrust into the role of her caretaker/protector so he has to struggle with his attraction toward her. It makes for some very interesting internal and external conflict.

Also the setting was so terrific – I was reminded of it when I saw The Piano. Talk about setting that book in such a faraway place and how you were able to use the wildness and the “natives” in the story.

I fell in love with New Zealand when I was writing Once An Angel and was fascinated by the Maori culture. One of the favorite aspects of that book for me was being able to do the first half in that lush island wilderness and the second half in icy, rigid Victorian London.

I cried buckets at the end. When you are writing a scene like that, do you know the emotional impact it’ll have? What emotional impact does it have on you?

If I’ve done my job, it should have the same effect on me that it has on my readers. I use music as a creative tool when I’m writing. When I was writing that particular scene in Once An Angel, I was listening to the final theme on The Man from Snowy River soundtrack. I always end up just like Kathleen Turner at the end of Romancing the Stone – sobbing my heart out and groping for Kleenex! Sometimes after I write an incredibly wrenching scene like the scene in A Whisper of Roses where Sabrina’s horse goes over the cliff, I am an absolute emotional wreck for hours. (But another part of me is gleefully rubbing my hands together, going, “Wow, wasn’t it fun to throw Sabrina over the cliff!”)

Finally, when you set a book in two very different locales, how do you keep the balance within the story and for the readers?

By using contrast, as I mentioned above. The second setting should have a profound effect on the characters. When Justin in Once An Angel ended up in London, he couldn’t get warm. All he could think about were his sunny frolics on the beach with Emily. My books usually come full circle, bringing the characters back (either in physical location or in spirit) to the place where their emotional journey began.