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Talking with Joanna Bourne

Dabney: Thank you so much for talking with me. I am an unabashed Joanna Bourne fan girl and have been ever since I first read The Spymaster’s Lady. AAR readers have loved your Spymasters series; I’m sure many of us are counting the days until the release of your newest, Rogue Spy.

So let’s talk about, among other things, Rogue Spy.

The novel is set in 1802 which sets its story in between two of the other books in the series, The Spymaster’s Lady and My Lord and Spymaster. It’s an unusual thing in for a writer to do with a series, to write them in non-chronological order. What’s the reason you’ve done so?

Joanna: It’s worse even than setting the story between two books. Rogue Spy takes place inside Spymaster’s Lady.

The action of Rogue Spy begins while Annique and Grey are walking from Dover to London. The action ends two days after that fateful dinner party where Grey confronts Colonel Reams. Everything that happens in Rogue Spy is going on while there’s also important stuff going down in the other book.

I don’t know quite why I’ve written all these stories out of order. Maybe it’s because, whatever year I’m writing in, I’m always aware of the other stories in the fictive world. Side story. Back story. Future story.

But really, when it comes to writing in chronological order … I wonder why everybody else does this. So odd.

Dabney: Rogue Spy is Pax’s story. When did your readers first meet Pax? When this novel begins, what do we know about him from your earlier books?

Joanna: Leesee.

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We encounter Pax for the first time in Spymaster’s Lady. Grey had brought Annique to dinner to show her to Colonel Reams of Military Intelligence and make it clear she’s protected. Pax is pulled in to that dinner party as part of the Service’s ‘show of force’. Annique notices him on the other side of the table as, “The thin man with the aspect of a librarian.”

We see Pax next in Forbidden Rose. Paxton is seventeen. He’s the experienced Service agent while the younger Adrian is still very much on probation. About midpoint in the book, off stage, Paxton makes some attempt to kill Adrian. For … reasons.  Pax is doing this under orders and we can sense he didn’t have his heart in it. But it’s still not a promising start for what will turn out to be a lifelong friendship.

Black Hawk, while it’s following the long, complicated Hawker/Justine relationship, also gives us glimpses into Pax’s life. The scene in the chess café where Pax is unmasked as a traitor happens a couple weeks before the opening of Rogue Spy.

So this is where we start our story in Rogue Spy. Pax is revealed as a traitor in Black Hawk, Then Rogue Spy begins with how Pax has reacted to his unmasking.


Dabney: Pax and the heroine, Camille, are borderline superheroes. They were trained, as young children, to be deadly tools of the French during the French revolution. These children, called Caches, were to infiltrate the British Intelligence Service in what can safely be called a very long game. Where did you get the idea for the Caches?

Joanna: A long game. You describe it very well.  These are sleeper agents planted in England. Their trainers expected to ‘activate’ them years and decades later.

I don’t have any evidence that this actually happened in the Napoleonic War period — this planting of spy seeds for later use. But it’s a real-life technique from the Cold War era. So the basic idea of inserting agents for later use comes from modern spy games. No reason, says I, why it couldn’t have happened in 1790.

Would anyone have used young teenage types as spies?  I’m going to call this possible. Folks started adult work early in life in 1800. Why not spy work?

Dabney: When we first meet Camille she is living as the niece of two seemingly dotty elderly ladies Camille calls the Fluffy Aunts. They are irresistible. I want to know more about them. Where on earth did they come from and how did they come to be the top code breakers for the Brits?

Joanna: I loves me some Fluffy Aunts.

As to how they got into the business:

The British Service dates back in a direct line to Elizabeth’s day. A crafty network of Service agents plied their trade in the courts of Louis XIV and XV and in back alleyways and taverns across Europe.

Lily and Violet Leyland are the daughters of an English cleric who earned his bread leading bored, fractious, well-born idiots on the Grand Tour, keeping them out of trouble, and trying to pound a little history and art into their skulls.

Being an intelligent sort, the cleric noted interesting military and political tidbits along his way. Being conscientious, he passed them along to the British Service.

His daughters accompanied him on his travels and became rather expert in collecting information. By the time they were in their teens, the Service was briefing them on what to look for. They became agents. They travelled as eccentric spinsters, experts on antiquities and languages, incurably, harmlessly nosy.

For decades the Leyland sisters ran British operations in France. They pilfered secrets and flimflammed the opposition. They trained some of the best British spies — including the man who one day would become Galba, Head of the Service.

What do spies do if they live long enough to retire?

They take one of their premier skills — in this case decoding — and go live in a small cottage in the country to ply that trade. They translate archaic scripts. They argue with Oxford scholars. And they save a damaged, brilliant child who’s been dropped on their doorstep.  What else?

Dabney: Camille, before she was a Cache, was from a large, powerful Northern Italian family, the Baldoni. Each chapter of the book begins with a Baldoni saying. Those must have been fun to write. Which is your favorite?

Joanna: I loved writing those ‘sayings’. A few of them I lifted straight from the general fund of human folk wisdom, but a good many I created from the Baldoni mind.

My favorite is one embedded in the text, rather than at a chapter heading:

Telling the truth is like planting gold coins and expecting to reap bullion.

The Baldoni are pretty cynical, overall.

Dabney: Camille and Pax both see themselves as utter betrayers. The reader, however, has enormous empathy for them. It seems to me that in this book, as in the others in the series, what is right wars with what is best. Morality is contextual until, suddenly and satisfyingly, it’s not. Or, am I totally off-base here?

Joanna: In Rogue Spy and in all the other books, I try to show that sometimes a reasonable person compromises. Sometimes he makes mistakes. Sometimes — going directly to the question you pose — he chooses the greater good over his own private moralities. He does things he hates because they’re necessary.  And he lives with his troubled conscience.

My villains tend to be people who know, absolutely and without the least doubt, that they are correct in every particular. They sleep easy at night.

Dabney: I confess to a predilection for morally ambiguous characters. Thus, I love Lazarus. When we last encountered Lazarus, King of Thieves, he was, well, in the future dolling out his version of justice to Jessamyn, the heroine of My Lord and Spymaster. It is the same Lazarus here, is it not?

Joanna: This is the same Lazarus, yes … about ten years before Lord and Spymaster. The action of Rogue Spy takes place during some backstory of MLAS.

You know how Jess talks in MLAS about taking a bad fall when she was burgling?

That last time, when she’d fallen so bad and got herself trapped in the dark in the old warehouse, it had been Lazarus who came in for her.  He’d crawled in the whole way and pulled her out, with the building collapsing around their ears and bricks and timbers hitting them.  He’d risked his neck.


“Had ’em kidnap some nob doctor to set my arm.  He sat up all night, talking to me, to keep me from knowing how much I hurt.”

So Jess falls a bit before the start of Rogue Spy. She was concussed and has bones broken. Days pass and she’s healing.

We don’t see any of this onstage, but it brushes the distant corner of Rogue Spy. When Lazarus comes to Gunter’s, it’s because Camie has sent a message. Yes. But the ice cream he buys there is for a convalescent Jess.

When Adrian and Doyle are finished letting Pax walk off the docks, rather than bundling him off on a ship out of England, they head off in the dead of night to kidnap Jess from Lazarus and hand her over to her father.

This is only of interest to folks who follow the series.

Somebody reading Rogue Spy doesn’t need to know any of this and won’t see it happen.

I’ll just share it with you, special like.

Dabney: I am forever grateful.

It was almost shocking to put together the timeline of this story. This book begins near the end of The Black Hawk, right?

Joanna: The 1802 segment of Black Hawk ends up with Adrian getting a bullet hole in him. By the time we get to Rogue Spy that bullet hole has just barely healed. Adrian is over his fever, mostly, and he’s removed the bandages but he still has to be wary he doesn’t tear all that careful work apart and start bleeding again.

So Rogue Spy doesn’t overlap with that 1802 Black Hawk segment, but it’s contemporaneous with Spymaster’s Lady.

Dabney: How did you keep all your plot lines straight? Do you use some sort of modern program? Do you have a large chalkboard in your office?

Joanna: I have a computer chart that shows where everybody was and what they were up to every year. To do this I use the table that comes with Word and it is not very reliable. Every so often the table just goes ‘blooey’ and falls apart.

For plotting a book I use a big roll of white butcher’s paper. I tape it on the walls with that blue painter’s tape all the way around the room. I draw all these little boxes saying how old everybody is and where they were when and who met who when. I go through the book’s timeline and the other books’ timelines.  I draw long arrows pointing from book to book.

I’m afraid I’m not very technically advanced.

Dabney: I love the men of Meeks Street. Tell me, will we ever get Galba’s story? Is there a Mrs. Galba?

Joanna: I don’t see ever writing Galba’s story, because it doesn’t so much have a happy ending.  He’s dedicated to the Service and lives an important, satisfying life.  But he doesn’t have a love story.

Galba was married long ago. He had one daughter, Lucille. His wife died and he never remarried.

Dabney: And, by the way, is it just me or is Grey rather, ah, frustrated when he punches Pax? (Readers, if you haven’t read The Spymaster’s Lady, just do.)

Joanna: Grey is very frustrated.

Dabney: The villain Pax, Camille, and–wonderfully–their friends are facing is a true zealot. He is not the first of your villains to be driven by ideology. What appeals to you about such a character?

Joanna: I have this theory that it is reasonable men of every persuasion who keep the world running. Whatever they believe in, reasonable men have more in common with each other than they have with the fanatics of their own party.

I see ‘true believers’ of every stripe as dangerous, basically. There are limits to what the ordinary man will do for passion or monetary gain. No limits to what he’ll do for an idea.

In terms of creative villainy, fanatics are maybe more interesting than somebody simply out for what he can get.

Dabney: Pax is an artist and sees the visual world through the lens of painting. Why did you make him so? Do you feel it makes him a more effective spy?

Joanna: All agents would be trained to make maps and represent a piece of strategic ground or a face with workmanlike skill. Pax has something more. In this pre-photographic age Pax’s ability to render faces so accurately is highly valuable to the Service.

But note how his colleagues, talking about him, don’t even mention this. It’s important, but his ability in other spy skills is much more important.

I gave him a ‘painterly mind’ to illuminate character. To make the workings of his inner being distinctive and peculiarly his own. My closest equivalent is maybe my merchant traders in Lord and Spymaster who think in terms of value, buying and selling, ships and the sea.

The ‘painterly mind’ also makes him an observer of the world around him. Sets him a little apart. I want to create that sense of isolation, because I want Camie to break through that.

Dabney: So much of historical romance is focused on chastity, usually the heroine’s. Your books are not. Your heroes and heroines have all come to the great loves of their lives with varied backgrounds. What’s your take on the need for the virginal heroine?

Joanna: I had to think about this a bit.

Now, I’m leaving aside the need to conform to historical fact here, because I’m operating under Historical Romance conventions and — hey — writing spies.

So I can please myself.

My heroine’s sexual experience depends on what I need for the story. I’m not so much writing the innocent virgin or a non-virgin trope. I’m choosing the element that works with character and plot. It’s picking up the right spanner, as it were.

My Annique needed to be a virgin because Spymaster’s Lady is my bildungsroman, my coming-of-age story. The transition from virgin to woman-in-love is part of the process of growth and change. (In her case there are lots of practical spy-type reasons, too.)

Maggie in Forbidden Rose needed that sweet, childhood lover who’d been torn from her by class differences and thrown in prison. That relationship is why a French Aristocrat hates the Old Regime. Also why she creates an escape route from the Revolution.

Jess, in My Lord and Spymaster, needs an admirable former lover so Sebastian can reassess his own possessive nature.

And, of course, Justine’s horrible past as revealed in Black Hawk is what makes her ‘Justine’. You couldn’t separate her from that and create the same character.

I’ll leave the reader to figure out the virginity choices in Rogue Spy and why I wrote it that way.

Dabney: Lastly, I asked my co-workers if they had any questions for you.

Rike: Are you planning on writing a book with Justine’s sister as the heroine?

Joanna: Glad you asked. I am at this moment writing Severine’s story. I can’t say so much about it because I don’t have all the plot under control yet.

Caz, who speaks for so many says: For God’s sake, don’t ever stop.

Joanna: As long as folks keep reading them, God willing and the crick don’t rise, I’ll write.

Dabney: Thanks, Joanna, for taking the time to talk with AAR.

Ms. Bourne is generously giving away either a paper copy of Rogue Spy or a CD audiobook of Rogue Spy to one very lucky reader. (This offer is good for US and Canadian readers only.) To be entered into a drawing for the book, please leave a comment below.


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