The Wayback on Wednesday: Chatting with Sherry Thomas and Joanna Bourne

Joanna Bourne & Sherry Thomas

published on June 26, 2008


With The Spymaster’s Lady and Private Arrangements these new authors exploded (almost literally considering the volume of the online buzz) onto the scene by delivering compulsively readable and meaty historical romance with complex, flawed characters – the kind of characters we see all too rarely these days.

With both authors set to release new books – Joanna Bourne in July and Sherry Thomas in August – I got the rare opportunity to chat with two promising new authors about their books, their road to publication, and just what they think of the online romance community’s influence on book sales.

–Sandy Coleman


Joanna Bourne

Sandy: The Spymaster’s Lady is a truly wonderful book that gives me a great deal of optimism about the future of historical romance. Thanks to AAR’s intrepid sleuth Cheryl Sneed, I recently discovered I was mistaken in my belief that it represented your debut. Cheryl pointed out you are actually the author of Her Ladyship’s Companion, a Traditional Regency published by Avon in 1983 that is selling for the proverbial pretty penny these days on the used book market. So, where have you been and, as a follow-up, how did you keep your creative juices flowing for 25 years?

About the minute I finished Her Ladyship’s Companion, I left the US and started working for the Federal Government overseas. I didn’t stop writing, exactly, but I stopped writing cool romance stuff and started writing dull government stuff. I’ve found writing nonfiction is great training for writing fiction. They’re both a matter of getting the language exactly, precisely right.

Where have I been? Saudi Arabia, England, Germany, France, Nigeria.

How did I keep the creative juices flowing? I read a lot of Romance. (*g*) All those wonderful books.

Sandy: What I most loved about The Spymaster’s Lady were the characters of Annique and Grey, and, to be honest, the same holds true for Jess and Sebastian in My Lord and Spymaster. Do you think your vivid characterizations are the key to why readers have been blown away by your books?

Thank you so much for saying kind things about my Annique and Grey, my Jess and Sebastian. They seem very real to me, maybe that’s why they seem real to the reader. If I can put the reader inside Jess – make the reader feel what Jess feels, make the reader care about her – I’ve done my job.

Looking at the process of character creation here … In most all fiction, but especially in the romance genre, the reader wants to care about the protagonists. She wants to like the hero and heroine. We admire perfection, but we don’t truly like it. I want to build a character who is not too good or too strong or too perfect. The wiser and stronger a character is, I think, the more faults and vulnerabilities are needed to balance that out. Some characters appeal to us because of their simplicity – Merry in The Windflower comes to mind. Eunice in My Lord and Spymaster is supposed to be that sort of character. Simple. Straightforward. But I want my female protagonists to be more complex. I want them to have some meat on them.

Sandy: I know that readers can’t wait to get their hands on your new one – and, fortunately, they won’t have to wait long. Could you give them an idea of what to expect?

My Lord and Spymaster, (finally, a title without an apostrophe) exists in the same fictive world as Spymaster’s Lady. Jess and Sebastian are international merchants in a time when trading through Europe meant dodging both pesky customs officials and small arms fire.

Sebastian has spent months tracking down the English traitor who killed his friend. The evidence says it’s Jess’ father. Jess, company accountant and pretty-much-reformed thief, will do anything to clear Papa – even return to the mean streets, the rooftops, and the alleyways of her childhood. Day by day, the proof she uncovers points straight to Sebastian.

The answers lie hidden in the criminal underworld of London. Jess must walk there alone and ask the final questions of the one man who can suck her back into the life she escaped. If Jess and Sebastian can trust each other, they may find the real traitor. If not, he’s going to destroy them.

Sandy: A selfish question from me as a reader (and Cheryl joins me in this one): When-oh-when will Adrian, the fabulous secondary character from The Spymaster’s Lady and My Lord and Spymaster, get his chance to step into the hero’s spotlight?

I’m writing Maggie and Doyle’s story right now. Adrian is about twelve. Think of the worst twelve-year-old you’ve ever known, and then hand him a knife. That’s Adrian. Adrian’s story – Lord, I really want to write that – would be either the one after MAGGIE or the next one. It’ll be set in 1818. I’m still working on a woman for him.


Sherry Thomas

Sandy: Private Arrangements blew my socks off. It is clearly a book that you spent much time crafting. Could you tell me a bit about your path to publication?

I sometimes say that I spent eight years writing Private Arrangements. In a way it is true. It was the first manuscript I ever wrote – before that I hadn’t even written so much as a short story. Then I laid it aside and during the next five years, wrote four other manuscripts, had another kid, got an agent, and lost said agent. Then somehow I came across a printout of the book in a corner of the house. I read bits and pieces. Inspiration struck, and I decided to rewrite the story from scratch.

And then, once I finished the re-write in the summer of 2006, everything happened pretty fast from there. The full manuscript that I sent to Kristin Nelson, my agent, was read in less than a week. She sent me a revision letter. I worked on various aspects of the story for two weeks. She submitted it to 10 houses in New York, and within three days we had our first offer, and by the middle of the next week we’d accepted a pre-empt from Bantam.

Sandy: I don’t know if you kept up with the lively conversation that ensued about your book on the AAR review forum – including your use of the word “shag”. I know you’ve documented 18th century use of the word, but do you regret using a word that sounded modern even if it wasn’t? By that I mean, it seemed to pull some readers out of the story, so if you had it to do all over again, would you?

My unspoken rule of writing is: If one of my fave writers has done it, then I can do it too. I first came across “shag” in a historical romance in Judith Ivory’s Beast – which remains to this day one of the pinnacles of achievement in our genre. And who am I to not use it when the great master herself has used it so freely and gleefully?

Another thing is the effective use of language. “Shag” is a strong, direct verb, much stronger than “sleep with” and a host of other euphemisms that require a proposition at the end. I don’t know too many such strong, direct verbs that are historically accurate. “Fuck,” because it is so much more in-your-face, has to be used with greater care. And “roger,” beloved by Victorian writers of porn, I absolutely loathe and will not touch with a ten-inch – I mean, ten-foot pole.

So if I had to do it all over again, I would probably have done the same. But if memory serves, Delicious is a less shag-gy book, simply because the tone is more serious and “shag” is a rather light-hearted word.

Sandy: I know one of the writers who most shaped you is the great Susan Johnson and her terrific books of the early 90s. (I love the Braddock-Black series.) In many ways, your book was a return to those thrilling days of yesteryear in its sprawling story and complex characters. Is everything old new again?

If everything old is Kinsale, Ivory, Gaffney, and early Susan Johnson, then yes, I’d love to see everything old become new again. And of course Loretta Chase is still here and I can’t wait to read her newest which has been getting rave reviews everywhere.

So, I was lucky enough to get an early opportunity to read Delicious, your August release. But – and pretending for a moment that I don’t know anything about this fabulous book – could you give readers a clue as to what they can expect?

It’s a Cinderella story, but it’s not a fairy tale. There is a ball, there is footwear left behind, a heroine who works in the kitchen, a hero who falls in love with her that one fateful night – but everything is turned on its head.

When I started, I really had no goal in mind other than to write something mouthwatering cuz I adore food and food porn. But somehow, it developed into this complex, bittersweet tale of love and loss and finding your place in the world when there is no place in the world for you.

And it’s still pretty decent food porn, if I do say so myself.


The Roundtable

Your books are different kinds of books – one that conventional wisdom says publishers today just aren’t looking for.  How did you buck the odds?

Joanna: I have a wonderful agent, Pam Hopkins. She put the manuscript before the right editor, Wendy McCurdy. I don’t think there are many editors who would have been willing to take a chance on The Spymaster’s Lady.

Sherry: Hmm, interesting that you should ask that. Yesterday my husband googled me and found an article written by AAR’s own Kate Cuthbert for Australia’s Courier News, “Historical romance finds a return to fashion.” In the article Kate wrote that Private Arrangements featured “enormous risk-taking.” I read it two times to make sure she was talking about me. Sometimes ignorance is truly bliss: I had absolutely no idea that I was doing any extraordinary risk-taking. Maybe because the authors I tend to read all happen to be rule-breakers – To Have and To Hold, anyone? Shadow Heart? – that my concept of risk-taking is completely skewed.

Also, I wasn’t up-to-date on what publishers were looking for. All the editors and agents I’ve heard, read, met have all said the same thing: Write a book that blow us away and we will worry about the rest. I believed them. And I was right in believing them and worrying only about writing the best book I could and not whether anyone in their right minds would buy it.

Writing books as complex as yours has to take time. A great deal of time. Do you know yet what the publication schedule will be for future books? In other words, is there any way you can keep up your current pace of two books in one year?

Joanna: Absolutely no way can I write two books a year. The only reason these two came out so closely spaced is that I had a goodly time to work on My Lord and Spymaster before the publication of The Spymaster’s Lady – all that time I was looking for an agent and then a publisher. Future books are going to be at least a year apart. Probably more. I feel badly about this, but I’m just a very slow writer.

Sherry: My next book, Not Quite a Husband, is scheduled for summer 2009. And I’d love to put out two books a year, but the only reason I have two books out in 2008 is because PA’s pub date was scheduled to be closer to that of Delicious, which took 16 months to write, 14 of which had me convinced I was a oneder.

But I think – I hope – the difficulties I had with Delicious taught me a great deal about how to write as a professional, how to suss out flaws in the pacing and conflict of the story before committing large chunks of it to hard drive. So yes, I am cautiously optimistic that two a year could be done.

Sandy: Conventional wisdom again says that online reviews and buzz don’t matter a whit when it comes to sales. Common sense, however, tells me differently since the world has changed dramatically since publishers adopted that theory. My personal belief is that online reviews and buzz can’t damage an established author with a following, but I do believe very strongly that positive buzz can really get a book from an unknown author moving – something I think happened with both Private Arrangements and The Spymaster’s Lady.

So, here’s the question: Do you think you benefited from the great enthusiasm exhibited for your book in the online romance world?

Joanna: Oh Criminy, yes!

I don’t think anybody would have picked up The Spymaster’s Lady at all without the online reviews and the kind recommendations friends gave friends on the bulletin boards and in the forums. If any reader is wondering whether they should speak up and say something good, (or bad,) about a book – do It! Reader opinion has become tremendously powerful. Readers, especially articulate readers, have a voice. I just love the Internet.

Anyway … Back to online reviews. Anecdote time.

I had – still have – this introverted kinda blog, full of me arguing with myself how to improve the pacing in Chapter Seven and so on. This is a blog with about the hanging-on-the-edge-of-your-chair thrill of watching soap scum dry.

One day, all of a sudden the site meter goes wild. Zoooing. There are people reading the blog. Lotsa people. There are people from China and Japan and Minnesota reading the blog.

Says I, “Whaa?” Turns out, Smart Bitches had posted an online review, sending many thoughtful folks scratching their heads and wondering, “Who is this person, Joanna Bourne, and why does she have such a cheesy blog?”

The blog hits went wild after the AAR review was posted. So I know online reviews are powerful, because I see the actual hits on my blog when the influential sites talk about my book. I have, she says proudly, statistical proof.

So, talking about online reviews … the online community is where serious discussion of romance genre goes on. Maybe this is fitting, that the strongest and most interesting consideration of this aspect of popular culture takes place in a popular medium.

Sherry: No doubt about it. The recent Random House reader survey revealed that 62% of readers browse online for books and that 31% rely on online reviews. The ever-increasing traffic at sites like AAR and some of the more popular romance blogs definitely bear that out. And why not, online buzz is word of mouth at the speed of electrons.

And also, just seeing a book mentioned at multiple places online – positive reviews or not – might induce a reader to pick up the said book at the bookstore and read the backblurb and perhaps a page or two.

So yes, I believe I benefited tremendously from the attention Private Arrangements received online. And I couldn’t be more grateful for it.

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