Writer’s Corner for June, 2005

Julia Quinn

I’m a big fan of Julia Quinn and I have been for a number of years now.

Of course, the bright, sparkling dialogue for which she’s so well known certainly has a lot to do with my affection for her books. And, not surprisingly, her characters – some of the most three-dimensional, interesting people you’ll meet anywhere in romance – also play a role. Add in her deft touch with a love scene and it’s hard to argue with the fact that in the talented hands of Julia Quinn, “light” means smart, funny, and real – a claim to fame many other “light” writers just can’t make.

It’s In His Kiss, the author’s new release, perfectly illustrates why, in an overwhelming sea of “sameness”, there’s nobody quite like Julia Quinn – something all those readers propelling her to the top of the New York Times list clearly have no trouble recognizing. With the seventh book in her Bridgerton series about to hit the selves, Julia talked with me recently about her new release, her approach to writing, and the future of historical romance.

–Sandy Coleman

Julia, I just finished It’s In His Kiss and it’s already one of my favorite books of the year. (Now, how’s that for a start?) If I had to come up with one word to describe this one, I think it would be “charming” since that nicely describes heroine Hyacinth Bridgerton and hero Gareth St. Clair, as well as the thoroughly lovely way you tell their story. If you had just a minute or so to describe the book and your goals for it for our readers, what would you say?

First off, I’m so glad you enjoyed It’s In His Kiss. I’ve finally reached the stage where I love it myself. Generally, when I’m writing a book, I’m too deeply into it to judge what I’m doing. I may love parts of it, but I always stress that the big picture I have in my head isn’t holding together. Then, once I’m done, I fall into a worried phase, when I start comparing it to my other books and stress that readers who liked this one won’t like that one. Then, as I get closer to the book’s release, I start realizing that I actually like it a lot.

I think my goal while writing It’s In His Kiss was first and foremost to develop a story that made sense for Hyacinth. She was a character I’d developed over the course of six other books, and I knew I had to remain true to that. There’s nothing worse than when an author gives a secondary character his or her own story and then changes the personality to fit the story rather than vice versa.

So I knew with Hyacinth that the story was going to have to be fun. And once I decided to make Lady Danbury an important character, that part was easy. The dialogue in this one just wrote itself. But I also wanted to make sure that the story was more than just a romp. It needed to have some emotional depth as well. This was mainly achieved through Gareth’s background, as Hyacinth had already been established as a character without any serious “issues.”

I’m glad you mentioned Lady Danbury because her HEA is one of my favorite moments in the book. You handled is so delicately and it’s so, well . . . not sappy (perish the thought!) it’s a really wonderful emotional payoff and perfectly illustrates why I think only Julia Quinn is Julia Quinn.

You know, I thought about killing her off a couple of books ago. I’m so glad I didn’t!.

One word (and, okay, it’s not really a word) that I would never be used to describe a Julia Quinn heroine is TSTL. Your heroines are usually young women with alot of confidence in their brain power and far less so when it comes to men. I think a lot of AAR readers – well, me, anyway – recognize those young women very, very well since no matter how far we go in life, we never quite get over our high school selves. Do you think that recognition factor is one of the keys to your popularity?

I don’t know if it’s a key to my popularity, but I do know that for one book in particular – Romancing Mr. Bridgerton – readers really identified with the heroine. It actually took me a bit by surprise, as the hero, Colin, was a character I’d received a lot of email about. Everyone wanted a story for him. But once RMB came out, it was Penelope everyone loved. And I think that was because so many of us saw ourselves in her. I think you’re right – we don’t get over our high school selves, at least not 100%. I’d like to think that I’m a very different person than I was in the mid-80s. I know have more self-confidence, and I also have a better idea of who I am and how I wish the world to perceive me. But every now and then something will happen that will throw me right back to being 15 years old, and you know what? It’s a horrible feeling. High school wasn’t all bad, but still, you couldn’t pay me enough money to be in high school again (and don’t evenmention junior high!) But that experience is part of what has shaped me, and even as I cringe, I do value the memory. And I drew on it when I wrote about Penelope. I remember so vividly that sense of dichotomy, of knowing who you were on the inside and not understanding why you couldn’t figure out how to be the same person on the outside. I think this resonated with readers. They saw themselves in her.

I think a lot of readers will identify with Hyacinth, too. I certainly did. Protecting yourself emotionally by hiding behind your wit is something a lot of smart girls have to get over, I think. Hyacinth may not have had many serious issues, as you say, but that certainly rang true for me.

She was definitely a challenging character to write. She’d appeared in so many books before, and she has such a smart mouth. I actually had to scrap sixty pages of a different version of the book because I realized that there was no way to work the plot and remain true to Hyacinth’s character without her coming across as insanely stupid. (I mean, you don’t mouth off to the guy with the gun, right?) Even with the story I eventually wrote for her, there was always a fine balance when it came to her. She couldn’t be syrupy sweet, but she also couldn’t be obnoxious. I tried to humanize her with a few awkward moments as well, like when you explain a joke and then realize that everybody had got it on their own.

Julia, a bit of a delicate area here, so bear with me. As you well know, there are a lot of writers out there now clearly attempting to emulate the “Julia Quinn style” – they’re attempting not only to emulate your success, but I’d also argue ( as I have on more than one occasion already) that there is something so accessible about your style, that you make it seem far easier than it really is to write a “light” book that is also emotional, smart, and real. So, do you think I’m completely off the deep end here or is there some truth to that contention?

I don’t think any writer sets out to emulate another writer’s style. But I do think writers gravitate toward the style or tone or setting of the books they love. Take me for example. When I started writing Splendid, my first book, my favorite authors were Johanna Lindsey, Julia Garwood, Judith McNaught, and Lisa Kleypas. I had realized that I loved the Regency era, and I adored witty repartee, which I think all four of those authors do superbly. So, naturally, that was what I gravitated toward. If new authors are writing Regency historicals with a light touch, I don’t think it’s because they want to write a “Julia Quinn style” book. Rather, I think they’re just like I was – they gravitate toward what they like.

That said, I think there are dangers when writing a so-called “light” book. The book should never be about the humor. Ultimately, it has to be about the romance. When I look at my growth as a writer, I think it mostly lies in characterization and emotional depth. I still have a very light style (even When He Was Wicked, certainly my darkest book, is written with a light style), but I try to make sure there are deeper layers, a bigger emotional payoff. I spend a lot of time before I sit down to write developing the characters. I want them to be three-dimensional, and not just the same hero or heroine I did the time before.

Is that hard to do? Yeah, I think it is. Am I the only one doing it? Of course not.

You took a chance last year with When He Was Wicked, a book that was more somber in tone that what readers have come to expect from you and even featured a widowed heroine who loved her husband and – gasp! – enjoyed sex with him. Obviously, as a writer, you wanted to explore something different, but did you feel your publisher was with you every step of the way? It won our reader’s award for Most Hanky Read of the year, but I’m curious as to what feedback you might have gotten overall from readers.

Avon was a little nervous about the story when I turned in the synopsis but in the end, completely supportive. I wouldn’t say that When He Was Wickedstepped outside of the romance genre in any way, but the structure of the book was atypical for romance: the first four chapters took place four years before the real romance part of the story begins. And in those four chapters you meet the heroine’s first husband John and see that they have a great marriage and love each other very much. When he dies, he does so essentially “on camera,” and the reader really sees Francesca’s grief, as well as that of Michael (who is John’s cousin and the ultimate hero of the book).

No one ever asked me to turn John into a bad guy or to change Francesca’s relationship with him in any way. The one concern my editor expressed at the outset was that Michael might not feel like the hero of the book with the memory of John hanging over the story. So, I promised that I would keep that at the front of my mind through the writing and that was that. And I did assure them that I wasn’t planning to show Francesca and John being intimate. When I turned the book in, I was asked if I might consider trimming the opening, mostly because it felt very tragic. I thought about it and decided that I wanted to leave it as it was. I felt that it was essential for the reader to see all this in order to understand how Francesca and Michael interacted in the rest of the book. I could have just told about their history, but I felt it would be a richer book if I showed it instead.

Reader reaction was interesting. Some just adored it, saying it was the best book I’d ever done. And some didn’t like it at all, because it wasn’t what they expected from me. I’d say the majority of readers liked it quite a bit but perhaps wouldn’t rank it as their favorite. I’m fine with that. I’m very proud of the book and feel that I grew a lot as a writer with it.

There’s much discussion these days from both readers and authors about the impending death of historical romance, but judging by your career, reports of that death have been greatly exaggerated. How does it look from where you sit?

Oh, this is a tricky one. I don’t believe that historical romance is dying, but it has certainly shrunk a bit. There are far fewer historical books being published than just a few years ago. This is due to a number of reasons. Chick Lit and Paranormal have taken off, and a number of authors have veered in that direction. Also, mass-market as a format is in decline, while trade and hardcover are on the rise (this is true across the board, not just romance). But for whatever reason, it’s very difficult to publish historical romance in hardcover. The contemporary audience seems much more receptive to it.

But even with all that, I think there are plenty of signs that historical romance is healthy and strong. A lot of us routinely hit the New York Times list, both the short list and the extended. At my publishing house, Avon, there are considerably more historical authors publishing in the top spots than contemporary.

There are hurdles, though. The potential market for contemporary romance is bigger than for historical. Readers who think they like Chick Lit or Women’s Fiction may pick up a contemporary romance, especially when it is published in hardcover or trade. The challenge for historical romance, in my opinion, is to figure out how to grab these readers and perhaps those of historical fiction (which often has a romantic subplot), and show them that Historical romance can be terrific as well.

Also, don’t you think that a lot of contemporary readers don’t even know they’re reading romance.? I’ll bet a substantial portion of Nora Roberts’ readers fit into this category. With historical romance, though, as you say, there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it and all the prejudices about bodice rippers immediately kicks in.

Oh, absolutely. Lots of people pick up contemporary romance without even realizing it. I don’t think most readers look at the categorization on the spine.

You’ve given me with a nice transition into another tricky question. As I’m sure you know, something termed the “Avonization” of historical romance has been batted around the AAR message boards on more than one occasion. As someone who loves historical romance and reads a lot of them, frankly, I think there’s some truth to the fact that there is a bit of a pre-fab quality to a lot of Avon romances. And, since Avon arguably dominates the historical romance market, the result is an awful lot of cookie cutter romances out there. So, if the historical romance market is shrinking “a bit” do you think that this “same old-same old” problem is one of the factors responsible for that?

It’s hard to say. I know that many readers feel that the reason the Regency era is so popular is that that’s all there is for people to discover and buy. But the truth is, when I started out in the mid-90s, there was a great variety of settings, and it became clear – very clear – that Regency historicals were outselling the rest by a lot. I was one of the lucky ones, as that was what I wanted to write, anyway.

As for “Avonization,” I just hate that term. I certainly haven’t read everyone on the list, but there is great variety in writing style and voice among the Avon authors. I don’t write anything like Stephanie Laurens, who doesn’t write anything like Teresa Medeiros, who doesn’t write anything like Lisa Kleypas, who doesn’t write anything like Christina Dodd. And then there’s Eloisa James, who I think is enormously talented, who really turns the normal structure of the romance novel on its ear. That’s just looking at the top of the list, obviously, but I think there is great variety in the midlist as well. I’ve adored Laura Lee Guhrke’s Avon books – more so than her earlier ones. Adele Ashworth is just brilliant. Mary Reed McCall has stuck to Medievals, and they are so rich with history. Is every author fabulous and fabulously original? Well, probably not, but you’re not going to find that at any publishing house.

Fair enough. In a May interview with AAR, Connie Brockway said this: “Sadly, I don’t think there is much of a market in historical romance these days for exploring things which aren’t easily explained in the context of a kiss or resolved with a declaration of love. And, before anyone jumps down my throat, of course there are exceptions. And brilliant ones, too. But not enough and growing rarer.” Does any of this resonate with you?

I think you can explore the sorts of issues Connie has brought up, but it’s a tricky thing to do. To me, a successful romance has to have the love story as the “A” story of the book, so if you want to explore other issues, they can’t dominate the book. In my later books, I have tried to give some of my characters issues and problems that aren’t solved with an “I love you.” The “I love you” certainly helps, as it is almost always easier to battle your demons with someone by your side, but in the end, they’re your demons, and the character’s growth and change must come from within.

Well, you know, Julia, in romance – as in just about everything – it takes a great deal of skill to reach those greater depths and higher places. I’m sorry – really, really sorry – that Connie no longer finds historical romance challenging, but I’m also glad that you don’t seem to plan on going anywhere! I know you’ve got at least one book left in your Bridgerton series, do you have any clue – or, probably more correctly – will you give us a clue as to where your future books will take us?

I’m sorry about Connie, too. I’ve never actually sat down and made a list of my ten favorite romances, but if I did, As You Desire would surely be on it.

As for me, I do have an idea of what I want to do after the Bridgertons, but I still need to flesh it out. I do know that I’ll be doing a two-book series, and they will both take place in the Regency. But beyond that, you’ll have to wait and see. As will I – all I have right now is a three-sentence idea. But I’m excited about it! I never set out to write an eight-book series, and while I’ve loved almost every minute of it (no writer likes every minute of writing), I am starting to feel like it’s time to move on.

Since you’re at my mercy here to come up with the questions, I’ll ask you if there’s a question I didn’t ask you for which you had the absolutely perfect answer?

I don’t know about a question, but the answer is most definitely 42!

That one, I’m told, is for all you Hitchhiker fans out there.

Links to Julia Quinn articles/interviews at AAR