Writer’s Corner for June, 2004
Mary Jo Putney
A Look Back and a Look Ahead
With roots set firmly in the Regency, Mary Jo Putney cemented her reputation and her place on the keeper shelves of historical romance readers with the publication of her Fallen Angel series in the 1990s. Never content to rest on her laurels, Ms. Putney – or MJP, as she is widely (and fondly) known to the online community – is also the author of well-received (and sometimes controversial) contemporary novels exploring real-world issues not often found in the traditional world of romance.
Not surprisingly given her predilection for pushing both herself and her readers, MJP ventures into new territory yet again with her upcoming series of European Historical Romances featuring paranormal elements. Recently we talked about her background, her fondness for twin plots (but you already knew that, didn’t you?) and her new series.
First, how about a brief biographical sketch?
I was born in the farm country of Western New York State, have degrees in 18th Century British Literature and Industrial Design from Syracuse University, and was a compulsive reader since I learned what those black marks on the page meant. I always thought that to be a writer (and that always meant novelist) would be the height of cool, but I thought it was an impossible goal. Until I got my first computer… The rest is history.
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Favorite books? Favorite romances?
Now this is a truly impossible question! What I can say is that Dorothy Dunnett, Georgette Heyer, and Mary Stewart are all authors I adored, and whose work influenced me greatly.
Tell us about your first romance and the sale of that romance. In other words how did you get into the business?
Divine intervention! Once I learned how to use the word processor on my Leading Edge, I decided to try to start a book, and what came out was a [traditional] Regency because I’d been reading a lot of them. A friend of a friend pointed me toward an agent (who is still my agent 18 years later), she made some editorial comments, then sent my revised 119 pages off to Hilary Ross, the Regency editor at Signet. A week later Hilary offered me a three book contract and I’ve never really recovered from the shock of that!
There’s been a lot of discussion on the message boards about how romances just aren’t what they once were. What’s your take on that?
I think it’s more that the genre has matured and a lot of the plots and characters have been thoroughly, one might say exhaustively, explored. When I read Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax, it was the first historical romance I’d ever read with a smuggling subplot. How many smuggling plots have there been since then? Enough so that it’s very hard to do that storyline with a lot of freshness. The same is true of numerous other plots, and the problem is compounded by publishers encouraging authors to write only in the handful of settings that tend to sell the best. This is true in both historical and contemporary romance – the Regency historical and the infamous cowboy/baby/bride books. In the hands of experienced writers, these stories can still sing but it’s hardly surprising that long-term readers are feeling restless. They want the same kind of “hit” that they got from romances when they first fell in love with them, but it’s just not the same after years have passed and hundreds of books have been read. They want books that have the same emotional fulfillment, but are different enough to feel fresh. It’s a difficult challenge.
Of all those tried and true, and possibly done to death, plots out there is there one you’d still love to do? Any you avoid like the plague?
I adore twin plots and amnesia plots. What can I say? I just like them, probably because they both include such interesting questions of identity. Other perfectly valid plots that don’t interest me are things like love triangles, stories where the hero destroys the heroine’s life because he just has to have her, and any conflict that could be resolved with a single conversation.
You’ve been around awhile (since you started writing as a teenager *g*), has the romance genre changed?
This is all generalizing, of course, but overall, stories have become shorter and more focused on the relationship. Everyone is so busy these days that there just isn’t time to sink into 150,000 word books with plots and subplots that span years and sometimes continents. I missed the first wave of romance popularity (my first book came out in 1987), so I also missed most of the love-at-first-rape books, for which I can only be grateful. Heroines have become stronger and more independent over time. I think the overall quality of writing has risen because the market is so competitive. It takes real talent to sell a first book these days. But the basic courtship story of two people coming to terms with themselves and their differences and making a lifelong commitment is still very much the heart of a good romance.
Do you think your first novel would sell in today’s market? If not, how would you change it?
The first book, The Diabolical Baron, was a traditional Regency, and I think it would probably still sell today, because the traditional Regency market has changed less than most. If I were to change it, I’d make the wordsmithery better! I’m not at all sure that my first historical romance would sell, for one thing, it’s over 130,000 words, which is pretty long by current standards. Plus the heroine is a courtesan, but that made it hard to sell then, too!
The Diabloical Baron! I read that when it came out and was a big fan of the traditional regencies of that era. Editors and publishers of the traditionals are trying to revive that genre. Any suggestions for them? Would you ever want to return to that medium in your own writing?
I think that there’s still a solid audience for the traditionals, and some writer have found that young girls enjoy the book as a romantic read without a lot of sex. Unfortunately, all small genres like the trad Regencies are suffering from the collapse of the midlist that has taken place over the last decade. (Briefly put, local book distributors went under and now only a handful of national chains do most of the buying. Plus, general retailers [not bookstores but places like Target and grocery stores] now carry less variety of books, preferring to concentrate on brand name authors and their backlists. In other words, lots of Nora Roberts and John Grisham, not a lot of traditional Regencies or SF/F.) I wish I had a solution for this, but I don’t.
On your website you mention that you’ll concentrate on historical novels again because you’ve realized (paraphrasing here) that contemporary is not really your natural voice. Could you expand on that? How does the writing differ?
I never stopped writing historicals, but for several years, I was interspersing them with contemporaries. I had some stories that would only work as contemporaries, plus I wanted to expand my boundaries to see what I could do. I’m proud of the three contemporaries I wrote for Berkley and I think they’re good books, but they were all very intense, edgy topics, and really hard work to write. Then I got hit with some family health problems, and I simply didn’t have the energy to write more contemporaries. So I returned full time to historicals because that’s my natural voice. (I.e., the stories and mindset come to me more easily. Those contemporaries were hard!)
As to the differences, contemporaries tend to have less description, and usually the language is a little less lyrical. Historicals can be larger than life and more over the top. In contemporaries, the language needs to be crisper and cleaner. One of the reasons historicals suit me so well is that I’m naturally verbose.
I’ve always thought of you as someone who creates well-matched heroes and heroines. Who comes to you first?
That varies, but it’s more often the hero. Then I need to find the right woman for him.
Some readers will say they identify with the hero others the heroine. Do you identify with either or both while you’re writing their stories?
I have to identify with both, or I can’t write them. But I’m probably a little more into the heroes.
In July the first book – A Kiss of Fate – in your new series will be released. In it you incorporate mages and magic into 18th century England and to my mind doing it very well. What was the genesis of this idea?
I’m a lifelong Science Fiction/Fantasy reader. I can still quote sound bites from the Heinlein books I read and reread as a kid. So when I was looking for fresh elements for my historicals, magic was a natural fit. I love writing magic both for itself, and because it can emphasize and enhance the conflicts of normal life. With great power comes great responsibility – that will be a recurring theme in my Guardian books. Plus, with magic, heroines can be very much the equal of the heroes, which is another kind of fun.
So you’re a fan of SF/F and are now including a paranormal element in your new series. Are you a fan of any of the current crop of fantastic/futuristic romance authors?
Susan Grant for starters. Other favorites of mine who write on the SF/F side are Lois McMaster Bujold, Catherine Asaro, and Sharon Shinn. Shinn in particular builds her stories around a romance in a way that any romance reader will recognize.
Where do you think your writing will be ten years from now?
I’m sure I’ll still be writing relationship stories. Beyond that, who knows? I never say never!
What are you working on next?
I’m writing a second Guardian book whose hero is a secondary character in A Kiss of Fate. (Simon, Lord Falconer.) No title yet, but it should be out in summer 2005. I have a third book contracted beyond, and it will probably feature Jean Macrae, also a secondary character in AKOF.
Having enjoyed the new book so very much, I’ll look forward to reading these sequels! Thank you for your time, Mary Jo.