Pink Carnation Q&A

Q: Where did you get the idea for The Secret History of the Pink Carnation?

A. Baroness Orczy used to say that the Scarlet Pimpernel strolled up to her one day at a Tube stop. My introduction to the Purple Gentian was far less dramatic. After years of exposure to the Scarlet Pimpernel and his swashbuckling brethren, it occurred to me that the Pimpernel and Zorro and all those other masked men really had it way too easy. Their plans were seldom foiled; they always landed on their feet when swinging through windows; and, for the most part, their heroines stayed out of the way, cheering from the sidelines. Clearly, this state of affairs couldn’t be allowed to continue. I set about plotting mayhem, and quickly decided that an enemy would be insufficient obstacle to fling into my suave spy’s path. Enemies were too simple, too easy. I would bedevil my hero, not with an enemy, but with an unwanted ally. A strong-minded heroine set on unmasking him—so she can help him. It was every spy’s worst nightmare. Once that crucial question was resolved, the plot rapidly fell into place. Napoleon’s interest in antiquities and the archaeological aspect of the Egyptian expedition provided a cover for my hero, and the guillotine a motive for my heroine. After that, however, the characters pushed me aside and took over. Richard flatly refused to swing into rooms on a rope, and the smuggling subplot, which was originally accorded a much larger role, all but disappeared. As for Jane… let’s just say that Jane was originally supposed to be meek and mild.

Aside from the lure of masked men, I’ve always had a fascination with this particular time period. When I was ten, one of the inevitable Napoleon and Josephine mini-series aired on television. Enthralled, I badgered my father, a former historian, for books on the topic. He replied with a pile of heavy tomes. They might be dusty on the outside, but on the inside, they teemed with color and intrigue. I laughed over Josephine’s pug dog biting Napoleon on their wedding night and cried over the unhappy marriage of Josephine’s daughter to Napoleon’s brother. I even named all of the guppies from my fifth grade science project after Napoleon’s numerous relations.

Although the guppies long ago departed for that great fishbowl in the sky, my interest in the Napoleonic Wars has remained, from the English side as well as the French. With Waterloo so firmly fixed in our imaginations, sometimes it’s hard to remember that the threat of French domination seemed a very real thing to contemporaries, as gallant little England held out alone against the growing forces of France (England’s continental allies showed a distressing habit of surrendering every time Napoleon defeated them in battle). It was a time of flux and turmoil, as England reacted to the shocking news and ideas pouring across the Channel, fearing rebellion within as well as invasion without. Uncertainty and upheaval may not make for comfortable living, but they provide great fodder for both historians and novelists.

 

Q. You’re in graduate school and law school, and yet still find time to write novels. How do you juggle?

A. It helps that I have very poor television reception. Aside from the lack of distractions, it all comes down to what I think of as the Theory of Productive Procrastination. It’s a sad fact of human nature—or, at least, my nature—that one never wants to do what one is actually supposed to do. The minute I undertake a task, I would instantly rather be doing something else. Laundry, for example, or cleaning out the bottom of the closet. Writing The Secret History of the Pink Carnation gave me something to do while avoiding working on my dissertation. Of course, the dissertation still needed to get done, so I had to add on law school. In comparison with doing my torts homework, the dashing Royalists who form the subject of my dissertation suddenly took on a renewed allure. And to get myself to do my law school homework… well, there’s always the new book to procrastinate from now, even if it does mean that my closet is still messy and likely to remain so. I find the same rule applies within the Pink Carnation books; whenever the historical characters begin to weary me, there’s always Eloise to play with, and vice versa.

Apart from the procrastinatory imperative, juggling multiple careers has proved unexpectedly productive in other ways. I wrote the Pink Carnation over summers, on either side of my third year of graduate school. That nine month hiatus in between, while frustrating at the time, gave the plot and characters time to simmer on the backburner and mature in ways I had never anticipated. Recently, I took a break from the third book in the Pink Carnation series to work at a law firm for several months. The interactions and intrigues of the office provided all sorts of insights into human nature and ideas for future plot twists. One of the glorious aspects about writing is that nothing is a wasted experience; one never knows when a scrap of dialogue, a historical fact, a bit of legal jargon, might suddenly come in handy, popping to the surface from the subterranean reaches of one’s brain. While the writer as introvert in a garret is a well-established trope, venturing out into the workaday world keeps dialogue and characters grounded in some semblance of reality.

 

Q. Like Eloise, you have spent the past six years working on a graduate degree in English history. Did your historical training aid in researching The Secret History of the Pink Carnation?

A. Yes and no. I had done a field on Modern Britain (which is defined as anything post 1714), which left me with a bookcase full of monographs on Georgian England, and I was a past master at wandering through the stacks of Widener Library with my head at a forty-five degree angle, just in case there might be something on the shelves the library catalog had missed. I knew how to work the microfilm reader, and where to look for the more obscure historical journals. At first, it all seemed to be going well. I even had all sorts of choice historical tidbits gleaned from contemporary memoirs (Napoleon’s relatives always make for colorful reading)—and then I hit a snag. Amy was about to fling herself into a chair, and I had no idea what the chair looked like. I turned to my bookshelves, but none of the scholarly works that weighed down my shelves contained anything remotely useful. Fifty-odd books on Georgian England, and not one description of a chair. All of this is a rather long way of saying that training as a historian goes only so far in writing a historical novel. Bit by bit, I learned to look farther afield for those pesky period details one couldn’t find in the traditional histories, developing a collection of books on antiques, architecture, costume, and even cookbooks. Historical maps suddenly became items of desire. I haunted the period rooms in the Metropolitan Museum, squinted at little plaques in folk museums in England, and discovered a wealth of resources on the internet, especially writers groups devoted to the time period.

 

Q. Why a book within a book?

A. Too much caffeine? Aside from the effects of over-caffeination, the Eloise chapters arose out of a combination of factors. During my year in England, I’d gotten hooked on chick lit, and was eager to try my hand at it. As a writer, I enjoyed the challenge of working with different voices and styles within the same book. The Delaroche chapters, deliberately penned in a style that I think of as “High Melodrama 101,” arose out of that same impulse. Writing in the first person provided a whole new set of challenges to work through. How do you adequately describe a character from within her own head? Since everything is filtered through that character’s viewpoint, how do you allow her to cherish her misconceptions while putting the reader in the know?

As a historian, I had another hobby-horse to ride. One of the greatest challenges for both the historian and the historical novelist is rendering the past accessible to a modern audience. In juxtaposing the historical and modern chapters, I hoped to play up the commonalities that persist across the centuries, despite changes in costume and custom. Over my years dipping in and out of archives, I’ve repeatedly been struck by how little human nature changes. By far my favorite example of this comes from a set of fourteenth century letters, in which a teenage boy writes home from boarding school because his favorite tunic needs washing and he’s short of funds (which sounded eerily like my brother’s calls home from boarding school), and a grown daughter fumes to her brother that if she has to spend one more day in the same kitchen with her mother, one of them isn’t going to make it out alive (we’ve all been there). I’ve also seen the son of a sixteenth century queen write to his mother that his grandfather is a big meanie because he won’t let him go riding, he’s grown two inches, and when is she going to come home so that he can show her his brilliant new toy sword? Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

 

Q: You and Eloise are both Harvard grad students who spent a year abroad in England. How much of the book is autobiographical?

A. The answer to that is probably best summed up by a college roommate, who, upon reading the book, exclaimed indignantly, “But Eloise isn’t anything like you!” We do share a predilection for three inch heels and toffee nut lattes, but, other than that, Eloise’s adventures are entirely her own. My own researches take place two hundred years earlier than Eloise’s, in the seventeenth century rather than the nineteenth, and I did not, much to my chagrin, stumble on a cache of undiscovered family papers. Instead, I developed an intense attachment to my favorite desk in the manuscript room on the third floor of the British Library, and spent several weeks learning how to work the water cooler in the lunchroom of the Public Records Office. In my own defense, it was a very confusing water cooler.

Nonetheless, while Eloise and I are far from the same person, we occupy very similar worlds. Making Eloise a graduate student in the Harvard history department was a sop to all those years of English teachers who sternly admonished me to write what you know. I hated that advice. I didn’t want to write what I knew; I wanted to write about dashing men in knee breeches dangling improbably from ropes, conducting daring midnight escapes. But, despite all my fuming and fidgeting, I have to admit the wisdom of their advice. Placing Eloise in the same academic program and loaning her my basement flat in Bayswater made her much easier to write about. I could picture her route to the British Library every morning, the kebab shop where she buys her fish and chips, even the clothes hanging in her closet. Even the party where Eloise attacks Colin with a glo-stick has a basis in a similarly bizarre bash I attended while overseas. There’s a certain nostalgic pleasure to revisiting my old haunts through Eloise’s eyes.

 

Q: The Secret History of the Pink Carnation borrows elements from a number of different genres. While the debt to Baroness Orczy is clear, which other authors influenced you in your work?

A. Cursed with literary schizophrenia, I grew up reading mysteries, romances, suspense, fantasy, spy novels, nineteenth century fiction, and those wonderful, multigenerational historical epics that proliferated through bookstore shelves back in the ‘80s. My father had a taste for historical fiction, and my mother for Japanese and Russian literature of the more lugubrious sort, so we had very eclectic bookshelves. I read anything, anywhere, at any time (although reading while roller skating was not one of my better ideas). I’ve been staggering between genres ever since.

If I had to narrow it down to a crucial few, I would say that my imagination was molded by a combination of Alexandre Dumas, Margaret Mitchell and Judith McNaught. I dashed down narrow alleyways with D’Artagnan, ran blockades with Rhett Butler, and exchanged quips with supercilious heroes in Regency ballrooms. But my stylistic sensibilities were shaped in the school of L.M. Montgomery, Nancy Mitford, and Elizabeth Peters, who, despite writing in completely different genres, all have a knack for an ironic turn of phrase and a winning way of highlighting life’s absurdities. When Judith Merkle Riley’s “A Vision of Light” came out, followed by Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander,” it was the best possible combination of both tendencies: vivid historical scenes presented with a wry twist.

 

Q. What was the most difficult/frustrating part of the writing process?

A. It’s hard to pick just one. I’d have to go with those days when I sit down at the computer, and no one’s there. My characters are all out to lunch. Even the villain can’t be rousted out of his bed to do anything dastardly. I sit and scowl at the screen, drink ludicrous amounts of tea, check email every three minutes, and generally work myself into a snit. The English language becomes an unfamiliar wilderness and words, with all the recalcitrance of a herd of stubborn sheep, refuse to allow themselves to be arranged into any semblance of coherence. And then, on the flip side, there are those days when the characters are jumping up and down in my head, shouting, “Pay attention to me!” and fluid lines of perfect prose are unrolling through my head—but I can’t act on any of it, because there’s something else I have to do, like grade student papers, or it’s four in the morning and I’ve already turned my computer off . Having learned from past experience that such moments are fleeting, I try to always keep paper and pen somewhere in the vicinity, so I can catch at least a fraction of those fragments of narrative and dialogue before they scuttle away again. Of course, those instances—both sets of them—are more than outweighed by those glorious moments when the characters frolic across the page, doing all sorts of wonderful things I never expected them to do.

 

Q. Will Eloise and Colin’s story continue into the next book?

A. Although Eloise and Colin’s story continues, the next book, The Masque of the Black Tulip, belongs to Henrietta Selwick and Miles Dorrington, the Purple Gentian’s little sister and best friend. When Eloise follows Colin back to Selwick Hall to plunder the family archives, she discovers that there’s a new French spy on the loose: the Black Tulip. (My apologies to Alexandre Dumas for stealing the name!) The Black Tulip is under orders to find and eliminate the Pink Carnation—which means, naturally, that someone will have to find and eliminate the Black Tulip. And who better to do so than Miles? Of course, Henrietta, the girl whose earliest words were “me, too!” insists on pursuing her own investigations. Over the course of writing The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, it became gloriously clear that Henrietta and Miles were perfectly suited—and equally clear that they were sure to fight it every step of the way. I’m happy to say they have proved me right on both counts.

 

Q. When will Jane get her own book?

A. I’m not sure how much I should give away… but the short answer to that is, not for a while yet. One of the constraints of working in the early nineteenth century is that heroines tend to marry young, much younger than suits our modern sensibilities. If they don’t, the author is forced to engage in alarming contortions to explain why the heroine has been left on the shelf for so long—forced to take care of the family estates, without the money to afford a Season, kidnapped by bandits and locked in a box till after she turned twenty-one, and so on. An interesting trend recently has been to have older, widowed heroines, where the age problem is dealt with by the expedient of an earlier marriage and a conveniently deceased husband. With Jane, however, this problem is moot. Jane has a wonderful reason for not marrying young: she’s too busy saving civilization from the depredations of Napoleon’s armies. I will say, however, that Jane does get her romance eventually, and I know exactly who it is—but that’s between me and Jane.


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