Sarah MacLean has been a long-time virtual friend. I read her blog even before her debut novel, a YA offering entitled The Season, was released in the spring of 2009, and I snatched up her novel as soon as it was released, since I am a sucker for a good Regency romance – and Sarah is a wizard at writing great Regency (and post-Regency) romances. You can tell how very much I loved her book in my review. As you might imagine, like many of her readers, I was disappointed to learn that as of now, there are no plans for sequels to The Season (and I SO wanted to read stories for Vivi and Ella, and any unclaimed brothers of Alex's, and maybe another friend of theirs as well! WOE! But I digress.)
Earlier this year, Sarah's first adult title – Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake – was released, and quickly made the U.S.A. Today bestseller list. In October, Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord was released, and it landed on the still-more-prestigious New York Times bestseller list. I am feeling delighted with myself for having lined up this interview even before Sarah's tremendous success.
1. Your first book, The Season, is a Regency romance for young adults that came out in 2009, a year in which paranormal romance was dominating the teen market. Having read your blog for years now, and knowing what a fan of romance you are, I have to assume that The Season was a labor of love for you. While you were writing it, were you at all concerned that the book might not find a readership given the strong interest in paranormal romance and urban fantasy? When it found its readership, were you surprised at the immediate clamor for additional titles? Why or why not
First, I can see this is not going to be one of those fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants interviews . . . you’re going to make me think about answers, aren’t you, Kelly? *puts on thoughtful cap*
Paranormals are a behemoth, obviously, and anyone writing YA these days knows that if they’re not writing a paranormal, it’s going to be an uphill battle. That said, I knew that when I was a kid, paranormals were never what did it for me. I was all historical, all the way. Combine that with the fact that historical romance is still one of the big chunks of the adult romance market, and it seemed to me that The Season wasn’t such a bad idea! After all, Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle series was Victorian (and, yes, paranormal), and by the time I had finished the book, Anna Godbersen’s Luxe series (in Gilded Age New York) was out . . . so I like to think I was in pretty good company.
I’m so happy to see that The Season resonated, and that it came at the start of such a vibrant wave of historical-set YA . . . I’m thinking of Angie Frazier’s Everlasting and Saundra Mitchell’s upcoming The Vespertine and Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution. Yes, some of them have a paranormal bent, but the lush historical settings in these books are the real story, I think.
I find it interesting to note you were all about historical novels, and got to wondering whether your first love is romance or the historical novel. A historical romance is obviously both things, but if you had to pick only one, which would it be? (Yes, I'm asking a Solomon-like question. Sorry.)
A toughie, especially with authors like Tracy Chevalier, Philippa Gregory and Emma Donoghue writing such fabulous historical fiction--but I have to go with historical romance. It was my first love and definitely where my heart still lies! One need only read an Eloisa James, Lisa Kleypas or Sophie Jordan novel to know exactly why I love it so much!
2. Why do you think there isn't more straight-up romance writing for teens?
I think there’s no question that there is a perception that straight-up romance is somehow less valuable than other genres of fiction, and that is certainly a part of it in YA. I’m constantly hearing from people who have never read romance that they are surprised that “there’s a plot” or that “the writing is so good.”
It’s a shocking, saddening truth that people think of romance as the bastard child of fiction — and that is no different in YA. Of course, when they open themselves up to it, they find rich stories that address the most human of desires: our desire for companionship, for friendship, and for love.
There are authors who do YA romance so well, even in books that are not considered precisely “romance.” I’m thinking of Sarah Dessen and Melissa Walker, of Kimberly Derting’s The Body Finder and Sophie Jordan’s Firelight — these authors are just so good at packing that emotional punch into their writing, I think the books stand as romance as much as anything else.
3. A lot of authors believe that YA fiction is somewhat ghettoized, and I know that genre writers (be it romance, horror, mystery or speculative fiction) often feel that they are ghettoized within the world of literature as well (nevermind that those genres tend to be some of the best-selling books out there). Given that YA has tended to be less subdivided in the past than adult fiction, do you feel that there is more or less bias against romance in YA than in adult? And do you think that YA is starting to mirror the categorization that we sometimes see in adult fiction, now that places like Barnes & Noble are splitting "paranormal romance" into its own subcategory?
My short answer is, I hope not. I think the best thing about writing YA is that teens seem to be so willing to read around. Paranormal-Contemporary-Serious-Funny-Romance-Whatever. The idea that we might be encouraging young people to stick to a genre isn't good for publishing, and it really isn't good for readers. I try to push myself to read things that I would never ordinarily pick up, and those books invariably change the way I think about writing, about reading, about the world. Don't we want the same for our young people?
Because of this trend toward reading around, I think romance gets much less bias from teens than adults ... but somewhere that all changes. I'd be fascinated to know what you and your readers think happens to change the game by the time we move out of the Teen section!
4. Who came first, Alexandra or Gavin? Do you usually come up with your hero and heroine in the same order, or does it vary depending on your project?
Alex came first — I met her just the same way you did, standing in her drawing room, being fitted for her coming out gown.
My heroines usually do come first, even when I’m writing about a hero who I already know. For me, romance is always about the heroine . . . about her journey, her struggles, her growth and how her hero supports her in that journey. I think romance can be the most feminist of all literature—after all, it’s by women, for women—and I think there is a power to showing how heroines can gain strength and courage and confidence through the love of their hero.
5. One of the many things I loved about The Season was that the main characters, Alex and Gavin, had known each other since childhood, but they start to become aware of one another in a completely different way now that Alex is "out" in society and wearing lower-cut gowns. Another element I especially enjoyed was the mystery woven throughout the book – was Gavin's father's death really an accident? If not, who was behind it? – and Alex's tenacity in trying to solve the mystery, aided by her friends Vivi and Ella, despite the possible risk to her reputation and her life. Which idea came to you first, the mystery or the romance, or was it all one inseparable "what if" concept?
When I sat down to write the book, I knew I wanted to set it during the tail end of the Napoleonic Wars, and I knew that the wars would — in some way — be important to the plot of the book. There was a saying in Regency London that wars were won and lost in the ballrooms of the ton, and I wanted to write about young women who were keenly aware of the seriousness of the world around them, even as they wore pretty dresses and kissed boys. There is place for both in our lives—and I wanted to write about girls who lived in both of these worlds.
So, I guess it was all packaged together! I knew that Gavin and Alex would be struggling with their feelings for each other, and that the murder of Gavin’s father would be (obviously) an important piece of the puzzle. That the mystery provided such ripe conflict between the hero and heroine was an added bonus — one that was fairly unexpected until I was deep into the writing itself.
5. Your other books to date, Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake and Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord, have been adult Regency romances, complete with deliciously explicit love scenes. Since Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke's Heart is set in that same world with several common characters (hooray! it's finally time to hear the story of Juliana and the Duke of Leighton!), I expect it will also include some "naughty" bits. The Season, on the other hand, is tame by comparison, essentially limited to kissing and cuddling and main characters noticing and/or remarking on how well their counterpart has filled out. Which do you find easier or more natural to write – a kissing book like The Season or a book that allows the physical scenes to be more involved, such as your adult romances? Where do you draw the line on physicality in young adult romances?
This is a really tricky question. As far as “drawing the line on physicality” in YA, I think that’s not always easy. Obviously, there are things that cannot be as explicit in teen novels as they can be in the adult romances . . . but it’s really about character motivation. Sex is a part of teens’ lives these days; pretending it isn’t doesn’t help anyone. For me, it’s about what feels right for the characters in their moment.
Alex and Gavin lived at a time when sex before marriage was an enormous no-no. It could ruin a young woman forever. They also lived at a time when marriage was a much more expected life-choice for an 18-, 19-, 20-year old girl, and the idea of a long engagement was super uncommon. All these things, combined with Gavin’s superior respect for Alex’s family made it impossible to imagine that they would do much more than smooch over the course of the book.
As for ease — I actually find sex scenes in the adult books to be really challenging to write. They require careful pacing and motivation and they must must must move the plot along. They usually mark a major turning point in a book — a kind of point of no return that shifts the course of the book — and, aside from that, they’re just not easy. They have to be sexy and smart and fun and wicked and everything else that readers expect! It can take me days to write one. But, when it’s done, and it’s right . . . that’s worth all the gnashing of teeth.
6. Speaking of kissing (were we not?) . . . What tips can you offer authors who are writing kissing scenes? Is it more about the buildup or the payoff? Are there any tricks to creating chemistry on the page that you'd be willing to share?
Oh, it’s absolutely the buildup. Tension between a hero and heroine is what keeps the pages turning, I think. Were you a Friends fan? All that waiting for Ross and Rachel to finally get together . . . and that kiss was SO AMAZING! After they got together, though . . . it was much much harder for the writers to keep their relationship exciting. I think there are little things that writers can do to keep the tension in these scenes high, and there’s no right answer: I love a hesitant hero who really thinks through making his move, but I also love the impetuous grab-and-kisser—with the right pacing and great dialogue, either of these can be hot hot hot. I love my kissing scenes to have dialogue — it heightens the experience for the heroine and keeps the reader in the story!
Also . . . and this is trickier for YA writers, because so many of us write in the first person . . . I find that the right POV is really really essential in writing kissing scenes—or any scene that has a major emotional payoff. I write in close-third person, so if something about a scene isn’t going right for me, I try writing it from the other POV. This works brilliantly with emotionally powerful scenes, because you can get inside the head of the hero or the heroine and really mine their thoughts. Does she want him to kiss her, and he won’t? Is he tied up in knots over the way he feels about her? And then, when the moment finally comes . . . whose payoff is bigger? As a reader, I want to be with that character.
7. The hero of Nine Rules is Gabriel St. John, marquess of Ralston. His twin brother, Nicholas St. John, is the hero of Ten Ways. There is far more different between these brothers than the scar near Nick's eye, since Gabriel is a notorious rake and Nick is far more Galahad-like (albeit not in a virginal sort of way). Do you have a favorite St. John twin, and why? Do you have a preference between the "reformed rogue" and the "damsel in distress" story lines (both of those being gross oversimplifications)?
Well, obviously I love all my children equally, Kelly!
I’d love a week with Gabriel . . . he’s so fiery and dark and fun and oh my goodness is he good looking . . . but ultimately, if you twisted my arm, I’m a Nick girl. He’s a great guy, smart and funny and has such integrity! And he loves his Isabel with a visceral intent that kind of blew me away while I was writing.
I don’t think I have a favorite storyline as a writer . . . as a reader, I’m a sucker for a reformed rake story . . . and I loved writing Nine Rules and watching Gabriel come apart. As for Isabel and Nick, their story was also fun . . . because it felt to me like it was Isabel who was in need of reformation. She was so flawed—she had such insecurity and such overwhelming odds—and I really found her to be a modern heroine in a way that surprised even me. And Juliana and her duke have an entirely different set of problems in Eleven Scandals.
I think I’m still figuring out what I like writing best!
8. What's your next YA project
I’ve got a thing or two up my sleeve. I can tell you that what I’m working on right now is also an historical, but in a new place and time . . . stay tuned!
9. What's your next adult romance project (after Eleven Scandals)? (Can you share anything about the Fallen Angels trilogy, apart from it being set roughly at the same time as Nine, Ten & Eleven?)
In late 2011, my next adult romance series will launch from Avon — my editor has sworn me to secrecy, so I can’t say much about it yet, but I can tell you that it’s set a few years in the future from my Love By Numbers series. You’ll meet all four heroes in the first book and you’ll (hopefully) root for them each to find love! I think I’ve come up with a surprise or two that will keep readers on their toes as the series goes on.
Cheese or chocolate? Cheese. Something soft and French.
Coffee or tea? AM – Coffee; PM – Tea
Cats or dogs? Dogs (but I like cats, too!)
Favorite color? Do people *really* have favorite colors?
Favorite snack food? Doritos.
Favorite ice cream? Butter pecan.
Water or soda? Water.
What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? I am in love with Carla Bruni’s voice right now. So I’m listening to her album Quelqu'un m'a dit. Although, it does seem unfair that she gets to be beautiful, talented and the First Lady of France.
What's the last movie you memorized lines from? I can recite When Harry Met Sally in its entirety. It’s a bit alarming.
Interested in learning more about Sarah? By all means, get thee to MacLeanSpace.com, Sarah's web page.
Want to buy a signed copy of one of Sarah's books for yourself or as a present? Then I have GREAT news for you – you can buy one from the lovely folks at Word, an independent bookstore in Brooklyn. If you are ordering for Christmas, U.S. orders placed by December 18th will be shipped on the December 20th for guaranteed delivery by Christmas.
A big thank-you to Sarah for sitting down with me to answer my questions! Here are today's other stops on the Winter Blog Blast Tour:
Charles Benoit sits down with Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Susan Campbell Bartoletti is with Colleen at Chasing Ray
Adele Griffin is over at Bildungsroman with Little Willow.
Andrea Seigel is interviewed by Gwenda over at Shaken & Stirred
Allen Zadoff visits with Vivian at Hip Writer Mama