A month ago, I won an Advance Reader Copy of Deanna Raybourn's new release, CITY OF JASMINE, through a contest on her website. When I sent her my address, I asked if she would do an e-mail Q&A with me and she graciously agreed, which was no surprise. She is one of the most approachable and engaging authors on Twitter (as you'll see in a question below). If you don't follow her, you really should.
How did you get into this writing gig? Was writing something you've always wanted to do or a talent you were surprised to discover you had?
I have always been a writer. I made up stories as a child, and I remember being absolutely thrilled when I learned how to print so I could get them out of my head and onto paper! I double-majored in English and history since I wanted to write historical fiction, and I wrote my first novel when I was 23. It took me fourteen years to get published, but I wrote the whole time. I have a tidy collection of very bad unpublished novels in my attic.
When I picked up SILENT IN THE GRAVE at the bookstore and read the first line I absolutely fell in love with your authorial voice. Did that line come to you in a flash of inspiration or was it something you labored over for months to get exactly right?
The first line was in its finished form almost from the first draft—but it took ages for me to find that voice! I had been writing for years and going nowhere. My collection of rejection letters was truly impressive, and my agent finally told me she thought the problem was that I didn’t have a fully developed voice. So she advised me to take an entire year off from writing and just read. I asked her what I was supposed to do after that, and she said, “You’ll know!” She was right. I read for an entire year and at the end of that year I realized the books all had things in common. They were all historical with a British sensibility, a mystery structure, and a bit of romance. That’s when I knew exactly the sort of book I needed to write. About that same time, I ran across a single line in a book of poisons about a fascinating case in France. I took the crime and twisted it up a bit and that’s how I came up with SILENT IN THE GRAVE. That first line is very true to Julia Grey as a narrator, but it’s also very true to me.
Your Julia Gray novels have been very successful. With the publication of A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS last year, and with CITY OF JASMINE this week, you've switched heroines and eras. What inspired you to branch out from your Julia Gray series? Was it a book you read about the 20s, a movie you saw, or a vacation you took? Was your publisher resistant to you moving away from a series that had been so successful?
My publisher actually requested it. They’ve never wanted me to do more than three books in a row in the Julia series, and when it was time to take a second break—we’d already published THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST between books three and four—they told me I had carte blanche to write about whatever I wanted. That was almost too much freedom! I finally had to narrow things down by making out a list of all the topics I read about for pleasure. I circled a few of them I was most interested in to see if I could fit them together somehow. I also had the barest idea of a girl who comes from a privileged background going to Africa. That snippet of a plot had been floating around in my files for awhile, and this was the perfect chance to dust it off and take it for a walk.
During the denouement of CITY OF JASMINE (no spoilers, don't worry!) you revealed Gabriel Starke had a connection to characters from your Julia Gray novels, even mentioning Nicholas Brisbane, though not by name. I absolutely loved that. Are all of your novels going to be connected like this in some way? Can we expect you to go back and forth in time with your novels and novellas, fleshing out events you've alluded to?
Absolutely—and I’m so happy I can finally talk about it! The prequel novella to CITY OF JASMINE is WHISPER OF JASMINE, and in that story, where the heroine of A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS introduces the main characters of CITY OF JASMINE, there are a few minor characters from the Julia Grey series who make appearances. It’s the first chance I’ve had to hint at how everything is tied together. Each fictional world I have created is linked to the others, and readers will get to see more and more of those links as the novels and novellas continue.
Since I finished CITY OF JASMINE, I've been trying to figure out how old Julia and Nicholas would be in 1920 and wondering if they're alive. Can you share that information or would it spoil a future story?
If they were alive—and I’m not saying one way or another!—they would be sixty and seventy, respectively. I can tell you that the novel I have coming out in the fall of 2014 will give you a definitive answer on what has become of them…
It seems most of the popular historical fiction on the market is set in Europe. Do you think American writers are drawn to the European setting because, like you, that is what they read, or is it because European history is much broader and deeper than American history? Have you ever considered writing a novel set in America, with American characters?
I have! I wrote a contemporary magical realism novel set in the US. It was a sort of palate cleanser after I wrote SILENT IN THE GRAVE and had moved across country. My historical source books were all packed away in storage for a year, so I decided to try something completely different. It was an interesting experiment, but it just didn’t feel as natural to me as a European setting. I think that’s because I read European—and a little Asian and African—history for pleasure, so I have much more exposure to those cultures. And that’s embarrassing to admit since I live in one of the hotspots of colonial history now! I do have a couple of ideas floating around for books set in the US, one about a Texas outlaw ancestor of mine, and another set in my current hometown. European history has a gloss of glamour to it, and you’re quite right about the depth and breadth. It’s just a luxury to have so many different cultures and stories colliding in one place for such a long span of time. You can pick any year, any spot, and there will be a story just waiting to be told.
For me, creating character names and book titles is the hardest part of writing. How do you come up with character names? Do your titles come to you easily or do you leave the title up to your editor?
Titles can be mine, theirs, or ours—it just depends on whether the working title is strong enough to carry the finished book. If I have a character quoting a poem or play, sometimes that will lend a phrase that will work. Other times the publisher and I will bat titles back and forth to find something that fits. Character names are MUCH easier! I keep a running list of interesting names, and if a character stumps me I can usually find inspiration there. Very occasionally, I will name a character in homage to someone else—Nicholas Brisbane’s first name is in honor of Nick Charles, and every novel of mine has at least one name taken from an Agatha Christie book. It’s a subtle way of paying tribute to an author I love
You are one of my favorite authors to follow on Twitter because you maintain a perfect balance between promoting your work, personal observations and anecdotes as well as interaction with your followers. Is the social media aspect of writing something you enjoy or is it something you do because it's part of the job?
Oh, thanks! I do try hard to get it right, and for me that means tweeting as I’d like to be tweeted unto. It can’t all be promotional or people feel used, and frankly that’s not much fun. I love the interaction on Twitter. I’ve connected with lots of readers and writers there, and it’s a huge relief sometimes to be able to get out of the ivory tower and interact with other people. Facebook I loathe, but I do post there since it’s still a place where a lot of people like to get their updates. I also blog and send out monthly newsletters, but Twitter will always be my favorite, I suspect. I love that it moves so fast and you can just jump into a conversation and disappear as quickly as you came.
For the unpublished authors reading this, do you have a road to publication war story or was your path easy?
After I took a year off to read and then two years to write SILENT IN THE GRAVE, it took another two to place the book with a publisher. All told, it was fourteen years for me from first novel to book deal, and it was not easy. It was grueling. But I was lucky enough to have the support of my family and a wonderful agent—all of whom believed it was going to happen for me. I’m so glad they were right!
We writers are famous for our ability to procrastinate. What's your favorite procrastination activity?
Reading and researching. I love falling down the rabbit hole and wandering around, learning everything I can about a really obscure topic. I also hang out on Twitter and watch TCM for inspiration. I’m working on not feeling guilty when I do those things because I’ve come to realize that every time I procrastinate, I actually uncover something I end up using! Procrastination is actually one of my very best creative tools.
TCM! I love TCM! It's one of my dreams to sit across from Robert Osborne and guest program a night of classic movies. If you were a guest programmer, what four movies would you choose, and why?
Oh, this is a tough one…there would have to be some Hitchcock, and I think I’d start with SUSPICION. Cary Grant was just perfection in that one, and Joan Fontaine is always fabulous when she’s in peril. I have to have some Peter O’Toole, so next would be THE LION IN WINTER. That’s the first film I saw him in, and I fell irrevocably in love. Besides that, there is nothing more glorious than Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine. That would be followed by THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. I prefer the Anthony Andrews version, but the Leslie Howard/Merle Oberon version is the only one to air on TCM and it’s sublime. Percy Blakeney is my most beloved fictional crush, so he had to be on the list somehow! I’d finish up with THE THIN MAN because I adore the Charleses—and Asta. The runner-up would be THE WOMEN for sheer delectable bitchery. This means I had to leave off: ROPE, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, THE AWFUL TRUTH, EVIL UNDER THE SUN, DEATH ON THE NILE, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII, NIGHT MUST FALL, TOPPER, BERKELEY SQUARE, REBECCA, HOLIDAY, ROMAN HOLIDAY, HOW TO STEAL A MILLION, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, TO CATCH A THIEF, ABOVE SUSPICION…I should stop now.
Some people love to re-read books. Others can't imagine it. Are you a re-reader? If so, what book have you re-read the most times?
That one’s easy—REBECCA. I read it for the first time when I was fourteen, and it’s still a favorite. For a long time it was my go-to travel book, the extra book I took on trips in case the book I was reading turned out to be a dud. I was thrilled when it finally came out in a digital format so I can always have a copy on hand! Obvious favorite rereads are Christie and Conan Doyle, but I will also reach for Elizabeth Peters, Mary Stewart, Jane Austen, Anya Seton. If a book is good enough to own, it will stand up to rereading, and I love finding new things in an old favorite.
A week after completing this Q&A, I had the privilege to meet Deanna at a CITY OF JASMINE book signing at Murder by the Book in Houston. She was just as lovely, friendly and witty in person as she is online. Lucky you, I have a signed copy of CITY OF JASMINE (read my review here) to give away. The contest will run until Friday. Leave a comment below and tell me if you re-read books and if you do, what book have you read the most?
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