History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 October 2008

The Best Seductions Begin With Words and Ideas: History Hoydens Interviews Pam Rosenthal

: Your last novel, The Slightest Provocation, painted a less pretty picture of Regency England than we often get in romance. Does your upcoming The Edge of Impropriety continue in this vein?

PR: Edge is probably a lighter book, a comedy of manners and a satire of the ton.

My heroine, the arriviste Marina Wyatt, Lady Gorham, supplements a respectable but not luxurious widow's portion by writing silver fork novels (books about London high life: these things really were popular during the period, especially among middle-class strivers whose only chance to see Almack’s was in the pages of a novel).

My hero, Jasper Hedges, starts out shabbier, snobbier, more upper-class, and slightly appalled by Marina's commercial success. (Remember that Lord Byron, as a gentleman, didn't take money for "Childe Harold.") Jasper's a Cambridge classicist, an antiquarian, and (because I love finding ways for my brainy heroes to get their hands dirty) an erstwhile Mediterranean adventurer who digs up Roman coins on his family's estate.

While as for prettiness - well, the cover is certainly as pretty as any author could hope for. And this time the conflicts under the covers have largely to do with art and culture.
I like to call The Edge of Impropriety a novel of eros, esthetics, and empire. Jasper and Marina exchange their first glances among the beautiful sculpted bodies of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. But Jasper believes (as did Lord Byron as well) that the marbles were an illegitimate spoil of empire. So there's an imperial theme woven through the class comedy.

HH: You did a lot of research about classical art and literature for this book, didn’t you?

PR: A better way to say it might be that I took the opportunity to address my own shocking ignorance of the subject, when my husband/research partner showed me a book about the erotics of Greek and Roman art and got me hooked. So I’m a very little bit less ignorant now.

I posted about my joys of discovery on this blog and continued posting my discoveries as I researched and wrote the The Edge of Impropriety.

Because one of the joys of being a History Hoyden is having a venue for sharing the goodies. Just as one of the joys of being me is having a husband who knows what I like sometimes before I do. (And if that knows-
what-she-likes business has a familiar ring, it's because I’ve used the phrase elsewhere in my books, in a different, more down-and-dirty context).

HH: You’ve managed to bring down the tone of the discussion with remarkable rapidity.

PR: Probably because I’m beginning to believe that whatever I do (and no matter how much reading and research) at heart I’m an erotic writer. You wouldn’t think it to look at me, and I certainly didn’t set out to be one. But the muse has a sense of humor and it seems to have fallen to me to pour all the lonely yearnings of a bookish adolescence into my erotic imagination.

Which means that I also get to pour the ongoing joy of discovery of other erotic traditions into my writing - most recently of poets like Sappho and Catullus, though there was also Ovid in The Slightest Provocation.

HH: So it turns out that what you write is erotica rather than, as your web site has it, “erotic historical romance.”

PR: I’m coming to think so, and to think that my historical romance-writing persona Pam Rosenthal has an awful lot in common with my evil twin Molly Weatherfield, who’s written the wild and crazy comic BDSM.

Because for me (for both me’s) no matter how graphic the writing ultimately gets, the best seductions begin with words and ideas. As in this snippet from the excerpt from Edge that’s currently on my web page:

The copper wire of [Jasper Hedges’…] spectacles had caught the light. “And what thrills [the gods…], what torments them with curiosity and desire, Lady Gorham, is the possibility of death. Mortality. The fragility of our bodies, their vulnerability to the passage of time. Human limitation is something the gods can never truly know, but they find its pathos quite beautiful. And the only way they can experience death’s pathos is through a human’s touch.”

A shiver passed through her. Followed by a flood of warmth.

I write erotica for people who find that sort of thing as hot I do and want to follow my characters upstairs after the dinner party ends.

But since it's skin rather than subtext that makes the romance industry deem something erotica rather than erotic romance, I get counted as a writer of erotic romance -- which is probably why I've been getting gorgeously dressed (or half-dressed) women on my covers instead of bare-chested men.

HH. The Edge of Impropriety will be released next week, on election day. And on your own blog, Passions and Provocations, you told your readers, "if you only have time to do one hugely, critically important thing on election day… you know what that is. And it’s not rushing out to buy The Edge of Impropriety." How seriously did you intend this?

PR: Absolutely. There's nothing like being at a pivotal point in history to bring things into perspective. I’ve felt myself overwhelmed these past weeks -- by the economy, the level of
interest in the election, the intended and unintended narratives of the candidates and their campaigns, the ways in which people have begun to access and reassess their own places in this present very complicated juncture. All of which seem to me particularly complicated things for a historical romancer to address, and which I’ve been trying to puzzle out for myself.

There’s something amazing about living in a moment when the stakes are so huge and the outcome so perilously unknown. Historical romance -- and to my mind all historical fiction -- trades on some opposite approaches to this issue, and so I’m seeing online discussions (like Kathrynn’s here and Janet’s at Risky Regencies) about the ways in which we turn to romance and other escapist fictions for comfort at times like this.

About which (Gemini-like) I’m of two minds. On the one hand, I need as much comforting as the next person -- and the most comforting thing I know is the overarching romantic fantasy of a universe that wants to bring its lovers together after testing and finding them worthy (or more generally any narrative that promises and delivers on a satisfying resolution).

But on the other hand I find myself rather thrilled by the knowledge that this is not how things actually work, and that fictions and stories are our consolation for the maddeningly difficult truth -- which is that emergent human history just keeps spiraling into the unknown and unresolved. And that we have nothing but the best of ourselves to rely upon along the way.

Or at least to make us more passionate, more deeply engaged romance writers and historical novelists.

And I’d love to hear from both readers and writers about where you find yourself at this moment.

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Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

"...a novel of eros, esthetics, and empire." That's a terrific (and terrifically lyrical) way to sum up Edge ... and I much appreciated the "sneak peek" this summer as well.

I'm passionate about everything; my friends and family are prone to grin and ask "so what do you really think--don't sugarcoat it now!" when I get on my soapbox and express my views about one thing or another. For example, I think you should rejoice that you have a tantalizing cover image that tells me the book is both historical and erotic, rather than a barechested man. I hate those covers. I think they're sleazy and ridiculous and diminish the fine writing (like Kalen's!!!!) within. To me they say "I know I'm an incongrous and inaccurate image but I'm here to assure you that there's plenty of hot scens but not too much history in this book to get you bogged down with arcana." Which of course is not always true (e.g. Kalen's excellent and assiduously researched novels).

And when it comes to voting -- I've worked on political campaigns since I was a little girl, because that's what my parents did when I was growing up. I am passionate about the future of my county, state, country, and the world at large. For women especially, suffragists suffered enough to get us the right to vote. There's no excuse not to!

9:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pam--I love that your muse has a sense of humor!

10:17 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Amanda. And folks, she didn't just get a sneak peek -- she wrote a lovely, much appreciated cover blurb that fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams, to have my writing called "sly." Thanks again.

And yes, Lynna. My muse is funny when she isn't stubborn and snarky.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What wonderful insights into "The Edge of Impropriety." Like Amanda, I love the tagline ""...a novel of eros, esthetics, and empire." (the marketing director side of me is jealous :-). I've been excited to read "Edge" ever since I was lucky enough to be with Pam and a group of other writer friends when she was brainstorming the book. I could tell back then the mesh of the characters and themes would be fabulous.

I sometimes like to burrow into comfort reads for escape, but in general I like novels that confront and explore the challenges in the world rather taking me away from them.

Like Amanda, I'm passionate about voting--my parents always took to me to vote with them, and I still love the experience of going to my local polling place on election day. Lately I've been glued to blogs, news websites, NPR, thew NewsHour, whereever I can get campaign updates :-).

11:10 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

That session was so helpful, Tracy. Thanks again. And yes, I'm glued to the blogs too. My circuit is

fivethirtyeight (that's a wonky polling site, suggested to me by my wonderful wonky son who runs statistical programs when he isn't analyzing Victorian novels)
And then a chaser of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for the facts.

As for escapism (I meant to say this in the post but didn't seem to fit it in): In truth I think all but the very worst, bad-faith art has the ability to bring us closer to ourselves rather than further away.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

"In truth I think all but the very worst, bad-faith art has the ability to bring us closer to ourselves rather than further away."

What a wonderful way of putting it! I totally agree. If the characters are believable, most stories, whether fluffy fairy tales or gritty slice of life dramas or fantasies sent in alternate universes, contain a core of human truth.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

thanks, Tracy. Only it should have been "farther," shouldn't it, rather than "further"? Whenever I hit the POST rather than the PREVIEW button first I come to grief -- and sometimes even when I do PREVIEW ;-}

11:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I go back and forth between more escapist fiction and more challenging reads. Since I read so much non-fiction, when I read fiction, I do tend to gravitate towards mysteries or lighter books. Although right now, I'm reading Nefertiti by Michelle Moran.

As for the election, I voted for the very first time on my 18th birthday for Governor of New York, and I've voted in every single election since then. I spend most of my days reading

The Huffington Post
The Atlantic
The New York Times
The New Republic

On TV, I've been watching The Daily Show, Meet the Press, and Rachel Maddow (my new girl crush).

12:49 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Oooh, Rachel Maddow. A girl crush for me and my 87-year-old mom as well. Her recent interview with Barack Obama is one of the most substantive things I've seen yet. Partisan of course, but not icky. She asks real questions. How did this happen?

1:17 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

No Pam I am pretty sure that further was right -- refers to intellectual distance, farther refers to physical distance. So, further, right?

1:59 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Yeah, Mary, that's what Garner says. But what bothers me in my sentence is that I use "further" in opposition to "closer." And "closer" works both as an intellectual and as a physical term, so bifurcating off into "further" seems somehow disjunctive to me.

Also, because I think of "further" more in the sense of advancing, and not to go "further" from something, even if abstractly. I'm not sure that's right. But with abstractions, my ear still wants to distinguish between "farther from" and "further along the way." But that may well be incorrect.

I'm going to email the URL of this discussion to my friend Ellie, who's an editor by profession and my final arbiter in these matters, and hope that she'll join in.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Re Further and Farther -- the one that always gets me is "I am not going to read an further (or farther) in this book. I usually settle "I am not going to read any more of this book."

Ellie, please help!

4:21 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

In terms of writing I am not as far along in my WIP as I would like to be, but I think you want an answer with a little more dept than that. In fact I find myself very distracted by the economy, addicted to CNBC and learning the meaning of terms like liebor, mark-to-market and deleverage. I read lots of blogs re the election and cannot wait for next week’s USA Today Bestseller List.

At this moment I find myself hoping and, yes, praying, that we do rise to the occasion and make the choice that this country needs. The Libra in me has confidence that, whatever the outcome, we will move forward and face the future with leadership that will ask the tough questions and make the right choices. It is what our multi-branched government is all about.

Between Executive, Legislative and Judicial, there are right thinking people who will lead us in the most constructive direction.

Which reminds me that what we are facing now is a drama that has played out time and again throughout history which is not that much of a consolation because the endings were not always happy. But often enough the right person is in the right place at the right time to make a difference. I think that is true for all of us on election day.

Can't wait to read EDGE -- it's on Amazon pre-order so I will have something to enjoy while waiting in line to vote and watching election results on Tuesday night.

4:34 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Best of luck on the USA Today list, Mary, and thanks for your pre-order.

Between the election and our futures in this business, I thought I'd better have a contingency plan, so tomorrow I'm outa here -- to a day of Buddhist practice focusing on "the grace of acceptance."

5:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congrats on the new release, Pam! Wishing you many many sales...and HD, you get the best covers. ;-)

11:31 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Really looking forward to this one, Pam! Got it on order and I hope it arrives on time.

I am almost 50 years old and I have voted in every single election since I was 18. Even when I lived abroad I voted absentee. My father was a veteran of Korea and Vietnam. My grandfather and uncles were veterans of WW I and II. I feel it would dishonor every soldier since Valley Forge if I DIDN'T vote. It is just the way we were raised.

I read the NY Times, The Washington Post, The London Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine, The Week.

And hey, Pam, whatever you write and whatever they call it - IT WORKS FOR ME!! Keep writing it!

I am finishing up my second novel and getting it ready to enter in the Golden Heart. We'll see what happens! The pages are coming, but not NEARLY as quickly as I would like.

BUT, I have acquired two great research books in the last two days.

The National Trust Book of English Furniture by Geoffrey Beard.

and the book that sent me into raptures because it LOOKS like a research book - BIG HEAVY AND LOADED WITH INFO!! English Furniture from Gothic to Sheraton by Cescinsky. Great book!

6:28 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Kathrynn. Yeah, I have to admit, my cover karma is pretty amazing (though if you'd ever seen certain of my early Molly Weatherfield covers, you'd see that the universe has a big debt to me to work off). ;-)

9:54 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And thanks, Louisa as well. And best of luck with the Golden Heart. (Oh, and hope you enjoy EDGE.)

9:56 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And one more thing re the joys of this political season: come check out this photo of me and Michael hitting the streets against California's Proposition 8, which would take the right to marry away from same sex couples. As a toiler in the happy-ever-after vineyards, it's important for me to go on record about that one.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Pam, I plan to read your book while standing in line to vote on Tuesday.
the best seductions begin with words and ideas. Absolutely. Thanks for the eloquence and another post full of ideas.

6:17 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love the thought of you reading it standing on line to vote, Janet. Thanks.

6:24 PM  

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