Thursday, July 2, 2009

Scandalous Women welcomes Susan Holloway Scott!

Scandalous Women is pleased to welcome Susan Holloway Scott, author of The French Mistress today! Remember anyone who leaves a comment will be entered to win a copy of her new book.

Here is a brief description to whet your appetite:

The daughter of a poor nobleman, Louise leaves the French countryside for the court of King Louis XIV, where she must not only please the tastes of the jaded king, but serve as a spy for France. With few friends, many rivals, and ever-shifting loyalties, Louise learns the perils of her new role. Yet she is too ambitious to be a pawn in the intrigues of others. With the promise of riches, power, and even the love of a king, Louise creates her own destiny in a dance of intrigue between two monarchs—and two countries.

Tell us a little about yourself, what is your background, and how long have you been writing before you were published?

I graduated from Brown University with a degree in art history. It was at Brown that I learned the magic of working with primary sources, of being able to reach back through centuries of opinions to squirrel out the truth about the past. I loved art history and still do, but didn’t want to make a career of it, and so I went into graphic design and public relations. Public relations proved to be a wonderful background for fiction writing. I wrote my first novel while I was on maternity leave with my daughter, figuring I was going to be crazy and up all night anyway (which I was.) If I’d realized the horrible odds against getting a first published, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I had no agent or industry contacts, only what I’d read in an old issue of Writer’s Digest. However, being blithely ignorant, I finished my novel, sent it off to a publisher, and went back to my job at the end of my leave. It took nearly a year for me to hear, a year in which I was convinced I must have written such an abomination that the editors wouldn’t even deign to return it. In reality, the editor to whom I’d sent the book had left the company and deep-sixed my manuscript in an empty desk. A senior editor came across it in the drawer by accident, and was so horrified that it had been sitting there for so many months that she read it herself, and even better, bought it for publication. Pure luck all around!

You started out writing historical romance, what was the impetus that made you decide to write historical fiction, and in particular about real-life historical figures?

I wrote over thirty historical romances as Miranda Jarrett. When I first began, the market was for big, sprawling stories with lots of history behind the central love story. I wrote books set in colonial America, in 18th century London and Naples, even north Africa during the Barbary Wars. But in the last years, the historical romance market has narrowed its focus considerably. The books are much shorter (most are now in the 75,000-90,000 word range), there’s less and less history, and the overwhelming majority of the books are set in Regency England.

Fortunately for me, historical fiction has grown in the last decade, and it was an easy choice for me to make the switch. It was very freeing, too. I could dig deep in my research, and create a much richer story that encompassed more characters and more history. I’ve really enjoyed writing about historical figures whose untraditional lives wouldn’t have made them suitable heroes or heroines in an historical romance, but they’re considerably more interesting for it.

This is the third book that you have written set during the reign of Charles II, what is it about his reign that you find so fascinating?

Coming after the a horrific Civil War and a repressive Commonwealth led by Oliver Cromwell, the Restoration has much in common with other permissive eras that follow a repressive period, such as the Roaring 20s and the Swinging 60s. (All it’s missing is a snappy modifying gerund.) An entire generation of aristocratic children with royalist sympathies grew into adulthood without the stability of homes, families, or an expected position in society. In the most extreme cases, like Charles II himself, they had led impoverished, gypsy-like existences in exile on the Continent. As a result, many who would once again form a "ruling class" with the Restoration were rootless and wild, and often undereducated as well.

Traditional morality went out the window. Charles hoped England would be a country tolerant of all kinds of people and beliefs. There was a great deal of experimentation, not only in sexual behavior, but also in theatre, science, art, and music, even in fashion. But like all such times, the high spirits of the Restoration couldn’t last: by Charles’s death, society was exhausted by so much freedom, and the pendulum swung back to a more conservative era under the sterner, more restrictive reigns of James II, William and Mary, and Anne. It’s a fascinating time in which to set stories, looking forward to the humanist themes of the coming Age of Enlightenment, but still medieval enough for traitors to be hung, drawn, and quartered, their severed heads finally stuck on pikes on London Bridge as cheery warnings.

How do you start researching your historical fiction? Primary sources?

I try to rely as much as is possible on primary sources: diaries, letters, journals and newspapers of the times. While I’m writing, my I-tunes playlist even includes dance and court music and songs of the time. (The research for The French Mistress offered some special challenges since many of the sources were in 17th century French.) Since my historical novels are written in first person, it’s important to develop a “voice” for each character that’s historically accurate. The best way to do this is to immerse myself as much as possible in their time, and try to get inside their heads as much as I can. The trick, of course, is not to become so caught up in historical accuracy that one forgets to make a story and characters that are accessible to modern readers. We’ve all stumbled through those historical novels where the plot and dialogue have been overwhelmed by the author’s well-intentioned research; my favorite term for this was coined by a reviewer: “gadzookery.”

Louise de Keroualle seems to be the least well-known of Charles’s mistresses. She didn’t seem to have an oversize personality like some of his other mistresses. Was there anything that you discovered that you hadn’t known before you started researching? And did your impression of Louise change at all?

I’d known something of Louise after writing my previous two books about her rival-mistresses (Barbara Palmer in Royal Harlot and Nell Gwyn in The King’s Favorite), and though some of Nell’s witty attacks had made me feel a little sorry for Louise, it wasn’t until I’d begun researching her background in France that I developed an empathy with her. I hadn’t realized how she spent her life as a constant outsider. She had a difficult relationship with her parents, she never quite fit in at Louis XIV’s court, and she made virtually no true friends at the English court. The only one whom she seemed to trust was Charles. Learning that Louise never married nor became romantically linked to any other man, remaining constant to Charles’s memory for the remainder of her long life –– she outlived Charles by fifty years! –– seems especially poignant.

Louise saw no shame in her position as a royal mistress. Do you think this was because of the material wealth she amassed, the power she acquired, her ability to help her native France, or simply because of the love she felt for Charles?

My guess would be all of those. In addition, Louise came from the French court, where the royal mistress was officially recognized as a court position. Though there was no such formal arrangement in England, she chose to follow the French style, and considered herself as performing many more services to Charles than simply those in his bed. She regarded herself as his hostess, and he did in fact receive many official dignitaries and diplomats in her lavish rooms in the palace. She acted as an auxiliary representative of the French government, representing French interests to Charles. She also took great pride in offering a kind of respite to Charles, a peaceful, tasteful sanctuary in her quarters where he could be himself, away from the complicated politics of the court.

Charles’s mistresses were constantly faulted for their greed, and Louise was regarded as the most avaricious of them all, which is interesting considering Barbara Castlemaine’s greed. Do you think she was in fact greedy, or merely making the most of a brief and unpredictable opportunity to provide for herself and her children?

There’s no doubt that Louise had expensive tastes, and that she expected Charles to indulge her. She made such a haul for herself that when she returned to France after Charles’s death, several ships were necessary to carry away all her loot. And like everyone else at Court, she loved to gamble, and wasn’t very good at it, often losing heavily. But Louise was much more savvy in her acquisitons than either Barbara or Nell. Where those two begged prettily for this house or that jewel (and usually got them), Louise asked for more lasting prizes to pass along to her only child with Charles, the Duke of Richmond. Her best one had to be the royalty on coal dues. Every load of coal that came from Newcastle added to the fortunes of not only her son, but all future Dukes of Richmond, and helped make the dukedom one of the richest in Britain to this day.

Louise was almost universally hated by the people of England. Do you think it was solely due to Anti-Catholic prejudice? Or was there something about Louise that caused her to be so unpopular?

Louise really was did represent the triple-whammy where the English people were concerned. She was Catholic, she was French, and she seemed to have an unnatural hold on their king’s affections. She had few allies or friends to defend her at Court or in the press, and her uneasy English often made her seem haughty and aloof. For the most part, Charles was enormously popular with his people, and when occasionally he made an unpopular decision, it was much easier for those same people to find a scapegoat -- and Louise made the best public scapegoat of all.

What made Charles’s relationship with Louise so different from his relationships with Nell Gwynn and Barbara Castlemaine? Derek Wilson believes that Louise modeled herself after Madame de Montespan, that she had learned not to outshine Queen Catherine, unlike Barbara Castlemaine.

Historian and biographer Antonia Fraser suggests that Charles’s three most prominent mistresses each offered different things to Charles at different times in his life. Barbara was the uninhibited wild-child of his early reign, appealing to him as a sexual adventuress. Nell’s saucy wit made her a kind of court fool, delighting Charles as she dared to skewer the stuffier members of his court even as she was his “country lass”, happily fishing and skinny-dipping with him at Windsor. Louise became the perfect bonne femme of his later years, representing not only the hospitality but also the French opulence and elegance that he’d always envied in his cousin Louis’s court.

Charles II had always been surrounded by strong women, his mother Henrietta Maria, his grandmother Marie de Medici, his sister Minette. He seemed to really enjoy the company of women and treated them as equals. Some of his courtiers felt that Charles was too influenced by the women in his life. Do you agree?

You’re right: Charles did love the company of women. In a way that’s appealingly modern, he enjoyed them as companions rather than simply as bedroom conquests, and the fact that his favorite women were clever as well as beautiful made him different from many of his more libertine contemporaries. But though Charles often used Louise as a sounding-board, there’s no real proof that she was able to influence towards France in any tangible way. He seemed to have remained his own man in matters of state.

Can you tell us what you might be working on next?

My next heroine has already made her appearance here as a Scandalous Woman: Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester. The only daughter and heiress to one of the wildest of Charles II’s courtiers, Catherine grew up into a pretty wild lady in her own right, blessed with a brilliant wit and sense of humor to compensate for her lack of beauty. Though her fortune and family made her much-sought-after as a wife, she refused to marry and let any man take control of her life. Instead she blazed a scandalous course of independence that included being a mistress to a king and a wife to a general, and a career at court that spanned nearly forty years. Look for Catherine’s adventurous life in The Countess and the King next summer.

And thank you again, Elizabeth, for inviting me here today!

Thank you Susan for stopping by. The French Mistress is officially on sale starting July 7th but you might be able to find copies at Borders! Or leave a comment and you might just win a copy!

8 comments:

Jessica's thoughts said...

I never knew that Louise de Keroualle was a real person. I read another historical fiction book, Dark Angels, where she is mentioned, but I did know if she was a real person or not. I did not know very much about Charles II or his court either, and so, I've learned something new.

Thanks,

Jessica

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

I read and enjoyed the Miranda Jarrett books (they are on my keeper shelf) and wondered why I've found no more. Now I know.

I'm always torn between writing historical romance and historical fiction because, although I love the history, I want the HEA and historical fiction doesn't always allow for it.

Glad to know you're still writing. I'll be looking for your books.

Margaret Evans Porter said...

Susan, I'm about 1/3 through the novel and am loving it. Louise is such an interesting character in her own right, and her story a contrast to those of Barbara and Nell.

Thanks for the glimpse inside your process and the insights about the era.

Kwana said...

Great interview and an exciting book. I love her story!

Ms. Lucy said...

Thank you for this great interview! I'm dying to read this one- it sounds excellent:)

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Susan here, stopping by --many thanks, all, for the wonderful comments!

Jessica -- While the main characters in "Dark Angels" are fictional, Karleen Koen did incorporate many real historical figures as well, including Louise de Keroualle. In most novels (and histories), she's usually not particularly endearing;I hope in "French Mistress", you'll find a more sympathetic side to her!

Gwynlyn -- Always good to hear from a Miranda-fan! There is one more Miranda Jarrett floating around the the pipeline at Harlequin Historicals, the last of the "Love on the Grand Tour" series. They haven't set a definite date for publication yet, but I'm guessing probably early next year. And yes, I know what you mean about the HEA. That was probably the hardest thing to give up when making the shift from romance. Real life isn't nearly as tidy. As it is, I do try to end my historical novels at a high point in my characters lives, so even if it's not a real HEA, at least it's satisfying.

Margaret -- I'm delighted to hear you're enjoying The French Mistress! Fortunately for readers looking for a book for the holiday weekend, Borders seems to have jumped the gun all over the country and put it out on the shelves early.

Kwana -- Yes, Louse does have a great story, doesn't she? Fun for me to write!

Ms. Lucy -- You're welcome for the interview -- and thanks again to Elizabeth for inviting me!

Polonaise said...

Louise's story is fascinating and would be excellent movie material. I look forward to reading the book!

Clare C Sager said...

Wow, what a wonderful interview - really in-depth and fascinating. I will have to pick up one of Susan's books! Thanks a lot for sharing.