Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Guest Interview: Christine Trent and THE QUEEN'S DOLLMAKER

I’m so happy to welcome historical fiction author Christine Trent, whose debut novel THE QUEEN’S DOLLMAKER, is being released today, December 29. What a wonderful way to start the new year!

On the brink of revolution, with a tide of hate turned against the decadent royal court, France is in turmoil - as is the life of one young woman forced to leave her beloved Paris. After a fire destroys her home and family, Claudette Laurent is struggling to survive in London. But one precious gift remains: her talent for creating exquisite dolls that Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France herself, cherishes. When the Queen requests a meeting, Claudette seizes the opportunity to promote her business, and to return home. Amid the violence and unrest, Claudette befriends the Queen, who bears no resemblance to the figurehead rapidly becoming the scapegoat of the Revolution. But when Claudette herself is lured into a web of deadly political intrigue, it becomes clear that friendship with France’s most despised woman has grim consequences. Now, overshadowed by the spectre of Madame Guillotine, the Queen's dollmaker will face the ultimate test.

THE QUEEN’S DOLLMAKER is set during the era of the French Revolution. How did you become interested in this time period? What you love about it?

I’ve always been interested in French and English history, but the period of the French Revolution is just so full of political upheaval and the destruction of centuries of royal rule that it’s easy to become totally absorbed in the era. I can’t imagine the turmoil the average citizen must have experienced. Also, as much as Marie Antoinette has been vilified over time, I think it’s difficult to do a thorough study of her life and not begin to feel a bit of sympathy – if not outright respect – for her. Given her spoiled and pampered upbringing, she really demonstrated nerves of steel when her world began falling apart. I find the period simply fascinating.

What do you like least about this period? Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around?

The mass killings were simply appalling, particularly because they were so indiscriminate. If your neighbor was jealous of you, he might report you as harboring royalist feelings, and that pretty much ensured prison time, if not a visit to the guillotine. Robespierre thought that everyone would support his idea of “purification through bloodshed,” when in reality, people just wanted food because they were hungry. In terms of careful plotting, I tried to ensure that Claudette’s adventures with Marie Antoinette very closely tracked to the day-to-day historical record in the days surrounding the queen’s imprisonment and subsequent execution.

Did you have to do any major research for this book? Did you stumble across anything really interesting that you didn’t already know?

I’d love to be able to say that I traveled to Paris and Versailles for research, but, alas, instead I was forced to rely on my memory of a trip I took many years ago. I also surrounded myself with lots of biographies on Marie Antoinette, and they exist aplenty. Prior to researching, I had no idea that Count Axel Fersen made a trip to England, and he quite took the country by storm. Fortunately for my storyline, I really needed Fersen in England to meet my dollmaker, so it was one of those “Aha!” moments where fact met fiction in a very neat intersection.

What sparked this book? Was it a character? An historical event? A scene you just couldn’t get out of your head?

In 2003, I had just finished reading Antonia Fraser’s MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY, and was also in the process of weeding through my doll collection (and somehow I never parted with a single doll). Turning the book over in my mind as I was handling all of my precious babies, I remembered that Marie Antoinette enjoyed dolls and frequently sent them to her mother and sister. It occurred to me that there was a nugget of an original story in the queen’s dolls, one that had never been explored before. I finished the manuscript in 2006 and sold it in 2008. So thoughts of the late French queen have literally been swirling around in my head for years.

Please share a bit about your writing process. Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

I am a 100% plotter. I greatly admire novelists who can sit down and write, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and let the story go where it will. I typically develop a ten-page synopsis detailing the entire storyline and work from there. Sometimes I’ll make some plot changes once the story is underway, but I usually stick pretty close to that synopsis. As a result, I tend to type up a first draft without cleaning as I go, then doing multiple reads to make corrections.

Please tell us about your background, and what led you to become a novelist.

My husband says it was a “no-brainer” for me to write books, because I’ve been collecting them for so long. The poor man spends most of his spare time building me bookshelves. I started out writing as a bit of lark (“Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to write a book?”). It only got serious when page followed page and all of a sudden three years later I had a finished book. That’s when I realized the next step was to try and sell it. I was fortunate to be picked up by Audrey LaFehr at Kensington Publishing.

What/Who do you like to read? And are you one of those authors who tends to avoid reading the same genre you’re currently writing in during the in-progress stages of your own novel?

No way. I love historical fiction and I can’t read enough of it. Writing full-time makes it tougher to get as much reading done as I’d like, but I’ve always got a big pile of historical novels on my nightstand. Waiting for me right now are Michelle Moran’s CLEOPATRA’S DAUGHTER, Lauren Willig’s MASQUE OF THE BLACK TULIP (I’m way behind on Lauren), C.S. Harris’ WHAT REMAINS OF HEAVEN, and Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL. I just finished up Harris’ four previous St. Cyr mysteries, as well as Philippa Gregory’s THE WHITE QUEEN. All excellent books. There’s more in my to-be-read pile (including, of course, Leslie Carroll’s NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES as research for future novels), but we probably don’t have enough space to list them all.
What are you planning to work on next?

I just wrapped up a sequel, tentatively titled THE WAX APPRENTICE. It follows the adventures of Marguerite Ashby under her apprenticeship to the great waxworker Madame Tussaud. It’s a swashbuckling tale brimming with historical figures, political intrigues, and a heroine determined to live life on her own terms. THE WAX APPRENTICE should be at your local bookstore in early 2011.

I hope your readers will visit http://www.christinetrent.com/ for more information about my books.

THE QUEEN’S DOLLMAKER is available at the following online locations, as well as your local bookstore:

Amazon.com http://www.amazon.com/Queens-Dollmaker-Christine-Trent/dp/0758238576/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1248305592&sr=8-1
Barnes and Noble.com http://search.barnesandnoble.com/The-Queens-Dollmaker/Christine-Trent/e/9780758238573/?itm=1&USRI=the+queen%27s+dollmaker
Borders.com http://www.borders.com/online/store/TitleDetail?sku=0758238576#complete_contributors

Indiebound.org http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780758238573

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Happy Birthday Jane Austen!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we can never get enough of Jane Austen.

Jane Austen turns 234 today. I wonder if she ever imagined how famous she would become posthumously. It sounds oxymoronic, but if she'd lived to enjoy her celebrity I think she would be absolutely tickled. Yes, she was a quiet country girl at heart, but she was also someone who tut-tutted when people read her books via a library subscription rather than buying a copy.

A romantic pragmatist (or pragmatic romantic) in every way, she certainly sought an income for her efforts. And the dynamics of the literary world have changed little since 1811 when her first novel Sense and Sensibility was published. Authors love to write, but we also want to be well compensated for our work; publishers want to keep their purse strings as tight as possible; and readers may be eager to read our next book, but they don't necessarily want to have to pay for the privilege.

Jane came of age in the Georgian era, a somewhat licentious age where women were as sexually charged as men, but it was also in many ways a misogynistic age where the laws were concerned. A wife was her husband's property. He was liable for her actions--and could be sued for libel if she was perceived as having offended someone through her written or spoken words.

Consequently, it was the rare man who would "permit" his wife to abase herself by becoming a "scribbler," because he didn't want the potentially costly legal responsibility for her literary efforts. Although Jane came from modest means (and her stories reflect the continual search by women of her class to marry for love and money to a man who would understand them and be their equal in every way) she was well aware that there was a vast difference between the world she envisioned in her fiction and the harsh fiscal realities facing genteel young women of the minor gentry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

As much as Jane recognized that marriage to a good provider would end her need to constantly scrimp and worry about how she might make it through the next year, she refused to commit herself to a loveless match or a man who might deny her the ability to write and to send her work out into the world. Even if she hadn't written a half-dozen stellar novels, and left some delightful unfinished fragments and myriad works of juvenilia, she would be laudable for practicing in her life what she preached in her writing.

However, despite the lack of a husband who might have "forbidden" her to "scribble," for propriety's sake Jane's name was not even printed on the frontispieces or spines of her novels during her lifetime. The books were written "By A Lady," and later, after the success of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, by "the author of" those bestsellers.

For the past several years I have felt a deeply personal connection to Jane Austen. Some time ago I had the pleasure and privilege to play the role of Jane in a two-character romantic drama titled The Novelist by Howard Fast--a most prolific novelist himself, with more than sixty titles to his credit, as well as plays and screenplays. The Novelist begins during the last year of Jane's life as she sits down to write the book that will become Persuasion. Enter a charming sea captain stage left, who intends to sweep Jane off her feet and propose marriage--and he won't take "no" for an answer.

Fast's drama is touching, humorous, and ultimately elegiac. And the audience never knows whether the sea captain is intended to be real, or whether Jane is imagining him, the better to craft her character of Captain Wentworth. Mr. Fast saw me perform the role of Jane but I never had the opportunity before he died to ask him about this.

My experience in The Novelist prompted me to become one myself. And every night when I stepped out on the stage into the room that was supposed to represent Jane's little parlor at Chawton I had the sense of stepping back in time. What if, I wondered, I were to be transported to England through some strange sort of time warp?

Thus was born my time travel novel, BY A LADY: Being the Adventures of an Enlightened American in Jane Austen's England, a romantic romp about a 21st century actress who is thrust back in time to Bath, England in 1801, the year Jane Austen and her family retrenched there. My heroine, C.J. Welles, meets and is befriended by her idol as well as by Jane's fictional cousin, Lord Darlington, the man who becomes C.J.'s love interest, unaware that a gulf of two centuries separates them.
Imagine how stunned I was when I later came across a late eighteen-century map of Bath and saw that the street that mirrors Sydney Place, where the Austens lived soon after their arrival, was called Darlington Place! I got chills!

In fact, this blog is titled "The Lady Novelist" all because of those experiences. And the photograph in the banner is of me playing Jane in the show. Of all the plays I've acted in so far, that production remains my favorite. The director Laurie Beth Petersen and the production designer (who also took the photo of me) Raffaele Castaldo, made it all the more special because they were so passionate about the material. Even the theatre was like a gorgeous little jewel box.
So I owe much to Jane Austen, as a literary inspiration and as a personal one. Her humor, wit, and integrity are as much to be admired as her novels, and I do believe that's another reason why she remains so beloved today.

After all, why else would people buy tee shirts and coffee mugs with the query "What Would Jane Say?"

How has Jane Austen impacted your life?