|Judith Ivory: Passionate Victorian|
You might not plan to fall in love with a ratcatcher or a gigantic beast of a man with a cast to his eye and an expression so terrible, the snootiest maitre d' grovels before it. But if you read Judith Ivory -- or her alter ego, Judy Cuevas -- you won't be able to help yourself.
Ivory revels in the Victorian period, plunging her readers into the full sensory experience of the age, the varied scents of jasmine and old roses, as well as the stink of the streets. You feel the bite of tightly laced stays and the warm relief of clove oil on a bad tooth. But real as these fictional experiences seem, they pale beside the emotional reality of Ivory's characters. From courtesans to pioneer filmmakers, estate managers to sculptors, Ivory takes you so deeply into their heads and hearts you never want to let them go.
Crescent Blues: Your heroes seldom fit the standard mold. In recent books, you've made heroes of a ratcatcher, an ether addict and an African explorer with more heart than sense who's considerably younger and less experienced than his heroine. Do you seek out unusual heroes or do they just present themselves to your consciousness?
Judith Ivory: I think any human being you truly get to know is "unusual." As soon as you see the particulars of a person -- the individual -- he or she no longer fits the stereotypes. So, no, I don't seek unusual heroes. I just write about people. I try to make the characters real, which means (if I'm successful) they end up diverging from expectation, just the way real people do. It's the surprises in people, I think, that make them interesting.
Crescent Blues: How much do you consciously create your characters? How much do they seem to create themselves from your subconscious mind?
Judith Ivory: They evolve. I usually have an idea about who they are before I ever start, but early in the process I also like to work through scenes and dialogues to "get to know" who it is I feel like writing about. I frequently don't have a good fix on a character till the book is about halfway finished, then I go back and clean up the earlier versions. Lydia, my current heroine, grew four inches recently. She suddenly needed to be taller. It's as if she should have been taller all along. It explains certain angles and impressions that were happening already, before I realized she was too short -- a typical development in my work. It fixed all sorts of things.
Crescent Blues: Do you consider your books character- or plot-driven? How much would you like to change the mix of character to plot, or do you like the ratio the way it is?
Judith Ivory: Oh, characters drive my books, no doubt, and I love it that way. On the other hand, I love a good plot. My plots, though -- the what-goes-wrong that makes the story develop tension and interest -- are all derived, I think, from what the characters want, what they are striving for, who they are. Something vital to their identities and/or world views must be at risk.
In The Proposition, Mick's identity is challenged in ways he never expected, beginning tangibly when he raises his head to look in the mirror and finds no mustache. [Grins.] Meanwhile, Winnie's very restricted, all female view of life is put to the test when this big, brawny testosterone male enters her world and wreaks havoc with all she has come to believe about her plain, homely self.
Crescent Blues: How much has that mix changed since you began writing?
Judith Ivory: Not much. It's sort of an infinite space to explore for me.
Crescent Blues: You take risks with your heroines too. Edwina Bollash ("Winnie" in The Proposition) is starchy and plain, despite the great legs the era's fashions kept hidden. Coco Wilde (Sleeping Beauty) is a courtesan and not at all apologetic about it. What attracts you to these and other less traditional heroines?
Judith Ivory: Hmm. Well, that's hard to answer, since I think the plain, starchy Victorian miss is a very common archtype in romance fiction, just as the good-hearted fallen woman is also. I like to think what makes mine seem "less traditional" are the individual touches.
Coco's serenity and confidence, for instance, I think makes her a little different. She is as bold and confident as any, well, rake; she's quite a match for James. Winnie's anxiety and funny little quirk of truly wanting to rule the world, control everything, makes her spinsterish set-up unique. To my mind, at least. It makes her both vulnerable and quite formidable, a good opposite for Mick, who is pure, solid, emotional health personified.
Crescent Blues: How do readers react? Do you find the uniqueness of your heroes and heroines draws readers in deeper, or do they tell you it's a little off-putting?
Judith Ivory: For the most part, in deeper. If people like my work, it's a comment I get over and over again -- that the characters become real to them through the right detail here and there. As to negative readers, I think of it as a very good sign that there seems to be no consistency in the complaints.
Crescent Blues: In terms of fiction, do you consider yourself a risk-taker? What about in terms of real-life?
Judith Ivory: Well, it's so much safer to take chances in fiction. That is part of the pleasure of it. You can be quite wild there, and I like to attempt a little craziness every book. But, yes, in real life, I like to think I'm not always playing it safe either. I wouldn't want a life constricted by fear. A rich life is necessarily a brave one. I hope I'm brave. I'm not always though.
Crescent Blues: What do you believe is the biggest risk you've ever taken as a writer? How did it pan out?
Judith Ivory: My biggest risk to date was writing the book Black Silk. I abandoned any artificial conformity to the romance genre and just wrote the book I wanted to write my way. I think it worked out splendidly overall. That style, which was very natural for me and very particular to me, became my "voice." Since that book, I have tried to simplify my style a little, and I backed off my own personal fascination with high-end vocabulary, but essentially that book helped me see myself as a unique writer. Writing it gave me a new confidence in myself and a confidence in the genre, that it would accommodate individuality in a way I feared it might not.
Crescent Blues: Speaking of risks, the plots of at least two books, Bliss and Sleeping Beauty, turn on matters of addiction. How did readers react to your frank discussion of the subject and its impact on the respective families involved?
Judith Ivory: In Sleeping Beauty, you must be referring to the minor character -- the villain's wife (whom we actually never see) -- who is addicted to laudanum, which historically was a very real problem for upper class Victorian women. No one has ever said anything about that particular "addiction" before this interview, that I can recall, so I guess it didn't rock any boats. I felt is was a realistic and highly destructive part of life then -- just as drugs are now -- so I used it. It seemed relevant.
In fact, I also used it in Dance -- Sebastién's wife dies of an overdose of what is most likely heroin, another Victorian horror that claimed women in particular. The book that did rock a few boats, though, was Bliss, but I always take exception to implications of an addiction theme in the book.
Bliss was, for me, a story of reclaiming oneself, of taking full possession of one's life -- for both protagonists -- i.e., becoming an adult. The ether -- because I remember the strong, sweet smell from when I was six and had my tonsils out -- seemed a good metaphor for the sweet, destructive ease of dependence: of being a child forever. It was never a story about drugs for me.
In fact, ether isn't physically addictive, which was another reason I chose it. Moreover, it was historical fact -- Guy de Maupassant and his ballerina girl friend used to throw parties where they served strawberries soaked in ether. Whole villages in England drank it to get around alcohol taxes. It was just an interesting historical quirk to me.
Anyway, I've said all this a thousand times. I made a point in the book that ether wasn't physically addictive -- talked about it, showed, I thought, how physically easy it was for Nardi simply to stop it. But obviously no one hears me. Either my viewpoint doesn't hold water [grins], or else my voice just can't out-shout our culture's preoccupation with drugs.
Nardi was dependent on his family, a family who lived off him, smothered him -- anesthetized him -- with their love. It's the story, for me at least, of healthy love vs. controlling, unhealthy attachment, which Nardi, I thought, overcame heroically.
Crescent Blues: Did you plan Bliss and Dance as a diptych, or was the second book the result of reader demand?
Judith Ivory: I planned the two. The story of two brothers, where the "villain" of the first book has such a comeuppance that he changes and becomes the hero of the second book.
Crescent Blues: What do you think makes it so hard to sell romances set in France to the reading public? What makes France a less appealing setting than England, Scotland or Ireland during the same period?
Judith Ivory: I'm only guessing, but I suspect it might be a matter of visualization. Americans have much less experience with things French than with things British. (Or so they think. In fact, 40 percent of our language comes from French. Many of our customs -- the division and content of our daily meals, for instance -- are more French than English; much more.)
Anyway, Americans reading the back copy of a book that says "France" on it have very few definite images and connections to draw on -- who else do millions of us know beyond Jacques Cousteau? France seems alien to American romance readers, whereas Great Britain feels somehow familiar, a dependable place to put their money. They feel more like they know what kind of a reading experience they are buying.
Crescent Blues: What do you think it would take to broaden the appeal?
Judith Ivory: A name-brand author, bought automatically in large numbers, taking an interest in the place, producing enough work set there to broaden a large number of readers' experiences in positive ways, so that the readers then seek to repeat the experience.
Crescent Blues: Your romances plunge the reader into the full experience of the Victorian period -- smell, taste and texture as well as sight and sound. How do you create such intensity of experience on the page? Do you write from the top of your head, so to speak, or does the intensity result from multiple rewriting?
Judith Ivory: Mostly in rewriting, though all my best scenes have emotional heat from the very first drafts. So those are two things -- the details, the senses, come in layers of rewriting -- while the emotion usually comes hot off the first writing. My challenge is usually how to keep the emotional heat while laying in a fuller reality, the sensual placement in the scene -- how to put the reader on the spot where I have been in imagination.
Crescent Blues: How do you conduct your research? Have you acquired a broad-based background in the period that lets you research "on the fly?" Or do you research each book from scratch?
Judith Ivory: I usually read a dozen or so books before writing a new book. Not always, but usually. Of course to write in the same period now for a while gives me an ever broadening knowledge base, which is sort of nice. Once I start to write, I stack all these books I have read around me. They usually have a lot of post-its hanging out of them, things I want to use one way or another. Plus I collect reference books. I used to go to the library all the time, but I pretty much own one now [grins]. Like Edwina, I have walls, tables, shelves of books in my house.
Crescent Blues: Your language appears unusually frank and graphic for romance. What makes you gravitate towards this precision of language? Does your background as a mathematician and non-fiction writer play a role?
Judith Ivory: Hmm. Good writing is precise, I think. Vague terms don't guide the reader as well. But when you say "frank" and "graphic," immediately I think you are speaking of sexuality, so I'll address that directly. Mostly, I feel a need to be consistently straight with my reader. Ann Lamott says good writing is about honesty, and I couldn't agree more. I think it would be extremely coy of me to write frankly about emotions, especially those connected to love in a romance, then dodge the issue of the physical part of it.
Romance to me has become a kind of dialogue among women about what we really feel about so many things, but especially about sex and love. I find myself needing to be as honest and straightforward as I can with regard to my part of this ongoing conversation. I also like the idea of giving female sexuality dignity -- making it good and wholesome, making enjoying it completely acceptable, desirable. It is a rich part of life and certainly a fabulous part of mature love. I think hiding the erotic aspect of love or couching it in euphemisms sends an unhealthy message. It's normal. It's good. Let's talk about it straightforwardly.
Crescent Blues: How do readers respond?
Judith Ivory: To the sexuality in my books? Ha. Either openly wildly enthusiastic or shyly wildly enthusiastic or secretly wildly enthusiastic, embarrassingly wildly enthusiastic, etc. You get picture. Sex is the single largest universal of mankind. Everyone is interested in it. My frankness in the matter seems to be a popular part of my writing.
Crescent Blues: Do you find readers and editors respond similarly or differently on such matters of style?
Judith Ivory: A good editor responds almost EXACTLY like your largest possible readership. That's her job.
Crescent Blues: How much do your travels play a role in the stories you choose to tell?
Judith Ivory: Bunches. I've traveled extensively, and there is nothing like being in a place to know its flavor and habits.
Crescent Blues: What's the difference between a Judy Cuevas book and a Judith Ivory book?