|Mary Jo Putney: Trial by Romance|
Alcoholism, spouse abuse, infidelity, abandonment -- not the first things you think about when someone says "romance." But bestselling author Mary Jo Putney's stories, like her characters, overcome the odds. Together they travel the hard road to a happy ending, transforming anguish into strengths.
Although best known for her historicals, Putney brought her trademark intensity to the world of contemporary romance in The Burning Point. The book provided a welcome break from the early 19th century and inspired some of her most gratifying reader response to date. Crescent Blues caught up with Putney shortly after she completed work on her January 2002 contemporary to talk about writing in two periods and torturing characters for a living.
Mary Jo Putney: I've always been interested in stories of people overcoming the odds to build a better life. Everyone has troubles -- it's how we deal with them that matters. There's something very heroic about a tormented person who has the courage to risk life and love despite the wounds they've suffered in the past. And it's uplifting to read about characters who have been strengthened by their trials rather than becoming embittered.
Crescent Blues: You've dealt with a number of controversial topics, including rape (Dearly Beloved) and spouse abuse (The Burning Point). Based on reader response, which books and situations have generated the most intense reactions?
Mary Jo Putney: The Burning Point certainly generated plenty of steam, but since few people were online when Dearly Beloved was written, it's hard to compare. In other stories, many people responded well to the alcoholism in The Rake (originally published as The Rake and the Reformer) and the epileptic child in Dearly Beloved. They found the positive portrayal of those characters very hopeful.
Mary Jo Putney: The most common domestic violence story told in popular culture is of the abusive husband who turns into a homicidal stalker. That's a true and horrible story, but that black and white scenario is far from the only possibility. Though some people think that a person who has once committed a violent act is irretrievably evil and doomed to hell, real life is much more a matter of grays.
It's really not that uncommon for a person with abusive tendencies and poor impulse control to change if deeply motivated. This is particularly true if youth, substance abuse, and being a victim of abuse are present, as was the case in The Burning Point. The hero was highly motivated, and he changed. But I can understand why someone who has personally experienced abuse and the abuser didn't change would have trouble accepting this as reasonable.
Incidentally, in the time since I wrote The Burning Point, I've seen reviews of two other books where the abuser changes, and the challenge is to get beyond the past. One was a Christian novel, and the other a young adult story. Apparently the time is coming to think more about these shades of gray.
Crescent Blues: The Burning Point also marks a departure from the historical romances of your past. What inspired this foray into contemporary romance?
Mary Jo Putney: I was running the risk of historical burn-out, and the surest cure for that is new challenges. Also, there are some stories that will work only in a contemporary setting, just as others are inherently historical.
Crescent Blues: What particular challenges did you face in "torturing" your characters in modern dress?
Mary Jo Putney: The biggest technical challenge was developing a contemporary voice, since my natural writing voice is very Regency. I spent a lot of time working to refine and simplify the writing style to suit the new kind of story. Other than that, writing the book was like writing any other book: hard!
Crescent Blues: What was the most rewarding aspect of writing The Burning Point?
Mary Jo Putney: Receiving an e-mail from a woman who read the story, realized for the first time that the situation she was in wasn't all her fault, and left her abuser. That outcome was worth all the difficulty I had with the book.
Mary Jo Putney: It was very comfortable to return to familiar territory, and also fun because I'd spent months doing something different.
Crescent Blues: The characterizations and backdrop of The China Bride represent a different kind of departure. How did you go about researching the book's fascinating Oriental locales and characters?
Mary Jo Putney: Besides Internet research and a buying a ton of books, any Chinese-American reader who made the mistake of writing me a fan letter got drafted onto my reader review board. [Grins.] I've acknowledged them all in the book. Their help was invaluable, since I didn't want to make stupid assumptions from ignorance, and I certainly didn't want to be involuntarily offensive. There is no substitute for talking to people who have experienced what an author is trying to write about.
Crescent Blues: Did you have a historical model or models for Troth Montgomery?
Mary Jo Putney: I didn't have any particular historical character in mind, but when I worked in England I had a co-worker whose name was Troth, and I thought it was a terrific name. It was in the back of my mind for years, and this particular heroine was the one it fit. I also have friends of mixed blood, and it's a situation that intrigues me: to be part of two cultures, yet not feel fully at home in either. One Japanese-American friend said that it requires a kind of schizophrenia to be Asian-American because one must retain two separate realities in the mind at the same time. It's a very interesting theme, and one I want to revisit in a contemporary setting.
Kyle Renbourne's transformation from a self-centered man of the world
(in The Wild Child) to a complex, believable hero (in The China
Bride) reflects a continuing theme in your work: the villain turned
hero. What's the essential ingredient for such transformations?
Mary Jo Putney: There has to be a basic decency and a capacity for self-awareness, plus enough suffering to justify any misdeeds he's committed. I don't really think of Kyle as being either self-centered or villainous in The Wild Child, though. While he's the antagonist in that story, it becomes clear that he's anguished because of losing someone he loves, and that he's forced himself into a definition of duty that ill-suits his nature. This makes him something of a pain, but not a villain.
Crescent Blues: How do you create characters whose strengths and weaknesses complement each other to achieve transformation? (Is it a conscious process, or does one character suggest its own complement?)
Mary Jo Putney: As you suggested, it's usually a matter of developing one character who is the natural complement of the other, so that it will be convincing that these two people are right for each other as no one else could be. Or if I start a book with a plot idea, the characters must be ones who will explore the potentials of that plot as well as suit each other.
Crescent Blues: Which comes first for you: the hero, the heroine or the plot?
Mary Jo Putney: It can be any of the three, though it's more likely to be the hero or the plot than the heroine.
Crescent Blues: How does the story grow from there? (Are you a linear writer, an outliner, a plug-n-play?)
Mary Jo Putney: I'm very linear. I start at the beginning and inch my way through to the end. If I don't know what happens next, I tread water and edit until I figure out how to proceed. I can't even imagine writing in pieces and stringing them together; to me, the writing process is organic, with each section growing out of what happened previously.
Crescent Blues: Do you decide the story's issue in advance or does it develop from your characters?
Mary Jo Putney: It's a combination of both. I suppose that if I start with a plot, I also have a sense of the issue. Whereas if I start with a character, the issue grows out of him.
Crescent Blues: Who's in control, you or your characters?
Mary Jo Putney: Me, without question. I think that anyone who says the characters took over really means that they didn't know them well enough at the beginning. Once you know them inside and out, they don't surprise you.
Mary Jo Putney: Lord Robin Andreville, the hero of Angel Rogue. His sense of humor is based on that of my significant other.
Mary Jo Putney: Heavens, none of them! I'm a devout coward. [Grins.]
Crescent Blues: Once you decided to turn your first computer into a writing tool, you made your first sale in a remarkably short time (three months according to one book jacket). How did you accomplish this amazing feat?