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Eloisa James: Regencies with a Shakespearean Twist

Eloisa James (photo courtesy Eloisa James)

Regency romance and Shakespearean scholarship -- not a combination that springs to mind when most people think about popular fiction. But the worlds of Almack's and Incomparables, and Elizabethan drama meet in the works of Fordham scholar Mary Bly, Ph.D., a.k.a. Regency romance author Eloisa James. James' Regency novels marry scintillating dialogue and screwball plots with a nuanced portrait of people searching for love and self-expression. At the same time her celebration of the bonds between sisters and girlfriends have evoked comparisons to Sex and the City.

Nevertheless, despite critical acclaim and bestseller status, James hid her romance writing identity from her Fordham colleagues. It wasn't until the publication of Much Ado About You, the first of a four novel series with Shakespearean titles and themes, that James shared her other life with her academic peers. Recently, Crescent Blues spoke to James about her colleagues' reactions to her revelations, girlfriends in romance and how teaching can boost your romance writing career -- not to mention your students' careers in publishing.

Crescent Blues: On your site, you talk about building a world for each of your series. This is something usually associated with science fiction or fantasy, not romance. What does world building for a Regency series entail?

Eloisa James: In order to write a Regency story, I need first to build the entire network of social relations that characterized the life of a Regency woman. In other words, my heroine would never just pop into Almack's one night uninvited. Every person in that room would be sharply fixed in the minds of every other person: in terms of their social position, their prospects and their character. It was a very small, very defined world.

Book: eloisa james, much ado about nothing
My heroine needs to have a mother and father (dead or alive), sisters and brothers (and if not, a very good reason why not, given inheritance laws), cousins, aunts and uncles, a godmother and godfather, perhaps living grandparents. If she went to school, she would have school friends; if she were of very high birth and schooled at home, she would have friends from families adjoining her family's country estate. She would know something of everyone in the room -- and that means I need to know some of them too. So there would be gossips and wits, friends of the Regent and women with less than stellar reputations, a thin and discontented duke and a plump and fertile country squire's wife.

My heroine would also have a maid, and the maid would have a family back in Sussex. Her family would have a butler, a cook, scores of footmen, maids and groomsmen. She would employ a certain modiste -- and know of others. She would buy her gloves and her hats in certain places.

Book: eloisa james, potent pleasures
The depth of world building that's needed means that I much prefer to write my books in series of four. That way, I not only get to continue a story arc over the space of 1600 manuscript pages (albeit with four separate main love stories), but I get to weave the same modistes, gossips, and discontented dukes into four novels, rather than creating them and discarding them after only one tale.

Crescent Blues: How is the world of Much Ado About You different from that of your other series?

Eloisa James: This is an interesting question...I suppose that the worlds aren't very different in their composition. I have a fixed idea of what Regency society was like. But on the other hand, as I keep writing and reading about the period, I think I get a more finely nuanced view of the historical/cultural milieu. So one thing I'm trying to do in this series is have some recognition of the ubiquity of the church in the lives of a Regency gentleperson. This does not necessarily mean that my characters are believers (they aren't, for the most part). But it means that Griselda heads off to church every Sunday with her little pearl-encrusted prayer-book, and an occasional character will have a strong sense of faith. Even with just one line referring to that part of their life, I think I'm getting a rounder picture of the actual historical situation.

Crescent Blues: The world of the "Duchess" series and that of Tess Essex and her sisters meets in "A Fool Again," your novella in The One That Got Away. How are the two worlds related?

Eloisa James: Only in the major bridge figure, the Earl of Mayne. He wanders between the two series because he is a difficult character to dismiss (for readers) and a difficult character to marry off (for myself).

My ten-year-old son occasionally picks up one of my books and asks why he's not allowed to read it. Of course, he does that with any kind of salacious material he can find around the house...

Crescent Blues: Who arrived in your imagination first, Tess Essex or Lucius Felton? How have they changed in your head since their first appearance?

Eloisa James: I suppose Tess did, since I was dreaming about four sisters for a year or two before starting to write Much Ado About You. But Lucius formed a sharp personality on paper first, because I wrote the short story in The One That Got Away. Every character changes profoundly because they start out so nebulously -- merely as the serious one, in Tess's case. It's only while writing that I discovered that Tess was still grieving for her father or that she was so practical. Often my critique partner is the one who points out major personality traits, when I've already written around 300 pages.

Crescent Blues: The titles of your current series, Much Ado About You and Kiss Me Annabel, play on Shakespearean comedies and their modern interpretations. How does your day job influence your romance writing -- and vice versa?

Eloisa James: Because I teach plays written by Shakespeare -- and his contemporaries -- during the day, Renaissance language and sense of humor is in my ears. That is a tremendous help in terms of writing dialogue. But I also come up with many of the ideas that structure my plots by rereading a Renaissance play and thinking: "I could use that!" One of my most popular novels, for example, is based on the plot of a 1607 play, The Hog Has Lost His Pearl (it's Midnight Pleasures). Much Ado About You borrows a plot point from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing when my heroine is left at the altar.

Crescent Blues: What prompted you to write romance set in the Regency period and not something set closer to Shakespeare's era?

Book: eloisa james, fool for love
Eloisa James: I thought about writing Renaissance romance, but I was reading Regency romance. I always loved Georgette Heyer, from the time I was in high school. So that felt like the natural testing ground for my own work, once I started to write.

Crescent Blues: In recent interviews, you've mentioned that keeping your writing and academic lives separate has led to moments of farce and loneliness. Had your "double life" prevented you from seeking out other romance writers and writing groups?

Eloisa James: Nope, never that. I found the Romance Writers of America (RWA) early on. Romance writers have always known about my double life; it was only my academic friends and colleagues whom I didn't tell. Moments of loneliness would be: hearing that I was on The New York Times bestseller list for the first time, but since I was in my office, there wasn't anyone to tell about it.

Crescent Blues: Has that changed since you "outed" yourself as a Shakespearean scholar?

Eloisa James: Sure. It only happened a couple of months ago, though, and I was at home when I found out that Much Ado About You hit The New York Times extended list!

Crescent Blues: How have your academic peers reacted to the revelation of a romance writer in their midst? In particular, how did the February 16 faculty meeting go? What were the reactions to the copies of your books?

Eloisa James: They were very cheerful about it. A few of my older colleagues did not comment and refused a novel; so it goes. But the majority of my colleagues were enthusiastic and enjoyed my disclosure enormously. A few of them have read the book they took and written me interesting comments...mostly positive.

I don't have time for rituals! I read with awe about writers who make collages that symbolize their plots...

Crescent Blues: How do you juggle a demanding career in academia, full-time motherhood and writing novels?

Eloisa James: I am very, very organized. If I'm at Fordham, I just do academic work. If I have a day at home, I divide it up strictly. Today, for example, I'm at home. So, from 6-7 a.m. I'm answering email. Then I wake up the children and get them to school, etc. From 9 a.m. - noon, I'll work on an academic article that's due in two weeks. From 1-5 p.m., I'll work on a novel that's due May 1. In between, when I need a break, I'm writing a column for my local romance writers chapter (I'm the published author liaison), working on a quote for a new historical romance coming out from Signet (these take an appalling amount of time), formulating a judiciously written complaint about my upcoming cover, and working on our taxes.

After 5 p.m. is children-time, except that my ten-year-old is complaining that I sneak upstairs and check my email too often -- I have to stop that.

Crescent Blues: Have your children begun to express an interest in what their mom writes?

Eloisa James: My ten-year-old son occasionally picks up one of my books and asks why he's not allowed to read it. Of course, he does that with any kind of salacious material he can find around the house -- he's coming into that age. (Grin.)

Crescent Blues: Can we expect to see any more books by Mary Bly in the near future?

Eloisa James: Yes. I'm working hard on a manuscript at the moment, and hoping to have a full draft by the fall.

Crescent Blues: What kinds of books would you like to see more of?

Eloisa James: The same thing everyone would like, probably: intelligent, funny, sexy romances!

Crescent Blues: What prompted the inclusion of a review section (Pillow Talk) on your site?

Book: eloisa james, your wicked ways
Eloisa James: I read a lot of great books, and I'm very choosy in trying to find them. I know there are people like me out there, who read all the time and are dying for 1) a strong voice and 2) no violence and 3) a happy ending would be nice and 4) did I say no violence?

So when I find those books, I'm happy...

Crescent Blues: How has being a teacher influenced the way you approach your romance career?

Eloisa James: I am fearless when it comes to giving talks and being in teaching situations, so I do more of that than the normal author. And I am also unperturbed by writing short articles, so I do quite a bit of that as well.

Crescent Blues: Do you have any particular writing rituals, or is it just a function of time?

Eloisa James: I don't have time for rituals! I read with awe about writers who make collages that symbolize their plots, or listen to various kinds of music for various kinds of scenes... I just plop myself in the chair and eat chocolate kisses. Lots of them.

Crescent Blues: In your talk at Landmark Mall (Alexandria, Virginia) you alluded to the fact that a number of the first-line readers at the major New York publishing houses are college students. What advice would you give to someone who would like to pursue that kind of internship?

Eloisa James: If you're a college student and you want an internship at a major New York publisher, the first decision is whether you need a paid internship or not. Mind you, no paid internship makes it possible to live in New York City. So you need to be in New York for some other reason, or have a means of support, even if the internship does offer a small salary.

Then, the way you get an internship is simply to call the publisher (any of them!) and ask who is handling their internship program. In other words, start asking around. You have nothing to lose! We've found that interns are taken on, by different publishers, throughout the year, so there's no special time to write, although many people do find internships for the spring semester.

Book: eloisa james, Duchess in love
The publisher who is looking for an intern will ask for your CV [curriculum vitae] and then likely invite you for an interview. Do not be afraid! I remember one student of mine coming back certain of failure. Her stockings had run, she had stammered, and the next interviewee was a very cool student from Columbia University whom she was certain had aced the interview. Well, my student got that internship, torn stockings or no. When a publisher tells you who is conducting the interview, figure out (by Google) what sort of books she or he is editing. In other words, be prepared and be enthusiastic!

Crescent Blues: Who are your romance icons? How have they changed over time?

Eloisa James: Right now, Loretta Chase, Lisa Kleypas, Teresa Medieros, Connie Brockway and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. When I began writing, I was devoted to historicals written by Judith McNaught and Catherine Coulter. I read all over the place: Christina Dodd's suspense novels, and Liz Bevarly's funny contempories. I can't say why things change; perhaps it's discovering a new voice, or moving into appreciation of different aspects of writing.

Crescent Blues: How have your girlfriends influenced the way you approach the genre?

Eloisa James: They exist. And they're terribly important to me. So one thing I did want to change about the various romances I had come across before I started writing was that the heroines rarely seemed to have good female friends. It struck me as incredibly unlikely. I like writing about relationships between women, as well as those between the hero and heroine, so I always have both kinds in my books.

Crescent Blues: One of your romance-loving friends, Sarah, is now also a professor. Any chance that she will start writing romance novels too?

Eloisa James: Not that I know of. She's a very busy mother of two small children, as well as teaching in the English Department of Brasenose College, Oxford.

Crescent Blues: Anything you'd like to add? Soapboxes provided free of charge.

Eloisa James: No thanks!

Crescent Blues: Can you give our readers any teasers for your next novel, Kiss Me Annabel, or upcoming novellas?

Eloisa James: I'm happy to give you the first chapter of my May novella ("A Proper Englishwoman") found in Talk of the Ton. It's a chapter of letters, all gossip thrown back and forth among people in society. You'll see the links to my Shakespeare job in the careless quote from Shakespeare that turns into a wild piece of gossip. My heroine, Emma, is one of my favorite creations: she's funny, bold and absolutely determined to give her fiance a much-needed rebuke. I do hope everyone likes it!

Click here to read the first chapter of Eloisa James' "A Proper Englishwoman."

Click here to learn more about Eloisa James.

Jean Marie Ward