RevWar Swashbucklers: A conversation with REBEL PIRATE author Donna Thorland

In which we discuss swashbuckling novels, heroines in disguise, dangerous heroes, edgy historical romance, pirates (NOT witches!) in Salem, and Revolutionary women

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I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to THE REBEL PIRATE, which is the second book in Donna Thorland’s heart-stoppingly romantic Renegades of the Revolution series, and was released last week. Book one, THE TURNCOAT, which I reviewed last year, was one of my best reads of 2013, and it wasn’t just because the American Revolutionary period is my favorite setting for historical romance.  The new book, about a British naval officer (that’s right, a master and commander) and a rebel privateer, is set much closer to home for me, in Salem, Massachusetts, and I do want to talk about the history, but let me start by asking Donna about the romance…

Pamela: Your background in historic preservation and curatorial work certainly lends itself to writing historical fiction, and I’m wondering how you made the decision to write books that, for argument’s sake, I’ll call romances. With THE TURNCOAT, the love story was absolutely central, and you gave Kate and Peter a Happy Ending – I suppose it could have been HEA or HFN – did you leave that open for a possible sequel with their further adventures?

Donna Thorland:  I fell hard for historical romance when I read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. I loved all of the swashbuckling adventure, the quotations in Latin, French, and Spanish, the tangled familial relationships and the desperately fought duels, but it was the romance threaded through the series that made my heart beat faster, the palpable longing between Lymond and the heroine, whose name is a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t read the books. Dunnett’s work wouldn’t fit the current RWA definition. It takes six long volumes full of poisonings, politics, and fiendish plotting to get to Lymond’s happily ever after, but when it comes, it’s a profound union of equals, of two people who challenge each other to become their best selves. That’s the kind of book I wanted to write.

The next three Renegades books are standalones with new characters, but someday I’ll return to Peter and Kate, who go on to have further adventures, including foiling a plot to assassinate Franklin at the French Court…

Pamela: Glad to hear it! I really do like the trend towards following a married couple past the HEA into another book. But for their wartime courtship which was the focus of THE TURNCOAT, I loved the way you deconstructed some traditional romance tropes, like the charming and dangerous hero (I read Peter as more of a survivor than an alpha badass) and the sheltered and inexperienced heroine discovering her sexuality (Kate’s complicated sexual awakening that includes a man other than the hero was such a bold and risky plot move!). What led you to engage with traditional romance tropes so directly and centrally, rather than write the kind of historical fiction where the romance is merely an element among other central themes?

Donna Thorland:   After Dunnett I had a hard time finding the kind of adventure driven romance I was looking for—books that had the capacity to thrill and at the same move me. I found books in other genres that came close to striking the right balance—I love Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch books, George MacDonald’s Fraser’s Flashman, Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series—but it was in romance that I most often discovered satisfyingly emotional storytelling.

Pamela: I think I know what you mean – it’s why I really loved Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, yet I always wanted the romance to be more central.  On the other hand, we both followed the rich discussion around Sunita’s “romantic vs. romance” post, so I know you define your genre somewhere at the edge of romance — as the “swashbuckler.”  Very apropos! And especially perfect for your new pirate-themed book. How does the swashbuckler relate and/or overlap with the traditionally defined romance genre?

 

Boston Herald Centerfold

Love this headline! The Boston Herald, March 10, 2014

Donna Thorland:   I define the swashbuckler as a blend of action, adventure, and romance in which single combat between a protagonist and an antagonist plays a crucial role. The Three Musketeers is a swashbuckler, and so is Steven Sommer’s excellent The Mummy. Not all swashbucklers end happily, but my books fall into the camp of those that do, like The Scarlet Pimpernell. You will not be surprised to learn that I am a huge Lauren Willig fan.

Pamela: OK, let me follow up about this notion that this genre — the swashbuckler — relies on single combat. Do you mean this literally as well as narratively? That is, must there be physical combat between hero (or heroine) and villain? Does it work if the combat is a battle of wits or strategies, or must there be swords involved?

This is interesting to me because it was reading THE TURNCOAT, which involves mortal danger and physical combat (in addition to torture) that made me want to explore the ways violence functions in the romance genre. And I’ve been thinking and writing about that theme in the months since then. Kate and Peter’s story was just that much more dangerously and graphically intense than typical historical romance novels. I guess that’s partly the wartime setting under an army of occupation, and partly the swash of the buckle!

Donna Thorland: Terrific question! Some day I really want to write an essay that surveys and defines the swashbuckler as I see it. The short answer, though, is that the combat can be a battle of wits. Dunnett uses it to devastating effect in Pawn in Frankincense. I don’t want to spoil those books for anyone but she builds up a ruthless villain who may in fact be cleverer than the hero and their climactic battle is one of wits, although the stakes are life and death not just for Lymond and his antagonist but for a whole cast of characters we have come to care about.

Pamela: What about American historical romance – I am always on the lookout for colonial and Revolutionary settings in romance, but I can’t tell if we are actually seeing a trend towards more books like this. Do you think it is more or less popular as a setting for HistRom these days? American romance readers seem to have an endless appetite for English and European settings, but are there audiences for RevWar books anywhere outside the US?

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Patriots Day reenactment near Lexington, April 2012

Donna Thorland:  I hear from readers in the UK and Australia who really enjoy this setting, so I think there is an audience. It’s a revolution after all—and why should the French have all the fun? I’m hoping that the enthusiasm for AMC’s TURN and Fox’s SLEEPY HOLLOW will bring more readers into the fold.

Pamela:  Both books involve heroines who undergo dramatic changes in circumstance that require them to transform their outward appearances.  Are the elements of disguise, assumed identities, deception, honor, and betrayal, among the hallmarks of your “Renegades of the Revolution”?

Donna Thorland:  Yes—definitely. When you study storytelling as a craft you discover that one of the most universal desires in fiction is the desire to be seen for your true self. I think this is especially true for female protagonists because so often gender obscures individual identity, and part of the heroine’s character arc is to break from her prescribed role. Disguise, cross-dressing, and assumed identities are also staples of 18th century drama. My third book, MISTRESS FIREBRAND, will be set in the world of the Georgian theater in America and might even contain a masque…

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Pamela: In THE TURNCOAT, although British officer Peter becomes the literal turncoat, it is patriot Kate who most radically “turns” her coat — or her dress — to become a completely different person on the outside. And it’s more than just taking on the persona of a wealthy Loyalist: I really felt as if your careful descriptions of her lavish clothing, powdered hair, and domestic accoutrements conveyed the sense that she was constructing an artificial gender identity. Not exactly a Deborah Sampson, but certainly perilously hiding in plain sight, and as a spy, in greater danger should the artifice be exposed? And it’s interesting to think about Kate as a “soldier” for the Revolution in disguise as the brittle Lydia, in contrast to Deborah’s literal enlistment as a man…? I just loved how you played around with themes of loyalty, identity, honor, and deception.

Donna Thorland:  One of the things that I really like about that title is that almost everyone in the book, at one time or another, could be considered a turncoat. Not just Kate and Peter, but Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold, Andre when he trades Kate’s whereabouts for the letters, and even Arthur Grey when he lets Peter go after the skirmish in the woods.

There’s a quick description of Kate’s preparations to meet Peter at the house in the Neck, and though it isn’t a full scene, in my mind, the clothing, the hair, the makeup, the jewelry, is how Kate arms herself to do battle. If I had the opportunity to shoot it for a film, I’d cover it the way Peter Jackson covered the arming of Theoden in The Two Towers.

If there is a geek meter on your blog, I have just broken it.

Pamela: Oh, I just re-watched that, this time with my daughters! It’s a great parallel. We join you in geekery. Though I know nothing about filmmaking, I’m very much a history geek, and they are digging into local colonial history right now in their 5th grade social studies unit. I hope they are getting a more balanced view of historical women than the one presented when I was their age.  Do you aim to educate as well as to entertain, by weaving your stories through and around the real history of women in the Revolution – ordinary women as well as women who took grave risks for love or patriotism, such as Kate?

Mrs. James (Mercy Otis) Warren, by John Singleton Copley, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (via WikiMedia)

Donna Thorland:  I want to reclaim early American women from their Victorian intercessors. I was reading Carol Berkin’s excellent Revolutionary Mothers and was intrigued by her mention of Elizabeth Ellet’s 19th century Women of the American Revolution. Ellet’s book kept the memory of Revolutionary women like Mercy Otis Warren alive, but also re-imagined them to appeal to Victorian ideals. Warren got herself on a British hanging list writing seditious plays and penned one of the first histories of the Revolution (and she’s the inspiration for the heroine of my third Renegades book). Ellet characterizes her as a pious homemaker who never put politics before family. Who is the real Mercy Otis Warren? Ellet describes the surface of a card table embroidered by Mercy as covered in flowers painstakingly copied from nature. The table is in Pilgrim Hall. It has got flowers on it. It has also got several hands of three-card Loo depicted, along with counters. This woman gambled. She was a person, not a paragon.

Pamela: Sounds like we may see a spectacular card table in a future book. As an erstwhile art historian myself, I especially appreciate your careful yet never pedantic attention to details of material culture, from costume and dress, to interiors and decorative arts. It’s a very tangible way the stories are enriched by your background in museum work, and your interest in the domestic environments which your characters inhabit.

Do you think we can view Kate’s act of performative and provocative femininity as both bold patriotism and a form of “turncoat” betrayal — or denial — of who she really is as a modest Quaker woman? Of course both identities become inextricably intertwined and equally authentic aspects of Kate as she grows and evolves through the novel, but I am curious about how you conceived such a wonderfully complex character. Is she an unassuming spinster who becomes a bold badass, or a bold spinster who was just waiting for the opportunity to break free of her unassuming surroundings?

Donna Thorland:  I wanted to give Kate something that more heroines deserve: a strong female role model. If Kate hadn’t met the widow, she wouldn’t have broken from her setting. It’s a common paradigm for male protagonists—for an experienced mentor to see promise in the young hero—but heroines are more often singled out for their beauty or kindness or other “feminine” characteristics, and then usually by the hero.

Pamela: With THE REBEL PIRATE’S  heroine, Sarah Ward, you have given us another protagonist who obscures her true identity, and in this case she meets the hero while disguised as a boy. And where there was a highly dangerous and uncomfortable love triangle in THE TURNCOAT, Jennifer McQuiston recently described what goes on in your new book as a “love rectangle.”  These are complicated, edgy romances, and a far cry from wallpaper-ish drawing-room historicals. Which other books and authors have most influenced your romantic, swashbuckling, yet hard-edged vision of Revolutionary heroes?

Donna Thorland:  In fiction, I think that what I write is closest to Dorothy Dunnett and George MacDonald Fraser’s work, but my perspective on the Revolution is informed by a lot of non-fiction as well. There is an acid tone to some 18th century journals—the engineer John Montresor had a particularly dry wit. A J Languth’s Patriots is one of my favorite general histories of the Revolution, because it highlights the role that character played in the conflict. Events turned on personalities, bold, flawed, timid, stalwart. Men and women of incredible ability—and fallibility.

Pamela: Speaking of fallibility…..  In general, I think people may know, or think they know, much more about the earlier period in Salem’s history, and the infamous persecutions of 1692.

Do you think people will be surprised by any of the history in this novel, especially how cosmopolitan and prosperous the city was in the late 18th century?

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Custom House and Salem wharf, Salem Maritime National Historic Park

Donna Thorland:  This was our daily challenge when I worked at the Peabody Essex Museum. The Witchcraft Trials of 1692 are a seminal event in American history—you can practically hear the door close on the Puritan hegemony and see the enlightenment beckoning on the other side—but the rest of Salem’s history is just as remarkable. During the Revolution, Salem took more British prizes and outfitted more privateers than any other American port. By 1804 she was the richest city, per capita, in the nation. She produced, arguably, the finest architect of the Federal period in Samuel McIntire, and the most important American novelist of the romantic period in Hawthorne (never mind that we practically ran him out of town on a rail for his unflattering portraits of local luminaries—hopefully I won’t meet the same fate…). 

Pamela: I doubt it! More likely a festive book signing at the House of Seven Gables… or the Salem Athenaeum…?

You also work in film and television – how has this influenced the way you construct novels? And what about your innovative use of short videos to promote historical novels – how fun and fabulous are these Vines?

DONNA THORLAND:  Novels are a bit like television in that readers are inviting your characters into their home. Your characters have to be people that your audience wants to spend time with, to learn more about—or they will change the channel or close the book.

Making the Vines was a crazy amount of fun. We shot several of them in Hamilton Hall—think a Regency-era assembly hall straight out of Jane Austen, but in Salem—built by Federal architect Samuel McIntire and in continuous operation for over two hundred years. It also happens to be around the block from my house, and friends and neighbors were able to drop by to lend a hand. When you live in a historic district, your friends and neighbors can also often lend you 18th century pistols or a spare neck stock.

Pamela:  I can’t decide which of the Vines is my favorite – the pirates turning pages or the badass delivery of the first line from THE REBEL PIRATE.  Watching them and checking out the links to Hamilton Hall and other Salem sites makes me want to spend more time in Salem this summer. I love bringing out-of-state visitors there, to experience the layers of history in a way seems closer to what an 18th century city may have felt like, than when you take people on the Freedom Trail walk through Boston.   But for now, I want to get back to reading about Sarah and Sparhawk and what they get up to, in Salem and aboard the Charming Sally

THE REBEL PIRATE (2014) and THE TURNCOAT (2013) are available from Penguin/New American Library in the usual formats and places. I received a review copy of The Rebel Pirate and purchased my copy of The Turncoat.

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Executioner’s Song: Real History, Real Romance

THE TRAITOR’S WIFE by Kathleen Kent

Real history and the author’s family lore combine for an intensely romantic tale with a larger than life badass hero and a dangerously outspoken badass heroine

The Setting: Eastern Massachusetts (Middlesex County, north and west of Boston) in the hardscrabble 17th century countryside. The IMG_5158story takes place in and around towns I visit regularly today, along the Concord River, and up towards Salem. There’s something about the specificity of place, landscape, and architecture that has always made historical fiction even more compelling for me as a reader when I am fortunate enough to visit sites that evoke the setting of a well-loved novel. I can’t help it, I am a sucker for the ‘historical squee’ of breathing in the atmosphere of a historic place or standing on a spot where history happened, even if it’s now doing time as a gas station or Starbucks  (there are a lot of these spots in my town).

It’s quite possible my deep response to this richly rewarding novel is influenced by my other obsession with the history and material culture of colonial New England.

But back to the love story –

He: Thomas Carrier, tall, silent hired man with mysterious past, uncanny strength, and immense capacity to hold love and secrets in his heart. A Welshman, former bodyguard of Charles I and later soldier for Cromwell, he’s an outlander in the insular Puritan community and rumors abound about his role in the killing of a king.

She: Martha Allen, difficult, outspoken daughter; capable, pragmatic servant in her petulant married cousin’s household; a fatally independent thinker and keeper of secret and painful histories, she ultimately faces persecution for witchcraft.

Brought to you by:  Kathleen Kent, in The Traitor’s Wife (2010; Little, Brown/originally in hardcover as The Wolves of Andover).

From the publisher (jacket copy):  In the harsh wilderness of colonial Massachusetts, Martha Allen works as a servant in her cousin’s household, taking charge and locking wills with everyone. Thomas Carrier labors for the family and is known both for his immense strength and size and mysterious past. The two begin a courtship that suits their independent natures, with Thomas slowly revealing the story of his part in the English Civil War. But in the rugged new world they inhabit, danger is ever present, whether it be from the assassins sent from London to kill the executioner of Charles I or the wolves-in many forms-who hunt for blood. A tale of love, courage, and independence, The Traitor’s Wife confirms Kathleen Kent’s ability to craft powerful stories set against the dramatic background of America’s earliest days.

This book blurs the lines between romance and literary historical fiction as greatly as anything I’ve read in quite a while.  It’s also a form of family memoir, since the author has fashioned a love story from the known facts of the lives of her nine-greats grandparents. Martha Carrier was executed for witchcraft in the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692, and this novel is a prequel for Kent’s The Heretic’s Daughter (2009), which tells the story of Martha’s children during the terrible time of her arrest, imprisonment and execution.

Kent writes eloquently in the afterword about her research process and the significance of these powerful stories passed down through the generations in her family.  Both Thomas and Martha were historical figures whose lives were shadowed by dark deeds, and somewhat shrouded in mystery. The historical facts of Martha’s prosecution are more readily available (though of course there is no single “answer” to the historical mystery of the witchcraft hysteria itself – why then? why this town and those girls?), but the legend and lore surrounding Thomas as the executioner of Charles I remain murkier.

In relating her fictional endeavor to her historical research and family traditions, Kent powerfully articulates a rejection of the Halloween-izing of the witchcraft trials and the peculiar devolution of Salem’s rich and complex history to its annual October masquerade as “The Witch City.” I’ve refrained from casting this as a Halloween post in spite of the date on the calendar and my own culturally ingrained initial connection between the witchcraft context and Halloween this week.

Traditional romance doesn’t usually feature actual historical personages, except as secondary characters, and I can’t think of another trad romance featuring the author’s own ancestors. Certainly everything about this book, from its serious treatment of harsh historical truths, its beautifully rendered prose and layered storytelling, to its packaging and marketing, says “serious historical fiction.”

Yet at its core The Traitor’s Wife is a love story. And it’s a love story that touched me deeply. I found it achingly romantic.  So I started to think about my response to this novel as a romance, and why I had a reading experience that was emotionally similar to my experience when reading a tremendously satisfying historical romance novel.  It really makes me wonder why, and whether, we – consumers and/or producers of fiction — are so invested in being able to neatly label books as one thing or another.  Or are we? Is this literary historical fiction, traditional historical fiction (genre fiction), and/or romance fiction? And what is the significance of the re-branding of this book, from the hardcover The Wolves of Andover to the softcover The Traitor’s Wife?  It still doesn’t look like a romance novel, but something about the newer cover signals “women’s fiction” to me. It certainly makes the marital relationship the titular center of the story, and sidelines the parallel narrative of the “wolves” (these are the brutal and sadistic assassins — the villains, if this were a romance novel, whose evil and ominous pursuit of the hero is conveyed via short interspersed alternate POV chapters — sent by the Crown (Charles II) to track down the regicides in the colonies and bring them back to face a traitor’s death).

I’ve come up with 5 fundamental ways The Traitor’s Wife feels like reading a good romance novel. I’m sure in some circles a statement like that about a “serious” work of historical fiction would cause a pang of anguish, but as anyone who has visited this blog before knows, when I say “like a good romance novel” I mean “I loved this book and highly recommend it, for romance readers, history lovers, and for people as serious about reading as I am.”

Hero and Heroine POV. Martha’s POV is the primary one, but when silent Thomas lets down his guard he offers her, and the reader, lengthy reminiscences and stories that reveal his past, his priorities, and his heart.  These near-soliloquies are so deftly woven in that they never feel like exposition, and they layer in the hero’s POV without head-jumping or inner “he reflected on her incredible awesomeness” nonsense.

Focus on characters. Much of the plot development occurs as back story so the timeframe encompassed by the novel primarily focuses on the interactions and domestic routines that build the relationship between Martha and Thomas over a period of months. As the two strongest adults in a household at the edge of the wilderness (the master and mistress are depicted as ‘weaker’ and less capable by virtue of Daniel’s frequent absences and infidelity and Patience’s helpless petulance and pregnancy), they bond by fighting off predators (wild animals, disease, hostile human threats) together. They find in the other a fortitude and survival instinct to match their own.

Banter.  If there is such a thing as flirting via taciturn banter of a semi-hostile nature, this is it. The spoken and unspoken communication between this couple is a big part of this novel’s appeal as a romance.

“What’s a Swedish feather?”

He turned to her, startled, with raised brows, as though she had asked him to jump off a cliff.

“John says I have a tongue like a Swedish feather.” She had asked the question in all earnestness, but when he moved to hide a smile, she bridled.

He straightened his mouth and answered, “It’s a weapon. A short pike with a steel-pointed blade. I say so as I have had necessity to use one.”

“And where,” she asked stiffly, “would you have had use for such a one as those?”

“Most times, missus,” he said, standing, “between the eyes and the belly.”

(Kathleen Kent, The Traitor’s Wife, @2010 Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, softcover edition pp. 101-102)

I just love how Thomas routinely leaves sharp-tongued Martha grasping for his meaning, offering her space to come to her own conclusions.  While simultaneously revealing the knife-edge intensity of his feelings for her.  Her strength, desire, and pain gut him, she is deep beneath his skin.

Space for female sexuality/sexual desire.  Martha’s inner narration frequently reveals the tense and vibrating nature of her gaze when in proximity to Thomas, and she begins to notice him physically long before she begins to have substantive conversations with him. She has much to overcome in order to allow herself to feel and act upon her own desire, and when they share physical intimacy it is truly an expression of love and redemption. The brief love scenes are never what romance readers would refer to as ‘steamy’ but nor do they retreat into the arch vocabulary of historically circumspect and discreet language.  There is a rawness, grace, and physicality that I found quite powerful.

HEA/HFN. This may be the real ‘stretch’ in making an argument for Martha and Thomas as a love story that functions as a rewarding romance read. Because this is a prequel and they are historical figures, most readers will already know there is no Happy Ever After for this couple. And in fact the end of their story, as told by Kent in the earlier book (The Heretic’s Daughter), is so wrenching and painful it is one of the saddest and most affecting books I read last year. But take The Traitor’s Wife on its own merits, embrace the Happy For Now of these scarred and battle-weary survivors, and there is a deep satisfaction in seeing them married and settled together on a piece of land at the end of this beautiful novel:

The couple being poor, and they being of remarkable fortitude for work, I have offered them, along with Carrier’s man, John Levistone, a good plot of land from my own holdings, in return for some period of labor and a gold coin given to Goodwife Carrier by her father.

(Kathleen Kent, The Traitor’s Wife, @2010 Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, softcover edition p.288)

This happy ending is recounted in the form of documents, which means that we get just fragments from which to imagine their union. But it is enough, to see Martha as Goodwife Carrier, and the two of them working the land together, as equal partners as was possible given the legalities and customs of the time.

It strikes me now, as I try to wrap up this long-overdue post, that what’s missing from this book, as a romance, is an epilogue after the epilogue of the documents.  Instead, there’s a letter from Martha to her daughter Sarah. Not exactly the traditional romance “baby epilogue.” Rather wrenchingly the letter sort of aft-shadows the tone and voice of the companion book, Sarah’s story (The Heretic’s Daughter).

Even in the passage I just quoted, “Goodwife” itself evokes the “Goody” of “Goody Carrier” — for some, myself included, that is all it takes to transport the mind to the awful milieu of 1692, Cotton Mather, the “afflicted” girls, and the tragic mayhem of the witch trials.

There’s a lot to wrestle with here, but I simply love the fact that after writing truly the most harrowing and powerful fictional account of the trials I have ever read (it was generally well reviewed, in the New York Times, for example), Kent went back and lovingly crafted this elegiac romance to commemorate who Martha and Thomas were before they became “the accused,” and how they fell in love.