MJP: As a romance writer, I get all kinds of romance promo thingies in e-mail. If I’m busy, I delete them unopened. Sometimes, if I’m not busy or the promo is for an author I like, I’ll take a look. The very first time I ever went out and bought a book by an unknown author because of the cyber-promo piece was Sherry Thomas’s Private Arrangements. ( http://sherrythomas.com/ )
Quite simply, her prose was ravishing—the kind of wit that is associated with the very best of Regencies, though Sherry’s books are set in late Victorian times. Try a sample: http://sherrythomas.com/arrangements.html#bookexcerpt
Her wordcraft would be impressive with any new author. What makes it extraordinary is that Sherry is a first generation Chinese American who didn’t come to this country until she was 13. According to her website, a year later she was reading big fat historical romances with her trusty Chinese American dictionary by her side. Not only is English not her first language, but unlike, say, German and English, Chinese and English are totally different in structure and usage.
ST: LOL, I'm not so sure about the instant hit part, but I will say it has been a long way from that English-Chinese dictionary, which I still have, though I haven't cracked it open in years.
It helps that I've always been a fan of words and language. For my tenth birthday, my great aunt gave me a brick of a Chinese dictionary, and I used to read it for fun and—this went into true word geek territory—copy down interesting idiomatic expressions in a notebook.
And it helps that I've always been a huge reader. After I arrived in the States, I very quickly ran through all the Chinese-language books there were to be had among the Chinese student population (my mom was a grad student then at LSU). So I was more or less forced to read beyond my English level in order to read anything at all. I read tons of historical romance and science fiction, destroyed the spine of my poor dictionary, and emerged at eighteen with the vocabulary of a Victorian old lady. :-)
I think this answers about half of your question, on how I acquired proficiency in English. My road to publication is a different story altogether. I came from a family of scientists and engineers. While I enjoyed my writing assignments as a child, I can honestly say I'd never seriously considered writing as a career. Partly because we knew of no writers, partly because I already understood even then that crafting stories was hard, since with the stories I made up to entertain myself and my friends, I could never go beyond a wildly scintillating beginning to any sort of plausible plot development.
But sometimes life throws curveballs at you. And so it was that I found myself in my early twenties not studying for a grad degree as had been my plan all along, but raising an infant as a stay-at-home mom. After reading a particularly silly romance one day, I said, hmm, perhaps I could do better. And perhaps I could make a little money from it.
That was the beginning. After that came eight years of the usual writer's slog. Manuscript. Rejection. Manuscript. Rejection. More manuscripts. More rejections. Until one day the stars aligned. People said yes all the way up the chain of command and I found myself with a book contract.
MJP: What particularly draws you to writing romance? Why historical novels? And why the late Victorian era?
ST: I've always been drawn to love stories. But I am not a romantic in the traditional sense. I don't think romantic love is sufficient at all for happiness, but must be accompanied by wisdom, courage, kindness, generosity, patience, commitment...and the list goes on and on. So my stories aren't exactly about people falling in love--they are already desperately in love—but about how they acquire the depth and strength of character to handle something as marvelous and difficult as love.
MJP: Aha! A most salient point, and entirely true.
ST: As for the historical part, for the longest time I had no idea why. I mean, it has been my great ambition to write SF romance, yet I keep completing one historical after another. Finally I realized that it's because the price of love is at its highest in historical romance, what with marriages being a practically irreversible choice and reputations of such paramount importance. So the stakes are correspondingly higher. With higher stakes come sharper conflicts. And with sharper conflicts come more absorbing stories.
I got hooked on the late Victorian/Edwardian era because of my great addiction to 2 books—The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale, set in 1887, and Beast by Judith Ivory, set in 1902, if I'm not mistaken (my copy is out with a friend). Because all the technologies we take for granted nowadays were so sexy back then. (Electricity? Yum. Telephone? Hot. Automobile? OMG!) Because photography existed and I use photographs relentlessly in my stories. And because people bathed regularly. :-)
MJP: Your first book, Private Arrangements has the mother of all conflicts! Gigi committed a devastating betrayal, and the depth of Camden’s feelings are reflected in his equally devastating over-reaction. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to write this particular story?
ST: I read a lot of Big Misunderstanding story lines growing up. So I was rebelling against my romance upbringing by writing a story where there is no misunderstanding, that if the hero thinks the heroine did something awful, it's because she really did do something awful.
Private Arrangements exists in two versions. The unpublished version was my first manuscript, completed in 2000. It was soundly rejected everywhere. I tossed my only physical copy of it into a box in a corner, where it quietly fed bookworms for five years until for no clear reason I sat down one day and read a few pages from it.
I kind of gagged on my writing. But I realized I was still as fundamentally taken with the idea as ever—that of a young woman who commits a grave wrong in the name of love and the messy aftermath of it all. So I took that basic backstory, changed everything about the book except the characters' names, and rewrote it from scratch. (There is not a single thing I used from the prior manuscript, nothing.)
The big lesson to me, which again served me very well with Delicious, is that I shouldn’t ever be afraid to toss things out and start over. An idea is nothing until the execution is commensurate.
MJP: Your second book, Delicious, has some of the best food porn I’ve ever read. <g> The lushness of the descriptions reminds me of authors like Barbara Samuel and the poet/essayist Diane Ackerman. Do you love to cook? Love to eat? Was it because all that lovely food fit the story? All of the above?
ST: Roughly speaking, I wrote three completely different full versions of Delicious. In some of the earlier drafts there was actually a lot more food porn, because that had been my original intention, to write food porn. And then somewhere along the way I came to a realization that no, it's not about the food, it was never about the food. And I made a decision that food should not come on the page unless it is about character.
MJP: That’s one of the things I loved about the book—that the food was always about emotion.
ST: Much of Delicious is about the hero's loneliness. He is a man who no longer tastes and his dead tastebuds are a metaphor of the way he's buried his emotional self. When the heroine's cooking shocks his palate into life, this is his reaction:
“And therein lay the danger of Mme. Durant and her cooking—not that it was delectable, but that it was evocative, and made him think far beyond food. The rediscovery of taste was as perilous as he’d feared it would be, rousing other dormant, dangerous longings for everything he did not have, everything he’d hoped to hold dear and could not.”
So I hope this is what the lushness comes from, that it connects the stomach to the heart.
As for me, I do love to eat, and I do like to cook (though no one has ever called me cooking evocative). But through most of the third and final draft of Delicious, I was very hungry myself—I have this bad habit of not getting off the computer when I'm on deadline, whether I'm actually writing or not. And perhaps my own fervent hunger seeped a little into the book? :-)
MJP: There are two kinds of writers on deadline: those who don’t eat anything, and those who eat anything that isn’t nailed down…. (Read Delicious to find the meaning of the madeleines above on the right.)
As both a reader and a writer, what do you consider key elements of a great story?
ST: I really don't think there is a single key element beyond suck-me-in-ness. Whether it is world-building, prose, character, voice, emotional intensity, sexual tension, humor, or just good old plot-and-pace, do one thing exceptionally well, and I will read the book. Do two things exceptionally well, and I will read the backlist. Do three things exceptionally, and I will shout about you from the roof tops.
MJP: Are there any trends you hope to see in romance in the next few years?
ST: I'd like to see more power couples. Readers love Eva Dallas and Roark. They love Dain and Jessica. Yet romance does not produce nearly as many of them as one'd think. Heck, even I've only produced one power couple (Gigi and Camden in PA). But I'm trying.
MJP: What is the best part about being a writer? The most frustrating?
ST: The best parts are so many, never having to buy business attire is definitely one of them. And writing is just such a joy in and of itself, getting paid for it still makes me giggle, like getting paid for eating and sleeping.
The most frustrating thing is probably when stories don't gel. You write and you write and everything is just so much pablum with no zing, no punch, no emotional truth. Or when your editor comes back with a 16-page single-spaced revision letter.
But after Delicious, I've concluded that just about any sad sack of a story can be fixed, provided one is willing to dump the said sad sack and start all over again. (Twice.)
(You bet now I think a lot harder before committing 90,000 words to hard drive!)
MJP: Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to kick around?
ST: I'd like to thank the Wenches for having me. It's been a pleasure and a privilege and I'm humbled to be amongst so much greatness.
<mjp rolls eyes slightly, but with a smile>
MJP: Tell us about your third book, Not Quite A Husband, which will be out in 2009.
ST: I have a penny-dreadful kind of pitch for it, taken directly from a discarded paragraph of the manuscript. “The frontiers of India! A time of war! He is deathly ill and she is the only doctor in miles!”
And I'd like to mention that they used to be married until she asked for an annulment. Conflict enough? :-)
MJP: Works for me. <G>
For more fun, check out Sherry's two book trailers, which she did herself. I particularly liked this one for Private Arrangements, which I thought really captured the essence of the story. <g> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_9LYBD_YPY&feature=related
Here's the one for Delicious: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6VQZGSUYuk
Sherry will give away a signed book to a commenter who posts between now and midnight Thursday.
You can check out her website at http://sherrythomas.com/