by Mary Jo
We Word Wenches are delighted to have Eloisa James as a guest today. Possessor of one of the most original voices in historical romance, Eloisa has a background that enthralls journalists and readers alike. Since she is always being asked about it, I shall briefly summarize so we can move onto more interesting questions. <g>
Eloisa is the daughter of Robert Bly, the distinguished poet and National Book Award winning author of Iron John, a seminal influence on the men’s movement and an international bestseller. The family roots are Norway and Minnesota (yes, like Garrison Keillor), and Eloisa has the tall, lean, blondness to prove it. <G> She has degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, and is a professor of Shakespeare and head of the Creative Writing program at Fordham University.
Despite the fact that both her parents were distinguished literary writers, Eloisa was a born story lover and story teller. She loved reading romance, which progressed to writing romances, and she is one of our genre’s most eloquent advocates. As her website says, she has two jobs, two kids, two cats, and one husband, the Italian born Alessandro, who is not only gorgeous (I’ve met him and can verify this <g>), but also a hereditary Italian knight, a cavaliere. Is that romantic or what?
I have a suspicion that Eloisa never sleeps, so I’m glad she has taken the time to visit us. Her new January book, The Duke is Mine, immediately leaped onto the New York Times bestsellers list, and is third in her current series of fairy tale inspired books. It features a heroine who is just too full of life to be the perfect duchess her parents raised her to be, and two men, both of them very unusual characters. (Excerpt)
Eloisa, The Duke is Mine is loosely inspired by the Princess and the Pea, and it is variously very funny and rather tragic. Could you tell us about the story and how you came to write it?
EJ: I jumped into the story as part of my fairy-tale retellings without thinking through the pea, in particular (which proved to be very difficult to transform). What interested me right away, though, was the question of how we judge perfection. In The Princess and the Pea, the girl who arrives in the middle of a rainstorm is tested by her future mother-in-law (including a trial involving the infamous pea and 100 mattresses), and eventually declared a “real” princess, perfect in every way.
So I started the novel thinking about our standards for perfection. Every character reflects that preoccupation, in one way or another. Olivia, my heroine is no perfect heroine; she’s impudent, bawdy, and plump. Her sister Georgiana, by contrast, approaches “perfection,” in that she’s mastered all societal rules. Olivia is torn between a duke, Quin, with an Aspergers-like inability to express emotion, and her fiancé Rupert, who is all emotion with almost no logic. Olivia, Georgie, Quin, and Rupert are all perfect and imperfect in different ways.
MJP: How does your work with Shakespearean plays and language influence your romance novels?
EJ: Most obviously, teaching Shakespeare for years has given me a rich poetic vocabulary to fall back on, though the poetry in The Duke is Mine is more Keatsian than Shakespearean (I had to make up a poem for Rupert). I do think that it is extremely useful to be teaching plays. I find dialogue an on-going challenge, and teaching a genre that’s pure dialogue is always helpful.
MJP: Do you have any comments about the abundance of dukes and duchesses in your books and in your titles?
EJ: At some point it became clear to my publisher that my books sell better with dukes & duchess in my titles. That speaks for itself. But I would also say that I grew up the daughter of a poet on a farm in rural Minnesota. My prom party was in a gravel pit, and poets do not make a lot of money. I am completely uninterested in writing books about money problems. For me, “duke” often acts as shorthand for person-with-mucho-land (and thereby, money).
MJP: I’ve noticed that several of your books have small dogs with, to put it delicately, incontinence issues. <G> Are the fictional dogs inspired by real dogs in your life? I was also told to ask about Lucy and Milo, real dogs with real stories. <G>
EJ: Lucy is indeed our dog! She is a rescue dog who looks exactly like the rather battered, loving dachshund in The Duke is Mine. When I was writing The Duke is Mine, she was still having a little anxious incontinence now and then. I’m happy to say that barring an unfortunate incident after she snatched and ate a full half pound of blue cheese, she’s had no accidents in the last year.
Milo features largely in the memoir I have coming out in April, Paris in Love. Milo used to be our Chihuahua, until a sad day one summer when Air France refused to let him get on the plane back home from Italy because he was too fat. Literally over-weight. So my mother-in-law happily adopted Milo and since then he’s just grown chubbier and chubbier. And chubbier. He’s a very funny character.
What I’ve discovered about dogs—never having grown up with one—is that they have characters, much more so than cats. I’m really enjoying putting them in books. They weave into the plot beautifully, and they can echo whatever I’m thinking about. In Lucy’s case, she is a lot like her owner, Rupert. They both live completely in the present, full of love and bravery and energy.
At the moment I’m finishing The Ugly Duchess, which publishes August 28 (I’m running very late!). At any rate, my duchess has adopted a rescue dog who is very beautiful, but has been maltreated. It’s an obvious point, but I think it works.
MJP: In addition to having another of the fairy tale books scheduled for September, you have a non-fiction memoir called Paris in Love coming out in April. The book is about how you and your family sold the house in New Jersey and packed up and moved to Paris for a year. I assume you and your husband timed your sabbaticals so you could have such a marvelous adventure. Wench Anne Gracie says she loved your tweets from Paris.
So—tell us about Paris! What new things did you discover and pursuits did you pursue? How did your children take to a foreign country and language? And do you want to live there again at some future time?
EJ: My children split the difference, as they often do: my son fell in love with Paris and is now fluent in French; my daughter hated the city and refused to learn the language. Overall, we had a wonderful year.
Looking back, the lesson I learned is how fast life spins by if we don’t record it. I knew when we left the US that I wanted to remember the year. I was leaving post-treatment for a very early case of breast cancer, which had given me a chilling sense of mortality. Plus, Luca was already fifteen, and I had the chilling fear that once he grew up I would forget all those funny teenage moments, the way I had forgotten most of the adorable things he did as a baby. So I had a fit of wanting to record life rather than just live it (and forget it). That record turned into Paris in Love. I think it’s a quite funny look at our year: life in Paris with Anna, Luca, my husband, the plump dog I mention above, Milo.
I’d love to live in Paris again. My hope is that the book will inspire more people to snatch up a dream and just do it—trust that it’s OK to sell the house, move into an apartment you find on the internet, live in a foreign country without speaking the language (because I don’t!).
MJP: What have I missed that I should have asked you, or that you’d like to say?
EJ: Well, let me put in a word for The Ugly Duchess, coming next September. This has been a really tough book to write, but fun. It’s my first pirate book! If I was thinking about perfection with The Princess and the Pea, this one is about beauty. Now I’m realizing that I’m making my books sound awfully moralistic. I assure everyone that they are not. I aim at funny escapist, with a thread of thoughtfulness behind it. I should have an excerpt up on my website, www.eloisajames.com, pretty soon.
MJP: Thanks so much for visiting us, Eloisa, and I wish you much success in your future careers.
EJ: Thank you Word Wenches! It’s always a pleasure.
MJP: Eloisa will be giving away two copies of her earlier fairy tale romance, When Beauty Tamed the Beast to readers who post comments between now and Tuesday midnight. So—what would you like to ask Eloisa about her dual careers? What are some of your favorite novels based on fairy tales? And do you like pets in romances? <G>