Nicola here. I’ve been a fan of Julie Cohen’s writing for a long time, ever since I read Delicious, a Harlequin Mills & Boon contemporary romance. These days Julie writes contemporary novels for Headline and when I discovered that her new book, The Summer of Living Dangerously, has a strong element of the Regency about it, I was very excited! The book lived up to all my expectations; it's warm, emotional, funny and one of the best books I've read in a long time.
Nicola: Julie, welcome to the Word Wenches! Please tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Julie: I grew up in a small town in the woods in Maine and I never really wanted to be anything other than a reader and a writer. I read everything I could get my hands on and started writing my first ‘novel’ when I was eleven. I received my first payment for published writing when I was twelve—a cheque for six dollars. And when I was fifteen I started co-writing romance novels with my best friend Kathy Love instead of paying attention in chemistry lessons.
There isn’t any guaranteed career path for becoming a writer, though, and I spent many years being a reader instead, studying English Literature at Brown University and Cambridge University, and doing an MPhil in fairies in Victorian children’s literature. I met a sexy guitar-playing Englishman and got married. It was only when I was teaching secondary school English full time that I decided to chase my writing dreams again. I started trying to write a Mills & Boon novel, and it took many rejections before my first one was accepted in 2004. Since then I’ve written fourteen novels, first for Harlequin Mills & Boon, and then for the Little Black Dress romance imprint and more recently standalone women’s fiction novels for Headline Review.
Nicola: Your new book, The Summer of Living Dangerously, is out now. It’s a contemporary novel but with a very strong Regency theme running through the book, a story within a story. What was it that inspired you to tell the story in that particular way?
Julie: My husband and I were in Brighton for our anniversary and we went to the Brighton Pavilion on a day when there were historical interpreters there. They were wearing Regency dress and speaking to visitors as if we’d come as guests of the Prince Regent; we were quite surprised to see the Prince himself walking the corridors, attended by servants and courtiers. It was great fun, but the thing that really struck me was that the interpreters stayed in character even when they weren’t actively working. They wandered the corridors trading period jokes and gossip with each other, as if they really did live there. And of course my novelist’s mind started working: what would it be like to pretend, every day, that you were 200 years in the past? What if you got so involved in the fictional past that it became more important in your mind than your real, present life? That’s exactly what happens to Alice, my heroine: she takes a job as a costumed interpreter in a stately home, and she tries to escape into a romantic 1814-world. But her real life keeps on getting in the way.
I also love writing dual narratives, where the secondary one reflects and illuminates the main story. I’ve done it a few times before, where the heroine has a fictional storyline that she’s creating since she’s a novelist or an artist, but this is the first time where my heroine has actually acted out her fantasies and tried to live in her dream world. All of my books, in some way, are about identity or about pretending to be someone you’re not. It’s an idea that really resonates with me for some reason, though I’ve never lived a dual life myself.
Nicola: I’ve known for a while that you are a Regency fan and we were on a panel together at the Romantic Novelists’ Association Regency Day, so where did your interest in the Regency period originally come from?
Julie: Jane Austen, of course, and Georgette Heyer. By training I’m a Victorianist, but let’s face it, Regency is where the romance is at. And the tight breeches. Ahem.
Nicola: Indeed it is! The historical elements of the book are very well researched. How did you set about your Regency research and which part did you enjoy the most?
Julie: Thank you! It was part of my terror that People Who Really Know These Things would find all kinds of mistakes so I did try to research everything as fully as I could. But because I only had to know certain things—mostly the things that a woman in 2012 would notice—it presented different challenges than writing an actual historical novel. A Regency gentlewoman would know what ratafia was, for example, and wouldn’t have to explain it to the reader. A modern woman would sniff it, taste it, wonder what the heck it was and whether it was going to get her drunk. Likewise, a Regency gentlewoman wouldn’t discuss her underwear. But my heroine Alice was going to have to adjust to wearing stays, and question why she hasn’t been provided with knickers.
Mostly, I tried to experience most of the things my heroine does for myself. I tried on Regency clothing and spoke to costume experts; I learned Regency dancing and went to a Regency ball. Wearing period costume makes you carry yourself differently; it really does educate you in the physical restrictions of the time. I think I liked the dancing the best, even though I did learn about the hazards of doing the Duke of Kent’s Waltz when you are wearing a tall plume and dancing with a short (though charming) gentleman!
Nicola: Ah, the pleasures and pitfalls of research! Alice, the heroine, works as a costumed interpreter in a stately home where they are re-creating the events of the summer of 1814. Is this a job that would appeal to you – or not?
It sounds like great fun, at least for some of the time. I think I’d enjoy the acting part of it, and the frocks of course. In the novel though I did skim over the more boring bits of the job, for example talking about the paintings on the wall over and over and over again all day, all summer. I talked to some NT volunteers and I learned that being a tour guide is not for the faint-hearted. (You know this already, Nicola, I imagine!)
Nicola: Well, yes, that’s true! As a reader and a writer I love a hot Regency hero so I was expecting to lose my heart to James Fitzwilliam in the Regency story. And don’t get me wrong – he is gorgeous – but in the end it was Leo, the contemporary hero who stole the book for me. How did you create two such different and appealing heroes in one book?
Julie: It wasn’t easy. I always fall in love with my heroes and I was so, so in love with reckless, wounded Leo that I found in writing my first draft, I was reluctant to let James steal any of his limelight. But I needed responsible, aristocratic James to be attractive, too. Essentially I had to write the book twice: I did the first draft being in love with Leo, and then after I’d finished that draft, I let myself crawl into James’s head and fall in love with him, too, so I could rewrite the bits of the book with him in it, and do him justice.
Nicola: You certainly succeeded! Which was your favourite scene in the book? And I have to ask – what was the inspiration for the “chandelier and crotch” scene?
Julie: Ahhh well the chandelier and crotch scene really happened, and I believe you were there, Nicola. It was the evening of the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s anniversary gala dinner, in the Trafalgar Tavern, Greenwich, a wonderful historical setting. At one point between the starter and the main, the light shone in through the windows overlooking the Thames, struck a crystal on the chandelier, and shone a rainbow onto the large oil painting of Nelson and his compatriots: directly onto Nelson’s crotch.
I have a suspicion this is a deliberate thing—a sort of sundial. Anyway, I shamelessly stole it. I was wondering if there would be a rash of ‘rainbows on crotch’ scenes in RNA members’ novels, but I haven’t noticed any other ones yet.
My two favourite scenes are ones that came to me in dreams. One is the flashback to the moment that Alice and Leo fell in love. It’s several summers ago, and they’re innocent and unsuspecting, and this attraction flares out of nowhere and suddenly, they know they’re meant to be together. It was such a simple, romantic scene to write, and yet by the beginning of the actual novel, that relationship is in tatters and neither think it can be revived.
The other favourite scene is about another painting: Leo’s portrait of his dead alcoholic father, which he paints on the wall late one night in despair. It crystallised everything I was trying to say about how complicated love is and what a complex and yet inescapable relationship we have with the past.
Nicola: Nelson was always very proud of his prowess, wasn't he! I do love the picture and I can't believe I missed the whole illuminated crotch experience that night at the Trafalgar Tavern!
As well as making me laugh out loud, The Summer of Living Dangerously also tackles some tough emotional issues and made me cry quite a lot. How do you create such depth of emotion in a story?
Julie: The book is really about loss, and how the past can’t ever truly be recreated. Everything, all the Regency plot and all the contemporary plot, centres around the loss that Alice and Leo have suffered in the past; I tried very hard to make everything relate back to that one, core emotion in the story. For example, Alice’s 1814 character is wearing mourning for her fictional parents, and the real Alice is also mourning, though she is hiding it deep inside. Although not every reader will have shared Alice’s pain in their own lives, I think everyone can relate to loss, so hopefully it will strike a chord with many readers.
Nicola: You’re quite a guru when it comes to advice for authors. How did you get to be so famous for giving workshops on writing sex scenes?
Julie: It was sort of by mistake. Before I was published, I gave a workshop on writing sex scenes to my local writing group, and we had a lot of fun. A member mentioned it to someone else, who booked me to give it at an RNA conference. Apparently the people in the next room to that workshop could hear us laughing, and that led to a lot more bookings of the workshop so that they could find out what was going on! Over the past few years I’ve given the workshop all over the place to entirely different groups of people, and I’m next giving it at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival, on 21 April.
Nicola: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and what advice would you give to other aspiring authors?
Julie: The most liberating advice is the one I now always give to aspiring authors: give yourself permission to write crap. Your first draft doesn’t need to be perfect, but it does need to be written. Sometimes we need to write the wrong words in order to find the right ones.
Nicola: Thank you very much for chatting with us today!
Julie: Thank you so much for having me, Nicola and the Word Wenches!
The Summer of Living Dangerously is available from Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Summer-Living-Dangerously-Julie-Cohen/dp/0755350650/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1 and also from the Book Depository with free international postage: http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/Summer-Living-Dangerously-Julie-Cohen/9780755350650
Julie is offering a signed copy of The Summer of Living Dangerously to one reader who leaves a comment between now and Midnight Tuesday. Her question is: What would be your ideal romantic summer job?