nd received the Firestone Award for Excellence in Research for her honors thesis on shifting conceptions of honor in late fifteenth century England.
There are so many wonderful opportunities for spy stories in this period. I love spy stories, both James Bond adventure and the sort of intricate chess games and moral dilemmas John le Carré dramatizes so brilliantly. The Napoleonic Wars offers are a wonderfully rich setting for both types of story. So many different sides, so many different factions within sides. The French under Napoleon had been bent on conquest, but they had also brought much-needed reforms to many countries. Some liberal Spaniards saw supporting the French in the Peninsular War as the quickest route to progressive reform. And after the Napoleonic Wars, a number of the victors wanted to turn the clock back to before the French Revolution and saw any hint of reform as one step away from blood in the streets. Friends easily melt into enemies and back again. Napoleon’s longtime foreign minister Prince Talleyrand later became prime minister under the Bourbon restoration, Joseph Fouché who had been ruthless in using terror against enemies of the Bonapartist government was equally ruthless in going after Napoleon’s supporters who were proscribed from the amnesty after Waterloo. In the midst of breakneck adventure, a love affair can have political consequences, a tactical decision can shatter a friendship, it can come down to a question not of whether or not commit betrayal but only of who or what to betray.
Your characters wrestle with the concepts of loyalty, betrayal, honor and love as soldiers, spies and diplomats, and also as husbands, wives and friends. What is it about these elemental themes that resonate with you?
I think it’s interesting how writers gravitate to the same themes, consciously or unconsciously. I’ve always been fascinated by moral dilemmas as I mentioned above. And I’m intrigued by how romantic fidelity and betrayal can parallel other types of fidelity and betrayal (whether between husbands and wives or in their relationship with other characters or with a country or cause). I like writing stories of adventure and intrigue set in tumultuous times, but I think in those sorts of times (probably always but then more than ever) choices don’t tend to come down to easy, clear-questions of right and wrong. It’s interesting to see how characters wrestle with those issues and how the personal and the political intertwine. The possibility that a loved one or friend isn’t who you thought they were is perhaps one of our deepest fears in a relationship. And yet most of us are somewhat different people in different aspects of our lives and have different loyalties – to spouses, children, lovers, friends, causes, countries, work. Sometimes it isn’t so much a question of betrayal as of deciding which loyalty comes first. It’s not so far from the seemingly lofty sentiment of “I could not love thee, dear, so much, Lov’d I not Honour more” to betraying a lover for a cause.
Suzanne and Malcolm, your main protagonists, come from very different worlds. What motivated you to choose their backgrounds.
I knew from the start that their allegiances would be divided, Malcolm a British diplomat and spy, Suzanne a French agent. Then I began to think about what kind of people would end up their situations. The divide between them seemed to be to strongest if Malcolm came from the heart of the British aristocracy – he doesn’t have a title himself, but his mother’s father is a duke, he’s connected by family or friendship to a good portion of the beau monde, he went to Harrow and Oxford. Whereas with Suzanne, I had to figure out a background that would have made someone an agent in her teens. It made sense that she had been orphaned and left to fend for herself in the tumult of the Peninsular War. She also needed to have considerable acting ability, so I made her parents traveling actors. I think the fact that she had a nurturing childhood for her first fifteen years and then had her world violently wrenched apart says a lot about her. In some ways she has a very hard edge, but though she might deny it, she’s better than Malcolm at believing in happy endings. Whereas Malcolm grew up in luxury but with parents who were a lot more emotionally distant. The irony is that Malcolm’s and Suzanne’s political ideals are remarkably similar. They’re both reformers, Radical reformers for their day, with a keen belief in human rights. They just have different very different approaches to how to bring about social and political change.
There’s such an interesting backstory hinted at concerning Suzanne and Malcolm’s meeting and marriage during the war on the Peninsula. I’m sure you have many readers (me included!) asking to know more about it. Have you considered doing a “prequel” book to cover that time?
I actually wrote an e-novella, His Spanish Bride (released last November) about their betrothal and marriage. It was really fun to go back in time, and also an interesting challenge to write about them at a time when they were just coming to know each other. So much of their relationship is defined by their familiarity with each other. Before they married and began working together, they were rather different people. I’d love to write more about their meeting and the early years of their marriage, either in additional novellas or a full novel or perhaps in flashbacks in books set later in their relationship.
Having tried my hand at writing mysteries, I’m in awe of how your intricate plots are exquisitely crafted with the interlocking precision of a Swiss watch. So I have to ask—do you carefully design all the twists and turns in advance? Or do things happen as you go along?
I’m thrilled if it ends up seeming precise – it can be a bit messy getting there . I need to work on the plot before I begin writing. I lay out scenes on index cards, which lets me shuffle things around and see the gaps in the plot. But at a certain point I find I need to start writing. Drafting scenes and seeing how my characters interact gives me further plot ideas. I love writing in Scrivener for this. It has a corkboard view (so no need to worry about my cats or my toddler messing up index cards spread on my dining room table), and you can easily switch from the corkboard to outline view to a draft, which allows me to write scenes out of order, skipping over plot elements I’m still working out or later moving things around if I’m not quite sure where they’ll fall in the story. I also find I waste less time on transitions writing this way. The Paris Affair was the first book I wrote completely in Scrivener, and I loved it.
Real life personages figure prominently in your books. You’ve made all of then come wonderfully to life, but I’m particularly intrigued by the facets of Wellington’s character that you show in The Paris Affair. Can you tell us a little about how you researched what made him tick? And how did you end up feeling about him personally?
I loved writing about Wellington in both Imperial Scandal and The Paris Affair. I read some of his dispatches and letters, memoirs and letters of people who served under him or knew him socially, and Elizabeth Longford’s wonderful two volume biography. As to how I feel about him personally, I’d say my feelings more or less mirror Malcolm’s. Wellingotn was a brilliant man and there’s something likeable about his gruff directness and loyalty to those close to him. But his politics were decidedly reactionary, not in line with either Malcolm’s or mine. Malcolm struggles with how he feels about carrying out both Wellington’s and Castlereagh’s policies in The Paris Affair, and I struggled with how I felt about those two men as well. I think it will be interesting to explore Malcolm’s relationship with Wellington in the future, when both men enter politics.
You make your city backdrops come to life as well, and in your new release, Paris, the City of Light, truly shines. Clearly you had great fun exploring its nuances. Can you share some of your favorite spots with us?
I really regret that I wasn’t able to go to Paris while writing The Paris Affair (among other things I was pregnant and had a baby in the midst of writing the book). But I loved researching and writing about Paris. One of my favorite settings was the Boulevards, where Suzanne walks with her young son and her friend Dorothée Talleyrand. Much of my description of the sights, sounds, and smells comes from the journal of General Cavalié Mercer. I also really enjoyed writing scenes set in cafés, particularly as I do much of my writing in cafés. Women were able to frequent Parisian cafés in a way they couldn’t London coffee houses, a freedom Suzanne appreciates and that I appreciated as a writer. And I loved setting scenes in both the Jardin des Tuileries and the Jardin du Luxembourg.
You have a very impressive background in history. Is there any other era that you would find fascinating to write about?
I really love writing about the Napoleonic/Regency era, and I’m constantly discovering new things to explore in it. My college honors work was on aristocratic culture in late 15th century England, and I also find the 1930s fascinating, so if I ever wrote about another era it would probably be one of those, but mostly I’m very happy where I am.
What’s next for Suzanne and Malcolm after The Paris Affair?
I’m currently finishing up the next book in the series, provisionally titled The London Gambit. It’s set in London in December 1817. Malcolm and Suzanne have taken up residence in Britain and have a second child. Malcolm has left the diplomatic service and gone into Parliament, but you can’t really leave the spy game. Their friend, playwright Simon Tanner, climbs through their library window one night, rain-drenched and bloody, clutching a manuscript. Malcolm and Suzanne are drawn into a mystery involving an alternate version of Hamlet that may or may not be by Shakespeare, a mysterious secret society, Irish rebels, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Lord Byron.
Oh, that sounds fabulous— I can't wait! Now, before we sign off, Teresa has a question for our Wenchly readers—In books that deal with loyalty and betrayal, characters often wrestle with moral choices. Have you ever found yourself having a hard time forgiving a character? Or conversely, feeling a character who made questionable moral choices was blamed too much by other charters? Teresa will be giving away a copy of The Paris Affair to one lucky person chosen at random from those who leave comments here between now and Sunday morning.