We at RT love historical romance, and so it follows that we love Sabrina Jeffries! We’re anxiously awaiting her upcoming The Study of Seduction, which is out later this month. Subscribers already know that we had a great chat with Sabrina in our March 2016 issue, but we had so much to talk about that it couldn’t all fit in the pages of the magazine. Here’s all the extra, juicy tidbits, just for you.
You’ve written dozens of bestselling historical romance novels. Aside from the historical aspect, how do you think historical romances differ from contemporary romance stories?
They allow us to look at relationships through the filter of the past, which automatically makes it more exotic. They teach us things we didn’t know—I love all the tidbits I stumble across about history in historical romances. And they allow readers to enjoy wilder adventures (pirates, Scots in battle, abductions, scandal) than are really possible in contemporaries. When was the last time you saw a contemporary where people were scandalized because a woman was kissed on a balcony by a man? Intimacies have more impact in historicals precisely because they were so forbidden. And the forbidden is always delicious to read about.
What are the challenges of writing Regency romance?
The greatest challenge for me is in balancing the modern romance reader’s desire for a snappy, engaging story with the historical stickler reader’s desire for complete accuracy. There’s no such thing as complete accuracy. Regency English is not my language—I have to write in my own language. I can only give a flavor of the period, because my mores and language are already shaped, so when I attempt to put my characters in that world, it can only go as far as my knowledge and life experience takes me. These are meant to be romantic fantasies with a historical backdrop, so they should engage the reader while also making her feel that she’s glimpsing the past rather than being bludgeoned by it and ruining the fantasy. The problem is that everyone’s level of balance is different. So a writer has to pick her comfort level and hope she finds readers who like that, too.
What is the best part of writing historical love stories?
The best part of writing historical love stories is being swept away into the past. Sometimes I’m so caught up in that world, I forget where I am!
There’s a point early in The Study of Seduction where Edwin wants to prove to Clarissa that he’s a worthy suitor. Do you think Edwin was always a suitable suitor, or did he have to work at it?
He did have to work at it. He had to realize that not everything has to be his way, that it’s possible to see life through someone else’s point of view, and that he needed to lighten up. That’s how I saw him, anyway.
Edwin is a bit, shall we say, gruff. And Clarissa is very free-spirited. What was it about their personalities that made them the perfect match for you?
OK, so a little confession here: other than Clarissa’s “big secret” and Edwin’s rank, these two are pretty much me and my husband. I am an uber extrovert (unusual for a writer/reader, I know, but true). My husband is an uber introvert. He said he was attracted to me because I was always so cheerful. I was attracted to him because he was so steady (and smart). On the other hand, I’m a bit of a people-pleaser and a rule-follower, and he doesn’t care what people think of him nor does he follow rules blindly. I find that enormously attractive. So that’s how I saw Edwin—who always speaks his mind and does what he wants, but who also is steady and reliable.
Both Edwin and Clarissa spend a lot of time early on worrying that the other won’t accept them as they are, because they each have pasts that are less than spotless. Yet they obviously desire each other a great deal. Why do you think your characters have such a hard time accepting that they can be loved as-is? And why do you think we, as a society, have this same problem, even though, as we learn from love stories like those that you write, people can love us no matter how flawed we think we are?
Part of it is that I was raised by missionaries, but I didn’t really fit into that life. So it’s something I tend to explore—the way one’s identity is shaped either by one’s upbringing or in reaction to one’s upbringing. Another part is that I have ADD. As a kid and a youth, I never fit in anywhere. Either I seemed too scatter-brained for people or too distracted or too unobservant to be taken seriously. I was always conscious that I was odd. When I met my husband, I found someone just as odd as me, but in a different way. And he liked me. As I am. The same way I liked him as he was. It’s hard to accept that when you’re used to the other. So my characters do tend to mirror that struggle.
By the way, once I joined the community of romance readers and writers, I felt I had finally found my people. So despite my idiosyncrasies, I fit in, both in my private life and my professional life, and that’s amazingly powerful. But it was a LONG time coming.
Clarissa originally marries Edwin to escape Durand, a bit of a mad stalker. How often did situations like this occur during the Regency?
It wasn’t that common, although I’m sure it happened. That’s why I made Durand so untouchable—if Edwin or Warren had been able to cow him with their rank and fortunes alone, he couldn’t have been the catalyst for the marriage of convenience. Though women were occasionally still being forced into marriage in this period, it wasn’t as often as in the 18th century. But a cruel father could tell his daughter that he’d cast her out if she didn’t marry whom he wanted, and she wouldn’t have had much recourse. And in most cases, if an heiress was kidnapped by a guy and married in Scotland, she would be so tainted by having spent time alone with him that her family would sort of be forced to let the marriage stand. Or she’d live in disgrace. That didn’t ALWAYS happen—plenty of families said, “Screw you,” to the fortune-hunters, but others did not. Look at Lydia’s situation in Pride and Prejudice. There’s a point where her sisters essentially say, “She has to marry him even though he’s a horrible man.” Because he ruined her for anyone else. Fortunately, Lydia wants to marry him, fool that she is.
When you write, do you typically start at the same place — with, say, the romance leads, or the subplot, or the basic premise — or does it change from book to book?
Every story has its own difficulties, no matter where I start, and it does change from book to book. In this story, it was the romantic conflict that came first. I initially toyed with making Edwin need to marry for money, but I didn’t like that option so I discarded it. Then I remembered I’d already mentioned a guy who was overly interested in Clarissa in the previous book, so I just played on that. For The Art of Sinning, I knew I wanted Yvette and Jeremy together, but nothing about their conflict or their romance. Then I started writing and Jeremy “told” me he’d been married before, and everything else fell into place. For When the Rogue Returns, I knew it would be a robbery plot. I just wanted that. Who knows why?
Do you know what book or author first made you want to become an author?
I couldn’t possibly tell you who first made me want to become an author. I read so many books as a child and spun so many stories from early on that I can’t ever remember there being one ta-da moment. I did love Cherry Ames, R.D. Blackmore, Grace Livingston Hill, and Barbara Cartland, along with a multitude of fairy tales, so I guess you can consider them influences, although I don’t read any of them anymore. But I wanted to be a writer from age 10 at least.
What are some of your favorite books and who are the authors on your one-click list?
Favorite books of all time include Lord of Scoundrels, Gentle Rogue, Almost Heaven, Silk and Shadows, Seduction by Amanda Quick, The Iron Duke, The Dune series, James Joyce’s Ulysses, The Four Quartets by Lawrence Durrell . . . Okay, this could go on a while. I read in practically every genre, including literary. And that’s true for authors I love, too. It would include the authors of the above, along with Nalini Singh, Claudia Dain, Deb Marlowe, Liz Carlyle, Ursula Vernon, Linda Howard, Rexanne Becnel, Lisa Gardner, Karen Rose, Karen Hawkins . . . Honestly, you can’t expect me to narrow it down!
You earned your doctorate and are quite comfortable in academia. When it comes to factual accuracy in historical romance novels, what’s the hardest part for you? Do you ever want to fudge with history to make it fit the story, or are you a stickler for good fact-checking?
I do my best to get my facts right. I don’t put 18th-century dresses in my Regencies, and I make sure that my historical events really happened or could have happened. But my language is more modern than some like. I maintain that we can’t possibly know how people spoke then because written language used to be far more formal than speech and we have no recordings from the Regency. So we are always just writing an approximation in our own words. But isn’t that what all writers do?
I also maintain that there were plenty of women bucking the system in the Regency. People are people. Studies have shown that the number of brides pregnant at their weddings in our period was greater than anyone thinks, for example. And there were female doctors (midwives, hello, not to mention women like Margaret Bulkley, who dressed as a man to practice medicine under the name James Barry for most of her life), female theater managers, female silversmiths who owned their own companies. The images we have of the past are sometimes seriously flawed.
What lessons do you think people can learn from romance novels? What lessons have you learned from reading — and writing — romance?
That love and acceptance trumps everything. I really believe that. And that learning to love one’s self, warts and all, is easier when we can see ourselves through a loved one’s eyes.
You grew up as a Third Culture Kid in Thailand. Do you think that your upbringing affected how you approach romance, either in real life or as a writer?
My upbringing definitely had an impact on me. Living in another culture teaches you to be more open-minded, to try things, to be prepared for anything. I do think that Asians are less hung up about sex. The Thais don’t like public displays of affection, but at the same time, phallic worship is still practiced, so I was used to seeing some pretty wild objects that I wouldn’t have been exposed to in America. I think that makes me less prudish about sex than the average American. Also, life is slower and less stressed in Thailand—people are friendlier. That part I miss. The pace can be so frantic here. I’m hoping to write a Third Culture Kid into a future book — just haven’t gotten there yet. Lots of Brits went out to India and came back for school or whatever, so it’s doable.
Everyone who reads romance knows that they’re going to get an HEA at the end, so how do you make sure that you keep readers on their toes while getting there? What’s your secret to getting that balance between “I know there’s a happily-ever-after coming up” and “Will they or won’t they?!?” anxiety?
I wish I knew how to answer this definitively. I’m a natural plotter — I plot until the story arc “feels” right. I couldn’t sit down and use one of those plotting charts to save my life. My brain doesn’t work that way. I just instinctively know what makes a good plot. But I do know when things are too obvious to be interesting. The problem is, I know that for me, but not necessarily for every reader. For every two people who say they like my “twists” in the plot, I get one who says they saw it coming. Which is why I don’t try to please every reader. Someone is always going to find my books “predictable” and sometimes that just means that they see the happy ending coming (duh). The wide variety of expectations readers have for their romances never ceases to amaze me.
What are you working on right now? What can readers expect from you in 2016? I’m working on Warren’s book right now — it comes out in November, and it’s titled The Danger of Desire. His heroine is Miss Trevor from The Study of Seduction. I’m having fun with it. I also have some reissues coming out this summer. So it’s a busy year!
The Study of Seduction will be available in digital and print on March 22. Grab your copy: Amazon | BN | Kobo | iBooks | All Romance | IndieBound. And for more romantic reads, be sure to stop by our Everything Romance page.