I really love author events!
About a week and a half ago, Susanna Kearsley came to a branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library, and I was lucky enough to attend with two friends. Kearsley was on a book tour for A Desperate Fortune, her newest book which came out April 7.
Lynn Spencer from All About Romance interviewed Susanna, and she asked some great questions, which in turn allowed Susanna to (as she put it) “ramble on and on” about her research and writing process. I won’t attempt to recreate the entire interview, but here are some of the highlights:
A Desperate Fortune does have a Jacobite connection, like The Winter Sea and The Firebird. In fact, it was while doing research for The Firebird that Kearsley stumbled on the ciphers that led to her writing A Desperate Fortune.
When asked if there are recurring characters in A Desperate Fortune, she said, “My character have a tendency to wander from one book to the next.” They coexist in the world in her head, and sometimes show up as cameos in other books. Anna from The Firebird shows up for an entire chapter in A Desperate Fortune – longer than Kearsley originally planned on.
In researching her books, Kearsley does actually travel to all the places she writes about. She enjoys doing the “paper” research (some of it online), but finds that she really needs to visit the locations to get the “sensory material” – how things look but also how they feel, smell, and sound. She also finds that sometimes the characters don’t start speaking or moving until she’s actually on the spot.
Asked if there was a real Mary Dundas (the historical heroine in A Desperate Fortune), Kearsley answered that yes, there was. She was the daughter of one of James VIII’s wigmakers and his French wife.
Sarah, the modern heroine of A Desperate Fortune, has Asperger’s. Kearsley talked about the challenges of writing a character so different from herself. She has several people with Asperger’s in her own extended family, and drew on research she had done for them. Kearsley reiterated several times that each person with Asperger’s or autism is different, but mentioned some of the issues that made the character both interesting and challenging to write. For instance, most people with Asperger’s don’t see the social cues, or rather, don’t get the meaning behind them. Writing in the first person from a neurotypical character’s POV, she might say “He smiled sardonically,” but someone with Asperger’s doesn’t get the “sardonically” part. They may see the smile, but not the feeling behind it. So Kearsley had to find ways to show the reader the social cues her narrator is missing.
Speaking of how she creates her historical characters, Kearsley said that she draws on the historical record for the real-life historical characters, often using their own words from letters or journals. For instance, almost all of James VIII’s dialogue comes from the real James’ correspondence. She pointed out that she has to remember that the Jacobite characters are Catholic, which affects both their beliefs and their behavior in ways it might not today (being required to attend Mass on Easter, for example.) She has to know what their clothes feel like when you wear them, and how you put them on. On the other hand, in many ways the people of the past aren’t that different. People “connect to each other in the same ways as we do today.” Their family ties, their hopes, wants, and fears are the same. “Put the human back into it,” says Kearsley, “and then they’re real.”
Usually it’s her modern and her historical heroines who have the most in common with each other, but in A Desperate Fortune, it’s the modern Sarah and the fictional Jacobite, Hugh. Hugh “embodies all the Highlanders who were displaced at a young age, after fighting” [for the Stewart restoration.]
An audience member asked, “What percentage of the writing process is spent on research?” About half-and-half, or equal time, was the answer; the writing and the research feed each other. And it’s important, Kearsley said, to know the background even when it doesn’t make it into the book. Research no longer requires you to travel to do all of it; you can order photocopies of some documents and have them sent to you. But some documents can’t be photocopied because the owner(s) won’t allow it; she spoke of having to hand-copy one journal over the course of a week, while the guy beside her snapped picture after picture of his [unrestricted] document with a smartphone. Despite the challenges, though, it was clear that Kearsley loves to research, and prefers to use original source material whenever possible.
Kearsley’s next book is called Bellwether, and should come out in 2017. It’s a ghost story, set entirely in the United States; the historical part takes place during the French and Indian War (pre-Independence.) Once again, she’s tackling a character different than any she has written before: her modern hero is Mohawk.
Throughout the interview, Kearsley did indeed “ramble on,” but in the most delightful and informative way. She even joked about it: “I’m not good at writing short. I’m not good at talking short or doing anything but being short!”
The whole evening was fascinating; I am so glad I got to go! After the Q&A, Ms. Kearsley signed books and spent time talking with each fan.
And I won one of the two door prizes! I got to take home this lovely basket courtesy of Sourcebooks, with a tartan lap blanket, a lovely necklace, and some Scottish tea and Walker’s shortbread – yum!
Altogether it was a wonderful evening – one of the highlights of the whole month!