“To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.”
With that killer opening line of Silent in the Grave (SITG), so begins the story of Lady Julia Grey, a sheltered woman of means whose sickly husband dies, what Lady Julia believes, a timely death. Only the enigmatic and often wily investigative agent, Nicolas Brisbane has another theory –murder most foul. Nicolas and Julia pair up to solve the murder, match wits, volley to stay one step ahead of each other, and have a jolly good time in the process. Silent in the Sanctuary and Silent in the Moor expand on their relationship and ratchet up the body count as well in these deliciously witty books.
Silent in the Grave won the 2008 RITA award for Best Novel with Strong Romantic Elements. All of her books have received numerous praise and are highly regarded.
And now Deanna is back with The Dead Travel Fast, the story of Theodora Lestrange, a young Scottish novelist, and her adventures in 1858 Transylvania.
I finally got my paws on this book (Unfortunately, it was not available during the time of this interview or I’d have peppered poor Deanna a lot more about it *g*). The Dead Travel Fast is a true Gothic romance, full of suspense, moody atmosphere, dubious characters, and a delectable yet tortured and mysterious hero who may or may not be a vampire. I read it in one sitting (damn my lack of self-control!) and loved it. Get your blanket out, brew up a good cup of tea, and curl up with The Dead Travel Fast; you won’t be sorry!
Deanna has that rare talent for creating Worlds, characters who we want to know, perhaps want to be, settings so rich and full, we feel part of it. This isn’t an easy thing to do, yet Deanna makes it look effortless. Her writing is clean yet rich, witty yet dark, fast-paced yet deep.
And I’m having a bit of a sqweeee moment in having her here. This is a real treat for all of us at ATWOP and hopefully will be for all of you as well. Please join us as we play 20 Questions with Ms. Deanna Raybourn.
On Writing and Craft:
1. You’ve been open about the fact that it took you fourteen years to get published. Obviously, tenacity is in your blood. (g) But what truly kept you going?
DR: I think some people are born to be storytellers, and it’s the telling of stories that makes you what you are. I never stopped creating stories for the same reason I don’t stop breathing—it’s what I am hardwired to do. I was still a writer; being published just made me an author. I always felt that if I just kept working, eventually I would crack it and end up writing the type of book that would find a publisher. It just took me about thirteen years longer than I expected!
2. I’ve read that those earlier unpublished books were romances. What drew you to romance, and what ultimately made you branch out into a broader scope?
DR: My first book two books were actually Gothics, after that one or two historicals, then came a few Regencies which I blame on Jane Austen. My early writing was hugely influenced by my favorite writers—I started my first book just after I finished reading Jane Eyre yet again and that set me up to write a couple of Gothics. Then I became passionately smitten with the Regency, a period I still find to be immensely charming. I was edging closer to creating my own voice as a writer, but I didn’t quite get there until my agent told me to take a year off from writing and just read. I realized during that year of reading that what was missing was the mystery element because they were my favorite genre. Once I figured out that I needed to write a British book that was essentially a mystery with a bit of romance to sweeten the pot, I was well on my way.
3. When you began Silent in the Grave, did it feel different than your earlier manuscripts? Specifically, was there something that clicked with SITG that hadn’t before?
DR: I had a tiny hiccup at the beginning of SITG. I started it with a Regency setting—1816, to be exact. I was about fifty pages in and realized something was just a shade off, and it suddenly hit me that the time setting was wrong. Regency London certainly had its problems, but compared to later in the nineteenth century, it was bright and sparkling and innocent with a sort of hectic glamour. I needed Victorian London, with foggy, gaslit streets and a bit more atmosphere. So I reset the book seventy years later, and suddenly everything fit right into place. I once heard Philip Margolin say that if you’re writing a scene and it isn’t quite working, change it around and write from another perspective—for example, let another character drive the scene. It will completely change the energy of the dynamic between the characters. In a larger sense, it worked perfectly for the setting as well. All I did was shift it in time, and an entire world of possibilities opened up. Of course, given all of the scientific, social, and technological advances, I had to clock about six more months’ of research!
ATWOP –love this bit of advice!
4. We at ATWOP are always interested in the process of writing. As every writer is different, can you describe your process for us? In other words, what gets you into that chair and the words flowing?
DR: Discipline! It’s not a sexy answer, but it’s the truth. People have this notion of writing as a terribly glamorous occupation, and they don’t always want to hear the gritty facts. The unvarnished truth is that you can be talented and you can have great ideas, but if you don’t get them down on paper, you are not a writer, you’re just a person with a good imagination. The single most important action I take as a writer is putting my bottom in the chair every morning when I’m writing a book because if you hang around waiting for the muse to whisper in your ear, you’re going to be waiting a very long time. I write every day when I’m drafting a book, and I write first thing in the morning because that’s when my energy is at its peak and the day hasn’t offered up any distractions.
5. We all know that first drafts are never perfect, but how much of the story comes together for you in that initial stage, and how much of it really shapes up during edits?
DR: I know it’s obnoxious to say, but the entire book pretty much comes together in the first draft. Occasionally, I will make major changes during the revision stage, but usually it is just polishing and refining. I have learned over time to love revising, though! I used to try to write a book and make it perfect the first time through and when I told my editor that she laughed out loud and told me that was an excellent recipe for killing myself. I’ve learned from her how to take that pressure off and just get the book on paper, but my first drafts still bear a very close resemblance to the final version in most cases.
6. One thing that really stands out in your books is the voice. It is so thoroughly British and Victorian, yet here you are, a native Texan living in modern day Virginia. Thinking of the Oscar Wilde’s quote: “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, the language,” how did you achieve that authentic British voice? Or should I say voices, as you cover the whole scope of classes. (Follow up: and where there any character’s voice that was easier or perhaps more difficult to nail down?)
DR: Thank you! Developing my own voice was the most difficult thing I had to do as a writer, and it took a long time, but once I finally got there it was definitely a facepalm moment because I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been writing like that all along. My writing voice is different from my speaking voice, of course—Lady Julia can’t very well bust out with a “y’all”—but they are both definitely influenced by where I came from. My grandmother is English, and I read loads of British fiction as a child. I still do, in fact, and I think that watching British television is another great way to pick up the subtle differences between British and American English. Lady Julia’s voice has been the easiest to develop, which is helpful since she’s my narrator. I take pains with my characters who speak in dialect. I try to suggest their cadences and syntax, but I refuse to write dialogue in dialect because as a reader I find it annoying, so I certainly wouldn’t inflict it on anyone else!
7. Historical writing is always a challenge –getting your facts straight, finding the balance between authenticity and appealing to modern readers. How do you approach it? Do you research before you even begin a book, or are you more apt to write and research at the same time?
DR: I did masses of research on the late Victorian period when I wrote Silent in the Grave, so much of my research now is specific to each book. I will work on making sure I have the details correct on the physical setting, character hobbies, murder methods, etc. There are always loads of things I have to go and find out. Fortunately, I love research, so it’s always time well-spent. I read journals and memoirs, collections of letters, biographies, all sorts of non-fiction to ensure that I’m keeping as close to fact as possible, even in a novel. I remember a heater I tried to put into Silent in the Sanctuary, but after ages of research, realized it wasn’t invented for another six months, so out it came and my characters had to make do with coal fires! I keep researching as I’m writing, and I will do one energetic gallop through all of my notes between first draft and revision just to refresh my memory.
8. And the all important question when it comes to writing: In the great debate of method, chunkster vs. linear? Seat of pants vs. outline? (IOW, do you write in a linear fashion, or whatever scenes pop up in your mind, only to thread together later?)
DR: I am an organized pantser. I have a general outline in the form of my synopsis, which I should note for the purposes of strict honestly, I seldom look at during the course of my writing. But I know where the book is supposed to go; getting there is a matter of logic. Since my books all have a mystery at the heart, there is an orderly sequence of events and that dictates how things fit together. I also try to be mindful of whether we’ve just had a scene out of doors, whether it’s been too many pages since we’ve seen one of the characters, whether they’ve been eating too much. I always try to include one too many dinner or tea scenes and my editor reins me in. I had a letter from a reader recently expressing her concern about Lady Julia’s consumption of ham…
9. Let’s talk about series. When did you realize that Lady Julia and Brisbane would need more room to develop than just one book?
DR: I was probably halfway though Silent in the Grave when I realized I really didn’t want to turn loose of these characters. I also realized that with the extended March family and the mystery premise I had lots of future stories built right in. I was also being a little crafty—it occurred to me that a series would be far more tempting for a publisher, and I was right.
10. I love the ever increasing sexual tension between Brisbane and Julia, and the way they match wits, as though playing a game of intellectual chess –each of them daring the other to dig deeper, expose themselves to the other. It’s simply brilliant, but there is also a great deal of restraint in keeping things unsaid between them. How do you juggle the smaller plot of the mystery within each book alongside the broader story arch of their relationship? Is it mostly an organic thing for you? Or a product of careful planning?
DR: Almost entirely organic. I write like I live, by intuition with a bit of common sense thrown in for good measure. I knew that I did not want their relationship to reach any sort of firm resolution for several books, and as the relationship progressed, I knew I wanted certain new tensions to arise. Theirs is a very “two steps forward, one step back” sort of situation, and I like that they aren’t completely certain of each other.
11. Onto the new book, The Dead Travel Fast. Could you tell us a little about it?
DR: The Dead Travel Fast is my love letter to the Gothic novel. The action follows Theodora Lestrange, a Scottish novelist, as she leaves the security of her home in Edinburgh for the dark forests of Transylvania in search of adventure. She finds that and more in the person of Andrei Dragulescu, a Carpathian count who may or may not be a vampire…
12. I would assume (and I may very well be wrong) that there is a certain sense of comfort when writing a well-established series. What drew you toward writing this new book?
DR: I adore the classic Gothics and read them all when I was a teenager—the Brontës, Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart. I think it’s a genre that lots of readers feel a nostalgic fondness for, and I was thrilled to have a chance to cut my teeth on this book. It was also a good chance to prove to myself that I could write something beyond the series and be successful at it! When I sold Silent in the Grave, I thought, “I wrote a real book.” And when it won a RITA, I thought, “I wrote a good book!” And when Silent in the Sanctuary came out, I thought, “I had more than one book in me.” And now with The Dead Travel Fast, the thought is, “I’m not a one-trick pony!” I don’t generally consider myself neurotic, but that particular train of thought would suggest otherwise, wouldn’t it?
ATWOP –Actually, you sound a lot like us. It’s heartening to know that particular writer neurosis never truly goes away. :)
13. Do you have a favorite character in TDTF? And why?
DR: I am quite smitten with Theodora because she is so different from Lady Julia. I am the default setting for Julia—if I ever want to know what she would do or say in any given situation, I just figure out what I would do and go from there. Theodora is a cat of a different color. She is more intrepid and centered, and perhaps not quite as nice as Julia, although I think she is very likable. Julia is a bit more blithe in her existence; Theodora is more deliberate.
14. And because everyone will ask… Who is your favorite character in the Lady Julia Grey series and why?
DR: Julia, hands down. I adore Nicholas completely, but Julia is highly autobiographical. I always say that if you were to compare our perspectives on the world, the view from her townhouse in 1880s London wouldn’t be so different from mine. We have precisely the same sense of humor, and I think when you find the same things funny, it’s impossible not to like someone. But I should note that Portia is becoming very interesting to me as her character develops. She’s more self-assured than Julia, and I love her confidence.
15. What’s next? I understand that you have finished the latest Lady Julia book (yay!), entitled Dark Road to Darjeeling. Any hints on what Julia and Brisbane might encounter? And any plans to write another stand alone novel?
DR: I had the best time writing Dark Road! Julia and Brisbane travel to a tea plantation in the foothills of the Himalayas and encounter an arch-villain for the first time. I think readers are really going to enjoy the ride. I have several ideas for stand-alone novels, but I’m under contract for another Julia Grey after Dark Road, and I’m having great fun plotting what to do with Nicholas and Julia next!
ATWOP -I'm betting reader's will! Personally, I can't wait to get my grubby paws on the next book.
And the silly:
16. Favorite vampire: Dracula? Vampire Lestat? Or Edward Cullen? :)
I’ve only read Dracula, so I’ll have to go with the original.
17. Most delicious thing about the Victorian era?
In the world of epic investigative battles:
18. Nicolas Brisbane vs. Sherlock Holmes (pumped up Guy Ritche style)?
Brisbane was bare-knuckle boxing before Holmes even got his shirt off, so in a physical confrontation, my money is on Nicholas. In an investigation, I suppose I ought to give the edge to Holmes because Lady Julia is a bit more of a distraction to Nicholas than Irene Adler is to Holmes!
ATWOP –I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d pay good money to see that fist fight. Le rowl… ;)
19. Amelia Peabody vs. Lady Julia?
Amelia always has her trusty parasol and Julia doesn’t carry a weapon, at least not yet…I would rather think of them taking tea together and exchanging tips on how to outwit the men in their lives.
ATWOP –that would be some tea!
20. I keep my RITA…
A. On my living room mantle with strategically placed spotlights to enhance her golden glow.
B. Discreetly tucked away on my office bookshelf.
C. She has her own pillow on my bed and tends to hog the covers!
DR: My RITA sits in my study where I can see her when I write. She’s an excellent reminder that I have done this and done it well in the past and I can do it well again! (I hand-carried her home from San Francisco and she was a superb conversation-starter in the airport.)
ATWOP –Assuredly so! And deservedly won! Thank you so much for stopping by, Deanna! It's been a pleasure.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I learned a lot and am suddenly inspired to get my butt in that chair and write.
And if having Deanna here wasn’t treat enough for you, there is also the chance to win one of her wonderful books. Leave a comment and be entered to win either The Dead Travel Fast or one of the Lady Julia Grey books –winner’s choice. We’re giving away two books so enter now. Deadline to enter is 12PM EST, Friday, March 5th, at which time two winners will be randomly drawn. Enter early and GOOD LUCK!