Friday, July 2, 2010

20 Questions With Joanna Bourne

20 Questions with Joanna Bourne

She was willing to die, of course, but she had not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen...

And thus the world was introduced to the breathtaking talent of Joanna Bourne and her brilliant novel, The Spymaster’s Lady. A feeding frenzy began, accolades and awards bestowed –and none of it a surprise to those who have read her work. TSL tells the story of Annique, an elusive French spy who carries sensitive military information, and of Robert Grey, British spymaster. Theirs is an uneasy alliance –cooperation born of necessity, and a growing passion that neither can deny.

TSL was followed by My Lord and Spymaster, the story of Jess Whitby, daughter of a suspected spy, and Capt. Kennette, the man responsible for arresting her father. As each set out to prove the other wrong, love and passion get in the way.

And now Jo has a new book out, The Forbidden Rose. This goes back in time to tell the story of secondary characters featured in The Spymaster’s Lady –Marguerite de Fleurignac (Maggie) and William Doyle. Maggie is a noblewoman –a dangerous position in revolutionary France- and Doyle a British spy. Neither of them are who they claim to be, each leading double lives that could get them killed. Yet none of that matters when it comes to the heart.

Jo’s stories are heady mixes of action, adventure, history, and passionate romance. These books are gems, magical finds that sweep you away to other worlds. And the words. The words she weaves are poetry, like fine wine, or decadent chocolate. To read one of Jo’s books is to be swept away by voice. I remember first reading TSL and thinking, no one writes like this! But they should!

And we are so happy to have Jo stop by and play 20 Questions with us! So take a seat, grab a cup of coffee and enjoy!

On Writing and Craft:

1. A lot of us know you not as Joanna Bourne, romance writer extraordinaire, but a Jo Bourne, Books and Writer’s forum mate and conveyer of writing wisdom. In fact, for years I’ve been in awe of how well you “got” the craft. And how well you can break it down to its simplest parts. This is a natural gift, but who would you say are your best writing teachers?

JB: Y'know . . .

Teaching is not just a different skill set from writing -- it approaches writing differently.

You got this dual character to writing. The elephant in the playpen of fiction writing is story. It's dreaming stuff up and imagining. That's the magic. The hocus pocus.

And that's about impossible to teach.

It's the other half of writing, the craft part, the editing, reviewing and analyzing, that can be taught. That's what reviewers and scholastic types look at. That side of writing.

So the important thing to remember is that just about everything important, you can't teach.

As to how I learned to write . . .

I learned non-fiction at school, of course, like everyone does. All those essays on Clara Barton or how to tell a fish bone from a whale bone.

Non-fiction is a great place to learn to write fiction. They're both pounding words into shape to convey meaning. Most important, non-fiction teaches you the parsimony of expression that removes all the clutter from underfoot when you want to talk to somebody.

I am just about absolutely self taught in fiction. Never took a course in it. Really, I never read any of these writing books. I learned by looking at what other writers do and figuring out why it worked and then trying to do the same thing.

Late in the process I came across McKee's STORY and Maas' WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL. Both of these -- I won't say they are strictly 'craft books' -- give me lots to think about.

2. What made you want to write?

JB: I think of myself as a 'storyteller' more than as a 'writer'. If we still told stories around the fire in a cave, I would be sitting cross-legged, doing that.

"Writer' versus 'storyteller' is an important distinction, because storytelling is not about the perfect words. Not about language. Nobody says, 'oh what a beautiful turn of phrase' when it's just storytelling. And the words are going to change a little each time the story is recast. Storytelling skips over the words and goes to the emotion you want to evoke.

Anyway, I started storytelling before I could write. Used to tell stories to my dolls, and to my little sister when she didn't wriggle away. And to the cat . . .

So that's the 'when' of writing.

I don't know exactly the 'what made me want to,' except that the stories are there.

I was all the way, not only grown up but middle-aged, before I realized that not everybody walks around all the time with their heads full of stories. Apparently they don't.

3. When you started writing The Spymaster’s Lady, did it feel different than any of your other work? That is to say, was there anything about it that made you think, “Yes, this is something special.”

JB: Different? Not so much. Leading up to Spymaster's Lady, I'd done two or three manuscripts to very late draft stage and become dissatisfied with them and consigned them to the dust bunny generation facility under the bed. I was trying to learn to plot, you see, and not making much progress.

The last of these trunk novels introduced the intelligence group I ended up calling the British Service. Adrian and Doyle appeared as secondary characters. It was a paranormal. And the plot just didn't work.

So I pulled up those two characters and moved the action to France, where I was living at the time. I got a toehold in Anneka's head. After several tries, the plot fell together. And that manuscript became SPYMASTER'S LADY.

4. Getting published has to be one of the best moments in a writer’s career. How did “IT” happen for you?

JB: Getting published is very cool indeed.

I'd been fairly brisk finding an agent, and that was also cool because she is a great agent.

It took longer for the agent to locate a publisher willing to take on the manuscript. Months. Close to a year. It is hard, apparently, to sell Romance genre stories set in France. So I worked on a second manuscript that wasn't set in England -- that was the Jessamyn manuscript and ended up titled My Lord and Spymaster. See how flexible I am?

My agent's insider knowledge of the industry told her when a new opportunity opened for the manuscript. She sent it out one more time. And it sold.

I was very pleased. *g*

Great editor. Great publisher.

Life is good.

ATWOP –good for all of us too, who are so very glad it sold.

4a. TSL took off like a rocket with both reviewers and readers. Did you and/or your agent, publisher do anything special by way of promotion/pre-promotion or was it all word of mouth (which would be no surprise seeing how extraordinary the book is).

JB: The publisher sends out Advance Reading Copies to reviewers -- twenty or thirty of them.

I made a website. I'd advise everybody to do that and to do it when they first submit their manuscript, before they sign the book contract because once you do you have deadlines and you don't have any time to go putting together websites.

Many Forum Folks who read the book liked it and were kind enough to SAY this on their blogs. It really, really made a difference in getting folks to buy the book. I am unendingly grateful.

5. Since The Spymaster’s Lady came out people have commented on your gift for creating authentic character voices. Smart Bitches wisely and accurately said of TSL, “linguistics students could study this narrative as a representative work on how to accurately portray the differences in languages and dialects without actually USING those dialects.” This is no easy thing. How does character voice work for you? Do you hear them in your head? Is this something that comes easy or something you must work at every step of the way?

JB: I do 'hear voices', which is very nice.

I don't know how anyone writes without voices talking to them. I just about cannot get the words down until I hear what my character sounds like. That is to say, I can get through a rough draft or two, but it's all lame and stupid till I hear what folks sound like.

Three thoughts on dialog:

You can put the words through a translator . . . twice. Bring the words out of English and then bring them back into English. That gives you the foreign syntax.

You can listen to a language without understanding it. This lets you pick up the cadence a little. There's a whole gestalt of body movement and facial expression and pauses, too. You try to add that to their dialog.

And you find TV and movies where you got yer French or Spanish or Japanese or Cockney or Scots native speaker talking. You listen to that for hours -- it helps if you listen to the same movie over and over again -- till it gets inside you somehow.

I'll bet actors have tricks for creating accents. I should do the research on actor's methods.

ATWOP – love, love the translator trick! I’d say you’re already a bit of a method actor, Jo. :)

6. To add onto this, some writers “see” a scene as it plays out, some hear it. How is it for you?

JB: Can I say, 'both'? When the scene is coming smoothly, it's like landing in the middle of a movie. It's happening all around me. Sight and sound and wind blowing off the fields into my face. Everything.

Multimedia like.

ATWOP – it definitely shows on the page!

7. Diana Gabaldon has these nice categories for characters: Mushrooms, who pop up fully formed; Onions, who have layers which you must work through to discover who they are; and Nuts, who are hard to crack and understand. What is your favorite type of character to write?

JB: I'd say they come to me like onions. I see the most obvious parts of the characters at once. Then they surprise me.

Every redraft, I learn more and more. Sometimes, it takes months before I 'hear' a new character's thoughts.

Like, right now . . . There's the character standing by a door, holding a knife, getting ready to attack if anyone walks through. I know what happens in that scene. I know how it's lit and where everybody is and what happens and what they all say. But I need to know what the character is thinking and feeling. I'm far from satisfied with what I have.

8. And as a follow up, do you have a favorite character, and was he/she a mushroom, nut, or onion?

JB: It's tough. We're supposed to be most fond of our protagonists. And I am, of course.

But the character I'm proudest of is Lazarus, the King of the Thieves. He was hard to put together. Just plain hard to write. I'm satisfied with what I made of him.

And he is, oh dear, another onion.

9. 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?

JB: Routine, routine, routine.

That's the only way I can do it.

I like to go to a coffee shop. I block out a long space of time every day. I sit down and set to work. I'm very fortunate in that when I do sit down, the words come to me. If I can't work on one scene, I go work on another. If I can't write, I work on the outline.

There's always something useful to do.

I can work for five or six hours straight, and then I generally stop. That's about all the brain will attempt.

10. 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?

JB: Any more, I outline. Not just an overall plotting thing, either. I have every scene listed and planned out at the beginning.

Ok. Before that, there will be a few scenes I have in mind before the outline, while the story is still utterly fluid. Maybe I'll write them down, knowing they'll fit into the story someplace.

These are often just lovely scenes.

But most of the scenes I write after the outline and because I know what happens in them. They are 'purpose-built' scenes.

It's like I have the kitchen cabinets to install and I know where they fit. Then I put stuff inside them.

That said, the plot is not cast in stone.

I'll be writing along in the first or second draft and I will have a Moment of Enlightenment at Four In The Morning. I will realize how to Simplify Everything and make it all fit together better if I just add this thing or subtract that thing.

For instance . . . in the manuscript I am working on right now I just tossed out the last 20% of the plot because I Don’t Need It.

So I make huge changes in the first and second draft. After that I have so much invested in the text I don't want to mess with big chunks of it. After that, we're not so fancy-free and flexible.

11. And the all important question when it comes to writing: In the great debate of method… chunkster vs. linear? Seat of pants vs. outline?

JB: Outline. I think this is 'cause I have complicated stuff going on and I have to lay clues in Chapter Twelve for stuff that's going to be revealed in Chapter Twenty and maybe even vice versa.

So it has to be organized, however much this strikes at my free-spirited, flower-child heart..

I write some chapters out of order. That is, I'll see them clearly and go ahead and write them. But it's mostly linear. I got no reason not to be linear, really.

12. Your books form a series, in that although they are not written in chronological order, they involve many of the same characters. Is this how you intended to write these books from the start? Why?

JB: I always did intend to set a number of books in the same fictive world -- this 'world' being a period of time and a geographic place and some real history and a lot of fictive history and some characters.

I didn't feel I had to go all the way back to the beginning of the timeline with the first book. For me . . . it's almost as if all this stuff is happening at once, because I know about all of it. I see the characters' whole lives, so I can write about them at any point in that life. I could write Adrian as a young boy or an old man, because I know his whole story and 'see' him simultaneously as all these things.

I try to make each of the books standalone. You can read just one.

13. Let’s talk about your newest book, The Forbidden Rose. What was the hardest scene to cut from Forbidden Rose? And why did you cut it?

JB: The first scene in the book is Maggie and the rabbit. I cut that scene out.

Then I put it back in again.

Did this five or six times.

Eventually they come and take the manuscript away from you and you have to stop doing that. It ended up with the scene 'in', but it could have just as easily ended up with the scene 'out'.

Think of all the things writing teachers say about how to start a story. Do not have Talking Heads giving introduction, they say.

And that's what I'm doing.

I was still thinking about cutting the rabbit scene when I did the copyedits, but it just stuck on like taffy.

14. What major surprises did your characters give you when writing this book? Did they do/say things that you’d never intended them to, but then seemed just right? (without being too spoilerish, obviously!)

JB: I was surprised that Jean-Paul carried a knife. I really didn't know he had it on him till he pulled it out.


Jean-Paul reached smoothly to his jacket where it was hung over the back of the chair. He came out with a long knife, the sort used in kitchens.

Jean-Paul with a knife. “Stop that.” She turned the other way. “Guillaume, do not hurt him. I mean it.”

“Me?” Guillaume spread his hands. They were empty, which made them no less dangerous. “I’m not carrying weapons.”

“And do not look stupid. I am all out of patience with you looking stupid. Jean-Paul, will you put that away before Guillaume tears you apart.”

“He won’t tear me apart,” Jean-Paul said.

“When did you start carrying a knife around with you? We are not bandits and Mohawks upon the streets. What do you need a knife for?”

“I use it to pry open specimen boxes,” he said, being Jean-Paul and literal. “And to separate rhizomes.” He was watching Guillaume, not her. She had not realized Jean-Paul could look so cold.

“Then you should leave your knife to prying boxes and not wave it in people’s faces. What do you think you will do? Hold off a column of dragoons with it? You are being ridiculous.”

“I’ve used it twice, Marguerite.”

She knew, then, that he was saying he had killed. He held the knife the way that boy did. Hawker. He cradled it close to his body and pointed upward. Jean-Paul had changed one day, when she was not looking. He had become a man she did not entirely know.

I didn't see any of that till I was in the scene. It happens that way sometimes.

15. What will you be working on next?

JB: I'm writing Adrian and Justine's story. This one happens way down at the end of my timeline in 1818. And I have some further complicated action that falls in 1802

More historical research, she sighs.

And the silly:

16. Most delicious thing about the Napoleonic era?

JB: The clothing. The wonderful clothing.

Look at what we got. We got light, pretty dresses made of beautiful fabrics, complementing and complimenting women. Clothing without prudery. Democratic clothing, that allowed simple, cheap imitations of the best fashion. Comfortable clothing. Clothing that caressed and appreciated the human form, rather than attempting to extinguish it.

This was fashion's little respite between bum rolls and bustles.

ATWOP – I’d have to agree; clothing always pulls me in. *g*

17. Maggie and Doyle - who would they be if they were celebrities?

JB: Not so much movie stars, because I just don't watch movies to any extent.

Doyle is like Odysseus -- canny, cynical, a shrewd observer, a survivor, always trying to make it home.

Maggie is like a young Eleanor Roosevelt. Principled, strong as steel, aristocratic, unbeautiful, compassionate, practical, realistic.

Maybe that doesn't sound like a Romance genre couple. Heck.

ATWOP- actually…it does. *g* Because you know they’ll be unstoppable together.

In the world of epic spy heroines:

18. Mata Hari vs. Annique

JB: Oh, Annique would whup Mata Hari's butt, collecting intel.

There would be Mata Hari doing the hoochie koochie dance in the parlour. But Annique would have snuck off to the back room to open the safe and go through the desk drawers. Or she'd be down in the kitchen, charming ALL the secrets out of the servants.

Nothing obvious about Annique.

19. Annique vs. Jess vs. Maggie

JB: They're very different sorts, those three. Annique is the field agent, Jess the forensic accountant, and Maggie the operations manager. If I had some little problem to clear up, I think I'd send them in together, actually.

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!

JB: Actually, she has her own Malibu Barbie's Beach House. And a Pepto-Bismol-coloured corvette convertible.

Jo --

I loved this interview. And it is no surprise to me that I learned so much just by reading it. I want to thank Jo for playing, and as an extra treat, leave a comment and you’re entered to win a copy of Jo’s latest book, The Forbidden Rose. Deadline to enter is 12PM EST, Saturday, July 3, at which time a winner will be randomly drawn. Enter early and GOOD LUCK!


  1. Fantastic interview--both the questions and the answers. I have (of course) already read The Forbidden Rose, but I wouldn't mind winning a copy of it. That way I'd have a lending copy as well as my keep-your-grubby-mitts-off-it copy. :)

  2. Fascinating stuff as I'm in the final stages (I hope) of my own historical romance. I love how Joanna Bourne is so open about her process. Thanks for a great interview!

  3. Sometimes a writer comes along and makes you wonder how a person can make words, mere words, sound so unique, beautiful. Cormac McCarthy, Judith Ivory & Joanna Bourne.

    This was one of the best interviews I've ever read. Thank you.

  4. I would love to try my hand at scoring a good read! Sign me up!!

  5. The image of the RITA driving Barbie's convertible has me in stitches!

  6. Fantastic interview! Thanks for sharing Joanna with us!!

  7. Wonderful (as always). I have the book, of course, so make sure you give it to someone just discovering the world of the Spymasters for the first time. And I just saw Toy Story 3 yesterday, so the Barbie house has new connotations. Does Rita have a Ken?

  8. The questions were fantastic, the answers priceless. You guys done good. {g}

  9. "Doyle is like Odysseus -- canny, cynical, a shrewd observer, a survivor, always trying to make it home." I soooo like that in a man. Doyle is my favorite.

    Great interview!


  10. What a lovely peek inside the mind of a new favorite for me. Very interesting to see that the original concept for the world where Doyle and Adrian began was paranormal.

    No need to put my name in the drawing; my copy of Forbidden Rose is already on my cold dead hand shelf. As in I will part with this book when it is pried from my.... :)

  11. Great interview of a wonderful writer.

    I'd like to know how Jo picks such interesting names for her characters.

  12. Oh, hurray! Always a treat to hear from Jo Bourne! Count me in for loving the comparison of Doyle to Odysseus (nice little frisson that gives me--yum!--and I get to feel all intellectual, too.)

    And I'm also really glad the rabbit scene stayed in.

    No need to put me in the drawing either--I have my treasured copy. (Though I confess whenever I'm in the bookstore lately, and see five or six copies together on the shelf, I have an urge to snatch them all up...but I refrain, and just discreetly turn them cover-out or pull them forward a bit for maximum visibility. Sharing the love, etc.)

  13. Well, I have my copy - and a gift copy for my sister... And I think Jo's brilliant - and have told her so.

  14. thanks for the fantastic interview -- Jo is open and humerous and warm that even in an interview like this you almost feel like you're sitting chatting over coffee with her :) would love love love to win a copy of her book

  15. Lovely interview!
    I'm glad no one's talking about "which books is your favourite" cos I could never decide!

  16. Fantastic interview,
    Jo, I had the privelege of meeting you and getting your first two books when I came to DC last year. They now sit in pride of place on my shelf and I'm so looking forward to adding Forbidden Rose to my prized collection. Well done on the release of a fantastic third book. Can't wait for the fourth.

  17. I loved this Q&A. So many gems. I have not read TFR yet, can't wait!