CLOSING NOTE: BEST OF 2016:
Mary Jo Putney has had multiple books named among the five best romance novels of the year by Library Journal. She’s a New York Times bestseller, a two-time Rita Award winner, a recipient of RWA's Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award, and a Publishers Weekly favorite, with Once a Rebel coming out from Kensington Publishing in August, 2017.
HEART’S KISS INTERVIEWS MARY JO PUTNEY
by Denise Little
Denise Little: I met Mary Jo Putney at my very first Romance Writers of America convention. I won’t embarrass either of us by saying how long ago it was, but I will say that out of all the many great things I got out of that convention, her friendship is the thing I value most. She’s smart, funny, and grounded. On top of it, she’s one of the finest writers I know. I got the chance to interview her for the very first issue of Heart’s Kiss, and I jumped at it. Here’s what she said:
What are you tackling next?
Mary Jo Putney: I’ve been doing a Regency series that is moving through time, and the book I just completed finally hit 1814, when Washington was burned and the Battle of Baltimore provided victory for the young republic, as well as providing the national anthem. I am now contemplating the Congress of Vienna….
DL: What is your favorite novel to date, and why?
MJP: Sophy’s Choice! I love all my stories and characters. But if forced to choose, I’m particularly fond of stories that push the edges. The Rake is possibly my best known book, and it is about alcoholism, addiction, and recovery. One Perfect Rose was my first New York Times bestseller, and the theme is death and dying. (And yes, it has a happy ending!) No Longer a Gentleman is about a light-hearted fellow who gets thrown into solitary confinement in a French dungeon for ten years, and I wanted to see how far I could push him without making him actually crazy. <G> I like people who have been broken and become stronger in the mended places.
DL: The romance market keeps changing. We’ve gone from a world dominated by category publishing to a universe of electronic publishing, and rigid rules of romance to everything goes. What have been the biggest changes for you as the romance industry has revolved around us? I will say that the joy of a good story—your specialization—has remained its beating heart.
MJP: To say publishing has been changing is like saying Moby Dick was a really large fish! But I’ve been luckier than many romance writers. I’m still writing the kinds of stories I want to write and I have a fine smaller publisher (Kensington) that takes good care of me and my books. Advances are way down, but I have the rights to many of my older books, and the revenue stream from indie publishing my backlist has kept me comfortable. I think it’s great that writers who want to write books that don’t fit the old categories are able to publish directly and find audiences. The mechanisms of publishing have changed, but storytellers still tell stories.
DL: You’ve traveled the world in real life, as well as in fiction. What are your favorite memories of your adventures? Have any of your adventures spilled over into your characters’ lives?
MJP: Oh, yes, though usually as general background more than specific incidents. I lived in England for over two years and traveled all over the British Isles, which gave me a feel for the settings of my mostly British-set novels. Different kinds of people, different kinds of food and houses and so much more make it easy to get into my characters. One specific thing that turned up in a book was a visit to an old village of collapsed stone ‘“black houses’” on Harris and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. This was long before I started writing, but I looked at the ruined buildings and thought it would be a great setting for suspenseful hunt scene in a book. And indeed, in Shattered Rainbows my hero and heroine hid from the bad guys in ruins just like that.
This year’s big trip was to South Africa and Botswana. I’m not sure if I can fit that into my novels, but I had a great time!
DL: You once told me that you picked your time periods to write in carefully, because history was so rarely clean and happy. Regency England clearly calls you. Why?
MJP: The early 19th century was a time of great change, moving from the rigid hierarchies of the old regimes to more democratic and progressive societies. Abolition, feminism, social and political reforms were all bubbling away. Plus, fighting Napoleon was a ‘“good war’” against a Continental tyrant, and I’ve always seen parallels with World War II. Britain is different enough to feel rather exotic to Americans, but we share a common culture, and it was one of the more enlightened countries of the time. Plus, Britain was going into a long period of expansion and prosperity and change. It’s much harder to write about Ireland, for example, because much of the history is pretty grim.
DL: When you are starting a new project, what comes to you first?
MJP: Sometimes it’s a plot, so I start thinking about what kinds of characters will be best for that storyline. More often I’m starting with characters because I’m a natural born series writer and have been since I started my second book and decided that the hero of my first book would be great as the best friend. So I end up with a cast of characters that I want to explore. It’s almost always the heroes, so then I have to think about the best possible mate and the plot line that with test them and give them the chance to build a committed relationship.
DL: You’ve explored everything from alcoholism to physical disabilities to tribal wars in your fiction. As your characters confront their troubles, I’ve seen how I look at my own world change. Did you set out to change your readers, or was that just a byproduct of great writing?
MJP: I’ve done tribal wars? <G> I’ll admit to having China missionaries in my family tree, so real life issues interest me, and yes, I like to expand the knowledge and understanding of my readers. But only to the extent that such issues enrich the stories. I try to avoid being too preachy. (Probably with less than complete success. <G>)
DL: I find that people in general don’t change much, but that individual people can change everything. Do you look for that in your novels’ settings and characters?
MJP: Those are not the terms I think in, but yes, individuals can change dramatically. Since most people resist change, it generally takes something massive and traumatic to effect profound change. Which is why I torture my heroes. Rich, entitled (and titled) men are apt to be jerks unless they’ve suffered enough to develop empathy and understanding for others. So when I torture my characters, it’s for their own good. <G>
DL: I love romance fiction, and think it is one of the truest descendants of classical storytelling. But I could get into a donnybrook saying that at any college campus or literary luncheon in New York. Why are academia and the literary fiction world so determined to put romance down, despite its commercial success?
MJP: Because romance is largely by and for gurrls! In patriarchal society, female interests are by definition less worthy. Importance is defined by noise and testosterone, which means building relationships and community is trivial. What makes it worse is that romance sells so well!
DL: There’s been an explosion of romance into teen fiction, science fiction/fantasy, mainstream, and just about everywhere. Do you have your eye on any new worlds to conquer?
MJP: Actually, I’ve written genre fantasy novels, young adult historical fantasy, and mainstream romantic women’s fiction. But I always come back to history and relationships because I like them so much.
DL: What are your desert island books? The ones you would keep with you if you got marooned?
MJP: Oh, my. Can I take all of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series with The Curse of Chalion thrown in? And Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses and Elemental Blessings series? And Jayne Ann Krentz’s romantic suspense? And…and…how about I take a loaded-to-the-gills e-reader? With something to charge it, of course. Sorry, I can’t do any better than that!
Thanks for the nice chat, Denise!
Copyright © 2017 by Denise Little.
Heart's Kiss Magazine: Issue 1: February 2017
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor