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Tuesday, March 11, 2008:
The Spies Have it: interview with JoAnna Bourne
Readers, romance readers probably more than most, have an incredibly endless passion for the books they read. With so many genres and sub-genres to choose from, there is something to appeal to everyone. Occasionally though, all these books can get lost in the overabundance of choices, and not many stand out in a reader's mind. Yet when it does happen, it is so amazing that we all want to share this experience with everyone we can think of.


Such was the experience with "The Spymaster's Lady", written by Joanna Bourne. The buzz about this book started long before the actual release date in January 2008, and it was more than just the sexy cover that was getting noticed. Ms. Bourne had written a clever, intelligent novel of intrigue featuring a memorable heroine and a hero strong enough to match her in wit, in negotiation, and in love.


I originally "met" Ms. Bourne at Michelle Buonfiglio's blog, and she has been gracious enough to answer some burning questions of my own, so without further ado, here is this talented author, Joanna Bourne, in her own words:

S ~ Welcome Joanna! "The Spymaster's Lady" was an incredibly intriguing and engrossing read, full of rich detail and wonderful dialogue. How long did it take you to write it, start to finish, with all the research and editing involved?

Thank you for the kind, kind words. I never think of the dialog as something I write, exactly, because so much of it just 'comes' to me. I hear it.

Hard to say how long "Spymaster's Lady" took to write, really, because I didn't just sit down and write the one story straight through. I worked on a couple other things as well. I have completed manuscripts that will never see the light of day. I was learning craft, and they aren't quite good enough.

The time writing of "Spymaster's Lady" ...? If you added up just that, it was maybe a year and a half, writing work and editing.

The research is even less easy to quantify. I'm always researching. Give me a bit of downtime and I'm curled up with a nice 1800's diary. I do love history. So the Regency background was already in my head from many years of reading. I didn't have to do deep research. When I needed the little, specific bits and pieces, I'd just go zip it off the internet.

S~ Why drew you back to writing romance, after so many years of writing non-fiction? How did those years help you with writing fiction?

Romance is my love. Non-fiction puts food on the table.

To be fair, non-fiction teaches precision and large-scale organization. That's always good. The plot of a fiction manuscript takes just endless organizing and chivvying into shape and going back and forth, fiddling with details. I learned to do that -- as much as I ever learned to do that -- putting together big non-fiction works.

When I left fiction back in 1983 and went to work for the government, I always meant to return to Romance someday. It's kinda an 'I will return' situation and me jumping out of the landing craft and wading ashore.

I love what I'm doing. I'd write even if only a dozen people read the book. I'm so delighted when even one more person picks "Spymaster's Lady" up.

S~ Tell me a little about how you set out to write each day. Do you have a favorite writing spot, a cozy corner in your home? Or do you find you can write anywhere as long as you have a laptop? Any specific rituals you follow?

I can write anywhere. I don't see or hear what's going on around me when I'm writing.

But I do like noise and people and bustle passing by, if I can get it. Gives me something to ignore, I guess. Most every day when I'm writing I grab the laptop and head for Panera or Starbucks or Greenberry's or one of the indie coffeeshops with which my town is liberally provided and settle down to work.

I can do about six hours work before I flake out. Then in the evening, after dinner, I'll play around for an hour or two more, sitting on the sofa with the laptop in my ... well ... lap. Maybe editing. Maybe doing research. Maybe just haaaanging.

Right now, I'm not doing that. Right now I'm just beginning Maggie's story. So I walk around thinking and do a lot of housework. Useful.

S ~ What are some of the stereotypes that frustrate you about romance novels and the writers who write them and the readers who love them?

Sadly, when I say, 'I am a Romance writer,' the response is not -- 'So you write those filthy slut books that give dem wemmins all the uppity ideas,' -- which would allow me to verbally grind somebody into the dust and probably make my week.

Usually the response is, 'I don't read books much.'

I'd almost rather be heaped with abuse than hear that folks don't read at all.

What frustrates me? I do hate it when independent bookstores carry no Romance at all. Not one. Not the tippy top, best author. They can find houseroom for science fiction and thriller and mystery. But no Romance. When authors write in two genres, they'll carry the author's mysteries or thrillers ... but not her Romances. Go figure.

I know there's probably political-social-intellectual-historical reasons for all this. But what it reminds me of is ten-year-old boys shrieking and running for the far side of the playground so they won't get 'girlcooties' on them.

I'd like to see the best, most interesting Romance books reach a wider audience. The indie bookstores are the ones who could choose the best and make this happen. It's a pity they don't. (gnashing of teeth.)

S ~ I admit, in most of the romances I read, I focus on the hero, and find him more fascinating than the heroine, but that is not completely the case this time around. Though Robert certainly was a worthy hero, it was the heroine that caught my attention from the very first. Annique is young but world-weary, innocent but experienced, scared but enormously courageous, and I found myself completely infatuated with her, full of respect for the choices she's made to survive. What influenced her creation?

Well ... physically, she looks like a young Nastassja Kinski, so there's that.

Thinking about it ... I don't really sit down and build a character like it was a lego castle. It's more like setting out the right bait and luring a shy critter out of the woods and getting to know it. Pat pat.

One major influence on Annique was her mother. Once I knew the mother, I knew a lot of what Annique had to be like.

S ~ Do you see yourself ever writing contemporary stories, quite possibly romantic suspense, or do you find yourself quite enamored of history and have an endless supply to tell? (Note: I see back in Sept '06 you were thinking contemp paranormal. Do tell)

I'd like to write contemp someday. I'd love to write along just using any old word that comes to mind, instead of stopping and asking myself, "Is this historical vocabulary?" Was the word was used in 1800, and if so, was there a shade of difference in usage? So distracting.

That said, I don't have a contemporary story calling to me right now. There's a story plotted in me, but it hasn't grabbed my by the neck and hauled me off.

S ~ What is your favorite way to relax, to re-charge those creative juices and start fresh?

I'm doing that now, actually. I just sent in the copyedits of "My Lord and Spymaster".

I haven't started on Doyle's story yet. I'm just walking around thinking about Maggie.

So what I'm doing ...
1) Diving into the huge tottering TBR pile.
2) Walking the dog. I live where there's a lot of open country and mountains. Lovely.
3) Cooking. Chicken curry tonight, and we'll make a cake in a while.

S ~ Since you've done such an amazing job of capturing the feel and textures of France and England during the Napoleonic Wars, have you considered other countries, other time periods? Other places you've lived, such as Africa perhaps? What are some of your favorite moments in history to research?

For right now, I feel comfortable and fulfilled in Regency England and France and in the philosophic struggle of those three decades. I like my Meeks Street bunch, too. It'd take a while before I got 'wrote out' in the period. If I did, I think I'd go to contemps before I went larking about in some other historical period.

You never know though. Nineteenth century China is interesting. And Classical Rome.

S ~ What is the most tedious aspect of writing? What is the most inspiring?

I don't think writing ever gets precisely tedious. I find all parts delightful and satisfying -- from sitting around waiting for the character of Maggie, (my next heroine,) to coalesce to making a decision on each of the commas between independent clauses.

(Well, proofreading can get tedious. OK. Yeah. I cannot spell worth beans and I am the world's worst proofreader.)

Now this isn't tedious here ... but I do get bat-flight zigzag crazy when I don't have enough time to get something right and I know I could do it if I just had more time. That, I hate.

Don't know whereas I get inspired by anything I do. But it's fun work and I love it and I consider it important and worthwhile.

Holding the book in your hands for the first time is great. Beyond words.

Finishing that first, it-all-hangs-together-and-makes-sense draft is wonderful.

Waking up in the morning and just all of a sudden knowing how you're going to solve a plot problem that's been bugging you and the solution is so bloody clever you want to just run down the stairs shouting -- that's super good.

S ~ Who are some of your favorite heroes and heroines, real and fictional? Villains?

I want Roarke. This is a fairly common affliction, I believe. I do not fling myself in his path like a tossed flounder only because (a) Eve Dallas would kick my butt if I tried and (b) he is fictional.
(He has his own wiki, though, which is halfway to becoming real.)

Villain. I'm thinking of Javert. I'm going to reread "Les Miserables" to put myself in the mood for writing about France. I'll be looking at Javert a lot. Villains never think of themselves as villains. I have to work with that, somehow.

One problem we have in genre Romance is we don't have time to develop the villains much.

S ~ What are your thoughts on the online relationships between readers and writers? Do you think writers should let their work speak for themselves, or do you find it's important to interact with readers and share the thoughts behind what you write?

The work has to stand on its own, of course. You can't run in, yelling, 'What are you thinking !!!This is 1803! Will you look at the historical context, you donkey!" because ... well, it's all undignified.

But if somebody asks a question I'm just tickled pink and will answer at much greater length than they ever dreamed possible and keep talking till their eyes start to, y'know, glaze over.

S ~ Since the release of "The Spymaster's Lady", what have been some of your favorite moments?

A fellow member of the Compuserve Books and Writers Forum is sponsoring a "Where in the World is Spymaster's Lady" contest. (It went on till the end of February.) The idea was to take pictures of "Spymaster's Lady" in some exotic local, or in front of something characteristic of one's home town. (One of the loveliest is "Spymaster's Lady" perched in a great heap of snow.)

Some folks have done photoshop versions. "Spymaster's Lady" on the Moon. "Spymaster's Lady" with a geisha in full rig ...

Hilarious. I am reduced to helpless laughter.

The prize was a signed copy and somehow I promised to judge ...

S ~ Have you always wanted to be a writer? Is this something you've done all your life, in some form or fashion? What were some of your favorite books as a child?

Yes. Yes. Always wanted to be a writer. Before I could write, I wanted to be a storyteller. I used to keep my little sister up at night telling her stories.

I know I liked Dr. Seuss. I can still recite a lot of them. Yertle the Turtle and Horton Hears a Who probably shaped my political philosophy.

S ~ Besides writing, I'm fascinated with the other areas of writers' lives. What other interests do you have? Karate? Flying? Sudoku?

I can't do word puzzles. They frustrate me. I want to end up with something useful if I put that much work into something and, as I said, I can't spell.

And I hate to fly. Hate hate hate. I don't really believe in Bernoulli's Principle and I know it can stop working at any moment and just leave me hanging there in the sky in a tin can.

I collect glass paperweights. Just a few special pretty ones. I have a display set up where the light shines up through them.

And I use power tools. I'm going to make some rough-and-ready furniture as soon as the weather warms up a bit and I can work in the garage.

S ~ I know you've addressed the fact that you had no input on the cover for "The Spymaster's Lady", but what was your reaction when you saw it? (Sidenote: isn't it a nice pic of Nathan?)

I think I said, "Oh my. I wonder if he's chilly."
(I'm very protective of my characters.)

My husband said, "Does this mean you have to write a scene where Grey takes his clothes off outdoors?"

S ~ Just a comment here. I really enjoyed your blog visit at Michelle Buonfiglio's blog on 1/16 and the topic of female empowerment. Probably one of the most delightful things about Annique is how she kept besting the 3 men who had kidnapped her, including legendary spymaster Robert Grey. Even her being a spy was not enough for these men to acknowledge that a woman might be able to outmanuveur them intellectually, and on occasion, physically.

I can see the old genre standard, 'kidnapped by the hero,' could get old. I can see the hunger for a heroine who goes out and kicks major butt in an obvious way.

But however worthy the goal, this has never been about creating a female Rambo. Annique is a covert agent. Her great skill is to be a professional infiltrator and observer. This is about outmaneuvering a stronger force and waiting for opportunity. This is kicking subtle and sneaky butt.

S ~ Any last thoughts you'd like to share?

I have a book coming out in four months, in July, "My Lord and Spymaster". Adrian, ten years older, is a secondary character and Doyle appears once or twice.

S ~ Sounds quite wonderful, and I can't wait for my copy :)
Jo, thank you for the wonderful story you've written, one that I'll be re-reading time and time again. I appreciate you taking the time to answer any of my questions.

Bloggers, stay tuned for a contest, and your chance to win a copy of

"The Spymaster's Lady"!

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  1. I want Adrian's story!! :)
    This was one of the best historical romances I have read in years. Going down for my top 10 of 2008 and possibly the best historical of the past 5 years.
    Kuods to JoAnna!
    I have my own copy also and can oogle the nipply naked chest man on the cover all I want ;)

  2. yayyyy! Great interview, Stacy, and Joanna, thanks SO much for your candid responses. I enjoyed TSL very very much and am quite eager to make the acquaintance of any books you choose to put out there.

  3. Waiving my "We Want Adrian" banner.

    Me too, Kate.

    Great interview, Stace. She seems so lovely!

  4. Great interview, Stacy!!! What a lovely person she is. =o)

    LOL on the comment she made about the cover. Chilly, indeed. I think the rest of us got hot flashes. =D

    Add me to the "I can't wait for Adrian's story" camp. =o)

  5. Outrageously great interview, Stacy! I find fascinating how this brilliant academician not only writes popular romance, but is so dang funny in real life.

    Does your heart tremble like mine at the mention of her next novel? Of Maggie's story? And, of course, Adrian...

  6. Great interview. I haven't read this book but you can bet I will now :)

  7. Great interview. Sounds like a great book.

  8. I love the interview. Will look out for the book.

  9. Great Interview!!

    Now I need to go out and get myself a copy :o) Yes, yes I know you’re all shocked I haven’t read it yet but I think that’s the story of my life I always fell like I’m one step behind LOL. Ah the great dilemma of too many books and too little time :o)

  10. Great interview, Stacy and Joanne. :)

    I just bought The Spymaster's Lady this weekend! I don't actually read a lot of historical romance, but I couldn't resist the lure of all the wonderful buzz about this novel. As soon as I finish the book I'm in the middle of, I'll be reading The Spymaster's Lady!

  11. Excellent interview Stacy, loves your questions, very interesting. Joanna is a dear and her book is indeed amazing!

  12. I wrote Joanne instead of Joanna in my comment. Ack! Apologies. :)

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