Last year I was introduced to the author Jane Ashford through her delightful regency-era historical release, The Marriage Wager. With a deceptively traditional story-line, the author engaged me with her humor, and a couple of lead characters who were just different enough from the norm to pique my interest. I especially fell in love with violet-eyed Colin, the book's hero, whose nightmares were so vivid I could see them. Too, I loved the fact that both Colin and Emma, his heroine, felt like outsiders in their own world, a theme which Ms. Ashford carried over into her latest release, The Bargain. Between her frontal assault on my funny bone and a much more subtle attack on my libido, I have fallen, truly, madly, deeply, for both Ms. Ashford's heroes, and her writing.
I recently chatted with Jane about her life and her writing. Born in small farm-town Ohio, she now lives in the sophisticated New England community of Cambridge. Where once she had hoped to use her phD in English as a professor, a glut in the market forced her on a different path. Her career as a corporate writer has allowed her the income to grow her life-long love of reading and writing into a career as a novelist. Though unmarried, she and her long-time love have lived together as "aging hippies" for the past twenty years.
Jane and I talked extensively about her style, and her transition from Regency Romance author to historical romance author, among other things. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and hope you will as well.
--Laurie Likes Books
You started out writing Regency Romances and recently made the switch to full-length historicals. Talk to me about the switch and what it involved.
I grew up loving Georgette Heyer. I still do, but I've read them all too many times. I found her in my hometown library growing up. I also always wanted to be a writer. I didn't necessarily connect those things at the time, but I took all those writing courses and didn't find writing short stories very satisfying. I'm very disappointed by the trend in this country in that we differentiate between books that are "literary" and books that are popular. I think they ought to be one and the same. So when I decided I really wanted to be a published writer, I looked around and said, "Oh, they're still doing those books. I love those, I think I'll try one of those." So I did it and that's how I got started doing Regencies. I really enjoyed it for a long time. I wrote 14. I started in 1980 and went on for 10 years. I did enjoy it for a long time. After a while I just began to feel constricted by the form and the length and got a little burned out as well. I did a couple of contemporary romantic suspense (Cache in 1984 and Mirage in 1986) to branch out, but I wasn't quite as pleased with them - they didn't really seem to be my metier.
So I kind of dithered for awhile and figure out what I wanted to do. I did look at some historicals around then, but somehow the ones I picked up I really didn't like the heroes - I found them quite nasty.
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I think you've hit on the time period in the mid to late '80s where what I call the "newer" style of romance came into being. One of the reasons I so enjoy your historicals is that your heroes are not of the "old" style. Talk some more about your heroes.
Well, maybe that's what it was. I don't remember which books they were, but I found the heroes quite off-putting and felt I didn't want to do that. I didn't publish much there for awhile. I was feeling a bit burned out on the Regencies, and had some family things that took alot of time. And then around 1994 I somehow came across the "new" regency/historical, the Amanda Quick type, and I thought, well, these are fun, and seemed more along my line. So I tried those. It took me awhile to get in stride because they are a lot longer and they're somewhat different. I think I hit my stride with The Marriage Wager, which came out in 1996. So it was a development for me.
Let's talk some more about your heroes. They are not arrogantly nasty. Colin from The Marriage Wager could have been that way based on his experiences in war, but he just wanted piece and quiet. And what I found so desireable about Alan from The Bargain was that he was neither a strutting peacock of a rake nor was he a sleak and sneaky panther type, involved in feats of daring-do. He was simply a man and I liked that for a change.
I think that lots of different types of men are attractive. There is more than one sort of "guy" who is "the hero". I really enjoy exploring a hero not only as a man but as a person. To think of them as just as real and multi-dimensional as the heroines might be and to explore that. To me, that's what makes the love story. Two people who have a strong initial physical attraction, because that's par for the course, but also who add to that a knowledge and understanding of each other, and that makes them more attracted to each other than when they first caught sight and went "Whoa".
It's also a matter of personal taste. I'm not very fond of those guys who are so very abrasive and don't get along. That's never the way personally I would fall in love. And so, I wouldn't be able to write that sort of story. Not to say that it doesn't happen or it isn't a good story, it just isn't my story.
You use humor in your writing, some of it subtle, some of it nearly slapstick. In The Marriage Wager, Emma and Colin seemed to share a private joke that nobody else "got". I enjoyed that, and I also enjoyed Emma's manservant whose observations and comments were out and out hilarious. You also write about family relationships, and in The Bargain, you combined both humor and family in Ariel's successful match-making for some of Alan's brothers. Talk to me both about humor and families.
Humor is a lot of fun. I also think that the things people laugh at show a lot about themselves. The people that you meet in life with whom you laugh, I mean, who laugh at the same things, it forms a real. Whether it's a love relationship or a friend. It's really a way to show, beyond being fun, that people are forming bonds, that they have things in common. If somebody makes me laugh, I'm immediately going to be liking them more.
That's why, and also, I think a book should be fun. If you're picking up a book of mine and sitting down to read it, I really want you to have the best time you possibly can, and part of that is laughing. And, I enjoy people who are a little eccentric. I enjoy them in my life and in books. One of my very favorite writers, who, sadly died recently, is Roberson Davis, the Canadian writers, who wrote wonderful books about extremely eccentric people and I just love them. I think that a lot of people like eccentrics. I enjoy putting them in my books and letting them interact with each other and they all seem to take off and interact pretty wildly and sometimes I even get to laugh too.
One of the things that a real love affair is, is actually kind of establishing a new family. And so I think that the families involved in the kind of outskirts of that process are important to it. And they're also important to the kind of person that each individual has turned out to be. So, I don't think you can leave them out, even if they're all dead. Even if the hero or heroine is orphaned, their family is a really important part of them. I like that to be in there because of that and I also think that they are a part of your life and it wouldn't be realistic not to include them.
In both of your historicals, the family members actively advanced the romance between hero and heroine. What I particularly enjoyed was that, in both instances, the hero was able to see the heroine in a new light by discussions with family members or by watching her interact with family members. Is this a conscious effort you make to use family members in this manner?
Who knows more about you than your family? I think your family is more than likely going to be around and more than likely to know about you. Every story has its quirks and there may be long lost relatives. But they're the people closest to you and they're going to be involved in the very important things that happen in your life, like finding the person with whom you're going to be spending the rest of your life. They do show a lot of things.
One of the things I've found interesting about The Bargain is: can a love relationship really make a difference not only to that relationship itself but to all the other relationships in your life? I think it really can.
Do you have plans to write any sequels to The Bargain?
I certainly set myself up for that with the brothers and the match-making. I'm quite interested in that brother off in the South Seas who sent a fertility statue as a wedding gift. I think he'll probably come up, although I haven't yet any specific plans.
I just finished a new book for Bantam; it's just gone to them. It's not about that family. It's a new cast of characters. It's another regency-era historical but it's set at the Congress of Vienna and kind of away from London and England. The title is not for sure yet. My editor has opined on the one I chose. It will come out in late summer/early fall 1998.
What are you working on now?
I'm starting another one. My contract with Bantam still has another book to go. I'm thinking about an outline. It is not a planned sequel, but I'll be discussing that with my editor, so who knows? I know people have done sequels a lot, but I've never done one myself. I want it to remain very fresh and not just recycle the same sorts of things that happen.
What comes first for you, character or plot?
For me, character comes first. I think of the people and their characteristics and sometimes, as you mentioned, through their family situations. Then I think of them encountering each other; two people who have differences and then I kind of see what happens. That's a little bit simplified because certainly I have a plan, but once they get together and start moving along, the plot tends to come out of that.
Describe how it goes when they start talking to each other? Do the characters take over? Do you end up simply taking dictation for them?
I think there definitely is an element of that. Once you get them fully blown in your mind and get them together, they tend to go off into different directions than you maybe had planned. I had a section in The Bargain about the heroine's father. He was certainly somebody who popped out a bit surprisingly. I had no notion about anything about her father when I began. I knew I didn't know who he was, just like everybody else, so he kind of made his way into the book on his own. The characters get started talking and sometimes I'll be surprised what they say to each other.
Have you ever had a direction you were going to go but couldn't because the characters wouldn't let you take them there?
Maybe in small ways, but not in terms of the whole book or the whole plot, but in smaller instances this has happened before.
Talk more about the character of Ariel's father, who "popped" out at you unexpectedly. I found him very effective in bringing Alan's feelings to the surface through jealousy - it was when they were with her father that he really realized he loved Ariel. I mean, before this, he was utterly clueless.
Here's a guy, Alan, who's had one set of circumstances - a woman not connected with anybody in the world. She's alone and he's been protective and enjoyed that. Suddenly she does have a family, and this older man is not the creep they'd expected. Perhaps he hasn't always behaved perfectly, but he's an okay guy. It's difficult for Alan to cope. Part of him wants to like this man, but he's a rival for Ariel and will now have a role in Ariel's life. I think it's a realistic situation and a good way to bring his feelings to the fore.
And, also for Ariel, she's kind of frightened and yet eager and here's this whole new dimention in her life and she doesn't know how that's going to go and they're both sort of very open at this point to their emotions and it was a good way to have them surface and interact.
While we're on the subject of Alan, let's talk some more about heroes. Are we so attracted to heroes because we're women and they're men, or is there something else?
I'm not sure I know the answer, but I'll give it a try. I really appreciate your comment, by the way, because I work hard on the heroes. I work hard on them because I'm obviously not a man and it's sometimes easier to figure out what the woman may be thinking.
I wonder sometimes if, as women reading a book like this, it's easy to be the heroine, don't you think? We slip into her experience and her persona and if it feels as though we're less interested, I think it's just that it's simpler and easier and we then concentrate on the other half of the equation, the hero, who although not antagonistic, is an antagonist. We are more interested in what that half is thinking and doing because he's different from us.