When The Raven Prince burst onto the scene last year, I must have had my head down and my backside up because I missed it completely. It was only after I received twenty emails from twenty different people all shouting “Have you read this??” that I poked my head out of the sand and read the book and understood why. Ms. Hoyt’s debut novel was tender, emotional, and oh-so-hot, using mythology to weave intricate metaphors through her plot and tying her characters together. Her sophomore novel, The Leopard Prince, introduced us to a headstrong heroine and her handsome hero, and set the stage for the third novel in the trilogy due out later this year. I caught up with Elizabeth after her recent success in AAR’s annual poll.
It’s been a great year for you! The Raven Prince certainly made a splash, and earned DIK status from AAR, and I am the reviewer who granted The Leopard Prince DIK status. How do you feel?
Bemusement? Cautious optimism? It’s actually kinda strange—in a good way—to be in my place right now. I’ve always thought the Prince books were great, but then again all writers think their stuff is great. And just because I like the stories doesn’t mean that they will appeal to a lot of people. The fact that so many people seem to enjoy the stories I happen to write is in many ways pure luck. Maybe that’s what I’m feeling: lucky as heck. .
Your website states that you didn’t start writing until you were 35. What prompted you to pick up the proverbial pen?
I was a stay at home mom. When my youngest entered kindergarten I was at a turning point in my life—I needed to decide what to do next. I was getting a lot of pressure (mostly from my mother!) to get a paying job, but I decided to give myself five years to try writing. It helped that when I married my husband he was in graduate school and spent the first several years of our marriage writing his dissertation while I worked at icky jobs. He understood the whole working-but-not-making-any-money thing. He was—and is—incredibly supportive.
What were those five years like? Was, and is, writing something that comes naturally to you?
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Well, there’s quite the steep learning curve when you’re first learning to write, but other than that, yes, actually writing does come naturally to me. Who’d’ve thunk? It’s quite interesting to find that you’ve got a hidden talent when you’re nearly middle-aged. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I didn’t have to exercise some discipline to get some actual work done, but those five years were great fun. I was learning a new skill—one I’m still learning, I think—and I was doing it in coffee shops. I still write in coffee shops, and on the weekends and in summer my kids ask if they can come to my “office” with me.
Historicals seem to have been having a bit of a hard time lately, suffering under the onslaught of their paranormal cousins. Tell me about pitching your novel and the journey to publication.
“A bit of a hard time”? Hmm, that’s putting it mildly. When I started writing I was clueless so I just wrote what I liked to read—historicals, mostly. When I went to conferences people would ask me what I wrote, and I’d say historicals, and they’d change the subject. That should’ve been a big clue right there. I began looking for an agent, and half of them (it seemed) didn’t take historicals, but I got a very, very good agent anyway (oh, thank goodness!) and I figured The Raven Prince would sell within a year. Did I mention clue-less? We got rejected by nearly every major house in New York. About a year in I decided that my historicals were never going to sell, and began writing contemporaries that I thought were romantic suspense but turned out to be more kind of light chase adventures—but that’s another story. Fortunately my agent never lost faith. She just knew that the book would sell. She was surprised each time it was rejected and totally un-surprised when my editor at Warner read the manuscript and called screaming with excitement. The moral of the story for writers is to get an agent who’s smarter than you are.
We’re all happy you have an agent who’s smarter than you! So these light chase stories…any chance we’ll be seeing some of them as well?
Yes! Unbelievably (well, to me—my agent as usual was totally unsurprised) Warner bought my contemporary chases as well. The first, tentatively titled Heist, will be coming out under the pen name Julia Harper in January 2008. It involves inept bank robbers, a justice seeking librarian (and the harlequin Great Dane she liberates), an exasperated but sexy FBI agent, and a psychotic backwoods hitman all running around northern Wisconsin.
Your novels (up to this point!) have dealt with large class differences. What is it about this theme that captures your imagination?
I think of what it would be like to live in a time period where birth meant everything. You might be very bright, but receive no education because your family couldn’t afford it. You might be a very talented artist, but too bad if you were born into a family of tenant farmers. That’s what interested me about Harry Pye in The Leopard Prince. Here’s a guy who loves the land, has a real gift for managing it, but it’s only by luck and sheer perseverance that he’s worked himself up into a position where he can manage a large estate as a land steward. He doesn’t actually own the land he manages. Yet the aristocrat in the adjoining estate can mismanage his land to the detriment of the people who live there. It’s all about the station you were born into.
On AAR both of your books received a ‘hot’ rating and there has been some recent discussion of authors being pushed to heat up their stories. What are your thoughts on the ‘sexing’ up of romance, especially historicals?
I don’t think it’s a good idea to push writers to write sexier. I happen to like to write and read about sex, but there are a whole lot of people out there who don’t. There should be a range of sexiness in books so that there’s plenty of stuff that appeals to different tastes. Besides, I think we’ve all read books where it’s obvious that the author is trying to make her book sexier—and she’s probably been pressured to do so by an editor or agent. It doesn’t work. She throws in an odd position or toy and it’s completely out of character for the people she’s created, and the reader knows it. Usually the book isn’t sexier—it just has more sex.
One of the things I liked best about The Raven Prince was the ambiguity about Edward’s appearance. He’s described as being scarred from childhood smallpox, and not an attractive man, yet Anna is drawn to him. The less-than-beautiful heroine is almost common as a theme in romance, but “ugly” heroes tend to be a genre no-no. What prompted you to write Edward as he is, and did you meet with any resistance?
I met with lots of resistance prior to being published, all of it from other writers. I didn’t think Edward’s smallpox scars were all that big a deal when I wrote the book, which just goes to show how naïve I was, I guess. I’ve always thought that it’s more important that the hero be sexy rather than pretty. Then I started getting feedback from contests, etc. I had at least one person tell me that his scars and temper were off-putting and “not heroic.” Since being published, I haven’t gotten a single negative comment about having an ugly hero, in fact many readers seem to find it refreshing. Maybe writers are too caught up with rules.
That’s really interesting – "not heroic". I’m not sure that heroism, like beauty, is something that can be defined universally.
You wouldn’t think so…like I said, too many “rules.”
Each of your novels is named after the hero, but for me, it was the heroine that really stood out. Anna goes to a brothel to sleep with Edward, George pursues a relationship with her servant. Both are bold, very unorthodox actions. Did you ever consider The Raven Princess?
Oh, no! LOL! It’s all about the hero for me. All my books start with the hero and a long and involved backstory that (thankfully) I mostly leave out of the book. Then I want to know where he’s going on his journey and finally after that I find the heroine. But I want to write strong, complex heroes, so it’s very important that the heroine be at least as strong and as complex as the hero. Otherwise you end up with a wimpy heroine being dominated by the hero. Bleh. Actually, I kind of like heroines who throw the hero off-balance. You’ll noticed that often in my books the hero is trying to control the heroine—or at least make her admit there are rules of behaviour—and she’s just ignoring him and it drives him up the wall. That’s my hero: a man who’s totally frustrated and confused by the heroine. <g>
Did you worry that Anna and George would stray too far out of their period?
No, not really. I think historical heroines can be strong and make important decisions about their lives without being anachronistic. There have always been strong women in history; they’ve just had to work within the limitations of their time period.
Mythology and story telling plays a big role in both books. Which came first, the legends or the story?
The main story and the fairytale have a tendency to evolve together. With The Raven Prince, I liked that the fairytale (basically a re-telling of the Psyche and Eros Greek myth) echoed the mysterious lover in the main story. I got the elements for the fairytale in The Leopard Prince from a story I’d read as a child in a book titled The Wonder Clock by Howard Pyle. The fairytale is a reversal of the usual roles in stories: the prince has a shape-shifter servant, but it turns out that it’s the servant—not the prince—has all the qualities of a hero. In The Serpent Prince, the hero, Simon, is making up the fairytale as he tells it to the heroine, Lucy. Simon doesn’t believe that he’s worthy of Lucy’s love and that core belief about himself is reflected in the fairytale. Of course, Lucy has a mind of her own and she’s not averse to changing a story’s ending to suit her needs.
I’m really looking forward to The Serpent Prince for that reason – the idea of a hero making up a fairytale for his heroine. Why do you think there’s such a natural connection between children’s stories and sometimes very adult romance novels? What is it about story telling that is so sexy?
Fairytales and myths tap into core beliefs and emotions. Even though today they’re primarily aimed at children, the stories are very adult at their base. They’re full of archetypes—the evil parent-figure, the lost innocent, the amoral trickster—that resonate with our everyday lives. Take Hansel and Gretel—it’s all about children in the woods who meet a witch living in a gingerbread house, right? But the children are in the woods because their parents have abandoned them there to die. The family doesn’t have enough food and they’ve been sacrificed through no fault of their own. And the witch wants to eat them! Lots of stuff going on in that children’s fairytale.
As to why storytelling is sexy…I think because it’s an intimate act—at least in my books it is. There’s so much going on beneath the simple fairytale. The storyteller is revealing things about himself and the listener is absorbing information about his core beliefs and how he faces the world. Storytelling becomes an act of wooing.
Your three books are all loosely connected, about men who concern themselves with agriculture. Are there more princes waiting in the wings? What’s next for you?
The Serpent Prince ends my trilogy; I’m moving on to Hearts instead. I just finished Iron Heart, which I hope will be the first of a four-book series. It’s about four veterans of the French and Indian War, the women who are helping them deal with the aftermath of war, and a mystery surrounding the massacre of their regiment. And there will be a new fairytale in each story.
Thank you so much, Kate and AAR, for interviewing me!
Elizabeth Hoyt's comments in our annual reader poll results column