"I love the mysterious, I love a sense of secrecy and I marvel at the fact that whatever we think Ė we can never really Ďknowí anybody else, no matter how much we love them."
After heartily enjoying Holly Cook's first book for Dorchester, The Sea Wife, I had some questions for her about alpha jerk heroes, what makes a romance gothic, and her journey to publication. Holly graciously satisfied my curiousity, and I'm happy to share her very interesting responses with you. Let's begin.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I live in the beautiful Hunter Valley, in New South Wales, Australia where my day job is as a high school teacher/librarian. (Maybe thatís why I canít help wanting to put children in my books!) Iím single, and therefore donít have a flesh and blood role model for my heroes Ė which might be a Good Thing. I get to fantasise. It also means I donít have someone telling me I spend too much time on my computer, even though itís true.
The Sea Wife has a very gothic feel to it Ė the brooding, mysterious hero, the dilapidated house on the sea, the family legend. It reminded me a little of Laurie McBain's Devil's Desire, in fact. Did you model The Sea Wife on a particular story? Or were you just trying to invoke the gothic spirit?
Iím looking forward to reading Devil's Desire! But I didnít model The Sea Wife on any particular story. I grew up reading gothic romances Ė Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, Barbara Michaels, et cetera. I was a huge Dark Shadows fan, and discovered the Bronte sisters at an early age. I also have an academic background in Gothic literature and the Victorian sensation novel Ė that was the basis of my Masters thesis. Pity it wasnít half as interesting as a heroine walking that fine edge between reason and madness, and where the greatest sense of danger comes from the one she should have the most reason to trust...
Basically every image from film and novel that stays with me is a gothic image Ė Mr. Rochester looming out of the darkness on a flailing horse, the haunted ingenue of the Uninvited fleeing towards the cliffs and certain death, the governess with a flickering candle as her only weapon against the darkness slowly climbing the stairs of the brooding mansion towards the locked door, the heroine sitting on the dark staircase in the film Dragonwyck, desperately trying to hear the ghostly laughter of the ancestress which terrorises her young charge... They donít make them or write them like that anymore. Thatís what I was "haunted" by when I wrote the The Sea Wife, although I didnít deliberately set out to write a gothic. But I love the mysterious, I love a sense of secrecy and I marvel at the fact that whatever we think Ė we can never really "kno"í anybody else, no matter how much we love them. (Thatís why I adore single viewpoint) The gothic novel says Ė yes, there is that terrible sense of separation, but itís really O.K. in the end. We can defeat the demons through trust and plain old human love.
Many readers won't try a novel written in first-person (or single person) point of view. Personally, I love it, but I think as far as romances go, it can be a challenge to reveal enough about the main character's love interest to make the romance seem convincing. In other words, to understand what that other person sees in the main character. What do you do to reveal those emotions to the reader?
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I hope dialogue helps to make the romance convincing. Getting into a character's head and hearing lots of introspection isn't always going to convince me that the hero is in love with the heroine or vice versa Ė it's what they say to each other Ė the magic of interaction Ė that entrances me in a good romance. Single viewpoint doesn't always work. I think in using single viewpoint you have to have a lot of dialogue that adds directly to the build up of the relationship Ė it can't be used in sub-plots or on issues. Isn't that how we figure out people in real life Ė from what they say and do? (I'd love to get into a man's head but I think that would be pretty scary stuff!)
I suppose single viewpoint works better in a gothic because the hero is often an object and the emphasis is on the heorine's discovery. She's the star. He's the prize for figuring it all out. And as a reader, I get that prize too. Readers either like it, or they don't. (Can I add a big IMHO after saying all that?) Having grown up with books where the emphasis seemed to be on the heroine's journey I was more accepting of single viewpoint. I think it works, too, where the heroine has the leisure to fit the pieces together like a sleuth. I made Sabina a scientist's daughter so that she would automatically analyse and interpret the data. (Oh that sounds romantic!) Of course she gets it wrong, but that's the fun part. And I made Myles throw those clues around. For the brooding, silent type, I noticed he never shut up.
Finally, far from keeping us unconvinced about the hero's emotions, I think that single viewpoint emphasises that incredible sense of the Other Ė and that's what we all fall in love with. It's part of the mystery that gradually unfolds. So the hero's emotions are pretty well taken for granted. With what he says, what he does, some sort of reclamation or character development against type, I'm usually convinced.
Myles Dampier is quite a memorable hero. Our reviewer, Jennifer Keirans, called him ďa magnificent bastard.Ē Personally Iím a big sucker for the alpha jerk hero, but I have read books that pushed it too far, books in which the hero, instead of being intriguing, was utterly despicable. Where do you think the line in the sand is for writing an alpha jerk? Or can any character be redeemed, no matter how awful his behavior?
(Still loving that phrase "magificent bastard" which should have its own place in the romance lexicon). Is there an old saying, "Better an alpha jerk, than a beta jerk?" I love Myles because I too am a big sucker for the alpha hero. Of course, he does things I would not tolerate from a man. He plays games, he keeps secrets, he manipulates, he Ė as any nineteenth century man did Ė orders the world to suit himself at the expense of everyone else. My heroine doesnít like it either, and sets out to educate him about the joys of close human relationships. Thatís what Myles has to learn Ė that he canít manipulate and destroy, and then still have all those things he thought he was naturally owed. Love, family, identity. Myles thinks these are silver platter stuff instead of things we earn and work hard towards maintaining.
Now, the utterly despicable alpha jerk Ė and Iíve read a few Ė seems to be motiveless in a lot of his cruelty, tunnel visioned (and often has no sense of humour.) Myles is aware heís treading the fine line between just being an utter bastard and being a monster Ė he chooses coolly and deliberately to act in a certain way because it will benefit his plans. I think the despicable alpha has no control. The despicable alpha doesnít even like the heroine Ė at any stage Ė and it doesnít matter how interesting or complex he is, I think thatís a big turn off. I hope The Sea Wife suggests that Myles likes Sabina from the start. Sheís useful to him, but he doesnít ever despise her or belittle her. He starts to abuse her emotionally when he gets scared that he is in danger of losing control over his emotions. Itís the reflex action of a man who was 'emotionally paused' in his late teens and has to grow up in a hurry.
As for redeeming the hero Ė all my favourite writers are "hero redeemers." Jo Beverley is a master at the craft of creating a villain and then turning him into a hero in another book. Or in the same book! And so did the legendary Georgette Heyer with the magnificent Duke of Avon.
One thing that I appreciated about The Sea Wife was that it was a story full of tension and suspense, but it didnít have that ubiquitous romantic suspense sub-plot. Instead all of the tension was between Myles and Sabina revolved around their relationship, the conflicts in their personalities, and the secrets Myles was keeping. How hard was that to do without making your story plot driven or introducing an evil villain?
I love villains. A good one is ten times more interesting than any other character in a book. Not the "Hi, Iím Mr. Evil" type of villain with a one note song Ė but a complex, sophisticated villain. Iím a sucker for Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or even the coolly debonair Basil Rathbone in all those old swashbuckling films of the thirties. So making my hero the villain was a must. Myles is about to do evil things. Really evil. He is going to destroy lives because he thinks itís his right. The heroine wants to stop him. She wants to remake him Ė humanise him, by showing him that he can have the life he thought was stolen from him. I thought that would be conflict enough. And the fact that she has no idea what he is thinking or feeling apart from what she intuits or he reluctantly shares, I thought would be suspense enough.
I donít think anything is as suspenseful as the probable outcome of a relationship between two different people with totally different agendas. In real life as in novels.
Do you read romance?
Yes, indeedy. Have since I was 12 and a friend leant me a Rosemary Rogers. I didnít understand half of what was going on Ė private girlís school and we tended to make inaccurate guesses based on television Ė but the whole book was a bit of a Happening.
Who are your favorite authors? Have any of them influenced you in your writing?
Georgette Heyer (who didnít she influence???) Dorothy Dunnett, (Lymond is the most fascinating hero ever created) Jo Beverley, Mary Jo Putney, Laura Kinsale, Jill Barnett.... And I think they all taught me it's okay to take chances with the hero. And they also taught me that a powerful woman doesnít necessarily have to be aggressive or kick-ass or bend iron bars with her teeth Ė their heroines are tender and strong and change the world by maintaining their values in the face of tough opposition. Yay.
Why did you decide to write romance?
Itís a genre that gives you so much as a writer. It disciplines you, it excites you, it keeps you at your computer until the small wee hours wondering if things are physically possible and who can you ask without blushing Ė and itís a genre people love passionately. How cool to be loved passionately (or otherwise).
How difficult was your journey to publication? Iíve heard that Dorchester is a publisher that encourages authors to "write the book of your heart." How have they encouraged your writing and future projects?
Iíd like to say I got accepted on my first draft of my first book but thatís not true. I've been writing for ten years. It took me that long to Ė whatís the euphemism for learn to do it properly? Ė "hone my craft." Iím still honing away. I was also obviously submitting to the wrong publishers. Dorchester doesnít tell its authors: "we want lots of babies this week, make sure thereís a bride in there somewhere, set it in Scotland, and I want a love scene by page 53." They publish a deliciously diverse range of romances, written by authors who manage to write the book of their heart and yet still carry the pennant for romance writers. Iím in awe. And my editor, Kate Seaver, is very supportive.
Do you have any further books in the works?
Another alpha jerk. A self made Victorian industrialist who wants everything he has never had. And canít stand it when heís told "no." And a heroine who is tired of saying "yes" to all the people in her life. I hope the hero is a magnificent bastard. I hope the heroine isnít too much like me.