HomeReviewsInterviewsStoreABlogsOn Writing

Author Name: Mary Jo Putney
www.maryjoputney.com & www.mjputney.com
Genre: Historical romance & romantic fantasy
Latest book in shops now:
Stolen Magic and The Marriage Spell (June 2006)

Before we begin this interview, I need to check that you’re still grounded and that your head isn’t swollen from all of your success, so with that in mind, when was the last time you did the ironing in your house? *g*

I can assure you that my lack of ironing greatly precedes any writing success I’ve achieved. (g) Wash and wear is one of life’s great blessings. But if ironing is absolutely, totally necessary and unavoidable, I do it myself.

Your heroes tend to sway from the norm in terms of their flaws, for example, Michael, in Shattered Rainbows once had an affair with a married woman, (which is usually a no-no in a romance), and Reggie, from The Rake was an alcoholic. Do you ever feel that you’re taking a big risk when you create heroes who break some of the unwritten rules when it comes to traditional romance novels?

Actually, I’m usually rather clueless. I’ll come up with an idea for what seems like a great story, pitch it to my editor, and if she says yes, I’m off. Only later is it likely to occur to me that what I did might be considered risky. (I should note that both the books you mentioned were done for the same editor, a woman who allowed her authors great latitude if they were able to make a story work. I was lucky to have her.)

Kiss of Fate was the first book in your Guardians series, which combines historical romance with the paranormal. What made you decide to take this particular path?

I was beginning to feel a little burned out on historical romance and in danger of repeating myself. Of my last two straight historicals, one started with the hero dead and the next with the heroine dead.

When that happens, clearly the author is reaching. (g) But I’d always loved science fiction and fantasy—I read it long before I read romance—so it was very exciting to come up with the concept for the Guardian series. It allowed me to bring fresh twists to writing history and romance.

A lot of your books have been set in Europe, as an American, how much research do you undertake for the sake of historical accuracy?

Quite a bit, but I have the advantages of a degree in 18th Century British literature, plus I lived in Oxford for more than two years, and have visited Britain many other times. I’m sure I make mistakes, but I did start with a solid foundation in British history and culture.

You’ve won numerous industry awards including two RITAS, four consecutive Golden Leaf Awards for Best Historical Romance, and the Romantic Times Career Achievement Award for Historical Romance, what exactly do these awards mean to you, and do you think they make a difference to readers generally?

It’s very satisfying to know that one’s work is valued, but ultimately awards are just someone’s personal opinion. If a writer has received numerous awards, it suggests that her work is generally well-respected, and that can be useful to a reader in deciding what to try next. But even masses of awards doesn’t guarantee that any given reader will like a particular author’s work. The process is more subjective than that.

When you develop your characters, do you model them on people you know in your life, or do they all come from inside your head?

The people are always products of my imagination, though sometimes I’ll assign them some trait taken from real life. The cats, however, are always real cats. (g)

Well of course they are!(g)

Do you ever get compared to other historical romance writers, e.g. Loretta Chase? If so, how does that make you feel?

People regularly confuse me with Jo Beverley and Mary Balogh, as well as Loretta Chase. We all started in traditional Regency romance in the ‘80s, and we all moved into historical romance, with an emphasis on the Regency period. I have absolutely no problem with being compared to them. They’re all fine writers, and friends as well.

Do any of members of your family read your books, and if so, what kind of feedback do you get from them?

My Significant Other is my first reader; he adores my books and reads them over and over and over. Other family members will read sometimes, but the biggest fan is my sister’s husband, a professor of economics. He loves my stuff and reads e-files as soon as the book is done. If he spots any errors, he’ll point them out, but mostly he give great, positive, enthusiastic feedback. This is good. (G)

Wow, you actually have men owning up to reading your books? I’m impressed!

What were your favourite books as a child?

Robert Heinlein’s sf novels. Swiss Family Robinson. Anything with horses or cats in it. Tom Corbett, space cadet. But I’d read just about anything. Later I discovered Mary Stewart, Dorothy Dunnett, Georgette Heyer—the list is pretty much endless.

What does a typical day as a writer consist of?

I get out of bed sluggishly, feed the cats, then myself, wander upstairs to check the e-mail, run errands, including going out to exercise three morning a week, waste lots of time during the day. (To be fair, that includes a lot of the business side of writing—website, promo, copyedits, etc., etc. And things like this interview.) Somewhere along the way, I may get some writing done. Evening is my best creative time. It amazes me that anything ever gets finished.

If you only got 5 books to keep for the rest of your life (the horror!) which would they be?

Aiieee! I can’t answer that, but I guarantee they’d all be really fat volumes. (g) Possibly the complete works of Shakespeare would be one volume, and the compact Oxford English Dictionary, assuming I could have the magnifying glass that goes with it, too.

Which authors are you glomming at the moment? (reading a lot of?)

I’ll read anything by Lois McMaster Bujold, Sharon Shinn, Laura Resnick, or Catherine Asaro, for starters. Or Loretta Chase, Kathleen Gilles Seidel, Jennifer Crusie, among others. I wouldn’t exactly glomming call that glomming because I already own the earlier works. More generally, I’m enjoying urban fantasy, and a good dose of non-fiction.

Do you have other close romance writer friends, and if so who are they? Becky’s Question

Many of my best friends are indeed writers (though certainly not all), but that falls into the area of my personal life, which I prefer to keep personal. Sorry, Becky!

When did you realise that you wanted to write books, and who or what inspired you?

I always loved reading stories—the classic “kid with her nose in a book.” And in a vague way, I thought it would be really cool to be a writer, by which I always meant novelist. But I grew up on a farm in Upstate New York, a very rural area, and certainly didn’t know any writers. It never occurred to me that writing was an achievable ambition until I bought a computer for my graphic design business.

If you could have a one-to-one conversation with a famous historical figure, who would it be with and what would you talk about?

Another tough one! Samuel Johnson, maybe. He was not only witty, but he liked cats. (I just got a pair of bookends modelled after his most famous cat, Hodge. *g*) I’d like to hear his views on the world and human nature.

I guess you like cats huh? *g*

How many times did you get rejected (if indeed you did) before you got published?

Ummm…..I wasn’t ever rejected. I sold my first book on a partial manuscript and never looked back. The market was easier then!

Wow, I didn’t think that ever happened top anyone!

What is your ultimate goal when it comes to your writing?

To continue to make a living writing the books I want to write. And to retire when and if I’m ready rather than because no publisher wants me.

How has the romance industry changed from when you first started writing, and which of these changes were you happiest/unhappiest with?

I came into the market in the mid-80s. The first great explosion of the genre had levelled off, but it was still a growing market, more willing to take chances. The market has become narrow and much harder to break into.

More rules, which can make for less exciting books. Also, before computers started tracking numbers, a writer could experiment more. If you wanted to set a book in India and it did poorly (and books set in India indeed do poorly), it wouldn’t ruin your career.

Now it’s like being on a tightrope, with the feeling that you could fall off at any moment for reasons that you might have no control over. Not that the business was ever easy, of course. But it’s harder now.

On the plus side, there are interesting new subgenres developing now.

In your vast experience, what would you say was the most effective method of marketing a romance novel?

“Write a great book.” That’s the hoariest of clichés, but still true. But while you’re writing about that great book, learn about the business. Join a romance writing group, go to conferences, analyze the books you read for why they work and why they don’t. Know the genre and where your work fits into it. And try to find a good agent so she can concentrate on selling your book while you concentrate on writing.

With the alleged decline in historical romance, do you think there’s an element of risk in continuing with books set prior to the 20th Century?

Heck, writing is always a risk. (g) Historicals continue to sell, and some newbies do manage to sell into the historical market. They have to be very, very good, but it does happen. It’s important to write what you love, because that passion will drive your story. Writing what you think has a better chance of selling even though you don’t love it is not a formula for success.

Which of your books is dearest to your heart, and why?

The Rake (originally published as The Rake and the Reformer), with its alcoholic hero, has a special place in my heart. Not only was it a passionately felt story (like many people, I’ve had up-close-and-personal experience with an alcoholic), but it expressed one of my favourite themes—redemption.

Plus, the book has been an enduring success. It had a lot to do with putting me on the map as a writer, and it still turns up on all-time best romance lists, which pleases me enormously. But I love all of my stories, or I couldn’t write them.

I’ve always wondered about this, but as an author, once your books are published, do you actually go back and read them yourself, and if so, are you able to enjoy them, or do you perhaps see things that make you want to chew your own arm off in frustration? (grin).

I’ll occasionally have reason to reread an older book, and yes, I can relax and enjoy it. (G) I’ll notice places where the writing could be cleaner, but the characters and story still hold up. It was the best book I knew how to do at the time that I did it, so I’m not going kick myself now.

Has anything a reviewer or reader said or written about you changed the way you write?

Not really. I stand by my psychology and plot logic, while recognizing that everyone brings different experiences to a book, so not all readers will see things the same way. (Particularly with contemporaries, I’ll see people saying a character wouldn’t do such and such when what they mean is that they wouldn’t do such and such. Historical readers seem to look at things more broadly.)

On the other hand, if someone points out a factual error, I’ll do my best to fix it or at least avoid repeating it. For example, in my most recent book, Stolen Magic, I mentioned the heroine seeing black squirrels in a London park without bothering to check because I thought I knew the answer. Wrong! A British born reader in Canada e-mailed and politely pointed out my error, and I was able to get it fixed in the paperback edition, which will be out in July.

Lol, there’s always someone out there willing to point your mistakes out huh? *g*

Last year, RWA attempted to try to define romance, and it caused a bit of a furore round the blogosphere, due to the limitations of the definitions. What were your thoughts on this at the time, and do you think it’s possible/necessary to define romance in a way that doesn’t exclude other sub-genres?

I don’t really see the need to get into rigid definitions. Most readers understand what a romance is just fine. Different people want different things, of course, but I don’t think RWA should be wasting energy on this.

I totally agree!

When was the last time you went overseas and where did you go?

In May 2005 we had a wonderful trip to South Africa. In September we had a very brief visit to Canada, but that’s not overseas. I suppose I average about one trip abroad a year. This year’s trip will be a September riverboat cruise on the Douro River in Portugal.

Oh Portugal is absolutely booootiful!!! I loved it when we went there!

Who are your favourite romance hero and heroine of all time?

The easy answer is Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. (g) Otherwise, it’s too hard a question to answer!

If only one person could read your book, who would that be? (as in the person who you would want most to read your book)

Probably my Significant Other. Not only does he enjoy the stories in the usual way, but he gets such a kick out of recognizing bits of real life that get morphed into the stories. (g)

If you had to pick, who would you say has been most influential within the romance genre?

Georgette Heyer was certainly been enormously influential. I suppose Kathleen Woodiwiss had a lot to do with shaping historical romance as we know it, though I’ve not personally read much of her work. And of course there are Mary Stewart’s wonderful romantic suspense stories. Practically all the romance writers I know have read Heyer and Stewart.

What was the last movie you saw?

I think that The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the last movie we went to the theatre for, but we watch movies regularly at home on weekend evenings after I knock off work.

Name your top five favourite romantic films.

In no particular order:

The Scarlet Pimpernel—the version with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour
Shakespeare in Love—not a conventional happy ending, but I adored it. It’s a real English major’s movie. (g)
Sense and Sensibility—the Emma Thompson version
When Harry Met Sally—I like the way the romance develops over time.
Ladyhawke—an incredibly romantic movie, despite Matthew Broderick’s character

But I could easily come up with a different list tomorrow. (g)

What was the last book you read, and did you enjoy it?

Sharon Shinn’s fantasy The Truth-Teller’s Tale. Though a YA, it was still so well-done that it held my attention all the way through. Though more of a girl—growing—to—maturity story, it did have three romances in it. Shinn does wonderful characterizations, and even in a quiet domestic story like this, she creates page-turners.

Have you ever written a book that you didn’t particularly care for, and do you cringe if you see people picking it up to read it?

No—if I’m not satisfied with a book, it doesn’t get sent to the editor. I’ll work on it until I think it’s okay.

What do you enjoy the most and least about being a writer?

I love controlling my own time, and being able to make my living telling stories that others enjoy. The downside is actually having to write the books, which is seriously hair-pulling work!

Have you got any words of wisdom for the aspiring writers out there? Any good research sources?

There is simply no substitute for sitting down in a chair and writing, no matter how painful the process or how disappointed you are in your work. Once you have something on paper, you can revise, edit, tweak, whatever.

As long as it’s only in your head, it doesn’t really exist. As for research resources—one of my favourites is The London Encyclopedia, edited by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert. It has an amazing amount of information not just about the places and buildings, but the customs and infrastructure of London (and Britain) through the centuries.

The other great resource, of course, is the internet. I started writing in pre-internet days, and the research was a lot harder then!

Finally, when’s your next book due out, and what’s it about?

The Marriage Spell will be out from Ballantine in hardcover in June. It’s another historical fantasy romance, but not a Guardian book. It’s Regency, not Georgian, and the world is one where magic is known and generally accepted except by the upper classes, who consider it terribly, terribly low-brow. (G) In July, the paperback edition of Stolen Magic will be out.

Ooh that sounds great!

Thanks so much for taking the time out to answer these very nosy questions!

Karen—If something doesn’t make sense, feel free to ask.

I will do thanks MJP!

Well that’s all for this week folks! Next week, author, Brenda Novak will be answering some burning questions!

Ciao for now!