Today the Wenches are delighted to welcome Leslie Carroll as our guest! Native New Yorker, actress and multi-published author of contemporary and historical fiction (as Amanda Elyot) as well as nonfiction, Leslie is well known and respected for her highly praised work, as well as crazybusy these days, so we're grateful to her for taking a little time to answer some questions posed by Susan King. Without further adieu, Susan now opens the curtains and turns the stage over to Leslie …
SK: Hi, Leslie! Welcome to Word Wenches! Your newest nonfiction release, Notorious Royal Marriages, has an intriguing premise. Tell us something about the book. The research for this, and its earlier companion, Royal Affairs, must have been extensive!
LC: First, Susan and Wenches, thanks for having me here. I’m so excited to sort of be a wench for a day.
In the early spring of 2007, I had two novels—one contemporary fiction and one historical fiction—in the publishing pipeline, and I was preparing to get married the third weekend in May. My agent called to tell me that my historical fiction publisher was interested in having me write a nonfiction book about scandalous royal affairs. Actors learn to never say “no” when someone asks if you can do something, because “No” doesn’t get you the part. So SURE I drive a stick shift! OF COURSE I can ride a horse! Skydiving? NO PROBLEM.
So naturally I said yes, wondering how I was going to pen what would be my nonfiction debut in the incredibly narrow five-month window I was given to research, write, and deliver what became ROYAL AFFAIRS: A Lusty Romp Through the Extramarital Adventures That Rocked the British Monarchy. Consequently, I had three books in three different genres hit the bookstores during the first half of 2008. Did I say it was also my first year of marriage? When most people would have been honeymooning, I was writing a book on adultery!
The logical follow-up to ROYAL AFFAIRS, which stars many of history’s most famous royal mistresses, was a look at some of the same real-life stories, along with several exciting new ones, from the legitimate side of the sheets. Hence the birth of NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES: A Juicy Journey through Nine Centuries of Dynasty, Destiny, and Desire, which looks beyond Britain to the European Continent as well.
I read about 60 books (in their entirety) and a couple dozen lengthy articles (e.g. from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) for each of my nonfiction titles. My editor guided the easy, breezy tone of the books, because she sees my niche in the historical nonfiction market as “Making History Fun.” I am a stickler for accurate and extensive research, and that is also a key component of the Royal books. The Chicago Tribune evidently got it, because their review of NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES said that I write “with wit and verve” and that “Carroll’s fascinating account of royal marriages is an irresistible combination of People Magazine and The History Channel.”
SK: You’ve written some wonderful, in-depth historical novels that focus not only the time and cultures ranging from ancient Greece to Austen’s England, but explore authentic characters for their times as well. When writing historical fiction and then historical nonfiction, what sort of similarities and differences do you find between the two?
LC: When I got my first nonfiction contract and began to do my research I thought to myself, “Uh-oh, I don’t get to make stuff up for a living anymore.” Kidding aside, I discovered that sometimes relying on “just the facts, ma’am” can be very liberating, precisely because you don’t have to make stuff up! However, I also discovered that biographers writing about the same historical figure sometimes disagree in their retelling of certain events, whether vital or minor. Not having primary sources (which can be equally unreliable) at my disposal, it can become quite a guessing game to unravel the true story. As the late great senator from New York State, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once said “you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” So, sorting out which historian or academic got it right, can be a challenge.
I’ve written contemporary and historical novels as well as historical nonfiction, but they’ve all had something in common: relationships. They are all stories about men and women finding (or losing, or having to cope with not having) love. And many of the stories involve the interrelationships among family members as well; not just the relationships between spouses and lovers, but among a given subject’s grandparents and parents, children, and siblings.
SK: Your acting background must come in very handy when creating character and plot. What do you bring with you from the stage to the keyboard?
LC: I like to get into the characters’ heads, whether they are fictional ones, or historical figures featured in my novels or nonfiction. My acting background and experience have taught me to look for motivation, which is key in writing as well. Actors also learn to discern the validity of what other characters say about the one you are portraying: do they have an agenda of their own that motivates their words and actions and therefore are they a reliable source when it comes to depicting your character. Not only do I do I apply that technique when I am creating fictional characters, but it has helped my research into
the historical personages as well. Academics and historical biographers often recite a set of facts or actions with little to no analysis of the whys. And some historical figures have been figuratively tarred and feathered by history and by their chroniclers.
I think as an actress and not as an academic and I look deeper, probing their psyches, their family history and background and how that impacted their lives, to gain a deeper understanding of why these people did what they did, and that’s something I try to impart to my readers. As a case in point, I read countless books on Marie Antoinette and Louis-Auguste (the future Louis XVI) and put myself in the place of these two young and very much maligned royal figures, the way an actor would if he or she were to play them on stage or screen. During my research as I connected the emotional and psychological dots of their lives I had several “Eureka moments” where suddenly, so much fell into place!
SK: Having written contemporary, historical and nonfiction, do you secretly prefer one to the other?
LC: I do, actually, but I’ll never tell! When actors are asked which role is their favorite, they’ll often reply that it’s the role they’re doing! Reading between the lines, they may be saying, “the one I’m currently getting paid to perform.” All kidding aside, I spent so many years in soul-killing survival jobs that being able to wake up each morning, pad over to my computer with a glass of very strong iced coffee, fire up the hard drive and spend the rest of the day doing what I love, whether it’s researching and writing nonfiction or fiction (of any stripe) is an honor, a gift, a privilege and a joy.
SK: In your experience, what do you love about being a writer, and what do you find more challenging?
LC: To answer the first part of your question: How many people do you know who get paid to follow their bliss? I get to make things up for a living (when I’m writing fiction, of course), and spend hours a day playing with people from another time period. How cool is that? I do find it challenging to write concurrently in more than one genre because the research alone for the nonfiction titles is extremely time consuming. And juggling multiple deadlines can sometimes be a challenge. Also, because my historical fiction is written in the voice of my heroine (narrated from her first person POV), the tone is of course very different from my nonfiction.
SK: Recently at Word Wenches, we revealed our work spaces, paper piles, sticky notes, clutter and all. Can you share a little about your own office space? How does the set-up enhance your writing?
LC: I’m a typical Libra, which to me means that my surroundings always need to be aesthetically pleasing. I’m very picky about my office space. Since I often spend as much as 17 hours a day in here, it needs to be warm and pretty and resemble a lady’s salon more than an office space, yet the room still needs to have a place for all my computer equipment and bookcases (and in our NYC apartment there isn’t enough room for all of my books, so half my library is in storage). I painted my office a deep shade of pinkish coral, and the white crown moldings are set off by a red toile wallpaper border.
I’ve also got a red toile window-shade and a modern “Recamier”- style chaise that belonged to my maternal grandmother, which I re-covered in red toile (notice a theme here?). My sister and I used to call it “the little red bed” when we visited our grandmother’s Upper East Side apartment as kids and it’s where we’d take a nap. It was always covered with some sort of red fabric until she moved to L.A. and re-covered it in a hellacious peach and turquoise weave. Both of my grandmothers were very important in my young life and my home office features furniture that belonged to each of them. And my husband’s Persian rug accents the hardwood floors. So I feel like I am creating in a room filled with the karma of people who love(d) and support(ed) my artistic endeavors.
SK: What current trends in historical fiction do you find exciting and interesting?
LC: I have to admit that I don’t keep up with these things. I adore historical fiction and it’s my favorite genre to read for pleasure, when I can scrounge a moment to enjoy it. But I haven’t kept my eye on trends (other than the publishers’ current penchant for putting headless women on covers—can we please give that a rest—everyone’s books all look the same now!). There are so many wonderful novels out there and every time I see one mentioned on a historical fiction blog, I think “I want to read that!!” I have noticed that editors are finally beginning to take a chance on some less well-known historical women, so that’s a relief. I love Anne Boleyn, but there are other fascinating women out there!
SK: What’s next for you? Are you planning more nonfiction, or perhaps another novel?
LC: At present I am putting the finishing touches on my third nonfiction title, ROYAL PAINS: A Rogues’ Gallery of Brats, Brutes, and Bad Seeds, which I believe will be released by NAL in March 2011. And I am also researching and writing a historical fiction trilogy for Random House on the life of one of Europe’s most notorious queens. Stay tuned!
Thanks, Leslie, for such insightful answers. We'll race to the bookstore to look for your newest nonfiction book, and it's very exciting to know that you're writing more historical fiction as well! Best of luck with everything — please feel welcome to visit us at Word Wenches anytime!
If you'd like a chance to win one of Leslie's books, be sure to leave a comment on this blog by midnight, February 21 — Leslie will choose a name at random from among the commenters!