I know Roberta doesn’t remember this, but at my first Romance Writers of America conference in Boston umpity-ump years ago, I chased the poor woman down a hall after lunch, desperate to get her autograph. I couldn’t believe I was in the presence of one of my favorite authors. So it really is a thrill to be Roberta’s host here today.
Roberta, you’ve written many kinds of fiction, including SF. What drew you to historical fiction, and was it the first fiction you wrote?
Roberta: It started with King Arthur and his knights when I was about nine and eagerly read all kinds of historical fiction from then on. My parents were very obliging and would take out for me any books in the library that I wanted, if, technically, I was too young to read them. (That was how I read FOREVER AMBER when I was about ten; and, no, it didn’t corrupt me. I found the sexual parts terribly boring and skipped them to get tothe really interesting adventures and the plague scenes.)
As I grew older and learned history, I became more and more dissatisfied with many of the books I read because they were “telling lies.” Not the kind of lies Lawrence Block meant in his book about writing fiction, [Telling Lies For Fun And Profit] but unnecessary inaccuracies about the time and place and the way people would act in that time and place. I guess I started writing out of frustration. I wanted books that would satisfy me. And yes, historical fiction was the first fiction I wrote.
Jo: Speaking of first fiction, were you the sort of child who wrote stories, or did you come to it later? If you were writing as a child,do you remember the first story you wrote?
Roberta: My mother told me that I wrote stories when I was about six, but I don’t remember that at all and (thank God) we did not find any embarrassing bits among my mother’s papers. I do remember telling stories, usually ghost stories, to my friends in the neighborhood, but I have no specific memories of what I said.
Jo: I know it should probably be a long essay, or even a book, but can you tell us a bit about your writing career and its many turns?
Roberta: Actually there isn’t that much to say. I was lucky—and I mean lucky, because I was totally ignorant—in finding an agent almost immediately. Believe it or not, I looked up Agents, Literary in the yellow pages of the phone book. Since I lived in New York at the time there were actually two listed. I called the one named Snell for the most excellent reason that I had worked for a company named Foster D. Snell. And these people were not crooks (again, believe it or not). Stella Snell
sold my first two historical novels (BOND OF BLOOD and KNIGHT’S HONOR) to Doubleday in 1964. Do you remember the 60s at all? Perhaps you are too young.
Jo: :: Laughs:: Flattering, Roberta, but that was the time of my misspent youth.
Roberta: In the late 60s God was Dead, and History was Irrelevant so no one was reading historical novels. Although KNIGHT’S HONOR was bought by one of the book clubs, neither book sold worth a damn. Then Stella died and I looked for another agent. I could not sell another novel for over ten years, until THE HAWK AND THE DOVE was published (darn, the author’s name has escaped
my mind). [Kathleen Woodiwiss.]
Roberta: Then my husband saw an ad in Writer’s Digest for a historical novelist who had published a novel. I said that must be a book packager, who took 50%, and my husband said that 50% of something was better than 100% of nothing. So that was how I came to work with Lyle Kenyon Engel.
He was a book packager; he did take 50%; but he got double the going rate of royalties (so I ended up with the same royalties anyone else got) and he got much higher advances. And somehow he talked the publishers into doing all kinds of advertising. I always said that Lyle could sell ice to Eskimos in the middle of the artic winter.
I worked with Lyle until he retired but by then the historical market had died again so I was looking for something else to write. I ended up doing a couple of romantic suspense and a couple of soft science
fiction novels. For me, the historical market has never recovered. I write long, complex, history-driven books without much sex and I would much rather write fantasy and mystery (which I enjoy enormously) that turn out books like DESIREE.
Jo: That’s the novel you wrote recently in the Roselynde series.
Roberta: Yes. It’s not a bad book, but because of length restraints it leaves out much that made the Roselynde Chronicles good books.
Jo: The Roselynde Chronicles are particularly beloved because they give such a rich portrayal of medieval England. Can you talk about the process of coming up with the idea, choosing the period, setting and characters and anything else to do with them?
Roberta: I didn’t come up with the idea for the Roselynde Chronicles. In a sense, Lyle did—but he wanted me to write a series like Golon’s Angelique—-you know, the sweet young thing who has a new lover in every book, lays children like eggs, and if you count up the years at 50 is as fresh and dewy as she was at 15 with no stretch marks and all her teeth.
I told him I wouldn’t do that but I could do two books about the same medieval woman with two different men. After that if the publisher wanted more books I’d provide other romantic pairs with the original woman as a character that held the series together. The period was my choice. By then I had a MA degree in Medieval Literature and most of the course work for a Ph.D. I had concentrated on the 12th century in my graduate work and I had no intention of wasting either my studies or the library I had collected. So, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the 12th century it was.
Jo: Roselynde and Alinor were reissued a couple of years ago. Are the other books is the series going to be reissued soon?
Roberta: No, unfortunately. Harlequin had contracted to reissue the whole of the Chronicles in the ill-fated Signature Select line. (With a name like Signature Select I should have figured it was doomed from the beginning.) When the line was dropped, they had issued ROSELYNDE and ALINOR and said they would find another place for the other books, but decided against reprinting them. So far, no one else has indicated any interest in republishing JOANNA, GILLIANE, RHIANNON and SYBELLE. I have thought from time to time about getting them done by an epublisher that does POD, but obviously my agent is not in favor of the idea and I haven’t worked up the energy to do it on my own.
Roberta: That’s really too general a question, but I can state the basic idea Mercedes Lackey and I had. We were not going to do alternate history, which is usually what is done in historical fantasy. We were going to relate the known events of history as accurately as we could and bring in the fantasy in other ways. When I started to research the events of the reign of Henry VIII and Mary, I discovered that although all the serious historians agreed on what happened, none could agree on why it happened. There we had it. Mercedes and I felt with so much flat disagreement among serious historians, the addition of elves (the Sidhe) would not do much more damage.
Jo: And, of course, you’ve written the wonderful medieval mysteries set in a whorehouse with a sleuth who’s a madam. Only Queen Gellis would dare! I love Magdalen and Bellamy. Did you have any trouble persuading Tor to go with that storyline?
Roberta: No—or at least if there was, I don’t know anything about it. I actually wrote the entire book of A
MORTAL BANE before Lucienne [Roberta’s agent] tried to sell it. The reason for my choice was simple. I was a bit tired of all the religious women detectives (and men too) in historical mysteries. I needed a setting in which a medieval woman would have complete freedom and in which she would come in contact with a lot of different people. I could have chosen someone with a business of her own but I felt that
would keep her too busy to be solving mysteries. A whorehouse seemed ideal and it has worked very well.
Jo: Do you have a different writing technique for mysteries and fantasies?
Roberta: Other people have told me that my voice is different in the mysteries and fantasies, but I must admit that I am unaware of any difference in technique while I am writing.
Jo: What are you working on now?
Jo: Thank you, Roberta.
Roberta’s recent books are: BY SLANDEROUS TONGUES (with Mercedes Lackey), Baen, Feb. 2007
CHAINS OF FOLLY, Five Star, April 2006
ALINOR, Harlequin Signature Select, May 2006
ILL MET BY MOONLIGHT, Baen, March 2005, 0-7434-9890-9
You can find out more on Roberta’s web site
Now, it’s your chance to ask Roberta a question, and/or tell her your favorite of her books. And there’ll be a draw from among all who post a comment or a question to this entry during Saturday, Jan 27th. The winner will get a signed book from Roberta.
What do you think of the current state of historical romance?
If you, too, remember the ’60s, what do you think of the changes in historical romance since then?
What happened to medievals? Why don’t they seem to be popular in romance anymore?
What do you like about the middle ages as a setting for romance?
Why do you think historical mysteries are so popular now?