Today I’m interviewing Susan Holloway Scott, author of Duchess: A Novel of Sarah Churchill.
I’ll start by saying I loved this book, and I’m not saying that just because we’re friends and sister Wenches but because I thoroughly enjoyed it from page one to the end. I’m not the only one. The American Booksellers Association named Duchess a Book Sense Notable Book for August 2006.
Susan/Miranda, most of us know you better as Miranda Jarrett, author of more than thirty bestselling historical romances for Harlequin and for Pocket Books. Duchess, then, represents a new direction for you. While in some ways the leap from historical romance to historical novel isn’t exactly gigantic, they are two distinctly different kinds of fiction, each offering its own challenges and joys.
LC: But before we get into the writing challenges, I’d like to find out what led you to this kind of novel, and what drew you to Sarah in particular as your subject. Out of all the historical figures you might have chosen, why Sarah Churchill?
Susan/Miranda: The idea for writing a longer historical novel as opposed to a historical romance came from my agent, Meg Ruley. She’d seen how well books like those by Philippa Gregory were selling, and she knew I was feeling frustrated by the narrowing of the romance market. I wrote a proposal and about a third of the book; NAL made an offer the same day they received it, so I guess, once again, that my Divine Agent was right.
Why Sarah? I’ve been fascinated by her and John for many, many years. “The First Churchills” was an English BBC miniseries based on Sir Winston Churchill’s massive biography of John. It was also the very first Masterpiece Theatre, so I can date my interest precisely, to 1971. (Of course, I was but a tender child then g) I’ve always thought Sarah’s life would make a great story. It has everything: politics, war, love, rags-to-riches, strong characters.
LC: Out of all the time periods and settings you could have chosen, why Restoration England (late 17th-early 18th C)?
Susan/Miranda: It’s a wonderful time in English history. It’s right there in between the medieval period, and the Age of Reason. The King is funding telescopes and scientific experiments, but traitors still have their heads lopped off and stuck on poles on London Bridge. Socially, it’s a very fluid time, with the first great merchant fortunes being made in the City, and those same families marrying into the aristocracy. It’s also a time that’s in open rebellion to the puritanical era of Cromwell and the Protectorate –– much like the 1920s or 1960s. Promiscuous behavior abounds, and traditional values are being challenged. So much conflict is absolute heaven for a writer!
LC: We’ve recently had a lively discussion on the blog about religion and spiritual beliefs and their place in fiction. Religion, obviously, plays a role in your story, as it played a crucial role in the events of the time. What interests me is the extent to which religion, for at least some of these characters, is as much a political ideology as a spiritual belief. What was your sense of religion’s role in the daily lives of your characters?
Susan/Miranda: At this time, England’s “official” religion was the Anglican Church, and anyone else was a “dissenter” or, even worse, a Papist. Anglicanism was bound so tightly with being English that to worship in any other fashion was perceived suspiciously as traitorous behavior. It’s a political choice as well as a spiritual one. Catholicism was the religion of France, England’s traditional enemy, and the anti-Catholic hysteria is always bubbling beneath the surface of the Restoration. Sarah and John were determinedly in the Anglican camp, which, in an over-simplified way, was the reason they were willing to risk their lives to take part in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, purging England of a Catholic king.
LC: In historical romances, one often has actual historical figures playing minor roles. However, this time the historical figure is the lead. I’d really like some insight into your creative/research process. What was your approach to making a historical figure into a lead character? How was this different from creating the characters in your historical romances?
Susan/Miranda: Transforming historical figures into historical characters is a challenge, but one I’ve really enjoyed. You get the “pieces” –– portraits, letters, diaries, other contemporary sources, plus the hard facts and dates –– and you have to sift through it all and come up with motivation and explanations for how and why these people acted as they did. You have to fill in the blanks, too, for times when they were publicly silent. You can’t rewrite history, and switch events or people around to make a better story. The story has to fit the history first, no matter how sad, or inconvenient, or just plain weird it might be. No cheating!
With a historical romance and characters that are all invention, you can play God to your heart’s content. You can tweak characters and fix plot holes as much as you want, and it doesn’t matter.
I like working with the “real” history. Plotting has always been
one of the harder aspects of fiction writing for me, so having the “plot” of history already set has been a nice bonus. For a different writer, someone who thrives with constructing complicated plots, the constraints of history might be frustrating, but for me it was actually freeing.
LC: Obviously, you did mountains of research. What about the research led to your particular interpretation of Sarah Churchill’s character? What were the keys to developing her character? What made you decide to present her in the way you did?
Susan/Miranda: Sarah’s personality comes through loud (very loud!) and clear through her letters. She was also one of the first public figures to recognize the power of the media, and “authorized” a ghost-written autobiography in her old age to tell her side of her life and times, and incidentally trash many of the people who’d been her friends at Court earlier in her life. (No wonder this book was a huge bestseller, and was still in print over a hundred years after her death!)
So I guess in a way, I didn’t have to decide how to represent Sarah; she’d decided that herself already.
LC: I liked the directness and drama of the first person narrative and particularly admired the way you were able to convey Sarah’s flaws in a story told exclusively from her point of view. What made you choose a first-person narrative rather than third person? What were the greatest challenges of this approach?
Susan/Miranda: Part of that decision was dictated again by the publishing market; the trend for fictionalized biographies has been strongly in the first-person camp. But for a character as strong as Sarah, it was a good fit. No, she wasn’t a particularly “nice” woman; she was greedy, manipulative, and so quarrelsome that at her death, there wasn’t a family member left who was still speaking to her. But she was also intelligent and perceptive, a shrewd investor of the family fortune (she had the head for money, and John let her handle all the money –– most unusual for the time!), and fortunate to have found the love of her life.
It’s not always easy writing in first person. Everything in the story has to be filtered through Sarah’s eyes, and voice. Many of the biggest events –– such as the battles that her general husband wins –– are all “off scene”, and can only be included second-hand, as Sarah learns of them. But at the same time, it narrows an enormous story to a manageable size. Most historical romances take place over a few weeks or months, and seldom as long as a year. DUCHESS covers about forty years. If I’d had multiple points of view telling the same story, I’d be getting into the enormous-book-territory of, say, James Michener.
LC: As an experienced author, what did you find were the biggest differences between writing a historical romance and writing a historical novel? What were the difficulties?
Susan/Miranda: There are certain expectations to writing romances –– a happy ending, the villain gets his just desserts, and both the heroine and the hero displays great nobility of character in some ways. The love story is often larger than life; that’s what makes romances satisfying.
In a historical novel, characters behave badly. They’re driven by other things than love alone. John encourages Sarah in her relationship with the lonely Queen to improve their prospects at Court, and he flip-flops his loyalties in ways that no good romance hero ever would. Both of them betray others who have been supportive of them. And children die––unfortunately, many, many children die. The challenge is making such characters interesting enough for readers to want to follow, and learn more about them; they don’t have to be admirable, just fascinating.
LC: You have definitely made Sarah–and everyone else who’s part of her story–fascinating. And now onto the next intriguing character: What would you like to tell us about your forthcoming historical novel, Royal Harlot: A Novel of King Charles II and the Countess of Castlemaine?
Susan/Miranda: Barbara Villiers Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine, was an absolute blast to write about. Called the most beautiful woman in England, she was also wonderfully amoral, and that greatest rarity: a female libertine. She was a perfect partner for Charles, and together they exemplified the “bawdry” of the 1660s. She was witty and clever, and played international politics better thaan most men; she was also given to astounding displays of bad temper, and her avarice made her a wealthy woman at the taxpayers expense. For nearly fifteen years, her influence with the King terrified her contemporaries, and she was cursed as being dangerous to England itself. Yet she was a good mother (she bore six children, none to her husband) who made sure her brood of children were all settled in good matches, with fortunes and titles to match; unlike Sarah Churchill’s children, Barbara’s were devoted to her all her life.
She also “kept” John Churchill when he was a young officer at Court (she was nine years his senior, a scandalously huge age-gap at the time), giving me the dubious honor of having the hero of one book be the boy-toy of the heroine of the next. I couldn’t resist her, and I hope readers will find her as fascinating as I did.
LC: I don’t doubt we will. Susan, thank you so much–for a terrific book and these wonderful insights into its creation. I cannot wait for Barbara’s story!
Susan/Miranda: Thank you, Loretta!
Note: For more visual images, here are some links Susan/Miranda’s suggested:http://www.blenheimpalaceeducation.com/portraits/images_port/closter_small.jpg"
(This is a nice family portrait of John and Sarah…)
Here are some works from the National Portrait Gallery:Click Here: Check out "NPG 3634; Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough"
Please also see Susan’s post, "Beauty and the Barbara," for paintings of the Royal Harlot.