Susanna here, hosting my very first Word Wenches Interview—and it’s especially wonderful because my guest is a friend of mine (and, I believe, a great friend of this blog as well): Christina Courtenay!
I first met Christina in London in 2009, at my very first Romantic Novelists’ Association function, and knew straight away I was in the presence of a kindred spirit. She is, simply put, one of my very favourite people, and any time I get to spend with her—even if only by email—is time I look forward to.
Since she’s already an Honorary Word Wench I’m sure many of you know her work already, but for those who don’t, Christina writes time slip, historical romance, and—as Pia Fenton—YA contemporary romance, all published by independent publisher Choc Lit. She’s a former chairman of the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association, and her novels Highland Storms and The Gilded Fan have both won the RoNA Award for Best Historical Romantic Novel of the Year (in 2012 and 2014 respectively). Her newest time slip novel is The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight, which is being published this week (on Friday, 7th October).
Here’s a summary:
When newly widowed Tess visits Raglan Castle, she experiences an extraordinary vision that transports her to seventeenth-century Wales and a castle on the brink of a siege. Even when Tess leaves Raglan to return to Merrick Court, her late husband’s home, the strange dreams continue as her life becomes increasingly intertwined with the past. And when the new owner of the estate arrives – New Zealander Josh Owens – the parallels become even more obvious. But perhaps the visions aren’t just trying to tell their own story, maybe they’re also giving a warning …
Susanna: Welcome, Christina! Over at your website, on the pages for your travel and research, you say something that I love. You say, “Personally, I have always favoured the Royalists (well, I am a romantic novelist and what could be more romantic than the Cavaliers?)”. But I know in a previous novel of yours, The Gilded Fan, the story forced you to view things from the Parliamentary side instead of the Royalist one, which must have been a challenge. Did you learn anything from that experience that helped you with writing this new novel, where you were free to return to the Royalist fold (I assume you’re still waving the flag for Prince Rupert?)
Christina: I’m the kind of person who always tries to see both sides in an argument, so I did come to empathise with the Parliamentarians to a certain extent when I wrote my previous book. After reading all the claims and counter-claims, I understood the grievances of both parties and I felt the deep emotions that led them into conflict. But it didn’t make me change my own opinion – I’m still a Royalist at heart (and yes, definitely waving the flag for Prince Rupert!) and have always felt that the dispute should have been resolved through more negotiations. Beheading the King was a bit too drastic IMO and that stopped me from truly taking the Parliamentarian side. So the challenge was to forget that part when writing and focus on what was happening to my characters, not the King. Ordinary people who were forced to take sides and who were affected on a more basic level. It was a relief to be able to go back to the point of view of the ‘right’ side when writing this story, although I was careful to show that there could be honour on both sides and the Parliamentarian general Fairfax stuck to his word that no one inside the besieged garrison would be harmed if they lay down their arms.
Christina: I think it’s partly the fact that you have two love stories instead of one so it’s double the intensity and emotion. I feel that alternating the two strands heightens the tension for the reader. Also that you are effectively writing three different sub-genres at the same time – contemporary, historical and paranormal (if you add some ghostly phenomena or perhaps a bit of magic or something) which is more interesting. I have a very low boredom threshold so I find it much more exciting to follow two story lines and it’s easier for me to write that way too. It can be frustrating trying to weave the two strands together, but when it works it’s great fun.
Susanna: Which character surprised you the most in writing this story?
Christina: I think it was the hero in the present – Josh Owens. He’s a sheep farmer from New Zealand who suddenly finds himself a peer of the realm in the UK with a vast estate. It comes as a bit of a shock since he didn’t even know he was related to aristocracy (his father never told him). When I first started this novel, I was sure that my favourite character would be the hero in the past – a Cavalier, of course, and a handsome Welshman with green eyes at that – because the idea for the novel began with him. But Josh started to grow on me and by the time I finished writing, I found I liked him more. I definitely hadn’t expected that!
Christina: All of them :-D. I don’t know about you, but when you live with your fictional characters for so long it’s always hard to let them go and stop thinking about what would be happening to them next. In fact, I couldn’t quite do it and wrote a mini sequel (a little novella) set twenty years on from the Civil War just so I could spend a little more time with the family and see what had happened to them. But now I have definitely moved on. Honest. Well, sort of … 🙂
Susanna: Will you be returning to the Civil War in a future novel, do you think? Or perhaps even to Merrick Court itself?
Christina: I wouldn’t rule it out – those Cavaliers definitely tempt me – but even though the English Civil War is one of my favourite periods, I don’t have any plans do so at present as other eras are calling to me now. Being half Swedish I have a yearning to write about Vikings, so we’ll see how that goes.
Susanna: Well, while we’re waiting for your Vikings, we can get to know Josh Owens, and I’m sure he’ll charm us just as he did you.
Let’s meet him—and his newly inherited house, shall we? Here’s an excerpt from The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight:
* * * * *
Josh stopped on the gravel outside the front door and drew in a couple of huge breaths of fresh spring air, bending over to brace his hands against his knees. He felt as though he’d been through a fierce workout, both mentally and physically. His brain was all scrambled with too much information and a kaleidoscope of images jostling for space. The reality of Merrick Court had knocked him for six.
When he’d first been informed of his inheritance, he’d imagined a largish house in the countryside, but nothing like this. This was a bloody great big mansion. And old; ancient, in parts. Wandering through all the rooms behind Tess had been like touring some royal palace and he just couldn’t take in the fact that it was his. Why had his father never mentioned being related to English aristocracy? It was exactly the sort of thing he’d have been proud of. But perhaps he hadn’t known? Or maybe he’d been ashamed of the way they were connected. As far as Josh could make out from Mr Harrison, it was through a younger son who’d been such a black sheep he’d been sent to Australia as a condemned criminal. He’d gambled away everything he had, and more, stealing to fund his addiction, then ended up on one of the convict ships before later making his way to New Zealand after serving his sentence.
His father wouldn’t have liked that, even though it was quite fashionable nowadays to have convict ancestors. No, he would have hated it. Which, conversely, made Josh like it.
‘Thanks, Mr Black Sheep, I owe you,’ he murmured, then shook his head at himself. He was talking to thin air. Losing it big time. But was it any wonder?
He stood up straight and went to his car to retrieve a plan of the estate that Harrison had given him. He’d walk around some of the fields, clear his head a bit before finding Bryn again. There was an old stile not far from the gate where he’d come in earlier, so he climbed over that and set off along the perimeter of the nearest field. This was what he needed; some space to think.
It was a glorious day and the fields were edged with hedgerows where little birds hopped in and out, twittering away. Some of the bushes were full of blossom and their leaves were that amazing green colour only spring produced – clean and fresh. Josh took note of the soil, a rich dark reddish type that looked very fertile but heavy with moisture. Great for growing whatever you needed. In the fields used for pasture, the grass was lush, perfect for sheep and cattle. All round the edges trees grew – oak, beech and others he didn’t recognise. Some of the oak trees looked to be hundreds of years old, their girth impressive. Josh had the sudden thought that his ancestors had seen them too, touched them, and had walked here for hundreds of years before him. It was an odd feeling. Emotional.
And nothing like he’d ever felt for his father’s sheep station in New Zealand.
Not that you could really compare the two. The station had comprised mostly hills and wide open valleys, undulating tussock-covered land crossed by rivers and with high mountain ranges as a backdrop. It was a totally different environment, thousands of square kilometres to keep track of, necessitating the use of four-wheel drive vehicles for mustering the sheep and sometimes even helicopters. Here everything felt much smaller, enclosed, but not in a bad way, like he was hemmed in. Rather, it was manageable. He could see himself herding the sheep from one field to another with just the help of a trusted sheep dog. No quad bikes would be necessary. Nor big teams of helpers.
He stopped to lean against one particularly vast tree trunk and closed his eyes, letting the sun warm his face while he tried to process it all.
Did he really want to part with this?
Then again, how could he keep it? He didn’t know the first thing about being a landowner and sheep farmer – or a lord for that matter – in the UK. But maybe it wasn’t so different? A sheep was a sheep wherever it was in the world. And as far as he knew, there were no rules for how a lord had to behave, so surely that was up to him?
He sighed. This was something that would require a lot more thought than he’d envisaged.
* * * * *
Christina: Thank you so much for having me as your guest on Word Wenches!
Susanna: Thank YOU for making my first interview here special (not to mention easy!). Wishing every success to this novel, and to your latest YA romance—New England Dreams. And Vikings or Cavaliers, you know I’ll happily read any story you choose to tell next.
Now, for the Wenchery—if you have questions for Christina, feel free to ask away!