Today I’m handing the pen over to my friend Pam Rosenthal, who had kindly consented to pull up a chair at the Wench desk and write a few words about . . . well, writing, and some of the thought processes that go into creating a story. As many of you know, Pam is the award-winning author of The Edge of Impropriety, which won the 2009 RITA for Regency Romance. In addition, The Slightest Provocation was a RITA finalist in 2007 and was just released this month in a new mass market edition. A lifelong lover of literature (she claims that her mother was wheeled into the delivery room reading a romance novel!) Pam can list an impressive array of professional accomplishments in the field, including bookseller, critic, essayist and, of course, novelist of richly complex emotional stories with an erotic edge.
And now, without further ado, I shall nudge the inkwell over to Pam . . .
Thanks so much to the Wenches for hosting me on the occasion of the recent mass-market reissue of The Slightest Provocation with its new cover look and consequent chance for a second generation of readers.
It’s particularly an honor and a pleasure because I believe that romance is the genre of second chances at happiness and all good things. Which for The Slightest Provocation is true on a good many levels, beginning way back with the story’s difficult conception. Because as I began to write it, I was beginning to suspect there was something about its opening scenes that just wasn’t making it. And yet I didn’t want to toss out those the meeting of hero and heroine during a brief erotic fling at a Calais inn, before their separate arrivals in England where the spy story commences and flings them back together.
I’d enjoyed writing that initial coupling. And even now, in print, the mutual seduction over a late supper of very good country French food survives largely unchanged. As does a large part of the subsequent erotic scene, which I felt succeeded in many ways: I liked my hero Kit and my heroine Mary; I believed in how they spoke to each other as they climbed the staircase to her room, and how they teased and touched after they got there.
And yet something didn’t jell. I kept telling myself that a high level of fortuitous intimacy is perfectly possible between strangers, that our bodies can sometimes be the wisest part of us. And it wasn’t as though I hadn’t enjoyed writing their actual moves: putting it in Regency-speak, I’d enjoyed it quite excessively. But something in the emotional interaction of the characters kept me from entirely believing it.
I was stuck, and so I held that part in abeyance and turned back to the political setting – a dark one, because this book takes place during the difficult years after Waterloo, when the British Home Office secretly sent provocateurs among its people, to fan the flames of local rebellion in order to scapegoat rebels, suppress dissension, and encourage Parliament to once again suspend habeus corpus. A nation at odds with itself, like a marriage on the verge of…That’s it, I thought.
“My hero and heroine are married,” I announced excitedly to my husband, who’d been sharing the political research as well as consoling me in my doldrums.
“Married and separated,” I continued, “and I was the last to know. But that’s why they’re not only physically compatible but so completely onto each other’s flaws, weaknesses, and moments of delusion and dishonesty.”
My imagination was picking up steam.
“They eloped,” I added, “when they were too young and dumb to understand the difficulties facing them. Nine years have passed since their legal separation. Kit’s gone to war and fought heroically under Wellington while Mary’s pursued a life among romantic poets and radical freethinkers. They’ve become different people, some ways, but they’ve never let go of their passionate attraction — or faced their differences or worked though the pain they caused each other.”
To which Michael, my highly literate husband, nodded thoughtfully. “So you’re writing a remarriage comedy,” he said.
“I am?” I asked. “What’s that?”
Whereupon, as a lifelong bookseller by trade, Michael did what he does best: by way of an answer, he handed me the very book I needed at that moment. Which was not E.P. Thompson’s enormously dense The Making of the English Working Class, with its wealth of information about machine-breaking in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, petitions to extend suffrage, marches of the dispossessed. We’d spent enough time poring over that one already. This book was a set of essays, The Pursuit of Happiness, by the philosopher and film scholar Stanley Cavell, about those witty, wonderful black and white films of the thirties and forties like The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, His Girl Friday I— films about estranged couples and their reconciliations, replete with rough, comic strife, delicious banter and (when it’s Cary Grant as the male lead) some of the most elegantly executed pratfalls ever filmed.
Created during the supposedly quiescent decades between the suffrage movement and second wave feminism, according to Cavell these movies are the most eloquent cultural statement we have from that period, of men and women working toward erotic equality. I don’t know if I entirely buy his analysis. But I love the movies, and many of his points are brilliant – and clearly apposite to what I had in mind. As when Michael opened the book to read aloud from an early chapter about the couples (like Dex and Tracy in The Philadelphia Story) “having shared childhood together… discovered their sexuality together…”
“How did Stanley Cavell know,” I asked, “about my characters Mary and Kit?”
I read the book through, happily concluded that I was indeed writing a remarriage comedy, and grinned as the planning, the research, and the writing itself began to go more smoothly. My characters’ struggle to redeem their marriage and reconcile their differences fell into line with the spy plot, which I’d taken from the true story of the Pentrich Rebellion, an abortive uprising instigated in 1817 by a Home Office agent known as Oliver the Spy. I even planned a pratfall for my hero.
And what fun to write a romance about a squabbling husband and wife while squabbling with my own husband over it.
We researched and squabbled our way over to England, having our best vacation ever in the gorgeous Peak district of Derbyshire, near the part of Nottinghamshire where the Pentrich incident took place. We hiked the forests and meadows where I’d imagined Mary and Kit meeting as children and tramped over paths where the Pentrich rebels would have gone.
And on the way to Pentrich we got lost.
I sulked. Why couldn’t Michael have asked directions, I thought, when he’d had the chance? Why can’t men ever… but at that moment I cheered up, because I suddenly knew how my reunited couple had managed to run into the gang of would-be rebels on the night before the incident. They’d gotten lost, I thought, just as we had, because when Kit had had his chance to ask directions, of course he hadn’t done so either.
Back on track and now back in London (and well-fed on the best Lebanese and Indian food we’d ever had) we picked up the Pentrich paper trail at the National Archives at Kew. And it was only after we got the boxes of microfiche we needed and learned how to thread the spools into our neighboring microfiche readers that we confessed to each other that we were terrified we wouldn’t be able to decipher the handwriting in the letters between the Home Office agents and their spies and provocateurs.
Never fear, we managed it. (Though if you go on such a document quest, I suggest you give yourself two days. We had only one day with the documents, and I’m sure we would have done better if we’d returned the next day with eyes a little bit accustomed to the vagaries of period handwriting.) Still, the words – and the facts of the case – leaped out at us. Michael even found a letter with a marginal note from Home Office Secretary Lord Sidmouth, telling a local official (who wanted to arrest Oliver as a rabble-rouser) to leave him alone.
The man works for me, Sidmouth said, and signed his name.
As I hope, in some very small way, that the centuries will dissolve for what new readers The Slightest Provocation (with its sexy new cover) will find in its new life in mass market.
And how about you? Do you share the books you love to read (or, if you’re a writer, do you share your process) with your near and dear? If you do, what’s that like? Is the collaboration smooth or bumpy?
And if you don’t, is there a way that you enjoy the very privacy of the pleasure?
Pam will be giving away a copy of her new mass market re-release of The Slightest Provocation to one lucky person, whose name shall be chosen at random from those who leave a comment here between now and Monday morning.