In anticipation of the re-release of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation next month, I’ve been going through my personal Pink Carnation archives. Among the drafts and the outtakes and the Q&A’s, I stumbled upon a document I hadn’t thought about in years and years– the bio my publisher asked me to write right after they took on Pink Carnation.
We’re not talking a pithy little one paragraph bio. They asked me to tell them everything I thought might be useful about my background and experience and writing journey. So I did. At length. (Note: my publisher now knows me too well to provide that sort of open invitation.) The piece was eventually condensed into the one you’ll find on the Behind the Scenes page here on the site and the rest was consigned to my computer files.
You can see where this is going, can’t you? If you need something to help put you to sleep on some restless night, I provide for you here the full ten page long ramble, resurrected from the Pink Carnation archives:
Author Ramblings (circa 2003)
It was all Eleanor of Aquitaine’s fault. When I was six, my father gave me E.L. Konigsburg’s “A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver.” I had recently gotten over my pretending I didn’t know how to read phase (born out of a fear that people would stop reading to me if I admitted knowing how to do it myself), and my parents were quick to capitalize on the capitulation. Big mistake. I fell in love with the book. I read bits of it aloud to anyone who would listen; carried it everywhere with me; and wept bitter tears when the cover tore at the hands of my impetuous infant brother.
How, one may ask, does an Eleanor of Aquitaine obsession, even at an impressionable age, lead to a romance novel addiction of the five book a week kind? In my quest for Eleanor, anything about Eleanor, it came to my attention that my father had in his possession a romance novel in which Eleanor had a cameo role (this came to my attention when my long-suffering father tossed the novel to me as a sop to the Eleanor fixation). And that was that. I was hooked. “A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver” retired to a place of honor on my bookshelves while I moved on to my new obsession, romances.
This was the era of the bodice ripper. In my little green and white-striped school uniform, I trotted angelically into school clutching books on whose covers the heroine was generally featured bending backwards over the hero’s brawny arm at an anatomically improbable angle. My teachers were appalled, my parents resigned. As long as I was reading, they rationalized, it didn’t really matter what I read. Untrammeled, I pored over the romance section at the 86th Street Barnes and Nobles (the old one, between Lexington and Park, that has since disappeared), and trolled my parents’ bookshelves for new material. My mother had a taste for Agatha Christie and Russian literature, my father for anything in print (Dad has been known to read through the encyclopedia when nothing else is at hand). The result was an Aladdin’s cave for a budding bibliophile. I pounced on the oeuvre of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, toured Zenda with Rudolph Rassendyll, slogged through “Kirsten Lavransdotter” because it looked like it might be a romance, blissfully cavorted with all three musketeers, and devoured a motley assortment of the thick historical epics that topped the charts in the eighties, from Mary Stewart’s Arthur books through the geographical outpourings of James Michiner.
A tug of war ensued. Choice novels, like M.M. Kaye’s “The Far Pavilions,” would subtly migrate from Dad’s bookshelf into mine. Several days later, Dad would not-so-subtly barge into my room and retrieve the contested book. It was little wonder that my parents threatened to sell me to the gypsies, but by that time I was twelve or thirteen and reasonably sure that the gypsies wouldn’t have me. I found this all very amusing until my little sister attained an age when romance novels exerted their fatal fascination on her imagination, and suddenly it was my books disappearing across the hall.
In school, other people studied. I snuck Jude Deveraux novels into science class, which means I can’t tell you anything at all about cells or acid cycles, but can list all the English monarchs from Edward the Confessor through Elizabeth II, and insult men in words of no fewer than four syllables. This did have the unfortunate side effect of my calling a boy an “incorrigible cad” at one of the sixth grade dances, an experience which left him gaping like a guppy, and me without a dance partner, but came in handy in history and English classes. When our ninth grade English teacher denied the existence of “biddable” as a word, my best friend and I brought in Judith McNaught’s “Once and Always,” and showed her where the heroine was excoriated for being decidedly un-biddable. On the European history AP, I confidently quoted descriptions of the plague from Judith Merkle Riley’s “A Vision of Light.” Somewhere out there, there is still an AP grader convinced that the aforesaid novelist is the world’s foremost authority on the Black Death.
As for writing novels, I was one of those annoying people who decided at the age of five that I wanted to be a writer. It might have been the allure of viewing a finished “book” in all its construction paper-covered glory, it might have been the opportunity to star in my own fairy tales—whatever the impetus, the direct result was the production of so many piles and piles of paper that we had to haul an old trunk down from Grandma’s attic to serve as a tomb for forgotten manuscripts. By fourth grade, I decided I had reached an age and sophistication (after all, I was in Middle School!) to begin my first novel. It was entitled “The Night the Clock Struck Death,” ran to about three hundred pages written out by hand, and was a direct knock-off of Nancy Drew, only without the roadster. With visions of “youngest author ever!” dancing in my head (I harbored elaborate daydreams of being invited to tea by Queen Elizabeth, who would exclaim, in a dignified and queenly way, over such literary excellence in one so young), I bundled the manuscript off to Simon & Schuster. They sent it back. Since the older sister of one of my friends was employed by Simon & Schuster at the time, I held her directly responsible, and refused to trade stickers with her for a month.
By sixth grade, my wounded ego had recovered sufficiently to try again. Nancy Drew having long since driven off in the despised roadster, I was by then deeply under the influence of Victoria Holt, so Veronique, the unfortunate heroine of “The Chateau Secret,” was shuttled off on a world tour that would make Jules Verne dizzy. Five hundred pages later, Veronique had escaped the guillotine, been kidnapped in Vauxhall Gardens, nearly died of cholera in India, briefly took up residence in a harem in Constantinople, and finally returned to France, none the worse for wear except for a spot of sunburn, just in time to thwart the evil machinations of her cousin Guy.
My subsequent literary outpourings were somewhat hampered by the ill-will of the family computer, which resented my pounding away at it at all hours. Technology and I have never gotten along. The family computer, acquired when I was thirteen, lived in my room, and was engaged in a vast conspiracy against me with the aid of the electrical socket. Whenever someone crossed the threshold of my room, the plug would sag, and the computer go dead. A sensible person would doubtless have acquired an extension cord and plugged the computer into a different outlet. But where is the adventure in being sensible? Where would the three musketeers be if D’Artagnan had been sensible? Besides, I didn’t think of it. Instead, I developed a sixth sense for footfalls in the hallway, and spent a lot of time anxiously shouting, “No! Don’t come in! Don’t—oh, not again.” I lost several chapters that way.
I took shameless advantage of the good nature of my high school’s individual study program to glean official sanction for novel writing. My school allowed students to forego one class senior year to pursue an Individual Study of some sort of intellectual and scholarly merit. I had ambitious plans of writing an epic novel in three parts about Napoleon’s stepdaughter, Hortense de Beaharnais. All in the course of one three month long trimester. In the end, I produced a two hundred page novel covering Hortense’s first meeting with Napoleon through her marriage to Napoleon’s brother five years later, which I thought very deep and tragic, and was mortally offended when a member of the English department congratulated me on what a sweet young adult novel I had written.
As a side note, the Napoleon obsession began in fifth grade when one of the inevitable “Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story” mini-series aired on prime time television. Naturally, I was enthralled. I was just on the tail end of my Victorian obsession at that point (I cycled through time periods the way other people did hairstyles), and beginning to be a bit bored with hoopskirts and heroines who slapped the hero when he tried to kiss her. I pestered Dad and the school librarian for information about the Bonapartes; Dad provided Theo Aronson’s “The Golden Bees,” which I toted around with me, reading and re-reading, for months, and the school librarian produced Anne-Marie Selinko’s “Desiree,” the fictional diary of Napoleon’s first love, who went on to become Queen of Sweden. I named all the guppies from my fifth grade science experiment after Napoleon’s numerous relations, and got very upset when Napoleon ate Jerome, Eliza, and Marie-Louise. By twelfth grade, even though I’d long since moved on to the Regency, with brief stops in the Wars of the Roses and the Raj along the way, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to write a novel about Josephine’s daughter. By the time I got around to the Pink Carnation, the scenes in Napoleon’s court felt like revisiting old friends, comfortable and familiar.
In college, I was too busy attempting to be a romance novel heroine to spend time writing about them; instead, I supported the local stationary store by filling up multiple diaries, sent epic emails to my best friend (dialogue included), and, in the throes of infatuation freshman year, composed an entire sonnet sequence in lumpy iambic pentameter to the romantic interest of the moment. They didn’t scan, but that might be partially because I wrote most of them during Biological Roots of Human Nature lectures (otherwise known as The Humanities Major’s Way of Evading the Science Requirement), which also accounts for the abnormally large proportion of animal-inspired metaphors.
As another unnecessary side note, I began college as an English major, since that seemed the sort of thing a budding writer was supposed to do. Besides, I loved Shakespeare and Austen and everyone in between, and it seemed like pure heaven to get credit for reading wonderful things for four years. That was before I came up against deconstructionism. When my freshman year English prof pronounced that Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale foreshadowed the paralysis of Christopher Reeve, I knew all was not right in the English department. So I slipped sideways into Renaissance Studies, since they would still let me read Shakespeare; I could look at pretty pictures by Michelangelo; and I didn’t have to venture into anything more modern than the Thirty Years’ War. From there it was an easy stumble into doing graduate work in English history.
Which brings us to how I came to write about the Pink Carnation. “The Secret History of the Pink Carnation” was my reward to myself for passing my General Exams at the end of my second year of grad school. Reading a dull homework assignment earns me a frappuccino; writing a paper merits a new pair of shoes; for two years of studying, I deserved something really, really big, so I took the summer off, pushed my dissertation into a “think about later” pigeon hole, lounged by the pool, re-read my entire Elizabeth Peters collection, and started writing about the Purple Gentian.
Despite the lack of novel writing in college, I carried around a little notebook where I jotted down any plot ideas that struck me. By the time I gleefully flung the last of my Generals notes into the recycling bin, and hauled the last batch of overdue library books back to Widener, only three plots were serious contenders: a mystery novel about the suspicious death of a little old Shakespeare professor at Yale, a romance set in 1811 about a band of technology-resistant Luddites led by a feisty young heroine (the computer and I were feuding again), and the Purple Gentian.
The idea for the story emerged from endless years of overexposure to the Scarlet Pimpernel and his brethren (by whom I mean any dashing rogue, usually played by Errol Flynn, who delivers a witty line, jumps off a table, brandishes a sword, and defeats the perspiring villain with one hand held languidly behind his back). One would be hard pressed to find an old-fashioned swashbuckler I hadn’t watched to distraction—Robin Hood, Zorro, Ivanhoe—but the Scarlet Pimpernel received an extra boost in the dashing hero stakes when my school had the good sense to show the Anthony Andrews version as part of the eighth grade history unit. The eighth grade—forty giggly girls in plaid kilts—were enthralled. We broke into warring camps over whether Anthony Andrews was cuter, or the guy who played Armand (for the record, my vote is still in for Anthony Andrews as the Pimpernel). No sleepover party was complete without a late night viewing, and a rapturous repetition of “We seek him here, we seek him there…. Oooh! He’s so cute! Hey, that was my pillow! Give it back!”
There was, I reflected years later, after my five millionth “Scarlet Pimpernel” and Ben & Jerry’s evening, only one slight problem. The Pimpernel had it too easy. True, he had to worry over whether Marguerite was spying for Chauvelin, but he never let that seriously impede his progress. What would a spy fear most? Not an enemy, but… an unwanted ally. A man in a black cloak, and a strong-minded heroine set on unmasking him—so she can help him. Every spy’s worst nightmare. I even had a name for my spy! Back on the Chapin Varsity Badminton team (yes, I lettered in badminton, a source of much amusement to all the males in my freshman year dorm, who refused to be convinced it was a sport), I had a friend named Jen Chen, whom my best friend Nancy affectionately nicknamed Purple Gentian, because, if one says Jen Chen very quickly, it sounds like gentian, and, as everyone knows, all the best gentians are purple. It sounded right. It sounded like a spy in cloak and knee breeches. I had my hero.
Originally, Pink Carnation was entitled “A Rogue of One’s Own.” It was a natural choice, since all Regencies must inevitably feature either a rogue or a rake. After a run-in in college with someone who actually believed that Hogarth’s “The Rake’s Progress” had to be a treatise about advances in farming technology, I decided that rogues required less explanation. And how many rogues there were! “The Rogue Next Door,” “The Rogue Less Traveled,” “A Rogue for all Seasons” (I figured Sir Thomas More wouldn’t mind), “The Rogue has Two Faces,” and “Gone With the Rogue” (by then, it was late at night, and I had consumed too much coffee).
The Pink Carnation appeared late in the game, and entirely by accident, which is the way most things in my life happen (planning anything out is a sure way to make sure it does not transpire). I admire those authors whose plots are charted from the first chapter, and whose characters do just what they tell them to. My characters know who is boss. Them. I just watch, chronicle, and occasionally go back and rewrite after they’ve made a hash of my carefully laid plot plans. Take Jane, for example. Jane was supposed to be meek and mild, a well-mannered foil to the hoydenish Amy. Somewhere along the line, Jane developed a sarcastic sense of humor. Then she started ordering everyone about. Before I knew it, my timid Jane had turned into an evil mastermind with nerves of steel and annoying rhetorical habits. I have no doubt that she was egged on by Miss Gwen, who was trying to get back at me for giving her unfortunate taste in millinery.
Likewise, Geoff transformed from Richard’s secretary into an old friend from Eton with a place in the peerage and a plot-line of his own, and Richard hired a butler without telling me. I just opened the door of his Paris townhouse, and there he was. So it should come as no surprise that the Pink Carnation appeared out of the blue, in a fit of late-night slap-happiness. At some point, there may yet be an Invincible Orchid, but I’m having enough trouble keeping straight the flowers already in circulation.
I wrote the Pink Carnation over the course of two summers—that second summer was really supposed to be devoted to writing about dashing spies of an entirely different sort, the royalists fighting for King Charles I who made up the subject of my neglected dissertation. But, by that point, Amy and Richard were embroiled in romantic intrigue, plotting to steal Napoleon’s gold, and smooching on the Seine, and I couldn’t just leave them there. I was also tired and cranky after a year of teaching Western Civ, and grading student papers that contained gems like, “James I returned England to Protestantism after sixty years of Catholic rule under Queen Elizabeth I,” or, one of my personal favorites, “The Middle Ages are known as the Dark Ages because the buildings didn’t have windows; in the Renaissance, they discovered glass, and everything became light.” Enough said. The Royalists would have to wait.
I had a summer job in the history department library, a wonderful old wood-paneled room, with a twisty iron staircase, the sort of library, where, on rainy days, one expects a butler to enter, and say, “Pardon me, madam, but Sir Reginald was just murdered with a lead pipe in the conservatory.” Ignoring the dusty pile of reference books next to me, I typed away at Pink Carnation, and tried not to look too guilty every time a professor wandered into the library. If they ever noticed that my “dissertation notes” seemed to be written largely in dialogue, with more heaving and throbbing than one would expect of the partisans of Charles I, no one ever commented on it. Of course, I had warned my advisor when I first came to Harvard that the purpose of the PhD was to write historically accurate romance novels. He thought it was a great joke. So did the coordinator of the history department, when I gave him my little blurb for the facebook, and… well, you get the idea. Honesty is definitely the best policy when there is no danger of being taken seriously.
My harshest critic and greatest partisan is my little sister Brooke, between whom and Henrietta any resemblance is more than coincidental. Fifteen in years, Brooke has been taller than me since she was ten, giving me love-life advice since she was eight, and stealing my romance novels (we call them “trashies,” an affectionate nickname, short for trashy romance novel) since she was six. Precocious is putting it mildly. Early on, she appointed herself editrix-in-chief of the Purple Gentian project, and takes a very proprietary interest in the characters—especially Miles.
Crazy to think that was seven years ago, isn’t it? Brooke is no longer fifteen, but she is still taller than me and still stealing my romance novels…. Hi, Brooke!