Despite being a native Michigander, Alyssa Alexander is pretty certain she belongs somewhere sunny. And tropical. Where drinks are served with little paper umbrellas. In the meantime, she’s inviting us to take a ride with her into Regency England where Julian Travers, Earl of Langford, fights the battle between love and espionage in her debut novel The Smuggler Wore Silk.
Now join us in our first chat with Alyssa.
DUCK CHAT: Welcome to The Good, the Bad and the Unread, Alyssa! Our first question is always: Instead of a tell-us-all-about-yourself question, tell us one thing even the most hard-core Alyssa Alexander fan doesn’t know.
ALYSSA ALEXANDER: I have a black thumb. The blackest of black thumbs you can possibly imagine. If it is a green and growing thing, you can guarantee I will kill it. If it weren’t for Mr. Alexander, I wouldn’t have any gardens or house plants at all. And the Christmas tree? Yep, that’s pretty much Mr. Alexander, too. The year it was all up to me, I forgot to water it for two weeks.
DC: I’ve heard writers often say their stories take them in surprising directions, or dialogue flows from some unknown place. Is it the same with you? Do your characters surprise you sometimes?
AA: Yes! My characters surprise me all the time by doing or saying something I hadn’t planned on. I find those moments to be the most exhilarating parts of writing.
DC: Do you ever argue with your characters while you’re writing? Who usually wins?
AA: Again, yes! Usually the characters win. If we’re having an argument, it’s because the character I’ve crafted wouldn’t actually do what I’m telling them to. The scene simply won’t work if the character isn’t on board, so I might have to modify the plot to ensure compliance.
DC: Congratulations on your debut novel, The Smuggler Wore Silk, which just hit the shelves a week ago. Would you tell our readers the genesis of the story? Did the book evolve as you’d originally envisioned?
AA: The end result was not at all what I envisioned at the beginning. In the original drafts of the first few chapters, Grace was only a friend of the smugglers. When I made the decision to actually make her a smuggler, the entire trajectory of the booked changed. And then there was the time I cut out 100 pages, condensed it down to two scenes, and rewrote the rest….*shudder* I don’t want to talk about that.
DC: Your story line deals with a familiar theme of aristocrats as spies, selling of secrets to the French and a lady smuggler. What inspired the story and how did make it unique for your readers?
AA: The inspiration was two-fold. First, Julian was a secondary character in my very first book, which is now hidden in the deepest, darkest drawer I could find and will never again see the light of day. He’d been a spy in that book, so that was the easy part. Second, I was inspired by Jack Rattenbury, a real smuggler in the early 1800s who wrote his memoirs. My research also led to Grace’s part of the smuggling operation, as I discovered large parts of a community could be involved in hiding and moving goods. As for making the book unique, I believe that is a result of cutting those 100-plus pages. I realized the middle of the book was boring—really, really boring—and if I was bored, the reader would be too. Keeping myself entertained and excited and interested made it a better book!
DC: What is sure to distract you from sitting down and working/writing?
AA: Everything. I have full time job, a house to run, and a kindergartener, so I often feel like I should have all my ‘work’ done before I get to play…er, write.
DC: Which fictional character would you like to hang out with?
AA: That’s a tough one. I think either Gandalf the Gray, Mr. Darcy or Hawker, from Joanna Bourne’s BLACK HAWK…Okay, I take it back. It’s not that tough. Hawker.
DC: Can you tell our readers a little about Julian and Grace and give us a quick inside peek into their story?
AA: The Smuggler Wore Silk is the story of Grace Hannah, a poor relation turned smuggler who comes under suspicion of treason. The spy stalking her, Julian Travers, Earl of Langford, is being forced into retirement because his identity has been revealed to the enemy and he believes she was part of it. She’s innocent of treason, but she’s still a smuggler, so loyalties are divided and secrets abound, even after they marry. The question is, can they get past those secrets long enough to fall in love?
DC: What advice would you give to your younger self?
AA: Since I wouldn’t change the course of my life by even by a single millisecond, I think my advice would be more of a mantra about balance. It’s taken me awhile to realize that life needs balance. Yes, you need to work hard to achieve a dream, but you also need time to relax and love and play and laugh. Without that balance, all the hard work isn’t worth the elbow grease and carpal tunnel you put into it.
DC: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever learned by Googling your name?
AA: I’ve never Googled myself. I’m too frightened!
DC: I thoroughly enjoyed Grace’s character, especially her free-spirited ways and courage in the face of her uncle’s mean spiritedness. Was she modeled after a real-live person? I would love to hear more about the creation of this character.
AA: Grace Hannah is the most difficult character I’ve ever written, before and since. She was not modeled after a real person, nor did I choose a representative celebrity as a “dreamcast” model. I could see her in my head—and yes, I know that seems crazy. But she was simply Grace to me, and she gave me fits from the very start. How could a woman be meek and submissive in one situation and yet be a rebel and a smuggler as well? That dichotomy makes Grace very complex, and I hope it makes her compelling. To me, the smuggler is the real Grace, and the version she presents to her uncle is a defensive mask. I’ve always felt Grace blossomed during the book until, at the end, the two parts of her become one.
DC: What book would you like to read again for the first time?
AA: On the Night of the Seventh Moon by Victoria Holt. I was enamored by this book. A little gothic, a little mysterious, a little romantic, a little frightening. I read it in one sitting, and the promptly reread it. I own an original copy from the 70’s, but I haven’t read it in the past decade or more because I’m afraid everything I’ve learned through writing will ruin it for me. The very happy and very sad side effect of being a writer is that you read every book from a craft standpoint. I want to remember the wonder and fascination I experienced the first time around without craft getting mixed up in it.
DC: Alastair and Lilias are featured in your next book, In Bed with a Spy, which will release later this year. Can you give us a tiny sneak peek into their book?
AA: Alastair, code name Angel, is on the hunt for a group of assassins, which leads him to Lilias, the widow of a soldier who died at Waterloo. She has information about the assassins, she simply doesn’t know it yet. It’s Angel’s task to convince her to remember it. In the process, he begins to fall in love with Lilias—and then must send her into the heart of the assassins’ lair. But Lilias can hold her own, and she doesn’t enter empty-handed.
DC: If you were a book, what would your blurb be?
AA: Likes good food, good books, yoga and sleep…That sort of sounds like a profile for a dating site, doesn’t it?
DC: What would your “voice’s” tagline be?
AA: That’s a tough one, so I’m going to borrow from my own website. What’s love without a little danger? As much as I love flowery prose sometimes, I like to temper it with a bit of an edge.
DC: There are many stories of the Hellfire Club and its aristocratic membership and the evils that were perpetuated by the membership. What was behind your purpose in introducing that into your story?
AA: I’d read about the real Hellfire Clubs in a few research books over the years. There were a number of them in Britain, some more tame than others, and I believe there was one group who met in caves. When I needed a reason for a few gentlemen to be aware of the smuggling caves, secret Hellfire Club meetings came to mind. Also, given some of what was rumored to go on at those meetings, I thought it showed insight into my characters.
DC: If you had never become an author, what do you think you would be doing right now?
AA: Exactly what I’m doing now when I’m not writing. I work full time as a legal assistant and love it. I’ve been working there for ten years, long before I was published, so I would likely be doing the same thing. Or, given my love of my day job, I might have gone to law school and been a lawyer myself—but my love of romance would have never changed!
– dark or milk chocolate? Dark.
– smooth or chunky peanut butter? I don’t care for peanut butter. How strange is that?
– heels or flats? Heels. Always. I’ve gone grocery shopping in stilettos.
– coffee or tea? Coffee. A woman can live on coffee alone.
– summer or winter? Summer. This girl is not meant for the cold!
– mountains or beach? Beach. A white sandy one with a cabana boy and a drink with a little paper umbrella….Wait. Please excuse me. It’s January and I need a moment to fantasize.
– mustard or mayonnaise? Spicy mustard!
– flowers or candy? Flowers. Candy only lasts 10 seconds after receipt.
– pockets or purse? Purse. I’m the mother of a five year old boy. I need something big enough for toy cars, superheroes, Band-aids and crackers. Plus, you know, a wallet would be good.
– Pepsi or Coke? Coke
– ebook or print? Print. I’m the last holdout for an ereader. I still don’t have one!
And because we still enjoy the answers we get:
1. What is your favorite word? Constantinople. This word is an inside joke in my marriage, so I can’t explain it. Suffice it to say, it’s one of the reasons I love Mr. Alexander the best.
2. What is your least favorite word? “Just saying.” Technically, that’s two words, but I still hate it.
3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? Music and yoga, together or separate…And potato chips. My muse is often inspired by cheddar and sour cream potato chips.
4. What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? Stress and lack of time. Having a day job, a small child, a house to run and a (wonderful!) husband means I’m busy. But like so many writers, when I have too many tasks weighing on me I have trouble writing.
5. What sound or noise do you love? The sound of summer. I know that sounds silly, but if you’re ever sitting outside at midday in high summer, close your eyes and just listen. Summer has a sound all its own.
6. What sound or noise do you hate? I actually couldn’t think of anything for this until my boy-child was spinning circles on the floor of my kitchen while I was doing dishes singing “Mom-MY, Mom-MY, Mom-MY, Mom-MY, Mom-MY…” I love my child, as he’s an absolute sweetheart with a curiosity streak a mile wide and enough energy to fuel a rocket to Mars…but at some point, that chanting does get old. But he’s chanting for his Mom-MY because I’m “the bestest.” So I guess I can’t complain.
7. What is your favorite curse word? Lately I’ve been using ‘Confound it.’ My most recent hero has rubbed off on me.
8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Chef. Absolutely, without a doubt, chef. If I could simultaneously attend culinary school, work full time, mother my child and write, I would.
9. What profession would you not like to do? Anything involving the medical profession. I don’t do blood unless it’s small enough to be hidden by a superhero Band-aid.
10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well played, Al. Well played.”