How were you introduced to reading gothic romances, and what was it about them that appealed to you?
I think I first discovered gothic romances the way I discovered so many books growing up—through the local library. I’ve always been drawn to ghost stories and mysteries with spooky atmosphere, especially in a historical setting, and at the same time I’ve always been addicted to love stories and fairy tales. Gothic romances were the complete package—they had just about everything I love in a book, except perhaps humor (and some even had that!).
When did you decide to write one yourself?
I was in graduate school and researching my dissertation on 19th-century vampire literature when a lot of things suddenly coalesced. I’d always been haunted by the character Ophelia, and I’d even drafted a novel some years before about her romance with Hamlet. But it wasn’t until I was steeped in Victorian gothic fiction that I realized Ophelia and Hamlet’s story would work as a gothic romance.
Even so, I probably wouldn’t have dared to try it if I hadn’t read some exceptional gothic romances by the late Barbara Michaels in which she challenged some of the genre conventions. I knew that my book (which would eventually be published under the title Sea of Secrets) wouldn’t conform to all of the traditions of the gothic romance genre, but Michaels’s books showed me that a gothic romance could still work even if you tweaked the formula here and there. It was very freeing to feel that I could write in the genre I loved but still offer something new, something uniquely mine.
Your latest novel, With This Curse, is set in Cornwall. What made you choose this setting, and have you ever been to Cornwall?
I have been lucky enough to visit Cornwall, but only very briefly, and it’s a dream of mine to go back and spend more time there. I chose that setting for With This Curse partly because Cornwall features so heavily in the work of classic gothic romance authors like Daphne du Maurier and Victoria Holt, and it was fun to pay homage to my predecessors. Historically, Cornwall also offered some possibilities I wanted to make use of in the story, such as its history of smuggling.
Can you tell us something about the story?
With This Curse is a Victorian marriage-of-convenience story about two damaged people who get a second chance at happiness—even as circumstances conspire to destroy them. It’s a bit unusual for a gothic romance in that the heroine’s and hero’s positions are essentially swapped. Often the gothic hero starts out wounded and brooding, and the heroine’s innocence and steadfast love eventually heal him, but in With This Curse the heroine, Clara, is the one who initially seems more scarred and closed off to emotional connection. Atticus, the hero, is more open-hearted and optimistic (at least initially). It was fascinating to me to explore the dynamic between Clara and Atticus, especially since it plays out against dark deeds like murder and a family curse, and there’s some odd-couple humor in their relationship that I really enjoyed bringing out.
The covers for your books are fantastic. Can you tell us who does them and what sort of input you have in to them?
Thank you for the compliment! My gothic covers are created by the wonderful Kim Killion of The Killion Group. I wanted something like the traditional “woman running from scary house” covers from gothics published in the 1970s; even though they became cliché after a certain point, to me they’re very effective at establishing the mood and telling the reader with one glance what kind of story to expect. I selected the photographs of the models and listed some landscape features to choose from, and Kim created marvelous covers from those elements.
What was the inspiration behind your YA Ash Grove Chronicles series?
The Ash Grove books, oddly enough—or maybe it’s not odd at all, considering my predilections!—started out with my attempt to retell the old Scottish ballad “Tam Lin” as a gothic romance set in 19th-century Scotland. I couldn’t seem to get that book off the ground, though, and I finally realized that the story as I wanted to tell it lent itself more to a modern-day high-school setting with paranormal elements. The first Ash Grove book, The Shadow and the Rose, essentially tells that story, but there were so many more things I wanted to do with the characters that I wrote two more books about them, and still more are planned for some point in the future.
Do you approach the writing of your adult and YA books differently in any way?
The YA books are actually challenging in ways that my historical gothics aren’t. Setting stories in the modern day means having to address current technology and pop culture in a way that feels authentic but won’t (I hope) become quickly dated. It’s also delicate work to navigate issues that can quickly become heated and controversial, like teen pregnancy. On a technical level, the Ash Grove books are told from multiple points of view, and that presents challenges of its own.
With my historical gothics for adults, there are still sometimes tricky historical details to research, but in a way I feel much more at home writing about characters in a Victorian setting. Even though Victoria’s reign was a time of great changes and advances, in some ways that era really was a simpler time, and evoking the emotional lives of people in that period seems to come naturally to me. Perhaps I was born in the wrong time.
Is there any crossover among your readers, who read both the adult and YA books?
There is some crossover traffic, yes, but I’m not certain just how much. The readers who contact me tend to be fans of my gothics; my YA readers aren’t as vocal.
Who would be your ideal writer guests (alive or dead) at a dinner party?
That’s a challenging question, because so many writers save their brilliance for their books. For instance, P.G. Wodehouse—I know he wouldn’t say much at a dinner party, but I’d love to be able to say I’d been in his presence. I would have loved to have had the chance to hang out with Barbara Michaels, Shirley Jackson, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. And there are so many living writers I’d love to meet that I’d have to have a party every night for weeks!
What are you currently reading?
I’m going back and forth between The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, a terrific book by Christopher Vogler on the craft of writing; a reference book on theater in the Victorian era; and Sebastian Faulks’s Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. But my to-be-read pile keeps sending me seductive glances.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m drafting a short story prequel to With This Curse that will also set up a novella about one of the secondary characters. I’m also in the early stages of planning a gothic romance trilogy, which I’m excited about.
Why do you think the gothic romance continues to be such a popular genre?
There’s a mythic quality to the gothic romance that I think speaks to readers of every generation. The struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, never gets old, and gothics deal with some of the biggest emotional events of life: venturing into a scary new environment, determining who we can trust, standing up to danger, risking our heart by falling in love, confronting death. I think gothic romances offer a way of exploring some of these huge universal emotions that is ultimately reaffirming. Through these stories we can travel into the dangerous unknown while knowing that we’ll emerge on the other side having grown stronger and wiser on the journey. And when all that is packaged with delicious shivers, an intriguing setting, and a swoonworthy romance, it’s an irresistible combination!