Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Q&A with Mary Jo Putney

Every now and then, something I read raises a question in my mind that continues to niggle away until I need to find out more about it.  In my review of Nowhere Near Respectable, when speculating on the "believability" (for lack of a better word) of Kiri and Adam's acceptance into the British ton, my first thought was, "that would never really fly," thinking more of 19th century American attitudes toward race.  My second thought was, "well huh, Britain is much less racist than America, so maybe?" thinking of early 20th century examples of famous African Americans like Josephine Baker.  My third thought? "I have no idea whatsoever." Thus, the niggle.

A little superficial googling will bring up articles on immigration and racism in Britain, and Anglo/Indian politics and tensions, but nothing much is readily available about the aristocracy.  So I decided to go to the source, and emailed Mary Jo Putney directly.  I was properly thrilled to receive a gracious, in-depth reply, along with permission to post our conversation.

Nicola: Hi Ms. Putney!  I'm a longstanding fan of yours and recently read and reviewed Nowhere Near Respectable on my blog.  I really enjoyed the story very much (as well as the first Lost Lord book) but I was wondering a little about the biracial heroine, and if you would be interested in a little interview or follow-up on the topic?

MJP: I'm happy to discuss this topic because it interests me.  I've had a number of mixed race protagonists.  Partly that is because it's easier to have such a character in a Regency historical if one of the parents is English and well-born.  Partly it's because the world's great diversity fascinates me.  Lastly, being caught between two worlds is a good metaphor for the feeling of not belonging that most of us experience as some times in our lives. (Especially but not exclusively in adolescence.)

Nicola: I'm convinced that the not-belongingness is the root of the paranormal popularity, especially the typical arc where the main character, like Harry Potter, spends a good chunk of their life not belonging, and then experiences the joy of realizing that no, it's not their imagination, they really ARE different, and furthermore, finding their "tribe" where they DO belong.  It's a pet theory of mine. :-)

MJP: VERY interesting, Nicola! I hadn't thought of it, but I'm sure you're right, especially with the many YA paranormals.

That said, Lady Kiri was confident as a golden retriever. She was raised with wealth, position, and a loving family, and had no self esteem issues to speak of.  That was a deliberate contrast with her brother Adam, hero of Loving a Lost Lord, who was raised in very different circumstances and felt the need to bury the non-English side of his nature.  (Much of his character arc in that book is accepting that side of him.)

Nicola: I loved that about Kiri!  no victim-ness or self-pity about her.

Nicola: First I want to say that I don't mean to put you on the spot or try to play "spot the historical error" - I am no historian at all and if the answer to all the questions is "I made it up because it makes a great story," I think that's fantastic!

MJP: I'm capable of shameless invention {g}, but I try to work from facts where I can, and invent within a plausible framework.

Nicola: Mainly, I am curious to know whether there is historical precedent for bi-racial persons being accepted into the British ton, and if you had any interesting anecdotes that you might have come across in your research.

MJP: The best example I can think of is Lord Liverpool, who was Prime Minister of Britain in the tumultuous period from the late Napoleon wars up until 1827. He was part Indian, though I'm not sure the percentage.  A quarter, I think, but I won't swear to it.  He was the most powerful man in Britain for 14 years and while there might have been some racial sneers behind his back, it certainly didn't dent his career.

In the earlier days of the British occupation of England, there were very few English women, so it was common for Britons to take Indian wives.  Naturally, the result was Anglo-Indian children.  This shifted during the Victorian period when transportation improved dramatically and the "memsahibs" came out to India.  With them came racism, unfortunately.  To quote from the introduction to my Indian set historical, Veils of Silk (advert: now available in e-book form {g} ):

A paradigm of the racial situation was the elite Indian Army cavalry unit known as Skinner’s Horse. It was founded by James Skinner, the son of a British officer and his Rajput wife. By the end of the nineteenth century, James Skinner’s mixed blood would have prevented him from serving in the regiment he had founded.

Nicola: I remember Veils of Silk and the other Silk books, featuring the Khyber pass -- I often think of that when the extreme geography of Afghanistan is referred to in respect to the current war.  One thing I miss about older romances -- say, 20th century publications {g} -- is characters who travel.

MJP: A friend of mine calls them the "globe trotting books" because she misses them, too.  So do I, but page counts have dropped drastically over the years, and there isn't as much room for plot or exotic setting since first and foremost, the story has to be a romance.  I think this is one reason why e-pubbed versions of backlist historicals are selling well.  Some readers really miss them.

[Back to real-life examples...] Field Marshall Lord Roberts is another mixed race historical figure.  He was a great Victorian military hero who was born in India and had Indian blood.  (Again, I'm not sure how much.)

Nicola: It certainly seems inevitable that there would be a couple of generations of Indian/British offspring of all classes; but I have to admit I really had no idea how much acceptance they would have had in society and whether the laws of primogeniture applied.  I thought it was believable in Adam's story, which then logically meant Kiri's acceptance had to be believable too, because it wouldn't do to snub the sister of a duke {g}. 

MJP: Plus, she's a gurrrl, and hence less threatening to the status quo.  Aristocratic men were always willing to bed exotic sexy females, and occasionally even marry them (though preferably as a second wife.)  An actual peer like Adam, a duke, is much more threatening and unnerving.  Hence his belief as a boy that he had to be as English as possible, or else.

Nicola: I've seen a few critiques of your use of the word "Hindu" to represent race rather than religion -- I assumed that it was a contextual usage? any comment?

MJP: You're correct.  I'll do my best to avoid offensive language that will jerk readers out of stories, but I prefer not to use terminology that is correct now but wouldn't necessarily have been used in the historical period the story is in.  So I'll often use the historical term if it's clear in context what it means even if it's different from current usage. (Actually, in the Regency, Hindoo was a common spelling, but I avoided that here except for the epilogue.

[Nicola's edit: to clarify, the wikipedia article on the word "Hindu" states: "Originally, "Hindu" was a secular term which was used to describe all inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent (or "Hindustan") irrespective of their religious affiliation." ]

Nicola: Finally, since Kiri's mixed heritage is such a key element of the character and story, a reader might have expected to see a darker-complected model on the cover.  Cover "whitewashing" is becoming a bit of pet cause on romance blogs, so I was wondering if you might have any comments on that?

MJP: Sigh.  I could point out that her Indian relatives are from North India, which tends to be lighter complected than South Indians, but it has more to do with the fact that authors have limited control over covers.  Kiri is a shade or two darker than the heroine on the previous book, for what it's worth.  But after all my years in the business, I'm happy when a cover is pretty and eye catching.  (A purist would point out that the gowns on my last two historicals are a lot fuller than typical Regency wear.  But as I said, I'm a pragmatist.)

Nicola: To be honest, covers so rarely have any relation at all to the characters inside, I barely notice them.  I know most authors don't get much say in their covers but I thought with your position you might be an exception.  I assume that the more selling-power the author has, the more say-so they get.  Every now and then one catches my eye enough to give it a look, and once in a while they are so bad that I am repelled {g}, but mostly I look for author names that I know or have been recommended.  I do think that diversity in cover models is becoming -- ever so slowly-- less of an anathema to publishers.

MJP: I hope you're right!  My publisher does listen some about covers, but that doesn't give an author leave to mess around too much.  One must pick one's battles.

Nicola: Thank you so much for your time and thoughtful responses!

MJP: As I said, the topic is one that interests me and that I've returned to again and again in my books. And it's always much more fun to chat then to keep hammering away on my overdue book.


Seriously, this kind of interaction is one of the best things about the internet, in my opinion.  Mary Jo Putney has been publishing wonderful romances since 1987.  I discovered her Fallen Angels series in the late 90s and she has been a total favorite of mine ever since.  If you have never read her books and you love historicals, you are really missing out. 


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