Mary Robinette Kowal Author Interview

Mary Robinette Kowal's debut novel has been awarded RT's fifth Seal of Excellence. Kowal, a highly respected puppeteer and vocal actor, wowed RT editors with Shades of Milk and Honey, a Regency England-set fantasy. The book seamlessly blends historical fiction with fantasy to create a novel in the same vein as Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott with one small addition - magic. In this interview, RT goes behind the scenes of Shades of Milk and Honey to learn how Kowal got into the "Jane Austen frame of mind." And don't miss the exclusive hidden extra that Kowal shares from Shades of Milk and Honey and the author's look ahead at the story's sequel, Glamour In Glass.

RT BOOK REVIEWS: There are three major components to Shades of Milk and Honey, the heroine, Jane, the Regency-era setting and the magical element of the glamour — which came to you first? How did that element inspire the others?

Mary Robinette Kowal: The Regency-era setting came first. I was reading Persuasion by Jane Austen and wishing that there were a fantasy that had the same sort of quiet intimacy. I also am very fond of Anne Elliot, the heroine in that novel, who is not flashy like Lizzie Bennett but struggles within the bounds of society just as much.

From there glamour and Jane developed very much together. In order for the world to be recognizably the Regency and avoid breaking history I needed the magic system, which is called glamour in my world, to comparably gentle. Also since Miss Austen's novels focus on young gentlewomen, I wanted to come up with a form of magic that would allow my heroine to be a practitioner without being outside the bounds of conventional society. While considering what might drive one to develop such a talent and interest in glamour, I wound up deciding that Jane would be quite plain and somewhat motivated by feeling as though she were in the shadow of her much more beautiful younger sister.

RT: For those unfamiliar with a 'glamour' how would you describe it in terms of the world you have created? What details did you use to ground the magic of glamours in the daily society of the Regency era?

MRK: Glamour is considered a womanly art, much like painting, music and needlepoint. It is largely illusionary and used most commonly to beautify the home. You can think of it as the ability to paint with light. It takes energy to create glamour and time to develop the skills, so it is largely an occupation of the leisure class.

One of the ways in which I paralleled the other arts of the Regency era was by introducing a professional glamourist, Mr. Vincent. While it is considered a womanly art, the professional glamourists are all men, much the same way that professional artists of the period were also men.

I also created etiquette for when it was appropriate to use glamour. Using glamour to make a threadbare sofa look brand-new would be considered in poor taste, while using it to create the illusion of a forest in one's dining room would be the height of fashion — at least this season.

RT: You call Shades of Milk and Honey your "Jane Austen novel with magic novel." What steps did you take to get yourself into a Jane Austen "state of mind" while writing?

MRK: I've noticed before that when I read, little bits of the style of what I'm reading will often stick, so I decided to take advantage of that and read nothing but Jane Austen or reference books on the period while writing. Anytime I sat down to write, I would first read a chapter of Jane Austen. I started with Persuasion, then moved to Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and finally Pride and Prejudice.

RT: What do you attribute the lasting appeal of Jane Austen's works, after all, in modern society fads are fleeting and attention spans are short?

MRK: One of the most interesting things about Miss Austen is that her works are actually atypical of the other writers in the Regency. She was largely writing in reaction to the gothic horror novels which she felt were overwrought. The level of realism that she infects her writing with comes from that and is a large part of where, I think, the appeal lies. Her books also exist on multiple levels: the social commentary, the love stories, the humor and the quality of her prose.

RT: How did you go about making Jane's character appealing to modern readers in light of the fact that Jane is so different from contemporary women?

MRK: Every woman has restrictions placed on her by what society thinks. Those restrictions are different today than in the past, but we've all felt those expectations. My challenge with Jane was to help the modern reader understand the restrictions that Jane faced and then to have her push against them. I also, frankly, have her reach a breaking point in which I allow her to do things that no Regency gentlewoman would do. Without spoilers, I will say that the end of the novel comprises activities which occur in some of Miss Austen's novels but always off-stage. My challenge was in finding a path which would allow Jane to be a participant in those acts. A modern audience would never submit to a reporting after the facts.


RT: On your website you have several Shades of Milk and Honey "easter eggs", or hidden extras. Could you share one such spoiler-free extra for our readers?

MRK: I would be delighted to. As I explained to the readers on my blog, most of my fiction includes at least one small thing which I include to amuse myself. It's a holdover from when I was a touring puppeteer. After one has been performing the same show for months or years, there's a game that we sometimes play. The goal is to insert something which doesn't belong but for it to fit seamlessly into the world so that the audience doesn't know. I find myself doing the same thing with my fiction.

For example, in Chapter 15 Jane is given a gift by their neighbor Lady FitzCameron:

"It was a handsomely bound edition of Gothic tales with illustrations by the famous member of the Society of Lady Etchers, Alethea Harrison. Such a gift was far more beautiful than any book in her father’s library, though its subject matter was more to Mrs. Ellsworth’s taste than Jane’s. Still, she thanked Lady FitzCameron very prettily, and the Viscountess seemed to think that the business was done."

There are two jokes in this one. I have a dear friend, Alethea Kontis, who often visited at my parents' home and we used to joke that she was another daughter. Harrison is my maiden name. At the time she had just completed a story called "Small Magics" which involved a young lady who was trying to become a member of the Society of Etchers.

RT: You have also done a vocal recording of Shades of Milk and Honey. Was there anything unexpected about blending your love of writing and vocal performance? During the process did you learn anything about your writing that you won't be repeating in your next novel?

MRK: I've been recording audio books for awhile now but the process is very different with one's own work. For starters, with this one we decided that I would record with a British accent to match the setting. I had a dialect coach, but even so we went at about half the speed I normally go. Because of the constant starting and stopping I never sank into the story, which meant that I was much more conscious of my prose on a line by line basis. It's going to make me look much harder for echoes in my work next time around. Echoes are things like,  "...lay against her neck like a necklace of jet." The repetition of "neck" drives me batty and is almost impossible to read aloud without sounding daft.

RT: Since 2004 you've had 34 short stories published, what made you decide to take the plunge into full-length fiction? Was there anything surprising about the process of writing (and publishing) your first full-length work?

MRK: Oddly, I started writing novels first. Waaaaay back in 2003 my brother moved with his family to China. I was looking for a way to connect with my niece and nephew and recalled that I used to enjoy writing when I was in high school and college, so I decided to write a serial for them. I was about three installments in when I realized that I had something and sat down to outline it. After I finished it, I started trying to figure out what to do with it and that led me to writing short fiction while shopping the novel around.

I've actually completed five novels, but Shades of Milk and Honey and its sequel, Glamour In Glass, are the first ones that I sold. We're shopping one of the others, an urban fantasy, but the rest are in the trunk.

The thing that was most surprising, even though I'd been told about it, is how long everything takes. I wrote Shades of Milk and Honey in 2006 and it's only now coming out. I've turned in Glamour In Glass but it won't hit the shelves until 2012.

RT: Speaking of Glamour In Glass, will readers be seeing any familiar faces from Shades of Milk and Honey in this next work?

Mary Robinette Kowal: Indeed. You will get to see Jane, her family and Mr. Vincent in Glamour In Glass. It is set in 1815, so I take them out of England and over to the continent. It was a fun opportunity to explore the larger world and see how glamour affects it.