Susanna Kearsley Q and A

There's no denying that author Susanna Kearsley has a brilliant way with words. Her latest novel, December's historical fiction The Winter Sea is equal parts contemporary romance, historical mystery and is infused with gothic overtones. This unique story captured our editors' attention and won the RT's December Seal of Excellence. Now get an insider's look at this magnificent tale with this author interview.

RT BOOK REVIEWS: In The Winter Sea, your primary heroine Carrie is a historical fiction author who becomes inspired to write a story that happens to include her ancestor Sophia in the action. As the story continues Carrie realizes that what is happening may not be so accidental at all. As a historical fiction author, has anything similar ever happened to you?

Susanna Kearlsey: The closest I ever came to something like this in my own writing would have been when I was doing the research for one of my earlier books, Mariana, while backpacking through the southwest of England with a friend of mine. I already had a very clear visual picture of my fictional village in mind, and I was keeping my eyes open for a grey stone house, a church, a manor house, and a pub, thinking I’d find them all in different places and cobble them together for my setting. While we were in Salisbury my friend, who loves stone circles, suggested taking the bus up to Avebury for the day. I rather grouchily said I didn’t want to, as I was coming down with a bad cold and didn’t want to go anywhere, but she told me to stop whining and get on the bus.

The bus set us down in Avebury across from a grey stone house. The perfect grey stone house. And right across the road from the house was a pub that looked just like the pub in my story. And a little further up the road, beside an old church like the one I’d been hoping to find, was a manor house. I started getting chills. And when I finally went into the church, I discovered the inside was just how I’d described it in a scene I’d written—even the baptismal font was in the proper place. I can honestly say I have never experienced anything like that. It was truly my village, the way I’d imagined it. And I might never have found it that day if my friend hadn’t bullied me onto that bus. (I dedicated the book to her, to say thank you).  

RT: Both of the heroines in The Winter Sea, contemporary Carrie and historical Sophia, are pursued by two gentlemen. Did you ever consider pairing either woman with the man not chosen? What is a way you think the story would differ if either woman had gone with "the other man"?

SK: It seems to me that in each case, the present and the past, only one of the two men is truly pursuing; the other doesn’t have to, since both Carrie and Sophia know the man they want on sight, and nobody else stands much chance of competing. It’s an interesting question, though. I never did consider pairing either woman with “the other man”, and to be honest if their choices had gone differently I don’t think either Carrie or Sophia would have found a lasting happiness. The heart wants what the heart wants, and the “other men”, while both good men and handsome and sincere in their affections, were a little too high-maintenance for my heroines.

RT: What is one detail that you learned about the Jacobite Invasion Attempt of 1708 which did not make it into the story?

SK: Actually, I think I pretty much threw everything I learned in there! It was such a fascinating episode of history that I wanted to get all the details out there, if I could, to make up for all the misinformation that’s come down through the history books. It was my way, I suppose, of restoring the characters’ honor. But the one part I had to skim over a bit was the jostling among the Presbyterians, the in-fighting and intrigues that went on within the Western Shires, and the impact of John Ker of Kersland. My characters discuss it, in the present and the past, but I just didn’t have the room to put it all in. 

RT: Do you have a favorite scene in the story or was there a moment that took particular extra work to get it to be what you wanted?

SK: I love the whole section that deals with the battle of Malplaquet. I’d never written a battlefield scene before, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull it off effectively, so I was nervous approaching that part. I read firsthand accounts from the people who’d been there, and studied the landscape, the weaponry, everything that I could think of to help me prepare. Then I took a deep breath and jumped into the scene, and my characters took it from there. It’s not a long scene, but it’s pivotal, and I was proud of the way it turned out.

But one of my favorite scenes just sort of happened, without my expecting it. Carrie, like me, has always found it impossible to write with anyone else in the room, until one day the man she’s in love with comes downstairs and settles in, quietly, during one of her writing sessions. As Carrie tells it, “It wasn’t until I’d gone three pages on and discovered that I was now drinking a fresh cup of coffee that I hadn’t made, that I had looked over and seen him stretched out on the opposite sofa, his own cup of coffee forgotten beside him, head bent to his papers.” The comfort and the caring and the silent shared affection of that scene will always resonate with me, and make me happy. 

RT: You spent a considerable amount of time doing research in Cruden Bay, where the story is set. What aspect of The Winter Sea was influenced the most by the time you spent there?

SK: It’s hard to single out one thing, because I gained so much from my short time there and from all the generous help that I was given by the people of the village, but I think—I hope—that what was influenced most greatly was the novel’s sense of place. A setting isn’t only what you see, it’s what you feel and smell and hear, and having walked the beach below the dunes and climbed the path up Ward Hill to the place where Carrie’s cottage stands, and wandered through the ruins of Slains castle on its cliffs above the sea, I found it easier to “paint” those settings on the page with all my senses so that, with a bit of luck, my readers could imagine they were standing there, as well.  

RT: While you were working on The Winter Sea did you listen to any music (or sounds) that helped you get into the mood of either your contemporary story or the one set in the 1700s?

SK: I have to confess that, as much as I love music, when it comes to writing it’s my Kryptonite—I can’t concentrate or work while any melody is playing, it distracts me. So unfortunately, I didn’t listen to any special music or sounds while I was working on The Winter Sea. (Though I did sometimes put on a fan to make white noise to block out the sounds of my kids playing while I was writing!)



RT: You began working on The Winter Sea over twenty years ago, what is something about the story that has evolved from its original incarnation?

SK: Well, when I first read John S. Gibson’s history of the 1708 invasion, Playing the Scottish Card, I thought Nathaniel Hooke—the Irishman who sort of engineered the whole attempt—would be the hero of the past story. He was a fascinating man with complex motives, and even Gibson himself remarks, “An historical novelist wishing to dream up a character who might embody the political tumult of the late seventeenth century could hardly do better [than Hooke]…” But he just never worked on the page in the way that I wanted him to. It wasn’t until I got deeper into my research and noticed the quieter character standing behind Hooke the whole time, John Moray, that I found my actual hero and things started rolling. 

RT: Your British publishers changed the name of The Winter Sea to Sophia's Secret for their paperback edition of the book in 2009. Do you think that the change in title influenced the type of readers who picked up the book in the UK versus the US?

SK: I’m not really sure. My British publishers, Allison & Busby, were solidly behind The Winter Sea from the beginning, and they brought the book out first under that title, only changing it for the paperback edition when the major UK book buyers informed them that you simply couldn’t sell a book called The Winter Sea in the summertime (when the paperback was scheduled to come out). As Sophia’s Secret, the book did very well in the UK, and even gained a nomination as Romantic Novel of the Year, but whether that was because of the title change or the incredibly wonderful job Allison & Busby did of promoting and selling the book, I don’t know.  

RT: Your work has been compared to that of Daphne du Maurier, do you consider The Winter Sea a gothic? If so, do you think that gothics are coming back and now, forget what everyone else is saying about them, do you have a favorite gothic tale?

SK: I call my own books modern gothics, and there are definitely gothic elements in The Winter Sea: the isolated setting, the young woman coming into an unfamiliar and fairly closed community, the threat of danger and a mystery based on secrets. In the classic gothic structure, though, the hero tends to be a bit more of a brooder, and a little dangerous himself, so the heroine’s never quite sure she can trust him. My heroes admittedly are more laid-back and trustworthy. 

My favorite classic gothic novel, hands down, would be Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting, which not only has the spooky isolated chateau, the innocent young woman, dangerous family secrets AND a darkly brooding hero, but in my opinion one of the best extended chase scenes ever written. And the scene in which Linda first meets Raoul is brilliant.

Do I think gothics are making a comeback? I certainly hope so. I’m thinking I see a few signs in the recent remake of Jane Eyre at the movies, and Avon’s decision to publish an actual gothic romance—Katy Madison’s Tainted By Temptation—this year. The concept of the smart and independent ordinary heroine who gets caught up in extraordinary circumstances laced with danger has an enduring appeal, and maybe for the women who didn’t grow up reading them it’s something fresh and new. For those of us who did grow up reading them, it’s a long-overdue renaissance. 

RT: You are part of the group blog The Heroine Addicts, with several fellow authors. What is something you've learned from the experience?

SK: Thanks for mentioning The Heroine Addicts (who are Brigid Coady, Julie Cohen, Christina Courtenay, Liz Fenwick, Anna Louise Lucia, and myself). We’re more than simply fellow authors, we’re friends, and the group blog is our way of keeping that contact in spite of the fact that a few of us live far apart. We’re all members of the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association, that’s how we met in the first place, and it was at last summer’s conference in Greenwich, England, that we decided to start our blog. I knew going in it was going to be fun, but I wasn’t prepared for how much it would mean to me, having this regular contact and interaction with such supportive writing friends, all of us at different stages in our careers and so able to help and cheer each other on. We have no rules for our blogging, apart from the fact that we post every Sunday and Thursday—we each do our own thing, and so far it’s just been a blast. I think what I’ve learned is how lonely I’d feel if we ever stopped blogging together!     

RT: Your first thriller, Every Secret Thing, was published under the name Emma Cole, but recently your Canadian and UK publishers have reverted to using the Susanna Kearsley name. As you move forward on the sequel to Every Secret Thing, do you have any idea (or preference) which name your American fans can be looking for on the spine of the book?

SK: Every Secret Thing, which I’m proud to say was a finalist for the Canadian Crime Writers’ Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel, is the only one of my backlist books that hasn’t found a US publisher as yet (Sourcebooks doesn’t publish mysteries, apart from Georgette Heyer’s), but if it ever does get published in the States I think I’d like it to be a Susanna Kearsley title. The pen name “Emma Cole” was originally meant to make it clear to readers that the book was slightly different from my other novels, since it had no paranormal thread and was more of a straight thriller, but I believe my American fans would be able to draw that distinction without any need of a name change.

RT: And one final bonus question, all of us who love The Winter Sea were thrilled to learn that you are working on a companion story that follows Anna as she too becomes involved in the Jacobite cause. Can you share a detail from that story that RT readers can keep their eyes open for?

Susanna Kearsley: Well, as with The Winter Sea, I’ve been turning to actual history to help shape the plot, using letters and journals and memoirs of people involved in the Jacobite intrigues. One person central to this second book is Captain Thomas Gordon, now an Admiral of the Russian navy in St Petersburg, who’s going to be taking a close interest in what Anna does. And Colonel Graeme, whom I fell in love with in The Winter Sea, is ready to teach someone else the strategies of chess.