Identity and Transformation

Mary Jo Putney on Mad Heroines and Other Favorite Themes

Mary Jo Putney fans generally have only one quibble with the author: the wait between new books. Long-time fans actually envy newcomers who have yet to discover the joys of the entire Putney catalog. Luckily for fans new and old five Mary Jo Putney titles are scheduled to hit bookstores in the coming year. Readers will be treated to everything from a reprint of her rare first novel, a Regency, to Putney’s first contemporary — something for just about every mood.

First up from the desk of the award winning author is The Wild Child, a story that Mary Jo describes (not necessarily tongue-in-cheek) as “your basic mad heroine and imposter fiancĂ© story”.

Read our review of The Wild Child

Subversion: You describe The Wild Child as “your basic mad heroine and impostor fiancĂ© story”. Can you tell us a little more about this one?

Mary Jo Putney: The heroine, Lady Meriel Grahame, was orphaned as a child when her parents were killed in a massacre in Northern India. She spent more that a year as a captive in a native harem, and when she was returned to the English she no longer spoke or paid attention to the people around her. However, she’s a very wealthy orphan, so her guardian uncles arrange for her to live in comfort within the walled family estate. One uncle thinks that marriage might make her more normal, and decides to invoke a marital arrangement made when Meriel and Kyle Renbourne, heir to the Earl of Wrexham, were children. Kyle is willing to honor the agreement, but is too busy to court the mad Lady Meriel himself, so he sends his twin brother, Dominic, thinking that Meriel will never notice the difference. Naturally, since this is a romance, nothing goes according to plan!

“I like the name Meriel, and by making them related I can get away with using it again.”

S: The Bargain (due in October, 1999) is a rewrite of The Would-Be Widow. What compels you to rewrite your earlier works? How has the book changed from the original?

MJP: I’ve expanded the characterization, increased the sensuality, and improved the writing, but I did my best to keep the original feel-no adding suspense subplots to increase the length, for example. As to why the rewrites&mdah;well, a good story is a good story. I always enjoyed this one, and it’s fun to make one available to a much larger readership than a Regency reaches. Plus, realistically, publishers control the rights to early books, and as a writer becomes better known, the publisher wants to make money off that backlist. As a writer, it is in the best interests of both me and my readers to do what I can to make the books as satisfying as possible.

S: This is a bonanza year for Mary Jo Putney fans. In addition to the above titles, Signet is re-releasing your first novel The Diabolical Baron (due August, 1999). You joke on your website that readers should remember that this is a “first book” – looking back, how do you think this one has stood the test of time?

MJP: It was basically a pretty decent story, and that’s still true, I think. The writing is much rougher, though that is something a writer is much more likely to notice than the average reader. I was asked if I wanted to rewrite it as a historical and refused because the story is just so Regency that I don’t think it could be translated effectively without making it quite a different book, which I didn’t want to do. Better to reissue it in a smaller way, making it clear that it’s an early Regency so people can decide if that’s what they want.

S: You know that, after finishing The Wild Child, readers will be clamoring for Kyle’s story. Is this something we can expect? Any hints on what you have in store for Kyle?

MJP: Well, the title is The China Bride, which is a hint in itself (g).The heroine, Troth Montgomery, is Scottish-Chinese and Kyle finds her on his travels. (It has already been established that Kyle likes exotic women who are also intelligent and nice.) Troth has a lot of adjustments to make when she finally reaches her father’s homeland. The rest you’ll have to wait to find out! The book will presumably be available about a year after The Wild Child.

S: Meriel is a direct descendent of a previous Putney character. Was this the plan from the beginning, or did you “discover” a connection between the two Meriels as you developed the character?

MJP: Hmm, I guessed I discovered it as I thought about the story. The new Meriel has some of the same fey quality that the medieval Meriel did, and I liked the idea of setting the book at the same Warfield estate that was the center of Uncommon Vows. The castle that was new and state-of-the-art in Uncommon Vows is now a ruin that plays a part in The Wild Child. Plus, I like the name Meriel, and by making them related I can get away with using it again. (g)

S: You gave up a career as a graphic designer to become a writer. How did you choose the romance genre?

MJP: I’d always enjoyed romantic elements in stories, and I fell in love with the novels of Georgette Heyer when I was in college. A few months before I bought my first computer, I discovered the Heyer-ish Walker Regency romances in the library, so that’s what came to mind once I figured out how to use my word processing program. Basically, I wandered into the right place more or less by accident.

S: Your published works have been historicals or Regencies. Have you considered writing contemporaries or working in other genres? Why or why not?

MJP: Funny you should mention that. In May, I sold two contemporaries to Berkley. The first, The Burning Point, has already been written, and will probably be published somewhere in mid-2000. I feel very fortunate to have two great publishers and two great editors-but I’m going to be awfully busy for a while!

S: When you’re brainstorming a new book, is it the characters or the plot that seems to be the catalyst?

MJP: There is no rule about this-some stories start with a plot idea, some with a character. I keep thinking about the story until all of the elements click into place.

S: You’ve explored themes such as alcoholism, rape, and terminal illness in your work. What attracts you to these darker subjects?

“Many of my stories revolve around themes of identity: twins that look the same, but aren’t. People who present themselves as one thing, but are really something different.”

MJP: I’m strongly attracted to stories of transformation. Everyone suffers hard times in their lives – it’s how we handle the hard times that determines how well our lives work. Romances are very positive books about people who surmount difficulty to become whole and happy, so it’s a natural for this kind of story.

S: What are your favorite themes or plots in romance novels? Do you find yourself exploring these favorites in your own work?

MJP: Many of my stories revolve around themes of identity: twins that look the same, but aren’t. People who present themselves as one thing, but are really something different. Someone who has amnesia, and becomes a person different from what he or she had presented to the world earlier. So it’s not surprising that I love to read twin stories and amnesia stories! Hard to beat a good marriage-of-convenience plot, too. I don’t mind suspense, since it’s often very useful in creating narrative tension, but I avoid very violent books like the plague.

S: Can you tell us which authors or works have particularly influenced your own writing? Any favorite books that you like to recommend to others?

MJP: Mary Stewart, Georgette Heyer, and Dorothy Dunnett were all tremendous influences. My favorites would probably be Madam, Will You Talk? and The Ivy Tree for Stewart, Venetia and False Colours for Heyer, and Dunnett’s brilliant Lymond Chronicles. (Six very large books which really should be read in order.)

S: What part of your writing career do you consider to be the most fulfilling? The most frustrating?

MJP: It’s marvelous when the story comes together and you know it’s working, and equally marvelous to know that one of my stories has brightened someone’s day. As for frustration-writing books is constant source of frustration! Getting the words down in the best and clearest way to convey what started out as a vague idea is an exhausting business. But-I can’t imagine doing anything else.

S: What are you reading right now?

MJP: I’ve just finished rereading Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Again, and will then start Terry Pratchett’s fantasy novel The Last Continent. I also just read Nicole Mones’ Lost in Translation and a Sparkle Hayter mystery, The Last Manly Man.

S: Other than reading, what do you do to relax?

MJP: Watch not-too-violent videos with my significant other, preferably with a cat on my lap. Very restful, cats.

S: Any final words for our readers?

MJP: Happy reading!