Please welcome New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn, who’s talking with us today about her new release, A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS (Harlequin MIRA, April 2013):
A sixth-generation native Texan, New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a double major in English and history. Deanna makes her home in Virginia, where she is hard at work on her next novel.
The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even amongst Paris society. But her latest scandal is big enough to make even her oft-married mother blanch. Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather’s savannah manor house until gossip subsides.
Fairlight is the crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of a faded African dream, a world where dissolute expats are bolstered by gin and jazz records, cigarettes and safaris. As mistress of this wasted estate, Delilah falls into the decadent pleasures of society.
Against the frivolity of her peers, Ryder White stands in sharp contrast. As foreign to Delilah as Africa, Ryder becomes her guide to the complex beauty of this unknown world. Giraffes, buffalo, lions and elephants roam the shores of Lake Wanyama amid swirls of red dust. Here, life is lush and teeming-yet fleeting and often cheap.
Amidst the wonders-and dangers-of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty and joy that cut to her very heart. Only when this sacred place is profaned by bloodshed does Delilah discover what is truly worth fighting for-and what she can no longer live without.
I met Deanna through Facebook (she’s very nice and approachable on social media – be sure to say hello!) and I’m delighted she agreed to join me here at the blog during the launch of A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS.
And so, with no further ado, on with the questions!
Where did you grow up? Will you share a favorite story from your childhood?
I grew up in San Antonio, and although I haven’t lived in Texas for ten years, I’m still very attached to my roots. I don’t have a favorite childhood story because—with apologies to Tolstoy–I think happy childhoods are often uneventful and mine was very happy.
What inspired you to start writing?
There’s a great line in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD where Scout says she doesn’t love reading because one doesn’t love breathing. For me it’s the same with storytelling. There was never a time that it started because I can’t remember a time I wasn’t making up stories. I do recall I was extremely relieved to learn how to print because I could finally get them out of my head and onto paper. Then, when I was 23, I reread JANE EYRE and was feeling blue that it was over. So I turned my hand to writing a Gothic novel which clocked in at 100,000 words in six weeks. It took me fourteen years to get a publishing contract, but when I did I sold three books at once and I haven’t looked back.
If you could go back in time and share one writing lesson with “new writer you” before starting your first manuscript … what would that be?
I would tell her that it’s going to be a million times harder than she’s afraid it will be. And a million times better. So she needs to put her head down and get to work because she’s got a lot of words ahead of her. I would also tell her to make friends with fear because she is going to be one of those people who isn’t happy unless she’s taking major risks so the fear will always walk hand-in-hand with the work.
Your new novel, A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, features Delilah Drummond, a vain and promiscuous young woman exiled to an African estate in the 1920s while the scandal of her husband’s suicide subsides in Paris. What inspired you to select such an unusual combination of setting and era?
It sounds absurd, but when my editor invited me to pitch her literally anything I wanted to write about, that sort of freedom was almost paralyzing. So I wrote out a list of all the topics I read about for pleasure—and I read a lot of nonfiction. I had dozens of different time periods and places and events and occupations on that list by the time I finished. And then I looked for things that fit together—like “1920s” and “flapper”—and added in one item that didn’t fit at all—“Africa”. That juxtaposition of subjects made for a very interesting conflict. And since I had read a fair bit about the early European settlers in British East Africa, I knew there were some colonists who were absolutely wild. They engaged in outrageous antics and some of them were notorious long before they got to Africa. For some families, Africa was a conveniently remote spot to stash the skeletons from the family closet.
Once I knew that the bones of the story were “black sheep going into exile”, I started asking the obvious questions. “How bad is she?” “What did she do?” “Why does she do these scandalous things?” And then I began fitting together how she will react to this entirely new environment. I didn’t flesh her out hugely before I started because I liked discovering her character through her reactions to the things that happened in Africa. For instance, I had never given her a specific role in the Great War until I wrote a scene early on in Kenya where she is confronted with a medical emergency and deals with it very matter-of-factly. I tossed in a few lines about her backstory that I made up on the spot to account for her reaction, but it also locked into place another whole puzzle piece to her personality. Now that I think about it, there was only one item on the list I circled that I didn’t end up using. Originally I wanted her on a rose farm in Africa, but I ended up modifying that to pyrethrum instead.
Do you have a favorite author, book, or genre?
If so, who (or what) is it, and why? My go-to book is REBECCA. I have loved it since I was fourteen and I always travel with it. My rainy day comfort reading is either cozy, golden age English mystery or classic Gothic—anything by Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Agatha Christie. I’m also deeply devoted to Jane Austen. I prefer books where good always comes right in the end, although you could have a pretty spirited debate about whether REBECCA has a happy ending.
On April 1, you released FAR IN THE WILDS, a prequel novella featuring the story of Ryder White, a Canadian hunter and adventurer who also appears in A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS. What made you decide to tell Ryder’s story separately, and how did you decide upon the prequel novella format?
My editor invited me to write a prequel novella which I thought sounded like fun. I had just signed a contract to write four novellas attached to my Victorian series, so it seemed like a natural extension to what we were already doing. When SPEAR was finished, we started brainstorming the novella and she was adamant about wanting his story told because SPEAR is told from the perspective of the heroine. That made perfect sense to me, and while we were at a conference together, I sketched out notes on a napkin for about five minutes, pitched her the idea while she was waiting for a taxi, and she accepted it on the spot. It was that quick and painless. I went right home and wrote it up and barely touched it during revisions. It was one of those projects that ends up being pure pleasure–no doubt because I had already killed myself on SPEAR!
Do you have a favorite scene or section from A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS? If so (and if you can tell us about it without revealing any spoilers!), what makes that scene stand out for you?
I’m a very visual writer; I “see” my books as I write them, and the scenes I see most clearly are my absolute favorites. When I emerge from working on them, I’m always a little surprised to find I’m actually at home and not IN my setting. I won’t give spoilers, but I will tell you that the scene depicted on the cover is one that I am particularly proud of.
What is the last book you read, and why did you choose to read it?
I just got my hands on the manuscript for Susanna Kearsley’s June release, FIREBIRD. It was extraordinary—her best yet and that’s really saying a lot because Susanna’s brilliant. And I’m not just saying that because she paid for lunch the last time I saw her.
How did you push yourself to get past difficult moments in writing and editing A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS? Do you have a favorite place to write or to edit your work?
I work in my tiny pink study. And when I say tiny, I’m not exaggerating—it’s eight feet by nine. I painted it pink with a pale turquoise ceiling and hung a chandelier so it’s appallingly feminine. But it’s also soothing and cheerful, and I love working there. As far as pushing myself, every single day on SPEAR was work, the bone-deep kind of effort that makes you grow as a writer. There wasn’t a syllable of that book that was easy, but I was so happy to be taking the risk of writing something so far removed from what I had done before. It was terrifying, but I’m also a slave to a deadline. I had a due date for that book, and I am always punctual with my work.
Do you have any upcoming signings or readings?
I have upcoming events in Richmond, New York, and Houston as well as Fairfax, Virginia, and a signing with Nora Roberts at her husband’s store in Boonsboro, Maryland in July. Details on my website.
And now, the speed round:
Plotter or pantser?
Both. I’m a Gemini, so I’m of two minds. I like to have the broad strokes—and even a few very intricate details—worked out, but I never know precisely how I’m getting to my destination. Because of time constraints I was forced to pants my last manuscript much more than I ever have before, and that confirmed for me that I’m never going to be a dedicated pantser. I like a happy blend of the two.
Coffee, tea, or bourbon?
Tea, but I’m hardcore—Lapsang souchong.
Socks or no socks?
Cats, dogs, or reptiles?
For dinner: Italian, Mexican, Burgers or Thai?
I’m a 6th-generation native Texan, so I’m going to have to go with Mexican.
Thank you, Deanna, for joining us today to talk about A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS and INTO THE WILDS. It’s wonderful to hear more about you and your work!
A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS is available online and at national and independent bookstores everywhere.