Hello, all! What’s that? Today the incomparable KJ Charles has a new release? YES! The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh, a sizzling short in her Society of Gentlemen series, is out and if you love historicals, it is sure to wow you just like it did author, Roan Parrish. When I mentioned to Roan a) how excited I was for more of the Society books and b) how much I wanted to get KJ on Binge on Books, Roan more than graciously offered to sit down with her to discuss the new release, writing as a whole, and some very personal things like a certain treadmill writing desk that is the envy of the writing community (namely me!). So in our October installment of Authors Interviewing Authors, here’s Roan Parrish discussing it all with KJ Charles…
Roan: KJ, I’m such a fan of yours and I’m thrilled to get a chance to talk with you about your work!
KJ Charles: Aw, thank you. I am too British to handle these things with grace, so just assume I’m scuffing my shoes and going red. 🙂
Roan: In your series A Charm of Magpies, we’re in the Victorian period, which has all kinds of implications of dress, technology, manner, etc., but we’re not tied to a specific year or historical event. In the series, though, it isn’t simply period-specific, it’s year-specific. The Peterloo Massacre, for example, is crucial to Harry’s feelings about his own political investments. So, can we talk a bit about how you’ve viewed writing about historical periods differently? To put it bluntly, that is, which comes first, the story ideas or the history?
KJC: I’m very definitely in an alternate universe with the Magpie books. Tied to Victorian but with flexibility for my own nefarious purposes. I did that in purely because Victorian is my period and I like playing with it. Whereas with Society of Gentlemen, it is so closely date–specific that it made my eyes bleed. The three books are all anchored by specific historical events (the Peterloo Massacre of August 1819, the Six Acts that passed in December 1819 and the Cato Street Conspiracy of February 1820). Plus, they overlap each other, so book 1 is April-Nov 1819, book 2 is August 1819-Feb 1820 and book 3 is Feb-April 1820. I used Aeon Timeline software to keep the whole massive trilogy coordinated, so imagine my feelings when my computer was stolen just after delivering book 2 and I realized I hadn’t backed the timeline up.
With historicals, really, the setting is vital to the characters. I wanted to write about Regency radicals, so the Peterloo Massacre was the obvious starting point. And that shaped the characters very heavily. The Society of Gentlemen concept would have played out completely differently in 1799, and is unthinkable in 1839. Whereas with , I came up with the character relationship first and everything about that that pretty much dictated an early Edwardian setting. So I guess characters/plots/ideas and history interlock, rather than being ‘one comes first’.
Roan: I cannot stand that your computer got stolen with your timeline on it! Horrifying. Which makes me want to know more about how you plan for something like a massive historical trilogy? I have to admit that I picture a whole wall of your house with pictures of potential waistcoats, captions from The Newgate Calendar, and newspaper clippings pinned on the wall, connected by red thread, like a very thorough serial killer or a monomaniacal detective. Disabuse me of this notion?
KJC: “Like a very thorough serial killer”: I might get that on a business card. Um. One wall of my writing shed is a huge blackboard (you can get spray blackboard paint) and that was just all scrawl. I use Aeon Timeline for the timing, Scrivener for the writing because you have the research right there with all sorts of pics and info, GenePro for family trees. And I have a pile of books to hand—a Regency costume book, a Regency London A-Z and three or four heavily post-it-noted history books.
Roan: Writing shed + blackboard paint = total magic. 🙂
One of my favorite things about the Society of Gentlemen series is that you’ve engaged with not only multiple views of politics of the period, but also varying levels of engagement with them. You haven’t romanticized any of these positions, but you’ve managed to retain the erotic charge that can come from transgressing boundaries of politics or class. (Dear lord, how excited am I for the next two books in the series? Extremely excited. Extremely.) I’m really interested to hear more about your thoughts on the place of politics in your historical novels.
KJC: Like they say, the personal is political. I tend to write about power all the time—people of different social power and different types of power finding a way forward together—so the politics of the late Regency really just play those conflicts out openly. What do you do if the man you’re obsessed with despises your background, and it’s not just him but the whole social structure around you? What would you do if having the life and the lover you want means abandoning your principles and your friends? What if your feelings for someone go directly counter to everything you believe in, like duty, decency and responsibility? Those are romantic conflicts but they’re also politics in action.
And of course politics create so much delicious conflict. Take a duke. They were one step down from the king, with massive obligations and restrictions. Heyer has an entire novel, The Foundling, about the utter misery of the young Duke of Sale, trapped by his position in what Shelley calls ‘the prison-halls of wealth and fashion’. The clash between someone who is immensely privileged but restricted by his privilege and someone who’s got much less power but a different sort of freedom (including the freedom to starve in the streets), and how you can possibly negotiate the power imbalance and responsibilities and make the duke get over himself…this stuff is my catnip.
Roan: Yes! This is one of the things that delights me about your books again and again—the tension between passion and restraint. It’s such a potent dynamic.
KJC: I love nothing more than people trapped by their own duty/morality. Some poor so-and-so trying to work out what’s right when there are two valid and mutually opposing ‘rights’… glee.
Roan: One thing that made The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh so enjoyable to me as a short story was that it all whirls around this one intense encounter. Can you talk a bit about craft and how you approach short stories?
KJC: It’s different every time really. I think the main thing is how to make it a satisfying unity, with theme and resolution. So ‘Ruin’ is, as you say, basically a single scene with lead-up and a few flashbacks.
With The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal, a collection of short individual stories forming a novel, each story had to have its own paranormal mystery or problem and solution, as well as adding something new to the building picture of the relationship across the novel. Whereas in ‘A Queer Trade’, which appears in the Charmed and Dangerous Anthology, the unifying element was actually thematic. Ned is a waste-man, who buys and sells used paper; Crispin is a magician who works by writing on paper; some magic paper has gone missing, and everything in the story hangs off the magic paper and the pens that write it.
Roan: “Ruin” concerns a rather delicious encounter over a card game. Did you learn how to play piquet and écarté in order to write the story? Or, wait, are these possibly things you already knew? (I’ve consistently failed rather spectacularly at cards, much to the irritation of friends in high school who were always after one more for euchre, so I was delighted at Ash’s lack of skill.)
KJC: Ha, no, I suck at cards. My dad tried for years to make me adequate at bridge, so Ash’s feelings on that are very much my own. I cannot begin to follow piquet. I did learn écarté for this, but I wouldn’t bet money on my performance. Let alone sexual favours. That’s a terrible idea.
Roan: Relatedly, I was discussing “Ruin” with a fellow reader who was reminding me of the scene in Emma that revolves around playing a word game. The premise of the game is that it’s a leisure activity, but of course the different characters’ interpretations of the game end up revealing things about not just them but the very different worlds they live in. The games in “Ruin” are leisure, but they also have a dimension of seriousness to them, and, of course, a dimension of romantic risk. Are there connections for you between games and romance? Romance and risk?
KJC: Absolutely. Power relationships, romantic conflict, class conflict, it’s all contests with different rules. But also, and this relates to your next question, people who live lives of leisure tend to take games very seriously indeed. Thus, Regency gentlemen would prioritise gambling debts above, e.g., paying their bills.
Roan: Style is something that is, necessarily, taken very seriously in . Not only do personal aesthetics have social and class valences, but style becomes a shared passion for Harry and Julius. Can you talk about the role you see style and fashion playing in the book?
KJC: The reason this book is heavy on fashion is that one of the things that interests me in the politics of an aristocratic milieu is the gentleman (or lady) of leisure. Francis, Ash and Julius all have secure incomes, and none of them do anything. They drift, looking for entertainment. Julius had his occupation in the army, but the wars are over. He doesn’t have lands that need looking after, he’s really not going to take up good causes: he has nothing to do. So he set himself to be the most exquisite dresser in London for the hell of it, and it’s become his means of expression, and also his shield–used to make himself superior and stop people seeing the man inside the clothes. A large part of what I wanted to show in Fashionable Indulgence is Harry’s joy in having access to beautiful things for the first time, and Julius learning to enjoy his pleasures by sharing them.
And of course with fashion you also have the classic clash between the Cavalier and the Roundhead, the aristocrat and the sans-culotte—joyful upper–class emphasis on fine dress and elaborate manners vs despising frippery and attacking privilege. It’s Julius versus Silas, with poor Harry right in the middle of it. (Cackle.)
Roan: Is fashion something that interests you contemporarily, too? Bonus question: which of the Ricardians’ aesthetics is most expressive of your own?
KJC: God, no. I get most of my clothes from the charity shop, and once went three years without a haircut. I am aware that it’s an art form, it’s just one that leaves me completely cold.
I’m most like Silas. He couldn’t give a monkey’s for clothes but can be reduced to tears and inarticulacy by beautiful writing, or beautiful books.
Roan: I saw that you use a treadmill desk? Perhaps you’re sick to death of being asked about this, but … does it change the way you think at all, when writing? I love to walk and my mind definitely wanders and gets hung up on things it might otherwise not, but that’s when walking outside. I’m so curious about the effects of moving while writing (partly because I spill/break things even when sitting down…).
KJC: It makes virtually no difference except for I’m not in constant pain from my back any more. The legs move but I can type at the same speed (slow and rubbish) and I can safely drink tea at 2mph. (Though not, I discovered, at 2.2 mph.) I don’t get the same mind-wandering idea-generating benefits as I do from going for a long walk outside, which is a shame, but the ‘not in constant pain’ thing really is the main aspect for me.
Roan: I’m thrilled to know the exact tipping point for safe tea-drinking-while-treadmill-desking. 🙂
So, The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh comes out today, October 27th. Can you tell us what’s next? And, er, I don’t remember where, but I think I saw a mention somewhere in the vastness of the internet of a potential sequel to Think of England? This would delight me so very much! So, yes, what is next for you?
KJC: Book 2 of Society of Gentlemen, A Seditious Affair, comes out in December, and book 3, A Gentleman’s Position, is next April. In March, meanwhile, is Rag and Bone, a full novel featuring the characters from ‘A Queer Trade’ and set in the Charm of Magpies world. I’m writing that now and having so much fun. Think of England 2 is in the planning but would need to be late summer 16 for contractual reasons. So, I’ll see how that goes.
Roan: I’m ridiculously excited about all of these forthcoming releases. Looking a bit farther afield, do you have any dream projects? Genres or forms you’d love to try; historical events ripe for the picking? Or, conversely, things you’d never want to write?
KJC: I have a couple of projects in mind but I don’t want to jinx myself. 🙂 I don’t see myself doing contemporary any time soon, I’m pretty happy in the past.
When not writing, Roan Parrish can usually be found cutting her friends’ hair, listening to torch songs and melodic death metal, or cooking overly elaborate meals. One time she may or may not have baked a six-layer chocolate cake and then thrown it out the window in a fit of pique. You can find her on Twitter, her author site, or her facebook page.