Don't Tempt Me: The Interview

Don't Tempt Me sm

Historical fiction author Susan Holloway Scott interviewed me at the Word Wenches blog. Here's how it went, (minus the very flattering intro, which I've edited out because, well, because):

Susan: First, Loretta, what’s it all about? In a nutshell.

Loretta: Zoe Octavia Lexham, a harem captive for twelve years, risks her life to get home to England again, only to find that England’s not wild about having her back. (Here’s English Society’s idea of a harem). The only man who can make Society change its attitude toward her is a childhood friend, the Duke of Marchmont. Handsome, witty, rich, and very, very fashionable, he’s also the laziest man in town and, apparently, not overly intelligent. But he says “Nothing could be simpler” than making her respectable again, and Zoe can’t afford to be picky. And if I say any more, it’s no longer a nutshell but an essay.


Susan: While Don't Tempt Me is a “stand-alone” book for you, the hero and the heroine are hardly “stand-alone” characters. Their families and friends are very much part of their lives and decisions in both good and bad ways, and yet Zoe Octavia and Lucien de Grey, Duke of Marchmont, are completely separated from their families for years at a time. What role did you see “family” play for both characters?

Portrait of the Benua Family-Olivier-w

Loretta: I think family, whether dead or alive, is crucial to character development. We don’t come out of nowhere; we come out of a context. In this story, though, I brought the family up close and personal to the hero and heroine, partly because it’s funny and partly because it’s poignant and partly because of that separation you mentioned. Lucien’s reacted to his experience by becoming detached from everybody. Zoe’s the opposite: She made a family of sorts for herself in the harem and she's determined to be part of her family when she gets back to England. She takes desperate measures to keep from being ejected from the nest--and her refusal to let them eject her is what, eventually, brings Lucien the connection he’s missed. Too, family interactions are a great way to demonstrate character: People behave differently with family than they do with friends, and I loved the opportunities this story gave me to show the comic aspects of aristocrats acting like a normal family.

Harem Bathhouse-Manuscript of the Zanan-nameh by Fazil-Yildiz in the University of Istanbul-w

Susan: In your last book Your Scandalous Ways, your heroine Francesca was a genuine, unrepentant courtesan and not simply one as a titillating plot contrivance. In Don't Tempt Me, Zoe has spent nearly half her life in an Egyptian harem, and you don’t sugar-coat that experience, either. How did you research the life of a European woman in a harem? How did it affect Zoe? And how did it make her uniquely ready to conquer London society?

Loretta: I’d learned quite a bit about harems in Egypt while researching Mr. Impossible. This book offered a chance to explore the material further. Zoe’s harem, though, was bigger than the average Egyptian harem--which refers, basically, to the the women of a family. But the more important the man, the bigger the harem. I’d read that Ali Pasha of Albania had three hundred women in his harem. Considering how small Albania was/is, this sounded like half the female population!

Harem reception-Lewis 1873-w

This is why my model was the Sultan’s harem, of the Topkapi Palace. With hundreds of women, and all the slaves and eunuchs, things get complicated. I thought a smart, educated young English woman, even at twelve, could adapt and, as she matured in that world, would master its ways. This experience makes it easy for Zoe to deal with, say, the hierarchy of English society and the hierarchy of household staff.

Pool in a Harem-w

Too, in the harem’s hothouse atmosphere, a smart, observant girl would develop a keen understanding of human psychology. The cultural differences are important,too. She’s coming from a world in which people are more demonstrative. Emotion isn’t a dirty word. And dirty words aren’t dirty words: In that world of women, the focus is on sex, and this is what they talk and think about. So she walks and talks and generally behaves differently from English women. It's comedy material, yes, but it's also an eye-opening--and arousing--experience for the men, especially her jaded duke. (For more harem gossip, see my post at the Avon Romance Blog.)

English Dukes

Susan: The proliferation of dukes in historical romances is epidemic, and for the most part they’re often depicted as pleasure-seeking-slacker-rakes. But Lucien takes his title and responsibilities very seriously––and I have to say it earns him a solid place alongside the other great Loretta Chase heroes. You make him suffer, yes, but he also gets over it, and gets along with his life. Is he based on a real-life peer?

St James Sq 1799-wk

Loretta: I stole the Duke of Norfolk’s house for him, and shoved the Duke of Richmond (descendant of Louise de Keroualle, the heroine of your latest, THE FRENCH MISTRESS) down a rung on the ladder of precedence to make room for Marchmont. But he wasn’t based on any duke in particular. I was thinking about what happens to a young man psychically when he’s abruptly thrust, in the most unwelcome circumstances, into a position of great responsibility. I was thinking, “teenager--rebellion--avoidance--denial.”

Gambling at roulette table ca-1800-w

But this is also a man strongly influenced by a father figure, Lord Lexham, who takes his public duties seriously and is a devoted family man. That made for a conflict between the outside Marchmont--the detached nobleman who refuses to take anything seriously--and the inside Marchmont, who knows his Duty, and gets it done via his secretary.

Harrietwilson-La coterie debouche

As to raking, it seemed to me that a man as detached as Marchmont couldn't be the serial seducer type. He has his 19th C equivalent of girlfriends, but it’s one at a time, for a (short, because he gets bored) time. I wanted us to be aware, all along, of a the kernel of goodness at heart that's necessary in a proper hero--and I think the bond with family helps account for his not turning out all bitter and twisted and selfish. I like to think the sense of humor and the wry self-awareness have grown out of interactions with the Lexham brood.


Susan: One of the hallmarks of your books is to establish the setting as a real place, and in Don't Tempt Me you’ve again managed to make early 19th century London seem fresh and vivid. What aspects of the era did you choose to emphasize to make this work?


Loretta: Zoe's point of view helps revive endlessly worked-over ground. She comes to England from another culture, and sees everything so differently. Showing London through her eyes made it fresh. She allowed me to delve more deeply into the old, familiar places. In her eyes, Hyde Park and the Green Park

are wonderlands of greenery. Everything, from the exterior of White’s Club to the claustrophobic royal Drawing Room, is unfamiliar and needs to be interpreted, and her interpretation isn’t like everyone else’s. (The black and white drawing is of the famous Almack's Club.)

Drawing Room at St James's- Microcosm-Rowlandson-w

Susan: You’ve always been aware of how fashion and clothes make your characters behave (or not.) The stunningly awkward hoop skirts required for formal court dress play a major part in the courtship been Lucien and Zoe –– and that’s all I’ll say so as not to give too much away. Would you share a little more about these ritualized hoops?

Loretta: Reading about hoops elsewhere had opened my eyes to their seductive possibilities, but then you suggested DANGEROUS LIAISONS--not the Laclos novel but a book published in connection with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The marvelous illustrations offered the sort of detail one longs for--as well as abundant inspiration. But I think with hoops, the pictures really are worth a thousand words, so I’d direct readers to Candice Hern’s wonderful collection of prints

and I’ll point out that Cruikshank’s comical illustration strikes me as more accurate an illustration of a Drawing Room than the one below it by Rowlandson--certainly it's closer to the one I describe in Don't Tempt Me.

Susan: You've given us three very different Fallen Women so far. What's next?

Loretta: Another Carsington book, featuring a woman of weak moral fiber, a man who prides himself on having no imagination, and a haunted castle in Scotland.

Susan: It seems that's all we're going to get out of her. For more background info, check Loretta's website for links to interviews and blogs.

(Originally posted at Word Wenches)