It’s every writer’s dream. You write the best book you can, sell it to the publishing company of your dreams and quit the day job to pen fiction all day. For Australian writer Anna Campbell, this dream is her reality.
Campbell burst onto the romantic fiction scene in March 2007 with the controversial book Claiming the Courtesan and since then has published three more novels, each of which has received critical acclaim and generated its share of controversy. Writing stories set during the Regency era, Campbell turns Regency romance on its ear, offering a darker, grittier version of the period made popular by author Jane Austen.
Boulder Weekly caught up with Campbell from her home in Queensland, Australia, to ask her about her path to publishing and what inspires her gothic vision of Regency England.
Boulder Weekly: First of all, can you tell us a bit about your background?
Anna Campbell: Oh, goodness! How long have you got? All right, here’s the shortish version. I’m an Aussie, born in Queensland which is the state high up on the right-hand side, the state with Steve Irwin and the Barrier Reef! I’ve been in love with books as long as I can remember so the desire to be a writer was a natural follow-on to that. I did an arts degree at uni – hey, three years where someone actually wanted me to spend my days with my nose in a book? My idea of heaven! Then I worked at a variety of jobs, including a long stint captioning TV programs for the Deaf. Great training for a writer.
I love to travel and as well as shorter trips, I had two years living in England in the mid-1980s and four months traveling the U.K. in 2004. That was great for a budding Regency romance writer — all those wonderful stately homes to check out! I now live on the Sunshine Coast about an hour north of Brisbane, Queensland’s capital. I’ve been writing full time since Avon bought Claiming the Courtesan in 2006 — a dream come true.
BW: What inspired you to write romantic fiction?
AC: My mother gave me my first romance novel when I was eight in an attempt to get some peace. It worked! Mind you, back in those days, you could give an 8-year-old a category romance without worrying about her reading inappropriate material! I’ve been addicted to romance fiction ever since and like lots of writers, I went from reader to writer. The next major leap for me was reading The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss when I was in my early teens. I adored that book, the passion and sensuality and emotion of it, and suddenly I’d discovered exactly what I wanted to write. I decided then and there I wanted to grow up to write historical romance for Avon — it still blows my mind that that’s what ended up happening!
BW: That’s pretty cool that your dream came true in such a literal way. What is the attitude toward romance novels and romance novelists in Australia as compared to that in the U.S.?
AC: Romance is definitely a bigger force in the U.S. than it is in Australia, although having said that, Harlequin Mills & Boon is huge here. A lot of romance novels are sold here in other guises — for example, Nora Roberts is often shelved in either women’s fiction or crime. You can strike snobbish attitudes about romance but that’s something education from Romance Writers of Australia and our wonderful local authors is slowly changing.
BW: You’ve got four books in print right now — Claiming the Courtesan, Untouched, Tempt the Devil, and Captive of Sin. Was Claiming the Courtesan the first book you wrote? How long did it take you to cross that hallowed threshold and become a published author?
AC: Sorry, I’m laughing hollowly at Claiming the Courtesan being the first book I wrote. Not by a mile! I wrote a medieval in between high school and university and actually finished the manuscript so if I consider that the beginning of writing with the hope of publication, I needed another 27 years before I actually sold Claiming the Courtesan. I’d decided Harlequin would be the best way to develop a career and I wrote eight rejected manuscripts for them before I decided to go back to my first love, historical romance.
Then I started a stack of stories, finished the occasional one, didn’t submit to anyone — yes, clearly, you have to submit your manuscripts if you want to be published! Two things brought a big change. One was that I gave up writing about seventeen years in because I decided I was never going to achieve my dream. I couldn’t bear not writing so I went back to it after about eighteen miserable months. And it was then that I joined Romance Writers of Australia. I started an enormously steep learning curve (and made a lot of wonderful friends on the way) and eventually sold Claiming the Courtesan to Avon at auction in 2006.
BW: What inspired you to write the period that you write?
AC: I’d always read Regency-set romance, going back to Georgette Heyer and Pride and Prejudice as a kid. But for some reason, I resisted writing in the period and tried every setting except Regency England. Then I finaled in the first romance writing contest I ever entered (with a manuscript set in 18th-century Hungary, I’m not exaggerating about my exotic settings!) and suddenly thought maybe I had a shot at taking this further. If that was the case, I clearly needed to think of a more commercial setting than the obscure ones I was exploring, much as I happened to love them. I started writing a Regency comedy and it was like coming home — my voice really belonged and through reading thousands of Regency historicals, I already had an extensive knowledge of the world my characters inhabited. I haven’t looked back since. I write late Regencies (really reign of George IV) set in the 1820s. I love the decadence of that period just before Queen Victoria came to the throne.
PC: Your books have been — very accurately, I think — described as “Regency noir.” I’ve read Tempt the Devil and Captive of Sin and enjoyed that darker element very much. Where does that come from for you?
AC: Thank you! It’s odd – if you met me, I don’t think you’d consider me a dark person. Or at least that’s the feedback I’ve had! I was an avid gothic reader, though, and I had a huge crush on Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester when I was a teenager so clearly something in me responded to the darker side of romance.
BW: Do you do research first and let your characters develop out of that, or do you get to know your characters first and then do the research to match their story?
AC: Luckily because I’ve now written five Regency noirs (My Reckless
Surrender is out in June, 2010), I’ve got a pretty good handle on the period I’m writing about. So I have a good idea of what stories will work in that setting and what won’t. Before I start writing, I always have a hero and a heroine, a problem, occasionally a villain, and always the opening. Then I write organically, letting each scene grow out of the one before. Having said that, I usually have a few high points in mind and I know what the ending will be. Those characters often present something I need to research in depth. Which is great as I love research.
With Claiming the Courtesan, I did a lot of research on courtesans and I found so many amazing stories in that research, Tempt the Devil grew out of the same body of research. Untouched meant researching the treatment of mental illness in the 19th century — scarier than most horror movies! Captive of Sin required a lot of research on the legalities of marriage and also on my hero’s backstory with the East India Company.
BW: What’s your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser — someone who writes by the seat of her pants?
AC: Definitely a pantser! I wish I was a plotter. It would save me a lot of rewriting but I find if I’ve already told myself the story, I lose interest in it so I guess I’m stuck with my messy process.
BW: What has to click for you to feel like you truly know your characters?
AC: What amazes me about the writing process is that I think I know these people when I start writing the story as they’ve lived in the back of my brain for a long time by then. I put pen to paper (or hand to keyboard!) and they emerge with traits and behavior that completely astonish me. I truly know my characters once I’ve come to the end of what is always a really difficult first draft process. Then the editing is refining and clarifying and strengthening what I’ve learned about them in writing their stories. And yes, inevitably the painful stuff comes out in that process! I think that’s how you get the power into your stories, making these characters confront the things they really don’t want to confront.
BW: Gideon from Captive of Sin was a tortured and very sympathetic hero. What inspired him?
AC: Theidea for Gideon came during that trip to the U.K. in 2004. I picked up a book called The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk in a bookshop in Oban on the west coast of Scotland. This was much more exciting than it sounds and was full of Indiana Jones-style spies and soldiers as the Russians and the British vied for control of Central Asia in the mid-19th century.
One story in particular struck a chord with me — these two amazing warrior scholars called Arthur Conolly and Arthur Stoddart who were beheaded in Bukhara in 1842 after being kept in a pit in the central marketplace. Anyone who has read Captive of Sin won’t have to think too hard about the links with what happens to Gideon in India.
I’m fascinated by Central Asia but sadly, writing in the 1820s, this imperial rivalry between Russia and England was a little too late to fit my period. So I started researching the British conquest of India and came up with plenty of options that allowed me to torture poor Gideon in an appropriately Conolly and Stoddart way. On a serious note, I find the warrior scholar archetype terrifically compelling and Gideon’s definitely an example.
BW: Your books are fairly gritty — more so than most romance novels — and the characters have an intensity of emotion that readers seem to enjoy. Does that come at a cost to you as a writer?
AC: Oh, absolutely! I’m like a wrung-out rag when I finish a book. You have to live through these experiences with the characters and sometimes it’s tough.
BW: So what do you do to refill your creative well?
AC: I love to look at water. I walk by the sea or swim. I’ve always felt I should have been a water sign (for the record I’m an earth sign!). I watch TV. I read — not as much I used to, sadly. I find a really good book gets my subconscious firing in the way nothing else does. I catch up with my friends. I listen to music. A break away really freshens up the brain too.
BW: Your next book, My Reckless Surrender, comes out on May 25, 2010. Can you tell us a bit about that?
AC: It’s about a dangerous seduction in Regency London. Here’s the blurb:
Headlong into sin...
A well-practiced rake, weary of easy conquests and empty pleasures, Tarquin Vale, Earl of Ashcroft, knows women — and his every instinct warns him to beware of this one. Diana Carrick’s brazen overtures have thrown the haunted, sinfully handsome lord completely off his guard. Why, the exquisite temptress stated outright that she wishes to be his lover! But it is neither Diana’s boldness nor her beauty that intrigues him so—it is the innocence he senses behind her worldly mask.
Intent upon the seduction that will finally free her, Diana has set her sights on the notorious Ashcroft — never dreaming that there is much more to the enigmatic rogue than sin and deviltry. His kiss is bewitching, his caress intoxicating — and even the dangerous secret Diana must protect cannot shield her from Ashcroft’s dark allure.
Unwittingly yet most willingly, they are playing with fire. Now the fuse has been lit and there is no escape … except surrender.
BW: What are you working on now, besides cleaning your house for the holidays?
AC: Ha ha! Someone’s been reading my Facebook posts complaining about having to do so much housework! I’ve just started my sixth historical romance for Avon. I’m still at that lovely stage when everything’s fresh and exciting. This book will probably be out some time in 2011. I’m also writing a mini-novella (13,000 words) for an anthology — it’s my first reunion story so I’m looking forward to seeing how that develops. The Australian edition of Captive of Sin is just about to hit the stands (mid-December), so I’m also gearing up for local promotion.
BW: Good luck with your Australian release, and congrats on starting your sixth book. Thanks for taking time to talk with us.For more on Anna Campbell’s books, visit www.annacampbell.com.