August 10, 2015

J.R. Ward

A Kentucky dynasty rife with drama
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing J.R. Ward (onstage, no less) about her latest novel, The Bourbon Kings, during her Salon615 appearance in Nashville. Ward is well known for her best-selling paranormal Black Dagger Brotherhood series, but with The Bourbon Kings, she steps into the contemporary world of Kentucky high society.
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I recently had the pleasure of interviewing J.R. Ward (onstage, no less) about her latest novel, The Bourbon Kings, during her Salon@615 appearance in Nashville. Ward is well known for her best-selling paranormal Black Dagger Brotherhood series, but with The Bourbon Kings, which was selected as our August Romance Top Pick, she steps into the contemporary, drama-filled world of Kentucky high society.

The hilarious Ward began the interview promising “No f-bombs, no cursing.” She made it seven minutes before breaking that promise.  

Tell us a bit about your new series.
I’m from Boston and New York, and I married a Southern gentleman. The textbook way of dealing with a marriage is you actually have to live with the guy that you walk down the aisle with. So when he turned to me and said, “I no longer know what I’m doing in New England,” I said, “I am not moving to Kentucky.” And we all know how that went, because if I hadn’t have moved down here I wouldn’t have written The Bourbon Kings.

They have this adage for authors that you should write what you know, and that actually didn’t work with the vampire series, because I haven’t met any vampires. But it did work very well with The Bourbon Kings. I think that one of the things that makes books interesting, aside from good conflict, is a regional vocabulary and world-building that is at once unique and captivating, something that’s sort of out of the ordinary. And I think that Southern culture and the Southern lifestyle is a very specific regional character in and of itself. I feel like the South is its own character; it’s not like any other place in the United States. 

When I first pitched the idea about five years ago, my publisher said that people love the South. They’re fascinated by it. I think there are more expectations for behavior down here; it’s not the Regency ton, but there are certain expectations that can create conflict between characters. So between me moving down here and spending 10 years in the South—really immersing myself in that culture because that’s where I live now—and recognizing that it offers some really interesting territory to explore as an author, that’s where I really came to the character of the book itself.

As an expat Yankee, did you experience any culture shock when you moved down here?
(Facial expressions galore.) No not at all. [It was a] seamless transition that made me realize that I have always been Southern my entire life. I’m a born and bred Bostonian-New Yorker. And I think my heart's always going to be up there, my hard-wiring is always going to be up there. I’m one of those annoying little people that’s always working, and I can remember dating my husband, and he’d sort of stroll down the street and I’d be power-walking. But he slowed me down, and I love living down here. I love college basketball, I love being able to have a great yard for my dog and my kid, and frankly I love the weather. I can remember moving down here and the tornado sirens going off in September, and we’re in the basement for the third night in a row. I look at my husband, and I’m like, “I’m from Boston, I don’t do this!” But now, 10 years on, I love big storms. I love that there are four seasons—Winter doesn’t last from October to May. I get back to New York for work a lot, but I love the South now.

After writing paranormal romance for so long, what inspired this new series to be in a contemporary setting?
My mentor is [best-selling mystery author] Sue Grafton, and she—Oh! I can actually curse! And it’s legal because she said it! So she said, "If you’re not scaring the shit out of yourself, you’re not working hard enough." The lawyer in me is thrilled that I found a loophole.

I love writing the Black Dagger Brotherhood. And as long as they keep talking to me, God willing, I am still going to write them. I have six books planned out at this point. But I think that it’s important that you keep challenging yourself and scaring yourself. It’s really important that you don’t go stale. And I love “Dynasty.” In case you haven’t noticed, I kind of want to be Alexis Carrington Colby?

So I love watching “Dynasty,” but I also watch the market very carefully. And it’s not that I write to the market, but I want to know what people want to read. This is a job for me. I love what I do, but I also want to publish at a really high level. So the question is, with the stuff that spits out of my brain, what are the nexuses, what are the connections, to popular culture. What are you watching on TV, what are you reading about in books and magazines—besides the freakin’ Kardashians, who I am so tired of.

But anyway, I did think it was important to try and do something else, to do something different. So when the Fallen Angels series came to its conclusion, I went to my publisher and I said I had this idea: It’s “Dynasty,” it’s “Dallas” and “Knots Landing,” it’s "Downton Abbey" in the New South—and she said, “Don’t use the word family saga or no one will ever buy it.” But she said, “Write the outline, show me what you got.” And I wrote it and she said it was really good, and I thought, “Thank God.” They bought three books, and you’ll notice the connections between it and the Black Dagger Brotherhood. Both of them have core groups of people instead of just one couple or even just one family. I love exploring an entire community, and I love exploring different dynamics in a community, people’s lives and how they interact.

So I wanted to be Alexis and this is as close as I can get.

Lily McLemore (left) and J.R. Ward (right) onstage at the Nashville Public Library during her Salon@615 appearance.

What do you think will appeal most to Black Dagger Brotherhood series readers about The Bourbon Kings?
There is banging. There might be some. 

I think what you’re also going to find is really good conflict. Aside from the fact that there are romantic elements, the single thing I love best about the Black Dagger Brotherhood series is the “what’s next” factor. And I think The Bourbon Kings has that as well. I think real life is a lot like that. You always want to know what’s going to happen next.  Hopefully, that—well I don’t want to say addicting quality because that makes me sound like a crack dealer—but I mean that people will be invested enough in your stories to come back for more.

With all the luxurious details about the palatial family estate of Easterly, the beautiful gowns, and the upstairs/downstairs dynamic, this novel almost feels historical, like "Downton Abbey." Just like with a historical novel, I felt that you must have been doing some digging into Southern culture. What sort of research did you do for The Bourbon Kings?
I didn’t do a lot of research. My husband comes from a very old Southern family. And the South is full of characters. The difference between the South and the North is that Southern people actually like eccentric folk, and Northerners want to sort of iron us all out and make us all smooth and put us in boxes. And Southerners are like, “Oh they’re crazy! Fantastic!” So people have been really kind to me. Because I’m nuts.

There’s one thing that was very different [about writing The Bourbon Kings]. [With] the Black Dagger Brotherhood books, all those people were in my head, fully formed from the beginning. No people in real life influenced them at all. But I found that with The Bourbon Kings, there are some Southern characters that I have met that are such caricatures of themselves, that they’re in The Bourbon Kings. Lizzie and Greta are both based on two of my really good friends; Samuel T. Lodge is based on one of my husband’s hunting buddies; one of my poker player friends is the Master Distiller, just because they’re such evocative people. And that’s a departure for me. They’re not exact, they’re sort of broadly representative of these people, because they’re just so fascinating, just wonderful characters. So I didn’t do a lot of research; I just lived here for 10 years.

I was struck by the world-building of the estate of Easterly—and Easterly is another world. You’re known for your detailed world-building in paranormal romances, and I was wondering how the writing process differed for The Bourbon Kings?
It really didn’t. Other than being at a cocktail party and being like, “You’re going in the book.” There are some grand Southern estates that still exist, that have [a huge] number of people working in them. And you’re right, it is almost historical. You go into these homes and see the lifestyles. There almost isn’t a place in modern life for it anymore. The idea that your needs are so completely catered to by other people, and that you’re experiencing your own home as a hotel that has waves of gardeners and rules for what door [workers] can go out. It’s so captivating because you think to yourself, “This can’t exist anymore.” I find it charming, I find it slightly frightening and naïve, but most of all I find it captivating. The idea that modern life has very few rules anymore in terms of who you can marry, who you can be with, who you can associate with, what you wear—and there’s a certain stratosphere that those rules that existed a hundred years ago are still in place. And God save you if you violate them. So I kind of wanted to bring that forward.

Without spoiling any plot elements, I can say that there are some elements of mystery in this series, which is new for you.  What was it like building in an overarching mystery?
Have you ever been in an out of control car? I have, not once but several times, and I drive the way I write, which is not good. I have no control over anything. What happens is, when I start to write, the pictures in my head start going, and if I try to tweak them in any way, they stop. And I am a bona-fide blonde. I’m not that bright. I am not capable of thinking these stories up, so I step back and let them do what they’re going to do. And my job is to record what I’m seeing on the page. I go with what I’m shown. I don’t have any conscious thought of introducing anything into the series. When I outline the book, I need to know where I’m going. A lot of thought goes into the outlining process, but it’s just a function of putting into some chronology that is logical that which I’m being shown in my head.

I love bourbon, so I have to ask. Do you have a favorite bourbon drink?
I don’t drink alcohol. And isn’t that a relief—can you imagine this shit drunk?

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Bourbon Kings.

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This interview has been edited for length and content. 
(Author photo by Andrew Hyslop)


Get the Book

The Bourbon Kings

The Bourbon Kings

By J.R. Ward
ISBN 9780451475268

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