July 01, 2017

Sarah MacLean

“I’ve been thinking a lot about reading as a political act.”
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We talked to Sarah MacLean about underwater ballrooms, what kinds of grand gestures are effective and the relevance of romance in the current political climate. 

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In the first pages of Sarah MacLean's The Rogue Not Taken, Sophie Talbot shoves Malcolm, the Duke of Haven and the man who cheated on her older sister, into a fish pond. In MacLean's The Day of the Duchess, that same nobleman must face something even more daunting than a very angry sister-in-law. His wife, the infamous Seraphina Talbot, has returned to London with only one goal in mind—divorce. Desperate for chance to make things right, Malcolm proposes a deal every character realizes is a ridiculous delaying tactic. He will grant Seraphina a divorce, but only if she selects a woman to be his new wife.  

We talked to Sarah MacLean about underwater ballrooms, what kinds of grand gestures are effective and the relevance of romance in the current political climate. 

Describe your latest novel in a sentence.
Scandalous celebrity divorce meets the 1830s, with a summer house party and more meddling sisters than anyone should have.

Malcolm and Seraphina made their first appearance in The Rogue Not Taken. How much did you know about their story at that point, and was there any significant change that happened while you were writing this book?
​I knew the first scene of the series would be the setup for the final book before I put pen to paper. The moment I envisioned Sophie (the heroine of the first book) pushing her brother-in-law into a fishpond, I knew the story of her sister and brother-in-law would have to be told, and that it would be the last in the series. The only challenge was letting myself really push the plots in both books—refusing to temper Malcolm's anger and actions in book one, and refusing to erase them in book three. This is the story of people who make devastating mistakes and overcome them. And who among us hasn't had to do that in our own life?

Do you blame Malcolm or Seraphina more for the state of their marriage, or is it impossible for you to pick a side?
Marriages are complicated relationships that rarely fail because of singular actions. While it was certainly Malcolm's action that destroyed the early days of their marriage, Sera isn't exactly without flaw. With this book, I wanted to explore the give and take of marriage. The frustration, the flaw, the forgiveness—it's so easy for us to point at broken marriages around us and say, "If I were her, I would never have. . ." or "If he were my husband, I'd leave him." But things are different when we are at the center of the relationship. I wanted to explore those emotions, and to do that, everyone has to bear a little blame.

You've always been vocal about the political and feminist relevance of the romance genre, and in recent speaking engagements you've discuss the idea of romance as resistance. Tell me more about that concept.
As a romance columnist and advocate, ​I rewrite the speech I give at conferences and events every year, evolving it alongside the ever-changing genre. My 2017 speech is all about Romance as Resistance. I've been thinking a lot about reading as a political act, about pleasure (sexual and otherwise) as a political act and about happily ever after as the best way to resist the pervasive hate rhetoric and othering that is happening in the U.S. and around the globe. After all, how better to speak truth to power than to choose our own happiness? Romance has always been a political genre—centering women (who are rarely centered in other media), honoring the female gaze, valuing female pleasure. Now, we're seeing the genre move toward intersectionality, with more and more books centering characters too often left out of literature: people of color, LGBTQ+ characters, characters with disabilities, etc. When we place these characters at the center of the story, not to die or to suffer, but to live and to triumph, that's the best resistance of all.

Where do you think romance could improve as a genre in terms of representation?
As I said earlier, the last few years have opened the door to many diverse authors: authors of color, queer authors, authors with disabilities and more. These women (and some men) are writing diverse, brilliant romances that center characters and readers who deserve more representation, and deliver delicious happily ever afters. There is immense work to be done, however. Publishers, agents, reviewers and distributors must acknowledge the value of diverse romance (a problem that we suffer from as much as any other segment of publishing). Authors must acknowledge the diverse world around us—both in contemporary romance and in historical (people of color were a significant percentage of working, merchant and servant classes in the Regency, for example)—and we can all do better work when it comes to representation in our books. But most of all, we can do our best to make space for writers who are doing the work of representation well by amplifying their voices and, most importantly, reading and recommending their books.

I was fascinated by the underwater ballroom that makes an appearance in The Day of the Duchess and was absolutely delighted to find out that it is inspired by an actual structure. When did you discover the existence of it, and what was it about Malcolm and Seraphina’s story that made you incorporate it into the book?
​I've known about the ballroom ​at Witley Park for years. I stumbled across reference to it in a long out of print history book that told the story of the eccentric criminal Whittaker Wright, who it seems had more money than sense, building a massive house on a massive estate that was the epitome of modern convenience and construction—including a completely ridiculous underground ballroom. He eventually died a criminal, taking a cyanide pill in a courthouse to get out of what would certainly have been a life-long prison sentence. But once you see pictures of that ballroom, you can't ever unsee them, and I'd been waiting for years to include it in a book. Which meant I needed a reason for such an outrageous thing to exist. . . a labor of love for a lost wife who might never be found seemed like a fitting one.

There are several grand gestures in The Day of the Duchess, and characters are often commenting on whether they are effective or not. What do you think makes a fantastic romantic gesture? Do you have a favorite from pop culture or your own life?
Grand gestures are a favorite trope of romance readers, and when I was writing The Day of the Duchess, I knew Mal would only ever be forgiven if his was an immense one. After all, he's been a villain since page two of The Rogue Not Taken, so how would readers ever forgive him if he didn't prove his regret and his ability to change? In this case, grand gesture: required. Romantic gestures don't have to be big and elaborate, however. They have to be personal. And important. And relevant to two people for a reason. Anyone can fly to Paris for a romantic proposal, but if it's the same, pat proposal that everyone else gets, then it's not really a grand gesture (though, of course, it's lovely). Grand gestures require risk and faith. As for my favorite? I'm pretty partial to this one. My husband packed up and moved from California to New York—without a job or an apartment or anything else—because he believed in us. Sixteen years later, he still gets points for that!

I was really pleased that the suitesses, as you call the women who compete to be Malcolm's new wife, were charming characters in their own right instead one-dimensional antagonists. How did you balance developing them as characters in addition to Malcolm, Seraphina and Seraphina’s sisters?
I never wanted them to be competition for Sera—largely because I knew Mal would never be really interested in winning any of them. But I don't have much patience for unlikeable female caricatures, so they had to be their own people, each with a different reason for allowing themselves to be thrust into a battle for a duke's heart, and each with a happy future of her own. As for Seraphina's sisters, whom most of society judge to be a scandalous pack of feral females, I think four of them were more than enough. . . so the suitesses had to be strong enough to stand up to the sisters, but different enough to temper them.

What’s next for you?
A new series! I'm currently working on the first book in The Bareknuckle Bastard series—which follows three half brothers, two of whom run an underground crime ring in Covent Garden, and one who is the starchiest duke you've ever met. At least, until circumstances require him to show his true colors. I've always loved the dark corners of the 1800s, and I think readers who loved The Rules of Scoundrels series will be very happy with how this is turning out.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Day of the Duchess.

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