The cool, calm and collected Dr. Garett Gibson has been a scene-stealing supporting character in Lisa Kleypas’ Ravenels books. So much so that when Kleypas announced Garrett would be the heroine of her fourth novel in the series, Hello Stranger, feverish speculation and spirited debate erupted as to who her love interest would be. Kleypas surprised many by picking Ethan Ransom, a mysterious government agent who’s been lurking on the sidelines during all the Ravenel family drama and romance. We asked Kleypas to tell us about why Ethan and Garrett work so well together, the joys of Victorian street food and her biggest sex-scene pet peeve.
Describe your latest book in a sentence.
England’s only female physician, Garrett Gibson, is drawn into a world of danger and desire when she falls in love with government agent Ethan Ransom.
You based Garrett on Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, a female doctor in Victorian England. How did you first learn about Anderson? How did her story turn out?
I first learned about Elizabeth Garrett Anderson while I was writing Marrying Winterborne. In one scene, the hero was injured by debris falling from a collapsing building, and I wanted to bring in a doctor as a minor character. Then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if the doctor was a woman?” But when I researched female physicians in England at the time, I learned there was only one, Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. She earned a medical degree in France at the Sorbonne, and managed to obtain a British medical license through a loophole (which was quickly closed afterward). For almost 20 years, she was the only female member of the British Medical Association.
Dr. Anderson was extraordinary—she eventually became the dean of a British medical school, and later was elected as the first female mayor in England, in Aldeburgh. She was active in the suffrage movement, and on top of all that, she was happily married and had three children.
I was so fascinated and inspired that I named my fictional doctor Garrett in honor of her. I had to fight to keep Garrett from stealing every scene she was in! In the next book, Devil in Spring, I needed a doctor again, so I brought Garrett back, and there was that same zing of crisp energy every time she made an appearance. So I knew she had to have her own book—she practically demanded it.
There’s a really charming scene where Ethan and Garrett walk through a street market together, and you get to describe all these fascinating Victorian street foods. How do you research that kind of detail? And how did you decide what type of foods your characters would or would not enjoy?
It was so much fun looking up what people would eat at those markets! I went to Google Books and read several books and periodicals written at the time, and found terrific descriptions of street food. A surprising variety of food was available, including sandwiches (called “trotters”), roasted potatoes and clams, pastries and fresh produce. (Unfortunately it wasn’t all that hygienic, since the tin dishware was sometimes reused without washing in-between!) Henry Mayhew wrote a book titled London Labor and the London Poor with extensive descriptions of the markets, especially in the wonderfully titled chapter “Street-Sellers of Eatables and Drinkables.” When I read that Italian street-sellers were introducing spaghetti around that time (made with cream sauce instead of tomato sauce), I couldn’t help imagining Garrett’s reaction when she first sees it. I think it turned out to be one of the funnier moments in the book, because she’s usually such a composed and no-nonsense person.
Garrett has been a fan favorite character in the Ravenels series, and many fans theorized she might end up with West Ravenel or Tom Severin. Why did you choose to have Garrett fall in love with Ethan Ransom instead?
I think Tom Severin is too detached and self-contained to be a good match for her. Garrett’s feet are planted so firmly on the ground that only a thoroughly dashing and romantic man could sweep her off them. West was a strong possibility—he’s charming and smart, and he could provide some of the fun and balance she needs in a partner.
But no one is as perfect for Garrett as Ethan Ransom. I thought there was something electric when they meet in both Winterborne and Devil in Spring. There was a scene near the end of Devil in Spring when Ransom’s gaze lingers on her for an extra second as she walks away—it was just one of those spontaneous things your brain comes up with while writing. But later I could see an entire story in that moment!
I decided that Ransom has been secretly in love with Garrett for two years, and has been watching over her from a distance to keep her safe. He has no expectation of ever being with her, especially since his own life is in danger. So every second with Garrett is precious to Ransom, and I think that gives their scenes more immediacy and intensity than any other novel I’ve written.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a scene in a historical romance novel where a woman used a contraceptive sponge! Was that form of contraception common in the Victorian era? Or is Garrett slightly ahead of her time, being a trailblazing female doctor and all?
Isn’t it fascinating that something that seems so modern was done back then? This was totally a thing in the Victorian Era, and in fact lemon juice was used for centuries as a spermicide! The sponge method was described in detail in a few different publications, including an 1823 pamphlet by Richard Carlile titled “Every Woman’s Book.” Methods of preventing conception such as douches, suppositories, condoms and the withdrawal method were also explained in the pamphlet, which demonstrated a surprisingly uncritical view of women’s desire and fulfillment.
There’s a great article on Jezebel about Victorian birth control, and another one in National Geographic that mentions the history of lemon juice as a spermicide.
Incidentally, would you believe lemon juice is so acidic that it kills the HIV virus?
You took a break from historicals several years ago to write contemporary romance. Have you noticed any differences in your writing now that you've moved back to the genre?
Oh, definitely. Even though I’ve been lucky enough to have a long career doing something I love, I’m faced with the challenge of how to stay fresh and keep growing. Taking a break to try something new was scary but exciting, especially because I had to develop a few new skills to write contemporary romance. In a historical, obstacles to marriage can consist of differences in social position, religion, rigid ethics and family traditions, as well as personality differences. But in a contemporary romance, the conflicts tend to be far more internal and psychological, so it forced me to think deeply about the characters. I also had to change some of my habits in plotting, pacing and obviously language. So when I came back to historical romance, I felt refreshed and I also had more tools in my writing toolbox. I think there’s more depth and detail in my historical writing now, and a sharper mixture of humor and emotion. For example, in Hello Stranger, some of the most desperate and wrenching scenes also have some funny moments.
What was the hardest part of Hello Stranger to get right?
Medical research. Nothing was even a close second! I felt strongly that Garrett needed to be believable as a physician and surgeon, especially in light of a major plot development that requires her skill. However, as a highly squeamish and medically uninformed person, I had a lot to learn about Victorian medicine. I looked up information about surgical instruments, operating room lamps, antiseptic chemicals, etc. and I learned how they administered chloroform and performed blood transfusions. I tried to make all the terms and procedures as accurate as possible. Although some of it was gruesome, I was left with a profound admiration for the medical profession at that time—they were always innovating, analyzing, sharing information and doing whatever they could to advance science and help their patients. There’s a stereotype of Victorian doctors as arrogant, bloodletting meanies—in fact, the slang term for a doctor was “leech.” But the more you read their actual writing of the time, their questions and hopes and worries, the more you realize how compassionate and skilled they were.
A lot of romance readers have tropes they absolutely love. Do you have any you find yourself being drawn to again and again? Are there any you don’t like?
I love marriages of convenience. The notion of throwing two virtual strangers into proximity—and intimacy—will always seem fascinating and fun to me. I also adore antiheroes who have secret hearts of gold. I love road-trip plots and enemies-to-lovers plots.
However, I’m not especially fond of the friends-to-lovers trope because it’s so hard to do well. It seems like the chemistry is lacking when the hero and heroine have known each other a long time and haven’t felt physical attraction to each other before. And I don’t usually like the divorced-but-falling-in-love-again trope—if the HEA fell through the first time, how can I trust it now? But it always depends on the author.
This is more of a pet peeve than a trope, but I can’t stand it when the hero, who is supposed to be a bedroom virtuoso, makes love to the heroine with no foreplay at all, and she’s instantly in ecstasy. And even worse, when the hero commands her to come and she immediately climaxes. I’m sure we all wish it were that easy! But I prefer it when the hero goes through a little effort during the love scenes, and he gets even more points if he seems to be having fun. I think the perfect proportion of a great love scene is 90 percent foreplay and 10 percent “the act.”
What’s next for you?
West Ravenel’s story! Here’s how it starts:
Phoebe had never met West Ravenel, but she knew one thing for certain: He was a mean, rotten bully. She had known it since the age of eight, when her best friend Henry had started writing to her from boarding school.
Phoebe, Lady Clare, is a young widow with two small sons. Her beloved husband, Henry, her childhood sweetheart, is gone, and now she has to pick up the pieces of her life and start again. She has always despised West because long ago, he bullied Henry unmercifully in boarding school. Now Phoebe’s brother is marrying into the Ravenel family, and she’s attending the wedding. To her dismay, she’s finally going to have to meet West, the man she has hated since childhood. But it turns out that West isn’t quite what she expected!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Hello Stranger.
Author photo by Danielle Barnum Photography.