September 25, 2018

Joanna Shupe

The inventor and the wallflower

We talked to Joanna Shupe about the Deaf community in Gilded Age America and writing a passionate romance between two introverts in A Notorious Vow.

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When shy, lonely Christina Barclay moves with her family from London to New York City, she finds solace in clandestine walks through her neighbor’s garden. Wealthy but reclusive Oliver Hawkes doesn’t seem to use his garden or even venture outside his property, so Christina doubts he’ll notice her. Because A Notorious Vow is a romance novel, notice her he does, but Oliver’s reasons for seclusion aren’t a propensity for brooding or some tragic backstory. It’s that he’s deaf, and is both consumed with his work on a proto-hearing aid and realistically afraid of being thrown in an insane asylum because of his disability.

We talked to Shupe about the Deaf community in Gilded Age America and writing a passionate romance between two introverts.

A Notorious Vow is part of a second series of yours set in Gilded Age New York. What draws you to this time period and setting?
I love the Gilded Age because it’s such a fascinating time in history. I like to say it’s when the America we know today takes shape. Innovation, reform, corruption, political scandal, extreme wealth . . . the Gilded Age had it all.

Are there more challenges writing a romance in turn-of-the-century America as opposed to Regency England?
I think some American readers come to our history feeling like, “Been there, done that.” They think they know it so well because we’ve been learning history in school since kindergarten. English history feels perhaps more remote and mysterious.

But we have to ask ourselves, who records the history taught for other generations? It’s those with power and access. And that’s a very limited lens through which to study the past.

I hope I’m able to show readers different sides of American history and surprise them a little.

I’ve noticed that your series tend to be trilogies! Is this the last book we can expect in The Four Hundred series?
Yes and no! This will be the last book in the Four Hundred series, but the next series will carry some of these characters through. So we won’t be saying good-bye quite yet.

The hero, Oliver Hawkes, lost his hearing at a young age. He’s also an inventor of sorts. Can you speak to the research you did on what sorts of technology or accessibilities were available to those who were deaf during the time period?
I was really interested in the development of sign language and how Oliver came to learn it. The Gilded Age was an interesting period in Deaf history. There were many advancements, thanks to electricity and the telephone, towards an affordable portable hearing aid. I did hours of research into the battery technology of the time and how it evolved. Much as today, smaller, cheaper and longer lasting was the name of the game.

Manual (sign) language came to America from France in the mid-19th century. However, as the century continued, the debate over whether to teach sign language or not grew intense. Many experts and educators (including Alexander Graham Bell) insisted that oralism (speaking and reading lips) should be the only communication method taught and used. They believed this would allow the Deaf to better assimilate into society. This is problematic for a number of reasons, including that this single communication approach is not always ideal, especially for someone who was born deaf and has never heard tones and sounds. Also, reading lips is quite a difficult skill. American Sign Language did not gain a strong foothold until the late 1950s.

Though he is able to speak and read lips, Oliver mainly uses sign language. He learned from a physician his parents found when he lost his hearing. I thought it was important for him to manually communicate, because he wouldn’t care about assimilating into society.

Additionally, how did you capture Oliver’s experience as a deaf man? Did you use sensitivity readers at all?
This was very important to me to get right. My husband’s grandparents were deaf and my mother-in-law worked as an ASL interpreter for years. They were very helpful in answering my questions about Oliver.

I also hired a deaf sensitivity reader, and I asked a Deaf historian to also read the manuscript for errors. Both taught me so much about Deaf culture and history.

Poor Christina! This heroine has terrible parents and is frequently humiliated and derided by the people around her. Were there any scenes with her that you found difficult to write?
I think any scene where her parents belittled her was really hard. My own parents are ridiculously supportive, so to portray the opposite was a challenge. And I hate to see women used as financial commodities, which is how Christina’s parents view her. Christina hasn’t yet “found” herself. She’s young and sheltered. In addition, she’s struggling with social anxiety. The scene with the other young girls in the ice cream parlor was particularly heart wrenching to write.

What I loved most about Christina and Oliver is how they found such a beautiful feeling of acceptance in one another. Were you inspired by anything in particular to write this pairing?
Christina often feels left out, even in a crowded room, and that’s something Oliver can relate to. And it didn’t make sense to pair him with someone who enjoyed society’s social scene. He would have been miserable because he holds that world in such disdain. They are both introverted homebodies, but compliment each other in different ways.

Both characters really enjoy their solitude. Christina finds peace in Oliver’s gardens and is rather uncomfortable at social events, while Oliver’s isolation is more about self-preservation. Would you say that you’re more of an introvert or do you like being the life of the party?
I’m somewhere in the middle, it just depends on the situation. I don’t seek out attention, but I don’t hate parties and events. Generally, I’m happiest when standing against a wall, drinking a cocktail and talking to the people around me.

Oliver’s gardens are where Christina and Oliver first meet. If Christina and Oliver’s personalities were embodied as plants or flowers, what would they be?
I think of Christina as a night blooming cereus. These are desert plants that take years to develop blooms. But once they do, the blooms slowly increase as time goes on.

Oliver would be a redwood tree: sturdy, powerful and unassuming. Redwoods are these mysterious and majestic trees that are built to endure. Their wood has a natural resistance to predators, and the thick bark and height of the foliage protects against fire.

What’s next on the horizon for you?
My next series with Avon is titled The Uptown Girls and centers around three society sisters much like Hamilton’s Schuyler sisters. They like to go downtown in New York City to see all the action, and each of them falls for a man not of their station. The first book is The Rogue of Fifth Avenue and comes out in June 2019.

May I ask what books you’re reading now and enjoying? What romances should readers pick up?
One of my favorite reads so far this year was Jackie Lau’s Mr. Hotshot CEO. Overworked CEO meets a scientist who tries to make the most out of every day. I could not put it down.

I have read Penny Reid’s delightful Winston Brothers series twice through, and am dying for the last book in the series. Set in Tennessee, this series features a group of siblings. Start with the first book, Truth or Beard.

One of my favorite historicals this year was Sarah MacLean’s Wicked and the Wallflower, which was gritty and dark and delicious. And Cat Sebastian’s Unmasked by the Marquess was absolutely stellar. Much more than the usual duke-meets-girl story.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Notorious Vow.

Get the Book

A Notorious Vow

A Notorious Vow

By Joanna Shupe
ISBN 9780062678942

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