Content warning: sexual assault
Kerrigan Byrne is no stranger to depicting difficult subjects in her romances, and her latest book is no exception. The formidable Alexandra Lane of How to Love a Duke in Ten Days is a sexual assault survivor, and Byrne depicts her trauma in sensitive, yet still unflinching prose. We talked to Byrne about hard-won happy endings and writing a heroine who avenges herself.
How to Love a Duke in Ten Days is the first book in the new Devil You Know series. Though you have over a dozen historical romances under your belt, were you nervous about starting this series given the subject matter?
I hope it sounds okay to admit I was actually looking forward to writing this series because of the subject matter. My last several books (and the subsequent ones to this series) have been and will be generally focused on heroes and their past wounds. The Devil You Know series was sort of a love story to and for women and their varied seminal relationships. Romantic, of course, but also paternal, mentor, villain, child and fierce friendships. The women are what connect the books, and the prologues are dedicated to their most formative moments.
In the prologue, the heroine Alexandra is raped. The scene is graphic and very much on the page. What went into your decision to detail this out rather than fade to black or have it mentioned as backstory?
I’ll admit I didn’t make a super conscious choice regarding what to leave on the page and what to take out. I was writing Alexandra’s story. This moment is such a large part of it and thus needed to be told. That was the extent of my decision-making process. I know that everyone’s brain works differently and processes this kind of information in separate ways, and I often find it rather cruel when authors leave scenes like this in the nether of “fade to black” because I always imagine the absolute worst in those shadows.
This was also a lesson I learned from previous books I’ve written because, when focusing on angsty alpha men, I’ve given them some pretty heinous wounds through experiences similar to—or worse than—what Alexandra had to endure. If I left them to the imagination, often people’s imagination ran pretty wild and drew conclusions I didn’t intend. I have two heroes who were sexually assaulted in prison younger than Alexandra, one who witnessed his mother’s rape and murder, others were tortured, beaten, disfigured, prisoners of war and even dismembered. I’ve found it very interesting to watch people react to Alexandra’s trauma vs. that of say, Dorian Blackwell’s from The Highwayman, who couldn’t bear to be touched because of his experience. I do wonder if Alexandra’s trauma resonates more because it was a little more “on the page,” or because she was a female rape victim rather than a man? I was careful to write the scene in a way that made it rather obvious where the situation was headed, so people who might experience suffering while reading could skim or skip or decide whether the story was one they were able to read.
The dedication reads “To every survivor. #metoo.” As a survivor, thank you for the delicate and respectful portrayal of Alexandra’s trauma. If this isn’t too personal of a question, what resources and/or research did you pull from to capture these details just right?
You’re so welcome. I’m a pretty open book, so nothing is too personal for me to discuss really. I feel like the answer to this goes along with the answer to the previous question in some respects. I deemed it necessary to be a little more detailed about Alexandra’s experience because it was the details that tormented her later in life. Alexandra spends a great deal of time trying to control her environment, her future and her next sexual experience so that it doesn’t resemble the traumatic one.
“She was the kind of woman who avenged herself.”
My #metoo experience was not a mirror of Alexandra’s, but it did have to do with someone who was in a position of authority. When writing Alexandra’s prologue, I consulted many women (and two men) of my personal acquaintance who have been assaulted, molested or accosted and I have had long relationships with other victims through the foster care system when I was younger. It is a rare woman who hasn’t had at least one unwanted sexual experience. As such, I felt as prepared as anyone might be to write about such content.
I do want to be very clear that I don’t feel as though Alexandra’s situation is typical or should be held up or put down as any sort of example of an experience that one does, should or might have. When it comes to her subsequent life, her coping mechanisms, her achievements, her capabilities for healing and her happily ever after, those belong to Alexandra alone. I am very aware of how vast and varied every person’s traumas and triggers are. I, personally, tend to write for what I call the “Game of Thrones” crowd, which I interpret to be those of us who maybe process emotion and experience through various forms of media and connection with characters with similar traits and experiences. I am fully aware that others need avoidance and protection from such scenes and media, and that is why I put my dedication at the front of the book so the interior isn’t a surprise.
Alexandra also kills her attacker in the prologue. Many survivors in the #metoo movement never receive the justice they may want. Did you feel it was essential to show this resolution?
I did not feel it was essential at all. I never received any so-called justice, and I think it’s a rare survivor who can or does. However, writing in the genre I do, I had a few things to consider. Romance is a place for fantasy and happy endings. There are people who would call the death of Alexandra’s attacker “justice” and people who would see it as a further tragedy. To Alexandra, killing a man weighed just as heavily upon her as her rape—if not more so—even though some would argue that the man deserved to die.
Also, the fact that her best friends help her to get rid of the body really forges a bond that few people have. It’s difficult for me to write a book without a dead body or two, and it’s pretty great when the person who dies won’t have many who mourn. I think it was best for the story and for the happily ever after if Alexandra never again had to face the man who attacked her. I also didn’t feel that it was necessary for the hero to avenge her. She was the kind of woman who avenged herself. And that is okay.
Alexandra and her two best friends, Cecelia and Francesca, are all redheads but have very different personalities. Is there one you’re particularly attached to?
I would say I’m attached to Cecelia the most. She’s sort of a pleaser, as I can be, and a heavier-set woman, as I also tend to be. She has a fondness for grumpy older men, as I do. She is quiet and soft, but she is also fiercely independent and principled. She’s the most open to love, but she also demands to be respected and heard.
Given Alexandra’s trauma and Piers’ own family dysfunction, were there any moments or scenes that were difficult to write?
I think the wedding night was the most difficult to write. Just because I wanted to describe both of their feelings and fears without being too melodramatic or falling into any clichés. I felt bad that Piers was a little blind to what he was walking in to, and when they struggle with each other emotionally, it made me melancholy for them both. This is probably one of the biggest payoffs I’ve ever written, though, so it all feeds my favorite HEA!
Lady Alexandra and her two intrepid, red-headed best friends were so fun. I’m anxiously awaiting the next book. If you could cast them in a movie, who would you love to see play them on screen?
Boy, do I!!?? I don’t know if I’ve met an author who hasn’t dreamed of their stories depicted on screen. Here’s how I’ve cast them so far.
Alexandra: Gemma Arterton
Cecelia: Christina Hendricks
Francesca: Jessica Chastain
If someone would make this movie/series, I’d REALLY appreciate it . . . Just throwing that out there . . .
What can we look forward to in Cecelia and Francesca’s books?
Well, in All Scot and Bothered, Cecelia’s book, she is pitted against Cassius Gerard Ramsay, the Duke of Redmayne’s brother. She’s a vicar’s daughter who has inherited a brothel from her aunt, and he’s a judge who would see the vice in the city eradicated. I’d say they’re enemies, but Cecelia is determined never to have an enemy . . . so she seduces the poor, stodgy Scot instead . . . I can’t wait for people to read it.
Francesca is still after her revenge, and she’ll be astonished at who she finds along the road to tempt her away from her goal.
This was my first book by you and what a ride it was! My fellow romance readers have said that your writing feels very inspired by classic historical romance writers. Is that true? Who are some of your favorite writers?
I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I think my writing is a little more inspired by paranormal romance and contemporary thriller writers than many historicals, at least where my characters are concerned. That being said, I was a huge fan of Victoria Holt as a kid, and her eerie gothic mystery romances. I think I try to recreate some of those feelings at times, and I feel as though my editor is getting tired of reminding me to write more romance and less mystery! I’ll learn one of these days.
What books are you reading and loving right now?
Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls is what I’m listening to at the moment. I loved her tagline, “You don’t have to be a good girl to be a good person.” I felt like that theme fit very well into my writing of this series.
Also, I’m nuts about Devney Perry and Penny Reid’s newest releases. I’m savoring their words as much as possible!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of How to Love a Duke in Ten Days.