When Simon and Suzanne Duval decide to get married at the beginning of Mary Jo Putney’s Once a Spy, romantic love is the last thing on their minds. An experienced soldier and spy, Simon hasn’t felt desire in years, and Suzanne’s horrific experience as a harem slave has left her traumatized at the thought of physical intimacy. When Simon comes across Suzanne, his cousin by marriage, humbly making her way in London as a seamstress, he offers marriage as a solution to her relative poverty and their loneliness. But as real passion begins to bloom between them, the couple begins to work through Suzanne’s trauma together. All the while, Waterloo draws ever closer and Simon will soon be thrust back into the dangerous world of international intrigue.
We talked to Putney about the fascinating Napoleonic wars, the joys of writing a mature and experienced couple and what comes next.
The Napoleonic wars were underway throughout the Regency, but only a few romances set during this period address the conflict as in as much depth as Once a Spy. What fascinates you about that conflict?
I’ve always seen parallels between the Napoleonic wars and WWII. In both cases, for a long time Britain stood along against the continental monster. And for authors, the Napoleonic period offers a wealth of drama, disrupted lives, heroic men and women. Yum!!! Very handy for plotting material.
"I don’t find innocence or inexperience particularly interesting. I am interested in characters that have experienced great challenges and pain."
What differences come with writing a mature, experienced couple like Simon and Suzanne as opposed to a younger pair of protagonists?
I don’t find innocence or inexperience particularly interesting. I am interested in characters that have experienced great challenges and pain, and have become “stronger in the mended places.” Some of the strongest recurring themes in my writing are healing, redemption and reconciliation. There is often forgiveness—but some of my characters have had experiences that can never be forgiven, only moved beyond. Like real life.
What’s changed the most in your writing process since publishing your first book?
Interesting question! Not really a lot. I can’t start writing until I can produce at least a simple synopsis that delineates the setting, the main characters and the overall plot line and resolution. Everything else I figure out as I go along. If I don’t know what comes next, I tread water and edit until I know how to proceed. It’s like building a brick wall: I can’t move on until the previous courses of bricks are solid, so at the end, I need to do very few revisions. I will say that it doesn’t get any easier!
Suzanne’s past trauma as a harem slave is handled so touchingly and respectfully. How did you go about researching what her experiences and recovery would have been like?
I have various books about harem life, enough to have an understanding of how widely varied harem life could be. We first met Suzanne in my previous book, Once a Scoundrel, where we found out more about her life there and how she escaped. I did create an unusually difficult situation for her because it made her particularly interesting and impressive. Another major recurring theme in my books is the challenges women have always faced. There have always been strong women, and those are the ones I write about.
Depicting Napoleon, Wellington and Waterloo must have been a daunting task. What sources did you draw on for your interpretation of these figures and events?
There are a zillion books about Waterloo, as well as about Wellington and Napoleon, and I have a whole bookcase full of them! I’ve been writing about this period for years so knowledge accumulates.
I also some years ago wrote another Waterloo book, Shattered Rainbows (part of my Fallen Angels series). In that book, I went more deeply into the whole experience, including Brussels social life and going right onto the battlefield with my main characters. I worked out where on the line of battle my hero’s fictional regiment was located, and the major troop movements.
I couldn’t do that again, which is what inspired me to find a different angle on Waterloo for this story. Hence, intelligence gathering, which was vital and much harder to research. I sifted through still more books to get bits and pieces of real events that I could hand over to my characters.
Tell me more about the inspiration for Simon’s character, Colonel Colquhoun Grant.
He was a fascinating guy! The youngest of eight brothers of an aristocratic Scottish family, he was considered an exploring officer, riding behind enemy lines in full uniform, observing, taking notes and drawing maps. He was head of Wellington’s personal intelligence staff on the Peninsula and later during the period before and including Waterloo. Like Simon, he sent in reports about French troop movements and again, like Simon, returned to Brussels in time to take the field at Waterloo.
What do you admire most about Suzanne? About Simon?
Their resilience, their courage, their honesty. I don’t go into too much detail about the horrors they’ve experienced, but I did try to make it clear that they’d both suffered trauma and loss. Though they were lonely and weary, neither of them were bitter, nor had they given up on life. Which is why when Simon located Suzanne, they each had the courage to agree to a marriage of companionship and friendship rather than passion. They were both always honest with each other, which was essential to build the “happily ever after” neither of them had believed possible.
**spoilers ahoy** Lucas is a particularly fascinating character. Would you ever consider writing a book about him?
Why, what a coincidence! The book with which I’m currently locked in mortal combat is Lucas’ story, working title Once Dishonored. You, my editor and I all agreed he needed a book of his own.
What’s next for you?
The series I’m doing now is called Rogues Redeemed and it’s built around five men held prisoner in a Portuguese cellar where they’ve been condemned to be shot at dawn. During the night, they bond over danger and figure out how to escape, then pledge to keep in touch and maybe meet up after the wars if they’re still alive. Simon is the fourth of those five men. Lucas became an interesting detour! The book after Once Dishonored will be the story of the fifth man in the cellar, and that will take me to some places.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Once a Spy.
Author photo by Marti Corn.