June 30, 2020

Vanessa Riley

‘We are not one thing but a mix of emotion and humor and love’
Interview by
Vanessa Riley discusses the unusual perspective shifts in her new historical romance, A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby, and opens up about what she wishes she could see more of in the genre.
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All Patience Jordan, heroine of Vanessa Riley’s new historical romance, A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby, wants is to recover her child, Lionel, and escape back to the West Indies. After her English husband died, his uncle had Patience thrown into Bedlam in an attempt to gain custody of Lionel and control over the family fortune. But when Lionel’s actual guardian, the powerful duke and dashing soldier Busick Strathmore appears on the scene, Patience’s plans are thrown into chaos. We talked to Riley about what inspired the unusual shifts in perspective in this story, Patience’s signature dish and what she wishes she could see more of in historical romance.

Were there any real-life inspirations for Patience or Busick?
Patience is modeled after young women, Black or biracial young heiresses whose plantation or wealthy merchant fathers sent them to Europe for education and marriage. Jane Austen memorializes these women in the character of Miss Lambe in Sanditon.

Busick is modeled after the Marquess of Anglesey, whose leg was amputated in battle. He went on to live a robust, full life, not letting his injury stop him. The improved mechanical limb is named after him.

You shift between first-person perspective for Patience and third-person for Busick. Why did you decide to structure the book this way, and how did you decide which perspective worked best for which character?
I’ve been reading a lot more historical fiction, so I might be influenced by that, but Patience’s world is one that is seldom written about and, I believe, easily misunderstood. Putting the reader in her skin centers the reader not purely on the struggle but her celebration of survival. I want you to understand at your core the consequences of her going against patriarchal society, to feel her fears and how she learns to be her most authentic self.

Busick’s perspective is one most Regency readers understand. He’s rich, commanding and influential. Yet, I write him in close-third person so that the reader can feel his struggles with his war injuries, maintaining his dignity in a world that had little room for amputees and the difficulty of reinventing his life when all he knew was combat.

“Only happy women bake. Pick up your cannonballs.”

There’s a very sweet thread throughout this story of Patience’s coconut bread and how much Busick and his men enjoy it. I was delighted to find that you included the recipe at the end of the book! Where did you find the recipe, and how did you decide that this would be Patience’s signature dish?
The coconut bread is an adaptation of a fire- or hearth-roasted bread that my grandmother might have cooked early in the morning in Port of Spain, Trinidad. When she has an army living in her house, men who’ve been deprived hearty meals on the battlefield, I can see Patience wanting to give them a piece of her island home to make them feel welcome in her British home. It also becomes a quiet way to get them to respect her boundaries. Only happy women bake. Pick up your cannonballs.

What aspect of Regency life do you wish historical romance explored more?
I would love to see more stories on how the middle class lived. This was a thriving sector of the British economy filled with tradesmen and artisans. These men and women lived with the subtle tension of who gets to succeed and move up the social ladder. So many interesting tales are not being told because of our intense focus on the most privileged in society.

If Patience and Busick were alive in 2020, what jobs do you think they would have? Would Busick still be a soldier?
Patience would either own a chain of bakeries or be a recruiter for the FBI. Busick would be a military man, a chief of staff or heading the Veteran’s Administration.

I was fascinated by your depiction of Busick’s experience of being an amputee during this period of time. What was most helpful for you in researching this, and did you find anything that surprised you?
Reading about the life of Marquess of Anglesey and how he survived a battlefield amputation and how he worked with inventor James Potts to improve artificial limbs is mind-blowing. You often wonder how, in a time when some in medicine believed in bloodletting or that one could have too much blood, advances such as artificial limbs were made.

What was the hardest part of this book to get right? What part came the easiest?
The hardest part is making sure to deliver all of the emotions and angst that the characters are enduring and also keeping the book balanced with humor and fun. These are two people that are broken and that’s not humorous, but they are both wonderfully human. I hope that I can sensitively portray their complexities. We are not one thing but a mix of emotion and humor and love.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby.


What books have you been reading and loving lately?
I’ve been getting in my fill of rom-coms with Farrah Rochon’s The Boyfriend Project and Kwana Jackson’s Real Men Knit. I have loved Kristan Higgins’ Always the Last to Know, and Beatriz Williams’ Along the Infinite Sea. Complete spectrums of emotions from these wonderful authors.

What’s next for you?
I’m working on the second book in the Rogues and Remarkable Women series, Jemina’s book, An Earl, The Girl, and a Toddler. I always wanted to do an amnesia story, though I might be forgetting something else about this like, say, a Blackamoor barrister turned earl who’s a single dad.

I’m also working on a historical fiction about the life of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, Island Queen (May 2021). This is a woman who rose from enslavement to become one of the wealthiest women in the world. It should blow the minds of everyone who only see 19th century Black people in the role of slaves. It should add another chapter to the complex story of what is known of Black women in history. We were more than victims and more complicated than the superwoman, superhuman tropes. Dorothy was beautiful, Black, strong and flawed, yet she found the faith and courage to win.

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