Laura Kinsale's work has been described as "testing what would happen if Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters collaborated on a romance." To many, she's simply the best romance author alive and I was thrilled at the opportunity to talk with her.
I’m always curious to ask, did you always want to be a writer?
Let’s see. . . as I recall, in elementary school I wanted to be a painter, a
writer, and own a twenty-thousand acre horse ranch in Arizona. When I was
elected in my first grade class to put the official shovel full of dirt on
the tree planted in front of my school, my father announced that I would be
the first woman president, so for a while--at least until third grade--I
figured I was political material. Writing has always come naturally to me,
although I didn’t really consider it as a serious career until I figured out
a plot. That took me at least thirty-five years.
Who were the writers you loved growing up?
One of the first books that lingers in my memory, not so much for the
writing as for the strange stories and paintings, is a child’s book of Greek
mythology. I also read Thomas B. Costain’s historical novels, which
impressed me deeply. They were the first “big” books I ever made it through.
Mary Stewart, especially the Merlin and Alexander books; T.H. White,
The Once and Future King; Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of God; Madeleine L’
Engle, A Wrinkle in Time--those are the books that stand out to me vividly.
Can we see a trend here? No wonder I ended up writing historical romance!
Who do you read now? Who has influenced your prose style?
I lost the ability to read fiction for a long time after I started writing,
so I really don’t read much now. I do go back and read books I loved, mostly
John Fowles, C.J. Cherryh and Charles Dickens. I recently re-read
Neuromancer and was blown away with how wonderfully written it was.
Can you tell me something about your background? Your bio says that you
were a petroleum engineer, before your writing career.
Actually, I was a petroleum geologist. I think that mistake got into
a book bio somewhere, and perpetuated. I’m way too bad at math to be an
What drew you to that field, and does it relate to your writing?
I got into geology because there was a road-cut near my grandmother’s house,
where I visited each summer. It showed the layers of limestone clearly, and
there were fossils in it, which always interested me. Later I attended a
summer field course on volcanoes in Hawaii, and I was hooked. I enjoyed
geology in college a great deal, because it is such an outdoor-oriented
subject. We went on field trips to all sorts of odd and fascinating places.
Working in the oil business was not as rewarding for me. I discovered very
quickly that I’m not “office material”. I don’t like golf, and I had the
unfortunate habit of telling my boss how he should do things.
So the oil business and I parted company eventually, without much regret on
either side. At that point I began writing full time. Probably the most
direct influence geology had on my writing shoes in The Hidden Heart, with
Darwin and all the scientific exploration going on. I was also interested in
the female fossil hunters of the Victorian period, whose finds were often
written up by men without any credit to the real discoverers. Otherwise, it
would mostly be in the feel for a place, how hot it is when you are in the
desert, how hard a rock is when you sit on it, what it’s like to be cold,
hungry and wet. . . things gleaned from my field work in west Texas, Mexico,
and other places.
You mentioned it took you thirty-five years to come up with a plot. Why
do you think it took you that long?
I think it takes about thirty-five years for me to come up with a plot for
every book! Plotting is always my weak point. My books are totally
character-driven; I do not write a synopsis, and sometimes you might even
see the final book vaguely outlined in there, but that’s only if I’m lucky!
It is generally what I find most difficult about a book, keeping the story
going in some rational direction. I am not sure if this is a comment on my
character or my intellect. ;) Fortunately my husband greatly assists me in
figuring out “what happens next”. Really, his name should go on the cover
too, but he refuses. I wonder why?
What draws you to historical romance?
Actually, I ended up writing historicals because the first book I sold was a
historical. However, I’ve really enjoyed the research and insight into other
times and places. I’ve had a few ideas for contemporaries and science
fiction, but none that have developed yet.
Have you written literary fiction?
I haven’t written literary fiction, no. I tried once, in high school, when I
fell in love with James Joyce. So I tried to write “epiphanies” and so on,
but to be honest I never really understood them, and I’m sure my efforts
were--ahem, better forgotten. At least, I’ve forgotten them! I was just in
love with the words, and the images they made of people and places. I was
fortunate to have a pretty good exposure to literature in high school, and a
couple of excellent English teachers.
In college, I went entirely the other way. As a geology major, my classes
were primarily in science, engineering and math. Most of the other students
I studied with had no interest or background in literature. So I drifted
away from that without realizing it. My first year in graduate school, I
dated a guy who actually read books and poetry, and it was a lovely
re-introduction to a world I had not realized that I missed so much. I think
I’ve always been in the middle between an interest in sciences and the
humanities by nature.
While working, spending a great deal of time sitting rigs and living in
horrid little motel courts in small towns, I started reading science fiction
with a vengeance. It was pure escapism for me. I would have loved to write
it, but I always felt that I could not live up to the best of what I read.
The best science fiction combines a fascinating technological basis with
excellent characterization. Neuromancer [by William Gibson] comes to mind. With that sort of
example in front of me, I was frankly intimidated to try science fiction. So
silly me, I thought, “Oh, well, romance would be easy to write!” Ha, ha. So
I began to read it. What I discovered was that it held the elements I most
enjoyed when they appeared, even peripherally, in other genres: a focus on
the relationship between a man and a woman.
You describe your novels as character driven, and you are known for your
incredibly complex heroes and heroines, full of flaws as well as virtues.
How do they relate to the popular idea that romance heroes and heroines are
fantasies of perfection?
I think flaws are what draws us into the characters, and help us relate to
them. Perfection is hard to relate to. But obviously, everyone has different
“lines” that they draw as to what flaws are acceptable and what are not. The
hero in particular must be sexually as well as emotionally attractive, but
what does this say? Most of us fall madly in love with guys who are far from
perfect in real life, and we know it. But there is something about them that
attracts us. So in character development, it’s just a constant push-and-pull
that probably helps enliven the final product. (That said, it’s well known
that I think making the heroine too perfect is a great way to create a
character readers will hate!)
I’ve read that THE SHADOW AND THE STAR is your personal favorite of your
novels. If so, why?
Probably the book I am most proud of from a technical, “writerly” standpoint
is Flowers, but yes, the one I have the most personal affection for is
The Shadow and the Star. Leda’s character, and “her ladies,” represent a
feminine culture that has long existed, unrecorded and barely acknowledged
in society at large, but one that has had a profound impact on
I grew up in close contact with a similar culture of women in a small
country town: my grandmother and maiden aunts. Some readers find Leda to be
too “prissy”, but the strength of her character lies in her knowledge that
as long as she acts rightly, with personal dignity and respect for herself,
she is alright. She has been brought up with a strong sense of direction; as
long as she lives according to her own standards, no amount of outer
disorder shakes her inner sense of herself. Samuel, on the other hand, had
no such luck. His sense of himself as a worthy human being is so weak that
nothing he does, no matter how outwardly successful or good, can bring him
to feel that he’s okay. Perhaps this is a tale for modern American life; the
idea that weakness in an economic or social sense, which women such as Leda
have endured for centuries, does not equate to weakness where it really
counts. If you know your actions are right, then you are worth something.
You do not need the world to tell you so. And the world hears you, sees the
way you treat yourself and treats you accordingly.
I learned this from that cloistered feminine culture of my grandmothers and
aunts. I think we women and girls today, in the age of feminism, are
struggling with the concept of strength--what it is and how to live it--and
to a certain extent we have fallen for a male concept of aggression and
power as representing strength. The Shadow and the Star is very much about a
different concept of strength.
In 1987, you published both MIDSUMMER MOON and UNCERTAIN MAGIC, two
quite different romance novels. The first is a lighter comedy, the other a
paranormal. Did the two stories develop at the same time, or was one an
Uncertain Magic was written the year before, and published early in the
year. I got a bee in my bonnet that I wanted to have two books out in one
year, and managed to finish Midsummer Moon in time for it to make it out
late in the year. They were written entirely separately. My intent with MM
was to try a Georgette Heyer sort of book, but I found that writing comedy
was so hard I haven’t tried it again!
UNCERTAIN MAGIC is your only book that doesn’t use the hero’s point of
view. Was it harder to write?
Not that I recall, but it’s been a long time ago, and in the interval
writing became so difficult for me that I might be looking at the past with
rose-colored glasses, heh.
UNCERTAIN MAGIC is also your only paranormal romance. Are you planning on
writing any more?
My books often, if not usually, hint at some larger reality operating behind
the plot. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I like to leave the reader
wondering if its “real” or illusion. Now and then, a plot idea hits me, like
the mind-reading; I suppose I feel the need to justify that somehow in the
plot, and depending on the other circumstances I might use paranormal
elements in some way. It’s not too likely I would write a completely
fantasy-based novel, although not impossible if a wonderful idea struck
Many of your readers love SEIZE THE FIRE for the innovative use of an
overweight heroine. What prompted you to make Olympia overweight?
LOL. . .I was in the middle of a diet!! Believe me, the scenes of being
hungry on the island are based on the author’s personal research! And of
course, I liked the idea of the heroine being loved and sexually attractive
to the hero without being the perfect Cosmo girl.
PRINCE OF MIDNIGHT features a hero with multiple physical problems, as
does the hero from FLOWERS FROM THE STORM. Why do you and your readers find
“wounded heroes” so fascinating?
Hmmm, good question. Any character is more interesting if the reader can
identify with their struggle, in addition to their good points. I suppose we
all have inner wounds, and few of us are physically perfect. I think it is
the struggle to come to terms with these things that makes the characters
Your heroines are sometimes described as emotionally “cool”. I don’t find
them so, but they are atypical of many romance heroines, as they are
realistic women with their own agendas, as well as being creatures of their
My heroines seem to be the most problematic part of my books with readers
(although personally I’d say its my plots!). Leigh from Prince of Midnight
was equally as wounded as any of my heroes, but for some reason, this is not
as acceptable in heroines. Or maybe I just have not been able to make the
heroine’s wounding come across well. Some readers complain that my heroines
are too wimpy, and yet when I wrote “strong” ones, they are considered too
strong, if not bitchy. As I’ve said elsewhere, I think the heroine is really
the most difficult character for romance novelists to pull off. Readers have
no forgiveness or margin for error there, as they do for the hero.
FOR MY LADY’S HEART is one of my favorite books chiefly because of its
reversal of traditional romance roles. In many romances, the sweet, innocent
heroine redeems the jaded, world-weary hero, but in FMLH, it works the other
I definitely intended a gender reversal of the usual hero/heroine romance
chemistry in FMLH. I enjoyed doing it a great deal. (Partly I had been
goaded by an editor's comment that just maybe my next heroine could be a
little less wimpy.) What I've learned is that no matter what sort of
heroine I write, somebody won't like her. She's either too weak, too
strong, too silent, too prissy, too tom-boyish, too female, too male, etc.
etc.. (Strangely I don't get that sort of carping about my heroes!! I
wonder why! LOL) So I've just given up worrying about it and write what
seems to me to work for the book and the particular chemistry between the
characters. . .
FMLH was your first medieval, with dialogue written with a realistic
Middle English flavor which brought much joy to this English lit major. How
much heat did you take for that artistic choice?
About a third of the readers threw the book across the room after a couple
pages, about a third were wary at first but loved it by the end, and the
other third adored it from the very first “luflych”. My favorite comment was
from a reader who said she’d found it a bit difficult at first, but by the
end of the book she was wondering why the guy in the 6 o’clock news didn’t
talk like that!
In DREAM HUNTER, half your book takes place in the Middle East. Would you
like to see more romance novels with unusual settings?
I am of two minds about this. As a writer, of course I want to feel free to
set a story anywhere that interests me. As a reader, I find that I’m often
put off by a setting or time period that doesn’t personally appeal, so I can
understand publishers’ reluctance in a marketing sense. The only answer I
suppose is to make the book so durned good that word-of-mouth overcomes
reader reluctance for an unusual setting. The Clan of the Cave Bear is the
Would you consider setting a book in America?
Yes, I have some ideas, but nothing specific yet.
What would you like readers to know about you?
I’ve learned in the past few years that I cannot write just to publish. So,
from now on, I will not try to keep to a schedule of a book a year. Believe
me, I wish I could, but not only do I believe it has affected the quality of
my writing, it has simply made writing impossible at all. Finally, giving
myself permission NOT to write, and not feel guilty about it, has been the
thing that saved me.
Speaking for myself, I’m glad you don’t rush your muse! Why are
turn-around times getting shorter and shorter? How does it affect the
Turn-around times in the publishing biz, you mean? That's totally
economically driven, I'm sure. I think the entire publishing industry,
including the genres, is on the brink of huge economic changes that are
pretty unpredictable at the moment. With electronic publishing and online
retailing, something major will happen to the industry, but how it will all
turn out is not yet clear. As for "breaking free," or what we might less
euphemistically call "breaking a contract deadline" in my case, it was not
easy at all. Not because of my publisher, but because of my own difficulty
in admitting to myself that I could not live up to the commitment that I had
I was happy to learn that you are currently working on a new novel,
ENCHANTER, featuring Allegretto, a fascinating secondary character from FOR
MY LADY’S HEART. What inspired you to tell his story?
Allegretto’s character was one of those gifts from nowhere--I can recall
that in an early draft of the first chapters of FMLH, there was some mild
editorial objection to him as too slimy for romance readers. But whether it
was stubbornness or some guiding hand from above, he insisted on coming to
life in that book. By the end of FMLH I knew Allegretto was hero material. A
number of readers wrote to ask me to give Allegretto his own story, but for
a long time I couldn’t fathom what manner of man he would grow to become, or
how love could possibly draw him again. In fact, I’m still working on that!
He becomes a pirate and a master of medieval magic, with a goal of
discovering the ultimate weapon to. . .ummm. . .ah well, hopefully we will
all find out eventually!
Laura Kinsale’s new web site www.laurakinsale.net is now online. Several
of her books will be available in Electronic Reader Format and
Print-On-Demand by mid-year. The first will be SEIZE THE FIRE, MIDSUMMER
MOON and THE PRINCE OF MIDNIGHT.
Thank you, Laura!
June 19, 2000