Longtime romance readers may remember Karleen Koen's first historical novel, Through a Glass Darkly which was a bestseller twenty years ago. Her latest release is Dark Angels, which predates her first book in chronology and tells the story of Alice Verney, who was an elderly duchess in the first book. We asked her about returning to a character after such a long absence.
Your first book, Through a Glass Darkly, was a bestseller when it was published in 1986. Your new book, Dark Angels, is a prequel of sorts. Give us an overview of each and how they relate to one another.
Through A Glass Darkly is set in 1715 through 1720 and is the story of a young woman's coming of age during the midst of the crowning of a new king and a later financial crisis, similar to our Great Depression in the 1930s. It's a tale of first love, greed, and the building and destruction of personal empire. In it, the relationship between the heroine, Barbara, and her grandmother, Alice, is poignant, funny, and key to the plot.
Dark Angels is set in 1670 and is the story of a young woman's ambitions during the midst of a succession crisis and the fallout of a secret treaty between two kingdoms. It's a tale of betrayal, friendship, and the quality of true love. Alice of Through A Glass Darkly is the heroine.
The two novels are related in that one of the characters appears in both, yet the stories can stand alone. But they become so rich in historical detail, context, and character complexity when read together. And the grandmother/granddaughter relationship in Through A Glass Darkly, which is one of its most tender parts, is made so deep and intense when you know both women as young women.
Twenty years is a long gap between the two books, though you published a sequel to Through a Glass Darkly, called Now Face to Face, in 1997. How long had you been planning to write the prequel? Was it difficult to return to Alice's world after such a long time away?
I never plan. I did present ideas I had for three novels when I was hunting for an agent. I said that the draft of Through A Glass Darkly was actually two novels.....and Now Face to Face became that second novel. And I said there could be a story of the grandmother. And I really didn't give it another thought because I was tired of the process of fiction after Now Face to Face and went away to work in the outside world as a writer/editor, which I am.
The only obligation I had to Alice of Through A Glass Darkly was to look back over her memories. Alice as an old woman and Alice as a young woman would be, as we all are, such different creatures with such different goals, that once I realized this third novel I was writing was hers, it wasn't hard to write the story. I simply tried to be true to the memories Alice shares with readers in the first book.....but I didn't let that impede me when there was a better story to tell....as we all know, memories dim or can be wrong.
You have mentioned that Alice and Richard "hijacked" the book. Tell us about that.
For the third novel, I was trying to write a story about certain events in the life of Louis XIV that have always appealed to me and seem to whisper, here's a story. I realized in the draft of it that Alice and Richard would be young and vibrant. Wouldn't it be amusing, I thought, to bring them in for bit parts.....a kind of joke probably only I would appreciate. Well.
Once I did that, they took over, they stood out as the key characters, particularly Alice, and the story became about her. And Louis XIV, only the most important man of his century, was the bit player instead.
Alice has very human flaws in her character. She is only twenty years old in the novel, and her actions veer between those of a savvy courtier and those of a rather arrogant, self-absorbed young woman, barely more than a teenager, with some regrettable consequences on her part. How difficult was she to write? How do you view her character?
She wasn't difficult to write at all. I view her character as very real, as someone I would want to know, as someone I do know, and whom I like very much. Moving out of being self absorbed is one of the inner tasks of growing up. I like writing about it.
Dark Angels is chock-full of court intrigue, and every character seems to have a personal agenda. Did you find it difficult to manage the many schemes? How did you keep track of them all? Did you ever find yourself getting tired of the endless intrigue and have to take a break from it?
Well, intrigue is always tangled. People's ambitions and self serving lead them down paths which they may later regret walking, but there they are, and so is the wreckage around them. The time period of Dark Angels was one of great intrigue. The secret treaty that starts the plot really happened. Buckingham and all his betrayals are actual. So is the first surprising death. The difficult parts about managing more than one scheme are to keep the plot moving, keep the reader engaged, and keep the character's personal goals crystal clear.
Other than the royalty, which of the characters in Dark Angels are based on real historical figures?
Duchess of Cleveland, Buckingham, Nell Gwynn, King Charles's dogs, d'Effiat, Beuvron all existed.
The Duke of Balmoral is based on General Monck, made Duke of Albemarle by Charles II upon his restoration to the throne. Monck actually died a few months before the time frame in Dark Angels began. So I just picked up the details from Monck that I needed and made Balmoral.
Your novels have been praised for their rich historical detail. Is the Restoration era a personal favorite of yours? Tell us about your research for the book.
I have loved history since I was a girl. It began by my sneaking off to read my grandfather's historical novels when I was 8. I branched out into biographies, memoirs, and social commentaries. There are certain periods that intrigue me, the time of the Louis's in France, the time of Elizabeth I. It's hard not to like the Restoration because it was the backdrop for so many human and racy characters. And the story of the royal house of the Stuarts of Charles II, his nuclear family, is so amazing and so tragic that it bests any fiction.
For Dark Angels, I read dozens of books about the period; I went to France (I thought I was writing about Louis XIV); I brought out my notes from my trip to England for the other novels. I do copious research, have tons of notes, then have to pare away so that story and character emerge.
What are you planning next for your readers?
I am working on that story I mentioned earlier about Louis XIV. There is a true story that is intriguing and appealing to me, and I'm working to fictionalize it for readers so they can enjoy the richness and emotional appeal I see.
I seem to be going back in time. This Louis XIV story is set ten years before Dark Angels, in 1660. I want to write about Louis XIV in a way that can bring him to life for modern readers. He was such an important figure for his time. When I finish this story, it has another part I want to tell, which skips forward to about 1674 or so.
That means that Alice may show up again. Likely she will. I'd also like to write a story about Alice at 12, in 1662, the year Charles II married Catherine of Portugal. There's a section in Dark Angels that says "story" to me, and I'll quote it (Alice is talking to another character about Charles II):
"By thirty, when all hope was extinguished, he was proclaimed king. It all shows in his eyse, Renee. If he weren't such a roue, I swear I could be in love with him myself. I thought I was when I was twelve."
And then, I may write one more story with Barbara, Alice's granddaughter, as the central character. That depends on whether or not I find a story arc.
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about my work.
Karleen, thank you for joining us. Readers, we have a review of Dark Angels in our Historical section.
November 26, 2006