Jen: Today we welcome Joanna Lowell to Romancing the Book. Joanna, will you share a short bio with us?
Joanna: Joanna Lowell divides her time between North Carolina and Vermont, where her family runs a small farm. Her love of books is rivaled only by her love of cows, particularly her brother’s wondrous Jersey, Blackberry.
You can get updates about Joanna Lowell and her books on Facebook.
Jen: Please tell us about your newest release and where the idea came from.
Joanna: Dark Season is a Victorian romance with Gothic atmosphere and a mystery subplot. I started writing with a sense of the hero and heroine and their conflicts. Isidore is a (gorgeous) viscount tortured by the guilt he feels at his fiancée’s death. Ella is a young woman who suffers from epilepsy; she’s on the run from her cousin, but more importantly, she’s on the run from who she is. The heart of the book is these two characters; they face each other’s demons and then find the strength to face their own. Everything else grew from there.
Jen: What what age did you discover writing? Tell us your call story.
Joanna: When I was a little kid, four or five years old, I starting making books. They weren’t fancy! I’d fold a few pieces of construction paper and staple the spine and that was the book. I’d write a story on the pages, usually a story about animals, although I remember writing one story about pollution and how bad it was and how it made everyone sad.
I showed my first-grade teacher a book I made about mice (the main characters were twins and their tails were too long and kept getting tangled around things, which I thought was very funny) and my teacher said I could bring it to the school library. The librarian would put it on the shelf for other kids to read. In my elementary school, you got in big trouble if you ran in the halls, but I ran in the halls all the way to the library with my book. I was so excited!
The library was pure magic to me, not just because it was filled with books, but because library books had cards in paper pockets inside the back covers with the names of all the people who’d checked them out written down beside the stamped dates. I always thought there was something eerie and wonderful about reading a library book, about knowing that somebody in particular, usually somebody’s older sister who never talked to me, had held the exact book I was holding, last week or four years ago. The library gave me a sense that books connected people in semi-secret ways. Getting to put my book in the library meant I could start a whole new chain of connections, another magic circle.
After I gave the librarian my book, I felt nervous and shy about it, and I didn’t ever go to the part of the library where she said the book would be, and I never saw the book again (and maybe nobody else did). But I never forgot how thrilling it was to realize I could add something to the library instead of take something out. One of things I like best about romance is that so many romance readers become romance writers, or write about the romance novels they’re reading, that the magic circles keep multiplying.
Jen: How do you remember ideas that come to you at odd times?
Joanna: I don’t! Or I do if I’m lucky. I’m a runner, a slow runner, and as I run ideas pop into my head, and I stop running (I should say I’m a slow or stopped runner) and I make a note in my phone. However, I’ve found that this note-taking gives me a false sense of security. I don’t work as hard to remember the idea I’ve noted. But when I look at notes later they are often inscrutable (not to mention autocorrected). Looking through old phone notes now, what to make of “Less flesh to replenish Vinka. Scene w Kar”? Or “Wicket gate. Inspector dropsy”? Sometimes my inscrutable notes generate new ideas, quite possibly unrelated to the ideas that prompted the note-taking in the first place. As long as the ideas keep coming, I’m not too worried about forgetting half of them. Maybe that’s what I was getting at when I wrote in my phone: “Get away from meaning; Darwin’s frog.”
Jen: Is there a genre you’d like to write? Is there one you’ll probably stay away from? Why?
Joanna: Lately, I’ve been coming up with plots and voices that have a distinct YA feel to me. I’d love to write a YA book, maybe something fabulist or steampunk. There’d be a romantic subplot, obviously! I recently published my first story along these lines—about the young wife of a Victorian-era Big Foot hunter—in a literary magazine I like enormously called Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. In general, I enjoy borrowing tropes and protocols from all sorts of genres when I write. Often what I’m writing doesn’t fit neatly into one category or another, although, when I write romance, I always obey the major rules (e.g. there’s a happy ending!), and I think working within the constraints actually makes me more creative.
I don’t see myself ever writing hard science fiction or a book of lineated poems. I like the way hard science fiction extrapolates and makes us see our own world from a new perspective, but I can’t myself come up with interesting, rigorous descriptions of any technology, real or imagined. As for poetry, I wish I had some intuitive or learned sense of how to break a line, but for whatever reason I can only compose in sentences.
Jen: What kind of research did you do for this book?
Joanna: I have a lot of fun researching when I write, possibly too much fun. As I wrote Dark Season I found myself going down various research rabbit holes. This sometimes meant I was deep in the articles of an act of Parliament before I realized my time would have been better spent drafting a dialogue between Isidore and Ella, my hero and heroine. Political and social context is important but can’t overshadow the story itself. That said, I did need to read books about 19th century London, and novels set in 19th century London (Dickens!), so I’d be steeped in period details and vocabulary.
The aspect of the book that required the most research (and that I was most concerned with representing well) is Ella’s epilepsy. Ella grows up hating and fearing her body. In part this is due to the manifestations of her disease itself; she has painful, disorienting seizures. But in large part, her self-loathing is the result of social stigma. In the late 19th century, the medical discourse and cultural attitudes surrounding epilepsy were changing rapidly for the better, but Ella still has to fight hard to see herself (and to imagine that others might see her) as a worthy subject of love and desire. To write Ella’s character, I read books on the history of epilepsy. I wanted Ella to benefit across the course of the book from the more modern understanding and therapeutic response represented by Doctor Penn, but I didn’t want to explain away or minimize a condition that will continue to affect her after the book’s happy ending.
Ultimately, I hope Dark Season raises questions about the perception and construction of disability (these questions remain important in the 21st century) while foregrounding romance; in other words, I hope it shows that these questions aren’t antithetical to romance in the least.
Jen: What’s next for you?
Joanna: More historical romance! I just started outlining a new book, which will involve international intrigue and a Himalayan mastiff. I’m hoping to get started on it this summer, when it’s too hot in North Carolina to move.