A few weeks ago, I read America’s First Daughter written by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. The novel was so excellent, I should use the word devoured! It’s difficult enough for one author to create a story let alone two, so I decided to find out more. Here’s Stephanie letting us in on her writing world and how she works with Laura.
Can you tell us a little of your journey from newbie author to bestselling author?
Gosh, it was a long journey. I started out as a fantasy writer who didn’t realize she wanted to write historical fiction. I have some manuscripts that are truly terrible, and will be hidden under the bed forever. But I eventually started getting little stories published in professional publications, then, under a pen name, I started writing genre fiction for traditional publishers. And my first historical was LILY OF THE NILE about the little known daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony who went on to be one of the greatest client queens in the Roman empire. That became a trilogy, and a passion. After seven years in the ancient world, however, I was ready to move on. And it was America’s First Daughter that gave me the chance to do that. I was both surprised, and delighted by the public response to it, and that it hit the NYT Bestseller list, now with hundreds of thousands of books sold. But I really take nothing for granted. In this business, you’re only ever as good as your last book.
What took you from lawyer/teacher to writing historical fiction? And how did your earlier career help your writing career?
The lawyer joke that I often make is that I decided if I was going to lie for a living I’d rather write fiction. It always makes me laugh, but it’s a bit too flip, really, both with its attitude towards lawyers and fiction writing, because both seek out greater truths even if it’s a circuitous path there. I think my earlier career helped me learn to research, and it definitely gave me an appreciation for how history and precedent shapes the present world, an understanding I try to bring to all my work.
With the H-Team and Laura Kamoie you seem to have become an expert at writing fiction collaboratively. Can you tell us why you chose that path? And secondly, can you give us some insights on how the process works so that the reader has a seamless reading experience?
I didn’t set out to be the Queen of Collaboration; I think it’s just that I’m a very social creature and writing can be a very solitary profession. I do it because my craft improves by learning from others and I’ve been blessed to have some extremely talented writer friends. Even so, my writing relationship with Laura is special.
Now, we’re good friends, which helps enormously. But we also think alike when it comes to story structure. With regard to America’s First Daughter, we had a completely unified vision of how the story should unfold from day one, and that served us well. Especially on the rare occasion that we came up against editorial pushback from critique partners or others. We very rarely disagreed and when we did, we always fashioned a third solution that was better than what either of us originally intended.
We found ourselves in more disagreement regarding My Dear Hamilton, but that was only because our original idea, which we thought was so clever, didn’t work at all. And so, under extreme deadline pressures, we had to very quickly navigate a new path. But in the end, the respect we have for one another always gets us through the process and makes a stronger book. Laura and I edit each other’s words freely. We use track changes, of course, so that if there’s a dispute about something we can see what’s changed and we can talk about it. But there’s really no ego surrounding the sanctity of our words. They’re Patsy’s words or Eliza’s words and we just try to make them the best they can be.
You’ve written several novels set in ancient Egypt and with America’s First Daughter and the upcoming My Dear Hamilton, you are now focused on American history. What prompted the switch?
There are two reasons, really. The first is that, as a Government major and former lawyer, I have always wanted to write about the Founding Fathers and even when I look back to my creative writing in college I see that I was writing historical fiction about figures in government. Fortunately, America’s First Daughter gave me a chance to write about a Founding Father from the eyes of his daughter Patsy, a little known woman who had a great deal of influence over our country’s conception of itself.
The second reason for the switch is that I like to be read, and the commercial niche for ancient history–especially stories about ancient women who don’t wield swords–is a smaller one than for American history at this particular juncture. Readers have a lot of people clamoring for their attention these days; I will always try to give them what they want. In the end, it’s a fortuitous switch because as it happens, America and ancient Rome have a lot in common. The clothes are different. The climate is different. But the ideas, tensions, and struggles are very similar. And of course, I’m fascinated by Republics. Their rise, their fall, their triumphs and failures. That’s the stuff of drama!
American’s First Daughter is wonderfully written and a compelling story. How did you go about the research process?
Oh, thank you for your kind remarks about the novel. It truly was a passion project. The research, I confess, was arduous, but made much easier by the national archives, where 18k letters of Jefferson have been cataloged, digitized and transcribed. From his letters, we moved to the letters of the family, which are kept on Monticello.org. These are amazing resources for all Americans and it made it much easier for us to imagine the inner thoughts of our characters–because they wrote some of them down.
Patsy Jefferson lives a long life. How did you decide what and what not to include?
That was really tough. There were a number of times that I wished things would stop happening to her. We ended up stripping a lot of the politics out of the book simply because Patsy was removed from a lot of it. Her father got to be the president because she was busy keeping his plantation going, but that meant she wasn’t directly involved with many of the more famous, or infamous, political doings of the day. Not so Eliza Hamilton, I should add, who was right in the thick of it with her husband at the time. Our basic rule was that if something didn’t directly shape or influence the character arc we wanted for Patsy then it would have to go.
You say that you write about women who live in the shadows of men and that your novels explore “the moral dilemmas, difficult choices, and heartbreaking sacrifices that shaped these women’s lives.” How do you choose which women to write about?
In some ways I almost feel as if they choose me. Cleopatra Selene certainly did. I was actually trying to write a story about her brother, but I kept hearing her voice in my head. The same thing happened to me with Cartimandua from A Year of Ravens. I was supposed to write about someone else, but I couldn’t fall asleep at night because this ancient lady wouldn’t shut up. I know that sounds pretty woo woo, and I’m not one of those people who think the dead literally speak to them. But there’s an exercise in empathy that happens while writing and the mind latches onto what it latches onto. Psychological alchemy, I guess.
I will say though, that there’s no way that Patsy Jefferson chose me. In fact, both Laura and I were acutely aware that she would not have wanted her story told which made her a truly challenging woman to write about!
What do you think are the critical ingredients of historical fiction? And why do you think readers enjoy the genre?
Oh goodie! An invitation to ride my hobby horse. I apply a very emphatically broad definition to the genre. If it’s set in the past–let’s say more than thirty years–it’s some sort of historical fiction. Whether or not it will be enjoyable or good is a much different question that depends on any variety of factors, but I take a very hard line against folks who get all sniffy about what does, or does not, belong in our genre based on their own particular preferences. I think we all need to be welcoming more readers, with their varied tastes, into the fold. For me personally, what I enjoy about historical fiction is learning something new; generally what I read prompts me to do a little research of my own or ask questions I would never have asked. I enjoy slipping into a different world than my own, without all the modern baggage we carry, to try and wrap my mind around human problems–which I don’t believe ever really change.
America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie – In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.
My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie – From the New York Times bestselling authors of America’s First Daughter comes the epic story of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton—a revolutionary woman who, like her new nation, struggled to define herself in the wake of war, betrayal, and tragedy. Haunting, moving, and beautifully written, Dray and Kamoie used thousands of letters and original sources to tell Eliza’s story as it’s never been told before—not just as the wronged wife at the center of a political sex scandal—but also as a founding mother who shaped an American legacy in her own right. Coming April 2018.
Many thanks, Stephanie. I’m delighted to have you on the blog. I’m sure readers will find your experience as a co-author and writer of historical fiction very interesting.