Jennifer Ashley on Breaking New Ground
Every once in a long while, a genre book grabs the reader by the throat and gives her a good shake by standing some convention on its ear. In The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, Rita®-winning USA Today bestseller Jennifer Ashley breaks new ground with a hero who suffers symptoms consistent with Asperger’s Syndome, a serious disability that afflicts him with rages, difficulty understanding "normal" emotion, and a profound aversion to eye contact.
I absolutely loved this book — and immediately knew it would make a big splash in the historical romance world, so I asked (insert arm-twisting sound effects here) Jennifer if she’d be willing to take time from her very busy schedule and answer a few questions.
BtO: Jennifer, welcome to the blog, and congratulations on the outstanding work and wonderful buzz this book has gotten (from stellar Publisher’s Weekly and Romantic Times reviews to its own fan group on Twitter!)
First question for you: When you started developing this book, did you begin with a character (Ian Mackenzie, I’m betting), the book’s plot, or with the overarching idea for the planned Highland Pleasures series?
JA: The series took root when I decided I wanted to write about a family of decadent, over-the-top, dangerous bad boys. I enjoyed writing about bad boys in my pirate series, and I wanted to explore the badness in a normal (or in this case, dysfunctional) family.
The four brothers have always been who they are in my head. Hart is more or less the patriarch, and the other three have their own complicated lives and life issues. I always intended to make the youngest brother, the one they all protected, considered mad.
As the series developed in my head, it felt like I was writing a family saga rather than a succession of books about individual couples. I don’t like secondary series characters to be wallpaper, so I incorporated them each brother into the story (and they will appear in all the other books). These four all need each other, even though they clash from time to time (and no one can clash better than family!).
I’ve been daydreaming the Mackenzies (who sprang forth fully formed) for a very long time, and I’m happy to at last be able to get them on paper. Their heroines, on the other hand, have taken a bit of work.
BtO: I really enjoyed the complex family dynamics in this story. I love it when you read a book where all the secondary characters feel as if they really have their own lives going.
On another note, I’ve been writing a romantic suspense about a heroine with an autistic nine-year-old, so I’ve been doing quite a lot of research on the topic to augment my observations from my teaching days. I love the way you pulled no punches about the extent of Lord Ian’s disability, but I’m dying to know, what on earth inspired you to choose such a socially-challenged character for a romantic hero?
JA: I’m looking forward to your book already! Being socially challenged myself (ahem) I wanted to explore a hero who truly was on the outside and didn’t understand why. I also wanted to show that a person like Ian still has needs and thoughts and emotions and can fall in love as hard as anyone else. In other words, I wanted to show that “different” is not so different after all. He has difficulty relating to other people on their terms, but he isn’t stupid or unfeeling.
BtO: It was a brave and risky choice, but I have to say, the emotional payoff between the hero and heroine at the book’s end was one of the best I’ve ever read. Did you find that challenging to write? Or did it just flow from the development of the two leads.
JA: The entire book was a challenge to write, as you might imagine. Having a hero who can’t look at anyone ensured that I could not do any lazy writing. I had to go over every line and make sure it stayed true to the character.
The emotional payoff did grow out of the two leads. I’m a “seat of the pants” writer, which means if it feels good to me, I put it on the page. The ending was what the characters “wanted” it to be.
I have to say the ending was fairly easy to write, but the beginning--oof, that was hard! I started this story eight times before I finally got it right. And what ended up in the book is nothing to the reams of pages I cut.
BtO: Wow! That’s interesting. For me, beginnings are easier and endings much more difficult to write. If nothing else, this speaks to the benefits of sticking to something until it feels right to you.
Speaking of thing that felt right, the character of the heroine, Beth Ackerly, was essential to creating a believable Happily Ever After ending for the lead couple. When casting this story, what did you think of as the most important qualities for this heroine?
JA: Beth was one of the most difficult characters I have ever cast (Christopher Raine in Care and Feeding of Pirates was the other).
Many young ladies auditioned, and many were rejected. I’d start writing the heroine’s meet with Ian, read it back, scream in frustration, and fire her. It wasn’t until I conceived of Beth having quite a lot of life experience, both good and terrible, that she clicked.
I needed someone resilient (who could take this odd family of overbearing men), and someone who had compassion and understanding. Beth had a horrible childhood, but she also knew happiness—she’d loved her husband (and he, her), and the lady who took her as companion was kind in her own way. Also, I needed her to be independent, not an innocent daughter. Beth inherited money, she was old enough to live on her own, and she wasn’t sheltered from the dangers of the world. She also was enough of an outsider in her own world that she could understand Ian’s alienation.
It took me about a year to develop Beth. Happily once I had her, the story came.
BtO: I’m laughing at the idea of firing heroines. But you were right to hold out for this one. She really made the story work.
I’m dying to know how you’ll top this. Please tell us a little about the next book in the series and when it will be out. Also, we’d love to hear what your alter ego, Allyson James, has been up to lately in the world of paranormal romance.
JA: I’d like to know how I’m going to top it, too. Scary stuff. The next book in the series will be Lady Isabella’s Scandalous Marriage, which will be about Isabella and Mac. These two had a rough marriage, and I’ll come out and say that their breakup had nothing to do with adultery. That would be too easy—I will be working hard to make their story just as poignant as Ian and Beth’s, with no simple solutions.
BtO: Yea! I was hoping you’d write their story next.
JA: This book won’t be out until 2010. I’m not happy with that, but there are scheduling difficulties.
BtO: Boo, scheduling difficulties! But we’ll be patient. Or try.
JA: In the meantime, I have a couple more books coming out:
Pride Mates, by Jennifer Ashley (new paranormal; my slant on shape shifters), Jan. 2010 (I just saw the cover art for this—oh my!)
More hot books from Allyson James:
Mortal Seductions (Sept. 2009). This is erotica, not for the faint of heart. But fun! (I posted the first chapter at www.allysonjames.com/mortalseductionsexcerpt.html)
Stormwalker (May 2010), an urban fantasy/paranormal romance (but set in the desert southwest, so not really “urban”). Navajo witch with powers she draws from storms and a very sexy love interest. And she’s not all she seems to be.
Also two anthologies in October: Hot for the Holidays (as Allyson James), and A Christmas Ball (as Jennifer Ashley).
BtO: No wonder scheduling’s a challenge. That’s a lot of books!
Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your insights on the writing of The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie. Thanks for writing a historical that made me hungry for historicals again. I can’t wait to read more!
JA: No problem! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I love historicals (at one point it was the only thing I’d read or write), and I plan to always write them, no matter where else I stray. I’m looking forward to your June book!
Note to BtO Readers: Jennifer will be drawing from among those who comment to give away free books! What here for an announcement on the lucky winners!
And just one more thing: Intrigued by Lord Ian? After reading Jennifer’s book, you may enjoy Mark Haddon’s break-out mystery, The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime, told from the viewpoint of a young man with autism. It’s another huge favorite of mine and a fast-paced, very quick read.