When I first read Shades of Milk and Honey back in 2010, I fell in love with the world that Mary Robinette Kowal created and with the characters of Jane and Vincent. Each Spring, I looked forward to another book in the Glamourist Histories series. Alas, with the publication of the fifth book, Of Noble Family, the series will come to a close. Since Mary now lives in Chicago and I no longer work at the Portland Airport, I don’t have as many opportunities to see her as I would like, so what better excuse to speak with her than an interview to mark the publication of this fifth and final installment of Jane and Vincent’s adventures?
On a Friday afternoon in March, I called Mary at her home and we spoke for nearly an hour about all sorts of things, not all of them related to her books. (She’s also a puppeteer and I am oddly fascinated/repulsed by a Saturday morning kids’ show she had worked on [Lazy Town, for those of you who are wondering.]). (And, yes, my parenthetical statements have parenthetical statements. I’m oddly okay with this.)
BB: As a reader, I know how I feel, but how do you, the writer, feel about bringing the Glamourist Histories to a close? Do you think you might ever revisit this world, if not these characters? (Personally, I’d love to see occasional stories set in other historical eras, maybe featuring Jane and Vincent’s descendants.) Or do you feel that you have told all the stories in that world that you need to tell?
MRK: My feeling upon ending the series was that I was in mourning, but I didn’t want reader fatigue. I had decided to do five books and stop, go do some other things, give myself time to rest and give Jane and Vincent time to rest. I do hope to come back. I have ideas for a YA series set at a school for Glamourists and a series set in North America. And, hopefully a shared-world anthology with other writers writing in the world. There’s more of the world to explore, and more stories to tell, but I need to take a break.
BB: When you started Shades of Milk and Honey, did you plan on it becoming a series or did that come after? If the latter, what prompted the change?
MRK: Yes and no. I wrote it for NaNoWriMo and my strategy was to write standalones with series potential in several different genres. I had no idea it would sell, so I conceived and wrote as if it was on its own. When it sold to Tor I knew that I had other stories to tell in this world, so at that point I knew it would be a series.
BB: Over the course of the five novels, Jane and Vincent have endured any number of trials and tribulations and yet each challenge only seems to bring them closer and make their marriage stronger. I’m not sure there’s a question in here, really, just a “thank you” for creating a true partnership for these two. Watching their relationship grow and deepen over the course of five books has been a great pleasure for me as a reader. And, hey, looks like there is a question buried in here–sort of: In Of Noble Family, Vincent has to confront issues from his past and this, of everything Jane and Vincent have gone up against, was the only time I ever feared that their marriage would suffer.Was it always your plan to end the series in the way that you did, or did the ending evolve organically from what came before?
MRK: I didn’t have any specific ending in mind when I wrote Shades of Milk and Honey, only vague ideas. But, as soon as I knew there would be five books, this ending developed. However, the end of the novel changed drastically. The original ending would have been blood, more blood and even more blood later. There’s something compelling about Jane and Vincent and fiction allows us to model behavior without having to experience it. So many things can go wrong that have nothing to do with evil overlords and I wanted to show a healthy committed relationship, which isn’t something one sees often in fiction. I wanted to model that kind of relationship so that someone might read it and see what a healthy relationship is and that they don’t have to put up with certain behaviors. I hate the “big mis” had Jane and Vincent communicate because there’s a lot of stress that arises from not knowing what’s going on.
BB: Of Noble Family deals a lot with slavery and, by extension, personal prejudice and other issues of race. You’ve delved into such topics as torture and unfair labor practices in previous volumes of the Histories. Do you ever feel any trepidation about addressing such weighty and potentially controversial topics? Is it easier and/or safer to address such topics in an historical fantasy setting?
MRK: It terrifies me every time I do it. But, an historical setting allows me to point out things going on today and allow readers to draw their own conclusions, for example with feminism. Vincent is a glamourist and glamour is considered a “feminine” pursuit. But even so, and even though Vincent clearly sees Jane as his equal in the field, their clients tend to defer to Vincent because it’s business and he’s the man. It’s like how chefs seem to be all men, though cooking is considered a “girly” thing. And it’s the same with fashion.
During the Regency, many people’s lifestyles were held up by slavery, but it was at a distance so people could pretend it wasn’t happening. Today, we’ve outsourced slavery to sweatshops. We buy products made with labour conditions that we wouldn’t tolerate here but are okay with at a distance. History allows distance for people to think about it without feeling threatened and they can draw their own parallels and make choices about their behaviour in the present day.
BB: Jane and Vincent have done a lot of travelling during their adventures. Have you been fortunate enough to travel to those same locales in the name of research? Which was your favourite? And, in the course of your research, what was the most interesting, bizarre or otherwise memorable bit of information that you discovered and weren’t able to use in a novel?
MRK: No travel for research, unfortunately. I’m not a novelist who makes that kind of money. I have been to Venice, London, Vienna. I’ve been to the Caribbean, but not Antigua. I wished I could have gone, but relied on people who had been there for veracity. The Antiguan novelist Joanne Hillhouse helped enormously.
When I was researching wheelchairs–or “wheeled chairs” as they were called back in 1818–I came across a steam-powered wheelchair from 1807. It was invented by John-Joseph Merlin and according to the article I found “one could mount small cannons to it for personal protection” (Note from Billie: According to his Wikipedia page, this guy also invented inline skates. Definitely ahead of his time.) But, I knew if I used it, people would assume it was made up and even if it could be fit into the world, it would feel like steampunk.
BB: May I ask what you’re working on now? Short fiction? A new novel? Puppetry? Anything else you want to pimp?
MRK: I’m writing last scene to the first Ghost Talkers novel. It’s set in a world where during WWI British Intelligence created the Spirit Corps for dead soldiers to report in so they were getting instant troop updates. When novel begins, the Germans have figured out what is going on and are targeting the mediums. It’s a grim war novel
As for puppetry, the week before Of Noble Family comes out, I’m doing two days on Sesame Street in New York. I’ll be a puppetry assistant so it’ll probably be things like hands, rods, and crowd scenes.
Billie’s reaction to this news:
I’m not someone who avoids reading while I’m writing out of a fear of internalizing what I’m reading and having it come out in my writing. I hope I’m internalizing, but in a positive way. I like to think I internalize the best things as a way of “leveling-up” my own writing. I’m careful in the early stages of writing to pick things that are similar in tone so anything I internalize is in keeping with what I’m trying to do.
There were digressions throughout the interview into things like fashion–she made the dress the model is wearing on the cover of Of Noble Family and vows never to write another novel set in a time for which she doesn’t like the clothing (1907 and the 1830s were mentioned specifically)–and her time on Lazy Town, which she said was one of her favorite places to work. Finally, our time came to an end because she had to go take a pecan pie out of the oven, which made me want to set off in a quest for pie of my own.
Of Noble Family is available now. Mary will be appearing with Marie Brennan at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing at 7:00 pm on Tuesday, May 12th.
Billie Bloebaum reads a lot of books, but keeps very few. She has two copies–ARC and finished hardcover–of each of the previous novels in the Glamourist Histories series. Until Tuesday, she was waiting (im-)patiently for this one to be published to complete the set.