The Book Smugglers: I understand that you have a very interesting story on how the Duke of Shadows came to be published. Can you share that with us?
Meredith: Sure! Long story short, I’d written a historical, but had no luck landing an agent for it. The Indian setting in the first half of the novel seemed to be a problem for many people. Cue the start of grad school and a long period of studying abroad.During this time, the book went under the proverbial bed, and probably would have languished there had my sister not found it last summer.She read it, thought it was good, and started nagging me to try again.
Shortly thereafter, while surfing the web on one hot August night, I came across news of the Gather.com First Chapters Romance contest. I thought, At least this will get Shelley off my back. I submitted the manuscript and forgot about it. When I got the call telling me I had made it to the semi-finals, I was pleased but not overly hopeful. My composure dissolved only when I learned that I’d advanced to the top five. I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was very young.
Reaching the final round of a contest whose top prize was publication with Pocket Books… well, let’s just say I went on autopilot for a couple of weeks. I was afraid to hope, but too excited not to dream. One day I got home from class and saw a missed call from New York on my phone. Hmm. I have friends in New York, but they normally don’t call during the work day. I typed the number into Google. The result? A building on the Avenue of the Americas. I stared at that screen for many minutes—afraid, almost, to move. I knew Simon & Schuster was located on 6th Ave. But the phone was silent. If it was Pocket Books, wouldn’t they call back?
They did call back, about half an hour later. Being told that I’d won—that my book would be published—was the happiest and also the most surreal moment of my life. You’d think a girl would want to celebrate the realization of her lifelong dream with champagne, good company,festive music. But all I wanted to do after the call was sit quietly in the sunshine by myself. I could barely muster a coherent sentence until that evening. I was just so… overwhelmed by joy. I had no idea, until that day, that joy can shock you into speechlessness!
The Book Smugglers: Why did you decide to set the story in India and specifically at that particular point in time – The Sepoys revolt of1857?
Meredith: Well, the short answer is that I’m fascinated with British history,and India was a huge part of that history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Soldiers, administrators, clerks,fortune-seekers, dutiful wives, spinsters in search of romance—India was a natural destination for a wide variety of people. In fact, I think it’s a safe bet that India didn’t feel nearly as far away to Englishmen of that period as it does to Britons today. Chances were that if you were English, you knew of someone who had been there or was planning to head over. But this reality—the reality, really, of colonialism—doesn’t often register in the romances we read about England in that period. So, I thought it would make for an interesting story.
With specific regard to 1857, I’ve long been fascinated by the events of that year. They were a particularly dramatic instance of the intimate connection between the two nations, and ultimately they completely changed the way Britons thought of their role in the world.Moreover, certain aspects of the Uprising seemed to resonate with the struggles already being faced by my characters—a man torn between loyalties to two worlds; a woman who, to her own dismay, could not help but question the ways of British society.
The Book Smugglers: Can you tell us a bit more about the research you did for this novel?
Meredith: I was already interested in 1857 before the idea for The Duke of Shadows came to me. As a student, I’d studied Hindi and Urdu in cities that were key to the Uprising. In Lucknow, for example, I wandered through the shattered ruins of the British Residency, where hundreds of men, women, and children (Indian as well as British) had sheltered for months in 1857 against a superior force of mutinied Indian troops. I found the overgrown British graveyard behind the Residency to be especially poignant; so many of the tombstones are filled with descriptions of the anguish and loss suffered during that year. In Delhi, I walked the Ridge where the British cantonments had been located. I also started collecting books on the period—diaries kept by Englishwomen during the war; memoirs of life in India before and after the cataclysm. My favorite tidbit from these memoirs involves a hostess in Delhi who set a fashion for dispensing quinine(a preventative for malaria) as an after-dinner aperitif. I’m still sad I didn’t get to use that in the book!
Once the story for The Duke of Shadows had congealed in my head, I plundered the research library at my university. I came up with all sorts of amazing source material. My favorite is a guidebook for people relocating to India; in the appendix is a packing list for women that suggests bringing an immense amount of flannel. Flannel?!?Really??
The Book Smugglers: One thing that all reviewers are hailing you for is your writing style – how did you perfect it? Did you have writing lessons; did you publish anything before the Duke of Shadows?
Meredith: What a lovely compliment! The Duke of Shadows is my first book, but writing has always been my second-favorite hobby—second, that is, to reading. I’ve read voraciously and omnivorously since I was five, and I think that when it comes to writing, there’s no better teacher than a well-written book. So, if my style is pleasing, thanks should go to all the excellent novelists whose books have shown me what prose should sound like!
The Book Smugglers: Talking about your background in Cultural Anthropology – being a historian myself, I find that most of my historian friends frown upon me every time I mention romance novels -it seems that as a historian, therefore an “intellectual” , I am not allowed to enjoy the genre as much as I do – do you find yourself in the same situation?
Meredith: You know, I’ve been lucky to encounter only encouragement and enthusiasm from my peers. I wonder if this is due, in part, to the fact that our discipline has long approached contemporary popular culture as meaningful and worthy of study. I’m not sure that all of my friends understand why I love to read romance, but they certainly respect my belief that this genre is as capable of greatness as any other sort of fiction.
The Book Smugglers: In your interviews, you always mention Laura Kinsale as one of your major influences – what other writers do you like to read?
Meredith: Oh, wow, the list could go on forever. Aside from Kinsale, my top favorites include anything by Judith Ivory and Loretta Chase, and any historical by Patricia Gaffney, Connie Brockway, or Anne Stuart.
The Book Smugglers: if you were stranded in a desert island and could only take 6 books with you – which books would they be?
Meredith: Now this is an easy question. Straight off the top of my head:
1) To Have and to Hold – Patricia Gaffney
2) The Shadow and the Star – Laura Kinsale
3) Bliss – Judith Ivory
4) Miss Wonderful – Loretta Chase
5) As You Desire – Connie Brockway
6) Checkmate – Dorothy Dunnett
The Book Smugglers: and what’s next? Do you plan to carry on writing romance novels?
Meredith: I am thrilled to tell you that my next two historicals, set in 1880s England, will be published by Pocket in summer 2009. And after that, who knows? I may return to the 1860s and the mysterious story of Lord Lockwood, who walked onto the scene in The Duke of Shadows and completely captured my imagination.
Oh I sure hope Meredith will write the story of Lord Lockwood – I was very intrigued by his character! Thanks for stopping by Meredith!
Meredith Duran is the author of The Duke of Shadows (Pocket, 2008) and winner of the Gather.com First Chapters Romance contest. She grew up enamored of British history and good books. At thirteen years old, she made a list of life goals that included writing romance novels, trying sushi, and going to London to see Holbein’s portrait of Anne Boleyn. Now a doctoral student in anthropology, she is happy to report that all three goals have become her favorite things to do. When not studying or working on her next two novels (to be published by Pocket in Summer 2009), Meredith can be found in the library, browsing through travelogues written by intrepid Englishwomen of the nineteenth century.