Thursday, September 30, 2021

Q&A with Jane Elizabeth Hughes




Jane Elizabeth Hughes is the author of the new novel The Long-Lost Jules. She also has written the novel Nannyland. She is a professor at Simmons College School of Business in Boston, and she lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write The Long-Lost Jules, and how did you create your characters?


A: Like Leo in The Long-Lost Jules, I’ve always been fascinated by the Tudor Queens.


When I built sandcastles on the beach, I wasn’t just building any sandcastle; I was building the Tower of London and Hampton Court, with the doomed Katherine Howard (Henry VIII’s fifth wife) running frantically through its halls (yes, I was that nerdy).


I’m proud to say that I share a birthday with Queen Elizabeth I, who once sent her troops off to battle by saying, “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” Wow! Women’s empowerment in the 16th century!


So when I started writing novels, of course I wanted to weave the story of these queens into my contemporary fiction. My first novel, Nannyland, (Simon & Schuster, 2016) incorporated a plot about the mystery surrounding my namesake, Lady Jane Grey – queen for nine days in the 16th century.


My inspiration for Jules sprang from a biography of Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s sixth wife) a few years ago.  


[Katherine died, leaving a baby, Mary, who was assumed to have died at a later point.] I had to figure out who would be involved in unraveling the fate of Katherine’s lost baby. Who are they? Why do they care so much about one tiny infant who died hundreds of years ago? What inspires them?


Before I do any writing or outlining, I always start with character sketches, which help me really get to know my characters – where they grew up and went to school, what books and movies they like, how they got along with their parents and siblings, and much much more.


A lot of this info will never make it into the book; it’s just the foundation for my character-building.


So Leo had to be a historian – he just had to be – because who else is so fascinated in this old mystery? And Amy had to be every bit as un-interested as Leo is interested; a book needs conflict to survive, after all.


Then I dig into my memories and observations to round out the characters. In fact, everything that I do informs my writing and my characters. Sometimes it might be a stranger on a train; sometimes it might be a chance remark by a friend or colleague – but lots of my observations and experiences creep into my books.

Q: Did you need to do much historical research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Yes, and yes! Being a hopeless Tudor nerd, as I’ve already confessed, I already knew quite a bit about Henry VIII and his six wives.


I knew that Katherine Parr was the one who survived him, only to marry the dashing Tom Seymour with indecent haste after Henry finally went to his reward in the sky (or elsewhere?).


I knew that poor Katherine died of “childbed fever,” and Tom was executed, basically for being idiotically ambitious, just a few months later. But I never thought about what happened to their baby until I read that biography.


So I had to really dig into Katherine and Tom and little Lady Mary Seymour. And that’s where the surprises started.


I never knew that baby Mary went to Katherine’s best friend – another Katherine, the Duchess of Suffolk. I never knew that the Duchess resented the baby, and wrote spiteful letters demanding more money to raise this royal infant. And I certainly never knew that the baby then disappeared from history!


I have one vital rule for writing about historical mysteries, and that’s that I don’t want my imagination to contradict known facts.


I refused to invent a fate for Lady Mary that would have been impossible; she couldn’t have been raised by Thomas Seymour, for example, since he died when she was just seven months old.


She also couldn’t have been raised in a royal court, since she was the daughter of an ex-Queen, not a monarch of the blood royal. So what could have happened to her…?


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: No, and a thousand times yes. I had an ending in mind for Amy and Leo, and I knew where the historical mystery of Lady Mary Seymour would go, but other than that I’d have to say that the ending evolved rather…organically.


After my character sketches are done, I start to outline obsessively [But things sometimes change.] For example, I realized when I was deep into the book that there was no climax; no scene where everything comes together and all secrets are revealed.


I despaired for a week or so, but then a former banking colleague told me about her invitation to a client’s yacht in Greece – and the Riviera yacht scene was born.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: I want them to sigh with pleasure at the end. I never wanted to read (or write) the Great American Novel; I want to write books that I would love to curl up with.


And I’d love for my readers to take away a healthy curiosity about the Tudor Queens. I’d love to think of them picking up other books about Katherine Parr, or Katherine Willoughby, or Lady Jane Grey – and acquiring my and Leo’s obsession with the amazing women of this era!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m always working on the next book while thinking about the one after that. My next novel, The Spy’s Wife, will be published in June 2022! After that…I’m still “ideating.”


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I mentioned that Amy has a little of me in her, as do most of my heroines.


When I was writing Jules, I started thinking a lot about father-daughter relationships, including mine. My own father was brilliant but deeply flawed, and I grew up resenting and fearing him much of the time.


Now that he’s gone, though, I’ve been reflecting on how vulnerable he was, and how little I understood him. That leaked into Amy’s relationship with her own dead father, in reverse: She idolized him during his life, and only belatedly came to realize that she should, perhaps, have been frightened of him.


So the book is, to some extent, about how we as adults come to re-imagine and re-evaluate our family relationships, often with surprising results.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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