Monday, March 27, 2023

Q&A with Joanna Lowell


Joanna Lowell is the author of the new historical novel Artfully Yours, the latest in her Victorian artist series. Her other novels include The Runaway Duchess. She teaches English at Wake Forest University, and she also writes under the name Joanna Ruocco. She lives in North Carolina.


Q: What inspired you to write Artfully Yours, and how did you create your characters Nina Finch and Alan De'Ath?


A: I wanted to explore the art world’s underworld. The 19th century has been called the golden age of forgery. Forgers were having a heyday, flooding a hot art market with fakes.


Alan had appeared in the earlier books in the series. He’s an art critic who prides himself on his connoisseurship. He was the perfect character to pit against a counterfeiter, and so Nina came into being.


I knew she’d forge paintings, but I also knew she’d feel conflicted about it, and so I developed a different dream for her (she wants to be a baker!), and a family situation that made pursuing it next to impossible.


I’m drawn to morally gray characters, and I loved developing Nina and Alan’s dynamic, seeing them risk and grow and finally face the truths of their lives and, through those acts of bravery, find love.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says that “Lowell’s playful period language creates a strong sense of place.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: I hope it’s true! I had a lot of fun writing the book, and my goal is to transport readers into an atmospherically Victorian world of romance and adventure.

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


A: I needed to do a lot of research, and many things surprised me. Alan is a swimmer, so I read about the history of swimming as a sport and an entertainment.


I was fascinated to learn about the variety of aquatic goings-on in late Victorian London. People raced in the Thames, and dove from the bridges, but beyond that, there were exhibitions in whale tanks at a huge, short-lived, supremely Victorian venue called the Royal Aquarium—swimmers performing endurance feats or tricks, such as drinking milk underwater.


I couldn’t stop thinking about the Royal Aquarium and ended up putting it in the book!


Q: You also are an English professor and write other books under the name Joanna Ruocco. Why did you decide to use the name Joanna Lowell for your romance novels?


A: I’ve always liked pennames, and I’ve written under a few different ones. I picked “Lowell” because it was already in use as a “penname” of sorts in my family.


My mother’s family emigrated to Lowell, Massachusetts, from Greece. My yiayia formed a singing trio with her sisters. For a variety of reasons, they didn’t use their own last name, and instead they called themselves the Lowell Sisters.


I grew up hearing stories about their singing tours through the Catskills, and when I was picking my new penname—one I hoped would stick—I realized “Lowell” was perfect, a matrilineal artistic pseudonym I could carry on, in homage to Kanella, Eleni, and Joanne. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I just finished a draft of the fourth book in the Victorian artist series. It’s my first book to center queer characters, and I’m beyond delighted that I’m getting the chance to write it, in part because it’s a love story that looks more like mine, and in part, because it gives me the opportunity to collaborate with my partner, a historian who studies queer and trans folks across time.


And it takes place in Cornwall on various beaches and involves bicycles with big front wheel! I’m excited for edits so I can reenter that world.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m allergic to a lot of animals, so I look for (and create) animal friends in fiction. Artfully Yours features one of my favorite fictional animal friends—Fritz the marmoset! I hope readers love him as much as I do.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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