I hope you’ve had the chance to read all of January’s posts, which put a spotlight to four fabulous authors in different stages of their careers. Be sure to catch up on my interviews with Rachel Gibson, Sonali Dev and Falguni Kothari.
Today I’m visiting with Lisa Berne, whose debut historical romance, You May Kiss the Bride, was named to a number of Best of 2017 lists. It received a Kirkus star (read the review here) and was one of my favorite historical titles last year.
One of the things I loved about the book was its tone, which seemed more historically realistic than so many historical releases these days. Now don’t get me wrong, I love so many historical romance writers, and I’m not in any way knocking the current trend of a sort of revisionist historical heroine who is blasting social norms left and right. It’s fun and very satisfying to a contemporary, feminist reader.
But Berne’s heroine is somehow more traditional, which makes her ability to rise above her negative and heart-wrenching circumstances both refreshing and more subversive, in a way. It’s hard to explain, but still very satisfying.
Her second title, The Laird Takes A Bride (review), which released in the fall, has the same kind of sensibility, and I highly recommend both titles. Book #3 in the Penhallow series, The Bride Takes A Groom, releases in late April.
I caught up with Berne recently, very curious to hear what inspired her as an author, and what her publishing journey had been.
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve responded to the word. Words, that is, whether spoken or on a page. As a listener, first, then a reader, then as a writer. Charlotte Bronte’s father called this expression of one’s creativity an ‘indescribable pleasure,’ and although of course writing is often painfully hard work, this phrase still really sums it up for me. Second, I’ve long been drawn to love stories. I mean, I love a good literary novel or Shakespearean tragedy, or a cagey Miss Marple story or a trippy sci-fi tale, but romance novels—well, they make me happy.”
Berne had thought about writing her own for a while, but thinks that her decision to finally try it was an organic path from her love of Jane Austen and her discovery of Georgette Heyer. “I was captivated by the Regency period and by Heyer’s storytelling—the way she vividly recreates a world that doesn’t exist anymore really inspired me. And that era especially. Society was really rigid in so many ways: people were limited in what they could say and do, which meant there was a whole lot going on beneath the surface.”
Berne says that the sexual and social tensions that existed in Heyer and Austen, whose characters had almost no physical contact at all, were a sort of starting point for her as a writer. “This disconnect between how they feel and how they represent how they feel is deeply compelling. I’m most interested in the psychological and emotional aspects of the characters and how they find their way in this complicated social atmosphere. Ultimately they’ve got to discover their own truth and then figure out how to speak that truth. How do they find each other, and know the deepest, truest parts of each other, when there are so many strictures to keep them apart, or at least closed off from real intimacy?”
Talking to Berne and her thoughts about the social stratification of the Regency era made perfect sense, as did her study of Heyer and Austen, elements that became instrumental in her own publishing journey, facets that may explain why her tone is so unique in the marketplace.
Berne started writing her debut novel in 2015 and sold it very quickly. However, she originally tried to emulate a more formal, archaic narrative style. It didn’t work. She was stuck. “It only clicked when I simply started over from the beginning. I did use certain plot points and characterizations from that first attempt, but my task was to try and to develop my own voice—not Heyer’s, not Austen’s. What I’ve found, over time, is that I’m most comfortable with a kind of hybrid voice that’s somewhere between modern and old-school. It’s this fluidity that has begun to feel very right to me. Moving away from my original intention was quite freeing; it allowed me to not just begin a new project, but to finish it.”
She’s learned a lot of lessons along the way, both from the journey and from her characters.
“In the same way my characters learn how to find their truth for themselves and with each other, I had to find what might be called my writer’s truth—how to tell my own particular stories, how to develop the characters and shape the narratives in ways that are my own. It was such an important, affirming takeaway for me: you show up, do the work, dig in, accept that there are (and will continue to be) setbacks, but the key thing is to keep focused on your own particular path—the goal is, the hope is, you’ll learn what you need to. I’m grateful be in a place where I can look back at a very daunting beginning and see I’ve come a long way from there.”
Finally, I asked Berne what she’d learned from her characters.
“They show me that change is possible, and that human nature is capable of immense generosity, kindness, fortitude and resilience.”
From beginning to end, Lisa Berne’s path to publication seems to have been a great voyage of exploring character, both internally and externally—and both personally and in her writing. after speaking to her, it made sense to me that her first book had been so celebrated, since it so elegantly studies surface vs. depth, and expertly excavates the true desires of its characters, even when they themselves don’t realize what they are until they themselves dig in.
To me what Berne perfectly explores is character yearning, and that is a wondrous place to start in a romance novel.
If you love romance novels—especially historicals—and you haven’t picked up Lisa Berne yet, I highly recommend you do. The books are a lovely, delightful treat.
I also asked her for some recommendations. Some of her favorite reads in 2017 (in no particular order):
The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn. "As a longtime Austen admirer, I loved this beautifully conceived debut novel."
Mrs. Osmond by John Banville. "Haven’t we all wondered what happens to Isabel Archer when The Portrait of a Lady ends? Here Banville presents his own crafty, labyrinthine vision."
Someone to Love by Mary Balogh. "Gorgeously written, infused with Balogh’s trademark depth and thoughtfulness."
Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller. "The Little House books have never lost their hold on my imagination, so I pounced on this. Vividly rendered and imbued with an unforgettable lyricism."
The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband by Julia Quinn. "What can I say? JQ’s latest. Irresistible."