Pick of the Month Author Interview: The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

theduchesswarThe interview potion of the Pick of the Month post for the month of February came a tad too late and hence I am posting the interview segment separately. Many thanks to Courtney for doing this for me.

MBR: So the Brothers Sinister, how did you come up with the series?

CM: I can’t answer this question truthfully without giving some massive spoilers for Sebastian’s book. So I will just say that the very inkling of an impetus for this series was that I imagined the first scene in Sebastian’s book, and the rest of the series came about imagining the people that this would be happening to.

The whole left-handed thing…started as an internal joke. Actually, the way it started out was that there was a point (long since abandoned) in the plot for The Duchess War when Minnie was going to try to join the Brothers Sinister, and was going to have to pretend she was left handed. Oliver was going to figure out she was faking it, and then she was going to say: “I have a confession to make. I’m not really left handed.”

And he would say in response: “I have a confession to make, too. I’m not really left handed, either.” Which is true, because Oliver is ambidextrous.

So yeah, they are all left handed as a Princess Bride homage. I sort of had to abandon that as a plot point, and there’s really no way to save that scene anywhere and I’m so sad. :(

MBR: What struck me the most while I was reading was the fact that all the characters in the story continued to surprise me all throughout the story. So which character would you say was the hardest and the easiest to write?

CM: Sebastian is definitely the easiest. I have to watch him when he’s in a scene, because he’ll take over the whole damned thing, and then smile at you while he does it.

The hardest… gah, there are so many choices. I think in many ways Oliver is and has been the hardest person to write. Every scene with Oliver in it got rewritten somewhere between two (at a low end) and 17 (not an exaggeration) times. Robert’s mother was also quite difficult, in her own special way.

I thought Oliver was going to be really, really easy to write, because in many ways I feel like he and I have more in common than any of my other characters–we both come from homes where our parents have worked hard to give us a huge boost, and we feel like we owe our parents a lot, and we have families that we love, and we’re both ambitious and driven. But Oliver doesn’t want any of the same things I want and that makes him so hard. I’m like, “Dude, you are just like me, why are you like this?” It’s taken me a very long time to figure him out. He has finally given up and spilled the beans, and now he’s a little easier, but he was a tough nut.

I think that sometimes the easiest characters to write are the ones that are not like me at all, because I’m operating on a clean slate.

MBR: When writing, do you ever have someone in your mind to physically match the characteristics of the hero and heroine in your novels? If so, who did you think of while creating Robert and Minnie?

CM: Never, actually. I have almost no physical sense of people at all. I don’t recognize people easily. I confuse TV actors. I can’t watch most TV shows because the people look so much alike to me. If the main character changes clothing half way through, I get confused and don’t know who is who. It’s very confusing being me! I have to go in and add descriptions after the fact to all my books when the book is almost done because I just do not have a head for description. I don’t even know what it means for someone to have a “square jaw” or a “patrician nose” or any of that stuff. Physical characteristics on humans are not my strong point. I only know what people look like because I make a spreadsheet.

Some people never get described, or only get described once, and then things get dicey.

If you pay attention, you’ll see that a lot of the physical characteristics I end up giving them are really just stand-ins for character description. Like calling Minnie’s hair mousey and that sort of thing. I’m a total cheat that way. Don’t know what people look like; do know what they act like, so I make them look how they act. Now that I’ve admitted my fakery my books will never be the same.

So no, I actually don’t have anyone physically in mind for my characters. If you asked me to pick someone, I would probably freeze up because I don’t know who anyone looks like and I’d be afraid of getting it wrong.

MBR: I see that you have a lot of books in this series scheduled to come out this year. Are these the only books you are currently working on or are there other books that you are simultaneously working on?

CM: Er… I am writing, very slowly, a modern urban fantasy. It may never see the light of day, but it’s about an ER Doctor who gets changed into a vampire. And before you say, “Eek! A vampire!”–rest assured, it’s not like any vampire fic I’ve read, and I’ve read a bunch of them. It’s also not an ER like the glorified kinds of ER that you’ve ever seen anywhere on TV. It’s the ER as it is, in all its messy, transcendent awfulness, complete with drug-seeking frequent flyers. HIPAA plays a role at a crucial point early in the book!

Or, as Dr. Grand says:

Everyday I work pisses me off. I wanted to be fixing gunshot wounds, reviving people from heart attacks. Instead, I feel like a college guidance counselor. See a shrink. Stop taking drugs. No, I’m not going to write you a prescription for Delaudid.

This is very different from a historical romance.

MBR: And my final question since I was so moved by the story, are there any particular scenes from The Duchess War that tugs at your heartstrings, that would stay with you always?

CM: I wrote the scenes surrounding the primer–Robert’s mom, and Minnie–when I was injured and barely able to walk and very pissed off and depressed about the whole thing. There is nothing so frustrating as having a body that doesn’t comply with what you want it to do! I think I ended up channeling a lot of my own feelings of helplessness into those scenes.

For exactly that reason, though, I don’t want those to stay with me. The association is very negative.

But one of my favorite scenes in the whole book is one that only tugs at my heartstrings a little, and that’s the scene on the train with Sebastian and Violet and its aftermath. Because I love writing scenes where a character is embarrassed. Embarrassment is a lovely, rich emotion, because usually the things that embarrass you are also the things that you love the most. You don’t get embarrassed about some random stranger saying things. It’s your mom who embarrasses you by saying…really Mom, you said that? In front of everyone?

Embarrassment is the collision of love and pain.

For me, my favorite part of the scene is when, afterwards, Robert is trying to figure out how to apologize for his ridiculously embarrassing friends, and Minnie looks at him like she’s crazy and tells him she likes his friends.

That’s the essence of love. If someone can see the things that most embarrass you–the things you love, and you love so hard that you are afraid to admit it–if they see those things and don’t say, “Yuck, embarrassing, stop!” I think you’ve got yourself a winner.

A big part of love is finding someone who knows who you are, deep down, and says, “No, no, you’re not embarrassing. You’re gorgeous.”

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