Wednesday, August 21, 2013

An interview with Jessica Dotta, author of the Victorian Gothic novel Born of Persuasion

Jessica Dotta's debut opens as an older woman looks back on a traumatic episode from her early life, a time of poverty, betrayal, deception, and scandal.  In the later months of 1838 in England, gently bred Julia Elliston finds herself alone and penniless.  Her father is long gone, her mother is dead by her own hand, and, since she's only seventeen, her choices are dictated by a mysterious guardian who may not have her best interests at heart.   

Born of Persuasion, first in the Price of Privilege trilogy, follows Julia as she gradually becomes aware of the circumstances shadowing her life.  As she searches for someone to trust, she must choose between two very different men: her childhood sweetheart, Edward, and the handsome, much older, and reclusive Mr. Macy.  This isn't your run-of-the-mill Gothic fare, although it does have many key elements of the genre.  The author has added many distinctive touches to her twisting story, such as insight into the language of flowers and the role of the church in Victorian times.

At the time of her novel's launch, I took the time to speak with Jessica about her characters and what appealed to her about her chosen genre and setting.

Julia Elliston is a distinctive character. She isn't the same feisty, independent heroine you often see in Victorian historical fiction; she's spirited but powerless in many ways, and she has difficulty seeing the true motives of the people around her. How did you develop her personality?

Julia's mindset is not only Victorian, but she begins the story broken and in need of healing. Though I did not realize it then, as I wrote Born of Persuasion, I was exploring areas of my past and personal life that needed addressed.

As much as it pains me to admit—especially since she's been called unlikeable many times—Julia's character came from the deepest recesses of my soul. She was a facet I needed to explore.

Recently, at a writer's conference I discussed The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeannette Walls, with a small intimate group of writers. I was dumbfounded to learn that they could not commend the book because parts of it—particularly Jeannette's lack of reaction—were unbelievable and unrealistic to them. I was dumbfounded. The areas they most objected to as being unrealistic, I had found to be the most stark and honest.

While my own personal story doesn't contain the depth of hardships that Ms. Walls faced, through Julia I've been able to express what it feels like to be powerless and without voice. Thankfully, as the series progresses I am also able to portray another truth in my life—that no person, regardless of his or her past, his or her injury, or what people collectively think about them, is beyond the healing—and that in God's hands the least likely person has potential for greatness.

Born of Persuasion has many classic Gothic elements: a mysterious old mansion, creepy foreshadowing, a young woman in danger, a handsome suitor who may mean her good or ill as well as some original, unpredictable twists. Where did your interest in Gothic fiction come from?

My personal library shelves are filled with gothic authors and stories! Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt, Bram Stoker, the Bronte sisters, and even some of Lucy Maud Montgomery's writings take gothic twists.

As a child, I adored the crackle of leaves swirling in a crisp autumn wind and exploring gravesites. Walled gardens, locked doors and majestic, yet deteriorating, houses would unleash a torrent of creativity as I'd make up stories about them.

Julia has an antagonistic relationship with the church, thanks to how her parish vicar treated her and her family due to her father's atheist beliefs. How did you decide on this premise for your heroine? Was it part of the novel from the beginning?

There's a decade gap between the first random scenes of Born of Persuasion and me sitting down and fully drafting out the full manuscript. During that decade, intermittently I'd try opening this story in various places. Some of those scenes took place in Julia's childhood and gave me an understanding of her past.

After I'd written the full manuscript, I submitted it to critique groups while I developed my writing craft. I quickly realized that half the people understood Julia immediately, while she frustrated the other half. To make her actions—or sometimes lack of action—relatable when I rewrote it, I included more about her past.

The novel is full of descriptions of daily life in early Victorian England, from class distinctions and period clothing to mourning customs to the elaborate d├ęcor in the houses she visits. What were your favorite aspects of research into the era? Was there anything you would have liked to include but which you couldn't find room for?

Author Jessica Dotta
The Victorian mindset was of particular interest to me. I grew up in a house with strict views on what a woman's role was, so in one sense, I was prepared to understand it well. What I marveled at, as I researched, was the role expected of gentlemen.

The deeper I researched, the more I realized how fragile a woman's position was. The era's remedy for that—as far as I can tell—was to entrench in a young man's mind with his duty and responsibility in life. It stands in stood in stark contrast of how our generation handles the representation of men. When I close my eyes and picture a "typical" male on television, I picture someone on the couch, with a bottle of beer, ignoring his wife who is in the background giving sage advice.

While I do not like how women were pigeonholed into during the Victorian era, I was utterly struck by the duty and chivalry they assign men during this period of time. I wish some of that mentality would carry over into our representation of men now.

As far as what didn't make the final cut, there are lots and lots of cut scenes and characters, but some of them might be make it in the final cut of the last book, Price of Privilege.

I'm a big fan of your Pinterest page. I loved all the images of 1830s day dresses, scenes from a country cottage like Am Meer in the novel, and other fun things like recipes. It seems like a great way to modernize a classic Victorian scrapbook. What inspired you to put it together? Are there any pictures in it that helped with your work in scene-setting or plotting?

I'm so happy you explored my Pinterest page! I discovered Pinterest when a group of women were talking about a nail-painting technique they'd learned on the site. I'd never heard of Pinterest, but quickly signed up after their enthusiastic explanation of what it was.

Pinterest presented a perfect solution for a way to organize all the photos I had taking up space on my computer for my books. Not only that, but sometimes on the web I'd encounter an article or pictures that I'd need later. I'd bookmark it, and then spend hours looking through my bookmarks to find it again. Pinterest has boards that I could pin organize by scenes, houses, dress and characters.

Right now, I have scenes for Book Three on hidden boards—but after the book releases, I'll make them public, too.

You've worked for many years as a publicist, creating buzz about other authors' books. What kind of insight has this given you into how to sell and market your book, either to publishers or readers?

When I first became a book publicist and realized how difficult it is to get your book noticed on an already saturated market place, I was overwhelmed. But I was also thankful that I was seeing what I would one day encounter.

I learned the majority of work falls upon the author—even with a fantastic publicist. It takes a team effort to launch a book—and that includes your tribe, your writing tribe, your publisher and agent.

It taught me how important the wait to become published is. You grow your tribe as you have grown your skills—over time. I also learned a fiction launch needs to be fun—even silly. After all, a novel is primarily entertainment.

For my own launch, I've kept with a theme that is consistent with my book. What is more British and Victorian than tea? I'm hosting a large virtual tea party on my Facebook Page. Participants are helping me spread the word by posting pictures on Facebook, with them wearing a hat and holding a teacup, and telling everyone they are celebrating the launch of Born of Persuasion.

I plan to continue this theme with bookstore signings and library gatherings.

Sarah, you and your readers are welcome to join the tea!

Thanks for the invitation, Jessica!  I'm happy to attend.


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Jessica Dotta's Born of Persuasion was published by Tyndale House in August ($13.99/pb or $7.97/ebook, 448pp).  Visit the author's website at http://www.jessicadotta.com.

7 comments:

  1. Thank you SO much for interviewing me on your blog! I truly appreciate it! LOVE your tea picture! Look for it tonight on my Facebook Page!

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    1. My pleasure, and I'm glad you like the picture! I'll look forward to seeing it on FB. Thanks again for doing the interview.

      The teacup and saucer are from my great-grandmother's china set, the hat is my husband's (actually it's quite beat-up so you only see the brim) and the outfit is actually the same thing I'd worn to work that day... but it fit the old-fashioned theme well!

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  2. This is a book I want to read when the time for being able to do so arrives!

    Thank you.

    Love, C.

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    1. Thanks so much, Foxessa!

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    2. And now I've just noticed while using the the New York Public Library's digital resources for old newspapers, that Born of Persuasion is on their New Fiction On Order list. :)

      Love, C.

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  3. Sounds like she’s written an unusual and interesting main character. Interesting comments on the roles of men and women back then, and comparison with today – I wish men were more chivalrous too, Jessica!
    Wonderful interview, Jessica.

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    1. Thanks, Cynthia! Julia definitely gets polar reactions from test readers and readers!

      I'm glad you liked the answer about the men. I wasn't anticipating saying that when I first read the questions, but when I reached that one, and thought about it, I realized that was one of my favorite parts of that time.

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