Thursday, June 01, 2023

Interview with Stephanie Cowell about her new historical novel The Boy in the Rain (and giveaway)

Please help me welcome novelist Stephanie Cowell to the blog. Her newest novel, The Boy in the Rain, focuses on the enduring love affair between two young men in Edwardian-era Nottinghamshire and London: Robbie Stillman, an art student; and Anton Harrington, a banker who later achieves prominence as a socialist speaker. Because of the brutal legal punishment for homosexuality at the time, as well as the social opprobrium, the two must conceal their intimacy from the world.

I've known Stephanie for many years through the Historical Novel Society and am happy to see the novel she's worked on for so long appear in published form at last. It's out from Regal House today. 

I'm offering a giveaway at the end of the post since I wanted to give another historical fiction enthusiast the opportunity to read it. I'll be arranging for the novel to be sent directly from a bookseller to the winner's address (via either Amazon or Blackwell's, for non-US readers).

Thanks for Stephanie for doing a Q&A for my site!

How did the complex love story between Robbie and Anton capture you to such a degree, compel you to tell it, and get it out into the world?

The two men came to me in a sort of vision while walking down the outside wood steps of an old country house and haunted me from 1984 until I sold the novel a few years ago. I would put it away for four or five years at a time. I did not know if they came from some deep mystical place inside myself or had really lived in the past.

Reading the novel, and immersing myself in the viewpoints of Robbie and Anton, was such an intense experience. Their relationship, and how it changes over the years, feels so real and vibrant. How did you go about re-creating the worlds of gay men in Edwardian England?

The world they lived in came gradually in bits as I read many social history books of the times. It was the personalities of the two men which fascinated me and how, though their strengths and needs changed, they still felt their real home was with each other. When I was a young teenager, my mother told me about Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for two years with hard labor, which he had to suffer for loving another man. It made her so angry. But I couldn’t put in much of the danger of the law against homosexuality in the novel at first, because I have always had a difficult time putting my characters in danger.

When I was writing my last big revision, Covid had arrived. I was alone in my apartment in NYC, the world epicenter of the epidemic for a time, hearing all the ambulances rush below my window. Those months, a real sense of danger came into the novel, the feeling that we didn’t know when we too would catch it. I wondered if it was anything like men’s fear of being dragged from their lives. Actually, Robbie likely didn’t have to hide much with his London artistic friends, but Anton had to be very cautious in his world. The boys’ brothel was based on something I had come across in my research.

George Langstaff, the country vicar who takes in and becomes a guiding force for Robbie, quickly became a favorite person of mine. How did his character come about?

I was raised without religion. At the time I began the early drafts of the novel (1984) I was drawn to the Church of England. At the same time, I was working on my novel Nicholas Cooke in which the main character becomes a priest. I joined an Anglican church in NYC. I think Mr. Langstaff’s character is much drawn from the father of a dear friend who was such a guide to me and who, with his wife, took me in to live when I was 18 and had to leave home. His passionate typing and heaps of books and way of walking and being went into creating George. He played the piano clumsily too. The vicar was also drawn from the small English rector in my own church.

Early 20th-century England was a time of huge political and social change. What drew you to this atmosphere for your setting?

The political and social worlds were not in the novel in the early drafts, though the book contained the story of how Anton had been forced by his father to separate from the penniless girl who was bearing his child. A friend who read the novel then said, “I think a guy like Anton would go up to Parliament to try to change laws to help the poor.” I began to revise that way.

I was also compelled by what I read about poverty in England at that time. I think the first book I read was by Jack London, who went to London and lived among the poor in disguise. It’s called People of the Abyss. It was the oddest thing when the Labour and Liberal parties were trying to get a bill passed to help the poor and aged in 1910, that the King, Edward VII, bullied the House of Lords into passing it. And of course, as a character points out in the novel, these high taxes on the wealthy meant that it would be harder to sustain the lives of the country house owners, such as the Crawleys of Downton Abbey. It was awful back then. Ploughmen would live on twelve shillings a week, and no one in their family had anything but bread and tea. And children of five or six would work in factories and mines twelve hours a day.

I enjoy how your historical novels delve into the lives of artists – painters like Robbie, authors, actors, musicians, and more – and the challenges they face in pursuing their craft. What do you hope readers take away from your work about the role of art in people’s lives, and in society?

I don’t think I ever wrote about anyone who was not an artist in some way! That was my world when I grew up. It was inconceivable to be anything but an artist, writer, dancer, actor. And of course, we all faced difficulties in making a living. Louise, Anton’s ex-wife who lives in a lovely London townhouse and knows people with money, helps Robbie to make a living painting portraits. There was a need for that then, following the footsteps of the great artist John Singer Sargent.

It is an oddity in the book that eventually Robbie is painting the wealthy to support Anton’s political campaign whose aim is to tax the wealthy! I guess I would like to show once again how precarious an artistic life can be. It was in my previous books showing how hard Mozart, Monet and Shakespeare struggled. When I was a single mother trying to make a living from music, we had trouble paying basic bills. The phone was shut off several times. Then I’d have to go down to the payment office to charm and distract them into turning it on again or give them a check that I “forgot” to sign!

In your author’s note, you talk about the lengthy writing process behind The Boy in the Rain and how you kept returning to the story in between publishing other novels. I was glad to have the opportunity to read it at last, and that you persevered! Did you have any favorite parts of the writing process, or key moments in the creation that you’d like to share?

I had to persevere because Anton and Robbie and their friends simply would not let me go. The novel kept almost being sold in earlier versions, and then editors would decide they wanted something easier to market, but its long gestation gave me a chance to develop the complex way the men related to each other. In some odd way they are both parts of me.


Stephanie Cowell has been an opera singer, balladeer, founder of Strawberry Opera and other arts venues, including a Renaissance festival and an outdoor arts series in NYC. She is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: A Novel of the Young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart, and Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet. Her work had been translated into nine languages and adapted into an opera. Stephanie is the recipient of an American Book Award.

6/10:  And the giveaway has ended.  Thanks to all who entered, and congrats to Pam! I'll be in touch via email.


  1. Mystica Varathapalan12:01 AM

    Thanks for the review and the giveaway

  2. Anonymous11:55 AM

    Dear Sarah, I am a devoted reader and Facebook friend of Stephanie's. I've been after her for over 5 years to finish Nicholas Cook's story. I love all her novels. She is graceful with her words and paints a romantic atmosphere. Claude and Camille is just such a novel. I am thrilled that I can read another of Stephanie's books. Your interview was wonderful.

    1. Thanks so much - I really appreciate your comments about the interview. I hope you'll love this book too!