(Originally aired 2018/05/12 - listen here)
Heather Rose Jones: Today, The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is excited to host Jeannelle M. Ferreira. Now, you have to know that I'm enormous fan of Regency romances, I think there's only one of Georgette Heyer's books so far that I've failed to track down and buy, and the genre was one of the major inspirations for my own Alpennia series. So, when a friend on Twitter posted a link to Jeannelle's new book, The Covert Captain: Or, a Marriage of Equals, I was on it as fast as the proverbial duck on a junebug. And even before I'd got my hands on the book, I'd signed her up to be a guest on this podcast. Welcome, Jeannelle.
Jeannelle M. Ferreira: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here, this is my first podcast. [laughing]
H: Why don't we begin with you giving a synopsis of the book and talking a little bit about how you came to write it.
J: Okay. The Covert Captain takes place in 1822 when the Napoleonic wars are good and over, and everyone's wondering what to do with their lives. Captain Nathaniel Fleming is a guest at his Major's country house and there he meets the Major's sister, Harriet. So he's got the background of long friendship with the Major that he shared many campaigns with, and he meets this new person. Harriet is 28 and is not really keen on male guests and has some secrets of her own, and some fun hobbies. And so the book is… I would say the first half is Harriet and Captain Nathaniel's romance and then spoiler! The second half of the book is that Nathaniel is actually Nora. Nora has managed to hide her gender through campaign, which is actually pretty plausible… more plausible than you'd think. They fall in love, a big secret is revealed, they do get a happily ever after because it's a Regency romance and that's important.
H: Yes, truth in advertising as it were.
J: Yes, I wrote the book, because at the time I started writing it, which is not the time it was published, there wasn't a lot of female-female historical romance and I just really wanted to read it, so I wrote it.
H: That's how so many books get started. [Jeannelle laughs] Why the Regency in particular?
J: I love Georgette Heyer. I had a very convalescent sort of childhood and early young adulthood, and I read lots and lots of books. I was essentially raised by 19th century England for good or ill. So, I got through all of those. Then also, what's being written as far as het Regency romance, there wasn't any of me. And I didn't get these swashbuckles and these cotillions. I wanted something that my wife and I could read. Yeah, I know the Regency is just a favorite because they're such confections. They're such confections, I wanted one, too.
H: Yep. I was poking around in your Amazon and Goodreads listing and this is not your first book. I turned up two other items that were listed there. One is A Verse from Babylon, which is set in a Jewish community in Lithuania in World War II. That one looks like it has some queer content as well.
J: It really does. I can't avoid queer content, it always turns up when I write. It is the story of the Repertory Theatre Company of the Vilna ghetto during the Holocaust. It is the thing that I have spent the most research time on because these people are not super-fictional. They're fictionalized but they're based on real people and they weren't around to tell their own stories because of course they were murdered. I went to Lithuania when I was younger and did a lot of research there. One of my degrees is actually in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. The book was partly creating the ability for me to act as a psychopomp for some of these people whose stories were never resolved and so in my mind weren't at peace, although that's just me being silly. And partly, I had this degree and I might as well go flex it. [laughs]
H: We should probably make sure that our listeners know that that one, given the setting, is not a happy ending. [chuckles]
J: No. People are still surprised by that, though. And my wife was actually mortally offended, because we were dating when I wrote it, and she read the first draft and she said, "Everybody dies in this book!" And I said, "But I said that in the introduction. Rocks fall, everybody dies." [laughs] Not rocks, Nazis, but say…
H: Yeah. I picked up from your Twitter feed that you are Jewish yourself, that you have this background.
J: I am. Used to be super Jewy and then I found out that I like girls and pants pretty much at the same time in my life in high school. I knew there was something a little bit different about me and I wasn't quite happy with my life the way it was. And then in high school it was pointed out to me that—and this was in the early 90s, so we've come a long way even since then—but it was pointed out to me that you could like girls. And I got very excited and I've had a girlfriend ever since [laughter]. And I like wearing jeans and I like praying in public. So, I'm a much happier person. There's a Jewish expression, 'to be on the derekh,' which means to be on the path. It's used in the sense mostly of religious orthodoxy, but I like to say that I am sort of balancing on an odd little derekh of my own because now I have a wife and a child and a career. It both is and isn't the proper life and the life I had imagined but it is exactly my life and I'm very pleased with it.
H: The other story that I turned up, it looks like it's maybe a short story, a novelette called Dramatis Personae?
J: It is, it's a novelette. 'Novelette' is the word that the cool kids are using now and I really like it, it used to just be a novella. It is about two mask makers who live in a city that is sort of Chicago and sort of out-of-all Chicago, it's in slightly to the right or left. It's my first foray into speculative fiction because these people make masks, they wear masks. So I was also trying to play a lot with the concept of bodies and gender and who we love, and it was also just a chance for me to get some historical nerdery and across a bunch of eras. One of the mask makers is originally from Elizabethan England and one is from ancient Egypt. It's definitely escapist and I had a great time writing it.
H: When researching historically-set fiction, what are some of the biggest challenges that you found? Let's get back to The Covert Captain. I mean, obviously, anybody writing Regency romances can pick up a lot of the superficial history just from reading the genre, but where did you go to really ground your story in the history for this particular story?
J: For this particular story, I definitely wanted to look at all the places where queer, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people weren't. Transgender is tricky too because everybody sort of was living their own life and sexual mores were very different, and all these people are dead and so you don't want to assign anybody an identity they may not have had, which comes up with Fleming who dresses the man and has a male career. But I think she would think of herself as a lesbian, she's into the girls. So I researched Molly houses and different aspects of the queer community around St James's Park in England—which coincidentally is also near where all the Jewish people lived. In Aldgate. So, you had all these interesting social elements in one place, and I wish I had written down better cited sources but one of them is… The National Trust in the UK has a whole website on queer history and they cite their sources unlike me—bad scholar! There are pages and pages about people's identity and Molly houses and the Ladies of Llangollen. Yes, I had to look up how to say that. I wasn't going to do a podcast with a linguistics expert [Heather laughs] and not say Llangollen properly. It's all there in the ways that we're not there, and I'm actually going to use a weird example. Not weird. I'm going to use an example from my childhood: one of the most English books of all time, Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. There are two tutors in this book, Dr. Jakes and Dr. Smith, and they are both women. And they live together as boarders in a large house in the Cromwell road. It took me until I was about nine having owned this copy and love it to death of this book since I was about four... "Oh, Dr. Jakes and Dr. Smith! I get— Oh. Oh." And so, this was the first time I learned to pick us out of the text even if it wasn't explicitly stated. And that's sort of a direct line for me to Anne Lister, and thankfully Anne Lister's diary has just semi-recently come out translated so I didn't have to learn ancient Greek. So, you got Anne Lister who hung out with the Ladies of Llangollen, which was another reason that it was a Regency. That if I do a second book, they're totally all going to cameo at the most interesting dinner party of all time.
H: Yeah, but it would have to be in Llangollen because they never left. You know?
J: It's true. But they had dogs! There was companionship. I'll get them there somehow.
J: I also did a lot of research on early medicine, particularly what was effective about early medicine which was so often in the purview of women essentially, or biology. But there are a lot of tinctures and mixtures and selves and ointments that came directly from women's kitchens but actually work quite well. So for that, I did some research basically in NIH and The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia... and just poked around what people did to feel better and survive in areas where, you know? There were nasty things in the dirt and there were nasty smells in the air that were making you sick, obviously. [laughing]
H: Speaking of medicine, one of the things I really liked how you handled in The Covert Captain—essentially we'll call it PTSD—was the way that the returning soldiers were dealing with the horrors of the war and the things that they had had to do, and the way it would hang over your life and affect your relationships.
J: It's true. They called it nostalgia around the Crimean War. I don't know if they had a name for it when they came back from the Napoleonic Wars but they knew that something was going on. But the thing is, I don't think they cared, except I think that it was very much a badge of manhood as it was probably up through World War One, to just get over yourself and get on. But that didn't really lead to functional relationships, and it led to a lot of drinking and a lot of semi-honourably shooting oneself. I wanted to address it because as confectionary as Regency romances are, you can't bring someone back from a war and have them functionally fall in love with someone. There are a ton of diaries from Waterloo, and I think the ones I looked at most were Paget, who lost his leg. The one who said, "Oh my god, sir, I've lost my leg." And his superior looked across at him and said, "Oh my god, sir, so you have!" Which is sort of the attitude to war injuries in a nutshell that you find in that time period.
J: He came home with that leg and I found out that some of his family too were missing hands, and they got on with it. But I was really intrigued by what you bring back from the war.
H: Yeah. And it's tricky to portray that sort of thing, both in historical context where the modern reader can recognize it and engage with it, but where you aren't bringing those modern attitudes into the story itself. And that leads nicely into the portrayal of sexuality. What were your challenges in creating these characters in a way that both connects with the modern reader and is true to their own time?
J: I really tried hard not to give anybody an identity that I would understand but they wouldn't. Farah Mendelssohn's regency is actually great at this. You have a lot of really intense female friendships because social interaction was so stratified by binary gender at the time. So nobody really thought weirdly of you if you were a female-bodied person kissing your female-bodied friend unless you were married in which case, do it in your boudoir or just not at the ball. I think the biggest challenge was not using terminology or attitudes that I know are mine from my own gender and sexuality research, and also just making it okay that Fleming gets the ladies. Like, Captain Fleming has a girl in every port until she meets Harry and settles down. And I think the tactic I went with was just don't have anybody feel that it's remarkable that this person always has somebody ‘cause they're talented and cute and they're on a horse. [Heather laughs] Horses count for a lot.
H: They do.
J: And with Harry—Harriet—one of my friends came up with this amazing phrase and she said, "I really liked that you pointed out, really subtly, that it wasn't Harry's first time on the merry-go-round. She said it in-print, "It's m a r y mary-go-round." [Heather laughs] And I'm like, "A, you're a sick person and B, that's hilarious." [laughs]
H: I really liked that point. I don't think we're giving away any spoilers to say that of course the two characters end up in a sexual relationship, but there was a point early on where I'm thinking, "Where did Harry learn how to do this?" And then you answered the question, and that really was a nice point.
J: Yeah. People are getting up to stuff all the time. In my first book, people were like, "People are having sex during the Holocaust?" And I'm like, "Well, if I was under duress, I would have a lot of sex." You know? [laughs] It's part escapism and part human nature. And so you've got a soldier who comes back from the war in The Covert Captain who literally can't sleep at night and has a lot of trouble being in her own skin. And as soon as she finds somebody to share a space comfortably with, I think that she is going to try to make that connection.
H: —and then deal with the consequences.
J: Yes, big consequences but they do get dealt with.
H: Have you always been interested in history and historical research? Well, given you mentioned what your academic research was, and so I guess the answer is yes, but talk about your background and just being a history fanatic.
J: Like I said, I was raised by 19th century England and then—whenever you read The Secret Garden, I became aware of the Raj and then sort of had to delve into… You read The Children of Green Knowe and where does Ping come from? Ping is a refugee child. Where do the attitudes about Ping come from and where do Frances Hodgson Burnett's attitudes about the Raj come from? So my childhood reading became my high school and college deep dive into British Empire and colonialism and how everybody was related to everybody over many continents. Then I sort of became passionately interested in the fact that every war is a knock-on from some white guy's decisions in the last war. I just could not put the history down. I ended up with a degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies pretty much up through the creation of modern Israel. Then I sort of tailed off. But also, one of my degrees is in creative writing. I have many superfluous degrees, I'm sorry.
H: [laughs] Well you're talking to somebody who got a bachelor's in zoology and then a PhD in linguistics, so I can understand the scattershot thing.
J: Yeah. And then I was interested in medicine for a hot second there until I realized that my frail physical encasing couldn't handle the rigors. So, history of medicine is also a big deal for me. But no, I just never stopped reading. And the more you read historical fiction, for me, the more I want to understand the underpinnings and the motivations.
H: Yeah. I mean for the Regency setting, there's that whole issue of why is it such a big draw for fiction? What is it about the Regency? And in part, it's several very impressive authors who have popularized it. But what is it about that historic nexus that makes it such a rich setting for stories? And of course that's true of many other times and places as well.
J: For me, I think the Regency is so great because it really depends what you love. You have slightly close to modern cuisine at your parties, you have recognizable clothing it still looks fancy and refined, and you have the beginnings of modern plumbing. [Heather laughs] It's why I think there aren't that many romances—there are some—there aren't that many romances set around the time of the Norman Conquest because—
H: Okay, that's not true because there's an entire genre of Norman-Saxon historic romances, just because of the culture clash thing. [laughs]
J: I hadn't thought of that, I was totally down with the—well, they had toothpicks, but I'm not sure what else they had. [laughter] I was like, "I don't know whether I want to kiss someone in Norman England." So yeah, I think the Regency is the first time it can all come together and literally be tied with a velvet bow. And I think we just can't get enough of that. Plus horses.
H: [laughs] Yeah. I have to say that when I think about writing in lesbian historical romances, I always want to end up with one of the women in a riding habit because…horses, riding habits. There's something about riding habits that is just so incredibly sexy, I have to say.
J: It's so true. And the swords! You know this, you literally have a swordswoman character. And what's better than that? You're going to jump off this horse and defend me with this skill that you learned at great personal physical expense, and it's going to look hot. [Heather laughs] That was slightly shallow. [laughs]
H: We both write historical romance, I think that's the definition of shallow in some ways but hey. So, how about some upcoming projects that you want to let the listeners know about? I hear a rumor that you might be writing in the Regency again.
J: It is true, I am working on the sequel. It is set in 1824 so, Harriet and Nora have been married for a minute. Harriet is now the Lady of Fleming slightly dilapidating manor in Yorkshire which is based on Ridley Castle, which looks like a fascinating pile of stone by the way. They have some changes in their life and right now, they're having their Burns supper and there are some interesting guests at this Burns supper. And I particularly wanted to approach, in the sequel, someone eccentric enough by the standards of those times to be in a relationship with a Jewish woman. And I wanted to address in the sequel some of the realities, but also the fun and pleasant and lovely parts of being a Jewish person in Regency England because we were there, not in great number but we were. I'm also working on a short story about Kit Marlowe where Kit Marlowe just might be a lesbian. Because Kit Marlowe is one of the most irresistible figures in the historic record and basically, the fiction writes itself.
H: How does that work for Kit Marlowe because he was notoriously interested in boys?
J: It's true. This is why the short story is not finished. I don't want to do any discredit to the dashing Kit of the historical record. I haven't quite figured out how to work it but it's one of the things I have in the drawer. Did I say the thing about the World War One flying ace?
H: No, you never mentioned that.
J: These are all short stories. I never learned to write a proper transition, so I work a lot in short stories. I'm working on it though. I want to write a story if I can plausibly get them recruited into the army of a World War One flying ace. And I also want to do lesbian pirates because I feel like lesbian pirates is a high-water benchmark to which I want to aspire as an adult writer.
H: Okay, there's certainly a flourishing sub-genre of lesbian pirates. So Jeannelle, if your fans and readers wanted to find you on social media, where should they look?
J: I'm on Twitter and WordPress at the same handle, @JeannelleWrites. It's @JeannelleWrites on Twitter and jeannellewrites.wordpress.com.
H: Okay, Facebook?
J: I don't have a Facebook author page yet because as you can tell from my backlist, I took several years off to have a kid and parent that kid. So the explosion of social media is still a surprise to me, but I'm working on it [laughs].
H: I noticed from your previous publications that it looks like they're a little bit obscure to find currently.
J: Currently, yes. I'm working on rights management and Kindle editions, and again all the sorts of things that happened in the seven to 10 years I wasn't writing that were kind of a surprise.
H: Okay. Keep us updated when those are more easily accessible for people to track down.
J: Oh, totally. Working on it.
H: I'll add links to all these social media and all of the books that got mentioned in the show to the show notes. Thank you again for joining us at The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.
J: Thank you!
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Jeannelle M. Ferreira Online