Questions from Gary Oswald
Hello and thanks so much for talking to us.
It’s a pleasure.
First of all, how did you get into Alternate History and what appeals you about writing in that genre? The first alternate history that I remember reading was the Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, which I’m sure was an influence in my decision to write the Lamorna novels in their own universe. I wrote the first book very instinctively when I was on maternity leave with my third child: I just wrote the book that I wanted to read. My editor has said in the past that writing in an alternative history gave me the freedom to revel in a historical world without feeling beholden to our historical timeline.
Your main series of books, the Hester and Crow 'Lamorna' trilogy, are regency romantic adventure books set in a world where Napoleon conquered Britain. What appealed to you about that scenario to write in? I was a huge fan of Georgette Heyer, which tipped me into curiosity about the Regency and Georgian Britain generally – it’s a fascinating period, glittering and brutal by turns. Heyer’s An Infamous Army has one of the most breathtaking accounts of Waterloo that I’ve ever read, and the more I learned about that particular battle, I realised that were a number of occasions when the tide might conceivably have turned against Britain and the Allies. Wellington himself famously said that the Allied win was pretty narrow. I think that’s what made me wonder ‘what if’.
You use the Alternate History setting to play somewhat fast and loose with some details of history (people living longer, languages surviving longer etc.) in a way you couldn't in straight historical fiction. Given that freedom, what exactly do you think AH fiction needs to get right about real history? Are you concerned at all about the plausibility of the changes you make or do you view it more as 'that's the high concept, the best way of selling that is for my characters to react to those changes in a way that feels emotionally realistic rather than justifying the change itself'? I think this comes down to worldbuilding and inviting readers into a space that feels realistic in three-dimensional technicololour detail. With this alternative history, I wasn’t that concerned about plausibility – it was more about how Crow, Hester, Kitto and the rest of my cast respond to what happens in a way that feels emotionally convincing, as you say. Also, prior to Waterloo, people in England feared a French invasion even if in reality this was an object Napoleon was unlikely to succeed in.
And related to that, how much research do you end up doing before you write a story in terms of capturing the tone and feeling of the time?
I spent a lot of time immersing myself in the rhythms of speech and in the details of interior decoration and what people were eating and drinking, so I do a lot of detailed research into this to make the world itself feel convincing.
You've talked before about your love of Georgette Heyer and those kind of classic regency romances, which I very much share 'Cotillion' is one of my comfort reads, but it's difficult to imagine a Heyer heroine being mixed race like Hester or a Heyer Hero suffering as much from PTSD as Crow does. How much were the Hester and Crow books influenced by those books vs how much were you consciously doing something different?
I started writing the first book in 2014 when I was immobilised on the sofa with hyperemesis, and the story provided an escape. When my baby was born, I was really lucky and he slept a lot during the day, so I was then able to write even more even after he was born. At that point I was writing very instinctively and purely for my own entertainment, so I’m not sure how conscious my decisions were. I did think about the points you’ve raised, though, especially later on. The world Heyer introduced me to definitely provided a backdrop. I think that with Hester’s ethnicity I was riled about Georgian Britain so often being presented as an all-white space, whereas we’d been taught quite a decolonised English curriculum at university in 1998-2001, so I knew that wasn’t the case. That said, I wouldn’t actually choose to write a mixed race viewpoint character again and haven’t done since 2018 because such are the structural inequalities in publishing that I now leave main characters of a different race to authors who have lived that experience (for historical romance, I’d recommend Vanessa Riley and Alyssa Cole, just to start with). I still try to represent Georgian Britain as the ethnically diverse place that it actually was in how I write my supporting cast, though. With Crow, I chose to present his experience of battle and the cost of war in a different way after visiting the charity Waterloo Uncovered on site at their archaeological dig on the battlefield site at Waterloo. There, I witnessed the actual physical and mental impact of war on men and women who have experienced it. It’s very easy to glorify war and to romanticise redcoat soldiers (and actually I think the latter is fine to do!), but my experience with Waterloo Uncovered made me look at warfare and that sort of hero in a completely different way. You primarily write romantic adventures set in an altered timeline in the same way that someone like Alison Morton primarily writes thrillers set in an altered history. Have you found that your audience is mostly romance readers who came to you from Heyer, or do you get many readers who are into the Alternate History more than the plot and would happily jump from you to Morton? This is a really interesting question and I don’t know the answer. Given the current Bridgerton style package of my covers, I’m guessing that I’ll have quite a few readers coming to me from romance rather than alternate history. This would be a great query to pose in my newsletter – I should actually ask my readers! You wrote an article for the Guardian four years ago about the then promised HBO series 'Confederate'. In that article you argued that Writers of alternative history have a moral responsibility. That if you write a story in which the Nazis win WWII, you don't ultimately end up making the Nazis seem cool and attractive. Do you think you have the same responsibilities in a story about the Napoleonic Era, where it is harder to paint any one side as uniquely evil? No, I don’t think the responsibility is quite the same. Fascism should never be glorified or excused in any respect, especially not in today’s political climate.
Outside the Hester and Crow books, you mostly write Young Adult fiction. What's your feeling about that distinction, do you find your writing style is significantly different when aimed at that market? I no longer write for young adults and now only write for the adult market. I am not sure if my writing style is different, because young adult fiction still demands complexity of character and vivid worldbuilding and all the things I’m attracted to about writing at all. One difference is that in writing for children you have a greater responsibility to your audience. For example, Crow is an incredibly complex and difficult man. I could never have presented Crow as a hero to a YA audience because of one particular episode of violence and a betrayal of trust that in my view really places him beyond the pale as a hero for that age group. I think it’s fair to say that even for adults, he is an antihero.
Three of your Young Adult books, Bloodline, Bloodline Rising and Spirit Hunter, are historical fantasy books set in Dark Ages Eurasia with the protagonists being different generations of the same family, all of whom have certain magical gifts. Could you imagine writing characters with those kind of gifts in a Napoleonic Era story or do you need the Magical mindset of the Dark Ages for it to feel fitting? It’s funny that you should say this, because actually there were magical and fantastical elements in the first draft of the book that became Game of Hearts (some of you may have read it as False Lights or Hester and Crow – it’s had a few different guises). The book originally opened with Crow and Kitto riding in a derigible airship. But my agent and I felt that in the end the story worked best in a historical universe more like our own.
What are you currently working on and what can we expect to see from you in the future? I’m currently having a whale of a time writing a Regency romance featuring murder and political unrest, set in the Scottish Highlands. It’s set in our actual historical Regency, in the wake of the assassination of the prime minister Spencer Perceval in 1812.
I’m also currently working for Waterloo Uncovered on a heritage project about the lives of the camp followers who went to war with Wellington’s army. These were incredibly tough and resourceful women who might be faced with climbing barefoot up the Pyrenees with small children in tow or searching battlefields for their husbands or partners, dead or alive. Unsurprisingly, working on this project has had a knock on effect on my writing and my current heroine is a former camp follower and an immensely tough (and slightly terrifying) woman. It also features Lord Byron as a major character, who is a lot of fun to write now I’ve got over feeling intimidated by fictionalising such an iconic figure.
If you would like to meet Katy in person and you live near London she will be talking at the Young Adult Literature Convention at London's Film and Comic Con at the Olympia London from 12pm on Friday 9th of July. She will be on the Panel 'All you need to know about getting your book published'. Tickets for the con needed.
And you live in or near Shropshire, the Romantic Novelist's Association are hosting an Alternative Histories/Fantasy event at Southwater Library in Telford between 10–1 on Friday 16th July – and it's open to the public for free. Katy will be there as will fellow romantic novelists who write in these sub-genres.