Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing three very terrific and talented authors who've been brought together into one scrumptious anthology,
The Heart of Christmas, Mary Balogh, Courtney Milan, and Nicola Cornick!!!
Mary has a tight schedule today, but had a few minutes to squeeze in some questions. She’ll join us a bit later and said to start the interview without her. In that case, let’s start with some fun holiday trivia:
ME: Do you have a movie that you must watch every Christmas? What's your favorite Christmas movie? Do you have a favorite Christmas character or character type?
COURTNEY: The answer is boring: No. I don’t even have a television. Also, I have a day job in addition to my writing, so I don’t have any spare time. This means I don’t watch movies.
I do like to put the Messiah on in the background while I work.
NICOLA: I watch “Mamma Mia!” every holiday. It’s not a Christmas movie but it is something that I can sit down to watch with my family and friends. It brings us all together and it’s warm, romantic, happy and feel-good. Plus those lovely sunny seaside scenes are just what I need when I’m shivering in a cold English winter!
ME: Do you have any Christmas traditions like decorating your house, having house parties, making cookies etc.?
COURTNEY: If there is any consistent tradition, it is my inability to even accomplish the most basic of crafts (see: lack of spare time. See also: klutziness). I don’t even want to think what would happen if I tried to put up Christmas lights.
NICOLA: We always decorate the house. We have an old cottage and we hang fairy lights, cards and decorations along the beams. My husband makes the Christmas Cookies!
ME: If you do make Christmas Cookies, what kinds will you be making this year? What was your all-time most favorite Christmas Cookie that you ever made? Why? Care to share the recipe?
COURTNEY: I’m not the person to ask for recipes—a character trait that I managed to channel into my novella, the heroine’s brother manages to burn things that no sane person could ever burn. In honor of terrible cooks, both real and fictional, I present:
Worst. Cookies. Ever.
Stir together 3 C flour, 1 t baking soda, ½ t baking powder. Forget you already added baking soda, so add another tablespoon.
Cream together 1 C butter, 1 C sugar, 1 egg (include generous portion of shell). Unlabeled soy sauce looks just like vanilla, so add a teaspoon.
Blend dry ingredients with butter mixture. Drop in cookie-sized blobs on baking sheet. Bake at 375 F.
Start reading novella by Mary Balogh--or Nicola Cornick--or, ahem, Courtney Milan. Forget cookies for three hours, until the smoke detector goes off. Open windows and turn on fan to dissipate smoke, even though it is extremely cold outside. Sheepishly remove charred bits from oven and hide them from family.
NICOLA: My husband is a bit of a star in the kitchen and he makes the best macadamia nut cookies I’ve tasted. He adds white chocolate to represent the snowflakes! Here is the recipe:
1 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1/2 cups brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
12 oz. white chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups chopped macadamia nuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Lightly grease cookie sheets or line with parchment paper.
Cream butter and sugars in large bowl until blended and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well.
Blend in flour, baking soda, and salt.
Stir in white chocolate chips and macadamia nuts.
Drop dough by rounded teaspoonfuls 2 inches apart onto prepared cookie sheets. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until firm. Remove to wire tray to cool.
ME: Do you celebrate St. Nick’s Day? Why or why not? On what day do you celebrate it, on December 6 or some other date? Are the stockings a big deal? What is the biggest present you’ve received/given for St. Nick’s Day?
COURTNEY: I don’t celebrate St. Nick’s day, because I have never heard of it. If you want to know what day I don’t celebrate it on, it is on all days, and the biggest present I have ever received for St. Nick’s Day is nothing, which, coincidentally, is the biggest present I’ve ever given, too.
NICOLA: December 6th is my aunt’s birthday so there is always a family celebration dinner that day. We celebrate Christmas with stockings and presents and all the works on 25th December.
ME: Even if you don’t put one up, do prefer real or artificial trees? Why?
COURTNEY: Real. I love the scent of pine tree, and nothing says “Christmas” to me like the smell of Douglas Fir in the air.
NICOLA: I love the scent of real Christmas trees but the ceilings are so low in our cottage that most of the real trees are too big to fit inside! Instead we have a beautiful golden tree that we decorate with angels and lights, and that fits on the window seat in the living room.
ME: Have you ever made your own Christmas presents or decorations? If so, what were they? Were they successes or failures? Did you have fun while making them?
COURTNEY: Any such hypothetical attempts would have been abject failures, and thus, if they would have occurred, which they didn’t, I would pretend they never existed.
NICOLA: I have to admit that I haven’t made my own presents or decorations because I have no talent whatsoever in that direction. My creativity takes a different form! My sister-in-law, however, makes all her own Christmas cards and we know that each year we will get a beautiful, personalized homemade card from her, which I think is wonderful.
ME: What foods will be at your Christmas celebration this year? What is the most unusual food that you saw at a Christmas feast? Would you eat the fruitcake or use it as a doorstop?
COURTNEY: I will eat anything if I am on deadline and hungry enough: fruit cake, small bats fried and served with peach chutney, Cheetos. This questionnaire presupposes a level of free time that I just don’t have.
On Christmas day, I will probably spend a few hours writing. Mr. Milan will think about dinner.
NICOLA: We are having Christmas with my husband’s family this year so I’m not sure what is on the menu. It will be a lovely surprise! Where I come from in the North of England it’s traditional to eat fruitcake with cheese. A delicious slice of cake and a crumbly Wensleydale cheese is a real Christmas treat.
ME: Do you celebrate Christmas on the Eve or Day? Why?
COURTNEY: On the day. Why? Because I am unoriginal enough to celebrate Christmas day on Christmas day.
NICOLA: We go to the Midnight carol service on Christmas Eve and then we celebrate with the family on Christmas Day.
ME: Who, if anyone, in your family plays Santa Claus to hand out the presents? Or do they just “magically” appear under the tree? How do you handle presents that just don’t fit under the tree?
COURTNEY: Well, right now “my family” is me and my husband and the dog and cat. My husband and I give our presents to each other. The dog and the cat just chase each other and don’t notice their presents at all.
NICOLA: All the presents appear under the tree and then all the children hand them around to everyone on Christmas morning!
ME: Tell us 3 funny or strange things that happened to you, or someone you know, on past Christmases.
COURTNEY: I’m getting the impression that you think I must be this crisp, cool, put-together woman who has time for arts and crafts, and who remembers all sorts of details. The truth is, I’d be hard pressed to remember three things that happened to me today. Most of my life is really a gigantic blur. Asking me to delve into years past… it’s just not going to happen.
So here’s a funny thing that happened to me today: I remembered to get cat litter from the store, and I’m not even out yet. This is massive.
NICOLA: Well, I can think of a couple of tings. There was the year that my husband and I were attending a Christmas Ball at the local Air Force base on Christmas Eve and it snowed so much we were all stuck and ended up having to dig the cars out in our ball gowns and dinner jackets and dress uniforms! Then there was my spooky Christmas story when we were living in a haunted cottage a few years ago. I was carrying the presents downstairs and had my arms full so when I got into the living room I jokingly asked the resident ghost to turn the lights on for me. All the lights came on and the music started to play and I was so shocked I nearly dropped all the presents!
ME: Do you send out greeting cards to your friends and family? Why or why not? What greeting do you like to see on the greeting cards you send? On the ones you receive?
COURTNEY: I always intend to, and then remember that I haven’t sent anything on December 23rd and tell myself, “Next year, send cards early!” It never happens.
I don’t care what greetings I get. I’m just delighted to hear from people who I care about.
NICOLA: Somehow, this question just disappeared…hmmm…wonder how that happened?
ME: Other than money (because who doesn’t want more of that), what would your ultimate gift be?
COURTNEY: Time. I would rather get time than money.
NICOLA: I’d like to give the ultimate Christmas gift of snow on Christmas Day to my nieces and nephews. It doesn’t snow much here in the South of England any more (the time we were snowed in was 20 years ago!) and I know that they would be beyond excited if it did. And I’d enjoy that quite a lot too!
ME: It’s time for us to take a short break as Mary has just arrived! While she gets settled into her chair for the interview, let’s take a break with a glimpse into the first of three stories in The Heart of Christmas anthology, This Wicked Gift by Courtney Milan:
William White wanted Lavinia Spencer the first time he saw her working in her father’s lending library. When her father becomes ill and the family finances take a turn for the worse, he realizes that necessity might force her to marry someone else—an unacceptable future, as that would mean he could never have her. He wants her forever, but on his salary that’s outside the realm of possibility. Instead, he’s willing to settle for a bare—in fact, one might say a naked—minimum. But when he sets his plan in action, he discovers that finances or no finances, there are some things money just can’t buy. That’s not going to stop him from trying to purchase them.
He set his hand deliberately atop hers.
Oh, she knew she should pull away. Pull away, and slap him for taking liberties with her person. But the evening’s events had left her so cold—and his hand was so warm—and by all that was holy, after a year of encouraging Mr. William Q. White to do more than just look at her, she was not about to raise objections to a little liberty.
“I know what ‘Vinny’ is short for. As it happens, I prefer Lavinia.” He leaned over her.
He said it as if he preferred her, not just her name. Lavinia’s lungs seized. She could smell the starch of his cravat. He’s going to kiss me, she thought. Her nipples pressed, painfully peaked, against her stays. His thumb ran along her wrist, down the curve of her fingers. Lavinia felt her lips part. She might even have arched up towards him, just a little. She focused on the pink of his mouth, so close to hers.
He’s going to kiss me, and I am going to let him.
Instead, he released her hand. She could still feel the imprint of his fingers against hers as he stepped away.
“Miss Spencer, I do believe we’ll talk tomorrow.” He smiled. Before she could point out that tomorrow was Sunday and the lending library would be closed, he tipped his hat at her and set it on his head. “Come find me at one.”
And then Mr. William Q. White strode away, the tails of his coat flapping at her. The bell jingled. The door shut. Lavinia raised her burning hand to her unkissed lips and looked down.
It was only then she realized he hadn’t been angling for a kiss at all.
He’d taken the slip of foolscap containing the address of the man who’d cheated James.
ME: Well, now, that was a tantalizing tidbit! Does anyone else feel warm? Is it suddenly hotter in here, or is it just me? Well, the show continues! Welcome to the set Mary! Glad you had some time in your day to join us! Now that I have all three of you here, I’d like to get to the writing portion of the interview.
ME: Why the Romance, Historical, or Regency genre? What was the draw for you?
MARY: There are two main reasons why I write romance. The news media bombards us with far too much doom and gloom. There is very little to balance it. But I refuse to accept that the world and humanity are so without hope. I also believe that love is the most powerful force there is, weak as it sometimes seems. I like to write stories in which love prevails and committed relationships work. I refuse to believe that these themes are unrealistic. And even if they are, readers need something with which to relax, something about which to feel good.
COURTNEY: I’ve always loved historical romances, and so it just seemed natural to write one when I started…
What? You don’t believe that? Okay, I admit it. I write historicals because I have this dream that in two hundred years, when my debut novel is in the public domain, someone will write Proof by Seduction and Zombies.
NICOLA: Well, first of all I knew that I had to be a historical author because history has always been so vivid and fascinating for me, ever since I was a child. Within that the Regency has always been one of my favorite periods to read and write about because of the intriguing contrasts between the glitter and glamour of high society and the darker side of life. I think that’s a rich background to explore. Then there is the fact that it was a period of huge change with the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, travel and exploration… It ‘s a very exciting period of history against which to set a book.
ME: If you could describe your writing with a word or phrase, what would it be? Please delve into the core of your writing to tell us what word or phrase you want readers to take with them when they've finished reading your story.
MARY: Passion, I think, is the one word I would like readers to apply to my work. Passion for life and—more important—passion for love. Love is such a vast, many-faceted thing. Romantic and sexual love are only two facets of it. My stories concentrate on these two, but I like to include others. I like to show that my heroes and heroines have to accept and love who they are before they can offer all the love they are capable of giving or accept all the love others are willing to offer them. In building stories around this basic theme, I become passionate about my characters and their love stories.
COURTNEY: The only phrase I can think of to describe my writing is: “indescribable with a word or phrase.”
NICOLA: Stimulating! Hopefully they are fun and stimulate thought, conversation, ideas…
ME: With the current movement to encourage people to give books as gifts, what, in your opinion, makes your story unique? What makes it stand out among all the others?
MARY: A Handful of Gold is the love story of polar opposites. The hero is wealthy and jaded. He is not interested in joining his family for Christmas but chooses instead to spend the holiday with a friend and their mistresses—except that he has to hire someone for the occasion. The heroine is poor and puts her family before all else. Her sick sister needs medicine, and Verity is willing to give herself in order to provide it, even if doing so means spending Christmas away from her family as the mistress of a man she does not even know. But Christmas does not fail either one. It has miracles in store for both.
COURTNEY: My novella is unique in that it is packaged alongside stories from Mary Balogh and Nicola Cornick. This really makes it stand out, as Mary Balogh and Nicola Cornick are both fabulous authors.
NICOLA: I aim for all my books to be fresh, fascinating and unusual. They might have a different background (my next Regency is set in London and the Arctic) or they might have a new twist on an old Regency theme.
ME: Do you prefer throwing snowballs or serving hot cocoa? Does that show through in your writing? If so, how?
MARY: Remaining neutral on this one.
COURTNEY: I actually prefer throwing hot cocoa, if you must know, and yes, my penchant for not choosing either of the obvious answers does show through in my writing.
NICOLA: Interesting question! I’m the one who enjoys serving the cocoa although I was in the school rounders team so I can throw pretty well! There’s usually a best friend character in my books who is on hand to offer the hero or heroine tea and advice if required. Perhaps that’s me with my hot cocoa!
ME: Who decides what your characters do, you or your muse? What kind of influence do you have over your story, or is the muse always the one stuffing the stocking?
MARY: The thing about a muse is that it is not really an external thing, something that invades one's mind from outer space or another dimension. It is something that is there in one's sub-conscious all the time. Sometimes I am tempted to say that I have no control over either my characters or my stories. Certainly they seem to create themselves. But I am not a medium. I am a writer with a powerful imagination. There is not room for it all in my conscious mind, so when it comes bubbling out from the sub-conscious it seems as if it has come from nowhere. It is all me, however. And it is the conscious part of my mind that shapes it all into a meaningful whole.
COURTNEY: I don’t have a muse. They forgot to issue me one. I write by the process of rewriting everything that doesn’t work, and then going back and relentlessly rewriting everything that still doesn’t work. I stop when either (a) everything works or (b) I can’t possibly look at the story any longer.
NICOLA: I tend to have an idea of what my characters are like when I embark on the story, but my muse will always pick up my ideas, shake them around and change them without warning. I’m used to this now and I’ve learned to follow my instinct.
ME: Okay, everyone, it’s time to take a short break as Mary has another stop in her schedule to make and needs to leave now. When we return, we’ll continue with this very fun interview! Now, let's check out A Handful of Gold by Mary Balogh
Julian Dare, Viscount Folingsby, does not want to go home for Christmas because his father has a potential bride waiting for him there, and Julian does not like the girl. Instead, he chooses to accept an invitation from a friend to spend a cozy Christmas at the friend’s hunting box. Each of them is to take a woman with him. Since Julian does not currently have a resident mistress, he decides to invite Blanche Heyward, a beautiful dancer and the newest sensation at a London opera house. His motives are entirely selfish and self-centered. He wants a good time.
That is all.
Verity Ewing, whose stage name is Blanche Heyward, is actually a respectable lady, but she needs money, and plenty of it, in order to keep her sister alive. She needs more than even her scandalous employment as a dancer can bring in. And so she accepts Julian’s invitation, sacrificing herself for her sister’s sake. Her motives are entirely selfless. She expects this to be the worst Christmas of her life.
Neither gets quite what they wanted or expected. Julian does not have a particularly good time--not in the way he anticipated anyway. And Verity does not have the worst Christmas of her life--far from it.
In fact, the magic of Christmas has strange and wonderful things in store for this unsuspecting and entirely ill-assorted pair.
Verity Ewing, alias Blanche Heyward, dancer, has accepted an invitation to dine tête-à-tête with Julian Dare, Viscount Folingsby after the opera one evening. She suspects that he wants her as his mistress, and she is considering accepting if he offers. She desperately needs the money for her ailing sister. But the prospect of sinking so low horrifies her. She is already hiding from her mother and sister the fact that she is a dancer. Julian for his part is intent upon persuading Blanche to spend Christmas with him at his friend's hunting box in the country. The evening is going well for him. But Verity is very uncomfortable and not at all sure she can go through with her plan. That is when she unwisely picks up a pear from the dish of fruit on the table.
"You came to London to seek your fortune?" he asked. "You have not danced anywhere else?"
She hesitated. But she did not want him to think her inexperienced, easy to manipulate. "Oh, of course," she said. "For several years, my lord." She smiled into his eyes as she reached for a pear from the dish of fruit. "But all roads lead eventually to London, you know."
She was startled by the look of naked desire that flared in his eyes for a moment as he followed the movement of her hand. But it was soon veiled behind his lazy eyelids and slightly mocking smile.
"Of course," he said softly. "And those of us who spend most of our time here are only too delighted to benefit from the experience in the various arts such persons as yourself have acquired elsewhere."
Verity kept her eyes on the pear she was peeling. It was unusually juicy, she was dismayed to find. Her hands were soon wet with juice. And her heart was thumping. Suddenly, and quite inexplicably, she felt as if she had waded into deep waters, indeed. The air fairly bristled between them. She licked her lips and could think of no reply to make.
His voice sounded amused when he spoke again. "Having peeled it, Miss Heyward," he said, "you are now obliged to eat it, you know. It would be a crime to waste good food."
She lifted one half of the pear to her mouth and bit into it. Juice cascaded to her plate below, and some of it trickled down her chin. She reached for her napkin in some embarrassment, knowing that he was watching her. But before she could pick it up, he had reached across the table and one long finger had scooped up the droplet of juice that was about to drip onto her gown. She raised her eyes, startled, to watch him carry the finger to his mouth and touch it to his tongue. His eyes remained on her all the while.
Verity felt a sharp stabbing of sensation down through her abdomen and between her thighs. She felt a rush of color to her cheeks. She felt as if she had been running for a mile uphill.
"Sweet," he murmured.
She jumped to her feet, pushing at her chair with the backs of her knees. Then she wished she had not done so. Her legs felt decidedly unsteady. She crossed to the fireplace again and reached out her hands as if to warm them, though she felt as if the fire might better be able to take warmth from her.
She drew a few steadying breaths in the silence that followed. And then she could see from the corner of one eye that he had come to stand at the other side of the hearth. He rested one arm along the high mantel. He was watching her. The time had come, she thought. She had precipitated it herself. Within moments the question would be asked and must be answered. She still did not know what that answer would be, or perhaps she did. Perhaps she was just fooling herself to believe that there was still a choice. She had made her decision back in the greenroom—no, even before that. This was a tavern, part of an inn. No doubt he had bespoken a bedchamber here, as well as a private dining room. Within minutes, then…
How would it feel? She did not even know exactly what she was to expect. The basic facts, of course…
"Miss Heyward," he asked her, making her jump again, "what are your plans for Christmas?"
ME: Well, that was quite a juicy tidbit! It was pretty warm before, but it feels even hotter now! Who turned the thermostat up? No one owning up to that huh? Oh well, let’s continue on with the interview before I get completely distracted.
ME: What character did you have the most fun creating and why?
COURTNEY: Lavinia Spencer, without a doubt, was ridiculously fun. She is practical yet optimistic, wise and yet young, innocent and yet worldly.
NICOLA: In this particular story, The Season for Suitors, I enjoyed creating the heroine, Clara Davencourt. She is a girl with a lot of courage. She proposed to the hero rather than waiting for him to propose to her!
ME: If you had the opportunity to meet just one of your characters in real life, who would it be and why?
COURTNEY: I would find it seriously disturbing if I met any of my characters in real life, and would take it as a sign that I had been working too much and needed to go see a shrink.
NICOLA: That’s a tough choice! I’d quite like to meet the cast of characters in my most recent trilogy, The Brides of Fortune. They heroines had such a strong friendship uniting them and the heroes were the sort of men I admire, fighting for the things that they believed in.
ME: Which of your characters would you never want to meet under any circumstance and why?
COURTNEY: I never want to meet any of them (see above note re: tenuous grasp on reality). Especially since I write in historical times. Regency England doesn’t have a working 3G network, and so my iPhone wouldn’t work back then. All kinds of uncomfortableness would result.
NICOLA: Hah! That would be Sir Montague Fortune in The Brides of Fortune. He was completely lacking in the generosity, kindness and the Christmas spirit.
ME: If you could give any of your characters a Christmas gift, who would it be and what would you get them?
COURTNEY: Confession: I am happy if I manage to get my parents Christmas presents before December 24th. Christmas shopping is stressful enough as it is for me, shopping for people who do exist; I can’t possibly think of adding in shopping for people who don’t actually exist. My characters are fictional, and so I’m perfectly happy not getting them anything, and I’ll write them as perfectly happy not receiving anything, either.
NICOLA: Well, Seb Fleet in The Season for Suitors could do with a ladder for Christmas to save him risking life and limb climbing up to Clara’s window on the ivy!
ME: If you could be any Christmas Character, who would it be and why?
COURTNEY: If you haven’t noticed by now, it’s Scrooge of Christmas Present, all the way. Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? Bah humbug!
NICOLA: I’d like to be The Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol so that I could go back in time and have a good old nostalgic look at happy Christmases through history!
ME: Let’s wrap up this marvelous interview with a glimpse into The Season for Suitors by Nicola Cornick!
Two years before, Clara Davencourt had proposed to the Duke of Fleet and been rejected. Now she needs his help in dealing with the Ton's most notorious fortune hunters.
Until that moment, he had promised himself that he would walk away. Clara Davencourt was not for him and in the thinking part of his anatomy he knew it. He was full of good intentions. And then she gave her hand to Lord Elton to lead her into the dance, and a powerful wash of possessiveness swept through Fleet and he started to walk towards her.
One kiss. He would take one kiss and then he would leave her alone forever. He promised himself that.
He noted the precise moment that she saw his approach. Her blue eyes narrowed with a disbelief she could not quite conceal. She caught her full lower lip between her teeth for a second before she turned aside to respond to something that Elton was saying. The same honey coloured curl that he had touched earlier in the darkness now curled in the hollow of her throat. She looked both fragile and formidably determined. He could see defiance radiating from every inch of her body...
ME: I don’t know about the rest of you, but it’s sweltering in here now! I think I need to go find that thermostat readjust it before I melt! But before I do that, I would like to thank Courtney, Mary, and Nicola for joining us today! It’s been a real treat and I hope that you’ll find The Heart of Christmas in your stockings, shoes, or whatever when St. Nick comes to visit (whatever time of the year he stops by) because it is such a treat!
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