Tasha Alexander is a New York Times bestselling novelist, the wife of another acclaimed novelist and the daughter of two philosophy professors. Her early life was spent in a household surrounded by books, high intellectual standards and rigorous thinking. Somehow along the way she became hooked on the Victorian era and directed her energies into writing ten successful Victorian suspense novels that critics have praised as a window into a world of long ago. Her attention to detail combined with a backdrop of exotic locations and spellbinding mysteries swirling around the British and American aristocracy of the day have made her a major force in this genre.
Stay Thirsty Magazine was fortunate to catch up with Tasha at her home in Chicago in advance of the release of her latest book, The Adventuress, for this Conversation.
STAY THIRSTY: The tenth book in your Lady Emily series of Victorian suspense novels, The Adventuress, marries exotic locations with elegant characters amidst the suspicious death of an engagement party guest. After spending so much time over the past decade with your protagonist, Lady Emily Hargreaves, how do you feel about her as a character? How has she evolved as you have evolved as a novelist?
TASHA ALEXANDER: In many ways, characters evolve in parallel to their creators. Every novel an author writes further hones his or her craft, and in each of these books—especially when we are talking about a series—the characters become better developed. When I set out to write my first book, one of my primary objectives was to explore social change. Iconoclasts lead the charge, but it is difficult for categorical change to occur before more ordinary people deem it necessary. I wanted to consider what it would take for a young woman in the late nineteenth century—someone born into the upper class and, hence, comfortable and wanting for nothing—to start to see a broader view of the world and eventually fight for more enlightened social practices. When we first meet Emily, she is bored with society, but content enough with her life. Over the course of ten books she has grown. She undergoes a tremendous intellectual enlightenment and fights for social change, but at the same time has to navigate and come to terms with the society into which she was born.
STAY THIRSTY: Your books have been praised for their meticulous attention to historical details, for your vivid descriptions of life during the Victorian era and for your richly layered and highly readable romantic mystery stories. What first attracted you to the Victorian era and why does it so appeal to you as both a writer and as a woman?
TASHA ALEXANDER: The late nineteenth century has always fascinated me: its politics, colorful characters (Gertrude Bell, for example), and the enormous changes to the social order that came during the period. The struggle for women's rights had finally come to center stage, and the industrial revolution brought new opportunities to people of all classes. This was the time when the sun never set on the British Empire, right? But all these people, living in a world they thought could never end, had no idea that their way of life would be utterly devastated by World War I. Most of the time, it's obvious when civilizations are in decline—think of Rome or the Ottoman Empire. Not so here, and I find that incredibly bittersweet. These people were living in a twilight they were convinced was dawn.
STAY THIRSTY: As part of your due diligence for The Adventuress you spent time in the South of France doing research and you detailed some of your experiences in an Author's Note at the end of the book. When you travel are you always accompanied by Lady Emily? Do you feel her presence when you are scouting likely locations for your books?
TASHA ALEXANDER: I do my best to try to see each place I visit in two ways: first, as myself, observing things as objectively as possible, and second, as Emily would have seen them. It is essential to focus on the latter in order to stay true to the time period. There are many ways in which people haven't essentially changed over the centuries—fundamentally, from an emotional perspective, humans have cared about the same things from the beginning of time. This is one of the reasons historical fiction can provide such sharp insight into human nature. At the same time, however, it is critical to not drop twenty-first century people into corsets and call them historical. A lady in 1898 would not react to her social norms the same way her counterpart would react to those now-dated norms in 2015.
STAY THIRSTY: How did your career as a novelist change once you became a New York Times bestselling author?
TASHA ALEXANDER: Even as a kid I read the New York Times every Sunday. I loved the book reviews and gleaned from them a list of titles I wanted to read. I saw the bestseller lists as well, of course, but hardly dared hope I would ever find my name on them. Hitting the list is an accomplishment that still astonishes me.
STAY THIRSTY: You graduated from Notre Dame where your parents are both professors of philosophy. How did growing up in an academic household, where your parents' focus was on subjects like French philosophy and analytical philosophy, prepare you to becoming a bestselling Victorian-age suspense novelist?
TASHA ALEXANDER: I'm not sure I realized just how much philosophy talk there was in my house until I went to college and took my first philosophy class—it was far more familiar than I expected. Growing up with academic parents is a wonderful thing. We were surrounded by books and held to very high intellectual standards. Philosophers do not let their children get away with sloppy arguments. The result is that logic and analysis become almost intuitive, which is an enormous advantage when writing a novel.
STAY THIRSTY: You lead into The Adventuress with a quotation from William Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well: "He must needs go that the Devil drives." Why did you choose that particular quotation and what does it mean to you personally?
TASHA ALEXANDER: I chose it because it so well fits Emily's interactions with the book's villain, who drives the narrative of the story. Emily is forced, because of the situation, to act in ways she doesn't always like. Hard to say more without giving away the plot…
STAY THIRSTY: What is the significance of carrying a live chicken in a bag?
TASHA ALEXANDER: Well, it is not altogether uncommon for live poultry to be sold at markets, especially in France. Generally speaking, you don't leave the market with the poultry still live, but you might, depending on your specific circumstances, decide to deal with the bird yourself when you get home. During my research trip to Cannes, I saw a woman carrying a live chicken in her bag—an extremely expensive handbag—and it became something of a running theme during my time in the south of France.
STAY THIRSTY: Your husband, Andrew Grant, is the author of three acclaimed novels in his David Trevellyan series. Both of you have achieved significant attention for your writing. How do two novelists get along under the same roof? Are you competitive with each other? Which career is more "important" in your household?
TASHA ALEXANDER: The books we write are so very different that we never feel we are competing with each other. Having two novelists under the same roof has proven to be fantastic—it's a real gift to have someone at home who intimately understands every stage of writing a book and the publication process. Our careers are equally important, and we both do everything we can to support each other, from reading each other's early drafts to bouncing ideas around.
STAY THIRSTY: You divide your time between Chicago and the UK where your husband hails from. Has he converted you into an Anglophile or because of your parents are you really a Francophile at heart?
TASHA ALEXANDER: My soul has been divided between the UK and France from the time I was a little girl. I love English history and the countryside and London and scones with cream, but I'm equally drawn to Paris and French art and literature and food. I don't know that I could ever pick one over the other, although I do find myself spending more and more time in France lately.
STAY THIRSTY: Will we see Lady Emily continue her adventures in the coming year?
TASHA ALEXANDER: I have completed the manuscript for next year's book, which is set in Greece, and have started to sketch out ideas for the one that will follow. At the moment, I don't know much beyond the location: St. Petersburg. Am working on learning at least a little Russian before I head over for research…