Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Eloisa James

Eloisa James. Photo courtesy of Ms. James

"Since I write romance, the challenge is to make the reader believe, if only momentarily, that this time, the promise of the cover and the genre itself won’t come true." --- Eloisa James

Degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Yale are not necessarily a prerequisite for a career as a best-selling romance author---except if the author in question is Eloisa James. While James is known by millions for her historical romances, such as The Ugly Duchess, she is just as well-known and respected---as Mary Bly---for her "day job" as a Shakespeare scholar. Not surprisingly, as James shared when I spoke with her via e-mail, her work as a literary scholar infuses her fiction writing---whether she's  following Shakespeare's lead on how to believably turn a cad into a hero, or taking on an iconic T.S. Eliot poem in her riff on the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast. While there are those that may insist that romances---or any genre fiction---shouldn't be shelved with literature, James disagrees. As she wrote in a 2005 New York Times op-ed, "We all long for stories with narrative drive, stories that talk about relationships, and stories that aren't riddled with violence or death. Romances reflect no more than what most of us hope for in daily life---and that includes being lucky enough to experience shared desire." Here's more from James on growing up with literary parents, the narrative challenges of writing a romance novel, and why art works.

NEA: What's your version of the artist's life?

ELOISA JAMES: I am a Shakespeare professor at Fordham University, and I have a novel overdue: the cover is finished, but I am not. My desk is in the living room (I live in New York City), so I write with dogs and teenagers whirling about me.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with the arts?

JAMES: My father, Robert Bly, is a poet and my mother, Carol Bly, was a short story writer; ours was a very literary household, without a television. My early childhood revolved around books that were read aloud to me. One of my first memories is my mother crying at the end of Charlotte’s Web. Years later, I did the same, reading that novel aloud to my daughter Anna.

NEA: What decision has had the most impact on your arts career?

JAMES: I can’t identify a seminal decision. Perhaps the moment when I borrowed a Georgette Heyer novel from the public library or, years later, when I decided to pay off my student loans by writing a novel like hers.

NEA: What drew you to study Shakespeare, and what do you think it is about his work that makes it so enduring?

JAMES: I’m most interested in the way Shakespeare chooses words in such a way as to allow a speech to mean two or three things at once. He is reputed to have been a terrible actor; I think it’s more important that he was an actor, and he understood which words tied an actor to a single emotion, and which would give him or her a choice. Often that flexibility allows for deep differences in ethical thinking, which I find fascinating.

NEA: How did you come to your fiction career? What drew you to the field of romance fiction in general, and historical fiction specifically?

JAMES: Even when I was a child, writing plays and directing performances starring my siblings, I always wrote romances. I love the form, and the promise of the genre. And historical fiction is a natural for me, since I spend my days teaching Shakespeare and other early modern dramatists. I am steeped in dialogue written in the 1600s.

NEA: I'm guessing that you're one of the only---if not the only---Shakespeare scholars who 'moonlights' as a writer of historical romances. How does your work as a scholar inform your work as a fiction writer and vice versa?

JAMES: The greater influence is definitely from scholarship to fiction. In When Beauty Tamed the Beast, for example, I structured the fairy tale around a metaphorical look at T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The language pops up here and there, but bigger ideas spring from the poem as well, and those ideas drive the plot. In another novel, The Duke is Mine, a fragment of poetry is essential to the plot as a whole. That brief bit of poetry was not borrowed; I made it up. But I made it up with a lifetime’s worth of English literature behind me.

NEA: You have also written a memoir based on a sabbatical you spent in Paris with your family. How was the process of writing non-fiction similar to/different from writing fiction?

JAMES: I wanted to write about Paris in the way I was experiencing it: in very short bursts. When I was in elementary school, my father was working on prose poems. Mastering a very short form of prose, even if my snippets have no comparison to his poetry, was an exercise in affection. What’s more, I wanted this book to give readers the sense of small but vivid pleasures, and so I resisted turning it into a traditional travel narrative. Novels, of course, live or die on the pacing of long narrative, so I found the two types of writing very different.

NEA: I know the traditional question is "which writers do you count among your influences," but I'm interested in knowing about specific works that have influenced you. Which ones, and how/why?

JAMES: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a good example: I haven’t been influenced by the language, though it’s wonderful, but by the way Shakespeare gives himself an tremendous challenge. He structures Romeo in Act I as a shallow boy, a figure of fun, and then turns the play on a pivot so that we care deeply for him by Act V. I try to set myself that sort of challenge in my novels. Since I write romance, the challenge is to make the reader believe, if only momentarily, that this time, the promise of the cover and the genre itself won’t come true. This relationship is irretrievably broken.

NEA: What do you think is the role of the artist in the community? And the responsibility of the community to the artist?

JAMES: Artists keep a community from thinking only about money, or only about the self and family. Art can turn people outside, to something more beautiful, evil, or sad than themselves. Communities should support artists, because we desperately need an escape from the airless box of the self.

NEA: At the NEA, our "motto" is "Art Works." What does that phrase mean to you?

JAMES: I would translate it as “art does work.” A novel like Catch-22 changed the way our nation viewed war, even though the war in question was a manifestly “just” war.

Eloisa James was one of the featured readers at the 2012 National Book Festival. Check the Library of Congress website in the coming weeks to see an archive of her presentation.

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