Sophia James has had a long and successful career as a Harlequin historical author with a remarkable 24 books in print and more coming. Readers of her Regency series love her “haunted and damaged” heroes, and she says she loves writing these “broken men” because they are just so interesting. But then, love was never meant to be easy.
Show Notes Summary
In this interview you’ll discover:
How having her wisdom teeth out opened the door to Sophia’s first book
Why she loves her haunted and damaged heroes – and heroines
How as an isolated young writer, she found her “tribe”
Why she loves the “safety net” of being a Harlequin author
How having an artist husband has helped her work
The city she loves more than any other – and no its not Regency London
Sophia can be found at sophiajames.co
On Facebook @sophiajamesauthor
For more details, a full transcript follows: Note – this is a “close as” rendering of our full conversation with links to key points.
And now here’s Sophia.
Jenny: Hello there Sophia, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Sophia: Thanks, Jenny. It’s lovely to be here.
Jenny: You’ve had an outstanding career as a romance writer. You’ve said you were first attracted to romance as a teen reading Georgette Heyer on your grandmother’s porch at the beach. Possibly a purloined copy from your grandmother’s library . . . .What was it that encouraged you to take the next step and try your hand at writing romance – that Once Upon A Time moment when you decided “I can do this”
Sophia: Well, it was as you say, I did love reading Georgette Heyer on my grandmother’s porch with my twin sister, but then when I was about 23 or 24 I went to teach English in Spain, at Bilbao on the northern coast in Basque area.
I was teaching English in a little school. I had two very sore wisdom teeth and I had to have
them out. So I was resting at home after having these wisdom teeth out and a friend from the international school – there was an international school that I would much rather have been teaching at – she came along with a book by a writer called Kathleen E Woodiwiss – a book Shanna – which I’d always loved – and she knew I liked historicals and she’d also brought me a whole lot of Mills and Boon historicals.
I was home for about three days from school – which was lovely – reading these books and I thought ‘why don’t I try and do this?’ I’d always loved writing and I’d done a degree in English and history and that was my moment. I did start virtually straight away. I used to write when I got home from school – so yes, that was my “moment”, really.
Jenny: I hate to date this was by computer or typewriter or by hand?
Sophia: Oh it was by hand. I was travelling so I didn’t have a computer or anything else, and I’ve always written by hand. Until quite recently really when I changed to using a computer. But I find hand is a good way to get things down. In fact even now I still write a lot by hand. I might have gone up to bed to read or something and I have some ideas and I’ll write them down in notebooks and then transcribe them later.
Jenny: Oh great. . . and was it Georgette Heyer that attracted you to the Regency period?
Sophia: Yes it probably was because I read all her books always.. You mentioned that I might have got a book of my grandmother’s but I haven’t got any of her books which I really regretted in later years.
They all went to the Raglan library and later I tried to get them back but never could They were all burgundy coloured leather covered first editions – beautiful books.
I guess when you are reading a lot of Regency you pick up the conventions of the period. I like the manners of that period. I like the fact that it feels very distant from our own time. There are just a whole of things in it that make a romance viable.
Jenny: Yes I can see that – and when you break the conventions – which you do sometimes – it can also make it more interesting.
Sophia: Yes and I do break the conventions. I don’t write a comedy of manners Regency. I am often outside of society in my books. I may have a few chapters inside of society, but often I am veering a little out of it.
Jenny: Yes speaking of conventions, I’ve noticed in some of the on line comment – it’s amusing how readers can get irritated with names you’ve chosen.
Sophia: Yes when I began I was a little more conventional I suppose, but from early on I always had the thought I would write a trilogy with people called Asher, Taris and Cristo Wellingham. I think High Seas to High Society – the first book in the Wellingham series – was about the third of fourth book I ever wrote. I’d always had these names in mind – they were people I had inside of me. And of course they all became heroes in their own Wellingham books.
I do try a little harder these days to keep in mind what the conventions are, but I have to have a name I gel with or else I find it really hard to write that character. In my Men of Danger series I did use ordinary names; Lucas, Nathaniel, and Stephen. But yes – some of my heroines – there’s Emerald, Amethyst, and in my new one Celeste, so yes I do like something different as well.
I remember when I first started out someone complained I had a lot of exclamation marks and it annoyed her and I went through and saw “Oh yes I guess I do have a lot of exclamation marks.” I became more conscious of that, and sometimes I respond to criticism and sometimes I don’t. I have to write a book I want to write and I have to have a name I gel with.
Jenny: I was going to ask you what made you start writing series, but it sounds like the Wellingham brothers were there from the beginning, so series aren’t a new thing for you. It has been there as natural thing for a long time.
Sophia: Well, Taris, Cristo and Asher were there from the beginning but I didn’t write the series for about four years – at around Book Eight or Nine – and that was One Unashamed Night – Taris’s story. He is the blind hero – and that’s been my most successful book probably. It happened really because people started writing to me and asking “Where is Taris’s story?” so then I did the three brothers, and then I did Lucinda their sister’s story in The Dissolute Duke.
Series are really wonderful because if people enjoy one of them they will go on and read the others, and I’d really advise writers to try series. I write nearly everything in series now.
Jenny: Yes when people have invested time in a story they are happy to read on.
Sophia: Yes and as a writer, you know that world. You know the house, you know the family, their personalities, their history, which throws you into another book with a lot of back story and it’s a lot easier… It definitely quickens up the process.
Jenny: You mentioned Taris the blind hero and one of the other things I know people like about your books are the “haunted and damaged” heroes. Even in the Penniless Lords series they carry wounds – seen and unseen. Do you find these “broken” men interesting to write about?
Sophia: Yes there is always a back story. I do like broken and damaged heroes and I think my editor Linda Fildew does too, she encourages me to write them. I’ve just finished a Book Four in a continuity series, The Society of Wicked Gentleman running August, September, October and November – with Christine Merrill, Anne Lethbridge and Diane Gaston. Mine is the last book in that series, out in November, and I was given the broken hero.
It is probably what I like. In fact when I think of it I’m not sure that I’ve ever written a hero that wasn’t broken or damaged , and I’ve started to swap that over into my heroines. In my next book – I don’t know what the title will be yet – coming out early next year – there is a really broken heroine.
That’s been interesting.. All that back story – you can piggy back on it. If you write a very damaged hero, it’s quite hard to have a really have a damaged heroine alongside them, so that pulls you off into thinking about who the heroine is going to be – hands you have a whole lot of stuff coming through.
Jenny: Is there something about historical fiction that you find particularly appealing?
Sophia: Well I write in two time periods actually. Mostly in Regency and I am a professional writer and it is definitely the one you make the most money from. This is my job to live, this is my full time job, now so I do have to take note of that. But I really love medieval. and I have written three books in the medieval period too – set in Scotland in about 1360. The medieval period is really harsh and in that there is a freedom because you can get your characters to do virtually anything. In Regency there are strictures.
But yes – I do enjoy history – it feels different. I have written one contemporary but I haven’t published that. So yes, I just like the sense of history I have a history degree.
Jenny: I notice a lot of comments online from foreign language readers. Your books have found their way out of the English language as well.
Sophia: Yes they have. I think historicals generally get picked up. I am published in lots of different languages now – at least 20. And in some places they seem especially popular. I get a lot of fan mail from Brazil, but also from also Germany, Italy, France, and some places where I don’t even recognise my name . . . I am Sophia Jamesova or something! We get sent three foreign language copies when they are published, they come through the post,
Every few weeks something new comes through – quite often – more than once a month. That is one of the lovely things about Harlequin historical. I have got an amazing editor, she is a personal friend as well now. That’s one of the things that so nice if anyone is thinking of publishing with Harlequin Historical.
I would feel quite worried if I was just publishing my book without that support. I usually get ten pages of comment and feedback – not so much about structure, but about continuity, character, historical events. That is one really lovely thing about working for Harlequin Historical.
Jenny: Sounds like a good safety net?
Sophia: Very much so. I suppose I could go and get that comment elsewhere but I trust Linda and I like what she does. I do virtually every revision they ask for. Linda is my main editor but the text is seen by three editors – one a super historical person. So I know three eyes have seen it and I get three set of revisions and comments. It makes me feel better about the book. Occasionally I have seen something published and thought that was a mistake, but not very often.
Jenny: In more general terms (moving away from specific book focus) Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success?
Sophia: I’d been very isolated as a writer when I first started, but then in 1998 the Clendon Award had come out and I entered the Clendon – an award for romance writers in New Zealand – and I won that competition and then joined Romance Writers of New Zealand. I would say that was such a lovely thing for me because all of a sudden there were a whole lot of people who were my tribe.
It sounds a funny thing to say but that was what it was like. I met lots of other fabulous writers and I went to their conferences and I learnt and learnt so many things. I would say if you are starting out as a writer if you are really serious about getting the book out there – its a really scary thing to do, join with other writers.
I remember my first book – posting off the manuscript – I had to have it sent in by a certain date. I didn’t do it and didn’t do it and then one day my husband Pete said “Come on, we’ll go over to Titirangi and have a coffee and you can post that book.” Even putting it through the box – it felt like my baby and were they going to tear it to shreds? I so wanted to be a writer. . . So joining writer’s groups – that was huge for me.
I really think it is hard to do it all by yourself Things like Point of View, and Deep Point of View – just the rules of romance – you have to know the rules before you break them – if you are writing romance.
Jenny: I imagine with all the research you’ve done over the years you know certain parts of London and indeed Europe very well. If you were going to organise a “magical mystery literary” tour for your series are there some special places you would Tripadvise people to go?
Sophia: Lately I have been setting a lot more books in Paris. Paris is a city I know very well, probably better than London really. We have taken art tours – my husband Peter is an artist – and we have taken older New Zealander tours to Europe although we don’t do that so much now, we just go ourselves … But it would be my Paris – the Paris I love.
The one I have just written, Celeste is the heroine – she is coming up through the Palais Royal and I can imagine walking with her through there as we always stay at a hotel just near there at the Timhotel.
Jenny: You mentioned that as part of your non writing life you conducted art tours to Europe with your husband, who is a painter. Have any artists inspired your work?
Sophia: Our trips have been very art related. Of course in Paris places like the Musee D’Orsay are wonderful, but we we were mostly in the south of France where Bonnard, Matisse, and others worked – oh and in Italy too.
I have just written a book Ruined by the Reckless Viscount and the woman in there was an artist So its not so much the paintings that inspire it but the artistic impulse itself. Pete was great when I was doing that book. I could check with him on things an artist would do, so very few minutes I would go and ask him how do you do this… how to do that . . .
Jenny: Pete’s professional name as an artist is?
Sophia: Peter Featherstone, but he’s gone away from painting at present, which is terrible, he needs to get back to it. He’s been drawn off into architecture a bit. He’s been trying to get our family through, with the three children, who are all now big now.
We are building a little house on the front of our place, then he’ll get back into painting. Having him as an artist and having me as a writer, the things that he does and that I do are so similar . . . it is quite inter-related, really all the parts of creativity. We talk a lot about it, and I’ll say I have this problem and he will say “Oh yes I know what’s that like, I find exactly the same thing.” That’s been interesting.
Sophia As reader
Jenny: We’ve mentioned you read Georgette Heyer as a teen and it sounds like you were a keen reader when you were younger. . . Were there other books then or now that you’ve been addicted to – so to speak? You wanted to read everything in the series?
Sophia: I guess all through my life one of the ones that has attracted me like Kathleen Woodiwiss, and then I discovered Judith McNaught, and Julie Garwood. I really enjoy their work. And then I found Diana Gabaldon – she writes such lovely characters. I love her characters, her sense of character, she is so clever. So yes, I think for me she is ‘the one’, I return to her books again and again and now we have The Outlander show on TV, I am really loving it.
Jenny: Circling back to the end from the beginning: We’ve talked about how you got started. At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything?
Sophia: I’ve never put a book out that I’ve thought “I wish I hadn’t written that.” I only write two books a year, so I am not particularly fast. I think going into those competitions early was very good – the Clendon and the Ruby – that was good. So I have no regrets about any of that. I’ve come to a point though, where I am kind of looking at a change. I might veer off and do something that is completely mine.
Jenny; That really brings me to what I was going to ask you next and that’s what’s next for Sophia James . . any current projects?
Sophia: I have had my Mum sick this year, so I have been caring for her, and she passed away so this has been a hard year for me in some ways. In fact I am struggling a bit, I think I am just sad, and I would like to jump out of the historical area for a while and write a book based in New Zealand.
Jenny: Would it be contemporary?
Sophia: No it wouldn’t be. It’s set in the 1930s in Chelsea, Birkenhead (on Auckland’s North Shore). I am having a little bit of a sea change really. and it is actually a book I started a long time ago. I just got so enmeshed in Harlequin historical and producing two books a year. And I do have a life outside of writing, so my time is not unlimited. But I think I might go back even to doing one book a year for Harlequin historical and give myself the chance to try something different.
Jenny: But this new book probably wouldn’t fit the Harlequin guidelines?
Sophia: The Harlequin historical guidelines are pretty clear and it is about the Romance. Yes, as you’ve mentioned, there is research involved, but the main point of the story is the romance. The one I want to write next is not like that really. Yes there is romance in it. But its only an element of the story. It’s about a time and a period and an event. I really enjoy writing for Harlequin, but I can see other things in my future as well.
Jenny: We’re winding up and running out of time Sophia, so how best can readers find you and your books? Are you on social media?
Sophia: I am not very active on social media, but I do have a Facebook page, @sophiajamesauthor and a website, sophiajames.co
I enjoy hearing from readers. I often get fan mail through Harlequin – little letters and cards from readers saying they’ve enjoyed a book. Or emails from readers asking when the next one is coming I guess that’s how I do you it. You know my most important thing to me is to write a good book I try not to spend a lot of time in social media. When I am writing, I’m writing.
Jenny: Thanks so much for joining us today – and all the best with your writing!
Sophia: Thank you for thinking of me for this and it’s been such fun.
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