It isn’t every day you accidentally trap an earl in marriage, nor is it every day that your new husband reveals to you his obsession with the number eight. In her latest historical romance, The Devil Takes a Bride, Julia London explores the unexpected marriage of two lost souls. Grace struggles to find security for her family in a husband, while Jeffrey silently battles obsessions within his own mind. Here, London talks about the challenges faced by those with OCD in the 18th century and her favorite part of marriage-before-romance stories.
Bookish: Our hero Jeffrey suffers from an undiagnosed form of obsessive compulsive disorder. What made you want to write a character with OCD?
Julia London: I had read that Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century writer, probably suffered from OCD and Tourette syndrome. People wrote about his peculiar behavior, but his afflictions were unknown. I thought it would be interesting to take what we know about OCD today and apply it to a historical character. Imagine if there was no information about what was wrong with you: no WebMD to self-diagnose, no protocols for treatment, and people thought you were peculiar. I could see how a young man who moved in the most elite social circles would be desperate to keep his thoughts and habits a secret.
Bookish: Did you have to do a lot of research into OCD or how mental illness was treated during the early 1800s?
JL: I did read a lot about what we know of OCD today. In that time period, any sort of perceived madness was one thing that members of the haut ton could not overcome—so little was known about mental illness and brain injuries, and people feared passing it on to their heirs. Worse, the lack of morals was often blamed as the cause, and worse still, those who had physical conditions people didn’t understand, like epilepsy, were also often considered mad. There was no real treatment other than to lock them away in asylums. I have read about some very primitive attempts to cure people of madness that sound like torture. In The Devil Takes a Bride, I had the doctor try bloodletting on Jeffrey because he didn’t know anything else to do for him.
Bookish: Do your relationships with your sisters resemble the close bond the Cabot sisters, particularly Honor and Grace, share?
JL: My sister and I are very close (my oldest sister passed away a few years ago) and our relationship did inspire the Cabot sisters. My sisters have always been my biggest supporters, and I can always count on them to tell me what I need to know, good or bad. But my sisters and I had normal lives. We didn’t have to pull together to survive, thank goodness. The Cabot sisters were faced with some daunting challenges, but their choices and avenues of problem-solving were hampered in an era when women lived under the rule of men. They were inexperienced in real-life matters because they’d been sheltered. They couldn’t go out and get a job, they had no means to take care of themselves. They knew what the end result had to be for them, but were ignorant about how to get there. As a result, they had to manipulate people around them if they were going to survive in their world, and they stuck together to achieve their mutual goals.
Bookish: You’ve said that you hope to improve with each book that you write. How do you go about achieving that? In what ways have you seen your own writing change since Devil’s Love?
JL: I so hope my technical writing skills have become much stronger since Devil’s Love. I still love that story, but when I look back at the writing, I cringe at a few things. I never aspired to be a creative writer before the bug bit me, so my learning has been on-the-job. I’ve always been a voracious reader, but until you sit down to write, you cannot imagine how difficult it is to capture a reader’s imagination. I have learned so much from editors and agents and reviewers and readers along the way. The challenge I make for myself now with each book is to push the envelope of the story and try to explore more themes—all while keeping the romance front and center. My goal for myself is to create a story that makes the reader want to turn each and every page. I want to write something that doesn’t leave the reader after the last word is read. That is very, very hard to do.
Bookish: Grace is willing to make a major sacrifice for her family. Is there anything you’ve ever sacrificed in the name of people you love?
JL: Sure. To list them here would make me sound like a big whiner—I mean, it’s not like I ever had to sacrifice a house or a career for anyone. I think for all of us, there are periods in our family history in which we have to become someone we might not otherwise be had our family not needed us to be that—for example, a caretaker for an elderly family member. While I’ve made sacrifices that fit into that mold, I’ve never done anything as drastic as what Grace did. I have my limits :-).
Bookish: A lot of romance readers say that they stumbled into the genre (via the books their mothers owned or picked one up out of curiosity), do you have any recommendations for readers who are new to the genre and don’t know where to start?
JL: I’m not fool—I’d probably first recommend The Devil Takes a Bride! And after that self-serving recommendation, I would point them to Mary Balogh for historicals. I have always loved her books and I think she writes with both humor and emotional depth, which is the best of what this genre can offer.
Bookish: What is your favorite part of romances that involve characters who marry because they must and not because they want to?
JL: Oh, it’s such fabulous tension between the characters! Right from the start there is a fascination for how that is going to go for two people. Any reader can relate to being in the shoes of either the hero or heroine and imagine being forced into a marriage with a stranger. What could either character expect? Do they have to sleep with the other? What if their new spouse has some odious habits? What if it appears there will be no warmth in the marriage and it looks as if there is nothing but misery ahead? Is there any escape, physically or emotionally? Every moment is a new is a new experience. Every page can bring a pins and needles challenge. These stories are as much fun to write as they are to read.
Bookish: You’re an avid runner (and half marathon finisher). Does running ever help you work through any writing or plot barriers?
JL: Absolutely. Running solves two writerly problems for me: One, all that hunching over a keyboard can make me stiff and running helps me loosen up. Two, it helps me think through things. There is something about fresh air that clears the clutter from my brain. The funny thing is, I often don’t realize it’s happening until I sit back down with the manuscript. I guess in the course of a run, while I think my attention is on miles and pace and the random sights and sounds around me, the work in progress slips in there without a lot of notice from me. Just this morning I came back knowing what I had to do to an opening scene, but I swear I don’t remember consciously thinking about it while I was running.
Julia London is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than a two dozen romantic fiction novels. She is the author of the popular Secrets of Hadley Green historical romance series, as well as the new Cabot Sisters historical series, including The Trouble with Honor, The Devil Takes a Bride, and The Scoundrel and the Debutante. She is also the author of several contemporary romances, including Homecoming Ranch and Return to Homecoming Ranch. Julia is the recipient of the RT Bookclub Award for Best Historical Romance and a four time finalist for the prestigious RITA award for excellence in romantic fiction. Julia is the recipient of the RT Bookclub Award for Best Historical Romance and a six-time finalist for the prestigious RITA award for excellence in romantic fiction. She lives in Austin, Texas.