Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Review of "Sea of Secrets" and Interview With Author Amanda DeWees

Published:  2013
Setting:  Historical

Oriel Pembroke's father had never been fond of her plain looks and her subtle ways.  But after her brother (the only ally of her simple existence) is killed at war, Oriel finds herself completely disowned by the cold leer of her father, whom makes light of the fact that Oriel's mother committed suicide soon after she was born.   With only the clothes on her back and the resounding mystery of her mother's premature death, Oriel leaves in hopes of finding a place to belong, or finding acceptance at the least.

Her search leads her to the family of her long-dead mother, one she's never known until now.  Duchess of Ellsworth boldly insists that Oriel must come reside with them in Ellsmere, a sprawling, haunting mansion overlooking the sea.  Once there, Oriel is whisked into a glamorous life of new dresses that replace the drab gray of her simple gowns, elegant dinners, and a strange magnetic attraction to Heron, the eccentric, dark, handsome duke that seems to take her under his wing in his own way.

Yet, all is not as calm and serene as it seems.  Heron is haunted by visions that his father was killed in cold murder.  He believes in these whims so much so that he holds vigil on the rooftop of Ellsmere each night amongst the chimney stacks and shadows, awaiting an omen from his dead father.  Wracked by the same grief and darkness not unknown to Oriel, they find a strange comfort in the pain of one another, that is, until Oriel's father steps back into the picture.  He will bring with him truth and scandal, answers to long-buried secrets, and the long-drawn echo of murder...

As Oriel struggles against the cobwebbed corners of past and present, nightmare and reality, of love and compassion, of truth and lies...she also struggles to find a love to call her own...a warm place in a world that has shunned her with it's cold shoulder of lies and betrayals, and worst of all, death.

The story of Oriel is a haunting, gripping saga that will keep you flipping the pages long after you've turned the lights out for the night.  A story eloquently wrapped in imagery and descriptions so vivid you'll feel as if you've found a portal into the historical setting. A beautiful story of a woman coming to terms with the reality of her destiny and the power of the past, an eerie setting rich in closeted skeletons, murder, and mystery...a historical Gothic romance written in the style of Holt and Whitney, and one you most certainly do not want to miss!

Rating:  5 Stars

I was honored (okay, I was ecstatic) when Amanda was generous enough to offer me a bit of time out of her busy life to allow for an interview!  I tried to compile a list of questions that we all wish we could personally ask our favorite author, and in this case, I actually got to!  Please enjoy the following interview with award-winning gothic author Amanda DeWees:

Stacy:  Currently the author of five books, how far back does your interest in writing go? How long have you been writing? 

Amanda:  I've been writing ever since I was small—at least, I was starting stories at a young age; finishing them didn't come until later. Being a writer is my oldest and most passionately held ambition, even though there have been stretches of my life when I wasn't able to actively pursue it. 

Stacy:  Two of your books are written under the genre of Gothic Romance (which totally delights me, and the rest of gothic romance fans I'm sure, since the genre has become a rare item in the past 20 years or so).  What first piqued your interest in creating captivating stories of mystery and romantic suspense?  Were you inspired by other gothic romance writers, or books?

Amanda:  I grew up loving mysteries, starting with Nancy Drew and working my way up to everyone from Ellis Peters to Lawrence Block. I've also loved ghost stories and creepy tales for as long as I can remember... and I'm an eternal romantic and adore a good love story. I was thrilled when I discovered the genre of gothic romance, because it combined all of those elements. The classic gothic authors were big influences on me—the Bront√ęs, Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt—but I particularly loved the late Barbara Michaels's gothics, because she found ways to keep the formula fresh and exciting. I loved seeing how she played with the genre conventions to keep readers guessing and introduced humor into what can sometimes seem a doom-laden genre.

Stacy:  Oh, some of my favorite authors, which brings me to this question, which I'm sure you saw coming from a mile away!  Who are your favorite gothic romance and mystery writers?  What are a few of your favorite titles?  Which writer/book served as most influential to your own interest in writing?

Amanda:  I can't single out just one, but I particularly love Sons of the Wolf and The Master of Blacktower by Barbara Michaels. Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn is one that I love even more than Rebecca, and I never, ever get tired of Jane Eyre. I also grew up devouring books by Phyllis Whitney, Joan Aiken, and Charlotte Armstrong, many of which had gothic elements. I believe I learned something from all of those books that was valuable when it came to writing my own. Every time something I read made me angry or disappointed, it made me think about why it didn't work for me; and, conversely, when I fell in love with a book it was a valuable lesson in what works in a novel... for me, at least!

Stacy:  Yes, I think that those of us who write well were first voracious readers!  I'm always fascinated by how well authors integrate the twists and turns of a good gothic romance novel.  In 'Sea of Secrets' I am particularly enthralled with your eloquent imagery and descriptions as well as your intimate dialogue between characters.  What element do you find is most difficult in writing a novel?  How have you overcome this difficulty over time?

Amanda:  Besides plain old self-discipline, which is always elusive, I'd say my biggest challenge is plotting—particularly in the very earliest stages, when there are so many, many decisions to be made, every one of which may later turn out to be problematic. I'm fortunate in having a wonderful network (both virtual and terrestrial) of author friends who serve as sounding boards and help me brainstorm. It also helps that as time passes and I get more books under my belt, I become more confident that I actually will be able to think up enough story to fill another book!

Stacy:  I was fascinated by your 'afterword' in your novel 'Sea of Secrets.'  I always find it interesting the vast variety of educational backgrounds that writer's have and how that parallels their interest in writing.  I was impressed with your educational endeavors.  For those who have not yet read 'Sea of Secrets' enlighten us just a little on your past educational experiences, degrees, expertise?

Amanda:  Certainly! As an undergrad I studied English literature and creative writing. I have a PhD in English literature from the University of Georgia, where I studied under Dr. Anne Williams, a wonderful scholar of gothic literature. My dissertation looked at 19th-century vampire fiction and poetry, starting with the Romantic poets and continuing through the wave of vampire writing that followed the publication of Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1897. So my academic life definitely prepared me for a future of writing gothic romances.

Stacy:  English lit and gothic literature...two things I hold dear to my own heart. I loved how you mentioned that a recent appreciation of Shakespeare inspired your writing of 'Sea of Secrets.'  Can you tell me in what ways the main characters of your novel, particularly Oriel and her plight for love and an identity of her own, are reminiscent of Shakespeare's Ophelia?

Amanda:  Hmm, it's difficult to say much without spoiling the plot! Sea of Secrets is very consciously modeled on Hamlet, which I think most readers will figure out fairly early on, and although I make some drastic changes there are also some clear parallels. Oriel is fascinated by the sea, which should call up echoes of her Shakespearean counterpart's death by drowning, and she is also deeply in love with a brooding young man who is so preoccupied with thoughts of death and betrayal that she comes to fear for his sanity. Shakespeare's Ophelia has a pretty rotten time of it, honestly, and I've always found her story deeply poignant. She's at the mercy of all the other people in her life and has so little power to make decisions for herself. I was glad to be able to give Oriel more agency and more options than Ophelia was granted.

Stacy:  Speaking of Oriel, I found myself endlessly commiserating with her in the unfortunate (and later fortunate) events that unwound around her.  Did you often find yourself feeling a strong sense of compassion for your main character and rooting for her to finally find her happy ending?  Do you ever struggle with guilt or feelings of unease when you put a character (especially one as endearing as Oriel) through some trying events?  Do you think this compassion helps or hinders the writing process?

Amanda:  That's an excellent question. It can be terribly hard to put beloved characters through trauma, but without pain there's no story. As a reader I hate to see characters tormented, so as a writer I have to turn off my reader brain. I had a bit of a breakthrough in this area when I was writing my second young-adult novel, Casting Shadows. I knew I was going to bring heartbreak to some of my characters, and at first I shrank from it. But when I realized how powerful the story became when I put the characters through agony, I was able to stop seeing them through a reader's eyes and be the ruthless writer I needed to be.

At that point I actually began to get a little drunk with power. Maybe it's how George R.R. Martin feels when he puts his characters (and readers) through the wringer! My best friend, who has wonderful story instincts, had to tell me I was going a little overboard. And it can still be difficult to find that balance, the "right" degree of suffering to cause a character. I think one of the most important things that allows me to put my characters through painful experiences is the knowledge that I do ultimately have happiness in store for them. It may be a long time coming—it may even have to wait until another book altogether—but I am a firm believer in happy-ever-after. For most of my characters, at least.

Stacy:  Now, you recently have debuted your second Gothic Romance, 'With This Curse.'  Without spoiling it for those of us who haven't been lucky enough to finish it just yet, would you tell us a bit about the book and its main character?  

Amanda:  With This Curse started with one of my favorite romance tropes, the marriage of convenience. The heroine, Clara, used to be a chambermaid at Gravesend Hall, which is widely believed to be cursed, until at age seventeen she was thrown out for having fallen in love with the younger son of the house. She's been on her own ever since, and like most women who had to make their way alone in Victorian England, she's had a rough time. She's definitely a survivor, but when Gravesend's heir, Atticus Blackwood, approaches her to propose a marriage of convenience, she has no idea what she's getting herself into.

I had a lot of fun with Atticus and Clara, because they are in some ways the reverse of the usual gothic archetypes of hero and heroine. Clara is in the position of the traditional gothic hero, since she's distrustful and emotionally scarred from a tragic past, whereas Atticus has more of the optimistic and open-hearted nature that is usually seen in the heroine... or at least he does until a mysterious and drastic change takes place. (Cue foreboding orchestral music.) In the early chapters, though, they have a definite "odd couple" dynamic, and I think readers will really enjoy their interplay.

Stacy:  Oh wow, I can't wait to read about Atticus and Clara, it's on my 'to be read' list already.  But do you feel that this, being your second gothic romance, was a little easier to wrap your mind (and pen) around than, perhaps, the very first?

Amanda:  Actually, the opposite was the case! It had been some years since I wrote Sea of Secrets, and in the meantime I'd been writing young-adult novels that take place in a modern-day high-school setting in North Carolina... a far, far cry from Victorian gothic romance. To tell the truth, I was nervous about returning to the genre. It was so exciting to find that I still feel at home in the Victorian period and in gothic surroundings, and ultimately I wound up feeling that With This Curse is my strongest book yet.

Stacy:  It does sound like quite a read, I'm sure it's being well-received by fans of gothic romance.  As for future books, do you have any stories just boiling beneath the surface?  How soon do you think we can expect another read from you?  (Yes, we're greedy.  Heh.)

Amanda:  I definitely have more books planned—more gothic romances in particular! I'm working on a short story that will serve as a prequel to With This Curse, and I'm also planning a spin-off novel about one of the supporting characters. She's so un-gothic that I can't resist the challenge of plopping her down in gothic surroundings to see how she copes. Further down the line is a gothic trilogy that I don't want to reveal too much about just yet, as well as the likelihood of more books in my Ash Grove young-adult series.

Stacy:   I think a personal challenge is a great way to ensure self-discipline for daily writing.  I was so impressed by your writing that I have to ask:  have you received any notable awards for your writing thus far (as you certainly deserve!). If so, what were they?

Amanda:  As far as honors go—and thank you for the compliment!—a couple of my short stories have won prizes at the Agnes Scott College Writers' Festival, and Sea of Secrets was a finalist in the published historical category of the Maggies, a prominent romance award. Sea of Secrets also won the 2012 RONE (Reward of Novel Excellence) in the mystery category, and one of my young-adult novels is a nominee in the 2013 RONEs.

Stacy:  How exciting!  I always find the personal lives of writers interesting.  Can you tell us a few of your favorite personal hobbies beyond reading/writing?  

Amanda:  Acting has always been my greatest love after writing, and I know that all my time on stage has been very helpful to me in writing. I'm also fascinated by historical fashion and costume design (you'll notice a lot of fashion details in my gothics), and although I don't know if it counts as a hobby as much as an obsession, I've been a professional editor for years. I couldn't stop correcting apostrophe usage now if my life depended on it.

Stacy:  I"m not sure how you even find the time for all these interests, I commend you.  And  I did notice how well-detailed the dresses and fashion were in Sea of Secrets!  And as for my last question, being a professional writer yourself, what do you feel is your very best piece of advice to give to an aspiring writer who is, perhaps, just working on the first draft of their first attempt at a book of their own?

Amanda:  Learn, learn, learn. Read in your genre and read about craft. You will have to decide for yourself what will strengthen your work and what won't, but the deciding is in itself an illuminating process. It's also incredibly valuable to find a person who will read your work with an understanding of your goals and give you honest feedback about how close you come to reaching them. Just make sure it's someone who knows and loves your genre!

Pictured here is Amanda DeWees.

I'd like to thank Amanda again for her time and the opportunity to converse with her personally and to review her books.  With This Curse is her latest, newly-released gothic romance and is currently available for purchase.  Please check back in coming weeks for a full review of this book!