Hello, this is L.M. David. Today, I am interviewing C.P. Lesley, author of The Golden Lynx and Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel. Welcome to my closet in this dungeon. As a historian, Ms. Lesley brought along a fencing foil and did a D’Artagnan on Preston which was really fun to watch until I realized he was wearing a suit he’d charged on my credit card and she had put the eloquent looking initials “C.P.” in the seat of the pants. Does anyone know if I duct taped the seams would the store notice …
Okay, let’s get started so I can make a run to Walmart…
Q. Tell me a bit about yourself.
A. C.P. Lesley is a pen name. I use it to separate my fiction from the far less dramatic stuff that I write as a historian. But the two are connected: the period, settings, characters, and events in The Golden Lynx and its sequels come directly out of my academic interests. The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, too, draws on my experiences in graduate school and my secondary field, which is Europe up to 1800 or so. When not writing and editing, I take classes in classical ballet. I started as an adult, so I’ll never be great, or even good, but it keeps me moving and it’s a lot of fun.
Q. You have two books being discussed in this interview. I say we start with The Golden Lynx. It is a historical novel for ages 14 and up with a word count of 120,000. Impressive. What inspired you to write The Golden Lynx?
A. Most people in Western Europe and the Americas have no idea how fascinating Russian history is. The Golden Lynx and its sequels gave me a chance to share what I know, not just with students but with all kinds of people. And once I began writing fiction seriously, this area seemed like a natural fit for me since I had spent so many years studying it. I especially wanted to explore women’s roles in this period, which varied more widely than modern Westerners tend to believe.
I didn’t intend, when I started out, for it to take so much space telling Nasan’s story. Specifically because I couldn’t assume that my readers would know who the Tatars were or what their relationship with Russia was, I had to add a lot of information without making the novel sound like a history book. When I finished the rough draft, I actually had to cut like crazy to get it back to 120,000 words.
Q. Tell me about the character Nasan.
A. Nasan is a descendant of Genghis Khan, which makes her a princess. At age 16, she is on the brink of marriage—as her mother reminds her about 18 times a day—but she has grown up among the nomads, a world where women live a more active life than in residing inside towns. Nomadic girls learn to ride and to defend themselves; they wrestle cattle and do whatever needs doing, especially when the men are off fighting wars. Nasan is a tomboy who resists growing up, which for a 16th-century princess means marrying and becoming a mother. She justifies her reluctance by appealing to ancient Turkic legends in which warrior heroines marry only men who can defeat them in battle, men they can respect. She also appeals to the ancestral spirits of her clan, the grandmothers, to guide her along the path to achieving her dream: to become such a warrior heroine. But she knows this is unlikely, and when she fails to prevent her younger brother’s murder, she begins to question whether she can fulfill her dream. Then her father orders her to marry the son of their enemy, a Russian nobleman, and she has to adapt to not only a new family but a new culture, a new language, and even a new religion.
Q. The son of her enemy is Daniil. Tell me about his character.
A. The last thing Daniil wants is to marry. He lost his first wife within a year of their wedding; she died in childbirth, as many women and girls did in those days. Since then, he has been enjoying every woman he can lay his hands on—a rather large number, since he’s a good-looking guy, an athlete and a soldier. But as the only son surviving from the vendetta with Nasan’s clan, Daniil has a responsibility to his family to marry and continue their line. So he agrees to the match.
When he meets Nasan, she defies every expectation he has about how women behave. Her combination of passion and femininity appeals to him. And when he discovers that she knows how to fight, that differentiates her from the women he has been toying with and intensifies his attraction to her.
Q. Nasan begins a vigilante justice crusade after rescuing a child. Why would a princess think that way?
A. You’re right: a princess would not normally think that way. And Nasan doesn’t either. She gets there in stages. She has seen her younger brother killed, and she blames herself for having failed to save him. At first, she goes out at night because nightmares make it impossible for her to sleep. As she encounters people in trouble, she helps them, which makes her feel better, as if she is atoning for the mistake she made by not saving her brother. When she gets to Moscow and feels abandoned by everyone she knows, including her new husband, she falls back on the same method of giving meaning to her life. It lets her reconnect with the part of herself that she has no way to express in her marriage. Only when she sees two people she dislikes engaged in suspicious behavior does she set out to stop them from committing a crime.
Q. What would draw a 14-year-old to read The Golden Lynx?
A. Nasan is 16, married to a 19-year-old. She lives in a different time and another part of the world, but she has a lot of the same problems that any teenager has. Her mother and mother-in-law are always on her case, trying to get her to act like the perfect lady. Her father orders her around and makes plans without consulting her. Adults spend most of their time telling her what to do. The hot guy she’s married seems to be fooling around with another girl. She has to deal with her mean sister-in-law. And Nasan doesn’t take these things lying down. She fights back; she stands up for her right to define her own identity as a woman.
Q. What was your favorite part of The Golden Lynx?
A. That’s a hard one. It’s like my child, you know: it can do no wrong. But I think my favorite part is the moments when Nasan and Daniil interact directly. That’s not as much of the book as I would like it to be, since she could hardly racket around Moscow with a secret identity if he were right there in the room every night. But they have four more books to go, so they have plenty of interacting ahead.
Q. Let’s move to the next book, The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, what inspired you to write it?
A. I actually wrote this one before The Golden Lynx. I read the original Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy, when I was 14 and loved it. It’s about a guy who seems to think about nothing but clothes but he’s really a swashbuckling hero who saves people from the guillotine during the French Revolution. In 2005, Penguin put out a centennial edition, and I read it again. I loved it just as much, but I found myself retelling the story in my head, imagining myself as the heroine, Marguerite, and thinking about what I could do to fix her conflict with her husband. Eventually I decided to write my version down. The original is in the public domain, so I was able to use it without violating anyone’s copyright. But only about 10% of my book actually comes from Baroness Orczy; the rest is my invention.
Q. Nina Pennington is a history buff. Tell me about her.
A. Nina grew up in a Russian immigrant family with just her mother, her grandmother, and her older sister, who is both the family beauty and, as a ballerina, the family star. Nina has taken refuge in books, because she believes that she can’t measure up to her older sister. To make matters worse, her father left the family when Nina was six, and she has had an on-and-off relationship with him since. That, coupled with a string of boyfriends who didn’t work out and her awareness of how her mother and grandmother struggled to make ends meet, has convinced Nina that men are unreliable. So she has decided to focus on her career, which means that she has a strong motive for wanting to find the right dissertation adviser to push that career forward. When her chosen professor casts her as Marguerite, a London fashion plate, in a virtual reality game based on The Scarlet Pimpernel, that represents a big challenge for Nina, since Marguerite is pretty much her exact opposite in terms of what each of them values in life.
Q. Tell me a bit about the character Ian.
A. Ian comes from a large and loving family; he is the eldest of five boys. His parents came from Scotland, but he grew up in Chicago. Like Nina, he is studying for a doctorate in French revolutionary history, which puts them in competition with each other, but when the book opens, Ian seems to be winning the competition (that’s why Nina dislikes him). I don’t want to say too much about his background, because the story is told entirely from Nina’s point of view, so we see Ian only through her eyes and we learn about him as she does. What I will say is that in the game, Ian plays Sir Percy, the Scarlet Pimpernel and the estranged husband of Nina’s character, which throws the two of them together, annoying Nina no end.
Q. In this story, Nina, Ian, and a college profession enter a virtual reality video game. How did you come up with this concept?
A. I didn’t want to do a straightforward time-travel novel, because The Scarlet Pimpernel is fiction, not history—and besides, time travel is kind of a cliché. I needed something that would put people into the book but still let them alter it, and computers seemed like the obvious way to do that. When I began writing the book, back in 2006, the technology to produce the kind of experience that Nina and Ian and their friends have seemed far-off, but now we have wireless refrigerators and smartphones everywhere, so I figure it’s only a matter of time before there’s an app for that.
Q. In both books, your female characters are strong-willed, solid characters. Do you see them as role models for the age group these books were written for?
A. I write strong female characters because I can’t stand to read about weak, whiny women. Of course, women often had little choice historically—even in the present, in many places—but as a historian I know that women can exercise power in ways that don’t necessarily draw attention to themselves. The two mothers in The Golden Lynx are also strong female characters. Other characters in The Golden Lynx are not, but they will get there before the series ends. A couple of reviewers have criticized my characters as too modern for this reason, but in fact I put a lot of research and effort into making them historically accurate. People just tend to assume that women in the past were downtrodden, which was not always true, especially among the elite.
As for them being role models, yes, I hope they are. Not in the sense of swinging a sword or stringing a bow, but in the sense of being true to yourself while balancing your own needs against those of others and the demands of your society—I think that’s a lesson everyone needs to learn.
Q. Do you have a current work in progress?
A. The Golden Lynx is book one of a five-part series. Right now, I’m halfway through the first draft of book 2, The Winged Horse. Mostly it involves Nasan’s older brother and his attempt to claim the young woman promised to him six years earlier, despite the efforts of a disgruntled half-brother to grab the girl and leadership of her nomadic horde. Nasan and Daniil appear in a side plot set in the independent khanate (kingdom) of Kazan. There’s lots of politicking, races, duels, assassination attempts, and stampedes. And quite a bit of romance, although the characters don’t really think in those terms.
Q. What is the greatest challenge when writing books slated for 14 years and up?
A. I didn’t set out to write books specifically for teenagers, and I think these wouldn’t fit into the Young Adult (YA) category as currently defined. I don’t dumb down the language or make any particular concessions to a younger readership. In part, that is because YA books didn’t exist when I was 14–18, so I read anything that interested me—including The Scarlet Pimpernel. I list books for that age range because they are books I would have read and loved at 14 and because the teenagers I know who have read them enjoy them. So the only thing I might consider a challenge is calibrating the amount of sex and violence. But since I try to limit those things anyway, that is not a big problem.
Q. What advice would you give writers who are starting?
A. Just to realize that it takes a lot of practice to write well, and even to recognize what good writing is. So be prepared to stick with it for the long haul, read and analyze other people’s books, study the craft, and find other writers to help you. Some people say you have to write a million words before you produce something competent. (At five drafts each, I have that many in just these two books—never mind the failures that came before.) So the first draft of your first book will probably be horrible, even if it doesn’t seem so at the time. Just keep learning and revising, and eventually you’ll get there.
And before I go, let me say thank you for inviting me. I really enjoyed thinking about the questions you asked. As for your pest problem, I would hate to let your resident vampyre get even a hint of Sir Percy, because you will never see your credit card again so best of luck keeping Preston away from him! Oh, and sorry about the pants…
C. P. Lesley, a historian, is the author of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel and The Golden Lynx, volume one of a five-part series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible. She is currently working on book 2, The Winged Horse.
“Historical Novelist Tackles the Internet Age,” is at http://blog.cplesley.com.
And information on C.P. Lesley’s books can be obtained through the publisher: http://www.fivedirectionspress.com/books/