Lisa Kleypas has become one of the most successful writers of historical romance fiction working today. But with her latest novel, Rainshadow Road, she departs from her usual nineteenth-century milieu to fashion a charming, deeply felt novel that knits together contemporary romance and magical realism. The following is a transcript of a recent conversation I had with Lisa Kleypas about writing, magic, and the complex emotional world she creates for her characters. --Eloisa James
The Barnes & Noble Review: Rainshadow Road is a deeply moving romantic novel, but it’s definitely not a “paranormal” romance. Your heroine, Lucy Marinn, has the ability to change glass into living creatures, so the shards of a broken ornament turn to “living sparks,” a dancing procession of fireflies, for example. In a paranormal romance, the heroine herself might change shape, though generally into a member of cat family rather than a firefly, but a shape-changer has presumably lived with her feline self for most of her life. Within the context of the world of the romance, her abilities are normal. But Lucy is quite ordinary except that, as you put it, she knows that “the distance between ordinary and extraordinary was only a step, a breath, a heartbeat away.” Why? Why magical realism?
Lisa Kleypas: The surprise of writing this book was how perfectly magic and romance pair together. Magical realism assigns equal value to ordinary things and magic things, so that in the story, a magical event like glass transforming into a firefly is just as reasonable and everyday as two people falling in love. There’s no material gain from Lucy’s skill; she can’t spin straw into gold. Instead, her emotions transform glass into living creatures that symbolize personal transformation. For me, magical realism allows the heroine to have revelatory insight. It underscores emotions that are already present, and signals her transition to new directions.
BNR: Let’s talk about Lucy, for a moment. The book opens with her relationship to Alice, her sister, which is arguably as important to the plot as Lucy’s relationship to Sam, the hero. In fact, we find out quite quickly that Lucy has been dumped — and what’s more, she’s been dumped for her younger sister. The problematic aspects of Lucy’s relationship with her sisters and her parents are very important to the plot. So is this novel really a romance?
LK: Yes. The romance is the heart of the novel, although there is also an intense focus on Lucy’s family dynamic, and her relationship with her sister and parents. The family as a whole has experienced a lot of pain, betrayal, longing for unconditional love.
BNR: Alice is practically a villain. She actively seduces Lucy’s boyfriend out of jealousy.
LK: True. One of the important cornerstones of the novel is how Lucy chooses to react to that situation. Something so heartbreaking can warp a person, turning her into a bitter version of herself. When something terrible happens, how you react determines who you are from then on. I think it was St. Augustine who said that revenge, or resentment, is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies. Lucy faces that choice.
BNR: Lucy seems to have lost control of both her love life and her family life, especially given that her parents side with Alice. So, did you give her the ability to transform glass — magically and as an art form — as a way of controlling an “ordinary”” world that is uncontrollable? In other words, she can control material objects, but she can’t control the people she loves?
LK: To me, it’s more that Lucy has repressed her negative emotions since childhood, because her parents constantly emphasized that it was wrong to feel resentful, jealous, or envious. She gives those feelings expression through art and through the magical quality of the art. We all know that being able to express deep emotion can literally save a person’s life, and suppressing emotion can kill you both spiritually and physically. That’s where the magic comes in: once expressed, Lucy’s emotions becomes visible, a part of the material world.
BNR: So does the magic happen to her or does she make it happen?
LK: Part of the arc of the novel is that at a certain point Lucy begins to control what happens to her glass.
BNR: Why glass?
LK: I was attracted to glass because it’s unique in its material form. It’s neither liquid nor solid. The way glass can be molded or blown or cut into any kind of shape made me think about how we as people — our characters or souls — can be shaped or changed by outside influences. In Lucy’s case, the power of her emotion is the catalyst for the plot. But glass is also a metaphor for her: for the way she could be changed by her response to Alice’s betrayal, for example, or her response to Sam.
BNR: The obvious question for me, then, is how does Lucy gives life to something inert? There’s something of a creation myth here.
LK: No, more of a metaphor for the creation of art.
BNR: So let’s talk about Sam. I have to say, I adored him, but he was extremely cautious at the beginning of the relationship.
LK: Sam, who had two alcoholic parents, has the feeling, as most children of alcoholics do, that any time one begins a relationship, the seeds of destruction are already there: it’s just a matter of time until the relationship dies. So Sam has to go through a huge internal change to get rid himself of this very deep set belief. And ultimately, he comes to the realization that love demands a “leap of faith.”
BNR: Tying that back to magic, are you saying that believing in magic and believing in love are somehow parallel?
LK: Exactly! Sam comes to understand them both at the same moment.
BNR: I haven’t read a great deal of magical realism, but my impression is that, generally speaking, the world is magic, rather than turned magical, if that makes sense.
LK:That’s where romance interlocks so beautifully with magical realism. When you love someone and they love you, they change you. You are completely changed by living with someone and loving them.
BNR: I loved the end, when Sam tells Lucy that he wants her to be the first thing he sees in the morning, and the last thing he sees at night.
LK: He’s only able to say that because he has been changed by Lucy — and she changed by him. Love is always a leap into the unknown. You can try to control as many variables, and understand a situation as you can, but you’re still jumping off a cliff and hoping that someone catches you.
BNR: Lucy will always catch him. Or turn some glass into a bluebird and fly him to safety!
LK: No matter how you look at it, love is a force of nature.
Eloisa James’s latest novel is The Duke Is Mine.