The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal
Short form: Mary Robinette Kowal is a fabulous writer, her Glamourist Histories series is award-winning, and the latest, Valour and Vanity, is wonderful, and has gathered acclaim and starred reviews (I am biased toward Mary, who is one of my best friends, but this does not mean all the above is not also true). Here she is to tell you about what’s at the heart of Valour and Vanity — and what it is may surprise you.
MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL:
The elevator pitch for Valour and Vanity is pretty simple, “Jane Austen writes Ocean’s Eleven. With magic.” So it’s a Regency-era heist novel of manners.
The way I got there was slightly more complicated though.
It’s like this: What I love about writing these books is actually the relationship between Jane and Vincent. I really like having a happily married couple in the leading role because, darn it, romance and adventure don’t stop just because you tie the knot. Conflict doesn’t stop either, but it changes.
When I wrote the book, my husband and I were in a period where we had just moved to NYC and he was having trouble finding work, so I was supporting us on my theater income. To say money was tight… well. Our marriage was strong, but the outside forces tricky, especially the societal ones that still tend to frown on men being supported by their wives. I wanted to explore that.
As an elevator pitch, it’s on the dull side.
So I masked it, by developing a high-concept plot for the outside forces that put stress on the marriage. In the first chapter, my main characters are attacked by pirates and lose everything. This is 1817 and they are en route to Venice. In the best of possible conditions, it would take a month for a letter asking for help to get from Venice to London and another month back.
Compare that to today, when you can call or email and get bailed out of a jam pretty darn fast. You pretty much have to handle things yourself, and that involves finding some way to make money, get shelter, and just survive for months.
Given the circumstances, the most natural thing for Vincent to do is to try to recover their money, and that kicks off the heist novel.
Usually when I write the Glamourist Histories novels, I read a lot of period literature. While I did read Lord Byron’s letters for this, I also watched a ton of heist movies. I did a plot analysis of them and made a list of the elements that compose a good heist. This provided my plot structure. It included things like:
- Assembling the team
- Casing the joint
- Practicing the plan
- Plan goes wrong
- Car chases
I also made a separate list of set pieces, and scenes I wanted to write. Things like:
- Gondola Chase
- Lord Byron swimming the canal
- Italian nuns kicking ass
- Using glamour to mask a room
I matched my set pieces up with my plot structure and then filled in the gaps in between them to come up with an outline. But underneath all of this, I have Jane and Vincent and their relationship as my anchor.
So in some ways, the entire novel is really a long con. It feels like you’re reading a heist, but really this is a story about marriage.
With gondola chases. And magic.