Good morning everyone - I hope you are having a fantastic week so far. Today I have the opportunity to welcome Donna Thorland to The Maiden's Court to talk a bit about her new release, Mistress Firebrand. I have thoroughly enjoyed Donna's books, so this was a treat for me. Read on and enjoy!
I love to read novels set in the American Revolution – there are some great stories to tell and the era of intrigue, action, and drama are rife for the creative mind. What led you to choose to write about America in her revolutionary days?
Me too! It’s an amazing era—intrigue and danger and radical politics—but it’s been a tough sell with the general public for the last several decades, and one of the reasons I started writing was to change that. There’s a popular perception that the American Revolution is boring. There are a lot of reasons for that, but a big part of it is the tendency to re-write the Revolution as a story of good guys versus bad guys: resourceful American patriots against arrogant, mustache-twirling redcoats. The truth is that most of the people caught up in the Revolution had deeply conflicted loyalties that changed over time. That’s not just better history, it’s better storytelling. A good number of the British commanders over the course of the war were American sympathizers. And many on the American side weren’t interested in Independence at the beginning of the war. My hope is that the books will get readers—and other authors too—excited about the period in all its complexity—and then you and I will have more books to read!
I sure hope to see that too!
In the description of Mistress Firebrand it indicates that the heroine is on the "hanging list". Does that mean exactly what it sounds like? Were women hanged during the American Revolution?
Mercy Otis Warren was supposedly placed on a "hanging list" for her seditious plays. I’ve seen this referenced a number of places, including in Williamsburg’s online curriculum. I spent a lot of time trying to track this idea down to a primary source, but from what I’ve been able to discover, the existence of the “hanging list” was inferred from letters written by John Adams after the war. The British certainly pursued strategies to capture and hang Rebels like John Hancock and Samuel Adams early in the war, so the idea is certainly credible, and it formed the kernel of the story in Mistress Firebrand. Warren never wrote for the stage or acted. Her plays were intended to be read in pamphlet form or perhaps staged at home in “cabinet” performances. I decided to make Jenny an actress and a playwright because this was the era of truly remarkable women on the Georgian stage, including actress, novelist, playwright and early feminist Mary Robinsons, who served as the model for the character of Jenny’s Aunt Frances, the Divine Fanny.
Did the name of your lead male in Mistress Firebrand have a name change? I remember in promotional material during The Rebel Pirate it described him as Banastre Tarleton, but he now appears to be named Severin Devere. If this is the same character, any significance in the name change?
Wow! You’ve got a fantastic memory! I had wanted Banastre Tarleton, who became Mary Robinson’s lover after the war, to play a larger part in the book since he was one of the many British officers with connections to the theater, but as the story evolved I decided that he was too young and too junior during the main action in Mistress Firebrand to be one of Jenny’s antagonists, and so John Burgoyne stepped forward to fill the role. Tarleton is such a fascinating historical character, though, that he’s going to have to take a leading role in one of my future books. I did manage to sneak him into this one in an un-credited cameo that eagle eyed history buffs will enjoy!
I will have to keep my eyes open!
What would you say is the most useful source you used while writing Mistress Firebrand and why would you classify it as such?
The theater was highly politicized in Early America and especially so during the Revolution. Congress banned the theater and many saw it as a British extravagance, while Washington encouraged his officers to stage amateur theatricals at Valley Forge and the British took over the playhouses in every city they occupied.
As recently as ten years ago there was a dearth of great scholarship on the subject, but a raft of recent publications have changed that. The Oxford Handbook of the Georgian Theatre was a huge help, as was Odai Johnson’s Absence and Memory in Colonial Theater and his Colonial American Stage, 1665-1774: A Documentary Calendar.
With 3 novels under your belt now that are loosely part of the same series, what can you say about the experience? Was any one of them more difficult to write? Why classify them as a series when they are each more of a stand-alone book with distinctly different events and characters?
The books can be read in any order, but there’s a character that recurs throughout the series, the Widow, and her presence links these stories together in a shared world. What they also have in common is that they’re set in a corner of the Revolution that you didn’t hear about in school and they put a smart, resourceful, relatable woman at the center of the action.
My second book, The Rebel Pirate, was the hardest to write, because it takes place in my adoptive home-town of Salem and was inspired by the historical women whose lives I studied while working at the Peabody Essex Museum. I wanted to write something that was faithful to the spirit of their struggles—but that also fulfilled the promise of the swashbuckling premise of Rebel privateers. And of course Salem is a city of scholars and history buffs so I knew I had to get the details right.
The Renegades of the Revolution series was intended to be a trilogy. Is this still the case or are you planning on more adventures set in the American Revolution? If not, anything you can tell us about what you are working on next?
I’m already working on Book 4! The Dutch Girl is going to feature a school teacher heroine and a highwayman hero and it’s set in the almost feudal patroonships of the Hudson River Valley where tenant riots took place throughout the war. I can’t wait to share it with you in March 2016.
Yay! That is super exciting to hear! I can't wait to read it. Keep up the awesome work and thank you for dropping by the blog!
A native of Bergenfield, New Jersey, Donna graduated from Yale with a degree in Classics and Art History. For many years she managed architecture and interpretation at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and wrote and directed the Witch City’s most popular Halloween theater festival, Eerie Events. She later earned an MFA in film production from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Donna has been a sorority house mother, a Disney/ABC Television Writing Fellow, a WGA Writer’s Access Project Honoree, and a writer on the ABC primetime drama, Cupid. Her screenwriting credits include episodes of the animated series, Tron: Uprising. Her short fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Albedo One. The director of several award-winning short films, her most recent project, The Night Caller, aired on WNET Channel 13 and was featured on Ain’t It Cool News. Currently she is a writer on the WGN drama SALEM. She is married with one cat and divides her time between the real Salem and Los Angeles.
British Occupied Manhattan, 1777. American actress Jenny Leighton has been packing the John Street Theater with her witty comedies, but she longs to escape the provincial circuit for the glamour of the London stage. When the playwright General John Burgoyne visits the city, fresh from a recent success in the capitol, she seizes the opportunity to court his patronage. But her plan is foiled by British intelligence officer Severin Devere.
Severin’s mission is to keep the pleasure-loving general focused on the war effort…and away from pretty young actresses. But the tables are turned when Severin himself can’t resist Jenny Leighton…
Months later, Jenny has abandoned her dreams of stage glory and begun writing seditious plays for the Rebels under the pen name “Cornelia,” ridiculing “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne and his army—and undermining the crown’s campaign to take Albany. With Jenny’s name now on the hanging list, Severin is ordered to find her—and deliver her to certain death. Soon, the two are launched on a desperate journey through the wilderness, toward an uncertain future shaped by the revolution—and their passion for each other…
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