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WCW: Nola Saint James

I had the opportunity interview author Nola Saint James about her new book, Anarchy at Almacks, a Regency-era historical romance that follows three red-headed sisters, Rowan, Ivy, and Willow, as they officially enter London society. Readers will fall in love with the romance between Rowan and Lord Maximillian Browning. Anarchy at Almacks is the first installment in a series about the sisters as they try to find love in a society that is more likely to see women as possessions than people.

As if being a romance novelist weren’t interesting enough, readers might be surprised to know that Nola Saint James is the pen name of Rabbi Dr. Jo David, who has been teaching Torah in New York since 1992.

Read on to learn more about Anarchy at Almacks, what being a Rabbi has in common with fiction writing, and what advice Rabbi Jo – aka Nola – has for fellow writers.

(Interview has been edited for clarity and length).

Q. One of the things I loved the most about Anarchy at Almacks is how sumptuous the setting is. Fashion, hairstyles, scenery, furniture, interiors of homes, etc.: it’s all so vivid and decadent. How were you able to bring these settings to life in such amazing detail? What was your research process like?

A. I try to write books that I would want to read. I love the kind of detail that makes me feel I can “see” the world about which the author has written. Some years ago, when I decided to write about England in the 18th and 19th centuries, I started to collect books about that period. I especially looked for books with lots of pictures. Although it is possible to get quite a bit of information on the internet, there’s nothing like pulling a book off one’s bookshelf and studying a picture close up.

I think of my stories as plays. Just as in a play, the setting of each scene is a character in and of itself. That’s where my imagination comes in. I think of what I want the setting to communicate. Then I go about adding the appropriate details. When I have written that scene, I go back and fact check all the details. For example, if a scene is set in a private library, what books would that family have collected? Is the collection generational, going back hundreds of years, or were the books recently acquired? I think these details add to the richness and memorability of the story.

I also try to attend lectures – either in person or online – that are about the broad Regency period that I write about — 1780-1840. I recently attended a lecture sponsored by The Royal Oak Foundation about Jane Austen’s Bath. The next volume of the Edanmore Chronicles is Bedlam in Bath, which takes place in 1804 in that city. The lecture was a wonderful opportunity to see and hear information that might not be available in a book, and to talk to an expert in this area.

Q. Something I really admired about Anarchy at Almacks is the way it mirrors, in some ways, novels that were written by women in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth-centuries, especially Jane Austen. Was this intentional? How did you balance representation of historical regency novels with the trends of today's readers?

A. I very much wanted to create an early 19th century novel for 21st century readers. Austen was writing “popular” novels. She wrote for contemporary early 19th century readers. Those readers understood, in ways that we cannot, nuances of the plot and the language that she employed to tell her story. The cultural context of the stories did not have to be explained to her readers.

Austen’s understanding of her audience is what makes her books so wonderful. However, for modern readers, Austen can be difficult reading. For one thing, her sentences tend to be quite long and convoluted. Modern readers are used to shorter, punchier writing.

In Anarchy at Almacks, I wanted to give my readers a snapshot of early 19th century England against which I could place a timeless romance trop — love at first sight. I presented the story in modern language. In order to properly present the essence of the time period, however, I worked very hard to make sure that modern idioms didn’t crop up.

Every couple of sentences, I would find myself looking up a phrase that I had used. For example, I had written the term “birds and the bees,” in referring to how one might be introduced to procreation. When I researched the development of this phrase, the most authoritative-seeming citation dated this to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, "Work Without Hope." This poem was published in 1825, much too late for my story. Then I read the poem and realized that Coleridge did not use the term “birds and bees” in the way that I had meant it in my story! I deleted the “birds and bees” reference and expressed the idea in another way.

With respect to what readers want and require today, I think a good story is a good story no matter what the time period. People read romance fiction to escape their everyday lives. I think that this is why historical romance is so popular.

Q. Talk to me about Anarchy at Almacks' origin story. What inspired you to take the plunge and write the first draft?

A. I’ve been writing ever since my parents put me in front of Remington typewriter at the age of three and said, “Go.” I’ve had several non-fiction books published, a number of poems and numerous articles. As a marketing and creative director (my first career), I wrote everything under the sun, including an award-winning promotional film.

I always wanted to write novels on a full-time basis, but never had the focus to sustain a novel. About 15 years ago, I had a dream about a man who could turn into a raven. I got up that morning and wrote down as much of the dream as I could remember. At the time, I was recovering from post 9/11 PTSD and I wasn’t working. After breakfast, I sat down at the computer and began writing what became the first of my Ravenscrofft novels, The Curse of the Ravenscrofft Brides. I’ve been writing fiction ever since.

In Book Two of the Ravenscrofft Chronicles, The Earl’s Revenge, there was a minor character, Bertram Higbee. (I hope that we will bring out this series next year.) Bertram was the youngest of eight sons of a somewhat eccentric baron who basically ruled an island in the Celtic Sea. The baron also had three daughters with his second wife. I fell in love with Bertram and his family. He is the hero of Book Three in the Ravenscrofft series.

“Write a 40,000 word novella,” said Jim, my creative partner. “It will take you a month and we can turn it around in another month or so.”

It was the summer of 2023. I had the idea that if I wrote three novellas about Bertram’s three sisters, we could publish them individually and then produce a volume of all three. I already had worked out the back story for Bertram’s entire family. I was also interested in working on a “ballroom” story. None of my novels, so far, had been focused on the Season. I thought it would be fun to explore what would happen if three beautiful, exotic sisters made their come outs at the same time.

It was Jim’s idea that we add the illustrations to convey the reading experience of 19th century novels for modern readers. Besides being a brilliant editor, Jim is an Austen scholar and the author of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 61 Haiku, to which I wrote the introduction for the second edition.

Q. You write Regency romances under the name Nola Saint James, but this nom de plume is just one facet of your identity. What does Nola have in common with Rabbi Dr. Jo David?

A. Nola and Rabbi Jo both love everything about books, especially books that you can hold in your hand as you turn the pages – whether it’s the Torah or an uncut edition of Dickens.

As both Nola and Rabbi Jo, I was heavily influenced by my parents. My father, Stan Marx, was a founder of the American Lewis Carroll Society, a book collector and, later in life, a dealer in rare and out-of-print books. Both my parents were Anglophiles. If it was English, they were all in.

My mother was the child of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. Like many children of immigrants, she identified strongly as an American. She aspired to live the kind of upper-class, privileged life that she saw depicted in the movies of the 1930’s and 40’s. From her, I came to understand what it is to lead an aspirational life. To me, leading an aspirational life meant doing what I could to help make the world a better place, a philosophy that ultimately inspired me to become a rabbi.

Additionally, both Nola and Rabbi Jo are storytellers who look for connections between the past and present. As Nola, I write new stories that I hope will entertain and encourage readers to see themselves and their lives in new, helpful ways. As Rabbi Jo, I excavate Torah stories from layer upon layer of teachings that have kept readers from seeing the stories’ original meanings. In delving into what can be known about the social and political climates in which these books were created, it is possible to see the “old” stories cast into different shapes with different meanings.

Similarly, I set my fiction in the Regency era because I love the elegance and culture of the period. It was a time when society was changing. Women were beginning to challenge their status as chattel and make choices for themselves. (I am a feminist practically from birth.) It was a time when scientific advances were beginning to happen at a rapid pace and when great books were being written. It was a time of great potential, not unlike the period in which we live today.

Q. Any advice or words of wisdom for writers who are struggling?

A. Don’t give up! Everyone has an interesting story to tell. There are many different ways to tell your story: tell it your way. Try to live your most expansive life with the broadest possible parameters. Sometimes we struggle because we are shutting ourselves down and limiting our thinking. “Yes” is generally a better response than “no,” even if it leads you into areas beyond your comfort zone (as long as the yes doesn’t lead you to something physically or emotionally dangerous.) People talk about “thinking outside the box,” but I believe that throwing out the notion of a box is even better. Open yourself to possibility and new experiences. Taking a chance on something and not having it work out is not failure. It is a learning experience. Brush yourself off and move on. Find someone whose life and work inspires you and make them your beacon. When you’re struggling, ask yourself what that person would do. And finally, in the words of Galaxy Quest, “Never give up! Never surrender.”

Interested in learning more about Nola Saint James and Anarchy at Almacks? Click HERE to visit her website and order the book!

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