interviews / Q&A's

Meet Mary Jo Putney – The Literary Lounge Q&A

MJP-1579LR-Color--pic 2aMary Jo Putney is a leading historical-romance writer. The recipient of many awards, ‘MJP’, as she is known affectionately to her fans, won the prestigious RWA Nora Roberts’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.

Born in Upstate New York, Mary Jo developed a love of reading at an early age. Her favourite authors included Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart and Dorothy Dunnet, all of whom she has stated have influenced her writing. She also loved science-fiction and fantasy literature, especially Robert A. Heinlein, often referred to as the ‘dean of science-fiction writing’. Mary Jo went on to study 18th-century British literature and industrial design at Syracuse University, New York.

She began writing Regencies in the mid-1980s. Encouraged by a friend, she sent off chapters of her first book to an agent, who forwarded them on to Hilary Ross at Signet. The Diabolical Baron was published in 1987 – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Mary Jo is particularly known today for her series titles, which tend to focus on maverick men with strong friendship networks. An example of this is ‘The Lost Lords’ series, whose characters are linked by their attendance at Westerfield Academy. She also tackles subjects many other peer writers avoid, such as addiction – as seen in one of our personal Mary Jo favourites, the standalone book The Rake, (originally The Rake and The Reformer; 1998), in which male protagonist Reginald Davenport has to tackle his alcoholism before he can let himself be with the woman he loves. Reginald brings to mind Georgette Heyer’s charismatic Lord Damerel  (Venetia; 1958), a man who becomes a better version of himself through his love for a ‘good woman’ and his belief that he can’t be worthy of her until he reforms his ways.

Mary Jo very kindly took the time to answer some of The LS’s questions.



Q&A – Mary Jo Putney


LS: Firstly, Mary Jo, a warm welcome to The Literary Lounge.


Q: Who or what first inspired you to start writing books?

Mary Jo: I always had stories in my head. When I bought a computer and learned how to use a word processor, I realized that I finally had the tool that could enable me to put those stories down on paper because with a computer, once you fix a typo, it stays fixed!


Q: I believe you studied 18th-century British literature and industrial design. How has this background helped you (if, at all) write?

Mary Jo: The English degree reflected my love of reading, and the 18th-century concentration showed my continuing interest in history. I earned my living as a designer for years, but there are interesting parallels with writing. A good design, like a good plot, is so well structured that you don’t even see that – it just seems right. So the creative work I did to design well was good training for plotting well. I like to think that the design degree supported me for the first half of my life, and the English degree is taking care of the second half.


Q: You lived and worked in Britain for The New Internationalist, I believe. What did you like most about being here?

Mary Jo: I lived in Oxford, which was wonderful. I spent over two years there, and it gave me a much better understanding of the world because assumptions and culture are different in another country, even one that is closely related to my own. The first year in Britain, I tended to see more of the differences. In the second year, I fell in love with what was uniquely British. I miss all kinds of things! I loved the fact that a Sunday drive was a journey through history. Plus, since I visited just about every part of Britain (and some of Ireland) while there, I developed a sense of what the different parts of the country looked like. This has been very useful to me as a writer.


Q: How long did it take you to write your first novel? Was it in the romantic fiction genre? Was it published?

Mary Jo: It took seven or eight months to write my first book, which was a traditional, Georgette Heyer-ish Regency romance. It was sold on a partial manuscript and published as The Diabolical Baron.


Q: Do you do all the research for your books yourself? Do you visit the locations in which you set your books?

Mary Jo: I do my own research, and one of the fun parts is picking the brains of experts. I’ve been to a number of the British locations, but I’ve done several books with Asian settings – a rescue mission to Bokhara [Bukhara in modern-day Uzbekistan], journeys through India, China, and the East Indies –and for those I’ve had to rely strictly on research.


Q: How important is historical accuracy to you? Is plot more important than historical context?

Mary Jo: I think a writer owes it to her readers and her professional craft to try to get the history right. That said, there are gray areas where we simply don’t know everything that happened, and that can be useful for constructing stories. For example, it wasn’t common for a woman to be a steward of an estate, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. Other times, an author might tweak a piece of history for plot purposes and explain that in a historical note. I’m fine with that, too. But not even trying to get things like aristocratic titles correct is just wrong!


Q: Do you prefer writing standalone books or books in series?

Mary Jo: My series writing career began with my second book, when I decided to make the hero a friend of the hero of my first book. I naturally tend to think of networks of characters who become part of a growing community.


Q: You’ve said that inspiration is everywhere. Where did the inspiration for ‘The Lost Lords’ series come from?

MJP: I find strong male friendships rather sexy and romantic, because a man who cares deeply for his friends can care equally as much for his wife. Both ‘The Lost Lords’ and my earlier series, the ‘Fallen Angels’, are built around the premise of men who became friends in their school days. None had satisfactory families, so their friends were the families they created.

For the ‘Fallen Angels’ series, the school was Eton, and for the Lost Lords, it’s the fictional Westerfield Academy for boys of ‘good birth and bad behavior’. I loved the idea of boys who were born to the aristocracy but didn’t quite fit, and how they discover themselves through the school and the friendships they form there.


Q: Does the ‘Guardian’ series (and/or the ‘paranormals’) have its origins in your interest in science fiction and fantasy? If so, which writers influenced you most?Robert Heinlein

Mary Jo: Absolutely! I was a science-fiction reader long before I started reading romance – though I always liked it if a story had a nice romantic subplot. As a kid, I particularly loved Robert Heinlein, who was a great storyteller. I read a lot of other sff authors as well. These days, Lois McMaster Bujold, Sharon Shinn, and Catherine Asaro are among the sff authors on my keeper shelves.


Q: You touch on issues that many writers might choose to avoid – domestic violence, abuse, alcoholism – but is there anything you have started to write about and thought twice?

Mary Jo: No, never. Well, once, maybe. I was thinking of a contemporary romantic suspense that involved an explosion in a New York skyscraper. Then came 9/11, which was so much worse than what I’d imagined for my story. The subject is so deeply painful that I dropped that idea permanently.


Q: How much input do you have on titles?

Mary Jo: If I can come up with something my editor and her marketing department like, I have total input. Sometimes I hit on a title that’s spot on, and other times we all search and search and search to find something that works.


Q: And covers? Do you think covers sell books? Can you see a difference between the way historical romance is jacketed in the US and in the UK?

Mary Jo: I absolutely think covers are a major element in selling books, especially if the author is new to the potential reader. An appealing cover gets the browser to pick up the book. Read the blurb. Maybe read the first page or two. Maybe read some at random, and hopefully, buy the book at the end. None of that will happen if the cover doesn’t catch a person’s eye in the first place.

As for the differences in US and UK covers – the genres are not exactly the same in our two different countries, and neither are the covers. I think art directors on both sides of the Atlantic know what they’re doing. British covers tend to be more restrained, and the books are often as much historical as romance. American historical romances are much more focused on the courtship, and often much sexier, so the sexy covers are usually a good fit.


Q: If you could go back and begin your writing career all over again, would you still write in this genre? Is there any other genre you would consider writing in?

Mary Jo: I love history and I love romance, so I think I’m in the right place. I’ve also written contemporary romances and romantic historical fantasy, which I also love, but I always come back to history and romance, in various combinations.


Q: Have you considered writing any more contemporary romances? What’s the main difference, if any, between writing these subgenres?

Mary Jo: I enjoyed writing my three contemporary romances, but they were very demanding, high-research books and I don’t know if I want to work that hard again! Also, they were ‘issue’ books, as much women’s fiction and romance, and that made them hard to market. Interestingly, I’ve repackaged those three books with new covers and new titles that I hope will appeal to readers of romantic women’s fiction. The new titles are Stirring the Embers, Phoenix Falling, and An Imperfect Process. The original titles were The Burning Point, The Spiral Path, and Twist of Fate. I don’t want anyone to buy them a second time by accident!


Q: Do you think the publishing world has changed significantly since you were first published? If so, is it for the better or to its own detriment?

Mary Jo: Publishing has changed enormously, and the new paradigm of e-publishing is still shaking out. More books are being published, and niche books can be e-published and find their small but real audiences. Print runs and advances are down and authors are earning less, but backlist sales can go on forever. I think this turmoil is a net plus, but stay tuned!


Q: Many authors in the romance genre are now writing books specifically for the ebook/digital market. Would this be a route you would consider taking?

MJP: I would consider it, but finding the time is always an issue. It would allow me to tell the stories of characters that I wasn’t able to write for the original publishers. It’s also a place where authors can write hard to classify books, and that’s a real creative boost.


Q: You set up The Word Wenches’ site with other successful romantic-historical writers, including Anne Gracie, who we’ve also featured on this site. How did this come about? What are the benefits of having such close association with other writers?

Mary Jo: We started the Wenches at a time when blogging was the hot thing to do for promotion and several of us where feeling vaguely guilty about not blogging, but we didn’t need more time sinks. Having a group of similar writers reduced the work load and also increased the potential audiences. The Wenches are over six years old now and this Christmas Kensington published a Word Wench anthology, Mischief and Mistletoe, which was great fun. Our publishers all like that we do this, and we also enjoy each other a lot. There are eight Word Wenches now, and we all respect each other as people and writers. We have a lot of fun blogging together!


Q: You have won several prestigious awards. Do any have particular significance for you? Is there anything you would love to win?

Mary Jo: I was fortunate to win several awards with my very first book, which went a long way to building confidence in my work. Awards might be a slight edge in sales and publishers like them. It’s always very gratifying to have a book singled out as special. I’ve won all the major American romance awards at one time or another, and while that’s been great, I don’t need to win anything more. (But I’ll be happy if I do!)


Q: What’s next for you?

Mary Jo: I’m working on my sixth ‘The Lost Lords’ book, Kirkland’s story, which is scheduled for September 2014. The fifth book, Sometimes a Rogue, was published in 2013.

LS: We look forward to reviewing it. We loved the last book, Sometimes a Rogue, Rob Carmichael and Sarah’s story [Mariah’s twin; featured in Loving a Lost Lord, Book 1].

Well, this has been an absolute pleasure, Mary Jo. Thank you so much. We wish you every success with your forthcoming writing projects.



Book 5 in the ‘Lost Lords’ series, Sometimes a Rogue, published in August 2013 (US cover below). Not Quite a Wife, Book 6, will be published in September 2014.












Photographs in article: Author photo, supplied by Mary Jo Putney. Cover for The Diabolical Baron and Heinlein title (both Signet editions) are used for promotional purposes only (see below). Cover for Sometimes a Rogue (above), from author’s site, for promotional purposes only.


Notice: Please note the above images and quotations other than those in the Q&A are intended to be for promotional purposes only. In no way, have we have intentionally breached anyone’s copyright.

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