India Grey on book #7: <i>Powerful Italian, Penniless Housekeeper</i>!

by India Grey, author of Powerful Italian, Penniless Housekeeper (Harlequin Presents, January 2010)

I’m not much good with numbers, but you don’t have to be a mathematical genius to know that there’s a certain mystic power about the number seven. As a little girl I remember standing at the edge of the sea with my dad and counting the waves, testing the theory that the seventh wave was always the biggest and most powerful. There are Seven Wonders of the World and Seven Deadly Sins…. Seven Sisters, Seven Dwarves , Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and everyone knows the potential dangers of the Seven Year Itch, so I suppose it should have come as no surprise that when I faced the prospect of writing my seventh book for HMB somehow it felt entirely different  from the ones that had gone before.

Usually when I start a book the hero is the dominant character and the one around which I build the story and the conflict. Being blessed/cursed with the kind of shallow personality that means I fall in love at the drop of a hat, I’m usually so totally sold on him by the end of the first chapter that my biggest challenge is to create a heroine with whom I don’t mind sharing him for the next 200 pages.  But with my seventh book, (subsequently titled Powerful Italian, Penniless Housekeeper) I instinctively found myself approaching things from the opposite angle. The heroine was the character I saw most clearly; the one whose voice I heard and whose story I wanted to tell.

Sarah Halliday is down to earth, self-deprecating, overweight and horribly overshadowed by her younger, prettier, more successful sister — all of which made her an absolute joy to write.  At the start of the book as her sister is preparing to get married, Sarah is emerging from an ego-crushing, part-time relationship with a commitment-phobe cheat which has left her with a broken heart and a five year old daughter. She genuinely believes—as so many of us do at low points in our lives—that she has nothing to offer; that she is not pretty enough or successful enough or thin and glamorous enough for anyone to be interested in her. She’s wrong, of course, and my next task was to create a strong and brilliant hero who could make her see that.

I love the process of creating a character with a specific set of issues and vulnerabilities and then coming up with a situation — and a person — which initially seems to reinforce those, but ultimately challenges them. Lorenzo Cavalleri is a film director who has achieved huge commercial and financial success, and also been married to one of the most beautiful women in the world. To Sarah both these things (but especially the second one) put him instantly and absolutely out of her league.

Lorenzo was a departure from my previous heroes in several ways. Older for a start, he is battle-weary and cynical and having spent his career in pursuit of visual perfection has learned that this is all an illusion. It is reality, authenticity that matters, which is why Sarah is such a lungful of fresh air to him and what makes him uniquely placed to appreciate her for herself.  Because of this I felt it was important that he shouldn’t be defined too much by what he looks like either—he’s a man who’s attractive, not simply because of his physical appearance but because of the strength of his personality.

I have to admit, as those of you who read my blog might remember, I was pretty worried about pulling this off.  All my previous heroes have all called heavily upon my lexicon of words for ‘gorgeous’, and one of the reasons I adore losing myself in a Presents is the melt-worthy specimens of masculine perfection that are usually found between the covers. To deliberately sideline some of the qualities I most enjoy reading (and writing!) in a hero was a scary prospect.

But in the end it was a challenge I really enjoyed, and not allowing myself to describe Lorenzo too much in terms of his physical appearance (which I deliberately kept quite vague) actually made his character come more vividly to life for me, as I too had to look deeper beneath the surface.  And really, that’s what this book is about— stripping away the cult of perfection and celebrating people who, like most of us, don’t look like they’ve just stepped out of an advert for Calvin Klein perfume. I have a deep personal antipathy to those magazines that are full of airbrushed celebrity photoshoots right next to pages of spiteful exposes of actresses/ models/soap stars with their roots/crows-feet/cellulite showing, and I suppose this was my small (OK—infinitesimal) way of getting my own back. And making the point that the passion between real people, with grey-streaked hair (Lorenzo) and generous curves (Sarah) is more genuine and profound and authentic than anything that springs from an illusion of plastic perfection.

However, although I firmly believe all this, I can’t help asking myself whether realism of this kind belongs in the fantasy world of Presents. Does a bit of down-to-earth ordinariness make the story feel more believable for you, or does it spoil the blissful escapist aspect that is so inherently part of the Presents Promise? Does a hero need to be head-turningly, heart-stoppingly handsome to win your heart or can you be won over on strength of character alone? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

January 26th sees the launch of The Pink Heart Society’s brand new monthly Book Club column, in which they’ll pick one of the current month’s releases and invite discussion about all aspects of the book. Powerful Italian Penniless Housekeeper is the first book up for discussion so grab a copy, arm yourself with a cup of tea and join in!

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Comments ( 19 )
  1. Kate Walker
    January 6, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    >> I can’t help asking myself whether realism of this kind belongs in the fantasy world of Presents. Does a bit of down-to-earth ordinariness make the story feel more believable for you, or does it spoil the blissful escapist aspect that is so inherently part of the Presents Promise?

    Never! I mean that the realism never ever spoils a Presents story for me India. In fact, the truthy is that it makes the story. It’s that important edge of realism that stops the story being ‘pie in the sky’ fantasy and grounds it in real male/female relationships. I have to have that touch of realism in my stories and in the stories I read because otherwise they are just ‘too much’.

    M characters – particularly my heroes – may, because of the ‘promise’ of the line be billionaires. sheikhs, princes but underneath all those ‘trappings’ they are just men. As the heroines are just women. And, ahe wonderful Michelle Reid once said they have the sort of problem – man/woman/relationship problems – that any plumber or builder might have – they just have them in more luxurious surroundings!

    I want my romances grounded with that sort of believability so that I can feel there is something to get hold of rather than pure dreamworld impossible fantasy. My last book was very definitely grounded in a real emotional problem and so many readers wrote to me to say how much they loved it. As for physical appearence – well all I’ve ever said about that is that the only thing that matters is that the hero/heroine is stunningly gorgeous *to their personal love of their life*. Grey streaked hair is wonderfully sexy – as is a full head of totally grey hair well – you’ve met the babe Magnet! ;o)

    For my money, those touches of realism are what can really make a story special. And as I’ve just started PI,PH I know Lorenzo and Sarah are going to be wonderful – by personality – no matter what they look like

  2. Rachel
    January 6, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Dear India,

    I don’t think the hero absolutely needs to be heart-stoppingly handsome for us readers to be bowled over by him, let’s face it, there are some who don’t find Daniel Craig attractive on account of his big ears and lack of height! However he does need to be ‘heroic’ and you achieved this perfectly in Powerful Italian,Penniless Housekeeper. Lorenzo is amazing and Sarah? There’s a bit of all of us in her (especially the curves!)

    This is your best yet in my opinion and I’m not sure I can bear the wait for your next book to be published!

    Keep up the good work!

    Love,

    Rach (UK)

  3. Caroline Storer
    January 6, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Can’t wait to read it India! Take care. Caroline x

  4. Kate Hewitt
    January 6, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    I just finished Powerful Italian, Penniless Housekeeper, India, and I loved it! It had a wonderful blend of humor and real emotion. Funnily enough, I didn’t notice the absence of description of Lorenzo; he was very real to me, both physically and emotionally, as was Sarah. It was a brilliant story.

    As for a little bit of realism in Presents… this is something I think about too. I think there *has* to be some realism, because if it was utter fantasy it would be impossible to relate to. It’s the trappings which provide the wonderful fantasy element: the palazzo, the Porsche, the diamonds. But the emotions and heart of the story are real, and that’s what I, as both a reader and a writer, love.

    However… Sarah looks quite thin on the cover! 🙂 I suppose realism has its limits…

  5. Donna Alward
    January 6, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Oh, I can’t wait to dip in! This week is crazy and the book is taunting me – I’m determined to read it this weekend.

    I can’t wait for the discussion either on the 26th.

    As far as realism – as a reader I like to relate to my characters and so flaws are encouraged. My next has a physically imperfect hero and yet…to me he is possibly the sexiest one yet – because underneath all the gorgeousness, it’s what’s inside a man – what makes him who he is – that is really sexy. In the end it’s the heroic qualities that carry the day.

    Donna

  6. Caitlin Crews
    January 6, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    I think that what the hero/heroine look like is irrelevant, really–since I always *imagine* the hero to be smoking hot gorgeous, and I fall in love with him right along with the heroine. And vice-versa! Really, as Kate Walker says above, it’s all about being attractive to the one who loves them. As long as they find each other fascinating and mouthwatering, so will I. 🙂

  7. india grey
    January 6, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    Happy New Year Kate! As always you’ve hit the nail squarely on the head (and done so much more articulately than I ever can!) I think realism is an essential ingredient in any romance, but I suppose I’m still feeling my way as to how much would be too much. It’s an interesting thing, and I’m sure that it all depends on the individual characters and setting and story. Of my books, this one seems to be more grounded in every day, domestic reality than the others, but given the title I suppose that’s not too surprising!

    Rachel, you’re right of course. To Abby Green the lovely Daniel is merely ‘stocky’, whereas to us he’s sexual charisma in human form. In fact, Abby and I disagree over the position on the Attractiveness Scale of just about every man you can think of (apart from Robert Pattinson) which just goes to show how subjective the whole thing is. And I guess that goes back to the point that Kate made too, that the colour of someone’s hair or the shape of their nose is pretty irrelevant when it comes to finding someone absolutely white-hot, take-me-or-die gorgeous – a feeling which totally defies reason or explanation.

    (Am thrilled to hear you liked the book, by the way! Thanks v v much.)

    Hello Caroline – come and join in the Pink Heart Society book club discussion if you have time! I think it’s a fantastic idea to run a monthly book club event – especially since I never seem to make it to the book club I used to go to locally, so I’m very excited about it. (And not just because my book is first up for discussion, honest!!)

    Kate, I think it’s interesting that you didn’t particularly notice the lack of physical description because I wonder if, as readers, we form an impression in our minds fairly early on about what a character looks like, based on all kinds of things that are entirely unique and personal to us. Sometimes too much description about what a character looks like can jar with me because it doesn’t fit in with what I imagine, or what I find attractive. (An example is in Jilly Cooper’s lovely bonkbusters, delicious Rupert Campbell-Black is quite often described as having his hair brushed in blond ‘wings’ over his ears. I think this sounds gross and prefer to ignore it when I picture him!) It’s something I’ll bear in mind as I’m writing in the future.

    The Sarah on the cover is certainly very lithe and slinky. The ‘real’ Sarah would no doubt be very thrilled about having her as a body double!

  8. Lee
    January 6, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    India, I loved this book. Absolutely fantastic story. My one thought as soon as I turned the last page was – Wow.

    I hope you’ll write more like this one.

    As for realism, I think for any fantasy to be believeable, it must have a thread of realism. That little bit of realism is what hits home and leaves a strong impression on our hearts, makes us care about the story and the conflict and fall in love with the characters and experience their emotions every step of the way.

    As Rachel said, I can’t wait for your next book!

  9. Marilyn
    January 6, 2010 at 11:59 pm

    I can’t wait for this Book Club to being and who better to have their book discussed. I’m sure there will be a grat turnout. xx

  10. Christina Hollis
    January 7, 2010 at 3:49 am

    Gorgeousness (if there is such a word!) is surely in the eye of the beholder, as well as beauty. A certain amount of identification is what makes Presents so good. Total perfection, like realism, has its limits. As well as all the glamour and glitz, there’s that little whisper of ‘it could be me…’ – that’s what I really enjoy.

  11. Heidi Rice
    January 7, 2010 at 5:58 am

    Hi India

    Have your book on my TBR pile and have already stuck it at the top as it’s the book to be discussed at this month’s inaugural Pink Heart Society book club… But now I’m gagging to read it.

    Am currently trying to write a hero who’s not exactly the peek of physical perfection I’m used to in my heroes because he’s been left permanently lame after a motorbike accident and is struggling to deal with having everything he once relied on – his looks, his invincibility, even his sexual prowess questioned. He’s already proving a challenge so I’m dying to see how you pulled it off.

    And I absolutely agree with Kate, it’s that edge of reality that makes the Presents Promise work for me. I want to believe in these characters and that lack of air-brushed perfection always helps me connect however luxurious the surroundings.

    Heidi x

  12. Kate Hardy
    January 7, 2010 at 6:16 am

    I’m with you on the realism front, India – that’s something I do in my own books. (OK, so Modern Heat and Presents aren’t *quite* the same thing, bu!)

    Am looking forward to this one – it’s my carrot for finishing my current book. Especially as it has a curvy heroine!

    And, Kate W, may I put in a plea for folically-challenged heroes? 😀 (I’m married to a Bruce Willis lookalike, so I’m a tad biased, but men with shaven heads can be so sexy. And if you don’t believe me, go and look up Ricky Whittle’s tango in “Strictly Come Dancing 2009” on YouTube – now there’s hero material!)

  13. Abby Green
    January 7, 2010 at 9:02 am

    India – I loved this book and think it’s definitely one of your best yet, infused with your effortless warmth and humour and your love of all things sensual. It literally dripped with decadent sensuousness and Lorenzo always comes across as completely gorgeous, no matter what his physical characteristics might be – because he’s a hero in the true sense of the word. And Sarah – she made my heart ache, she was so vulnerable and yet feisty. And funny. She made me laugh out loud a few times. Also, you transport the reader so well, I felt when I’d finished the book as if I truly had been in Italy, just without all the Ryanair/traveling hassle of getting there and back!
    I think Kate is right, the fact that the hero comes in a gorgeous package and is surrounded by wealth is just the fantasy aspect of these stories, ultimately underneath it all we’re writing about forever love and commitment and that happens every day of the week in all walks of life…I’ll shout down any cynic who denies it!
    And as for grey hair, I’ve two words for that – George Clooney.
    x Abby

  14. Lynn Raye Harris
    January 7, 2010 at 10:03 am

    India, this story sounds fantastic!!! I can’t wait to read it! I admit that I love a handsome hero, but I also think handsome has various definitions. Some men aren’t classically handsome — and yet they have that certain something that is absolutely compelling. Sounds like this is what Lorenzo has!

    I completely love ugly duckling stories! I love a heroine who isn’t perfect, and who thinks she’s not all that special, but who ignites something in the hero that makes him totally crazy for her. This is precisely my kind of story! I look forward to reading it!

    Lynn

  15. india grey
    January 7, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Gah! The comment moderation delay caught me out! Donna and Caitlin, sorry if it seems like I ignored your comments.

    Donna and Heidi, I’m loving those exciting glimpses into your current works in progress – why do little things like publication and scheduling have to take so long?! Can’t wait for those heroes. And Caitlin, I think you summed it up perfectly when you said that if the hero and heroine are irresistible to each other then they will be to the reader too. It all comes down to *chemistry* in the end. (I was utterly rubbish at chemistry when I was at school, which is ironic as it’s ended up being my favourite part of the job I do now.)

    Lee, thanks very much for the ‘wow’ and the vote of confidence in the book. Hugely much appreciated.

    Marilyn, the book club is such a fantastic idea isn’t it? Hats off to Donna for thinking of it and putting the time and energy into making it happen. See you at the PHS on the 26th – I’ll be bringing a bottle and some chocolate brownies!

    Gorgeousness is absolutely one of my FAVOURITE words Christina! And the idea of a whispered ‘it could be me’ just sent a shiver down my spine. That’s IT, exactly – that’s what as readers we want to feel (and as writers too!) and I don’t suppose it matters what it takes to create that magic.

    Heidi, I love the sound of your book – looking forward to a future book club session with that one! (And very thrilled at the thought of someone gagging to read mine, you lovely polite girl! x)

    Kate, that’s an interesting point about folllically challenged heroes (!) and kind of what I was meaning when I asked how much realism was acceptable. We all know that there are so many gorgeous, sexy men out there who really do NOT conform to the standard ‘tall, dark and handsome’ stereotype, but when you actually come to try to describe that in a book it can be difficult to capture the essence of what makes them so lovely. At the moment I’m writing a formula one racing driver, and as such I know it would be exceptionally unusual for him to be anything near 6ft, but am shying away from actually putting that down on the page. Racing drivers also tend to have very thick, heavily muscled necks and shoulders to withstand the forces of driving at such high speed, but describing that without making him sound slightly freakish is also pretty difficult!

  16. india grey
    January 7, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    Ha, Abby I’m so glad you picked up on the celebration of all things sensual, ie. calorific Italian food. And oh, help… George Clooney… there’s someone I definitely could imagine in the role of Lorenzo. Yum.

    Lynne, I know– I’m SO with you on loving a handsome hero! (I have a particular weakness when it comes to cheekbones and hands) But you’re right, and compelling was exactly what I was after in Lorenzo. I’m a big fan of ugly duckling stories too as I think that’s how most of us feel, at least at some point, so it’s very easy to write about. My last book featured a heroine who was a gorgeous model and that was a whole lot more difficult to imagine!

  17. Francine Howarth
    January 7, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    Hi India,

    There have been Formula One race drivers who were 6′ +.

    It’s not impossible. Their cars are custom built to driver specs.

    And, most F1 drivers do not have bull necks. However, they are extremely athletic. Feel free to ask anything that comes to mind and you’re not sure of relating to F1 Motor Racing. You can catch me at my blog.

    I know, I dated a F1 driver years ago, and I have a Formula 1 based novel ready to go if a publiser is interested! 😉

  18. Francine Howarth
    January 7, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    Dear Kate Walker,

    Realism is the key for me in a good romance.

    Off the wall fantasy just doesn’t hack it.

    Take Sheikh themes. They are okay if the hero and heroine are of the same religion. When it comes to religious crossover (blonde American/English temptress with handsome Arab) political correctness must enter into play or all credibility of reality is lost. It’s a tricky minefield for any author to walk!

  19. india grey
    January 8, 2010 at 2:30 am

    Francine – you DATED A F1 DRIVER?!! That’s the most glamorous thing I’ve heard all week and has made me feel incredibly wistful about my own life. Especially as I haven’t struggled out of thermal underwear and bulky knitted layers for what seems like months. (Please don’t tell me that it’s not all as glamorous as it sounds! I want my lovely illusions left intact!)

    Thanks so much for the offer of research help and best of luck with the novel.