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