Interview With an Author: KJ Charles

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen by KJ Charles

KJ Charles spent twenty years as an editor in British publishing before fleeing the scene to become a full-time historical romance novelist. She has written over twenty-five novels since then, and her books have been translated into eight languages. She lives in London. Her latest book is The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen?

It started with Doomsday. Which is to say, I was musing on the next book, and the name Doomsday came into my head. I tried out a few first names that would go with it; Joss sounded right. Then I had to work out what sort of person would be called Joss Doomsday. (Clearly something Poldarky: highwayman, pirate, smuggler?) Then I started musing on how smugglers in romance are usually either beetle-browed villains or masquerading heirs to dukedoms, but during the Napoleonic Wars, it was a grey industry that benefited a lot of people at a time of economic blockade and swingeing taxation. At this point, Joss, the hands-on Vice President (Operations) of a smuggling family, popped into my head, and off I went.

Several months later, I realised that I’d got the name Doomsday out of a thing that went round on Twitter: Charles Dickens’ list of cool names for potential characters included a Sophia Doomsday, and clearly, it had lodged in my mind. Joss was already firmly in place, but I named his beloved sister Sophy as tribute.

Are Gareth, Joss, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Gareth, as gentleman amateur naturalist, is mildly inspired by Gilbert White, a parson-naturalist considered Britain’s first ecologist. He wrote the huge seller The Natural History of Selborne, a lovely book of observations about the natural world of his parish.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The big change was that it was meant to be a lot more ‘enemies to lovers’. The opening premise is that Joss and Gareth have had a week-long anonymous affair in London that ends badly when Joss returns to Kent. Gareth then unexpectedly finds himself a baronet in Romney Marsh, where Joss heads the local smuggling gang. I intended to have Gareth as a passionately anti-smuggling magistrate, Joss blackmailing him fairly brutally, it was all going to be extremely angsty and edgy. I’m not sure how that even works in theory; it certainly didn’t in practice. I was writing in 2021, and the world felt like it contained enough unkindness without me adding any, even temporarily. Once I rebalanced their relationship to be based on kindness and attention, it all took off.

My only other association with Romney Marsh is the Dr. Syn/Scarecrow of Romney Marsh books by Russell Thorndike and the movie based on them starring Patrick McGoohan. Is this the same Romney Marsh? Did the books/films influence your choosing this location for the novel?

It is the same! I don’t know why more books aren’t set there, it’s a magical location. Very close to France, excellent long beaches for smuggling, occupation dating back to Roman times on the higher ground, bleak and unpopulated: it’s perfect for historical adventures. I have never seen the films. The Doctor Syn books range from bad to hilariously awful, so obviously I devoured all of them.

Have you ever visited Dymchurch or Romney Marsh? Do you have any favorite places in the city/area? A hidden gem that someone visiting should not miss but would only learn about from a resident?

I stayed twice to get the feel of the place. I love it. Rye is a beautiful town, and Mermaid Street especially is a little jewel. (Just google image search.) The beaches are gorgeous and empty. Dungeness, which has a nuclear power station, is astonishing: it’s Britain’s only desert and it has an amazing apocalyptic vibe, and we heard bitterns in the bird reserve. Dymchurch has Norman churches dating back to the invasion and some lovely old buildings. It’s not showy, but it’s got wonderful atmosphere in a very peculiarly English and rather bleak way.

The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen is listed on your site as the first of “The Doomsday Books.” Is this the first of a new series? Will readers be able to follow Gareth and Joss on further adventures, or will subsequent books focus on other characters? What are your plans for the series?

The second book is A Nobleman’s Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel, set thirteen years after Secret Lives and picking up the big unanswered question from that book. It stars Luke Doomsday, Joss’s younger cousin, who plays quite a large role in Secret Lives.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

The Epicure’s Almanack, a guidebook to Regency London’s eating-houses, published 1815. It’s absolutely fascinating and atmospheric in all the details and gossip, and really interesting on what people were actually eating.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Georgette Heyer (Regency romance par excellence). Charles Dickens (intense use of language: Victorian version). TS Eliot (intense use of language: early 20th century version). Beverly Jenkins (pioneer of Black historical romance and queen of the contemporary soap). Terry Pratchett (wise, kind, hilarious, ruthless).

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Weirdly, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, which I read about five times aged 11-13, entirely for the story of the cat and the devil, without grasping the allegory of Stalinist Russia at all. (I was the kid who’d blitzed through the children’s section of the library and was picking up stuff at random from the adult section.)

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Nope. My parents wanted us to learn to make sensible choices, which means choosing freely and seeing what happens. My mother made it very clear to the local library that I was allowed to read books from the adult section as I wished, and I don’t ever recall being told a book was ‘unsuitable’. If it was too adult for me, I got bored and moved on. I have nothing but contempt for the controlling, limited, spiteful mentality of people who try to ban not just their own but other people’s children from reading as they please.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

I’d like the court to take into account my university essay on the works of Virginia Woolf, based on two and a half skimmed chapters of Mrs Dalloway.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

There’s a lot of books I’m evangelical about, but none that I think everyone should read. We all find magic in different places, and it’s the world’s most disheartening thing to give someone a book that makes your brain go off like fireworks and see them put it down after half a chapter. This is particularly notable for me because my husband and I have diametrically opposed taste in books. He doesn’t like Pratchett or Eliot, didn’t finish The Master and Margarita and discarded Riddley Walker on page two. I’d rather read a cereal packet than Coetzee or Ian McEwan and have never even opened his deeply beloved Raj Quartet. We tolerate one another’s lamentable failings and have segregated bookshelves. (At least we both like Dickens, so the marriage is hanging on in there.)

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I had the incredible luck to see the revival of Jerusalem with Mark Rylance. And, more than that, I saw it on St George’s Day, the day the play is set. It was…magical. Huge. One of those things that’s almost too big to comprehend. Glorious play, glorious production, and astonishing acting.

In TV terms I’m currently watching Lockwood & Co with the kids and absolutely loving it.

What are you working on now?

I’ve written nearly 30 historical romances, many Regency, and yet have never done a duke book, so I decided it was time to take the plunge. I’m still not 100% sure it’s going to work (I have Issues with dukes), but cross fingers. 

Book cover for The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen
The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen
Charles, KJ