Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby novels illustrate one of the great delights of historical fiction: the way it allows us to savor the atmospheric particulars of the past at the same time we reflect on the very same issues and challenges that shape contemporary life. On the one hand, the life of Huber’s protagonist, Kiera Darby, is unmistakably that of the early nineteenth century. Most notably, her late husband was an “anatomist,” part of the illegal trade in the corpses used for dissection, who involved her in his work; though his death grows gradually more distant in time as the series progresses, the stain and scandal that attach to his widow’s reputation remain all too powerful. Happily, it’s a rare woman indeed who will face that specific challenge these days. Yet looked at more broadly, most women today do share one or more aspects of Kiera’s experience: her quest for a separate and authentic identity; her fight to step beyond the shadows of the past; her delight in tests, quests and adventures not typically associated with women; her love for art and artistry; or just her hopes for deep and enduring love with an equal partner. Kiera Darby is fun to read, in part, because she is so different than we are—but she is moving to read, in part, because she is so much the same. In Huber’s latest novel, A Study in Death, (Berkley, Summer 2015), a portrait commission brings Kiera face to face with mysterious death at the same time her relationship with investigative partner and fiancé Sebastian Gage reaches new heights of complexity. Anna Lee Huber is the author of three previous Lady Darby novels: The Anatomist’s Wife, Mortal Arts, and A Grave Matter; a member of Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and the Historical Novel Society, she lives in Indiana. Find out more about Anna and her books on her website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed, and be sure to look for the next installment of Kiera Darby’s story, the novella A Pressing Engagement, out in May 2016. Society Nineteen is delighted to talk with Anna Lee Huber about female perils, female strength, the wonders of Scotland, and the lure of the 19th century. —SF
So19: Let’s start with an obvious question. What drew you to the nineteenth century as a timeframe for the books? Were you inspired by reading, film, history classes, something entirely different?
AH: I’ve always been interested in the late eighteen and nineteenth centuries. I think it began with an early fascination with the revolutions in America and France, and was later fed by Jane Austen’s Regency-set novels, and the Sherlock Holmes series in Victorian England. There’s just so much exciting history in this time period. It’s a lead-up to the modern era, a time of innovation, and rebellion, and discovery. I think it appeals to my desire for adventure and romance.
So19: You grew up in Ohio, I believe, and now live in Indiana. What inspired you to choose Scotland as a setting and background? How do you research the 1830s reality of the books’ different locations within that country—Edinburgh, for example, in this latest adventure?
AH: Quite simply, I adore Scotland. I’ve always been fascinated with that country, and when I finally had the chance to visit there, it felt like coming home. The varied landscapes easily become characters all their own, each one speaking to you in its own voice. For The Anatomist’s Wife, I also needed an isolated setting, and the Highlands were the perfect fit.
I would say 1830s Edinburgh was the easiest to research of all my settings simply because of the amount of material written about it. It was a densely populated city and there were a lot of things happening, lots of changes and innovations, which helped to form a picture of the city. I’ve also visited nearly all of the locations I utilize in that city, and some of them have changed very little from the way they looked almost 200 years ago. For the novels set in more rural situations I’ve been able to locate some amazing websites for small villages, often with information about the area’s history, pictures of the town through time, and local anecdotes and myths.
So19: The life of your protagonist, Kiera Darby, is shadowed by the scandal surrounding her late husband, an “anatomist” who involved her in his unsavory practices. Perhaps you could talk a bit about that. Where did that plot and backstory element come from? Did you choose the early 1830s because of their connection with that bit of story, or for other reasons?
AH: When I first started writing Kiera, I had no plans for who she was or where she’d come from. I simply had this character in my head who insisted on speaking. So I gave myself permission to free write for a few chapters and she was so vivid so real, I knew I had to find out more. I wanted her to have some type of knowledge that would truly be an asset in investigation, a skill that not even most men would have, and so that couldn’t be ignored or brushed aside. Anatomy seemed perfect, and so I began diving into her backstory, figuring out how she attained this knowledge and why, and what that meant for her future.
And once I’d chosen anatomy, 1830 seemed the perfect starting point for the series. Eighteen months following the trial for the body-snatchers turned murderers, Burke and Hare, and two years before the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832. It’s also a time of great upheaval in politics, religion and business. In a few short years, many important bills are finally approved, the culmination of years of struggle. It’s an intriguing and little-used time to explore.
So19: What we would today call “domestic abuse” is a theme that runs through this installment of the series…and of course, the systems and statues that attempt to protect women today are definitely not present as a safety net in the period about which you write.
AH: That’s true. In many ways we’ve come a long way in how we look at and treat victims of domestic abuse, but sadly, in other ways, things have not changed enough. I think that was the most shocking thing I discovered while researching this issue. There are still people who believe the woman, or man, deserved it. That they brought that abuse, that punishment on themselves in some way. And that makes me tremendously sad. I found it wasn’t as difficult to give many of my characters a realistic mindset for the 1830s because that mindset still exists today. It’s certainly no longer the predominant one, but it’s prevalent enough that it’s troublesome.
So19: The pregnancies of Kiera’s sister give readers glimpses of another difficult reality of that time: the danger to health and life posed by pregnancy and childbirth in a time that still lacked anesthesia, antiseptics, accurate knowledge of things like pre-natal nutrition, and today’s array of testing technologies.
AH: Alana’s struggles with the end of her pregnancy and her difficult delivery were certainly interesting concepts to research, and emotionally fraught to write. I had just given birth to my first child when I wrote this book. So they were in some ways easier to write in an authentic manner, and also incredibly difficult to face. Today’s women still have much to fear from childbirth, but before the advent of truly modern medicine, there was so much that could go wrong, and so little that could be done to save them. It makes one truly grateful to live in the modern age. And just imagine what women 100 years from now will be saying about our current medicine.
So19: Kiera’s romance with Sebastian Gage gives you the opportunity to write about the power balance between a man and a woman who not only love each other, but also work on complex and sensitive tasks together. (Of course, there’s now a very difficult prospective father-in-law to complicate things, too!) I always sense that you relish this aspect of the novels—is that right, or do I just especially enjoy it? Is it ever difficult to imagine how a woman from around 1830 would think or behave on this front, as opposed to the ways we might respond to similar situations today?
AH: I do enjoy writing the complex and ever-evolving relationship between Kiera and Gage. It’s fun to explore their dynamic, and watch Gage’s charm and dependability gradually thaw Kiera’s mistrust. I think one of the most difficult things about thinking like an 1830s woman is that my modern-sensibilities rebel at the idea of placing Kiera’s life and well-being so much in the hands of a man, even if it is Gage. There’s a fine balance between being true to the average woman of the era (because there were always exceptions) and portraying and motivating her actions in such a manner that modern readers can both understand and relate. Because of everything Kiera has endured and now sworn never to face again, it’s easier to allow her to assert her independent thought and strength because the reader appreciates where she’s coming from and why she now refuses to remain silent. And, of course, it’s helpful to have a hero who is attracted to these qualities in her, and tries to nurture them, most of the time.
So19: Let’s talk about the gifts and challenges of writing a series generally. I believe you’ve said that you’ve got the story arc roughly plotted out through about book nine. How much do you find that your conception of the characters and overall story changes as you develop each new book? What has most surprised you about the way Kiera and her journey have developed since your first glimmers of her?
AH: I do have Lady Darby very roughly plotted through book nine. I think, in general, Kiera and Gage have remained true to who I’ve always imagined them to be; however, the secondary characters are constantly surprising me by what they decide to bring to the stories. Gage, by virtue of the fact that I write from Kiera’s perspective, has always been a bit more mysterious, but thus far there have been no big surprises, though his relationship with his father has developed into something much more complex. The most unexpected thing I’ve discovered about Kiera was her attachment to William Dalmay in Mortal Arts, and how everything that followed affected her. That was not altogether planned. Nor was her tentative friendship with Bonnie Brock. Will and BB were just two minor characters who insisted on being more, and thus their relationship with Kiera has to be more fully explored.
So19: Could you describe your writing process and rhythm for So19 readers? For example, when and how you do the research for each book, what your working day is like, how you get books written in the midst of the considerable time contemporary authors must devote to social media and marketing, how you balance work and personal/family life?
AH: I did a large chunk of research about the time period and setting before I ever started writing Lady Darby book one. That way I had a firm grasp of where and when I was that could carry me through the series, so that now I just have to do spot research pertaining to the specific elements of each book’s plot. The exception to this being Book 5, As Death Draws Near, which I’m working on now. This book required a lot more research from the start because it’s set in Ireland and I needed to become better acquainted with the setting and the political and religious climate of 1831.
Because I have an eighteen-month-old daughter, my schedule is somewhat sporadic. I have to write whenever I have a free half-hour or more. This usually gets done at naptime, or when my husband is able to watch her. And my mother is a life-saver when the deadline crunch approaches. Then she comes to babysit several afternoons a week. It can be difficult keeping a continuity when I’m constantly starting and stopping, but I make it work. Social media and marketing and promo all get squeezed in when I can. While my daughter is playing or while I’m watching TV in the evening. I’m constantly searching for the right balance between work and family time, and I suspect I’ll be doing so for the rest of my life. Or at least until my kids are in school and I can have six to eight hours of uninterrupted writing time.
So19: I always end by asking an author what’s next. Can you give us any glimpses of the next book? As always, you’ve left so many intriguing open issues….
AH: Next comes a special Lady Darby novella, which falls between Books 4 & 5, titled A Pressing Engagement, which releases May 17, 2016. I don’t think it’s any secret anymore that this contains Kiera and Gage’s wedding. But before they can say their vows, there are a few loose ends from previous investigations to tie up, including a favor Bonnie Brock insists on redeeming. Then comes Lady Darby Book 5, As Death Draws Near, which opens at the end of Kiera and Gage’s honeymoon. They receive an urgent letter from Lord Gage about the death of a nun at an abbey in Ireland. This young lady is a distant relative of the Duke of Wellington, and he wants to know how she was murdered and why, and, of course, Kiera and Gage are the perfect team to find out.