1. What is your name and where are you from?
My name is Jessica Darago, and I'm originally from Long Island. As of this August, however, I've officially spent half of my life in the Washington DC area, where I first came for college and just stayed.
2. What is the title of your manuscript? What sub-genre is it?
It's called The Serpent's Tooth, and it's a Victorian historical set in America, England, and Scotland. It's a sort of in the style of Philippa Gregory or Jennifer Donnelly, in that the plot is moved by the political and social forces of the day as well as the relationship between the hero and heroine.
3. Can you give us a quick 100 words or so blurb about the story?
All Reba MacKenzie ever wanted was to live the life of a country doctress, learning the art at her beloved Uncle Toby's side. But Toby insists she needs a formal education--and on sending her to Scotland to get it. But when Toby is killed and Reba is left destitute, all their careful plans fall to ruin, and Reba ends up in the last place she expected: in the employ of her parents' killer, and in the arms of his son.
4. What was your reaction when you found out you've finaled?
I was in my office when I got the news, so the first thing I did was squeal at my office mate. Then my boss arrived (no doubt searching for the source of the squealing), and the three of us squealed together for a while. Needless to say, I didn't get a lot of work done that day.
5. Is this your first completed book? Fifth?
The Serpent's Tooth is the first novel-length submission-ready draft I've produced. I've written two novellas, one a historical suspense that desperately needs to be a longer book and the other a comedy of manners about knitting fanatics. I have a few other projects at different stages of development as well, from nearly finished first draft to still inside my head. I always have more ideas than time.
6. Do you have a website?
My LiveJournal blog, is my online home. I have a website advertising my freelance editing services (www.darago.us), and I belong to two critique groups with online forums (Dreaming in Ink and The Circle of Trust, the latter of which is currently closed to new members), but the place I talk about The Serpent's Tooth and other writing projects--and now about American Title--is the blog.
7. What kind of books do you like to read? Who are your auto-buy authors?
I'm mainly a science fiction and fantasy reader and have been for as long as I can remember. My absolute auto-buys are Neil Gaiman and Connie Willis. I've recently discovered Susanna Clarke, whose historical-fantasy world building knocked my socks not just off but straight into next Tuesday. Oddly enough, I don't read the same sort of books that I tend to write, probably out of some subconscious fear of "poisoning the well"--of either imitating instead of innovating or of being intimidated instead of inspired. These days, I spend a lot of my reading time reading my critique partners' manuscripts. Lucky for me, they're all a pleasure to read.
8. What was your biggest inspiration for the story?
About 14 years ago, on a long drive, my old roommate and I decided "Plot a Romance Novel" would be a fun road-trip game. She was a history major and I was an English major focusing on medieval and early modern lit, so of course it had to be historical. And we'd both recently been to Scotland and loved it, so of course it had to take place in Scotland. And we're American, so of course the heroine had to be American…. And so on. Not a lot survives from that original conversation beyond those three facts, except for the heroine's name: Reba, named for a Phish song we were listening to at the time.
Over the next decade and a half, I picked the idea up and put it back down maybe a half-dozen times. I'm a pure pantser, so most of my drafting happens in my head. I never know when an idea is going to hit me. I sometimes ended up scrawling lines on the back of a receipt or a piece of junk mail. My research notes look like the aftermath of a tornado through a bookstore. I'd never be able to reconstruct the individual twists and turns that made The Serpent's Tooth the story that it is, but I do remember that chapter 3--the hero and heroine's first fight, which leads to their first kiss--is almost exactly as I first imagined it years and years ago.
9. What is it you like most and admire about your heroine(s)?
Reba feels very deeply, and she has enormous courage and an iron will. In combination, these are what make her an ideal physician. But they also get her into trouble. She leaps to conclusions. She's stubborn as hell. Ultimately, she makes a number of bad decisions despite her good intentions. I think that's one of the best ways to create conflict in drama (or comedy, for that matter)--the protagonist's greatest assets are also her greatest flaws.
10. What is you like most and admire about your hero(s)?
Nate makes me laugh. Even when his heart is breaking or his life is on the line, he's able to crack jokes about his circumstances, even if only to himself. All clichés aside, there's nothing more attractive to me than a great sense of humor. But what I most admire is his fierce loyalty. He spends the better part of the book trying to negotiate among conflicting duties. Again, strength becomes vulnerability, which becomes conflict.
11. How did you come up with one of your secondary characters?
My favorite secondary character is Gladys, the Baxters' ladies' maid. Given the time and the place and the social class of the people around Reba, there simply had to be a ladies' maid, and I could have written her as practically part of the furniture. I decided instead that she should help Reba and Nate conduct their clandestine relationship. Somewhere along the line, one of my critique partners asked me why she'd risk her position for them. I thought, "That's a really good question." So I gave her a reason. And suddenly she had a whole life, a whole world behind her faithful servant act, and it was awesome. Sadly, I could only hint at it in The Serpent's Tooth. Hopefully one day I'll get to write the book where she steals Mrs. Baxter's identity and goes on a romp through the British expat community in Italy in the 1860s. She deserves a novel of her very own. Alas, for now only I know how interesting she is.
12. What is the major conflict in your story?
The initial conflict between Nate and Reba is that Nate's father, many years earlier, evicted Reba's family from their lands in Scotland and forced them to immigrate to America, which led through the appalling shipboard conditions to the death of both her parents. As the story progresses it becomes less about the past and more about who each of them is in the present-Reba's inability to trust people, her need to control her environment, her fear of letting go; Nate's competitive streak, his need to "win" her, his sense of duty as his father's heir and how that clashes with his feelings for Reba and his sense of right and wrong. Reba can't let go of the past but is forced to face her future, while Nate can't seize his future until he faces his family's past.
13. Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I have tried--oh how I've tried--to be a plotter, but it just isn't in me. I've read all the books and tried all the systems, from index cards to specialized software and everything in between. By my haphazard system seems to be the one that allows me the most creativity, the most productivity, so I'm learning to embrace it. Meanwhile, I just bought myself a PDA, so at least I have a central place to write down those sudden bursts of inspiration.
14. Do you write to silence, or do you prefer a little noise?
It took me a long time to realize it, but what I like best is white noise. The better part of The Serpent's Tooth was written in restaurants and fast-food joints during my lunch hours. The combination of clashing voices and half-heard music puts my head in the right place. I come by it honestly, too. In school, I used to keep half an ear on the teacher while scribbling stories in a notebook hidden under my textbook. It's the same effect.
15. Who is your muse?
When you're a pantser, anything and everything can spark an idea--a good song, a bad pun, a scent, a slant of light. The people who have really changed me as a writer are the members of my critique group. I've learned so much from their examples: how to set goals and stick with them, how to handle the rough spots with grace and strength, and of course how to be a better writer. None of that's easy, for anyone, so if we're going for the mythological reference, they're not so much muses as Valkyries.
16. What do you like to do when you're not writing?
I love to knit, crochet, and bead, though I have less time for them than I'd like. I used to be an avid hiker, and I'm trying to get back into that again. I travel as much as I can find the time and money for, and I keep an eye out for story inspiration wherever I go.
17. If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?
Is time management a superpower? Like everyone else in 21st-century America, I'm stretched pretty thin. If I could manipulate time, I could give all the people and things in my life the attention and care they deserve, and then I wouldn't have to be super-anything-else.
18. If you could do something crazy/dangerous/or insane what would it be and why?
My sister recently took up skydiving, and she's trying to convince me to do it, too. I've made a counteroffer of trekking to Everest base camp. At this point, negotiations are at a standstill.
19. Why do you write?
Because if I didn't, my head would explode. Because words are my favorite playthings. Because it's something to do with my hands. Because the pleasure is worth the pain.
20. If you had a 2 weeks to live, what would you do?
I'd gather my friends and family around me and go back to Great Britain one last time. I'd will--or is that curse?--my unfinished manuscripts to various writer friends. I'd drink a lot of good wine, eat a lot of good food, and kiss a lot of good people.
21. What is your favorite research tool?
My favorite tool isn't a tool, it's a community. I belong to the little_details LiveJournal community. It began, long before my time, as a group of fanfiction writers, but it's expanded to writers of all sorts. The idea is writers helping out writers. Pose a question, and soon you'll have a whole list of useful links, book recommendations, and personal anecdotes from other community members. It's like having an entire regiment of over-caffeinated specialist librarians at your fingertips. For example, during my 3-Day Novel marathon in 2006, I asked if anyone knew of a work of satire or humor that was available in English in 1665 or earlier, was legal for sale in England at that time, and mocked scientists (that is, "natural philosophers"). I had an answer about two hours later (Hudibras, by Samuel Butler, for the record). It's a fabulous resource. And answering questions is just as much fun.