It’s still a very Gothic week here at ye olde Sweet Rocket, but here’s a super sweet Sunday post — a profile of author Amanda DeWees, whose great new Gothic novel, Sea of Secrets, started the whole Gothic thing here earlier this week.
By all rights, the author of a great Gothic novel should be dark and brooding, icy and forbidding. Fortunately, Amanda DeWees, author of Sea of Secrets, a wonderful new Gothic in the tradition of classics like Jane Eyre and Rebecca, is none of the above.
When I discovered Sea of Secrets, I found the book so compelling and exciting that I had to contact DeWees personally and let her know how much I’d enjoyed the book. A few mouse clicks later, I’d convinced her to let me profile her for Sweet Rocket.
I couldn’t wait to ask DeWees what compelled her to write a Gothic novel, at a time when quality Gothic romances are as rare as hen’s teeth in the romance market — or the exploding e-book market, for that matter. Turns out that DeWees, like me, had come to love Gothic romance long after the genre’s 1960s-1970s renaissance was long past, and likewise lamented the lack of Gothic romances on the market.
“I must confess that I wrote Sea of Secrets primarily for my own pleasure and only secondarily for publication, so I wasn’t trying to conform to the demands of the market,” says DeWees.
However, when she did decide to publish Sea of Secrets, even the book’s riveting story and accomplished prose was not enough to guarantee it a place in a romance market set on ignoring Gothic romance.
“When I first started submitting Sea of Secrets—and this feels like writing about another era of history, which in a sense it was—the place to start was the annual Writer’s Market,” DeWees recalled. “Well, out of the probably several thousand publishers listed there, maybe three listed Gothic romance as a genre they would accept. Literally, about three. I had absolutely missed that boat. “
By 2012, the explosive growth of e-readers and e-books gave Sea of Secrets a chance that traditional publishers would not.
“It had to wait until the e-publishing revolution to enter the world,” DeWees says. “When I began contemplating e-publishing, I knew at once that this was the manuscript of mine that most deserved a chance to find an audience. It’s the one I was proudest of and the one closest to my heart.”
Traditional Gothic novels rely on first person narrators to spin their tales of horror, and Sea of Secrets is no exception. The whole of a novel in written in first person depends upon the author’s ability to create a character that is both relatable and reliable, which is no mean feat, but add to it the constricted language and mores of a Victorian setting, and the challenge grows. It’s a feat, however, that DeWees accomplishes with unusual success.
In Oriel, the novel’s heroine/narrator, DeWees has created a memorable character whose wry humor and kindness recalls none other so much as that Gothic romance heroine for the ages, Jane Eyre herself.
Of Oriel, DeWees says, “Writing her was mainly a matter of trusting my instincts–and years of studying Victorian literature in grad school, which gave me a good education in what would and wouldn’t fly in her world. Her sense of humor… I think that’s part of what makes her relatable. Also, she’s confronting situations that are timeless: falling in love, experiencing loss, finding out who she is. Universal emotional themes like that, I believe, are why romances continue to speak to us so strongly.”
DeWees’ background in literature did more than just inform Oriel’s character. Sea of Secrets is full of literary references that serve to both steep it in the Victorian era and deepen the story, as well.
“Many of the literary references were deliberate and planned in advance,” DeWees explains. “Several, in fact, were central to the development of the story. Others just felt like they belonged to Oriel’s landscape, especially since I had decided that she would be unusually widely read for a young woman of her position and era. In one scene she finds a copy of Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, and that was a little inside joke about the antecedents of the Gothic romance.”
The very literary influences that appear in the novel helped make Sea of Secrets a Gothic novel. In it’s first incarnation, DeWees says, Sea of Secrets was, in fact, a romance novel. “Sea of Secrets started out as something very different from what it is now (but) the romance was always central to the story.” At some point during the novel’s writing, however, DeWees says it became clear that Sea of Secrets needed to be a Gothic.
“A lot of different factors contributed to the evolution of the story: advice from an editor, life (and love) experience, my studies in 19th-century Gothic literature … and of course my love for Gothic romances. “
Sea of Secrets’ transformation from romance to Gothic meant employing the intricate plotting that is essential to bringing all of the elements of a traditional Gothic romances together. This intricate plotting was not always easy, says DeWees.
“I have so much admiration for good plotting. I’ve always found it a challenge to create layered plots. It’s one of the areas I work hardest on when I’m outlining a story. One of my favorite writers (but about the least Gothic there is) is P.G. Wodehouse, and he was practically supernatural in his ability to create intricate, escalating plots.”
Wodehouse is one of many authors DeWees counts as an influence. Not surprisingly, Gothic authors and novels are also important references for her work, says DeWees, who says that classic Gothic novels like Jane Eyre and Lady Audley’s Secret, and authors who often wrote in the genre, Shirley Jackson and Joan Aiken, are a few of her favorites.
But her favorites and influences are more diverse than just the classics. Along with A.S. Byatt (Possession is a particular favorite of DeWees’), Ellis Peters, John Harwood, F.G. Cottam and Lemony Snicket, DeWees also counts humorists like Terry Pratchett, Jasper Fforde and Christopher Moore among her favorite authors.
“A standout is Robin McKinley; her fairy-tale novel Beauty influenced me on so many levels,” says DeWees, but if the influence of McKinley was not evident in Sea of Secrets, readers can look for it in forthcoming books. DeWees is currently working on a manuscript that reworks the ballad Tam Lin into a young adult paranormal romance.
Readers who loved Sea of Secrets and DeWees’ refreshing take on the Gothic romance shouldn’t despair that she’ll abandon the genre altogether. Her love of the foundations of Gothic romance will no doubt bring her back to the genre.
“I’ve always loved spooky stories…the elements of the supernatural and the wonderfully foreboding atmosphere.”
It wouldn’t be surprising, either, if some of DeWees’ future books take place in the past, a place DeWees loves to visit.
The photo that accompanies this profile was taken at the annual Somewhere in Time weekend on Mackinac Island, where the movie was filmed, says DeWees, who adds that “I’ve been a costume nut since I was a little girl — [readers] probably notice how lovingly I described the dresses in Sea of Secrets — so I jumped at the chance to make a 1912 dress to wear to the event. That’s what I’m wearing in the photo.”