Sarah MacLean talks 'finding the beauty in darkness' in her new series
Since her first romance novel hit shelves in 2010, Sarah MacLean has proved herself a force to be reckoned with, landing on the New York Times bestseller list with her debut novel and every book since.
MacLean has earned praise for writing fiery, independent heroines, with EW labeling her “gracefully furious” back in 2014. She has also acted as an outspoken advocate for the genre, sharing her favorite romances on her website and writing a monthly review column for the Washington Post. Back in August, she opened up about how the 2016 election prompted her to rewrite more than half of her latest novel and reshape her hero.
Now, with her latest series The Bareknuckle Bastards launching in June, MacLean is taking things in a different direction — a grittier, darker, more real space that strays far from the ballrooms of the Regency world and features, in her words, “hot thieves in ice holes.” In addition to sharing the cover of her next novel, Wicked and the Wallflower, with EW,MacLean spoke to us about what to expect from her new series. We talked to her about how Frozen might inadvertently have inspired a major plot line, why Tom Hardy’s grunting makes for ideal romantic leading men, and the importance of writing consent in the wake of the #metoo movement.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you tell us a bit more about what Wicked and the Wallflower is about, and the Bareknuckle Bastards series in general?
SARAH MACLEAN: I had this idea about three bastard brothers. I’m really interested in families, so when it was coming to what would come next, I knew I wanted it to be a family story and a family dynamic. I don’t know what it says about my own family that I’m always interested in the weird relationships inside families. I knew I wanted to write about brothers, but I didn’t want them to just be like normal, handsome brothers who are all titled or rich. I was really fascinated by this idea of peeling back the layers of the London underground. I had written the casino series [The Rules of Scoundrels], and that had sort of given me a taste of where I could go if I was willing to lean into the sin of dark, dirty, post-Regency London. And I wanted to unpack that darkness.
The backstory is that there are these three bastard brothers who were all born on the same day. They were all born to different women, but they are all by-blows of a duke who did not himself have a male heir, and he’s able to name one of them heir to his title. He brings them all to the estate as children and they have to compete, and he chooses the one who he thinks is most able to carry on the name. And the other two flee and raise themselves in the rookeries of London in the 1830s, which were not kind places to men or children. They pull themselves up by their bootstraps and they rise from the gutter and they become the “Bareknuckle Bastards,” and they are a notorious crime ring. Essentially, they’re smugglers. The first book is the first brother, Devil, this is his story. You’ve met the heroine of this book in the last book [The Day of the Duchess], and she’s pretty squarely ruined. She has been betrayed by society. She’s too old, too plain. Nobody really cares about her — she’s sort of been lost. In a fit of regret, anger, frustration, and sadness, and all the things we feel as women getting older in the world, she has announced that she is engaged to a real duke. And of course, it’s not true. It’s a revenge story. The hero wants to exact his revenge on this duke, and so he goes to her and he tells her that he can make it happen with the idea that he will use her to exact revenge, but of course he falls in love with her, as tends to happen, and everything goes south.
It sounds like a bit of a departure for you, in a way?
Basically it’s a revenge play, but I’m really, really excited about it because I get to spend so much time in a completely new world. I’m not writing ballrooms really, although there is a ballroom in the book, but I’m not writing the aristocracy here. I’m writing these dudes who live in Covent Garden and work in the darkness and are criminals, essentially. Noble criminals, but criminals nonetheless. It’s like Taboo meets Harlots meets I-don’t-know-what-else, lots of things. They’re ice smugglers. Everything is highly taxed at this time, anything foreign, so they’re smuggling in bourbon and tobacco and all kinds of things, but to get past the crown, which is searching for smugglers, they smuggle them in on ice ships from Norway. So I got really excited about writing hot thieves in ice holes. My husband is convinced this is because of Frozen — like my daughter went through a Frozen phase and I was like, “I’m going to write an ice smuggler.” [Laughs] If Kristoff wasn’t such a doofus, he would be a Bareknuckle Bastard maybe.
What inspired you to move into this slightly darker world?
Regency is beautiful, high-society, aristocratic love stories, so they’re set in an idyllic, rarefied community of people with an idyllic, rarefied setting, and everybody bathes all the time. My heroes and heroines do continue to bathe all the time [laughs], but everybody is perfect in the traditional Regency romance. I wrote myself out of Regency almost, during the Rules of Scoundrels books — they straddled the end of Regency and I started to get interested in this world that wasn’t quite beautiful. It was sexy and it was lush and it was filled with temptation and sin, but it wasn’t beautiful. It has an edge to it. It has a darkness to it … This idea that this is not a rarefied community of people, this is real-deal London darkness in the 1830s. So there’s smugglers, there’s a crime ring, they’re in a darker neighborhood of London, there’s a brothel, there are things that I’ve never written before and it’s because I wanted to lean into this idea of where you can find beauty in darkness. I’m really interested in that — I don’t know if it’s because right now in the world there’s a lot of darkness and so we need to think about finding beauty in it. But also I’m obsessed with all these period, dark BBC shows. When I came up with the idea, I was watching Ripper Street. It’s Victorian so it’s later, but it’s set in a police precinct. I got really excited about all of these characters, these real people who are interesting and diverse and complex and normal, sort of very much like us. We are not the aristocracy. I live in New York City, where everything has a little bit of edge, and I wanted to write that. Ripper Street, Harlots, Taboo, Peaky Blinders, all those great lush TV shows certainly have informed the world that I built. Frozen. [Laughs]
What type of research did you do, and did find yourself falling into rabbit holes as you were going along?
I had to be really thoughtful about what type of criminals I was going to write because I knew I wanted to write criminals, but I didn’t want them to be running drugs or weapons or women. I didn’t want them to be slavers. I wanted them to be upstanding men with a code. They were children when they ended up in London, when they escaped their father, and then they ended up in this terrible place. Where children ended up in London if they didn’t end up in workhouses or orphanages was kind of this world that was really grim, if you think about the way Dickens portrays the poor. I have also always been really interested in heist movies and the way heists happen and the way there are levels of crime. There’s the truly criminal crime and the crime that’s entertaining to watch. I was really interested in what kind of crime was happening in these worlds, recognizing that there is a very dark, very seedy underbelly of threatening violence underneath everything, but leaving that aside. Acknowledging the violence exists, but I didn’t want to get as dark as all that. So I started to get really interested in things like “drunk blades,” people who would pretend that they were drunk and they would knock into you and then slice into your purse and take all your coins … I got really interested in the character of thievery. When you’re talking about a time when the haves and have-nots were so remarkably stratified, to survive as a have-not, you had to have a skill at swindling the haves. I got really interested in who those people were who were clever enough and innovative enough and had enough strength and luck to climb. I’ve always been much more interested in the people who have to climb than the people who are already there.
The cover design seems to echo this new direction for you. What was the back-and-forth on the design process like?
I wanted it to telegraph something new and different and a shift in how I’m thinking about the world that I’m building. I wanted it to feel like it’s a different world, and it is a different world. There is a MacLean font, and it’s hand-lettered by a lovely woman, and we looked at a dozen covers with “my font,” and I ended up saying, “What if we threw that out? Would it make it more modern? Would it make it feel edgier? Would it make it feel darker?” I wanted it to have that sort of monochrome darkness in the background. I wanted the space behind her to feel a touch more dangerous because I wanted to feel like what it is, which is basically a princess in the tower falling into the darkness and falling in love with it. There’s no doubt that the inspiration from the cover came a lot from me knowing this book was going to have a very different world in it and wanting to set it apart from the others. This is book 12 for me, so it’s a nice time to take a little walk in the darkness.
Tom Hardy makes frequent appearances on your Twitter feed. Can we expect to see a character inspired by him in the new series?
[Laughs] Pretty much like half of my heroes are inspired by Tom Hardy. Here’s the thing about Tom Hardy — he’s such a great grunter. If you have seen Taboo, there’s this great YouTube video that’s a cut of all the times he grunts or growls throughout the course of the entirety of Taboo. It’s hilariously funny because it’s like five straight minutes of Tom Hardy growling, and what I love about him is his unwillingness to play the handsome hero. He’s always an antihero. He so rarely leans into handsomeness; he so rarely leans into the fact that women across the world just want to make out with him. I love that he resists it. That makes for a really great romance character as a centering character trait. This idea that they refuse to be heroic, they refuse to be a heartthrob, they refuse to have love infiltrate anything that is related to their lives. So of course when they finally do get all these things, it’s disastrous, which is what’s so fun. This one [in the series] is actually not the Tom Hardy-inspired one, but sure, you can read it that way. Why wouldn’t you?
You’ve never pulled any punches in this department, but you wrote very explicitly about how the 2016 election and our current world shaped your last book. Would you say the same was the case here and an extension of that journey for you as a writer?
I try to write a book I’ve never written before. The Day of the Duchess was a lot of work for me, because I did sort of toss out almost two-thirds of it right after the election and rewrite it. This book, because I’m working with sin and darkness and edge and the hero has made a lot of money doing criminal things, I’ve had to think a lot about how I write a noble hero. I have found in actual fact it’s easier to write a feminist when you’re writing in this world because there is no space for disrespect among people who are working together to better themselves. At least in my mind, in this world, that’s what’s happening. There are very, very strong women around the edges of this book who will have ultimately bigger roles in the next two books, and they are deeply respected by heroes of all of these books because they’re strong, smart, thoughtful, powerful women who have also pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Also, what’s been super fun and really sexy for me has been all the consent issues that are going on in the world and just making sure they’re coded into the book. I say often that dirty talk in romance novels is just ongoing consent. Dirty talk in life is just ongoing consent, and so it’s been really fun to write a truly dirty-talking hero. It’s something romance is going to have to deal with more and more over the next, say, 18 months. I think we are going to see a lot of books that are working out the kinks of how we write alpha heroes and sex scenes while still making them consensual and ensuring that we’re giving a thoughtful assessment of the world that we are living and writing in.
Do you think the #metoo movement and conversations about consent and harassment might also help finally end some of the sexism and dismissive attitudes toward the genre?
I hope so, is the short answer. First of all, I think people who have problems with romance often haven’t read it ever. And then I also think the single biggest issue that people have with romance, or at least the driver of their issues with romance, is that they have a problem with women having sexual agency. This idea that romance is just porn for ladies or romance is bad for women because it puts them in a position of subjugation or anything along those lines is really about policing women’s kink and policing women’s pleasure. We’ve been policing women’s pleasure for millennia. What I can say is that it feels really different now than it did when I even started writing romance, which was eight years ago. So what I can hope is we’re moving in a direction where we’re acknowledging women as sexual beings, women who have sexual identity, women who can make sexual choices on their own, and we’re seeing that happen in the world at large. The #metoo conversation, the consent conversation is happening and it’s so painful, it’s so hard, but it’s making all of us think carefully about what we do and don’t want, and what we can and can’t expect. Ultimately, that will serve romance because romance is about fantasy and pleasure and partnership and parity. It can be both about fantasy and about reality; it is not one or the other, and that’s been something we’ve struggled with as a genre for many years. Now we’re finally coming to a place where we can see that it’s both. Why not both? Why shouldn’t we have a relationship that is so safe and so partnered and so honest and trusting that we can also share our fantasy? And have that too? Without judgement.
Obviously many romance authors are incredible advocates for the genre, but you take things a step further with your column in the Washington Post. How did that come about? And why do you think it’s so crucial to have a voice like yours talking about romance in a more mainstream publication?
I’ve been reading romance for my whole life, since I picked up my first romance when I was 9 or 10, and I never looked back. My general state in the world is as a romance recommender. I’m a reader first, always, and I’ve read like 10,000 romances in my life and my superpower is that I remember them all. Once I started writing and people cared about what I had to say about romance, it became really natural for me to be able to point to books that had been powerful to me and that had value to me, and then it just came from there. Julia Quinn [a fellow romance author] says all the time that the challenge of writing romance is that every genre has good books and bad books, and other genres are judged on the basis of their best books and romance is often judged on the basis of its worst. That’s really, really, really true. Readers are conditioned to be ashamed of what they read. Writers are conditioned to be ashamed of what we write, and that kind of shame is imbued in everything. It’s really damaging, and it’s really exhausting, frankly.
The fact that I started reading it so young made it easier for me not to be ashamed of it. Because it was just what I did. For me, romance has always been about feminism. It’s been about giving women power as readers and writers, centering the female gaze and also centering women in the story. I appreciate that there’s a lot wrapped up in feminism as a concept for romance. Not every romance writer wants that battle, not every romance writer believes that we’re writing feminist texts, not every romance reader reads the books as such. But where else do you get the female gaze? Nowhere. You get it in Harlots, you get it in half a dozen movies a year maybe, maybe two or three TV shows. Always in romance. Always. To me it’s never been hard to love romance and proudly love it and talk about it, but that’s not the case for a lot of women who maybe aren’t such bigmouths as I am. And so the Post article, NPR, you guys, we’re at a sea change in national media covering it. Places that might never have considered romance as legitimate genre are now placing a stake in the ground and saying romance has value. Of course it does, it’s 30-something percent of the paperback fiction market; it’s a juggernaut. It keeps the lights on in publishing. Someday we won’t be ashamed of what we read because people will appreciate that women having agency is not a bad thing. But, boy, it feels harder now than it ever has. It’s tough. It feels like the fight we fought five years ago trying to prove that romance had value is a terrifying metaphor of fighting to prove that women have value now in the world.
The Wicked and the Wallflower hits shelves June 19.