Maya Rodale talks writing in the Gilded Age and the subversive nature of dresses with pockets
Maya Rodale knows a lot about romance.
In addition to being the best-selling author of over 15 romance novels, Rodale reviews the genre for NPR Books and turned her master’s thesis into nonfiction title Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained. But when I sat down with Rodale in the midst of the busy Romance Writers of America Conference in Denver in July, she was on the verge of shaking things up — preparing to release her first novel set in the Gilded Age, Duchess by Design, this October.
Rodale’s in good company as the genre itself continues to evolve and shift with contemporary culture, increasingly finding new ways to convey consent and address gender roles, harassment, and more on the page. It’s something Rodale was keen to do with her new heroine, Adeline Black, a fashionable dressmaker in Gilded Age New York who puts pockets in her dresses — considered a subversive act at the time.
Rodale chatted all this and more with EW, as well as shared an exclusive excerpt of the novel’s first chapter, which can be read after the cover jump.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You came to romance a bit late in undergrad, but then wrote your graduate thesis on the genre — how’d you make that jump?
MAYA RODALE: Most readers start reading romance when they’re like 12, and they steal it from their moms. I was at NYU majoring in women in fiction as writers and characters, an NYU interdisciplinary major, and my mom was reading romances at the time. She was like, “You can’t get that degree without reading the most popular and profitable books by women and for women ever.” I laughed at her, and I was like, “Those are stupid books for stupid people.” I’m reading Ulysses. But she persisted, and I was like “Fine, give me a syllabus,” and she did. They’re wonderful stories, so of course, I started devouring everything I could get my hands on. But the question of how I knew to laugh when she told me to read them stuck with me. I didn’t know anyone who read them. I didn’t have any actual interaction with romance readers. Where did this come from? They’re not talked about in school at all. How did I even know what a romance novel was? I started researching it more in my graduate degree. I was reading a lot about the invention of the novel, and the publishing industry over the years, formulating this idea of how I knew to laugh when we talk about romance novels. Also, why they’re actually not stupid books for stupid women and how they’re the most subversive, empowering things, even when they promote questionable stories or values or whatever. My mom made me do it is the short answer.
A lot of your books have direct pop culture ties – have you always been an avid film and television watcher? Why turn to that for story inspiration?
I’m always interested in [the idea that] it’s a book set then, but it’s about us now. They’re [an] escape, but we’re always looking to stories to tell us about ourselves and the world we live in. Bringing pop culture to historical romance is the most natural thing in the world. It makes it relevant and interesting and refreshing to me. I write Gilded Age now, and I love it because the time period allows me to historically accurate but still incorporate what’s happening now in a much more authentic and genuine way.
Speaking of moving to the Gilded Age from Regency, what made you want do that?
I probably shouldn’t say this, but I got tired of the Regency and trying to fit characters and storylines into a time period that wasn’t the most natural fit. And it’s like 20 minutes in the span of human history. It’s wonderful and I still read it and love it and may go back to it, but I’ve written 15 or something Regencies, and I was ready for a new challenge. I still have a duke. He’s a very different duke because he’s in such a different time period where you’re not the most powerful anymore. Your title is not enough in this world — you have to make something of yourself to be worthy of this heroine and this title of hero. I found myself writing more of a story where the hero transforms dramatically. We talk a lot about the heroine transforming in her story, but what if she’s just awesome from page one? What if the story is everyone else realizing it, not her coming into her own?
So this era grants more opportunities and independence for heroines?
Yeah. She’s a seamstress from the Lower East Side tenements, and she aspires to be a dressmaker. I could have done that in the Regency, but there was a little more mobility and fluidity and acceptance of a woman making her own business. The other aspect is there’s a secret ladies club, the Ladies of Liberty. They’re a mix of female entrepreneurs or society women, and they come together to advance women’s interests, individually or collectively. That’s so Gilded Age. It’s when the women’s club movement started; it’s the progressive era; it’s suffrage. The idea of women forming a club to help other women is so historically accurate to the Gilded Age, but it’s also so the spirit of now.
What’s your research process?
For this, it was way more intense because I had to learn everything from scratch. I read books. I found amazing books for this and people’s master’s theses. I’m so appreciative of the work women have done. I found one book on millinery and the dress making trade from 1850 to 1900, and it was just this gold mine. This other one was like Women of Work, Ladies of Adventure, something like that, and the process of women as they went to work and left these traditional cultures and got their own money and had leisure time.
Is this based on a particular movie?
No. But it’s based on the whole thing where the impoverished British aristocrat came to find an American heiress. Very Downton [Abbey]. My dressmaking heroine puts pockets in all of her dresses. There’s a scene where she’s talking with the hero and he’s like “What does a woman need pockets for?” She’s like, “Lipstick, love letters, money of her own.” I have my heroine going out to party with a guy with a condom in her pocket. I’ll see what the die-hard historical romance fans think of that, but, a girl’s got to be smart and safe.
Do you think romance will ever get to a place where we don’t have to legitimize it over and over?
After writing Dangerous Books for Girls, my feeling is that we stigmatize romance because it’s women and money. It suffers from the whole cheap lowbrow art thing that every art form has. It’s the same way a summer blockbuster doesn’t get the same critical attention as your Oscar bait movie. That’s a bigger issue than romance. It’s how we value art in general. And then how we value women and women’s stuff. I see that changing. From when I wrote my thesis originally, it was there are no examples of romance in the press except for these four and they’re bad. Then even when I re-wrote it three years later, it was very rarely mentioned in the press — here’s like 7 examples where it’s mentioned and they’re bad but also here’s a few where they’re getting better. Now, the New York Times is covering it; EW is covering it; Bustle is covering it. People are enthusiastic about it now. That’s the best thing Fifty Shades of Grey did. It was too big not to talk about, and then we started talking about it in all these media spaces that would never pay attention to romance before.
How much has romance changed in terms of how it deals with consent?
Every time we talk about that I think about when I first started writing, the big thing was romance authors always included mentions of condoms. We were always thinking about foregrounding that and thinking about sex and the implications of how we write sex on the page. So I’m not surprised we’re leading the way on consent and sex in romance, and I’m glad people are looking to us. Readers have always been looking to romance whether they realize it or not. Romance is so powerful because we’re saying This is what a good relationship looks like. This is what a good sex looks like. This is how you should be treated. Authors have a very powerful responsibility. We’ve been making the effort to show consent, but I’m glad people are recognizing here’s an example of how to write about sex that’s good for both people and is still sexy. That brings up the thing of should men be reading more romance? Yes, but then what does that do to this women’s safe space and this subversive thing if men start reading it and then they want to write it and it’s not this awesome women’s only thing anymore? If we can let ourselves really reckon with all of this, we’ll come out stronger and more relevant than ever.
New York City, 1895
The Fifth Avenue Hotel
A chance encounter with the duke was only the second most interesting thing to happen to Miss Adeline Black that afternoon, but that was life in New York City for you. One never knew whom one might meet, what good fortune or disaster might befall you, or when you will crash into the town’s most eligible bachelor in the lobby of the Fifth Avenue Hotel.
Tuesday. That’s when.
Tuesday, precisely seven minutes before two o’clock in the afternoon.
This meant that she had precisely seven minutes to make her way through the vast hall of the Fifth Avenue Hotel on her way to the suite of rooms of Miss Harriet Burnett. Adeline didn’t know her from Adam, but she knew an opportunity to change her life and make her dreams come true when it requested a two-o’clock appointment.
She could not be late. But this lobby was an absolute crush. The great hall was full of everything a hotel guest could want—from tickets to tea—and it was packed with the city’s wealthiest and most prestigious guests. They strutted their stuff, showed off their finery, made deals, and traded gossip in the luscious surroundings of the city’s most exclusive and opulent hotel.
And they got in her way. These out-of-towners walked slowly in front of her, delaying her progress to the elevator, to Miss Burnett’s rooms on the top floor, to her future.
For the occasion, Adeline wore her best ensemble: a plum-colored walking dress paired with a crisp white shirtwaist bearing a cascade of delicate little ruffles from her throat to her waist. The cropped jacket was darling, edged in gold cord and tailored to show off her narrow waist. A simple matching hat was perched perfectly on her dark hair. On her feet were French-style heels like ladies wore, though hers were purchased from a pushcart downtown for the astronomical sum of a week’s wages. But they were worth it.
They pinched her toes, but they were so worth it.
Adeline darted to the left to avoid a trio of Wall Street types in three-piece suits lumbering toward her with no regard for the people in their path. She spun to the right to dodge a pair of ladies, deep in conversation as they walked. She had too much momentum going to stop herself when a man stepped into her path and turned toward her.
And so she crashed into his firm, muscled chest. Firm, muscled arms enveloped her. She took a deep breath of evergreen-scented soap and clean linen and man. She noted the feel of exceptionally fine cashmere wool against her cheek.
Adeline stilled. And, in all honesty, she savored the moment. It was not every day that a seamstress found herself in a gentleman’s arms, at least in such a respectable fashion.
Well, on Tuesdays.
Except, apparently, on Tuesdays. Adeline took a step and tilted her head back to look at the gentleman with whom she collided.
He felt like he’d be handsome and the truth did not disappoint. He had the kind of good looks a woman just wanted to stare at all day, all night, and then again at the breakfast table. Forever.
There was something about that well-groomed dark brown hair. Something about those deep blue eyes and the faint lines at the corners. Something about that firm, sensuous mouth cocked into a seductive half-smile.
“Well, hello.” His voice was low, his accent distinctly British. Her heart fluttered. “Are you all right, miss?”
She was more than all right.
“Besides being left breathless, I think I am just fine.” She flashed him a flirtatious smile because he was a handsome fellow and she was in the mood to seize opportunities today. “And yourself? Have you recovered from your display of heroics?”
“Oh, I don’t know that I would call catching you heroic. Any decent gentleman would try to catch a pretty girl when she was falling.”
Adeline smiled at him the unfeigned way of a girl just complimented by a handsome man and leaned in close to say, “Don’t look now, but everyone is watching us. You’ll be the talk of the town by supper.”
“You’re assuming I’m not the talk of the town already.”
“Ah, you’re a confident one. You’ll fit right in. Welcome to New York.”
As a dedicated reader of The New York World, particularly the gossip columns in said paper, Adeline had a hunch about just who this handsome stranger was.
He would more than fit in; this man was poised to conquer the Four Hundred and the rest of New York society. It wasn’t just his good looks or his fine suit of clothes, either. He wore his wealth and power effortlessly. It simply radiated from him. All these New York new moneymen dressed the part in fancy wool coats and satin waistcoats; they built veritable palaces along Fifth Avenue, they dropped cash and coin on diamond-studded trinkets and every imaginable, outlandish entertainment. But none of them managed to radiate power and authority as this man did, dressed plainly but excellently.
She had an eye for fashion; she knew these things.
She wanted to breathe it in. Bottle it. Sell it at the counters at Goodwin’s Emporium on the Ladies’ Mile. She’d make a fortune. That was the New Yorker in her. Everything was for sale.
Adeline glanced at the large clock towering over the lobby hall and saw the time was five minutes before two o’clock. If she kept her wits together and remembered her priorities, if she didn’t allow herself to get distracted from her one true purpose by a man, there would be just enough time for her to get there without rushing and arriving gasping for breath.
“Thank you for the heroics. Lovely to make the acquaintance with your chest, if not the rest of you. If you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment.”
She gave him another wide smile and continued on her way toward the elevator. To the top floor. To the chamber of Miss Harriet Burnett. To her best shot at the future she’d always dreamed of.
Oh, but she could not resist a glance over her shoulder; there stood the most eligible bachelor in town in the middle of the Fifth Avenue Hotel lobby, smiling, with his gaze fixed on her bustle as she walked away.
Duchess by Design hits shelves October 23, but you can pre-order it now.
duchess by design