Kait Jagger was reading an unsatisfying book on a train. She started thinking about how she would have written it differently–better. And so she began writing her own novels, about a smart British woman with a sad past, who meets an enterprising young man, who attempts to sweep her off her feet. Needless to say, their story isn’t simple and they encounter plenty of obstacles, not the least of which is a controlling, formidable Marchioness.
I had the pleasure of reading both her first book, Lord and Master, and her second book, Her Master’s Servant, which will be released January 18. I found myself almost inhabiting the world of Luna Gregory, our heroine, and her lover, Stefan. After reading her two novels, I was anxious to talk to Kait Jagger about her writing process, her characters, and where they’re headed.
What attracted you to the romance genre? Or do you consider these to be judged on their own, not in a particular category?
As a reader, I’m a bit of an omnivore: in addition to romances, I read mysteries, crime novels, historical fiction, sci-fi… and I’m a complete sucker for dystopian fantasies! My all-time favourite novels—books like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, and Affinity by Sarah Waters—all say profound things about the nature of attraction and love. As a writer, those are the kind of themes I’m drawn to, where I feel I have something to say.
Not that I am in any way setting myself beside these literary greats! The thing, the only thing, that really matters to me is writing what the English refer to as a stonking good read. Not War and Peace, not Wuthering Heights… just a book my fellow women are going to take to bed with a glass of wine, pull the duvet cover up, and lose themselves in.
The settings of both books are pictured vividly. Do you have personal experience in all those places?
Suffice it to say, I have clocked up many air and road miles, exceeded the value of my National Trust membership card, watched lambs being born, conducted interrogations in the cellars of Stockholm drinking establishments, and forced my husband to submit to numerous acts of research across the length and breadth of Britain, all in the name of authenticity! Like my lead character Luna Gregory, I also lived in Miami for a period when I was in my twenties.
A confession, however: my inspiration for Arborage House, the fictional 500-year-old historic home in Berkshire where we first meet Luna, is located much closer to home, in neighbouring Derbyshire. Chatsworth House, which was used as a filming location for the Keira Knightley films Pride and Prejudice and The Duchess, is an outstanding example of a historic estate that has made the transition from family home into successful business. The character of Lady Wellstone in Lord and Master owes much to Deborah Devonshire, wife of the 11th Duke of Devonshire, who was the powerhouse behind the transformation of Chatsworth into a profitable stately home.
The tricky lineage of Arborage is explained well. Did you do research into the ancestry of titled families?
I’m not an expert in genealogy by any stretch, though in a country that still has a reigning monarch, you can’t escape the issues of ancestry and progeniture. I tried to ensure that the details of the Wellstone family tree, which dates back to the Tudor period, were plausible and added spice to the story. A Jacobean autocrat here, a closeted Catholic in Queen Elizabeth I’s court there… and no British aristocratic family is complete without a suspected Nazi sympathiser or two rattling around in its closet!
Luna has quite a back story. How did you approach balancing her back story and the present one? How do you avoid “exposition dump”?
Great question, and one that preys on me constantly when I’m writing about Luna! So difficult, when you have her entire back story laid out in your mind—the circumstances through which she became an orphan at age twelve, her subsequent, troubled teenage years, the pivotal role Lady Wellstone played in them—to know how and when to reveal what you know to your audience.
I want this series to reward the patient reader, who appreciates a slow burn, so I am definitely still holding back critical information regarding Luna’s past. There are facets of her character that aren’t going to be revealed till the final chapter of the final book in the series.
Luna has great respect and admiration for Arborage, and those associated with it, but she’s very daring in every aspect of her life — driving, sex, friends. Does Luna represent a new kind of “quintessential English woman”?
Gosh, I hope so! To me, Luna isn’t so much daring as doggedly independent, the 21st century embodiment of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. As Stefan jokes, ‘You would sooner gnaw off your own arm than to ask for help.’ One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about writing their story is the way he challenges that and how she responds, sometimes by giving a little, but just as often by telling him exactly where to go.
[WARNING: Very mild spoilers from the books ahead.]
Luna is such a strong woman, especially in the second book. But there are times she is very meek and fearful. What would make her back down from the Marchioness and her brother-in-law?
Even the strongest woman has weaknesses—I don’t think the reader could sympathise with Luna if she didn’t have any failings. Florian Wellstone, brother of the 16th Marquess of Lionsbridge and one of the chief villains of the Lord and Master trilogy, is an intimidating man who has an unhealthy, creepy obsession with Luna. I’ve never been in the type of perilous situation she eventually gets into with Florian, but I absolutely know what it is to be afraid of someone in a position of power over me. I’d love to say that I stood up to him, spat in his eye—but I did not. In real life, the bad guys sometimes get away with it.
It’s a completely different story between Luna and the Marchioness, however. Luna’s relationship with her boss is arguably the other great love of her life, after Stefan. There’s a scene in the first book where Lady Wellstone is making a massive, beyond-the-call-of-duty request of Luna, trying to explain her reasons, and Luna just gives her a look as if to say, You don’t need to say this. You knew me when no one else did. I will do anything for you. So it’s not fear but blind devotion that makes Luna bend to the Marchioness’s will. To her cost.
At the end of the first book, Stefan vows to get Luna back by any means, but the first time he is with her in the second book, he treats her abominably. For her part, Luna slinks off in a walk of shame. How does that scene reconcile with their timeline?
Just before I started writing the second book, I took a trip to Bath (which is a fantastic city, well worth visiting!) with my husband and two youngest sons. I should preface this story by saying that although the boys are supportive of my fledgling writing career in theory, in practice they are about as keen as you might imagine teenage boys would be to hear about ‘Mum’s sex books’. But over dinner near the Royal Crescent our second night in Bath, I decided to put a hypothetical question to them. What, I asked them, would you do if you had a girlfriend you’d wronged—a girl you really loved, but had let down so badly that she’d walked out of your life, and now it’s two months later and you’re about to see her again for the first time. How would you get her back?
Somewhat to my surprise, the boys took my question seriously, particularly my 16-year-old. But he wasn’t interested in answering the question as I’d posed it. I’d be angry with her, he said, for leaving in the first place, for not giving me a chance to sort things out with her.
This conversation with my insightful son got me thinking. I think you can really love someone, and really want to make things right with them, but simultaneously be really pissed that they’ve put you through hell for two months, disappearing off the face of the planet without so much as a ‘Goodbye, Stefan’. And I think it’s reasonable to expect that this anger might manifest itself in your physical interactions with them.
As to Luna walking the walk of shame the morning after, she doesn’t see it that way! As far as she’s concerned, she’s just a woman with a plane to catch. Who, like the ultra-efficient personal assistant she is, showers, jumps into her jeans and Doc Martens, pauses to set Stefan’s alarm for him, and even finds time en route to Heathrow to give a lift to a hung-over ex-coworker. For sure, she’s troubled and sad about where things stand between her and Stefan—but she’s not ashamed!
The end of the second book is a cliff hanger! Are you planning a lengthy series?
It’s a trilogy only. I’m currently hard at work on the third and final installment, The Marchioness, due out later this year.