ABOUT The Slightest Provocation...
It started with an image of an Englishman hidden in shadow - and an Englishwoman, rather the worse for a hard day of travel, stepping out of a coach into an inn yard at Calais. She's unaware that he's watching her - he's had experience in military intelligence and knows how to keep out of sight. He's spent hours waiting for her; she's mostly interested in getting a good dinner.
Who really had the power in this scene? I wasn't sure. The book would be a way of finding out.
It astonishes me that whatever else changed during the writing of The Slightest Provocation (and just about everything did) this dark founding image remains almost as I first imagined it.
Or perhaps it's not so surprising. I've always been fascinated by the erotic power of secret looking and the pleasure of being powerless to stop.
But power has other dimensions beyond the erotic, and I also knew that I wanted to situate my couple on the opposing sides of an actual historical conflict. The years after Waterloo were a time of strife and social polarization in England. The large majority of the people had no voice in their parliament, and the government tried to keep it that way. One of its tools for suppressing dissent was domestic espionage (more secret looking). The Home Office set spies on ordinary people and unleashed provocateurs on local reform movements.
I knew that my heroine Mary would sympathize with the reformers. And that my as-yet-nameless hero would be an active supporter of political stability. But what would bring this contentious pair of lovers together? And how could I bring a little light and heat into the darkness?
It took a long time, a few false starts, and even some tears before I worked it out. But how delightful, when it came to me that Mary and Kit (for by now he had a name) were...
...married. Married and separated years before the book began, by force of their own youthful stubbornness and indiscretions. This would be a book about domestic espionage, marital mayhem, and erotic entanglement. It would still have its political component, but I'd be bringing it all back home as well.
So it was most fitting, at that point, for my own husband to put in his two cents. Because I'm married to a guy who has an almost preternatural ability to see me and what I'm thinking - and who has very definite opinions on what I need to read, to help me solve whatever writerly problem is vexing me at the moment (he is a bookseller after all).
"You're writing a remarriage comedy," Michael told me.
"I am? What's that?"
"Here." And so he handed me a most remarkable book, called Pursuits of Happiness, a serious study of some lighter-than-air movies. Those lovely, glossy black-and-white romantic comedies, often starring Katherine Hepburn - or Cary Grant, the man who could take the world's coolest, sexiest pratfall. The Philadelphia Story, Adam's Rib, His Girl Friday...
These were movies that portrayed marriage as a problem rather than a solution, an armed truce rather than a happy-ever-ending. They were about couples and class, sex and power, men and women and who knee and elbow each other even on their way to bed. What's best about these old movies is how their heroes and heroines are always manifestly onto each other's flaws and foibles - and manage to make heckling and aggravation the sexiest, most intimate thing in the room.
I wanted to write about marriage. And aggravation. About knowing someone as well as you know yourself, even when you want to throw things at him. (And about a sexy guy who knows how to take a pratfall when he needs to.)
Hope you enjoy it.
Best (and with love and thanks to Michael),