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Marsha Canham

e-interviewed by Martina Bexte (February, 2003)

Historical romance author Marsha Canham readily admits she's hooked on stories of adventure and derring-do and bigger-than-life heroes. Valiant Scottish warriors, medieval knights and outlaws, mysterious highwaymen, steely-eyed gunslingers, and swashbuckling pirates who stand sure-footedly in their ship's rigging, cutlass in one hand and spyglass in the other - these are in Marsha's opinion, the ultimate thrill. Not that Marsha's heroines are shrinking violets either -- each is always her hero's ultimate match!

When she couldn't get her fill of action packed tales of yore, Marsha decided to create stories of her own and debuted in the historical romance scene in the early 80's. The release of her first novel, China Rose, immediately garnered critical praise. It was soon followed by her first 'rip-roaring pirate adventure', The Wind and the Sea, which won additional praise and the 'Swashbuckler of the Year' award from Romantic Times Magazine. With her newest release, The Iron Rose, ready to hit the shelves in March, readers are in for another of Marsha's trademark adventures on the high seas!

Q: You've been quoted calling yourself a 'dinosaur' in the historical romance genre - how much have historical romances changed from the time of your first release, China Rose, to now? Do you think the historical romance will ever lose its appeal?

A: How much have they changed? Like day and night. I came in at the tail end of the "bodice ripper" era, when the heroines were all innocent virgins, naive to the point of being too stupid to live at times, with heroes who were big and bold and arrogant and were not frowned upon for forcing the heroine into bed. Writing was flowery and dripped with purple prose, and to my mind anyway, a lot deserved the bashing they received in reviews.

Over the past twenty years, there has been an almost complete turn around. Readers scoff at purple prose, unlikely plot lines, heroines that are wimpy or too stupid to live. They hold a writer to task if the hero forces himself on the heroine, or is brutish or arrogant or Neanderthal ... all qualities that were once revered in the old sheik / pirate / Indian / civil war romances. The change has been for the better, making us authors work harder, be more meticulous in our research, and more aware of writing for emotions rather than simple sensual gratification.

Q: Your earliest books are out of print -- will readers and fans who'd like to complete their Marsha Canham collection ever see any reissues of your other earliest novels, Bound by the Heart and The Wind and the Sea?

A: I keep my fingers crossed every time I get a new editor, that one of these days, she will ask to see the books that are out of print and say: hey ... we should reissue these. LOL Oddly enough, it happened with The Pride of Lions and The Blood of Roses, which Dell reissued after learning they were out of print for nearly a decade. I am still astonished when I see copies of The Wind and The Sea going at auction for $80, $90. I only have three copies of it myself and would love to see it back in circulation.

Q: Your most well received books are your series, those set in Scotland (aka your Scotland series) and also your Medieval collection (the latter are adventures set in England and feature characters with some resemblance to those well-known outlaws of the Robin Hood legends). Through a Dark Mist, In the Shadow of Midnight and The Last Arrow won a quiver-full of awards, ones that were well deserved. I think the trilogy was truly outstanding and would love to see you write a second series. Any plans of doing so in future?

A: Oddly enough, I never set out to intentionally write even one series. The Pride of Lions started out to be a single book based on and around the Jacobite Rebellion, but when I was 350 pages into it and realized I hadn't even scratched the surface of the story I wanted to tell, I ended up proposing a second book to the publisher -- which they agreed on -- and totally rewriting POL from scratch so that the story could progress through a second book. While writing The Blood of Roses, I found Colonel Anne's story so fascinating, I knew there was another book there, but was so emotionally drained from the first two, that it took ten years for me gird my loins and head back into the Scottish highlands.

The Black Wolf series progressed much the same. I wrote Through A Dark Mist to stand on its own, with no intentions or thoughts to a sequel. I thought I was writing my version of Robin Hood without actually using his name, but by the end, I knew it wasn't Robin at all, but my own Black Wolf who was a nobleman, not an outlaw. When I finished it, I did what I usually do after writing a book that is dark and intense ... I changed gears and wrote something lighter and less demanding. But at the end of that, I kept thinking back to those lovely forests and castles of medieval England and I thought hey, I wrote the character of the Wolf's son in TADM, who would have grown to be a wounded, scarred man with horrendous memories of his youth ... the perfect hero. I had also used Princess Eleanor of Brittany, whose own story is still steeped in mystery hundreds of years later, and so I thought why not take another bash at the Robin Hood legend? Once again, Eduard turned out to be his own story, but in the process of writing it, I knew I had the beginnings of a youthful Robin on my hands. I had the young Will of the Scarlet Eyes, Little John ... all of whom marched me straight into The Last Arrow. I love that time period, just love it.

Will I write another series? Not deliberately. But I've also learned never to say never.

Q: Why do you think legends like Robin Hood and his Merry Men remain perennial favourites? Is there any indication from your research that Robin and his band of merry men ever really existed? In your heart, do you think they did?

A: I did a lot of research for the Robin Hood series, and I came to the conclusion -- my own -- that he was more a compilation of characters than an actual character himself. Only one in perhaps five hundred people could read or write back then and stories were passed by poets and bards, all of whom would have exaggerated the telling of tales, and basically doing what we do today with the written word -- elaborate, create new characters, make up deeds and credit the merry men with things they could not possibly have done. There was a Robert Hode, living at about the right time. There was also a knight, the Earl of Huntington, who got in King John's bad graces and turned outlaw for a time. Sherwood forest existed, but the sheriff of Nottingham at the time was a woman, Nicolaa de la Haye. Guy de Gisborne was one of the king's lackeys, never sheriff, and the Prioress of Kirklees Abbey was a blinded noblewoman. In my heart, I very much want to believe there was a Robin, that his adventures were real, that his love for Marienne was real. So I'll stick to my version of the events and keep the history books closed.

Q: The Wind and The Sea ... your 'rip roaring pirate adventure' won numerous awards and accolades ... tell us a bit about that story and how it evolved.

A: I had already dabbled in a bit of piracy with China Rose -- the hero was a smuggler and suspected slaver. Then in Bound By the Heart, I got my feet wet in the Caribbean with yet another blockade runner who smuggled guns and rum to the colonies. With each of those books, I researched a little more into ships, gunnery, sails etc, and while reading some of the adventures of the blockade runners, I just caught the fever, I guess. I felt more comfortable with the knowledge I had researched -- enough so to base an entire book on board a ship, and to toss that ship into the hotbed of pirate activity along the Barbary Coast. It was also the first book where the heroine was as strong, if not stronger than the hero. She was raised as a pirate, fought and killed like a pirate, and shoved the hero into a secondary role more than once. She was and is one of my favorite characters and most of my heroines who followed after had a lot of Courtney's strong, stubborn, proud characteristics. The book itself also proved to ME that I could write adventure, that it wasn't strictly male territory. I have been criticized on occasion for being too violent, too graphic, too involved with the action over the romance, but that's what I love about historical adventures, and if it doesn't feel "real" to me, then it isn't worth writing.

Q: You pack a lot of action and derring-do into your books as evidenced once again by your newest release, The Iron Rose, another high seas adventure. Have you ever taken archery or fencing lessons or done any other hands on research to familiarize yourself more thoroughly with the weapons used in the time periods you write about?

A: No, but I would love to. I love to wander through the medieval displays in museums, just sitting there for hours drooling over the weapons, the armor, the displays of knights, cannons, treasure recovered from sunken ships. Augh. I never come away that my arms aren't full of books, my head full of visions of all that lovely metal clashing and bashing. *g*

Q: Haven't pirate epics in particular been over-romanticized? Most history books or historical experts of that time period are pretty clear in showing that life on the high seas was no walk in the park.

A: That is what I try to put into most of my pirate books, that it wasn't an easy life. That men had their hands crushed, their legs blown off, their eyes shot out. Most had missing or loose teeth from scurvy, and the only reason they wore gold rings in their ears was that so there would be enough money to bury them if they died on land. There were no showers, no bathtubs on board a ship. The latrines were a series of holes in a wooden plank that jutted out over the open water. Beds were hammocks slung on the gun decks and the captain, if he had an eye to luxury, slept on a narrow wooden shelf that hung on the wall. The over-romanticizing comes in the form of heroines who find themselves captured by a lusty, nail chewing pirate only to have him so taken by her beauty and spunk that he resolves to win her with his charm. Gimme a break. If a pirate captured a woman, he likely raped her right there on the deck then passed her around to the crew. I don't put quite that degree of reality into my books, but the women have to learn to be tough, to survive pain and injuries, filth and ugliness. I guess that's why I like my heroines to start out on board the ship, that way there are no surprises. LOL. For The Iron Rose, I've taken it one step further and reversed the roles completely so that it is the hero who is the complete fish out of water. He is captured and taken on board the heroine's ship, where he learns that his title means nothing, he has to work to earn his keep, and the heroine would as soon slit his throat as fall for his charming smile. Again, I had a lot of fun with this book and hope the role reversal is received well.

Q: You've written one contemporary in the past, Dark and Dangerous, a category romance released under the Temptation line. Do you see yourself trying on another contemporary for size any time soon?

A: Short answer: no. Longer answer: I've learned never to say never. *g*

Q: Do you outline and research extensively?

A:Yes. I read a lot in the beginning of a new project to get the feel of the time period, the subject. I usually take a year to write a book, and even then sometimes it isn't quite right and I zoom way past my deadline, rewriting and editing myself half to death.

Q: What's your first indication that an idea's going to work? Perhaps you could use your new book, The Iron Rose, as an example?

A: I never know it's going to work. Not even when I've typed THE END. Every book is a crap shoot, and it doesn't get any easier trying to think of what will work and what won't. Having been in the business for twenty years, I've seen a lot of changes, favorite time periods that come and go, subjects that were popular then that are shunned now -- like pirate adventures. So when you decide to go against the grain, as I usually do, you don't know if it's going to work until the book is on the shelf and you start getting reader feed back. I pitched The Iron Rose to a very receptive editor -- at a new publishing house -- who was gone from the house a month later. I went nearly nine months without hearing from anyone at the publishers, and when I finally did hand the mss in, it was to yet another editor who had barely been on board a few weeks and had never even seen the proposal.

Q: Once the germ of an idea grows and starts falling into place and you've got your characters sorted out, is the rest of the book's evolution an easy process?

A: That just made me spew my coffee. LOL. Easy? EASY? It's never easy. I suppose if I was disciplined and worked from an outline it might be a tad less stressful, but I don't. I sit down and stare at a blank page with no idea where the story is going or who is going to play what part. I have written myself into so many corners it gets to be an expected "wall" somewhere along the way where I have to stop, go back and rethink what I've done to see if there is a way around or through that wall. Easy? I wish.

Q: Tell us a bit about the models on your books covers ... the ones fans can find at your website (which is great by the way and alternates from serious to zany). But back to the models ... you've dedicated quite a bit of space on your site to some really hunky men ... it was very hard to tear myself away! It's clear you have a real ... errrr ... affection for these gorgeous guys!

A: Oh yeahhhhhhh. I like my men. My two favorite covers are The Wind and the Sea, simply because the hero and heroine look exactly as I imagined them, doing exactly what I wrote them doing. My second fav is Across A Moonlit Sea -- the stepback art of Rob Ashton is stunning, and the first one where I begged, pleaded, and sold my firstborn in order to have just the hero on his own, no women clutching him, sucking his throat, grabbing for his crotch. I love both those covers and have them, along with a life-size posterboard of Cherif from The Blood of Roses on my office walls.

Q: Do you have any influence as to which models will grace your book covers?

A: I did for the reissues of The Pride of Lions and The Blood of Roses. I had been to an RT convention and was introduced to an aspiring model -- Cherif Fortin. He hadn't been on any covers and only came with a portfolio of pics that he showed me the very night the editor had agreed to draw up a deal for the two reissues. I went to her the next morning and gave her the pic of Cherif, saying, "Here is my Alexander Cameron." She agreed and the rest, as they say, is history. *g*

Q: Many people don't realise that Canada has a unique and diversified history ... any plans on giving one of your future historical romances a distinctly Canadian slant?

A: Oddly enough, I have an unpublished manuscript that I wrote way way back using the American attempt to invade Canada -- and its subsequent defeat, I might add *g* -- as a basis for the story. But that's as far as it went. An editor read it and was interested, but I had already signed with another company and was not about to be caught in the trap of writing for two houses. I have enough trouble meeting my obligations to one.*g*

Q: What other stories can readers expect from Marsha Canham in the next year or two?

A: Well, I'm currently working on another medieval -- The Dragon Tree -- which is not related to the Wolf series at all. I kind of enjoyed the role reversal in The Iron Rose and am dabbling with it again, this time making the hero a defrocked monk with no sexual experience. So far it's proving ... interesting, if not downright difficult not to make him a caricature, but I am determined to prevail. Same goes for the title. I like The Dragon Tree, but I've been told by higher powers that it sounds too much like a fantasy. Hello? A romance novel based in medieval England that sounds too much like a fantasy? The jury is still out. *wink*
Find out more about Marsha Canham and her works, and read an excerpt from her coming release, The Iron Rose, at her Website.
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