Interview – Kit Brennan, author of Whip Smart: Lola Montez Starts a Revolution
Today we welcome Kit Brennan, author of the recently released novel Whip Smart: Lola Montez Starts a Revolution to Booklover Book Reviews.
A wild and sexy romp through history based on the real-life adventures of the audacious, Lola Montez.
In her most flamboyant adventure yet, Lola Montez gallops to Bavaria and on an outrageous dare, seduces King Ludwig I. The aging royal cannot resist Lola’s fascinating moves as a Spanish dancer, nor the exciting wardrobe malfunction which ensues. As their scandalous love affair gains momentum, all of Europe seethes with an explosive unrest not seen since the French Revolution. During the opening months of 1848, Lola finds herself the target of a terrifying witch hunt, and it will take her considerable wiles to not only save herself but foment a revolution that can change the known world.
Written in Brennan’s signature feisty, sexy style, Lola Montez Starts a Revolution sequentially continues Lola’s adventures from France (in book two — Lola Montez and the Poisoned Nom de Plume) and Lola’s origin story from England to Spain (in book one — Lola Montez Conquers the Spaniards).
And coming soon, book four — Lola Montez Seduces America — follows our flamboyant heroine to New York, Nicaragua and California.
What inspired you to write Whip Smart: Lola Montez Starts a Revolution?
This is the third in my Whip Smart: The Lola Montez Series. The first two are Whip Smart: Lola Montez Conquers the Spaniards and Whip Smart: Lola Montez and the Poisoned Nom de Plume. They are Victorian-era adventure novels starring a feisty heroine (based on the real historical figure), with lots of derring-do, romance, thrills and comedy. This one encompasses Lola’s most notorious adventure: becoming the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, gaining the title of Countess of Landsfeld, and possibly igniting the Revolution of 1848.
The inspiration for the series goes way back, and has two sparks. As a teenager, I came across the character of Lola in George MacDonald Fraser’s second Flashman book, Royal Flash. I thought she was really sexy, audacious and intriguing. I loved Fraser’s novels, every hilarious one of them, and later thought that it would be great fun to write a kind of ‘female Flashman’.
Lola herself is the other inspiration. When I started looking into her life, I’d often find belittling comments: “she was a terrible dancer,” “she was a gold-digging slut,” etc. This made me think a lot about what it must have felt like to be a gutsy, adventurous woman in strait-laced Victorian society. I wanted to write from her point of view, as an energetic, enthusiastic and amorous young person – like any other healthy creature, be it kitten or puppy or colt – filled with confidence and a bit of swagger and the desire to use her body to its fullest. Then she trips up, gets into trouble, and begins to learn… As the years go on, she gets knocked down, and gets back up, but she doesn’t succumb to despair. Lola keeps dusting herself off and facing the obstacles, with courage and joie de vivre. I love that. Living like that is so much harder than it looks.
Would you say Whip Smart: Lola Montez Starts a Revolution is plot or character driven?
The Whip Smart books are written in Lola’s voice, so it’s character driven. Maybe I’m attracted to that because of my initial training in the theatre as an actor. But then, her world is the vast and tumbling Victorian era, and I’m seeking something gripping and exciting and consequential for my character to do, so plot follows along pretty quickly. I’ve never been a fan of books or plays where the characters mainly observe and describe. I like action.
Tell us a little bit about your main character.
The real Lola Montez was born Eliza Gilbert in 1820 (give or take a year or two), and she died in 1860, so her adulthood was lived in the 1840s and 50s. During this period, there were unbelievable breakthroughs in medicine (anesthesia), transportation (railroads) and communication (the telegraph), upheavals such as the Irish Potato Famine and the Anglo-Sikh wars, the 1848 Revolutions in Europe, the Crimean War, and the gold rushes in California and Australia. The Communist Manifesto was published, and, just before Lola’s early death, The Origin of Species. Rapid and incredible changes; it was as if the world suddenly sped up. But women did not yet have the vote nor could they own property, once married. Their role was to take care of the home and to mother children; they were “angels of the hearth”. If they weren’t lucky enough to marry or at least belong to a wealthy family (the maiden aunt), they could perhaps become a governess (think of Jane Eyre), or — through some misfortune or miscalculation — fall from grace into worse (think of Nancy in Oliver Twist). Adventuring was done by men.
Not so for Lola. She follows adventure, journeying to places as far flung as Australia and California as well as all over Europe and up into Russia. She makes her own way – and her own money once she’s there. She loves to give an opinion and is very outspoken about what she thinks. While mid-Victorian society’s women were modest and retiring, Lola’s motto is “Courage, and shuffle the cards.” She adores the limelight, craves an audience, enjoys making people laugh while admiring her beauty and wit. She doesn’t feel guilt about her long succession of lovers – nor about how much she enjoys their company and her own sexuality.
Though she took a lot of abuse in the international press, the real Lola never wrote about feeling shame – that dreadful 19th century curse which we’ve come to expect from female characters in books, or in real women from the era. I found that fascinating.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?
I have a number of different routines, depending what stage of the book I’m working on. For first drafts, I try to make sure I have a strict weekly schedule that I stick to, five days a week. Usually I write in the mornings, from 9:00 to 12:00 or 1:00, on my laptop.
The first stage of a book like Whip Smart is doing the research. In my case, I have a main character who really existed, and actions and events that are documented as things the real Lola Montez did. All around that lies the rest of the nineteenth century and its personalities. I’m not writing a straight novelized biography, I’m putting her into even bigger adventures than the already large ones she really had. So I have Real meets Fictional, and the research needs to back that up. I love coming across (or digging out) factual tidbits that juxtapose Lola with another character or event, and asking myself “what if…?” In the early stage of the research, I chart out a chronology and a timeline to help me keep everything straight in my head.
In the second stage, I write a fairly detailed working synopsis of what I think might happen with the characters and events I’ve uncovered that I think may suit Lola’s own trajectory as a character. Some of these things really happened, lots of them didn’t. I think that’s part of the fun for the series: when fact meets exaggeration. I like to believe that Lola would find that pretty amusing, as well.
Once I start the first draft itself, I’ll start off each day’s working session by going back over what I wrote the previous day, and making some changes. Then by the time I get to the end of that, I’m warmed up and move on ahead. I plan to write a “scene” each day (depending on length), and little by little, I progress. Five or six pages in a day is about the maximum. The first draft might take anywhere from two to four months, depending upon what extra research I find I need to do, or how accurate my working synopsis has been. A piece of writing advice that I find very helpful is a quote by Goethe: “Do not hurry; do not rest.” The story has to get in under your skin, and all of the details need to become as familiar to you as your own face or the back of your hand. You can’t leave it alone too long.
Two other parts of the ritual are very important. First, to leave at the end of each day’s writing with something to mull over, to think about overnight and try to get right on the following writing day. The other, for me, is exercise: to go out for a fast walk, or a swim or a snowshoe, or get on the elliptical and work out the kinks. That’s also when I’ll do some of my best thinking about what’s coming up, or what needs to be fixed or clarified.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I’m a full-time faculty member of the Theatre Department at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. My teaching expertise is Storytelling and Playwriting – so I get to concentrate on the world of stories and writing year-round, but not always my own. It’s rewarding and exciting to help students discover the best ways to tell the stories they wish to tell, to find the form and the structure of doing so. My academic work feeds into my own writing in that the schedule is somewhat flexible and allows a chunk of time (during the summer) when I can concentrate upon that most difficult and time-consuming of tasks: the first draft.
Do you have any other titles in the pipeline?
The Whip Smart series will be continuing for at least another two books. I’ve begun work on the fourth adventure, Whip Smart: Lola Montez Seduces America, which takes place in New York, Panama and California (during its gold rush). This will be followed by the fifth in the series, Whip Smart: Lola Montez Ventures Down Under. And yes, Lola sails to Australia! She really did, too! She and her own travelling company toured Australia in 1856 — to experience your country’s gold rush and find out what that was all about. She got herself into lots of hot water in her usual exuberant manner, and I’m sure I’ll find other trouble to insert her into as well.
I’m really excited about this, because I was lucky enough to live in Australia when I was a very little person. My dad, an English professor, took us all with him for a year-long sabbatical while he was doing a comparative study of Australian and Canadian literature (CanLit was his specialty). The memories of our glorious year are legendary within my family.
(The photo below is of my mum and me, in the grasslands.)
Do you have any tips or advice for aspiring writers?
A great piece of advice from American playwright Marsha Norman goes something like this: Don’t write about your present, write about your past – write about something that made you angry or afraid, and that, in all the time since it happened, you haven’t been able to forget. There’s power in those strong emotions. She’s right in that if we write about something that’s happening to us in the present, we often don’t have enough perspective on it and the writing will get vague and mushy, or sentimental, or trying to conceal something (perhaps from ourselves) and therefore not truthful.
Another ingredient I think you need in order to really fire yourself into and through the enormous effort it takes to write something big, is that you’ve got to be passionately interested in it over a long, long period of time. You’ve got to want to spend time with these characters, day after day after day, through all the rewrites as well as the initial inspiration. They’ve got to be that fascinating to you. You’ve got to be in love with them – the bad guys as much as the good. You can hardly wait to see them again tomorrow!
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Further information about Kit Brennan can be found on her website.