Maya Rodale talks writing in the Gilded Age and the subversive nature of dresses with pockets

September 19, 2018

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.

This article originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly. To read the full article, click here.

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