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As I Like It: A Conversation with Bee Ridgway

by Brendan Dowling on June 14, 2013

Bee Ridgway’s debut novel, The River of No Return, might be the most fun novel you’ll read this summer. A rollicking adventure that deftly weaves several genres, River tells the story of Lord Nicholas Falcott, who discovers his ability to time-travel when he jumps forward two hundred years during a battle in the Napoleonic Wars. Newly adjusted to 2003, he is swept into the folds of The Guild, a secret society of fellow time-travelers. Yet Nick’s idyllic life in the twenty-first century comes an abrupt halt when the Guild demands that he return to the 19th century on a secret mission to prevent the end of the world. Re-situated with his family in 1815, he finds himself at odds with his old life and increasingly suspicious of the Guild’s motives. His life is further complicated when he runs into his alluring neighbor, Julia Percy, who contains secrets of her own. Brendan Dowling talked with Ridgway on June 5th, 2013. You can find out more information about Ridgway at her website or follow her on twitter.

Public Libraries: Your book mashes up several genres—spy thriller, Regency romance, science-fiction. How were you able to balance the different tones of the novel?

Bee Ridgway: It happened in several stages. Basically the spine of the novel isn’t science fiction, it’s Regency romance. Georgette Heyer, the great queen of the Regency romance novel, is an author who got me through a lot of hard times in graduate school. I began writing the novel just to see what it would feel like to write in that mode, so that genre is the base note of the novel. But I also really wanted to stretch that genre and see how it could play with others – how far could it be stretched without breaking?

It was really interesting to see how elastic it was or wasn’t. The spy aspect, the mystery aspect, the science fiction aspect were all easy to play with Regency romance. The one that was difficult was historical fiction. The places where I tried to touch a true history of Georgian England next to this very well established fantasy Georgian England that is Regency romance—that was where I had to work the hardest.

PL: What made historical fiction such a hard fit?

For almost a century now, Regency romance has been developed as a genre that’s quote unquote historically located in Georgian England, but doesn’t really adhere to very many rules to what historically happened during that time. It’s this genre that’s set in a historical moment but has developed so far from [reality]—it’s an alternative universe. It is in itself a science fiction.

And those rules [of Regency romance] are really fun. They can produce at their best a really picaresque, fun, adventure novel. I love the genre for that reason—for the fact that it’s a happy genre, but it is fantasy. So when I then put on my scholarly hat and looked at the kinds of political things that were going on in Georgian England in 1815, it was difficult. I’m not saying that Regency romance authors are not talking about real history. There are some amazing historians writing in the field. But it’s more the rules of genres, if you see what I mean.

PL: Right. In a typical Regency romance there’s probably not a discussion on how the outcome of the passing of the Corn Law is going to affect the characters, as it does in The River of No Return.

BR: Not necessarily. And I don’t want to say I’m doing something new there, because I’m definitely in awe of lots of Regency romance writers who are doing it, too. But I was just surprised at how hard it was.

PL: Why did you choose 1815 as the setting of your novel?

BR: Well, it’s the year of Waterloo. So it’s the year that the Napoleonic wars come to an end. And it’s a huge historical watershed for Europe. It feels to me like a time-travely moment, in that the era of Revolution—the French and American Revolutions then leading into the Napoleonic Wars—finally came to an end in this crazy battle. And Britain at that point had to look around itself and say, “Who are we?” After that you get this huge Imperial push. So it’s kind of this watershed moment between one kind of Britain and another. It’s also a moment when the end of the aristocracy is really clear, even though they manage to hold on for a long time.

So I was interested in setting a fantastical time-travel story—people actually bopping around the time line in a way that’s impossible—against a moment in time that did feel really weird and temporally shifty to people.

PL: One aspect of time travel that seems unique in your book is how when Nick returns to the 1800s after spending ten years in the 21st century, his newfound modern sensibility contends with all the dormant emotions from the man he would have become if he had remained in time. How did you develop that concept of warring emotions between the past and present self?

BR: In some ways it just happened as in, I got him back [in his time] and I realized, “Well of course that would be the case.” But another thing about the novel is that it’s about how we now live in this moment when our individuality is everything, where we think we’re completely sovereign subjects. I really wanted to explore how time, era and historical moment allows us to be who we are. So Nick turns up back in his time and he has all these responsibilities that he didn’t have as a man of the 21st century. And you have to have a certain set of feelings to be a person in 1815. You can’t just go back and not have those feelings. So I liked the idea of [those feelings] waiting for him, and I also wanted to explore the ways we’re just not as free from our culture as we like to think we are.

PL: I read that the working title of the book was As I Like It. Can you talk about why that was such a fitting title for your book?

BR: I’m not one of those people who’s already dreamed of being a novelist. I’m a professor of English literature and I had worn myself out writing this essay on Abraham Lincoln and the Blackhawk War that had taken me a long time to do. It was really complicated. I was completely burned out and I needed to do something fun. I found myself sitting down and trying my hand at this. I just basically gave myself permission to do everything in it that I like and to have no shame—to just really let it all hang out. And that’s what I did. So I called it As I Like It because I didn’t want to judge anything that gave me pleasure in this book

PL: How did your experience in academia affect your writing process?

BR: Sort of in every way. On the first hand I started writing it in reaction to my [academic] writing. At the same time, I’ve been trained now for over twenty years to think citationaly. When you’re writing an academic piece you’re always thinking, “Who else said something like this? What other authors are writing in this mode? What other scholars have argued against or with me?” Writing the novel, my brain worked in exactly the same way. As I was writing along, I would think, “Oh, this reminds me of a passage in Melville or whatever.” Which of course sounds pretentious, but it wasn’t that I was trying to be like Melville, but it was like, “Oh he describes whiteness in this way.” So again in the mode of just doing whatever I wanted, I started putting that stuff in. So there are about three or four dozen little fragments from all the books that I teach and read scattered throughout the book. There’s this one moment where I’m describing a rustic white car and I thought, “Melville has this great description of how mottled Moby Dick is, why don’t I just use the way he does it?”

The reason I did that was because I was writing a time-travel novel and I thought it would be pretty great to hide these things. I wouldn’t necessarily want my readers to know or notice it, but to have these moments where literally a voice from another time takes over the text for four or five words and then goes away. That was a way that I could just indulge myself. I’ve trained my brain to think that way and here I could just indulge it without having to make an argument about it or footnote it.

Another way that my profession influenced me is that I teach 18th and 19th century literature so I get students who have read maybe The Scarlet Letter. Coming out of high school, they’re not used to reading old books. And how do you kind of seduce them into a feeling of another era? So the whole idea that we travel to the past on feeling and emotion really came out of my experience of seeing my students do that as they learned to read 18th and 19th century fiction—falling into the emotional space of these books and learning to love them

PL: You’ve just finished a book tour. What has it been like to transition from the life of an academic where you’re discussing other people’s books to the life of an author, where you’re talking about your own book?

BR: It was great. I had such a good time. I’m so used to people saying, “Well I’d like to hear more about” and then have it be some author who’s been dead for two hundred years. To have to talk about myself was interesting. There were a couple of times where I found myself wanting to fall into a lecture mode and having to either back away from it or do it a little differently. I’m not really used to talking about myself. But I also realized everything in your life prepares you for what you’re doing now, and there was a lot about teaching and thinking about literature as a professor that prepared me for it. Mostly what was so great about it was just how much fun it was. It was so much fun.

PL: Did any of the readers’ questions catch you off guard?

BR: The readers’ questions were really amazing and probing in these wonderful ways. I teach eighteen to twenty-one-year olds and they’re really smart and really hardworking, but to have the questions of readers who have lived a lifetime of experience was great. Their questions had the depth and taste of a lifetime of readership—and readership for pleasure and interest, not something that’s been assigned to them. So that was completely humbling. The questions that were hardest for me were from people who are better read than me in the genre that I’m writing in—of time travel. It’s a genre I have read widely in children’s literature but not in contemporary literature. So they were like, “Okay, what about the grandfather paradox?” and I was like, “You know what? I don’t care about it!” (laughs) They weren’t aggressive but they were difficult.

PL: You’re currently writing a sequel, right?

BR: Yes, it’s so much fun!

PL: When did you decide that there’d be a sequel to the book?

BR: So the first draft was very neatly wrapped up and came to a lovely complete ending. Then I got an agent who was wonderful. She said, “You know what? This is a really good book but it could have several more layers of complexity.”

Basically she thought the idea of the Guild, the idea of a corporation that controls time-travel and has secrets, was enough of an architecture that could support a lot more complexity in the book. And with the whole As I Like It thing, I just hadn’t really been that ambitious for the book. I had simply [wrote] it for pleasure in this fast fun way. And it was so great to be challenged to go back and make it more complicated. That first revision working with my agent was incredible to me, but it began to become a much more complex plot. The world that I was thinking about became much larger and more ominous. I gained some bad guys and some scary future stuff. And I began to realize, “This is either going to be an incredibly long book or it’s going to be more than one book.” And she said, “Why don’t you make it more than one book?” So I did.

PL: So is the hope to have the story span over several books?

BR: I don’t know right now. I don’t write knowing what’s happening next. It depends on what my characters make me do. I can see it being either two or three books right now in terms of the arc of the kinds of problems my characters are facing.

PL: And are you still teaching?

BR: I am!

PL: How has it been to balance those two different worlds of teaching and writing?

BR: I find it incredibly generative to be in the classroom. First of all, it gets me out of my own head. Second of all, now that I’ve written a novel, teaching novels has totally changed for me. I see them really differently.

The more that I exercise the kind of conversations I get to have with the students in my class, the more creative energy I have coming back to the novel. But the novel just came out a month ago, and so I haven’t been back in the classroom [yet]—I was on leave this semester. So I was in the classroom while I was writing but I haven’t been back in the classroom since it came out. So it will be interesting to see what that’s like with my students having potentially read the novel.

PL: You’ll be walking into class with a different reputation.

BR: Dignity is not my strong point anyway so it will probably be fine. (laughs)

PL: What role have libraries played in your life?

BR: Where to begin? (laughs) I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is a small town—well it was smaller then; it’s a big college town now. It has a wonderful public library that was donated by some good man back in the nineteenth century and it’s built to look like a house. It was basically all these little rooms with bookshelves and big comfy chairs stuck in windows. My mom is a writer and she would teach writing workshops three nights a week, so I went to the library all the time as a kid. It was basically my babysitter. My mom would be writing during the day and I could just walk to the library and read—and I had no restrictions on what I read—so I just sat in those chairs and read my way through everything I got my hands on. I wouldn’t be a writer today without the public library in my hometown. There’s just no question.