ME: You both have successful careers as authors in a different genre, romance. Where and how did the idea come up to make the leap and collaborate on a historical fiction novel, and how was Patsy Jefferson chosen as the subject matter?
SD/LK: This novel, which explores the life and times of Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph, the eldest daughter of our third president, was years in the making. It started one night when we were having dinner together and discovered a mutual interest in American history. Over burgers at a writing conference, we wondered what Jefferson was like as a father, not just a founding father.
At the time, Laura was a history of professor by day teaching senior seminars on Jefferson at the U.S. Naval Academy as well as a romance author by night, whereas Stephanie split her writing time between romance and historical fiction. We got the crazy brainchild to combine our experiences in co-authoring a book about Jefferson’s eldest daughter, and immediately raced back to the hotel room to research. Frankly, we had no idea the journey we were about to embark upon. We didn’t know that it would take five years, three agents, eighteen thousand letters and a road trip to get this book out.
But we did know, right from that very first night, that we had stumbled upon a great untold American story.
ME: I’ve read both of your bio’s and noticed that you don’t live too far apart, Stephanie in Baltimore and Laura in Annapolis, which I’m sure was a big help during the writing process. Living in or very close to the area that you were writing about was probably inspiring as well, did you travel to the sites you wrote about? And if so how often?
SD/LK: Living near one another certainly made co-writing easier when hammering out a particular chapter or a revision necessitated face-to-face work. We’d both been to Monticello individually, but after we completed the draft, we took a road trip to visit Monticello and Tuckahoe, both important sites in the novel. The visits allows us to layer in so many site-specific details that enriched the manuscript in unexpected ways – like the engraving of Tom’s mother’s death date in one of the windows at Tuckahoe, and Patsy’s daughters making necklaces out of dried Chinaberries. We also visited Monticello again a few weeks ago after the book released and we still were able to learn new things–or see new things at the site–because of having written the book. Visiting historical sites related to your story is always educational and inspiring!
ME: The entire novel was seamless, and I forgot, as I was reading it that it was written by a team. Did you each take a section to write? Was one of you more research and the other writer? Or did you share writing and research duties throughout the novel?
SD/LK: Thank you. That’s one of our favorite compliments about the book! We did most of the brainstorming and plotting together–we really had a shared vision for the book from the beginning. Initially we wrote back to back chapters with google video chat open while we were writing so we could talk to one another in real time. And then we’d trade them and revise freely. Then it got to a point where Laura’s deadlines on her solo projects needed attention, so Stephanie took the lead on drafting and Laura came behind to do revisions. So the process varied, but one thing that stayed the same was that shared vision and the incredible respect we had for one another that allowed us to complete the book with relatively few disagreements. And when we disagreed, we always managed to brainstorm a third solution that was better than anything we’d come up with on our own.
ME: One of the things I was so fascinated about was my own reaction as a modern woman to what Patsy had to endure at that time in history. I was brought up by a liberal woman who taught me that I could do everything myself and to not depend upon a man. In Patsy’s time, that wasn’t even an option. Women were truly property of the men in their families. As this was historical fiction based on a factual person, you had to be true to Patsy’s history. Did you struggle as the authors of the book over some of her choices, a much as I did as the reader? Can you give me an example of an instance where you would have wanted to stray from the historical facts?
SD/LK: We definitely struggled over some of her choices. Patsy isn’t always fully likeable or fully sympathetic, but you understand why she makes the choices she does. We actually loved that she was a complicated character that sometimes you had to cheer for while other times you wanted to yell at her. We are both totally in love with William Short, and it was heartbreaking for us that she makes the decisions she does in France, but he was right: she was a daughter first. And always. And that was the story. We also knew her decision to interfere in her husband’s military career couldn’t lead to good things between them. Those were definitely moments when we wish she’d made different choices, though I’m not sure we wanted to stray from the history there because those moments really defined who she was. And writing about the decline of her marriage and her husband’s escalating anger and violence was certainly difficult, too.
ME: You both chose to take a side in the argument about Thomas Jefferson fathering children with Sally Hemings. I’ll admit, after reading your book, I went on a researching tear (a few google searches), because I wanted a definitive answer. Did he or didn’t he have children with Sally Hemings? What I found out is that the DNA of her children do show that someone from the Jefferson line did father her children, but not a definitive yes that it was Thomas Jefferson. It could have been brothers, nephews, etc. Did you make the decision to include that storyline based on your research? Did the DNA tests sway you to believe it? Or was it because it created a great plot point that Patsy agonized over?
SD/LK: As a historian of this period, Laura was well read in the scholarship about this debate long before she ever came to this project. And she was well convinced, as most historians are, that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children. There is more evidence than the DNA results–there’s also the fact that he had the opportunity more than anyone else, he was present every time she would’ve conceived, her sons bore a strong physical resemblance to Jefferson, and the oral history in the Hemings family says Jefferson himself was their forebear, to name a few. So we followed the position of most historians and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Monticello is embracing that interpretation. And it also created a fantastic and compelling plot point in the book. In many ways, Patsy and Sally lead parallel lives with Jefferson at the center of their worlds in very different ways.
ME: Patsy’s upbringing in Europe, daughter of the very erudite Thomas Jefferson and daughter and wife of a plantation owner, turned Patsy into a very bright woman who understood the subtleties of the political arena as well as the world around her. If Patsy lived in today’s world, what do you think she would love about it? What do you think she’d want to change?
SD/LK: She very well might love and hate the very same thing: the access to information. She would love the easy access to books and places via travel, but she would hate how easy it is to find out pretty much anything about anyone. She would also enjoy the progress that women have made in society.
ME: The greatest theme of all in this book was a daughter’s love for her father. By all accounts, she and Thomas Jefferson had a wonderful relationship and a great love for each other. Somehow, though, I felt that even though she was well loved, he manipulated her into staying by his side his entire life. How did your feelings for Thomas Jefferson, the father, change from the time you started to write to when you finished it?
SD/LK: One of the great things about a story on Patsy is that it allows us to see Thomas Jefferson, one of the most notable Founding Fathers, as a father. While writing the early part of the book, we were not impressed by Jefferson’s parenting. Then again, he was a new widower deep in grief over the loss of his wife; he was a clueless single dad in a time when men didn’t play a central role in raising daughters. One of the important character arcs in the book is the way Jefferson changes as a father and then even more as a grandfather. He becomes openly affectionate, protective, and wants nothing more than his family around him. Generous and devoted to his daughter and her family–even heroically so. But he’s definitely not above manipulating his children. Jefferson is quite accomplished in the art of the parental guilt trip!
ME: My last question is about the end of the book. I was pleased that in a sense she had an HEA. I wanted to believe it so badly, but I know the end was probably fictionalized, because there is just no way to know. Did you have any alternate endings in mind when you wrote it? Or was this the end that you always wanted to give Patsy?
SD/LK: We always wanted to end on a more upbeat note. Patsy struggles through so many trials as an adult, ending with the loss of Monticello after her father’s death, that we knew we didn’t want to leave the reader in despair. A continued relationship with William Short (of some sort) and her friendship with President Jackson were both true to history, so though elements of the ending are fictionalized or dramatized, it’s still based on factual elements from near the end of her life.
ME: Thank you both so much for taking the time to answer my questions about yourselves and your wonderful book America’s First Daughter. I know that you are currently writing another novel together called My Dear Hamilton about Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. Can you give us a teaser or excerpt from that novel? I’m looking forward to reading it in 2018!
SD/LK: Thank you! We can share a little tagline which is: A revolutionary courtship. A scandal-ridden marriage. A legacy of lasting love.
Laura Kamoie has always been fascinated by the people, stories, and physical presence of the past, which led her to a lifetime of historical and archaeological study and training. She holds a doctoral degree in early American history from The College of William and Mary, published two non-fiction books on early America, and most recently held the position of Associate Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy before transitioning to a full-time career writing genre fiction as the New York Times bestselling author, Laura Kaye. Her debut historical novel, America’s First Daughter (March 1, 2016), co-authored with Stephanie Dray, allowed her the exciting opportunity to combine her love of history with her passion for storytelling. Laura lives among the colonial charm of Annapolis, Maryland with her husband and two daughters.
Laura is currently working on My Dear Hamilton (William Morrow, early 2018) about Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, with co-author Stephanie Dray.
STEPHANIE DRAY is an award-winning, bestselling and two-time RITA award nominated author of historical women’s fiction. Her critically acclaimed series about Cleopatra’s daughter has been translated into more than eight different languages and won the Golden Leaf. Her focus on Ptolemaic Egypt and Augustan Age Rome has given her a unique perspective on the consequences of Egypt’s ancient clash with Rome, both in terms of the still-extant tensions between East and West as well as the worldwide decline of female-oriented religion. She’s also fascinated by the founding of the American Republic and its roots in ancient Rome. It’s her mission to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today.
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