January 1st marks the official release day for Sophie Masson‘s latest YA novel published in Australia, The Romance Diaries: Ruby (ABC Books, Harper Collins, available both as paperback and e-book). We’re so pleased she’s with us today to tell us a little more about it, and give us some extra inside scoop, following our Take Five with her. Enjoy!

Q: What’s the premise of your new book?

Sophie: The Romance Diaries: Ruby, which I’ve written under the pen-name of Jenna Austen, is a romantic comedy for tween and early teen readers, inspired by Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’. It’s the first in a series I’m writing, inspired by Jane Austen’s novels. In this one, the main character, 16 year old Ruby, keeps a diary in which she records her matchmaking efforts for her family and friends. Of course, things go wrong–and she almost misses her own romantic boat!

Q: What would you like people to know about the story itself?

Sophie: It’s a warm and involving story of love, friendship and discovery, which offers plenty of laughs, some tears, romance, drama: a real feel-good story with a happy ending but plenty of missteps along the way. All in Ruby’s very particular way of seeing things, which includes her vivid and unusual use of language.

Q: What do your characters have to overcome in this story? What challenge do you set before them?

Sophie: Ruby is a lovely character–I loved her from the very moment she started talking in my head!–but she also has a lot to learn. She’s honest, impulsive, warm and imaginative–but also reckless and clumsy at times, and she forgets that other people have agendas too. And she’s also rather self-deprecating–can’t believe anyone would be interested in her. The challenges she has to overcome have to do with her perceptions of herself and others, whilst for some of the other characters, it’s also to do with how they get past Ruby’s innocent but somewhat arrogant assumptions.

Q: What unique challenges did this book pose for you, if any?

Sophie: Well, probably the biggest challenge actually was to adopt the Jenna Austen pen-name after my publishers suggested it–it felt a bit cheeky! But now I rather like it–it’s not as if it’s a deep dark secret that it’s really me, but just a fun way of flagging exactly the inspiration behind these books. As my publisher has mischievously put it, it’s ‘Jane Austen’s little sister!’

Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written this book?

Sophie: Ruby herself! She is just the best character, I loved creating her world, her friends her family. She came to me on one of my daily walks, and was totally vivid from the start. And I just loved writing the romance–it’s just so feel-good. I love this book and I hope readers will take it to their hearts too.

Readers, enjoy this extra peek into Sophie’s world and The Romance Diaries.

The Romance Diaries are, as I mentioned, romantic comedies. Told in diary form, they use the basic framework of Jane Austen’s novels within a very modern world, and are spiced with references both to Austen’s work but also that of other classic writers. In Ruby, this includes Charlotte Bronte and Edmond de Rostand (creator of Cyrano de Bergerac), as well as more modern authors, such as William Goldman(The Princess Bride, which features not only as book but as beloved film) and Stephenie Meyer, as well as lots of other pop culture references. What I wanted to do with these was to tell a romantic story that modern young readers would take to their hearts;  that was inspired by the combination of wit and observation that is so characteristic of Austen’s work, where you care about the characters, are enthused by the spirit of the heroine and fall in love with the hero. But these are of course romances for young readers, about the sweetness and awkwardness of first love, novels to make you laugh a lot and thrill some and cry a little, feel-good novels, in short.

In Ruby, there’s a moment where our heroine muses about a theory held by a bookshop owning friend of her mother’s: that romantic novels often fall into two main categories, which she calls The Two Janes. That’s Jane Austen versus Jane Eyre. Rom-com versus Gothic. Light versus dark. Readers, her mother’s friend think, usually either like one or the other, rarely both. In the book, Ruby uses this theory to construct her own unique matchmaking scheme, with hilariously hit and miss results. But the idea comes from something in my own experience.

You see, I’ve done both kinds of romances, for young readers. And the other sort, the Gothic sort, was also written under a pen-name: Isabelle Merlin. Under that name I wrote four internationally successful romantic thrillers for young people, and all of them indirectly inspired by the Jane Eyre trope, via a more modern writer, whose work I’d devoured as a teenager(and still enjoy), Mary Stewart, as well as the author of Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier. Romance, in the Bronte/du Maurier/Stewart mould, is fraught with mystery, danger, even mortal danger. The novels were still about first love; but it was first love as wild roller-coaster ride, told in first person but not in diary form, and each based on underlying traditional stories as well: the first one, Three Wishes, by the dark side of fairytale; the second, Pop Princess, by Greek myth; the third, Cupid’s Arrow, by Arthurian legend, the fourth, Bright Angel, by Biblical references. Unlike with Jenna Austen, it wasn’t revealed for quite a long time who ‘Isabelle Merlin’ actually was(though the secret’s out now, with information about the books at the back of my recent novel under my own name, Moonlight and Ashes.). That was part of a quite deliberate Gothic web of mystery around the four books, which were also conceived with very particular frameworks in mind: all were set in France, all featured first-person 16 year old heroines, all had a supernatural edge, all had an integral Internet element—a real blog for the heroine in the first book, a band site and song for the second book, a website on dreams for the third book, video clips, ostensibly created by the heroine, for the fourth book. ‘Isabelle Merlin’ had a very particular persona, as different from ‘Jenna Austen’ as could be—but also very different from ‘Sophie Masson’. So different that practically no-one, not even any of my writer friends, twigged that it was me. And the readership Isabelle Merlin built up was quite different from the one I had under my own name; often older, lovers of dark-edged paranormal romance and thrillers, the Gothic, in short. Full of brooding threat and scary happenings, the books aren’t exactly what you might call ‘feel-good’, though they all end happily for the main characters, and satisfyingly in terms of dealing with the villains!

But though they are so different from the Jenna Austen style of romance, including my approach to the pen-name persona, the Isabelle Merlin novels are also for young readers, if generally for a slightly older target market than The Romance Diaries(though the Isabelle Merlin readership ranges from about 11 to adult!) . So though it’s the darkly thrilling side of romance which I was evoking, it has nothing to do with say, Fifty Shades of Grey. And I don’t just mean the graphic nature of it. As with The Romance Diaries, the Isabelle Merlin books portray a world in which love is key to the story; but then so is the heroine’s character, her spirit, her gumption. And that too comes from the inspiration of those wonderful Two Janes, where the romance has nothing to do with submission to the hero, but everything to do with the joyous surprise and discovery of love, and of being truly yourself with another.

 Readers, you can learn more about Sophie’s new book, The Romance Diaries, by visiting the publisher’s site for the book, the website of Jenna Austen Writes, and The Romance Diaries Facebook page. Additionally, you can visit Isabelle Merlin’s website, and Isabelle Merlin’s Facebook page. Write on!

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Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between aspiring novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton in January, 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~40 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter, or join our thriving Facebook community.