Amalie Howard is a USA Today and Publishers Weekly bestselling author. Her books have also been featured in The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly, and Seventeen Magazine. She is also the author of several critically acclaimed, award-winning young adult novels, including her latest YA release “Queen Bee.” When she’s not writing, she can usually be found reading or serving as president of her one-woman Harley Davidson motorcycle club. She lives in Colorado with her family.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Amalie Howard: “The Duke in Question” is the third book in my inclusive Daring Dukes series with Sourcebooks, which features characters inspired by real people of color in the Victorian era, who were very present and powerful in their own right.
The first book “The Princess Stakes” was inspired by a Sikh princess and Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. The second book, “Rules for Heiresses,” was inspired by Dido Elizabeth Belle, a biracial heiress raised in England.
And “The Duke in Question” took inspiration from a real-life Black spy during the American Civil War era, Mary Richards Bowser. I wanted to write this particular story because women like Mary Richards Bowser had phenomenal agency, despite the limitations afforded their gender, and in Bowser’s case, the color of her skin.
They were very successful in carving out spaces for themselves and being heard in an era when their voices went unheeded. These intrepid women made a difference and inspired my own heroine — an elusive spy known as The Kestrel.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Howard: This excerpt is the first half of the first chapter. I chose this because it’s such a strong start to the story and I wanted the reader to be gripped from the get-go. You have an English heiress who is determined to make a difference, and when she comes upon some sensitive letters that might put the American president at risk, she takes matters into her own hands by boarding a ship across the Atlantic.
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There’s only one problem…she’s being tracked by a very clever spymaster, and it’s a gentleman she knows. Not only is the Duke of Thornbury her brother’s best friend, he’s also the man she’s been besotted with for quite some time. This story starts with a battle of wits that doesn’t quit and a race against time to stay one step ahead of the other. Sooner or later, though, they’re bound to collide. This excerpt paves the way.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you sat down to write? And once you did begin to write, did the work take you in any unexpected directions?
Howard: Research is one of my favorite things to do, especially when delving into historical timelines, and trying to figure out how to tie a fictional story into actual events. I always want to bring authenticity to the page, even when there is a romance at the core of the story. The idea for the Kestrel — my international female operative in “The Duke in Question” — going to Philadelphia with information to thwart Lincoln’s abduction on March 17, 1865, came from the fact that no one really knew what made President Lincoln change locations at the last minute, which foiled John Wilkes Booth’s abduction plans (even though the president was assassinated by the same man a month later). I thought it would be an interesting tie-in for the story.
I based my heroine, the Kestrel, on real life female spies during the era. Elizabeth “Crazy Bet” Van Lew was a Civil War spy from Richmond, Virginia, who freed all her slaves when her father died and used every penny of her wealth toward the Union cause. She got the nickname “Crazy Bet” because she mumbled nonsensically to herself and pretended to be flighty and distracted in order to escape notice. In 1863, she was recruited by Union General Benjamin Butler to head up the espionage network in Richmond. She visited imprisoned Union soldiers and brought them clothes, food, and medicine, while ferrying coded messages written in invisible ink, hidden in vegetables and eggs, that could only be seen when milk was poured on the messages.
The real-life spy who makes a cameo in my story was Mary Richards, also known as Mary Bowser, Mary Jane Henley, and Mary Jones. She was a free Black woman who worked with Van Lew, and an essential part of her intelligence ring. She had a photographic memory and was a brilliant actress. To stay under the radar and fool everyone around them, these very smart, very astute women pretended to be stupid and senseless, which was effective at making them invisible. Working behind enemy lines, Mary Richards was a maid who reported back on plans and documents that she saw. There are many different stories of her identity as well as her role as a spy, but there’s no doubt that she was an intelligent and extraordinary woman.
“The Duke in Question”
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As far as unexpected directions, I had a written synopsis for this book, but sometimes my characters do take me on unforeseen journeys. My main character, Bronwyn, was always a bit headstrong from the start, but I really discovered how stubborn she was in the context of this story. She was certainly no wilting miss or damsel in distress, and I absolutely adored that about her. I wanted to model her after the spies above, but she definitely had her own voice and her own motivations. There were times when I questioned — would a woman actually do this in 1865? And the answer was always an unequivocal yes. Women in historical times might have been hampered by rules and restrictions imposed by the patriarchy, but that did not mean they were powerless or lacked agency. They were smart, resourceful, and relentless.
SunLit: Are there lessons you take away from each experience of writing a book? And if so, what did the process of writing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter?
Howard: I always take away new lessons with each project, whether that’s with the writing, the research, the creative process, or any of the multiple parts of publishing. I think craft can certainly improve with every book an author writes. At least, I hope mine does.
Considering this was my 23rd published book, I would hope that I’ve honed my skills with each publication. The biggest takeaway I had from “The Duke in Question” was what I learned from my research. I especially enjoyed reading about the heroic women in this period and the impact they had on the world around them. Reading about Civil War spies was eye-opening as well. Quite a bit of my research doesn’t make it into the story, but it’s fascinating nonetheless. I do have an Author’s Note for anyone interested in the relevant historical facts layered into the story.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing this book?
Howard: The biggest challenge I faced with this book was staying true to historical timelines. Since a large part of my plot hinged on the attempted assassination of President Lincoln, I had to make sure that all my dates and fictional events lined up with those real historical events. Another challenge was that I didn’t want the heaviness of the spy plot and overarching themes to overtake the romance of the book, so that was a delicate balance.
SunLit: If you could pick just one thing – a theme, lesson, emotion or realization — that readers would take from this book, what would that be?
Howard: I would like my readers to take away the true value of power and agency, as well as how to be smart, resilient, compassionate, and considerate of others, while not losing sight of who you are. At the end of the day, you cannot control other people or how the world sees you. The only thing you can control is yourself — how you think, how you act, and how you respond. And that you are enough in whatever capacity you choose to be…and that, no matter what, you are deserving of love.
SunLit: In a highly politicized atmosphere where books, and people’s access to them, has become increasingly contentious, what would you add to the conversation about books, libraries and generally the availability of literature in the public sphere?
Howard: I know this is quite a polarizing topic, which is why I hope to choose my words here with wisdom. When I was a girl suffering from anxiety and a life-threatening eating disorder, a recommendation of a book by a librarian saved my life. Because the truth is books save lives.
That said, I believe that the only people who have the right to limit what children have access to read are parents and guardians. As a mom, I have been very involved in reading books with my own kids and opening up the paths of discussion with them, especially if topics are sensitive ones. That is my job as a parent. My job is not to control other people’s children or decide what they can or can’t read. If a controversial book is part of a school curriculum, parents can opt out for their own child, but they do not have the right to influence others.
It’s my prerogative to decide what my child can read, not an institution or group whose ideals and values might not be in line with mine. Reading is a fundamental human right. In the words of Virginia Woolf, “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Howard: If I’m on deadline, I usually wake up very early to write because it’s quiet and I don’t have any interruptions, probably around 4 or 5 a.m. When children have to get dropped to school, any continuity goes out the window so that stretch of quiet time is very valuable to me.
I also separate my projects by playlist because something about music tends to tell my mind that it’s time to work. Usually, I listen to classical while writing historical romance, but I do have some quite eclectic playlists for my young adult and middle grade fiction. When I’m working on multiple books, those playlists are especially helpful to get my mind to differentiate between my stories. I also try to write every single day, even if it’s a handful of words. A routine is key.
SunLit: Since “The Duke in Question” is pitched as Bridgerton meets James Bond, what are your thoughts on historical books labeled as “fantasy” or “alternate history”?
Howard: I don’t love it being categorized as “fantasy” because as a person of color, my existence isn’t fantastical, so let’s go with anti-historical. Today, I think we are seeing two tracks for historical fiction, and I write both.
On one hand, you have stories that strive for an authentic representation of history, like “The Duke in Question,” which includes, is inspired by, or references actual historical figures of color. On the other hand, there are period pieces like Shonda Rimes’ Bridgerton and my recent young adult anti-historical novel, “Queen Bee,” which are entirely inclusive with fully diverse casting and representation, and offer an atypical view of the era where everyone belongs.
From a creator’s standpoint, I think it’s a choice. Seeing ourselves represented in books is a powerful experience. So whether it’s anti-historical or factually historical, inclusivity is the point here. We never want to erase or sanitize the ills of history — and the books that center those stories and narratives are also so important — but as a person of color myself, sometimes you just want to celebrate the joy in finding love and being loved, while dancing a waltz in a glittering ballroom. That’s the beauty of fiction…stories have power and hold unlimited possibility.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Howard: My next project is for another series, The Taming of the Dukes with Forever/Grand Central Publishing, which is a series of historical romance retellings of modern-day romcoms. “NEVER MET A DUKE LIKE YOU,” pitched as Bridgerton meets Clueless, comes out November 14, 2023. It is the second book after “ALWAYS BE MY DUCHESS,” which was inspired by Pretty Woman and named one of Cosmopolitan Magazine’s Top 30 Romances of 2022. I am so excited about this book, which includes a feisty, neurodivergent, matchmaking heroine. It was really fun to write.
A few more quick questions
SunLit: Do you look forward to the actual work of writing or is it a chore that you dread but must do to achieve good things?
Howard: I love the creative part of writing.
SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of?
Howard: I was published at 12. My English teacher lit a candle and told us to write a poem. Mine was about a bridegroom flame who burned his candle bride to the ground.
SunLit: When you look back at your early professional writing, how do you feel about it? Impressed? Embarrassed? Satisfied? Wish you could have a do-over?
Howard: I feel quite proud of my career and where I came from. We are always growing and reinventing ourselves as artists.
SunLit: What three writers, from any era, can you imagine having over for a great discussion about literature and writing? And why?
Howard: Tolkien, so I can pick his brain about world-building and hope that some of his brilliance rubs off on me. Mary Shelley because she’s the genius who wrote “Frankenstein” at a mere 18 years old. And thirdly, Maya Angelou, so I can fill up my soul with her words of wisdom.
SunLit: Do you have a favorite quote about writing?
Howard: “You can make anything by writing.” C.S. Lewis.
SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you?
Howard: That my reading tastes run the gamut of romance (all subgenres), fantasy, science-fiction, gothic academia, crime thrillers, psychological suspense, and self-help books.
SunLit: Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you write?
Howard: Soundtrack! Music is a huge inspiration for me. The right song can work word-count magic.
SunLit: What event, and at what age, convinced you that you wanted to be a writer?
Howard: I always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a child reading Grimm’s Fairytales under the covers with a flashlight. If I had to guess, I’d say that was probably around 8. I remember writing a story at 9 about a girl who had magical tattoos that were trying to kill her. Like my favorite authors, I also wanted to create fictional worlds that I could escape into and become a heroine of my own making.
SunLit: What do you most fear as an author?
Howard: Writer’s block with a looming deadline.
SunLit: What brings you the greatest satisfaction as an author?
Howard: Knowing that my stories mean something or bring joy to people, or meeting that one reader who tells you that your books have changed or saved their lives. That happened to me this year with a chronically ill young woman at a book signing in London, and it was the most poignant moment I’ve ever experienced. Those are the things that are most precious to me.