A Star Is Born: PW Talks with Mimi Matthews
A Victorian romance achieves a realistic—“yet still swoonworthy—happily-ever-after”
The works of award-winning author and lawyer Mimi Matthews span fiction and nonfiction, firmly centered in the historical. Her independently published novel Fair as a Star, which received a PW starred review, dives deeply into the Victorian era’s societal mores and perceptions of mental health challenges. BookLife sat down to talk with Matthews about the novel, independent publishing, and the writing life.
Fair as a Star is so richly detailed and sumptuous. What drew you to the Victorian era as the setting?
The Victorian era is very much my happy place. There’s a lot about it that I love—the fashion, the etiquette, the sense of restraint. I also love the conflict between the old and the new. Things were changing rapidly in terms of industry, science, and technology. Women’s roles were changing, too—they were beginning to seek more independence and to demand some of the same rights men had.
Beryl’s struggles with depression and the reactions of her family and the medical field to the condition are handled with such grace and delicacy. What inspired you to focus on that?
Beryl’s story is a deeply personal one for me. I’ve suffered from depression since I was young. It’s hereditary on my mother’s side of the family. We’ve lost two relatives to suicide because of it. Often, it’s not tied to any event or upsetting situation, it’s just a physical weight that you carry within you. Sometimes that weight is heavier than others. It can feel impossible to bear.
Today, we better understand the cause of this sort of depression, and we have mechanisms for treating it. In the mid-Victorian era, however, they didn’t have that understanding. Looking at someone like Beryl—beautiful, accomplished, and poised to marry well—one would think her life was perfect. I wanted to show what that might be like in the 1860s, having an outwardly perfect life when all the while that weight of depression was lodged within you.
What do you hope readers will take away from Beryl’s journey?
I hope those dealing with depression or other mental health issues will feel seen and represented by Beryl’s journey. Mostly, I hope readers will enjoy the romance of the story and savor seeing someone relatable achieve a realistic—yet still swoonworthy—happily-ever-after.
Beryl is such a relatable, authentic character whose voice reflects contemporary issues. Is that a deliberate connection you’ve made it a point to include?
Not intentionally. I think it’s simply that people are people and that some issues transcend time. Truly, the more I research Victorian history, the more I realize how many points of connection there are between us and people in the past, especially on an emotional level.
How has your experience as an independent author been? What benefits and challenges have you encountered?
First and foremost, it allows me to write at a pace I can manage. Several years ago, I suffered a serious neck injury.Most days, writing helps me to cope with the pain. Other days, I’m lucky to get in a few hundred words. As an indie, that’s okay. The only pressure to be super productive is the pressure I put on myself.
Being an indie also allows me to write what I want, no matter how odd. For example, at the end of 2019, I took a break from historical romances to write my upcoming supernatural Gothic novel John Eyre—a partially gender-flipped retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It was an abrupt detour, but one I was free to take. I’m not sure I’d have had that luxury if I wasn’t indie.
As for obstacles, I think a lot of them are based on how indie authors are perceived. Some assume that an author publishes independently not by choice but because they couldn’t make it in the traditional publishing world. It can hurt a lot to feel dismissed or excluded.
What’s your research process?
I research everything I write, mainly using books, journals, magazines, and newspaper articles from the Victorian era. It absorbs so much of my time! I’m always falling down rabbit holes. It isn’t uncommon for several hours to pass going from one subject to another.
What can you tell us about your upcoming book deal with a traditional publisher? Will you also continue to publish independently?
In September of 2020, I signed a three-book deal with Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House. My first book with them, The Siren of Sussex, will be out in January of 2022. The hero of the story is Ahmad Malik, the half-Indian tailor from my Parish Orphans of Devon series. The heroine is Evelyn Maltravers, a bluestocking equestrienne determined to make her mark in London society. Sparks fly when she approaches Ahmad to design her daring riding habits.
I do intend to keep publishing independently. It’s just a matter of scheduling my indie romances so they don’t step on the releases of my traditionally published romances.
Mary M. Jones is a freelance reviewer who lives in a house with a book dragon husband, too many cats, and an ambitiously tall to-be-read pile.