• Narrative Choices in The Stepford Wives

    Narrative choices in The Stepford Wives

    Born in 1929, Ira Levin was a very successful playwright and novelist. He published seven novels during his life, starting with A Kiss Before Dying in 1953, with his second novel Rosemary’s Baby not appearing until 1967. The last novel appeared in 1997. Meanwhile, his most successful play, Deathtrap, holds the record for the longest-running comedy thriller on Broadway. It also won four Tony awards.

    Levin’s work was often adapted for the screen, including Rosemary’s Baby, A Kiss Before Dying, Sliver, The Boys From Brazil, Deathtrap, and The Stepford Wives.

    He often explored more sinister uses of technology and science in his work.

    He said himself: I’m only intrigued by suspense situations that impinge on society at large as well as the individual characters involved – the backlash against feminism in The Stepford Wives, the computer-controlled society of This Perfect Day, cloning in The Boys from Brazil, and hidden surveillance cameras in Sliver. And of course the Antichrist of Rosemary’s Baby and Son of Rosemary. One of the benchmarks by which I measure a new idea – on the rare occasions when I get one – is, if it really happened would it rate at least a paragraph in the New York Times? I don’t think a writer should ask a reader’s attention for anything less.

    Many other authors have admired Levin’s masterful plotting:

    Every novel he has ever written has been a marvel of plotting. He is the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel; he makes what the rest of us do look like those five-dollar watches you can buy in the discount drug stores.

    Stephen King

    Levin’s writing process

    In one interview (at the New York Public Library Digital Collections), Ira Levin said he was one of those people who can’t ‘go onto the next page until I’m satisfied that this page is perfect, so I rewrite a lot as I’m going along‘. He regarded two pages a day as good for him.

    When he reached the end of a chapter, he’d go back over the chapter. At the end of the next chapter, he’d then go over both chapters. He did not write new drafts.

    This is relevant to the precision of his writing. Everything he writes, every reference, is there because it’s meant to be.

    Levin also mentioned that his working day got longer and longer as a writing project went on, moving to fifteen or sixteen hour days as he became more absorbed in the work. He would also be thinking about the writing when he woke up.


    The Stepford Wives

    Published in 1972, The Stepford Wives is a slim novel whose very title has entered the English language as a way of describing a particular kind of traditional domesticated woman. Someone opposed to feminism and whose life revolves around looking nice and attending to housework and her husband and kids. Published during the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Ira Levin’s novel represents a kind of feminist horror.

    His writing notebooks showed him exploring various similar or related plot ideas over the previous years, but what really gave birth to The Stepford Wives was the coming together of two particular elements. First a passage in Future Shock by Alvin Toffler about domestic robots, and secondly a National Geographic article about animatronic presidential figures at Disneyland (which appear briefly in the novel). Levin said he read both around the same time and it was a light bulb moment.

    The novel Levin wrote previous to The Stepford Wives was This Perfect Day, which featured a supercomputer overseeing the entire global community, keeping tabs on people who in turn were drugged into compliance.


    Today the combat takes a different shape; instead of wishing to put man in a prison, woman endeavors to escape from one; she no longer seeks to drag him into the realms of immanence but to emerge, herself, into the light of transcendence. Now the attitude of the males creates a new conflict: it is with a bad grace that the man lets her go.

    Simone de Beauvoir

    The Stepford Wives main theme is an anti-feminist backlash by men organising together. The book opens with the above quote. Levin originally had another quote in mind by Betty Friedan, a feminist writer who is a catalyst in the book’s backstory,

    Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves?

    Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

    The novel’s plot opens with main character Joanna welcomed to Stepford by the Welcome Wagon lady who also collects biographical information about newcomers for the town newspaper. When the Welcome lady is surprised to hear that Joanna’s husband is also interested in Women’s Liberation, it foreshadows attitudes in the town. But so far Joanna has only noticed that her immediate neighbours are obsessed with cleaning. Walter’s support for women’s rights unravels during the book to the point where it seems highly likely he may have moved his family here knowing perfectly well what the outcome would be.

    As Joanna discovers, Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, once held an author event in Stepford. It was attended by the very women who are now obsessed with cleaning and looking after their husbands and kids. Over the course of the novel, Joanna and new friend Bobbie learn there was a women’s group with over fifty members. But the group broke up as women left. The Men’s Association, by contrast, only grew in size and power.

    Objectification is another theme. The men of the town reduce their wives to objects designed to look more sexualised. When some of the association men visit Joanna, they act strangely while the illustrator Ike Mazzard draws her image over and over. But he changes it enough to make her look better. Dale Coba (Diz) comments on the portraits. It’s only later that a reader will realise these drawings are part of the designs for Joanna’s replacement, designed to look even better than the real Joanna. Walter thinks Joanna should look more like post-transition Bobbie who has suddenly started looking more glamorous. Even Joanna objectifies other people through her camera lens – including a young black man in New York she photographed when a taxi driver refused to stop for him.

    In addition to sexism, racism is another theme explored in the book. Joanna thinks her photograph of the young black man in New York will do well because ‘There were plenty of markets for pictures dramatizing racial tensions‘. Stepford is a very WASP town. When a black family – Royal, Ruthanne and their kids – moves to the town, the Welcome Wagon lady tentatively asks Joanna if she thinks it’s a good thing. Joanna thinks it is, but she is also conscious of her liberal white lady ideas, particularly when she first meets Ruthanne at the library. The librarian’s behaviour towards Ruthanne also seems somewhat ambiguous. On the surface she’s polite, but tonally she seems a bit standoffish.

    The book also touches on household consumerism and the kind of lifestyle beloved of old washing-up ads. Levin has just given a new and darkly humorous take on it. Women gliding around supermarkets with their shopping items perfectly packed in their trolleys. Housewives running sponges over blinds and squeezing out the water before going back to wipe once more. A world whose men think waxing floors is more important to their ‘wives’ than speaking with other women.


    The Stepford Wives straddles science-fiction horror and social satire. It offers a dystopian (from a feminist perspective) view of Stepford and a utopian view for the fictional husbands who think women belong in the home. But the men of the novel are unimpressive specimens of their sex. Indeed, Walter seems to deteriorate in appearance as Joanna’s replacement period approaches. He complains she doesn’t make enough effort like the new version of Bobbie, yet he makes none himself.

    Obviously, this is also a suspense novel with a mystery element. What happened to the feminist meetings? Why did the women all change? Are the men all in on it? Did Walter know before they moved to the town? Will Joanna discover what’s going on and escape from Stepford?

    There are horror/gothic tropes, including the mysterious house on the hill – in this case, the Men’s Association building.

    But where most horror novels have a dark atmosphere, The Stepford Wives includes a lot of humour and satire. The secret activities at the house on the hill include making toys – toys for needy children. The needy children are the men, creating robot wives for their new members. Indeed, the head of the Men’s Association, Dale Coba, used to work for Disney.

    Because the novel never shows what actually happens to the women of the town, and the men are deceptively weak in nature, it’s easy to underestimate the true underlying horror. It’s no surprise then that when Joanna works it out, she can hardly stop laughing. On the surface it’s too ridiculous. Yet the men of the association are serial killers, because they’re all in on it as we see at the climax. They murder their wives, depriving their children of their real mother.

    There are unanswered questions after the novel is finished, like:

    • Will the children ever wake up to what’s happened with their mothers?
    • Are the men happy to see this fate eventually inflicted on their own daughters?
    • What happens when everyone but the Stepford wives age? Someone is bound to notice, surely?!
    • Will this replacement program be rolled out beyond Stepford?

    Narrative style

    The story starts quickly, establishing the characters in their new setting. Jump cuts eliminate any unnecessary filler with only relevant scenes appearing. Levin has designed a plot that functions like clockwork. There is no filler at all in this novella.

    Levin is also very precise about what he includes. Nothing is there by accident. He also doesn’t hit the reader over the head with clues. Foreshadowing and subtext are there, building up over the course of the story, but on a second or third read, an innocent line or description takes on new meaning.

    By restricting the viewpoint over most of the story to Joanna, he also keeps the reader as much in the dark as the central character. He portrays her as a likeable character, a good mother and wife with a passion for photography and an interest in women’s rights. Isolated in the new town, she wants to make new friends. But over the course of the story, she loses the few friends she makes and becomes ever more paranoid and isolated. This creates a claustrophobic atmosphere.

    Joanna is subject to the usual gaslighting – her husband even wants her to see a psychiatrist. It’s during that meeting that she finally makes an important connection that leads her to the truth. Levin nicely cranks up the stakes and tension as the novel reaches its climax.

    If Levin had chosen multiple viewpoints – including Walter and Bobbie’s viewpoints, for example – the reader would discover the horrifying truth much earlier. Of course, they’d still wonder if Joanna will escape the same fate as the other women. But explicit horror would undermine the subtle understatement of the present version while also destroying the claustrophobia and paranoia enabled by the single viewpoint.

    Using a female protagonist

    Levin’s novels often use a female protagonist and The Stepford Wives is the most famous example along with Rosemary’s Baby.

    In an interview with Levin published in Opera News in 1997, he addressed the advantages of using female protagonists. He believed male characters in a similar situation might come across as ‘wimpy’, leaving the reader impatient, and that readers, both male and female, connect better with a female protagonist in danger.

    Of course, given the subject matter of The Stepford Wives – an anti-feminist backlash – the female perspective is more horrifying.

    Other Characters


    When we first meet Walter, it’s his turn to do the dishes (something that will come to an end if Joanna ends up like the other wives). He’s planning to go over and talk to a neighbour about the Men’s Association. Joanna is disappointed. She thought Walter supported women’s rights. But he claims he spoke to some of the men on his commute home and they agreed the association should allow women. He says by joining he can work to change the association from the inside.

    It was Walter’s idea to move to Stepford. Did he know what was going on in the town before he moved? Did he only pretend to go along with Joanna’s political beliefs until he found a solution – replacing her with a domesticated robot?

    When he brought the men from the association over to the house, did he know why Joanna’s portrait was drawn? Something happened at the Men’s Association on his first night, owing to his behaviour after he returned. Did he meet a female robot that night? Certainly, something happened that made him turn away from Joanna sexually.

    Early on, when Joanna appears after a shower, he says, ‘You look reborn‘. This takes on a more sinister air when you consider where the plot is heading.

    By the end of the novel, Joanna accuses Walter of lying to her from her first photograph. Meaning that he never supported her goals, even when they lived in New York.

    The film adaptation is more explicit in suggesting Walter is in cahoots with the men from the association from the start. The novel is more subtle, which builds the paranoia.


    Bobbie is an important character in the book who becomes Joanna’s best friend in Stepford. She arrived not long before and has noticed the strange nature of most of the wives.

    Bobbie first appears via a phone call. Her personality erupts on the page and clearly defines her as a woman full of vivacity and humour. Her speech quickly establishes her character. This is important because later there will be a change in her behaviour and it’s somewhat subtle to begin with. But the earlier character portrait should alert the reader to a potentially sinister change.

    In the world of Stepford men, women cannot have alliances with one another and Bobbie’s doppelgänger is the one who ultimately destroys Joanna – Bobbie, the one person Joanna previously trusted.


    Charmaine, an astrology fan and keen tennis player, is the first woman Joanna meets who later changes. When Joanna sees Charmaine’s clay tennis court dismantled for her husband’s benefit, she knows something is very wrong. Charmaine is happy to abandon her tennis and astrology.

    Bobbie, realising that it’s four months since Charmaine moved to the area, freaks out. Four months does seem to be the point when new wives to the area change.

    And it will not be long before she and Joanna have been there four months.


    The Welcome Wagon lady tells Joanna that a black family has moved into the town. Ruthanne and Royal are the new couple. Ruthanne is a children’s author and illustrator whose work pushes better role models for girls. This makes her a likely ally of Joanna and Bobbie. But she’s too busy on her next book and will hardly appear until the end.

    Meeting Joanna, Ruthanne wonders whether there’s been any gossip about a black family moving in. She’s most worried for her daughters, but she’s also wondering about the strange behaviour of the town’s women. By contrast, the Men’s Association have already invited her husband to their meetings. Joanna tells Ruthanne that the Stepford women are less racist than obsessed with housework.

    Like Joanna, Ruthanne is not willing to become a ‘hausfrau’, yet the book closes on her viewpoint. She sees Joanna in the supermarket, pushing a trolley around with perfectly packed items. Joanna has changed. By this point, Ruthanne is finishing her book. But there is an ominous endnote to her short section.

    It’s worth noting that when Joanna first meets Ruthanne, the latter is holding three books: A Severed Head, I know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and The Magus.

    At the end, Ruthanne’s husband Royal is reading Men in Groups. The Amazon description for this book says:

    The power of Tiger’s book is its identification of the powerful links between men and the impact of females and families on essentially male groups. While the world has changed much, the argument of the book and its new introduction by the author suggest that a species-specific pattern of male bonding continues to be part of the human default system… The book was controversial when it first appeared, and often foolishly and unduly scorned.

    Levin’s literary references in the novel are no accident.

    The antagonistic forces

    While it becomes clear over the course of the book that Walter is in cahoots with the Men’s Association, and intends to have Joanna replaced with a domesticated robot of his own, he is only part of the antagonistic forces. He is the enemy within Joanna’s own home and not the equal and supportive partner she believed him to be.

    Looking at it from a hierarchical perspective, the biggest antagonistic force is the anti-feminist male backlash or patriarchal forces aiming to destroy women’s rights in the town. The Men’s Association are the physical manifestation of this, together with their building looming on the hill. A building that fulfils a classic trope in horror fiction – the creepy house on the hill where sinister forces live.

    Women and children are not allowed on the property – a point made in the opening pages of the book. The fence is high enough that one character makes a joke about it. When Joanna tries to take night-time photos of the house, a policeman distracts her until the blinds on the men’s building are pulled down. An odd chemical scent drifts to Joanna in the wind. The scent touches an early memory which she associates both with childhood toys and medicine.

    Outside the town, there are high-tech companies including optics, robotics and other industries. The men of the association have science-related jobs at these companies.

    Foreshadowing and symbolism

    The novel is littered with foreshadowing and clues. The couple who previously owned Joanna and Walter’s house only lasted two months before moving to Canada. While it doesn’t necessarily seem too strange on a first reading, it takes on new meaning on a second round. Why did they move away after they’d just moved in? Bobbie is desperate to move too once she realises that something happens to the wives of the town four months after moving in. Joanna too wants to move – Walter agrees if they wait until the school break. Of course, Joanna will be dead by then which is why he agrees.

    It’s possible that the previous couple met a more unfortunate end, but much more likely that they made their escape. Perhaps the husband didn’t like what he learned about the Men’s Association and moving to another part of the US wasn’t far enough away. Or maybe they moved because like Bobbie and Joanna, the wife insisted, but this time the husband listened.

    Claude Axhelm, one of the association men, asks each wife to record a list of words into a tape recorder. He gives a false pretext, but one of the women refers to him as Henry Higgins, from Pygmalion and My Fair Lady.

    All the robotic Stepford wives have larger breasts and nipped in waists – even those who change after Joanna has arrived. They’re all obsessed with housework and cleaning. They have no opinions of their own – which stands in stark contrast to what Joanna learns about their pasts as active members of a feminist organisation.

    Diz (Dale Coba), the head of the Men’s Association, used to work for Disney. Animatronic replicas of historic presidents appear on television in a foreshadowing of what is actually happening in the town. The automatons belong to Disney. In the midst of a frustrating conversation with a psychiatrist who doesn’t believe her, Joanna suddenly makes the connection with the animatronic presidents and Diz’s past. The wives of the Men Association all act like robots.

    From this realisation she is plunged into finding out the fate of the women’s organisation and finally confronts Walter, leading to the book’s chilling climax.

    There is a lot of symbolism in the book too. On the first page the Welcome Wagon lady tells Joanna that the book of discount slips is good at twenty-two shops. Joanna stands at the door with both hands full of the items the lady has given her and when she tells her that’s enough, she repeats it. In a novel where a central plot twist involves doppelgängers there are early examples of twos, 22, both hands, repeated words. Even their new property is 2.2 acres. There are also two illustrators in the book – Ike Mazzard and Ruthanne. One draws idealised images of young women (that intimidated teenage Joanna when she first saw them), and the other draws active assertive girls for children’s fiction.

    Given Levin’s habit of going over and over a scene and chapter until it’s just right, it’s not an accident he makes these choices. In what is essentially a novella, there are many clues, examples of foreshadowing, and symbols. He doesn’t waste time on unnecessary details.


    Levin’s novella packs a great punch and is loaded with clues, foreshadowing, symbolism and subtext. In less than 150 pages, it manages to tell an iconic story that stands up well more than half a century later.

    It’s a story where brevity and economy of language is key, where every scene counts and nothing is filler.

    Levin’s agent, Roslyn Targ, described The Stepford Wives as a spellbinder after she first read it. The editorial fact sheet from Random House suggested that the book might do even better than Rosemary’s Baby, saying: There’s a kind of woman who from now on will be known as a Stepford Wife. In other words, this is potentially an enormous best seller. Scribbled in pencil at the bottom of this sheet is: a wife’s mounting terror in a seemingly idyllic suburb.

    Levin himself had lived in a sleeper town like Stepford and understood them well. He successfully overturned their cosy all-American Dream facade into something more nightmarish. In doing so, he did indeed introduce the concept of Stepford Wives into the language. Fittingly, before publication, the novel was serialised in Ladies Home Journal. The first print run of the novel was 50,000. The review headlines included ‘Women’s Lib Gothic‘ and ‘Suburban Evil‘.

    Today, as women’s rights are under threat again, The Stepford Wives seems just as relevant as it was in 1972.

    Further Reading

    Information in this post was derived from the book and the following resources:

    Ira Levin’s Official Site has very useful resources, including background material from Levin’s notebooks for Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. You can also check out various author interviews listed there.

    Behind the book information on the two above novels – including Levin’s own notes. Recommended.

    Interview with Ira Levin available in downloadable pdf format from New York Public Library.

    Other blog posts of interest

    How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby.

    How editorial feedback changed Interview With The Vampire.

    Narrative devices in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life.

    How narrative devices support a novel’s theme – examining Sebastien Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement.

  • Laurie McBain

    Laurie McBain

    This post is dedicated to Laurie McBain, who instilled in me a love of historical fiction and helped populate my bookshelves with non-fiction history books.

    Young adult fiction wasn’t really a thing when I was at school so, being a precocious reader, I moved to adult fiction around the age of twelve or thirteen. Early on I was reading horror from James Herbert and some mainstream bestsellers. As the years passed, I would continue to scan the bookshelves of the town’s old bookshop, a place with a narrow passage and a rickety twisting staircase to the next floor. I also browsed newsagent shelves and the local library.

    There were books that caught my attention like Robert Heinlein’s science-fiction novels Stranger in a Strange Land and Friday, Stephen Donaldson’s books, and other titles that I filed away for future reference. I still haven’t read the Heinlein books. I suppose this is where I should put them on my 2024 reading list.

    But one book that caught my attention was a silvery reflective cover with a crescent moon, and the title Moonstruck Madness. Taking it off the shelf and scanning the back, I saw that it was about a highwaywoman.

    In fact, it was a historical romance set in the eighteenth century.

    But a woman passing herself off as male to rob people on the open road caught my attention most. I’d likely already seen The Wicked Lady with Margaret Lockwood and James Mason.

    So I spent part of my pocket money that week on Moonstruck Madness and took it home. I must have been about fifteen or sixteen by this point.

    When it comes to modern historical romance, there are a few standout names from the 1970s. The first is Kathleen Woodiwiss. Then came Rosemary Rogers, a writer whose books I never really got on with, and others, including my then favourite, Laurie McBain. Published by Avon, they were the Avon Ladies. And they sold millions.

    After a few years, I moved on from the genre. I’d always read other genres as well as literary fiction. But I retained a fond memory of some of those historical romances, particularly the one that led to my bookshelves filling up with non-fiction on the eighteenth century. I have continued to enjoy historical fiction and have developmentally edited a few historical books, including historical romance.

    Woodiwiss passed away some years ago and McBain mysteriously appeared to stop writing after her seventh novel. Her Wikipedia entry says that she retired from writing or publishing after the death of her father. But this is not true. At least, she didn’t stop writing then. Both authors were huge bestselling authors in their day and this post briefly revisits their contributions to the genre.

    While I wanted to focus on McBain, it’s impossible to look at her success without examining her predecessor first. Especially since McBain herself credited Woodiwiss and her first novel, The Flame and the Flower, as her inspiration:

    I can still remember so very vividly standing in front of several rows of books and trying to find something to read, but nothing interested me until I caught sight of a big historical novel with a startlingly white cover and bright purple lettering, and by an author I’d never read. Intrigued by the story, I bought the book, little realizing the impact it would have on my own life.

    (McBain, Romantic Times, 1988)

    Kathleen Woodiwiss: The First Avon Lady

    Kathleen Woodiwiss wrote her first novel while living at an air force base in Kansas. This Regency novel, The Flame and the Flower, launched the modern racy historical romance. At 600 pages, the manuscript was not what either agents or hardback publishers were looking for at the time.

    Indeed, an agent advised Woodiwiss to rewrite the novel, cutting it down to one fourth of its current length. The agent also told her to add ‘grabbers’ at the end of each chapter to propel the reader on to the next, to add more sex, and to double space the manuscript since single spacing was not acceptable.

    She only took the last suggestion and retyped the novel. Then, hearing that hardback publishers took too big a percentage of the royalties, she decided to go with paperback publishers instead.

    And the reason she ended up at Avon? She looked up the list of publishers at the back of Writer’s Digest, starting with the A-names. Avon wasn’t the first option, but it was the publisher who asked for longer manuscripts.

    At Avon the manuscript fell into the slush pile where it was found by editor Nancy Coffey. Coffey had intended to go swimming at the beach that weekend. But the weather forecast was rain. Forced to spend the weekend indoors, she pulled the huge manuscript from the pile. Soon she couldn’t put it down. She was up all night finishing it and by Monday morning she was recommending that Avon publish the book.

    Avon would release the book in paperback as an ‘Avon Spectacular’ with the kind of promotion usually reserved for bestseller reprints.

    Woodiwiss received $1500 for the rights and 4% of the royalties.

    To get an idea of just how much faith editor Nancy Coffey and Avon had in this novel – the first print run for The Flame and The Flower was for half a million books. The actual print run was 600,000 after a good review from Publisher’s Weekly. It was a gamble since the book was different – epic in scope, long, with much steamier sex scenes. Yet the gamble paid off. A popular new subgenre was born. And The Flame and the Flower sold just short of two and a half million copies in its first four years.

    Woodiwiss credited word of mouth by readers for contributing to the book’s success.

    Kathleen Woodiwiss - The Flame and The Flower

    In a groundbreaking move, Avon published the novel in paperback first, not hardback. From its initial publication in April 1972, the book had gone through 40 reprints by 1978 and by then had sold 4.5 million copies. In spite of having what today is clearly problematic content including rape, the book is still in print now.

    When Rosemary Rogers’ Sweet Savage Love landed at Avon, addressed ‘To the Editor of The Flame and The Flower‘, Coffey told the next editorial meeting, ‘I hate to tell you, but I think we’ve got another one’.

    By the time The Flame and the Flower had gone through 40 reprints, Sweet Savage Love had gone through 32. Avon was the first publisher of choice for historical romance writers – many of them starting off as inspired readers – and the company received around 500 fan letters a week.

    Meanwhile, not all the authors were who they seemed to be. Jennifer Wilde was a popular historical romance writer and one of the ‘Avon Ladies’.

    In an issue of New York Magazine from February 13th 1978, there is a list of bestsellers. Rosemary Rogers took the top three positions, followed by Kathleen Woodiwiss at number four, six and seven. Jennifer Wilde is at number four with 2.5 million copies of Love’s Tender Fury sold. Wilde’s Dare to Love meanwhile appears lower down at 1.3 million.

    Jennifer Wilde was actually Tom Huff, a six-foot tall Texan guy. He wrote romance under a number of pseudonyms. When he moved to historical romance, he adopted the name Jennifer Wilde. Immensely successful, he won a Romantic Times career achievement award but sadly died of a heart attack in 1990.

    The timing of this wave of historical romances coincided with the women’s rights movement. Female sexuality was a more acceptable topic of conversation. Nevertheless there was a tension or conflict between feminism and some of the subjects covered in the historical romance novels of the 1970s and 1980s.

    But the new and epic historical romance was popular. So it was inevitable that Nancy Coffey and Avon would be scouring for new authors in the same new genre. Soon writers like Laurie McBain and Rosemary Rogers followed.

    Laurie McBain joins Avon

    Born in 1949, California-born Laurie McBain was a graduate of California State University.

    She’d already read The Flame and The Flower when she saw a notice in Writer’s Digest from Avon looking for unagented writers. Encouraged by her father, she researched and wrote her own Regency romance Devil’s Desire.

    Not only was my writing style influenced by Kathleen Woodiwiss (as well as by the novels of Daphne du Maurier, Georgette Heyer, and Mary Stewart), but because of The Flame and The Flower, when I completed my first historical novel, Devil’s Desire, I sent it to the publishers of Kathleen Woodiwiss.

    Laurie McBain, Romantic Times

    McBain wrote Devil’s Desire after months of research. She was 26 when her first novel was published. The first run was over half a million copies.

    Laurie McBain - Devil's Desire

    Many years later, in a letter she wrote for the Romantic Times, she said she still had the Special Delivery letter she’d received from Nancy Coffey, confirming Avon’s interest in acquiring her book.

    …from that moment my life was changed forever.

    Laurie McBain Romantic Times

    There were only minimal changes suggested and Coffey would become McBain’s editor.

    Fascinated by history, McBain admitted to feeling very privileged to land a career in historical fiction.

    Moonstruck Madness

    There is a note inside Laurie McBain’s novels that says:

    Laurie McBain is of Scottish descent and members of the McBain Clan were killed at the battle of Culloden Moor in 1746.

    This link to Scotland and Culloden is particularly relevant to her second novel, Moonstruck Madness. It was the tale of a young impoverished half-Scottish aristocrat, Sabrina Verrick. By day she’s a young lady of a declining manor. By night she’s Bonnie Charlie, a highwayman, who robs the rich, including Lucien Dominick, a duke and the book’s hero.

    For Moonstruck Madness, McBain’s research into the post-Culloden period in England shows a good grip of the period language without overdoing it. From the opening pages, when a group of male aristocrats are about to be interrupted at dinner by the mysterious Bonnie Charlie and ‘his’ accomplices, McBain quickly sketches in period and character.

    It’s easy to picture these men sitting around in their powdered wigs, only to be spluttering in outrage at the mysterious figure who emerges from behind the curtains. Lucien, the book’s scarred hero, is present and he and Bonnie Charlie clash from the first scene.

    Lucien has no idea at this point that she’s a woman. In fact, Sabrina took to the road to support her siblings and aunt. Forced to leave Scotland after the defeat at Culloden, she harbours some enmity towards the English.

    Lucien is determined to catch up with the cheeky highwayman who robbed them all. But he also has his own problems with the expectation that he should marry or lose his estate. A pair of siblings provide the antagonistic forces along with the dowager duchess who won’t tolerate Lucien staying single. He must marry or else the estate passes to a cousin – the male half of the siblings.

    Meanwhile Sabrina’s estranged father lurks in the background, ready to reappear, which only adds to her problems. Every night on the road she risks discovery. Every night she goes out as Bonnie Charlie she might never return, or be caught and hanged.

    Given that this is a historical romance, it’s not too hard to guess whether this book has a happy ending. And given it was published in 1975, it perhaps won’t fit entirely with modern sensibilities. However, it was a rip-roaring success, selling over a million copies, and was the first of the Dominick trilogy.

    McBain also wrote other historical novels including Tears of Gold and Wild Bells to The Wild Sky. In Tears of Gold she mined the history of her native state of California, San Francisco, and the Gold Rush period (which ran from 1848 to 1855). Wild Bells covers a longer period of time and includes privateers, castaways, gypsies, Elizabethan England, spies, treason and treachery.

    Laurie McBain - Wild Bells To The Wild Sky

    Her final novel was When The Spendor Falls, a sweeping story set against the backdrop of the American Civil War and the devastating impact on two families. It was published in 1985. Two other previous novels continued the story of the Dominick family into the next generation.

    And then it was over…

    But then, seven bestselling books in, it was over. Laurie McBain vanished from the publishing industry.

    Common mythology (and Wikipedia) says she retired after her father died. He had helped and encouraged her from the time of her first novel, Devil’s Desire.

    However, this is not true.

    Old cuttings posted by Rob Imes on the internet, including Twitter/X, show that she was working on another book, set in medieval England. One cutting mentions a reader receiving a letter from Laurie McBain saying the book was complete and delivered to Bantam. Though it didn’t yet have a title, the likely publication date was either 1992 or 1993. I contacted her former editor who confirmed she was Laurie McBain’s editor at Bantam. She was unable to tell me anything else.

    There was a later reference in the Romantic Times to a novel that McBain was finishing – this was in 1995. It’s not clear if it’s the same one or a ninth novel.

    Where is the eighth novel?!

    So, what happened to the eighth novel? And is there a ninth? For such a successful author to suddenly disappear is odd. But there were changes in the industry in the 1990s. My next author post will likely be about SF/F/H author Tanith Lee. Lee found it increasingly difficult in the 1990s to get her manuscripts or pitches accepted by publishers she’d worked with in the past.

    I think Laurie McBain’s fans would dearly love to see the eighth novel. The idea that it’s out there, never to see the light, just doesn’t seem right.

    Her career lasted from 1975 to 1985. At the time of this post Laurie McBain will be around 74 years old. It’s difficult to think of a writer coming to prominence in her field in her mid-twenties only to exit in her mid-thirties, when her fans were still eager to read her work.

    And since her other novels are almost entirely re-issued in ebook versions, it would surely be possible to issue the eighth and any others the same way.

    I have contacted Laurie’s current ebook publisher to see if I can find out anything else. In the meantime, I would like to thank Laurie for the floor-to-ceiling history books I’ve gathered over the decades. I couldn’t have done it without discovering her second book. I started collecting eighteenth century history books, and then worked out from there, in both directions. Back to the Stuarts and beyond, and forward to the Regency, Victorian period, etc. Here are just a few examples:

    I’ll leave the last words of this post to Laurie herself:

    Throughout my career, I’ve attempted with each novel I’ve written to tell the most entertaining story I can. For a few brief hours, I’ve tried to take the reader on a journey of adventure, romance, and discovery into another century. And if I’ve managed to bring pleasure, and ultimately satisfaction, into someone’s life with my writing, then that is what brings me the most gratification.

    Laurie McBain, Romantic Times

    References and further reading

    The Tempestuous, Tumultuous, Turbulent, Torrid , And Terribly Profitable World of Paperback Passion by Alice K Turner, Feb 13 1978, New York Magazine

    Interview With Kathleen E Woodiwiss by Angela Weiss, October 2000, Bertelsmann Club

    Scans of cuttings relating to Laurie McBain are available from Rob Imes Twitter/X post here.

    Other blog posts on authors:

    Joan Lindsay and Picnic at Hanging Rock.

    Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith.

    Maeve Brennan.

  • Author interview: Dorothy M Parker

    Author interview: Dorothy M Parker

    Author interview: Dorothy M Parker

    Last year I had the pleasure of working with new novelist Dorothy M Parker and her time travel novel, The Angel of Incompleteness. Her novel was published a few months ago so I thought I’d take the time to find out more about her motivations to write the novel, and more.

    Me: Hi Dorothy! What is your career background – I mean, before you wrote this novel?

    Dorothy: I was a journalist at the BBC for most of my career. I studied Biochemistry at Glasgow University and Journalism in an American University.

    Me: Is this your first novel?

    Dorothy: Yes.

    Me: The main character is Louise, someone who has worked in broadcasting. Do you have a particular affinity with her? If so, how?

    Dorothy: Yes, I was a TV Researcher, Producer/Director and then Editor of an Investigative Journalism documentary series at BBC Scotland. Many of Louise’s experiences are derived from my experience, although I focused on the bad ones for the purpose of the story!

    Me: Your novel includes time travel – is this a genre you particularly like? If so, do you have any favourite time travel books/films?

    Dorothy: Yes I love time travel. I was trying to understand quantum physics when I started writing this book, so I became fascinated by the fact that there is no time at the quantum level. I played about with this for the novel.

    Favourites include Carlo Rovelli’s book ‘The Order of Time’, Ruth Ozeki ‘A Tale for a Time Being’, ‘Outlander’, ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’.

    Me: When did you first discover the nineteenth-century artist Berthe Morisot? And what attracted you to writing about her?

    Dorothy: I was looking at a book about Impressionists when I came across Berthe Morisot, just as Louise does in my novel. I didn’t know there was a woman Impressionist, and I fell in love with Berthe’s paintings – the lightness of touch, the beautiful colours. I became fascinated with Berthe’s work and her life, her struggle to be a painter in a man’s world.

    Me: Your novel also includes the other main Impressionists – was it fun to bring them to life?

    Dorothy: It was great fun. I read letters written by Manet and Degas, and researched them as well as Monet, Renoir, Cezanne. I discovered that Edouard Manet was brilliant and charismatic, Edgar Degas was a misogynist, and Paul Cezanne was a grump. It was fascinating that these amazing artists knew each other in Paris. That was one reason I wanted to go to that time in the book.

    Me: What issues did you find with writing about a real historical person who can’t answer back?! Do you think there are ethical concerns? Did you feel any sense of duty to the real people in the story – which might have constrained you in some way?

    Dorothy: Yes I really struggled with this at the beginning, especially as I was a journalist and spend my career making sure information was correct. Then I decided to give myself a break – lots of authors have written about real historical people. But I tried to be as faithful as possible to Berthe’s character and life. I did a lot of research around her and her family.

    Me: How long did you take from the original idea to completion?

    Dorothy: I didn’t set out to write a novel, but I became intrigued by Berthe Morisot about 5 years ago. At the same time I was trying to understand quantum physics. The ideas just took over, to the point I was waking up in the middle of the night to write them down. So the book insisted it be written. It’s my first novel so it was a huge learning experience. I put it away for months, and then a year at a time, so it was 5 years on and off.

    Me: Your novel not only deals with the Impressionists and Morisot, it also brings the Paris of the post-Commune period to life, including the Haussmann rebuild/public works programme. You contrast the wealthy with the poorest districts. How did you research this?

    Dorothy: I read ‘The City of Light’ by Rupert Christiansen, Robert L. Herbert’s book ‘Impressionism’ and did loads of internet searches about the clothes, the sewers, the food etc.

    Me: Your novel includes quantum physics and the theory of entanglement – how would you summarise the latter to a reader of this interview?

    Dorothy: Hah, difficult. In quantum physics it has been proved that 2 particles can influence each other over distance, instantaneously. There is no space and time at the quantum level. When you change the spin of one particle, the particle it’s entangled with changes its spin at the same time. I thought it would be fun if this applied to 2 women from different centuries!

    Me: How many of Berthe’s paintings have you seen in real life?

    Dorothy: I’ve been to as many exhibitions and art galleries as possible and seen all I can, maybe 50 paintings.

    Me: Where did you take liberties or speculate in the absence of evidence?

    Dorothy: Well obviously the time travel through the painting was a bit of a liberty. Louise’s relationship with Berthe and Eugene Manet was of course fictional. Berthe’s relationship with Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was speculative. They did know each other but I created their story for dramatic effect.

    Me: Did you outline your novel in advance, and if so, how tightly did you outline it?

    Dorothy: I didn’t outline at all to start with. Then I got lost and tried to map out the structure. Then I changed it several times, and then I asked Karen for help and that saved me.

    Me: For any readers inspired to learn more about the topics of your novel – which books would you recommend to them?

    Dorothy: The ones mentioned above. Also ‘Berthe Morisot ‘ by Jean Dominique Rey.

    Me: Most of the novel is historical – do you have a particular interest in historical fiction?

    Dorothy: I didn’t before becoming absorbed in this world.

    Me: What are your favourite genres?

    Dorothy: Magic realism and now, historical fiction

    Me: Who are your favourite writers?

      Dorothy: Ruth Ozeki, Mary Oliver (poems), Carlo Rovelli, George Saunders.

      Me: Do you miss the world of the novel now that the story is complete?

        Dorothy: Yes I really miss it. I take every chance I can to talk about it. I’m now doing a lecture on Berthe Morisot to U3A art appreciation group.

        Me: Would you like to travel back to that period yourself, given the limitations women suffered at the time?

          Dorothy: I’d love to visit Paris in the 1870s and meet Berthe and the Impressionists, but it would drive me mad to stay there. Women were either poor or heavily restricted.

          Me: Did the novel go in any unexpected directions that you were unprepared for?

            Dorothy: I enjoyed getting involved in the social scene in Paris, the balls and the dances. I hadn’t expected to write about that so that was fun. I had to develop the Louise’s relationship with her husband more and add some extra plot points and crises to make the story work, so I had to create a bit more drama to make the story work. There was a lot to learn about character arcs, plot and structure.

            Me: Did your characters surprise you when you were writing the book?

            Dorothy: I became very fond of them, even Edgar Degas. Louise and Berthe’s deepening friendship was a delightful surprise. Giselle, the maid, flourished into a minor character. And as I learnt more about Berthe I understood how hard she had struggled to be an artist.

              Me: What did it feel like to hold your published novel in your hands for the first time?

                Dorothy: Amazing. I was overwhelmed. It had lived in my head for so long it was hard to believe it was real.

                Me: Do you paint or engage in any visual art form yourself?

                  Dorothy: I paint, mostly landscapes.

                  Me: Are you planning to write more novels?

                  Dorothy: Not at the moment but who knows, something else may bubble up and demand to be written.

                  If readers want to check out Dorothy’s novel, you can follow the link below to Amazon:

                    The Angel of Incompleteness

                    The Angel of Incompleteness book cover.
                  1. How editorial feedback changed Interview with the Vampire

                    How editorial feedback changed Interview With The Vampire.
                    How editorial feedback changed Interview With The Vampire

                    Interview with the Vampire is one of the most famous vampire novels in history, easily ranking with Dracula and Carmilla as a milestone in the genre. It was a novel that not only changed the life of its author Anne Rice, but also the genre itself. This post looks at the background to the book, its writing, submission process, and how editorial feedback changed Interview with the Vampire, leading to Anne Rice switching to the ending readers know today.

                    WARNING for spoilers relating to the current ending of the novel versus the original ending. Anyone who has not read the book, seen the film, or heard the story should stop reading now.

                    Also, this blog follows on from the previous post where I looked at Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and how it changed after editorial feedback from his editor, Max Perkins.

                    The first draft of Interview

                    It’s part of literary folklore (though also true) that Interview started as a short story. Anne reworked this story a few times and you can read a version of it in The Vampire Companion, listed in the reading material at the end of this post.

                    In late 1973, she returned to it, developing it further so that it became a novel she famously wrote in five weeks. She wrote long into the night, her husband learning to sleep with the light on. Sometimes he slept on the couch.

                    Rice wrote at night, researched at the library during the day, and also drank. She was still in the throes of grief after the death of her young daughter Michelle from leukaemia.

                    For most of her writing life, Anne would identify more with the villain of her first published novel – Lestat. But at this point in her life, she was more wedded to the dark pessimism, guilt and grief of Louis, who suffers the loss of his brother early on, the loss of his mortal life, and the loss of his daughter-companion later.

                    The novel’s frame narrative introduces the interview and the location – San Francisco. In fact, Anne had previously accompanied her poet husband Stan to a small radio station on Divisadero Street. Now the vampire would occupy such a space, telling the story of his life to an interviewer.

                    Though Anne lived in San Francisco at the time, through the novel she returned to the city of her childhood – New Orleans – richly describing climate, flora, streets, quarters, and the interiors of houses.

                    The novel tapped into her own history and recent bereavement, though she didn’t analyse it at the time.

                    Another influence on the novel was Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, particularly in relation to Louis learning to become a vampire.

                    She read Carmilla but could not finish Dracula which showed vampires as more alien and animalistic. The 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter was more in line with her vision of vampires as tragic, with a conscience and the ability to suffer.

                    She broke with many of the usual genre tropes so that her vampires could see their own reflections, touch crucifixes, enter churches.

                    It was important that while they represented something magical in their immortality, the vampires themselves could see no evidence of something greater than themselves – namely, God or the Devil. This strengthens the existential angst for a character like Louis.

                    Finishing and submitting the first draft

                    After five weeks of furious writing, Anne finally finished the first draft of more than three hundred pages. In her diary she wrote:

                    It is just before four a.m. Monday morning, January 14 (1974), and I have just finished my vampire novel – 338 pages. Even as I write this the flaws occur to me. Perhaps I’ll go in and add something terribly essential. But right now I want to enjoy the moment of being finished… I am too excited about it to say anything humble or modest. I feel that even the writing of this entry is important. I dream, hope, imagine that this will be my first published work. I feel ashamed of nothing in it – not even what I know to be flaws. I feel solidly behind it as though Louis’ voice were my voice and I do not run the risk of being misunderstood.

                    Before she showed the manuscript to anyone, she sorted out the flaws in the ending. But that ending was very different from the present one.

                    In the meantime, she showed the novel to her husband. His first thought after finishing it was, “Our lives have changed.”

                    On the other hand, a writing group failed to appreciate the opening thirty pages, their comments unproductive.

                    When she sent the novel to someone who worked in film, he suggested she change the title. She didn’t take his advice.

                    She then sent the novel off to publishers and received many months of rejections.

                    Finally she ended up with two interested agents at the same time. She chose Phyllis Seidel and in October 1974 she received the news that Knopf would pay $12,000 for the hardback rights. This was six times the average for a first novel.

                    Anne’s new editor Victoria Wilson did want some changes – minor changes. She brought up something that is not uncommon in manuscripts.

                    The editorial feedback

                    In her editorial letter, Vicky Wilson wrote, “I think you were tired at the end. The end sort of peters out.” While other people who read the novel didn’t feel the same way, Anne felt that Vicky was right. The story calls for a tragic ending, and her energy had given out before she could properly conclude it.

                    It’s not uncommon for authors to be exhausted by the end of a draft. This can mean the ending is weaker or ends in the wrong place. The beginning can often be stronger because the author has more energy and motivation at that point. They are only at the beginning of the long marathon of writing a novel.

                    But what was the original ending?

                    The original ending

                    The novel up to Louis and Claudia going to Paris is pretty much the same as the published draft. But there is no Theatre of the Vampires. There is no climactic fire. There is no Madeleine. Lestat never appears, suggesting he likely died in the fire in New Orleans.

                    Instead, the Paris vampires live in an old mansion in the Faubourg St. Germain where they throw balls, recite Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, and drink animal blood in crystal glasses, served from a cauldron. Elderly human servants attend to them, humans who hope to become vampires one day.

                    Louis assumes the vampires are Satanic, leading him to hope they might have some answers to his existential questions. But Armand, the oldest of him, has no knowledge of either God or the Devil. This discussion still essentially exists in the published novel.

                    There are other scenes that don’t appear in the final draft, or which have been adapted. A girl is feasted on at the house in the early draft, while this takes place in the Theatre of the Vampires in the final version.

                    There’s a scene where Armand and Louis look out from a tower room to the Paris skyline beyond. Louis still suffers despair. He cannot stay with the Paris coven. They are too conformist and rigid in their rules. In Armand, he finds “the vampire of my dreams” and they go off together to wander the world. They’re still together by the time of the interview.

                    Meanwhile Claudia has embraced the Paris coven, fitting in where Louis does not. While the truth comes out about her attacking and likely killing Lestat, the other vampires decide he deserved it. The punishment in the final version leads to a dramatic climax. In this earlier version, Claudia is welcomed and joins with other vampire children to terrorize the priests and population of Paris.

                    There is more to this older draft, and you can find an outline of it in Katherine Ramsland’s The Vampire Companion, which is listed in the reading material at the end.

                    The attraction of the first draft’s ending might be evident to anyone who understands that in the child vampire Claudia, Anne Rice had immortalised her own daughter. “Claudia” was Michelle’s nickname. In granting Claudia a happier ending, she might have left her alive at the end of the book, but the overall happy ending wasn’t what the book needed.

                    According to Anne, “The ending wasn’t right. It just didn’t reach it’s cathartic pitch. In fact it didn’t really have an ending, so I went back and rewrote it, and then it had a horrendously different ending.”

                    The rewrite

                    Anne admits she didn’t really re-read the first half, only skimming it. Instead, she threw out the last hundred pages and spent ten weeks writing the new scenes and researching new material. She worked twelve hours a day. The novel’s world was growing and expanding and she was swept up in it once more.

                    This brought the manuscript up to 530 pages. It was far more than what her editor had asked for.

                    With the novel now having new scenes, plot twists, and a different tone and ending, the risk was that the publisher might not like it.

                    It was no longer the manuscript they’d bought.

                    But Vicky Wilson was delighted.

                    Later, Vicky and the editor-in-chief at Knopf told Anne that when authors are asked to revise, they don’t usually address most of the feedback. Some things are revised, but “they get very little back. There isn’t much more an author can do, and they know that.” (This was the mid-70s.)

                    Lessons from Interview with the Vampire

                    It is absolutely true that authors can run out of steam before they reach the end of their book. I have seen numerous manuscripts where the ending petered out.

                    But this is fixable.

                    It’s worth remembering that Anne Rice sent off an early draft. Some writers take longer and write a few before they submit it anywhere.

                    It’s certainly better to polish a manuscript over time, taking break periods where necessary.

                    It’s important to recuperate and return to the manuscript with more energy and objectivity.

                    Feedback from others also helps. For some, this will be writing groups.

                    Anne Rice didn’t find her contact with writers in this scenario as helpful. She had a poet husband who was supportive, but ultimately her own instincts told her to hold to her vision where necessary.

                    That same instinctual understanding of her characters and story told her how to fix the ending.

                    Her novel went on to become a classic of the genre. One that would change the vampire novel forever.

                    Reading List

                    Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

                    Prism of the Night: A Biography of Anne Rice by Katherine Ramsland

                    Conversations with Anne Rice by Michael Riley

                    The Anne Rice Reader edited by Katherine Ramsland

                    The Vampire Companion: The Official Guide to Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles by Katherine Ramsland

                    Looking for editorial feedback yourself?

                    Whether you’re a beginner writer or you have more experience, editorial feedback offers a fresh insight into your characters, plot, story structure and more.

                    There are different levels of feedback. I offer an Opening Chapters Developmental edit, a Manuscript Critique, a Beta Critique (a bit shorter and cheaper than a Manuscript Critique), or a full Developmental Edit.

                    If you have any custom requests, feel free to contact me at or you can check my services page link below:

                    Click here for editorial services page.