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From Phyllida's Desk

Becoming Lady Amalie

Readers of my LiveJournal blog may have noticed that my user name is Ann_Amalie. Some may have wondered where that came from. When I first started to write (fanfiction set in a sword-and-sorcery world), “Amalie” was my alter ego. She was a telepath, a misfit, who comes to this fantasy world in which the aristocracy are telepathic. When her gift is revealed, she is accepted as one of the elite and given an honorific (Lady), like the daughters of earls, marquesses and dukes in the English nobility. The great thing about this kind of courtesy title is that it's the woman's own name, from birth, not conferred by marriage to a titled man. It's her identity, part of who she is, and marriage doesn't change it.

Lady Amalie represented everything I thought I was, but couldn't show to the world: confident, witty, sexy, “gifted,” if not as a mind-reader, at least as a writer: above all, a star. By writing about myself in the character of Lady Amalie, I experienced the pleasures that life as Ann Herendeen seemed to have denied me: marriage to a dangerous, sexy, bisexual swordsman (or perhaps Vita Sackville-West); children; a career rather than a job: success in that difficult to define, “I-know-it-when-I-see- it” way that combines equal measures of glamor and simplicity, excitement and ongoing contentment; a level of personal fulfillment far removed from the mind-numbing tedium of the day job and the single, urban existence.

Once I gave up on fanfiction and switched to something I hoped to publish, Lady Amalie disappeared into the background. Attentive readers may have caught the in-joke that the upscale brothel in my fictional Regency London's West End is Madame Amélie's, appropriately French. (In sequels or related works that will probably never be written, I had planned to reveal that the current Madame Amélie is actually a businesslike Prussian who continues to play the character established by an earlier generation of entrepreneur.)

But in my mind, I still thought of the creative side of me as Lady Amalie, while Ann plodded back and forth to her job, to Key Food, to quiet dinners with friends, to group meetings of BiRequest (a bisexual “social discussion group”), and to the occasional drunken indulgence at a dive bar or disco. My job doesn't call for wit very often, and there are certainly no readings; no performances of any kind. Many workdays I barely open my mouth. While I wouldn't want a job that's all performance (meetings, conferences, presentations), this other extreme, sitting quietly in front of my computer for eight hours at a stretch, with the subway trip at each end, leaves me brain-dead, exhausted from the nothingness. I'm acutely aware of my voice going rusty from lack of use.

When Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander was picked up by HarperCollins, I felt like Cinderella after that first visit from her fairy godmother. Finally I had a chance to become Lady Amalie again. Of course you know how that goes: I had one reading, sparsely attended, at a Brooklyn Barnes and Noble, and grateful to have it; I got good reviews, and some devoted readers who became friends. And there were a couple of wonderful results: I was invited to speak at an academic conference, and I'm on the verge of being accepted into the canon of romance fiction.

Still, sooner than I had hoped, I was back at the hearth, in my ashy rags, waiting for another chance to go to the ball. I worked hard on Pride/Prejudice, eventually got that published, and learned just how risky it is to mess with a literary giant like Jane Austen and a romantic icon like Mr. Darcy.

Along the way, I discovered an underrated strength: my talent for comedy. Phyllida is a supremely witty book, and it came very naturally to me. If P/P is less effervescent, it's because I was trying a different style, adapting my voice to Austen's and letting her characters speak for themselves. The comedy in P/P is less like stand-up and closer to the measured tones of eighteenth century essayists and satirists. And despite the detractors who don't like the sex, the harshness, or the bisexual men, it led to a miracle: I became Lady Amalie.

The transformation happened first on my three-stop mini-tour, as I wrote in my blog post, “Bette Davis performs in North Carolina.” Now it's happened again, in Boston. And this time it was the real deal. The bookstore appearances, after all, delightful as they were, were just that: bookstore talks. I read fairly lengthy passages from each book, and improvised connecting speeches to fill out my time. But the Bilicious Show was ... a show. I wrote a five-minute stand-up style routine, introducing myself and my writing, and then read a short, condensed scene from Phyllida (for fans, it's the scene in which Andrew and Phyllida go backstage and meet Rhys Powell: “Ouch! Now I know why they call it a prick.”)

For this one ten-minute performance, I practiced and practiced and practiced. It was a struggle to memorize, but I did it. I tried different ways to say it, tinkered with a word here or there, and a week before the performance I made a couple of significant changes that turned it from an OK monologue to a killer. And on Thursday, Sept. 23rd, I nailed it. As they say in comedy, I killed.

I'm sure some of you are gagging by now on the boasting, the arrogance, the breathtaking immodesty. Yep. You got that right. Like the Lady Susans and Lady Catherines of Jane Austen's reviled nobility, I say (in my updated, twenty-first-century manner): Bite me. Lady Amalie, like all of these ancien régime damned aristos, doesn't give a fig for modesty, for propriety, She has absolutely no shame whatsoever. If she makes you laugh, that's all that matters.

And you want to know how it felt? Fabulous. Awesome. Top of the world, Ma. It felt, as I'm sure every natural-born performer has discovered, like becoming myself. At long last, I have found—me. In becoming Lady Amalie—in public, in front of a laughing, appreciative audience—I became Ann Herendeen. The real Ann Herendeen. Like Cinderella, I found my rightful place in the world by knowing where I belong, and claiming it.

For those of you not entirely put off, the performance was filmed (taped?) and will be made available in some form eventually. Even if you can't stomach Lady Amalie's overweening pride, you won't want to miss slam poet Michael Monroe's brilliant, incisive performance, Rob Barton's bisexual twist on country music, or Robin Renee's warm, powerful voice and original, thought-provoking lyrics.
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