Interview with Jae, author of Shaken to the Core

Today we're interviewing Jae, who's just published Shaken to the Core, a new historical adventure and romance set in San Francisco, during the massive earthquake of 1906. She's a well established author in the F/F community, and her exquisitely slow romances and great plots make her a reference for the genre.

Rachel: How would you describe Shaken to the Core?

Jae: Shaken to the Core is a lesbian historical romance. The novel is set in 1906, during the Great Earthquake and Fires in San Francisco. It’s the story of Giuliana, a working-class immigrant from Sicily, and Kate, the daughter of a rich family. They are both struggling to find their place in the world—Giuliana so she can make a living as a single woman without a family in America and Kate because she wants to be a newspaper photographer, not just a socialite who entertains rich suitors and is supposed to marry and reproduce.

Despite their different backgrounds, they become friends when Giuliana starts working for Kate’s family as a maid. But then the earthquake hits, and they find themselves fighting for their lives.

Rachel: On your website, you detail the (significant!) amount of hours spent on the different processes that make a book a reality. Do you prefer to do historical research or contemporary research?

Jae: I don’t actually have a preference. I love research—any kind of research. I call myself an “information junkie” because I love learning new things. And I learn something new with every book I write. For example, my romance novel Just Physical features a character with multiple sclerosis and another character who is a stuntwoman, so I did a lot of research on the stunt business and on life with MS.

But, of course, historical fiction requires a lot more research than a contemporary romance. I spent hours finding out one little detail that later took up only half a sentence in the book. Finding out more about the way people lived in past centuries is fascinating, so I often have to force myself to stop doing research and start writing.

Rachel: What was your research process for this book? Did it differ from other works?

Jae: I’m working on novel number fourteen right now, so my research process is well established and doesn’t change much from book to book. For historical novels, I start by doing general research into how people lived and how they thought in the era I’m writing about. What kind of food would they eat? What kind of medicine was available back then? What did they do for entertainment? How did the usage of language differ from ours? What new technology was invented during that time?

That general knowledge about the time helps me establish my characters’ personalities and backgrounds, and it also helps me to plot my books. Once I know what kind of scenes I will have in the book, I start doing more specialized research. For Shaken to the Core, I put together a timeline of events. When did the earthquake hit, and when did the aftershocks happen? What course did the fires take? How bad was the destruction in different parts of the city?

I only start writing once I’ve gathered all the information I know I will need.

Rachel: You write Kate braving the interdiction to take pictures to let the truth out— did the army really try to censor what was happening?

Jae: Pretty much every detail I mentioned in Shaken to the Core is based on facts. City officials wanted to portray San Francisco as a safe place to live and invest in, so they reported a death toll of under 500. Nowadays, the death toll is estimated at 3,000, possibly even 5,000 to 10,000 victims.

Officials also didn’t like anyone taking pictures of the destruction, especially not of the earthquake damage. Earthquakes are more unpredictable and uncontrollable compared to fires, and they were afraid that reporting the truth would scare away investors, so they downplayed the magnitude of the disaster and encouraged newspapers to report just the fire, not the earthquake.

Rachel: How did you decide you wanted to write about the San Francisco earthquake? Has it been a project long in the making, especially so long after Backward to Oregon? I remember you teased it in the Hollywood series, was it already in the plans then?

Jae: I don’t exactly remember when I first came across the Great Earthquake of 1906, but I have been interested in that era and in writing a novel about a natural disaster for a long time. I started doing research at the beginning of 2013, almost three years before I started writing the first draft of the novel.

When I wrote Damage Control, in which one of the main characters, Lauren, writes a screenplay set during the Great Earthquake and Fires, I already knew that I would write a novel about the same event and I also knew a lot of the scenes already. If you read Just Physical, the novel in which Lauren’s script is filmed, you will recognize several scenes from Shaken to the Core.

When I first envisioned Shaken to the Core and its characters, I didn’t plan on connecting it to my Oregon series, but once I had created Dr. Lucy Hamilton Sharpe, who’s much more comfortable with her sexual orientation than other lesbians of her time, I realized that I had to give her a background that would explain why she considers it perfectly normal to fall in love with women, not men. That’s when I decided to make her the granddaughter of the characters from Backwards to Oregon.

Rachel: What are your projects for historical fiction? Will we see more of the characters from Shaken to the Core?

Jae: I definitely plan to give Lucy her own novel. The book will focus on the Chinese community in San Francisco and the discrimination they faced, before and after the earthquake. I knew that someone like Lucy will need a strong partner who can be her equal, so she will become involved with a woman who fights to save young Chinese girls from slavery and prostitution.

Rachel: Do you have other projects in the work?

Jae: At the moment, I’m wrapping up revisions on Heart Trouble, a contemporary lesbian romance with an unexpected twist.

After that, I will write the story of one of Heart Trouble’s supporting characters. That seems to be a trend with me: I often become fascinated with the minor characters I created and will then give them a book of their own.

I’m also planning a follow-up novel to my popular romantic suspense series that started with Conflict of Interest and Next of Kin.

Rachel: You’ve shown skill with a lot of different genres: historical fiction, urban fantasy, contemporary fiction, procedural fiction… Do you plan to explore new territories? Science Fiction? Maybe gothic horror?

Jae: I don’t want to pigeonhole myself as a writer, so I love to explore new genres. I could definitely see myself writing science fiction or fantasy, since I devoured novels of those genres as a child and a teenager. There’s also a paranormal mystery on my books-to-write-one-day list.

Horror is pretty much the only genre that I never truly became interested in, so I’ll probably skip that one.

Rachel: I like how you’ve shown great diverse and complex characters in your bibliography. I know this is me preaching for my chapel, but do you plan to create a trans character one day? Maybe a lead?

Jae: I’ve learned to never say never. A diverse cast of characters is important to me. By the way, a lot of my readers read Luke from my historical novel Backwards to Oregon as transgender. While I didn’t set out to create a trans character in Luke, I understand how she could be viewed that way. At the very least, she’s what you would call genderqueer today.

Another story on my books-to-write-one-day list is a novel with an asexual main character. I have two asexual friends, and they don’t see themselves represented nearly enough in fiction.

Rachel Vigo is a would-be critical geographer from Paris (the one in France, not the one in Texas). She is an avid devourer of books and plays video-games far too much.