I am very excited today to be continuing the Interview With series by talking to Tosca Lee. Tosca Lee is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of eleven novels including A SINGLE LIGHT, THE LINE BETWEEN, THE PROGENY, THE LEGEND OF SHEBA, ISCARIOT, and the Books of Mortals series with New York Times bestseller Ted Dekker. Her work has been translated into seventeen languages and been optioned for TV and film. A notorious night-owl, she loves movies, playing football with her kids, and sending cheesy texts to her husband. You can find Tosca on social media or hanging around the snack table. To learn more, please visit toscalee.com.
If you are a regular reader, you may remember my blog post about Elizabeth Báthory, a sixteenth-century Hungarian noblewoman who holds the Guinness World Record for being the most prolific female murderer. Whilst researching Báthory, I came across Lee’s book THE PROGENY, a modern-day thriller based on Báthory’s story. I was therefore really excited to talk to Lee and find out more!
Hi Tosca, thanks for speaking to us! You are a prolific writer, producing 11 novels so far. When did you realise you wanted to be a writer, and what made you decide to actually put pen to paper?
I actually grew up writing and winning contests, but never thought of it as a “thing” per se—I grew up wanting to be a classical ballerina. After getting sidelined at the age of 14 by an injury, I knew that a professional career was probably not going to be in the cards for me. As I headed off to Smith College, I figured I’d go into advertising or business. But while visiting my family during spring break that first year, I was in the car with my dad talking about one of my favorite novels of all time—The Mists of Avalon—and how a great book is a lot like a roller coaster with twists and turns. And right then and there, I blurted out, “I think I want to write a book.” I wanted to see if I could create a roller coaster ride like other authors had for me. My dad said, “Okay, I’ll make you a deal.” I was supposed to spend that summer working as a bank teller—a job I had done the summer before. Dad said, “I will pay you what you would have made working at the bank if you write your first novel full-time all summer and treat it like a job.” Deal. I did it, and wrote my first book—a historical novel of the Stonehenge people.
It was really bad!
That was such a kind offer from your Dad, and a choice I bet he’s happy with now! When did you first hear about Elizabeth Báthory, and what drew you to her story?
A fan actually suggested it to me! Hollywood has sensationalized her story into one of a vain countess who bathed in the blood of virgins to stay young and beautiful. In fact, her real history is not only far more plausible but far more interesting; she was the richest woman in Europe during her life—richer, even, than the Habsburg king—not to mention extremely educated and literate in four languages. The fact that the crown owed her money and was instantly relieved of those debts as soon as she was found guilty of an insane number of murders (more than 600)… well, I always say there’s more to the story and in this case, lets just say I strongly suspect conspiracy.
A late sixteenth-century copy of a 1585 portrait of Elizabeth Báthory when she was 25 years old – the only known image of her. WikiCommons.
That certainly seems to be a theme of powerful women through history… When writing fiction based on true historical characters such as Báthory, how do you go about balancing fact and fiction?
Research, research, research. I always start with the research—including travelling to where the story took place as much as possible–and let it inform my outline and the characters’ actions. I have a rule that characters have to be products of the social norms, religious and geo-political situations of their times.
You seem drawn to historical figures with a controversial story. As well as Báthory, you have written about Judas Iscariot and the Queen of Sheba. What interests you about these types of characters?
Again, that I always feel there’s more to the story. Lives and decisions—and people—are far more complex than the bullet list of events and two-dimensional motives history assigns them. You can see this in tabloids and celebrity news and social media even today. There’s always far more going on than the final verdict that gets recorded in the history books.
I completely understand that fascination. So, how do you go about creating your stories? Do you have a routine for your writing?
Not day-to-day so much, but my general cycle goes something like this: research and travel to the location (if possible). Take copious notes and pictures and eat everything while there. Get home and procrastinate for as long as possible. Panic. Start writing—the beginning is always a bit slow for me. And then barrel toward the final days of deadline writing 20 hours a day and finish after an all-nighter.
Procrastination is definitely the demon of most writers! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers, particularly ones who want to put a historical spin on their stories?
Be sure to pick topics, figures, and time periods that you truly enjoy because then the research is never work. Don’t be afraid to reach out to academics and other subject matter experts. Yes, you might feel silly or shy, but I have found that there are people who have dedicated their lives already to studying the thing you are trying to learn more about and who are often delighted to find another soul with which to share this common interest and knowledge.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline we can hear about?
I’ve recently written a WWII novel with another author and so we will hope to find a publishing home for it this year. Stay tuned!
A huge thank you to Tosca for talking to us today, and we can’t wait to see what she will produce next. Do check out her website, toscalee.com, and you can find The Progeny, the first book in the Descendants of the House of Bathory series, here. For those interested in reading The Progeny books, or in Elizabeth Bathory, Lee keeps a Pinterest board titled Real-Life Progeny. It includes images from her research trip and the book, as well as a photo of her genealogist mother with distant relative Sir Ian Moncrieffe, who was actually related to Báthory.
If you would be interested in being interviewed – it doesn’t matter what aspect of history you are involved in! – we would love to hear from you, and you can contact us via our Facebook or Twitter below.
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