Author and Narrator in Conversation | LJ Talks with India Holton & Elizabeth Knowelden

Author India Holton and multi-Audie-Award-winning narrator Elizabeth Knowelden discuss the creative process, their favorite scenes in Holton’s giddily engaging series, and the pleasures of tea and audio. 

India Holton (author of 2023 LJ Best Book The Secret Service of Tea and Treason) and multi-Audie-Award-winning narrator Elizabeth Knowelden discuss the creative process, their favorite scenes in Holton’s giddily engaging series, and the pleasures of tea and audio. Pour a cup and listen in.

Your “Dangerous Damsels” books are so gleefully composed that readers feel your bond not only to the stories you are telling but also the many works they reference. Given that connection, what was your experience of listening to the series on audio?

India Holton: The very first time I listened to the audiobook of The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels was such an emotional and gratifying moment for me as a writer, because Elizabeth had clearly understood what I was trying to communicate, and she expressed it flawlessly through her acting. When you’re writing a story, your ultimate wish is not only that the reader will see what you’re describing but that they will connect with the spirit in which you’re doing so. Elizabeth conveys the spirit of my writing exactly how I intended it to be, and that’s a real gift not only for readers but for me. Listening to her narration is like listening to how the story sounds in my own head. It couldn’t be more perfect.

Part of the delightful pleasure of reading Holton’s series is the clever, knowing, and superfast voice that runs throughout. You capture that perfectly, down to even the tiniest pause before delivering the next word in a sentence. How did you prepare for that performance?

Elizabeth Knowelden: The truth is that India and I have a very similar sense of humor. India’s writing and her characters have a very specific comedic rhythm, and I hear it like music. Like with any great writing, whether for the theater, screen, or novel, you can hear the comedic timing, you can hear the beats, the pauses, the funny quiver in a voice that can really bring the character to life. So the main focus was preparing the characters so that they are all living, breathing real people to me. I see their hairstyles and clothing, the way they move and their facial expressions, why they feel connected to their weapon of choice…the list goes on. Ultimately, it’s those little nuances to the voices that help to bring these characters to life and really differentiate them for the audience, and bring a lot of extra fun. Can you share the process of making the audiobook? Were there elements you wanted to particularly focus on? Was there a mood you were hoping to create?

EK: India created a really unique book series—a world of such fantasy and comedy, and it’s so wonderfully bonkers that it gave me the freedom to paint with all the colors. We recorded these books at my home studio, and the main goal was simply to bring to life, in the most joyful way possible, the world that India has written. Our lead characters are the grounding element to the stories, which means that the eccentric world around them can spiral upwards in terms of mayhem and mischief, as we have balance to root us into reality. With India’s books, I’m smiling before I’ve even said the first word, because I know what’s coming. It’s a wonderful thing as an actor to help an audience to laugh out loud, to be silly, to simply delight in laughter and the present moment, so I really let that be the guiding light.

What is your writing process like? What kind of experience are you hoping your readers have, and what do you most focus on to achieve that?

IH: When I sit down to write, I take a moment to close my eyes and let everything filter out until I’m left with just the story. Each one has its own unique energy, and I try to express that through my word choices and the particular imagery I use. In this way I hope to facilitate the readers’ immersion in the story. I’d love for them to feel what the characters feel, and ultimately of course to have fun! Escapist fun, and also literary fun—language games and social politics alongside all the madcap shenanigans. I guess it’s most easily summed up by saying that I want to take them on a magical flying house ride, but with a classical library in the cockpit!

Is there a particular scene or chapter that is a favorite of yours in each of the three books or across the series?

IH: I have so many scenes I love, simply because anything I didn’t love, I cut from the books’ drafts. But my absolute favorite in The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels is the conversation between Cecilia and Ned in Bath. They basically composed that themselves, and I just typed and laughed. In The League of Gentlewomen Witches, it’s where Charlotte and Alex are jumping across rooftops. I turned music up loud and just threw myself (and them, literally) into that scene and had a real blast with it. And in The Secret Service of Tea and Treason, it has to be the final scene, which was possibly the easiest I’ve ever written and the one that, so far, has most fulfilled me as an author.

EK: India’s writing is so funny that scenes still pop into my mind and make me laugh, long after. I have a massive love for Frederick, our overly theatrical twit, who loves the sound of his own voice (but no one ever listens). I hope he finds love and doesn’t injure himself quite so much. I have incredible love and respect for Millie the Monster —to receive such a terrifying name and hold onto it well into her old age is quite an achievement, and we should all take note. And of course, Lady Armitage, who is an evil nightmare with her poison selection but devilishly fun to play. If this ever transfers to the stage, and I hope it does, I’d love to play Lady Armitage in my 70s. She’s horrifically sublime.

Readers (and tea drinkers) are going to be interested in your suggestions. What teas do you enjoy? And can you share a few novels that you think readers of your books might like?

IH: You can’t go wrong with basic builder’s tea, but I also love English breakfast. And at night, chamomile with vanilla and honey. As for recommended books, I’m sure my readers would love Olivia Atwater’s novels. They’re amongst my favorites ever. Her next upcoming is The Witchwood Knot, a satirical gothic romance, and it’s absolute perfection. Alexandra Vasti is another writer whose delightful, witty, and clever books I always highly recommend. Her historical rom-com Ne’er Do Well is out July 2024.

For those who enjoyed Holton’s novels, can you suggest other audiobooks that you’ve narrated?

EK: I can happily recommend the Lady Hardcastle books by T.E. Kinsey. They are a hilarious romp through the English countryside, as Lady H and her knife-throwing maid, Flo, solve crime together. Both series have plenty of unique characters, whimsy, ridiculousness, a healthy amount of skulduggery, and I love them very much indeed.

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