Hugh C. Rae, the man behind bestselling romance author Jessica Stirling, knew a thing or two about pseudonyms. He wrote under a multitude of pen names—others included Robert Crawford and James Albany—and was as comfortable writing thrillers as he was bodice rippers. One of the mysteries he wrote as Stirling, Whatever Happened to Molly Bloom, will be published by Severn House on February 1, 2015. As Rae sadly passed away last month, we got in touch with his longtime editor at Hodder & Stoughton, Carolyn Caughey, to discuss the man considered one of Scotland’s most prolific literary sons.
When and how did you come to be Rae’s editor?
I first met Hugh C. Rae when I took over as editor of Jessica Stirling in 1984. He often came to London in connection with the Romantic Novelists' Association and the Society of Authors, and came to see me to discuss my request to spare a few of the villagers he had killed off at the end of Hearts of Gold (the ninth Jessica Stirling [book], and the third [he had written] on his own). After some discussion, some of the children survived! And after this terrible start, he agreed to write three more books for us.
What are some of the things that typify his writing?
The first was his meticulous and thorough research--it didn't ever look like research, but he knew any subject he wanted to write about backwards. The other really outstanding talent was the way he handled dialogue, and used it to tell his stories. You can hear his speakers as you read, and the amazing thing is that you can hear their accents. Not just Scots--which you would expect from a Glaswegian--but also Scottish Gaelic (The Island Wife), London (including his last novel for Hodder & Stoughton, The Constant Star), and Irish (the very moving Shamrock Green, set around the Easter Rising of 1916.)
Hugh started his career writing thrillers. Why switch to romance?
The way I heard the story, he made the switch to romance because thrillers were hard to sell and romance was booming. But don't underestimate the thrilling elements of his romantic novels. There is always suspense in a Jessica Stirling [novel]. There is often a crime, though you are more likely to see it from the viewpoint of the victim or the perpetrator. (A Lantern for the Dark, about a mother accused of killing her child, is a standout in that respect.) There is even a sequence of four books set in the closed world of the Glasgow police force—but from the point of view of a wife, not a policeman.
The first few Jessica Stirling novels were co-written with the author Peggy Coghlan. Once Rae started writing them on his own, do you think they changed in any significant, or notable, ways?
Hugh was such an excellent craftsman that I think readers would find it hard to tell where he took over (which was partway through the second trilogy). As the years went on new stories reflected topics he found interesting--and the date range widened to cover periods from the eighteenth century to the 1940s--but there was not a sudden switch. I never felt that his being a man really affected what he wrote, simply because he took such immense care to write from a woman's point of view.
I heard that when it was publicly revealed that Jessica Stirling was a pseudonym, Rae was fairly unhappy. What exactly happened?
The fact that Jessica Stirling was Hugh C. Rae was not advertised to the reading public, but it was an open secret in writing and reviewing circles, particularly in Scotland where Hugh was very active in the literary community. On all our hardback covers, we called him 'she' and refrained from publishing a picture. When he was shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year award (for The Wind from the Hills), a couple of journalists wondered if there was some element of deception. [They looked into it], but kept coming up against the fact that every librarian in Scotland, the whole Romantic Novelists' Association and quite a few regular readers were perfectly aware [of the pseudonym], and entirely happy about this particular man writing romantic novels.
What do you think Rae’s legacy, as an author, will be?
I hope Hugh's legacy will be that his stories will be read for a very long time. We still reprint books that were first published in the 1970s, and all the Jessica Stirlings are e-books. Not many novels from that time are still worth reading, but these haven't dated at all. The original readers have been replaced over the years by new generations of fans, and that's a legacy all authors hope for.