For the past 15 years Julie Garwood has been writing historical romances very successfully. With over 30 million books in print and 15 New York Times bestsellers, it would seem to be her niche. In her latest book, however, she breaks new ground (and possibly the hearts of some loyal romance readers) with a venture into a new genre the thriller. But never fear, dear readers, Heartbreaker is also a passionate love story sprinkled with the famous Garwood humor.
"My mentor Sister Mary Elizabeth would have had a fit," Garwood laughs, recalling the nun who first introduced her to the world of books. "I was sitting in a 400-year-old church in London, plotting a crime." She says she couldn't help herself; the ornate confessional tucked into a dark recess of the church fascinated her.
In that moment, the plot for Heartbreaker began to unfold. "What if a priest, expecting to hear a typical confession, isn't prepared for what he hears? In a whisper, a man asks the priest to grant him forgiveness for a sin he has yet to commit -- he wants to kill a woman. He's done it before, and he wants to do it again. Only this time, he says he wants to warn the victim so it will be more of a challenge for him. The priest is just the one to do that, because the woman he is after is the priest's sister."
Before she left the church, Garwood knew she had the start of a story she felt destined to write. For a couple of years, the idea remained filed away, but it continued to tug at her -- a story waiting to be told. "When I took it out and looked at it last fall, a chill ran through me. Suddenly, I knew who the man in the confessional was and why he had chosen this woman." Immediately, she sat down to write Heartbreaker.
The result is is a riveting thriller in which Garwood employs all the senses, creating vivid characterizations and unexpected twists and turns. The lead character, FBI agent Nicholas Benjamin Buchanan, is an intense, passionate man, totally committed to his service in the missing children unit, a group consisting of 12 handpicked men aptly named "The Apostles." The unit is spearheaded by Pete Morganstern, an unflappable man nicknamed "Prozac Pete."
Agent Nick is about to leave for a long overdue vacation when he receives a cry for help from his childhood friend, Father Tommy Madden. Nick is a man who likes to be in complete command of his emotions. Only three things trip him up: his fear of flying, his deep affection for Tommy, and his instant attraction to Tommy's alluring sister, Laurant -- the target of the deranged killer.
Laurant is eight years younger than her brother Tommy. After their parents' death in an accident, Laurant grew up in a Geneva boarding school for wealthy young girls. Tommy had tried to bring her to America, but the terms of the trust and a battery of lawyers kept her sequestered until she came of age. She eventually moves to Holy Oaks to be close to her brother who has been diagnosed with cancer.
Nick is determined to stop the killer. In order to stay close to the intended victim, he is forced to assume the role of Laurant's fiance. Meanwhile fellow agent Noah shadows Father Tommy by posing as a priest, giving ample opportunities for comic relief and zingy one-liners.
Garwood maintains suspense throughout the book by exploring a tangled web of motives and relationships. During the suspenseful finale, in one synchronistic moment, the reader "sees" the true identity of the killer through Nick's eyes.
Heartbreaker is very visual, and has already been optioned for film. It is also being serialized in Cosmopolitan magazine this summer.
Although her latest story is in a different category from her previous books, Garwood says certain things will always be present in her writing. "The importance of family, whoever that might be. The family setup has changed over the years and the problems are different, but the basic values are still there, and that's what I want to celebrate in my stories. To me, it validates why we're here." The character of Tommy is based on her own brother who died four years ago of a brain tumor. "He wasn't a priest, but he was quite a man."
Nuns and religion are also prominent themes in Garwood's books -- with good reason. At the age of six, she had her tonsils removed and complications from the surgery resulted in a long period of recuperation. Garwood fell hopelessly behind in school and never caught up. "I was a slow, slow reader," Garwood says. "I hated it."
At the age of 11, her mother discovered her daughter's secret and promptly enrolled her in a summer remedial reading class at the local high school. "When I got there the nuns immediately realized I wasn't even remedial. By chance, Sister Mary Elizabeth passed us in the hall and was drafted to tutor me." They spent the summer together, and Garwood came to know Sister Elizabeth as a friend and mentor. The patient teacher eventually unlocked the door to the world of reading. "She taught me to love the written word."
"First, she introduced me to the Nancy Drew mysteries. One of her favorite authors was O. Henry, and he became one of mine, too. Of course, some of the vocabulary was beyond me so I had to look up a lot of words. I sat on a large dictionary -- got up, looked up a word, sat back down." Garwood jumped up and down like a jack-in-the-box all summer.
Garwood believes in payback, so she freely offers advice and counsel to aspiring writers. "If you don't know how to format a manuscript, find out. One of the writer's best friends is the librarian; she will get you where you need to go. They are extremely helpful, especially with research. I would be up the creek without librarians."
She also goes into school classrooms. "It's so easy for kids to slip through the cracks. I do what I can for literacy with little kids, reading and talking to them. It's an opportunity to reach them before self-esteem becomes the big issue."
"Sister Elizabeth made reading fun for me -- and writing. She gave me a journal and encouraged me to write in it daily, to write my stories or what had happened to me that day. Sister Elizabeth made a great impact on my life and pushed me onto the road I'm on today." Unfortunately, the nun died before Garwood achieved success as a author. "But I think she knows."