Occasionally our interviewers give us a peek behind the scenes of their chats with authors. Here, longtime BookPage contributor Alden Mudge talks about some of Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley's more unusual writing habits, revelealed during their discussion of her latest book, Some Luck.
Out of curiosity, I often ask writers to describe their workspaces. I blogged about this once before for BookPage, when, to my surprise, I discovered that several young writers I interviewed in close succession told me that they write in public at their favorite coffee shops.
Jane Smiley’s description of her workspace interested me in a different way. Yes, she has a dedicated writing space, a room of her own, if you will. She mentioned a window looking out on the hillside behind her home in Carmel Valley and stacks of books sharing floorspace with “a lot of dog beds.” Nothing about a desk, a notebook, a computer, a favorite picture on the wall. Instead, what seemed to matter most was that her writing room had doors that connected to other parts of the house. “So I can jump up and run and see what’s going on at any time.”
Smiley once said she has “a basically sunny personality." That was my experience of her. She laughed often throughout our conversation and seemed very much at ease with herself. For her, writing seems to be as natural as a sunrise.
Not that writing doesn’t present its challenges, even after all these years and more than 20 books. Smiley said she “was tearing my hair for years” over her novel Private Life. And for Some Luck, the captivating first novel in her The Last Hundred Years trilogy, the difficulty was deciding what to leave out.
“What I had do was cut, cut, cut. . . . This was an effect of having to do the research. I would learn something and then I would sort of yack about it a little too much. So I would come back and cut the section so that it was just about what was happening rather than about what I was thinking about as I was writing it. That was a good lesson for me, this idea that part of your writing process is talking to yourself about what you’re writing and then eventually having to cut it so that you just have the narrative.”
I was still curious about her workspace. So I asked her whether it was also her library, the place where she did most of her reading.
“Oh no!” Smiley said. “I usually read in the hot tub.” She laughed. “It’s a California tradition, you know.”
Marriage is hard enough, but you're adding a whole new level of trouble when you and your spouse share the same hopes, dreams—and career avenues. David Bajo, author of the new medical thriller Mercy 6 and husband to novelist Elise Blackwell, knows all about that. But it's not like he's keeping score or anything.
You have no idea how hard it is to pretend you are the second best writer in the house. I should have married a doctor. That way I could have spent my late mornings indulging in biscotti and cigarettes while composing brilliant novels in the inner sanctum of my study. I could have taken long afternoon walks to clear my mind’s canvas. But no, 25 years ago I made that great MFA workshop mistake and married another writer.
For the first eight years, we lived in a Victorian farmhouse and grew rare subtropical fruits to supplement our income. We gardened, using the Seed Savers Exchange to grow endangered vegetables and grains. She somehow translated this into an idea for a novel. Right? Who wouldn’t want to read about people who desperately try to save seeds. I said “we” gardened. But I was the one slipping pollen filters fashioned from pantyhose over heirloom okra flowers—while she took notes and corresponded with other seed savers. I was the one who made like a bee every afternoon at four when the cherimoya blossoms began to morph from female to male, using a paint brush to swipe and insert pollen—while she composed elegant sentences (that I would help her revise once my fingers stopped cramping).
Okay, so she published her novel first, a well-received and timeless piece of work about starving Russian scientists who saved seeds. It’s built up a nice following over the years. The Decemberists wrote a song about it. I’m not even in the acknowledgments. Look, I would have published first if I hadn’t been so busy trying to control the sex lives of cherimoyas and okras. And once you fall one novel behind, it’s almost impossible to catch up.
When event organizers find out about us—and factor in the cost of one accommodation instead of two—they think it’s cute. Married novelists. I bet we can make them squirm and fight and dish during the Q&A. We got invited to a festival in Ireland. I’m pretty sure it was my book that first caught their eye, but once they got a look at her dark hair and pale beauty, they put her photo on the flyer and her name first. I understand. Marketing is a shallow pool.
Speaking of shallow pools, we did a panel in Los Angeles. We sat on opposite ends. I think we were fighting over some bookfest swag, you know, like who gets the Pynchon coffee mug and who gets the Philip K. Dick glow sticks. The audience had no idea we were together, but as the Q&A progressed, they started to smell the scintillating ozone of domestic tension, the battle for literary number one. It became a game and the ignored panelists in between us were pissed. I fielded one question, she fielded the next. Why do you keep pointing at her? Why does she say your name like that? Which one of you two got the biggest advance? Who got the most foreign deals? Did any cool bands record a song about your novel? I let her win because I knew that would look best and sell the most stock.
Mercy 6 keeps me one novel behind. The first time she knew anything about it was when I read from the first draft during a reading series held in a bar. “I didn’t know you were writing a medical thriller,” she said to me, ready to take the stage after I had wowed the room. “Can you fetch me another Jameson’s? The show’s about to start.”
Thanks, David! Readers, Mercy 6 is out now!
In Janet Chapman's Spellbound Falls series, time-traveling Scottish Highlanders (you read that right) keep popping up in a small Maine town. Luckily for the women of Spellbound Falls, they're a handsome bunch. The Highlander Next Door, the latest novel in the series, focuses on Birch, a no-nonsense woman who harbors no desire for a man in her life. Watching her mother's four divorces and running a women's shelter has made her swear off men for life. The case for males is not helped by her gruff, stubborn neighbor, Niall MacKeage. But that Scottish brogue is quite charming, and as Birch discovers, Niall is not at all like other men.
In this blog post, Chapman discusses how her foray into time travel began—and how much fun she's had on the journey.
When my agent set out to sell my first book, Charming the Highlander, I asked her to please tell the editors she submitted it to that this time-travel gig was a one-time thing, as I really wrote contemporary romance and didn’t want them to expect more magical stories from me. (If only I’d been listening at the time, I would have heard the Universe laughing its ethereal head off.) But in my mind even that book was a contemporary, because besides the prologue, the entire story took place in 21st-century Maine.
I think readers believe authors are deliberate creators—which may be true for many—but for me, the characters are in control. They suddenly show up in a book and start demanding a book of their own, and no matter how outrageous their stories are, I am compelled to tell them.
Good Lord, I actually rearranged my wild and beautiful state of Maine! Well, it was really Maximilian Oceanus who moved those mountains and turned a large freshwater lake into an inland sea, but I wasn’t about to argue with the powerful magic-maker. And anyway, the Bottomless Sea gave me an even more amazing venue for my stories.
Wait. There. Do you hear that? The Universe is still laughing.
And so we come to Niall MacKeage, a 12th-century highlander who was brought forward in time as one of six suitors for Maximilian’s sister, Carolina. Niall wasn’t really interested in marrying Carolina; he just wanted to see if the fantastical tales his long-lost, time-traveling father had told him were true. And becoming Spellbound Falls’ chief of police gave the displaced warrior a good excuse to stay, for not only did Niall embrace modern technology, he also found himself attracted to 21st-century women—and to Birch Callahan in particular, the pint-sized spitfire hired to run the town’s new women’s shelter.
I often feel like nothing more than a stenographer furiously taking notes.
Oh, yeah; instead of leaving me alone, the magic seems to be ramping up. But I suppose that’s what I get for letting my fictional characters run the show. Yes, I know they’re not really real, but I simply don’t have the heart to tell them. And besides, they keep providing me with all sorts of wonderful—albeit outrageous—stories.
I silently chuckle when people say they’re amazed by my imagination, because what they don’t know is that instead of being a deliberate creator, I am merely. . . heck, I often feel like nothing more than a stenographer furiously taking notes. Oh, sometimes my characters let me make suggestions, and sometimes they even use them. But for the most part I graciously do their bidding, since they in turn graciously allow my name to appear on the cover of their books.
So with that being said, I invite you to come join me in Spellbound Falls by way of The Highlander Next Door, and let’s see if I can’t persuade you that the magic truly is real. Okay, the mountain-moving part might be a bit of a stretch. But all that other stuff in my stories? Well, I can’t imagine anything more real than the magical power of love.
Today's guest post comes from writer Shelly King, whose first novel, The Moment of Everything, goes on sale next week. It's set in a used bookstore, where former Silicone Valley employee Maggie has found part-time work after the failure of the tech startup she was working for. When Maggie finds a lovers' conversation written in the margins of a used copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover, she embarks on a quest to discover who they were—and what happened to their romance.
In a guest post, King—who moved to California from the South and once worked for a Silicon Valley startup herself—explains the mystery of found objects and shares some of her favorite found objects in literature.
I was 15 the first time I found a letter in a used book. I was in Montana visiting family and had wandered into a used bookstore. There I found Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I hadn’t read Hemingway yet, but I knew he was an important writer and that he’d spent a lot of time in Africa. I opened the front flap and saw it was covered in writing. It was the letter from a father to a young boy.
The details are fuzzy, but I remember the father was traveling in Africa. I thought it was nice that he was sending his son a book about another man who had been to Africa. He missed his son. He signed the letter “Papa.” I fell in love with this letter. But I didn’t buy the book. I didn’t have much money, so I left it behind. But that letter stayed with me. I thought of it for days, wishing that I’d bought that book, not for the letters of Hemingway, but for that letter written in the book. I finally told my mother about it, and she took me back to the bookstore. But the book was gone.
About 15 years after I first found that letter from the father in Africa, I was in Seattle at another used bookstore where I saw a copy of Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I smiled thinking of that other copy I found years ago in Montana. I opened up the front flap, and there it was—the handwritten letter from a father traveling in Africa to his son. Only this time I was more familiar with Hemingway, whom I now knew was also known as Papa. And this time, I noticed the letter was dated decades before this book was published. When I looked closer, I realized the letter wasn’t written in the book. It was a reproduction of a Hemingway letter that decorated the inside flap.
Even though the letter was not what I thought it was, I’m grateful for my misunderstanding. It started a lifelong search for treasures of the past in old books. Over the years, I’ve found drawings, letters, postcards, ticket stubs, restaurant receipts, photographs, recipes, and inscriptions. The people who owned these books before left a bit of their lives in them. I love not just the story the author intended but also the story of the book itself.
My favorite novels (and one play!) that have someone discovering something in a book:
Sabrina Jeffries' latest book in her Duke's Men series, How the Scoundrel Seduces, catches the heroine, Lady Zoe, in the midst of a bit of an identity crisis. Raised as the only child and heir to her family's Yorkshire Estate, Zoe is shocked to learn that she might actually be the daughter of an unknown Romany woman. Desperate to discover the truth and avoid the marriage her father is intent on arranging, she hires Tristan Bonnaud to help her track down her supposed mother. In this guest post, Sabrina Jeffries writes about the inspiration behind How the Scoundrel Seduces.
A few years ago, I realized that all my novels have at least one character pretending to be something he or she is not. Apparently, issues of identity are a big deal for me.
It shouldn’t surprise me—I grew up in Thailand as part of an American Protestant missionary community plunked down in the midst of an Asian, predominantly Buddhist community. Meanwhile, my high school was filled with kids who were military brats or diplomat’s kids or children of parents who worked for foreign companies with offices in Bangkok. None of us knew quite where we belonged or who we were. How could we?
That’s probably why my books often have masquerading heroines, spy heroes, or just plain men and women who aren’t what they seem as they struggle to figure out how much of their façade is real. Because I can relate. When you grow up in a mix of cultures and communities, you learn to blend in anywhere, and it makes it hard to figure out who you really are.
At first glance, the heroine for How the Scoundrel Seduces, Lady Zoe Keane, should be very secure in who she is. She has been raised with the expectation of taking up her father’s mantle. She’s that rare thing in the English peerage—a peeress in her own right, a woman who can inherit land and a title from her father (or mother, if her mother was the previous title holder). That should make her feel comfortable with her identity, right?
Except that it doesn’t. Bad enough that her situation has already made her different from all the other ladies, who are peeresses by reason of being daughters or wives to a peer. But Zoe’s father, who was an army major before he inherited the title, has raised her to be his heir. So she acts a bit like a man and not like the other ladies, who are waiting around for a husband.
I got to have her question some of the same things I questioned growing up. Which culture is mine? What do I believe? Who am I?
Plus, she doesn’t resemble her parents—she’s olive-skinned and exotic-looking. And her aunt has just revealed to Zoe that she may secretly be the child of gypsies (the Romany). That would mean Zoe couldn’t inherit a thing if anyone found out, since England didn’t have a legal construct for adoption during the Regency.
So Zoe is truly confused about who she is . . . or who she should become. And I had great fun with that. It’s always more interesting when a heroine (or hero) is in a period of flux. It gives the author a chance to capture the character emerging from the cocoon, unfolding her wings and learning to fly.
In Zoe’s case, she has to figure out what she wants. Marriage to her father’s cousin and second heir, to solidify her claim to the estate? Independence, even if it means losing her inheritance? Love with a man who might keep her from getting what she’s been bred to have?
By throwing in the possibility of Zoe being from another culture entirely (Romany), I got to have her question some of the same things I questioned growing up. Which culture is mine? What do I believe? Who am I? After all, it’s hard to figure out what you want when you don’t know who you are.
Which brings us back to why I create characters who are trying to work out their true identities. Because with every one, I get a little closer to figuring out my own. And what more can a writer ask for?
(Author Photo by Jessi Blakely for Tamara Lackey photography)
BookPage contributor Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators on her children's literature blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Her book, Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and the late Peter D. Sieruta, is out now. This lively and well-researched book sheds light on some of the common misconceptions about children's literature, shares behind-the-scenes anecdotes and thoughtfully explores the changes and realities of the industry. (Read our review.)
To celebrate her book's release, we asked Danielson (known as "Jules" to her Seven Imp fans) to select 10 of her favorite new picture book illustrators.
Next to the coffee bean, a good picture book is my favorite thing. To be asked to weigh in on my 10 favorite new illustrators is both a little bit thrilling, as well as very challenging. And that’s because I think there are a lot of talented up-and-coming illustrators in children’s literature today. I may or may not have gnashed my teeth for weeks, fine-tuning this list. (Case in point: I can’t help but cheat and zippy-quick add two bonus illustrators to my list. Just humor me. I love my picture books.) But I like how my list turned out, and if these illustrators are entirely new to you, I highly recommend you check out their work.
I don’t think this list would be worth its salt without the inclusion of Aaron Becker. His debut picture book, Journey, is a 2014 Caldecott Honor Book. This fall’s epic Quest will be a sequel, and fans will eventually be treated to a third picture book in what Becker calls the Journey trilogy.
Check out my Breakfast interview with Becker, and keep an eye out for a Meet the Illustrator interview in the September issue of BookPage.
Robinson is one of my favorite illustrators, and I’m not alone: He is the 2014 Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award winner, and Patricia Hruby Powell’s vibrant Josephine, which he illustrated, is a 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Honor Winner. It’s also, thus far, one of my very favorite picture books of all of 2014.
Keep your eye on Ms. Wheeler. Her debut picture book, last year’s Miss Maple’s Seeds, was a tender story of friendship. And her illustrations for this year’s The Grudge Keeper, an original fable of sorts written by Mara Rockcliff, are just as inviting.
Wheeler shares some sketches here.
Campbell not only illustrated the reigning Newbery winner, Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, but he’s also received both the 2013 and 2014 Ezra Jack Keats Award New Illustrator Honor (for, respectively, Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters, which he also wrote, and Ame Dyckman’s Tea Party Rules). His illustrations for The Mermaid and the Shoe are some of the most beautiful you’ll see this year.
View some of his illustrations here.
Originally from Mexico City, Dominguez has three picture books on shelves and Knit Together coming early next year. The delightful Maria Had a Little Llama with a text in both Spanish and English is a 2014 Pura Belpré Award Illustrator Honor Book.
Angela shares some sketches here.
The Brothers Hilts
Brothers Ben and Sean managed to make the night-time palette of Karina Wolf’s The Insomniacs warm and inviting. For that, they received the Society of Illustrators’ 2012 Founders Award, an award given to new talent. I can’t wait to see what’s next on their plate.
Check out my Breakfast interview with the Brothers Hilts.
Theodore Taylor III
The recipient of the 2014 John Steptoe Award for New Talent, Taylor’s been working for years in graphic design, web design, photography and more, but it was last year’s illustrations for Laban Carrick Hill’s When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop that proved he’s also one to watch in picture book illustration.
View some of Taylor's work here.
Idle’s been illustrating books for more than a couple of years, but it’s been in just the last year that she’s gained copious recognition for her work. A 2014 Caldecott Honor (for the utterly charming Flora and the Flamingo) will do that. Flora fans will be in for a treat, come September, with Flora and the Penguin.
Check out my Breakfast interview with Idle.
Greg didn’t waste any time showing readers what he’s capable of when his debut picture book, last year’s very funny The Watermelon Seed, up and won the 2014 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for the most distinguished beginning reader book. This year’s Number One Sam is a winner, too.
Check out my Breakfast interview with Pizzoli.
Tonatiuh’s work, more prominent in the past couple of years, has been recognized by the Tomás Rivera Mexican American children's book award, as well as multiple Pura Belpré Award committees. Last year’s Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale was awarded 2014 Pura Belpré Award Honors in the categories of both Author and Illustrator.
View some of Tonatiuh's sketches here.
BONUS (because I can’t help it)
Hop outside of the States with me for a moment, will you?
Iranian artist Hoda Hadadi illustrated last year’s Deep in the Sahara, written by Kelly Cunnane. She’s not new to illustration, but she’s new to Americans. Schwartz & Wade, who published Cunnane’s book, tells me that Hadadi has nothing else lined up for publication in the U.S.—at least not in the immediate future and not as far as they know—but I hope that changes soon. View some of Hadadi's work here.
Finally, hailing from Iceland (but currently living in Sweden) is author-illustrator Birgitta Sif. Her debut, Oliver (2012), is the picture book I’d point to that most accurately gets what it is to be an introvert. And Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance, coming at the end of August, pretty much nails shyness. And Sif executes it all with style and warmth.
Alright. I’m making myself stop now.
Readers, what new illustrators would you add to this list?
Boston writer and visual artist Annie Weatherwax's perceptive debut, All We Had (Scribner) is the story of an unusual mother-daughter duo attempting to find a place to belong. At just 13 years old, Ruthie convinces her mother, Rita, to leave her no-good boyfriend and start a new life. The pair hits the road, cruising through small-town America—a vista of diners, local businesses and memorable characters that Weatherwax describes with flair.
In a guest blog post, Weatherwax explores the appeal of the road novel, explaining what the pressure-cooker of car travel brings out in her characters.
At the beginning of my debut novel, All We Had, my protagonist, Ruthie, and her mother, Rita, spend a lot of time in their used Ford Escort. The car is central to their lives. It’s the only thing they own, and when they have no other choice, it doubles as their home.
The car is a built-in pressure cooker. With nothing to distract them their highs and lows become heightened and intensify.
At first they feel invincible. Speeding along the freeway, with the windows down and the music blaring, they are full of almost exalted hope as they escape their California and head east towards Boston to what they are certain is the promise land.
But car rides can become endlessly boring and boredom can quickly lead to irritability. “[A]ll the things my mother usually did—tapping the steering wheel with her thumbs when she liked a song, biting her bottom lip when she wasn’t smoking—suddenly annoyed me,” Ruthie says.
If you leave characters in a car long enough there is bound to be drama. When emotions escalate there is no way to avoid them. Characters are restricted in their seats. When arguments are over they must sit with their feelings and negotiate the psychic space between them and, in a speeding car, there is a limit to the actions they can take.
At one point after a particularly bad fight, Ruthie rummages through the glove compartment and when she finds gum shoves the whole pack into her mouth. One piece after another, she crumples up the empty wrappers, throws them on the floor then abruptly hawks the entire wad of gum out. Her mother retaliates by blatantly ignoring her.
The lack of distraction in the confines of a car lends itself to the exploration of daydreams. Could there be a better vehicle (pardon the pun) for a writer?
The vantage point from inside a car is unique. The whoosh and rhythm of sounds has a particular quality. The skyline looks different and the fragmented glimpses from rearview and side mirrors can be astonishingly beautiful. In fiction a car can do many things. Most obviously it can reveal status and move characters from point A to point B.
For this writer, it’s the confinement of a car that exhilarates me. Limitation takes away choice but it also relieves the paralysis of choice. Creativity is often fostered by such constraints. Restrictions and obstacles can spark connections between things that are not necessarily obvious. The true nature of a human being can reveal itself when characters make decisions under pressure and a car can provide that pressure.
A car ride implies that the desired time and place resides at some point in the future. But the destination is often not what’s important; it’s what happens on the journey that can truly move a story forward.
For more on Annie Weatherwax and All We Had, visit her website.
Author photo by Lou Goodman
Connecticut writer Kristen Harnisch brings a little-known portion of women's history to light in her compelling first novel, The Vintner's Daughter (She Writes Press). Set in 1890s France and America, it follows one woman's relentless quest to become a master winemaker—something that only a handful of real-life women have managed today. In a guest blog post, Harnisch explains the inspiration behind her remarkable heroine.
Sara Thibault is my hero. She fights against a rival to reclaim her family’s Loire Valley vineyard, sails across the Atlantic to bring herself and her sister to safety, and then journeys to Napa, California, determined to follow in her father’s footsteps as a master winemaker. Sara is passionate, principled and self-possessed, and although she leapt from my imagination onto the page, Sara’s spirit was inspired by the women winemaking pioneers of the late 1800s.
Three wine women in particular served as the inspiration for Sara’s character. A Frenchwoman, the Duchesse de Fitz-James, was the first to tout the benefits of replanting French vineyards with American rootstock to combat the devastation wrought in the 1870s by the phylloxera. This pale yellow louse attacked nearly 40% of France’s vineyards, sucking the vines dry of nutrients. The Duchesse’s French neighbors refused to try her idea, but she persisted, citing the recent success she’d had replanting the resistant rootstock in her own vineyard. Although it took years, the French winemakers did eventually replant, saving most of the vineyards that had been affected.
During the 1880s, California women were beginning to trade their kitchen chores for increasingly important roles in their family-owned businesses. The wine men of the region generally ignored their efforts. In 1886, after her husband’s suicide, Josephine Tyschon finished the winery they had planned to build on the 26 acres of land they’d purchased along Route 29 in St. Helena. The Tyschon Winery (now the site of Freemark Abbey) opened with a capacity of 30,000 gallons. By 1891, Tyschon had cultivated 55 acres of zinfandel, reisling and burgundy grapes. However, when the phylloxera struck in 1893, she lost 10 acres to the bug, and soon sold the winery and vineyard to her foreman, Nels Larson.
Josephine Tyschon’s neighbor, Mrs. J.C. Weinberger, also took over the family winery after her husband’s death. Weinberger’s operation was much larger than Tyschon’s, boasting eighty acres of grape bearing vines and a first-class winery with 90,000 gallons of capacity. Mrs. Weinberger won a silver medal at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris for her wine, and was the only woman in California to bring home this coveted award.
What compelled these amazing women to create such fine wines? Every bottle of wine contains nearly three pounds of grapes and the vulnerability of this fruit is striking: over the last century and a half, grapes have fallen victim to pests, rodents, frost, mildew and Prohibition in the United States. Still, with a precise blend of hard labor, science and art, winemakers continue to perfect the wines that fill our glasses.
According to the American Association of Wine Economists, as of 2011, only 12% of winemakers in Sonoma and 12% of winemakers in Napa, were women. In an industry long dominated by men, I raise my glass of Cabernet to these adventurers, and to the wine women of long ago who sparked the inspiration for The Vintner’s Daughter.
Author’s Note: William Heintz’s California’s Napa Valley (Stonewall Associates, 1999), and Sherry Monahan’s California Vines, Wines & Pioneers (American Palate, A Division of the History Press, 2013), were particularly helpful in my research of this topic.
Author photo by Alix Martinez Photography.
In her latest Regency romance, Shana Galen brings her Lord and Lady Spy series to a conclusion with Love and Let Spy. In this cheeky take on the classic Bond movies, Jane Bonde is Britain's best spy and last hope. Jane is worried her dangerous position will get in the way of her relationship with fiancé Dominic Griffyn, but as secrets come to light, she may have to choose between the most important mission of her career and the troubled man she's come to love. In this guest post, Galen tells us about the inspiration behind her spy-themed romances and why she loves writing strong heroines.
I never intended to write a series based on popular spy movies. In fact, the first in the series, Lord and Lady Spy, was a tough sell. My editor gave me a one-book contract for the book, and I figured that was it. (OK, I had hope. I might have sort of left the end of Lord and Lady Spy slightly unresolved because I had my fingers crossed that readers would want more.)
And I’ve never been so thankful that they did. I wrote True Spies, and now I have Love and Let Spy coming out. The fun thing about these books is that they’re each based on a spy movie. The idea for a book based on a modern movie came to me one evening while watching the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I started thinking, what if this movie were set not in the 2000s, but in the 1800s? What if I wrote a book about a married couple who were rival spies and never even knew it? And what would happen when they inevitably find out?
True Spies is based on the movie True Lies, and for the third book, I wanted another iconic spy movie. I watched a lot of them, and then I went to see Skyfall. Of course, I’d seen James Bond films before, but while I was watching the latest Bond film, I thought, why don’t I do a Bond book? Except I’d put a spin on it, and my James Bond would be Jane Bonde. I knew I could have fun with it by including nods to the Bond films. Jane would prefer her ratafia shaken not stirred. She’d have a friend and co-worker named Q and an admirer named Moneypence. There would be a fast-paced opening scene and plenty of cool gadgets.
I also knew all of these elements would add up to nothing more than a parody of the Bond films if I didn’t also have a good story. Jane had to become more than Jane Bonde to the reader. She had to have a poignant and interesting backstory as well as a vitally important mission. And, unlike the Bond girls in the movies, my Bond. . . boy had to have complexity and his own character arc. Dominic Griffyn isn’t just a pretty face. He’s dark and tortured and exactly the kind of man Jane could fall for.
I’ve always written strong heroines, but writing female spies gave me the opportunity to write tough, kick-ass heroines. Jane Bonde in Love and Let Spy is the toughest yet. I mean, she’s a female James Bond—She has to be able to run with the big dogs. For me, the key to writing strong heroines is to give them an inner vulnerability as well. Readers want to identify with the heroine of a book, and no one identifies with someone who is strong and sure of herself all the time.
In Love and Let Spy, I wanted to take a look at what the life of a spy might really be like. Behind all the glitz and the glamour of having a secret identity, it must be very lonely work. A spy has to protect herself at all times. She can’t let anyone know the real person behind the mask. Jane has been trained from a young age for the work she does for the Crown, and she doesn’t know anything else. She doesn’t have any true friends, hobbies or life outside of her mission. As she comes to know Dominic, she realizes it’s very likely she might end up alone. It’s a tough choice—go on devoting her entire life to spying or pull back and make room in her life for more.
It’s a dilemma a lot of romance readers can identify with, myself included. We can be the supermom or super-wife the media expects us to be, or we can step back and enjoy life, even the messy parts of it.
See more from Galen on her website. Love and Let Spy is available now!
In Falling for Max, her latest book in The Kowalskis series, Shannon Stacey chooses quite the unlikely hero to sweep readers off their feet. He's shy, awkward and filled with anxiety about women, and Tori Burns is determined to fix him right up. But does he really need fixing? Because honestly, who's the more realistic dream boy—A pirate on a motorcycle with a heart of gold, or the sweet boy-next-door you never saw coming? In this guest post, Shannon Stacey writes about her decision to cast an unlikely leading man.
Sometimes a secondary character comes along who’s meant to fill a role in the lives of the main characters, but then takes on a life of his own. Max Crawford, the hero of Falling For Max, was such a secondary character. He was simply a friend of Josh and Katie (from All He Ever Dreamed), but as his character developed, I became more intrigued.
Whenever he appeared, I’d uncover more details about Max: Why he liked sports so much; why he’d moved to Whitford, the fictional town in Maine where the Kowalski series is set. I started a file to gather little tidbits about him, but all the while I was thinking, “What am I going to do with Max?”
I tend to write men who are confident and charming. They don’t worry about how to talk to a woman and don’t have trouble finding a date. They’re mostly blue-collar guys who work hard, play harder and walk tall in their worlds.
Max isn’t like the other men in my Kowalski series. He isn’t like many other romance heroes at all, actually. He’s shy, awkward with people he doesn’t know well and he likes his life a particular way. He has a great sense of humor, but most people don’t get it. He has an interesting hobby that he turned into a career, but not many people know a lot about model railroading. Between finding social interactions awkward and working from home, Max finds it hard to meet people—especially women.
I loved writing Max’s story. He’s inspired by several people very close to me who share a lot of his traits, so his journey to happily ever after was important to me. And it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I realized his heroine would be Tori Burns, another secondary character from the series.
Tori is younger than Max and quite the opposite of him personality-wise. She’s friendly, if a little cynical due to her family situation, and has no trouble talking to people. If she wasn’t purposely avoiding serious relationships, she wouldn’t have any problems attracting a man. She begins spending time with Max after watching him get shut down while attempting to talk a woman. In a little twist on My Fair Lady, she wants to help coach Max and make him more “dateable”.
Watching her slowly come to appreciate qualities in Max that people around him tend to find weird was personally satisfying to me as well as professionally. As I mentioned, Max was inspired by several guys in my life who are close to me, and I want them to find women who love them the way they are. I wanted the same for Max. I didn’t want him to change in a way that made it easier for a woman to love him.
It was a challenge, balancing Max’s quirks with expectations many readers have when it comes to leading men in romance novels. He’s physically attractive, of course. But I’m also hoping that, along with Tori, readers will find Max interesting and fun, and slowly fall in love with him just the way he is.
Thanks, Shannon! See more from Shannon Stacey on her website. Readers, what do you think about non-traditional romance heroes?