Anne Today, Anne Tomorrow - A Q&A with Anne Stuart

(March 3, 2000)

"My writing grew out of my difficult childhood. I took refuge in fantasy - in reading, and in telling myself stories. And not for a moment would I trade it in for a peaceful, serene life."

 

Shortly after I began to read romance, I came across Anne Stuart's A Rose at Midnight. One of the reasons I believe I fell in love with romance when I did is that some truly terrific romances were released during this period of the early/middle 1990's. Rose featured a startling opening, two unforgettable lead characters, a wonderful secondary romance, and settings that took me from England to Venice and Paris. In the years since then, I've had the chance to meet Anne, and to read more of her books, most recently To Love a Dark Lord, which has supplanted Rose as my new favorite by Anne.

That's not to say that I've loved every book Anne's written - I had real problems with Prince of Swords and know that her contemporary releases are probably not for me. But more of her books remain on my shelves waiting to-be-read, including some of her series titles and additional historicals.

Anne is, as she freely admits, "honest to a fault." I found her openness in answering all my questions very refreshing, and thoroughly enjoyed working on this piece with her. I hope you'll enjoy our Q&A as much as I did.

--Laurie Likes Books

You write a variety of books - series, historical (from medieval to 1800's), romantic suspense/suspense. Is there a period that drew you into writing romance, and, if so, what was it?

I suppose the Victorian era drew me into romance, since I grew up reading gothics and most of them are set in either Victorian England or the US during that time period. So it was Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney and their ilk who got me started. That, and the divine, grand Georgette Heyer who seduced me with the regency period.

Of the romances I've read by you, the heroes have a very dark quality. They are definitely tortured, and yet they are very different from other dark heroes. And, in those same romances, the heroines too are tormented. How do you keep things from getting too dark with all the angst going around?

Believe it or not, not all my books are dark, though I suppose even the cheeriest of them have a slightly dark streak. Some of my books are too dark for many people - my first mainstream suspense books from Penguin (Nightfall, Moonrise, Ritual Sins) were much too dark for a lot of readers. I'm strong enough to take 'em, and I considered them some of my very best work, but they're a little too intense for many.

What I consciously decided to do in the historicals was to balance the dark love affair with a lighter one. I do like light, frothy romances, but if you have too much it's like overdosing on whipped cream. It can start to turn on you. If you've got too much darkness it can end up being a real downer - if I wrote dark stuff all the time I'd probably be institutionalized. With my historicals, the secondary love story provides a needed emotional relief from the primary one. It also (usually) provides a relatively noble hero to balance with my primary, essentially dark hero.

You mentioned this in your previous answer, but with several of your contemporary single title releases, readers felt as though you hadn't delivered romantic suspense. I know that some of these releases actually had "suspense" rather than "romantic suspense" on their spines, but they were marketed toward romance readers. What happened here?

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The suspense novels weren't mislabeled. Moonrise and Ritual Sins (and the relatively lighter Shadow Lover had fiction on the spine, rather than Romance. The first (and probably darkest), Nightfall, had some copies printed with Romance on the spine, some with Fiction. They were definitely mis-marketed. They were very strong, dark books that never found their proper audience (Shadow Lover did, but it was a lot less dark). I don't really know what the publishers could have done to help them find their audience. Some of the actions of the protagonists were up to the very edge of acceptable (and over the edge for a lot of people) but that's one thing I found so satisfying in writing them. That they could face such darkness and survive was a powerful thing for me.

I consider them romances, because the center of the stories, no matter how dark and even despicable the heroes were, was the love story, so I would have preferred them to have romance on the spine, but in fact, they didn't. They were probably too much of a cross-breed: too much romance for suspense readers, too dark for romance readers. But at least they were one of a kind.

Something I thoroughly enjoyed about both To Love a Dark Lord and A Rose at Midnight is something you alluded to earlier - the secondary romances. So many authors who include secondary romances fail - either the secondary couple is more interesting or not enough time/space is given to them. You make it come out right, and, what's more, the secondary romances advance the primary romances somehow. Can you speak about this

Well, romances, or at least my romances, are essentially about a man and a woman falling in love, conquering obstacles (both internal and external) and committing to each other. So the secondary love story would then have to further the main plot, or what's the point? They'd just be two parallel stories, and they might as well be separate books. It's similar to the question of entwining a romance and a mystery plot in romantic suspense. They can't be parallel, they have to be integral to each other, and neither can survive without the other

Our readers would love to know something of your personal life. Please give a bit of personal history - birth, education, family, locale, etc.

I live on twenty acres in northern Vermont with my delicious husband of 25 years and two teenagers (a boy and a girl). Born in Philadelphia (Taurus with Scorpio rising), raised in Princeton (grandfather was head of the Classics Dept. there), moved to our family home in Vermont in the early 70s to write my first book. Which sold, thank heavens. No college - my dysfunctional family wasn't functioning well at the time, and since it was the mid-60s (time to tune in, turn on and drop out), I decided not to bother with dropping in in the first place. Which is probably just as well - formal education can put a big crimp in creativity.

Talk about your own experiences in reading and writing. When did you fall in love with both? When did you start to read romance? When did you decide to read romance? Do you plan, as so many authors do as they get more successful, to move more and more into mainstream and non-genre writing?

I had a thoroughly nasty childhood, which I survived by reading constantly, watching TV and daydreaming. Fantasy kept me sane through some very difficult times, books were my lifeline. I always liked books with a love story, though I was never a Harlequin reader or a nurse book reader. I was Nancy Drew, not Cherry Ames. I particularly loved historicals, like Mara, Daughter of the Nile, Witch of Blackbird Pond, and some of the Sally Watson books. I guess a major turning point was Mistress of Mellyn. I was about twelve when it came out, I read it serialized in a magazine, and I asked for the hardcover for Christmas. From then on romantic suspense was my life.

I didn't read Harlequins, Candlelights, et al. until they had sex in them . I usually need something besides the love story to keep me interested. Either a historical setting or a mystery (when we didn't usually get to read sex for women) made books a lot more entertaining. I expect to always do genre fiction with a strong romantic element. Right now I'm playing with a historical mystery idea that is incredibly cool, and some people may think it's not romance, but for me it would be.

What actually happened in that "nasty childhood" of yours?

Specifics? Sigh. Well, sure. My father was a charming alcoholic, verbally abusive, occasionally physically abusive, and as most people know when someone's an alcoholic the entire family gets equally screwed up in their own way. I was a suicidal teenager, a survivor of sexual abuse, too strong and too smart for my own good. Luckily I missed the addictive gene (both my brother and sister became alcoholics as well - my sister's been sober for more than 12 years, my brother died from it), so I didn't have that to make things worse.

Now it's time for a sort of Barbara Walters-ish what kind of tree would you be? question: Do you believe your writing grew out of your difficult childhood, and, if so, would you trade your bad childhood for a good one if it meant trading your writing as well? In other words, would you rather have had a normal early life or a rich writing life?

Absolutely my writing grew out of my difficult childhood, though I suppose it also came from my dysfunctional parents, both of whom were writer/editors. My mother writes short stories (had a number published when she was younger), my father worked for magazines and newspapers before he died, so that's one gene I did happily inherit. But in order to survive that childhood, I took refuge in fantasy - in reading, and in telling myself stories. And not for a moment would I trade it in for a peaceful, serene life.

I remember once when I was in sixth grade at an assembly at school, and I looked at my friends and thought "I wouldn't trade my life with theirs. They don't have the terrible things happen to them, so they can't fully appreciate the good things." Naive, of course, but even I was naive when I was 11.

Nowadays I'm old enough to learn that good things and bad things happen, and you make what you can out of them. If I'd had a sane, sensible childhood I would have become a writer anyway, I think. But I'd probably write somewhat lighter books. I probably wouldn't have started so early, and I'd be a lot more placid and easy-going. I'd still like to be placid and easy-going, but I don't think that's going to happen. As Popeye would say, "I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam."

How long does it take you to research a book and write a book?

Depends on the book. I'm a trivia queen, so I have all sorts of extraneous information tucked in my brain. Often I'll sit down to write, guess at something, and then check later. 90% of the time or more I've remembered it correctly. And I do general research - trips to England to just sort of pick up stuff from the Georgian, Regency or Medieval era. It takes me a couple of weeks to write a novella, four to six weeks to write a series romance, and four to five months to write a single title. That can change though - I've taken much longer and much short periods of time to write. It tends to depend on the story. Some are easy, some fight you. And oddly enough, the ease of writing has nothing to do with the eventual quality

You've gotten into some mythology in one of your books, and mysticism in a couple of others. Where did the selkie idea come from for A Dark and Stormy Night and the magician idea as well in your medieval Lord of Danger?

Ah, I love selkies. I've wanted to do one since I started writing. I even did a pseudo one in a novella collection (Highland Fling). I love magic, faeries, magicians and the like. Part of my desperate craving for fantasy.

You know what they say - reality is for people who lack imagination.

What is it about Scotland and Ireland that draws both readers and authors to them as romantic settings?

Hmmm, Scotland and Ireland. I think it's the combination of stiff upper lip, society, and magic (the Celts, the faerie folk). There's both passion and restraint, which is very appealling. I don't know why people don't like French settings that much, but it seems to be death in historicals. Personally I have a deep passion for Venice, even though I've never been there. I've set scenes in probably a dozen books there.

The other thing about Scotland and Ireland is that so many of the American and Canadian readers would have Scottish and Irish ancestors. It gives the reader a nice, biological link.

You've been writing romance for quite awhile. Talk about the genre when you began and compare it to the genre now. And, talk about how your own writing has changed since you began.

Well, when I began I wrote on a manual typewriter, sent my book off to an agent and never talked to either agent or editor on the telephone for years. Books were bought as completed manuscripts, gothics were just dying (and I was just starting to write them). There was even a brief, golden time when Regencies were the hottest thing around, right before sexy series romances started. It was a short, glorious time. Then we went through that huge burst in series romance when you could sell just about anything, and then things settled down again. The big historical romances started out massive (Rosemary Rogers, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Laurie McBain), then died way back, then came on strong again. The cycles are fascinating to watch.

How long did it take you to write your first book and to get it sold? And, I want you to know I'm in a state of shock after looking at your backlist. I knew you were prolific, but you've had something like 80 books published! How long after you were first published did you "make it big?" Which book was the first to make you a best-seller?

I sold my first novel in 1973 - Barrett's Hill, published by a subsidiary of Ballantine. It took a year to write it (on that manual typewriter), a year to sell it, and a year for it to come out (in 1974). I was quite lucky - gothics were dying, but I had a strong voice. When did I "make it big?" I'm still waiting . Actually, I've had certain things happen that have made a definite turn in my career, sometimes creative, sometimes business-wise. When I wrote The Demon Count, it was a milestone. The next was Catspaw. I knew when I finished it that it was going to be something really special.

After that it was Night of the Phantom. It was different, magical, and I knew it could change the world. It really put me on a different level. To Love a Dark Lord made a difference in historicals. The first two had basically been ignored (which broke my heart - I loved A Rose at Midnight with a deep passion). The Penguin books were very powerful for my creativity, but did nada for my readership numbers, and the same is true of my Zebra historicals. I'm waiting for a combination of the right publisher and the magic book to make another one of those leaps. They come when they want, though, and there's nothing you can do to speed it along.

I know when we met at RWA in 1996, you had just left Avon for Zebra, and, if I recall correctly, they gave you a "big" contract. I may be under the wrong impression, but that was at roughly the same time they signed Bertrice Small, and I assume they were trying to build up their romance list "from the top," if that makes any sense. Can you talk in a bit more detail about some of your publisher experiences, and the joys and frustrations?

Well, it's pretty simple. The joy with publishers is, obviously, the big contracts, the publisher excitement, the editorial talent, the marketing support. The frustration is when most of that falls through. I've had some wonderful editors along the way, and any bad ones I've had have left the business (it wasn't my fault, I swear it!). But if marketing a writer were an easy job, everyone would be a superstar. Signet/Onyx published four of my favorite books, but only the last one worked as far as packaging went. Zebra never could get the look right. It's tricky, and heart-breaking when you write a book that's so good it can cure cancer and then get a lousy sell-through. However, I've survived stuff as appalling as only selling five thousand copies of a book (my suspense for Pocket Books) and lived to tell the tale. It's a roller-coaster ride, and you've got to grin and bear it.

Let's get into the creative process now. Talk about the germ of an idea and how you nourish it. Do you write with a detailed outline or do you write more by the seat of your pants? Do scenes visualize themselves in your head like a movie? Do your characters sometimes take on a life of their own and end up doing/saying things you never intended? Finally, do you feel what your characters are feeling, and, if so, do you identify more with the heroines or heroes?

The beginning of a story can come from absolutely anywhere. A line in a song. A dog food commercial. A painting. A bad movie (bad movies are quite often good inspiration - you watch them and start thinking about how they could do it right). I just realized my comical bad guys in the current MIP (manuscript in progress, mess in progress, masterpiece in progress) started out being based on two of the main characters in The Full Monty but have since evolved into something closer to Pinky and the Brain.

I day dream. I scribble notes and ideas in a notebook, so that I have a general form for what I'm going to be writing. And then I jump into it, feet first. Definitely no details, no outlines, just vague scenes. Scenes do come into my head like a movie, but the weird thing is, I'm such a writer I tend to fantasize in words. I'm not kidding. My normal, healthy sexual fantasies (everyone has 'em) are verbal, not visual. Or maybe a little bit of both.

Characters always take on a life of their own, god bless them. Since I don't plan too much ahead I'd be royally screwed if they didn't. Sometimes they go in the wrong direction, and then I have to rein them in, but usually they go places that are fascinating and unexpected and move the story along in exciting ways.

I identify with both my hero and heroine, depending whose point of view I'm in. I'm a POV purist - only one point of view per scene, so if we're seeing what's happening through the heroine's eyes then I'm identifying with her, and the same goes for the hero.

Who are some of the authors you enjoy reading in the romance genre? How have your own reading tastes changed over the years?

Well, I started out reading Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer, who are still my personal goddesses. Nowadays I have trouble reading - it's too easy for me to see the seam lines, and very few people can simply transport me past the technicalities. Laura Kinsale is so good she's an alien, and of course I adore Tom and Sharon Curtis (doesn't everybody). I won't list the usual suspects because everyone loves them, but there are a few I find particularly delightful, like Barbara Samuel/Ruth Wind, Loretta Chase, Judith Ivory, Jennifer Crusie, and Jo Beverley. There are many others, all of them my friends, so it gets a little tricky when I start lists.

What's next for you? Titles in 2000 and beyond? Publishers in 2000 and beyond?

What's next for me? Bunches of reprints (Looking for Trouble in March, which is three old books of mine). New stuff is: Shadows at Sunset, a contemporary romantic suspense to be published by MIRA in August. Then there's the one I just finished, Wild Thing, a Harlequin American to be out in September. That one's a Wild Child/Tarzan scenario. I have three more books on my contract with MIRA, another for Harlequin, and I'm taking a break and seeing what I want to do with historicals. I'm thinking of a series with strong romance and mystery overtones/understones. Hell, romantic suspense. It's what I always do.

Anne Stuart at AAR



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