(Another) Q&A with Millie Criswell

(July 18, 2001)

Millie Criswell created a totally unique set of characters in The Trouble With Mary. Her follow-up romance, about Mary's brother Joe and best friend Annie, is called What to do About Annie. Considering that Joe is an ex-priest, Criswell is certainly taking a chance with this new release; how the book is accepted by the romance community remains to be seen. I've heard some discussion by readers who will not read it simply because the hero is an ex-priest, and my Pandora co-columnist said it bothered her as she read it, but, for what it's worth, I thoroughly enjoyed Annie when I read it for Pandora's Box and couldn't wait to talk about it with the author.

Linda Hurst: Mary was very much a product of her Italian Catholic background, Annie is also similarly affected by her Jewish/Italian background. Is it as integral to her life, in your view, as Mary's ethnicity is?

Millie Criswell: Oh, definitely. The fact that Annie is a product of a mixed marriage between an Jewish father and Italian mother tends to make her feel schizophrenic. At one point she compares herself to Sybil. Annie doesn't want to take sides between her parents' religions, so she doesn't practice anything. Of course, Joe is Catholic, so this has to be dealt with later in the book. I've tried not to get into the religious thing too much, as the book is at heart a comedy and I didn't want to come off as being too irreverent. You know what they say about politics and religion...


Linda: Mary's mother and grandmother are marvelous creations - very much ethnic earth mothers who devour the environment around them, what did you draw on to create these very true-to-life yet over-the-top ladies?

Millie: My mom and grandmother have both passed away and cannot put the "evil eye" on me, so I guess it's safe to say that they were both a great inspiration. Mostly because of the things they said and did. I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional family, so I guess it made an impact on me. My mom was nothing like Sophia; in fact, she was quite the opposite. But she did use a lot of trite expressions, like "there's many fish in the sea, men don't like bones," that sort of thing. My grandmother was a real trip. There is a lot of her in Flora. Family loyalty prevents me from saying exactly what.


Linda: In The Trouble with Mary, a son who was a priest brought great joy to Mary's family; his leaving the priesthood will be controversial for their community and the reading public too - did you have any problems with your editor or publisher with this plot point? Was it difficult getting a book that is so "ethnic" published within the romance genre.

Millie: Not at all. My editor at Ballantine has been supportive of Mary from day one. I think the fact that it is different and taps into another segment of women's romance fiction probably appealed. And I also think that Joe Russo being a priest was more appealing than not, because again, it was different and not something that had been done to death. I don't think readers will find this book at all offensive from a religious point of view. I won't go into detail and spoil things, but I tried hard not to offend, though I did have fun with it. I am actually quite astounded regarding the amount of mail I received about Father Joe's story. It seems women have a thing about priests. Not that I can blame them. Joe is quite adorable.


Linda: Many hints about Annie's backstory were given in the first book of this series. When working on a series like this, are outlines for both books presented together? Did you have the arc for both books worked out before you began to write the first book?

Millie: I had a detailed proposal for Mary and a paragraph at the end of the synopsis foreshadowing a story about Annie and Joe. I was offered a two book contract based on that. I didn't submit a synopsis on Annie until after I was done writing Mary. My agent and I hashed out some of the details, then I submitted it to my editor who gave approval.


Linda: In Annie we get to see more of Mary and her husband Dan - I loved the scenes with Dan and Joe bonding. We saw more of Dan's son in Mary; I loved the boy's dialogue as it seemed very "kidlike." Do you enjoy writing children? Do they form more of a challenge then writing adult characters?

Millie: Mary and Dan do appear in Annie, as do many of the Russos. We're dealing with Joe's family, as well as Annie's, so both play an integral part in the book. Glad you liked Matthew. He was named after my son. I enjoy putting children in my books, but only if their presence is required and moves the story forward. My own children are grown, so writing children and dialogue is a bit more challenging nowadays, as I have to depend on my memory (always a frightening prospect) and on things I hear around the neighborhood, on television, etc.


Linda: Every time Mary's mom started a sentence with "the trouble with Mary is...," I burst out laughing - Annie's mother seems not quite as dominating yet still very ethnic a mother and her Jewish father is equally domineering. Are Annie's odd ways a rebellion against her parents, or against Joe?

Millie: Gina Goldman is nothing like Sophia Russo. She's too wrapped up in her own neuroses to be dominating. Sid, however, is another story. He's opinionated and thinks he knows what's best for his daughter, just like most fathers. Annie is rebellious by nature. She likes pushing the envelope and enjoys being different, drawing attention to herself. But the extremes she goes to later in life are a direct result of her need to revenge herself on Joe, a man who dumped her to join the priesthood.


Linda: I would love to see more of Dan's crazy mom Lenore - her cooking was a delight and no wonder the poor man hated Italian food! Will we get to see more of her in Annie and coming books? Did you have fun creating the recipes that Dan hated?

Millie: Dan's mom is still hanging out with Uncle Alfredo. I doubt they'll be much of a storyline to develop between those two, but you never know. I loved creating the real recipes that were used in Mary. It was rather an abomination to have Lenore muck up the sauce with cinnamon and such. Went against every Italian fiber in my body.


Linda: Who and what will the sequel to Annie be about?

Millie: Sequel is a very bad word. I always use the word spin-off, because each of these books stand alone on their own merits. The next spin-off will be The Trials of Angela, which pits a character from Annie - Angela DeNero, an attorney - against Mary's cousin, John Franco. They are on opposite sides of a custody battle. John, unfortunately, is on the wrong side, which does not endear him to the Russos. Angela will be published next spring.

Originally, I had intended to write Annie's cousin, Donna Wiseman's, story, and I had paired her up with the butcher, Lou Santini, but that didn't fly. But I am not giving up on those two. Someday they will have their own book, or I will send Sophia after my editor.

E-mail Millie Criswell
Open Pandora's Box on What to do About Annie
Order Millie Criswell's What to do About Annie at amazon.com
Link to Millie Criswell reviews/articles at AAR following our AAR Review of The Trouble with Mary