Susan Wiggs - And Now (as usual), Something New

(May 25, 2003)

"When I write, I don't think about awards. That way lies madness. What I think about is a story that keeps me glued to the page, with characters who make me laugh and cry and infuriate me. Writing a book is like meeting a new set of people in a brand new place. The sense of discovery is intense, so maybe that's the key to keeping the books fresh and staying focused."

 

Susan Wiggs's new release - Home Before Dark - marks her hardcover debut. Since the late 1980s this versatile author has written romance set in a vast number of time periods, and when it seems we've gotten a handle on what she's currently writing, she once again writes something different. Romance authors who successfully transverse time and place aren't all that common, so I set about asking Wiggs about her writing career. How and why has she done it? This interview should provide those answers.

--Laurie Likes Books

You've been published since the late 1980's. Can you describe the changes you've seen in the genre since that time?

These are just my observations, so it's very narrow. My first book (Texas Wildflower - 1987), was a big, sexy Western, and that was a hugely popular subgenre at the time. Historical romances and sagas seemed to dominate the genre. Warriors, pirates, cowboys and knights ruled the day. Settings ranged from Medieval times to the late 1800s, and locations were all over the map. In the '90s, we started to see humor in historicals (Julie Garwood) and an increasing number of contemporary romance outside of category, and that trend has continued. I think it's exciting to work in a genre where readers and authors set the trends with their tastes and preferences.

You've written a variety of different types of romances - fantasy/romance short stories, Medievals, Renaissance, Regency-set historicals, and the American Historicals you've been writing more recently. Home Before Dark is a contemporary and your hardcover debut. That's a lot of different settings. Have you been encouraged by your publisher(s) to take on so many different eras? And, more basically, what's the reason for writing in so many different settings?

All my settings have been conceived by me. There does not seem to be a common thread in my books in terms of settings and time periods. Publishers have never suggested a particular era or place. My interests are wide, and I love to travel, so I tend to set books in places I've been - Ireland, France, Spain, England, Scotland, Switzerland, the Washington coast, Boston, Chicago, a Rhode Island beach... The same goes for my research style. I love reading history and travel books, and I tend to get interested in a wide variety of issues and events. My mind wraps around an idea, whether it's a Celtic changeling (in Irish Magic II), a Henry Jamesian proper Bostonian (The Charm School), or two sisters in modern-day Texas (Home Before Dark). For me, experimenting is a way to hone my craft, try new things and express my creativity in different ways. I tend to change my furniture and repaint my house a lot - I guess I just love variety!

Your new book is not your first contemporary, but you're mostly known for your historicals. Home Before Dark is also your hardcover debut. Why this particular move, and how do you feel about the hardcover move? Do you have any concerns about your devoted historical romance readers making the move along with you into the contemporary world? Do you plan to continue writing historicals as well as contemporaries?

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Home Before Dark is a book of the heart. Two opportunities converged at the same time. My publisher (MIRA) opened up its imprint to hardcover (one or two a month) and there was a truly engrossing story about sisters I was dying to write. I knew it would be a big, more mainstream book, and that's really what seems to be working in hardcover. I love having a book in hardcover, because it's an opportunity to find readers who love library books and hardbound books. There are more opportunities in foreign and audio rights with a hardcover, so that's a plus, too.

Some readers who like my historicals will read and like this new book. Others like the historicals exclusively, so they might give it a pass. It's all up to the reader, not me. My book has been "released to the wild," so we'll see. I just returned from a booksigning tour in Texas, and I met readers who prefer to wait for the paperback, and others who were thrilled to find the book in hard.

I have a new historical coming later this year, as a matter of fact. Thanks for asking! There will be a reissue of the Chicago Fire trilogy and The Horsemaster's Daughter in August, and a new historical called A Summer Affair about Blue from Horsemaster.

Also, I just finished something fun. A short (very short) read for eHarlequin. It's a prequel to A Summer Affair, and will be released in serial form on the Web. I'm not sure how that's going to work, but I'll keep you posted!

Lord of the Night, published in 1993, won RWA's Best Romance of the year, and you won for Best Short Historical in 2001 for The Mistress (and your two DIK's from AAR are six years apart). Many authors find it difficult to maintain a high level of creativity and quality for long periods of time, and yet these two books were written nearly a decade apart. How have you managed to stay creative and focused, and to still write "best" books over the years?

When I write, I don't think about awards. That way lies madness. What I think about is a story that keeps me glued to the page, with characters who make me laugh and cry and infuriate me. Writing a book is like meeting a new set of people in a brand new place. The sense of discovery is intense, so maybe that's the key to keeping the books fresh and staying focused. I tend to live deeply inside my stories. Another thing I do is revise - a lot. Some writers find that tedious, but I find the process challenging and invigorating. Like any job, writing can have its rough spots. But it also has its moments of triumph, too, thank goodness!

Let's talk about connected books now. Most readers enjoy them - at least if there's one or two sequels - but other readers feel somehow manipulated at being "forced" to read a sequel. What's your take on this?

I like them as a reader and a writer. The advantage to the reader is that they get to catch up with characters they loved from another book. The advantage to the writer is that you get to re-use your research and explore characters with all the depth and detail you like. When I wrote the Chicago Fire trilogy, for example, I only had to research one big historical event. Then it was fun to weave it throughout the three books. Readers are clamoring for the fourth! Yes, Phoebe has a story, but it's not written yet. It might be the first four-book trilogy in publishing. I've never tackled continuing characters as the leads in multiple books. It interests me, but I tend to tell a character's "whole" story and generally say all there is to say in one book. I love a "happily ever after" ending, and I'd be greatly challenged by "happily until the next adventure...." Many writers do this beautifully and pull it off: Amanda Quick and James Lee Burke come to mind.

In our DIK Review of Lord of the Night, our reviewer mentions the age difference between the hero and heroine. Long-time romance readers are used to large age differences, which seem to have gone out of vogue in the last ten to fifteen years. Obviously this book, published ten years ago, is at the cusp of that change, and the reviewer thought your handling of it was spectacular. What other "hot buttons" have you pushed in your books, and which books were they?

As I recall while writing the book, I didn't envision the age difference as the main conflict, yet it emerged as a key issue for the hero. Readers did respond to that conflict, very passionately! Mostly positive, but there were some who didn't care for the age difference. I'm always surprised when one of my books pushes a button. I love it! Negative or positive, someone is responding to my book and that's what I live for. I got in trouble for the "funny cigars" Isadora smoked with Ryan in the rainforest love scene in The Charm School. I got in trouble with Volkswagen owners for saying the car had radiator problems in my novella Osland Time (from the That Summer Place anthology). In my new book, I'm hearing from people who responded in different ways to the intra-family adoption. When I write, I don't go looking for an "issue" to explore, but sometimes they creep in through the characters.

The question of historical accuracy and anachronisms comes up often in discussions of historical romance. Readers obviously vary on how accurate they require a book to be. Where do you stand on this issue?

I'm easy. I adore accurate research, but honestly, I am not an authority on Medieval warfare, organ transplantation, Regency style... You name it. I am not an authority. So if I'm reading a book and I notice a blunder, like a Regency heroine named Wendy, then it tends to annoy me, because it messes with my willing suspension of disbelief as I read.

When I write, I research deeply but not obsessively. I am fortunate to have received a great education, and researching is second nature to me. It's the writer's responsibility to strive for accuracy yet not to give the reader a dry history lesson. If I can't find a fact, I write around it. If I get a fact wrong, readers tell me. There's an anachronistic song in The Firebrand, for example. I don't beat myself up over it. The books I write are fiction, and their about characters. As much as humanly possible, I try to put the characters in a realistic setting that "feels" authentic to the reader, and then I pray I got it right!

How do you approach the writing of a book? Do you begin with a premise or a character? Explain your creative process to us.

Each book evolves differently. Usually, a character in a particular situation comes to mind. Example: Jessie Ryder's sister, Luz, adopted her premature infant at birth 15 years before. In Passing Through Paradise, I started with the heroine making lists of ten things. ("Ten Tortures for Courtney Proctor" is the beginning of that book, and it's from a brainstorming list.) Sometimes it's a situation: A woman estranged from her father discovers that he needs a kidney transplant, and she's the only donor. (The You I Never Knew) Or a timid Boston lass goes on an ice boat to Brazil. (The Charm School)

I start thinking about these characters and how they came to be in this situation. I do a lot of thinking and reading and listening to music. I create a "sociogram" of the character's social landscape to see who the people in her life are. I write first-person narratives from the main characters' points of view. Sometimes I make a visual collage of things in their lives. This is all to make me "feel" the characters. Then I write a very rough outline of the story. I often brainstorm this with a critique group. Finally, I pitch the story to my agent, and she gets the publisher all excited about it, and they say OK, and I start to write. I write the first draft with the "door shut" as Stephen King says, not looking up or giving it to anyone to read. Then I go through the next draft with my critique group over a period of months, and finally, I send a fresh draft to my publisher.

For me, it's important to live deep inside the story during this process.




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