Jennifer has filled out many questionnaires for media and Internet interviews, as well as for high school and college students seeking a living author to write about for class credit. Below are some of the most frequently asked questions, plus a few others which proved to be especially thought-provoking.
About Writing as a Career
Why did you become a Writer? How did you get started?
I always loved to read. Books were my escape, my tranquilizer, and my passage to other worlds. However, the more I read, the more critically involved I became–a natural process as any reader plays with ideas and plot scenarios. Often, I could think of new and different angles to a story or different endings that seemed more satisfactory to me. One day I had a dream in historical context. I didn’t want to forget it, so I sat down and wrote a brief description. Putting words and ideas on paper was so much fun that I continued, gradually teaching myself to write while treating the process as a hobby. I sold poetry, articles and short stories over a period of seven years, then began to use all my stored up ideas about what makes a good story in order to write books of my own.
Did you like writing as a child?
I enjoyed writing as a class exercise, but much preferred reading.
Did you know that you were going to become a writer when you grew up?
Writers were people who lived in New York and England and other foreign climes–vastly superior beings who had no connection to me. It never occurred to me that I might become one of them.
Do you have any kind of childhood encouragement? If so, who or what?
One of my teachers in junior high suggested I might be able to write. At the time, it was intimidating since it seemed to be saying that he expected what I produced to be better than average. It was only years later that I realized what he really meant.
How long have you been writing as a professional, and how long before you became one?
A professional in any field is someone who is paid for what they do. I had been writing about four years–off and on, while caring for three children–before I actually sold a piece of work. I’ve been writing full time, as a profession rather than as a hobby, for over 30 years.
What did you read growing up as a child? Favorite books?
The short answer is: everything. I read all the children’s classics-Fairy Tales, Little Women, Little Men, Rose in Bloom, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, etc. In addition, because my mother was also a reader who belonged to a mail order book club and traded books with other reading friends, I began at age ten or eleven to read adult mysteries, westerns, historical novels and romances. My favorites were books with historical backgrounds and mysteries by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, but I enjoyed everything. As a young teen, I helped out in the school library, cataloging books, shelving them, unpacking new arrivals and so on, and always read on the long bus ride home from school. I’m not sure when I began to love the smell and feel of books, but the affection will always be with me.
How many books have you written? (Please mention how many were just paperback and how many came out in Hardcover first and also the different pen names you have used)
I’ve contracted to write over 55 books under five pen names, plus contributed novellas to a dozen collections, or anthologies. I began writing Gothic mystery-suspense tales under my real name, Patricia Maxwell, then changed to other pen names for other genres: Jennifer Blake for historical romances, Maxine Patrick for six light contemporary romances for Signet back in the late 70s and early 80s, a murder mystery and a romantic suspense story as Patricia Ponder. I also was part of a collaborative effort in my early years that was published as Elizabeth Trehearne. Of my 55 titles, five were hardcover originals before paperback publication. However, many of my paperback original titles have subsequently been published in hardcover for book club and large print library editions.
In a past bio, you write you started writing at 21, published your first book at 27. In those six years, did you have moments of despair where you wondered if you’d ever sell a book? If so, what did you do to overcome that despair?
I honestly have no horror stories of major setbacks and disappointments at that stage. I taught myself to write over the 6 year period by taking baby steps, penning poetry, stream-of-consciousness pieces and journals for practice while studying the craft by reading everything about it that I could get my hands on. My local library took notice of what I was doing and asked me to write a series of articles (unpaid) for the local newspaper. Encouraged by the acceptance of these, I tried other things, acquiring a nice collection of rejection slips in the process. But since I expected this, knew that I was a rank beginner, I tossed the rejects into a drawer and tried again. My first sale was a poem, my second a short story, and these were followed by a number of articles and fillers. I wrote one book, but realized that it had too many problems to ever see print. After studying the market and my own preferences, I then wrote a Gothic-type novel that I thought was different yet suitable. The first publisher I sent it to returned it unopened because I had not sent a query letter. Rather than learn how to write one of those, I sent the manuscript to the next publisher on my list of possibilities, Fawcett Gold Medal. After two months, I received a letter from the editor saying that he liked the story but it was short for their list. If I could add 30 pages, he’d buy it. I made the additions according to his suggestions, and it was published in 1970 as THE SECRET OF MIRROR HOUSE. So I actually entered publishing the old-fashioned way, “over the transom” or through the “slush pile”, and the first editor to read my first submitted book, bought it.
I did run into a setback a few years later, however, when the bottom fell out of the Gothic market. I wrote two that I couldn’t place, since no one explained the real problem but only rejected them with the usual meaningless comments. I also tried a murder mystery and a light historical romance, neither of which sold during this two-year dry spell, though they were placed later. I wrote six light contemporary romances around this period, as well, for New American Library. The main thing I did to keep my career going was to continue writing, always trying new things, new ideas, never giving up
What kept you motivated?
The fun of the process and the clamor of the stories in my head.
What was the best thing that happened with regard to your writing career?
I was in the right place at the right time when the romance genre exploded. I’d been writing Gothic romances set in Louisiana that featured colorful historical detail and some degree of sexual tension. The market for this kind of story went into a steep decline around 1974 following the publication of THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER by Kathleen Woodiwiss in 1972. Because of my writing background, I was asked to submit a proposal for this new sensual historical romance genre she’d created almost single-handedly. The story was published in 1977, just as this genre took off, so became my first New York Times Bestseller.
The worst thing?
The decline of the Gothic market mentioned above. I’d written 7-8 of these romantic suspense stories, with steadily growing advances and sales. Then the bottom dropped out. I wrote another gothic before I realized the problem, then did a paranormal mystery suspense tale, a murder mystery, a light historical on the order of a Georgette Heyer Regency novel, and a contemporary romance. Nothing sold. The dry spell lasted so long that I thought it was the end for me as a writer.
The most surprising?
Being met at the airport by my editor and a limousine when I flew to my first American Booksellers Convention (now Book Expo America.) It was my first inkling of the true importance of making the NYT list. Until then, I was so far out of the loop in my small home town that I had no clue.
Realizing exactly where I figured in the scheme of things while standing in an ABA publisher’s suite. At the time, I, the New York Times bestselling author, was holding a pile of cocktail napkins like a handmaiden while L.A. Rams quarterback Jim Plunkett, who thought he might write a book, autographed them for a crowd of adoring fans.
How have you chosen your topics?
By instinct, primarily, according to what interests me as a reader and citizen of the world. That said, I’ll also admit to hard thinking about what readers like and don’t like, what might pique their interest in the way of unusual historical incidents or subjects of universal fascination in the media. Once or twice, I’ve accepted the suggestion of my agent of the moment with good results. Mainly, I’ve written the stories I’d like to read.
Do you stick to a writing schedule?
Absolutely. I write approximately 6 hours per day, 5 days per week.
Where do you write?
In my office surrounded by computer, printer, scanner, copier, Caller ID, fax machine, coffee warmer, and other such devices with their miles of electrical cords. Writing was once so simple, a pen and paper and a comfortable chair. I sometimes feel something good has been lost.
How did you find out your first book sold? Where were you? What were you doing? How did you react?
The news came by letter, as indicated above. I picked it up at my rural mailbox that was probably a quarter of a mile from my house, then tore it open and read it as I walked, smiling and reading it over and over again, smiling and reading, smiling and reading, all the way home.
How does it feel to complete a novel and be able to publish it?
Like delivering a baby–the end of a period of hard labor, but a labor of love which has produced something of which you’re extremely proud.
What part of your job do you love the most? Hate or dislike the most?
I love the music of the words in my head and the development of the people and places I see in my mind as they appear on paper. I hate revising my work–since it’s like reading and rereading the same book over and over while I have other stories in my head that I’m yearning to capture before they get away.
You’ve been on many Best Seller’s Lists. How did you feel when you found out you were on the first one? How did you celebrate? Did you celebrate? How did your husband and children react?
My first twelve books were written in virtual isolation, with little contact with New York except through my agent and only sporadic contact with other writers. I knew in theory that being on the New York Times Best Seller List was supposed to be an honor, but had no real idea of the impact. When my agent called to tell me that I’d made it, my husband and I were in the process of moving into a new house. My attitude was, “Oh, that’s nice. Thank you for letting me know, but I’m a little busy just now. Bye.” So I turned around and told my husband who was walking through the room carrying a box at the time, and he said, “New York Times, huh? That’s great, hon. Where do you want this?” And we went on with our unpacking. In fact, the magnitude of the accomplishment only began to dawn on me about the time of my third NYT best seller, which happened to be the first trade paperback ever published by Fawcett. The royalties for the first two best sellers had begun to trickle in, and the offered advances were becoming impressive, then I was told that my editor went screaming down the hall with joy when she heard about this trade best seller. But the whole thing really came home to me when I was invited to the American Booksellers Association convention as the guest of my publisher- and was met at the airport by my editor and a stretch limousine.
Why did you choose to write historical romances?
I always loved the older historical romances written in the ’30s,’40s & ’50s by authors such as Thomas Costain, Samuel Shellabarger, Frank Slaughter, and Frank Yerby. I also love history, and enjoy historical research, and it gives me pleasure to impart historical facts to readers in a fictional guise. Primarily, however, I was asked to write a historical when the craze for such romances struck the reading public in the early seventies.
Why did you choose to write a series? Are any of these characters from your other books?
Some of the most consistent comments about my books from readers over the years have been “I dearly love your heroes,” and “Do men like this really exist?” It became apparent that the basic attraction in the men I created was the mystique of the Southern gentlemen arch-type. The combination of strength, honor, courtesy, self-deprecating humor, and fearless tenderness that they displayed touched an unexpected chord. The more I thought about it, the more interested I became in exploring all the facets that make up Southern men. The best way to do that seemed to be in a series of books showcasing different types set against the background of a large, interconnected family in a typical Louisiana setting. The “Bad Benedicts” of Turn Coupe, Louisiana was the result. What began as a trilogy was expanded, due to reader interest, into a series of five books plus a novella. Doing these was such a pleasure that I then turned to a series that had been in the back of my mind for over ten years. Herbert Asbury’s FRENCH QUARTER includes an essay on the fencing masters of old New Orleans, some 50 men who had a unique place in French Creole society that seemed to parallel that of sports heroes today. They fascinated me when I first read about them, and still do. None of these characters come from past stories, but were created specifically for their time and place.
How do you maintain success?
Instinct, persistence, luck and the eternal quest for the perfect word or exact phrase to say what I mean. Also by believing, sincerely, that the process of transferring the stories and images that I see in my mind’s eye onto paper so that readers can see them too is the greatest joy – and the greatest job – going.
What are your plans, goals, or dreams for the future? (Personal or business related.)
I seem to be in the odd position of having accomplished almost everything I ever wanted as a writer, of having latched on to every dream. I’ve been on the NYT list several times. I’ve written what I wanted, changed from one genre to another, one publisher to another, and then gained numbers and made the lists in spite of the changes. I’ve toured from Florida to Vancouver, from Los Angeles to New York and back again, and talked to so many TV hosts and radio DJs in large cities and small that I could do it in my sleep. I’ve signed books in hundreds of bookstores and malls, rubbed shoulders at autograph sessions and at parties with actors and actresses, football players and TV and political personalities. I’ve been in mass market paperback, in trade paperback and in hardcover in both trade and large print library editions, made the major book clubs, had my books recorded for both commercial distribution and for the blind, and I was one of the first authors to retrieve the rights to my backlist and put those titles online as ebooks. I’ve had books published in 21 languages and been a best selling author in Germany and many of the countries of Eastern Europe. What more could I desire?
All I really want now is to continue writing the stories that tease my imagination, to create and live with the heroes and heroines that populate my dreams and to eventually pass on these worlds and characters to readers. I’d like to write when the excitement is burning brightest, but have the leisure to let the ideas develop until they are as potent and full-bodied as fine wine. I want to bring New Orleans society in the mid-nineteenth century to life using a set of characters that have been populating my mind for over a decade. I want to write to explore the worlds that exist in my mind and to show the color, events, and characters that reside there to readers. I want to enjoy the writing process while sharing the results of the labor, to provide an example of what life and love are all about, of what it can be if we try hard enough. If I could do only one thing with my writing, it would be to somehow make readers feel the intense joy I have in being alive and able to love, in spite of the pain, and to help them find and accept the same in their own lives.
How many e-books do you have available? What are they? Where can readers find them to order?
Over thirty-sevenof my older single titles and most of my novellas are available as e-books at present. These are backlist titles from a wide range of genres that were print-published originally under a variety of pen-names. Among them are my Gothic mystery suspense novels as well as many of the more lengthy historical romances and the six shorter contemporary romance stories done for Signet/NAL. The major venue for buying them is Steel Magnolia Press (www.steelmagnoliapress.com). However, they may also be found at Amazon, BarnesandNoble, ITunes and Kobo.
Where do you think electronic books are headed?
I believe that eventually an e-reader will be in every student’s book bag, every traveler’s suitcase, in most businessmen’s briefcases and virtually all women’s purses. They may never entirely take the place of conventional paperbound books, but they will become the standard for published work because of their easy access to content, light weight (compared to transporting the same number of books in paper), and convenient searchable features. I give the reading public five years or less to become accustomed to the futuristic aspect of using them, and the manufacturers approximately the same length of time to lower prices to a more consumer friendly level, then I think we’ll see an explosion of numbers and reading material. An infinity of choices for readers will result as the backlist books of thousands of writers become available, along with the kind of experimental original fiction that can’t be done today because of cost factors. The advent of color graphics to illustrate stories, the choice between reading or listening according to reader preference and activity, the possibility of downloading a complete series of books or cross-accessing a variety of research materials, plus other features still on the drawing board, could well make e-books the invention of the age. (This answer was submitted in 2007.)
What makes a good writer?
Imagination, talent, a love of words, empathy for people and an understanding of how they think; an artist’s eye for light and color–and the organizational skills to create a complicated plot and develop it while being sure that life goes on around them.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Write for the joy of it. Your pleasure and fascination with the process will shine through, creating the same feelings in the reader. If it isn’t fun, don’t bother. It isn’t worth the sheer, slogging labor, and the lack of creative spark will almost guarantee failure. If you decide that writing is your vocation, however, never, ever give up.
Would you suggest writing as a career choice?
By all means, if you have a true love of words and ideas. Keep the day job, however, until you’ve sold enough books in one year to equal your current annual salary.
About Being a Writer
What is your work schedule like?
I work 6-7 hours per day, five days a week, completing a book per year. A normal day’s work for me is between seven and ten pages. It takes four to five months to complete the rough draft of a book, after which I allow the work to rest for a month in order to gain distance from it. The remainder of the time is spent in revision and polishing-or researching and plotting the next book.
Describe your office?
My office is on the second floor of my lake home where I can watch the waves, the water birds and boats going by. In other words, I have both distractions from the important business of writing and a soothing, calming aid to it right in front of me. I spend between six to seven hours a day in this office, five days a week, surrounded by computer, printer, copier, scanner, fax, coffee cup warmer, and all the other necessities of a modern office-most of it setting on a combination of mahogany desks and bookcases and antiques. The walls are painted the same calming blue shade as the lake reflections that come through the French doors, and are topped by a French country tapestry border. They hold a gold and mahogany-framed antique mirror, a small tapestry I bought in France, and my “brag wall” of awards. On a normal day, I usually begin work around 8:00 a.m. by checking and answering my email, then get started on the book in progress around 9:00. I write until I have 7-10 pages or its 4:00 p.m., whichever comes first. Sometimes I take a pen and paper, tape recorder, or maybe my lap-top computer out onto my screened back porch. Other times, during cold weather, I sit before a fire in the living room, doing my best to write instead of taking a nice nap on the glove-leather sofa. Now and then, I’ll get up early, around 3-4:00 a.m., if I wake with an idea or the answer to some writing problem at that time. The early morning is a grand time to write because there are no interruptions, nothing else that I should or could be doing.
What has influenced you in your writing? What do you like to read? Do you read other genres?
A series of books which were influential is the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett; I was blown away by the first book back in the Sixties, THE GAME OF KINGS. The character of Lymond, Master of Culter was so compelling that I fell in love with the man. His story, as created by Dunnett was so complicated and intriguing that it held me enthralled. The Lymond books were not easy reads, however. I longed to create a similar fiction experience, but one more accessible to the average reader. Another influence was Georgette Heyer. I loved the historical detail she included and the witty dialogue and the warmth of her characters. Because these things were appealing to me, I’ve always tried to add these elements to my books. Other influences were Gothic novelists Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart, and the old-time historical novelists, Alexandre Dumas, Jane Austen, Thomas Costain, Samuel Shellabarger, Frank Yerby, Frank Slaughter, and Paul Wellman. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Zane Gray also added to the mix, as did Frances Parkinson Keyes who proved so well that stories based in Louisiana have an eternal fascination.
I read nearly anything and everyone from Robert Ludlum and Clive Cussler to John Grisham and Sandra Brown–though I’m not fond of Sci-fi and can’t abide horror or anything too gruesome. I have a preference for mysteries and other stories that involve the mind. I read a lot of history for research purposes, dip into many magazines such as Discover, Scientific American, National Geographic, etc. to keep up with what’s happening in the world. However, the vast majority of my leisure reading is in the romance field, just keeping abreast of the market. Writers I’ll pick up off the rack with only a quick scan of the back cover copy are Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Elizabeth Lowell, Maeve Binchey, Judith Arnold, Emilie Richards, Anne Stuart, Suzanne Brockman and Madeline Hunter, among others.
What are your five all-time favorite books (with authors)?
Actually they the six books of the Lymond series by Dorothy Dunnett, THE GAME OF KINGS, QUEEN’S PLAY, THE DISORDERLY KNIGHTS, PAWN IN FRANKENCENSE, RINGED CASTLE, and CHECKMATE. Other than these, I’d have to chose Heminway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES, Salinger’s CATCHER IN THE RYE, Hawthorne’s THE SCARLET LETTER, GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell , and THE FAR PAVILLIONS by M. M. Kaye. But I could just as easily have listed dozens of others, or anything at all by either Agatha Christie or Georgette Heyer, the titles of which I’ve read and reread many times.
Which of the books you have written is your favorite?
It’s hard to name a favorite since the stories all have meaning for me or they’d never have been written. Some are favorites because of what they represent: my first New York Times best seller (LOVE’S WILD DESIRE), the book that stretched my creative imagination farthest (ROYAL SEDUCTION), the story that came closest to portraying my ancestor’s way of life (SOUTHERN RAPTURE), or the tale with my favorite beginning (KANE, in which the heroine wakes up in a coffin in the first paragraph.) And of course I’m seriously in love with all the fantastic swordsmen in my current Masters at Arms series.
If I had to choose one, however, it would be ROYAL SEDUCTION. Now and then, a writer does a book in which everything seems to come together: plot, characters, motivation, setting, pace, language–everything. The result is a magical few months in which the work-in-progress seems to write itself. That happened with ROYAL SEDUCTION to a higher degree than most of the others.
Where do your ideas come from? What sparks a story?
An idea can come from anywhere. I’ve written books based on small historical tidbits found in research, from the need to expound on a story situation encountered long ago; from fascination with a particular character type; from a bit of personal history told to me; from interest in an incident read about in a newspaper or periodical; from the need to recreate a setting or a time period and many others. Some stories arrive in my mind full-blown, while others are put together bit by bit over a few weeks or months. Some stories I’ve thought of one day and started the next, while other have stayed in the back of my mind for ten or fifteen years before being written. It’s all a matter of timing and need. But I have more story ideas at this moment than I’ll be able to write if I live to be a hundred.
Do many of your stories come from your own experiences?
Very few come from my life in any direct form. The story that comes closest is probably LUKE in my Louisiana Gentlemen series which has a romance author as a heroine. Even then, it’s more a matter of my attitudes and feelings about my chosen profession. On the other hand, it’s impossible to write without using the perspective of your own views and experiences. One reason that writing is such a frightening yet fascinating thing for so many is because the writer is inevitably revealed on paper for all to see.
Do you have a favorite locale or setting for your novels? What is it and why is it your favorite?
I’ve written about Louisiana for years, and could easily write about it for many more. It’s my home state, where I born and reared, and where my European ancestors have lived since before 1819 and my Native American ancestors for millennia. Still, the real reason I write about it is because it has such a rich amalgamation of cultures, so much rich history from the French and Spanish colonial days and the pre-Civil War period, and so diverse a landscape. Many people are familiar with New Orleans, but have little idea of what life is like in the remainder of the state. I have a strong need to correct this deficiency by saying, Come, let me show you how we live, or how we used to live.
Do you have favorite characters from the books you’ve written? If so, who are they and why do you like them? Any you hate? If so, why?
Falling in love with my heroes is standard procedure for me, and they are the characters that linger in my mind. Prince Rolfe from ROYAL SEDUCTION is always first on the list because he’s one of my more dramatic and unusual creations. Then there’s The Thorn, or Ranny, from SOUTHERN RAPTURE, because of his wry humor while courting the heroine in the dual roles of masked hero and man with the mind of a child. I adored my tortured heroes in the contemporary stories SHAMELESS and LUKE, in large part for their ability to rise above past pain and continue to care, protect, and believe. One of the most exciting of my men, I think, was the Brazilian Latin Lover, Rafael Castelar, from TIGRESS – his foreign background made broad romantic gestures possible against a modern setting. I really enjoyed Renfrey, the warlock hero from a novella collection I wrote for Avon Books titled STARDUST, a super being who was extremely human and yearning under his surface imperturbability. But oddly enough, a male character that gave me the most satisfaction to create is a secondary one, Dante Romoli from LOVE AND SMOKE; he embodied a greater degree of the tenderness, perhaps, that I’ve always tried to instill into my men. Favorite heroines, on the other hand, I like for their strength and independence. Among them I’d have to list Amalie from SOUTHERN RAPTURE, Riva, from LOVE AND SMOKE, and Jessica from TIGRESS. And of course I can’t leave out the female character who is probably most like me, romance author April Halstead from LUKE. I don’t have any I hate. Having the god-like power to create them as I please, even the villains, I have a benign understanding of their villainy, therefore an acceptance of it.
What do you love most about being a writer?
Creating my own private world, and then living in it for an extended time with characters that become so real that it’s almost impossible to accept that they exist only in my mind.
What do you like least about being a writer?
Revision, the process of reading a book three or four times in succession while trying to remember every detail about the characters and story continuity and continually questioning whether sentences need rephrasing. It’s meticulous, exhausting work that’s also supremely boring because I created the story in the first place – and would much rather be working on my next one. Of course, a close second would be encountering the pseudo-critics on the Internet who hide behind false identities while using their meager writing skill to trash the work of luckier or harder-working writers.
How do you do research for your books and how do you keep it all organized?
I begin by reading for a general overview of the time period or historical incident I’ll be using, then study the bibliographies of these books for more detailed information. I order books through inter-library loan, buy books that are particularly pertinent and visit historical research libraries to look at obscure works or at microfilm and microfiche. While writing contemporary romances, I’ve done a good bit of Internet surfing for data on a wide range of subjects. When I find something useful, I either photocopy or print it out. I then use a highlighter to mark the bits I particularly want to use. All research for a particular book is kept together until that project is completed. If it’s a small amount, as with some contemporary stories, it’s usually tucked into a large 3-ring binder along with the book’s proposal, chapter outline, character sketches, notes, etc. More copious research is placed in a small, portable file with a snap lid where it’s divided into file folders according to information type. For generic research that might be useful for several books over a long period of time, I have a large file cabinet with category divisions from “Artists, Nineteenth Century” to “Valentine Customs.” For my Masters at Arms series, I have a created a “time line”, or huge folder on computer where thousands of details have been laboriously typed in and filed in sub-folders so they can be instantly searched to retrieve important information. Whether this stuff is really organized is a matter of opinion since I’m always thinking of more accurate categories in which to subdivide things – without ever getting around to subdividing everything. But I usually know where to start looking for what I need, and that’s what matters.
What do you do to enhance your creativity?
I listen to music, either Mozart of else a mood music CD. Sometimes I meditate or play self-hypnosis tapes that assure me I’m going to be creative for the day. I walk my dogs, a Shih Tzu named Buffy and a Maltese-poodle mix named Luckster, both of whom consider that they are really walking me. In spring and summer, I work in my garden – here in Zone 8a, I grow antique roses and daylilies, among other more Southern things such as camellias, sweet olive, cannas, lantana and so on. In fall and winter, I do needlework of one kind or another, but particularly knitting.
What was the best advice you received as a writer?
To write the book you would like to read-since others may like the same thing. Also to write what you know and love, and worry about selling the work later. Finally, to develop a publishing goal and post it where it can be seen every day.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
The same as above, with this addition: Forget the critics and forge ahead at full speed.
About Romance as a Genre
What do you think of romantic fiction as a whole?
Romance is a natural part of life, therefore a natural subject in literature. Its exploration in countless books by countless authors is as important as investigating the meaning of life or the nature of courage. At its best, romance fiction teaches us about the relationships between men and women. The lighter books function as escapism for women, books which allow them to relax with female oriented themes of love and hope rather than essentially male themes of death and destruction.
Why do you women read it more than men do? Is it really such a “feminine” kind of book?
The average man isn’t interested, or is embarrassed to admit interest, in books which deal with emotion. Women, on the other hand, are in touch with their feelings and enjoy books which utilize emotion as a plot device. Traditionally, women will read books with a male protagonist (perhaps because that was all that was available for many years!) but men are reluctant to read books with a female protagonist. Women have little difficulty summoning the empathy which allows them to put themselves in place of the male protagonist. Men find this much harder when the roles are reversed.
Why are most historical romances set in England or France? Why are these countries so popular in their history and pageantry?
People are more comfortable reading about countries and time periods which are not too far removed from their own experience. In fact, historical romances set in France are unpopular with readers because of the foreign nature of the setting. The most popular time period and setting for historical romance novels, other than Medieval England or 17th and 18th century Scotland, is Victorian era America.
Would you write a novel set against the backdrop of ancient Egypt, Greece or China or some other historical places?
I would if a story occurred to me which takes place in those settings. However, it would be with full knowledge that it would be a difficult book to sell to my editor or to the reading public.
What is your opinion of women, in general, being fascinated with “knights-in-shining-armor and ladies-in-distress?
The knight-in-shining-armor is a fantasy hero who blends epic strength with chivalry, poetry, justice, and the love of God. He’s the ultimate fictional figure, and an extension of Prince Charming from the fairy tales of childhood. He represents the elemental need of women for a male of power who can and will protect her and her children from harm and the forces of evil–but who will not be a threat in and of himself.
How does it relate or oppose to the place women have in society nowadays?
Women of today have greater access to the power conferred by money and position than at any time in the past. However, they are still vulnerable to attack by men of superior strength and less civilized impulses. On a deep emotional level, they recognize that choosing a mate of strength is still a necessity. The knight-in-shining-armor has this strength, but it’s tempered by the qualities which make a man a great guy to have around the house.
Where do you see the romance genre heading in the future?
Romance novels have displayed a wonderful ability to evolve to suit their audience over the 30+ years of their popularity. I see no reason why this shouldn’t continue. The exact direction they may take is another question altogether. My gut feeling is that they will increase in plot complexity and higher stakes for their female protagonists so as to reflect the broader outlook of a steadily maturing reader base. Emotional content will continue to be paramount, but stories may become more quest or adventure or mystery oriented than in the recent past. Romances with humor should retain their core audience, though a decline as a percentage of sales is possible; there seems to be pendulum swing of popularity between humor and dark suspense story types. Hero archetypes (knight, cowboy, Southern gentleman, rogue) will remain prevalent, but with deeper, warmer character delineation. Crossovers between popular fiction genres (romance-mystery, historical romance-fantasy, futuristic-romance) will probably rise and fall without challenging the sway of contemporary mainstream or traditional historical romances. The Baby Boomer market may dictate stories with older heroines who are involved in more complicated relationships than in the past. Finally, the creative abilities of the hundreds of romance authors writing today are almost guaranteed to bring forth vital changes to energize the market.
Do you write other kinds of books other than romances?
I began my writing career with Gothic, or mystery suspense, novels. My first romance, as such, was published in 1977, and since that time I’ve written strictly romance–though many of my stories have mystery suspense subplots.
How long does it usually take you to write a novel?
At this point in my career, I only write one book per year. I take about six months for the rough draft, allow the manuscript to cool for a month or so then devote another two to three months to the revision process.
Do you have a special place where you prefer to write? Or, do you just work at home?
I had an official office away from home at one time, with a secretary-assistant to screen calls and visitors and take care of paperwork. After a few years, I decided having a home office would be more comfortable and convenient, and that’s where I work today.
Where do you like to write your stories? Is there a certain mood you have to be in or a certain place to be?
I normally write at the computer in my office. For a change of pace, I sometimes use either a fountain pen and ink or a lightweight, notebook computer to write in a lounge chair or on our second story screened porch. I’m not a “mood” writer, don’t have to be “inspired” in order to write. I’m a craftsman whose medium happens to be words-though as with many writers, I’m a lot more likely to be inspired if I’m sitting at my desk.
How do you create a plot or character for a novel? Is it entirely of your imagination? What triggers you to use that particular plot or character?
This is a fairly complicated question. The short answer, however, is that all characters and plots are part imagination, part reality. There is no one thing that triggers a plot or character-these things change with each book.
Do you write a novel anytime you want, or do you have to because of a deadline you have to meet?
I have multiple deadlines, most of them of my own making, but this doesn’t mean I write only because I have these deadlines. My mind is always full of stories lined up waiting to be written. I would write them, most likely, even if I had no deadlines.
Did you take special courses about writing skillfully and effectively when you were at school?
No. I didn’t enjoy English class–it was extremely boring to me! On the other hand, I loved literature and have always been fascinated by the power of words. I did take a 6-week correspondence course on creative writing during the early days of my career, and I read omnivorously on the subject, but I am mainly a self-taught writer.
If you could do anything over again, would you and what would it be?
Possibly go back to school for a college degree, leave my first agent sooner, continue with hardcover contemporary women’s fiction set in upper class Louisiana instead of failing to recognize the specific reader appeal of it. I’d have remained longer with my old publisher, possibly-or not. Many things, yet nothing of importance in the long run.
What are some of the benefits of being a novelist?
Being a novelist is a creative outlet that is soul-satisfying. It allows the writer an audience for the stories that teem in his or her mind. It provides affirmation of one’s talent that is a great boost to self-confidence. And it allows writers the ultimate luxury of making a living while doing something they love.
What are some of the tools and materials you use as a novelist?
I use all the normal office tools such as pens and paper (reams and reams of paper for all the various drafts of a book, plus for all the business of being a writer); typewriter for filling out forms, computer and printer since all professional writers work with electronic media these days; laptop, scanner/photocopier, electric pencil sharpener, paper shredder, etc. Most writers now have social media accounts and web sites for promotion of their work, and I’m no different.
What type of experience do you need to be a successful novelist?
Writing is like any other profession such as that of doctor, lawyer, dentist or engineer: you have to learn the details and specialized practices of the craft. It takes, on average 4-7 years of study and practice before you are able to use words in ways that truly express your ideas and your unique voice or personality. Many people think it’s easy to be a writer; that anyone with the time and inclination can sit down and create stories. Perhaps they can put words on paper, but that isn’t enough. If you want to create stories that are different enough to interest a publisher, or that have something meaningful to say about life and love and human nature, then you have to work at it.
On the other hand, a lot of people feel that you can only write if you’d had varied experiences, good and bad, in life. While there is a kernel of truth to this, it doesn’t mean that you have to travel the world or runaway to join a circus or be a bartender in Timbuktu before you can write books. The fact is, just as you don’t have to be a murderer to write about someone being killed, you don’t have to experience other things in order to write about them. Imagination is the force that lets writers envision what any particular experience may be like. Imagination is the magic ingredient which allows the writer to create successful stories of any kind.
How long have you been writing and selling your romances?
I wrote my first book, a Gothic mystery suspense tale, in ’68, sold it in ’69, and it was published in 1970. The first one I consider a straight romance was published in 1977. That makes between 28 and 35 years, depending on how you look at it. (As of 2014, it’s 40+ years.)
Do you have a preference about the time period you write in?
When writing historical romance, I prefer the 1830s to 1850s. This was the Age of Romance during the early-to-mid-Victorian period, and I’ve always enjoyed the attitudes, manners, furnishings and fashions of it, as well as the stirring political events associated with the times.
However, if by time period you mean do I prefer historical or contemporary, I think being able to publish both is a lovely thing. The only problem is that when doing a contemporary story I almost always wish I could be working on the historical unfolding in my head, and when doing an historical it’s the other way around. In general, the story as yet unwritten is always the most fascinating to me!
Who has influenced you the most in terms of developing your personal writing style?
Considering that most of my spelling errors in the early days stemmed from using British spelling forms, I have to say the most likely influence has been a multitude of British authors, among them Georgette Heyer, Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Agatha Christie, and M. M. Kaye. I’m drawn to the more understated British style, not to mention the general use of intelligent, practical, resourceful heroines rather than headstrong, impulsive, or “spunky” types. But the greatest single influence has come from Scots author, Dorothy Dunnett. Her lyrical narrative flow and rapier-sharp dialogue have long been the standard against which I measure my own.
Which of your novels do you consider your best work? Why?
LOVE AND SMOKE, my first hardcover contemporary mainstream, is arguably my best work. This book was more than 16 years in the making; it existed in the back of my mind for 15 years then took a year to write. Because of the long gestation period, it may well be a more completely realized story. That said, I should tell you that a writer is never the best judge of their own work.
When you begin a new novel, which comes to you first, the characters or the situation?
It depends on the story. With ROYAL SEDUCTION, one of my most famous books, it was the character of the hero, a prince who comes to the United States in the 1820s. With GARDEN OF SCANDAL, it was the heroine, a woman with agoraphobia (fear of leaving a closed-in, safe place) who is trapped in her house by old malice as well as old fears-until a handsome younger man, a gardener, arrives to help set the “Sleeping Beauty” free. With TIGRESS, it was the situation: I wanted to do a book which begins with a woman making love to a stranger during carnival time in Rio-because I had been told that this kind of thing can really happen if a woman isn’t careful about the parties she attends. For my current Masters at Arms series, it was my fascination with the fencing masters of old New Orleans set against the backdrop of the society that made their occupation necessary. In general, an idea can come from anything, at any time.
What steps do you follow once you have character and situation in place?
I sit down with a yellow pad, a good pen and a cup of hot tea or coffee, and I ask myself, “What on earth can possibly take place in this book, given its characters, setting and situation?” What I’m looking for are dramatic incidents, or crises, which will become the “bones” of my story and on which I will hang scenes like a sculptor pressing pieces of clay onto an armature. I write down every single idea that comes to mind, no matter how unusual, risky, dumb, trite or cliche. No editing is allowed, no automatic rejection of anything, no worrying about how it’s all going to fit. In effect, I brainstorm with myself. This process usually gives me 20-25 possibilities which I then cull down to 5-10.
Once I have my story crises, I scribble out a chapter-by-chapter outline with these scattered through it, then brainstorm two to three scene possibilities for each of about 20 chapters-again, without worrying about their value or lack thereof. To get these, I concentrate for the first 5-6 chapters on ideas to illustrate character and build conflict, as well as carry the story forward. Then, toward the middle, I think in terms of ideas to increase tension and develop emotional complication. The end section, of course, needs all the foregoing, plus scenes to show changes of character and resolution of the conflict. With all these notes in hand, I go to the computer and do a formal chapter outline where I separate the idea gems from the junk. This outline becomes the basis for the proposal which then goes to my editor, and also for my guide for the actual work of writing.
Do you find that you have created different writing voices for your contemporaries and your historicals?
I’m told that I definitely have different voices for each, though I’m not that aware of it myself. I never sit down and think, Well, I’m writing a contemporary, so I need a different voice today. I create scenes and characters in a contemporary mindset, and the rest is a matter of doing what comes naturally. I do find that I write more casually and easily in contemporary mode. However, I miss the high-flown, poetic phrases and attitudes that are possible when doing the historicals.
Is there a book out there which you wish you had written?
I would have enjoyed the challenge of writing the sequel to GONE WITH THE WIND, as it was suggested I should by Romantic Times Magazine. That would have been the ultimate challenge for a Southern-born and bred romance author. Still, I’m well aware that nothing anyone wrote would ever have matched the original in the eyes of the critics.
Are there any themes, other than the obvious love wins out theme, which you would like to explore with your writing?
I’m always intrigued by the use of themes as sub-texture in romance novels. One I’ve explored, as mentioned earlier, is agoraphobia and its effects as shown by the heroine of GARDEN OF SCANDAL. Also in this book, I look at the older woman-younger man relationship, and how it can be affected by small-town attitudes and gossip. I also enjoy delving into the dynamics of large, extended families, since this has always been a constant in my life. Social differences which set people apart, as in my Masters at Arms series, are also intriguing. Then a theme that’s important to me, one I’ve used before and no doubt will again, is the sheer joy of being alive. But you can never tell what will set me off next.
What has writing romances taught you about yourself?
The creation of different kinds of characters comes, of necessity, from a writer’s exploration and understanding of the different aspects of his or her own personality. For this reason, I think I’m much more aware of my traits and foibles, strengths and weakness, than I would have been otherwise. I’ve also discovered than I’m more organized than I ever dreamed I would be when younger. I’ve learned that I love a challenge, and can never resist rising to one. And I’ve found that I have a split personality, one half a quiet introvert who needs to be alone, the other an outgoing, fun-loving type who actually enjoys the sound of her voice over a microphone-and, what’s more, that this is perfectly normal for a writer.
Did anyone ever try to discourage you from writing?
One or two people said privately that I’d “never do anything” with my scribbling, but most were mildly positive. It was generally seen as a harmless pastime that kept me occupied and out of trouble-until I began to sell. Then it suddenly became a legitimate profession.
What else do you look forward to in your career?
Maybe a Golden Anniversary in the business? In the meantime, I only want to share more of the stories that clog my brain and, perhaps, a bit more of my own peculiar insight into what makes life worth living.
About Romance in General
Describe the ultimate romantic meal.
Exquisitely fresh salad, creamy seafood entree, steamed asparagus, hot French bread, and a lovely white wine, all served by attentive waiters under the great oak in the courtyard of Commander’s Palace restaurant in New Orleans.
What is your all-time favorite romantic movie?
Somewhere in Time
What is your all-time favorite romantic song or composition?
Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A
What is the most romantic gesture or gift you have received?
My most romantic gift was an electric typewriter from my husband the year I first tried seriously to write a book. Though an immensely practical offering, it symbolized his loving faith in my ability and commitment to the writing craft.
What’s your secret to your successful 40-plus-year-old marriage?
Love and tolerance combined with a willingness to allow, and to help, each other follow our dreams. Never dredging up past mistakes or holding a grudge too long. Having a set time each day for quiet conversation-even if we say nothing at all.
How do you keep the romance alive in your relationship?
By allowing nothing to interfere with the private times that my husband and I share, one of which is having coffee in bed every morning. Even if one of us has an early appointment, we get up a half-hour ahead of time so we won’t miss this ritual and the quiet conversation that goes with it.
What tip would you give your readers to make their lives more romantic?
Never feel that because you’ve developed a relationship with someone that you can afford to forget good manners. Consideration for, and politeness toward, the other person is the one absolute essential for true romance.
Where is the most romantic place you’ve ever traveled?
Italy, hands down. The ambient light, the music, and the architecture all have a tender glory that, combined with the reckless passion for life of the people, is irresistible.
Do you know who or what made (historical, contemporary, futuristic) romance books so popular? Or did it just catch the people’s attention as time went by?
Romance novels have a long history extending from the 18th century and the novels of Fanny Burney, to the 19th century novels of the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, among others. More recently, the revival of interest in the form was triggered by the books of Kathleen Woodiwiss with the publication of THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER in 1972. This publication introduced a particularly female-oriented form of the romance novel which coincided with both the rise of Feminism and the sexual revolution. Women seized on it and the romance novels that followed because they celebrated the woman as the protagonist-it’s the heroine who has adventures, discovers the strength of her femininity, and eventually triumphs by gaining the love of the hero. They are books which are unique in that they tap into the emotional lives of women while exploring the mythic nature of love and the power of the male-female dynamic.
What is the best movie you have ever seen?
Casablanca. Rick, the hero, is a man who has remained faithful to his lover in spite of everything–and who sacrifices his own happiness for hers at the end.
If you had a chance to go back in the past, which time period would you go to (or year)? Why?
I’d go back to 1840s New Orleans. It’s a relatively peaceful time, and I’d be fascinated to discover if it was really as I picture it in my mind.
If you had the opportunity, who would you like to meet in person from the past to the present? Why?
Napoleon. There are a number of unanswered questions about him, from his actual height to how he died. I’d love to know the truth.
About Sensuality in the Romance Genre
What are your thoughts on love scenes in romance novels? Do you find them difficult to write?
Human beings are never more surely themselves than when they make love. To experience how a man and woman interact at this time is to catch a glimpse of who and what they are inside. Love scenes, then, are as legitimate a part of literature as any other scene displaying character emotion and development. They can be difficult to write, mainly because they require deep concentration on the part of the author in order to separate and organize the many feelings and reactions of the two characters, as well as to find the words to put the necessarily intense emotions on paper. Once I’ve worked through the complexities of the scenes in my mind, however, they take on a power of their own, almost writing themselves.
Do you write the love scenes as you come to them or come back and fill in the blanks later?
Love scenes are expressions of the developing emotions between the characters. They are designed to show how the characters think and feel about each other and the situation in which they find themselves rather than the mechanics of sexual intercourse. I write these scenes as I go, then, because this is the only way I can capture the degree of emotional intensity that I want to include at any given story phase. Leaving these love scenes to be added later seems to imply that they are either interchangeable or have negligible impact on story advancement, and nothing could be more wrong.
What is the most memorable setting, in a sensual sense, from your books?
Choosing just one is almost impossible; there are at least seven or eight that give me the same delight to remember as I felt while constructing them. The bedroom scene with the prince, the heroine and the feather, from ROYAL SEDUCTION. The afternoon when the desperate heroine meets the hero in a derelict house with convenient hay bales in SURRENDER IN MOONLIGHT. The dark bedchamber in MIDNIGHT WALTZ where the heroine is visited by a man who is supposed to be her husband, but isn’t. The barn with the hero chained to the wall by the heroine in PRISONER OF DESIRE. The cellar where the hero and the (intoxicatingly scented) heroine are trapped for three days in PERFUME OF PARADISE. The dark patio alive with the steady drumbeat of a samba where the heroine is “rescued” by the masked stranger during carnival in Rio in TIGRESS. CLAY, where the hero wakes from a drugged sleep in a remote fishing camp to discover that the heroine has fastened him to the bed with veterinarian’s animal restraints. Maybe the brocade ottoman scene in DAWN ENCOUNTER.
What do you think makes a hero attractive to a woman reader?
Dozens of things, so many that I once posted a long list on the bulletin board above my desk. They include strength, intelligence, courage, honor, humor, tenderness, empathy, sensitivity, rhythm, tolerance, steadfastness of purpose, strong, unwavering principles, fidelity, dedication to a cause, and self-sacrifice. And let’s not forget a ruggedly handsome face and serious muscle development! Yet a hero is really so much more-he’s the man that women wish all men could be. In the final analysis, I think every reader mentally embellishes the hero to suit her own image of the ideal man, the perfect fantasy mate for her alone.
Do you believe in love at first sight? Have you ever experienced the feeling?
I do believe in love at first sight based on chemical attraction and the subconscious recognition of familiar features–that is, something about the person “clicks” with mental images of other people to whom you are close. I believe in instant emotional rapport. Yes, I’ve been there.
Love vs. infatuation. Differences? Similarities? Consequences? Cause and effect?
It’s perfectly natural for young women–and young men–to “fall in love” a number of times during their teenage years. This kind of brief attraction is chemically based, I believe, and nature’s way of preparing people for future relationships. If it lasts only a short time–days, weeks, a couple of months–it’s infatuation. If it doesn’t go away for months or years, it’s love. How it feels is basically the same, though some attractions can be stronger than others. Because of the nature of these relationships, young women should be extremely careful of how deeply they become involved with their love-of-the-moment. It’s possible to be fascinated with everything about a guy one week–from the way his ears grow to how he walks–and not be able to stand being around him the next. You don’t want to wind up stuck with some guy after you’ve grown to despise how he eats or laughs or blows his nose!
As a teenager, I have often met several different reactions when I tell people that I read romantic fiction. Some of them think it is quite inappropriate, and others believe that it is not too intellectually involved. In my opinion, a romance book is a work of art that DOES require talent/ability to elaborately express one’s creative imagination. Anything else that might be inappropriate for me to read is part of that art. What is your opinion of some of these people’s reactions to teenagers reading romance novels? Do you think it is too bold and vivid to be read by the younger population?
I allowed my daughters to read romance novels beginning at about age 13. Any type of book which encouraged them to read was automatically a good book, in my opinion, since it engaged their minds, increased their vocabularies, and induced a lifelong habit of reading. Compared to the many other categories of books–and many movies–with their blood and gore, moronic or foul language, mindless or vulgar plots and lack of character integrity, a romance novel was, and still is, a superior form of entertainment. I doubt there is anything in the average romance novel that most girls of 13 or 14 haven’t seen or of heard before.
About the Author
Where did your pen name come from? Have you had other pen names?
I began writing under my real name of Patricia Maxwell and published some ten books with that byline, most of them mystery-suspense tales in what was then known as the Gothic genre. During this early period, I also wrote a suspense tale in collaboration with a friend, one sold to a different publisher. The editor for this book requested a single pen-name, rather than a double byline, because she felt that readers liked to think the stories were written from personal experience. The book was published under a pen-name that we created together, Elizabeth Trehearne. When the bottom fell out of the Gothic market in the early Seventies, I tried other types of books without success. Then I was asked to write a proposal for a historical romance, and also asked to choose a new penname, one that would not be associated with the failed Gothic genre. I chose my grandmother’s maiden name of Blake then added Jennifer as a soft, romantic sounding first name, one I’d always liked. About the same time, I signed a contract to write a series of short contemporary romances that also required a different penname, so became Maxine Patrick-a name chosen by my agent who used a play on my real name by turning it around. Then some of the unsold books that I’d written were later published as romantic suspense tales by yet another publisher. To separate them from either my contemporary or historical romances, these were published under my maiden name of Patricia Ponder. This all means that I’ve published books under five different pen-names. However, the most enduring of these has been Jennifer Blake and I doubt that I’ll use anything else in the near future unless it’s my real name.
Do you introduce yourself as Jennifer Blake or as your real name?
It depends on the circumstances. In my normal day-to-day life, I introduce myself as Patricia Maxwell or just Pat Maxwell. When on radio and TV, doing newspaper interviews or at autograph parties during book tours, conferences and conventions, I’m Jennifer Blake.
Is it sometimes peculiar playing a writer and a wife? Jennifer and Pat?
It can be a bit strange. I often feel as if I’m a split personality. Pat is the somewhat introverted woman who stays home in her office, writing the books, attending to the business of being a writer (email, contracts, social media, etc.) or else talks to relatives and friends or works in her garden wearing jeans, T-shirts and dirty sneakers. Jennifer, by contrast, is the outgoing woman who flies to New York, has dinner with agents and editors, gives speeches in more correct English than normal, faces TV cameras and so on while looking as well-put-together as possible. There is nothing particularly difficult about switching back and forth:call me by either name and I’ll answer. But there is a difference.
Do you feel like a celebrity?
Actually, I don’t. I never know how to answer when people ask, “Are you THE Jennifer Blake?” I’m the same person I’ve always been, with all the same responsibilities and insecurities, the same struggles to put something on paper that’s at least close to the vision in my head. I set out years ago to tell stories on paper, not to be a celebrity. To be viewed as one seems very strange. More recently, I’ve been called a “Living Legend of Romance.” (Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, published by Writer’s Digest Magazine.) This is even stranger, though still a lovely accolade.
Being involved in so many organizations, having meetings, a husband and children- when do you find the time to write?
My schedule is fairly structured and revolves around deadlines. I treat writing as a job that requires regular application, and books are planned in such a way that any trips or special meetings occur at a point where the story can be left to cool. Enough slack is built in so that family matters, the parties, holidays, illnesses, and deaths that everyone must allow for, are given their necessary time. It’s a matter of discipline-and doing something you enjoy well enough that the labor is no hardship.
How do you feel about being a notable Louisiana woman?
It’s a grand compliment, one much appreciated. But I suspect it’s due more to longevity in my chosen field than to anything I’ve accomplished.
How do you like to spend your spare time?
Traveling, reading, knitting, painting with watercolors, antique hunting, and gardening, especially growing antique roses.
What gives you the most satisfaction in your job?
Letters from readers, especially those that let me know how my books have helped them through illnesses, family crises, deaths and other difficult times by allowing them to escape into my worlds where good always triumphs and love is everlasting.
As a romance writer, what are your greatest goals?
I’ve set a lot of goals over the years: to be a New York Times best seller, to earn a six or seven figure advance, to reach a special level of recognition. With the help of a lot of people and vast amounts of luck, I’ve gained all of them. My goals now are to write the best books of which I’m capable, to entertain readers and, hopefully, to show them some of the home truths I’ve discovered about the joy of being alive and able to love.
To live up to the expectations of readers while making every story different enough to keep my own interest alive. To write stories that create a venue for exploring what I have to say about life and love.
Briefly summarize, again, how you began writing. Funny, unusual circumstances or anecdotes would be great to include.
I was a stay-at-home mom with three pre-school age children and a passion for reading. One night I had a dream set in historical Scotland with a handsome, kilted ghost who appeared to a teenage girl and helped her with her problems. It was so colorful and memorable that I sat down and recorded it on paper. The process was so satisfying that I continued, doing small stream-of-consciousness pieces, descriptions of events, and poetry. Over the next six years, I read everything I could find on the art of putting words on paper, slowly teaching myself how to write. My first sale was a poem to a newspaper for the grand sum of $1. After that, I sold short stories, newspaper articles, and fillers while gradually gaining the experience and confidence to try a book. I decided I was going to take the world by storm by combing two types of fiction that were popular at the time, “nurse” books and mainstream Gothic novels. I wrote my nurse-Gothic, but realized it was far too short and had multiple problems in story logic. This is my “closet-shelf” book, then, the obligatory manuscript every author has hidden away. Around this same time, I was asked to research and write articles on two antebellum plantation homes that were area landmarks. It was while walking through these old places that it occurred to me what wonderful settings they would make for Gothic-type novels. I wrote a dark, suspenseful tale filled with Southern angst, then wrapped it up and shipped it off to the first publisher on a list of five houses that I’d gleaned from Writer’s Market. The manuscript came back unopened because I’d failed to send a query letter-an item that was just beginning to be required then though it’s standard practice now. Since I had no idea how to write such a thing, I marked that publisher off my list and sent the book to publisher #2 in alpha order, Fawcett Gold Medal. Approximately two months later, I received a letter from the editor, Bruce Feld, saying that the manuscript was short for their list, but they would buy it if I would add 30 pages. My first book, then, was plucked out of the slush pile and bought by the first editor who read it.
Besides writing, what other talent would you most like to have?
I’d love to be able to paint well enough to capture the essence of beautiful scenes and lovely people, especially children.
Who is someone you admire and why?
Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring”, for her efforts in bringing to national attention the deadly effects of pesticides on bird, animal, and human life.
Do you have a good luck charm or superstition?
Some years ago I was given the gift of a bean from a St. Joseph’s Day altar in New Orleans, a token said to bring good fortune, monetary and otherwise. I’ve never been particularly superstitious, but just can’t bring myself to throw that good luck bean away. And I usually wear a gold coin from the Isle of Mann when I travel, one which features on one side St. Michael, patron saint of warriors. I used this symbol in a book written some years back, NOTORIOUS ANGEL, so the necklace pleases me with its promise of protection.
Share one of your favorite indulgences with us.
Long baths in my Jacuzzi tub, with hand-milled lavender scented soap. Since I’m allergic to all commercially prepared detergent-type soaps, and normally use an unscented soap substitute, this is a special treat.
What is the one thing that you’ve always wanted to do, but never had the courage to try?
Fly my own plane.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
A history teacher, since it gives me great pleasure to make the past come alive for people.
What quote or personal saying do you live by? Who said it?
“Live and let live.” Shiller: Wallenstein’s Camp VI
What do you want your legacy to be?
It would please me very much to know that women in future years may look at my career and decide that if I managed to become a writer, they can do the same. Other than that, I can’t say it better than in the excerpt below. It’s from a book by Larry King (CNN, Larry King Live) entitled REMEMBER ME WHEN I AM GONE, described as “a collection of obituaries and eulogies written by well-known people from all walks of life as they would like to be remembered.” It was an honor to be asked to contribute my bit in company with so many true celebrities.
“The author’s heritage was strongly reflected in her work, with the majority of her more than fifty novels set in her home state. Meticulous research was a hallmark of these Louisiana-based tales, and many became the basis of college courses with emphasis on their history as well as creative technique. Lyric description and attention to detail characterized her work, according to reviewers, and she was noted as well for the “intriguing mix of intellect and passion” in her characters. An optimist by nature, she wrote about love and happily-ever-after because she lived them, and chose always to portray the higher aspects of human nature with emphasis on ideals and extreme notions of honor. Her purpose as she saw it, however, was not to inform or instruct but to bring the joy of love and laughter into the lives of her readers. The sheer joy of being alive was a recurrent theme, running like a thread of gold through the fabric of her work.”