I think discovering a new author is a bit like finding comfortable shoes. For me a great author is one whose books you can’t put down until you’ve reached the final page. And just like comfortable shoes, you hope they’ll be around forever. Last fall, realizing I’d now read most of the books by my favorite authors, I went searching for ones I’d yet to discover. I typed in romantic suspense authors and the name Mariah Stewart popped up. I decided to read ‘Devlin’s Light’ first and I’ve just finished ‘Dead Wrong’ that was definitely a page turner. I still have three more of Stewart’s books waiting in my ‘to read’ pile. She’s not only a great writer but a delight to chat with too and I’m honored she agreed to the interview. http://www.mariahstewart.com
Susan Palmquist (SP)-Although you’re now famous for your mysteries and romantic suspense novels, you began your career with contemporary romances. Was it a conscious decision to start in the romance genre?
Mariah Stewart (MS)-You know, I never really paid any attention to genres or other labels. So when I wrote that first book, in 1990 or 1991, in my mind it was just a love story. I didn’t realize I’d written a “romance”. Not that I didn’t read them – I did. I just never categorized the books I read as anything other than fiction. I read mysteries, detective novels, romance - pretty much everything across the fiction spectrum, but I’d never consciously put labels as such on them. So I never thought about writing anything other than fiction.
SP- Was it difficult to get published, how long did it take?
MS-Well, yes, and no - see above! Because I wasn’t accustomed to thinking in terms of genres, it didn’t occur to me that there were certain reader expectations that needed to be fulfilled. So I was surprised when so many editors passed on that book but told my agent the same thing: I loved this story, loved the characters, loved the author’s voice, but I cannot buy this book because of the ending. Did I mention that at the end of that first book, both the hero and the heroine were...well, they were...um, dead? Yeah. Both of ‘em. Murdered in cold blood. So it didn’t take long for me to figure out that my chance of selling that book might increase dramatically if I changed the ending. My agent had submitted the manuscript to an editor at Pocket who told me she’d buy it and the next one if I’d change the ending. So I did...and she did, and that was 27 books ago - and I’ve never killed off a heroine or a hero since!
SP- I love the comment on your Web site where you say you found true happiness writing murder and mayhem. Was it a slow transition from romances to mysteries? How did it come about and were mysteries harder to sell?
MS-I do love murder and mayhem – I’m not going to deny it! But since I always had a touch of something – mystery or suspense elements – in all my books, including the first one, the books just more or less evolved over time to full blown romantic suspense. At the time I wrote my first romantic suspense (Brown-eyed Girl), those types of books were just beginning to grow in popularity, so it wasn’t a hard sell.
SP-I can’t help but be impressed with all the books you’ve written and the fact that you sometimes publish three or more in a year. I’m sure others think, wow, how does she do it? Are you a fast writer and do you have any tips about finding time to write?
MS-I’m fast when I have to be, which is mostly all the time because I write two or two and a half to three books each year. I don’t have a problem finding time to write because it’s my full time job. But when I first started, we were renovating a hundred twenty-something year old house, I worked full time, and we had two kids in a private school that was a forty minute drive from our home, and another thirty minutes from my day job. Looking back, I don’t really know how I did it, except that I wrote after dinner and the kid’s homework, and I wrote on every weekend – every holiday and vacation day. Any time off that I had was spent on my books. I think it’s one of those things that if you honestly want to do it, you make the time, and you cut out all those other things that distract you from writing or take your spare time. I think most writers find they have to sacrifice something – everyone has to decide for her/himself whether the sacrifices are worth it in the long run.
SP-You’ve been on the New York Times bestseller list, been called the Queen of Romantic Suspense, achieved the Lifetime Achievement Award and been inducted into the Hall of Fame by the New Jersey Romance Writers and having said all that, this might be a silly question, but is there anything else you’d like to achieve?
MS-Well, I always wanted to be a rock singer, but since I’m tone deaf, that was probably never an option! Actually, I’m really happy where I am right now, and I guess the one thing I’d like most is just to be able to keep writing from now until they have to pry the keyboard from my cold, dead…well, you know.
SP- Like me, you grew up reading Agatha Christie books? Any other favorites? How about now, what authors do you enjoy reading?
MS-Agatha Christie, Nancy Drew, Mary Stewart (no relation), and Lucy Maud Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables is still one of my most-loved books).I have a lot of friends who are writers and if I start naming names I’ll leave out a few, so I’ll just say that I read widely across the board.
SP-Romantic suspense is said to be making a comeback, I know lots of Between the Pages readers are also aspiring romantic suspense writers. What are some of your secrets to writing romance suspense and mysteries?
MS-I wasn’t aware it had ever gone away! I don’t really have any secrets, I’m sorry to say – just opinions. I think the success of any book rests with its characters. If they’re well written and true to themselves, and you’re true to yourself when you’re writing the book, you’re on your way. After all, if a reader does like or can’t connect with the characters, do they really care if they outwit the serial killer, fall in love, or live happily ever after? If you’re writing true romantic suspense, you want to have an equal balance between the romance and the suspense (though I admit my romantic suspense always seemed to weigh heavier on the suspense than on the romance). I don’t plot before I start writing, so I can’t give any tips there. I think it’s just important to tell a good story and make your characters real. You want to avoid stereotypes in plot and in your characters. Oh – and make sure that your villain is equal to the hero and the heroine and visa versa. There’s no glory in outwitting a stupid or wimpy bad guy! The villain needs to be clever, but in order to best him (or her), your hero and your heroine have to be even more clever.
SP-One thing I love about your books, besides that fact they keep me turning the pages is your smooth writing style, it’s a joy to read. Any writing tips you care to share with us?
MS-Susan, thank you so much for those kind words. The only thing I feel I know well enough to share is that you need to be true to yourself and your voice. I think voice is like any other muscle - the more your write, the more your voice develops and strengthens. Don’t try to write like someone else, or try to follow what someone else has done. Don’t write to the market if what the market says is hot is just not you. By this I mean, I know that both historical romances and hot, dark paranormals are very popular, but I couldn’t write in either sub-genre. It just isn’t me – though I’ve read and enjoyed both.
SP-You often write series of books. Was it something you always wanted to do?
MS-Once I started writing, yes, I wanted to do series, mostly because I’d become attached to a group of characters or to a setting and I wasn’t ready to move on.
SP-You have another trilogy, The Chesapeake Diaries, being published in March 2010 and another book in the series in August 2010. Can you tell us about them and the story behind the series?
MS-The Chesapeake Diaries are, for me, a return to my own roots. My first books were contemporary romances, and the ones I most enjoyed writing – Devlin’s Light, Wonderful You and Moon Dance – were connected through the Enright siblings. They were fun and while there was a bit of mystery in each of them, they were definitely lighter books than my FBI or Mercy Street books (though I really see the Mercy Street books as almost a blend of the contemporary romances and the FBI series). As a family, we had a really dark year last year – without going into a lot of detail, my dad fell ill in June and passed away at the end of September. My brother had been ill for several years, and was terminal at the same time my dad was hospitalized, and we lost him the week before Christmas. So for the past year and a half, I’ve felt burned out on the dark and dreary and needed to write books that could help take me from those dark places, books that didn’t depress me, and books where I didn’t have to make anyone die. I didn’t want to do any more research into the minds of people who committed horrendous crimes. I think after close to twenty such books, I just burned out and needed to refocus my writing. I’d been thinking about doing a series based in a small town, and a friend pointed out that I’d already created the type of community I wanted in LAST WORDS (thank you, Victoria Alexander!), which was one of my FBI books. I loved that town – St. Dennis – because I love the Chesapeake Bay area and all the little towns along the water. The Bay is not far from where we live and we have favorite places where we enjoy meeting friends for lunch or dinner throughout the warm months, so the setting was a no-brainer for me. There were characters from LAST WORDS that I wanted to revisit with a different focus. In the Chesapeake Diaries, I’ve been able to bring in characters from all my series. For example, the heroine of COMING HOME, the first book in this new series, is Vanessa Keaton, who’s the half-sister of my police chief hero of LAST WORDS, and the hero is Grady Shields, an FBI agent whose wife was murdered in one of the DEAD books. The second book in this series, HOME AGAIN, brings back Dallas MacGregor, a character from my second book, A DIFFERENT LIGHT, which was first published in 1995 and just reissued in January. The third book in the Chesapeake Diaries, ALMOST HOME, will be released in 2011 – once you read the first two books, I think you’ll know whose book comes next, and you’ll know who her hero has to be! These books are similar to the books I wrote in the mid-late 1990’s, in that the focus is more on the character’s relationships – their loves, friends and families – and the community in which these people live. There might be a mystery of some sort in each of them, but the focus on these books is more on the characters – the little bay town, St. Dennis, becomes a character in itself (and did I mention that both my dad and my brother were named Dennis?). Oh – and before I forget, the publication date for HOME AGAIN was changed to September 28, 2010.
SP-Any other genres you’d like to try in the future?
MS-Having just changed direction somewhat it’s hard for me to look ahead to something else right now. I’m looking forward to working on the Chesapeake Diaries for a while – there are so many good characters in St. Dennis, and so many stories to be told that I can’t look beyond this series. Right now there are three books on the schedule, but there could be more.
Susan Palmquist is a freelance writer by day and fiction writer by night. Her latest novel Sleeping With Fairies is published by Lyrical Press. She’s currently hard at work on her latest book, a romantic suspense set in the Pacific Northwest. Find out more about her and her books at http://www.susanpalmquist.com