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Interview: October 3, 2008

October 3, 2008's Donna Volkenannt recently spoke with Beverly Barton, the award-winning and bestselling author of over 60 novels, including the newly-released romantic suspense COLD HEARTED.

In this interview, Barton explains how the "steel magnolias" in her life acted as inspiration for the book's strong female protagonist, and elaborates on the story's themes of family and loyalty. She also discusses the difficulties of writing from a villain's point of view, lists some of her favorite books and authors, and shares details about future projects, including the 2009 release of her next book, SILENT KILLER. The storyline of COLD HEARTED, your latest romantic suspense novel, is a new twist on the black widow theme. Jordan Price is a young, beautiful and wealthy widow accused of murdering her husband, Senator Daniel Price, and several others. What was your inspiration for creating COLD HEARTED?

Beverly Barton: My editor, John Scognamiglio, asked me if I’d ever thought about writing a “black widow” story. I told him that I hadn’t and wasn’t sure I was interested in having a heroine who was a killer. But the seed had been planted and my fertile imagination grew this suggestion into an idea for a woman who might or might not be a true black widow. My goal was to create a sympathetic heroine, one the readers would suspect of cold-blooded murder and yet they would hope she was innocent.

BRC: While Jordan grieves the loss of loved ones, she is suspected of infidelity and murder, yet she manages to hold it all together in the fashion of a true “steel magnolia.” How did you first conceive Jordan? Is she based on a real person, a composite of people you know, or is she a totally fictional creation?

BB: Jordan is fictitious, but I must admit that I drew on my firsthand knowledge of women I’ve known and admired in my family and community who are/were “steel magnolias.” These women weather any storm --- be it a husband’s infidelity, the loss of a loved one, financial problems, vicious, degrading gossip, etc. --- with their heads held high, putting other people’s needs before their own and somehow retaining their sense of dignity and pride. So often others perceive gentleness as a weakness when, in fact, it is often the greatest strength of all.

BRC: Rick Carson is the Powell Agency investigator assigned by Nicole Powell to find out if Senator Price was murdered or committed suicide. Rick’s first impression of Jordan is that she is “a cold-hearted bitch.” He later describes her as being “like fine China, easily broken, meant to be taken out and used on special occasions, and that required hand washing.” As the suspense mounts and the investigation heats up, so does Rick’s attraction to Jordan. How do you maintain the balance between the elements of romance and suspense to keep readers turning the pages?

BB: I’m not sure I can explain how I do this because it is not a conscious effort. I am first and foremost a storyteller, so I simply tell the story and in doing so, these various elements seem to fall into place naturally. I don’t have a step-by-step plan of how the romance will play itself out during the course of the book. I let the love story evolve as the hero and heroine get to know each other. And although I begin with a skeleton plot of the suspense/mystery, it often alters quite a bit as the story develops.

BRC: As a sixth-generation Alabamian, it’s apparent that you know the Deep South, and in COLD HEARTED, the essence of the Deep South rises loud and clear. Beyond the setting, which is mostly in Georgia, your characters --- even the minor ones --- are lively and colorful. When you are writing, do your characters ever take over and demand more attention than you first planned to give them?

BB: Yes, of course they do. This is inevitable and I always expect it to happen. I grew up in a family of and married into a family of lively and colorful characters. And although I don’t consciously choose to base a character on someone I know, I often find that I create a character who is a composite of several people I know or have known. Sometimes, if a secondary character has a particularly strong voice, I have to forcefully push them into the background. If they continue to be bothersome, I usually promise them a book of their own.

BRC: Speaking of characters, COLD HEARTED is told from the points of view of multiple characters, including the hero, the murderer, some “good guys” and a few unsavory types. What techniques do you use to transition from the point of view of a hero to a villain, or someone in between?

BB: I let the POV character dictate the tone of each scene. By doing this, my mind switches gears almost instantly. All I have to do is get inside the head of this character and allow him/her to take over so that the reader experiences the scene through his/her thoughts and actions. The transition from the villain’s POV is more difficult. I often walk away from the computer after writing a gruesome scene and do something that brings me out of that dark mental and emotional place where the villain took me.

BRC: As the body count increases, so does the suspicion cast on Jordan, along with a list of suspects with motives for murder. By the end of the book I changed my mind a few times about Jordan’s guilt or innocence as I tried to puzzle out who was responsible for the murders. Did you know from the outset the identity of the killer, or did the killer’s identity change as you wrote the story?

BB: I always know the killer’s identity before I start writing the book. Occasionally at the plotting stage, I may change my mind if I realize I have the wrong person slated to be the villain. For me, it’s essential to know his/her identity in order to make sure all the mystery/suspense plot elements work throughout the book.

BRC: Loyalty and the importance of family --- no matter how one defines family --- are common threads throughout the novel. Can you talk a bit about what you drew upon to portray loyalty and family bonds so strongly in the book?

BB: I learned through the example of my family and the families of friends and acquaintances the importance of “taking care of your own.” In my family, there is a certain degree of clan mentality, a very Scots-Irish trait. I’ve seen this quality passed down for generations in families whose heritage is similar to mine and, also, in those whose heritage is vastly different yet similar in their strong belief that family comes first. There is a certain mindset among people that creates this sense of duty and obligation, so when one member of the family is in trouble, the family “circles the wagons” and provides protection and assistance. I grew up with an extended family I could count on to be there for me if/when I needed them and no less was expected of me.

BRC: You touch upon some controversial issues facing society, such as mental illness and intolerance of those who are somehow “different.” Can you tell us how you approach these topics in your writing?

BB: I approach them as delicately as possible and hopefully with understanding and knowledge. I think my characters express themselves concerning these issues the way people in general do --- some with ignorance and prejudice, some with curiosity, some with sympathy, some with love and kindness. Prejudice, bigotry, hatred of what we don’t understand, and intolerance of anyone different from us, unfortunately, are human emotions, and some of my characters possess these emotions. But, I balance those characters with characters who are their opposites, ones who strive to judge each human being as an individual; characters with a sense of integrity and compassion; characters who stand up for what they believe is right. Hopefully, shining a light on ignorance will help people look within themselves and question their own prejudices. Personally, I cannot bear the thought of anyone being mistreated or considered inferior. I’m a believer in the ideals of equality and justice for everyone.

BRC: Some scenes in the book are sad; others are warm and tender; still others are brutally violent or include graphic sex and sexual references. How difficult is it for you to shift gears from the gentle scenes to the gruesome or graphic ones?

BB: I don’t have a problem going from one type of scene to another. I just go with the flow of the story I’m telling. But, going into and coming out of a scene from the killer’s POV is another matter. I am an emotional person and thus an emotional writer. When I write a horrific murder scene and get inside the killer’s head, the process exhausts me mentally and emotionally. I get sucked into an evil place. Once I escape, I do something that reassures me that “God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world.”

BRC: Several deaths and murders take place in the story. The details about the deaths and some aspects of the crimes are quite specific. How do you perform research for your stories?

BB: The research I do varies from book to book, and whenever possible I try to find experts to advise me. I have my own small private library of research books on just about every subject dealing with crime, serial killers, causes of death, human behavior, etc. I am always on the lookout for new research material. I do use the Internet, but back up anything I find there with other sources and search out more than one or two sites for information.

BRC: Griffin and Nicole Powell, Sanders and Barbara Jean, who appeared in THE MURDER GAME, are secondary characters in COLD HEARTED. There is also mention that there will be more to come about the intriguing Dr. Yvette Meng. Can you tell us about your plans to include these characters in future stories?

BB: At present I am working on SILENT KILLER, my next Zebra romantic suspense (tentatively set for a September ’09 release), and Nic, Griff and Yvette show up as minor secondary characters. The hero of this book is the brother of Powell agent Maleah Perdue. Readers have asked to see more of Nic and Griff, and have told me that they find Dr. Yvette Meng mysterious and intriguing. I plan to eventually give Yvette her own book and to star Nic and Griff in another book of their own. And of course, Sanders and Barbara Jean will show up in these books.

BRC: You are a wife, a mother, a grandmother and an award-winning author of more than 60 books. With such a busy life, it must take enormous self-discipline and focus to be so creative and productive. Please tell us a bit about your writing schedule. Do you write every day? Are you an early bird or a night owl? Do you outline or plunge right ahead and see where the story takes you? Which comes first: story idea or characters?

BB: I’m definitely not a night owl, so I suppose that makes me an early bird. On average, I now write five days a week, although I have written seven days a week, especially when I was producing five or six books a year. I’m usually at the computer no later than 9:00 every morning and take a nice long lunch break in the early afternoon. I close up shop between 5:30 and 6. Some days the writing flows like water breaking through a dam, and then there are days when producing each sentence is like “pulling eye teeth.”

I am a combination plotter and plunger, which means I create a bare bones plot and then allow the characters to take over, plunge me into the story and take me along for the ride. The suspense/mystery part of my romantic suspense novels is plotted in advance, but the way in which I tell the story is not.

Sometimes the story idea comes first and sometimes the characters do. With COLD HEARTED, the story idea came first. But either way, the characters control the story. Readers often forget plots, but they remember the characters.

BRC: Writers are also great readers. What were some favorite books you remember reading while growing up or early in your career? Do you have any favorite books or authors now?

BB: When I was young, I loved all the Ellery Queen mysteries, the Frank Yerby novels, everything written by Edna Ferber and Daphne du Maurier. I was and still am a huge Jane Austen fan and re-read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE every couple of years. I loved the Brontë sisters’ JANE EYRE and WUTHERING HEIGHTS. One of my all-time favorite books was Robert Nathan’s PORTRAIT OF JENNIE.

In the ’80s, before I sold my first book, I found several romance authors who “spoke to me” and I read all of their books. Sandra Brown, Linda Howard and Diana Palmer head that list. I’m still a huge fan of all three. Some of my other favorite authors now are Iris Johansen, Kay Hooper, James Patterson, Dick Francis, David Baldacci, Lisa Jackson and Wendy Corsi Staub, to name only a few.

BRC: What’s the best way for readers to contact you if they have questions or comments about your books, or if they want to find out about your speaking engagements, book signings or other events?

BB: They can go to my website at Speaking engagements, book signings and events I attend will be listed there. Also, readers can sign up for my e-mail newsletter and can send questions and comments via my website. If I am unable to personally answer any e-mail queries, I try to include questions in the Q&A section of my newsletter in the next issue.