Interview: July 9, 2010
JoAnn Ross’s latest novel, THE HOMECOMING, is the first installment in her new Shelter Bay series and follows an ex-Navy SEAL who returns to his hometown after fighting abroad, looking to start over. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Hillary Wagy, Ross discusses what drew her to the Oregon coast as the setting for this story of survival and redemption, and what appeals to her about creating men in uniform as her main characters. She also shares her thoughts on the impact of social networking sites on her career as an author and offers details about the next book in the series, ONE SUMMER, due out in July 2011.
Bookreporter.com: THE HOMECOMING is the first title in your new Shelter Bay series. What inspired you to launch a brand-new series, particularly with its seaside locale and theme?
JoAnn Ross: I’ve always preferred writing about men and women going through challenges, so while my High Risk books dealt more with both military and suspense challenges (fighting battles, tracking down serial killers, rescuing relief workers, etc.), I kept finding myself intrigued by the idea of all the new challenges our military men and women are facing as they rejoin civilian life.
Also, quite honestly, I wanted to return to my roots of writing more emotional, family-centric books that celebrate the closeness of community. Times are difficult right now for so many people, and I found myself wanting to read “feel-good” stories. Hopefully other people will feel the same way.
BRC: Sax Douchett returns from Afghanistan a decorated hero, but feels guilty for having survived an attack that left the soldiers under his command dead. I am intrigued by the “soft” way in which you incorporated his “demons” into the plot. Please share with us how you came up with the idea to have them acting as “angels on a mission” as Sax re-enters civilian life.
JR: I’ve read a lot of books about survivor guilt and, of course, everyone handles it differently. In Sax’s case, the members of his SEAL team were as much brothers to him as his actual blood brothers. When they first start appearing, he still hasn’t come to grips with his feelings of guilt. And he definitely isn’t comfortable with most of the town thinking of him as a hero.
But as he’s drawn into his family’s life --- his brother’s wedding, rebuilding the family restaurant and dance hall --- and becomes involved with the women he once secretly loved, while bonding with her young son and proving himself to her mother (who, in the beginning of the story still thinks of him as Shelter Bay’s “bad boy”), he begins to feel more and more comfortable in his own skin and eases up on himself. As he does so, his team gradually returns to being more battle buddies than ghosts or demons. Finally, once their mission is accomplished, everyone can move on.
BRC: There are many grief-themed storylines going on in THE HOMECOMING. Kara, her mother, and her son Trey are all grieving the loss of Kara’s husband, Jared, and Kara’s father, who is killed in the line of duty as the town sheriff. Sax is grieving the loss of his Navy SEAL buddies. The characters are all grieving, and yet you named Sax’s restaurant Bon Temps, meaning “good times.” Was Bon Temps in Shelter Bay meant to be the center of healing for the characters? Was the masterful use of coastal scenery meant to convey that nature’s wonders are also healing factors?
JR: Oh, I like “masterful!” Thanks so much! The Oregon coast is a gloriously wild place. There are still skeletons of shipwrecks crumbling away on the beaches there. (Readers can see a photograph of one shipwreck on the Shelter Bay scrapbook video I created for my website.) My husband used to spend summers with his grandmother in the location where the series is set. When he was a very young child, her cottage was about a block away from the cliff. But time and tides are relentless and eventually, just a few years ago, it finally fell into the sea. The story is in the lighthouse logs, making his family part of local history. And the photo I took of the former lighthouse keeper’s house provided inspiration for Sax’s house on the book’s cover.
In contrast, across the bridge, the bay offers calmer waters and a haven from those storms. So, it’s definitely a metaphor for the stories I’ll be setting there. Also, yes, Bon Temps not only offered healing to both Sax and Kara’s son, as they worked on rebuilding it together, but hopefully to others in town who’ve fallen on difficult times and need a place where they can get together with friends and feel good about life and themselves again.
BRC: Sax and Kara both return to Shelter Cove to recover from loss and be with family. You write, “Sometimes the best journeys aren’t planned down to the nth degree.” Sax and Kara’s romance is a journey that is an offshoot of her dead husband’s love for her before leaving for military service right out of high school. Do you think some men are just born with the kind of honor code necessary to be a hero?
JR: My husband’s two nephews have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan (one’s currently serving as a medevac in Afghanistan) and I want to take this opportunity to state that they’re definitely my personal heroes.
Many readers might be surprised to learn that I’ve been writing military heroes since I wrote a male point-of-view romance about a former Vietnam POW in the mid-’80s, which was a groundbreaking subject for the genre and still remains on many must-read lists. Since then, although I don’t always mention the fact, most of the heroes in my books have been veterans. Partly because I’ve always been a sucker for a guy in uniform, but more because they do possess something that seems to be in short supply these days --- honor.
I firmly believe that a man capable of committing to something outside himself can also commit to a mate and, as a woman, I find that really appealing. The hero I like to write about doesn’t have any personal desire to create conflict or aggression, but he does possess an unwavering code that has him not hesitating to put himself in harm’s way and risk being wounded --- physically, emotionally, or both --- to protect, defend and fight for what’s right. He’s self-disciplined, decisive (though he often has to battle his own internal demons as Sax does in THE HOMECOMING), and along with an integrity as tough as his body, he’s unwaveringly loyal and self-confident enough to appreciate and support the equally strong woman who manages to win his guarded heart.
BRC: I especially liked the scene where Sax takes Trey to the VFW hall and Trey learns so much about his father from his friends. Was there a powerful message about modern-day soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan that you were trying to convey?
JR: Oh, that’s one of my favorite scenes in the book, and one that I’ll admit made me cry when I wrote it. I came of age during the Vietnam War. I had friends die; some came home with drug and alcohol problems. Others seemed to settle more easily back into civilian life. But the one thing they all had in common was, like the generation before them, they did not talk about their war experiences.
Trey is a very caring and empathetic little boy. He’s lost his father at an age when children personalize death. But he doesn’t have anyone to talk with about his dad because he doesn’t want to risk causing his mother any more grief. I was a single mom when my son was eight years old, and a child psychologist told me that boys expect their moms to love and accept them. That’s what moms do. But they receive much of their self-esteem and learn to become men from their fathers or some other male figure. Taking Trey to the VFW hall forced Sax more out of himself and into someone else’s life. At the same time, Trey learned a lot about his father, and in the process, even more about himself. Which helps him move on, as well.
BRC: THE HOMECOMING is one of the first novels I have read incorporating soldiers returning home from Afghanistan. What drew you to write this story?
JR: My High Risk books were all linked together by a fictionalized account of an actual battle that went terribly wrong in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. During the first three books, readers learn a little more about the day that changed all the men’s lives through each hero’s point of view. The fourth and final High Risk book wraps that storyline up when one of the men is teamed up with the woman JAG officer assigned to court-martial the SEALs for breaking the rules of engagement to save a teammate’s life.
In each of those books, while the majority of the story was set around their lives after they come back home, since they were romantic suspense, the heroes still had a lot of murder and mayhem to deal with. The problem with writing serial killer-type stories is that after a while it can really depressing. Also, especially with family members in those war zones, the books became very personal, adding to my desire to return to writing stories about good things happening to good, but flawed people. Plus, after all they’d been through, I decided it was time to give those remaining High Risk guys some peace.
BRC: When you selected the coastal living theme for THE HOMECOMING, did you spend time at the beach for inspiration? Coast to coast, I love being seaside, as do many of your readers. What makes the coast of Oregon special to you, and how did you set out to incorporate your love of the coast into THE HOMECOMING?
JR: I spent my first five years living in a bungalow on Santa Monica beach. I could walk out my front door, cross a narrow sidewalk and be on the sand. Then we moved to Oregon, where I discovered the Oregon coast. Like you, I love being by the sea. When it’s calm, it can be the most relaxing place on the planet, reminding me how small my problems actually are compared to the seemingly endless waves. In contrast, there are very few things as electrifying as a coastal storm.
As for Shelter Bay’s setting, I have a dragon kite I’ve flown on beaches all over the world, and although I currently live across the country and spend more time on Atlantic beaches, the Oregon coast will always be “home” to me. It’s also where my husband once bought me a bag of salt water taffy, then proposed. Decades later, the taffy shop is still there. In fact, he bought me a bag just last fall when we were back for a visit.
BRC: Being an author is so much more than writing a novel these days. With the advent of Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, do you see these as extensions of your opportunities to write, or as marketing tools that interfere with your novel-writing time?
JR: Writing is a very solitary occupation. For the past 28 years, I’ve spent hours a day locked in a room with just my characters for company, so I find social networking sites a lovely way to chat with readers I’d never have the opportunity to meet otherwise. If anyone buys my books because they’ve “met” me on Twitter, Facebook, or MySpace, then that’s super. But the best part is the fun conversations I’ve enjoyed, and I’ve also actually ended up becoming “real” friends with some people I’ve met online.
BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?
JR: ONE SUMMER, scheduled for July 2011, will feature Marine war photojournalist Gabriel St. James, who’s briefly described at Sax’s brother’s wedding in THE HOMECOMING. Having become a drifter after leaving the military, he’s on his way out of town when, unable to resist his inner hero, he stops to rescue an abused, abandoned Shih Tzu, who just happens to be modeled after one of our own rescued dogs. This brings Charity Tiernan, who’s a veterinarian determined to find a home for every stray in Shelter Bay, into his life. Sparks fly. Emotions run high, and some tears will be shed. But I promise that everyone, including the dog, will live happily-ever-after.
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