Interview: February 2, 2007
February 2, 2007
New York Times bestselling novelists Lisa Jackson, Beverly Barton and Wendy Corsi Staub recently combined their talents to co-author MOST LIKELY TO DIE, a romantic suspense thriller.
In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Hillary Wagy, the authors discuss their initial reactions to being asked to participate in this project and explain how they collaborated to create one cohesive story that still maintained their distinctive voices. They also describe the advantages of writing with peers, share their thoughts on Mr. Right and reveal the "true" inspiration behind the steamy scenes found in their novels.
Bookreporter.com: It is a very creative concept to have three romantic suspense writers collaborate on one novel. When your editor, John Scognamiglio, asked you to participate, what were your initial thoughts about working with your peers? Did you have any reservations?
Lisa Jackson: I thought the concept was great; and of course, I had some reservations as I'm not used to working with anyone except my sister, author Nancy Bush, who actually helped with the concept. However, I know both Wendy and Beverly personally and I respect their work, so that made it much easier. The fact that I like both authors as women helped tremendously.
Beverly Barton: From the first moment John mentioned the idea to me, I was on board a hundred percent. Although I'd written books in quite a few continuity series, which required coordinating my book with the previous and the following books, and had participated in several anthologies, I'd never done anything quite like this --- write a single book with two other authors. But they weren't just any authors --- they were extremely talented authors whose writing I greatly respected. I can't imagine any romantic suspense writer not jumping at the chance to work with Lisa Jackson and Wendy Corsi Staub.
Wendy Corsi Staub: If it weren't John who suggested it --- and Lisa and Beverly who were involved --- I imagine I could have mustered some serious reservations. But John has been my editor since long before I even wrote my first suspense novel; I implicitly trust his instincts never to steer me wrong. And, I've known and admired both Lisa and Beverly for years. They are two of the most talented, prolific and down-to-earth authors I've ever met. Plus, writing is an isolated process --- and a lonely one. I relished this fun opportunity to join forces with two good friends from the moment John presented it!
BRC: How did the three of you develop a plan for this collaborative venture? As mentioned in a letter to the reader in MOST LIKELY TO DIE, Lisa came up with the basic idea and created the background for the story and the characters, Wendy took the book from Portland, Oregon to New York City and gave us Lindsay Ferrell's story, and Beverly wrote the final chapters and finished the novel. Did the three of you work on the overall plot and story development together, or did you each just follow your creative strengths and write knowing that your peers would be able to follow your lead, thus creating one seamless storyline?
LJ: I did a lot of brainstorming with my/our editor, John Scognamiglio, and my sister, Nancy Bush. After we came up with the general concept, I put together a synopsis for all of us including a very sketchy idea about each individual author's part of the book. The "skeleton" was there, but no flesh, heart or soul. Though the concept was in place and the characters named with sketchy backgrounds, each author made her part of the story her own, I think. Of course, John was the one who made sure that everything melded and clicked. Which was great, because after I wrote my section Wendy was forced to work with what I had given her and create her own story. After that, Beverly not only had to write her character's story but also tie up the suspense storyline after reading what both Wendy and I had sent her, which was a pretty big job.
BB: This book was Lisa's brainchild. She created the basic story, characters and settings, then wrote her part of the book first and passed it along to Wendy, who then wrote the middle section and passed it along to me. Wendy and I did have a brainstorming session to work out some problems we each had with our sections of the novel. In this way, we were able to create that seamless storyline from her section into mine. Although Lisa created the characters, Wendy and I were free to make them our own and develop our own stories within the overall plot that ran through the entire book.
WCS: I would say we followed our creative strengths and checked our egos at the door. During the actual writing process, we relied on frequent email communication to fine-tune plot points along the way and keep each other in the loop. We've all been expertly plotting suspense novels for years, so each of us tinkered with the plot points to instill our own clues, twists and red herrings along the way, with the others' blessings. Everyone was easygoing from the very start, and miraculously we never ran into a single creative conflict issue. Our mutual goal was to create a seamless storyline with three distinct heroines portrayed in three distinct voices. Ultimately, the melding of those voices into a cohesive and complex plot --- while maintaining key elements of individuality --- is what makes this a fresh, unique novel.
BRC: Did any of you have any reservations about not being able to control the entire content? Writing is a very personal and creative process with careful selection of words, moods, scenery, etc. and I wonder if you had a hard time letting go and not being able to finish what you had begun to create.
WCS: I'm the ultimate control freak, yet somehow I never had reservations about this collaboration. I would attribute that in part to our mutual longtime editor at Kensington, John Scognamiglio, who came up with the concept and has overseen the project from its inception a few years ago. John encouraged us from the very beginning to be true to our own writing styles. Certainly "letting go" was made easier for me because, in addition to being friends with both Lisa and Beverly, I truly respect and admire their talent and professionalism. So there was a basic level of trust from the start. And it was nice, if something wasn't working in the plot, to have someone to turn to for advice on how to fix it. Normally it's just me, feeling my way through the writing process in my own little world.
BRC: There is a recurring theme of first loves, unforgettable loves, long-lost loves and found loves. Being romance writers, themes of love are crucial to your novels. In the cases of Lindsay and Wyatt, Rachel and Dean, and Kristen and Ross, they didn't recognize love the first time around, yet when they reconnected with their loves they saw their lovers through different eyes. Do you ladies think some loves never die and lovers always find each other again? Can there be more than one "Mr. Right" in a woman's life?
LJ: Oh, I definitely believe that. I think it's fabulous when a couple meets young and stays together all the years, but I also believe that at different points in a person's life they might pick a different mate or lover than they would have earlier in their lives, or even later. What appeals at 17 isn't necessarily what appeals at 45. That said, I think the people you knew as children/teens/young adults make a lasting impression and often people who lose a loved one end up with someone from high school. It's important in every relationship to keep a "fresh eye" on it and remember why you fell in love in the first place.
BB: In romance novels, anything is possible. In real life, anything is possible. I'm a romantic at heart and I believe that love, in any form, is the greatest power in existence. I know that some loves never die, but unfortunately lovers are not always reunited. Don't we all smile when we hear true stories about a couple who were sweethearts in their teens or early twenties, then went their separate ways until later in life, and end up marrying each other when they're in their 60s or 70s? For some women, yes, there is only one "Mr. Right" and those of us who are really lucky spend a lifetime with him. Some women never find "Mr. Right" or find him and don't recognize him. How sad. But I believe that there could be more than one "Mr. Right" for some women. The right man at the right time in their lives.
WCS: I wouldn't necessarily say lovers always find each other again, or that they're meant to. Sometimes the person who is Mr. Right during one phase of your life would be Mr. Wrong for another. In other words, I believe that there can be more than one Mr. Right: a successful, lasting relationship, to me, seems more about people who are well-suited and attracted to each other finding each other at the right time. Of course there's inherent romance in the theme that love never dies --- both in fiction and in real life. We all have loves we left behind (probably often with good reason!). Within this particular plot, I enjoyed exploring the concept of lovers who met too soon, lost each other, and got a second chance to make it work. Destiny is the ultimate romantic fantasy.
BRC: There is a Jake Marcott in every high school --- the cocky hunk every female adores and desires for herself. His brutal murder at the St. Valentine's Day Dance at St. Elizabeth's is tragic and affects the members of the senior class, especially his former girlfriends and adoring female inner circle. Why did you emotionally cripple all of the female characters until the 20-year reunion?
LJ: I did it for drama's sake. I thought it made the story more interesting to have each of the main characters have what they considered a special relationship with Jake. Not all the students at the school were as profoundly affected by Jake's death as Kristen, Rachel and Lindsay, of course, but I thought the best friends needed to have that rift in order to find each other again.
BRC: We know that the Cupid Killer is a woman early on, that she is tormented by unfortunate and painful events. Jealousy and unrequited love are at the heart of this gripping story. Can you clarify the purpose of the lockers in the basement?
LJ: The lockers in the basement of the high school serve to remind the killer of her anger and are a place she can relive her pain and deal with it in her own weird way.
BRC: I liked the way you conveyed that some relationships between friends are lasting. We may lose touch, but we never completely forget the friends we make at certain points in our lives. As a result of this unique collaboration, what is the nature of your friendships with one another?
LJ: Well, I didn't really know the other two authors all that well going into the project. I'd been to a few writers' events with Wendy and I'd met Beverly once or twice, but we don't live down the street from each other; in fact, we live in the different parts of the country that were mentioned in MOST LIKELY TO DIE. Working on this project did bring us closer together, and, as I said earlier, I now count Wendy and Beverly as friends. So how cool is that?
BB: Lisa and I are colleagues who have gotten to know each other better during the process of writing this book. I like Lisa as a person and admire her as a writer. Wendy and I go way back to my early days at Silhouette. Wendy was one of my first editors, and practically from the very beginning of our business relationship, we realized how much we thought alike and how similar our values were. When she left Silhouette to pursue her own writing career, we stayed in touch. Over the past 15 years, we have built a strong and lasting friendship.
WCS: In another lifetime, I was a romance novel editor for a Manhattan publishing house, and that's where I first became acquainted with both Lisa and Beverly. In fact, I was Beverly's editor at the dawn of her career! Our three separate publishing paths ultimately converged as Kensington authors under the wing of one brilliant editor, John Scognamiglio. Since then, Lisa has been my willing mentor every rung up the ladder to the New York Times bestseller list. She even introduced me to Nancy Berland, her personal publicist, who has since become mine as well. Beverly and I have been there for each other's personal and professional milestones for almost two decades now; along the way, we've seen each other through some difficult family illnesses and losses --- and celebrated some wonderful triumphs. I stay in regular contact with both Lisa and Beverly via email and have had the pleasure of connecting in person several times these past few years to catch up over cocktails or coffee.
BRC: St. Elizabeth's is a Catholic school, yet there is very little to no presence of the strict influence and watchful eye of nuns in the high school days portion of the plot and, as I recall, only one mentioned by name. Was this planned?
LJ: I think several of the nuns and a lay teacher were named in the story. They were in the background, yes, as the focus of the novel was the students, but I thought their influence and the influence of the Catholic church was present. No, there's no hint of the strict, nearly cruel treatment in the classroom or the school. Remember, this is the 1980s, not the 1960s or 1940s. Things were looser, lay teachers were involved. Also, the school was just the backdrop, and the focus was on the students, murder and relationships between the friends and their peers.
BRC: The men in MOST LIKELY TO DIE held the women together and protected them from peril. I like a thread of "knight in shining armor" in the male characters of a romance novel. What characteristics do each of you like to use when creating a sexy hero?
LJ: I like heroes who are reluctant to be the hero, good-looking in an unconventional way, wisecracking and irreverent. Their backstory, sense of humor and ability to tease the heroine while respecting her are important. I hope my heroes and heroines give as well as they get.
BB: Strong, brave, dependable, trustworthy, a guy with a rough exterior but a heart of gold. A man capable of protecting a woman yet not threatened by her feminine strength and, when he falls in love with her, is willing to die to protect her. I adore "wounded" heroes who are "healed" by the power of the right woman's love.
BRC: The scene where Ross draws a hot bath for Kristen with fragrant candles, creating soft illumination in a master bath that overlooks the city lights, was a welcome and perfectly placed romantic scene. Love and seduction, "pent-up passion erupting like a volcano" from sexy men was a good diversion from the morbid killer's twisted thoughts and plans. Please take us through the process of writing a passionate love scene. A little personal experience, a little fantasy or a lot of each?
LJ: I tell people who ask that all my research is from personal experience. This is a bald-faced lie, of course, and I hope people know that I'm joking, especially when we're dealing with my creepy killers. I try to write a love scene that I would like to read, one that works for my characters. I bristle sometimes when it's suggested that love scenes can be kept in a file and interchanged with character's names. Not so. I believe the love scenes I create are because of the emotional and physical state of the characters. The simple answer: Some experience and a whole lotta fantasy --- for example, the candles? Never.
BB: I think writers always blend personal experience with fantasy/imagination when writing most scenes, love scenes included. I do.
WCS: Being long (and happily) married --- and a working mom with two young children --- at this particular stage in my life, I'd have to say it's a little personal experience and a whole lot of fantasy! There's nothing particularly steamy about spending the better part of each night assisting with third-grade math homework, listening to an 11 year old practice his cello, making peanut butter sandwiches for lunchboxes, or collapsing on the couch in flannel pjs to watch a Tivo'd "Cold Case." So when it comes to depicting candlelight and pent-up passion, I tend to rely on imagination --- and, ahem, memory.
BRC: What is the basic recipe for writing romantic suspense?
BB: A strong hero and heroine with whom the reader can identify and really care about. A sinister villain, evil and reprehensible, and yet all too human. And a really good plot that keeps the reader turning the pages.
BRC: We are excited to hear about your upcoming releases. Please share the details for your legion of fans.
LJ: Last year's bestseller SHIVER will be out the end of February in paperback. It's a story set in New Orleans with Detective Reuben Montoya, a favorite character's story. Integral to the story is an abandoned mental asylum and a killer who murders in pairs. At the end of March, ABSOLUTE FEAR, the sequel to SHIVER, will be available in hardback. ABSOLUTE FEAR takes up right where SHIVER leaves off!
BB: My April '07 novel, THE DYING GAME, gives readers a wounded hero, Judd Walker, who lost his wife to a brutal serial killer four years ago and a former police detective heroine, Lindsay McAllister, determined to find the Beauty Queen Killer. Lindsay is willing to do anything --- even lay her life on the line --- to bring this psychopath to justice and set Judd free from a thirst for revenge that has almost destroyed him.
WCS: In April, Kensington will re-issue (in a special limited $4.99 edition) one of my earliest thrillers, ALL THE WAY HOME, which also happens to be one of my favorites. It's a gothic suspense set in a creepy old house in a fictionalized small town, based in part on Saratoga Springs, NY. In May, look for DON'T SCREAM, my next single-title suspense novel. This is a classic domestic serial killer tale revolving around four former sorority sisters who share a dark secret; it's set in the atmospheric Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts. I'm currently hard at work on the first in a pair of connected suspense novels for Kensington --- keep an eye on my website at www.wendycorsistaub.com for the pub date and other details, and be sure to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love to hear from readers!