Interview: July 8, 2004
July 8, 2004
Joe Hartlaub, Roberta O'Hara and Wiley Saichek of Bookreporter.com interview M.J. Rose, author of the new "Butterfield Institute" series. Rose discusses the first book, THE HALO EFFECT, which is about Dr. Morgan Snow, a therapist who works at a psychiatric therapy center for the treatment of sexual dysfunction. She explains her fascination with human sexuality and why it is a running theme in her novels, and relates how her initial desire to become a therapist led her to the complex, multi-dimensional fiction that she writes today.
BRC: THE HALO EFFECT is the first title in a series concerning The Butterfield Institute, a psychiatric therapy center for the treatment of sexual dysfunction. Is there a real-world model for the Butterfield Institute? What sparked the idea for the Butterfield Institute series of novels?
MJR: There have been, in the last 50 years, several institutes that have specialized in sex therapy; the one that is best known is the Kinsey Institute. But that's not what sparked the idea. I wrote about the Butterfield Institute in my first novel, LIP SERVICE, and my fascination with it stayed with me.
The idea for this series came to me while I was swimming the day before I was about to sell another very different idea to my publisher, Mira. Somehow in-between lap 3 and lap 4, the idea for Morgan Snow and her story was just there. I called my agent, Loretta Barrett, from the gym, still standing there dripping in my bathing suit, and told her I wanted to kill the other idea and sell a book about Morgan instead. She was as enthusiastic as I was and agreed.
Whatever did they put in the pool that day???
BRC: Is the title of this series a tribute of sorts to BUTTERFIELD 8, the classic John O'Hara novel?
MJR: No. When I was growing up, I lived in NYC and our phone number was Butterfield 8-7399. When I wrote my first novel, LIP SERVICE, which had a lot to do with phone sex, the choice of Butterfield was a personal joke that I figured only my parents and my sister would get. I do love John O'Hara's novels, by the way.
BRC: All of your previous novels were stand-alones. What made you decide to begin writing a series? In your opinion, what special challenges exist for writing a series that are not present when writing stand-alone novels? And vice-versa?
MJR: When I started working on the character of Dr. Morgan Snow, I kept a journal for her and made notes on her patients, in much the way a real-life therapist keeps notes on his or her patients. By the time I had done my research and was ready to start writing, I realized that I'd given Morgan too many patients to include in just one book. But I couldn't bear to just pick one and abandon the others. And so I realized I had just come up with a series.
I've read an insane number of series and knew that I didn't want to do one based only on Morgan forever --- but rather on the place where she works. My biggest influence was Lisa Scottoline --- not in tone, tenor or style as she's much lighter and brighter than me --- but the way she focuses her series on a law firm and how she alternates main characters who all work at the same law firm.
That's why this series is called "A Butterfield Institute Novel" instead of "A Dr. Morgan Snow Novel." In the first three books, Dr. Morgan Snow is the main character and the book is told from her point of view, but as the series goes forward I plan to write additional books from the points of view of other therapists at the Institute.
So far the challenge is not to tell the main character's whole story in the first book, but to keep focused on the fact that she has to evolve and grow from book to book. The other big challenge is not to retell too much of her story when writing book two --- so you don't bore the readers of the series --- but to tell enough so you don't confuse anyone who hasn't read the first in the series.
The best part is that I don't have to say good-bye to characters I've fallen in love with, which is something I've always had to do before. To stay with Morgan and Noah and Dulcie has been really wonderful.
BRC: It's often observed that people who are in the helping professions are themselves in need of healing or help in some way. This seems especially true of Dr. Morgan Snow, whose professional and personal conflicts provided some of the more interesting elements within THE HALO EFFECT. Will we see any of her conflicts resolved in future novels in the series?
MJR: Yes, Morgan has some issues with intimacy. (My research showed me that it is an issue for a fair number of therapists in real life. Also, it's not uncommon to find therapists who have become therapists because they'd rather help others than help themselves.)
As the series goes on, I think Morgan will deal with these issues more and more. She'll resolve some. And then have some setbacks. Or what fun would it be to read about her --- or write about her?
BRC: Was Morgan Snow based on anyone in particular?
MJR: No. But Dr. Nina Butterfield is --- she's a homage to the woman who helps me do the research for all of the Butterfield books, my self appointed godmother, dear friend and a fine therapist herself. In fact, the book is dedicated to her.
BRC: And what about Cleo Thane?
MJR: No. I spend a long time on my main characters, creating scrapbooks for them filled with all the mementos of their life. I give about three months to this process not writing a word, but finding my characters in the details of their histories.
It's really fun and a great way to procrastinate between novels.
BRC: The Diablo Club was one of the most intriguing elements of THE HALO EFFECT. The existence of such clubs has almost taken on the status of urban legend. Do you know whether such clubs exist?
MJR: Absolutely they do, in several different incarnations. The first one I heard about is in New York City, and a friend's husband had been taken there by a client. I even know where it is. He swears, by the way, that he didn't indulge.
Since then I've done more research to make sure the prices in my book were right.
BRC: Did you allow psychiatrists and police officials to read parts of THE HALO EFFECT during your writing process?
MJR: Yes, the therapist mentioned above who the book is dedicated to and a very fine criminal attorney who works in NYC have helped me with all my books. When need be, I also have a great ex-policeman who loves to help. I don't know what I'd do without the three of them.
BRC: Your prior work hasn't fit easily into any particular genre. Even THE HALO EFFECT, which is considered to be a suspense/thriller novel, contains strong elements of erotica and horror. Was there any particular impetus that inspired you to write a novel in the suspense/thriller genre?
MJR: I think THE HALO EFFECT is my first true suspense thriller. Or psychological thriller, which is a term I prefer. The others were put into that category because they fit there better than anywhere else, but I think the suspense elements of the others were very secondary, whereas in HALO it's much more central to the book.
I think all of my work is a response to a problem I have with so much fiction that I read. Too much of the so-called literary fiction that I pick up is too light on plot and bores me. Too much commercial fiction that I read is not as well written as it could be and the characters are too one-dimensional. I've always read a lot and get bored easily. I just try to write the kind of book I love to read: complicated, multi-dimensional, not easy to categorize.
BRC: You've stated that you decided to go back to school in the early 1990s to become a sex therapist, only to find out that this was a subject you really wished to explore in fiction. How soon after this did you begin writing your first novel? Has this story --- and the series --- been percolating for a while?
MJR: I'd already been writing when I decided I wanted to become a therapist. It was, in fact, a response to not being able to get my first two novels published and becoming really depressed and frustrated at the failure.
But what I thought was a desire to get a degree and help people turned out to be a desire to learn about a subject I wanted to write more about in fiction.
What is it like to explore your sexual self? What is it like to be willing to work on your sexual selves? And what is it like for a professional who devotes her life to helping people delve into those deepest recesses of themselves? Those were some of the things that came out of my research and experiences and that I examine in THE HALO EFFECT.
And yes, I think this series must have been simmering for a long time, considering what I was interested in in the '90s. But I didn't know it until I went swimming that day in 2002.
BRC: THE HALO EFFECT includes a preview of THE DELILAH COMPLEX, the next novel in The Butterfield Institute Series. Is the series open-ended at this point? And how far ahead have you plotted out the novels?
MJR: The second book is done and will be out in April 2005. The third is plotted --- only in my mind. I have to start working on it in a few weeks and will be out in January 2006. It's called THE VENUS FIX. And then if all goes well, there will be more.
BRC: Human sexuality is always at least a minor theme in your books. Why? What is it that you find so fascinating about the permutations of sexuality that draw you back to it over and over again?
MJR: William Faulkner said the only things worth writing about are the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself. And more than one critic has said that is what I write about. I'm flattered. But I also agree.
And when the heart is your subject matter, if you are true to your characters, you find yourself dealing with people's psychology and therefore their sexuality.
And so as sex is part of life, it is part of my novels.
Sexuality and sensuality are also better suited to being explored in literature, as opposed to other media, like TV and films. You can write about people touching each other and have the reader feel as if he or she is involved in an intimate way. If there is eroticism and sensuality in my novels, it can be better explored on the page than on the screen.
(Plus, it's all really fun to write about.)
BRC: Do you see yourself as a "woman's writer?"
MJR: No. I really dislike all the categories that the industry tries to inflict on us. I think some of my novels --- IN FIDELITY and SHEET MUSIC --- might appeal more to women. But I know LIP SERVICE and FLESH TONES reached a wide male audience, and I believe THE HALO EFFECT will too.
So far I've had as many male fan letters on the book as female.
BRC: At this time are there any plans to adapt THE HALO EFFECT to film?
MJR: Yes, I'm in discussion as we speak with someone who is very interested in representing it. But it's so tough. There are 17,000 novels written a year and only 400 movies made a year, and not all of those are based on novels. Keep your fingers crossed for me.
BRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?
MJR: I'm doing the final edit on book two in the series, THE DELILAH COMPLEX, which will be out in April of 2005. And I'm just about to start writing THE VENUS FIX, the third book in the series, which will be out in January of 2006.