Interview: February 27, 2014
With more than 25 million books sold worldwide, New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery is known for creating characters who feel as real as the folks next door and for putting them into emotional, often funny situations readers recognize from their own lives. So it’s not surprising that her latest book in the Blackberry Island series, EVENING STARS, is a poignant story about two sisters --- complete opposites in every way --- who are on the verge of claiming their dreams…if only they can decide what they want!
In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Terry Miller Shannon, Mallery opens up about how lucky she is to actually enjoy the writing process (instead of wrestling with it), her own road to publication --- starting with an adult-education class on romance novel writing --- and advice she would give to young or struggling writers. She also talks about what inspires her (everything!) and why having “the attention span of a gnat” has played a significant role in her prolific career.
Bookreporter.com: You write so knowledgeably about the dynamics between sisters, and EVENING STARS is no exception. Is this based on a sibling relationship you've experienced or witnessed?
Susan Mallery: I'm an only child, so my sources are observation and imagination. Certainly I've known sisters who, like Nina and Averil in EVENING STARS, have an almost adversarial relationship. They love each other so much that they would sacrifice anything for each other. In fact, Nina does sacrifice her dreams so that Averil can have a better life. And yet, they can't seem to spend an hour together without getting on each other's nerves. That push-pull relationship is very interesting to me. Nina and Averil will learn the lessons they need to learn in order to transform their relationship into something wonderful.
BRC: Do Averil's struggles with (not) writing her novel reflect problems you've had with writer's block? (Obviously, if this is so, you've resolved it!)
SM: I don't have time for writer's block! The truth is, I'm lucky. Some writers enjoy having written more than they enjoy the writing itself. I love writing more than anything else. There are times when it's a struggle to get into the pages that day, but if I force myself to keep plugging away, I eventually get caught up in the story. It's like the feeling that you get when you struggle to bicycle up a steep hill, and then suddenly you're at the crest, and the downslope is pure joy.
I'm totally guessing about that, by the way. I'm not a "ride a bike up a steep hill" kind of girl.
BRC: If you could give emerging novel writer Averil advice, what would it be?
SM: Don't wait for inspiration to strike. Do the work whether you're feeling inspired or not. Inspiration will have an easier time finding you if you're sitting at your computer.
BRC: Usually, when I read novels set on an island, I have unrequited I-NEED-to-live-on-an-islanditis. However, EVENING STARS pointed out some inherent flaws in island living (so my husband thanks you!). Have you ever lived on an island? If so, how was your experience?
SM: I never have. I've visited many lovely islands near Seattle, and while I always enjoy visiting, I often think that island life would be too insular for me. I really like having a shopping mall nearby.
BRC: Other readers may not agree, but I found Nina's mother to be a not entirely sympathetic character, although still likable. How difficult is it to walk that fine line between too flawed and too perfect, when it comes to a character?
SM: I love Bonnie, but I was so mad at her for some of the things she did and said! I think she'd be fun as a friend, but as a mother? Not so much. EVENING STARS started for me as an exploration of the theme of responsibility. I wanted to show responsibility at several different points on the spectrum. What does it mean to be responsible? Is there such a thing as too responsible? Bonnie was the counterpoint to Nina, pretty flaky, but it was important to show her good points, too, so that readers could understand better why Nina made the choices she did. Very rarely in life do we meet someone who is 100 percent good or bad, and the same is true in interesting fiction.
BRC: As a reader, I felt that "it's never too late to follow your heart's dream, no matter what roadblocks life may have thrown in your path" was a big uplifting takeaway from EVENING STARS. Is this a theme with particular significance to you?
SM: It is. I want everyone to know the joy that I feel, doing what I was meant to do. I would love to know that EVENING STARS inspired readers to set a goal and then take the steps necessary to achieve it. No goal worth achieving happens easily. You have to want it enough to do the work.
BRC: What kind of research did you have to do in order to realistically portray the work Ambrose must undertake for Nina's family?
SM: I did my research on the Internet --- and I'm a huge “Antiques Roadshow” fan!
BRC: I loved Penny, and I see from your website that you have "the most delightfully spoiled little dog who ever lived." Is Penny based on your pet?
SM: No, Penny is inspired by some of the beautiful dogs I've met at the Seattle Humane Society. They do such an amazing job finding homes for abandoned pets. My dog is a toy poodle, and she is the inspiration behind Cece, the therapy dog in ONLY YOURS, a Fool's Gold romance.
BRC: I also see that your career started when you took an adult-education class on how to write a romance novel. You say that the book was not great, so I'm guessing it wasn't published. Can you please fill in the steps from that "awful" novel to your first published book? How long did it take to write your first published book? Did you write more practice novels before you sold the first one?
SM: That book is not and never will be published, and readers should thank me for that. Once I finished that book, I took a methodical approach to becoming published. I had always been a voracious reader, but once I decided I wanted to be a writer, I read books once for pleasure and then a second time to analyze what worked and what didn't and why. I wrote and submitted proposals (three chapters and a synopsis) to several publishers, and sent the complete manuscript when it was requested. I was fortunate to have my first two books released by different publishers the same month. It was very exciting!
BRC: You are astoundingly prolific, with four new books being published in 2014. To what do you attribute your ability to pen so many books so quickly? Do you juggle several book projects at one time? Or do you finish one and then go on to the next one?
SM: I remember once, when I was first getting started, hearing "real" writers talk about writing three to five pages per day. From the very start, I was writing 10 pages a day or more. But I was new, and I thought they must know something I didn't. So I tried to slow down, and it was torture. I have the attention span of a gnat. I need to write a story quickly before I lose interest. The allure of a new story is always there, tempting me away from the book I'm writing.
I write one book at a time. However, during the writing of that book, I might have to take breaks to plot a different book, or write a synopsis, or do revisions. It's a balancing act.
BRC: What inspires you to write? Do you have any particular music, authors, places or other sources of inspiration that you turn to when you need a creativity boost?
SM: I'm inspired by everything. Songs on the radio, segments on the nightly news. NPR is a great source of inspiration. And yes, when I read an excellent book, I'm inspired to give readers the same wonderful emotional experience that its author just gave me.
BRC: You've been writing since you were in college. Do you ever (like Averil) start books you end up hating and give up on them? Or has experience eliminated those kinds of dead-end false starts?
SM: I don't give up on them. By the time I'm writing a book, I have a contract with my publisher, so giving up is not an option. There are a lot of people who depend on me doing my job before they can do theirs, and I try always to be respectful of that. However, there are books that are more difficult to write than others. I plot the story in advance, but sometimes the characters take it in a direction I hadn't planned. Then I need to step back and decide whether the new direction or the original one best serves the story I want to tell.
BRC: I see your college degree was in accounting. Typically those who work with numbers are not good with words. Tell us about that choice of a major, as well as the career direction to become an author.
SM: Like Nina in EVENING STARS, I feel compelled to be levelheaded and mature and to take care of the people I love. I majored in accounting because I thought it was the responsible thing to do. But then I took that writing class, and the dream of being a writer wouldn't let me go. I finished getting my degree, but I turned down a job offer in accounting to pursue that dream. And I worked my tail off to make sure I never regretted that decision.
BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?
SM: Next year, I'll launch a new series, a follow-up to the Blackberry Island series, set in Mischief Bay, California. So fun! My readers at www.facebook.com/susanmallery have been helping me create Mischief Bay. The ones who made suggestions I used will be included in the acknowledgments as "Mischief Makers" in the first book, which I'm writing now.