Interview: March 29, 2012
In Susan Mallery’s new novel, BAREFOOT SEASON, a young army vet returns to her home on Blackberry Island to recover from the perils of war, but is unexpectedly forced to confront her former best friend, whom she betrayed years ago. In this interview, conducted by Bookreporter.com’s Bronwyn Miller, Mallery explains the process of creating Blackberry Island and why she decided to make the book the start of a series rather than a stand-alone title. She also talks about the importance of female friendships in her life, discusses her involvement with book clubs, and gives a glimpse into the next installment of the series.
Bookreporter.com: BAREFOOT SEASON is the first in the Blackberry Island series. What was your inspiration for this storyline? Is it more satisfying to map out a whole series than to write a stand-alone novel?
Susan Mallery: The Blackberry Island novels will give readers the best of both worlds --- each will be a stand-alone novel, but readers will have the opportunity to catch up with characters they’ve come to love. They are tied together by location, but mapping out the series wasn’t necessary because each plot will be distinct.
Readers crave the sense of community created by a series. I hear from readers frequently who want a follow-up to my previous women’s fiction novels, ALREADY HOME, BEST OF FRIENDS and SUNSET BAY, so when I had the idea for BAREFOOT SEASON, I decided to create it as the start of a new series set on Blackberry Island, to satisfy readers’ desire to reconnect with the characters, to see how they’re doing after their happy ending.
BRC: I was thrilled to discover that Blackberry Island really exists! What made you decide to set your series there?
SM: Blackberry Island is fictional but exists in our hearts. I take it you’ve visited www.blackberryisland.com? My team created a fabulous website filled with bonus content designed to enrich readers’ experience beyond the pages of the book, such as a map of the island, a Visitors Guide, and lots of Blackberry Recipes. (The Blackberry Chipotle sauce is to die for! Seriously. You must try it.) Book club members will also be happy to find the discussion guide questions in printable format --- especially handy for eBook readers --- and also my thoughts about the questions.
I created Blackberry Island as a setting because I wanted to create a place that I would be happy to visit year after year --- and that readers would, too! Blackberry Island is a weekend getaway island within commuting distance of Seattle. Tourists see Blackberry Island as a sophisticated place with wineries, charming boutique hotels, and some of the most stunning views in the world, but to locals, it’s simply their hometown, and most would never want to live anywhere else.
On Blackberry Island, life is sweet.
BRC: Carly and Michelle are such strong women, each in their own way. Which character (or aspects of each) do you identify with most?
SM: I certainly identify with aspects of both characters, as I hope readers will. I adore Michelle’s dark sense of humor. I find crabby women to be endlessly amusing, though Michelle doesn’t have much to laugh about as the story starts. She’s been injured in Afghanistan, her mother recently passed away, and she just found out that Carly --- the former best friend she betrayed --- is living in the owner’s suite at the inn Michelle inherited. But despite her pain, sadness and anger at the world, she still sees the humor in her circumstances. Granted, her humor is tinged with bitterness early on, but it’s humor, nonetheless.
With Carly, I identify with her nurturing side. Even when Carly is angry with Michelle --- for very good reason --- she doesn’t want to see her hurting. She has such a big heart. Being an innkeeper is the perfect job for her because Carly feels best when taking care of the people around her. She wants to make sure everyone is comfortable and happy.
BRC: Why did you decide to make the character of Michelle a wounded veteran? Did you do much research into PTSD?
SM: I created Michelle to honor the sacrifice that our men and women in the military make on behalf of all of us. They risk their lives, spend months on end away from their families, enduring war zones and hardships, all because they truly want to serve the nation. That’s inspiring, and I wanted to get the emotions right. I did a significant amount of research into PTSD. Of course, every individual who suffers from PTSD reacts to the trauma in different ways, but there are common themes.
Many returning soldiers feel that they should be able to get past the trauma on their own, that asking for help shows weakness. Michelle will learn --- with the help of a dog who needs a second chance --- that she can’t do it alone, and that seeking help is the strongest step she can take.
BRC: Carly and Michelle were best friends until the “actions of the adults in their lives had split them apart.” Each woman must deal with the remnants of their own tattered friendship, but also with their parents who had run off together. How challenging is it to write about tenuous family relationships?
SM: The challenge is mostly emotional because I feel every emotion my characters feel, which means that I bawl through some of the hardest scenes. I can’t stop writing for the day on a hopeless note, or I’ll have to live with those thoughts until the following day. I need to keep writing until I can see a glimmer of hope in the distance, at least.
BRC: Reflecting back upon her rift with Carly, Michelle realizes that “the worst part wasn’t losing Allen…it was losing her.” How important are female friendships in your life?
SM: Completely essential. I wouldn’t want to go through life without my girlfriends. We cheer each other on, laugh at each other’s jokes, grieve together, celebrate together, and we give each other crap when crap is called for.
BRC: Taking in Chance, the rescue dog, is such a game-changer for Michelle and the beginning of her really starting to heal. Therapy dogs were also featured in your novel, ONLY YOURS. Is this a cause near and dear to your heart?
SM: Dogs make life better! They are emotion in its purest form. Pure happiness, pure love. No one loves you like your dog. But the flip side of that is that dogs also feel fear and sadness in their purest forms, and it can be heartbreaking to see.
Despite her depression, Michelle has a giving heart, and the way to get her out of her head for a while was to engage that heart. I did that by introducing her to Chance, an abused dog who needed someone to show him kindness for the first time in his life. By rescuing Chance, Michelle will rescue herself.
BRC: Is it difficult (or great fun) writing a character as evil as Ellen, the bank manager?
SM: Ellen’s not evil in the sense that she’s going to become a serial killer --- it’s not that kind of book –-- she’s just real-life nasty. We all know women like that. It’s cathartic to write a character you love to hate.
BRC: Once you’ve hit upon the inspiration for a novel, can you describe your writing regime? Do you outline the entire story arc, or do you let the characters lead the way?
SM: I plot my books thoroughly before I begin to write. The characters do take over at some point, though, and they sometimes take the story in a different direction than I’d intended. When that happens, I have to step back to look at the overall story structure. Is their direction better, or was mine? If theirs, then I adjust the plot before I continue. I have to know where I’m going.
BRC: On your website (www.susanmallery.com), you offer to phone in or Skype with book clubs reading your novel. Have you spoken to many book clubs about your earlier books? What have you learned from talking with your readers?
SM: I’ve spoken with a few book clubs over the phone about my earlier books, and a few in person. I think book clubs are a little hesitant to make that call. They’re shy, they don’t want to intrude. But I’d really love to hear from more book clubs! I love to hear how readers relate my stories back to their own lives. Check out the book club page at www.blackberryisland.com for details on how to get on my schedule.
BRC: You also wrote a short story for an anthology called THE KNITTING DIARIES. How did you get involved with that project?
SM: Debbie Macomber is a dear friend of mine, and she’s the headlining author in that anthology. She and Christina Skye invited me to participate, and I leaped on the opportunity.
BRC: When did you make the decision to become a writer? Did you always want to write fiction for women?
SM: I was an Accounting major in college, nearing graduation, envisioning 40 years of fiddling with columns of numbers, when I took an evening course called “How to Write a Romance Novel.” I didn’t even get credits for the class! By week six, I knew I wanted to be a writer. A storyteller. And yes, there was never any question in my mind that I would write stories primarily for and about women. Those are the stories that interest me. Well, those, and World War II thrillers. I get all quivery over hidden Nazi gold. Don’t ask me why.
BRC: What’s next for the folks on Blackberry Island?
SM: The second Blackberry Island book, tentatively titled EVENING STARS, will be released next March. In the meantime, I hope readers will look for my four brand new Fool’s Gold romances –--and an eBook novella –-- coming in June, July, August and October. If you sign up for the Members Only area at www.susanmallery.com, I’ll send you an email on release day.