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Interview: June 13, 2008

June 13, 2008

Mariah Stewart is the bestselling author of 23 novels, including THE PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER, DEAD END, FINAL TRUTH and LAST BREATH.

In this interview with's Amie Taylor, Stewart recalls the real-life news story that inspired her latest book, MERCY STREET, and explains how she named two of its characters.

She also describes her progression from writing contemporary romances to romantic suspense novels over the course of her career, shares details about her upcoming projects, and gives us a glimpse into her day-to-day writing routine. In MERCY STREET, what influenced you to come up with the storyline of the two teenagers, James and Adam, being shot, and the other two, Ryan and Courtney, disappearing?

Mariah Stewart: I’d read the tragic story about the three teenagers who’d been shot in a New Jersey city last year, and as a mother, it almost broke my heart. As a writer, the possible motives for the shootings --- which were at first unclear --- captured my imagination, and the story more or less built itself from there.

BRC: The mystery of Robert Magellan's missing wife and son, the mystery of the murdered and missing teenagers, and the sniper mystery are all woven together so seamlessly. What made you decide to intertwine three mysteries in one book? Which idea came to you first?

MS: I always have more than one thread running in my books --- it just seems to work out that way. It’s probably because most people do have more than one thing going on in their lives at one time --- to tell you the truth, I’ve never really analyzed why I do it! In MERCY STREET, the storyline about Robert’s missing family came first. I have been an admirer of the Vidocq Society for a long time and have been wanting to write a series that was loosely based on this organization for several years now. The Vidocq Society is an organization of law enforcement professionals who pool their many diverse talents and volunteer their expertise to help solve previously unsolved homicides or deaths. On their website (, they describe themselves as “crime solution catalysts,” which appealed greatly to my writer’s imagination. The Mercy Street Foundation was definitely inspired by this esteemed organization, and I used Robert’s situation to set up his motivation for funding the foundation. The mystery of the two dead/two missing teenagers was the first crime for which Robert agreed to fund the investigation. It just all sort of wove itself together from there.

BRC: All of the characters in MERCY STREET are so real. Some authors seem to create "perfect" characters, which can make for a boring read. Yours, however, are good people with real problems and believable flaws. Do you take bits and pieces from people you know, or all of your characters strictly fictional?

MS: With apologies to my family and friends, I don’t know any perfect people! So no, my characters aren’t taken from real life, though I do occasionally take a (very) little piece from here and a (very) little piece from there. Most characters step onto the page fully fleshed, so I don’t usually have to consciously add to them.

BRC: In your Acknowledgment, you mention that the characters Mary Corcoran and Trula Comfort are names of real-life people. How did this come about?

MS: Mary Corcoran is a reader who won the opportunity to have her name used as a character in one of my books in a fund raiser run by readers at the ADWOFF website --- which is Nora Roberts’s fan website. For the past several years, I’ve been asked to contribute signed books to their annual charity raffle, and a few years ago, I said I’d name a character in a future book after the winner. We’ve continued that for the last couple of years. It’s been fun for me, too, because I have personally known and am fond of the readers who have won.

Trula Comfort is a reader who emailed me to let me know she’d been reading and enjoying my books. I thought her name was just wonderful, and when I started to write MERCY STREET, and Robert’s late grandmother’s best friend popped onto the page, I knew no other name would do for her but Trula Comfort. I emailed my reader and asked if I could borrow her name, and she very graciously agreed. I think it’s a perfect fit.

BRC: MERCY STREET features a Catholic priest and the kids who attend a Catholic high school. Does Catholicism play a part in your life, or was it simply something you wanted to write about?

MS: I was raised in the Catholic Church, but the character of Father Kevin was just there in my head as Robert’s cousin and best friend. Since the story was set in a small city, I knew there’d be a Catholic community with church and school, so it fit, just as Mary Corcoran seemed just right as the church’s secretary.

BRC: I know that you previously wrote contemporary romance before turning to romantic suspense. What made you change genres?

MS: All of my early books --- the contemporary romances --- had something else going on besides the love story, and this seemed to escalate with each book. It was just a natural progression for me to add more and more suspense or mystery to each successive book and to make the plots more complex. I find that I’m adding even more of those elements with each new book, and I’m enjoying the writing more and more because of it.

BRC: What influenced you to begin writing in the first place?

MS: I was writing about my own made-up characters from the time I was about seven. I used to have a whole stash of those black-and-white composition books filled with my stories under my bed. I have always had a very active imagination and have always loved making up stories. I was a big Nancy Drew and Anne of Green Gables fan when I was very young.

BRC: Did you meet with instant success, or did it take several attempts before selling your first book?

MS: I was very fortunate to have sold my first book.

BRC: Are all of your previous works still in print, or are fans going to have to do some digging to get their hands on the older ones?

MS: I think they’re all still in print, except for maybe A DIFFERENT LIGHT, which was my second book.

BRC: When you're not writing, what kind of books do you enjoy, or which authors keep you turning those pages?

MS: I love suspense, procedurals, thrillers --- as long as the characterization is there and the story is complex enough to hold my interest. I’ve read everything by Tess Gerritsen, Lisa Scottoline and Harlan Coben, who plots so cleverly. Oh, and James Lee Burke, who I think writes brilliant prose and amazing characters. When I feel like a historical romance, it’s always Victoria Alexander, who --- for my money --- writes the wittiest dialogue in the genre.

BRC: As we know, most writers have things they require when they sit down at their desk each day to write, such as coffee, a soft drink, special music, etc. What are your "must-haves" when you're ready to put pen to paper?

MS: Coffee, most definitely. I have to take a quick run through my e-mail, and I have to watch at least some of MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" with my husband before I trail off into my office.

BRC: Do you take time off between books, or do you pretty much write each and every day?

MS: I pretty much write every day. When I’m just starting a book, it takes longer to get it all together because I don’t outline and have to feel my way along with the characters and the plot. The pace --- and the number of hours I work each day --- picks up after around page 200. The closer I get to the end of the book, the faster I write.

BRC: What do you do to relax when you're not writing?

MS: I read a lot, and garden --- I try to spend as much time outside as I can. We live in the country, so it’s very quiet and peaceful here.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

MS: I’ve wrapped up FORGOTTEN, which will go on sale on August 26th. It’s another book in my FBI series (I think it’s FBI book number 13 or 14), and it’s a mass market paperback. It’s a little different, because I reached back to a previous book (VOICES CARRY) for a villain, who was only tangentially mentioned in that story, and played off that for the plot. FORGOTTEN might well be the most complicated book I’ve written to date. It features Portia Cahill, the sister of Miranda Cahill, who has appeared in four or five of my books, and brings an old case back to haunt John Mancini, the head of the special FBI unit I’ve been writing about for the past eight years or so. The book I’m just starting is GOODBYE AGAIN --- it’s the second book in the Mercy Street Foundation series --- which will be out next spring (May or June, I think).