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Interview: November 6, 2009

November 6, 2009

Bestselling author Sandra Brown has written over 70 fiction, thriller and romance novels, including FAT TUESDAY, THE ALIBI, RICOCHET, SMOKE SCREEN and the newly released work of historical fiction, RAINWATER. In this interview with's Melanie Smith, Brown describes the real-life event from her family's past that inspired this Depression-era story, and sheds light on some of the social history of that period. She also discusses her research on autism in order to accurately portray this highly misunderstood illness, reveals how she motivates herself to keep writing fresh, authentic and captivating books, and shares details about her next publication, TOUGH CUSTOMER. RAINWATER integrates a passionate romance with memorable American history. Was there an idea in particular that inspired the book's theme and the setting of Great Depression-era Texas?

Sandra Brown: The story for RAINWATER was inspired by a story my father told me. He was six years old in 1934 when his father, my grandfather, engaged in an armed standoff with government agents who came to his dairy farm demanding that he pour out his surplus milk. This was part of a government program to raise the price of milk. But PawPaw had been giving away his surplus milk to needy families in the area and was determined to continue doing so. He was backed by gun-toting relatives and neighbors, and eventually the government agents backed down. No shots were ever fired. My grandfather continued to give away milk he couldn't sell to distributors. This event made a deep impression on my father, and ultimately on me. It provided the backdrop for RAINWATER.

BRC: RAINWATER is an exceptionally thoughtful and subtle book that I felt was reminiscent of Steinbeck's classic, THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Your Depression-era story drives home realizations that were a part of life in the '30s, with a growing number of homeless and over a third of the nation's population unemployed. It was an unprecedented economic crisis that affected everyone, but particularly unforgettable were the numerous families who lay starving beneath crude shanties, unable to provide a home or food for their children. Amid acts of charity and personal sacrifice, these agonizing scenes make for a deeply touching novel. Was Steinbeck's classic ever a part of your inspiration?

SB: I think Mr. Steinbeck's is the first name one associates with fiction depicting the Great Depression, because he did so with excellence. As did Harper Lee. Those classic novels will never be topped, and probably during the writing of RAINWATER, I thought of the vivid images they evoked. But mainly, I relied on stories told to me by my parents and grandparents who lived through it. From listening to them all my life, I gathered bits and pieces of information on what their lives were like during that time. A loaf of bread costing a nickel. Which sounds great until you consider that take home pay for a family of seven was $36 a month. They lived on little, but --- and this is important --- somehow they didn't feel deprived. Because everyone around them was in the same boat, if not worse. As I say in RAINWATER, bad times bring out the worst in people, but also the best. I think the hard times that that generation endured made them stronger, and that's why we admire them now.

BRC: Are any of the characters in the story based on historical figures?

SB: No. As with all my characters, those in RAINWATER stepped from my subconscious and introduced themselves to me. I didn't know Solly was autistic (hadn't even considered it) until he pulled the hot starch onto himself and had the reaction he did.

BRC: Did the drought of the 1930s affect Texas as severely as the other Dust Bowl states?

SB: In Texas, there wasn't as much collateral destruction by the Dust Bowl as with other plains states…because much of our state isn't plains. But it was hit just as hard by the overall economic crisis that the entire country suffered. I read in some of my research
that in the summer of 1934, up to 600,000 head of cattle a week were being shot in Texas alone. That number is staggering. But the land itself wasn't as ravaged as it was in the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

BRC: A major focus of RAINWATER is Franklin D. Roosevelt's federal relief program, titled The Drought Relief Service; federal officials purchased cattle from high-risk farms nationwide for the dual purpose of feeding the hungry while providing financial protection to farm owners. Though Roosevelt's program was intended to help people and indeed did, a large number of cattle deemed "unfit for consumption" were destroyed by federal mandate while preventing hungry families from consuming the meat --- this while starving people stood by and watched. Can you elaborate on the history of the DRS Program and on whether President Roosevelt was ever made aware of that injustice?

SB: What seemed to escape the designers of the DRS Program was the irony: Purchasing starving cattle for destruction provided temporary financial relief to farmers and ranchers. But it also destroyed any chance of financial recovery. Even if the farm was saved from foreclosure, how was the farmer to begin again when the source of his income had been destroyed? I suppose the people who instigated the programs thought it would be for "the greater good." But it was heart-rending when a family had to watch their single milk cow, or entire herd, being led away only to be shot in the head. With the character of Ollie in RAINWATER, I portrayed the anguish and conflict many farmers and ranchers must have suffered. The success of these drastic measures were called into question at the time --- and still are. I don't know how President Roosevelt ultimately felt about these programs.

BRC: The centerpiece of the book is a tragic love story that plays out marvelously, as it becomes a surprisingly positive part of the book and integral to the theme. The "star-crossed lovers" are a single mother who runs a boarding house and a cotton broker who is one of her tenants. Did the romance evolve as you wrote the novel, or was the conclusion planned at the start?

SB: This is a tough question to answer because I can't remember what plot elements came to me at what point in time. I squeezed writing this book in between two contract books. I had a vague idea of the main characters and where I wanted the story to go. I knew what I wanted the "feel" of it to be. But one day I just started writing, without a clue what would happen. I began with Ella waking up, unaware of the monumental event about to take place in her humdrum life. I discovered things at the same time Ella did. I had written about four chapters before I went back and wrote the prologue. Because no one else knew I was writing RAINWATER, I didn't have input from my agent, editor, or a colleague. I allowed the characters a lot of leeway and let the story unfold to me, as it will now to the reader. I didn't force anything. I tried very hard throughout to remain true to the mores and mindset of the period as well as to the nature of each character. I didn't make them say or do anything. I "reported" what I heard them say and saw them do. It wasn't until about two-thirds of the way through the first draft that I knew what the crisis scene would be. Strangely, it wasn't until I had finished that I realized the entire book, with the exception of the prologue and epilogue, is written from Ella's point of view. I didn't do that intentionally, but it made the book much more powerful to see everything through her
eyes. The muses were kind!

BRC: In RAINWATER, the subject of special-needs children converges with themes of poverty and racism within struggling communities. Ella Barron's son Solly has an uncharacterized disability, and in the '30s, doctors knew very little about it. Solly presents a complicated persona as he is completely unable to communicate and is severely disturbed by his surroundings. This profoundly affects his quality of life, and the community regards Solly with either pity or distaste. In that era, similar children across the country were often institutionalized. Your portrayal of Solly seemed very realistic to his disease. How did you conduct your research to create Solly's character?

SB: In the past few years there's been much debate, sometimes heated, over autism --- its cause and so forth. So I was fortunate in that there's a plethora of material on the subject, even though a lot of it is contradictory. Autism remains a condition that confounds and intrigues, and the more one reads and observes, the more mysterious it becomes. At least that was my experience. But those afflicted are no longer as misunderstood or feared as they were in Solly's era. And, I must admit that Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Raymond Babbit was an excellent study.

BRC: RAINWATER is a quick but fulfilling read, which is somewhat surprising considering that it covers a lot of ground in a little over 200 pages. Did you set out to write a short book, or did the story just wrap itself neatly in that length?

SB: I let the story unfold on its own. It determined its length, not I.

BRC: You are an award-winning author and an extraordinarily prolific writer, with over 70 published books and more than 50 bestsellers. How have you managed to write so prolifically and maintain such high quality? Do you have any particular writing secrets or habits?

SB: First, thank you for the compliment. I strive to keep the quality high. I suffer a healthy case of fear that propels me to try to write the very best book I can each time. With every book, I try to stretch myself as a storyteller and as a craftsman. I try and do one thing I've never done before. This keeps me challenged, keeps the writing fresh for me, and I hope that translates to the reader. When I begin toying with an idea, I ask myself how I can make it unique. What will set this book apart? What aspect of this story will make it different from that of all other writers and all other Sandra Brown novels? So that's one thing I do.

And, as an avid reader of fiction in all genres, I'm a fairly reliable gauge of whether or not something's working. The reaction I'm having to the material, I must assume will be the reader's reaction, too. If I'm bored, the reader will be. That's when I know: Something needs to happen here! I also don't try to impress my reader. If the story is good, the writer doesn't need to belabor the facts he's uncovered in all his research. If the story is bad, the reader will put it down and not care how much research went into it. I make it correct, I make it authentic, but the story must be only within the realm of possibility. Do we really believe that a great white shark willfully terrorizes a Long Island village? Do we care? No! We were enthralled with the possibility. (I still won't go into the ocean!) Some of the most memorable events that have taken place throughout history were totally implausible. Think about it --- the battle of Agincourt, the Titanic sinking, the World Trade Center towers. The list is endless. Bridling his imagination is, I believe, the worst thing a writer can do to his reader. I try not to do that.

BRC: Your work has been enormously successful through many genres, including romance, suspense/thrillers and now historical fiction. Would you consider trying your hand at other genres in the future?

SB: I never say never, but I know what interests me. I won't try my hand at something simply because it's a hot market at the time. That would be fraudulent, and my readers would know it on the first page. Whatever I'm writing, it must come from the heart, the gut. I read in every genre, but I haven't been inspired to write in any other than those I've written in.

BRC: Can you tell us what your next book will be about and when we can expect to see it?

SB: I haven't carried over a character from one book to the next in more than 20 years, since I began writing thrillers. But this time I am. I introduced Dodge Hanley in SMASH CUT as the lawyer hero's trusty, but irascible and shady investigator. I loved this character! When I finished SMASH CUT, I wasn't finished with Dodge. I wanted to know what had given him such a jaded outlook on life and mankind. What made him such a cynic? Was he born that way, or did an event make him so? TOUGH CUSTOMER engages Dodge in a present-day conflict that's interwoven with his back-story and the pivotal event in his life. As referenced above, the challenge, the element that will set this book apart? Having a "hero" with virtually no redeeming qualities. How can I make the reader care about him? It's…well, tough.

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