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Author Interview: May 29, 2013

I'LL BE SEEING YOU is a deeply moving novel about two women who have nothing in common except one powerful bond: the men they love are at war.'s Sarah Rachel Egelman talks to authors Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan, who reveal that, despite having collaborated so successfully, they have not yet met in person! Like their protagonists, Loretta and Suzanne clearly have an easy rapport, and together they discuss the process of writing a book with someone else (and the thrill of correspondence), how they both got to know their characters so intimately, and what we can expect from them next, together and individually. I’LL BE SEEING YOU is your debut novel. Congratulations! How did you come to work together, and what gave you the idea to collaborate on a novel?

Loretta Nyhan: Thank you! I’ll take this one. Suzy and I met online, through mutual writer friends. We started commenting on each other’s blogs, then trading work, and finally we began talking on the phone. We both had individual projects on submission with publishers, so Suzy suggested we write something for ourselves while we waited, to ease the stress. We’re both history geeks, WWII in particular, so that time period made sense. Suzy sent me that first letter, in Glory’s voice, and I felt an overwhelming need to write back.

BRC: We have heard that you’re only recently meeting for the first time. Tell us the background on that and what it will be like to meet for the first time.

LN: Just thinking about meeting her puts a lump in my throat. We’ve built this friendship for years --- she’s one of my closest friends --- and yet I’ve never given her a hug!  We’ve been through the whole process of writing this book together --- sometimes I can’t quite believe we haven’t met yet. When we do (and we are finalizing plans for the week I’LL BE SEEING YOU is released), someone’s going to have to pick us up from the floor.

Suzanne Hayes: I can’t wait to see the way she smiles. The way her eyes light up. I’ve always been alone and I felt less alone in the past few years than I ever have before. Really, the answer to this question is: I. CAN’T. EVEN.

BRC: The book is a series of letters that span three years. How did you arrive at this format?

LN: When Suzy suggested it, the epistolary format made perfect sense to me. We could surprise each other that way. Eventually, we needed to have discussions about plot and character arcs, but in the beginning we simply sent letters to each other. I had no idea when one was coming, or what it would say. The story unfolded organically as a result, which gave us the realistic feel we wanted.

SH: As it didn’t start out as a novel, we simply sent emails with no other content except the letters themselves. We never mixed our other correspondence with our emailed letters. This helped us once it became a serious project. It helped us stay true to the characters and to react naturally.

BRC: Can you explain the process of writing this novel? Each of you took the voice of one of the main characters, Glory and Rita. How did the writing and the story unfold? Were the letters surprising, or did you discuss and plan their content before you wrote them?

LN: We didn’t start negotiating content until 10 or 12 letters in. I was in charge of Rita and all of the Iowa City characters. Suzy wrote from Glory’s perspective, and that of the Rockport characters. Oh, and Toby’s poetry. Suzy wrote those.

Even though we knew basically where we wanted to go with the story, every letter was a surprise because we never shared how we would arrive at the major plot points. We had so much fun!

SH: I literally ran home from work each day and tore open my computer as if it were a letter. Surprising? Oh, yes!

BRC: I’LL BE SEEING YOU examines marriage, motherhood, the roles of women in a particular period of American history and female friendships. Were there certain themes in the book that you were most inspired by or especially excited to explore? Were some themes more challenging to write about than others?

LN: I think we’ll answer this question differently, which is part of why writing this book was such a creatively satisfying experience. I wanted to explore the dynamics of families, both the ones we’re born into and the ones we fall into, during wartime. I also thought a great deal about how people communicate: How are long-lasting friendships built? What sustains them? How do we stay connected to each other during difficult times?

SH: Glory’s story arc was much more about the process of bringing a character from lost to found. I wanted to revisit Rockport, Massachusetts, as it is a place that has always been magical to me. The process of writing Glory was difficult because of the time period. Women have always been women, and we’ve always had the same thoughts, dreams and desires, but when we revisit history, we tend to glorify moments and remove real people from them. I wanted her to be real and relevant. I wanted her to deal with realistic issues.

BRC: How did the characters grow and develop as you were writing them? Did you each have a sense of who Glory and Rita were before and during the course of your writing, or did they surprise you as the story moved along?

LN: Rita just showed up, fully formed, like a gift. It was like she sat down across from me at the kitchen table, poured me a cup of tea, and told her story. The other characters constantly surprised me, but I felt like I always knew where Rita’s head was.

SH: I needed Rita’s letters to help Glory grow. The surprise was more in reading Rita’s letters and Glory’s response. She grew up in those letters.

BRC: What kind of women are Glory and Rita? Are they like you at all? Do you think they were typical of the time, place and circumstances in which they lived?

LN: Rita speaks her mind, sometimes without giving enough thought to the consequences. I tend to overthink everything, which is why I’m a writer, I guess. I always think of the perfect witty comeback three hours after a conversation is over. So, in some ways, Rita has qualities I wish I had. Other than a certain boldness, however, Rita is definitely a woman of her time. Before the war, she kept house while her husband, Sal, worked. The changes brought on by wartime demands do affect her greatly, though she may not want to admit it.

SH: I spent a lot of time wondering who I am in terms of Glory, and I’ve come to the realization that there’s far more of me than I like to admit!

BRC: What kind of research did you do for I’LL BE SEEING YOU in order to accurately portray the lives of American women during World War II?

LN: We read quite a few real letters from women to their husbands overseas, to get a feel for the language. We also thumbed through countless issues of Women’s Day and Better Homes and Gardens from the era, and spoke with local historians. Being true to the time was of the utmost importance to both of us. We’re not professional historians, but we did our very best to be accurate.

BRC: Where did the wartime recipes come from? Did either of you make any of them? If so, how did they taste?

LN: Sal’s minestrone recipe is my husband’s, with a few tweaks. The rest come from actual brochures and magazines from the early 40s. Yes! I did try them. Most of the dishes were very good, but the oatmeal cookies were incredible.

SH: Tomato soup cake! Fabulous!

BRC: What did you learn about writing a novel from this collaboration? Was the publishing experience anything like you expected it to be?

LN and SH: We feel very lucky. We’ve got great agents, and our editor, Erika Imranyi at Harlequin MIRA, really understood the story and pushed us to make it the best it could be. We feel truly supported at MIRA, and couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

Collaboration isn’t always easy, but it does offer writers so much. We were able to give each other instant feedback. We could ask tough questions, and we could ask for help. From the start, we had two rules: 1. Don’t hold back --- always be honest, and 2. Talk through any disagreement until both parties are satisfied. We compromised a lot, but we never hung up the phone mad at each other. 

BRC: What are you each working on now? Do you plan to write together again in the future?

Together, we just finished our first draft on our second novel for MIRA, about two sisters on the hunt for their missing brother in 1918 Manhattan (Whoo-hoo!). Again, we had a blast writing it!

LN: I write both YA and Women’s Fiction. I had a paranormal thriller, THE WITCH COLLECTOR come out this spring from HarperTeen Impulse. I’m working on a follow-up, a murder mystery set in 1881, called GOOSE ISLAND.

As far as Women’s Fiction, I’m in the middle of a contemporary romance/family saga, kind of a cross between ONE DAY and THE FAMILY STONE.

SH: My novel, THE WITCH OF LITTLE ITALY (St. Martin’s/Griffin), was released March 26, and I’ve just turned in a draft of my second novel for that publishing house, THE WITCH OF MAGNOLIA CREEK (May, 2014). Now I’m writing a book for option and having a ball!