Rachel Lee e-interviewed by Martina Bexte (February, 2003)
Rachel Lee, aka Sue Civil Brown, wrote her first stories at the ripe old age of nine when most other children were outside playing. Rachel started her career writing category romances for Silhouette Intimate Moments and is the creator of the very successful and long-running Conard County series, set in small town Wyoming and featuring rough-edged heroes with hearts of gold and the women they fall for. Even in the early days, Rachel's stories showcased shadowy enemies and sinister plots. Rachel Lee has left Conard County behind, but continues plotting murder, mayhem and intrigue in her growing list of popular mainstream romantic thrillers.
Q: Let's begin by talking about Conard County -- readers embraced this lengthy series which you set in the mid-west and that features hard-edged heroes with either a military or law enforcement background. How did Conard County evolve and why do you think this series was so well received?
A: The series actually evolved because for a long time before I got published, I found myself dreaming up stories that all seemed to be set in some vague area of Wyoming. After my first three books sold, I took out some old ideas and decided to go for it. After I submitted Exile's End, my editor called me to tell me she was on page 88 and wanted to know if Micah Parish was going to have his own book. I told her yes, I'd already started it and had three chapters done. I also added that I found myself thinking of these two books as my Conard County books. Out of that discussion came a contract for the next three books of the series.
Q: My personal favourite of the series is Miss Emmaline and the Archangel. There's just something about Gage Dalton and Emma Conard and how they come to need each other so much that riveted me. I re-read that book often. Do you plan on re-visiting Conard County any time soon and adding another book or two to this fine series?
A: Yes, at some point I'd like to do more with Conard County. I actually get homesick for the place. However, I'm waiting for another appropriate hero to knock on my door.
Q: Many of your heroes, like Gage Dalton, have very bleak backgrounds - why do you make things so tough for Gage and for some of your other heroes?
A: Each story I write is about the triumph of the human spirit. The triumph is ever so much more powerful when the wounds are truly deep. Gage Dalton is, of course one of my favorite heroes. Learning to live again after losing everyone you love certainly has to be one of life s hardest challenges and greatest victories.
Q: Since many of your categories have had their share of murder, mayhem and mystery, was your progression to mainstream 'romantic thrillers' simply a natural one?
A: I certainly feel the progression is natural. I just needed more room.
Q: In your upcoming release for Warner Books, Last Breath, you kept the villains hidden away in the shadows during the course of the book, busily pulling plot strings, and then let them subside back into their shadowy world, unnamed and unnoticed. Is there a reason you did this -- perhaps to make the point that sometimes the bad guys get away?
A: There were two reasons for this. The first is, as you suggest, that sometimes villains do escape detection, especially when they work for or within the defense and/or intelligence apparatus of our government. I will talk more about this in response to the next question.
Second, and perhaps more important, I work very hard to give my stories a kind of truth in terms of what could actually happen. This is not to say I try to be "realistic," but more that I try to be "reasonable." And I didn't think it reasonable that a local homicide detective and a local defense lawyer would have either the resources or the clout to penetrate this kind of conspiracy. Consider, for example, the walls that District Attorney Jim Garrison encountered in the late 60's during his investigation of the JFK assassination and his prosecution of Clay Shaw, where the Department of Justice refused to serve subpoenas on government officials, denied him access to official documents and evidence, and the like. For me, the notion that a city cop and a civilian associate could have cracked the underlying conspiracy was simply not credible. They might foil it and they did so but the top conspirators had to get away.
Q: Do you believe that certain individuals within the American government are working against the system at any given time?
A: Yes, and no.
Yes, in that there is a "cult of secrecy" within the government, and especially within the defense and intelligence communities. Daniel Ellsberg gives a vivid, first-hand account of this in his recent book Secrets. Ellsberg's thesis, which is consistent with my own experience in the military and defense contracting, is that officials can become almost addicted to having and keeping secrets, and dismiss the opinions of "outsiders" on the grounds that they don't know the "real situation." This combination of power, secrecy, and a sense of intellectual superiority creates an environment which is ripe for the kind of conspiracy which occurs in Last Breath. And history shows that this does happen.
However, do I agree with Theiry Meyessan (author of The Big Lie), who argues that events like the 9/11 tragedy were actually perpetrated by the U.S. Government? No, I do not. Last Breath is a work of fiction.
Q: Will you continue Matt and Chloe's story? I'm curious to see how their tentative relationship turns out and also want to learn more about the how's and why's of her husband s murder.
A: I would like to revisit the people of St. Simeon's parish at some point in the future. But no, there's no sequel in the works right now.
Q: Do you ever see yourself NOT incorporating a romance into your stories?
A: That will depend on the story. It could very well happen, although characters and relationships are at the heart of everything I write.
Q:With Malice is a current release from Mira Books and Last Breath is set for release in May of this year. Both books focus on characters in the political spotlight or with certain political agendas, With Malice more so than Last Breath. Have the inner workings of the political system always been of great interest to you? Do you plan to continue this theme in future books?
A: Politics is a setting where the stakes and the emotions run high, so of course it's fertile ground for suspense stories. It's also familiar ground, because I've lived in Washington and had friends who worked in the political arena. So yes, I would like to write more stories with this setting, although again, none are in the works right now.
Q:Senator Grant Lawrence and detective Karen Sweeney, the two leads in With Malice, share a mutual attraction in the story, yet you also left their relationship somewhat up in the air once she nailed the killer. Any plans to bring them back in a future book? What about some of the great secondaries like Washington homicide detective, Terry Tyson and FBI Special Agent, Miriam Anson?
A: I would love to, some day. Terry and Miriam really need their own book, I think. I hope to write it!
Q:Most of your books have included a lot of information about the inner workings of law enforcement agencies and now the political machine. How much time do you spend researching? Do you rely on sources within law enforcement and political organizations for accuracy and for ideas?
A: I do a fair amount of research. In terms of police procedure, I refer to textbooks and handbooks which are used to train homicide detectives, medical examiners, and crime scene technicians. I also have some sources in state and local police agencies, and in political circles, whom I can call when I have specific questions. Because they prefer to remain anonymous, and I respect their privacy, I do not list them in acknowledgements.
Q:You've also written a series of light-hearted stories set in Florida and filled with all sorts of eccentric characters: Breaking All The Rules, Letting Loose, Carried Away to name just a few. Where do you come up with the ideas for these stories -- from real life -- perhaps you have some eccentric relatives of your own that you use as models for these stories? Are you planning more such books in the future?
A: Paradise Beach is real. I know some people refuse to believe it, but there you have it. It's a composite of local beach communities and Key West. As anyone who has lived in Florida for a while knows. A couple of real incidents in beach communities sparked the series. No kidding. (By the way, if you want to know how wacky we can get in this part of the world, look up the Conch Republic on the web and read the 'official' history.)
And yes, there will be more comedies, although not in Paradise Beach. We are currently scheduled to write one involving an unwilling prince, a beautiful, mischievous doctor, a kidnapping and a heist. It will be published by MIRA.
Q:Does writing a romantic comedy help you wind down from what must be the very intense process of writing thrillers?
A: Absolutely not. Writing comedy is a hundred times harder than writing a thriller. The variety helps keep me fresh, but comedy is a wind up, not a wind down. There is no middle ground in comedy. It either works - which is to say, the reader laughs - or it flops.
Q:What compels you to write fiction and where does the first germ of an idea start? Would you call writing a passion or could you walk away from it tomorrow?
A: I have to write to stay sane. I could never walk away from it. It is a compulsion and an obsession. After all, I wrote for nearly thirty years before I ever sold a book. I'm an artist in my soul, and I'm blessed enough to be able to make a living with my art.
As for where the ideas come from.... they can come from anywhere. A question (like the current horror story I'm writing: what are dogs barking at when they bark out a window at night and nothing is there?) to a stray thought, to a sudden visual image (that was the start for A Fateful Choice). Sometimes a character will start nagging at me. Or a news story will get me thinking ... Ideas come from so many places and from nowhere.
Q:What do you believe is the greatest attribute of a successful writer?
A: Self-discipline. Coming up with ideas is the easy part. The difficult part is forcing myself to sit down at the keyboard and turn an idea into 500+ pages of marketable prose. Like most other writers I know, I fight a daily battle with temptation ... the temptation to do anything except sit down at the keyboard and work. Winning that battle, consistently enough to finish the book, is the hallmark of a successful writer.
Q:What do you enjoy doing when you're not busy creating stories?
A: Decorating, creating my Christmas Village, reading non-fiction, traveling, a bit of gardening, volunteering at my church. I also enjoy watching movies, gourmet cooking, adventure role-playing games, and spending time with my family.
Q:What other books can readers expect to see on the shelves this year from Rachel Lee and also Sue Civil Brown?
A: Silhouette is releasing a reprint of Point of No Return in June. The next books in the pipeline - coming in 2004 - are a horror novel set on a Caribbean island paradise, a comic caper novel set in Florida, and a Conard County novella. Find out more about Rachel Lee / Sue Civil Brown at her Website, and read about her Conard County series at ConardCounty.com.
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