Susan Wiggs burst into the historical romance scene in 1987, since when her books have regularly blazed up bestseller lists. She's won prestigious awards like the Holt Medallion, numerous Romantic Times achievement awards and two RITAs, to name just a few. Susan's greatest skill is her ability to breathe life into complex characters and dissect the intricacies of human nature, which she explores with equal parts insight, wisdom and humour.
Some of her current titles are Home Before Dark, Enchanted Afternoon, Halfway to Heaven, and Passing Through Paradise. Her most recent release, A Summer Affair, is marvelously rich in character and atmosphere, and set in Victorian Era San Francisco. A graduate of Harvard and former fifth grade teacher, Susan writes full time and lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and daughter.
Q: You've lived in different locales around the world. Have your travels enhanced your writing? You currently reside on Bainbridge Island in the Pacific Northwest - is this the place you now truly call home, or could you pick up and move tomorrow?
A: Yes and yes. Travel always sharpens your senses, I think. You pay attention to things that are unique and different, and things that remind you of the familiar. That's really what an author does to bring the setting to life - mixes the unfamiliar with something the reader recognizes. An example from A Summer Affair - I might describe a joss house in Chinatown, and bring it to life by describing the fabrics, colors and the scent of incense.
I get attached to people, not places. So if I suddenly moved house to, say, the Amalfi Coast or Vancouver Island or Ashland, North Carolina, I'd be fine, I'm sure. I've lived in huge cities (Brussels, Paris, Houston) and rural areas (upstate NY, Bainbridge) and there are things I love about living in both settings.
Q: You've written both contemporary and historical novels -- how do you decide whether to have your hero and heroine dancing a waltz in the grand ballroom of a Virginian plantation of old or thumping cantaloupes in the produce section of the local supermarket when they first set eyes on one another?
A: That's a good question! In the past, I've made that call based on the sort of story I want to tell and the issue I want to tackle. If I want to write about a kidney transplant, I can't very well put it in a historical setting! These days, I'm fortunate to have help deciding. The setting of each book is determined (in general) by talking it over first with myself, then my critique group, then my agent and finally my editor (who consults with people at the publishing house). I offer my take on the idea - is it a Gilded Age drama? a contemporary family? etc. - and get feedback from the pros. Ultimately, I have to go off on my own and write the thing.
Q: Every author has their own special way of preparing for their next book - what's your typical routine?
A: Every time I think I have this figured out, it changes. However, I try to do some or all of the following: read about the locale, time period and issues; travel to the setting; create a collage of images; write a first person bio of the protagonist; draw a sociogram of the characters' interrelationships; write a loose outline of the story. Oh, and staring out the window. That seems to be pretty consistent.
Q: Can you name the one person who's had the most influence in your life and your career path?
A: No, because I have more than one. That is actually two questions. The people who have had the most influence on my life are my parents, my husband and my daughter, without question. As I writer, I've been able to thrive because of the love and support I get from them. My career path has been influenced by a number of people as well--beginning with Kathleen Woodiwiss who wrote Shanna, the first romance novel I ever read, continuing through the various critique group members and editors I've worked with over the years and concluding with my closest creative advisor these days: my agent, Meg Ruley, who is a wonderful friend and brilliant strategist.
Q: One of the most memorable things about your books are the characters - what's the secret to creating compelling and believable characters, besides a deep interest in human nature?
A: I would say attention to detail. The more specific you can make a person's traits, the more real he or she seems. In other words, don't say she's wearing "a long gown." Tell me exactly what it looks like, and more importantly, exactly why she's wearing it and how it feels on her. I also make sure I believe my own characters - are they psychologically consistent? etc..
Q: You also have a real knack for creating "tortured heroes", a character type that is and will always remain a favorite. What makes this type of hero so appealing?
A: Boy, am I ever lucky this is a popular character type! I usually don't set out to create a "type" but if they emerge from the work, I'm sort of stuck with them. I'm happy to report that my contemporary novels (Home Before Dark, etc.) feature truly well-adjusted heroes! However, a tortured character is always fun to read about because he (or she) has so far to go from where he is to the happy ending. There's a lot of drama involved, and that's the appeal, I think. The redeeming quality of love comes into play in this storyline.
Q: Your historicals are very rich in historical detail - do you spend a lot of time researching before you begin writing? Do you enjoy researching your books?
A: I spend as much time as it takes to feel comfortable in the time period, which could mean I read source material for a week, or six weeks, or any amount of time in between. I do love to research. It's like a treasure hunt for me. Nowadays, the Internet makes nearly any tiny detail findable, which is fun.
Q: Your most recent release, A Summer Affair, might be called a sequel to The Horsemaster's Daughter. Do you make a conscious plan to write sequels or do characters like Blue Calhoun beg you to continue their story in another book?
A: I don't always feel like I'm setting up for a sequel, but my subconscious is often at work. When I wrote The Charm School, Hunter was on stage for maybe a few paragraphs. But he was so compelling to me that I wrote Horsemaster, and so on. One thing seems to lead to another. I will say that Blue's story (A Summer Affair) was the most frequent request I've ever had from readers. Everyone wanted to see how the troubled boy turned out.
Q: Did you base your female lead, Isabel Fish-Wooten, lady adventurer, on someone you know or perhaps on a real character that lived during the time period depicted in A Summer Affair?
A: Yes, she's based on the Victorian lady traveler, Isabella Bird, who kept copious journals while traveling the world, bless her. But Isabel's sexual orientation is different:-).
Q: There's a touching sub-plot that involves young Lucas Calhoun's love for June Li, a beautiful young Chinese girl. They both know that their attraction is taboo in Victorian era San Francisco yet they're determined to be together someday. Do you plan on exploring their "forbidden love" more fully in a future book?
A: I think I have a new "most-requested" sequel. When I finished A Summer Affair, I figured everyone would be keen to find out if Rory and Belinda make it. But noooo. Instead, everyone was incredibly curious about Lucas and June Li. I would love to write that story one day. It's truly a Romeo and Juliet set-up.
Q: Have you ever considered writing fantasy or science fiction?
A: I've written a few fantasy pieces: The Trysting Hour and The Changeling in Irish Magic I and II, and Belling the Cat in A Purrfect Romance (novellas)
Q: Is writing your ultimate dream job? Would you call yourself a romance writer or a fiction writer? Why do you believe romance novels continue to be so popular? If you had to give writing up tomorrow what would your next career choice be?
A: Yes, it's my dream job, but I have a lot of interests. I love to teach, so that's another dream job. If someone would pay me to write about travel, I'd love that, too. I try not to let my job define me. It's what I do, and if I'm lucky, I love to do it. I'm a fiction writer who writes romance. That's a more flexible definition, I think. Romance will always be popular because love makes the world go 'round. And finally, if I ceased to be a writer, I might be a teacher, a sky diver, a mountain climber or a chef. Just for starters. :-)
Q: Can you give us a few details about your next release and when it'll be available?
A: In November 2003, I have a charming urban fairy tale coming out - the novella The St. James Affair in the anthology It Happened One Christmas. March 2004 is the pub date for the paperback reissue of Home Before Dark, and I just got the cover art, and it's stunning - I look like a VIP! April 2004 is the pub date for the hardcover The Ocean Between Us about a Navy family, and July 2004 is Summer By the Sea, a paperback original beach read. Yikes, I've been busy..
Q: What's the most valuable piece of advice you can give to any would-be novelists out there?
A: Shakespeare said it better:
Work till your ink be dry, and with your tears Moist it again, and frame some feeling line That may discover such integrity. (William Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona)
Susan Wiggs lives and writes on an island in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, Jay, her daughter, Elizabeth, and an Airedale. Find out more at www.susanwiggs.com.
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