*Chuck Adams is on the board of Orange Literacy and the executive editor at Algonquin Books. While working at his last publishing house, Simon & Schuster, he edited several of Sandra Brown’s novels.
Sandra Brown is featured at this year’s Writers for Readers Book and Author event.
Chuck: It seems these days that every book has to have a category if it’s to be shelved correctly in bookstores. You started writing romances originally, and then you transitioned into romantic suspense. Is that a categorization you’re comfortable with?
Sandra: I think so. I’ve struggled for years to get rid of that tag “romance” because it invited snarky comments and the publishers kind of smirked when it was mentioned. But since romance novels have become the most popular genre of fiction, no one can take that attitude today. I hate labels – I think a good storyteller is a good storyteller is a good storyteller. And the men who write romances are never labeled romance writers, but women who write romance novels are.
I began incorporating more suspense and thriller aspects into my novels because I wanted to be known as a storyteller, and not have my work so narrowly defined. So I guess I kind of resent being labeled as any one kind of writer. I see the practical necessity for it because fans of a particular genre have to be able to identity the writers they want to follow, but it’s a sticky topic. A two-edged sword and a necessary evil of the publishing industry, I believe.
Chuck: I can understand resisting the term “romantic suspense,” but there is a huge readership for romantic suspense novels as well as for thrillers. I know your books can be and often are called thrillers, but they have—and I mean this in the best possible way—so much heat in them, in terms of passion and sexuality, that they naturally appeal to readers of romantic suspense.
Sandra: But now I think Sandra Brown readers have expectations. I’ve had very, very few departures from doing what I do best [laughs]. I try not to worry about labels—I have to entertain myself first, and so I write what I feel in my gut is the right story to tell, with the right characters.
Chuck: How do you find the inspiration for what you write? I wonder sometimes how writers start out writing in a genre such as you do. Do you start out with a crime in mind or some kind of situation? Or is there a particular character or setting that inspires you?
Sandra: [laughs] All of the above! There are no rules to this. It’s a terrible question to try to answer because you can very glibly say I don’t know where the idea comes from, and people think you’re lying, but it’s usually the truth. 99% of the time I don’t have a clue until something occurs to me and I just start writing. There have been some books that were based on something I saw on TV or in a news story, or I was inspired by a particular character or occupation. It really can be anything.
I just returned from Vancouver where they’re filming White Hot, one of my books, for a TV movie. One of the actors asked me where I got the idea for the book, and in that instance I could tell them precisely where the idea came from. I was sitting at a chocolate shop across from Simon & Schuster with my two editors, and they asked about my next book. And I got creative real fast [laughs]! The muses were kind because I came up on the spot with a character named Huff Hoyle, who John Schneider is playing in the movie. I told my editors that I wanted him to be an allegory for an industry, living in a company town where he is a despotic character who holds the reins on everyone’s life. He controls the economy, the law enforcement agencies, the school system. He employs everybody in the town, or they don’t work – he feeds everybody, or they don’t eat. As I was blabbing all of this to my editors, I said it had to be a really ugly industry. And then I remembered earlier visiting a town with my husband in which there was a foundry where they cast metal pipes. And it was a very hot and very dangerous place. And my editor said there was an article in the New York Times just recently about all of the accidents in that industry, and how OSHA is focused on making this industry safer. I latched on to that, so it made a fun story to tell about how I came up with the idea for White Hot –but it was the absolute truth.
I think writers can get creative when they know they’ve got to come up with an idea [laughs]. And every once in a while a book like Rainwater, published in 2009,will come along that was inspired by something personal. That was the only book out of the 78 I’ve published that was inspired by something that was actually attached to me, a true story from my daddy’s family. But other than that, the plots I come up with are pure make-believe and come out of the air. It’s not a very concrete answer [laughs], but it’s the most honest one I can give you.
Chuck: You mentioned a movie is in the works for White Hot. Have many of your books been turned into film?
Sandra: White Hot is the fourth. I had one on ABC years ago, and most recently one for Lifetime and one for TNT. White Hot will air in April on Hallmark’s new channel called Hallmark Movies and Mysteries. White Hot is by far and away [laughs] the grittiest of anything that channel has done so far. So they’re making a few inroads without sacrificing any of the standards for which Hallmark is known. This particular producer had done two of the previous movies, so he brought Hallmark and me together. They’re already talking about a second movie!
Chuck: You started out working in television. Did you start writing while you were still in television?
Sandra: [laughs] I started writing when I got fired.
Chuck: I see, so that was the inspiration?
Sandra: It was more like a kick in the butt [laughs]. I did the weather sometimes and commercials, and was on a nightly magazine show before there was such a thing as magazine shows. It was fun, and then one day they said they needed fresh faces. Mine wasn’t so fresh anymore [laughs], so they let me go. And I was at a loss as to what to do next. I had two toddlers at home and I loved being a wife and mother, but I knew that wasn’t going to be the sum total of my existence. I wanted something more.
The host of the morning talk show on this same ABC affiliate, who happened to be my husband, Michael, said to me: “You’ve always wanted to write. Now you’ve got time and opportunity, and it’s something you can do without having to hire childcare.” So we set up a card table in the spare room and that’s when I started writing. It was really and truly a hallelujah chorus sort of moment. This is what I’d been preparing for all my life, but just didn’t know it until someone urged me to plunge in. And I’ve been doing it ever since.
Chuck: Did you get an agent right away?
Sandra: No, I wrote and sold romances for 7 years before I retained an agent. It was really when I realized that I had gone about as far as I could on my own. I had written 45 romances under 4 different names by that point, and I felt that I had plateaued and done everything I knew how to do. I was also feeling a creative urge to spread my wings a little bit and work on a larger canvas.
While no book is easy to write, writing romance novels was a really good teaching mechanism. I learned a lot of skills like quick plotting because you’re only given a certain amount of words if you’re writing genre romance—I had to tell my story in 200 pages, so I had to get on with it and couldn’t lollygag. I considered that experience to be enormously beneficial in my writing, and it was very lucrative.
It was a decision I thought about for quite some time. That’s when I retained my agent because I thought, if I’m going to do this I need some guidance and someone who wants to create a career path with me. Warner Books had an imprint called Popular Library. My first book for them was published under that imprint, and then I moved over to the actual Warner Books imprint. They told me that if we were going to make this move and this commitment and be serious about it, then I would need to leave genre romance. They felt that straddling the line between romance and suspense would be confusing from a marketing standpoint and they couldn’t tout me as one thing if I was still clinging to something else. Thus I became a suspense writer.
So those apron strings were hard to clip, but it was really the best decision that I could have possibly made.
Chuck: That certainly worked out well for you and your publishers, as well as your readers.
Sandra: What I’m concentrating on now is maintaining my core readers, but still trying to gain new readers. Younger readers that are two or three generations removed from when I started publishing. I get lots of fan letters from younger readers telling me that their mother or grandmother told them about my books. So spreading the word is an ongoing project in addition to writing the books. Social media has helped penetrate that younger market, that’s all they know. I kind of hate it, but it’s certainly proven beneficial [laughs].
Chuck: Do you still tour?
Sandra: A little bit. Typically I speak at something really targeted, like Orange Literacy’s Writers for Readers event. Last year, at the suggestion of my publisher, I did a week-long tour to independent bookstores around the country. That type of tour has a lot of benefit for both the bookstores and for me. Publishing is still a very hands-on business and book tours are invaluable in terms of creating readers and guiding readers into books they might enjoy. So I thought it was time well spent.
Chuck: It’s tremendously helpful to the bookstores because an author such as you will bring in a huge number of readers from the community who might not normally visit the store.
Sandra: Touring is really interesting because I had a huge crowd at my event in Wichita; it was sold-out. I did another event in Chicago and they sold 300 tickets with standing room only. And then I went into my next event and there were only 15 people. It was astonishing and I had to walk in with the same level of enthusiasm for those 15 people that I had for the crowd of 300. What causes one store to get 300 or 1000 people but then another gets 15? There seems to be no way to predict that kind of thing.
Chuck: So what are you working on now? What’s next?
Sandra: As I mentioned, I just spent the last week in Vancouver on the set for the White Hot movie, so I’m a little behind. That was a lot of fun but it was at the worst possible time for me. I write a book each year, and I typically shut down after New Year’s and don’t come up for air until my new book is finished. I rushed home after visiting Vancouver to concentrate on finishing up my new book.
Chuck: What is the title?
Sandra: I don’t know! I’ve been struggling, it’s a tough one. My editor was walking into the publishing house’s sales conference this time last year to introduce my last book, and she let me know on a Friday that she was introducing the book the following week. I suffered and suffered all weekend trying to think of the right title. And suddenly the morning of the sales conference it came to me: Friction. It fit the book perfectly. I promptly called my editor and she was just then walking into the sales conference. She called me later to say that everyone loved it. So last year it was really under the wire.
When I wrote Mean Streak, I had the title from the very first minute when I started plotting it. I was thinking in terms of the main character, and how he was quiet and gentle but had a real mean streak. And I went, Ah! That’s it! So sometimes it comes immediately and other times it’s really difficult.