Wrapping up this round of Author Interviews here on the blog, I saved one of my favorite people for last. Many know Suzanne Brockmann from her NY Times best-selling Troubleshooters series, but she’s also an outspoken activist for LGBT rights, has written and produced both a musical and a movie, and has a multitude of other talents that make her a true Renaissance Woman. Recently, she broke into the Paranormal realm with her novel BORN TO DARKNESS. As such, I wanted to find out how someone who has built a career in one genre makes the jump to another. So please help me welcome the amazing Suzanne Brockmann!
JR: You’ve published over fifty books. Fifty five, if my count is accurate. Fifty five! This is in addition to writing and producing your movie, The Perfect Wedding, writing and producing an Off-Broadway musical, Looking for Billy Haines, and other projects. I suppose the first question would be, is there anything you don’t do?
SB: I don’t pilot helicopters, nor do I keep bees!
Although one thing you and I do have majorly in common (aside from being published authors) is our love of vocal music.
Little known fact: Before I was a novelist, I was the music director and primary vocal arranger of an a cappella group called “Serious Fun.” (And before that, I sang lead in an original rock band…)
JR: Seriously….fifty five books. How in the world do you find the energy to keep creating like that? Where do you draw your inspiration? And how is it your fingers aren’t worn down to nubs by now?
SB: There’s a James Taylor song called “Shed a Little Light,” that includes a lyric that explains it pretty perfectly:
“There is a feeling like the clenching of a fist,
There is a hunger in the center of the chest,
There is a passage through the darkness and the mist,
And though the body sleeps, the heart will never rest…”
(Awesome song, check out it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOMUIhQCm10 )
I’ve got a HUGE hunger in the center of my chest.
I’ve got a lot of things I want to say about the human condition — about love and kindness and connection and peace and understanding and diversity. My heart can rest much, much later.
JR: Over the course of your Troubleshooter books, you’ve done a masterful job of developing secondary characters into primary ones. Case in point: Jules Cassidy. I remember when he was first introduced his role was small, but readers fell in love with him immediately. And rightly so. As the series grew, so did Jules, to the point where he and Robin have become flagships for LGBT characters. Do you find certain characters inherently “demand” more of your attention or do readers help drive which ones you develop?
SB: First, thank you!
Second, it can be a little of both.
Sometimes I introduce a character with the intention of making him or her a major player. (Case in point: Mary Lou, who originally was created to create some serious conflict for Navy SEAL Sam Starrett. But it was always my intention to take this character, Mary Lou, who was so passionately hated by so many readers, and redeem her–show her journey as she learns and changes and grows!)
Sometimes, readers will become intrigued with a character and I’ll be struck by the volume of email I get, all mentioning one specific characters. (Case in point: Navy SEAL Cosmo Richter. His first real appearance was in a book called INTO THE NIGHT, and he really had a very minor role. But wow, did I get email about him! At the same time, he’d tweaked my own sense of curiosity. So I was very willing to put him into the on-deck circle, so to speak!)
JR: For years you’ve been a powerhouse in the world of Romance, but last year you broke in to the Paranormal-Urban-Fantasy-Sci-Fi-Futuristic-Military-Awesomeness genre (I am coining this genre name, by the way) with BORN TO DARKNESS. What made you decide to branch out?
SB: After nearly twenty years of writing mostly romantic suspense, both my editor and I wanted to do something a little different, and I’ve always been a SF fan.
And while I’ve enjoyed reading paranormal/SF romances, I was always struck by a relatively common theme or trope of whatever you want to call it, where the hero and heroine are “destined” to be together. Where it’s kind of a hyper version of love/lust at first sight.
I wanted to take that and spin it on its head.
So it was a combination of wanting to do something different with a story that I was burning to tell…
JR: Were there any challenges “switching” genres? Anything specific challenges that were outside your comfort zone or forced you to sit up at night and surf the internet for answers?
SB: I’ve discovered that world-building isn’t one of my natural strengths.
But despite how hard it was to do, I really enjoyed creating a darkly futuristic world. And I loved creating themes that allowed me to comment on the way our real world’s societies devalue women and girls.
Here’s a thing: When you write plain ol’ contemporary romantic suspense, if you get political with your message or themes, half of the world screams at you. (Doesn’t mean I don’t do it — it’s just noisy. Noisier.)
But SF/fantasy writers are SUPPOSED to make social and political comments in their novels.
After I wrote BORN TO DARKNESS, I didn’t receive a single email admonishment letting me know, sternly, that “I shouldn’t put my opinions in my books.” (Yes, I’ve gotten that reader email more than once!)
So that was kinda cool — that expectation that of course I’m gonna have a more weighty message because of the genre.
JR: In addition to making huge waves in the Paranormal-Urban-Fantasy-Sci-Fi-Futuristic-Military-Awesomeness™ genre, you’ve also set your sights on Young Adult with a paranormal book that you co-wrote with your daughter, Melanie. What was that experience like and what inspired you to step into this genre as well?
SB: I have this really awesome and talented daughter named Melanie, who can really, really write.
And one morning, I woke up with the idea of writing a YA companion series to BORN TO DARKNESS. The idea was to set the YA series in the same world, but have the books take place down in Florida (as opposed to BtoD’s gritty Boston setting). And of course, the protagonist would be a teenaged girl. (Which really works on so many levels!)
I knew that Mel’s writing voice was really suited to YA, and we sat down and talked, and then starting plotting a three book series, and . . . here we are!
The first book is called NIGHT SKY and is going to be published by Sourcebooks in late 2014. (We’re working on revisions right now, with plans to write a sequel, too.)
Writing with Mel has been really invigorating and fun. And how cool is it to be able to collaborate with my daughter? (It’s kind of a diabolically awesome longterm plan — to give birth to a future writing partner!)
JR: Were there any challenges with YA that you hadn’t encountered with your previous books and genres?
SB: I’ll let you know! We’re learning as we go! Biggest challenge so far has been to contain my tendency to include salty verbiage! And writing with another person is weird (in a wonderful way!), after so many years of writing alone.
JR: You’re a huge supporter of the military (which I know firsthand) and most of your stories feature military personnel or government agencies (i.e. the FBI in the Troubleshooters). Is there a connection somewhere in your past that we don’t know about? Are you related to a famous a WWII spymaster perhaps?
SB: Not quite. Although my cousin Elise Kramer (she was really my grandmother’s cousin) was a HUGE part of my life growing up. She came to America from Germany when she was sixteen, and eventually became a citizen. During WWII (I think she might’ve been in her early 30s), she worked tirelessly for the Navy.
I grew up hearing stories about how she would travel three hours (via many different buses and trains) to get to work each day, and then three hours home. Every single day, no vacations, until the war ended.
She was an amazing woman (with a strong German accent!), and she really loved her adopted country. During the war, she became the supervisor at an ammunition testing facility. (And then, after the war, she settled back into the role of secretary for a research scientist at a drug manufacturing company. I’m sure she could’ve run the place!)
When I was around eleven years old, in 1971, I became fascinated with WWII history, and read everything I could get my hands on in my public library, from books like The Great Escape all the way to The Strategic Analysis of the Battle of Midway. I was intrigued by all of it. And awed by the heroism and courage of those who sacrificed so much.
It’s possible my interest was sparked by Elise’s stories (and other family stories, like my Uncle Jack bumping into my Uncle Fred purely by accident in Paris after the D-Day invasion!), or maybe it came from an understanding that many of the teachers in my middle and high schools were WWII vets.
The more I read and learned, the more I understood exactly what that (greatest) generation had sacrificed.
The man who came in once a year to take our school portraits was a survivor of the Bataan Death March. Can you imagine?
And see, even as a little kid, I could imagine. I was surrounded by people who had lived through this amazing, fantastic, important historical time, people who’d survived these crazy, heroic, courageous things — and were now just quietly living their lives.
Their impact on me (and my respect for them and for all who serve) was and is profound.
JR: When creating your stories, do you tend to start with a character and build the plot around him/her or do you begin with the plot and find the right character to fit into it? Does the process change based on the genre you’re working within or is the process the same?
SB: Yes. All of those things.
And the process really depends not on the genre, but rather on the individual book.
Most of the time I’m writing books where my main characters have appeared earlier in the series, as secondary or even minor characters.
So oftentimes I’ll take what I know about those characters (and if they’re in my book, even in a very small role, I know quite a bit about them), and I’ll create conflicts (aka plot) specifically designed to make life extremely uncomfortable for them. (Easy example: Is this character afraid of heights? If so, you better believe I’ll have him clinging to the side of a 34 story building or scaling a steep mountain before the book ends.)
Simultaneously, as I’m working out the details of what kind of external conflict will be most challenging for these people, I’ll also be figuring out the various themes of the book, and bringing in subplots and secondary characters that are connected in some way.
I think theme is one of my most valuable tools as a writer. Understanding my themes early in the process allows me to write a big, thick, dense book, filled with a variety of subplots and people and conflicts, and end up with a story that feels connected and whole.
Right now I’m working on a book where a major theme deals with the concept of a “geographic cure” or running away from trouble, heartache, responsibility–you name it, people frequently run from it, usually blindly and screaming! Escape, right? Because that running away can also happen completely inside of someone’s head. (We’ve all escaped from a deadly meeting or a painful dentist trip by calm-blue-oceaning ourselves out of the room!) A companion theme to escape is, of course, “wherever you go, there you are.”
So I’ve got all these characters who are running from something and my external conflict either has to force them to stop running, or create a situation where they choose to stop running and finally address their problems head-on.
One of the secondary characters in the book is a fifteen year old girl who is forced to live with her strict former-SEAL father after a childhood with a flighty, artsy, hippie-tinged mom. This girl, Alex, flirts with running away from this perceived hardship–and then, boom, she meets a boy whose little brother is in chemo for cancer. So this character who is all about escaping comes face to face with an entire group of people who are digging in and fighting a long, deadly, uphill battle–a fight that they will never run from . . .
And this is going on as kind of a descant to the hero and heroine’s story, where the escaping plays into the romantic conflict in a more figurative way.
JR: What sort of things do you look for in other writers? What draws you to a series or plot? Any favorite authors out there that you snap up the second their book hit the shelves?
SB: For me, it’s all about the writer’s voice. And connected to voice, I believe, is a writer’s love for language, and awareness of the sheer musicality of words put together poetically in sentences and paragraphs.
I love the irreverence and humor and grit that shines through in the voices of writers like Robert B. Parker and William Goldman.
I love the warmth and joy and poetry of Virginia Kantra–reading one of her books is like wrapping myself in a snuggly blanket and sitting near a hearth. It’s so delicious, but there’s no chance of nodding off to sleep, because she manages to be a compelling, suspenseful storyteller at the same time!
I love the dry and almost clinical descriptions of Lee Child, whether he’s telling Jack Reacher’s story in first person or third person POV. Brilliant stuff. He manages to provide glimpses into the mind of this iconic character from all angles.
I loved Suzanne Collins’s voice in her Hunger Games trilogy. I glommed those books in almost one sitting.
I was a fan of your voice, from our very first email exchange. I receive a lot of email from readers, and I read all of it. And I can tell within a few sentences if the sender is a writer. And it has nothing to do with grammar or spelling (although yours is always impeccable!), but rather that elusive and hard-to-define (and harder to learn how to do!) voice.
Your writing voice is so rich and strong and warm, with those wildly attractive layers of humor and irreverence.
Writing is a form of communication, whether we’re telling a story, or making plans to meet for dinner, or describing how to put together a piece of furniture.
The writers whose voices I love are those who make me, as a reader, feel as if I’m a vital part of their effort to communicate. Some writers deliver a story in a tone or voice that may be entertaining or compelling, but their delivery is more like shouting from a rooftop. The reader is one of a million in the mob below.
But writers whose voices are intimate . . . ? Reading their books make me feel as if they’re speaking directly to me–whether it’s Virginia Kantra sitting beside me on the sofa, or Lee Child grimly handing me a parka and telling me to cowboy-up, or Josh Roots pulling me right into the thick of a paranormal adventure.
(Now keep in mind that appreciation of voice is subjective. Just because I might not feel a strong connection to a certain writer’s voice doesn’t mean that you and a million other readers necessarily feel the same way. I can only analyze and comment on what works for me!)
For the record, I’m also a fan of TV and movie writers like Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon.
JR: Aside from the gargantuan mountain of your works we’ve already talked about, what upcoming projects are in the queue for you? That you’re allowed to tell us about, of course.
SB: I’ve got an indie movie called THE PERFECT WEDDING that I co-wrote and co-produced that’s available right now. It’s a sweet little boy-meets-boy holiday season rom-com — with a subplot that includes meaty roles for both James Rebhorn (he plays Carrie’s dad in HOMELAND) and Kristine Sutherland (who played Buffy’s mom in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER).
THE PERFECT WEDDING is being distributed by Wolfe Releasing (a major LGBT movie distributor) via internet streaming and download, on DVD (with a 12/3/13 release date), and through various On-Demand platforms, over the holiday season.
Here’s a link to watch a trailer and find out more about TPW: http://bit.ly/1hj1xfL
Writing and producing a movie was crazy-different from writing a novel. (I’ve written a number of articles and blogs about the experience — including a piece in the recent edition of RWA’s Romance Writers Report, and a blog over at Romance University, for those who want to check that out.)
Other projects: I’ve got a reissue of one of my earlier category romances called SCENES OF PASSION, out right now (11/26/13) from HQN. It’s packaged in a 2-in-1 retitled PASSION AND PERIL, along with a brand new story from romantic suspense author Jill Sorenson.
SCENES OF PASSION was first published by Silhouette’s Desire line back in 2003, and it’s my Community Theater-set romance! It’s about two former high school friends who reconnect when they both return to their hometown. They get involved in a local musical production, sparks fly, hi-jinx ensue . . .
Let’s see . . . I’ve already touched on NIGHT SKY, the YA book that I’m writing with my daughter, Melanie, published by Sourcebooks. (Although I should add that I think my romance reading audience will enjoy that book, too!) Watch for that in late 2014.
My next novel, DO OR DIE drops on 2/4/14 in hardcover and ebook from Ballantine Books, and in audio from Blackstone (formerly AudioGo).
I’m currently writing the sequel to DoD, which already has a title: ALL OR NOTHING. (And that’s kinda freakatascious–to have a title for a book where there’s only around 40 pages written so far…)
And… I’ve recently started blogging over at Huffington Post’s Gay Voices. I have quite a bit to say about LGBTQ rights, and Gay Voices gives me a lovely platform to do just that. My blogs are archived at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/suzanne-brockmann/
JR: Last one: What sort of advice would you give to up-and-coming writers? Any Do’s or Do Nots as they navigate the murky waters of publishing?
SB: Relatively early in my career, my writer friend Pat White gave me a copy of The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, and not a day goes by that I don’t find myself taking a deep breath and muttering (or shouting!)one of the agreements to myself.
I’ve found this little book of Toltec wisdom and philosophy extremely helpful, not just for my career, but for my entire life. (I highly recommend this book. It’s one to download onto your phone so you have it at all times!)
The four agreements are… (Spoiler alert! jk! But seriously, read this book to really understand this wonderful message. Also? The writer, Don Miguel Ruiz, might meander a bit at times, but his voice is beautifully warm and peaceful and wise. It’s a great book to read in small segments, over and over again, right before bed.)
So here’s the first agreement: Be impeccable with your word. The super-simple application for this one is: don’t talk trash or gossip about others in the industry. But I also apply it to my writing. I strive to create a truth in my books that I hope will help to enlighten readers, or at least reinforce their appreciation for diversity, and their faith in hope and kindness and love.
Number two, is: Don’t take anything personally. This is a biggie for those of us who create. It applies to those snarky or even downright terrible reviews that we’re all gonna get. It’s inevitable. No matter how brilliantly you write, SOMEone’s gonna hate it. But their hate is not about you–it’s about THEM. Don’t take it personally. Understand that and let it roll off your back.
At the same time, there’s a weird thing that happens if an author suddenly becomes the darling of the industry. While it’s lovely to ride that wave, it’s not a good thing to buy into it so completely that you start thinking that even your shit is gold. It’s important to not take this personally, too, and to understand that at least part of this success comes from being in the right place at the right time.
I’ve had those “right place right time” moments in my own career, which leads directly into agreement number four (jumping ahead a bit): Always do your best. I’ve revised that to read “Always do your personal best.”
If you’re your harshest critic (and most loving fan, because you drive yourself to always do your personal best), if you have an extremely high personal bar regardless of what your agent or editor wants from you, then every book you write will be amazing. Every book will (and should!) be a book of your heart. Remember that burning in the center of my chest that I mentioned earlier? I use that driving force not just to tell stories that matter to me, but to tell those stories well, in a way that will grab my readers and suck them in and make them remember the situations and characters, long after they’ve put the book down.
So if you follow this agreement, then when you find yourself in a “right place right time” situation, your book will get noticed, because like every book that you write, it’s your absolute best.
It’s important to state that “Always do your personal best” has a second part, which is “considering all of the hurdles life is currently throwing at you.” Your personal best is going to be vastly different if you have the flu, right? Similarly, my personal best at the start of my writing career was vastly different from my current personal best, fifty-five books in. With that in mind, I don’t look back at my first published book and wince. I look back and celebrate having done my personal best despite having had so much to learn!
Last but not least is the third (and for us the final) agreement: Don’t make assumptions. This is also a major Navy SEAL rule: Never assume. (It comes right after “The only easy day was yesterday,” and right before “Two is one, and one is none.”)
We often stumble through life afraid to ask questions, afraid we’ll look silly or stupid. Leaping to conclusions becomes something we do automatically, so the first thing we need to learn is to recognize when we’re doing it! And then stop! It’s far better to take a moment and admit that you don’t know the answer, rather than furiously filling in the blank with false assumptions.
Bong, bong, bong! I feel like we should end this interview with a meditation chime or two!
Thank you, Josh, for inviting me here and coming up with some really interesting questions!
No, no, thank YOU, Suz! And thanks to everyone who tuned in for the interview. If you’d like to learn more about Suzanne, her books (to include her impressive backlist), her movies, and her other countless activities, check her out at the links below.
After childhood plans to become the captain of a starship didn’t pan out, SUZANNE BROCKMANN took her fascination with military history, her respect for the men and women who serve, her reverence for diversity, and her love of storytelling, and explored brave new worlds as a New York Times bestselling romance author. Over the past twenty years, she has written more than fifty novels, including her award-winning Troubleshooters series about Navy SEAL heroes and the women—and sometimes men—who win their hearts. In addition to writing books, Suzanne Brockmann has co-produced a feature-length movie, the award- winning romantic comedy The Perfect Wedding, which she co-wrote with her husband, Ed Gaffney, and their son, Jason. She has also co-written a YA novel, set in the world of her paranormal Fighting Destiny series, with her daughter Melanie. Find Suz on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/SuzanneBrockmannBooks, follow her on Twitter @SuzBrockmann, and visit her website at www.SuzanneBrockmann.com to find out more about upcoming releases and appearances.
Movie website: www.ThePerfectWeddingMovie.com