Thursday, June 11, 2009

Special Guest Blogger: Janis Susan May!

Can you tell me a little about yourself?
My dear Anne, there is very little about me that is little! I’ve been a queen-sized woman (or, as I put it, a grown-up sized woman) all my life and have, my friends tell me, lived a larger-than-life life!
Personally, I think I’m rather dull. I love to cook and read and my favourite pick-me-up is a quick loll in the backyard hot tub, which was one of our wedding presents. I’m a seventh generation Texan – my family came here in the last gasps of the 1700s, when this area was a howling wilderness. I began work in our family’s advertising agency when I was nine, as a stripper. (Try telling people that you began work as a stripper when you were nine years old – it will stop a cocktail party dead in its tracks!) Actually, like most things it sounds a great deal more interesting than it actually was; all I did was take old layouts and strip off the bits we could use again – headlines, logos, sketch art, etc.
Later, in my young adult years, I sang opera and acted just about anywhere they’d have me, then after an illness cut short my singing career, I worked for a talent agency and started to write. Unfortunately, I bore easily, so I changed jobs with alarming frequency. The job with the talent agency lasted ten years, a record that nothing else has come close to equalling. I’ve worked for a travel agency, been editor in chief of two multi-magazine publishing groups, Supervisor of Accessioning for a bio-genetic DNA testing lab, a Spanish language income tax preparer… there’s more, but I don’t remember them at the moment.
I’ve travelled over a fair chunk of the world and lived in Mexico off and on for years, though now The Husband and I live in the house in which I grew up. And a very unusual house it is, too – my late mother’s dream home, every stick and brick designed by her, with no front door and no hallways. When my husband and I moved in, we added a second library. At the moment, we’re having designs drawn up for a third.
At one time during my wandering years I was engaged to three different men, who lived on three different continents, all at the same time. It was fun while it lasted!
All my life I’ve been fascinated with Ancient Egypt, and as an adult got very involved (and still am!) with the American Research Center in Egypt, a scholarly organization that probably encompasses most of the working Egyptologists in the world. In 2005 I was honoured to be the closing speaker at their International Conference. The North Texas Chapter, one of the most respected and active chapters, was founded in my den. I began and for nine years edited and published the NT/ARCE NEWSLETTER, which is archived as a scholarly resource by museums and institutions of higher learning all over the world. During the nine years of my tenure our NEWSLETTER was the only monthly publication for ARCE in the world. Still may be, for all I know!
The important thing about ARCE is that I met the man who was to become my husband at one of the meetings. He’s very handsome, several years younger than I, a Captain in the Navy Reserve (with two deployments to Iraq so far, the last one as Preventive Medicine Officer for the US Forces in Iraq), a sharpshooter and a Level One High Power Rocketeer. He also reads hieroglyphs. He proposed in the moonlit gardens of the Mena Hotel in Giza, just across the road from the Pyramids and six months later I became a first time bride at the age of 54. We count the length of our marriage in months and days – currently 98 months and a few days.
The only shadow on our happiness is that three weeks after our wedding my mother died suddenly. It had been just Mother and me for over 20 years, so the loss was devastating. My husband helped keep me sane – well, as sane as I’ve ever been. He doesn’t like me to work outside the home, so now I am a simple housewife whose main job is to spoil her husband, look after our varying menagerie of rescued cats and dogs and write books on the side. He’s very proud of my writing, and I call him my personal patron of the arts.
A page and a half! Goodness – but I did warn you that I don’t do anything little!

You were one of the founding members of Romance Writers America, what was that time like and what is your perspective of RWA now?
At the risk of sounding like a stereotypical, crotchety old woman, you kids today have no idea what it was like before RWA and the Internet, how alone and isolated we writers were. I sold my first novel (to Dell, a Candlelight Intrigue) in 1979, more by the grace of God and sheer good luck than by any contacts or skill. When I sold my first novel – and my second, for that matter – I had never even met another romance writer. In fact, I had only met one novelist at all, a much lauded and honoured mainstream novelist, an older man whose name you would definitely recognize. The only reason I knew him is that we shared a typewriter repairman and ran into each other two, maybe three times in the shop. He was a very nice and gracious man, but other than our repairman and the weather, we had nothing to talk about.
Then one day in the summer of 1980 my editor called me and asked if I would be interested in going to a meeting to see if an organization of professional romance writers might be feasible. I said sure, and when the meeting finally happened in December of that year, I was there in Houston.
I don’t know how to express what an experience that first meeting was. It was the first time that almost all of us had ever even been in the same room with other romance writers. The electricity was unbelievable. There were forty or fifty of us and I don’t think any of us ever shut our mouths that entire weekend. We talked about craft. We talked about business. We talked about blending family and work and writing. We talked about contracts and sell-throughs. We talked about every aspect of the writing business. The air itself seemed to shimmer with excitement. I couldn’t wait to get involved.
Then in January, just a few weeks later, my father passed away and I was swamped with grief, a devastated mother and a family business to keep afloat. For a few months RWA (and most everything else) was far from my mind and when I could get back into it, it was a totally different organization from that we had envisioned.
We made a mistake in not setting up RWA to have a tiered membership, with only published writers having full voting privileges. Every one of us who came to the organizational meeting was published, save for maybe two or three who were pre-published, in the correct usage of a now bastardized and much abused word – i.e., they were in the limbo between signing a contract and the book being released. We envisioned a professional organization for professional writers, roughly akin to the AMA for doctors or the Bar Association for attorneys. We didn’t anticipate the immense groundswell of wanna-be romance writers who would flood the organization demanding to be taught and becoming nasty (if not downright violent – I received several physical threats for speaking my opinions) if we published writers wanted to talk among ourselves about things that concerned us. We were, they said, being elitist and deliberately withholding the Magic Secret of Getting Published from them.
For years RWA was nothing more than a teaching organization, a fan organization, an ‘oh-my-we’re-all-real-writers-together-isn’t-it-wonderful’ organization painfully reminiscent of a squealing clique in a high school girls’ bathroom. It sponsored such abominations as official votes for the “Most Romantic” movies and TV shows. (Can you imagine the AMA holding a vote on the “Most Stylish Scrubs” or any such nonsense?) Whatever was proposed, it had to be totally inclusive of all unpublisheds no matter their skill level and so everything quickly dropped and was held to the most elementary level. Advocacy? That was an elitist idea benefiting the publisheds only, and therefore not interesting to the unpublished majority, who at one time outnumbered the publisheds at 9 to 1. ‘Working professionally’ was officially regarded as just the same as being ‘a professional.’ I kept my Charter Membership mainly for sentiment’s sake, but otherwise dropped out. A lot of publisheds dropped out as well, some of them forming NINC, a professional writers’ advocacy organization which is much closer to the original concept of RWA than RWA itself.
Then in recent years I started going to my local chapter meetings again, mainly for the camaraderie, and was pleasantly surprised. There’s still too much emphasis on the unpublished for my tastes, but now publisheds are regarded as more than a mere resource. I doubt if RWA will ever become the organization we originally envisioned, but now it is a great deal more balanced in its approach, with programs and policies useful to published authors as well as unpublished aspirants. As the Desiderata says, ‘everything is happening just as it is supposed to be.’ (A paraphrase – I don’t have a copy of it in front of me.) I think the writing world is richer for RWA being in it, but I cannot help but think how much more it could have been if it were as we originally dreamed.

Tell us a little about your books?
I told you I bore easily, so it’s not surprising that my books are all over the map. In my first writing career (1979-1995) I wrote what was then called romantic suspense, traditional Regencies, historical Gothics, and contemporary mystery romances. I then quit when it became necessary for me to take over not only the physical but the financial care of my mother. When I began writing again in 2005 at the urging of my husband, I found the writing world had changed. Most of the editors with whom I had worked had been promoted to the stratosphere, quit the business or died. New types of books were popular. It was like starting all over again, and that’s not easy.
Since 2005 I’ve sold two traditional Regencies – SECOND CHANCE and THE FAIR AMAZON; a time travel to Ancient Egypt – PASSION’S CHOICE; a contemporary romantic adventure – THE OTHER HALF OF YOUR HEART; two vintage (pre-1968 setting) mystery-adventure-romances – DARK MUSIC and ECHOES IN THE DARK, and – most surprising to me – a children’s book titled DANNY AND THE DUST BUNNIES. (My husband is delighted that my bad housekeeping has finally paid off!) I also did a short story called WEDDING DAY for inclusion in an anthology about grandmothers finding love again.
The book of my heart, however, is a memoir of my mother called THE LAND OF HEART’S DELIGHT. From 1941 to 1944 Mother was a county home demonstration agent in the bleak South Texas ranchland, an area as different from our North Texas home as a foreign country. She even had to learn Spanish to talk to some of the residents.
My father always said that Mother was blessed with the ‘gift of incident’ – she could stand in the middle of an empty room with her arms crossed and still get into more trouble than any two other people. I grew up on the stories of her adventures; she was always going to write a book, but Mother was not a writer and she never got around to it. After her death, though, while going through her papers I found a rough outline and some rudimentary chapters. Well, I knew the stories, so I wrote the book from her viewpoint and put her name on it as author with mine as collaborator. It was my tribute to her.
I’ve written some other books in this time, too – two traditional murder mysteries, a spy story, a tasty horror story about a possessed statue, and a couple of romances. Perhaps when they sell you’ll let me come back to talk about them?

How do you fit in reading, research, online lists, etc?
If you saw my house, you wouldn’t have to ask that question. Luckily my wonderful husband is very easy-going and much more likely to wield the vacuum cleaner than I, though I do love to cook.
I’m afraid reading has sort of fallen by the wayside recently, especially fiction. When I’m truly immersed in a project, I don’t like to read anything in the same general area as that in which I’m working. Now when I read to relax, it’s usually non-fiction; lately it’s been a lot of Egyptology, as we’re scheduled to go back to Luxor for a couple of weeks this winter. When I’m working on my scholarly stuff, I have to relax with something light and fluffy and totally made-up.
Research is a danger, a time-sink, a trap. I love it. I can spend days researching a minor point that probably no one but I would question. It is just so fascinating to me to run little-known facts to earth, to find out how people really lived in another time, to find things that seem unbelievable but are unquestionably true.
Online lists – I’m on way too many, and have developed a bad habit of skipping posts by the handsful, thinking “I’ll catch up later.” I never do, of course.

Do you spend much time marketing? And what do you feel works best for you?
Apparently not enough. Oddly enough, one of my earliest disciplines was marketing, but it is so much easier to do for someone else rather than oneself. I was brought up in a time and a home where to vaunt oneself (“Hey, look at me! Look what I did!”) was considered pushy and vulgar. Even interviews like this make me slightly uncomfortable, and you, dear Anne, are not only kindness itself, but a friend.
Paradoxically, I love doing TV and radio shows – as an old warhorse of a performer, they are second nature – and book signings can be great fun, almost like having a literary salon. It’s only setting up these venues that’s a bore. When I can afford one, I hire a publicist to set things up for me and to my mind that’s ideal. Unfortunately, my writing income doesn’t stretch to one very often.
Of course, I am an old-school dinosaur who believes that everyone should be doing what they do best and what is most practical to achieve the desired outcome – i.e., book sales. Writers should be putting their energies to writing the best books they can. Publishers should be putting out these books, and by that I mean more than just creating paper objects or electronic files; publishers should be doing the lion’s share of the publicity. Publishers have the contacts; to expect the writers to go out – taking time from writing – and find, contact and utilize the publicity venues, each writer on his own individually, is akin to each writer having to reinvent the wheel. Writers should be writing. (Now I don’t want to tar all publishers with the same brush; some – generally the smaller ones more than the big boys – are quite good about doing a fair chunk of the publicity. I’m talking about the industry as a whole.) Having each writer do exactly the same thing on an individual basis (finding publicity venues and using them) when a publisher could do large numbers at the same time is not a logical use of time and resources. End of rant.

For all those aspiring writers out there who are looking for that magic formula - do you have any suggestions for them?
Ah, the Magic Secret of Getting Published. Everyone wants it, but it doesn’t exist – as a secret, that is. In a nutshell, hard work. Write a good book. Learn the rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling, and break them only rarely and then only with very good reason. Rewrite. Edit ruthlessly. Repeat as necessary until your story is so cohesive and polished it shines like a mirror.
It shouldn’t have to be said, but grammar, punctuation and spelling count! They’re important. They are the basis on which we communicate. The quality of so many manuscripts I see today is appalling, as are some of the books actually published. It doesn’t matter how good your story is, if it’s presented in a semi-literate way that’s two strikes against it right there. Communication is language, and for it to be mutually understood there has to be a bedrock of rules. Can you tell I spent a great deal of my life as an editor?

What’s coming up for you in your writing career?
Heaven only knows! Having been told I’m better with dead bodies than live ones, I’ve been doing a couple of straight mysteries, which I will publish under the name of Janis Patterson. (It is my legal married name, it honors my husband and – with any luck at all – will get me shelved next to James Patterson!) It’s a little frightening how much I enjoy killing people. Want to stop a conversation dead in its tracks? When someone asks you what you do, tell them in a sweet, dulcet voice, “I kill people.” Fun! I once did that to a radio talk show host acquaintance of ours while we were on the air – not a book show, by the way – and it took him almost 15 seconds of dead air to get some words back in his mouth. On air, 15 seconds is a lo-o-o-ong time.
Seriously, I am always trying to grow as a writer, to expand my abilities and try new things. I even wrote two erotica books – under a pseudonym that shall never be revealed! – and disliked the experience intensely. I find sex on the page boring, as I’ve never read a sex scene that can match either my imagination or my memories! Besides, I was brought up in a very proper home where we were taught there are some things one does – and while one may do them very well and one may enjoy them thoroughly – but one simply doesn’t talk about them! I’ve wondered if that ‘close the bedroom door, please’ attitude is why I don’t sell better in romance. If it is so, I feel sorry for us as a world of readers. There are some things which lose their magic and their special-ness when exposed in the glaring light of public attention.
A year or two ago a reviewer absolutely sent me over the moon when she called me the logical successor to Phyllis A. Whitney and Virginia Coffman. My feet didn’t touch ground for a week! I love to write and read the old style Gothic romances – lots of atmosphere and romance and mystery and maybe spooky stuff, but all squeaky clean. All things change, and I hope the wheel turns and that kind of book returns to wide-spread fashion. And while I’m still alive, too, if that’s not asking too much, because I have a number of absolutely yummy manuscripts!
To return to practicalities, I am at the moment trying to get an agent, and after 16-18 novels it shouldn’t be this difficult. It seems that agents today are more interested in finding a single quick sale book which they love than in creating a lasting relationship with a writer. I’ve had agents in the past and, unfortunately, the only one I’d really want to have again died. Still, I keep looking because so many of the top publishers refuse to look at any unagented projects, an attitude I find not only self-defeating but idiotic, as it makes the agent’s taste the criteria for what is considered rather than their own.
Excerpt from The Fair Amazon:
Left to his own devices, Sir Trevor Longchamps would just as soon have spent the evening his rooms, perhaps splitting a bottle and a bird with one or two of his old friends. Last night’s dissipations at the Arunelots’ ball had left him more wrung out than he would have thought possible. If he had had any idea that she might have been there, he would much have preferred to call on Diana at her home and spend a quiet evening in her company. Such lack of energy was disconcerting to him, he who used to ride without tiring for hours on end, he who had ridden then marched three days straight in the field as the rain had fallen in an endless curtain. To find that now he should be as weak as a stripling, finding excursions on two straight nights tiring was almost oversetting and definitely maddening.
To encourage the thaw between his mother and his beloved, though, he would endure a thousand theatre evenings. The invitation, personally extended to Diana by his aunt and seconded by his mother, had left him almost speechless and filled with a quiet happiness. The idea of marrying without familial approval was horrible, unacceptable, but he was beginning to see that no matter how acceptable her breeding his adored one was from a different level of society. What annoyed him, though, was that he couldn’t tell how he knew; there was no one incident, no slip that he could point to, it was just something of which he was becoming aware.
“You are most punctual, Trevor,” said Lady Barnstaple, extending her hand for his kiss. “Welcome, Miss Wintersea.”
Her eyes wide in taking in the most beautiful room she had ever seen, Miss Wintersea dropped a curtsey first to Lady Barnstaple and then to Lady Longchamps and hoped that she did not resemble a gaping hayseed.
“Please sit down, Trevor, you loom over me like a tree!” ordered Lady Barnstaple, the merest hint of a smile taking the sting from her words. “No, not you, Miss Wintersea. Please take that chair so that we may see you more easily.” Her ladyship gestured to a dainty gilt chair between the party and the door, placed almost as a witness box before the court.
Trevor’s half-smile twisted. If his Diana were to be accepted into this circle, it was obvious she would have to earn the honor. There was no way around it though, so he sent her an encouraging nod, then gave a wink to his younger sister. Edwina, her face stiff and her eyes large, who was seated behind her mother and Lady Barnstaple. She had not been introduced, as was proper with a girl not yet out.
With the grace of an anointed queen the Incomparable Miss Wintersea seated herself where indicated and calmly faced her inquisitors. It was not her fault that she looked like a child pretending to be an adult, or that the chair had legs so tall her feet swung free above the floor.
“You come from Yorkshire, I believe,” stated Lady Longchamps as if the place itself were suspect.
“Yes,” Miss Wintersea replied with the proper blend of humility and pride. “My family has held Hallam Castle since the days of Good Queen Anne. It was a reward to my ancestor for his service to the Crown under Marlborough.”
“Couldn’t have been very good service if it only got him a castle in Yorkshire,” Lady Barnstaple said not quite sotto voce to Lady Longchamps.
The door opened.
“Dear Godmother, Lady Longchamps, I fear I am dreadfully late…” Georgina’s voice faded.
The older ladies’ planning had been perfect. From Sir Trevor’s viewpoint he could see both young women with ease. The differences between them were blatantly obvious, as was their surprise. It was all the two elder ladies could do to keep from grinning.
The moment she realized what was happening, Miss Wintersea had stood and turned, realizing too late that her lack of inches was in this case a distinct disadvantage. Regrettably, to scramble back into the too-tall chair was too undignified an action to be considered, so she simply stood there as if it were what she really wished to do.
What Diana really wished was to be far away at the moment. Her gown, a airy, highly-trimmed confection of purest white, complimented her dark looks and gave her a nearly exotic aspect. By comparison to the other lady, it also was obvious that it had come from a less than premiere modiste; even worse, the fashionable profusion of lace and floss knots made her look almost as if she had suffered a collision with a bag of feathers.
Startled, Georgina stopped short and unconsciously presented herself in the most flattering aspect. She was clad in a gown so simple it might have been called severe. The underdress of was of the palest gold satin and topped with a gauzy overdress of cream randomly shot with gold threads that winked faintly in the light. Around her neck was a single enormous citrine borrowed from her godmother; smaller citrines flashed in her ears. Her golden hair, let grow long for the convenience of pinning it out of the way, had not been cut; now it was piled into a simple corona like a crown around her head, with only a few careful tendrils allowed to fall about her face. Pale and cool and elegant, she could have been a fairy queen, or even a real queen, if any of them had such exquisite taste.
Trevor sat forward, gasping as if he had been struck. For an uncomfortable moment he saw three women – the smiling, wild half-child Georgina he had left behind to go to war, the gray and drawn hag he had found on his return and this – this goddess! – before they merged in his suddenly fevered brain. This was Georgina? How…?
“My dear, this is Miss Diana Wintersea of Yorkshire, an acquaintance of Trevor’s,” Lady Barnstaple said with a perfect aplomb that did not quite completely mask the mischief bubbling in the back of her eyes. “Miss Wintersea, allow me to present my goddaughter, Miss Georgina Montcalm of High Barrow House.”
Georgina had been trained well. Later she was told she had spoken most properly, extending her hand to Miss Wintersea and greeting Trevor, both with the proper combination of familiarity and restraint. She remembered nothing of it, nor of the dinner that followed.
At least, she thought as her swansdown-trimmed cape of golden velvet was draped about her shoulders, the worst was over. In the theatre all she need do would be watch the play. Nothing untoward could happen there.
Thanks Janis Susan!
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