Writer's Corner for October, 2006

Anne Stuart

Oct 29: I just discovered a question and answer that weren't formatted properly and so didn't appear. I've rectified the error and here is a lost question and answer from my interview with Anne Stuart.

Anne Stuart's A Rose at Midnight was among the first group of romances I read...obviously I lucked out. She's had a prolific career spanning thirty years, and while her books haven't always had buzz surrounding them, her 2005 release Black Ice was one of the most talked about books of last year. Right after we posted our review of the book, readers began to clamor for an epilogue, and Stuart was gracious enough to create an impromptu one for one of our message boards. So many people asked for it, week in and week out (and still do), that months after she posted the epilogue, I created a faux pop-up for it on the site. The excitement surrounding that book led to Stuart's tie in our annual reader poll for author most glommed.

I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Anne Stuart this summer at the national RWA Conference. While I included tidbits about a plethora of authors, her tidbit about the upcoming Cold as Ice generated lots of discussion, not only at AAR, but on the blogosphere. The controversy surrounding the book is that its hero-on-the-edge, spy Peter Jensen, has total control over his body, which allows him to use it on both men and women (sexually, if necessary) to fulfill his missions. I recently read Cold as Ice, and found Peter Jensen as delicious as promised.

Interspersed with the type of questions you've come to expect in an AAR interview are parts of the Proust Questionnaire. Anne Stuart is nothing if not candid and refreshing. Enjoy!

--Laurie Likes Books

 

Although it didn't seem to me when reading Cold as Ice that Peter Jensen was bi-sexual, many readers, before the fact, are wondering whether he is bi-sexual, which created generated a lot of discussion. What do you think of all the hoopla and would you consider writing a heroine with sexual ambiguity in her background?

Peter isn't bisexual. He's heterosexual, but able to perform whatever he's called upon to do, and he has no qualms or squeamishness about having sex with a man if it's part of his undercover role (no pun intended).

I'm actually not that interested in sexual orientation, I'm interested in falling in love. There's a wonderful movie called Losing Chase where the heroine, a middle-aged wife and mother who's just had a nervous breakdown, falls in love with her female caretaker, and I found that fascinating. I think one can be heterosexual but fall in love with someone of the same gender. My heroines don't tend to be wildly sexually experienced, whereas my heroes are, but I think interesting things could come from unexpected intimacies.

But in general, because I'm a woman who likes men, that tends to be what I write about. I can read and appreciate alternatives, but I write my own fantasies, and I'd rather fantasize about having sex with Bastien Toussaint than having sex with another woman. Just a matter of taste.

Cold as Ice will be published next month. What are you working on now, and what can you tell us about the March 2007 release?

I'm working on the fourth book in the Ice series, tentatively called Ice Storm. This is about Isobel Lambert, who isn't nearly as old as she pretends to be (she's actually in her late thirties) and the most dangerous man in the world. A mercenary from her past, and the reason she got into the business in the first place. And the spring release, which I think is April, is Ice Blue, the third in the series. The hero is Takashi O'Brien, who first showed up in Cold as Ice. He's half-Japanese, half American, from a Yakuza (Japanese gangster) background, and he's elegant and deadly. The heroine is Summer Hawthorne, the daughter of Hollywood royalty, a museum curator who's in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the two of them (plus the Committee and most of the free world) are up against the Shirosama of the True Realization Fellowship, a Japanese cult leader who plans to expand on the subway gassings in Tokyo.

I know from our discussions at RWA that Ice Blue was inspired by by some Japanese actors. And since I've had the pleasure of reading Cold as Ice, I know the book must be about the agent on Van Dorn's ship. Please give us a bit more detail about who his heroine will be.

His heroine, Summer Hawthorne, is in possession of a priceless antique Japanese ceramic and certain information she doesn't realize she has. The crazy cult leader needs the ceramic to perform the ritual that will signal a wave of germ and chemical warfare (not unlike the plans of the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan) Taka has to keep the cult leader from getting it, and he's been ordered to kill Summer rather than risk letting the cult leader get his hands on the ceramic and the information. Which he attempts to do on more than one occasion, and it takes Summer a while to realize the gorgeous Japanese man who's supposedly protecting her is actually trying to kill her. Makes for a pretty tricky situation. And he's got a bizarre cousin who calls himself Reno who takes one look at Summer's Amazonian baby sister and falls in love, but that's for another book.

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Summer is a loner - fiercely protective of her younger sister but distanced from her shallow mother (a follower of the cult) and her overbearing stepfather. Her best friend is killed trying to help her early on, and she's stuck in a tough situation through no fault of her own. She was molested as a child by one of her mother's Hollywood friends, with her mother's silent complicity, and while she's managed to have sex she doesn't really like it much. Until she meets Taka.

When you started this "Ice" series, did you plan a series, or did it evolve once you began to write Black Ice?

No, I didn't plan a series at all. I tend to shy away from series - for me to plan one seemed too deliberate to me, too studied. But when it came time to write the next book after Black Ice I kept being in the same kind of world, and I was afraid I was repeating myself. And then I realized, no, I just wasn't ready to leave this world.

But trust me, I agonized over the decision. I never make smart choices when it comes to my career - it's with a perverse sense of pride that I use my heart and muse instead of my head to guide me. Not realizing that they aren't mutually exclusive.

But fortunately Jill Barnett and Barbara Samuel sat me down and told me not to be an idiot, bless them. And once I gave up fighting it, I had a wonderful time.

Do you have plans for any historicals in the future, and in particular, is a sequel to Devil's Waltz is on the horizon?

I'm under contract for another historical, though probably not a sequel to Devil's Waltz. At this point that's on hold while I concentrate on the contemporaries, but eventually I'll get back to them. I have a wickedly wonderful idea for a medieval.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness? Not having to worry about anyone, feeling somehow responsible for them. The last moment of complete happiness for me was two summers ago when I went to hear L'arc-en-ciel in Baltimore (a J-rock group). If I'd been Angel I would have lost my soul.

There've been other delighted moments, like when I got the starred review in PW for Black Ice, or when my kid got the highest score on a test (the kid with learning issues) or when my husband and children are happy.

But basically, some of my happiest moments have been in concerts.

What is your greatest fear? My greatest fear is that something will happen to my children. My father died young, my brother at age 40 from alcoholism, my 18 year old nephew in a car accident. And we don't have a large family - there's no one to spare.
What is your favorite way of spending time? Quilting. Buying fabric. Watching movies. Driving my snazzy car (an Electric Blue PT Cruiser with a moon-roof and bulletholes) and blasting the music. Reading a wonderful book. Disney World. Life's full of glorious things.
Which living person do you most admire? Hmmm. I admire Johnny Depp for his iconoclastic career choices. I admire Jenny Cruisie for her indefatigable hard work. I admire the fictional character in Tin Cup (played by Kevin Costner). I admire people who make the tough choices and have big hearts.
Who are your favorite fictional characters? Well, among others it's the Tin Cup character. The hero in Seize the Fire. The protagonists in Robin McKinley's Sunshine (best book I've read in a decade). Spike on Buffy.
Who are your heroes in real life? Oh, the revolting answer is my husband of 31 years, but it's true. My nephew, who died saving someone else. My brother, who did everything for everybody.
What is your most treasured possession?

That's a tough one. While I love things, and love to shop, I don't get too hung up on possessions.

I guess my most treasured possession is my gift. I protect it, nourish it, cherish it, and never take it for granted. Obnoxious, but true.

Readers had the chance to submit questions for you to answer, and one that cropped up more than once was this: Why do you create such extreme heroes while playing it safe with most of your heroines, and why doesn't more of your wit and idiosyncrasies appear in your heroines?

Ah, my heroines. I know that some people find my heroines a little too conventional, and I'm sorry for that. My fantasies tend to be about ordinary women put in extraordinary situations, with extraordinary men. Genevieve Spenser, the heroine in Cold as Ice, fights back - she doesn't curl up in a ball and cry when things get tough. But instinctively I identify with women who are strong but vulnerable, overwhelmed by the larger than life circumstances they've fallen into. I dunno - it must have something to do with my childhood. Or maybe I'm such a strong personality that I figure I don't need to force it on my heroines. Who knows? It is something I've been thinking about - I hate the thought that people find my heroines lacking.

I've never been troubled by your heroines; your heroes tend to be so dysfunctional as people that I doubt if the heroines were different (Ghislaine from A Rose at Midnight aside), the couple would be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. <g> You said that you hate the idea that readers would think this way about your heroines. Can you expand upon that?

I love my heroines. They respond the way I respond, with bravado and emotion and panic and courage. Sometimes they run, sometimes they stay and fight. And I suppose a woman who runs isn't politically correct, but god, sometimes you just want to. When things get overwhelming you just want to get away from the pain, stop thinking about it and hide. At least, I do.

So my heroines fall apart. They also stay with a dangerous man when they shouldn't, but you know, that's part of the appeal. It's like being mesmerized by a beautiful wild animal -- you know he can rip your throat out but you can't look away.

I've said this before, but in a way my heroes are like real-life vampires. They live in darkness, they kill to survive, and for a woman to give herself to them she risks everything. The loss of her life, her soul, her world.

Which for me is a powerful fantasy. But yeah, it probably seems as if the heroine is TSTL for not running away.

Is it easier or more difficult today to push the romance envelope?

I'd say easier. Business as usual is no longer working as well as it has been. I've always been extremely lucky in being able to take chances in my writing, even when I was writing series romances. I've got good instincts, and I can manage to make stuff work that normally would terrify an editor. And in this tight market, when the safe stuff is no longer selling as well as it was, I think people are more ready to take a chance.

Are there any envelopes you won't push, and are there any you still would like to push?

Well, I can't deal with child sexual abuse at all. I couldn't have a character falsely accused of it because I think it's so prevalent that I'd have a hard time believing in their innocence. Apart from that, I think I'd do anything the book needed, whether it was shocking or not. It's important not to set out to shock people - pushing the envelope simply for the sake of doing so is a disservice to the work. But if the plot or characters called for something that might be hard for people to accept, I'd still have to write it. And I'm not really afraid of anything.

As someone who writes both historicals and contemporaries, do you see any difference in readership for either sub-genre? How about limitations or freedoms in one but not the other?

There's some difference. The historicals I write are a little lighter and more adventurous than my contemporaries, though probably darker than most writer's historicals. There's a safety in the historical fantasy - it's a different time, and you can give yourself up to the story without reality creeping in. In a contemporary, it's everyday life, albeit larger than life, and that can be unsettling. There are a number of people who won't read my contemporaries-- they're too edgy for them. Though I certainly wrote some romantic-suspense romps for Harlequin American in the good old days.

A reader asks why do you think some of your old titles remain so popular (Demonwood, The Demon Count, The Demon Count's Daughter, Lord Satan's Bride, The Spinster and the Rake)? The Demon Count (for example) is selling on Amazon Used Marketplace in a range of $13 to $49. Further, do you know if any of these will be reissued?

I think my rare older books are so valuable because I'm still writing, still getting better. There are plenty of wonderful older books out there from people who started a little after I did and then dropped out, but because I keep writing, people are curious about the hard to find older books. And of course, she says with no false modesty, most of those older books are wonderful. I have the rights back to most of them, but I'm not famous enough to have reprints. Yet. Fortunately Harlequin keeps their books in print on a fairly regular basis.

One of our pollsters is an unabashed fangirl. When I asked if there was anything she'd like to find out from you as a result of this interview, she wrote: "I'm an Anne Stuart fangirl but I would just sit and stare at her. I have no clue about what I would ask her except for her publishing schedule for the next ten years so I would know when all her books would come out. So basically, what is she working on now. And, are there stories that she hasn't been able to tell because of the market or her publisher?"

I love it that I have fangirls. Because I'm such a fangirl when it comes to J-rock, it really tickles me that some people consider themselves my fangirls. Upcoming schedule - Cold as Ice, November 2006, Ice Blue, April 2007, The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes, July 2007, Ice Storm (tentative title) November 2007, and presumably Reno's story in spring of 2008. Plus I'm still under contract for another historical whenever the market brightens.

(Oct 29: I just discovered a question and answer that weren't formatted properly and so didn't appear. I've rectified the error and here is a lost question and answer from my interview with Anne Stuart.)

You've had a long publishing history w/a lot of publishers. At one time I thought your best books were your Avon historicals, but I think your recent MIRA books have been really good. Talk as openly as you can about the various publishers and how you feel about your current contract.

Oh, crap. I'm always honest, you know. I've had trouble with publishers all along. I probably shouldn't have left Avon -- they were for sale at the time I left and they didn't seem to have a business plan, so I foolishly thought I could do better. That was right before they started doing everything right. Zebra didn't know what to do with me. At the time I was with them they seemed to have lost the ability to sell historical romance -- all their successes were with suspense. They overpaid me and then let the books disappear. Which devastated me, but at least I learned that going for the money is not always a Good Thing.

I don't know what the problem was with Signet. I wrote four really really good books for them, and they started out very enthusiastic, but that enthusiasm waned over the years. Those are the sort of things that break a writer's heart.

So now I'm with Mira, who promised to love, honor and adore me. And maybe they do, but they could do more. I know every writer says that, and I hate to be greedy and ungrateful, but they're not so much about the books. They're about slots and numbers, not about passion for what they're putting out there. Or so it seems to me. But then, right now I'm pretty disillusioned about the lack of support from them. I'll get over it. Maybe they're right and I'm wrong and I'm a middle of the road writer.

No, they're wrong. I'm a goddess.

And maybe I've misjudged them. It seems to me that they look at my books like boxes of cereal on a shelf, and they're in the business of selling cereal, not loving it.

Rats. You had to ask me that question! Some day I'll learn to be discreet.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? It's a different one for each book. Last one had tiny, little always together, inside of tiny or little. Caught it in revisions, fortunately. The book I'm doing with Jenny Crusie had "thrummed" about six times. Caught that too
What's your favorite swear word? I don't give a flying f_ck. Then again, I never met a swear word I didn't like. I occasionally use the mother of all swear words, c_nt, for shock effect.
What would you regard as the lowest depths of misery? When my 18 year old nephew died and then when my 40 year old brother died. After that, when I had to send my son away to a special school because of his emotional and substance issues. Hard, hard, hard. But he's fine now.
 What are the qualities you most admire in a man? In real life? Compassion, a sense of humor, selflessness, creativity.
 What are the qualities you most admire in a woman? The same, but add friendliness. I live in a fairly unfriendly place.
 What is it you most dislike?

Well, politics aside, I most dislike cruelty. (Yeah, I know, my heroes can be very cruel. Then they get past it.)

And child abuse. Very much a hot button for me, but it really is for everyone.

 What living person do you most despise? I was going to avoid politics <g>. George Bush
 What do you value most in your friends? Loyalty, of course. Looking out for me. Taking care of me. I'm someone who takes care of the world, striding through life, never needing help until I fall apart. Really good friends step in and help, even take over. I'm not a control freak -- it doesn't have to be done my way, but I'm afraid if I don't take care of things then nobody will. A good friend steps in and takes care of things.

What are your favorite books or authors in and outside of romance, and what books/authors have influenced you as a writer?

Well, I have to rule out my personal friends (which include far too many people, which actually is a good thing). I adore Laura Kinsale and Loretta Chase (I only know them slightly). Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart were always my favorites. I like the Tara Janzen books and the JR Ward books that are coming out now, and my favorite book of the last few years was Sunshine by Robin McKinley.

I imagine the early gothics I devoured probably influenced me quite a bit - I still have a faintly gothic sensibility in my writing. But I also think I've got a pretty original voice, honed from years of working at the craft.

One thing I admire about the Ice books is that the writing is spare. I'm also reading Devil's Waltz and find that as well. I've read and loved some of your early 1990s Avon historicals, but don't recall that same spareness. How has your writing changed over the years?

I would assume I'm getting better. though my very first book was pretty cool. Clumsy, but original. But you know, I think I've always been relatively compact in my writing. I'm someone who always has to fill in stuff during revisions, not cut. I remember with my second Avon (that came between A Rose at Midnight and To Love a Dark Lord), my editor asked me to juice up the ending because it was too tight/spare, terse/whatever.

I adore writers who have a gift for lyrical prose and description, but I also like my style. It is spare, tidy, without a lot of extraneous "oh my darlings" once we get to the end. I like things tight.

One example of the spareness is in the ending to Cold as Ice. I know that you've said the epilogues of your historicals are as baby-filled as everyone's <g>, but we are still asked for the epilogue you created for our readers for Black Ice and so created a permanent page for it. I think the ending of Cold as Ice, while certainly not leaving the couple married, manages to be a bit more "heartwarming". Talk some more about endings, and compare and contrast the endings for Devil's Waltz and Cold as Ice.

My absolute favorite ending was in Nightfall (also one of my all-time favorite books). The hero's totally bad-ass - I felt that circumstances had made him borderline psychotic. The characters go through all sorts of things, separate, and at the very end he suddenly appears in her father's apartment. The ending goes something like:

"Why have you come back?" she asked.
"For you," he said.
And that was enough.

Love that ending! Didn't see it coming and when I wrote it, it was just right.

I think it depends on the book. If there's a real question as to how the characters will do in the future I give them that future. In A Rose at Midnight my characters were so damaged that we really needed the happy ending spelled out. And people love the epilogue I did for Cinderman.

But with other books, even favorites, I'll just end them. I'm pretty sure Lord of Danger and Lady Fortune, my two favorite Zebra historicals, didn't have epilogues.

With the contemporaries, the style is pretty tight and fast anyway. And I'm hoping I've given enough in the book to assure the reader they're getting their HEA.

Your comment about the hero from Nightfall fascinates me as I just read an interview with Clint Eastwood in Time magazine about his heroes. Richard Schickel asked why Eastwood's heroes tend to be so ambiguous, and his response was that he feels heroes are often disturbed, adding that he thinks "a lot of people who do extraordinary heroic things sometimes have got some sort of a little insanity thing". Care to comment?

Interesting. I think I agree. There's got to be a kind of madness in necessary violence - a disassociated state. Richard Tiernan in Nightfall was borderline psychotic because of what he'd been through. His need to protect his children, even living under the suspicion of murdering them in order to keep the General away from them, was psychotic behavior, but absolutely necessary in his eyes after he let his wife bleed to death in his arms.

And Richard was most definitely morally ambiguous. Could he have saved his wife by calling for an ambulance? He doesn't know, and I think doesn't care. He did what he had to do.

Anyway, mental health is overrated <g>.

I'd like to thank Anne Stuart for her patience during what turned out to be a very erratic interview schedule. And, after Cold as Ice is released, let us know what you think about it!

Anne Stuart at AAR




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