(This interview originally written for The Romance Reader in 1996)
I first heard about Lorraine Heath last summer on the Prodigy romance Bulletin Board -- there were dozens of notes posted about her books being wonderful two-hanky (at least) reads. Since she and I live in the same metropolitan area, I promised myself I would read her next release. That was Always to Remember. I was so struck by its subtlety and wonderfully rendered hero that I was delighted when Lorraine agreed to talk about her writing.
In Always to Remember, author Lorraine Heath has created a book filled with memorable scenes and believable characters, deliberately eschewing the superhuman heroes and heroines, incredible settings and unbelievable deeds found in most romances. The hero, Clayton, is an ordinary man caught up in the extraordinary circumstances of the Civil War. When he refuses to fight in the war, he is labeled a coward by the Confederacy and shunned by the people in the Southern town where he grew up.
Clayton is a quiet man of great strength, dignity, and heroism. He was born out of Lorraine's imagination, with a bit of help from public television.
"I have always been fascinated by memorials and cemeteries. While watching a PBS special on the Civil War, a comment was made that often men from the same town served in the same unit so if a unit was wiped out, the town had no men to return to it. It mentioned how hard this was on the townspeople," she recalls. "I began to wonder, what if only one man returned and everyone thought he was a coward since he survived, but he really wasn't? And what if the town wanted a memorial, and he was the only one with the skills to make it? And the story began to develop from there."
Heath prefers to draw her characters from the richness of real-life experiences.
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"My father was my hero; my mother the heroine of my life," Heath says. " Too often we look to celebrities as role models, heroes, heroines. I think we need to look closer to home. I try to reflect this thought in my characters. I try not to make them larger than life."
Heath has been a writer for almost as long as long as she can remember. She penned her first story, about a man in love with a mermaid, when she was seven, continuing to write all through high school in college. Born in England to a British mother and American father who served in the U.S. Air Force, Heath moved to Texas when she was a baby, growing up in the small town of Angleton. She attended the University of Texas in the late '70s, where she met her husband and graduated with a degree in psychology.
Despite the distractions of school and then family, she always carried in the back of her mind the niggling desire to write fiction. "I thought of novel writing as making a quilt," Heath says. "I'd dearly love to have a handmade quilt but have neither the patience nor the skills to make one; it's easier to buy one already made."
Heath was not a lifelong fan of the romance genre. Then one day she picked up LaVyrle Spencer's Morning Glory. With a floral-motif cover instead of half-naked people, she had no idea it was a romance.
She quickly fell in love. "I started reading all the romances I could find with flowers on the covers. Eventually, I became bold and bought a cover with a bare-chested man on the front. From that moment on, I bought the books based on the stories and not on the covers. And I began to realize that perhaps the stories I've always had rummaging around in my head would fall under the category of romance."
She was still hesitant to tackle a full-length novel, thinking it would "take too long to write," so she tested her writing skills with children's books. "I received wonderful rejects. But in the corner of my heart lived the desire to write a novel. After I read Morning Glory, the desire became an obsession."
With each book, Heath says she faces a new set of challenges. With Parting Gifts, Heath had promised her editor that the ending would not leave readers depressed. As a result, she worked diligently at softening the sadness and melding laughter into the story.
In Always to Remember, Lorraine wanted to avoid preachiness. She succeeded, partly because she skillfully allows the secondary characters to pass along key bits of information to the reader, conveying points subtly, without annoying the reader with sermons or grandiose events.
Determining which story to tell is one of many decisions an author must make. Some authors start with an opening scenario, while others literally begin at the end of the book. Many writers focus on plot, then work in characters.
Heath works on visualizing a critical scene and then builds her books and characters around it. "I'll usually write that scene so I can stay focused on the story. When I begin to wander off in all directions, I'll read the scene to reinforce what I want to accomplish with this story. In Always to Remember, that crucial scene was the night the men of Cedar Grove came to 'visit' Clay."
In that scene, the local townsmen, faces covered, launch a brutal, late-night attack on Clayton for his "cowardice." Meg witnesses the ugly scene and begins to question her own beliefs, while reconsidering the meaning of courage.
"Someone recently asked me where I (get the inspiration for my characters). I told him that I wished I knew. I just go to a place where all these characters live," Heath says. "I give my characters the traits and flaws with which I'm familiar and comfortable, and I start to write their stories. To me, they are real; they exist in my heart. I think it's important to feel what my characters are feeling in order to convey their emotions to the reader. I usually tear up when they are hurting, smile when they are teasing."
As much as this is a "quiet" story, where small moments are rendered powerfully, three critical scenes, the execution, the attack, and the final confrontation between Clayton, Meg, and the townsfolk, are very dramatic. The overall effect of these dramatic moments, combined with the myriad of smaller, but every bit as crucial moments, transform this story of one man and one woman into an "important" story of courage and redemption.
Heath has been touched and pleased by the reception to this book from readers and crticis. Among her proudest moments has been learning that a "reader who had never been to the Vietnam War Memorial told me that after reading Always to Remember, she planned to visit the memorial. That meant a lot to me."
Lorraine is hard at work on a new novel, a historical set in Texas. She has a new publisher -- Topaz, which will release her latest effort next summer.
She would like to branch out into English historicals and American contemporaries, but for the moment, will continue writing Americana, in part because she continually mines nuggets for future books when researching works already in progress.
And despite her success as a romance writer, she hasn't quit her day job. She works full time writing instructional computer programs, and she squeezes her writing in-between her duties as wife and mother of two sons. Her days start early -- she's often up and hard at work by 4:30 and she'll frequently writes into the wee hours. "During, breaks, lunch, whenever I get a chance, I either research or edit my work in progress."
She continues to work hard at perfecting her skills as a writer, and she believes her style has evolved significantly since her first book, Sweet Lullaby. "I think I've become more subtle at evoking emotions. With Sweet Lullaby, I wanted the reader to cry and I don't think I was too subtle about it. With Parting Gifts, I learned the value of laughter and tried to learn to write gentler. Hopefully, with Always to Remember, I'm continuing to grow and learn my craft. I think the development of the books has come about as a natural extension of my growth as a writer."