(This interview was originally written for The Romance Reader in 1997.)
"I come up with a premise, write the first chapter, and throw myself off the edge of a cliff and see what happens! I truly entertain myself with the story as I go along." So says best-selling romance writer Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I had the opportunity to spend some time with her not too long ago, and was pleased to discover that, unlike so many lead authors these days, this is one woman who continues to please us and will not be moving into the mainstream.
Our readers selected Susan as their Favorite Author in The Romance Reader Awards for 1996. Her book, Kiss an Angel, was also selected by TRR readers as Best Contemporary Romance for 1996.
In the Unofficial 1996 Romance Reader Awards, Susan won honorable mention for many categories for her 1996 release Kiss an Angel, including favorite funny, favorite romance, favorite couple, favorite romance, and new discovery. She had a laugh about that last one, since Kiss was her 9th book. But she understood that many readers have discovered her over the past couple of years, and gives Avon, her publisher, much of the credit due to the publishing schedule they have created for her.
She says of the books she's published before, "My first book was published in 1982. I wrote two historicals, both of which are out of print now. And then I did four big women's fiction books. And then the Avon books starting with It Had to Be You. And those books are the ones that have really caught the readers' attention. They like the romantic comedies and also Avon has published them very well. They have good covers on them and they've gotten them out real regularly. I've had three books out within 18 months and now I'm coming out once a year. And, I think, that's why readers have discovered me because that's really a good publishing plan."
Susan has bought back the rights to Risen Glory, which was her first solo effort, and expects Avon to reissue it within the next three years, albeit with a different title. It was written at the end of the true bodice-ripper era, and although readers can find the humor if they look for it, her early books were not humorous reads. Her mainstream women's fiction releases, Glitter Baby, Fancy Pants, Hot Shot and Honey Moon will not necessarily appeal to all readers who love her more recent works. (But many of her fans love them all!) She says of Glitter Baby, "It has a real strong romance in it - you can see my romance roots - but it's a big glitz and glamour novel."
Her comedies for Avon, are romances through and through. Three of the four she's written, It Had to Be You, Heaven, Texas, and Nobody's Baby But Mine, are romances based on heroes of a mythical football team. She is currently finishing up work on Dream a Little Dream, which is a spin-off of her most recent release, Nobody's Baby But Mine. The heroes are not football players. They are the brothers of the star quarterback whose story she told in NBBM.
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Of the comedy in her stories, she says that:
"Humor is in all of my books. Even in the old historicals, it's there if you look for it. That's something you can either do or not do. I'm not a particularly funny person in person. I can't tell jokes, but it just seems like it happened when I started to write. It wasn't anything that was planned. I'm a very intuitive writer; I just sort of let the characters talk to me and they started saying funny things, so I wrote them down! One of the things I think - some people can just write naturally funny stuff. I mean, Jennifer Crusie - can you imagine? She's just brilliant and leaves me rolling on the floors. Jayne Krentz. Nora can be funny too. Some people just give you that gripping emotion, and that's wonderful too. I like to try to be able to do both things, but it depends on the story."
Dream a Little Dream, the book she's finishing now, tells the story of Gabe, who comes into this book after he's lost his wife and child. This book is darker than her last; she says that, "Gabe isn't the inherently funny character Cal was, with his obsession with younger women and that sort of thing."
When I asked Susan to tell me more about Dream, she had this to say:
"Gabe is the primary hero and he's come back to Salvation. He's pretty much of a tragic figure and the heroine of the book is the beautiful young widow of the televangelist mentioned in NBBM. Her character really came to me back in NBBM when I started decorating that awful house Cal and Jane moved into. It was obvious to me that the wife of televangelist G. Dwayne Swopes was an interesting character when I discovered the little nursery and the one bedroom that was so pretty. Anyway, she has been one of the best heroines I have ever written. She is so feisty. This is a woman who is desperate. She has lost everything. She has a five year old son and she's going to do whatever she has to do to keep this kid safe. And this brings her head- long against Gabe Bonner. The last thing he wants is a woman and her child around him.
"So she's a woman who has nothing at the beginning - a child and $10 in her wallet, and that's it. The secondary story is Ethan, who's attracted to flashy, trashy women. And is that what I'm going to give him? Well, no - let's give him the pretty little mouse of a church secretary who's been working for him all these years and is invisible to him. He doesn't even notice her."
While this book might be a bit darker than her last, Susan assured me that she will not be joining many of her colleagues who are moving out of the genre. She emphatically will not be writing a big suspense book. As she says, "Don't read it. Don't like it. Don't write it." She is glad for the success some of her colleages are achieving outside the genre, and is proud that romance has proven to be such a good training ground, but says, "I really like books about relationships."
As someone who wrote her first romance in 1982, she is fascinated by how the genre has recently exploded. "It's not easy to define what romance is anymore because romance can be anything. Relationships like I write, romantic comedy, suspense, thrillers. . . ." She is happy to see how other genres are incorporating more and more romance in their books, and believes that is not at all accidental. She also believes the genre is gaining respectability and gives much of the credit to Jayne Ann Krentz and her incisive non-fiction book Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women, first published in the early 1990's by the University of Pennsylvania press and re-released by Harper Monogram last year as a mass market paperback. Of that book, she remarked, "It gave us a vocabulary to use when we talk about the genre." She added, "When you have an organization such as RWA, which has armed its members to speak publicly about the genre, it's no wonder that we have been able to do so much to change the media's perception."
Besides Jayne Ann Krentz, she enjoys reading Jennifer Crusie, Pamela Morsi, Amanda Quick, Johanna Lindsey, Judith McNaught, and believes the best book of 1996 was Kristin Hannah's Home Again.
As soon as Susan finishes Dream a Little Dream, she will begin to work on her next romance. She's got several ideas and admits to "going crazy trying to figure out what the next book will be." Whatever it is, I'm sure we'll love it!