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An Interview with Susanna Kearsley

by Chadwick Ginther - Thursday, Oct 16, 2008 at 5:50pm

I had the good fortune of meeting Susanna Kearsley when she was at our Grant Park location for a reading of her latest novel, The Winter Sea. In addition to writing romantic suspense with a hint of the supernatural, she also writes thrillers under the name Emma Cole. Susanna was kind enough to take the time to answer a few of my questions via an email interview.

CG: What was the moment in your career that allowed you to leave the day job behind and write full-time?

SK: It wasn't a definable moment; more a progression of events, and choices made. When I wrote my first book I was working as a museum curator, which I loved, but full days and evening meetings meant the only time I had to write was late at night. I was exhausted, and I knew if I was going to take a chance and try to live my dream of writing for a living, something had to give. The first and hardest choice I made was leaving my museum, giving up my status and my place in a profession that I loved and moving out of my apartment to accept my parents? offer of a room in their house in the little town where I grew up. I bought a second-hand word processor, took a part-time waitressing job at a local restaurant, and made writing my priority. Because I made that choice to move back home, because my parents helped me and supported me by giving me that "room of one's own" that Virginia Woolf believed was so essential to a woman writer, and because my new waitressing job gave me more time to work, I was able to write Mariana. And because I was able to write Mariana and enter it into a contest in Britain, I got my first really big break in the business by winning a large cash award and international publication, and catching the eye of a very good agent. And thanks to that agent, I eventually reached a point where I could make even more choices. When the owners of the restaurant where I worked decided to retire and sell the business, I decided I was maybe brave enough to take my waitress apron off and step out on my own again. The book that I was writing then was set in Wales, and so I took another chance and started making plans to live there for a winter, in the village where my story would be set. I figured I could always waitress there, if things got tough. But on the day that I arrived in Britain, kid you not, my agent sent me word that I'd been offered my first two-book contract, with enough of an advance to pay the rent. And shortly after that one of my books went up as high as #5, I think, on Amazon in Germany. I've been a full-time writer ever since.

CG: Could you describe something of your writing process, are you a thorough outliner or do you write what comes as it comes? Do you set rigid word counts, or have a preference for writing during the day or night?

SK: My process is actually different for the thrillers, I'm finding, than for my suspense novels. I need to plan the thrillers more completely, to keep track of all the little stray plot pieces and to keep the story moving at the right speed, but when I sit down to write a Kearsley novel I just start with what I think will be the first line, knowing little more than where the book is set and who the story is about and what I think the situation is. I let things go from there, and let the novel shape itself, which can be really fun or frustrating, depending on the day! I don't set a word count for myself, though I might try to aim for a target--a chapter a week is my current goal for the book I'm writing now (though I don't always manage that). I do, however, keep a daily writing log--beside the date, I write how many words I wrote that day, or if I didn't write I note the reason why. It keeps me honest. In this daily log I also write down when I finish a chapter, and at the end of every month I do a tally of the total words and chapters so I know how far I've come. (Not that I ever know how long a book's going to be, but knowing how much I've written at least gives me a sense of accomplishment). As for my writing hours, I used to love writing at night, late at night after everyone else was in bed and the house was in darkness and quiet. But now, with two young children who start school at 8 a.m., I can't be staying up all night, so I fit the writing time in where I can -- before and after lunch, while they're at school, and on the weekend mornings, when my husband keeps them occupied. Though I have to admit, when I get near the end of a book and the work's flowing well I will write at all hours, and there's still something special to me about writing at night, when the house is asleep and there's only myself and the story.

CG: How do you approach the research portion of your writing? Do you rely more on books or personal experiences? Do you find your research takes you in unexpected directions?

SK: It's probably a fairly equal blend of books and being there. I tend to start with reading all I can about a place or an event I want to use, but my museum background makes me want to get back to the source whenever possible--to read the original documents instead of relying on someone's interpretation of them, and to travel to my settings so I know the way the streets sound and what flowers grow there when. And research always takes me in unexpected directions, whether it's a stray sentence or mention of someone in an old letter I'm reading that leads me to discover an historical event I'd never heard of, or a person met by chance while I'm out walking on a coast path who knows a man who knows a thing or two about the subject of my story, if I'd like to pay a visit? Those are the small things you never can plan for that change a whole book for the better.

CG: One common theme in your work seems to be the past intruding upon the present. Rather than writing a straight historical novel, the events of the past are shown to have ramifications to our modern world. Do you do this to keep a point of relation for readers not necessarily versed in the period of your work?

SK: Not really, no. Unlike those stage directors who think Shakespeare has to be performed in modern dress and out of context for a modern audience to "get it", I've always trusted that my readers--even those who may not know the history when they start a book--are smart enough to grasp the parallels themselves. My blending of present and past likely comes from my own fascination with history, and my personal belief that the past does intrude upon the present, that you cannot separate the two, that we are what and who we are because of where we come from. The British psychologist Havelock Ellis once said that "Man's destiny stands not in the future but in the past." I'd agree with that, just as I'd argue that what we do now will have lasting effects that we cannot foresee, in the future. So my mysteries are most often rooted in things that have happened before, and my characters have to dig deep and look back for the cause of a present-day conflict before they can find its solution.

CG: What made you choose to use a pen name for your Emma Cole thrillers? Will the character of Kate Murray be a recurring character in your Emma Cole stories?

SK: The decision to use a pen name for the thrillers was made by my agents and publishers. I'd written Every Secret Thing as a Susanna Kearsley book--in fact my publishers in Germany chose to keep it as a Kearsley title, they don't use the Emma Cole name--but my agents and my publishers in Britain thought that, since the thriller didn't have the paranormal thread that runs through almost all my other books, it would be best to use a different name to let my readers know it was a different kind of story. Other writers do this: Barbara Michaels with her Elizabeth Peters alter ego, and Ruth Rendell with Barbara Vine, even Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, so I guess I'm in good company. And yes, Kate Murray will return to be the heroine of what I think might be a three- or four-book series featuring a few of her associates from Every Secret Thing.

CG: Even before you wrote Every Secret Thing, many of your historical novels also featured a mystery element. What made you decide to fully enter the genre pond?

SK: I was already writing suspense novels with an historical element and a romantic thread and Something Strange going on in the background (which gives all my publishers headaches when they try to market my books since I never fit tidily into one genre). But when I got the idea for Every Secret Thing, I knew I'd have to take a slightly different approach to it, making it move a bit faster because it is really one big long extended chase, so I went back to the thrillers I'd loved as a teenager, pitting an ordinary woman against hardened spies: Catherine Gaskin?s The File on Devlin, Evelyn Anthony?s The Tamarind Seed, and Anne Armstrong Thompson?s Message from Absalom, books like that, and I looked at the structure they'd used for their stories, and I thought I'd try my own hand at it, see how it worked, since it seemed the best fit for the story I wanted to tell.

CG: You also flirt with the fantasy/horror genres in your work, utilizing ghosts and time travel among other elements of the fantastic. Would you ever consider trying something similar to your Emma Cole work in the fantasy genre?

SK: This is the first time that anyone's asked me this question. I really don't know. It's entirely possible that I might have an idea one day for a story that would be considered true fantasy, a genre that I love to read. My American agent, the wonderful Shawna McCarthy, actually specializes in fantasy and has a long association with the genre, and in her view I'm already swimming in that genre pond as well, from time to time. So some day I might venture out a little deeper in those waters, too.

CG: You used the concept of genetic memory in The Winter Sea. Was it only a tool to tell the story or is it a phenomenon you feel has some truth to it?

SK: Frankly I'm fascinated by the whole concept of genetic memory. After all, if butterflies are born knowing where to migrate, and sea turtles can hatch on a beach with no parents in sight and still know what to do to survive--where to swim, what to eat, where to lay their own eggs--it's obvious that information can be passed from one generation genetically down to the next. So the question is, what information is passed down to us in our DNA? We're just beginning to understand how memory works, and the studies that scientists have done make interesting reading. Who knows? I feel very at home in the sections of London where my mother's ancestors lived. That might just be coincidence--or it might not. But I find it intriguing.

CG: Can you tell us a little about your next project? Is there any historical period you are anxious to tackle?

The book that I'm working on now is another suspense story mixing the past and the present, that follows a modern-day woman who comes to an old house in Cornwall and finds herself sharing the rooms with a man living there in the 1700s. And yes, there are many historical periods I'd love to tackle--too many to list! But I have a suspicion I'm not really done yet with the early Jacobite risings in Scotland, and a few of the characters I came to love in The Winter Sea have started stirring again, so I may have to see where that takes me.

CG: Thanks so much, Susanna.

See Also:

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

Every Secret Thing by Emma Cole

Categories: Interview, Authors, SciFi & Fantasy, Mystery & Crime, Romance

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