Granny Tula insisted with all of her Jesus-loving heart that God’s hand was in everything. She held the deep conviction that, although it might not be readily seen, there was a divine reason for all that transpired in His earthly kingdom; even the terrible derailment of Glory’s life. But Glory Harrison didn’t possess her grandmother’s unwavering faith. Glory had spent the past eighteen months on the run and had never once seen a glimmer of God’s hand in any of it.
That’s the opening paragraph of On Blue Falls Pond, Susan Crandall’s 2006 release. The book was nominated for a Rita and a Holt Medallion, and it won the Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence. But it won THE MOST IMPORTANT CONTEST OF ALL in my rather prejudiced opinion.
It won me as a hard-core Susan Crandall fan girl.
I’m so pleased to have this incredibly talented writer as my guest today in the lair. Welcome Susan!
Oh my, I’m blushing! Thank you so much for inviting me to your fabulous blog. I’m particularly intrigued by your Golden Rooster.
Well the Golden Rooster is an impressive and much sought-after fellow. That said, I've managed to slip him a copy or two of your books, and he does LOVE the rural settings, so I suspect he'll be making a spot on his dance card for you while you're our guest in the lair. Step up to the Bandita bar, have a glass of your favorite wine, and watch out. The rooster tries to cuddle up beside you and sneak a sip of your beverage when you're not looking.....
We’re here, of course, to celebrate the release of Susan’s most recent romantic suspense, and seventh published novel, Pitch Black. But we’ll talk more about that later.
Susan, we love call stories here in the lair. Will you tell us how you started writing, how long it took for THE CALL to come, and how that came about?
I was sucked into writing after my sister admitted she’d been writing a book in secret. She knew I was an avid reader, so she asked me to read it. I edited that book for her (unsold), then we wrote five novels together (also unsold – although we came close with one). Then my sister moved away and stopped writing – she really didn’t have the patience to mess with the details.
She was the idea woman – and I wrote my first solo book, BACK ROADS. Which sold in October 2001. Fortunately, my sister isn’t vindictive and bitter, she’s my biggest promoter.
It took nine years for THE CALL to come. But truthfully, I didn’t know anything about the craft of novel construction when I began, so I consider those years my education. I did have an agent for BACK ROADS.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to have an agent who is absolutely over the moon about your work – don’t settle for someone who’s lukewarm or “on the fence” to represent you!
Okay. Gotcha. No agents who are 'meh' about my work. I'm hard enough on myself. Don't need a mean agent!
It’s odd, really, it wasn’t the thunderbolt out of the blue that I’d always thought it would be.
THE CALL actually came in baby steps. Warner Books wanted revisions before they offered a contract. We had some interest from another publisher too. I really wanted to work with Warner, so I did those revisions to the last half of the book in two weeks and resubmitted.
I was touring a college campus with my daughter when the real CALL came. I didn’t have a cell phone at that time and was using hers. It rang (I was carrying it). Being unused to answering a cell, I ignored it until she stopped talking to the head of a department, turned to me and said, “Are you going to answer that?”
It was my agent with an offer from Warner. We did a little negotiation (believe me when I say it was hard not to just grab that first offer – I’d waited soooo long!) and in a few hours it was settled. Originally BACK ROADS was slated for release in October 2002, but Warner started the Forever line, which focused on women’s fiction and romance and they moved it to June 2003 to put it in that line.
I’m sitting at Panera Bread as I write this, with my computer on my lap and a pile of Susan’s books on the table around me. (People are tending to stare a little as they walk by, trying to catch clandestine glimpses of EXACTLY what all those books are.) And as I look at the stack, I’m trying to wrap my mind around precisely what makes Susan’s books so….well…transcendent... might be the word.
The Boudreau family—the people of Glens Crossing, Redbud Mill, Dawson and nearby Cold Spring Hollow ( where Granny Tula lives)—are REAL. Y’all can call the men in the white coats and they can take me away but even THEY will not convince me otherwise.
They are real.
I could drive to those towns, and I could visit them. They would
be there. We'd sit down and have a glass of iced tea. I'd get to watch Luke look at Analise the way ALL of us women want to be looked at. (fans self even though I'm NOT in the Mississippi heat, and I read Magnolia Sky quite some time ago.)
In the author notes for A Kiss In Winter (2007) Susan says,
"Initially the story was steeped in gritty urban suspense, but that was too easy for me to construct. (I’ve never in my life chosen the easy path). And that’s not a true Susan Crandall novel: a book about people and emotions and learning to live with what life dishes out.”
Susan, will you talk a little about that—about where these REAL people come from, and about why you choose to set your stories in these small towns? What do you mean “that’s not a true Susan Crandall novel..”?
I do love working with characterization. I spend a great deal of time with these people mentally before I begin writing, so I really know who they are and how they’ll react to situations, and how they’ll interact with each other. (That’s the case with the main characters; the secondary characters always pop up as I’m writing.)
Maybe that’s why they feel real to the reader, because they’re real to me. I also use the setting as a character itself; it’s integral to the story. That’s why I choose small towns.
The comment about a “true Susan Crandall novel” is linked to this aspect. My books, no matter how much mystery or suspense, are about real people dealing with problems that could fall into almost anyone’s lap. Therefore, I don’t normally feature FBI agents and serial killers. I like to make my crimes more “personal” to the characters. (Not that serial killers can’t be personal. I mean if you’re in their sights, it’s very personal!) I want my threat to be understandable and relatable to “average Joe and Joann”. Does that make sense?
It does make sense. And although you live in Indiana, the people and towns you set in Kentucky, Tennessee, and even Mississippi are just as real—just as aggravating--as wise and as nosey-- as the small town where I grew up. How have you become so intimate with the ways of places that tend to be a bit ecclectic-- that outside folks--WRITERS-- often get SO wrong? You get it right.
I write about small towns because I understand them. I grew up in a small town and have spent most of my life in a small town (although I’m seeing changes around here that say we’re rapidly losing our small town status). I lived in Chicago too, so I can see the differences in lifestyle, etc. I guess it goes back to that “write what you know” thing. There isn’t enough research in the world to take the place of actually living something.
I’d met Susan a couple of years before the release of On Blue Falls Pond. She’d been at the RWA National Conference when I wandered by her table and picked up Back Roads, her first release, which earned her a Rita for Best First Book (WOOT!!!! CHEERS ALL AROUND!), a Rita nomination for Best Single Title and two National Reader’s Choice Awards in 2004. I caught up with her again a summer later at the Southern Kentucky Festival of Books, where to my surprise, she remembered me. That always catches me off guard—an author who meets gazillions of people remembering any individual reader.
But that’s just how Susan is. I think it’s part of what makes her shimmer as a person and as a writer. She's not loud. She's not splashy in that way that screams "I WANT ATTENTION." She goes about her work--writing incredible stories. And when she releases a book, that book is near cataclysmic in its power to capture and hold the reader.
At that Southern KY signing I got The Road Home and Magnolia Sky.
Then came On Blue Falls Pond, and since then, I’ve circled like a buzzard around the bookstore, waiting for the next Crandall release. (Sorry about the buzzard reference--but seriously, have y'all ever tried to run off a buzzard? It ain't happenin.)
Susan, I notice on the spine of your books that some say “Romance,” some say “Fiction” and some say “Romantic Suspense.” You’ve recently gone through a transition—one a lot of writers fear--along with Warner Books, as they’ve become Grand Central Publishing. Will you talk a little about that transition? Did it affect what you’re writing or your release schedule in any way?
The labeling on the spine for Back Roads (fiction) and the rest of my women’s fiction novels (contemporary romance) has to do with what Warner decided to do with the line as a whole. All Forever titles are now shelved in romance.
Pitch Black is a true transition to a new sub-genre (romantic suspense). Although it holds many similarities to my other novels, the pacing is clearly romantic suspense.
The transition from Warner to Grand Central Publishing was fairly smooth. I still have my same fabulous editor. I did have a long lapse between A Kiss in Winter and Pitch Black, but that had to do with issues entirely separate from the transfer of ownership of the company. Hopefully, the releases will be more regular from now on .
I noticed that the suspense elements in both A Kiss In Winter and Pitch Black were a bit more intense than in the previous novels, but EACH your books has contained a certain degree of suspense. There's always been that ticking clock--which made me think "she's always been a suspense writer at heart." In your author notes, you said A Kiss In Winter had been brewing for a long while. Is this heavier suspense a direction you find yourself moving naturally?
I’ve always loved romantic suspense. And you’re right, I’ve been inching my way there for a long time. Yes, it’s a natural progression for me – and (this is key) my publisher agrees.
One of the things I find most surprising is the intense level of suspense you maintain in the last two books, but they’re still essentially small town stories. That’s a little unusual and one of the things I love about your books. It seems to me that it might be more difficult to write gritty suspense in a small town than say….taking it the direction of terrorism or threats to national security. And yet I can’t go to sleep until I’ve finished the book.
I can’t tell you how much I like hearing that I’ve kept someone up past their bedtime! Thanks for the compliment.
I write stories I love. And I love dealing with everyday people in extraordinary situations that bring them to realize that they are stronger than they’d ever thought possible. Although I love the suspense aspect, I like to pair it with a strong sense of character growth. Which is why the small town setting works well. I like to pair the danger with something that strikes at the heart of who these people are.
In several of your author bios you state that you live with “A rock band in the basement.” Will you tell us about your process—about writing in the midst of family and its chaos, how you maintained through what sounds like “teenage years” and what your typical work day is like?
Right now, I’m able to write on my own schedule (kids are out of the house – at least for now. The married one and his wife are moving in soon while they build a house.) Back in the day, as they say, I had to sneak in my writing around everyone else’s schedules (most of you out there understand this perfectly), a hour before time to drive to soccer practice, twenty minutes before it’s time for the rock band (in the basement) to come and rattle the walls for two hours). These days my routine depends on where I am in the writing process, at what stage my current work in progress is in.
I don’t draft. I don’t go through the entire story and get it sketched out, then go back. I write in what I call layers.
Each day I go back over the previous few days’ work and add more layers, polish, dig a little deeper, before I go on to new material. So when I reach the end of the story, I’m pretty much finished.
In the early stages of a book, I work mostly during the day, a couple of hours at a time. I tend to get totally muddle-headed if I stick with it longer than that without a significant break. Of course, these two hours sometimes result in ten pages, other times, ten sentences. (The first three chapters can take me a couple of months. Because these chapter are SO important.) As I begin the last third or so of the book, I start working at night too, after my husband goes to bed.
There’s something about the nighttime that fuels my creativity. During the last chapters, I start thinking about it all of the time, can rarely hold a coherent conversation – you get the idea. People have just learned to leave me alone.
Here's the thing that sets the hook for me. Susan’s secondary characters are SO real you can reach out and touch them. So powerful that I long for their stories in upcoming books. And there are often alien beings in each of her books—a teenager or three. Susan, I assume it’s not accidental that your books include the teenage angst and parental angst—all the grittiness that goes along with that rocky shift into adulthood. It brings a particular poignancy to the main characters’ lives, ambitions, and motivations. Is any of this “teenage angst” autobiographical for you—as a parent or a teen yourself?
We’ve all been teenagers. When I was a teen, I was, as I am now, a rule follower. And yet, I had plenty of emotions churning inside. I try to take myself back and get in touch with exactly how I felt at certain times (of course, logic and reality have to go out the window here). And yes, I’ve been a parent of teens. I’ve seen the emotional roller-coaster from both sides. Sometimes I think the key to writing good teen angst, is to embrace that lack of world-view, to let yourself go with emotion over logic.
Will you tell us about Granny Tula? I gather from your website that I’m not the only reader enamored of her character?
Ah, Granny. You see, I come from a long line of pragmatic, yet fiery women (I got my acquiescent side from my dad). Although both of my grandmothers died long before I was born, I had some great fodder for stories in my great-grandmothers. Not to mention the tales of my mother’s mother. Granny Tula is an amalgam of my mom and those who came before, in temperament and outlook, at least.
Okay all of you regular readers here in the Bandita lair have reacted with varying degrees of shock and horror when I revealed that each of my books have a certain “meal” that goes with them. Something I eat all the time when I’m writing that book.
Well, HA! I am VINDICATED! I recently learned that Susan also indulges in a particular “deadline snack” for each of her books—and it’s different for every book.
Susan, will you tell us about “the snack” and how it came about?
LOL! I can’t imagine writing without the proper accompanying food! Seriously, who doesn’t?
The snack, as with my secondary characters, comes of its own accord and varies from book to book. During the last stages of the writing process, I get hooked on something that I munch on continually. I was actually into my third book deadline before I even realized I was doing it. Now it’s a regular topic of conversation around here. I hope they keep making new snacks, so I don’t have to start repeating!
"It could have been the thunder. Or perhaps the gust of wind that shook the house as if it was a misbehaving child. Something had jerked Madison Wade awake with her breath locked her in her chest and her heart racing. Perhaps it had been Mrs. Quigley's Tom cat romancing the Persian that spent her mornings on the sun porch next door. But it didn't feel like any of those things. It felt, heavy ... dark, and stifling. She hadn't suffered from this kind of anxious awakening for months, not since she'd moved to Tennessee."
That's the opening to Chapter One of Pitch Black. I stayed up all night to finish it as soon as I got it last week(yes, with work looming the following day).
As usual, I laughed and cried and went on the roller coaster I expect with a Susan Crandall novel. It’s unusual for me to have an author’s entire catalog on my keeper shelf. But my least favorite (if there is such a thing) Crandall novel is better than 95 percent of the other books I’ve read. Pitch Black is fighting hard to take over my “favorite” slot. Y'all know I'm not good at short summaries. Susan says she's not either.
So we give you the back cover:
YOU NEVER SEE IT COMING.
A journalist who adopted a troubled teen, Madison Wade has tackled many challenges--but never one like this. Leaving Philadelphia for a small Southern town to give her son a better life, she's now in a tightly knit community that won't accept her big-city ways and Ethan's less-than-perfect past. When he's finally invited on a camping trip, it turns into a nightmare--and Ethan is suspected of murder.
YOU'LL NEVER HAVE A CHANCE.
Sheriff Gabe Wyatt doesn't want to believe this kid is guilty. He's falling in love with Ethan's beautiful, sophisticated, and generous mother, the first woman who has ever awakened the tender side of this tough lawman. But he can't ignore evidence, even if it keeps him from getting close to the woman he longs to protect, even if it drives this fierce mother to track down the murderer herself--and on one terrible night, come face-to-face with her darkest fears.
Susan, what’s on the horizon for you? (Yes, I need to schedule the start of my vulture-like circling around the Barnes & Noble) Can you give us a taste of what you’re working on now? Will we get to revisit the small towns we’ve come to love, or are you taking us someplace new?
LOL! I do so love those book vultures! You may schedule your circling for this coming February.
My next release, Seeing Red, is the story of a woman, Ellis Greene, who as a teenager was the only witness to her cousin’s abduction. Her testimony was key in convicting her cousin’s attacker. Her cousin subsequently died without ever regaining consciousness. Now the man who threatened Ellis with vengeance is out on parole.
Nate Vance, a childhood friend and one time suspect in the cousin’s attack, left town right after the trial and never returned. Now he’s back to protect Ellis from a brutal rapist seeking retribution. But his years away are steeped in suspicious activities and mystery. Can Ellis trust him?
You can check out excerpts from all the books and keep up with the latest at her website here.
So, Bandita sisters and friends, is YOUR favorite book set in a small town, or a big city?
Where did you grow up? Suburb, farm, or concrete jungle? And do you notice when an author gets it right?
Have you a favorite character that is so real to you that you refuse to accept him/her as the creation of a mere mortal author?
What makes you grab on to a character like Granny Tula--somebody you want to know--to sit down and eat supper with--to sit in the shade and have a glass of tea with--to find out exactly what makes that person tick?
Have you met people like that in the books you've read? Have they changed you? And are you the better--or the worse--for it?
I've got an extra copy of Pitch Black for one lucky commenter. I bet I could get Susan to sign it if I asked real nice and y'all help me keep the Golden Rooster away from her glass of wine......