Hi! Gretchen. Tell us about yourself. How long have you been writing? I use to say all I wanted out of life was to sit and read. That became especially true after I had to drop out of chemistry and rethink my notion that I’d go into medicine. Just give me a book and leave me alone, people.
Eventually I had to earn a living and so taught high school English for a bunch of years. I figure the Marines have nothing on me.
About eight years ago, I quit teaching and started writing. There has been a very steep, very high learning curve and even after several books, I still often pull at my hair and declare I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m doing it, and loving it.
How did you get from teaching to writing romance? When I left teaching on a Friday, I opened a new file in my computer on Saturday morning and started my new career. While my children were growing up, I used to think I wanted “to have written” a novel because I couldn’t imagine having the mental space to actually sit down and write. But I never quit wanting to, so when I had the chance I last, I threw myself into it.
I didn’t know I was writing romance when I started. In fact, a more accurate description of my books is historical with romance elements. But I can’t imagine not having those romance elements in there. I read for emotional pull, attachment, and insight, and that is what I want to give my readers too.
Who is your favorite author(s) and why? So many favorite authors! I’ll just mention my favorite romance authors. Judith Ivory – nobody does sexual tension better than she does, plus she has wonderful in-depth characters. Jennifer Crusie – she makes me laugh out loud, and is there a more perfect gem than Bet Me? I’ve only recently discovered Sherry Thomas and she also embarrasses me by making me guffaw, plus she has a wonderful facility with motif and language. Oh, one more, and I’ll quit. J. D. Robb. Her In Death series feature the most scintillating, fascinating sexy man and wife of all time.
Tell us about your new book. Crimson Sky is about early Native Americans living in the Santa Fe area. They struggle with drought and marauders and witchcraft – and then things get worse. The conquistadors march up the Rio Grande Valley bringing new seeds, steel, tools, animals. And weapons.
The novel follows Zia, a young woman of the pueblos, who accepts the protection of Capitan Diego Ortiz. They fall in love, but as Zia’s people chafe under the Spaniards’ domination and oppression, Zia herself comes to see she must reclaim her identity as a Keres and as a child of Those Above.
The themes of religion, the values of both Christianity and the Spirit World; of maintaining a culture in the face of usurpation and oppression; of the impossible choice between love and personal integrity – all these underlie the love story between Zia and Diego.
Below is an excerpt from Crimson Sky:
The dancer’s eyes bored into his partner’s, his hand tracing the length of her outstretched arm. She turned her head from him, eyes downcast. They whirled away from each other again, her knee flouncing the full skirt, revealing a red petticoat beneath the deep blue dress.
Zia’s eyes never left them. The woman’s dainty shoes flashed red in a blur of quick steps. The man stamped and whirled, his boots raising the dust. Never had she seen such open sensuality, desire in every move, in every twisting turn.
Diego stood close behind her, near enough to feel the heat from her body, to smell the flowery scent of her hair. She wore the dress of her people, one shoulder bare and smooth. He wanted to taste the beads of sweat on the back of her neck, to take her in his arms and whirl her into the dance.
He had been glad to wait. She was no caliente to climb into a man’s bed before she knew his heart. Though she did not seek his touch, she no longer shied from him. Today, though, he would change that. He knew the power of music and movement.
What is the appeal of writing historicals? The pleasure for me in reading and writing historical novels is that behind the narrative is an entirely new world. I want to know the implications of having to navigate chairs and doorways and carriages wearing yards and yards of skirts. I want to know what people did for broken legs or high fevers before modern medicine.
I’m taken with books that help me feel the ice under my feet or the sweat on my brow. The climate, the bugs, the birds, the terrain – all those things affect the way we live our lives. For instance, it’s hard to be romantic in the moonlight if the mosquitoes are biting your neck or the bears are snuffling in the bushes. I like imagining how the time and place impact the attitudes and habits of the people living in them.
Writing historicals gives me the excuse to immerse myself in these other times and places. I find a place, that’s usually my starting point, and then learn all I can about it. From there, my characters grow into people who struggle against invading Yankee soldiers or conquistadors. I love the additional richness of historical layers and really want to explore significant societal issues in my books.
What kind of writings turns you off? What stops you from writing? Most every writer seems to have a good premise and a pretty good sense of story telling. What I am impatient with is poor craftsmanship. I say that without hubris, I hope, because I am still fine-tuning my own craftsmanship, but I do leave books unfinished if the writing is trite, repetitious, or thin, or if the characters are flat.
What stops me from writing? I’m not too awfully plagued with writer’s block, but I have frequent mini-blocks. Usually it’s because I’ve hit a snag and I see an abbatis (one of my new words -- I’m showing off – it’s a tangle of felled trees used to block the path of enemy soldiers). I just lose heart and might need a day or so to get my mojo back. Then I plow back in and try to untangle the mess I’ve made.
How have you shocked your readers? I’ve had readers tell me they were shocked at how realistically I portrayed some of the horrors of slavery in both Always and Forever and Ever My Love.(First chapters available at my website.) In one section, for instance, a young man we have come to care about is forced to wear an iron contraption on his head to hinder further attempts at escape, but also to humiliate and cripple him. I don’t shy away from the ugliness. Instead, my aim is to help the reader fully understand my characters’ pain, the implications at the most human level of one human owning another. In the case of Crimson Sky, the issue was not slavery but oppression and the threat to obliterate a people’s religion.
How do you get your ideas? What is your writing day like? Maybe because I’ve lived in so many parts of the world, place has a strong pull for me. My first two books, set in Louisiana before the Civil War, were sparked when I visited the old plantation homes above New Orleans, marveling at the luxury of fabulously expensive draperies puddling on the floor, and then walking out back to the pristine, sanitized, and very stark slave quarters. I’ve felt the sun beating down like a physical blow and smelled the earth of the cane fields. The people I imagine in that setting become very real to me.
As for Crimson Sky, the first time I went out West, I visited Bandelier National Park, the site of adobe ruins and abandoned cliff dwellings. You can walk through the ancient village and even climb into some of the caves. I thought it the most beautiful, idyllic canyon I’d ever seen, but I knew too that life before the Europeans arrived would not have been ideal even in that valley. Drought, no modern medicines, no telephones – not even a nail salon in all of the territory! So I began reading about the area and learned enough history to build my story around actual events in those first years of the Spanish conquest.
I like to write first thing in the morning, take a break to fuel up, and then write until early or mid-afternoon when my brain wilts.
Can you share three writing tips? First, and you’ve seen this before, you have to write it to fix it. I’m still learning how to revise, and with every new manuscript, I’m more impressed with what I can accomplish if I will consider the revision process 60% and the getting-it-down only 40%.
Second, read everything. Even books you decide are poorly written can be instructive – it’s easier to see mistakes you make yourself when you see someone else making them. I also find reading how-to books very helpful, even if it’s one I have already read, because the process of reading that book stimulates my thinking about my current wip – read with a pad and pen at hand.
Third, seek out other writers. Writing is so solitary! I recommend having a couple of good critique partners as well as joining groups like DARA for information, support, and friendship.
Fill in this blank: Your ideal fictional hero would think you gorgeous if:
Wow. That’s tough. My ideal man. Hmm. He’d think I was gorgeous the first time he laid eyes on me, and that would not be when my hair was fixed and my nails freshly polished. All I have to do is breathe, and I’m “It.” Well, that’s why we love to read romances – it can happen!
How much do you love cake? I love cake more than I love sunsets or sunrises or roses or even puppies. It doesn’t even have to have icing.
Thanks, Gretchen, for the awesome interview. Let's have some comments!