Susan Squires e-interviewed by Martina Bexte (January, 2003)
While a relatively new published author, Susan Squires has already tucked an impressive array of writing accolades under her creative belt. After her first books began placing in, and then winning, various writing contests, readers and editors took notice. Danegeld won the Romance Writers of America Golden Heart Award in 2000. Susan's next two books, Sacrament and Body Electric, went on to receive rave reviews for their innovative style and darker subject matter. Given the success of her first trio, 2003 should see many more readers searching the shelves for Susan Squires' novels.
Q: You say you're a great believer in writing contests -- that aspiring writers should enter as many of them as possible. Could you qualify that and suggest a few contests that, in your opinion, were a springboard for you?
A: I used contests to get attention for Danegeld after my agent had sent it to seven editors. It had come very close to being purchased at one major house, but it was hard to fit into a standard genre definition and the editor who liked it couldn't get the house to find a place in their lineup. My agent had concluded that, much as she personally loved the book, it would be a hard sell. I found that the Romance Writers of America had the best network of contests. Frankly, I wasn't sure Danegeld was a romance. It was much grittier than the standard genre conventions, and had lots of historical detail. But I joined the RWA and scanned the club magazine for regional contest announcements. I entered seventeen contests over one spring and summer. I won or placed in eleven. I used comments from judges to improve my story. For instance, when several judges told me that the first pages did not contain enough introduction of the hero, I added a scene to address that issue. The contests that were most important to me personally were the Emily (West Houston) because it was my first win, the Jasmine, the Emerald City (Seattle) and the Orange Rose Contest. Dorchester Publishing was actively looking for new authors. Editors from Dorchester judged Danegeld in both the Emerald City, and the Orange Rose. Senior Editor Chris Keeslar at Dorchester bought the manuscript shortly after judging the Orange Rose Contest.
I became more selective over time about the contests I entered. Because Danegeld was an historical novel, I knew I needed rules which allowed me to submit fifty pages. Historicals take time for judges to see the scope of the story, unlike contemporaries, for instance. I also began to choose contests that threw out any low scores which deviated more than a certain percentage from other scores, or provided for re-judging in those instances. Danegeld was always a story which stretched the boundaries of romance. Occasionally it would receive one very low score from a judge who decided that it didn't follow enough rules. I think contests are a great idea, once your manuscript is ready. Romance writers are fortunate to have that kind of support. But mystery, horror, and many other organizations have contests as well.
Q: Can you explain what the Golden Heart Award is exactly, and how it affected, and perhaps even accelerated your road to publication?
A: The Golden Heart is the national contest for unpublished manuscripts sponsored by the Romance Writers of America. It attracts many hundreds of manuscripts each year. Winners in the various sponsored categories often get opportunities to submit their work to editors and agents. I must say that Danegeld was purchased between the time I entered the Golden Heart, and the time it won in its division. So, unfortunately, I'm not a good example of the contest accelerating publication. But I know many examples of works that were purchased as a result of winning.
Q: Tell us a bit about Danegeld and the sequel Danelaw due out later this year. What attracted you to the Saxon / Viking era?
A: I studied the language changes resulting from the juxtaposition in cultures during this period while I was a graduate student in English Literature at UCLA. I was fascinated by an age where the east of England fell under Viking rule. Danes raided but they also came to stay and live on the land. They didn't subsume English villages, but settled, sometimes on land not quite as rich, around the existing settlements. You can still distinguish the Viking villages from the English by the name of the place. Any place name ending in "thorp" or "by" is Viking! ("Whitby, Inglethorp...). The historian, Trevellyan, says that this period of time had more of an effect on what England was to become than the subsequent French invasions. That aside, my husband Harry (from whom I get the Squires moniker) is VERY Saxon and my ancestors are very Danish. We have some very interesting conversations about whose ancestors raped and pillaged whom. Whenever I tell him about the contribution the Danes made to trade and the spread of civilization, he calls it "anti-Saxon propaganda." You might say, I know the clash of cultures, and the attraction between them, first hand.
Q: Please tell us a bit more about yourself and why you work hard at a day job and then once you're home, write fiction at night?
A: Writing is something I have always wanted to do. I was not sure I could support myself with writing. I just didn't have the confidence, but I treasured my financial independence. So, like many of us, I got out of college with a Masters needing to find a 'real job' and get on with life. So I did. I got a job with an insurance company and rose up the ranks. My husband, who writes as well, encouraged me to give writing a more focused try during one of my many mid-life crises. I started to write in earnest. I went through the usual epiphanal moments. I could finish a draft, but it wasn't good--even I had to admit that. I took writing classes and joined a writing group to improve my skills. Then the awful truth dawned that getting an agent wasn't necessarily an automatic sale. The path to publication was long, while I wrote the next book, and the next. Now, writing still doesn't pay nearly as well as my day job, so I'm locked into working for the foreseeable future. But I do find that I get positive input from both careers. If the day job is frustrating, I bury myself in writing on nights and weekends. If I am tearing my hair out on writing, maybe I'm getting wonderful e-mails about my last book. Both seem to feed on each other, and along with my marriage, and riding my horse, provide me with a little balance, in spite of the hectic nature of my life.
Q: Your husband, Harry, is also a novelist. Do you find it easier to stay motivated with another writer in the house?
A: Absolutely! We talk about what works and what doesn't. We read each other's pages and give "tactful" suggestions. We talk over dinner when one of us is "stuck". We even survived being in the same critique group for several years. I guess whatever doesn't kill a marriage makes it stronger! We've been together for 25 years, and I think we're still going strong. I really respect his work and his opinion, and I think he respects mine. That makes a difference. He comes from a screenwriting background, so I think his plotting is much stronger than mine, and he always has a unique vision.
Q: With your first published book, Danegeld, you were already exploring darker themes -- why are you drawn to themes like vampires, artificial intelligence and the paranormal? And why, if drawn to these darker themes and characters, do you choose to incorporate a romance into your books at all -- why not stick to straight horror or science fiction?
A: First, to address my penchant for the paranormal, you must understand that I grew up loving Sci-fi, and mainstream fiction that didn't end with happily-ever after. I think paranormal elements allow writers to ramp up the consequences to the characters and present extreme situations. But I studied both the Romantic poets, and philosophies like Existentialism. What I was most drawn to was the concept that someone could know all the evil in the world, and yet maintain a personal responsibility, and a renewed optimism. Essentially, I have always loved William Blake's concept of second innocence. We find meaning and worth in life, even though we have been confronted by the worst life has to give. For me, one source of that renewal is the power of love.
Q: Let's talk about Body Electric. What compelled you to write what must have been a very challenging story and theme - that of artificial intelligence? Did you need to do a lot of research?
A: There was a fair amount of research. One of the most helpful books was The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweill. It talked in very understandable language about the moral dilemmas we might encounter as machines evolved and humans were augmented by artificial parts, as well as some of the technological possibilities for the future. I also read several books on the difference between male and female brains, and lots about the rave sub-culture. My brother, a computer designer, was also very helpful. His support let me relax about the technology. Lots of friends have sent me e-mails shocked that I was actually a techie. Actually, I can barely manage anything but e-mail, word and internet surfing, and I definitely have someone else do my website. The trick is to create an internally consistent world.
Q: Your lead, Victoria Barnhardt, is not your typical "romance" heroine -- indeed she's very hard edged and I have to say that at the beginning of the story, I didn't like her very much. In creating her you bucked a "romance trend" and gave readers a dark female lead instead of the more popular "dark male lead". Why make Victoria such a harsh and troubled character?
A: I knew Vic was difficult as a character. But I felt I had to demonstrate how far she had strayed from her center line, so that I could define clearly the personal journey she had to make during the story. Damaged as she is in the beginning, she's a strong character who is just lost. She's trying to find the things that will change her life, but she's worked herself into a corner. Now her obsession with creating A.I. is a proxy for her internal desire to recreate herself. The unexpected will draw her out of her current world and force her to confront herself in a new context.
Q: On the other hand, "Jodie ", the artificial intelligence that Vic created, is a marvelously sympathetic character. Tell us how he evolved in your mind and then onto the page. Was he an easy character to write? Do you think an artificial intelligence like the one you created in Jodie will ever become a reality -- and perhaps even a reality in your lifetime? Will you be re-visiting Vic and Jodie 's world again, or similar themes in any future books?
A: I tried hard to make Jodie "grow" during the early part of the book. It takes a bit for Vic to keep up with him. I wanted to make him an innocent of the true sort. It's Vic who needs Jodie to rediscover her own innocence and hope for a better life. It was tough to write Jodie as believable, as well as innocent. I do think Artificial Intelligence will be a reality, and sooner than we think. But I'm afraid the kind of Artificial Intelligence we are likely to experience won't be as elegant or as human as Jodie is in Body Electric. I have no current plans to do a sequel to Body Electric. But I like that milange of sci-fi, thriller and romance. I think you'll see something that uses those elements again.
Q: Why did Leisure choose to package Body Electric as a romance and not as science fiction? Were you happy with the choice? Did you have any say in this decision?
A: First, understand that most authors have little control about how their books are marketed. Only a best selling author with loads of clout can dictate marketing strategies. Dorchester actually brought out Body Electric as a Leisure book marked "Fiction." But it is always up to the distributors where they would place it. Barnes and Noble placed it in fiction. Borders and Walden Books stocked it in romance. I must say, I was ambivalent. I was glad it was marketed as straight fiction. I was proud that Publisher's Weekly named it one of the most influential mass market paperbacks of 2002 because it bent the boundaries of classic genres. But lots of my fans from previous works (which have never been standard romances, but marketed as romance) didn't know where to find it. This is the problem with cross-over books that stretch boundaries. They can sometimes be difficult to market.
Q: So far all three of your published books are very different. Do you plan to continue writing novels in various genres and create characters who tread a different path?
A: I'm afraid so. I wish I would just settle down and write the same kind of book repeatedly or at least the same style. But I have to be interested in the concept and the characters enough to be obsessed with it for nine months or thereabouts. So, I have several different styles of books scheduled in the near future.
Q: Right now romantic thrillers are a hot commodity -- indeed, quite a number of popular authors of both contemporary and historical romance have jumped onto the thriller bandwagon. Actually I'd have to say that Body Electric had a very "thriller-like" edge to it. Are there any romantic thrillers in your writing future? Or do you believe this is just another trend that will eventually wane?
A: You know, most editors are always looking for the next trend. Right now straight thrillers are waning a bit, but the thriller approach has infiltrated romance successfully. I love the thriller approach to a story. There are definitely thriller elements ahead for me. But I'm not ready to nail my future projects definitely to the romantic thriller label. I think there will be a little thriller, a little sci-fi, and did I mention that I have a great idea for an historical with sci-fi elements? Sigh. I think my future is definitely going to be bending genres, in spite of the marketing difficulties. I just hope my readers like the stories and follow me from style to style.
Q: The "paranormal romance" has been on the verge of "breaking out" for a number of years now but there didn't seem to be any more on the shelves in 2002 than there were in 2001. Do you think this is because most romance readers just aren't all that interested, or because book publishers don't want to risk buying more paranormals?
A: Paranormal elements sufuse our society, from Buffy, Vampire Slayer to Touched by an Angel, and Charmed to Harry Potter. I agree with Julie Kenner when she says that romance always contains a bit of paranormal fantasy (fated lovers drawn to each other--maybe even the happy ending itself!) I think romance readers are very interested in paranormal elements, but there are those who like those elements expressed blatantly, and those who like it more subliminal. That said, I think some fairly straight-ahead publishers are beginning to get on the bandwagon. All of a sudden, everyone is looking for paranormal elements, but some publishers are only dipping a toe in the water (secondary characters who are wacky astrologists but not main theme paranormals.)
Q: What new Susan Squires releases can readers expect to see on the shelves in 2003-2004?
A: First up will be Danelaw in February. It's a sequel to my first book, Danegeld. It revisits the time of Alfred the Great when Viking and Saxon were vying for dominance. It's the story of a woman who thought her destiny was entwined in the religion of her mothers, an older people than either Viking or Saxon. But she finds that life is more complex and destiny has greater consequences than she suspected, and the choice between Viking and Saxon will be harder than any she has ever made. In October, we'll see the release of Imposter Syndrome, a story more in the vein of Body Electric. This time, the development that changes the world is the discovery of a genetic mutation that allows some people to attach the junk DNA that floats in all our systems to the human genome string, with devastating consequences. A psychiatrist and an investigative reporter are thrown together by the changes in their bodies, and the societal forces that are ranged against them.
Q: Any last thoughts you'd like to share with your readers and fans, or perhaps some words of advice for a few aspiring writers out there?
A: Oh, this is always so intimidating! I guess I would say to aspiring writers that you have to write what interests you, regardless of market, or genre rules. That said, your book still has to be a compelling story, perhaps even more compelling to overcome the resistance to publishing something different. Look for editors that are pushing the boundaries and write the best story you can. As for my readers, I only beg their indulgence, and ask them to follow the personal stories I write about the search for hope and wholeness, no matter the genre in which they appear.Find out more about Susan Squires and her novels by visiting her Website.
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