The Many Sides of Connie Brockway
(July 28, 2000)
“I am entirely puke green with jealousy of authors whose characters spring fully developed, like Athena from Zeus’ brow. If I do listen to my characters, they more often lie than not, they are lazy and histrionic. Which, since I assume they burble up from the La Brea tar pits of my imagination, that means that at essence I am a liar, lazy and histrionic.”
Connie Brockway is one of a relatively small number of romance authors to have been granted Desert Isle Keeper Status (at least) three times, for As You Desire, All Through the Night, and her newest release – McClairen’s Isle: The Ravishing One. A fourth title, My Dearest Enemy, came thisclose for myself and a second AAR Reviewer, Marianne Stillings. What is perhaps most fascinating about Connie Brockway is that she has the ability to write a different book every time – her books are not written in the same style, nor are they set in the same time and/or place. Our readers have loved her books as well – she received four “wins” and six honorable mentions in our 1997 All About Romance Reader Awards, two honorable mentions in 1998, and another in 1999.
Which is not to say we at AAR have loved all of her books; I was shocked when the first review of the first of her McLairen’s Isle trilogy landed in my in-box. How could we be giving this immensely talented author a grade of D+? A momentary aberration, to be sure – right? When the second book in the trilogy earned a disappointing C+, I started to panic – had another favorite author reached the bottom of her creative well? So when I received Nora Armstrong’s DIK review of the third in the trilogy – McLairen’s Isle: The Ravishing One, I sighed a huge sigh of relief – Connie’s well wasn’t dry after all.
An author of not only versatile talent but of grace as well – not many authors would sit for an interview after once receiving a grade of D+ – I now share with you my recent conversation with Connie.
–Laurie Likes Books
When we met at RWA in 1996, it was right before you “hit the big time” with As You Desire and All Through the Night. If you can recall that time, how did you feel before crossing that line in comparison with how you felt after, and today as well, regarding your career and the romance genre?
I felt far more secure when you and I met, Laurie, than I do right now. If nothing else, I have learned that being a “successful author” is more a matter of public perception than ones own estimation. At that time I felt reasonably confident that I would get another contract, and that my next book would sell more than the one that was then currently available. That attitude hadn’t a thing to do with the realities of the publishing business (in fact, my next book, As You Desire, sold only marginally better than A Dangerous Man) and everything to do with naiveté. I am no longer so green -and if I am, its mold and it wouldnt be polite to comment on it. I am certainly no longer so cavalier.
As You Desire and All Through the Night are about as different in tone as day is to night. Some authors try to accomplish this difference in tone and do not succeed. You succeeded amazingly well. Please talk about the differences in writing a very dark book and one that is, as our reviewer described it, “When Harry met Dizzy.” And, if you wrote them back to back, how did you change gears and/or is that why you did it?
Writing two such completely different books was easy. Is easy. In fact, Im doing it again; shifting gears that is. My current book is bright and mouthy and fun.
As You Desire was what Ive heard called a “gift book.” It was effortless writing from day one. The characters were so accessible to me, I understood them right away and I enjoyed them. It would have been much harder to try and write another Harry and Dizzy right away. If Id tried to write another smart-mouthed and ethically questionable hero I fear I would have ended up with Son of Harry rather than a unique character. The resultant story would have bound to fail me, if no one else. So switching to obsessive, dark, complex characters for whom sex does not equal love (as it did for Harry and Dizzy) was easy. I didnt have to worry about echoing character traits; I could start from scratch.
Of course, there are readers who are appalled that the woman who wrote such a “nice” love story could write something as edgy and sexually explicit as All Through the Night and vice versa. My former editor tried to gently tell me that readers dislike being jerked around (my words, not hers) tonally and appreciate knowing what to expect from an author. Do you think thats true?
Another question about All Through the Night. I know I had asked you a couple of years ago about writing the context of the times, and you answered it wonderfully. Let’s go into it more now – does it bother you to read romances set in the same period that don’t even touch upon the political and economic goings-on of the time? If not, why then did you choose to do that?
Yes. It does. I understand and appreciate as much as anyone that romance is pop literature; Even historical romances address issues that concern the contemporary reader. But I also believe we miss huge opportunities and in the process do our readers a disservice if we neglect our characters social, economic, and political situations.
Yes, romance is and should focus primarily on the hero and heroines developing relationship, but the flavor and the complexity and the resonance of that relationship can only be enriched by creating characters who live within the context a specific world. Im not interested in a story where the setting can be changed with no more effort than it altering the date under the first chapters heading.
Those arent real people. Characters who simply move through a prettily dressed up landscape without being affected people and events, dont have a stake in their world. The biggest problem I see in neglecting to give characters agendas, relationships, and concerns that involve social and political issues (in other words, something outside their love-lives) is that then, regardless of whether they are riding across a moor, drinking at a pub, fighting a duel, or frolicking in the hay, ultimately youve got two people alone in a vacuum.
Yet another question about All Through the Night. You made both lead characters extremely dark and tortured/tormented. That’s a difficult thing to pull off, and yet you succeeded admirably. How do you do so without making the book overly depressing/dark and scaring off readers? And, were you concerned about how the masturbation scene would affect readers?
In answer to the first part of the question, Im not sure I didnt scare off a good many readers (I saved the emails and letters!) I guess the most important part in writing a book like that is in its initial conception. From the get-go, I never assumed Jack and Anne would be anyones first choice as daycare providers. That was fine with me.
I think when you conceive a book like that you give yourself permission to do whatever is necessary to make the story work. Since All Through the Night was originally conceived to be a book about a two characters inability to forgive themselves for things in their respective pasts, and how their individual guilt would eventually manifest itself in, respectively, sexual obsession and addiction, I was pretty much already in for a penny. The masturbation scene just made it a pound.
I thoroughly enjoyed My Dearest Enemy, and was amazed at how different it was in tone as compared to All Through the Night. First consider my earlier question about writing two books back to back so different in style and tone. Then talk about Avery – my favorite hero for 1998. He was such a unique hero for a romance novel. As much as I love the Duke of Slut, a hero with allergies who grew up as a 98-pound weakling and becomes such a yummy adult is definitely special. Also, please talk about the epistolary relationship you decided to create for her and Lily – it was wonderful too.
Well, what held true for As You Desire and All Through the Night held true for All Through the Night and My Dearest Enemy. Making the characters in the next book as different as you can from the one youve just finished is just a simple ploy to keep from inadvertently creating echoing characters.
The epistolary factor came about serendipitously. I came across a letter I wrote my husband in our second year of marriage. Now, before you say “ah!” let me tell you, it wasnt a love letter. Id written it when I was so angry at him I literally couldnt speak. Instead, I wrote and my, wasnt it a scathing, sarcastic letter! But you know what? It was also funny. So I began thinking how very well one could get to know another person through letters, emails, et al and there you go, the letter courtship in My Dearest Enemy was born.
As an aside, my letter must have worked in encouraging my husband to mend his ways since its twenty three years later and hes still here .
You have written about so many places. Tell how you research your books – how long does it take to do a place/time, and where you do the research.
Each book I write has its own notebook which I fill with quotes, facts, examples of slang, dress notations et al. While the pages of earlier notebooks are filled with the most rudimentary historical facts – things like who was king during the Regency – the notebooks I’ve recently filled tend to focus more on minutiae.
In the book I’m currently working on, The Bridal Season, which should be out next year, the hero is a war veteran and even though the reader never “sees” him in his regiment in the Sudan, I needed to know as much as I could about the British army system. And let me tell you, I’m amazed the British Empire achieved as much as it did. What a mess!
But back to your question, I’d say that pre-writing research takes me about a month. I use the library, my own library, friends’ heads (I refer to Susan Sizemore as “Big Brain” for any Defending Your Life/Albert Brooks fans out there) and, increasingly, the Internet.
The initial research is just that, initial. I am constantly researching various aspects of a story while in the process of writing it. Which reminds me, if anyone out there knows what the actual ceremony entailed, circa 1890, by which a gentleman was created a peer (at least I know he is “created” and not “made”) please write to me!
How long does it take you to write your books from conception of idea to final draft?
About nine months from the time I commit to an idea. However, I generally have three to five ideas always percolating in the back of my head. I’ll jot down notes anywhere – grocery bills, bank deposit slips, gum wrappers – and stick them in envelopes for future reference. I have one book I’ve been brewing for about six years. It has a coffee can full of ideas dedicated to it
How do you get your ideas?
Everywhere. Really. I get my best ideas when I’m stuck in traffic. Or listening to a song whose lyrics evoke a feel or a character type for me (Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics always remind me of Deb Smith’s books.) Or watching a commercial. Or hearing a poem. Or talking to a friend. Or reminiscing. Or from an ort of incidental information I find while researching another book. They’re everywhere!
Are you a very organized writer – i.e., do you work from a very detailed outline or do you fly by the seat of your pants, or something in between?
I am trying very hard to be a more organized writer because I use up an awful lot of time and energy on pages, scenes and characters that never see their way to the finished book. But then, I’m beginning to fear that that’s just part of the process for me. Other people do character interviews or detailed outlines or any other number of methods. My method seems to be to have one bright shining moment at the beginning of the book where I can envision and hear the main characters interacting about something important. That’s the kernel from which all the other stuff grows.
Things get tougher from then on. First I try to get a sense of what the book is about, what these people are about, and then I try to develop a storyline around that. Then I write. And write. And write. And somewhere about 3/4 of the way through I go back and cut. And cut. And cut. So that by the final quarter of the book I’m falling down a hill toward the resolution. I cut 80 pages from my last book. The book before that lost 52.
Talk about the importance of both character and plot. Which is more critical, if there is one, in your books? Which do you find it easiest to write?
I think I write character-driven books but that’s because the characters are the initiating factor when writing. In other words, I don’t think of a clever plot and then try to imagine the best characters to work within the parameters of that plot. I come up with what are, for me, interesting characters and then build a story around them. Hopefully, my plots demonstrates character and not vice versa, and also – again, fervently hoped – the plot propels the characters forward in their development. You don’t want the same two characters standing at sunset that rose at dawn.
Do your characters do what you ask of them or do they tell you where to take the story?
Nope. I am entirely puke green with jealousy of authors whose characters spring fully developed, like Athena from Zeus’ brow. My characters are the product of a hundred miscalculations, pauses, failed attempts, complete reversals, refreshed inspiration, evening desperation, whittling and clumping together. If I do listen to them (in other words, fly entirely by the seat of my pants) they more often lie than not, they are lazy and histrionic. Which, since I assume they burble up from the La Brea tar pits of my imagination, that means that at essence I am a liar, lazy and histrionic.
But then again, I could be channeling. . . .
Can you share with our readers some information about your personal life and history?
Personal history? When I sit down at conferences I am always amazed to hear other people’s histories – they’re so adventurous and exotic. I am not. I’m as middle American as pumpkin pie. I am an official mutt having a half dozen ethnic bloodlines running through me – though they come predominantly from British Isles. I was born in Minnesota but raised in upstate New York until my father’s job brought us back to Minnesota. Here I stayed for high school, college and grad school, returning to New York when my husband accepted a residency there. After that, we made one last journey back to Minnesota where we followed my husband’s dream of becoming Marcus Welby to a small town, until he woke up to the nightmare of HMOs. Then moved to the Twin Cities where we have now lived for thirteen years. We have one exceptional, beautiful, talented daughter.
What about your professional history?
My desire to write was deep and long standing. I earned degrees in Art History and English with a creative writing core and went on to attend the University of Minnesota as a grad student in Creative Writing. When my daughter entered first grade, I decided to take a year and give myself the opportunity to write a romance. Of course, I didn’t have a clue as to how to begin. I knew a lot about theme, parallel constructions, and metaphor pyramids but I was clueless about formatting, querying, submissions etc. One day I was reading a suburban rag when I came across an article about Susan Sizemore’s Golden Heart win and something called Romance Writers of America. I called the contact person listed in the article, went to a workshop the local chapter was giving and sat down next to Susan Kay Law, who was also attending her first workshop. It conspired that we lived a few miles apart. One thing leading to another and we formed a small critique group. Both Susie and I wrote our first books at that time and, I’m proud to say, both sold. I sold to Avon; it was a Golden Heart finalist and later that year, the year being 1994, was released as Promise Me Heaven. I have been writing romances ever since
Let’s talk about the McClairen’s Isle trilogy – the final book was just released and earned DIK status from us. Congratulations, btw! If I recall correctly, these are the first connected books you’ve done. How did the idea happen, and how much did you know about all three books when you started the first one? How is it different to do connected books than separate ones? How do you keep the “stars” of the previous book from overshadowing the “stars” of the new book? Did you enjoy doing this series and do you plan to do more connected books?
What a delightful review! Please thank Ms Armstrong for me.
The idea to do a connected series originated with my then editor, Maggie Crawford. I was not building a whole lot of momentum with my previous titles, even though they had done reasonably well, and she thought that one of the “problems” might be that I tend to flip “tone,” a work habit I addressed earlier in the interview. From book to book, readers hadn’t a clue which Connie Brockway they’d be reading. Maggie didn’t want me to abandon either tone (for lack of a better word) but she did want me to string together a series of books each of which was similar in feel to the other. As I recall I worked out a couple possible scenarios for linked books, one of which sprang from a story told by a tour guide in a half-tumbled Scottish castle on the North Sea. The antagonist in that story became Ronald Merrick, Lord Carr.
At first it was wildly entertaining. I conceived the series to have one huge, over-arcing story line under the umbrella of which existed three separate, but progressive, arcs. I’m a fanatical game-player and this was like some huge cryptogram. I had flow sheets taped all over the wall of my office as well as an immense chronology – real events in red ink, Merrick events in black.
The fun lasted until I started the book. Then it dawned on me that I would have to retell the story of Ronald Merrick and his children in each book. Argh. I also knew I would have to reiterate the story have relatively early in the books. I ended up using as a device third person omniscient and was so pleased by the result that I have been using the device in every book since and shall continue to do so, judiciously, in future books. I love a huge canvas.
Happily I never had to worry about the hero/heroine from a previous book over-shadowing those in the current book for the simple fact that they weren’t on stage, at least not until the very end of the third book. Keeping the secondary characters alive throughout was also challenging, especially Tunbridge, who needed to develop as a character. That, I would say, was the most satisfying part of writing a three book series – the opportunity to chart the development of characters over a course of years and a series of events.
In answer to the last part of the question, I already am on work on a series – this one is much more loosely connected and, as I said earlier, completely different in tone. They are light, late Victorian romantic comedies but with some denser emotional underpinnings.
To wrap things up, what more can you say about your history and the romance novel? What authors did you fall in love with, and when was this? Whom do you read now?
It depends. I fall in love with different writers for different reasons. Pat Gaffney, Loretta Chase, Laura Kinsale. . .these are the authors that made, and make, me want to write better. I’m still mourning Pat’s absence in the romance genre and console myself the excellent woman’s fiction she’s producing. As for right now, I could wax poetic about all the following authors but will content myself with trying to encapsulate their attraction for me.
I adore Deb Smith’s word handling. She could write about pavement and I’d read it. Judith Ivory is another author I read for the pleasure of her language. Edith Layton for depth of character and dialogue that is poetry. I read Susie Law for “just a guy” heroes and warmth, Susan Sizemore for a rousing good romp, Geralyn Dawson for humor and Pam Morsi for charm, Kathy Eagle for honest, non-sentimental romance. I read Mary Jo Putney to see what the hell she’ll manage to pull off this time, Marsha Canham for high mimetic adventure, Teresa Medeiros for that perfect blend of fairy tale and romance, and this could go on forever but, I’d feel I’ll have answered completely enough if I didn’t mention a few of the new authors that I really look forward to reading again: Julia London, Eloisa James, and Taylor Chase.