Quickie with Millie Criswell
(November 6, 2000)
In an interesting series of events, I recently read an advance copy of Millie Criswell’s upcoming The Trouble with Mary. This author of historical romance had recently written a series title, but is making her single title contempoary debut this January. I thoroughly enjoyed The Trouble with Mary; the love story was engaging and the characters were quirky and humorous. Of particular interest to me were those instances when Mary’s character either said or thought something outrageous that I thought, but would never say out loud to anyone.
I got in touch with Millie to ask her about both her move to contemporary romance and the ability of an author to say things through a character that she probably wouldn’t otherwise say. While Millie and I were carrying on an email discussion, she popped onto our Reader to Reader Message Board to recommend a book I’d recently read and fallen in love with – Joy Fielding’s The First Time. At the time of her post, she hadn’t read either my interview with author Fielding or my DIK Review of the book. This was getting spooky – here was an author whose characters had my thoughts and who responded to a book I never thought I’d like in a similar way. Not only that, but through our meanderings about The First Time, we discovered even more common ground on an emotional and personal level. Talk about serendipity!
To take advantage of this “separated at birth” experience, I put additional questions to Millie, and was delighted by her answers – this is one refreshingly candid author! Here’s our brief Q&A.
Laurie Likes Books: The Trouble with Mary is your first single title contemporary, is it not? As someone mostly known for historicals, why the switch? Are you fully in contemporary mode as of now?
Millie Criswell: Yes, The Trouble with Mary is my first single-title contemporary romantic comedy. And coming from a rather dysfunctional Italian family myself, it was a book that was easy for me to write. Although there’s a huge amount of exaggeration going on – don’t forget, I lie for a living – there’s also a great deal of truth, especially with the development of the secondary characters. I pulled some of the dialogue and humorous things that happened right out of my memory banks.
As for switching genres…well, after writing fifteen historicals I felt it was time for a change. I had lost my zest for writing, and my agent had been encouraging me to try writing something different. I sold a series title to Harlequin American and got my feet wet, then plunged ahead into the bigger format. I feel I have found my true voice with the contemporary romantic comedies. I’ve always written with humor, but I can let myself go, draw on my acerbic wit and weird sense of humor in a modern format.
Contemporary romantic comedy is where I want to be, though I’m not forsaking the historicals totally. I published a historical last April for Harlequin Historicals, and I’m the lead author on a western historical Christmas Anthology scheduled for next year. Will I do more? Only time will tell.
LLB: One of the best things about Mary was that the characters sometimes said things or had thoughts that were fairly outrageous. Is it easier to have your characters speak or think for you than to say certain things yourself?
Millie: I’m not sure if it’s easier – I’ve always been pretty outspoken with my beliefs – but it’s certainly a lot more politically correct to have someone else say what you’re thinking. Characters make a nice vehicle for that. They also allow an author to express a political opinion or make a value judgment, while hiding behind the characters. Although for the most part, my characters speak for themselves. They are real flesh and blood people. That’s the way I create them, and that’s how I want them to be perceived.
I think as an author matures and has seen a bit of life, it becomes easier to reflect on some of the humorous things around her, as with the comments Mary Russo makes regarding salt – boob inflation, weight gain, and all that; or her fears that her body is too fat, her chest too flat. All women have fears, and sometimes it’s fun and less painful to express those fears in a humorous way.
LLB: You and I have made that connection I find thrilling and is one of the reasons I love the Internet. What’s it like for an author to have a personal moment of connection with a reader?
Millie: I think an author is always trying to connect with her reader. That’s why we write the books. We’re hoping the reader sees life the same way we do, or we’ve expressed ourself in such a way that makes that person take a long look at themselves, or at ideas or situations they may have been closed off to before.
You and I both read The First Time by Joy Fielding. Ms. Fielding made me look at the heroine’s husband’s infidelity in a whole new way, because she gave him sufficient motivation for behaving like he did. As someone who’s been married to the same man for 32 years, I’m not sure I would have reacted the same way, under the same set of circumstances – I’m Sicilian, after all – but it made me think. I felt connected to these people and to the author.
When readers come away from reading my books I’d like them to feel connected to my characters in the same way. I want them to root for them, be happy for them, love them, as I do. That’s especially true with Mary, as this is a book so close to my heart.
I have received numerous letters from readers telling me that reading my books have helped them in some way. Sometimes these readers are in the hospital, or have lost their spouse or child, or are just feeling depressed, and they have picked up one of my books to get them through the rough spot. It’s humbling and extremely gratifying as a writer to have connected with them in this way. I don’t think it hits you when you’re putting words down on paper that those words are going to affect another human being in such a powerful way. It makes me happy to make other people happy, and if what I write does that, than I’ve accomplished my goal as a writer.
LLB: As much as I enjoyed The Trouble with Mary, that Mary was a 33-year-old virgin was, I felt, pushing it. On the other hand, it did work in terms of the plot and story. Since Mary’s wanting to get zinged was such a major focus of the story, did you consider making her perhaps a bit younger? Where did the idea come from, anyway?
Millie: No, I felt that Mary needed to be older. It made her struggle to leave the security of her family; it became an important impetus. I don’t think the reader would have had as much sympathy for a woman, say in her early 20’s, for it’s not as unusual for a woman that age to still be living at home. But Mary was living a dead-end existence, and she knew it. It just took her longer than most women to figure out that she needed to change her lifestyle. To get a life.
I don’t think it’s as unusual in a close-knit Italian family to have children Mary’s age still living at home, and I based the idea on friends that I know who are older, unmarried, and still living at home. Also, the movie Moonstruck inspired me in that regard, for although the character Cher played, Loretta, was divorced, she came home to live with her parents.
LLB: I had never read your books until this one landed on my desk, and with such high praise from Janet Evanovich, I was skeptical. Needless to say, this is one cover quote I believed.
Millie: Thanks! That’s very nice to hear. Janet’s quote blew everyone at Ballantine away. She hit number one on the NY Times list shortly after giving it to me, and everyone kept asking, “How did you know that was going to happen?” Obviously they had never read the woman’s books. I am a huge fan.
LLB: I’m excited about the sequel with Mary’s best friend, the over-the-top Jewish girl Annie and her brother, the Roman Catholic “Father” Joe, who had previously been involved before Joe went into the priesthood. This looks to be a difficult storyline, but it has great potential, particularly since Mary and Joe’s mother is so opinionated when it comes to religions and nationalities and the like!
Millie: I just finished What To Do About Annie and I had a great deal of fun with it. Annie’s father Sid is a hoot, and I adore him to no end. Joe ain’t bad either.