As everybody knows, family jokes often take on a life of their own and that long ago remark spawned a new family tradition – one that plays out whenever my sister finishes a new Linda Howard book and just as passionately declares: “Linda Howard is the best writer ever!” She’s only half kidding.
For my sister and for me and for tens of thousands of readers out there (and you know who you are, don’t you?), there’s something magical about loosing yourself in the pages of a Linda Howard novel. Still, despite the author’s well known propensity for enthusiastically following her muse wherever she (or is it “they”?) might take her – from Medievals to Westerns to time travel to romantic suspense – even the author’s most devoted readers may be surprised at her next release.
Dramatically different in tone from Ms. Howard’s last few releases, To Die For is a first person romantic comedy starring an irrepressible (and very, very funny) heroine who, believe it or not, could well be the key to understanding just why there are few things more “real” than a Linda Howard fictional character.
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First of all, I can’t thank you enough, Linda, for taking the time to chat with us. Unquestionably, as our recent Top 100 Romances Poll proves, you’re a very big favorite with AAR readers. I’m guessing a lot of them will be surprised to learn that To Die For, your December 28th release, is a paperback original. Why the format change?
First, many thanks to the AAR readers for their votes in the Top 100 Poll. Y’all don’t know how much I appreciate knowing you liked my work.
As for why To Die For is a paperback original . . . well, it wasn’t part of my hardback contract. The day I finished Cry No More – the very day! – my editor called and said, “I hate to ask you this now, but do you know what your next book will be about?” The reason she hated to ask me anything, even my name, was I’d had a total of ten hours sleep during the past week while I worked on finishing Cry No More. That tends to be the way I work. The last week I virtually live on coffee, and work an average of sixty-two hours a day. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. It’s more like I work until I fall down, then I sleep for a couple of hours, get up, put on a fresh pot of coffee, and work until I fall down again. Anyway, I’m a zombie when I finish a book. So here she was, asking what my next book was going to be about, which required thinking, which wasn’t going to happen anywhere in my brain for at least another two weeks.
My answer to her question was, “I don’t have a clue. I have absolutely nothing that I’ve been scribbling on except for the first person thing which no one in New York wants me to do because first person doesn’t sell well.” I’d like to add that I had no intention of doing a book in first person, either, but occasionally I’d sit down at the computer to play and entertain myself and I’d tinker with the pages I’d done in first person. It was fun, and the character was fun.
She asked me if I could maybe keep the idea and change the book to third person point of view. I said no, because the character’s voice was too strong, it wouldn’t come through as clearly in third person. Well, my editor made disappointed noises, then said, “Do you mind sending what you have to me anyway? I’ll look at it.” So I said sure, but I didn’t expect anything because during a conversation with a v.p. at Ballantine we’d talked about books and I’d mentioned what I was playing with, and she had the same lack of interest. Didn’t bother me, because I tinker with a lot of ideas and most of them never see the light of day. I was too tired to think, they wanted to see something, I had five or six pages of this first person thing done, so I sent it to my editor with a little note that I thought I’d channeled a cheerleader on this one.
Half an hour later, my agent called. She was in an uproar. Seems my editor had called her immediately to see if she’d seen these pages and she hadn’t, so she was jealous. She said, “What do you mean, you channeled a cheerleader? Can you send the pages to me, too?” I said sure, but warned her it was in first person. She said, “Oh. Those usually don’t sell well.”
I know, I know. But it was all I had, and Kate (my editor) wanted to see something. I explained that. Robin (my agent) wanted to see them anyway because she can’t stand for anyone to read something of mine that she hasn’t read. So I emailed the pages to Robin.
Another half hour later, Robin called again. She was roaring with laughter. “You channeled a cheerleader! A man-eating shark with dimples!’ I love it! This is the cutest thing . . . ”
My editor called. “You really did, you channeled a cheerleader! This is the cutest thing . . . ”
So it wound up going to the afore-mentioned v.p., who read it and thought it was the cutest thing, etc. But it was totally different from anything I’d written before, it wasn’t romantic suspense, so what could they do with it? The answer was to bring it out as an original paperback, to sort of let people know it wasn’t the same as the hardbacks, so a paperback contract was piled on top of my hardback contract. The only problem was, I had to write the paperback and the next hardback in the same amount of time I normally use to write the hardback.
Knowing it would almost kill me, I agreed. I think I need to buy stock in Maxwell House . . .
So that’s why To Die For is a paperback original instead of a hardback. (I probably could have said it 1/20th the number of words, but it was more fun this way. )
Blair Mallory – the cheerleader you so mysteriously channeled – is one of those people who seem uncomplicated and are actually anything but. Was it fun to write a heroine who some people (foolish though they be!) might underestimate?
Blair was fun, period. I was never a cheerleader, and my friends call me “the queen of logic.” That’s when they aren’t saying that I think like a man. So Blair is nothing like me, and if I didn’t channel a cheerleader I’d like to know what the heck that voice is chattering away inside my head??? Her family never underestimated her, but men did. And she had fun with it. She was so cheerfully ruthless, and so intelligent and sharp, that she used her personna as a means of getting her way. If someone underestimated her, she blithely rolled over them. When I was writing To Die For I spent a lot of my time sitting in front of the computer laughing like an idiot.
I have to say I laughed like an idiot when I read it, too. There’s a brightness to this one that really shines through, despite some pretty dark events that take place within the course of the book. I especially enjoyed the fact that Blair is a girly-girl (and proud of it!) who’s also incredibly strong and resilient. Still, even though Blair is in very direct contrast to professional assassin Lily (the heroine of Kiss Me While I Sleep), I’d argue that in her own way she’s just as formidable – hey, girly-girls can kick butt, too! Any thoughts?
Even the dark events are funny when seen through Blair’s eyes. Her reaction to getting shot had me howling. Am I giving too much away by saying that? But she enjoyed her girly-girlness, she understood how to use it to both attract men and drive them crazy, and she had fun doing it. She made certain she stayed in very good shape, so when the time came she could use her physical ability to take care of the villain. Formidable? Definitely. Lily was street smart and could disconnect her emotions in order to kill; Blair would kill if she had to, to protect her loved ones, but she’d cry afterward and fuss at the dead person for upsetting her. And heaven forbid if she messed up her manicure while doing it!
So, you’re the “queen of logic” who “thinks like a man”. Your male characters – the Mackenzies, Diaz, John Medina, Dane Hollister, and Black Niall, for example – seem to me to straddle a pretty amazing line in that they’re incredibly real at the very same time that they’re larger than life. It’s a wonderful balance that, not surprisingly, seems to resonate with a lot of readers. Do you think that push-pull estrogen-testosterone thing you’ve got going on is the key to your ability to create the amazing men we love so much?
I honestly don’t know. I’m a bit on the girly side myself , with the hair style and makeup and polished fingernails, but I’m not frou-frou girly. I do have three brothers, though, and for seventeen years I worked at a trucking company surrounded by men, so I had ample time to observe them. They really are different. My husband of thirty years is one of those rugged outdoors types, and communicating with him has been like learning a foreign language. I did learn, though. And I am a logical, analytical person, sort of like most men. So maybe you take the life-long experience with men and add it to the logical part of me, then throw in the larger-than-life characters I seem to channel, and there you have it. They’re men. They like different things, they think differently, they talk differently. Words that a woman finds really crude and icky, a man doesn’t turn a hair at using. Men usually don’t do the flowery speeches; they’re more plain-spoken. And, God bless them, most of them have that in-born hero instinct, too.
Were you able to watch Saving Private Ryan? That was the most difficult movie to watch that I’ve ever seen, but I felt as if I owed it to the WWII veterans to do it. What struck me most of all was that they were just ordinary men, yet when called upon they did extraordinary things. Cops, soldiers . . . people may get tired of reading about them, but the honest truth is they’re overtly heroic. It’s right out there, every day. A traffic cops takes his life in his hands every time he walks up to a car he’s pulled over, but he does it anyway, every day, time and again.
My two stepsons are both volunteer firemen (and medics) so I know what firemen do. I was in NYC on 9-11, and when the first tower came down my first thought was, “Oh, my God, the firemen!” Ordinary men are heroes. I guess, if anything, I celebrate that part of men. Not to mention I enjoy their hunkaliciousness.
Well, heck, Linda, we all do. Ready to move on? Your books are always meticulously plotted, but I think many of your readers would agree that it’s your characters who make your books so very memorable – with few more so than Milla and Diaz of Cry No More. Though it’s one of my favorites of everything you’ve written, Cry No More is a wrenching novel to read that I’m certain must have been equally wrenching to write. Were you at all hesitant about taking your readers on such an emotionally demanding journey?
You’re giving me credit for a whole lot more control over this than I actually have. I never plan to do such and such book. Either the story is there or it isn’t, and if it is, it simply takes over. I can’t decide I’m going to do a certain type book, plot it, then sit down and write it. I’ve tried. It doesn’t happen. A particular story has to grab me by the throat, shake me, and not let me go until I’ve written it. I obsess about it. I’m watching the characters, like a movie inside my head. I sort of have a director’s power to step back and make them re-do something if it isn’t working, but for the most part I have to go where they lead. When a particular story has grabbed me this way, then I can’t work on anything else.
Milla came about from a picture I saw of a woman with curly, light brown hair. She was walking down a dirt road wearing a long skirt, and she had the saddest expression on her face I’ve ever seen. It took my breath away. In a flash I knew she’d lost her baby, and in the next flash I knew what she did when she found him. I looked at that picture for a year before enough of the pieces came together that I could write the book.
I actually wrote it out of sequence. About halfway through the book, I knew the ending was going to be so devastating that I wouldn’t have the energy to do it right if I waited until I reached the end of the book. I’m a very linear person, so I’ve never written out of sequence like that before, but that time I had to. I picked up the action when Milla went to Charlotte, N.C., (I’m trying not to give anything away, out of consideration for the people who haven’t read it) and wrote through to the end – including the very last chapter/epilogue thingie that got left out of the audio. I cried so hard I went through an entire box of tissues. The last few chapters were so emotionally devastating I was numb when I finished them. But I shook it off, went back to the middle and picked up where I’d left off, and tied the two parts together. And I was right; by the time I finished the book, I was so exhausted there was no way I could have done those last few chapters justice if I’d waited until then. (And that’s when my editor called to ask what my next book would be about, etc., etc. Isn’t it strange how things work? If I hadn’t been so completely wiped out, I might never have told her about Blair.)
I know I’ve pushed a few envelopes now and then, though I never intend to. The story is what the story is, and I pretty much have to go with it. Ask me if I ever wanted to write about a high-maintenance girly-girl cheerleader – in the first person! But there she was, chattering non-stop and making me laugh. (She’s still chattering, by the way. I thought she’d shut up after I finished the book, but no, she’s still going.) I’d have kept playing with her story, but she probably never would have seen the light of day if I hadn’t been so tired and brain-dead after finishing Cry No More, because I wouldn’t have mentioned it.
With Cry No More, I wasn’t thinking about how emotionally intense the book was. I knew it was, but it wasn’t something I planned. It was simply Milla’s story, and I had to tell it. If she had the guts to live through it, to do what she did, then I had to have the guts to tell about it. I couldn’t wimp out just because the telling made me feel as if I’d been turned inside out emotionally. I also knew some mothers wouldn’t be able to read the book. There are some things I can’t read about, either. We all have our own boundaries, and I trust readers to know what they can stand and what they can’t. To me, “reader” is synonymous with “intelligent.” No one book is going to appeal to everyone, but the readers are smart enough to know their own taste. So it’s a matter of trust, on my part. I trust a reader to put a book down if it gets to be too much.
I knew Lily wouldn’t appeal to everyone, either. She was an assassin, for crying out loud. She was grieving, and she was just a few degrees away from being suicidal. Only her stubbornness kept her going. That’s a pretty grim character, isn’t it? But I knew her story and I would be doing her a disservice if I’d tried to soften her, to make her more acceptable. So I have to grit my teeth and go with the character. After all, it’s their stories, not mine.
The question that is undoubtedly the biggest cliche when interviewing any writer is the groaningly simple, “Where do you get your ideas?” Well, I’ll avoid the obvious, but I find myself interested in the fact that it’s very clear that your characters somehow “tell” you their stories. Still, I don’t think many readers would argue with the fact that along with a host of unforgettable characters, you’ve also managed to create some of the most memorable scenes in all of romance. Do you think it’s the character rather than plot-driven nature of your stories that makes that happen?
Oh, yeah. Once I give control over to the characters, I have to go where they lead. I’ll change whatever I have to change to make a story fit the characters, rather than vice versa. If I try to change them, I figure I’ll wind up with nothing but puppets instead of real people. That’s the “director” part of me that can control part of the movie. The basic story, though, is always the people and that’s unchangeable. I can’t even change their names. They tell me what their names are, and that’s that.
A little woo-woo here: I’m open to paranormal possibilities, and occasionally I visit a psychic. She’s a real, beyond-a-doubt psychic who lives over two hours away and knows nothing about me except my name. I know she’s real because, the first visit, I was blocking like crazy (going to a psychic is like pulling off your clothes, you know; you don’t want them to see too much*g* ) and she wasn’t picking up anything except peripheral stuff. “You’re going to get new glasses.” I’d just called and made an appointment to have my eyes checked, but since I wore glasses at the time, I didn’t figure that was a big stretch. People who wear glasses regularly get new ones. “And a new watch.” Hey, watches are cheap. Never mind I’d just ordered one. Lots of people buy watches all the time. But then she gave me a sort of perplexed look as if she couldn’t figure out why she was picking up unimportant stuff like this, and said, “And you have a new ceiling fan!”
Bingo. That cinched it for me, and I knew she was the real deal. We had put up a new ceiling fan two days before. Now, ceiling fans aren’t something that people buy every day, so the odds are she wouldn’t have picked that if she’d been looking for something safe.
During one visit she kept seeing this man she insisted I’d be having an affair with. I was horrified and kept saying “No way”, and she was getting more and more insistent, then all of a sudden a light bulb went off and I asked what the man looked like. She described him and I started laughing, because he was the hero of the book I was working on (Joe Mackenzie, if you’re interested). I told her what I did for a living, and who the man was, and a peculiar expression crossed her face. “I wondered who all those people around you are,” she said. “I think you’re channeling real people.”
They’re real to me. That’s all that matters.
It sounds, Linda, as if your head can get to be a crowded place sometimes. You mentioned earlier that you’re still channeling the irrepressible Blair and that makes me wonder if the voice of any one character has ever been louder and clearer than any of the others – in other words, have you ever created a character who just wouldn’t go away?
Diaz wouldn’t go away. He’s still with me, to a certain extent. John Medina and Niema are still with me, but if they have another book I don’t have a clue what it would be. Zane Mackenzie. And now Blair. She just keeps talking. I dunno; she might actually have another story going.
I hope so since I absolutely loved her. This may not be a question you can really answer since it’s all about the characters, but is there any setting or theme you don’t see yourself ever tackling?
I can’t say. The stories that come to me are what they are, and sometimes they lead me far astray :-) I think I’ll always have a romance in my books, though, because that’s an integral part of every story. How could I leave out the romance? I might as well leave out the plot, or the dialogue, or the narrative. I want everything; I want action and romance, humor and tears, emotion and sex. Each story is different in the mix, but I want all of the ingredients. Call me greedy.
Linda, yours is the kind of “greed” I think we can all get behind. Since I didn’t want to be too greedy myself, I asked our readers if they had any questions for you and, not surprisingly, they had a few thoughts. Though I think I know what the answer will be, one reader asked if you’d write a Western Historical again, another wondered if you’d ever try your hand at a Medieval, and still another wanted to know if you’d ever revisit John and Niema.
John and Niema are still here, and occasionally scenes will drift through my mind. But no plots, so I don’t know what’s going on. I know some people wonder about Ronsard, too, but I don’t think I could ever write him. See, I know the only thing that would ever turn him around, but I also know that he will never truly love a woman the way I’d want him to, so I refuse to let his daughter be killed. There is no happy ending for Ronsard, not romantically speaking.
As for will I write a Western historical again – sure, if the story comes to me. Ditto on the Medieval. My publisher would probably have a duck, I might have to write them under a different name, but if the story’s there I’ll write it.
Lastly, Linda, I know our readers would love to hear about what we can look forward to in 2005. After To Die For, what’s up next?
June 2005 (unless it’s moved – publishers move books around like chess pieces) is Killing Time, which is the time-travel that was originally named . . . I forget what it was originally named. I know it was advertised under the original title, then it was changed to Killing Time, so people might think I’ll have two books out, but it’s one and the same book.
Then . . . who knows? If Blair doesn’t shut up, I might have to do another Blair book. If she goes away, though, then I’ll try to get some rest. Writing a book takes so much out of me – I know, I know, if I had a more sane work process – that I usually have to take it easy for a few months. I could try writing like a normal person, I guess. That might work. Then my agent couldn’t call me an “idiot savant”. *G* (I guess you can tell we’ve worked together a long time – twenty years, in fact.)
Well, there you have it.
Of course, I want to thank Linda Howard once again for being so generous with her time and embracing our interview with such enthusiasm in the midst of a busy (well, crazy, really) holiday season. And, just for the record, I think that psychic is onto something – I think she’s channeling real people, too.