First of all, I CANNOT believe I haven’t posted this on my site before now. (Actually, part of me thinks maybe I did, but the Interwebs swallowed it.) This is an interview I did with Suzanne Brockmann–my favorite author and bosom Facebook-friend–back in July, 2009. I hope it’s as inspiring for you as it was back then…and continues to be, for me.
(Disclaimer: It’s a bit long, but this is the full, unedited version of the interview.)
VP: So, I guess the first question of the day is an easy one. Do you keep a personal blog?
SB: I don’t. I have an e-newsletter that goes out about once a month, which includes some blog-like musing. Readers can sign up at my website, at www.suzannebrockmann.com/mailing_list.htm
VP: Are there any blogs that you particularly like to follow?
SB: My personal internet homepage is the Huffington Post, because I’m a political/news junkie. But I stay away from most blogs. There’s just not enough time in the day as it is! See, I’m also an internet addict. I could spend all day just surfin’ and reading. So I really have to limit the amount of time I spend online.
VP: One of the things that seem to keep your readers loyal is the frequency with which you continue to produce great books. As I understand, you started writing when your children were still small. Is it difficult to motivate yourself to write with family activities and mothering duties on the table?
SB: I think I probably got more writing done when my kids were younger, because I had to be more disciplined. I had to be able to write at the drop of a hat – something I taught myself to do. This is something you, too, can teach yourself! It’s possible to learn to just—boom—sit and write. See, if I had five minutes free, I had to use all of those five minutes, so there was no time for any prep or rituals (i.e. lighting the writing candle to summon the muse, or reading the last ten pages you wrote last night, etc.)
It helped for me to carry around a hard copy of my WIP (work in progress). Not only did doing that help me keep the story fresh in my mind, but I could open it up and read it and revise it and even write more in longhand, whenever I was doing the waiting thing – at a pediatrician’s appointment or picking up my kids after school.
I thought of it like this: yes, I had a lot of things to do as a mom, but the book was always there, simmering on the front burner. I learned if I gave it a mental stir frequently throughout the day, it would be there for me so that I could sit down with five minutes free and write a half a page.
VP: Is there a set routine that you have that helps you get things done? How do you prioritize family with the pressures of writing and marketing your books?
SB: This, of course, is always a tough one. I have to confess that when I’m writing, particularly the end of a book, I get into a place I call “avalanche mode.” Writing takes precedence over eating and sleeping. My kids were great—they learned to give me the space I needed during those somewhat frantic weeks.
But early on, it was kind of funny. When my daughter was about four or five, a friend came to stay overnight as she was travelling home to Arkansas for the Christmas holidays. And this friend started laughing, and told me that while I was particularly distracted, my daughter had asked me if she could go to Arkansas, too—and I’d said yes. And I was like, “Wow, I thought she wanted a cookie.” I had to explain to my daughter that I would miss her too much if she went with my friend.
As the kids got older, they would tease me. “Mom, can we get a Wii? Can we get two…?”
SB: Part of being a working-at-home-mom is teaching your children that your work is important. I tried to instill in my kids a respect for having dreams and aspirations, and an understanding of what it means to be self-employed — to be your own boss. Yes, I could take time off whenever I wanted, but unless I set deadlines and kept them, the books would never get finished.
I allowed them to celebrate all the stages of my success. We used to go out for Chinese food (a low budget meal — this was the starving artist phase of my career!) every time I passed a milestone such as finishing the final draft of a book (even before it was sold), when I sold a book, when a book was published.
When my kids were in school, I used the hours that they were in school to get most of my writing done, so I could open my office door (in the early days, my office was in my bedroom) when they were home.
But when deadlines loomed, I’d go back to work after they came home from school (and after dinner, too), and I put a sign on my tightly shut door that said: “Are you bleeding? Is the house on fire? If the answer is no, please don’t disturb me right now.” It worked quite nicely. About once a day, I’d hear the feet coming down the hallway—bump, bump, bump, bump, bump. Then silence. Then bump, bump, bump, bump, bump, back the other way.
SB: I want to add that managing my time was made easier because I chose well in terms of life partner! My husband, Ed, has always been hugely supportive of my career. We split the household chores. He does the grocery shopping, I do the laundry. I cook dinner, he walks the dogs or picks up the take-out… My marriage truly is a partnership. I value that tremendously.
VP: What advice would you give to wives/mothers who want to write for a living?
SB: Take yourself seriously. Published or unpublished, you are a writer. Your writing is work time—don’t use it to do errands or laundry or favors for friends.
I know it’s hard, particularly when you work at home, to set boundaries. But you’ve got to make it clear to your family and friends that interruptions aren’t welcome. I have a cell phone, and my husband and my kids and my parents all have their own specific ring. If I’m writing, I won’t pick up the phone for anyone but them. And sometimes I won’t pick up for them, unless they call me twice in a row.
Take your writing and your career seriously—and other people will, too.
VP: One of the values I’ve admired in your writing is your devotion to sharing a message of love and acceptance—and equality—for gay men and women. But you’ve done this in a way that few others could; by giving these characters their own story and letting them explain the problem in their own words. Was your son Jason instrumental in coming up with this storyline at all?
SB: Absolutely. I suspected Jason was gay when he was around three years old. Because of that, I really educated myself as to what it means to live as a gay man in America. And when I really thought I about, I became aware that having to hide from the world, to be in the closet, was a horrible, damaging, soul-crushing way to live. I found out that gay teens (and adults) who fear rejection from their friends and family have a higher rate of suicide, and a higher rate of alcohol and drug abuse.
I decided, all those years ago, that Jason was going to grow up knowing that he was loved and cherished, exactly as he was—exactly as God or a higher power or Mother Nature made him. Having raised a gay son, I can say with certainty—backed by plenty of facts from the medical and scientific community—that being gay is not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s an orientation. Just as my daughter was born left-handed, my son was born gay.
And I also wanted to make sure that my attitude was never, “Oh, I love you anyway.” That’s pretty insulting, in my opinion. Would you love a child “anyway” for having freckles, or being short, or having green eyes?!? Of course not.
I spent years and years thinking about the way our society is changing in regard to homophobia—that, in my opinion, is the most difficult part of having a gay son. Knowing that there still are people who don’t even know him, who would hurt or even kill him just because he’s gay…? That’s hard to face without getting upset or angry.
But at the same time, it’s waaaay easier to be gay in 2009 than it was to be gay in 1965 or even 1975. In the past, a gay man had be in the closet—being gay was illegal.
(Even nowadays, there are some states in which if you’re out about being gay, you could be fired from your job or kicked out of your apartment. And of course there’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” which is a horrible policy—don’t get me started…)
But the fact is in America, since the 1970s, a large part of the GLBT population has courageously come out — and because of that, many people today know someone who is openly gay. And because of that, being gay is no longer scary. It’s not this unspoken, hidden, mysterious thing. It’s no longer such a big deal. And I am so, so grateful that Jason grew up during this time. He had role models in the gay community and we talked about them with respect and admiration. Being out and gay was an option for Jason, and he never felt isolated and alone. (He really is a terrific young man — I’m so proud of him.)
SB: So back to Jules Cassidy. It wasn’t hard, with all the research I’d done, to create a strong, smart, funny, heroic, openly out gay character who was a well-respected, highly skilled FBI agent. I gave him a back story similar to my son’s—parents who loved him and provided a safe environment for him to be out and open about his sexual orientation.
Many gay characters in mainstream fiction are angst-y and conflicted and completely in the closet. Not so Jules, who came out as a young teenager. He likes himself just the way he is—and it shows.
And just for the record, I introduced Jules in the second book in my Troubleshooters series. He’s played a large part in nearly all fifteen of the books. He is, hands down, my most popular character. I get a ton of reader email, and nearly everyone mentions how much they love Jules.
VP: Do you feel like Robin and Jules have changed the way people think about same sex marriage, by giving the issue a personal story?
SB: Again, absolutely yes. And that’s the whole idea behind the gay rights movement — make it personal. If you get to know someone—really know them—it’s much harder, I believe, to deny them civil rights.
And not only have I let my readers get to know Jules and Robin, but I’ve introduced them to my son Jason, as well.
Some people think I’ve taken the issue of same sex marriage too personally. I was devastated when Prop 8 passed in California, and I remember a friend saying “What’s the big deal? You don’t live in California. Jason doesn’t live in California…”
But California is part of the United States. And people there decided that it was okay to have a vote to determine whether or not my child’s right to marry the person he loves should be taken away. And that’s just wrong.
Can you imagine having to make a choice about where to live—because some states might not allow you to get married? Or might not view your marriage as legal? That’s dreadful.
SB: I think it’s time to stand up, as straight allies, and make people look us in the eye and tell us to our faces why they think our gay children and family members and friends shouldn’t have the same rights as the rest of us. I think we need to speak out—loudly—and let them know that their vote hurt us, that it affected us, personally. And then we need to show them our children’s baby pictures, and tell the story about that time when our son was four when he decided to paint the bathroom floor, or the time our daughter talked her older sister into giving her a haircut, or the time he dropped a watermelon in the supermarket, or the A he got for the home movie he made for science class, or the time we baked special cookies for his class because one of the kids was allergic to wheat…
SB: In 2004, my HOT TARGET, was published, and in it I gave Jules Cassidy his first romantic subplot. I dedicated the book Jason and that dedication has received a lot of attention. I posted it on my website, on a page that also contains the story of the day Jason was born, and quite a few photos of him as a child. (Check it out at http://www.suzannebrockmann.com/ht12_09_04.htm )
My message, of course, is that we are a family just like every other family. I’m a mother who loves her son. And when Jason finds someone with whom to spend the rest of his life? I will dance at his wedding. Count on it.
VP: You’ve written about being a PFLAG mom.
SB: PFLAG stands for “Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.” It’s an organization created to provide information and support for parents, family and friends of people who have come out as gay.
Not everyone has my highly tuned gaydar. Not everyone looks at their three year old and goes, “Hmmm.” I’d done a huge amount of research, long before Jason came out at age 15, but if I hadn’t, PFLAG would’ve been a great source of information. (Their website is http://www.PFLAG.org)
VP: Could you describe a little of what that entails, for those who aren’t familiar with PFLAG?
SB: There are chapters across the country — meetings are held monthly. You can go and meet other parents — just to talk, or to work together as straight allies supporting things such as PFLAG’s Safe Schools project. It’s a great organization.
The Boston Chapter — Greater Boston PFLAG — holds a silent auction fundraiser each year, and I regularly donate the chance to “be” a minor character in one of my books. (Really, you get to give your name to a minor character, but it’s still fun!) We march each year in the Boston Gay Pride Parade, too. It’s a power message to send — to march in a parade holding a sign that says “I love my gay son, ” or “Proud of our gay son!”
VP: Another theme that is very unique to your books is of strong men and women who support their country, and who aren’t ashamed to be patriotic. What motivated you to write about members of the armed forces?
SB: I have always been a World War Two history buff, and because of that, I’ve always held servicemen and -women in high regard. (I was a NASA fan, too — really into the space program as a kid. All my astronaut heroes were former military.)
So it seemed like a good fit when a friend found a magazine article about Navy SEAL BUD/S training Hell Week. At the time, I was looking for an idea to tie a series of books together. When I read that article, I knew I’d found my hook. Not only would the research be fun, but I knew I could write about SEALs with the proper amount of respect.
VP: What do you do to research the military side of things? Do you have family members in the armed forces, or have you just made friends along the way?
SB: My preferred form of research is reading. I read a lot of books and articles — just really submerge myself in the subject matter.
As for family members, my father was discharged from the Army before I was born. But I always loved the photo that was in my grandparents’ house of him receiving an award, dressed in his uniform. (That photo is now in my office.)
And I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of SEALs. In fact, I met the SEAL who was the subject of that magazine article I’d read, all those years ago — his name’s Tom Rancich. He sat down with me for an interview that I’ve posted in segments on YouTube. (Just go to YouTube.com and search for “Brockmann Rancich” and you’ll find the interview.)
VP: Do you conduct interviews as part of your research? (I’ve always wondered how that type of interview would go, if you’re talking to some big gruff Senior Chief in the NAVY, and he knows you’re probably going to take whatever he tells you and put it into some girly romance novel.) HOW do you convince these guys to talk to you in that case?
SB: I’m not big on interviews as a major source of research. But I do like having someone to go to with weird questions. (Like, if a handgun is submerged in discarded cooking oil, will it still fire?) (Answer: probably yes, but it will be extremely greasy and will probably slip out of the shooter’s hand upon firing.)
But when I do have the opportunity to talk to a SEAL, my questions tend to be about the emotional aspect. How did it feel when you got accepted to BUD/S? How did it feel to get your SEAL pin?
These guys are used to questions about the high tech equipment and their action-filled ops. The “deer in the headlights” look comes with the “how did it feel” questions!
But these guys are incredibly smart. They are completely able to talk about the psychology of being a SEAL, even if they don’t want to get too personal in their responses.
As for the romance aspect… ? Many of the SEALs I’ve talked to have read at least some of my books. And they’re always quick to point out that SEALs make lousy life partners. It’s a job with a lot of stress and travel, you know? That’s hard on a marriage. There’s a high divorce rate. I let them know that I know that there’s definitely a fantasy element in my books.
VP: What do you think is the most important result (or results) you’ve seen from people reading your stories?
SB: Without a doubt, it’s the reaction I’ve had to Jules and Robin’s story. I’ve gotten email from readers whose hearts and minds have been changed in terms of gay rights and same sex marriage.
One reader told me that she hadn’t spoken to her niece, who was a lesbian, in fifteen years. After reading my books, she called to apologize and rebuild their relationship.
Another reader wrote to say that my description of Jason (in my dedication to Hot Target) reminded her of her own young son. She thanked me for opening her eyes, and for giving her a “recipe of love” that she could use as she raised him.
And then there’s the man who emailed to tell me that his father gave him a copy of Hot Target. And he was perplexed and a little amused. A romance novel? But then he read my dedication to Jason, and he realized that this was his father’s way of saying, “I love you.”
Another reader wrote to tell me that she had a co-worker who suspected his son was gay, but didn’t know how to approach him. She gave him a copy of Hot Target, and he left it on his kitchen counter, open to that same dedication. And his son came out to him later that week, much to both of their relief.
I could go on and on and on. Without a doubt, that dedication is the most important thing I’ve ever written. I’m very proud of that.
VP: Have you ever written a character with yourself as the basis? If so, was it more difficult than writing other characters?
SB: Funny—the one character I’ve written who is most like me is Meg, from THE DEFIANT HERO. She’s probably my readers’ least favorite heroine, which cracks me up. Like me, she’s a control freak. Her daughter is kidnapped, and it’s very hard for her to trust anyone to help her get the child back. (I’ve found that mothers sympathize more with Meg than do readers who don’t have kids.)
And she’s not really based on me—she just has similar control issues. <g>
VP: Finally, what makes an amazing mom? In your opinion, is it possible to be a successful writer and still make your kids the priority? What have you learned about balancing these different roles?
SB: I think it all comes down to love. If you love your kids, you’re an amazing mom.
Early on in my career, I was working to feed my kids and keep a roof over their heads. My goal was to do that—while doing a job that allowed me to be creative.
There were definitely times when I would’ve been more present if I’d gotten a 9 to 5 office job as a secretary or a typist. But that would’ve been limiting in terms of potential salary, and in terms of my creativity. I felt that, by being a writer, I was showing my kids the value of believing in yourself and your talents, the value of working for yourself, the value of going big for a dream.
Like all of life, the balancing act is fraught with peril. I know I made mistakes. There are definitely things that, if could have a do-over, I’d do differently. So be it. You learn and move on.
VP: If you have anything else you’d like to add at this point, I’d love to know whatever you feel like sharing.
SB: I’d like to point out that my next book, HOT PURSUIT, will be out in hardcover from Ballantine Books on July 28, 2009. It’s the 15th installment in my Troubleshooters series, but you don’t need to read the others to enjoy it. (DARK OF NIGHT, Troubleshooters book # 14 is out in paperback right now.) I’m holding a virtual signing — readers can get a signed copy of HOT PURSUIT through my website — http://www.SuzanneBrockmann.com/virtual_signings.htm
I’ve also got a reissue coming out: OTHERWISE ENGAGED, a romantic comedy, will be out in paperback from Bantam, also on July 28.
And… last but not least, I’ve written a stage play called LOOKING FOR BILLY HAINES that I’ll be bringing to an off-Broadway theater in New York City in March, April and May of 2010. It’s a comedy in two acts with dance. I’m really excited about this project. I’ll be posting more information on my website appearances page as that date gets closer.
And oh yeah—I have a website appearances page. I’m going to be doing three book signings this summer—in Washington, D.C.; in Framingham, MA; and in Madison, CT. Details are on my website at http://www.SuzanneBrockmann.com/appearances.htm