How did it feel to have Newsweek proclaim you "one of the most popular voices in women's fiction"?
It felt -- and feels -- nice. Warm and cozy. Almost life-affirming. Like most writers, I spend a lot of time in isolation, creating characters and situations in my head. What I do, really, is tell stories to myself. The stories please me, which is really the only standard you can set as a writer. To know that other people -- readers -- enjoy them too is a wonderful bonus that I never take for granted.
Your ability to combine humor and suspense sets your work apart. What first prompted you to inject comic relief into your books?
With three sons, a husband, and a menagerie of pets, my life is pretty much an on-going comedy. I am the type of person who will be making a grand entrance -- or exit, as the case may be -- and trip over an electrical cable or something and fall head first off the stage. In my experience, no situation is too dire for disaster. I think the first book I used comedy in was Wild Orchids, a romantic suspense from the eighties, and what I did was imagine myself in the heroine's shoes when a man jumped in her car, pointed a gun at her and said drive. Mayhem -- and comedy -- ensued.
You have a real gift for creating a sense of place in your novels. What kind of research do you do?
I try to at least visit the places I write about. For example, we vacationed on Pawleys Island, which is the setting for Superstition, a few years ago. Nothing beats actually having been there for coming up with intangibles such as the way a place smells. In some cases, I've lived in the areas I write about. Also, I do a lot of internet research, and use sources such as the Chamber of Commerce and travel articles and books.
Bait was set in New Orleans and St. Louis, Superstition in South Carolina. Where will your next story unfold?
I'm not sure yet. I'm working on it. I prefer the South, simply because I tend to have a southern mind-set, but we'll see.
Superstition features a professional psychic. Do you believe in psychic ability? Have you ever witnessed a psychic at work?
I do believe in psychic ability, at least to a point. When I was in my early twenties, I worked on a movie set (Thoroughbreds, with Stuart Whitman and Vera Miles) and a psychic was there to give somebody a reading. He was leaving, and I was standing by the door, basically holding it open for him, and he stopped, looked at me, and out of the blue said, "I see you in a car accident, in a car spinning out of control heading toward a bridge. Be careful driving." Needless to say, this took me aback. A couple of hours later, I was leaving work, driving especially carefully (as you can imagine). The weather was sunny and clear, with no more than the normal amount of traffic on the expressway. All of a sudden a delivery truck swerved into my lane. I slammed on the brakes, which must have locked up or something because I lost the control of the car, which started doing doughnuts down the expressway while brakes squealed all around me. Sure enough, I saw that I was headed for a bridge abutment. The horror I felt at that moment was indescribable. I thought, "I'm going to die" and my life practically flashed before my eyes. There was absolutely nothing I could do but hang onto the steering wheel and try to avoid the concrete wall I was hurtling towards. Fortunately, the car came to a shuddering halt about a foot away from the bridge and I, needless to say, did not die. I wasn't even hurt. I was shaken, though, and no longer quite the skeptic I had been.
After nearly two dozen suspense novels, does it get easier or harder to come up with original ideas?
I don't usually have trouble coming up with ideas, and I think that's because my books are basically character driven. I come up with characters, and they find themselves in a variety of dangerous situations just because of who they are. I find that if I sit down and start writing as these characters, their backgrounds, personalities, and needs and desires take the story to places I never would have imagined if I had just sat down at my computer and started thinking, "Oh, gosh, I need an idea."
What inspires your story lines?
I get story lines everywhere. One time in particular stands out in my mind. I was in New York City's Central Park with my younger sister. She was in what I at the time called her Dolly Parton phase, with big hair and big -- well, you get the idea. Anyway, we were walking and she looked over at me -- my hair is straight and fine and couldn't get big if you fed it steroids -- and said "You know, your hair needs more puff." I found this slightly annoying, so I looked back at her and said, "Sweetie, your hair has enough puff for the both of us." She found this slight annoying in turn and said something on the order of does not. We kept this going back and forth for a little bit, until I started singing Puff, the Magic Dragon to her, sort of under my breath. This annoyed her so much that I promised to dedicate my next book to her, as the real Puff. She was turning red and spluttering with sisterly venom when I had an epiphany: what if I dedicated a book to the real Puff (meaning my sister, though I wouldn't actually mention THAT) and there was a secret agent out there whose code name was Puff the Magic Dragon and he was missing and the KGB was looking for him and they read my dedication and thought I knew where he was and came after me. All that came to me in a flash, and indeed, that was the basis for my next book, Night Magic. Which, if you check it out, is indeed dedicated to the real Puff, my sister Lee Ann. Who still loves me, by the way.
What did you do before you published your first novel?
I was in law school. I sold my first book when I was 24.
If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing instead?
Probably practicing law. It's hard to say. I've always been a writer, and I can't imagine doing anything else.
Why do you think your books appeal to such a loyal audience?
I love books, always have, always will. I was a reader long before I was a writer, and I am an avid reader to this day. What I try to do is write the books I would love to read. I think readers respond to that. Also, I always, always, do my best. I write the best book I possibly can at the time.
Describe your writing routine.
I get up at 6:45, get the children (I have three boys) off to school, feed the animals, take a bagel and a Diet Coke to my office, which is in our house, sit down at my computer, and start to write. Some days I'll write until it's time to pick the children up at 2:45, and then quit for the day. If I'm closer to deadline, I'll go back to writing after I pick up the children. If I'm past deadline (hey, it happens) then I'll write until nine or ten that night. If I'm way past deadline (that happens too) then I might write even later, like all night. Toward the end of a book, I'll sometimes write forty-eight or even seventy-two hours straight.
Who are your literary heroes? [or] Who do you like to read? [or] Do you have a favorite author/genre?
Like most of the authors I know, I grew up on Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, and even Mary Higgins Clark. I loved Gone with the Wind and Wuthering Heights as a girl, and still re-read them occasionally ( I say occasionally because by now I know them pretty much by heart). I read a little of everything, all genres, a variety of authors. I am never without a book, and usually have half-a-dozen or so waiting to be read. Reading is one of my greatest pleasures. In fact, except for my children, it is my greatest pleasure.