An Interview with Sue Ann Jaffarian

How often do you get to interview one of your personal heroes? The first time I saw Sue Ann Jaffarian, I was too afraid to even speak to her.  She breezed into the middle of our low-key seminars one day, a bubbly, confident woman with a terrific smile.  She talked about her work as a paralegal but I was blown away by her other career as a much-published novelist with editors, a fan-base and everything!  Book-nut that I am, my mouth and brain slammed shut in the presence of this “sure-nuff” novelist.  At least I had the presence of mind to pick up some of her books.

Since then I’ve had a lot of fun reading Sue Ann’s work, particularly her series starring that plus-sized paralegal Odelia Grey (finally, a heroine that looks and thinks like me!) and the Granny Apples series set in Julian, Californa, a place near my grandparents’ home.  Thanks to social media and a mutual friend or two, I finally worked up the nerve to (virtually) meet Sue Ann and she’s been kind enough to answer some of the questions I didn’t have the nerve to ask years ago.  How nice can a real author be?

I think your story of becoming a published writer is inspirational.  Would you mind sharing it here?

Although I’ve always dreamed of being a writer, I didn’t make a solid commitment to reaching that goal until I was in my mid-40s. At that point I sat down and wrote my first novel, a work of general fiction. I know a lot of authors who took years to find an agent but this book landed me a well-known NY agent within a month of being finished. My agent worked hard to send it out to publishers and it was short-listed by one, but in the end no cigar. So I sat down and wrote another novel. The same thing happened – my agent received a lot of positive feedback, and one publisher short listed it, but again, in the end, nada. At that point my agent suggested I try my hand at a mystery novel. I was in the middle of writing a book that would eventually become my first published novel, Too Big To Miss, and converted it into a mystery. And that was the beginning of the Odelia Grey Mystery Series.
At this point you would think that everything would be go smoothly, but no. My NY agent hated the book and refused to represent it. To quote her: “No one wants to read this crap.” She wanted me to toss it aside and write something else, but I believed in the book, fired her, and tried to find another agent. When I couldn’t find an agent for Too Big To Miss, I self-published it through iUniverse, and also wrote and self-published the next book in the series, The Curse of the Holy Pail. Both books did very well in spite of the then stigma on self-published books. They did so well that I landed a new agent and she landed a publisher who reprinted the first two books and went on to contract with me for a total of twelve Odelia Grey mystery novels, and also helped me launch my very popular Ghost of Granny Apples Mystery Series.
So, obviously, someone is reading my “crap.”

I’m curious, what were your favorite books as a child? Do you still re-read any of them now?

I seldom re-read books, but my favorites as a child were always fairy tales or mythological stories. I also read Trixie Belden and The Bobbsey Twins. In my pre-teen and teen years I discovered beloved classics like To Kill a Mocking Bird, The Good Earth, The Yearling, and The Count of Monte Cristo, to name just a few.  All of which I still remember as if read yesterday.

 Most writers I’ve met are certified book nuts.  Is reading an addiction or a religion for you?   

Neither. Reading is simply a common part of my everyday life, like brushing my teeth or making dinner, but way more enjoyable. Sometimes when I hear of someone who can’t read or who doesn’t like to read, I stop and think about how empty and unenriched my life would be if I didn’t have that basic skill or the love of reading.
[Writing is] a vocation, a calling, no matter which book or story I’m working on. Once in a while I’ll get totally frustrated with publishing and think about just stopping, cold turkey, but I know I can’t. It’s part of who I am and I must do it until I can’t. I also see myself as an entertainer, with my writing providing enjoyment for my loyal readers.

 For several years you’ve maintained two careers simultaneously: paralegal and novelist.   How in the world do you do it?  Do any of the skills in one job transfer to the other one?

The skills for each definitely help the other. As a paralegal, I have to be organized both in my mind and on paper, which serves me very well when I’m plotting books and keep facts and events straight. Not to mention, I have great typing and computer skills developed over years of being in the legal profession.  As for how I juggle the two careers, I honestly don’t know. I just do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. Sometimes it’s very exhausting. It helps that I don’t have a husband or family that depends on me, so I can devote more time to my writing when not at work. And it helps that my employer is very gracious and understanding.

Thank heavens for that!  Although many writers are identified with a particular category, I notice your books can’t all be classified into a single genre of fiction.   Once you are known for creating one type of story, how difficult is it to re-establish yourself in a different area?

Okay, now you’ve hit a sore spot.  It’s very difficult, often frustrating, and it’s something that honestly makes me nuts. I’ve been pigeonholed as being a “cozy” writer, but many of my books and stories are far from cozy, and there have been some readers who have been very upset when they’ve read something that is different from my lighter fiction, even though the story was tagged as “non-cozy” in the cover art and book description. This definitely happened when my Madison Rose Vampire Mysteries were launched. This confusion is also one of the reasons why my steamy romance Winnie Wilde series is under the pen name of Meg Chambers.

And once pigeonholed in a genre, it can be very difficult to shake that tag even among your fellow authors, especially as a woman. I really enjoy writing my lighter fiction, but I’d rather be known simply as an author who writes many types of books, not as a “cozy” author. And I wish readers would pay more attention to the tone of covers and book descriptions. Any misunderstandings are totally on them, in my opinion.

Good for you for refusing to be limited!  You know, you’ve successfully created multiple book series each of which is based on a fascinating character.  Did these come from a conscious decision to create a series or did you find Granny Apples, Odelia Grey, Madison and Winnie all had more stories to tell?

 It was conscious on my end to make them into separate series. Each of those main characters has a different story to tell and view point to show readers. And each offers something different for readers to relate to and enjoy. I’m toying with creating yet another series that features a male protagonist. Only time is stopping me from doing that sooner than later. 

I’ll look forward to that!  Last Question: Your fairy god-mother is allowing you to host a dinner party for five of your favorite writers and/or literary characters.   Who’s on your list of invites?

Just 5?!!!  Okay, here goes: Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Christopher Moore, Megan Abbott, and my good friend Naomi Hirahara.

It took me awhile to gather my nerve and interview a writer whose accomplishments I admire but I’m so glad I did.  It’s worth it when the interviewee is as interesting and nice as Sue Ann Jaffarian.

Books My Mother Loved…

My mother loved historical fiction.  In the days when Erma Bombeck was the queen of domestic humor, and would be feminists felt caught between Betty Friedan (too serious) and Erica Jong (too randy) historical novels were a thinking woman’s guilty pleasure.  More serious than Barbara Cartland’s frothy stories, less licentious than the bodice and pants-bursting tales of the “Sweet Savage” series  and miles beyond the Harlequin romances, historical novels combined enough research and literary craft to create entertaining stories that someone wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen reading. About half of the stories were based on historic figures; the other stories were based around historic places and events.   The heroines weren’t always beautiful (at least they didn’t think they were) and while most of the stories still focused on a woman’s quest to achieve a happy home, husband and family, the traditional ending wasn’t guaranteed.  

Mama had a ton of these books and I ran through them all while I was a kid.   At the time I thought they were terribly boring; I was in love with “the classics”.  The world must have have agreed with my teenaged self , because I don’t see many historical novels these days.  Nevertheless, there were good stories in that genre, stories I’m glad to see back in  print these days.  If you’re waiting out the winter and need the company of a resourceful person, take a look around for some of these stories:

This is one of the “real person” protagonists, I mentioned and a poster child for the proposition that those who seek tolerance from others should practice what they preach.  Elizabeth Fones Winthrop was the daughter-in-law of John Winthrop when he became the first governor of the pilgrim colony in Massachusetts which should have given her some clout in the new world.  Instead her first husband drowned and Elizabeth was remarried off to Robert Feake, one of the weaker-minded men in the colony.  Elizabeth became a land owner so her family would have a steady income but independence wasn’t a trait Puritans looked for in their women.  Elizabeth got a colonial cold shoulder instead. Feake deserted his family and Elizabeth married her business manager next and was nearly hanged for her trouble; her fellow settlers weren’t sure she was divorced first.  Elizabeth had poor taste in husbands but she survived her bad choices, attacks by the indigenous natives, ostracizing and Massachusetts winters without central heating.  I love that my sister lives close to Elizabeth’s old stomping grounds.  Something in New England must strengthen a woman’s character
Norah Lofts could be considered Anya Seton’s British counterpart.  Like Anya, she was one of those women who fit writing around the other chores in her life and based many of her works around the place where she lived (Seton spent much of her life in New England, Lofts, across the pond, lived in Suffolk).  Lofts wrote her fair share of “real woman” stories, publishing stories about Eleanor of Aquitaine and Anne Boleyn but my favorite Loft series known as The Suffolk Trilogy.  The Town House, The House at Old Vine and The House at Sunset follow a building from its initial construction (in the late 14th Century) until the mid-1950’s by giving us the secrets and life stories of the people who live there.  From generation to generation we see them trying, failing, falling, getting up and starting again and a mystery that confounds one of the inmates of Old Vine may be solved by the next one.  It’s an engrossing story and well worth the read, along with her other books. 
If Anya Seton wrote American stories and Norah Lofts held the crown for England, than Catharine Gaskin was a citizen of the world.  Born in Ireland, she made herself at home in Australia, England, Ireland, Manhattan and the Isle of Man, always researching and writing about women and the need to make wise choices.  Gaskin’s best known is SaraDare based on an English girl who was transported to Australia after cross-dressing and  horse-thieving and lived to become a respected and honored businesswoman of Australia. 
However, my favorite is The Lynmara Legacy, a story of a Russian mother, her American daughter and how they deal the English home and family both of their lives get mixed up in.  For both women, discipline is their greatest ally but ambition and regret almost steal their chances for happiness.  This is a 20th century story, starting just prior to the October revolution and ending sometime in the 1970’s but there’s a perspective of the 1930’s and 40’s that is worth seeing.  If anyone gets to the end of Downton Abbey and still wants “more story”, this would be a good book to choose.

No one could discuss the popular historicals of the mid-20th century without mentioning Forever Amber.  This Restoration Romance was the hot ticket of 1940’s, upsetting people and selling out everywhere by featuring one of the original hot-bodiced heroines: Amber St. Clair.   On one level, Amber is the first step into the “Sweet Savage” romances my mother deplored as “mind pablum” because it focuses a lot on sex.  Amber spends a big part of the book sleeping her way to the top of Charles II’s court in order to get back the man who intrigues and eludes her for years.  In the meantime she survives the Great Fire of London, the Plague and all the other “fun” of Restoration England. (The research on this started with a college thesis and ended up covering hundreds of books) Does the plot sound a little like Gone With the Wind?  Well, it is except Scarlett O’Hara had a reputation to lose and in the end, missed the companions and friends she’d dumped along the way.  Not Amber.  Never Amber.  Amber’s a round-heeled minx with no Melanie or Mother to guide her but she’s strong and has the survival instincts of a cat.  She survived and thrived despite society’s best efforts.  Whatever else you have to say, you must respect the resilience of Amber.

Now I see my mother had one heck of a ride on life’s merry-go-round.  She grew up in a society that believed women who worked outside the home had some innate flaw in their lives. Then, after she joined the ranks of housewives and mothers, the Sixties hit and she was told her life was wrong.  Society’s values flip-flopped at least twice more in her lifetime and she must have been exhausted chasing after the woman she was “supposed” to become.  So I can see why she loved these historical novels.  Like Mom, these heroines made mistakes, and at some point each of their worlds upended around them but they never gave up.  With a plot of land or a pretty dress or sometimes just gut determination, these heroines started over, determined to endure, if not prevail and they usually did.  Sometimes, they got the man they wanted, sometimes they missed that boat.  But they never gave up on themselves or the possibility of the future.  

And that’s a lesson worth remembering.

The Future of Reading Stories

My friends and I like to debate the future of books and reading.  (For us, this has more appeal than politics or football.)  There are the pro-e-readers in the group who are looking to carry half of their libraries in their smart phones and there are the anti e-readers who are happiest with the traditional paper pages in their hand.   I enjoy the debates but until recently I believed the only difference between traditional and electronic books was the carrying case.  After all, they were both just printed words on a flat surface, right?  Nope.  When it comes to ebooks, words may be just the beginning.

My favorite ereader has a nifty gadget: an incorporated dictionary that lets me highlight any word in the text I don’t know so the definition will pop up without me having to close the page.    There’s an encyclopedia link there too.  Very helpful.  Now I’ve learned that someone has developed ebooks for little kids that have animated pictures mixed in with the text and links in the text (like my dictionary) that helps youngsters understand new words.  Kids with the interactive and animated illustration books gained more in story understanding and vocabulary than those with standard illustrations and no interactive features.

It occurred to me that this interactive feature could enhance books for grownups as well.  For example, Richard Adams wrote beautifully about land in Watership Down but most who initially read the book, had no idea he was describing an actual piece of land in Hampshire.  With some links to panoramic photographs of the area…

… you can understand why one of the characters exclaims “You can see the whole world from here!” Now imagine other ways to enhance the text.  With proper licencing and agreements in place readers could pause and watch video of rabbits running up this hill after reading the paragraph.  With a touch of a link, the sounds of wind in the hills could be added.   With such technology authors could do more than just describe a melody wafting through the room of the mystery; readers could hear the music while they read the paragraph. As technology matures and incorporates more sensory inputs, (touch and smell attachments are expected to be incorporated within the next ten years) books can take on the added depths.

Technology is also turning reading into something more than a solitary experience.  Finding a great book is a wonderful experience but it’s frustrating when there’s no one to share it with.  Social media sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing have started to bring bibliophiles together (they’re the Facebook site for book-nerds) but a few other sites allow community reading.  That is, a member uploads the electronic book they own to the site and other members are able to read it, highlight text and make digital notes for other readers to see so you are engaging with others as you read the book. I haven’t seen anything like that since the last Harry Potter book was published.  Those pre-midnight parties did more than allow people to dress up and have fun while they waited to pick up a book.  It was a rare time of community for readers.  We may not see a reading phenomenon like that in our lifetimes (the only comparable I can think of is when Americans gathered on the docks, clamoring for the latest installment of a Dickens story to be unloaded from ships) but technology allows readers to use their love of books to connect to others instead of isolating them.  That’s got to be a change for the good.

Does that mean I think traditional books are bad or doomed?  Perish the thought, at least during the rest of our lifetimes.  Traditional books are an ingrained part of our lives.   That being said, I believe progress only moves forward and that technological advances may change the way we read.  As long as reading continues, I’m happy.

Books for the Mid-Winter Doldrums

February is a hard month to love.  Say all you want about the plucky groundhog, and rhapsodize on the romance of Cupid;  remember the Chinese New Year, American Presidents and throw in a good word for Leap Year but the truth doesn’t change: February in the Northern Hemisphere is a difficult month to love.  The Holiday Season disappeared ages ago and the pastel head of Spring is nowhere near to being seen on the horizon.  We may be looking at wind or rain next month but right now the weatherman’s two favorite words   are “freezing” and “snow” and the outside world almost seems drained of color.  In February, it’s hard to avoid getting depressed.   To keep the wraiths of February Depression at bay, may I suggest picking up a few books?  In their own ways, each of the following stories helps me through these days of relentless cold.  I hope they can help you too.

If the rest of the world had to describe Jamaica in three words or less, their list would be: Poverty, Music, and Hot.  Politics, Drugs and Religion make the next list but they seem to have grown out of a civilization where life is harsher even if the edges look like Paradise.  Marlon James mixes fiction and fact to remember the 1976 Smile concert in Kingston and plot to shorten Bob Marley’s all-too-brief life.  The Jamaica of this novel is not the island paradise tourists dream about: it’s as corrupt and violent as Grahame Greene’s Haiti in The Comedians but it’s alive, steaming with a Pot-au-feu of voices that overlap and contradict each other in a patois that you’ll hear coming off the page as you wipe the sweat from your face.  Critics have been falling over each other to praise this one since it came out  eighteen months ago and now there’s talk of an adaptation but there’s no reason to wait for a movie.  Get the book and pay attention.  There are dozens of people, living and dead, who have stories to tell and they’re talking.  Pick up the book and you’ll be mesmerized, transported and hearing the Wailers, while you sit in a cold, silent February room.  This may seem like a harsh alternative but you won’t be cold reading  ABH7K.  This book is hot.

If you can’t escape the cold, you need to find the good things in it and one of the best is the National Hunt racing season in England. Dick Francis competed as a championship steeplechase jockey before he became an author of popular mysteries and Bolt benefits from his background in British winter Hunt races.  You can feel the biting cold of the weather before the starting tapes go up and ignore it (like everyone else) when the excitement of the race begins.  Like a lot of good Dick Francis stories, it hinges on an individual’s response when the world piles on pressure: an old man is being bullied into a business decision, a engaged couple’s relationship is under stress because one of them holds a dangerous job.  While this is a second book in a series, (The first in the series is Break In) Bolt is easy enough to read as a stand-alone.  As a pep-talk about withstanding the stress and cold of a difficult season, Bolt is hard to beat.

Two things I should admit up front: I love the prose style of William Styron and I’m susceptible to Depression.  Not little depressions either.  More than once my life came apart at the seams and I needed professional and pharmaceutical help to return to Everyday World.  It hasn’t happened lately and I keep a weather eye out for the triggers now because I don’t want to go back there again.  Depression is a long tumble down a funnel of despair until you pray not to recover (you don’t believe you can) but to hit bottom so at least you won’t fall any further.  
Styron experienced this  and, faults and all, still managed to come out the other side.  Not without scars, but alive and that’s more than so many others.  Here he talks of his journey through this disorder of an unending February, the triggers  and the unrecognized clues that appeared in his fiction. Styron’s sentences beg to be read aloud and the content is as good as the style but this book has something extra; here is a novelist, without the disguise of fiction, writing so future sufferers will know they are not alone.  This book is a boon for any who don’t see a way out of February,

Three books to help you through the month.  Hang in there, kiddo and eventually we’ll read ourselves into Spring.

When True Genius Requires a Little Explanation

Some books are a hit for a day; some dominate the bestseller lists for a season.  One or two books can be considered touchstones for the decade but very few make it to true classic status.  But there is a work of fiction that seems like it never leaves the public consciousness.  In 150 years it has never been out of print, but it’s been adapted into almost two dozen films, five comic books, countless plays and electronic media and it’s probably the most quoted work of fiction in literature.  People either love it or hate it but everyone who reads knows there’s something special about Alice and her Adventures In Wonderland.  They linger in the mind.

The joke of it is, this book has been loved and read for so long that a lot of the material Lewis Carroll referred to in this classic (and its sequel, Through The Looking Glass,) is no longer available to the regular reader.  We follow the serious-minded Alice through her nonsensical adventures and admire the imagination and poetry in the story so much we accept it without thoroughly understanding it.  So, I suggest you take the journey one more time and re-read Lewis Carroll’s stories again… but read them through The Annotated Alice to gain new insights into the stories.  As a matter of fact, it could be argued that if you haven’t read the “Annotated Alice”, you haven’t really read Alice at all.

Anyone with a fancy for the Victorian Age or a memory for those innumerable adaptations can tell you something of Alice.  She’s the sensible, English child that falls down a rabbit-hole and into a world where animals argue,  nursery rhymes come to life and sentient armies of chess pieces and playing cards go to war with one another.  Unfortunately, (or not) sense doesn’t stand a chance in such a whimsical universe and Alice’s reliable memory for poetry often goes astray.  But did you know that Alice’s recited poems were clever parodies of then well-known verses?  Since the original and Carroll’s satire have entered public domain, I can present both of them here:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!
How skillfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.
“How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
“How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!”

Carroll doesn’t just imitate someone else’s poem here; he subverts and satirizes it.  Instead of saluting the industrious insect with her “tidy” habits (anyone who remembers that honey is the product of bee spit will take issue with adjectives like “tidy) Carroll praises the lazy, malevolent crocodile that lies in the mud and snaps any unwary fish that swim into his open mouth.  By dropping the sugared “morals” that permeated children’s stories at the time and upsetting the expectations, Carroll did more that write a story that would entertain children; he wrote one of the first children’s stories that didn’t condescend to its audience.  Annotated Alice’s source material helps us understand the quantum leap Carroll made in children’s literature when he wrote down these tales.

The footnotes in The Annotated Alice are necessary and as engrossing as those created by David Foster Wallace. (a writer whose footnotes any tangent-minded reader could happily dwell in) and can be read separately if you are familiar with the original text.  Here is where you will find the origins of the Cheshire Cat and why Alice had reason to doubt the taste of Looking-Glass Milk.  But the greatest “extra” is the re-printing of “The Wasp in a Wig” a chapter originally written for (and then removed from) The Looking Glass.  For Alice-fans, this is a boon worthy of the White Knight.

Lewis Carroll wasn’t always a happy man, nor will his memory ever be untainted by controversy.  (Any unmarried man more comfortable with female children than adults will be viewed with a skeptic’s eye.)  But he did respect the minds of children when he came up with these famous tales and he may have been the first writer to do so.  For this, he deserves respect and his stories deserve understanding.  So, pick up The Annotated Alice and look up some of your favorite references.  Or follow the Red King’s directive:

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”