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.