Susan Gee Heino has been stranded in the American mid-west all of her natural life. She says it’s not altogether a bad place to be stranded and that the few temporary excursions she’s made to more exotic places like Muck Swamp, Florida, and Moose-sized Mosquito, Ontario, have made it mostly enjoyable. Usually.
Susan has been writing since the age of four, creating classics that were loved by her mother. After several years in the theater (and poverty), Susan left playwriting to marry well.
Well, she married and is happy about it. (So is her mother.) Her five-year foray into romance writing has been sponsored and eagerly supported by her desperate, er, darling husband.
“Love’s funny sometimes.” So reads the blurb on the home page of Susan’s Web site. A look at the excerpts posted there prove she knows how to portray the humorous side of love, whether she’s telling a story set in the here and now or one set in the there and then. If your spirits need a lift, read something by Susan and you’ll soon find your frown turned downside up.
Susan’s first book, a Regency Historical, Mistaken by Moonlight will be released sometime next fall. It was the sixth full-length manuscript she completed and won the Regency Historical category of the Romance Writers of America® Golden Heart® contest this year. She has excerpts from this and a few others at her website, www.SusanGH.com.
Keli, thanks so much for inviting me to be here. It’s been a real honor to get to know you these past few months since we were thrown together as 2008 Golden Heart finalists. And I’m excited to join the gals here as one of the Infamous 6-in-2 Pixies. It’s really, really great company.
It’s wonderful to have you, Susan. And now for your first question . . .
•August 2008 was your month. It began with your stroll to the stage at RWA Nationals to snag that special souvenir from your time in San Francisco. Yeah. The Golden Heart necklace, that nice bit of bling you never thought you’d take home with you. What was it like to stand under all those lights and accept the award? And how long did it take your heart rate to return to normal afterward?
You’d think as a writer I’d be able to explain what that was like, but it’s three months later and I’m still trying to put it into words.
Just the fact I was selected as a finalist in the Golden Heart contest was like being Cinderella at the Ball—without the talking mice, of course, which would actually be kind of cool since I’m a huge animal lover. But you didn’t ask me here to discuss anthropomorphized critters, did you?
You want to know what it felt like to hear my name called out and get to walk up onto that big, glowing stage. I won’t lie—I loved it. I love attention of any sort (which might possibly explain the talking mouse fantasy, come to think of it).
I didn’t actually hear my name called that night in San Francisco, but my friend Sheri started punching me in the ribs saying, “It’s you! It’s you! Get up there!” Then the fog in my brain cleared, and I realized I had just heard the title of my manuscript. I saw my own familiar face pop up on the four giant screens they had at the front of the ballroom. Wow, it really was me! So, I got up there, of course. I’m sure I babbled like an idiot and the crowd would have really preferred a talking rodent, but it was my dream come true and I hope I thanked everyone adequately.
• No sooner had you returned home from Nationals than you signed with your agent on August 5—and had to say “No” to two others. How cool is that? So, what let you know Cori Deyoe at 3 Seas Literary Agency was the one? What advice would you give others seeking an agent as to how to best conduct their search?
An agent is really, really important as this industry is getting tighter and tighter. He or she needs to be in love with your work, and you need to know you can count on him or her to work for your best interests. It needs to be a professional relationship that is not just for today but for the future of your career.
I’d met Cori a couple times and she is just a darling person. She’s intelligent, soft-spoken, an animal lover, and she represents a close friend of mine who raves about her. But Cori’s office is in the Midwest, and I’d heard it was important to have an agent based in New York. Also, I thought it might be weird to share an agent with my friend, so I decided to focus my queries on other agents.
But the Fancy New York Agents didn’t seem all that excited about my ms, so my friend convinced me to send it to Cori. She loved it. We met up at Nationals and she offered representation even before the Golden Heart winners were announced. (And she quoted her favorite lines from my ms, which was very, very cool.)
But I knew my brain was not in any state to be signing contracts or making decisions. I’d vowed not to agree to anything with anybody until after the conference, so I asked Cori if she’d let me wait a few days before getting back to her. She was very gracious but told me repeatedly how much she loved my work. How could I not swoon over that?
After I won the Golden Heart, suddenly the New York agents thought I was wonderful, too. I started getting phone calls even before I got home. Obviously it was time to make a decision. (I hate making decisions!) How on earth could I determine what to do?
I started by asking myself some questions:
1) Who is going to work hardest for me in the long run, the agent who loves my voice and ‘gets’ me or the agent who thinks this Golden-Heart-winning ms might just be an easy sale?
2) Now that cell phones and email are the prominent forms of communication, what can an agent in New York do that an agent in the Midwest can’t?
3) Who do I know for sure has established relationships with my dream publishers and a track record of negotiating the best deal possible for a book like mine?
4) Who is perfectly comfortable sitting at a business lunch discussing the pros and cons of keeping goats as companion animals?
Well, once I answered my questions, it became a no-brainer. I called Cori first thing the next morning.
•The very next day you received a call from a publishing house interested in your Golden Heart ms and referred the editor to your brand new agent. The day after that Cori told you she had three more editors interested in Mistaken by Moonlight. What was it like to have four publishing houses vying for your “firstborn?” Disbelief? Euphoria? How did Cori counsel you through this nail-gnawing scenario?
My brain had already melted down in San Francisco, plus I was jet-lagged and had a head cold, otherwise all this first sale business would have been really stressful for me. As it was, I just sort of vegged on the couch and answered the phone for a couple days. Berkley called me with a respectable offer the day after I told Cori I’d sign with her. I kindly referred the editor, Leis Pederson, to my new agent and then went back to cold-medicine-induced sleep. (This is why you need to have ultimate confidence in your agent!)
Sometime later when I talked to Cori, I mentioned that another house had requested my ms some months prior and maybe she ought to let them know about the offer on the table. Plus, there was an editor I met at Nationals who wanted a chance to see it, so I asked Cori to contact her. Also, Cori knew two other editors who were interested, so she asked if I minded if she sent it to them as well. Uh, no, I didn’t.
In the end, five houses wanted a shot at Mistaken by Moonlight. It wasn’t like some big, frantic auction, but things did go well, and in the end Berkley was able to swing the best offer. I have a two-book contract with them now. It’s kind of funny because they were the first house to ever request this ms long before it had even finaled in the Golden Heart. So, never give up hope, even if it seems like things are taking forever!
•You endured the angst and anticipation, and then it happened. You received The Call! Even though you knew it was coming, I’m sure it was still an incredible experience. Since I’ll never get my fill of call stories, each one being such a source of encouragement to one who isn’t yet contracted, would you please tell us what it was like to pick up the phone and hear Cori spill the news? What went through your mind? Did you mutter incoherently or babble nonstop?
I was at the zoo. How great is that? Summer was winding down, and my husband and I had taken the kids for a family day out. I knew, of course, that a sale was in the works, but I didn’t know what the deal would be or which house I’d end up selling to. Yeah, that’s a totally weird feeling! Complete, utter limbo.
My cell phone rang and I saw Cori’s name there. It was either good news, or bad news like, “Sorry, Susan, but everyone changed their mind. The publishers have all talked and they decided your book is day-old tripe. Buh-bye!”
Turns out, it was better than that. I don’t remember exactly what I said to Cori, but I think I used the word “wow” a lot. And “thank you”, too, for stupid stuff like, “I’ll need to sign a contract? Oh, thank you! Berkley will send revisions in a couple months? Oh, thank you!” Sheesh.
•I love your tagline: “Fun, frisky humor for today; hot-blooded humor from history.” Whether set in the past or present, your stories are sure to make your readers laugh, as I did while reading the excerpts on your website. The first line of Deception at Dawn (tentative title), the second of two Regencies you’ve sold, brought an amused smile to my face: “Julia St. Clement had never tried to eat soup through a mustache before.” Where do you come up with your clever story ideas? Are you a naturally funny person who’s the life of the party, or does your wit wait in the wings until you put fingers to keyboard?
I don’t know about “life of the party” (I look awful in a lampshade), but I do think life’s full of really funny things. Also, it’s got some really NOT funny things, too, so I try to make up for that by keeping it light. I want anyone who’s stuck spending time around me to feel better for it. I appreciate writers who can explore the darker aspects of existence, but that’s not who I am. I think if you take almost anything and twist it just a bit, you can see the funny side.
•Your great voice reaches across sub-genres. While your Regency excerpts had me chuckling at the period-appropriate witticisms, the blurbs on your Contemporaries had me in stitches. Thanks for the Mammaries is too funny. Such a clever title. I know the focus these days has been on the titles you’ve sold, but would you tell us what this story is about and how you thunk up the great plot?
Thanks for the Mammaries is the ms where I found my voice. I’d written two (awful!) Historicals and decided to see if it was any easier to write in a contemporary voice. What do you know, it was!
But I realized if I wanted to write a really good book, it had to be about something important. But all the important things like poverty, abuse, death and disease are kind of, well, downers.
So, I figured I’d write a book about boobs. Those are important too, right? I read a statistic that their breasts are one thing women almost universally feel insecure about. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know gravity is not our friend and I’m spending progressively more each year on better bras.
I decided to create a heroine who has absolutely nothing to worry about in that area. Her breasts are perfect. At least, to the casual observer they are, and Brant is more than just a casual observer. He designs lingerie and has seen more than his fair share of shapely tatas.
Now, however, Brant needs a very special model for a new line of bras he’s introducing. Coincidentally, shy and insecure Lindy needs a way to sneak into his office to steal something. Stumbling into a plot involving abduction, burglary, and internet pornography, Brant and Lindy are forced to pair up to solve the mystery. It turns out her perfect boobs are the key to more than just Brant’s office!
•I found it interesting that your mother named you after actress Susan Hayward and you ended up loving drama, having spent several years in theater and doing playwriting. What were some of your roles, and which was your favorite? What types of plays did you write, and have they been performed?
Shockingly, my plays have all been comedies. I started out doing repertory and improvisational theatre with a church-based group as a teenager. I love improv—it’s definitely my favorite type of acting. We traveled around and I learned a lot. In college, I studied theatre and focused on playwriting while also traveling with another church-based drama and musical group as director.
I never made it to any of the big regional theatres, but I did have several performances at various little theatres in Louisville, Indianapolis, and a few small towns in Indiana. Also, of course, I’ve written a pile of skits, dramas and musicals for churches.
In recent years, I’ve confined my dramatic interests to working with my children and their school. Last year I conducted a playwriting workshop to help the school kids create their own shows—it was a real joy to see the light bulbs going off in their young heads. I’m also currently working on a children’s musical adaptation of Noah’s Ark with my sister who is a talented songwriter.
•You came into fiction writing with your playwriting background. I’ve heard those with such skills have an edge. In what ways does your experience writing plays help you as you craft your novels? With your background, what advice from theater would you offer on how to improve a character’s dialogue and how to set a scene?
A: Two giant, giant things I think I’ve learned from my theatre background:
1) Character development and
2) Clear, concise dialog.
If you want to learn more about developing your characters, take an acting class. Really, that’s what we are as writers, you know. We’re actors, giving life to our imaginary characters. Actors are given a script, which is little more than just words on a page. They must glean from those pages their character’s goal, motivation and conflicts. (Recognize those words?)
We, as writers, are doing that same thing for every character in our books. A good actor takes the words he’s given and makes them real, makes them alive. A good writer does the same thing—we just also have to make up the words in the first place.
As for dialog, that’s pretty much all a playwright has to work with. If the actors can’t tell what you’re trying to say, they’ll deliver their lines wrong and your play will end up being about something you never meant it to be about. Yes, I speak from experience here!
I had a fairly humorous two-act play that was meant to be about family relationships. It had a heavily female cast because, hey, I’m a girl. The play was produced out of town, so I hadn’t been to any rehearsals. When I showed up on opening night, imagine my surprise when my quaint family drama was turned into a raging feminist sermon! Oh, the laugh lines were still there and it actually got fairly good reviews, but the dialog had certainly been used to say something I’d not intended. It wasn’t bad, it was just different.
The problem was I had let my words be ambiguous, and the director was forced to take the play in his own direction. When this happens in a novel, the reader is left confused and unsure what’s really going on. She doesn’t understand or know the characters. She’s thrown out of the story and probably will not rush out to buy our next release. So, writers, keep it clear. Write what you mean and mean what you write—always!
•I visited your blog and learned that you have an affliction I share, one you call ASHD: Attention Surplus Hyper-commitment Disorder. For the benefit of your readers, here are the symptoms: chronic volunteerism, over-extended calendars, and throat spasms that continually form the word “yes.” I’m sure that as a wife, mother, volunteer, scrapbooker and writer, you were plenty busy even before The Call came. How are you going to manage your ASHD now that you’re a contracted author with publisher’s deadlines? What will you keep in your schedule, and what will have to go by the wayside?
You’re bringing me out of the closet, Keli! I’ll admit to suffering from all of the above—plus the incurable disorder of being married to a minister. Lots and lots of expectations there, as you can imagine! Yes, I’m in the midst of re-evaluating just about every aspect of my life and determining what can stay and what needs to go.
So far, I’ve determined vacuuming is not necessary and those weeds in the garden looked pretty good this year. I’ve let go of a few church commitments, but the kids and my husband have informed me they’re staying, despite my increased commitment to my keyboard and the lack of hot suppers.
•Two of your faves are consuming imported chocolates and collecting critters. Dark, light or white chocolate? And what types of critters are part of your family these days? As one who kept frogs in the bathtub as a child, I’d guess you to be the kind of mom who wouldn’t balk at snakes or tarantulas. Do you have anything exotic, or are you into more traditional pets now?
Chocolate—yummmm. I prefer the really, really creamy chocolates. There are some good German ones I’ve encountered, and Cadbury has some great melty stuff, too. I’m really not too picky when it comes to chocolate!
Critters—sorry, nothing very exotic right now. My son is forever sneaking snakes into the house, but I think wild things should be left wild, so I sneak them back out and release them. Oh, we do have seven pet rats. Are those exotic? They don’t seem like it because they come in such pretty colors and they are darling, gentle creatures. (Seriously!)
We lost our old ram sheep this year so we have nothing with hooves, but I’m a chicken fanatic, so of course there’s a pen of several varieties of them. We all love cats, so there are a dozen or so of them outside and two really energetic dogs in the house (one beagle mix and one giant rat terrier). Plus, we’ve got a tank of guppies.
Don’t tell my husband, but I’d like to get some more goats next spring. I prefer the big dairy varieties, but the kids want some pygmies. My last goats were angora, and they were soooo sweet and soooo cute, but <ugh> that hair!
•And now a question just for fun. If you could spend the day with any actor or playwright past or present, who would you pick, and why?
Oh, that’s easy. I’d invite Mike Rowe (from Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs) over and ask if I could get dirty with him. Tee hee. Then I’d make him sing. Did you know he used to sing opera professionally?
It’s been great having you as my guest, Susan. And now, in closing, is there a final comment you’d like to make or a question you’d like to ask?
A question in closing, huh? How about, “Who are you voting for next month?” No, just kidding, just kidding!
Let’s talk about critters instead. Anyone have any interesting pets? Irrational animal phobias? Favorite humane societies they’d like to plug? Fond memories of dearly departed Gingerpie or Snuggyface?
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All those who leave a comment for Susan between now and October 31 will be entered in a drawing for one of three cool Pixie totes featuring Tink, the most famous Pixie of all Pixie’s.
Here’s how the drawing works. Between now and the end of October, I’ll be featuring interviews with six of my fellow Golden Heart finalists. After flinging truckloads of cyber Pixie dust for one another’s sales, submissions, revisions and the like, we dubbed ourselves the Pixie Chicks.
In honor of the fact that it’s Pixie Central here at Romance Writers on the Journey the rest of the month, I found Pixie prizes. These are the best prizes I’ve ever featured on the blog, imho. They are sturdy canvas bags about sixteen inches square, exclusive of the handles.