The Lady Novelist is very pleased to welcome our very own RWA NYC's Golden Apple Lifetime Achievement winner Wendy Corsi Staub to Got it Goin' On!
Q: Tell us a little about yourself, what is your background and how long have you been writing before you were published.
I grew up south of Buffalo in a big, close-knit Italian-Catholic family—aunts, uncles, cousins, and all four grandparents living within a few blocks of our house. I decided in third grade to become a writer and, with tremendous encouragement from my parents, wrote pretty much from that moment on. I sold my first book seventeen years later, in my mid-twenties. I have since published more than sixty books and attained multiple bestseller status. So in my book, there is no such thing as overnight success--it’s been a long time coming!
Q: What made you choose romance?
I had never read it until I became an editor at Silhouette Books back in 1990, and became familiar with the genre then. It seemed a natural thing to try when I started publishing novels of my own.
Q: What you do love about writing romance?
Who doesn’t love a happy ending?!
Q: You started out writing young adult and then moved into writing romance, chick-lit, women’s fiction, and mysteries/thrillers? Which is your favorite? And how do you balance writing in so many genres?
I could do the diplomatic thing and say that I love them all the same, or that I love whatever I’m writing at the time, but I have to say, mysteries/thrillers feel the most natural stylistically. I’m a Scorpio. Sometimes I have to fight an urge to go to the dark side when I’m writing other things. Like having a chick lit heroine kill off everyone in the shoe department with a gleaming stilletto!
Q: You’re recently returned to writing Young Adult with your new book, Lily Dale: Awakening. What sparked the Lily Dale series? Was it a character? A scene you just couldn’t get out of your head?
It was, quite frankly, a place. The gated Victorian spiritualist community of Lily Dale really exists, in western New York State, just outside my hometown. I grew up around the mediums, and the Dale always struck me as an atmospheric place to set a suspense novel. My 2001 adult thriller IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE was set there, and sparked so much reader mail—much of it from teens—that I realized I had struck a chord and would have to revisit it.
Q: Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around?
Again, Lily Dale is a real place, so I had to remain true to what it is—and not make it over into anything it isn’t. To that end, the setting in the story is authentic, but I’ve fictionalized certain elements—some streets, some businesses, and “Lily Dale High”—there is no such place, but I needed it to keep my storyline contained. I’ve kept the characters in my series realistic, inspired by but not based on the locals I have encountered. They are all completely fictional, though some of the locals slyly believe they recognize themselves.
Q: Did you have to do any major research for this book? Did you stumble across anything really interesting that you didn’t already know?
Yes, major research, and it has been ongoing for many years now. I have been going to Lily Dale since my childhood and personally know quite a few of the mediums there, so I basically have had an “in” as something of a local. Way back when I wrote the first book, I would occasionally visit anonymously, but by now, everyone knew who I was and gave me unprecedented access, for which I am grateful. I was able to interview some amazing psychic mediums on how they do what they do, and I was even invited to sit in on a beginning mediumship class. I could write a nonfiction book about all the interesting things that have happened to me in Lily Dale. I’ll share just one anecdote about reaching out to the Other Side in the Dale. When I first began my research, my mom would go with me and help me take notes and photos. Then she got sick with breast cancer, and our visits to Lily Dale took on a bittersweet note. It was the last place we visited together beyond the four walls of her house in May 2005. She passed away two weeks later, just after her 63rd birthday. Not long after, I went for a reading at Lily Dale and she came through to me with an incredible validation, and has many times since.
Q: You’ve ghostwritten for authors as well as working with former New York City mayor Ed Koch. Can you tell us a little about that?
Well, when I moved to New York, 21 and penniless, he was the mayor and I was a dime-a-dozen small town girl with dreams of becoming a big time novelist. You can imagine what it was like for me to find myself sitting in his office, years later, collaborating on a novel with him, or chatting with him on the phone. Surreal! And he’s a great guy who is truly in love with New York City, as am I.
Q: Your book, If Only in My Dreams is a time-travel set in contemporary New York and just before the attack at Pearl Harbor. What inspired this story?
I’ve lost both my mom and my mother-in-law to breast cancer in the past few years, both in their sixties. A full decade of my married life was spent waiting for endless test results, always praying, always frightened, always thinking the worst, hoping for the best. In the cruelest imaginable twist of fate, my mother was diagnosed as terminal on the day my mother-in-law died. I literally went from my mom’s heartbreaking phone call to my mother-in-law’s deathbed. She passed away that night, and the next morning my mother began the endless, futile round of treatment that would go on for another five years. The exhausting double battle and the heartbreaking sad endings—not once, but twice, like a nightmarish de ja vu--had a huge impact on my life, as I’m sure you can imagine.
Of course I was moved to channel my grief into my fiction. I kept thinking about how modern medicine had bought my two moms extra time—years—to celebrate more wedding anniversaries, to see their children marry and their grandchildren born. It naturally led to a series of What-Ifs that sparked my plot. My modern-day heroine has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, then finds herself hurtled back to early December, 1941. There, she falls in love with a man who would later become famous as a doomed war hero. She knows that he won’t survive the war, and that if she stays in his time, she won’t survive her disease because there are no treatments. She faces an agonizing choice. I was told the book wouldn’t sell because a breast cancer heroine was too dark, and my publishers in fact rejected it. However, my agent sent it to a new publisher just before Christmas, and it sold overnight. That editor, Laura Cifelli at NAL Signet, is my Christmas Angel. I adore her. She gave the book a chance, and it did so well last year that NAL is reissuing it again already, next month, in time for another Christmas. It’s an uplifting story and got terrific all-around reviews and a lot of press. But it was, most of all, cathartic for me.
Q. You have a family and you’re under contract to five major publishers, publishing 13 books in a seventeen- month period. Wow! I get tired just thinking about it! How do you balance your time?
I won’t pretend there’s any magic formula or that I live the ideal, balanced life. Honestly, it’s incredibly exhausting and hectic, and I have had to give up just about everything I once enjoyed, other than my family and my writing. My boys and husband come first—I’m always there when they need me, no matter what. My deadlines are a constant pressure, and I do my best to meet them all. Thus, I no longer have a moment to myself, unless I’m sleeping—which I don’t do enough either, since I set the alarm for four-thirty most mornings to get up and write!
One trick: I try to combine business and pleasure wherever possible—for example, I combine book tours and research trips with family vacations. We are currently in the midst of an ongoing Fifty State Book Tour, which means my kids will see the entire country in the next few years. Crazy? You bet. But it works for us! I keep telling myself that the high stress level won’t last forever. I just want to enjoy every possible moment with my children, and I love my career, so I fight to maintain the best of both worlds, and forget anything in between. Someday the boys will be grown and my time won’t be in nearly as much demand, and I can go back to reading and needlepoint and watching my beloved Matt Lauer on the Today Show.
Q: You’re won 2 RITA’s, and twice been nominated the Washington Irving Prize for Fiction. What does that mean to you? Are awards important?
Awards are a pleasure and an honor, of course. But I would have to say that the most rewarding—and important—recognition aspect of my career has been reader feedback. There is nothing better than fan mail, or having a reader wait on a long line just to meet you, or hearing that you touched a stranger’s life in some way. Without awards, I would still have a writing career. Without my loyal readers, I would not!
Q: What/Who do you like to read?
I love suspense fiction—Harlan Coben, Patricia MacDonald, and Joy Fielding are among my favorites. Because I don’t allow myself to read fiction when I’m writing it, though, I very rarely get to pick up a novel these days. Mostly, I read nonfiction—historical, paranormal, biographical, travel, unsolved crimes. Oh, and I always love a good almanac!
Q: What is your writing process? Do you plot extensively first or do you tend to “fly in the mist?” Has your process changed over time? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?
Up front, in proposal stage, I write the first thirty or forty pages of a novel and as bare-bones an outline as my editor will allow. With suspense, I know who the villain is and I know their motive, but that’s about it. I do my best to stick to it when the time comes to write the book, but the plot always evolves dramatically as I go along. I write only one draft and clean up as I go, so that by the time I’m finished, I have a good, solid, very clean manuscript. My husband reads it, gives me feedback, and I do minor rewrites based on his feedback. Then it goes to my editor. I usually do another round of tweaking with his feedback.
Q: What are some of the changes in the romance genre since you’ve started writing?
Treat it as you would any other business venture: do your homework! Learn the business inside and out. Be prepared to work your butt off, and for years, for peanuts—if for any pay at all. And if at all possible, get a part time job in a bookstore or publishing house. (I did both) The experience you gain behind the scenes is more hands on and valuable than anything anyone can teach you in a workshop, critique group, or book.
Q: There was a recent article called "Harm in reading romance novels?" Do you think romance novels harm or empower women?
Of course romance novels don’t harm women—I didn’t read the article, but that’s a ridiculous claim. Romance novels are purely about pleasure and escapism, which everyone needs in this world.
Q: Romance has garnered the biggest market share in genre fiction, yet it gets the least respect in popular and literary culture. Do you have any thoughts on why that is? Do you find this prejudice changing?
I hate to say it, but I generally don’t think the prejudice is changing much for the better, despite valiant efforts by the industry itself to change the public perception. I’ve encountered prejudice from both sides of the fence, as a romance editor and as an author, and it can be pretty vicious and disheartening. Though most of what I write is not technically romance fiction—my adult thrillers are in fact straightforward suspense novels, not romantic suspense—I have, in a sense, been “branded” outside the industry as a romance writer, for better and worse, with all that comes with that territory. I actually got a recent rave review from PW that called my thriller “surprisingly effective.” Grrrr. Of course, it doesn’t help that we live in New York City, not Texas or Georgia, where romance fiction is much more popular. I don’t think the prejudice is as widespread in the bible belt as it is here in the land of the literary elite. Bottom line: there’s nothing like a good old fashioned RWA National conference—or a big fat royalty check--to make us feel universally beloved!
Q. What are you planning to work on next?
I’ve just finished DYING BREATH, an adult paranormal suspense novel for Zebra, coming out in May, and my editor John just approved the proposal for the sequel, DYING LIGHT. I’m putting the finishing touches on THAT’S AMORE, my paranormal romantic comedy for Grand Central Publishing (formerly Warner Forever) and also working on SLIGHTLY SUBURBAN, my next chick lit for Red Dress Ink. Both of those will be out next summer. And I’ve just gotten an offer this week to write two more titles in my YA Lily Dale Series, which has two books so far and has been optioned for television, so my fingers are crossed!
Wow! Thanks Wendy for stopping by the Lady Novelist! Lily Dale is in bookstores right now!