Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Interview with Hope Tarr

Being President of RWA NYC has been a great honor and privilege for me, and I was so pleased when author Hope Tarr joined our chapter when she moved to New York several months ago. I recently asked Hope if she would sit down and answer some questions in honor of her new Harlequin Blaze release, a historical called BOUND TO PLEASE which was awarded 4 1/2 stars and called 'a not-to-be-missed book' by Romantic Times.

He's not going to take this treatment lying down. At least, not for long…Fifteenth-century Scotland is a tough place to be a woman in charge. Brianna MacLeod, new laird of her clan, needs a child to establish her position. And the best way to do that is to demand the sexual services of her sworn—and very sexy—enemy! Ewan Fraser never foresaw being kidnapped, tied up and expected to perform stud service. Yet being bound for the delicious Brianna's pleasure isn't all bad. In fact, the more time he spends in her bed, the more he's determined she'll be the one who ends up enslaved….

Q: Tell us a little about yourself, what is your background and how long have you been writing before you were published.
Ever think how much smarter we were as kids before all the should-do’s and must-do’s fogged the crystal clarity of our perfectly formed brains and completely open hearts? As a child I didn’t only want to be a writer when I grew up; I knew I was a writer. Flash forward to my freshman year of college and a surly English Composition professor, who read my impromptu essay aloud to the class and had the ballocks to announce, “You, Miss Tarr, will never be a writer.”

In your face, George!

I went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Psychology and a Ph.D. in Education only to ultimately make peace with the fact that I wasn’t really interested in analyzing people or teaching them, at least not in a classroom setting. What I wanted—longed—to do was write about them. In 1993 on a week’s break between consulting assignments, I wandered into a mall bookstore and meandered over to the Reference Section where my gaze snagged the spine of a small pink paperback shoved onto the very top shelf. It was Kathryn Falk's 1989 edition of “How to Write a Romance Novel and Get It Published.” I bought Kathryn’s book, wrote my first book, and then wrote a second.

That second manuscript, a Regency-set historical ultimately titled A ROGUE’S PLEASURE, was my first sale—to Berkley as one of the launch books for their Seduction romance line. It took me six years to achieve publication but it was well worth it. Fifteen years and a dozen or so books later, I’m still here, still writing the stories I love and that I hope readers will love, too.

Q: Tell us about when you got “the call”
I’m going to skip this one if that’s okay. It feels so long ago, *I* almost don’t remember. ;)

Q. Your latest book is entitled BOUND TO PLEASE and is the first Harlequin Blaze historical! What sparked the story idea?
The short and completely true answer is my wonderful editor at Harleqion, Brenda Chin. The idea for bringing the historical to Blaze is Brenda’s brainchild entirely. When she rang me up and offered me the opportunity to write the first book, I didn’t hesitate. I said yes on the spot. I don’t think I stopped smiling for the next twenty-four hours. When I woke up the next morning, my face hurt!

Being invited to be the launch was and is heady stuff but after twenty-four hours of floating on air, it was time to come back to earth—and get down to business, namely coming up with a story concept. Because the book would still be a Blaze, historic or not, there were certain elements of characterization and plot that were musts. The Blaze heroine is, to put it mildly, no one’s fool. She’s strong, goal-directed, and in-touch with both her sexuality and the world. At the same time, I wanted to make certain that the book didn’t become a costume drama with modern people wearing period clothes.

The Scottish Medieval setting was a no-brainer for me. The raw beauty of the landscape, the tumultuous history, the sense that the regular rules of society don’t quite apply there—all filled the bill for infusing what would be a relatively short book with an epic historical sensibility.

Bride abduction is a classic romance set-up as well as a Scottish courtship ritual that survived into the 1920’s in custom if not actual practice. But somehow having my Blaze heroine abducted, even if the book was set in the Scottish Highlands, didn’t feel right. Then it hit me: take the abduction theme but twist it so that it’s not the heroine but the hero who’s snaffled away! And while I was at it, since the book is a Blaze, why not make the heroine the laird, the Scottish Medieval equivalent of being the CEO of her firm. And the rest is well…history. ;)

Q. Is there anything about this period that constrained your story? What did you like least about it?
No constraints really, quite the opposite in point. Because of the time period, I had a lot more freedom with the erotic aspects of the story, notably the um…chain. ((blushing)) In all seriousness, the abducted hero, the binding to the bed and so forth would simply not play in a contemporary set romance, no matter how steamy. In pure erotica perhaps but even then there would be consequences for any actions not consensual.

Q. What kind of major research did you have to do for this book?
BOUND TO PLEASE is set in the 1460’s, so it’s Medieval but only about thirty years from the Renaissance. I did quite a bit of research, much of it on personal and family life, including hygiene because no matter how many leagues or slippery turret steps the washing water must be carried, By God, my main characters would be clean!

I’d read somewhere that Medieval people weren’t really as dirty as we make them out to be and the research I did on hygiene certainly bore that out. The wealthy practiced a fairly impressive level of personal care. Online as well as in books I found fascinating and very practical recipes for tooth powders and soaps and shampoos, many of which I’ve included in the book. It was also fascinating to learn about the items that served as tooth brushes and primitive dental floss/tooth picks. Historically accurate and minty fresh—can’t beat that. ;)

Q. You are known for putting animals in your story, particularly cats, and you are also involved in feline rescue as well as The Pet Overpopulation STAMP OUT campaign. How did you first get involved with the cause?
My signature “thing” is to put one of my rescued cats in each of my books. I broke with that tradition in UNTAMED where I featured a horse instead but otherwise I’ve held true. On my website at http://www.hopetarr.com/, the Best Friends page provides a photo and brief bio for each feline muse along with links to animal welfare resources.

As for how I got into advocacy, I come from a family of “animal lovers” and I’ve always had an enormous affection for the four-legged “Little People of God,” cats especially. Added to that I’m a Libra, so when I see what I believe to be suffering and injustice, I have a tendency to swoop in and try to balance the scales, so to speak.

Pet overpopulation is a national problem in this country and by rights it should be a national embarrassment. It isn’t. There have been enormous strides made over the past decade in reducing both the population and euthanasia rates, still literally millions of healthy and otherwise adoptable dogs and cats are killed each year—at taxpayer expense.

The good news, though, is that unlike so many crises pet overpopulation is completely preventable. As pet owners, all we need do is spay or neuter our pets to prevent unwanted births. Pretty simple, yes?

For years there had been attempts to win issuance of a US postage stamp to raise the public’s awareness of the problem but more importantly, the solution. I launched the Pet Overpopulation STAMP OUT Campaign as a national grassroots effort in 1996 with zero budget, zero supporters, and zero infrastructure beyond a closet-sized spare bedroom and my personal pc. Initially there also wasn’t much encouragement from the big nonprofit animal welfare organizations, many of whom had run sporadic letter writing campaigns in the past only to meet with defeat.

But unlike those organizations, which have multiple missions, I would focus on this campaign exclusively. In the course of six years, exactly the same time it took to publish that first book, our support base grew to include several hundred animal welfare and veterinary medical organizations. Not only animal welfare folks but also veterinarians, celebrities (Bob Barker, Mary Tyler Moore, Alex Baldwin, Kim Bassinger, Betty White etc.), politician from both major parties and yes, breeders came on board. Senior citizens on fixed incomes stood outside grocery stores passing out copies of our form letter to the Postal Service, photocopied at their expense. Elementary school classes sent letters and suggested artwork to the Postal Service’s Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, showing that kids really do care. In the course of the campaign, the Postal Service received more than 200,000 pieces of mail (snail mail, not email) requesting that a Spay/Neuter stamp be issued. The outpouring of positive spirit and action was—and—is mind blowing.

In late 2001 the US Postal Service announced it would issue Spay/Neuter. The artwork would feature a soulful photograph of an actual shelter kitten and puppy. Even better, Postal officials allowed us to include the web site and toll-free English/Spanish telephone number for Pets 911, so that pet owners throughout the US could access low-cost spay/neuter programs in their local areas. Long-time animal advocate, Bob Barker, introduced the stamps to the American public on his nationally televised game show, “The Price is Right.” The First Day of Issuance ceremony took place in September 2002 in Denver with the new Benji officiating as emcee. J

Released to 38,000 post offices nationwide, Spay/Neuter proved to be a record sell-out. The humane educational stamp, which sold out its 100 MILLION print run, is one of the top-selling social awareness stamps in U.S. postal history. Talk about a storybook…beginning.

Given the state of the world today, it’s easy to become jaded, even pessimistic. Sometimes the temptation to throw our hands up in the air and walk away feels almost beyond resisting. And yet not even the worst economic or political situation can rob us of our free will, not unless we let it. No one and nothing can take our power from us unless we give it away. Whoever we are and wherever we come from, we all share equally in the Universe-given choice: to do good, to do evil, or to do nothing.
Q: You write both single title historicals for Medallion and shorter, sexy books for Harlequin Blaze. Do you work on more than book at a time? How easy is it to move from the historical world to contemporary?
Yes, I started my writing career doing single-title historical romances, and my “Men of Roxbury House” trilogy came out with Medallion Press. These are long historicals set in 1890’s England except for UNTAMED which is also set in Scotland.

I generally work on about two books at once, three if you count the edits on previously turned in works. It’s how I imagine juggling must be but you know, I find I’m actually more productive working on multiple projects than I was back in the day when it was one book at a time. Go figure.

As for moving back-and-forth from historical to contemporary, I thought it would be really hard but frankly it’s a cakewalk. I find writing the short contemporaries energizes me for the more intense, formal prose of the historicals and vice versa.
Q: What do you think is the most effective way for a writer to promote his/her books?

My first book, A ROGUE’s PLEASURE, came out in 2000 and I did a lot to promote it, including b0ook signings and related events, sometimes two to three a week. It was a lot but fortunately I loved it. Even though I appreciate solitude, I am a hands-down people person.

Today, I rarely do book signings unless, like the recent Romance Writers of America Literacy Autographing in San Francisco last month, it’s a well-orchestrated, well publicized event. Where I do put my time and promotional dollars is my web site at www.hopetarr.com. Fortunately the wonderful staff at Wax Creative Design manages the content for me and to anyone looking to either launch a new site or revamp an existing one I can’t recommend them highly enough.

I also do what started out as a “Semi-Blog” and now has morphed into a twice weekly regular blog, nothing “semi” about it. Until someone offers me a column like Carrie Bradshaw’s fictional “Sex and the City” (*hint, hint), my blog is my chance to pull out my inner Single Girl in the Big City and let her strut her stuff, three plus inch platforms and all! Since I moved to Manhattan last winter, I’ve had a fair amount of…material shall we say, and I write about anything from cool museums and restaurants and clubs I’ve visited to quirky conversations I’ve had with characters on the streets, to well, you guessed it, shoes!

I also do a fair bit of guest blogging—thank you Elizabeth—which is a really fun and time effective way to broaden my reach and connect with different interest groups within the romance publishing world.

“They” say that the Internet undergoes a major shift about every two years. For sure “social networking” has seen a boom. Online communities like Facebook.com aren’t just for kids anymore. I like Facebook a lot because it enables me to reach not only friends and colleagues but potential readers who might not otherwise find their way to my web site. At the moment, I have a pretty active presence there, sometimes so active I have to remind myself it’s past time to leave. In point, I just posted vacation photos from my trip to Ireland and yes, you can expect to see the Emerald Isle featured in future Hope Tarr books.
Q. What/Who do you like to read?
The short answer is “everything” and the easier question to answer would be what don’t I like to read. The answer to the latter: not much. That said, I read mostly fiction but I used to be very keen on biographies of historical figures especially. These days, I don’t read as much of anything as I would like. I finally broke down and read EAT, PRAY, LOVE. Emotionally raw, unsparingly honest, and wryly witty, Elizabeth Gilbert is just…well, just brilliant. I can’t praise this book enough. I also recently read Claire Cook’s charming MUST LOVE DOGS, a fictionalized but no less true account of a forty-something starting life over post-divorce. I like to mix things up, so who’s to say what I’ll pull out of my to-be-read bin next.

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?

I think of myself as a hybrid, not a plotter or pantser but what another author, someone cleverer than I, coined a “puzzler.” As a puzzler, I start out with a pretty detailed outline or synopsis, which I think of as my road map. That said, once it’s written—and don’t hate me, but I love writing synopses, really I do—I rarely look at it again.

But it gets even better…

Once I start writing, I write the book completely out of order. The dialogue comes to me most strongly and so I will write whole scenes with no notion of where they fit or even if ultimately they fit at all. This is where the “puzzler” part of me really takes over.

The last two weeks of a book are this mad time where thanks to the miracle of word processing, I’m cutting and pasting my little heart out, meshing and melding scenes, tossing some out that don’t fit, writing new ones to fill the self-imposed holes until finally it all comes together into a close-to-perfect fit. Once it does, I pretty much hit “Send” and go to bed.

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?

I do, and the best part is it only takes three words. Write your book. Seriously, just “write your book.”

I’ve been in this business for coming on fifteen years, the first six as an aspirant, and I’ve seen a lot. One of the things I’ve noticed is that writers and especially new writers love to talk about writing. They love to attend workshops, conferences, and yes, chapter meetings. They love to read how-to book after how-to-book about process and craft and yes, marketing—especially marketing. Some in fact spend so much time working out the marketing plan for their first book that they never get around to writing it.

Before anyone gets excited, let me back track and say there’s nothing wrong with attending meetings and workshops or educating yourself about the market. I’ve done and continue to do all of those things, including reading the occasional advice book. But what I see happen all too frequently is that these activities push their way to front and center and the actually writing takes—you guessed it—the backseat.

Writing a book, writing anything, is scary stuff. To do it even close to well requires putting yourself out there on that proverbial limb while the rest of us waive and sometimes jeer at you from the safety of the ground. Writing a book means exposing your hopes and fears and fantasies, your worldview which will not be everyone’s worldview, your light and yes, your shadow side to not a few trusted confidantes or special friends but to virtually everyone. E-v-e-r-y-o-n-e. I think bestseller Jennifer Crusie put it best when she said, “To write is to dance naked on the page.” But if you want to be a writer, you have to be willing to go there, to boogie in your booty, to look ahead, not back and never ever down.

So, in keeping with the three-word them, Get a room--and then sit down and write in it!

Q. There was a recent article called "Harm in reading romance novels," Do you think romance novels harm or empower women?
Empower women, definitely. That article must have been written by a man—or a woman desperately in need of a good…romance novel. ;)

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?
Well, if I may pontificate for a moment, the romance genre involves largely if not exclusively women writers and historically female-dominated professions have never been respected or rewarded by society. And women writers have always taken a hit, the criticisms ranging from personal attacks that the very act of writing made them unnatural and unfeminine to professional i.e., their work was illogical and “emotional.” Women like George Elliot and George Sands (what was it with those Georges) didn’t take male pseudonyms for the fun of it. They did so to have a shot at their works being evaluated fairly. Finally, post-modern society is so sadly jaded on so many levels that books celebrating love and happiness and self-worth and yes, perfect union make an easy target.

Q. What are you planning to work on next?
Oh, I’m so glad you asked! Next on the um…horizon for me is EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE, a contemporary Blaze due out January 1st. Set in Manhattan where I live now and Belize (where I now aspire to vacation), it’s a second-chance-at love story, my personal favorite. Former FBI special agent turned private bodyguard Cole Whittaker steps inside his new client’s Manhattan office suite and finds himself face-to-face with his “principal”—Alex Kendell, the woman he was forced to abandon at the airport five years ago whom he’s never gotten out of his head or his heart.

Two more Blazes are set to follow, a paranormal coming out in October 2009 in time for Halloween and a Blaze historical coming out in 2010. I’m not sure what the historical will be but enough readers have written asking for a sequel to BOUND TO PLEASE that I’m strongly considering giving Alys and Callum a sexy romp of their own.

Thanks so much for having me, Elizabeth.

You can purchase BOUND TO PLEASE at eHarlequin or at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com


Kwana said...

Wonderful interview Elizabeth. Thanks to you and Hope. Very insightful and inspiring. I love her advice. WRITE YOUR BOOK. Perfect.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I hope you are doing just that my friend. I want to see us published next year.

Leanna Renee Hieber said...

This is a GREAT interview. Hope is such a wonderful person, it's so great to get extra insight into her books. I absolutely love her Bound to Please twist on tradition, her interest in animal rights (I share that one), and general awesomeness.

Great questions, Elizabeth and Great answers, Hope!

And yes, Elizabeth and Kwana, you're both going to hit it soon, and hit it beautifully, you've both been following that great advice and it will follow through.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks Leanna. It's always nice to find out that someone whose work you admire is a really awesome person in real life.