Thursday, October 05, 2006

Debra & Deborah Reach a Crossroads Interview

When we first step into the world of publishing, while we’re still starry-eyed and awed by the folks whose books resonated for us as pure readers, we all have ideas about who we might become as writers. I thought I’d like to be the love-child of Stephen Hunter (kick ass suspense) and Deborah Smith (a Southern voice that lingers and calls you back to her books time and again).

My first publisher dinner as a real live published author was with Tami Hoag, Teresa Meideros, Iris Johansen and Deborah Smith. (I'm not sure if 2, 3 or all 4 of them had been on the NYT list by that time.) Gosh! I had only dreamed of being a published writer and now I was sitting at a table with women who’d produced a body of work I admired so much. I was a shrub among Redwoods.

I wanted these women to like me. So, when the waiter arrived with our after-dinner dessert coffees and Deborah Smith took mine (she hadn’t ordered one)…I said nothing. I didn’t want to make a fuss or bring myself to the attention of the editor. I wanted to survive my first dinner as a published author quietly and with dignity.

That hope was shattered several minutes later when Deborah Smith said—loudly—to the table in general, “Oh, my Gawd. I didn’t order anything! Whose drink did I take?”

That would be mine.

Who knew that would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship? I delighted to have her riding with us today and talking about her new book, baby chick tricks, and wild teapots! My questions and comments are bold and Deborah's are plain text.

I (Debra) am a sucker for a scarred heroine and a tortured hero seeking redemption. Throw in the Appalachian Mountains and I'm hooked. I loved how CROSSROADS CAFÉ grew from a wonderful adventure you had with your Mother. Could you tell us a little bit about that? Are you (Deborah) a road warrior?

My mother was always up for a road adventure. Especially if the trip included a coffee cup full of gin adn a pack of smokes. We've driven primitive trails in the Smokies where I feared the 4-wheel-drive would fail and I'd have to hike out while Mother fended off wolves by flicking cigarette butts at them. Mother never flinched.

We found the inspiration for The Crossroads Cafe on a jaunt in the mountains above Asheville, totally by accident. There was this little diner at an intersection in the middle of the woods, and there we had one of the best downhome meals EVER. There's nothing as tasty as finding a feast by surprise.

Family, biscuits and community (the holy trinity of the south) are at the center of CROSSROADS CAFE. Now, tell the truth…Can you make those mouth-watering, mile-high, fluffy-flaky biscuits?

I don't cook, can't cook, don't like to cook, but boy, howdy, I love to eat AND I love to watch people cook. I'm one of the Food Network's most avid viewers. Watching people cook is the most soothing entertainment in the entire world. And a great biscuit is a gift from heaven. My favorite breakfast (when I'm cheating on Weight Watchers) is a plate of hot biscuits floating in cream gravy.

You've always embraced the Southern culture, found its heart and shaped stories around it. When did you first realize that the South had such a distinct regional flavor? And that you had a talent for sharing what it means to be Southern with the world?

I didn't really understand that Southern was an alien concept to folks until my first trip to New York in the eighties.

I remember walking into a California convenience store about 25 years ago and just saying "Hello" and then "Thank you," to the cashier when I paid for my purchase, and having the cashier laugh and say "I love your accent!" That was one of my first big journeys to a foreign land (i.e. "not southern") and I was shocked to find out I HAD an accent. Ironically, a few years later, while working as an editor for a small southern newspaper in the heart of Atlanta, I overheard a new coworker telling someone I was obviously not a native southerner because I didn't have an accent. What? Huh? The new coworker had a very heavy rural drawl, and in her mind my Atlanta accent didn't meet the deep-fried vowels test.

How Southern you are is all a matter of perspective. And just what IS a Southerner? That's a matter of perspective, too. We're from every race, religion, and country of national origin. We always have been a far more diverse group than the stereotypes allow. Our relationships with the outside world and with each other are subtle and complex, defying easy categorization.

My defiantly sentimental view of the South has been shaped by, of all things, negative outsider portrayals of the region. The South I know is not remotely like the South seen in Hollywood films, TV, and in most books (including Gone With The Wind, which I love as a masterpiece of epic storytelling but which is about as realistic a portrait of antebellum Southern life as a pink toad wearing a tutu.)

If I have a mission as a writer it's this: to portray the South and Southerners in a fair, positive, and gently realistic light.

CROSSROADS CAFÉ doesn't just revisit your Southern stomping grounds, you also return to romance in this book. Fans are thrilled to have you back in big romance. Can you talk a little bit about your love of romance as a genre? I don't think you've ever written a book that didn't have at least some romance in it!

I'm a sucker for a love story. I read Gone With The Wind when I was twelve years old and even my pre-teen heart pitter-pattered for Rhett Butler. My favorite books and films are almost all romances of one kind or another -- I love every film John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara made together, because the chemistry between them sizzled in every single one. Romance is a dynamic, life-affirming, idealistic, yet also very self-aggrandizing (in a good way!) fantasy. In a romance, the good girl always wins. Always. And by "good" I don't mean Goody Two Shoes. I mean "deserving of success."

In CROSSROADS CAFE you have heroine Catherine wading into a situation to save some puppies even though she's too late to save momma-dog. In real life you're just a big softie when it comes to animals aren't you? (See Deborah's dog dressed for Halloween to the right.)

I'm an admitted pushover, a pile of melting Jell-O, a total and complete can't-say-no sack of baby-talking, maternal goo when it comes to animals. I grew up on a farm where the lives of animals -- livestock, pets, and wildlife -- tended toward brutal extremes. Our rural locale was a dumping ground for city folk's unwanted pets. I could tell you horror stories about sick, hurt, abandoned animals.

Plus our land fronted a fast, two-lane road AND a railroad track. Between careless drivers and fast freight trains, nearly every pet dog and cat I ever owned ended up as a flat puddle of fur and blood. I am clearly warped, to this day, by the memories. Throw in a little guilt from an incident where I accidentally strangled a baby chick (I was four years old and thought the chick was doing a trick every time I squeezed its neck and its head drooped) and you have the makings of a completely neurotic, lifelong member of the Humane Society.
I paint very mediocre folk art for fun, and when I sell my work all the proceeds go to our local shelter.

Did I mention I have eight cats and a dog? Almost all are rescues. A few were abandoned pets who came to our home deep in the woods searching for food. Since I put out a pan of dry food every night for the local possums and raccoons, my house is a lure for hungry critters.

Your characters are always such vivid people. Even the secondary characters live in our minds long after the books are closed. Yet you rarely write series or connected single title novels. Why is that?

I have nothing against series and sequels -- I've actually proposed sequels to A Place To Call Home and also for Sweet Hush but, for various reasons, the publishing deals never went through. I love working on BelleBooks' MOSSY CREEK HOMETOWN series, where I write the part of the town mayor, Ida Hamilton Walker. She's great fun because she's a sexy baby boomer and a Southern woman from a long tradition of steel magnolias. Plus she has a sexy, much-younger boyfriend (who happens to be a character written by the very writer conducting this blog interview.) It's tons of fun to write about a character who evolves over many books, as the Mossy Creek people do.

Oh, I remember the day I had to call Deb Smith and ask, “Is it a problem for you if my character likes your character waaaay more than the youngish chief of police is supposed to like the Mayor?” I’d written less than three pages of my chapter and I knew the chief was in serious trouble on so many levels. The mayor was not any happier than the chief about the unexpected chemistry. And so the fun began….

Okay let’s get back to Deborah Smith. With CROSSROADS CAFÉ You made the decision to make a change in your career, to take even more control of your work and offered BelleBooks the opportunity to publish your next big book-- CROSSROADS CAFE. (Which we jumped at immediately after half-heartedly reminding you of the limitations of a small press even though we'd had subrights sales to NY publishers, bookclub and large print sales, etc.) You're the editorial face of BelleBooks, and yet you had to transform into the "author." Was that a hard transition? Having someone else edit you at your own publishing company? Was it hard wearing both hats--author and publisher--when a marketing program was drawn up for the book?

My biggest fear was that readers would say The Crossroads Cafe didn't live up to my previous novels, and that BelleBooks' editorial tastes and expertise weren't up to par compared to the big New York houses. Happily, the novel has gotten great reviews from major sources -- in fact, much better reviews than many of my novels published by New York houses. I see that as a vindication for BelleBooks' system, which encourages authors to have more creative freedom while also emphasizing editorial standards as strict as any at the big pubs.

What did you love most about writing CROSSROADS?

I loved getting to delve into the characters' thoughts and philosophies a little more than I usually do. Because I had more creative control than when writing for an outside editor, I gave myself permission to do a little "navel-gazing." Not too much -- there's nothing worse than a preachy, boring novel -- but it is fun to ramble on a bit, at times.

I'm sure some of our blog readers may be writers and they're going to want to hear from you as the BelleBooks editor. What are the mistakes you see in submissions from writers?

We get a lot of stereotypical "Southern" novels. Memoirs that are always about small-town murders, racism, etc. Hee Haw stories about beauty parlors and rednecks. We don't get many submissions that feature strong, vivid Southern characters you want to care about. Also, we get many, many queries that clearly aren't even close to what we publish. The writers send out bulk emails without bothering to even look at our website, and they seem to hope we'll make an exception because their book is so special even though it fits none of our guidelines.

What's up next for you?

I'm working on a novel set in the lake country of northern Florida. It's called A Gentle Rain and it's about an elite, rich young woman who discovers that she was adopted and that her biological parents are not just ordinary but are both mentally handicapped. She has to come to terms with what that means to her privileged image of herself, while at the same time reuniting her parents, who were separated by their disapproving families after her birth. The romantic hero of this novel is a Florida rancher who employs disabled and mentally handicapped cowboys, including the heroine's father. It's a very interesting story and I love the poignancy of the relationships. Lots of star-crossed love, here!

One last question. I've heard something about your land being overrun with wild teapots...?

My folk art hobby includes these bizarre "wild teapots" which I dearly love despite the fact that most people don't get the joke. I've made a series of amateurishly Photoshopped postcards featuring "feral teapots" that have escaped into the wilds. I even developed a history of the wild teapots (mating rituals, etc.) and created a wild-teapot-protective society. I plan to post the cards on my website soon and sell them via mail order. I currently sell them at a booth I rent at my local antiques and collectibles mall. [The same booth she maintains to sell paintings and generate funds for the local Humane Society.] Happily, there are customers with twisted senses of humor who regularly buy the cards. Some day I'd love to put together enough pictures and text to publish a Wild Teapots book. Sort of a zoological study.

Deborah's got the coolest audio excerpt of Crossroads on her website! Check it out!


Debra Dixon said...

Finally, the promised interview with Deborah Smith appears!

I've asked Deb to stop in and say hello via the "comment" feature. I'll be winging my way to South Dakota in the afternoon but I'll be doing my best to look-in as well.

Helen Brenna said...

Hi, Deborah and welcome aboard!

Your mother sounds like a kick and I love the picture of the painting you and Deb have posted. I enjoyed painting and throwing clay pots when I was a teenager and you're making me want to pick up a brush and get my hands dirty again!

Couple questions: Did you or someone else at Belle Books edit CROSSROADS? How did that go?

And where did you get the idea for your new project, GENTLE RAIN? What a fascinating concept.

Betina Krahn said...

Deb and Deborah-- a GREAT interview! I laughed out loud several times! Met my Minimum daily requirement already!

Wonderful to hear about your road trip with your mom and BIG LOL about fending off wolves by flicking cigarette butts!

Ever since I read Mossy Creek, I've been lured by the whole concept-- being a closet southerner myself. Yes to everything you said about the South. . . and the traditions. . . the biscuits. . . the "Mamaws" who smelled of buttermilk and cornbread when you hugged them. . . the sound of screen doors slamming. . . the taste of too-tart lemonade. . . church fans in summer. . .

I could go on and on. Instead, I'll go order Crossroads and anticipate a wonderful getaway into the South.

Thanks Deborah for coming to spend time with us!

:) Betina

debbsmith said...

Hi, y'all!
thanks so much for this very cool interview! I was thrilled to see my ugly dog and ugly art immortalized! Also my (hopefully not ugly) new book!

Yes, Deb Dixon, the one and only, edited the Crossroads Cafe. She is a most excellent editor and her whip has only a few sharp barbs I shocked her by installing ALL her suggestions and then some, adding several unexpected weeks to the production scheduled. That'll learn her.

I'm curious as to what y'all think of the current prospects for women's fiction as a sub-genre. I keep hearing doom and gloom. Thinking of starting a new sub-genre: Erotic paranormal chick-lit. Anyone up for vampire hookers who obsess about their weight and go shopping only at night? Oh, and just to cover all the hot-selling bases, it will be set in Regency England. Can't miss!

thanks again. this is a way cool blog site.

Deb (Smith)

Kathleen Eagle said...

Hey Deb! What a treat to have one of my favorite authors hitch a ride with us. I grew up on the road as an air force brat, but my parents were from a small town in Virgina, so that's where out roots a all the relatives were. I get really nostalgic reading your books. (Nostalgia is big at my age. Betina's list makes me weepy.)

Prospects for women's fiction. Hmm. I'm still trying to figure out what that is. One thing it's not--and this might be the crux of the marketing problem--is simple. Someone of one of my loops recently observed that one thing ao many of the mega-bestsellers seem to have in common is simplicity. Nicholas Sparks was put forward as an example. Simple, straightforward, sentimental, easy to wrap your head around. Good women's fiction explores complex relationships and shies away from easy answers. But unlike the Oprah club downer, it's uplifting. In commercial fiction I think the publishers are giving most of the push to "the low-hanging fruit" that they can market from pigeon holes with simple labels. And I think that's why the business is stagnant. Not that books aren't breaking out of the pigeon holes. But damn if I can figure out which door will burst open next. I'm just a writer desperately trying to concentrate on writing a good book and naively hoping that since they liked the proposal they'll know how to sell it.

Helen Brenna said...

I love women's fiction, but I've been hearing rumblings of issues too, Deborah.

And what does a vampire hooker sound like with a Southern accent?

Betina Krahn said...

Plus, Deborah, I want to see one of these feral teapots! I love teapots, collect them when I can. What are they like? I visited your web site, but didn't find them!


Kathleen Eagle said...

Me, too, on the teapots. I have a collection of Hall teapots, which I took a shine to a couple-few years back for the sort of art deco charm ('30's and 40's).

Debra Dixon said...

Hey, guys!

I'm so sorry I was absent after posting the interview. I was on a plane to South Dakota and landed to realize that I was at some decent altitude which meant I really should have brought along my altitude sickness medication! So I spent my non-speaking time in my hotel room sucking water and with the lights off.

I'll go rustle up Deb Smith who is new to blogging. She probably doesn't realize that you can have a conversation in the comments.

debbsmith said...

howdy again
I hear there's major carnage at Harlequin. Do tell!

As for women's fiction, I think what Miss Kathleen said about the low-hanging fruit (what a polite way to describe Nicholas Sparks et al - grin -) hits it on the head. Simple to market is the key. A major editor told me about a year ago that the whole rise of women's fiction (meaning the variety written by romance writers, not the mainstream i.e. literary stuff) was a bogus movement fueled back in the 1990's by the idea that romance readers actually wanted bigger, more complex stories. According to this editor, rom. readers quickly gave thumbs down to women's fiction and went back to the tried-and-true. This editor said either write hardcore romance (what is that, exactly, these days? Regencies with lots of sex? Chick Lit with lots of sex? Anything with lots of sex? Huh?) or write "reading group fiction" meaning somewhat lighthearted yet message-oriented non-romance books like "Good Grief" by ??? (debut author, her name escapes me and I'm too durn lazy to go hunt for the book.) But "simple" seems to be the key word.

Regarding my wild teapots: they're on the BelleBooks site at Free to anyone who orders multiple copies of The Crossroads Cafe. I have hundreds of Wild Teapot postcards. I HAVE to find some way to give them away. -laugh-


Helen Brenna said...

I wish I knew more about the market, Deb. While I can't blame publishers for wanting to make a buck, it is a business, I resent feeling as if thats ALL it's about. Feels like censorship at times.

The teapot postcards are silly. For anyone who wants to look:

Betina Krahn said...

Deb and Kathy and Deborah. . .
I have to say, I'm shocked and angered to hear that women's fiction is now being considered a "flash in the pan" and something of a pander to bored/pretentious romance readers. (Shows just how out-of-the-loop I am!) Damn. Just as I was finally getting one under my belt!

And the "reading group fiction" thing. . . what a condescending way to think about women's stories. It's all about sales, not heart. In earlier days, they touted women's fiction as heartfelt and "about damned time." Clearly, their literary judgments are really all about sales. (Which we all probably knew but didn't really want to have to face.) Makes you respect their opinions of our work all the more, huh?

I wish I knew the name of that editor-- I'd avoid her like the plague.

:< Betina

Betina Krahn said...
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