Shannon in Conversation with Love Letter Magazine
(January 2015) | More Information →
You started writing romance novels to finance your music career and made a go of it when you moved to Italy. Why did you decide on romance novels and short contemporaries in particular?
I had wanted to write romance novels for years, at that point. I always had it in the back of my mind that writing romance novels was something I could love doing, and do well, but I never seemed to find the time and drive to get to the end of one until I moved to Italy. There, I suddenly found myself with more time than I knew what to do with. I started with short contemporaries only because I thought that Harlequin and Silhouette were the lines most open to new, unagented authors, but they never did accept a book from me. I confess, I also had this innocent notion at the time that short contemporaries would be easier, because there would be less research to do. I have since learned, to my cost, that nothing is easy. Everything is equally difficult, in its own special, unique, inimitable way!
Who were some of the authors that you admired at that time?
I admire them to this day! My big inspirations at that time were Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick, Elizabeth Lowell, and Linda Howard. There are many other wonderful writers I was reading then also, but those were my big trifecta, emblematic of everything that made romance work for me—Krentz’s bright, effervescent buzz always made me feel better about my life, and Lowell and Howard’s sizzling, over-the-top sensuality taught me what made a love scene incendiary. It was from them that I learned what I wanted and needed from a romance novel—and what I wanted to give back to my readers when writing one. Euphoria, excitement, that rush of hopeful possibility, that release of serotonin in the brain, ahhhhh, sweet release! It might not last forever, but who cares? Find another book! Your fix is just a bookstore or an Amazon one-click away!
Where you just born with the talent to write or did you have to work at your craft? Who or what helped you?
I don’t know if I was born with talent, or if such a phenomenon even exists. I am in no position to judge anything so subjective. But I was certainly born with the desire and the predisposition to write, so that will have to be enough. I just go at it, and hope for the best, every time. It’s a very mysterious process. On any given day, I might try with every ounce of my being to use all my craft, to make my brain and my experience work for me, and I might still end up with writing that is stiff and stupid. On another day, I may feel like I’m writing with my feet and everything that comes out of me is crap, but when I reread it weeks later, I realize that there was strength and energy hidden in it that I could not feel at the time. Definitely you learn by doing, and by reading. Movies, too. There are a handful of books that helped me tremendously in the beginning, because I was very much alone, no help or teachers. In fact, one of my most important formative books was Peter Elbow’s “Writing Without Teachers.” Pure gold. Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down The Bones” was also important for me, and Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” and of course, the classic “On Writing,” by Stephen King. But I think the most important part, far more important than raw talent, is being able to force yourself to do it even when you don’t want to. I cannot in all honesty say that I have mastered that discipline yet, but I keep trying.
How much did your English degree from the prestigious US Yale University help? Did you ever return to your university and what did (or would) your former teachers say about your chosen genre?
I’ve never gone back, and I graduated many years ago, but Yale was a wonderful experience for me. It was like an overwhelming buffet of things to study, all the knowledge and disciplines of the world, spread out at the beginning of every semester—get a plate and a fork and load yourself up, as much as you can handle, yum! I was an English major, and steeping myself in poetry, plays and novels, and then having to write papers about them every single week taught me so much about writing, and about stories. I don’t know what my former teachers would think of my chosen profession, having never asked them, but I think I could probably guess. The romance genre does not get much respect in the academic community! A few of the more enlightened ones might understand, and it is true that a great deal has been written about romance literature and its cultural role in recent years, so it’s not as much of a ghetto as it used to be. Eloisa James leads a double life as a Shakespeare professor, after all! But the truth is, one of the most painful and important lessons a writer has to learn, and then learn again, over and over and over, is that what other people think of her writing is really none of her business. The writer’s business is just to write the next thing. People can judge if they want to (and oh, they will, they will!) but a writer should be too busy writing the next story to be bothered noticing what they say. Besides, I’m not writing for the people who judge—I’m writing for the ones who understand, value, need and crave what I am creating. They are the ones I’m offering my work to, with respect and with love, because they ‘get it.’ They are the ones who matter. And I was so pleased, when I came to LoveLetter in Berlin the first time, to find that there are so many of these wonderful readers in Germany!
How did you cope with the initial rejections?
Oh, the anguish! Oh, the shame! It was awful. But I actually didn’t have too many rejections to suffer through before I got lucky and sold one of my little category romance novels to Kensington, in 1998. I have only about five rejection letters in a box somewhere. I think that selling a manuscript relatively quickly was a tremendous stroke of luck for me, because I really don’t know if I would have had the fortitude and resilience to go on and write the next book, and the next, in the face of constant rejection, as many other brave souls have done.
Is it true that after Fatal Strike there is only one book left in your McCloud series to look forward to? And what can you tell us about it?
It is true! The next book is called In For the Kill, it comes out in the USA on January 27, 2015, and it is Sveti and Sam’s long-awaited story. Sveti is finally going to face down the demons of her past, and Sam is just the guy to help her do it. It took a long time for Sveti to grow up! I’ve been tapping my feet for years, waiting for her to get on with it. People have been asking me for her story ever since I wrote Extreme Danger, and I had to just say to them, get real, people! The poor girl is only fifteen years old! (or wherever she was in her timeline when they asked.) I don’t want to give out any spoilers, but those of you who read in English should read the excerpt posted on my website! The book is big and sexy and scary, and jam-packed with intense emotion. I am very proud of it. I think it closes the McCloud series with a big, loud bang and a shower of colored sparks.
Why do you feel it’s time to end this long-running and very popular series?
It’s been eleven books! I am tottering under the weight of all the backstory, and I wrote myself into some very difficult corners by establishing certain facts in previous books that were incredibly hard to plot around. I actually was intending to finish the series much sooner, but I got attached to Aaro and Miles and Sveti. Once I had written scenes from any of their points of view, they came into focus inside my mind, and they just continued to grow. I wrote one scene scene from Aaro’s point of view in Fade to Midnight, and from that moment on, he bugged me like a mafia goon who wanted his story right now or he was going to mess me up. I’ve loved Miles ever since he shuffled out of Standing in the Shadows and in to the clutches of the McCloud brothers, blinking in the light. And noble, selfless, heroic Sveti really deserved her own HEA. I would have writhed in guilt forever if I had not written her one. So the series already had gotten a lot longer than I ever meant it to be! The way I write, each book gets progressively harder because the characters from the previous books swarm out, and butt in, and offer their opinions. Tam is in everyone’s faces, and Sean is there, making smart-ass remarks, and Edie wants to draw everyone a magic picture, and toddlers are running around screaming and getting into trouble, and the whole thing just gets way out of hand.
What’s next? You’ve mentioned before that you’d like to try your hand at a paranormal romance and you’ve already included some elements in your books. Where else would you take it and how?
I had a wonderful time with the paranormal elements in the McCloud series, and I want to include similar elements in future books. I’m dreaming up a series now that features, as heroes, a group who as young people were swept up into a secret experimental program in which they were being groomed with brain stimulation and implanted techno-enhancements to be super-agent/soldiers. They realized just in time the criminal lengths to which their experimenters were willing to alter them, and banded together to rebel and escape. Now they’re all adults, with new identities and lots of complicated issues because of their enhancements and their problematic special abilities—to say nothing of the looming menace of their nemesis, the powerful secret organization from which they fled. I’m having great fun with it! I could go any number of wild directions with it. Which means, freedom, scope, and wild, outrageous plots by the handful! My idea of heaven.
Are the psychic elements in your stories only made up, or are they actually something you believe in and have encountered yourself?
I wish I could say that I had encountered them myself! Though I think some of them would be a curse in real life. Like telepathy, for instance. Can you imagine, being able to read people’s thoughts? That would be so annoying and uncomfortable socially! I’ve had glimpses now and then, when I intuited exactly what someone is thinking, or projected my thoughts to another, but it’s only a brief flash, random and uncontrollable and all too easy to rationalize away. Still, in my study of yoga and brain research, I’ve read about all manner of miraculous abilities that were attained when certain parts of the brain became active. I’ve also spoken to people who have had direct personal experiences of such things. But none of this fascinating stuff has happened to me personally. My feet stay planted stolidly on the ground. No ghosts, no visions, no astral travel, no precognition, no telekinesis. I guess I’m not meditating hard enough! But whatever. I’ll just fantasize and write about it. That way, I don’t have to adhere to objective reality—I can make it all up as I go along! Oh, freedom!
Have you ever thought about writing a historical? You are a fan of i.e. Diana Gabaldon’s and Lisa Kleypas’ historicals after all. And with your background as a singer of medieval and renaissance music you wouldn’t be a stranger to that world. And what about Italy as a setting?
Writing historicals would be delicious! Hard, certainly, but in a new and special way that I have never experienced before! I originally thought that I would end up writing historicals, because I gobbled them up as a young girl, and I loved studying the eighteenth century novels in college. Then I got into a groove with contemporary sexy suspense, and I have not strayed from it since, as it was working out well for me. But I hope to dabble in many different genres in the future. As far as Italy being a setting, Italy is problematic as a setting, because it has such a strong, characteristic personality. It becomes a character in its own right that has to be constantly reckoned with, like a loud, nosy mother-in-law. Which works fine in a comedy, but gets problematic in a sexy suspense story! That said, you will be amused to know that fully half of In For the Kill is set in Italy. (But there are no nosy mothers-in-law anywhere to be seen.)
Will you stay with your publisher or are you planning like so many other authors to try your hand at self-publishing?
I am very keen to try self-publishing, like everyone else. However, I have had a good experience, bringing the McCloud Series and my other books to life with Kensington. So I don’t rule anything out. Both of the options have their very distinct advantages, and I have been extremely fortunate to enjoy the advantages of putting out books with a publishing house. I expect to be a “hybrid” author.
It’s exciting so see Miles get his own happy ending. He’s come a long way from his first appearance in the McCloud series. If you were to look back what would be your favorite/stand-out Miles moments?
I think that I realized that Miles had to have his own book in Blood and Fire. I had already written scenes from his point of view in Fade to Midnight, and also in Edge of Midnight years before, when he was still hopelessly in love with Cindy, so he had shifted into focus and was growing in my mind. But though I had also written a scene from Cindy’s, his ex-girlfriend’s point of view, she did not grow in my mind at all. There was a disconnect. Then, in Blood and Fire, they broke up, and Miles was miserable and grieving, but finally free, and I started rubbing my hands together, wondering what could be next for him! Of course, he was valiant and brave and magnificent in Blood and Fire. Nina and Aaro would have died without his heroic intervention. He had to have his happy ending at that point. He deserved it, damn it. Maybe in real life, people don’t always get the happy endings they deserve, but in romance novels, they can, and should! So there! Amen!
What is it that makes a male protagonist a hero? And what does a male protagonist need to become a Shannon McKenna hero?
I have to be able to fall in love with him. Which means he has to be smart, intense, brave, creative and emotionally alive. He can be flawed, almost to the point of ruin, but not quite—he has to be redeemable. He has a long, frightening and painful journey of discovery to affront in order to become a viable romance hero, and usually plain old sexual lust is the catalyst. True love takes him by entirely by surprise. But it does takes him, and completely. That’s what I go crazy for, when love brings people to their knees and melts their barriers, so that they are finally able to bond, and grow, and take root in their own lives. Whether from the male or female point of view, that moment of surrender is such a turn-on for me.
We’ve asked you before about your favorite hero (Nick, from Extreme Danger) and your favorite heroine (Tam, of Ultimate Weapon). What about your villains though? Which one was the most fun to write?
My all time favorite villain is my first one, Victor Lazar, from Behind Closed Doors, Raine’s Ukrainian mobster uncle. And I think it was because I got inside his head, and understood where he was coming from. He was intelligent, sexy, charismatic, dangerous, and right on the cusp of being redeemable, since his heart was not dead. He genuinely cared about Raine. Most of my villains are icy-hearted monsters who kill and hurt for fun, but Victor was just trying to get a dirty but necessary job done. Even Tam, who was his mistress at the time, had a soft spot for him, and for Tam, a soft spot is a big deal, let me tell you. But he flung himself in front of a bullet that would have killed his niece, so what can you do. Rest in peace, Victor.
Everyone that had the chance to meet you at the first two LoveLetter conventions saw what a great team you made with fellow author Lisa Marie Rice. How did the two of you meet? Was it just the shared expatriate experience that brought you together or something more? How important is it to have friends in this business?
We met by a wonderful and crazy coincidence. Right after I sold my very first manuscript to the Precious Gem line at Kensington, in 1998, my editor said to me, you know, I just bought another manuscript from another expat writer who lives in Italy—is Matera anywhere near you? And it was! I got in touch with her right away. And then, from the little Precious Gem category romances, we both ended up writing hot romantic suspense! So we connect on so many levels. Certainly being an expatriate is one of the things that bonds us, but being an expat writer of hot romantic suspense dealing with the cultural behemoth that is Southern Italy is a very specific set of variables! And besides, she’s just wonderful in and of herself, so I am very lucky. And it is crucial, to have friends in this business—now more than ever, with the book industry changing so quickly and violently. You need people on your side, you need information, cross-fertilization. Writers need each other, to back each other up, and to lift each other up. For instance, be aware that Lisa has a juicy, exciting new Midnight book coming out this month, too, on January 19, Midnight Promises, from Carina Press! Don’t miss it!
We are very much looking forward to welcoming you as a guest at this year’s LLC. Do you already have any plans for your stay?
I am thrilled to be attending again! It was a delight, the last couple of years that I came, to have the opportunity to meet and mingle with all the lovely German readers! Lisa Marie Rice and I intend to come together and even share a room (with me clinging helplessly to her arm all the while, of course, since she speaks fluent German and I do not!) I’ve gone to several conferences with her by now, and it triples the fun to have a partner in adventure to hash everything over with. To say nothing of how great it is to have her brilliant and fertile mind to bounce ideas back and forth with! She’s an amazing adjunct brain. I can’t wait to come and play with all of you at the LLC!
Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.
It’s been a pleasure! Thank you for having me!