Every now and then I go for broke—take a chance that the biggest names in the industry will answer my requests for an interview. I’ve never been disappointed. 😉 Like a few months back when I asked Susan Wittig Albert to sit down at the Cozy Corner and answer a few questions. She quickly responded and was open and candid with my sometimes-nosey questions. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did!
About Susan Wittig Albert
Susan Wittig Albert is the award-winning, NYT bestselling author of Loving Eleanor (2016), about the intimate friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok; and A Wilder Rose (2014), about Rose Wilder Lane and the writing of the Little House books.
Her award-winning fiction also includes mysteries in the China Bayles series, the Darling Dahlias, the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries she has written with her husband, Bill Albert, under the pseudonym of Robin Paige.
She has written two memoirs: An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days and Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place, published by the University of Texas Press.
She is founder and current president (2015-2017) of the Story Circle Network and a member of the Texas Institute of Letters.
Kym: Welcome to the Cozy Corner, Susan! Congratulations on reaching the 25 book milestone with your China Bayles Mysteries. (That doesn’t include the short stories with China that are an added bonus for readers along with all your other novels!) Did you ever think you would write so many books about one character?
Susan: A long-running series wasn’t on my radar back then (1992). I had written Nancy Drew mysteries, and Nancy had been around since 1930. But adult mysteries featuring women sleuths (PIs and amateurs) were a relatively new thing, and I don’t think any writer could have predicted how far they might go.
Kym: On your website, it clearly states that your Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter mystery series was only meant to be eight books. Have you set a stopping point for the China Bayles series as well?
Susan: I chose eight books for the Cottage Tales because I was interested in a particular 8-year period in Beatrix Potter’s life: 1905-1913, from the year she bought her farm in the Lake District to the year she married her country lawyer. But China will go on as long as readers enjoy her adventures and as long as I have the energy to discover new ideas for her mysteries. I can see several new projects on China’s horizon.
Kym: Looking back, what changes in China would you have least expected when you started the series in the early 1990’s?
Susan: Wow. Interesting question! I originally had in mind a character more like Kinsey Milhone, unattached, with no children. But once the series had gone past four books, I had to start thinking about a long-term arc for the characters’ development—and for China, of course, that meant some sort of long-term commitment to McQuaid. In addition, the real region in which the fictional Pecan Springs is located has undergone massive development, which has affected the storylines of the books in important ways.
Another thing I couldn’t predict was the interest in herbs and plants. This seemed like a small niche when I wrote that first book, and I wondered if it was transitory. But readers’ interest in plants has continued to grow, and that has influenced the direction of the series.
A third huge change I could not have predicted in 1992 was the Internet, which completely altered the way the books are researched, written, distributed, marketed, sold, and read. Just one quick example: the Web offers me research resources that expand the development of plot, setting, characters—and make the books deeper and richer and much, much more interesting. This is a truly significant issue that deserves more attention than I can give it here—just want to note that this is major, major.
Kym: In THE LAST CHANCE OLIVE RANCH, you dedicate the book to your husband and talked about your efforts to grow olives in the Texas Hill Country. How are the olives coming?
Susan: Not very well, I’m afraid. We’re just out of a 5-year drought that affected our irrigation here. Now that we have a new, deeper well, I could do a better job with the olives—especially because climate change is producing warmer winters. But my initial plantings didn’t do so well. 🙁
Kym: Did your ‘olive ranch’ inspire a little bit of your latest novel, or was there something else?
Susan: My olives, not so much. I was more interested in learning about the fraudulent marketing schemes that produce “bad” (adulterated) olive oil. There were several big stories on that topic in the news at the time I was writing that book. The olive industry in Texas is growing, and that was part of what pushed me into writing the book. It’s predicted that, in a few years, olives will be as important to the Texas economy as grapes/wine. Who knew?
Kym: You wrote two Nancy Drew mystery novels in the 1980’s under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene by yourself and three co-authored with your husband Bill. (I may have to go back and read them!) Can you tell us what that experience was like?
Susan: Bill and I also wrote books in the Hardy Boys series, too. From that experience, I learned what it’s like to write formulaic fiction and to work with editors who want you to stick to the predictable formula, since that is what sells those books. I also had to learn to write quickly and write to editorial expectations. If you don’t, you don’t last long. I also learned quite a bit about the publishing and agenting business—that’s proved helpful later, as I moved into adult fiction and now into indie publishing.
Working with Bill helped me to be a better listener and to be willing to work with ideas that didn’t originate with me. When you’re writing with another person, it helps to check your ego at the door.
Kym: You’ve written countless books in the young adult/middle grades fiction genre. Have you experienced a difference in the reactions of youthful readers/fans compared to fans of your adult-age novels? Do you have fans from your young adult books who’ve graduated to your adult-age novels?
Susan: Back in the day (this was in the late 1980s) there was very little fan interaction with young adult readers. The editors would sometimes forward fan letters, but I worked in about a dozen different series over five or six years, and never once went on tour. And since I was writing under a variety of series pseudonyms (Carolyn Keene, Franklin W. Dixon, Susan Blake, etc), readers then don’t know me now.
I do often meet readers who have been China fans from the beginning, though—and we always share a good laugh at being a whole quarter of a century older now than we were then!
Kym: I know I find it challenging to work alongside my husband for one project on the house, yet you and your husband, Bill, have written as a team under the pseudonyms Robin Paige, Caroly Keene, Susan Blake, Franklin W. Dixon (Hardy Boys), and Nathaniel Payne. How did the two of you make it work? What was the biggest challenge?
Susan: I’ve been writing all my life. When I married Bill, I had already written a dozen books, all of them (except for one Russian translation) written alone. Bill had co-written many computer projects, so he had some background in collaborative work. But both of us had to consciously learn how to make the best of the other writer’s ideas, how to plan the work and manage our team time, and how to deal with the physical text (this was long before Track Changes). Overall, the biggest challenge was learning how to use both our skills to best advantage to make each book better than the one before. As I look back over the 12-year Robin Paige series, I’m glad to say that those books got better (and the work got easier) as the series went on.
Kym: Your research is phenomenal—from your historical mysteries to your historical fiction novels, like your latest—THE GENERAL’S WOMEN, which released March 7th, 2017, I am amazed at the amount of research you put into your work. What book/individual was the hardest to research and why?
Susan: That’s hard to say, really, because each project has been unique and uniquely difficult. But for me, that’s the real payoff—the exciting part of the work. Some examples:
I didn’t know anything about Medicare and hospice fraud when I started BLOOD ORANGE (China Bayles #24), so I had to figure out what the best research sources were and how to find them.
When I began planning THE GENERAL’S WOMEN,, I was intimidated (overwhelmed, really) by the massive amount of material available on Eisenhower; I had to learn what was important and how to whittle it all down. For Kay Summersby’s post-war life, on the other hand, there was very little: I spent a LOT of time doing research in American newspapers (and learning how to access online newspaper archives).
For LOVING ELEANOR, I had to travel to the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library and read selectively through 3,300 letters—plus the biographical material on the Roosevelts.
Kym: What can we look for next from you?
Susan: China will keep on keeping on: #26 (QUEEN ANNE’S LACE ) will be published in April, 2018. The 2019 book (#27) will be DEVIL’S TRUMPET. I’ve decided to move the Dahlias series from my traditional publisher to my own indie imprint, Persevero Press. I’m working on the first of three more books in that series, to be published later this year or early next. In addition, I have two more biographical/historical novels up my sleeve: one of them involves Gertrude Bell, who worked in British intelligence in the Middle East before, during, and after WW1. Another project involves the women around FDR.
Kym: Can you tell our readers how to reach you on social media?
Susan: My website: www.susanalbert.com . You’ll find my links to my other sites (blog, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) there.
Kym: Thank you for joining us at the Cozy Corner!
Susan: Thanks for including me!
Kym: Tell Bill I love his turning!
Susan:He says, “Thank you!”
Until next time, get cozy and read on!
Kym Roberts is a retired detective sergeant who looks for passion, mystery and suspense in every book she reads and writes. She can be found on the web kymroberts.com, on Facebook at Kym Roberts (author) and on Twitter @kymroberts911. Fatal Fiction, A Book Barn Mystery is available now and . A Reference to Murder and Perilous Poetry available for Pre-order!
In this exciting new mystery from New York Times bestselling author Susan Wittig Albert, China Bayles fears for her husband’s life as an escaped convict targets him…
Max Mantel, the killer McQuaid put away years ago, has busted out of the Huntsville prison and appears to be headed for Pecan Springs. McQuaid knows there’s only one way to stop the vengeful convict—set a trap with himself as bait.
China wants to stay by her husband’s side and keep him from harm. But McQuaid insists that she get out of town and go to the Last Chance Olive Ranch, where she’s agreed to teach a workshop on herbs.
When China and her best friend arrive at the ranch, she learns the owner, Maddie Haskell, has her own troubles. She inherited the ranch and olive oil business from the late matriarch, Eliza Butler, but Eliza’s nephew is contesting the will.
While China throws herself into helping Maddie, McQuaid’s plan backfires when Mantel executes a countermove he never saw coming. Now McQuaid’s life is not the only one at stake—and this time may really be his last chance…
Mystery Cozy [Berkley Prime Crime, On Sale: April 4, 2017, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9780425280034 / eISBN: 9780698190283]