Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Susan Froetschel is the author of three mystery novels – Alaska Gray, Interruptions, and the recently released Royal Escape, which Publishers Weekly called a “beguiling what-if.” She is assistant editor for Yale Global Online and has written for the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Business Journal, Hartford Business Journal, House Beautiful, Alaska Magazine and other publications. She was a reporter for five years with the Daily Sentinel in Sitka, Alaska. Susan now lives with her family in Maryland and is a member of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime.
Q. Tell us about Royal Escape.
A. The story is about a Princess of Wales who worries about the constraints that the monarchy system and instant celebrity impose on her children. Elena would like to work within the system and give her children more opportunities for an ordinary life, but discovers that the traditions are too rigid. As she presses for change, she becomes an enemy to those who depend on such traditions.
Q. What inspired you to re-imagine the story of Princess Diana? What was it about her life that captured your interest?
A. What intrigued me most was her status as a global celebrity, which is very different from local or national celebrity. Global celebrity is rare. Often, that level of celebrity hinges on the individual bucking sentiments in his or her home nation, and those contradictions fascinate me.
Q. Did you have to do a lot of research into the lives of royalty?
A. I did not do a lot of research. My books often center on personal family relationships. This book emerged at a time when many of my friends were pursuing divorces, even as they were raising young sons, and we watched our children grappling with a celebrity and consumer culture.
Q. One of your speaking topics for public appearances is the influence of celebrities on the lives of ordinary people, especially young people. Why do you think people get so wrapped up in the lives and loves of celebrities they’ve never met? Do you think the phenomenon of modern media-driven celebrity (or notoriety) is generally unhealthy, or can it sometimes be used in beneficial ways?
A. People are naturally curious and look for stories everywhere in their lives – at work, in our entertainment and neighborhoods. Stories teach lessons on how to enjoy life and avoid mistakes. The modern version of celebrity driven by the availability of instant information is not unhealthy as long as consumers, both young and old, are aware of their ability to sort through the messages, assessing and selecting celebrities worthy of attention.
Parents can use these public stories as examples for discussing the process of making good or bad decisions with their children. In fact, I think it would be a mistake for parents to avoid talking about these public stories. But I also think it’s sad that so many parents put their children’s lives on display at younger ages. But the rest of us can benefit, especially if our children realize there’s more to life than pursuing fame.
Q. You’ve spent most of your professional life in various branches of journalism. When did you start writing fiction with the goal of publication – and why were you attracted to mystery?
A. Like many members of Sisters in Crime, I fell in love with Nancy Drew as a young reader. I loved how she took control, asking questions and solving problems. Nancy Drew inspired me to be a journalist and a mystery writer. I began writing fiction – short stories – with the goal of publication while I was in college. I attempted my first book when I was 28, when I was working as a reporter for a daily newspaper in Alaska, and put the first 100 pages to the side a few months later. My first book was accepted for publication when I was 37, while living in Boston. As a journalist, I’m naturally attracted to suspense and mystery.
Q. Was selling the first book easier than you expected, or harder?
A. Selling my first book, Alaska Gray, was easier than I had expected. I anticipated years of rejection, but St. Martin’s was the third publisher that read the manuscript. Of course, the editor expected a thorough rewrite, but that was fine and I enjoy the process of revision immensely, playing with words and new scenarios.
Q. What do you know now about the life of a novelist that you wish someone had told you before you sold your first book?
A. I have new respect for marketing and sales professionals. I had no idea that the author is responsible for so much promotion. Good promotion mixes luck, skill and psychology – timing book topics with the public interest, catching reviewers or bookstore owners on the right day, selecting the clever phrase to explain one’s book, assessing and responding to the many reactions to a novel. It’s just as well that I was so unaware, otherwise that part of the process could have deterred me from writing the first book!
Q. How do you fit writing and promoting into a schedule that includes a day job and family? What is your writing routine like?
A. My schedule was more routine when my son was young. My husband worked at a hospital during the evening shift and I put my son to bed early and then wrote all evening long. Now I try to write early in the morning, but end up jotting down ideas or pages even while waiting in offices or other spare moments when I forgot to carry a book to read. Unfortunately, I am not good at shifting from writing mode to promotion mode and find it best to emphasize either one or the other.
Q. Tell us about your writing process. Do you outline before you write? Do you do a full first draft before revising, or rewrite as you go? Do your characters do unexpected things that take the story in a direction you hadn’t planned?
A. I always start with detailing the crime and then build the story from there. That crime is not necessarily the start of the book. I like to get a full draft or at least an outline in hand before I engage in much rewriting. My outlines are not extensive, sometimes a list of phrases or a few sentences. As I write and rewrite, I search for conflicts, small and large, that add to the suspense. The conversation comes naturally, just spills out, and I often must use a heavy hand to cut the dialogue. And as the story unfolds, the characters can surprise even me with what they say and do. Once I get to know them, their reactions just pop into my head.
Q. Do you work with a critique group or rely on one or more readers for feedback as you write?
A. I met with a critique group while writing my first book – and collected some wonderful advice from the sole published author who attended. But she was impatient with most members of the group, which immediately disbanded. I made one close friend from that encounter though – who is a master of humor. Unfortunately this talented woman never found the time to complete a novel. I keep waiting and hoping though.
Q. What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a writer? What aspects of craft are you still trying to master?
A. I think my plots stand out from many mysteries, in that I tackle social issues. I enjoy weaving setting and all its symbolism into any story. I wish I could get my characters to be less chatty and preachy.
Q. What’s hardest for you to write, the beginning of a book, the middle, or the end? Why?
A. The beginning is by far the easiest. Writing the end is the most difficult, because with my plots, I must tie up many loose ends and want to do that in a way that’s not so obvious. And because I write stand-alones, it’s hard to say good-bye to the characters. I try to leave my readers satisfied by relaying the main character’s life philosophy and motivation for taking particular actions, but also expressing doubt and recognition that others may not agree.
Q. Do you ever have writer’s block?
A. I can honestly say that I never get writer’s block. But I do get topic block, which could well be a bigger obstacle for writers. I never tire of writing as a journalist, but the topics change daily. For a novel, a writer must sustain discipline and tone. For me, completing a novel is impossible without being passionate about the topic.
Q. What writers have inspired you and taught you by example? Whose books are must-reads for you?
A. My favorite book is Bound for the Promised Land by Richard Marius. The book never fails to amaze me. But in truth, I learn so much about the craft of writing, with every book I read. I often reread passages to study a writer’s strategy.
Q. What’s in the future for you? Will you continue writing stand-alone novels, or can you see yourself beginning a mystery series at some point?
A. I lack the discipline for a series and prefer to go where whimsy takes me.
Q. In parting, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
A. Write a page every day, become just as passionate about rewriting, and never give up.