Interview with Sandra Brown
By Anna Shura
Sandra Brown is the woman behind over 70 New York Times bestsellers and her recent 83rd publication: Blind Tiger. Her novels range from romance to historical fiction to suspense/thriller. In her exclusive interview with The Strand, Sandra Brown discusses finding the inspiration behind her Western Prohibition setting for Blind Tiger and reveals her favorite characters to write. After a lifetime of bestselling works, she still finds writing each book to be a unique journey and listens to the characters as they reveal their stories to her.
Anna Shura: What has life been like right after a book release for you?
Sandra Brown: It’s always very busy, and at one point in time, all you had to do is write the books. Every once in a while, you know, send out a postcard or something to one of the accounts, but now, with social media, I have been kept so busy you know just keeping up with all of the Instagram stories, the various Facebook pages. And so, it’s been
a lot of that you know scheduling those and posts and then having to do some you know automatically, and it’s a great tool, I mean, I’m not putting it down it’s a great tool, but nevertheless it’s time consuming.
AS: For sure. I’ve seen you’re doing talks and you’re meeting with people online. It’s been some really fun things to follow along as a reader.
SB: I did my most recent virtual event was last night with Kate White…We were talking about the advantages and disadvantages of doing virtual events, because it reaches a lot of people, the event doesn’t last an hour, it records in an hour, but then it can go up on YouTube and be there, you know for a month or two, so you have an opportunity to reach more people than just on that one occasion.
The downside to it is for me is that I really miss the one on one with my fans, you know those people who attended in person of book signing are the ones who really, really want to meet you, you know, they’ve taken you to the beach, they taking you to the bathtub, they’ve taken you in their car. And so, they feel they’re coming as though they’re going to meet a friend, and I really enjoy hearing what they have to say and their experiences. I miss that aspect of it.
AS: That makes sense. Well, hopefully we’ll be able to have a little bit more in person soon. It’s nice to have that that interaction, of course. I noticed on your website you discuss meeting with fans, and it being one of your most favorite things to see that connection to people. Have there been any recent meetings with fans that have really inspired you?
SB: Well, there was one incident, I think it must have been the last time I was on tour, which would have been two years ago. I wrote a book called Rainwater, and it was set in 1934. It was my last historical before Blind Tiger, and it involved a young woman a widow, who had who was singly raising a son, 10 years old, who had autism, but at that point in time, the word autistic and autism hadn’t even been coined. He was just known as Mrs. Baron’s Backward Boy.
And so it touched a lot of people, and a lot of parents with autistic children. I did my best to portray it accurately and with empathy. His name in the book was Solly, and during that book signing, this young woman came up. She had a roughly 10-year-old boy with her. She put her hand on the top of his head, and she said, “This is my Solly.”
SB: And ah, it just, I mean my heart just welled, and she had tears in her eyes. That wasn’t even the book that I was signing, but she brought her copy of Rainwater. She said, “You’ll just never know how much this book meant to me because, so few people have addressed this topic.” She said, “I’m having to raise my son alone too,” indicating to me that possibly his father had had left, and it was such a touching personal experience. She said, “I just wanted to say thank you for treating the subject with such sensitivity.”
And it that really meant a lot, so I get when someone tells you something like that how a book has so personally resonated with them and touched a spot in them that I would have no way of knowing. I was writing a story, and so, when a fan or reader tells me something like that, it really makes all the long hours at the keyboard worthwhile. It’s validation that somebody up there is really listening, if they’re really reading and if they’re taking it to heart.
AS: That’s a beautiful story. That’s why representation is so important in books. Is there a story from someone or an idea that you haven’t explored in a novel that that you’d like to explore in the future or go back to?
SB: I don’t ever really sit down and think about the message behind the book when I’m when I’m writing. I’m just telling the story which is kind of an innocence on my part, I suppose or naive to say that and not know how [the story] affects [readers] in such a visceral way.
But I listen to my characters. It’s hard to explain. But, it’s almost like the story is there, and I’m not really creating it. I’m just excavating it, I’m retelling it, as I see it, unfolding in my imagination. I know that sounds schizophrenia, but it’s really true. I always feel as though my characters come to me and reveal themselves when the time is right for their story to be told. I put them in a situation terrible trouble early on and then try and just sit back and let them report what they say and do.
Of course, there are days when they’re looking at me like, “Tell us what to do, we don’t know what you don’t know and where to go from here.” And I have to come up with something, but I really do feel as though the stories are living before I ever find that they’re there. It’s up to me, and some of them have been very happy and then others…some are easier to tell than others.
AS: That definitely makes sense. I love that imagery of thinking about a story as breathing and living before you even see it on a page. I think that’s a really wonderful way to go about it.
But, of course, yes, there’s always the tricky ones. Was there any specific character that you can remember really struggling to put them on the page?
SB: One was difficult in that she was profoundly deaf, and I knew a family and who had a [deaf] daughter at the time. I read the first book about a deaf child when [the family friend was] five years old. And I was so touched by the way in which the whole family was learning sign language and everything, so that became a part of their life.
It was only my third book. It was a romance called Eloquent Silence, and so I went to school with Jenny [the family friend and deaf daughter] for a week. I talked to her, played with her, learned a lot from her parents about how you deal with this. Well, come two years later I thought I had a story in mind, and I thought that there needs to be another issue. And I thought, what if and, by the way, her name was Anna, what if Anna was deaf and this would compound the situation that she found herself in, you know, 1000 fold.
So, I called Jenny. She was a young woman, and I interviewed her all over again. She had learned speech, to some extent. She still talked mostly with sign, but it was it was great to use her again. But it was also difficult to write because all of Anna’s dialogue had to be interior dialogue, or I would have it in quotation marks that she would be signing. That was a challenge to write.
And then some characters are just more vulnerable than others. I remember my hero, Drex, in Outfox was a character [who] was very cheeky, had a great sense of humor that contrasts Thatcher of Blind Tiger my most recent hero who had very little to say, but what he did say was always more or less profound. He wasn’t a jokester, he wasn’t cheeky, he was kind of a deep-thinking, observing individual and perceptive individual. He wasn’t as loquacious some of my other characters. So those characters are sometimes hard to write because you don’t want them to come across as a dullard, but when they say something, it really has to count. Those can be a challenge.
AS: Definitely makes sense. I did enjoy reading Thatcher. He is more reserved, but whenever he says something, it’s really important. Well, do you have any favorite characters of the ones you’ve written? I’m sure there are several, but are there any ones that really stand out to you, that you just could write every day?
SB: Yeah, and it’s usually the men. I have to say, I did enjoy writing Gert in Blind Tiger and the Madam because I could just see her, and so I enjoyed writing her a lot. I think that the female characters are somewhat harder for me to write, you’d think it would be just the opposite, but I think it’s because I’m typically like inside them looking out. Some observations are of the other characters, so sometimes I find it harder to read the female characters.
They’re not me. They’re braver than I am, they’re smarter than I am, and cleverer, but I think I write from a feminine viewpoint, but also write from the male viewpoint, if that makes any sense, because a lot of my books are written from the male point of view. I find that almost easier than writing from the female point of view. I don’t know why that is.
I loved Cash Boudreaux in Slow Heat in Heaven. He was the first. That was the crossover book from romance and to more suspense. It was my first standalone novel, and so I really got to sort of expand the boundaries. I broke the through some of the boundaries that were traditionally romance, and that was liberating. I kind of really let him take over that book and just fell in love with him.
I love writing Lucky and Chase Tyler and Tyler trilogies; they were such fun and then Sage, their sister was fun, her boyfriend was fun. I love the family dynamic, and I love the difference between two brothers and how they would argue and fight and everything. That bond was just cemented in there, so I mean they were they were just great characters. They were fun to write. So yeah, every once in a while, one comes along like Andy. Because he was the writer, and so I could identify with so much of what he thought and said and how he approached his writing and stuff like that. So there are some standouts like that, yes.
AS: Sure. There have been quite a few novels by now. You have over 80 novels, and the vast majority of them are New York Times bestsellers, by the way, just casually, so I’m curious, do you have a specific writing the schedule to manage all these characters and to accomplish such success or is each book still different for you?
SB: Each book is still different, and each book is harder than the last one. I know that that sounds nut because Blind Tiger was number 83. You would think that after 82 it is going to be a breeze, but I decided to go off on in a different direction. I tackled the historical [side] and tell the story, I wanted to tell. I think, I and readers were ready for an escape from what was happening in our contemporary world at the time. I love that step back, but every single day that I come to work, it’s like first time I’ve ever done it.
And with each book, as I’m plotting it or as I’m trying to figure out what’s going to happen and so on and so forth and build in those critical peaks where something has to flip, those surprises those plot twists, I’ll look at that bookcase, and I’ll see all of those books. And I’m thinking, “I know how to do this. I’ve done it all these numbers of times. Why is it so hard?” Sometimes I get in the middle, and I will have had a great first 250 pages and then I’ll reach a critical turning point where the story turns upside down, which it’s supposed to do at that point, but then I’ve got 150 another 200 pages to fill, and I will have no idea what’s going to happen next.
So I think the hardest part of writing is figuring out what’s going to happen next and keep the reader involved and engaged and interested in surprises and compelled to keep turning those pages. It’s still every day, every single day, every word, every sentence is a challenge. I think that’s why I rewrite so much. It is because when I’m when doing the book, I like to sit down and just write it from start to finish, but it doesn’t always work out that way. And I’ll wind up going back and writing forward to that point again [and think,] “Where do I go from here, what do I know about the characters now that I didn’t know when I started out, what did they reveal to me that I can incorporate in the last part of the book?” And so, I go over every single scene dozens of times trying to milk as much as I can.
AS: Okay, am I right in saying you seem like a chronological writer? Kind of starting from the beginning and pushing towards the end? Is that true of your writing style?
SB: Yes, I very, very, very rarely, I could probably count on one hand, the number of times that I’ve thought of this scene, I’m picturing this thing, and I’ve got to get to it. Sometimes I will sit down and write that but very rarely. I do like to write chronologically and because to me the story is unfolding as I write it.
I do know how a book is going to begin, and I know how it’s going to end more or less, not necessarily the scene, but I know what the resolution of the problems is going to be. And I build in a few, as I said, of those twists and peaks that have to come at certain points in the book, but I have to say that most of the time, the plot twist or surprises to me too. I don’t know they’re going to happen until I get to it, and then I’ll go, “I didn’t see that coming!” That’s that makes it fun; I love when that happens.
But it really is as though the story is revealing itself to me, and it’s unfolding as I’m writing from one scene to the next, usually… If I’ve got a an array of characters, the way I did with Blind Tiger, I can always say “Okay, who haven’t touched base with lately? What if they been doing while the Sheriff and Laurel or over here doing this? What’s going on with the Johnson clan, or what’s going on with the bootlegger? What’s the end, so I can then pick up with a character and write a scene?” Keeping in mind all along that it has to move the story. A scene is pointless unless it adds an element to the plot.
AS: Of course. In writing chronologically and hearing about your process, it’s almost like you get to become a reader as well as the writer of the story. It sounds like you get to be a reader trying to piece things together and being surprised at those plot twists too. It’s wonderful that you also get to experience that and understand that kind of excitement again from the readers perspective, even if you know you’re in control as the writer. It’s kind of a nice balance.
SB: That’s so insightful of you. It’s true, and I think most fiction writers will confess to wanting to entertain themselves first. I’m a pretty good barometer because I’m such a fan of fiction. I’m a pretty good barometer of how the story is going along. If I’m bored or if something’s just not working, then I know I’d go back take a look here and what’s happening, are the verbs lazy verbs? Or are they really potent? Is this dialogue going along and a good clip or is it to dragged out? I try and keep all of those things in mind as a reader, you know, if I were picking up this book and reading it, I would think, “Well, something needs to happen now, something that I didn’t expect needs to happen now.” So yeah, I think that I have to be entertained too. If I’m not having a good time, and not to say that it’s not hard work and sometimes its drudgery, but if I’m not having a good time, then indications are really strong that the reader will not be having a good time either.
AS: Of course, and speaking of readers, what do you want your readers to know about Blind Tiger, no spoilers, but what should we expect, what are we looking for?
SB: Well, I think it’s a big juicy read which is what I want to bite into every time I pick up a book. I want it to transport me from one world to another, whether it’s fiction or non, I want it to be a vivid portrayal of time and place and mainly a portrayal of the characters. So Blind Tiger is, as I said, it’s a departure. It’s about a time period that not a lot of people know a lot about. We’ve all heard of prohibition, but we think about men with machine guns chasing each other down the rainy streets of Chicago. That is a vivid and very real portrayal, but [then] when you think of rural Texas and prohibition as I did this came about.
I was in lockdown, and it was the early days of Covid. I was by myself. I was stuck I couldn’t get to my family. I’d gotten caught and couldn’t get travel home. So I thought, “Well, got nothing else to do. I’ll try to think of my next book while I’m here, but I just didn’t want to write about people in masks or all of the other bad news that was going on in the first six months of 2020, actually all 2020. So I thought, what was going on 100 years ago? I just Googled 1920, and there was the thing: January 16 that year prohibition went into effect. I thought, “Prohibition? Wonder what was happening in Texas during prohibition?” and little did I know that this town that I’ve grown up in, I mean I’ve lived within 50 miles of it most of my life and never knew that it had been nicknamed the “Moonshine Capital of Texas”. I started researching it, and it was such an eye opener. You know, all the speakeasies and moonshining. I mean, it was just unbelievable, and what it was a confluence of so many things. It was soldiers coming home from World War I, and while they were gone fighting in Europe, women had assumed so many of their jobs in the works place. So they were coming back home jobless and that was a critical economic shift. So many of them had post traumatic stress, they couldn’t get work. They became alcoholics and homeless, and so the temperance people were like, “Well, alcohols the problem!” which it wasn’t the problem at all. I mean, it was a symptom, but the problem had more social implications than that. And then women’s movement, the vote the suffrage went into effect that year. So, there was a movement of a different kind, and there was a global pandemic of Spanish flu. So, I started thinking about a different kind of “Me Too” movement and thought, “Has nothing changed in hundred years? We still have the same problems.”
But I thought it would be a time in history, that not a lot of people would think about. The boat weevil in 1919 and 20 had ruined the cotton crop. So, cotton farmers had to start growing corn, and then there was a glut on the corn market. They couldn’t sell it for feed or human consumption because there was such a glut. So, what can we do with it, what can we sell it to? Ah, we can sell it to the moonshiners.
So it became an economic boom at just the time where people wanted whiskey. It was news to me, so I thought that was an interesting dynamic for a story. I started with Thatcher; I wanted him to be a soldier coming home, just wanting to get home back to his cowboy life, back to what he loved, back to what the only thing he knew and what he had left. He had done his duty, and he was ready to get back on and then [it] didn’t work out that way. Actually, as I was writing Laurel, it became it became her story, even more than Thatcher’s. Because Thatcher sort of ends the book with the same kind of thought processes that he’s always had. Laurel has a total arc. She goes from the submissive wife, content more or less, to be a housewife forever and a mother, and then all of a sudden, her life undergoes this earthquake. And she is suddenly having to make her own way and by golly she’s going to do it. She’s going to never depend on anyone again, so she’s the one that really makes the character arc in this book. The story really becomes hers, and I loved how committed she was to standing on her own and seizing the bull by the horns and, “What do I have to do here, not just to survive, but to thrive?” I thought a lot of her. I mean, I really respected the character that she became, and yet I wanted her to be soft and vulnerable and feminine [too] and that was kind of a tricky writing task. I had to make her. Both strong and respectable and her determination, but not hard.
And so, I tried to achieve that with her relationship, not only with Thatcher but with Irv, with Corrine, and with the twins and with the people with whom she cared about a great deal.
AS: I love hearing the background on kind of thinking, “What’s going on 100 years ago?” I think everyone at that point in 2020 like: anywhere but here! Anytime but now!
SB: Exactly. I thought, “How do you start a book when everyone’s walking around in a mask? And you’re having to have your groceries delivered, and I just didn’t I just didn’t want to. I mean, watching the news every night was like taking a beating with a chain. It was just like, “How much more can we stand?” I got to where I just couldn’t hear any more bad news, and I thought if I’m this sick of it, I know everyone else must be too. I can’t be the one. So that’s when I thought, I just needed a change of pace, and from a creative standpoint too, from a writer standpoint, it was healthy. It was good for me. It was a challenge, and kind of jumped the spark plugs a little bit because I approached each day with a renewed enthusiasm for just telling a story that was so different from any that I had told recently. And yet, Blind Tiger, I hope you’ll agree, contains all of the trademarks of the SB novel. I mean, I didn’t change my style. I just put it on a different canvas.
AS: No, I completely agree. It has all the hallmarks but just at a different time period which is fun to read about. Going back [in time] to somewhere else is a really smart way to go about [writing in 2020]. From a reader’s standpoint, everyone enjoys going to and exploring someplace new.
I know you mentioned a little bit about doing research, and it turns out that your hometown had a lot to do with this recent book. Were you able to use any local archives or anything like that?
SB: Yes, I did. I discovered a book in the course of my research that have been written by a man, and this town that was the moonshine capital of Texas (which I patterned Foley after geographically. I placed it there, but I gave it a different name because some of the relatives of the people are [still here].) But he had written a book called, The Glen Rose Moonshine Raid. I thought, there was moonshine right on Glen Rose. I mean, it’s just kind of this quaint little sweet town, you know, so I thought, “Wow! What’s that about?” So I ordered the book, got it a few days, and I sat down and read it. I started at breakfast and finished it by cocktail hour, and I devoured it, I mean, it was just so wonderful.
So I contacted [the author]. I googled him like some detective or something, and turns out, he was actually a detective in Dallas for the course of his career and then he retired to Glen Rose and wrote this book. So I found a mailing address to snail mail him, and I sent him a letter. I said, “Here is my email address. I’ve read your book, and I’m thinking about setting a book in the prohibition time in that region.” And I just wanted to say how much his book contributed to my research. A few days later, I got an email. He was like, “Oh my gosh!” As it would turn out, he is a big reader. He said, “I probably have 3000 books my library, and at least two shelves are your books. I opened up your letter, and I couldn’t believe that I was hearing from SB!” So, we became correspondents, and a lot of the pictures that my publisher have used on social media for promotions and everything he had used in the book….He supplied me with a lot of information and a lot of talk about what a fascinating time this was.
AS: Wow, that’s exciting. I’m so glad. That’s such a fun connection.
SB: Yup, I grew up in Fort Worth, and I live directly between Dallas and Fort Worth. The moonshiners were just South West of here. Dallas and Fort Worth where some their big markets, and so there was a lot of trafficking locally made moonshine to Fort Worth and then East to Dallas to supply the speakeasies. It was very wild and woolly time.
AS: Well, it sounds like it sounds like there were a whole lot of things going on and thankfully now we can read about them.
SB: In Blind Tiger, well, it was really kind of like the roaring 20s meets the Wild West. There’s a lot of that cowboy lore in Blind Tiger, too. I wanted to incorporate that was kind of the end of the cowboy as we know them from you know movies and novels and everything. They were waning, and they were having to address that also fenced regions and ranges and stuff like that. So yeah, it was interesting time.
AS: For sure. The best of two worlds: roaring 20s and cowboys. Maybe a little chaotic, but it’s all good for a story.
SB: Thank you.
AS: All right, well, I am curious. As an avid reader, what’s on your reading list? Who are some of your favorite authors?
SB: Oh gosh, I read everything. I have read fiction, nonfiction. Most recently, I read Kristen Hannah’s book, and it was set in the 1930s. So a little over a decade after Blind Tiger, but I could relate so much of that because my grandparents and my mom and dad lived through the Great Depression in central Texas. All my life I had heard the term “Okies”, you know which came from, you know the people that emigrated from the Plains states, not just Oklahoma, to California. I really love that book, and I could remember all the depression era stories that my grandparents and my parents told, and how difficult times really were especially where they lived.
So I love that book and enjoyed that book. I’ll read you know, one of my buddies. I’ll read thriller suspense novel, and then I’ll read a historical romance. I don’t really care what time period, when a story is set, or geographically. I don’t care! I just I want to become so immersed in that story. To me, it’s all about the characters, and it’s all about the story you’re telling. Whether it’s knights in shining armor or it’s you know about okies making their way to California during the Depression, if I’m caught up in their trials that’s the best book you can imagine.
AS: Absolutely. So your main genres are suspense/thriller, romance, and historical fiction. Have you always been interested in all three genres, or do you have a favorite every once in a while?
SB: Well, I started out thinking that I would probably write historical because I’ve read a lot of historical, but this goes back, we’re talking decades. I’ve been doing this, a long time. When I when I finished my first manuscript. I kind of put it aside because someone approached me and said, “You ought to be writing romance.” I didn’t know that’s what I was writing. That’s just what she called [my writing]. She’s a bookstore owner. And I said, “Well, what’s a romance?” And she said, “Well, like a Harlequin Romance.” At the time Harlequin was the only one publishing Romances. They were publishing almost 100% British authors because that was the homeland of the company, but they had had made inroads into finding some American authors. And here we have a whole continent full of American writers! So that was really an emerging genre. She told me about a [book]…called Ecstasy. And [the books were] gonna be like Harlequin Romance but little bit sexier, you know, a little bit more of an American slant.
And so I started reading Harlequin Romances to see what they were all about. I thought “Yeah, you know, I can do this. It’s kind of a condensed, modernized Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. I thought, yeah, I love that. So [the bookstore owner] said send me a manuscript when you write one that you like. So I wrote, and I sent it to her. She wrote me back, and said, “I’m going to send it to this editor.” And that was the sale of my first book. So I started writing contemporary [books], and then years later, someone said, “You should write a historical!” I said, “Well, actually, I have one in a drawer that I wrote, but I never sent it out.” And then that book sold, and then I got to where [the books were] sequential.
And then I didn’t write historical [again], until I wrote Rainwater in 2008. As I said earlier, it’s kind of whatever story is pressuring me at the time. After I had done 40-something romances in various series for various publishing houses, I really wanted to stretch. I really wanted to do standalone novels and move more into mystery and suspense because even my romances always had shadings of that. I was always tackling subjects that would give my editors [heart-stopping moments]. And so, I thought, the time is now, so I had to kind of make a leap and I got a publishing house to make the leap with me. They published Slow Heat and Heaven, and then that kind of opened all kinds of doors to move. It just kind of evolved more into suspense thriller. Someone said recently, “How you feel being credited as one of the creators of romantic suspense?” And I said, “I am?” Because at the time I didn’t know I was doing that. It was just what the way it evolved.
AS: Wow. You have certainly paved the way with your own genre. What’s next for you?
SB: Well, I’ve got several things on the table and you know, discussing them with my editor [to see] where we go from here. I have to say, I’ve been very gratified by the number of people on social media who say, “Please tell me [Blind Tiger] isn’t the last book like this! That we’re going to see more of this, and will there be a sequel to this? Is this the beginning of a series?” I’m not committing to anything like that, but I will say how much I enjoyed it and how much I really like that change of pace. So we’ll wait and see. I’ve got start thinking about it soon!
AS: Make sense. I really appreciate you taking time to be with us today. I want to be respectful of your time, but The Strand is excited to have. It’s a great privilege, and it’s been absolutely wonderful meeting with you and talking with you.
SB: Thank you. I always appreciate The Strand for wanting to chat with me. I hope that never stops! Thank you so much. I’m honored to be invited.