|An Interview with Author Sharon Curtis
Since I re-read Sharon and Tom Curtis's The Windflower at least once a year,
and re-read their other books often as well, I have long been curious about
them. What is it like to be a husband-and-wife writing team? How do they
write such wonderful books? Well, for once, I get to start at the top. Here
it is, my very first interview for The Romance Reader, and I'm interviewing
Sharon Curtis, with a few asides by Tom.
Sharon grew up overseas, mostly in the Middle East, where she rode camels up and down the beach in Karachi. Since her father was a geologist who ran overseas operations for J. Paul Getty, they were on the road a lot. Her mother was a magazine editor and historian. Later, Sharon attended boarding school in England.
Sharon met Tom Curtis when they were both attending the University of Wisconsin. Tom's family originated from Kentucky, where his father was a preacher, and his grandfather a poet and bluegrass musician. His mother died when he was four. As Sharon says, "Tom was the family hellion, a thing which I apparently had no resistance, because I married the guy." They have two children together.
At first writing under the pen name "Laura London", and now publishing under their own names, Sharon and Tom Curtis have together written romance novels of such quality that they set a standard for the genre. Their books have served as models for many other romance novelists.
MM: Here's what Teresa Medeiros has written of you. . . "Tom and Sharon Curtis. . .if I could have half their talent, I would be satisfied for life. They are my true role models. See if you can find a copy of The Windflower, which I think is the best historical romance ever written. If you read them, you'll know where I got my inspiration for dialogue, characterization, and humor." Suzanne Robinson has written of you, "As for writers I prefer. . .one of the best I've ever read is Laura London's The Windflower."
How does it feel for you and Tom to be a writer's writer? Or in this case, writer's writers?
SC: A kind of bemused and anxious pleasure. I never think of myself that way. Oh, no. Yikes. When anyone compliments our writing, I experience a short ping of mild surprise, followed by an anxiety-laced pleasure. Then, if I am very lucky, I feel encouraged for about twenty minutes, after which I revert to my usual state of naked vulnerability.
MM: How did you and Tom start writing?
SC: Tom and I began writing together in our early twenties. We'd decided we wanted to be writers and went job hunting so we could support ourselves while we wrote. The innocence of it is terrifying, isn't it? Especially so, because I couldn't imagine anyone would ever want to read anything I wrote. One afternoon, I sat down and typed out the first page of our first novel, A Heart Too Proud. When Tom came home from work, he read it, thought it was interesting, and that evening helped me write page two. Both of us were fond of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, so our first book had to be a Regency. We had no idea what we were doing, but God, was it fun! ("What should happen now?" "I don't know. Oh wait. Let's have an explosion! That would be exciting!")
MM: It's quite an accomplishment that the first thing you worked on became a published novel. How long did you work on it? Did it take a while to get your "sea legs" as authors?
SC: It took us six months to write A Heart Too Proud. How long did it take us to get our "sea legs" as authors? Well, we definitely had the bull-in-a-china-shop method of writing in A Heart Too Proud. We didn't know, for example, that writing in the first-person was considered a commercial atrocity. We both liked books written in the first-person, so we wrote it in the first-person. Things like subtext, theme and style were not things we thought about at all. We just bopped along through the story, trying to figure out a plot as we went. But we did love and respect the genre, which I think is the essential first step to being able to write it.
It's hard to develop a style, an author's voice. It's something we had to reinvent when we moved from Regency romance to The Windflower, and reinvent again when we moved to contemporaries. Style has to suit the characters, the era, the story, the subtext. You can use it like a paint brush-—broad strokes, delicate ones. With every new story, we have to approach the craft of writing anew.
MM: How did you go about getting your first novel published?
SC: We sold A Heart Too Proud this way: I looked around in the bookstore to see who was publishing Regency romances. Dell, I found. Then I looked up Dell's phone number and when I got through, asked for the editorial department. The switchboard put me through to this chatty young guy who seemed content to chew the fat with me, even though he was a general fiction editor, and didn't work on Regencies at all. During the conversation, he did tell me the name of the editor who worked on Regency romances, so we sent the manuscript off to Dell addressed to her attention. She read it and bought it. We were astonished. Absolutely astonished. I still can't believe it.
MM: So you and Tom usually do a draft together, then you rewrite it by yourself. So there's not really any "seams" to match up. But does Tom ever quibble about your re-writes?
SC: Does Tom mind my re-writes? Not at all. He doesn't like re-writing as much as I do, so he'd just as soon pass it off to me. I don't think either of us notices if scenes are more mine or more his - if a story is going fluidly, it seems to take on a life of its own. Of course, when it isn't going well, neither one of us wants to own it. Novels always seem to me like out of control children-—you look at them and see strands of your own influence, but there's something else there you hardly recognize as part of yourself.
MM: Do you tend to work particularly on one character, while Tom works on another? For example, does he do the hero's dialogue?
SC: Sometimes Tom does the hero's dialogue, sometimes not. He especially enjoys Regency talk. Well, so do I. When we're alone, we get a kick out of describing things Regency style to each other. We know so much more elaborate Regency slang than we ever use (how much can a poor editor tolerate?) that it can almost become a dialect. We are very easily amused.
MM: I read in a bio that Tom is a truck driver.
SC: The bio you read is correct. He's a trucker. He's an alpha kind of guy and very independent, so this is a good profession for him.
MM: And you're a book store manager. Do any of your customers know you to be a much beloved author?
SC: Occasionally, one of my bookstore customers does find out that I am an author, in spite of the fact that my staff is expressly forbidden to tell anyone. Everyone who knows has been grand about it--very discreet and kind. I'm most comfortable with anonymity. Too much attention makes me feel inhibited.
MM: Writing seems to be such an independent exercise. What part of collaboration is the most difficult?
SC: I think its most challenging at the initial stage. First, your imagination produces this idea, either a plot or some characters in search of a plot. And your collaborator's imagination also produces an idea, a different idea. Lacing the fragments of two imaginations together into one story is complex. There are so many roads—-which to follow? It's so true writing is an organic process. Even shifting the setting of a scene can profoundly affect the story.
Although Tom and I have very different personalities, we have similar sensibilities, and similar values, and pretty much the same sense of humor. This makes it easier for us to write together.
MM: My next question is more to Tom. Is it a rare man who reads romances?
SC: Probably. Tom's pretty unconventional. In college, he discovered Jane Austen in a big way and so I recommended Georgette Heyer. It's never hard to talk him into trying something new -- he reads fast, and he'll read just about anything so he's always looking around for the next good read.
MM: How does a male reader experience romance novels, which are essentially female fantasy? Or is a good book just a good book?
SC: When I told Tom you were interested in knowing how he experienced romance novels, as they are essentially female fantasy, he got this little smile and said he likes to know what women's fantasies are. He mentioned that one point in a romance he really likes is the moment the hero realizes the heroine is an intellectual challenge. I know he also likes humor and good characterization.
MM: Why are you drawn to romance novels?
SC: I love the genre. It's unique, women creating their own form of entertainment, women speaking to each other on the most intimate and personal topics. I find it a deep and impressive form of female connection in a society that often seems to separate and classify and divide women.
MM: Do you and Tom have a favorite among your novels?
SC: Tom and I don't really have favorites among our books. We sort of relate to them as "experiences", as little journeys instead of as end products. As paths, not destinations. Each path has different pleasures.
MM: What path brought you to write about the Amish in Sunshine and Shadow, long before they were trendy?
SC: The Amish families I know live in the southwestern corner of Wisconsin. The farm that once belonged to my grandfather was across a field from an Amish farm, and the families visited back and forth. There were cultural/ethnic affinities — my grandmother's a Swiss Lutheran and a farm girl so everyone spoke the same language, in a figurative sense. Also, this isn't a tourist area, so the Amish families don't have to fend off the curious, which may account for their openness. Over time, Tom and I developed a strong sense of the Amish character and community. I found the Amish smart, gritty, funny, solid. I love the way they blow off prevailing American values. They're probably right about everything they do, but oh man, I've gotta have plumbing.
MM: Although I'm a big fan of all your books, The Windflower seems to me far and away your masterpiece. How did the idea for that novel come about?
SC: We decided to write The Windflower after I read an 18th century document that listed pirates executed at a hanging, names, ages, descriptions of, things like that. They were so young, some of them 15 or 16, often from poor families, or no families at all. I felt such pity for them. I think, subconsciously, I wanted them to have a happier life, a longer life, to somehow give life back to them, even if it existed only on an imaginary level.
The other element we thought about when we were starting to write The Windflower was the coming-of-age part of Robert Louis Stevenson adventure stories. We see romance novels as being akin to all other novels. Why shouldn't classic elements like the coming-of-age story occur in romance novels as they would in any other type of fiction?
Of course, Tom and I are also completely keen on the whole yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum thing. We loved being aboard a pirate ship. Salt air. The snap of wind on wet canvas. The oily reek of hot tar. The slow roll of the ocean. I always wanted to put Merry on a deck chair but Tom said no.
MM: The Windflower is a complex novel in craft, plot, humor and character. Was it difficult weaving all those story elements together, or did everything "fall into place"? Did you have a feeling it would be a great book?
SC: Really, no. That kind of thought isn't part of the writing process for me. It would make me a nervous wreck. We tend to self-evaluate on specific issues, rather than generalities. We did think a lot about how we were going to develop the story in The Windflower, because we wanted to take the heroine on a slow curve of character growth, from inhibited and overwhelmed to confident, but without having to give up her selfhood. Tom and I wanted to marry the romance genre with a coming-of-age story.
MM: In your books the hero is often very complex, but the heroines tend to be somewhat traditional "tender blossoms". Do you agree with Laura Kinsale that the romance reader really identifies with the hero, rather than the heroine?
SC: I'm not sure readers necessarily identify with the heroine or the hero. I think it may vary from novel to novel, from reader to reader. To say that readers identify with one character or another seems to me to oversimplify the relationship readers have with fictional characters. On the most profound level, when a reader bonds with a fictional character, they are making a leap of faith, because something is created in their imagination that doesn't exist in the real world. I deeply respect the mystery and integrity of this process. It seems intrusive for me to make assumptions about it.
I'm much more comfortable analyzing my own relationship to what I write then I am trying to define how readers react to it.
MM: In saying your heroines tend to be tender blossoms, I really loved the character of Merry in The Windflower. She was so weepy and frightened at the beginning that I didn't quite like her. But she had a wonderful humor that allowed me to care for her. Then I saw what you were about, that she went through this great character arc, and I loved her all the more for knowing where she came from. Also, if I were abducted by pirates at 18, I'd probably cry more than Merry did!
SC: Merry was definitely, as you say, a tender blossom. She was fun to work with as a character, because we were able to show her change in response to her environment, and because it was a long book, we were able to do this over time. It gave us an interesting thread to pull.
MM: Do you think you might ever create a more hard-edged heroine, along the lines of a Joan from Sunshine and Shadow?
SC: The heroine in the novel we're currently working on, which is set during the Spanish Civil War, is much tougher (I am understating the case). But I think we're going to put it to one side for a year and work on another story.
MM: I heard a rumor that your forthcoming novella in the anthology is a sequel to The Windflower. Does this mean Cat is the hero? I adore Cat!
SC: No, it's not a sequel, although it is set in roughly the same time period, about six years later. Why do you adore Cat?
MM: Cat has all the attributes of a hero. He's gorgeous, brilliant, and wounded. He has a tragic past, and he's a nobleman. Merry did a lot to rehabilitate him, but there's still lots of work for another heroine to do! Plus, I'd love to see what Oxford makes of Cat. And maybe get a peek at how the rest of the Black Joke crew is doing. I'd love to see Raven nicely settled. Are you surprised that Cat strikes such a chord with readers of The Windflower?
SC: Yes, absolutely. It's amazing and delightful. Do you really think we should write a novel with Cat as the main character?
MM: Yes! Yes! Yes! But in the meantime, what is the theme of the forthcoming anthology?
SC: The Bantam staff had an idea to do a collection around the subject of "wishing", and in fact the title is When You Wish. In each story, one of the characters finds a magical bottle and this has an impact on the story. Jane Feather, Patricia Coughlin, Elizabeth Elliot, Patricia Potter and Suzanne Robinson are the other writers in the anthology.
It's much different than what we've been working on. Much lighter. It inspired Tom and I to take a break from the Spanish Civil War novel and work on a historical romance. To "cleanse the palate" as our agent always says. Its the first thing we've completed in years so she's excited that we've actually sent something in. Maybe flabbergasted is a better word. The Bantam staff is incredible. They always seem to keep the faith.
MM: Why did you and Tom not publish for ten years?
SC: After Sunshine and Shadow, we slowed down our involvement in writing, so we could get some breathing space again. Walk the dog. Read Harpers. Tickle the kids. I know it seems odd that we've gone so long without completing anything. America is about productivity and sales and success and professionalism. Tom and I are about self-expression, and writing about what we see and feel and care about. In the last ten years I cared for my mother as she died of cancer, my health became fragile, our children went through adolescence (Mr. Toad's wild ride), and I ran a bookstore. Tom and I needed time and space and quiet.
MM: How do your children feel about their parents' writing?
SC: When anyone asks our children (our son is 26, our daughter is 18) how they feel about our writing they always answer that they are proud of us. Our daughter is especially fond of The Windflower. Once, I found her reading it into the morning hours on a school night. When I told her to desist and go to sleep she said, "Mother, do realize how ironic it is that here I am, your daughter, reading your book, and you're telling me to put it down and go to bed?" "Yes," I said, and turned out the light.
MM: You mentioned Austen being an inspiration. What other others do you admire, and are inspired by?
SC: Everyone. Every one I read. I have tremendous respect and empathy for anyone who undertakes the creative process, and I have an especially strong respect for romance novelists, because the genre is so challenging to write, with its intense emphasis on characterization and conflict. As a writer, you are attempting the impossible -- finding two characters so right for each other that their love seems both vital and inevitable. And then preventing the fruition of their relationship for hundreds of pages. How can anyone achieve the paradox?
Authors I read and admire: Jonathon Kozol, Mary Pipher, Barry Lopez, William Gibson, Sandra Cisneros, Sheri Tepper, Jane Smiley, Ed McBain, Toni Morrison, Carl Hiassen. Books I have read until they are falling apart: James Herriot, P.G. Wodehouse, Eric Sloane, Izaak Walton.
Tom will read anything by Saul Bellow, Garrison Keillor, and reads the New Yorker from cover to cover. He reads a lot of social science and history. I am also an incredible sucker for popular science books on black holes, dark matter, the big bang, the Hubble telescope, dinosaurs and particle physics. I am currently reading The Last Three Minutes (conjectures on the ultimate fate of the universe) by Paul Davies.
I am also inspired by Sally Mann, Robert Mapplethorpe, Georgia O'Keefe and William Wegman, and often ponder their work and the manner it understands life in both its stark honesty and fantasy. I aspire to tell stories in the manner they take pictures.
When You Wish will be released in October by Bantam. If you think Cat from The Windflower should have his own sequel, let us know and we'll pass along the notes to Sharon and Tom.
Sharon and Tom Curtis are the authors of our recent Topic of Discussion:
The Romance Reader's four heart review of their book, Love's a Stage can be found in our Archived Reviews section.
In The Archives of Laurie Likes Books, Author Katherine Deauxville has written a review of Tom and Sharon's book Lightning that Lingers and author Deborah Simmons has written a review of The Windflower.