Why do you think Fifty Shades of Grey has been so successful?
I can see why this book appeals to so many readers. First of all, there’s the lure of the forbidden. So little is taboo these days, that the world Christian Grey inhabits makes people curious.
Part of the attraction is the mystique surrounding the powerful, enigmatic Grey. The innocent heroine is irresistibly drawn to him even though he might be dangerous to her. Her love for him outweighs her sense of self-preservation but there’s that constant tug-of-war between what is smart and what her emotions compel her to do. Like Edward in Twilight, Christian Grey is a wounded gothic hero. You might say Fifty Shades is Jane Eyre for the modern reader.
What do you think about the rise of ebooks?
I think anything that makes reading easy and more attractive to people is a wonderful thing. As a reader, I love being able to download a book instantly. I’m sure I buy a lot more books on impulse than I ever did before, which can only be a good thing for the industry if my experience is typical. As an author, I feel there’s nothing as satisfying as getting that solid print copy in your hand–although I suppose that’s an old-fashioned attitude now.
How did you come to write romance novels?
I was in my twenties working as a lawyer when the writing bug bit me. I have to say, it was a wonderful escape from drafting company prospectuses! The first book I tried writing was a police procedural involving a murder at—you guessed it—a law firm Christmas party.
But I felt that book required a lot of hands-on research that I didn’t have time for (not to mention the likelihood of being sued for defamation!). I was working ridiculous hours at my day job and mainly writing to entertain myself, so I looked for something I thought I could write off the top of my head.
They say write what you love to read. I’d long been an avid reader of Austen and Georgette Heyer, so I decided to try my hand at a romance novel set in the English Regency period. Of course, I soon discovered that writing romance well is hard work and that writing any sort of fiction requires a lot of research. Almost five years later, I sold a Regency-set historical romance called SCANDAL’S DAUGHTER to Berkley, a division of Penguin (U.S.A.).
Is there sex in your books? Is it difficult to write those scenes?
Yes, there is sex in my books—quite a lot of it, actually! I think it’s an important aspect of a romantic relationship and I see nothing wrong with including those scenes as long as they are necessary to the story I’m telling.
Writing love scenes is no more or less challenging than writing any action sequence. In fiction, there should be conflict in every scene, and I think that’s the key to making the love scenes personal to the characters. You don’t want an instruction manual, you want a problem that is either resolved or (even better) further complicated in the course of the scene. And, yes, you want the sex to be really hot!
Where do you get your ideas?
Occasionally, ideas come from interesting pieces of research but usually I start with the characters because I write character-driven books. Often, there’s an archetype I want to explore or a particular romantic dynamic I think might be fun to write. At the beginning of the series about the Westruther family that I’m writing now, I had six cousins, each of whom needed to be paired with someone, so I’ve had to think about what partner would be right for each character.
What is your writing process?
The first 100 pages (25,000 words) come easily. This is the set-up and the characters are getting to know each other. They’re saying witty things and making each other crazy and we’re all having a high old time.
Then I have to stop and scratch my head for a while, gazing into the distance, letting the dinner burn and generally being a bit of a trial to live with. I have to stay off the internet and go into hermit mode and do a lot of goal, motivation and conflict charts, read writing texts, listen to workshops on craft and structure and productivity that I’ve heard a thousand times. Then I realize I have no idea what comes next until I write it because I’ve never been good at planning anyway. So I have to make myself sit down again at the computer and write. The best ideas always flow as I’m writing but I probably need all of that messing and mulling time first.
At the half way to two-thirds point, I realize this is the worst book in the history of the world and I seriously consider throwing out everything I’ve done and starting again. I whine to my friends and ignore facebook and Twitter and finally, after much faffing about I realize I don’t have a lot of time left and I’m stuck with what I’ve written, so I’d better finish this mess and get it done.
The friends to whom I whine remind me that this happens to me every time. It turns out that they are right and when I’ve finished and re-read the book it’s actually not too bad. Some parts I can’t even remember writing, they’re so good (she says modestly). And then it’s time to revise and shape and refine before I email the finished document to my editor in New York.
What is the editorial process like?
My editor reads the manuscript (always in her free time, that’s not part of her work day). She comes back with her comments, both in a formal editorial letter and in comments on the manuscript itself, and I think about them. Often, we’ll have a phone conversation and I’ll tell her how I think I should go about fixing any problems she sees in the manuscript. My editor is very experienced and she is great about not micromanaging this process. She tells me the problem and she might suggest a solution but if I would rather tackle it a different way and can justify my opinion, most often she will be happy to go along with that.
After I’ve done the major revisions, the book comes back again for me to check the copy editor’s corrections. This stage is another opportunity to look for any awkward phrasing or repetitions that have crept in.
Then the manuscript comes back one final time as typeset ‘page proofs’ or ‘galleys’ and that’s purely a proofreading stage, looking for typographical errors that might have been incorporated in the last round of changes. After that, it’s time to send the manuscript to the printers.
What is a typical day for you?
While I’m writing the first draft I get up at 4am every day and I write for 2 hours until I have to get my children’s breakfast. I might not get back to it all day but I have those precious quiet hours under my belt. On a good day I’ll write between ten and twenty pages in one of those sessions. When I’m on deadline, of course, I spend a lot more hours in that chair. I can write a decent first draft of a 100,000 word book in 2 months—which I discovered when I actually had to write a draft in 2 months—but my contract gives me six months to write each book.
Some time each day will be spent in promoting my books, writing blogs, answering reader mail, updating my website and so on. I try to stay off social media most of the time but I’ll get my daily fix when I’m making dinner or waiting to pick up my children from school.
I also try to incorporate exercise into my day, going to the gym on the way home from school drop-off or on the way to pick-up.
How much do you research?
That depends on the book. I have a broad knowledge of the period. When I pinpoint the year my book is set, I read generally about the year to check nothing momentous happened that would change what occurs in the book. Then I look up specific areas of interest I think I’ll need for that particular novel. Finally, there are always smaller details I need to research as I write.
I’ve researched country estates, Mayfair townhouses, sheep farming in Gloucestershire, miniature painting, china, furniture, gardens, agents provocateurs in the Industrial Revolution, health spas in Brighton, Almack’s, dueling, female prize-fighting, fashion, the law of entail, ice cream, chocolate and many other subjects for my novels. Only a tiny percentage of my research makes it into the actual book.
How long does it take you to write a novel?
Six months. I have been known to write one in about ten weeks, not including editorial revisions, but if I did that too often, my family would disown me.
What do you read in your spare time?
I read a lot of historical romance, not surprisingly. I also read contemporary romance, crime, women’s fiction, and literary fiction. Some favorite non-romance authors are Elizabeth Peters, Elizabeth George, Liane Moriarty, Kate Morton and Margaret Atwood.
What advice can you give to aspiring authors?
Write every day without censoring yourself. Try to save the editing for later. You can always fix bad writing but as Nora Roberts says, “You can’t fix a blank page”.