You began your professional writing career as a journalist working for Esquire Magazine, Glamour, Harper's, and even Playboy. What was something you learned from this time that you still incorporate into your writing today?
My early career of writing feature journalism taught me some incredibly valuable lessons. Perhaps the most useful of all was to learn how to tell a story concisely. In journalism, you have a strictly limited word count, so you cannot indulge in dragging your story out or meandering into needless digressions A second lesson was how to zero in on a vivid detail or incident that can really make a story jump to life. And thirdly, to develop an ear for the way people actually talk and how much they can reveal themselves through what they say.
You have also worked on screenplays and as an executive producer during your time living in Los Angeles. What was it like to see your vision come to life on the screen?
As most people know, very few screenplays actually make it to the screen. So whenever I actually had something produced, it was thrilling. I was particularly amazed at how much an actor can add to a character just by an offhand gesture or using a throaty tone of voice. Once in a while, it was the opposite—I’d want to rush onto the set and say, “No, that’s not the way to play my character! She’s ballsy, not a shrinking violet.” But since I couldn’t do that, I had to learn to just let go and enjoy the ride.
With such a varied background, you decided to devote yourself to writing novels. What is it about this medium that has made it your priority?
For me, writing novels as opposed to journalism was inevitable, because I always had original stories in my head I was itching to get down in words. I liked writing screenplays, but movies are a collaborative affair. If you are fortunate enough to get something produced, many people will have been involved in what ultimately gets on screen. In a novel, although an editor may demand changes, you are really the sole writer, director and cameraman of your project. I love having that autonomy.
You focus on writing thrillers that captivate your readers. What can you tell us about the 'recipe' for crafting a truly engrossing read?
A recipe for crafting an engrossing read? Hmmm. I’d say the basic ingredient is a compelling main character who makes you care about them (even if you don’t like them!) and who keeps you guessing. Also, for a suspense story, you must constantly add the spice of pulling the rug out from under the reader, preferably just as they are sure they know where the story is heading. The kinds of twists that make a reader say, “I never saw that coming!” And an important ingredient is the cliff-hanger: those tasty dangling elements that make the reader constantly want to gobble up the next chapter.
Your newest novel, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost, is a modern take on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. What were some of the elements that you took from the classic novel and what are the new twists you added that were all your own?
I did adapt a few of the most famous elements of the classic Jane Eyre for Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost: a young woman comes to an atmospheric estate, falls for the difficult but beguiling man who owns it, and discovers a secret about him involving a wife. But I’ve added many original twists, beginning with the fact that my Mr. Rochester is under suspicion of murdering his wife, and this creates a mystery Jane must solve-- even though it could likely prove him guilty. There’s also a ghost that may or may not be haunting Jane, as she attempts to prove or disprove his innocence. And there is the counterpoint voice from the past of Beatrice -- Mrs. Rochester -- who narrates a mad and twisty tale of what happened the day she was lost to the sea.
How did you get to know your protagonist Jane? Did anything about her character surprise you? Delight you? Make you wince? Make you smile?
My protagonist Jane continually surprised me. She had such a cheeky sense of humor, and an independent streak that I admired hugely. Sometimes when she had moments of terrible regret or indecision, she could make me wince a little, but if she didn’t have those moments, she wouldn’t have seemed human. I smiled frequently at her refusal to put up with Mr. Rochester’s moodiness; and at her touching scenes with Sophia, Rochester’s troubled teenaged daughter—Jane shows her great compassion but at the same time deftly keeps her in line.
The unforgettable Mr. Rochester—adored by millions of readers. How did you go about recreating one of the most iconic men in literature? Were you ever intimidated when considering how to write a modern version of such a beloved character?
Creating a modern version of the oh-so-iconic Mr. Rochester was probably my biggest challenge. He needed to be flawed without being a totally repellant jerk. And he could not even have the advantage of being handsome. I made him a tech entrepreneur because it seemed like a character who could display the necessary flamboyance and arrogance, as well as one who might be tempted to bending rules for his own benefit. And of course somebody capable of great passion—both for good and for bad!
In addition to being a very successful author, you are also a writing coach. What advice do you give to new writers looking to complete their first manuscript?
I love coaching new writers and watching them grow in their craft. It’s hard to whittle down the process to several pieces of advice, but here are a few. First of all, learn how to accept criticism—I don’t mean in order to blindly follow it, but to absorb it and come to your own decisions about how to use or reject it. The second is sheer perseverance. Don’t get discouraged at the first knot in your story—or the second, or the fourteenth! There is almost always a solution. And thirdly: revise, revise, revise. And if necessary, be ruthless in your revision. If a scene or a chunk of dialogue or a description isn’t working for your story, then out with it! This is often-given advice, but for a reason—it’s so valuable!