>Everyone, please welcome New York Times bestselling author Sabrina Jeffries to the Dollhouse! Sabrina was kind enough to sit down with PBD’s own Elvie and dish on her newest book, How to Woo a Reluctant Lady (read Elvie’s review here), her creative process, and lots more!
In the last 11 years, New York Times bestselling author Sabrina Jeffries has penned 18 Regency romances and four novellas — becoming a regular on both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists and winning more than a dozen industry awards in the process.New Orleans-born, Thailand-reared, Jeffries attributes her success to listening to what peers, her publisher and her own common sense told her she should be writing: “I write what I enjoy reading: lighter, sexier historical romances, with more dialogue and more sensuality.”Writing about 19th-century English life comes naturally for Jeffries. Not only is she a lifelong Jane Austen fan, but she has a doctorate in English lit from Tulane and a specialty in Early Modern British literature. Yet the impetus for her stories, Jeffries says, is always “what if” — not what if her hero likes this or that, but what if this happened and this happened … what would it do to a person?And she writes, she says, because “I can’t not write . . . I have stories in my head, and I have to get them out.”
Today, the novelist has more than 4.5 million Sabrina Jeffries books in print. She writes at her home in Cary, N.C., where she lives with husband, Rene, and their son, Nick. When not answering e-mails as she logs miles on her treadmill or doing jigsaw puzzles (“my reward for finishing a book”), Jeffries can be found championing the cause of autistic children in the name of her son.
LV: Do you remember the first romance novel you ever read?
SJ: Well, actually, I’m one of those rare… you’d be surprised how many romance authors didn’t start until later in life, but I started early. And, it’s kind of odd, my mother gave me Grace Livingston Hill to read. Now you’ve probably never heard of her.
LV: I don’t think so.
SJ: She wrote Christian romances, and I remember distinctly, she had this thing, ‘cause it was kind of funny. She had this thing about (I think she wrote in the ‘40s, and of course my Mom was giving them to me in the ‘60s), but she would talk about how the hero was always attracted to the heroine because she wasn’t “painted.” You know, she had that fresh beauty without any paint and was very natural looking. And at the time, I thought, “My mom wears make-up. My mom the missionary wears make-up, so what is it with the ‘painted ladies?’” That was the part that always threw me. It was like, “Really?” You always knew if the woman wore make-up that she was going to be the villainess.
And then I got completely hooked on Barbara Cartland. And I got so totally hooked – you have to understand, I was in Thailand, and you kind of had to read what you could get. So, Barbara Cartland was popular in the US, so she was popular in Thailand. And I would go to the thrift stores and hunt through for all the Barbara Cartlands. They were always regency historicals, with the aloof earl… I loved those. Years later, when I read ‘em, I said, “There’s no sex in them!” And that was such a disappointment to me. But that didn’t seem to bother me when I was young.
And then I hit college. And that was right around the time that Rosemary Rogers and all of those were coming out, and so, I started reading those, and I loved that they had sex in them, but I hated that the men were so mean. I didn’t realize I didn’t like it, because I was just reading it for the romance. And I always get upset with young people who tear those books apart and say “How could women have read those?” You have to have been there, and you have to have understood that then, you were still bad if you liked sex, so, rape fantasies were popular for a reason. They had a very distinct purpose. And once we got that out of our system, none of us want to go back to that, but in that period, it was the only way you read about sex, because otherwise you felt like you were reading sluts. It just… there wasn’t the mindset, and it took a lot of that before we got it out of our system. And supposedly, there were people writing sex that wasn’t like that. I was reading the popular people, and they had a lot of rape.
So I read those books, and then I went to grad school. And then I was too good for romance.
LV: You got a doctorate in literature?
SJ: Yes. And I remember – I’m embarrassed by it now, but I remember telling my students that those romances are all the same. I remember telling them that because they felt that way to me at that point. And yet, I kid you not, I took a graduate course on “The Rake in Literature.” I did. We read Wuthering Heights…
LV: Okay, Heathcliffe… No. No.
SJ: I don’t like Wuthering Heights. I don’t get that. Jane Eyre I like, but Wuthering Heights…
LV: I had to read Wuthering Heights in high school, and I just remember sitting there going “WHY?? Why is he such a…”
SJ: I don’t get the appeal of Heathcliffe. He’s just so obnoxious. I don’t like him. I love Jane Eyre. I love Rochester. I read Jane Eyre when I was a kid, and I loved it, so I read that young. And Lorna Doone. That was one of my favorite classics. And all it really is a romance, a historical romance.
So then I was too good for romance, and I glommed Jane Austen. (But I was too good for romance.) And then I had a summer where I needed to write… I had gotten my Ph.D. and I needed to get a job. I had a job as an associate professor, but I needed a tenure-track job. So I sat down to turn a chapter of my dissertation into a publishable work. I did my dissertation on James Joyce, and I was so sick of James Joyce.
LV: A little of James Joyce goes a long way.
SJ: I was really sick of James Joyce. So I was trying to turn this chapter… I had written a chapter in my dissertation about his play, and I thought, “Well, not a lot has been published about his play, so maybe I can turn that into a published work.” And I started writing, and something snapped, and I wrote a romance novel.
So I started writing this book, and I was two chapters in, and I said, “This is a romance.” So I said, “Well, I haven’t read romances in a while, better go get some and see what’s going on,” and lo and behold, I liked them a lot more. I read the historicals, and the men weren’t mean! I was like, “They’re not mean! They’re just like I like ‘em! They’re alpha, but they’re not mean. I love this!” So that was the end. I said, “Okay, I’m going to be a novelist. I am going to be a romance novelist; I will do whatever I have to.” I quit academics, got a job as a technical editor because I could write at night, because I could leave the job. You know, when you’re writing, you can’t teach. I know people do, but I don’t see how, because teaching just sucks the life out of you, and sucks the creativity out of you. When you’re a tech writer, you go, and you have no creativity. You don’t get to do anything creative. So I would go home, completely bored, and then I’d write, and it was great. But when you’re a teacher, you’re putting all this creative energy, and you come home exhausted, and you don’t want to write. No wonder I didn’t write any of those years. I was teaching.
So, once I did that, I really pursued it, and it took me four years, from the time I actually wrote that first book, to the time I sold it. Well, three and a half. And at that point, I’d written three novels. No, I sold when I’d written three and a half.
My Sabrina Jeffries career is actually my second career, because I wrote as Deborah Martin and Deborah Nicholas before that. So my first book I actually sold as Deborah Martin. So a lot of people look at Pirate Lord and think that’s my first book, but it’s not. It’s, like, my twelfth. First career was not successful, so…
I still love being a professional writer. Still not tired of it. Yeah, so I sold that first book in ’91, so it has now been, as of this month, officially twenty years since I sold my first book.
LV: How long was it from the time you sold your first book until you could make a living from writing books?
SJ: Well, I was making a living, it just wasn’t a good one, as Deborah Martin. I quit to work at home full time in ’92. But, I was not making… I think I was making in the ten to twenty thousand dollar range, which nobody would consider now “making a living,” but you could live off that then, especially if your husband was working, which mine was. Making a good living? That didn’t happen until Sabrina Jeffries. And that didn’t happen until Sabrina Jeffries had been writing a few years. So… I’d say in the last ten years. Now I’m making a very good living. I like that!
LV: That’s definitely a bonus.
SJ: I didn’t expect it, but I like it a lot.
LV: When you write your characters, obviously you have mental pictures of them, but are they mental pictures you’ve created, or do they correspond to pictures of people you’ve seen in real life?
SJ: I actually don’t have pictures. I am plot-driven. Which is hard, because in romance, most authors are character-driven. I always have the plot really firm in my head, what’s going to happen when, and it comes organically to me. I just come up it. But, I have to write it down in a synopsis. I must have a plot.
LV: So you’re a plotter, not a pantser?
SJ: I am a plotter, not a pantser. But someone said, “So, does that mean you’re very orderly?” And I said, “No, I’m a complete mess.” It’s very strange. It’s like I have to have order in my creativity, but the rest of it can go to pot.
So what happens is, I have a scene, or an incident, or I might even have some backstory or something real firm in my head, but I don’t have the characters firm in my head until I start writing. Now, that is not as true as it used to be, for one reason. I’m writing series, pretty tightly related series, so I’m getting to know the characters in the previous books, so that makes it a little easier. When I wrote Minerva’s book, first of all, I knew Minerva, I don’t know why. She sprang full-blown, and that was it. Once she showed up in the first book, I knew her, and when I started writing this book, I knew her. I didn’t have to question anything about her – I knew her. That’s an unusual experience for me; I wrote that book faster than any book I’ve ever written because hard part for me is the characters. Gabe… he is a problem child. I am finally half way through the book, and I think I know Gabe. I think. And better yet, I know the heroine, which I didn’t really know her. But I spent six weeks trying to come up with a plot for him because I had him first, but I didn’t know him.
And so I had a really hard time, and I wrote this one plot and sent it to my critique partners, and they all went, “That’s really sweet,” and I said “Sweet!” I don’t write sweet. So I had to throw that out.
He’s the youngest brother, so I kept thinking of him as young, it was really hard to get that mindset. You know he’s young, he wasn’t a hero, and he had to be a hero material, and it was really hard. Now I have him and I think he’s good, but the characters, they don’t come to me like they do to some. You know, most character-driven writers, they just say “I see this character, and they’re so firm in my head, and then I’ve got to find things for them to do.” Yeah, I don’t have that problem. I’ve got things for them to do, I’m just not sure who’s going to be doing them, exactly. But I just have to write, and they say things, and I’ll go “Ooooh! That’s how you feel about it! Well, okay, now I can make this fit, and this fit, and this fit.” I go back and revise, I alter the plot, I do this, you know, once they show up. Gabe didn’t show up for a long time. I was ready to kill him. When he showed up, I went, “Oh! Well, hello! Nice of you to show up.” And don’t mean didn’t show up in the book, he was in the book, but I couldn’t get a handle on who he was. His personality finally evolved and erupted. So. He’s been the hardest of all of them. Jarret was hard, but Gabe was really hard. Minerva was a breeze. Stoneville I knew from the previous series. I think I know Celia pretty well. I know the girls pretty well, and that doesn’t usually happen to me. It’s usually the other way around. For some reason, I really know the girls better than the guys in this series, so it’s been hard for me. And I knew Giles. See, I knew Giles from the previous series, so that made it easier. So when I know the characters already, it’s a lot easier. Waaaay easier to write the book.
LV: Do you think that’s why so many romances come in series now? Is that why romance authors create a family they follow?
SJ: No, I think what happened is… you know, mystery and science fiction and fantasy writers have been doing it for years. And they did it for a reason. We all like them! We all like to have that same world, we want to see more. If you fall in love with the world, the book is not long enough, and what I think part of it is, books got shorter. People wanted shorter books. And they got shorter because readers wanted them that way. Not all readers, but a lot of readers want shorter books. And they couldn’t sell the big, long tomes. So that’s the problem. But what happens is, people want that world, they don’t want to give up the world, but they want the story contained. They want to get to the purpose of that particular plot, but they don’t want to leave those characters. So, I think what we have instead of a really long book where you practically get to see these characters live their whole lives, you know, the sagas and that sort of thing, you have a shorter book but then you get those characters in later books. So you have that world that you had. It’s the same thing with television. Big mini-series used to be the thing, but they’re not anymore. When was the last time you saw a big mini-series? And yet the series shows want to carry a thread.
But I started reading series, and I started with the Johanna Lindsay Mallory books. I loved the Mallory books, and I went “I want to do that!” So I think it’s a matter of writers reading them and enjoying them, so they decided to go that way. And I get really mad because readers will get really cynical and say “Oh, they just want to make the money, and make us read them all,” and it’s like “Yeah. That’s what all the mystery writers are doing. Yeah, that’s why we’re doing it. It’s for the money.” You know, it’s like “No!” The same things that attract readers to it are the same things that attract writers. We’re just like readers; we get attracted to the same things. And when somebody starts doing something and you go, “Ooh! I like that! I wanna do that, too!” and that’s what happens. You do it.
And I have series that are more tightly interwoven than others. The Lord series is not that tightly interwoven. I would say, The Swanlea Spinsters series, you almost have to read those first three books in order. That was just… I didn’t plan it that way. I had planned for the second book to be completely different from what it was, with a completely different plot. And then the character showed up and said, “No, we’re not doing that,” and “I’m going to be a future hero,” and I said, “No, you can’t be, you have to rape the third sister.” And he said, “I’m not raping her. I’m not doing it.”
I wanted to do, I’ve always wanted to do, I still want to do a woman who is a rape survivor as a heroine. But, what I discovered, and I know why my subconscious wouldn’t let me do it, because I was going to have her raped in that book (I wasn’t going to show it, but you would know she was forced), and that was going to be her big backstory in the third book. The problem was the backstory of the book that this was in, and this was a character we care about, and if she’s raped, it’s very hard to take. And I think my guy, who I had designated to do this, just flat-out said, “Not doing it. Nope. Not gonna do it. Sorry. Not gonna do it!” And he and I had an argument in the shower. I said “Okay… you can be the hero of the next book.”
Well then I had to do all these convoluted changes to have why he was kidnapping her, you know, make sense, because I was well into the story by that point. So I came up with the twin thing, and all of that stuff, and it was really convoluted and a pain in the butt.
I think my writer’s instincts were telling me what to do. My writer’s instincts were telling me, “If this character is this clueless, how can we like her as a heroine?” We see her being so clueless… you know, it was bad enough she went off with the guy and didn’t realize he was kidnapping her. But if she had gone with him and he had raped her, then she’s a victim, but a clueless victim, and that’s hard to like in a future book. And this is why it’s hard to be a plotter, a plot-driven author, because the plot sounded just great on paper, but the characters would not cooperate, and I always just listen to the characters. If they say it’s not going to work, then I go “Okaaaay… but you’ve really messed with my plot! I’ll never forgive you for this!”
LV: So you don’t know what they look like when you create them. Do they come clear to you later?
SJ: I try to pick a picture, because I’m not real visual. In the last few years, I’ve started picking before I sit down, because I find the character comes sooner if I can get a picture. But sometimes, I have an issue. My first pick for Jarret was Patrick Dempsey. But his voice is kind of high-pitched, and voices are a big deal for me. And I didn’t get very far in the book and I thought, “I keep hearing his voice, and his voice is not Jarret’s voice.” So I had to pitch him and come up with another guy, and I ended up with Dermot Mulroney. I get confused, because I have Dylan McDermott for Giles and Dermot Mulroney for Jarret.
Thank you so much, Sabrina, for taking the time to sit down and chat with Paperback Dolls! It was a real pleasure to chat with you. Congratulations on making the bestseller lists with your new release How to Woo a Reluctant Lady, which came out January 18th.
Be sure to check out Sabrina’s website for all the information about her books, particularly her newest series, The Hellions of Halstead Hall.
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