Interview with Sheryl Jane Stafford, by Suzanne Coleburn of the Belles and Beaux of Romance, October, 2001
Sheryl, please tell us something about yourself.
It's amazing that an author can have so much to say until she is presented with that question. Writing is a passion with me. There are many plots turning inside my head. Creating characters and situations thrills and exhausts me. I'm healthy, absolutely adore being alive and regard life as a marvelous adventure and a great gift. I share my office with a huge black cat named Max.
Please tell us how you decided you wanted to write romance novels. Did any author influence you?
I must confess that in the beginning I did not plan to write a romance novel. Initially, I considered the book to be a member of the suspense/thriller/mystery genre. As the lead characters evolved, I realized that Matt and Alex truly and deeply loved each other and were prepared to die for that love. I found that many readers who attended my book signings had come to see me because they adored Matt and Alex and wanted to know when a sequel about them would be forthcoming. Finally, I discovered the romantic suspense genre, which I think describes A Deadly Exchange very well. Love and murder, what a delightful combination!
Did you have an agent to send out your first book?
Unfortunately, no. For ten years, A Deadly Exchange languished in the bottom of a dusty closet because I couldn't get anyone to look at it. Several months ago I took out the manuscript, reread and edited it, and published the novel through iUniverse. I believed the book had merit and was worthy of publication. Overwhelming reader response and countless reviews have rewarded this effort. I have written three novels. The second book, Death Divided by Two, is a more complex thriller that is equally as exciting as I. Hopefully DD2 will find an agent and receive backing from a major publishing house.
How long have you been writing?
I've been writing since high school, beginning first with poetry, moving on to short stories, and then to novels. This covers about thirty years. Wow, who hit the fast forward button?
How did you come up with the idea for A Deadly Exchange?
My husband was a Navy fighter pilot in Vietnam whose plane was shot down during the war. He was a guest at the Hanoi Hilton for six years. Upon his return and retirement from the Navy, he decided that he wanted to sail our boat from the Florida panhandle to the Bahamas. We began making this trip every spring for years, about eight actually. It was on one of these excursions into the isolated parts of the northern Bahamas that I began to wonder what someone like my husband would do if he suddenly he found himself in a life or death situation. I wondered how he would handle it and at what personal price. I also wondered how an innocent, somewhat pampered American woman in her thirties would react to violence and captivity. The isolated, uninhabited islands we visited certainly provided a great setting for love, murder, and mayhem.
How do you go about developing your characters and plots?
In my experience, writing is like hopping in the car with the idea of reaching California but not taking along any roadmaps. For example, I live in Florida and know that I need to generally head northwest. When I write, I begin with a premise and let the story move in the direction I want it to go. I believe that all of us remember many of the people we've met along life's way, even if it is a momentary meeting. From these memories and impressions, along with our life experiences, characters take shape and form in the mind's eye. They are all catalogued and filed. When a writer creates, they appear. As strange as it may seem, these characters become very real to me and say or do things that amaze me. It's much like watching a movie for me. It is exciting and often surprising. I consider this to be the honeymoon phase of writing.
Who has been your favorite hero so far and why? Favorite heroine? Favorite couple?
My husband, Commander Al Stafford, is my hero. He courageously served his country and survived torture, malnutrition, depression, and neglect. He rejoined the free world and didn't once complain about his ordeal. He is a true patriot. Oprah Winfrey is undoubtedly my favorite heroine. She is an example of someone who has worked hard and has not been deterred by life's disappointments and obstacles. She is a caring, sensitive person, who often shares her success with others. She is also a shrewd business woman, a great role model, and she isn't afraid to be honest. I'll have to think about the favorite couple question. A number of people come to mind.
What is your writing schedule like?
Intense. When I am writing and marketing a novel, I eat, sleep, and breathe the book. When I'm not at the keyboard, my brain is working on the project. I write notes on backs of envelopes and deposit slips. I prefer to write early in the day before life's details encroach upon my serenity. Often I write until one or two in the morning, set my alarm for seven or so, and begin again. I have a home office and am my own boss, secretary, publicist, and marketing director. I have great understanding and sympathy for others who have so many demands upon them that they are forever trying to find a few uninterrupted moments to write. I've lived that life and may do so again, but at the moment, I have the good fortune to have long stretches of time which I can devote to the creative process.
Do you belong to any critique groups? If so, do you find this helpful?
Not at the moment. I joined a group briefly when I first began writing novels. There wasn't enough constructive criticism to make it worth my while. I felt that I should be writing rather than talking about writing.
Give us a brief description of some of your other writing endeavors.
Prior to novels, I published a number of short stories and enjoyed some measure of success with them in the form of certificates for first, second, or third place standing. I also received a monetary reward which surprised and pleased me very much. Short stories are demanding. Mistakes are glaring in these brief pieces. Fewer words allow for minimal error. Less is definitely more. They have good points as well. You're in. You're out. You have closure, something I have yet to find in a novel. With a novel I am never really finished. I just have to give it my best a number of times and then simply move on to the next project.
How do you go about researching your books? How long does it take?
I like to include as much fact with my fiction as possible. In A Deadly Exchange, for example, the details about the lead character's Vietnam Prisoner of War Experience, sailing, bone fishing, weather, guns, tracking station, island flora and fauna, recipes for Bahamian dishes, and the depiction of the small, isolated Bahamian cays have all been researched and are accurate. I arrive at this information through personal observation, interviews with those knowledgeable about the subject, and by reading nonfiction books on the topic. In Death Divided by Two, I met with an attorney to go over the courtroom scenes, and I studied forensics by reading about it. I research while the project is underway and insert the factual details when I edit the first draft. Once I have an idea for a story, I try to get something down on paper as soon as possible.
What type of promotion do you do for your books?
Promoting one's book requires a first-time published author to be a walking, talking advertisement. I query online reviewers to see if they are interested in considering the book for review. Those who express interest are sent a media kit with the book, author's picture, etc. I send out what I call announcement packets to individuals and groups. These packets include a synopsis, reader comments about the book, and copies of reviews. I identify groups who might be interested in the novel and communicate with them via e-mail or through the Post Office. I send query letters to radio personalities who might be willing to take a look at the book and give it a plug. I approach print media editors for reviews. I hold book signings and send out personal invitations prior to the event. I am a guest on TV talk shows. I walk around with a wad of ADE cards in my pocket and give them to people when an opportunity presents itself. (Don't worry. I'm not pushy. That would be counterproductive!) I plaster A Deadly Exchange stickers on all outgoing mail. I agree to be a guest speaker to talk about the book. I network with other authors and listen to their advice. If I don't hear from someone to whom I sent a copy of the book for review, after a month or so, I contact them again and include reviews that have been written in the interim. I contact groups who have newsletters and wouldn't mind saying a word or two about the book in their club publication. I send announcement packets to independent bookstores. Most of all, because it affects all of the above, I believe in my work and am totally confident that readers will enjoy it.
Your family must be very proud of you being a romance writer. What did they say when you got the call that you sold your first book?
My mother is very proud of her children. My oldest brother, Robert Graysmith, has published numerous true crime novels which have sold quite well. His most well known book is titled, Zodiac. Some of his other books include The Murder of Bob Crane and The Sleeping Lady. Mom is always thrilled but never surprised when her offspring do well.
What are you going to be writing next?
My next project will be another edit of Death Divided by Two and its publication. I am ecstatic about the novel and its characters. It is a longer, more complex book than A Deadly Exchange, and is definitely a thriller. And, of course, there is romance.
Do you have any hobbies?
My hobbies include windsurfing, inline skating, gardening, reading, sailing, and renovating old houses. A friend and I renovated a crack house in a depressed part of town a couple years ago. It took us a full year to transform the house from a total wreck to something that would make anyone proud. Becoming part of that neighborhood was a good experience. It taught me a lot. I hope to learn to speak Spanish fluently in the near future and have just received some software so I can begin. I was an aerobics instructor for a year but now I workout in a home gym. I am always interested in engines and what makes them work so I tinker with them a bit (notice I said, a bit.). There aren't enough hours in the day. So much to do. So little time!
What's your favorite munchie?
Chocolate and potato chips would own me if I let them.
What advice do you have for new romance authors?
Read romance novels and determine why you like them. Create a love story that is uniquely yours. Let the words flow freely from your imagination to the page. Allow yourself to dream. Feel, see, smell, hear what is occurring. As much as you can, make the story come alive for your readers. Do not edit while you are creating. Just write your story. When you have completed your book, set it aside for a week or two, perhaps a month; then don your editor's cap, get out your red pen, thesaurus and dictionary and edit. Be honest and ruthless. Finish. Set the book aside for a time. Begin again. Ask a patient, well read, impartial person to read the manuscript and give you feedback. Listen. Don't walk away with hurt feelings. Learn. Think. Rewrite. Edit. Believe in yourself. And never give up.
Where do you see the romance genre going in the future?
It will be ever expanding and because of the Internet and online publishing, there will be many, many new voices. The romance suspense genre will certainly grow and become better established. More and more readers will be drawn to romance fiction because it nurtures, enthralls and touches their souls.
How do you feel when readers tell you how excited and enthused they are about A Deadly Exchange?
Stunned. It has come to me as a great surprise that so many people who read the book are so on fire about it. I always hoped that A Deadly Exchange would be well received. I never imagined that it would actually touch people's lives and leave them begging for more. I have received many, many letters, cards, e-mail messages, and phone calls about the book. The positive response to A Deadly Exchange has already surpassed my wildest expectations.
A Deadly Exchange has had a number of reviews. How does a newly published writer feel about the review process?
Approaching reviewers causes some anxiety, but it's an integral and necessary part of publishing. Reviewers are essential and valued in the world of books. They read a lot, take their work quite seriously, and in my experience, are very fair. A Deadly Exchange has only had one review out of about twenty something that stung a bit. The gentleman ended his review, though, by saying that the book demanded to be read in one sitting and referred to me as a gifted storyteller. So, it really can't be considered a bad review. It is always a risk when an author sends her book to someone to read and pass judgment over; but it goes with the territory. With the exception of the one review I just mentioned, reviewers have spoken highly of A Deadly Exchange. As a new author, I am especially grateful to all the reviewers who have taken the time to read and review A Deadly Exchange. It certainly has had a profound effect on the book's success.
Are there any reviewers who stand out in your mind at this point?
Absolutely. Sara Paretsky, author of the VI Warshawski detective series wrote a note authorizing me to quote her. She said, Fans of James Hall and Carl Hiasson who can't get enough of the Gulf should look no further than Sheryl Stafford's A Deadly Exchange. This is a lively, well-written debut by someone who knows Florida, knows boats, and writes convincingly about crime. Wow. I wish I had this statement printed on the book jacket before A Deadly Exchange hit the market. Richard Langford, author of White Squall, The Last Voyage of the Albatross, just reviewed A Deadly Exchange in a south Florida newspaper. He said marvelous things about the book. And there are many more.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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