Happy New Year and welcome back to Part Two of the Best of Binge Reading 2022, and the seven top shows for the year as selected by you, our listeners.
We ran the first part of the Best of Binge Reading 2022 Part 1 in the first week of January, so if you missed out on that, do check it out.
Hi, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler. The seven authors represented here, like those before them, range across the whole field of popular fiction from romance maestro Jayne Ann Krentz to Kate Quinn and her remarkable spy story – set – it in of all places – in Ukraine – during the Second World War.
We travel from from Patti Callahan’s inspirational revisiting of Narnia and the story of the love affair between CS Lewis and Joy Davidman, to a surprise nonfiction book, our first ever, but such a good story. Kate Langbroek’s Ciao Bella, her heart warming account of taking her family of six to Italy for a year.
As you’ll know if you heard Part One, the selection is based solely on the number of people who listened to the shows that ran between December 1st, 2021 and December 1st, 2022. Taking those dates allows us to compile and edit the show. In time for posting in January 23.
To give you the flavor, we include selected highlights from each show. We hope that you might discover new authors you’ve missed first time round or find books you might want to get into in 2023.
Just as our listeners hailed from all over the world so do the authors represented here so here it is, Part Two of the Best of Binge Reading 2022.
I do hope you do enjoy it, and if you do, leave us a comment or a review so others will find us too
Introducing romantic suspense author Jayne Ann Krentz
Jayne Ann Krentz is an internationally celebrated author who has sold 35 million copies of her books worldwide. But when she started out, she spent six years battering on publisher’s doors trying to find her way in. I asked her about those years.
Jenny Wheeler: And you were writing for yourself and really just for the joy of it, for that whole six years?
Jayne Ann Krentz: I wouldn’t call it the joy of it. I always say that if you’re doomed to write, you don’t have any option.
It really is a kind of an addiction. It’s a compulsion, and if you can quit writing, you will quit writing because there are enough frustrations in the business that you’re not going to fight it. Every writer I know has just kept at it. That’s how it works.
I think it’s because we can’t stop and I say that, but there does come a time for some writers when they do stop, all of a sudden.
I look back in their names that have just gone, and I have no idea where they went. I guess they just walked away. I can’t do that.
Creating a ‘Jayneverse’ for her readers
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. That’s interesting. So now you’ve created what you described at the end of one of your recent books as a Jayneverse, A universe but it’s a Jayneverse. Now that’s an interesting concept. It’s something that almost seems to have stolen up on you?
Can you explain to readers who don’t know what a Jayneverse is?
Jayne Ann Krentz: Well, I have my editor to thank for pointing it out. We were talking one day about the next book, what would the next book be like, what did I want to work with? And with so many of my books, I want to work with similar things.
I love working with the psychic vibe, and with a certain kind of hero and a certain kind of heroine. Certain kinds of plots. I don’t do gore, or serial killer plots. I do more murder mystery type plots.
And I like the romantic vibe in the books. And after a while you create a world of that.
Every writer has a ‘verse,’ I think, a metaverse and I think they spend their entire careers exploring that universe. And it’s endless. It’s as broad as your imagination.
So in some sense, every author has their own personal universe, and that’s what they write out of, that’s what they write from, and that’s what they explore.
The role of popular fiction in setting social values
And I just hadn’t thought of it that way until I had this conversation with my editor and that she’s the one that said, oh, a Jayneverse . And I said, yeah, I think that’s exactly what it is.
Jenny Wheeler: The other aspect of it is the romance. You’ve been a vocal supporter of romantic fiction ever since you began. Although in your stories probably the romance is more of a subplot element, isn’t it? It isn’t the whole focus of the story in a lot of cases.
However, you did contribute to an essay collection which seriously examined, romance writing and I wondered if you’d like to talk about how you’ve seen the romantic fiction side of things develop over the time you’ve been writing.
Jayne Ann Krentz: What I’ve come to feel over the past few years is that it wasn’t just romance that didn’t get any respect.
It was popular fiction in general. Mm-hmm. It has always been the lesser literature, if you will, and whether it be science fiction or mysteries or westerns or glitz novels or romance, the culture doesn’t give it a lot of dignity and respect, as opposed to say literary fiction.
Why does popular fiction survive and indeed thrive?
What I was trying to do in that book Dangerous Men And Adventurous Women was step back and say, this is a category of writing that has been denigrated for decades. Generations.
I mean back into 300 years of criticism. And it’s not just romance. The popular fiction in general, the gothic novels of the 19th century got the same hit.
And I think that the important thing to ask is why hasn’t it gone? Why did it survive?
You know, it’s kind of a Darwinian thing, because something that survives against all odds and against a lot of social pressure, you have to ask what’s driving it. And I think the key is to look at what it provides.
And what it does provide is it transmits a culture’s core values.
We all know what a hero or a heroine is supposed to do when the chips are. They are supposed to do the right thing. We know what a hero is supposed to do and where do we get that? We get it from our popular fiction, and I think that’s its contribution.
That’s what it does, and it transmits those core values and it reaffirms them to the community. I think that’s the real secret of why popular fiction has survived.
Romance the ‘farthest.. the stepchild..’
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, that’s interesting. I had a feeling myself when I was younger that it was partly because men were the ones that were said to write more literary fiction, and a lot of the popular fiction was written by women.
And the gatekeepers, the people who said what was great and what wasn’t, a lot of them were men as well, but it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it?
Jayne Ann Krentz: Well, certainly I think romance fiction was the farthest, the stepchild you know… but I was in a group of writers one time a few years ago, and there were several successful writers in the group.
We were all from popular fiction. There was a science fiction writer, and a mystery writer and me and a couple of others, in variousgenres and they all whined about the same thing, which was basically, I don’t get any respect.
We all had the same. And that’s what opened my eyes to the fact this isn’t just romance, it’s popular fiction.
Illuminating the human condition – but not offering any solutions
It just isn’t viewed the same as literary fiction. And I think the problem is you have to look at us having two different tasks. I think literary fiction is designed to illuminate the human condition, but it does not take its task as solving the problem.
It just wants to make you see it. And so it tends to focus on things like despair and grief and depression, because those are monumental, dramatic issues for humans.
But it doesn’t try to solve those problems. But in popular fiction, you’re trying to solve them. You’re trying to overcome them long enough to do the right thing.
Where to find Jayne Ann Krentz:
Full Binge Reading Episode: https://thejoysofbingereading.com/jayne-ann-krentz-international-best-selling-mysteries/
Analysis of Romance Fiction: Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance (New Cultural Studies Series)
Introducing ‘twisty-romance’ author Karen Swan
A publishing disaster led romance author Karen Swan into the dual production schedule that’s made her an international bestseller, with two books a year, a summer one and then a wintry snowbound Christmas one that regularly both make the UK top popular fiction lists.
Right at the last minute, her publisher asked her to totally revise a book she had just handed in on deadline, because of possible conflicts with a book someone else had just published out there in the market
After a lot of tears and personal doubts, Karen says she sat down and did what she’d been asked to do, and it changed her writing life
Karen Swan: So it was incredibly hard, but I set myself a really strict deadline. I looked at the deadline they’d given me and I worked backwards and I worked out I could do it if I wrote 3000 words a day, so 15,000 words a week, which is quite a lot.
Digging herself out of disastrous hole
But I thought if I do that, then I will make the deadline and my book will be out next Christmas. And so I did it. I sat down and it was a way of breaking past the panic and the chaos and the terror and just saying, right, all I’ve got to do is the next 3000 words.
All I’ve got to do is the next 3000 words, rather than sink into the calamity of Oh my God, I have to write an entirely new book in six weeks.
And actually what it made me realize was there was so much faffing around going on in my writing process before. I’d wander around, I’d cuddle the dogs, I’d make a cup of tea, I’d go for a walk, I’d sit down, write a bit, get on the phone to a friend, thinking that the book would somehow just come together.
It doesn’t. The book comes when you stare at the screen and you force yourself to focus and to put your head in that world. Yes. And there’s no shortcuts.
It really made me focus. And I actually had ended up handing the book in a bit early. I was about a week ahead of my deadline in the end because momentum took over. And honestly, it was a much better book than the original one.
Karen Swan – ‘Victory clutched from the jaws of defeat’
It’s actually one of my favorite books now. And they said to me afterwards, You’ve actually done really quite well there.
Would you like to do two books a year going forward and. I thought, yeah, actually, because yes, it’s double the stress, but it’s also double the fun, you know, being a writer.
Writing is largely spending 99% of the time on your own in a room on your own with just the dogs for company, yes.
But you get to publication time and you get to do things like this. You get to talk to people, you get to do book tours. It’s exciting seeing how the book will do. So why wouldn’t you want to do that twice a year?
So, yeah, it was victory snatched from the jaws of defeat and disaster .
Jenny Wheeler: All of your books, whether they’re summer or Christmas, they have evocative locations, but they have complicated love stories and often have a twisting mystery underneath them that is a little bit dark, isn’t it?
Karen’s books are part romance, part mystery
So that’s obviously something that appeals to you, this slightly complicated and involved kind of plotting. They’re part romance and part mystery, aren’t they?
Karen Swan: Yes. That’s how I think of them. It’s funny when people describe me as a romance novelist, because for me the romance is always, obviously it’s secondary.
We have the story within the context of a romance, but actually, because I write two books a year, there’s only so many times I can fall in love, you know?
So for me the interest and I suppose the intellectual stimulation for me is always the plot, the story. And I’m always fairly keen that my main character saves herself in whatever situation she’s in.
She’s not a damsel in distress. She’s not waiting for love to rescue her. We love our leading man, whoever he is in any book, but the focus for me is always my leading lady resolving her own issues and finding love along the way incidentally.
I think that for me keeps it really interesting because otherwise I think you’d fall into tropes of boy meets girl and when you are writing as much as I am and I do write quite long books, my books are quite big.
So, I, need to keep the interest level up. That has to be more than just their eyes met across a crowded room.
Where to find Karen Swan
Binge Reading Episode Twisty Holiday Romance: https://thejoysofbingereading.com/karen-swan-twisty-holiday-romance
Introducing Kate Langbroek, author of a joyous family memoir
Kate Langbroek’s joyous, brave book Ciao Bella, about taking her family of six to Italy for the year, offered a perfect start to 2021 because it’s such an optimistic can-do tale of overcoming challenge, including ending up home schooling a family of students and belonging, in Bologna during lockdown.
It was a departure for Binge Reading, because it was the first nonfiction book we’ve ever had on the podcast. The fact that it’s made the Best of the Year shows listeners loved Kate’s story
Jenny Wheeler: So before we even get into the book, because quite a few of our listeners won’t be aware of your work in Australia, you are a national star in your own land in Melbourne, but for those who aren’t quite so familiar about your background and where you were actually placed when you started thinking about doing this adventure tell us a bit about your work.
Kate Langbroek: So I’ve worked broadly in showbiz for over 20 years. A little bit of television, a little bit of writing, you know, columns for newspapers and panel shows or improv shows and comedically based stuff mainly.
But the main bulk of my work has been on the radio. I did 12 years of radio, Melbourne breakfast radio on Nova here in Melbourne, and then had a year off.
Moving to Italy with the family – and keeping up the radio show
I regrouped with my on-air partner Hughesy and then we went to do Drive which is in the afternoon, 4 till 6.
I was doing that show, which is a national show, it’s right around Australia, it was a great show and I very much enjoyed it and when I decided I was going to Italy, of course one of my first conversations was with Hughesy who I’ve been on air with for 18 years, to say, I’m going to do this thing. He was my first person I had to talk to, and it wasn’t happy, Jenny.
Because he’s also a workaholic, he’s like, What! Why would you? What! Of course, I wanted to stop working, but his idea then, and my boss’s, was that I do the show from Italy for the first six months we were there, which was unheard of in 2019. We didn’t even have Zoom then.
That’s what I ended up doing, and it ended up being brilliant. Obviously I so focused on what I was trying to do with my family, four children and my husband, six of us, that I didn’t really think about the impact it would have on the broader world and people we knew and listeners to my show and people who had followed my career.
That it would also be of interest to them had not occurred to me. I hadn’t had time to think about that because when I decided to stop working, I was like, I’m happy to turn my back on that. I have to be prepared to walk away. I said to Hughsey, I’m not going to prison. I’m not asking you to wait for me.
Italian adventure a springboard to the book
And yet it ended up being another avenue for communicating with our listeners. The adventure I got to share with them was the springboard for Ciao Bella: Six Take Italy the book – realizing when I was telling Hughsey and our listeners what was happening with me every day, how interesting that was on a broader scale beyond me.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. That was interesting because as somebody who’s been a journalist pretty well all my life, I was impressed by the detail you got in. Some of those meals, it was wonderful the meals you described, but you had to have been making notes in the restaurant at the time that you were eating the food, I thought.
I wondered if you’d known you were going to be doing a book right from the beginning, because it came across as if you’d been very conscientious about taking notes.
Kate Langbroek: My husband asked me about that the other day. I explained to him that it was actually the other way round. The stories I wrote in my book, I wrote because I had such vivid recall of them because they were so significant. It was more that I felt so connected to those stories.
Jenny Wheeler: You didn’t choose an obvious draw card place to stay, none of the ones that first come to mind. You decided to go to Bologna. That became a perfect fit for you as the book progresses but tell us how you decided on that.
Searching for the perfect place for a family GAP year
Kate Langbroek: We knew we wanted to be in the north of the country. Bear in mind, Jenny, that we had only been in Italy twice before and on holidays. The first time we went was in 2015, maybe it was 2014, but it wasn’t a lifetime love affair with Italy. We didn’t know the country well.
We didn’t speak the language. We didn’t know anybody, we just loved what we’d seen on those holidays and who doesn’t love what they see on holidays.
In 2018 we went to have a recce. We knew we wanted to live in the north of the country. Down southeast, Sicily or Calabria or whatever, it’s a bit more gnarly, so we wanted to be up north. We knew we needed an international school for the kids so we were led by that.
We did go to Florence, but too touristy. Not at the moment, obviously. Now is the perfect time to go to Florence, by the way. I said to Peter, they’re sick of us and we haven’t even arrived, because they had this onslaught of visitors.
We crossed Florence off the list, then we went to Verona, which a BuzzFeed quiz told us was our perfect Italian city. BuzzFeed was wrong because at the international school they were was so breathtakingly rude. Astoundingly rude. Very un-Italian, to us.
Bologna the perfect place for an Aussie family to settle
But this is a thing peculiar to Italy compared to Australia. Every town, even though they are half an hour away from each other, has a really distinctive personality and food and characteristics. Quite feasible that Verona, 40 minutes away, had a totally different mindset.
That left us with Bologna. A girlfriend had told us about Bologna. She went there to learn how to make bolognese and to do a cooking class. We went there, Peter and I. We left the kids at the villa we were renting with Peter’s mom and drove in and within 40 minutes we went, this is it.
It’s a small city, bigger than a town, but still operates like a village, and off the tourist trail so hardly anyone spoke English, which should not have been the draw card it was for us, given that we didn’t speak Italian.
It was a ridiculous thing. Everyone who came to visit us would say, it’s so Italian which seems ludicrous because it’s in Italy and it was Italian. But the beautiful terra cotta buildings and Bologna is famous for its portici, which are the porticoes, the arched walkways. You could walk from one end of the city to the other without the heat or without rain. They go all the way up the hill, 666 of them, which is a bizarre number given they lead to the church at the top of the hill.
It’s a stunningly beautiful, elegant, peaceful city and we found an apartment right in the middle. It’s only got I think 400,000 living inside Bologna in the old medieval part of it, and on the outskirts, it’s probably a million in total.
What to do if you feel in need of a ‘circuit breaker’
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. Look for families who want to try and do something similar. You talk in the book about you feeling you needed a. circuit breaker from the things that had happened, and a lot of families after this last couple of years of Covid, I’m sure would feel like they needed a circuit breaker too.
If they didn’t have the money to go to Europe like that, what else could they do?
Do you get that question? What could I do? It’s alright for you, you could afford to do that, but I’m stuck here, that kind of thing. What do you say to them?
Kate Langbroek: This has come up a lot in conversation. You’re so right. We have been forged in the fire now and we’ve lost the impurities of our wants and desires. We now can see clearly how we want our lives to be, or what’s missing from our lives, or ways in which we haven’t served our own lives as well as we would have liked to. Or we just want a break.
We worked towards Italy for two years, saving and really focusing on that. We live in the same house we’ve lived in for 16 years and I drive a 12-year-old car. We are not house flippers or car people. We’d always wanted to travel and because for so many years we couldn’t, when my son was sick, that was the manifestation for us of our dreams coming true.
Where to find Kate Langbroek:
Binge Reading episode Ciao Bella: www.thejoysofbingereading.com/kate-langbroek-ciao-bella/
Introducing French mystery author Susan Kiernan-Lewis
Susan Kiernan-Lewis.is a USA today best selling author with multiple mystery series set in France and a dystopian futurist series set in Ireland.
She has a passion for all things French and a fascination with the idea of a post- apocalyptic world.
I asked her first about her cross genre approach to her work, mixing mystery with futurist scenarios
Jenny Wheeler: So you make this specialty really of being a little bit cross genre. You mix up mystery with other elements. Tell us a bit more about that.
Susan Ann Kiernan Three of my big series are set in France and they’re set in France because I was a military brat and lived in France when I was a kid. That was a strongly indelible experience for me, so I keep reverting back to France and French people and the French language. When I put a setting out for my mysteries, I chose France, and I chose my protagonist to be an expatriate, an American – since that’s what I know best – living in France in a fish out of water approach.
Something that always attracts me is the idea of being a foreigner in a foreign land and how you deal with certain common everyday situations that are much more interesting when it’s not your native culture. This one series that I did, it’s called Stranded in Provence, crossed the genres.
Finding the right niche for Susan’s cross-genre books
A cozy mystery is something that either has your protagonists or your amateur sleuth baking cupcakes and finding out who killed the village librarian. There’s no cussing and there’s no sex, which I find extremely unfortunate but I play by the rules because the readers don’t like it. I do not know how some of the bigger authors get away with it, but my readers don’t like cussing and they don’t like sex, so fine. But the genres I tend toward are not specifically cozy because they’re a little rougher. They’re not that sweet.
I tend to read a lot of dystopian, and I’m personally fascinated with the whole post-apocalyptic idea of, what would you do if the world ended? Would you be one of the ones who could survive and adapt?
In this particular case I took the whole fish out of water idea, the feeling of an expatriate coming to France where she doesn’t speak the language, she doesn’t know what the typical traditions and habits are of the village, and then she’s going to do something that you would do in a murder mystery, solve a mystery, and she’s going to do it with all those barriers to jump over.
Being a foreigner in a foreign land
With all of my books, every one of them, except for the one that happens in Atlanta – and I wrote that purely because I thought maybe it would sell and I did enjoy writing it – my preference is always to put an American ex-pat in a foreign country and throw all the things at her that it is going to make an interesting read and keep readers turning the pages.
I can trace back the inclination on my part to do that to the two years I lived in New Zealand. I worked in an ad agency at the time. It was called Ilotts Advertising and it was later bought out by Ted Bates. I was a copywriter there. In those two years we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have email, so I did the whole immersion thing. And even though, yes, we all spoke English, I cannot tell you what a shock to my system it was to be there.
Everything was different. The clothes were different. Of course, the accent was different, and the attitude of coming to a small country which had a very strong feeling about itself as opposed to America, which is a big country, very divided and everybody’s got an opinion and it’s mostly not the same opinion. It was a shock, and when I left, I continued to write stories about a fish out of water, a foreigner who lands in a place and has to make her way. That’s what fascinates me.
When life implodes at 60 – turn it into a mystery series
Jenny Wheeler: Ok. It’s interesting because the series of yours that I’ve particularly enjoyed, I mean they’re all great, but the American and Paris one, where you have the central character, Claire, she’s a little bit older.
Just turning 60 or nudging 60 and her life implodes at that point, she’s suddenly widowed, and then she finds that the man she’s married to had hidden secrets that she had no clue about, and they’re on holiday in Paris when it happened. So, For all of these reasons, she almost gets stuck in Paris because she doesn’t feel like she wants to go home and face the mess that’s left behind there.
So she is very much a fish out of water, and not only as an American, but as a single, a woman who’s suddenly solo after she’s been married for years and living in quite a hostile environment because the. Investigation of a husband’s death becomes quite, unsympathetic towards her. So there’s a lot of stuff going on there at the beginning.
And, you’ve turned that into a series. I think it’s, you’re now on book seven or eight eight’s coming out soon, isn’t it?
A heroine who has to deal with certain disadvantages
Susan Kiernan-Lewis: Yes. Book eight is coming out soon. I totally love that series. I love writing it because you’ve got a sleuth or detective unlike a lot of the other detectives you might see on television or read about. She’s got certain barriers she has to overcome, like for one thing, physical barriers.
She can’t run as fast from the bad guy, or if she’s flung down an alley she is going to be bruised and aching and limping for the next two weeks. I think these are all things that make her more real but also show the things she’s got to overcome in order to do the same things that a younger detective might.
The other thing I love about this is something that is probably unique to France and that is that at her age, she’s still considered attractive. Whether that’s a myth or the real deal, that’s the way I write it. In America, at her age, at 60, there is no way she’s going to get a second look from a male. There’s no way. But in France that’s still possible, so that allows me to give another tint or shade to her life there, the romantic thing, which is believable. Less so in the U S.
.Jenny Wheeler: Now, Claire also has got a condition, which I’ve never heard of before.
Tell us about that. Which also makes it extra difficult for her,
Dealing with face blindness like Jane Goodall
Susan Ann Kiernan: She’s got face blindness which I also have, which is why I decided to write about it because it is interesting. I was reading a preface to one of Jane Goodall’s books – this was maybe 15 years ago – and she said in the preface, I’m an introvert. It is really hard for me to meet people, but it’s made particularly difficult by the fact that I’ve got a brain defect called prosopagnosia.
When she started to explain how it was that she could see someone’s face and then turn away and not recognize them again, I realized that this is what I have. I thought everybody was like that. I thought every time you would watch a movie and somebody would come on, a man, the antagonist or whatever, and then he would leave, I was constantly asking my husband, have we seen him before? He was, yes, he just came there. I said, okay, great, got it. Unless they are wearing a big bowtie or something outlandish to indicate who they are, it’s very difficult for people with face blindness.
There are varying degrees. Some people don’t recognize their own faces in the mirror. It’s a brain defect. The ability to remember or to recognize a face, they say, is absolutely one of our most basic skills or habits. We’re born with it. Mine was genetic. Most people who have it, it’s been a hit on the head or something traumatic physically happens to damage that part of the brain.
I did think it was good giving this disability to a detective, because first I wanted to see if it could be done, if you could do this job while not being able to remember faces, and I thought it gave a little bit of extra interest to her, to have her struggle with that.
Where to find Susan Kiernan Lewis:
Binge Reading French Mysteries: https://thejoysofbingereading.com/susan-kiernan-lewis-french-mysteries
Introducing inspirational adventure author Susan May Warren
Jenny Wheeler: Susan May Warren is a RITA and Christy award-winning inspirational suspense author with over 100 contemporary and historical romances published in more than 20 languages. She got started with her writing. in an isolated Russian winter. And I asked her to tell us about those teinder beginnings.
Tell us how all of this got started.
Susan May Warren: That’s a good question. Standing here today, I would have never, ever dreamed that I would be here from where I started. As a writer, everybody has this bug to write. I was always a writer. I wrote my first novel when I was 14 years old, but I never thought I would be a novelist.
I was actually called into missions. I was a missionary for about 10 years with my husband and our four kids. We lived in far east Russia, which is otherwise known as Siberia. It was a very challenging time, but a good time.
During that time, I felt like I was supposed to be writing. I started by writing newsletters and communicating with our supporters back home but eventually stories started to enter into my mind and my heart, and I started to look into writing novels.
Susan wrote four books and sold them all
I was a graduate of English at the University of Minnesota, so it wasn’t like that was a far leap for me, but I did need to learn how to write a novel.
I started writing novels and I started with a historical tome of Russia. It started in 1938 and went to 1985 or something like that. It was this huge book but it was fun and I finished it. When I finished it, it was like the world opened up to me and I said, wow, I can do this. Then I thought, let’s try it again.
I wrote four novels completely before I was ever published, and I wrote them all while I lived in Russia. I wrote different kinds. One was historical, one was a historical suspense, one was a contemporary romance, and one was a contemporary suspense – trying to get a feel for what I liked. That kind of backfired on me.
I suppose it didn’t necessarily backfire, but what happened was when I finally sold my first novel to Tyndale, they came to me and said, what else do you have? I gave them a contemporary romance series and then I went home. I went to a writing conference, and I had some publishers come up to me and say, what else do you have? I sold the contemporary romantic suspense and then I sold the historical suspense.
Epic romantic adventures are the crowd favorites
Suddenly I had all these different kinds of books out there, these different genres that I was writing in. I even wrote what was called chick lit at the time, now it would be called romcom, a series about a girl in Russia. So suddenly, four or five different genres out there. It was like casting many hooks into the water to see which one hit, I suppose, and we had some success with all of them. Some were more successful than others, and I ended up following that route.
It was a good way to see what voice was the best. I have to say that I probably enjoy writing historicals the most because I love research, but I find that my epic, romantic adventures are the books my readers most love, so those are the ones I’m invested in writing right now. But that’s how it got started.
Jenny Wheeler: The contemporary romance, the romantic suspense and the adventure are all quite similar, aren’t they, in the sense that you choose similar settings. They are raw, wild settings, small town or rural communities, and the family and community relationships are extremely important as well. Have you done anything at all in a big urban metropolitan center?
A highly disciplined working schedule
Susan May Warren: Yes, I have. In Russia I wrote a number of books set in a city in far east Russia. I had a couple of thrillers set there. Most recently I wrote a book with my son and James Rubart. That was set in Minnesota, in the Minneapolis area.
People will move in and out of big city areas, but I do like the rural settings. I like the small towns. You get to know people, you invest in the people. I think our nation is made up of small towns. We do have big cities of course, but a lot of people long for the nostalgia of small towns, and so that becomes a great place to set a book or a series because you get to know all the people in that town. I love to build those little towns that people can escape to.
Jenny Wheeler: What would you say is an ideal working day for you? What plan do you work to?
Susan May Warren: I have what I call writing blocks. I have writing block times. My week is separated into five days of three to four blocks of my day. My early morning block, which is my prep time, I have Miracle Morning, if you know anything about Hal Elrod. Then I have my first block. It may be a writing block, or it could be a marketing block, and then I have two more blocks in my day and all afternoons are writing blocks.
Finding work-life balance in batching
Generally speaking, Mondays are my business days and I’m working on doing stuff for my companies. Tuesday and Wednesday are completely writing days and I shut off my email and my phone and after my miracle morning, it’s all writing. I usually write about 5,000-6,000 words on those days. Thursday morning, I usually write and then Thursday afternoon, I prep for a class that evening that I always teach on Thursday nights. Friday I call my free day and my free day can be anything. It could be marketing, it could be writing, it could be taking a walk with a friend. It’s just my free day.
My goal is about 15,000 words a week. Sometimes I get to 20,000. Sometimes I don’t have a lot going on with my businesses, so I can write on a Monday afternoon, and I get to 25,000. It depends, but my standard production is 15,000 a week.
Jenny Wheeler: How many books a year do you aim to get through?
Susan May Warren: I usually write one big one at least, so 100,000 words, and then I might write four or five smaller ones around 50,000-70,000 words. I balance that between trad and indie. I’m a hybrid. I leave my nice big books that I consider you sink into and you devour for my trad publishers. Those are the trad books, and then the smaller books which are fun and quick, that you can read on a Saturday afternoon, I leave those for the indie ones.
Another author with her own universe – the Susie-verse
It works out because I will write a big, thick book about a family and their adventures and then the smaller books would be about the people they’ve met in the area, or maybe another little family, or some events that happened, something like that. But all of them mesh together for one solid package.
I call it the Susie-verse. All of my characters now throughout all my series are connected in some way. If you’re reading a book, a character might walk on from another series, and Susan May Warren fans will go, oh, I recognize them. I know who they are. It’s fun to catch up a little bit and see what’s happening with those other characters. That’s a treat I like to give my readers – to see and connect with old characters and catch up with them a little bit.
Jenny Wheeler: And give them a little surprise.
Susan May Warren: Exactly.
Where to find Susan May Warren:
Binge Reading Inspirational Romance Episode: https://thejoysofbingereading.com/susan-may-warren-inspirational-romance
Introducing best selling historical fiction author Kate Quinn
Kate Quinn is an international best-selling author of World War II, historical fiction, like the The Alice Network and The Rose Code. Now she’s back with her latest, The Diamond Eye, based on the true story of a mother who became a reluctant soldier, and then the deadliest female sniper in World War Two. A place where she changed history. I started by asking Kate about this remarkable woman.
Jenny Wheeler: Very few people had heard of Mila, so how did you come across the story?
Kate Quinn: t’s the classic case of when you are researching one book, your research drops the idea for a new book in your lap unasked for, which is a wonderful thing. This came about when I was researching one of my last books just before The Rose Code called The Huntress, which was centering around the Russian female bomber pilots who flew against Hitler’s Eastern front.
When I was researching the Night Witches, (which became the book The Huntress) I happened to run across all kinds of stories about other Soviet women war heroines, because the Soviet Union was the only allied nation to involve women officially in combat which none of the others did.
How Kate Quinn discovered Mila’s story during research
I happened to run across all kinds of women who had incredible stories. Most incredible of all was Lyudmila Pavlichenko who went from being a very ordinary woman indeed to being a war heroine and a star of the front line, and even to what we would now think of as a media sensation in the United States, thanks to a goodwill tour in 1942.
As soon as I read about this woman, I knew I had to write about her. It just took another book or two before I was able to realize that this was the time for her story.
Jenny Wheeler: She was not your stereotype of the psychopathic killer by any stretch of the imagination, was she?
Kate Quinn: She wasn’t, and that was the thing I loved about her, because the more I researched her, the more she became very human and very warm. We have this idea that snipers have to be cold blooded killers, at worst they are militarized serial killers, at best they are the odd man out on a team of ordinary guys, the one who gives everybody else the shivers. But she was quite human, and I loved finding that out about her.
Mila was an ordinary citizen before the war
She was a woman we could absolutely imagine having in our book club, a woman we could imagine working with or checking your book out at the library.
And yet she had this extraordinary willpower and this extraordinary skill in her, which, when it was tossed into the incredible crucible of war turned into a very, very fine steel indeed.
Jenny Wheeler: You capture the surroundings of those months when she was at the front amazingly – what the climatic conditions were like and the incredible cold. Also, there is a very touching aspect where she’s desperately trying to keep in touch with her son and she sends him leaves because he’s doing some botanical project for school. You make it very real. Did you have journals or something that you could use or did you go to the Ukraine yourself? How did you do that research?
Kate Quinn: I would have loved to go to the Ukraine and to Odessa and Sevastopol. Unfortunately, this was written at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, long before I was vaccinated or the vaccines were available, and there was no travel happening whatsoever. I had to make do with Google earth and Google maps and all kinds of research – historic photographs, vintage photos.
Fortunately, the most useful thing of all was the fact that Lyudmila Pavlichenko wrote her memoirs later in life. She is really very descriptive of her time at the front, what it was like, from the smallest details of what kinds of plants there were around her.
The hardest thing about writing The Diamond Eye
This is what gave me the idea that she learned that particularly because she said she was a city girl. She was not a country girl who knew all of her plant names but she knew all the names of the trees and it made me wonder if she was learning that for a particular purpose.
I do know that she missed her son dreadfully. He was only about eight years old and she missed him horribly while she was at the front. She knew there was at least a good chance she would be killed without ever seeing him again, so her letters to home became something of a lifeline for her as she was involved in this horribly tense and bloody work.
Jenny Wheeler: What was the hardest thing for you in writing the story overall? Was it getting into Ludmilla’s head? Was it getting a grasp on the wide frame of history?
Kate Quinn: The thing that was the most difficult and the thing that concerned me the most was that I wanted my modern-day readers to not be put off by the fact that I’m asking them to sympathize with a Soviet woman who literally has killed more than 300 people. I was worried that that was going to be a little bit of a stretch for a reader’s sympathy because nowadays in the U S our relationship with Russia is not particularly warm.
Finding the human element in a female sniper
It’s a little bit harder to drum up sympathy for someone who is very much a believer in the Soviet system because now we know, with the hindsight of history, how very misguided that system could be and how many people suffered under it and how many died under Stalin. It is a very different world I’m asking them to step into.
Then there’s the fact that she did kill so very many people, even though she was a soldier and it was her job and she was certainly not a murderer.
To do that, I ended up trying to dig into what are the things that are universal about being human and about being female. Those were the things I thought would help a reader, any reader, sympathize and empathize with what Mila’s experience was, because there are certain experiences that are universal.
She talks about what it’s like to have your period on the front line, and the fact that the army has no idea what to do with that and would rather not know. She is continually being boxed in by sexist superior officers who were either hitting on her or punishing her because she’s rejecting them when they hit on her, or who are continually questioning her expertise.
The things she has in common with many other women
Or there’s the fact that she is dealing with an ex-husband who is trying to make her life as difficult as possible, but she has to be nice to him and swallow all this anger, just so that she can get things done in her ordinary life.
And the fact that she has this perfectionism in the way she approaches her world. She feels she can’t ever make mistakes. I think that’s the kind of thing most women can empathize with. We have the feeling that we cannot make mistakes or we’re going to tumble off the track and we’re not going to be able to get back on it.
These are the things I really leaned into in my efforts to make sure Mila was a heroine the reader could like, and that the reader could feel. She is very different from me, but I understand how she feels here.
Where to find Kate Quinn:
Binge Reading Episode Deadliest Female Sniper: https://thejoysofbingereading.com/kate-quinn-deadliest-female-sniper/
Introducing historical fiction author Patti Callahan
Jenny Wheeler: Patti Callahan was our guest for our 200th episode late last year. She’s devoted the last seven years of her life to research the relationship between theologian and children’s author, C.S. Lewis and his American wife. Joy Davidman producing two best-selling books. The first, Becoming Mrs. Lewis tells the story of the precious years of love and marriage the two authors shared before Joy’s early death.
The second, Once Upon A Wardrobe, dips into the inspiration behind the magical Narnia children’s series. But before we got to Narnia, we talked about the provocative love between two brilliant people.
Jenny Wheeler: She was a controversial character, wasn’t she? Even today, some people are inspired by her and others are quite disapproving.
Can you tell us a little bit about that polarization?
Joy Davidman – Finding the woman behind the controversy
Patti Callahan Henry: Absolutely. And I agree. I think part of what interested me in her was that I kept hearing two views of her that were so polarized. There were those who were fascinated that she was the only woman Lewis ever loved, that she was a woman who swooped into his life and completely changed the last decade of his work.
Then there were others who believed that she was not fit for him and were polarized and disapproving of her.
I had a hard time reconciling these two different stories of this one woman, and so what I did was I dove into that story, those polarized views, in a different way – her point of view. It was in her poetry, her letters, her essays, her fiction, her nonfiction. I looked at it from what she had to say about it. Yes, she is fiery and she is complicated and she made decisions you and I probably wouldn’t make and yet she was the woman who wrote C S Lewis a letter and changed the last decade of his life.
In his words to her they were the happiest years of his life, so who are we to judge or become polarized about what we believe about her when that is what he has to say about her?
C.S. Lewis deserves to have his opinion respected
He says she was iron on iron for him, that she was the smartest person he’d ever met and that he loved her. He wrote the book, A Grief Observed, about the great grief he had when she passed away.
As we well know, he did not admit he was in love, nor did he tell her he was in love until he knew she was dying and he tried to get special permission from the church to marry her, and yet it wasn’t until she was on her death bed that he was able to do so. His friends were opposed.
For example, J R R Tolkien was very opposed, as a devout Catholic, that Lewis would be in love with, dating or marry a divorced woman with two children.
Not only has that carried over into today, but people believe that she showed up from America and swooped into his life, and yet can’t we give Lewis some autonomy and belief that he knew what was best for him.
Once Upon A Wardrobe – Narnia through an 8-year-old’s eyes
Jenny Wheeler: Your most recent book, Once Upon a Wardrobe, is I think, a remarkable story. It had me crying and feeling joyful at the same time, which is a fantastic thing for a writer to do. You tackle the, you tackle the story of how Narnia came to be through the eyes of a very ill little boy. And I wonder, for starters, how did that particular framework come to you?
Patti Callahan Henry: When I was writing Becoming Mrs. Lewis, I saw these breadcrumbs in C S Lewis’s life that I could see in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Not being a Narnia Chronicles expert but being a lover of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – a book I have read so many times, I have read to my children, watched the movie – I had never heard anyone talk about these little breadcrumbs of his life in such a beloved story.
I sat with it for a long while and I wrote a book in between. I had a historical novel out last year, and yet when COVID happened and shutdown happened, I started to toy with the idea that I wanted to show these pieces of his life that I saw in the origins of that story. I’m always fascinated with the origins of stories.
How author Patti Callahan shaped her Narnia story
I love mythology. I love origin stories of the world from different mythological perspectives, and I wondered about the origins of Narnia.
I started to write a story about it and a little boy named George appeared. He was fascinated with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. He wished for the back of his wardrobe to pop out so he could find it, and he asks his sister to ask the author at Oxford in the year of 1950 where this story came from.
I couldn’t for a long time figure out how to do that without lecturing you, which goes back to your question of how I decided to tell it the way I told it. Finally I decided, after much messing around, that what I would do is have Lewis tell this story to Megs, and Megs would tell the story to George, and then we as the reader and me as the writer would see that story through the innocence and liminal space of an 8-year-old’s imagination.
Jenny Wheeler: Patti reminds us that Joy Davidman turned up at CS Lewis’s house with her two sons. Douglas and David Gresham and that in the end Lewis became a key figure in the boys’ lives. Douglas gave Patti extended interviews about his life with C.S. Lewis, which contributed to her research.
Joy Davidman’s son recalls his first meeting with C.S. Lewis
Patti Callahan Henry Douglas tells a story of showing up at Mr Lewis’s house to meet him for the first time with his mother. He was only eight years old, which is the age that I have my young boy in my story. Douglas shows up and he expects a knight to answer the door.
He expects a great man who might live in Narnia. for how could anything but a great knight or king have created this entire world called Narnia that Douglas says, saved him and his imagination when he was a young child living in New York during a very bad time when his father, who was an alcoholic and his mother were getting divorced.
He opened the door and there stood a man in ratty tweed pants and pushed down slippers and a cigarette. You know, a human. He tells the story of meeting him and being disappointed, and then within a half an hour, falling in love with this jovial, funny, smart man who created Narnia.
When Douglas told me that story, it very much impacted how I wanted George, my 8-year-old character to see the author of this story, and to see how the very ordinary world of this man could be turned into something extraordinary through the alchemy and the magic of story.
Where to find Patti Callahan Henry:
Binge Reading Episode Narnia Magic: https://thejoysofbingereading.com/patti-callahan-narnia-magic/
Next On Binge Reading – Valentine’s Giveaway
That’s it. Best of Binge Reading 2022. I hope you’ve enjoyed the show. We’ll be back in early February with the first of 202e new interviews, This year I’m only going to be doing them fortnightly rather than weekly, but I hope you’ll be with us for the year and enjoy the show.
Meantime, that’s it for now and happy reading.