Saturday, June 30, 2012

Author Interview: Susanne O'Leary

"I am often inspired to write about people who step out of their lives, peeling off all the labels that society have stuck on them and becoming someone new and more ‘real’. It’s as if I want to give them a chance to wipe the slate clean and start again."

You’ve led an interesting life. A native Swede who now lives in Ireland and you’ve lived … maybe I should let you tell it. How did you get from Sweden to Ireland and where and why for all the stops in between?

It was all because of this handsome Irishman I met when I was 19. He had just started his diplomatic career and his first posting took him to Stockholm, where we met. We were married a year later and he was subsequently posted to Australia, where we spent 3 ½ years. Diplomats generally change posting every four years or so and my husband’s career took us first back to Ireland, then to Paris, Brussels and The Netherlands. When my husband left the diplomatic service, we settled in Ireland, where we now live.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? What was the impetuous to write your first novel?

I can’t say that I always wanted to be a writer, but I did play with the idea from time to time as I grew up. But It wasn’t until I wrote my two health and fitness books (I’m also a trained keep fit teacher) that I discovered a love of writing. So, when I finished the second health book, my editor encouraged me to keep writing and suggested I try my hand at writing a fun novel about the trials and adventures of a diplomat’s wife. I had so many incidents from my diplomatic career to draw on, some of them bordering on the ridiculous, that it wasn’t hard to find inspiration. That’s how my first novel Diplomatic Incidents (the Kindle version was renamed Duty Free) came about. I didn’t really believe it would ever be published, but after a year of submissions and rejections, I finally got an offer from a publisher in Ireland. I had so much material that I decided to write a second book, this time based on what goes on at the European Union headquarters in Brussels, which became European Affairs (the e-book version is now called Villa Caramel).

One of your books, Swedish for Beginners, involves Maud, a woman who has moved around a lot like you and currently lives in Ireland. She discovers that her mother, who she never knew, was Swedish and that she has a lot of family in Sweden. On the surface, with the exception of the two countries involved, her story is much different from your own. But it does delve into the meaning of family and what it means to have “roots.” How do you think your own experiences helped you in telling Maud’s story?

I think my own confused feeling about my roots helped to create the theme of the book. When you live in one country but have your roots, family and childhood friends in the country where you were born, it creates emotional problems that I don’t think can ever be resolved. You are torn between your country of origin and the place where you live, never really feeling settled anywhere. It’s a case of chronic homesickness.

Maud in the story is quite settled at first but when she finds out that her mother was from Sweden and that she has close relations there, she is yanked out of her comfort zone and pitched into a family she never knew she had. When she travels to Stockholm and is confronted by this new family, its secrets and conflicts, her life, emotions and feelings of loyalty are turned upside down. As a result, she is very confused and has to rethink her whole life and who she really is. This is something I have had to do often, especially whenever I come back to Ireland after having spent a long time in Sweden. It’s very unsettling but at the same time enriching, as I get the chance to ‘belong’ to two culturally different countries and, through my husband and children, call them both ‘mine’.

Another of your books, A Woman’s Place and its sequel, Sonja’s Place, had an interesting genesis. Tell us about the inspiration for these books and how the writing process was different from your other books.

I had always heard about Sonja, my mother’s first cousin, who had an exciting life. She went to New York in the late 1920s and became the social secretary to the wife of a millionaire. Her letters home were full of fascinating details of the kind of ‘Great Gatsby’ lifestyle she led for a few years. I had been playing with the idea of writing a novel based on her life for quite some time. When I went through my grandmother’s chest of drawers in search of more material about Sonja, I came across letters and diaries by her mother, my Great Aunt Julia. These letters revealed a family scandal that nobody had ever known about before. It also told the story of an equally fascinating life and of a woman with a great sense of adventure. I decided to go further back in time and tell Julia’s story first, against the backdrop of an even more interesting time in the history of women’s emancipation. I would then add Sonja’s story in the last half of the book, ending in 1930. This became A Woman’s Place.

I thought I had said goodbye to these two women but my readers wanted to find out what happened next to Sonja. I hesitated at first, as I thought I had run out of material. But when my mother moved house, she found another box of letters, this time from Sonja’s subsequent life in New York and they revealed a story that was so moving I just had to share it with the readers who had become so fond of her while reading the first book. This second book became Sonja’s Place and it proved to be just as popular with readers as the first.

The writing process with these two books was very different from writing pure fiction. I had the letters which told if not all, at least most of the story and I used quotes from them to make the heroines more alive and give them their own voice. In this way, I felt they were speaking to the reader directly and telling their story themselves, which was quite eerie at times. I also had to do a lot of research about the period, the politics, way of life, dress, food, modes of transport and so on, which took a lot of time. I did this by reading fiction set in those eras and also history books and articles on the Internet. In this way, I learned so much about the period from 1899 to 1940 or so and about the struggles women had to go through in those days.

Most of your books fit somewhere under the big umbrella of “women’s fiction,” whether romance, chick lit, or something else. Even the two historical fiction books are going to primarily appeal to the same audience. However, your book Virtual Strangers is a wild card. While its main female character would have been a good fit in a chick-lit book, Virtual Strangers is a mystery. It also was co-written. Tell us about this book, your co-author, and how it came about.

Ola Zaltin, my co-writer, and I met on a writer’s site a few years ago. He is a TV and film script writer by profession and has written the scripts to many mainly Scandinavian crime series.

Ola and I became virtual friends very quickly, probably because we were both Swedes living abroad, even though I am a novelist and he is a very talented script writer with an impressive career. We spent something like a year chatting on this site, where there was a lot of drama, trolling and many flame wars. I don’t know whose idea it was to write a crime novel together but it seemed like a fun idea to me and we wanted to use our experiences of our Internet adventures. I also really wanted to try something new. I needed to bring a dark edge to my writing and that is what Ola did. He is a brilliant writer and can create a feeling of threat with just a few lines of dialogue or descriptive prose. He is also hilariously funny with that dark side that really suits a crime novel such as this one. His knowledge of police procedures in a homicide case is an added bonus.

As we developed the plot and connected on Facebook, I began to realise that this virtual socializing is very seductive and that it can become a kind of escape from the dreariness of one’s real life. This made me think that it would be interesting to explore the question of real versus virtual life and how some people possibly create a completely different online persona to that of their real life. My heroine, Annika, is just such a person, seeking an escape from her own horrible reality and creating an online, other ‘self’ that has a more interesting life. She gets the socializing she lacks from her virtual friends and foolishly connects with all the wrong people with frightening and disastrous results.

When Ola and I discussed the plot of the book, we felt we wanted to bring in that threat on a personal level that can often be felt on the Internet. Writing together, we brought a lot of our own relationship into the book, including some our often rather heated arguments. Many readers have asked if he is really Seabee and am I Annika? In a way-yes, absolutely and that’s probably why the characters have seemed very real to many readers. We are now working on a sequel, this time set in Stockholm, and I think it will be even better than the first book.

Where do you get the inspiration for the stories in your books?

Mostly from things that have happened to me in real life. I have that light-bulb-what-if-moment and then I can’t wait to write the story. You could say that my stories are plot driven when I start writing. For example, when we were sharing a chalet in the Alps with friends on a skiing trip, I thought to myself: what if we were snowed in for a couple of days. How would we cope and how would we interact with each other? It would be interesting to see the glitzy surface of some of the people begin to crack in such a situation, I thought. That became Fresh Powder. I got the idea for Finding Margo in the same way; were lost on the motorway in France (my fault) and had a flaming row. I thought; what if this couple had a similar experience and then the wife decided to run away?

If you had to describe what your books have in common that make them unique from another author’s, what would it be?

I usually set my books in exotic locations, using my own globetrotting experience. The setting is very important to me in any story and I try to describe the scenery with all my senses: sight, feel, smell and touch. I am not really anchored in any one place and I think I bring the readers on a kind of journey.

I also think there is an element of escape in all my books, where the protagonists are brought into new environments and experience things that change their lives completely. I am often inspired to write about people who step out of their lives, peeling off all the labels that society have stuck on them and becoming someone new and more ‘real’. It’s as if I want to give them a chance to wipe the slate clean and start again.

You published several of your books the old fashioned way, with an agent and a traditional publisher. You’ve since republished those as an indie along with several new books. What do you see as the advantages of the indie route? What have been the biggest challenges as an indie?

Even if being an ‘indie’ carries with it a certain stigma, it is far more satisfying than being traditionally published. Of course, the highs of being traditionally published were many but the lows of rejections, waiting to hear about submissions and not having full creative freedom, added to sharing 15% and more of my often puny earnings with said publishers and agents, were things I was very happy to leave behind. 

The biggest challenges of my ‘indie’ life has been trying to raise my profile and all the hard work and many hours spent on the Internet doing promotions. But I have felt more and more that this is my golden era, the high point of my career, when I can follow my own star and not have to ask anyone for permission to write what or the way I want and to make my own decisions when it comes to cover art, writing blurbs or do marketing in my own way. I have also really enjoyed being in touch with readers from all over the world, which was not possible when I was with a publishing house.

You’ve recently signed with a small publisher. Tell us about that deal and what you see as the advantages they provide.

I was happy to continue doing my own thing with all my books, except my detective series, which required a little more effort and expertise.

When I wrote Virtual Strangers with fellow Swedish author Ola Zaltin, I was going into a genre with which I was not familiar. Stimulating and fun to write, I still felt this needed added support with editing, marketing and publicity. We needed to have our book up with others in the same genre and also the approval and encouragement from someone who was in the same boat and could give us help with editing.

Stephen Hulse of Blue Hour Publishing is a writer himself and experienced in writing detective stories. His new venture is brand new and I felt it would be exciting to try this kind of publishing. I see it more as a kind of partnership but not just that. I felt it would be exciting to be part of a different way of publishing with someone who has the courage to go out there and make a difference in the vast ocean of e-publishing. A joint effort with many voices to help make a name for ourselves as part of both a publishing house and a group of individual authors. It will take time before this gets off the ground properly but I am already enjoying working with Stephen and his team. I think I have come to the stage in my writing career where I want to do things that are fun and interesting, even if it involves taking a risk. That said, even though you are working with someone you like and trust, it’s important to read the contract carefully and make sure there is a way out if you should want to leave.

With the North American market being such a large share of the marketplace for English language indie books, do you think there are challenges European authors face that are different from those of US and Canadian authors?

I have to say that I have been both delighted and surprised by the way American readers have reacted to my books. I actually sell more there than anywhere else and have been in touch with many readers from all over the US. I have a feeling that this might be because many Americans have European roots and love to read books that are set here.

Of course, the fact that many American words are spelled differently to British English could be a stumbling block for those who have learned English over here. And some reviewers have remarked on the spelling in my book. But I think that American readers are beginning to accept and become more familiar with British spelling, so I am sure this will not be such an issue in the future. Now I just put “British spelling” in my product descriptions, so I hope American readers can accept that as readily as British readers accept American spelling.

Tell us something about yourself that would surprise most people.

I don’t know if this would surprise anyone but, although my speaking voice is quite pleasant, I have a terrible singing voice. Think nails on a blackboard. If you ever heard it, you would pay me a lot of money not to sing. Seriously.

What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans.

I am at the moment working with my co-writer, Ola, on the sequel to Virtual Strangers. But we don't really want it to be an proper sequel but a stand-alone book so that readers can enjoy it even if they haven't read the first one. The working title is Virtual Suspects and it's set in Stockholm, where Seabee and Annika run a workshop on Scandinavian crime writing for authors from all over the world. Expect a lot of intrigue, horrific murders (we're really going to town on the blood and guts Scandy-style here), humour and romance. There will also be online cyber intrigues between e-book authors and publishers. We are having a lot of fun writing about the setting we know best: our hometown Stockholm. We're hoping to publish it in late October.

For more Susanne:

Visit Susanne's website or blog. You can also friend her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.

You can find Susanne's many books from her Amazon Author's page, either or Amazon UK.

Also, read Book's and Pals review of Virtual Strangers.


Unknown said...

Interesting interview, as always. I didn't realise Susanne had recently signed with a publisher for the books she is co-writing. Congratulations!

Rags Daniels said...

Interesting interview, BigAl. Then i got to the end and laughed when I saw 'Spooks'...Because it's an 'in joke' between Susanne and I. Spooky!

Vicki said...

Congratulations, Susanne. Great news.

Thanks for another excellent interview, Al.

susanne said...

Thank you Vicki, I am actually reading Thin Blood right now and loving it.

Vicki said...

What a nice surprise. Thrilled to hear you're loving Thin Blood. Thanks, Susanne. :)

Walter Knight said...

There is no cure for being homesick, but it's good for the muse.