[23 November 2009]
PopMatters Managing Editor
Known for her taut thrillers, Sandra Brown is a perennial presence on the New York Times fiction bestseller list. With 70 million copies of her novels in print, Brown has delighted readers and critics alike with her brand of blistering suspense. Taking a new literary direction into historical fiction her latest, Rainwater, is inspired by her grandfather’s experiences during the ‘30s. Rainwater is a moving story about honor and sacrifice during the Great Depression, and about love in all its forms.
The successful author chats with PopMatters 20 Questions about her weep-inducing wavering confidence, a quintessentially stern schoolmarm, and advises that one should be wary of hiring a discount hit man. Warning: Brown can be a bit “over the top”.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Whichever one I’m presently writing. I cry because whatever the current project is, it’s the worst book I’ve ever written. It’s the one with the weakest plot, the sappiest protagonist(s), and lamest villain. This literary equivalent of a dung heap will expose me as a lucky fraud who’s managed to fool publishers and readers for 30 years and 70-plus books.
Last year, at this stage of writing my most recent New York Times bestseller, I felt exactly the same way about it. That one managed to squeak by. But this one, this one, will spell my ruin. So I cry.
The movie that made me cry: Dear, Frankie, because it’s a wonderfully poignant story. I also cry because somebody else wrote it, and I didn’t. But if I had… See above.
2. The fictional character most like you?
There isn’t one. At least not one I’ve read, because I don’t read dull books. But if you held a gun to my head and insisted… Melanie in Gone with the Wind. She’s so uninteresting. Come on! Nobody’s that good. Are we really supposed to believe that she didn’t scream when she was in labor without drugs? That she wouldn’t have scratched Scarlett’s eyes out when she was caught in Ashley’s arms, or, at the very least, wanted to?
Margaret Mitchell named this saintly character after her cousin, Melanie who, as a young woman, became a nun. Why? Because she was tragically in love with her first cousin. Guess who? Doc Holliday. Denying herself their forbidden love, she entered a convent. Now that’s interesting.
3. The greatest album, ever?
George Strait’s 50 Number Ones. I know the words to every song. Every song tells a story, which is why I like country. Like every good story should, each of these songs has a beginning, middle, and end.
In addition to the storytelling lyrics, its excellent foot tapping music, which can be tricky since this double CD is in my car, and sometimes I tap the wrong foot pedal. (Being a traffic cop and a George Strait fan are mutually exclusive. I’ve found it to be so, but who knew?) I also have in my car the double CD soundtrack to Les Misérables recorded by the original Broadway cast. I know all the words to those songs, too. I have very eclectic taste in music.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Honestly, neither is my thing, but if I had to pick one—Star Wars. It’s the Bible, the Arthurian legend, and a John Wayne movie rolled into one.
I still like the first one best. I mean the first one to come out, not the first one chronologically, because the way I understand it… Forget it, I don’t understand it, and the more I think about it, the more confused I become.
5. Your ideal brain food?
The BBC production of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. I can watch all six or eight hours, whatever it is (and I don’t care), in one sitting. It’s got the three elements that really sell a movie for me: horses, capes, and swords.
Darcy is one of the best romantic heroes ever. Elizabeth is as smart, sassy and independent as ever woman should be. Sure the plot is coincidental and melodramatic, but I happen to adore coincidental melodrama. (Shakespeare, Dickens) Now that I’ve got myself in the mood for it, where’s the popcorn?
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I “climbed” Sandia Peak outside Albuquerque. Which is really piddling as far as mountains go. It’s a mere 9,000 feet and some change, and what I went up was a path on one of the gentler slopes. It’s about seven miles to the summit, and I walked it with my husband, son, and brother-in-law. For me that was a tremendous accomplishment.
Because in my opinion mountain climbing is sheer insanity. First, the climber is voluntarily going to a high place, and I’m terrified of heights. Second, he must wag a lot of equipment that looks heavy and complicated and unreliable. It’s usually cold. Like freezing. Like frigid wind with ice crystals. No thank you.
The climber is apt to experience all sorts of unpleasant physical maladies, the worst of which is the inability to breathe, and if you can’t breathe, diarrhea is of minor concern. So, Sandia Peak was my only summit. I’m going to stay on the ground. Dry ground. Don’t even get me started on scuba diving. I wouldn’t do that in a backyard swimming pool.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
Being nice. Sappy, I know. But the Golden Rule isn’t gold for nothing, you know. When my mother told me, “Don’t be ugly to anybody,” I figured she meant it, so I’ve tried to obey.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Someone who inspired me was Miss Stokes, my seventh grade English teacher. This was in the ‘60s, but she dressed like it was 1945. She wore her untinted gray hair in a bun. No makeup. She wore sensible shoes and always had a lace hankie in the pocket of her suit jacket.
Her suits looked like those Myrna Loy wore in The Thin Man series, except without the glam. They were grey, brown, or blue gabardine. I’m not making this up. She looked 70, but was probably 40-something.
She scared the living daylights out of me. Nobody wanted to be in her class because she was so strict, and I groaned when I got my schedule card the first day of school and saw that I had her for second period.
She never had a kind word for me, or anyone. I never saw her smile. Not once during the whole school year. But she knew her stuff. Her teaching method was fear, but I learned so much. Wherever you are, Miss Stokes, thank you.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Some might not consider Tennessee Williams’ play a masterpiece, but I do. It’s so wonderfully white-trashy—Maggie flouncing around in her slip, Brink drinking till he falls down, people parading in and out of their bedroom. Even the preacher paid a call to the chamber.
You gotta love it. If submitted today as a novel, a bad editor would say, “Tone it down. It’s a little over the top.”
10. Your hidden talents…?
I can apply false eyelashes. And, give me a blender and the right ingredients and I can make a mean frozen margarita. I just can’t drink the margarita if I’m going to be applying false eyelashes.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
“Don’t get the world’s attention unless you have something to say.”
My very first book editor Vivien Stephens told me that when I was stewing over whether or not to self-promote my first book, a series romance. Her point was that a writer’s focus should be on writing the best book possible. “Write a good book,” she said, “and the rest will follow.”
On the other hand, if I stayed focused on all the other stuff and short-changed the book, then no amount of self-promotion. . . Wait a minute. Why am I doing this questionnaire?
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
My first computer was an IBM Display Writer. With all its components, it was roughly the size of a bass fishing boat. (Not that I’ve had one of those.)
I borrowed $12,000 dollars from a banker who had faith in me. (Yes, this is ancient history.) I’d published seven books that were written on a typewriter. I typed at least three drafts of each. I spent a lot of time typing, which is entirely different from writing.
One day it occurred to me that I wasn’t being paid to type, so I trotted off down to the bank and made my pitch. That banker, now in his 80s, still brags about that loan to anyone who’ll listen. Bless you, Art.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
Armani or Levis? I can’t decide, so I wear them together – a red silk Armani jacket I bought in Tokyo when I went to Japan to do promotion. (Okay, so I don’t always take Ms. Stephens advice.) I wear that jacket with jeans. The combo is one of my wardrobe mainstays.
In my opinion, Armani, better than any other designer, does great things for the female form. And a pair of Levis does great things for the male physique. Not that I look.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Thomas Jefferson. Katherine Hepburn. (Too many redheads?) Tennessee Williams and Richard III. Did he really order those princes killed? Did he actually have a hump, or was Shakespeare being metaphorical?
I share Lady Godiva’s views on over taxation, so I’d like to commend her for her courage, but if the Ritz has a dress code, I guess she’s out.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
Choosing the time would be the problem, because so many periods fascinate me. It would be a terrific character study to watch the transformation of Henry VIII from the rock star status of his youth to the obese, ailing tyrant he became. If he was submitted as a fictional character, a bad editor would say, “Tone him down. He’s a little over the top. And isn’t the beheading of two wives stretching credulity just a bit?”
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Hit men are expensive. At least that’s been my experience, and you definitely get what you pay for. I’d be very suspect of a discount hit man. Spas are more affordable. But I don’t want my masseuse or masseur chattering to me during my massage. Or I may have to hire a hit man.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Fritos. They’re made of corn, and everything made of corn tastes good because it’s solid sugar. They’re fried. No self-respecting Southerner will eat something baked, broiled, grilled, stewed, poached, sautéed, or flambéed when it can be deep fried. Fritos are good with cheese, pinto beans, chili, dip, salsa, whatever. But they’re delicious straight out of the bag.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. If you have to ask why, you haven’t been there. It “restoreth my soul.” And, just for the record, I’ve never played a round of golf in my life and don’t plan to.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Why are children encouraged to stay in school, to be ambitious, show initiative, and pursue “the American dream”, when, if they are successful and their efforts are financially rewarded, they are then maligned for becoming one of “the rich”. Isn’t that contradictory?
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
For the first time in 25 years I’m carrying over a character from the last book and giving him his own story. Dodge Hanley first appeared in Smash Cut as the hero lawyer’s irascible but capable investigator. He was so cynical and had such a low regard for human beings and life in general, I wanted to discover what made him that way.
I’m weaving his back story into a present day conflict. Tough Customer will come out next August. Luckily I have an editor who likes things over the top.