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December 8, 2011

Author Interview: Janis Patterson on The Hollow House

Tell us about yourself. How long have you been writing? Forever. I wrote my first book when I was four or so. As I recall, it was about a group of children who captured a lion which had escaped from the zoo. I hand printed about half a dozen copies, until I got bored and decided that writing new stories was more fun than ‘publishing’ them. In ‘real’ writing I started doing ad copy in my parents’ advertising agency when I was around twelve. Then in my teens I sold some short stories and confessions. I sold my first novel to the old Dell Candlelight Series back in 1979, which led me to being one of the original forty or so women who founded RWA in 1980.

How did you get from your day job to writing romance?  Not really sure I ever did. I did both for years, then quit to write for a while, almost starved to death, took part-time work sometimes. I quit writing altogether for almost ten years, since I had to earn real money to take care of my mother in what eventually proved to be her final illness. She was sick many years. I married for the first time and my mother died three weeks later. When my Navy Reserve husband was deployed to Iraq for the first time, I wondered what I would do with myself while he was gone. I had quit working then, as he doesn’t like me to work outside the home, and thought I might get a job. He said I should go back to writing, as it was the only thing I ever seemed to love doing, so I did, and here I am.

Who is your favorite author(s) and why?  Barbara Michaels, in any of her incarnations – Elizabeth Peters, Dr. Barbara Mertz. Her plots are stunningly intricate, her command and usage of language simply superb, her research impeccable – and all in an interesting, extremely enjoyable package! The woman is a marvel! (Long after I became a fan and had even sold a few books I was honored to get to meet her, and she’s charming. Oddly enough, we met through our mutual love of Egyptology instead of our writing careers.)
Tell us about your new book.

THE HOLLOW HOUSE was released on 14 November 2011 by Carina Press and was immediately (to my somewhat stunned amazement) made a Top Pick by RT. It is a cozy, historical murder mystery set in Denver in 1919. I knew nothing about either, but the book wouldn’t let itself be written anywhere else or any other time, no matter how I tried!

As for what the book is about, I think the blurb says it all :

“When a murder occurs in her employer’s home, Geraldine Brunton knows she must solve the crime to hide the fact she herself is a killer.”


I stared at Annie. She saw me, I know she did. She blinked again. Then she died. The transition from a living—however tenuously—creature to a dead one is unmistakable to anyone who has ever witnessed it. I don’t know if it is a soul, or a life force, or what, but some invisible something leaves and suddenly everything is changed forever.
Eula was shrieking.
Behind her, Mrs. O’Toole was weeping and calling on her pantheon of saints. Behind her, Dawkins, to my intense surprise, was swearing with both fluency and unrepressed emotion.
I could not take my gaze from Annie’s twisted body. Though it was almost as close to dawn as dusk, she wore her everyday pale brown uniform and the work-stained apron from earlier in the day. She was not, however, wearing shoes. Her feet, indecently stuck almost straight up, were clad in nothing but heavy socks that showed signs of darning.
There was something else.
Her arms were thrown about as if she had tried to break her fall, but from under her right hip I could see a small flash of green. I leaned forward, startled at the sight of a twenty-dollar bill. Twenty dollars in a single bill, when that was probably most, if not all, of her monthly salary.
“Should we send for a doctor?” Milton was asking. “Mrs. Brunton? Should we—”
“No,” I said softly, feeling oddly that I should keep my voice low so as not to disturb Annie. “No, she doesn’t need a doctor. I think we need to call the police.”

What is the appeal of writing _____________ genre?  I didn’t fill in the blank because I write in so many genres. I switch around a great deal because I get bored very easily. If you will bear with me…

Children’s – (as Janis Susan Patterson) - because it is the greatest challenge. I write for the pre-school crowd, which is weird because I don’t have any children and only like them if they’re properly prepared and served with a decent sauce  (;-p) Seriously, how do you tell a coherent, compelling story with small, easily-understood words and use only about a thousand or two of them? It’s extremely difficult, and a great writing exercise.

Romance – (as Janis Susan May) - because I’m a romantic. I like the rush of falling in love. I like the magic, the electric sizzle between two people who were meant to be together. I like happy endings. I also like the limitless canvas of time and space available in romances.

Horror – (also as Janis Susan May) – because it helps me exorcise the bad dreams we all have occasionally. Also, because I’m wicked enough to enjoy scaring people! Hey, we all have our dark side…

Mystery – (as Janis Patterson) - because I like puzzles and I like the neatness of a clear resolution. Innocent cleared, guilty caught and punished, law and order prevail. All is well. Very reassuring in this uncertain world.

Scholarly – (as J. S. M. Patterson) because I am humbled and grateful to be able to add even the tiniest bit to the knowledge of the world.

What kind of writing turns you off?   I am probably the only dinosaur left on the planet who will say this, but I am sick to death of graphic sex in romances. Pages-long descriptions of people having sex are flat boring, and I usually skip them. I’ve never yet found a sex scene that can outdo my imagination or my memories. To me the old movie style embrace-kiss-sink out of frame-fade to black (ie, closed bedroom door) resolution to a love scene is so much more interesting and stimulating because then I can imagine what is arousing to me. It’s a hundred times more engaging than a scene as graphic as a technical manual of ‘he touched her here and she touched him there’ type stuff.

That said, I am turned off by bad writing, of course. Plot holes. Characters who act without any motivation except they have to be at a certain point at a certain time. Flat, simplistic use of language. Historical errors and anomalies make me wild. Improper and careless use of language and bad research will have me sending a book against the wall in no time.

I don’t particularly care for books in present tense, though I just read one I rather liked.

I don’t like it when the writer cheats the reader – say, by bringing in a brand new character at the last moment and having them either be the murderer or having him have all the answers to the characters’ problems. Of course, if the writing is very good almost anything can be excused, but that would take a master, which doesn’t happen very often.

What stops you from writing?  Almost anything. Sadly, I am very easily distracted. Lately, pampering The Husband (who has just retired from the Navy Reserve after 32 years military service – YEA!!) takes a lot of my time.

If the writing is going well, I forget time and can spend fifteen hours straight at the keyboard, then have to be physically pulled away.

If the writing is going badly, well, it’s shocking how many things around the house (including cleaning the gasket of the dishwasher with a cotton swab, fluffing the parlor pillows or dusting the ivy) have to be done RIGHT NOW.

How have you shocked your readers?  I have no idea. Honestly, I do pretty much what I want to, both in my writing and my life. As long as it doesn’t break the law, doesn’t outrage public decency, and isn’t fattening (ooops – scratch that last one!) I don’t really care if people are shocked at me or not.

How do you get your ideas? What is your writing day like? I honestly don’t understand how people can wonder where one gets ideas. The world is brimming with them. Anything can be an idea. Just sit still for five minutes and take the first ten ideas that come by. Read a newspaper. Pick an object. Listen to a TV. Have a conversation. Play ‘what if.’ Ideas are all around us in incredible numbers. 

That said, an idea is just that. An idea. It’s useless by itself. For a book you need lots and lots of ideas, all of which must intertwine seamlessly and create a plot. Repeat after me – an idea is not a plot. An idea is not a plot. An idea is not a plot. Books need plots, but plots start with ideas, and there are an infinite number of them out there. The only difficulty is deciding which ones to use and expand upon.

As for writing days, there is no ‘average writing day.’ Every day is different, though the mornings are pretty much regulated. First I have coffee. Strong, dark roast coffee that almost has to be beaten back into the mug. That is a must. My heart doesn’t start without it. Then, after feeding the furbabies, making The Husband’s lunch and seeing him off to work, I go in and turn on the computer.

Before doing anything else, I go to and do their two daily questions. Right or wrong, for every question answered they give 10 pieces of kibble to feed shelter dogs and cats. 20 pieces of kibble per day aren’t that much, but they do add up, and all it takes is about two minutes of my time.  After that, I do email for half an hour or so.

Then – ideally - I start to work, doing whatever is necessary on the current WIP. Maybe it’s writing, maybe it’s revision, maybe it’s research – and maybe it’s just staring at the screen, sweating blood and wondering why in the world I ever decided to be a writer.

I would love to spend long unbroken hours at the computer every day, but life won’t allow it. I have dear friends – two of whom are very ill – whom I must see regularly. I must see the few elderly people who are all that is left of my family. There are some in The Husband’s family who deserve my attention too. I am a member of several cultural and scholarly organizations. Sometimes they help save what little sanity I have. Some days I just have to write around other obligations. Some days other obligations must wait while I write.

Having an office in the home can be wonderful. I do a lot of work in my nightgown.

Having an office in the home can be terrible. People think just because you’re at home, you don’t really work, and you’re free to volunteer or chat on the phone or watch their children or whatever. (Memo to self – don’t be a pushover!)

Also, since I work at home, even on my all-writing days I have to take breaks occasionally to do the laundry, clean the kitchen, take The Husband whatever he’s forgotten, defrost something for dinner, do the marketing… 

The years The Husband was deployed overseas I got a lot of work done, generally at late at night. He is a lark, I am an owl. When he is home, we keep a lark schedule. Drat. Still, I’d rather have him than writing time.

Can you share three writing tips?  Write. Learn. Repeat. And never give up.

Fill in this blank: My ideal fictional hero would think me gorgeous if __________.

… if he wants to get his story written?
… if he were deaf, dumb and blind?
… if I were forty years younger and fifty pounds lighter?

What's your favorite dessert?  Whichever one happens to be in front of me at the moment. I am totally omnivorous when it comes to sweets. If forced to choose, I’d have to say chocolate. Chocolate anything. Of course, there’s always caramel cheesecake, and mango ice cream, and key lime pie, and… hmmm.


Liz said...

Nice interview ladies. Your books sound fascinating Janis. Congrats on your successes.

Vicki Batman, sassy writer said...

Good morning, Janis! I'm so happy you are here at the PP blog. Congratulations on your book. It sounds very interesting. And I'm so impressed yo can write in many genres.

Kathy Ivan said...

Good Morning Janis! Great to have you here at the Plotting Princesses today.

What a great interview! I just keep learning new things about you all the time. I have this book on by TBR stack. Now to just find the time to actually get some reading done . . .

Elizabeth Essex said...

Loved that excerpt—I'm hooked.

Can't wait to read it all. Congrats on the new release!

Cheers, EE

Shawna Thomas said...

Hi Janis,

I'm so with you on the chocolate. And pampering husbands does take up a lot of time. ; ) Wow, you really do get around the publishing world. ; ) (I'm referring to the genres you write.) Congratulations on your newest book!

Liese Sherwood-Fabre said...

Congrats on the book! And I'm with you on chocolate!


Sheila Tenold said...

Great interview, ladies. Thank you, Janis, for sharing your fascinating writing history. Very impressive! The Hollow House is a clever title, intriguing!

Phyllis said...

I'm so glad to see you here, welcome!

I continually amazed by your writing accomplishments. Diversity does seem to be the an swear to boredom. I look forward to reading your latest book.

Thank you for sharing!

Janis Patterson said...

Thanks for all your kind words, ladies. This was one of the most fun interviews I've done. It's great being one of the PPrincesses, even for just a day. Hope you all like THE HOLLOW HOUSE.

Priya said...

Great interview. Thanks for sharing. I love hearing the how I got started stories. Looking forward to reading the book.

Ruby Johnson said...

Waving hi to you. I recognize so many names from KOD. What a nice interview. It's hard to find the right questions to ask and then to get great answers such as yours is wonderful. Good luck on your book.It really sounds great.

Shelley Munro said...

Good interview. It was fun learning more about you, Janis. I'm with you when it comes to writing/reading different genres to keep the boredom factor at bay. Your book has such a great hook!

Janni Nell said...

I've just finished reading The Hollow House. What a terrific book! Not surprised it was a top pick at RT. For anyone who likes a great mystery with a heroine to really cheer for buy this. Buy it now!

Liz Lipperman said...

Wow! I didn't know you wrote so many different genres. I love your answers, especially the one about what keep you from writing. Are you reading my mail??

Great job, guys.

Nicole Morgan said...

Loved the interview! Janis, you wrote your first book when you were four years old? Wow that is amazing! And your list of genres is very impressive :)

The Hollow House, sounds fantastic!

Jennifer Mathis said...

great interview
wow your a busy lady

Pamela Stone said...

Hi Janis,

Just a little late joining the party. Great interview and major contrats on your success. Amazing accomplishments. Can I be you when I grow up?


Janis Patterson said...

Priya, Ruby, Shelley, Jennifer - thank you for the kind words. I'm so glad you stopped by!

Liz, I don't get to read all my own mail, let alone yours, but I've known you long enough to know your writing life is as busy and fragmented as mine. Sometimes it's a miracle anything gets done!

Nicole, yep, I was four. I can remember each book took three sheets of typing paper, carefully cut into quarters, hand-printed and illustrated, and then stapled together along one edge. I didn't know about saddlestitch bindings then! I think a copy or two might still exist in the boxes of my late mother's papers. Since everyone is epubbing their backlist now... no, it would need too much work. We'll just let it rest in peace.

Thanks again to everyone who came by and especially those of you who left comments. Wishing you all the happiest of holidays -

Janis Patterson said...

Pam, it's never too late to join a party! As for being me when you grow up - dunno. You see, I've never grown up! Aged and gotten taller (and wider, darn it!) but never grown up. And I don't intend to!

Kathleen Baldwin said...

Love your cover Janis! Gorgeous. congratulations on the book.

Hey - I'm wishing you could share some of that cheesecake through the blog walls.