After I graduated in 1966, with a BA in English literature, I went into acting full-time, eventually moving to Los Angeles, where I got to kiss Elvis Presley and acted in an episode of Gunsmoke. I also worked in a lot of banks and once again dabbled in writing--this time a novel. I've always loved writing and found that it came relatively easily to me. I sent my first story off to a magazine when I was eight years old. The magazine was Jack and Jill, and the story was rejected. I also wrote plays that were performed by myself and a group of friends for our captive parents during summer vacation at the cottage. This became a yearly ritual and only stopped when I was about twelve and started going to camp instead. At twelve, I wrote my first TV script, the story of a twelve-year-old girl who murders her parents. Like my story to Jack and Jill, it, too, was rejected. Still, just the thought of it caused my parents many a sleepless night. I continued writing all through my teen years--I was always the kid being asked to read her compositions out loud in English class. In my last year of high school, my English teacher announced to the class that I was going to be a writer, something I hadn't really decided myself.
However, by the time I graduated, I had decided that this was what I was going to be. As soon as I got to university, however, I changed my mind, deciding I wanted to be an actress instead. To that end, I acted in about twenty campus productions (at the University of Toronto) and starred in the student movie, Winter Kept Us Warm, a fixture on the art house circuit even today. In fact, there is talk at the moment of reuniting the four principal actors for a sequel thirty years later! There is the possibility it could be filmed this summer.
Eventually, I returned to Toronto and went back to writing, always my first love. I continued to act, mostly in TV commercials, until the writing won out.
I love writing because it's the only time in my life when I feel I have complete control. Nobody does or says anything I don't tell them to--although even this amount of control is illusory because there comes a point where the characters take over and tell you what they think they should say and do. As a child, I played with cut-out dolls until I was fourteen years old, long past the age when my friends still played with them. I made up elaborate stories with my paper dolls, letting my imagination run wild. That's really all I'm doing today--still playing with my dolls and letting my imagination run loose. Everyone should be so lucky in their chosen profession.
I get a fair number of letters from readers, most of them very favorable. They love the characters, whom they feel they can really relate to. They understand what the women are going through and most identify with them in one way or another. Probably the most frequent comment I get is that they can't put the books down, and that once they've discovered me, they want to read everything I've ever written. Occasionally, I get letters from professional social workers and doctors, telling me that they've used or recommended my books to their patients. One man who'd read Kiss Mommy Goodbye, and who had recently kidnapped his children away from his ex-wife, wrote to say that he'd felt so bad after reading my book that he returned the children to their mother!
I'm often asked to name my favorite book of all the books I've written. This is somewhat like asking a mother which of her children is her favorite. Impossible. Each child is different; each book is different. As of this moment, I've published 25 novels and have completed my 26th. I'm very hard pressed to say which ones I prefer, as I think they're all worthy efforts. Some are more successful than others, but that doesn't mean I love them any less. Each one tells a different story, and each story meant something to me or I wouldn't have felt the need to share it. Having said that, I have a special place in my heart for a few of the books - See Jane Run, Mad River Road, Missing Pieces, Whispers and Lies, Someone Is Watching, as well as the novel I've just completed - because they accomplished everything I set out to do. They may not be your favorites; they might not even be my best books, but I felt that I couldn't have written them any better, that they said everything I wanted to say as well as I could say it.
As to my writing routine, I prefer to write in the mornings, but I'm finding that anytime I have three to four uninterrupted hours is usually okay, even at night, although I'm pretty much shot by ten o'clock. One of the lovely things about being a writer is that it lets you have a personal life. I never had to make the agonizing decision so many of my friends did about whether to go to work or be a stay-at-home mom. Being a writer allowed me the luxury of staying home with my children when they were young, and I was able to work my writing around them. When they were little, I wrote when they napped, then when they were away at school. Now that they're both grown women, and my younger daughter has two young children of her own - which makes me a grandmother! - my time is my own, and I can write all day, if I so choose. Usually I choose not to, as my concentration only lasts for so long. Because my husband (of more than forty years) and I travel so much - for business as well as for pleasure - when I'm home in Toronto, I often spend all day writing. I don't write when we're in Florida or on holiday, so I have to make up the time when I'm home.
My main characters are all aspects of my own personality, although their stories are very different from my own. Still, I find that I approach the heroines as if I were a Method actress. I think, how would I react if this were happening to me, what would I say if someone spoke this way to me? Sometimes, I try to take the easy way out by neglecting the characters and concentrating on the plot. This never works and I have to start again. I have to create a history for the characters, figure out who they are, what their backgrounds are, why they act the way they do. This often necessitates creating a family tree. Once I do that, everything tends to fall into place, because behavior is motivated by character, and the characters have a sense of history, as opposed to having been born into a vacuum as adults.
Probably the question I'm asked most often is, "Where do you get your ideas?" This is not an easy question to answer. For the most part, I think it has to do with the way a writer looks at the world. Everything is a potential scene for a book, everyone is a potential character. I occasionally get snippets of ideas from magazines and newspaper articles, from the headlines. More often, from something at that is happening to someone I know, occasionally to me. I use whatever I can and nothing is sacred. Of course, nothing is exactly the way it is in real life. A writer borrows a bit from here, there and everywhere, and adapts it to her own purpose. I find that the more of me I include, the more successful the book, the more readers can identify with.
Generally, it's about a year from the time I come up with an idea until the book is finished. Of that, the actual writing time is between four to eight months. I start with characters, a theme, a basic idea, then I write an outline. Often, it takes two or three outlines to get it right. Occasionally, I go way off track at the beginning. This also applies to the initial draft. I've had to write the first halves of many novels many times before I got them right. Such was the case with The Wild Zone. Once I get the first half right, the second half pretty much writes itself.
I think I'm popular because men as well as women can identify with the people I'm writing about, although I write from a female perspective and always thought most of my readers would be women much like myself. Even if they've never been involved in a particular situation, my readers are familiar with the underlying emotions of the characters. Also, I know how to keep the reader turning the pages, and I think that once they get into the book, they have to keep reading. This appeals greatly to teenagers, and I was surprised to learn how popular I am with this age group. Everyone likes suspense, and I think that I write excellent, realistic dialogue, and know how to keep the action moving. Also, I create real people, and I try never to talk down to my readers. You have to love what you're doing, love the characters you're creating, the kind of book you're writing, or it doesn't work.
One of my favorite novels is Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides. I loved the sweep of it, the characters, the dialogue, everything. I didn't want it to end. I also love almost all of Philip Roth's books and Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays. Funnily enough, I don't read a lot of suspense, as so much of it feels generic. I like to hear an author's clear voice, such as Carl Hiassen. I find that I am often disappointed with suspense writers because they focus on plot rather than character and leave too many loose ends dangling.
I am a Canadian citizen and I live in Toronto, Canada, although I also have a home in Palm Beach, Florida. I also lived for almost three years in Los Angeles, and so I think I have a fairly American sensibility, although this is very much tempered by my Canadian upbringing. Since my books are sold all over the world and in almost every conceivable language, it strikes me increasingly that as long as one is writing about the basic human emotions we all share, then it doesn't really matter where one is from. Surely one of the aims of art is to universalize individual experience. Interestingly, this is often accomplished by staking one's work to as particular a time and place as possible. Generally, I set my books in big American cities, some of which I am familiar with, like those in Florida, and others which I learn through maps and occasional visits--like Boston and Chicago. The American landscape seems best for my themes of urban alienation and loss of identity. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I am much more interested in the landscape of the soul.
It's harder to come up with what the characters do for a living, because as a writer, I don't always have a very clear idea what it is that other people actually do. I spend most of my time alone in a room. This is probably why most of my books deal more with domestic horror than the world of business. So I've tended to give my main characters professions that I do understand--teaching, bank teller, housewife etc. I had to do an enormous amount of research for the character of Jess Koster in Tell Me No Secrets, because I had no idea, what an assistant state's attorney actually did. The same is true for my most recent heroine, Bailey Carpenter, in Someone Is Watching. She's a private investigator for a law firm and I had to research exactly what her job entailed. But I don't enjoy doing a lot of research, preferring as a rule, to "make up my facts." That's why I write fiction. I firmly believe that if you want facts, you read non-fiction; you read fiction to discover the truth.