Guest Author: Janis Susan May & Giveaway!

I’m truly honored to have a very special person on the blog today – romantic suspense author, Janis Susan May.  Janis is such an interesting person and has so many accomplishments to her name, that I barely know where to begin.  She’s been writing romance novels for years, and in 1980 she was one of the founding members of the Romance Writers of America, now one of the biggest and most prestigious writing organizations in the world.  Whew!

In the intervening years, Janis has lead a fascinating life.  She’s traveled all over the globe, spending much of that time in the Middle East, where she indulged in her “deep and abiding love of Egyptology.”  Her Naval officer husband even proposed to her on a moonlit night near the pyramids of Giza–sounds like Janis’ life belongs in a romance novel!

Janis now writes for Harlequin’s digital first imprint, Carina Press, and she has a new romantic suspense novel coming out in less than two weeks.  She’s here today to tell us all about it.  Take it away, Janis!

A Single Candle in an Upper Window

I confess.

I love the old-style Gothic romances. You know the kind I mean – mostly published in the late 60s and 70s, the cover was almost universally dark, with a great brooding castle or manor house set out in the middle of a foreboding landscape. In the foreground there was a pretty young thing, usually in something voluminous and ruffly, running for her life and sending a terror-stricken glance back over her shoulder. The big castle/manor house is totally dark, save for one brilliantly lit window high up under the eaves.

Even at the time I could appreciate that the covers were more than slightly ludicrous – I mean, the ruffly voluminous thing was obviously supposed to be nightwear, but who could get to sleep inside all that pouffy yardage? Not only that, if she wanted to get away, isn’t it silly to run like mad while you’re looking over your shoulder? That’s more likely to send you sprawling down on your face than help you escape.

There’s no accounting for true love, though. Some of the stories were wonderful, more were monuments to words-by-the-foot predictability, some were unabashed dreck, and I read them all. Some of them I still do. Through several moves and cleaning out my late mother’s home, I got rid of thousands of books, but my beloved Gothics stayed around.

Good or bad, the stories were basically simple – a young woman pretty much alone in the world takes a position – governess or companion were the most popular – in a big, creepy house. There is a varied cast of characters, usually including the brooding, misunderstood master of the house and a nice young handsome man. Sometimes the nice young handsome man was the villain, but most of the time no matter how badly he was misunderstood the dark master was the hero – almost an archetype of the tortured hero. The heroine is invariably plunged into the mysteries of the past and nearly suffers death before the villainy is uncovered, the truth revealed and sunshine and light reign thereafter.

While drenched in heart-palpitating romance, the stories – at least the ones I loved – were always squeaky clean, with nothing more than clasped hands, touching sighs or the occasional chaste kiss.

At the time of first reading, during those long-ago days, I supposed I liked them because they represented a promise. I was young and reasonably pretty. I wanted adventure and true romance. If it happened to that (generally) air-headed fruitcake of a heroine who followed an anonymous note into the dark cellars at midnight after three people had been mysteriously killed, what could I – smarter and blessed with a caring family – expect?

Yes, I have always been among the reality challenged. Don’t ask me about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

However… now I am no longer young and hope I am a great deal wiser than the innocent young woman I used to be, and I still love these old Gothic stories of love and danger.

Perhaps it is because they represent a time in my life that was incredibly happy, or perhaps it is because the good ones, the ones that I have kept and continue to reread, the ones with plausible stories and good characterization, are simply the best of what is admittedly a wildly uneven genre. Or perhaps it is that they, in the main, are more human in scale and pacing than most anything you can find today. While they are exciting and have a deep mystery, there is no gratuitous gore or horror or sex. Everything is kept to a sedate, mannerly pace one can enjoy reading instead of the exhausting (and more often than not boring) bang-bang-bang unending chase/machine gun tempo of more recent romantic suspenses where one can hardly draw breath between one crisis and another.

I have said for years what a pity it is no one writes that kind of story any more. Fortunately, I can’t say that any more, because I have just published a modern Gothic called INHERITANCE OF SHADOWS.

True, there is no pretty young thing tearing madly across a darkened lawn on the cover, but there is a wondrous creepy old house. I guess Carina Press metaphorically paid the electric bill, because in my cover house every window is blazing with light – and it’s still creepy.

It’s funny – I never cared much for high fantasy and certainly never intended to write any, but… In INHERITANCE OF SHADOWS the heroine Aurora has come to Merrywood, the estate of her late father’s friend, to attend a convention honoring her late father’s books. She never knew her father and was raised with little or no knowledge of him. He wrote a series of high fantasy novels that have spawned a rabid fandom, intellectual debate and a series of conventions. He also committed suicide in front of her when she was barely three years old.

Things at the convention go wildly awry; first of all, Aurora’s former love shows up, intending to write a book about her father – the very thing that broke them up in the first place. Aurora begins having strange dreams where she is taking part in ceremonies her father wrote about. His friend, her host, and his colleagues are annoyingly possessive of her. The conventioneers regard her as a-not-quite-human icon, the essence of the books come to life. And she is not the only being from the books come to life; creatures from the books begin to appear, creatures that appear to be real and not just costumed conventioneers. Aurora realizes that not only her sanity, but her very life may be in danger… but by then it is too late to leave.

During editorial conferences (some call them editorial combat) with my wonderful editor Mallory Braus, we both found that the idea of a snippet of one of Aurora’s father’s books at the beginning of each chapter would set the mood of that chapter wonderfully. I had wanted to do this from the beginning, but had not mentioned it because (1) I didn’t think it would sell and (2) I had no idea of or inclination towards writing high fantasy. However, with Mallory’s enthusiastic urging I tried, and was astonished when the varied stories of the non-human creatures of my imaginary world flowed easily from my fingertips. So easily, in fact, that some of these chapter head ‘snippets’ were two and three pages long!

After a lot of internal debate – and urging from both Mallory and my trusted beta readers to go ahead and write the seven book series – I agreed to rein in the snippets to a reasonable length instead of eliminating them. However, the idea of taking on the series – seven books!!! – is a bit daunting. I am much more comfortable with my good old-fashioned Gothics. As I should be. After all, one most intelligent and perspicacious reviewer said I was the obvious successor to Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt!

I’d like to know your opinion. INHERITANCE OF SHADOWS is being released by Carina Press on March 12, so let me hear what you think. (And keep an eye out for my new Gothic, THE CURSE OF THE EXILE, which is very nearly complete – Scotland, an ancient family curse, two handsome brothers, a ghost who isn’t one, revenge, greed and a female librarian in a crumbling castle during the mid-19th century…What’s not to like? Hopefully some nice publisher will buy it!)

Vanessa, here.  Janis, I can’t wait to read this book, because I also loved those old Gothic romances–Victoria Holt was one of my favorite authors, as was Mary Stewart.  I’m so glad you’re revitalizing this wonderful genre!

Well, readers, you heard the lady.  What do you think?  Do you like Gothic romances as much as we do?  What are some of your favorites?  One of mine was Mistress of Mellyn, which is pictured above–which ones do you remember?

And don’t forget to stop by Janis’ website for details on all her books, and to read an excerpt.

We Have Winners!

The winner of the Mary Stewart contest is The Loopy Librarian.  Congratulations!  You’ve won a copy of This Rough Magic, one of my favorite books by Mary Stewart.

I’m also giving away a set each of Mary Stewart postcards to Betty Lewis and Jeanne Miro.  Ladies, I’ll be in touch soon.

Thanks to everyone for stopping by the blog.  And if you haven’t ever read any Mary Stewart books, please give her a try.  Her novels have been reissued in beautiful trade paperbacks, put out by Hodder & Stoughton.  And Mary’s books will also be available in your local library!


The Fabulous Mary Stewart & Giveaway!

Do you remember Mary Stewart?  An even more important question would be, of course, did you ever read a Mary Stewart novel?

Those of us who are of a certain age – I would say over thirty – probably did read her, since her books were among the most popular of the romance genre in the late 50’s and then the 60’s and 70’s.  In fact, many critics would say she’s one of the creators of the modern romantic suspense novel, that unique form of storytelling that blends a thrilling mystery with a solid love story.  I discovered Mary Stewart’s books in my teens, when my big sister handed me a whole pile of them to read.  It was love at first sight and I tore through them.  Along with Victoria Holt and Georgette Heyer, Mrs. Stewart’s  books inspired in me a love for the romance genre that ultimately prompted me to pick up pen and begin writing romance novels myself.

Mrs. Stewart’s  impact on the romantic suspense genre has been profound.  Here’s what Pamela Regis, Professor of English and noted author of critical works on the romance genre had to say about MS in her book, A Natural History of the Romance Novel: 

“Stewart’s influence extends to every writer of romantic suspense, for Stewart understood and perfected this hybrid of romance and mystery and used it as a structure for books so beautifully written that they have endured to become part of the canon of the twentieth-century romance novel.” 

And her books are beautifully written.  One of Mrs. Stewart’s many strengths was her ability to incorporate setting into her books as a key element of story.  Her settings are exotic and a reflection of her many travels around the world with her husband, Frederick Stewart.  For instance, The Gabriel Hounds is set in Lebanon, This Rough Magic is set in Corfu, Greece, and the book I just finished, Madam Will You Talk?  is set in the south of France.  Her descriptions are so evocative and compelling that they blend seamlessly into the story, and enhance plot and character in a way that is unique to Mary Stewart novels.

But why am I talking about Mary Stewart today?  Several weeks ago, I received an email from a woman who works in the marketing department of Hodder and Stoughton, the venerable English publisher who has published everyone from Winston Churchill to Stephen King.  Recently, they decided to reissue the books of Mary Stewart, who began her career with H & S and remains with them to this day.  Since I had written a few posts about Mary Stewart, the marketing person with H & S asked if I would be interested in reading the reissues and posting some reviews.  As you can imagine I was eager to say yes, and thanks to the generosity of H & S I now have several of the beautiful reissues of classic Mary Stewart novels to give away.  And the books are gorgeous, too, lovely trade paperbacks with really cool retro covers.

That’s the cover for Madam Will You Talk?, Mrs. Stewart’s first book, published in 1955.  It was one of the few MS books I hadn’t yet read and I finished it last night.  It blew me away with the quality of the writing, the intensity of the suspense, and the deeply realized character of the heroine, a young war widow who, while on vacation in Provence, stumbles upon a kidnapping and a murder plot.  Madam also features two incredible car chases through the French countryside – the heroine learned to drive race cars from her husband – that were incredibly exciting and suspenseful.  And how many car chases do you actually find in novels these days?  MS totally pulls it off.

Anyway, I’m thrilled to have the opporunity to introduce a new generation of readers to Mary Stewart’s classic romantic supsense novels.  Today, I’m giving away a copy of one of my very favorite MS books, This Rough Magic.  It takes place on the island of Corfu and the heroine, a British actress fleeing her failed career on the London stage, stumbles into the middle of smuggling ring and lots of danger and adventure.  Oh, and along the way she rescues a stranded dolphin and finds the man of her dreams.  It’s an absolutely awesome book.

H & S also sent me several sets of beautiful postcards of these reissues, so I’ll also give away two copies of those to readers who comment.  Just tell me who was the first romance author you ever read and you’ll have a chance to win the book or one of these great postcard sets.  And if you have read Mary Stewart, tell me which book is your favorite!