A Conversation With Christiane Heggan

by Claire E. White

Born and raised in Nice, France, popular romance novelist Christiane Heggan
Photo of Christiane Heggan
was always fascinated by the English language, even though she says it was not her strongest subject in school. As a girl, Christiane and her best friend used to dream of someday moving to Paris, or London, or even Rome. They weren't sure how they'd survive once we got there, but that didn't stop them from dreaming. Then she met her first boyfriend and the wanderlust vanished, at least for a while. Years later, as she was finishing her second year at the University of Nice, she met an American serviceman, married him and moved to the U.S., all in the space of seven months. Lake Charles, Louisiana, was a little farther than she wanted to go, but she was young, in love, and adventurous.

But far from being the fairy tale she had imagined, those first few weeks on American soil were a nightmare. She didn't speak a word of English, she couldn't cook, and she had never held a broom in her life. Clearly, something had to be done, and she had to be the one to do it. A year later, the situation had changed dramatically. She spoke English fluently, she had learned how to cook, and she had the cleanest house on the block. She even signed up for a course in creative writing. She wasn't sure why. She needed something to do other than polish the molding, and a writing course sounded like fun.

Her years as a U.S. Air Force wife kept her busy. Besides residing in Louisiana, California, Delaware, and New Jersey, she also lived in Germany, Morocco, and Spain. It was during a tour of duty in Spain that a friend told her the base paper was looking for a reporter and she would be perfect for the job.

She bluffed her way through the interview, and the editor gave her a try-out assignment and a three-o'clock deadline the following afternoon. She had less than 24 hours to conduct her first interview, write an article and get it back to the editor by the time specified. She made the deadline, and her journalism career was launched.

Her editor's parting words to her at his going-away party were: "Hang in there, kiddo. I have a feeling you'll go far." Christiane credits this first editor and her second husband, Bob, for her career as a novelist. The editor inspired her, but it was Bob who years later convinced Christiane that she should write a book.

Many novels later, she is finally convinced that writing women's fiction is her true calling. She says that she often thinks fondly of her first editor, though, and how instrumental he was in her becoming a writer, saying, "If it hadn't been for his faith in me and those last few words, I might never have had the nerve to take my husband's suggestion seriously."

Her first contemporary novel, Cannes, was immediately bought by Penguin USA and published in June 1990 under the Onyx imprint. It was followed by ten more books, including Suspicion (Mira), Deception (Mira), Trust No One (Mira), Enemy Within (Mira) and her latest book, Blind Faith (Mira). She is presently working on a new suspense thriller set in the nation's capital.

When she's not working, you might find Christiane watching The Young and the Restless, entertaining, reading, whipping up something delicious in the kitchen, or planning a romantic dinner with her husband. Christiane spoke with us about her latest book, Blind Faith, how she creates her popular suspense novels, and why writing what you know is not the way to get published.

How did you get your start as a journalist?

Actually, I had no credentials for that job except that I wanted it very badly. At first, the editor of the newspaper wasn't too keen on hiring someone without a journalism degree, but the position was, after all, a volunteer one with no pay, so he couldn't afford to be too picky. My enthusiasm won him over. He sent me on a try-out assignment and told me to come back the following day at the same time, with the finished feature article. I know he thought I wouldn't be able to do it and he'd be off the hook. I did the interview, my first, stayed up until three in the morning to write the article, with samples of other articles in that same newspaper beside me, and delivered it on time. I got the job.

What led up to the publication of your first book?

I owe that to NJRW (the New Jersey chapter of RWA). I went to one of their meetings. That led to me attending their annual conference. There I met an agent who read the first chapter and synopsis of my first novel. When she was finished, she looked up and said, "I can sell this." I thought she was kidding. She wasn't.

No one could ever tell that your first language was not English, but French. How did you learn to write so fluently and idiomatically in another language?

That wasn't easy. But in the end it all comes down to having what is called "an ear for languages." Apparently I had it although I didn't know it at the time. And neither did my English teacher who told me at the end of that first year, "You're my worst student. I don't want you in my class next year." Years later, I was living in the U.S. It took me six months to learn English enough to converse, another six to truly master it. Reading and listening to various people talk helped me tremendously.

When did you first know that you wanted to write romance novels?

After I read my first romance -- Riley in the Morning by the wonderful Sandra Brown.

I'd like to talk about your latest book, Blind Faith. What was your inspiration for this book?

Cover of Blind Faith by Christiane Heggan
Actually, Philadelphia was my inspiration for Blind Faith. So many people, Philadelphians of course, wrote and said, "When are you going to set a book in Philadelphia? So I started thinking what plot and characters would best suit the city of brotherly love, and voila.

The heroine of the book is Kelly Robolo, an investigative reporter. How did you create the character of Kelly? When you started the book, did you have a picture of her in your mind?

Yes, I had a very clear picture of Kelly Robolo right from the start. I knew I wanted her to be a South Philly girl, with an Italian background and a colorful Italian mother.

When you start a new book, how much of the plot do you know? Do you use outlines or character bios?

I know what happens from beginning to end, but many details, big and small, often pop up unexpectedly, almost demanding to be part of the story. I don't do character bios, just a good, solid synopsis.

Food is certainly featured in your books, and your website has some great recipes. Have you always loved to cook? How do you find the time with your writing schedule?

Cover of Enemy Within by Christiane Heggan
Yes, I love to cook, and to entertain. I make the time. Cooking is my therapy. When the plot, or the characters of a story, don't want to cooperate, I start cooking.

Your books contain elements of romance, suspense and mystery. How do you approach balancing the adventure and the romantic parts of the plot? Does that ever present a special challenge when writing?

Yes, that's a very big challenge. Often in the first draft, the right mix isn't there, so I have to go over the manuscript again and again until all the elements blend in.

Have you ever faced writer's block? How do you deal with it?

Ah, writers' block. The curse. Yes, I have faced that monster. I refuse to give in to it, though. When it strikes, I simply walk away from my computer and start creating something delicious in the kitchen. Works every time. I once plotted an entire book that didn't want to come together basting the Easter ham!

What is the greatest challenge you face when starting a new book?

"I avoid brooding heroes. They don't work for me ... I like my men to be strong and to have a good sense of humor, to be able to roll with the punches."
Letting go of the previous book and getting to know the new characters. It's like losing wonderful friends and having to learn making new ones you swear you won't like as much. But you do and the process begins all over again.

I'd like to talk about the day to day process of being a writer. Would you describe a typical working day for you?

Typical day. Hmm. It starts early-5 a.m. I work until my husband gets up (6). We work out together, he on the Nordic Track, me on my treadmill. At 7, I do another work out with Denise Austin on Lifetime. By eight I'm back at my computer. I take a lunch break, watch my favorite soap (The Young and The Restless) and go back to work. I prepare dinner at about 5. Bob gets home at 6. We eat at 7. (Are you bored yet???) If I'm close to a deadline, say four or five weeks, I go back to work until about 9, otherwise, I'll read or watch TV.

Let's talk about the editing process. Do you edit as you go, or do you come back to a previous day's work to edit? Do you get feedback from anyone else on your work?

Cover of Deception by Christiane Heggan
No, I don't edit as I go because that process doesn't work for me. Often halfway into a book, I realize that a scene I wrote in Chapter Three, for example, needs to be thrown out, and I would be upset to throw away something I spent time editing. I usually start doing that in draft Number Two and continue until everything is just as I want it.

When you create a romantic hero, are there any characteristics that you definitely try to avoid -- any traits that you think a romantic hero should not have?

I avoid brooding heroes. They don't work for me, though once in a while a wounded soul works out well for a particular storyline. I like my men to be strong and to have a good sense of humor, to be able to roll with the punches.

What is your advice for aspiring romance writers?

Write what you want and don't listen to those who say write only what you know. Look at Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark, such proper ladies. They had no knowledge of criminology, or of the deviant mind. They just let their imagination soar and they did their research.

What is your opinion of ebooks? Will paper books eventually be replaced by handheld readers?

I have read, judged and even given quotes to some ebooks. Some are so good they scare me. I don't know about ebooks replacing paper books. I hope that won't happen. There's something comforting, even therapeutic is holding a real book in your hands, feeling it, smelling it and seeing it on your shelf year after year.

How much do you use the Internet? Has is become a part of your life, either professionally or personally (like for shopping)?

I use the Internet a lot: emails, research, and of course, to check out websites. But I don't do much shopping there. I prefer to go into the stores. Again, it boils down to that touchy feeling.

As a mother, are you concerned about the amount of sex and violence in television, movies and games today? What should the role of our government be (if any) in regulating content for children?

"[W]riters' block...When it strikes, I simply walk away from my computer and start creating something delicious in the kitchen...I once plotted an entire book that didn't want to come together basting the Easter ham!"
Yes, very. I also believe that regulating what our children watch and do begins at home. The problem is, how do you monitor what your children see on TV or what games they play when they're at someone's else's house? As a rule, I don't like the government to interfere in my everyday life, but we're talking about our kids, and maybe in this case, it wouldn't be a bad idea for Washington to establish some guidelines.

How has the market for romance writing changed since your first book was published?

Romances used to be more predictable, entertaining but predictable. Nowadays, everything goes. You can mix a romance with suspense, a good mystery, science fiction, humor, even the paranormal. I love it.

As a reader, what elements do you think make a really great romance novel?

The right chemistry between hero and heroine.

Your heroines in your novels lead such exciting lives, with many different careers. If you hadn't been a writer, what other career could you see yourself enjoying?

I would have loved to be an actress. I did a little acting in college, and I thought, really thought..... But it didn't happen.

Can you give us a sneak peek at your next book?

Photo of Christiane Heggan
My maternal grandmother was Italian and very superstitious and she transferred that superstition onto me, so this will be a very tiny peek. The new book, which is due on my editor's desk by April 1st, takes place in Washington, D.C. I just came back from there and found the perfect place to murder a loan shark! Part of the story also takes place in a small fishing village in Southwestern France. A lot of people kept complaining that I never wrote France into my stories. I guess it took just the right plot to do it.

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