A Conversation With Mariah Stewart

by Claire E. White

Bestselling novelist Mariah Stewart has always
Photo of Mariah Stewart
loved to tell stories. She wrote her first story when she was in first grade, which she promptly sold for a nickel. She continued to write, all through high school -- in notebooks that she stashed under her bed -- through college and beyond. Through a bad marriage and a better one, through the births of her daughters and all the times in between. She stored the notebooks in boxes in her attic, but somehow those boxes were inadvertently thrown away during a move. She recalls, "I never realized how much losing those stories would hurt, because I had not realized just how much of myself had gone into them. It was then that I first began to understand that all I had ever really wanted to do was to write stories. Since I had never completed a novel, I decided that it was as good a time as any to find out if I could."

As the mother of a five year-old and a seven year-old, she spent a lot of time waiting around at soccer practice, softball practice and ballet lessons. So, she kept a supply of yellow legal pads in her car and wrote on her lunch hour at her day job, and while she was waiting for her kids.

The result of her efforts was Moments in Time, which was published by Pocket Books in 1995. Nine years and numerous books and awards later, she still sometimes writes on yellow legal pads, though these days she does most of her work on a computer. She says that "Writing fiction is the best job in the world, and I love every minute I spend working on my books."

After writing a number of contemporary romances, Mariah moved to writing romantic suspense and thrillers, with great success. Her newest release, Dead Wrong (Ballantine) is a gripping serial killer thriller, which is the first in a trilogy. Dead Certain and Dead Even will be released later this summer. Library Journal says of Dead Wrong, "This chilling, creative tale, which is the first title in a new trilogy that involves a bizarre switching of hit lists, will thrill Stewart's growing number of fans, who are sure to be waiting this summer for the rest of the series."

In addition to hitting the bestseller lists, her books have garnered numerous awards. A RITA finalist for romantic suspense, she is the recipient of the Award of Excellence for contemporary romance, a RIO (Reviewers International) Award honoring excellence in women's fiction, a Reviewers Choice Award from Romantic Times magazine, and a three-time recipient of the Golden Leaf Award for contemporary romance. A native of Hightstown, New Jersey, she lives with her husband, two daughters, and two rambunctious golden retrievers in a century-old Victorian home. She is a member of the Valley Forge Romance Writers, New Jersey Romance Writers, and the Romance Writers of America.

When she's not working, you might find Mariah bird watching, gardening, walking on the beach, spending time with her family or trying to install discipline in her golden retrievers. She spoke to us her new suspense series, about her second career as a novelist and what it's like to get inside the head of a serial killer.

Were you a reader when you were growing up? What did you like to read? Is there any book which really made an impact on you?

Yes -- I read all the time. Loved Nancy Drew and Anne of Green Gables. I think both these series made an impression because I learned to love the continuing characters -- something I do in my own books. Reading Agatha Christie and Mary Stewart introduced me to more adult mysteries, which I now enjoy reading and writing.

What was the first thing you ever wrote? What reaction did it get from family or friends?

Cover of The President's Daughter by Mariah Stewart
A little story about my friend Jerry's turtle (Binky) -- I sold copies for a nickel. I don't recall that anyone was particularly impressed. The first book I wrote was Moments in Time, which -- miracle of miracles -- actually sold! Over the years, I'd started several novels but never finished one. I started this one with the goal of finally completing an entire novel. Was thrilled when I found out an editor wanted to buy it!

When did you first start to read mysteries and thrillers? Was there any author in particular that really impressed you when you read her/his work?

I was probably seven or eight -- Agatha Christie impressed me with the complexity of her plots, Mary Stewart impressed with...well, pretty much everything about her books! Plotting, characterization, dialogue -- she did it all so well.

What made you decide to write your first book? Was there always a desire inside you to be an author?

I always wanted to be a writer, but it wasn't something I thought could ever happen. So I put my writing aspirations on the back burner for a long time. I decided to write that first book mostly as a challenge to myself, to see if I could, in fact, write a complete book. It was much more difficult than I'd imagined, by the way.

Please tell us about the road to publication for your first book. How did you juggle your day job, your family and your writing at the same time?

"I always wanted to be a writer, but it wasn't something I thought could ever happen. So I put my writing aspirations on the back burner for a long time. I decided to write that first book mostly as a challenge to myself, to see if I could, in fact, write a complete book. It was much more difficult than I'd imagined, by the way."
In retrospect, it looks easier than it was. I wrote the book, I found an agent, she shopped the book and sold it to Linda Marrow, who at the time, was an editor at Pocket Books. This entire process took much longer than it appears! I still don't know how I juggled everything, and that's the truth. I look back and wonder when I slept! Our daughters -- who are two years apart -- went to a neighborhood school when I first started, so that wasn't too bad, and at the time, I was working 3 days/week. The only after school activity was dance. Then, when they got a little older and started going to a school that was 35-40 minutes away, and I was working full time at a job 35 minutes in the opposite direction, things got a little tougher. Both girls were involved in sports by this time, so there was constant running back and forth between my day job, the girls' school, and our home. In those days, I used every day off -- every sick day, every vacation day, every holiday, every weekend -- to write. During that period, I even had a year or two when I wrote two novels and a novella -- and looking back, I don't know how I did it! Now I'm writing full time and both girls are in college (one just graduated and is getting ready for grad school, one is packing for 5 weeks study in London this summer) so things are easier these days.

Let's talk about your new "Dead" trilogy, which begins with Dead Wrong. What was your inspiration for this series? What sparked your imagination?

Cover of Dead Even by Mariah Stewart
Actually, it was Victoria Alexander who gave me the idea. We were talking one morning and I was saying I wanted to do something a little different for this trilogy that my editor had asked me to think about doing. I knew I wanted to use my FBI team from previous books -- the same team I started in Brown-Eyed Girl and Voices Carry, through Until Dark -- but wanted to connect the books through something other than just those characters. It was Victoria's suggestion that I connect these three books through the bad guys as well as through the good guys. Once I started thinking about it, the three nasty guys just sort of introduced themselves .

I'd like to talk about the hero of the book, FBI agent Aiden Shields. Aiden is an interesting character; not only is he emotionally damaged from his last mission, he also has a pretty severe injury. What was the greatest challenge in writing Aiden?

Aidan is different from most of my heroes, in that he has enormous baggage. He is darker than any hero I every wrote about -- he not only has the physical injuries to recover from, but he has the guilt of not having been able to save the life of his much loved brother, Dylan. The greatest challenge was not having him become so mired in himself that he could not overcome his guilt, so that eventually he can begin to forgive himself and permit himself to join the human race again. If anyone other than Annie (Mara's sister) had asked him to crawl out of his exile, he'd have said no. But because Annie had been engaged to Dylan, Aidan feels he owes her. His agreeing to help Mara ends up saving him -- as Annie, a psychologist, hoped it would.

The heroine of the tale is Mara Douglas, a complex character who lives every day with the terrible loss of her daughter. How did you create Mara?

Cover of Dead Wrong by Mariah Stewart
Mara was just there, in my subconscious, waiting for her story to be told. I really don't remember having created her. She was just there. I saw her as a woman who had suffered a terrible loss, but overcame the tragedy by reaching out for other children as she hoped someone would reach out for hers, while never, ever giving up hope of finding her child again. It was her strength that inspired Aidan to pull himself together again.

The psychology of the killer is quite interesting. Did you do any special research before you created him? What was it like getting inside a serial killer's head?

I did a lot of reading -- but this killer was really a complex personality, more so than others I've done in the past, I think. And I think the most interesting thing about him -- without giving anything away about the story -- is the choice he makes at the end of the book. In a way, he ended up doing something "honorable" -- in his way of thinking -- in spite of what he was, and everything he'd done.

Do you find love scenes easier or harder to write than other scenes? What are your thoughts about love scenes, in general?

Harder, definitely. I don't do them particularly well. There are others who do them so much better! I think if you do them well, fine, go for it. I think everyone should write to their strengths -- I just don't feel love scenes are mine .

You have created some really evil characters in your books. What are your thoughts on evil, in general? Or do you even think in those terms? One could say that the killer in Dead Wrong had a lot of things stacked against him with that terrible upbringing. Where do you stand on the whole "nature vs. nurture" debate?

"Love and family are central to all our lives. Your family is your anchor -- it's where you learn about love and honesty and humor and trust and relationships. This is what life revolves around."
Ahhh, this is an old debate, and really, there's no one right answer. Some people are born with a predisposition, I think, in that perhaps they are missing whatever it is that permits them to understand that hurting other living things is wrong. I don't know if it's genetic, if it's something in DNA -- I truthfully don't know what that missing piece is. But there are some people who just lack whatever it is that tells the rest of us to behave in a certain matter, that helps us to distinguish between right and wrong. We call these people sociopaths, and I guess that's as good a term as any. On the other hand, when you start to research serial killers, you see that so many of them were abused as children, so many came from such hellish backgrounds, that you know that a child's psyche can be damaged at a young age. So to answer the question, I'll go back to the beginning. I don't think there's one right answer here, no one cause.

You have had a number of characters who work for the FBI. What initially drew you to have a character that worked for that organization? Did that require any specialized research?

Genna Snow was the first FBI character I wrote -- and I wrote her for a purpose in Brown-Eyed Girl. She was the agent my heroine spoke with about her missing sister. The character sort of grew from there, and when I stumbled over the story that became Voices Carry, I knew that Genna had been the child in that story. I've done research to the extent that I've spoken with several agents. I also read Candace DeLong's book, Special Agent: My Life On the Front Lines as Woman in the FBI, which gives a woman's perspective of the Bureau, and of the job.

I'd like to talk about the details of the creative process. Would you take us through a typical writing day for you?

I wish I had a typical day! I do try to keep to a schedule -- try to be at my computer between 8 and 9 in the morning, ideally, I like to write until around 10 or 11, take a break, pick up the mail. Talk on the phone. Work for a while longer. Eat lunch. Pull weeds in the garden. Work until late afternoon. I try to avoid interruptions -- when the girls are both away at school, it's easier. Only interruptions most days are from the dogs (we have two golden retrievers) wanting attention.

Strong themes of family and the healing power of love run through your books. What attracts you to these themes?

Love and family are central to all our lives. Your family is your anchor -- it's where you learn about love and honesty and humor and trust and relationships. This is what life revolves around.

Cover of Brown-Eyed Girl by Mariah Stewart
What qualities do you think makes a hero in a romantic suspense story? What qualities make someone a hero in real life? Do you have any personal heroes or heroines or people you admire greatly?

The short answer: I think a hero -- real or fictional -- possesses strength, honor, humor, courage -- someone who is willing to sacrifice what he needs to of himself to do what he needs to do for the people he loves. One true "hero" in my life was my cousin, Carol Loder, who bravely battled cancer for several years. In the end she lost the fight, but she never backed down from it and never let the disease dominate her life or her relationships with the people she loved.

What does your family think about your writing career? Are they supportive? Do you let them read your works in progress?

Well, they all think it's pretty cool. Yes, they are pretty much supportive, but I don't think they understand just how difficult it is. No, they don't read works in progress. The only person who reads while I'm still writing is my friend, Victoria Alexander. We email chapters in progress back and forth. She has a great eye, and I trust her judgment.

What are you working on now? Can you give us a sneak peek into your next projects?

"One true "hero" in my life was my cousin, Carol Loder, who bravely battled cancer for several years. In the end she lost the fight, but she never backed down from it and never let the disease dominate her life or her relationships with the people she loved."
I recently signed a contract for three more books for Ballantine -- three more connected romantic suspense novels to be published next summer. Each book will revolve around the solving of an case. The connecting theme will be the character of Regan Landry, who co-authored a series of bestselling true crime novels with her father, Josh Landry, who is a victim in the last of my Dead books. The cold cases will be cases that Josh had investigated at one time but did not solve -- in each of the three books, one case will be resolved by working through a new case. The working titles are Cold Truth, Hard Truth, and Final Truth.

What is your idea of the perfect vacation?

What's a vacation? Okay, I guess just sitting on a beach in a comfy chair, under an umbrella, staring mindlessly out to sea...

What are some of your pet peeves in life?

Rudeness -- which takes many forms.

How has being a mother affected you as a writer?

Being a mother has affected everything I do in my life -- it's the best thing I do, the most important thing I do. It has made me more understanding, more compassionate, more giving.

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

Gosh. Advice...hmmmm. I guess the best advice I can give is to write. Write often. Write everyday if you can. Find your voice. Write about people and things that interest you. If you're writing commercial fiction, know your market. And read. Read read read. I don't know if it's possible to be a writer if you're not a reader first...

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