A Conversation With Shirley Palmer

by Claire E. White

Bestselling novelist Shirley Palmer was
Photo of Shirley Palmer
born in London and educated at Sir William Perkins High School for Girls in Chertsey, Surrey, and at Barking Abbey in the county of Essex. Her early career took her to Manhattan, where she worked for the British delegation to the United Nations, and then, after marriage to an American architect, for the British Consulate General. Later she and her husband, Dan, moved to Los Angeles, where she worked in marketing, writing articles, brochures and press releases for clients ranging from architects to hospitals. Upon the birth of her son, Shirley retired from the workforce for 15 years to become a full-time mother. In the early eighties, her husband had the opportunity to participate in the building of a new town on the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia. Shirley and Dan spent five years in the kingdom. "While I was in Saudi Arabia, and being a woman, there wasn't much to do. In the past, I had always wanted to write, but I never had the time. This was the perfect opportunity for me...so I wrote a novel," says Shirley. The result was her first book entitled Wine and Fire, which she never submitted for publication. Using her mother's name, Nell Brien, she then wrote A Veiled Journey (Mira), a novel about one woman's search for her roots in Saudi Arabia, and Lioness (Mira), which explored a woman's search for the truth about her brother's death at the hands of their powerful Saudi prince father. Shirley is known for her strong and complex heroines; she says, "I am attracted to writing about women who become warriors, fighting for what they believe to be right, willing to put their lives on the line in the process."

Her new release is Danger Zone (Mira), which Kirkus Reviews calls, "A first-rate, nail-biting hardcover-debut thriller about a bright, tough, immensely appealing young woman, her intrepid husband, and their scary, no-way-out trap."

In 2003, Shirley's fourth book, The Trade, will be published. In this novel Shirley shows that the enslavement of women and children is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world, estimated by the United Nations to be worth upward of 12 billion dollars a year.

Shirley lives in Woodland Hills, California, with her husband, her English bulldog and three cats. When she's not writing, you might find her spending time with her family, reading a good book or catching up on the latest news with her women's poker group. She spoke with us about her new book, and how she creates her memorable characters. She also shares her experiences about living as a Western woman in Saudi Arabia, where a woman can be jailed for setting foot out of her home without a male relative accompanying her.

What did you like to read when you were growing up?

I learned to read at a very early age and for the rest of my life a book has always been close to hand. The classic stories for children of course, Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame; Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie; all of Alice by Lewis Carroll; the Just William books and Aesop's Fables. When older, I read adventure stories that interested me, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, a lot of Norse and Greek mythology. As a teenager I relished Milton's Paradise Lost without knowing it was a classic. Beowulf the same and Forever Amber and Dickens and Mark Twain and Gone With the Wind. P.G. Wodehouse and Jeeves. So many good stories.

Was there anyone in particular who encouraged you to write?

English teachers. Miss Short in Primary School. Miss Eastaugh in High School. And then my son's second grade teacher, Eileen Hoenig who now lives in Paradise, California. Blessed be their names!

I'd like to first talk about your latest novel, Danger Zone. What was your inspiration for this story?

Cover of Danger Zone by Shirley Palmer
I write about women who are willing to put everything on the line, including their lives. What more powerful force is there than that of a mother whose child is threatened? I went from there.

Maggie Cady is a strong, complex character with some major secrets in her past. How did you create the character of Maggie?

Day by day, Maggie revealed herself to me. How old is she? How old was she when the events of her former life destroyed her family? What does she want? What does she fear? How does her early life manifest in her life today? What would she be willing to do to protect her child?

Sam is the husband who loses a son and a wife in one fell swoop -- but he never falls apart. What was your biggest challenge in creating Sam?

Giving him emotional depth while keeping him resourceful and fearless. Sam has truly loved only one woman in his life. He is driven by the need to protect her and their child. In Sam, I tried to create the sort of man I believe every woman wants for the father of her children.

If you were casting the film of Danger Zone, what actors would you see in the roles of Sam and Maggie?

Alec Baldwin, handsome in his early middle age, would be a great Sam Cady. Maggie is more difficult, but Ashley Judd would bring out her vulnerability and her iron will.

The relationship between Maggie and her husband Sam is an important element which drives the plot, and gives insight into both characters' actions. How do you approach integrating the romantic elements into the main storyline? Is it difficult?

It was a bit of a tightrope. This is a thriller, the action
"I write about women who are willing to put everything on the line, including their lives. What more powerful force is there than that of a mother whose child is threatened?"
nonstop, the story one of betrayal and murder and secrets that involve a beloved child-and the lengths to which Maggie and Sam Cady will go to protect that child. In addition, Maggie and Sam have to be true to themselves, the bond between them shown to be the bond between passionate lovers, the foundation upon which their family life is built and at the end of the novel, rebuilt. Was it difficult? I think of building plot and characters as the writer's art. No one said it would be easy.

Danger Zone has action, violence, suspense, etc. but readers can still get involved in characters lives. Do you make a conscious effort not to let the action take over the people.

The short answer is yes. Good books are about characters one's readers can care about.

Let's talk about the actual creative process. Would you describe a typical writing day for you?

My brain does not unwind until about ten A.M. I have an office to which I retire to do all the modern technological equivalents of sharpening pencils, ie, answering email, giving the president and my elected officials the benefit of my advice, etc. I then go over, and over, the previous day or two's work on my computer. And ease my way into creative work. I try to write daily, and feel guilty when I don't.

When you start a new book, which comes first for you: the plot or the characters?

I find there cannot be a plot without characters acting out their roles. It seems to come hand in hand. If A happens, then X would do this, and that is the action of a female-or male-but then she/he would have to… And so it goes.

Have you ever suffered from writer's block? If so, how did you overcome it?

Not really. What I have panicked about is not having an idea for a story. Once started I can usually feel my way, albeit sometimes very slowly. Then I can decide I am on the wrong path and have to start over. Very depressing.

How did you approach the research necessary for Danger Zone?

For background, I read a lot. But the precipitating event in Danger Zone is a crime that I imagined, and I had to know how such a crime would be handled by law enforcement. I spoke to special agents of the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Coast Guard, the local police. I found them to be very helpful. And then I have a friend, David Watkins, who blows up things for the movies. David knows everything about ordnance and explosions and boats and helicopters and shared some of that expertise with me.

How has your training in foreign relations and doing publicity affected your fiction writing?

PR and foreign relations is writing fiction! However, being an avid reader with wide ranging taste has been more help than anything else.

In your novel, A Veiled Journey, you took readers inside Saudi Arabian society. The heroine, an American who was actually smuggled out of Saudi Arabia as an infant to save her from a terrible life, must come to terms with the culture she grew up with and the culture she was born into. How did you create the character of Dr. Liz Ryan?

As you know I lived in Saudi Arabia for five years. The Kingdom is an absolute monarchy (as opposed to a constitutional monarchy) and is closed to outsiders, except pilgrims on hajj to the holy sites, Mecca and Medina. There are no casual visitors going on vacation. I had to find a way to get my story going. A woman protagonist, obviously. A man would never even see the women of Saudi Arabia. Not the wife of an oilman with concerns for a company job. Not a nurse to a private family. Not cabin crew on layover in Riyadh or Jeddah. A doctor who is not Muslim, maybe. Possible under certain circumstances. A surgeon, then, bold and resourceful, used to making quick life and death decisions. Why would she go there? What is her life's journey? What would cause her, once in Saudi Arabia, to put her life on the line? And all the time, upping the ante for Liz Ryan.

What would you say that most American women would find the most shocking about the rules for women in Saudi Arabia? What did you find most restrictive about the customs for foreigners?

Cover of A Veiled Journey by Shirley Palmer
The total power of men. Children belong to the father. Saudi women have no freedom of movement without permission from a male relative, father, husband, brother, son. No freedom to leave the country without written permission from father, husband, etc. and then only with an accompanying male relative. Rigorous separation of the sexes and veiling of girls around age eight. Never seeing a girl playing on the street. Saudi law is sharia, the law of the Holy Koran and Saudi women, like men, have the defense of the Holy Koran, but these laws are interpreted and applied by men with the most rigid religious belief. And that is no joke. My novel, A Veiled Journey, is fiction with feet firmly based in fact. A recent segment of 60 Minutes on CBS dealt with the tragedy of American women with American born children unable to get their children out of Saudi Arabia, some losing their daughters to arranged marriages in kingdom. Our State Department refuses to get involved, our embassy in Riyadh literally expel these women and their children into the street, where of course, they are taken by their Saudi fathers.

The most restrictive rule for foreign women as I experienced it initially was not being able to drive, having to ride a bike in the blazing sun with my groceries in the basket while men whizzed by in air conditioned cars. The rest of the rules were those of courtesy and respect for another culture, which I did not find onerous, ie modest dress, arms and legs covered; eating in the family section of restaurants; not being able to drop in for a cup of coffee anywhere. No big thing although if immodestly dressed, one risked having one's legs caned by mutawain, religious police of the Society for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Religious freedom does not exist. For foreigners no religious services of any kind except Moslem are allowed. One risks punishment if found alone with a person of the opposite gender. Of course, no alcohol is allowed in Kingdom. However, when I lived in Saudi Arabia, the quantities of grape juice and sugar and yeast sold was enormous.

A few months ago, Saudi Arabia was rocked by a tragedy: a girl's school in Mecca caught on fire. First on the scene were muttawas (religious police) from the Society for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, who actually sent the girls back into the burning building to put on headscarves to preserve their modesty before they could be rescued (many were injured and 15 girls died). They also impeded the efforts of the firefighters who wished to rescue the girls first and worry about propriety later. Do you think that there will be any progress on women's rights in this country in the near future?

"[T]he love of family and friends, work that satisfies, and a sense of humor is essential baggage on the road of life. Is there anything that I wish I had been told when growing up? I think one can never hear the words I love you too many times. And one can never say them too many times."
I don't see much change coming any time soon. Especially now with world tensions the way they are. Saudi women generally, in my experience, have little interest in the outside world. They have a tremendous number of children, and their family relationships are central to their lives. I speak of ordinary women, of course, not members of the royal family, or the uber rich. However, even these women are subject to the same rules as others when in Kingdom.

When you're not working, what are your favorite ways to relax and have fun?

Dare I say, I read a lot? I dig in the garden and plant things. I spend time with my granddaughter. I love to get into the mountains close by and walk with my dog. I treasure evenings at the symphony. I love my poker nights with a bunch of women friends where we eat a lot, talk about men and clothes, and play some ridiculous nickel and dime poker with more laughter than card playing. And movies with my husband, and evenings at home, watching television and arguing over who gets to change channels. What could be better?

You have lived in and traveled to a number of interesting places. Is there anywhere that you haven't visited yet that you would love to see?

Australia and New Zealand. Bhutan, and the Tiger Preserve in India. And perhaps, one day, Rwanda and the Congo to see the gorillas while we still have these magnificent creatures on this earth.

Would you give us a sneak peek at your next book, The Trade?

According to U.N. reports, the trafficking in women and children is fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, at twelve billion dollars a year already larger than the drug trade. That is the genesis of my novel, The Trade.

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

Keep writing. No matter what, keep writing. My first novel Wine and Fire still sits in my garage, unwanted and unsung. But I kept writing, learning my craft as I did so, and one day a publisher saw the manuscript of my novel Lioness and asked if I had anything else. I had A Veiled Journey, and was working on Danger Zone. And they wanted a two book deal so they got The Trade. Unfortunately, publishers rarely look at work unless it comes through an agent, so, while you are writing every day, get an agent by going to seminars, getting cards, sending out work. And keep writing.

Cover of Lioness by Nell Brien
What advice will you give your granddaughter as a woman growing up in this new century? Is there anything that you wish someone had told you when you were growing up?

This century is like no other, as is always the case. Advice is rarely appreciated, so I have hopes for her instead. My granddaughter, I hope, will find her spiritual center and remain true to that. If she does, she will know that the love of family and friends, work that satisfies, and a sense of humor is essential baggage on the road of life. Is there anything that I wish I had been told when growing up? I think one can never hear the words I love you too many times. And one can never say them too many times.

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