A Conversation With Stella Cameron

by Claire E. White

New York Times bestselling, award-winning author Stella Cameron didn't just dream of being a writer when she was a little girl. She also dreamed of being an actress,
Photo of Stella Cameron
an opera singer, a painter and a surgeon. Although she never announced her intention of being a writer, writing was always her greatest passion. She is the author of more than forty-five historical and contemporary romantic suspense novels and novellas. Each of her single-title releases has appeared on the Waldenbooks mass market and romance lists, and on the Barnes and Noble bestseller list. Stella has won the Romantic Times Career Achievement Award for Romantic Suspense, and both Waldenbooks and Bookrak sales awards. In 1998, she was the recipient of the Pacific Northwest Writers' Association Achievement Award for distinguished professional achievement and for enhancing the stature of the Northwest literary community. Stella is a contributor to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, Romance Writers On the Appeal of the Romance, Edited by Jayne Anne Krentz, published by University of Pennsylvania Press, and Harper Paperbacks.

Current fiction titles include mainstream contemporary romantic suspense novels, The Best Revenge (Kensington), and French Quarter (Kensington). The Wish Club (from the Rossmara Quintet) (Kensington) and More and More (Little, Brown) are her most recent historical romance titles. Guilty Pleasures (Kensington), The Best Revenge (Kensington), and French Quarter (Zebra Books) were all Doubleday Book Club's selections. French Quarter has also been selected by The Literary Guild and The Mystery Guild. Her latest books are Once and for Always, a historical romance from Mira Books and the New York Times bestselling contemporary romantic thriller Key West. Key West has been nominated for Best Romantic Suspense of the year by Romantic Times, of which Publisher's Weekly says, "Steamy, atmospheric and fast-paced, Cameron's romantic suspense novel delivers on all fronts."

Stella prizes her family above all else, even her career, saying, "I'm a wife, a mother, a friend . . . and a writer. In that order." She is married to the love of her life, Jerry, and they live just outside of Seattle, Washington. She is also the mother of three children, one of whom is married. In addition to writing and her family, her other passions as reading, music, animals and the theatre. Her dog, Spike, and her cat, Raven are her constant companions. Her work ethic is legendary. She writes in numerous genres, from contemporary romantic suspense to historical with a supernatural touch. Stella was on the Net early, and enjoys interacting with her fans there on a regular basis. In fact, she even has her own message board on her website where she somehow finds the time to answer budding writers' questions.

Stella spoke with us about how she created her latest bestseller, Key West, gives us a sneak peek at her new novel, Glass Houses, and shares some great advice for giving your writing that compelling edge.

When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? What got you interested in the romance genre?

In the mid-1960s, I became interested in writing short fiction and worked at this for several years. The form served as a great way to learn how to write well, but it didn't really advance my writing skills. Early in the 80s, someone pointed out that I always wrote about relationships and suggested I should write romance. I'd never even read one. I started with Superromances and was hooked. A good time in my life.

What led up to your first book being published?

I entered the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest and won a prize in the novel category with what was my first novel. From that I got an agent and finally a publisher. I was very fortunate.

You are so prolific. How do you balance being a wife, mother and novelist?

Our children are now grown. When they were small I wrote from 4 until 7 in the morning and then when they napped. They insist I made them take naps until they were 21. Not true! My husband and I have always respected our individual needs and talents. All of life is give and take. We give each other space.

Cover of Key West
I'd like to talk about Key West, which has just been released in paperback. What was your inspiration for this novel?

The shocking wrench of losing a baby. I don't care if this happens in early pregnancy or weeks before due date, this experience is horrendous for most women. Then I had a strong man at the end of his options -- or so he thought. These people come together searching for a way to pull their lives together. It was powerful stuff for me.

The heroine of Key West is Sonnie Giacano. Sonnie is a complicated woman -- she has a lot of baggage to deal with. How did you approach writing Sonnie?

Some have called Sonnie weak. I consider those people without empathy or experience and I can't know which. Yes, she's weak at the start of the story, but she isn't weak by the end. She makes some poor decisions out of confusion and her still convalescent state from terrible trauma. But what a great challenge for a writer. I knew someone like Sonnie once -- I think that happens a lot to people who write fiction. I do a lot of subconscious incorporation of character traits.

"There is or should be a natural rising and falling action in fiction. Save me from Johnny one note anything. If you keep the reader at fever pitch, afraid to look over his or her shoulder throughout the book, you haven't given them pleasure. Toss in some humor to break the tension and the chemistry changes. I love to laugh."
The hero of the novel is former police detective Chris Talon. How did you create the character of Chris?

Chris is a love. He wants to be a tough, couldn't care less guy, but he cares so much. When he was on the New York force, something truly horrendous happened and he blamed himself, blamed his temper, actually. Had I walked in on the scene that confronted him, I'd have gone mad with rage, too. Life is ugly, I deliberately hold back a little of the gore because I don't think my readers want it, but I don't insult them by treating them like babies.

Two scene-stealing characters in the book are bar owners Roy and Bo; they were a lot of fun. How important is humor to you as a writer?

Very important. There is or should be a natural rising and falling action in fiction. Save me from Johnny one note anything. If you keep the reader at fever pitch, afraid to look over his or her shoulder throughout the book, you haven't given them pleasure. Toss in some humor to break the tension and the chemistry changes. I love to laugh.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing Key West?

Sonnie. The fact that she wonders if someone's trying to drive her mad, then decides she is mad. Fine balance there. I didn't want to lose the reader, but neither did I want to gussy Sonnie up. There's a scene with the crib that reduced me to tears and still does when I think about it. Whoever is doing such things to Sonnie is cruel and I want to pay them back--in the end, I do!

You write in so many genres: category romance, historical romance, contemporary romance, suspense, nonfiction. The style and tone of Wish List, for example, is very different from the tone of the modern suspense story told in Key West. Do you have a favorite or preferred genre in which you write? Do you have a method which allows you to quickly "switch gears" to go from writing historical to romantic suspense?

Between each project, my office is cleaned and stripped of the research materials I used for the finished novel. New maps go up, new books are shelved. Then I need a little time to think before I go. My favorite genre is whatever genres I'm writing in at present. I've always been like that. The Wish Club was the last of the Rossmara Books and it pleased me. The gentleness between the protagonists, who had known each other since childhood, stole my heart.

Cover of Once and For Always by Stella Cameron
One of my favorite of your series is the Mayfair Square series, which started with More and More, and the recently-released All Smiles. This series has a supernatural touch -- a resident ghost. What do you enjoy most about writing this series? (And when is the next book due out?)

Most of all I enjoy the humor, the outrageousness. The people of 7 Mayfair Square keep me racing around trying to keep up with them. Whether Meg's dying her hair red and trying to catch a husband, or Finch is getting conked on the head in an alley where she should never be, or Count Etranger is slipping around corners finding excuses to get his hands on Meg, I'm in there all the way. When Sir Septimus Spivey, resident ghost, has troubled with that dastardly Shakespeare who makes fun of him, I giggle. When King Henry the 8th is trying to keep the pieces of his ex-wives together (why won't the man learn when it's too late to put some things back together?) I'm having a great time. The next Mayfair Square book is called 7B and is due out next February. This stars Sibyl and Hunter.

Can you give us a sneak peek of your next novel, Glass Houses?

Glass houses opens in New York, moves to London, back to New York,
Cover of Glass Houses by Stella Cameron
to the Chicago Area, to Seattle, to London and ends in New York. It's a chase. Aiden Flynn (Chris Talon's sidekick) and Olivia FitzDurham of Hampstead London, are the hero and heroine. Rupert Fish and Winston Moody are London antique dealers who make horribly inept crooks, as do two crooked policemen. We see Cris and Sonnie again and are aware of Roy and Bo in Key West.

Olivia's on the run. She's been threatened in London and someone's trying to steal a set of her photographs (she's an interior design photographer), she's afraid for her life, and accepts an invitation from Ryan Hill NYPD to go to New York, with her pictures, to seek a haven. Only Aiden who has been looking after Ryan's orchids, uses Ryan's computer to check his email when his own machine breaks down. And he sees Olivia's many frantic emails. And Ryan's replies from wherever he is, Ryan who is using an assumed identity, right down to pretending he owns Boss, the retired police dog with titanium teeth who belongs to Aiden.

The lady is running from trouble and it's a good job Aiden intends to be there to make sure she doesn't run slap bang into Ryan and a whole lot more trouble.

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

I write around six to ten hours a day. There is always music, mostly jazz or classics and I use a computer.

You have said that the golden rule of story is that "Only trouble is interesting." Would you expand on that ?

Let me show you what I mean.

Cover of French Quarter by Stella Cameron
The alarm went off and Fred rolled over. He stretched, then got out of bed to put the coffee on before cleaning his teeth and getting dressed. The doorbell rang and he opened it, "Oh, hello Bart, carpool's early, isn't it?"

"Yes. Sorry, Fred but we decided we'd better get going. Margie's had one of her disaster premonitions and was most unhappy because she wanted to get away."

"Then we should go no. Let me pick up my coffee here. Good. Door's locked. Off we go."


With the car racing down San Francisco's Telegraph Hill, Fred looked over Bart's shoulder and said, "Slow down. You're going to kill us all."

Margie screamed and her eyes rolled up. "I see it. All of it. Go faster. These houses will collapse. The street will be buried. Blood everywhere. I see blood everywhere."

Fred glanced at Margie. Her premonitions had been right before. "Put your foot to the floor he told Bart."

"It is to the floor, but I think we're too late."

"Even as he spoke, masonry flew from beneath the eaves of centuries old houses."

"Earthquake," Margie moaned.

We have to start with the earthquake unless we have a very good reason not to -- getting out of bed and making coffee just won't cut it.

What are your thoughts on love scenes in romance novels? Do you find love scenes more or less difficult to write than other types of scenes? Are there any things that you specifically try to avoid?

Love scenes are the direct result of character. In a love scene the characters must stay in characters. In other words, I don't think the three people in the carpool in SF. swing from many chandeliers while having sex. I believe sex in almost any book is integral--it's integral to life. I have no difficulty writing love scenes and don't try to avoid any particular type of scene. In fact, I don't ever think about it.

Have you ever faced writer's block or burnout? If so, how do you deal with it?

I've been very tired and overwhelmed. People with contracts can't swoon and insist they have to stretch out on the chaise while someone peels their grapes. They must just get words on paper somehow and be determined to whack them into shape later.

How do you feel about ebooks? In 5 years, will your fans be reading your books on an electronic reader instead of on paper?

E-docs are here and they aren't going away. I'm sure my books will be read on electronic readers, that they'll be read online and pirated online. The time for regulation (as the music industry is already trying to make clear) is now. We must learn to move forward or choose to be left behind. I would prefer to move forward.

You started your career writing category romances, which have strict parameters about the subject matter, how passionate the romance can be, etc., Did you ever find it difficult to write within those strict guidelines and yet stay true to your creative vision? As an author, I would think you would have the most latitude with a contemporary suspense novel.

I had some difficult time. Always I shall be grateful
"It's hard to be rejected, by anyone for any reason. I feel for you because I've been there. I know that, 'This is useless feeling.' But it's not useless. I often wonder if fledgeling writers are putting in enough study time. Whenever I talk about taking classes or reading books I suggest, I'm met by a lot of glassy eyes."
for the discipline I learned, but the editorial process was sometimes ridiculous. Women sending out revision letters that stretched to fifteen or twenty single spaced pages and pointed out such important details as, "He's got green eyes, why not blue." Or, "I think his briefcase should be cordovan." Then a woman with no children wrote, "Why doesn't this woman hit her son for his behavior?" The son was sixteen and having a hard time over his father's death. Even if one thought striking children a good idea, and I don't, this comment is ridiculous. Same editor also wouldn't believe that it's often hard for a young, attractive widow to be assimilated into her former groups. "Why would anyone be spiteful to her, or try to exclude her." You get the picture.

I always clung to my individuality and my strong voice. I wrote from the heart and if I got complaints, I dealt with them. Much as some might like to relegate women writers to some cottage industry type of thing -- I don't know a writer who isn't also an artist and who doesn't need freedom of expression. Give that up, and you might as well give up.

What changes have you seen in the romance publishing industry since you first were published?

Claire, there are to many to detail them all. Houses and imprints have come and gone. The numbers of romance books published has shrunk -- the numbers of romance writers wailing about lack of respect, hasn't shrunk! There has been a great deal of consolidation between publishing houses. Self-publishing has grown enormously. Issues tackled have been cranked up.

What do you enjoy most about writing contemporary romances? About writing historical romances?

Contemporary romances give me that great sense of "now," of being able to go and see and hear and become part of what I'm writing. I get a sensation as if I'm jumping from a high board into a warm pool way below and I've done many times before. Historical romances are my fantasies. These books, also based in fact, give me the opportunity to be absolutely outrageous, and I am.

What would you say are some recurring themes that surface in your work?

Woman alone and with difficulties who triumph over it all. Having an unwillingness to declare love being the only stumbling block in a committed relationship is awful and doesn't work for me. I'm quite thrilled to write about people who know they love each other but have bigger, more difficult conflicts holding them apart.

What's your idea of the perfect romantic getaway weekend?

I never consider these things. I guess pottering in the garden with one's husband, taking a long walk, going to a movie, stopping for ice cream, getting to see your children, and just enjoying being together is hard to beat.

What is the greatest challenge you have faced in your career as an author?

Juggling time pressures with those things in my personal life that I really want to do.

What is your advice to aspiring novelists who may be feeling a bit rejected early in their careers?

It's hard to be rejected, by anyone for any reason. I feel for you because I've been there. I know that, "This is useless feeling." But it's not useless. I often wonder if fledgeling writers are putting in enough study time. Whenever I talk about taking classes or reading books I suggest, I'm met by a lot of glassy eyes. I think RWA and it's "Contract in Every Pot" routine may have done its members a disservice. It isn't that easy.

Remember that you are in with a fighting chance until you
Photo of
Stella Cameron by Margaret Chittenden
take yourself out. Study, study, study. If you won't study, I question how serious you really are. Don't lean hard on a critique group for good advice unless you have some published members. What's the point of the blind leading the blind? And have rules for your critique group. These groups can be such a lot of fun and help, as long as there's no sniping going on.

First photo of Stella Cameron by Teresa Salgado Photography.
Second photo of Stella Cameron by Margaret Chittenden.

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