An Interview with JoAnn Ross

Background

Most writers dream of having one book published. Author JoAnn Ross is about to have her 100th published!

JoAnn has regularly been in the New York Times best-seller lists and two of her novels have been excerpted in Cosmopolitan magazine.  

Her web-site is a "must visit" site for writers and has interesting background about her books and career plus some great research links and detailed articles full of hints and writing advice.  

JoAnn was Born in Santa Monica and grew up in Oregon's ranching country and is now blissfully settled in the foothills of Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains.  

Ravenshead (RH) interviewed JoAnn Ross (JR) and the interview is reproduced here. What's very clear from the interview is that her enthusiasm for writing and telling stories is as strong as ever. 

lorraine cobcroft
RH Please tell us a bit about your background.
JR

My first job, when I was three years old, was in a roller skating follies. My mother was a chorus line skater, and since dependable day care was hard to come by in those days, I was made a member of the troop. My pay, a hot fudge sundae and a weekly movie matinee, seemed extraordinarily generous at the time. I've also written for a large metropolitan newspaper and was an advertising account executive, writing copy extolling the wonders of everything from household appliances to diamonds to tires.

RH When you first started writing twenty-five years ago, did you ever dream that you'd be such a prolific and popular author?
JR

Not at all. My grandfather McLaughlin was a hugely popular seanachie -- an Irish teller of tales who taught me to dream big. But I've been fortunate to exceed even my wildest dreams.

RH When did you start writing?
JR

I think I've always been a storyteller. My mother told me that before I could talk, I’d babble as I turned the pages of my little cloth books, apparently telling stories to go along with the pictures. I wrote my first "official" story -- a novella about two star-crossed mallard ducks -- for a second grade writing assignment when I was seven. The story earned a gold star from my teacher, so I just kept writing. 

While still in grammar school, I wrote melodramas, casting my sisters and neighborhood kids in the roles. Since I was a prolific writer, even then, box office receipts paid for my first bike.

RH Where do you write? 
JR

Although I have a lovely second story office in my home with tall windows on three sides that look out over my gardens and the leafy top branches of trees, I'm not particular about location. I've written with teenagers blasting video game aliens – with all the accompanying cheers and groans – on the other side of a very thin walls; I’ve written at my son's basketball practice, on planes, sitting on a sidewalk curb waiting for a Christmas parade to begin, on an Irish beach, out in the forest on a camping trip, and once I edited a manuscript during halftime at a national conference football game surrounded by tens of thousands of screaming fans. 

RH What makes you write? 
JR

It's not as if I have a choice. I'm a storyteller by nature. It's not only what I do, it's who I am. I can't imagine NOT writing.

RH What's the easiest thing about writing? What's the hardest? 
JR

It’s been said that if you want to write a novel, you should go in a dark room, lie down, and wait for the feeling to pass. A lot of writers enjoy "being writers," but aren't overly fond of the process. I'm one of those very fortunate people who loves the actual act of writing. I enjoy watching my computer screen fill up with words. I enjoy deleting half those words and changing the others. I changed majors five times in college, and since I prefer writing about what I don't know (rather than the standard advice about writers writing what they know) beginning each book is an adventure into uncharted waters. There's always something to learn and I enjoy sharing those newly discovered tidbits with readers. Several years ago I had a sticker on my car bumper that read "I'd rather be skydiving." These days, if I had a sticker, it would read, "I'd rather be writing." 

Writing isn’t always easy. Sometimes, when the words won't flow, the characters are balking, the muses refuse to co-operate, and you suddenly realize your plot has more holes than a sieve just as a deadline is fast approaching, it’s flat-out hard. My favorite writing cartoon shows a castaway sitting on a tiny, one-palm tree island. He’s making a list: Things to do before writing. Number one is “polish seashells.” Writing takes more than talent and a knowledge of craft. It takes self-discipline. That hasn’t changed since people began drawing stories onto cave walls. And on those difficult days, I remind myself that people actually pay me to sit home in my pajamas and tell them stories. How cool is that? 

RH Where do you get your ideas? Do your own experiences appear in any of your stories?
JR

I believe we’re all born storytellers. If you watch infants babble to themselves and toddlers having conversations with their stuffed animals, you can see the wealth of creativity humans are born with. Then, about the time children start going to school, they learn to color inside the lines. That the sky is blue, the grass is green, and no, you can’t have a separate desk for your imaginary best friend. Little by little that storytelling ability drifts away. Most of the writers I know have somehow managed to stay in touch with that inner child who’s never heard of such a thing as an internal editor. 

Believing that everyone’s life is fodder for fiction writing, I'm always putting bits and pieces of my life into my stories. For example, I never knew my birth father. I'd come to terms with that until my son entered his teens and I realized he looked like the only photo of my father I'd ever seen. Which caused all those earlier feelings of abandonment to come flooding back. So I wrote a book about a heroine who'd been abandoned at birth, and while my heroine dealt with her issues, I managed to exorcise my own. 

Writing emotionally involving fiction isn’t easy; in fact, it’s a lot like standing naked in front of the world. But readers can tell when our hearts aren’t behind our words, and when we write about ourselves, we’re writing about the universe, because humans are all very much alike in our basic emotions. Which is why sometimes a writer has to open some very scary personal doors and go down some very dark stairs. But if you analyze the most popular stories of all times, you’ll find that deep down they all possess a universal appeal, some emotional pull that transcends plot. That’s the scarlet thread I believe we should try to weave into the tapestry of our stories. 

RH Do you find writing a lonely occupation?
JR

It's hard to be lonely when you spend your days with dynamic, sexy heroes. :) Seriously, before the internet, it could get lonely because it can be an isolating profession. Every writer I knew had huge phone bills every month. These days, there are fabulously supportive groups of writers online, so there's always someone to talk with. 

RH How long does it take you to write a typical novel? Do you have to revise or rewrite it much?
JR

I'm convinced that just as the amount of clutter grows in direct proportion to how many flat surfaces I have in my office, how long it takes me to write a book is exactly how long the publisher gives me. I’m a constant tinkerer. I’ll go through a manuscript, take every other word out, then change the rest. Then start in all over again. 

Most days I'll start out editing -- on the screen -- what I wrote the day before. Then continue on. Some days, usually in the early stages of a book, I'll edit continually as I write, even line by line, which can be a slow process, but necessary in order to anchor the story before I reach the middle. Usually, by the final 1/3 of a book, I don't need to edit overly much because having laid out all my conflicts, developed my characters, formed the arcs, all I have to do is start wrapping things up. Also, in order to tell my stories, I have to live inside all my characters' skins, which means I'm constantly researching months, sometimes years before I begin writing a book, and usually keep researching up until the day before I turn a manuscript in.

RH Was it easy to find a publisher for your first book?
JR

It was a struggle, because when I first began, back in 1982, publishers weren't buying the type of stories I was writing. I received twelve rejections on nine completed novels; one day I received three rejections. The rejection letters would say things such as “We love your writing, but your story just isn’t right for us.” Then suddenly, eleven months and ten days after I'd submitted my first manuscript, there was a publishing sea change; romance got hot and my world shifted when I sold three books to two different publishers over a six week period.

RH As well as stand-alone novels, you have written a number of trilogies. Which format do you prefer, and why?
JR

I find them both enjoyable to write. Of course trilogies are fun -- for me, and seemingly for my readers -- because I can catch up on the lives of characters in previous books. But even many of my stand- alone novels share characters. For instance, Brendan O'Neill, from my Irish trilogy, appeared in Out of the Storm and  Blaze, and will be finally get a romance of his own in Crossfire. Father Mike, from Out of the Storm and No Safe Place, returns, having left the priesthood, in Crossfire, and readers will discover his secret past in Shattered.

Of course, it's admittedly tricky remembering all the details in connected books. In the past, I'd write them down in notebooks I'd never bother to dig out, or pieces of paper I'd lose, which was why I was so happy to discover WriteItNow just in time for my High Risk series! It's fabulous for keeping track of details and upcoming scenes and I've been recommending it to every writer I know. 

RH How has your writing developed and changed over the years?
JR

Well, hopefully I've kept getting better. And although I've written all over the romance fiction spectrum, my books have always been character driven, with strong, yet flawed women who’ve usually overcome adversity; to-die for men (who tend to be either emotionally wounded Alpha heroes or bad boys, occasionally both); a very strong sense of setting and a satisfying ending. The past few years, because my own life has been very rosy, wandering over to the “dark side” of romantic thrillers brings an edge to my writing day that keeps me from getting bored. Also, like my heroines, I’ve never done “easy.” If something isn’t challenging, I lose interest. And if I’m bored, I figure readers would be, too. 

RH Is sharing your knowledge about fiction writing an important part of your work?
JR

I'm not much of a nuts and bolts type writer, but I do enjoy sharing what I've learned about writing and the publishing business, with others. In fact, I was honored to receive a mentoring award from Romance Writers of America. I also give workshops on-line and at conferences, and have an on-line writers group where I give the occasional workshop, offer advice, answer questions from members about the writing business, and share my opinions. 

RH I loved seeing the interpretations that publishers in different countries have placed on your books, through their choices of book covers. However, would you like to have more control over how your work is presented, and over aspects such as reprints?
JR

Wouldn't that be lovely! My previous and current publishers do allow me a great deal of input, but I long ago decided that what writers love about covers might not be the most effective for marketing. So I mostly trust the art departments to know what they're doing, and try to stay focused on the one thing I can control, at least some of the time, the Work.

RH What is it about the southern US, and New Orleans in particular, that appeals to you and makes you want to write about it?
JR

New Orleans has always been a particular favorite location because as Nick Broussard, in No Safe Place, tells my heroine, it isn't like anywhere else in the United States; it's not even like the rest of Louisiana. It's as close as we have to a foreign country within our borders, impervious to outside influences. Or course, it's still going through a terrible time after Hurricane Katrina, but as a colorful New Orleans potter said, "You can't let New Orleans die. The food's too good!" 

The moment we moved to the South several years ago, I immediately felt that same inner "click" I feel whenever I land at Ireland's Shannon airport. Having grown up in an Irish-American family, much of what's Southern is very familiar to me: the slower pace of life, the richness of the language, the sense of community, the deep connection of people to the land, the lushness of the scenery, the interconnectedness between the present and an often tragic past. The region, also like Ireland, revels in irony and contradiction that makes it a perfect setting to explore emotional themes.

RH What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?
JR

I love to travel, to hang out with my sweetie (my high school sweetheart, whom I married twice), read, watch movies, read, hike, create scrapbooks for my family from the mountain of photographs we've taken over the years, read, hug my fuzzy doggies we rescued from shelters on their kill days, and play with Marisa and Parker Ryan Ross, the world's most precious grandbabies. 

RH Finally, do you have any advice for new writers?
JR

Read, read, read. Then write, write, write. Read some more. Keep writing. Don’t ever let anyone ever tell you that anything is a Rule. As Somerset Maugham said, “There are only three rules in writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” And most importantly, enjoy the process. Because, in the end, the work is what it’s all about. 

Don’t worry about what others are doing. Write the book you’d like to read. Send it out to a house that has shown an openness to publishing that type of story. Then sit down and do it again. 

RH Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, and good luck with all your future writing.
JR

Thank you. I was very pleased to be invited to be interviewed.