|Suzanne Brockmann: SEAL-ed with a Kiss|
Can a former rock singer and daughter of the Sixties who hates being ordered around find happiness in the middle Navy SEa, Air and Land (SEAL) Hell Week? If her name is Suzanne Brockmann, she can. Brockmann's decision to build a romance series around "Tall, Dark and Dangerous" Navy SEALs in the mid-1990s catapulted her to best-seller status and garnered her just about every major romance award around -- including a matched pair of RITAs in 2000.
A long-range planner as determined and methodical as her SEAL heroes, Brockmann likes to push the envelope of romantic conventions. Her books often feature enlisted leading men and "multiple choice" romances that serve to counterpoint each other and the nerve-wracking, nail-biting action of Brockmann's suspenseful plots. Recent books in Brockmann's Troubleshooter point to an even broader scope -- one which embraces counter-terrorism, the FBI and a few choice crooks. At the same time, Brockmann confided at a recent Washington Romance Writers conference, she looks forward to a series of new releases that hark back to her earliest days as a romance writer.
Crescent Blues: One of the most interesting aspects of your new release, Out of Control, and the other books in your Troubleshooters series is the number and variety of romances that develop over the course of each book. In Out of Control, for example, you give us the main romance between Savannah Von Hopf and Ken "Wild Card" Karmody, the subplot with Jones and Molly Anderson, and the World War II romance between Savannah's grandmother and Heinrich Von Hopf. What prompted you to go in the direction of these multi-layered romances?
Suzanne Brockmann: I guess I've always been interested in stories that are layered together, with all these people who eventually intersect and individual lives that come together, usually at the conclusion of the book. Putting a book like that together is kind of like doing a puzzle. I think it comes from trying to put together books that resemble what we see on TV series.
I'm a big fan of shows like West Wing with all these characters throughout. I'm a fan of Toby (Richard Schiff) from West Wing. He's my favorite character, but I have friends who are really into Sam (Rob Lowe) or Josh (Bradley Whitford). Because there are so many characters, there is someone for everyone to like.
I approach my books in a similar way. I don't expect everybody to like Savannah and Ken the best. I expect you to like them. (I hope you like them!) But there's Jones and Molly. Theirs is a different story with a different texture. They're different characters at different places in their lives.
There's also the flashback story that I like to put into these books, because I'm really interested in World War II, and it's my big chance to tell some of these fabulous stories in a contemporary book.
I think of it in terms of multiple choice hero and heroine. You can pick your favorite. It doesn't bother me that you found Jones and Molly to be the most compelling couple in the book, because I don't expect everybody to react the same way. I did get a lot of mail from people who really loved Kenny. It surprised them that they liked him so much, because he didn't seem like hero material. But he really won a lot of people over. All different kinds of people are reading these books, and I hope to touch at least some part of them with some character in the book. Everybody's different.
Crescent Blues: Do you consciously search out stories from World War II to augment the main stories in your Troubleshooters series?
Suzanne Brockmann: At this point, I wouldn't say I actively search them out, because I read I read every book in the library on World War II when I was 11, and those very young brain cells retained all that information. So I know so many fabulous and little known stories about that era.
The thing that really gets me is that they were heroes on so many levels. There were heroes at home doing the tiniest acts of courage and heroism. Then there were these huge, massive, save-the-battleship acts of heroism. They're all stories worth telling.
I have a list of World War II subplots that I would like to work into a book, but I'm running up against time. My method of operation with these books has been to include an elderly character who experienced these events, and that generation is dying off. I'm not sure how much longer I'll be able to do that. I don't really know how to solve that problem, but I'm working on it. It's cooking in my head -- to see where I'm going to go with this -- because I'd like to see it continue..
Crescent Blues: You mentioned that you'd like to see the series continue indefinitely.
Suzanne Brockmann: Absolutely.
Crescent Blues: But you also mentioned the danger of falling into a niche. Do Max and Jones in Out of Control represent the beginnings of the team you plan for future novels?
Suzanne Brockmann: Absolutely. Absolutely. I've done quite a bit of work setting up the F.B.I. counter-terrorist team. (That's Max's unit.) And then there's the civilian group I'm going to be forming over the course of the next few books. There's Jones. You're going to see him again.
Crescent Blues: I wondered about that when you mentioned the "criminal component" of the group in your question and answer session. You also mentioned liking to torture your heroes. Hmm, "Max Bhagat," that sounds like a Middle Eastern name...Suzanne Brockmann: Actually, it's Indian..
Crescent Blues: So he fits right into the middle of the scenario. I can see some good prospects for conflict in the offing. But before we get into future projects, let's backtrack a little. A lot of people really liked Ken in Out of Control. But you said yesterday that you were surprised that there was an interest in enlisted heroes
Suzanne Brockmann: This goes back years to when I first started writing the "Tall, Dark and Dangerous" books. Writing series romance, I was under the impression that a hero should be an officer, going on my mis-assumption (if there is such a word) that readers would want to have the traditional, corporate C.E.O. hero -- the W.A.S.P.
Crescent Blues: The "Cinderella Complex."
Suzanne Brockmann: The prince, yeah. I think that's not true. At the same time, I'm a little ashamed of myself, because I was trying to break away from that too with my first book in that series, Prince Joe.
The hero is a blue-collar guy from New Jersey. He starts out as enlisted; he becomes an officer in the course of his career. But he's named "Joe." There it is, right there. He's not your standard romance hero. His name isn't "Chance
In a sense, I was undermining what I was trying to do by having this more realistic, average -- average in the sense that he wasn't born into money -- blue collar guy. I was trying to get rid of all the clichés of the romance hero. Yet, at the same time, I fell victim to what I thought readers' expectations would be by having officers as heroes. But I learned very quickly that people were interested in reading about enlisted guys. It was going to work.
Crescent Blues: What do you think that says about the personal and professional development of the women who read romances?
Suzanne Brockmann: I think it says a lot about diversity. I think that the romance reading public is really open to a lot of possibilities.
I think that publishers limit themselves by making restrictions in terms of race. I was told at one point that I should change my cop hero's sidekick, because he was Asian American. "Why don't you make him something else so that he can be a hero?" The message was: "We don't want any Asian-American heroes." Or: "That's not going to sell, so we're not going to write that book." But I said, "No, this guy's Asian American, and I want him in my book."
I think the readers are looking for it. I think that they've been open all along. African American romances -- I think there's a huge market for that. And I think there's a huge market for a non-segregated world, which is more realistic, more like our real world. We should be writing about all the people who love women, not just the rich, white ones. The readers want to read it. They are really ready for something a little bit different too.
Crescent Blues: How has writing the "Tall, Dark and Dangerous" series and the "Troubleshooters" series involved you, the daughter of the 'Sixties, in the culture of the military?
Suzanne Brockmann: It's been a crash course. There's still so much that I need to learn. I'm learning all the time. It's kind of like on the job training. But there are some things that I just struggle to understand, that I find really hard to comprehend.
I am a writer, because I want to be my own boss. I don't want anyone giving me an order. I want to control my own life and shape my own destiny. That's not what the military is, as I understand it. You go in and follow the rules.
I also think of the corporate world as completely alien to the way I live my life right now. And I don't understand the corporate world either.
There are so many rules in the Navy. To try to make sense of how it works in rates and ranks, and when do you get leave, and what is it called, and why don't you call it vacation -- just learning the lingo has been interesting and an ongoing process. I'm not 11 anymore, and those brain cells don't retain like they used to.
Crescent Blues: Given that it is such an enormous process to research and write about an alien culture, what inspired you to begin writing about Navy SEALs?
Suzanne Brockmann: I had written a number of books for Silhouette Intimate Moments, and I was looking for a mini-series hook. I noticed that readers really like mini-series. At the time, my goal was to increase my readership. I had purposely started out in series romance, because I had wanted to establish a name for myself, and that seemed to me the smartest and best way to do it. (I was always looking for ways to sell my books.)
I noted that mini-series sold very well. My plan was to write a romance mini-series that included series romance hooks -- things like secret babies, marriages of convenience, that kind of stuff. I was really looking to expand my series romance readership. I pretty much knew right off the start that I didn't want to write a mini-series that had to do with a family (you know, the MacConahey Brothers or the So-and-So Cousins), because you can only have so many of them. It's a finite series. You can pull one or two illegitimate brothers out of the back, but that's about it. Then the series ends, and you have to start over. I wanted to have an open-ended series.
Rachel Lee was doing her Conard County series at the time -- I think she's still doing it -- and that was really successful. But it was a case of she's already done a [locale], and she's done it very well. I didn't want to copy her.
So I told all my friends that I was looking for a mini-series hook -- especially my non-writer friends. Everybody was thinking and brainstorming. "Any ideas that you have," I said, "No matter how stupid -- aliens from Mars… Well, good, keep thinking."
My friend Eric called me one day and said, "I've found your mini-series hook. There's an article…" I don't remember if it was Time or Newsweek. But it was on Navy SEAL Hell Week.
I ran to the library, and I was sitting there between the stacks, cross-legged on the floor, reading this article on the training that the Navy SEALs go through, and I knew he was right. It was my mini-series hook, because these guys are closer than brothers. They die for each other. They live for each other. They protect each other. They work in seven- or eight-man groups. I could bring people in. This is the military -- I could transfer them into the team!
It seemed perfect, and as I did more research, I knew, without a doubt, that this was where I wanted to go.
Crescent Blues: What kind of response to the series have you received from people who are in or associated with the military?
Suzanne Brockmann: I have gotten a huge response. I have a great many readers who are actually in the military. I have a huge number of readers who are military wives. Former military -- they are really, solidly, back there and very supportive.
They're very helpful too in terms of: "Well, you got that wrong." They'll point out the little mistakes, and I'm always very eager to be corrected. In fact, Prince Joe was just reissued, and we got to go through it and fix some -- I call them "typos" -- small mistakes. I think I called the SEALs "special forces," but they're "special operations." They're two very different things. At the time I thought, this is all the same thing. You know, special is special. A [Navy] wife explained the difference.
When you're researching something that you know nothing about, you don't know what you don't know. Things like "dress whites" [the Navy's formal business uniform]. In The Unsung Hero, I have the scene at the very end where Tom, the hero, is wearing dress whites, and the heroine is in the tree house where she hung out as a child. She can see into his bedroom window, and she makes a comment to him after they get together again that she was spying on him -- and isn't she nasty. (She's had this good girl image for too long.) Then she tells him: "You're wearing red underpants."
My Navy SEAL friend said, "Not with dress whites, he wasn't."
Ah! I didn't even think about that, because I've never worn dress whites. I very seldom wear white pants myself. Being a woman, I tend to wear black. Slimming colors. But I had to laugh. Talk about things that you don't even think about that you don't know!
Crescent Blues: Not only can you see if someone is wearing colored underwear under dress whites, you can see where they end.
Suzanne Brockmann: The guys need to wear boxers, because there you are in dress whites. I'm sure there's a lot that I still have to learn. Like I said, it's a work in progress.
Crescent Blues: On your Web site and in your talk yesterday, you mentioned three things that seem to have a strong influence on your novels: scriptwriting, music, and your fan experience with shows like Star Trek. How did each of these elements contribute to the writer you are today?
Suzanne Brockmann: I think that having been a fan, I understand what drives fans. All my life I've had a really accurate read on popular culture. I can listen to a song once and know that it's going to be a number one hit. It's something that I've always been able to do. If I like a TV show, it's not going to get cancelled -- which has been a very good thing for me, because it's a bummer to like a show that's going to be cancelled.
I recognized that in myself. I noticed it and paid attention to it. So when I'm writing the books, I'm also writing for Susan, the fan, in terms of what would please me as a reader. I think that has paid off. I really do believe that I have a good sense of what will incite a response in the reader, because I know what would make me emote as a fan.
I think that my music background has prepared me for the celebrity of success. I spent years singing in a band, being out in the lights, being on stage. I was the girl in the "guy band," which was an interesting thing to be. To be "one of the guys" helps a lot in understanding men and the way men speak and the way men think. I was always the woman sitting with the men and accepted into the club, because I know how to run a sound system, and I was willing to lift my share of the equipment. I was an equal. I made sure they knew I was an equal.
[That experience in music] has been helpful on both levels, because I have to admit I enjoy the celebrity. I like coming to conferences like [the annual conference sponsored by] Romantic Times. I enjoy talking to people. I really do.
With my life as a romance novelist, I can go to these places and be famous. Then I can come home and go to the grocery store if I want to, and nobody will recognize me. I really do feel like I have the best of both worlds as far as that goes.
Crescent Blues: Do you think you might ever use your experiences in the band in one of your future novels?