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Interview with Susan Wiggs

June, 2018
Susan Wiggs
Susan Wiggs is the bestselling author of more than 50 books, including Just Breathe, 11 books in the beloved Lakeshore Chronicles series, and two books in the Bella Vista Chronicles series.

Between You and Me is the story of Caleb Stoltz, an Amish man whose life is forever changed when his young nephew Jonah is seriously injured in a farming accident. Taken by helicopter to an emergency room in Philadelphia, Caleb and Jonah meet Reese Powell, a young medical student. During Jonah's long stay in the hospital, Caleb and Reese become increasing intertwined.

Wiggs spoke with Goodreads about portraying the Amish community, how she writes so many books, and when she'll get back to the Lakeshore Chronicles.

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Goodreads: What sort of research did you do or what kind of time did you spend in the Amish community to get that part of the book right?

Susan Wiggs: The book started with an actual clipping that I saved for many years about a child who'd been injured in a farming accident, an Amish child, and how his family had to go into the modern world in order to help him. I always had that in my mind. I really liked the juxtaposition and the clash of cultures between the English world and the Amish world. I always wanted to dramatize that in fiction, and it sort of came to a head as I was thinking about the direction my books were taking me.

I like writing about big, overwhelming drama where people have choices that are life-and-death choices, lifestyle choices. I just love the drama of that, and of course there's always a big, powerful love story in all of my books. I felt like now was the time to dig down into that. The research was pretty fascinating to me. As you know when you're writing fiction, you only get to put a tiny little smidgen of what you learned into the story, but learning different Amish customs and the way they live was so important.

I guess the other thing that really grabbed me was the baby boxes, the Safe Haven box. [Safe Haven Baby Boxes are temperature-controlled boxes located outside police and fire stations and hospitals that allow mothers to surrender newborn babies without facing prosecution. They are equipped with silent alarms that notify emergency personnel immediately when a baby is placed in the box.] I just heard in the last few months they've had two babies in these boxes in Indiana. It's a rare thing, but it works exactly as I described in the book—an alarm sounds, there's a protocol. That part just blew me away, and I knew that that was going to be part of the story. I definitely got so caught up in that. I hate it when authors say, "Oh, it wrote itself." Nothing writes itself; it's like passing a kidney stone. But I do have to say I was very compelled by this story. I just remember this one keeping me up at night and wanting to get up early in the morning and get back at it. This is one of those that kind of consumed me.

GR: Did the Amish that you talked to during your research know that you were writing a book, and were they wary of that at all?

SW: There was no hesitation. I didn't intrude on them, but you always lead with "I'm writing a novel, and I want to get the background right. I want to be realistic and respectful, and any information you care to share with me, I would like that." It was mostly through email, and the ones who were the most talkative were actually other writers, and I would definitely tell them, "Anything you don't want me to share, you need to let me know." But everybody's so open when you say you're writing a novel; they're usually very intrigued.

GR: Amish writers?

SW: Yeah, I have to say most of them have left the Amish community. And so I have to try to balance that because if they've left, then presumably they didn't have a happy experience. So I had to balance the things that I was hearing from people who feel that that's their right place and they feel supported in the community versus those that have left and have a different life.

GR: Amish life is frequently either idealized or criticized. How did you approach that?

SW: I never thought that I would write a book with an Amish setting. I usually associate them with very sweet, romantic, squeaky-clean stories. I didn't want that to be the main issue of the book. I really wanted it to be the story of Reese and Caleb and how these two very different people end up melding their lives together. That was my main thing, but I definitely wanted to touch on those issues, because you're right, there are people who idealize it and people who vilify it. I tried to represent the whole spectrum in the book. The scene where [one of the Amish characters dies]—I loved the community of women and how supportive they were of each other, and yet on the other hand, she's dying because she refused modern treatment. For the purposes of drama and fiction, that's kind of awesome. So you can see why I was compelled by it.
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GR: So if the newspaper clipping was the germ of the story, how did Reese come into it?

SW: She was not the first thing that occured to me. I was thinking, "Who would likely be the first point of contact?" Obviously it would be emergency personnel. And then how could I extend that so that she would be intrigued by this guy and then form a relationship. She's at the end of her four years of medical school, and she's at a very precise point where she's got a decision to make. And I love it that Caleb kind of felt the pull and the pressure from his family, and she was feeling it in a similar but different way from her own family. I have a friend whose family is part of a medical dynasty, like Reese, and certain things are expected. I was very deliberate in the choices that I made for Reese. I wanted her to have a very modern-sounding name, I wanted her to just seem so, so different. I always start by asking myself questions: What is the most dramatic way to tell this story? The most entertaining? The most emotional?

GR: You usually publish one or two books a year. Are you usually working on more than one book at a time?

SW: There's overlap. Right now is a perfect example. I'm on a tour for the paperback of Map of the Heart, I'm finishing a book called the Oysterville Sewing Circle that will be published in 2019, I'm about to send that to my editor, and I just finished the revisions and marketing plans for Between You and Me. So in that sense it overlaps, but in the sense of sitting down and drafting and revising my day-to-day material, it's always just the one book, because I live inside the book, and I would get whiplash if I had to go back and forth between Amish country and Oysterville, Washington, where the next one takes place. I do know writers who work that way, but it seems like it would be very confusing to me.

GR: You have a couple of different book series that are ongoing. How do you know when to pick up a series and when to write a standalone?

SW: The two series nearest and dearest to my readers' hearts are the Lakeshore Chronicles and the Bella Vista Chronicles, and I definitely have more books in mind for them. That's probably my most-frequently-asked questions on social media: When is the next Lakeshore book? My answer right now is stay tuned, they're not written yet, but I know what I want them to be. The original publisher of those books was acquired by Harper Collins, my current publisher. When the William Morrow imprint moved to Harper Collins, we made the decision that I would write some single titles that didn't tie in to any series, to give me a fresh start at this imprint. But I'll definitely go back to them because I love it and my readers love it.

GR: Has there ever been a book that you meant to turn into a series and didn't, or didn't originally conceive as the first book in a series and then it became one?

SW: I've never planned a series and then not done it, because when you plan it, you start building this world and it kind of grows from there. I wrote a historical romance one time called Charm School, and I didn't have any plans to make it a series, but I ended up writing connected books to that because I liked it so well and I liked the characters, so I followed where that went. There's actually a tie-in to that book planned, but who knows when I'll get to it.

GR: Have you ever thought about making characters from different books or series interact?

SW: I've never given it a whole bunch of my time. There's actually one—kind of a shout-out to readers who pay attention. I wrote a book called Just Breathe about a woman whose marriage falls apart. And then there's a book in the Lakeshore Chronicles all the way across the country, and there's a woman who's running away from her marriage, and it's a character from Just Breathe. It's more like a walk-on, just to see if readers notice and how they react.

I love the bond you get with readers on sites like Goodreads and Facebook, all the opinions and reactions that get shared, good and bad. I try not to read my reviews, but I do appreciate interacting with readers.

GR: What's your writing process like?

SW: I hand-write my draft on a particular kind of paper with a particular kind of pen that goes all the way back to my childhood. And then after my handwritten draft, I type it up. The word processing software I use sometimes surprises people. I use WordPerfect; it's way smarter than Microsoft Word, in my opinion. And then I revise. And that entire process takes anywhere from six months to a year. The most exciting part is composing in my handwriting and letting the book take on a life of its own.

GR: What was your favorite book growing up?

SW: Probably Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Please don't see the movie; only read Harriet the Spy. She goes around with her notebook, watching people and writing everything down. I can so relate to Harriet. I was eight when I read that and Charlotte's Web, and I was a goner. I had found what I wanted to do.

GR: What was the last book you loved?

SW: You Me Everything by Catherine Isaac. They sent me an early copy of that, and it's just very touching and emotional. And I love the setting, the south of France.

Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by Miriam (new)

Miriam What a great interview.

Thanks for sharing your writing process and discussing some of your other books. I'm hooked on your books and now want to read some titles I've missed over the years.
Best wishes.

message 2: by Marjorie (new)

Marjorie Thank you Susan! I previously preordered Between You and Me and look forward to receiving it!

message 3: by Lyn (new)

Lyn Ford Thank you Susan
I have had many hours of enjoyment reading your wonderful books an I am sure I will spend a lot more hours doing the same

message 4: by Sarah (new)

 Sarah Thank you Susan, i enjoyed the interview i have read a lot of your books this new one sounds like it will be a very good read. I will preorder it for sure. Between you and Me.

message 5: by Cindy (new)

Cindy Thank you for this interview. I look forward to reading the book when it comes out. And I'm a Word Perfect fan also.

message 6: by Linda (new)

Linda Roush Thank you! I can’t wait to read this book. I love Amish country and go there often.

message 7: by Yvone (new)

Yvone Gillespie I too am a huge fan of Word Perfect and agree it's fast nd easy.

message 8: by Donna (new)

Donna I love all of your books. Haven’t read new one yet. I hope you’ll be writing mire Lakeshore Chronicles. Really enjoyed Yhe Apple Orchard and Map of the Heart.

message 9: by Laurie (new)

Laurie Word Perfect - a blast from my past! I'm so glad I read this interview, I'm now looking forward to reading Between You & Me.

message 10: by Linda (new)

Linda Pennington I've just started Between You and Me. I can't wait to get into the story. Thank you for the insight into your writing. I love hearing how authors write.

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