Heather Graham remembers all too well what it feels like to be the only person who takes one’s writing seriously. Before selling her first novel, When Next We Love, in 1982, she was a stay-at-home mother of three stealing every minute she could to try her hand at genre fiction. As she typed away on an old typewriter (“It was missing an ‘E!’”), her mother-in-law would call, ask what Graham was up to, and say, “Oh good, you’re not busy.”
But Graham kept on typing. “I was well trained into being a Dr. Seuss character,” she says. “I can write on a plane, in a train, going far, in a car.”
Almost four decades later—with more than 150 novels and novellas to her name in categories ranging from suspense (the Cafferty & Quinn series) to historical romance (the Cameron Saga: Civil War Trilogy) to paranormal (the Alliance Vampires series); more than 75 million books in print in 25 languages; and honors that include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Romance Writers of America (2003) and the ThrillerMaster award from the International Thriller Writers (2016)—it’s safe to say she has, in fact, been busy.
Her popular Krewe of Hunters series, which follows a branch of paranormal investigators for the FBI, is 20 books deep (with three more Krewe novels due out this year). She’s contributed to dozens of anthologies, and is interminably active in the writing community: Born and raised in South Florida, she co-founded one of her home state’s first chapters of RWA in 1986, served as vice president of the Horror Writers Association, and is one of the original members of ITW.
In addition to the Krewe of Hunters books, Graham’s 2017 releases include two co-authored novels (The Rising, with Jon Land, and American Drifter, with actor Chad Michael Murray); the romantic thriller Law and Disorder, about a kidnapping set in the Everglades; and A Perfect Obsession, Book 2 of her New York Confidential series in which criminal psychologist Kieran Finnegan and FBI special agent Craig Frasier investigate the Big Apple’s seedy underbelly.
At the San Francisco Writers Conference in February, WD sat down with Graham—where she reflected on her humble beginnings, heaped praise upon her peers and shared hope for writers seeking to break through. Look for the feature-length interview in the July/August 2017 Writer’s Digest. In these online exclusive outtakes, Graham talks community and co-writing, as well as the origins of story ideas, and more.
When you’re working at such a ferocious pace pace, what is your process like? How do you stay organized?
Process wise, I can’t say it’s by time. It’s by when you have time and by utilizing the time you do have. I never go anywhere without a computer. Never go anywhere when I’m not working on something. I was joking with [a friend] earlier today because I got on the plane and American Airlines no longer has headphones after 12 o’clock, and I had forgotten my headphones, and so you couldn’t watch anything. You couldn’t listen to anything. I’m like, Well, I guess that means I’m supposed to work. So, six-hour flight, I got a lot done.
Do you think of the full trajectory of a series when you begin writing, or do you play it book by book?
I usually know three ahead—three ahead of what I’m doing.
Considering your background in theater, are there any elements of that dramatic training that you feel have influenced your fiction?
Oh, definitely. A book I’m working on right now start off with a diva who winds up being murdered, but she’s thinking she’s at Comic Con because it’s where old B-actresses go to die, and then she does. I’ve used it a great deal. Then we’ve also used it for … every year I do two things. We have something called Writers For New Orleans, which is a benefit conference that we started right after [Hurricane Katrina]. Then we do dinner theater for that. We have something called The Slushpile Band, and we also do the Vampire Party every year at RT to benefit pediatric AIDS. And it’s kind of fun because it’s like they’re my plays, I can’t be rejected. I’m casting myself.
I could also see there being a lot of narrative devices that you might employ.
Dialogue, too. A lot of dialogue.
How do you know when you’ve landed upon authentic dialogue in a story? What does that look like?
Oh, gosh. I’m not sure if I can answer that that way, but … you know it when you see it. It’s kind of like we were watching old episodes of Cheers the other day, and then Frasier. The writing on those is so amazing. Sometimes I think we’re missing some of that, and I think that’s what we’re striving … well, not that you have to be a comedian with everything, but you’re striving for the naturalism of it that still evokes laughter, tears, whatever—but the realism.
What drives you to be so involved in the writing community as a whole?
Gosh, the writing community is like the most amazing community ever. I belong to Horror Writers, Mystery Writers, Romance Writers, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers.
Through ITW, we went on a USO tour that’s probably one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. I got to be Thriller Master and get an award from R.L. Stine, and this year I get to give it to Lee Child. I mean, how can you dream of anything better? It’s an amazing world to be in.
I think most of us … It’s a very, very funny thing. I remember years and years and years ago, about 20 years, I was asked to be on a panel and kind of give the pep talk, like, “You just keep trying. Whatever time you have, you make sure you’re working. Yes, you can do it with children. Yes, you can do it with a job. Yes, you may be rejected. Yes, you just keep trying …” and you go on and on.
I had given my little speech, and then the person next to me was like, “Well, I just started writing and my husband saw it, and he thought it was really good, and he happened to know an agent, and the agent thought it was really good, and we thought we could sell it to a house, but then they decided to have this thing called an auction, and a lot of people were bidding on it, and they sold it and it’s all great.” And I’m kind of like listening to this, like, “Don’t do it my way. Do it her way. That was so much better.” And it was real. It was [Outlander author] Diana Gabaldon.
The thing about writing is that it’s never going be the same experience for any two people. Most of us do like to share what we’ve learned. If you look at Lee Child, you will never find a sweeter, kinder, better gentleman. R.L. Stine is amazing. I’m blanking on people. I will never forget Charlaine Harris. She and I were at a conference … I think I’ve known her for 30 years. We were at a conference right after I heard about her HBO deal [for True Blood], and I ran into her in the hall. I was like, “Charlaine, I’m so happy for you. This is so exciting.” And she looked at me, and she says, “Heather, can you believe it? They’re buying my books now!” And she’s the same person. She’s so nice. She’s so giving. Just a great group of people.
You’ve talked about some of the collaborations you’ve done, and you’ve co-authored novels with thriller writer Jon Land and the actor Chad Michael Murray. What is the co-authoring process like?
It’s different. It’s different with whomever you’re working with. Jon is great. Jon and I have a good time. He does something and sends it to me. I do something and send it to him. We get along beautifully. It’s just a very easy process. Our hardest thing was insulting each other at first. You know, like, “I really think this could have been a little stronger here. Maybe we should change this up a little bit.”
With Chad, it was different, and that was a really funny one. My daughter is a theater major. Actually acting in California now. I had gone to a show that she was in, and she had a friend who was a head editor for Archaia Comics. And he kept sitting next me, and it was kind of like, I Know Stephen likes me, but he doesn’t usually follow me all over a room, so he had just done a comic with Chad Michael Murray, and he was trying to talk to me about getting somebody [to write a book with him]. And, frankly, I had never heard of him because I’d never watched One Tree Hill. But it wouldn’t have mattered. I kept telling Stephen, “I’m under contract. I don’t do things like that,” and then he was very, very persistent.
I finally met Chad and we were talking, and I was still like, “I work with a lot of people. I’ll try to find somebody for you.” Then he excused himself to go talk to his vet because his dog was going to need a hip replacement, and then next thing he came back to the table and I was like, This man’s getting a hip replacement for his dog. We are gonna talk. He had his story. He’s actually a very good writer. He had a lot to learn about structuring and, obviously, we’re hoping to see a movie made with him as the main character. The original concept was his. I would definitely say I had a lot to do with development. He is a good writer, and we did go back and forth.
Is there anything you haven’t done that you still want to do?
I actually have somebody who said they’re interested if I can actually get to it. The First Lady of the Confederacy, it was a woman named Varina Davis, and possibly … It’s funny because I had no dog in the fight. Neither of my parents were American, but the Civil War has always been [an interest of mine]. I think it’s the poignancy of it, the fact that people were so ripped to shreds over it, that makes it such a fascinating era of history. Also because my husband is Italian and his whole family moved into Massachusetts, so would take all these trips year after year, all the way up the East Coast from Miami to Boston. All along the way, you’d wind up at zillions of re-enactments and museums, and so the era of the Civil War has always fascinating me.
Actually, the first time I was on [The New York Times bestsellers list] was for a book called One Wore Blue. It was about the Civil War. I think what people miss is … or lately, there’s been this big surge of, “Oh, my God. Let’s get rid of Lee. Let’s get rid of this person. Let’s get rid of that person.” It’s kind of like Robert E. Lee didn’t want to secede. Robert E. Lee worked harder than anybody else once the war was over to try to put the country back together. I just think the same thing with Jefferson Davis, who was the President of the Confederacy. He spoke at Cooper Union against secession. They didn’t really want any of this to happen, but during the Civil War, Lee was a Virginian. Being a Virginian now would be like being an American rather than a Canadian or a Mexican, that your loyalty was to your state, and he felt he had no other choice.
That being that, I think one of the most fascinating characters to come through it was Varina Davis. There are amazing correlations. Both Varina Davis and Mary Todd Lincoln lost children while they were in the White House—separate White Houses, obviously—and the Lincolns and the Davises both wrote each other condolences. It was still a very human situation. And so, I just think she was a fascinating woman, and I would love to do a fictionalized biography of Varina Davis.
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Tyler Moss is the managing editor of Writer’s Digest. Read his full interview with Heather Graham in the July/August 2017 Writer’s Digest.