Susan Mallery is a writing machine. Her output is high—when asked to confirm how many novels she’s published, she thinks for a moment and says, “150 … ish. It used to matter; now I really don’t care.” Her approach is systematic—she made it her mission to become an ace at story structure, and developed a well-oiled method of seizing an idea, expanding upon it with her plot-focused writers group, and putting it to the page with startling efficiency. But make no mistake, her stories aren’t mechanical. The tagline on her website header spells out her heartfelt, reader-focused mission: Read. Laugh. Love.
After cutting her teeth on category romance in the ’90s, Mallery became a name in the genre. Her current Fool’s Gold series, contemporary romance set in a small town with a man shortage, has 15 novels in print and four more due out this year. She’s also a breakout women’s fiction author—her bestselling Blackberry Island trilogy wrapped in 2014, and she launched a new series with The Girls of Mischief Bay in March.
But she’s not too busy writing to invite her readers in—taking them up on suggestions of characters who should get their own happily-ever-afters, soliciting Facebook fans to name fictional locales in her series, posting photos of her cooking mishaps—and they respond with unabashed loyalty.
How does she do it all? With warmth, good humor and candor, she shared some of her secrets in the May/June 2015 Writer’s Digest. In this online-exclusive companion to the full interview, we feature some entertaining outtakes we didn’t have space to print.
I’m sure you get this question a lot, but with our audience of writers, it’s not just a curiosity question, it’s a craft question. How do you decide how steamy to make the sex? There’s a noticeable difference between a sex scene in a Fools Gold book and one in Mischief Bay, for instance.
Right. Well, there are several factors. For example, the Christmas hardcovers don’t have consummated sex on screen, because it seems weird. It’s a little gifty Christmas hardcover you could give your grandma—not that grandma’s probably not doing it! But some of it is the books themselves. I have a level of sensuality I’m comfortable with, personality-wise, and what I want to write. You know, there’s just some stuff that makes me, ick. And I choose not to do that. I have never had a discussion with an editor saying, “More …” “Less …” No. But since writing single titles, I write sexy enough that the majority of the people are happy. Some people think I write too sexy. And I have to say, I’m totally am grateful for 50 Shades of Grey because now, when people say, “How sexy are your books?” I can say, “I’m a very high 20. I’m like a 27 to a 30.”
Does the popularity of a book like 50 Shades of Grey change the parameters at all?
I don’t think so. You know who it changes? It changes the stupid media people who are now like, “Ooh, sexy books. …” It’s like, Those books have been sexy all along—you’re just late to the party. You’re all wide-eyed and astonished, but this has been going on for decades. …
What I will say is the difference in heat depends on the characters in the situation.
I do a lot of Friends of the Library talks on the phone [for] reader groups for women’s fiction. I had one where I could tell the ladies were a bit older, and it was for Three Sisters, and one woman said, “Well, I was quite shocked by the sexual relations in this book.” And I thought, OK, so you obviously haven’t read me in my other life! And I said, “Yes, you’re right. There are two sex scenes in Three Sisters. One of them I felt was essential to the story. Deanna needed to have sex with her husband and we needed to see it because surrendering to [finally being able to truly love] her husband was the culmination of her conflict and her character journey.” I said, “The scene with Andi and the contractor? I’m a romance writer, I was in the mood, it was totally gratuitous—I will accept criticism on that!” And she was like, “Oh. OK!” So they are what they are because I’m comfortable with this and the readers respond to it.
You know, I’ve read some of the erotica stuff, and it’s fine, but it’s not my thing. If they wanted me to write that, then I would have to go write cozies, because that’s not happening.
You do a lot of interactive extras for your readers. What drove your decision to do that, and how does involving your readers affect your creative process?
Well, I would love to tell you that there was a plan, but one day I just had to name some [locations in the setting of my new series], and I was behind and tired, so I put it on Facebook, and I got really great responses. I’m like, Oh my God, they’ll work for free! [Laughs.] So that’s sort of how it started.
The first Mischief Bay book is dedicated to the Mischief Makers, who are all the people who named the businesses [in the town where the series is set]. I like it, and I think it engages the readers. I think they enjoy it.
When I do book signings, I keep a piece of paper next to me and if somebody has an unusual name, I write it down, and I tell them, you need to start checking out my books in about a year. And I know they don’t believe me. I was in Atlanta two years ago at a signing and a lady came up to me named Dellina. And I said, “Love your name, I’m going to put it in a book.” Then almost two years ago, [the Romance Writers of America conference] was in Atlanta and a woman came up and said, “I can’t believe you put my friend Dellina in a book!” and I said, “Oh, this year she’s a secondary character. Next year she’s going to be a heroine—I’m writing her book right now. And I don’t know if this is good news or bad news, but Dellina is a little bit slutty.” And so she starts laughing and her friend Dellina happened to be there. She got her, brought her over, and I said, “Oh honey, there’s stuff in here!” It’s fun. It connects, it helps. After [writing] 150 books, I’m out of names!
[My assistant] has informed me [that in] Fools Gold, Emily is my go-to name for the lady at the grocery store, or the little girl, or whatever, and she said, we’re up to Emily IV, you need to move on to another name. And then I moved on to Olivia. It’s like, OK, we need another one now! [Laughs.]
How do you divide your time between writing and that kind of reader engagement?
The trick is, you do a budget. You don’t go to the grocery store and spend as much as you want; you have a budget. You do the same thing with your time.