Executive editor Skip Hollandsworth on interviewing writer Sandra Brown.
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texasmonthly.com: How did the idea to write about Sandra Brown come about? Were you one of her fans?
Skip Hollandsworth: Actually, I had never read a Sandra Brown novel. I was one of those journalists who arrogantly thought he should only write about famous Texas “literary” writers—Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, and so on. But every time I walked past the book racks at a grocery store or at an airport, there she was, another title staring back at me. And one day I read that she had more than fifty New York Times best-sellers. Think about that. There’s a million writers out there who are plugging away, hoping to come up with one best-seller. And Sandra Brown does it every single year. I began to think, “How is that possible?”
texasmonthly.com: What was your first impression of her?
SH : I have to say, she’s 59 years old and a complete knockout. When I went to see her, she was wearing expensive Steve Madden high heels, which made her look about six feet tall, and linen slacks and a sexy beige top, and all I could think of was, “This is what a big-time best-selling author wears when she comes to the office to write?” And when I asked that question, she threw back her head and laughed and said, “I dressed like this only because I knew you were coming to interview me. Usually, I show up in Juicy sweats and tennis shoes.” When I mentioned her reddish, auburn hair, she said, without a trace of embarrassment, “All highlights. All tricked up.” She was utterly disarming and completely down to earth.
texasmonthly.com: Was she wary of you—thinking you might be there to make fun of her for writing what the critics tend to call “trash novels”?
SH : Well, she’s certainly taken her shots from critics. But what was interesting was that she was not in any way defensive about what she did. She openly said that she knew that what she wrote was not remotely literary. She knew she created beach reads—nothing more.
texasmonthly.com: Considering her volume of work, is Brown one of the lucky ones for whom writing just comes easy?
SH : Well, she does have a gift for knocking out a lot of words. When she was in her thirties and writing traditional romance novels, she once published ten romance novels in a single year. But what really impressed me was how hard she worked—the long number of hours, day after day, year after year. She is not the kind of writer who waits to be “inspired” so she can write. She is very business-like about her career—getting to the office on time every day, turning on her computer, refusing to stop for lunch, and writing on into the late afternoon. She’s also competitive. She wants each new book to have better sales than the previous one. She also notices the sales figures of her other big-time rivals in her genre, like Nora Roberts. She notices the new writers who are starting to crack the best-seller list. And despite all her success, she becomes more determined than ever to stay on top.
texasmonthly.com: Obviously, a writer who has produced so many novels must be careful not to get too formulaic. Does Brown do a good job of this? What’s her secret? Why do readers keep coming back for more?
SH : I’m not being critical when I say this, but there is a certain formula in her books that makes the readers come back for more. The readers know they are going to get a blend of murder, deceit, passion, intrigue, romance, and sex. They know that a lot of the chapters are going to end with a surprise. She gives her readers what they expect, but she also gives them a little bit of what they don’t expect. Never does she use the same characters or same settings. That in itself is pretty amazing.
texasmonthly.com: What was it like for you to read your first Sandra Brown book?
SH : As I said in the story, when I read Play Dirty, the book that is being released this month, I raced through it. She is good at pacing and plotting—so good that you tend to forget how completely implausible and sometimes ridiculous the plot might be. The premise of Play Dirty is that an impotent, wheelchair bound owner of an airline hires an ex—Dallas Cowboys quarterback who is just out of prison for throwing games to come over and have sex with the airline owner’s wife to get her pregnant. I mean, absurd, right? But it didn’t matter. Once I got going into the book, I started flipping pages to find out what was going to happen.
texasmonthly.com: How is it to write about another writer—especially one so successful?
SH : I know exactly where you’re going with this question, and I will be honest: I did wonder if I could do it myself. I drove home from the interview and thought, “Could I do something like this? Come up with a great beach read and make a lot of money like Sandra Brown?” I said, “Hey, I’ve been writing for a long time. I know how to put sentences together.” But as her former editor Michael Korda later told me with a chuckle, “It’s not easy writing the big crowd pleasing page turners.” And he’s right. A lot of people have a novel that they work on at nights. They work on it, and they work on it. They try to make it great escapist fiction. And they don’t get there. They can’t do what Sandra Brown does—and she does it year after year after year. It’s really remarkable when you think about it.