It’s probably not wise to challenge Shirley Hailstock. Several years ago, a college friend dared her to write a romance novel after Hailstock made an off-handed comment about how “easy” it would be to do. One year and several sheets of paper later, Hailstock discovered that romance writing wasn’t as easy as she’d thought. But she also discovered her love for writing. Eight novels and four novellas later, Hailstock’s love affair with romance is ongoing. (My favorites are “Kwanzaa Angel,” “An Estate of Marriage” and Opposites Attract.) We recently talked about her work, the genre and multicultural romances.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I grew up in Buffalo, NY where it snows a lot. It was all right since I like snow. I went to college in Washington, D.C. (Howard University), majoring in Chemistry and Math. I participated in the Air Force ROTC and wanted to be an astronaut.
Is it true that you began writing romances on a dare?
This is true. A friend I went to college with is a real lover of romance novels. She and I were on the subway in New York going somewhere, but I can't remember. I'd brought a book with me. I was and am never without something to read. She asked what I was reading and I turned the book cover over to show her the title of the Harlequin Presents novel I was deep into. Then I made a stupid comment; "These books are so easy. I could write this."
Well, she dared me to do it. I took up the gauntlet and put my mind to it. I went home to write the book. I was going to do it that weekend. Another stupid thought. I sat down with pencil and yellow legal pads and began writing a novel for Harlequin Presents. IT TOOK ME A YEAR, but I finished it. In writing it I discovered I loved to write.
I think, in the back of my mind, I always wanted to be a writer but never really thought I could. That first manuscript never sold, but it taught me to love the process of creation, so I continued, writing three more complete novels before I found an editor who liked the way I wrote. She bought Whispers of Love, my first published novel and I'm now on the tenth book to that publishing house.
What was your first book and how long did it take to get it published?
My first published novel was Whispers of Love in 1994. I wrote it in 1990 finishing it just before I started a writing class with Vivian Stephens, founder of the Romance Writers of America organization and former romance editor for all the major category houses. In the class we would begin a new project and I didn't want to start something new without finishing what I was doing. My critique group insisted “this” was the book that would sell. I kept telling
them the book was not ready to go to an editor. It needed a final edit. They resorted to bringing me submission guidelines and market updates. Finally, I agreed to edit it and send it out. It got rejected by an agent and an editor at Silhouette. One said it was “too category” and one said it was too mainstream. Angered, but galvanized, I decided to take the Judith McNaught
method of writing. I'd let the characters do what they wanted. In six months the book doubled in size and I was happy with what turned out. I stopped trying to market it to category houses and sent it to Arabesque. They bought it within two months of submission.
To answer the second question of how long it took to it get published: I started writing seriously in 1989. I sold my first novel in 1993. It was published in 1994.
Were you surprised by the response to your first novel?
Yes, it was overwhelming but in a good way. I'd walk into a room and people would know who I was. Big time authors talked to me and invited me to join their groups. I got congratulatory cards from people I didn't even know. The reviews for the book raved and I got tons of fan mail from people who were glad to find romance novels with people of color in them.
What is the most frequently asked Shirley Hailstock question?
“Where do you find these ideas?” is the most frequently asked question. My books tend to be female action-adventure. I have helicopters fights, car chases and bombs going off. The books have romance at the core, but the characters are usually entwined in some plot that could not only get them killed, but the United States government is also at stake.
Second to the ideas, are the helicopters and the bombs. Most people want to know if I can fly a helicopter. I can't. I've been in several, military and commercial, helicopters. I've talked to pilots and asked many questions -- from ‘How much does it weigh?’ to ‘Explain attitude’ (a flying term), but I have never flown a helicopter myself.
Do you write full time?
No, I have a full-time day job. I would love to write full time, but currently I work for a pharmaceutical company in the Sales Operations and Administration Department.
How do you approach development of your characters?
Characters are developed different ways. Some of them come to me with whole lives already intact. They tell me almost everything about themselves and their families. These are the hardest to place in a book because I don't have a book in mind for them. Michael Lawrence, the hero from the book Legacy sat on a mountain in western Maryland for three years before I had a story for him. I currently have a character nicknamed Raven sitting in my head and no book for him.
Some character show up and demand to be in a book. In White Diamonds, the main character's sister, a fashion model, showed up and said she was in this book and she wouldn't go away. I had to write her in.
Clara Winslow, the heroine from Clara’s Promise, was developed from careful study. This book was my first historical and I wanted to portray Black people in a better light than former slave, downtrodden or beaten by life women, or the stereotypical maids or servants. I thought about what I could have her do so she would not be in any of those roles. I made her a teacher. Then I needed to give her a past, so I carefully thought about who she was and what her background was. These are the things I used to develop her.
Usually I get a plot idea first and then the people to fit in seem to know to show up. I have a loose characterization worksheet that is free form. I just type in everything I about them. There are surprises along the way. For example, Averal Ballantine from Opposites Attract looked at me one day and said, "My brother had sickle cell anemia." I was overwhelmed wondering why didn't Averal have it too. The result became an integral part of the story.
Where did the idea for “The Engagement” come from?
“The Engagement” is the only plot line I was ever "given." My editor had the idea of three stories surrounding the real-life contest sponsored by the Rainbow Room Restaurant in New York City. They held an essay contest where you send in 100 words or less telling why you'd like to get married on Valentine's Day in the Rainbow Room. In my story, my couple wins the contest and then one of them doesn't want to get married after being engaged for a long period of time?
Will we ever get Bill and Chase’s story?
I get this question a lot. In fact, I get it about most of the secondary characters in my stories. I have not written Bill and Chase's story.
One reason is I like to stay away from the glamour of show business. I did write Mirror Image which takes place in the world of television, but that was a book that showed up in my head nearly complete. I needed to get it out of the memory banks to make room for something else. And staying away isn't a "hard and fast" rule, but I don't choose that path.
I don't choose that path because it was the stereotypical way out for Black people. They were going to escape the "ghetto" by either sports or show business. So many children had their dreams knocked down because they felt that was the only way. I want to show other ways. Even though the stories I write are high-tech or in the high echelons of government they aren't
portrayed as the only way. The characters have done something else before they got to this position and frequently they were good at it. It might be a far-fetched or even outdated notion, but I've taught junior high school, high school and college students and I still see it.
Clara’s Promise is your first and only historical romance. How did the idea for the story come about?
The idea for Clara’s Promise came from an inner need to tell a story I wanted to read; one about how real African Americans lived in the "old West." So often African-American novels are set in the Civil War South or during the Reconstruction period. I wanted a story without these elements.
During my research of Blacks in the West during the 1800's I came across some interesting bits of Black history which added to my knowledge of our heritage. I wanted to give these to the world. Thus, Clara’s Promise was born.
Are you interested in writing another historical?
I'm asked about writing another historical every time someone picks up a copy of Clara’s Promise and reads it. Clara’s Promise was a joy to write and I never considered myself a historical novelist. I loved learning about the old West and Black people's involvement in it. I wanted everyone to know that the frontiers were boundless for Blacks too that we played a huge role in the opening and settling of the West, and I wanted to write a love story between two of the pioneers of that time. Clara and Luke were just perfect.
After submitting the manuscript it to the Arabesque line in 1995, when the line was doing several different types of women's fiction, the editors decided they wanted to go totally contemporary. The idea I was working on for a new historical, involving the teaching of hair care and beauty products for Black women in 1890's Boston, has never been completed because of the number of contemporaries I've been writing. However, I will get to it.
I know there are many historical stories that need to be told. At the moment I am not working on them because of contracts for other books which must be met first. In the future I hope to write many historicals.
Why don’t more African Americans writing in the genre write historical romances?
I really can't speak for them, but I would assume that they are writing what the editors are buying. Contemporary is what is selling. I recently proposed my historical idea to a publisher who does historicals and it was rejected with a letter saying they were looking for contemporaries. Historicals will make the cyclical swing back to the center, but for the moment contemporaries are where it is.
The opening passages of Opposites Attract is one of the best written prose I've read in quite some time. We are aware of the heroine's presence before we ever see her. We share in the hero's initial reaction to her on a variety of levels. How did you approach the creation of that scene?
These are the shoes clicking on the parquet floors of the bookstore. It was a musical thing. I play or I should say play at the piano, but I love music and that was a musical book in my head. I remember a George Gershwin comment that he wanted to capture the rhythms of the Paris streets, the darting in and out of the taxi cabs, in the opening of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. I
wanted to do this in Opposites Attract. I want that music that shoes make -- the cadence and movement – to capture the reader. Averal plays the saxophone and while no one else would notice, he would hear the sound even over other noises.
Thanks for the compliment.
The “picture him naked” scene in the novel is a very funny scene. How would you describe your sense of humor. Who and what makes you laugh?
“Picture him naked” is in the book Opposites Attract. I didn't intend to be funny, but that is often how it works. I think I can be funny when I'm with you in person. It is extremely difficult to write humor and keep it from being contrived or slapstick. My hat is off to the Susan Elizabeth Phillipses and Jennifer Crusies of the world. My own sense of humor in writing
is often given to a secondary character when I think of it. I don't often think of them as funny so much as I think of them as real. Some of the dialogue comes from things I've actually heard or thought and didn't say. I can let the characters say it.
One of my critique partners laughed at a passage I wrote in a novella, “Invitation to Love” in
Holiday Cheer, in which the hero comes to his parents’ house. They have a four-car garage and instead of him taking a space in front of any of the bays, he blocks the only car in the driveway in, his brother's car. I never thought that was funny. It was something my brother
would do to me. After a while though I could see the humor. I think if you try to write humor it isn't funny. It's just got to be something that happens in life.
Who makes me laugh? Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Dean Koontz. It's easy to understand Phillips, but Koontz's humor is more subtle and you have to read a lot of him to understand it since it's layered deeply into his characters, especially those that recur in a couple of books.
Opposites Attract is dedicated to Vivian Stephens and to the Women Writers of Color. Who are they?
Vivian Stephens is the founder of the Romance Writers of America and Women Writers of Color. She was an editor for Harlequin, Dell (Candlelight Romances), Bantam and others. She is actually the mother of romances in America. Vivian Stephens pulled people like Sandra Brown off the slush pile and tutored many of today's writers through their first books. She is credited with "opening the bedroom door."
Women Writers of Color is a groups of women who banded together to write commercial fiction with people of color as the major characters, remove the stereotypes from fiction and show how people really live. I belonged to the NY/NJ/DE chapter and we met monthly for two years with Vivian Stephens. I completed two novels in that class and they are both now in print. The group no longer meets regularly, but is still in existence.
What are multicultural romances?
I have an entire workshop I do on this question, but I'll condense it and say the elements of a multicultural novel are the same as they are for any well written book; character, plot, setting, sexual tension, pacing, etc. Where the differences begin to verge off is that books written by
African American, Hispanic, or Indian women will bring with them a new perspective to the genre, a new view to a tried and true relationship. First and foremost it's a love story. At the core will be the one man-one woman romance. Around it, nurturing it, helping it to grow will be the culture, foods, clothing, lifestyles and mores of the characters and their backgrounds, heritage
How important are they in the way in which African Americans are perceived? Do you believe they have cross-over appeal?
Perception by African Americans: Everyone likes to see images of themselves in all reflections whether it be television, films, the arts, sciences or literature. When the African-American novels first appeared I believed there was a collective sigh of relief that there were finally romance novels that Black people could relate to more deeply than the ones they were already reading. I believe they liked knowing that there were stories about them and that the characters show a side of life that is common to Blacks. I think it adds a greater respect for Black men in that they are treated as humans in the books, not deadbeats, drug addicts or jailbirds.
Perception by Others: From the comments and letters I've received over the years I believe the books have changed some attitudes about Black people even having romance in their lives. It has also changed some of the attitudes about levels of Black people. We are all Black, but we vary in color, lifestyles, and intelligence but deep down I think the understand is coming that we're all the same under the skin. We have the same wants and needs and loves.
As to cross-over appeal, I believe absolutely that these books are written for people who want a good story, not for Black people want a good story. Love is universal. The layers around the love story only enrich it. Frequently, I've heard people say the learned more history readying romance novels than they ever did is history class. Well with African-American novels
you can learn more about African Americans and African-American history than was
ever taught by the collective school systems throughout the United States.
Opposites Attract includes nods to HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities). How important are including Afrocentric touches in your romances to you?
I believe these touches gives the books so much more texture. I think they are extremely important. They give the characters definition and also allows a bit of Black history to be included in the novel. In Opposites Attract I mention the Sickle Cell Anemia Research facility on the campus of Howard University and the book gives some information about the disease. This is a disease that primarily (not always) occurs in people of color. While not throwing that in the readers face I slip in the details of life with this disease and how devastating this can be on a family. The devastation on a family part is something that any ethnic group can identify. Specifically making the disease Sickle Cell changed the book to focus on a Black family and then the elements of Black family life come into play.
Mirror Image is about a popular talk-show diva. Is it based on anyone we would know?
No, most people think it's based on Oprah. It's not, although there are a few references I used of her personality and her ability to save a scene in the book. I remember a segment on Oprah when she interviewed Ekaterina Goordeeva on her fairy tale life and her book, My Sergei. Her childhood friend, lover and husband Sergei Grinkov had died unexpectedly and "Katia" was so upset that she could barely answer the questions. Oprah asked and answered her own questions and the audience never even realized she was doing it. A legal show would have said she was leading the witness, but it was nearly seamless. It not only saved the interview, but it showed so much compassion on the part of Oprah who managed to keep this badly grieving woman from coming apart in front of a live audience. I wanted to show that same compassion in my character when she interviewed a terminally ill child. I might add I also saw a segment like this with Geraldo Rivera and he will forever be in my mind as a compassionate host, too.
You have written both full-length novels and novellas. Which form do you prefer and why?
I've written 8 novels and 4 novellas. I prefer full-length novels. In a novel I get a lot more room to complicate the characters lives or the situation. I get to fully build up to a point, slipping in information and coming to a climax. In a novella a lot of the description and motivation is
curtained or said outright. I like the subtleties of the novel. I like being able to hold back or keep a secret until the reader is dying for it.
What is White Diamonds about? How would you describe your approach to romantic
White Diamonds began in a far different way than it ended. I planned to write a book about a stole government communication system. But somewhere along the line my character's voice said "you're talking about the freedom of speech." This was a surprise to me. This meant a much bigger book. The scope was huge and my deadline loomed in front of me. I did not have time to go back and unravel the story so I would not get to that line. I thought about it for a day and decided to go on. I'd just write a larger focused book.
I'm glad I did. I love White Diamonds. I wish they'd recover it with a picture of the White House and release it again.
My approach to suspense is you have to have something worth fighting for, even worth dying for. And you can't be the only one who wants it. This sets up the conflict. The greater the impact of the "something" the larger the focus of the novel. The suspense element comes in with who has it and how the other one can get it. Another way, as in White Diamonds, is having something and not understanding what you have, but needing to protect it or live until you can find out what it is you really have.
I lived in Washington, D.C. and I love using it and the government as the focus of a suspense. Once I was going to Virginia at some early hour of the morning. I drove down 17th Street, past the Executive Office Building, and noticed a narrow house-looking building with a small gold sign that read Office of Emergency Preparedness. I was intrigued by this building. All the lights
were on inside. Each time I passed it, day or night, the lights were always on. I wondered what they did in there. And I think that is where my ideas of a government suspense stem from. I want to know what emergencies they deal with and why the public never knows of them.
“Kwanzaa Angel” is a romance in Arabesque's Winter Nights anthology. How did the idea for the story come about?
The fact that I love Cranbury, NJ. was first. It's a small town in central New Jersey where people walk down the streets, fish in the lake and stop to pass the day with friends. Second, was writing a Kwanzaa story that was different from the others I'd read. I didn't want to explain the principles of Kwanzaa to another character in the story. If you celebrate Kwanzaa, you already know the principles. I also like the theme of coming home, returning to the beginning and discovering this is where your roots are. A lot of us remember our lives through the special occasions in our lives. Some of these are holidays, birthdays, a special summer, or prom night. Often, if there are issues, they need to be resolved. This was a resolution an second chance at love story.
This idea for the actual story came from a piece of conversation I overhead in the checkout line. A couple of guys were discussing an on-again/off-again relationship in which the central character (not present in the store) was about to marry a woman he'd done something wrong to. I wasn't there to find out what he'd done wrong, but they obviously worked it out. As do
Raimi and Erin.
How did you seamlessly incorporate the seven principles of Kwanzaa into the characterization of Erin Scott?
The principles apply to everyday life. What I did was Show them in relation to life. The fact that they are happening during the actual Kwanzaa period adds the holiday touch to the story and the homecoming angle fits in. Erin owned a department store. She has a close-knit family and she's a valued member of the community. She practices Kwanzaa everyday so it was a matter of
drawing parallels to what was going on in her life to the programs that occur under the principles.
Is it true that your novella in Island Magic developed from a personal experience?
That is true, too. There was a man in my room. I don't remember which hotel. I was going to a conference. There was a lot of confusion with people checking in and out. The electronic key they gave me fit the door and when I went it there was a man in the room. He was in the bathroom, fully dressed and looking nothing like the tall, dark, and handsome hero. We resolved
the problem with a simple phone call to the desk and I got another room. But there was the idea.
More Than Gold is a timely story that combined the Olympic spirit and the presidential campaign. How did the story come about?
I planned this book with my editor. I wanted to write a book with the Olympics as a backdrop. My son and daughter started taking gymnastics when they were four and five. I took it for six years as an adult and I wanted to use that in a book. I talked to my editor two years ago about a book to be released in time for the Olympics and we scheduled it. The presidential election part of the story wasn't planned. I didn't even think of it until it happened in the story. At that time I wasn't thinking of a real election. But now with all the hoopla over Gore and Bush it's ironic that my candidate also "won by an eyelash."
Which of the covers of your novels is your favorite and why?
Two of my covers have won the Artemis Award from RWA,Mirror Image in 1999 and Opposites Attract in 2000. My favorite is Opposites Attract. I love the colors and the characters and that huge circle in the background that looks Aztec and abstract at the same time. It's a great blend and the characters in the book look like those on the cover.
You have been active in romance writers organizations on the local, regional and national levels. How important is participation in these organizations to writers at various stages of their careers?
I think participation on the local level is probably the best area for feedback on your writing and it's fairly regular. This area can give a writer the basics to help complete a book and the support system to keep you going. Regional and national participation become the running of a business or the process of networking. It will get your name in front of a lot more people. These people are potential readers and career allies. But don't forget your career is in writing, not running an organization.
Which writers have influenced you?
Sandra Brown, Donna Hill, Clive Cussler, Dean Koontz, Stephen Coonts, James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, John Nance, Anne Stuart, Nora Roberts, Patricia Gaffney, Lisa Gardner, and there are more.
What do you read when you are not writing?
I read a lot of suspense and category novels. I like the shortness of the category because I can finish it in one sitting and go do what needs to be done. I like heavily plotted suspense novels that keep my attention and give me great characters to love or hate.
What is HER 1-800-Husband about?
The title, HER 1-800-HUSBAND has changed to HIS 1-800-WIFE. My publisher decided to call the number and see if we could us it for promotion. It was a telephone sex number! We tried 1-900 and 1-888, both led to the same place 1-800-HUSBAND led. We had to do something fast since things were already in production. We came up with a number that can't exist.
So, HIS 1-800-WIFE is about a woman from a prominent family in Newport, RI who needs a husband. Her family keeps telling her this. To get them off her back she installs the telephone number to find a man she can marry and divorce in six months. This will satisfy her family and they can't bother her again. Then returning to her life is her next-door neighbor, a man who's been in England for the past five years and who was always playing practical jokes on her. He agrees to her plan, but the best laid plans....
What's next? What are you working on now?
I'm working on a mainstream novel that is set in the 1930s and is not sold. It is the story of how four Black women survive the depression in the United States. I hope to be finished the first draft before the end of the year.
Can you tell us anything about your life outside writing, about your family or
I'm a single mother of two, now driving, teenagers. Most of my activities outside of writing have centered around them and what's happening at their schools or extra-curricular activities. I mentioned I played the piano. I sing too, taking lessons weekly. I also play tennis weekly and recently I went back to sewing.
I haven't made anything in years. In November I went to the Romantic Times Convention. They have a masquerade ball. I made a medieval costume and it renewed my love of sewing. I'd forgotten how much I like doing it. I don't have time for it, however, if I am to work full time and write and be mom.
What advice can you give writers who are getting started?
I always say read. Read everything, not just what you're writing. Read books outside of the area. Read good books and bad books. If you like a book find out why. Analyze it. Do the same to books you don't like, especially to books you don't like. And you have to write. Don't say you want to write and not do it. Sit down and write.
How can readers contact you?
I have a web page with lots of information on it, including a schedule of personal appearances. The URL is http://www.geocities.com/shailstock
I also have e-mail. My address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
December 11, 2000