Tell us a little about your latest release:
HER SMALL-TOWN HERO is the second book of the Eden, Oklahoma series. It involves a protective eldest brother, Holt Jefford, and a desperate, secretive widowed mother, Cara Jane. Holt is an oil driller and rancher, but he’s been playing maid at the Heavenly Arms Motel, owned and operated by his elderly grandfather Hap, since his sister married and temporarily moved to Dallas. He’s as desperate for help as Cara Jane is desperate for work, but he can’t help noticing that things don’t add up with pretty little Cara. He figures it’s his job to uncover her secrets, but along the way he falls in love and has to reassess his interpretation of God’s will for his life.
How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific ‘what if’ moment?
All of my plots are character-driven. Holt is a product of the first book in the series, HIS SMALL-TOWN GIRL. I had to find his perfect mate, and once I’d settled on who and what she had to be, then the story began to take shape. First I had to find a reason to bring her to the small town of Eden, but again, book one left me with a perfect opening. The marriage of Holt’s sister Charlotte left a gaping hole at the Heavenly Arms.
Tell us a little about your main character and how you developed him/her:
My dad has been a jack-of-all-trades in a sense. I couldn’t begin to name all the pies that he’s had his fingers in over the years, but first and foremost has always been two things: ranching and oil. Naturally, when I began devising a male character for the very setting in which I grew up, small-town Oklahoma, I went to what I know best about such men. The similarities pretty much stop there. My dad is not an oldest child, and his family are all independent to a fault rather than dependent on one another.
You write under a pen name. Can you tell our readers why you elected to use a pen name? What are the benefits?
Honestly, I didn’t elect to write under a pen name. Rather, I elected not to sign a multiple-book contract before I had an agent who knew about such things. I submitted my first book, CITY GIRL, to Harlequin and only later found out about Silhouette, which was then part of Simon and Schuster. That was before RWA existed, and so far as I know there were no rules about submitting to more than one house at a time, so I sent the book to Silhouette, too. Both publishers expressed interest, and I settled on Silhouette simply because if was based in New York and Harlequin was based in Canada. When I refused a 3-book deal, however, they insisted that I take a pen name, which they would copyright. Their reasoning was that if I “jumped ship” to Harlequin after that first book was published, I wouldn’t be able to benefit from their promotion of the book as I would have to continue publishing under a different name.
Pen names were pretty much the norm back then, anyway, so I picked my middle name and my husband’s first name and blithely went forward. I found an agent, Charles Stern, and he sold the second book and negotiated the first multiple-book contract for me with Silhouette. I never “jumped ship.” Eventually Harlequin bought Silhouette and brought it under their big umbrella. They also eventually “gave” me my pen name. By that time, Arlene James had a large reader-base established, so Arlene James I remain.
Arlene James has helped me keep my private life and public life somewhat separated, but I’m no longer under contract constraints to keep my true identity a secret, so in some ways it’s become a burden. Still, Arlene has been good to me, and I’m in no hurry to jettison her.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Least?
The memories are what make this book and this series special. Growing up on a ranch outside of Comanche, Oklahoma, was a good thing. I had such freedom as a child, and those long summer days found me outside roaming or playing unless I was ill, which I frequently was due to allergies and rheumatic fever. Our nearest neighbor kids were about a mile away, so I spent a lot of time alone inside my own head, which I suspect is why I’m a writer today.
I also loved revisiting the other characters in the series, but I’d have loved to have been able to tell more about the growing relationship of Charlotte and Tyler with his family from the first book.
What made you start writing?
It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do besides be a wife and mother and now grandmother. I remember vividly being asked by my father what I wanted to be when I grew up. I looked up from the book I was reading and told him that I wanted to be a writer. No one ever tried to tell me that I could not be a writer. On the contrary, many people in my life told me that I could be a writer, and I’m grateful to each and every one.
What would you do with your free time if you weren’t writing?
Free time? I think I’m a naturally busy sort of person. My family is my greatest joy, and we work hard to spend time together despite the distances between us, but my husband and I have a busy social life apart from our sons and their families. His job has us traveling a good bit. We’ve seen much of the world, thanks to his work, but we are also deeply involved in church and serve in a number of capacities, whatever God puts before us. We mentor a young couple and their three boys in a neighboring community. Did I mention hockey? We attend at least half of the home games of the Dallas Stars, never miss a televised game and generally follow hockey like the fanatics we are. I love creative things: cooking, sewing, theater… I have to be doing something creative or challenging all the time.
What’s the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?
The publishing industry has changed a great deal over the past three decades, and sometimes just keeping up with that is exhausting, but it’s all the other things we have to do besides write that get to me. I’m a gregarious person, but I’d prefer to stay in my cubby hole and dream up stories to put down in writing rather than promote, promote, promote. I love reading and talking about writing. I love the company of other authors and readers, but I want to be writing every day, and I feel as if the hours that I have to do that have waned fewer and fewer over the years. That’s difficult for me. I am a writer; I want to write. I also have a hard time putting myself forward. I always think, “I am already so blessed. There is someone out there who needs this attention worse than I do.”
Do you put yourself into your books/characters?
A writer always puts something of herself into everything she writes. We only have our own experience, thoughts, ideas, convictions and ethics from which to draw. Everything that happens to us, everything we read, hear and see is filtered through our own unique view of life, so in that sense I can’t help putting myself into the work. I also use familiar settings and situations, but I don’t write about my life or myself. I suppose I write about bits and pieces of myself. I think that is inescapable.
What message do you hope readers gain from your novel?
That God has a will for each of our lives, but that His will for us is not a stagnant thing. It is as fluid as life itself, which is why we must constantly seek His will.
Briefly take us through your process of writing a novel—from conception to revision.
Once in awhile I get a premise first, but usually it’s a character or characters. He/she/they may not even be the hero or heroine of the story, but something about the idea of a character will grab me and spin into a premise, then a situation and setting. Once I know my characters really well I know what sort of issues they are dealing with, and that’s where the story always start. I get scenes next, things that I see these people doing and hear them saying. Then I start fitting it all together in a progression. To me every scene has to exacerbate or resolve some issue or a bit of an issue for a character, until everything is resolved. I plot by synopsis, sometimes with great detail, sometimes without. Sometimes I don’t want to know the details until I get there!
I see revisions as a chance to make a book better with fresh perspective. That said, I could count on one hand the number of revisions I did before I went to work with Steeple Hill. The most difficult revisions for me are the ones that have to do with character, but we can usually work that out.
What are a few of your favorite books (not written by you) and why are they favorites?
It would be difficult to impossible to pick out favorite books by title. One that comes to mind is LONESOME DOVE. I love westerns and outstanding characters, and that book has both. Another is THE BOOK OF KELLS, which marries historical fact and fantasy very well.
I read voraciously and think more in terms of favorite types of books and favorite authors. I love romance, of course, but I can’t read what I write for relaxation or entertainment. That’s work! I do read and appreciate many of the authors who write what I write, but reading them is still work for me. I love to read cozy mysteries, westerns, sci-fi and fantasy and historical romances, but I read a good deal of nonfiction, too. I love history, but I probably read more commentary than anything else nonfiction, especially Bible commentary.
What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing?
Frankly, I’m glad I didn’t know then what I know now. Otherwise, I’m not sure that I’d ever have written for anything more than my own satisfaction! One thing I’ve learned is that selling that first book is a matter of getting the right material into the right hands at the right time. I firmly believe that God engineered that very situation for me. Another thing you have to remember in order to continue publishing is that times change, and if you don’t change with them, you’re sunk. You have to reinvent yourself every once in awhile in life. Otherwise, you’re bound to be a miserable failure. Think about it. If you can’t reinvent yourself as a spouse, parent, grandparent… If we don’t reinvent ourselves from time to time, life passes us by completely.
How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?
I maintain an Internet presence, but frankly I hate to blog and I have to beat myself to read blogs. I give away as many books and as much promotional gear as I can, but I really don’t care to sell books unless it’s for a good cause. I limit myself to book signings that benefit someone else. I reply to all of my reader mail in as timely a fashion as I can and have maintained long correspondences with some. I’ve bought ads, but I don’t know how cost-effective that is. I enter contests and I judge contests and speak a few times throughout the year. I do absolutely everything the marketing department asks of me because they are so much better at promotion than I could ever be. I do interviews and have done television and radio. I especially like radio. I also do library venues and book festivals, whatever comes my way.
Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?
I’m working on a new series that I hope will involve many books. We’re calling it Chatam House at the moment, and it revolves around an antebellum mansion owned by three maiden aunties, triplets, with a large extended family. It’s set in Texas, near the DFW metroplex area. I’m working on the first book now. If the series works as I hope it will, we’ll eventually put up a website dedicated to the series and keep it fresh with words and stories of the aunties and the main characters from each of the books.
I hear so much these days about the rules for writing, as if, like the Ten Commandments, such ideas have been carved in stone. The truth is, there are no rules. There is writing. Some writing is better, some books are better, but even that is subjective and dependent upon cultural levels of taste. What would Charles Dickens have thought about Ernest Hemingway? Dickens worked well in his time; Hemingway in his. No one has a lock on what good writing is, and really, we only know what worked yesterday, not what’s going to work for tomorrow. The best you can do is figure out what works for publishers NOW and hope that it still works by the time they’re reading your material. The mercurial, arbitrary, subjective nature of this business is one reason that I’m glad I have a caring Lord to call upon. Frankly, I don’t know any other way to cope!