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Janis Susan May Interview

Tell us a little about yourself
Oh, my! What can one say about oneself without sounding prideful or risking unexpired statutes of limitations? Let’s see… I have always believed in following my dream, whatever it happened to be at the moment, which has led me into some pretty strange places. I’ve never made much money, but I have led a rich and fulfilling life. I never thought I’d marry, but a wonderful man (the most wonderful one in the world, as far as I’m concerned) changed my mind about that. He’s a number of years younger than I, a scientific sort, a Captain in the Navy Reserves, and a lot of fun. Even though he doesn’t read fiction (other than the occasional WEB Griffin or Dale Brown) he supports and encourages my writing. I was a first time bride at the advanced age of 54, after being proposed to in a beautiful moonlit garden across the road from the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. Unfortunately, my mother passed away at the age of 90 just 3 weeks after our wedding. Talk about going from the highs to the lows!
Before I married and gleefully became what some of my friends call a “Stepford wife” I believed in trying almost everything once. I have raced cars, flown planes, sung professionally, acted professionally, worked as a talent agent, been an advertising agency copywriter, editor in chief of two multi-magazine publishing groups, a jewelry designer, supervisor of accessioning for a bio-genetic DNA testing lab… the list goes on. If it sounded like fun, I did it. I do have a very low boredom tolerance.
I’ve traveled over a great chunk of the world and lived in Mexico on and off for years. I’m considered an expert shot with both pistols and long guns. When I was a child (8 or so) my cousin Mike and I would milk rattlesnakes and sell the venom to a local hospital to earn spending money; at least, we did until our parents found out!
I was one of the 50 or so women who originally founded RWA. I was one of the founders of the North Texas Chapter of the American Research Center in Egypt, which is arguably the largest organization of working Egyptologists in the world. In April of 2005, I – who am not an Egyptologist – was the closing speaker at their international conference in Boston.
I like to cook and to sew and, now that I live in a house instead of an apartment, I have discovered a passion for gardening. And hot tubs. We received a hot tub for a wedding present and it is wonderful. I’ve told The Husband there are three things that if they break I’m replacing them the same day – the food processor, the microwave and the hot tub! We both like to read, and the house shows it. We have two libraries and are contemplating building a third.
The Husband and I have a neurotic tuxedo cat named Squeaky Boots and a white miniature poodle named Harriette. Both are elderly rescue animals. We had another cat, Shadow, but just before Christmas last year his health deteriorated so badly we had to have him put to sleep. I still listen for him.
Oooops. You said ‘a little’ didn’t you? Too late. Well, I did leave out some of the wilder parts…

When did you decide to become a writer?
Decide? What makes you think I had a choice?
People have asked me how I learned to write and I answer, most truthfully, ‘genetically.’
One of my grandfathers was a small-town newspaper editor/publisher, back in the era when small town newspapers were a power in the world. Both my grandmothers were at one time English teachers. Both my parents were at one time English teachers at the high school/college level. My mother went on to produce plays, be a County Home Demonstration Agent in South Texas (about which we have done a book called THE LAND OF HEART’S DELIGHT, to be released in a month or so), write a magazine column, design house floor plans, and, with my father, start an advertising agency that was for 16 of the 17 years of its existence one of the top 300 in the nation, as rated by AADA. My father was editor and/or publisher of half a dozen small-town newspapers, taught journalism at Texas A&M and with my mother founded Don May Advertising. I went to work at the agency at nine and by twelve was writing copy.
Decide? I didn’t have a snowball’s chance of being anything but a wordsmith.

What was your first published work?
Much to the chagrin of my mother, my father designed my birth announcement, using the wording of a book release. While not my own work, it did sort of set the tone for my life.
Does ‘self-publishing’ count? When I was four I wrote a book (about some kids catching an escaped lion in the park, if I remember correctly), illustrated all 8 or 10 hand printed pages and bound it by sewing the papers together with needle and quilting thread. I think I made 3 or 4 copies before I got bored and went on to something else.
In the real world, I sold some articles (on what I don’t remember) and some confessions (much to the chagrin of my rather straight-laced mother) while in my late teens and early 20s. My first novel was WHERE SHADOWS LINGER, published in 1979 as part of the old Dell Candlelight Intrigue series.

What is your dream as a writer?
To be rich and famous, of course. Or to be super-rich and infamous.
Seriously, I would like to be able to sell the kind of books I want to write, the kind I like to read, that are pretty much impossible to sell today. I want to be either Barbara Michaels or Phyllis A. Whitney when I grow up… and considering my age, that had better happen soon! Actually, one reviewer said that I was the logical successor to Phyllis A. Whitney. I hope she is canonized.

What writing avenues are you currently pursuing?
Anything anyone pays me for. Actually, since 2005 (when my husband was sent to Iraq and told me to write books while he was gone) I have sold a romantic murder mystery - DARK MUSIC, a memoir of my mother’s time in South Texas in the 1940s – THE LAND OF HEART’S DELIGHT, a psychological thriller – WELCOME HOME, a time-travel romance set in Ancient Egypt – LOST IN EGYPT – Book One of The Sands of Time series, and a traditional Regency romance – SECOND CHANCE. (Found out about the last one just a couple of days ago!) In addition, I’ve been contracted to do part of a college textbook on archaeological illustration (my section is on the history of archaeological illustration prior to 1798) that will be published in Peru. I’m also waiting on a contract for a horror novella and have been asked to contribute an erotic novella for a new anthology.

Tell us about your books.
Well, there are synopses and excerpts from most of these on my website – www.JanisSusanMay.com - but in a nutshell :
DARK MUSIC (Vintage Romance Publishing – available now) is a romantic murder mystery set in 1968 in a resort hotel in the Canadian Rockies where they are holding a romance writers’ convention. A freak blizzard isolates the place and then someone starts killing the best-selling authors one by one.
LOST IN EGYPT (Chippewa Publishing – available now) is a time travel in Ancient Egypt. The heroine falls over the railing at the mortuary temple of the woman pharaoh Hatshepsut and lands in the time when it is being constructed, where she is mistaken for a pleasure woman by the general in charge. Then he notices her resemblance to the pharaoh’s daughter and she is caught in a dangerous impersonation that risks not only her life but the future of Egypt itself.
WELCOME HOME (Swimming Kangaroo Books – Autumn, 2007) is a psychological thriller about a socialite who comes to a small East Texas town to settle her late grandfather’s estate. He nearly ruined the town and not only does she have to deal with the enmity that incurred, but with a maddening ex-love, two men who would like to be her new love, mysterious wreaths that appear inside her locked house, dead rats, a kidnapping and several attempts on her life.
SECOND CHANCE (Awe-Stuck – November, 2008)is a traditional Regency about two couples – an aunt and a niece in love with an uncle and a nephew, but who are separated by family, a twelve year old scandal, a scheming sister/aunt, a fortune-hunting rake and the ever-censorious eyes of the Ton.
THE LAND OF HEART’S DELIGHT (Swimming Kangaroo Books – Summer 2007) is a memoir of my mother’s time working in the alien land of South Texas. Daddy always said Mother had the ‘gift of incident’ and I grew up on her stories of her adventures. Mother always said she was going to write a book, but there was never time. After she died I found in her papers a rudimentary manuscript and some notes for her book. Well, I had heard those stories all my life, so I took her notes and wrote the book. Her name is on the cover as author; mine only as collaborator.
Can’t talk about the uncontracted novellas yet, and haven’t even finished the research on the history of archaeological illustration.

Is there anything you wish you had been told earlier in your career?
To quote Scrooge McDuck, “Work smarter, not harder.” I wish I had been told (I probably was; I wish I had listened!) that this is a business and to treat it as such. That I shouldn’t get so personally involved with my product. That publicity is my responsibility and it takes a lot of time.

What advice can you offer writers just breaking into a serious writing career?
Work smarter, not harder. This is a business and treat it as such. Don’t get so personally involved with your product. Learn the rules before you try to break them. Publicity is your responsibility and it takes a lot of time.
Take care of yourself. Carpal tunnel syndrome, “writer’s neck hunch,” vision problems, back strain and a hundred other sitting-down-for-long-periods-of-time related maladies are no joke. Writing is hard work, both mentally and physically and it can be very hard on your body. Get the best accessories you can afford – a decent chair, ergonomic keyboard, good wrist pads. Get up and stretch every so often. Move around. Take a walk occasionally. Good health habits will pay much greater rewards down the line than the 5 or 10 extra minutes you spend writing.
Also take care of your mind – read other things besides what you write; socialize with other people besides writers. Become and remain well-rounded. Writing is only a slice of the world – a big, wonderful slice to be sure, but still only a slice. My opinion is that living life is more important in the long run than writing about it!
On the other hand, if you are going to be a writer, you must write! Talking endlessly about your story with friends, spouses, family, critique partners or continually polishing the first three chapters for the next contest doesn’t count. Write. Lay words on (metaphoric) paper. Actually get the story written.
For Heaven’s sake, learn correct spelling and punctuation and word use; some of the things I have seen come from ostensibly ‘professional’ writers would curl the hair of even a semi-literate.
Watch out for homonymic mayhem – one wears a brooch, but broaches a cask of wine; you peek into a box, but climb a mountain peak. The examples are endless.
Become a member of 4A – the Association Against Apostrophe Abuse. Cows (or the noun of your choice) is a simple plural. Cows’ is plural possessive. Cow’s is singular possessive. The sentence “I’m going to milk the cow’s,” makes no sense whatsoever!
Sorry. The decline and disintegration of grammar, punctuation and spelling is a hot button of mine. End of rant.
Publishing has changed drastically in the last 25-30 years and I have seen it happen. Instead of being run by gentlemen who love books and literature and who would take chances on ‘non-niche’ books, the industry is now run by bean-counters who are trying to market books exactly the same way one does shoes, or fashion, or some other consumer commodity. “Hey,” they say, “number 63 is doing really well – let’s try it in purple and orange and green, too,” which translates to “Hey, western historical romances are doing really well – let’s publish a lot of them.” One publisher – who has since rescinded the comment, I have heard – actually called writers ‘content providers.’ I’d wish that person an eternity of having nothing to read but a ten year old Yellow Pages, but won’t because he’d probably enjoy it!
Never forget that publishing is a business. Your story may be the book of your heart, it may be aesthetically the ultimate expression for you, you may have sweated drops of blood over each sublime word, but if it isn’t commercially viable, you’re in trouble. This applies to serious writers who want to make a return on their investment of time, ie, make money. If all you want is the ‘experience’ and the ‘thrill of seeing my words in print’ and the self-fulfillment of having finished a book, I feel sorry for you. This is a cut-throat business, not a hearts-and-flowers we’re-all-writers-together-and-isn’t-it-wonderful high school type clique. If that is all you want, gather some like-minded friends around you and write and tell each other how wonderful you are and enjoy it to the hilt, but watch out you don’t get stepped on (or ripped off for vast amounts of money – see below) because for most everyone, books are a business. A big business, with little if any room for sentiment and very little for art.
MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL : stay away from the sharks. Always remember that in publishing the money flows in ONE direction – TOWARDS the author. The woods are full of wolves who just love to suck little wide-eyed wanna-be writers dry. If anyone asks you for money, run. I could tell horror stories here – one ‘agency’ that was charging these starry-eyed types $50 a month for representation and somehow never managed to submit any manuscripts, or the ‘vanity’ or ‘subsidy’ presses who make you sign ridiculous contracts, charge you mega-bucks for printing books (which you could do yourself more cheaply if you wanted) and do nothing else. (One of the most notorious of these pops up as an ad on almost every Google search on anything regarding books or publishing. Enough said – I don’t want to be sued.)
Check your contracts before you agree to them, either verbally or with a signature; if you don’t have a good (operative word – good) agent, it’s worth it to pay an entertainment lawyer to look one over if you can’t network with a group of authors – there are scads of good loops on the ‘net where you can find like-minded souls. Check with the websites PREDITORS AND EDITORS and WRITER BEWARE. A little groundwork can save you all kinds of heartache. Don’t be gullible.
And finally… the Secret of Getting and Staying Published – write a good book; and then another; and then another… Neither does it hurt to be very lucky. Believe in yourself. It’s a hard row to hoe you’ve chosen, and it’s not conquered easily. But it can be done.

Anything else you want our readers to know?
Oh, law, there’s so much I want everyone to know – information I’ve spent 30+ years acquiring, sometimes most painfully, but there’s no way to put it all in one interview. If there’s one last thing I have to say, it’s…. Buy my books! I need the money.

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  7. Thankyou for this
    It was interesting to read and has given me more of an insight into the writing industry :D

    ReplyDelete

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