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Interview with Jennifer Crusie
by Kirsten Kowalewski
Jennifer Crusie is one of my favorite authors. She’s also a New York Times Review bestselling novelist with a long list of titles to her name. Maybe This Time, published in September, is her first ghost story.
KK: Since they’re not part of your traditional audience, what about yourself would you like to share with our horror readers?
JC: You know, I'm not that interesting. I do think that horror is a very difficult genre because the less you say, the more impact the story has, so you have to choose your words very carefully. But then that's true of all fiction. Let's see. I live with my best friend, her two kids, her two cats, and my five dogs. No ghosts. See? Not interesting.
KK: You’ve called Maybe This Time a ghost story with a romantic subplot, and I’d agree with that. It really is a ghost story, not a paranormal romance. Why did you choose to stretch yourself beyond the constraints of the romance genre? How would you say your experience with writing romance fiction affected writing a ghost story?
JC: I didn't choose to do that; I wanted to do my version of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and I ended up there. Once I was there, I found a new appreciation for supernatural writers because it's really difficult to make the supernatural plausible and at the same time frightening. I think once you've explained how the phenomenon happened so that the reader says, "Okay, I'll believe that," then you have to follow through with equally logical and horrifying consequences: If you believed that, then you must believe that this awful thing could happen to. To you. There's that fine line between making a reader's flesh creep and making a reader say, "Oh, COME ON." In the end, it came down to character. If you see the ghosts as people who can't let go, then everything else falls into place because obsessed people are terrifying, alive or dead.
As for my experience in writing romance fiction, fiction is fiction, genre really doesn’t have an impact on writing the story. You write the story as it needs to be written, and then you say, “Damn, turns out it’s a ghost story, not a romance. Cool.” And then you move on to the next one . . .
KK: Even though you consider Maybe This Time a ghost story, it is being marketed as a romance novel, and librarians familiar with your name are a lot more likely to suggest it to romance readers than to readers looking for ghost stories. Why should horror readers cross over to the romance section of the bookstore to find your book?
JC: I think a lot of readers are just readers. True, they may favor horror or romance, but they won't reject a good book just because it's not in their genre. And this book isn't marketed as a romance novel; it's labeled general fiction and the cover has that spooky teacup floating in midair. There's a heart in the steam, that's true, but the central image is paranormal. So I think the assumption that it's a romance comes from my previous work, most of which was not classic romance after I left Harlequin (Bet Me being the exception). However romance plays a strong role in all of my work because so much of it is about relationships: romances, families, communities. So this is a story about four people who build a family that will keep them all safe in the middle of a haunted house. I think that appeals to a lot of different readers. Well, I HOPE it appeals to a lot of different readers.
KK: Your last solo novel was published six years ago, and the books you’ve written in collaboration with other authors have been very different. The books with Bob Mayer have been more action oriented, and your other collaborations have been paranormal romances. Maybe This Time is really focused on the creepiness of the story, not on the romance. Are you going to return to writing contemporary romances?
JC: As my editor often says, I write Crusies. Sometimes they're romances, sometimes they're action adventure with a strong romance, sometimes they're paranormal with a strong romance, sometimes they're action-adventure-paranormal with a strong romance, but basically, they're all Crusies: they're about practical women who end up in awful situations and work to fix things as they save themselves and everybody around them, usually with the help of a good man. I'm very big on happy endings. I don't understand the people who think happy endings are unrealistic; they're all around us, right up there with the tragedies. And I think earning that happy ending is as cathartic as experiencing an unhappy one, many times more so. The collabs take on the styles of the collaborators, of course; Bob Mayer is a former Green Beret so there's a strong para-military bent to the paranormal in Wild Ride, and Anne Stuart and Lani Diane Rich are both romance/women's fiction writers, so Dogs and Goddesses was more about relationships than the paranormal aspects of the book. But even then, my parts of those books are Crusies. So my next four books are mystery-romances (a series) and of the two books after that, one’s a ghost story and one’s a caper story. And they’re all Crusies.
KK: I found the creepy atmosphere and Carter and Alice’s relationships with the ghosts of Archer House (especially Peter and Carter’s) to be the most compelling part of the novel. In fact, I know some romance readers have been uncomfortable with the horrifying aspects of the book, although those are the parts our readers are most likely to enjoy. Do you expect to write another ghost story in the future?
JC: Yes, not because I particularly want to write a ghost story but because I want to write about Alice grown up, trying to live a normal life while the undead talk to her. My books always start with character first, not premise, so the ghosts are along for the ride, not the reason for the story. But Alice left some unfinished business back at the house (well, she was eight) and that's going to come back to haunt her (pun intended). And I think Alice has some venting to do, too. Andie and North will make sure she has as normal a childhood as possible, but let's face it, Alice is going to grow up weird. I like that in a protagonist. And I figure about the time she's thirty, all those unresolved, undead chickens are going to come home to roost, which is when somebody with an ulterior motive is going to try to buy Archer House and Alice will have to go back. I'm really looking forward to that one.
KK: Lydia says that it’s easy to forget what’s under the surface with boys, with the drama that girls create, and that really rings true here, as Alice and May claim most of the attention, Yet, in just a couple of pages you were able to express Carter’s battle with Peter quite frighteningly. Did you deliberately set the story up to focus on the girls’ drama instead of what was going on with Carter?
JC: Yes. The problem with Carter, poor kid, is that he's been carrying the can for the family for so long, he doesn't believe anybody's going to rescue them, so he's just holding off the inevitable. When Andie shows up, she's just another in a string of adults who have failed him, and he's basically tolerating her until she gives up like everybody else. So he doesn't tell her anything and he stonewalls her, and she gives him time to come to her which would be the smart thing to do except the house is full of ghosts. So when she puts herself between him and Peter, he's got an adult on his side for the first time, and then he comes unglued and tells her everything. Then North comes in and says, "I don't believe, but I've got your back anyway," and he can be a kid again. Alice was always going to be the easier win for Andie because she's younger and more emotional than Carter. And since the entire book takes place in one month, I thought it was believable that while Andie was dealing with Alice's hysterics, she'd keep an eye on Carter but not badger him. Carter was holding his own, Alice wasn't.
KK: I thought it was great that the story didn’t take itself too seriously. The humor and witty dialogue have always been a strength in your books, but those have usually been written in a lighter vein. How did you make the humor work here without breaking the atmosphere or disrupting the flow of the story?
JC: Humor always comes from character, and both Andie and North were smart people with solid senses of humor. When Andie's scared or angry, she's not cracking wise, but for a lot of the book she's just exasperated, and the smart mouth comes naturally then. The key is to keep the humor aimed at the absurdity in the humans and not undercut the very real danger the ghosts pose. When the old ghosts show up, Andie stops making jokes and scrambles to save the kids. She has more of a human relationship with May, so the humor's a little more evident there, but mostly it's from Andie dealing with the kids and Mrs. Crumb and the houseguests, and frankly, they deserve the snark they get. But when the ghosts show up, Andie is deadly serious.
KK: Is there anything else you’d like readers and librarians to know?
JC: Just that I'm incredibly grateful to them both. Librarians saved my life when I was a four-eyed kid in a very little town in Ohio, and librarians and readers have been saving my life ever since. I'm a writer; I'm pretty much nothing without readers, so I'm very, very grateful.
KK: Finally, who’s your favorite character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
CJ: Buffy. But if you're asking me who the most interesting characters are, it's a toss-up between the Mayor and Glory. Best. Antagonists. Ever.
KK: Thank you so much for your time, and good luck with Maybe This Time!
CJ: Thank you!
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