Interview with Susan Wittig Albert

Jen: This week I am excited to welcome Susan Wittig Albert to Romancing the Book. Susan, will you please share a short bio with us?
Susan: A quickie: I’m a mom of three kids, grandma and great-grandma. Undergraduate degree from University of Illinois, PhD from Berkeley, 15 years of college teaching/administration. Left for a writing career in 1985 and never looked back. Bill and I have lived on our 31-acre homestead in the Texas Hill Country for 25 years. Early in my writing career, working by myself or with my husband, Bill Albert, I wrote in a number of YA series; you can find the full list at I’m the author of three mystery series: The China Bayles series (contemporary, set in Texas); the Cottage Tales (Edwardian, Lake District England, featuring children’s author/illustrator Beatrix Potter); and the Darling Dahlias (1930s Alabama). I’m also the co-author (with Bill) of the Robin Paige Victorian mysteries (series complete at 12 books, set in 1895-1903, England). I’ve also written two nonfiction books (on women’s work, on writing) and two memoirs.

Jen: Tell us about your newest releases and where they are available.
Susan: 2010 is a busy year. Holly Blues (April, China Bayles #18), The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree (July, #1 in the series), The Tale of Oat Cake Crag (September, Cottage Tales #7); and An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days (September, memoir, Univ. Texas Press). The books are widely available.

Jen: At what age did you discover writing and when were you first published?
Susan: I wrote my first novel when I was 9, in pencil, in a little booklet I stitched myself so it looked like a book. My first short stories were published in Sunday School take-home newspapers, when I was in my teens. My first academic book was published when I was 32; my first book-length YA fiction when I was 44; my first adult mystery series when I was 51.

Jen: Are there any other writers, published or not, in your family?
Susan: My brother is a published magazine writer (auto stuff). One of my sons is a published journalist. My daughter creates and edits newsletters and writes promotional material for nonprofits. And my husband Bill Albert (not the kids’ father) is my co-author on a number of projects.

Jen: How do you approach your writing? Do you plot or go with the flow?
Susan: I start with a situation, more than a plot. I like to feel a place and its people–let the situation create the story line as the characters’ conflicts develop. Writing in series is wonderful: it allows you to build on earlier situations, deepen characters that the readers know, and create plots that thread from one book to another.

Jen: Have you noticed your writer’s voice has changed over the years due to your experience? If so, how?
Susan: I’m a lot looser than I was, more colloquial. When I left the university, I was cursed with an academic voice/style. It took a lot of years to get rid of that. The other part of the equation: I work in a variety of periods and voices, from contemporary to historical, from American to British. Each project has its own voice–it’s a little hard, sometimes, to know what voice is really “mine.” For that, I think you’d have to turn to the two memoirs: Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place (Univ. Texas Press, 2009) and An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days (2010).

Jen: What kind of research did you do for the book you’re working on?
Susan: Currently, I’m working on the second book in the Darling Dahlias series and doing a lot of reading/research in 1930s primary material. The books are set in Alabama. The character ensemble includes a garden club, so there’s a lot of garden research, as well as clothing, language, vehicles, telephones, the Klan, politics, the economy, you name it. I’m reading several newspapers of the period in a subscription archive on the Internet–wonderful resource.

Jen: What’s the most challenging aspect of writing? Easiest?
Susan: Most challenging: showing up to work every day, even when I’d rather be in the garden. Easiest: revising. I LOVE to revise. I could revise forever (not a good plan).

Jen: What’s the most rewarding aspect?
Susan: Rewarding: notes, emails from readers, especially when they like the books. I’m crazy about Facebook.

Jen: Do you have a favorite character or one you most identify with?
Susan: I love China, I adore Beatrix Potter, and the Dahlias are a terrific bunch. If I didn’t enjoy the people in my books, they wouldn’t be around very long.

Jen: Who has inspired you as an author?
Susan: Too many people to name. I am wildly impressionable.

Jen: If the Chine Bayles series was made into a movie, which actors would you choose to play the hero and heroine?
Susan: That has changed over the years. In a long series like China’s, actors come and go–and get old! But I’d still choose Tom Selleck to play McQuaid. Yum.

Jen: What did you do to celebrate your first book?
Susan: Don’t remember–probably went out to dinner. (That’s our “big date.”)

Jen: What has been your highlight of your career to this point?
Susan: I will never, never forget the day in 1991 that I learned that the first three China Bayles books had sold to Susanne Kirk at Scribner. Second big day: 1994, when Natalee Rosenstein acquired the China series for Berkley. Both editors have been hugely important to me. I feel blessed to have worked with them.

Jen: What’s next for you?
Susan: I’ll finish the second Dahlias book in a couple of weeks, I hope (THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE NAKED LADIES). After that, the final book in the eight-book Cottage Tales series, featuring Beatrix Potter. Then #19 in the China Bayles series–currently untitled, featuring Sheila Dawson, the Pecan Spring police chief. Then another Dahlia. THEN (July 2011) I’m taking the summer off!

Jen: Where can you be found on the web?
Susan: (where you’ll find links to the other websites and to my blog). I’m also on Facebook and Twitter.