Q: It’s exciting to see your first ever hardcover after more than 10 #1 New York Times bestsellers in paperback! Did you feel different writing a hardcover or was your process the same as when you are writing any other book?
A: The format doesn’t mean anything to me when I write. Oh, it’s true, we have planned trilogies to release in paperback because we’d never slip a more expensive format into the middle of a series. The choice of format has more to do with available shelf space and the popularity of a particular author or series. We’re heading to hardcover with What We Find, a new series, and will follow, probably in a year, with a mass market paperback and a new What We Find novel in hardcover. That makes the series available to more readers.
But that’s just logistics. When I sit down to get to know a new set of characters, they are all I care about. I try to envision them, watch them with very clear eyes, most importantly – listen to them. As the story develops, they come into sharper focus. And I revise a LOT to make sure they’re hitting all the right notes. My stories are character driven. What is happening is important in the story, but never more important than who it’s happening to.
Q: The setting of WHAT WE FIND is an actual place—set in the mountains of Colorado at a point in the Continental Divide Trail where people are constantly coming and going. What was it about this landscape that appealed to you? How did it shape the characters while you were writing?
A: I’m fascinated by long distance hikers, for one thing, and the Continental Divide Trail at 3100 miles, is the longest trail in America, longer than the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest trail, and the challenge, which would take six months over snow covered mountains, staggers the mind. There’s more – the Colorado Trail which runs the across the whole state, converges with the CDT for 200 miles. The state is covered with challenging trails, but there’s more going on there – there’s rock climbing, skiing, ice sailing, boating, fishing, all manner of sports and pastimes in the beauty of the Rockies. But the through hikers, those who would be on the trail for months, fascinated me the most, and the CDT draws them. Some hike and camp for a few days, a few weeks, maybe a few months, and the seriously brave or crazy walk from Mexico to Canada. I didn’t really feel like writing about a long hike, but I really wanted to recreate a setting that served as a stopping off camp for those hikers; I wanted to write about the people who created and maintained that space. I was specifically interested in a couple of characters who found themselves in the same camp for the duration of a summer that could change their lives forever.
The Rockies are breathtakingly beautiful. Also adventurous, sometimes perilous, rough and cold, yet beckoning. The people who live in their shadow have many challenges – there’s a price to live in that unrivaled beauty. The threat of avalanche or wildfire; possible floods with the melting of the snowpack. There are wildlife issues not to mention just getting lost back there in the wilderness.
My two main characters fit the landscape and the challenges so perfectly. There’s Dr. Maggie Sullivan, a brilliant and extraordinary neurosurgeon whose life has been turned upside down by a legal battle stemming from a catastrophic night in the ER when she held the lives of five teenage boys in her hands. And California Jones, a drifter, a wanderer and an amazingly beautiful and insightful man struggling with a dark tragedy of his own. For two people who are at a crossroads, trying to figure out the rest of their lives, there’s nothing like the challenge and beauty of the Rockies to show them what they’ve got.
Q: There’s something special about Maggie. She’s a talented neurosurgeon and extremely competent and professional, and yet she’s fragile, too. What inspired her character? How did you balance her strengths with her insecurities?
A: I know women like Maggie, women who work in a mostly male dominated profession or world, women who are expected to never show vulnerability and yet, if they did life without vulnerability, they’d be lousy at it. They’d be hard and insensitive and unyielding. That’s why Maggie hides to cry – if she didn’t cry, she’d be another kind of woman, and not the kind I’d be rooting for. I remember a congresswoman who was highly criticized as not being tough enough for the job because she cried, yet the Speaker of the House is mopping up his tears all the time – and people call him sensitive. So, my Maggie, oh how I love her – she’s brilliant and gifted and in her specialty she can suffer through some spectacularly painful losses – so she finds an isolated stairwell in the hospital to cry when she has to cry. So the boys won’t see her.
My son helped with some medical research because he’s a surgeon. He read the manuscript and said, “She can’t be crying. Someone is going to tell her she’s not neurosurgery material if she’s going to cry.” And I said, “My point. Thus the stairwell.”
We must bring everything to our performance – that’s the A-game. We must be strong and intelligent and brave and heroic. We must also be soft, sensitive, vulnerable and accessible. That’s why I love Maggie so.
Q: California Jones may just be your best male character yet. (Is it ok if we say that?!) Do you ever find yourself falling a little bit in love with the men you write about, and Cal in particular?
A: I am seriously in love with California Jones. I think he’s going to be remembered as one of the best book boyfriends of all time. He embodies one of the greatest qualities that can be found in a man – he has the courage and intelligence to be gentle. He’s very strong, very tough, indomitable in fact, but those qualities haven’t overpowered his ability to think, to learn, to understand. He’s so convicted in his core values, so confident in his sense of self that he’s able to give the most understanding to those who are hardest to understand. Wrestling a grizzly to the ground might be sexy, but living an authentic life of honesty and integrity takes more long term strength. What he’s able to give to Maggie any woman would lust after – he cares deeply, never wavers, always watches over her, supports her in every imaginable way. He’s a dream, that’s what he is. If I could live out a fantasy, I’d love to be able to just sit and talk with him for hours, hear about his experiences, hear his advice and ideas, listen to him smoothly and calmly share his philosophies and dreams as he comes to understand what to him embodies a life well lived.
Oh, that’s right, I did!
Q: One of Cal’s literary heroes is Atticus Finch. Did Atticus and To Kill a Mockingbird play a role in shaping his character while you were writing?
A: Not while I was writing, long before. However, I did reread To Kill A Mockingbird while I was writing because I wanted to reacquaint myself with Atticus and the amazing man he was. Here was a man fearless enough to not carry a gun but to rely on his values, on his conscience. He stood up to a whole racist town to do the right thing. And as a widowed father, raised his children to learn the value of goodness and fidelity. He had strict boundaries and wasn’t exactly easy on them, though he loved them completely – but to Atticus the value of a good lesson was far more enduring than an hour of comfort. When I read about Atticus for the second or third time, I knew exactly where California Jones got his greatest influence. Actually, I think Atticus is the greatest literary hero in America, the perfect embodiment of a man who is all strength and goodness.
Q: This is a novel about choices. Choices about the future, who we spend our lives with, if we will be happy or not. Cal has a strong influence on Maggie as she’s faced with so many critical choices in her life. When you started writing did you already know how Maggie would deal with everything or did some of her choices, and Cal’s, evolve as you got into the story?
A: For me, everything evolves as I write. I start with vague ideas, a kind of emotional roadmap that isn’t exactly clear. I knew Maggie was a strong woman who tried to cover her vulnerability and Cal was a brilliant man looking for redemption. Both of them are seeking stability and comfort and a sense of peace in life, and a little true love wouldn’t hurt. But as I write, more is revealed and I have to go back to the beginning to make adjustments so many times you’d think I’d get bored, but I love that aspect of creating a good novel. I don’t remember the exact quote but Stephen King said something like, plotting is like archeology with a pick ax; the real story emerges with the fine brushing away of the dust. (At least that’s how I remember it.) Big chunks of story don’t work nearly as well as small bits, pivotal sentences, subtle discoveries that lead up to major breakthroughs. Try this from the book:
He put his hands on either side of her face, on her cheeks. “Listen to me, Maggie. I’m going to explore this summer. But I won’t leave you without saying goodbye. We’ll make love, we’ll laugh, we’ll play and when the weather is warm enough so I’m not caught in some damn avalanche, I’m going up the trail to the divide. I’ve been dying for two things. You and that trail. You most.”
“Yes. Even though I have a bad track record with promises.”
“You break them?” she asked.
“They usually break me,” he said.
Q: The medical research in this novel is astonishing. Maggie is a neurosurgeon, after all, but there are some incredibly in-depth details about her work and some very dramatic scenes when she shows her true skill as a doctor. How did you research her specialty and the medial field in general?
A: My son is an orthopedic surgeon in the Army and also an Iraq vet. Emergency medicine gets pretty gritty in a war zone and he did and saw a lot. He was able to give me valuable feedback but he brought a lot of my questions to a friend and mentor of his who is the head of trauma medicine at an Army medical center in San Antonio, also a war veteran. Now, Maggie isn’t functioning in a war zone, but in some ER situations it can feel like that. And Maggie has the knowledge to perform and save a life in the wild, out on the trail. For that I had to have expert advice.
Q: Legal issues are prevalent throughout the novel. And not just Maggie’s. A few other people in Sullivan’s Crossing find themselves in need of a lawyer. Did you interview lawyers or law enforcement officials while you were researching? How did you make these scenes come alive even though they are filled with such specific detail?
A: I did talk to a couple of lawyers and cops, and I did a lot of internet research, but what’s so interesting is that it seems prevalent and complex, yet it’s not. The questions I needed help with were relatively simple – how do you practice law if you’re licensed in another state? What’s the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony? What constitutes probable cause in a specific set of circumstances? But those things sure worked for me in the story.
Q: Family is a strong theme throughout WHAT WE FIND. Both Maggie and Cal find themselves navigating their pasts and their roles in their families as adults. Do you think men and women deal with their families differently? How important is family to both of them and how does it shape them as characters?
A: Undoubtedly they do, but I’d be at a loss to explain how because people are so individual. But women probably struggle with trying to make positive family connections because they have historically been the ones left in charge of relationships in general. And of the four existential fears of man (meaning humans) isolation and meaninglessness are two of the great fears. Family represents a connectedness more than biology of DNA. Maggie is trying to understand her place in her odd little family of one mother and two fathers and what roles they played in the woman she’s become while Cal is trying to come to terms with the fact that his family represents a threat to his very chromosomes – his father is schizophrenic. Not only is that situation hard to manage, it’s possibly hereditary. And yet for both of them, probably because of human nature alone, they seek that connection. They both want to make a family; they are both afraid to take that risk for reasons very individual to each of them.
Q: If there were one thing you would want your readers to take from this book, what would it be?
A: I’d like readers to feel like they’ve been a part of an amazing experience with unforgettable characters. verything will be all right in the end and if is not yet all right, it is not yet the end – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Q: You are known for your bestselling series. Do you think WHAT WE FIND will have a follow-up? (Please say yes!)
A: I think it’s obvious it will have a follow up, it’s just not obvious who will star in leading roles – I’ve left a number of people with conflicts yet to be resolved.