Publishers Weekly has been my bible for 30 years. I sold my first novel 30 years ago this summer, in fact. Since Passing Through Paradise is being reissued this month, I thought I’d share a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the process of switching genres from historical romance to general fiction. The original interview can be found in PW’s archives. Thank you to Suzanne Fox!
PW Talks with Susan Wiggs
PW: Passing Through Paradise is only your second contemporary novel in a career built on historical romances. What drew you to this new area?
SW: It felt like a natural transition. I’ve always loved writing emotionally rich, character-driven novels that explore the way people fall in love and deal with life’s triumphs and tragedies. I enjoy writing the contemporary and historical books equally, though perhaps “enjoy” is the wrong word. Writing is a struggle no matter what the genre.
PW: Why have you chosen to work with Warner for your contemporary novels and Mira for your historicals?
SW: In both cases, I have been fortunate enough to find editors who appreciated my voice and saw the commercial potential in what I am doing. Mira publishes my historicals and has a fantastic distribution system, but Warner has been incredibly receptive to my contemporary novels and has packaged them to appeal both to a core romance audience and to readers of women’s fiction.
PW: Some might classify your latest as women’s fiction rather than mainstream romance. How do you see the distinction between the two, and which category do you think your book belongs to?
SW: This book is women’s fiction. In women’s fiction, the canvas moves beyond the falling-in-love stage of a relationship, which is the terrain of pure romances, to address all of the loves that fill a woman’s life—her relationships with parents, children, siblings, friends…: everyone who plays a part in her journey.
PW: Passing Through Paradise is also infused with a stronger sense of place than one sees in the typical romance novel.
SW: In all my novels, a sense of place—not just geographic but social—is a critical element. I have always been drawn to the novels of Edith Wharton, among others, where social dynamics are crucial. Wharton’s class consciousness fascinates me, and some of the tension in my books stems from that. For example, Passing Through Paradise contrasts the upper-crust family of the heroine’s first husband, with the working class background of her new romantic interest.
PW: Wharton is a writer drawn to bleak conclusions, while your own work is undeniably optimistic.
SW: As a reader, I was often frustrated by Wharton’s ambiguous endings; as a writer, I gravitate toward empowering and uplifting conclusions. That’s not just a response to my chosen genres but also a reflection of my views about life. I love my life, my family and my friends, and I’m drawn to “relationship” novels because of their affirming focus on the power of love to heal wounds and transform lives.
PW: What inspired Passing Through Paradise?
SW: The themes of personal integrity, sexual awakening, and emotional healing in the book have been percolating for a while. I’d been wanting to write about a woman forced to choose between making a damning disclosure to save her own skin, or staying mum and hoping for the best. Like all of my novels, there is a strong, underlying mythic structure to the story.
PW: Your female protagonist is a writer, a career often regarded as problematic for novelists. How did this element evolve?
SW: I made Sandra a writer because it was a good match with the book’s theme of the consequences of keeping secrets from the people you love. What’s a writer, after all, but a big fat liar who tries to prove a greater truth?
PW: Is the portrayal autobiographical?
SW: I had fun putting some of my own quirks into my heroine’s writing process: the fountain pen with peacock-blue ink, the zany journal entries, the endless lists on Post-it notes. The major difference is that my books are available in bookstores, airports and discount stores while Sandra’s young adult novels are banned. I had to imagine what it would do to a writer to be told, “We don’t think people should have access to your books.”
PW: What’s currently in the works?
SW: Mira is reissuing a personal favorite, The Lightkeeper, followed by a historical romance entitled Enchanted Afternoon. I’m also finishing up another contemporary novel, Home Before Dark, about the lives and loves of two sisters in Texas.