Read Janis Susan’s interview below and you’ll come to realize how incredibly amazing and interesting she is. Not only is she a writer, but a lover of animals, all things Egypt, and she was one of the founders of Romance Writers of America. Janis Susan May is truly a Renaissance woman!
It feels like I always have been an author! I wrote my first book at the age of four, about – as I remember – some children who went to the park for a picnic and while there captured a lion which had escaped from the zoo. I printed it very neatly (for a four year old) and illustrated it and then sewed the pages together to bind it – just like a real book! I think I made five or six copies. Writing it had been fun, but putting it together quickly became a bore, so I decided that in the future I would be a writer, not a publisher.
More seriously, I don’t think I ever had a snowball’s chance of being anything else but a wordsmith in some form – after all, I was first paid for writing when I was nine years old. I won an advertising slogan contest. One of my grandfathers was a newspaper publisher; both my grandmothers were at one time teachers; both my parents were at one time teachers, from elementary school to college level. My mother was also a play producer, a magazine columnist and an advertising agent. She and my father began an advertising agency, one of the top 300 agencies in the country, as rated by AADA, for 17 of the 18 years it was in business. My father began work when he was nine (it seems to be a habit in our family) as a printer’s devil, then went on to edit a number of newspapers in Texas, then taught at Texas A&M University, being the one who separated the journalism department from the English department and made it a separate discipline. Interestingly, he never possessed any kind of a college degree. He also did PR for several farmers’ cooperatives around the country before beginning Don May Advertising with my mother.
Of course, the facile answer for your question is, “When I was young I got spanked for making up stories; now I get paid.”
How long did it take for you to get published once you had the first book done?
Much too long, in my estimation! Of course, patience has never been my strong point. If you want an honest answer, I think it was a year or two from when I first started submitting seriously until I sold, but that was a very long year or two.
Can you tell us about “the call,” when you found out you’d sold your first book?
Back when I first sold there was no such thing as ‘The Call’ – you got a letter! I think my postman was as glad as I when I finally sold – it made him nervous the way I hung over the balcony every day waiting for him to deliver the mail. I was shocked, elated, scared, overwhelmed – pick any emotion and I felt it several times those first few days.
What’s your writing schedule like?
Schedule? With my life I don’t have a schedule. I lurch ungracefully from one necessary task to another. I try to write every day, and cherish fantasies of keeping to a projected word count, but life simply isn’t that neat. In one way I’m writing all the time, though, because the majority of writing is done between your ears. Putting it down on paper is mainly mechanical.
As for how long does it take to write a book, that’s about like asking how long is a string. It varies. I’ve done one (70K words) in slightly under three weeks. I have another I’ve been tinkering with off and on for 15 years or so. Generally, 60-70K, page 1 to final edit, takes me about three months. Of course, it’s been roiling about in my head longer than that, and if there’s heavy research to be done that takes longer.
One thing that has increased my productivity incredibly is a little bitty purse computer. I keep it with me nearly all the time so whenever I’m stuck someplace waiting I can whip it out and get some work done. Marvelous invention!
What has surprised you most about being an author?
I don’t surprise easily. I’ve worked in many different fields – with actors, with DNA, with magazines, with jewelry, with new homes, and a lot more, and I’ve learned that most of life is more alike than different. Also, I have few preconceived notions, and surprise generally occurs when your preconceived notions are overset.
One thing that has surprised me is how the business has changed. I quit writing in 1995 to take care of my mother in what eventually became her final illness and returned in 2005 at my husband’s urging to fill the time during his first deployment to Iraq. During that decade of my absence publishing seemed to become a new and completely different business. The e-book boom revolutionized the publishing world, agents have to LOVE something before they represent it, publishers now expect authors to shoulder nearly all the work of publicity, theft of an author’s work (ie, internet piracy) is rampant… it’s a whole new ball game, with all new rules. Rules, I might add, that I’m still learning. Perhaps I’m a dinosaur, but I truly preferred the old way, where publishing was a ‘gentlemens’ game’, an industry run by those who love books instead of being just another subsidiary of some gargantuan multi-national company or another.
Or did you mean personally, about me being an author? I am continually amazed at how imaginative I can be. Name an object, or a situation, and before you know it I’m crafting a story to fit it. So many stories, so little time… As my husband says, I live only halfway in the world of reality.
What advice can you give aspiring writers?
The best advice I can give any writer, aspiring or otherwise, is an acronym I made up for a writing class several years ago – B I T C H , meaning Buns In The Chair Honey. In other words, sit down and write the book. Talking about it won’t write the book. Research won’t write the book. Dreaming about it won’t write the book. Looking at pictures to envision your characters, doing complicated character charts and outlines won’t write the book, though for some writers such exercises can be helpful if not taken to the extreme. The only way to write a book is to put down words one after another.
Also, read, read, read. Read whatever genre/sub-genre you want to write, and not just for pleasure. Study why this whateveritis works in one book and does not work in another. What makes one book outstanding and another mediocre. Read other things too, if for no other reason than to cleanse the palate of your mind occasionally. It will give you a different slant on things. We should all be as well-rounded as we can.
What are you working on now? Can you give us a favorite line or blurb from your current work in progress?
Right now I’m working on a cozy mystery, hopefully the first of a series about a bead artist who travels the craft show/art fair circuit. At the start of the first book she comes home from the road, unlocks her front door, turns off the alarm and finds the dead body of a stranger on the floor. After that, it’s a wild ride with runaway nephews, drug smugglers and an attractive FBI agent who may or may not believe she’s innocent.
Out of all of your books, do you have a favorite or a favorite character?
Oh, come now! That’s like asking someone to choose their favorite child.
Some of your books are placed in rather unique settings. Do you think it’s more difficult to sell a book in a unique setting?
Yes. It seems publishers are loath to experiment with different times and places. For example, Scotland and Regency/Victorian England are sure-fire sellers, so much so that it seems almost every other book is set there. I think it comes down to money – publish what’s a known sell instead of take a chance on something different that could either sell better or worse. Such tunnel vision carried to an extreme could very well strangle the book industry. Now I love the thought of a big handsome hunk in a kilt as much or more than the next woman, but there is a point of surfeit.
When I read it’s for pleasure, but I am not averse to learning something too. That’s why I’m such a bear on factual/historical accuracy in fiction; to cheat on facts is to cheat the reader. When I read/write a book set in a unique setting, be it time or place, I want to know more when I’ve finished it than when I began.
Where can we find you on the web?
www.JanisSusanMay.com is my website. I’m also on Twitter under Janis Susan May, but I can’t ever remember the url.
You’ve done amazing things… from being an editor, acting and to helping found RWA. How have these things influenced your career?
Everything we do influences our career, don’t you think? As people we are the sum total of our experiences, and that can’t help but influence our writing. Whatever happens to you helps make you what you are.
On a less philosophical level, having a lot of varied experiences gives you a bounteous array of tidbits and insights that generally can’t be gleaned from simple research. Plus, by being in a lot of fields you have access to a great variety of research help. Picking up a phone and calling a friend who is also an expert in a given field is a lot easier than slogging through a lot of books and monographs.
You’ve traveled a lot, can you tell us about your favorite place and why?
Again that’s like asking someone which is their favorite child! There are so many marvelous places in the world and each has their own particular interest.
I love Egypt, of course; not only is the country beautiful, the sheer sense of history is overwhelming. To know that my sensible ath shoes are treading the same stones that the pharaohs of Egypt walked on is incredible. To look at Ramses II’s mummy and know that I am seeing the actual face of the man who ruled most of the known world over three thousand years ago is earth-shaking. Besides, Egypt is fun – felucca rides on the Nile at sunset, camel treks across the desert, incredible shopping… Yum.
I love Mexico, especially after having lived there off and on for years. The lifestyle is more laid back. Now I like to go to parts of Mexico where I’m the only one who speaks English; tourist-oriented places leave me cold. The food is wonderful – totally different from the Mexican food we get in the States, but still wonderful. The people are great and there’s such a variety of scenery, from beaches to stark mountains to lush jungles.
I love England, for the history that has taken place there. The great houses and cathedrals are wonderful to see and parts of the country carry an atmosphere of a great and gracious past, which I find a great antidote to the bleak ordinariness of our modern world. Again, to know that I am walking over floors where the great kings and queens and historical figures stepped… incredible!
I like Scotland, not only because it is beautiful and the people are simply wonderful, but because I feel as if I’ve come home. One set of my great-grandparents emigrated from Scotland, and I have over a thousand years of documented Scottish ancestry. And then there’s Ireland, all beautiful and green…
I like Italy, and Turkey, and Canada… in fact, I like something about just about everywhere I’ve ever been. The worst part of loving to travel is knowing that every single place has its own beauties and attractions, and I won’t live long enough (and certainly don’t have enough money!) to see every place I want to!
Like me, you’re very big on taking in only rescue and pound animals. Can you tell us about your furry friends?
I love animals. I cannot see why people don’t take in more homeless animals. They’re wonderful and the facts that so many of them are living hungry and alone or are killed simply because they exist makes me furious. Don’t get me started on those who use animals for tests in laboratories! I tend to get violent. There has to be a specially uncomfortable place in Hell for those who use animals in experiments, and a spot right beside them for those unspeakable humanoids who have a pet then just dump it on the side of the road to get rid of it when they’re tired of it.
Right now we have three fur babies. Squeaky Boots is a little black tuxedo cat about 11 years old. She came to us when she was about 5, and as near as we can figure out, she had been in 6 or 7 homes before us. She was very withdrawn and shy and quite belligerent, with a lot of trust issues. It took her a long time to relax in our home. Even to this day every time she sees the carrier (like for a vet visit) she becomes hysterical.
Chloe is an enormous brown and black and tan cat (16+ lbs and not fat!) whom we think is a throwback to a Middle Eastern Tree Cat. She’s about 7 and has been with us for 2 years. She came from a home where she had been tortured, and as a consequence tries to become invisible. When I brought her home while my husband was on his last deployment to Iraq, she disappeared and wasn’t seen for almost 3 weeks. After about a year she started to loosen up, but she’s still a wimp and totally dominated by Squeaky Boots, who is maybe 1/3 her size. She’s a beauty, though, and has become very loving.
Mindy Moo the Monkey Dog is a small, 6 lb terrier mix (which means they don’t have any idea what breeds she comes from) and is one of the funniest looking animals I’ve ever seen. Big feet, two levels of hair – one short, near the skin, and a wild mane of long hair on her head – and a bark like a loudspeaker. I don’t see how anything could be so fast with just 4 inch long legs! She, like Chloe, came from a pet orphanage which is one of our major charities. She was barely a year old when we got her about 5 months ago, but she’d had a hard life. She was found as a stray, almost starved and lactating. The person who found her looked for the puppies but never found them. I personally think she saw a big dog eat her puppies, because she is fine with small and medium sized dogs, but will instantly go for the throat of any big dog we happen to run across. I’ve pried her off Great Danes and Airdales and Shepherds more times than I care to remember. She’s a diva, who thinks the world should revolve around her, and it pretty much does. We call her the Monkey Dog because she uses her little front paws like hands – picks things up off the table with them, holds her toys with them, pats our faces with them. Now if we could just get her securely housetrained!
What do you do when you’re not writing? Any Hobbies?
The world is full of interesting things to do and, again, I will probably die before I try everything I would like. Most of my life I have liked to sew, cook, and read.
My husband and I made a pact that we would do things together, so I go with him to his rocket meetings (he is a certified high-power rocketeer). I usually take my purse computer with me and write there, though, because I have no interest in that. We are both passionate about Egyptology. We even met at the first local chapter meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt. I was one of the chapter founders and began the NT/Newsletter, which for the nine years of my tenure was the only monthly publication for ARCE in the world. Both my husband and I like fine guns, and we go shooting with some regularity. We belong to a gem and mineral society, a subject I find fascinating, and go fossil-hunting when it’s not too hot.
I love antiques and scouring flea markets and garage sales for unusual finds. Years ago I had an antique shop for a year or two, but it failed because the really good/interesting stuff generally went home with me! I adore good music, mainly classical, and usually have a CD running during the day. I find languages fascinating, and would love to speak more of them. Then there’s history and zoology/herpetology and meteorology and any number of intriguing things I wish I had more time to learn about. What a shame we have only one short lifetime when the world is so full of so many things of interest!
I love the acronym BITCH! From now on when I’m going to write, I’ll tell my husband I’m BITCHing. lol
Your life sounds so interesting, from childhood on. We have fur babies, too. My cat hates the carrier. She complains for the entire drive — loudly! — I’m thinking of trying a vet nearer our house for her next visit.
I have five cats, all rescued.
Fun interview! BITCH sounds like great advice.
Hi Janis! It sounds like you have some pretty neat hobbies…It was neat to hear about your interests. How cool is it that as a writer you have such varied tastes? I bet it helps with the creativity! 🙂
rachie2004 @ yahoo (d0t) com
I love watching Antique Road Show AND flea market hunts.
I love to go to antique stores. Your books sound so unique and varied.
nsburge at yahoo.com
Love this interview! Janis, you’re a very interesting person. I was in the 6th grade when I first realized how much I loved writing…so not nearly as young as you!
I seriously started writing when I was 21 and quit when I had kids…and I agree 100%! The business has changed a lot! It’s hard to keep up with all the trends!
Janis, it sounds like you have lead a fascinating life! And I love the “BITCH” acronmym. Priceless!
Wow, four years old! That is early and yet very lucky to know at that age that writing was your passion. 🙂