Interview with Sandra Schwab

Hi Sandra. Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule for this interview.

Please tell us a little about yourself.

I live in a small town near Frankfurt on the Main, Germany, with three cats and altogether too many books. I count writing and reading among the greatest passions and joys of my life. Chocolate, too (which is not always a good thing). I teach English literature at the University of Mainz and am currently working on my PhD thesis.

In "The Lily Brand" you've created a dark, lush and dangerous world. And given it to a tortured hero and a heroine strong enough to go on healing, when she is the one wounded. What inspired Lillian and Troy's story?

When I was writing the novel, I was going through a very difficult time in my personal life. So, much of the anguish, anger and frustration I felt got translated into the story. The premise of the story - imprisoned hero bought by a mysterious woman - however, was inspired by Connie Brockway's "The Reckless One", which starts in a similar fashion, but with very different characters. "The Reckless One" was one of the first romance novels I read, and thus is very special to me.

Unusual for most of today's historical romances, "The Lily Brand" only has one love scene. Was there ever any pressure from your editor to add a second one?

Not at all. He only wanted me to move it to another point in the novel. However, during the revisions it turned out that this wouldn't work too well, story-wise. So the love scene stayed where it was. I even cut a lot of the actual sex, and concentrated more on the emotions involved. I wanted to show how this act becomes a physical expression of the protagonists' love for each other and how this in turn frees them from the violence in their past.

A lot of research went into your first book. How did you go about it, who did you turn to for help and how tempting was it to include more than necessary?

One of my minors at uni was folklore, so I already knew a bit about researching everyday life. And digging up old gossip is something I just love! I started with general research books on the Regency, like Laudermilk and Hamlin's "Regency Companion", and proceeded to primary texts - memoirs, diaries, letters - as well as books on specific topics, e.g. the history of European gardens, the workings of a country house, food, clothes, etc. I did most of the research myself, and it was only in the finishing stages that I turned to my RWA chapter, the Beau Monde (RWA's special interest chapter for Regency romances) for help. We've got some amazing people on board like Nancy Mayer, who seems to know absolutely everything about the Regency, or Bill Haggart, Beau Monde military advisor extraordinaire.

In regard to how much historical background to put into a scene - I didn't find that too difficult at all. As a writer you have to paint images for your reader by using words. So with each scene you always have to think about how much detail to add in order to make it vivid enough, but not overwhelming or boring for the reader. Historical background is just one part of this.

There has been news about authors giving up historicals in favor for contemporaries. And readers and authors are told that the historical market is on a decline. Does that bother or influence you in your genre choice?

Of course, there are always subgenres, which are more popular than others, just like romantic suspense is all the rage at the moment. Still, I can't see the market for historical romances dwindle away to nothing. They've been around for a long time, and lots of readers love them. Besides, even if I wanted to (which I don't at the moment!), I couldn't write contemporaries because I simply lack the vocabulary.

When did you know that you wanted to become a published author?

I think I decided I wanted to become a published author when I was about seven years old and working on my first novel. It's been the big dream of my life ever since.

Have you always wanted to write a romance novel?

I started out writing fantasy fiction and later on, poetry. I only switched to romance when I switched languages five years ago, though a lot of my earlier novels contained strong romantic elements.

So why did you decide on the romance genre?

Uhmm ... it just happened. It wasn't a conscious thing. Yet I soon realized I wasn't able to handle contemporary romance because I lack the necessary vocabulary. Writing historicals feels much more natural to me.

Which author inspired you?

I have always loved and admired the vivid images in the historical fiction of the British writer Rosemary Sutcliff, and my view of the heroine was shaped by the "Sword & Sorceress" anthologies Marion Zimmer Bradley edited. But my greatest inspiration have been the lovely ladies of my crit group, in particular Jennifer McAndrews, Lee Cutler, and Lynda Gerber, with whose stories I fell in love when I first joined the Lit Forum. Jen has accompanied me all the way, watched me taking my first hesitant steps in English and was among the first to buy a copy of "The Lily Brand."

Why and when did you give up on selling your first book to a German publisher?

After collecting rejection letters for some years, I sat down one day and took stock of the situation. It finally dawned on me that what I was writing was just not what German publishers bought from German authors, which meant my wished-for writing career was over before it had ever started. So I thought, why not try it in English? After all, the worst that could've happened was getting more rejection letters. And I'd already grown used to these!

The language used to tell Lillian and Troy's story in "The Lily Brand" is very poetic, wasn't there ever a language barrier? Would you say that your writing style has changed since you've switched to writing in English?

I had some difficulties with the first novel I wrote in English, "Highland Love". I needed to become more comfortable with the language so I could fully develop my voice. I probably wouldn't have been able to do that without the help of my wonderful crit group. Thanks to them, my writing style has become better than it ever was in German!

Why do you think you were more successful in getting published in English than in German?

First of all, writing in English gave me access to author networks, that don't exist in Germany in such a form and to such an extent. Furthermore, the market for popular fiction is much bigger in the US, and there's a greater variety of styles and genres, which gives an aspiring author more opportunities to break into the business. Writing contests play an important role in this, too: my editor asked for the full manuscript after he had judged the Valley Forge Romance Writers' 2003 Winning Beginning contest, in which I won in the historical category.

Tell us about the call. How did you receive it and where were you at that time?

I got an e-mail first (thank God! Else I would've probably blubbered into my poor editor's ear!), and I read it in my office at university, five minutes before the weekly meeting of our team. To say I was shell-shocked would be an understatement! I remember sitting in that meeting with my hands pressed between my knees, so nobody would notice how much I was shaking. *g*

How do your colleagues and students feel about your writing career?

I've put the cover of "The Lily Brand" on my office door, and so far there have been no casualties in the hallway, no people have dropped dead with shock. *g* Indeed, most people have been very supportive, have ordered books, requested signed copies, and told other people about the novel. Just yesterday, one of my colleagues remarked, "It's so great that you're selling books in Australia!" Isn't he a real sweetie? Of course, there have also been other reactions, people telling me that I'm wasting my talent or that I will never be able to reach my full potential as a writer in a second language. Samuel Becket might have been able to pull it off, but I? Ah well, you can never please everybody....

What are you working on right now?

I'm working on another historical romance, set in 1827 and tentatively titled "The Castle of Wolfenbach": after her father's death, Cissy Fussell finds out she has inherited a castle in the Black Forest - but on one condition: that she marries a total stranger, the son of her father's friend. Fenris von Wolfenbach returned from the war physically and emotionally wounded, and has hidden from the world in his family's castle ever since. When one day a young Englishwoman arrives on his doorstep and claims his home as hers, he tries to drive her away by every means fair or foul.

In "The Lily Brand" you showed that you are willing to take risks in the portrayal of main and secondary characters. Do you care that you might be taking an even greater risk in setting your second book in a location not usually found in romance novels?

In my opinion, the Black Forest as a setting isn't necessarily a bigger risk than Camille or branding your hero - on the contrary! (All right, you don't know what I'm going to do to my poor hero in that novel...) I hope the setting will be exotic enough to induce readers to buy it, or rather exotic enough to induce my editor to buy it first. *g* And as "The Castle of Wolfenbach" will have slightly gothic overtones, the Black Forest is the perfect setting, I think!

I thank you for your time and a debut book I'm very glad to have discovered. Wishing you the very best of luck in your writing career.

Thanks a lot for having me. I very much enjoyed answering your questions.

Interviewed by Kris Alice

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