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An Interview with Patricia Ryan

Conducted by Robbi Hess
November, 2002

Pat Ryan has tantalized readers with her sexy and wildly romantic novels for many years. In 1994 she “quit her day job” and began pursuing writing on a full time basis. Her first novel, “”Return of the Black Sheep” was published by Harlequin Temptation and her reputation for penning riveting medieval romances, rife with engaging characters, authentic historical details, intrigue and suspense was launched.

FF: When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?

Pat: I wrote a lot as a kid –I was the obnoxious one who handed in 20-page papers in elementary school, and I loved writing stories and plays. My nerdy friends and I would collaborate on Star Trek scripts, that sort of thing. Writing was always a passion with me, but so was art, so I ended up studying painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. After graduating, I eventually found myself back in New York City, working as a promotion manager for a publishing company. I handled all the marketing for a small division of Van Nostrand Reinhold called Scientific and Academic Editions. I had to sell–or try to sell–books with titles like NEOGENE PLANKTONIC FORMANIFERA. (Next to that, self-promoting my novels is a snap!) About a half-dozen of my publishing pals were frustrated writers, like me, and eventually we got together and decided to collaborate on a big family saga. Several years later, we had a 1,000-page tome called THE BLACK RUSSIAN, which will never see the light of print, but was an invaluable, and fun, learning experience. It also convinced me that I absolutely wanted to be a novelist, so I started work on a whodunit, SURVIVAL CRACKERS, which will also (hopefully!) never be published, but which showed me I could finish a novel (beginning it is the easy part) all by myself. My husband was transferred to Rochester, New York, where I juggled child-rearing, writing workshops and law book editing. Meanwhile, I was getting interested in writing romance, as was my twin sister, Pam Burford.

FF: When you first made up your mind to become a writer, what drew you to the romance genre?

Pat: I’d always been a big fan of gothics and family sagas, but no one was buying them, so I had to choose another sub-genre. Inspired by Ken Follett’s PILLARS OF THE EARTH, I started work on a medieval romance (following months of research), but in the middle of it, Pam challenged me to see which of us could write and sell a contemporary series romance first. The loser had to pay a year’s worth of hotel bills at the writers’ conferences we went to. So I juggled the medieval and the contemporary–and my kids and job–for a couple of years. I was getting about five hours of sleep a night then, and always seemed to have a cold. But it was worth it; in 1994, both manuscripts were finalists for the Golden Heart (Romance Writers of America’s top unpublished award), and the contemporary, THE RETURN OF THE BLACK SHEEP, won. Although Pam sold her book first, I sold both of mine within 6 months, to Harlequin and NAL, for whom I wrote for the next several years. I quit my job with the legal publisher the day I got my first contract in the mail, and have been a full-time writer since then.

FF: Since the day you and your twin began the competition and you signed your first contract, how many romances have you written?

Pat: I’ve published 15 romance novels and novellas since then, and let me assure you, there is no better job in the world than being a writer. You get to throw away your pantyhose, and they actually pay you for making stuff up as you go along! I’ve been blessed with good reviews and lots of foreign translations. SILKEN THREADS, my medieval Rear Window, won the RITA award, and THE SUN AND THE MOON won the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Historical Romantic Mystery/Suspense.

FF: I was in one of your classes recently and you were you were discussing that your writing was going in a different direction. What made you decide to switch genres, and, how did you choose your new genre?

Pat: Much as I love romance, I started getting antsy to explore my other big love, mystery and suspense. So a couple of years ago, I started the laborious process of switching genres. Or actually, not switching–I’m still writing romance novellas, for St. Martin’s–but adding a new one. Long story short: I’ve recently signed a 6-book deal with Berkley Prime Crime for a mystery series set in post-Civil War Boston.

FF: Have you found writing a mystery to be more of a challenge than writing a romance novel?

Pat: Before embarking on my first straight mystery, I’d worried that it would be difficult to switch gears, but it really wasn’t. For one thing, most of my romances, especially my medieval romances, were actually romantic suspense novels, so I was used to plotting suspense, with all its intricacies and last-minute twists.

FF: With all of the last minute plot twists and intricacies in your novels do you find it necessary to work from an outline?

Pat: Long-accustomed to thorough pre-planning of my novels, I approached the mystery in a more organic way, letting the story unfold as I wrote it, and I was delighted with the results. There’s a sense of natural evolution in this book that really works, and I’m very proud of the results. I did use my famous storyboard, but I sort of filled it out as I went along, working ahead a couple of chapters at a time. Of course, I had a sketchy idea of the whole story before I began (I sold on proposal, so I had to). I knew whodunit, but the details came to me as I worked. Part of what makes writing so much fun for me is those “Ah ha!” moments. “Ah ha! Another man was seen in the opium den…”

FF: Can you tell us what you are working on now and when we can expect to see your latest offering on the bookshelves?

Pat: The first book in my mystery series, STILL LIFE WITH MURDER, will be on the mystery shelves next July. My sleuth, Nell Sweeney, is a young Irish-American woman (in virulently anti-Irish 1860’s Boston) who must hide her checkered past in order to protect her position as governess to a wealthy Brahmin family, the Hewitts. Their eldest son, Will, a British-educated battle surgeon presumed to have died during the war in a Confederate prison camp, surfaces when he is accused of murder. Scarred physically and emotionally by his wartime experiences, Will is now an opium addict and professional gambler who refuses to defend himself from the murder charge; some men, he says, are meant to hang. Urged by her beloved employer to investigate, Nell finds herself calling on her old street smarts in the hope of clearing Will of the murder charge. In the process, she finds herself dangerously drawn to a man who seems as determined to ruin his life as she is to better hers. There will be an undercurrent of sexual tension throughout the series, unresolved until the very last book.

Something else I love writing (as my readers can attest!) is sexy romance, so when St. Martin’s asked me to contribute a novella to an upcoming trade paperback anthology of erotic romance, I jumped at the chance. The anthology, BURNING HOT, which contains my story “Possessing Julia,” is scheduled for next August. It’s highly erotic, but also highly emotional—a Victorian-era love story with graphic, pull-out-all-the-stops love scenes.

FF: What are you at work on right now?

Pat: I’m writing a proposal for a book that I’m enormously excited about, but it’s all on spec. In other words, it’s not under contract, just something I’m doing for the love of it, which may or may not ever sell. If it sells, they’ll hear me crowing from the rooftop from miles away!

After that, I begin work on the second Nell Sweeney book, which I’m looking forward to with feverish anticipation. In this book (no working title yet, sorry), the mystery brings Nell’s sordid past to the forefront and reveals to the reader her most outrageous secret, the one that could utterly ruin her if she’s not careful.

FF: How can readers check out what you are up to, when your books are coming out and get information on past books?

Pat: I’m going to be starting an email newsletter to let people know when new books are coming out, provide excerpts, etc. Some fun personal stuff, too, and a link to my website once it’s overhauled. Anyone who’d like to receive the newsletter should email me at patryan@rochester.rr.com, and I’ll add you to the list.

FF: What advice can you give to aspiring writers?

Pat: I’m one of those authors who loves giving advice to aspiring writers, which is one reason I love teaching writing workshops.

First, read a lot of novels, and not just in the genre you want to write in. Mix it up so you don’t end up with literary tunnel vision.

Try to write every day, but if you can’t, set yourself a schedule or a goal. My goal as an aspiring author was to be eligible for the ’94 Golden Heart in two categories, so I set myself a five page per day quota and made it–and not only did I win the award, I sold both books. Needless to say, I’m a big proponent of goals!

Write the type of novel you love to read. In fact, write the very book you wish was waiting there on the shelf at Barnes and Noble for you to pick up and lose yourself in.

Be a method writer. By that, I mean, crawl into the skin of your point of view character and really experience the story as that person. This will infuse the story with a sense of reality and enable your reader to truly empathize with that character.

Speaking of empathy, it’s the number one most important aspect of your story. If your reader empathizes–from the very beginning–with your protagonist, he or she will forgive all else: coincidences, contrivances, plot holes you could drive a truck through. He’ll keep turning the page to find out what happens to that person.

Have one strong external conflict for your story and don’t waver from it. If you don’t know what I mean by “external conflict,” start taking writing workshops NOW. In fact, take them at every opportunity. I still do. Never stop learning and growing. Be humble. Be a sponge. Soak it all up. Accept criticism with a truly open mind. Better to fix your manuscript now that after you’ve sent it to agents and editors!

Finally, always bear in mind Somerset Maugham’s too-true words of wisdom: “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Thank you Pat for taking the time to talk to Fiction Forum about your writing–how you started and where you are now. You give hope to many aspiring writers.

For any of our readers who are wandering the bookstores or surfing the internet looking for a good read, a Pat Ryan novel offers page-turners filled with mystery, intrigue and well-researched historical detail woven into a character driven plot.End

Copyright © 2002 by Robbi Hess

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