The Write Way Cafe welcomes author Suzanne Johnson, who shares how living through Hurricane Katrina informed her book Royal Street.
When did you first have the thought you'd like to write a book? Was that first thought related to writing romance?
Writing a book is one of those things I used to idly say I’d do back when I was a student, but then life happened and I pursued a career in journalism instead. I didn’t figure I’d ever write a book at all, but if I did, I would’ve placed bets that it would be a humor-laced Southern memoir and certainly not romance. I didn’t even expect to be writing a book when I started my first novel six years ago. It was just going to be a story...and then it got really long. LOL.
What was your path to getting this book written and published? What type of research did you do?
This is the fourth book in a series, the first book of which (that “long story” I mentioned earlier) was a direct result of my own experiences as a New Orleanian going through Hurricane Katrina. It changed all of us in profound ways. For me, it led me to try my hand at writing fiction for the first time. I didn’t have to do a lot of research for that first book, ROYAL STREET, because I’d lived it...well, except for the magic and shapeshifters part! It was my love letter to a city I adore and that we almost lost. In the books since, however, I’ve done a LOT of research on New Orleans history and traditions—even though I’m writing urban fantasy, I want to get my city right. And since he’s become a major series character, I can tell you just about anything you want to know about the early 19th-century French pirate Jean Lafitte! He’s probably taken up more than half of my total research time.
Why did you pick the setting you did?
My Hurricane Katrina experience dictated the locations; I set the books in the parts of New Orleans—Lakeview, Uptown, Mid-City, Broadmoor—that I know well and experienced firsthand after the storm. Setting books in South Louisiana is also a case of “write what you know.” Although I’m not living in New Orleans right now, I did spend almost fifteen years there and still consider it my hometown. It’s also the perfect place to set a story because of its culture and history.
Are your main characters completely imaginary or do they have some basis in real people? Do they reflect aspects of yourself?
Well, I’m not a cute blond 28-year-old wizard, unfortunately, but yeah, my heroine DJ and I share some traits. I used some of my own experiences and observations of the Katrina aftermath for her experiences and observations, so that’s inevitable. But I’ve never based a character whole-cloth on any real person, though, or even a compilation of real people. Not consciously anyway. I’m a plot-first writer. I come up with the overarching idea, and then dream up the best characters to bring that idea to life.
What did you learn? For instance, what did you learn about yourself, your process, the writing world; about preternatural groups and the devastation a hurricane can leave behind?
I had a huge learning curve in writing my first two or three novels because I’d never written fiction before. I think I wrote a couple of awful short stories in the seventh grade, and that was it. But the big lessons, the ones that come through in this series, came from the Katrina experience. The emotional journey of my heroine, DJ, represents my greatest lessons from Katrina—that you can lose everything in the blink of an eye, and how you react reveals the mettle of your character. That you can work hard and be honest and do all the right things, but it doesn’t mean you will prevail. That adversity forces you to evaluate what’s important—and what isn’t. That the people who make good leaders in normal times are not necessarily the ones who can lead in a crisis. That sometimes, it’s hard to see through the darkness of your soul, but that, ultimately, you have to trust your heart and be willing to risk it for what you believe in. Those aren’t easy lessons, and DJ’s journey—while funny and wacky and a rollercoaster to read—isn’t an easy journey.
Tell us about your writing space and how or why it works for you.
When I bought my current house in 2008 (just before the economy tanked—talk about lousy timing), its key selling point was an upstairs room with a window and an entire wall of built-in bookcases. I hadn’t even started writing at that point, but it has since become my home office. (I also still have a day job.) I write on a Macbook Pro with a 24-inch monitor hooked up to it, and a wireless keyboard. It’s set up on a big wooden square table and takes up half the table. I have chairs on both sides of the table, because the other half is my space for doing mixed-media art...which is why I have a few spatters of acrylic paint on the back of my monitor! The room is a chaotic jumble of books and art supplies...all good.
What are you working on now?
I recently signed a contract to write a new romantic suspense series under my Susannah Sandlin pen name. It’s about the work (and loves) of a team of Louisiana wildlife enforcement agents—i.e., game wardens. Not many people realize that they are the most heavily trained law-enforcement agents outside the military, and are the state’s primary search-and-rescue units. They were the first to arrive in New Orleans after Katrina. A lot of the folks you saw getting rescued off rooftops were being pulled out by Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries agents. I can’t wait to write about them! I’m also working on the next book in my Susannah Sandlin-penned Penton Legacy vampire paranormal romance series, and a couple of “secret projects” that aren’t ready for prime-time yet.
Would you like to try your hand at writing a different genre? Which one and why?
Because paranormal fantasy has taken a downturn in the market lately, I began last year writing romantic thrillers as well. They’re very much like my paranormal thrillers, only minus the paranormal! The story process and pacing is much the same. I just have to work around the limitations of my characters being, you know, humans.
If you were not a writer, what would your dream job be?
A veterinarian, because I love animals so much. But it might be too heartbreaking, on second thought, so maybe I should lower my ambitions and say a pet-sitter or doggie daycare owner.
What aspect of writing gives you the most trouble?
Getting that first draft down. I love the revision process—absolutely love it. But writing that first draft is painful. You’d think it might get easier as I write more books, but no. It’s awful. I’m okay once I get started but walking to that keyboard every day is like a trip to the gallows. Once the first draft is down, it’s all fun again.
Thanks for having me here today! Leave a comment telling me about YOUR dream job, and at the end of the month I’ll choose a winner at random for a $10 Amazon gift card or equivalent purchase from the Book Depository if the winner is outside the U.S.
From award-winning author Suzanne Johnson comes the fourth book in the smart and sexy, award-winning Sentinels of New Orleans series.
by Suzanne Johnson
Wizard sentinel DJ Jaco thought she had gotten used to the chaos of her life in post-Katrina New Orleans, but a new threat is looming, one that will test every relationship she holds dear.
Caught in the middle of a rising struggle between the major powers in the supernatural world—the wizards, elves, vampires and the fae—DJ finds her loyalties torn and her mettle tested in matters both professional and personal. Her relationship with enforcer Alex Warin is shaky, her elven non-husband Quince Randolph is growing more powerful, and her best friend Eugenie has a bombshell that could blow everything to Elfheim and back.
And that's before the French pirate Jean Lafitte, newly revived from his latest “death,” returns to New Orleans with vengeance on his mind. DJ's assignment? Keep the sexy leader of the historical undead out of trouble. Good luck with that.
Duty clashes with love, loyalty with deception, and friendship with responsibility as DJ navigates passion and politics in the murky waters of a New Orleans caught in the grips of a brutal winter that might have nothing to do with Mother Nature.
War could be brewing, and DJ will be forced to take a stand. But choosing sides won’t be that easy.
About Suzanne: Suzanne Johnson writes urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and romantic suspense on top of a career in educational publishing that has spanned five states and six universities—including both Alabama and Auburn, which makes her bilingual. As a longtime resident of New Orleans, she has a highly refined sense of the absurd and an ingrained love of SEC football, cheap Mardi Gras trinkets, and fried gator on a stick. Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she also is the author of the best-selling Penton Legacy paranormal romance series and The Collectors romantic thriller series. Elysian Fields, book three in the Sentinels of New Orleans series, won the 2014 Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence while her Sandlin-penned novel, Allegiance, is nominated for a 2015 Reviewer’s Choice Award from RT Book Reviews magazine. Omega was an RT nominee in 2014.