Monday, July 29, 2013

A Conversation with Novelist Barbara Rogan

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Barbara Rogan
with Barbara Rogan

We are delighted to welcome novelist Barbara Rogan to Omnimystery News today.

Barbara introduces literary agent and amateur sleuth Jo Donovan in A Dangerous Fiction (Viking; July 2013 hardcover and ebook formats), the first in a new series set in the publishing world.

We recently had the opportunity to talk to Barbara about her new book.

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Omnimystery News: Your previous novels have all been stand-alones. Why did you choose to start a series with A Dangerous Fiction?

Barbara Rogan
Photo provided courtesy of
Barbara Rogan

Barbara Rogan: When I first started A Dangerous Fiction, I expected it to be the same: a stand-alone mystery about a literary agent dogged by a mysterious stalker. By the time I finished the book, though, I knew I wasn't through with Jo Donovan, nor she with me. Even though the mystery had been solved and Jo had learned some salient truths about herself in the course of that ordeal, she still had a good deal of unfinished business arising from her troubled past. She interests me, and I plan to write at least two more Jo Donovan mysteries in which the character will continue to change and develop.

OMN: If you were to tweet the synopsis of the book, what would you write?

BR: When a frustrated writer turns stalker, literary agent Jo Donovan takes it in stride … until harassment escalates to murder.

OMN: We often hear that writers should write what they know. Would you agree with that adage?

BR: I don't actually subscribe to that rule. If I did, I wouldn't have written any of my previous books, which deal with topics as diverse as chaos physics, jazz, Shaker furniture, adobe houses, high-level embezzlement, homicide investigation and open-heart surgery, none of which were areas of particular expertise until I started writing about them. Nor would I have dared create some of my favorite characters, including a 75-year-old Holocaust survivor and a young black widow who scrubs floors in a hospital. I don't think it's a good idea to put a straightjacket on a writer's imagination or empathy, and I've always been willing to do the research.

But A Dangerous Fiction is different from my other books in that it's set in a world I do know from personal experience: the world of publishing. Before I gave it all up to focus on writing, I worked in the industry, first as an editor with Fawcett, then, for many years, as a literary agent. I knew all the major publishers, most of the leading agents, and many renowned writers. I traveled widely, drank too much champagne and consumed too many publishing lunches: a great period in my life. The people I worked with — brilliant, witty, passionate — were at the heart of that experience, and returning to that world was one of the great pleasures of writing A Dangerous Fiction.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

BR: I plot my stories in considerable detail before I start writing them. They always change in the course of writing, which is generally the case: editors know well that the book they approve in utero may bear only a passing resemblance to the one delivered. But novels are complicated structures, and I would no sooner embark on one without an outline than I would build a cathedral without a plan.

OMN: What kind of research do you engage in when developing your storylines?

BR: I read tons of books and articles; consult with experts; and, as a final step, go out and see for myself. I once spent three weeks in an inner-city emergency room, trailing doctors and nurses. I've met with retired spies, homicide detectives, jazz musicians, physicists, reporters, carpenters, heart surgeons, protection-dog trainers, and nuclear physicists, all of whom were incredibly generous with their time and expertise. It's a fallacy to think that fiction writers just "make it all up". Fiction always needs to sound plausible, or readers won't believe; and sounding plausible requires learning quite a bit.

One thing I've learned is not to give major characters professions that I don't want to learn about. In Rowing in Eden, my main character was a carpenter who made Shaker-style furniture. I am not a handy sort of person, and I don't know an awl from an adze. That was a steep learning curve. The most fun I had was researching a spy novel. I'd tell you all about it, but then I'd have to kill you.

OMN: What's the best advice — and maybe the harshest criticism — you've received as an author?

BR: Best advice … there were two bits. "Show, don't tell", which doesn't mean much till someone actually shows you how it applies to your own work. "Hit it once and get out" from Janet Burroway, by which she means "Don't belabor stuff, and don't explain it. Show it once and move on."

Harshest criticism: I've been blessed with wonderful reviews, but it's the few stinkers you always remember. The very first review of my very first novel came from the London Times, which quoted a dreadful, mercifully short sex scene in its cringe-making entirety. I didn't write another sex scene for years after that.

OMN: Suppose you're the casting director for a film adaptation of A Dangerous Fiction. Whose agents are you calling?

BR: Now there's a fun question! I love Kirsten Dunst; she'd be great for Jo. But I think there are a number of actors who could play her well. Natalie Portman comes to mind; so do Scarlett Johansson and Anna Kendrick. For Tommy, though, the detective on the case and Jo's former lover, there's only one actor, and I say so right in the book. Gotta be Matt Damon.

OMN: Speaking of adaptations, have any of your previous books been optioned?

BR: One of my books, A Heartbeat Away, was optioned repeatedly for film, and the studio went so far as to assign a screenwriter to adapt it. The only problem was that the book wasn't yet finished, my agent having somehow managed to sell film rights on the basis of a partial. The studio sent the screenwriter to New York to work with me. He took the Long Island Railroad and I met him at the station, much to the dismay of my young sons, who expected him to roar up in a Maserati. The screenwriter was tasked with extracting the unwritten ending of the novel from me, a process similar to root canal, except without the drill.

I had my revenge, though, when he asked to visit the Bronx hospital that had allowed me to hang out in their ER for several weeks, researching the book's setting. Now, this screenwriter was not at all the Hollywood stereotype. He was shy (though ruthless), and like a lot of writers, he preferred to observe things from the side, unnoticed. I took him to the hospital and confided in a few nurses that he was actually the film's casting director. Wherever he went after that, he was surrounded by hordes of staffers angling for a role.

Writers don't usually have much say in the film adaptation, unless they have particular clout. But I was shown scripts and invited to comment.

OMN: A Dangerous Fiction takes place in New York City, a setting you're familiar with personally. Did you take any liberties with the setting while writing the book?

BR: As a reader, I've found that the very best books have settings that are not incidental but essential to the story. A Dangerous Fiction is set in Manhattan and could only be set in there, because New York is the heart of publishing in this country. And the setting matters enormously in to the story, because Jo's arrival in the city is the culmination of everything she yearned and strove for as a child growing up in Appalachia. The novel is as true to the city as I could make it, with the exception of a few invented restaurants.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?

BR: I read practically anything I could get my hands on. My absolute favorite, and the book that made me first think of writing books myself, was Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. I had the pleasure of telling her so, too, when we met many years later. I also devoured Nancy Drew mysteries, which I enjoyed not only as stories but as puzzles. I hadn't thought of it till you asked, but maybe that did have something to do with my choosing to write my own.

OMN: And what kinds of books do you read now for pleasure?

BR: Mysteries and thrillers, of course, but also literary fiction, fantasy, and mainstream fiction. I read voraciously, and I'll read just about anything as long as it's really well-written.

OMN: What's next for you?

BR: I'm currently working on the next Jo Donovan mystery. I also teach writing workshops online at NextLevelWorkshop.com.

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Barbara Rogan is the author of eight novels and co-author of several non-fiction books. She has also worked extensively in publishing, starting out an editor at Fawcett, then as founder and director of the Barbara Rogan Literary Agency. She has taught fiction writing at Hofstra University and SUNY Farmingdale, and currently teaches for Writers Digest University and in her own online school, Next Level Workshops. A frequent lecturer on both the business and craft of writing, she writes a popular blog, In Cold Ink, and teaches seminars and master classes at writers' conferences.

For more information about Barbara and her work, please visit her website at BarbaraRogan.com or find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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A Dangerous Fiction by Barbara Rogan

A Dangerous Fiction
Barbara Rogan
A Jo Donovan Mystery

Jo Donovan always manages to come out on top. From the backwoods of Appalachia, she forged a hard path to life among the literati in New York City. At thirty-five, she's the widow of the renowned author Hugo Donovan and the owner of one of the best literary agencies in town. Jo is living the life she dreamed of but it's all about to fall apart.

When a would-be client turns stalker, Jo is more angry than shaken until her clients come under attack. Meanwhile, a biography of Hugo Donovan is in the works and the author's digging threatens to destroy the foundations of Jo's carefully constructed life. As the web of suspicion grows wider and her stalker ups the ante, she's persuaded by her client and friend-FBI profiler-turned-bestselling-thriller writer-to go to the police. There Jo finds herself face-to-face with an old flame: the handsome Tommy Cullen, now NYPD detective; and suddenly life gets even more complicated.

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Lance Wright owns and manages Omnimystery, a Family of Mystery Websites, which had its origin as Hidden Staircase Mystery Books in 1986. As the scope of the business expanded, first into book reviews — Mysterious Reviews — and later into information for and reviews of mystery and suspense television and film, all sites were consolidated under the Omnimystery brand in 2006.

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