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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Murder & Debutantes: Author Interview with Susan McBride

I am truly impressed with the number of books you have written and how you can easily move between different fiction styles. When did you publish your first book? 
My first book was published in 1999. It’s called And Then She Was Gone, and it won a contest sponsored by a small press in Illinois. It was four years from the time I heard I’d won (1995) until the book came out, and I’d written 10 manuscripts prior to that. So it was a long time coming. I wrote one other book for that small press, Overkill, before my then-agent got me the three-book deal with HarperCollins for the first books in the Debutante Dropout Mystery series.

When did you think you could make a career of writing? 
It wasn’t until after the first two books were published—and Blue Blood did remarkably well—that I thought, “Hmm, maybe I can make a living at this.” I am currently working on my 21st book under contract. It’s a pretty nice feeling, knowing I’ve realized a lifelong dream.

Your writing includes different facets of the fiction market. Do you find one genre easier to write in than another?
Writing in multiple genres has been an amazing experience. Everything I do teaches me more about my writing and my abilities and stretching the bounds of what I think I can do. At this point, I’ve gone from traditional mysteries/series mysteries to contemporary women’s fiction (non-series), young adult (non-mystery) series, young adult mystery stand-alone, and even memoir. 

I feel very fortunate that my agents haven’t said, “Hey, find one thing you like and stick with it!” Because, honestly, it’s risky moving around, and readers of one particular type of fiction don’t necessarily read another. I’ve had two publishing houses, HarperCollins (whom I’ve been with since 2002) and Random House (whom I worked with between 2006 and 2014) allow me to stretch my literary muscles, and I know it’s made me a better writer. As for one genre being easier than another…ha ha, I wish! I think writing the first draft of a book—any book—is as hard as it ever was. It never gets easier, no matter what I’m working on.

How do you come up with the ideas for the murders in your book? How did the Debutante Dropout series come into being? 
A lot of the ideas for the mysteries come from my crazy brain conjuring up plots and thinking, “What if I did this?” until something sticks. Other times it’s purely cathartic. The first Debutante Dropout Mystery, Blue Blood was rooted in my distaste for restaurants like Hooters. I figured I’d kill off the owner of a fictional restaurant called Jugs and get it out of my system! The new book, Say Yes to the Death, stemmed from watching too many reality shows and thinking, “These people are awful! How can they behave like this and get away with it?” So I decided to do in a wedding planner with a reality show who treated people very badly (kind of like any of those Real Housewives). I made her Andy Kendricks’s nemesis from prep school (Andy’s the debutante dropout), and Andy’s the one who finds her with her throat slit and the grandmotherly cake baker standing over her with a bloody knife. So Andy does her WWND? thing (as in, What Would Nancy Do?—Nancy Drew, of course!), and catastrophe ensues. 

Were you a deb or a dropout?
Nope, I was never a debutante or a debutante dropout, although I spent a lot of my growing up years in Texas and knew plenty. I had a handful of debs in my Pi Phi pledge class at UT-Austin who would practice curtsies during study hall. I knew someday I’d make good use of being on the fringes of that world, and I surely did!

You've always been traditionally published. Do you think it was easier when you started or now to get the attention of a large publishing house? What are your thoughts on the rise of indie publishing?
I think it’s still very hard to get the attention of a traditional publishing house unless you’re a celebrity of some kind (and reality TV keeps cranking out a host of quasi-celebrities, doesn’t it?). That much hasn’t changed in the 16 years since I was first published. I have friends who started in traditional publishing and lost contracts with big houses, never to be signed again. So I think it’s wonderful that hybrid publishing exists now. 

I’ve made use of it myself at HarperCollins, where they’ve brought out manuscripts that were gathering dust in my basement: the first three books in my River Road Mystery series, starting with To Helen Back. HarperCollins wanted those for their Witness Impulse imprint (digital-first) after a re-booted e-book of Blue Blood hit the USA Today bestsellers list last year. 

This digital-first publishing made it possible for me to revise those three manuscripts within a month so HC/Avon could get them out in speedy succession last summer. I’m doing another Helen book for them now. I love this digital-first stuff! It results in a monthly paycheck, which is so much nicer than waiting six months for a check. I’m excited that there are so many options out there for writers, and nothing comes with a stigma any more.

Besides writing assorted fiction genres, you also penned a book about your bout with cancer. How hard was that to open up your pain and fears to others? 
When my editor asked me to do In the Pink, I was a little nervous. When I was diagnosed, I was 42 and just beginning my life with my husband (although he wasn’t my husband then!). It was scary as hell hearing the words “you have cancer” and going through two surgeries and 34 sessions of radiation. But becoming part of the big Pink Army, as I call it, made me realize how lucky I was to have found the lump when I did and to pursue it after my mammogram was negative. I did a lot of public speaking post-recovery, and it felt good to tell my story and to share the wacky humor that had gotten me through. Yes, I cried as I relived the experience while writing In the Pink. Plus, I was pregnant at the time (I was 47, so it was a big surprise…but a happy one!). 

What has been some of the positive feedback you've received from that book?
I hear from newly-diagnosed women and survivors alike all the time and I want to reassure them and encourage them to move forward in their lives. I’ve made some great friends that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. It’s a journey that I’m still on, and I feel honored I can share that with so many others.

What new book do you have in the pipeline? Any new series in the works?
The book, Say Yes to the Death, came out at the end of September in paperback, e-book, and audio, and Come Helen High Water (the fourth River Road Mystery) is due March 1. I’m also a full-time mom to a three-year-old. So that’s enough for me to handle right now!

What is some of the best writing advice that you’ve received or could give?
Read voraciously in all genres, even those you’re not quite comfortable with. Write every day even if it’s crap. Practice does make you better. I think some folks want to have the very first book they write published, and maybe that shouldn’t be. Learn to take criticism. Get out and meet other writers at conferences or events in your area. Ask questions. And read blogs like this to learn more about the business of writing. It’s not an easy road, but if you need to write, you’ll find a way to make it work.

What are the best ways to find out more about your writing?
Folks can find me at my web site ( and on Facebook (I have two pages, including Feel free to drop by and ask questions. I also blog with a group called the Girlfriends Book Club (, where writing is always the topic of conversation!

Thank you for having me, Chris!

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