Susan Sleeman has proven again and again that if a writer knows how to put the reader’s imagination to work, she can crank up nail-biting suspense without indulging in excessive violence and gore. She has become a bestselling author by writing the kind of romantic suspense and inspirational mysteries she loves to read. Her first romantic suspense title, HIGH STAKES INHERITANCE, earned a spot on the ECPA bestseller list and her Garden Gate Mystery series, which includes NIPPED IN THE BUD and READ BETWEEN THE TINES, has made the Amazon Bestseller lists as well. THE CHRISTMAS WITNESS was a finalist in the 2011 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. In addition to writing, Susan hosts the popular internet website TheSuspenseZone. Recently I talked with Susan about her writing life and the latest book, DEAD WRONG, in her Justice series.
You have an intriguing premise for your series: five adopted siblings (with the surname Justice) working together in the Justice Agency, each book focusing on a different member of the family. What inspired the concept, and why do you like rotating the protagonist role this way? Are all of them in every book?
I wanted to do a series featuring siblings who all work in law enforcement and, at the same time, I wanted to put a unique twist on the series. My daughter is in the process of being approved to adopt a child so I guess adoption was on my mind at the time. I started thinking about the interesting family dynamics that could come from five children who’d experienced difficulties in childhood coming together to form a strong family unit. It intrigued me so much, I went ahead with the series.
Since the Justice Agency series is romantic suspense, rotating the protagonist works best as it gives each of the siblings a chance to fall in love. But the siblings are a team, each with different investigative strengths, so it’s natural to have all of them in each book in their respective roles. That said, each book focuses on a particular sibling and the sibling who will star in the next book serves in the sidekick role as they investigate a crime.
As adopted siblings, are the Justices very different from one another? What are their names, and what is each person’s dominant characteristic?
The siblings are as different as can be, both physically and in their personalities. The only exceptions to this are the youngest Dani and Derrick. As twins, they look like each other, but their personalities are very different.
Ethan is the oldest sibling in the family and a former FBI agent. As the first child and the only one adopted as a baby, he doesn’t have the same emotional baggage the others carry with them. As a result, he has a balanced outlook on life, and he sees himself as the leader of the group and takes charge. Often more than the others would like.
Cole, the second oldest, is quiet and brooding. He’s not only a former U.S. marshal, but former military as well, and he struggles with issues from his service in Iraq that keep him closed off and quiet.
Kat, the oldest female and a former Portland police officer, saw her father murder her mother at a young age so she doesn’t trust easily–not only people who come into her life, but into the lives of her siblings as well. She’s very outspoken and willing to share her opinions of those she doesn’t trust.
Dani, the only other female in the group, is a former FBI agent who specializes in cyber-crimes. She’s a positive, happy-go-lucky woman with strong faith. But, as the youngest female in the family, she’s been told what to do by her siblings for so long that she’s developed an I-can-prove-myself attitude, which often gets her in trouble.
Derrick, a former homicide detective, has a temper. He gets angry when the underdog is threatened and he feels helpless to do anything about it. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s still angry from losing his parents and the overwhelming responsibility he feels to protect and keep his twin sister safe.
Will the series run for only five books? Or will you continue if fans want more?
At this time, this is only a five book series. I am currently finishing the fourth book and when that’s completed, I will talk with my editor about the direction we want to head. The series has been well received, and I can see it continuing. I really like this family and would hate to say goodbye. As I was writing the descriptions of each character above, I really felt as if I was telling you about real people and good friends. Hmm, maybe I need to get out of the house more often!
How do Christian thrillers and mysteries differ from any others in the crime fiction genre? What do you include or exclude that makes them stand apart?
The biggest difference I see between Christian thrillers and mysteries is that you won’t find profanity or gory and x-rated scenes in them. Bad things happen. People are killed, but you won’t see intimate details or gory descriptions of the murders. The other area where you’ll see a difference is in the characters’ actions. They live with faith as a part of their lives. The level of faith will vary from author to author. Some will just touch on faith and others will provide a strong message.
My goal as a Christian writer is to show my characters living out their Christian lives just like a real Christian does today. They’re real people with real problems. They struggle to get by in this very difficult world. They don’t always do the right thing and strive to do better. I also make sure that my characters struggle with an issue that plays out in their faith life. For example, in DEAD WRONG, Kat is the queen of worry. She’s lost both her birth and adoptive parents to violence so she worries about losing those she loves. All the time. By the end of the book, she learns to control her worry and it’s her faith that helps her do so. Is her faith the only thing that helps her control it? No, but it’s a catalyst to her change and helps other Christians who are struggling with worry to see how she overcomes it.
Did you write Christian suspense fiction from the start? Why did you choose this subgenre instead of traditional mysteries or cozies?
I have always written with a Christian viewpoint as my faith is as natural a part of my life as breathing. Because of this, I sought out books to read with characters who did not continually do things that are in opposition to my faith. That’s when I found Christian or inspirational fiction. Because I love reading suspense and mystery books, I looked for authors in this subgenre.
This was at a time when the internet didn’t provide information at your fingertips. I compiled a list of books and decided it would be a good idea to share them with others, so I created a website called The Suspense Zone. I interview authors, review and give away books, and list all of the Christian suspense books available for purchase today. The site has grown over the years, and we now have a large number of reviewers and a database of over 1,200 books.
Now, that said, I have branched out some as I am currently writing two books for Creative Woman Mysteries that are not Christian mysteries. This is a wholesome series designed for people who like to do crafts. All of the stories feature the same protagonist, but the books are written by different authors.
How long have you been writing? Did you face obstacles and rejections in the beginning?
I have been writing for ten years now. I started writing when health issues forced me to quit my job and become less physically active. I’m a type A personality and I couldn’t just sit around without going stir-crazy. I’d always said I wanted to write a book so now I had the perfect time to start writing. I submitted my first manuscript to a contest and finaled so I knew I had some basic skills that might be marketable. I then committed to learning the craft of writing and after a short period of time, I secured an agent. That’s when I began the season of rejections. I received positive feedback on my writing from editors, but the books weren’t what the publishers were looking for at the time. So I targeted my efforts at a new mystery line and at the Love Inspired Suspense line and wrote manuscripts that fit their guidelines and needs. That’s when I received my first contract, and I’ve never had a rejection since. Wrong! I still have proposals rejected and have others that my editors want me to revise. My agent is shopping around a cyber-crimes series that has gotten great interest with editors, but has not landed anywhere yet. Still hoping, though!
How do you create suspense and a sense of menace without showing violence? How do you write death scenes? Do you describe them, and the victims, in detail?
Great question. My books include violence, just not explicit violence. Which means the protagonist can be chased by a killer or abductor, she can find a dead body, we can see the inside of a killer’s depraved mind, etc. but we don’t see the actual blood and gore. Instead, I focus on the setting, her mood and her emotions to bring the reader into the scene. I like to think that the readers don’t need explicit details in all areas and they can fill in the blanks with their imagination. I receive emails from readers about scenes I’ve written that I don’t find overly scary, but the reader finds them very frightening. This shows me that their imagination can be far more vivid than mine. So it’s sometimes what you don’t say that has the greatest impact!
You attend many conferences and events for writers and fans of Christian fiction. Do you concentrate on that market, or do you also reach out to more mainstream readers at Thrillerfest, Bouchercon, and similar conferences?
I do concentrate on the Christian market, but I also reach out to mainstream readers. The biggest event I attend is the annual Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference. I also belong to a local writers’ group that is devoted to all areas of fiction, and we hold book signings in malls and bookstores in the area. Plus, as a Goodreads member, I interact with all types of readers online.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a few projects right now. I’m in the edit phase of NOW WAY OUT, the third Justice Agency book that will release in May of 2013. This book has been one of my favorites as I love strong, brooding males who also display a tender side in the hero role, and that describes Cole to a tee. I’m also writing book four in the series, tentatively titled DANGEROUS ALLIANCE and it will release in early 2014. And as I mentioned earlier, I am working on DOG GONE SHAME, a cozy mystery for Creative Woman Mysteries, which will release in 2013. DEADLY STITCH, the first book I wrote for this series, releases in December.
Thanks so much for taking the time to interview me, Sandra! Great questions!
Susan Sleeman is a best-selling author of romantic suspense and inspirational mystery novels. Her first romantic suspense title, HIGH-STAKES INHERITANCE earned a spot on the ECPA bestseller list and her Garden Gate Mystery series, which features NIPPED IN THE BUD and READ BETWEEN THE TINES has enjoyed time on Amazon Best Seller lists as well. And THE CHRISTMAS WITNESS was named a finalist in the 2011 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. In addition to writing, Susan hosts the popular internet website TheSuspenseZone.com. To learn more about Susan stop by any of these locations on the web.
To learn more about Susan, please visit her website.