By Kay Kendall
This month author Blair McDowell celebrates publication of her fifth novel of romantic suspense. WHERE LEMONS BLOOM whips the reader through scintillating scenery, fiendish financial skullduggery, and erotic ardor. This novel, like its predecessors, taps into a wealth of travel experience that its author has enjoyed. Now she shares with THE BIG THRILL how she manages to blend exotic locales, hot sex, and big money into a book that appears to be haunted by the ghost of the late, great Jackie Collins.
The list of places where you have lived and traveled is enticing. I love how you evoked the Amalfi Coast in WHERE LEMONS BLOOM, your new release. Tell us about connecting that to a case of embezzlement in the United States.
The Amalfi Coast has been one of my favorite haunts for many years, and the little inn I describe in WHERE LEMONS BLOOM is really there, and is really down 110 steps. The story evolved when I was in Italy in 2013. I knew I wanted to set a love story in Positano, but I’ve never been one to write simple love stories. There has to be a problem, a threat, an element of danger. The idea of an embezzlement came from a newspaper account of a woman in Baltimore who had been working a Ponzi scheme for years before being caught. I started researching embezzlement schemes and, fortuitously, The Vancouver Sun at that point ran a series of articles on hiding money in off-shore accounts. I made the short step from there to my Italian-American hero. After his unjust imprisonment for embezzling millions from his own investment firm, he returned home to Positano, on the Amalfi Coast, a broken man. It got a bit tricky when I started trying to find out about the Mafia in the Sorrento/ Naples area. But Italians are matter-of-fact and vocal about the “three governments” in Italy — the church, the elected government and the mafia (called the Camorra in the Naples area). It is simply a way of life for them, a way of getting business done.
While I long to see the Amalfi Coast but haven’t been there—yet—I have traveled the Romantische Strasse in Germany. Your fourth novel, Romantic Road, brought back wonderful memories of Wurzburg and Rothenburg–and farther south and east to Salzburg, Vienna, and Budapest. Did you find it difficult to balance the amount of travel detail with the need to keep up the pace of the adventure that drove the plot?
You have hit on one of my biggest writing problems. I want to immerse my readers in the setting. I want them to get high with Lacy on the gluwein, to savor her apple fritters in Rothenburg. I want them to be mesmerized by the Tiepolo ceiling in Wurzburg and to hear with her the gypsies in a Hungarian Csarda. But too much of this threatens to stop the forward movement of the plot. A good editor is sometimes all that keeps my books from turning into travel guides.
Obviously this book is a fan favorite. After all, your novel Romantic Road just won the Readers Choice Award in romantic suspense from The Romantic Reviews. Congratulations, Blair. Have you always read romantic suspense? Who are some of the authors who inspire you?
One of the early writers of romantic suspense was Mary Stewart. Her Madam Will You Talk was set in the south of France, and My Brother Michael was set in Greece. Both built suspense in a masterful way, even by today’s standards. I devoured these books as a child. Agatha Christie, Patricia Wentworth—I read them all.
I must admit they were all short on romance. Most held only a hint, and at the very end the two protagonists might eventually be together. But for sex there was always Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
When did real romance (and even sex) creep into good novels of suspense? I’m not sure. I still read them all—Nora Roberts, Sandra Brown, Fern Michaels. The list is long. But they seldom evoke place in the way the old Mary Stewart ones did. I wanted to make setting in my books important. Almost like another character, if that makes any sense.
Your suspense novel Sonata, published in 2012, was set in British Columbia, where you live part of each year. Do you plan to set a future novel there? Are there locations that your readers clamor for you to return to? I for one vote for more of Mitteleuropa. And Italy of course, always Italy.
I’m not interested in taking Sonata’s characters any further, and, beautiful as it is, I’m not inspired to write more about the Sunshine Coast where I live. On the other hand, my second book, Delighting in Your Company, a romantic suspense with time travel, is placed on the Caribbean island where I’ve had a second home for many years. It’s essentially a ghost story that begs for a sequel. And it’s one my readers have asked for.
There will definitely be more books set in “Mitteleuropa.” I’ve lived in that part of the world and I love it. And I’m by no means through with Italy and Greece.
You wrote six non-fiction books about music education before turning to fiction. What compelled you to make this change?
Recently widowed, I decided to make a major life change. I had been teaching for many years, first in the schools and then in universities in the U.S and Canada. Then I moved to the west coast and, with a friend, bought a large, old house in need of massive renovation. A year later, we opened a B&B in the charming fishing village of Gibson’s Landing.
For the first three years after I retired, I continued to accept speaking engagements, and, at my publisher’s request, did a revision of one of my books. In all, I wrote six professional books in music education, most of which are still in use and provide me with healthy royalties. You might say they support my fiction writing habit.
I was plainly bored with the kind of writing I had been doing for so long. I wanted something that could allow my mind to roam free. Writing is a life-long habit. I need to write, like I need to breathe. But I was tired of being hamstrung by facts, by reality. An avid reader of women’s fiction, I wanted to turn my sometimes too fertile imagination loose. However I soon discovered the step from non-fiction to fiction is wrought with peril. Writing fiction isn’t as easy as it looks.
When my first novel was rejected, very gently and with suggestions, I took some courses in the craft and tried again. That first book is stashed in my filing cabinet, and someday I may fish it out and see what I can do with it. However, back then I thought it better to try something totally new. The result of my steep learning curve was The Memory of Roses, still my favorite of the five novels I’ve written. It was accepted by a small start-up publisher, and I’ve never looked back. In the six years since, I’ve written, and seen published, five novels. The sixth, Fatal Charm, is about half finished.
If you could choose to have written one novel, one of any kind, what would that be and why?
Tough question. Choosing among books written in the last few years, I would pick from Dianna Gabaldon’s Outlander Series. Her writing is as beautiful as it is compelling, and she’s never at a lost for another twist in her convoluted plots. How often I’ve read one of her sentences and thought “I wish I’d written that.”
Where will your work in progress take your readers next?
I’ve just returned from a month in France, researching the settings for Fatal Charm. This was my first visit to France in ten years, and a number if things have changed in that time. Breakfast baskets no longer contain brioche, and three and four star hotels no longer have bidets in their bathrooms. The famous blue fishing nets of Concarneau are brought out only at festival time. Who knew? Worse yet, (no matter what Google says) the Louvre has no jewelry that once belonged to Marie Antoinette! All those minor facts were wrong in my first draft of Fatal Charm. On site research. There is no substitute!
In June we’re heading for St. Petersburg—the one in Russia, not Florida. Who knows what may evolve from that trip!
Blair McDowell wrote her first short story when she was eleven and has never ceased writing since, although only recently has she been able to return to her first love, writing fiction. During her early years, she taught in universities in the United States, Canada and Australia, and wrote several highly successful books in her field.
Her research has taken her to many interesting places. She has lived in Europe, Australia, the United States and the Caribbean and Canada, and spent considerable time in still other places, Iceland, the Far East, and the Torres Strait Islands off the coast of New Guinea. Now she travels for pleasure. Portugal, Greece and Italy are favorite haunts.
Her books are set in places she knows and loves and are peopled with characters drawn from her experiences of those places. The Memory of Roses takes readers to the Greek Island of Corfu, where a young woman finds her future while searching for her father’s past. In Delighting in Your Company, the reader is transported to a small island in the Caribbean, with a heroine who finds herself in the unenviable position of falling in love with a ghost. The setting for Sonata is the city of Vancouver, with its vibrant multicultural population and its rich musical life, and the heroine is a musician who finds herself in unexpected danger. In Romantic Road, the heroine is pursued along Germany’s famous Romantische Strausse as she follows clues left by her late husband in order to solve a mystery that she doesn’t understand, while being chased by dangerous and cunning adversaries.
She hopes her readers will enjoy reading these books as much as she enjoyed writing them.
To learn more about Blair, please visit her website.