There’s just something special about a little black dress. Like a trusted friend, its presence provides comfort and warmth. Whether donned for an elegant affair or needed for the funeral of a loved one, this mainstay of every woman’s wardrobe brings special meaning to life’s precious moments. Without it, we simply would be lost.
This month’s Jen’s Jewels Susan McBride touches upon this very topic in her sensational new release LITTLE BLACK DRESS. It’s the unforgettable story of one family’s attachment to a magical black dress that changes their lives forever. Written from two points of view spanning the past and the present, Susan is indeed one of the brightest stars in women’s fiction today.
As part of this interview, Harper Collins has generously donated five copies for you, my favorite readers, to try to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end of the column. And, as always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your reading adventure.
Jen: An award-winning author well-known for the sensational hit The Cougar Club, your latest release LITTLE BLACK DRESS is sure to find its way to the top of the bestselling lists as well. So that my readers may catch a glimpse into the life of the woman behind the words, please share with us your educational and professional background.
Susan: I have a B.S. in public relations from the School of Journalism at the University of Kansas, but all I wanted to do when I graduated was write novels. So that’s what I did. I got various part-time jobs so I could plug away at the computer, eventually writing ten manuscripts in ten years before I got my toe in the door in 1999. My first two mysteries were published by a small press, and I worked hard to promote them. Along the way, I met lots of authors, some of whom became my good friends, and I signed with a New York agency that sold BLUE BLOOD and the next two Debutante Dropout Mysteries to HarperCollins/Avon. I switched agencies soon after, and I wrote two more mysteries for Avon, the last being TOO PRETTY TO DIE which came out in 2008. I was undergoing treatment for breast cancer at the time I penned TOO PRETTY and THE DEBS, my first young adult novel for Random House/Delacorte. It was a scary bump in the road, for sure, and I really believe my writing helped me stay sane as it was both an escape and good therapy! I’ve since authored two more young adult Debs novels, plus a young adult mystery for Delacorte, in addition to THE COUGAR CLUB for HarperCollins/Morrow, which came out last year. LITTLE BLACK DRESS is my first story with magical realism. It gave me goose bumps so I hope it does the same for readers!
Jen: Please describe for us your “Aha!” moment when you decided to take the plunge and pursue a career as a writer.
Susan: I have always loved to read, and so many old photographs show me on my parents’ or grandparents’ knees, with a book open in front of me. I wrote stories and novels in grade school, but I always imagined I’d be a teacher or a lawyer (because I loved school and I loved to argue!). When I was 19, between transferring from UT-Austin to the University of Kansas, I had an epiphany during a car trip to my grandparents’ house for Christmas. I wanted to write a grown-up novel, and I actually took some time off school to do it. THE THORN OF THE ROSE was a 600+ page historical romance that never sold, but I got such positive feedback from agents and editors that I knew, “this is what I want to do with my life.” And that became my focus.
Jen: In terms of nuts and bolts, approximately how long does it take for you to write a novel? And, do you plot first, or simply just allow the novel to take on a life of its own?
Susan: I always tell aspiring authors, spend A LOT of time on your first novel-and your second and third-before you get published, as you will never have that much time to write anything ever again. Being on a book-a-year schedule (and occasionally, two books a year, like this year) is a little crazy. I love to write, and there’s nothing more I’d rather do; but I’ve backed myself into corners where I only have two to three months to complete a first draft so I’ve learned how to do that. Basically, it entails writing 24/7 (until my fingers get cramped and my butt goes numb!). I don’t outline-at least I don’t like to-but I do take lots of notes. When I’m about to write a novel, I think about it night and day. I start envisioning characters and scenes, and I jot it all down. By the time I’m done with a book, I’ll have a folder filled with chicken scratches noting plot points, bits of dialogue, and all sorts of things. I’m most assuredly a “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants” kind of writer, although it does help if I’ve written a proposal and have a summary and at least one chapter done. I truly love revising better than writing a first draft. I tell folks that a first draft for me is like “verbal vomit”-I just have to get the words out, even if the story’s not exactly the way I want it. Once those bare bones are down and I’ve got editorial suggestions, I go to town! I really see what the novel was meant to be during the revision.
Jen: Your new release LITTLE BLACK DRESS is a poignant story of a family’s secrets, lies, and betrayal. Masterfully written, it is one of those books readers will be talking about for years to come. How did you arrive at the premise?
Susan: Wow, thanks so much, Jen! (I’m tempted to cut out your quote and paste it on my wall!) Two thoughts kept swirling in my mind as I concocted the idea for LITTLE BLACK DRESS. The first was about family heirlooms. I had just received a brooch from my mother that had belonged to her grandmother, and I started thinking about objects passed down from generation to generation, whether they were considered lucky charms or maybe unlucky! The second began with a comment my mother made a long time ago about how every girl should have at least one little black dress. “It will get you through all of life’s events,” she’d told me. I conjured up this vintage black dress, one so classic it never went out of style. I wanted it to be worn by different women who were not the same shape or size (like the jeans in THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS). I decided this dress would have a mystical quality: that of foretelling the future of its wearer. Okay, just a glimpse of her future, but enough to change the direction of her life forever. I wondered how this dress might affect two very disparate sisters, Evie and Anna, and Evie’s daughter, Toni, as well. Once I knew that, I couldn’t get the story out of my head…and I couldn’t write it fast enough.
Jen: The story is written from two points of view, those of mother and daughter. How did you go about constructing each separate storyline? And, what was the most challenging part of weaving them together?
Susan: This was one of those rare books that sort of fell into place; not that it didn’t take a lot of effort to write it-because it drained me like no book I’ve ever written-but because I really heard Evie’s and Toni’s voices from early on when I submitted the proposal to my agents. Once I knew who they were and how they sounded, the rest flowed naturally. It was challenging to make sure I told Evie’s story without revealing too much, as Toni had to discover some of her mother’s (and aunt’s) secrets for herself. I didn’t quite nail it on the first draft, but I felt very good about how the past and present met through Evie’s and Toni’s perspectives when I was done with the revisions. I was going through a lot on a personal level as I wrote and revised LBD, so I was hyper-emotional during the whole process. I’m guessing that probably comes through!
Jen: Antonio (Toni) Ashton is a successful wedding planner who has chosen to leave her hometown of Blue Hills, Missouri to pursue her dream. How does her unstable relationship with her mother directly correlate to her desire to prove herself as an independent business woman?
Susan: Toni always saw Evie as so capable and independent. She grew up feeling overshadowed by her mother’s strength and by her family’s history as vintners in Blue Hills. If she stayed, she knew it would be nearly impossible to pursue any career but wine-making. Also, if she stayed, she would live in Evie’s very formidable shadow forever. Growing up with a very strong mother, I totally understood Toni’s desire to prove herself apart from her family, Evie in particular. Once Toni has made a name for herself in St. Louis-away from Blue Hills-she eventually realizes there’s more to life than job success. Going home to take care of her mother-and Evie’s very tangled past-makes Toni finally see what’s truly important. Sometimes I think we have to leave home in order to be able to find home again, if that makes sense.
Jen: When her mother Evie suffers from a stroke, Toni returns home in order to be by her side. Why does she resist her boyfriend Greg’s emotional support during this difficult time?
Susan: Honestly, Toni doesn’t feel like she’s getting much emotional support from Greg, or at least not the kind of support she needs. He’s a numbers guy, very logical and rational, and she’s tried to be that for many years. But once she’s back in Blue Hills, she begins to understand how truly emotional she is and how logic doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with finding a mate or discovering your true passion.
Jen: Hunter Cummings is a dashing man who swoops in to try to save the family’s winery. Why does Toni doubt his good intentions?
Susan: Toni’s problem with Hunter is that she’s jealous of him. He’s clearly spent more time with Evie than Toni has in the past few years. He knows Evie’s feelings about the family vineyard and its future, when Toni herself has no clue. She’s resentful that Evie turned to him for help. So it’s less a matter of not trusting him-as she hardly knows him-but of being envious that he’s closer to Evie than she is.
Jen: When Toni discovers the powers of the little black dress, how do her feelings towards her family change?
Susan: Like most of us, Toni never understood so many things about her parents or her family’s history. It takes time and effort to ask those questions and to dig to find the answers. Discovering the little black dress and its magic opens her eyes in so many ways. She sees the person her mother was and grasps how difficult Evie’s life was for her as well as why Evie kept so many secrets. This new awareness of the sacrifices her mother made-and the truth about her aunt Anna-makes Toni more attuned to her roots and who and where she came from. The black dress not only gives her a taste of her own future, but it has opened her heart to the past.
Jen: What role does Bridget, the family’s housekeeper, play in restoring Evie’s and Toni’s relationship?
Susan: Bridget is pretty much the secret-keeper in the family. She’s made so many promises to both sisters, Evie and Anna, that she becomes sort of a guard dog. She wants to protect Anna, Evie, and Toni. She’s loyal to a fault. But once Toni comes home and begins to ask questions and poke at the skeletons in the closets of the old Victorian, Bridget tries to direct her toward the answers without betraying any trusts.
Jen: The role of the winery plays an important part in the storyline. A question I just have to ask, does Missouri truly have a vibrant wine industry?
Susan: Yes! Missouri has a very vibrant wine industry. In my interview in the back of LITTLE BLACK DRESS, which was conducted months ago, I mentioned 80+ active vineyards in the state. I read a recent article that says now it’s more like 90+. I love going into Missouri wine country, particularly the Ste. Genevieve area. It’s truly scenic and gorgeous.
Jen: Let’s switch gears now and talk about your promotional plans. Please take us on a tour of your website highlighting points of interest.
Susan: I’m very active online, and I update my web site regularly. So the home page will always give folks the latest scoop on my writing life. There are other pages listing events, all my books and where to buy them (with just a click!), a media page with my bio and recent interviews, links to all my online pages (Facebook, Goodreads and Librarything author pages, The Stiletto Gang, Girlfriends Book Club, etc.), and an easy “email me” page so readers can always contact me.
Jen: Do you participate in Author Phone Chats? And if so, how would my readers go about scheduling one?
Susan: I am definitely willing to do phone chats with book clubs. If a book club is interested in setting something up, they can email me at email@example.com.
Jen: Do you participate in Social Media?
Susan: I’m not a Tweeter, but I do love Facebook. I have a Susan McBride Books page for those who’d rather “like” than “friend”:
I pretty much stick to books and writing on that page. Then I have a personal page where I talk about all kinds of things, and I’m always open to new friends. Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000474977686
Also, my web site at http://SusanMcBride.com has links to everything I do on the Web. So I’m easy to track down!
Jen: Are you currently at work on your next project? Any chance there will be a sequel?
Susan: There isn’t a sequel planned although it’s something I’ve thought about (and talked about with my agents). I just finished writing the first draft of DEAD ADDRESS, a young adult mystery for Random House/Delacorte, and I’m about to get to work on LITTLE WHITE LIES, another women’s fiction title for William Morrow. It’s about a woman who’s grown up telling little lies to make others around her feel better. Only those lies start catching up with her when a tornado dumps a man from her past into her lap (well, into her walnut grove!). Like LITTLE BLACK DRESS, it depicts how far mothers will go to protect their daughters. And it reminds us that true love isn’t always so easy to spot and how sometimes, when we get a second chance, we need to grab it with both hands and not let go.
Jen: Thank you so much for stopping by to chat with my readers. I highly recommend LITTLE BLACK DRESS to all of my readers. Such an unforgettable novel! Bravo! I wish you the best of luck on your promotional tour.
Susan: Thank you so much, Jen, for your kind words and for having me as a guest. It was an absolute pleasure chatting with you. :
I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Susan. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy today. Better yet, how would you like to win one instead?
Okay, be one of the first five readers to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the correct answer to the following trivia question.
What is the name of the family’s housekeeper in LITTLE BLACK DRESS?
Later this month, I will be bringing to you my interview with Amy Ephron. You won’t want to miss it.
Until next time…