Glad you’re all here with us for our Duck Chat!
Sherry Thomas is our guest today. If you have been to Sherry’s website to read about her incredible journey through life that eventually led her to becoming an author, you should hightail it over there. The short version is Sherry came to the United States from China at age 13; therefore, her first language is not English, but she did what was necessary and now Sherry gives readers like you and me beautiful romances to read. A motivating story like so few others.
Sherry’s first book was Private Arrangements, which released in March of last year, and was followed by Delicious in July. Both books have won awards and fans can’t get enough of them. Get ready for a fun day with Sherry! Be sure to ask questions or leave a comment because she is giving away a couple of copies of her latest release, Not Quite a Husband. Now let’s chat!
DUCK CHAT: Sherry, after reading about you on your website, I have to give you kudos on your commitment and dedication in learning the English language once you got to the United States at the age of 13. What a terrific story and it’s hopefully incentive for other people, no matter what they choose to do in life. Were there other similar obstacles you had to overcome on your way to discovering you’d like to write?
SHERRY THOMAS: Hmm, I would say the other obstacle was the belief that writing is not any kind of proper career. I come from a family of scientists and engineers. My mom especially is as practical a person as they come–she is still very much surprised that I’m an author.
So I don’t think I would ever have pursued writing if I hadn’t found myself a stay-at-home mom at a very young age, all my other plans put aside while I looked after my new baby. It was one of those things where I went, oh well, I don’t have any other career prospects now, so why the heck not? *g*
DC: If you could retire any question and never, ever have it asked again, what would it be? Feel free to answer it.
st: LOL. I think it is far too early in my career for me to have same-question fatigue yet. I’m happy and grateful to answer questions, even if I’ve answered similar questions before. I never copy and paste answers as I’m a different me every day and even similar questions get different answers depending on when they come to me.
DC: I hear you like playing computer games with your sons. What’s your favorite game? Do you let your sons win? Or are they a take-no-prisoners players and you have to be on your toes all the time?
ST: My favorite games are the Wonderland series and the Mystery Case Files series—both casual games, as we don’t really have game consoles at home. Wonderland is the cutest game ever, with these adorable characters and their equally adorable foes in adorable adventure-puzzle boards that you need to solve. My sons do the more action-y parts and I do the more think-y parts.
Mystery Case Files games started as a fairly straightforward hidden-object game—like I Spy. But it has since evolved to include ever more puzzle elements. Their latest installment, Return to Ravenhearst, is an absolute masterpiece of game design. I can’t rave enough about it.
None of these are head-to-head games so we play collaboratively, my sons and I. But on hidden-object games, I often hold back and let them find more of the items. I figured it wouldn’t be fun if I were playing with my mother, and she’s locating everything!
DC: I’ve heard writers often say their stories take them in surprising directions, or dialogue flows from some unknown place. Is it the same with you? Do your characters surprise you sometimes?
ST: I can’t really say my stories come from an unknown place. LOL, they come from my head and I’d like to think I am somewhat familiar with that particular place. The stories I write are the stories I’d like to read. They cater very closely to my personal tastes so it is highly unlikely that I am going to suddenly discover that I’m writing a ménage story or a tale of forbidden love between a werewolf and a wererabbit.
What does surprise me is how much I can improve a story, when my editor is standing behind me with a whip. My particular weakness as a writer is that I like the stuff I write—no tormented artist here. But my editor is very, very strict. She edits hard. I moan and wail. But my belief is that as a writer, you never explain yourself to a reader and hope they’ll like your books better as a result. If they’ve read it and they don’t care for it, either it is not to their taste or you’ve failed in your job.
Since my books are to my editor’s taste, or so she assures me every time after she tears a draft apart, I go back to the drawing board and reassess how I can do it better. And every single time, without fail, I end up with a vastly superior draft from the one I started with.
DC: Do you ever argue with your characters while you’re writing? Who usually wins?
ST: No, never. They do what I say. Whom do you think I whip when my editor whips me? *eg*
DC: There’s a quote on your website I found interesting, “when she is not writing, she thinks about the zen and zaniness of her profession…” I think our readers will be curious about this. Can you share a few of those thoughts with us?
ST: Writing is a profession that is tough on the ego, because there is no such thing as a book done exactly right. There is no objective standard. Every book that is loved is also hated. Every book that has passionate detractors will also have passionate defenders. And everyday people bemoan the presence of certain books on the bestseller list and the absence of certain other books.
So I think about how to maintain my inner equilibrium. How do I deal with both praise and criticism directed at my own books? How do I look at my numbers and neither despair—it is soooooo much less than so-and-so’s—nor gloat—it is still better than so-and-so’s? How do I stayed focused on the work rather than the peripherals of the work?
I wouldn’t say it is a daily struggle—I’m far too absent-minded for it. But it is an ongoing process to find the zen zone and then to stay there.
DC: What is sure to distract you from sitting down and working/writing?
ST: This blog and others like it. I have chronic and incurable blog-itis.
DC: How do you feel your male or female characters have evolved so far in your career? Do you think you write them differently now than you did when you started?
ST: When I first started writing, I had no idea at all what either character or characterization meant—I never had any creative writing or even plain old English classes in college. I remember working on my second heroine—in a space-opera story—and thinking to myself, no, she can’t be ruthless, because the heroine from my first story is ruthless, they’ll be exactly the same if they are both ruthless.
And mind you, that was after I’d finished a full manuscript already.
What set me on the road to truly understanding characters is Judith Ivory’s book Beast. Now I’m amazed that I started to write before I’d ever read her because she is such a seminal influence in my evolution as a writer. Not to be hyperbolic, but until I read Beast, I didn’t quite understand human nature. Didn’t understand how a person could contain so many contradictions and still be a working whole. Or how even with all our imperfections, we can still rise above.
DC: Let’s talk about Not Quite a Husband, which was released May 19. First, where did the idea for the story come from? Is it relatively the same book now as it was when you started it?
The germ of the idea came from the movie The Painted Veil, which is about a terribly estranged couple caught in a dangerous place (interior China) at a dangerous time (1920s). The movie was marvelous, except for SPOILER the death of the hero END SPOILER at the end. I felt so awful afterward that I just had to write about a terribly estranged couple caught in a dangerous place at a dangerous time.
My dangerously place turned out to be the North-West Frontier of British India in 1897, with the hero and the heroine encountering an uprising in the Swat Valley. Sound familiar? History does repeat itself, alas.
It is very much not the same book as when I started, because as usual, after my editor went through with it, I rewrote most of everything. And I couldn’t be more grateful that she pushed me for the changes, because the book ended up much better.
DC: Please tell us about Leo and Bryony.
ST: They are a mismatched couple. She is older than him by four years. He is vastly popular. She avoids society like the plague. He is multi-talented. She is good at only one thing, medicine. He understands himself. She doesn’t, at all.
But such is love, is it not, that it can forge connections that entirely baffle outsiders? *g*
Extra special treat, excerpt from Not Quite a Husband:
In the course of her long and illustrious career, Bryony Asquith was the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, almost all of which described her appearance as “distinguished and unique, characterized by a dramatic streak of white in her midnight-dark hair.”
The more inquisitive reporters often demanded to know how the white streak came about. She always smiled and briefly recounted a period of criminal overwork in her twenties. “It was the result of not sleeping for days on end. My poor maid, she was quite shocked.”
Bryony Asquith had indeed been in her twenties when it happened. She had indeed been working too much. And her maid had indeed been quite shocked. But as with any substantial lie, there was an important omission: in this case, a man.
His name was Quentin Leonidas Marsden. She’d known him all of her life but never gave him a thought before he returned to London in the spring of 1893. Within seven weeks of meeting him again, she proposed. Another three months and they were married.
From the very beginning they were considered an unlikely pair. He was the handsomest, wildest, and most accomplished of the five handsome, wild, and accomplished Marsden brothers. By the time of their wedding, at age twenty-four, he’d had a paper read at the London Mathematical Society, a play staged at St. James’s Theatre, and a Greenland expedition under his belt.
He was witty, he was popular, he was universally admired. She, on the other hand, spoke very little, was not in demand, and was admired only in very limited circles. In fact, most of Society disapproved of her occupation—and the fact that she had an occupation at all. For a gentleman’s daughter to pursue a medical training and then to go to work every day—every day, as if she were some common clerk—was it really necessary?
There were other unlikely marriages that defied all naysayers and prospered. Theirs, however, failed miserably. For her, that was; she’d been the miserable one. He seemed scarcely affected. He had a second paper read at the mathematical society; he was more lauded than ever.
By their first anniversary things had quite deteriorated. She’d barred the door to her bedchamber and he, well, he did not wallow in celibacy. They no longer dined together. They no longer even spoke when they occasionally came upon each other.
They might have carried on in that state for decades but for something he said—and not to her.
It was a summer evening, some four months after she first denied him his marital rights. She’d returned home rather earlier than usual, before the stroke of midnight, because she’d been awake for seventy hours—a small-scale outbreak of dysentery and a spate of strange rashes had her at her microscope in the laboratory when she wasn’t seeing to patients.
She paid the cabbie and stood a moment outside her house, head up, the palm of her free hand held out to feel for raindrops. The night air smelled of the tang of electricity. Already thunder rumbled. The periphery of the sky lit every few seconds, truant angels playing with matches.
When she lowered her face Leo was there, regarding her coolly.
He took her breath away in the most literal sense: she was too asphyxiated for her lungs to expand and contract properly. He aroused every last ounce of covetousness in her—and there was so much of it in her, hidden in the tenebrous recesses of her heart.
Had they been alone they’d have nodded and walked past each other without a word. But Leo had a friend with him, a loquacious chap named Wessex who liked to practice gallantry on Bryony, even though gallantry had about as much effect on her as vaccine injections on a corpse.
They’d been having excellent luck at the tables, Wessex informed her, while Leo smoothed every finger of his gloves with the fastidiousness of a deranged valet. She stared at his gloved hands, her insides leaden, her heart ruined.
“…awfully clever, the way you phrased it. How exactly did you say it, Marsden?” asked Wessex.
“I said a good gambler approaches the table with a plan,” answered Leo, his voice impatient. “And an inferior gambler with a desperate prayer and much blind hope.”
It was as if she’d been dropped from a great height. Suddenly she understood her own action all too well. She’d been gambling. And their marriage was the bet on which she’d staked everything. Because if he loved her, it would make her as beautiful, desirable, and adored as he. And it would prove everyone who never loved her definitively wrong.
“Precisely,” Wessex exclaimed. “Precisely.”
“We should leave Mrs. Marsden to her repose now, Wessex,” said Leo. “No doubt she is exhausted after a long day at her noble calling.”
She glanced sharply at him. He looked up from his gloves. Even in such poor soggy light, he remained the epitome of magnetism and glamour. The spell he cast over her was complete and unbreakable.
When he returned to London, everyone and her maid had been in love with him.
He should have had the decency to laugh at Bryony, and tell her that an old-maid physician, no matter the size of her inheritance, had no business proposing to Apollo himself. He should not have given her that half smile and said, “Go on. I’m listening.”
“Good night, Mr. Wessex,” she said. “Good night, Mr. Marsden.”
Two hours later, as the storm shook the shutters, she lay in her bed shivering—she’d sat in the bath too long, until the water had chilled to the temperature of the night.
Leo, she thought, as she did every night. Leo. Leo. Leo.
She bolted upright. She’d never realized it before, but this mantra of his name was her desperate prayer, her blind hopes condensed into a single syllable. When had mere covetousness descended into obsession? When had he become her opium, her morphia?
There were many things she could tolerate—the world was full of scorned wives who went about their day with their heads held high. But she could not tolerate such pitiable needs in herself. She would not be as those wretches she’d witnessed at work, wild for the love of their poison, tenderly fueling their addiction even as it robbed them of every last dignity.
He was her poison. He was that for whom she abandoned sense and judgment. For the lack of whom she suffered like a maltreated puppy, shaking and whimpering in the dead of the night. Already her soul withered, diminishing into little more than this vampiric craving.
But how could she free herself from him? They were married—only a year ago, in a lavish affair for which she’d spared no expenses, because she wanted the whole world to know that she was the one he’d chosen, above all others.
Thunder boomed as if an artillery battle raged in the streets outside. Inside the house everything was silent and still. Not a single creak came from the stairs or the chamber that adjoined hers—she never heard any sounds from him anymore. The darkness smothered her.
She shook her head. If she didn’t think about it—if she worked until she was exhausted every day—she could pretend that her marriage wasn’t a complete disaster.
But it was. A complete disaster.
One small lie—This marriage has never been consummated—would free them both.
Then she could walk away from him, from the wreckage of the greatest and only gamble of her life. Then she could forget that she’d been mired in an unrequited love as unwholesome as any malarial swamp on the Subcontinent. Then she could breathe again.
No, she couldn’t. She could never leave him. When he smiled at her, she walked on rose petals. The one time she’d allowed him to kiss her, for days afterward everything had tasted of milk and honey.
If she asked for and received an annulment, he would marry someone else, and she would be his wife and the mother of his children, not Bryony, forgotten and unlamented.
She did not want him to forget her. She would endure anything to hold on to him.
She could not stand this desperate, sniveling creature she’d become.
She loved him.
She hated both him and herself.
She hugged her shoulders tight, rocked back and forth, and stared into shadows that would not dispel.
She was still sitting up in bed, her arms wrapped around her knees, rocking and staring, when her maid came in the morning. Molly went about the room, opening curtains and shutters, letting in the day.
She poured Bryony’s tea, approached the bed, and dropped the tray. Something shattered loudly.
“Oh, missus. Your hair. Your hair!”
Bryony looked up dumbly. Molly rushed about the room and returned with a hand mirror. “Look, missus. Look.”
Bryony thought she looked almost tolerable for someone who hadn’t slept in three days. Then she saw the streak in her hair, two inches wide and white as washing soda.
The mirror fell from her hands.
“I’ll get some nitrate of silver and make a dye,” Molly said. “No one will even notice.”
“No, no nitrate of silver,” Bryony said mechanically. “It’s harmful.”
“Some sulphate of iron then. Or I could mix henna with some ammonia, but I don’t know if that will be—”
“Yes, you may go prepare it,” said Bryony.
When Molly was gone she picked up the mirror again. She looked strange and strangely vulnerable—the desolation she’d kept carefully hidden made manifest by the translucent fragility of her white hair. And she had no one to blame. She’d done this to herself, with her relentless need, her delusions, her willingness to gamble it all for a mythical fulfillment conjured by her fevered mind.
She set aside the mirror, wrapped her arms about her knees, and resumed her rocking—she had a few minutes before Molly rushed back with the hair dye, before she must arrange a meeting with him to calmly and rationally discuss the dissolution of their marriage.
Leo, she permitted herself this one last indulgence, a widow at her husband’s grave, sobbing his name in vain. Leo. Leo. Leo.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way, Leo. It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
Near Chitral, Northwest Frontier, India
The white streak was a gash of barrenness against the rich deep black of her hair. It started at the edge of her forehead, just to the right of center, swept straight down the back of her head, and twisted through her chignon in a striking—and eerie—arabesque.
It invoked an odd reaction in him. Not pity; he would no more pity her than he would pity the lone Himalayan wolf. And not affection; she’d put an end to that with her frigidity, in heart and body. An echo of some sort then, memories of old hopes from more innocent days.
She’d finished washing her hands minutes ago, but she hadn’t moved from the edge of the stream. Instead she’d picked up a twig to traced random patterns in the swift-flowing, aquamarine water.
Beyond the stream fields of wheat glinted a thick, bright green in the narrow alluvial plain. Small, rectangular houses of wood and stacked stone piled one on top of another, like a collection of weathered playing blocks. Behind the village, the ground rose quickly, a brief stratum of walnut and fruit trees before the slope butted up against austere crags that supported only dots of shrubs and an intrepid deodar or two.
“Bryony,” he said at last—he wasn’t sure how much longer he could remain standing.
She went still. The twig washed downstream, caught in a rock, then spun and floated free again.
So she hadn’t known that he was there. With her it was sometimes hard to tell. She was capable of a surpassing obliviousness. But he did not put it past her to deliberately ignore him in public. It had happened before.
She picked up the rubber gloves she’d worn during the caesarean section and began to wash the blood from them. “Mr.Marsden, how unexpected. What brings you to this part of the world?”
“Your father is ill. Your sister sent several cables to Leh, and when she received no response from you, she asked me to find you.”
She was still again. “What’s the matter with my father?”
“I don’t know the specifics. Lady Callista only said that doctors are not hopeful and that he wishes to see you.”
She rose and turned around at last.
At first glance, her face gave the impression of great tranquility and sweetness. Then one noticed the bleakness behind her eyes, as if she were a nun on the verge of losing her faith. When she spoke, however, all illusions of meek melancholy fled, for she had the most leave-me-alone voice he’d ever heard, not strident but stridently self-sufficient, and little concerned with anything that did not involve diseased flesh.
But she was silent this moment and reminded him of a churchyard stone angel that watched over the departed with a gentle, steady compassion.
“You believe Callista?” she asked, destroying the semblance.
She shook droplets of water from the gloves. “Unless you were dying in the autumn of ’95.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“She claimed you were. She said you were somewhere in the wastes of America, dying, and desperately wanted to see me one last time.”
“I see,” he said. “Does she make a habit of it?”
“Are you engaged to be married?”
“No,” he said. Though he should be. He knew a number of beautiful, affectionate young women, any one of whom would make him a warm, delightful spouse.
“According to her you are. And would gladly jilt the poor girl if I but give the command.” She did not look at him as she said this last, her eyes on the gloves, which she patted dry with a cloth. “I’m sorry that she dragged you into her schemes. And I’m much obliged to you for coming out this far—”
“But you’d rather I turned around and went back right away?”
Silence. “No, of course not. You’ll need to rest and re-provision.”
“And if I didn’t need to rest or re-provision?”
She did not answer, but bent down to stow the gloves and the drying cloth in her bag.
Weeks upon weeks of trekking across some of the most inhospitable terrains on Earth, sleeping on hard ground, eating what he could shoot and the occasional handful of wild berries, so he wouldn’t be weighed down by a train of coolies carrying the usual necessities deemed indispensable for a sahib’s travels—and this was her response.
One should never expect anything else from her.
“Even the boy who cried wolf was right about the wolf once,” he said. “Your father is more than sixty years old. Is it so unlikely for a man of his age to ail?”
She tightened the straps of her bag and buckled it shut. “It would be four months to go from here to England and back, on the off-chance that Callista might be telling the truth.”
“And if she is, you will regret not having gone.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
Her ambivalence toward most of Creation had once fascinated him. He’d thought her complicated and extraordinary. But no, she was merely cold and unfeeling.
“Chitral is one march away,” he said. “We can reach it tomorrow. We’ll need a day or two there for provision and coolies. Then we can start for Peshawar.”
She looked back at him, her expression unyielding. “I did not say I’d come.”
It was 370 miles from Gilgit, where he’d been peacefully minding his own business, to Leh, that much again back to Gilgit, then 220 miles from Gilgit to Chitral. For most of the way he’d done two marches a day, sometimes three. He’d lost a full stone in weight. And he hadn’t been this tired since Greenland.
“Suit yourself,” he said. “I’m leaving in the morning.”
DC: Is there a genre you haven’t tackled but would like to try?
ST: I tackle everything I like. So there are very few things that I like and haven’t tackled, but there are tons of things I’ve tried but haven’t finished. Somewhere on my hard-drive there are three science fiction romance partials, a two-thirds-there screenplay, a martial-art epic, and a Star Wars novel.
I also have an in-the-home-stretch contemporary romance that I call my waiting-for-Caitlin book. Caitlin is my editor. Whenever I’m waiting on her to get back to me about something, that’s the book I work on. I’m determined to finish it this year, right after I finished the current historical work-in-progress.
DC: What advice would you give to your younger self?
ST: To not have waited so long to chuck the “after I get published” rider. What I mean is that for a long time I used to postpone the rest of my life by saying I’ll do (insert heart’s desire) after I get published. LOL, now I’m published and I never do anything but type—I am a slow writer so deadlines, no matter how far out, are always breathing down my neck. I really should have lived it up back then!
DC: You have some terrific information about and pics of British India, where Not Quite a Husband takes place, on your website. Has that inspired a yearning in you to see it firsthand yourself?
ST: I have been to India—my husband is Indian—but not anywhere close to the foot of the Himalayas, where most of Not Quite a Husband takes place. I would love to see that part of the world, so incredibly rugged and beautiful. And ride the bus that rattles the whole length of the Korakoram Highway from Peshawar all the way to Kashgar in the very far west of China.
But only after the troubles die down and peace and prosperity return. And even then my mother might not let me!
DC: If you had never become an author, what do you think you would be doing right now?
ST: I have no idea what I would be doing now, but I do know that I would have liked to become a diplomat. Not that I have any particular finesse or international negotiation skills, but I love wearing cocktail dresses and I love eating hors d’oeuvres. Embassy parties, anyone?
Actually, you know what? I should have been an ambassador’s wife. Then I can write all day, and eat hors d’oeuvres in my cocktail dress all night!
DC: What’s next for Sherry Thomas?
ST: What is next for Sherry Thomas is certain humiliation. I’ve been telling people left and right that I am writing my own version of Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible, except without anything to do with Egypt. Well, guess what? I finally got around to re-reading Mr. Impossible and that book is pretty much perfect. I might as well have said I’m writing my own Hamlet, lol.
On the other hand, reading Mr. Impossible makes me impossibly happy. I love it when a romance really is all that.
– dark or milk chocolate? – Mild dark chocolate. I used to think I loved dark chocolate until I had the70%-pure sort. I totally cried uncle and ran back to milk chocolate for a while.
– smooth or chunky peanut butter? – Smooth.
– heels or flats? – Flats for everyday. Heels for RWA Nationals.
– coffee or tea? – Tea.
– summer or winter? – Spring and autumn.
– mountains or beach? – Mountains that rise from the ocean, beach optional.
– mustard or mayonnaise? – Mayonnaise. I was once gently escorted away from the salad bar in my high school’s cafeteria because I was loading my burger with so much mayonnaise.
– flowers or candy? – Cake.
– pockets or purse? – Pockets.
– Pepsi or Coke? – Italian soda.
– ebook or print? – Print, but only because I will not be able to keep track of an e-reader.
And because they’re still fun:
1. What is your favorite word? – “Totally”
2. What is your least favorite word? – “Vagina,” followed closely by “penis.”
3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – Peace of mind.
4. What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – Lack of peace of mind.
5. What sound or noise do you love? – Rain.
6. What sound or noise do you hate? – Metal scraping against anything.
7. What is your favorite curse word? – “Crap!”
8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – Advertising copywriter.
9. What profession would you not like to do? – Prostitution of any kind, literal or figurative.
10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Fresh hors d’oeuvres inside!” Or, if nobody ever eats in Heaven, then maybe, “Well done, my young Padawan.”
DC: Sherry, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today!