By Meredith Allard
Deborah Coonts is the author of the hilarious Las Vegas murder mysteryWanna Get Lucky?
Meredith Allard: At one time you made your living as a tax attorney, which seems like such a structured job, very different from the creativity of writing. How did you find your way from lawyer to writer? Is there any way that being a tax attorney helped you on your journey to becoming a published novelist?
Deborah Coonts: Sure, it taught me what I didn’t want to do. You know, if my mother had only told me that I could make stuff up for a living, she would have made life soooo much easier. I did corral a ton of discipline as an attorney. And, to be honest, while the practice of law may seem to lack a creative component, nothing could be further from the truth. Granted, as lawyers we better not make stuff up or we will find ourselves cooling our jets in the hoosegow, but a complex legal issue is nothing but a huge problem-solving exercise–much like putting together a romantic mystery. As for structured job v. the free-flow of ‘being your own boss,’ I never had to worry much about motivation. I learned at an early age, I’d better keep myself busy. Too much idle time….well, reform school would have been a possibility. So now, instead of homework or legal briefs taking my time, I occupy myself with stories….way more fun!
M.A.: I always laugh whenever I think about your line about becoming an overnight literary success after being a professional writer for fifteen years. It can be so easy for writers to become discouraged. What kept you going during those fifteen years? What did you learn about yourself during that time?
D.C.: Having been a lifelong reader, once I gave myself the challenge of trying to figure out how to write fiction, I was completely hooked. Playing with words and characters is my passion. Of course, when I announced this fact to my family, they were less than thrilled. Leave it to me to pick a career path that had little hope of actually turning into a viable means of support. My personality is such that when I latch onto something, I’m a bit like a tick on a dog. I wanted to see if I could eventually learn to write well enough for my own satisfaction–and I am probably my own worst critic. I have done so. No matter what sort of success or lack thereof Wanna Get Lucky? might find, I am proud of the story. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? While talent is critical in the writing world, I think persistence is even more so.
M.A.: As with other literary success stories, you had written other manuscripts prior to selling Wanna Get Lucky? to Tor-Forge. Why do you think Wanna Get Lucky? was the first manuscript you sold? What was different this time? Did you learn anything about the publishing industry that helped you finally succeed?
D.C.: I didn’t learn anything mind-boggling about the publishing industry that set loose my inner writer. I learned it about me. As beginning authors we all want to know what the rules are. We figure we can write to the rules and deliver a passably good story. That’s probably right. Unfortunately, New York rarely buys ‘passably good’ stories. They are looking for a well-crafted story, but also one with a uniqueness that differentiates it from the tens of thousands of other manuscripts heaped on overworked agents and editors every year.
So, what the heck does this mean? For me, it meant I had to discover what I write best, what resonates in my writer’s heart. Of course, it also helped when one editor asked me to tell him what my writing style was. “I write like Sandra Brown,” I replied, grossly exaggerating my talent. He shrugged and said, “We already have a Sandra Brown. What do we need another one for?” Bullet shot between the eyes. Sometimes the truth can be so obvious we overlook it. So, I went home, threw out all the rules, uncorked the essence of Deborah Coonts,and let it fly. In writing from the heart, I found my home as a writer. And I dared to make my heroine a smart-ass, her suitor a female impersonator, her mother a madam, her father absent and unknown…well, you get the idea. So, break some rules. Don’t write about something you know, don’t write in the genre you like to read necessarily. As a writer before me once said, write something you can imagine…..
M.A.: You’ve talked about rules writers can break and others we should follow. Which rules are okay to break? Which ones should we follow? How did breaking some of the rules help you find success with Wanna Get Lucky?
D.C.: In Lucky, I tried something I had always been afraid to do–write funny. And, if that wasn’t enough, I felt I needed to tell the story in the first person. Both very tough for newbies…and I was still a newbie. I let my main character talk to the reader. I not only bend stereotypes, I stand them on their ears. One guy who read my book only gave it three stars because he didn’t think the stuff in the book could possibly be real. First of all, it IS fiction. But, it also is VEGAS–and the guy has no idea…. So, I cut loose. I found what I do best as a writer. And I trusted my gut and went with it. And, when I asked my publisher why he bought my book, that is exactly why he did. He said he loved Lucky. So, bend the rules to breaking. Write what is in your soul.
As for the rules that can’t be broken: Your story still needs to be a good story. It still needs to be well-told. Dialogue still needs to sound the way people actually talk. Backstory and description need to be kept to a minimum so the story races along. Other than that? Write!
M.A.: As I read (and loved) your novel, I had the feeling that you had fun writing Wanna Get Lucky? I live in Las Vegas, and I learned a lot about the inner workings of the Strip hotels by reading your book. What was your research process like? How did you come up with the idea for your novel? How did the city of Las Vegas itself become a character in your story?
D.C.: I love Vegas. I love the people who live here. I love the folks who come here to blow off some steam. I love the entertainers. It’s all a hoot. And that is what I wanted to write about, so Vegas actually became the first character in my story. Then I had to figure out a way to tell the story, and that’s where Lucky came into being. What better eyes to see Vegas through than the eyes of a young woman who also sees magic here, but whose job puts her on the front line everyday? As for the idea of my novel, well, I read about the happenings here and my mind just starts working away….My ex-husband used to say I had the most devious mind of anyone he knew. I’m not sure he meant that in a good way, but, as a writer, I was thrilled.
Research….ah yes. Suffice it to say I have a waiting list of women who want to accompany me on my jaunts. The ones who went to the male strip club with me have taken an oath of silence….
M.A.: Now that you have had your first novel published and working its way up the New York Times Bestseller List, is success what you thought it would be? Is it easier? Harder? What are you experiencing as a published author that you were not expecting?
D.C.: My life is much the same. I still have to carve out butt-in-chair time, although it is harder to do so now with more demands on my time. Being published is gratifying and thrilling, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals. I’m still the me I used to be, with my quirks, idiosyncrasies, and failings. My son still thinks its fine to have me in his life. My friends still love me in spite of myself. I still think being a mom is the greatest job in the world–writing will always be second, a close second perhaps (especially during those teenage years). I still love to write and think a day without a visit into the world of my stories is a less than fulfilling day. One thing I realized before I sold my first book really helped avoid some of the self-doubt that creeps in after you’ve actually sold the first book in a series–the “can I do it again?” doubt. After I finished Lucky–literally the next day–I sat down at the computer and typed Chapter One..and thus began Lucky Stiff, book two in the series. By the time I needed to meet with all the head honchos at Forge, I had delivered the second completed manuscript so they too knew I could do it again.
M.A.: Which authors influenced you as a writer?
D.C.: Oh my gosh, anyone who can write funny. Erma Bombeck, Prudence Macintosh (a Texan like myself), Carl Hiassen, Janet Evanovich. I LOVE to laugh. I think laughter makes all the difference.
M.A.: What are you working on now?
D.C.: I am working on book four in the Lucky series. The third one, So Damn Lucky, has been turned in and I’m slaving away on Lucky the Hard Way. Suffice it to say, life in Vegas doesn’t get any less zany, nor does Lucky’s personal life get any smoother.
M.A.: What advice can you give other writers?
D.C.: Write from the heart. Write every day. And stay the course–refuse to be denied.
Wanna Get Lucky? is available from amazon.com and bookstores near you.
Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.