Susanne O'Leary Author Interview
by Kathryn Bax
I'm the Swedish-born, Irish-married author of more than twenty novels, mainly in the romantic fiction genre. I have also written four crime novels and two in the historical fiction genre. I have been the wife of a diplomat (still am), a fitness teacher and a translator. I now write full-time from either of two locations, a rambling house in County Tipperary, Ireland or a little cottage overlooking the Atlantic in Dingle, County Kerry. When I am not scaling the mountains of said counties, or keeping fit in the local gym, I keep writing, producing a book every six months.
Who is the real Susanne O’Leary?
You mean the naked truth about me? Hmm. Well, you could call me hyperactive, as I have to have at least two projects going at the same time. I love the great outdoors, but also love the occasional visit to a big city for a browse through the shops. I’m a bit of a fitness freak, with yoga, hillwalking, swimming and workouts always on the agenda. I’m very impatient and want everything to happen yesterday. Also impulsive and often jump in to do and say things I sometimes regret later. Love cooking, hate housework. Adore animals and small children. I’m a bookworm and also love a good tear-jerker on TV or in the cinema. Being Swedish, I love a real winter with snow and ice. Most of all, I love a good laugh and if someone tells me a really funny story or will engage me in some fun repartee, I love them forever. I don’t understand rudeness and will bust my gut to keep a promise. –And if I’m in a bad mood—take cover!
Your Swedish grandmother died at the ripe old age of 104. How much influence did she have on you growing up, as well as into adulthood, and what do you think was the secret to her old age?
My granny had a huge influence on me. She taught me not to complain about small things, to soldier on and keep going even when times are tough and you’re hurting like hell inside (easy to say, hard to do). In short, not to feel sorry for myself as there are always others worse off. The secret to her old age? Nobody really knows. But good genes (everyone in her family lived long lives) and the fact that she kept physically active long into a very old age might be a factor.
Being a diplomat’s wife has taken you to a number of different countries. Which has been your favourite country to live in and why? How much of your globe-trotting lifestyle has impacted on what and how you write?
My favourite country? France, without a doubt. I went to a French school in Stockholm, so France has always been part of my growing-up years. This gave me fluent French and a love of that country. But who wouldn’t love to live in Paris for four years? I adored it. Many of my books are set in France, mainly on the Riviera where we’ve spent so many wonderful holidays. But also in the Alps (Fresh Powder) and Paris (Duty-Free, Finding Margo). I set one of my books (Swedish for Beginners) in my native Stockholm and Australia, which was my first posting. The rest are set in Ireland, which I also love. My globetrotting life has given me a treasure trove of memories that I draw on for inspiration.
You started off writing non-fiction and then transitioned into novel writing. Did being a factual writer help or hinder this transition? What was the first novel you wrote?
My first novel was Diplomatic Incidents (re-published as an e-book with the title Duty Free). I hadn’t a clue how to write fiction when I started this book. The editor I had worked with on my non-fiction book suggested I should write ‘a fun novel’ based on my experiences. I’m sure the first draft was awful. One of the agents I submitted it to was kind enough to point out that it needed a few important things—like a plot. Sixteen drafts and many tears shed over rejections later, I finally got an offer from a publishing house in Ireland. I was lucky enough to be assigned a terrific editor, who taught me the basics of fiction writing. It took me another book before I found my ‘voice,’ but by then I was truly bitten by the writing bug.
You are one of those authors who has moved from being traditionally published to going solo. What was the catalyst for this decision and what challenges have you encountered? What happened to your book rights?
I had a marvellous agent who tried his best to get me a good offer during a time when the publishing business was going through the floor. He then suggested I’d try the e-book market and that I’d fire him (which was a very generous if somewhat strange thing to say). I uploaded the book I had just finished, along with my historical novel on Amazon. They started selling slowly at first, but then the sales improved and I discovered a whole new market. This was in 2010, when publishers had not yet discovered that e-books were the thing of the future, so I had no trouble getting my rights back for my four trad published books. My (by then ex-) agent told me to act quickly, before they knew what was going in, and he was right. They didn’t mind giving me the rights back, so I had four great books to add to my backlist. Self-publishing was a huge learning curve, and I’m still learning. But I’m glad I got in when it was relatively easy. It’s a whole new ballgame now.
Moving away from being a traditionally published author more than qualifies you to talk about the stigma that goes with being self-published. Did you notice a big difference to how people viewed and treated you? How much of that have you experienced and how have you managed to rise above it? Have you given any thought to being a hybrid writer?
I don’t like the word ‘stigma.’ Sounds like you’ve been damaged or hurt by something. Or that you carry a mark on you that others can see and shame you for. I shrug it off and usually say I eat stigma for breakfast. In fact, I have never experienced it in connection with self-publishing. I like the word ‘Indie’ a lot. It’s a proud name for something that is a huge challenge and takes a lot of guts and hard work. I don’t think my readers actually noticed that I started to publish my own work. Nobody has passed any comment, except looking quite impressed when I tell them what I do.
As a self-published author which part of the process, besides the writing, do you enjoy the most and how do you capitalise on this?
I love the actual production part, when you put together a book with the cover art, formatting, blurb and all that comes with it. It’s thrilling to see a new book out there.
Because your writing covers a diverse range of genres from literary fiction, chick lit, historical fiction and even a couple of detective novels, do you think your readers are confused when they expect your new book to be a particular genre, only to discover it isn’t? What feedback do you get from your readers on this subject?
I think I’m mostly known for my romantic comedies. But when I published my two historical novels (a fictional account of the life of my fascinating great-aunt Julia), my readers liked them a lot. As to the detective novels, the romantic fiction readers generally ignored them, but a lot of other people read them. It was fun to try other genres, but my first love is rom-com.
You took a big risk when creating the central character in Hot Property. Tell us about Paudie. What was the premise behind this move and to what can you attribute its success?
I wanted to set a novel in the stunning south west of Ireland. The characters, including Paudie, in Hot Property were completely fictional, so no real risk there. Setting the book in Kerry where we have a summer house was perhaps a little risky. But I changed the names of the village, the pub and other premises and never drew on real people for the characters, just the type of people you might find in that part of Ireland, and the way they speak.
I took the soul of the place, but left real people alone, so to speak. With regards to Paudie, I wanted to create a hero that wasn't your typical 'hero', but a real man who has real feelings and real weaknesses. I didn't want a cardboard cut-out of some kind of matinee idol. If that was taking a risk, it paid off big time. All my readers love him!
Talk us through the process of writing a book with another author. How does that work and what advantages and disadvantages come with co-writing books? What made you want to co-write in the first place?
I co-wrote the books as a fun idea and to try something different. My two Scandinavian detective stories were written with a script-writer friend who is also Swedish, and we worked out a method that suited us both.
The two Irish-American detective series were written with another author friend (based in Boston) who had written a crime novel on his own and now needed a little push to start writing again. This time we worked in tandem, each writing a chapter and then sending it back and forth, redlining any passages we wanted to change. A bit complicated, but it worked.
You usually write two books a year. This year you have written three. How do you manage to achieve such a feat? Tell us about your latest book.
By gluing my bum to the chair every morning at 7.30 and writing like mad for several hours. I bring my laptop with me everywhere and write at airports and on planes and trains.
I don’t plot beforehand, but write through to the end and then go back and revise. It takes me about four months to finish a 60K word novel, then a month or so to edit and proof together with an editor. It takes some discipline but I’m used to it by now.
What is planned for next year?
I’m going to write book #3 of the new Tipperary series and then I want to start a project I have been wanting to get into for a long time. It will be a stand-alone novel, twice the length of one of my rom-coms and it will be about a group of women who have led fascinating lives. I want to keep it a secret for now and reveal all when it’s finished. I think it might take the best part of a year to finish. But I might stick in a Christmas novella in the middle of that project, just to keep my readers happy.
The pristine blue waters and sun drenched shores of the French Riviera provide a stunning backdrop to the story of two women, Chantal and Flora, both struggling with the heartache of a lost love.