Interview: Norah Wilson, author of ‘Every Breath She Takes’

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Sep 12, 2012 in Rat News | Subscribe

By Pamela Clare, USA TODAY

If you knew someone was going to be murdered, what would you do to stop it? That’s the dilemma Lauren Townsend, the heroine of Canadian author Norah Wilson’s romantic thriller Every Breath She Takes, faces. While Lauren grapples with that horrifying problem, here’s a puzzle for you: Every Breath She Takes is both Wilson’s latest release and her first published book — even though she is a veteran author with 11 titles to her name. Confused? Then join us as we sit down with Wilson and hear how stubbornness and a deep love of the written word led her down her own unique path from publishing traditionally to self-publishing and back again.

Pamela: You’ve been reading since your preschool years. What’s the very first book you remember reading?

Norah: Wow, that’s going back. (I won’t say how far!) The first book that made an impression on me was a children’s mystery of some kind. The title and author elude me, but I think it had the word “Dory” in the title. I remember because that in itself was news to me — that a dory was a boat! (Notwithstanding that I live in a Maritime province, my childhood was very much land-locked and the only boats I saw were canoes.)

Of course, “dory” was the first of many words whose meaning I deduced from the context. I went on to devour everything in the house, which was a real hodge-podge. My absolute favorites were the handful of Bomba, the Jungle Boy boys’ adventure books. Yes, those Tarzan knock-offs produced in the ’20s and ’30s under the Roy Rockwood pseudonym. Today, I would be appalled at how overtly racist they were, but as a child, I was in it for the adventure — jaguars and anacondas and wild peccaries and the boy who always triumphed over it all.

When I’d finished all the boys’ and girls’ books, I picked up my mother’s tame Harlequin romances and my father’s Westerns. That was my literary landscape, at least until I was old enough to walk from the school to the library to borrow my own books. Then it was Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series. Then I discovered Alistair MacLean’s books. Yes, I was a total tomboy. Well, until I discovered the racy Harlequin Presents in my teens …

Pamela: I bet those got your attention. You keep pet rats. Why rats? Is that a manifestation of your inner childhood tomboy?

Norah: I’m sorry to say my rats are all gone.

Pamela: Oh, no! So sorry!

Norah: We started with hamsters for the kids when they were very young, but hamsters are not ideal pets. They’re nocturnal, are cranky at being disturbed in the daytime, and tend to bite. So we graduated to rats, which are far more social and interactive and never bite. We started out with one rat, not realizing that they don’t do well as single pets and need to be part of a colony for their mental health. As it happened, the doe the pet store sold us was pregnant, and in short order delivered 12 babies. We kept two females — the start of our first colony — and the pet store took back the rest of the “bonus” rats. We quickly learned that females are subject to mammary tumors like you would not frickin’ believe. We had them spayed to try to slow down or prevent the tumors. Spaying a rat? Not cheap. When that colony was done, we switched to bucks, which we had neutered to improve their life expectancies. But with rats, they all have myco infections (Mycoplasma pulmonis) and they wind up needing lots of meds and heavy nursing care in the geriatric stage. I swear, I could probably have new stainless steel, energy-efficient appliances in my house with the money I’ve spent on the veterinary bills for the three to four rat colonies we’ve had. Now, with my kids grown and turning their attention outward, we came to a mutual agreement that we don’t have time to be good rat owners anymore.

And get this — mere days after euthanizing Ruth, the matriarch and last surviving member of our final colony, a stray cat found us. So we’re now very “normal” pet owners. One dog, one cat. But I will always have a soft spot for rats.

Pamela: Who knew keeping pet rats could be so involved? Although you were a voracious reader, it didn’t occur to you to try writing romance until you were in your 30s. What clicked for you to push you in that direction?

Norah: I don’t think my story is unique. After reading a couple of disappointing romances, I thought, “OMG, I could write a better romance than that!” So I set out to do just that.

What I discovered was that it took a whole helluva lot more writing skill than I had at the time to write even a crappy romance. My first efforts were truly, epically awful. I mean, I made every possible mistake. Heroine cataloging her features (including red hair and green eyes) in a mirror? Check. Hero with more internal monologue than Dr. Phil? Check. POV slippage? Check. Passive voice? Check. Characters who were so perfect, even I hated them? Check. No real conflict that couldn’t be overcome with a simple conversation? Check. And this despite having consumed thousands of romances and thinking I knew the “formula.” But I really didn’t understand story and I had no craft. Zip, zero, nada.

Well, let me tell you, I got schooled. I found critique partners who helped me spot my problem areas. I entered contests and got crucified. I read how-to books. (If you are at this very early stage, I recommend Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure, Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation Conflict and Gary Provost’s Make Your Words Work.) And after a decade-long apprenticeship, I started winning contests and actually sold.

Pamela: It’s not the easy feat people imagine it is, is it? What about your own background makes reading and writing romantic suspense in particular so rewarding?

Norah: I think it goes all the way back to reading Bomba and Alistair MacLean and Harlequin Presents. Mash them all up, and you’ve got romantic suspense/adventure.

I also worked for several years in a situation where we had a community police officer subletting an office within our building. I didn’t miss the opportunity to quiz the officer of the day about their jobs and experiences. Having worked in a law office, I also knew lots of lawyers and prosecutors. Those experiences inspired me to write the Serve and Protect series.

Pamela: Which is fantastic, by the way. You’ve been on quite a journey as an author from winning the 2003 New Voice in Romance contest with Lauren’s Eyes to discouragement with your first publisher to successful self-publishing to the release of Every Breath She Takes with Montlake. Were there times when you felt like giving up and finding something less frustrating to do with your creativity? What kept you going?

Norah: From the start, I totally knew that if I didn’t give up, I would eventually be published. Perseverance is at least as important as talent. And I was published. But as you allude, the experience was bittersweet. Lauren’s Eyes (which incidentally is the same book — albeit updated, revised, retitled — as my new Montlake release, Every Breath She Takes) was saddled with a very gorgeous but completely misleading cover featuring pastel colors and three fantasy-type horses which could have been unicorns but for the absence of the horns. The book, however, is a sensual, gritty romantic suspense with paranormal elements. Unfortunately, neither romantic suspense fans nor paranormal fans found it in numbers. It did earn out, but not by a huge margin. After that, my publisher just wouldn’t take another chance on me. Even though I had no say in that baffling cover, the book’s lackluster performance was now my baggage to carry. But as it turned out, all the rejections by the many New York publishers I queried turned out to be a blessing. In 2010, figuring I had nothing to lose by publishing the stories New York had already rejected, I jumped into the self-publishing arena. And in that first year, I earned probably four times as much money as I ever did with my mass market book.

What kept me going? Sheer stubbornness. I can remember only one time when I was seriously tempted to quit. It scared the H-E-double-hockey-sticks out of me. I mean, I was terrified on the most basic level. Being a writer wasn’t just what I did; it was what I was. If I gave it up, who would I be? That crisis came after writing Saving Grace and being unable to sell it. I truly thought that was the best book I could write. If that couldn’t sell, what was the point? Of course, once I pulled myself out of the funk, I went back to the keyboard and pounded out another book I thought was even better. And since then, I think every book I’ve written is better still. I’m still learning, still improving. And now, with the maturation of the self-publishing environment, that avenue is no longer just a consolation for writers who can’t sell to New York publishers. It’s a legitimate first choice. It’s a real, vibrant, viable way for authors to earn a decent living.

Pamela: It certainly is, and your Serve and Protect series has done very well. You have a very unique voice, in part because it’s very Canadian. Other aspects of your stories are distinctly Canadian, too. Help me figure this out here. What gives your books that Great White North feel? For one, there are differences between the U.S. and Canadian law enforcement system, right?

Norah: Great question, Pamela. A big part of it is definitely our different legal system. We have a lot of British hangovers. Actually, I think the British influence extends to my voice, as well. I don’t even recognize some of my turns of phrase as Briticisms until they’re pointed out to me, usually by American editors who aren’t familiar with them. I actually try to curb that somewhat to make the voice more palatable for the American audience while still staying true to the Canadian setting/legal system.

Pamela: I find the differences really interesting, including the Briticisms. Every Breath She Takes, as you said, was first published as Lauren’s Eyes, with the herd of hornless unicorns on the cover. There’s a story behind this story, isn’t there? What can you tell us about the path this novel has taken?

Norah: It has truly been the book that just wouldn’t die. It was the first manuscript of mine to final in Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart contest, and it later went on to win Dorchester’s New Voice in Romance contest, culminating in its publication by Dorchester in 2004. After its debut with that baffling pastel horsie cover, it sank like a stone. I was fortunate enough to get my rights reverted shortly before Dorchester’s problems became public, and Lauren’s Eyes became my first experiment in self-publishing. Once I discovered it wasn’t rocket science, I went on to self-publish most of my unsold catalog.

Then I got an e-mail from a representative of Montlake Romance with an offer for Lauren’s Eyes. Would I like to have Amazon’s publishing might behind me whilst still retaining a high degree of control over the story and (thank you, God!) the cover? Hell, yes! The story was rereleased on Sept. 4, under the title Every Breath She Takes and is now in the Top 100 in the romantic suspense category in the Kindle Store.

Pamela: How wonderful it must be to get a second shot with that story and to see things turning out so well now that you have more control and input into how the book is handled. Tell us about the story itself. It’s romantic suspense with a Canadian flare and a taste of paranormal.

Norah: I’ve told this story before, too. I was so discouraged by my inability to sell that I set out quite calculatingly to write a cowboy story. The conventional wisdom at the time was that cowboys, babies and brides sold. Since I knew I couldn’t write hearth and home stories, I opted for the cowboy, but decided he had to be a little edgy and there had to be some suspense/action/adventure. I also threw in the paranormal element for good measure. But the joke was on me. Despite its cynical beginnings, I totally fell in love with the characters and the story as I wrote it. I think that must resonate for readers.

Basically, I start with a heroine who has psychic visions of murders yet to happen. Viewed through the murderer’s eyes, she is rarely able to ID the murderer. Unfortunately, revealing those visions brought her nothing but pariah status for her family, and later cost her a fiancé. Apart from one believer on the local police force, she’s been conditioned by others’ reactions (particularly her family’s) to keep her visions to herself. When she sees a vision of a murder and the clues lead her to a guest ranch in the Alberta foothills, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Putting her veterinary practice on hold, she crosses the country to check herself in as a guest at the Foothills Ranch in hopes of preventing the murder. But things get complicated when she meets the ranch’s owner, Cal Taggart. Then they really get complicated when Cal’s ex-wife shows up and Lauren recognizes her as the murder victim from her vision.

Pamela: A very intense story! You also co-write hilarious Dix Dodd mysteries under the pseudonym N.L. Wilson with your writing partner, Heather Doherty. The two of you also write YA paranormal under the pseudonym Wilson Doherty. What inspired you to try these other subgenres? What do you enjoy about writing a book with another author?

Norah: On the face of it, I would have thought I am the last person who’d make a good candidate for joint writing. I tend to protect and shelter my ideas until the book is practically written. I seem constitutionally incapable of revealing the story at the tender early stage, before I’ve shored it up with all the craft I can muster. Yet when my friend Heather Doherty, who is published in literary, suggested we try writing a YA together, I was enthralled with the idea. And it’s worked out wonderfully. Heather supplies the raw imagination. She puts forward the idea, we bat it around and roughly plot it. With most of our books, she supplies the first draft impetus, and I come along afterward and reshape the clay. It’s been an incredible experience. With my solo stuff, I am a very slow writer. But paired with Heather, we can produce at a much faster pace because of the way our strengths complement each other. When Heather came up with the idea of the Dix Dodd cozy mysteries, she didn’t have to twist my arm very hard.

Why so many genres? Well, we started before self-publishing became viable. The diversification was a natural result of just trying to throw new and different stuff at the traditional publishing wall to see what might stick. But once you immerse yourself in those worlds, you just want to go back again and again. We’ve also written a dystopian romance together. That one is still in our agent’s hands.

Pamela: What’s next for you?

Norah: Oh, boy. I wish I knew the answer to that! I have several series on the go that I want to continue — my Serve and Protect series and the vampire romance series. I’m hoping Montlake will pick up the vampire romance series, actually. I am dying to write Eli’s story, which is the one readers most often say they want. I am also working on another romantic suspense proposal for Montlake. The idea started as a stand-alone, but it struck me that it would take very little effort to tie it in with the Serve and Protect series. And if I’ve learned anything from my publishing journey thus far, it’s that readers in general love series, and digital readers really love them.

My writing partner and I have a brand new Dix Dodd mystery (Death by Cuddle Club) in the can and three more mapped out. Our agent is currently shopping that to a few progressive publishers who offer good digital royalties. If that doesn’t pan out, we’re more than eager to self-publish them. We also have an amazing YA paranormal series that we’re planning to self-publish, beginning with Comes the Night (The Casters, Book 1) in the fall. We splashed out for some gorgeous Phat Puppy covers for all four books and are currently working with a developmental editor to make the stories the best they can be.

Pamela: I’ve seen the covers and they are drop-dead gorgeous. Truly amazing. That all sounds really exciting. Thanks for spending time with us today, Norah. Happy writing!

For more about Norah Wilson and her books, visit her website at

Pamela Clare is an award-winning journalist and nationally best-selling author of both historical romance and contemporary romantic suspense. She loves coffee, the Colorado mountains, and her two grown sons. Her website is

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