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The Shelf Care Interview: Irene Hannon

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Revell.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Susan Maguire talks to Irene Hannon, best-selling, RITA award-winning author who has written more than 50 romantic suspense, contemporary romance, and women’s fiction novels. Her books have appeared on multiple best-seller lists, and three-and-a-half-million copies of her books have been sold worldwide and translated into multiple languages. So, you know, she’s kind of a big deal.

Dark Ambitions, the final book in the Code of Honor trilogy, was released by Revell in October.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

SUSAN MAGUIRE: Thank you for joining me, Irene Hannon.

IRENE HANNON: It’s my pleasure.

So let’s talk about Dark Ambitions. Can you tell me a little bit about the Code of Honor series and about this latest book?

I should start out by telling listeners that, when people hear “series,” they usually think, well, okay, this is the third book in the series . . . I can’t possibly read that. But I don’t do my series that way.

The Code of Honor series features three childhood friends whose link and whose bond has been shaped through the years and through danger. So each of the books in the series features a different member of this little group of friends, and every book stands alone. There are no hanging plot threads, so anybody can pick one up at any point and read it. So if you’re just joining my books, or you’re reading one of my books for the first time, you can just jump right in.

This book is, as you said, the third book in the series, and it features a former army night stalker named Rick Jordan, who has left the military behind, and he now runs a camp for foster children. He comes home to the camp one day in the winter when it’s deserted and he finds a trail of blood. It doesn’t take him too long to figure out who left the trail, but what he doesn’t know is why was this person bleeding and where have they gone?

So he turns to our heroine, Heather Shields, who is a private investigator, and enlists her help to unravel this mystery. They work together to begin to track down all of these apparently disparate threads that ultimately weave together to create a very complex scenario.

The further they get into this web of intrigue, the more the danger ratchets up because someone in this book who has, as the title suggests, dark ambitions, does not want certain secrets revealed and will really stop at nothing to achieve their goals.

It’s a build toward a very, very suspenseful climax, and in fact, one of the early reviewers of this book said, “the ending spins perfectly out of control.” I think that’s what happens with this book. I think readers will be very surprised at how the whole thing works out.

Yeah, when I was reading it . . . I wish you could see the notes I was writing in the margin. I’d say, “Oh, this guy is definitely the villain. Oh, this person’s absolutely the villain. No wait. This person is definitely the villain.” So you definitely keep the readers on their toes.

Yes. There are a number of characters in this book who are very strong potential villains. What I like to do in all of my books, I always take readers into the point of view of both the hero and heroine, but I also delve into the points of view of multiple characters, including the villain. I think it just ratchets up the suspense for the reader to be taken inside the head of people whose thinking the hero and heroine are not privy to. So I think it’s a very good device and I do like that psychological deep dive into characters.

I want to ask you a question about romantic suspense. Those two genres are so different that combining them together seems so hard. With suspense, you’ve got a breakneck pace and high-intensity danger. But then with a romance story line, it’s differently intense maybe, as they’re getting to know each other, and it’s a little bit gentler. Do you have a trick to how you make those two work together?

It is an interesting combination because they are different genres, and I write in both. I also write contemporary romance, as you noted in my introduction. So when you combine the romance with the suspense, it’s a little bit tricky because you never want the suspense to lag. Certainly, I think, in my books, the majority of the time the suspense is pretty front and center, but you’re trying at the same time to weave in this growing relationship between the hero and heroine.

But I think that’s one of the differences. When people hear suspense, some immediately think of an action-adventure book, where there’s constant physical danger on every page that juices the reader’s adrenaline. That, to me, is not really as suspenseful as a book that has a little bit of a slower build toward a deadly showdown where you have these occasional peaks of action. Then, in between those peaks, you have a chance then to let the readers see this developing relationship.

It slows the book down just a little bit, gives the reader a chance to take a deep breath after they get past one exciting incident, learn a little bit about the characters, and then we crest to another incident. It’s the difference between an Alfred Hitchcock, like North by Northwest, and a James Bond movie. They’re both suspenseful, but they just do it a little bit differently.

Book cover of Dark Ambitions by Irene Hannon

You’ve written 50-plus books, so I imagine there’s more than one answer to this question, but what inspires your writing?

Oh goodness.

Is that a broad enough question?

Very broad question. I’ve been at this so long. By inspired, do you mean what makes me sit down every day and write, or what inspires me for a particular book?

Yes. When I say what inspires you, I mean where do you get the energy or the, I don’t know, magic or whatever, where you have a story that you have to tell? Where does that come from?

I actually had that question a number of times in different speaking engagements and interviews, and I’m one of these people who believes that writing and the ability to tell stories is really a gift. It’s something you’re born with and it’s almost a compulsion. My husband, for example, he’s a wonderful artist, and I could take art lessons my whole life and every time I draw a person, it would look like a stick figure. I just can’t, I don’t have that talent. I think writing is the same.

It’s a gift, as I said. It’s also a compulsion that just makes you want to use language to create these vivid characters and these vivid stories. I have written for as long as I can remember. As soon as I learned how to put words together, I was writing something.

In my background academically, I have a master’s degree in journalism. So even in that sense, I was always writing. But in terms of what makes you sit down every day at the computer on days when you don’t feel like it . . . there was an author, and I can’t recall his name, but someone asked him that question once. They said, “Do you wait until you’re inspired to write?” I loved his answer. He said, “Yes. I always wait until I’m inspired, but I make sure I’m inspired every morning at nine o’clock.” When you’re a professional writer—and this is what I do for a living, this is my job—that’s what you do. You sit down. Some days the words come easier than others, but they always come, and as, I think it was Nora Roberts said, “You can always fix a bad page. You can’t fix a blank page.” So that’s what you do if you’re a professional writer.

I already mentioned your swoon-worthy heroes. Where do the characters come from? Are they inspired by people you know? Do they come to you in a dream?

No, I think the characters that I write about are compilations of people I’ve met, people I’ve read about, whatever. My undergraduate degree is in psychology, so I’ve always had this fascination with what makes people tick. So some of it is based on what I’ve seen, some of it is created, some of it is—how would a person in this situation react? That’s where you have to delve into your own psyche and try to figure it out. But the characters come to me as the story develops and they just are the people who were supposed to be in the book. I can’t describe it any better than that.

Well, you can’t give away all your secrets, I guess. There’s something that not everybody has, the Irene Hannon ability to write more than 50 couples.

Well, if you look at the romance aspect of it, I look among all my friends and family, every single romance is different. So you really never run out of ideas for how to create interesting and compelling stories about the relationship between a man and a woman. Every story is different.

I love that. There’s so many different ways to get to that happily ever after.

Absolutely. Absolutely. There are always challenges to overcome along the way, and that’s as true in real life as it is in books.

Amen to that. So because this is Booklist and we’re part of the American Library Association, I have to ask you a library question. Have libraries played a role in your reading or your writing life from when you were a kid or now?

Oh, libraries were my life when I was a young person. I should tell you a couple of really quick stories. When I was probably 10, I guess, or 11, whenever I discovered Nancy Drew—who fueled my interest in romantic suspense—I lived within walking distance of our library. I found Nancy Drew and I went to the library and I would get whatever the limit was, maybe six books or whatever, and I’d bring them home and I’d sit under the tree—we lived with my grandfather—in the backyard and I would devour the books. By the next day or two days later, I was done. So I would go back and I get six more. Well, I did this for about four days in a row. Finally, I took a bunch of books back, and the librarian looked at me and said, “You can’t possibly have read all these books in 24, 48 hours. Why don’t you take these home and bring them back in a few days?”

I was devastated. I went home, and I told my mother, “I read all these books, I want more books.” So she called the library and said, “My daughter is reading these books. I will vouch for her. Please give her books.” So they did.

But the caveat or the sequel to that story is that when I became older, I ended up getting a part-time job at that same library, and I worked with the woman who I had had that encounter with, and we had a great laugh about it at that time. In fact, I worked at the library all through high school and all through college and I loved it. How could you, as a writer and a lover of words, not love working in a library? So I have very, very fond memories of and feelings toward libraries.

Since you’ve just outed yourself as a fast-reading book person, when you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

There isn’t much time when I’m not writing because I’m doing two major books every year. So I am pretty busy with the writing end of this. When I do read, I read pretty eclectically. I read across genres. People say, who’s your favorite author? I don’t have a favorite author.

I’d never ask you to choose. That’s cruel.

Well, I love many different authors and, like I said, I read across genres. Typically, when I read, interestingly enough, I don’t always read suspense because my books are very intense and can get pretty, pretty dark with some of these villains. So when I’m not writing suspense, I tend to gravitate more toward women’s fiction.

Irene Hannon, thank you for answering my intrusive book questions. I really appreciate it. I very much enjoyed reading Dark Ambitions and I can’t wait to read more from you. It sounds like you probably have about 15 million more in the pipeline.

There are definitely more coming. I have a new series that will debut next fall, and then I have a continuing series set in my fictional town of Hope Harbor on the Oregon coast, which is my contemporary romance series. I think we’re coming out with book six next year, so that will continue as well.

That’s great.

Plenty more books coming.

I was going to say a lot to look forward to. Well, thank you so much for chatting with me and thank you everyone for listening to the Shelf Care Interview.

This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Revell, publisher of Irene Hannon’s Dark Ambitions, available now. Happy reading!

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