Wendi Corsi Staub shares with us a little bit about her latest thriller, The Perfect Stranger, and her inspirations for writing her heroines.
My latest suspense novel, The Perfect Stranger, is the second in a trio of thrillers that are all connected not by characters or setting, but by theme: you never know who might be lurking behind a familiar online screen name. The Perfect Stranger is about a breast cancer survivor/blogger named Landry Wells, who finds kindred support and friendship online in a group of fellow bloggers who eventually become her closest confidantes. Now they meet in person for the first time at the funeral for one of their own, the victim of a random murder—or so they believed. Landry wonders if she shared too much online and if her killer is a fellow blogger who might be preparing to strike again.
This is the second time I’ve chosen to create a heroine who’s battled breast cancer, and it’s a bold and perhaps risky decision, I know. But the disease has ravaged my personal life, robbing me not just of my mom but of my mother-in-law and her sister. My sister-in-law and several of my closest friends are survivors.
The first time I set out to write my breast cancer heroine, I’d just lost her my mom—it was May of 2005, just after her 63rd birthday and Mother’s Day.
Throughout my career, I had managed to get past whatever was thrown at me. Nothing was impossible. At that time, I was juggling deadlines as usual, scheduled to finish writing an upbeat chick lit novel and a thriller—both due that summer. But suddenly, I was unable to focus. Instead of working, I ran away from home.
Well, not really.
I took my husband and my sons with me, and escaped. We traveled for two months that summer, meandering from place to place as I struggled to get over my loss so that I could get back to work. Even Disney World—the happiest place on earth—couldn’t make it entirely better, but it helped.
Back at home, I struggled again to finish the chick lit novel. I managed to do it, but then, instead of turning my attention to my other deadline, I felt compelled to write a proposal that I knew would be a difficult sell. Not because it was a Christmas time travel romance, but because Clara, the novel’s heroine, had breast cancer. The conventional view in the publishing industry is that breast cancer is too depressing—who wants to read about that?
I assured my agent that the book wasn’t depressing, it was uplifting. Clara’s character was inspired by my mom’s stalwart hope in the face of adversity. My agent was dubious—and surprised by my attitude.
She knew me well enough to know that I am too commercial and too busy a writer to waste my time on something that isn’t a sure thing. I was supposed to be writing a thriller that was already overdue, and I had never blown a deadline in my career.
What the heck was I doing?
I wondered the same thing myself.
But I listened to my instincts. This Christmas Time Travel was a book that I just had to write—even if only for me.
I didn’t realize it then, but writing isn’t just my passion or my job. It’s also my way of working through issues.
I sent the proposal—the first three chapters and an outline–to my agent just before Christmas. She wasn’t enthusiastic. Nothing had changed in the past couple of months; no one was lining up to buy books about heroines who had breast cancer.
My agent reminded me that business was all but completed for the month—the year, really. Most publishing houses close down the week between Christmas and New Year’s; no editor would consider it until January.
“I know,” I said, “but submit it anyway.”
Really, I was physically and emotionally spent. I had been possessed by that story I felt compelled to tell, and now that I had purged myself of it, I just wanted it off my plate. After the New Year, I told myself, I would get back down to business and write what I was supposed to be writing.
The next day, I flew with my husband and sons to my hometown to face our first Christmas without my mom. Walking into my childhood home, I felt emptiness, and I fell apart. Mom’s joyful spirit that always embodied the holidays was gone. Never again would there be a perfect gift chosen just for me out of maternal love.
But I’d been raised by a woman who believed in the impossible, and she taught me to believe in it, too.
Plus…Christmas is a season of miracles.
Minutes after I arrived, my cell phone rang.
It was my agent. “Are you sitting down?”
“An editor at Penguin read your proposal this morning. She said something made her want to read it right then. She loved it, and she tracked down the Editor in Chief on a ski slope somewhere to get permission to make you an offer.”
“They want it?” I asked, incredulous. “Yes, on one condition, and I’m not sure it’s possible—they want you to write the whole thing by the end of January so that they can publish it next December.”
Was it impossible to write an entire book—a time travel that demanded extensive research into another era–in four weeks?
What do you think? That book, If Only in My Dreams, was released the following Christmas to a barrage of terrific reviews and even some movie interest from Hollywood. It’s still in print, and Amazon Montlake picked up the digital rights last year. I even wrote a sequel, The Best Gift.
That first Christmas without my mom—the one I thought would be the first without a Christmas gift from her—actually turned out to be the one when I received my last, and most meaningful, Christmas gift from her. When I look back at how that book, If Only In My Dreams, came to be written, I know that it was my a heaven-sent gift from my mom.
This week, when The Perfect Stranger hits the shelves, I’ll proudly and boldly introduce my readers to breast cancer survivor Landry Wells, a heroine I hope they’ll welcome as warmly as they did Clara. Here’s to strong women facing and conquering challenges – both in fiction and in real life!
New York Times bestseller Wendy Corsi Staub is the award-winning author of more than seventy-five published novels and has sold more than four million books worldwide. Under her own name, Wendy achieved New York Times bestselling status with her single title psychological suspense novels. Those novels and the women’s fiction she writes under the pseudonym Wendy Markham also frequently appeared on the USA Today, Barnes and Noble Top Ten, and Bookscan bestseller lists.