I’ve been struggling with this blog post over the last couple of weeks, trying to shape an idea into something constructive. What I wanted to do was write about acknowledgements pages, how writers use them in different ways, everything from recognizing those who inspired the work, to expressing gratitude and indebtedness, to name-dropping and humble-bragging. I got the idea because I’ve read a lot of acknowledgements pages lately looking for agents as I prepare to query my own novel. But whenever I started thinking about this acknowledgements thing, I’d come back to the story of one particular book on my shelf and I’d get stuck there, trying to somehow fit that in. That’s how this post went sideways and became about something else entirely.
My father died suddenly thirty three years ago this month. I was 17, the youngest of six kids. My mother was 61. She never dated again, never even had a companion. Fast-forward twenty-four years to 2006. I was working on a novel (since put aside) about siblings questioning the circumstances of their father’s mysterious death. My own siblings were mad that I’d cut this fictional O’Boy family from six kids down to three but my mother, who was an avid reader, didn’t care. At 85, she just wanted the book in her hands. But then she contracted pneumonia and, as the days she had left began to dwindle, I was so sad to realize she’d never see her daughter’s name on the cover of a book, something we’d both fantasized and talked about extensively.
And then I discovered He Loves Lucy by Susan Donovan. A blurb on the cover reads, “Susan Donovan is gonna be a star!” I brought the book to my mother’s hospital room. “I have a surprise for you,” I said, sweeping the book out from behind my back. Oh, watching her face change from confusion to wonder to awe. I’ll never forget it. I didn’t take credit for long, I swear. “No, mom. It’s not me. It’s another Susan Donovan. But this is what it will look like.” And I read to her from the book about what happens when “a junk food addict with a heart of gold meets a fitness buff with buns of steel.”
I kept He Loves Lucy on my bookshelf and vowed that, if I ever got published, I’d thank that other Susan Donovan for giving me a way to show my mom a possible future and for giving me the gift of seeing that pride on my mother’s face.
Maybe I got a little ahead of myself but I decided I’d get in touch with Susan Donovan for this acknowledgements post. Turns out, that other Susan and I have some things in common. She’s from a small town, studied journalism in college. She’s lived in Indiana and Maryland, like me. After she got married, she gave up her career to raise her children. But, unlike me, she never took a break from writing. In her bio, she writes that, when her kids started school, she wanted to “make a living writing novels.” She chose popular fiction, specifically romance, a market that accounts for about one-fifth of all adult book sales and generates over $1billion in annual sales. Since her first book came out in 2002, Susan has published a whopping six novellas and fifteen novels. Two more novels are slated for 2016. Her most recent, Moondance Beach, the last in the three-part Bayberry Island series, came out in September. She is also featured with other romance novelists in the documentary Love Between the Covers.
In 2011, the year I took my first writing class at GrubStreet, when I was jumpstarting the novel I’m now revising, the other Susan Donovan contracted a serious infection that took her leg and almost took her life. On her personal blog Unbalanced, she calls herself “the one-legged goddess of romance” and details her life as a woman, a mother, and a romance writer, always with honesty and humor. I asked Susan a few questions about her writing career and inspiration.
What was it like sharing your work with your mother?
SD: She let me know how very proud she was that I had accomplished my dream of becoming a published novelist. She was a voracious reader—especially British mysteries—and knew her way around a well-constructed story. So when she told me it was fabulous, it meant a lot to me. As far as the naughty parts went, my mom fanned her face and said, “Whoo-whee! I had to skim right over the sex scenes—at least twice!” My mom read every book and novella I ever wrote until she passed away in October 2013. I miss her terribly.
I’ve read about your infection and losing your leg and so admire your perseverance. What kept you going?
SD: Though I appreciate you asking, I prefer not to dwell on that aspect of my life. It’s not that it’s a secret—I’ve written a blog about it, after all—but it’s important to my continued forward motion that I don’t spend a lot of time whining about my sudden and unexplained illness. What kept me going? My kids. My loved ones. My work. My passion for life. Essentially, I had a simple choice to make in the aftermath of my illness: Would I give up or would I keep fighting? I decided to fight.
What were you working on when you got sick and how did your illness impact your writing?
SD: I was working on two novels at the time. Once my brain had healed enough to try writing again, I went back to the story over and over but couldn’t complete the book. I had to move on to other projects because it was just too maddening. Eventually, I realized the problem was that I wasn’t the same woman who had started writing that novel, and trying to go back to that place was traumatic. I had no choice but to start all over and write from my current state of mind.
Wait. So, did you write all three Bayberry novels after your 2011 illness?
SD: Yes. Since I couldn’t get back into the old books, I moved on to another series (and publisher.) I wrote a Bayberry novella and all three Bayberry novels after I got sick. During that time I also wrote a Christmas novella. Once I fulfilled those contracts, I went back to the old projects. (One novel has been submitted to the publisher and the other, co-written with a writing partner, is nearly complete. DD) So, in the 3 1/2 years since I got sick, I’ve written four novels and two novellas.
I’m guessing you have a lot of fans. What’s it like, knowing that people love what you do?
SD: I never take it for granted. Every single reader who has enjoyed my work is a blessing to me.
Now, this Susan Donovan have even more reasons to acknowledge the other Susan Donovan. I’ve learned in the last couple of weeks about courage and humor and living out loud. Maybe this is a little schmaltzy but, according to Romance Writers of America, a good romance has “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” So here it goes: Ten years after I first picked up He Loves Lucy, Susan Donovan has given me—and I hope other writers—inspiration to never give up on a dream. So thanks, other Susan Donovan. For everything.