Sheila Athens’ debut novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE, releases October 14 from Montlake Romance.
Q: You had two careers prior to starting your writing journey. What took you so long?
A: Looking back, I’m not sure I know the answer to this question. There were signs along the way. I created character sketches for my Barbie dolls. I loved the creativity I found in Mr. Staley’s English class in high school. I thought at one point I’d major in sociology because I was so interested in how people interact with each other. As an adult, I had a recurring dream of standing in front of our crowd of people in an auditorium, knowing I had something important to tell them.
But I’m not sure why it took me so long to realize that my earlier dreams of being a journalist were really the misplaced longings of a romance writer.
I don’t know, however, that I would have had the confidence as a twenty-something to show my fiction to the world. I admire those who are barely out of their teens and have the chutzpa to share their work with others.
Q: The heroine in THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE works for an organization that gets those wrongly convicted out of prison using DNA evidence. Isn’t that kind of a dreary setting for a romance novel?
A: Yes, I know women read romance novels to escape reality, but in addition to love stories and HEAs, I have a huge passion for social justice. There are a lot of people in this world who don’t get a fair shot at things, either because of the color of their skin or the circumstances they’ve been thrust into or any number of other reasons. In THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE, the underdogs are the innocent people Gina’s organization tries to help.
Q: And one of her clients is the guy convicted of killing the hero’s mom?
A: How’s that for conflict?!? He witnessed his mother’s murderer running away from the scene, so he’s convinced the right guy was convicted. That makes it pretty inconvenient when he’s attracted to the woman who’s trying to get the convicted man out of prison.
Q: How many manuscripts did you write prior to selling THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE to Montlake?
A: Either four or five, depending on how you count the first manuscript, which was only 42,000 words. That was before I knew anything about what I was doing. Ha! Thank goodness for RWA, which taught me what I needed to know.
Q: How did you get your agent?
A: Once THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE (under a different title) became a finalist for the Golden Heart in 2013, I was able to query agents using “Golden Heart Finalist” in the subject line. One of my critique partners, Valerie Bowman, offered to introduce me to her agency, which was at the top of my list of desired agencies. That led to a series of quick submissions (first 50 pages, then the full manuscript) and an offer of representation from Jill Marsal of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.
But just because I got an agent didn’t mean I was home free. Jill put me through several rounds of revisions that made the story SO much stronger. I will forever be grateful for the improvements she encouraged me to make.
Q: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned while on your writing journey?
- That romance writers are the most generous group of people I’ve ever known. They welcome each other into the fold and help each other along the way.
- That a writer should embrace the stories she loves. My first writing group was a multi-genre group. They taught me a lot about the craft, but didn’t understand or embrace the romance genre. They wouldn’t be familiar with terms such as “the black moment” or “sexual tension” that are so much a part of the romance world. Once I discovered my local RWA chapter, I sought out other romance writers to critique with and I knew I’d found my home.
- Determine what the strengths of your writing are and capitalize on them. Determine what your weaknesses are and work your tail off to learn how to overcome them.
Q: Who are your favorite authors?
A: Since I write contemporary romance, that’s primarily what I read. My favorites are Kristan Higgins, Jill Shalvis, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Barbara O’Neal, Susan Wiggs, Laura Kaye, Ruthie Knox, Molly O’Keefe, and Robyn Carr. For non-romance, I love reading Jodi Picoult. I also read a YA, ELEANOR AND PARK by Rainbow Rowell, a few months ago that was FANASTIC.
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Sheila grew up in the Ozarks, vacillating between climbing trees, reading books and neurotically working toward straight A’s. Many years later—after marriage, two sons, a couple of careers, and a Master’s Degree—she discovered her first romance novel in the gift shop of a hotel when she was supposed to be networking with fellow conventioneers. Now, she’s got a bright red study filled with romance novels. She’s a creative lefty who loves quiet spaces and eccentric people. She’s lived in the coastal south for more than twenty-five years, but looks forward to one day moving to the serene mountaintop cabin she and her husband have built at the edge of a national forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains. For more information about her books, please visit www.SheilaAthens.com.