Southern historical fiction author Steve Brown is in the spotlight today. A little backstory for our readers; Steve and I belong to the WNC Writers’ Guild, a group that meets on the second Thursday of every month, and we often engage in, um, how shall I put this, “friendly” discussions about the future of the publishing industry and what works best for an author today. Steve is what I lovingly refer to as a “dinosaur” and I feel duty-bound to drag him into the 21st century, whether he likes it or not. In all seriousness, I admire the fact that he can—and does!—sell a great many books “face to face” but I shudder at doing the same thing. In fact, I know I would be a miserable failure if I tried it so my hat’s off to him. That said, I’d be interested to know how our readers feel about his, um, rather outdated approach to sales. Okay, here we go…
Welcome, Steve! Tell us about your latest book, Charleston’s Lonely Heart Hotel.
Charleston’s Lonely Heart Hotel is the story of building of the first bridge across the Cooper River in Charleston. I affectionately call it “Grey’s Anatomy builds a bridge” because there are not enough hotel rooms for all the men who come to town to build the bridge. A woman living on South Battery Street opens her house up to several engineers who she puts in a row of beds in the downstairs reception hall. Well, nature abhors a vacuum, so the second floor of the mansion fills up with wives, girlfriends, and fiancées. The Great Cooper River Bridge was built during the Roaring Twenties. The book that follows is Charleston’s House of Stuart, set in 1930, after the stock market crash of 1929. There is a good bit of bootlegging lore in the story.
I’ve heard quite a bit about this book and I’m looking forward to reading it. Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?
Charleston on the Potomac is the third book following these same families who live south of Broad, in the same mansion on Charleston’s Battery. This third book deals with how South Carolina sent a man to the United States Senate, and for every one dollar the state of South Carolina sent to Washington, this South Carolina senator returned twenty-seven dollars back to his state.
Since these stories are about society, I spend most of my time writing about women and the changing rules of the game.
Okay, brace yourself everyone, here comes the topic that Steve and I often go round and round about! Steve, promotion is a big—and usually the most hated—part of being a writer. Can you share a little bit about how you promote?
I don’t believe in social media. Face to face is the only way to sell books, so I do book signings every weekend at Books-A-Million and Barnes and Noble.
Uh-huh, well, you know how I feel about that, Steve. I will grant you this, it all depends on what the author is most comfortable doing. Who or what has been the biggest influence in your writing career and why?
Jack Pyle and Taylor Reese. Fifteen years ago, they told me to stop waiting to be “discovered” and get out there and sell my books.
Having met Jack and Taylor (two of the founding members of our writing group), I agree with you, they’re an inspiration to everyone who meets them. What do you consider the single most satisfying aspect of being a writer?
That I have the opportunity to comment on society. For instance, a sixty-year-old woman says in the third book of the trilogy: “Back in my day, the family raised the children, not the federal government.”
I love that and it’s so true. Of course, back then, families didn’t expect the government to raise the children. I don’t know when that changed but I think that’s one of the areas where we need to go back to the old ways. Mark Twain said, “Southerners speak music…” Do you have a favorite southern saying you can share with our readers?
Two Southern girls watching a Yankee boy and his fiancee walk by. One belle turns to the other and says, “If I understand correctly, Yankee boys treat their women as equals.” The other belle is horrified. “Now why would they do that? Don’t they know that men were put on earth to serve women?”
I’ve never heard that one before but I have to admit, it made me smile. What are major themes or motifs in your work?
One of my editors told me that she loves my female characters because they have so many rules they have to get around. And sexism never goes away. It is a constant theme throughout all of my stories. As I have pointed out on more than one occasion, if you are writing about society, you really don’t spend a lot of time on men’s problems!
Ahem, this is another of our “friendly” topics of discussion so…I’m just going to move on. What is your VERB? (This is a big poster at a local mall) If you had to choose ONE verb that describes you and your behavior or attitude, what would it be?
Ruthlessly true to the historical record. I never shade anything for anyone, conservatives or liberals. And I never forget that a real man is an incomplete man.
Good choice! Fits you to a tee. Describe your writing process once you sit down to write and tell us where you get your ideas.
When I sit down to write, I always ask myself the two questions any reader asks when they open a new book: Where am I and do I want to be there? All readers ask that, and the answer to those two questions determines if the reader will read your story.
The ideas usually just pop in my head. I’ll be doing something else, usually driving along on my way to a book signing, and shazam! For example, I wanted to write a novel about building the first bridge over the Cooper River in Charleston, and at book signings I would talk about my next project. (That’s where I do my market research.) No one was interested until I mentioned that the bridge was built during the Roaring Twenties.
Well, I have to admit, that’s a great way to do market research. It takes you right to the heart of your readers and what they want to read. Did the classics have any effect on you in your formative years? (Shakespeare? Alice in Wonderland? Gulliver’s Travels?)
Nah. I read the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and the sci-fi novels of Andre Norton, and watched a lot of movies where I learned that the “presentation of the material was all important.” When I got to college, I read the Travis McGee novels of John D. McDonald, the Matt Helm stories by Donald Hamilton, the Desmond Bagley novels of suspense, and watched even more movies. When I was overseas in the service, I discovered Modesty Blaise who I thought was incredibly cool, and scary, for a girl, so I occasionally bring a tough broad like Modesty back to life in my stories.
Oh, wow, I hadn’t thought about McDonald’s Travis McGee novels in forever and a day. I used to love those and have no idea what made me quit reading them. How do your characters “come” to you? Are they based loosely or closely on people you know?
My characters are chosen by the historical record. If you write about the antebellum South, you must create a Yankee character who voices misgivings about slavery, and it’s better if that character is a woman because she is more heavily invested in Northern culture.
Yes, that’s the method my sister and I used, and continue to use, for the series of books about our great aunt’s life. Historical record, combined with family stories. It’s amazing to me when they converge. What’s your attitude toward the standard writing advice; write what you know?
Well, if that’s true, then I must think one hell of a lot about women. Carolina Girls, my most popular book, with over ten thousand in print, begins with four different seventeen-year old girls who go to the beach in the sixties. Well, I have been seventeen, but I’ve never been a girl nor did I EVER go to the beach until I was close to thirty.
I’ve read Carolina Girls and enjoyed it very much. For anyone who grew up in the sixties and early seventies, it’s a must read, an engaging trip down memory lane. Thanks so much for being with us today, Steve. I enjoyed it and hope you survived your foray into cyber-space!
Readers, if you’d like to find out more about Steve’s work, visit his website Chick Springs Publishing.