Hello and welcome to my blog, Author Interviews. My name is Fiona Mcvie.
Let’s get you introduced to everyone, shall we? Tell us your name. What is your age?
My name is Sally Berneathy. That’s my real name, my birth name. It’s three syllables long, hard to spell, hard to pronounce, and hard to remember. So why did I decide to use it instead of an easier pseudonym when I began publishing mysteries in 2011? Of course there’s a story! When I wrote for Harlequin/Silhouette and other traditional publishers in the ‘90s, I used a pseudonym or my married name…Sally Steward. It took me three long years to divorce Mr. Steward. I was so thrilled to get my real name back, I had to use it. The good news is…I’m the only Sally Berneathy out there!
Fiona: Where are you from?
I was born and raised in McAlester, Oklahoma, a small town in southeastern Oklahoma in the foothills of the Kiamichi Mountains. I got to Texas as soon as I could, having heard from my Texas mother how much bigger and better everything was down there. I lived in Dallas until I married Mr. Steward and moved to Kansas City. I always thought Dallas winters were too long and too cold. I am not fond of the weather in Kansas City, but my friends are here now.
Fiona: A little about yourself (ie, your education, family life, etc.).
After going to night school for 18 years, I accidentally graduated. (There’s a story there.) I have a BA in literature, one of the least marketable degrees around.
I’ve been a legal secretary, a paralegal, a real estate salesman, a writer for FEMA, a computer programmer, and a novelist. I prefer to think of myself as multi-talented instead of flaky. Writing books is the most fun career I’ve ever had, and it’s by far the hardest.
During my childhood, our favorite entertainment on summer evenings was to sit outside under the stars and tell stories. When I went to bed at night, instead of a lullaby, I got a story. That could be because everybody in my family sings like a bullfrog with laryngitis, but they sure could tell stories. I listened in awe as my mother, father, aunt and uncle told stories.
This story-telling gene goes back at least one more generation that I know of. My paternal grandfather died 4 years before I was born. But I know him from all the family stories. He was a larger than life red-headed, red-bearded Irishman. He lived in Louisiana at a time when political rallies were the primary entertainment. He would drive his flat-bed wagon pulled by a team of mules to the back of a gathering crowd. When everybody was gathered and before the political speaker took the stage, Granddad would stand up in his wagon and start “spinning yarns.” He had the crowd. The political speaker had to wait until Granddad finished his performance.
I was in the third grade when I took my first official stab at being a story teller. We had to do book reports, take a living, breathing book and tear it down to bare bones then analyze the skeleton. I hated that,so I decided to write my own story. My teacher gave me an A and read my work to the class. They listened in awe, and suddenly I had become the storyteller. I was in awe of their awe.
I took a lot of literature classes in college because I love reading, but I didn’t like writing papers. Fortunately my professors would usually let me do something creative instead of a boring paper. Edgar Allan Poe is one of my favorite writers, but the idea of comparing and contrasting symbolism, allegory, and imagery in two of his short stories made me shudder. Instead I wrote The Case of Budweiser, a parody of The Cask of Amontillado.Although Poe doesn’t seem to be a humorous type guy, I like to believe he would have laughed had he read my work.
I took journalism and writing classes and won awards in both fields, published short stories and poetry in college and literary magazines, then sold a few “true confession” stories to magazines. That was another turning point. Somebody paid me money for my stories. What if I could make a living telling stories and entertaining others the way my family had entertained me on those long-ago summer evenings?
In 1988 I decided the time had come to write a best-selling novel. I never once questioned my ability to do that. The only question was what I should write about. I elected to follow the admonition, “Write what you know.” I’d been married three times. Surely that qualified me to write a romance.
I proceeded to write a compilation of typed pages. I cannot by any stretch of the imagination call that first effort a book. I knew how to write stories and articles, but I was clueless about writing a book. I did write a good enough query letter that an editor at Harlequin asked to see the completed manuscript. Shortly after I put it in the mail, I found a local chapter of Romance Writers of America. I joined the group and began a long, steep learning curve. Within a couple of weeks, I knew that pitiful excuse for a book was going to come back to me with a big red Reject stamp.
Actually, it wasn’t a Reject stamp. It was a very nice letter from the editor saying she’d be interested in reading other books I’d written. I learned from the other writers that this short letter contained a world of meaning. She liked my writing. She hated my book. If she’d liked anything about my book, she’d have sent me a Please revise and resubmit letter.
I destroyed all copies of that manuscript just in case, after I become famous, someone finds it. “Oh, look! One of her early books! We’ll publish it even if it’s awful!”
I wrote another book and sent it to that editor. She kept it for a little over two years. During that time, she called me periodically to tell me how much she liked it and that she was considering buying it. After the third call, I didn’t believe her anymore.
After three years of workshops and conferences, critique group meetings and lots of revisions, I finally sold my third book, a romantic comedy. The publisher, Meteor Kismet, went out of business shortly after publishing my book. I’m sure there’s no correlation between the two events.
Harlequin/Silhouette bought my fourth book and my editor (THE BEST editor in the world) sent me a six page revision letter. That continued my steep learning curve.
That book sold to Silhouette Shadows. Harlequin closed that line shortly after they published my book. Again, just a coincidence!
I wrote for Harlequin for seven more years, and my editor taught me an incredible amount about the craft of writing novels. And, by the way, the basic rules are the same whether you’re writing romance, sci fi, mystery…whatever.
After selling fifteen romance novels, I left the world of writing in 2001 and went to work as a computer programmer. A romance writer thrown in with a bunch of snooty nerds. I got so much grief! I told my co-workers that writing a book is similar to writing a program, but much harder. Of course they laughed at that idea. But it’s true. Computer code has specific rules, and if you follow them, the program works. One mistake and it doesn’t. You track down the mistake, fix it, and the program works.
Writing has a lot of rules but they’re not simple like: At the end of every “If” statement, you add “end if.” Writing has rules like…keep the pacing going. Make sure your characters have an arc. Select the right point of view for every scene. Strict rules, but rules that are much harder to define than being certain you increase your counter with every iteration in a do-while loop. And with a book, you never know if you got it right.
When I returned to writing in 2011, I’d been through my third divorce and realized I didn’t know squat about romance. “Write what you know.”
I know a lot about chocolate. At one time I wanted to open a chocolate shop featuring my favorite recipes.
And I believe I’ve created the best chocolate chip cookie in the world.
Of course, I also believed it was a good idea to marry my third husband. But that’s another story!
While I had made lots of chocolate recipes, I had never committed murder, but I had fantasized about it a lot during the marriage to #3. Had it not been for my fear that Gil Grissom of CSI would catch me, I might have been a widow instead of a divorcee.
Chocolate and murder.
My first mystery, Death by Chocolate, features a woman who owns a chocolate shop and has an ex-husband she fantasizes about killing. It’s a comedy.
E-books and Indie publishing had just made their debut, and I thought after my years with Harlequin/Silhouette and a couple of other traditional publishers, I knew all about publishing. Yes, that would be the same arrogance that made me write that first book. I chose to explore that route with my new books. 70% royalties as opposed to 6% royalty from traditional publishers, 2% for foreign translations. Who knew Australian was a foreign language?
And I get to choose my covers and my titles. One of my Silhouette romances which I called Pizza for Breakfastbecame An Improbable Wife. Huh?? My cover for Private Vows is supposed to be a hot detective saving a woman in a bridal gown but it looks like a vampire attacking a ghost.
I had a friend create a cover for Death by Chocolate. It was a terrible cover. Nevertheless, I put Death by Chocolate up on Amazon with that horrible cover and waited for the world to find it. I knew as much about self-publishing as I knew about romance. So the first book sat there selling around fifty copies a month.
Okay, maybe people didn’t want to read about chocolate and murder. Maybe I should start a new series about a different subject.
“Write what you know.”
I sat at my desk, thinking. I knew about computer programming and selling real estate and riding motorcycles and a bit about the practice of law. None of that sounded like the makings of a book.
My phone rang. My ex. After ten years, he was still stalking me. I looked at my phone and thought, “He’s never going to leave me alone. And he’s never going to die. And even if he did die, his ghost would come back and stalk me.”
My second series, The Ex Who Wouldn’t Die, features a motorcycle-riding heroine whose husband is killed in the middle of a prolonged divorce. His ghost returns and claims the divorce was never finalized so they’re still married. Another comedy.
I got a better cover for Death by Chocolate, and soon thereafter, Death by Chocolate and The Ex Who Wouldn’t Die became USA Today Bestsellers, so now I go back and forth between the series. Currently working on #5 in The Ex series.
I have another story about how I got into audiobooks and found my wonderful narrator, Sarianna Gregg. But I’m running a little long so perhaps I should save that story for the moment.
My books are light, humorous mysteries. They’re frivolous. No English lit teacher will ever assign her students to write a paper contrasting symbolism, allegory, and imagery inany of my books…because there isn’t any. You won’t find any hidden meanings, just a story.
Sometimes I wonder if I should be writing something more meaningful. But then I hear from a reader saying my humor helped her get through chemo or lifted her spirits after her mother’s death or just made her/him laugh.
I am living my dream. My full time job is telling stories that entertain and amuse others. I am carrying on my family tradition of being a storyteller.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news.
After publishing the seventh book in the Death by Chocolate series, I set the original Death by Chocolate book to “free” on all e-book sites. I am currently working on the fifth book in The Ex Who Wouldn’t Die (Charley’s Ghost) series.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
I was trapped in an abusive marriage. In my arrogance, I thought I could easily write a book, get a huge advance, and be able to run back to Texas and hide while I worked on my second bestseller.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
I don’t even remember the title for that first awful book. I’ve tried to put it out of my head! The first one that sold was Anything You Can Do. My hero and heroine are very competitive people.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style? Is there anything about your style or genre that you find particularly challenging?
I’m a pantser. This means I don’t know from one day to the next what’s going to happen to my characters or how the book will finally end. I can’t be a plotter or outliner. Every new scene must flow from the previous scene, so I don’t know what the next scene will be until after I’ve written the previous scene. Even after 26 books, it’s still a scary experience! I still worry that one day I won’t have any idea what happens next.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
Many of my characters have bits and pieces from various people. The plots are all fictional. But I have used my second husband’s third wife’s name in several books. Nothing good ever happens to her characters. Then there was the jerk who bumped into my three-month old car at a traffic light, went psycho on me, and told the cops I backed into his 20 year old junker. I put him in The Ex Who Conned a Psychic, shot him in the knee, and sent him to prison. Originally I shot him in both knees and let my heroine kick those wounded knees. My critique group thought that was a bit harsh, so I backed off to one knee and prison. I used his real name. Somebody asked me if I wasn’t afraid he’d read it and sue me. I laughed. “You’re so cute! You actually think the man can read?”
Fiona: To craft your works, do you have to travel? Before or during the process?
I suppose I don’t HAVE to travel, but going to all those conferences to learn better writing and make contacts is a lot of fun! And tax-deductible. I assure my accountant that I HAVE to travel.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
Alicia Honsa designed my early covers. She is fabulous. But she’s also a fabulous writer, and when her books started selling well, she quit doing cover art. I panicked…terrified I would not be able to replace her, but I was lucky enough to find another awesome cover designer, Cheryl Welch.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
It’s okay to fantasize about killing your ex-husband(s), but be careful who you tell your fantasizes to just in case he gets murdered and you get blamed.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest? Who is your favorite writer, and what is it about their work that really strikes you?
Julie Mulhern is a relatively new writer (Country Club Murders and Poppy Fields Adventures) who is amazing. She was a member of my critique group when she started writing The Deep End, and I was blown away by her talent. Her characters are members of the upper crust of society, something to which I cannot relate. But she writes about them in a way that makes them real and accessible.
Another author I admire is Caleb Pirtle III. He’s not really a new author in that he was a journalist for most of his life, but his entry into the fiction field is relatively new. He writes books about subjects I wouldn’t ordinarily read…like war and baseball…but I greedily inhale everything he writes. No matter the setting, he writes about people, and does it so well, I am always enthralled.
Fiona: Outside of family members, name one entity that supported your commitment to become a published author.
<Sounds of crickets chirping.>
Shortly after finishing my first horrible excuse for a book, I discovered a local chapter of Romance Writers of America. I joined that group and received enormous support and training.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
It is my current career. After getting past the first few stumbling blocks of being an Indie Author, things have been going quite well.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
That is a very dangerous question! For book 7 in the Death by Chocolate series (Guns, Wives and Chocolate), I decided to bring back a couple of characters from previous books…one from Murder, Lies and Chocolate, and one from The Great Chocolate Scam. It had been quite a while since I’d written those books, so I decided to read them again to get a feel for the characters. Immediately I realized Murder, Lies and Chocolate needed a complete overhaul. So I did revisions on that book. Discovered The Great Chocolate Scam was in equally bad shape! Long story short (okay, it may be too late for that), I revised the first 6 books in that series. If I read them again, I’m sure I would revise them again!
Fiona: Did you learn anything during the writing of your recent book?
I learned that I’ve learned a lot since writing my first Death by Chocolate book and that all those books needed to be revised!
Fiona: If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
Fiona: Any advice for other writers?
Never stop learning and improving your craft.
Fiona: Anything specific you want to tell your readers?
Live, laugh, love, read good books, eat lots of chocolate, and enjoy life.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
Funny you should ask. I’m reading Caleb Pirtle III’s A Rainy Night to Die. I just finished Julie Mulhern’s Fields’ Guide to Voodoo.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
No. My mother read all the traditional children’s books to me. As soon as I learned to read, I discovered the public library. A couple of the big names I remember are Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
Lots of things make me laugh. I often laugh at things people say that they didn’t intend to be funny. Then everybody looks at me strangely. So I laugh at them for not seeing the humor!
Fiona: Is there one person, past or present, you would love to meet? Why?
Dolly Parton. I admire her talent, her humor, her candor, her intelligence…everything about her. I think it would be such fun to chat with her. I think she and I have a lot in common. Okay, I’m tall and flat-chested and have red hair and can’t sing a note…but other than that….
Fiona: Do you have any hobbies?
Reading, of course. Riding my Harley. Hanging with friends.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
Big Bang Theory (I’m living with a real-life Sheldon), The Blacklist, The Rookie, Project Blue Book, Game of Thrones
Fiona: Favorite foods, colors, music?
I love all things chocolate. Also pizza, fried chicken, and Coke. Favorite color is purple, and favorite music is country.
Fiona: Imagine a future where you no longer write. What would you do?
NNOOOO! I refuse to imagine a terrible future like that! The Walking Dead looks good compared to that notion!
Fiona: You only have 24 hours to live how would you spend that time?
Eating chocolate and reading.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone?
She laughed and made others laugh.
Fiona: Do you have a blog or website readers can visit for updates, events and special offers?
My Sheldonesque boyfriend designed the website. 😊
Amazon author page: