Q: When you first created Virgin River and started writing novels based there, did you have upcoming characters—like Leslie and Conner from Hidden Summit—in mind, or has that come since you created the town? How has the series evolved?
A: Most of the Virgin River novels have evolved out of the first. When I began I thought I was writing one novel. By the time I’d written 100 pages I knew there was potential for more. By 250 pages I realized that out of 9 marines in a squad that stayed tight, 5 were still single—including Jack and Preacher. It took me 4 books to settle 5 marines and then, since my readers weren’t ready to stop, I tapped into the Army with Luke Riordan, the first of 5 military Riordan brothers. Others have come along the way—friends, relatives, newcomers to the town. Virgin River is a large canvas—lots of people coming and going all the time.
Q: Even though you write contemporary romance novels, your Virgin River series takes on major issues. Hidden Summit deals with everything from Leslie’s drive to declare independence from her ex-husband to the witness protection program. And Redwood Bend addresses what it’s like for single parents who lose their spouses in war. How do you manage to keep real topics approachable in each book? And how do you decide which newsworthy topic you’re going to write about next?
A: First of all, the Virgin River novels are ‘real time’ novels—the books that were published in 2007 took place in 2007, with current world events as the backdrop to the story. The 2012 books take place in 2012—it’s easy to keep oriented that way.
We re-evaluate with every story—looking for those deeply emotional issues that challenge all women. They’re called women’s issues even though they belong to men and women—as an example, the widowed step-father who has inherited the step daughter from hell when his wife passed away. We—and by ‘we’ I mean the publishing team of agent, editor, anyone associated with the publication of these stories—discuss and consider these story platforms. These are the things my readers write to me about— losing a spouse, a child, medical issues, relationship problems from divorce and widowhood to reuniting with a lost lover. And, there’s always a significant romance added in. That’s the formula, if there is a formula—women’s fiction and romance in a very special setting.
Q: When you start a trilogy like Hidden Summit and the forthcoming Redwood Bend and Sunrise Point, do you have the plots of all three books worked out? Or does each novel take on a life of its own as you write?
A: I have an idea of the characters and plots to start with, but these stories tend to evolve and become much more complicated as I write. The characters begin with basic personality traits and back stories, but by the time I’ve finished a book, they’re much deeper, more interesting, more engaging. The beginning is a skeleton, the revision adds flesh to their bodies. The most intricate and entertaining parts of the story come later, on the fourth, fifth or sixth fine tuning re-write.
Q: You come from a military family—your husband was in the Air Force and your son is in the Army—and you often talk about the importance of the military in shaping you as a person. How has your experience with the military helped create Virgin River?
A: There are so many ways—so many answers. First of all, try to find a person who has no connection to the military, who has not been affected, whether in peacetime or war. Try to find a person with no relative, neighbor, friend who has not been directly impacted by their relationships to men and women who stand the watch. Hard to do. When I was in high school a very close friend’s brother was killed in Vietnam and I went to the funeral—I was 16. Four years later I married my high school sweetheart right before he left for Officer’s Training—he had a low draft number and it was either go to Air Force flight school or be drafted. My story is not unique.
Second, the military is a special community of support; they care for the needs of each other in a way it’s hard to replicate anywhere else in society. When young soldiers deploy, the families they leave behind struggle—emotionally, financially, psychologically—and it’s their war too! They have each other, and believe me, that’s essential to their survival. Reinventing that in a small town that happens to be populated by men who have served and know the importance of commitment and support—it is recognized by so many who have come from those military roots. It’s appreciated by those who have been near such situations even if they’re not directly related to or descended from them.
Q: You write a lot of strong women, but they all go through some sort of character evolution in Virgin River. What is it about the town that helps people discover their best selves?
A: Every woman faces the challenges Virgin River women face! That’s why the readers relate and write to me about their own issues. They don’t all have breast cancer or widowhood or domestic battery to deal with, but they all relate personally. If it’s not the reader who has had these experiences, it’s the reader’s sister or cousin or neighbor or co-worker. And the things that get women through crises like these are professional help, friendship, opportunity, understanding, education and no small amount of love. It’s all there—there is Mel Sheridan, a women’s medical practitioner, Jerry—the psychologist one town over, Jack and Preacher, marines who have seen it all and are wise to the casualties of war, Noah Kincaid, a minister with a wide view of spiritual faith and the world, and dozens of willing friends and neighbors.