New York Times bestselling author Brenda Novak is getting ready to release her latest novel Before We Were Strangers and we’re so excited to dive into a story of twisty thrills and family secrets. To celebrate this new release, we reached out to Brenda to learn more about the books she loves, the inspiration behind her book and her must-haves when writing.
What was the inspiration behind Before We Were Strangers?
I love to watch true crime. One night I was watching a show about a woman who had long suspected that her father had murdered her mother. Indeed, the remains of her mother were finally found – after something like forty years – in their own backyard. This made me think about how terrible it would be to doubt your own father, to fear him even though he was the one to raise you and to always wonder, in the back of your mind, if the story he tells about that night is really the truth. I imagined how hard that would be if you were a child when it took place so you had no power, no way to stand up to him and your feelings of doubt and fear were mixed up with love and gratitude. Talk about a complex conflict, but the bigger the conflict the more interested I am in writing the story. I couldn’t wait to explore what a child in that circumstance would be like as an adult – the responsibility she might feel to the mother she lost and how difficult it would be to betray her father by suspecting and accusing him, especially because he could just as easily be telling the truth, which would mean calling his story into question would destroy her relationship with him for nothing.
If you had to choose your favorite books of all time, what would they be and why?
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
I hated reading when I was first learning how, but in the fourth grade, they started taking us to the school library and requiring us to pick and read one book per week. I wasn’t eager to do this, but I cared a great deal about my grades, so I forced myself to obey – and that was when I discovered a shelf of books that absolutely captivated me. It was the classics and that first book was Jane Eyre. I devoured it and couldn’t wait to go back to get the next one, which was The Secret Garden – and from there, another and another. Jane Eyre was actually the reason I started out writing historical romance.
My next major reading discovery was Kathleen Woodiwiss’s work when I was a young teen. Come Love a Stranger, A Rose in Winter, Shanna, The Wolf and the Dove and The Flame and the Flower were my favorites during that time of my life, so I’m going to cheat a little and group those all together. These books really appealed to the romantic in me and completely swept me away.
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
I love nothing more than a big, sweeping family saga, especially one with a historical setting. And the conflict between Meggie and Father Ralph was just so strong and poignant, wasn’t it?
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
I’ve read this book many times, but I have never read the last five pages. I refuse to “live through” Rhett walking out on Scarlett. You can tell I like happily-ever-afters. I choose to believe she finally wised up. But as far as I’m concerned, the level of characterization in this novel is truly unparalleled. And the backdrop and setting are so rich.
Other books Brenda loves:
The Clan of the Cave Bear is another all-time favorite. That book was so unusual and opened my eyes to a world I hadn’t ever even imagined. Or maybe I should use my last slot for another saga – James Clavell’s Shogun. But Eye of the Needle stands out in my memory as one of the best spy novels of all time, so I’d hate to leave that out. The Alienist is on my keeper shelf, too, which is wildly different from anything I’ve listed so far. And then there’s The Nightingale, which I read not too long ago and truly loved (found myself weeping in the airport as I read the ending). Although, if I’m thinking of lighter reads, I’d have to say Heaven, Texas by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.
Which authors do you admire most?
Diana Gabaldon. I didn’t name Outlander as one of my favorite books of all time, but I certainly could have. Diana’s series is just what I love – it’s epic and sweeping and rife with fabulous characters and plenty of drama. I also really like how she comes off as a person. I stood in line to get a book signed by her at the LA Times Book Festival. Her time was almost up and the line was still miles long, but her spokesperson came out to assure everyone that she would stay as long as it took to get to everyone. She also donated to my online auction for diabetes research every year, even after she became very, very popular and there were so many more demands on her time, which was so generous of her. She’s just a class act, someone I will always admire.
Catherine Coulter. Catherine lives not too far from me and hosts an author luncheon four times a year. I love going to those. She’s a talented writer, a gracious person and someone who just seems to have it all together. She is also extremely generous, and I’m grateful to her, too, for the many “Lunch with Catherine Coulter” donations she made to my online auction for diabetes research.
Christine Feehan. Besides being prolific and madly talented, Christine is simply a beautiful person. She is another author who sacrificed, year after year, to help me raise money for diabetes research, and I can’t thank her enough.
What is currently on your #TBR pile?
There are so many books in my #TBR I’ll probably never have time to read them all, but I’m looking at the stack on my nightstand right now, and it includes: The Female Persuasion, A Gentleman in Moscow, Natchez Burning, All the Light We Cannot See, Then She Was Gone, Flight of the Sparrow, Before We Were Yours, The Great Alone, Bruce Springsteen and a stack of National Geographic magazines. (I just finished The Storyteller’s Secret, which was a beautiful story – and one well-told.)
What’s one writing essential you can’t live without?
I can’t live without my Mac. I’m so glad my children pressed me to switch over from a PC several years ago. My little MacBook Air doesn’t weigh more than a paper notebook – so I can carry it anywhere and I do! It’s so convenient and easy. It also syncs with my phone, so I can text from my computer, receive pics from my kids the same way, etc. Life has certainly changed! When I started writing, the Internet was just getting started. That’s another essential I couldn’t live without, by the way – the Internet. Isn’t it great that we can look up just about anything – whenever we want – and get the information we crave? The Internet also allows me to stay in close touch with the 13,500 members of my online book group (on Facebook). I feature other authors in the months when I don’t have a new release myself, and we all have such fun together. (Can I name one more thing I consider a writing essential? Fleece-lined slippers. LOL)