Your fiction is described on your website as “romantic suspense”. How would you describe your personal approach to blending romance and suspense in your fiction?
Both elements are equally important for me, but I think the suspense will always come first. I start with a premise and two or three central characters, then grow the chemistry between them. While happy endings are pretty much obligatory in Romantic Suspense I’d like to think mine are optimistic and realistic. Shattered Sky started with quite a high level of romance in the first draft, but as I edited the story the suspense took over. It was only during one of the last rounds of editing with my publisher that the proof reader (who’s a romantic die-hard) pointed out that the romance had slipped significantly. It lead to a couple of frantic nights ramping the emotion back up again so there would still be that appeal for romance readers. I think by then I understood my characters on a deeper level so it made it easier to bring out those emotions. It’s still a juggling act having a foot in either camp… But it’s one I enjoy!
What is one of your favourite romance stories and why?
That’s such a difficult question as there are so many I’ve loved reading. Everyone laughs when I say Lord of the Rings, but the love between Aragorn and Arwen is the first romance I remember crying over as a teenager. I know it’s only a small part of the whole story but to me it always symbolised the struggle within the book. Can I go with favourite author instead? In which case Nora Roberts wins by a mile. Her romances are big, wide ranging and her characters wonderfully rounded.
What is one of your favourite suspense stories and why?
The action suspense story I’ve re-read more than any is Hungry as the Sea by Wilbur Smith. It’s one of his very early ones and for me it was the first story I read that combined suspense with a love story. It was a light-bulb moment from a writing perspective. Otherwise I’ve read several of Katherine Howell’s novels this year and really enjoyed them. Lee Child is always a must read and I grew up reading Robert Ludlum and John Le Carre. So much for one favourite…
Both your first novel, Wings of Fear (aka Border Watch), and now your second novel, Shattered Sky, could also be described as aviation fiction, as your main character’s work as a pilot is central to both novels. What have been some of the fun or challenging moments presented by having flying as a central part of the ongoing action in your novels?
It’s fantastic being able to use my day job in my stories. (I can’t wait to write a series set around an airline but that will have to wait …) I think the biggest challenge is keeping the technical jargon down to a dull roar. While many people are fascinated by flying, it’s also very easy to put them to sleep once you start using acronyms or industry slang! I still want to convey the complexity of the operation without making it unintelligible. At the time I was writing Wings of Fear I was spending a lot of time training crews in our full flight simulators. I did have a lot of fun crashing one of those in order to write the scene for WoF. The two pilots didn’t know why I was failing an engine and collapsing the undercarriage at the time, but they worked it out later when they read the book!
And, as I have the best view out my office window, I do love being able to share how beautiful our country looks from the air.
You have written of the development of your idea for Wings of Fear: “I discovered a body washed up on the beach. While there was nothing sinister in that discovery, it planted the seed of an idea for a novel focusing on the terrorist threat to Australia. With my work I fly with crews who have flown for Surveillance Australia – the current Coastwatch contractor. That made it easy to draw on their experiences and weave my characters through a realistic scenario.” How did the idea for your second novel develop?
The starting threads for Shattered Sky began even earlier than Wings of Fear. When we first moved to Cairns two members of an outlawed motorcycle gang, the Banditos, were on trial for murder. I used to chat to a middle-aged lady who walked her two dogs in the same park where I took our dog for a run. My husband came home from work at the courthouse one afternoon and told me that the lady was in fact a Bandito matriarch and was sat in court every day taking detailed notes. It was the first inkling I had that people involved in these organisations could look so mainstream and ordinary while being caught up in heavy duty crime. Once I started to research the gangs the other threads of drug dealing, sex-slave trading and wild-life smuggling were easy to bring together. The more I dug the more I realised that international crime had moved in and taken over many of these gangs as it gave them an instant distribution network, complete with enforcers.
You recently wrote a blog post about the importance of the local radio service in north Queensland for communication where was widespread disruption of electricity supply and phone service during Cyclone Yasi. Did some of the new dynamics of adapting to the changed weather inspire any thoughts of story ideas, like characters already in a high-level conflict getting caught by surprise and having to adapt to the extreme weather conditions while they continue to play out their conflict?
Absolutely! Having characters face their own conflicts with the added complications of a extreme weather event is a great way of bringing out the best in them. My next story explores how communities cope with bush fires, which are so much a part of the Australian landscape. I think more than any other weather event in this country, fires are unpredictable and frighteningly destructive.
Dealing with the aftermath of a disaster is another scenario I’d like to delve into as it does add a complexity to every day living. As I type this the local ABC radio is doing an outside broadcast from Tully and the residents are still pouring in to talk to them. It’s been almost five weeks since Cyclone Yasi yet many of those people are living in de-mountables without the basics we take for granted, and with no end in sight. It’s heart breaking listening to them shrug it off with humour when you know they must be hurting so deeply. Putting my characters into that sort of setting will be challenging for me as well as them.
Both your novels begin by thrusting the reader right into the middle of the action. Once you have a reader’s initial attention, what’s the key to getting them to care what happens to the characters so the story will maintain their attention?
I think characters need to be flawed in a realistic way. We all need to be able to empathise with the characters and if we can see a motivation for their actions then we’re more likely to do that. Once we can see them as someone we might know or meet then I think we start to care about them. I also think we want our characters to change and grow through the book’s journey. Back story is vital in doing that as it let’s me flesh them out fully. A character in Shattered Sky, Jack, is a conflicted man and I’ve had some wonderful emails from readers saying they loved him. He’s not the hero, not even close, but there are many reasons for his actions and I think that’s what makes him likeable despite some of the things he’s done.
Which upcoming Australian novel are you most looking forward to reading in 2011 and why?
I’m really looking forward to reading Jaye Ford’s new book, Beyond Fear and Phillipa Fioretti’s Fragment of Dreams. Jaye’s is a thriller set in Australia and has a heroine who is stretched way outside her comfort zone. Phillipa’s is a continuation of Lily’s story from The Book of Love and is a delightful adventure through wanders through Australia and Italy. Suspense and Romance – perfect!
What’s next for your fiction?
Burning Lies is well underway. It’s the third book in the loosely linked Border Watch series. We pick up Kaitlyn’s story from Shattered Sky and follow her through the hunt for an arsonist who’s torching the Atherton Tablelands. It’s been a lot of fun to write but there still some way to go.
After that I have another story set in coastal Australia that I really want to write. I just need to find some time between, flying, blogging and editing!
More on Helene Young and her fiction can be found at www.heleneyoung.com.
The Australian Literature Review