Interview with Shirl Henke

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Danny: Shirl, could you introduce yourself to German readers? Who you are, your likes and dislikes, where you come from etc.

I have bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Missouri, majoring in history, and taught history at a large urban university in Ohio for many years before beginning my writing career.  I've also worked as a newspaper reporter, ran a circulation desk for a small town daily newspaper, been a social worker and administered an information program for the elderly.  I've been married to Jim Henke for nearly forty years and we have a 33 year old son, Matthew, who spent four years in the U.S. Air Force and now works as a circuit designer in a telecommunications firm.  My husband is a retired English professor who taught Shakespeare and children's literature.  He has published a number of scholarly reference books. I might mention that before I became a Henke (my husband is only a quarter German, hence the name, the rest being Welsh and Polish), I was a Nehrt and my mother a Stahlhut, so I am 100% German ancestry.  As to likes and dislikes, I'm a lover of jazz music, fine food and wine, travel and gardening.  I love to cook and follow baseball. I live in St. Louis, so, of course, I'm a Cardinals fan.  Since I've been a lifelong Democrat, I might go out on a limb and say I do not approve of our current president and did not vote for him in either election.
Danny: Why and how did your career as an author start? Is your writing career of influence on your private life?

Shirl: I always thought I would write--but not fiction.  I intended to become a journalist, but became so fascinated by history in college that I switched majors.  Stories always teased the back of my mind, but I didn't have the nerve to try to write a book until one summer when I was not teaching and read a historical romance filled with errors.  That motivated me to sit down and outline what became my first book, GOLDEN LADY, from Warner Books.  Once I finished that, I started a second, then a third.  By the time the third manuscript was complete, the first one sold, then the others and I was hooked.  Now I couldn't imagine doing anything else but write novels for a living.
Danny: Did you have difficulties in the beginning getting your books published?  What did you do when you saw your first book in print for the first time in bookstores?  Did you have a party? Or drink a bottle of Dom Perignon?

Shirl: As I said above, yes, I had written three manuscripts before the first one sold.  After that, it was not so much difficult to get my work published as it was to get publishers to pay enough for me to live on!  That only came very gradually, and there have been great ups and downs in my career, as far as the money part goes, but I've always been able to sell my work and see it in print.  I remember the first time I saw my first book in a store:  my husband, son and I were visiting our home town (St. Louis) in August of 1986.  Jim went into a small bookstore while I was next door in a dress shop.  He and Matt came into the shop and said, come with us.  We walked into the bookstore and there GOLDEN LADY was on the shelf up front!  What a thrill that was.  We did have a party and invited all our friends who brought copies of my book for me to autograph.  Since most of them were college professors and didn't read historical romances, it was very kind of them to do this.  This was while we were still living and teaching back in Ohio, before we came home to St. Louis to live permanently when Jim took early retirement.

Danny: How long did it take you to write the book? And how did you got the idea for it?

Shirl: GOLDEN LADY was my first book, so it took longer than any since.  I was just learning.  I had always been an avid reader and especially loved the big, sweeping historical romances of the 1970's and 1980's, such as Rosemary Rogers's SWEET SAVAGE LOVE.  I took about three years to research, then write and rewrite GOLDEN LADY.  After that, I plunged ahead and wrote a book about every nine months.  Then when I went to Leisure Books, they wanted two books a year.  I found that if I pushed, I could do a book in six months.  It means long hours of research and writing, and I might add that I wrote my first twenty books in longhand on notepaper!  My best friend, Carol Reynard, typed them, first on a typewriter, then on a computer.  As for what gave me the idea for my first book, that's difficult to say.  I just knew that I saw a man from an aristocratic background fall in love with a woman from a poor family.  She had been forced into prostitution and then rescued by a kind older man who treated her like his daughter.  She lied to the hero when she met him and he married her, thinking she was virginal and from a good background.  I wanted this to be a cross-cultural story, so their family backgrounds would be even more complicated, so he came from the landed hidalgo class of Mexico and she from an impoverished American farm background, although she was educated to become the "lady" of the title after she was rescued.  I can't explain where this idea came from.  It just appeared.  Some of my later books have clearer origins, such as TERMS OF LOVE, which was loosely based on a very old western film I'd seen as a child and BRIDE OF FORTUNE was based on rewriting the sad ending of two films, THE RETURN OF MARTIN GUERE and SOMERSBY.  The latter film moved the original World War I story to the Civil War in the US.  I moved my story to the French Intervention in Mexico in 1867. 

Danny: What inspired you to write books that  mostly have Western settings?

Shirl: I have written so many western settings because it is the most interesting place.  Everyone was there--the Native American Indians, all the Anglo settlers moving west, German, French, Italian, English, every European nation was represented out west, as were the Chinese and, of course, the Mexicans.  The history of gold rushes, land rushes, battles that saw the high plains horse Indians dispossessed of their lands, all the materials for high drama were present in the West.  And, I might also add that I grew up loving Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and Wild Bill Hickock on television! (Even if the history on the shows was not always accurate)

Danny: How do you do your research for your books and where do you get all the ideas for the plots from? How much time do you spend on research before you start a new book?  Is it a continual process until the book is finished?

Shirl: For research, I rely mostly on libraries and the help of excellent reference librarians.  Coincidentally, the head of reference at the university library where my husband and I taught was from Germany, Hildegard Schnuttgen, and she's acknowledged in many of my books.  TERMS OF LOVE is dedicated to her.  She secured an unpublished doctoral thesis on high plains freighting from the University of Colorado for me--something that universities normally never circulate.  The plots of my books are often fleshed out by actual historical events, such as the Battle of the Little Big Horn in THE ENDLESS SKY.  Only, in my story, the tale is told from the viewpoint of the Indians, not the white men.  I usually research for about three months before I start writing, but often have to stop and go back to the library to do more when I find I need additional materials.  It is a continual process.

Danny: Can you describe one of your typical work days for us?  How many hours a day do you average writing?

Shirl: A typical work day begins after I've read the morning newspaper and taken a 1/2 hour walk.  Around 9:30 a.m. I sit down at the computer and start to write, taking brief breaks to have coffee, eat a quick lunch, etc.  Often it's six or seven in the evening when my husband brings me a glass of wine and tells me I'd better stop for the night or I'll be too stiff and sore to write the next day!  I work Monday through Friday and try to take off Saturday and Sunday.  I guess you could say my work week is pretty close to that of any other person in a full time job.

Danny: How do you handle family and your writing career?  Is your family understanding to the time that you have to give your career?  Is it sometimes difficult for you?

Shirl: My husband and son have always been very supportive of my writing.  Jim, who used to teach judo and boxed when he was in the US Navy, choreographed the fight scenes in my first book and still continues to do so now, in addition to editing and helping me with research.  Our son was very good about leaving me write when he was young, but I didn't start until he was in junior high school.  Because of their understanding, I have been very blessed.  No problems with my career.

Danny: When one of your books gets a bad review, how do you handle that?  Are you disappointed or do you try to improve yourself in your next book?

Shirl: I don't let reviews bother me.  I've been very fortunate to have most big magazines give me good reviews and have won a number of awards for my writing.  I feel if I continue to get published and readers like my books enough to buy them, that's all I need. 
Danny: When you finish a book, is this chapter close for you or do the heroes and heroines stay with you in your mind?

Shirl: I don't think any of my heroes and heroines ever really leave me.  I can conjure up Esteban and Amanda as readily as the protagonists from my latest book, FINDERS KEEPERS, the Bombshell coming out this fall.
Danny: What is your favorite book from the books that you have written so far? Who are your favorite hero and heroine and why?

Shirl: Choosing a favorite book is like choosing among your children!  I guess, if I had to pick one historical, it would be LOVE UNWILLING, my second book, set in Old California.  Miguel was such a vulnerable hero and Ellie's relationship with her crusty father-in-law Alex surprised me as I wrote.  This was a double story with the elder brother David falling in love with a girl he won in a poker game.  Miguel and Ellie and David and Katie will always be my favorites, perhaps because of their complex relationship with the family patriarch, Alexander Kane, quite a fascinating character himself.

Do your heroes/heroines have living models, like friends, family or a romance book cover model?

Shirl: My heroes and heroines are the product of my imagination, but often their physical appearance may be inspired by someone famous--Esteban (GOLDEN LADY) was a young Neil Diamond and Night Wind ( NIGHT WIND'S WOMAN) was Pierce Brosnan.  My TEXAS VISCOUNT was actor Bruce Campbell from the TV show BRISCO COUNTY.  But these are only physical images.  Who my characters are, that comes from inside me.

Danny: What are your favourite authors/books?

Shirl: Again, choosing favorite authors is like choosing among your children.  I love so many books and authors.  Rosemary Rogers first got me interested in writing romance.  The early historicals of Karen Robards, Johanna Lindsey and Susan Elizabeth Phillips are among my keepers.  Now I read a lot of thrillers and love Jon Land, Kyle Mills and Sandra Brown, to name just a few.  I could go on for hours on favorite books and authors.
Danny: Could you tell us a bit about your latest release?

Shirl: This April my first hardcover book will be published by Forge Books under a pseudonym, Alexa Hunt.  It is a political thriller titled CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY and is quite different than my historicals.  In it I predict a terrorist attack on American soil, a second Iraqi war and the abrogation of civil liberties by our government as a result of fear--I wrote this book back in 1999 and no one would buy it because they said it was too "farfetched."  When the second war in Iraq began, I sent it out again and immediately sold it.  I didn't intend for it to be a cautionary tale, but I fear that it is.  As Shirl Henke, I will have an action adventure comedy romance published by Bombshell in November titled FINDERS KEEPERS.  It is a much lighter book but was fun to write.
Danny: What are your future plans? Are you going to continue to write the types of books you write presently or possibly change genre?  If so, what would you cross over to?

Shirl: For the future, who knows?  I would love to write spin offs for my three American Lords books, as I never want to leave historicals behind.  I am under contract to write a second political thriller and a second Bombshell right now.  More than that, we'll see. The last two questions seem to answer this question.  I love historical romance, contemporary romantic comedy and thrillers.  I hope to keep writing in all three genres.

Danny: I know that you have written your first book for the Bombshell series? Was it easier or harder to write than your other books?

Shirl: The Bombshell book was fun and really easy to write.  I like to do comedy and the plot lent itself to laughs.  The heroine is a retrieval specialist who kidnaps people from cults and returns them to their families for deprogramming.  Her problems begin when she kidnaps the hero who is really an investigative reporter undercover on a story.  All the while he tries to convince her he's not crazy, she keeps him in a strait jacket--until the Russian mafia shows up and starts shooting.  Then she has to believe him and they join forces.  Research on books in contemporary settings is not easier or harder so much as different.  Instead of going to the library as with historicals, the writer has to go to the locale.  In this case, it was Miami, Florida.  I spoke with police, Coast Guard officers, yacht owners, all sorts of helpful people who had the information I needed to make my story realistic.

Danny: Do you plan to continue to write also Historical Romances?

Shirl: If a publisher offers me the opportunity to write more historicals, I would love to do them.  I think moving from one genre to another keeps an author fresh.

Danny: Are you already working on a new story? What will it be about?

Shirl: Right now, I'm writing the second Bombshell book.  After that, I have a romantic suspense manuscript that I plan to rework and see if my agent can sell.  The Bombshell has the same protagonists as in the first book, Samantha "Sam" Ballanger and Matt Granger and deals with her retrieving a boy who believes in space aliens.  But he's witnessed a murder and the killer wants him in a mental institution to keep him from exposing him--and the killer just might be his own father.  No title for this book as yet, but it is humorous and exciting, I promise you.

Danny: One last question, what do you think about the current situation of Western Romances? I know from other authors that they have problems to sell their books.

Shirl: Western romances have not been as popular in recent years as what I call "lords and ladies" books.  That is one reason I wrote my two Angel books and the American Lords trilogy.  It is harder to sell westerns.  But the western mythos is very powerful--it's about unlimited frontier, moving into the unknown, reinventing yourself, starting over.  That's the primal stuff of dreams.  No, the western won't die.  One day, I believe it will come back and when it does, I hope to still be writing!

Danny: Thanks for taking the time to answer my question.

Shirl: Thank you for the opportunity to answer your questions. 

© Danny & Shirl Heynke

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Dieses Interview entstand im März 2005 zwischen Danny und Shirl Henke für:

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