A Conversation with Syndra K Shaw
(note: due to the fact that we talked a long time, I’m breaking our chat into two parts. This is Part One with Part Two following tomorrow)
Phone in hand, I press 2, listening to the brief sing-song of beeps as the number in Paris is dialed. Three small rings later — it’s always three rings –, Syndra answers with a very polite “oui?”. The accent is pleasingly French, the voice both warm and inviting, a slight sense of flirtation teasing the ends of her sentences as if she’s going to burst into a fit of giggles at any moment.
Sitting here much too far away in the States, I can easily imagine this chic writer of e-roms (erotic romances) in her new apartment near La Parc Monceau at her very clean, very shiny desk, leaning back in her red leather swivel chair, a scarf wrapped around her shoulders, her eyes out the window to the park across the street, phone in one hand, orphaned earring in the other, a slight smile on her lips as she patiently listens to me blather on in what is surely an awkward combination of French and English.
I’ve known Syndra for years — we’ve agreed that it’s ten years though I insist it’s closer to twelve — and consider her one of my dearest friends. Family, even, although her French sensibility would scoff at such an overt display of American affection. Still, I’m sticking by my guns. I consider her family. I cannot imagine life without Syndra.
When I published my first book, Martuk … the Holy, in 2012, she was the first to call and congratulate me, the first to send flowers and chocolate, and the first to read it, sending me a lovely, very detailed private review that was both immensely supportive and brutally honest. “I would not be your love,” she explained, “if I just told you how wonderful it was. And it was. But there must be something, even if it is a small thing, to criticize and make better.”
And she was right. As always.
So I was understandably overjoyed when she turned to me several months later and asked my opinion. She had an idea for a story. Perhaps even a book. Maybe a few. A New York lawyer named Ronan Grace (love it!) falling in love with a Greek billionaire named Mikalo Delis (love it even more!). She shared with me the vision she had, one she thought could span several books and a whole group of secondary characters.
As she talked, I heard something I’d never heard before. Her voice quavered, she spoke quickly, she’d run out of breath as she talked about her Ronan and her Mikalo and the two of them together and the struggles they faced and the love they felt and the journey they’d take. I could feel this story, these characters, in her voice, living in her, and I knew without a doubt this was something she had to write.
And I said so.
She worried it’d be horrible. Then let it be, I said. But at least write it, let it live, let it breathe, let it have a life of its own.
She was afraid no one would care or would read it or would make fun of it. Then fuck ’em, I shot back. Write it for you. Let that be enough.
And, after a few more weeks of needling her, she finally sat down and said “Okay, today is the day. I’m letting Mikalo live”.
With that, came her first book, Mikalo’s Grace.
Now, several months later with the release of the sequel, Mikalo’s Flame, she’s finally relented to my pestering and agreed to a phone interview I’d record and then transcribe. She’d take a quick look and approve, and I’d then put it up on my blog that very few people see anyway.
The consistent, persistent lack of eyes was what finally got her to agree, I think.
That said, here’s what we ended up with (minus the chit chat at the beginning) …
Jonathan: Tell me about Mikalo’s Flame.
Syndra: I think it’s a stronger book than the first —
Mikalo’s Grace —
Yes. I think I found my rhythm a little more and integrated a bit more of a drama-driven narrative this time. I was also a bit more confident and a little less scared.
You know, I liked Mikalo’s Grace —
Of course I did. I told you that, like, seven billion times —
But I also thought it needed more, I don’t know, drama or something.
Oh, yes. You did say that.
Yep. And I think you really got it with Mikalo’s Flame.
Thank you. Maybe you’re right. I think you are.
Let’s just say I’m right, okay? Was that a goal of yours? To add more drama or something to the second book?
No, not necessarily. I want each book to be better than the last — the thought of my writing staying the same book after book frightens me —
It should. Nothing worse than writers who write the same way all the time.
Yes, it makes sense to force yourself to grow. Even if you stumble, at least you’re trying to be better, you know? But with Mikalo’s Flame I really was just following the map I have laid out and what happens in the first book was what I had planned to happen in the first book and what happens in the second book was what my map says was going to happen in the second book. Does that make sense?
Oh you —
No, no, I get what you’re saying.
Well, you should because you’re the one who taught me how to chapter map, or whatever you call it.
That’s just because I’m always forgetting my good ideas and need a reminder.
This is because you’re old.
Shut up. I am not. You’re older.
Back to Mikalo’s Flame, we have to talk about Mara Byzan.
Oh, The Byzan. I actually love her.
You actually know her.
(laughs) No comment.
But she is based on someone you know and see, like, all the time, right?
It’s not like anyone’s going to see this blog.
You have a point. Okay, Mara is inspired by someone I know, but the character in the book is a bit more over-the-top than —
Than the real person.
Who you know too, by the way. And you know what she’s like and you know how loud she is and you know how long her fingernails are.
Yeah, she’s a scratcher. Okay, no comment. Moving on, how do you write? Tell me about your process.
Okay, I listen to music like you taught me and I sit either on the couch with my computer on my lap or at my desk. And there is always a glass of wine and a glass of water.
What kind of wine.
White in the afternoon, red in the evening. Of course.
And you just sit and type and write your book?
No, I sit and look at the keys and the book magically writes itself.
Is that your way of telling me I just asked a stupid question.
How many No Comments do I have left?
Two. You have two No Comments left.
Then No comment.
I’ve lost control of this interview.
Well, you’re no Barbra Walters, that’s for sure.
Damn! Kitty’s got claws.
(Syndra snorts with laughter)
I’m writing that you snorted, just so you know.
Now, French is your langue de naissance — (tr: birth language)
Oh, very nicely said.
Merci. Do you write in French and then translate into English?
Oh my goodness no. I write in English because that is where the market is. And in France, self-publishing a book is looked down on. So I won’t even bother going that route. I’m quite happy writing, as best I can, in English and puis parler de français dans ma vie tous les jours. (tr: … then speak French in my life every day)
Do you find a difference between your French sensibilities and your American friends?
Absolutely! Americans are talkers. They share their lives, their love, their feelings. They embrace you immediately with open arms and, like that, you are their friend. We are much more reserved in France.
That’s true. It was a huge deal when you first invited me to your apartment.
I know. One’s home is for one’s family. And in the States, one’s home is for one’s family and friends and co-workers! I just can’t imagine having my husband’s co-workers over here.
You were the first person I’ve visited who had guards stationed at the entrance.
(laughs) That was because of what my father does. It was nothing.
Not that I was complaining —
Oh yes, that one guard was very handsome —
In a Mikalo-sort of way —
Yes, I think so. But I am no longer there, so …
You mentioned your husband. So, your American readers know you’re married.
Yes, but my family is very private —
I know, I know. But you do have a fascinating heritage and a fantastic family. It’s all very interesting. Your father’s work, your mother —
Yes, yes, yes, I know. But I’m so afraid of accidentally interrupting their privacy with something I say. So it is better to not say anything. You know this.
No problem. Can we talk about your years in boarding school?
That’s like asking an inmate to talk about his years in Sing-Sing, but sure, why not.
You didn’t like it?
No, I hated it. I wanted to be home in Paris with my parents and there I was, cold and alone in England with a bunch of very mean girls who thought they were better than everyone because they had money and really strict teachers who didn’t care if you were homesick. And it was so regimented. Your shoes had to be shined and your socks had to hit just under your knees and your skirts had to be a certain length, your hair neat and, preferably, tied back with a bow and, oh my god, I just hated it.
And you escaped.
No, I was politely asked to leave —
So you were kicked out.
Yes. But it backfired because I then spent my last years of school in Switzerland which was even worse. I swear I could hear dogs on heavy chains growling from beyond the hedges.
Then you came New York.
No, I went to University in England and then came to NYU in New York.
Where we met.
Tell me something I don’t know about you.
You know almost everything about me!
Then tell the three people reading this something they don’t know about you.
They have no idea who I even am.
Work with me here —
Okay, okay. I am very polite, but I don’t mind correcting sales girls when they’re rude.
Oh yeah, I’ve seen that. You’re vicious!
No, I’m not. I just very calmly tell them what they did wrong and how to do it better.
You actually brought one girl in Hermès to tears.
No, it wasn’t Hermès —
Pretty sure it was. The one on the Right. On the, what is it, the Rue de faubourg Saint-Honoré, I think.
Yes that’s right. But no, that wasn’t it. French sales girls are very tough. It takes a lot to make them cry. What you’re thinking of was at Barney’s in Beverly Hills. But if she couldn’t handle a bit of gentle criticism, what was she doing being such a mean little bitch?
Lesson for the day: don’t get on Syndra’s bad side.
(laughs) Now everyone is going to think I’m mean.
No they won’t. They’ll probably applaud your honesty and want to go shopping with you. So, more books?
Oh yes! I love writing —
And you can’t turn your mind off.
So true! My characters are very vocal. There is definitely a third Mikalo book —
Yes. And then I’m considering doing a spin-off Series for Deni, Ronan’s friend.
She’s perfect for that.
I know. I’m obsessed with her these days. I’m also thinking about doing a series or a series of novellas or something on Mara Byzan. Have her hit bottom and pull herself up.
Something like that. I’m not sure yet. We’ll see.
How could you leave Mikalo? The man is perfect. I mean, he’s one sexy beast!
I know who he’s based on.
No, you THINK you know, but you don’t.
Um, I’m pretty sure I do.
You might be right. But Mikalo is several people all rolled into one.
He’d have to be. The guy is almost too perfect.
Well, until you discover his secrets in the third book.
See, now you’re just being a tease.
Of course. But I love him. He’s just so … (sighs)
We really should talk about your creative process.
Oh no. They’ll think I’m insane.
I don’t think so. They’ll probably think it’s just like how they work.
You think so?
Sure. So …
Okay, my characters live and breathe in me. They have distinct voices, distinct ways of speaking, of acting. I close my eyes and type, basically trying to keep up with what they’re saying, with what I’m hearing, and how they’re saying it.
That sounds fascinating.
Or like I should be medicated.
You laugh, but I’m serious. I actually woke up one morning with the names Ronan Grace and Mikalo Delis in my head. Knew their story, the arc of it, the pace of it. Knew their voices and their bodies. Knew all of it.
But that’s a good thing.
It is what it is.
Oh my god, that’s so French of you.
Mais oui. (But yes) Do you think others work like this?
I’m sure of it. You know I do.
But you ARE crazy. You don’t count.
True. I really want to talk about the third book. Is that okay?
But I haven’t written it yet.
I know, I know, but it is in your head. You know their story and you know what’s going to happen. And I think it’d be fun to talk about.
So, let’s start with Mikalo’s Flame and then talk a bit about the third book —
You mean the one I haven’t written yet —
Right, right. Now tell me a bit about Mikalo’s Fate.
( … to be continued tomorrow)
Before then, if you haven’t already, go and get her new book Mikalo’s Fate now. It’s a great read.