Thursday, June 2, 2011

Interview with Bonnie Toews

This week, on Novelwatch . . .

We have Bonnie Toews, author of The Consummate Traitor, but let me give you a warning before you pick it up: You’d better have some snacks and a vacation prepared, because once you pick it up, you won’t be able to put it down. As the story of a pair of women spies—American journalist Lee Talbot and English pianist Lady Grace—in the midst of World War II, this highly dramatic tale is riddled with secrets, explosion, forbidden loves—and enough suspense to kill.

N: When did you start writing? What inspired you to write? Has writing always been a big part of your life? Will it continue to be?
B: I was an avid reader very early in life and wrote my first “secret” novel when I was ten years old. It was about an Army Flight nurse in WWII in the Pacific. I had also developed a love of flying and read “boy’s” books like the Bigglesworth collection about WWII fighter pilots as well as anything I could find about biographies of famous women pilots such as Amelia Earhart or Jacqueline Cochrane. In the secrecy of my room I fantasized about flying my own plane and practiced the operational steps with them. At, 16 I started to take flying lessons with babysitting money I earned, but my father refused to let me carry on. I was 26 before I was free to get my pilot’s license and do the aerobatic flying I had dreamed about.
  Writing was my secret. If I showed what I wrote to my parents, other than speeches and essays, I was afraid it would no longer belong to me because each talent my brother and I showed was immediately turned into a professional production or competitive entry. I was already training to become a concert singer at ten years old and I was expected to win every festival class. (When I was 21, I lost my voice while I was performing in a recital and it was such a relief.)
  In high school, I discovered the Yearbook Club and the smell of printer’s ink stirred my blood. At university, instead of practicing my music, I was working for the campus newspaper – not just writing but learning everything about the production of words in newspapers and magazines. Upon graduating, I did teach for eight years, but the lure of printer’s ink permeated my teaching too. Every class was set up like a newspaper office, and I taught Reading and English in this setting.
  I’ve been married twice and both husbands encouraged me to write. With them, I finally had the freedom to share what I wrote. My first husband backed my desire to get into newspaper work. I ended up with a career in the business press and won five national awards before I retired. My second husband supported my dream to become a novelist though he has admitted to being jealous of the “computer” because it “steals” so much of my time. When I’m in my world with my characters, he can see from my facial expression that I’m no longer in the present moment and he feels isolated from it (and me), yet he has always given me the freedom to do it. That is true unconditional love.
  For me, writing is an act of survival, and yes, I will do it until the day I die.

N: Name your favorite book. What is it about it you like?
B: I’ve read so many books through my life, but the most significant, the one that turned my life around, was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. This story advocated the philosophy of individualism—to be true to yourself and to your dreams. In Ayn Rand’s world, individualism was not an act of selfishness but the answer to our soul’s yearning for our higher calling to seek the truest Truth or the light within the darkest shadow.
  Ayn Rand was Russian, and like Vladimir Nabikov, English was her second language, yet both authors possessed an artistic grasp of English that few North American writers understand. A study of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature most influenced my writing as well.

N: Tell us about your favorite (of your characters). What are his/her motives? Why is s/he your favorite?
B: I've never thought about whether I like or dislike my characters because I try to give even villains some redeeming qualities and picking favorites – well, I've never done that with my kids or grandkids or students either--each is a favorite in his or her own right.
  Both women—Lee and Grace—in my novel are heroines but for entirely different reasons. Their backgrounds are so far apart that in “normal” conditions they would never meet, but war or tragedy or reversals in fortune changes our concept of what has been our “traditional” way of seeing life. War brings these two women together, and war changes them. Of the two, the reader may find Lee the most interesting because she has not grown up with secure unconditional love as Grace has. Lee has always felt abandoned and she seeks recognition. Some women needing affirmation go about it in the wrong way to gain attention, but Lee seeks acknowledgement through the pursuit of noble causes. She is a war correspondent digging for the truth behind the exploding bombs and righteous posturing of the combatants. She wants to make a difference in the lives of her readers. That is how she will be remembered. That is how she will finally belong.
N: Tell us about your least favorite (of your characters). What are his/her motives? Why is s/he your least favorite?
B: Again, I can’t say who is my least favorite. There are things in life I don’t tolerate well. One is hypocrisy. Can you say a villain is hypocritical? By whose standards? In fact, a villain is very true to himself and what he wants, to the exclusion of all sympathy for those who cross his path or interfere with his goals. If his goals were honorable, he would be admired rather than feared or hated. That’s all that separated Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler – their goals. Churchill committed terrible war crimes, all in the name of achieving the “greater good,” but I show you in my novel the terrible suffering he inflicted on thousands of people with his ruthless decisions, only one of which was to cause reprisals just to recruit more underground resistance in Nazi-held territories.

N: What genre is your favorite to read? To write? Why?

B: SPY THRILLERS. To read and write. I don’t know why. I love the study of history and have always played with “what if” scenarios even when I was teaching, but after I read my first Helen MacInnes novel, While Still We Live, I was hooked. I read every novel she wrote. And when she retired, I became a fan of Robert Ludlum, and after he died, Gayle Lynds replaced him as my favorite writer of spy thrillers.

N: If you could become one of your characters, who would it be and why? What would you do differently in your story?
B: Contrary to what this question suggests, writers do become their characters. Characters are born in our minds and they evolve from bits and pieces of our own experience and beliefs. I suppose this is a form of fragmenting our personality. Even in fantasy writing, characters are born out of our wishes of what might be. The trick in creating characters is to make sure they always operate from their pure origin. If you stay true to their motivation, you cannot behave differently to create a different outcome in the story.
Am I as strong as the heroines I create? No, I don’t think so, but I haven’t been tested in the circumstances they face. I can hope I would be as brave, smart and compassionate as they are.

N: How do you write? Do you have a special place, do you listen to music, how much do you write a day, etc.?
B: I’m a slow methodical writer. Before I go on to write a new passage, I review what I have done the time before and correct it first. When I am not at my computer, my mind subconsciously plays with different scenarios from different characters’ viewpoints as I decide where we are going next in the story and who will be the POV character for the scene.  This is another reason why I am comfortable writing intrigue—the story is told from different perspectives. I would get bored if I was writing the story from only one POV.
  I do not outline plots in advance. In The Consummate Traitor, I had no idea who the traitor was until I was three-quarters finished writing the novel, and then I had to go back and foreshadow what was to come so I wouldn’t shock the reader as I shocked myself.
  I have an office where I can shut the door, though I rarely do. The cats would scratch it. I do not listen to background music. I prefer quiet. It’s easier to focus. I do write every day, but it can’t always be on my current manuscript. I don’t set so many words per day as a goal. That kind of routine becomes like a prison to me, so I don’t do exactly the same thing at the same time every day either. When I am focused, I write in marathons until my energy is drained, and then it may be days before I return to the manuscript but I am always working with it in my mind.
N: Of all the ideas that can inspire a story, why did you write The Consummate Traitor?
B: A number of reasons. The plot evolved from a biography I was reading of The Man Called Intrepid by William Strevenson. He mentions that a cousin of the King of England was sent on a mission into Denmark to convince the nuclear physicist Niels Bohr to defect to London but is captured by the Gestapo instead and is never heard of again. After the war, her body was never found either. I asked, “What if she lived, what would her story be?”
  As well as having a journalist’s background, I’m also an advocate for better treatment of our veterans, many of whom suffer from PTSD. Journalists who cover war share a bond with soldiers who fight them. As eye witnesses, they also can suffer from combat trauma. The general public tends to be more self-absorbed in their day-to-day lives. As a result, they are unaware of what our vets have endured in service to their country or the human toll caused for journalists in bringing their stories to the public’s attention. Through my characters and what happens to them, readers can better understand how PTSD is caused and what it is like to suffer from it.
  I also wanted to tell a war story from a woman’s point of view, not just from a man’s.

N: What has been your great success in writing? How did you feel?

B: I don’t know any writer who doesn’t suffer from doubts or feel inadequate to the task. It’s overcoming this constant self-doubt that becomes the writer’s challenge, and in writing THE END on another manuscript is the quiet satisfaction of personal achievement. No public award can surmount that because completing a manuscript is confirmation of our life and our choice. What public awards and reviewers’ praises do is acknowledge our growth as a writer, the level of our artistic skill and our relationship with our readers, but that changes with every book we write.
N: If you could go back five (or ten or twenty) years in time, what writing advice would you give yourself?
B: I don’t think the advice I would give now to the writer I was then would mean much because the journey has created the writer I have become. Except for this: Remain true to your vision of your story and the kind of writer you are. If you like to read and write romance, then that’s what you do. If you are not comfortable writing romance, then don’t, because it comes across as what it is—contrived to meet someone else’s expectation. Today, as mixed genres become more acceptable, trying to accommodate traditional formulas is less of a pressure … thank goodness.

Thank you, Bonnie, for that awe-inducing interview. The Consummate Traitor is available now on at You can learn more about Bonnie at

1 comment:

  1. Great work, Nicole! Bonnie is brilliant!