Catherine Bybee talks drawing on real life for inspiration in Chasing Shadows
Catherine Bybee loves to write what she knows.
The romance author has sold nearly 6 million copies of her books and is enjoying a thriving career publishing with Amazon Publishing’s Montlake imprint. “I love writing about modern women and strong women and relationships and women that are empowered by other women,” Bybee tells EW of the brave cadre of women at the heart of her novels.
Her latest release, Chasing Shadows, is the third entry in her First Wives series, a series that follows women whose first marriage was a mutually beneficial contract with a wealthy man. Now single again, they work to move on with their lives. Chasing Shadows follows Avery Grant, a woman determined to avoid vulnerability in any capacity after a devastating attack in New York City. Avery moves to pick up the pieces of her life and uncover the secrets of her past while navigating a relationship with a man she can’t help but fall for, Liam.
Bybee sat down with EW back at the Romance Writers of America conference in Denver last July to discuss her popular First Wives series, why she loves writing about contemporary women, and how the trials and tribulations of her life, from divorce to a devastating fire and flood on her property, have shaped her as a writer.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get into writing? Did you always want to be a romance writer?
CATHERINE BYBEE: I was originally a trauma nurse. I was an ER nurse for 15 years, got hurt on the job, and had to reinvent myself. Within a year of convalescing, I was on my computer all the time and I had kind of dabbled in writing. But I dabbled in writing before I realized I needed to back up my computer so everything I wrote would constantly get destroyed every single time by a computer virus…I couldn’t pull a C out of my butt in English Lit to save my life. I didn’t understand those concepts, but I was always a creative person. I’ve always been a storyteller. I could sit around the campfire and keep people entertained on a story, [whether] that is a real-life story or something that I make up verbally. Writing it down was just the next step.
And how long have you been reading romance?
I’ve always been an avid reader of romance. I fell in love with the genre really early on. I remember babysitting and reading a romance novel and then pen to paper on a little notepad, trying to write my own little story. One year, I was visiting my grandmother. That’s where the pen name came from — Shamrock Bybee. She changed her name from June to Shamrock on her 65th birthday legally. Bybee was her maiden name — she was married 8 times or something stupid like that, so when she died she went to wherever she was with a martini in one hand and a boa in the other. She lived in San Francisco in between her marriages. I remember visiting and there was a convenience store with a Harlequin kiosk there, and I remember buying instead of borrowing and eating that up. I was 11 or 12. I learned monogamy through romance novels. My grandmother was married 8 times, my mother was married 3, my dad was married 5. I didn’t know what monogamy was. It wasn’t my upbringing.
So it sounds like your life experiences have heavily influenced your writing then?
Of course, absolutely. Shamrock has filtered in. I don’t have the best relationship with my mom, so there are some emotional things that go on. When things start getting deep, they’re usually close to the heart. I can [be] tongue in cheek about the marriages, but I didn’t have a picturesque childhood. You have two choices in those situations. You either learn from it and help it enhance your life, or you let it bury you. And I refused to let that happen. When s— happens, you pull up your big girl panties and you learn from it. In my case, I have a place I can outlet it. It’s very cathartic.
What are the themes you love to return to?
Friendship. And love. Family becomes part of the saga, but your family is the people you choose to be in your life and often times that is the central point of my books. Because my girlfriends were the people that kept me going through the hard years of my life, and they’re the ones I always come back to. You can pick your friends, you can’t pick your family. I really think female-centric relationships are part of what makes my books so essential for my readers.
You’re not afraid to tackle heavy issues in your books. How much did your career as a trauma nurse influence your work?
All the time. I write about trauma nurses; I write about ER doctors; I write about those things. I was working in the ER when Katrina hit, and I was working in the ER when the tsunami hit Thailand. I was not in a position to go with my colleagues that went to help these situations. I had young children and a husband who was not supportive of the idea, so I didn’t go. But when these people came back, the stories they came home with, I get chills thinking about some of the things they said. Because as a trauma nurse, we see a lot. Why wouldn’t I pull from such a rich pool of information? People ask [me] all the time, “Where do you get your ideas and inspiration?” Are you kidding me? Keep living life. Keep experiencing life. Every time I think I’m getting a little stale, I think I need to go on a vacation, I need to go find something new.
You publish with Montlake, Amazon Publishing’s romance imprint — Amazon feels so new and non-traditional, though of course, you follow a traditional model with physical books. What is your experience like as an author?
They understand what makes authors happy, and they go out of their way to make that happen. Communication [is] number one; I never have to wait for a conversation. It’s not just because I’m Catherine Bybee. They treat all their authors that way… But honestly, anything that wasn’t right they corrected. And if it’s not right now, they’re working on correcting it. I love that because it is a learning process for all of us. I’ve never been this successful as a person or an author. That success breeds their success, and it’s just great.
Switching from nursing to writing, did you encounter condescension about writing romance? Or have people mostly been supportive?
The family member of memory that was condescending about it was my ex-husband. Ex being prime in that conversation. My father has read every single word I’ve ever written and still looks me in the eye and gets pissed if there’s not sex on the page before chapter 13…My family is incredibly supportive…But, no, the condescending attitude comes across all the time. Strangers usually. It’s usually as I’m waltzing onto my first class seat on an airplane and I go “buh-bye.” You can be as condescending as you want. People should only read what makes them happy. If you start reading something, even if it’s in a genre you like, and you don’t like it, you stop a couple chapters in because you don’t like it. You don’t have time to waste. There’s a zillion books out there. Read what makes you happy.
To caveat that for me, I was a trauma nurse. I dealt with life and death. I understand what it feels like to hold a SIDS baby. I know what it feels like to hold a mother that lost a child or a wife that is losing her husband of 50 years. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. When I came home from that, the last thing I wanted to read or watch was trauma drama. That was my day job. I want to escape. When people are like, it must be a certain demographic, it must be the lonely housewife that is reading this stuff. No, very smart, educated happily married women and men read this genre. I don’t know that we ever will burst through it. I may not see it in my lifetime, but maybe this is the generation that throws the shades open on this and makes it less of a taboo to do and read and what have you. Kindles and the like, all e-readers, have helped people be able to read whatever they want, whenever they want. Because it’s hidden behind a screen. But they don’t have to be shy about it. I don’t like the condescending attitude. One woman’s not going to fix it, but a generation might.
Romance is so beloved by so many. What do you think makes the genre so popular?
Everybody has a love story. Not everybody has been in a situation where someone’s been murdered or there’s a car chase or there have been guns flying around. But everybody has a love story. Whether it’s a good love story, a bad love story, an unrequited love story, an I fell in love in high school but he didn’t love me back love story. It doesn’t matter what that love story is. We all have one. I beg anyone to show me a movie or a book that doesn’t have even one or two sentences of a love story. Whether it’s a Stephen King novel or [what]. There was an overlying thread of someone falling in love and having a connection. Whether they die at the end and it’s Nicholas Sparks, there’s always a thread of a romantic element. Always. In everything. Jurassic Park. I don’t care what it is.
With the release of this latest in the First Wives series, how are you feeling?
I realize I’m 10 years into this, but to me it’s a journey that’s just beginning. I just finished my thirtieth publication, my eighteenth or nineteenth Montlake novel, and I feel like it’s just beginning, which is nice. This is a pretty good starting point.