Getting to know the rugged side of author Sandra Brown

Posted Friday, Sep. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
Deadline by Sandra Brown Grand Central Publishing, $26

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It’s a mistake that readers — male readers in particular — sometimes make.

They judge a Sandra Brown novel by the back cover.

They see the photo of the author, an attractive redhead, put two and two together and come up with five.

“I met a man who told me, ‘I haven’t read your books; they’re just not my kind of read,’” Brown remembers. “And I said, ‘Well, if you haven’t read them, how do you know? What do you think they’re like?’ He said, ‘Well, they’re romance novels, aren’t they?’”

Actually, no, not at all. Brown — the Arlington-based author with a whopping 65 bestsellers to her credit, a total that’s bound to climb to 66 as soon as her latest, Deadline, hits bookstore shelves Tuesday — moved away from straight romances into the thriller genre more than two decades ago.

So Brown challenged him to give one of her books a try.

“Just read it and let me know what you think,” she said. When he reported back, he admitted his surprise. “I had no idea,” he told her.

That’s because Sandra Brown, despite the delicate features that you see in the author photo, is quite the muscular writer. Her books have grit.

“It’s like I tell people,” Brown says. “I am not my characters. If I had lived a life that any one of my characters have lived, if I went through the things they have to go through, well, I just wouldn’t make it. I would be decrepit, if not already dead.”

The new book, Deadline (Grand Central Publishing, $26), follows Dawson Scott, a journalist chasing the biggest story of his career.

He’s back in the States after nine months in war-torn Afghanistan and privately battling post-traumatic stress disorder, but he now finds himself hot on the trail of two domestic terrorists who have been on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list for 40 years.

While digging into the case, Dawson himself becomes a murder suspect — and he ultimately, inadvertently, makes a whopper of a discovery about himself.

The genesis of the new book was Brown’s author-themed USO trip to Afghanistan in 2010.

She and fellow writers Mark Bowden ( Black Hawk Down), Clive Cussler ( Raise the Titanic!) and Andrew Peterson ( First to Kill) did five days of meet-and-greets with the troops.

Initially, Brown swore that the experience wouldn’t become fodder for a book.

“I was traveling with three excellent military writers, after all,” she says. “There’s no way I could try to follow up on a Black Hawk Down or one of Clive Cussler’s adventures. It would look like a joke.

“So my answer was always no, no, no. I just went for the meet-and-greet. I have a lot of fans among service men and women and it was an amazing opportunity to go.”

Then she started to hear story after story in the news about service members returning with PTSD and having difficult transitions back to civilian life.

That’s when the character of Dawson Scott — “someone who had reported the news, seen terrible things, been in danger himself and was affected by the events” — came to her.

Once she merged that with a separate story idea that she had percolating about longtime FBI fugitives (“You have to be pretty clever to evade capture for 20 years or more, especially today, when it’s hard for anyone to disappear off the grid”), Deadline was born.

Brown’s life as a writer was born after her husband, Michael, challenged her to give it a try.

“I had been working at Channel 8 and got fired,” she recalls. “It was my husband who then said, ‘You’ve always said you wanted to write and now you’ve got time and opportunity to do something you’ve said you always wanted to do. So either you can talk about it or you can do it.’

“Once it was put to me like that, that’s when I started writing. And thank heaven for Michael and that challenge.”

Brown says she has no idea what her life would be like today if she weren’t writing books.

“I loved my life as a wife and mother, but that was never going to be totally fulfilling,” she admits. “And I remember the frenzy with which I wrote from the very beginning, without really even understanding what I was doing.

“I didn’t have any writing skills. I didn’t even know the rules of fiction writing yet. I just wrote from the gut. And I loved it. It wasn’t even like work to me.

“I can’t imagine my life without this, even with all the headaches and misery, which was an aptly named book by Stephen King, because writing is absolute misery when you don’t think you’re getting it right.

“On those days, I look at the shelf and I see 76 previous books and I think, ‘I know how to do this. I’ve done it. Why is it so hard today?’ So it’s definitely an agony and an ecstasy. But I love it. Because when it works, when it’s really cooking, there’s nothing quite like it.”

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