In my first contemporary romance, Acute Reactions, Petra Lale is a newly licensed allergist in Portland, Oregon, with a struggling solo practice. Although she’s a good doctor, she finds it hard to switch gears and run an office—a business, really. Ian Zamora is the owner and manager of a local restaurant. He’s been working himself hard for the last few years and he’d ready to settle down. And he’s also allergic to cats and begins receiving weekly immunotherapy shots from Petra.
They’re attracted to each other, but Petra can’t date Ian—it’s unethical—and she can’t ask him to go see another doctor because she can’t afford to lose patients.
So really, it’s just your usual contemporary romance about business and ethics in American medicine, injections, loneliness, and sex. With kale jokes. There are a couple of kale jokes.
What inspired you to write it?
My husband commented once that guys who have allergies are never the romantic lead. (See also, characters who are mean to the waitstaff.) They’re usually blowing their nose just when the heroine needs affection, or rooting around for tissues, or being overly anxious about their food.
I also received immunotherapy shots for a couple of years and as a result, I really did end up spending a lot of time with my allergist. Every Tuesday at noon for a couple of years, I’d walk to her office, get the jab, and then sit in her waiting room for 15 minutes to wait out the reaction. She’d check me and rub some anti-itch cream in my arm and send me on my way. For a while, I think I saw her more regularly than I saw some of my friends.
Once I put those pieces together, the story emerged.
How did you come up with the idea for the cover?
I didn’t—the excellent folks at Crimson worked it up--but I like it! ☺
If it was made into a movie, who would you like to play the main characters?
Eduardo Noriega is a Spanish-Mexican actor, who has that lean, intense look that I wanted for Ian. Imagine him wearing silver-rimmed spectacles. Now imagine taking them off of him.
Norah Jones could work as Petra. Although they’d have to write a karaoke scene into the movie. You can’t have Norah Jones in a movie and not have her sing.
What is it about this genre that appeals to you so much?
Romance is a genre that focuses doggedly on the emotional life of its characters, and I am fascinated by what goes on in people’s brains and hearts, and the things that aren’t necessarily spoken out loud.
This is maybe a fancy way of saying that I’m nosy. The woman who gets caught staring at the neighbours and has to twitch her curtains shut? That’s me.
What made you want to become an author?
I’m a reader first. I have always loved narrative: listening to stories, reading them, eavesdropping on people. And sometimes I make my own stories.
How do you come up with character names?
Ugh. With great difficulty.
Name one of your all-time favourite books?
Middlemarch by George Eliot is everything. What I love about it most is the fact that it examines—with such wit and affection—the ordinary lives of people in a small English town. And circling back to the question of why I’m drawn to romance, Middlemarch isn’t a part of the genre but it is a novel that acknowledges that love is at once one of the most dramatic and normal things that can happen to a person.
Who, or what, inspires you?
Old movies, songs, things I talk about with my family, books, overheard subway conversations. My husband, crime fiction novelist Preston Lang, issues challenges; a recent one was to include one Finnish character in every novel I wrote. As a result there’s a Finnish character in Acute Reactions.
Where is your favourite place to write?
I write at a rickety desk that has managed to defy the laws of physics and is holding together despite the fact that some fairly important screws are missing from its architecture. I face a white wall. I wouldn’t say it’s a glamourous place, but it’s the view I’m used to and it’s where the stuff gets done.
What is your favourite movie that was based on a book?
If ever I had to save the world and a supervillain put on The Wizard of Oz, I would sit down to watch it and let the universe go down in flames. What I’m trying to say is 1) I would not be a good hero and 2) The Wizard of Oz is really important to me. I’m from the Canadian prairies, which isn’t that far off from Dorothy Gale’s Kansas, and that Technicolor moment where she bursts into Oz works is like a promise.
The L. Frank Baum book was important to me in different ways when I was growing up. When I was in third grade, I got my parents to drive me across town to look at the library’s antiquarian edition of one of the Oz novels. The librarian hovered over me while I paged through it and I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with myself or this—well—artifact. It put the awe of writing in me.
Name two of your favourite authors.
Courtney Milan is my favourite romance author. Most of her books are Victorian historicals and they tackle medicine and public health, law, race, class, women’s rights. Milan manages to make stories about these big issues intimate, because really, that’s what they are.
I also read outside of genre (and write outside of it, too, under my real name) and I love short story writer Lorrie Moore.
If you could have a dinner party with any authors from any time in history, who would you choose and why?
Oh man, the trouble with inviting writers to dinner is that so many of the especially fascinating ones are raging introverts. So while I’d be so tempted to invite Emily Dickinson, she’d feel so disquieted by the whole thing she’d probably spend a lot of time hiding behind her napkin.
But because this is a fictional party with fictional cutlery and plates that I don’t have to worry about salvaging, I’d have a drunken smashup with Southern short story writer Katherine Anne Porter and . Fran Lebowitz, who wrote Metropolitan Studies, could make snide comments, and poet Maya Angelou would give everyone a good talking to.
I’d be horrified and riveted. And probably hiding behind my napkin.
Tell us a random fact about yourself.
I once slid down the banister—well, the escalator handrail—of the Westin San Diego Hotel. I was 25 years old.
Who would play you in the movie about your life?
Someone asked me recently which fictional relationship best describes my real-life relationship and pretty quickly, I realized that my husband is the Jeeves to my Bertie Wooster. So Hugh Laurie would play me and my husband would be an unflappable Stephen Fry, and there would be hijinks involving antique silver cow creamers.
Tell us an interesting fact about where you live.
My red brick New York City apartment building is about one hundred years old and back in the day, they made slits in the backs of medicine cabinets for people to dispose razor blades. The reasoning behind it is that it’s safer to store them in the walls than putting blades in the trash where kids or pets can get into them.
But sometimes I just think of all these old buildings full of sharp steel just bristling.
What are your (writing) plans for the future?
I have a couple of romance manuscripts at various stages of doneness set in the same universe as Acute Reactions. At some point I’d really like to write a novel where reality diverges in the 1950s and 60s—a post-war, pneumatic-tube-city-of-industry romance.
Tell us one thing that's on your bucket list.
I’d like to take my family to New Zealand for a year. I have this image of us becoming healthy and pink-lunged as we hike cheerfully over the hills.
Favourite myth / fairytale?
There’s a delightfully gruesome Grimm fairy tale called The Twelve Windows in which a princess who can see all in her kingdom from her magic windows challenges her suitors to hide from her. The unsuccessful aspirants are killed and their heads put on pikes around the castle. Only the man who accomplishes the task she sets out gets to marry her. (The story of Turandot is similar.)
(On a side note, when I was in eighth or ninth grade, I adapted The Twelve Windows and named the successful suitor Elvis, thus earning myself the pleasure of setting down the words, “Elvis became king.” As a writer, I peaked early.)
Who/What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I wanted to be a botanist, a clothing designer, a novelist. I also wanted to be Hildy, Rosalind Russell’s fast-talking reporter character from His Girl Friday. Or maybe I just wanted Hildy’s hats.