Susan Mallery is the author of the new novel Sisters by Choice, the fourth of her Blackberry Island books, which also include Evening Stars and Three Sisters. She lives in Seattle.
Q: This is your fourth Blackberry Island book--how did you come up with the idea for this new novel?
A: I had been wanting for some time to explore the positive side of ambition, particularly in women—in a compelling way that would fire readers’ imaginations and make them think about their own lives.
Too often, even today, popular culture sends subtle messages that a woman’s true happiness comes when she eases back on her professional life to focus on the personal. I believe that, just like men, women can have it all—a great relationship, a loving family, and a soul-satisfying career.
I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s doable. Dreams can be achieved with perseverance and hard work.
The three cousins represent different facets of ambition. Sophie has given up everything in order to build her cat product empire. She didn’t think she could have love and success, and she chose success. But a tempting new guy is going to open her eyes to possibilities.
Kristine is happily married with three boys who are now finally old enough that she feels she can open the little bakery she has dreamed of. But entropy is a powerful force, and her husband is resistant to change. Kristine wants to change the rules of their marriage, and he doesn’t like it.
Amber is the counterpoint to this theme. Amber is all ambition with no hard work to back it up. She’s the character who’s going to make readers laugh, groan, shake their heads, and want to bring her to life so they can smack her a few times. I think we’ve all known people like that.
Q: How would you describe the relationships between your three main characters?
A: They are, as the title suggests, sisters by choice. They’re cousins by birth, and in fact, the title was inspired by the saying “cousins by chance, sisters by choice.”
Sophie and Kristine are the same age. They were raised on Blackberry Island by their moms, who were sisters, until Sophie’s mom was killed in a car accident. Sophie moved in with her cousin’s family when the girls were in high school.
As the book starts, Sophie’s warehouse in LA burns down, a devastating loss to the business she had built from the ground up. Kristine was her first call, and Kristine dropped everything so she could fly down to help. That’s the kind of relationship they have—a first-call, drop-everything relationship.
The fire turned out to be a blessing because it freed Sophie to move back home to Blackberry Island, where she and Kristine could be with each other again.
Heather, the third main character, is Amber’s daughter. Heather is a young adult on the cusp of deciding the direction of her life, and I think a lot of readers will relate to her.
She will have to make some very difficult choices about how much of her own life she’s willing to sacrifice for the mother she loves, a woman who doesn’t need Heather as much as she thinks she does.
Q: How important is setting to you in your novels?
A: Sisters by Choice takes place on Blackberry Island, Washington, a small island off the coast near Seattle. It’s hugely important to the story because of the nature of island living.
From one side, you see nothing but the vast ocean. Beautiful, especially at sunset! From the other side, you see the water, a bridge, and the mainland coast.
It’s an emotional vista for Heather because her dreams are bigger than the island, but she doesn’t know whether she’ll ever feel free to go across that bridge to the life she yearns for.
For Sophie, returning to Blackberry Island is the answer to her dreams—a homecoming. It was really interesting to explore the island setting from two very different perspectives.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from Sisters by Choice?
A: Mostly just a great story, an escape.
But I would also love it if the book inspires readers to set goals toward reaching their dreams. If you’re not happy with your life, decide what you want, and then take steps to achieve it. Just the act of making the effort will give you great satisfaction and will improve your outlook on life.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just finished writing a family drama set at a winery that will be out in early 2021. (Talk about a gorgeous, evocative setting!) It’s the kind of deliciously messy family that I love writing about.
Next up will be copy edits on the next Happily Inc book, which will be out at Christmas in 2020. We’re still in talks for a title for that book, too. Lots of suggestions flying back and forth.
I, my assistant, and my agent brainstorm, then send our picks to my editor. She runs the ones she likes past all the other departments at Harlequin, and one veto sends us all back to the drawing board.
I really just want to title all of my books “Read This Book,” but so far no one has gotten on board with that suggestion. Anyone who would like to know where we land on the title can sign up for my mailing list at www.susanmallery.com/join-mailing-list.php.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I love connecting with my readers on Facebook and Instagram. Come play with me!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb