LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: You have an interesting life story, Sherry. You were born in China, and at the age of thirteen emigrated to the U.S. Would you tell readers a little bit about your family, the town of your childhood, and how you came to the U.S.?
SHERRY THOMAS: I grew up in Qingdao. If anyone here has had beer from China, it’s most likely Tsingtao beer—same name, just different romanization. It’s a very new city, by Chinese standards, and was little more than a fishing village until it became a German concession following the Boxer Rebellion, at the turn of the twentieth century. So the old downtown is almost entirely neoclassical, as are the many colonial-era villas along the coast.
As a child, I lived with my mother and my grandparents. My grandparents had both been educated in English-medium schools in Shanghai in their youth. In fact, Grandpa had studied in the U.S. in the 1930s, going for a PhD in biology, but war broke out between China and Japan and he, being the eldest son, hurried home, taking only a master’s degree with him.
Grandpa escaped the wrath of the Cultural Revolution much better than did most other people of his background and connections—he had two siblings who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1940s. So I enjoyed a rather idyllic childhood as a pampered only child, read just about every book I could find or borrow, spent as much time with my friends as my grandmother allowed, and in general didn’t mind my life at all.
And then my grandmother passed away all of a sudden. My mother, who was then studying for her master’s degree at LSU, brought Grandpa and me to the States so she could look after us. Until then, I never had the remotest thought that I’d leave China. Mom had talked about maybe a vacation in Disney World, but even that had struck me as unrealistic. America was like the far side of the moon, for people far more intrepid than me.
LSLL: You spent your teenage/young adult years in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. What was that like?
ST: I loved the food. I have yet to find a proper beignet outside of Louisiana and I learned to make gumbo at home because I missed it so much.
But otherwise I don’t think Baton Rouge and I ever truly jived. It was just so completely different from anything I’d ever known. Not that I thought that much about the lack of fit between myself and my new surroundings. I was a teenager who had just been uprooted from my friends and a pretty sweet life, so mostly I was just trying to manage all that adolescent angst, plus various romantic intrigues that a girl who was also bored out of her mind got into.
LSLL: I read that you taught yourself to improve your English by reading books. Which authors and books did you particularly enjoy?
ST: I read a ton of historical romances. I often joke that by the time I was eighteen, I had the vocabulary of a Victorian old lady—which wasn’t too far from the truth. I also read a boatload of joke books—one after another from the humor shelves of LSU’s main library. The author I glommed the most during those years was Isaac Asimov. I’m almost sure I’ve read his entire output, including two gigantic volumes of autobiography.
LSLL: You received a BS in economics from Louisiana State University and earned your master’s degree in accounting at University of Texas at Austin. When did you first start writing?
ST: After I graduated from college, I almost immediately became a stay-at-home mom. I started writing out of the blue when my elder son was about eighteen months old, because I was frustrated with a new book by an old favorite historical romance author. I could do better, I thought. In fact, I couldn’t. Not for a very long time, at least.
Looking back, I am never not astonished at my decision to pick up the pen. I’m even more shocked that I stuck with it. Growing up I wasn’t a writer. I mean, I did scribble a few paragraphs now and then. But I spent two years learning the piano and two more years in ballet classes and all that time and energy expended didn’t make me into either a musician or a dancer. What in the world made me think I could be a novelist just like that?
(I’m just as astonished that my husband never asked me if I’d lost my mind!)
But there I was, energetically researching what people ate and wore and did in the 19th century, and typing away every moment of my spare time. And when my first book didn’t get me published, I wrote another. And another.
LSLL: What was your first break as an author?
ST: With my second book I thought I’d come close. I had an agent who sent the manuscript to a dozen different editors. But they all passed.
In 2005, seven years after I started writing, I came across my first manuscript, which was quietly gathering dust in a box upstairs. I read a bit of it. The execution was embarrassing, but I still like the basic idea of the book, that of a young woman who decided to have a young man by hook or by crook and the estrangement that followed when he found out. So I tossed the whole thing and restarted from scratch, keeping only the two lead characters’ names and their general backstory.
At that time, I was also studying for the GMAT in anticipation of going back to school, since the writing thing obviously wasn’t working out. By the time I finished revisions, I’d been admitted to the Master of Public Accounting program at UT and awarded a graduate fellowship. So it looked like my life would take a whole different turn.
But I decided, what the heck, I’m willing to go through the query process one more time. And that was when my big break came. I landed my top agent pretty fast and once she sent the book out, we had five offers on the table within a week—the week I first started classes at UT!
I did my degree and wrote my second book at the same time—that was a tough year. And there was some hesitation over whether I should keep working as an accountant beyond two brief stints during busy season. But at the time I had two young children. And while your average partner at your average accounting firm enjoys better remuneration than 99% of writers, by the time I took family life into consideration—and how much I loved not having to leave the house in the morning—the writing life edged out life as an aspiring future partner.
LSLL: You’ve been a successful author in a variety of genres, but if a reader wanted to get to know your writing, which book should they start with and why?
ST: A Study in Scarlet Women, my first Lady Sherlock historical mystery, would be a pretty good place. It made the Best Books of 2016 lists put out by both NPR and Kirkus Reviews, so you don’t have to take my word for it that it’s good. And it has a romantic subplot, so you can get a sense of how I handle romances too.
There is actually an even more better example of my writing, which combines mystery, fantasy, and romance, but that book, The Perlious Sea, is the second book of a trilogy.
LSLL: You have a new book coming out in September. Will you tell us about it?
ST: A Conspiracy in Belgravia is the second book in the Lady Sherlock series. Charlotte Holmes, who passes herself off as sister—and oracle—to the incapacitated Sherlock Holmes, receives a most unexpected client, Lady Ingram, wife of the man she has loved for a long time. Lady Ingram wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who has mysteriously disappeared. Moral quandary aside, Charlotte realizes she must take the case when Lady Ingram’s missing sweetheart turns out to be none other than Charlotte’s illegitimate half-brother.
Murder and mayhem ensue.
LSLL: You’ve published so many books, you must be very disciplined. What’s your creative process like?
ST: This question made me laugh. I am quite undisciplined and my output is considered miniscule for a romance author, especially these days.
That said, my process has improved somewhat over the years. I used to write an entire book before I realized that my approach was completely wrong. The discard file of my second book probably has 200K words in it — other authors almost cry when I mention that.
Now I usually don’t need to toss more than 20,000 words, as I sense much sooner if a book isn’t going in the right direction.
LSLL: In the decade since you’ve been a published author, how has publishing changed?
ST: Oh, goodness. In romance the publishing landscape is almost unrecognizable. Romance authors have been some of the chief drivers and beneficiaries of the independent-publishing phenomenon. At least half of the people who used to be published with New York now mainly, if not exclusively, self-publish. And many more up-and-coming writers have decided to bypass traditional publishing to altogether.
In mystery I’m not sure self-publishing is as prevalent. Children’s publishing is a completely different beast, with much of the marketing directed at school libraries. Children typically don’t have accounts at Amazon or iTunes—and they also prefer physical books over ebooks.
LSLL: I’m going to ask you the question I ask every author who has published a romance. What’s the most romantic place in Texas, in your estimation, and why?
ST: Obviously I’m totally biased, since I make my home here, but I nominate Austin, at least in the cooler months. You can take a walk around Lady Bird Lake in the morning, have lunch at Ski Shores right on Lake Austin, and watch the sunset from the Oasis or the top of Mount Bonnell. Other than long walks on the beach, there really isn’t much else that’s considered romantic that you can’t find or do in Austin!