The Sisters of Suspense
How a steamy combo of romance and mystery catapulted two alumnae to the bestseller lists.
by Siobhan Murray
In 1981, Nancy Bush, ’75, and her sister, Lisa Jackson, read an article in Time magazine about young mothers who, after the sun went down and the last diaper was changed, pulled out their typewriters and wrote romance novels.
“I thought, ‘Hey, we could do that,’” says Bush, who, like her sister, had young children with a husband she’d met during her OSU days and was now struggling to make ends meet.
Initially, Jackson brushed the idea off as a pipe dream. But the next day, she returned to her job as a babysitter, one of a series of gigs she’d held since dropping out of Oregon State. As she watched children run across a tiny living room, her mind returned to her sister’s proposal.
“I mean, we were dead broke. And I thought, ‘Who am I to say no?’”
“We are always working out our plots and our knots and our characters together”
After Jackson gave each child a bottle, she took out a manual typewriter. By the time the children’s parents came to pick them up, she had written the first seven pages of “Stormy Surrender.”
The two sisters, joined by a friend, passed the manuscript back and forth, trading chapter-writing until the book was ready to send to publishers.
“And then we got rejected all over New York,” says Jackson.
The publishers’ verdict was that Nancy and Lisa’s book had too much suspense. And while the romance genre was exploding in the early ’80s — in 1981, it made up 40% of the paperback market and was responsible for $200 million in sales — romance writers were subscribing to ever more narrow rules: Say, a spirited heroine aged 18-30 encounters a hot-eyed hunk and steaminess ensues — preferably within the first 50 pages. A challenge must be overcome before the characters end up at the altar, but a one with no suspense, no guns, no violence.
The sisters, who hadn’t read or written romance before, grabbed every romance novel they could find. They did market research in Writer’s Digest, identifying what readers were reading and buying. They suppressed their itch to write mystery. Within the year, Bush broke into the industry with the sale of a young adult romance. She used the advance to buy used electric typewriters. Jackson followed suit a year later, with a novel featuring characters in the throes of fierce passion as well as an embezzlement scheme.
Lasting success didn’t always follow. They’d submit a book, get a hit, submit another, get a rejection. Bush moved on from young adult romance to join Jackson in producing adult titles for Silhouette Special Editions, one of the nation’s top purveyors of women’s contemporary romance.
In the pages of the sisters’ novels, you’ll find OSU alumni characters and familiar Oregon settings. Jackson has over 30 million copies of her 95 novels in print. Bush is the bestselling author of 40 novels.
Fast-forward 40 years, and Jackson has over 30 million copies of her 95 novels in print, and Bush is the bestselling author of 40 novels. The two have co-authored nine books together, which spent a cumulative 30 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. The sisters have melded genres and now consider themselves romantic suspense writers. They’re no longer required to ascribe a certain level, or rigid definition, of ardor — wrapped in a pink bow — to their characters. Instead, they give their characters full — and sometimes messy — lives, with children, partners, marriages and divorces.
But the same tenets remain true for both genres they occupy: “Everybody wants to fall in love. And people like having a puzzle to solve.”
They recall writing Wicked Game, the first published book they co-authored.
“We were driving somewhere around Seattle,” says Jackson. “We were drinking Diet Coke and eating M&M’s and hitting rest stops. And we started talking about this series, and we got so excited about it that we missed the turn off of I-5, didn’t we?”
“Yeah, we did,” says Bush. “But then we got into our hotel, and I remember sitting and talking and going over and over and over it—”
“—I mean, Nancy and I fight about once every five years. We were talking and arguing, and I finally slammed the computer closed and said, ‘I think it’s time for a drink at the hotel bar.’”
Even when they’re not co-writing the same book, they’re collaborating.
“We are always working out our plots and our knots and our characters together,” says Jackson.
“I’ve always said that I’m a forest person and Nancy’s a tree person. She’s very good at details — she’s the accountant, bookkeeper, very into science,” she says about her sister, the nutrition major. “I’m more loosey-goosey, big picture. Nancy’s a really great editor, as proven by her original OSU story.”
Bush learned she had a knack for the written word early, in Writing 121. After growing up in Molalla, she and her sister had followed their family’s long tradition and attended OSU. One day, the professor asked students to edit their classmates’ writing in front of the class. Seeing the way Bush could rework a sentence, he called on her extensively from there on out.
Jackson, too, remembers an unwelcome spotlight in class during the two years she spent at OSU studying English literature. Her professor gave the students a writing prompt and read her response aloud to the class. She’d written: “This is a creative writing class and I feel stifled, because I can’t write creatively.”
The professor thought her words might benefit from metaphors. Better to say: I’m chained to my chair! I’m locked in my seat!
It would seem she took his advice to heart. For the past four decades of their prolific careers, the sisters of suspense have hooked readers with a heady combination of sensory pizazz and spine-tingling drama. And it all started in the midnight hours, as children slumbered peacefully, lulled by the clickety-clack of typewriters putting the stories of swooning lovers and blood-thirsty killers to the page.