Interviewing Each Other (for FreshFiction)

We’re very, very happy that FreshFiction has invited us to interview each other.

We’re Nikoo and Jim McGoldrick, and you might know us by our writing names, May McGoldrick and Jan Coffey.

After forty years of marriage, twenty-five years of writing together, and fifty books, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to answer interviewers’ questions—and we even wrote a how-to book on collaboration—but to get personal like this is something totally different. In this interview, we hope to take you behind the closed doors and give you a glimpse of our relationship…because that’s the magic that makes the journey possible.

Nikoo: Let’s start easy. Coffee or tea?

Jim: Too simple…and not too magical. Coffee and cappuccino in the morning, tea in the afternoon. And that’s the same with you, too.

Nikoo: What movie or series have we watched more than ten times?

Jim: Love, Actually. Casablanca. Pride and Prejudice (the BBC series). Persuasion. Jane Eyre (every version). Little Dorrit. The Guard. Waking Ned Devine. Notting Hill. Emma. It Happened One Night

Jim: What’s our go-to movie every Christmas?

Nikoo: Love, Actually.

Jim: Do you remember how we met?

Nikoo: How can I forget? I was walking along the beach in Stonington, Connecticut. In the distance I spotted you trying to shove an old wooden boat off the beach. I rolled my sleeves and walked over and threw the boat over my shoulder and carried it to the parking lot. Our first meeting.

Jim: Of course, that’s a lie. Years ago, we were invited as guests on the Jane Pauley Show. That’s when I announced on national TV that that you were a mail-order bride that I got through

Nikoo: You did do that, liar. But there was no Internet when we first met, so thankfully most of the audience got the joke and laughed. This brings us to a good question. What do we usually argue about?

Jim: The location of staircase in a castle that burned to the ground back in the 1700s.

Nikoo: That was a doozy, but we also argue about names and their spellings. Jim likes to use good old-fashioned names for our characters. Names like Thomas, George, Lawrence, Mary—which, by the way, are the names of his siblings. He couldn’t have handled it if his parents named him Nikoo as a child. I, on the other hand, love the challenge of people asking, “How do you pronounce Cinaed?” Cinaed is the hero of Highland Crown, and he comes back again in Highland Jewel and Highland Sword

Jim: My turn…what’s the best gift I ever gave you?

Nikoo: I’ll never forget it. A Vespa. A large, beautiful, red two-person Vespa. I had to get a motorcycle license to drive it.

Jim: Now that’s a story to share… Nikoo broke land-speed records driving around and weaving through the cones in the parking lot of the DMV. The trooper’s mouth hung open when she came skidding to a stop exactly where she needed to. It was a thing of beauty.

Nikoo: I have to talk about weddings. Not about our wedding (singular) but our weddings (plural). A sweet tradition at weddings now is to ask all the married couples to come to the dance floor and then the DJ does a countdown, eliminating couples by the number of years married. Well, in recent years and on a few occasions, we’ve been the last couple standing, the longest married couple. And they always ask us to give a word of advice to the newlyweds. I really don’t believe there are any shortcuts or sure-fire, winning strategies for a great marriage. You can’t condense a lifetime of work into one sentence, but…

Jim: Respect your partner.

Nikoo: So true. That’s most important.

Jim: All relationships have their ups and downs, good and bad days, pleasures and frustrations. And it’s easy to be generous when life is going smoothly. But when we’re upset, it’s easy to lay the blame on your partner, to abuse them emotionally and verbally. This extends to public ridicule, too—disrespecting each other, no matter how innocent or humorously intended.

Nikoo: Among our family and friends, Jim is known as ‘perfect’, and I am ‘flawless.’ Mission accomplished…even if the sound of gagging follows us around. We love it.

Jim: But that’s not all of it. We’re individuals. Some of us have high self-esteem, some don’t. It’s our job to be a bright mirror for our partner, reflecting all the beauty and talent that we see in them. But to do this, we have to talk to each other. And I’m not talking about talking story or plot, but asking about the person’s feelings, and also voicing what might be bothering us. Cappuccino time, or tea-time, or glass of wine time are perfect for this.

Nikoo: So true, especially since we collaborate. It’s so important to know why all of a sudden, one of us is feeling insecure after a certain event or a comment that struck us the wrong way. We’re both good listeners. We ask questions to clarify things.

Jim: Talking about everything, if there are arguments that follow. It's okay to be passionate in a disagreement, but we never sleep on it. We never sleep on an unsettled disagreement. Unresolved arguments grow roots and branches, and the fruit is poison.

Nikoo: My grandmother used to say the person who wants a rose must respect the thorn. The notion of changing our partner into the person we want them to be has never worked for us. Change must come from within. Of course, we’re both probably too stubborn to be changed by someone else, anyway.

Jim: Do I have any flaws?

Nikoo: Jim has to check the traffic report before going to the convenience store a block away.

Jim: Nikoo spreads her clothes on the chair, on top of the dressers, anywhere there is an inch of space.

Nikoo: And Jim has everything in the house, from the closets (his closet) to the dishes, to the dog’s toys, neatly organized and categorized by size, color, texture…and he’s anal about it.

Jim: And…and…she takes her seatbelt off as soon as we turn onto our street, which starts the car beeping immediately. And the first time we painted the outside of our house, Nikoo painted right over the caterpillars. But who wants to live with someone who is absolutely perfect, anyway? Or flawless?

Nikoo: Despite all this complaining, we love spending time together. Before we started writing together, there was rowing, quilting, baseball, golf, chess, tennis, skiing, backgammon, restoring an old sailboat (the one I carried on my back up from the beach), and renovating houses.

Jim: And there’s a dark side to this. I burned the chess game in the fireplace because Nikoo was winning all the time.

Nikoo: And when we play golf, I get hungry after the third hole and keep complaining about it. And I learned to row on the Charles River in Boston when I was four months pregnant with our firstborn…because that was when (and apparently the only time) they were offering lessons. And Jim’s quilting stitches are much better than mine, but I won’t admit it.

Jim: We’re both die-hard Red Sox fans—this is NOT a flaw—but in 1986 we ate chicken on every game day (because their third-baseman Wade Boggs was superstitious about it), and we used our October mortgage payment to buy playoff tickets at Fenway Park. Incidentally, we’re happy to say that this past decade has been much kinder to us (not with regard to the mortgage payments, but as Sox fans).

Nikoo: We are not just friends. We believe our friendship is the foundation of our marriage, but there’s more. Physical contact, intimacy, passion are also key parts of it. It’s important to cultivate romance.

Romance also means dating (married people need it, too), but dating doesn’t have to have a large price tag associated with it. An afternoon hike. An ice-cream cone. A drive to the beach. Okay, Jim even thinks our weekly trip to Costco is romantic. 😊  But we have fun with that, too.

Jim: When was the last time I laughed so hard that I cried?

Nikoo: Rats, rats, rats. Yesterday, when we were talking about a character not believing another character, I used the example of if I said there were rats in our attic. There aren’t, by the way, but Jim would rather not believe it, anyway. Whatever…the way it came out got us both laughing so hard we were crying.

Nikoo: Here’s a question for you. What would constitute a perfect day for you?

Jim: Every day with you is perfect.

Nikoo: Stop. Do you hear that? That is the sound of a thousand laptops slamming shut. 

Jim: I’m pretty sure I heard an ‘awww’ out there somewhere…before the slams.


Q & A with Keira Soleore of Frolic

Q&A for Frolic

 Keira Soleore: Welcome to Frolic! It is wonderful to have a chance for a quick chat with you about your two newest books in the Royal Highlander series.

 May McGoldrick: Thank you so much, Keira, for this opportunity. We’re a big fan of Frolic Media and of you personally, since (like you) we’re both engineer (Nikoo) and medievalist (Jim). We’re, like, clones!

 Keira: Before we get to the books, Nikoo and Jim, readers have been curious how your writing partnership came about. How do you brainstorm characters and plots? How do you divide up who writes what?

 May: To answer these questions, we’ll have to set up a week-long conference, a writing and/or relationship retreat (which would actually be really fun!). What we’ve been able to accomplish (40 years together, 25 years of writing/publishing, 50 books) involves a long, long, long and complicated journey. One thing we can tell you, we were both hesitant to start down that road, as neither of us had any idea about the rules. But we knew we had a lot at stake. To give you a short glimpse of that time twenty-five years ago, Jim was a college professor teaching Chaucer and Shakespeare and other things, and Nikoo was an engineer in a Fortune 500 company. And on top of that, we had a marriage and two small children who demanded every hour of our non-work hours. 

The trigger to do it, however, was our love of writing and reading, as well as Nikoo’s desire to stop working 60+ hours a week away from the family. We both had always wanted to be writers, and we’d tried individually but hadn’t succeeded, financially anyway. So, sitting side-by-side one winter night, we drafted a short story for a magazine contest.

 Our combined talent, hard work, and luck paid off. The universe aligned itself for us. That short story was followed by the idea of a novel based on Jim’s PhD dissertation. In less than a week, we had an agent. In six months, a multi-book contract with Penguin.

How we work together and why it works was a mystery to us until Heinemann Publishers asked us to write a book about it a decade later. Marriage of Minds: Collaborative Fiction Writing, explains some of our changing process, as well as how a dozen other writing teams manage it and remain friends (with some casualties mixed in). In our case, we’ve remained happily married.

We still occasionally sit side-by-side as we try to wrestle a difficult plot point to the ground,  but we mostly work separately on whatever scene is next. Then we swap and revise each other’s work. It takes about three times longer, but we both have to be happy with it before we move on. As far as brainstorming plots and characters, we walk and talk and walk and talk and walk and talk. And then walk some more. One of us (Nikoo) needs to move to think creatively.

 Keira: You have now written many books together as May McGoldrick and Jan Coffey. What was your impetus behind the Royal Highlander series? How was your writing partnership part of the story behind the series?

 May: We’re both fascinated with history. We believe that human nature doesn’t change, and we also believe there’s so much to learn from the past. It goes with that old saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When we were researching and writing Romancing the Scot, the first book in our Pennington Family Series, we came across references to the fears that the aristocrats in England had about losing power. After the Napoleonic Wars were over, people wanted a fair wage and a say in government. Parliament and the Crown would not allow it, but those same leaders were afraid that all those highly trained, discontented soldiers would rise up, a revolution would take place, and aristocrats’ blood would flow in the streets, as it had done in France just a few decades before. So the British government enacted law after law aimed at crushing and silencing all opposition. They took away the civil rights of the people in the name of ‘security’ and ‘the national interest’. What followed was the Radical War of 1820, and the events are eerily similar to things happening today. Pretty scary stuff, and we thought the turmoil of 1820 would be an awesome moment for our heroines and heroes to find themselves and each other.

 Keira: In your own words, could you tell the readers about Highland Crown and Highland Jewel?

  May:  Isabella Drummond is the protagonist in Highland Crown. She is a physician who was educated in Germany. Her ‘marriage of convenience’ husband had been one of the radical reformers in Edinburgh before he was killed. So at the beginning of the story, Isabella has escaped into the Highlands with her younger sister and the daughter of her late husband. They are being hunted by English soldiers and Scottish rebels alike. 

When a shipwreck occurs off the northern coast, Isabella saves the life of Cinaed Mackintosh, a fierce soul who is aiding the clans’ continuing resistance to English domination. Sparks fly between them, but Cinaed harbors dangerous secrets, as well.   

In Highland Jewel, The Radical War of 1820 has extended into the Highlands. Maisie Murray and her family have found shelter at Dalmigavie Castle, the heart of the rising in the north. The dangers of their past have followed them, but they are committed to Scotland’s fight for freedom. A messenger brings the promise of an important ally to their cause, but only Maisie recognizes that falsehood and betrayal has also arrived at their door.

Six months earlier, Maisie was the picture of docility, quiet and compliant in the eyes of her family. To her activist friends, however, she was a fearless crusader for women’s rights. In the wake of the Peterloo Massacre, Maisie and a friend founded the Edinburgh Female Reform Society, and she carried the banner for universal suffrage. Caught up in the wave of her enthusiasm, Maisie never expected to fall in love with the man who saved her life during one of their protests, the brother of her friend and fellow reformer.

Niall Campbell, a hero of the wars and a decorated officer of the Royal Highland Regiment, is battle weary and searching for stability in his life. A fierce warrior by training and a poet at heart, Niall walks away from the shining career that lies ahead of him, to the dismay of his superiors.

Niall is frustrated by his inability to curtail his sister’s involvement in the women’s reform movement. A widow with two children, she is determined to ignore the dangers of her radical positions. In saving his sister when a protest turns violent, he meets Maisie. Their relationship begins as one of experience versus idealism, of scars versus hope. Soon, however, he finds in Maisie the heart he longs for.

When Niall’s sister is arrested and disappears, he quickly realizes his life is not his own, for the British authorities have a mission for him to accomplish in exchange for his sister’s freedom.

Overnight, Maisie loses Niall, her friend, and her home. In the wake of the riots that sweep through the cities of Scotland, her own sister Isabella is branded a traitor to the Crown, and the family must flee to the Highlands. They take shelter at Dalmigavie Castle, under the protection of the charismatic Cinaed Mackintosh.

Here in the heart of the Highlands, Maisie runs into Niall again. He has a new name and carries a message of hope. But Niall has a task to complete.

Maisie and Niall’s future rests on their ability to overcome the forces that divide them, or—for the future of Scotland—she must stop the man who owns her heart.

Keira: In both your stories, your protagonists meet in highly charged situations when the plot is fully in motion and the stories continue moving fast from there. Is this your usual storytelling style or is this how the series is playing out?

May: We love throwing our readers into the middle of action. We might have developed this style by writing thrillers and suspense. Carrying it into historical novels came naturally.

Keira: Your heroines are courageous, enterprising, passionate women. Isabella is a doctor and Maisie fights for women's suffrage. What led you to choosing these professions for your protagonists? What was your inspiration behind them?

May: These two characters were really modeled in some ways by real women from history, and then we threw obstacles in their way that were almost impossible to overcome. Dorothea Erxleben was our inspiration for Isabella. She was a university-trained physician who lived in Germany about seventy years before our story takes place. Maisie was modeled after a reform activist named Mary Fildes, who was on the speakers’ platform at the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ in Manchester, England, a few months before our story starts. In real life, she was actually run through by a sabre wielded by a soldier who was part of the militia who attacked the peaceful, unarmed citizens who had gathered to protest the government’s actions. Mary survived and went on to lead the movement for women’s suffrage until her death decades later.

Keira: When readers think of the Regency, they think of pretty gowns and balls, not the rawness of these stories. On some level, these lives and the events that unfold have a distinct medieval feel to them. Was Scotland that far different from England in those times?

May: We’re glad you mention that. If readers are looking for pretty gowns and polite courting rituals, our stories might not be for them. We have real people engaged in real struggles of life and death. Our characters, in these novels, find love that is deep and lasting, but it’s not love that is based on a clever bon mot or a shapely leg. As far as Scotland being different from England, we believe that many widely held views of history are skewed and inaccurate. Most of us have a perception of the time period that is based on what we’ve read in novels or seen in films. And many of those stories have been colored by the way some people in our society want to see the world. The reality of the Regency period—in Scotland and in England—has a great deal in common with our own era. It was a period of change and struggle and exploitation—the Radical War of 1820 took place in England and Scotland during the Regency Period. But, like the 21st century, it was also a time of romance and family and philosophy and science and, well, fashion.

Keira: I was pleased to see Niall address how the British Empire was for the financial benefit of the nobility and wealthy financiers (and the government higher-ups). Having him show what the East India Company did in Asia felt like not only had you done your research but also understood the ethos behind their actions. What made you choose this as a reason for Niall's change of allegiance?

May: In Highland Jewel, Niall has seen first-hand the way the British military were being used to promote business interests, such as those of the East India Company. Niall is a war-scarred veteran of the Napoleonic War, and he realizes that Scottish regiments are now being shipped out to Ireland and India and Australia and New Zealand and South Africa to conquer lands for a growing empire that would be exploited for their natural resources. But he also sees that the policy is being used to keep trained Scottish soldiers out of their homeland. In the Highlands, poor farm families were being violently evicted, workers in the growing industrialized cities are being exploited, and the middle class is being denied a voice in government. Deep down, Niall wants life in Scotland to be better, and joining the opposition is the only way to create change. Luckily, he meets Maisie, and that makes his journey all the more exciting and, ultimately, satisfying.

Keira: The mystery of Cinaed's past is superbly done, and I liked how it spans the two books. Are there story threads that were started in the first book that were then continued in the second? Do you have seeds planted in the first book that will then grow across the entire series?

May: Thanks, Cinaed and Isabella’s story is just too big to fit into one book. As we hinted at earlier, this is the Royal Highlander series. We’ll see more of Cinaed’s mother (who was scorned and nearly erased from history by the Prince Regent and his minions), as well as more of the efforts of the British Crown to crush Cinaed and the Scottish resistance. And we’ve got a lot more romance and adventure in store for all of our characters.

Keira: How many books have you planned for the Royal Highlander series? Whose story is next? Would you please share a teaser with Frolic's readers?

May: Right now, we’re planning on finishing up after three books, but you never can tell. Here is a little more about the story than readers will read on the back cover of Highland Sword, the third book in the series:

Three extraordinary women escaped to the Highlands of Scotland at a tumultuous moment in time. Hunted by the British authorities, each of them had to find her identity and her place in history. In this conclusion to the Royal Highlander series, the reader meets Morrigan Drummond.

Independent and fiery, Morrigan lost everything when her father was killed while caring for Scots wounded by English dragoons during a day of protests in Edinburgh. After fleeing to the Highlands, she discovered her gift. Training with Mackintosh fighters at Dalmigavie Castle, Morrigan can now shoot a pistol and handle a dagger better than any man. She is ready to use her deadly skills on the enemies of her nation. And she wants revenge on Sir Rupert Burney, the English spymaster who ordered the attack on peaceful people and the death of her father.

Aidan Grant is a Highland lawyer, at odds with the Crown for his fearless stands against the government on issues of representation, slavery, and the violent Highland Clearances. Quick-witted and popular with the Scottish people, he is a nemesis in the eyes of the repressive Crown forces seeking to crush reform across the land.

These two meet and the battle of wills begins. She wants war; he wants peace. She is after revenge; he is after justice. She is ready to spill blood; he believes too much has already been shed. Neither one will surrender their ideals, but neither can ignore their attraction for the other.

Highland Sword is an emotional ride, but we feel reasonably confident everyone will be satisfied with how everything wraps up at the end. That being said, there is still one more very cool historical event connected to our series that may just need to be explored in another book. We’ll see.

Keira: Could you tell us one thing about you that might surprise readers.

May: We’ve both been married three times…to each other!

Keira: Thank you for visiting Frolic. It's been a pleasure chatting with you.

May: We’re delighted that you asked us, Keira. We love living in the world of fiction, and writing for our readers gives us more joy than we can express. So thanks for the opportunity to reach out. We’d love hearing from everyone.

The Fussy Librarian Q&A with May McGoldrick

Posted on 02/20/2019 at 10:53 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek at The Fussy Librarian

Now this is news you’ll like to hear even more than we like sharing it: The secret to success, for the people behind author May McGoldrick, is ice cream.

(We’ll pause for a moment so you can shriek in excitement.)

And now to explain and make a long story short.

Though they both considered themselves storytellers at heart, Nikoo and Jim McGoldrick started out their careers working in engineering and education, respectively.

The day Jim told Nikoo he’d like to enter a national writing contest, she was encouraging but honest: his submission needed work.

Together, they revised it into what was ultimately a prize-winner, but before they’d even received that external confirmation, they knew they wanted to continue this creative partnership.

Since then, they’ve jointly written over forty novels and two works of nonfiction under the pseudonyms May McGoldrick and Jan Coffey.

But what about the ice cream?

Nikoo and Jim, like all writers, have certainly received rejections and bad reviews (along with the acceptance, sales, and praise).

They’ve decided to process them by first swearing, then going out for ice cream.

Jim goes for soft-serve twist; Nikoo tries new flavors; and their dog, Marlo, partakes as well.

Together, they answered a few more questions about their remarkable long and award-filled career.

SADYE: So what else has contributed to your professional longevity?

MAY: We have a mantra that defines our life: persevere.

To survive as writers, no matter where we are in our careers, we need to keep writing. ...

One thing that has contributed to our longevity is that over the years we’ve developed a toolbox or a first-aid kit of strategies that pertain to a writing and living career.

We’ll just mention a few here:

We write for the love of writing, just as we read for the love of reading. We say that writing is our passion; the career is incidental.

Sicknesses, tragedies, days when creativity is the furthest thing from our mind, we still write.

We all have those real-life things that bang us around. They’re mostly unavoidable, and you often never see them coming.

I (Nikoo) am a true believer in the power of journaling during those times.

Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way has provided a morning ritual for me every time life becomes unbearable.

I have volumes on my shelf from the times I was going through everything from cancer and depression to publishers failing to renew contracts.

Writing during difficult times, however, is a reminder to me that in my heart and soul, I’m always a writer. This is what I love to do.

Words make me happy, and putting them on the page is one thing that I can control, even if the rest of my world is spinning off its axis.

I can go on and on about the therapeutic effect of journaling. Of course, not everyone can do it or wants to do it. Jim thinks of it as torture.

We learned early in our career that there’s nothing worse than trying to work with someone who is not enthused about you or what you do.

For writers, this includes agents, editors, assistants, publicists, and even critique partners. A lukewarm reaction is like a disease; it impairs motivation and drive.

Thank God, we like each other. And thank God, we like each other’s work.

The writing business is cyclical. Publishing houses and editors need changes.

Our answer is to always be ready with a backup plan. A new proposal. Write in a different genre. Self-publish.

SADYE: What is the most rewarding moment or theme of your writing career?

MAY: We’ve had many of those moments; one that stands out was about three years ago.

May McGoldrick and historical romance started our publishing career. A decade into it, we changed over to Jan Coffey suspense/thrillers for another decade.

Then Jan needed a break, so we decided we wanted to try our hand at historicals again.

We came up with a proposal for a trilogy of novels loosely based on Shakespeare plays (our Scottish Relic trilogy) — Highland romance with a touch of magic.

Our agent sent it off, and she soon called back saying that an acquiring editor at St. Martin’s Press reached out to her, having experienced a “fan-girl” moment.

The editor had read our novel Tess and the Highlander (a prequel to this trilogy) when she was a teenager and had kept it on her “keeper” shelf ever since.

Soon after, St. Martin’s Press launched May McGoldrick’s career again.

One other really rewarding moment that comes to mind was in Scotland.

Touring Stirling Castle, a friend and fellow traveler, visiting the place for the first time, turned to us and said, “I’ve been here before…because of your books.”

SADYE: What is the biggest challenge in writing with your spouse?

MAY: Challenge? None. There are absolutely no challenges in writing with a partner.

However, we did write about our process in Marriage of Minds: Collaborative Fiction Writing at a publisher’s request.

So there might be a few challenges:

Jim eating chocolate chip cookies nonstop and never gaining weight.

Nikoo blasting music while she writes.

Nikoo hanging Chris Hemsworth’s photo above her desk as “research.”

Jim doing too much unimportant historical research.

Nikoo chucking ninety percent of Jim’s research in the draft stages of the book, reminding him that there was actually no Jack and Rose on the Titanic, and that nobody cares if a bee hive belongs in the northwest corner of the garden versus the northeast corner.

Jim merrily chopping off too many heads in the scene.

Nikoo being too attached to the character’s heads.

Jim thinking story is about action.

Nikoo lying awake at night worrying about how the character feels.

SADYE: Do you have a favorite genre to write in?

MAY: We love writing historical romance, of course.

From our knowledge of history (Jim has a PhD in sixteenth-century British lit), we know that human nature and the nature of political systems never change.

So we use our stories to comment on what is going on in the world now.

We also love writing contemporary suspense and techno-thrillers (Nikoo has an engineering degree) because there’s nothing like getting immersed in a page-turning story.

SADYE: What do you find most rewarding or interesting about all the public events you do?

MAY: Meeting readers and getting feedback is the best. We’re constantly learning.

Plus, Nikoo gets to share horror stories about our writing process in front of an audience. And Jim gets to wear his kilt.