This interview was originally posted at USAToday's Happy Ever After blog on October 30, 2012
I'll admit that I grew up associating cowboys and ranchers with the American Wild West, most likely because of popular Hollywood movies, but not anymore. Award-winning Harlequin Romance author Donna Alward has brought international fame to the rugged Canadian cowboy and rancher. Ever since her debut romance, Hired by the Cowboy, won the Bookseller's Best Award for Best Traditional Romance in 2008, Donna hasn't stopped garnering recognition and awards for her heartwarming and poignant stories. Her 2011 Harlequin Romance,How A Cowboy Stole Her Heart, finaled in the 2012 RITA, Bookseller's Best and National Reader's Choice Awards, plus it won the 2012 Colorado Award of Excellence and the 2011 Cataromance Reviewers Choice Award. Whew! See what I mean? With her latest release, Sleigh Ride with the Rancher, Donna has once again outdone herself.
Rula: Hi, Donna! I must say that Sleigh Ride with the Rancher is a beautifully written, visually stunning and deeply touching holiday story. I love that it's part of a Holiday Miracles trilogy written about three sisters who've grown apart and the trials that bring them together. Book one, Snowbound in the Earl's Castle, was written by Fiona Harper, book two is your Sleigh Ride with the Rancher and book three will be Mistletoe Kisses with the Billionaire by Shirley Jump. In what way does your friendship with Fiona and Shirley parallel your three sister heroines, and has working together made your relationship grow in any way into more of a sisterhood?
Donna: That's a great question! Though I don't think there's much rivalry between us. We were great friends before writing the trilogy and we still are, lol. Plus, we always celebrate each other's successes. It's a beautiful thing.
There are definitely some parallels between the sisters and the three of us, though. For instance, I love the fact that Fi is so often a voice of reason. An example: I'd confided in Fi about a grudge I'd been holding for too long and how I felt badly about it. She was so logical and made such complete sense about the situation that I was able to let the bitterness go (which is a very good thing). Her character, Faith, is a bit of a peacemaker, I think. Now she avoids the family to keep from being caught in the conflict. Shirley's character, Grace, is worldly and cosmopolitan, but she can't quite escape her "down home" roots, which makes going home for a small-town Christmas celebration both uncomfortable for her and absolutely perfect. If you've met Shirley, you know she's got a fantastic sense of style. She's also one of the most down-to-earth, friendliest people I know.
And as far as my character, Hope – well, she's a perfectionist. A bit type A and controlling. Hmmm … sounds familiar. She also has a heart of gold and can be hurt more easily than most people realize. I see myself that way, too.
Rula: Sleigh Ride with the Rancher deals with both physical and emotional scars, as well as the quest for perfection. Your hero and ranch owner, Blake Nelson, has a visible scar that reminds your heroine, photographer Hope McKinnon, of a painful loss she suffered. They have definite obstacles on the road to happy ever after, much like the special-needs kids Blake works with. When it comes to teaching children to cope in life, do you think it's more important to build an individual's confidence, build societal tolerance ... or both?
Donna: I think they go hand in hand, really. I try to teach my girls that they need to respect others, but they also need to respect themselves. I try to instill messages that they can succeed at anything and yet don't have to be perfect, either. There's such a pressure in school-age kids – especially when you start hitting junior high and high school – to BELONG. What we teach the girls is that if someone is a good person inside, it doesn't matter what they look like, the color of their skin, religion, disability. … Good people are good people. And when they struggle with peer groups, etc., I make sure they know that there is one place they ALWAYS belong, and that's in our family.
Rula: You're such a great mom. In your book, hero Blake runs an equine therapy ranch. During your research, what fact about equine therapy amazed you the most? Are you a rider or do you stick with love from your Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever? :)
Donna: I wasn't surprised about the emotional connection, because as an animal lover I know how amazing it is to connect with a pet and just feel … better. It made sense that kids would respond to horses in a beneficial way and also learn responsibility by caring for the animals, etc. What really surprised me was the clinical aspect of it, which is why I chose a cerebral palsy patient as a central character. The physical benefits of riding are huge. Core strength, muscle tone, balance … all crucial and helpful to my character Cate – as well as the emotional benefits she enjoys. Like feeling like a normal child, having fun, being accepted.
I haven't gone horseback riding in a long time, though I used to love it. But I'm definitely soaking up the love from our Duck Toller, Dreamer, and our kitty, Boo.
Rula: I have two words, Donna. Maple syrup. Blake is known to make some fine French toast, as lucky Hope can attest to. I've heard you mention how much you love Canadian maple syrup cookies (yum!), but what's the strangest thing you've ever eaten maple syrup with?
Donna: I don't pour it on my eggs, but if I'm having pancakes with a side of scrambled eggs, I confess I like it when some of the syrup runs down the plate and gives them a bit of extra sweetness. I don't know as I've eaten it on anything truly strange, but I have some fave ways to have it in addition to breakfast. I have a recipe for maple ribs, which is delish and if you do it in a roaster, the meat falls right off the bone. My stepdad got me into putting maple syrup on buttered biscuits (or scones), and one time I made cornbread and put maple syrup on it and it was GORGEOUS. There's also maple salmon …
Rula: Mmmm. That all sounds so good. I can't think of the holidays without thinking of sweet things ... and decorating a Christmas tree is one of them. Blake and Hope put up a tree together and it's a moment where they open their hearts to one another. What's your favorite holiday ornament (or ornament theme) and what's the story behind it?
Donna: One of the things we do every Christmas is get the girls a personalized ornament. They each have their own box of special ornaments now and I realized last year that when they leave the nest in a few years our Christmas tree is going to be very bare! But then when they put up their own tree, they will have a box full of Christmas memories waiting for them, which I think is awesome. I have NO idea what I'll get them this year, but I guarantee they'll be looking for it in their stockings.
Rula: That's such a great idea. Well, you know your readers will want more after Sleigh Ride with the Rancher. Your wonderful Cadence Creek Cowboys series started with The Last Real Cowboy and The Rebel Rancher. Tell us about your next Cadence Creek Cowboy book, coming out in March, because I'm dying to know what your cowboy will do when he finds A Little Cowgirl on his Doorstep.
Donna: I came up with the idea of Callum Shepard after I got hooked on watching Hell on Wheels. Anson Mount plays the lead character, Cullen Bohannon, and he's gruff, he's got shaggy hair, and he's pretty emotionally wounded. I just had the idea of someone looking like that opening the door to find a prim and proper woman standing on his porch claiming that he's a daddy. Avery is baby Nell's aunt, and she and Callum met once. He looks nothing like the man she met a year ago. She's in a bit of a tough position. She grew up not knowing her dad and feels very strongly about Callum knowing the truth, and yet all she really wants is to be able to raise Nell as her own. And Callum is a tough nut to crack. He's my favorite kind of hero: tough on the outside with a marshmallow center. : )
Rula: That's why I love your heroes! Sleigh Ride with the Rancher really put me in the mood for the holidays, and I can't wait for A Little Cowgirl on his Doorstep. Thanks so much for hanging out at Happy Ever After, Donna! Wishing you and everyone else an HEA.
BLURB: A week before Christmas, city girl Hope McKinnon finds herself snowbound with rugged rancher and all round do-gooder Blake Nelson. What is it about this handsome, generous man that has her blood boiling and her pulse racing?Blake knows his ranch is the last place that Hope wants to be, but somehow her presence feels so right! Hope is the first woman guarded Blake has wanted to be around for a long time. Her visit may be temporary, but he has one more night to convince her to stay….
FIND DONNA HERE: www.donnaalward.com
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ALSO CHECK OUT: Donna's latest book from her First Responders series at Samhain Publishing...
Into The Fire (Book 3, First Responders) - Releasing November 13, 2012