In 2020, these three words never applied to you more, no matter where you were in the world. These are the words 72-time New York Times bestselling author Sandra Brown used to describe her upcoming book, Blind Tiger. Set in 1920 Prohibition Texas, the novel is about newly widowed Laurel Plummer, who discovers both emotional independence and financial security in the bootlegging business, all the while dodging ruthless rival moonshine clans, a corrupt town mayor, and the mysterious yet alluring town new-comer, Thatcher Hutton.
It was the early spring of 2020 when Brown noticed the striking similarities between that year and 1920. But when she did, brainstorming for her next book wasn’t her main priority. Instead, she was just trying to return home to Texas; she’d been trapped at her desk in South Carolina in the middle of a global pandemic when cases were skyrocketing, airports were bolting their doors, and the world was descending into a cloud of depression, frustration, and fear.
“Watching the news was like taking a beating,” Brown recalled when I asked her about the book’s inspiration, during an interview with The Tempest. “And I just thought, ‘this is so depressing.’”
Brown, who is famous for her page-turning contemporary thrillers set in America’s modern-day southern states (her lifelong stomping grounds), wanted to escape 2020. “So I thought ‘what was happening 100 years ago?’”
It started with a Google search.
Of course, the Internet brought her to Glen Rose in 1920 which, to her surprise, was home to the Moonshine Capital of Texas. This is where things get interesting. Brown is a Texan, born and bred, but never knew that this goldmine of illegal liquor production was just 50 miles from where she lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The more Brown researched this chunk of Texas Prohibition-era history, the more layers she peeled away to reveal just how closely linked 1920 was with 2020.
“What was interesting to me was that so many of the societal problems that we were addressing in 2020 were being addressed in 1920,” Brown explained. “There was a woman’s movement that resulted in women getting the vote. It was the largest women’s movement in American history at that point in time, while we had the Me Too movement going on, and the pandemic of the Spanish Flu was on the way, but it killed millions worldwide.”
In Blind Tiger, people couldn’t even saddle up to a bar and order a beer to nurse the stress of all that societal upheaval. Flash forward to 2020, you’ll find that under worldwide COVID lockdowns that prohibited bars and restaurants from operating, people faced the same problem.
And, as Brown put it, those who are denied a drink are usually the thirstiest.
Here is where the danger in Blind Tiger is born. The forbidden being the lure is a major theme in Sandra Brown’s books, whether she’s writing contemporary suspense or historical mystery. Being attracted to what is forbidden is what drives both plot and characters…and makes for Brown’s trademark sexual tension.
“I always try to make my hero and heroine as opposed as possible,” said Brown, “I’ve always said if he’s a fireman, she should be an arsonist, because it makes it impossible for them to reconcile.”
To survive, Thatcher and Laurel turn to opposite sides of the law. It’s this opposition that not only makes their attraction morally gray (at least in their minds) but also amplifies the stakes and makes their awareness of each other in every scene absolutely spine-tingling. The tension that builds in Blind Tiger also feels natural; he’s a lawman, she’s a criminal, they want each other…and the reader thinks, well, of course, they can’t breathe around each other.
Even after publishing more than 80 books since 1981, for Sandra Brown, this dynamic can be the hardest thing to write.
“You don’t want it to be sappy,” Brown explained, “and you want it to read the way people really feel.”
While both characters are forced into their respective roles (you’ll have to read the book to find out why), when they embrace their duties, they plunge in. This is the part that makes Laurel a woman that readers will identify with. And this was exactly the intention.
When writing Laurel, Brown knew she had to balance her strength with vulnerability to make her tough enough for men of her time to respect her, while at the same time being feminine enough for women to root for her. At the beginning of the novel, Laurel is in a man’s world, biting her tongue each time a decision is made for her…until she finds herself with nothing to lose, decides never to let anything be dictated to her again, and becomes a force to be reckoned with.
For the volatile, underground business she enters, her tough-as-nails exterior is a necessity, but her shielded vulnerability keeps her from acting invincible. As a reader, nothing annoys me more when an author puts a heroine through hell and then strips her of human emotion to slap on the “strong female character” label. You won’t find that in Laurel, whose perfect mix of confidence, insecurity, and independence keeps her relatable from beginning to end.
“I didn’t want her to be so bitter that she wasn’t a sympathetic character or a character that the reader wouldn’t like,” Brown agreed, “and I wanted women to be able to identify with her on every level. And that included her vulnerability.”
Along with the characters, Brown admits that vulnerability is at the heart of the writing process. Even after 40 years in the business, she is not immune to writer’s block: “I have a real love-hate relationship with storytelling […] I don’t despise the writing as much as I despise myself for not being able to produce.”
However, this is what makes her books so special. She never writes a full outline, experiencing the journey as the readers do: not knowing what’s going to happen next. With this in mind, Brown knows that the more pressure she puts on herself to write, the harder it becomes.
This humility is what makes Brown such a legend. Chatting with her was a thrill. I’ve been a fan of her work since I was 15 years old when I stumbled upon one of her early romances at my local bookstore. Little did I know that she’d written enough books to fill an entire library, in an entirely different genre, and that the next thirty or so of her stories I’d devour would make me gasp with shock, cry with despair, and shake with anticipation.
And if I, too, described Blind Tiger, I’d say that it’s not just Prohibition Texas-style, it’s Prohibition, Sandra Brown-style.
Support local bookstores and get Blind Tiger on Bookshop on August 3.
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