Lots of fun questions about flawed heroes and heroines during this interview. Mentioned some of my perennial favorite romance writers, including Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Miranda Neville, Laura Kinsale, Amanda Quick, Judith McNaught, Eloisa James, and Julia Quinn.
I remember in some sociology class in college the professor did this typically sociological thing when he used these Venn diagram circles to designate varying levels of intimacy. It was more of a target I think, not overlapping circles really. Anyway, at the center of the circle was the immediate family. The blood. Mother. Father. Siblings. The next circle was also bloody, but thinner. Cousins. In-laws. Then the friendship circle, people we meet and become friends with; then community people (co-workers, etc); then acquaintances; then radiating on out to strangers.
Because it was college—and the nature of friendship is unrealistic in the extreme when you have seventeen hours a day to smoke cigarettes and talk about that bootleg U2 cassette that you scored from the weird guy down the hall—the professor elaborated on the extended friendship circles. One example, which has always stuck with me, was the one about the movies. A close friend is someone you call and say, “Hey, want to go to the movies?” And if there isn’t a movie you can both agree on, you say, “No worries, let’s meet at the bar down on 2nd Avenue instead.” A friend further from the center would not trump that movie on that night, so maybe you’d say, “I’ll see you next week at the rodeo.” A not-close-friend who wasn’t able to make it wouldn’t warrant any future plan whatsoever, “Okay then.” All good.
But, let’s face it. Like the classification of animals, there is the occasional platypus. Is it a mammal? Is it a reptile? Poor monotremes…they just don’t quite fit. I have many platypi in my life. In fact, I am one. I have many varied and internally-conflicting interests. I used to fret about it. What if my super-WASP-y Republican friend with the 74 Lilly Pulitzer dresses met my activist Democrat friend who vacations in a yurt? But that’s the funny thing. They’re all friends with me, so the shared kook is already part of the equation. I am the common denominator. It was a relief. During those post-college years, I still thought of people in those idiotic circles. “Oh, she’s really sweet and was my roommate and owns a design store in Westchester.” “Oh, he’s really sarcastic and used to work with me at Boston Magazine.” But guess what? Now they are neighbors, no thanks to me. We’re all grown ups. So, I finally got the real-life crossover sorted. (Mostly.)
Then Social Media went and happened. Add a great big new wrinkle to the whole understanding-my-friendships, why don’t you, universe? So I dipped my toe into Facebook about five years ago. I “friended” all my friends: the childhood friends, the 98 first and second cousins, the usual. Then I became this freakishly avid reader of romance novels and I started friending the authors of those books. They were imaginary. I remember when Julia Quinn “accepted” my friend request and I was all aflutter. I knew she wasn’t ever coming over to dinner, but you know, we were “friends.” I guess the air-quotations say it all. *finger quotation* FRIENDS *finger quotation*
Here come the platypi. Is it live or is it Memorex? Fish or fowl? Friend or faux?
During my strange and wonderful travels in social media—particularly on Twitter which lends itself to totally inappropriate revelations of an intimate, sordid, personal nature—some of the air-quotation friends gradually became honest-to-goodness call-in-the-middle-of-the-night-because-I-am-freaking-out friends. As with all of the good friends I’ve made as an adult, these friends share a passion. On Twitter, that shared passion is usually books and a shared passion is powerful friend glue. But it’s not the be-all-and-end-all.
There’s that inexplicable “thing” that allows me to trust another human being to be my friend. The sound of their voice. The look in their eye. For me personally, that is not something that can be entirely based on social media alone. Don’t get me wrong! I trust many people I’ve never met in person, but they are not my friends. How could they be? I haven’t sniffed them. (I’m only half-joking about that.) Needless to say, the meaning of the word friend in society at large has been muddied by the omnipresence of air-quotation-friends. Facebook friends.
Exhibit A: When I first read Miranda Neville’s Never Resist Temptation I held it up to my husband and said, “THIS! This is what I am talking about! Smart! Sexy as hell! Witty! Clever without being toplofty! THIS!” At that point in time, Miranda was an imaginary author, a remote personage. I sent her a gushy fan email. She replied. We started laughing about the same things on Twitter. She was becoming a person. Then, when I met Miranda at RWA in New York City, I was still all fan-girl quivery and crazy. (I’m pretty sure I still like that book way more than she does and it continues to unnerve her). Anyway, it was like *click* because the minute she opened her mouth with that lovely British accent and ordered a second glass of wine I was like this:
(And Miranda was probably like Steve Carrell in the background.) I knew we were going to become friends. And then it happened with a few other people. I read Anne Calhoun’s Liberating Lacey and sent her a fan email and now she is my Friend. Capital F. Ditto Mira Lyn Kelly. The list goes on. These are people I’ve met in real life. We’ve hugged. We’ve looked into one another’s eyes and agreed that we have a shared something. (I’ve sniffed.) In any case.
Here’s where it gets tricky. This little platypus blog all got started because I was watching a conversation on Twitter between some people who were saying how it’s a little odd when a Goodreads review says something like, “By the way, I am friends with the author.” There’s no right answer here. If the person writing the review wants to feel like they are showing a modicum of public disclosure (“Hey, I know this person in Real Life and she’s a real dynamo, but my feelings about the book are such-and-such regardless of our friendship…”) I totally respect that. If the person writing the review sounds like a douche (“Nicholas Sparks and I were at his villa in Montserrat sharing a robust Barolo while he read passages aloud, and I loved this book…”) Then, well, I don’t. (That said, I would probably “like” that Sparks review because it would have made me laugh—which is always worth a thumbs-up—but “liking” is a whole different story.)
There’s a bunch of other stuff I could address about the nature of friendship and its innumerable gray areas. Some seem obvious, like, you can’t pay someone to be your friend. But. Even that. My agent is my friend and she gets 15% of everything I earn. (I’d give her more, but that’s the going rate.) My husband is my friend and, in the end, he’ll get 100%. So, I don’t know much about anything, really, except if someone takes the time to read a book and slap a review up there, they’re braver than I am.
PS Here is a review that factored into my thoughts on this essay:
My friend Janet wrote it about my novella, Bound to Be a Bride. Janet and I met and became friends in much the same way I became friends with Miranda Neville: over time. I think Janet is ever-mindful of the ramifications of sock-puppetry and felt the need to say “knows me” so she wouldn’t be accused of “hiding” that fact. Or something.
So, yeah, the whole weekly blog thing kind of turned into a bi-weekly-ish blog thing. Especially now that I am in the throes of Book Seven and I can’t really think of anything to say about anything except these characters who are on fire in my head. They are demanding!
Anyway, back when Vivian Arend suggested I stockpile blogs, I thought, “Hey, great idea!” But the truth is, I write whatever is happening Right Now and if I stockpiled stuff it just wouldn’t make any sense because I’d be all on about Andrew Shaffer’s satire of Fifty Shades of Grey and the righteous demise of DRM and then six months from now none of that would mean anything to anyone. (Andrew, I mean that in the nicest possible way.) I guess that means this blog is about what to write and when.
I started my first manuscript almost eight years ago after I read this article.
It took me a couple of years to write. I wrote now and then. Fits and starts. That sort of thing. I wanted it to be a Romance, but Literary. I wanted it to have a happily ever after, but I killed the hero. In 2006, it was finished and I sent it to a couple of agents who were friends of friends. I thought, “Hey, I wrote a book. I can check that off the bucket list.” One of the agents shopped it around for me. Very loose arrangement, no contract, all very vague. Nothing much came of it. Oh well.
A few more years passed (an infant has that effect on me…time passes).
Meanwhile, I had always been about a one-book-every-couple-of-weeks reader. I was in book clubs. In my book club in 2008-2010, we kept reading all these books that ended in misery (waves to Robin, Margaret, Joette, Margaret, Brewer, Rachel, Helene), which culminated with We Need to Talk about Kevin. The polarizing discussion you can imagine such a book would engender really set me off.
I think that was the match-to-the-fuse moment for everything that came after. I adored every word of that book. I have a mad literary crush on Lionel Shriver. I picked up Post-Birthday World immediately and loved every word of that book too. Then I happened to read Paolo Giordano’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers and loved that as well. But why?! (cue Scarlett O’Hara clutching fist of dirt raised to the heavens) WHY!? Why did they all have to end so horribly?!
I started reading romance novels. Voraciously. As an antidote. A new path. An alternative. An act of rebellion. I don’t know what it was, but it stuck. I had the whole Romance Novel Epiphany (see one of my first blog posts here) and the spigot went on full spray. I wanted to read them. I wanted to write them. I wanted to proselytize and tell everyone I knew that they needed to read them. I started what I consider my first “real” book on June 1, 2010. It came fast.
But I still had that old manuscript languishing on my hard drive and I was following the news about this strange new path that authors were taking—eliminating agents, production, distribution—self-publishing their books. I read the Kindle Direct Publishing manual and put my old book, Genevieve Arrives, up for sale. I sent a blast email to my friends. I posted a link on Facebook. I sent an email to Sarah Wendell (in which I later realized I misspelled Jennifer Crusie’s surname) and asked Smart Bitches to review it. A week later this article came out in the Wall Street Journal. I thought, “Sheesh, this whole publishing thing is a breeze. I am totally on it.”
I sold about forty copies in the few weeks it was available on Amazon, before I attended my first RWA (Romance Writers of America) conference in Orlando in July, 2010. (Oh, you lucky forty people who will forever have that on your Kindle…maybe it will be a priceless collectors’ item one day!) Anyway, while I was in Orlando I was on a fact-finding mission, asking as many Very Important Publishing People as I could what they thought about the self-publishing versus traditional publishing worlds.
Look, what can I say? A LOT has happened in two years. Suffice to say there were no self-published New York Times bestsellers in Orlando in 2010. And there were several in Chicago at the Romantic Times convention 20 months later. Anyway, back in 2010, it was a unanimous decision from Very Important Publishing People that, yes, self-publishing was definitely on the rise, and that if I was willing to devote about 50% of my “work time” to marketing and publicity and all that, it might be the way to go. BUT it was probably not the best way for me to embark upon a career that I hoped would span decades and make me the next Amanda Quick. (I didn’t even know she was Jayne Ann Krentz at that point. More on the hilarity of my ignorance in another post.)
Anyway, I pulled Genevieve Arrives from Kindle and trembled at the prospect that I might have shot all of my writing aspirations straight to hell with my rash three-in-the-morning decision to self-publish it. To this day, everything about Genevieve feels difficult, but worth it. She is my problem child. My mother swears it’s my best book and her opinion is not to be taken lightly. She buys books, people. She reads. A lot. But the problems with Genevieve from a genre perspective? Massive. Anyway, I still think of her fondly and figure she’ll demand her due one of these days, many years from now. (Genevieve, not my mother.)
The rest is pretty much common knowledge. I’ve been writing like a fiend for the past two years. I finished the duke (now A Royal Pain) in about three months and began querying agents in the fall of 2010. For all of you aspiring writers out there, it might feel like misery being rejected like that, because it is. I live in sunny Florida and I still look back on those querying months and it is always dark in my memory. Dark dark dark. And in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t even that long. People now say, “Wow! You got an agent and a book deal so quickly! You are so lucky.” I didn’t feel lucky for that year I was querying agents and on submission to publishers. I felt like a delusional loser.
At one point in that dark time, when I was talking to my husband about the agents I was querying (this is how I thought of them: AQ/SEP/JQ’s agent, Eloisa James’s agent, Kat Martin’s agent, Miranda Neville’s agent, Courtney Milan’s Agent) he said, “Not that I don’t encourage you to aim high, but isn’t that sort of like shooting baskets in the driveway and thinking you can make it in the NBA?”
Now. Let’s pause and reflect on that for a moment. I’ve told that one-liner often. Maybe even in one of the previous blogs here, but it is such a powerful one for me. In fact, the very night my husband said it, I finally got the courage to e-mail the query letter to the AQ/SEP/JQ agent and my opening line was, “My husband says querying you is like playing baskets in the driveway and thinking I can make it in the NBA.” That agent requested the full.
I guess the point is that my husband knows me well enough to know that I don’t like when people tell me I can’t do something. It infuriates me into action. I want to bump my chest up against someone and quote Dory from Finding Nemo.
(Not always. Sometimes I’m just disheartened and give up. But luckily this wasn’t one of those times.)
Now that the dust has settled from the Romantic Times convention from a few weeks ago, I realize the most piquant factoid was this: most agents who are taking pitch appointments tell every single aspiring author to submit a partial. Of those, only 3% actually follow through and send the manuscript. THREE PERCENT.
That’s why I love every writer who ever sent in that partial. We are the three percent. We are all there saying, “Yes, I may be a delusional loser, but come be a delusional loser with me!” And guess what? Suddenly we are not delusional and we are not losers. We are writers.
This week, Manhattan will be descended upon by over 2000 romance writers. Quirky ones with glasses, sexy ones in perilously high heels, academic ones also attending the Third Annual International Conference on Popular Romance Studies. Most are members of Romance Writers of America (RWA), the organization that represents the interests and goals of the nation’s romantic novelists. We meet annually in different cities around the U.S., last year Orlando, next year Los Angeles, but something about this RWA, in the middle of New York City, calls to my mind the 1913 Armory Show.
The Modern Art Exhibition that brought Matisse, Duchamp, and Picasso to American eyes for the first time still resonates. What is “real” art? Who decides? Like those three disruptive pioneers, I feel a giddy sense of percolating change. Among romance writers, there is a healthy skepticism aimed at those who see themselves as “real” writers. I got my smack down at last year’s RWA conference when I thought I’d impress a fellow romance writer with the news that I used to work at The New Yorker. She replied, “Ooooh! Look at you all fancy!”
How are the mighty fallen!
About three years ago, a well-read friend handed me a small paper bag—it wasn’t brown, but still—that contained a couple of her favorite romance novels. I thought, What the hell is she giving me these for? I read Nabokov and Lionel Shriver, Hitchens and Amis. Both Amises. Jhumpa Lahiri was my intern. I majored in British Literature at a respected university. Austen, the Brontes, Vita Sackville-West: These were my people.
In the bag were Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught and The Duke and I by Julia Quinn. Quinn went to Harvard, I rationalized. At the time, I thought her books were representative of a minor sub-genre of a larger foolish genre: historical romance novels, a subset of the romance novel category. I finished both in a matter of days, and headed to the library—after all, who would pay money for these books?—to get another dose of guaranteed pleasures, so unlike real life, so undemanding. I then devoured every historical novel by Judith McNaught, and pursued Julia Quinn with the same ardor. Unfortunately my local library does not have a lot of Julia Quinn. But it turns out that Quinn is shelved next to Quick.
The mother lode.
I started reading one Amanda Quick every night. Quick has written over a hundred romance novels under three different names, one for each sub-genre: historical, contemporary, and futuristic paranormal. Her historical books have titles like Ravished, Desire, and Mischief. This went on first for weeks and then months. I was immersed. I started reading “real” books about 19th-century England, such as the fabulous biography Lady John Russell, and a lengthy tome about Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston. I became re-acquainted with entailments and royal forms of address, fichus and squabs. Arguing with my snippy inner snob, I convinced myself that I was simply reading Jane Austen with sex.
I would never want to read a contemporary romance, I thought. Historically accurate romps? OK. Some tawdry approximation of reality? Not OK. I was an intellectual.
I had unwittingly joined the likes of Philippa Gregory who propounded a similar line of literary elitism in her introduction to the 2004 edition of Anya Seton’sKatherine. Here Gregory (she of the incest, bondage, and more gratuitous sex than most) posited that romance fiction, as opposed to her brand of more elevated historical fiction, “has no authentic interest in different times and cultures.” Gregory went on to malign the romantic tropes and stereotypes, “cardboard characters come ready-made; they are not forged by their particular experiences, their history, or their society, and nothing interrupts them as they work their way through the story toward a happy ending.” She declared that, “A good historical novel is always conscious of our shared humanity.” (The implication being that romance novels are not.) That’s when I started underlining. And laughing. What is more representative of shared humanity than a story that relies on the most basic and potent of human currencies: sexuality?
Eventually I ran out of Amanda Quick’s historical novels and, like an addict who runs out of quality cocaine and settles for speed, I delved into one of her contemporary novels, penned under her real name, Jayne Ann Krentz. Turns out happy endings in imaginary cliff-top inns outside of Seattle are just as emotionally satisfying as those involving viscounts and Napoleonic privateers.
As the library ran out of McNaught, Quinn, Quick, and Krentz, I started reading—and buying—books by the writers who had blurbed the books I had already read. Friends of friends, as it were. People like Eloisa James, Teresa Medeiros, Christina Dodd, and Lisa Kleypas; ex-pat Brits like Miranda Neville and Janet Mullany; sexy feminists like Pam Rosenthal, Carrie Lofty, and Zoe Archer.
How was it possible that these authors (WOMEN) had sold millions (MILLIONS) of books and I had never heard of them? News of the stunning sales figures, material evidence of the powerful rise of the genre, has started to crop up in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and on blogs like Sarah Wendell’s Smart Bitches Trashy Books. The story runs along the lines of a $1.3 billion market share, and 75 million readers, academic conferences in small European cities and lively feminist blogs that defend the rights of women to speak and write joyfully and explicitly about love and sex. (They speak quite eloquently to my inner snob.)
I love that talk—the analysis, the dissection of meaning, the profit margins—I am comfortable with detached academic observation. But when I crack open a new romance novel (yes, I am a spine-cracker) I have learned to dispense with academic analysis lest I forfeit the immediacy and urgency that characterizes a particularly good one.
And the good ones are all alike in this respect: I am transported. Mission accomplished. Often I cannot even remember the names of the characters two days after finishing. I rarely underline. Philippa Gregory implies that this type of fleeting joy is “suitable only for women readers who wanted entertainment without intellectual challenge.” Her point is valid on one level and utterly misleading on another. In a well-told romance, a reader is certainly entertained, but also challenged. If “intellectual challenge” is defined strictly as thinking about thoughts, then these books are not always “intellectual”. If on the other hand intellectual challenge allows for other forms of thinking such as about the motivating nature of desire, greed, lust, and power, then they are. What makes these books great and controversial is the fact that they elicit an immediate, visceral response.
And then they are over.
Which leads me to the subject of pornography. Please refer to the above-mentioned authors’ web pages and blogs for spirited discussions on the differences between romance, erotica, and porn. There is plenty of porn on the shelf, and I have read my share. But this is not it. Romance novel sex tends to be overwhelmingly metaphorical: angry sex, make-up sex, submissive sex, mistaken identity sex, consummation sex, ambitious sex, tentative sex, healing sex.
Some romance readers contend it is the compelling pace of the narrative that draws them in—sometimes a slow burn, sometimes a frantic sprint, Anna Karenina versus The Woman in White—and they say that at times they even skip right past the sex scenes. Um. I do not skip the sex scenes. For me, these books present an ideal world and, to my mind at least, an ideal world includes lots of happy ending sex.
These novels provide all the usual mortal coil stuff, but in a more palatable form. Sexy. Heroic. These are not characters, they are heroines and heroes. And they deliver. Romance novels are provocative without being provoking. While I love them both in their own way, Ian McEwan demands things of me whereas Victoria Dahl satisfies my demands. That is the intellectual challenge I suppose Ms. Gregory suggests I am shirking, but why must my multifarious tastes necessitate the denigration of the entire genre? In other arts, the esoteric and the ephemeral have happily coexisted for decades. If I express an interest in Giotto and yarn bombing, Bach and Lady Gaga, I am well-rounded. But if I read Thomas Mann and Harlequin…I must be slipping.
Contemporary romance is often dismissed as bread and circus. For many critics, its very mass appeal disqualifies it as art. Recently, after confessing that I was trying my hand at writing my own romance novels, a literary friend asked me, smiling but with a quizzical expression, “Okay…but what do you write when you write from the gut?” I must have looked as confused as I felt. Every wrung-out word is from the gut, especially when I am trying to write a scene about a really good blow job without sounding like an anatomy teacher or a pornographer. Writing sex exacerbates creative paranoia: the exposure, the choices, the inadequacy, the judgment. It is not a hall pass from “real” writing. But it is fun.
Reading and writing contemporary romance novels has become my subversive act. And a joyful one. When asked about his bicycle wheel, which may or may not have been created with artistic intent, Duchamp replied, “I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in the fireplace.” I think readers enjoy reading romance novels in the same way, for its own sake. RWA provides cheerful statistics about the real lives of romance readers. They tend to be happy. For the intellectual, happiness appears unintelligent. Blind. Thoughtless. I disagree. I am on a quest to hit people (women, really) over the head with how much I disagree. Many smart women are trapped in a dialectical prison: intelligence must be grim or at the very least ironic. Anyone who is joyful must be living in a state of ignorance. Brainwashed. Touched. Not true. I follow the news, I weep for injustice (far more than I did a few years ago). Maybe that is the reason I avoided romance novels for so many years: it was easier to think than to feel. Too late now. I am a feeling machine, all thanks to the unexpected romance novel.
So, when I venture into Times Square this week and see my favorite romance writers milling about the place, I will thank them. Just as Duchamp, Picasso, and Matisse encouraged viewers to question the notion of real art, these authors have encouraged me to redefine what constitutes a real book. Because, let’s face it, that kind of liberation doesn’t happen every day and I am keenly grateful (as is my husband, but that’s another story).