At The Back Fence Issue #90

(March 1, 2000)

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I’m often asked how an airline pilot/ex-USAF jet jockey ended up writing romance. “Easy,” I say. “Too little time on the ground coupled with way too much time to think!” Trust me, nothing aids plot-hatching and character-developing like fifteen straight hours stuck in the cockpit with lukewarm coffee and a sky so black you can see every star in the Milky Way. Sometimes I do eight Pacific crossings in a month, two a week. On any given day, you can find my body clock hovering somewhere between Tokyo and Sacramento. Ouch. Perpetual jet lag. But on the up side, the sights, smells, and tastes of the exotic locales I visit, and the conversations I have with people I’d never normally meet, provide the most amazing material to weave into my stories. With a little imagination, a dank high-walled alley in Taipei, ripe with the stench of sewage, garlic, and moped exhaust becomes the lower deck of an ill-maintained 19th century sailing ship. A traditional Korean meal, where I sampled food from bowls of every size, morsels that were broiled, salted and dried, or pickled, transforms into dinner-for-two on a distant planet.

Okay, so I’m a hopeless daydreamer. Only I don’t publicize that fact – I mean, the last thing air passengers want to hear is that their 747 pilot is “zoning out.” Not to worry, though; my imagination “runs” in the background like a computer’s operating system, and, because I am, after all, a professional, I ensure that all musings cease during critical phases of flight.

When I’m not a jet-lagged zombie wandering around Sydney, Shanghai or Singapore (my international schedule allows me 18-24 days off a month), I’m a typical suburban mom, if there is such a creature. The other day I was unloading my two children (and that neighbor kid who somehow ends up eating all his meals at our house) at the local park. The boys ran off, each clutching a laundered-too-many-times Beanie Baby (the only two toys in the car), leaving my daughter empty-handed. “But, Mom,” she said, grief-stricken. “Now I have no one to be!”

To be . . . .

Whoa. Simple words, but what a concept. My daughter, with the boundless, easily accessed imagination of a child, intended to be a Beanie Baby, slipping into the fluffy body of a kitten, or duck, or crocodile to live through its eyes. And, boy, did I understand her disappointment. That’s exactly how I feel when I open a book and can’t lose myself in it, when I’m unable, for some reason, to form that seamless emotional connection with the characters that allows me to live the story right along with them.

At that point I suppose I got that faraway look that so exasperates my family, because my daughter accepted my understanding hug and deserted me. I sat on a park bench, mentally shuffling through some of my “keeper” books. One Perfect Rose by Mary Jo Putney, Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Nobody’s Baby But Mine,Primary Inversion and The Radiant Seas by Catherine Asaro. What linked them? A terminally ill duke, a lonely physicist, a battle-weary futuristic soldier? Certainly at first glance the characters share little in common with each other, let alone me, yet I was equally swept away with each book.

Because the authors succeeded in giving me someone to be.

Before I drove to San Francisco the next day to board my flight to Sydney, I asked bookstore owner Mary Alice if this had ever occurred to her. “Yes,” she said. “I yearn to be swept away to another place, another time, another body! I want a book that will completely engross me to the point of being totally unaware of my surroundings, so that when I look up I’m disoriented for a few seconds. When an author can tap into (everyday occurrences), I’m hooked! Whether it’s time travel, present or future, if I can identify with the situation and characters to the point of being totally immersed in a book and not realizing what time it is or even what century I’m in, then the author has written a great book.” We both agreed that Susan Elizabeth Phillips does this extraordinarily well. Mary Alice mentioned Kiss An Angel. “As Daisy, I was forced to marry the tall, dark, sexy, mysterious man my father had chosen! Then I learned he was the owner of a traveling circus, for heaven’s sake. I even had to muck out the elephant’s cage, and I was deathly afraid of animals! And, to make matters worse, a baby elephant decided that I was his mother! Of course, Alex began to take over my thoughts, and I fell in love with him. What a wonderful man he was!”

But “being” a character requires a certain suspension of disbelief. As readers, we are quite willing to suspend our disbelief – why buy a work of fiction otherwise? Yet, late that night, flying at nearly the speed of sound over the vast and silent Pacific, my muse quietly humming as my left brain “baby-sat” the autopilot, I tried to pinpoint how, exactly, my “keeper” books let me wholly transcend the real world for the imaginary.

Once settled in my hotel room at the Sydney Hilton, I e-mailed fellow author Pamela Britton (My Fallen Angel, Harper, Feb 2000) and asked what she thought gave certain novels that magic. She wrote back:

“I truly believe some authors have the ability to draw characters so realistically, that you immediately empathize with them. Movies are the same way. Have you ever watched a movie where the main character did something so out of character that you found yourself thinking, ‘No way.’? Pop, you were out of the movie. Suddenly, you’re in a smelly theater with tons of people around you and if you’re like me, wanting to scream, ‘Did anyone catch that?!’ The other day I watched a movie on the Romance Channel. The film was about a man and woman who were best friends, yet ultimately fell in love. There was a scene where the woman was upbraiding her friend for jumping in and out of bed with people. Her comment was ‘Hey, women don’t do that.’ And I thought to myself, yes they do. All the time. A man must have written that line. Pop. My suspension of disbelief went right out the door.”

One Australian-sized-glass-of-Toohey’s-Old-beer-in-a-two-hundred-year-old-pub later, I deftly steered my three flying partners away from “airplane talk” and asked them what they thought. J.H. replied, “Surprisingly, it doesn’t take a fiction book to captivate my imagination to the point where I lose myself in it.” To him, the knowledge that he’s reading a true story makes it even more compelling.

Later he wrote me:

“A couple of books that have captivated me to the point where I simply couldn’t put them down were The Perfect Storm and Isaac’s Storm. Both bring the reader so completely into the story that the reader has emotional buy-in to the process, despite the fact that starting the book, the reader knows exactly what is going to happen. Everyone’s going to die. It’s like a Martha Grimes novel. Dead bodies everywhere. And yet you have to read. There’s no choice. You want to immerse yourself in the author’s fashioned reality and you want to follow his lead until the end.

“There is a scene in The Perfect Storm that sends chills up and down my spine, no matter how many times I reread it. It starts on page 123 of the hardcover, in the midst of an already harrowing depiction of the power and size of waves in the open ocean. The passage in question starts with what could be considered a boring statement of fact: ‘Rogue waves such as that are thought to be several ordinary waves that happen to get in step, forming highly-unstable piles of water.’ It could be considered boring except for the fact that the author had just described the sighting of a 112-foot wave – a wave as tall as an eleven-story building. He then goes on to build up the reader’s gut level understanding about how extremely awful these waves can be, climaxing with a rhetorical question: how come no one has ever seen one?

“The next passage is the one that scares the snot out of me: ‘Most people don’t survive encounters with such waves, and so first hand encounters are hard to come by, but they do exist. An Englishwoman named Beryl Smeeton was rounding Cape Horn with her husband in the 1960s when she saw a shoaling wave behind her that stretched away in a straight line as far as she could see. “The whole horizon was blotted out by a huge gray wall,” she writes in her journal. “It had no curling crest, just a thin white line along the whole length, and its face was unlike the sloping face of a normal wave. This was a wall of water with a completely vertical face, down which ran white ripples, like a waterfall.” The wave flipped the 46-foot boat end over end, snapped Smeeton’s harness, and threw her overboard. The brilliance of Junger is that he blends true-life horror stories in with his developing story of the doomed ship and its crew. In doing so, he maximizes the fear and horror of the reader as if the reader were actually in the ship, because the reader has developed an emotional understanding of the predicament that the ship and its crew are in.’ “

Ah, yes . . . that elusive emotional connection, essential if you are to be the character and live the story.

The next morning, before my scheduled return to San Francisco, I thought about Lisa Cach’s Desert Isle Keeper The Changeling Bride, a story that had sucked me right in (after an exasperating month of starting and ultimately discarding a dozen books.) Lisa is newly published, yet she had accomplished what more experienced authors could not – she allowed me to become her character. We chatted at length about this. Lisa believes that “small details and emotional honesty” are what transport her into a character’s fictional world. She finds that fictional situations become real for her if she can identify with some part of them.

Lisa recalled that in one of Sue Grafton’s mysteries, a character stands in line for a seat assignment at an airport. She uses her foot to drag a small bag along the floor. As Lisa said, “That for me was a real moment, something I had done myself a dozen times but may never have thought to take note of.” She recalled as well Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, and, in particular, this scene:

“The hero is sitting in the kitchen looking at the contents of his dead wife’s purse, spilled over the tabletop. There is a marshmallow chocolate shaped like a mouse amongst her belongings. He eats it, then bursts into tears, the taste of the candy still in his mouth. It was those traces of chocolate that he could taste as he cried that made the scene real to me, and I will remember that long after I’ve forgotten the rest of the book. The same careful observation applied to human emotion is what makes it possible for me to identify with a character. In my writing, I dig into my own experiences for those details (and, more often than they know, into the lives of my friends), and extrapolate them to the situation I have created.”

Lisa conjures her own, genuine reaction to a fictional situation. “As long as the response is honest, as long as it is something I have felt rather than something I have seen in a movie, then I think there’s a chance the reader will be able to empathize with the character I create. Both when I read and when I write, it is the bits and pieces of reality that make a fictional world work for me.”

As an author writing about pilot heroines, I am particularly fascinated by the concepts of “emotional detail” and “emotional honesty.” I owe the reader a familiar toehold in a situation that might otherwise be too foreign to relate to – like grasping the flight controls of a fighter jet. With that, my daughter’s words came back to me. It seemed she didn’t need much of an emotional connection with her Beanie Baby in order to “be” one.

Author Adele Ashworth, (Winter Garden, Berkley, June 2000) reasons that’s because “Children find it so much easier to move in and out of imaginary settings because they haven’t fully seen the harsh realities of life. It’s harder for them to differentiate the two.” So, as adults, “what makes a movie, play, book, and especially a romance novel great, is its ability to pull us away from those harsh realities for a little while and let our imaginations ‘play’ again. Wonderful books, with brilliant prose and real-to-life characters, are a tonic for the soul.”

Are we saying then that the vivid, easily accessed imagination of a child is a given? I’d always thought so. I learned otherwise from Leesa.

“Five years ago, I gave birth to Marcas. By all accounts, he was a miraculous child. Okay, so I’m a little biased. He did interesting things. He took all his toys and arranged them in very specific locations on the floor in a pattern of his own devising. I couldn’t even begin to understand where this pattern came from or was going. But it was clear that he knew exactly what he wanted. Anything moved would go back to its previous location. He found fascination in the things that most of us don’t even notice. The spinning fan in the air conditioner delighted him. The turntable on a record player entranced him. Letters and numbers were to be found in the shapes of sticks, rocks and everything around him. Even the shapes on buildings and appliances held almost hidden letters and numbers. He would giggle to himself and imitate the sound of the car going over bridges. What a creative child, I thought. This kid has untapped imagination beyond belief. I worried that I would not be mother enough to give support to his abilities.

“Then he was diagnosed as autistic. Suddenly I was being told that the way he giggled to himself was a ‘symptom’ in a wide array of symptoms. It was implied that his arrangements of things were from a disordered mind trying to create order. His games of pretending to be Winnie the Pooh weren’t pretend. That was imitation, not the same as imagination, I was told. It may be a step toward it, but people who are autistic don’t really have the ability to imagine things; they live in a very concrete, visual world. When my son was diagnosed autistic, his imagination was given a death sentence. It became very clear that his imagination would always be discounted simply because the person looking on didn’t believe it could exist. My grief was tremendous. I didn’t know until then that one’s imagination could grieve for the slavery of another’s imagination. But it can. It seemed the height of insult to not believe in the imagination of a child. And I was very insulted as his mother.”

Leesa started doing some reading – by people with autism, and by their parents. And she saw their paintings, and their books, and music. In the end, Leesa’s faith in herself and in her son was restored. She’d learned that “Imagination is not confined by the state of the body.“

With those words occupying my thoughts, I plunged back to reality upon the completion of my trip, trudging bleary-eyed into my house, past baskets of laundry waiting to be washed, dinner begging to be cooked, and into the arms of precious kids longing to be hugged. Although I wasn’t any closer to figuring out why some books had the magic to sweep me away and others didn’t, the question itself had intrigued me and everyone I asked. I suppose the next time my daughter cries, “But, Mom, I have no one to be,” I’ll hand her a good book.

LLB: I thoroughly enjoyed Susan Grant’s debut novel, Once a Pirate, and asked her to write a piece for us after I read it.

On What She Said by Robin Nixon Uncapher:
Sue Grant’s thoughts are interesting and I’m looking forward to reading her books. Some of what she mentions reminds me of my former life running around the world as a training manager for a large international bank. I flew all the time and never considered that the pilot might be thinking about romance as we headed for Hong Kong.

Obviously the thing that jumps out at you when you read Sue’s thoughts is the idea that books take you out of yourself to another place. Like Sue, and many of you, I also look for books that put me into a kind of reading hypnosis.

When I was young, books frequently put me into that special reading trance. The best of these reading experiences (reading Jane Eyre with the flashlight under the covers at twelve) had a permanent influence. The memories are as vivid as anything I experienced. They also created mental touch points to the settings they described. George Elliott has a passage in The Mill on the Floss that speaks of memories overshadowing real life experiences. The beat-up furniture that sat in your home as a child will remain a touch point and, even if it was ugly, may always be with you as a symbol of love and security. For me past reading experiences sometimes overshadow the present ones.

For example, in my imagination, the American west will always be the West of Laura Ingalls Wilder. When I envision the pioneers I see Ma and Pa, Mary, Laura and Carrie living in one of their many cabins. I can’t think of Minnesota without remembering how the grasshoppers ate their farm. I think one of the things I liked about Cheryl St. John’s The Doctor’s Wife was its fidelity to this image of hardworking folks.

When I imagine cowboys I always go back to Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. McMurtry’s description of the old West was gritty and tough, though not without sentiment. One of the reasons I’m down on many westerns is the way they seem to dress up the image I have of that time.

Kenneth Roberts books, especially Rabble in Arms, Arundel, and Oliver Wiswell, gave me a way of imagining New England during the Revolution. I cannot read Danelle Harmon’s American historicals without referring back in some way to those books. Similarly, when I read Susan Wiggs’ The Hostage (which takes place in and around Chicago), I brought with me /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages of Theodore Drieser’s American Tragedy.

I have been wondering about what /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages people bring to the books they read. I know when I read a book about America at the turn of the century I often put the people in my grandparent’s house! Do other people do that?

Not only do personal memories and literary memories influence my thoughts, some movies and television programs do as well. I can’t read an Edwardian book without picturing Upstairs, Downstairs, and the redoubtable “Mr. Hudson” will always be my image of perfect butlerness. Not long ago I saw the PBS series Reckless, and the British actor Robson Green has been making appearances in my head as the hero in a number of romances. How he has jumped in to take John DeSalvo’s place I don’t really know, and I don’t know if it will last. Probably not so long as my Laura Ingalls Wilder memories, but who knows?

What kinds of memories influence your reading? When a writer describes a nursery, who’s nursery do you see? Your own? Your child’s? How about kitchens? Where does your image of the kitchen in an Americana romance novel come from?

Do memories from books create touch points in your reading? Do you have a book that created Regency England for you? Revolutionary America? Victorian London? Let us know.

On What She Said by Laurie Likes Books:
I have a different take on books evoking memories than Robin does. I don’t generally identify with people and places as much as I do the evocation of emotions. One of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed historical romances set in the British Isles is that they bear no resemblance to my life or my history. I get to travel to an entirely new world when I read a Scots medieval or a regency-set historical.

But the books I love are not mere travelogues to distant times and places. What draws me into them and makes them real for me are the emotions expressed. When I’m reading a book and hot tears roll down my face, or I start to get a strange tingling sensation in my hands, I’m in that scene, a part of that story. Although I love humorous and light romances, and though these books do evoke feelings of joy, this time around I want to talk about the darker, more angst-filled romances.

For instance, Stella Cameron’s Bride features a heroine whose self-esteem was systematically destroyed by her grandmother. The hero tells the old woman off in a scene I thought was wonderful because it tapped into something inside of me. Having been raised in family where I was considered strange, I could identify with this heroine, and the hero’s comments fulfilled a personal fantasy of mine. Not only did this handsome and loving man validate the heroine, but he also came to her defense with this powerful figure in her life.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I was part of an experimental dream analysis group begun by two disciples of the Jungian therapist James Hillman. For the two or so years this group met to talk about our dreams, mine were particularly vivid and particularly bizarre. One day the group was doing a guided imagery exercise when, all of a sudden, a powerful image of my childhood pet, who’d recently died, crashed into my head and I was flooded with tears. They literally came out of nowhere, and surprised the hell out of me. This memory triggered very strong, very pure emotions of sadness in an instant, just as some of my favorite books have done.

Some books draw me in seemingly without a personal pull, and yet there must be something to evoke such a visceral response. I’m the sort of reader who experiences emotions in a physical way – for some reason, my hands tingle. When I read certain books, I become an emotional wreck incapable of doing anything but reading. My husband knows that when a Kathryn Lynn Davis book comes out, I’ll need to disappear for a day and just read and cry. It’s very cathartic, and why this author touches me in the manner she does remains a mystery, although I’m convinced of a psychic connection.

With other books, that hand tingling becomes a general body buzz. Sometimes the buzz comes when I’m reading a love scene, but, at other times, it comes with a particularly sad moment in the story. These feelings mostly coincide with vulnerability, such as when a character lays him or herself open to another character. I’ve had this feeling reading series romances in particular, probably because they often require very intense emotionality to compensate for their brevity. There’s a scene, for instance, in Elizabeth Lowell’s Too Hot to Handle, when the hero spies the heroine painfully exercising the leg she injured as an Olympic-class diver. He has treated her poorly for much of the book, and when he discovers the extent of her injuries and how his actions have caused her additional pain, the moment has crystalline intensity.

I’m very susceptible to such moments of vulnerability. One book that I’ve been dying to have someone write a DIK Review for, A Fire in the Heart by Katherine Sutcliffe, features a scene in which the heroine, destitute, alone and pregnant, literally crumples to the ground as she’s staring into a window filled with hair ribbons. The hero sees this, knows of her fondness for hair ribbons, and the moment is all the more poignant. A scene near the end of Day Dreamer by Jill Marie Landis has the heroine talking to the hero while she awaits her execution. When she tells him what she has ordered for her least meal, I cried so loud my husband came running from across the house – he thought I’d been injured. This heroine, who had endured so much, up to and including the hero’s rejection of her, had such grace and dignity in this moment that her vulnerability shone like a diamond.

Then there’s Born in Ice by Nora Roberts, and the reunion at the end between Brianna and Grayson. This brilliant, loving but damaged man, who did not believe he could have a home, and this calmly collected, loving but controlled woman, who had already made a home for him, had to risk removing their masks, laying bare their own vulnerabilities in order to come together. The scene in which their facades are removed is truly one of the most powerful in romance fiction of which I am aware.

When I read romance, I want to go on a journey. Sometimes that journey takes me to a time and place very foreign to me. At other times, that journey takes me inside of myself. I’ve enjoyed both types of journeys, but when a book manages to do both, I’m a very happy reader.

Time to Post to the Message Board:
We’ve presented several different reasons why readers are hooked by certain books. Some readers are drawn in by the small moments that make the books real for us. Other readers like their imaginations to soar when they read, and the books they love allow them to do so. For author Susan Grant, it’s a combination of these things, but most of all it is the characters that she is somehow able to identify with that draw her into a book. For Robin, the time and place of historical romance allows her to reach back in time to when she fell in love with certain eras. It also allows her, in a sense, to connect with her ancestors. For me, romance puts me in touch with strong emotions that sometimes it’s easier to push down than deal with.

Here are some specific questions to think and post about:

histbut Do you “become” the characters in the books you love? Which ones have affected you the most?

histbut  Do you relate to the concept of “emotional honesty” and “emotional detail?” What are some of your favorite examples?

histbut  What kinds of memories influence your reading? When a writer describes a nursery, whose nursery do you see? You own? Your child’s? How about kitchens? Where does your image of the kitchen in an Americana romance novel come from?

histbut Do memories from books create touch points in your reading? Do you have a book that created Regency England for you? Revolutionary America? Victorian London? Let us know.

histbut  Do you take an emotional journey when reading your favorite romance novels? Do you have a physical reaction the way Laurie does?

histbut  What about moments of vulnerability in romance novels, are they one of the things that makes a romance memorable. What are some great examples of moments of vulnerability?

Susan Grant, in conjunction with Robin Nixon Uncapher and Laurie Likes Books

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