(This interview originally written for The Romance Reader in 1996)
I first heard from Al Garrotto in his posts to the RW-L listserv regarding his book and his publisher, new-kid-on-the-block Commonwealth. He contacted me a few weeks ago in response to the Desert Isle Keeper Review feature, which gives readers the opportunity to post a review of their all-time favorite romance.
Al wanted to know if a review written about his book A Love Forbidden by author Carolyn Woolston aka Lynna Banning, would fit my criterion for inclusion. Carolyn e-mailed me to say that while A Love Forbidden is not her all-time favorite romance, it was her favorite for 1996.
She said, in part:
“I flat-out admired this book. . .Garrotto’s characters are true to live and involving; the emotions resonate with truth; and the people – lovers, villains, children – are complex mixes – some admirable, some reprehensible, all understandable. The issues dealt with are the stuff of real life, and the complicated anguish of the characters rings true. Easy answers and one-dimensional responses would not.
Not only is there escalating tension, powerful emotion, tooth-grinding suspense, and the fantasy of an impossible love deliciously fulfilled, there is a heart-satisfying message of hope and sanity in a troubled world. . .Watching a sensitive man being torn between love and duty and a woman re-prioritize her life after her husband’s death made me think deeply about my own beliefs and values. I predict this book will make a fine motion picture.”
My interest piqued, I decided to learn more about Al. We shared some correspondence. I was fascinated to discover that he was a priest for nearly 20 years but is now, as they say, married with children.
I asked him a series of questions about religion, sexuality, and writing romance from a male perspective. I hope you will be interested and inspired in his responses as I was.
–Laurie Likes Books
What’s it like to be a male romance writer in a field dominated by women?
To answer that question, I have to go back about ten years. When I first decided to attempt novel-length fiction, I didn’t know if I could fill enough pages to construct a novel. I looked around the in the marketplace. I also tried to assess my skill-level. I fantasized myself as a terrific storyteller. In fact, however, I had no experience and only minimal self-confidence. I had published three non-fiction books and a number of non-fiction articles, but could I successfully make the switch to fiction?
I decided the easiest way to break into fiction publishing would be as a writer of genre romance. I read some romances and said to myself, ‘Al, you can do that.’
I dashed off two manuscripts. I even got a New York agent to represent me. I was on a roll. I even wrote under the female pseudonym, Alicia Algar. When neither manuscript sold, I learned two things: (1) all those successful female romance authors out there were better writers than I was, and (2) writing genre romance wasn’t the piece of cake I thought it was going to be.
However, the fiction bug wouldn’t let go of me. I decided to forget about writing genre romances. I shelved the two defeated manuscripts and set to work on a romantic suspense novel that I considered mainstream (versus genre). My title was Angel of Death, which I changed later to Your Children Must Die.
Not being a full-time fiction writer (my day job was as a freelance business and education writer), it took me several years to complete the manuscript. I started sending it out to agents (never directly to a publisher). No one thought the book was publishable. It too ended up alongside the genre romances on my bookshelf for extended periods of rest and recuperation.
I loved the story too much to give up on it. Somehow, I knew I had a book people would enjoy reading. So, periodically (when my writing business slowed down), I’d dust it off and do some editing and reshaping of the text.
Finally, I got agents’ attention. In the end, there were three who wanted to represent my book. I chose the Lee Shore Agency in Pittsburgh . We did a thorough re-editing before the manuscript was ready to go out and face the world. A year later, Your Children Must Die still hadn’t found a U.S. publisher. Then, Commonwealth Publications in Canada made an offer – not a handsome one to be sure, but they would put the book in print. On the advice of my agent, I set aside the fantasy that I might get the big-bucks advance and accepted the offer.
During production, I got a call from CP’s editorial department. They were so taken by the book’s love story that they wanted to position it as a Romance and change the title. The magic words were, ‘We think it will sell more copies as a romance.’ I said okay and we settled on the new title, A Love Forbidden.
The full impact of being a ‘romance’ writer didn’t hit me until I got my author’s copies of the book. Right there printed on the spine was my name and the category, Romance. I had come full circle. Alicia Algar, having long since hung up her pen (or keyboard), was nowhere in sight.
So I decided not to fight being called a romance writer, but to go with the karma. I joined Romance Writers of America and signed on to the romance writers’ e-mail service, RW-L. I’ve entered RWA’s RITA contest and the Award of Excellence competition, sponsored by Colorado Romance Writers.
Now, I can answer the original question: How does it feel to be a male writer in a field dominated by women? To tell the truth, I’m getting more comfortable with it every day. I’ve been warmly accepted by the romance writers’ community. I have to believe they have treated me with much greater respect than a woman would be who was trying to crash a male-dominated genre.
There’s something else about me that people seem to find interesting. For 18 years I was a Roman Catholic priest. Putting the ‘male,’ ‘priest ,’ ‘romance’ combination together has made me somewhat of a curiosity item for reporters, readers, and reviewers.
How difficult is it to write Romance from a male perspective?
I’m not conscious of writing from a male perspective. In fact, many women who have read A Love Forbidden tell me they’re amazed I can write so effectively from the female perspective. The main character in A Love Forbidden is a single mom whose life is turned inside out by a threat on the life of her children. The main character in my current work in progress is a young woman of 24.
How can I get inside the female thought and feeling pattern? I never thought much about this until I was asked this question point blank. All I can say is that I attribute it to two things: (1) The dominant influence in my early life was my mother, although my father was always present. (2) My ministry as a priest brought me into constant contact with the inner spiritual, emotional, and mental life of women. These two influences have enabled me to write effectively from the woman’s angle.
Now that I think of it, there’s a still another element here. In my opinion, women are generally more interesting people than men, including myself. The concept of the ‘weaker sex’ is a fraud. Women are more complex. They are emotionally stronger than men, often more intelligent or at least wiser than their male counterparts. I believe women, as life givers, nurturers, and lovers experience life with a greater connection to the real world than men do. That’s why women make better main characters than men in fiction, at least in my books. They offer a wider playing field for the author to practice his or her story-telling skills. They make for a more interesting journey into the human psyche. Sorry, guys! That’s just my personal take on the subject.
How can you, as a male writer, handle feelings, when that seems to be difficult for most men, but is essential to the Romance genre?
Support our sponsors I had the good fortune to live as an adult through the ’60s and ’70s when all the ‘get in touch with the inner child’ and ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ psychology was in vogue. I was in personal therapy during this period as I tried to work my way through the decision to leave the priesthood. Getting to the level of my own repressed feelings was an essential part of this process. I also attended many feelings-oriented workshops during this period. As the chaplain on about 40 Marriage Encounter weekends, I was steeped in the M.E. philosophy of learning to communicate on a feeling level, not just on the level of ideas.
That background has allowed me to break through to the feelings of my characters. This is what makes them come alive and become people in the novel. When I read fiction or see a movie, I demand that the author or screenwriter make me care about the characters. If I get a hundred pages into a novel or a half-hour into a movie and I find that I could care less what happens to the characters, it’s all over for me. I’m always looking for my characters’ deepest fears and emotional needs . I have to face mine, therefore I want them to face theirs. My readers seem to think I’m successful in this area, that I’m able to create characters they truly care about and who will continue to linger in their minds – even haunt them – after they’ve closed the book.
Is sexuality in conflict with religion? What about Christian romance?
A Love Forbidden contains explicit descriptions of love-making by unmarried people. How do I deal with this as a Roman Catholic Christian? I have strong, but generally liberal views about what is right and what is wrong in the area of sexuality. I am less concerned about whether the man and woman are married than I am with their commitment to each other and the honesty of the relationship. I tried in my novel to portray two people struggling in good faith to love each other and still be faithful to their God and to their commitments. I would not have my ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ engage in thoughtless, casual, indiscriminate sex. I believe in romance. I see physical sexual expression as a ministry of giving and caring between two people. In A Love Forbidden, I ask at one point how any altar in any church could be more sacred than the bed upon which a man and woman dedicate their lives to each other.
There is also an adulterous relationship between two second-level characters in the book. I present this in explicit, erotic terms, but it should be clear to the reader that the lovers are using each other for their own deviant purposes and that there is no real love or unselfish commitment in this relationship. Their bed is not a sacred altar, a holy place.
How does my approach to sex and sexuality in fiction relate to what is classed as ‘Christian’ or ‘inspirational’ romance? I could be wrong, but when I hear those labels, I hear the unspoken adjective, ‘evangelical’ or ‘fundamentalist,’ in front of the word ‘Christian.’ I don’t think A Love Forbidden (or my current work in progress) would meet with approval by most evangelical/fundamentalist Christians.
I do believe, however, that A Love Forbidden is an inspiring story, one that teems with faith and gospel values. It deals with the Christian social issues of human rights and non-violence and presents dilemmas and choices that Christian people must face in their daily lives, including whether to have sex outside of marriage. The book offers no easy answers, but rather shows how the two main characters deal with these questions in their lives.
How do men and women differ in their expression of sexuality?
I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area. As far as I’m concerned male and female sexuality are very different.
What I’m going to say next is completely my own opinion (‘and not necessarily the opinion of the sponsors,’ as they say in the media). Anatomy is the clue. Male sexuality is literally ‘out front.’ It says, ‘Here I am.’ It’s always ready and eager for expression. Female sexuality is more internal. It says, ‘I’m here, but you have to seek and discover me.’
For this reason, men and women have different sexual needs. The male- female sexual relationship works best when the partners express their needs and put the other’s satisfaction ahead of their own. Easier said than done. Even in the most loving relationship, it isn’t always easy for the partners to talk about sex. A lot of good relationships are defective because of this. Or, let’s say they could be more satisfying if the partners would share more of their feelings and needs with each other. Often in a marriage, sex happens when it happens and may be greatly welcome and fulfilling to both when it occurs. It just may not happen often enough or at the right times to meet the needs of both parties.
The male lead-characters in my books tend to be sensitive to their partner’s need for intimacy and gentleness. Secondary characters may be less caring in their sexual expression.
I’ve been told that I write beautiful sex scenes. In the end, however, I defer to my readers to let me know what my writing reveals about the differing needs and responses of men and women. As the author, I may be too close to the work to analyze it in this way.
I read in a Writer’s Digest article about writing sex scenes that the author should be sexually turned on when writing intimate scenes. If a sex scene doesn’t stir the writer, there’s little chance it will sexually arouse the reader. I believe it is a legitimate goal of a romance writer to sexually arouse readers. I’m not saying this in a lascivious way, but as one who wants his readers to experience the feelings of the characters along with them. Isn’t this what keeps the pages turning?