At the Back Fence Issue #169

October 15, 2003 

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

If I’ve learned one thing from conversing with readers for so many years it’s this: we’re as much alike as we are different. For instance, some of us have many books going at one time while others of us would never dream of reading more than one at a time. I tend to read more than one at a time when I’m silly enough not to bring my current read with me to carpool line, orthodontist appointments, dance classes, etc. But I also read more than one book at a time when I’m in a reading slump. There’s no doubt that I’ve read some really good books this year, but only one truly “great” one, and it wasn’t a romance – it was the young adult novel Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, by Ann Brasheres. My reading slumps tend to occur about the same time each year – during autumn – and I’ve learned over the years simply to ride them out.

Recently we’ve been revamping our staff biographies. I’ve loved looking at the likes and dislikes of my friends at AAR; it’s equally as interesting to discover which colleagues share my tastes as it is to learn whose tastes are vastly different. Except that she adores mysteries, I know that one of my AAR colleagues and I could easily have been separated at birth; we like many of the same books and share many guilty pleasures, from television to leather goods. Another of our review staff has a fabulous sense of humor, but at times I wonder whether any romance author tickles her funny bone. With still other of my colleagues, I get excited by reading about what they’ve loved even though I know it’s precisely for the same reason they love a certain book that I won’t. And all of these are things I’ve enjoyed about the entire “back fence” romance community we’ve set up at AAR; we’re as much alike as we are different.

Since I’m stuck in a reading rut momentarily, I though I’d share with you some recent books I’ve read, and others I’ve attempted to read. The point is not to provide full synopses or opinions on the books in their entirety, but on particular themes contained therein, which will allow us to expand the discussion beyond these individual titles.

When I was an adolescent in the 1970s, one of my favorite shows to watch with friends during school breaks and summertime was Match Game, a fill-in-the-blank double entendre-filled game show hosted by Gene Rayburn featuring two contestants and six celebrity panelists – celebrities charitably considered “B” list, but in all likelihood, more “C” list actors such as Brett Somers (who’d once been married to Jack Klugman), Charles Nelson Reilly (an extremely under-rated director of plays such as The Belle of Amherst), a post-Hogan’s Heroes/pre-Family Feud Richard Dawson, and a red-haired actress named Fannie Flag. I had no idea until years later that she was originally a television writer, something I discovered in college when I came across her first book – Coming Attractions (later renamed and reissued as Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man).

It astonished me that this person I knew only as a game show celebrity had written a book that wasn’t a hack job or a tell-all. How could somebody who appeared on The Love Boat and Wonder Woman write like this? As a fan of Eudora Welty (and therefore a certain type of Southern Fiction), I picked up the book and read it. It wasn’t the best book I’d ever read, and it certainly differed from the glitz and glamour books I read during that period (this was 1981), but it was good – quite good. I made a mental note to look for her next book.

I had to wait a long time; it wasn’t until 1987 that Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe was published. It was wonderful, and when the movie Fried Green Tomatoes became such a hit in the early 1990s, I know it shocked a lot of people to discover Fannie Flagg, ex-Match Game “star,” had written the screenplay and the book from which it had been adapted. I distinctly remember a conversation with my mother after she’d seen the movie; she went on and on about how wonderful it was, and didn’t take at all kindly to my informing her that the movie’s writer had appeared on the same “idiot box” she used to constantly yell at me to stop watching.

Fannie Flagg is hardly a prolific author; it wasn’t until 1998 that she published her next full-length work. Welcome to the World, Baby Girl is my least favorite Flagg novel, although the sections of the book set in the South of the 1940s and 1950s were strongly written, and paved the way for her most recent novel – Standing in the Rainbow (2002 hardcover/2003 paperback).

Standing in the Rainbow, set in Elmwood Springs, Missouri over a period of decades beginning at the end of World War II, is one of the few books I’ve actually finished in recent weeks. I appreciated it because of its focus on old-time radio, old-time gospel, and old-time/small-town America. The sprawling story itself is nothing compared to the flavor imparted by the book’s setting and characters. Flagg’s unabashed affinity for sentimentality allows her to create idiosyncratic characters with a loving and often humorous hand. She never denigrates her characters by making fun of them. Although the book would seem to have little relevance for this city-raised, thoroughly modern woman, I was swept back in time during the days it took to read it. There’s a tremendous sense of history to be gleaned from Standing in the Rainbow, and it’s imparted incredibly easily. It’s almost through a sense of osmosis that Flagg works through the decades’ social changes, but as with Welcome to the World, Baby Girl, I enjoyed this book best when it explored the twenty years or so following the end of WWII.

That’s not to say the book tackles all issues of import during this period, and that things aren’t glossed over that could have been explored differently. My point is this: we’ve all read many romances wherein a town and its inhabitants are critical to the larger story. In Flagg’s latest, the town and its inhabitants are the larger story. Flagg’s writing always surprises me; even though I read no other author who writes her type of novel, I always make an exception for her books.

What most interests me when I read are people and the relationships they form. So maybe I’m asking too much, but Elizabeth and Darcy don’t go off on a tear trying to solve a mystery, and can you imagine Rhett and Scarlett solving the crime of how her mother really died? Exaggerations, I know, but I’ve realized that in the past year or so that I grade romances higher – particularly contemporary romances but really romances across the board – if the focus is on people, relationships and lives and there isn’t a mystery or suspense sub-plot. And yet this isn’t necessarily something that’s easy to pull off; many authors’ books are boring without a secondary focus like the ones we’ve become accustomed to in reading romance.

Don’t misunderstand me – my keeper shelf features not only character studies but action-filled adventures as well. But the longer I read romance, the more I cherish those novels that do it differently.

I’ll be getting back to the romances I’ve been unable to finish shortly, but first let’s talk about those I’ve finished – and enjoyed. Of the last several romances I’ve enjoyed, two were contemporaries, one was a traditional Regency, and the final was a medieval/faerie tale. All except for the last romance were simply about people and their relationships. Neither contemporary will be released until next month, but I can tell you know that if you like a story with a human focus, Barbara Bretton’s Girls of Summer is marvelous. And though Leanne Banks’ When She’s Bad has a far more familiar story arc and style to it than Bretton’s book, it too is about relationships with little else to get in the way. It’s amazing how many people’s stories can be told when the principles aren’t off solving something.

While Bretton’s first books were series titles, she’s been writing single titles for some time now, and it shows. Girls of Summer does not read like an extra-long series romance. Its style is completely different – I’m sure not only romance readers will enjoy it, but readers of Women’s Fiction as well, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. This is not a “woman whose husband cheated, got divorced, and found herself” sort of novel, nor is it an “issue” novel that explores a larger social phenomenon (or even a woman’s erotic journey from Minsk to Milan ). Instead it’s a story about two co-workers, strongly attracted to one another (the book opens after they’ve made love), who form a love relationship out of a friendship. The hero and heroine are both OB-GYN’s and their careers are well-integrated into the novel. This is not a book about a woman overcoming the odds to become a doctor, or about doctors developing a cure for a disease; it’s a book about two obviously caring physicians whose careers are simply part of their lives. They are woken up in the middle of the night to deliver babies, they deal with women and cancer, and they cope with under-age patients who are sexually active. All this is in the course of their daily existence.

Bretton not only explores the relationship between Hall Talbot and Ellen O’Brien Markowitz, she also explores other connections. Although a belief about Hall’s baggage plays a large part in setting up much of the book’s drama (this is a very different sort of Big Mis), it’s the heroine’s difficult familial relationships that are front and center here. Aside from the grown-up interaction between Hall and Ellen, her half-sister Deirdre has some wonderful scenes as well, not only with Ellen, but with a local mechanic whose backstory is presented with a subtle hand that somehow manages to convey great depth regardless. And, oh yeah, there’s also Stanley, one of the best romance pets I’ve read in a long time.

When She’s Bad is only the second of Leanne Banks’ single title romances after a lengthy career writing series romance. She’s long been a favorite comfort read author for me. Her books have great touches of humor, wonderful love scenes, and sometimes very compellingly serious moments as well – and nearly all of the fifteen titles I’ve read by Banks focus solely on people (the exception being her story in a continuity series). When She’s Bad features one major romance, one major secondary romance, and a minor secondary romance. Banks seems to be transitioning fairly well from category author to single title author, although the book does follow far more romance novel conventions in terms of style, character, and plotting than Bretton’s book. But it’s just that familiarity that makes her books succeed, particularly when she mixes it up with atypical touches.

And then there’s Prospero’s Daughter, Nancy Butler’s trad from earlier this year. One reason I enjoy the traditional Regency is that many of them are written without that mystery sub-plot. But if it’s there, it’s often in an old-fashioned “someone’s killing off guests at a house party” sense which I enjoy. Butler’s book is purely about people, and she goes even further in paring down this story; after all, the heroine is confined to a Bath chair throughout the book, and if you’ve ever taken an acting class or watched a play, you’ll know that movement is key in creating dramatic effect. Yet Butler manages to create plenty of drama without benefit of lots of movement, let alone car chases or the findings of Egyptian artifacts.

But not all authors can manage this; Kate Hoffman’s short story in the Paris or Bust! anthology proves my point. This is a story focusing on a couple’s relationship and it bored me to tears, as have many romances that are character studies. And Jacquie D’Alessandro’s In Over His Head, while featuring some absolutely yummy love scenes, didn’t work for me either. Given that her earlier Kiss the Cook featured two “real” people with two “real” jobs, this newer books’ champion rodeo-riding hero was a disappointment.

How did romances develop in such a way as to almost require solving a mystery, saving a life, or writing about cowboys, spies, and hot-shot military men? Nick and Nora Charles aside, when exactly did it become the norm for a hero and heroine to solve a mystery or crime or be in mortal danger for a story to be interesting? Isn’t the Medieval era exciting enough with its attendant clashes of power without the need to off somebody clandestinely in nearly every medieval romance written? The Regency period obviously intrigues readers as is; why the mysterious fires, need to put a lead character in danger for his/her life, or the search for some illuminated manuscript, journal, jewel, or treasure? It’s as though there are just as many Regency heroines playing Nancy Drew as there are Regency heroines rescuing prostitutes or chimney sweeps. And where would the contemporary romance be without the missions of Navy SEALS or government operatives, cops on a case, or P.I.’s guarding bodies, looking for the missing, and all of the above breaking the rules to do so?

Maybe the narrowing of scope in today’s romances explains why so many romance authors move on to Women’s Fiction (including Chick Lit), where personal stories can be told without a mystery or suspense sub-plot. Or maybe many romances authors can’t figure out how to showcase their characters without them being involved in overtly heroic activity. As much as I love a larger-than-life hero, heroine, and story, as much as I read for the fantasy of it all, there’s something to be said for grounding fantasy in reality.

A few years ago I raved about Joy Fielding’s The First Time, a story in which a husband returns home following a marital separation in order to maintain the family unit while his estranged wife dies of ALS. This in no way is a romance novel – it’s Women’s Fiction all the way – and yet the romantic elements of the book were masterful. And for the purpose of this discussion, the story was grounded in reality. Indeed, last year, through our daughter, we met a man who, after having separated from his wife, returned to the family fold after his wife was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Our daughter didn’t become friendly with his daughter until months after the girl’s mother died, and we were unaware for months thereafter that this man had even been estranged from his wife. My sense is that, just as in Fielding’s book, the wife’s illness actually brought this couple together.

Not all the books I’ve enjoyed recently have been grounded in reality. I mentioned earlier that I’d enjoyed a medieval/faerie romance. It was Ruth Langan’s Highland Sword, first in the Mystical Highlands trilogy about three magical sisters who live in a mystical setting in the Highlands of Scotland, supposedly far from the humans who believe them to be evil witches. In Highland Sword, the heroine is kidnapped from her idyllic existence by a warrior who, after fighting a dragon to get to her, demands she use her healing powers to save his deathly-ill son. While this is not a new storyline, it worked well in this book. The chemistry between hero and heroine was strong, the villains’ evil was realistic given the times, and while there was suspense surrounding the reason for the boy’s illness, it was at least integral to the main storyline.

On the other hand, Langan’s The Sea Witch is a romance that has languished by my chair in the den for far too many weeks. It’s not so much a suspense sub-plot that killed it for me, it’s the sex. In The Sea Witch, which begins a Restoration-era trilogy, the sea-faring father and brother of three remarkable young women are killed, and the gentleman who brings this news to the girls also brings this pre-mortem request from their father: that they should carry on his work. I have absolutely no problem accepting women who can sail and wield swords as well as any man. My problem is when a devastated young woman, within hours of learning her beloved father and brother have died, locks lips passionately with a man she’s never met. I also have a problem with the family of a well-bred young woman condoning (and seemingly encouraging) her sexual intimacy outside of marriage in 1665. Both of these things occur in this book, and not only have I been unable to finish it, I don’t know that I’ll be able to read the other two books in the trilogy as a result.

Sex was also a problem for me in Janelle Denison’s Wilde Thing, albeit for reasons different than you’d imagine, given this is a Romantic Suspense/Romantica hybrid. We’ll talk more about romantic suspense a little later, but this is another book languishing in the den. All it took to kill this book for me were four paragraphs. The hero and heroine engage in many a sexual fantasy throughout the course of Wilde Thing, and after reading those paragraphs on pages 136 and 137, I skimmed the books’ remainder, finding nothing else akin to them. So what icked me out so badly that asked my husband to read them for his reaction, and then gave up on the book altogether?

After melting some caramel in a squeeze bottle, painting the hero’s erogenous zones with it, then licking it off, the hero turns the tables on the adventurous heroine. After he pours some of the caramel on her breasts, he commands her to suck her own nipples, and she does. I took an unofficial poll among AAR’s staff after I shared the essence of those pages with them. Most here at AAR wondered how this was even feasible (unless the heroine was quite top-heavy), but one secretive staffer emailed me privately to say she disagreed with the rest of us. Instead of finding this icky, she found it erotic, which totally destroyed my theory that this was only a men’s fantasy (hey, it was my husband’s theory too – he likened it to those men who fantasize about watching two women make love).

Sex can be a turn-off for me in a romance for any number of reasons. The first couple of times I read skanky villain sex I thought it was a clever way to show the difference between sex in a loving relationship and sex for the sake of sex. After that it got old – quickly. Sex, whether it’s inappropriate or simply too soon, can also be a turn-off. That first kiss in The Sea Witch absolutely did not belong, and the well-written love scene later on was marred in my mind when it appeared as though her grandfather guessed what they’d been doing. Not only did he turn a blind eye, he nearly did a wink, wink. There’s a ridiculous kiss early on in Diana Dempsey’s Catch the Moon. No doubt meant to showcase the latent passion shared by the hero and heroine, all it showed me was that I’d never read another book by this author again.

And then there’s sex in a romance between the hero and heroine without any emotional investment from me, the reader. I find it almost impossible to read a love scene featuring a couple I don’t care about. A great love scene can surely perk up even an average read, but unless I’ve developed some feelings about the couple, a great love scene does nothing more for me than a cold shower.

Going back to Denison’s Wilde Thing, I’m not sure why I tried to read it at all, knowing that it was part romantic suspense, part erotic romance. But I found it for half price, and based on our review, thought I’d give it a try. I can count on one hand the number of romantic suspense novels I’ve truly enjoyed, but I continue to try them because… well, I just do.

Let’s first separate romances that are truly romantic suspense novels and those that are primarily romances with a mystery or suspense sub-plot. I just looked over two listings of favorite romantic movies. Both lists feature 100 titles and of the top ten titles on both lists, only one of the twenty is built around a mystery – Ghost. I don’t think I could go to my keeper shelves and find more than a handful of favorite romances that didn’t also work in a mystery or suspense sub-plot. Obviously they are successful because they can work, and work wonderfully, but as I mentioned earlier, I’ve been grading up romances that don’t use such sub-plots over the last year or so.

I learned a lot in discussing this with others at AAR. Lynn Spencer, for instance, also craves the straight romance and believes many of them went the way of the “big, meaty historical.” She believes that with the success of the mystery genre, which has a large female readership, many romance authors believe they must incorporate mysteries or suspense elements into their books.

Robin Uncapher also prefers plots “that are about people, not about mysteries.” She thinks it’s probably easier to write an action-driven plot than it is to write an external plot about relationships or life challenges. She adds:

“Virtually all romance novels have two plots. The first is an internal plot which entails the conflict between the hero and heroine. When reading this plot the reader is constantly yearning for the h/h to get together, fall in love, resolve their differences. But all romance novels also require a second, external plot. This gives the h/h something to do. The external plot involves and challenge that both the hero and heroine face. Alfred Hitchcock used to use a term called “the McGuffin.” The McGuffin is something that the hero and heroine are desperate to do or get. The audience could not care less about the McGuffin. They just want the h/h to get together. But the hero and heroine want this desperately. In North by Northwest Cary Grant has to find out who is framing him. In Foreign Correspondent Joel McCrea has to find out what has happened to a head of the peace movement in Europe – who happens to be the heroine’s father. For Hitchcock this worked great – but many romance novelists either don’t have the knack or don’t take the time to do this kind of thing well.

“I think one reason that many romance writers don’t do this well is that, unlike the Hitchcock movies mentioned about, the external plot is not a natural outgrowth of who the h/h are. For example, Cary Grant is personally involved from the start when he is framed for a public assassination. He doesn’t meet somebody who asks his advice because he is an aristocrat – he is actually framed. And Eva Marie Saint is not a nice girl who helps Cary. She’s a CIA agent involved in framing him. So we might not care about the McGuffin – but we understand why they care so much.

“Because it is tough to do well, the external plot is the downfall of many romance novels. I strongly suspect that many romance novelists get into this field because they love internal conflict. External conflict is more of a challenge for them. Mary Jo Putney’s later historicals seem strained this way. The last fifty pages often seems to involve an external plot that was injected into the story.

“But external plots that are derived from the characters of the hero and hero can work beautifully. Carla Kelly’s Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand has a great external plot. It is introduced from the first pages of the story and involves her brother-in-law’s sexual harassment of her and his threat to take away her children. So at the start of Mrs. Drew we have the conflict between h/h (ie will they fall in love/how will they get together) and in the second part we focus on how Mrs. Drew and the hero will ensure the safety of her children.

“What is great about that plot is that it is completely derived from character. We learn about Mrs. Drew’s late husband, her creepy brother-in-law and her lonely life. Nothing jumps out at us unexpectedly because we are reading the story of the life of a family – not just two isolated people. Everybody involved in that plot is connected to Mrs. Drew in a way that is logical. This kind of story is not easy to write though. It is much easier to introduce a jewel thief than to write a story that logically develops from the main characters’ lives.”

It becomes almost impossible to separate romances with mystery/suspense sub-plots from romantic suspense, and I suspect the criticisms of the latter can often be applied to the former. In response to Robin’s comments, Lynn said:

“I think you really hit on what has bothered me about a lot of the romantic suspense I have read. I like a good romance and I like a good mystery as well, but it does seem like the romance plot and the “McGuffin” (to use your term) do not enhance each other in any way in many recent books I have read. The most haunting suspense novels for me do spring directly out of the h/h rather than involving some random external machination. Perhaps one reason I like gothics so much is because the mystery at the center of most of them revolves around some aspect of the hero or heroine’s own character.

“The only notable romantic suspense that I can think of from my recent reads is Tracy Grant’s Daughter of the Game. That book was excellent romantic suspense for me because the author did a great job of capturing the time, creating good tension between the h/h and the McGuffin of that story really did spring out of the h/h, their identities and the secrets of their pasts.

But for each of us who prefer character-driven stories, books driven by a combination of romance and suspense are just the thing to prevent boredom. Jennifer Schendel, Leigh Thomas, and Sandy Coleman all prefer romantic suspense. These books have a faster pace and are easier to read. And, as Jen adds, “In a straight romance, if I’m not bored, I get frustrated because the conflict is usually something that can be solved by one really good conversation” or it’s an “I’m not worthy of you plot,” allowing the author to keep the two apart until the end of the book.”

I don’t totally disagree with Jen on this, which is why I think there’s a difference between a romantic suspense novel and a romance novel that also features a suspense or mystery sub-plot. There’s that tacked-on feeling to many of this latter category of books, something which Sandy noticed when she read the latest Stephanie Laurens release – A Gentleman’s Honor. While she enjoyed the book far more than Jane Jorgenson, who wrote the AAR Review, she admits that it “kind of took the relationship-suspense conundrum to extremes in that the relationship was very interesting and the suspense plot just wasn’t. And, frankly, this subplot got completely in the way and caused the book to go on for maybe 100 pages when it just shouldn’t have.”

I’m glad there’s enough variety within the genre so that lovers of romantic suspense have lots to read, but those of us who prefer straight romance feel a bit like an endangered species with little to eat. I think at this point it’s nearly impossible for a full-length historical romance not to feature such a sub-plot, but when I read contemporary romances such as Chesapeake Blue or Girls Night or Girls of Summer and realize each of these books managed to be wonderful without a mystery MacGuffin, I get frustrated that there aren’t more of these books available.

Interestingly, one category of romance/suspense hybrids I do tend to enjoy are those written as series romances. I don’t tend to find most series romances all that believable to begin with because they’re so short, so the hyper nature in terms of pace, sexuality, and relationship development all work in their favor. One of our reviewers, Teresa Galloway, mentioned that Linda Howard combines romance and suspense seamlessly. Given that Linda Howard cut her teeth on writing these hybrids (along with non-hybrid series titles such as Duncan’s Bride, Sarah’s Child, and Almost Forever, each of which I enjoyed a great deal), perhaps romance authors who wrote these shorter hybrids manage it better when they move into single title releases.

Which authors write character-driven romances and write them well? I can think of several traditional Regency authors, Carla Kelly, Melinda McRae, Patricia Oliver, Donna Simpson, and Diane Farr come to mind, but there are many others as well, which may explain why I read so many Regencies. It’s trickier when considering the Medieval period because treachery was such a part of the period. But give me A Kingdom of Dreams over Mystique any day; power, alliances, and romance make more sense in this period than the hunt for a mythical crystal. I’ve already indicated that I think it’s nearly impossible at this point to find a Regency-set historical that’s a straight romance, but luckily there are some contemporary authors who continue to write straight romances, although many of them also write romantic suspense.

Rachel Potter hasn’t a clue how “authors who manage to write purely character-driven stories manage to do it,” but believes Kathleen Gilles Seidel is “the goddess” of this type of romance. She also points to Susan Elizabeth Phillips, who in a 1997 interview promised she would not “be writing a big suspense book.” She’s kept her promise. When I asked at the time “Why not write a suspense novel?”, her answer was, “Don’t read it. Don’t like it. Don’t write it.”

Something alluded to throughout this section of the column is how older romances were written without benefit of a mystery or suspense sub-plot. Anne Marble recalls the early days of the modern romance (1970s to the mid-to-late 1980s) when almost all romances included a crisis near the end, splitting up the hero and heroine. This, she says, is the reason for the big misunderstanding or big secret we still see today in many romances. Anne theorizes that as the “big mis” got old, the mystery/suspense sub-plot took its place, essentially becoming “the big mis of the 2000’s.”

Anne brings the discussion back to its start when she talks about how skimpy hero/heroine relationships are in many romances. She writes, “In many cases, there is something missing in the hero/heroine relationship, something undeveloped or underdeveloped. The book might’ve been a keeper if the writer had ditched the villain and subplot and worked on the h/h relationship. But the h/h relationship won’t fill enough pages unless the characters are really well developed. Unfortunately, that can be an issue.”

Many readers, including many who write at AAR, are fans of romantic suspense novels and/or romances with suspense sub-plots. For them reading book after book about people and relationships gets old unless there’s some suspense to spice it up. As for me, too often the suspense overshadows the romance, and what romance is written is really lust instead. And while sex seems to be kicked up a notch in many books, so does what passes for suspense, which is often gore instead. In fact, I think that just as certain authors are trying to ratchet up the acceptable amount of sex in romance, others are trying to ratchet up the amount of violence that’s acceptable.

Neither of these things is in and of itself a problem – I’m fine with movies like Kill Bill as long as movies like Under the Tuscan Sun are made – but I do worry whether sex and gore will eventually replace love and romance just as I worry whether extraneous storylines (such as mystery or suspense sub-plots that often seem tacked-on) and character stereotypes may replace well-developed stories and characters, and well-written romances. As long as quality and variety exists, this won’t be a problem, but it’s something I continue to watch.

I’m able to relax when I hear raves about new romances, even romances published by smaller publishers that won’t be as widely read as those published by the big companies out of New York. Earlier this year one of our review staff, Donna Newman, raved about Laura Leone’s Fallen From Grace. Shortly after falling in love with Leone’s book, Donna conducted an interview with the author. It follows this introduction from Donna:

When I read the blurb for Fallen from Grace, I asked that it be included in the books assigned to me for review. I’m frequently looking for something a little different, and was more than amply rewarded; this book quite simply wowed me. Not nearly as dark in tone as its subject matter would suggest, it’s wonderfully lush – in its characterizations as well as in the beautiful love story between Ryan and Sara that captures so well how love and desire and yearning combine to elicit a “this is the one” realization. Laura Leone is a pen name for Laura Resnick, who graciously agreed to talk to me, about the origins of this exceptional story and about where her muse might be taking her next.

How did you get the idea for this wonderful book?

I was watching a French suspense film one night about a homicidal gay hustler (a male street prostitute) who’d been involved in a serious relationship with a respectable young man from a good family. The film was seedy and tragic, as well as dull and pretentious, but it got me to thinking: What would it be like for an ordinary person with conventional sexual values to get involved with a sex professional? And vice versa? This led me to studying that world, which in turn led to me thinking more and more about sexual values in relationship not only to love, monogamy, and prostitution, but also in relationship to self-esteem, gender roles, sexual orientation, and social perceptions. If sex as a commodity and sex as an expression of love look pretty much the same from the outside, then what actually makes them different? If sex means nothing to someone, then how does pair-bonding love grow for that person – particularly in a fiction genre, i.e. romance, where sex so often tends to be the most serious link between protagonists? The whole subject grew to absorb me deeply and the story came to mean a great deal to me because of its exploration of perceptions of sexuality and of love, two issues which are central to human experience – and which I would have thought would be central to the romance genre.

Can you tell us a little about your professional history, as Laura Leone in the romance genre, and Laura Resnick in Science Fiction/Fantasy and non-fiction? What are your writing plans for the future, in terms of where you want to focus?

I began my career by writing a dozen category romance novels as Laura Leone, mostly for Silhouette. After leaving Silhouette, I published one single title contemporary romance, Fever Dreams, with Kensington. More recently, after a long hiatus from romance, I published another single title contemporary romance, Fallen From Grace, with Five Star (July 2003). While writing for Silhouette, I won RT’s Best New Series Author award, and also RT’s Best Silhouette Desire award for Untouched by Man (currently available in reissue from Wildside Press).

I started writing Science Fiction/Fantasy short stories around the time I finished my eighth romance novel. At the time, my professional name, Laura Leone, was restricted by the notorious Harlequin pseudonym clause; so I used the only other name I had, which was my real one. It wasn’t a career plan, as I had no long term SF/F interests at that juncture; but it has worked out well for differentiating my two types of fiction work.

Initially, I was just writing SF/F short stories for fun, mostly for anthology editors whom I knew personally (including my own father, science fiction novelist Mike Resnick), as a creative outlet at a time when I was very frustrated as a romance novelist, since I was unsuited to category but wasn’t succeeding at selling any other kind of novel. Eventually, I had sold twenty SF/F short stories in this “spare time, just for fun” pursuit and won the John W. Campbell Award (Best New SF/F Writer). So I started thinking about getting more serious in the SF/F field, where my writing voice seemed better suited to the marketplace. Since then, I’ve sold five epic fantasy novels to Tor Books, and a total of about fifty SF/F short stories.

In my copious spare time, I also wrote an opinion column, The Comely Curmudgeon, for 3+ years for NINK, the monthly journal of Novelists, Inc., a national organization of multi-published novelists. Additionally, I also wrote a second opinion column, The Filthy Pro, for the SFWA BULLETIN, the national quarterly magazine of the Science Fiction Writers of America. I loved writing both columns; in being paid to force my opinions on others, I found my true work in life! But I regretfully resigned from both venues recently due to other writing commitments demanding so much of my time for the next year or two. Additionally, I wrote A Blonde in Africa, a non-fiction book which recounts my 8-month journey across Africa.

When it comes to your romance writing, which authors or books have most influenced or inspired you? Any stand-outs for you as far as either epitomizing the best of the genre or changing its face in positive ways?

In truth, everything I read influences me. If a book is good, I try to study how and why it moved me, what kept me captivated page after page. If a book is bad, I analyze why I thought it was bad: Is it just a matter of personal taste, or is there bad craftsmanship here that I can learn to avoid?

Some writers who’ve written some books I love which appeal to romance readers, though these aren’t all exactly “romance” writers: Mary Jo Putney, Loretta Chase, Laura Kinsale, Mary Stewart, Tami Hoag, Diana Gabaldon, Jennifer Roberson, Janet Evanovich, Elizabeth Peters a.k.a. Barbara Michaels, Georgette Heyer, Margaret Mitchell… Oh, there are a bunch of others, but that’s a good list off the top of my head. I suppose the common denominator among romance/romantic novels that I consider stand-outs are good writing, strong voice, intelligent story choices, compelling characters, and originality. I can’t stand a character who can’t solve a problem which I, the reader, could have already solved if it were my problem; and I can’t stand a novel which reads a lot like twenty other novels out there.

In The Filthy Pro, you discuss the different perceptions and expectations of editors, fans and so on, depending on which hat – SF/F or Romance – you’re wearing. And it seems that, throughout your life, you’ve always forged your own path. How has and does that individualistic bent affect you as a romance author?

In terms of professional perspective, it’s been a big asset. Genre fiction is like a series of ghettos, with every genre enjoying a rather isolationist culture. A multi-genre perspective broadens a writer’s view of the whole industry. It’s also helped me survive professionally. If I could only write one genre, I could only have spent about half of my actual career to date as a professional writer, since there’ve been times in each of my genres, romance and SF/F, when I absolutely could not get work. Versatility has been as essential as persistence in my ability to maintain a fairly steady writing career for (egad!) 15 years.

Your romance novels are considered to have “grittier” themes than is typical for the genre, and that’s certainly true for Fallen From Grace. What interests you about exploring these themes, and how far is too far – i.e., how do you keep your story from becoming too overwhelmingly dark?

Actually, given that I mostly wrote romantic comedy for Silhouette, I really don’t think I am known for having gritty themes. In fact, I’d say Fallen From Grace is the only gritty romance novel I’ve ever sold. (I’d describe Fever Dreams as adventure romance, albeit in the middle of a Third World revolution.) Certainly I would like to write more gritty romance novels; but selling them has always been a big problem for me, and may well continue to be one, so I tend to be much grittier in SF/F than in romance.

In any case, whether or not a story is “too dark” is strictly a matter of individual perception, I think – the author’s, the editor’s, the reader’s. I was fairly shocked by editorial reactions to Fallen From Grace as too gritty and too dark (also “distasteful”). It’s a love story about two likeable people who find each other, overcome their challenges, and have a happy ending. How dark is that, for goodness sake? Then again, writing epic fantasy has undoubtedly colored my views about this, since sacrifice and tragedy are a major part of my work in that genre; I tend these days to think we’re enjoying a light fluffy story if the heroine doesn’t actually have to kill the man she loves.

But I would say that all of my novels, no matter what their subject matter, include a lot of humor and an inherently romantic world view (in the traditional, heroic sense of the word “Romance”), and I think those qualities prevent me from writing a story which I as a reader would consider too dark – but your mileage may vary.

You went to a lot of effort to get Fallen From Grace published and had to make some personal sacrifices in the process. Why was it so important to have this story told?

I did indeed go through a lot to get this book published. This story spoke so strongly to me that, though very disappointed by the negative reception to the proposal at major houses in New York, I decided I was going to write it no matter what. Five Star editor Russell Davis heard about it and asked to see it, and I was so thrilled by then to find someone who liked and believed in the story, after numerous editors and several agents had not, that I was pleased to make a deal with him, despite the contract representing a 95% pay cut for me. Small press pays much less and has much smaller distribution than a major house; however, Russell’s editing was intelligent and sensitive, and his support for this book has never wavered, so it’s been an excellent experience.

Incidentally, I’ve seen some speculation that the heroine, by virtue of being a novelist, is “based on,” er, myself. Ack. In fact, I tried hard not to make the heroine a novelist, because I knew some people would make precisely that erroneous assumption, and I don’t believe in inserting oneself into a work of fiction. But the story structure so clearly required the heroine to be a writer, and I eventually realized that I was failing to serve the story because I was afraid of what people would think; and that’s bad writing. So I pulled myself together then and wrote her as a novelist. From that point on, I knew a great deal about her world. While some of the heroine’s experiences do indeed parallel mine, in fact, her various professional experiences parallel about half of the writers I know. If any reader thinks this heroine’s experiences are at all uncommon – or special to me – it’s only because that reader doesn’t know much about my profession; which is understandable, since most writers naturally keep such experiences as quiet as possible.

Can you tell us what we, as readers can do, to get the message to publishers and editors that we are women (and men) enough to handle a book like Fallen From Grace?

I would say that writing letters-for-publication to Romantic Times and the Romance Writers Report and other well-known romance trade publications, as well as posting comments on reader chat boards as they may exist on publishers’ websites, would be a good way to open a discussion somewhere that editors might become aware of. (Speaking strictly from self-interest, I’d suggest starting with Avon, Ballantine, Bantam, Kensington, Pocket, St. Martins Press, and Warner, all of whom rejected Fallen From Grace. )

Tell us what you like to read. What’s a favorite comfort read? What do you read when you just want to be entertained? And what about when you want to be challenged or inspired?

I read almost everything… but, in fact, relatively little romance or SF/F. The genres I write in have become a bit of a busman’s holiday for me as a reader. Some of my favorite fiction writers include British mystery writers Iain Pears and the late Sarah Caudwell, who write charming and sophisticated novels with delightful characters and intelligent stories. Mary Stewart is a favorite, as is Barbara Michaels a.k.a. Elizabeth Peters. For comfort food, I take a guilty pleasure in non-fiction books about ultra-wealthy, frilly subjects: the British Royal family, objets d’art, rare books, jet-setting socialites, antiques, etc. I find something incredibly soothing about such subjects. For self-education, I read a lot of non-fiction, whether books or magazines, about wildlife, international politics, history, and travel. As it happens, though, the majority of my reading involves research for my fiction. For Fallen From Grace, I read a lot of obscure books about sex professionals and street kids, as well as some guides to San Francisco, the book’s setting. For the fantasy novel I’m writing now, I’ve been reading a lot about horses, gladiators, Mongols, Scythians, Huns, and shapeshifter mythologies. I also do steady reading on traditional and exotic forms of combat and classic military philosophy, since all of my fantasy novels involve a lot of action. If you want to know how to kill someone with a sarong or an oar, you can come to me.

What’s up next for Laura Leone aka Laura Resnick?

Both girls are very busy these days. Laura Resnick has two fantasy novels out this year, The White Dragon (currently available) and The Destroyer Goddess (12/03), and two new fantasy novels under contract, Arena and The Palace of Heaven. Laura Leone is doing a rewrite of Fever Dreams (originally released by Kensington) which will be released by Five Star in summer ’04 alongside the paperback of Fallen From Grace. The rewrite mostly consists of fixing craft problems that jump out at me as I read it now, seven years after originally writing it. Additionally, I’ve recently switched agents, and my new agent is marketing a Laura Leone paranormal romantic-comedy-mystery series. If we sell it, my webmaster will post an announcement on my website, so check there if you’re interested. Finally, I am currently in graduate school, working on a Master’s degree in journalism which is being funded by a research assistantship I’m doing, and I will probably go on an overseas internship after finishing my course work and thesis.

And for any TV fans out there: Right now, I’ve got an essay out in Seven Seasons of Buffy, an anthology in which SF/F writers examine the appeal of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Next year, I’ll also have an essay in a similar book devoted to the Buffy spin-off series, Angel. This is the really -fun- part of being a writer: Lying around watching old episodes of Buffy and telling anyone who bothers me, “Go away, can’t you see I’m working right now?”

Two final questions that I just have to ask: exploding water well? And what was Mr. Haji giggling about?

When I was a kid, we lived out in the country, and the water in our well came from a source so mineral-rich that the water was opaque white, rather than clear, and fizzed and bubbled with natural carbonation. It smelled revolting and tasted even worse, and the doctor said it was very healthy for us. Every so often, the natural chemicals in the water would build up in some underground chamber and…explode…energetically enough to shake the house and blow the cement lid off the well. Our house guests always found this unnerving, go figure.

As for Mr. Haji, the innkeeper in Zanzibar, I think he was laughing at this silly “European” woman (me) and her absurd questions. (See A Blonde in Africa for a full account of my encounters with Mr. Haji.)

Time to Post to the Message Board

Which favorite novels featured settings integral to the story? Which novels have taught you the most history, the most easily? What were their settings?

Which authors stand alone in your library as writing a “certain type” of book?

What makes these novels and these authors successful in gaining your allegiance?

Which authors do you think have successfully jumped from series romances to single title romances? Why do you think they were successful? Are their single titles like longer series titles or do they read differently somehow?

Which romance authors “get” their characters’ careers right? Which romance authors integrate their characters’ careers into the larger book? And, on the flip side, which authors fail at one or both?

Do you enjoy secondary romances when you read romance novels? How much is just enough focus and what’s too much emphasis on these secondary relationships? What are some of the best secondary romances you’ve read, and why?

What are your favorite character-driven romances? What are your favorite action-driven romances? Do you enjoy both equally or prefer one over the other? What makes a good balance? Of the romances you’ve read, which did you enjoy most that had the least action? The least character definition/development?

How grounded in reality do you like your romance novels to be? Do you prefer your romances in urban areas or small-town settings? “Realistic” careers for the majority of us, or cowboys, government operatives, or some of the other careers that are popular in today’s series (and even single title contemporary) romances?

When, if ever, is sexual contact inappropriate or too soon in a romance when clearly the author meant for it to work? Are there sexual activities that turn you off?

Do you have trouble differentiating between romantic suspense and romance with a suspense sub-plot? Why are both so popular these days? How do you trace their genesis, and what do you think the future holds for the straight romance?

Has the suspense or mystery sub-plot supplanted the “big-mis/big-secret leading to hero/heroine break-up,” as Anne suggests? Is it true that almost all full-length Regency-set historicals now feature a mystery/suspense sub-plot?

What percentage of the romances you read are straight romance? How about romantic suspense? How about straight romance with a mystery or suspense sub-plot? Which authors do each of these three types of romances best, and why?

In the interview with Laura Leone, what surprised you most? What was most interesting to hear? Were you frustrated by any of her publishing experiences? If, like many romance readers, you read beyond the genre, what else do you read? Mysteries, thrillers, historical fiction, SF/F, general fiction, etc?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,

Laurie Likes Books, Laura Resnick, & Donna Newman

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)