Judith Ivory: Intelligence that Shines Through
(March 22, 1999)
“The great thing about books is they requires two imaginations, the reader’s and the writer’s.”
“I think it is the artist’s job to throw ‘truths’ into question.”
I first met Judith Ivory in 1996 at the national RWA conference in Dallas. I was sitting in the pressroom when she came in to set up her PR packets for Bliss, which had been nominated for a RITA. I approached her for an interview, and was immediately taken by how smart she was, how full of energy and passion and knowledge she was. The background information she gave me on publishing is among the most important knowledge I’ve gained in the past several years, and it sits in the back of my brain at all times.
Since that time, we’ve kept in touch. Judith has been a tremendous supporter of All About Romance, and was one of the first to contact me after I left The Romance Reader. She is tremendously forthright, honest, and talented, and when she said she had some free time to sit for an interview, I jumped at the chance.
At the end of this year, Judith makes an important leap with the release of The Proposition. With that book, Judith will move into lead author status with Avon, actually what they consider the super lead position. She will join the ranks of Lisa Kleypas and Christina Dodd. For Judith, this represents a fulfillment of many years of hard work, of moving from publisher to publisher, of making a name change, of enduring the qualifying statements of reviewers who say her books “aren’t for everyone.”
In fact, I agree that they probably aren’t, but for her loyal readership, which has obviously grown in recent years, her books are definitely for them. Whenever I hear the name Judith Ivory, it’s generally in connection with Laura Kinsale and Patricia Gaffney. For me, this troika of romance authors represent a style of romance writing most appreciated by readers looking for more than mere entertainment; they are literate, intelligent, and emotional, but in a different way than most other romance authors. Before I run on further, let me introduce you to Judith and let her words speak for her; they’re better than mine.
–Laurie Likes Books
I understand you’ve got two math degrees.
Yes I do. One’s in applied mathematics and one is in theoretical mathematics. I’m sort of in both camps mathematically speaking.
What happened that led you out of math and into writing?
Well, I published a book. I taught high school, junior high and eventually college. I was teaching at the University of Miami when Starlit Surrender was published in 1988.
There is a three-year gap between Starlit Surrender and Black Silk (1991) and then four years between that and Bliss (1995). Since then you’ve had a book out successive year. What are the gaps about?
]]> Support our sponsors Well, the gap between Starlit Surrender and Black Silk is I changed houses (from Zebra to Berkley) and Berkley was very backlogged and they felt that they were going to have to start again so they sort of just put me at the end and I had to wait a long time for that book to come out. I turned that book in quite a bit sooner and then the same sort of thing happened again.
Trying to place a second book is a tough place to be in. Not necessarily just to place it but to place it well in a kind of career position. So my agent and I though we had, you know, done something with Berkeley and Berkeley, certainly gave it an honest shot. But they really just had too many books and authors from my perspective. Scheduling my books was always a problem. The same sort of thing happened with Bliss. Actually, I was late on that one. I did turn that book in late which is the latest I’ve ever been on any book, but there were some personal problems. I was hit by a hurricane and my son’s lung collapsed and my daughter’s lung collapsed and my husband left me.
All of that happened within four months. So the book was late. It was actually eleven months late, which is really, really late.
So, all these bad things happened in 1994?
In 1992. In ’92, every month. . . the first month in May the floor in my house sunk four inches because seven joists rotted out under my house. And my children were very ill. And in July my husband left me. And in August we were hit by Hurricane Andrew and it took two bulldozers four days to dig us out.
I mean I’ve survived it alright, and the kids survived it alright and, you know, the ex-husband is off and seems to be doing okay and the house is back together, you know, all that stuff was put together, but the book was just delayed hopelessly. When it came in, they bumped it another twenty-two months.
So it ended up being a four-year gap even though I would have put myself an eleven months gap in, you know, more than it would have been. I mean it could have been brought out, you know, like in twenty months rather than four years, but that’s what they did.
You left Berkley for Avon and your first book for Avon was Beast. Along with that move came the name change from Judy Cuevas to Judith Ivory. Is that something that was a publisher request or something that you wanted to do and beyond that, how does it feel to sort of cut yourself off from yourself that way?
Oh, it was a business decision. And I don’t have any trouble talking about it. It was my publisher’s suggestion because they wanted to re-market me and they were very worried that with the Judy Cuevas name a certain pattern had already been established and people who thought they were really, really supporting me would say, you know, great, we’ll take ten more books, that will really help. You know, trying to build numbers with every book seller taking just a few more books even though they see that as a huge help, just wasn’t the kind of help Avon was looking to do. They wanted to boost the numbers considerably.
When they do something like that, is it strange to have a history as one person who suddenly no longer exists? I mean, you were known to a group of people as one person and then. . . .
It’s the middlemen, Laurie. It’s the booksellers. The booksellers don’t know you from Adam. They go in the computer and they say okay, we’ve ordered this many books by Judy Cuevas and that’s how many books they want to order.
So then when they reintroduce you as Judith Ivory, they don’t even mention that you’re the other person.
Don’t even mention it. And then they introduced me at a Treasure spot (the highest mid-list spot Avon has). Avon has a very strong program.
If my readership were so huge it wouldn’t have been a problem. My readership, you know, as loyal as it was, was fairly small. And they wanted to put me in at a stronger position than I was. And I was just highly in favor of it.
It didn’t take too much of a sales pitch to get me to do that. I listened to what my. . . my editor is very smart at Avon. She really understands the romance market. I have learned so much from her.
Your next book is going to be in a lead author position.
Actually, it’ll be a super lead. A super lead is the top of the romance line. It’s the lead romance. There is actually a super lead mass market over that. Elizabeth Lowell, Johanna Lindsey, and Susan Phillips are the mass market leaders. Other super lead authors are Lisa Kleypas and Christina Dodd. Catherine Anderson was in a super lead position but she’s just gone from super lead to mass market lead. It’s where they would put the paperback reprint I think too…not super lead, but the one above, the mass market lead. So it means…of the romance titles being released that month it would be the top one. Any bookseller taking a romance will take that book.
So tell me, when does The Proposition come out? And what’s it about?
In December of this year. My quick line of it is – it’s Pygmalion turned inside out with an Anastasia ending.
It’s Victorian. It’s about a bet in which a woman who runs an elocution and deportment school for girls ends having to pass a rat catcher off as a viscount for a night. She has six weeks effect this change and does, but it’s quite an adventure. I did my first public reading of a section of it on Saturday, and it was really fun. It’s a funny book. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve written. It gets pretty heavy because it deals with the man’s identity, who he really is eventually. And the woman is about six feet tall and kind of on the ugly side. She’s never been involved with men, has only ever dealt with women all her life. The two of them really have a lot of change to go through, but their growth is a fun journey–it was for the writer at least.
One of things that’s so interesting about you is that you’re definitely someone whose willing to stretch the boundaries of what a romance novel can be. You write in periods and in places that are not generally or have not generally been done. You have heroines with careers. You do different things and I wanted to talk to or to get your impression about the how and why of doing that.
I never think I do anything that different. I think I’m writing a really pretty straight romance. In terms of what I write about, I mean, the last heroine I did (in Sleeping Beauty) didn’t have a career. Well, she did – she was a courtesan, but that’s not a ‘career career’.
Sleeping Beauty came from my reading Pam Morsi’s Wild Oats. I loved Wild Oats and really liked the idea of an older woman, younger man, and the woman having kind of a reputation. And it sort of grew from there. So I think of it as being something, you know, kind of similar. I think the way I do it is different from the way other people do it. But everybody does things their own particular way, you know.
I guess that sort of leads me right into this. A lot of times readers will give me three authors that they almost always mention in the same breath – Judith Ivory, Patricia Gaffney and Laura Kinsale. I’ve always tried to figure out why that is other than the fact that the writing is a little bit more intellectual and that it’s sort of stretching. I mean, it’s not just trying to tell the same story the way everybody else does. When I mentioned to you the company you’re always put in, what does that say to you?
I like those writers very much, but it’s a matter of personal taste. I think that Gaffney and Kinsale do something very exciting that I try to do, too. They’re very articulate about emotions. They can find the words to define feelings in a very precise way. They make distinctions. So for me they sweep me along with their character into an emotional world that is, I don’t know, it gives words to the things that I’m always looking for words for in my own life. They eff the ineffable, I like to say, ha, ha. I find their work really helps me in my own life. Does that make sense to you?
Yes, but let me ask you this. Along with the same people, different people will say that…and it’s strange to hear you say what you just said given what I’m just going to ask you now. But some readers get a feeling of coldness from your characters. They like the stories, but they don’t connect with the characters…there is a feeling of coldness. I don’t know if you’ve heard that before.
I hear all kinds of things. I never can relate to that. I don’t understand that because I feel real connected and I feel these people are human and feeling and warm and to me they are. But I always think every book, you know…the great thing about books is they requires two imaginations, the reader’s and the writer’s.
So I always feel that if there’s something there I’m not getting it must be that the reader is bringing it, you know, it must be part of their imagination. I remember people saying that they didn’t like Louise. Some people felt her cold. I had compassion for her. I felt it was so sad to be so beautiful. That was sort of my point, that we should have compassion for even the beautiful. No one’s lot in life is easier than our own. Sometimes what we imagine would be the most fabulous thing–to be utterly gorgeous, for instance–turns out to be every bit as difficult as … well, Charles in this book is ugly, and he and Louise actually have the same problem: a sense of separation from others because of social reaction to their looks.
I think it may also just have to do with the fact that your settings and the times and the places you write about…it’s just very different. You write about turn of the century France, a woman making a film, settings and premises that are not in the norm. I think sometimes that it’s easy to read a book on an intellectual level and accept it that way, but then you can’t really get into the emotion because it’s just so different. There are a lot of readers who like to take the chance, but there are other readers who just don’t feel comfortable doing that, who want a plain, old-fashioned romance.
I think that’s fine. Each to his own. I think nobody is right for everybody.
There’s a reviewer out there and she and I go round and round because every time she writes a review for me she always says, “this book isn’t for everybody but,” . . .and then she writes a glowing review. And I say, “Why don’t you say that with Johanna Lindsay – this book isn’t for everybody but,” and she goes, “Oh, but it is,” and I say, “But she isn’t for me.” Nobody is for everybody. Why do I always have to see that in my reviews?
The great thing about romance and women readers in general is we’re all so diverse. I read a variety of authors, from Amanda Quick to Ken Follett, and an author I’ve just discovered – Elizabeth Berg.
The first romance author to keep me up all night was LaVyrle Spencer. I’m just so impressed with her. Within the genre I’ve always loved Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jenny Crusie, and Christina Dodd – she’s got such clever plots.
What about non-romance?
Well, I have those degrees in math but I have as many hours in English. I’ve did post-graduate work at Cambridge in English. So I’ve done a lot of modernist and post-modernist reading. I’m going to take the phone over to my bookcase and see what I’ve got. Let’s see. William Golding. I’ve got some Scott Turrow, some Margaret Atwood both of whom I love. Barbara Parker writes a great mystery. P. D. James, Ruth Rendall, Alison Lurie, Anne Tyler, John Fowles, Vladimir Nabokov.
What made you decide not only to start writing but also to write a romance?
Rosemary Rogers. I forgot to mention Rosemary Rogers. You know, as I’m handing in my clothes at the drycleaner, she says to me, “You’ve got to read this book.” And I read it and a friend of mine read it and we didn’t tell each other. And then we got together over wine one night and we were talking and we realized we had both read this book and both loved it and nobody had told anybody. And then we were just roaring with laughter. Probably at ourselves that we weren’t admitting that we really liked it.
This is what the whole basis for the web site I run is that sort of feeling of being embarrassed to like a certain kind of book. My husband…this happens all the time. We will go out and people will ask what I do and he’s seen it happen. We were at one of his firm’s functions in Colorado this summer, their retreat, and one of wives asked what I did and I tell her I run a web site and I write reviews for magazines and la la la, and she goes oh really, what kind of books and the minute I mention what kind of books she just cut me dead and moved on.
I don’t know. I’ve gotten very bold about it. I figure I’m a walking contradiction. Here in Miami is the biggest literary event in the country – the Miami Book Fair International. They get 400,000 people at this thing every year and it’s very literary. And I used to love to go be part of it and I used to really worry about the whole thing. I’ve gotten very…I let go of being worried. I realized that nobody was nearly half so upset, with my writing romances as I was. Chances are, I mean here, from my experience…chances are if that woman was snobby to you, she was maybe one of three or four in a room of twenty, you know, about that ratio. And other people would think less of her for that attitude
The funny thing is that then you talk to someone who says, “Oh yeah, I read Susan Elizabeth Phillips,” but they don’t make the connection. Let me ask you – this sort of goes along with a piece that Kay Mussell wrote for us on feminism and romance. She is extensively footnoted in Jayne Ann Krentz’s Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women and now admits to being overly harsh about the genre. She used to believe feminism and romance were incompatible. She no longer believes that. But the criticism is still accepted by so many – how do you counter that?
You have as many viewpoints in romance as there are women, cause the writers are so diverse and the readers are too, which makes it in a way wonderfully feminist. I came of age in the first wave of feminism which really left out the women who wanted to pursue “female” work and do it well. A “smart” woman had to have a career. As if raising a family and tending to the home were somehow less important or worthy than, say, becoming a doctor. The old feminism sort of said that to gain one set of options we had to give up the others. This just isn’t so. It reminds me of a great slogan Barbara Samuel