Lisa Kleypas: This Author Has Legs

(March 15, 2004)

First published in 1987, Lisa Kleypas is far more than simply the creator of hero Derek Craven. Since the publication of her break-out book Dreaming of You in 1994, Lisa’s experimentation with characters and settings showed her to be an author who would never be content to rest on her laurels. In 2000, Lisa truly hit her stride, producing hit after hit and racking up four AAR Reader Awards and five honorable mentions in the intervening years.

We sat down with her recently to “talk”online about her books, her characters, her career, and why she’s no longer a little bit embarrassed to be a romance author.

–Sandy Coleman

First, thank you so much, Lisa, for taking the time to chat with AAR. As someone who’s been reading your books for a long time, it’s very clear how much your books have evolved since those early days. Do you think this evolution is a result of your own personal growth process or romance novels in general? Is it a bit of both?

Thank you for asking me . . . it is truly an honor.

Well, I’ve been published for 18 years, so when I look back on my career, I can see that my evolution as a writer often paralleled what was going on in the romance genre. It might be fair to say that we matured together *g*. You could probably divide my career into three stages, with the middle part being the time of not-very-much growth as a writer, but a lot of growth as a person . . . and that finally led into this third stage, when I think I’ve become more or less fully developed. Getting older, and having two children, have done unspeakable things to my figure *g*, but I think it has also seasoned my character. If my books have some reliable trademarks, I guess they are the sensuality and the emotional intensity – both of which have come to me far more easily now than in the past.

When I was first published at age 21, I remember asking advice from Barbara Taylor Bradford, you know, “please pass me some pearls of wisdom”, that sort of thing *g* . . . and she told me in this beautiful clipped English accent, “Don’t write another novel until you’re 40.” ROFL – as you can imagine, I didn’t much like this advice, and I didn’t follow it. But now I understand what she meant. You have to live through some difficult experiences before you get to be interesting, as a person and as a writer.

You know, I think that’s true with many things for all of us so it’s not surprising that it is true for a writer and what she creates. The sensuality and emotional intensity that you spoke of are certainly two things that keep me coming back, but there’s also a sense of fun and exuberance to your approach to sensuality.Suddenly You was a great example of this.

Thank you! You know, that was a breakthrough book for me in terms of its sensuality . . . and I think it shows my underlying belief that physical attraction cannot exist without intellectual attraction. It is probably my sexiest book, but the romance is between two rather cerebral and highly literate characters and I thought it was kind of fun to set it in the context of an older-woman/younger man relationship.

The older I get, the more appealing those stories are (not surprisingly!). Let’s chat for a minute about your heroines who today don’t bear much resemblance to those from your early years. A former colleague of mine at AAR, Marguerite Kraft, (who is a big fan of yours) wonders if Lily from Then Came You was a turning point for you. She definitely was a kick-butt kind of heroine!

Hee hee. Please tell Marguerite thank you for me!

Lily was most definitely a turning point for me. Until that point, I was IMO a fairly imitative writer . . . at the beginning of my career I wanted to be a writer in the style of Kathleen Woodiwiss (who didn’t? *g*). But my then-editor, the brilliant Ellen Edwards, who was also Kathleen’s editor, really forced me to find my own voice. She rejected an outline for a novel, which terrified me at the time, and told me in a very kind way that I should come up with something fresh and different. So I went to the drawing board, and I came up with a wonderful outline that was . . . in the style of Julie Garwood. ROFL!!! Naturally Ellen rejected that one too. And she threw out some hints that I might be capable of something other than an 18 year-old virginal heroine.

Ellen said, “Write about someone different. Maybe someone who is wild and a little crazy. Someone who might dance naked on the table.” Well, my reaction was that if a heroine was going to dance naked on a table, she must be in very, very deep trouble *g*. So I came up with the idea of a desperate woman with a dark secret, and that of course was that her illegitimate child had been stolen from her, and that fear and rage provides a lot of impetus for the wildness. I’ll tell you, however, that from the emails and letters I receive, Lily is not my most popular heroine. It’s very hard to write a heroine with flaws and deep insecurities . . . I think we romance readers tend to enjoy it more when the hero is the most tortured character.

I think you’re right. We like to imagine larger than life heroes (and larger than life torture) and not-too-spectacular heroines – maybe it’s the old identification factor at work – even though I know Lily is LLB’s favorite of your heroines. But this also begs the question: Who is your most popular heroine?

It would have to be Sara Fielding from Dreaming of You. She is very sweet, patient, understanding, and completely an idealized figure. But I’m not certain if she’s popular because of her own qualities, or simply because she’s part of that book *g*.

My own favorite heroine, btw, is probably Amanda Briars from Suddenly You, who has all my insecurities.

I like Amanda very much, as well and probably for the same reason you do. But I also love Sara. She’s the person all of us would like to imagine ourselves to be, don’t you think? And, of course, she gets the greatest guy in the world: The immortal Derek Craven. Were you taking a risk back then by creating a hero who was the very opposite of the noblemen we were all so used to?

Well, in the spirit of modesty (bahahahaha!) it was pretty daring, and I’m not sure why my editor let me do it. Maybe because I sort of slid him into the role, by starting him off as a minor character in Then Came You. When I gave the first draft of the outline to Ellen E., Derek wasn’t even in the story. But I saw a need for a minor character that would be a friend of sorts to Lily, and it seemed logical that if she made her living by gambling, she would make friends with the gambling club owner . . . and so the character of Derek was born. I never had any thought of making him a hero. He was a cockney, low class, scarred and snaggle-toothed, and really, he did such foul things in his past in the name of survival. But for some reason there was a strange kind of offbeat sexiness to him. And long afterThen Came You was finished, I couldn’t stop thinking about him.

I also got an unusual number of letters asking about him. The fact that I could turn him into a hero probably reveals much of my American attitude toward the concept of aristocracy and the supposedly inherent superiority of blue-bloods. I have never been especially attracted to the notion of Lord So-and-So, with all his inherited wealth and women panting after him, when he has done nothing to earn it. So Derek began a trend of mine, of writing about self-made men back in the Regency and early Victorian periods. Fortunately it turned out to be a niche that not many writers then or now are attempting to fill. And there were so many of these professional men in so many areas, that I think it makes my plots a little more interesting, and allows me to infuse the story with a lot of great research material. The worlds of law enforcement, Victorian publishing, and railroad manufacturing are just a few of the settings I’ve been able to tackle as a result.

You’ve hit on something I absolutely love about your books. There is a pervasive sense through all of them that you very much admire people of accomplishment – and, of course, rising from the sewer to become one of the wealthiest men in London is about as big an accomplishment as anyone could possibly imagine. But not only do these kinds of heroes (and heroines – Lily and Amanda, for instance) allow you to bring interesting elements into your stories, there’s an inherent element of vigor to them that really enlivens your plots.

Thank you! I think for most men, a lot of their identity is bound in their profession. When I was creating the character of Zachary Bronson in Where Dreams Begin, I was puzzling over his character until I came up with the idea that in his past he was an ex-boxer . . . a street-fighter who literally stood on the corner and took on all comers. So even when he became a successful entrepreneur, those elements of his character – the aggressiveness, the guardedness and sheer manly vigor – trace back to his boxing days. During the novel, Zachary has to be tamed, both in an exterior and interior sense, before he can finally find contentment in his life.

So, your heroes are men of accomplishment, but sometimes that’s about all they have in common! Clearly, you’ve resisted the pressure demanding readers must have placed on you to keep recreating your Blockbuster Hit Hero in book after book.

LOL . . .oh, Sandy, it would have been so easy to keep writing Derek Craven over and over again. But that wouldn’t have been the right thing either for my readers or me. (And there are definitely elements of Derek in some of my heroes). I try to keep challenging myself, and exploring different themes in my novels, and I strive with each book to stretch my abilities. To me it’s a facet of my strong respect for my readers . . . I would never want to give them the same old stuff, especially not when they are spending their money and their precious time with one of my books.

Now with quite an impressive body of work to choose from, is there any book (or books) of which you’re most fond?

I think people always assume that Dreaming Of You is my favorite book . . . but actually there is one with more personal meaning to me. Before I tell you which one it is, I have to give you a little background . . . .

I went to Wellesley College, which was very demanding for me academically and their ambition is to mold women into fearless achievers who excel in their chosen careers. So when I graduated and told everyone that I was going to be a romance writer (I sold a manuscript a few months before graduation), there was a sense among some of my friends that if I was publishing a novel, it should be a literary one. Something like Joyce Carol Oates would write. And even though I laughed and brushed the comments aside, throughout the next several years people would ask when I was going to write a “meaningful” novel. It was part of the stigma that all of us in the romance genre – readers, publishers and writers – have to deal with . . . that somehow our beloved romance novels are inferior to the so-called “serious” books. I think subconsciously I worried about that.

However, in October 1998, something happened that changed my life. I was married by then, and I had a three-year-old son. One morning we went out to my mother’s house to have breakfast, while an ordinary (so we thought) rainstorm was going on. But our entire Texas town flooded in the space of three hours, and by the time we realized what was happening, our house was submerged over the roof. Imagine leaving your house with your purse, and losing absolutely everything you have. Later in the day my mother’s house was flooded, and we literally had to be pulled by firefighters through the living room windows, with chest-high water flowing through the street. (This has begun my lifelong sexual attraction to firefighters – LOL)

So two days later we were able to go to Wal-Mart, with a tiny rental car that had a limited amount of trunk space. My mother and I agreed that we would only buy the essentials . . . toothpaste, underwear, soap . . . basic survival stuff. But when she and I pushed our separate baskets up to the checkout line, I saw that we had each put a certain “essential” thing into our carts. We had each gotten a romance novel. We needed that hope and that happy ending, and the optimism that a romance would give us. And it was like a blinding light . . . I don’t want to sound over-dramatic, but it was really like a spiritual experience for me. Because I realized that what I did had incredible meaning. And I have never wondered since then if romance novels are as important as “literary” ones.

So I bought a laptop, went to the Super 8 motel where we were staying, and I began Where Dreams Begin. It was a story about redemption, and hope, and overcoming fear through the power of love. And that is why that book will always be my favorite.

Lisa, that is one of the most eloquent defenses of romance I’ve ever heard. As those of us who love the genre know, there are often big and important things to be had from our little books. What authors do you look to when you need to escape into a great story?

I try always to buy books by writers whom I think are better than me – which means that I never run out of reading material – LOL. I love to buy books by writers who are all-around wonderful storytellers . . . Christina Dodd and Brockway are the best examples of that, IMO . . . but I also tend to read writers who are very unique in a stylistic sense . . . Laura Kinsale and Judith Ivory in particular. And the Curtises. You could read one page of anything they write, and know immediately who wrote it. These writers all dazzle me . . . they are wordsmiths . . .and I flatter myself by thinking that I try to write with the same craftsman like approach. But ironically, I have a tendency to delete the more obvious quirks of my own style when I’m revising my manuscripts . . . there are times when I have to take out some really pretty verbal flourishes because my instinct is to keep my style an invisible presence, and let the reader focus purely on the story. If a thing is done well, it should look effortless. It’s not easy, of course, and I don’t always succeed, but that’s my goal.

Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said something like if you read what you have written and a word or phrase seems to be particularly fine, strike it out. There’s a lot of truth in that!

LOL. That’s perfect.

So what do readers have to look forward to in the coming months?

My first bona fide series! Four books in all, called the Wallflower series. The idea came from my own reminiscences of high school, when my friends and I could never get the popular boys to ask us to dance. I imagined four perpetual Wallflowers who band together and vow to help each other find great husbands. With two books already finished, I am discovering that the tone and pacing of these stories is lighter and more brisk than my other books, although the sexiness is still there, and of course the layers of emotion beneath. It’s so much fun to write about these young women, joking and plotting and getting into tricky romantic entanglements. And one of the books features Marcus, Lord Westcliff, who has been a minor character in a couple of my recent books, including Again the Magic. He’s an aristocrat, which isn’t usually my preferred kind of hero, but I had to make an exception for him. *g*

I can see why. I love Marcus and can’t wait to see where you take him.

Oh, thank you, it was truly a delight.

Lisa, thank you once again for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. I can’t wait to read your next book.

Special thanks to AAR Technical Editor Sandi Morris for her invaluable design and technical support. Without her, this interview wouldn’t have been possible.

Lisa Kleypas at AAR