Roberta Gellis:
A Classic Author Talks About an Expansive Career

(March 10, 2003)


Many of today’s most-read authors of historical romance (including Teresa Medeiros and Marsha Canham) point to Roberta Gellis as a major influence upon their writing, and legions of readers fell in love with her ground-breaking series The Roselynde Chronicles. Her name comes up not only during discussions on the historical branch of the Romance Family Tree, but when we talk about strong heroines.

While Gellis’s first books were medieval novels, she’s shown flexibility in her ability to write in a variety of time periods and genres; her most recent books have been fantasies based on Greek myths and historical mysteries. Though the next book in her historical mystery series is on hold, fear not! Gellis has plenty of books in the pipeline. Read on about this fascinating author who was gracious and most giving of her time!

–Jane Jorgenson

How does it feel to be considered an “icon” of romance? Special, honored, or just old? I ask this because there are so few authors writing today who have been writing for as long as you who still write and who have such an honored position in the genre.

Actually I’m rather surprised that anyone remembers me. I don’t really feel like an icon. As for old … I don’t need any reminders from my writing. My poor aching bones remind me often enough on their own. Recently I heard of a model I really wish to emulate: Sorry I’ve forgotten her name (a senior moment) but she wrote the first 23 Nancy Drew books (under Carolyn Keene). She continued to write throughout her life and died at 96 over her computer keyboard … still writing

People talk about how different romance novels were when you wrote The Roselynde Chronicles. Can you compare those novels to what is being published today? Has political correctness changed the way romance novels are written today as opposed to when you wrote the books in the series in the late 70s/early 80s?

Most romances written now concentrate solely on the relationship and, often, on graphic sex. I only find the romantic relationship interesting as it is woven into and around the life people were living. Since I carefully chose historical moments when there were important events taking place, a great deal of the attention of my characters was given to war or politics or whatever was happening around them. Often it was the external events that interfered with the progress of my love affairs, not a silly misunderstanding that could have been explained in three words by any two sane people. In other words my plots were history-driven; my lovers had to work their way around political and physical events to find time for romance. Sometimes they literally couldn’t find a place. In Fires of Winter (1987) the hero ended up renting space in a brothel because the town was so full of people attending the king’s council. The place caused first a disagreement and then a very erotic reconciliation for my hero and heroine.

I don’t know about political correctness but no, I intend my heroine to be a woman of her own time, to accept the fact that women are evil and need to be controlled by men (well, even Alinor gave lip service to those ideas, even though she accepted virtually no control by anyone) and my men (although they never do it) fully believe that a good beating makes a good wife. I am medievally correct, if not politically correct. What I have done for the new book is chose a moment in time (actually about 3-6 months) when nothing happened historically. Thus, I am free to use history only as the vaguest background and to present a plot that is driven by relationships. Whether it will work, I have no idea but I have a yen for writing a romance so I’ll try.

Many consider The Roselynde Chronicles a classic medieval series featuring some of the best romance writing ever. Did you see signs of this kind of popularity at the time the books came out?


Support our sponsors Yes, they were reasonably popular when they were first published. Roselynde eventually (over five reprints) sold over 300,000. However, the slump of the late 80s hit them pretty hard. Unfortunately the books had been numbered. By the time Rhiannon and Sybelle were written, Book 5 and Book 6 appeared on the covers – that, of course discouraged new readers. I don’t know whether I could have sold another book after Sybelle but I didn’t try because it would have meant that the original protagonist, Alinor, would have had to die (she was about 60, and 60 was old in medieval times; most people died in their 50s). She was, so to speak, my oldest friend; we were nearly contemporaries. I simply couldn’t bear to kill her so I just stopped the series.

Tell us something about how you came to writing. Sing Witch, Sing Death (1975) was a very early work of yours, which if I’m remembering correctly is something like a gothic regency. Was that your start in writing?

I’ve always loved to tell stories. My mother said I wrote stories when I was a little girl. Thank goodness none of those has survived, although I do have some handwritten pieces that I began in my twenties. I’ve kept those because one has a really good idea for a mystery and the other reminds me how not to write a book. I began writing seriously after my son was born and I was confined to home. Mark was a very good baby, so he didn’t really take up that much time. Frankly, I was bored to death so I wrote Bond of Blood. Once I got started, I was quickly addicted and I have been writing ever since.

Although Bond was the first book I’d written, Knight’s Honor was published a year earlier, in 1964 – but it was a sequel to Bond. Sing Witch was my third book. Probably you are too young to remember the 60s, but that was the period when history was declared irrelevant (people do this about every hundred years; then go through a period of reliving history until someone realizes that the horrors could have been avoided if someone knew history). Anyway, the effect on me – since Bond and Honor were both historical novels set in my favorite 12th century period – was that no one was interested in another historical novel by me. At the time, however, Gothics were going strong, so I wrote Sing Witch. It was during this period that Woodiwiss’ first two books hit the bestseller lists and historical romance was a big thing.

What was the book that inspired you to write romance?

I don’t know that any book inspired me to write romance. I thought I was writing historical novels and most of my romances are very history driven. That people loved and hated and acted on those emotions or resisted them has been true since the beginning of time. History in the periods in which I set my books was very personality driven so it seemed natural to me to set people into time and let them live their livesÂ…loving and being loved. Since I am a terrible pollyanna I had to have a happy ending to the loving and so I ended up writing romance.

What can you say about the passing of Dorothy Dunnett? Was she an influence on your writing?

I was sorry, of course, to hear of Dorothy Dunnett’s death. She was a very great novelist…however, she was not an influence on my work. I loathed Lymond. I read only part of the first book and never touched the series again. I said I was a Pollyanna. My heroes have to be heroes – pure in heart, honest and honorable, although, of course, they can make mistakes. I found Lymond disgusting – human, real, but disgusting. I know people like Lymond. I don’t need to read about them for entertainment. I liked her other series and I truly admired her accurate depiction of both history and the way of life in the period in which her books were set.

Are you a fan of the romance genre?

Oddly, I am not much of a fan of the romance genre. I read some, very selectively – Susan Wiggs, Mary Jo Putney, Amanda Scott, Amanda Quick. Most romances are too anachronistic and inaccurate for me and the constant concentration on s/he loves me, s/he loves me not is ridiculous and boring. I keep thinking “Things are happening all around you; get a life.”

How about Mystery? Science Fiction/Fantasy? You’ve written in just about every genre I could name, well except for Westerns. Are you going to write a Western?

I read a lot of mystery, mostly historical but I have some contemporary favorites like Jill Churchill. Mostly I read SF/F. I have a lot of old favorites (some named above) some more recent, like Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, Patricia Wrede, L.E.Modesitt, Lois McMaster Bujold, David Eddings and a couple I have just discovered although they’ve been around a while: Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (a husband and wife team) and Sharon Shinn.

No Westerns!! I cannot tell you why but I have always hated cowboys, Indians, and anything to do with cattle. I like cows well enough (we had a neighbor with a herd of cows near the place my parents owned as a summer place) and I even learned to milk, but “home on the range” is not for me. I do, however, have the greatest admiration for Native American culture – well, not all of it, but certainly the nature-centric aspects of it.

What are some of the reading influences in your life that have contributed to your eclectic mix of novels?

I don’t know that I can really describe the reading influences in my life because I have read voraciously since I was a child. My parents always let me read anything I wanted in their large library and take anything I wanted out of the public library. That meant I wasn’t confined to the children’s department. I picked the books I wanted to read and either my mother or my father would check them out for me. I read everything and managed to miss a lot of what most children read. I never read a Nancy Drew book, for example, but did read Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Allingham, Doyle, etc. I also read most of the historical novels published in the 40s and 50s – Yerby, Shellabarger, Neill, Sabatini – and I was an early science fiction addict – Heinlein, Asimov, Moore, Leiber, Carter, Burroughs etc. etc. I read the classics too: Tolstoy … I got thrown out of class for reading War and Peace under my desk and when the teacher said, “If you can’t pay attention, you have to leave,” I said, “Oh, Thank you!” and took my War and Peace and went out of the room to read in the corridor. I liked historical stuff (or future stuff) better than contemporary books even then. I managed to miss most of the best sellers like From Here to Eternity and Peyton Place. I still haven’t read Gone With the Wind. But as you can see, I write in the genres I have liked to read from childhood.

Your favorite novel of all time? Why? Other favorites?

My favorite novel of all time – I cannot tell you how often I have reread it – is Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo. One of the reasons why is that Renault has managed to write (for me, anyway) a page turner where virtually nothing happens. The story is about a generally happy and successful life of a Greek actor – and I cannot discover why it is so utterly fascinating. A close second (also by Renault and for the same reason) is The Praise Singer. I have six copies of Mask, one next to every place that I sit so I don’t have to get up and go look for the book when I want a dose. So far, only three copies of The Praise Singer. I also love Renault’s other Greek-set books and maybe those influenced me to write my mythological fantasies Dazzling Brightness, Shimmering Splendor, Enchanted Fire, Bull God, and Thrice Bound.

My favorite romance is Persuasion by Jane Austen – and don’t ask me why. I haven’t the faintest idea why unless it is the solid practicality, without sententiousness of the heroine.

I don’t know that I have a favorite sf/f. Like the sailors’ song about girls in South Pacific, I love ’em all – the long and the short and the tall – and my favorite shifts from week to week or day to day depending on what I’m reading.

Your recent books are a series of medieval mysteries and fantasy re-imaginings of classical greek mythology. That’s quite a combination. Do you approach each type of book in the same way?

I’m not quite certain of what this question means. I research each book – for the medieval mysteries I read medieval chronicles and consult history books; the mythology I research in a number of serious studies on mythology. In other ways I suppose I do approach all the books I write the same way. I discover/develop one or two protagonists who fit the setting. Then I write an outline that describes what their lives were like over the period of the book (I already know their entire background – when they were born, what their parents and grandparents were like, how they were educated, etc.). When I am sure of what happened and how their people fit into their own time, I write.

You’ve gone in a different direction. Was that a reactive change or a progressive change? In other words, are you writing medieval mysteries because you could not sell more medieval romances, or was this always in the game plan?

Actually my reactive change was to write mythological fantasy. When I couldn’t sell historical romance any more (my books were too long, too complex, too history-driven) I turned to fantasy with a great deal of pleasure. I had always wanted to write fantasy, but romance paid an order of magnitude better (for each thousand advance in fantasy I could get about 10,000 for romance). At that time of my life, however, I was willing to take the cut to do what I wanted and I really, really had a ball with the fantasy. However as the years passed, I began to miss my medieval time slot. I still didn’t want to do the kind of silly thing historical romance had become and I had read a lot of good historical mysteries (Ellis Peters, Edward Marston, Lynda Robinson) so I decided to try to write one of those. My first is still lying around waiting for me to rewrite it, but my second one sold.

Go through the research process you use when writing an historical novel.

I generally go over a period of about 50 or 100 years in an appropriate general history. Usually I am attracted by an event or a series of connected incidents that seems confined enough in time (from a few weeks to a year or two) to make an adequate background. Then I read the medieval chronicles (chronicles that were actually written in the medieval period; I have a number of them translated from the Latin to English) that cover the event or incidents. Usually by that time characters and what part they would have played in the event or incidents have come into my mind. I then develop the characters fully – deciding on their parents, grandparents, education, and any other event that would have marked their personalities. When I know my people, I develop the plot.

I’ve read recently that your publisher may not publish the next in the Magdalene la Bartarde mystery series (A Mortal Bane, A Personal Devil, Bone of Contention). Will your readers be able to find Magdalene’s story somewhere else? Of course I’m asking for entirely selfish reasons since I want to know what happens to Magdalene and Bell. Any hints for me?

At present I’m not doing anything about Chains of Folly (the title of the fourth Magdalene book). I have another mystery coming out in September – not in the Magdalene series. This book is Lucrezia Borgia and the Mother of Poisons. Lucrezia is the detective and the book is set in the Italian Renaissance. The publisher says that if Mother sells well enough, they may approve Chains. If they don’t, I probably will write the book anyway and see if I can get a small publisher to take it on or have it published as an ebook with POD.

What’s the next thing on your writing agenda

Right now I’m doing a partial for Desiree (the new Roselynde book). When I pass that to my agent to see if she can sell it, I will start on the second of a four-book series set in the Elizabethan period I am coauthoring with Mercedes Lackey. The first book, Scepter’d Isle, is in the final stages of looking-over before being handed to the publisher. I will start the research on Ill Met by Moonlight, the second book) soon.

Looks like you’ll be busy. I know it’ll set many readers’ minds at ease to know you’ve got commitments for future books, and if you can squeeze it in, perhaps you could write a DIK Review of The Mask of Apollo for AAR?