Write Byte

How Does it Feel to be a Pioneer?

(August 21, 1998)

Romance author Shirley Hailstock wrote in not too long ago to say she enjoyed the Historical Cheat Sheet. As one who will never let a good deed go unpunished, I asked if Shirley would be interested in writing about being a romance pioneer. How did it feel, I asked her, to be a pioneer in the multicultural romance sub-genre? Here’s what Shirley had to say:

How does it feel being a pioneer? Uncharted waters, undiscovered lands or the space program are usually what I think of when I think of a pioneer. When the words “ethnic romances” started to be batted around I knew this was ground-breaking. I remember the day when Alan Shepherd went up into space. I wanted to be part of that program. I wanted to stand up and cheer when the attained lift-off. It was pioneering, new, unchartered, and exciting. Being part of the new segment of romance publishing was no less exciting.

At the time Kensington launched the Arabesque line, I wasn’t the only person who was virtually panting for these books. All through high school and college all my friends read romances and we wondered why we could never find any that had characters who looked like us. It didn’t keep us from reading, drooling over the heros and enjoying a well written story. When the reality that there might be books with real tall, dark, and handsome heroes, I was glad to be on the cutting edge of the new medium.

Long after I decided to become a writer and had written three full manuscripts with blonde heroines, I joined a group founded by Vivian Stephens called Women Writers of Color. Our purpose was to produce quality romance novels with African-American characters as the major players and get the major publishers to publish them. Vivian, who is the founder of Romance Writers of America and a true visionary, was our mentor. She tutored us through the process of writing and editing our manuscripts. I’m not saying we gave the idea to Kensington, but things came about at the same time. And all the women in the New York/New Jersey group who finished their manuscripts while a part of the Women Writers of Color are now published though Kensington and other publishers.

Being a pioneer didn’t come without fears. I had plenty of them. First I thought the reviewers would hate the books, give them bad reviews and no one would want to buy them. I was afraid the quality wouldn’t be as good. I was afraid the public wouldn’t buy them, the store owners wouldn’t carry them or they’d hide them in the back on the bottom shelves. I was wrong! The books are wonderful love stories. They fly off the shelves and from my fan mail people love them so much our publisher has had to return for additional printings multiple times. My first novel, Whispers of Love, which was published in 1994 was still on the Ingram Top 50 Most Requested Romances four years later during the week of August 10, 1998.

So how does it feel to be a pioneer? It feels great! And it continues to feel great knowing that additional strides are being made. Like anything new, people are cautious of it but eventually it become part of the culture. I think Kensington and the authors of multicultural romances have been doing a wonderful job of producing exceptional stories and promoting them. Many of us have won major awards such as the HOLT Medallion and the Waldenbooks Award for Bestselling Multicultural Romance. As pioneers we’re not wearing buckskins and carrying rifles, but we are making inroads. One of these being the recent sale of the line to Black Entertainment Television. I’m certain other good things are in store for individuals in the future. The New York Times Bestseller List, for example.

At the Romance Writers of America conference in Anaheim, just a few weeks ago, I met one of the pioneers for the new Hispanic line, Sylvia Mendoza, which Kensington is launching later this year. Here’s another ground-breaking area of romance literature that will provide more background and insight into another culture while giving me and other readers a satisfying romance.

So as a pioneer of multicultural romances I can say it’s good to have choices and good to know that people are writing impressive stories that have mass appeal. I’m glad of the acceptance and hope this will continue to grow.

Shirley Hailstock

Laurie Likes Books: Which romances had you most loved when you decided to write them? Did you ever publish, say, as Francis Ray did, romances with white characters?

Shirley Hailstock: I loved Sandra Brown’s novels and I still do. As far as a type of book. I loved the Silhouette Desire Series. I wanted to write for them. I wrote novels with white characters but never sold any of them before I sold to Arabesque.

LLB: What is going to happen to you now that BET has bought the Arabesque line?

Shirley: I’m not sure. BET has asked me to come and be one of the authors interviewed on camera for the new TV program they are planning. I have books coming out in December, 1998 and March, 1999. I’ve completed and turned in the last book of my contract with Kensington and am in the process of completing the synopsis for a new contract. This new contract would be for the year 2000.

I’m hoping BET will pick one of my books for a movie and that I’ll get to write the script. If not totally write it at least work with the screenwriters.

LLB: What do you think about the new hispanic line Kensington is about to start?

Shirley: I am just thrilled. In Anaheim at the Romance Writers of America conference I met one of the authors who has sold to the line, Sylvia Mendoza. I was so excited to find someone has actually sold to the Encanto Line that you’d have thought Sylvia was my sister or at least my best friend. It’s really going to be a reality. I believe in every ethnic group there are romances. I’m looking forward to not only a wonderful romance to read but gaining some background into Hispanic life. I might add I hope in the future to read Japanese, East Indian, Italian, Jewish, and all other ethnic group romances.

LLB: We had quite a debate a while ago about MC romances here at All About Romance. Beyond general writerly ability, the MC romances I’ve most enjoyed have had some “culture” as part of the equation. In contrast, there was one MC romance that seemed color-neutral to me. Can you comment on what you see as the purpose of the MC romance, and if it should be color-neutral or include some “culture” in it, especially in light of your comments about “looking forward to gaining some background into Hispanic life” vis a vis the Encanto Line?

Shirley: Do MC have to have a purpose other than a great story with African-American characters? I believe all books, romances notwithstanding, have culture in them if they show a character and her/his particular background. Is color-neutral meaning the norms we’ve been exposed to (romances with white characters or that the characters could have been any color). Color-neutral does show some ethnic group. There are so many different levels at which ethnic groups (and I’ll say African-American because I know that one), are born into and grow up. The background of a middle class black person is vastly different from a very poor, uneducated black person. Just as it is for a white person of any other ethnic background (Italian, Jewish, Greek, WASP, etc.).

The purpose of a MC romance is a romance first, last and always. Then it’s to have people of color as the major players. What constitutes a person of color seems to be the question? And I do not believe there is an answer to this question only the possibility of a debate. Which is what happened on the boards a few months ago. What is enough ethnicity to put in a book seems to be in the “eye of the reader.” In my mind, as a black person, I live pretty much like my white friends (God, do I hate that phrase). When I develop characters I give them a background that fits their character. For example, my PhD math professor in White Diamonds would not speak broken English. Since most of her life had been bookish, and surrounded by people in the political area, when did she have time to learn to cook soul food. Why should all black people be required to eat it? Do you see my point? Because there is a black couple on the cover, people decide what should be in the book. Why don’t they do this with a white couple on the cover in the same fashion. With a white couple, they decide what should not be in the book, things like jail terms, homelessness, welfare, fractured English, black music. Yet if those things are not in a black novel, it’s not “black enough.” Black enough for whom?

The major purpose I see is to tell a wonderful story that presents a positive image of black people, giving background and cultural events that are important to the story.

LLB: I understand that some white authors are going to be writing romances featuring AA characters. Have you heard this, and, do you think this is a sign that the general public is ready for MC romance? Or do you think it is more appropriate for AA authors to write AA romances?

Shirley: Yes, Suzanne Brockmann has a book coming out in October from Silhouette Intimate Moments called Harvard’s Education. He’s a black Navy SEAL. Suzanne introduced us to this character in her first SEAL book called Prince Joe. Since then Harvard has been in several other SEAL books as a secondary character. I wasn’t the only person hollering for his story. And, BTW, the other people are all white (different ethnicities there too). Also, Carol Buck had a book out a few months ago. It was a Silhouette Desire. I bought it but still haven’t read it. I’m looking forward to reading Three-Alarm Love soon.

Shirley Hailstock’s Backlist:

  • Whispers of Love (HOLT Medallion Winner)
  • Clara’s Promise
  • Holiday Cheer
  • White Diamonds
  • Legacy (Waldenbooks Award – Best Multicultural)
  • I Do Anthology
  • Mirror Image
  • Winter Nights Anthology (December, 1998 Hardcover)
  • Opposites Attract (March, 1999)

You can visit Shirley’s web site at http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Bistro/6812

E-mail Shirley