When I first started to tell my friends and family that I was writing romance novels, they were a bit surprised. I was always one of those literary readers – bordering on literary snob, I suppose – who spent the college years lugging around my volumes of Keats and Shelley. I took classes called “The American Literary Experience,” and “American Literature in the 20th Century” and talked late at night in the college coffeehouses with my friends about Saul Bellow and Willa Cather. We never even spoke the names of genre writers, let alone took them seriously. Many English majors did take a class called “The Popular Novel,” in which we read two books in five genres (romance, western, sci-fi, mystery and horror), but the object of that class was to explore the “formulas” of those genres, not to extol their virtues. We rolled our eyes at the clichéd phrases and acted like we had to read them at gunpoint. We were impressed that the writers made so much money, but we didn’t think they were writing “real books.”
When I moved into the real world, then, I continued reading literary, going through my Margaret Atwood phase with a good friend from work and desperately searching for a book club so I could discuss Toni Morrison and Milan Kundera. I started writing my own “great American novel” – a literary novel, of course – focused on manipulating language to tell a story in a different way.
But then a funny thing happened:
I kept thinking about that pop novel class. …
And I kept thinking about the romance novels. …
And I kept thinking about writing one.
Romance novels weren’t even part of my upbringing, really. The only true romance I had ever read was for the above-mentioned class. And, worse yet, I didn’t like it. (It was Danielle Steele.) I did read genre fiction when I was a teen, but my genre of choice was actually horror, with my shelves lined with black-and-red-covered books with titles like “The Babysitter’s Dead” and “Cemetery of the Doomed.” (And I read plenty of Stephen King and John Saul.)
Yet romance is what stayed on my mind. …
I realized that what I probably loved was simply the concept of romance, both in writing and in real life. I myself was always in love, and I loved hearing about how people fell in love, and stayed in love, and fell out of love, and found love again. I always enjoyed the romantic elements of any books, even kid books. I thrilled when Calvin held Meg’s hand in A Wrinkle in Time, or when Almanzo first paid attention to Laura Ingalls. I loved Philip Hall Likes Me I Reckon Maybe when I was in 5th grade, and I dog-eared all my Judy Blume books like any preteen girl did in the late 70s. I pined like Meggie did in The Thorn Birds, and I sighed along with Florentino in Love in the Time of Cholera. I was in love with love.
So maybe I should write romance novels?
It took me a really, really long time to walk into the romance section. I kept thinking I was going to get more Danielle Steele, and I wasn’t looking forward to that. I kept thinking I’d get “heaving bosoms” and “hair like silk” and “gazing deeply into crystal-blue eyes.” I kept worrying I’d get a pirate-rape story, because I remembered those Fabio covers from the ‘80s, and I knew that would bother my feminist sensibilities. I really didn’t know what to expect. I just wanted a really good romance that was written with the cleverness of Margaret Atwood.
I think I walked in and out of the romance section about seven times over the period of about a month, always empty handed. It was too overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start. And I didn’t want to start with a dud. So I went to the message boards. And the blogs. I can’t remember what I originally searched for, but eventually certain names kept popping up: Jenny Crusie, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Suzanne Brockmann, Lisa Kleypas … Eventually, somehow, I decided on the Jenny Crusie. (I think someone mentioned “humor” and I thought that sounded like something I’d enjoy.) So I marched into my library (worried I wouldn’t like the book and didn’t want to spend any unnecessary money) and found Bet Me. I walked to the checkout counter. The librarian smiled when she saw the book. “This is SO GOOD,” she said. I shrugged noncommittally and told her I’d never read Jenny Crusie before. “Oh, you’ll be back,” she told me.
I recall giving her my best look of skepticism.
“I’ll set some aside,” she said with a knowing smile.
Needless to say, I was back in two days. I snatched up every Crusie book she set aside. I went through Fast Women, Faking It, and Welcome to Temptation in short order. I hunted down every Crusie ever written and sucked it down like popcorn (along with several of her essays on how she was a former literary snob who did her dissertation on romance and fell in love with it herself). Next, I moved on to Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Then Suzanne Brockmann. Then some Nora Roberts. I took a break from Nora and read some Laura Kinsdale. I dabbled in Lisa Kleypas, J.R. Ward, Mary Balough.
Basically, I can’t get enough.
Currently, I’m making my way through AAR’s “Top 100 Romances.” I jump around – sometimes reading contemporary, sometimes historical, sometimes time travel. I’m trying everything. And I’m finding tons of books I love.
I realize I was right the first time – I’m thoroughly in love with love. I’m not one of those people who is bothered by the constant “happily ever after” – I cherish that. To me, it feels like walking up to random couples on a train and asking “How did you meet? How did you fall in love?” Sure, the story always ends the same, but the route to get there is as varied as snowflakes. And I believe in true love. I’m in it.
Additionally, what I’ve come to admire is the thing that makes genre novels really stand out: they can make my heart pound like no literary novel can do. Literary writers are masters at using language to make us think and sigh and want to write down everything they say as a quote, but they don’t make my heart pound, or put me on the edge of my seat. I realized that’s what I loved about all those horror novels of my youth: they took me on that roller coaster each and every time. Genre writers are true, around-the-campfire-type storytellers: they take us on that familiar up-and-down, knowing when we’re going to lean forward and when to let us sit back. They know the pacing that resides deep within our souls – some kind of cultural consciousness, certainly – that’s as old as time. And that’s what I admire about them. They can make your heart pound.
So that’s what I decided to be: A storyteller.
With stories about love.
Together, they’re a great way to spend a lifetime.