Romance writer, Sandra Hyatt loved happy endings and believed everyone deserved one. She had a lovely smile and curls I would have killed for. I met her at my first Romance Writers of New Zealand(RWNZ), Auckland Branch meeting and was impressed with how friendly and open she was. During the coffee break she introduced herself to me and mentioned she lived just around the coast in Clevedon and maybe we could carpool for meetings from time to time. I remember being slightly overawed that someone who was everything I was dreaming of being (a successful, published author)would be happy to carpool with me.
In late March Sandra very graciously agreed to be interviewed for my websites and that is how one chilly autumn afternoon found us together at my dining room table, sipping hot drinks and talking about romance.
At the time, I was, for a wide variety of reasons, struggling with the idea of writing romance, so I asked Sandra her thoughts on why people are ambivalent toward the genre. She gave her amazing curls a shake and took time to think a moment before replying.
“You know, I think that ambivalence has always been there and some of it is because romance is usually written by women for women and even today that creates issues I suppose. It’s important to remember to enjoy the spectrum of genres and styles available. One doesn’t have to spoil you for others. I enjoy gourmet cooking for example but I still love pizza. It’s not one or the other.”
She paused a moment and then added “personally I just like a good book.
Sandra, who sold her first book in 2008, didn’t set out to be an author, let alone one who was a USA Today bestseller. In fact, she had a successful career in marketing before taking up writing and was home on maternity leave when boredom drover her to enrol in a writing course.
“When I started writing, this light bulb went off and I thought ‘wow, this is it’,” Sandra told me. “But I still wrote for ten years before selling a manuscript.”
Sandra, as most members of RWNZ know, was in Reno for a Romance Writers of America conference when she won a critique session with Tessa Radley’s editor. That meeting was the turning point.
“I was rooming with Tessa and it was very cool to be in a group of writers who understood the joy I felt. “
The meeting pushed Sandra to take her writing seriously and she soon had a routine of writing every weekday, while her children were at school. It was important to her she said, to show her children you could have a dream and that it wouldn’t always be easy but that you could achieve it all the same.
She admitted, with something of an embarrassed grin, that she usually didn’t plan her work out ahead of time.
“I’m absolutely a pantser,” she said. “Sometimes I have an idea but that’s about all. The details come when my fingers are on the keyboard.”
Once the first book had been sold, she said she simply rolled up her sleeves and “got on with the next one”.
At times, Sandra did write in other genres but felt she wasn’t as good at it, preferring to stay with romance.
“I love a happy ending; I think they’re good for us. I like people falling in love. “
Sandra didn’t mind the solitary nature of writing but admitted she did struggle with the discipline required for meeting her 1,200 word a day target. To help avoid the distraction of email, Twitter, Facebook and the likes, Sandra kept one computer internet free and did most of her writing there. When she forayed online, she usually managed to raise a smile.
“You would think, being a writer, that I could find a pen somewhere in my house,” she once tweeted.
As we began to wind up the interview I asked Sandra what advice she had for new or unpublished writers.
“Take what you want from conferences and meetings and course but always listen to everything. Be careful about who you give your work to, to read. Then write, write, write – don’t write-edit – just get it down on paper. You can come back and fix it up later.”
Sandra died on August 21, 2011 after being taken suddenly ill at the RWNZ conference. I was devastated because although we had met again at my house about six weeks after the interview, we didn’t know each other well enough to be friends yet. I would like to think that perhaps one day we would have become so because on that cold autumn day as I watched Sandra drive away, I knew one thing.
I wanted to be just like her.
In fact I was recently talking with a friend about the subject and she wrinkled her nose and said “what – you mean Mills and Boon?”
Well , yes – and no. Yes because Mills & Boon, Harlequin and the likes are of course what springs to mind when you hear the word romance. Georgette Heyer, Barbara Cartland et al.
No, because they are, despite what we may think, far from the only romances on the market.
Yes, because as far as I am concerned it matters little what gets people reading – as long as they are reading. One person’s drivel is another’s fluttering heart if you will.
No, because like love, romance writing and reading takes many different forms.
So more than a little frustrated, I turned to that well of never ending information – Google and looked up a definition for romance. According to www.dictionary.com, romance is:
a novel or other prose narrative depicting heroic or marvelous deeds, pageantry, romantic exploits, etc., usually in ahistorical or imaginary setting.
the colorful world, life, or conditions depicted in such tales.
a medieval narrative, originally one in verse and in some Romance dialect, treating of heroic,
fantastic, or supernatural events, often in the form of allegory.
a baseless, made-up story, usually full of exaggeration or fanciful invention.
a romantic spirit, sentiment, emotion, or desire.
romantic character or quality.
a romantic affair or experience; a love affair.
Since we’re talking about writing and reading let’s forget numbers five, six and seven for the time being. In that same vein, since we are not discussing fantasy writing lets also discount number three. Fiction is by definition a made up story but since I take objection to the term ‘full of exaggeration” let’s also forget about number four.
That leaves us with numbers one and two. A novel or other prose…depicting heroic…romantic exploits…in a historical or imaginary setting. The colourful world…depicted in such tales.
Basically then a romance is by definition a story that involves people loving one another.
Hmmm – fascinating.
By that definition Twilight, The Time Travellers Wife, The Devil Wears Prada, Sex and the City – heck even Harry Potter are all romantic. They all contain romantic elements – they simply hide behind sparkly vampires, inexplicable time travel, arrogant editors, Jimmy Choos and a school of wizardry.
Each of these has a hero and a heroine who fall in love and face challenges that at times keep them apart until they are forced to choose between their love and a life of certain misery. Yes, yes there are other storylines in those books too – but that does not stop them being romances.
One of the greatest love stories I have ever read is Stephen King’s Bag of Bones – it is haunting (pun totally intended) and sad and so unbearably romantic. He loses the love of his life then finds a new love only to lose her. Finally the object of his true love becomes something he must continue to fight for. His novel Duma Key is similar and both while certainly horror stories are by all definitions great romances.
Romance novels , like wine, come in a variety of styles and tastes.
There are the classics – Shakespeare, Shelley, Keets and the like knew what it was to express feeling in terms of a single heart beat. Move on to the 20th Century – Georgette Heyer, Barbara Cartland and Catherine Cookson all provide a swooning alternative to the life we know. The recent moderns – the likes of Candace Bushnell, Nora Roberts and Lauren Weisberger - with heros and heroines who might on occasion get it wrong, but they do so in designer clothes and not a mascaraed lash out of place as the sun sets on the obligatory passionate kiss.
So why are we so ambivalent about romance? Are we afraid it says something about our intelligence or our talent? Is it because we consider ourselves too evolved to waste time on such frivolity? I’m not sure.
I know I love the stuff – in all it’s presentations. Even the Mills and Boon – which I have been known to devour on a rainy afternoon accompanied by a box of chocolates. They may not be great literature – but they are great entertainment and always remind me of those 1940′s movies where the heroine dashes into the rain, one gloved hand pressed to her forehead, so nobody sees her tears. Nothing beats a good tear jerker.
What I am sure about is this – around half of the novels sold in the United States are romances. That tells me that whether they admit it or not – people enjoy reading about love. Writers might prefer to dress it up in erotica, label it chick lit, hide it in supernatural setting – but readers love reading about love.