May 15, 2005 - Issue #180

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

Over the next couple of months I'll be working hard finalizing our site redesign and doing the work necessary to bring you our new look and reviews database. It's been a long time coming, but the end is in sight! As a result we'll be bringing in guests and changing things up At the Back Fence, and occasionally the column won't be as long as it's become in the past couple of years. This time around, for instance, AAR's Sandy Coleman brings you a report on a recent writer's retreat and a marvelous interview with romance author Karen Hawkins.

We'll begin the column, though, with an introduction to our 2004 publisher survey, an update to two previous surveys we've conducted in the past eight years about readers and possible publisher preferences. The survey ballot is on a separate page, and after you've read the entire column you can take a look at it via a jump link I'll provide. The survey page will remain active until midnight, May 31st; look for the results to be reported in this column on June 15th.

And to end the column this time I'll briefly discuss issues arising out of some of my recent reads. This should provide some good jumping off points for our message board.

2005 Publisher Survey (Laurie Likes Books)

Since I began writing about the genre in early 1996 we've conducted two large reader surveys on possible publisher preferences, first in 1996 and then again in 2000. In recent months I've heard a lot about publishers from readers, mostly complaints and questions, to want to discover the answers, along with you, yet again. And so I've created a survey with a series of twelve questions for you to consider, and an extra "comment" field for anything else you'd care to add. At the end of this column you'll be able to take a jump link to this survey and look over the questions. I don't expect you to answer immediately because doing the survey will require some time and effort on your part, but you'll be able to see the questions today and hopefully will answer them shortly.

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Many readers do not believe they have any publisher preferences, and it's quite possible that you do not. But what many find as a result of thinking about it through the questions we'll pose is that they actually do have some preferences, albeit often unconscious ones. It stands to reason that this is the case, given how books are bought, edited, and sold to the public via the editorial system. For instance, longtime Pocket Books editor Linda Marrow moved to Ballantine some years ago, and brought with her many of her biggest authors. Ballantine is now a big name in romance novels, but it hasn't always been that way.

I'll be going through my own bookshelves, keeper shelves, and list of traded books in order to answer the questions I'm asking you to answer. We should be able to determine whether or not there are still more than one perceived "tier" of publishers, if certain publishers are in danger of too narrowly focusing the style of romances they release, and which publishers are or are not keeping up with the times - and whether that's a good thing.

Because I want you to really think about your answers, and look at your books, I've made the survey ballot a separate page from the column itself. After you've read the remainder of this column, please take a look at the survey questions, and after you've had time to consider your answers, fill out the ballot form and send it in. Remember, the survey will remain active until midnight, May 31st and results should be reported here on June 1st.

In the Company of Writers (Sandy Coleman)

Beyond slumber parties, sororities, and those unforgettable late nights in the college dorm when dissecting the many foibles of men is honed to a fine art, life gets in the way and marathon Female Bonding sessions are all too few and far between. Sadly, until the weekend of April 30th, I hadn't realized how much I missed them.

For 20 years, the Washington Romance Writers has hosted In The Company Of Writers, a weekend retreat at historic Hilltop House in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia that offers more than just informative workshops. For the lucky attendees, this annual weekend extravaganza provides a rare chance to bond, to share, to connect, and, perhaps most importantly, to make a complete idiot of yourself around people who will - amazingly - still like you in the morning.

The weekend kicks off every year with a blockbuster book signing at Bruce Wilder's Turn the Page Bookstore in nearby Boonesboro, Maryland. For those who don't know, Bruce is an extremely romance-friendly bookseller (with one of the best romance sections I've ever seen, by the way) who also happens to be married to Nora Roberts, our certified Local Star. Every year Nora, along with an ever-changing cast of big name guest authors and other published area writers, holds court for readers - like my sister and I for the past three years - who travel for miles to attend this annual not-to-be-missed event.

With past guests including Suzanne Brockmann, Barbara Samuel, Teresa Medeiros, and Janet Evanovich, this year's guest authors offered the same big name marquee appeal (especially to lovers of historical romance): Connie Brockway, Loretta Chase, and Christina Dodd. And with record attendance and sales at this year's signing - not a surprise considering the above authors, plus Patricia Gaffney, Donna Kauffman, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Rebecca York, Kathryn Caskie, Laurin Wittig, Celeste O. Norfleet, and more - the weekend was off and running.

Instead of traveling somewhat morosely back to my home in Washington as I have the past two years, for the first time (thanks to the generosity of Michelle Monkou and the WRW Retreat committee) yours truly was fortunate enough to join the authors - both published and unpublished - and an impressive cadre of guest editors and agents for their yearly exercise in bonding. And just how was the Romance Reviewer welcomed? Very cordially, thank you very much.

It's hard to convey the experience of being there, and believe me, an "experience" is exactly what it is. From the Friday night dinner and reception with remarks by Connie Brockway (still searching for her elusive muse - or so she says!) and a truly uproarious surprise (and was she ever) "roast" of Nora Roberts by Donna Kauffman, Patricia Gaffney, Rebecca York, and others - to an unbelievably bloodthirsty Saturday night game of "Romance Jeopardy," I've never experienced anything quite like it. Sure, it's fun. And, yes, these people are funny - Michelle Monkou's introduction of Nora on Sunday morning in which (with tongue firmly in cheek) she detailed all the reasons why she doesn't like WRW's most famous member was worth the price of admission alone - but, above all else, it's about supporting, enjoying, and learning from each other.

After all, where else can you experience:

  • Nora Roberts cheerfully banging her own suitcase down the hundred year old hotel staircase.
  • Christina Dodd (who I'm quite certain will still be described as "cute" when she's in her 90's) coming clean about the patronizing remarks that must sorely try every romance writer.
  • Loretta Chase waxing enthusiastically about Charles Dickens and trying with equal fervor to get everyone to give Bleak House another try.
  • Donna Kauffman moved to tears when accepting the clearly much deserved Nancy Richards Akers Mentoring Award.
  • Connie Brockway naming "Nancy Drew" as a children's book author in the midst of the "Romance Jeopardy" frenzy. (Okay, so I committed an Even Bigger Blunder, but I will have vengeance if it is ever revealed, especially if that person's initials happen to be "CB".)
  • Buffets comprised almost entirely of Female Comfort Food, including - best of all - our very own soft ice cream machine at both lunch and dinner.

And, as if more magic was required, it all takes place at a historic hotel perched on the top of a cliff 250 feet above the convergence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers - a view Thomas Jefferson described as worth a voyage across the Atlantic to see. I have to agree.

After spending two days and two nights In The Company Of Writers, it couldn't be any clearer to me just why this retreat sells out in one day year after year and, equally, why celebrated authors from across the country make the trip to this small town in West Virginia.

When all is said and done, I made some wonderful new friends. I laughed harder and longer than I would have believed possible. I gained enormous respect for the hard work and dedication it takes to provide such a wonderful experience. I learned a thing or two from some enormously talented women. And, most of all, at the end of an exhausting weekend, I felt more energized than I have in years.

Q&A with Karen Hawkins (Sandy Coleman)

Karen Hawkins is rapidly becoming one of the most talked about authors of historical romances and anyone who's read her books will understand why. Combining a razor sharp wit (just see below), a finely honed intelligence, and a deft hand with a love scene, the author has been an auto-buy of mine since 2001's The Seduction of Sara. With a recent promotion to Avon Romance Superleader, a win for RWA Favorite Book of the Year for 2003, and two RITA finalist slots, I think more and more readers will discover just why I like her books so much with the June release of And The Bride Wore Plaid.

Recently, Karen and I chatted a bit online.

Sandy Coleman: Thanks, Karen, for taking the time to talk with AAR today. I know that with two books a year your time is at a premium.

Karen Hawkins: It's a pleasure! I am a long time AAR fan and especially enjoy At The Back Fence. In fact, I was unpublished when I first found the site, teaching poli sci at a little college in Georgia and surfing the Net on my down time.

Sandy: I came across AAR the same way. I loved it as a reader and still do as a reviewer. Let's start by talking a little bit about your style and voice. I know you have a reputation as a "funny" writer, but what I like most about your books is that while they are, indeed, funny and smart, they're also quite sexy. Add in the fact that you're not afraid to tackle some really emotional issues and it's not surprising that you've been an auto-buy of mine for a few years now. How would you describe your voice to someone who's never read one of your books?

Karen: That's a tough one. I love writing romance because I truly believe that relationships are the most important thing in our lives - whether it's with family, friends, or whomever - and I try to express all that from the first page to the last. I try hard to challenge myself to do more, dig a little deeper emotionally. As for the humor, that comes from my own family life. I came from a huge family - my parents took foster kids and exchange students, so there were often 12-15 children and teens living at my house while I was growing up. Practical jokes became A Way Of Life. That, and my mother has a very keenly honed sense of humor, in her own right.

When she was first married, my Dad called to say he was bringing the boss home for dinner and she was in a panic since cooking was not one of her strong points. But she did her best and whipped together the best meal she could think of. Everything went perfectly . . . except that her mashed potatoes were runny . . . and her gravy was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Soooo . . . she added green food coloring to the potatoes and told the boss that it was French gravy and that the real gravy was French stuffing. Even at nineteen and in panic-mode, she was resourceful and funny and she's still resourceful and funny today.

Sandy: LOL. Sounds like a Mom you could learn a lot from! So, Mom was partially responsible for the development of that trademark Karen Hawkins humor, but I think I've also detected a whiff of dry wit that sometimes puts me in mind of the great Georgette Heyer.

Karen: Oh, I adore Georgette Heyer! And when I hear people say they "don't get her" I just want to grab my well-thumbed copy of Devil's Cub and show them why she's so brilliant. Heyer is how I became a romance reader - and before I began writing, I was reading two to three books a week. I was fourteen and at this tiny library near my grandmother's house. I was sooo bored and needed something to while away the Granny Hours, as we called our visits. I was in the fiction room - it was such a tiny library that it only had two rooms, one for fiction and one for nonfiction - and I'd already worked my way through all of the Zane Greys. While I was standing there wondering what else I could read, it dawned on me that I had never, ever looked at the very bottom shelf. I had to practically flatten myself on the floor to look, but being 14, I did it. And there she was, Georgette Heyer. I've never looked back. BTW, the editor who first bought me (from the slush pile, no less) always said that she thought I wrote like Georgette Heyer, but with sex. That's the highest compliment I've ever gotten.

Sandy: I can see why. Devil's Cub is my favorite Heyer, as well. It's funny, sexy, and tender and just a masterpiece in every way. And on that same subject, I think there's an inherent dry wit to the whole concept between the two Lady Whistledown anthologies. The idea of intertwining relationships and events is so unique that I'm wondering how they came about.

Karen: I love the Lady Whistledown anthologies. Many readers may not know this, but the Internet forever changed not just reader groups, but author groups as well. Writing is a very solitary business and the Internet opened a lot of doors. Most of the Avon authors are on a loop together and we chat about writing and our personal lives, as well. Needless to say, though you may not post often, you begin to feel as if you know the people there, and you connect with them in a lot of ways. It also makes accessing other authors fairly easy. I was looking for an anthology concept that was different, unique and I knew from something Julia Quinn said on the loop that she was going to reveal Lady Whistledown's identity. Something clicked for me and I called Julie and asked her if she might be interested in doing the anthology. She was very supportive, I suggested two other authors, and, before the week was out, I'd written a synopsis and we'd gotten all of our agents involved. Avon was very receptive and voila! Further Observations from Lady Whistledown and Lady Whistledown Strikes Back were born!

I suggested writing the stories as intertwining because I thought it added yet another saleable point to the project. I love clever books, so I am always looking for something fun and different to augment good writing and strong character development. It took a lot of work! I made a chart on the Internet with all of the character descriptions, hair colors, and gown colors, as well as event descriptions. Julie was really busy, so Suzie Enoch, Mia Ryan, and I designed the various events. Then, we laced in the intertwining points and emailed those sections to each other for approval. The hard part was writing each other's characters. You had to take a leap of faith, and then send the scene to the character's original author to see if you'd defined their person correctly. That was tough!

Sandy: Was the original Lady W the first time you hit the bestseller lists?

Karen: It was the first time I hit The New York Times list, but I'd already been on the USA Today list twice before and I'd been on the Walden's Mass Market bestseller list for several weeks with every book since The Seduction of Sara.

Sandy: Not to even mention that Confessions of a Scoundrel was named the Favorite Book of last year by RWA. How did it feel to have your fellow writers select your book as their top book of the year?

Karen: I was flabbergasted. I was actually in the tub when the phone rang and, being in my Escape From the World Mode, I didn't answer the phone, but listened to the message to see who it was. When I heard the caller was from RWA and wanted me to "call immediately", I thought, "I wonder if I paid my dues?" I thought about it and thought about it and decided that I had paid my dues. But . . . I wasn't entirely sure. It kept bothering me. So, my relaxing time ruined, I hopped out of the tub, wrapped myself up in a towel, grabbed the phone, and headed for the dining room where my desk resides. I looked in my old checkbooks until I found my dues check and then, feeling Very Righteous, I called the number from the message. Needless to say, when they told me why they'd called, I was so excited I screamed and hopped up and down . . . and dropped my towel. My 13-year-old son was sitting in the living room and he says he's scarred for life, but I think he'll be fine once the therapy kicks in. Anyway, it was a hugehonor and I was just amazed. BTW, it's the second time I've made the FBY list - the first was with my first book, The Abduction of Julia. And now, Confessions of a Scoundrel is also a RITA finalist, as is the novella from the first Lady Whistledown. It has been an amazing year!

Sandy: Now there's an image, Karen! Indeed it has been quite a good year for you. And, since I've been lucky enough to get a chance to read your new book And The Bride Wore Plaid, I'm confident that streak is going to continue. I know you refer to this one as your "promotion" book. Can you give our readers a primer on what it means to move up your publisher's list?

Karen: Avon has a tiered publishing system. The first level are Historical Romances, the level for new authors. Following that is Romantic Treasure designation for up and coming writers of historicals (which are identifiable at a glance by the clinch cover on the back instead of the front) who are building a following. There's also a contemporary slot at this level. Then, there is a higher level called Romance Superleader which can be either contemporary or historical. After that comes the top level, Mass Market Superleader which can come from any genre - romance, mystery, etc. Lisa Kleypas is at this level, and deservedly so. (I still have dreams about Derek Craven!) I was just promoted to the Romance Superleader slot and I am so thrilled. Not only do I get additional promotional support from Avon, but I get a stepback cover and those are my favorite kind!

Sandy: I love the stepbacks, too, and the cover for And The Bride Wore Plaid is really beautiful. I'd like to talk for a moment about your heroines. So, it's a given that Karen Hawkins heroines aren't the shy and retiring type - somehow that's not a surprise! - but I was especially struck by Kat MacDonald, the heroine of your new book. She's smart, she's talented, she's independent, she's got seven sexy Scotsmen as her devoted surrogate family, and it's a great deal of fun to watch this independent women completely gobsmacked by Devon St. John. For me, that's an interesting and fun twist. Usually it's the guy who's very reluctantly knocked off his path (not to say that Devon isn't) but I really enjoyed watching Kat basically loose her cool.

Karen: Thank you! I think Kat's the strongest, most fiercely independent heroine I've ever written. And, yes, I had her completely flip over Devon because, well, that's what had to happen before she dropped her barriers and fell in love. After I write every book, I do a litmus test - is my heroine someone I'd want to be or at least want to be friends with? And for some reason, the more books I write, the stronger my heroines are becoming. Maybe that's because, having just gone through a divorce, I am feeling a little stronger myself these days. Whatever it is, it has made my writing all the more joyful and that's a great thing to say about your job!

Sandy: Okay, now here's the question I know a lot of readers would want me to ask. When will Marcus' book (the oldest and most quintessentially St.John-ish of all the St. John brothers) be published and will you give us a taste of what we can expect?

Karen: Lady In Red comes out March 29th, which means it's an official April 2005 release. I just mailed this story to New York this past Monday and my editor has already called to say how much she's enjoying it. The heroine is Miss Honoria Baker-Sneed, a procurer of antiquaries and the head of a rather large and fanciful family. When Marcus finally tracks her down, he is dismayed to discover that she has his family's lost Talisman ring since Honoria and Marcus have been bidding against each other for various objects for years. However, because he also knows that the Baker-Sneeds are not the most affluent family, he plans to just walk in, offer a somewhat piddly sum for the ring, and walk back out. But Honoria knows the ring is worth Far More than what he offers. It becomes a Who Will Say Uncle First sort of relationship, and then Who Gets To Be On Top. I designed the love scene as a Battle of Wills and I think it's the hottest one I've every written. Frankly, this relationship scorched from the get-go and it was a blast to write! For fun, I also brought back Herberts, the kleptomaniac butler-turned-coachman from Confessions of a Scoundrel.

Sandy: Well, Marcus needs an irritant or two in his life since it wouldn't do to let him be too smug and Herberts is the perfect man for the job. So, this finishes the Talisman Ring series - what's next?

Karen: I just mailed the proposal this morning so it's not cleared, but here's what I sent. The old Earl of Rochester is dying. A leader of society for over 27 glorious years, he has no heirs and, thus, his name and legacy fall to the children of a distant cousin who was arrested and tried for treason. Though eventually cleared, the cousin died a horrible death in prison and his children, angry at the lack of support by anyone in the family, refuse contact with anyone and have all gone their own ways. The title falls to former ship's commander James Tristan Llewes who, along with the title, gets the services of the late earl's incredible butler Reeves - the tie-together character for the next series. He has been charged by the earl on his death bed to go to each of the children's households and do what he can to "bring them to a sense of taste and comportment, beginning with the new earl". Naturally James doesn't want anything to do with Reeves or the title, but he can't say no to the money since he could put it to very good use aiding disabled sailors - but only if he garners the approval of the earl's Board of Trustees. So, James reluctantly allows Reeves to begin the civilizing process. What James doesn't know is that Reeves has already procured an instructress - his own neighbor, the bothersome Miss Prudence. After James is settled, Reeves will be on his way to see John Christian Llewes, James's brother and a reputed highwayman, though no one has any real proof. And that is my Just Ask Reeves storyline.

Sandy: Just Ask Reeves? That in itself is so clever. And it brings us back to where we started: Karen Hawkins' books are oh-so-funny and oh-so-smart. But before I let you go, I know that Karen the Romance Author is also Karen the Romance Reader. Who are the authors you most enjoy reading?

Karen: My favorite authors are Georgette Heyer (of course), Christina Dodd, Lisa Kleypas, Suzanne Enoch, Connie Brockway, Judith Ivory, Susan Wiggs, Victoria Alexander, Candice Hern, Kathryn Smith, and Pamela Britton for historicals. For contemporaries, I love Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Cruisie, Janet Evanovich, Suzanne MacPherson, Patti Berg, Karen Kendall, and Rachel Gibson. And I could probably name a dozen more - there are so many great books out there.

Sandy: I'll agree with you on that one. Thank you, Karen, for taking the time to talk with us today. I have a feeling we'll be seeing you on the bestseller lists!

Random Ramblings on Recent Reads (LLB)

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a series romance by an author I've enjoyed in the past, Eileen Wilks. The book was Michael's Temptation, a 2001 Silhouette Desire that was part of a series, and details the rescue of a minister in a fictitious Central (or South) American country taken hostage by rebel forces. The minister, Alyssa Kelleher, meets Michael West, a U.S. special forces operative, when he comes to rescue her, and they fall in love during their time on the run.

I read this book at the end of an incredible reading binge. This book put an end to the binge and stopped me cold once I realized it literally had no impact on me at all, except for this one thing: I was bothered by the fact that Reverend Kelleher engaged in hot jungle sex relatively soon after meeting Michael West. Hey, I know that ministers and rabbis have sex too, but this bothered me to no end. Had Alyssa Kelleher been an aid worker attached to a religious mission I'd have had no trouble at all, but she wasn't; she was a minister. It is Michael's profession as a warrior that is explored more in the book, which also seemed odd. We come across soldiers in series romance all the time but rarely do we come across ministers or rabbis.

Alyssa's faith played little part in the book except where it intersected with Michael's profession. It seems to me that if an author is going to go to the trouble of creating a character who is a minister, that ought to be explored. We've all read (in particular) series titles where professions are more or less throw-aways, but a person who is a minister or rabbi has followed a religious calling; it's more than a simple "profession" and goes to the core of who that person is.

The internal conflict between Alyssa and Michael was her difficulty in accepting and committing and loving a man who killed other people. It's true that this gets to a core conflict, but it entirely skirted the internal conflict that was left unexplored: how does a minister react when confronted with extreme sexual temptation, particularly given the importance of chastity in major world religions? But in reading our B- review of the book, no mention was made at all about this minister having hot jungle sex within a short period of meeting this man. Our reviewer was a practicing Christian while I'm a Jew, and don't know if that played any part in this difference, but I can't help but feel the title should have been "Alyssa's Temptation."

Discussions of religion are always difficult, but I'm interested in your input on this one, and feel to broaden the parameters up to a point - any discussion of whether or not it's "immoral" for religious individuals to read romance will be deleted. We've been there and done that, and it's not a pretty sight.

Speaking of sex, prior to reading Michael's Temptation I read Emma Holly's 2001 release, Beyond Innocence. I'll be honest here; I find Holly's writing incredibly purple, and indeed, I bookmarked many, many pages of Beyond Innocence with writing that was almost laughable in terms of the prose. And yet by the time I'd finished the book I realized the novelty of the storyline, the hero, and the positive presentation of gay characters outweighed the purple prose.

There were an incredible number of love scenes in this book, and that's where the purple prose really read its ugly head. The book earned a "burning" sensuality rating from us, and Holly became the first of a couple of authors who moved into romance from erotica. Because my final grade for Beyond Innocence was a B-, I picked up the reissue of her Cooking up a Storm at the bookstore the next day, not really knowing what to expect. Cooking up a Storm was originally published in the women's erotica Black Lace line, and readers of this column know that I'm generally not one who can "handle," for want of a better word, a full-length erotica novel. This reissue is most definitely erotica, and while it isn't S&M-kinky, it offers up a foursome, among other things.

Both during and after my reading of this book I wondered how I would assess it. There was an actual plot, albeit an extremely thin one, but what mostly kept me turning the pages was a need to know just what sexual stuff the author was going to have her characters engage in next. The prose here was also purple, but given that the book was erotica as opposed to romance or romantica, it was also less purple and more explicit. While the heroine compares the hero's penis in Beyond Innocence to a "puppy...wriggling for a treat," that's not the kind of prose you'll read in Cooking up a Storm, where much of the purple prose is in the form of dialogue.

How does a reader assess erotica? Is it simply a matter of how hot it makes you, how quickly you go in search of your partner to jump their bones? I'm clueless on this and would love to hear from you on the topic. Also, how do you differentiate romance from romantica, and romantica from erotica?

Time to Post to the Message Board

I'd like to switch things up this time around. In Sandy's segment on the recent writer's retreat, and in her q&a with Karen Hawkins, many authors were named. Let's use this opportunity for you to talk about these authors. If you're a fan of Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, or Georgette Heyer, share why. Include titles, brief synopses of books, whatever. On the other hand, if any of the authors mentioned are among those you "just don't get," feel free to talk about that as well. And if any of the authors mentioned has written books you like and others you haven't, let's get into that as well. In other words, this is your opportunity to take a significant list of authors and more fully explore their writing with your fellow readers.

As for my ramblings on recent reads, I think I've laid out my questions well enough to not repeat them here. I'd like to hear from you on religion and religious characters in romance and on romance/romantica/erotica.

But before I send you off to the message board, here's a jump link to our 2004 Publisher Survey - I'll put a similar link on the message board itself. Again, I suggest you look at the questions and think about them, and then come back as soon as you can and fill out the survey form itself. Remember, the survey will remain active until midnight, May 31st. Please refrain from discussing the survey on the ATBF message board.

 

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books, Karen Hawkins, & Sandy Coleman

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