Issue #47 (February 25, 1998)

Has modern life become so complicated that we've lost the capacity to enjoy old-fashioned romance? This question came to me this morning after car pool while listening to the theme from The Titanic. All of a sudden, all the reviews I'd read and heard about this movie flooded my brain. This movie, which will likely be the highest grossing movie ever, has taken this country by a storm. People who have seen this 3 hour opus more than once are now called Titaniacs, according to an article in last week's Newsweek magazine.

It seems the critics didn't know that people were starving for storytelling and a strong dose of romance because in nearly every review I've read, I've heard comments such as, "The romantic story line is heavy-handed" or "The movie rises above its romantic story line." Don't they get it? The movie has succeeded not in spite of the romance, but because of it! People are not flocking to see this movie just to watch the special effects, they are flocking to see what happens between Rose and Jack, even though they know the result will surely be deadly.

Thinking about this in the car makes perfect sense, of course, because of where the music industry is today. I'll admit it - my musical tastes were formed in the disco era, so I don't have any claims to great taste. But I'm also my father's daughter and love jazz and the old standards.

Because I don't want to turn into my mother, I force myself to stay sort of current when it comes to music. Throughout my formative years, every time a song came on the radio featuring a male vocalist, my mother would ask, "Is that John Denver?" I don't want to turn to my own child in several years and ask her, "Is that The Spice Girls", when the Spice Girls are no longer even a group.

But what I hear on the radio, for the most part, isn't music I like, so I listen to a station that mixes the old with the new so at least I can enjoy some of the music. And, some of the new music is fun too, but what I hear today lauded by critics is cynical music, deemed "complex". When a group or an artist releases a love song, suddenly they are "sappy", "lacking inventiveness", and "derivative".

The same can be said, I think, for most popular culture. My husband and I stayed up late a few weeks ago to watch Breaking the Waves, a film that was on the top ten list of more than 75 critics for 1997. After the end of the movie, my husband turned to me and said, "I hate you." For those of you who haven't been with a significant other for nearly 20 years, that translates roughly into, "Why did you make us stay up until midnight on a week night to watch this?" And, I had to agree. We both found this movie depressing beyond belief, and, well, sick. A man is redeemed and healed as a result of his mentally unstable wife being beaten and raped to death? The Last Seduction was another movie the critics raved over that we "didn't get". We much preferred Bulletproof Heart, a small noir movie with Anthony LaPaglia and Mimi Rogers. Seduction was mean-spirited, Heart was romantic, although both ended on bitter notes.

Now let's consider television. NYPD Blue is a terrific show. The acting is superb. I've been watching this show since the first episode. Why do I come back week after week? Great writing, great acting, and some great love stories. Who would have ever thought Sylvie and Andy would have gotten together? But the main focus over the past two or three seasons has been on the characters played by Bobby and Diane. She's battled alcoholism, he's been set up by the FBI, they've had to keep their relationship a secret (sort of) due to departmental rules and regs. But their love will not be denied. Last week Diane suffered a miscarriage - Bobby finds her lying on her side on the bed and she makes him go away. She thinks she needs to be alone and we watch her suffer in solitude, knowing she should have let him stay with her.

This is why I come back for more. It's not for the shoot-outs and the violence and the blood. It's for the relationships between people. I'm ranting about this because I think it explains, in part, why romance is looked down upon by the critics. I love reading reviews - many reviewers are wonderful writers, whether or not I agree with their assessment of movies, television shows, or books. But I think critics are often looking for too much. There's no denying that a Don Delillo writes an amazing book that's filled with nooks and crannies. But does a book have to be filled with nooks and crannies in order to be good? Can't it just spin a good yarn about a relationship?

This, then, is the crux of my argument. I believe one major reason scorn is heaped upon romance is that it's just good, old-fashioned storytelling about two people. I think one of the reasons romantic suspense has faired rather well with critics is that it's somehow more acceptable to them. They can avoid being accused of liking "that romantic sap" because it's accompanied by the type of suspense that's popular in our culture today. Heck, I just read my very first romantic suspense novel and enjoyed it, although my favorite section of the book featured the heroine and hero on the run in the jungles of South America, where their cunning and their care for one another helped them survive. (That means I liked the part that focused on their relationship!)

What I'd like to hear from you about when it's time to post to the message board is what you make of my rant. Are you bewildered by what's considered "good" in film, music, and television? Do you think society as a whole is too cynical to enjoy romance these days, or are the critics wrong?

My daughter and I were running errands Saturday, and one of them was to make my weekly bookstore run to Books 'N' Stuff in Garland. This errand takes me about ten miles out of the way every week, but it's worth it for the atmosphere, the service, and the selections. When we walked in, Rachael made a beeline for the Pillow Pals and I noticed a well-dressed man talking to Delores, the owner. When I came closer, I realized the man was none other than Leigh Greenwood, visiting bookstores while in town for a writer's convention.

Delores introduced us, and, even without my tape recorder handy, I managed to do an on-the-spot interview with Leigh. I asked him how a man got into writing romance, and, instead of the defense I expected, he talked about his wife. It seems they were married in the early 70's and she read a lot of romance. He was curious and borrowed Sweet Savage Love and The Flame & the Flower. But when his wife lent him Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades, he was hooked. Of the Heyer book, he said, "After reading every book of hers at least four times each, it's still my favorite book. He's the only hero I've every found who has the power to be truly evil, almost is several times, and yet is the kind of man you would unhesitatingly trust with your life."

I assumed it was his wife's introduction to the genre that he credited for being a writer of romance. But he went on to say that it was his wife's support, her working full-time, that allowed him to pursue his writing. Leigh is a musician and worked part-time at a church and part-time writing for nine years before he was able to quit the musician's gig and write full-time. Without his wife's job (including benefits), he'd never have been able to do it. Aren't the 90's great?

Leigh joined RWA in 1985 and sold his first book in 1987. In the early 90's, he saw Seven Brides for Seven Brothers on television with his son. After percolating in his head for months, he decided he'd write a series of books loosely based on that classical movie musical. He very much enjoyed the writing of connected books because it allowed him to do things with secondary characters that wouldn't have been right for lead characters. Such as having one of the brothers dress in drag when he was a secondary character.

Leigh likes writing series of connected books because they allow him to more fully explore family relationships. He finds that, by making sure each scene is in the point-of-view of either the hero or the heroine, he can stay focused on them and not the characters which have previously "starred" in their own stories. He says his publisher, Leisure, has been very good about reissuing and re-printing his books so that readers can collect the entire series. He adds that his publisher (and Zebra as well) are very approachable. At the same time, he cautions they both put out some "poor product".

Leigh's new release is Buck. It is third in the Cowboy series. Unlike the Brides for Brothers books, he did not set out to write another series, but found that when he wrote Jake, a series seemed a natural idea. Jake was released last March and was followed by Ward last September. Following Buck, readers can expect at least two more stories, about Chet (September 98) and Sean (March 99).

What I'd like to hear from you about when it's time to post to the message board is how well series of connected books work for you. Do you notice some authors can't sustain quality in a series of three, or more, books? Which series had the most books of those you've read, and did you enjoy each story? Are there authors who focus too much on previous characters? Do you think connected books work best with family members or friends, or does it matter? What's your favorite series and why?

I've decided that the difference between good guys and bad guys is that villains do the wrong thing for the "wrong" reason. Heroes and heroines, on the other hand, often do the wrong thing, but for what seems to be a "right" reason. This is what generally forms the basis for conflict in a romance. I like to call this moral ambiguity. Life is full of the stuff, and I'm talking real life here, not just books. I, for instance, have a very close relative who has not made the wisest choices in her life. As a result, she's suffered. Because I love her, I can't judge her - I make allowances and have to live with how that skews from my moral compass. I myself have done things for a good reason which have turned out badly.

When I talk about moral ambiguity, I'm talking about complexity of self and relationship. It's rather ironic, isn't it, that in the same column in which I'm beating up on critics for not accepting romance because it's not complex enough, that I'm praising complexity of self and relationship? But, of course, romance is complex because it involves people and emotions and baggage. Recently Katherine Sutcliffe and I talked that about moral ambiguity, tortured heroes, and tormented heroines. It is because of moral ambiguity, of doing the right thing for the wrong reason or doing the wrong thing for the right reason, that characters are tortured and tormented. One of my Desert Isle Keepers is her Fire in the Heart, which involves two characters, both of whom suffer from this sort of moral ambiguity. We talked about that, and talked about some other things as well. Here is our brief Q&A:

LLB: In romance, readers are confronted with tortured heroes and tormented heroines, most often because they are morally ambiguous. Bonnie, for instance, in Fire in the Heart, has to lie and steal simply to stay alive, and even accuses Damien of sexual misconduct in order to stay out of the workhouse. For his part, Damien withholds valuable information from Bonnie because he fears she'll stop loving him if she knows the truth. How important is this ambiguous behavior to your writing?

Katherine Sutcliffe:
I'm often asked why I write tormented heroines and heroes. I must be tormented myself, I guess. Or maybe it's just because those characters interest me, personally, more than light hearted characters that are so syrupy sweet I need a shot of insulin to get through the book. I realize there is a huge market for those kind of books. I wish I could write them; I probably would've been on the New York Times List by now. Unfortunately my brain doesn't think that way. I'm a dramatic, emotion driven person. I feel a heroine or hero must learn and grow throughout a book. They must rally to succeed and achieve. If they are to know and appreciate the rapture of true happiness and completion, they must have an understanding of what it's like to be at the lowest point of their lives.

These books are often considered escapism from the rigors of reality. True. However, I, personally, don't want to be so removed from reality that I can't find some thread in the story or characters that I can connect with, and relate to. If the character can fight their way back from their problems to find happiness ever after, then perhaps I can as well. Mostly, the torment that plagues my heroines has more to do with loneliness and emptiness in their lives - as it is with far too many people. We all hold out the hope that a special someone will happen along to alleviate the emptiness. Enter the hero. I just wish there were enough heroes to go around for everyone.

LLB: In Dream Fever (another Desert Isle Keeper for me), you featured a mail-order bride story line. In My Only Love (the sequel to Fire in the Heart), you featured a marriage of convenience. I'm not alone in loving these two story-lines. Why are they so appealing for readers?

Katherine:
The marriage of convenience and the mail order bride are two of the most popular and age old contrivances in literary fiction, mostly because they are based on factual history. Imagine marrying a total stranger, or someone you don't love - or think you'll never love. I can't imagine there being a better formula for tension between a man and woman. Two strangers meeting and falling in love, despite themselves. In My Only Love, you had two characters who didn't stand a snowflake's chance in hell of finding anyone who would have them. They were both outcasts. Lonely. They needed companionship as much as they needed happiness.

Miles was forced to look beyond the veneer of physical beauty to discover that the beauty of compassion and friendship was more rewarding than glitter and gold - which is what he had worshipped all of his life. In short: even in real life there is far too much emphasis put on beauty and wealth, and not enough on the ordinary pleasures that can make life very sweet if we simply get our priorities (and our heads) straight.

LLB: You've set books in the Amazon, New Zealand, Australia, and Regency England, just to mention a few. Talk about your far-flung settings. Why do you do it, and what's involved in the research?

Katherine:
I think if I had to write the same setting with every book I would jump off a water tower. I simply must be stimulated by fresh characters, plots, and settings or I cannot breathe life into my work. I don't churn out cookie cutter stories. I've tried. My brain won't allow it. It rebels severely if it's bored. I end up mucking out my horses' stalls instead of writing. As I write, I want to become my characters. I must become my characters or they don't come alive for me. By living vicariously through my characters I exist in another life, if not another dimension. I don't like predictability in my works. Predictability breeds boredom for a writer who lives and breathes his craft. Yes, it would be easier to write the same setting every time.

Researching these books is time consuming, but oh, so, fascinating. I learn so much about other parts of the world, and the people, etc. and therefore I'm allowed to take my readers there as well. They learn a lot even if they don't realize it. Besides, I love atmosphere. My books drip with it. If the reader doesn't sweat along with the characters in the Amazon, I've failed in my competency to transport them into the story, thereby suspending reality and rewarding them with the escapism they paid their hard earned money for.

LLB: Back to Fire in the Heart now. There is one scene that makes me cry every time I read it. It's the scene where Damien finds Bonnie after she's left him months before. She's cold, hungry, pregnant, and staring at the ribbons in the window of a store. She crumples just as he gets to her. That scene does me in every single time.

When you are writing what you think will be a particularly touching scene, do you know you've done it when you finish? Are you crying as you write it? Do you plan for it to be the way it turns out?

Katherine:
Normally, I don't plan a specific scene. I just sort of go with the flow. I realize it's something special as it unfolds. If it doesn't happen naturally, in my opinion, it just comes across contrived. yes, I cry my heart out when I've successfully written something particularly moving. If I'm really into my characters, I experience everything they do. Sadness, fear, anger; yes, I even get turned on by the hero. By the end of the day I'm absolutely wrung out. I remember sitting on a plane not long after Fire came out and reading that part with Bonnie and the ribbons. With tears in my eyes, I kept repeating Yes, Yes Yes! which brought numerous inquisitive looks from the folks around me.

I write a lot to music. I try to find a particular CD that inspires me during the writing of a particular book. With Fire it was the soundtrack to Somewhere in Time. With Love's Illusion it was Kitaro - Silk Road. With the medieval I just finished I listened a lot to Enigma. Music inspires very vivid images in my mind. From those images I search for the words to describe them. In short, as I write, I'm not seeing words, but a movie being played out in my mind - in vivid color, I might add. At the end of the day I go back to read the words/story - and most of the time I feel as if I'm reading someone else's book. I rarely remember writing what I've written. Sometimes I almost feel like a medium. As if someone is out there in never-never land using me as an instrument to tell a story. (Enter the theme music for the Twilight Zone here!) After a day of writing I'm emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually exhausted. Ah, but what exquisite exhaustion. if I live to be 200 years old I'll still be writing.

I write because I'm compelled to. Driven to. Obsessed. I've been writing since before I could read. I told stories with stick pictures. I wrote my first novel when I was 13. I wrote on it for several years. When I threw it away it was 3,000 handwritten pages long! Without writing I think I would cease to exist. It is as much a part of me as breathing. It is who I am. What I am. It was my destiny. I'm very fortunate to be one of the lucky ones who realize their destiny early on and live out the life that God and fate intended.

Believe it or not, I'm a very introverted person. I don't verbally communicate well. Writing is the only way I have of reaching out to others without feeling like a dunce. By writing I am also able to seclude myself away from the world, for the most part. Public appearances stress me out to the limit. I live on my farm and sometimes don't see anyone but my husband and kids for months. (Maybe I was a monk in another life!) I surround myself with animals: rabbit, goats, horses, finding safety in that which will not be judgmental. They love me even if I do do something stupid. Ha!

What I'd like to hear from you about when it's time to post to the message board are your comments on moral ambiguity. You can relate this to yourself personally, or how you filter the trials and tribulations of the characters you read about. Speaking of which, it's time to post to the Message Board now, on this and any other of the issues I've presented in this column!

TTFN, Laurie Likes Books

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