Barbara Samuel/Ruth Wind: A Beautiful Writer
(September 15, 1999)
"I love writing for women. I can speak as a woman to other women, and that's such a glorious freedom I can't imagine writing any other way."
A couple of years ago, AARList was full of discussion about Ruth Wind. The posters were unanimous in their opinions that she was a romance writer of unusual quality. I was just coming back into reading romances after a long absence, and was on the lookout for new writers so I stopped by the bookstore and bought several of her books. The first one I read was Reckless. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Here was a series romance, a type I had previously dismissed as lightweight, that dealt with a serious subject (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome). It had a sweet and tender love story as well, and was written in a style that was just plain beautiful.
I knew then that I had to start a major glom, and through some research (thank goodness for the Internet!) I found a list of Ruth Wind's books and that she also wrote under her real name - Barbara Samuel. It took me a year, but I did manage to get her entire backlist and read every single one of them as soon as I could - and loved each and every title. Now she is an automatic buy for me and a writer whom I recommend to everyone as an example of how good romance novels can be.
Barbara Samuel has the ability to write lyrically without being overblown (you will find no purple prose in her books), and to delve into serious subjects - such as domestic violence and prejudice - while always keeping the romance in the forefront of the story. She has won three RITA awards from the Romance Writers of America for her books: Reckless, Heart of a Knight and Meant To Be Married. She has also written four books that are Desert Isle Keepers for me.
When did you get interested in writing?
I can't honestly remember a time I wasn't a complete fiend for books and stories, but the actual desire to put stories down on the page came in the fifth grade, when my best friend announced that she had decided that she was going to set her cap for the boy I'd had a crush on all year long. Since she was already wearing a bra, and was allowed to wear eyeshadow, this doomed any hopes I had of catching his eye.
Not to be outdone, however, I tossed my head - at least I had the longest hair! - and announced that I wasn't going to bother with boys, because I was going to be a writer. She was impressed enough that I went home, found a clean spiral notebook and started my first novel that very afternoon, and was quickly so engrossed that I wrote madly on it even at school.
Why did you choose to write romance as opposed to writing more mainstream women's fiction?
Well, as it happens, I'm also now writing women's fiction - the first book will be out next spring. There is still a lot of emphasis on the romance, but there are other things going on as well.
But back in those days when I was first writing novels, it was always romances I wrote (despite my declaration to give up boys in pursuit of art. My father would have been much happier through my teen years if I'd stuck to that.). I'm very interested in the dynamics of male/female power and interplay. It's the cornerstone of so much of life, and a primal urge - to find a mate, to reproduce. So it interests me on that level.
The honest bottom line is, however, is that I love writing for women. And in romance, I never have to worry about meeting a male agenda in books. I can write straight from the gut about all the things I think are important, that I believe women think are important. I can speak as a woman to other women, and that's such a glorious freedom I can't imagine writing any other way.
You have described yourself as a feminist, yet feminists in academia are sometimes hostile to the romance genre (I work in a university setting). Do you see any conflict between feminism and romance novels?
Not at all. In fact, I see romance novels as an extremely subversive genre in many ways. The modern world makes it very difficult for women to sit around a fire and talk in low tones about what we know of love and sex and how it works and how it doesn't. We don't go to the river anymore to wash our clothes; we don't even go to Tupperware parties very often. Some of us have better connections than others, but in general, this is a diminishing circle for a lot of women; we're too busy to gather for simple chat, and the places we used to do it without feeling guilty - off isolated in some house being "unclean" with our periods, and "unfit" to touch male food or things (I think a very smart woman planted this bug in some guy's ear. Make me go away for five or six days and hang out at the woman's house. I'll cry all the way there, yessirree!) or over quilts or when we did the canning - they're all gone or on the way out.
So being clever creatures, we thought up a new way to do it - we have romance novels now. And not only do we create this new place to share our ideas, we also give work to hundreds and hundreds of women, and give rest and succor to millions of others.
How could any of that be in opposition to feminism? In my mind, it's the very essense of it.
When Nancy Richards-Akers was killed by her estranged husband, I saw some articles that seemed to imply that romance writers who feature the so-called alpha male (who is often very cruel and arrogant) somehow encourage women to stay in a bad relationship in the hopes that they could somehow change his behavior like the women in the books. You have written one book The Last Chance Ranch that features a woman who had been abused. Could you comment on this?
We're all deeply dismayed over Nancy's murder, as well as the others that have taken place in our community the past couple of years. It's horrifying, and it has started a dialogue within the ranks about what is happening and why, and how we can protect another woman from meeting the same fate.
Unfortunately, the answer of why seems to be that romances are such an empowering force in a woman's life, particularly a woman who is in opposition to a man unsteady in his own sense of belonging (and men who are abusers are undeniably unsteady in their own power base or they would not feel compelled to beat up or kill women and children). She finds what she needs elsewhere, and the unstable man loses it.
I can't see any connection whatsoever in the alpha type hero in a romance to the abusive man in society. Art is not a place for politically correct thinking and party lines. Art is the absolute opposite of politically correct - it's meant to entertain, challenge, create dialogue, inspire, create a haven, stimulate thought, whatever. It is not meant to be a pallid imitation of what we wish life (or men) could be.
Following my muse is what led to writing Last Chance Ranch. There had been eight women killed in my town over a single year, and one was nearly killed directly across the street from me when my six-year-old son was playing outside on an Easter Sunday morning. It was the last straw. I'd never felt such fury in my life, and still have not. (She survived, thank heaven, and they have started over, with the man in jail).
Over and over, these guys killed their wives or girlfriends in public, in front of a child the two had conceived, and it made me murderously angry. I could do nothing to save any of the women who had already been killed, but I could kill all those men in my imagination. I could let Tanya survive and find a good life afterward. I could give her son a good life.
It meant the world to me to win the Janet Dailey award for that book. When I got home from the conference with my $10,000 check in hand, the first thing I did was send a big donation to the local women's shelter, which - ironically - is directly across the street from the old Taco Bell where one of the eight women had been killed that year. I make a practice of giving to charities anonymously (a wise man once told me it's too easy to let your "good works" go to your head, and they never can if you give anonymously) but this time I broke the rule because I wanted the shelter people to know that the money had come from romances and from the stories in our own city.
You write contemporary category novels and historical novels too. Do you have a preference?
That's like picking a favorite child. I love each of them for different reasons. I seem to be drawn (okay, doomed! ) to a passion for cultural and social studies, which shows up in my work constantly. I don't plan it - most of the time, especially with historicals, I don't really notice what social/political ideas I'm exploring until I finish the rough draft, but my subconscious has been very busy, gleefully throwing out all this stuff I didn't even notice.
In contemporaries, it's possible to explore the modern world, how we are now, and where we're going in a direct way and because my chosen genre is romance, I can do it in a non-judgmental and gentle way.
But historicals are wickedly intelligent agents for social commentary, and it's possible to deal with issues that would be too volatile for contemporary romance.
Your historical novels cover several time periods - Georgian England, 19th Century American Southwest, Europe. . . . Do you have a favorite time period?
Whatever time period I'm currently working on is my favorite. I like moving around because I get restless, and keeping lots of pots with uncooked books on the back of the stove keeps my attention better than working strictly with one mileu.
I tend to like moments in history that prove to be bridges - the first half of the 14th century was the last gasp of true feudalism in Europe, for example. When the Black Death swept through, it also pretty much swept away the old ways. The actual manifestation of change didn't show up for a little while, but that was the moment everything changed. The same is true of the late Georgian period. It was the last gasp of the Old World of kings and princes that was overthrown by the upstart American colonies and then the French Revolution. Again, the depth of those changes were not evident for quite some time, but that was the moment it occurred.
And I think we're living in such times - all you have to do is remember three channels on television twenty-five years ago, no microwaves, no personal computers, not to mention Internet! - to realize we're in the middle of an astonishingly huge moment of change in society.
I love historical romances, but most of them totally ignore the social issues of the time. You have treated anti-Semitism in A Bed of Spices, the problem of class in Heart of A Knight and racial prejudice, anti-Catholicism and the double standard in The Black Angel. Is it hard to incorporate these subjects without turning the book into a "problem" novel?
I didn't really see that I was writing an issue novel at all with The Black Angel. I thought it was such a great, light, pleasing romance. A nice juicy rake and a scorned woman and this really wonderful family in the background. (Sisters! I have sisters, and that part was so much fun for me). It wasn't until I went back and read the rough draft that I realized how much social commentary was in there - I'd been completely focused on the romance as I wrote.
That's usually how I operate - trying to get a firm handle on the times and the pressures on people gives me the story in the first place, so it doesn't end up being a "problem novel," it's just a book about these people who happen to be involved in these areas of life in their worlds.
Recently we have been talking about female archetypes at AAR. If I had to type your heroines I would say most of them are Nurturers. Many of them live close to the land and they are often not conventionally beautiful (Ramona Hardy from Reckless). Do you find atypical heroines more interesting?
I don't really see them as atypical, but rather very typical. Ramona was not beautiful, but she had great hair and a very nice bust - and best of all, she was really smart and knew it, and valued it. She wouldn't have minded being gorgeous in addition to all of that, but she's happy with what she is.
That seems pretty typical of the women I know - my sisters and friends. Some of us are gorgeous, some are very smart, some are busty, some have great legs. But very few of us are breathtakingly beautiful and smart and wise. We get a combination of things that make us who we are. A real woman is more interesting to me than an idealized one.
You have very interesting heroes. Many of them are wounded emotionally and are drawn to the warmth and nurturing aura of the heroine - and they are never cruel. Could you comment on this?
Unlike the heroines, about whom I'm very deliberate, I have no idea where my heros come from. They often are very wounded creatures, and I sometimes think I must imagine men to be very vulnerable beings, who are just lost until we come along and give them plenty of love in order to free them from their pain.
I suspect, though, that those psychic wounds in my heroes are a metaphor for the wounds we all receive through life. I'm very interested in survivors, both male and female, and how people undergo really terrible traumas and manage to go on to lead full, powerful, joyful lives.
Where did you get the pen name Ruth Wind?
At the time, Silhouette still required a writer to take a pen name. I wanted something from the bible to please my grandmother, a very devout Christian, and something from nature for my own mostly pagan tastes. I came up with Ruth Wind.
When I sold my first book and told my sister the name I'd be working under, she said, "Like Ruth Wind, our old neighbor?" So I guess the name lodged there in my subconscious all those years and I pulled it out when I needed it.
Happily, a reader met the real-life Ruth Wind in a class, told me, and my sister and the old neighbor were able to spend a very happy day together. She was quite tickled at the story, and I'm sure she gets some mileage out of it from time to time.
Who are some of your favorite writers, romance and otherwise?
Oh, heavens. This is always such a hard question. I'm such a heavy reader (even now) that I read all the time and find new writers to fall in love with every month! In romance, I'm crazy about Judy Cuevas/Judith Ivory, Laura Kinsale, Patricia Gaffney, Jennifer Crusie, Susan Wiggs, Anne Stuart, Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley, Emilie Richards. Outside romance, I read all over the place - Alice Hoffman, Anne Tyler, Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, Patricia Cornwell, Barbara Kingsolver, a zillion others.
I'm not kidding - I read constantly, and it's so hard to pick favorites because I always leave some urgently wonderful writer off the list and kick myself for days. A recent favorite: Ferney, by James Long. Great reincarnation story.
What does your family think of your writing?
They don't! I'm just the sister/mom/wife/daughter who writes books. It's nauseatingly normal to my children.
Can you tell us about some of your future projects?
Up next is Rio Grande Wedding, out from Silhouette in October. It's a green-card wedding story, set in northern New Mexico, part of the Men of the Land series.
I'm also very excited about a book coming next spring from Harper under Ruth Wind, Midnight Rain. It's a sultry Southern romance with secrets in the past that must be solved, and a hearthbreakingly lost hero. It was completely a book of the heart, one I wrote entirely before I sent it out, and I'm delighted that readers will share in the experience.
Next summer is another St. Ives book, a Georgian historical with a sister from The Black Angel. It's tentatively titled Fire Night, and it's a very sexy, emotionally intense book.
I'm also taking votes for the next St. Ives book, since I'm torn who to write about next.
||Barbara Sameul at AAR