Writer's Corner for April, 2005

Connie Brockway

Just to be perfectly upfront here, I love the books of Connie Brockway and believe she represents the best of historical romance with few - very few - peers.

So, not surprisingly - just like a lot of others at AAR - the recent news regarding her future caused me more than a little distress. Hey, those of us who love historical romance need her! After talking with her over the past few days, however, I'm feeling a great deal better about the books we can expect from the author in the future if, regrettably, decidedly more apprehensive about what's ahead for historical romance. To put it bluntly, it's not a pretty picture. But read on and decide for yourself. A word of warning: Some of the discussion here strays into areas that might be considered spoilers for My Surrender, the author's upcoming release.

--Sandy Coleman

 

Well, Connie, let's start with the headlines. The final installment of your Rose Hunters trilogy comes out in May and, as you've already announced, this wonderful new book is your last before taking a hiatus from historical romance. Now that I'm finally beginning to recover from the blow, my curiosity is, of course, aroused - as is that of our readers. So, what's up and where are you going?

My Surrender is my last *full-length* historical novel, at least for a while. I have a story in NAL's The True Love Wedding Dress anthology which is as light and frothy as My Surrender is...well, not frothy.

Now on to the questions. Where am I going? To the land of opportunity: contemporary fiction!

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I'll be writing a book about a thirty-something woman who is coerced into going back to the small Minnesota town where she was marooned for two years as a teenager, a town she loathes and which pretty much loathes her. (And anyone who has read me knows better than to anticipate a sentimental rapprochement in the epilogue.) On the way the heroine endures a series of misadventures revolving around a kidnapped butter sculpture that force her into the role of savior, gambler, risk-taker, and adventuress when she has spent her life trying desperately to distance herself from every one of those roles. And why wouldn't she? She is satisfied with the life she leads; a secure, well-balanced, relatively content existence. But en route to her happily-ever-after she discovers that her security is an illusion, balances can be over-set in the blink of an eye ,and "relative contentment" is simply another way of saying "bland."

In the course of making these discoveries, one of the most interesting relationships she develops is with a decidedly "wrong" man, and while this chemistry-intense potential love interest certainly heats up my heroine's hitherto low-burning libido, there are several other relationships which exist independently and have just as strong an impact on her life and future.

So, strictly speaking, what I plan to write isn't a romance because for me a romance is a story where the relationship itself is the story's most important character. On the other hand, I cannot imagine writing a story in which romantic relationships don't play an important and provocative part.

Considering that you're going to be free to explore so many aspects of this woman's life - something that is difficult to do in traditional romance - the question of a couple of AAR regulars just might be especially relevant. They were more than intrigued by your ATBF post a few weeks ago in which you talked about your belief that you would find it difficult to sell the kind of historicals you're now interested in writing. You can't make a statement like that without supplying the juicy details about just what kind of books these might be and why you think they're unsellable. So, supply already!

As with most things, there isn't just one answer.

So, let's start here. Over the last four or five years, during the pre-writing for every book I've done, I've ended up doing more and more research. When I finally came to the point of writing the actual story, I found myself filling it with too many characters, all of whom had agendas that intersected and overlapped, and loyalties and motives that had little or nothing to do with the romance, but which I found compelling. I've ended, as often as not, with a 750 page epic that needs to have all those fabulous secondary characters cut out. It hurt like %$&^!

In other words, the romance canvas seems to have shrunk on me.

Another factor is that I am tired of writing "sympathetic heroines," women who never do anything wrong or who, if they do, do so because of a misunderstanding or for virtuous, martyring reasons.

I am not only not virtuous, (and martyrdom doesn't even make my hundred page list of "Things I Should Do") but I often act in self-serving or petty ways. Yet I still consider myself basically a nice, even a good, woman. I err because I am only human and I as develop as a writer and a woman I find myself driven to write about *only human* heroines.

I am fascinated by questions such as how we reconcile ourselves to our failings, how we justify what we do and retaliate against what is done to us, and how throughout our lives we constantly reinvent and transform ourselves. I am interested in what motivates a person to do something supremely heroic and under what circumstances that motivation transforms into an unforgivable act.

I just finished reading the PW review of My Surrender and the reviewer disliked the book for being too dark. Apparently broaching difficult issues cast a "pall" over the romance. Bull pucky.

Interestingly, I never thought of the book as being dark. I thought I raised an interesting question, one without an easy answer: If the girl you loved, a virgin, was willing to become the mistress of a notorious womanizer for the sole reason of obtaining information that could save hundreds of lives and you had the opportunity to stop her, would you? How do you live with yourself if you do? How do you live with yourself if you don't? And, finally, do you have the right to try to decide for her? And does she have the right to abdicate her decision?

If nothing else that PW review illustrated to me that I am taking a hiatus from historical romance at the right time. Sadly, I don't think there is much of a market in historical romance these days for exploring things which aren't easily explained in the context of a kiss or resolved with a declaration of love. And, before anyone jumps down my throat, of course there are exceptions. And brilliant ones, too. But not enough and growing rarer.

Even the lighter romances, which I so enjoy writing, are feeling a little too light. I cannot tell you how many letters I got chastising me for creating a heroine who was an unrepentant thief (Letty from The Bridal Season). I really liked Letty. She wasn't anyone's victim and she refused to let her past define her. She'd learned how to do one of the most important and difficult things a person can: forgive herself.

Now, of course, I am perfectly aware that not all readers want the same things and there are many (many of whom are on this board) who would welcome the sort of stories I am talking about here. But they are apparently in a minority and until their voices are heard in the marketplace, I'll just sit this one out.

Besides I am absolutely stoked about my contemporary! I have great hopes it will be everything I want it to be: dry, acerbic, poignant, black and bold and hopeful and - yipes! - heart-touching.

For the record, nobody knows more than I do that a review is just an opinion, but the character of Lottie (the heroine of My Surrender) struck me as a wonderfully complex and intriguing character. We all sometimes joke at AAR about the current proliferation of "Regency spies" in historical romance, but I can't think of another book that portrays as heartbreakingly as you do here the personal price those spies have to pay. In short, you took something very common these days and turned it into something truly extraordinary. In fact, to go even further I'll be honest and say that My Surrender is my favorite of the series. As my fellow readers know, Dand, the hero of this one, is believed by the other Rose Hunters to have betrayed them. I know that by the time I got to this one, I was wildly curious about him and had pretty high expectations about the character (no doubt, with visions of Jack of All Through the Night - my ultimate Brockway hero - dancing in my head.) Were you at all worried about living up to reader expectations - especially since your heroine is so determined to do whatever it takes to get the job done?

You're just the sort of reader I was talking about above. Bless you.

As for your question, no. I knew going in that I was most likely not going to be writing another historical romance, at least for a while, so the pressure to meet market expectations was off. Thus the only expectations I had to meet were my own and that was ... wonderfully freeing.

As for whether readers are ready to accept Lottie's decisions- it depends on what experience they are looking for. If they are looking for a pure comfort read-hmm. Maybe not. On the other hand, I've always assumed my audience is not segmented into a romance/non-romance readership, but enjoys a huge variety of fiction and non-fiction. I doubt they would dislike a particular heroine just because she didn't fit easily in a template.

Before we move too far away from this subject, I have to say that I'm saddened by your view of what publishers are buying in historical romance today. As a long-time romance reader - and as someone who gets a few glimpses into the inner workings of the business - I've started to wonder lately if publishers aren't second-guessing the audience and even making broad assumptions about what that audience wants without a lot of facts to back them up. You mentioned earlier that readers looking for more these days in historical romance are in the minority, but I'm not so certain that we are. If a "dark" book doesn't sell, the immediate assumption seems to be that "dark" doesn't sell, when maybe it's that particular book or that particular writer more to blame for the lack of audience response. I'm a big fan of the very best lighter writers out there - and we all know who I'm talking about - but sick to death of the lesser wannabes all of the publishers seem to be churning out ad nauseum. When I look back and think of the vibrant historical romance market of even five years ago when books encompassed a variety of themes and settings, it gets harder and harder to accept today's seemingly non-ending diet of "Regency Lite". (And I'm a die-hard Regency girl from w-a-a-a-y back!) So, who's to blame, do you think, for today's same-old-same-old: A majority of readers demanding the tried and true or publishers unwilling to take chances?

Since we're being frank here, I think the problems with today's historical romance market are the result of a collaborative effort between publisher, distributor, retailer, and reader. (Note how cleverly I left the author out of the mix?) Publishers want to make money and to achieve that they try to produce a book which is going to sell. No big surprise there. What determines a book's salability? Content, placement, "look", how easily its potential readership can identify it in the marketplace, word of mouth...

In the "good old days" the publishers produced a plethora of stuff, sat back and waited to see what sold and what didn't sell, and then bought books accordingly while still keeping an eye out for the next best thing. But new marketing realities have curbed the publisher's willingness to indulge in this sort of experimentation. As long as the distributors and buyers were willing to carry the books, the presence of exotic, unique or "unmarketable" stories was tolerated. But today the physical space where books are displayed and sold is shrinking and/or determined by economic parameters. For instance, Costco doesn't stock mass market books as they are less profitable to carry than trade-sized books. In other words, a trade produces more money per square inch than those smaller formats.

Another factor is that the publishers are having a hard time finding readers. Their dwindling numbers are a limiting factor in books sales simply because they do not buy the number of different titles they once did. People opt to watch TV, DVDs or hang on their computer. (So get off the computer and read a book! Now!)

I suspect that those who represent the largest segment of popular fiction book buyers are not on this board. They are men and women who are throwing a mass market book in their shopping cart at Wal-Mart, Target, the grocery store, or the gas station. They buy it on impulse, but expecting to read something familiar, which meets personal requisites and gratifies expectations, a story which has afforded them a comfortable reading experience in the past and promises the same in the near future. These buyers don't have time to browse a bookstore, they might not even have the inclination. So, in order to identify the book they are seeking, a book "like" the one they just finished, they rely on publishers to tell them what's between the covers. And the publisher complies by producing iconographic covers: a rocking chair on a porch, a bold black and red graphic, cartoon legs, a highlander in a kilt, etc.

And it works. The posters at this site might decry the lack of selection amongst romances but looking over the recent USAToday bestseller list you'll note that in the top quarter are many romance or sub-genre books that haven't engendered a single comment on your boards. That should tell you something about what the public wants as opposed to what this site's posters are asking to read.

Much grinding of teeth here, but let's move on to happier subjects. Kristie J wondered about something that has always struck me as unique to Connie Brockway: Your ability to handle both light and dark stories equally skillfully. How do you manage this incredible feat?

Thank you, Kristie J.

I don't have a clue. I just try to create the sort of story I would like to be reading at the moment I start writing. And hasn't that caused problems in the past? I'll begin a light piece of nonsense and half way through discover I'm really in a sturm und drang sort of mood. Unfortunately, by this point I don't have a choice and have to find my way back to the appropriate mood in order to continue. Which is another reason not to do any more series. Staying with one tone for three books gets tiring!

I will say that I always try to make sure that the light pieces have darker cores and give the darker stories moments of lightness. I fully intend in my contemporaries to push this aspect of my writing to a whole new level. I've always been drawn to black comedies, the absurd that illustrates the humane, characters that are sucked into a vortex and then spit out on a distant shore -metaphorically speaking. How can that not be exciting?

Here's a perennial Connie Brockway question that - you guessed it - came up again from several of our readers. Do you ever see a circumstance in which we'll see Giles (an unforgettable secondary character from All Through the Night) again?

Sigh: Poor Giles.

Okay, here's my fantasy. Bantam/Dell stops printing copies of All Through the Night. After three years (the period named in the original contract), I get the reversion of rights to the book. As I already have the rights to the first book in which Giles appeared, Promise Me Heaven, I then sell those two books, along with Giles's story, to a publisher who packages the whole thing as a trilogy! Well, a girl can wish...

I would love to do Giles's story. But until I get All Through the Night back, we'll all just have to wait.

Connie, as an author with a truly amazing backlist - and that's absolutely no exaggeration - is there any book you can identify as your favorite?

I like a couple very well and feel they've stood up quite nicely, those being All Through the Night and The Bridal Season.

But without a doubt my favorite book is also my least successful one, As You Desire - set in Egypt and featuring a brainy Egyptologist heroine and a dyslexic uber-stud hero. I guess the problem selling romances with different settings has been around awhile because, even though it is a terrible thing for an author to admit she enjoys her own work, since we began so forthrightly let us end in the same vein: It really is a damn fine book.

Finally, I want to take this opportunity to thank the readers at this site who have been so supportive of my writing for the past decade. Your encouragement and enthusiasm for my books has made what is a private pleasure all the more gratifying. I also want you to know that I am not selling out and moving to a new neighborhood. I'm simply remodeling. Keeping what is good and sound in the original structure and enhancing and adding the best of what I have to the construction. Please, come visit when I'm done. The door will be open.

A damn fine book, indeed, Connie. Of course, many thanks for taking the time to talk with us - especially as forthrightly as you have. Your willingness to speak so honestly shows a great deal of respect for AAR readers and I think I'm safe in offering their thanks, as well. As for that remodeling project you're working on, I'm intrigued. And excited. And more than ready to see just where you plan to take us.

Links to Connie Brockway articles/interviews at AAR

 

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