Writer's Corner for November, 2005

Francis Ray

 

I met Francis Ray ever so briefly at the literacy signing during the 1996 National RWA Conference in Dallas; we spoke briefly about her romance The Bargain, a European Historical set in the Victorian period and published for the Denise Little/Pinnacle imprint by Kensington the year before.

The Bargain was not Ray's first release, but I've tried to keep up with her career since that time, during which she has published more than two dozen additional books. Most have been published as Arabesque releases (either for Kensington or BET), but more recently she's been published by St. Martin's Press, and in January we can look forward to her contribution to the Signet anthology Chocolate Kisses.

In writing the recent At the Back Fence column focusing on the marketing of AA romance, Ray's name was brought up, and I sought the opportunity for her to participate during the ATBF Message Board discussion on her experience as a black author who [once] "wrote wite." As a result of her response, I thought she'd make a strong interview and hope you agree.

--Laurie Likes Books

 

Please share with our audience your publishing history. When was your first book published, who published it, how many books have you had published since then?

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My first book was published in October 1992. I sold the book Christmas Eve of 1991 to Odyssey Books, a small independent publishing company in Silver Springs, Maryland. My 30th title, Any Rich Man Will Do, hit book shelves October 2005.

That first book was Fallen Angel, which you re-wrote not long ago as Someone To Love Me, which our reviewer really enjoyed. There's some controversy about re-written books in general. What made you decide to rewrite Fallen Angel?

Fallen Angel was published by a small publishing house, and the print run was very small. With subsequent books, the print run and thankfully, my audience, grew. I received a lot of mail asking for Fallen Angel, which was out of print. One lady actually paid $80 on Ebay. On hearing this, I decided to ask Monique Patterson, my editor at St. Martin's Press, if she was interested in publishing the book again. Thankfully she was. I revised, added scenes to Fallen Angel, and the book was reissued as Someone To Love Me with a fabulous cover. The reissue [rewrite] for me was reader driven. The scenes were added to update book. Then too, I hope my writing has improved since Fallen Angel was released in 1992 and I wanted the book to reflect that growth.

If you were a romance reader before you began to write romance, what book hooked you, and when? What are your favorite all-time romances, and which authors do you most enjoy now?

Shanna by Kathleen Woodiwiss hooked me on romance in 1988. It was wonderful to read a book where, despite problems, the hero and heroine remained faithful. I had just finished Rage of Angels by Sidney Sheldon and that was definitely not the case. Three of my favorite all time romances are Tell Me No Lies and The Danver's Touch, both by Elizabeth Lowell/Ann Maxwell, and Hummingbird by Laverle Spencer. I enjoy Ann Maxwell, Bette Ford, and Lorraine Heath.

I love Elizabeth Lowell/Ann Maxwell's writing. Her characterizations and imagery are unmatched. Plus you always learn something when you read one of Ann's books. Bette Ford has the same unique ability to create characters that leap off the page. Lorraine Heath also has wonderful characters. All three are very sensual writers, but it is the story that keeps you turning the pages long after you should be asleep.

Of your own books, which are your favorites?

Forever Yours [originally a 1994 Arabesque, but reissued last year in a triple-book volume] is my favorite romance because of the hero, Kane Taggart. He was tough when he needed to be, but gentle when the heroine needed tenderness. He was a man who knew when to push and when to give. In short, he was the kind of man women dream about and men respect. Best of all and something I fought my editor on, he wasn't handsome in the traditional sense. His 'character' made him the man women loved.

The Turning Point, reissued as Trouble Don't Last Always [also last year], was my first mainstream, so it will always hold a special place in my heart. The two main characters, Lilly, an abused housewife fleeing from her abusive husband, and Adam, once a prominent neurosurgeon now blind, had to face their fears to find happiness. They came from two vastly different backgrounds, but they were able to bond and help the other heal. I came up with the idea after I was faced with the possibility of losing my sight. Sometimes the worst thing that happens to you turns out to be the catalyst for something good.

Some best-selling AA romance authors are shelved in the AA section and the Fiction Section, and perhaps Literary Fiction, but they are not always shelved in Romance, and less well-known AA authors are often only shelved in the AA section. Is this a publisher issue, a distributor issue, a retail issue? If human emotions can transcend time and place so that all of us can be assumed to love a romance set in Medieval England, why is it assumed that all of us can't equally love a romance set in the contemporary US featuring AA characters?

The question of why AA books are shelved differently has come up again and again. The answer that has come back from the large chains is that readers prefer the book to be in a definable area, that is, the African-American section because they can be found easily. Unfortunately this means that the AA book will not have the potential to capture the attention of the impulse shopper or a reader looking for a good book.

Tell us about your experience writing The Bargain, an historical romance set in Victorian England. My copy of the book, btw, is the original release; the front cover features embossed "Victorian icons" and the back cover has a small "thumb-print" photo of you. The book was reissued in 2000 with an entirely different cover - and no photo of you on the back.

I wrote The Bargain, my first and only Victorian Romance, because I was compelled to do so. The story came to me so strongly that I had little choice in the matter. Although the book earned out and did well, I know for a fact that non-AA readers didn't want the book once they saw my picture on the cover, and some AA readers didn't want the book because the characters were not AA. I haven't written another historical because of the length of time needed for the research and writing. My contemporaries require less research and I can write them faster.

Do you think it's different for an AA author to "write white" than it is for a white author to "write black?" It seems like Suzanne Brockmann got lots of buzz with Harvard's Education, her AA series book, and the multi-racial couple she's written about through many of her more recent single title releases. And yet I didn't even realize that my favorite Harlequin Presents author, Cathy Williams, was black until it was pointed out to me on the message board, and all her romances feature white characters.

I don't think it's any different for an AA writer to write "black" than a white author to "write black." What is important is that the author knows of what she is writes and doesn't write stereotypes. The story must drive her writing, not the lure of selling a book. I think the Latino market is hot and will get hotter. A writer or two who has never thought of writing a Latino book will do so now to tap into that market. If she/he really knows that culture, fine. If not, they do themselves and the reader a disservice.

I think it's easier for AA authors to "write white" because we work/live/socialize in their world.

What do you think about the kudos white authors get for writing about black characters when the situation isn't the same in reverse? White authors are lauded for "taking a chance" and stretching, but for AA authors such as yourself, there's no such spotlight.

Writing out of the norm - Could it be that it is the writer who perpetuates the idea that they are 'stretching' or 'taking a chance' when they write about African-Americans? Jackie Weager, who is not African-American, did a magnificent job with A Strong and Tender Thread, a Special Edition or Intimate Moments...I can't remember which...in the 1980s. She simply wrote the story that came to her and wasn't trying to do anything but write a good book. The same goes for James Patterson. Characters, not sound bites, were what motivated them. As for why African-American aren't given the kudos for 'stretching' I think it's because unfortunately their writing is erroneously viewed as not being up to par with their white counterpart. We're still trying to prove ourselves. A good book is a good book no matter the skin color of the characters or the race of the writer.

Weager said she wrote ASATT because the characters came to her as African-American and so that is the way she wrote the story. That is exactly the reason I wrote The Bargain. I was sitting at my computer one Saturday morning wondering what to write next. The words started coming and by early afternoon I had a forty page synopsis. Something I had never done before or since. Believe me I would not have spent the 18 months of research and the additional eighteen months of writing because I wanted to take a chance or thought it was a way to break into publishing. I felt compelled to write the story, but just as compelled to make Alexandria, the heroine, different than the usual heroines of that period with a father who descended from rag pickers to her tanned skin and her pet wolf.

I sold an African-American romance, Forever Yours, that helped launch Arabesque, and The Bargain within a month of each other to two different editors at Kensington. My contemporary romances became my focus because I simply did not have the luxury of time to write historicals.

Writers should have the option to write across color lines, they just better make sure they are true to themselves, the craft, and know what they're talking about.

It turns out that your current publisher, St. Martin's, seems to have the best track record with our review staff for its books written by AA authors. What do they do that other publishers aren't doing?

St. Martin's Press is small in comparison to other publishing houses in New York, but they are very big on supporting their authors. They want you to succeed and stand willing to assist in any way. They listen to concerns and realize that a happy author means well written books and higher sell throughs.

You've been a published romance writer since 1992...what are the changes you've seen in the industry during that time? How has the writing changed, and how has the market changed (both in general and for AA authors)?

Publishing has gone though many changes. One big impact is that the number of book distributors had decreased dramatically. Print runs have also declined. We all know that publishing houses have merged, while others have gone under. The market is getting tougher. The lagging economy isn't helping. Book sales even for the consistent NYT's authors have declined.

On the other hand, AA authors have seen an upswing in sales. Major publishing houses are looking for their books. Self-published authors now are respected and have the attention of publishing houses. However, the door of opportunity for AA authors, I think, is slowly closing. Anyone thinking about writing should finish that manuscript and send it off.

Why do you think there is a misconception that the Arabesque line is really a "series" line like those category lines published by Harlequin/ Silhouette? Although you no longer write for Arabesque, what are your thoughts on its recent sale from BET to Harlequin? Would you like to see more AA authors incorporated into existing series lines at H/S, or do you believe that unique AA lines are the way to go?

I think Arabesque was thought of as a series because of the number of books released monthly. I think the sale of BET to Harlequin will be wonderful for everyone involved. Harlequin knows books and the market. I can't wait to see what develops.

Harlequin was receptive to AA writers even before they purchased BET. AA authors are in Desire, Love Inspires, Bombshell, and Special Edition. My short story, Then Sings My Soul, was published by Harlequin's Steeple Hill in the How Sweet the Song anthology earlier this year. Because of the number of submissions, Harlequin is a tough house to sell to. They can be picky.

With Harlequin's deep pockets and their marketing savy, the unique AA lines can work and work very well. Up until this point I think AA readers might have missed great books by AA authors in non-AA lines because they simply did not know about them. Harlequin will make sure this problem is corrected and that all readers know about the line.

Francis, what's next up for you?

Next up is Chocolate Kisses, a sexy anthology in January 2006 from Signet with Maryann Reid and Renee Luke. Coming in September 2006 from St. Martin's Press is a romance, Dreaming of You, the third book in the Graysons of New Mexico series. Just finished In Another Man's Bed, a mainstream for St. Martin's Press that will probably come out late 2006. It is the sequel to Any Rich Man Will Do. After a few days of relaxing I start on the fourth in the Graysons of New Mexico series, Irresistible You.

Wow! You are one busy lady. Thanks for taking some time out to talk with us.

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