(This interview originally written for The Romance Reader in 1996)
I spent a wonderful hour on the telephone with Catherine Coulter recently, talking about her life and work. She is as saucy and funny as the best heroine in a romance, -- honest, open, and commanding. She speaks her mind freely and says of readers who don't like her books, "Tell them to go read something else."
Coulter wrote the very first romance I ever read -- The Sherbrooke Bride. It was she who hooked me on the genre and I will always read her books out of loyalty. I may not like every book she writes, but with such a prolific author, there are still many wonderful Coulter books to choose from - five of them are on my all-time keeper list (see our Desert Isle page for titles).
Coulter remains enthusiastic about writing, even after 18 years in the business and 22 books on the New York Times bestseller list. She goes into her office each day to write "smiling like a fool." How many of us can say that about our jobs?
Coulter is one of romance's most versatile authors in terms of book settings. She has written Regencies, historicals set in the Regency era, Viking sagas, and contemporary love stories.
Most recently, she's begun writing straight suspense and is having a terrific time. She plans to write one suspense a year. The Cove, her first foray into this genre, is her favorite of her books. She is currently writing another suspense, entitled The Maze, which she hopes will be made into a movie. But romance fans need not fear. Her next release will be The Heir, a re- written Regency to be released as an historical. (It will be available next month, coinciding with the 22nd birthday of her cat Gilley, who, by the way, receives his own fan mail.)
"The Regency period is my preference because I started there with the formal Regencies and because my master's degree is of that period," she says. "I was also raised on Georgette Heyer. However, one gets tired of it and I am also very fond of the medieval and Viking as well. And, the contemporary is also very special."
Support our sponsors
When asked how she made the leap from the very stylized, formal Regencies to the more free-form, sexier, and lush historicals, she said it was no problem at all. "I should have been writing the regency era historicals from the beginning because those early books ... well, the word count for a Regency is 75,000 words," she says. "My Regencies were 110,000 words -- very long. As I re-write them, I get to get rid of that stylized writing. But the elements are there for me to expand upon."
In the last few years, Coulter has re-written some of those earlier Regencies, including Rebel Bride, Lord Harry, The Duke and the upcoming The Heir. She says re-doing her old works is "the most fun thing in the entire world."
"I strip them down to a skeleton as much as I can. The language and the behavior of the Regencies is so stylized. To turn these people into richer characters, really full human beings, is so exciting," she says. "It was my idea. I've never severed my relationship with Penguin (the publisher of the early Regencies and the re-written versions). They were ecstatic. They can sell those books as original. It makes everyone money; everyone gets something. I get to make the characters what they should have been originally."
Not every reader would agree that they get something from this deal, although Catherine is quick, and correct, to point out that the back cover of her books is always a letter from her informing the reader if the book is a re-written version of an older book.
"A lot of publishing houses, and this is never the author's fault, re- issue books when an author gets big. Sometimes I'll get a letter saying, 'Well, I didn't read the back!'. I'll just say, 'Well, honey, let's go have a hotdog.'"
Catherine's latest release, Rosehaven, is a single title medieval, a hardcover released last month. The idea for Rosehaven was a small one - what if we have a very rich and powerful peer without sons who wants his line to continue? What would he do?
When asked what followed that germ of an idea, she replied, "Not much. Basically I think a lot of writers are like this; things start slowly. It's a verb -- to plot. That's what writers do. Always plotting, even if you're not aware of it. Things will just be churning around - what if we do this? That will go back in the idea machine and whipped around. Lots of time when I come down to my computer every morning, I have no idea what I'm going to write. But stuff has been working back there. That's how it works. I don't know what percentage of writers work from an outline. I can't imagine such a thing because I don't even know the characters."
Like other authors, she sometimes feels as though she is taking dictation for her characters. "Sometimes they are speaking so quickly, and I type 95 wpm, sometimes I can't even get it all down. It's not magic, it's just that that stuff has been percolating in the back of your head and they are just ready to talk."
As for characters doing unexpected things, she added, "Of course they do. Sometimes you come up with an idea and you want them to do it. But they say, 'I don't think so, Catherine.' You can force them into it, but what you write will be garbage. So then you say, 'Oh, all right. What do you want to do?' The characters are always far more interesting than anything I can come up with."
Catherine's heroes have run the gamut from Burke Drummond, the hero of Night Fire, a kind and gentle man, to Graelam de Moreton, a character who raped another character in Chandra, was the hero in Fire Song, and evolved into a nice guy for three subsequent books, including Rosehaven.
Catherine admits that Burke was an unusual hero for her -- he was created differently because the book was about physical abuse and needed a special man.
Her favorite hero is from Devil's Embrace, her first long historical. He is a typical alpha male - he wants the heroine so badly he kidnaps her, rapes her and eventually earns her love. Devil's Embrace is rather an epic read, in the tradition of the early 80s style, and includes a kidnapping, bodice-ripping, and rape. (It's also a pretty good first book.)
But what does Coulter have to say about Graelam, a rapist-turned-hero? She admits that she prefers the alpha male who goes close to crossing the line because she believes they are more fun. "They are arrogant, they are jerks, they're asses," Coulter says. "I think a woman needs something to get her teeth into. By the end of the book (when the hero, presumably, is reformed), the guy is probably a total bore."
She makes no excuses for Graelam, although she's worked hard to redeem him. "I made him into the bad guy in Chandra, but I couldn't get him out of my mind," she says. "In fact, that book is a very bad book because the hero is totally eclipsed by him. So I brought him back and have slowly redeemed him. He started his redemption ... in Fire Song. He's been in five books. I like that kind of man. At the end of Fire Song, he wasn't like this 'Oh, I'll love you forever' (said in a mocking tone) kind of guy. And so I couldn't just let him go."
When pressed further about the "hero as rapist" storyline, she answers with characteristic bluntness. " Chandra was written in 1982. Let's not have any revisionist history. This is what you read 14 years ago," she says. "Back in that time they were like, rape on every continent. Like a box of chocolates -- they were wonderful. But everything changes. Everything evolves and the readers and writers have evolved."
And, when questioned about the fact that some of her heroes have been unfaithful to their wives, and that some readers are upset by this, she says, "Tell them to go read something else."
She adds unapologetically, "Let's have a scooch of realism. This was the 13th century (referring to Rosehaven). The one in Midsummer Magic -- the reason for the mistress was that she was such a wonderful character."
As with many authors in the genre, Catherine is starting to move out of romance. The Cove, while reviewed by this site and Romantic Times, is not a romantic suspense novel, it is a straight suspense novel. While some readers have trouble with authors who change the focus of their writing, Catherine indicates most of her readers are accepting this change. Just as many romance readers read books in other genres, some romance authors want not only to read outside the genre, but to write outside the genre.
While she grew up on Georgette Heyer and was influenced by Victoria Holt and Mary Stewert as well, she does not read widely in the genre today. Her favorite author is Dick Francis. Those romance authors she does tend to read and enjoy are her close friends in the industry, Linda Howard, and Ann Maxwell, particularly her science fiction and murder mysteries.
One reason she doesn't read widely in the industry today is because she believes it is flooded with too many bad books. Coulter says that because the romance market is such a large part of the retail market, many inferior books are published because of the overwhelming demand. "While 48% of retail market is romance, mystery is about 12%, and science fiction is maybe 9%. The demand for romance, therefore, is great -- because the market is so big. We have more borderline books published in romance than other genres do simply because the demand is so great."
As to how this former Wall Street speech writer ended up a romance author, she recalls one day throwing a book across the room, thinking to herself, "I can do better!" She told her husband, a med student at Columbia, and "he took the next weekend off and we plotted 'Autumn Countess,' my very first book, which is in oblivion, thank God. I am grateful for that."
She believes her writing has improved since then. "My writing has become much cleaner, more focused. I'm very intolerant of people who use exclamation points in every other sentence. When I speak to writers, (a major topic) is on clean writing. It's better -- clean is better. Get rid of all those ridiculous horrible adverbs and adjectives. We owe it to the readers. It has not gotten easier, however, just because I've written so many books. Every book is different. What changes is style. All of us started out as story-tellers. But we have to get more polished. We should all get more streamlined."
That horrible first book was published in 1978 when she "was just in a training bra. Nobody knew anything about publishing. There was no RWA yet. It was a black hole. At least I was in New York. I had no idea. I had a free-lance editor friend. She read it and said, "let's go for it". She got it to the appropriate editor at the appropriate house. I wrote this really stupid letter and shipped off the book. Three days later she called and took me to lunch and offered a Penguin contract. I was very, very lucky. Don't let anyone tell you there's not a lot of luck in the business."
On the personal side, Coulter and her husband, the doctor, love to ski and travel. She writes every morning, stopping to watch and "shriek at" the Young and the Restless with friends. Afternoons are filled with everything, from going to the gym to shopping. Three evenings a week are devoted to pleasure and non-work-related activities. Other evenings are filled with reading, proofing galleys, and research.
Coulter plans to write two new books a year, one suspense, one historical, and re-write her Regencies as well. When asked if she fears running out of ideas, she answered, "The well will never run dry." Let's hope not.