A Q&A with Judith McNaught

(September 7, 1999)

 

If you are like most romance readers, you have given (at least) one book by Judith McNaught Desert Isle Keeper status. For me it was the first medieval romance I ever read - A Kingdom of Dreams.

This summer, Judith visited one of our message boards and agreed to be interviewed. We discussed a multitude of topics, from her persistence in making her dreams become reality, to the personal tragedies she has endured, to how she's seen the genre change since she began writing.

I hope you'll enjoy our Q&A as much as I did.

--Laurie Likes Books

Readers vary about which of your books are their favorites. Some prefer the contemporary Perfect or Paradise. Others prefer the regency-set historicals, Whitney, My Love, Once & Always, Almost Heaven, or Something Wonderful. My own favorite is your sole medieval - A Kingdom of Dreams, followed by Once & Always.

For now, let's talk about A Kingdom of Dreams. Do you plan to write any other medieval romances? What was it like to have written that one, given it was such a different time period than all your other books? In many of your other books, the hero ends up humbling himself to the heroine at the end and in this case, the tables were turned. Talk about that, and talk about writing emotionally - did you know when you wrote that scene that it would be such a tearful scene? Did you cry when you wrote it? When you read it? (I cry to this day, even if that is the only scene I read when I pick up the book.)

Of all my novels, I am in many ways, proudest of A Kingdom of Dreams. I loved its medieval setting - the history, the pageantry. I loved the scope of the plot, but most of all, I loved the main characters. They had so much heart, so much depth, and the secondary characters seemed to leap to life in my imagination as soon as I gave them an identity. They made me laugh, and they made feel.

I was very emotionally involved when I wrote the scene where Jennifer humbles herself to a battered Royce on the jousting field, but I didn't cry over it. I was too busy making sure that readers would cry over it. I did however, cry when I wrote the last two paragraphs of the epilogue. They still make me cry. When I finished Kingdom, I felt a sense of pleasure and accomplishment has lingered all these years. I've always intended to write another medieval, and Water's Edge, my next book, gave me the perfect opportunity to do that in a very special way.

(For a look at one of my favorite endings to a book, albeit not the epilogue in this instance, click here. --LLB)

Your husband died right before you were published. When I interviewed Jill Barnett a few years ago, her husband had died recently. I asked her how difficult it was to be writing romance when the romance had died in her life. I'd like to ask you the same - what book were you working on when your husband died? What did you do? How did your grieving process manifest itself, if at all, in your writing?

Michael McNaught was my great love, my best friend, and my staunchest ally. In the years between 1978 and 1982, when I wrote and couldn't sell a manuscript, I lost faith in myself and wanted to give up, but Mike wouldn't let me. Most husbands of aspiring writers offer their support in the very beginning, but when their wives' writing inevitably inconveniences them - and when they don't see any money coming in - these same husbands often begin to complain and even to demand that their wives give up writing. But not my Michael. Never. Not even once.

For five long years, he watched me labor over the manuscript for Whitney. He brought me coffee in my office while I worked, he hugged me when the manuscript came back with yet another rejection letter. When I couldn't sell Whitney, I finally wrote Tender Triumph, and in January of 1982, that manuscript was sold.

During the next year and a half, I wrote Double Standards for Harlequin and repeatedly re-wrote the unsold manuscript for Whitney, My Love, My Love while Mike and I waited eagerly a book cover with my name on it to arrive from Harlequin for Tender Triumph. On June 19th, 1983, Mike died in an accident. On June 20th the book cover finally arrived. Three months after that, Pocket Books bought Whitney, My Love and designated it a "lead title."

I wasn't excited about that and I was barely aware when Tender Triumph appeared on the bookshelves in November. I wasn't capable of feeling much of anything for the next two years except the agony of his loss and the desperate need to keep going for the sake of my family.

And that did have a dramatic effect on my writing. As I began to emerge from my own misery and isolation, I looked around and realized that I wasn't alone in my plight at all. Other women - widows and divorcees - were all around me, everywhere, raising their children, coping, surviving the grief of death and the agony of divorce. I was awed by the amazing courage and relentless fortitude of my own sex in their everyday lives. We are the frame work that supports the people we love; we nurture our young and care for our elderly, we hold down jobs and still run our homes. When the going gets tough, we don't run out on our husbands or our children. We may be exhausted, afraid, and disenchanted, but we never stop trying, never stop caring, and we never stop hoping. My God, I think we are a magnificent sex.

In the years since Michael's death, I've wanted my writing to portray women as we are, and as we can be - loyal, brave, kind, daring. And, most of all, unified in our support of each other.

When you first started, the genre was very different than it is today - both in sophistication, style of writing, and the publishing industry. I can remember going away to college in 1978 at the tender age of 17 and picking up a book by Jennifer Wilde - it was a bodice-ripper. I don't think I read another romance until the early 90's, when I fell in love with the genre. Please compare and contrast between then and now:

  • The genre
  • Your style
  • Your preferences
  • The publishing industry

Support our sponsors
The last two decades saw a definite improvement in the overall quality and sophistication of romance novels, but, to me, the most dramatic change was the explosion in the number of new romance titles being released every month.

In January of 1985, when Whitney was released, only a few other new historicals were available, and none of them were full-length historicals set in the Regency. In fact, until Whitney, My Love, the only other Regencies being published were little "Signet" books. Five years later, 50+ new historicals were being released every month, and a great many of them were full-length historicals set in the Regency period.

I remember standing in a bookstore, surrounded by all those new historicals, and feeling a little dazed. I picked up book after book and read the story lines on the back cover, and, to me, it seemed as if every possible plot variation - from the believable to the far-fetched - was already being published.

It was that over-abundance of historical romance titles that actually made me decide to switch my style and time period. That wasn't an easy decision for me to make because I loved the genre. I'd established my reputation there, and I was proud of the books I'd contributed to it. However, I also wanted each of my future books to seem as fresh and special to readers as my past books had been, and I simply could not see a way to accomplish that with a tidal wave of new historical romances flooding the book stores every single month. For that reason, I decided to switch from historical to contemporary romance and did so with Paradise in 1990.

In the ensuing years, the number of new romance titles and new authors seemed to continue to escalate, and then, not long ago, the trend suddenly reversed. . . .

Thus far, it's been easy for me to describe to you the changes I've witnessed in our genre, but it's a little more difficult to give you my analysis of the publishers' participation in this roller coaster rise and fall of the genre. I'm far from an authority on the publishing industry, but I'll give it a try:

It seemed to me that in their desire to capture as much of the vast romance market as possible and keep up with the demand for new titles, publishers began concentrating more on quantity than quality. That isn't surprising because, despite what you may think, there is not an unlimited supply of authors with high quality manuscripts to offer. Inevitably, the market became saturated, and - equally inevitably - disenchanted readers began expressing dissatisfaction with the quality of the books. Many readers expressed their dissatisfaction by refusing to buy new authors at all, or else only in used bookstores.

When that happened, publishers' sales and profits began to plummet, and-predictably-the publishers reacted by cutting back on the number of new books being released. This is simply the law of "Supply and Demand" at work, and publishers are governed by that law, as are corporations around the world.

Having explained all that, I should also mention that there are a few other, less obvious, factors that have been contributing to the drastic reduction in new titles that we're still seeing right now. For one thing, many privately owned bookstores have gone out of business as their customers began to do their book-shopping at "price clubs," at book superstores, and at used bookstores. As you've probably discovered for yourself, these price clubs and superstores don't stock a proportionate number of romance novels, and the romances that they do stock are usually written by established authors with best-seller records.

The demise of privately owned bookstores also resulted in the need for fewer book distributors, and this decrease is playing a significant role in the reduction of new titles that you're all witnessing. Before they went out of business, privately owned bookstores usually ordered their books from one of the hundreds of book distributors, large and small, that dotted the country. As independent bookstores closed their doors, these distributors either closed down or sold out to large distributors. Today, there are comparatively few distributors left -although nearly all of them of them are gigantic.

To bring all this into perspective and see how it affects you, as readers, think of all the little and large independently-owned bookstores there used to be and remember that every single one of them had their own, resident "book-buyer," who decided what new romance novels to buy and stock. Every time they ordered, they created a new demand for those books. Remember, too, that every one of those hundreds of distributors that existed a few years ago also had their own book buyers. Now the buying decisions are being made by a comparatively tiny number of buyers from the price clubs, book superstores, and major distributors.

Every time you buy a new book, you're making your preferences very clearly known to a publisher, because your purchase is reported to it as a sale. Whenever you purchase a used book, you're saving money, but unfortunately you aren't making your preferences known or influencing future publishing decisions in any way - because publishers have no idea what you're buying.

From some comments I saw here on your site, I had the impression that some of you truly believe that publishers would prefer to re-issue old books, rather than publishing new ones. Actually, the opposite is true. To prove it to yourself, all you need to do is recall the way they deluged you with new titles until the market was completely glutted. The truth is that publishing is a business like any other, and the same principles apply: In order to survive, publishers have to make a profit. In order to prosper, they must expand. And in order to expand, they must invest their profits in new products. Books are those products.

Publishers reissue successful old books for one reason only: They hope to make a profit that they will then invest in a very risky and expensive venture-the launching of a new book by a new author.

Beyond that, I can't offer you any further insights into the publishing industry, because I don't fully understand it. I'm not certain anyone does. I can only suggest that you make your preferences known in the time-honored tradition of a capitalistic society: Complain to the retailers who aren't providing you with the products you want, and then thank them with your purchases when they do. I wish I could offer you a quicker, easier solution, but that's the only one I know of that works.

I can remember covering the national RWA conference in Dallas in 1996 and being so impressed by your keynote speech. Obviously you had a lot of polish before going into romance writing (ie, your professional background). Please talk about the image of romance writers in the mainstream public and what you think would be good ways to dispel those negative stereotypes of romance readers and writers as bon-bon eating housewives.

Most people (from "journalists" to auto mechanics) who ridicule romance novels have never actually read one, and they'll admit it. That means we're dealing with the sort of people who freely state opinions and make judgments on matters about which they admittedly know absolutely nothing. Now, how can I possibly care what someone like this thinks? Why should any of us care?

In social situations, I occasionally encounter people-particularly men-who snigger and smirk at the mention of romance novels. As I explained a moment ago, I find it very difficult to take people like this seriously. However, on those rare occasions when I decide some form of retaliation is in order, I have found it highly effective to react as if the smirker has just confessed to being emotionally unbalanced. In a voice of genuine, sympathetic concern I softly ask, "Why do you have a problem with that?"

If anyone reading this decides to try that, I should forewarn you that the more convincingly concerned and sympathetic you seem-the more likely it is that you will then discover more than you ever wanted to know about the person's spouse, father, significant other, sexual orientation, etc., etc.

The truth is that everyone can assume simply by the word "romance" that romance novels are about sensitivity, traditional values, love. There's a soft sentimentality associated with all those things, and sentimentality automatically evokes the cynic within many people. I think nearly everyone is secretly sentimental and they're comfortable with it in private. But to actually come out and admit it - to subject oneself to potential ridicule - that's frightening to most men and to some women. It's risky.

Reading or writing a romance novel constitutes a public declaration of sentimentality. That involves risk and it takes courage. Romance readers and writers take that risk again and again-and they all suffer the consequences for it. They do it because they are women, and women possess an inexhaustible abundance of determination and courage. Throughout history, our courage and determination have compensated for our lack of brute strength and enabled us to survive on a planet where we are the physically weaker of the two sexes. Sentimentality has enabled us civilize and soften the other half of the population of that planet.

After accomplishing all that, why is it so surprising that we've expressed a preference for books that finally showcase women in primary roles, a genre that requires that those heroines act with courage, love, and abiding faith-even blind faith-in the men they chose to love? That has been women's reality since the beginning of time.

No one can diminish that or denigrate that - except ourselves. I suppose that is why I do feel a sense of frustration and sadness when I hear a woman who does read romance novels embarrassedly refer to them as "trashy books," or "little escape novels." There is nothing trashy about the books we read, or who we are. There is nothing "little" about anything we do, from the challenges we face in our everyday lives to the feats we accomplish for the people we love.

Your writing has changed direction in recent years. You were among the first romance authors to get a multi-million dollar contract and to go hardcover. Is going hardcover both a blessing and a curse for romance authors? On the one hand, it confers status because paperback books don't get reviewed by major publications and because so few romances are hardcovers. On the other hand, romance readers who are used to buying many books a month due to the lower price of paperbacks complain that buying hardcover really cuts into their budgets. And, many complain that many or most authors who go hardcover begin to change their style to be accepted at the mainstream level.

Nearly every hardback-published romance author is criticized by some number of readers who say their best work is behind them. Most of these same authors do very well in hardback; they are, in essence, discovered by a whole new group of readers who obviously find these newer books of value. What do you think is at work here? Is it the subtle change in style that sets off red flags in long-time readers' heads that the newer books are more mainstream? Is it some sort of reverse snobbism? Do you think that some romance authors, given that it takes so many years to move into hardcover, simply lose their steam by the time they get there? Sort of like a literary Murphy's Law?

(Part 1..."Your writing has changed direction in recent years. You were among the first romance authors to get a multi-million dollar contract and go hardcover. Is going hardcover both a blessing and a curse for romance authors?")

Before I discuss going hardcover, let's talk a little about these multi-million dollar book deals. In fact, let's discuss some of the standard clauses in publishing contracts that dramatically effect how authors are actually paid for their work. I think you may find this interesting.

Now I don't know about you, but I'm always a little intrigued whenever I hear that a romance author-including myself-has signed "a multi-million dollar contract." I mean, what exactly is a "multi-million dollar" contract? Does it mean the author is getting $10 million for 2 books, or $2 million for 10 books?

I wonder about other things, too, like the payment terms of the contract. For example, is she getting all her money in the next 3 years, or is it going to be spread out over the next 10 years? Can she even be sure what year she'll get her money - or, as is often the case - will she have to wait until after her publisher schedules her book for release - not the hardcover, by the way, but the paperback version of it, which is much further down the road? Or, worse, will she have to wait until two years after that unknown paperback release date has passed?

Here's an even more important question for you to ponder: Can this author with the multi-million dollar contract be absolutely sure that, after she turns in her manuscript, she'll be entitled to her money? I can tell you the answer: The answer is "No." You see, in every publisher's boilerplate contract, there's a little clause that says, in effect, "If we don't like your manuscript when it's finished, we don't have to buy it."

If you still think this "multi-million dollar contract" sounds fabulous, then you're not a banker. Bankers regularly take one look at those contracts and tell authors they'll have to have better proof of financial stability and future income before they can qualify for a mortgage on a home. But you can't really blame those bankers for being uneasy. Bankers are used to people who get regular paychecks, at least once a month, for a pre-determined amount of money. Authors get paid twice a year - and only if they have backlist titles that are still in print and selling. And even if the author's backlist titles are selling very, very well, she can't count on receiving a nice big check every six months. The reason she can't count on that is because of another little clause in all publishers' contracts - a clause that is called the "Reserves for Returns," clause.

This clause exists because booksellers are allowed to return to the publisher for full credit any hardcover they haven't sold. The same is true of paperbacks, except that to get full credit for unsold paperbacks, booksellers merely tear off the covers and return those to the publisher. The "Reserves for Returns" clause allows publishers to withhold from an author's semi-annual royalty check any "reasonable amount" the publisher wishes, in order to cover possible future returns from booksellers. Historically, some publishers have deemed it "reasonable" to withhold as much as 75% from the authors' checks - year after year, after year, after year. Other publishers are kinder.

I don't know about you, but all these questions and factors I've just told you about run through my mind whenever I hear that a romance author has gotten a multi-million dollar contract.

There's one other thing I really wonder about: Who starts these rumors about multi-million dollar contracts and why? Authors, like everyone else, fall into three distinct categories when it comes to revealing income: There are those who exaggerate their income, those who downplay it, and those who feel that income is a private matter. I fall into the latter group.

As to whether going hardcover is a blessing or a curse for romance authors, I would guess that it's probably a little of both. Normally, by the time a romance author is moved into hardcover, her books have already made the New York Times paperback bestseller list. That is an amazing feat, because the competition for a spot on that list is fierce. Once she goes hardcover, she'll now be expected to perform well on the New Times hardcover list, where the competition is even tougher. Making the NYT paperback list is a little like qualifying for the American Olympic Team. It's an amazing, wonderful accomplishment. Trying to make the NYT hardcover list is like trying to compete at the actual Olympics.

There is more prestige and more money associated with going hardcover; there is also more stress and uncertainty.

(Part 2..."Many readers complain that buying hardcover really cuts into their budgets..."

I understand that, but other readers also complain that they want to buy their favorite authors' books in hardcover-romance novels included. In order to satisfy both groups of readers, the books come out in hardcover and also in paperback. It's not as if they are never available in paperback for voracious readers who are also budget-conscious.

(Part 3..."Many readers complain that many or most authors who go hardcover begin to change their style to be accepted at the mainstream level.")

I can't speak for any author other than myself, but I can try to hypothesize for you. As I explained in another answer here, I left the historical romance genre because it was utterly glutted and in view of that, I didn't feel I had anything fresh and special that I could add to the glut-or that I wanted to add to it.

By that time, my next book was already scheduled to go hardcover, whether it turned out to be historical or contemporary. Since I didn't want to write another historical at that time, I decided I wanted to try to introduce the best elements of our genre to hardcover readers who actually thought that Danielle Steel's books were romances. With that aim in mind, I decided to write Paradise and then Perfect. Based on reader mail and sales figures, the plan worked magnificently. It also resulted in that same group of Steel-only readers giving other authors in our genre a try. We made converts. Hundreds of thousands of them, and we should all celebrate that.

As to why I altered my style after that and began to introduce mystery elements into my novels, the answer is that I was tired of writing the same thing. I'd been writing traditional romances for 17 years. For awhile - not forever - I needed a change.

I think this same explanation is probably true for many of the other romance authors who've gone hardcover and changed their style. Try to remember that by the time most romance authors have an opportunity to go hardcover, they've been writing romances for years - dozens of years and dozens of romances, oftentimes.

Think for a moment about the things you loved to do fifteen years ago. . . Today, do you enjoy those same things, and if so, do you enjoy them to the same degree? If the answer is still yes, then would you also want to spend five days a week, year after year, doing those same things? I have no doubt that some romance authors change their style when they go hardcover because they feel there's more status to writing mainstream. I have no doubt that other romance authors change their style because they feel their books will sell to a wider audience and their book sales will increase. If these are their reasons and their goals, then we have to respect that and grant these authors the right to make the best decisions for their own careers.

I regard myself as a "romance writer" or a "women's fiction writer," if you prefer. I write for women. I'm happy with that. No, I'm intensely proud of that. That's all the status I could possibly want.

When you first wrote Whitney, it was a long time ago. Why did you re-write the book now? I know you made the book longer and changed two scenes. From what you've written, I know you feel this ending is the one you always wanted. Why the other changes? Were they "PC" motivated? Were they motivated by the fact that it is now 1999 and the genre has changed?

I think it would be a waste of everyone's time if I were to answer this question and pretend I haven't also read the message thread (excerpted here.) regarding the enhanced version of Whitney, My Love, recently released in hardcover. This thread was started by a lady named Sandy, who was extremely irate and alarmed about this new version of Whitney. Driven by what I believe is her deep and genuine concern for the entire romance genre, Sandy cast doubt on my publisher's and my motives and even our ethics and then speculated that if this new version of Whitney is successful, it would result in more re-writes and even fewer new novels.

Here are the actual facts: I did not add to or alter the original novel so that it could be released in hardcover. The book was already scheduled for hardcover long before I came up with the idea of adding to it and altering two scenes. Secondly, I did not need to change the original version at all in order to ensure its success as a hardcover. Readers have been clamoring for hardcover versions of Whitney to add to their collections ever since my first hardcover (Paradise, 1992) was released.

In fact, the only thing readers have demanded more consistently and more adamantly than a hardcover version of Whitney, is a sequel to it. I want to please my readers, but I can't and won't write that sequel. For one thing, I don't want to see Whitney and Clayton Westmoreland with gray hair and grandchildren, nor do I want to kill one of them off so the other one can have a new romance of his/her own.

The other reason I refuse to write sequels is because I personally have never read a sequel that I thought was the equal to the original novel. Furthermore, I have no reason to believe that any sequel of mine would be the exception. Feeling as I do about that, if I were to write a sequel anyway, in my opinion, I would be knowingly and deliberately planning to foist off an inferior book on readers. I refuse to do that - partly out a sense of respect for, and responsibility to, the women who invest their valuable time and hard-earned money in my books-and partly out of my own desire to live, and to work, with integrity.

Whitney, My Love was already scheduled to go into hardcover production when I suddenly came up with the idea of lengthening and enhancing the ending of the novel in order to satisfy readers who've always wanted to read more about Clayton and Whitney Westmoreland - but without creating any of the drawbacks of a sequel.

I have always known the original book ended a little abruptly and could have had a richer, more satisfying ending. In fact, I've long suspected that readers' constant demand for a sequel stems from that somewhat abrupt ending. In order to overcome my own objections to sequels, I wanted the new pages to pick up where the original novel concluded and to continue to the new end, without ever jumping years ahead.

Once I conceived the plan and figured out how to accomplish it, I was so delighted and so enthusiastic that I also hired an architect/artist to do a detailed drawing of Clayton Westmoreland's estate so that readers could actually see it as I'd seen it in my imagination. By now, all my changes were holding up production, but if I hadn't run out of time, I would have also paid the same architect/artist do several other drawings of other scenes in the novel.

When I invested my time and money in all this, I thought I was doing something nice for my readers. I was trying to give them an unexpected little "gift" that they would enjoy whether they bought the hardcover or the later paperback version when it comes out. It's a little disheartening to discover that all my efforts and good intentions can translate into some sort of gimmick intended to dupe readers. Until I read Sandy's impassioned messages here, it never, ever, occurred to me that anyone would think me unethical for trying to make a beloved book even a little better and a little more fulfilling when it was released in hardcover/paperback.

In a related question, many readers point to Whitney as their favorite romance of all time, and others can't forgive the "rape" scene, even though Clayton later begs forgiveness. I've done lengthy commentary on romance novel rape scenes and "forced seduction." Talk about this scene in the book, and if you would have written differently if first published today. Talk about political correctness in romance writing and writing anachronistic behavior. Is it true that you changed the "spanking scene," and if so, was p.c. any part of that decision?

Also, you are known to many of my readers as an author who "gives good grovel." In other words, your heroes may do some dastardly things, but they apologize and humble themselves so wonderfully that most readers forgive them.

In the early, unpublished, draft of Whitney, My Love, Clayton committed a clear case of rape. However, I never felt right about that scene and, in 1985 just before the book was published, I opted to avoid actual "rape" by having Whitney inadvertently collaborate with Clayton (when she mistook his reasons for being angry.)

I thought I'd successfully and clearly averted the issue, and in the years that followed the publication of Whitney, I could never quite understand why a contingent of intelligent readers still clung to the notion that it was rape. I couldn't understand it - until a few months ago, when I was re-reading the book for the first time in many years and preparing to work on the new hardcover version.

I'd read past the scene in question and had gotten to the drunken scene between Stephen and Clayton, where Clayton confesses only that he hurt Whitney and had not believed she was a virgin. And then, to my utter disbelief and chagrin, I read the following line. It is Stephen's reaction to what Clayton has confessed: "It was unbelievable (to Stephen) that Clayton, who had always treated women with a combination of amused tolerance and relaxed indulgence, could have been driven to rape..."

Rape? Rape?! I couldn't believe I'd carefully altered the first scene so it wouldn't constitute rape, but I'd forgotten to alter Stephen's reaction/response to it. By letting Stephen draw that conclusion, I automatically prompted readers to draw the same conclusion. To put it more succinctly, I shot myself in the foot.

Having dealt with that, let's address the really important issue: Did the scene, even as I intended it to be interpreted, belong in the novel? Why did I alter it even more in the new, hardcover version of Whitney, My Love so that it was definitely not rape?

The answer to those questions is that I worked on the original novel in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Based on the very few other historical romances that were available at the time (namely, The Flame & the Flower and a few novels by Rosemary Rogers), I naively and erroneously assumed that we were all writing harmless fantasy and that it would automatically be perceived as such by readers. I had absolutely no idea back then that rape was an all-too-common occurrence in real life. I never imagined that there might be women who would read my book and be made to cringe with the real memory of real rape.

When I realized that Pocket Books was going to release the old novel in hardcover this year, I was determined to find some way to alter, remove, or neutralize that scene without harming or involving the rest of the book. I tried dozens of different methods from the obvious to the intricate. When I finally stumbled onto the solution, it was so simple, so quick, so easy, and so obvious that I was completely dumbfounded by my own denseness.

When I went to work on this new version, I didn't have the slightest intention of altering the scene you refer to "The spanking scene." I knew it had caused some comments, and I knew there were a few readers who found it objectionable, but in my memory, the scene was fine the way it was, and I fully intended to leave it that way. And then I read it again after all these years...and I didn't like it. It made me feel...uneasy...queasy. I altered it.

I made these scenes for one reason only: I made them because I felt they were necessary. I'm not concerned with what is politically correct. I'm concerned about acting with integrity and with the need to treat other people with kindness, respect, and dignity. In real life, and in my books, I am particularly concerned with bolstering women's awareness of the special gifts we bring to the human race - and what we can be when we support each other.

So many readers I hear from love Almost Heaven. It features a lengthy section where the hero and heroine are separated, as does Something Wonderful. Some readers don't like long separations and for others, it doesn't matter a whit. Is that something you consider as you write?

I anticipated that some readers would object to the hero and heroine being separated for a period in both novels, but that separation was absolutely essential to the plot of both books. Without it, I wouldn't have been able to write either novel, and I felt that both these stories deserved to be told. I intended to compensate for the separation by making the time the hero and heroine spent together especially fulfilling. Since Something Wonderful and Almost Heaven ultimately became vast favorites with readers, I think the decisions I made were the right ones.

I know you have had personal difficulties in your life which made writing one of your recent books more difficult - talk about the stress of having a deadline and being unable to meet it. How does that affect you personally, and how does that affect the creative process?

I don't think I'd be able to write at all if I wasn't under the pressure of a missed deadline. I have never figured out how to write a good book that deserves to be a bestseller, and the fact that I'm expected to do that time, after time, after time is daunting to me. Actually, it's "terrifying." I've thrown out manuscripts that were more than half-finished. I'm usually 75% finished before I can see clearly what I need to do to make the book really good, and by then, I've usually worked myself into a state of despair and desperation. Oddly, when I've finished a manuscript, I feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction and euphoria that lasts for weeks. And then it's time to begin again. But not until I absolutely have to. . . .

Do you read romance - many authors I've interviewed do not. If you do, which are your favorite authors? What was the first romance you ever read? Why did you decide to write romance? Do you envision yourself moving into romantic suspense for good? Or perhaps to become even more mainstream?

Yes, I do read romance novels and I have a list of favorite books and favorite authors. Rather than mention the names on my favorites list and risk offending anyone that I leave out, I'd rather tell you that I think Laura Kinsale is one of the most gifted authors in our genre.

A few of my readers are very concerned about re-writes because they would rather the "classic" romances be left alone and because they don't want to pay $20 for a book that is mostly the same. Other readers mentioned that if this Whitney, My Love is the book you wanted to write, you should do what you want, much like a movie's Director's Cut. The ones concerned about re-writes think it's a way for publishers to "put one over" on the public. They would like you to answer this: If the Whitney rewrite is a sucess, (ie it reaches the bestseller list), how do you think the publishers will view this type of reissue in the future and will it be exploited? And, since it will probably be a sucess, do you see this becoming a dangerous trend? (In other words, these readers fear big authors such as yourself will no longer write original material but simply re-vamp older books, and/or, that such re-writes will join re-issues and push out mid-list books from dwindling shelf space.)

(Part 1..."Some of my readers are very concerned about re-writes because they would rather the "classic" romances be left alone. Other readers mentioned that if this Whitney, My Love is the book you wanted to write, you should do what you want much like a movie's Director's Cut.")

I noticed that a few people here on your site accused me of "tampering with a classic," and my answer is that I'm very flattered to know that Whitney, My Love is regarded as a "classic." At the same time, those particular messages suddenly brought to mind a 60's rock and roll song called, "It's my party and I'll cry if I want to." And so - to those of you who think I've tampered with a classic - I reply with a warm smile (and no ability to carry a tune): "It's my classic, and I'll tamper with it if I want to."

(Part 2..."Some readers fear that big authors such as yourself will no longer write original material but simply re-vamp older books.")

Most romance authors have more ideas for books than they know what to do with, so why on earth would they do that?

I'm one of a very few authors who finds writing terribly difficult and who has no idea where the next good plot is going to come from. Despite that, even I would never stop writing original material so that I could re-vamp old books.

I may, however, decide to enhance and lengthen the endings (and only the endings) of my other original paperback historicals before they're released in hardcover. If I do add pages to the hardcover versions, it doesn't cost readers a dime more than un-enhanced hardcover would cost. I think it's a nice gift to give readers.

For readers who don't want to pay for hardcovers, the enhanced versions would be available later in paperback.

For readers who don't want to read a lengthened version of the original paperback novel, there is a perfect solution: Don't buy it, for heaven's sake.

I want to emphasize here that I am only talking about enhancing the historical novels that were never available in hardcover at all. I don't know if I'll have the time or the energy to do that, and so I haven't made a final decision one way or another. But I have to tell you this, if I decide that's what I want to do, then the threat of a "boycott" won't slow me down or change my decision one tiny little bit. In fact, I shamefully (and half-jokingly) admit that if it accomplished anything at all, an attempted boycott would probably prod me into altering those books.

Seriously, what I'm trying to explain is this: I am an author, and like most successful authors, I have learned a hard and painful lesson, and it's this: An author cannot depend on anyone else for guidance or direction. If you try to write based on other people's thoughts and opinions, you will lose your confidence and then you will lose your way. And then, you will lose your readers.

No writer on earth wants to please their readers more than I do, and so the other lesson I've learned has been the hardest and most obvious of them all. . . "You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time." To that, I have added another sentence from another of life's lessons, and I'll share it with you here. . . "And you can never please people who do not want to be pleased."

(Part 3..."Some readers also fear if other authors begin re-writing their old books, then these re-rewrites will join reissues and push out mid-list books from dwindling shelf space.")

What?! Do you mean that readers actually think the lack of mid-list books these days is due to reissues taking away the shelf space for the mid-list romances? I'm a little amazed that they reached such a conclusion, but the truth is this: The number of mid-lists on the shelves has decreased drastically because publishers cut back on the number they were publishing. Publishers cut back on the number they were publishing because book sellers stopped ordering them. And when book sellers stopped ordering them, publishers couldn't make any profit at all.

While we're on that subject, let me mention something else you have probably noticed, but may not have paused to consider: Publishers love to publish books. They have an almost compulsive need to publish as many copies of as many new books as the market can possibly bear. More than the market can bear, in fact. You saw that yourself when they all jumped on the romance bandwagon, started up new "lines" and managed to positively deluge the market every month with so many titles that no one could possibly afford the time or money to read more than a fraction of them.

Publishing is a business like any other, and the same principals apply: In order to survive, publishers have to make a profit. In order to prosper, they must expand. And in order to expand, they must invest their profits in new products. Books are those products. Publishers reissue successful old books for one reason only: They hope to make a profit that they will then invest in a very risky and expensive venture - the launching of a new book by a new author.

(Part 4..."Readers who are concerned about re-writes think it's a way for publishers to 'put one over' on the public.")

I'm beginning to find my role here of "spokesperson for the publishing industry" not only uniquely unsuitable for me, but very amusing, because I would normally be speaking out on behalf of the authors' plight, which would automatically thrust me into the role of "adversary" standing against publishers.

However, I am happy to tell you that although I've known authors who've suffered financially and otherwise at the hands of some publishers, I can assure you that I've never known of any publisher that is brazen enough, or foolish enough, to try to take advantage of its customers and deliberately risk antagonizing and alienating them. (You who are readers are their actual customers).

Publishers release re-issues of old books and, in my case, a re-write of an old book, for one reason only: They know they can make a profit, and they need profits in order to invest them in new products-exactly the products that you want: Wonderful new books by exciting new authors. As I said earlier, launching a new author is always a risky and amazingly costly venture.

Since we've gone this far, I probably ought to mention two other things that publishers have done that have caused readers on this site and other romance sites to complain, to feel duped and alienated.

The first complaint was about the practice of putting new covers on old books. Publishers do this for only two reasons:

  • They are trying to give the books a new, updated look that they hope will attract new readers. Remember, every five years or so there's a whole new generation of readers going into bookstores - readers who never heard of someone named Kathleen Woodiwiss, and certainly not Judith McNaught; and
  • Publishers want to bring attention to an author's body of work by giving her covers a unique, stylized look. This is an expensive marketing maneuver designed to signal to new readers that this author's books are important - out of the ordinary. Putting new covers on old books is not. . .I repeat, not. . .a ploy to trick readers into buying the same book twice. When readers inadvertently buy the same book twice they're bound to have a negative reaction, and the last thing on earth any publisher-or any author-wants to do is alienate a reader. My God, pleasing and satisfying my readers is my only goal in writing.
I have to add here that if a reader doesn't recognize the story synopsis on a book's back cover when she's thinking of buying it, I don't see how the old cover would do a better job of triggering her memory. To me, most book covers in the women's fiction section all look dreadfully alike. It seems to me that the only wise solution is to check the story synopsis and the copyright date inside the book.

The other thing that publishers have done that alienated romance readers was to deluge you a few years ago with many mid-list and category romances that you felt were less than good. The only explanation I can offer you is an honest and blunt one: The fact is, there isn't an unlimited supply of extremely talented authors available with excellent manuscripts to offer every publisher who wants to publish romances.

There is undoubtedly enough undiscovered talent in this country to yield up enough excellent romance novels every single month to satisfy even the most voracious reader-but it takes more than talent for unpublished writers to finish a manuscript and get it published. Besides talent, it also takes an incredible amount of blind determination, effort, time, family support, and self-confidence. And if those requirements aren't daunting enough, it also takes two more things: Luck and Timing.

I don't think anyone except a writer who has finished a manuscript-and gotten it rejected-can begin to imagine the effort and the heartache that goes hand in hand with becoming a published novelist.

And I don't think any of you would believe how dreadfully little most published novelists make. Romance authors frequently sell romance manuscripts for as little as $3,000 to $10,000. Most women today are either supporting themselves or contributing to the support of their families. Can you imagine trying to convince your spouse or your college-bound children that it's actually profitable and wise for you to invest a year of your life, working 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, in order to make $10,000? Actually, it's only $8,500, because literary agents customarily take 15% off the top.

In view of that, is it any wonder that talented authors and aspiring authors alike give up writing as a full-time career because they can't afford to do it. Even if they persevere and are one of the lucky few to make a good living at it, by the time the money actually comes in, they've invested so many years and so much time that if they averaged out their incomes, most of them would still have been better off financially doing something else. Anything else.

Until now, I've been discussing the dissatisfaction with mid-list and category books that I've seen readers talking about on this site and others. It's time now to deal with your deeper dissatisfaction with books by best-selling authors, including myself. I can only answer you by quoting to you another of my favorite sayings, and it's this: "No author ever writes as well as she wants to, she only writes as well as she can." Talent comes in varying amounts to each of us, and I believe most romance authors put every drop of talent they possess into every manuscript they write for you.

I think that you who are our readers sometimes forget that "best selling romance authors" are actually ordinary women just like you. You may give us "star status" in your minds, but the truth is very different: The truth is that we are simply women who are trying to do our jobs as well as we possibly can and to please everyone who counts on us. Isn't that what women have been doing since time began?

The problem for us as writers is that we don't have any rules or any formulas to rely on when we do our jobs. We have only our hunches and our hopes. Intellectually, we know when we begin a new book that we will never be able to fulfill the expectations of all of our readers. We know it and we accept it. But we don't really like it. How could we? We're women, after all, and women feel obliged to live up to everyone's expectations.

I take consolation in knowing that the reason I can't fulfill every reader's expectations is because my readers are women, and women are incredibly unique individuals with strong opinions and self-images that are transforming and improving every day. I write for women. I write for women who refuse to dwell on the sordid and who insist on happy endings--not because they haven't endured disappointment and sorrow and despair-but because they refuse to let that rule their lives or dictate their future. These women are a part of me, and I am a part of them.

I write for women. That makes me very proud.

I'm honored to have had this opportunity to share some of my observations and opinions with all of you who visit this site. I hope I've been able to give you a better understanding of the genre we all love and of the writers whose books you read.

Judith McNaught at AAR



Use Freefind to locate other material at the site
 
Copyright 2008 All Rights Reserved