Pam Rosenthal - Erotica Meets Romance
(September 29, 2003)
"My everyday professional life is as a computer programmer. And there, people are astonishingly supportive of my romance writing and proud of me for doing it. I had a book signing at a Waldenbooks across the street from where I work - my colleagues came at lunch hour and bought every copy of Almost a Gentleman in the store."
Almost a Gentleman, Pam Rosenthal's first romance (which received DIK status at AAR), began life with the working title Mr. Knightley Meets Ms. Brummell, which should give you an idea of the author's sensibility. A varied career as computer nerd, bookseller, essayist, and reviewer, she began her fiction-writing career as erotica writer Molly Weatherfield. Whether or not you enjoy erotic writing, I think you'll agree that Pam Rosenthal's background lends her a unique perspective into the area of romance writing.
Pam, please introduce yourself to our readers.
Well, I work as a computer programmer and Iíve always been a passionate reader. Iím a long-married middle-aged lady - my husbandís a bookseller - and Iím the mother of a terrific grown up son. I love cities: I was born in New York and have lived in San Francisco since the early 70s. Iíve always wanted to write, and have done so, one and off, for much of my life. Unfortunately, for some years it was more "off" than "on," but I feel blessed to report that in the last decade Iíve begun steadily weighting the averages in favor of "on."
Besides writing romance, Iíve written erotica (as Molly Weatherfield), book reviews, and essays. If you Google me, Iím also the Pam Rosenthal whoís written and delivered presentations about cyberspace and cyberpunk science fiction (but Iím not Pam Rosenthal the marathon runner, Pam Rosenthal the nurse, or Pam Rosenthal the home-schooling parent).
Are you a fan of the romance genre?
Before I thought of writing romances I hadnít read any for years. I do read them now, though - as part of a pretty broad mix: Iím currently reading a new Brava, Standing in the Shadows, by Shannon McKenna, along with The Years, by Virginia Woolf. And I recently re-read (ahhhh) Desirťe [written by Annemarie Selinko and published in 1953].
What authors have you read/liked?
Romance authors? Of course I read a lot of steamy stuff. I started with Susan Johnson (great energy and spirit) and Robin Schone (absolutely a pioneer). A fan of my erotica turned me onto Emma Holly, whom I like very much - and Iím enjoying Shannon McKenna right now.
I also like Candice Hernís Regency historicals - for her love of the period and her honesty about presenting the past through present-day eyes. And my guiltiest pleasure (so mysterious is the human heart) is Joan Wolfís very sweet historicals - go figure.
Non-romance authors? Well, Iím oldish - is it somehow transgressive to give out my age? Iím 58. So Iíve read a lot, and the following names spring immediately to mind as current and longtime favorites: Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace, Martin Amis, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, and Richard Powers.
Your favorite novel of all time, and why? Favorite romance?
Favorite novel is something long out-of-print: Jane, by Dee Wells, which sold 2 million copies in the 70s. Iíd call it chicklit avant la lettre: the story of a young American woman in London and her three lovers, each more delicious than the next - an English lord, an African-American lawyer, and a sweet young British burglar. (Now that I think of it, the burglar was certainly my unconscious inspiration for Billy in Almost a Gentleman). Jane is smart, witty, and savage when it comes to any sort of hypocrisy. I think the novel should be reissued immediately. (It turns out, btw, that Dee Wells just died this past June - I Googled her and came up with this obituary - check her out and youíll get a sense of why I love her so much.)
Favorite romance? I confess that no single romance novel does it for me as well as the courtship and marriage of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, which spans several of Dorothy Sayersí Wimsey novels. (I reread Gaudy Night when I was writing Almost a Gentleman).
At the time Almost a Gentleman came out many readers realized that you were the Pam Rosenthal who wrote for Salon Magazine. Was that your first professional writing job? How'd it all come about?
It wasnít a job per se; I wrote free-lance. Which Iíve done on an off, paid and unpaid, mostly in obscure publications, since the late 60s. But the Salon pieces are definitely my most consistent exposure as a reviewer/feature writer. It came about because I know a longtime Salon editor. I took a writing course from her about ten years ago and sent her a small feature a few years later after sheíd gone to work on Salon.
As Molly Weatherfield you published in the erotica genre. I admire your boldness. With the vast array of fiction writing possibilities out there and your experience in nonfiction writing, how did you decide to start with erotica?
I didnít choose erotic writing; it chose me. *g* I mean that, though. For most of my adult life I couldnít imagine how people did something as miraculous as make up a story, but all the while I was entertaining an extremely vivid and persistent sexual fantasy life. Rather a kinky fantasy life, in fact, and, frankly, as a feminist I was a little disturbed about what it all might mean about who I was deep inside (yes, I do know how naÔve this sounds!). Anyway, I thought Iíd learn more about myself if I anchored a fantasy to real characters with voices and pasts and desires. So one lazy Sunday I sat down in an armchair in my bay window and began to write.
And it was thrilling - because I knew immediately that this wasnít therapy or introspection. It was fiction writing. Wow, I thought, itís all here inside me; all I have to do is learn how to write well enough to be faithful to it.
Is erotica something you'll continue to pursue?
If it pursues me. Molly Weatherfield has a story that may be included in an upcoming Venus Book Club anthology. But I wrote that story several years ago; I havenít written non-romance erotica lately. The heroine of Mollyís two novels is such a high-IQ smart-ass motormouth that she may have already said everything I have to say in that area.
Is Almost a Gentleman your first foray into more mainstream fiction, and what made you choose romance?
Yes [it is]. Erotic writing again, but this time a more scholarly, historical approach to it. After Iíd finished my first erotic novel I became interested in the history and theory of erotic writing. One of the books I read was The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, by Robert Darnton. Itís a study of the smuggled book trade: many of the books we now think of as French Enlightenment classics had to be smuggled into France, along with many erotic books. Darntonís research is taken from the business correspondence of real booksellers. Well, my husbandís a bookseller and I used to be one too - Darntonís booksellers felt very real to me. And I started to imagine a poor but honest member of the trade, who has a fetching bookish daughter with ink-stained fingers. And then I dreamed up a book smuggler who just happened to be the second son of the meanest duke in Provence. All of which sounded like a romance to me - or a very romantic story anyway (and will finally be published in January as The Bookseller's Daughter.)
That research into erotica is what led you to historical romance and your forthcoming effort, The Bookseller's Daughter. What was the genesis for Almost a Gentleman?
Something simpler and less intellectual - pique. Or spite. Or spleen. Almost a Gentleman was my response to the rejections The Bookseller's Daughter (which takes place in France) was getting from publishers. Okay, I thought, if you donít like France, Iíll write a Regency [historical] - because Iím having fun writing romance and I donít want to stop. And then I noticed a book that had been sitting unread for years on my shelves, The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm, by Ellen Moers.
Thanks for mentioning the Moers book; on your website you talk quite specifically about the clothing worn by men and women during the Regency period. You write: "Women hid their legs (though their shape might be discerned through their thin dresses) and exposed extravagant amounts of bosom. Men wrapped their chests and throats in high white cravats and flaunted their legs in slim trousers. Upper class dress was a dance of opposites, a provocative game of hide-and-seek."
In general, how do your research your novels?
I follow my nose - to the library and bookstores and through the Internet. Iím not organized or scholarly. I read a little of what my characters might have read. I study maps and I try to get the times and distances right. I rent lots of period movies for the costumes, and double-check the details later in books. And my husband is a fantastic resource. Heís a bookseller, and heís always keeping his eye out for things I might use - sometimes he knows what I need before I do. Like when I mentioned that The Bookseller's Daughter needed to include some love letters, and he fairly leaped to our bookshelves, to pull down Lady Antonia Fraserís collection of great love letters - which heíd brought home decades ago, thinking Iíd use it someday.
Your book could probably be classified with the new term (not a favorite of mine btw) "romantica." Is that what you intended? I guess I'm asking a chicken and the egg kind of question. Did the story come first and you sought a publisher who would work with you? Or vice versa?
The story came first. And then I thought Iíd better get a sense of the genre. In fact I hadnít read romances since my early teens, when I gobbled down things like Dragonwyck and Forever Amber and the historical novel Desirťe. But current-day romances are faster-paced. I had a lot of catching up to do, just on things like structure and pacing.
I was too busy just learning the craft to pay a lot of attention to market considerations. I knew about Brava, but I didnít realize how unique the line is. I enjoy writing sexy stuff, so I wrote what I thought was generic sexy historical romance. I was delighted to add more sexy stuff when Kate Duffy bought my books for Brava.
In the bio on your webpage you talk about being interested in "women's" issues. How did that impact your decision to write romance?
Big question. Well, I absolutely call myself a feminist. For me feminism means working to minimize the inequities of power and opportunity that stem from humanityís division into two sexes. And, while youíre busy changing the world, feminism also means understanding how men and women perceive each other and live together. Or donít. Or might learn to. The romance genre is a huge and very diverse testing ground for these very broad "issues."
But that will sound bloodless and theoretical if I donít add that Iíve also always liked womenís pop culture: movies with lots of wonderful dťcor and costumes, novels full of relationships and furniture. And Iíve always liked happy endings, like classical comedies that end in a dance. I enjoy imagining the world rotating on its axis according to certain fundamental harmonies, life as a dance where itís possible to find the right partner. (Which is why Almost a Gentleman ends with David and Phoebe waltzing.)
Or as my husband put it, drawing upon that wise woman, Cyndi Lauper, "Pam just wants to have fun."
Is Phoebe a feminist?
Tough question. My shorter Oxford English Dictionary says that the word wasnít used until later in the century, so she wouldnít have had our vocabulary (or all our concepts) available to her. But she would have read Mary Wollstonecraft, and she would heartily have agreed that women are "neither heroines nor brutes; but reasonable creatures." But she was too hurt by her marriage (and too committed to her masquerade plan) to have much faith in society changing the way it treated women - at least until after she met David.
You've said you admire Colette. Has she influenced your writing? Anyone else a major influence?
I admire her profoundly, but she hasnít influenced my writing much. Sheís too self-confident, too French, too subtle to be available to me as a writer - although I have tried to learn how to write about physical beauty from her. I worship her from afar. I want to be her when I grow up.
The two books that have influenced everything Iíve ever written are Little Women and Story of O. Does that make any sense? Jo March captured my imagination when I was nine years old and too young to know what hit me - sheís the ultimate and original brave, readerly-writerly girl in my life and probably part of every heroine Iíll ever write. And when I was 21, Story of O spoke to my dreams of utter sexual self-abandonment - again, when I was too young, too brave, too foolish, too readerly-writerly or too honest to dismiss that brilliant, devastating fantasy.
Has your romance writing had an impact in the other professional parts of your life? Did the erotica?
Iíve never personally gotten any flack for writing romances or erotica. A friend of mine who has done extensive newspaper writing and editing put it this way: writing is such a blessing, itís ungrateful and ungraceful not to be thankful when youíre able to be good at it any damn way you can. And I think most people I know feel that way about what Iím doing - itís clear that Iím enjoying it, Iím doing it honestly and feeling challenged by it; everybody should be so lucky. (That said, however, I have to add that Iíve never been able to get any of my books reviewed for the SF Chronicle, though Iíve reviewed for them myself.)
My everyday professional life is as a computer programmer. And there, people are astonishingly supportive of my romance writing and proud of me for doing it. I had a book signing at a Waldenbooks across the street from where I work - my colleagues came at lunch hour and bought every copy of Almost a Gentleman in the store.
I was more circumspect at work about the erotic writing, however. But less and less as time goes on. Iím pretty out front about being Molly Weatherfield nowadays, and I havenít had any problems yet. Of course, I live in very liberal San Francisco.
Much of your work for Salon was book reviews. How are you adjusting to being on the other side?
Iím really glad for the reviewing experience - it helps a lot in dealing with negative comments from readers. I havenít written a lot of negative reviews myself (or received many, for that matter). But the experience of making critical comments has helped me decide how to respond to those skewerings I have received. I shrug my shoulders at honest differences in taste but force myself to pay grudging, painful attention to a careful critique of my craft or voice. And when I get a criticism based upon a serious deficiency of imagination on the readerís part - well, then I think Iím entitled to a few evil cackles.
There's been some buzz about Laura Leone's Fallen from Grace which features a romance between a gigolo and a writer. It made me remember Billy. Would you ever consider a sequel featuring him as the hero?
I like continuing characters myself, so I think youíve got a terrific idea, but unfortunately I see Billy settled quietly and happily forever after in Lincolnshire. So no, not Billy. But a Billy-type of character, yes, that would be great (remember, Mr. Talbot also employed Jamie and Jo).
What are you working on now? Any new books in the works?
Well, Iíve just finished rewriting my January Brava and very soon now Iím going to start on a novella, also for Brava. A Regency [historical] again, called A House East of Regent Street, which I like to think of (and hope this will pique your curiosity) as Last Tango in Paris Meets the Threepenny Opera.