Issue #81 (October 15, 1999)

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Sometimes the ideas just won't come, and rather than fight it, it's best to just surrender and hope for the best the next time. That's what I've been feeling all week as the deadline for this column approached. I've been in far more of a reading mode than a writing mode, and even though I've committed the cardinal sin of glom-reading, I've found myself wanting to immerse myself in Nora Roberts of late. And then, when Reviews/Historical Cheat Sheet Editor Ellen Micheletti sent me this piece on her frustrating efforts as a bookseller trying to sell mid-list books and authors, I discovered maybe there was a way to tie everything together and create a workable column after all.

So here's what we're going to do. We're going to talk about Nora Roberts and the Irish jag she's had, which coincides nicely with the Irish jag I'm on, and then I'm going to share an interview I conducted with Nora recently. Then we're going to move into Ellen's piece. What is the common theme? It's one of contrast - from bestseller to the mid-list, with lots of interesting topics tucked in along the way. Hope that's okay with you.

But first you should know that AAR is committed to sharing with you excellence in all its forms. Whether we're talking about an established author we love or a mid-list or new author, we get very excited about talent around here and want to share that with you. That's why we have such pages as Buried Treasures, If You Like. . . , and Desert Isle Keepers. I know many of our DIK's are by established authors, but many of the books we've given DIK status have been written by authors who are not lead authors, or weren't lead authors when they wrote these books. We've given DIK status to some authors with their debut romances.

We also like to believe that we are honest and helpful to those of you out there when it comes to calling a bad book a bad book. If an established author seems to have run out of steam or has changed her style and no longer appeals to a romance audience, we want you to know so you can beware. We want you to take chances on new books and new authors just as much as we want you to continue to love those authors who have thrilled you for years. But if those long-time thrillers aren't "cutting the mustard" any more, we hope we're showing you terrific new talent to replace those old favorites.
 
 

Nora Comes to the Rescue:
Generally in the fall, it seems as though I've read far too many mediocre romances and far too few really good ones. I'm now in my fourth year of this phenomenon. After six to eight months without granting DIK status to a book, I'm rather desperate to read one that I'll love. Oh, I like lots of romances, and find many others passing fair, but I love only two or three each year as a general rule.

About a month ago, I received an advance copy of Jewels of the Sun by Nora Roberts. Well, I fell in love with the setting, the characters, and the romance. My disappointment in not having read a terrific romance in so many months lifted, and I did an interview with Nora about the book. One of the questions I asked her was about her new series title, Enchanted. When she said it was linked to an earlier trilogy she'd done about the Donovan family, I got kind of excited. Donovan is obviously an Irish name, and Jewels is set in Ireland. A mini-Nora-writes-Irish glom came on.

While I discovered that none of the Donovan Legacy titles actually take place in Ireland (except for a chapter or two here and there), that magical, mystical Ire is part and parcel of the books. Yes, the real Ireland may not be accurately reflected in the stories she sets in the Emerald Isle, my fantasy of Ireland is reflected therein, and since I've actually been there and seen some of the fantasy, I prefer to go there in my mind.

While perhaps Ireland doesn't have the same lure for me as does Scotland, I like it very much nonetheless. The Scottish Highlands with their bleak beauty and hardened inhabitants has one kind of lure. The lush greenery and combination of down-to-earth common sense and belief in faerie has another.

My grade for Enchanted was a solid B. Many readers who had already read the first three books in this series didn't like this book as well as the earlier titles. While it's possible that reading them all in a row in my mini-read-glom wasn't the best way to experience this series, my reaction to the earlier titles was mixed. I found the first in the series, Captivated, to be on a par with Enchanted but was less enamored with book number two, Entranced. Perhaps because the focus was mixed between the romance and the solving of a crime, the romance didn't seem strong enough to suit me. The final book in the original series, Charmed, was one I thought I'd enjoy least, but it was the only one to evoke a few tears. All in all, the Donovan experience has been a good one.

While Nora Roberts is not my favorite author, she has written three of my Desert Isle Keepers. Only two authors have written more books that I consider all-time favorites - Catherine Coulter (five keepers) and Julie Garwood (nine keepers). Three authors have two books each on my list of all-time favorites - Julia Quinn, Deborah Simmons, and Katherine Sutcliffe. While there are many other authors who have thrilled me once or turn out mostly very likable books, not many have thrilled me often.

When they do, I like to ask a lot of questions, and luckily, each of these three authors (Coulter, Garwood, and Roberts) has agreed to answer them. I've now interviewed Nora Roberts twice (the first with assistance from Linda Mowery of TRR). Below is our second interview.

Nora Roberts Q&A:

 LLB: Let's talk about Ireland. Clearly, from reading this book, and from reading the Born In series, and knowing you're Irish, you have a pull to Ireland. Can you talk some more about that? And, do you believe in things mystical and fantastical?

Nora Roberts: It's a country ripe with stories. It's part of the culture - and really, just part of the air. The first time I visited I felt a strong sense of recognition - which goes to answering the question that I do believe in things mystical and fantastical. Without magic, on some level, life would be pretty dull.

I enjoy setting stories in Ireland because I feel comfortable there, and it calls to my heart. The best stories start in the heart.
 

LLB: Jude, the heroine of Jewels of the Sun, discovered she was a writer in the small Irish village of Ardmore. You are a writer. I know that there are parts of you in every character you write, but is Jude particularly close to your heart? And, which hero have you written is closest to your husband?

Nora: I don't think any one character is closer to me than another, emotionally. Every character, as I'm writing them, is the most important and most intimate to me. And there certainly may be pieces of me in some characters, but I don't think there are in all. And not many pieces at that. I'm not writing about me, I'm writing about them.

I'm not writing about my husband either, and am constantly puzzled and surprised when I read an interview when a writer claims to base her heroes on her husband. I'm sure he's a terrific guy and so on, but for me, the character must be the character. Not a mirror of someone else.

My characters start in my imagination, and become. Jude and Aidan in Jewels of the Sun are Jude and Aidan. No one else.
 

LLB: You write a variety of characters - some of your heroes are very nurturing, while others need the love a good woman brings. One thing I've rarely if ever read in one of your heroes (the heroes in One Man's Art and Montana Sky come closest) is the kind of nastiness many authors write for heroes at the start of a romance, which, by the end, is no longer true. For instance, the hero in Born in Ice, for all his unwillingness to commit, was so nurturing to Brenna. Can you talk about this?

Nora: I don't think about it, on a conscious level, I suppose. It's simply that for the most part the brute as hero doesn't appeal to me. Not that it can't be done well, and I've certainly read books where it works wonderfully. I'm attracted to bad boys, let's say, but not to nasty, brutal men. Not in real life, and not particularly in fiction.
 

LLB: I've asked you this before, and I'll ask it again. Some of your heroes seem too good to be true in terms of being in touch with their emotions. They were not only well adjusted, but almost feminine with their nurturing and intuition. I thought this of Caine (Tempting Fate), of Phillip (Inner Harbor), and now with Aidan, not that I don't love them all. I know you answered when I first asked you this that romance is supposed to have larger than life characters, and I know from personal experience that truly good men exist, but do you make a conscious effort to make heroes from these strong families extra good? Is it just their legacy?

Nora: I don't think I make any character extra good. I start them off, and they become who they are. I suppose I find more to work with when the hero has many facets, which include a tender side in there somewhere. Why, I wonder, is this too good to be true? I've had a number of men - father, brothers, sons, husband, friends, touch my life. While I wouldn't say they'd all make fabulous fictional heroes, they're certainly interesting men with a lot of facets. Absolutely in fiction we enhance - the good and the bad qualities of characters to make they compelling within the story.

I try to write all different kinds of people. But if I'm doing a family story, then family - with its joys and its frustrations - plays a big part. And family feelings do as well.
 

LLB: Are you planning on continuing to write series romance for as long as you write romance?

Nora: As long as I have ideas that fit series romance, I'll write series romance. It's a fascinating form.
 

LLB: What do you think about your publisher reissuing some of your old paperbacks as hardcover romances? Is it just the romantic suspense novels that they are doing this with, and is it just in keeping with your new romantic suspense novels being first released in hardcover?

Nora: I have conflicting feelings about this. Certainly I understand some readers might find it annoying, or see it as purely a way to cash in. On the other hand, many readers didn't read me years ago, and have begun to. The demand for the reissues is very high - or else it wouldn't be met. The hardcover decision, while not mine but the publisher's, has been successful. A lot of readers prefer hardcover for a variety of reasons. I often do myself simply because I want certain books for my library, and hardcover last longer.

I've tried to make sure as many readers as I can are aware these books are reissues. I urge readers to check out the copyright when they're unsure. And Bantam has printed on the flyleaf of Carnal Innocence that this is the first hardcover edition of the book.

Over and above all that, this sort of reissue is done outside of the Romance genre all the time, and no one thinks a thing of it.
 

LLB: Let's talk a bit about reissues in general. You are very supportive and upcoming authors. What would tell those who feel the midlist is dying and being replaced on bookshelves by reissues of authors like you? Personally, I have mixed feelings. There's no other way for me to get some of the older books without reissues, but I worry about the day when all I'll see in the bookstore are rows for you, Linda Howard, Jude Deveraux, Julie Garwood, . . . well, you get the picture.

Nora: Publishing is a business. Reissues sell because there's a huge portion of the readership who want them. This is not going to go away. One day it's very likely some of those midlist authors will break out, make a name, and find their earlier books being reissued in precisely the same manner. Good books usually find an audience. I don't think there's an audience more savvy, and more flexible and willing to try unknown than in Romance. Word spreads, midlist or lead.

Not all bookstores make room, or have room, for all midlist, and this makes it tough. Just another part of the business. In our bookstore we make a conscious effort to stock midlist authors, to give them as much of a shot as possible.

I can't change the way the business works - and I'm not likely to cheerfully give up slots for my own books. But I can do what's in my power to support new and midlist authors. Stocking the books is one way to do it.
 

LLB Now for your prolific writing. You are the only author I know who produces so many books in a year, and they are (mostly) very good. Do you think you continue to write so well because you write in so many arenas - series romance, full-length single title contemporary romance, J.D. Robb futuristic romantic suspense, contemporary romantic suspense?

Nora: I certainly think being able to write in a lot of areas helps keep me fresh. Mostly I just love the process of writing, whatever form I'm in. Writing well is work. I'm lucky to love my work.
 

LLB: What was the genesis for this new Jewel trilogy?

Nora: I just wanted to set another trilogy in Ireland, and I wanted it to be much different from the Born Ins. I saw it as an opportunity to explore the fantasy, the magic. To write a set of fairy tales.
 

LLB: You dedicated Jewels to romance author Ruth Langan, who has written some wonderful Scots medievals for Harlequin Historicals and just recently had an Irish trilogy published as well. Why did you dedicate the book to her?

Nora: Ruth and I have been good friends for - God - nearly twenty years. I met her at the first RWA conference in 1981, when we were both grass green. She's been part of my life ever since. I love her.
 

LLB: For those unfamiliar with the Donovan family, can you give us a thumbnail sketch of Enchanted and the earlier trilogy?

Nora: Enchanted is a spin-off from The Donovan Legacy books I did several years ago. The Donovans are hereditary Irish witches, each with a specific specialty. They're cousins.

In Enchanted, we've got Liam Donovan, second cousin, once removed. He's living temporarily in the Pacific Northwest while he works out his destiny, and the choices he has to make. He happens to be a shape-shifter. Our heroine is taking a few months to make some of her own life decisions.
 

LLB: A reader recently posted to one of our Message Boards that she had just read the first two books in your Chesapeake Bay trilogy, and while she considers herself a tremendous fan, she didn't like Sea Swept and had problems with Rising Tides. Nancy Beth wrote, "My problem was the heroines' (Anna particularly but also Grace a bit) physical violence toward the hero. When Anna got angry she would punch or hit or throw things. Imagine if the hero did such a thing! All three heroes are survivors of horrific physical abuse and much of the plot revolves around people coming to grips with such abuse (including Anna)and yet the heroines act out physically repeatedly and it is considered of no consequence, merely amusing, because the recipients are such big strong hunks. Frankly, I was appalled. It really struck a nerve with me and completely turned me off of Anna Spinelli."

She added:

"May I just add, before people lambaste me saying that men are the instigators of most of society's violence, which I know, that the majority of children killed by a parent are killed by a mother, and that all three of the heroes of this trilogy were abused by their mothers. Allowing the heroines of these stories to be physically abusive is inconsistent, and in my mind, unacceptable."
Nora, I have noticed violence in several of your books and it's never bothered me, although the women hitting the men has certainly created some "Wow!" moments for me, including a couple such scenes in Jewels. They made me sit up and take notice, but they didn't bother me. Can you address this issue?
 

Nora: Laurie, I'm sorry the reader was upset and disappointed. (But) there is a difference (especially in fiction) between a 110-pound woman giving a guy a punch in the gut, and a 200-pound man doing the same to the woman. With Anna, we had a hot-tempered Italian woman dealing with a hot-tempered guy. It wasn't as if she solved every argument with a slug.

When a character reacts this way, the character reacts this way. It's part of the make-up. It's part of the story. Right or wrong. Politically or socially correct, or not.

Now, speaking as the only girl in a family of five - four older brothers - I can attest that occasionally the only way I could deal with my own temper and them was a quick shot. When I could get away with it. If they'd tried the same with me (and they did, very rarely) my mother would have creamed them. Sexual discrimination, no doubt about it. But there you go.

As far as your comment re Jude and Aidan - this, for her, was a moment. Taking real, tangible action - even if it was inappropriate. She let herself do something on impulse - let her emotions lead. Even if it was with a right cross or whatever. Should she have belted him, broken his nose? Absolutely not. Inexcusable. But she did it, and it had a point. If he'd done it to her, it would have made him a brute. Sexual discrimination again, unquestionably.

Must we feel, as writers and readers, that our characters and their action must always be correct, socially acceptable and run along our personal lines of feelings and behavior.

I certainly hope not.

When we have to start writing perfectly behaved characters, or ones that follow a certain code of behavior in all events, fiction's doomed.
 

LLB: One final question: If God and told you tomorrow, "Now, Nora, from now on, you can only write one type of book," what type would it be?

Nora: I would have to tell God he certainly had more important things to do than to poke into my career. Respectfully, of course.

How Picky Are You?

Last year my daughter started college and I started a part-time job. I became a part-time bookseller at our local Waldenbooks. It's a job I enjoy, especially now since I have been appointed the #2 person in charge of the romance section. The #1 person in charge of romance is Sandy who knows and loves the genre and between the two of us, we try to order and stock a variety of authors.

A short time ago, I had to scan the inventory for returns. This is something we do often and I had done it many times, but always in other sections - this was my first time to scan romance. As I scanned, I almost wept at having to withdraw and return book after book by mid-list and beginning authors, many of whom I had read and knew were excellent. I also became angry at leaving book after book on the shelf by big name superstars, some (not all) of whom are just resting on past reputations.

Since one of the best things about reviewing for AAR is the chance to read and discover new authors, I have been chatting to the browsers in the romance section in the hopes of finding out what they like and maybe introducing them to some of the marvelous new and mid-list authors I have read. Most browsers of romance are delightful to talk to and I have had the pleasure of introducing some of them to new authors and having them come back later to thank me and buy more. Just recently, a very nice woman came up and said she loved Westerns with a romantic setting, but was having trouble finding good ones. Well, did I have the writer for her! I gave her a copy of A Rogue in Texas by Lorraine Heath and next week she came back and said she had loved the book and would buy anything Ms Heath would write in the future.

Another time, a woman came in and said she loved family stories in the style of LaVyrle Spencer and wanted some more like hers with not so explicit love scenes. I grabbed a copy of Mariah Stewart's Moon Dance and gave it to her. She came back to say that was exactly what she was looking for and did I have any others like that? So I introduced her to Curtiss Anne Matlock's new book, Lost Highways and she was thrilled.

But what is very frustrating is that I have found real resistance in some readers to try new authors and even new time periods. Lately I have had a few encounters that have led me to believe that maybe my sister is not The Pickiest Reader In The World. One woman came in and said she wanted only time travels and only ones with happy endings. Well since one thing that characterizes a romance is a happy ending, I wondered what she was talking about until she said she had read, "that horrible Outlander." So I told her about Sandra Hill's The Last Viking - she didn't want one where the character went forward in time. So I told her a little bit about Jude Devereaux's A Knight in Shining Armor - no medievals for her! Well, how about Constance O'Day-Flannery? She had read all of them. Finally, I showed her Teresa Medeiros' two time travel books and then I got called to help at the cash register - I'm not sure she ever did find a book that could satisfy her exacting requirements.

As a lover of books, my single biggest frustration comes from the reader who wants only romances with a Western setting, or only medievals or only contemporaries or only books by (fill in the blank) and will not even try anything or anybody new.

I still remember the first modern-era romance I ever read. It was Captive Bride by Johanna Lindsey. If I had confined myself to only that particular type of romance, I would be out of luck since the desert sheik is out of style. However, prolific as Ms Lindsey is, I would have had a lot to read, but would have missed out on so much if I had confined myself to her alone. But there are more readers than I imagined who do just that. Just last week, I tried to help a reader who was an Amanda Quick and Julie Garwood fan - period - and who, rather than trying other historical writers, was perfectly content to re-read their old books and wait for the next title by either of those ladies. When I told her that Amanda Quick was Jayne Anne Krentz, she said she never read contemporary romances.

Fellow readers, if you find yourselves reading the same handful of authors or if you are stuck in the same time period, please try someone new. I'm not saying this just because I want to sell more books, but because I would hate to see romance, which is as broad and diverse a genre there is right now, dwindle to only a handful of writers and a handful of sub-genres. Already, it is hard to find futuristic romances since they do not sell all that well and the traditional Regency Romance is in danger too. For myself, I am not all that fond of the medieval period, but I would never not read a book just because it was a medieval. I would have missed Karen Ranney's My Beloved, Jo Beverley's Lord of Midnight, Deborah Simmons' The DeBurgh Bride and Teresa Medeiros' Charming the Prince - and it would have been my loss.

While I have nothing against the big name writers, I find much more satisfaction in reading beginning and mid-list authors. There is a wealth of talent out there and if we readers confine ourselves too narrowly, romance will shrink and shrink until there will be only a few superstars left.

Questions to Consider:

Glomming:
Whether you've realized it or not, many topics were raised in this column. First up was glom-reading, and glomming, glomming-without-having-read (aka GWHR), and glom-reading are all topics we've not talked about in awhile, so now's the perfect time to talk about them again.

Glomming is a phrase I first used back in this column in 1996 and was then described by me as: that particular affliction that affects romance readers and sends us looking all over the place for an author's backlist. Because romance novels don't stay in print very long (generally six months to a year for single titles), glomming can prove very frustrating; part of the excitement of going on a glom is in the finding of the books. GWHR is when a reader buys a series of books by an author even though she's yet to read that author before. If, for instance, you have a huge TBR pile and it contains book #1 in a series by an author and book #2 comes out before you've read book #1, are you going to pass it by or might you buy it anyway? I do both, and my guess is that I'm not alone - I wasn't back in 1996, anyway.

"Glom-reading" is a term coined by author Casey Claybourne in 1997. When one glom reads, one reads several books in a row by an author. While the temptation to do this is very strong when you discover a new author to love, glom reading tends to backfire and, as Casey wrote, "all the books blur into one."

So, which authors have you glommed lately? I've been glomming Ruth Wind series romances (I finally found a copy of the remaining title I didn't already have in her The Last Round Up trilogy). I've only read two of her books so far because I'm trying to pace myself. I've also been glomming the reissues of Linda Howard and Elizabeth Lowell, the latter being somewhat of a guilty pleasure.

As far as glom-reading, I'll admit to my recent Nora Roberts mini-binge, but other than that, I've been able to control myself in recent months. As for GWHR, I do less of that now - I'm reading several books at the same time by different authors because I know they have newer books in their series' coming out soon and it'll help if I know whether to buy them or perhaps pass on them, perhaps forever.

Have you indulged in a glom-read? Did you find yourself wishing you'd stopped at some point mid-read? Do you GWHR? Which authors have you been collecting? If you've done this before and been burned, now's the time to 'fess up! Finally, who are your own guilty pleasures?


Buried Treasures/If You Like. . . :
Here's where you get to share an author with other readers who deserves to have some light shone on her talent. And, if you have a lesser-known author who a reader might enjoy if she already enjoys a certain lead author, please share her name with us. I plan to use the postings you make to to update both of these stand-alone pages at the site. After having given Elizabeth Graham two B- grades in the past couple of years and having seen her receive another B- from another reviewer here at AAR, she doesn't exactly earn buried treasure status, but she deserves more notice then she gets. If You Like. . . is trickier still; I'm convinced that Deborah Simmons should be the next Amanda Quick, but so far it hasn't happened.


All-time Keepers:
If you've seen the Reviewer Scorecard I posted last month, you'll remember that those of us who review here at AAR vary widely in the number of books we grant DIK status. For me, it's two or three romances a year while for others it's more like five or six. What about you? How many romances do you typically fall utterly in love with in a year's time? And, how many romances that you read do you keep? I know that if it's gotten a grade of at least B-, I'll keep it. It used to be that if I graded it lower but it was part of a series, I'd keep it, but now I'm more ruthless - less than a B- and it's outta here.

And, how many authors thrill you over and over again, and who are they? I've said six authors are on my all-time favorite list more than once. Julie Garwood leads the pack with nine favorites, followed by Catherine Coulter with five, and Nora Roberts with three. Three other authors made the list twice. How about you?

The Irish Have It!
So many of us love romances set in Scotland. There's likely an equal number who love romances set in Ireland. Are you in this group? If so, tell us why? And, if you find romances set in Ireland unrealistic, share that as well.

From Bestsellers to Mid-List Authors: How Picky Are You?
When you read Ellen's segment, did you see yourself described anywhere? I'll admit that I used to be far pickier than I am now, but my selectivity wasn't in terms of only reading lead authors - it was that I wouldn't read contemporaries or series romance. Now I'll read anything that has a storyline I find appealing - admittedly I may have a narrower scope to define appealing than you do, but it is liberating to want to read more than just the regency-set historicals and medievals I used to read nearly exclusively.

Which books/settings/authors have surprised you by being better than you expected? And, which authors and/or settings have disappointed you of late? I finally read my first romance by Catherine Anderson and found it not to be as good as I'd expected. Then again, Samantha James' His Wicked Ways was an unexpected pleasure and a big improvement from earlier books I'd read by her.

Until next time, TTFN, Laurie Likes Books
In conjunction with Nora Roberts

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