I'll never forget two comments Julie Garwood made when we met for lunch early in December. The first was that she doesn't read romance. The second is that she bases the quirks of her heroines on her own flaws. That includes having a poor sense of direction, being "kind of a klutz", and, if you've read any of her books, having a charming ability to obfuscate and change the direction of conversations to the consternation, frustration, but eventual acceptance of the other party. In short, I loved her, her enthusiasm, her way of looking at the world, and the fact that she's written ten of my all-time Desert Isle Keepers.
This interview with Julie was more than a year in the making, and my biggest goal was to limit the number of questions I asked her. When I told her I could probably ask her questions for 42 hours, she said that would be fine with her as long as she could "chow down". As it was, this Kansas native ordered meat loaf and french fries - no garlic mashed potatoes for this mashed potato purist! Though I was allotted one hour with her, she was gracious enough to extend it into nearly two. While the play-back on the tapes are filled with plates clattering and glasses clanking, I'll never overlay them with anything else. Because while transcribing them was obviously useful, I'll treasure forever our actual conversation. I can close my eyes now and picture Julie in her short bob and understated black pantsuit, and imagine I'm sitting at the restaurant at the Adolphus Hotel, on December 12th, in Dallas, Texas. . . .
Unlike some other authors I've interviewed, Julie Garwood seems to need that connection with her readers. Whether positive or negative. One of the first things she told me at the start of our lunch was that she's devastated when people don't like what she's written. She can handle criticism, as long as it's not demeaning to the genre, as long as the reviewer's points are made clear. Later I asked her about the criticism of her writing as not historically accurate. She stated emphatically,
"I can prove everything I do with three sources. An author said to me that she had read a book by another author and found it inaccurate. Both these people are historical romance writers. The author said the other author had the characters packing a canned ham. And I said, 'What's the date?' She told me and I said, 'They canned hams then and I can prove it.' They had canned sardines and canned this and that. I don't know what they tasted like, but they did it. This is obviously not the middle ages, but it was earlier than you'd think. I thought to myself about her, 'You haven't done your homework.'
"I get letters that say I've made an error. Know what I do? I send them the reference, usually three - I have to find three references before I'll include something in a book. Give you an example. In Honor's Splendor I wanted to make sure the heroine would have heard stories from The Odyssey and The Iliad and I found out how it could have happened. She tells them. I'll be happy to send references for anything in any of my books. All they have to do is write to me and I'll prove it.
"In the middle ages, for every fact, you can find a contradiction. So you really have to dig to sort things out. Certain things are obvious - you don't slam a screen door in the middle ages. I also keep notes for every book. My source is the Kansas University library, which is huge. If I've been inaccurate, I'd like to know it. I try to do things - make history painless, and also try to do it with a little bit of a contemporary voice."
Chances are, it is this contemporary voice that causes historical purists to question her history. At one point we were discussing that some authors write historicals with a contemporary voice while others write historicals with what they believe is the vernacular of the times, or what they think readers believe is the vernacular of the times. While this sort of dialogue might seem romantic, in, say, a medieval romance, I got a kick out of Julie's blunt comment that, "I don't like this 'Dost ourt' stuff. Come on, that's b.s.!"
Even mainstream reviewers who tend to think that romance is fluff and lacking validity have gotten caught in Julie's web. She told me about the Publisher's Weekly review of Saving Grace, which she found "very nice, but one of the lines from the review was 'She took a contemporary issue, put it in an historical setting, and it works surprisingly well.' Well, surprise, it (spousal violence) is not a contemporary issue."
She went on to ask, "Do you know where the expression rule of thumb comes from? That's a Puritan saying. Rule of thumb is you can't beat your wife with a stick wider than your thumb. I like to think that women back then could get help like they can today. No, they can't pick up the phone or go to a woman's shelter, but they had families - somebody like Nicholas (her brother) who helped her. And that's why I gave her her Gabriel (her hero) - because Gabriel is the champion of women."
As a reader, what always fascinates me about authors is their imagination, and their world view. They see things that others of us pay no heed to. For instance, in talking about how she began writing, she relayed to me the story of watching her three-year old son Jerry, white-blond hair and big blue eyes, driving his Hot Wheel down to the corner where "grandma", the 83-year-old woman who had moved from a nursing home to live with her grandchildren next door, was standing. Julie saw her son talking with grandma for a few moments, then watched as he took her by the hand and walked her back home.
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"He came running over to me and said, 'Grandma forgot where she lived, but I remembered.' He was so proud of that. And I couldn't get the image of the two of them walking hand in hand, side by side, out of my mind. The impact that that grandmother had on that family was extraordinary. It was very positive. She made a contribution and that was important. I wanted to write about that. I asked myself how would that impact a family, and who would be most traumatized by it at first? I figured it would be a teenager. So I wrote the story, put it in the viewpoint of a 14 year old girl about a grandfather. There was a lot of humor in that book. And I loved doing it."
Most of us would probably store such an experience as a valued memory, but how many of us would be inspired to write a book about it? Julie was home that year, taking a year off from college, where she jokingly refers to herself as "still a senior". When I asked her for the chronology of her writing career, she excitingly launched into a story of when she was a four-year R.N. student who had taken all these science courses but needed three hours of history. She was forced to take Russian history, which sounded horrible to her because she didn't think she liked history. But she had a professor who gave her the sort of detailed information that made "the history real for me." She added, "Did you know that Peter the Great was the first man ever to do cataract surgery? Of course, all his patients who lived were blind."
That three-hour course led to another one, on China and Japan, and then to another one, on ancient history. By now, Julie was in love. "The idea of restricted society was fascinating - from when you are born to when you die you are in this one section of society and you don't deviate from it. Human nature hasn't changed. I know I have always felt different, so in historical times, what happens to someone who is a square peg when they are supposed to fit into a round hole? I think that's where my characters come from."
That 4-year nursing degree turned into a double major. She proudly relays that her blue books and essays were returned to her with comments such as "you should be writing for a living". Then, on one exam where she was asked to answer whether the Greek form of government was art form or political, she answered by having Aristotle and Plato debate the question. Aristotle, by the way, won, and the professor convinced her to take off a year and write. She took the advice, wrote that children's book (A Girl Called Summer, which will be re-released for Mother's Day this year), and, oh, yeah, wrote a love story set in the middle ages which she called The Warrior.
At this point in the interview, Julie turned into one of her heroines before my eyes. The enthusiasm, the dazzling smiles, and the naivete bordering on the impossible. While it is true that the historical romances being published when she wrote her first book were definitely different in style and content than hers, is it possible that she had never read an historical romance before writing one? Is it possible she didn't even know that what she had written was, in actuality, an historical romance?
Having read her books, having spent some time with her, and having idolized her for years, I would believe her if she told me the moon was made of green cheese! But I'll let you decide and let her words speak for her:
"I didn't know about things like titles. I didn't even know what kind of book it was. It was an exercise for me. I wanted to describe a knight without describing him. I did things like I had the servants stand on a stool to put a conical on his head - meaning, this guy is really tall. It took two servants to carry the kite-shaped shield he uses with one arm so you know he's really strong.
"So now I had this guy all dressed up and no place to go, and, since writers get to be the boss, I let him win a battle and gave him a lady - Lady Elizabeth. And I had so much fun! I went to a conference and talked to an agent, Andrea Cirillo, who took pity on me standing by the corner like a wallflower. She came over and asked, 'What do you write?' And I answered that I wrote children's books. She scrunched up her nose and said, 'Well, I don't like to market children's books, but send it to me anyway.' I did and she called me; she was real excited and thought she could sell it. Then she asked me what else I had. The floor was shaking underneath me; I didn't know how she would react when I told her I had a love story that takes place in medieval times. She told me it was called an historical romance. I told her the name was The Warrior. Pocket, as it turned out, needed filler - they changed the name to Gentle Warrior. They were going to close down a line called Tapestry (I didn't know that) and they asked me to do another one. I wrote what I called Bradley's Place; Pocket called it Rebellious Desire.
That was the start of Julie Garwood's career as the author of fifteen full-length historical romances and three novellas. All the more remarkable is the fact that Julie Garwood couldn't read as a child - she was eleven before her mother realized it, that others had been doing her homework for years. When Julie was six, she developed tonsillitis. Long after the surgery she was still sickly, so much so that her parents paid her a dollar a week for every pound she could gain. When her secret was discovered, she was sent to a remedial program at the local high school. She says, "When I got there they realized I wasn't quite remedial. There was a sister, Sister Elizabeth, who noticed me - she was a math teacher - and we spent an entire summer together and she introduced me to reading - short stories, the classics. I sat on the dictionary and stood up, learned this word, sat down. Stood up, learned another word, and sat down again. Up and down - all summer long. The most important thing she did was teach me to love the written word. She opened up the world for me. She made a huge impact on me - I named my daughter Elizabeth. And I'm sorry that she wasn't around when my first book was published." (Elizabeth is also the name of her first heroine from Gentle Warrior.)
Given that Julie's love for learning was engendered by a nun, I asked her to talk about the importance religion plays in her medievals. In The Bride, the heroine is continually paying the Church for the hero's sins, (at one point doing so in advance). In other of her books, the Church is written about with far less humor. In The Secret, for instance, the heroine is devastated when she learns that women who die in childbirth cannot be buried on consecrated ground. And in Saving Grace, the bishop is an evil man who believes women should be beaten into obedience.
Julie's response to my query on religion was matter-of-fact. She said it wasn't really a matter of tackling religion, but that, back then, "the Church was a political entity and very strong in the daily lives of people. For an author not to use this would make no sense. That's like not mentioning the king. They had a lot of power, especially in the medievals. I try to balance a really bad priest with someone religious who's really good. In Saving Grace - The pecking order of women, remember? They were lower than oxen. I had translated, even though I had four years of Latin, what the pecking order was. They keep asking, 'Where are women, where are women?' It is true - they came after oxen. That's kind of important."
When I discovered Julie Garwood, I found her writing so refreshing, so different from the other romances I'd been reading in its treatment of the hero, the heroine, the use of humor, the lack of nasty internal conflict. Her response was that, "Humor is a great tool. Let me put it this way. If you can't laugh at yourself, I'm not going to like you. If I don't like you, why should a reader? I want somebody who doesn't take him/herself so seriously. I love taking warriors who think they're invincible because they've been trained to think that way, and then give them an Achilles heel. That's fun for me.
"I think without laughter we can't exist in the world. I'll give you an example, something I've heard a thousand times on this two-week book tour. This is high praise but heart-breaking. In Dayton a woman came up to me and said her favorite was The Prize. She said the book got her through chemotherapy. I heard that again, not once, but twice, on the tour. I think that's high praise."
I asked if it were frightening to be a pioneer of the humorous historical romance. She reiterated that she hadn't read any historical romance before writing it. Not that she didn't hear at conferences that what she was doing was wrong. In fact, when she wrote her proposal for The Lion's Lady (the first of her regency-era quartet which also includes Guardian Angel, The Gift and Castles), she wrote it very seriously. Of course, when she wrote the book, it turned out to be among her funniest and sexiest.
Julie stated that when she started writing her romances, she "had no preconceived idea other than I wanted to like this guy, and I wanted to like her." She went on to say that:
"There's always one scene that determines the whole book for me. The opening line is everything for me. It may not be for the reader, but it defines for me where a book is going. It was afterwards, after I sold Gentle Warrior, and I went to the first conference, I heard I did it all wrong. I heard 'never put humor in', but then, I didn't really think that Gentle Warrior was humorous. That's just the way I write.
"In Honor's Splendor, I put a little more in consciously because she was such a klutz, and she's my very favorite heroine, by the way - she was so brave and didn't know it. Like I think a lot of people are.
"And then, Lion's Lady, that was so fun. I heard again and again, 'tone down the humor' from other authors at conferences. I had written a proposal for a very serious book. And I could write that book today because it's certainly not the same book as Lion's Lady. Clashing cultures, evil father. . . then I wrote the book I wanted to write."
I wanted to ask Julie about what she likes and doesn't like in romance, but found myself hindered by the fact that she told me she doesn't read romance because she fears unconsciously lifting someone else's words. She reads instead general fiction and, like many romance authors, mystery. She recently fell in love with this year's Pulitzer Prize winner, Angela's Ashes, and gave that as Christmas presents. Her fear of plagiarism extends beyond historical romance and into the contemporary arena as well. She said, "I really worry. I'm neurotic about that stuff. You get so paranoid that you've heard something or read something and then it ends up that you've been unconsciously. . .whatever. Some authors I've talked to write something, look at it and say, 'God, this is eloquent,' and then they take it out. They go to that extreme."
When I asked if Julie fell in love with the genre by reading it, she responded that she surely must have read some romances, but doesn't remember the authors. "It wasn't until I started getting a lot of letters comparing me to two people that are gonna blow you away - Woodiwiss and Steel, that I even became aware of how big romance is. I get loads of letters from people saying, 'I don't read romance; I read you and Danielle Steel.' And I want to write back and say, 'If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, you've got a duck!' I'm rarely, rarely compared to other romance authors. And I don't know why - I don't know if that's good or bad. I was so curious that I went out and bought a Woodiwiss book. The Flame & the Flower. I read that and it was real interesting. I liked it - it was fun, knowing that it was one of the original romance novels."
Julie plans on reading romances "like there's no tomorrow" when she retires. She particularly looks forward to reading Georgette Heyer because she so loves the regency era. "I love writing that period. They're like hot fudge sundaes - you just gotta have 'em!"
Knowing what she likes naturally led into what she doesn't like, and how it is possible to tackle problems for her characters without making the entire book angst-ridden. She said, "Look at Hitchcock or Spielberg. You're laughing one minute and you're gasping the next. I think especially when something horrible has happened, humor is even more important. I don't think a conflict should ever be a misunderstanding. Ever. Not if you can clear up something on page three does it need to be dragged on and on. I absolutely hate the big misunderstanding. And amnesia. I think amnesia is a cop-out. Unless she's doing it on purpose."
It can be difficult to confront someone you admire and ask them something difficult and possibly hurtful. But since she'd confronted the historical accuracy criticism so easily, I felt I had to ask her about her Rosehill series. First I told her that I found her romances set in the American west to be weaker than her other romances. Then I added that I had some real problems with One Red Rose and Come the Spring.
My main problem with One Red Rose was that I felt it was written to be politically correct. Whereas some readers might have felt that Saving Grace was written to tackle the social issue of spousal abuse, I believed Julie's saying that, "The deal was, I pictured this woman getting news that her husband died and literally getting down on her knees and thanking God. And that defined that book for me. Did I set out to tackle the social issue? No, I don't think so. But, the truth would play a huge role in this story. I wanted to write about a survivor, not a victim."
With One Red Rose, which I didn't care for, I thought Julie's not describing the lead characters was a mistake. Yes, the prologue indicated the hero was African-American, but it's hard for me to picture a character in my mind without some description. She indicates that the mail she's received from African-American readers has been filled with praise on this issue - the hero is tall, dark, and handsome. What else do we need to know? The heroine didn't love him because he was a black man. She loved him because he was Adam, who just so happened to be named after John Quincy Adams, who represented mutinous Africans (as brought to vivid life in the new Spielberg blockbuster Amistad).
I've discussed my problems with Come the Spring in Issue #39 of my column. Julie responded to some of those criticisms during our interview, saying that the Rosehill series was very important to her because it so stressed the importance of family. She shared an anecdote of an author who missed her son's college graduation to go to a writer's conference. All she could think of was that this was someone who didn't have all her priorities straight.
Family, to Garwood, is all, is everthing. "Not because I'm Irish. When I wrote the Claybornes, my message was 'Family is all important, but guess what? We come in all sizes and shades.' That doesn't mean we're less than or more than another family - we're family. Also, in all my books, the number one theme that I use and will always use, my characters have to be loyal - loyalty is a key theme, and especially loyalty to family. If they're not, I won't write about them. Also, nobody goes into a marriage alone. You bring your family with you."
That explains why, with the possible exception of Nora Roberts, Julie Garwood, to me, writes family better than anyone in the genre. She also explores friendships, between men and women, among men, and among women, related by blood or not, in a way that works for millions of readers. Around the time she started to publish, we started to hear from heroes, and many of her books have a very strong male perspective. Whereas that worked for me in books such as Castles and The Prize, I found it less effective in Come the Spring. When I mentioned this to Julie, she responded:
"I like to explore friendships. That's why The Secret was such an important book for me. I believe women bond totally differently than men do. It doesn't mean that men are less, it's just a different way. In TThe Prize, these guys - they slap each other or they hug with a hard slap on the back. It's all very physical. I used the forerunner to rugby, which they played because men bond over football. That's the reality. I pictured these bloody knights sitting around the table with her frowning at them and trying to be serious and they're grinning. That gaming was outlawed by three kings because it detracted from the knight's sacred duty of training to protect his king, but they still played it. It's all about relationships. That's what I like to explore.
"With Daniel and Cole in Come the Spring, it was sort of a love-hate relationship. At the beginning of that book, Cole calls him and thinks of him as Ryan (his last name) until he realizes the story that Daniel tells as the pivotal point in his life was in fact about Daniel's wife and daughter being killed. And at that moment he becomes Daniel. And that connection between them, that bond is there. From then on there's no question that these two are friends."
My final question to Julie regarding the Rosehill series pertained to the fear that she is going mainstream. Why else would these books not have her wonderful love scenes? Why else would Come the Spring focus on the relationship between Daniel and Cole as opposed to Cole and Jessica? Her answer was that each story determines its direction. She said, "I've been hearing a lot on this tour from readers who are afraid I'm going the way of romance authors who have gone into mystery or the mainstream. No, I'm not going mainstream. But Daniel and Cole's story had to be real plot-driven and about the men."
I was very relieved to hear that and asked what she is currently working on. Today, January 1st, is the date she must tell her publisher whether she will next finish the contemporary or the medieval she currently has in the works. Lovers of The Secret will be glad to know that the medieval she is writing is its sequel, likely a double romance about Ramsey and Brodick, the two Scots who leave for England at the end of The Secret to "get brides". If the book goes as planned, it will be quite long and feature both heroes. If not, it could become a trilogy.
The contemporary Julie is working on would be her first such romance. She indicated that she would have loved for it to be an historical, but the context requires that it be a contemporary. She would also like to write another regency-era historical. Regardless of which book is written next, she repeated that she is "not trying to take the audience into the mainstream." Happily for many of us, she's done with the western setting for now, and the love scenes we've been missing will be returning.
Strangely enough, when I mentioned that I missed those love scenes, she said she missed them as well, although not until she had finished writing the book. Still, would she have written it differently? Although she admits to writing three endings to every book she's written, she says she always sticks with the first one. Again, she says, it's the little things, that certain scene or line, that determine the book for her. In The Lion's Lady, it was that line about "this very proper man looking out the window at this very, supposedly, proper lady, and mentioning that she's eating the shrubbery. That determined the book for me. In The Gift, Nathan (the hero), was always kind of comical for me. Big, like a bull in a china store. And so I had to give him a piece of china. And in The Wedding, I wanted the reader to fall in love with him (if they didn't in the prologue) when the priest can't figure out what all she is saying and he repeats it word for word. And then you know how much he cares without saying it.
"Yeah, the love scenes will be back in the next book. Come the Spring was a different story because of these two guys on this hunt. And it was more in their viewpoint. Now, Ramsey and Brodick are very good friends and they sort of think alike because they've been raised and trained by this one man. But that one will have a lot more humor and the women are real important."
When I interjected that that should be the case in a book where two men are on a bride hunt, Julie responded, "But for them, that means like you and I would run out and get a diet Coke."
It's that sense of humor which pulls me back to Julie Garwood book after book. One of her goals in writing, which she says is a process she loves even when it's not going well, is to make people laugh. When she wrote The Gift (a book criticized by some readers as having a heroine very nearly too stupid to live), her favorite letter of all she received came from an intern at Mass. Gen. The letter said, "I read The Gift. You made me laugh. Thank you - the end." Julie treasures that letter, which let her know she did "her job".
It's always hard to interview a favorite author and not have it come off sounding like a gush job. I'm glad Julie's been around to do her job for the past dozen years and I hope she's around to do it for another dozen, at least. While some of her answers in our interview very nearly defied logic, I know that life and its answers aren't always logical. In the immortal words of a classic Saturday Night Live episode, "Sometimes a banana is just a banana, Anna."
--Laurie Likes Books
January 7, 1998:
I spoke with Julie on the phone last night; she read me a review from People about Come the Spring. She didn't know what the phrase "respectible genre fiction" meant.
My response was that, for People, that phrase was probably considered an oxymoron and that she should consider herself complimented.
Also, since she mentioned during our interview that January 1 was the date she was supposed to have decided whether her next book to be finished would be the medieval sequel to The Secret or a contemporary, I asked her what the decision had been.
She told me Pocket hasn't been in touch with her so she's continuing to work on both of them. She also indicated that there is a good chance Ramsey and Brodick's stories would be told individually rather than together as a dual romance.
And, even though she didn't ask, I told her my preference would be for her to write the medieval next. If she's at all concerned about maintaining her readership, I explained, she should go back to what we love. If that one's a hit, then it should be alright to introduce us to Julie Garwood, contemporary romance writer.