Writer's Corner for November, 2004
Laura Lee Guhrke: A Rising Star in Historical Romance
|Like a lot of AAR readers this year, I was blown away by Guilty Pleasures, a lush and irresistible story of a less than beautiful heroine and the handsome duke who grows to love her. With a unique setting surrounding an archaeological dig, great characters, and intelligent dialogue, my first book by the author is easily one of my favorites of 2004. His Every Kiss, the author's follow-up, further cemented my opinion that Laura Lee Guhrke is one of the most gifted writers working today in historical romance. We chatted recently about her books, her characters, abd her thoughts about the authorial hazards of the Internet.
With the publication of Guilty Pleasures, the buzz around you was the kind of excitement that often surrounds a "hot new writer." As someone who's now published a total of nine books, how does it feel to be discovered overnight?
A bit overwhelming. The thing is, you have to have perspective about this business. Today, you’re the golden girl, tomorrow you’re yesterday’s news, the next day, you’re the golden girl again. It’s still all about telling the story. That’s what I focus on because that is the only thing I can count on: The story and my ability to tell it. Success is capricious.
I thought Guilty Pleasures was a fabulous book and it was certainly a favorite of AAR readers, as well. One of my favorite things about it is that the gorgeous duke grows to love the plain heroine without her undergoing the obligatory makeover. Are you drawn to the theme of beauty is in the eye of the beholder?
That was exactly the theme I drew on when I wrote Guilty Pleasures. I wanted the nerdy girl to get the hunky guy, but not because she got a makeover. Love is not about getting the guy because you learned how to do your hair and get the right ball gown. As the story unfolded, I tried to show how he started to see her differently, how he noticed the unique things about her that made her special, how he found they had a great deal in common. Beauty isn’t what makes anyone special. As much of a fuss as men can make over beautiful women, I don’t think beauty ever made any man fall in love. Ultimately, a woman also has to have brains or kindness, or both. Ditto for women and good-looking men.
I also very much enjoyed His Every Kiss. You took a chance here in creating Dylan, a flawed hero who was very much a real Rake – there was nothing "faux" about him. Were you concerned that some readers just might not like him or have a hard time getting past some of his behavior?
I am always concerned with what readers will think, but when a character begins to really take shape, he becomes something that is to a great extent out of my hands. He is what he is. He becomes what he becomes. If I’ve done my job, readers will find that process fascinating enough to turn the pages to the end and will feel they’ve gotten entertainment worthy of their money. The funny thing is, I never can predict what readers will think. I was very worried about having Dylan attempt suicide, worried that readers wouldn’t like that. Nobody seemed to mind. Go figure.
As to faux heroes, I loathe them. Of course, a real rake is harder to write. It’s much easier to just mention his wolfish smile and bad reputation and get on with it. But to me, if you write a rake, you have to show him being a rake. Also, the badder he is, the harder he is to redeem. That makes my job harder, but it makes for a more gratifying romance.
Right now, I’m writing the story of Viola, Anthony’s sister from Guilty Pleasures, and her husband, Viscount Hammond. I have to deal with what I already created with this particular hero: He has been an adulterous husband. No sugarcoating that. No getting around it. No misunderstandings. He had mistresses. I am trying not to sweat about what readers will think of that. I just hope they find him redeemed by love at the end. I will say, though, that I am making him suffer first. A lot. Every day, my mother calls to ask me, “How’s the writing going?” These days, my answer is, “I’m torturing my hero. It’s so much fun.”
Now here's a loaded question. As you know, there was much discussion at AAR recently on whether or not an author has to "like" her characters. What's your take on that?
I have liked all of my heroes and heroines. But I think the concept of liking one’s characters is rather shallow and misses the point. I try to make each of my characters worthy of the love of the other person in their particular story. My liking for my characters has little to do with the creative process. It’s not about whether I like a certain hero. It’s about whether or not the heroine I put him with falls in love with him.
And in real life people aren't perfect and those we love and – dare I say it? – all of us have done things we're not proud of. Recognizing that is part of what makes us human. To me, it's impossible to believe a "too perfect" character – they're just not real. Any thoughts?
Perfect characters are boring, no doubt about it. What I particularly despise are heroines who are soooooo sweet, who put up with behavior from others that no woman with backbone would ever tolerate (abusive heroes come to mind), who never lose their temper, who never say anything thoughtless, who never hurt anyone. As to the characters I write, I don’t think of them in terms of their flaws per se. I always try to see each character as a whole person, an individual who is essentially good and worthy of love, and whose flaws can often get in the way of finding love. I strive to write each story showing how the other person brings out the good and forgives the bad in the other. After all, the couple has to be happy ever after.
You've really challenged yourself, I think, in your redemption of Viola's husband. As readers of Guilty Pleasures and His Every Kiss, we've seen up close and personal the results of his betrayal in the intense suffering he's brought on his wife. Did you always plan to create a book around Viola? In other words, when you made Viscount Hammond so bad in Guilty Pleasures, did you always plan to redeem him?
To tell you the truth, when I began writing Guilty Pleasures, I didn’t really think about Viola at all except as a secondary character to Anthony and Daphne. By the time I did, the book was in production. I could have toned Hammond down before the book went to print, but I decided not to. I thought I might not ever write Viola’s story, and if I did, I thought I might kill Hammond off. Readers wanted me to! Man, I got dozens of letters wanting to know how poor Hammond was going to die, slow or fast.
I didn’t realize how much of an impact Viola had on readers until then. But then I got to thinking about it, about how killing off Hammond was just too easy, too neat, too tidy. I got to thinking about how there are two sides to every marriage, and how Hammond might be harboring some hurt of his own because, after all, I don’t like perfect heroines, and Viola has her flaws, too. I got to thinking of Hammond as if he were a real man, and how a real man who was essentially a good man could be unfaithful. I also began to consider the historical period and what marriage was about back then, and I started to get a picture of what went wrong for this couple. The Marriage Bed is really a story about two people who are forced to put the past aside and make their marriage work. They have to fight and make up and talk and work it out. Along the way, they fall in love, something neither of them planned on. We’ll see if readers think I pulled it off.
Do you think romance readers are tougher than those of other genres in their expectations for their heroes and heroines? Are there lines you just don't cross?
I do think that romance readers will allow a hero to get away with a lot more flawed behavior than they will allow a heroine. Readers seem to have a much lower tolerance level for the flaws and behaviors of heroines. The old double standard. Not fair, but true. But I also think romance readers are more discerning than ever on all levels and their expectations are high. I know that some of the stuff written fifteen years ago when I started in this business would never be tolerated in a romance today, except in the hands of an extremely gifted author. Heroes who rape heroines, for example. Books with such scenarios were once commonplace. Rape is a line I doubt I will ever cross as long as I’m writing romance. I won’t say never, but I cannot imagine ever feeling that a man who would rape a woman is worthy of love, so I doubt I could come up with a story for such a man. But you never know.
And then there's the Internet. One of the best things for readers about this amazing style90bold is the chance they get to interact with the writers of the books they love. My guess is that the authors enjoy it for the same reason. But when it comes to a place where readers speak frankly – as they do at AAR – do you make a habit of reading posts about your books? And, as a follow-up, how do you know when to get involved and when to stay silent?
I scan the posts at AAR if I have time, because I always like to know what readers are saying. Also, the comments and knowing what people are reading can often point out trends in the business that I, as a professional writer, should be aware of. Also, I generally don’t mind criticism. Some like my work, some don’t. That’s life. I do not post myself unless something comes up about my work that is a question of fact. In other words, if someone questions my research, I will post to cite my sources because my credibility has been questioned. If someone speculates about my feelings on a particular character in my work or something along that line, I will set the record straight. Other than that, I don’t post except on the Writer News Board.
I will say, and I may be going out on a limb here, but I will say that as great a style90bold as the Internet is, it can also be very damaging to a writer’s creative process if she lets it get to her. I find some of the stuff at Amazon, for instance, to be disturbing. There is some very mean-spirited stuff on there about writers and their work. Criticism is fine, viciousness is not, and I do think there is some “drive-by shooting” going on over there. That said, I’m glad I’ve been spared more than most. Just lucky, I guess. Moral of the story for writers everywhere is don’t worry about what’s being said about you, good or bad, because it will drive you crazy. Worry about writing the very best story you can. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
In other words, the lack of accountability is dangerous. People can – and do – say anything on the Internet, often anonymously. AAR is a community of people most of whom "know" each other online. Still, the occasional drive-by does take place. You mentioned that one of the reasons you check out AAR is to stay on top of any new trends in romance. Do you think AAR readers are representative of romance readers at large?
In many respects, yes. But in some ways, they are even more discerning. They read widely, in many areas of fiction. New books, old books, classics, all genres. That’s a valuable resource to a writer. I think there are far fewer “drive-bys” at AAR, because most of the readers love books and talking about them and trashing them is not why they are there. Amazon is a bit different. It seems to me that some people go there just to post vicious remarks. Also, I think the Internet, because it is instantaneous, allows people to fire off an emotional reaction without taking the time to think it over and tone it down. Many who post something inflammatory regret it later, IMO.
One last question before we let you go. We know that your next book is Viola and Hammond's story. Any idea of what you plan to do after that?
I am toying with the possibility of a story for Ian, Dylan’s older brother, but I just haven’t come up with a story idea for him that I like, so I don’t know if that’s the next book or not. I also have an idea for a new series set a bit later, during Victorian times. Then, of course, there is Isabel, Dylan’s daughter, to think about…oh, I don’t know. So many ideas, so little time! Right now, I’m in huge deadline crunch with Viola and Hammond, so I can’t even think about the next book until this one is done.
Our thanks to Laura Lee Guhrke for taking the time to talk with us. Next month a major coup for AAR: Linda Howard, one of the best loved of all romance authors, who will talk about her upcoming book – her first romantic comedy. Look for our new Writer's Corner on December 20th.