Refreshingly Candid Danelle Harmon

(This interview originally written for The Romance Reader in 1996)

 

Author Danelle Harmon is known on the 'Net for her fiery demeanor and the romantic way in which she met her husband. She is also known as an author's author -- witness Julia Quinn's comments about her, "Danelle is one of maybe four writers I will buy without even looking at the back cover copy. People hold on to her books, and with good reason."

As for the manner in which she met her husband, New England born-and- bred Danelle met her husband Chris, a British softwear engineer, in a very modern mode - via modem on the Internet. Their courtship was initially conducted via e-mail. When the relationship turned serious, Danelle, a white-knuckle flier, flew across the sea to meet the man of her dreams. He later returned the favor, and, within a year, the two were wed and Danelle moved to England.

Danelle is a curious mixture of bravado and neurosis - the same woman who flung caution to the wind in meeting her mate has a tremendous fear of flying (and dentists). She is also fascinating, not afraid to state her views about things that vex her. Having read and enjoyed a sizzling excerpt from her upcoming release, Wicked at Heart, I e-mailed her awhile back. Since that time I read a previous release, My Lady Pirate, and we two settled into our own long-distance e-mail relationship, resulting in this profile.

--Laurie Likes Books

How do you view yourself as a person? Are you as strong as the heroines you portray?

Ask the toughest questions first, right? Actually, I find it harder to write the little author biography at the back of each book, than the actual book itself! It's hard for me to hold a mirror on myself (I'd be too apt to see all the flaws), but my friends tell me I'm very determined, resilient, and resourceful. Does that mean I'm strong? Don't know what I think on this matter; I'm terrified every time I have to get on an airplane or sit in the dentist's chair, and am about as neurotic as they come. Yet, when deliberating over whether to move to England to be with the man I loved, and unable to come to a decision, my pastor finally asked me whether one of my heroines would do it: I replied in the affirmative with no hesitation. That answer decided me, and off to England I went.

I really do love how you met your husband. How scary was that trip to England? How scary was uprooting your life for the move? Finally, how is it living over there?

How scary was it? Well, I had a panic attack on the plane on the night I moved. (But then, I have a panic attack nearly every time I get on a plane, so that was nothing new!) Yes, it was scary. I've always been rather a homebody, and had never lived far away from my family. Even when I was a little girl, I'd never sleep over friends' houses, as I'd get too homesick. Being like that as a child, you can bet that moving to England was a big thing for me! Yet despite my trepidation, and my sadness at leaving my loved ones and my homeland behind, I knew it was something that I had to do -- and so I went. It was a decision I've never regretted, though I must say that it hasn't been easy, living in England.

I could spend pages discussing what it's like to live in England. Perhaps it's best to sum it up like this: being a tourist in England, and being a resident, are two VERY different kettles of fish! From the way they talk, to the way they eat, to the way they drive, to the way they think, they do everything differently over here. It's been a very big adjustment for me, but I think I'm slowly getting "Britified."

Obviously we all like to read different kinds of romance, a gentle one here, a ghost story there, an emotional roller-coaster ride here and there, etc. I put My Lady Pirate in that last category. Are all your stories that tumultuous?

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I think so. Readers are constantly writing to me and describing their reactions to my books: tears and laughter seem to be amongst the most common ones. I find myself drawn into my characters' personal lives as I write about them, and I guess it's true: I don't make things easy on them. According to my editor -- and early reviews -- my upcoming book, Wicked at Heart, is a real emotional wringer. I can't wait to hear what my readers say about this one!

Have you been a fan of romantic fiction for long? What is/are your favorite period(s) to read?

Well, I'm thirty-three now, and I read my first romance about fifteen years ago and have read them ever since. I cut my teeth on Valerie Sherwood, then went on to Rosemary Rogers, Kathleen Woodiwiss, and Laurie McBain, my favorite of those early "pioneers." My favorite period remains the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, with settings either in Great Britain, Ireland, or New England.

Who have been your favorite authors and what are your favorite titles?

Again, Laurie McBain and Kathleen Woodiwiss were early favorites; McBain's Wild Bells to the Wild Sky and Tears of Gold were two of my most treasured reads. I even named a pet fish after a character in Wild Bells! These days, I don't often get much time to read, but when I do, I pick up something by Julia Quinn, Kristin Hannah, Laura Kinsale, Amanda Quick, Loretta Chase, Kimberly Cates, Karen Robards, or Marsha Canham. I enjoy other stuff besides romance; I recently discovered Philippa Gregory, whose work I admire and love, and enjoy works by Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, and fellow New Englander Stephen King. I also love naval author Alexander Kent, who knows how to write a real romantic hero -- his Bolitho character could stack up against any of our genre's best.

Do you have any authors you feel close to in terms of style? Were you mentored at all?

I wrote my first book, Pirate in My Arms (Avon, 1992) completely "on my own" -- intuition, that is -- and without the help of writers' groups, how-to books, a mentor, or anything else. I don't think it's good for a writer to get too caught up in the "how tos" of writing, as then the fragility of the craft itself can be compromised. A friend of mine, Rochelle Alers, did steer me in the right direction when I sought publication for my manuscript, and helped me with the initial trials and tribulations of those early days; I'll always be grateful to her! As for style, that's a tough question. When it came out, Kathe Robin of Romantic Times compared my first book, Pirate in My Arms, to Marsha Canham's The Wind and the Sea-- a book that I read some time later, and enjoyed very much. I hesitate to compare myself to anyone else, so I guess I'll let Kathe's comparison stand .

How did you get into writing romantic fiction?

I've always loved to write; I penned my first books when I was twelve or thirteen years old, and they were all horse stories that I illustrated myself. My love of writing continued throughout high school, but I never had any great aspirations to be an author -- I wanted to be a veterinarian! But I realized I could never put an animal to sleep, and so that dream was never obtained.

I stumbled on writing romances quite by accident. In 1988, I became fascinated with the story of a pirate captain whose ship had gone down in 1717 in a storm off of Cape Cod whilst he was returning to claim his lover, a young maiden from Eastham. His ship wrecked nearly at her doorstep -- such a tragic ending! And so I decided to satisfy my heartache for this long lost, romantic figure by writing a story about him -- and giving him and his lover the ending they so richly deserved.

Whilst writing the book, I fell in with the team that found the actual sunken wreck of this pirate ship, Whydah, in 1984, and was invited to do research and illustrative work for them. My experiences with Barry Clifford and his team were a wonderful, enriching experience, and certainly helped to round out the story of Maria Hallett and "Black" Sam Bellamy, that long-lost pirate who I resurrected from the sands of time. The book was my debut novel, Pirate in My Arms; it went on to become a national and local bestseller, and won lots of awards for me. It still remains very close to my heart.

You grew up on the east coast and have loved the sea since you were a child. Describe your family, your history, and any other history about yourself and your relationships.

Well, again, I'm a very sentimental, family-oriented person. For me, the hardest thing about living in England is being three thousand miles away from my family -- I miss them dreadfully. I'm also something of a patriot, with close and ancestral ties to my "native soil," and as much as I love England, my homeland is calling me to return. Luckily, Chris is willing to try living in America; I just hope he can put up with a New England winter, and the ticks and mosquitoes that are part of a New England summer, for all of those things are pretty much absent here!

My dad was born and raised in Maine, where his "people" were all hunters, trappers, loggers and game wardens...and my mom hails from Vermont. Some of my ancestors came over on the Mayflower, and some fought in the American Revolutionary War -- one was even captain of the militia in Falmouth, Maine! -- so I guess I'm about as "New England Yankee" as you can get. Maybe that explains my deep and abiding love for my distant homeland? I also have a wee bit of Irish blood in me (one look at my hair will confirm THAT!) and on my mom's side, a smidgen of Mohawk Indian; my great-uncle was elected tribal chief some years ago and his name is supposedly on a monument on the Mohawk Trail. I grew up near the sea, not far from the historic port of Newburyport, which was very active during the American Revolution and, like Boston, even had it's own "tea party!" My childhood at home was wonderful: we had nearly three acres of land, and my sister and I grew up with horses and ponies, chickens, bantams, turkeys, guinea fowl, cats, dogs, and pigs. No wonder I wanted to become a vet!

My first husband and I were married in 1986; a folly of the young, as we were not well suited and didn't see the danger signs going in. The marriage lasted five years -- we were oil and water and our relationship was a turbulent, very unhappy one. Since we split up, we've become very good friends. Isn't that often the way?

When you wrote your first book, how long did it take to get published?

My first book was Pirate in My Arms; it took about six or seven months, I think, to get published. My agent sent it to two houses before it finally ended up in a bidding war between Avon and another major publisher; I went with Avon, and sold them an initial two-book contract in which Captain of my Heart was the second of the two.

Tell me a bit about your research process.

I have a huge, and growing library, with many hard-to-find titles; I constantly rely on these books when I'm working on a story. For some books, I've also gone back and read period newspapers on microfilm; I did this with Pirate in My Arms to get a contemporary feel for my hero and his times, and I did it with Wicked at Heart, Captain of My Heart so that I could get a sense of how the events that unfolded in the story were viewed by those who lived through them. If every you want a REAL look at how people lived, read one of their newspapers. Talk about enlightening! As most of my books are set these days in England, I'm fortunate to live here in that I can visit stately homes and historical sites, and "soak up the atmosphere" at them; tour guides and hosts can be wonderful sources of "out of the way" information as well!

How long does it take you to research and write a book?

Usually between seven to nine months, although my first book, Pirate in My Arms, took me three years. But then, I did write it in longhand, in a notebook, so that I could carry it out to the beach where the Whydah went down and work on it out there. It gave me a wonderful sense of time, place, and feeling for the story.

Do you plan to write about other periods of history?

My favorite settings are the 18th and early 19th centuries; however, Chris and I took a drive out to Chepstow, in Wales, this past weekend, where the castle there filled me with all kinds of ideas ... who knows, maybe a medieval is waiting in the wings?

How does a story start for you? With an ending, a beginning, a "film clip" of a particular scene, a heroine, a hero...?

I usually start with the characters, and a setting, and it grows from there. Sometimes, like with Pirate in My Arms and My Lady Pirate, an actual person and /or event will fire me. Other times, it may be my affection for a certain time period, or place. I usually have my ending in place long before I plot out the rest of the book -- but then, I've always been one to work toward a visible goal in whatever I'm doing.

How do you keep your writing fresh? How do you keep the "heroine" and the "hero" from being stereotypical?

I try not to read too many romances, so that I don't find myself starting to unconsciously "copy" other writers. Also, I try to look at people as individuals. I get bored easily, and so I find I need to create challenges for myself in order to continue to enjoy my writing; for example, how many romances do you know of, that are set on a prison ship?

I remember needing a cold shower after reading an excerpt of your new book on your web site. Tell me a bit about that story, and how your writing has evolved since you were first published.

Wicked at Heart is the name of the new book, and it's a real "Beauty and the Beast" tale that will be available in July, 1996. It's not really about the sea at all, but yes, it IS pretty hot -- certainly the sexiest book I've written, yet! When MLP came out, my grandmother lightly chastised me because my books were getting too steamy (although I think she secretly enjoyed them "the hotter the better"); sadly, she died in August, and will never get to read Wicked at Heart. Still, I wonder what she would say about it, if only she could read it!

The story itself has a rather unusual, and unique venue; it's mainly set on a British prison hulk during the War of 1812, when Britain was fighting with both France and America. The hero is Damon de Wolfe, the Marquess of Morninghall, and his star has fallen: once a celebrated naval commander, he's gotten on the bad side of his superiors and has been relegated to the lowly command of a prison ship, a task that he abhors and feels very bitter about. He's a man of volatile, seething passion, a wounded wolf who desperately needs to be healed, but won't let anyone near him. Definitely dark. Definitely dangerous. His life is turned upside down when the beautiful young widow, Lady Gwyneth Evans Simms, arrives on the scene; she's a social reformer who has decided to try and improve conditions for the prisoners of war on the Navy's prison hulks. The turbulent, emotional journey that these two make toward happiness imperils their lives and leads them on some high adventure, but love does, of course, win in the end. Damon is the most tortured hero I've ever done; in fact, he's so messed up that he suffers from crippling panic attacks, though of course, they were unknown by that term in his day, and he thinks he's got a fatal disease. Unlike my other books, there is no humor in Wicked at Heart: it's all drama, passion, and one explosive scene after another. My editor says it's my best work to date -- bless her!

You mentioned long ago that you have a particular fondness for one of your books. Which one is it, and why?

Oh! This is a tough question. I love all my books -- or shall I say, all my heroes -- for different reasons, so it's really tough to pick one. Pirate Captain "Black" Sam Bellamy from Pirate in My Arms was fearless, virile, and charismatic; he was also a real person, and my first hero, so he's special to me. Half-Irishman Brendan Merrick from Captain of My Heart was a fun character, always in a good mood, and clever as a fox; definitely an easy man to spend time with!

Royal Navy Captain Christian Lord from Master of My Dreams was my first tortured hero, and I have a special soft spot for him because of the suffering he endured, and the long and difficult road he traveled to find happiness; here was a man who had to pit his own deeply rooted sense of honor against a promise he made to his heroine. Talk about torture! Then there was Admiral Sir Graham Falconer from My Lady Pirate; "Gray" was a charismatic, natural born leader, with thousands of men under his command, but he endeared himself to me because of his inability to "grow up" --imagine a man in his thirties, still acting out his boyhood fantasy of being a pirate! But he was all business when he had to be, and a special friend of Lord Nelson's. I fell in love with him from the moment I "met" him.

Veterinarian Colin Lord from Taken by Storm was a strong, silent type, who had suffered much physical and emotional pain in his life, but hadn't let it do anything but strengthen him and add to his sense of humor; he was definitely a man I'd let through my front door any day of the week! And finally, there's Damon, Lord Morninghall from Wicked at Heart -- very dark, very dangerous, and very much in need of the healing love of the right woman. Picture Ralph Fiennes in the romantic garb of the early 19th century, and you have Damon. Mmmmm! Yes, I love all of my heroes, for different reasons -- but if they were all lined up before me in the flesh, and I had to choose one, just one to take to bed with me for the night... Oh, this is difficult!, I think it would have to be my admiral, Sir Graham. He's dark and sexy, wickedly exciting and very sure of himself, and he was such fun to write about. Besides, I just love a powerful man in uniform!

I'm very interested in some comments you made on the RRA-L newslist a couple of months back regarding political correctness. Especially now because I've read an article written by Jennifer Blake about PC and how it may be responsible for romance losing some of its hard edges. I want you to vent a little on PC. Do you think romance is losing some of its hard edges, as Jennifer Blake does? Do you fear too much is getting watered down to appeal to '90's sensibilities?

I'm glad you brought this issue up. And I'm probably going to get myself in big trouble here, but when has that ever stopped me in the past? I see political correctness as a bandwagon that everyone wants to jump on, and, if one doesn't subscribe to the theory of it, they are immediately thought to be a terrible, insensitive person. I have my own rather strong views on PC, and these views (which have, I must admit, been nourished and strengthened by living in Great Britain, which is far less "politically correct" than the USA) have gotten me into a bit of trouble when I've made them public on, say, a certain American-based Internet romance readers' group! I've never been one to jump on a bandwagon just because everyone else is riding it, and I won't go along and be "PC" just because one is "supposed" to, or it's the popular movement of the moment.

People are ridiculously afraid of offending each other in this day and age, and everyone's walking on eggshells. People are getting way too hot under the collar about silly things; better to put their energies into something more worthwhile and productive than the label they assign their particular ethnic group, or age group, or, for heaven's sake, dress size. Does any of that really matter? I have long held the opinion that far too many people in this world need to take a "chill pill," and are walking around with huge chips on their shoulders, just waiting for something to set them off. It's anger and yes, even violence, just waiting to happen. No wonder we have wars! No wonder people are fighting! People need to just lighten up, and learn to laugh at themselves. No matter what label we attach to ourselves, or to others, aren't we all still the same inside?

History is full of past injustices to certain individuals and groups of people, and to ignore these injustices, to gloss them over and pretend they didn't happen, does a grave disservice not only to history, but to those people who suffered them. Several years ago, Indians were up in arms about the 500-year anniversary celebrating Columbus's discovery of America, because the arrival of the Europeans spelled a long history of abuse and suffering for them. And when I was working on the Whydah Project (the ship captained by pirate Captain "Black" Sam Bellamy), there was a huge uproar from a black group over the proposed creation of a museum in Boston to display the Whydah's vast and wondrous artifacts -- doubloons of Spanish gold and "pieces of eight," scraps of clothing worn by the pirates, beautifully worked pistols and sword hilts, bones, eating utensils, mighty cannon. The museum was proposed so that everyone could see and enjoy the treasures of the world's only pirate ship ever discovered and authenticated; but the black group was upset.

Why? Because the Whydah had been a slave ship before she was taken over by pirates. They completely overlooked the fact that the Whydah's captain released those slaves he found still aboard the Whydah when he captured her, and gave them equal rights in his very democratic crew. But all this aside, we're missing a vital point here: when we smudge out history and in our embarrassment, pretend shameful things didn't happen, we rob ourselves of certain critically important lessons; we rob our ancestors of the ideas, issues, and beliefs they died for, and we become fragile, maybe even dangerous, with ignorance. History really is the best teacher, and keeps us aware so that we, as humankind, don't repeat our former, terrible mistakes; therefore, let's not wipe those history books clean.

Which brings me full-circle to your point: yes, I definitely feel that in romance novels, too much is getting watered down to appeal to the '90s sensitivities. I think a lot of authors are very nervous about what they feel they can write about, and are feeling stifled. Instead of seeing really evil, really dangerous villains whose very badness would highlight and contrast our protagonists' basic goodness and heroism, we're seeing cardboard characters along the lines of Wile E. Coyote ... or those obnoxious burglars in Home Alone. Puh-lease! No wonder the critics attack us. Romances are, I fear, becoming "children's books for adults." Banishing the ugliness of the real world from our books, or even taming it, does indeed rob our genre of a certain aspect of reality -- an unpleasant aspect, to be sure, but one that most certainly does exist. Bad things happen in this world, and they happen all the time -- whilst they do not contribute toward romantic fantasy, to deny such things robs our books of rich emotional impact, and put us into a world that is not much different than the cartoons our children watch on Saturday morning. Are we, as romance readers, that fragile? As adults, we must learn to function in this world with all of its joys and pains, its triumphs and ugly realities. To ignore or water down the "bad things" puts us into a pastel world of nebulous, cotton-candy unreality; and only against the sometimes harsh world of dark reality can the wonder and triumphs of love, and light, be successfully contrasted.

No need for names here, but are there famous romance authors you just "don't get"?

Yes. I can think of two NY Times best-selling authors whose books I just cannot read. One writes pure sex without any plot whatsoever, another writes heroines who are selfish and histrionic. Maybe these things appeal to lots of people -- they must, or the authors wouldn't be best-selling ones -- but they do not appeal to me.

What are you working on now?

I'm currently working on a proposal set in Georgian England; the hero has lost his faith in God and his love for life; the heroine, a fun- loving, spirited girl from the American colonies, must help him get it back. I don't know when this one will be out, yet.

Tell me some more about your husband.

My husband's a wonderful man; kind, patient, and possessive of a fun sense of wit and humor. He has to be, to put up with me! I met him just over two years ago, on the Internet; he was an Englishman living near Oxford, and I was a Yank living in Massachusetts. We became e- mail friends, then swapped photos of each other, then began calling each other ... in July of 1994, I flew to England to meet him, he came to Massachusetts the following month to see me -- and asked me to marry him.

I think it takes a special, if not saintly, kind of person to live with a writer; most of the writers I know are neurotic, insecure, high- strung, and can be emotionally volatile. We are high energy people, and need a lot of "alone time" -- not only to write, but to get in touch with ourselves, and absorb things to write about. An insecure person could never live with a writer; neither could a person who is too demanding, or jealous of the writing itself. Luckily, my husband is none of these things; he is understanding and supportive, encouraging, and calming. I think of myself as a person who sees things in piercing, vivid color; I'm deeply sentimental, I cry at beautiful and sad things, I'm not afraid of my feelings and often wear my heart on my sleeve. My husband is very different from me; he's the most pragmatic person I've ever met; his feet are solidly grounded in reality, he is very accepting of life's ups and downs and doesn't waste energy railing over things he cannot control. He does fulfill much of the stereotype of the "classic Englishman" --he does not get emotional -- ever --, he is unfailingly polite, he doesn't like to deviate from tradition, and he has the most wonderful, sexy accent. Best of all, he loves my dog. What more can I ask?

 




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