Judith Ivory: Intelligence that Shines Through

(March 22, 1999)

"The great thing about books is they requires two imaginations, the reader's and the writer's."

"I think it is the artist's job to throw 'truths' into question."

 

I first met Judith Ivory in 1996 at the national RWA conference in Dallas. I was sitting in the pressroom when she came in to set up her PR packets for Bliss, which had been nominated for a RITA. I approached her for an interview, and was immediately taken by how smart she was, how full of energy and passion and knowledge she was. The background information she gave me on publishing is among the most important knowledge I've gained in the past several years, and it sits in the back of my brain at all times.

Since that time, we've kept in touch. Judith has been a tremendous supporter of All About Romance, and was one of the first to contact me after I left The Romance Reader. She is tremendously forthright, honest, and talented, and when she said she had some free time to sit for an interview, I jumped at the chance.

At the end of this year, Judith makes an important leap with the release of The Proposition. With that book, Judith will move into lead author status with Avon, actually what they consider the super lead position. She will join the ranks of Lisa Kleypas and Christina Dodd. For Judith, this represents a fulfillment of many years of hard work, of moving from publisher to publisher, of making a name change, of enduring the qualifying statements of reviewers who say her books "aren't for everyone."

In fact, I agree that they probably aren't, but for her loyal readership, which has obviously grown in recent years, her books are definitely for them. Whenever I hear the name Judith Ivory, it's generally in connection with Laura Kinsale and Patricia Gaffney. For me, this troika of romance authors represent a style of romance writing most appreciated by readers looking for more than mere entertainment; they are literate, intelligent, and emotional, but in a different way than most other romance authors. Before I run on further, let me introduce you to Judith and let her words speak for her; they're better than mine.

--Laurie Likes Books

I understand you've got two math degrees.

Yes I do. One's in applied mathematics and one is in theoretical mathematics. I'm sort of in both camps mathematically speaking.

What happened that led you out of math and into writing?

Well, I published a book. I taught high school, junior high and eventually college. I was teaching at the University of Miami when Starlit Surrender was published in 1988.

There is a three-year gap between Starlit Surrender and Black Silk (1991) and then four years between that and Bliss (1995). Since then you've had a book out successive year. What are the gaps about?

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Well, the gap between Starlit Surrender and Black Silk is I changed houses (from Zebra to Berkley) and Berkley was very backlogged and they felt that they were going to have to start again so they sort of just put me at the end and I had to wait a long time for that book to come out. I turned that book in quite a bit sooner and then the same sort of thing happened again.

Trying to place a second book is a tough place to be in. Not necessarily just to place it but to place it well in a kind of career position. So my agent and I though we had, you know, done something with Berkeley and Berkeley, certainly gave it an honest shot. But they really just had too many books and authors from my perspective. Scheduling my books was always a problem. The same sort of thing happened with Bliss. Actually, I was late on that one. I did turn that book in late which is the latest I've ever been on any book, but there were some personal problems. I was hit by a hurricane and my son's lung collapsed and my daughter's lung collapsed and my husband left me.

All of that happened within four months. So the book was late. It was actually eleven months late, which is really, really late.

So, all these bad things happened in 1994?

In 1992. In '92, every month. . . the first month in May the floor in my house sunk four inches because seven joists rotted out under my house. And my children were very ill. And in July my husband left me. And in August we were hit by Hurricane Andrew and it took two bulldozers four days to dig us out.

I mean I've survived it alright, and the kids survived it alright and, you know, the ex-husband is off and seems to be doing okay and the house is back together, you know, all that stuff was put together, but the book was just delayed hopelessly. When it came in, they bumped it another twenty-two months.

So it ended up being a four-year gap even though I would have put myself an eleven months gap in, you know, more than it would have been. I mean it could have been brought out, you know, like in twenty months rather than four years, but that's what they did.

You left Berkley for Avon and your first book for Avon was Beast. Along with that move came the name change from Judy Cuevas to Judith Ivory. Is that something that was a publisher request or something that you wanted to do and beyond that, how does it feel to sort of cut yourself off from yourself that way?

Oh, it was a business decision. And I don't have any trouble talking about it. It was my publisher's suggestion because they wanted to re-market me and they were very worried that with the Judy Cuevas name a certain pattern had already been established and people who thought they were really, really supporting me would say, you know, great, we'll take ten more books, that will really help. You know, trying to build numbers with every book seller taking just a few more books even though they see that as a huge help, just wasn't the kind of help Avon was looking to do. They wanted to boost the numbers considerably.

When they do something like that, is it strange to have a history as one person who suddenly no longer exists? I mean, you were known to a group of people as one person and then. . . .

It's the middlemen, Laurie. It's the booksellers. The booksellers don't know you from Adam. They go in the computer and they say okay, we've ordered this many books by Judy Cuevas and that's how many books they want to order.

So then when they reintroduce you as Judith Ivory, they don't even mention that you're the other person.

Don't even mention it. And then they introduced me at a Treasure spot (the highest mid-list spot Avon has). Avon has a very strong program.

If my readership were so huge it wouldn't have been a problem. My readership, you know, as loyal as it was, was fairly small. And they wanted to put me in at a stronger position than I was. And I was just highly in favor of it.

It didn't take too much of a sales pitch to get me to do that. I listened to what my. . . my editor is very smart at Avon. She really understands the romance market. I have learned so much from her.

Your next book is going to be in a lead author position.

Actually, it'll be a super lead. A super lead is the top of the romance line. It's the lead romance. There is actually a super lead mass market over that. Elizabeth Lowell, Johanna Lindsey, and Susan Phillips are the mass market leaders. Other super lead authors are Lisa Kleypas and Christina Dodd. Catherine Anderson was in a super lead position but she's just gone from super lead to mass market lead. It's where they would put the paperback reprint I think too...not super lead, but the one above, the mass market lead. So it means...of the romance titles being released that month it would be the top one. Any bookseller taking a romance will take that book.

So tell me, when does The Proposition come out? And what's it about?

In December of this year. My quick line of it is - it's Pygmalion turned inside out with an Anastasia ending.

It's Victorian. It's about a bet in which a woman who runs an elocution and deportment school for girls ends having to pass a rat catcher off as a viscount for a night. She has six weeks effect this change and does, but it's quite an adventure. I did my first public reading of a section of it on Saturday, and it was really fun. It's a funny book. It's one of the funniest books I've written. It gets pretty heavy because it deals with the man's identity, who he really is eventually. And the woman is about six feet tall and kind of on the ugly side. She's never been involved with men, has only ever dealt with women all her life. The two of them really have a lot of change to go through, but their growth is a fun journey--it was for the writer at least.

One of things that's so interesting about you is that you're definitely someone whose willing to stretch the boundaries of what a romance novel can be. You write in periods and in places that are not generally or have not generally been done. You have heroines with careers. You do different things and I wanted to talk to or to get your impression about the how and why of doing that.

I never think I do anything that different. I think I'm writing a really pretty straight romance. In terms of what I write about, I mean, the last heroine I did (in Sleeping Beauty) didn't have a career. Well, she did - she was a courtesan, but that's not a 'career career'.

Sleeping Beauty came from my reading Pam Morsi's Wild Oats. I loved Wild Oats and really liked the idea of an older woman, younger man, and the woman having kind of a reputation. And it sort of grew from there. So I think of it as being something, you know, kind of similar. I think the way I do it is different from the way other people do it. But everybody does things their own particular way, you know.

I guess that sort of leads me right into this. A lot of times readers will give me three authors that they almost always mention in the same breath - Judith Ivory, Patricia Gaffney and Laura Kinsale. I've always tried to figure out why that is other than the fact that the writing is a little bit more intellectual and that it's sort of stretching. I mean, it's not just trying to tell the same story the way everybody else does. When I mentioned to you the company you're always put in, what does that say to you?

I like those writers very much, but it's a matter of personal taste. I think that Gaffney and Kinsale do something very exciting that I try to do, too. They're very articulate about emotions. They can find the words to define feelings in a very precise way. They make distinctions. So for me they sweep me along with their character into an emotional world that is, I don't know, it gives words to the things that I'm always looking for words for in my own life. They eff the ineffable, I like to say, ha, ha. I find their work really helps me in my own life. Does that make sense to you?

Yes, but let me ask you this. Along with the same people, different people will say that...and it's strange to hear you say what you just said given what I'm just going to ask you now. But some readers get a feeling of coldness from your characters. They like the stories, but they don't connect with the characters...there is a feeling of coldness. I don't know if you've heard that before.

I hear all kinds of things. I never can relate to that. I don't understand that because I feel real connected and I feel these people are human and feeling and warm and to me they are. But I always think every book, you know...the great thing about books is they requires two imaginations, the reader's and the writer's.

So I always feel that if there's something there I'm not getting it must be that the reader is bringing it, you know, it must be part of their imagination. I remember people saying that they didn't like Louise. Some people felt her cold. I had compassion for her. I felt it was so sad to be so beautiful. That was sort of my point, that we should have compassion for even the beautiful. No one's lot in life is easier than our own. Sometimes what we imagine would be the most fabulous thing--to be utterly gorgeous, for instance--turns out to be every bit as difficult as ... well, Charles in this book is ugly, and he and Louise actually have the same problem: a sense of separation from others because of social reaction to their looks.

I think it may also just have to do with the fact that your settings and the times and the places you write about...it's just very different. You write about turn of the century France, a woman making a film, settings and premises that are not in the norm. I think sometimes that it's easy to read a book on an intellectual level and accept it that way, but then you can't really get into the emotion because it's just so different. There are a lot of readers who like to take the chance, but there are other readers who just don't feel comfortable doing that, who want a plain, old-fashioned romance.

I think that's fine. Each to his own. I think nobody is right for everybody.

There's a reviewer out there and she and I go round and round because every time she writes a review for me she always says, "this book isn't for everybody but," . . .and then she writes a glowing review. And I say, "Why don't you say that with Johanna Lindsay - this book isn't for everybody but," and she goes, "Oh, but it is," and I say, "But she isn't for me." Nobody is for everybody. Why do I always have to see that in my reviews?

The great thing about romance and women readers in general is we're all so diverse. I read a variety of authors, from Amanda Quick to Ken Follett, and an author I've just discovered - Elizabeth Berg.

The first romance author to keep me up all night was LaVyrle Spencer. I'm just so impressed with her. Within the genre I've always loved Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jenny Crusie, and Christina Dodd - she's got such clever plots.

What about non-romance?

Well, I have those degrees in math but I have as many hours in English. I've did post-graduate work at Cambridge in English. So I've done a lot of modernist and post-modernist reading. I'm going to take the phone over to my bookcase and see what I've got. Let's see. William Golding. I've got some Scott Turrow, some Margaret Atwood both of whom I love. Barbara Parker writes a great mystery. P. D. James, Ruth Rendall, Alison Lurie, Anne Tyler, John Fowles, Vladimir Nabokov.

What made you decide not only to start writing but also to write a romance?

Rosemary Rogers. I forgot to mention Rosemary Rogers. You know, as I'm handing in my clothes at the drycleaner, she says to me, "You've got to read this book." And I read it and a friend of mine read it and we didn't tell each other. And then we got together over wine one night and we were talking and we realized we had both read this book and both loved it and nobody had told anybody. And then we were just roaring with laughter. Probably at ourselves that we weren't admitting that we really liked it.

This is what the whole basis for the web site I run is that sort of feeling of being embarrassed to like a certain kind of book. My husband...this happens all the time. We will go out and people will ask what I do and he's seen it happen. We were at one of his firm's functions in Colorado this summer, their retreat, and one of wives asked what I did and I tell her I run a web site and I write reviews for magazines and la la la, and she goes oh really, what kind of books and the minute I mention what kind of books she just cut me dead and moved on.

I don't know. I've gotten very bold about it. I figure I'm a walking contradiction. Here in Miami is the biggest literary event in the country - the Miami Book Fair International. They get 400,000 people at this thing every year and it's very literary. And I used to love to go be part of it and I used to really worry about the whole thing. I've gotten very...I let go of being worried. I realized that nobody was nearly half so upset, with my writing romances as I was. Chances are, I mean here, from my experience...chances are if that woman was snobby to you, she was maybe one of three or four in a room of twenty, you know, about that ratio. And other people would think less of her for that attitude

The funny thing is that then you talk to someone who says, "Oh yeah, I read Susan Elizabeth Phillips," but they don't make the connection. Let me ask you - this sort of goes along with a piece that Kay Mussell wrote for us on feminism and romance. She is extensively footnoted in Jayne Ann Krentz's Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women and now admits to being overly harsh about the genre. She used to believe feminism and romance were incompatible. She no longer believes that. But the criticism is still accepted by so many - how do you counter that?

You have as many viewpoints in romance as there are women, cause the writers are so diverse and the readers are too, which makes it in a way wonderfully feminist. I came of age in the first wave of feminism which really left out the women who wanted to pursue "female" work and do it well. A "smart" woman had to have a career. As if raising a family and tending to the home were somehow less important or worthy than, say, becoming a doctor. The old feminism sort of said that to gain one set of options we had to give up the others. This just isn't so. It reminds me of a great slogan Barbara Samuel [aka Ruth Wind] did for a T-shirt some people sold. The front of the shirt said, "Reading Romance is Subversive," while on the back it said, "Join the Revolution." Isn't that great? Reading romance is also empowering. A woman who is truly liberated can read a romance because she wants to without worrying about what she "ought" to be reading. It's an act of independent thinking. Romance readers, bless them, have a kind of in-your-face attitude: who needs your respect; I have my own.

I think now more importance should be put on the jobs that women do that aren't necessarily in the marketplace and I think it's a real shame that we haven't given them more weight and more respect. I think society itself is suffering from a lack of femininity, although to say that sounds odd. Feminism never went away, it just changed. This is my political view I guess. To me, romance novels are where feminism went. Women writing about women for women - what could be more feminist than that?

I have a theory about one of the reasons why the whole genre gets such a bum rap is that romances are emotion based. Everybody talks about their husbands, their other significant others as being - it's very easy just to talk about men being cut off from their emotions. Well, if a kind of a book is emotion based and you've got half of the society supposedly or, you know, the dominating half is cut off from their emotions, yeah, it makes perfect sense why that would be denigrated.

That's quite close to actually a theory I have. I'll rephrase your theory and tell you mine, which I've had for ten years. Literary fiction, or mystery fiction or sci fi for that matter, is very intellectual, while romance fiction is emotional in content. Now, all writers, being human, will make the occasional mistake. To get a character's thinking a little wrong, though, puts a tic in the logic. A writer can certainly be criticized for that. But to make a mistake about what a character feels, well, the result will be an emotion that doesn't ring true. What do you call emotions that don't ring true? "Sentimental." "Maudlin." "Saccharine." Look at these words! They carry a much heavier censure for the writer than "illogical."

And I think partly it's because it has been a female mistake, and females have been in a lower position for so long we're still being accepting of the idea that emotional mistakes are worse than intellectual ones.

Kate Smith, one of our reviewers, asks, "How does she create such wonderful characters? Even her less than perfect characters are wonderful. One thing I've always admired about Judith is her ability to take characters that are ordinary, maybe even unlikable in some ways and make them wonderful. How does she do that?"

I think I write about real people. I mean I try to. My friends, the people I know, the most wonderful people in the world, all have flaws to them. I think I like flaws as much as I like their perfection. I think the characters, when I really get into their head, I have to be taking out pieces of me. I'm extrapolating from my experiences.

Kate also asks, "How does she create that aura of wistfulness in her books? The longing of these characters just leaps out at the reader. All of her books have this kind of bittersweet emotion in them that I would love to be able to capture in my own work. She makes the reader yearn for her characters."

I know I tap into my own emotion and my own strife and it's a wonderful place to do it. I sort out things...I don't know, it's a place to take emotions and problems and work on them a little bit and turn them around a little. I can remember in Black Silk, one of the things that was happening was trying to sort through my own mixed feelings about romance and wanting to write it. And so I think Graham reflected those mixed emotions. I was able to work out my own feelings through the way Graham came through the book.

I sort of slice off pieces of myself and look at them under the microscope and have them fight it out to the end. I think tapping into something that you feel just sort of vibrating inside yourself and trying to look at the truth and struggle through the truth is what writing fiction is about.

The way you're talking about your characters is a little different than what I sometimes hear from authors. A lot of times I'll hear - and you'll have to tell me if this is also what you experience - that they experience with their characters or experience, you know, if they're writing a sad section of the book, they're morose. At times it feels as though they're watching a movie, you know, the character sort of playing in their mind and that the characters sort of take on their own lives and go places that they hadn't intended. What happens with you?

I think I am the characters when I'm there, so I'm very much experiencing it as it goes to some extent. I think long ago when the characters took off on their own, I was kind of excited about it. Now they sometimes surprise me, but I'm much more controlled as I've gotten more experienced with it. About the time I say, "Oh I'm never surprised." In the last book I was surprised. I had everything all mapped out and suddenly the heroine just does something and I went, "What?", then went with it.

Carol Irvin, who also writes for AAR, is an artist. She wants to know whether you based Nardi on an actual French sculptor. And she liked "the way you show the ether addiction being prompted by his inability to handle criticism of his work and that by the end of the book he could tolerate criticism better or at least could let it roll off his back."

I have a very dear friend who is a sculptor. She and I realized that whether you're making a statue or making a book, the process seemed to be so similar and our reactions to what other people thought of it seemed to be so similar. She was also the one that gave me kind of a key to the book as Michelangelo's theory of "liberating the figure from the marble that imprisons it."

I have to have faith in that. There's a kind of peace in that. And many times I would feel that I know what the story is if I could just get the words for it. If I could just find the words. And you'll find words and you'll go, "Oh no, those words aren't right." And then you keep looking and, "Oh yes, these words are right!" And the only reason you know that is because somewhere it exists somehow. I don't know. She and I have talked about that though. So she was a big influence on that book - just our conversations. Then another friend that I ended up discussing things with and she actually found the theory, the Michelangelo's theory, and I said I'm reading some of Michelangelo's poetry, and that's sort of how it came about.

You are single and not in a relationship right now. Is it hard to write romance when you're not in a romance?

No. It's funny, I just go into a completely different place. And then, too, my books are so about me. What is the Oscar Wile line? "Self-love is a lifelong love affair."

I'm getting the quote wrong, but my books are about me and sorting me out, and about my romantic ideas. I write about men and, of course, I like men. I don't think you can write romance without liking them.

Women authors present a male perspective that's obviously colored by being women. How close do you think women authors get and do we really want to know what men really think when we're reading?

I know it's really fun to do men-bashing, but I tend to think that men and women really aren't all that different in terms of what we feel. I think we all feel sorrow or joy or love, though it varies a great deal from individual to individual, the lines that cut us apart are not those of male versus female, I think. They aren't necessarily the lines of whether or not we're wearing a penis.

I think the differences are more individual. When push comes to shove I don't think that there are strict lines that divide down the sexes as much as we might say or we might sort of jokingly say. I enjoy the joking aspect of male and female, but in reality I don't think there's really all that much of a difference. Human is human.

Are you going to go mainstream, are you going to cross the genres, what do you see, what would you like to do in the future?

Well I love writing romance. I could write romance for a million years. I'm certain of it. I broached my editor just recently about writing a contemporary and she said she doesn't want me to do that.

When we first met, I asked you what you thought the changes had been in the industry over the last several years and you talked about how much better the writing is getting. And I wanted to ask you in the last eight years, last five years, last three years, how has your own writing evolved?

Well, I think I've gotten stronger in terms of writing action. My books, I hope, have less dead space. I look at some of the older ones and would redo them, especially the first two. I love the books, but they aren't as well written to me. Then I think...I've really been working hard to make my books more commercial, more accessible, not really changing my style or making it so it doesn't suit me, but making it so that it's easier to read what I'm trying to say.

I think the biggest change has been in structure. I have learned to use a slightly different vocabulary effectively to my own satisfaction. I think that Black Silk - the vocabulary was just over the top.

I think my writing is tighter. I also think though that I know a lot more about tension and conflicts and how to maintain it.

There are writers who map out a story down to the number of lines in a scene, and then there are writers who just write. What about you?

I have to know where I'm going to some extent. I usually know the main conflict, where I'm heading. I always know where I'm going a few chapters in advance and when I actually go in and write a chapter, I have scenes pretty much mapped out in my head. Sometimes I even have it written on paper.

I read not too long ago about an organization that took away an award from an author because some people found the book offensive. You have written about political correctness in the past. Can you talk some more about it now?

I think if you're, you know, creating art, and I very much hope my books are about that, then, who cares? I am pursuing the truth and that's my only obligation. If I see the truth as being different from what is politically correct to say the truth is, then that's my concern. I think it is the artist's job to throw "truths" into question.

 

Judith Ivory at AAR



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