The Refreshing Candor of Michelle Jerott

(January 26, 2002)

I recently conducted a fascinating Q&A with contemporary romantic suspense author Michelle Jerott. Jerott, with four published romances to her credit, is perhaps less well-known than many of her Avon colleagues, but for many on our review staff, this has less to do with talent than marketing. Jerott's willingness to speak openly and to answer any and all questions without the evasiveness or reticence that we've come across in some other author interviews is refreshing. The interview is presented in its entirety except for one answer having to do with romance authors Jerott herself reads. The list was too long to include it here, but Jerott's bookshelves are definitely bulging. Chances are you'll be on the look-out for her books to add to your own after reading this interview.

--Jane Jorgenson

How did you get started in romance writing?

Purely by accident. I'd planned on going to grad school in either conservation or museum management, but I had a baby and I ended up on a different path instead. I'd always dabbled in writing, was a voracious reader, and have always been drawn to creative mediums. When my son was about four, I bought my first computer, got on AOL, and stumbled across the romance writers group there, which at the time was coordinated by Lorraine Heath. It looked like fun, so I jumped in, and was hooked. Three years after I started seriously writing, I sold my first book to Avon. A few days later, that same book also won in RWA's Golden Heart contest.

Are you a long-time fan of the genre?

Oh, yeah. Like many other romance authors (and readers!) I started out with Kathleen Woodiwiss, Rosemary Rogers, Laurie McBain, Valerie Sherwood, Jennifer Wilde etc. I still have original copies of most of these early romances, and I still read more romances than any other kind of books.

Your favorite novel of all time? Why? Favorite romance?

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Ohmigosh, just one?? Impossible. When I was 12, Nancy Drew was the best...Nancy and Jim, romance even then! When I was in high school, I was crazy over the historical romances of the late 70s. In college, I got into straight historical fiction, like Dunnett, Penman, and Cecelia Holland. When I got back into romances again in the late 80s/early 90s, there was such an incredible variety that I was like the proverbial kid in a candy shop. I was late in discovering the joys of series books, but I'm not a big reader of traditional regencies and paranormals, though I do read them from time to time. And I like romantic suspense. All I ask from a book is that I be swept away into the story world for a few hours. I'm easy that way.

Who has influenced your writing?

Hmmm...hard to say. I think every good book I've read influences me in some way technically, or just inspires me to rush off and write - sort of like recharging the old creative batteries. I read a book by Farley Mowat called Two Against the North when I was a kid, and I still remember the adventure plot and characters. Same goes for the incredible characters and complicated story arcs in Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles. Sometimes I'm influenced by movies or television shows, too. Even comic books. With all that, it's hard to pin down any one author as a sole source of inspiration. Every book I've ever loved has just reinforced my belief in the overall wonderfulness of books.

Your recent books have combined suspense and romance; is this something you've always done?

Yes, because I don't think I can write a straight relationship book, although I do enjoy reading them. I like the little extra spice of a mystery element to test the characters' mettle. My books are often tagged as romantic suspense, although I feel they're less suspense than mystery. But the term "romantic suspense" is pretty fluid as far as descriptions go - or at least it seems that way to me.

A recent discussion amongst readers on one of our message boards suggests that the element of suspense is ill-served in many romantic suspense novels. It's usually used to create tension or provide reasons for the hero and heroine to be together and isn't as well-drawn as it could be. In Her Bodyguard the suspense is integral to the story. How do you handle the balance? Which comes first, love or danger?

Excellent question! First, I'd say that since the romantic suspense sub-genre is fairly open to interpretation among readers and authors, it's difficult to establish any "rules" about the romance-to-suspense ratio. I've heard it described as a 60/40 ratio - 60% romance and 40% suspense. My feeling is that if you're reading RS primarily for the romance, you'll want more romance. If you're reading it mostly for the suspense, you'd prefer more suspense. Then it's a matter of finding the authors who write the mix you prefer.

For myself, I'm writing a romance. That's what it says on the spine, and that's what readers are paying for, so that's what I'm giving them. In that respect, love comes first. Plot-wise, the suspense element comes first because usually my book ideas start out with a "what if?" question, or a theme or situation. Then I come up with the characters. I tend to build characters and plots so that they interlace. I believe any character or subplot should add to the main romance and the journey of the hero and heroine, not detract from it.

A shoe designer/collector as heroine is well outside the norm. Where'd Lili Kavanaugh come from? Another "which came first" question: Do your characters emerge first or does a plot?

I didn't think a shoe designer/collector was all that far outside the norm for a single title contemporary. Perhaps for series books, which tend toward being more conservative, but for me, the draw of single titles is having the freedom to explore a wider world, and the many kinds of people populating it. Lately, I'm getting a sense that single titles and series books aren't as separate as they once were. Don't mistake me, I read and enjoy series books, but they're different from single titles. Not better or worse, just different in scope. I think there's room for lots of kinds of book in the contemporary market, including the big category-type contemps, but I get a little uneasy when I start seeing limitations brought up. I'm all for diversity, as it gives readers more options to find what they like, and gives authors more freedom to write the kinds of books that excite them. Certain types of books may sell extraordinarily well, but as far as I'm concerned, that doesn't justify publishing those kinds of books to the exclusion of others. Plus, it seems to me to accelerate the inevitable burn-out factor. I'd just like to see a little more balance, that's all.

Okay, now that I've gotten that little bee out of my bonnet, I'll answer the rest of the question. Where Lili Kavanaugh came from is tied to the last question, which is what comes first, plot or character. In my case, it's usually plot first, although I write fairly character-centric books. I'll try to explain how I come up with stories, but I'm a little embarrassed to admit it's very not neat or methodical.

Her Bodyguard was inspired by a picture of a 1920s shoe from a non-fiction book. I was so taken by that shoe that I built an entire book around it. The immediate problem is that I write contemporaries, so I decided to work the 1920s shoe into the story via an historical mystery. I didn't know how until I listened to Loreena McKennitt's The Highwayman. I'm not sure why, but my brain made the leap from an 18th century doomed love affair between a highwayman and an innkeeper's daughter to a 1930s Chicago gangster and his gun moll. I gave the gun moll the cool shoes, then decided something about them would be the key to a mystery and provide a source of danger to my modern-day characters. After I decided that, it wasn't much of a leap to create a heroine who was a shoe designer - one who lives and breathes in this whole creative outlet, so much so that she collected shoes of famous/infamous American women. Knowing that my gun moll's shoes put my heroine in danger, it also made sense to create a hero who was a bodyguard. I deliberately kept them both clueless about what was going on, so they could figure out together what was happening. But I didn't want the mystery subplot just to exist to bring them together and put them in danger. I wanted the subplot to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of my hero and heroine, and I did it by comparing and contrasting the story of Joey and Rose with that of Matt and Lili. And Matt wasn't a bodyguard solely to have a manly-man profession, but because it gave me a chance to show some gray areas in his character.

Anyway, as I mentioned above about interlacing characters with plots, this is what I mean. All the elements are dependent on each other to make a whole. If Matt could've as easily been a bricklayer, or Lili a librarian, then all I've done is tell a generic story.

You suggest that single titles and series books aren't as separate as they once were, can you explain that?

This is my perception only; it isn't shared by everyone. To me, it's all about publishers looking to expand established markets, to find new readers, to give readers something different. For instance, there's a number of romance readers who still look down at series books. They just won't read them, and of course that's their choice. But if a reader has never read a Harlequin or Silhouette book, all those golden goodies of plot lines - the ever popular secret babies, rough- edged ranchers, hunky cops and other authority types, amnesia plots, hidden identities, runaway brides etc - aren't going to seem particularly tired or cliched. To loyal series readers, these "bigger" type of category books provide more of what they already love to buy and read.

A number of current single title contemporary writers started out in series (and some still write series books), and of course the hope is that these authors will bring their established readership with them as they build a new one. Everybody is happy when it works out that way. :)

Length is another factor. Basically, you can't fit a 125,000 word single title into a 70,000 or 80,000 word series book. In single title, there's traditionally more room for secondary characters and subplots, in addition to dealing with more controversial or unusual themes or elements. But the publishing industry has gone through many changes in recent years, and word count for single title books has been decreasing.

Some publishers are more lenient in this than others (and sometimes more lenient with established authors), but my publisher has kept my books very close to 100,000 words (that's 400 manuscript pages.) I've been edited down when I've turned in books at 415 and 450 pages. Avon's requirements for a single title contemporary are 90,000 to 100,000 words. The longest series books are Harlequin's Superromance, at about 85,000 words, and Silhouette Intimate Moments, which has a limit of about 80,000 words. Doing the math, you can see there's not much difference length-wise between a 85,000 word Superromance and a 90,000 word single title. It comes down to about 20 manuscript pages, roughly about a chapter, or a chapter and a half. Even the difference between an Intimate Moments and one of my manuscripts is only about 80 pages, or some four chapters.

Of course other factors than length differentiates a single title from a series book. A shorter single title with a lot of violence or a more controversial theme wouldn't work in series, obviously, and not every author wants or needs to write a longer book. But for those that do (and this may be mostly an issue for newer or mid-list authors, and again it depends on the house), there seems to be less room lately in single titles for characters and plots, or really delving into the story world.

Write what you know is something a lot of writers are told. Is this why some of your books are set in and around Wisconsin? Does your publisher ever try to "encourage" you to pick more familiar settings?

I don't think I set out to write Wisconsin settings as much as the historical mysteries I used - based on factual events like the 1832 Black Hawk War and 1930s Chicago gangsters - meant that I had to use the Wisconsin/Chicago area as a setting. Sames goes for the Great Lakes setting, because I didn't know diddly about shipping or maritime subjects when I sat down to write A Great Catch. It helps to be familiar with an area, though, and it's a lot easier for me to bop down to Chicago or up to Marquette for research than if I'd set the book on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.

My publisher hasn't discouraged less familiar settings, but they also haven't gone out of their way to play them up, either. Lately, I've been encouraged to write more marketable stories, however. I have mixed feelings on this. The creative part of me balks, but the part of me that needs to pay bills pays attention.

Her Bodyguard actually tells of two love stories, one set in 1933. Do you have any interest in writing historical romances? Something set at the turn of the century perhaps?

My first book was a medieval, set in 14th century France, Constantinople, and Spain, with a hero who was both a mercenary and something of a gigolo. For obvious reasons, it never sold. I'd love, love to write a romance set in the 1920s or the 1930s, but there's no market for it at this time. So I settle for writing subplots set in 1930 or 1832. It's fun, and appeals to my strong interest in history. I often have little historical bits in my contemporaries. My next book has a mystery involving the theft of an artifact from Egypt's 18th Dynasty (King Tut's period) as well as some Mayan stuff, as the hero is a Mayan archaeologist. I have a story going now that involves antique Japanese netsuke, and a couple more book ideas that came about because of my interest in dinosaur fossils and Christopher Marlowe.

My last interview was with Josie Litton, an author who got a big push from her publisher. Sadly, you haven't had the same efforts from Avon, yet your books have generated nice buzz and reviews on the 'Net. How does any of this factor into the business end of writing? Does buzz on the Internet translate into sales?

Avon doesn't operate in the same way as JL's publisher. Avon has a lot of authors, and a structured approach to their romance program. Newer authors are generally brought in on the Romance level, and covers and print runs are fairly standard. If the author performs well, they're bumped up to Treasure level, where there's higher print runs and more distinctive covers. Authors who do well at that level are eventually moved up to Super Lead positions, with a lot of publisher support and greater distribution. This works the same way for contemporaries, except there's no intermediary Treasure level for contemps. Basically, at Avon the author is expected to earn the push to the top, not get to the top because of an initial push. Avon may not do big pushes for every new author they buy, but if newer authors are performing well, they will quickly get behind them for that big push - such as with Susan Andersen, Rachel Gibson, Stephanie Laurens, and Karen Hawkins.

From a reader's perspective, this might not be such a bad way for authors to advance - reader buying power put them there. From an author's perspective, this kind of success is still dependent in many ways on lucking out with great covers, catchy titles, decent print runs and distribution - readers won't buy if they can't find your book or if a butt-ugly cover is hiding a gem of a story.

In my experience, doing well at cyber bookstores like Amazon, or generating a decent buzz online, hasn't translated into strong sales, unfortunately. But this is just my experience; for a number of other authors, it seems to have made a difference. Truth is, it's hard to know how to judge the importance of internet influence on sales. By this time next year, that may be different.

I suspect the Internet reading community is still fairly small in comparison to the overall romance readership. Online readers are savvy, check messages boards and review sites for the kinds of books they want, and are more willing to try new authors and different types of stories. The average non-online reader probably sticks to tried-and-true favorites or impulse buys, and impulse buys are from books that are easy to find, which is usually bestselling authors or their backlist. So a good buzz on the net might translate into decent rankings at Amazon, but that level of sales doesn't necessarily translate into regular sales. It might; but no guarantees. I'd have to say that the internet has really helped a lot in getting my name out to readers, more so than anything my publisher has done. But this is pretty much the norm for mid-list authors. You can probably pick any mid-list author from other publishing houses, and they'd likely tell you the same thing.

I've never seen my books (and rarely any Avons that aren't at the superlead position) in my local discount or grocery stores, but I have seen books by Josie Litton and Madeline Hunter. Obviously, publisher support makes a difference, although some of it could be a matter of local distribution (the nuts-and-bolts of which I've yet to figure out.)

You've mentioned that Avon's sales department wants a name change on your next books. Why? Can you explain the nuts and bolts to us? Have you decided on a name?

This is correct. The reason for this is low sales - Avon admits the cover look they gave me is at fault, not that I'm a lousy writer. For example, Barnes & Noble hated the cover for Her Bodyguard - thought it looked like a Young Adult novel - and didn't order copies of the book (or very few copies.) End result was a print run that dropped by nearly 50%, which was just plain depressing. Since books are ordered based on past orders/selling history, when you get stagnant or low numbers, it means trouble. The accounts, seeing low numbers, accordingly order only a few copies, if any, of the next book. Readers don't buy what's not there, and numbers further decline. It's a cycle that's tough to break, and the easiest way to do that is to sweep the "old" author under the rug and re-invent her under a new name, with a fresh start. I'm not sure it's the best way, but it's undoubtedly the quickest and easiest way.

There are obvious drawbacks. For me, that means starting from scratch, as if the four books I wrote never existed. The other is that readers who liked Michelle Jerott's books won't know about the name change. I'll do what I can to let readers know what's going, but some readers will get lost, and that makes me very unhappy. What the publisher hopes is that the "new" author will make a much bigger splash and there'll be lots of new readers to make up for the ones that get lost - and there's always a possibility that the "lost" readers will manage to reconnect with the "old" author. Readers who hated Michelle Jerott's books will also be unhappy when they pick up the "new" me because they're led to believe I'm a different author. This bothers me, too, because I certainly don't want to "trick" readers into buying books they don't want to read. Again, there's not much I can do about this. Of course, I hope the "new" me performs better than the old me, but what I've learned from this experience is to never, ever underestimate the power of a cover look, or the power of a single bookstore account, on my career.

As for the new name, it's not been officially decided yet. My editor just left Avon, and until I'm assigned a new one, that issue probably won't be finalized. I'd like to use my real name, though, and all my Michelle Jerott books are copyrighted under Michele Albert.

With their cartoon artwork Avon has been one of the publishers instrumental in changing how contemporary romances look and are sold. I'm going to come right out and say that the covers chosen for your novels, though attractive, had never caught my eye. Is this an element that is decided solely by the publisher? The muted subtle colors on Her Bodyguard just don't seem to fit your content. What is the process for choosing a cover?

Yes, Avon has pretty much dominated the single title contemporary market. The lighter contemporaries, with their eye-catching cartoon-like covers, have been hugely popular with the readers. Other houses were quick to adapt them for their own use. An author's covers, and her overall "package," is decided by the publisher. At Avon, they have a meeting with editorial and sales/marketing staff called "cover conferencing." This happens about a year before the book is released; sometimes before the author even turns in the finished book. While few authors have much input in the process - although this varies from publisher to publisher, and even from author to author - at Avon, my editor calls and asks me for title and cover ideas. Some authors have better luck in this than I do, because to date none of my suggestions have made the cut. You sort of have to trust marketing to get things right because they know the business end of publishing better than authors. Most of the time, they get it right. Sometimes, they make mistakes.

Avon's reason for giving me a different cover look was because my books weren't comedies or lighter in tone. They didn't want to mislead readers. I was, and still am, totally behind this. Unfortunately, the cover look they came up with flopped with buyers and readers. Avon couldn't know this, and I doubt there's any way to predict what will turn a buyer's eye, or turn them off. Personally, I dislike those groping clinch covers, but they sell really well.

My pet theory on why my covers didn't do well is that they were photos of real-life people, and readers aren't keen on having real life people on the covers of fictional books. Or maybe they're too reminiscent of "glitz" covers. I have a friend who said it's because their heads are chopped off, and I don't write stories about half-headed people.

It probably didn't help that the models looked nothing like the characters in the book. It was especially bad for All Night Long; I'm still getting emails complaining about that cover.

The cover for Her Bodyguard. . .well, I liked the woman's little Mona Lisa smile, and the man had great eyelashes, but he was about 10 years too young. Plus, the neck kiss thing...my son calls this my vampire bodyguard book. It was also a bit busy, with the colors and the leaf pattern on her dress. I was told the leaf pattern would be made solid via computer manipulation, but it never happened. Anyway, the look is subdued and gentle, which is nice, but the book is kind of sexy and there's a definite body count. Plus, the back cover blurb was all bubbly and light. I tried to get it changed, but no luck. Not only does it misrepresent the story and characters, that bubbly tone is at odds with the rather languid cover.

For what it's worth, I wanted the title to be Something Wild, but Patti Berg already had that title for the series she's doing. So we settled on A Perfect Fit, with a cover that had a shoe theme. But somebody in sales decided this title sounded too "salacious," and then I was told shoe themes were over done. Thus, I ended up with a boyish vampiric bodyguard.

Happily, there will be no people covers on my next book. As I understand it, the title itself will be the cover art.

I recently read a book published by Zebra that had a cartoon cover which did not fit the tone of the book. This goes along with what you said about Avon's choices for your covers. What would your ideal cover look like?

I have no idea...maybe an icon type of cover with a step back (hey, may as well dream big!) This isn't something I'm good at - I see my job as to write books, my publisher's job is to sell them. To be fair to Avon, all the books I've written for them have been different from each other, on top of being a bit outside the norm. That makes it harder to give me a consistent "look" to cue the readers as to what kind of book it is, while playing down those elements they worried might be a turn off to the broader readership. I think they were going for a "Hey! Sexy Book Here!" look with the covers they gave me. It just didn't work like they'd hoped.

Earlier you discussed series books and the kinds of books that are being published. In television when Survivor became popular every network had to suddenly come up with a reality-based show. Now there is a glut and they've started dropping off the radar again. This sounds like what you're alluding to in the burn-out-factor in the types of books being published. Can you expand on that a bit?

Trends are part of the business, and it's expected that as many as possible try to capitalize on a trend during its period of popularity. Something that's fresh grabs attention, but unless it has some quality (and I mean that in both senses of the word) that makes it a staying force, eventually people will tire of it and move on to something else. If it remains interesting, then it may evolve in some way. Like how the romance genre started out as a hot trend with racy, over-the-top historicals back in the 70s. That type of historical romance isn't as popular anymore, but something about these books sparked an enduring interest, and instead of dying away, the genre evolved and expanded into what it is now. In my opinion, it's still evolving and expanding, if you factor in the cross-over appeal of women's fiction and "chick-lit." (Publishers haven't figured out yet how to consistently and effectively market the appeal of women's fiction readers to romance readers, and vice versa...this was a hot topic at an authors only conference I attended not so long ago.)

I've heard editors state, on different occasions, that it's the authors who determine trends. In other words, a really great book comes along, takes everybody by surprise when it sells like crazy, and then lots of people decide to try their hand at it, sometimes quite successfully, sometimes...not.

It's a fine line to balance. Publishers and authors want to put out books that readers want to read. Happy readers means happy authors and publishers making money. All good stuff - but relying on trends, without a more rounded view of things, can also be limiting. Publishers, authors, and readers can become less willing to try something different. It's well known that certain settings are poor sellers. One has to wonder why a medieval romance set in France would be less romantic than one set in England. It's boy-meets-girl-and-happily-ever-after, right? Why should it matter where it takes place? But apparently it does, and while there are romance authors who write stories and settings outside the norm, they don't usually burn up the bestseller lists.

In view of this, it's no surprise that authors aren't exactly encouraged to write the unusual. Doesn't mean we can't, but an author who sets out to write a story that doesn't have a broad market appeal has to accept that her book will likely have a smaller audience. Which is what I've been struggling with lately myself, in between wondering if maybe writing in another genre might be a better fit for me.

LLB's been theorizing that quantity is not the same as quality or variety. Sounds like you have some thoughts on this. Is she right? Are too many books being published with too many of them like too many others?

You know that if you asked another author this question, especially one who's doing well with currently popular story lines, you'd very likely get a different answer! Plus, I want to go on record to say that this is a complicated subject, with lots of factors to consider beyond the nature of trends. And don't forget we're talking commercial genre fiction - certain core fantasies that define this genre will never go out of style.

Speaking for myself only, as a reader and an author, I prefer variety. Yes, I do feel that too much of the same thing, and especially if it's being written by authors who'd rather be writing something else, isn't particularly good. On the other hand, there's variety even within a type of book. Romantic contemporary comedies cover everything from biting wit to slapstick. Regency historicals range from angst to froth. It's not really accurate to say all these books are the same, but if somebody is tired of reading Regency settings, I can see where they might start getting peevish, and once that sets in, it's harder for a book to please. That's when burn outs and slumps start to set in.

How are series books more conservative? Connected to that are the limitations you mention. Where do you see the limitations coming from?

Series books tend to be more conservative because they're intended to have as broad an appeal as possible, so that means nothing too controversial, disturbing, or violent, and no offensive language. They're comfort reads; meant to be uplifting, to soothe and entertain, not to stir up any pots. And why should there be anything wrong with that?

Yet there are series authors who very nicely stir pots, and some who write books that deal compellingly with tough subjects like rape, domestic or substance abuse, and mental illness.

Where limitations come from...sometimes it's the publisher, as when marketing says "those books" don't sell, and there's no way to persuade them otherwise. It may be an editorial bias - one editor might be a bit squeamish about graphic violence in a romance, another might not have the same feelings. I recently had a proposal rejected for a reason that wasn't very convincing - that a paleontologist hero wasn't "romantic" enough. I was also asked to make a change in a finished book because there was an element that might've been a bit controversial. Personally, I didn't think it was a big deal at all. If it caused a few raised eyebrows here and there, it wouldn't have bothered me, but since this detail really wasn't crucial to the story, I changed it. Sometimes, authors just have to pick and choose their battles, and some things aren't worth risking your career over.

Finally, though, I have to say that limitations also come from readers. Some are rather rigid in their expectations - not all, just some. For example, I saw a poll on a message board recently about the hair color of heroes, and most of the posters were dead set against heroes who didn't have dark hair. I don't have any problem reading (or writing) about a blond hero - I'm writing one right now - but it's disheartening to know that my book can be so easily dismissed over what seems to me such a trivial thing as the hero's hair color.

Having said that, I acknowledge that limitations aren't always a bad thing in genre fiction...readers have basic expectations that need to be met. As an author, I try to look at these things as a challenge to present in a new or different way rather than a cage holding me in. I'm sure other authors, even when we sometimes grouse a bit, feel much the same way.

I know some readers feel frustrated by what they see as a lack of risk-taking, but there really is only so much envelope pushing a romance author can do. The sorts of characters and story lines some readers are looking for just aren't a good fit for this genre as it exists right now.

Can the romance genre expand and evolve to include the characters and story lines that, until now, have been found in other genres? Maybe; but if so, it won't happen overnight. Should the romance genre incorporate stories that are, in essence, an antithesis to the genre's core appeal of one man/one woman/true love? I don't know.

Until that time such things are sorted out, there are books that'll meet the needs of readers looking for something beyond the more so-called conventional romance books, both in the romance genre and out of it. Women's fiction, "chick lit," and other genres offer books with strong romantic themes that have a cross-over appeal to romance readers.

Examples of what I mean: the romantic triangles of the Anita Blake fantasy series and the Stephanie Plum mystery series. Suspense author John Sandford's PREY books are a police procedural series about a hard-edged male detective named Lucas Davenport, and Lucas's love life plays a significant part in the books. Mystery author Dana Stabenow's Liam Campbell series has a passionate, fairly explicit love scene early on in the very first book, which satisfied even my romance-jaded expectations. The romance between Liam, an Alaskan state trooper, and bush pilot Wy is a major component in the books. Fiction author Eric Jerome Dickey writes about young professionals falling in love - my favorite book of his is Cheaters, in which the heroine is the "other woman" in an affair with a married man and the hero settles for meaningless affairs with women. Dickey delved deeply into his characters, made me care about them, and I wanted them to find their way to happiness - it so happens they find that happiness with each other.

For me, these books are as satisfying in their romantic theme as most romances I've read. The violence and multi-partner sexual themes of the Blake and Plum series would be a tough sell in a conventional romance. Likewise, the Sandford's books are too violent and graphic for romance, and some romance readers might have a hard time liking Lucas, who has sex with a lot of women, sometimes seeing several women at once. I'm fascinated by his deepening and conflicted bond with a female surgeon, and I'm rooting for Lucas and Weather to get together. I've loved the Alaska setting in Stabenow's books, the details about Wy's job as a bush pilot, even the adultery incident in Liam and Wy's past - all elements that would make such a book a difficult sell in a romance market. Some of Dickey's characters would likely be too morally ambiguous for the broad romance readership, although I find his books emotionally satisfying and engaging. Plus, most of his characters are African-American, which in romance would mean his books would be published in a niche market and that translates into a narrower readership.

I realize some readers will feel that my saying, in essence, that if you can't find what you like in romances then read outside the genre, is something of a cop-out. Others may worry that romance readers going outside the genre presents a threat to its viability. I don't; I like to believe more options simply provides more readers with more books to read, and authors with more creative opportunities. Maybe someday publishers will more effectively cross-market romances and romance-themed books to their female readers - after all, statistics state it's women who do most of the book buying. Maybe romance readers with tastes for books with romantic themes will start a grass-roots trend with their buying patterns that'll eventually lead to more cross-readership between the genres...maybe even enough to lead to some changes in the genre itself.

Anyway, the romance genre today is quite different to what it was 25 years ago, and who knows what it will look like 25 years from now? One thing I feel confident about is that the genre is here to stay.

Talk a bit about back cover blurbs. Do you think they contribute to the success or lack thereof for a book? Who writes those things?

While some readers don't buy solely by back blurb, I think the blurbs do contribute to selling - or not selling - a book, along with the cover. That's why it's called a "package." There's a bunch of new books published every month, on top of what's already been out for a few months, and the backlists of favorite authors. A new book by a debut or mid-list author only has a couple seconds to make an impression on a browsing buyer. The cover has to catch their attention first, and then the back cover blurb has to tell enough about the high points of the book, the story's "hooks," to persuade the reader to buy it. If the blurb is dumb-sounding or too vague, that's not going to help at all.

As to who writes them, it can be an editor. Or someone hired to do freelance work. I've met a couple romance authors who also write blurbs for other author's books. And, now and again, the author may get a chance to write her own blurb, but I think this is pretty rare. Truth is, it's hard to condense a 400 page book down to a couple paragraphs. When people ask me what my books are about, I confess I fall back on the easy stuff, like "it's a bodyguard book" or "it's a reunion story," or some other basic short-hand hook. Rather than trying to concisely explain the plot of All Night Long, I just tell people it's an opposites attracts story. So I feel Avon's pain when they have to summarize one of my books. I probably give the back copy editor nightmares: "The book's set on a steam ship?! On Lake Michigan?! Aaaauuuggghhhh!!!!" And, not surprisingly, no where in the back cover blurb for A Great Catch does it say where the story takes place or what the hero and heroine do for a living. So a word of advice for readers looking for something different: don't always go by the back blurb!

What is your next book?

My next book is from Avon, an October 2002 release titled Getting Her Man. It's a cat-and-mouse game set in steamy New Orleans, and I pitched it to my editor as "Indiana Jones meets The Thomas Crowne Affair." Here's a quickie blurb:

"New Orleans private investigator Diana Belmaine, specializing in the recovery of stolen antiquities, is hired to solve a bizarre case involving an Egyptian pharaoh. Diana always gets her man - except this time "her man" isn't some low-life thief, but Professor Jack Austin. Suspecting Austin of supplementing his university salary with a little black market double-dealing, Diana wonders why this sexy, bad-boy archaeologist is making no attempt whatsoever to avoid her when her sole purpose is to expose his double life and take him down. Whatever is Dr. Austin really up to? And what, exactly, does he want from her? Beyond the obvious, that is."

Sure sounds like something I'll be looking for! Once more, thank you Michelle for your willingness to talk with me. Your input has been truly interesting and informative.

 




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