Jill Marie Landis - From Little House to Today

(September 12, 2003)

"Romance readers enjoy the basic fantasy, the same kinds of heroes and heroines and traditional premises... but it's the new twists and the depth that the authors bring to the beloved format that keeps them fresh and the readers reading. Rule of thumb... if it's not broke, don't fix it. I think many writers are trying to reinvent the wheel when the key is emotion and pacing."

 

I first read Jill Marie Landis back in 1996 with her historical romance Day Dreamer. A departure from the books she had written until then, which she described as "Little House on the Prairie" novels, this novel struck me with its emotionality and the gut-wrenching predicament faced by her heroine.

Earlier this summer new reviewer TaKiesha Smith read and fell in love with Landi's first contemporary romance, Lover's Lane, and as I posted the review I thought it would be interesting to get a status report from author Landis about this new direction her writing has taken. She makes some striking comments about the current direction of romance novels and shares her history as a reader and writer. Enjoy!

--Laurie Likes Books

Earlier this summer you had your first contemporary released. Why the change after so many years of doing historicals? Are you pleased with the marketing or surprised that it's being sold as a "hybrid" romance/women's fiction novel?

Why the change from historicals? After writing 16 historicals (or is it 17?) I was ready to set aside some of the research and tone and just let rip with something contemporary. I had a great time doing this book and have two more planned set in the same fictional California town and some of the characters reappear in the upcoming books again.

I think because Lover's Lane came out in hardcover, it's being sold as romance/women's fiction, but for the life of me, I can't tell the difference between what's now being called women's fiction and what's still romance. I think that's because the two are blending as so many of our authors are doing bigger books (ie: romance with mainstream elements, more active secondary characters and subplots.) I think the romance/women's fiction reaches a broad audience and gets books into the hands of more and different kinds of readers.

Our reviewer was really struck by a couple of things: how emotionally real the characters seemed and how you took a premise that's not exactly new but made it seem fresh. These are two things I look for when I read; in fact, I think I prefer traditional premises that are well done as opposed to new premises, if that makes sense. Can you talk about both these things?

I'll try. First off, I'm known for characterization in my historicals, so I think that an author's strengths usually carry over no matter what she writes. Hopefully that's the case, anyway. My plots usually grow out of the characters themselves and what they want.

As far as the traditional premise goes, I was just lucky that it worked out. I tend to come up with some plots that are off the charts and then my angels (editor, agent, plot group,) sort of rein me in so that I don't totally ruin myself. They tend to pull me back to center. I think the sales figures will show that there are types of books that sell well and many that are a bit off center, though they may get rave reviews, don't sell.

Romance readers enjoy the basic fantasy, the same kinds of heroes and heroines and traditional premises... but it's the new twists and the depth that the authors bring to the beloved format that keeps them fresh and the readers reading. Rule of thumb... if it's not broke, don't fix it. I think many writers are trying to reinvent the wheel when the key is emotion and pacing.

The Publishers Weekly review of your book talked about both the villain and the little boy and how well done they were. Both villains and children are annoying in many romances - either the villains are totally over the top or in some other way stereotypical and the kids are most often either convenient or annoying. How did you avoid this?

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When I set out to create the villain or villainess, I always try to put myself in his or her head...in their own point of view, what they are doing, and what they want, makes perfect sense to them. In their minds they are not the bad guys or gals. They perfectly understand themselves. I get into their heads and show their point of view and in many ways, that makes for a more sympathetic villain. Not totally sympathetic, but it tones them down and makes them seem less sterotypical or over the top like the villains in the old melodramas.

When I create the children, I do my best work with the 4-7 year olds, as I taught kindergarten and first grade for so long that I know how they act and react and I can have fun with them. In the next book of the three set in the town of Twilight Cove, I've tackled a nineteen year old girl. Hopefully, she'll come out okay. It's a romance between a female P.I. and a man looking for the daughter he never knew he had. The daughter is caught up in illegal street racing. The title is Heat Wave.

You've been published for a significant number of years. How has the romance genre changed since your first book was published? What is better and what is worse, as far as you're concerned?

I think the romances have gone more toward mainstream single title. At least the ones I read have. Also they are far more politically correct. There are alpha heroes, but none like the 70's heroes of Wolf and the Dove and Flame and the Flower. The dense writing style seems to have gone by the wayside, too. The texture and flowery prose that I really used to enjoy. Maybe people don't have that much time anymore or maybe the audience is younger. Do they relate to historical time periods? I'm not sure. We grew up with Bonanza and the westerns on T.V. We read and loved the Middle Ages. The younger readers are into SF and Reality and Contemporary. Times change. Sometimes I miss the old stuff.

We first met after you wrote Day Dreamer, which I adored; it was a very intense book and quite a departure for you. As I remember, you said you were most known for "Little House on the Prairie" type romances and this was along the lines of a big southerny/islandy/plantationy romance. How and why has your writing progressed as it has over the years?

I think writers change because if they didn't, they'd be bored. At least that's the case with me. I would love to write broad canvas adventure filled historicals like Day Dreamer, but they don't sell as well as the focused, hero/heroine relationship books that focus on banter and sex. That's why I've switched to contemporaries. They sell better. Readers can relate to the setting without prior knowledge of other times and places. I think as far as my actual writing, it's gotten tighter and appeals to a wider audience now.

Are there any settings and/or time periods you'd like to write about? What would they be? Is it harder to get an American Historical published than other romance sub-genres, and if so, how did you manage, or has that too changed over the years?

I'd love to write a big sweeping pirates in the tropics story (okay, so I saw Pirates of the Caribbean and loved it). I began in the American Historical sub-genre and so that's what I'm known for. I'm not sure a new writer wanting to break in there would sell until the market swings back again. But who knows?

Why is it, do you think, that American Historicals sell less well than European Historicals?

My only guess is overkill. I think that, at one time, the market was flooded with romances set in the West that weren't as strong as they should have been. I think the readers may have gotten burned and burned out on them. I also think that the readership raised on Bonanza and The Rifleman and the other great Westerns I enjoyed as a kid has moved on. Perhaps young readers can't relate to the setting or aren't as drawn to it as we were. That's just my take on it.

If you were queen of all publishers, what would you change about the genre?

I'd give the readers more choices and give them some incentive to pick up books that aren't run of the mill as far as settings, plots and characters. Sometimes it seems as if they are all publishing the same thing over and over again and they are encouraging the authors to stick to certain settings and the tried and true romance plots without trusting the authors to deliver a great read or the readers to eventually find and grow to love them. I think this holds true for all mainstream popular fiction. If something works for someone, then in a year there are 20 clones of that book from the cover to what's inside.

How long does it take you to research an historical romance, and then to write it? Where do the ideas come from? Detail a bit of your process.

It takes about six months to research and write a book now. The ideas come from all over... articles, photos, trips to various places. It only takes a small spark, a germ of an idea to grow a book. Then I start pulling together books about the time period, daily life, women's accounts and diaries and go from there. I make a notebook of all the material I'll need while writing, then I start the actual writing and get a really rough first draft. The story comes from the research. It's amazing what tidbits I find that will lead me to create a whole scene.

Given that you live in Hawaii, are there any romance authors who might show up at your door asking for a glass of pineapple juice? If so, who would they be?

Just about anyone and everyone could stop by. Kristin Hannah has been here. So has Jill Barnett. Stella Cameron is going to be here all of January. Chelley Kitzmiller will be here in February. Meryl Sawyer has been here, too. Michael Crichton has a home a few blocks away... I've met him and he's a very nice guy. Hollywood seems to have found our island, so I'm always hoping someone exciting will stop and ask for directions!

What was your favorite book to read as a child, a teen, and what is your favorite book now?

My favorite book as a child? Do you realize how LONG ago I was a child? I do recall in the sixth grade I read Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare (who also wrote Witch of Blackbird Pond). It was a great Indian/Captive book for young readers and I was captivated myself while reading it. I also loved The Light in the Forest.

As a teen I read Katherine and so many other books I can't remember them all.

As for right now? My favorite book is usually the one I'm reading at the time, if it's a good one. I don't finish books I don't like from the get go. I do tend to pick up The Wolf and The Dove by Woodiwiss and read it once a year at least, so that must be my favorite book as an adult.

When did you start to read romance and why did you decide to become a romance writer?

I started reading romance after I'd graduated from college and had begun teaching and had time to read whatever I wanted as opposed to college texts. One of the teacher's aides at my school came in with a bag of paperback romances to share and I pulled out some historicals (my first love from my childhood were books with historical settings) and that was the beginning of the end.

I went straight to writing romance because that's what I read, I enjoy, and most of all because I'm the eternal optimist who believes in happy endings.

What are some of your favorite romance novels, and why? What are things you don't like reading about in romances, if any? This could be a particular character type, storyline, whatever.

The Wolf and The Dove for sure. Hummingbird by Spencer. Almost anything by Nora Roberts. Anything written by my friends (I had to say that). Too many favorites to even name or remember. I tend to get into a book, forget the world, enjoy and then when I'm done, I move on to the next one. Do I have a keeper box? Yes. I can't remember what's in there.

I'll read anything in a romance (and I mean anything) except gratuitous sex scenes. They have to be there for a reason, to move the story forward, to change the character is some way or the character's point of view. I've never been one of those readers who just wants a book full of love scenes strung together by a weak or boring plot line. I think if an author is doing her job, that she will make anything believeable in a novel and the reader will trust and follow her right along, no matter what the setting or the plot.

 




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