Writer's Corner for January, 2006

Judith McNaught

Most romance readers don’t require an introduction to the novels of Judith McNaught. A 25-year veteran of the romance scene, she has penned some of the most beloved – and sometimes controversial – novels in romance.

In a departure from the ways interviews are usually conducted at AAR, my initial questions were forwarded to the author through her publisher and, regretfully, there wasn’t enough time to ask the second round of questions that I normally do after receiving answers to the first. As you’ll see, Ms. McNaught has a lot to say about reviews, critics, and the Big Mis. (Note to readers: The author gave spoilers in this interview as regards her new release, Every Breath You Take.)

--Sandy Coleman

 

Ms. McNaught, first of all let me say that it is a very great personal pleasure for me to have the opportunity to interview one of my all-time favorite romance authors. You are such a favorite in fact, that along with virtually all of your single titles, I still have a very worn and tattered copy of Double Standard (the Harlequin Temptation version) on my keeper shelf. Let’s start by talking about Every Breath You Take, your new release set in the same Chicago milieu as your perennially popular Paradise. What interested you about the characters of Mitchell and Kate and made you want to tell their story?

I'm honored to learn that I'm one of your favorite authors, Sandy, and I'm also honored by your request for an interview about EBYT. The problem is that after browsing AAR's site and reading many of the staff reviews and Pandora's Box discussions about the books in our genre, including Every Breath You Take, I'm a little over-awed by the depth and breadth of the analyses I've read. I'm not certain there's anything I could possibly add about EBYT - its plotting, characterizations, or the philosophy behind it - -that would be at all informative.

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To tell you the truth, as I read the reviews and PB discussions, I learned a great deal about how a romance novel should be written and how it should not be written. I have to tell you that it's a little alarming to discover at this advanced stage of my career that there are elements of plotting and characterization that are so universally frowned upon by romance readers and reviewers that they've been relegated to the status of clichéd plot devices and given "tags" for names. What made this discovery especially mortifying for me is that once I saw the tag names, I didn't have a clue what they meant. I had to call my editor, and she didn't know either, so I read on, figured it out for myself and then asked a few writers, just for confirmation. As a result, I now know that a "Big mis" means a "Big Misunderstanding," which I have a feeling ranks even lower on the desirability scale than the "Big Separation."

Once I understood that, I re-read the commentary in Pandora's Box, and made the depressing discovery that I'd not only committed the Big Mis and the Big Sep, I'd also committed another offense that was mentioned but left unnamed because it would be a spoiler. I've spent considerable time agonizing over what this unforgivable plot device could be, and I've narrowed it down to three possibilities. I'm so obsessed with this mystery, that I'm going to issue a spoiler right here and hazard a guess: Was this unforgivable plot device the Secret Pregnancy? Am I right? I'm pretty sure I'm right. At first, I thought maybe it was the "Ugly Confrontation" between my hero and heroine while they were both victims of the Big Mis, but I noticed that this Ugly Con was pointed out and discussed separately, so I think that narrows the choice down to the Sec Preg.

Well, as you can probably imagine, all these things drove me straight into a state of Denial - and that was before it fully sunk in that I'm regarded as a Master of the above and, worse, many of these things are considered my Trademarks! Those last two realizations sent me from denial straight to indignation.

But, after giving myself a couple of days to face reality, I've had to meekly accept that I am guilty of virtually every transgression listed - except having bad fashion sense. That one still chafes, personally and professionally. LOL. It made me feel as if it's time for me to start wearing Ferragamo instead of Choo, Zanotti, and Manolo.

Although - perhaps this is one issue that I could actually provide a tiny bit of enlightenment on - as a writer: Clothing styles date a book. In the expectation that my books will continue to remain in print for many years after they're first published, I deliberately avoid describing faddish fashions. Fashions that are au currant today are outré in two or three years. Today's trendiest designers are tomorrow's has-beens. For example, today's glittery, sequined, shimmering daytime wear will likely seem as garish to readers five or ten years from now as it would have seemed to you five years ago. (For this same reason, it is an ongoing source of frustration and regret that I ever inserted the actual dates in Paradise and Perfect.)

As I said earlier, though, I plead "guilty" to all the other comments, and I stand here before all of you at AAR (figuratively speaking) feeling quite naked (a truly horrific image in my mind) and stripped of all my defenses. . .except one:

Evidently I am so good at violating all these pre-established standards for romance novels that my books are regarded as "Guilty Pleasures." If so, then I've apparently triumphed over some very difficult obstacles, and I shall take what satisfaction and consolation I can from knowing that.

What I can't quite understand though is how readers are supposed to benefit from a set of restrictions and self-imposed standards that can only result in one thing if we writers all take them to heart: A deluge of full length, formulaic romance novels that lack uniqueness, which will lead to increasing reader dissatisfaction with the entire genre, which will result in decreased sales for the publishers who will respond by releasing fewer and fewer titles - especially titles by promising new romance authors whose careers are costly and risky to launch. Surely, this isn't a good goal for the genre you love?

Please understand that I don't regard myself as a clairvoyant; I'm simply basing my predictions on my 24 years experience in the genre. (At the moment, that makes me feel more like an antique than a sage, by the way, but I think that's because I'm still concerned about my failing fashion sense. LOL)

However, since I've just admitted that I've been around a long, long time, there's one more thing I'd like to add for your consideration - something that may prompt you to broaden your own perspective on what all romance readers want or should have in their books: Every five to ten years, a whole new "generation" of females begins reading romances for the first time. What is "old or passé" to you is entirely new to them. I'm very much afraid that your desire to banish the Big Mis, the Big Sep, the Sec Preg, and the Ugly Con from romance novels by downgrading the books and authors who use them will ultimately backfire on you. Based again on my 2 ½ decades in the business, I foresee that these books will gain ever-increasing popularity with new readers - simply because they will be seen as "unique." And these new readers aren't going to feel one bit "guilty" about the pleasure they take in discovering and reading these books.

In the hope that I'll be forgiven because I am something of an antique, I'd like to offer everyone a tiny piece of advice about regarding any romance novel, by any author, as a "guilty pleasure": Get over it. LOL. It's bad enough when you attempt to decide in advance what strangers will like, but when you place restrictions on what you, yourselves, should like, well that's just wrong. And by the way, it's also futile - as many of you already realize. Furthermore, it is my devout hope - no, I think it's my new goal - to make you experience a myriad of guilty pleasures just as frequently and fully as I possibly can.

Seriously, there is one criticism of EBYT that I've taken very much to heart. I've been a believer in the entertainment world's axiom, "Always leave them wanting more," and when it comes to my books, I've deliberately ended them while readers still wanted a little more of the characters they'd come to love. (The undesirable alternative is to end them when readers are feeling like "enough already!") However, in the case of Every Breath You Take, I seem to have ended it so abruptly that readers aren't just wanting more, they are shouting for more. I'm not quite certain what I can do about it, other than introducing Mitchell and Kate as secondary characters in my next novel, but I'm giving it considerable thought.

That said, I will now attempt to answer the questions I was supposed to answer.

To refresh all our memories, Sandy's first question was: What interested you about the characters of Mitchell and Kate and made you want to tell their story?

First and foremost, I wanted Every Breath You Take to be a full-fledged, unapologetic romance. I did not want it to be a romantic suspense like my last several novels, nor any other combination of part-romance, part-something else. For ten years I've enjoyed reading and writing these combination novels, but for some reason I'd suddenly grown bored with both activities, and I felt a genuine compulsion to return to my romance writing "roots."

However, in order to successfully build an entire novel around a developing love story, I knew I needed a particularly captivating, highly empathetic, hero and heroine; ideally a h/h with very different backgrounds which would automatically give them extremely different, but believable, points of view when certain obstacles and conflicts were presented to them.

Since it's already been established that I don't write about the boy-next-door, and I don't write blue-collar romances, it probably won't come as a surprise that I decided on a very wealthy, sophisticated hero, who is - true to my form - "bigger than life." Although Mitchell Wyatt is an American, he grew up in European boarding schools, and, on the surface, he has it all - money, power, social connections, and fabulous good looks. He is the wittiest of all my heroes, the most urbane, the most polished, and by far the most charming and socially skilled. Beneath that attractive surface, however, he is an intensely private, very guarded, man from an extremely difficult background, one that has left him emotionally inaccessible to nearly everyone, particularly the sophisticated women of his own international social circle.

In order for a man like Mitchell to let a woman slip past his barricades and make him fall in love - and very quickly - she had to be unlike all the other women he'd known. She also had to be brave and intuitive, direct and soft-hearted, and, of course, an American. And so, for Mitchell's soul mate (and his downfall), I came up with Kate Donovan, a red-haired, Irish-American Chicagoan whose father owned a little Irish pub that grew into a popular Chicago restaurant, and whose uncle is a Catholic priest. As an adolescent, Kate was a wild child, but she grew up knowing she was loved, and at the age of 27, she's become a social worker. She isn't gorgeous, she's "striking" at best. She's almost as witty as Mitchell Wyatt, and just as courageous and stubborn.

I guess the answer to Sandy's question is that I didn't start out wanting to tell their story; I started out by trying to invent characters whose love story would be worth telling. For me, the characters are the story. I've never said that before; in fact, I never realized until this moment that it's true, but it is. Through my characters - not through some plot - I can make readers laugh, or cringe, or cry. Through them, I can frustrate, frighten, or outrage you. In short, through them, I can make most readers feel. That's always been my goal, my only goal actually. Whenever I fail in that goal, it's no consolation to me that my plotting was good or my writing was polished. In order to succeed in that goal, I will use any means available, including the Big Mis, the Big Sep, Rapid-fire POV, and even A-O.

And by the way, until this very moment, I never realized that last sentence was the second half of my philosophy of writing. This interview has been an amazingly revealing experience, more for me than for you, I'm sure! LOL

(Er, in case I actually used an abbreviation for a writing technique that you aren't already more familiar with than I am, "A-O" means Author Omniscient.)

Now, on to the next question:

As a long-time reader of Regency romances, I will never forget my excitement as I first devoured Whitney, My Love more than 20 years ago now (gulp). It was just so very cool to find a long, meaty, wonderful historical romance set in the early 19th century featuring all the things I loved about Regencies plus all the good stuff found in historical romances. Looking back, I think you might have actually invented the genre known today as the Regency Historical. Am I way off base here?

Whitney, My Love was the first Regency Historical of the type you described, and because of that, I'm credited with inventing the genre as we know it now, 20 years later. The very things that you described as WML's assets - it's long length, its sensuality and emotional intensity - are the very same features that caused it to be repeatedly rejected between 1978 and 1983 by editors who believed they knew what belonged in a Regency Historical and what did not belong. When it was finally published in early 1986, WML became a huge, instant success, and within a year, the same editors who'd rejected it were telling writers that they wanted "big Regency Historicals like Whitney, My Love."

It is now two decades - and thousands of new Regency Historical titles later - and I read last month that two more publishers are no longer going to accept manuscripts for Regency Historicals. Reportedly, the glutted Regency market has finally dried up completely. That makes me wonder. . ..if I were to write Whitney, My Love tomorrow, would editors tell me it was no good and not marketable? Timing is everything, isn't it?

You're an author who's equally comfortable writing both historical and contemporary romance. Since you seem, though, to have settled into writing contemporaries with elements of romantic suspense, a number of All About Romance readers wondered if you might ever again write a historical romance.

A few months ago, I would have said "not in the foreseeable future." However, the last two paragraphs of my answer to Question #1 make the prospect of writing another Regency Historical seem much more challenging and thrilling. So my answer to this question is, "In a year or two, I think I may be very tempted to do exactly that."

When you ask Judith McNaught readers to name their favorite of your books, you're guaranteed to get a variety of answers. From Kingdom of Dreams to Whitney and Something Wonderful on to Perfect and Paradise, your backlist is an extraordinarily rich one upon which to draw when it comes to picking a favorite. So, as several of our readers wondered, do you have a personal favorite from amongst the wonderful stories you've told?

Over time, I've realized that whatever story I've just finished is always closest to my heart until I'm deeply connected to the characters of the next book. That said, Every Breath You Take is truly my favorite contemporary right now. I suspect, however, that Mitchell Wyatt will continue to be my favorite contemporary hero for many reasons, for many years to come.

My favorite Regency is Almost Heaven. My favorite (and only) Medieval is Kingdom of Dreams. Even if KOD weren't my only Medieval, it's difficult for me to imagine ever outdoing myself there.

You famously revised Whitney, My Love in 1999. Unquestionably, the sensibilities of the 1980s were quite different than those of today. What were your goals in choosing to revisit a great romance written in a decidedly different era?

I guess I did "famously" revise it, though that wasn't my primary intention in 1999. LOL. And I doubt the revision would have been "famous" at all if someone here, on this wonderful site, hadn't created a minor uproar with some very dire and highly imaginative opinions about my publisher's and my hidden agendas and the projected results, should the revised version become a success. As I recall, she tried to organize a boycott of the new version. Or is this the wrong site?

In any event, in 1998, twelve years after Whitney, My Love was first published as an original paperback novel, Pocket Books decided to respond to readers' and booksellers' pleas for a hardcover version of the novel. Since Print-on-Demand wasn't available back then, that decision to release WML as a hardcover was a very big deal, and a very big undertaking. It was decided that a one-time only, limited print-run would be made for a set number of copies, so that the hardcover version would aptly become a "Limited Edition, Collector's Hardcover."

When I realized Pocket Books was going to go to all that trouble, I prevailed on them to let me add the one feature that had later become (another) "trademark" of mine - an Epilogue. When they agreed to that, I volunteered to hire an architect to do an artist's rendering of my imaginary vision of Clayton Westmoreland's country estate so that Pocket could include it in the hardcover. When they agreed to that, too, I hesitantly mentioned that there were two tiny things in the original manuscript that I rather regretted, and I asked them to let me alter the two scenes accordingly. They agreed to that, too. (This may seem now like a small concession, but this was back in the days of laborious typesetting, and altering one paragraph, let alone an entire scene, meant that the balance of the previously typeset pages was radically affected which created a very costly set of circumstances.)

When Pocket consented to that last request, I toned down a scene involving my heroine, hero, and a riding crop, and I also clarified a scene that some women interpreted as a rape scene. In 1978, when I wrote Whitney, My Love neither of those two scenes were unusual or politically incorrect, but by 1998, they were both.

To be bluntly honest, I don't care one iota about being politically correct, but I do care very much about causing harm to any woman who reads my books. That's the opposite of what I work - and live - to achieve. In 1978, I had no idea that physical abuse and rape were events that real women had to deal with and learn to survive. By 1998, we'd all discovered that was true, so I changed those two scenes. It seemed pretty simple, straightforward, and even some altruistic at the time.

In August, 1999, the Limited Edition Hardcover version of Whitney, My Love was released for $20.00, sold out, and was soon re-selling to collectors for around $200 per copy. The last time I looked, a hardcover of WML was selling for $330 on Booksamillion.

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished, so right after the hardcover was successfully released, Pocket Books and I were faced with a new dilemma: Should the paperback versions of Whitney, My Love continue to be the old versions without the epilogue, or should future paperback printings contain the added and amended material?

Now, I don't know how you'd react to that if you were the author, but I didn't feel very good about a woman having to pay $20.00 or else settle for the old, shorter version. I requested that future paperback printings contain all the new material.

And that is the full saga of the famous Whitney, My Love story. It's probably much more than you actually wanted to know, but you did ask. LOL.

(Editorial note: The "someone here, on this wonderful site," was one of AAR's readers, and not a member of our staff. The reader in question posted her concerns about the re-write of McNaught's book on a variety of websites. The difference, however, is that AAR chose to go to the author to present the other side of the story, which she did, for us, in writing.)

Until You, featuring the brother of the hero from Whitney, My Love is a personal favorite of mine. And, since the characters from Paradise and Perfect make appearances in Every Breath You Take, AAR reader Karen S was wondering if you have any plans up your sleeve for Mitch McCord and Sam Littleton from Someone To Watch Over Me?

I hope to introduce them as secondary characters in some future novel. I liked them very much, and I'm happy that Karen S did, too.

One thing I've learned about authors is that authors love to read. AAR regular LFL wondered if you'd share a few of your favorite books and authors.

I'd love to. If you haven't read Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar series - and if you like Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books - then you're going to fall in love with Coben's Myron Bolitar. To this day, that lighthearted, brilliantly witty, Bolitar series contains the only hero ever created by a man who would universally appeal to women. A word of caution, though - Coben's other books are very serious, (although fabulous) mysteries. It's the Myron Bolitar series that I'm recommending here.

Obviously, I'm also an Evanovich fan. And I'll read anything Dan Brown ever writes. I also love Tess Gerritsen, both professionally and personally. I admire Jennifer Crusie's outspoken gutsiness in real life so much that I'm not sure how much that influences me to like her books. If you haven't gone to her site and read her FAQ's, don't waste any more time reading this. Go there. Oh, and I think Laura Kinsale is so talented that she inspires reverence in me each time I read her work.

Becky, another AAR regular, wondered if you'd ever revisit the idea of writing a time travel romance, something you were rumored to be working on at one time.

It's in a file cabinet, half finished, and I very much want to complete it in the next couple of years.

And, lastly, a probably not fair question for an author who's just published a new book. What's up next and when can readers expect it?

Next is a spin-off based on one of the characters in EBYT. I'm not certain whether I'll do Holly first, or her twin sister, Laurel, who was actually omitted from the final manuscript of EBYT. I already know who I'm going to match each of them up with, but I think for now, it's best if I keep that to myself. Among other things, that leaves my options open.

As I said in the beginning, it's been an honor and pleasure to chat with all of you. I know how supportive you are of the books and authors in our genre, and I know that you want the very best from us, and for us.

Yes, we do want to very best for romance, Ms. McNaught. It's what AAR is all about. Thank you for your time.

Judith McNaught at AAR (includes 1999 interview)

 

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