Jo-Ann Power: A Wealth of Knowledge

(January 8, 1998)

 

They say that God made the world filled with beauty. . .and then he made Texas. Jo-Ann Power, who used to make her living on Capital Hill as a lobbyist, now lives in the Hill Country near San Antonio and Austin. It is a beautiful place, possibly the only truly beautiful place in Texas, and when she says she can look out from the hill her house sits on and "see the hills and the stars", I get very envious. Although there is little I miss about growing up in Los Angeles, I do miss those mountains.

Jo-Ann Power surprised me. I knew she had written in several time periods, but I did not know how very eloquent she was, nor that she would teach me so very much in such a short period of time.

If you are a lover of history, I think you will enjoy the Q&A I conducted with Jo-Ann. Then again, even if you aren't a lover of history, I think you'll enjoy what she had to say. After all, you are a woman (mostly likely), and a lover of romance. And Jo-Ann writes in a very lush style filled to brimming with romance. Read on, romance lover. . .and learn what Jo-Ann has to offer.

--Laurie Likes Books

The three books I have from you in my library are each set in a different time period - Victorian, Tudor, and Medieval. Why so much moving about in history?

The one continuitous strain through all of them is that they are English history. The early Tudor, You and No Other, was my first book with Pocket, and we wanted something that was dramatic. I also wanted to talk about the traditional plot-line of the child bride and child groom who marry each other, so the choice of the Tudor period where they could be separated for a long period of time was very appropriate. I enjoy writing about English history and I will stick to that, have stuck to that at all of my books at Pocket because my mother's family was English and I'm sure you found in Gifts (one of Jo-Ann's Victorian romances) that there was a German doctor there. My father's family was German. I'm fourth generation German.

I like English history. I feel that often, it is neglected in the romance genre except in the Regency period.

In the past I've written mysteries and contemporary mystery. Right now I am only writing historicals.

Before writing for Pocket, where were you published?

I wrote for Zebra. My first two books were gothics, traditional first-person gothics. I enjoyed that so much that all of my books now, except You and No Other, which has an adventure sub-plot, have mystery sub-plots. I like that - I think it adds a great deal of tension to the plot. And it brings out the best in the characters, particularly the hero, but also the heroine, because she has to be aggressive in solving whatever the mystery is.

My books now are historicals with mystery sub-plots. The only one with a suspense sub-plot is Gifts, in which she and the readers know who the villain is. But the suspense is what will he do and when, and, of course, that's the definition of suspense.

I like that kind of tension, the question mark somewhere in the book.

Talk to me about the Tudor era. It's popular for authors but can be difficult. All the Court intrigue can overwhelm the romance. What attracted you specifically to that era?

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I often feel, and you'll find this in all of my romances, that there is some historical aspect that I feel has been neglected. Or else the story has not been told correctly, or new historical research shows that something is different. The thing that attracted me about the Tudor period was that Henry VII, who is the first Tudor, and father of the illustrious Henry VIII, is often neglected, not only in English history, but in historical romances. I felt that his winning of the throne was a dramatic element in English history. It offered a wonderful backdrop for me to be able to say these are the problems in English society and the economy that Henry solved. And by showing that Henry was able to end decades of bitter warfare, I could also use that as a backdrop to show that a good marriage can survive only when two people lay down their armor, so to speak, of their own individuality, and agree to act as a unit. And so, in You and No Other I was able to discuss what a good marriage is. I enjoyed that tremendously.

When Henry VII took the crown from Richard III, it was very dramatic. (Richard III is the famous Shakespearean character who said, "My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse!" when he was defeated on the field with Bosworth by Henry Tudor.) When Henry took over from Richard, the English treasury was bankrupt, and the middle classes, the merchants, had risen in wealth but showed greater possibility of being even wealthier. This should have been the tax base, not the nobility. The nobles were decimated and had very little money. Henry came along and reorganized not only the financial system, but also the judicial system. After years of warfare, the English judicial system had suffered immensely. Henry was known for bringing back fairness.

One of the wonderful things about Angel of Midnight is the discussion of women's rights and thereby individual rights. One of the things we have lost sight of in the discussion of the Magna Carta is that the reason the Magna Carta was even conceived was because wealthy widows were having their rights and land rights abused. One day, King John took a wealthy widow's land and forced her to bed as well. Her noble cousins and brothers and father rose up to John and told him he couldn't do this, couldn't take her money, her land, and her virtue. John said, "See if I can't!" They went out and started a rebellion which ended in the Magna Carta. We've lost sight of how women's rights were at the basis of the Magna Carta!

Let's talk about the Victorian era, which is when Gifts and Treasures are set.

I think the Victorian era is a very lavish era. We're very enamored of it here in America. Partially I think because it is our own time period of lavishness, a time when a great many Americans accumulated wealth and began to display it, not just on Fifth Avenue, not just the Mrs. Astor's of the world, but a lot of merchants. This is the period of the nouveau riche and it's also the period in which we became so rich that we started going to Europe.

I start a new trilogy in April about American heiresses who marry English nobleman. American heiresses like Jenny Churchill (mother of Winston Churchill). Consuela Vanderbilt. And approximately 400 other American heiresses. Department store heiresses, heiresses whose fathers made their money from Confederate gun-running - all sorts of savory and unsavory characters.

This period offers fertile ground for writers and readers. Not only because it's grand and lavish and decorous and the manners are very specific, but also because beneath that wonderful facade lies ordinary human beings.

The medieval era is such a far stretch from the more current Victorian era. Many authors don't feel comfortable going so far afield. Talk about this era.

The medieval period offers wonderful opportunities for writers and readers because there were very strong women. Yes, it's true that women were often considered chattel and they were buffeted by politics and society, but there are many, many examples of very strong women. I think the challenge to writing a medieval is making the heroine suitably strong, that is, of her time, but also a woman who is able to cope with some of the strong challenges to her person and her integrity. Plus, we have wonderful things in this period. My last book, The Nightingale's Song, was about a medieval romance writer. Romance with a capital "R". She earned money. She had a shop filled with women who did nothing but create these wonderful, big, hand-painted manuscripts. I think today, when we look at a romance, often many readers say, "Wow; I never knew!"

I can't tell you about the hundreds of letters from readers who said they never knew that romances were written in the middle ages, or how books were printed before the printing press. By using this period, you do readers a great service. I think the challenge is to make all those archaic English and Celtic terms relevant. I have read a lot of medieval romances in which I was reading so much jargon I didn't know what I was reading. A lot of authors also put in medieval dialect and you can be lost! The writer's challenge is to make the heroine not only relevant to today and relevant to yesterday, but also to write something satisfying which bears in mind that the average romance reader does not want to read a lot of jargon - she wants to read a good, solid story. Insofar as you don't want to give up credibility for a good story, I think writing a medieval takes more time than writing a good Victorian or Regency era historical.

Let's talk now about your background. How did you get from Capital Hill to the Hill country, and where were you before that, family, education, and career-wise.

I'm a new Texan - I've only been in San Antonio a year and a half. I'm learning how to speak Spanish and to say, "ya'll". I live on a hill in the Hill Country - the top of a hill. I have a wonderful view on a nice day of the hills and stars. It's great. We moved here because my husband was promoted and transferred. We had always lived on the east coast. I was born in Baltimore and went to school there and went to college at the University of Maryland.

Except for the three years that I travelled with my husband when he was in the army and we lived in Japan, I have always lived in the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area.

I have three children, one born in Japan. I worked on the Hill for a number of years and I was a corporate executive. I was one of three women in a large nation-wide financial services corporation. I was vice president of communications. Then I became the public relations director for a lobbying group for the financial services industry.

I worked with some of the big boys at AT&T, Ford, John Hancock, and senators, congressmen, and the Treasury Department. Before that I wrote free-lance for The Washington Post, New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. My expertise was financial. I wrote about such dry and uninteresting things, most people think, as insurance, securities, and banking.

What made you make the transition? Why did you start writing romance?

Romance was what I wanted to do from the very beginning. I had been a high school and college teacher of English and History and had done my master's work in Chinese and Japanese history. When I got married and we went to live abroad, I taught Chinese and Japanese history in Japan to Americans for the University of Maryland. When I came back, I had one child and then quickly I had two more and I knew the day would come when I would go back to work, but I didn't want to be a teacher. I enjoyed it tremendously; I still teach, I do a lot of speaking engagements and all-day seminars by myself for local writers groups and have a wonderful time teaching, but then I'm back to what I really love.

When I had children in diapers, I was reading romances and experiencing the same kind of thing every romance writer experiences, which is, "Gee, I could write one equally as good as this." And so I started and joined Washington Romance Writers, which was just a little group of people, and I went to its first organizational meeting. Now there are 300 members - one of the first was Nora Roberts. I remember the third meeting we had; this woman came to my house. She'd just sold a couple of books to Silhouette and her name was Ellie Robertson. This was 1979 or 1980.

When were you first published?

I got my first offer in June of 1990. I had been writing for 10 years and I had been published in non-fiction everywhere but could not get a fiction contract. What I used to do was I would go to the subway first thing in the morning, and I would get on the subway and I'd get in the back where I could spread out, and I would write long-hand, fiction, on my way to work. When I got on the subway to come home, I would take out my yellow pad and I'd continue. And on the weekends I'd type it into my computer. And that's how I wrote maybe five manuscripts complete. Nobody wanted to buy them. They had always bought one just like it.

Finally in December of 1990, my first contract was signed, and within the next year, I had many more. That first one was with Zebra. I was writing with a collaborator and by myself. Big mainstream, contemporaries, a mystery series, and gothics on my own.

Didn't the gothics die out around then?

Yeah, they did - just as I went into them, they died. I actually wrote three and two were published. The third one is owned by Zebra but was never published. Mine was the one to come out the month after they stopped publishing gothics.

Do you think they'll ever come back?

No, I think we've kind of incorporated that into our psyche as suspense. Well, if you look at what Joan Wolf has done lately - those are first-person gothics. The hero is questionable as to whether he's part of the plot. Those are gothics in another guise, another name.

Who were some of your favorites when you were first inspired to write?

Kathleen Woodiwiss was, but no longer is. And I liked Nora and I still do, very much. I liked a woman's work, and I have not seen anything new by her in a long time - Celeste DeBlasis. She wrote some of the most wonderful romances. The Swan trilogy was magnificent; everything she wrote was divine.

Who would you say are some of your favorites now?

I have a kind of eclectic tastes. I like Susan Johnson, Sharon Sala, Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I think she does a wonderful job. I'm also very fickle. If I read something by an author whom I've loved and I don't find her current book satisfying, I won't go back for a couple of books. I'll wait until someone raves about it.

I get a lot of mail about Susan Johnson; while her most recent stuff is still chock full of history, she seems to be writing more historical erotica than historical romance. What do you think?

I agree with the mail you are getting - it is the historian in me that likes her research very much. Romance readers are becoming very selective and very insistent about the integrity about of their heroes and heroines. So, where there is lack of integrity on the part of the hero - if he is too crass or if he's at all derogatory of women or is having an affair while married, there are few tolerances for that kind of hero anymore.

Let's talk about that. Another question I wanted to ask you has to do with political correctness and its place in romance. Obviously, many men had affairs and/or mistresses in history. Most romance readers don't like to read about infidelity. There is a fine line about historical accuracy and what readers will accept. I've heard that some authors will go out of their way to write things acceptable to a readership when they are patently historically inaccurate.

I think that's true, but I think that, and this is tempered by a lot of discussion with my husband, and some other reading that I've done, I think the tendency for men to go out and sleep with anyone who will sleep with him is largely fantasy. I don't think men on average do that, then or now. Yes, they would take advantage of certain opportunities, and certainly before the day of AIDS, that was possible.

In the Victorian era, you had venereal disease. Before that there were diseases one could get by sleeping around. I think that while then men may have had some mistresses or opportunities to pay prostitutes and done so if nobleman or businessmen with discretionary income, I don't think they did it on a regular basis - at least, a vast majority of them didn't. Even if they did, I'm not so sure I want to read about it.

So do you think romance writers are attuned or not attuned enough to politically correct themes?

I know of an instance where an author did an outstanding job of writing two African American characters in the old west. She even referred to them and reflected the idiom of how they would talk and address each other. This author was taken to the cleaners by a noted review magazine and lambasted for her lack of political correctness.

Another Pocket author, Julie Garwood, not too long ago published One Red Rose, where the lead characters were African-American. But there was basically no description of them! That bothered me. Did you read it?

I skimmed those three and knew one was supposed to be black, but I didn't have time to figure out which one it was, and she wasn't telling me. You are absolutely right! We're getting to the point where we're color-blind. I suppose that's good in some ways. But it is honest? I don't think so. It is true that there are some things one cannot do in romance. Going across politically correct boundaries or ignoring them is not one of those.

How would you define a romance novel?

A romance novel is the exploration of how two people who have the potential to love fully, find each other, conquer whatever problems stand between them, and make a decision to continue with each other. By the fact that they have conquered their conflict or solved their conflict, they can then go on hand in hand through the rest of life continuing with that success to conquer the many other problems that are going to come their way.

I think a romance has to have an HEA ending. Not simply because that's our definition - that's our modern definition. The medieval definition of a romance is, there is no happy ending. He goes away with his love intact, in his heart, and she is married to someone else. She loves him from afar. Contemporary romance has a happy ending and there are lots of cultural reasons why that will continue to be so, despite The Bridges of Madison County.

I think that the past 30 years have shown us that in American society, the idea of the family unit based on a loving nurturing relationship between two people who go on together is dying. The result is, of course, that our children are growing up in single-parent care homes and sometimes in no-parent homes. Our divorce rate is the highest in the world. Among RWA members, the percentage of divorced members is 9%.

I'll celebrate my 28th wedding anniversary shortly. In a society in which the individual has been revered to the detriment of everyone else, including their own individual growth, romance novels reaffirm that it is possible, though perhaps not probable, to find someone to love and have someone commit to you forever and ever. In a society in which women still bear the brunt of broken marriages and children who need nurturing, romance gives hope that there may just be some happy ending.

There are some authors who seem to be changing their writing, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to mainstream audiences. Often these are authors who have moved into hardcover releases. What I most notice is that the love scenes are disappearing from these authors' books. What are your feelings about authors mainstreaming and whether those changes are necessary?

I think that every writer's career is the driving force there - a vision they have individually about what they want to achieve with their own careers. They make these decisions. Lots of romance authors become mystery authors, and hard core mystery authors at that. I see a lot of historical authors becoming contemporary authors and category authors try their hand at a lot of different things.

I do think that the need to transform your writing when you go hardcover is definitely there. In order to survive in the hardcover, one must attract not only your old romance readership, but also the new mainstream reader. If you are going to move on into mainstream, you've got to attract men, and men simply don't want to read love scenes.

I use my husband as my guide here. He just told me he likes the dialogue in my books, the plots, and the mystery. He says I always give him a run for his money. But the love scenes he could do without. I don't know why that is, but, as for me, I write very sexy love scenes.

When I pick up a mainstream book, a Judith Krantz or a Harold Robbins, there are sex scenes, but generally more graphic and less loving ones.

I agree. I think that a lot of what is going on is editors having different views of what is appropriate in a hardcover book. That aspect of the business kicks in different ways to expand your audience. Unfortunately, I think a lot of mainstream love scenes still have a lot of the cut-and-dried attitude toward them. I find that those love scenes are really quick and to the point - you're in and then you're out. They're not very satisfying.

I love making the romance scenes, the bedroom scenes, and all of the intimacy leading up to those, a vital part of my work because I have a strong belief that lavish lust is a vital part of being intimate with someone.

I agree - a romance novel is generally the start of a love relationship when the hormones are in high gear.

Exactly. So, I don't cheat my readers. I don't think I do.

You mentioned you are doing a trilogy about heiresses from the United States going to England to marry titled men. Can you give me a sneak peek?

The first is set in 1975 and is called Never Before. It is about the daughter of an American gun-runner who is an heiress. If she'll go to Europe with her father on a Grand Tour, he will give her so much money every month so she can go home to Virginia and breed horses. But he wants to marry her off to his biggest enemy. And, of course, they fall in love and the old saw about falling in love with my father's enemy and, by God, that'll really make him nuts is working here. I turned that concept inside out and everybody flips out.

When they leave on the Tour, she takes her cousin and two best friends with her, which was typical of the time. The second book, Never Again, is about the cousin who is a cartoonist for a London tabloid. She falls in love with a man whom she has ruined in her cartoons. He's a member of Parliament who's been forced to resign due to the scandal her cartoons caused.

The third book is called Never Say Never and it is about the last two girls, sisters to each other. One is a villainess. She marries a charming man and cuckolds him with every man in town. The poor guy is so sad! The younger sister is his only friend.

 




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