Romancing the Cancer

I spent two weeks in Colombia earlier in the month so I’ve had Romancing the Stone on the brain in a big way. Pretty much every day I was there—in Cartagena or Bogatá or Anapoima—one of my friends would turn to me, a propos of nothing, and say, “THE Joan Wilder!” It was a running joke and I loved it. But there’s more to it than that. This movie and I go way back, and like my entire path to becoming a romance writer, we had a complicated courtship.

My friend Laurie made me go see Romancing the Stone when it came out. I was pretty sardonic at that point in my life. I tried to be optimistic—I mean, I knew I was born on third base and all that, a great education, all the benefits, and I didn’t take any of that for granted—but the truth was I had a bit of a sneering problem. A movie about a romance writer? Lame. I was reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez and feeling important.

“Trust me,” Laurie said.

So I went. In the first few minutes I almost walked out. Remember the wild west Sweet Savage Love-type opening? I stupidly thought that was the whole movie. Anyway, as soon as it cut to a disheveled Kathleen Turner sniveling at her typewriter, living alone in her apartment (scratch that—living with her cat in her apartment), I was hooked. Because, YES!, that’s the bit of truth I needed to be lured into the fantasy.

The genius of that movie, for me, was that lure, because by the end, when Michael Douglas pulls up Third Avenue or Park Avenue or wherever on his yacht with his crocodile boots, I was completely invested. Working Girl. Princess Bride. Same idea. The happily ever after in those movies was just far enough out of reach to let me believe in it. 

Anyway, that type of transformation, from sneering skepticism to joy, has happened a few times in my life. It’s sort of embarrassing, as this sort of self-actualization tends to be. What was I trying to prove by being so angry? That I was socially conscious? That I was grave?

Yeah. Whatever. Life’s too short. I can still be socially conscious and grave when the occasion calls for it, but I don’t need to be a pill about it. This realization came on gradually: I started to change; I laughed more.

I’ve written in other places about my own cancer diagnosis in 2004. It was a lot like being dragged to Romancing the Stone.  The initial “No fucking way!” followed ever-so-gradually by the strange beauty of the statement, “I’m going to die.” Then learning I wasn’t going to die anytime soon (that was the muddy-face-in-the-crotch moment). That’s when the train leaves the station. That’s when you machete off the heels and run through the jungle with Michael Douglas. Because, fucking-A, you’re going to die at some point so you better get moving, sister! In other words, you’re ALIVE. Do something! Do it now! What are you waiting for? 

For me, that meant writing all the stories in my head and not worrying so much about whether or not they sucked. If one person read them and liked them and smiled and felt better about life, then that was purpose enough for me. Hey, I thought, so what if I’m not curing cancer, at least I’m not causing it either.

So. Cut to ten years later. Someone very close to me was diagnosed with lung cancer. Treatment was imperative. Surgery wasn’t an option. We circled the wagons. We dealt with it. We went to MD Anderson in Houston.

It feels sort of terrible to admit, but what a great experience. Hanging out at MD Anderson is a lot like going to a romance convention. There’s a uniformity of purpose. Everyone there is working toward the same goal: #endcancer. Some people have bracelets identifying them as patients. Some people have badges identifying them as faculty and staff, but everyone is on the same page. It feels safe in the same way romance conventions feel safe for me. They are both places where, as one of my favorite books says: It’s Okay to Be Different.


But even that is misleading. What Todd Parr really says to me is, “It’s okay to be different…because we are all the same.” We are all exactly the same in our hearts. We all have the capacity to love and the capacity to hate. Either one can be cultivated. We can sneer or cheer. Either one takes practice.

When I read about white privilege or Miley Cyrus or homophobia or Syria or whatever the latest dividing line happens to be, I just try to focus on people’s hearts, their motivations. Are they pointing out social injustice in the hope of repairing it? Or are they merely throwing gas on the fire? Do they want a happily ever after, or would that happily ever after—that absence of conflict—leave them empty, with nothing to do? If I get a sense of that, I get a sense. If someone seems perpetually more interested in conflict than resolution, I’m not going to stick around for long.

The life-is-short thing came back in full force while spending all those hours (and hours) in MD Anderson waiting rooms. There are a lot of people with cancer. There is a lot of waiting. And you know what waiting means? People watching! So much great people watching. And it’s like this intense super-heroic version of people watching, because everyone in the room is probably going through one of the most intense episodes of their entire existence. The stories. Man. Don’t even get me started. So many stories. So many lives.

And what do people do while they’re waiting there, while hope and fear and every other emotion pings through their brain? They read romance novels, of course. There are romance novels everywhere at MD Anderson. In the waiting rooms. In the public areas. On a seat in the corridor. Well, hello Jennifer Crusie. Hiya, Linda Lael Miller. Oh, Judith McNaught, where have you been all my life? I see you Jude Deveraux. Nora, Nora, noranoranora.

I have all sorts of theories about this, but after writing that last paragraph and realizing how I addressed each of those authors as my friends, the truth became so obvious. They are my friends. They are loving. People who believe in the power of love write those books. Those are the people I want with me when I’m going through a hard time. (Well, those are the people I want with me when I’m going through a happy time or a sad time or anytime really, but that’s just me.) I want people around me who can say things like, “I am so proud of you! You are amazing! Go you!” and mean it. And that’s what those writers do. They reinforce our belief in human goodness.

Will there always be people whose lives have driven them to hate? Hell if I know. But when we live in a world where a bunch of physicists and oncologists and regular human beings are super heroes who can shoot a laser beam (cue Austin Powers air quotations: “Lay-Zerr”) into a person’s body and eradicate a tumor like a Star Trek episode, I’m going with love. Because I love every scientist and nurse and patient advocate and volunteer and romance writer who made the past six months some of the most miraculous of my life. I love them a lot.

Celebrate Read-A-Romance Month!

August is READ-A-ROMANCE MONTH and I’m so happy to be a peripheral part of it thanks to Jennifer Probst, who mentioned me in her post and asked me to share my thoughts here. Over the course of the month, nearly 100 romance writers will be weighing in about why romance matters. Here’s my take.

Why Romance Matters…

When I read Jennifer Probst’s post about why romance matters to her, I felt an immediate sense of camaraderie and joy. I came to romance in a totally different way, but the outcome was the same. While Jen discovered romance novels in her teens, I was a latecomer to the party, reading my first (Whitney, My Love and The Duke and I) about five years ago. I was ravenous. I couldn’t believe these books were so good! I was raised on a pretty strict diet of literary fiction and it never occurred to me to pick up a book with Fabio on the cover. I mean…what was Fabio doing on the cover of a book? It just didn’t make any sense to me.

But once I started reading? I couldn’t stop. I devoured everything Judith McNaught, Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz, and Julia Quinn ever wrote. I was like a human vacuum, sucking up all the stories I’d missed over the past forty years. I was pretty committed to historicals for a while, but now I’m crazy about so many different types of romances. The past few months I’ve been hooked on everything from erotica by Charlotte Stein to old school romances by Rosemary Rogers and Johanna Lindsey. And I’m always up for a vintage Harlequin by Anne Hampson, Violet Winspear, or Anne Mather. Those three were so prolific, so intense, and wrote stories that were so heroine-centric. I love them.

I still think of myself as a reader first, and then a writer. I tend to read at least three books a week and I can no longer imagine my life without these seemingly incredible stories pulsing through my brain. As Jen pointed out, romances make us hopeful. I’m a pretty cynical person in some ways, but a romance always pulls me into this other place of tentative optimism.

The black moment, the seemingly irredeemable hero, the resilient heroine—these are no longer merely tropes, but have somehow become part of how I see the world. I actually believe that human beings can change. I believe that we all have the capacity for love and honor and compassion. And I didn’t believe any of that—not really, not deep down—until I started reading romance novels.

Lastly, here are some questions that READ-A-ROMANCE MONTH invited us to answer:

What is the craziest or ugliest object in your house, and why do you keep it?

A bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln. I have no idea why we keep it. He sits on the hot water heater in the garage and stares at us every time we park the car.

If there was a movie made about your life, what would it be called? (And just for fun, who would play you?)

From the Mixed-Up Files of Ms. Megan Mulry Frankweiler starring Ruth Gordon, about a wild old woman, singing if-you-want-to-sing-out-sing-out surrounded by souvenirs of a life well-lived.

What is the best non-monetary gift you ever received?

So hard to say…probably my parents’ sense of humor and love of reading.

If you had to pick one romantic scene or couple to recommend to a first-time reader of YOUR books, which would it be? (Any picks for romance novels in general?)

A romantic scene from one of my books that I’d recommend would be from IF THE SHOE FITS, when Sarah and Devon see each other again after a nasty split. They end up fooling around in the coat closet of the castle where Devon grew up, and I love all the urgency and blind passion—how they can’t keep their hands off each other—and how that physical response embodies all the deep emotion they’re trying to deny.

For romance novels in general, I’d recommend any of the authors I mention above, but especially the older Harlequins. They are like polished stones, spare and beautiful.

THANKS SO MUCH to Bobbi Dumas for organizing such a lovely celebration of all things romance! Here is the link to the site, which is celebrating with 93 romance writers over the course of the month: Read-A-Romance Month Link