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


Blog Hop – Ramblings from this Chick

Lots of fun questions about flawed heroes and heroines during this interview. Mentioned some of my perennial favorite romance writers, including Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Miranda Neville, Laura Kinsale, Amanda Quick, Judith McNaught, Eloisa James, and Julia Quinn.

Ramblings from this Chick Link

How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Romance Novel

This week, Manhattan will be descended upon by over 2000 romance writers. Quirky ones with glasses, sexy ones in perilously high heels, academic ones also attending the Third Annual International Conference on Popular Romance Studies. Most are members of Romance Writers of America (RWA), the organization that represents the interests and goals of the nation’s romantic novelists. We meet annually in different cities around the U.S., last year Orlando, next year Los Angeles, but something about this RWA, in the middle of New York City, calls to my mind the 1913 Armory Show.

The Modern Art Exhibition that brought Matisse, Duchamp, and Picasso to American eyes for the first time still resonates. What is “real” art? Who decides? Like those three disruptive pioneers, I feel a giddy sense of percolating change. Among romance writers, there is a healthy skepticism aimed at those who see themselves as “real” writers. I got my smack down at last year’s RWA conference when I thought I’d impress a fellow romance writer with the news that I used to work at The New Yorker. She replied, “Ooooh! Look at you all fancy!”

How are the mighty fallen!

About three years ago, a well-read friend handed me a small paper bag—it wasn’t brown, but still—that contained a couple of her favorite romance novels. I thought, What the hell is she giving me these for? I read Nabokov and Lionel Shriver, Hitchens and Amis. Both Amises. Jhumpa Lahiri was my intern. I majored in British Literature at a respected university. Austen, the Brontes, Vita Sackville-West: These were my people.

In the bag were Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught and The Duke and I by Julia Quinn. Quinn went to Harvard, I rationalized. At the time, I thought her books were representative of a minor sub-genre of a larger foolish genre: historical romance novels, a subset of the romance novel category. I finished both in a matter of days, and headed to the library—after all, who would pay money for these books?—to get another dose of guaranteed pleasures, so unlike real life, so undemanding. I then devoured every historical novel by Judith McNaught, and pursued Julia Quinn with the same ardor. Unfortunately my local library does not have a lot of Julia Quinn. But it turns out that Quinn is shelved next to Quick.

The mother lode.

I started reading one Amanda Quick every night. Quick has written over a hundred romance novels under three different names, one for each sub-genre: historical, contemporary, and futuristic paranormal. Her historical books have titles like Ravished, Desire, and Mischief. This went on first for weeks and then months. I was immersed. I started reading “real” books about 19th-century England, such as the fabulous biography Lady John Russell, and a lengthy tome about Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston. I became re-acquainted with entailments and royal forms of address, fichus and squabs. Arguing with my snippy inner snob, I convinced myself that I was simply reading Jane Austen with sex.

I would never want to read a contemporary romance, I thought. Historically accurate romps? OK. Some tawdry approximation of reality? Not OK. I was an intellectual.

I had unwittingly joined the likes of Philippa Gregory who propounded a similar line of literary elitism in her introduction to the 2004 edition of Anya Seton’sKatherine. Here Gregory (she of the incest, bondage, and more gratuitous sex than most) posited that romance fiction, as opposed to her brand of more elevated historical fiction, “has no authentic interest in different times and cultures.” Gregory went on to malign the romantic tropes and stereotypes, “cardboard characters come ready-made; they are not forged by their particular experiences, their history, or their society, and nothing interrupts them as they work their way through the story toward a happy ending.” She declared that, “A good historical novel is always conscious of our shared humanity.” (The implication being that romance novels are not.) That’s when I started underlining. And laughing. What is more representative of shared humanity than a story that relies on the most basic and potent of human currencies: sexuality?

Eventually I ran out of Amanda Quick’s historical novels and, like an addict who runs out of quality cocaine and settles for speed, I delved into one of her contemporary novels, penned under her real name, Jayne Ann Krentz. Turns out happy endings in imaginary cliff-top inns outside of Seattle are just as emotionally satisfying as those involving viscounts and Napoleonic privateers.

As the library ran out of McNaught, Quinn, Quick, and Krentz, I started reading—and buying—books by the writers who had blurbed the books I had already read. Friends of friends, as it were. People like Eloisa James, Teresa Medeiros, Christina Dodd, and Lisa Kleypas; ex-pat Brits like Miranda Neville and Janet Mullany; sexy feminists like Pam Rosenthal, Carrie Lofty, and Zoe Archer.

How was it possible that these authors (WOMEN) had sold millions (MILLIONS) of books and I had never heard of them? News of the stunning sales figures, material evidence of the powerful rise of the genre, has started to crop up in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and on blogs like Sarah Wendell’s Smart Bitches Trashy Books. The story runs along the lines of a $1.3 billion market share, and 75 million readers, academic conferences in small European cities and lively feminist blogs that defend the rights of women to speak and write joyfully and explicitly about love and sex. (They speak quite eloquently to my inner snob.)

I love that talk—the analysis, the dissection of meaning, the profit margins—I am comfortable with detached academic observation. But when I crack open a new romance novel (yes, I am a spine-cracker) I have learned to dispense with academic analysis lest I forfeit the immediacy and urgency that characterizes a particularly good one.

And the good ones are all alike in this respect: I am transported. Mission accomplished. Often I cannot even remember the names of the characters two days after finishing. I rarely underline. Philippa Gregory implies that this type of fleeting joy is “suitable only for women readers who wanted entertainment without intellectual challenge.” Her point is valid on one level and utterly misleading on another. In a well-told romance, a reader is certainly entertained, but also challenged. If “intellectual challenge” is defined strictly as thinking about thoughts, then these books are not always “intellectual”. If on the other hand intellectual challenge allows for other forms of thinking such as about the motivating nature of desire, greed, lust, and power, then they are. What makes these books great and controversial is the fact that they elicit an immediate, visceral response.

And then they are over.

Which leads me to the subject of pornography. Please refer to the above-mentioned authors’ web pages and blogs for spirited discussions on the differences between romance, erotica, and porn. There is plenty of porn on the shelf, and I have read my share. But this is not it. Romance novel sex tends to be overwhelmingly metaphorical: angry sex, make-up sex, submissive sex, mistaken identity sex, consummation sex, ambitious sex, tentative sex, healing sex.

Some romance readers contend it is the compelling pace of the narrative that draws them in—sometimes a slow burn, sometimes a frantic sprint, Anna Karenina versus The Woman in White—and they say that at times they even skip right past the sex scenes. Um. I do not skip the sex scenes. For me, these books present an ideal world and, to my mind at least, an ideal world includes lots of happy ending sex.

These novels provide all the usual mortal coil stuff, but in a more palatable form. Sexy. Heroic. These are not characters, they are heroines and heroes. And they deliver. Romance novels are provocative without being provoking. While I love them both in their own way, Ian McEwan demands things of me whereas Victoria Dahl satisfies my demands. That is the intellectual challenge I suppose Ms. Gregory suggests I am shirking, but why must my multifarious tastes necessitate the denigration of the entire genre? In other arts, the esoteric and the ephemeral have happily coexisted for decades. If I express an interest in Giotto and yarn bombing, Bach and Lady Gaga, I am well-rounded. But if I read Thomas Mann and Harlequin…I must be slipping.

Contemporary romance is often dismissed as bread and circus. For many critics, its very mass appeal disqualifies it as art. Recently, after confessing that I was trying my hand at writing my own romance novels, a literary friend asked me, smiling but with a quizzical expression, “Okay…but what do you write when you write from the gut?” I must have looked as confused as I felt. Every wrung-out word is from the gut, especially when I am trying to write a scene about a really good blow job without sounding like an anatomy teacher or a pornographer. Writing sex exacerbates creative paranoia: the exposure, the choices, the inadequacy, the judgment. It is not a hall pass from “real” writing. But it is fun.

Reading and writing contemporary romance novels has become my subversive act. And a joyful one. When asked about his bicycle wheel, which may or may not have been created with artistic intent, Duchamp replied, “I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in the fireplace.” I think readers enjoy reading romance novels in the same way, for its own sake. RWA provides cheerful statistics about the real lives of romance readers. They tend to be happy. For the intellectual, happiness appears unintelligent. Blind. Thoughtless. I disagree. I am on a quest to hit people (women, really) over the head with how much I disagree. Many smart women are trapped in a dialectical prison: intelligence must be grim or at the very least ironic. Anyone who is joyful must be living in a state of ignorance. Brainwashed. Touched. Not true. I follow the news, I weep for injustice (far more than I did a few years ago). Maybe that is the reason I avoided romance novels for so many years: it was easier to think than to feel. Too late now. I am a feeling machine, all thanks to the unexpected romance novel.

So, when I venture into Times Square this week and see my favorite romance writers milling about the place, I will thank them. Just as Duchamp, Picasso, and Matisse encouraged viewers to question the notion of real art, these authors have encouraged me to redefine what constitutes a real book. Because, let’s face it, that kind of liberation doesn’t happen every day and I am keenly grateful (as is my husband, but that’s another story).