Bestselling and award-winning romance author Bertrice Small answers my questions about the romance genre and market and tells me more about her novels & favorites…
Hello Bertrice, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions! At first, a little bit of Astrology: you’re Sagittarius, aren’t you? The stars say they are usually intellectual and honest, but also careless and restless. Do you think you’re a typical Archer?
Yes, I am a Sagittarius. We are outspoken creatures and say exactly what we think. We are said to be intellectual, and we don’t tolerate fools easily. However we are loyal to those who are loyal to us. We like to travel, but we travel as much in our heads as we do in the world around us. Careless is not a word I’ve ever heard used in relation to a Sagittarius. Some of my best friends share this sign with me, notably Kathryn Falk, the founder and CEO of RT Book Reviews, Morgan Llywelyn, the best-selling author who is my anam cara, and author Virginia Henley.
Your latest book, “The Border Lord and the Lady”, will be published in October 2009. What is it about? Can you share a few secrets? Will there be another book in the “Border Chronicles” series?
The series known as “The Border Chronicles” has been distinguished not by a single family, but rather by 2 things. The Border country of Scotland, and the families who lived in it. Book 4, THE BORDER LORD AND THE LADY is set in the early years of James I of Scotland, 15th century, and the book opens in 1424. I have a lovely video trailer on my website at www.BertriceSmall.com right now that gives you just a hint of the story. Enough, I hope, to encourage people to purchase the book. James I returned to Scotland after being held captive in England since his boyhood. He returns with an English wife, Lady Joan Beaufort, and the young queen brings with her Lady Cicely Bowen, a girl with whom she has been raised. Cicely is our heroine. Desired by 2 men, a powerful Gordon laird, and a rough Border laird, she is kidnapped by the latter when the Gordons block his every attempt to court Cicely. But of course with a Bertrice Small novel you can’t expect the usual storyline. I love to twist and turn my plot before getting to that happy ending. And yes, there will be 2 more books in “The Border Chronicles.”
How and when did you start writing? What sparked the idea for “The Kadin”, your first novel? Finally, why the romance genre?
I wrote my first novel in rhyme when I was 13. It was about an Inca princess who threw herself from the heights of Macchu Picchu rather than succumb to the advances of an evil Spanish conquistador. LOL! High drama for a little girl in convent school. But I had been writing poetry since I was 7. When I was in college I became friends with a girl from Turkey whose grandmother had been in the harem of the last Ottoman sultan. She had grown up with the tales her grandmother told, and since I had had a very close relationship with my own Irish grandmother, we shared the tales of our different ethnic heritages. That sparked my interest in Ottoman Turkey, and when I learned that the mother of Suleiman the Magnificent (also known as the Lawgiver) was a Western European by birth, and in her old age had been called Hafise, the wise one, I knew I had to write her story. Since nothing else was known about her I did my research, and then let my imagination run wild. However back when I wrote THE KADIN, the Romance genre as we know it today didn’t exist. I wrote a Historical novel in the mold of Anya Seton, Taylor Caldwell, Jan Westcott, Frank Yerby. I spent at least 2 years writing the novel, and another year re-writing it.
You said “The Kadin” sold very quickly. How many publishers did you send it to before hitting the right one? Is there a secret? Would you have carried on with your writing if it hadn’t sold that easily (let’s say, if it was unsold after two or three years)?
THE KADIN was sold to the first publisher it was given to, and that was G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a hardcover house. It was February 1973. However 6 months later the editor on the book, and the publisher got into a quarrel. Long story short, he fired her, and cancelled the contracts on the three books on which she working. My then agent loved the book, and believed it was a hardcover. The original paperback novel was just coming into prominence then. He insisted on taking THE KADIN to every hardcover house in the U.S. of A. at the time, and there were a lot of them. They all said the same thing. Unknown author. Too risky. Finally 2 years later he did what I had been advising ever since we had lost the Putnam’s deal. He took it to Nancy Coffey at Avon Books, and she bought it immediately. And while he hauled the manuscript about, yes, I continued to write. I finished LOVE WILD AND FAIR which was published the same year as THE KADIN. If you’re a writer, you write.
What do you think makes a good romance novel? Could you share a piece of advice with aspiring (romance and non romance) authors?
The Romance genre is so varied today. I think what makes a good novel in any genre is good writing, a story that keeps you turning the pages, and sympathetic characters that you can root for, or hate. My only advice to aspiring writers is to believe in your work, but be willing to accept criticism, and act on it if the criticism is valid. If it isn’t just keep going straight ahead. There is no magic formula I regret to say.
A very strange thing happens to the romance genre: it’s always criticised for being samey and boring (not literature, some people say) and some romance author say they nearly have to “apologize” for writing it when asked about their job. But, at the same time, millions of copies are sold every year. What can you say about it? Would you try a different genre or will you stick with romance forever?
I write Romance in 3 sub-genres. Historical, where I made my reputation. Fantasy which I very much enjoy because I can do as I please without the restraints of Planet Earth’s history; and I write Erotic Contemporary, my least favorite because I am not really a 20th or 21st century person. I am proud to be considered one of the Romance genres “pioneers”. I’ve never denied my genre. Those who bleat about real literature don’t get it. These days literature is divided into 2 catagories. Fiction and non-fiction. And fiction is divided into 2 sections. Literary fiction which deals with serious or scholarly subject matter, and popular commercial fiction such as mystery, romance, thrillers, etc. I find it interesting that romance, written predominently by the female of the species get criticized but the other fiction genres which are either all or half written by the male of the species is not. Hmmmm. Can you spell jealousy? After all we authors in the romance genre sell more books than all the other popular commercial fiction genres combined. And yes, I will always write in the romance genre as long as my publishers want Bertrice Small novels.
Some authors like to write in Starbucks, others only handwrite. How do you work? Do you have some rituals or habits? What is a typical working day for Bertrice Small? What about the writer’s block?
I began writing with a clipboard, a yellow-lined legal pad and a BicClic ballpoint pen. I switched to a typewriter half-way through UNCONQUERED when I realized my flow would go even faster. I switched to a computer about 10 years ago when I could no longer get ribbons for my IBM Quietwriter 7. The PC I work on isn’t connected to the internet. Too many hackers for my taste. I work 6 days a week from about 9:30 a.m. in the morning until about 7 p.m. in the evening with a break for dinner about 2 p.m. I work about 50 weeks out of a year. I’ve been fortunate in that I write steadily with some days slower than others, and other days so fast I can barely keep up. 3 pages a day, 50 weeks a year, will give you 936 written pages, enough for 2 or 3 novels.
Your books frequently appear on the New York Best-Seller list, you won countless awards and have millions of fans from all around the globe. Does being a famous novelist make it easier to work with publishers & editors? Or are you still constantly challenged?
I regret to disappoint. Despite my many accomplishments I am not a celebrity or anywhere near famous. I’m just a successful working author of popular commercial fiction, genre: romance. The only real perk I get is the courtesy of having a minor bit of input on my cover which are very important to me. I let my agent, Ethan Ellenberg, handle the publishers and any problems that may arise. I’ve always had a good working relationship with my editors over the years.
What do you like most in writing a romance novel?
What I like most about writing – and it could be any genre – is the ability to earn my living doing what I love best.
Would you like to see your books on screen? Or maybe a TV series (Bertrice Small’s Romances, for instance)? Why do you think there are so few movie adaptations of romance novels?
I would love to see my work on film, but only if it was done right. A big “if” in Hollywood. “The O’Malley Saga” and “Skye’s Legacy” series along with “The World of Hetar would make great television series. But few movies or television series are made specifically for women. And with historicals and fantasy there is the problem of transposing the fiction into a screenplay, and the expense of mounting such a production which is why I don’t think I’ll ever see one of my books done in that media format.
You’ve been writing romance novels since 1978. Do you think the readership evolved in any way since (were there more romance lovers before or did their number increase over the last years)?
I think the evolving of the romance genre into so many and varied sub-genres has brought more readers into our sphere. Readers who had never before read a historical but who have read my fantasies or erotic contemporaries are then curious, and will check out my historicals. But readers have their specific likes and dislikes. The bigger the genre has become the more readers we have garnered, and we have kept our readers which is why the genre thrives.
Which other romance author would you recommend? Is there a book you wish you’d written?
I love the authors I grew up with in the 1950s and 1960s. Anya Seton. Jan Westcott. Sergeanne Golon (the French husband/wife team who write the Angelique series). Taylor Caldwell. Among today’s authors in this genre I am fond of Shirlee Busbee, Jennifer Blake, Roberta Gellis, Thea Divine and Barbara Bretton. I’m also a huge Harry Potter fan. Is there a book published that I wish I had written? No.
If you weren’t a writer, who would you be?
Someone high up in a creative position in the television industry.
If you had a faerie in a bottle granting you three wishes, what would you ask for?
More time. Good health. And success for my son, Thomas.
And here is the famous “Nothing-to-do-with-books-question”: you’ve found $100, how will you use your newly acquired money?
Put it in the church poor box.
What are you working on right now? What’s next on your “to do” list?
I’ve just begun the next book in “The Border Chronicles”, THE BORDER VIXEN. The manuscript is due in spring of 2010 for publication in October 2010.
Author & Book: One of my favorite books is “Katherine” by Anya Seton, but I also adore the first 5 books in the “Angelique” series by Sergeanne Golon.
Movies & TV shows: “Casablanca” with Humphrey Bogart, “A Lion In Winter” with Katherine Hepburn, “Cleopatra” with Vivian Leigh and Claude Rains. “Stargate”
Food: Rare beef, good cheese, and chocolate
City: New York and Venice
Music: Mozart, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Broadway Show Tunes.
Place to write: My office
Hobby: My garden
Quote or Motto: I don’t really have one
“Tea or Coffee?”
Tea or Coffee? Tea with cream and sugar
Saturday night. Disco & Restaurant or Home, Books & DVDs? Home
Going on holidays. Beach or Mountains? I live on the Eastern End of Long Island which is surrounded by the sea on 3 sides, but I also like the Adirondacks and Catskill mountains.
Sleepy Little Town or Crazy Megalopolis? Moved out of New York City almost 34 years ago. Would never go back. Love my small town America.
Pick a DVD: Comedy or Weepy Drama? Like old historicals like “Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn, or comedies like “Tootsie” or a weepy drama like “The Best of Everything” or “Marjorie Morningstar”. I’ve got eclectic tastes.
Like To Travel or Hate to Move? Used to love traveling. Now content to stay put.
Sport Lover or Couch Potato? Couch potato without a doubt.
Leader or Follower? Leader
Shy or Easy-going? Easy-going
Serious or Funny? Both serious and funny, but maybe a bit more serious.
Thank you, Bertrice!
You can learn more about Bertrice Small and her books at www.BertriceSmall.com