Led by a cadre of steamy-prose-penning authors, the Valley is fast becoming a romantic fiction hotbed.
When Valley writer Kris Tualla published her first historical romance novel in 2010, she knew even the icy-eyed, steel-chested Norse ravagers in her book, A Woman of Choice, would struggle for attention in a sea of 10 million other romance novels vying for a spot in an Amazon.com shopping cart.
Instead of retreating back to her laptop to accept anonymity, Tualla saw strength in these numbers. She founded Arizona Dreamin’, a romance reader event where novelists convene to meet with their fans, and get acquainted with new fans. That, she decided, would be the best way to market her epic Scandinavian romance.
“I knew I had to be ‘found’ by readers, and that the most effective way to do so was still word of mouth,” she says. “So, I invited 20 other romance authors to link arms with me under the framework of ‘I bring my fans, you bring yours, and we cross-pollinate!’ For those authors who bring at least four fans, this has proven to be a very successful model.”
Arizonan Dreamin’ has become so popular that presenting authors must have three books published in print and have released one within 10 months of the event. The visiting writer list is finalized seven months in advance, and reader attendance at the 2014 event – held May 31 to June 1 – is capped at 140 people. Next year’s will be capped at 160 with additional writers as well. It’s important to keep the author-reader ratio similar year to year, Tualla says.
Tualla’s success illustrates much about romantic fiction, the wildly popular if oft-reviled literary genre that gave the world Fifty Shades of Grey and made Fabio an international star. Playfully dubbed “bodice-rippers” by literary critics, romantic novels account for $1.4 billion in annual national revenue, more than any other genre and about double the haul of mystery novels, which are the second-best sellers. Dominated by women at both the creative and consumer levels, romantic fiction is the Valley’s most visible literary camp – uniquely propelled by fan events like Arizonan Dreamin’ and mainstream sensations like Valley resident Stephenie Meyer, who has raked in an estimated $125 million since publishing the young adult vampire romance series Twilight almost a decade ago.
But the Valley’s cadre of best-selling romantic fiction authors says the genre gets a bad rap, that their books are not just a string of erotic scenes linked together by flushed heroines and shirtless, long-haired lotharios. Authors like Tualla have the sales. Now they want the respect.
Understanding the psychological force behind romantic fiction means knowing the readers – and the reality of the average romance consumer differs somewhat from the single lonely-gal or forlorn housewife clichés. True, women constitute more than 70 percent of romance book buyers, according to a reader survey commissioned by Texas-based Romance Writers of America (RWA) and conducted by Bowker Market Research in 2012, and the average reader is between 30 and 54 years old. But less than half of readers live alone, and they tend to be upper-middle class, with an annual income most likely between $50,000 and $100,000. Critically, more than half of them fall into the “avid” reader category, meaning they’re always reading a book. This makes them unusually dedicated and dependable as a consumer group, and may contribute to the persistent stigma faced by romance novels – that of pulse-racing pap geared for quantity over quality.
Random House editor Sue Grimshaw reads about 100 romance manuscripts a month, and acknowledges an aesthetic distinction between romance and other forms of fiction. “Romance stories tend to be more character-focused than plot-driven,” Grimshaw says. “Although romance books are written equally as well as their fiction counterparts, the depth of story might be lacking for the more literary crowd.”
There’s also the issue of sex, or “writing hot,” as the authors term it. Within most mainstream literary genres – science fiction, for example – explicit descriptions of sex are generally avoided, leaving open a market opportunity that romance authors will gladly exploit, albeit strategically. Phoenix native Jennifer Ashley writes under three pseudonyms as a professional author – one each for varying degrees of “heat.” Like Anne Rice, the best-selling author of The Vampire Chronicles, who published her racy Sleeping Beauty novels as “A.N. Roquelaure,” Ashley has reaped the rewards of erotic fiction. Her paranormal romance series, Shifters Unbound – about body-morphing outcasts and their many romantic entanglements – hit the New York Times best-seller list in 2010, and the success of her Mackenzie series, about a wolvish Lord in Victorian England, allowed her husband to quit his job and become her full-time brand manager.
After quitting her job as a technical editor for reference books to write full-time, Ashley now pumps out an average of 2,000 words a day – a necessary threshold for the working romance writer. Ashley can and must turn out a potboiler every six weeks to three months to satisfy her fans, many of whom email her directly to snag hot-off-the-press e-copies. “I realized if I don’t make writing my job, writing will never be my job,” Ashley, who recently cashed her first six-figure royalty check, says.
Not all writers are as comfortable with the “romance author” label. Local writer Diana Gabaldon of Outlander series fame, who is scheduled to be a keynote speaker at the Arizona romance writing convention, Buildin’ the Dream, this May, declined an interview with PHOENIX magazine, explaining she’s a historical writer.
Romance readers are nothing if not devoted. Their love is blind to an author’s slump – though 20/20 when it comes to the lock-jawed pouts on book covers. One local writer observes that dedicated readers can identify cover models by something as innocuous as a flexed forearm or thigh. The industry’s current top male model, Jimmy Thomas, has seen his toned appendages and handsome likeness grace more than a thousand covers.
The intense relationship between romance consumers and the material itself has engendered a healthy grassroots fan-engagement industry – which in turn has helped the genre thrive as the digital revolution turns authors toward e-books and online self-publishing. Successful mid-tier authors tend to frequent fan events like Arizona Dreamin’ while maintaining personal blogs. Though half of romance readers use e-books, bookmarks are an important currency in the biz. Most authors carry them like business cards, since they generally feature cover art of the writer’s latest release, a blurb or bio about the book or author, Twitter handles, and, most importantly – a blog address.
Blogs are everything, especially for self-published Phoenix writer Camelia Miron Skiba, who promotes her work by participating in virtual book tours across the blogosphere. With her lilting Slavic accent (Twitter is “tweeter”), Skiba could easily be mistaken for one of her many outspoken, short-fused Romanian characters. Of her choice to publish her first book, she says, “I’m not one of those people who waits for others to help me. I spent a lot of time – almost two years – trying to figure out how to do it on my own.”
After receiving a rejection letter from an agent she really liked three years ago, Skiba says she needed a sign. She remembers sitting at her desk and writing “TP” and “SP” – for traditional and self-publishing – on six slips of paper, then folding the pieces and drawing three from the pile. Each route has its own advantages. On the self-publishing side: creative control and a greater share of profits. On the traditional side: creative support and no personal overhead. She pulled two SP and one TP. She’s been self-publishing ever since.
Skiba wrote her first two novels in the flavor du jour of contemporary romance fiction, in which the author “trainwrecks” – her word – characters’ lives and forces them to overcome odds in the name of love. Her novel A World Apart is about a sassy surgeon in the Romanian National Army who is deployed in a joint unit to Iraq, where she immediately clashes with her American commander – in more ways than one.
It’s not enough to have a story, says the Romanian-born writer who “followed her heart, and the man who stole it” to America in 2002. Being a romance novelist, especially a self-published one, requires editing, promotion, formatting skills, cover design and many hours a week dedicated to blogging and branding. Living solely off royalties isn’t something Skiba can feasibly do at this juncture in her writing career, and she says being a working mom is an important part of her process. Her day job at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration lends itself to structure; she writes after work while hosting the odd workshop or conference, like Arizona Dreamin’, which helped build her initial fan base.
“Before the Arizona Dreamin’ conference, I didn’t have any local support,” Skiba says. “I had my online group, but you need something to see eye to eye (with other people) and that’s what the conference gave me.”
Local author Erin Quinn, who works 32 hours a week at Intel in Chandler, is another night writer. Quinn sets at least three days a week aside for writing. The Simon & Schuster-published author sold her first book when she was in her 20s, and has always sought traditional publishing. “You have a lot of noise [in the publishing industry],” says the paranormal romance writer. “Sometimes you go on Amazon and you don’t know what you’re getting, so it was always important to me to stay with a big publishing house. When you are a writer, you are a small business.”
Here’s the thing about romance readers: Many of them go on to become romance authors, particularly in a large city with a robust support network like Phoenix.
“I believe the number of romance authors in Phoenix is growing,” says Arizona Dreamin’ organizer Tualla. “I have spoken with authors from other areas of the country, and they don’t have the same resources we do here. Phoenix is a very large city, and for that reason there are multiple opportunities for aspiring authors to get connected.”
But just because an author has the grit and gumption to self-publish a novel doesn’t mean the novel is readable, Tualla acknowledges. Premature e-publication leaves many established indie authors feeling a bit protective of the genre. “The problem I see is that, with the ease of self-publishing, far too many new authors are publishing prematurely,” Tualla says. “Their writing isn’t polished or edited, their books are oddly formatted and their covers are bad. They aren’t hooking into legitimate writing groups in the Valley to get the training they need to be successful.”
More the shame, since the Valley’s community of authors – which also includes New York Times best-selling scribe Jenn McKinlay – have made no small effort to expand the literary esteem of romantic fiction. For instance, Ashley’s Mackenzie series doesn’t just plumb the sexual exploits of a randy British noble; it’s also a smart examination of the title character’s mild autistic condition, known as Asperger Syndrome. And Skiba’s A World Apart isn’t just a globe-trotting romance; it’s also a serious study of the emotional effects of war.
According to Random House’s Grimshaw, romance is particularly responsive to social angst, not just feminine fantasy fulfillment. “The genre in itself tends to be cyclical, so what is hot now can change and does, often,” Grimshaw says. “Contemporary romance continues to resonate with readers – the stories are sexier than a few years ago and deal with current issues like coming home from war, unemployment, and so on.”
There’s also a perception within the industry that romance is held to an unfair (read: male-centric) standard. “I think that women’s concerns, including their pleasures, have always been looked upon as suspect,” says Pam Regis, a literary professor at McDaniel College in Maryland. “Most romance novels focus on female characters. And they win – they overcome whatever it is that faces them, and the novel ends happily. When a hero does this in a work, say, of detective fiction, that character’s arc is regarded as justice. When a heroine does this in a work of romance fiction, her arc is regarded as fantasy. So there has been a double standard, and I believe it persists.”
Quinn agrees. “The difference between a romance and a love story is a love story is written by a man and they kill off a character who has no business dying,” Quinn says with a laugh. Even beneath the violent and thrilling surface of The Terminator is a romance, she says.
For Skiba, it doesn’t matter how many people read her work – or what men say about it – as long as it’s well-written, well-edited and manages to call out to someone from the sea of millions. “No matter how much we accomplish in life,” she says, “we always look for that nearness in life – that contact with the one person who speaks the same language.”
A Storm Was Brewing...In Her Breast!
Natalie wasn’t sure she’d made the right move, accepting this blind date. She wasn’t ready to date at all, only months after the breakup. Plus, she’d just moved to Phoenix – had traded Louisiana swampland for desert. Yet she’d said yes when Gretchen at work bulldozed her into a drink with her cousin Doug. “He’s about the right age,” Gretchen had said, flashing Natalie his photo. “Let him show you around.”
Doug was all gums when he talked. His blonde moustache sagged across his face. Natalie could have forgiven that, but he clapped every time he joked and held her eye contact longer than she was comfortable with. He drove her to the Clarendon Hotel, where they sipped margaritas on the roof and waited for the sunset. Natalie wished she had eaten first – and brought a jacket. The winds were getting restless.
Doug leaned over the railing with her, interrupting anything she tried to say. “I don’t like children until they can talk,” he said between gulps, “or women who talk too much.” He winked. “And Phil Collins is the most overrated musician on Earth. Need another drink? I need another drink.” Doug shuffled to the bar.
“I’m not going to swoop in and save you,” said a voice behind her. A blue-coated man emerged from the shadows and leaned against the railing beside her. “But your date’s kind of an asshole.”
Natalie felt the buzz of his proximity. “How do you know he’s not my boyfriend?”
“You’re keeping a polite distance of at least three feet between you,” he said, stepping closer, watching the sky with her become a strange shade of orange. Palm fronds rattled and fell in the parking lot. Winds swept Coke cans down the sidewalk. “I don’t like his voice,” she said, “or anything about him.”
The man’s fingers grazed her neck. Natalie stilled at his touch. Hair blew in her eyes and dust stung her cheeks, but she wanted more of this stranger touching her. “Must not be the right man for you.” He leaned into her ear, breath now lightning-shivering through her: “Let’s go.”
The blue-coated man had parked under a jacaranda tree off McDowell. The backseat was narrow but they’d managed to shimmy from their clothes. She liked his hot skin, his fingers on her hips, the way he pulled her on top of him. The haboob hit fast.
He kissed off all her lipstick. “It’s like a dust storm in the desert,” she said.
“It is a dust storm in the desert,” he said, nuzzling her.
“I mean like the Sahara,” she said, kissing down his chest. “Have you seen The English Patient? What if dust piles to the windows and we can’t get out?”
“Then we’ll make a home right here,” he said. “I’ll get my mail forwarded.” Winds accelerated until she felt deaf. Pebbles hit the windows. Branches hit the roof and tumbled down the street. She heard his lips on her skin but not the creak of the tree trunk cracking, of roots tearing through soil, of the jacaranda falling on the car.
Natalie didn’t expect to wake in a hospital room alone. Didn’t expect to wake at night with lights low. The winds had hushed. “Where is he?” she asked the nurse. “The man with me.”
“I don’t know of any man.” The nurse’s shift had just started. “Name?” But Natalie didn’t know his name.
“You had a lot to drink,” the nurse said. “And head injuries. Anyone would be confused.”
Natalie searched every room and dark hallway. She staked out elevators and drank vending machine coffee and she was alone.
Work was the same. Gretchen leaned over the microwave. “Doug looked up and you were gone,” she said. “Then they find you in a car someplace half-naked? You worried him.” Her voice lowered. “Maybe someone roofied you.”
“Nobody roofied me.”
“Doug’s willing to give you another chance,” Gretchen said, shaking her popcorn bag. But Natalie didn’t want Doug. She wanted the nameless blue-coated man and didn’t know how to find him. She spent sad evenings at the hotel hoping he’d return; looked for the back of his head at Diamondbacks games, at the Crescent Ballroom, in the fry-bread truck line. She went to Rawhide willing him to turn a corner, maybe in the candy store or museum of old Western things. She climbed Camelback Mountain, each time thinking maybe. Maybe he’d appear.
Weeks later when the sky turned orange again, she didn’t notice, not at first. She was taking a mid-century home tour with Gretchen’s neighbor Al. They pulled up to the ranch house. “The Jimmy Eat World house,” Al said. Natalie felt something familiar about the wide sweeping yard and pink bathroom tile, books arranged by color. Al marveled at guitars, said he’d find her later. He was better than Doug but still Natalie didn’t feel it.
In the backyard, she imagined where the pool should be, imagined her own children circling it with her own imagined man. The sky darkened and winds rose, almost overtaking her. Dust hit her shins and pinged windows behind her. Another haboob. Natalie stood within it wondering if he remembered. Wondering if he existed.
Her skirt blew against her legs. She could barely see. Rain came, colder than expected. She backed into the kitchen and watched, wet hair clinging to her back. Inside, the house was so quiet, she wondered if everyone had left. A light bulb above the sink popped and the power failed. “Al?” she called out, feeling down the hallway, heading to the room of bookshelves and picture windows, the one that felt like home. Winds pelted the windows. Palm leaves tumbled across the yard.
The room felt familiar like a childhood memory. Safe. Until a figure at the window startled her, standing as though he lived there, staring out at the storm. “I’m sorry,” she said, starting to leave.
But he turned from the window. Shadow covered half his face. But not all of it. Nor the distinctive blue coat hanging on a peg in the corner. “It’s you,” he said, stepping forward, lips finding her in the dark.