No need to practise the steamy bits, Anne French

The Passionate Pen: New Zealand’s romance writers talk to Rachel McAlpine
Hazard Press
$19.95
ISBN 1 87716136 5

Almost everyone thinks they can be a Mills and Boon author. The formula novel is short (55,000 words these days), the plots are conventional, the characterisation rudimentary. The dialogue should not glitter with wit, and if the settings are slightly exotic, it is exotic as it would be construed by a secretary living in Leeds. A farm near Wanaka, or a big old house on the Kaipara would do fine.

Anne stared out the window, her letter forgotten. From her room under the eaves she could see a dark green Range Rover turning into the long travelled drive leading to the house. Who could it be? Then she remembered. The new farm manager must have arrived a day early. She bit her lip and frowned in irritation. So much for her afternoon off. She had better go down at once and put a batch of scones in the oven. Old Mrs Fitzwilliam would never forgive her if they didn’t give him a proper Waimanu welcome.

There are other attractions as well. Publishers of romances are happy to take as many as three novels a year from one of their established authors. (Try getting any other fiction publisher to do that.) The print-runs are gratifyingly long (Robyn Donald’s run out to 500,000) and novels can stay in print for a while, so there is a possibility of generating the kind of reliable income that literary fiction can’t provide.

Nonetheless, there’s a stigma attached to it. Nearly all the romance writers who talked to Rachel McAlpine for this book were a little tender about it, and all the interviews ring with disclaimers of one kind and another. “The classic plot is not as simple as it looks.” “Most of the criticism of romance comes from people who have never read a complete book.” “I’ve had people scoffing at me, but mostly men. It was the money!” “Romance writers are second-class citizens.” “I’m so brainwashed I don’t even think of myself as a legitimate writer. People tell you they’re not read books.”

Like Anthony Trollope, these writers see themselves as journeymen, doing a job of work which happens to be writing. Most of them, like Trollope, started doing it for the money, faute de mieux, and then kept on because they liked the lifestyle. Rosalie Henaghan, for instance, had had a successful career in radio until her circumstances changed and she had to work from home: “It was almost impossible for women to make a living writing in New Zealand in 1968. Unless you were tied to a newspaper you had slim pickings … I thought Mills & Boon … I know the pattern of their writing.”

The most successful (or prolific) of these writers have discovered for themselves the formula Trollope used: three hours a day every day (in his case at the rate of 250 words every quarter hour). “All those … who have lived as literary men – working daily as literary labourers – will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.” Essie Summers and Jessie Nichols would heartily agree. Victoria Aldridge is also a three-hours-a-day woman; and Eva Burfield’s description of beginning a new book is pure Trollope: “I would just put a sheet of paper in the typewriter: ‘Chapter 1, page 1’ and start.”

Just how formulaic is romantic fiction? Rosalie Henaghan has found a metaphor for it: “I say it’s a bit like knitting a cardigan:  you’ve got two fronts and a back and two sleeves.” Terry Sturm, who first introduced me to the genre when he was writing his chapter on popular fiction for the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature, could probably write the Mills & Boon Authors’ Pattern Book. The copies of the books he lent me (Susan Napier and Robyn Donald were favourites) were annotated with strange abbreviations. “FK” stood for “first kiss”, which usually occurred within the first 25 pages, to be followed rapidly by the first plot reversal (in which the strangely attractive hero turns out to be aggressive or offhand though late in the novel this will be revealed to have all been a mistake, and he is redeemed).

Daphne Clair is realistic about the attraction that a handsome brute holds for her readers: “There are heroes of the Heathcliff type, but none of them are quite as psychotic. You couldn’t marry anyone to Heathcliff these days with a clear conscience. But his type is still a popular hero. American editors tried to squash him but they had to give up in the end.”

Yet Gloria Bevan, whose hero in Master of Mahia is masterful to the point of violence (as I recall with a frisson), comes across as disappointingly mumsy, showing that nice Rachel around her house, describing what she eats for breakfast (oatmeal and fruit), and attributing her successes as a writer to being good at typing. The courtship of the late Mr Bevan is frustratingly passed over in half a sentence. Most of the other writers’ husbands come across as supportive SNAGs (“When I started writing, Tony finished work early and he would mind the boys often”). So why all the sexy rogues? Where do they come from? What’s the attraction?

Miriam Macgregor knows: “So many women are married to a balding little man who is struggling to keep his family together. And they’ve got a couple of problem kids … they don’t want to read about that!” Or as Rosalie Henaghan put it: “Okay, it is fantasy. But it does make people feel womanly, and that’s a good feeling. And powerful: you know what’s happening, the reader is in control of the fantasy.” So that’s it. Wish-fulfilment. But still, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed when none of these women admitted to having been ravished by some heartless charmer with a torrid past. Instead it’s all “have another muffin, Rachel”, and “let me tell you about the lovely trip I had last year”, without so much as a ripped bodice waiting to be mended.

So do these interviews provide the wannabe romance writer with enough advice to go it alone? There are certainly hints here about how to proceed. “Often I go to the third chapter or even longer before the man comes in. I like to keep people guessing a little bit,” confesses Ivy Preston. “In our weekend schools … we have people who can’t write about relationships but they do brilliant descriptions of New Zealand … I prefer books with a sense of place.” “If people want to write romances they must study the market, steep themselves in the books. They will find there are different types, some more sexy than others, and they aim at the type that suits them,” advises the canny Miriam Macgregor, who employs what she calls the concertina technique: “they’re apart and they come together, they’re apart again and they come together”.

Got that? Sounds easy enough: two fronts, a back, and two sleeves; a compelling fantasy; lashings of scenery; the concertina effect; three hours a day. And no need to practise the steamy bits.

Anne French’s fifth collection of poems, Boys’ Night Out, has recently appeared from Auckland University Press.

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