A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Novelist Sue Moorcroft became Vice-Chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association on the 16th of May and Vulpes Libris caught up with her recently to talk about Formula 1, narcolepsy, romance novels and how dramatically the publishing landscape has changed in the last few years.
VL: Welcome to Vulpes, Sue – and thank you for finding time to chat in what I know is an incredibly busy life. The first thing I’d like to ask you about is something I’ve been curious about ever since my path first crossed with the RNA about 6 years ago now … The frequency with which the Chair and Vice Chair change. When I first got to know you all, the Chair was Catherine Jones, then it was Katie Fforde, followed by Annie Ashurst … and now it’s Pia Fenton. Simple question: Why?
SM: The terms is two years. We’ve looked at – well, maybe ‘glanced at’ would be a better term – a third year, but we’re a voluntary organisation. That means we don’t get paid for giving up a huge amount of our time to RNA matters. Two years is probably as much as anyone would do. Also, that’s what’s in our Constitution.
VL: Ah – of course. The voluntary aspect had completely by-passed me … But staying on the subject of the RNA – a few years back, I was one of the judges of The Romantic Novel of the Year Award, which meant I had to read the six shortlisted books and then duke it out with my two fellow judges over a slap-up lunch, refereed by Katie Fforde, who was the then Chair. The books were a pretty disparate bunch, ranging from lovely lightweight summer reads to one that crossed the line into literary fiction. It was a bit like comparing violet creams and olives … very much down to personal taste. About two years ago, the RNA revamped the whole awards system – partly to address that very problem, I believe. Could you tell us about the new system – and is it working?
SM: I think that it is working, yes. We consulted various publishing professionals, and I was on the subcommittee that had the meetings and made recommendations to the main committee. A popular suggestion was that we have more than one award for exactly the reason you touch upon – ‘romantic fiction’ covers a wide variety of sub-genres, and we wanted to be able to acknowledge that and let like publications be compared. So, the RoNAs was born (romantic novel awards). There are currently five categories and a publisher or author enters a book for one of them. Then the winners of those categories go forward to the Romantic Novel of the Year Award. It’s a bit like Crufts: best in class and then best in show. Alongside these five categories runs the RoNA Rose, for category romances. Owing to the short shelf life of category romance we haven’t yet found a way to include the RoNA Rose winner in the finale, Romantic Novel of the Year Award.
I might as well take this opportunity to toot my trumpet. Dream a Little Dream was shortlisted for a RoNA this year in the contemporary category. I didn’t win but I did have the singular experience of someone collapsing in front of me and dumping me on my bum (very hard) at the feet of Richard and Judy, just as the awards began.
VL: Good grief … Poor them. How embarrassing all round … but congratulations on nomination! The RoNAs bring us to the thorny and perennial question of the public ‘image’ of romances and romance writers. You STILL, after all these years, get really sniffy coverage in the mainstream press – and the romance awards are barely mentioned at all, unless – shock-horror – there happens to be a man in the shortlists. It’s an attitude born of ignorance, of course … because the term ‘romantic novel’ now covers a huge range of sub-genres, from really quite hard-bitten romantic thrillers through erotica, vampires and LGBT novels to the more ‘traditional’ romances. The public perception, however, is still very much fluffy, pink and vapid. What do you think it will take to get the media to take you seriously as a major force in publishing – short of grabbing them by the lapels and pinning them to the wall?
SM: Yes, we do still get sniffy coverage. This very site is not immune! I’m constantly baffled by it as romantic fiction sells well, so there’s evidently an audience, and most people accept that easy reading doesn’t mean easy writing. I think lazy journalism is sometimes to blame, in that journalists love ‘sound bites’ such as ‘bodice ripper’, ‘pink and fluffy’, ‘purple prose’ and ‘churning them out’. How many features about romantic fiction do you see that doesn’t employ one or more of those phrases?
The RNA exists to promote the image of romantic fiction and we do feel our audience figures ought to be enough. It’s crazy, when you think about it – selecting a life partner is one of the most important decisions an adult makes. So why not write about that? Why not make it entertaining? Go figure.
VL: The publishing landscape has changed dramatically over the last few years of course … and I believe I’m right in saying that since e-readers have become so popular, sales of romances and erotica have shot up. That says something very interesting indeed about what we read, where we read it and why we read it, doesn’t it?
SM: I think so. It may say, ‘This is what we read for pleasure. But we’re a bit scared of showing people. It’s safer to be seen reading the Booker shortlist.’
We should remember the phenomenal success of Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James. That is erotica, the journalists labelled it ‘mummy porn’ (I’m yet to discover why) but what’s at its heart is a sizzling love affair. Isn’t it the bestselling book of all time, or something? Whatever your opinion of it, that’s a hard statistic to argue against.
I’d also like to point out that romantic fiction is a mammoth industry in the US. I was in Kansas City, Missouri, in April/May of this year, for the RT Booklovers Convention. Believe me, romantic fiction is huge. Entrants to the Giant Book Fair took wrist bands and had to wait to be called to have their books signed by popular authors, standing in line in batches of fifty. It’s rock star status. The Americans don’t seem to feel the need to be seen to read something ‘highbrow’ (for want of a better word). They read what they enjoy.
I’d also like to mention that a male 30-something friend of mine read my books on the Tube and got very interested looks from young women. I’m really interested in exactly why and wish I’d been travelling in the same carriage! I keep thinking that I ought to be able to use this in marketing terms.
VL: I think he may accidentally have stumbled upon a whole new courtship technique there! There’s been an explosion in ways of getting published too, hasn’t there? Once upon a time, there were two choices – find yourself a ‘proper’ publisher or vanity publishing. Now the field is wide open – indie publishers, ebooks, print-on-demand. But it’s a not unmixed blessing. Some of the ‘novels’ that are out there are just mind-homogenizingly bad. On VL, we’re happy to review self-published books – but I’m going to stick my neck out and say that it’s the self-published writers who are most likely to object to anything negative in the review. The writers whose book have been ‘traditionally’ published generally just suck their teeth and keep quiet, or come and say “Thank you” nicely while silently kicking the cat. Do you think it’s the critical absence of an experienced agent and/or editor that makes self-published writers so reactive – because they’ve had no-one to say ‘This works well … this not so well …’? Or am I just being unfair?
SM: Up front, I’d like to say that I’m both traditionally published and self-published. What I mean is that I’m traditionally published, but my out of print novel and my serials (which were published as large print books for libraries after their magazine life) have been self-published, as readers asked me where they could get them. These self-published titles have earned useful sums but they’re not my focus. I self-published them as a service to readers. My focus is on my traditionally published novels. A few weeks ago I blogged, ‘What do I think about self-publishing?’ and it received the single greatest number of hits my blog has ever received. So it’s a subject to interest a huge number of people.
I would always advise any self-published author to pay for the services of a professional editor, because I don’t believe that one can successfully edit one’s own work. The writer gets too close to the writing, and being a good writer doesn’t automatically endow one with the objectivity required to edit successfully. Let’s just leave it that I believe in the editing process, and I believe that it’s hard to get around the fact that anyone can self-publish anything. I could type ‘the cat sat on the mat’ into my phone, now, and have it published on Kindle or Smashwords with a photo I took myself as the cover, today. That’s a fact, I think.
I have not yet read a self-published title that I thought good enough for publication – but I probably haven’t read many. On the other hand, I have read traditionally published novels (or begun them, at least) that have made me check out whether they’re self-published ie: I thought they weren’t professional! The lines are blurry.
VL: Changing tack slightly … the eternal problem with romantic novels is finding a new way to present the basic “boy meets girl, boy and girl hate/misunderstand/are indifferent to each other, fate intervenes, true love conquers all” storyline. There is a huge danger of becoming formulaic. In Dream a Little Dream, which of course I reviewed earlier this year, your hero had narcolepsy – which was a novel approach that could have gone horribly wrong, but happily didn’t. Do you think there’s a line somewhere that can’t be crossed in pursuit of fresh angles?
SM: I’m sure there must be and it must vary from writer to writer. These lines are so subjective. I would never cause offence, if I could help it, because I like to treat people with respect. Since I began researching the rare sleep disorder, narcolepsy, I have discovered a few books that use narcolepsy and one of its symptoms, cataplexy, for comic relief. To me, that’s wrong. That’s the line. That’s what I wouldn’t cross. Narcolepsy is a disability. Just because it’s an invisible disability doesn’t make it funny, in my view.
Thank you for saying nice things about Dream a Little Dream. My research was extensive! But fascinating. I’ve been asked to speak at the conference of Narcolepsy UK, in September, so I think I made an OK job of giving Dominic Christy, my hero, narcolepsy.
I wasn’t looking for novelty, when I chose narcolepsy for DC. It began with a line of dialogue I wished to give him, something un-PC about reflexologists, and so I wanted him to have a condition that I didn’t think reflexology would help with (turns out I was wrong about that, anyway). In an emailed conversation about titles, a friend mentioned the word ‘dream’ and I said that it would be a good word to include in one of my titles. The idea to give Dominic Christy narcolepsy leapt into my head. If I’d known how much research would ensue, I might have given him something easier. But I might not. I am proud of that book and the way it worked out. Really proud.
VL: And do romantic novels ALWAYS have to have happy endings? A friend of mine, who’s just landed a publishing deal for a YA novel did something quite startling with her storyline which really set me thinking …
SM: Depends on the sub genre. I’d be broken hearted to write a book without a happy ending, now, but in the days when I wrote family drama (containing a sturdy love story) it was quite acceptable for the heroine to end up broken and bruised and maybe wiser, and with hope, but not have found happiness through love.
Maybe it depends upon your definition of ‘romantic’ but a lot of readers read to see the hero and heroine fall in love and be happy, just as they read crime books to see the baddie being bested by the goodie. It’s about reader satisfaction and not leaving the reader at the altar.
VL: You’ve been writing for a good few years now … do you still remember how it felt when you held your very first book in your hands? And is writing still as exciting as it was, or does the gilt eventually come off the gingerbread?
SM: I do remember holding my first book in my hands. It was Uphill All the Way, which was published by Transita in 2005. I went to the London Book Fair and it had just been delivered to the stand. It was placed in my hands and I got all teary! Everyone on the stand signed that edition and I have it still. I think I will forever love writing but that doesn’t mean it always comes easy – especially the first draft of a novel. Writing is a compulsion, for me. It’s not only what I do, it’s who I am.
VL: If you could do it all again, would you still pursue a career in writing? Or would the experience of actually being a published author, with deadlines, edits, re-edits, more deadlines, etc, etc, etc make you think twice?
SM: Yes, I would still write. No, I wouldn’t be put off. I love editing, and deadlines are a business necessity.
VL: It’s a bit of a hackneyed question – but I know we’re read by many unpublished/aspiring writers. What advice would you give them?
SM: Persist. I truly believe that the name for a writer who doesn’t give up is ‘published’. But educate yourself. Your GCSE in English may not be enough! Go to conventions, conferences, courses, talks, classes. Read magazines such as Writers’ Forum, read ‘how to’ books on writing. Join forums. Learn about publishing as well as writing.
VL: You make no secret of the fact that you’re a huge fan of Formula 1 motor racing … but you haven’t – correct me if I’m wrong – yet written a romance with motor racing at its heart. I can’t believe the idea hasn’t occurred to you …
SM: It certainly has occurred to me but I haven’t yet found a way to research it. I now have a friend in the heart of one of the F1 teams but she agrees I won’t be able to research it – staff members sign agreements not to share their knowledge. It seems to me exactly like when I worked in a bank. You signed a secrecy declaration and you abided by it. If I can’t adequately research a subject, I will not write about it.
However, I do have half an idea to write a book about someone like me – a petrol head! She might be a good one to butt heads with a hero I have in the back of my mind, a pagan falconer who has a craft gin distillery.
VL: And finally, it’s customary for us to ask our guests to name their five favourite books or plays, giving reasons. (Yep, it’s just like school here really …):
SM: Top of my list is Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice. It was one of my very first ‘adult’ novels, which I read when I was about 9. My dad liked Nevil Shute and we used to swap books. I have everything NS wrote on a shelf above my desk – even the stuff published posthumously, which I think he wouldn’t have wanted published – for the sake of completing my collection. He wrote such real characters with such convincing love affairs. His imagination was astonishing, but he tempered it with logic.
Gone too Far by Suzanne Brockmann is a fabulous book, number six in SB’s ‘Troubleshooter’ series. I’m constantly impressed by the huge canvases Ms Brockmann utilises, global terrorism etc, yet sets a fabby love affair in the midst of it.
Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Cruisie. This was the first of JC’s books I read and it still remains my favourite. It features a bit of a reluctant hero, the guy who had his life all planned out until someone came along and made him rethink. He’s led around by his lusts, but I go for that.
Cry No More by Linda Howard utilises a very real and large conflict – the kidnapping and selling of babies. All of LH’s books I’ve read have a fantastic hero/heroine dynamic going on, but she latches onto very real issues to explore. The fact that the heroine eventually catches up with her son when he’s ten but has the love and the strength to leave well enough alone and let him continue to live with the family who paid to adopt him guts me every time I read it. (What was that you said about pink and fluffy and vapid?)
I adore all of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances. I began reading them when I was a teen and still dust one off every few years and reread it. Do I have to choose just one? It’s almost impossible but I’ll go for The Toll Gate because the hero is tall and, in common with many small women, I’m a sucker for a tall man!
VL: Who isn’t? And another Nevil Shute fan … excellent! Thank you very much for your time, Sue. It’s been fascinating.
Monday: Hilary discovers a literary crossroads in a tiny, lost Norfolk village.
Wednesday: Kate babbles about Ladybird books nostalgia at the Museum of English Rural life.
Friday: Kirsty returns to the Judaean Desert with The Very Short Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls.