Comic Con arrives this week in San Diego, with mega-fan-fare and attendees dressed as Wonder Woman, Daenerys Targaryen and Sailor Moon – and a press blitz that descends on the seaside town like seagulls on a tortilla chip. It comes in the wake of a completely different convention, the comparatively ignored 36th Annual Romance Writers of America Association Conference at the San Diego Marriott Marquis and Marina.
Funny, because the RWA represents a booming $1.3 billion industry in publishing — and is an estrogen oasis.
There’s no “woman problem” at the RWA –just females everywhere (and a few scattered men largely looking relatively sheepish). I attended the conference last weekend after my publisher, Lake Union, suggested that my historical novel, The Last Woman Standing, had crossover appeal. Despite dithering before committing — swallowing my own pretensions about being labeled a ‘romance novelist’ – I flew back to my hometown. Once there, I donned my sensible sandals and found these unsung super-sheroes wearing comfy wedges and cowboy boots, caftans and sheaths. They are gay and straight, young and old, Asian and Caucasian and African American, grey-hairs and teased Texas bleached blondes.
These writers (and editors and agents) wear name-tag badges adorned with flare: 75 or 25 or 10 for the number of books written; gold figures for those that have won coveted awards; colored ribbons that reflect their genre, whether historical or contemporary or paranormal or erotic. Some are tattooed – a shoulder surrendered to an octopus, a forearm to a favorite literary passage. A bold cursive “Fire” tattoo is the first thing I notice about the curvy, curly-haired woman that settles beside me on a comfy chair.
“Oh, that,” says Isobel Carr, the published author of Georgian historical fiction like Ripe with Pleasure – she fought against the title How to Court a Courtesan. “I got that tat at Burning Man years ago. I did Burning Man for sixteen or seventeen years. It’s all sort of a blur.”
With Carr’s nose ring – and philosophy degree from Virginia’s small private women’s college, Hollins University, and MFA in poetry from San Francisco State University, she’s not exactly what I expected. That makes her absolutely typical of the women at the conference: Unexpected.
“I don’t write fun romps,” Carr continues, happy to initiate me. “Some people will not be happy but that’s not what I’m selling.” The Berkeley native grew up as a reenactor in the Society for Creative Anachronism, which started as a backyard party in 1968 attended by her father. She began “fooling around” with historical fiction in 1999 or 2000, and considers her novels more like those of bestseller Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl) although the “crossover readership is definitely romance.”
The definition of the genre, I discover, is a central love story where the committed couple – and that can include man and man, or woman and woman – finds a happy ending at the book’s conclusion with a foreseeable future together. This is not Fifty Shades of Grey: Carr clarifies that not all erotic fiction is romance. She tells the Observer, “I’m squidged out if your hero locked your heroine in a room. If I hear the hero should be in prison it’s not for me.”
Cowboys, not convicts, are among Carolyn Brown’s favorite subjects. With a glowing pile of silver grey hair on her head to match her silver specs, and the looks of a Disney animated fairy godmother about to float above the room following her wise advice to Cinderella, the author exerts a good-granny gravitational pull. The 67-year-old Texan, who now hails from Oklahoma, is, despite her modest approachability, a NYT Bestseller (The Ladies’ Room, One Hot Cowboy Wedding) with a 75-book pin on her badge to mark her achievement in historical, contemporary and Western romance.
How did Brown achieve that massive backlist? “How do you eat an elephant?” she asks, “one bite at a time.”
Brown writes at least five-thousand words a day. One thousand before she sits down to breakfast with her husband (and the father of her three grown children); two thousand between breakfast and their lunch together; and then another two thousand in the afternoon. Ripe with advice, she shares another tip: a killer first sentence, like this one she recites by heart: “If I wiggled again, Great-aunt Gert was going to sit straight up in that pale pink coffin and give me an evil glare the way she used to do when I was a child and couldn’t sit still in church.” Go, granny, go.
Another superhero in the romance universe is Beverly Jenkins, credited with writing the first African American historical romance, 1994’s Night Song. The Detroit native in her mid-sixties told The San Diego Union-Tribune,“We are given short shrift because these books are written by women, and not many things done by women are valued.” And added: “We brought $1.3 billion to the table last year: $1.3 billion says a lot.”
Jenkins, the breakout star of Laurie Kahn’s documentary about the genre, Love Between the Covers (available on demand as of July 12) begins her keynote speech, appealingly telling it like it is: “This is a big-ass room,” the petite woman behind the plexiglass podium says. “No I’m not going to behave, right? …inviting me to speak to my tribe….coming here in the love recharges me, fuels me and fills my heart.” Jenkins gives a shout-out to African American abolitionist Maria W. Stewart, “the first woman of any race to speak publicly before a promiscuous audience,” meaning an audience of men and women. Jenkins continues: “Women were not allowed to speak to mixed gender. Any time you are female and you get a mike you can thank Maria W. Stewart.”
And I’m a convert. I can feel the love in the room. Inspired, I’m ready to say “My name is Thelma Adams and I’m a romance writer.” And I laugh with the crowd as Jenkins says, “When folks ask you if you’ve done all the naughtier things you write in your books look them straight in the eye and say, ‘hell, yeah.'”