Map Quest

Is there anything more potent, more magical, more surreal than a map?

Some may think maps mundane, the stuff of Google, soulless grids charting featureless terrain, mere means to an end. But a good map can do so much more than just get you where you want to go. It can tell you what to look for, what to avoid, where the hidden treasure lies, where the roads end. And in a work of fiction a well-drawn map can open a whole new world in your mind.

Of course, not every genre lends itself to mapping. But none has done more to chart the unknown than fantasy. I recently finished reading “The Elfstones of Shannara,” a 500-plus-page journey into the misty domain of writer Terry Brooks, whose bestselling books have won legions of fans in the sword and sorcery camp.

I must confess that although I’d seen Brooks’s works around for years, until recently I’d never summoned the will to commit to reading one, due to an attitude I acquired while reading “The Hobbit.” This was back in the day when Tolkien worship was white hot and fresh on college campuses, and I dutifully tried to feel the passion. But I found it a trial, slogging irritably through the page after page of repetitive scenery descriptions, waiting in vain for the appearance of a single admirable female character. Seriously. Swept away I was not.

Of course, in principle I enjoy the classic fantasy tropes of an epic journey, a battle against overwhelming odds, and magical weapons to ensure victory in the struggle between good and evil. But really, all those dwarf songs? Hardly karaoke material.

However, map-wise “Lord of The Rings” set a new standard for those of us who like to boldly read where no one has read before. And Terry Brooks has a firm grasp of the map element. Also, to his credit, he crafts some engaging female characters, so that, on the whole, I think I prefer his Shannara to Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

But while maps enrich works of fiction ranging from the sunny innocence of Winnie the Pooh and his 100 Acre Wood to the dark twists of Neil Gaiman’s alternative London underground in “Neverwhere,”  the power of maps transcends fiction. In fiction maps often lead to treasure or talismans of power. In real life, a good map is a treasure in itself.

So much of life is uncharted. The perilous path of parenthood, for instance, can be a twisting, gut-wrenching trial no matter how many guidebooks you read. Jane Hamilton’s brilliant, heartbreaking “A Map of the World” takes the reader through a nightmare of parental fears, but the author leads us out into the light with a flickering torch of hope held high. Though her work is nothing like escapist fantasy, it offers a similar redemptive resolution by suggesting that no matter how carefully you work to guard and protect your children, things happen over which you have no control.

Ultimately, there are no maps for parenthood. Every child is a whole new world, one that you may spend your life discovering. As Dr. Seuss noted, “Oh the places you’ll go!” We went to Los Angeles recently, on a sort of post-graduate parenting mission. Our daughter was running in her first marathon and, knowing that running 26 miles would be a challenge, we wanted to cheer her on. What we didn’t anticipate was the challenge of driving in downtown LA on a major holiday during the marathon when countless streets were closed and barricaded. Luckily, I had a map. Not a bad map, but sadly lacking in the kind of useful tips that set apart great maps from the mediocre. Your great maps offer helpful bits of advice such as, “Here be dragons.” In our case, one that warned, “Here be traffick barriers” would have been nice.

As we waited out the hours while the marathon progressed, our quest was more modest than that of Frodo or Wil Ohmsford. We simply wanted to find an open coffee shop, a public restroom, a route to the finish line of the race. Unfortunately, I was hampered by the fact that we had parked in an underground lot, and the overcast early morning skies offered no sunshine to help me get oriented. Normally I feel fairly confident about my sense of direction, but no matter how long I stared at the map I couldn’t figure out which way was up. My head was spinning from lack of sleep and coffee. What I needed was a magic ring, or, failing that, an enchanted sword, but there’s rarely one of those around when you need it.

Unless you’ve got a volume by Terry Brooks in your backpack. In which case, no worries. You can fight your way out of the blackest pit of underground parking and climb into higher realms of glory. Or at least find a place to grab some lunch.

There’ll Always Be A Festival

The fortieth anniversary of Woodstock is coming up this summer. Got your tickets yet? Or planning just to crash it?

I didn’t go to Woodstock. At the time, other diversions claimed my heart. But lots of people I know went. One of them, Gayle Nourse, wrote a short story called “Peace, Man” about her experience there. The story was selected to be included in Woodstock Revisitedwoodstock-revisited, 50 Far Out, Groovy, Peace-Loving, Flashback-Inducing Stories From Those Who Were There by Susan Reynolds, which will be released this summer, just in time for all the nostalgic hoopla. Love that hoopla.

While the original spirit of Woodstock may have been corrupted by the corporate takeover that brought us five dollar bottled water, ATMs and eventually fiery rebellion at the thirtieth Woodstock, the current of countercultural idealism still runs deep and strong. But, while many of my generation recall the heady late sixties fondly, few of us wear flowers in our hair anymore, and even if we may don the occasional tie-dyed T-shirt, it’s not easy to recapture the extraordinary shared sense of innocence and optimism that flourished in those years before the internet, the cell phone and the iPod came along, ushering in a strange new world of insulated detachment.

There will most likely be some sort of Woodstock commemoration this summer. But as for peace and love? I wouldn’t count on it.

However, that somewhat unhinged but powerfully positive spirit yet lives in Britain, where since 2003 an alternative music gathering called The Green Man Festival offers those who can manage to get there a chance to revel in music, film, theatre, literature, and comedy for three days in the sequestered pastoral Glanusk Park, Wales. The event has already been blessed by the local Druids, to ensure lovely weather for the campers. With its five stages of indie, psychedelia, folk, and “americana” music, not to mention the all-night bonfires and earnest environmental and social justice agenda, The Green Man Festival appears to offer a glimpse of the starry-eyed dream of Peace on Earth.

Will we ever see it for more than three days at a time? And will it ever feature better portable toilets?

The dream is alive.

Play Ball

In the study of  baseball, as Yogi Berra once noted, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

With that in mind, I embarked last spring on a leisurely course of spectatorship to enlarge my understanding of the game. My prior personal experiences had been limited to watching my older brother pitch during his Little League days, cheering for my son in his short-lived experiments in T-ball, and, for one lackluster season, attempting to master the skills of batting and fielding while on the freshman softball team at my high school.

Since then, my interest in the national pastime had waned, occasionally sputtering into life during the World Series, but never catching fire.

Until last spring.

At first, when I began idly tuning in to watch the Mariners play ball, I  justified the wasted hours on the couch as research for my new book, which revolves around a softball game. I told my husband I needed to refresh my understanding of the game. He found this mildly amusing, and seemed to enjoy clearing up my confusion about the ins and outs of rules and strategy, as I tried to get a grip on the infield fly rule, the purpose of the bunt, and the mystery of the knuckleball.

The addiction came on gradually. The soothing sound of Dave Neihaus‘s voice, the hypnotic rhythm of the ball being struck and caught, the thrilling pulse of the crowd chanting “Ichiro, Ichiro” like some thunderous heartbeat.

Yeah. I could quit anytime.

But, whether or not that’s true, watching all that baseball last season did help me to recognize the vast difference between what the pros do, and what passed for sport back home in rural Virginia, where the most important  result wasn’t who won or lost, but who brought the beer, or whatever.

My new book, Potluck, is a story of Duggie Moon, a cheerily unflappable low-achiever who gets by on his charm and his willingness to work for minimum wage as long as he’s free to live the life he’s chosen as a slacker entrepreneur in the idyllic mountain county of Rapidan, Virginia. Duggie has a soft heart, and some of his best friends would tell you he’s got a soft head too. But he’s always willing to put his own interests aside for the good of the team, and that team is the Moonlighters, sponsored by his older sister Glory  under the banner of her Moonlight Café.

In the town of Dudley, the highpoint of the social calendar is the annual Fourth of July softball tournament, but dark forces are gathering for this year’s normally easy-going event. When his ace-pitcher and longstanding unrequited love Jenny Carson is forced to play for the competition, and a team of  thuggish ringers enters the tournament, Duggie has his hands full trying to keep tempers from flying higher than the homers. And he’s having a tough time focusing because he’s a little paranoid about the  booming crop of pot he’s secretly growing in an old school bus behind his house. All will be well if he can just get it harvested before the Sheriff’s men get wind of it.

In an ordinary steamy  July in Virginia, even the coolest characters find it hard to avoid getting baked. And for Duggie Moon, this summer looks to be a scorcher.

Will he save the day, win the girl, and avoid prison? Try Potluck and find out.

Adios, Fabio

Dear Fabio,

I will never forget the breathless nights we spent together. You with that chest, those eyes, that chin, that hair. Me imagining us galloping off toward some castle in the air where you would do all those things implied in the covers of thousands of romance novels.

I can almost laugh about it now. Maybe, after my tears have dried, I’ll look back on our brief wild fling and be thankful to have known you at all.

But not yet. Though the passion that once burned so brightly still smolders, I can no longer pretend I don’t know that it’s over.

When, a few years ago, in a desperate and calculated move to improve the odds of getting published by a traditional publishing house I joined the Romance Writers of America, I was, as usual, naive about romance. I thought you would understand. To me, romance meant Jane Austen novels, in which no one ever embraces, much less gropes, on the page, and every discourse is civil and literate; yet, in spite of, or perhaps because of this, the reader is keenly aware of the passions cloaked by good manners.

But as I came to know you, and learned of the millions of romantic conquests you have made, I realized it would be a challenge to hold your interest with good conversation and manners. How quickly I learned the folly of my illusions.

I could blame my foolishness on the countless fairy tales I read when I was a young girl, stories from which I absorbed the idea that to make great sacrifices for love was thrilling. However, as I grew older, I learned that in real life happy endings are temporary at best.

Sentimental fool that I am, though, I still believe in true love and still fight tears during weepy reconciliation scenes any astute observer of current culture could have predicted from reading the liner notes. But I am growing weary of the lust for…well…lust.

Do I protest too much? Perhaps. I only know that I can no longer pretend I’m one of them – the romance writers. I tried to read their books. I tried to engage with heroines whom, quite honestly, I found either unsympathetic or unbelievable or both, who were pursued by or pursuing male characters who struck me as either arrogant jerks or charmless oafs.

I guess I should have known this would be the case. Sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover, and I should have realized that if the majority of romance readers yearn for a man like you, I’d be a fool to stand in their way.

I’ll always be a romantic, wishing the world were a bit kinder and gentler. But I’m through trying to pass myself off as one of the thousands of women who churn out “blazing hot reads” for the rapacious editors and agents who are convinced that, in order to succeed in these challenging times of decreasing literacy, they must entice readers with soft porn. Their heroines do it in the elevator. On the road. On horseback, at the castle, on the misty moor. But you and I, Fabio, will never do. I can see that now.

I want you to know that I will always remember what we never exactly had, and wonder what on earth I was thinking.

Don’t take it personally, my love. It’s not you. It’s me.

Adios, Fabio.

Paradigm Now: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Self-publishing

My love affair with men of the woods began with a man in green: Robin Hood.

When I was twelve years old my family moved to a brand new neighborhood, where I had to go to a new school, in my new glasses and my new five inches of height, clothed in my customary shyness. During that lonely transition period, each day I came home from school, made myself a cup of cocoa, and curled up in front of the television to watch The Adventures of Robin Hood, where right always triumphed over might, and Maid Marion managed to be both alluring and resourceful even though she never let her hair down. At the time I preferred the television version because it never went into the sad final chapters of Robin’s life as related in the book. On the small screen, Robin and his merry men never shed a tear. I longed for such a life.

Well, time passed, I got contact lenses, got noticed, and things changed, but my passion for men of the woods never stopped growing. The journey from the green wood  to the Green Man was a short flight of fancy, with stopovers in The Secret Garden and Terry Pratchett’s Disc World.

I know I’m not alone in my love of magic trees. A recent news story that lit up email boxes around the world told of the plight of the real Sherwood Forest in England, where environmental degradation, developmental pressure and inevitable old age have combined to reduce the once four-thousand-strong legendary woods to a stand of barely more than four hundred massive oaks. Many of these ancient giants have names and are beloved by historians, English majors and environmentalists for the sense of solid truth they lend to the flimsy stuff of legends and folklore. Perhaps Robin of Loxley wasn’t all that we would like to think, but the woods in which he hid demand reverence.

And what, you might ask, does all this have to do with the chaotic state of modern publishing? Well, there’s never been a better time to be a Robin Hood of the written word — to infiltrate and outfox the system that once made it impossible for any but the well-connected and the very fortunate to get published. Thanks to modern technology we are in the midst of a redistribution of power, if not wealth. Never has it been so easy for so many to reach so many readers. With online publishing, blogging, print-on-demand options and internet marketing, the barriers to the open market are falling, and this opens up a whole new world of opportunity.

But of course, all that glitters isn’t sold. And if a book gets published in the forest and nobody hears about it, will it ever be read? Probably not. Without a brilliant marketing strategy, a new book has little chance of getting past the dungeons and dragons of the publishing world unless the author is an actual wizard or sorceress,  or can make a deal with the devil, or Oprah, who might be more powerful.

Scrambling to keep up with changing trends and marketing tactics, few conventional publishers can afford to process and evaluate the deluge of new material being generated on all fronts. Consequently, though the  publishing tree has sprung many new branches, it’s not yet clear how many of them will bear fruit.

Like many an aspiring author, I first tried the conventional, recommended route to getting my fiction in print. I sent out query letters by the dozen to agents and editors. I attended conferences and had pitch sessions with more editors and agents. I entered contests and got evaluations from other writers higher up in the food chain. But, although I had a lucky break and managed to get a novel published by a traditional publisher, the experience didn’t lead to quantifiable success. I sold a few books. But the leg up I had hoped this would provide proved inadequate to keep my later submissions from sliding right back into the slush pile.

Meanwhile, the clock kept ticking, and I began to  feel a sense of urgency. What if I died without ever getting my stories out to the reading public? The world would be none the worse, no doubt. But, who can say? If my small fantasies could lift the gloom from a few readers’ hearts, surely that would be worth all the humiliation and effort it took to get them in print. Wouldn’t it?

Yet, like most would-be authors of a certain age, I had been taught to consider any form of self-publishing as a craven act of pathetic vanity.

And then I read The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, chief editor of Wired magazine. The book makes a clear and persuasive argument for the validity of the new world of self-published works, from music to literature to independent movies, as the new paradigm for creative enterprise. Anderson argues that this new paradigm is made possible by the modern miracle of the internet, and it’s impossible to read his book and not feel a spark of Judy Garlandish optimism: Let’s put on a show! Or record a CD! Or publish a book! All these things are possible now, in part because of the unlimited virtual shelf space of online commerce.

The Long Tail of the title refers to the graph of supply and demand, which, in pre-internet days was ruled by the iron constraints of actual shelf space. If your book, CD or whatever didn’t sell in appreciable numbers, it wouldn’t be stocked. But now, the virtual shelf extends almost infinitely, like a long tail, and retailers can afford to “stock” an item which might sell at the rate of one or two copies a year, at the far end of that long tail.

Once I embraced this concept, I followed through by contacting one of the new online self-publishing businesses. I chose to work with iUniverse mainly because they have an arrangement with Barnes&Noble which offers certain qualified self-published works a limited trial stay in an actual brick and mortar B&N store. Although the process of qualifying for that “Publishers’ Choice” designation turned out to be a lot more demanding and expensive than I had  expected, after many months of painful editing I finally qualified, saw my book on the shelf at my local Barnes &Noble, and enjoyed a brief glow of accomplishment.

However, doors haven’t swung open. Most newspaper and professional reviewers refuse to deal with self-published works, and the market-driven demand for entertainment saturated with violence, sex, horror or suspense has little patience for small tales of restrained wit and compassion. Bigger, faster, badder. Those are the guidelines which rule.

But, I do not despair. My Green Man lives. His tendrils spread quietly, branch to branch, hand to hand, word of mouth. My hope has always been that he would be discovered by passionate gardeners, and passed along, like heirloom seeds.

I know Alice and The Green Man will never be a bestseller. But, I harbor the hope that somewhere down along the long tail, it may eventually grow into a minor horticult.

The Green Fuse is Lit

He’s lean, green and on the scene.

It’s been almost four years since he first showed up in my head, his green eyes twinkling with amusement, his bare skin scented with ferns and fresh cut grass. It took me a few months to get him down on the page. And then a few years to chisel away the excess verbiage that shoots from my pen with all the vigor of witchgrass in the border. Then the long process of trying to find some editor or agent who felt the same way I did about him, and well, as the children say, let’s not go there.

But, now, at last, another spring is upon us, the cherry tree outside my window is swollen with fat pink buds, and the pace is picking up. Today is the Vernal Equinox. It’s a good time for a Green Man.My new book, Alice and The Green Man, is about a woman who belongs in a garden. It’s the story of what she learns about herself when she has to fight to save the garden she has created on an abandoned lot. It’s a love story, of course. But in many ways, the love at the heart of the story is the love of gardens, of growing things, of touching the earth and feeling its deep healing power.

Okay. Those of you who don’t garden are right now fidgetting and looking for the remote. I know gardening isn’t a passion shared by everyone. But, for those who know the thrill of it, nothing else comes close. Well, maybe sex. But it could be argued that that is just another name for gardening. You sow seeds. With luck, they grow into wonderful new living things.So, it seemed to me, as a writer, that if you put gardens and sex together in a story, you could really have some fun.

I’m not the first one to think of this, of course. But I believe I am the first one to give the Green Man a chance to show what he can do. I see my new book as a kind of hybrid. It’s a cross between The Secret Garden and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. For many gardeners, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden stands alone as a kind of rich allegory about the transformative power of a garden. But, like many books we read as children, the text remains locked inside that innocent place where only children belong. Once a reader grows up and discovers that the world isn’t quite as civilized as one might wish, it’s hard to feel at ease in a garden, however secret.In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a truly adult classic, a woman rediscovers her own earthy passion through her relationship with a sexy man of the soil. Compared to the modern anything-goes-and-farther-than-you-would  style, DH Lawrence’s lush brooding prose is probably too slow for an audience geared to the frenetic pace of Sex and the City.

In Alice and The Green Man I have attempted to break new ground, to make a secret garden for modern adults. A place to have some fun, enjoy a few moments respite from the headlines, and to feed the childlike hope that it is not too late to save the garden that is this Earth.With the mounting evidence that global warming is not some fuzzy  theory but a hard fact, and that mass extinction of countless plants and animals is already underway, there has never been a more important time for readers to become gardeners and vice versa.

I do believe one person can make a difference. Maybe a small difference. But, even small differences can add up to something measurably wonderful. Planet Earth is, in essense, a small garden. Now is the time for all of us to nurture the greenness on which our lives and the lives of future generations depend.

Dylan Thomas once famously described “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” the mysterious power that pulses through our lives, taking us toward the unknown future. Humankind must learn to cherish this power if we are to save our planet for future generations. Now is the time for all Green Men to come to aid of the party. The Green fuse is lit.

How I Became A Romance Writer

Whenever people ask me about my book, I hear the words coming out of my mouth before I can stop them, “Oh, it’s just a romance.”

This goes against all the advice of those in the romance industry, who are constantly trying to find ways to get the media and the public to give romance writers the respect they deserve. It’s an uphill battle. In most literary circles there’s no faster way to inspire a condescending sneer than to admit to being a romance novelist. In the sharp-toothed publishing pecking order romance novelists rank somewhere between the trendy graphic books and the virulent porno market.

My problem, I think, is that I’m a book snob too. Unlike the majority of the women who belong to the Romance Writers of America, I did not grow up reading lusty tales about raven haired beauties who tame the rakes. In my world a rake is a garden tool. My earliest reading experiences, the ones that imprinted my intellectual soul with a hunger for dry wit and happy endings, came from the novels of P.G. Wodehouse. I was eight years old when I first walked to the Jefferson Village public library in Falls Church and stumbled onto one of his divinely silly stories about the antics of Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves, and I have been reading and rereading them ever since.

In my view, Wodehouse succeeds in putting on paper the kind of comedy of manners which has almost vanished in the current culture. Maybe that’s because nobody has manners anymore. But I don’t think so, although it does seem as if a regrettably large percentage of the population has come to accept rudeness as a kind of fashion statement. One can only hope that it will go the way of the bustle and hoop skirts. However, there’s another quality which distinguishes Wodehouse’s work from the current popular novel. There’s one thing you’ll never find in a Wodehouse novel. Actually, make that two things. There’s no sex. And no death. This is how you know it’s fiction.

Anyway. I mention Wodehouse because when people ask me what kind of book I write, I wish I could say, I write diverting little comedies like those of P.G. Wodehouse. But the market for such material is limited it seems. That was the first thing I learned when I set out to write fiction after leaving the newspaper business. The first novel I wrote was a kind of love letter to Fauquier, though it was set in an imaginary town, and peopled by totally imaginary characters. It was about a lovely young summer intern at a small weekly newspaper who becomes caught up in romance and intrigue when the tiny town gets selected for a visit from the President on his reelection tour.

Those of you who have lived here long enough may recall the delirium that descended on Main Street here when Bill Clinton and Al Gore stopped by for a carefully orchestrated appearance during the 1992 campaign. They were shaking hands on Main Street just outside the door here, and there were secret service men on the roof of Theresa’s Flowers. The memories of that event sparked my writing, but the plot of my novel was thickened with eccentric characters and colorful coots, and it had a happy, if perhaps slightly unrealistic, ending. But this was fiction, I thought. I could let myself go.

Of course, the two dozen agents and publishers who subsequently sent me rejection letters taught me that if you let yourself go as a writer, you probably won’t go very far. I was frustrated and disappointed, and immediately wrote another book based on my experiences as a singer in a party band. But here I was hampered by the fact that my live-in editor, my husband who played bass in the band, was worried that I would alienate all our old friends, so the book which eventually came out of it was a hybrid that now rests in perpetuity at the bottom of a drawer.

By this time, nearly two years had passed since I first decided to throw myself into the fiction business, and I was beginning to dread every social occasion because I knew sooner or later someone would turn to me and ask, “So, what do you do?” If you say, “I’m a writer,” then they ask, “Have you gotten anything published?” And then the long dreary saga unfolds.

Not being a carefree 20-something with all the time in the world, I decided I had to be more strategic with my next book. I started reading up on the publishing industry and learned that in order to market your work, you have to be able to label it. The dominant genres boil down to a handful. You’ve got your crime fiction, your suspense thrillers and your sweeping historical sagas. There’s the occasional genre breaking blockbuster, like The DaVinci Code or literary success, like The Life of Pi.

But, for those of us who don’t feel up to the task of generating drama on a massive scale, the widest road to getting published is the one that’s paved with romances. Romance books account for 30 percent of all books sold in this country. More than 2,000 romances are published each year. And the only unbreakable rule in the modern romance publishing business is that the story has to end happily.

Well, I said to myself, I can do that.

So, I did. But before I started I bought a slender little book called You Can Write A Romance written by the mother-daughter duo who founded Romance Writers of America. The book helped me to stay focused on the goal and not wander down any of the goofy sidetracks that frequently derail my train of thought. I wrote the book in three months. Then, I needed a game plan for getting it published. Having failed to get any editor’s attention through the query letters that I had dutifully sent out with my earlier books, this time I wanted to better my chances and the way to do this, the manual assured me, was to join the RWA.

I am not a joiner, but I plunged ahead and sent in my dues because only by doing so would I be eligible for a pitch session with an  editor or agent at the national conference, which was fast approaching that summer in New York. The number of these sessions is limited and they are allotted to writers based on their previous track record. Published authors get the first pick. Then the writers who have won awards in contests. And finally, the unknown, ‘unpubs’ like me are allowed into the game.

You get eight minutes. Eight minutes in which to summarize your years of effort and captivate a total stranger with your spiel about your book in the hope that they will ask to see more of it. The older, wiser pitch artists have it boiled down to one sentence. I worked hours to produce the one liner that would snag the editor’s attention. And then, about a week before I left for New York, I got an email informing me that the editor with whom I’d been granted an audience was from Avalon Books, a publisher whose standards for decency are among the strictest in the business. While many, if not most, romance publishers are looking for hot sexy romance, the kind that makes you squirm in your seat, Avalon will not accept any manuscript with sex scenes, or rough language, or even a hint of immoderate drinking. They allow a little more latitude in their line of westerns. The cowboys are allowed to say damn and hell, in moderation, and visit the saloon on occasion.

But in an Avalon romance, you can hint at hanky panky, but you can’t put in on the page.

Once I learned this I hastily edited my manuscript and removed any four or five letter words which might be deemed offensive. I told myself that I wasn’t selling out. After all, P.G. Wodehouse wrote more than 90 books in his career and never needed profanity to get a laugh so I didn’t either.

I don’t remember much about that first pitch session. It went by so fast. The editor was a girl about the age of my oldest daughter. She was perky and enthusiastic. She said she liked my idea right away and asked me to send her a synopsis and the first three chapters and that was it. I was elated. The excitement wore off  during the two years it took after that meeting before the day when my first book was published.

Since then I’ve had more pitch sessions, at other conferences, and I’ve learned that it’s not that uncommon for an editor to ask to see a synopsis and the first three chapters. It’s getting to the next level in the game that is tricky. And, in part, I think my problem is that at heart I’m not a romance writer. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

But I’m not one. And I can’t fake it.

I realized this when I attended a romance writers conference in Boston last spring. It was called the Fool For Love conference, and the pitch sessions were scheduled on April 1. I was there, as usual, to meet with an agent to pitch a book. But, though several hundred of the women there had come for the same purpose, they differed from me in that all of them actually read and enjoy the romance genre. This was clearly evident during one of the highlights of the Boston conference, in which the women played a version of Jeopardy about romance novels, featuring questions about the dozens of popular heroines and hunks whose passions inflame those paperbacks you see on the shelves at the grocery store right beside the latest issues of Cosmopolitan.

The difference between me and those women who can play Jeopardy about the works of Georgette Heyer is that, honestly, I have never read any of her works. Nor have I read Nora Roberts, or Sherrilyn Kenyon. I did read a Julia Quinn book on a train once just to get a sense of the current standard for steamy romance, and I felt that queasy sense of embarrassment because the cover depicted a woman whose lush breasts were straining against her plunging satin neckline almost as hard as the bare chested studly dude whose smoldering dark eyes were locked on hers. The plot was one of those where the brooding sexy newly widowed hero hires a governess for his two children and discovers that beneath her modest exterior burns a fiery passion, blah, blah, blah. I gotta admit, it wasn’t boring. I kept having to put it down every few minutes so I could let my heart rate recover. I felt so used.

So, yeah. I can admire the writing skills of some of those authors, but, in truth,  I’m just not drawn to read that kind of stuff.  If I’m in the mood for romance,  my tastes lean more toward the contemporary social context and irony of writers like Helen Fielding, of Bridget Jones’s Diary fame or Anna Maxted, whose Running in Heels was thought provoking and hilarious. Both of those authors write sexy humor without the kind of ‘hero who needs to be tamed’ thing that still seems to be the standard in mainstream romance.

And, I also have gotten fed up with most of the whole chick lit genre. All those pink paperbacks on the tables at Borders. I mean, maybe I’m just over the hill and out of touch, but it saddens me to think that there’s an entire generation of women for whom shopping and sex are like competitive sports. Okay, maybe if I were a single career girl on the make in the city I might  find the antics of these heroines amusing. But really? These books where the heroine has sex with  a fireman in the elevator in the first chapter just leave me feeling, oh, I don’t know. Fed up? Maybe it’s envy. But it’s when the blurb on the jacket describes the author of this same feisty sex kitten as “our own Jane Austen” that I really feel the fire.

If I’m passionate about anything, it’s the sanctity of Jane Austen’s works. As far as I’m concerned, there is no one writing today who comes close to her brilliant insight and compassionate characterization. I’m not sure anyone could in this century, because the times really have changed. More to the point, the times have accelerated. I don’t know whether the fault lies with television, or the internet or the blistering pace of modern film editing, but few authors today are allowed the luxury of contemplative narrative. It’s got to be action, action, and more, faster action, with a side order of violence and/or sex, or you can forget about selling those movie rights. Yet, isn’t it amazing the way they keep making films about Jane Austen’s marvelously slow and thoughtful novels? There’s a new one coming out this month. True, they aren’t luring in that lucrative 12-to-28 year old male market that seems to be ruining everything for the rest of us, but at least it gives me hope.

One aside here just for any Jane Austen fans in the room, if you haven’t read Karen Joy Fowlers’s Jane Austen Book Club, you are in for a treat.

At any rate, now that I am a romance writer of sorts, I’ve met a lot of other romance writers, and I’m here to tell you they are an amazingly diverse group of women who know how to laugh. They are genuinely supportive and many of them are also incredibly talented, courageous and resourceful.So, I’m working on a new response to the questions about my romance book. I call it The Wilder Defense.

Some of you may have seen a movie made sometime in the 80s called Romancing the Stone. It starred Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas and it was about a successful romance writer who goes off to Colombia on some far-fetched mission to rescue her kidnapped sister and meets a handsome adventurer in the jungle, and guess what? Yes indeedy. They exchange phone numbers and agree to go out for coffee. Not. So, anyway, as things hot up, they find themselves in this remote village surrounded by gun toting drug runners and just as it looks as though the movie is going to end a reel too soon, the heroine tries, like any self-respecting writer would, to talk her way out of it, and the hero taunts her, saying, “Let’s see you write your way out of this, Joan Wilder.” And suddenly the little window in the door behind them slides back like a shot and the drug kingpin sticks his head out and asks, “Joan Wilder? The Joan Wilder?”

It’s a beautiful moment. She smiles and says yes, and the drug lord’s face lights up like a birthday cake. He throws open the door and welcomes her into his well-appointed lair, where he raves about her books, which he has been reading to his men for years. It’s a veritable love fest. He can’t do enough for her. This scene made a deep and lasting impression on my husband, who has, needless to say, never read any romance but mine. Yet, from  the moment he saw that scene, he got it. He grasped the essential value of romance novels. At their best, they tap into the well of kindness and love that lies deep within every human, no matter how menacing or mundane they may appear. We may not all have the potential to be great lovers, or sustain grand romance, but we can all appreciate it when we see it, or read it.

Granted, romance may seem a frivolous conceit in a world so full of suffering and trouble. Yet, imagine a world without romance. I’d rather not.

Romance is the sugar that coats the bitter pill of reality and makes it a little easier to swallow. Life is hard. Love is never easy. But a little touch of romance can work wonders.

So, now, whenever I feel embarrassed to admit that my one and only published novel is a romance, I think of Joan Wilder. Sure, she was a fictional creature. But, so am I.