SCOTT SIMON, host:
Times are tough in American publishing. There's the growing cost of publication and distribution, new competition for attention from online readers. But you know what still sells better than many other forms of adult fiction? Romance novels.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: She ducked her head into his chest but he grabbed her chin. Look at me, Sabina. Look, and know that I love you.
Unidentified Woman: His arm around me, my head on his shoulder, and the image was so powerful that I could feel the tug of his heart beat under my hand.
SIMON: Short passages from Jade Lee's "Dragonbound" and Kristan Higgins "Too Good To Be True."
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SIMON: Pleased to be at the Annual Romance Writers Convention Of America in Washington, D.C. And we're here with Nora Roberts, perhaps the best known romance writer in the world. Thanks very much for being with us.
Ms. NORA ROBERTS (Romance Novelist): Oh, I'm delighted to be here. Thank you.
SIMON: So what's your analysis of how the rest of the fiction market in particular is hurting right now but romance novels are doing well?
Ms. ROBERTS: Well, of course I'm biased about romance novels and relationship books, having my roots there. But I think they are books about hope and continuity, they are a fun, they are, you know, falling in love is a wonderful thing. And I think during the Great Depression in the '30s, when all those screwball comedies and romantic comedies and great romances - you know, in the movies that's where people, that's where it was at. Because it gives people a little time out to just relax and enjoy and feel good. And that's what great fiction and popular fiction does.
SIMON: Not giving away any secrets - is there, if not a formula, at least a well-practiced and accepted set of principles to writing good romance novels?
Ms. ROBERTS: There are constants and there is a framework to romance. It's - I think of it as a very large umbrella with many, many spokes. You have to have sexual tension, you have to have emotional commitment, a conflict of some sort and a happy ending, or a satisfying upbeat ending. And the beauty of romance as a genre is that it's very fluid and it absorbs and accepts elements from every other genre - from horror, from paranormal, suspense, mystery, historical, contemporary, futuristic. And as long as you have that core, you can do anything.
SIMON: I confess to you, a number of years ago, two friends and I got together and we thought, oh, we can do this.
Ms. ROBERTS: Oh, yeah. A lot of people think…
SIMON: And we didn't write a whole novel, but like three stories we send to a magazine at the time and the rejection notices came back…
Ms. ROBERTS: Yeah.
SIMON: …in record time.
Ms. ROBERTS: I bet they did.
SIMON: It was humbling. It's…
Ms. ROBERTS: People think that it's much simpler than it is. Because a book reads simply does not mean it - it's simple to write. It's very hard to pull up those emotions and to make it fresh and new, and you know, the writing is very important. Every genre has its constants and its framework. Every single genre has them. Romance is no different in that way. And it's not easy to write.
SIMON: Do you think romance novelists are not accorded the respect they deserve as craftspeople?
Ms. ROBERTS: I find that it seems easier to dismiss novels written primarily by women, primarily for women, as fluff and not really worthy or not important, and of course that's ridiculous.
Ms. ROBERTS: I just let that go.
SIMON: Why is it, may I ask - because we tooled around one of your workshop sessions just before we came here, and I don't think I saw a single male.
Ms. ROBERTS: We do have male romance writers. We certainly have male romance readers. But it is primarily a woman's field. It's not exclusively but primarily, because the books are about emotion. Most male fiction is more about action. And I mean I've have some great letters from guys - my favorite is from the trucker. They listen to my audio books because one just happened to be in the truck, and oh my God, now I'm stuck with this, you know, for cross country. And he really liked it.
And so he kept taking them from his wife and sticking them in and then he said, I was listening - he named the title - to this and I stopped at the truck stop and he said, I had a sit in the truck for like ten minutes because now I'm crying.
Ms. ROBERTS: Crying. I can't go in the truck stop with all those guys, you know, he's crying.
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Ms. ROBERTS: And he says, but I'm still a guy. Yes, you are still a guy.
SIMON: What have you learned about love over the years from these stories and these books?
Ms. ROBERTS: What have I learned about love? Well, for me at least, in the books I write in real life, it takes a lot of humor to get through love and relationships. If you can't laugh, because love is a very strange and funny business, you are never - I'm never going to believe that you're in it for the long haul. You may have great sex, you may have that spark. But if you aren't friends and can't laugh together, can't make each other laugh, you're not going to make it.
SIMON: Ms. Roberts, thanks so much.
Ms. ROBERTS: You're welcome.
SIMON: Nora Roberts, romance writer. Her latest book, "Black Hills," out now.
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SIMON: We decided to try to take advantage of all the concentration of talent at the conference to see if I might have any kind of flair for writing romance instead of literary fiction. So I wrote the opening of a story and asked Carrie Feron, vice-president and executive editor of HarperCollins to take a look. She said she liked the title, "His Bosom Heaved."
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SIMON: When Chad Rousseau walked into the I.T. department on his first day in the dazzling, sprawling, high-rise headquarters of the majestic but mysterious Echevarria International Group, he had no idea how his life would soon change, how everything he'd been so rock-solid certain about back in Spartanburg, South Carolina would turn to rhubarb jelly as soon as he saw her standing against a window overlooking the gleaming, soaring towers of Dallas. He heard her voice first. It was all velvet and honey, but with the unmistakable crack of command. I am your supervisor, she said.
Chad turned around. Sarah Beyer Clemente had smooth, pale skin that seemed to beckon like a soft cloud. She had eyes as deep and blue as the waters of vast, far-off oceans that Chad had only seen on postcards that his father, a missionary in the South Pacific, would send back home to be put on their refrigerator. Her hair was the color of ripe chestnuts, rippled with blinding streaks of bronze…
The rest of the opening of my story is on our blog at npr.org/soapbox. Carrie Feron didn't think much my story. By the time I'd read just a few sentences, neither did I. I'd written an inept satire, not a real story. I'd played it for laughs and while, as Nora Roberts suggests, humor can keep love going, satire is mere insincerity in romance writing. Readers can tell the difference and want to read stories that respect the craft and their feelings. Carrie Feron says…
Ms. CARRIE FERON (HarperCollins): The people who are doing a great job with this are writing at the top of their game, the best book that they know how. They believe in it, they love it. And the readers respond to that. They can tell when somebody really puts their heart into it.
(Soundbite of music, "Love Story: Theme")
SIMON: Well, at least Carrie Feron liked the name of my story, and that makes my bosom heave.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: You'll read a critique by (unintelligible) at npr.org/soapbox.