The famous romance novelist slid
“Of course not,” I said, in a
voice as thick as my glasses.
We were in a quiet corner of the elegant Pyramid Restaurant in the Fairmont Hotel. There was the music of violins, the smell of roses, the discreet murmur of the maitre d’, another sound that resembled a pistol shot when the knife I was holding fell to the floor. Underneath the table, I heard another rustle as Nora Roberts crossed her smooth, sculpted legs. Her face, as she had once written of one of her heroines, was “porcelain, stunning, with an icy kind of beauty that sent out signals of restrained sexuality.” Raising my glass of champagne, squeezing the stem tightly in order to enhance whatever muscles were in my arm (sleek muscles, I knew, rippled through the arms of all the men in her books), I toasted the glorious evening to come. The Romance Writers of America-more than 1,000 of them-were in Dallas for their national conference, and I had come to romance one of their greatest names: Nora Roberts, author of forty-five published, novels, with 20 million copies in print.
No group of writers in this country is as intriguing, and as little known, as the romance writers. For every blockbuster author like Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins, there are hundreds of paperback novelists who write for publishing houses like Harlequin and Silhouette, who produce 500-page historical novels or contemporary romances about women who do everything from taming lions to reading the evening news on television, and who all have remarkable sex lives. Romance novels are a $250 million a year business-between 30 and 40 million romance novels are sold annually-and 20 million American women read them.
The popular press tends to dismiss these writers as a bunch of middle-aged, housewives in negligees, typing pink prose, practicing their sex scenes on their husbands. But I knew there had to be something more, These writers were producing the most extensive body of women’s fiction in the history of civilization. I wanted to know what these writers, almost all of them female, were like. How did they learn to write those scenes in which heroines move their hands over the thick mat of hair on a man’s chest and where aristocratic rakes rip bodices off innocent virgins?
I also wanted, them to guide me-a man once described, by an old girlfriend as “corpse-like1-in the ways of romance. If these women don’t know how to love, then who does?
1 walked into the convention with damp-browed, abandon and started, looking. There were women everywhere. Women in pumps, women in sandals, women who looked like heiresses, women whose voices were like tinkling bells, women who had the smell of fine teakwood, women with flushed cheeks, women who looked like professors, women who were lusciously naked except for the skirts, blouses, coats, underthings, stockings, and shoes that they were wearing. I overheard a couple of women who specialize in British historical romances discussing techniques for describing their heroines’ breasts. I sat with a few women in a seminar where the speaker addressed, the issue of condoms and which euphemisms the writers should use to describe them. I listened to Dr. Carol Thurston, an Austin writer who has just published, a scholarly treatise on romance fiction, state that romance novels are a way for readers to recognize and develop their own sexuality. Readers, she said, use the novels for sexual information and ideas, even to achieve arousal.
Seized, by passion, my heart pounding for love, I burst out into a hallway. I looked around. And then I saw her. Good. God., it was Nora Roberts.
Nora Roberts. Her name stole over me, soft as the evening breeze. In her late thirties, petite as a pansy, she had a lovely mop of blonde hair that, as she once said of one of her characters, “stood out like a road sign.” Her curves were subtle. She smelled like something soft and silky you’d want to touch in a dark room (another stolen line, but I forgot the name of the novel).
i had read many of her forty-five books, including her most recent release, Hot Ice, in which the hero and heroine head off to Madagascar in search of jewels, followed by villainous types who fire guns at them or come buzzing their way in a helicopter just when they’re about to take their clothes off and engage in a bit of unbridled passion, where their loins are aflame and so forth.
And there are many such scenes. In Nora Roberts romances, the heroine controls not only her own body, but her own destiny. Roberts’s women are economically independent, they love their careers, and they will never be the passive tools of a man who wants to sweep them away. Fondly, I recalled one of my favorite passages from Nora’s novel, A Matter of Choice, in which she wrote, “She tugged at buttons on his shirt, impatient to have his flesh against hers while her mouth was already making wild passes over his face and throat.”
Sounds good to me, I thought. Dinner was arranged.
At the restaurant, Nora wore a lot of fancy things that only a woman writer could describe. I wore a suit, beneath which rippled muscles as well-toned as baby cattle fat. Ridiculously nervous, I drank three glasses of champagne before the waiter even came by with the menu.
It couldn’t have been a more romantic setting. Tommy Baker, the Pyramid’s violinist, slipped up to our table and played “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” I could not help but be reminded of Nora’s novel, Lessons Learned, a Silhouette Special Edition, in which the heroine, Juliet Trent, began to fall in love with the hero, Carlo Franconi, over dinner. At the dinner table, Nora wrote, he studied his food “as if it were a young, beautiful woman.”
Before Nora, I studied my smoked salmon appetizer, served with chopped Bermuda onion, capers, and toast points, and wondered if such a thing had bones in it.
I also wondered how to begin. How should I ask her about romance, about the qualities she loves in a man?
“My dear,” I finally said, “what are your weaknesses?”
“Well,” said Nora Roberts, “plot construction.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of…” I paused.
“What?” asked Nora Roberts.
I noticed she was observing me closely. Was she thinking of the description she gave to the writer Booth De Witt in her Silhouette novel, Dual Image-’lean and scholarly with a touch of rugged.ness?” Yes, it was true, I was all those things, as long as one does not count the lean, scholarly, and rugged part. My face had a fresh barnyard look, my body looked about the tonnage of a professional bowler. I wished. 1 had a dashing mustache, but the last time I tried, to grow one it looked like two thin rivulets of tar were running from my nostrils.
“You have interesting questions,” Nora said.
“Why, thank you, Nora,” I said, lowering my eyes into my salmon. I lifted, a fork filled with so much fish that it looked, like the daily haul of a whaling crew. “What was the first time like for you?”
“Your first sex scene,” I said hurriedly. “The first sex scene you wrote.”
“Well, let me think,” said Nora. Sitting there with a finger to her lips, she looked, as cute as a fishing fly. Meanwhile, the violinist, perhaps because he heard my question, headed, back toward our table, this time playing a classical version of the “Orange Blossom Special.”
“Well, first,” said Nora, Just as Tommy the violinist got to the refrain. He suddenly dug in, the volume went up ten decibels, and I couldn’t hear a thing she was saying. Nora made some titillating gestures, and I heard certain snatches of words-“long time,” “breathing,” and “pillow’-but by the time she was finished., all was lost.
There was still hope, however. A bottle of wine was brought forth. I tried, to remember if any of Nora’s heroines were ever sed.uced. after several glasses of wine. I asked, the wine steward to keep filling hers up.
“What do you try to do in your sex scenes?” I asked.
“For me,” Nora said, “I don’t see the point in getting too specific in the love scenes. I mean, who cares where his hand is? It’s the emotion you’re after, the atmosphere. You’re writing about a relationship. If you write too much about breasts and thighs, your reader will think you’re writing about a chicken.”
I wanted to mention a passage from her powerful 1982 novel, Search for Love. It began, “The thinness of her blouse was no defense against the sultry heat of his body.” But just thinking about the passage made my ears red. Overcome with embarrassment, I said, “More wine ?”
“Male writers,” Nora went on, “have trouble writing about a real relationship. They don’t understand emotion like women. How does the character feel? How does she think? Males don’t think that way. They’re headed straight for the sex scene. Look, the sex is easy. It doesn’t take anyone with talent at all to write that. But writing the romance of it, getting the feel and sensitivity of it, is a lot more…”
“A little more pepper,” I said to the waiter who was hovering over me to see if I liked my entrée.
“Watch it,” said Nora.
“Oh, thanks,” I replied, jerking back my elbow just before a collision with a water glass.
Things were not going well. I decided to turn to her personal life, While I ate most everything on the table, she told me she got married at age seventeen right after high school, gave birth to two children, and didn’t even think about writing until 1979, when she was growing more unhappy with her marriage. Writing romance novels, which she had always read voraciously, helped her think there was something else in life besides her husband. “He wasn’t exactly the rugged., hero type you find in a romance novel,” Nora said. “He had two asthma attacks after he was drafted into the Army, so they shipped him out.”
She continued writing after her divorce, then got married again two years ago. “I know this sounds corny,” Nora said, “but I married, a man who was exactly like one I had created, in a novel about a year before I met him. He had all those great qualities.” Hmmmm. So this was the problem. It was difficult for her to get right into the romantic mod.e since she was already married, with two children. Sure, many of the new romance novels do not hide from the fact that married women have occasional dalliances. But they do so after about 200 pages, not after one dinner.
I knew I had to press my point. I decided to say something about how the wine of life oozes away, drop by drop, how the leaves of life fall, one by one.. “Nora,” I said, “how old are you?”
“What a tacky question. I’m not going to answer that.”
I felt as if my brain were about to burst like shrapnel. “What I meant to say,” I said, “is that it must be difficult for you to come up with all these romantic scenes in your novels if you just have one husband.”
“Your dessert, madame,” said the waiter. I looked very closely to see if he was snickering.
“Well, what do you suggest, that I have two husbands?”
“And yours, sir.”
I tried to laugh uproariously. “No, but how do you think of all these love scenes?”
“Oooh, crème brulée,” said Nora Roberts, staring at my plate.
“I mean, do you practice with your husband? Do you fantasize? What?”
“Well, my editor said that my love scenes got more visual and my imagery really wonderful when I started living with my present husband.”
Far off, perhaps in the hotel lobby, 1 heard a pianist playing the Beatles’ “Michelle,” one of the dumbest love songs I’ve ever heard. For a moment, I felt something pressing against the side of my shoe. Had the song changed her? Could it be her toe? I subtly shifted to tip the weight of my leg against hers. Except it was not her. The place settings trembled as my knee slammed into a table leg.
“Look,” said Nora, “it’s important as a writer to make each love scene different. You don’t have the first kiss in the bedroom, and you might not have the first physically romantic scene in the bedroom, either. But I write these things by instinct. I don’t sit down and say, ’Okay, let’s plan all the sex.’ When I get to them in the book, I just write them however I feel.”
My head was swimming with questions I could not formulate. “But,” I said after a long pause. “But”-and then I stopped again.
“Skip,” Nora said, “if you think I have to strip and light the candles to write a sensuous scene, don’t be ridiculous. If I did that, I’d catch pneumonia.”
The dinner had come to an end. I had no greater insight into the nature of these romance writers, who offer millions of women a glimpse of a world where all women can be beautiful, powerful, and full of surprises.
Nora Roberts was, indeed, full of surprises. As we left the restaurant, I turned to her and said, “So what did you think of that five-star dinner?”
“Maybe the best meal I’ve ever had in Dallas,” Nora said, “But I have to be honest with you. I’m still so woozy from my air plane flight here earlier today that I would have been just as satisfied with pizza and a cold beer.”