One of the fun things at the IASPR conference was that the program closed with an interview with Bertrice Small. (Wikipedia, if you need it) Bertrice Small is one of the grand dames of romance, one of the original eight “Avon Ladies” who began publishing in 1978. She has been published continuously ever since, over 42 novels and still going. She was interviewed by Sarah Frantz, president of IASPR, and also took questions from the audience.
Disclaimer: The following notes are only about half of the remarks made (I just couldn’t type that fast), and with the questions, I lost track of noting when the question came from Sarah and when from the audience. Also, the questions are completely paraphrased, whereas I tried to accurately capture what Ms. Small said, though I couldn’t get it all.
Sarah started things off by asking her about the publishing history of The Kadin, her first book, which was actually sold in 1973 to Putnam. (The book tells the tale of a Scottish woman of privilege who is kidnapped and sold into the harem of a 16th century Turkish sultan.) She had sold the book and her son had been born. When he was about a month old, she received a letter saying that Putnam would not be publishing the book after all. When she called to find out why, she was told that her editor had a fight with Walter Minton who was head of the house at the time, and that the three books that were still under contract from that editor were canceled. Bertrice Small then insisted to talk to Minton. She got Minton’s secretary, who was a “Gibbs girl” (from the Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School). Ms. Small was also a Gibbs girl, and the secretary assured her she would make sure that Mr. Minton called her back. (“That’s called networking!” Small said with glee.) Minton eventually called her back.
Small: Well, I was then subjected to about ten minutes of him telling me how The Taking of the Pelham 1-2-3 was going to be a huge hit, and that the critics were wrong, and it was going to be made into a movie and all this. Eventually he wound down and [she asked him what was happening with the book.] He said, ‘Mrs. Small, aren’t you recently a mother?’ I said yes, I have a baby. ‘Ms. Small, I suggest you stay home and be a good mommy to your little boy and forget about this writing business.’ Well, I told him right then and there I would be writing and be in this business long after he was gone. Last I heard of him he was practicing family law in New Jersey. (Applause.)
(What happened to the manuscript then was it went back to her agent, whom she described as “a wonderful agent but he lacked chutzpah. In those days, the hardcover houses were the thing.” So he spent about two and a half years sending the book to hardcover houses who kept turning it down. She kept urging him to send it to Avon, who had published The Flame and the Flower, and he kept saying not yet, not yet. Eventually he did listen and sent it there and they bought it immediately. Of the original eight “Avon Ladies” Small is one of the four who are still alive and publishing. Not only that, Nancy Coffey, the editor who first worked with them there, is still editing. A few years later, Nancy moved to Ballantine books. )
Small: I said “I want to go with you.” So we moved to Ballantine. They didn’t treat Nancy very well, but they treated me well as I did so many books with them. I wrote the books I wanted to read. In those days the books were just “popular fiction” and now they would call it romance. I didn’t think of it as romance at the time. I’ve published 42 historical novels, but sometimes you want to do something different. I had heard this story of a woman who got divorced by her husband and you know sometimes the woman got nothing. But I heard this one story of a woman who when her husband was divorcing her went to court to say you wouldn’t be who you were without me, you wouldn’t have been as successful in business if I weren’t throwing all these parties for you and raising your children, I’m entitled to half of everything, and half of your pension. And she won. And I thought, oh, I’d like to write a story about an ordinary woman. That was the birth of the Pleasure series. It all takes place in a small town where all the women were into “The Channel” which is a kind of fantasy world where you could program in your wildest fantasy and then push a button on your remote and you’re there. Her husband is getting a “Jennifer,” a younger woman. Well, she stays in The Channel to avoid her husband (and work out her issues) — she appears to be in a coma, and this manages to ruin the relationship he has with “the Jennifer” whom he attacks when he gets frustrated. He spends the night in jail and dies of a heart attack. But it isn’t just a coincidence. The thing is, The Channel is run by Mr. Nicholas who is the devil. You see, this way she didn’t just win and get half of everything, she gets it all. A new Channel book is coming out this year that is 5 novellas that run the gamut from hot to sweet to incendiary.
Question from the audience: Are the women punished for dealing with the devil?
Bertrice: Oh, no. The first one ends up working for him! And The Channel network owns a lot of talent agencies and hotels and things like that… No, the women aren’t punished. They don’t all stay in the Channel.
Question: Did you know that the Hearst offices were picketed by protesters in the 1970s who felt that romance was damaging to women?
Bertrice: People don’t understand that not all fiction is literary. I write popular commercial fiction. I do not write literature but I write good books. I don’t write women as victims. My grandmother came here as a working woman, and my own mother was contract administrator at NBC, she founded two departments. She worked her way up from the secretarial pool and she was told “you really should be a vice president, but as you know we don’t make women vice presidents.” Not long after that they started making women vice presidents, of course.
Question: But what about forced seduction?
Bertice: I don’t write it. It was popular in the 1970s and into the 80s but not so much now. I’m starting a new book now that takes place in Renaissance Florence, and I’m surprised to find how sheltered women were there! It was as bad as the seraglio in Turkey! My heroine will have a bad first marriage, but he’s going to die. I always kill them! But he sends her to a house on the coast and she learns to make decisions on her own. In one of my books, you might start of wimpy, but by 50 pages in, you’ll be strong.
Question: It seems like the latest thing is to publishing more erotic books with more heat, with the Kensington erotica titles. But you always did that.
Bertrice: I used to be called “Lust’s Leading Lady!” When I had my first grandchild, I said that’s got to stop. (laughter) Thing is that me and Thea Devine were the first books in the Brava line and we convinced Walter Zacharias (at Kensington) to publish those.
Question: I heard you were looking for a library to take your papers and library of reference books…?
Bertrice: I’ve decided on Bowling Green. I want the books to go to my local library, but the papers to Bowling Green.
Question: Because the librarian was here from Bowling Green earlier, but she had to leave.
Bertrice: Oh I wish I’d met her. I should have done it long ago, but the thing is that writers have other lives. My husband survived a heart attack two and a half years ago, but he has dementia. I have to leave him five notes all around the house as to where I went or he won’t remember. Then there’s my son. (Sighs.) His soon to be ex-wife just… [story ensues about family strife]. I’m so busy I don’t have as much time to write as I like, and I don’t get to write them the way I like. These days they want manuscript to be 300-400 pages. I used to do 600-800 and they were happy as clams but these days you have to be a good editor yourself. You have to cut out a lot of color and you really learn to use your words.
I’m a businesswoman as well as a writer. While I was writing the O’Malley books I asked Nancy after I turned in two other books, do you think Ballantine would like a sequel? And she said oh yes! So I wrote All the Sweet Tomorrows.
Q: I’m fascinated by The Kadin because it has a real life character, a historical personage.
Bertice: Actually I’ve written on several real people. Adora was Teodora who married into the Ottoman empire and whose dowry was how the Ottomans got a toe hold in Europe. I’d like to write one about Grace O’Malley. She was rough and tough and not the stuff that most romance women are made of, so I invented her cousin Skye.
Q: They say you can’t kill a romance heroine…
Bertrice: No one says “can’t” to me! That’s one of the benefits about being around so long. Skye does die, but she’s not the protagonist of the books in that series anymore by the time she does. Nancy always encouraged us to do what we wanted to. I know today there are lots of rules and regs, but you know today everyone wants to know three easy to rules to fame and fortune. But that’s not how it goes. Everybody has rules and regs and I hear younger writers complaining about it. I drive the marketing people insane because they want an outline. I don’t write outlines!
Q: So you’re a pantser, not a plotter?
Bertrice: I’m an “into the mister.” I’ve always written this way. I wrote a character who was just going to be a minor character and he turned into the hero of the book! What I give the sales department is two to three pages of bullshit, and it’s enough for them to go on.
Q: Like you’re doing this series in Florence, what do you tell them?
I’ll write two to three pages, most of it will be very descriptive of the history of the time, you know? And then a little bit on the story, but just the little scrap I know. I’m trying to make all the women in the story interesting. They always write the cover copy for me, and then when I get it I say “well, it needs a little tweaking.” What’s funny is that they get some of it right! And I can build on that.
Q: You’re also not supposed to write outside of England and such…
Nobody tells me no. I am very very lucky to have started back in ’78.
Q: Do you have a favorite location or setting?
No. I go wherever the spirit takes me. I like Florence, I’ve never been there. If I read one more Regency romance review I’m going to vomit. I’ve done England. I’ve done Ireland, I’ve done Wales, a little of Scotland, I’ve done the Ottoman empire, Rome, Palmyra. Also a little on American history but I find American history dull. After 1840 I’m not interested. I don’t have a feel for American history.
Q: I’m teaching a class on popular romance and I think in chronologies. I figure I’ll do the teens, and then Georgette Heyer, and then the 1960s… but which book of yours would you choose?
I would pick either The Kadin or Skye O’Malley.
Either because The Kadin was my first book, or Skye O’Malley because it was m first book on the Times bestseller list. And my first book out in trade. I can tell you which heroes I like. I like Adam deMarisco. He’s probably my favorite of the Skye men. Francis Earl of Bothwell, too. I love Prince Kalik very much, too.
Q: Do you think the reader wants to be the heroine or is she just a placeholder?
I think in my books people often close the book and say “phew, I’m glad I’m not her!” I just want to entertain. I don’t want anyone to identify with anyone. People claim that romance gives women unrealistic expectations for life, but reading romance is, as I said, it’s entertainment. Is going to the theater or the movies going to give you the wrong idea in life?
I’m tired of people who don’t want to teach history because it’s not politically correct. We cannot judge books on the politics today. I don’t dare write a book set in a harem because of the problems we had since 9-11. Ignorance is running rampant. I worry that my grandchildren will grow up uneducated. But I’m just a 73 year old woman who writes romance! What do I know?